Socialist Worker

Humbling the hawks

The liberals that supported Bush's wars have been forced to recant, but their ideology is not about to disappear, writes Richard Seymour

Issue No. 2145

The pro-imperialist liberals, once vociferous and united in defence of US wars, are in a mess. The invasion of Iraq, on which so many of them waged their moral and intellectual credibility, has led to horrifying bloodletting.

Numerous defections to the anti-war camp have left interventionists out in the cold. In their isolation they have degenerated into spiteful Islamophobic rhetoric. In truth, this pathetic faction has never looked less politically viable.

Many of these people backed George Bush in 2004 rather than tolerate John Kerry's mild criticisms of the Iraq war. But by 2008 almost all of them were supporting Barack Obama, a candidate who had opposed the 'liberation' of Iraq.

Christopher Hitchens, who never looked better than when being waterboarded on assignment for the magazine Vanity Fair, spent more than five years hounding opponents of the Iraq war as fascist sympathisers and 'capitulationists'. It must have felt like a betrayal for this newly minted American patriot to actually have to vote for one.

Or think of Michael Ignatieff who, in his bid to become leader of the Canadian Liberals, was forced to recant his support for the Iraq war and his justifications for torture. This is a man who once celebrated the rise of a 'humanitarian empire' and warned against the 'dampening' of 'imperial ardour'. His own ardour is now tragically spent.

As for the British liberals who organised themselves under the now defunct Euston Manifesto, the alliance seems ever more tenuous. Its co-founder, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, has veered toward the lunatic right.

He can now be found reproducing racist claims about African immigrants spreading HIV, and indulging in bar room rants against multiculturalism. Like his guru Hitchens, he increasingly resembles the blimpish socialist turned Thatcherite Paul Johnson.

As sensible as it is to mock such people, however, it would be prudent not to write off the ideas that they have articulated. Liberal arguments for empire are not about to disappear, because they are as old as liberalism itself.

Liberalism emerged as part of the same historical moment as capitalism, colonialism, Atlantic slavery, and 'race' theory. As such, liberals developed a distinctive set of justifications for empire.

Their basic moral sanction for empire was that the conquered people were in a backward state of development and that the colonies would bring civilisation.

Thus, while the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill favoured extending the franchise to the British working class, he maintained that 'despotism' was appropriate for 'barbarians', 'provided the end be their improvement'.

Such ideas were even articulated by some in the socialist and labour movements when they began to develop in the 19th century.

British Fabians, who decisively shaped the Labour Party's colonial policy, strongly supported empire. They argued against self-government for 'natives' on the grounds that parliamentary institutions were 'as useless to them as a dynamo to a Caribbean'. Even Labour's radical 1919 election manifesto contained a clause exalting Britain's duty to 'the non-adult races'.

In fact pro-colonial opinion was common throughout the Second International alliance of socialist organisations at that time. Eduard Bernstein, the German social democrat, asserted that the colonised were 'without exception better off' under colonial rule.

Arguments such as these fell into disrepute for a number of reasons. First, the carnage of the First World War resulted in a massive realignment of the left. The anti-imperialist position of the Russian revolutionary Lenin and the Zimmerwald Left became the socialist mainstream, while the 1917 Russian Revolution boosted the anti-colonial movements.

Second, the US emerged as the dominant world power just as decolonisation was underway. US statesmen wanted to forestall what they called 'premature independence', but could not openly say so.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 saw the revival of earlier liberal arguments under the rubric of 'humanitarian intervention'. The 'war on terror' has given many commentators the chance to openly call for empire.

There is a simple political reason why liberal arguments for imperialism will tend to come to the fore – most people reject the militaristic nationalism of the hard right. It is much easier to win people to war if you can persuade them that humane and democratic values are stake.

This means that however ridiculous and exhausted the current generation of pro-war liberal sycophants appears to be, others will arise to take their place.

And this is why the liberal hawks have found that they need Obama. The paradox is that although he was elected on an anti-war vote, he nevertheless represents the best chance for reconciling liberal opinion with imperialism.

Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence Of Murder, published by Verso and available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £16.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » to order. Richard also runs Lenin's Tomb – go to »

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Tue 31 Mar 2009, 20:31 BST
Issue No. 2145
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