Back to Euston

When the Euston Manifesto was published six months ago it was hailed by some as a new development in politics. BERNARD HUGHES wonders if they are right.

The Euston Manifesto was not originally launched with a public meeting, a press conference or any of the other traditional trappings. Instead, it appeared with little fanfare on the internet, generating debate not through newspapers, television or political parties, but mostly through the recent phenomenon of political blogs.

Two questions about the Euston phenomenon arise from its life so far: first, is this a genuinely new form of political organisation that deserves attention?; secondly, are the politics of this thing actually any good?

On the first question, the way the Manifesto emerged might seem surprising to those who have some contact with the world of political blogging. Blogs – referred to as ‘weblogs’ by those struggling to keep up with the changing terminology – are, for the uninitiated, a form of online diary. There are millions of them, some simply recording the mundane details of people’s lives, others providing running commentaries on every issue from science to sport, and from pornography (this is the internet, after all) to politics.

There are plenty of reasons to dismiss political blogs as trivial or ephemeral, with a depressingly low standard of debate. Take a random visit to Harry’s Place, which supports the Euston Manifesto and is regarded as one of the more significant and respectable examples of political blogging. You may be lucky to find a thoughtful piece about world events. Or you may find a bit of puerile sniping at Ken Livingstone, Polly Toynbee or George Galloway (all right, some people do deserve puerile sniping).

Even if you found a thoughtful piece, click on the ‘comments’ link at the bottom (especially if it shows there are more than about 30 comments), and you’ll find that only a couple of the early responses involve to-the-point criticism. Indeed, you’ll be very lucky if you don’t find the comments descending into point-scoring, ad hominem attacks, apparently irrelevant asides (usually referring to separate arguments elsewhere on the site) and a good deal of personal abuse. It’s unlikely to make you want to get involved.

Cultural context
So how does an apparently serious political movement arise from this kind of thing? Well, let’s try to explain the cultural context of the internet first. There is something about the internet that causes people to behave in ways that they would never do elsewhere. Kate Fox’s work of popular anthropology, Watching the English, notes that even the normally-reticent English use the apparent distance and impersonality of the web to reveal personal details to strangers they would not normally tell intimate friends. The apparent distancing effect also seems to explain the intemperate tone of internet discussion. One might think of this as paradoxical – after all, a remark spoken in anger can soon be forgotten, but one posted on the web is there for anyone to refer back to in future.

(For some people, there seems to be a real dichotomy between the web and the rest of the world. A friend of mine has a weblog of the online diary kind and in one of his daily musings he said that he was leaving his job. As he works for a company with which I do some business, I saw him shortly afterwards, and asked, ‘So, where are moving on to?’ He looked startled and anxious and said ‘How did you know about that?’ ‘Well, it’s on your blog.’ ‘Oh, er, yeah…’)

So we can look at the abusive content as an inevitable by-product of the genre rather than something that fatally harms it. Indeed, it is a positive aspect of the phenomenon. Political blogs are open to everyone in the way that political party meetings are not. So for every reader and commentator who is there to throw rocks, there may be others who are sympathetic but have a slightly different viewpoint.

As a result the barriers created by the demarcation between political parties break down. To be sure, people still take sides, but the sides they take are defined differently. A whole lexicon of political terms has entered UK political discourse from web discussions – ‘decent left’, ‘muscular liberals’, ‘stoppers’, ‘moonbats’ – arising from the positions people take on a basket of issues rather than their party loyalties. Genuine debate and criticism, including some ‘Fisking’, is abundant if you look in the right places (see below for all definitions).

The apparent decline of political meetings is partly because they are being replaced by online discussions. The Euston Manifesto represents one of the first attempts to put together an informal coalition from such discussions – looser than a political party in the normally-understood sense, but an attempt to crystallise the arguments around a consistent body of ideas
It should be said that political blogging is not all characterised by the yah-boo style found in the comments box at Harry’s Place. You can find longer analytical pieces at Ministry of Truth, along with a few scornful polemics. Likewise, topical economics from a free-market socialist point of view can be found at Stumbling and Mumbling; intelligently sarcastic attacks on self-appointed censors can be found at Media Watch Watch; and campaigning issues have their own blogs, such as at Labour Friends of Iraq. There is much, much more (see below).

The resurgence of the soft left in political blogging is all the more striking given the moribund nature of the left in pretty much every other sphere. Those of a certain age will recognise a number of the characters involved in this revival, and might be led to wonder whether the spurt of activity can be accounted for, in part, by an en masse mid-life crisis among those active in the student left of the 1980s. Simon Pottinger went so far as to create a ‘Comrades Reunited’ website, which is either pitifully sad or a brilliant stroke of wit, according to taste. And for those aged around 40, the Proustian rush you may feel on reading some of the left-blog debates could just be because they resemble the Clause Four versus Trots arguments of 20-odd years ago.

Robust ideas
But is this really a new organisational phenomenon? It’s fair to say that it has a number of new features, and the contacts made by political blogging do seem to create a different pattern of discussion and organisation. But it’s accompanied by some familiar features: the Euston Manifesto is so called because it was thrashed out in a pub on Euston Road in London (O’Neill’s, if you’re interested) and the pub meeting is of course a traditional mainstay of this kind of politics. A more orthodox launch meeting was held soon after at the Union Chapel in nearby Islington, attended by 250 people.

Whatever its origins, however, the project’s future – its sustainability – will be dependent to a great extent on the robustness of its political ideas. The Manifesto (full text) is a deliberately generalised set of principles, open to argument about the implications of its content.

There is plenty of stuff that is uncontroversial for the left: it’s against racism; for equality (though it’s a bit vague about what that means); and supports a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. The two issues that have generated most comment, however, are its underlying philosophy, and its perceived position on US foreign policy and the war in Iraq.

The philosophical arguments are, in many ways, the most interesting, and in my view the most coherent part of the document. Its arguments about the nature of historical truth, cultural relativism, human rights and intellectual heritage have puzzled some, leading, on one hand, to accusations that the Manifesto is merely a statement of the obvious, and, on the other, to attacks on it for ‘liberal imperialism’.

The Manifesto argues, essentially, that the values of the Enlightenment are not only relevant as a philosophical underpinning, but urgently need to be asserted in the face of some current political trends. The extraordinary alliance of Leninism and fundamentalist Islam that underlies some of Respect’s outpourings is just one such trend.
But this is not just about supposed leftists in the SWP, who ally with Baathists and jihadists and dismiss their murder of a trade unionist as a ‘hullabaloo’. Among liberals, there is a strong stand of cultural relativism that denounces all the failings of the United States and its allies but is highly cautious about atrocious breaches of human rights in the Islamic world. For more egregious examples see, for instance, almost anything written by former Demos director Madeleine Bunting.

The Manifesto argues that the attack on Enlightenment values goes to the heart of the government. Labour has extended controls on free speech from relatively small prohibitions on, for instance, incitement to murder or racist violence, and widened the concept from the protection of people to the protection of ideas. A senior policeman has demanded powers to proscribe slogans on banners that may merely cause offence. Bizarre positions are being taken up on the left, while the right to participate in ordinary robust debate is being challenged, supposedly in the interests of liberal concepts of multiculturalism.

Telling criticism
It’s reasonable enough to view these developments with alarm, and to this extent the robust response of the Euston Manifesto represents a welcome ‘back to basics’ approach for progressive thinkers. But it is on questions of current events in foreign policy that the Manifesto has come in for more telling criticism.

Let’s do the authors of the Manifesto a service that most others have denied them and stay off the specific case of Iraq for the moment. The Manifesto states clearly that it is neutral on the question of the invasion:

‘The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognise that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change.’

So the manifesto is not the pro-war document that some have made it out to be. But it does, crucially, introduce what might be called a doctrine of intervention that underlies the views of many of its supporters on the Iraq war. The weaknesses of this doctrine go some way to explain why the pro-war left finds itself in a political mess almost as bad as some of the anti-war elements.

The Manifesto says:

‘Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a “responsibility to protect”.’

It is easy to see where this reasoning comes from. Does anyone feel comfortable when those who could intervene stand by during massacres in Rwanda, or when tyrants are tolerated in the interests of expediency in foreign politics? But as a competing doctrine to the much-abused principle of sovereignty, this is a poor thing indeed.

A couple of reducio ad absurdum arguments against this statement are obvious – and while the following ones are deliberately on the edge of reasonableness, they are not entirely straw men. Who is actually to decide – dismissing the absurdly vague concept of ‘the international community’ – whether the ‘threshold of inhumanity has been crossed’? The UK was, by any normal definition, responsible for the torture of some of its own citizens in the 1970s. Does it follow that someone somewhere should have invaded because of this? Torture and murder is undoubtedly a systematic component of current US foreign and security policy. Does it really make a difference to the argument that the victims are not its own citizens and therefore fall outside the Euston principle?

But these are mere debating society points when set against the real hole in the principle, which is not the question of who is to decide in such cases, but who is to act. To be fair, some of the main figures in the Euston Manifesto group have acknowledged this difficulty – at the Union Chapel launch Norman Geras spoke of the important difference ‘between principle and agency’, while Alan Johnson warned against the idea of a ‘fantasy UN’ that would step in to solve the evils of the world.

Back to Iraq
But others have not had the sophistication to share these doubts, and this means that we do, in the end, have to return to the specific case of Iraq. The current conflict has led to bizarre alliances on the pro-war left as well as the anti-war left, and the Euston doctrine crystallises the thinking that led to these contradictions.

How else to explain how it was that liberal and progressive people became so focused on the admirable aim of removing Saddam Hussein that they dismissed the problem of agency that Norman Geras sketched out? How else could they conclude that a US administration, whose fundamental principles were so at odds with almost every left-wing idea, could be supported as the agency for delivering this goal? How else could they believe that the disconnect between their aims and the aims of the Bush administration could lead the enterprise to anything but disaster?

Okay, as I said before, the Euston Manifesto isn’t all about the invasion of Iraq. Norman Geras himself concluded that, had he known now what he knew then, he would have quietly witheld support for the war. And many of the ‘Eustonards’ have been vocal and active in their support for trade union rights in Iraq while their anti-war adversaries have, as in the shocking example of the SWP noted above, been silent or treacherous. But the war has been poisonous to the left in general, and the Euston Manifesto has not been immune to the problem.

Finally, a less remarked-upon, but still striking, feature of the Manifesto is its almost complete absence of economics. There is a passage on open source, which adds up to support for the free exchange of ideas and opposition to attempts to claim ownership over currently shareable intellectual resources. This is important and topical in its own right, as the current disingenuous campaign by corporations to extend copyright to almost the entire sound archive of history proves. (Don’t be fooled by Cliff and co – most recorded musicians, especially the poorer ones, don’t hold the rights to their own recordings and would be harmed rather than helped by extension of copyright).

But there is nothing on redistribution, workers’ control, mutual ownership, and so on, apart from a vague aspiration to equality and an acknowledgement that there are differences about how to achieve it.

So what does the Euston Manifesto add up to in the end? Well, to be fair, one if its features is that does not make great claims for itself. Norman Geras put the point poetically at the Union Chapel meeting as he recalled lines from TS Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

‘Well, we make no extravagant claims,’ he concluded. ‘It’s a beginning, that’s all.’

In spite of Bernard Hughes’ misgivings, he is a supporter of the Euston Manifesto

Some definitions
Decent left. A term applied to themselves by those on the left who trumpet their opposition to Hizbollah, Iraqi insurgents, and their apologists.
Fisking. Making line-by-line attacks on newspaper opinion pieces held to be tendentious, contradictory or lacking a factual basis. Named after Robert Fisk, who detractors argue is a prolific source of articles worthy of such a line of attack.
Stoppers. Supporters of the Stop the War movement. Invariably pejorative.
Muscular liberals. Originally a term of abuse aimed at ‘Eustonards’ and others accused of wanting to impose their philosophy by force on supposedly ‘unenlightened’ types, in the manner of the Henry Jackson Society. The term has been substantially reclaimed as a badge of pride by those it was intended to criticise.
Moonbat. A term of abuse aimed at leftists implying a level of disconnection with the real world. It is a source of delight to many that George Monbiot’s surname resembles this term.

A breathless tour of political blogs
Ministry of Truth, Stumbling and Mumbling, MediaWatchWatch and Labour Friends of Iraq are all mentioned in the main article. Harry’s Place deserves a better review than it gets in the main piece and is worth regular visits. PooterGeek (Damian Counsell) is one of the leading Eustonards and although he keeps quiet in most political fights his brand of whimsy with a political slant is good value. The measured tones of Norman Geras are evident in the grand-daddy of all left blogs and his list of links is probably the most comprehensive of all. Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for WAR is intended as an ironic title but is a good read, especially if you can handle the surrealism in a Geordie accent that is produced by one of its contributors, Will from A General Theory of Rubbish. If you want some real Trots, Dave’s Part represents the saner end of the tendency, while a more spittle-flecked but often entertaining account of things can be found at Lenin’s Tomb. A variety of contributors provide a thoughtful account of politics with a British Asian slant at Pickled Politics. The Sharpener also uses multiple contributors including the outrageous but now almost silent John Band to provide a magazine-like feel – a more traditional magazine format can be found at Democratiya. Off to the right wing, the indefatigable Tim Worstall provides an infuriating antidote to sloppy thinking and a weekly round-up of good blogging, while Mr Eugenides delivers a series of sweary rants that occasionally hit the right target so effectively that you forgive the many times he shoots at the victims and not the culprits. Chicken Yoghurt delivers vitriol at targets more pleasing to the left. Across the Atlantic, Majikthise gives us a wide-ranging discussion of issues touching leftists in the Democrats. Butterflies and Wheels exemplifies the Enlightenment principles behind the Euston Manifesto. Back home, Recess Monkey delivers Westminster gossip. Councillors, MPs and former MPs are also in on the act. Slugger O’Toole is one of the veterans of the blogosphere and his account of Northern Ireland politics is mentioned in reverential tones by political bloggers. Most of them have compendious links to other blogs so visit them to find more.