Hobgoblin Journal

Euston, We Have a Problem

By Richard Abernethy

Aug 6 2006

The Euston Manifesto, issued in March 2006, is an initiative for “a fresh political alignment” based upon “unambiguous democratic commitment”. It envisages “making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not” in support of a set of principles that includes democracy, human rights for all, equality and development for freedom. It declares itself against
“apology for tyranny” and all forms of terrorism.

A reaffirmation of democracy and human rights as core principles of progressive politics is welcome and necessary, at a time when they are being eroded from several directions. There is however a basic problem with the Euston Manifesto: its neutral attitude towards capitalism. The document says “We leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality…” As capitalism is the prevailing world system, to abstain from taking a position for or against it means accepting it by default. At best, the question of how to replace it is postponed indefinitely.

If, like us, you believe that capitalism necessarily means exploitation and alienation, then the need to abolish and replace it should be a vital element of your political project. If you don’t believe that, we can debate the issue, and perhaps work together for specific shared goals, but we cannot consider ourselves part of the same movement.

Like the authors and signatories of the Euston Manifesto, Marxist-Humanists aim for “a reconfiguration of progressive opinion”, but far from agreeing that “the best economic forms” can be left open, we argue that real progress will depend on working out the forms of a new society to replace capitalism,
one that must be genuinely liberating as well as viable and sustainable.

Across the political spectrum, most tendencies, at least in Britain and the West, claim to uphold democracy and human rights. In practice, there is a great deal of willingness to limit these principles and make exceptions. The Blair government is eroding civil liberties in the name of “the war on terror”, immigration control and law and order, while the right-wing press yaps at its heels for not going far enough.

The obverse side of the problem is a traditional left that is patchy and inconsistent in its attitude to freedom, and is inclined to view repressive regimes, reactionary fundamentalist movements and terrorist groups with some favour, provided only that they stand opposed to Western capitalist power. While human rights are under attack from the right, in the name of national sovereignty and security, they are also rejected by some on the left who view them as an ideology of imperialism. Understandably, therefore, the Euston Manifesto has struck a chord with people who care about democracy, freedom and human rights, and are dissatisfied with both the political
establishment and the old left.

Both in its positive, democratic content and in its failure (or refusal) to envisage a transcendence of capitalism, the Euston Manifesto reflects the major freedom movements of our times. The past quarter century or so has been an age of democratic revolutions, mass popular movements aimed at getting rid of dictatorships and installing democratic governments. The
people power revolution in the Philippines that ousted the dictator Marcos set the pattern. The transformation of Eastern Europe and the end of Apartheid were high points of the global democratic wave. Nepal is the most recent of these democratic revolutions, and we may expect more. In countries like China, Burma and Zimbabwe, democratic movements have also arisen but so far have been beaten down by repressive states. Even so, the democratic idea is part of the spirit of the age, spanning different continents and cultures. Some commentators have attributed this worldwide drive for democracy to the rise of an educated middle class, but there is also an important working class dimension, with the formation of independent unions. Despite this, socialism has figured within these movements generally as a minority current. One might add in passing, that the masses have shown even less interest in anarchism.

The anti-capitalist movement has staged some spectacular demonstrations in recent years, mainly because its activists are willing and able to travel long distances to concentrate their forces for a particular event. It does not compare with the mass democratic movements in terms of numbers of people involved or historic effect. Quite recently, in Latin America, the mass movements have begun to fuse the drive for greater democracy with opposition to capitalism, specifically in its neo-liberal form. How this trend will develop, and whether it can jump continents, remains to be seen. The struggle for democracy often calls for great struggle and sacrifice. Again and again, we see people risking their lives for freedom. However, it presents relatively little difficulty in terms of philosophy. People already know what to expect from democratic rights and institutions. In contrast, going beyond capitalism involves first imagining and then creating an essentially new set of economic and social relationships.

Given the difficulty of envisaging a future beyond capitalism, are the Eustonites right to concentrate on more attainable democratic and human rights goals? After all, the extension of political democracy to the whole world would be a great step forward for humanity. But what are people to do with democracy, once they have got it? Countries like South Africa and Brazil have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but dire poverty and gross inequality remain. In Britain and similar advanced capitalist countries with longstanding democratic polities, people are increasingly disengaged from formal political structures.

Although it calls for an alliance between socialists and other genuine democrats, the manifesto is devoid of any specifically socialist content. Instead, it advocates a “generally egalitarian politics”. It does come out strongly in support of trade unions. It also expresses support for a range of causes that are already widely supported by NGOs, churches, celebrities and the general public: fair trade, more aid, debt cancellation and the
campaign to Make Poverty History. It fails to consider how the dynamics of production for profit and capital accumulation militate against progress to a more equal distribution of wealth. It does not engage with the question of what a democratic socialism might be like.

I think the manifesto is correct to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As one who opposed the Iraq war while welcoming the downfall of Saddam Hussein and was repelled by the one-sided anti-Western politics of the Stop the War Coalition, I have some respect for the fact that the manifesto’s supporters took different positions on the war. I think that the priority now is to support the freedom movements
within Iraq, particularly workers, women, gays and lesbians and national minorities. However, I object to the cavalier way the manifesto dismisses critique of the war as “picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention”.

“Unambiguous democratic commitment” must surely include holding governments accountable for their actions, and the consequences of those actions, whether intended or not. The manipulation of intelligence to build a case for war on the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a serious abuse of democracy in Britain and the USA. I think the ongoing agony of Iraq confirms the view that support for the war was not the way to bring liberation to Iraq, and that support for the freedom movements within the country was a better way forward – although I accept that the prolongation of the dictatorship would also have been terrible. The arguments over the war cannot simply be laid to rest.

Aug 6 2006