Fred Halliday, come down from your mountain!

Peter Waterman
3 February 2005

Fred Halliday’s article “It’s time to bin the past”, published in the (London) Observer (30 January 2005), presents a “Three Dustbins Theory” that recommends discarding the triple legacy of the post-cold war world: the Soviet and communist eras, the west (and especially the United States), and the “contemporary global protest movement”.

I am happy to join any campaign against the first two of these behemoths, but Fred Halliday’s third target prompts me to ask him four questions.

First, what on earth causes him to attempt to bin something that the New York Times’s Patrick Tyler called, two days after the worldwide anti-war demonstrations of 15 February 2003, “the second superpower”?

Second, why does he not recognise that this movement articulates, joins and expresses itself in a novel, slippery network form that challenges and threatens unjust power?

openDemocracy tracks the World Social Forum and World Economic Forum in our openAlegre and openDavos blogs. See also the arguments and analyses of the social forum movement by Susan George, Paul Kingsnorth, Ezequiel Adamovsky, America Vera-Zavala, and Kamal Mitra Chenoy in our “Globalisation / DIY World” debate

Third, why does this expert in international affairs avoid using the word “capitalist” in talking of the hegemonic world order? Capitalists, after all, call it capitalism and are proud of it.

Fourth, why does Fred Halliday equally target the counter-hegemonic movement with such verbal violence, such sweeping disdain and such faulty comparison with the old cold-war left; could he name names and critique arguments rather than spitting sneers?

I knew Fred in his Old New Left days (indeed from Oxford in the mid-1960s) but have never seen him explain how he got from there to here, and how he transformed himself recently! Because in 1999 Fred presented what I seem to recall was the keynote speech to the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam (TNI), a body with which he was associated for twenty-five years – and full of the kind of people on whose heads he seems to be now shitting.

I want to respond to two quotes from Fred’s article in particular.

Recycled infantile communism: rubbish or rubbishing?

“The Third Dustbin is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes from the Cold War period and, indeed, from the ideology of the communist world.”

Fred’s third dustbin is full of rubbishing. The “global justice and solidarity movement” – my preferred name for an admittedly novel and still inchoate phenomenon – has grown out of a critique not only of “the cancer stage of capitalism” but also of the state-oriented left, whether communist, third-worldist or (for many of us) social-democratic. Given, further, the nature of this movement as a network, or of even its more structured events as agoras, we cannot exclude the Old Left (or even Old Freds from the Old New Left).

What we can do is oblige them to debate, discuss or dialogue in a space which is difficult for them to dominate – and where they are confronted with radically-democratic ways of thinking and doing. These are already impacting on, for example, the 200-year-old international trade-union movement, and being mimicked by capitalist-oriented state bodies (the Forum Barcelona 2004, for example; what do they understand that Fred doesn’t?)

Ritualistic, unsubstantive, vapid, blithe, indulgent, ineffective: an excess of pejoratives?

“Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantation of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th century (for example by Stalin or Mao); a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence (witness the cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man, and the invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran, to name but three at the London Social Summit in October). This was a capitulation, that would have shocked their socialist forebears, to nationalist and religious bigots (as in the reception by the supposedly left-wing Mayor of London of Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi, the descendant of a line of Muslim fascist thinkers). There is also a vapid and politically ineffective attitude to nature, forgetting, as the tsunami should have reminded all of us, that nature can also kill. And all of this is mixed up with a shallow, repetitive critique of globalisation, in the name of what we are never sure, and a naive, uninformed, analysis of the US.

Whoa, there, Fred! Is there not here a surfeit of pejoratives?

Fred blithely tars and feathers the entire movement, without the slightest acknowledgment of its intense internal disputes over such matters as the role of the Socialist Workers’ Party at the European Social Forum (to allow it its correct name) in London in October 2004.

The anathema is so wild and indiscriminate that I must confine myself. So let me take the sentence on internationalism. I recall in the later 1970s begging Fred to write a book on this subject. He will certainly correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to remember that he did eventually come up with a paper on “three concepts of internationalism” – all to do with inter-state policies or relations.

What is important is that the major tendency within the new global movement is that which surpasses internationalism (inter-nationalism) in the form of various kinds of “new global solidarity”. These may incorporate but also surpass the old internationalism (a relationship between nations, nationals, nationalisms, nationally-identified parties, unions, women’s movements). They surpass the “internationalism” of states, blocs and parties identified with such, by solidarities of exploited/alienated classes and collective subjects (migrants, poor farmers, sex workers, peace and ecology movements) with a non-state or cross-state identity or interest. This may have some connection with Marx – but what, in the name of the Old Mole, do they have to do with Fred’s fellow statists, Stalin or Mao?

Perhaps, in conclusion, I should make clear that I was once more than simply a member of the Old Left, having worked twice in the international communist movement: for the International Union of Students in the mid-1950s, and for the World Federation of Trade Unions in the later 1960s. Unlike Fred, I think, I have made an effort to come to terms with my Old Left past. Unlike Fred, I am critical of my former self. Unlike Fred, but like Oscar Wilde, I still think that a map of the world that does not show utopia is not worth looking at. Unlike Fred, but like Boaventura de Sousa Santos, I believe that we live on islands of liberal democracy surrounded by oceans of social fascism. And that we are therefore condemned to be utopian.

Also by Peter Waterman on openDemocracy:

  • “World Social Forum: the secret of fire” (June 2003)
  • “Archaic left challenges the World Social Forum” (November 2003)

Fred should come down from his mountain and jump into the dustbin of a World Social Forum. I have to admit that it is dirtier down here, at ground level, rather than up there in the thin air of academic arrogance. But, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger said after 1968, a distaste for handling shit is a luxury which a sewer worker can hardly afford. I suspect, however, that the last person Fred would want to be, or even talk to, would be a sewer worker. Pity. He might learn something.

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