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Son of the Bani Tanwir: the work of Fred Halliday (1946-2010)

The death in April 2010 of Fred Halliday, engaged political intellectual and scholar of international relations, provoked many tributes from among the worldwide fellowship of colleagues he had done so much to create and nurture. Now, in what is both a preliminary assessment and an incisive overview in its own right, the historian Stephen Howe critically surveys the extraordinary range of Fred Halliday’s writing across four decades.

In his twentieth column for openDemocracy, Fred Halliday paid tribute to a writer who for decades he had deeply admired, Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004). This French Marxist historian and political analyst was, Halliday suggested, not only the greatest of all French writers on the middle east (“arguably the greatest tout court”), but an inspirational model of intellectual integrity.

Halliday writes here - a year after Rodinson’s death - of the latter’s “unceasing belief in universal values, in the need for intellectual aspiration beyond what one is actually capable of, and for an enduring, unyielding, scepticism towards the values and myths of one’s own community.” He praises Rodinson’s committed secularism, his lifelong refusal to indulge the iconic claims of “identity”, “community”, or “tradition”, as well as the remarkable breadth of his knowledge and sympathies, the unrelenting rigour of his scholarship - all of which qualities continue to be of utmost relevance.

Halliday likens Rodinson’s qualities to those of another independent-minded Marxist writer of Jewish origin who had been an even earlier influence on him, Isaac Deutscher, and concluded: “Amid a world scarred by state and terrorist violence and debased public debate (not least on the Palestine question) we need the wisdom and independence of Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher more than ever.” Their always “fresh, independent, and resilient analysis” set a standard against which to judge later commentary on the left about the middle east and so much else, so often “partisan, short-sighted and lacking in comparative historical or internationalist perspective” (see “Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’”, 8 September 2005).

In this fine and generous tribute to two mentors Fred Halliday could (had he been less modest) have been writing about himself. For the qualities he commends in Rodinson and Deutscher were those he himself possessed, perhaps in greater measure than any other international-affairs analyst of his generation.

Indeed, the much older Rodinson had himself recognised the extraordinary maturity of Halliday’s early work, notably in a long and appreciative review-essay on the latter’s first book (written while still in his 20s), Arabia without Sultans (1974). Rodinson warmly complimented its unmatched depth of empirical detail and analytical grasp, and the boldness of its attempt to place south Arabian developments firmly in a global context of capitalist and imperialist development. This work was, said Rodinson, of vastly higher quality than the great bulk of western writing on the Arab world, which tended to be impressionistic or journalistic, lacking in analytical rigour, and often based on inadequate or non-existent knowledge of relevant languages.

The veteran author of (inter alia) Islam and Capitalism (1966) and Marxism and the Muslim World (1972) also praised the same qualities in Halliday which the latter recognised in him: stubborn independence of mind, and a stance firmly on the left (indeed at this time the revolutionary left) which was nonetheless always appropriately sceptical of many radical shibboleths, received wisdoms and false expectations.

Above all, Rodinson strongly endorsed Halliday’s scepticism towards nationalism, and his refusal to go along with the frequent tendency on the left uncritically to support any nationalist movement which proclaimed itself socialist or anti-imperialist. Where he was critical of the book, he was respectfully so: suggesting that Fred used the term “imperialism” both rather loosely and in a way too heavily indebted still to orthodox Leninist understandings; and that his understanding of Arabia’s pre-20th-century history was sometimes weak (see “A Marxist View of Arabia”, New Left Review  95 [January-February 1976]). Both were points which Fred in his later work clearly took very much to heart.

The new left voice

The piece of Fred’s writing which first attracted wide notice was one about which he subsequently expressed some embarrassment. The essay “Students of the World Unite” - composed at the age of 21, when he was a new postgraduate student at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) -   was his contribution to a collection that was to acquire both notoriety and influence. This was Student Power (1969), edited by Alexander Cockburn and Robin Blackburn and featuring several members of the New Left Review editorial group, as well as prominent young radicals belonging to other currents of the “new left”.

There was, in fact, little to be ashamed of in Fred’s article, a survey of then-recent student protest worldwide which - prefiguring so much in his later work - was astonishing for its global breadth of knowledge, which would have been impressive in a writer of any age. Naturally, it breathed the heady radical optimism of its time, proclaiming for instance that “Student power on campus is an attainable goal” and that “Militant student movements can play a vanguard political role on their own in conditions of extreme repression”. It also, like so many leftwing productions of its time (and certainly not just Maoist ones) implied a rather uncritical attitude to China’s contemporaneous cultural revolution, whose chaos and brutality at the time and long after remained hidden from most outside observers. Yet even in this early and, as he would later think of it, “ultra-leftist” work, Fred’s judgments were often shrewd, nuanced and certainly far less utopian than those put forward by some others in his circle. And his final claim that “Students are the internationalist social group par excellence under present conditions” was surely neither foolish nor evidently mistaken, even if very few matched Fred himself in living up to it.

Fred’s next major published work followed rapidly, in 1970: his edited collection of Isaac Deutscher’s “minor” and journalistic writings: Russia, China, and the West 1953-1966 (1970). Fred’s introduction and editorial commentary breathed intense admiration for Deutscher’s analytical powers, critical sense and breadth of vision. Again, these were attributes he himself was coming to possess in great measure. But an index of his respect for the biographer  (and one-time follower) of Leon Trotsky, as well as of his confident judgment, was that his perspective was far from pious. His editorial work was also impressive in producing a kind of continuity and coherence from a mass of short, scattered articles which others might not have been able to discern or create.

The depth as well as breadth of the young Halliday’s command of Marxist theory - in addition to his startling and ever-growing language skills - was also indicated by another major editorial task he undertook in 1970. This was to translate from the German, edit and write a substantial introduction to Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (1923), alongside several shorter texts by this (then) somewhat neglected Weimar-era scholar-activist who had sought to recover Marxism’s dynamic, creative and anti-deterministic potential. Halliday’s introduction to the volume both offered a succinct sketch of Korsch’s life and guiding ideas and deftly placed these in their political and intellectual context, urging that Korsch was “one of the most interesting and original, if erratic, Marxist theorists in the West during the twenties and thirties”.

The general tone and political standpoint Halliday expresses in these early works are notably similar to those adopted at the same time by his New Left Review (NLR) colleague Perry Anderson. It may be presumed that Anderson, a little older than Halliday and sharing his Irish-British (not that much misused label “Anglo-Irish”) background, had during these years a captivating -  even perhaps, as critics would come to say, overbearing - influence on the young Fred; though equally that the intellectual influence would not have all been one way, since Halliday already possessed a breadth of international knowledge which not even Anderson (and ipso facto, anyone else among the brilliant circle of young Marxists at the NLR) could quite match. Later, the mutual admiration was to give way to some sharp political, intellectual and personal breaches - which included his departure from the NLR’s editorial board in 1983 in stormy circumstances. This larger story is, perhaps fortunately, beyond this article’s remit. But in any event the ruptures were never total: Halliday continued, for instance, to make major contributions to the NLR  long after his formal connection with the journal had ended.

The Arabian world

These early essays and editorial labours, and a flood of shorter articles in several of the (intermittently flourishing) radical magazines of the day, were combined with intense research-periods and extended visits to the areas Fred sought to understand. The substantial result was the aforementioned  Arabia without Sultans (1974), which remains a very remarkable work on several levels - ranging from succinct overviews of the histories of the Arabian peninsula and Iran, through analysis of revolutionary movements in various parts of the region, to eyewitness accounts of sojourns in 1970 and 1973 with the guerrillas of Dhofar, in Oman, then fighting against local princelings under the protection of (British) colonial overlords.

As he was to do throughout his career, Halliday refused to rest content with long-distance analysis from a desk in London, but sought to experience, to talk and listen, to imbibe the atmosphere on the ground, in the multiple zones of conflict and transformation about which he was to write. Yet he never made a fetish of such first-hand experience, never succumbed to the self-indulgent autobiographical mode or the substitution of atmospherics for analysis (“there I stood amidst the smoking ruins…”) which seem, since he first wrote, to have become ever more ubiquitous in western commentary on the postcolonial world.

Arabia included Halliday’s most detailed discussion of colonialism – specifically British colonial policies and actions in Aden (South Yemen) and Oman. It is striking, and is an indictment of the work concerned, how rarely Fred’s work is discussed or even cited in the flood of subsequent analyses of British imperialism in the middle east, let alone in that on 20th-century colonialism more generally. And it ranges more widely still, placing Yemeni and Omani developments in regional and international context, by way of, naturally, a Marxist analysis drawing on the “classical” Marxist theorists of imperialism – but also, as was to become more apparent later, of the then little known heterodox views of his former SOAS teacher Bill Warren.

Warren, whose major work Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism (1983) was to be published only after his early and unexpected death in 1980, was an influence on Halliday’s thinking perhaps only slightly less salient than Maxime Rodinson or Isaac Deutscher (see for example “Review of Bill Warren, Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism” [Middle East Report 117, September 1983], and many other allusions throughout Fred’s work). In the 1970s-1980s, most leftwing thought on imperialism and “underdevelopment” held that economic and social advance for poor, ex-colonial (“third-world”) countries was impossible under capitalism - a view most forcefully and systematically expressed by then-influential “dependency” theorists like Andre Gunder Frank and Samir Amin.

Bill Warren argued that this was empirically quite wrong, and owed far more to anti-colonial nationalism and “third-worldism” than to Marxism - indeed it was quite the reverse of Karl Marx’s own analysis and expectations about capitalist development. Halliday, who had been deeply impressed by Warren at SOAS, became increasingly convinced by his approach; though he would also note that dependency theory and ideas like those of Samir Amin (who was himself Egyptian-born) have retained considerable influence in leftwing middle-eastern circles right through to today.

Thus as Halliday noted in a remarkable exercise in retrospection and self-criticism which he wrote twenty-five years later (see “Arabia without Sultans Revisited”, Middle East Report 204, July-September 1997), Arabia shared not just the general perspective, but also the tone and language of the revolutionary left of the 1960s and 1970s: “in this sense it is a document of its time.” It shared some of what Fred called “the rhetorical delusion of that outlook”, especially in an uncritical attitude to “revolutionary” armed struggle. Yet it also, on several crucial issues, notably nationalism and “underdevelopment”, distanced itself from then prevailing views on the left. And, so Halliday still insisted in the late 1990s, elements of a Marxist approach, and the “anti-imperialist” critical perspectives of his youth, still remained valid.

Arabia without Sultans sought to analyse the Arabian peninsula in a broad global context, to relate what was happening there both to developments elsewhere in the postcolonial world and to global economic and strategic forces, not least of course the political economy of the oil industry. Whether, or in what ways, Fred’s thought remained “Marxist” in his later years is a difficult question to answer, and not perhaps an especially important one in itself. On the face of it, the answer would seem to be ‘not much at all’. Yet one could still surely suggest that many of the best and most enduring features of the Marxist intellectual tradition were an enduring, and positive, aspect of his thinking.

Not least, there was that insistence on the need for a global perspective and one firmly rooted in analysis of economic and social forces, rejecting the widespread presumption that the middle east (or the Arab world, or Islam) is unfathomably unique and opaque, what Halliday aptly called “the mystical exoticism that had long beset analysis of the Arabian Peninsula”, and a misplaced tendency to explain everything in terms of concepts like “culture” and “tradition”. Few modern writers have been so bracingly scornful of the use and abuse of those concepts – at best hopelessly vague, at worst utterly misleading or manipulative – than was Halliday, in all his later writing and not least his openDemocracy columns.

The panoptic eye

Fred’s fascination with, indeed love for, Yemen and its people was to persist: he devoted another major book to revolutionary Yemen’s foreign policy (Revolution and Foreign Policy: the Case of South Yemen [1990]), a third to the fascinating and previously entirely unexplored world of Yemenis in Britain, Arabs in Exile, The Yemeni Community in Britain [1992]), as well as numerous articles. He revisited the country several times, the last trip being in 2004.

But in the years after Arabia without Sultans his interests and writing ranged ever more widely. New Left Review was the most prominent outlet for his work, closely followed by a newer venture, Middle East Reports (Merip), where he became an editor and frequent contributor from 1977 onward. He also became a fellow of and wrote many reports for the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam, a pioneering research-network for radical scholar-activists; and he wrote for multiple other outlets, both academic and political.

Halliday’s capacity to engage closely, judge shrewdly, and read compendiously in fields far beyond his main specialisms was evident in a series of survey-articles across his career. No wonder Fred recognised and welcomed the breadth of Francis Fukuyama’s reading and his historical vision, while rejecting almost all of his specific theses, including his overblown and excessively influential “end-of-history” one (see “An Encounter with Fukuyama”,   New Left Review 193 [May-June 1992]). A few examples can merely suggest the riches of this particular intellectual seam.

In 1976, Fred contributed to NLR a lengthy overview of “Marxist Analysis and Post-Revolutionary China” (New Left Review 100 [November 1976-January 1977]); this, though focused on Livio Maitan’s Trotskyist interpretation in Party, Army and Masses in China (1976) went to include discussion of Trotsky’s own thought, that of Mao Zedong, Isaac Deutscher’s views of China, and much more. In characteristic fashion, he lamented the “idealist optimism” of much discussion of China (including Maitan’s) and its tendency to ignore or underrate issues of women’s rights and those of nationality.

He returned several times to the question of Afghanistan - at the edge yet also part of the larger region that he came to see as sharing a field of concerns, and to increasingly refer to as “greater west Asia”. Afghanistan provoked Fred to pose a series of detailed questions from 1978 onwards. (see “Revolution in Afghanistan”, New Left Review 112 [November-December 1978]) Were the events of the mid-late 1970s there truly a revolution (he thought they were) rather than just a series of coups or a Soviet takeover? How would economic underdevelopment and social backwardness constrain the options or shape the character of the Marxist regime? What would the roles of religion, of the country’s fragmented ethnicities, and of women’s rights be? What would be the effect and fate of foreign, imperialist interventions - including the imperialism of the USSR?

Since that period, all these queries have shifted form, but none (surely not even the first, despite Fred’s own subsequent ever-increasing scepticism about the idea of revolution) has lost its pertinence. Events in Afghanistan moved quickly: within a year of his first long NLR analysis of the country came the Soviet invasion, which Halliday analysed closely in “The War and Revolution in Afghanistan”  (New Left Review 119 [January-February 1980]). Though sharply critical of Soviet policy, he still argued - as he was to do also in more global contexts - that the main blame for endemic conflict and instability must be placed on the imperialism of the United States.

The concern with revolution and its interplay with global power-politics continued on a wider canvas with “Cold War in the Caribbean” (New Left Review 141 [September-October 1981]). This outlined the history and provided essential statistical data on the region and its multiple micro-states, before focusing on their emergent high-profile place in the contestations of the “second cold war” and US policy. Again the ‘’imperialism’ of the US was Fred’s main target. His view that the Nicaraguan and Grenadan revolutionary regimes showed a “democratic and pluralist character” more than any other post-revolutionary governments of modern times was one which he would come heavily to qualify; the same applied to his then very favourable view of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The Iranian moment

Alongside this extraordinary range of engagements, however, Halliday’s “next big thing” was, in 1979, a major and intensely controversial book on Iran. (Iran: Dictatorship and Development). The controversy perhaps arose less from the actual contents of the work - a great deal of which consisted of a broad overview of Iran’s recent history, social structure and economic development, typically, wonderfully lucid and informative but neither as groundbreaking nor as polemical as much of Fred’s other writing - than from the timing and circumstances of its publication. The writing was completed in September 1978, and in the ensuing months, indeed weeks, as Fred noted in an afterword to the rushed-out second edition events in Iran “accelerated at a pace few could have expected”.

The Shah’s regime was overthrown and, after an immensely complex and bloody series of struggles and manoeuvres the theocratic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. In the process Iran’s secular, leftwing and democratic forces, including those who had borne the brunt of resistance to the Shah’s autocracy and indeed also including many personal friends of Halliday’s, were politically marginalised, exiled, imprisoned or, in a horrifyingly large number of cases, murdered - judicially or otherwise. Distress and disturbance at their fates remained with Fred for the remainder of his life. Nothing could more deeply have reinscribed in him a commitment to secularism and to freedom of expression, an opposition to all forms of dictatorship and all varieties of religious politics – if any such reinscription were needed.

Yet the events which so rapidly followed the book’s first publication gave rise to a kind of academic folk-tale which dogged Halliday for years thereafter. This particular variant on urban myth came to think of Fred as “the man who wrote an enormous book on Iran just before the revolution – and utterly failed to predict it”. This was of course unfair: the book had exhaustively analysed the forces destabilising the Pahlavi dictatorship, and in its closing lines he had clearly signaled that, although one must beware the “rhetorical and naïve catastrophism” which saw revolution as inevitable, it was nonetheless “quite possible” that “before too long” the regime would be swept away.

A little more accurate was the charge that Halliday failed to anticipate the form the revolution and succeeding regime might take; that, led astray by his secularist and leftist views, he greatly underestimated (though he certainly was not guilty entirely of ignoring) the strength of political Islamism in Iran. An extended interview in NLR in 1987, conducted by Farid Nouri, allowed him to reflect at length on his earlier judgments (see “The Iranian Revolution and Its Implications”, New Left Review 166 [November-December 1987]). 

Fred here partly agreed that Iran: Dictatorship and Development had underestimated Islamism’s potential strength, and went on to sketch an explanation of the phenomenon in terms of the continued economic and social power in Iran of “pre-capitalist” forces. In other words he retained a Marxist mode of explanation that granted primacy of determination to economic structures. He also, though, began a task to which ever more of his subsequent writing would return: analysing the ideologies as well as the social bases of Islamic political movements. And - again striking a note which would be repeated, ever more sharply but also ever deepened - when asked whether he saw “any revolutionary or progressive element in Islam” responded bluntly: “The short answer is no. Progressive ideas cannot be derived from dogmas that claim divine sanction”.

The Ethiopian lesson

If Iran: Dictatorship and Development tended to be misunderstood or misrepresented, another major work from this period has apparently been unjustly near-forgotten. This is the fascinating and still valuable study of Ethiopia which Halliday co-wrote with his partner Maxine Molyneux: The Ethiopian Revolution (1981). In many ways this was in fact a more ambitious work than the Iranian study, in that it ventured into territory not only less familiar to its authors, but far less known to the world at large, than the middle-eastern countries on which Fred’s previous work had mostly focused.

Ethiopia’s revolution of 1974 overthrew one of the world’s longest-existing autocracies – only to institute a yet more brutal dictatorship under military and Marxist-Leninist auspices – and unleashed a series of regional conflicts which today, in 2010, are still very far from played out. Fred and Maxine’s book did not only offer far the best, indeed for a long time almost the only, analysis of these events available in English. It went much further, presenting a broad and compelling general argument about the character of “third-world”’ revolutions, of post-revolutionary regimes and of the mutant, often repellent varieties of “socialism” which they espoused. Certainly to one then-novice graduate student in Oxford in the early 1980s, the present writer, these wide-ranging reflections came as an enduringly influential revelation

The engaged academic

In 1983, there were two major changes in Fred Halliday’s intellectual and political life. He took up a teaching position at the London School of Economics (LSE), the beginning of a long association that would see him serve as professor of international relations there (1985-2008); and he parted company with New Left Review’s editorial board (though as previously noted, he continued to make a major contribution to the journal’s pages).

Fred’s enormous role at the LSE has been the subject of several obituary notices, including by a number of his colleagues and former students there, which together convey a sense of the warm personal and intellectual links that this shared experience forged. But teaching international relations (IR) there surely helped bring about a new focus to his writing: not replacing, but augmenting and interrelating with, his multiple other interests. In the broad sense Fred had of course always been “doing international relations”, giving close attention in his Arabia, Iran and Ethiopia books as well as in many essays to the global entanglements and foreign relations of the countries he had studied. In particular, he had always located local and regional issues to the context of the cold war, whilst insisting that the latter was never just an east-west process but one where intra-western (US vs French or British), intra-eastern (Soviet vs Chinese) and north-south antagonisms also featured. Among the many works that address these topics are Mercenaries in the Persian Gulf: Counter-Insurgency in Oman (1979); Soviet Policy in the Arc of Crisis (1981); “The third inter-Yemeni war and its consequences” [Asian Affairs, July 1995]; and “The Middle East, the Great Powers and the Cold War”, in Yezid Sayigh & Avi Shlaim, eds., The Cold War and the Middle East [1997]).

But Halliday’s relationship with the academic specialism of IR - sometimes seen by critics as a rather self-enclosing scholarly ghetto, and in the main an ideologically conservative one - was perhaps a slightly different matter. Fred had indeed always shown a healthily sceptical attitude here, his position consciously that of an inside-outsider. Yet this made his subsequent contribution all the vaster and more impressive. For if the academic international-relations mainstream often seemed to emphasise, even fetishise continuity - proclaiming the undying relevance of Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Grotius - Fred’s great enthusiasm was for exploring radical change. If the dominant current in north-Atlantic IR theory, that awarded the deceptively neutral description “realism”, tended to argue that states were the only important actors in the global system, Fred always recognised the significance both of supra-state economic and political structures (here the lessons learned from Marxist thought continued to be productively present in his work) and of sub-state or non-state actors, especially social movements including, crucially, those fighting for women’s rights.

He thus brought to bear an understanding both of structure and of agency - especially that of people and movements in the global south - that was richer and more complex than that available to many international-relations specialists. He intervened both sharply and thoughtfully in the heated debates over method and approach which marked the study of IR after the end of the cold war had appeared to make many of the subject’s old assumptions obsolete. But equally, he had little patience with the vague and hubristic claims, advanced by some in IR (as elsewhere) that everything post-1989 had suddenly changed beyond recognition, that all older theories and methods been made redundant. Such claims, often loosely labelled “postmodernist” (does anyone still remember postmodernism?), were the objects of some of Fred’s most vigorous and frankly impatient negative polemics. Much of his opinion on these themes was later brought together in his book Rethinking International Relations (1994).

The cold-war’s fallout

The twin books The Making of the Second Cold War (1983) and Cold War, Third World (1989) combined many of Halliday’s major preoccupations in this sphere, via the core argument that the great wave of successful “third-world” revolutions after 1974 - he counted fourteen of them - was a central cause of the renewed east-west hostility of the 1980s. These revolutions pushed the US, especially after Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, into a new defensive-aggressive posture both towards radical regimes in the post-colonial world and towards the Soviet Union and its allies. Thus Halliday, both imaginatively and systematically, brought together “east-west” and “north-south” conflicts in a way which almost no other contemporary commentator from left or right was doing.

The Making of the Second Cold War was subjected to lengthy, sharp and thoughtful criticism from Morten Ougaard (see “The Origins of the Second Cold WarNew Left Review 147 [September-October 1984]), to which Halliday responded in the same issue with typical vigour, but also in a friendly spirit which by no means all his polemical exchanges with others on the left could sustain (see “The Conjuncture of the Seventies and After: Reply to Ougaard”).

Another noteworthy public debate on the causes and likely consequences of  the cold-war’s end took place months after the fall of the Berlin wall. Fred’s essay “The Ends of Cold War” (New Left Review 180 [March-April 1990]) attempted a difficult balancing-act: expressing solidarity with the movements of anti-communist popular revolt in east-central Europe, but warning that the collapse of the Soviet system would unleash a new, strengthened and invigorated reactionary capitalist and imperialist upsurge across the world. Mary Kaldor (“After the Cold War” in the same issue) was more optimistic and more inclined to grant world-transforming significance to international peace movements.

This difference reflected Fred’s greater tendency (in part following Isaac Deutscher) to see the cold war as a genuine and profound clash of ideologies and social systems, as opposed to Kaldor’s view of the superpowers as having the rather similar and in important ways complementary aim of dividing the world between them and shutting out any “third-way” option. Kaldor reflected in openDemocracy after Fred’s death: “I didn’t change my mind and nor did he, but the discussions we had helped to sharpen my ideas and had a profound long-term influence”.

The immediately ensuing exchange with the English historian and essayist EP Thompson - like Mary Kaldor a stalwart of nuclear-disarmament campaigns who had invested great energies and hopes in a coming together of peace movements “from below” in east and west, and saw these as having played a crucial part in ending the superpower contest - was more heated. Thompson’s “The Ends of Cold War”  (New Left Review 182 [July-August 1990]) accused Halliday of ignoring completely or grossly underestimating the importance of peace initiatives such as European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and other anti-war and anti-systemic movements, with the result that he produced both a top-down and an oddly passive and defeatist analysis. Fred’s response (in the same issue) rejected such claims and suggested that the greater past fault and future danger of the left and indeed of NLR circles was over-optimistic voluntarism rather than passive fatalism.

The journey in revolution

A few months after this debate over the cold-war’s finale came the event which in retrospect was to be seen as the crucial opening-round in a new kind of global confrontation: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Fred’s essay “The Crisis of the Arab World: The False Answers of Saddam Hussein” (New Left Review 184 [November-December 1990]) - evidently written in some haste, as the conflict over Kuwait developed - scorned Iraq’s claims to be “confronting imperialism” and acting in the interests of all Arabs; but it was only a little later that, in perhaps his most dramatic break from views held by most on the left, he expressed support for American-British military intervention against Saddam. He declared in 1991 in the New Statesman that “if I have to choose between imperialism and fascism, I choose imperialism.”

The post-cold-war course of events highlighted both the changing shape and the continuing relevance of the twin concepts that had massively influenced his earlier work: imperialism and revolution. In 2002, Fred devoted a major essay to “The Pertinence of Imperialism” (in Mark Rupert & Hazel Smith, eds., Historical Materialism and Globalisation: essays on continuity and change [2002]). This examined the history of Marxist thought on imperialism, and found that it encompassed five broad themes: the “inexorable expansion of capitalism as a socio-economic system on a world scale”; the inevitably competitive, expansionist and warlike character of capitalist states; the worldwide reproduction of socio-economic inequalities; the creation, also on global level, of structures of inequality which were not only economic, but also social, political, legal and cultural; and that through the very process of capitalist expansion, movements of anti-imperialist resistance would inevitably be generated.

All of these claims, Halliday argued, retained force in the 21st-century world. But ironically and uncomfortably for leftists, it was the last of them - the fate of anti-imperialism, and of what were becoming known as “anti-systemic” and “anti-globalisation” movements - that had been most thoroughly transformed. Across the 20th century, great struggles against imperialism and capitalism (whether revolutionary or reformist, and usually calling themselves socialist) had convulsed the world. But all had seemingly failed. More, the result had been “the deformation of anti-imperialism itself”.

Anti-imperialism had classically involved a set of shared, universalist goals - including democracy, economic development, equality of men and women, secularism, and a belief in a potential historical alternative. Today, around the globe, all this had seemingly been replaced by movements of religious fundamentalism, ethnic chauvinism, romantic anti-modernism and other irrational ideologies: “anti-imperialism came to represent a coalition of the romantic and the authoritarian, incapable of sustaining a consistent resistance to prevailing forms of capitalism.” This historic regression, as Fred saw it, was the most disturbing and depressing of all contemporary global developments. Militant political Islam was just one of its manifestations, though the one to which in his later writings he devoted most attention.

Imperialism, then, was alive and well, but anti-imperialism had decayed from its previous progressive forms and had become direly sick. This, though, did not imply that the idea of revolution, anti-imperialist or other, was defunct. Indeed Halliday devoted another of his most lastingly important works to analysing that idea: Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (1999).

The vision - or nightmare - of world revolution as a unified process, driven by a single ideology, might indeed be dead. The idea that one particular society forms the blueprint for humanity's future, and that studying it can reveal the direction in which everyone is inevitably moving, is a chimera. Yet it has a potent lineage and a compelling afterlife. Karl Marx, in his less cautious moods, thought that Victorian Britain was that blueprint; for decades, orthodox communists believed it of the Soviet Union; today, some find the equivalent in an idealised image of a past or future Islamic umma

Halliday's work looks beyond and beneath these grand schemas by engaging in a bold attempt to compare all the world's major revolutions of the past few centuries, and evaluate the continuing significance of the entire phenomenon of revolution. As he often pointed out, International Relations as an academic subject - an often dryly institutional, and largely conservative, one - has neglected the importance of revolutions in reshaping the world system. The most influential modern studies of revolutions, meanwhile, have usually been inspired by historical sociology, and have been very weak on their international dimensions. Revolution and World Politics, straddling academic specialisms as surefootedly as it does centuries and continents, sets out to correct both deficiencies.

Fred believed that the political utopianism that drove communist dreams - or such latter-day successors as faith in a morally perfect world order based on Islam - has a never-ending capacity to renew itself. The world is more unequal than ever before; global communications ensure that more people are bitterly aware of that inequality than in any past age. For all the complacency that may reign among the world's richer and more stable societies - a complacency, Halliday also notes, disconcertingly similar to that which prevailed a century ago - the age of revolutions is almost certainly not over. What is far more doubtful is whether future revolution might hold out any rational hope of furthering the political ideals and humane values in which Fred believed.

The left in retreat

If imperialism and revolution were two of the great overarching themes of Fred Halliday’s work, then the natural third pillar was the idea of internationalism - and alongside, its close relative, solidarity. He published, or delivered as lectures, many different reflections on aspects of internationalism; many of his openDemocracy columns were variations on the theme; and he planned a major book on it. His premature death means that such a work cannot now appear in the way he might have wished it, though apparently there are strong hopes of bringing together the work he had already done into book form.

In any event, Fred believes that in the course of the later 20th century something strange and distorting had happened to internationalism and solidarity. In their true form they depended on one central principle: that (as he put it in a lecture on “The fate of solidarity”) of “the shared moral and political value and equality of all human beings, and of the rights that attach to them. The concept of solidarity presupposes that of rights... The reason to support others within our own society or in others is that they too have rights, by dint of the humanity we share.”

The contemporary crisis derives from the way so many on the left have abandoned that principle (the political right never really believed in it): denigrating the very language of universal human rights, attacking the international institutions and conventions which tried to implement it, disparaging the values of rationalism and the Enlightenment which are its necessary foundation. Militant Islamism, and those western leftists who entered into a tactically foolish and morally repugnant alliance with it, are again just a particularly extreme expression of these very widespread and ominous tendencies.

Many must share the blame for helping undermine the better ideals of internationalism and solidarity: the legacies of colonialism and of communism were especially culpable, but numerous contemporary intellectual currents - including ones espoused by close friends and former comrades of Halliday - had contributed to this moral and political disaster. Too many had succumbed to a regression: “of ominous import, insofar as membership of a particular community, or claims of affinity, ethnicity or religious association with others, is deemed to convey either particular rights, or particular moral clarity, on those making such claims. In purely logical, and rational, terms, this is a nonsense".

Such degenerate developments, Fred felt - and elaborated in many detailed analyses - were especially prolific in relation to the middle east and to the politics of Islam. He discussed them extensively in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also several times reflected on them in relation to the Ireland of his birth. His commentaries on those two situations – always so thoughtful and humane, often prescient, invariably informed by the astonishing breadth of his comparative method – can only be gestured towards here.

Israel and Ireland: twin journeys

Halliday’s engagement with Israel and Palestine was lifelong.  As he told Danny Postel in a wide-ranging interview conducted in November 2005:I came into Middle East politics through Iran in the mid-’60s, but after 1967 you couldn’t ignore the Palestine question.” And unlike so many, on the left as elsewhere, he rapidly came to the view that Israeli and Palestinians are “both communities with equal national rights.” This must mean that the only just and feasible solution lay in two independent states. One must discard “the stuff about which one was there first, or who was massacred most, or what their holy books say, or who were collaborators with imperialism - all such questions were secondary. The key question is, you have two communities which meet minimal criteria of self-determining peoples. And on that basis, you accord them equal rights” (see “Who is responsible? An interview with Fred Halliday” [Salmagundi 150-1, spring-summer 2006; republished on openDemocracy, 29 April 2010; see also the remarkable and in many ways prescient early commentary, “Revolutionary Realism and the Struggle for Palestine”, Middle East Reports 96 (May 1981)].

Yet the prospects for such an accommodation became, in Fred’s last years, seemingly ever more remote. His last visit to Israel induced profound pessimism. Attitudes among both Israelis and Arabs had hardened: “neither side seems at the moment interested in a serious compromise”; most expected another war, and soon (see “Expecting rain: a letter from Jerusalem”, 15 December 2006).

His thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as on so much else, was shaped – in ways about which he became increasingly explicit in recent years – by his Irish-British upbringing. As he commented in the Salmagundi interview of 2005: “very importantly for British people of my generation, the clarification of our views on the Palestine question coincided with and went along with clarification of our views on the Northern Ireland question.” He saw many similarities: in nationalist ideologies which drew on international sources while insisting on their own uniqueness and indigeneity, in the rhetoric of armed struggle,  the role of religion in politics, the mutual delegitimation of competing nationalisms. He insisted that simply to blame “British imperialism” for the Ulster conflict was utterly inadequate: we must look to the histories and ideologies of the two communities within Northern Ireland, and at the broad sweep of Irish history, but without falling into the chauvinistic self-imaginings or pseudo-historical myths which have so often entrapped them both.

He was in a good position to avoid those latter traps, as he explained in perhaps his most extensive meditation on the issue:

“A son of an Irish Catholic mother and an English Quaker father, with a Protestant mother-in-law from Co Antrim, I feel both personally and morally involved in the story of Ireland, even as I must be considered not really part of the major groups involved in this conflict. My own parents crossed the divide in a mixed marriage. In keeping with the traditions of this island, no relative came to the wedding, and the witnesses were the gravediggers from the church” (see “Irish nationalisms in perspective”, second Torkel Opsahl memorial lecture, 10 December 1997).

The critic of orientalism

Halliday’s approach and distinctive intellectual qualities can also be indicated by looking briefly at how he addressed two other, related issues: the debates over “orientalism” and “Islamophobia”.

In all the vast outpouring of books and articles which followed Edward Said’s epoch-making book Orientalism (1978), perhaps the most judicious assessment of the ensuing disputes was Fred Halliday’s essay “’Orientalism’ and its critics” (British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 20/2, 1993; revised version in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East [1996]). The very ground of Fred’s contribution contrasts with the huge range of polemical, over-politicised, ultra-culturalist and other positions staked out by many other protagonists; in that he departs from “a belief, cautious but firm, in the validity of social science in general, and of the branches thereof - history, sociology, politics, economics, international relations, law, and so on - constituted by general analytic and theoretical categories, independent of specific data and situations."

The practical implication that follows is a rejection of purely textualist, postmodernist and other approaches that deny (or even bracket) the notion of an external social reality; of views imbued with particularism, the idea that particular societies, cultures or traditions can be understood in isolation or only in their own terms; and of efforts to explain intellectual standpoints solely in the light of their holder's background, political alignments or national, religious or class affiliations. In the light of such presuppositions, both main camps in the disputes over orientalism appear profoundly flawed.

Fred rightly points out that four different issues have been played out in the disputes initiated by Said’s work (see (see “Edward Said: the traveller and the exile”, 1 October 2003). First, debate about how to study “oriental” or middle-eastern societies, and how to evaluate writings about them. Second, a wider methodological argument, involving especially dispute between traditional philological or cultural approaches, social-scientific ones, and those influenced by postmodernism or discourse analysis. Third, directly political and often identitarian battles, revolving especially around the Arab-Israeli conflict and the alleged or actual influences on scholars dealing with such issues of their ethnic, national or religious backgrounds. Fourth, narrower questions about academic authority, prestige and cultural capital: ones which seem (as Halliday notes) especially bitter in contemporary United States intellectual culture. Any serious intellectual enquiry, Fred insists, must focus on the first two, and eschew engagement with - whilst remaining vigilant to the power of - the third and fourth.

Attempting to disentangle the various strands of argument which others (sometimes deliberately) muddled together, and refusing to be drawn (as so many have been) into either uncritical endorsement or wholesale dismissal of Said’s ideas, did not win Halliday many friends. Said and his less discerning devotees - often, once more, former close friends and political allies of Fred’s - attacked him in saddening if not shameful ways thereafter. And although (as I can attest on the basis of personal correspondence I have seen) Fred more than once sought calmly and patiently to renew dialogue between them, relations were never restored.

The Islam illusion

Halliday brought the same intellectual rigour to bear on his discussion of Islamophobia (see, for example, “Anti-Muslimism and Contemporary Politics”, in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation [1996], several of the essays in Nation and Religion in the Middle East [2000], and “’Islamophobia’ Reconsidered” [Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22/5, 1999]). He carefully explored the way in which, in recent years, hatred of Muslims has evidently been politically salient in several far-flung places - including America, Britain and France, among rightwing Israelis and Russians, advocates of Hindutva in India and of “heavenly” Serbia. Each of these, however, is an antagonism with very specific, local political roots, and is best explained and challenged in terms of each of those specific circumstances.

“Anti-Muslimism” is, in his words, not one ideology but several. Islamists, however, are by definition committed to the view that there is a shared, invariant, essentially timeless Islamic character; and that by the same token, any manifestation of hatred towards Muslims, anywhere, must be directed against that character. Their ideology negates the possibility of any more local, contextually and historically specific explanations. Thus there is a very ironic twist here – maybe one of the few things that really is almost unique to Islamist thought and its enemies. Islamists do not react to “Islamophobia” by criticising or deconstructing the stereotypes (as blacks or Jews or gays usually do), but by accepting them as badges of pride: “Yes, you’re right: we really are a deadly threat to all that you hold dear - and a good thing too!” So Halliday, writing in a spirit of sympathy and solidarity with the victims of anti-Muslim hatred, found himself under attack from those who proclaimed themselves spokespeople for a mythicised, homogenised “Islam”. 

The universal tribe

Much more could, and perhaps one day will, be said about Fred Halliday’s work. This essay leaves many even of his major themes unaddressed – Fred’s remarkable reflections on the uses and abuses of political language (which he explores in a posthumously published book, Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language [2010]; his thoughts on the aftermath and significance of 9/11 (see yet another remarkable book written at white-hot pace: Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11 2001, Causes and Consequences [2001]); the fascination with that almost unstudied country the Dominican Republic to which he returned near the end of his life  (see ““The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts”, 23 April 2009); and literally dozens of others.

All this and more was brought together with characteristic breadth, boldness and humour in a short essay written at the start of 2005, where in a kind of manifesto for what proved to be the last phase of his work, Halliday proposed a new key to the contemporary international system: the “three dustbins theory”.

The mid-1990s, he suggested marked the end of the interregnum following the end of the cold war, itself the third chapter, after the two world wars, in a great century-long European civil war. “Today that European era is decisively finished: “After five centuries when the Atlantic was the strategic and economic centre of the world, the focus has shifted to East Asia and the Pacific.”

Yet too much of our thinking remains prisoner to the cold-war’s legacy and its enduring myths, contained in those three dustbins. The first dustbin holds the legacies of communism: unresolved ethnic conflicts, corrupt, authoritarian and inept post-Soviet elites and their regimes - “a transition not to democracy but to post-Marxist kleptocracy” - and nuclear proliferation.

The second dustbin, Fred suggested, “is that of the West, and the US in particular. One of the costs of winning the Cold War is that the West has failed to rethink its assumptions about the conduct of international relations. Instead, and above all with the Bush administration, we have seen the recycling, often by veterans of the confrontations with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, of policies that were as wrong then as they are now.” Worst of all are a “pervasive denial, compounded by self-righteous declamation”’ about the consequences of past policies, notably America’s role in creating the “terrorist threat” itself, and an imperial arrogance in the exercise of power over other peoples and instinctive resort to force. We shall, so sadly, now never know whether Fred would have seen the Barack Obama administration as effectively breaking from those legacies, struggling out of that dustbin.

The third dustbin, though, contains far too much of the international left and its thinking. The contemporary global-protest movement, Fred charged, resmbles “a children's crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators” (see “It's time to bin the past”, Observer, 30 January 2005).

So, in his last years Fred Halliday was beginning to sketch a new map of the world, bringing together his multiple interests and spheres of expertise. His column for openDemocracy, eighty-one pieces written across the last six years of his life from January 2004 to December 2009, represent perhaps the fullest flowering of that diversity - as its editor, David Hayes, says  “from Jerusalem to jihadism, Finland to Libya, Iraq to his native Ireland, Cuba to his beloved Yemen and Iran”. It was a too-short lifetime’s writing of staggering range and power, of both breadth and depth: almost impossible adequately to survey, hugely taxing even to summarise.

Perhaps, though, the most appropriate way to conclude is by saluting Fred’s particular combination of mutability and steadfastness, his coupling of a willingness always to question and rethink with lifelong adherence to a set of core values. In one of openDemocracy’s memorial tributes it was recalled how he would joke (I recall him using very similar words to me): “At my funeral the one thing no one must ever say is that ‘Comrade Halliday never wavered, never changed his mind”’.

And of course no one, in all the thoughts and memories poured out since Fred died, has dared say that.

Yet Fred also wrote (in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation), with a characteristic hint of self-mockery, of being asked in Yemen, the country he loved so well, what tribe he belonged to:

“That is my tribe, the Bani Tanwir, or what might be called the descendants of Enlightenment rationality. And, as with most tribal affiliations, seeing what a dangerous world it is outside, I do not intend to forsake it”.

And he never did.

About the author

 

Stephen Howe is professor in the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University. His books include Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998); Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire 1918-1964 (Oxford University Press, 1993); Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2000); Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002); and (as editor) The New Imperial Histories Reader (Routledge, 2009)

More On

Stephen Howe is professor in the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University. His books include Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998); Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire 1918-1964 (Oxford University Press, 1993); Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2000); Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002); and (as editor) The New Imperial Histories Reader (Routledge, 2009)

Also by Stephen Howe in openDemocracy:

"Troubled links to the narrow land" (13 June 2001)

"American Empire: the history and future of an idea" (11 June 2003)

"Edward Said: the traveller and the exile" (1 October 2003)

"An Oxford Scot at King Dubya's court: Niall Ferguson's Colossus" (21 July 2004)

"Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars" (14 December 2004)

"Boycotting Israel: the uses of history" (24 April 2005)

"Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of loyalism" - parts one and two (27-29 September 2005)

"Munich: Spielberg's failure" (26 January 2006)

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley: Ken Loach and Irish history" (15 June 2006)

"A murderous muse: Idi Amin and The Last King of Scotland" (12 January 2007)

 


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