Chris Harman

In Perspective

Chorus of hypocrites

(September 2008)

From Socialist Review, September 2008.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It comes easy for liberal commentators to condemn some human rights abuses and invasions, but why do they always stop short of denouncing the outrages perpetrated by the Western powers?

What a year it’s been for denunciations of oppression and militarism in the media, particularly the BBC. They have condemned the crimes of the Burmese junta, repression by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the Sudanese militias in Darfur, public hangings in Iran, Chinese repression in Tibet and now the Russian army in Georgia. Images of devastation have been accompanied by journalistic descriptions of brutality, denunciations by George Bush and Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, John McCain and Barack Obama – and demands from liberal commentators that “something must be done”.

There is only one word adequate to describe this deluge of support for peace and human rights – hypocrisy. The Nato powers and their clients have matched each and every one of these horrors with their own actions. Think of the US bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq; Turkish cross-border attacks on the Kurds; the most recent wave of Indian repression in Kashmir; US and British support for Pervez Musharraf’s attempt to stay in power in Pakistan; the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia; the continual grabbing of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would conclude we are faced with a CIA orchestrated campaign to cover up for the crimes of the world’s Western powers. As a Marxist I understand things are rather more complex.

Those who run states and capitalist corporations do meet together to try to shape the world according to their own designs – at G8 meetings, Nato summits, World Economic Forums and innumerable other gatherings. Given the chance, they do place restrictions on what can be reported (the sacking of those running the BBC in the aftermath of the David Kelly affair was an example of this).

But they also exercise indirect influence over the propagation of ideas in ways that can be insidious.

They are helped in this by the approach of those liberal and reformist socialist commentators and journalists who sometimes criticise them. These have a shared underlying political philosophy – that existing society can be changed by peaceful pressure on the existing state. They see the state as “our state” the police as “our police”, the army as “our army”, and all of them as part of “our democracy”.

Hence the conclusion of many of them that “humanitarian intervention” may have been disastrous in Iraq, but it has to be supported in Afghanistan and pressed for in Darfur. As they see it, “our” governments make mistakes; others commit crimes. How else could liberal commentators have discussed the pros and cons of boycotting the Beijing Olympics without any suggestion of boycotting the next Olympics, to be held in a country whose army is currently murdering people in Iraq and Afghanistan?

It is an approach that is particularly dangerous at the moment as US imperialism is straining to reassert its global hegemony. It wants to be able to impose its will not only on the poor of the world but also on the ruling classes of other states. That is why it has been threatening Iran, extending Nato eastwards to the borders of Russia, establishing a ring of military bases around China and building up Colombia as a client state in Latin America.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, those liberals and reformist socialists who supported their own governments going to war screamed about the imperialism and the onslaught on human rights of the other side. The French Socialist Party denounced German imperialism, the German social democrats the despotism of the Russian Tsar, the Russian liberals the oppression of the Serbs by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Against this, revolutionaries insisted the crimes of their own ruling class were their first concern. Karl Liebknecht, the first German MP to vote against the war, put it simply: “The main enemy is at home.” That’s the only attitude we can take to the wave of hypocrisy we have been facing in recent months.

Does that mean ignoring or excusing the oppression carried out by our rulers’ enemies? Certainly not. Karl Liebknecht did not forget the British oppression of Ireland, India and half of Africa when he opposed German imperialism. Nor did Lenin condone German behaviour in its African colonies when he opposed Russian imperialism. To have done so would have besmirched the claim of revolutionary socialism to stand for the emancipation of all the oppressed. But they both put the emphasis on what their own rulers were doing.

Today, opposing the US does not mean in any way condoning what Russia has done in Chechnya or what China is doing in Tibet. Similarly, opposing US threats against Iran does not mean supporting the Iranian regime. But it does mean avoiding the cheap popularity that comes from joining in the hypocritical chorus of those in the media and on the right of the labour movement who want to use those issues to avoid all-out opposition to what Bush and Brown are up to in these regions.

Of course, if we were in Russia, we would emphasise the crimes of Putin and Russian imperialism as a top priority. If we were in Iran we would emphasise the oppressive, capitalist policies of the Iranian regime as well as the harm being done to all the people of the region by US imperialism. But we are in the West. Combating the wars, the lies and the pillage of the poorer parts of the world by our own rulers has to be at the top of our agenda – those who do otherwise help those rulers, even if they sometimes do so inadvertently.

Last updated on 27 December 2009