Purging the Demons

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(261)

Review of 'Two Hours that Shook the World', Fred Halliday, Saqi Books £12.95

This seems at first sight a sober and often intelligent book--a useful antidote to post 11 September hysteria. For example, we learn that big governments like the US often commit terrorist acts, and that 'international terrorism' is a secondary phenomenon, certainly not a major threat to international order. In addition, the current 'discourse' between the 'west' and 'Islam' is meticulously picked apart.

There are in reality many 'wests' and many 'Islams', with far more overlap than either side is ready to admit. In the Balkans the 'west' defended 'Islam' against the (Christian) Serbs, albeit for cynical reasons. Similarly, Islamic movements have incorporated many western concepts or, rather, modern concepts with historical roots in the west, even if implicitly rather than explicitly. There is a robust defence of beleaguered Muslim communities around the world, which includes a particularly interesting account of the threat posed by the very powerful Hindu chauvinists in India. And there is at least a limited attempt to locate all of this in the context of the deepening globalisation crisis.

So far so good, but there is also intellectual slippage, especially when it comes to dealing with 'terrorism'. Professor Halliday denounces the IRA because it is illegitimate to use political violence in democratic societies. Yet the Orange state in Northern Ireland was by its very definition never democratic. For most of the 20th century the armed strength of the British (democratic) state propped up the colonial entity. Using Halliday's own logic, surely this made the British armed forces legitimate targets.

Indeed, in an earlier life Fred Halliday had no problem encouraging political violence against those states shaped by western imperialism. His book 'Arabia Without Sultans', written 30 years ago, was and remains a rousing call to armed revolutionary violence against the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia, and their western backers. Alas, this life fell to pieces along with the Berlin Wall in 1989. What a shame Fred hadn't joined some of us 20 years earlier, and paid more attention to Trotsky and rather less to Stalin and Mao. That may have immunised his Communism against disintegration into a rather timid leftish liberalism.

For today Professor Halliday adopts the Enlightenment tradition which stops with Kant rather than Marx. In this book Halliday resurrects the old philosopher as a beacon to guide us from the emergence of liberal democratic nation-states several centuries ago to the goal of universal 'global governance' for the new century. In that earlier life Fred Halliday would never have anchored the Enlightenment ideals of universalism and democracy to the social class that gave us the new world order of nation-states. He knew that this was a class of super-exploiters, extracting surplus value from labour at home as it organised the trans-Atlantic slave trade abroad, massacring millions of native people everywhere it went as it imposed its bloody system of colonialism and imperialism.

Now he shies away from these ideas. They receive little mention in this book. When they appear they are shrouded in ambiguity. Yes, a damaging US imperialism persists, but sometimes its intervention around the world can be 'positive'. It seems we'll have to learn to live with capitalism, although it must certainly reverse the dynamic which is deepening global inequality. Otherwise four 'demons' from the 20th century--like the four horsemen of the apocalypse--will return to haunt us. Three of the demons are war, ethnic purging and mass starvation. And the fourth one is...revolution... Excuse me? This is the fourth demon? Sorry, Fred, what on earth did happen to you towards the end of the last century?