Sunday, September 18, 2005


Democratiya is a new on-line journal of book reviews launched by Alan Johnson (most recently of Labour Friends of Iraq, but previously an editor of Historical Materialism and New Politics, with a political background in the Alliance for Workers Liberty and now, I think, in the Labour Party). There's an interesting set of advisory editors: including many leading lights of the 'pro-war left' (or 'pro-liberation' as they would have it): Nick Cohen, Marc Cooper, Norman Geras, Johann Hari, Christopher Hitchens, John Lloyd, Kenan Makiya, Francis Wheen are just some of the most prominent. Is this the equivalent of the anti-Stalinist left that came into being in the 1940s and coalesced around the Congress for Cultural Freedom?

It aims at a non-sectarian and ecumenical contribution to 'a renewal of the politics of democratic radicalism'. It is clearly rooted in opposition in what it describes as an 'incoherent and negativist 'anti-imperialist' left which holds a simplistic, reductionist, reactionary, 'enemies enemy', totalitarian world view. A mention of Irving Howe gives a clue to the reference to Dissent as a model for plain writing and anti-obscurantism. All very interesting, especially in view of Alan's political trajectory and the possibility that despite his work on Hall Draper he will perhaps being following in the sad wake of the great Max Shachtman.

In this first issue (September-October 2005) Marko Attila Hoare reviews Evan Kohlmann on Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe (Berg 2004), is clearly knowledgeable, but is framed by such polemical hostility against the anti-war movement.

Gideon Calder reviews Michael Walzer's Arguing about War (Yale 2004), a collection of his essays that builds on his 1978 Just and Unjust Wars.

Michael Thompson reviews Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson (U Chicago 2005), which is placed in a tradition of the defense of Enlightenment rationality alongside Sokal and Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense and Meera Nandy's Prophets Facing Backwards. The authors critique a 'perplexing affinity' between Foucault's thought and radical Islamism in a merger of politics and spirituality. They see an identity between an opposition to colonialism, rejection of modernity and a fascination with the discourse of death. The book also seeks to problematize the politics of postmodernism: taking the view that Baudrillard would forgive the perpetrators of 9/11.

Claire Garbett reviews My Neighbour, My Enemy edited by Eric Stover and Harvey Weinstein (CUP 2004).

'Harry Hatchett' (the famous blogger at Harry's Place) reviews Thomas Cashman (ed) A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (U Cal. 2005) taking it as evidence that his 'pro-liberation' isn't alone, praising the contribution of Jonathan Ree, but revealing his polemical approach when he talks about the 'Marxist' leaders of the Stop the War Coalition viewing 'fascism' as 'legitimate resistance' to bourgeois democracy. This tendentiousness just won't do.

Most interesting of the reviews is I think Michael Allen on Nicolas Guilhot's The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and the Politics of Global Order (Columbia UP 2005). Allen is connected to the National Endowment for Democracy and situates his review in terms of an uncritically presented American 'democracy promotion' and trends to democracy in the middle-east and post-communist societies. The 9/11 Commission and various commentators (including the not-negligible Olivier Roy are quoted on the importance of this battle for ideas. Allen looks for an analysis of the lineage of democracy promotion and the current role of the 'democratization industry' in regime change, but is disappointed that Guilhot provides something that sounds more like a radical critique of this exercise of power as a 'policy of capital' via case studies of the National Endowment for Democracy and World Bank. Allen is pretty disappointed with Guilhot's account of the NED and his claims that its a form of imperialism. It emerges that Guilhot is Hardt & Negri's French translator and is influenced by Deleuze and Guattari (is 'Dezalay' really Deleuze?). Amongst the faults that Allen finds is that Guilhot holds to the 'myth' that the democracy promoters are neo-cons who used to be anti-communist leftists - an idea that Allen thinks has been comprehensively refuted. On the whole subject of the Congress for Cultural Freedom Allen finds Guichot just wrong and superficial; his dependence on Frances Stonor Saunders' Who Paid the Piper? just provokes criticism of that book as 'tendentious'. Finally the book is described as 'pseudo-academic legitimation' for seeing 'missionary democracy' by the US, but hopes that a new generation of radicals and social democrats in the face of a 'fresh totalitarian idea'. It's worth looking at Michael Allen's Democracy Digest at

And finally there is a long and very interesting interview between Alan Johnson and Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Just War Against Terror (Basic Books 2003). Elshtain situates herself in a 'just war' tradition against pacifism and alongside an 'Augustinian real-world realism' - and that critical of a Kantian universalism. Alan brings out Elshtain's emphasis on the dangers of the just war tradition and her criticisms of a merely rhetorical just warism; although for Elshtain to refer to the 'stopping of the strafing of fleeing Iraqis' as the application of just war principles at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, when what I remember is the extent of the straffing on the Basra Road of fleeing Iraqi troops, even if the frequently banded-about figure of 100,000 killed doesn't seem that tenable; this seems like the evasion of a war-crime. Elshtain also warns against moralistic triumphalism and unsustainable overreach in the rhetoric of just war, leading to blundering.

On 'Islamism' Elshtain aligns herself with Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, seeing Islamism as a seriously totalizing ideology with a literal belief in the tenets of Jihad . And this she takes as a serious threat that should not be misdescribed. And the left are put in terms of the 'humanists of Oran' from Camus's The Plague who people who stand on a rat with plague and say there are no rats, and if there is a rat it is really the US. And standing behind that Alan also draws in Elshtain's diagnosis of a triumph of a 'therapeutic culture' in which argument is replaced by the validation of self.

On the invasion of Iraq it seems that in 2001 Elshtain had argued that the just war tradition didn't condone intervention against Saddam - despite his internal tyranny, but here she says that 9/11 changed the context and that she believed Saddam had WMD; but she doesn't say that the absence of WMD means that she was wrong. And although Elshtain regrets the insurgency she thinks that more good than bad has come from the invasion. And that the intellectual Western opponents of occupation are reprehensible in wanting the occupation to fail. Against that she poses the millions who voted in Iraq in January.

There's more, including reflections on hope, differentiating between 'decent hope' and 'unrestrained optimism', with the politics of the left ushering in an 'unrestrained optimism' that has led to cynicism. And as a cynical critic of the rhetoric of optimism I say amen to that. Elshtain hasn't convinced me, and the absence of much critique of capitalism or American foreign policy is a drawback, but she raises arguments that have to be dealt with adequately.


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