Some things grow more relevant with age. Cultural ephemera come and go and are later rediscovered. So it’s no surprise a rather forgotten film like Contagion (2011), whose plot revolves around a deadly pandemic, reappeared as one of the most watched and streamed movies in the middle of the present coronavirus crisis. This adage applies also to the Euston Manifesto – a small, centre-left political project that was launched fourteen years ago this month, but at the time failed to really get off the ground.
Why return now to a fourteen-year-old attempt at renewing progressive politics, written when I was in the early years of secondary school? First of all, in many ways, some of the content of the Manifesto seems highly prescient given what has since occurred on the British left. It also raises important questions about values and ethics; in other words, about a sense of what is morally right on the left beyond adherence to the “correct” political line. As Frances Weetman noted in a recent piece on this site, on both the left and the right at present, such questions are studiously avoided, with people instead resorting to leader-worship and “the comfort-blanket of conspiracism”. Fourteen years ago, the authors and signatories of the Euston Manifesto took aim at the very same tendencies. For that reason, the document deserves re-examining.
The Euston Manifesto took its name from Euston Road, the location of O’Neills (imagine an Irish-themed Wetherspoons) where the group had its first formal meeting. It was later officially launched on 25 May 2006 via its own website and with an article in The New Statesman. Founded by a group of academics, journalists and activists including Norman Geras, Nick Cohen and many others, it was styled as a moral and political re-calibration of the left. The diverse band of signatories felt that sections of the left had become “rather too flexible” in their values. The rise of George Galloway’s Respect Party and the formation of other alliances between the far-left and radical Islam formed the context for their concerns.
While the Manifesto’s “Statement of Principles” spoke to the political situation in the Britain of 2006, it seems terribly prescient now in 2020, particularly as the Labour Party emerges from the rubble of Corbyn’s leadership. The Manifesto’s authors were alive to the growth of a number of ominous tendencies on the left – tendencies that, in 2015, would go on to take hold of Britain’s largest opposition party. Among these were a contempt for liberal democracy, a misplaced sense of “solidarity” with anti-democratic and reactionary regimes and movements, a crude anti-Americanism, blanket opposition to humanitarian military intervention, and a left-wing variant of antisemitism.
For having the temerity to come out in opposition to these things, the Euston Manifesto’s authors faced a range criticisms and accusations. They were denounced from the opinion columns of the liberal-left Guardian to the websites of various Trotskyist sects. The “Eustonites” were variously accused of engaging in neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, of being ex-Trot neo-cons intent on re-waging the Cold War, of making a fuss over nothing when it came to antisemitism, of lying, of exaggerating, of being an inconsequential online-only ‘movement’ and of a range of other ideological transgressions.
By 2007, opinion pieces were already asking “What ever happened to the Euston Manifesto?” Others gleefully condemned the Manifesto as irrelevant. Every now and then, former Eustonites provide the occasional reminder of its existence by marking the passing of another anniversary. Otherwise, the group’s name lives on as a political punchline deployed by faddish radicals who, though outspokenly anti-Tory and anti-capitalist, maintained a gutless silence about the antisemites in their own ranks.
The Manifesto clearly had its problems. Of the litany of criticisms it attracted at the time, one of the more apt observations was that, outside a few in-person meetings, the Manifesto existed solely online (underlined by the inclusion of a commitment to “open source’” software). It remained the domain of academics and journalists, a union of blogs rather than a political movement. I’m not calling simply for a “return to Euston” as some have done, but arguing that we need to look again at the Manifesto as the basis for new thinking about the left’s values.
For all its problems, Eustonite vigilance would likely have saved the largest party of the left in Britain from the damage wrought by Corbynism. Equally, it is hard to imagine that the Labour Party would now be being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for institutional antisemitism. Years before Corbyn was even a leadership contender, the Eustonites had got the number of the ilk of “Stop the War” charlatans that came to infest the office of the Leader of the Opposition. They understood then that these people were dangerous to any progressive project not simply because of their chronic inability to win elections, but because of their cynical and essentially reactionary world-view.
Even now, the Manifesto offers the means of inoculating the British left against similar rubbish; rubbish that is still present in the Labour Party’s bloodstream, even after the change in leadership. Corbynism mainstreamed many of the tendencies that the Eustonites opposed. Many of these positions and attitudes remain influential within the Labour Party and in left-wing opinion more broadly. In particular, the “anti-war internationalists” remain the most crankish contingent of far-left. In spite of their cuddly name, they are neither really “pro-peace” nor genuinely “internationalist”. When it comes to the question of humanitarian intervention or the punishment of war crimes, they repeat “but Iraq”. When it comes to struggles for political freedoms and human rights beyond the borders of Britain or America, they spin elaborate narratives of U.S.-backed or Israeli-directed “regime change”. They would rather focus their ire on matters at home, or at least in “the West”, while living out vicarious fantasies of resistance through the exploits of whichever movement or regime appears to be sticking it to Britain, America or Israel, regardless of their politics.
Euphemisms and excuses like the ones mentioned above are wholly inadequate in the midst of a global rise of (often “traditionalist”, if not right-wing) authoritarianism. When it comes to events in Syria, in Venezuela, and in Hong Kong, the “anti-war” far-left have refused to support pro-democracy uprisings. Increasingly, they sound less like revolutionaries and more like eighteenth-century religious reactionaries and supporters of the pre-revolutionary French ancien régime: the masses have no legitimate grievances against an unjust and oppressive regime, they claim, instead citing the directing influence of shadowy outside actors.
Neither is all this simply a matter of “quarrel[s] in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing” (to quote Neville Chamberlain, another famous appeaser); it has dire domestic consequences as well. When foreign reactionary regimes or movements strike on Britain’s streets as they have done with the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, the 2018 Salisbury poisonings, and more recently with attacks against Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in Sheffield and Manchester, the reaction of many on the left is either silence or equivocation when it should be one of full-throated condemnation. This is not only morally offensive, it is dangerous.
As the Euston Manifesto reminds us, when people rise up against a tyrannical or authoritarian government, genuinely progressive left-wingers ought to be instinctively with them, whether in Syria, Venezuela or Hong Kong. And the same goes for those trying to live their lives free of the blight of religious terrorism, whether in Manchester or the Middle East. This fourteen-year-old re-affirmation of “the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; [and] the pursuit of happiness” could not be more timely. This is what a genuinely internationalist, progressive left looks like. Encouragingly, Labour’s New Shadow Foreign Secretary appears to be moving the Party’s foreign policy stance in this direction.
The Euston Manifesto is only a set of ideas and priorities. It is neither a practical plan of action nor a blueprint for building a mass movement. Nonetheless, ideas remain important. I daresay the British left would be better served by the ones it contains than by the collection of antisemitic conspiracy theories, counter-revolutionary fantasies of ‘regime change’, and sci-fi Stalinist visions of “fully-automated luxury communism” currently offered by the far-left.