The Guardian Left

by A. Jay Adler on February 10, 2011
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Either it was right—or it was wrong to sacrifice Richard, Arlova and Little Loewy. But what had Richard’s stutter, the shape of Arlova’s breast or Bogrov’s whimpering to do with the objective rightness or wrongness of the measure itself?

Rubashov, Darkness at Noon

Overwhelmed in news coverage and commentary by events in North Africa, the publication of the so-called Palestine Papers had implications that will continue to unfold beyond the immediate glare of attention on them. One subsidiary event, noted by some, too little by others, was the publication in the Guardian of a letter by English philosopher Ted Honderich advocating, by justifying, Palestinian terrorism.

The revelations in detail (Report, 25 January) of the intransigent greed, the escape from decency, of Israeli governments in negotiation with our selected leaders of the Palestinians, serve one purpose among others. They provide a further part of what is now an overwhelming argument for a certain proposition. It is that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism within historic Palestine against neo-Zionism. The latter, neither Zionism nor of course Jewishness, is the taking from the Palestinians of at least their autonomy in the last one-fifth of their historic homeland. Terrorism, as in this case, can as exactly be self-defence, a freedom struggle, martyrdom, the conclusion of an argument based on true humanity, etc. (All emphasis added)

There are two issues here, one the nature of Honderich’s advocacy, the other the Guardian’s publication of such a letter.

Honderich’s support of Palestinian terrorism is not new. Among the oeuvre of works produced in the wake of 9/11 by Western philosophers and other intellectuals who rationalized and even relished the attacks of that day – which included quickly produced essays, later expanded into short books, by Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek – was Honderich’s 2003After the Terror. In that work, offering what is for him a meaningful distinction in his moral philosophy, Honderich did not justify, but rationalized the 9/11 events. (Even the dead, for Honderich, in the Ward Churchill manner, bore moral responsibility for the motivating causes.) Within this context, however, Honderich pronounced on Israel-Palestine.

I myself have no serious doubt, to take the outstanding case, that the Palestinians have exercised a moral right in their terrorism against the Israelis. They have had a moral right to terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and the apartheid state. Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves. This seems to me a terrible truth, a truth that overcomes what we must remember about all terrorism and also overcomes the thought of hideousness and monstrosity (p.151; emphasis added).

Something worth appreciating about Honderich is that his most notable specialization in philosophy is philosophy of mind, particularly the issue of free will and determinism, on which he is a hard determinist. It is only through a very refined terminological and attitudinal argument that he opens a space for moral responsibility at all. Yet he sails through that space an ethical Titanic. Here is how political philosopher Jon Pike opened his consideration of After the Terror in the second issue of Democratiya in autumn 2005.

This book is by Ted Honderich, the former Grote Professor of Logic at University College, London. It comes with a history – and, in this edition, it comes revised and with an ‘unrueful postscript.’ This is a shame, because Honderich should be just a little rueful about this book. He should be rueful because the book ought to have done very serious damage to his reputation as one of Britain’s leading philosophers.

Pike proceeds to dismantle the slipshod philosophical argumentation of the book. He exposes its moral decadence and its lazy, slapdash preparation and writing. He takes a restrained pass on the accusations against the work of anti-Semitism, while providing evidence for a more assertive judgment on the issue, reporting on accusations against it in Germany, where Jurgen Habermas apologized with embarrassment for having recommended it philosophically, if not politically. Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali did not similarly retract their endorsements.

Another important thing to know about the ethics of Honderich is that it is founded on his “Principle of Humanity.” This is not just a bitter irony to be expelled from the mouth, but is the very odor of his moral corruption. When I wrote about Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon on Monday, I suggested a new misdirection of the contemporary Far Left, the Left represented by such as Honderich, and Arundhati Roy – who in her opposition to the Iraq War actually championed the Iraqi Insurgency, as unpretentiously malign an insurgent movement as ever there was – and all those who find a like welcome at the Guardian, including its own editors, such as Seamus Milne. It is a turn beyond the temptation of conscienceless reason that the novel’s Ivanov defends as the guiding light of revolutionary action. It is beyond the moral sentimentality of human brotherhood that Ivanov says motivated pre-Marxist socialism. It is, in its concoction, a kind of Frankensteinian – that is, monstrous – suturing of the two together. It is what Ivanov himself rejects.

“I don’t approve of mixing ideologies,” Ivanov continued. “’There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community….Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can’t point out one. In times of need—and politics are chronically in a time of need—the rulers were always able to evoke exceptional circumstances’, which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defense, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism. …”

Ivanov is deeply astute, which is why he is able to seduce Rubashov into confessing to crimes he did not commit – in the service of the revolution that sacrifices him for its furtherance. The contemporary Far Left – Honderich in his case for Palestinian terrorism – which is no longer organized on any global intellectual basis as an avowedly and operationally Marxist movement, has joined the ruthless revolutionary zeal of the Bolshevik with the human rights righteousness that is the product (a “metaphysical brothel for emotions,” Ivanov calls it) of the liberalism the Bolshevik despises. Certainly, among the sources of the “human rights” ideal, especially as it includes economic rights, is the pre-Marxist socialism of Saint-Just and Fourier, the “moralizing dilettantes” as Ivanov calls them. Shall we say the quality of Ivanov – the small consolations of unpleasant comparisons – is in his intellectual honesty? What, in contrast, does the current scene produce?

We find it in some revelatory language that Pike does not overlook in After the Terror. There is in the passage above the reference to the Palestinians who have resorted to “necessary killing,” a phrase that surely echoes only in ignorance W. H. Auden in his 1937 poem “Spain.”

Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.

In “Inside the Whale, ”George Orwell famously lashed out at Auden for these lines.  Auden, who altered the lines in a later version, nonetheless once defended them very reasonably, in consideration of how any of us justify killing in war. It was a defense the evaluation of which may depend on one’s definition of “murder.” Still, Auden ultimately rejected the poem and ever agonized over its authenticity. Honderich, however, does not agonize, for “I myself have no serious doubt.” The killing is necessary. The ends justify the means, because as an ethicist, we need to know, Honderich is a consequentialist. Of Tony Blair (in, of course, the Guardian):

“He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,” he spits. “He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.”

These sentiments, only two months old, are all the more striking in light of Pike’s decomposition of the ill-founded dirt and water of Honderich’s own morality. In all this Honderich is mostly Ivanov, though with the contemporary admixture of morality-speak that would bring the latter’s hands to his ears. Honderich is Ivanov, too when he speaks above of

a truth that overcomes what we must remember about all terrorism and also overcomes the thought of hideousness and monstrosity.

It is not just the understandable compunction any soldier will need to overcome in the “necessary killing” of war – it is the hideousness and monstrosity of terrorism that needs to be banished from thought. Oh, Ivanov, indeed. “Apage Satanas!” that executioner cries ironically.

What, though – what – is the truth that overcomes the nature of terrorism, its hideousness and monstrosity? It is in the line above:

those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves.

They are not just right. They are not merely justified by the ends they seek. They are sanctified. Ivanov now falls to the floor like a man possessed by demons; his hands cannot press his ears tightly enough. “History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience,” he has said – but Ted Honderich wants the terrorist (and himself, by implication) to be sanctified. Ivanov merely bends coldly to the dictates of historical materialism, but the likes of Ted Honderich would be righteous too.

In After the Terror, Honderich states that we must operate from the Principle of Humanity, in which (and sounding very like any good Marxist’s historically determined prime directive)

the right thing to do is the one that, according to the best judgement and information, is the rational one with respect to the end or goal of saving people from bad lives. (p. 53)

Remarkable in this (and in the personal certainty Pike notes Honderich is at pains repeatedly to state, in lieu of argument) is Honderich’s clear belief that the “best judgement and information,” which in the complex dilemmas and conundra of life are often not very good at all – and consequently the rational choice – are so unarguably apparent and singular, even the mass suicide murder of civilians. Ivanov raises himself up off the floor at this, struck a little with awe: now there, he thinks, gazing admiringly at Honderich, is conscience without conscience, scruple without doubt.

It happens, though, that Honderich and Ivanov are both – based on the same historical point – utterly, factually wrong.

Twice in the same conversation with Rubashov Ivanov criticizes Mohandas Gandhi.

“The greatest criminals in history,” Ivanov went on, “are not of the type Nero and Fouché, but of the type Gandhi and Tolstoy. Gandhi’s inner voice has done more to prevent the liberation of India than the British guns.

As it was, however, Darkness at Noon was set in 1938 and was published in 1940. Neither the fictional Ivanov nor the actual Arthur Koestler could know at these times of Gandhi’s ultimate success in the very near future. The unavoidable truth for and about every rationalizer of terror – or, like Honderich, moralizer, too – is how often, actually, it does not work. For a consequentialist like Honderich, this should be damning. The Tamil Tigers were crushed by the counter-terror they finally provoked upon themselves. The Shining Path and FARC failed in Peru and Columbia. And could any, any course of political action pursued by the Palestinians over the past six decades, instead of their varied forms of terrorism, have turned out to be less successful in delivering to them the ends they hoped to achieve?

The companion truth is how significantly successful have been some of the great campaigns of non-violent resistance to perceived injustice. Of course, these campaigns will never work in the context of regimes that are themselves murderous, terrorizing masters of their own people or the genocidal oppressors of other peoples. But against working democracies, however capable even they are of arrogance and eruptions of dehumanizing brutality, the record shows, with Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the U.S., that such campaigns can achieve profound and liberating goals. All this, too, is simply to accept Honderich’s argument on its own terms, and not to make the naturally and historically manifest case for the justice of a Jewish state in Israel, or against the decades-long Arab rejection of it. It is also to offer further explanation of the psychological need of Israel’s enemies to demonize it and deny its liberal democratic character – in order to justify not the Palestinians, but their own belligerence.

This is the nature of Ted Honderich and his many variants who always find a home at the Guardian, which is now itself inescapably home to almost any form of “other”-burdened critique of Enlightenment Humanism, and any similar anti-Semitism, provided it carries a particular kind of Far Left ideological imprint. And in its response to the “Palestine Papers,” the Guardian gave full voice to its alternate personality as party paper and propaganda organ.

In contrast, when Democratiya, now merged with Dissent, was founded, it offered a guiding Left expression of what it opposed on the Left, as well as supported, much like that of the contemporaneous Euston Manifesto.

Democratiya believes that in a radically changed world parts of the left have backed themselves into an incoherent and negativist ‘anti-imperialist’ corner, losing touch with long-held democratic, egalitarian and humane values…. This world-view has ushered back in some of the worst habits of mind that dominated parts of the left in the Stalinist period: manicheanism, reductionism, apologia, denial, cynicism.

All these tendencies are unblushingly propagated under the banner of the Guardian. In the post Cold War era, then, when critics of varied stripes strain for an appropriate, recognizable and accurate term by which to designate the tendencies they criticize, I propose one. Let it be known as the Guardian Left. We will all know what we’re talking about.

AJA

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4 comments

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

eirwenes February 12, 2011 at 5:36 pm

In despair, I stopped paying attention to nearly everything after 9/11, when bin Laden and associates hijacked and destroyed not only lives, and not only airliners and buildings, but the aspirations of every gentle and loving Muslim in the world. My despair grew slowly but surely, particularly after the US invaded Iraq. It seemed sealed when GWB was re-elected in 2004. I’m only just now surfacing. I wasn’t paying attention. I am incredulous that self-respecting thinkers are thinking such things as Honderich is, incredulous, and if not for some recently-restored strength, I would be absolutely despairing again. Thank you for picking him apart. I stubbornly cling to the sanctity of every individual, to the right of the oppressed to rise in self-defense, and to the principle that no one ever has right or justification to kill someone who is unarmed. The sound of their laughter, the color of their eyes and hair, the shape of their breast, it all has moral relevance.

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A. Jay Adler February 13, 2011 at 11:32 am

Thanks for such a deeply felt and perceptive comment.

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Adam Levick February 10, 2011 at 10:13 am

Powerful essay, Jay. I thoroughly enjoyed every word. Thanks.

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