The left, the war and the obligations of the oppressed

Jan 22nd, 2009 | By Matthew Brown | Category: Articles, Democratic Socialist

In the wake of September 11th, and opposition to the war on terrorism, WILL BROWN calls for the left to re-examine its knee-jerk responses to international conflict.

Writing in the left-wing American magazine, Dissent, Michael Walzer has issued a stark indictment of the left’s response to the events of September 11th and the war in Afghanistan. While directed at the American left in particular, much of what Walzer argues should give also give those of us outside the US pause for serious thought.

Walzer claims that the war exposed the left’s reliance on knee-jerk anti-Americanism in its reactions to US foreign policy and its incapacity to produce credible, critical judgements and political interventions.

A good deal of his argument concerns the question of whether there can be what he calls a ‘decent left’ in the US – whether living in a superpower precludes the possibility of developing a left politics which is capable of anything other than simply taking the side of whoever seems to be opposing the imperial power.

Here, Walzer puts forward four arguments. First, he claims that the lingering effects of what he terms “the Marxist theory of imperialism” (itself a rather problematic notion) make the left incapable of understanding the forces, particularly religiously-motivated forces, ranged against western powers. Secondly, he argues that political powerlessness at home leads to simple oppositionalism. As Walzer puts it, “…that’s why [the left’s] participation in the policy debate is so odd: their proposals… seem to have been developed with no concern for effectiveness and no sense of urgency… That was someone else’s business; the business of the left was… what? To oppose the authorities, whatever they did.”

Thirdly, in what Bill Warren once called “the modern masochistic version of the white man’s burden”, he claims that the left blames the home, imperial state (USA) first, in order to deliver a kind of moral purism to the left: “Whatever America is doing in the world isn’t our doing.” Finally, he argues that the corollary of this is an unwillingness to criticise anyone else who is poorer and weaker than “we” are, whatever the real nature of the regimes and movements in question.

The upshot of these motivations is a left which responds instinctively to international events such as September 11th, betraying an inability to comprehend the horror of the World Trade Centre attack and showing something close to glee that the imperial state had got a bloody nose. Programmatically, all the left comes up with is the (re)statement of pre-formed positions:

“‘Stop the bombing’ wasn’t a slogan that summarised a coherent view of the bombing – or of the alternatives to it. The truth is that most leftists were not committed to having a coherent view about things like that; they were committed to opposing the war, and they were prepared to oppose it without regard to its causes or character, and without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks.”

While this pre-occupation with the left in the US betrays some of the very American parochialism that so annoys people in other parts of the world, it is this question – of the left’s orientation towards political movements ranged against western powers, and of its (lack of) understanding of the nature of western interventions and use of force abroad – which makes Walzer’s commentary so pertinent to left politics outside, as well as inside, America.

Cheap melodrama

There are a number of points which Walzer touches on which bear further consideration.

Perhaps most broadly, Walzer draws our attention to the seeming inability of much of the left to comprehend the nature of intervention by liberal capitalist states in other parts of the world. In this left view actions by liberal capitalist states are inherently malign and characterised by a purely zero-sum interaction in which the selfish interests of western states must be at the expense of others. As Walzer puts it, the international is presented as a “cheap melodrama” in which there is a clear and obvious villain, one whose ability to get what it wants is routinely exaggerated.

Underlying this view is indeed the legacy of “the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism and of the third worldist doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s” which regard the past 500-plus years of international history as a process of oppression and exploitation of one part of the world by another. For the most part such assumptions are so ingrained and pervasive among those who consider themselves radical in international affairs that they go unnoticed. And yet these are shibboleths which the left can and must abandon.

It is not that they don’t address very real and important issues in international relations: relations of relative global inequality are a massively important fulcrum around which much international politics operates; understanding US power is clearly vital to many current international issues; and the historical antecedents of the contemporary world order inform many of today’s political contests. It’s just that things aren’t that simple or straightforward.

Relative international inequalities are the subject of a huge and complex academic and political debate, and the issue is far from straightforward. That said, capitalism has delivered massively increased per capita incomes for many countries and many sections of the population. Rather than causing economic stagnation in other parts of the world the capitalism of the core states historically has expanded ever-outwards, dynamically, if brutally, transforming other societies. Western states may be pursuing their own interests when they intervene overseas, but we have to question whether this may in fact have some progressive content – if what western states want is liberal capitalist states across the world, this may well be an advance on what currently exists.

While the US is clearly the most powerful state on the planet, it is not omnipotent and is curtailed above all by its historic defeat in Vietnam which places immense limitations on its ability to use military force. (In a recent episode of the West Wing, fictional President Bartlett, exasperated at the inability of the US to rescue hostages from Colombia, commented that “there’s just no point in being a superpower anymore”.) What’s more, the attack on terrorists, while serving “western interests” in one sense, may also be in the interests of many others, both inside and outside Afghanistan.

One result of the left’s oversimplified approach to international politics is a failure to distinguish between different interventions and uses of force by western powers at different times against different enemies: Kosovo is not Vietnam, Afghanistan is not Nicaragua. Perhaps the most crucial difference, which is often ignored, is that US actions in the post-cold war era are not driven by the same motivations and priorities as in the cold war. Then, preventing the spread of communism and soviet influence in the third world often over-rode any commitment to liberalism or democracy. Now it is not so clear (although the commitment to these values certainly waxes and wanes in the face of other contingent and strategic concerns).

However, the left’s oversimplification (or plain wrong analysis) also leads to a failure to engage with, and most importantly to criticise, the nature of those states and movements opposed to western states. As Walzer argues, “ideologically primed leftists were likely to think that they already understood whatever needed to be understood. Any group that attacks the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed, and its agenda must be the agenda of the left.”

Atrocious commentary

This was exemplified in the UK by Paul Foot’s atrocious commentary on the World Trade Centre attacks in The Guardian (18/9/01). Foot, while criticising the tactic of “individual terrorism” (because, as one letter writer pointed out, al-Qaeda obviously hadn’t read enough Trotsky on the subject), implicitly accepted that the motivations were the justified motivations of “the oppressed”. This is far from the case with Islamic fundamentalism which, as Fred Halliday has noted, is “the anti-imperialism of racists and murderers”. Foot even had the front to criticise the media’s inability to distinguish between the “violence of the conquerors, exploiters and oppressors on the one hand and the violence of the conquered, exploited and oppressed on the other”, while he himself is clearly incapable of distinguishing between a progressive opposition politics and reactionary clericism. As Walzer put it, “a holy war against the infidels is not, even unintentionally, unconsciously or ‘objectively’, a left politics.”

Indeed, commenting on the tactics of opposition forces, Walzer is surely right to argue that, “Even the oppressed have obligations, and surely the first of these is not to murder innocent people, not to make terrorism their politics. Leftists who cannot insist on this point, even to people poorer and weaker than themselves, have abandoned both politics and morality for something else.” It is a failure which characterises the Palestinian suicide bombers and their apologists, and it is a signal of the bankruptcy of the Palestinian’s “politics of the oppressed”, regardless of whether or not they have been driven to it by Israeli terror.

These “obligations” of the oppressed were recognised by the most remarkable elements of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 1980s, where much effort was devoted to thinking about, and striving to realise, a certain way of behaviour in the struggle itself. Some on the left, following Gramsci, and including the ILP, have also recognised the need for opposition movements to prefigure the societies which they seek to create. It is hard to see how murderous campaigns by reactionary clerics will produce anything other than more murder and reactionary clericism.

Finally, Walzer’s broadside raises the question of what the left should base its politics and political interventions on. Here the left’s knee-jerk response to international issues becomes almost perverse. At the very time the left is loudly criticising new anti-terrorism legislation on liberal civil rights grounds (liberal civil rights grounds, mind you!), it rejects the very idea that “western” (and by implication, therefore “bad”) liberalism should be the basis of either policy or protest when directed at the rest of the world. Seemingly, the left would rather give tacit or open support to opponents of the west overseas, however reactionary their politics might be, and even if they are explicitly and openly organised around the destruction of the very liberal values which the left supports at home.

For socialists, some rethinking of international issues is clearly necessary to get out of this mess, for the issues go much deeper than the specific question of the war on terrorism. For too long the left has operated as if it is obvious what its position should be when it comes to international politics. This has left us with simplistic sloganising, backed by poorly-grasped theories of international political economy. Such nostrums belonged to a different era – an era of anti-colonialism and cold war (and were not always a sure guide even then). In the post cold war world, the “tick-boxes” which indicate what counts as left-wing when it comes to international affairs need to be re-thought.

For a start, the left should re-examine the relationship between socialism and liberalism. Rather than assume that anything which presents itself as anti-western is progressive, we should develop our ability to make balanced, reasoned judgements about the forces and organisations at large in the world, and the conflicts which pervade international politics. And while, as socialists, we will argue that the core liberal principles of liberty and equality, democracy and rights, cannot be realised under capitalism, we are not against those principles themselves. Al Qaeda is.

Socialism is, at root, a critique of liberalism, but one based on liberalism: it is about the realisation of liberal universalist values, not their negation; it is the transcendence of liberal capitalism, not a reaction, backwards, against it. This means that socialists, at times, support the extension of liberalism, even within capitalism, as a host of campaigns which the left has been engaged in over the last century testify. And it means that sometimes we might give critical support to what our, and other capitalist states, do in the  international arena.

In international relations, claimed Fred Halliday in a recent book on September 11th, “it often seems, any fantasy or conspiracy theory goes. Freud once argued that the aim of psychoanalysis was to reduce extreme hysteria to everyday common misery. The function of reasoned argument and engaged scepticism in international affairs is to do just that.” Walzer’s commentary provides the left with a thought-provoking start to a long-overdue and necessary process of re-examination.

Michael Walzer ‘Can there be a decent left?’ Dissent magazine, Spring 2002 (
Fred Halliday Two Hours That Shook the World London: Saqui Books 2002.
Paul Foot ‘Sampson the Terrorist’ The Guardian, 18 September 2001.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a comment »

  1. [...] have raged on the US left and right since the attacks last September on New York and Washington. The left, the war and the obligations of the oppressed In the wake of September 11th, and opposition to the war on terrorism, Will Brown calls for the [...]

  2. I’m not a Socialist – I’m a ‘capitalist liberal,’ though probably more on the Left than some – but this is one of the best articles I’ve read from a Leftist. Shows how completely flawed people like Michael Moore are – nice to see some Socialists (who I might not admire economically, but I admire in their historical struggles against oppression (Vietnam/Spain (1930s) etc etc) haven’t gone with the easy, lazy route and blame the US for everything.

  3. The real puzzle is why the left never come up with cogent arguments regarding the reasons we shouldn’t be lashing out with an emotional response to an act of aggression. They never seem to seek hard evidence that the response is aimed at the correct target. They never seem to seek to obtain an agreed budget for any proposed action. They never seek to get a defined exit strategy.

    What’s the reason for this? Perhaps the left are naive or incompetent and think the debate can be won on noise and bluster. Or perhaps the left simply act as controlled opposition to show the public that the best had been done to prevent military action.

    Or is it something else?

Leave Comment