Political Journeys: the openDemocracy Essays

Political Journeys: the openDemocracy Essays
Fred Halliday
Saqi Books, 350pp, £14.99

When I first met the late Fred Halliday in the early 1980s, he had recently reviewed a book by Noam Chomsky called Towards a New Cold War. It was a positive and respectful review. Chomsky hated it, and sent Halliday a three-page letter - single-spaced - rebutting the piece, point by point.
I was surprised. Both were leading figures on the left. Both had been formed by the 1960s and, in particular, by the war in Vietnam. Both were academic outsiders (Halliday hadn't yet been appointed professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, where he was to spend the next two decades). But this was a sign of what was to come. Within a few years, the Anglo-American left broke apart over the first Gulf war and the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Each time, Halliday passionately supported intervention. Chomsky and others were as passionately against. That divide haunts this collection of essays, written for the website openDemocracy between 2004 and 2009.

This short book is many things - an invaluable guide to the defining crises of our time and a specialist's account of the history of the Arab world over the past three decades - but perhaps, above all, it is Halliday's political testament. Reading between the lines, you can see a commitment to the international left that goes back to leading figures from the 1930s and 1940s: Isaac Deutscher, Maxime Rodinson and Hannah Arendt, among others. Running through these very varied essays is an argument about core values: universalism, human rights, secularism and humanitarianism. For Halliday, these are non-negotiable.

The first essay, "Lessons from Ireland", seems an unlikely place to begin. After all, his main focus is on the embattled area between Israel and Afghanistan. But Halliday grew up in the 1950s in Dundalk and a few years ago he said: "If I had to sum up what is, for me, the bedrock, personal, political experience, it is the Irish question." Ireland mattered to him because it was during the Troubles that he encountered "the rise of particularistic, identity-based nationalist politics" and was confronted with the choice between "the more moderate, anti-violence Social Democratic and Labour Party" and the "posturing" and violence of the Irish Republican Army. The essays here argue against both particularism and terrorism and pour scorn on the left's flirtations with extremism.

Another target is amnesia. The book is full of reminders of forgotten histories, especially the legacy of the cold war. Our media have forgotten this past and don't understand its importance throughout the Middle East today: how Britain and the US trained, financed and armed the mujahedin; the 1953 coup against Muhammed Mossadeq in Iran; and the "active, close co-operation" between the Ba'ath Party in Iraq and the US intelligence services during the coup there in 1963.

At the same time, Halliday rejects false histories and bogus claims to continuities rooted in some spurious, invented ancient past. Nothing that happened before 1920 "is relevant to explaining the Middle East of today". On the one hand, the west forgets its past role in the Middle East; on the other, apologists for violence invent traditions that never existed.

The central values for Halliday are universalism and human rights. Do not grovel before "identity", "tradition" and "faith communities", he writes. He sees the modern insistence on religious and ethnic differences as an "enormous historical regression". Instead, we should insist on a set of values that is shared across the world: democracy, human rights, the benefits of economic development, women's rights. These should never be dismissed as infringing the values of a particular culture or faith.

Halliday attacks most of the big players. He offers a blistering critique of US and Israeli policies. He loathes the Ba'athists and al-Qaeda. There is only one short piece on Muammar Gaddafi's Libya - it is a concise demolition job. Britain emerges as a marginal actor with little to be proud of, from the Falklands to Afghanistan. He is not interested in demonising individuals. There are only three references to Tony Blair and none to Donald Rumsfeld. Instead, the emphasis is on issues, their history and complexity. There are no simple solutions.

Once or twice, Halliday flirts with optimism. He sees signs of gradual secularisation and liberalisation in Iran, reflecting "general trends in the contemporary world". Then he falls back to pessimism and sees universalism attacked on all sides. Like Antonio Gramsci, he was torn between the optimism of the will and the pessimism of the intellect.

Halliday died last year. His passion, reason and learning were never needed more than now. This book is an important reminder of one of the most thoughtful and humane figures on the international left. l

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools