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20 November 2006

Time Out with Nick Cohen: Ted Honderich

For Ted Honderich, if you don't give money to Oxfam or the Red Cross, you are killing Africans as su

By Nick Cohen

I’ve had Professor Ted Honderich’s books on my shelves all my adult life. I won’t pretend to reach for them often, but the argument of his 1976 essays on violence has stayed with me. Inequality kills, it runs. The poor have shorter lives than the rich, not only in famine-ridden Saharan hell-holes but in Europe and North America, too. We should, therefore, overcome squeamish liberal objections to the violence of the left and consider the possibility that it might end the greater violence of poverty. Honderich did not dwell on the record of revolutionary violence in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China in promoting the equality of the mass grave. Nevertheless, it struck me that his claim – that our failure to alleviate poverty was a kind of complicity with murder – stood up.

Thirty years on, and the world has been transformed. In the Seventies, there were revolutionaries from Peru to Cambodia. Today, with the exception of the Maoists of Nepal, no radical movements of the far left are close to seizing power. Everything has changed except Ted Honderich, who is churning out books on how 9/11 and all that has happened since are a payback for our sins of commission and omission. I can’t say I’m a fan. I am hugely suspicious of the belief that irrational movements have rational causes, but maybe I’m wrong. Everyone, from the Independent to the Daily Mail, is saying so, asserting with varying degrees of vehemence that we are the “root cause” of Islamist violence. Who better to dissect my faulty thinking than University College London’s former Grote professor emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic?

Our meeting began badly and got worse. I had arranged to talk to him at a conference at the Royal College of Art in London’s museum district: a bland, modernist building overshadowed by the exuberantly gothic Natural History and Victoria and Albert museums. The college is an anonymous place where it is easy to miss people, but there was no missing Professor Honderich. Six foot five inches and 73 years old, he was all flowing grey hair and dramatic poses as he marched up to me and began to denounce a Channel 5 documentary by Times columnist David Aaronovitch. I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was going on about, but so vigorous were his condemnations that I assumed he had been pilloried.

Only later did I learn that Honderich himself had made a documentary for the channel (which the Guardian described as a “fatheaded” attempt to blame Islamist terrorism on “almost everyone but Islamist terrorists”). The station’s controllers then commissioned Aaronovitch to argue that you couldn’t make excuses for terror. At no point did he mention Honderich. Nevertheless, the professor was furious that a different point of view had been aired.

Fascist traditions

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It took me a while to work that out, and I responded with polite bafflement when he pressed a closely typed, 16-page attack on Aaronovitch into my hands. I glanced at it and saw the professor was suggesting that Aaron ovitch was a part of “Israel’s fifth column”. I should have realised then that I was in front of an academic who was more used to giving lectures than listening to them.

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What interested me, I said, as I tried to calm him down, was that in the Seventies, when he had originally argued that revolutionary violence may be justified, there actually were movements of the revolutionary left. Now, nearly all the violent threats to the status quo come from the far right. Did it make a difference to him that the proponents of violence were the Iranian ayatollahs, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, organisations which had incorporated parts of classical fascist tradition?

At the mention of fascism, the professor’s head shot back. “Fascist tradition? I think that’s an amazing utterance as a matter of fact. It’s an utterance, by the way, which is gone for by the makers of that Aaronovitch programme . . .” Dear God, the man was obsessed. I stemmed the flow by doing what I suspect few of his students have dared do and interrupting.

“Er, yes, fascist, they want to oppress women, kill homosexuals, promote Adolf Hitler’s Jewish conspiracy theory, abolish democracy, establish an empire . . . surely you admit this is the radical right dressed up in religious robes?”

He didn’t, of course, and couldn’t. When I had asked if he still called himself a socialist, there had been a long pause – a very long pause – before answering that he remained a member of the Labour Party “in the hope of one day getting rid of Blair”. I began to understand the reasons for his hesitation. If you make a positive commitment to left-wing politics, you have to stand with your comrades in, say, Iran or Iraq against their persecutors. You don’t explain away the religious right with “root-causery”.

“First, fascism is a nationalist movement,” he began as he went through his comforting checklist. “Second, it has a leader principle, and there’s nothing like a leader principle in Islam. Fascism lacks, above all, the overwhelming element of humanity; there is a humane element, a humanity element, in Islam. The idea that al-Qaeda or Islam is properly called fascist is really an extraordinary idea and is, if you will allow me to say so, an attempt to cook the books against al-Qaeda and Islam.”

His voice was as monotonous as a metronome and it was only after a minute that I shook myself and noticed that he was conflating Islamism and Islam. I have my problems with the accusations of Islamophobia that are thrown around so freely. I can develop phobias about any religion which places the supposed dictates of its God, or gods, above the laws of free parliaments. But I fully accept that to say all the world’s 1.5 billion, or so, Muslims support jihadism or salafism is false and prejudiced. Yet here was a former emeritus professor of logic, a philosopher who drops the names of his friends “Freddie” Ayer and Stuart Hampshire, making a crass howler. I pointed this out.

He boomed back: “I’m happy to take the correction. Rewrite the thing in terms of al-Qaeda.”

No chance, I thought, and moved on to his philosophy. Honderich is a consequentialist. That is, he believes that the consequences of a decision or failure to make a decision are more important than motives. For Honderich, if you don’t give money to Oxfam or the Red Cross, you are killing Africans as surely as if you had deliberately stopped a food convoy reaching a refugee camp. That you may never have given Africa a second’s thought is neither here nor there.

After the Terror, his response to 9/11, begins with heart-rending descriptions of world poverty. The insinuation is that he believes that the attacks on New York and Washington were a consequence of the failure of the rich world to tackle malnutrition and disease.

“Surely, you don’t believe that,” I say. “Al-Qaeda has no connection to famine in Chad or Aids in Malawi.”

Surprisingly, given the space he devoted to the state of sub-Saharan Africa, he accepts my argument without reservation. “I think that’s the kind of utterance we’ve really got to fight against. To say that radical Islamist movements are the result of poverty is the last thing I would say.”

Al-Qaeda isn’t the fault of poverty, it turns out. It’s the fault of the Jews. “With respect to 9/11, its prime necessary connection is neo-Zionism. Not the establishment of Israel but the expansion of Israel into the last fifth of historic Palestine and I stick to that absolutely.”

I put the usual objections, that we’ve had Ba’athism, the Iranian revolution and al-Qaeda campaigns from the Philippines to his native Canada. Wasn’t he worried that he was sounding a little anti-Semitic when he blamed all this violence on a filthy little war over a patch of land on the eastern Mediterranean? Wasn’t he once again turning the Jew into a supernatural figure responsible for half the violence on the planet? He wouldn’t accept that. Nor would he accept that he had switched from defending the far left to defending the far right. “There is a great deal of continuity in my work,” he said with orotund satisfaction. “There is, and I’m perfectly happy about that.” He was “delighted” not to be like “a lot of people, of whom perhaps you are one, who have managed, as you would say, to educate yourself and change your views under various pressures. One of them, by the way, is the pressure of being Jewish.”

This was getting ridiculous. I’m no more Jewish than is David Aaronovitch. You don’t have to be Jewish to oppose psychopathic right-wing movements. You just need to have had an education in the anti-fascist tradition.

Emotional consequences

But there was no stopping him. Not only Jews in general, but me in particular were responsible for mass murder.

“Everything is very dark at the moment and you are making a contribution to it. The world is ever darker. It’s a shitty place now and you are also responsible, [you] bear a part of the responsibility for 9/11 and 7/7.” Without pausing for breath, he added: “I liked your book, by the way, on new Labour.”

Old hands at interviewing never walk out. But I’m new to this and was overcome by the urge to escape. More than anything else, I was unnerved by his ability to denounce me one minute and flatter me the next. “Well, I’ve got another one on the way,” I said. “And, trust me, you won’t like it.”

With that, I headed off, past the posturing mannequins of the Victoria and Albert Museum, past the fossilised dinosaurs of the Natural History Museum and into the welcome embrace of the dangerous city. It was only when I was making my way home through Tavistock Square that I realised the “root cause” of the errors of Honderich and those like him. In a review of After the Terror for the online journal Democratiya, Jon Pike, a philosopher with the Open University, told me something I hadn’t realised about the 7/7 attacks. The bus bomb in the square exploded just round the corner from Honderich’s University College. Emails flew across the net, as academics checked that the bomber hadn’t killed their colleagues. All the philosophers survived to carry on speculating. University College’s sole fatality was Gladys Wundowa, a Ghanaian cleaner and charity worker.

If Honderich could have brought the bus bomber Hasib Hussain back to life and asked him what kind of society he had murdered her to create, what would he have said? If that sounds too speculative, look at the societies being created by the movements Honderich explains away as the fault of others. Would feminists, socialists, liberals, religious minorities and atheists be happy living in a Palestine ruled by Hamas rather than Fatah, or modern Iran, or Afghanistan, if al-Qaeda and the Taliban come back, or Iraq if the “insurgents” win? Would emeritus professors?

It’s a poor consequentialist who can’t think about consequences. Honderich can’t because, I think, the emotional consequences of admitting that not all the darkness of the world is the fault of the west would be too great for him to endure.

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