Aunt Sally and Uncle Sam
Academic Socialism and American Hegemony
Hugh Roberts replies to Ben Cosin’s criticisms of L&TUR’s position on the Gulf war.
Ben Cosin caricatures the views which have been put forward in L&TUR in constructing a peg for his qualified apologia for President Bush’s New World Order. In particular, he misrepresents as expressions of a programmatic vision or strategic political alignment what have in fact been merely explanatory analyses.
In my article ‘Murder in Mesopotamia II: Internationalism or Barbarism’ (L&TUR 19, September-October 1990), I offered an explanation of the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and especially of its violent aspect. This explanation drew attention to the extreme difficulty of governing Iraq in view of the profound ethnic and religious cleavages within its population – in short, the extent to which Iraqi society is not yet national in character.
A society which is not national in character, but which at least formally accords citizenship to all its adult population, can either be governed conservatively on the basis of a carefully negotiated but inevitably precarious equilibrium between its constituent communal groups which institutionalises their political salience and ensures that change will not occur or will subvert the state if it does occur, as in the Lebanon up to 1976. Or it can be governed in an autocratic manner, combining elements of conservatism with elements of progress, by a monarch, as in Iran under the Shah or Iraq itself under the Hashemites. Or it can, be governed, as Iraq has been governed since 1968, by a revolutionary dictatorship which seeks to promote national development at the expense of those forces (feudal or tribal aristocracies and religious leaderships) with a vested interest in the preservation of non-national communal loyalties.
The first and second of these formulae demonstrated their limitations – in the Lebanon, in Iran and Iraq itself – long ago. In my article, I pointed out that the Ba’athist formula “was yet to prove inadequate to Iraqi conditions.” And that is still the case today, after this formula has been put to the severest test one could possibly imagine.
In the editorial on the Gulf crisis in the same issue, the point was made that the Arab world is developing into a system of nation-states, that there exist various bits and pieces which do not fit into this emerging system, that a sorting-out process is bound to occur, and that what is at issue is whether Europe will help this process to be as peaceful and painless as possible, or whether America will be allowed to ensure that it is as bloody and as anti-Western as possible.
In short, L&TUR offered its readers an explanatory perspective enabling them to make historical and political sense of the Baghdad regime and of the attempted annexation of Kuwait, and enabling them to see a major element of what was at issue in the Gulf crisis. If L&TUR’s explanations are dismissed, neither Saddam Hussein nor the occupation of Kuwait can be explained except in terms of the presence of Evil in the world, upon which self-righteous war may unthinkingly be waged and to hell with the consequences.
Cosin misrepresents all this as a deliberate political alignment of the L&TUR with Iraqi Ba’athism. He suggests that L&TUR was making itself the apostle of “the Saddamite road” and remarks that “this is a poor bet.” And he sums up his own position, and his misreading of ours, in the following declaration:
“If the choice is between a Saddamite path for the Third World and the Pax Americana, then socialists should choose the Pax Americana.”
Ben Cosin is not a member of the Bevin Society which produces L&TUR, and evidently has difficulty in conceiving it realistically. The Bevin Society is a group of free-thinking British socialists and trade unionists. It is aligned politically with the British Labour Party and the British trade union movement and with nothing else. It has no illusions about either this party or this movement, but in so far as it is betting on’ anything, it is betting on democratic socialism and on the Labour Party and the trade union movement as the agents of a democratic socialist development. And it is doing what it can in the sphere of thought and publishing to encourage and assist the party and the movement to resume their role as effective agents of this development.
People who are engaged in practical political activity soon learn to be cautious, if not grudging, in offering their support to other political forces. Because they are concerned to have an influence on events, they know better than to jeopardise their possibilities for influence by aligning themselves with political forces which do not share their principles or objectives. Iraqi Ba’athism does not share the principles or objectives of the Ernest Bevin Society, nor does the US government; neither Baghdad nor Washington has the slightest interest in or possibility of assisting the Bevin Society to attain its objectives; and the Bevin Society would no more consider aligning itself with the one than it would consider ‘betting on’ the other.
But academics and intellectuals who exist in radical disconnection from purposeful political activity are another matter.
I have been an academic. For eleven years I taught Politics in the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia. I found that many of my colleagues were possessed by a constant need to define their ‘position’ in relation to the political issues of the day. ‘Positions’ would be defined at length over dinner tables and in seminar rooms. And the world would invariably carry on regardless.
Because the business of defining positions was disconnected from political activity, it was unrestrained by practical political judgements. In so far as it was controlled by judgements, the judgements in question were informed by the career interests of those who were making them. The careers in question were academic careers. And the pursuit of an academic career invariably involves the business of aligning oneself with an academic School of Thought and thereby securing outlets for one’s writing in some academic journal or publishing house. There is nothing wrong in this at all. But it has nothing to do with politics.
I was unable to inhibit myself from thinking politically about the subjects of my academic research, and I was unwilling to confine my thinking or my writing within the mental parameters and terminological protocols of any of the existing Schools of Thought which I came across in academia. I found as a result that I had great difficulty in getting my thoughts published in the form of academic publications, and that my prospects of a fulfilling academic career were nil. When I had satisfied myself that this was the case, I resigned my lectureship and went out into the world.
Ben Cosin’s position boils down to a close relation of Fred Halliday’s position, which has been dissected by Brendan Clifford in a new Bevin Society pamphlet advertised in this issue.
Like Halliday, Cosin is an academic and has been connected, if less prominently or explicitly, with the School of Thought embodied in the New Left Review. The New Left Review pretended to be a development within British socialist politics, and the articles it published frequently, if not invariably, included injunctions addressed to ‘socialists’, indicating to said ‘socialists’ the positions they should adopt, as Cosin indicates to ‘socialists’ that they should if necessary choose the Pax Americana. In reality, New Left Review was merely a development within British academia. But it addled the minds of an entire generation of British socialists who found themselves, as they transited through university, at the mercy of lecturers hooked on the NLR.
Like Halliday in bygone days, Cosin is conscious of the intellectual vigour and coherence of the Bevin Society’s thinking but is unable to subscribe to it and is therefore disposed to engage in futile polemics with it. He is unable to subscribe to it because it leads directly to ‘positions’ which are not functional in academia. This is not at all his fault, and he has my sincere sympathy.
When I first took up my lectureship at East Anglia, I made no secret of my views and naively supposed that I would be able to persuade some of my leftwing colleagues by mere force of argument. I soon found this to be a ludicrous misconception. One or two of them listened to me intently at first, aware that I might conceivably be the harbinger of a new academic fashion. But they soon realised that this was not the case, and treated me thereafter as an amusing eccentric at best, or an intolerable irritant at worst. For someone who subscribes to the Bevin Society’s views, but who earns a living as an academic in the humanities and social sciences (the problem does not arise for real scientists), there are only two options: to keep one’s political views to oneself in the academic milieu, or to leave this milieu.
This dilemma did not always exist. It exists today as a consequence of the collapse of British socialism as a political force.
It is not the business of academics to think out for themselves the political premises upon which they conduct their teaching and research. These premises are laid on for them by the political forces in the society at large. British liberalism (with a small ‘l’) and the several tendencies in British Conservatism are powerful forces in British politics and society, and academics oriented by these political philosophies have no problem in functioning effectively in academia.
British socialism became a powerful force in society in the first few decades of the century through the medium of Labour politics. But the intellectual content and foundation of the socialist current in Labour politics suffered a massive collapse in the 1950s, when the ‘Revisionists’ led by Anthony Crosland demonstrated that nobody on the Labour Left had serious answers to the awkward questions they were raising, and this collapse had become patent by the mid- 1960s, when Harold Wilson’s government was getting nowhere and the NLR was getting into its stride.
Since then it has been impossible to function academically on the intellectual ground of democratic socialism. The only exception to this has been the elitist, narrow-minded and spiritually impoverished prescriptive policy thinking associated with what the Fabian Society has been reduced to and freshly embodied today in Lady Blackstone’s Think Tank. British socialist academics who are understandably dissatisfied with this meagre fare as a source for the ‘positions’ their work requires them to adopt have had nothing else to tum to where British socialist politics is concerned, and have inevitably been forced to orient themselves to the political world beyond Britain.
The NLR met this need for three decades by purveying attractively wrapped intellectual imports. NLR in its heyday was a smorgasbord of exotic Marxism. Like the dishes in a Swedish buffet, the food NLR offered for academic thought was invariably cold, because it was wholly detached from any vital interest in British society. And although · the Marxism of the NLR displayed an endless surface variety, its varieties all had two things in common. They were premised on an absolute rejection of the native intellectual and political traditions of British socialism, upon which anathema after anathema was hurled, and they were premised on the massive fact of the existence of the Communist world.
Through the NLR a couple of generations of British socialist academics found an orientation outside British politics on which they could construct their pedagogic, literary and postprandial ‘positions’. The basis of this orientation was the sheer political success of Stalinism in constructing an alternative order to that of Western capitalism and one which for sixty-odd years rivalled it in its moral appeal and universalist ambitions. The NLR could never endorse the Stalinist politics which produced this. A wide variety of non- or anti-Stalinist Marxism was exhibited in its pages. But underlying the NLR’s project was the unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable fact that the intellectual appeal and commercial viability of all academically fashionable varieties of Marxism were predicated on the practical achievements of the unfashionable variety.
The collapse of the Communist world order has deprived British socialist academics of their bearings. They can either make the massive spiritual effort required in re-orienting themselves to British politics through the thinking pioneered by the Bevin Society. Or they can seek a make-shift substitute for the Communist lode-star in some brand of local and particularistic revolutionary politics in the Third World. Or they can follow Fred Halliday’s lead and capitulate to their old American enemy and its ‘Imperialism’, and re-name it the American Friend and its ‘World Order’.
I have described Cosin’s position as a close relation of Halliday’s position because it is not identical with it. Formally speaking, Cosin falls short of explicitly endorsing Bush’s New World Order, and looks forward to the development of the European Community and of Japan as countervailing forces which will offer “a reasonable challenge to US laissez faire and litigiousness” and may eventually succeed “in pulling the US on better behaviour“. Whereas Halliday now takes his bearings from American power, Cosin prefers to take his bearings from a hypothetical development of European and Japanese power. This enables him to avoid the opprobrium which Halliday has incurred from his erstwhile friends of the New Left. But that is all it does. It is not a position which is functional in politics at all.
It might conceivably be functional if it were true that, as Cosin claims, “the issue of the war … marks a further ( albeit early) stage in the development of (sc. Europe’s and Japan’s) freedom from the US yoke.” In the case of Europe at least this is the most astonishing claim. The Gulf crisis was the occasion for the most comprehensive political capitulation by Europe to America’s hegemony. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Thatcher was so enthusiastic about the war from the start, and why there was so much foot-dragging in Germany, Spain, Italy and, if to a lesser extent, in France. America, with England’s eager assistance, has pulled a very fast one indeed over Europe, and we are going to be Jiving with the consequences of this for a long time.
It is to Halliday’s credit that he sees this and is explicitly dismissive of Europe from the vantage point of his new-found pro-Americanism. Cosin’s invocation of a European perspective is like praising the solid virtues of the door after the horse has bolted. It is an evasion of the issue. It will do in the seminar room and at the dinner table, but nowhere else.
Because the Bevin Society has refused to endorse the New World Order, yet has refrained from counterposing to it a lot of wishful thinking about Europe, Cosin supposes that we are taking our bearings from Baghdad and betting on the Saddamite road. It appears to be inconceivable to him that we are merely continuing to do what we have always done, thinking out our political positions as we go along, on the basis of a conception of the British democratic socialist road and an orientation to the British working class interest which we arrived at a long time ago.
Cosin in his musings and meanderings asks the following rhetorical but above all bizarre question:
“If Saddam’s Iraq is construed purely negatively – though it has no promise in itself, it is nonetheless a bastion against US dominated world capitalism, that still leaves the problem of what policies should be pursued behind the shield of Baghdad, as well as that of what other shields are available, and could they shelter the social tasks the world needs better than Saddamism? At its most promising, use of Saddam’s shield could only uphold Islamic anti-capitalism. What use is that in Latin America, India or most non-Islamic Africa?”
This rhetorical question is bizarre in at least four ways.
The idea that Saddam’s Iraq is a bastion against world capitalism is bizarre. Iraq’s economy depends overwhelmingly on exporting its oil to the West and on importing the goods and technology it needs from the West It is thoroughly implicated in ‘world capitalism’, and knows itself to be so implicated, and has manifested not the slightest ambition to withdraw from this relationship. L&TUR has never supposed or suggested anything to the contrary. This idea is an extraordinary figment of Cosin’s free-floating imagination.
The idea that the choice of policies to be followed ‘behind the shield of Baghdad’ – whatever Baghdad is a shield against – is a problem for British socialists to bother their heads about is also bizarre.
The idea that ‘Saddam’s shield could only uphold Islamic anti-capitalism’ is also bizarre. Why could not Saddam’s ‘shield’ ‘uphold’ something else, such as anti-Islamist, state-capitalist, Arab nationalism? This is, in fact, a reasonable description of what it has been and still is upholding.
The idea that there is such a thing as ‘Islamic anti-capitalism’ is also bizarre. The most Islamic states in the Arab world – Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, Morocco – are the most firmly pro-Western and capitalistic. The economic outlook of the radical Islamist movements is in most cases unequivocally pro-capitalist and virulently anti-socialist.
Underlying these bizarre ideas and this rhetorical question is the ghost of an old dogma – that socialists can only support one side or another in a war on the grounds that it is in some sense socialist (e.g. at least anti-capitalist). Cosin assumes or, at any rate, conveys the impression that L&TUR supported Iraq in the Gulf war (in fact we published not one word in support of Iraq in the war) and that we did so on socialist grounds. In reality, we opposed the West’s war-mongering from August onwards on grounds which were spelt out in editorials of L&TUR and a series of pamphlets, and which were not specifically socialist. Among the prominent non-socialists who broadly subscribed to them were Edward Heath and Amira! Philippe de Gaulle.
We did not oppose the New World Order and America’s machiavellian determination to get the United Nations to wage a gratuitous and terroristic war on Iraq because we supposed that Baghdad is a beacon of socialism, but because we could see that the war-mongering involved a terrible debasement of the idea of law and was seeking to make inevitable an entirely avoidable war for no good reason, and involved the West in lining up on the side of parasitic, decadent and anachronistic states in the Arab world against those states which are based on and tending to realise the progressive principle of nationality.
We did not conceive of the conflict between America and Iraq as a conflict between capitalism and anti-capitalism, for the very good reason that it was not a conflict of this kind at all.
If we did not publicly take a line of outright support for Iraq, this was because our purpose was to provide effective arguments for the anti-war position in British politics, and we knew better than to confuse the issue of opposition to a wholly unjustified war with support for one of the antagonists. But since what was at stake was the principle that Jaw should regulate relations between states, it has to be said that it was Baghdad which upheld this principle by refusing to bow to the cynical dictats, masquerading as legal judgements, of the Security Council. And in the conflict between the thuggish power-play of Washington, London and Paris dressed up as law enforcement and the spirited defence of national sovereignty conducted by Saddam Hussein, there can be no doubt which side was in the right
And since an unqualified victory for a New World Order which involves the comprehensive debasement of the idea of law would have been a disaster for the world view of democratic socialism, in so far as democratic socialism envisages a development of socialism within the framework of law, we take some satisfaction from Saddam’s success in denying Bush, Major and Mitterrand an unqualified victory, and from the fact that the principle of national sovereignty is still being asserted with spirit in Baghdad.
Baghdad is not capable of being a ‘shield’ for anything beyond the Iraqi national interest. But it has been and remains an example. In defending the principle of national sovereignty, it is serving the long term interest of humanity in the eventual establishment of a system of international law worthy of the name. Until such a system is established, it is certainly necessary that the structure of arbitrary, self-serving and terroristic power masquerading as law which has been conceived in Washington and endorsed in London be stymied by the tenacious defence of their sovereignty by all Third World states which have the guts to stick up for themselves.
If this reasoning is incomprehensible to our academic readers, or an embarrassment to their peculiar purposes, that is their problem.
This article appeared in July 1991, in Issue 24 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.