The Euston Manifesto appears a noble failure. It was clear in 2006 that the attempt to revive left-wing support for internationalism, democracy and universal human rights did not have a strong chance of success. Looking back a decade on, it seems doomed from the start. The tyrannical habits of mind it condemned were breaking out across the left in 2006. They are everywhere now. They define the Labour Party and most of what passes for intellectual left-wing life in the 21st century.
To take the manifesto’s first statement of principle: the left should be ‘committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures’. An easy statement to agree with, I hear you say. Not so easy when the leader of the opposition, feted by his supporters as the most ‘left-wing’ in Labour’s history, will excuse dictatorial regimes or movements, however reactionary, if and only if, they are anti-West.
The left should believe in ‘freedom of opinion and assembly,’ the manifesto continued. One need only look at the universities to know that the loudest voices in the middle-class left now concentrate so much of their energy on shouting down others, that the poor, exhausted little things have no time left to do anything else.
‘We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking.’ Not much progress there, now that Occidentalism is the guiding principle of leftish thinking on foreign affairs.
I accept that if you insist on ignoring the evidence of your senses you might believe that the manifesto’s hopes for a principled anti-racism have been half-realised. Norman Geras, Alan Johnson and all the other bloggers and academics who produced the manifesto wanted a universal commitment to oppose ‘the anti-immigrant racism of the far Right; racism against people from Muslim countries, and the resurgence of, anti-Semitism.’ Left-wing and Muslim anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and hatreds were hardly novel a decade ago. They are now so commonplace, they shock but no longer surprise me. But you might argue, that a decade on, the left’s commitment to opposing anti-Muslim bigotry remains solid. Don’t believe it. Let a liberal Muslim or ex-Muslim start arguing against Islamist reaction and leftists will turn on him or her. The white left is all for defending Muslims, but only if they are the right sort of Muslim.
At the same time as Norman Geras and his comrades were writing the Euston Manifesto, I was writing What’s Left, a history of how western left-wingers found themselves excusing movements of the religious and secular far right . I drew careful distinctions, as Norman did. You could not generalise, we said. There were many lefts. We ourselves were leftists, who flattered ourselves that we were upholding the best traditions of the left against the totalitarian sympathisers in our midst.
I cannot say the same now. Of course, many left-wingers reject the politics of Jeremy Corbyn. But the majority of those who call themselves left-wing do not. You can puff that the clowns who go along with inquisitorial, misogynist, racist and homophobic Islamists are not ‘true leftists’, but the fellow travellers of modern fascism. And you would be correct. But Lyndon Johnson had it right when he said ‘the first lesson of politics is to be able to count’. Numbers matter. Majorities define a movement. If the majority of people who call themselves left-wing reject the principles of the Euston Manifesto, it is tedious and pointless to argue that those principles are somehow the ideals of ‘the real left’ or the ‘true left’ or whatever else you want to call it. Left-wing politics are what left-wing people do.
What’s left of the manifesto? The vindication of history for a start. When Robert Conquest published his history of Stalin’s crimes in 1968, leftish critics denounced him as a Cold War propagandist. When Conquest republished years later, no one could deny that he was telling the truth, however hard they tried. Conquest’s friend Kingsley Amis suggested he change his title from The Great Terror to I Told you so you F—king Fools.
The authors and signatories of the Euston Manifesto could say the same. We got much wrong, and were doubtless clumsy and rude on occasion, but we were telling the truth when we warned that dark movements were rising across the left, and not just on the far left where the darkness never lifts. For we did not confine ourselves to attacking the fringe. We said that the ideas we condemned could be found in the minds of people who regarded themselves as reasonable men and women of moderate temperament. We understood that ideas that begin on the extreme could take over the mainstream. We knew, too, that on other occasions, extremists merely magnified vices that already flourished in respectable society – as fairground mirrors distort the figures in front of them. We only had to look around us to see that those who thought themselves practical liberals and leftists had allowed their defences to moulder away.
To put it as gently as I can, our arguments were not embraced with as euphoric an enthusiasm as we had hoped. The suggestion that the liberal mainstream had problems of its own infuriated the BBC. Most Labour politicians backed away. They had their reasons. The enemies of the Euston Manifesto attacked it as a defence of the Iraq War. It was nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, Labour politicians had justifiably outraged anti-war protesters to deal with, and took the smear seriously. Then they had to think about the conservative Muslim voters they relied on. Then there was an uneasy feeling, more of a suspicion than a fully formed thought, that the Euston project broke left-wing taboos.
Leftists shouldn’t criticise other leftists, they said in effect, even if their targets were endorsing ultra-reactionary movements.
To take one example, I know from my own experience to be typical. David Clark, who had been Robin Cook’s adviser when Cook was foreign secretary, reviewed the manifesto. He agreed with its belief in the intrinsic merit of democracy. How could he not? He supported a humanitarian foreign policy, for he could hardly argue against it either. And yet, and yet, Clark worried about the bad taste of attacking leftists who were the friends of tyrants. Based on no evidence whatsoever, he decided that Geras and the other signatories of the manifesto were not passionate enough about inequality, even though they had written at length about the need to redistribute power and wealth. His throat cleared as he got to the meat of his complaint. Left-wingers, who criticise other left-wingers, must be closet conservatives. The Eustonites were like the early American neoconservatives who condemned the stance of others on the left, he said. They went on ‘a journey that led most of us eventually to abandon the left for good’.
I had Labour MPs and intellectuals deliver the same lecture. Stick to your own tribe, they said. Don’t wash dirty linen in public. Pretend that the left did not contain moral and intellectual gulfs that could not be crossed, and more to the point should not be crossed. For all their professed principles, our critics believed that the fight against misogyny, tyranny, homophobia, racism and theocracy was a fight no good leftist or earnest liberal could undertake without the risk of conservative contamination.
When the manifesto invited them to decline ‘to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so’ – they declined our invitation instead.
When the manifesto urged them to draw ‘a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political force’, they placed themselves on the wrong side of the line, or more disgracefully, pretended no line existed.
Well, look at them now. Look at those unemployable special advisers, those impotent Labour MPs, those ignored guardians of broadsheet and academic opinion, those consensual ladies, those timid gentlemen. When the extremists came for them, they did not have one decent argument to defend themselves with. It is a measure of their dereliction of duty in the decade that followed the manifesto’s publication that a candidate with a record of excusing the imperialism of Vladimir Putin’s gangster state as well as some hideous Islamist movements, could present himself as the moral voice of the left. And get away with it.
I cannot see Mr Clark being an adviser to a future Labour foreign secretary. Sometimes I doubt that there will ever be another Labour foreign secretary. The resistible rise of the far left has guaranteed that Labour will be out of power for as far ahead as anyone can see. Its centre did not hold because it preferred to hold its nose and turn away from Norman Geras, myself and many others, who tried to warn of a coming disaster. If millions did not need an alternative to conservative rule, it would be funny. Actually, it still is funny.
The manifesto, meanwhile, continues to be read. I take a particular pleasure in seeing liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims reaching for its arguments as they struggle to understand what has gone wrong with a left they naively assumed would encourage and defend them.
As for the left-liberal mainstream, now without a hope of power in Westminster, and led by men who daily shame themselves and all who associate with them, they have a choice they have postponed making for a decade. They could try to find moral arguments that would allow a social democratic movement to flourish in the 21st century. History may be written by the victors but it can be used by the defeated, if the defeated are prepared to see their own faults. If the centre-left understands why it found itself naked before its enemies, if it is prepared to engage in overdue self-criticism, then it may find that the Euston Manifesto is still of some use to it.
But if, those who ignored or condemned the Euston Manifesto refuse to learn from their mistakes…Who cares? Others will take up its causes. Indeed, they already have.
When I was writing What’s Left I learned to appreciate the truth of William Morris’s dialectical thought from The Dream of John Ball.
I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name
Whatever what’s left of the left decides to do, the fight continues with or without them.
This piece is from a forthcoming anthology of the best writing of the late and much missed Norman Geras.
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