Worth reading

by Henry on December 8, 2003

Ken MacLeod’s long essay on the pro- and anti-war left. (via Norman Geras).



anon 12.08.03 at 7:24 pm

Let me pose a question for discussion:

Why is there a UK pro-war left but no US pro-war left? In the US, being pro-war immediately puts you on the right, whatever your other views (I know, it’s happened to me). But nobody thinks Harry or Hari is on the right. They’re clearly on the left, albeit pro-war. Is there a single US intellectual who is as pro-war as these folks who isn’t thereby thought to be leaning right? (Hitchens, e.g., is now thought to be on the right.)

I can think of many answers, but I’d like to know what others think.


chun the unavoidable 12.08.03 at 7:37 pm

The answer has to do with the fact that the terms “left” and “right” are meaningless.

The best argument for the war that I can see is that the U.S. has a moral obligation to overthrow every brutal autocracy it has propped up over the last three decades. Is anyone making this argument?


JimP 12.08.03 at 7:37 pm

Anon, I don’t see it quite that way. I think there were pro-war left in the US. That was when there was a chance that the administration was being honest in its reasons for war.

Once it was discovered that those reasons were bogus, the pro-war left became anti-administration, vigorously so, and that has merged with the anti-war left.


chun the unavoidable 12.08.03 at 8:08 pm

I don’t mean this as a sneering comment, but just how gullible would you have had to be to believe the administration was being “honest in its reasons for war?”


anon 12.08.03 at 8:43 pm

“The best argument for the war that I can see is that the U.S. has a moral obligation to overthrow every brutal autocracy it has propped up over the last three decades. Is anyone making this argument?”

Actually, Chun, that is the argument I’ve been making. Except that I replace “overthrow” with “do what it prudently can either to overthrow or to mitigate the nasty policies of.” Isn’t that what any good lefty should argue?

Yet that argument gets you labelled a ‘neocon’ nowadays.


chun the unavoidable 12.08.03 at 9:13 pm

The value of this putative argument is how quickly it exposes the hypocrisy of the neocon war-mongers. How soon we forget Jeannie Kirkpatrick and her roguish, lovable “authoritarians” who must be supported against the nasty bogeymen “totalitarians.”


pathos 12.08.03 at 9:21 pm

I think Josh Marshall and the entire board of the New Republic constitute the pro-war left in America.


anon 12.08.03 at 9:38 pm

Chun, I thought this was going to be an exchange, and that by “best argument” you meant “not a bad argument.” (Of course, that one-sentence formulation doesn’t spell the argument out.)

You’re not addressing Jeanne Kirkpatrick but someone who opposes her as much as you do.

I guess we’ve just witnessed a reason why there’s no pro-war left in the US: the inability of US lefties to converse with their opponents without sneering.

Pathos, Josh Marshall opposed the war in the end (i.e. in March). Still, you may be right that some writers at TNR come as close to the pro-war left as we have in the US. Which isn’t very close, since TNR is often (among my crowd at least) dismissed as ‘right wing.’

I suspect that jimp is right, which shows that the left (wrongly, in my view) believes that this is simply Bush’s (and Blair’s) war, not a war for any larger cause.


Glenn 12.08.03 at 10:11 pm

pro-war left in the USA – Michael Totten, Nat Hentoff, Peter Beinart, Paul Berman, WhoKnew, numerous senators and congressmen (including Schumer, Hillary, Edwards, Lieberman, etc.) about 30-40% of the Democrats in the US, that’s enough for now. Oh yeah, and me.


Katherine 12.08.03 at 10:14 pm

I think it’s all how you define the left. Then there are those who define it by your position on the Iraq war, which REALLY confuses the issue.

Also David Remnick, Michael Ignatieff. Actually Igantieff may be Canadian.


cg 12.08.03 at 10:55 pm

A really great writeup. The world could use more of this kind of thing: seriously, carefully treating the issue where most positions are conflated into two opposite packages. And we could use more looking at the modern American and British left from the perspective of historical leftism, which, regardless of how it how it has been trying to position itself, is still the Democrats’ direct ancestor. I wish that sort of thing was more common in the US… I see evidence of it in Britain more often.

Inspiring and grand.


anon 12.08.03 at 11:40 pm

I guess I asking more about people who justify their pro-war position in recognizably left-wing ways than about Democrats who haven’t, like so many of their colleagues, gone completely anti-war. It’s revealing that Hillary is now described as ‘outflanking Bush to the right’ in her hawkish stance on Iraq and on the WOT.

Berman’s an instance, I guess, given his background. But he’s been pilloried almost as brutally as Hitchens by the left, has he not? (Is that why he seems to have gone silent since last spring? Can anyone point me to recent writings of his?)

My claim was that there’s nothing like a movement here, no real coordination, no real media representation. You don’t expect Tom Brokaw to ask the Democratic candidates how they hope to hold the vote of the pro-war left. You can imagine the response: “Huh? What pro-war left? That sounds like a contradiction.” And it does here.

Individual writers — yes. Some votes from the Democratic side of the aisle — sure. A few not-rabidly-right-wing warbloggers — to be expected in this contrarian medium. But can you explain yourself to anyone nowadays by saying ‘I’m on the pro-war left’? I’ve never been able to. I don’t see how it’s possible, since there ain’t no such thing. There may be individuals groping for such a way to make political sense of themselves, but in the US at least there ain’t no such way.


cg 12.09.03 at 2:05 am

They’re not a movement, but they ARE a demographic – that is, a good 30 or 40% of Democrats. There are a couple reasons why they haven’t coalesced into the kind of ‘movement’ you describe. First, they aren’t ‘challenged’ in the way the anti-war left – and the pro-war right – is… the path they proposed was obviously on track to happen for a long time. And their enemies on the war issue, the anti-war left, are not particularly picking fights with *them*. Secondly, a huge proportion of them feel betrayed by the whole war gambit and now are a bit regretful of their previous position.

None of this implies that the ‘pro-war left’ is small or uninfluential. In fact, I COULD envision Tom Brokaw asking a candidate about their attitude towards the pro-war left. The voters that Clark might have that Dean does not, for example, fall in this category.


Doug Muir 12.09.03 at 11:10 am

Yes, it’s good stuff. Even though you know where he’s going to end up, he does his best to give the other side its due.

It’s actually quite hard to do this sort of thing without constructing a straw man, so kudos to him.

This sort of thing is the reason I’ll still cheerfully read Ken’s fiction (as opposed to, say, Iain Banks’).

Doug M.


Jeffrey Kramer 12.09.03 at 12:23 pm

Anon, are you looking for something equivalent to the “Cold War Liberals,” with organizations like Americans for Democratic Action? If you are, I’d say the situations are far too different to expect anything of the sort. For one thing, in 1947-50, when the Cold War was pretty well declared, liberals in general needed to clear themselves of suspicion that they were sympathetic to the goals of communism. Only a comparatively tiny handful of fools today would say that liberals were sympathetic to the goal of Islamic theocracy.


Glenn 12.09.03 at 2:43 pm

the anti-war left doesn’t want to acknowlege that there is a pro-war left, because it makes them feel very small and insignificant as part of the entire nation, which they are. In a country of 280 million, I was never impressed by the protest crowds with numbers as high as 1 MILLION, spread across the country.

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