The politics column - Bring on a new democratic left
There is a need for an authentic democratic left to reassert itself. Perhaps its inspiration could b
George Bush and Tony Blair are not the only supporters of regime change attempting to reclaim the political initiative from their critics this week. The authors and supporters of the Euston Manifesto (featured in the New Statesman last month) have also been gathering to launch their project formally for a "fresh political alignment" of unrepentant liberal hawks.
Its organisers dismiss the idea that the manifesto is an apologia for the invasion of Iraq, but the premise of its argument - that liberal democracy is at war with the forces of terrorism and tyranny, and there is only one side for genuine progressives to be on - fits naturally with the Bush-Blair vision of the war on terror. Faced with this cosmic threat, it is the responsibility of all "genuine democrats" to suspend traditional political loyalties and make "common cause" with one another. Evidently, this extends to the Republican right.
There is, nevertheless, much in the manifesto with which to agree. Its belief in the intrinsic value of democracy reflects the left's most enduring achievements. Its call for a humanitarian foreign policy is in the best traditions of internationalism. Even its scathing criticism of sections of the anti-war left for abandoning these values in favour of a vulgar anti-imperialism is substantially justified. Western guilt and the doctrine that my enemy's enemy is my friend have produced some truly ugly sentiments.
Yet there is nothing especially new in this. Possessed of extreme self-righteousness, the ultra-left has been with us since the French revolutionary Babeuf, who was guillotined in 1797. Indeed, a large proportion of those on the pro-war left are former cadres of one or other of its 57 varieties. In this the Eustonites are reminiscent of the early American neoconservatives. They also shared a background in radical-left politics and became preoccupied with attacking their former comrades' supposed moral corruption on a great issue of war and peace (in their case, Vietnam). It was a journey that led most of them eventually to abandon the left for good. The question is whether supporters of the Euston Manifesto are destined to follow a similar trajectory.
There are good reasons for suspecting that they might. The belief that western civilisation is locked
in a life-or-death struggle to defend human freedom
- whether it's the cold war or the war on terror - contains an irresistible logic. An unqualified faith in the moral superiority of western power sits uneasily with a tough critique of its economic and social structures, and the tension is hard to sustain. The neoconservatives resolved this contradiction by dispensing with the critique, and there are clues in the Euston Manifesto that point the same way.
Its authors are certainly right to dismiss the idea that there can be "no opponents on the left". The problem is that they give the very real impression of believing that their only opponents are on the left. There are vague and slightly ritualistic expressions of concern about social injustice and global inequality, but nowhere are they confronted with the kind of passion that is devoted to attacking those considered guilty of appeasing terrorism by criticising western policy - nor is any attempt made to identify their cause.
The most telling illustration of this comes in the passages devoted to condemning the left's supposed "anti-Americanism". Here the Eustonites show how far they have drifted from the instincts and concerns of even the moderate left. Progressives oppose American hegemony not because it is American, but because it is hegemonic, and because the idea of a unipolar world order is objectionable on grounds of equity and democracy. The Euston Manifesto sees the inequality generated by globalisation as some sort of inexplicable mishap; genuine progressives are clear that its origins lie in the uneven distribution of global power that underpins the free-market policies of the Washington consensus. The manifesto's failure to grapple with this problem, or even acknowledge that it exists, robs it of whatever radical potential it may have contained.
These are challenging times to be a progressive. But between militant leftists who are cavalier in their disregard for democratic values, and militant democrats who are increasingly unwilling to brook any criticism of western policy, there is the need for an authentic democratic left to reassert itself. It should perhaps take as its inspiration the example of the wartime Labour Party. It embraced what the Eustonites dismiss: the idea that social and political change is not a threat to the war effort, but an essential component of it. It did this by identifying and remedying the societal failures that had contributed to the rise of fascism, in order not to excuse it, but to destroy it for good.
The war on terror will be winnable only if we also retain the self-awareness to recognise our errors, and do something about them.
David Clark was a special adviser to Robin Cook
The Euston Manifesto can be viewed at: www.newstatesman.com/eustonmanifesto
Martin Bright is away