The Betrayal of Dissent by Scott Lucas

A predictable attack on George Orwell doesn't convince Johann Hari of the arguments against 'public intellectuals' such as himself
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The Independent Culture

When I first heard that Scott Lucas was writing a book-length attack on "public intellectuals including Christopher Hitchens, Michael Walzer, David Aaronovitch and [hem hem] Johann Hari, who have all invoked Orwellian honesty and decency to shut down dissent", I was excited. The British school of "Cruise Missile Liberals" - lefties who backed the recent war on Iraq and, more broadly, the "War on Terror" - have been an eclectic crowd, from John Lloyd to Nick Cohen. Our philosophy remains inchoate. Nothing helps to clarify thought like intelligent opposition, so I turned keenly to The Betrayal of Dissent when it arrived on my desk.

Lucas's first chapter is a familiar attack on George Orwell, rehashed from his earlier biography. Orwell is a "policeman of the left", he argues, a man who defended the world's existing power structures aggressively while dressing his conservatism in progressive rhetoric. He merely adopted the pose of telling uncomfortable truths to his own side; in reality, he belonged in the conservative camp all along. Orwell's ire, Lucas argues, was consistently turned to greatest effect against the legitimate socialist movements of his time. He blamed the poverty in Wigan on the failure of socialists and the rise of tyranny on the success of socialists. Presented with any given problem, he was more enraged by the failure of the left than by anything else.

Once he is seen in this context, Lucas explains, we can see that the canonisation of Orwell has occurred for two fetid reasons. Firstly, he provides right-wingers with a fake "decent" left-winger they can use to bash and delegitimise any real opposition forces. Secondly, he provides lefties with an excuse - and indeed a vocabulary - for selling out while retaining a smug sense of moral superiority. This is an interesting thesis, albeit one Lucas has already outlined at length. The point of this new book is to extend this critique to the "liberal hawks" who are, he believes, contemporary Orwells, defending the extension of ultra-conservative American power with slices of leftie rhetoric.

The problem is, having set himself this task, Lucas doesn't follow it through. A dissection of the "liberal hawk" philosophy, exposing its flaws, its contradictions, its errors - is totally absent. Much of the book is simple quotation, without any comment at all.

Lucas's argument is honestly summarised in this review, even though I disagree with him. He does not repay the compliment. Indeed, quite early on he shows that he is not interested in having a serious argument with the liberal hawks based on an honest exchange of views; instead he wants to scream at a bogeyman of his own creation. For example, he liberally mixes quotes from people like David Aaronovitch with disgusting quotes from US far-right maniacs like Bill O'Reilly, as though there were no distinction between them.

Sadly, then, this is not a critical account of the liberal hawks' philosophy at all. No; instead it is a series of vague, loosely connected ad hominem attacks. He has chosen this structure for a simple reason: the liberal hawks' arguments are to him so obviously disgusting, and so impossible to take seriously, that their motives for supporting the war must lie elsewhere, in personal flaws.

One sign of how little Lucas has understood his opponents comes in his conclusion. The pro-war left, he says, "wields a shovel which is not brought down on the heads of those with power, but on the heads of those confronting and exposing that power ... [It is] a shovel that is not wielded against the state but for it." Can he have read so much and understood so little? The central argument of the liberal hawks is that sometimes the interests of powerful states and the interests of oppressed peoples will coincide, and when it does, the Left should cautiously support those states. It seems that this genuinely has not occurred to Lucas.

He works on the assumption that states and the oppressed are always at war - essentially an anarchist position. Yet it is fairly easy to think of historical examples where this is plainly not the case. The most obvious, uncontroversial and tedious example is the Second World War. As Lucas's nemesis Orwell argued, the interests of the British state coincided with the interests of oppressed Poles and Jews, and the Left was right to support the British state, for all its terrible flaws, on this issue. Is it inconceivable that such a coincidence of state power and the ambitions of the Left might occur again? Is it really "silencing the real left" even to suggest it?

Because Lucas makes no attempt to understand these subtleties, because he lazily assumes that we are simply following the powerful for the sake of it, reading his attack is a strange experience, like being beaten over the head with a marshmallow. This is a shame, because there is an interesting left-wing critique of the liberal hawks waiting to be written. This, however, is as trivial as a children's colouring book.