October 15, 2012 § 31 Comments
Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post UK, has an essay in the current issue of the New Statesman, of which he was until recently the political editor, arguing that the progressive stance on abortion is to oppose it. The article inevitably created a storm on Twitter and elsewhere on the web, a storm at which Hasan took umbrage. ‘Time to add abortion to the list of issues – Islam, Iran’s nuclear programme etc – that can’t be discussed on Twitter’, he tweeted. He added that he was ‘v disappointed that lefties have confirmed every rightwing prejudice today: we close down debate, we enforce orthodoxies etc’. I will return later to the response to Hasan’s argument, but first a few words on his pro-life argument: « Read the rest of this entry »
May 1, 2012 § 2 Comments
The incumbent candidate falters badly. His main opponent fares barely any better. The candidates from so-called ‘fringe’ parties garner more votes than either of the mainstream ones. The far right gains its biggest success. The only thing striking about the first round of the French elections was that there was nothing striking about it. It followed the pattern of almost every election across Europe over the past few years.
This Sunday Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande will slug it out in the second round. Missing, however, will be the politician who delivered probably the most significant result in the first round will, and who arguably will wield the greatest influence upon the French politics in the months to come, whatever the result of the second round: the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 16, 2012 § 7 Comments
1776. 1789. 1917. The American. The French. The Russian. The three great revolutions of the modern world. The three revolutions with which everyone is familiar, each one telling a different story about modernity. Yet, as I argued in my previous post, the fourth great revolution that helped define modernity – the Haitian Revolution of 1791 - is one that barely anyone remembers these days. It was the first true successful revolt in history. But more than that, the Haitian Revolution was the first time that the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was seen through to its revolutionary conclusion. For that alone, it should find its place in history.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the great Caribbean writer, thinker and revolutionary CLR James whose magnificent masterpiece The Black Jacobins eloquently captured both its political substance and its poetical spirit. An extraordinary synthesis of novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction (James had originally conceived of it as fiction, then wrote a play that was performed in London, with Paul Robeson in the lead role, before publishing the book in 1938), The Black Jacobins is a book that helped transform both the writing of history and history itself. ‘Men make their own history’, James wrote, ‘and the black Jacobins of San Domingo were to make history which would alter the fate of millions of men and shift the economic currents of three continents. But if they could seize opportunity, they could not create it.’ Three decades before historians such as Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson began writing ‘history from below’, James told of how the slaves of Haiti had not simply been passive victims of their oppression but active agents in their own emancipation. In Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great leader of the revolution, he found a tragically flawed figure, whose story laid bare for James many of the paradoxes and ambiguities of liberation struggles in the modern world. And in telling the story both of the revolution and of its figurehead, James created a work that was to become indispensable to a new generation of Toussaint L’Ouvertures that, over the next three decades, helped lead the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 4, 2011 § 16 Comments
‘Why talk of morality?’ It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially as I am writing a book on the history of moral thought. Many on the left are uncomfortable with, indeed hostile to, moral arguments. Morality, they insist, is the province of the right. Politics is the true terrain of the left. Engaging in moral debate is, in their eyes, a means of constraining, not of promoting, social change.
It is true that the right often exploit morality as a means of individualizing social issues, a way of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure. But as I have argued before, for instance with respect to the riots earlier this year, ‘Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons’. It is important to the left because ‘There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too.’
In his book On Evil Terry Eagleton neatly skewers the anti-moral arguments on the left:
The American Marxist Frederic Jameson writes of ‘the archaic categories of good and evil’. One is forced to assume that Jameson is not of the view that the victory of socialism would be a good thing. The English Marxist Perry Anderson implies that terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are relevant to individual conduct only – in which case it is hard to see why tackling famines, combating racism or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good… Jameson and some of his leftist colleagues… tend to confuse the moral with the moralistic. In this, ironically, they are at one with the likes of the US Moral Majority. Moralism means regarding moral judgments as existing in a sealed domain of their own, quite distinct from more material matters. This is why some Marxists are uneasy with the whole idea of ethics. It sounds to them like a distraction from history and politics. But this is a misunderstanding. Properly understood, moral inquiry weighs all these factors together. This is as true of Aristotle’s ethics as it is of Hegel’s or Marx’s. Moral thought is not an alternative to political thought. Ethics considers questions of value, virtue, qualities, the nature of human conduct and the like, while politics attends to the institutions which allow such conducts to flourish or be suppressed.
I agree with all of that. And yet the predicament lies deeper than simply the left misunderstanding the relationship between morality and politics. At the root of the problem is the ambiguous place that morality occupies in the modern world, and the way that political and social changes of the past few decades have exacerbated that ambiguity. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 12, 2011 § 21 Comments
The riots, David Cameron told Parliament this week, revealed a ‘deep moral failure’ in British society. It’s an argument echoed by many others, from Melanie Phillips to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The language of morality, and of moral failure, comes easily to the lips of rightwing politicians and pundits, being all too often a means of individualizing social issues, of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure.
The fact that the right has appropriated the language of morality has led many on the left to ignore moral arguments, indeed often to see such arguments as reactionary. That is a fatal mistake. Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons. There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too. Moral arguments lie at the heart of our understanding of social solidarity, and of the distinction between notions of social solidarity and pious rightwing claims of ‘we’re all in it together’. And that is why it also has to be at the heart of our understanding of the riots.