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Demolishing the ‘Left-wing’ Case for War

Andrew Murray

This article, which is a review of Oliver Kamm’s book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, was published in three parts in the Morning Star, 28, 29, 30 December 2005. For a short reply by Kamm, see here.

We have corrected a reference to "the robust anti-communism of Aneurin Bevan" to read "Ernest Bevin". Oliver Kamm states that an original of the article he was sent by Andrew Murray did refer to Bevin, so the fault must lie with the Morning Star’s subeditors.

A RECENT feature article in The Guardian referred to the "schism" on the liberal left over the invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is a curious phrase, indicating a more-or-less balanced division of opinion about the issue.

In fact, the left so often bitterly divided over many things has been united in its response to the Iraq war to a degree seen on few other comparable episodes in recent world politics.

On one side – defining the left most broadly here – stand the united trade union movement, the near-entirety of the liberal press, the Liberal Democrats, the leaders of religious opinion, the Green Party, all but the merest fragments of the far left, Tribune magazine, almost certainly most individual members of the Labour Party, libertarians, anarchists, the Communist Party, Kenneth Clarke, Nigel Kennedy, Brian Eno and the Rolling Stones.

On the other stands a small group of commentators and bloggers, some of whom have now all but repented in the tumult of images from tormented Iraq over the last two years, while others have noisily and repetitively announced their resignation from the left.

Christopher Hitchens feels that he can no longer call himself a socialist. Nick Cohen has been personally betrayed by the left. Poppets.

This is scarcely a splintering, never mind a schism. The political argument that the Iraq war was a vast error at best and a crime at worst no longer finds any serious opposition among the left.

The debate is over not just among progressive opinion but, to a very large extent, in society at large. No-one is still sifting the evidence and changing their opinions.

However, this propaganda victory should not breed complacency among the anti-imperialist and anti-war left. It is not necessarily the same thing as an ideological triumph.

In fact, the Iraq conflict has raised a host of political questions regarding international politics which need serious debate if the anti-war movement is to maintain its present hegemonic moment and the left is to further assert its capacity to shape politics as a whole.

For example, it is worth recalling that the NATO attack on Yugoslavia of recent memory actually did split the left, with it being by no means clear that the war’s opponents were in the majority, notwithstanding that this war was no more sanctioned by international law than the later invasion of Iraq and that the Yugoslav government could by no means be compared to Saddam’s regime.

What accounts for the difference? Some of it is, no doubt, purely passing and contingent factors.

Clinton was a popular US president on the European left, while George W Bush is not. Tony Blair had far more credit in the political bank in 1999 than by 2003, after years of over-spinning and under-delivery on every front had taken its toll.

It is also the case that the arguments pressed into service to win support for the war – weapons of mass destruction, Saddam’s links to al-Qaida etc – do not just seem false today, they already seemed improbable in 2002.

The sanctions against Iraq imposed during the 1990s, with infanticidal consequences, had eroded the moral credibility of US and British policy. The thirst for control of oil was obvious, as was the failure to address the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

For all these reasons and more, the case for war made by Bush and Blair never looked like reaching the bar, rightly set high, for convincing public opinion to go to war. The anti-war movement was able to mobilise the dissent on an epic scale.

That does not mean that the case for "humanitarian war" is necessarily defeated once and for all.

It would certainly be difficult for Bush or Blair to carry their countries with them into a further conflict unless the enemy were more-or-less literally at the gates.

But more credible leaders, driven by the same interests and imperatives and learning the lessons of the Iraq catastrophe, might not be so inhibited.

One can be certain that any prime minister wishing, in future, to follow a forward imperialist policy – it could be David Cameron, it could be Gordon Brown, they differ not on this matter – would strive mightily to ensure that he was not opposed by the quasi-totality of liberal and left opinion and that every ideological hesitation and confusion would be exploited to that end.

For that reason, it is important for the arguments of the pro-war left to be addressed and challenged, despite the strictly limited support that they find today.

In that context, the recently published Anti-Totalitarianism: The Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy by Oliver Kamm is worthy of note.

Kamm, a columnist for The Times, is not necessarily typical of the pro-war left. His claim to be on the left at all is rather thin.

He has not been a member of the Labour Party – or any other – for more than 15 years and he actually voted Conservative at the most recent general election, since the Labour candidate in his constituency was insufficiently Blairite.

His politics are those of an unmodified cold war warrior, hostile not merely to communism but even to those social democrats, like Willy Brandt, who sought detente with it. Given a choice between the politics of fierce anti-communist Arthur Deakin and those of Jack Jones, I suspect that the former would get his vote.

He has recently collaborated with others – more Tories than Labour – in setting up the Henry Jackson Society, named after the late US senator, to promote the case for "intervention" in support of democracy around the world by western powers.

Kamm’s writing is lucid and he draws on an extensive study of the history of the British left, handled in a trenchantly partisan manner but free of the student-politic ad hominem point-scoring which, happily, blights the output of Labour Friends of Iraq, for example, and the more excitable bloggers. His argument moves along briskly and provocatively.

Kamm addresses not only the arguments around the Iraq war – the most far-sighted and noble act of British foreign policy since the founding of NATO – but other episodes in the history of what he regards as the left’s vacillating opposition to totalitarianism.

A chapter on the 1930s excoriates pacifists and advocates of collective security for their failure to be robust enough towards Hitler earlier enough.

The chapter on the origins of the cold war is full of praise for the robust anti-communism of Ernest Bevin, while he shakes his head in despair at Labour’s briefly pro-disarmament policies in the 1980s, battles that he fought personally as an opponent of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock within the party.

Three political positions inform both Kamm’s treatment of history and his present prescriptions for the left – unconditional anti-Sovietism, an equally robust pro-Atlanticism and an unyielding refusal to allow the category of "imperialism" to enter into his treatment of international politics.

The first of these positions is central to any discussion of 20th-century history but obviously of limited application in addressing contemporary issues.

Nevertheless, it entwines with the latter themes to such an extent that it must be touched on in any consideration of the book’s arguments, which I will review in a second article.


Oliver Kamm cleaves to a simple view of 20th-century world politics in his new book Anti-Totalitarianism. He portrays a series of confrontations between liberal democracy, mainly represented by Britain and the US, and a succession of varieties of "totalitarianism" – nazism, communism and, today, political Islam.

The left’s part, in his view, should be measured by its wholehearted commitment to these struggles. Foreign policy should, to that extent, be bipartisan – a class collaboration in face of the world outside, although that is not how he would put it.

"Totalitarianism" is a post-war invention. In the 1930s, it was commonplace to speak of "the dictators," lumping together Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. That term would not do for Anglo-US propaganda after the war, since so many of the world’s dictators were now Washington’s allies.

Totalitarianism, which, by that time, meant communism alone, was invented as a basis for discrimination. US academic-turned-diplomat Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a pioneer neoconservative cited by Kamm, developed a theory to justify positive ties with right-wing and even fascist regimes while maintaining unyielding hostility to the socialist states.

On this theory, one could get cosy with Indonesia’s Suharto or Chile’s Pinochet, who were responsible for the slaughter of thousands – hundreds of thousands in the case of the former – while remaining intransigent towards, say, Kadar’s Hungary, which killed nobody, on the grounds that the latter regimes were incapable of peaceful reform. Even in Kirkpatrick’s own terms, this position has been amply confounded by events, an early example of neoconservatives misjudging the world.

However, what is worse about this reading of history is what is left out in its liberal-democracy-versus-a-procession-of-bad-guys schema – imperialism, unarguably one of the defining elements in 20th-century world politics and at the very centre of those of the 21st to date.

In fact, Kamm twice refers to imperialism. The qualifying adjective is "Soviet" on both occasions. In considering the politics of the 1930s, he describes the Soviet Union as "an imperialist power ... brutal in its foreign conduct."

Setting to one side the lack of evidence to sustain such a description of Soviet policy in the 1930s, it requires a mighty myopia to not so much as mention the fact that, at the period under review, the British empire held a quarter of the Earth’s surface and more than a fifth of its population in varying degrees of coercion and that this circumstance shaped the politics of the left both in Britain itself and elsewhere.

The important truth that Britain before the war, like the US after it, was and is a liberal democracy is inadequate as an analytical tool for considering its place in world politics.

Indeed, it would not be taken seriously anywhere outside the most closed circles of the Anglo-Saxon political-media-academic world.

Britain before and after World War II and the US after it were also aggressive powers holding down peoples and nations in almost every corner of the world for the profit of their ruling interests.

To this end, they have directly oppressed and killed very large numbers of people and they have also maintained a variety of dictatorial regimes, some of which are still with us, in the Middle East above all.

Kamm acknowledges this latter point mildly – US policy was "compromised by tactical alliances with authoritarian regimes" – but attributes it to the exigencies of the cold war.

His view is that, by adopting a foreign policy which includes overthrowing by force all manner of unpleasant governments, the neoconservatism of today can atone for the perhaps unavoidable sins of yesterday’s conservatism. A weakness in his presentation is that he does not give any consideration as to other arguments advanced on the left to explain Bush’s foreign policy. Because the US is a "liberal democracy," apparently the motivation for its international conduct does not require inspection.

So, his book does not address the obvious issue of control of oil resources of the Middle East, nor the uncritical support which most US politicians give to Israeli expansionism.

He plays down the work of the Project for a New American Century and the other evidence that the Bush administration was bent on an aggressive assertion of US hegemony in the world well before the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington.

Kamm gets in the muddle that is usual among supporters of Bush-Blair policy post-September 11 2001 when discussing the motivation for those attacks.

He writes: "The terrorists of 9/11 were not making a statement about poverty and oppression. Rather, they were acting out an ideological imperative of striking at the institutions of Western civilisation: constitutional government, international commerce and a civilian-controlled military."

This is not a robust argument. It is clear that al-Qaida is not motivated by opposition to poverty. Nor is it motivated by opposition to free trade or yet trying to overturn established forms of government in the West.

Al-Qaida was motivated, presumably, by what it says it was motivated by – Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, even the existence of Israel, the US military presence in Muslim lands, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the sanctions which killed 500,000 Iraqi children.

Just as Tony Blair did, increasingly absurdly, after the atrocities in London on July 7 this year, Kamm finds it more convenient to simply ignore the possibility of any secular basis for the actions of terrorists, since that would require ail examination of Anglo-US policy.

Easier by far to treat "terrorism" as the product of a fanaticism and medievalism which can only be extirpated by violence.

That policy has been tried the last four years, with the observable consequence of a global increase in terrorism. But then this is a political line of argument which, by damning a tactic – terrorism – as an absolute evil, cannot countenance the consideration of political alternatives until, as has happened with the terrorism of the IRA, events finally compel it and the anti-terrorist rhetoric must be quietly discarded.

To sum up on this point, the serious neoconservatives – those who are not merely using the rhetoric of democratisation-by-force as a blind – fall down in taking the motivations of Bush and Blair at exactly their own valuation, while characterising the political objectives of those opposing them with crude and sweeping judgements like "totalitarian" or "fanatical" or "appeasers" of the totalitarian fanatics.

With the rulers of the liberal democracies, their laudable values mean the nobility of their motives can be taken for granted, even when they have led to an astonishing number of deaths and vast suffering.

But, for their opponents, their demands and motivation can be traduced in favour of a strict focus on their tactics – "terrorism." This is no basis for understanding world politics.


"They have declared war on us," Oliver Kamm asserts in his book outlining "the left-wing case for a neoconservative foreign policy" in relation to the Islamic terrorists. So "we" must respond.

The argument as to whether September 11 2001 was an act of war or a crime has been well rehearsed. Had it occurred almost anywhere in the world other than the US it would have been considered a crime and addressed by all available national and international legal mechanisms. Only the US, more or less, is in a position to treat such an outrage as an act of war.

But even if one considers it a war, only the most Anglo-Saxon-centric commentator could consider it the start of the war.

For millions around the world, the "war" began with the Anglo-French seizure of Arab lands as the Ottoman empire rotted, with the Balfour declaration in 1917 giving the green light to zionist colonialism, with President Roosevelt’s deal with the Saudi monarchy to maintain its corrupt power in return for cheap oil, with the overthrow of the democratic nationalist Mossadeq in Iran by the CIA and MI6, with the stalwart support to Iraq’s dictatorial monarchy down to 1958, with the military underwriting of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, with the Israeli aggression against Lebanon and with the supply of munitions to Saddam, followed by the sanctions regime which killed so many Arab children – former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s notorious "price worth paying."

A reading of Kamm’s book would, therefore, have the "war" declared on the US as coming out of a cloudless sky.

To allow the real history briefly summarised above to be as much as entered in the record would be to countenance the contemporary sin of "root causism" or, as it might have been put in more enlightened times, to endeavour to understand why what is happening is happening, rather than being content with Bush’s bible-and-bomb response.

In fact, root causism has a very long pedigree. For example, the late Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, whose record of foreign interventionism would make even Dick Cheney blanch, insisted on not merely condemning the Phoenix Park murder of Britain’s overlord in Dublin but also on drawing out the "close connection between the crimes and the (British) government policy which has caused it."

Root causism is actually the only attitude compatible not just with rational debate but with any hope of securing a solution to the problem of terrorism.

There may be some terrorist groups – the Baader-Meinhof gang or the Red Brigades come to mind – where nothing other than a police response is necessary or desirable.

However, most terrorism is rooted in social reality and serious forces – classes or oppressed nations – sustain it.

Under those circumstances, even if you regard the demands which terrorists fight for as undesirable and the deliberate killing of civilians unacceptable, a political response alongside or instead of a military one is essential.

In fact, the great majority of conflict in the world today – and for years past – has emerged as a result of imperialism, either its direct actions or the consequences of the world and regional orders that it has imposed.

Since the category of imperialism goes apparently unrecognised by Kamm – and Nick Cohen, John Lloyd, David Aaronovitch and the rest of the left-wing neoconservatives – they spare themselves the labour of fashioning anything like a political response.

Instead, a mere call to arms to people the barricades of "liberal democracy" under unjust assault from the barbarians without is sufficient.

This is a comforting bromide for the complacent inhabitants of traditional Daily Express Britain, who have never been able to bear the idea that what happens to "us over here" is a consequence of what "we" have done "over there."

But it is of no use in shaping a left-wing foreign policy. I would argue that a consistent anti-imperialism, challenging the vast economic inequalities and abuses of political power underpinned by the military power of the US above all and beholden to the narrowest of class interests in the metropolitan countries, should be at the centre of the left’s view of the world – a world in which foreign and domestic policy can no longer be sensibly disentangled.

Others on the left may take a different approach and base their perspective on international law and the United Nations.

Many taking this view have been among the most stalwart and consistent campaigners against recent US and British policy. There is little doubt that Bush and Blair are international criminals by this measure.

Kamm is uncharacteristically diffident in his handling of international law, the upholding of which has been an idea nearly universally supported on the British left for most of the post-war period.

"I am not competent to discuss the legality of the Iraq war," Kamm avers, before going on to sympathise with the opposition of the US administration to a "rules-based system that stands outside and above politics."

Transferred to a national scale, such a view would mean the end of the rule of law. On the international plane, it merely removes one of the shackles that the many less powerful countries of the world may put on the behaviour of the more powerful since, in practice, only the latter are in a position to take advantage of a regime of international lawlessness.

Kamm squares this circle to his own satisfaction by asserting that "the international order, unlike a constitutional democracy, is anarchic."

Even if that were true, acquiescing in an anarchy has never been a "left-wing" approach to the world. And if it is true and might alone is right, then all one can safely predict is that terrorism will become more popular as the weapon of choice of the less than mighty.

Furthermore, once the precedent is established and international law relegated to the second division of considerations, how can we be sure that those who can invade other countries with impunity – mainly the US – will stick with such apparently agreeable targets as Saddam’s Iraq?

Ask any left-wing neocon of your acquaintance which undemocratic regime they want to send the 101st airborne into next – Burma? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? When they finally mumble "none of the above," recoiling from the possibility of endless war, do not condemn them for hypocrisy.

They are, in fact, revealing the real unity of their "foreign policy" – they have no positive programme of "intervention" of their own, but are simply reduced to putting the best possible face on a targeting strategy drawn up by the likes of Bush and Cheney for the latter’s own interests and economic and political agenda.

This is a left-wing foreign policy which, for its execution, has been subcontracted to some of the most right-wing politicians on the planet.

Not only has it led to a human catastrophe in Iraq – which even Kamm goes some way towards acknowledging – but the backwash from the enterprise is starting to threaten the very principles of "liberal democracy" in Britain and the US which it purportedly set out to defend.

Such is the real movement of politics in this time of aggressive war – imperialism breeds terrorism which, in turn, is used to justify authoritarianism, which finally helps make future aggression easier to initiate for the aggressors by restricting the right to organise and protest.

Those who preach war to spread freedom end by undermining it back at home.

The neoconservative war for democracy is turning into a war against democracy, with the annihilation of Fallujah finding its sickly echo in proposals for 90-day detention without charge, the state closure of places of religious worship and the banning of peaceful political organisations.

That is the most poisonous "blowback" of all. The anti-war movement’s present ideological ascendancy on the left depends on holding fast to the connection between hostility to imperialism and the defence of freedom.

The politics of Kamm, whose stimulating book attempts to unite the left’s commitment to democracy with the US right’s drive for global hegemony, would end by subordinating the moral energy of the left to the interests of those who threaten the liberty he cherishes just as much as they do the peace of the world.

Bourgeois democracy just can’t be left to the bourgeoisie to look after.

Andrew Murray is chairman of the Stop the War Coalition. Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, by Oliver Kamm, is published by the Social Affairs Unit, priced £13.99.