Liberal apologists autopsied

Issue: 122

John Newsinger

Richard Seymour, The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso, 2008), £16.99

As I write this review, Gaza lies in ruins after the Israeli government’s most recent exercise in collective punishment. This latest atrocity has excited massive opposition in Britain (not least the widespread student occupations). But the concern of the “liberal establishment” remains, quite incredibly, how to protect Israel from further Hamas attacks and so prevent the need for any more embarrassing Israeli reprisals. We have even seen Gordon Brown offer British warships to help maintain the naval blockade of Gaza, but, we are assured, only in the interests of the Palestinians! Without any doubt, defending Zionism is going to become increasingly difficult.

At the same time, however, liberal apologists have been offered some relief. The election of Barack Obama as US president has undoubtedly bolstered the ideological standing of American imperialism. A veneer of liberalism will be painted over the US Empire as it attempts to recover from the disaster that was the Bush-Cheney presidency. Whatever Obama’s rhetoric (overrated in my opinion anyway), the American state will continue to defend the interests of US imperialism by whatever means necessary.

For the liberal apologists of empire, Obama must surely be a welcome relief, however. Swallowing Bush-Cheney must have been an unpleasant experience, with at least some of them having to fight down a continual urge to throw up. It is one thing to ignore or cover up the use of torture, but Bush-Cheney actually required that their liberal apologists actively condone it. Thankfully for the apologists, those days are over, though there are still likely to be some embarrassing revelations, not least regarding the complicity of the New Labour government in general and David Miliband in particular. What is astonishing, of course, is how much these people were able to swallow while still continuing to identify themselves as liberals, as radicals, as part of the left.

All is made clear in Richard Seymour’s excellent The Liberal Defence of Murder. Here he provides us with a relentless forensic account of the sophistries of the “pro-war left”, of that “loose coalition of liberals, former radicals and ex-socialists” who have rallied to American imperialism in its hour of need. Immensely enjoyable though this is, even more important is his excavation of “the origins of these liberal apologists of empire”, his careful tracking of “their development over the course of three centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic”. As Seymour points out, the same John Locke who “devised the principles that would underpin the British polity and property relations…also formulated the principles justifying the British Empire”. Locke, the intellectual fountainhead of British liberalism, not only defended colonial slavery, but also personally profited from it.

There have always been liberals, radicals and reformist socialists who have embraced empire as a progressive cause. They have condemned the abuses committed by other people’s empires but extolled the virtues of their own. For these people the imperial project brought progress, good government and economic development to the colonies. Seymour draws together a remarkable amount of material that leaves these apologists naked in the storm.

In India, for example, in the period from 1876 to 1900, “the pinnacle of colonial good governance”, famine deaths when averaged out probably totalled at least one million a year. This would constitute a crime of some enormity in the history of any other empire. It would absolutely discredit the regime that presided over such slaughter. But not in the history of Britain’s liberal Empire. Indeed, Seymour could have brought the discussion more up to date with a consideration of the 1942 Bengal Famine. This horror took place while there was a Conservative_Labour coalition government in power in London and the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, was deputy prime minister. It is a huge embarrassment for liberal apologists and accordingly either disappears from the history books altogether or, at best, gets cursory treatment.

Among many other good things, Seymour also provides a very useful account of the development of Karl Marx’s thinking on empire and imperialism, a discussion that he cuts too short for my money. He provides a history of liberal apologetics for US imperialism: the First World War saw an intrepid band of renegade American socialists embrace the slaughter on the Western Front and the repression of their former comrades.

Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party leader, was sentenced to ten years in prison for his opposition to the war—and he was not alone. Seymour identifies John Spargo, one of the leaders of the Socialist Party, as providing a sort of template for betrayal at this time. It is worth noticing that Debs had Spargo’s measure as early as 1912. Seymour is also outstanding in his discussion of Bernard Henri Levy’s apologies for the Contra counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua and his account of the pro_war left’s performance during the recent Balkan Wars is required reading. Altogether an outstanding book. My only criticism is that there are so many areas where you wish he had written more.