Danny Postel: You were involved with New Left Review for 15 years but moved away from their worldview. What is your opinion now of where your former comrades are “at”? I’m thinking particularly of your old friend Tariq Ali, whose international popularity has soared since 9/11.
Fred Halliday: I do not now share the major political orientations of the New Left Review. I resigned in 1983, after one of the journal’s periodic internal disputes. I find the direction they’ve gone most recently, in the last five to ten years, very disturbing, particularly around the issue of rights. But Tariq and I have known each other for more than 40 years. We were students together in the ’60s. We were active in the opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. And we’ve continued to cross paths in the British Left context.
About 20 years ago I said to Tariq that God, Allah, called the two of us to His presence and said to us, “One of you is to go the left, and one of you is to go to the right.” The problem is, He didn’t tell us which was which, and maybe He didn’t know Himself. And Tariq laughed. He understood exactly what I was saying, and he didn’t dispute it.
Danny Postel: What exactly were you saying?
Fred Halliday: My view is that the kind of position which the New Left Review and Tariq have adopted in terms of the conflict in the Middle East is an extremely reactionary, right-wing one. It starts with Afghanistan. To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world, since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century. It was the kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out. Just as Italian and German fascism trained in Spain for the broader conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean,the militant jihadi Islamists, of whom bin Laden was a part, received their training, their primal experiences, in Afghanistan. They have been carrying out this broad jihad across the Middle East and elsewhere ever since, including, of course, the attacks of September 11th. You cannot understand this unless you go back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But who was responsible? Pakistani intelligence, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Read Bob Woodward’s book on Casey, The Veil, or Steven Cole’s book on Afghanistan, Ghost Wars. The U.S. was deeply implicated. My view is that anybody who could not see that issue then, or in retrospect, is objectively on the Right. And I think Tariq is objectively on the Right. He’s colluded with the most reactionary forces in the region, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. He has given his rhetorical support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq—who have no interest in democracy or in progress for the people of Iraq whatsoever, whether it’s the Baathists, with their record of 30 years of dictatorship, or the foreign Sunnis with their own authoritarian project. The position of the New Left Review is that the future of humanity lies in the back streets of Fallujah.
Danny Postel: You mentioned the issue of rights. Where do you and the New Left Review diverge with respect to rights?
Fred Halliday: The issue of rights is absolutely central. We have to hold the line at the defense, however one conceptualizes things, however de-hegemonized, of universal principles of rights. This is how I locate my own political and historical vision—it is my starting point. What this means very practically, to cut a long story short, is the issue of intervention. It seems to me that certain interventions in defense of rights are justified—Bosnia and Kosovo, to take two obvious examples, or the defense of the Kurds in Iraq in 1990-1991. The New Left Review and others on that wing of the Left attack not just these particular interventions, but the very concept of rights—and are consistent in doing so. My fundamental disagreement with the Review, and with Tariq, is really about this.
But something very important happened between Tariq and me, which I think presages broader debates in the late ’70s, which was the Communist taking of power in Afghanistan, the subsequent Soviet invasion, and the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. for the Afghan Mujahideen. Having been in Iran, having seen the consolidation of Khomeini’s authoritarian regime, having stood on the streets of Tehran and seen 100,000 people shout “Death to liberalism!”, having been in the office of Iran’s main liberal paper when the Islamists came to close it down —a crucial moment in the consolidation of the Iranian regime—I was absolutely opposed to any support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, which I regarded as a reactionary Islamist project. I had plenty of criticisms of the Afghan Communist regime, but I thought they should remain and reform, and there should be a negotiated withdrawal of the Soviet forces. Tariq’s position, on the other hand, was: troops out of Afghanistan, period. In a British context, the analogy is troops out of Ireland, which I also disagree with. If I had to sum up what is for me the bedrock, personal, political experience, it is the Irish question. I grew up in Ireland. I think troops out of Ireland was a completely irresponsible slogan, just as I think troops out of Afghanistan was an irresponsible slogan.
You then had a succession of events in the 1990s which drove a wedge between myself and many people on the Left, both in the U.S. and in Europe and Britain, with whom I’d worked for years. I supported the move to drive Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991. Then there was the Bosnia intervention in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999.
Danny Postel: Afghanistan in 2001.
Fred Halliday: Indeed. So a series of conflicts on which Tariq and I found ourselves on different sides. He took a conventional anti-interventionist position, and I took a more complex position, guided not by the interests of the West but by what I saw as the interests of the peoples in the countries concerned. The issue of whether the U.S. should or should not intervene in a country is a contingent one. Each case has to be debated on its own merits. The key issue is not: Is the U.S. intervening? Nor: What are the U.S.’s motives? The key issue is will that intervention plausibly help those people or not? That’s the question.
But this also relates to another issue, which goes back to the New Left Review at its best. There was a very famous debate in the early ’80s about the nature of imperialism, sparked by a Scottish Marxist called Bill Warren, who wrote a book called Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism. What Bill argued, against dependency theory, and against facile nativism and facile anti-imperialism, was that not only was it the original position of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto and in Capital, but that historically, capitalism and imperialism had played a progressive role in transforming the world, in creating new classes, in spreading new ideas, in colonizing the Americas. And that imperialism has played a contradictory role, that not everything it did has been bad. It fought fascism in the Second World War, for example.
So the mere fact that imperialism was involved in the Kosovo intervention is not a reason to condemn the intervention—you have to have other criteria. It’s not that one is in favor of imperialism, but we have to problematize the issue of imperialism. So my disagreements with the New Left Review or with much of the U.S. left didn’t arise suddenly. And I haven’t flaked off to the right. They go back to a history of disagreements, and also to certain important theoretical disagreements.
And they are, to some extent, anchored in the Irish case. Who is responsible for the killing of 5,000 people in Northern Ireland for the last 30 years? Sorry—it isn’t only British imperialism. It’s the intransigence of two loathing, militarized local communities, the Catholics and the Protestants. The British would love to have left. They’ve done some terrible things, but they’re not responsible for all the killing. The Catholics and the Protestants are responsible, not imperialism.
I feel much happier with a copy of the U.N.D.P. Human Development Report than with the New Left Review. Or with the very courageous three annual editions of the Arab Human Development Report, which itemize in a statistical, perhaps over-quantified way, things like women’s access to education, women’s access to politics, treatment of minorities, freedom of speech, fair elections, and the like.
Danny Postel: “Bourgeois” liberties.
Fred Halliday: No, I don’t accept that category.
Danny Postel: I mean that in scare quotes: the crude, ultra-left way of dismissing such rights.
Fred Halliday: Exactly. And Marx himself had too much disparaging language of this kind as well. He doesn’t score very well on the issue of rights. Of course Lenin and Stalin and Mao score much worse. But I will barricade myself in my bunker with copies of the U.N.D.P. Report and with Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s attempts to define new forms of universal human needs, with feminists who are concretely engaged in social policy, as opposed to academics who are working on reconfiguring epistemology. We’re wasting our time.
Let us be clear about it: the U.S. role in international medical and family-planning policy, its opposition to contraception and abortion, and its mishandling of the issue of AIDS—it’s criminally irresponsible and will lead to the deaths of many millions of people. George Bush should be indicted for mass murder because of his policies on AIDS. As should the Pope—both this one and the previous ones.
So I’m not enamored of the U.S. policies in principle. Since the ’60s I have worked on various aspects of the socialist and anti-imperialist project. I’ve lived and worked in a number of Third-World revolutionary countries. I did my thesis on the only Arab Communist state, South Yemen. I’ve lived in Cuba. I’ve been in Iraq. I’ve been in Afghanistan. I’ve been in Syria. I’ve been in Libya. I was in Nasser’s Egypt and Ben Bella’s Algeria. I’ve had quite a consistent interest in these states, and not just when things are going well, but also when things are going badly. I think there’s a lot to reflect on when it comes to solidarity with the Third World. I think solidarity is necessary. It’s an obligation. I don’t think it’s a deflection from domestic tasks. But I think that solidarity should be complex, not simple. One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own. At the extreme end you have the PKK, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge and so forth. They may often be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts where they use a progressivist language to conceal what is in fact chauvinism towards another community. It goes for both Israelis and Palestinians. It goes for the IRA in Northern Ireland. It goes for the Armenians and the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other cases. So solidarity should not be taken at face value. Solidarity should be critical of what people say and do, while also being guided by the longer-term evaluation of people’s interests and rights and material social progress. It also involves knowing about these countries. In so much “solidarity” work these days, people don't want to know what's actually going on in Third World countries.
Full article available in Salmagundi No. 150-151.
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