« Stalinism: Not what it used to be | Main | So right, and so wrong »

The loyal non-opposition

By Michael J. Smith on Friday April 1, 2011 01:20 AM

Predictably enough, the Empire's latest Great Moral Crusade -- I mean, the one in Libya; there may have been more, by the time you read this -- has caused the usual crocus-like crop of Lefties to pop up, eager to demonstrate that there is nothing knee-jerk about their anti-imperialism. Among them is the owlish pedagogue shown above, one Gilbert Achcar, who caused a bit of a stir recently with a couple of pieces -- here, and here. It's all very familiar stuff:

if we could turn back the wheel of history and go back to the period immediately preceding the Rwandan genocide, would we oppose an UN-authorized Western-led military intervention deployed in order to prevent it?

... What is decisive is the comparison between the human cost of this intervention and the cost that would have been incurred had it not happened.

To take another extreme analogy for the sake of showing the full range of discussion: could Nazism be defeated through non-violent means?

It's all there, isn't it?

I. The calculus of immediate local utility

Achcar, the Auld Dominie, wants us to base our decision entirely on the balance of human cost in the immediate situation at hand. We are to prescind from all consideration of any bigger picture.

We're not to consider whether there are institutions in play that we would like to weaken or strengthen; or whether there are principles involved that we want to support or oppose. We're not allowed to notice trends, or ask ourselves whether we would rather encourage or discourage them. (One such trend might be the increasing pace and scale of "Western" armed interventions, with the usual humanitarian fig-leaf, around the world; another might be the sudden rash of popular uprisings in the Arab lands which have not owed anything to NATO or the CIA.)

It's quite a lot like the lesser-evil argument for voting Democratic. Like the Prof, the zealous Democrat only wants you to think about potential third-order effects that may occur in the next four years. He doesn't want you to think about the fact that he's asking you to support a criminal and repressive institution and encourage it, to the best of your modest ability, to become even worse than it already is.

This fly's-eye narrowing of focus and willed obliviousness of larger context is a strangely impoverished, self-stultified intellectual stance. Why would anybody embrace it and evangelize for it?

Perhaps the evangelism is easily enough explained, given the embrace; the Achcarian thinker, and the Democrat, are like the fox in Aesop who lost his tail and tried to persuade the other foxes to give up their tails too. But then why the embrace? Why lose your fine, fiery, foxy tail if you had the choice to keep it?

One can only conclude that Achcar and the Democrat have started with the conclusion they want and worked backward to the methodology that produces it. Achcar, for some reason, wants to be an apologist for an imperial military adventure every so often.

Who knows why? Perhaps he wants to appear judicious, discriminating, and un-doctrinaire to his cubicle-mates down at the diploma mill. Perhaps he gets tired of being a peace weenie, from time to time, and likes to show that he's really a tough guy, whose nerves, to borrow Auden's phrase, won't flinch at slaughter as long as there's a higher purpose. Perhaps he's just a bit of a contrarian, though not a very imaginative one.

This is all speculation, of course. One would have to know Achcar better in order to form any real hypothesis about what makes him tick. But the mention of speculation brings me to another topic:

II. Phantoms meet Figments at Chimaera Field today

The truckloads of corpses that Achcar wants us to weigh against each other are hypothetical ones, to whom he gives, or tries to give, a specious weight and number with label-grabbing phrases like "Who in his right mind could believe...?"

But neither Achcar nor anyone else knows knows how many people Qaddafi will kill, or how many NATO will kill, or how many a neoliberal comprador regime installed by "Western" firepower will kill.

Oh, we can all make our guesses, and it's an amusing, though heartless, pinko parlor game to argue for our various numbers. But we can't count the corpses before they're dead. Still, that's no problem for Achcar. He's fine with sending in the bombers on the basis of a guess.

On the other hand, one of the few things we do know for sure, as it happens, is that the Empire does not send in bombers for benign reasons. It's not because the imperial oligarchs' hearts have been touched that they're helping the rebels in Libya (unlike those in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Yemen, and Bahrain, and...).

We all agree on this, right? I bet even Achcar does. When the Imperial bombers are sent, they're sent for imperial purposes.

But in accordance with Achcar's Canon I above, this is inadmissible evidence. No matter that we all agree the Empire has malign intentions and will enact those intentions wherever and whenever it achieves a position of sufficient strength. We are not allowed to take into account this fact, which we all know and acknowledge. Rather, we must confine ourselves to counting hypothetical corpses.

Here again the parallel with Democratic Party shills, and their extensive reliance on the apodictic subjunctive, is quite strong: "You can't possibly believe that Gore would have invaded Libya! -- Er, I mean, Iraq!"

III. The Great Good War

There probably hasn't been a single apologist for war in the last sixty years who hasn't hauled in the Great Ant-Fascist Titanomachia to justify his pleading -- the way Woody Allen produced Marshall McLuhan:

I really wish somebody would undertake a thorough cold-hearted debunking of World War II's moral grandeur. Getting rid of Hitler was a nice side-effect, of course, but hardly the motive. The European war was fought to keep Germany in a box (which the victorious Allies ended up opening anyway, just a few decades after the bloodletting stopped) and the Pacific war was fought to keep Japan in a box (ditto; though the box was kept shut long enough to allow Uncle to replace the European colonial powers on that side of the world).

But for the sake of argument, let's grant every self-congratulatory Parson Weems myth about the noble purposes of the war. In that case, is it not obvious that WWII was an absolutely sui-generis undertaking, utterly and entirely exceptional in the blood-soaked history of Uncle's foreign adventures?

And that being so -- isn't it extraordinary that this completely unprecedented and never-repeated lusus naturae should be trotted out year after year to justify every squalid sanguinary romp that the gangsters in Washington -- and latterly, London and Paris and Berlin -- embark upon?

Indeed, it's hard to resist the conclusion that anybody who trots out WWII to justify some jolly little war he's promoting might as well have tattooed on his forehead the words "Liar" and "Fraud".

For Achcar, I'd be happy to do the job myself -- though it would mean getting closer to him than would be pleasant.

Still, it's a question of public safety. After all, who knows how many people this guy will kill if he's not stopped?

Comments (32)


You are too rough on Achcar. He is far from an excuse-maker for Western liberal imperialism, nor is this the first step of his traversing a path trod by the likes of one C Hitchens. A couple of weeks ago he staked out a vaguely defensible though ultimately wrong position, and unfortunately has clung to it, despite mounting evidence that Libyan rebel forces are increasingly being reduced to playthings of NE Virginia. (Achcar should have foreseen this once the opposition came to rely on NATO air cover, but stupidly did not.) At this point I suspect the poor guy is mainly attempting to save face. But familiarize yourself with his oeuvre before you subject him to unfair characterizations. Yes, the past does not guarantee the present or the future, but I think (or perhaps I hope?) that the record will suggest that this is a terrible aberration on Achcar's part, and nothing more. However, since many at this site have an abiding hatred of Trots -- despite the fact that the UK's highest profile Trots have come out in staunch opposition to this murderous intervention -- I'm quite sure you're not inclined to give Achcar the benefit of the doubt.


And egads, MJS, isn't it a bit rich to malign Achcar because you suspect he's "a bit of a contrarian." Regardless of whether the shoe fits, if that's a crime, you've just refuted 2/3 of what you've posted to this blog from its inception. In fact many a time you've proudly flown the contrarian banner. I guess you're immune from the calumny you direct Achcar's way because your knee jerks in response to a different stimulus, namely mediocre left-liberal conventional wisdom...


I wasn't aware that Achcar was a votary of Comrade Bronstein. However I regard this as a mere peccadillo; some of my best friends are Trots.

You're quite right that I don't know his work at all. He only came to my attention in connection with his recent cheerleading for the mad bombers of NATO. I'll probably have to encounter something less discreditable from him before I'll be much inclined to revise my impression that he's at best a fool -- and a preening, self-satisfied, academic fool, to judge by his prose style.

What I have seen doesn't motivate me strongly to seek farther, except perhaps to find fodder for slow days when I've overworked Melissa Harris-Lacewell-Peary-Amundsen-Codswallop. But on your recommendation, gl, maybe I'll bestir myself and do a bit more research.


I wasn't suggesting that contrarianism was reprehensible; it seemed possible, though, that it might go some way toward explaining Achcar's otherwise puzzling stance, which would be routine for a garden-variety liberal but does seem a bit odd in somebody who thinks of himself as a Marxist.


Placing Achcar and Ms H-P-L in the same sentence, even if no direct comparison or contrast is being made, is heresy.

Lebanese-born, for years Achcar was active in Lutte Ouvriere circles in Paris. Frankly I don't know how he managed to score a gig at SOAS. I first came across his stuff eight or nine years ago. It's funny that you indict him for tending towards self-important stuffed-shirtedness. He penned a fantastic screed against the olympian pessimism of Perry Anderson and the "new" NLR about ten years ago:


For Achcar one-stop shopping, go here:


I've really liked his insights over the years, so I'm desperately hoping that he redeems himself on this one. (And I DON'T mean that on this one he'll be redeemed by history. Clearly that is not in the works.) Otherwise I might have to start referring to Achcar as "Ashcan." Gladly I'm not nearly there yet.

Al Schumann:

gl, I've read that attack on olympian pessimism before. It's a good one. There's a point past which pessimism and skepticism become pyrrhonian self-indulgence.

I'm not familiar with Achar beyond that. For whatever it's worth, I'm prepared to chalk his latest up to a ghastly, compounded mistake and I share your hope that he finds his way clear to a change of heart.


achie's compound mistake
hardly comes from being contrary
like darkness at noon trot trotery

it comes from an absurdly easy to manipulate
first world chuch lady goo goo
social imperialism

an absolutist set of enlightened
"rights" notions
that preceeded the french revolution( FR )
informed its first stage
and got itself properly devoured by history
in the FRs second stage
and yet lives on as
the moe howard ghost
of humanist socialism

yes its to early to draw up final acounts
on the FR
on the down side
looking at
simply the radiation from 18th century notions
like the universal rights of man
we find in fact a growing counter revolutionary obession
body count utilitarians
and other breeds of scrambled egg social liberalism
whatever these independent pink spirits
like achie suggest we face here
inside the flap of the open tent left

at the least
a nasty sanctimonious civilizing rain
of fall out from '89
a fall out
with a very long half life indeed
at least as long as
the unburied wandering petty burgher spirit
our hapless
one brain one result
"findings" in fact and value


as to body count utilitarianism
there are bodies and there are bodies
unlike souls
not all types of bodies weigh the same


"You are too rough on Achcar"
who cares about achcar if not
a man for all seasons at least a man for many seasons

this season he's fucked !!!!
we don't know him or need to know him to judge this outpouring of his ..no ??

we hardly sit in judgement on his "soul"
this isn't part of an ongoing case
for the always in session
court of virtual pink purges

in fact the whole business of one spirits view
lacks standing here

the question for a citizen of the emmpire state
is uncle's action
supported oppossed

seems a plague on both house
hand sit rules this spirits action department

he calls on us to "stay out of this scrap"
let the dirty sovereign types like hugo and fidel and danny
oppose a cobbled up "moral action"
by the sanctimonious potus gang

let them expose their "inconsistency "
their squalid traducing of
both high principle and righteous sentiment

we of the non state non combatant left
can simply stay in our sanctum sanctorum
praying to Clio for a better world
when we're not at our vocation:
universal uncompromising humanism
from our soap box on the digital side walk


the elephant shits his pea:

"Nevertheless revolutionary socialist currents are still very much in evidence in the universities. Above all, there is the well attested development of semi-anarchist currents, or substitutes for political parties in the form of networks and associations, which testify to a radical opposition to neo-liberalism and its destructive effects.

If we take the situation in France, certain facts come to mind, such as: the December 1995 movement; the numerous sectional strikes which keep on bursting out (teachers and financial civil servants have recently brought down two ministers); the continuing development of new trade unions to the left of the traditional ones (eg SUD); the unprecedented electoral advances of the Trotskyist far left; the distribution rate of nearly a quarter of a million for a radical but not popular-looking monthly paper opposed to neo-liberalism (Le Monde Diplomatique); the near 20,000 membership of a campaign organisation against neo-liberalism (ATTAC); the huge commercial success of the cry of disgust at neo-liberalism (The Economic Horror), and so on. Who from the French side of the Channel could subscribe to Perry Anderson's diagnosis?"

doubtless many here are bucked up by this rallying call eh ??

"...development of semi-anarchist currents, or substitutes for political parties in the form of networks and associations.."

a post party era ...now 20 years old
aren't we ready for another pre party period ??

"well not 'subjectively' comrade ...
not yet at least "

as the old mechanist agnostics might
in radical self contradiction
hoping this time history might repeat itself with a real hard rhyme

Al Schumann:
doubtless many here are bucked up by this rallying call eh ??

Not so much by a rallying call, but yes, even if it has a touch of "the grass is always redder somewhere else" in it. The anglospheric left excels in self-defeat and preemptive, self-inflicted fizzle. Even with the gift of the most cretinous, mind numbingly stupid reactionaries, self-defeat gets grasped with masochistic glee. It doesn't happen by accident or through the sinister cunning of the neolibs and neocons.

Actually, I think George Carlin summarized the reason for our involvement in Dubya Dubya Two quite elegantly: Hitler's regime was involved in racial and religious hatred turned up to eleven; he was basically horning in on the USA's territory in that regard, and we opened up a can of whup-ass on Hitler because, as Carlin so beautifully put it, "That's our fuckin' job, buddy! That's OUR FUCKIN' JOB!"

Oh, and btw: I love the tie on that Columbia U. twat in that Annie Hall scene -- my favorite scene from one of my favorite Woody Allen films.

Yesterday afternoon, as the DW and I were on our way home from Vallarta, waiting around to catch our connecting flight home from DFW, I happened to catch a segment on the Libyan rebel forces on CNN (not that I could avoid it; what's the deal with the big-ass TV set infesting departure lounges these days?). Among other interesting factoids, along with little bits of revelations about CIA assets embedded in the Libyan rebel army, was the mention of a high-ranking Libyan rebel commander who had defected from Gadhafi's regime some years back and fled the country and, until recently, was living in the Northern Virginia 'burbs, when he apparently felt the call to aid his mother country in its most desperate hour and returned to take a command position in the Libyan rebel army. I almost missed the boarding call for our flight because the alarms in my head were clanging so loudly.

As soon as I finish doing my past month's laundry, there'll be a cartoon about this (in case anyone gives a shit).


let me submit these claims to the assembled harvesters and weed killers

the key flub here is within the dogmas of the 4th international

the left circa 1956 to 1976
could look first world or third world

maoist or trot


the self determination of nation states their with their various self iberation organizations
is a very different paradigm from
world revolution first world centered
that lies behind the notions of perminent revolution

that is all
begin to chew and spit as needed and wanted
i'm off to sell cheap mattresses to innocent immigrant souls


Much as one would like to regard this as a temporary loss of reason, this French-Lebanese member of the generation of Marx and Coca Cola comes from a tribe whose members tend to hang on to their "reasoning" with the tenacity of Christian sectarians of Roman coliseum days. This can happen even if they end up wearing their coat "the 'right' way around" in later life, as is the case with Neocons many of whom were Trots in their salad days. More likely he will end up solidifying his post at SOAS and build on his insight like the recently departed LSE perched Fred Halliday who too came to see the light of reason in the shape of an overriding concept of human rights, which for him trumped any notion of collective agency or agency itself when it came to 'backward' societies:

[Halliday] supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as well as the two Gulf Wars, the interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, and the American-led war in Afghanistan which began in 2001. Influenced by Bill Warren, he came to consider that imperialism plays "a progressive role in transforming the world".

"I really wish somebody would undertake a thorough cold-hearted debunking of World War II's moral grandeur."

Human Smoke? I also seem to recall reading something of Zinn's in my teens that made me rethink my feelings on WWII like wo but I don't remember what it was or what it said.

Nurse Ruth debunked that grandeur, almost every day she bought cigarettes from me.

"We poisoned those German POWs," she said. Glass fragments in their milk, poison in their bread.

She was perverse enough to honestly revel in it. And honest enough to admit she was under orders.

Mentioning whatever Ash-Can has done in the past is irrelevant flycasting** on the point of defending Murdering Civilians So That Civilians Can Be Free.


**The equivalent of throwing size 22 pale morning duns over a muddy 80degF river devoid of trout.


Another debunking of the moral grandeur of WW II is Peter Hehn's book, A Low Dishonest Decade, which recounts among other things, the role of the London banks in postponing a clear decision on Hitler until it was too late.


"Perhaps he gets tired of being a peace weenie"

It IS tiring to be a peace weenie. It requires persistence amid a culture ever frothing for the next war. It demands that one be "predictable," "dull," and drearily "consistent" regarding one's views of events. No counterintuitive surprises allowed.

It lacks the adrenaline rush, the frisson, of the occasional embrace of couch-potato hawkishness, the contrarian-lefty variety being particularly sexy. There's no emotional "upside" to it, no fun, no opportunity to stick out the chest and proudly proclaim, "Well, just because Paul Wolfowitz believes it, doesn't mean it's wrong....and he has an Arab girlfriend!"

What's more, one is endlessly asked to bear the burden of proof...."Well, whattya think we should DO? What's YOUR solution???"

Peace weenie-dom is joyless. No fun at all. At best, monastic; at worst, downright stressful.


Norman Finkelstein wrote a few years ago about the modus operandi of a particular breed of attention grabber:

Two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience's attention. One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one's insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst. The former approach, which Chomsky exemplifies, requires hard work, whereas the latter is a lazy substitute for it. Thus Nat Hentoff, the hip (he loves jazz) left-liberal writer, would jazz up his interminably dull Village Voice columns by suddenly coming out against abortion or endorsing Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination. The master at this pose of maverick unpredictability used to be Christopher Hitchens. Amidst a fairly typical leftist politics, he would suddenly ambush unsuspecting readers with his opposition to abortion, admiration of the misogynist and juvenile lyrics of Two Live Crew ("I think that's very funny"), or support for Columbus's extermination of Native Americans ("deserving to be celebrated with great vim and gusto"). Immediately the talk of the town became, "Did you read Hitchens this week?"


That's a nice catch from Finkelstein, a great favorite of mine. Kinda nailed it, didn't he?


...For whatever it's worth, I'm prepared to chalk his latest up to a ghastly, compounded mistake and I share your hope that he finds his way clear to a change of heart.

Yeah. Let's just hope it's sooner rather than later.

Good piece, MJS.


Kinda nailed it, didn't he?

Yes, it's interesting how easily and how many keep falling for Hitchens's contrarian schtick, when his actual needs were fairly prosaic:

Thirty years ago, when I called Hitchens to set up an interview from a gloomy radio studio in New York, his answering machine announced that anyone with news of fame or money was welcome to leave their number after the tone.

Peter Ward:

Facebook comrade Paul Street jumped on the bandwagon as well, I discovered today:

Some U.S. Web “radicals”...are uncomfortable with the notion that any U.S. and Western military intervention in what we used to call the Third World might happen to have a positive humanitarian impact in one instance. They are afraid that their core identity as bad-ass, hard-core enemies of Empire (and of Obama)will be compromised.

The burden of proof shifted to us ideologically fanatical radical posers from those calling for aerial murder.


aerial murder ??
come now

this operation is straight
out of
summer theatre
look last year our highway games killed 30 plus k drivers and riders
and that's way down on a per capita basis from the early post war days

of course people are getting killed over there
but check out the congo if you want some
real blood river runs and there's hardly
a yankee in the game
and yet uncle's global system clearly effectuates that slaughter bench in the darkest of black africa no ??

in the scheme of things this is exemplary
its an allegory its emblematics
its not a blood bath
why i suspect col Q hasn't even approached his personal best as man murderer
so obviously barry wqon't need to kill many folks there at all

not far beyond the bay of pigs
certainly not up to lebanon one or two
or panama or even grenada
once you factor out the exciting
expenditure of some over stocks
in hi tech munitions that is


Achcar must be operating in a frequency band I don't receive. I read that piece mentioned early on in the comments -- about Perry Anderson -- and found it not just deadly dull, but dull in the stiff, cuisine-minceur idiom that only academic prose seems able to attain.


Father that you can't enjoy the unintended comedy of that piece saddens me

It really is a monument to 4 th international gusto

Red spring along the seine 1995

Jim Romer:

A message for Ethan--
re "World War II's moral grandeur" check out the writings of John Spritzler (http://www.newdemocracyworld.org/old/War/good-war-myth.htm), including his book "The People as Enemy"

Jim Romer:

Could someone please tell me why my comment disappeared?

Jim Romer:

Well, I guess it didn't but I'd swear it wasn't there a few minutes ago. Sorry.


"That's a nice catch from Finkelstein, a great favorite of mine. Kinda nailed it, didn't he?"

Indeed. You should read the whole piece. Definitely a classic in the genre.


Post a comment

Note also that comments with three or more links may be held for "moderation" -- a strange term to apply to the ghost in this blog's machine. Seems to be a hard-coded limitation of the blog software, unfortunately.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on Friday April 1, 2011 01:20 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Stalinism: Not what it used to be.

The next post in this blog is So right, and so wrong.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License

This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.31