The Liberal Defence of Murder

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Richard Seymour, Verso, £16.99

One form of collateral damage from the "war on terror" has been the proliferation of pro-war liberals. These supposedly enlightened intellectuals and former left wingers have used access to the media to justify indiscriminate bombing and colonial occupation in the name of anti-fascism, women's liberation and Western values of freedom and democracy.

Richard Seymour's valuable book traces the roots of such arguments and shows that they have a long and ignoble heritage.

Capitalism was at its birth a revolutionary system, destroying the old feudal society and creating modern capitalist states. The ideas of the Enlightenment informed those bourgeois revolutions, which stood for equality, scientific discovery and universal human values and aimed to end not just the old economic order, but the stranglehold of religion and superstition on society.

However, at its heart was a contradiction. Much of the early accumulation of capital was based on slavery, and in order to justify this system a series of ideas developed to dehumanise those whom it enslaved.

Once capitalism was established, its expansion encompassed a system of colonialism and empire which led to European powers, especially Britain, controlling much of the world. Seymour shows how much intellectual backing there was for this, even from supposed liberals who refused to confront the fact that the empire was not a civilising mission but a brutal imposition of exploitation and oppression.

Pro-war liberals more recently take their cue from the varied fortunes of US imperialism. The McCarthyite period in the 1950s saw a generation of ex-left wingers make their peace with US capitalism in revulsion at Stalin's Russia. The defeat for imperialism in Vietnam quieted similar voices, but the new Cold War gave them new strength. Calls for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans, or to stop women having their fingernails torn out for wearing nail varnish in Afghanistan, grew into a crescendo.

The failure of US imperialism in Iraq and its losing war in Afghanistan have blunted the impact of the liberal defenders of murder. Johann Hari has recanted, Nick Cohen has withered on the vine and David Aaronovitch has become just another boring commentator on Newsnight's arts review.

However, there is one area where they and their allies continue to make an impact: their constant attacks on Muslims and Islam. Even traditional right wingers like Peter Oborne have been horrified at the vitriol used against Muslims and have attacked it. Not so the liberals, who seem especially affronted by this form of religion - one practised by some of the poorest people in the world.

Take this from Martin Amis, quoted by Seymour, about the gatekeeper of the Holy Mosque in Jerusalem: "I saw in his eyes the assertion that he could do anything to me, to my wife, to my children, to my mother, and that this would only validate his rectitude." Isn't this just like the stories of white women being kidnapped by Native Americans, or the attitude in the Deep South which led to victimisations, fake charges and even lynchings?

We need to understand where these ideas come from and how to fight them. This book is a major contribution to this understanding.