article is adapted from a talk I gave to the Workers'
Liberty summer school in London on June 21 under the title
the Holocaust: Mutual Indifference and Moral Solidarity".
To be fair to those who invited me, I should point out
that although the views I expressed in this part of the
talk met with a perfectly civil reception, they plainly
weren't shared by most of the audience.
want to say something about support for democratic values
and basic human rights. We on the left just have it in
our bloodstream, do we not, that we are committed to democratic
values. And while, for reasons I can't go into here, there
are some on the left a bit more reserved about using the
language of basic human rights, nonetheless for many of
us it was this moral reality, and more especially its
negation, that played a part in drawing us in: to protest
and work against a world in which people could just be
used for the purposes of others, be exploited and superexploited,
worked maybe to an early death, in any case across a life
of hardship; or be brutalized for organizing to fight
to change their situation, be "disappeared,"
or tortured, or massacred, by regimes upholding an order
of inequality--sometimes desperate inequality--and privilege.
In our bloodstream.
there is also a certain historical past of the left referred
to loosely under the name "Stalinism", which
forms a massive blot on this commitment and these values,
on the great tradition we belong to. I am of the generation--roughly
1960s-vintage, post-Stalinist left--educated in the Trotskyist
critique of that whole experience, and in the new expansion
and flourishing of an open, multifaceted and pluralist
Marxism; educated in the movement against the war in Vietnam,
the protests against Augusto Pinochet's murderous coup
in Chile, and against the role of the U.S. in both episodes
and in more of the same kind. Of a generation that believed
that, even though the Western left still bore some signs
of continuity with the Stalinist past, this was a dying,
an increasingly marginal strand, and that we had put its
errors largely behind us. But I fear now it is not so.
The same kinds of error--excuses and evasions and out-and-out
apologia for political structures, practices or movements
no socialist should have a word to say for--are still
with us. They afflict many even without any trace of a
Stalinist past or a Stalinist political formation.
obviously don't have the time or space here to rehearse
all of the relevant arguments. I will confine myself to
sketching some important features of the broad picture
as I see it.
Sept. 11, 2001, there was, in the U.S., a massacre of
innocents. There's no other acceptable way of putting
this: some 3,000 people (and, as anyone can figure, it
could have been many more) struck down by an act of mass
murder without any possible justification, an act of gross
moral criminality. What was the left's response? In fact,
this goes well beyond the left if what is meant by that
is people and organizations of socialist persuasion. It
included a wide sector of liberal opinion as well. Still,
I shall just speak here, for short, of the left. The response
on the part of much of it was excuse and apologia.
best you might get some lip service paid to the events
of September 11 having been, well, you know, unfortunate--the
preliminary "yes" before the soon-to-follow
"but" (or, as Christopher Hitchens has called
it, "throat clearing"). And then you'd get all
the stuff about root causes, deep grievances, the role
of U.S. foreign policy in creating these; and a subtext,
or indeed text, whose meaning was America's comeuppance.
This was not a discourse worthy of a democratically committed
or principled left, and the would-be defense of it by
its proponents, that they were merely trying to explain
and not to excuse what happened, was itself a pathetic
excuse. If any of the root-cause and grievance themes
truly had been able to account for what happened on September
11, you'd have a hard time understanding why, say, the
Chileans after that earlier September 11 (I mean of 1973),
or other movements fighting against oppression and injustice,
have not resorted to the random mass murder of civilians.
this miserable response? In a nutshell, it was a displacement
of the left's most fundamental values by a misguided strategic
choice, namely, opposition to the U.S., come what may.
This dictated the apologetic mumbling about the mass murder
of U.S. citizens, and it dictated that the U.S. must be
opposed in what it was about to do in hitting back at
al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.
similar has now been repeated over the war in Iraq. I
could just about have "got inside" the view--though
it wasn't my view--that the war to remove Saddam Hussein's
regime should not be supported. Neither Washington nor
Baghdad--maybe. But opposition to the war--the marching,
the petition-signing, the oh-so-knowing derision of George
W. Bush, and so forth--meant one thing very clearly. Had
this campaign succeeded in its goal and actually prevented
the war it was opposed to, the life of the Baathist regime
would have been prolonged, with all that that entailed:
years more (how many years more?) of the rape rooms, the
torture chambers, the children's jails and the mass graves
was the result that hundreds of thousands of people marched
to secure. Well, speaking for myself, comrades, there
I draw the line. Not one step.
me now focus on the question of humanitarian intervention.
There is a long tradition in the literature of international
law that although national sovereignty is an important
consideration in world affairs, it is not sacrosanct.
If a government treats its own people with terrible brutality,
massacring them and such like, there is a right of humanitarian
intervention by outside powers. The introduction of the
offense of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trial
after World War II implied a similar constraint on the
sovereign authority of states. There are limits upon them.
They cannot just brutalize their own nationals with impunity,
violate their fundamental human rights.
there then, today, a right of humanitarian intervention
under international law? The question is disputed. Some
authorities argue that the U.N. Charter rules it out absolutely.
War is permissible only in self-defense. However, others
see a contradiction between this reading of the charter
and the charter's underwriting of binding human-rights
norms. Partly because the matter is disputed, I will not
here base myself on a legal right of humanitarian intervention.
I will simply say that irrespective of the state of international
law, in extreme enough circumstances there is a moral
right of humanitarian intervention. This is why what the
Vietnamese did in Cambodia to remove Pol Pot should have
been supported at the time, the state of international
law notwithstanding, and ditto for the removal of Idi
Amin by the Tanzanians. Likewise, with regard to Saddam
Hussein's regime in Iraq: It was a case crying out for
support for an intervention to bring the regime finally
to an end.
think for a moment about the argument that this recent
war was illegal. That something is illegal does not itself
carry moral weight unless legality as such carries moral
weight, and legality carries moral weight only conditionally.
It depends on the particular law in question, on the system
of law of which it is a part, and on the kind of social
and ethical order it upholds. An international law--and
an international system--according to which a government
is free to go on raping, murdering and torturing its own
nationals to the tune of tens upon tens, upon more tens,
of thousands of deaths without anything being done to
stop it, so much the worse for this as law. It is law
that needs to be criticized, opposed and changed. It needs
to be moved forward--which happens in this domain by precedent
and custom as well as by transnational treaty and convention.
am fully aware in saying this that the present U.S. administration
has made itself an obstacle in various ways to the development
of a more robust and comprehensive framework of international
law. But the thing cuts both ways. The war to depose Saddam
Hussein and his criminal regime was not of a piece with
that. It didn't have to be opposed by all the forces that
did in fact oppose it. It could, on the contrary, have
been supported--by France and Germany and Russia and the
U.N., and by a mass democratic movement of global civil
society. Just think about that. Just think about the kind
of precedent it would have set for other genocidal, or
even just lavishly murderous, dictatorships--instead of
all those processions of shame across the world's cities,
and whose success would have meant the continued abandonment
of the Iraqi people.
is, in any event, such realities--the brutalizing and
murder by the Baathist regime of tens upon tens of thousands
of its own nationals--that the recent war has brought
to an end. It should have been supported for this reason,
irrespective of the reasons (concerning weapons of mass
destruction) that George Bush and Tony Blair put up front
themselves; though it is disingenuous of the war's critics
to speak now as if the humanitarian case for war formed
no part of the public rationale of the Coalition, since
it was clearly articulated by both the president and the
prime minister more than once.
is one approximate measure of the barbarities of the Baathist
regime I have just referred to. It comes not from the
Pentagon, or anyone in the Bush administration, or from
Tony Blair or those around him. It comes from Human Rights
Watch. According to Human Rights Watch, during 23 years
of Saddam's rule some 290,000 Iraqis disappeared into
the regime's deadly maw, the majority of these reckoned
to be now dead. Rounding this number down by as much as
60,000 to compensate for the "reckoned to be,"
that is 230,000. It is 10,000 a year. It is 200 people
every week. And I'll refrain from embellishing with details,
which you should all know, as to exactly how a lot of
these people died.
the opposition to the war succeeded, this is what it would
have postponed--and postponed indefinitely--bringing to
an end. This is how almost the whole international left
expressed its moral solidarity with the Iraqi people.
Worse still, some sections of the left seemed none too
bothered about making common cause with, marching alongside,
fundamentalist religious bigots and known racists; and
there were also those who dismissed Iraqi voices in support
of the war as coming from American stooges--a disgraceful
now model this abstractly. You have a course of action
with mixed consequences, both good consequences and bad
consequences. To decide sensibly you obviously have to
weigh the good against the bad. Imagine someone advising,
with respect to some decision you have to make, "Let's
only think about the good consequences," or, "Let's
merely concentrate on the bad consequences." What?!
It's a no-brainer, as the expression now is. But from
beginning to end something pretty much like this has been
the approach of the war's opponents. I offer a few examples.
crassest are the statements by supposedly mature people--one
of these Clare Short, Britain's former international development
secretary, another the novelist Julian Barnes--that this
war was not worth the loss of a single life. Not one?
So much for the victims of the rape rooms and the industrial
shredders, for the children tortured and murdered in front
of their parents, and for those parents. So much for those
Human Rights Watch estimates and for the future flow of
the regime's victims had it been left in place.
generally, since the fall of Baghdad critics of the war
have been pointing (many of them with relish) at everything
that has gone, or remains, wrong in Iraq: the looting,
the lack of civil order, the continuing violence and shootings,
the patchy electricity supply, the failure to find weapons
of mass destruction. Is this fair enough? Yes and no.
Yes, because it has to be part of any balanced assessment.
But also no if it isn't set against the fact, the massive
fact, of the end of a regime of torture, oppression and
murder, of everything that has stopped happening since
the regime fell. And typically it isn't set against this
massive fact. This fact is passed over or tucked away,
because to acknowledge it fully and make a balanced assessment
won't come out right for the war's critics. It just won't
stack up--this, this and, yes, also this, but against
the end of all that--in the way they'd like it to.
else your antiwar interlocutor will freely concede that
of course we all agree it is a good that that monster
and his henchmen no longer govern Iraq; but it is too
stupid a point to dwell upon, for it doesn't touch on
the issue dividing us, support or not for the war (on
grounds of weapons of mass destruction, international
law, U.S. foreign policy, the kitchen sink). Er, yes it
does. No one is entitled simply to help himself to the
"of course, we all agree" neutralization of
what was and remains an absolutely crucial consideration
in favor of the war. One has properly to integrate it
into an overall, and conscientiously weighted, balance
sheet of both good and bad consequences.
same ploy from a different angle: Since the fall of Baghdad
there have been voices--both Iraqi voices and those of
Western critics of the war--calling for the immediate
departure from Iraq of American and British forces. One
can certainly discuss this as a proposition. Would it
be better for Iraq and its people or worse, such an immediate
or early withdrawal? Personally, I doubt that it would
be better. Indeed, it would likely spell disaster of one
kind or another. From more than one survey of Iraqi opinion
I've seen, it is the view also of many Iraqis that there
should be no withdrawal for the time being, until the
consolidation of an Iraqi administration. But note, anyway,
that the call for a prompt withdrawal is not a call to
restore the Baathist regime to power. No, it just starts
from where things are now, with the regime gone. That
is to say, it starts from a better starting point than
would otherwise have been in place. And this is a good
(but not properly acknowledged) achieved by American and
war opponents can't eliminate the inconvenient side of
the balance, they denature it. The liberation of Iraq
from Saddam's tyranny can't have been a good, because
of those who effected it and of their obviously bad foreign-policy
record: Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua and the rest. It can't
therefore have been a liberation. Even allowing the premise
to go unchallenged--which in point of fact I don't, since
recent U.S. and British foreign policy also has achievements
to its credit: evicting the Iraqis from Kuwait, intervening
in Kosovo, intervening in Sierra Leone, getting rid of
the Taliban regime in Afghanistan--it is a plain fallacy.
A person with a bad record is capable of doing good. There
were some anti-Semitic rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust.
This argumentative move just fixes the nature of the act
via a presumption about those who are responsible for
it, sparing one the necessity of examining the act for
what it actually brings about and of assessing this in
its own right. It's a bit like saying that because the
guy who returned me the expensive book he'd borrowed has
previously stolen things from others--you can fill in
the rest yourself, and yes, it's silly.
and worst here. If the balance doesn't come out how you
want it to, you hope for things to change so that the
balance will adjust in your favor. In the case under consideration,
this is a perilous moral and political impulse. When the
war began, a division of opinion was soon evident among
its opponents, between those who wanted a speedy outcome--in
other words, a victory for the coalition forces, for that
is all a speedy outcome could realistically have meant--and
those who did not. These latter preferred that the coalition
forces should suffer reverses, get bogged down, and you
know the story: stalemate, quagmire, Stalingrad scenario
in Baghdad and so forth, leading to a U.S. and British
withdrawal. But what these critics of the war thereby
wished for was a spectacular triumph for the regime in
Baghdad, since that is what a withdrawal would have been.
So much for solidarity with the victims of oppression,
for commitment to democratic values and basic human rights.
today, with all those who seem so to relish every new
difficulty, every setback for U.S. forces: What they align
themselves with is a future of prolonged hardship and
suffering for the Iraqi people, whether via an actual
rather than imagined quagmire, a ruinous civil war, or
the return (out of either) of some new and ghastly political
tyranny; rather than a rapid stabilization and democratization
of the country, promising its inhabitants an early prospect
of national normalization. That is caring more to have
been right than for a decent outcome for the people of
this long-unfortunate country.
impulses have displayed themselves very widely across
left and liberal opinion in recent months. Why? For some,
because what the U.S. government and its allies do, whatever
they do, has to be opposed--and opposed however thuggish
and benighted the forces which this threatens to put your
antiwar critic into close company with. For some, because
of an uncontrollable animus towards George W. Bush and
his administration. For some, because of a one-eyed perspective
on international legality and its relation to issues of
international justice and morality.
the case or the combination, it has produced a calamitous
compromise of the core values of socialism, or liberalism
or both, on the part of thousands of people who claim
attachment to them. You have to go back to the apologias
for, and fellow-traveling with, the crimes of Stalinism
to find as shameful a moral failure of liberal and left
opinion as in the wrongheaded--and too often, in the circumstances,
sickeningly smug--opposition to the freeing of the Iraqi
people from one of the foulest regimes on the planet.
is a professor of government at the University of Manchester.
His books include "The Contract of Mutual Indifference:
Political Philosophy after the Holocaust" (1998)
and "Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind:
The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty"
(1995), both published by Verso. He writes at normangeras.blogspot.com.