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The Liberal Defence of Murder, By Richard Seymour

Many of Britain's left-wing intelligentsia turned pro-war – but were they just confused?

Something appears to have overtaken those previously liberal British journalists who in recent years have supported so determinedly the Republican Falange around George Bush. You can think of writers such as Christopher Hitchens, who opened the David Horowitz Freedom Centre in 2006 by telling his listeners that it was a pleasure as well as a duty to kill Muslims; or Nick Cohen, who was invited to meet Paul Wolfowitz and declared him a politician committed to extending human freedom; or Martin Amis, who told The Times in 2006 that perhaps the Muslim community should be subject to deportation, and compelled to undergo strip searches in the street.

The interest in this generation lies not in the fact that its members have gone over to the side of causes that once they fought. (The history of ideas is just as full of apostates as it is of converts, of course.) The more interesting point is that they continue to insist that their exile is in full fidelity with their past principles. Hitchens it seems is incapable of making a public speech without running through a roll-call of his heroes – Orwell, Victor Serge, C L R James – writers, it must be said, who had the chance in their own lives and disdained the journey he has taken.

Richard Seymour has now written a polemic, tracing the emergence of this group of writers and criticising them for supporting military interventions. The enduring folly of the pro-war left, Seymour suggests, lies in a combination of experience and innocence. The experience was the civil war in Yugoslavia. Seeing the great crime of the destruction of Sarajevo, the writers concluded that this was a moment, like the 1930s, to take sides. I remember friends arguing with me at the time: the defence of Sarajevo requires the formation of a new International Brigade. In the absence of volunteers, military action was required, and the glow of existential goodness was then conferred on all Bosnian allies, including the US, which became the main focus of the hopes of this set of progressives, and has remained so through the following decade. The innocence was a naive belief in the capacity of American military power to bring good things to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq.

The first half of the book is a potted narrative of the pro-war clique; the second half tells the story of their American predecessors, the neo-conservative writers and politicians who captured the Republican party in the late-1990s. Like an archaeologist digging through the bones of the intellectual history of the US, Seymour announces with glee his discovery of the first British follower of neo-conservatism, John Spargo, an émigré to America in 1901 who argued against every left-wing movement he found, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the first shoots of American bolshevism. Spargo was a socialist, a liberal and a belligerent conservative in turn. From Spargo it is but a short step to Amis, Cohen and their like.

Richard Seymour is the blogger Lenin's Tomb. For the past five years, he has been following the war party, noting every suggestion of this group, and connecting their various journalistic musings to the shifts of power on the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad. Through his blog, Seymour has built up an audience of thousands of committed readers. For them and for him there must be a real pleasure at the predicament of the so-called pro-war left now faced with an Obama presidency. Atlanticist to their heart, they find that America has rejected them. At times Seymour perhaps takes too little care to acknowledge those other, precious occasions when liberals and others have refused the appeal of arms. But that quibble aside, this is an excellent antidote to the propagandists of the crisis of our times.

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