Open Letter to Owen Jones: On Syria, the left should be more critical of the Bennite Legacy

Published on Left Foot Forward, by Alan Hohnson, August 27, 2013 ( see also our new blog: politics for the 99%).

… Like you, I did not support the Iraq intervention and, like you, I do not support a full-blown ‘intervention’ by the West in Syria. I think the sheer tonnage of wishful thinking on parts of the left about ‘interventions’ is remarkable. When it comes to sending young British men to die – why are their lives always discounted? – in ‘interventions’ that are invariably poorly planned (my god what an understatement that is!), under-resourced, lacking the domestic support needed to see the thing through; the knowledge of local conditions that would enable a realistic view to be taken about what is possible; or the political and intellectual long-termism that would be required to win, and which invariably lack reliable allies on the ground, and so are doomed to peeter out before ‘success’, I say… not in my name.  

I do not think all the lessons of Iraq have been learnt by those who agitated for it; not by a long chalk. We need a much more realistic view of what ‘intervention’ can possibly mean in a world filled not only with dictators, but also with some pretty disastrous recent examples of western ‘intervention’.

The ability of the Western democracies to simply swing a big stick and achieve higher order goals (nation-building, freedom, women’s equality, democracy) in faraway places with political cultures and histories vastly different to our own is, ahem, limited. The neocons were wrong.

Left thinking on this has hardly begun. I think the best starting point about remains this typically wise piece by another opponent of the Iraq war, Michael Walzer, my comrade at Dissent.

So where do you and I differ on Syria? I think it’s to do with the legacy of Bennism.

Bear with me.

You are often portrayed as having inherited Tony Benn’s mantle. This is part of the silly ‘celeby’ way these things are dealt with and something I suspect you laugh at it all. Still, there is an aspect of your thinking that strikes me as bearing the marks of the worst of Benn’s legacy, not the best.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Benn-basher. As a teenager, Arguments for Socialism eased my transition from Methodism to Marxism (my current way-station is Eduard Bernsteinian Social Democracy). I recall the amusement of my family when I sat by the telly recording Benn’s interview with Brian Walden quite as I were taking down some contemporary version of the Tablets from Sinai. Later, I spent an evening listening to him inspire a packed Newcastle City Hall as part of his deputy leadership campaign – the most electric political meetings I have ever attended bar watching the late Edward Thompson speak to a CND Rally as if the very spirit of democratic and liberty-loving English radicalism had taken shape again on Tyneside).

I even got to interview Benn once. The phone rang at 10.01am. ‘You’re late’ he said. He had left his wife Caroline’s bedside for a 10am telephone interview with me for the US journal New Politics and I was holding up his return to her side.  I was mortified (while thinking ‘what a mensch!)

But Late Benn is another matter.

While his domestic ideas have faded into history (which has been a pity in some cases; I think we need more workers participation and more public ownership and the empowerment of trade unions, co-ops, social movements and local community actors; if a relief in other cases – the Little Englandism, the siege economy, etc) it has been his ideas on foreign policy that have gained national prominence and still exert real influence on the left.

And that has been a bit of a disaster, for the sad truth is that Late Benn has become a bit of a patsy when it came to dictators who arouse the ire of the West. In this he was just the most famous example of a much larger malady warping parts of the Left (not the whole: I agree with you that the left is never a single thing). By reducing the complexity of the post-cold war world to a single great contest in which “imperialism” or “empire” faced “anti-imperialism” or “the resistance”, parts of the left have transformed themselves into a reactionary post-left that took its enemy’s enemy for its friend. We were “all Hezbollah now” as the placards had it … //

… Owen, there is a more limited but viable goal the left should make its own: to make Assad (and everyone else, including the rebels) know that there is a price for crimes against humanity, so that he pauses and decides against committing them. And there are viable means to pursue that goal: a one-time, stand-off, targeted strike against certain regime capabilities could send a very strong message and restore deterrence when it comes to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

By hitting delivery systems – it is probable that rockets or artillery shells were used to deliver the chemical agents in the attack  – or command and control facilities, the goal would be to alter the calculations of the Assad regime; to make it think twice before travelling any further down the terrible road to enormity.

I think that is a limited goal and a realistic means to pursue it. The left should support both. It is part of the Bennite legacy that large parts of the left fail to see that. A refreshingly modest bloke, your own moral and political authority on the left is probably greater than you think. I urge you not to use it to oppose the projection of all force aimed at stopping the ongoing crimes against humanity that are taking place in Syria. Best regards, Alan
(full text).

(Professor Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom. He is also a member of the Dissent editorial board and a Senior Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre).


Tony Benn on en.wikipedia, inclusive Diaries and Biographies, and External Links;

Street harassment is not banter: It makes women feel angry, disgusted and scared, on Left Doot Forward, by REBECCA SUNER, August 7, 2013;

FPC Briefing: Putin’s Eurasian Union- from pre-electoral sideshow to quest for empire? on Foreign Policy Centre, by Dr Kevork Oskanian, July 2013. Download it.

Research Programmes on the Foreign Policy Centre.

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