When Fred Halliday—scholar, activist, journalist and teacher—died two years ago at the too-early age of 64, obituaries and tributes swamped the British press; the New Statesman subtitled its remembrance “The death of a great internationalist.” Halliday was a truly original thinker, a combination of Hannah Arendt (in her concern for the connection between ethics and politics) and Isaac Deutscher (in his materialist yet supple approach to history).
Halliday also knew a little something about the Middle East: he spoke Arabic, Farsi and at least seven other languages, and he traveled widely throughout the region, including in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Israel, Libya and Algeria. He is one of the very few writers who, after 9/11, understood the synthesis between fighting radical Islam and opposing the brutal inequities of the neoliberal global order. He was an uncategorizable independent, supporting, for instance, the communist government in Afghanistan and the US invasion of that country. He embodied the dialectic between utopianism and realism. In his scholarship and research, in his outspokenness and courtesy, in the complexity of his thinking, he was the model of a public intellectual.
” Political Journeys is a well-chosen title for the collection. It alludes not just to Halliday’s travels but also to the ways his ideas—especially about revolution, imperialism and human rights—changed in reaction to tumultuous world events over the course of four decades. ”
It is Halliday’s writings—not those of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens or Tariq Ali—that can elucidate the meaning of today’s most virulent conflicts; it is Halliday who represented radicalism with a human face. It says something sad, and discouraging, about intellectual life in our country that Halliday’s death—which is to say, his work—was ignored not only by mainstream publications like The New York Times but by their left-wing alternatives too (including this one).
It is cheering, then, that a selection of essays, written by Halliday for the website openDemocracy between 2004 and 2009, has just been published by Yale University Press. Called Political Journeys, it gives a taste—though only that—of the extraordinary range of Halliday’s interests; included here are analyses of communism , the cold war, Iran’s revolution, post-Saddam Iraq, violence and politics, radical Islam, the legacies of 1968 and feminism. The book gives a sense, too, of Halliday’s dry humor—he loved to recount irreverent political jokes from the countries he had visited—and his affection for lists, as in the essay “The World’s Twelve Worst Ideas” (No. 2: “The only thing ‘they’ understand is force”). But most of the articles, written as they were for the Internet, are comparatively short and represent a brief span in a long career; this necessarily sporadic volume will, one hopes, lead readers to some of Halliday’s two dozen other books and more extensive essays.
Political Journeys is a well-chosen title for the collection. It alludes not just to Halliday’s travels but also to the ways his ideas—especially about revolution, imperialism and human rights—changed in reaction to tumultuous world events over the course of four decades. For this he has often been attacked, even posthumously. Earlier this year, Columbia University professor Joseph Massad opened a piece about Syria, published on the Al Jazeera website, by dismissing Halliday—along with his “Arab turncoat comrades”—as a “pro-imperial apologist.” (Massad also put forth the novel idea that Syria “has been…an agent of US imperialism,” which might be news to Bashar al-Assad and the leaders of Iran and Hezbollah, Syria’s allies in the so-called axis of resistance.) Yet it was precisely Halliday’s intellectual flexibility—his ability to derive theory from experience rather than shoehorn the latter into the former—that was one of his greatest strengths. Pace Massad,
Halliday didn’t move from Marxism into imperialism, neoconservatism, neoliberalism or “turncoatism”; rather, he developed a deeper, more humane and far sturdier kind of radicalism. It was one that refused to hide—much less celebrate—repression, carnage and virulent nationalism behind the banner of progress, world revolution, selfdetermination or anti-colonialism. Halliday sought not to reject the socialist tradition but to reconnect it to its heritage—derived from the Enlightenment, from 1789, from 1848— of reason, rights, secularism and freedom. He would also develop an unsparing critique of the anti-humanism that, he thought, was ineradicably embedded in the revolution of 1917 and its successors.
Halliday believed that the duty of committed intellectuals is to keep their eyes open, to learn from history, to be humble enough to be surprised (and to admit being wrong). The alternative was what he called “Rip van Winkle socialism.” He sometimes told his friends, “At my funeral the one thing no one must ever say is that ‘Comrade Halliday never wavered, never changed his mind.’”
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Fred Halliday was born in 1946 in Dublin and raised in Dundalk, a town near the northern border that, he pointed out, The Rough Guide to Ireland advises tourists to avoid. The Irish “question” and Irish politics remained, for him, a touchstone—though more as a warning than an inspiration, especially when it came to Mideast politics. The unhappy lessons of Ireland, he wrote in 1996, included “the illusions and delusions of nationalism” and “the corrosive myths of deliverance through purely military struggle.” He added: “A good dose of contemporary Irish history makes one sceptical about much of the rhetoric that issues from dominant and dominated alike.… [A] critique of imperialism needs at the very least to be matched by some reserve about most of the strategies proclaimed for overcoming it.” Growing up in the midst of the Troubles, Halliday developed, among other things, a healthy aversion to histrionic nationalism and the repugnant concept of “progressive atrocities.”
Halliday graduated from Oxford in 1967 and then attended the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Later he would earn a PhD from the London School of Economics (LSE), where, for over two decades, he taught students from around the world and was a founder of its Centre for the Study of Human Rights. (The intellectual and governing classes of the Middle East are sprinkled with his graduates.) He was an early editor of the radical newspaper Black Dwarf and, from 1969 to 1983, a member of the editorial board of the New Left Review, a journal for which he occasionally wrote even after he broke with it over key political issues. He immersed himself in the revolutionary movements of his time and gathered an enviable range of friends, interlocutors and contacts along the way: traveling with Maoist Dhofari rebels in Oman; working at a student camp in Cuba; visiting Nasser’s Egypt, Ben Bella’s Algeria, Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan and Marxist Ethiopia and South Yemen (the subject of his dissertation).
He wasn’t shy: he proposed a two-state solution to Ghassan Kanafani of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, infamous for its hijackings; argued with Iran’s foreign minister about the goals of an Islamic revolution; told Hezbollah’s Sheik Naim Qassem that the group’s use of Koranic verses denouncing Jews was racist—“a point,” Halliday dryly noted, “he evidently did not accept.”
Halliday received, and accepted, invitations to lecture in some of the Middle East’s most repressive countries, including Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Qaddafi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq, where a government official told him, without shame or embarrassment, that Amnesty International’s reports on the regime’s tortures and executions were correct. Clearly, he was no boycotter. But neither was he seduced by these visits: in 1990, he described Iraq as a “ferocious dictatorship, marked by terror and coercion unparalleled within the Arab world”; in 2009, he reported that the supposedly new, rehabilitated Libya was just like the old, outcast Libya: a “grotesque entity” and “protection racket” that was regarded as a joke throughout the Arab world.
His moral compass remained intact: that year, he warned the LSE not to accept a £ 1.5 million donation from the so-called Charitable and Development Foundation of the dictator’s son, Saif el-Qaddafi. Alas, greed trumped principle, and Halliday’s arguments were rejected—which led, once the Arab Spring reached Libya, to the LSE’s public disgrace and the resignation of its director.
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In May 1981, Halliday published an article on Israel and Palestine in MERIP Reports, a well-respected Washington journal that focuses on the Middle East and is closely identified with the Palestinian cause. It is an astonishing piece, especially in the context of its era, more than a decade before the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist and the signing of the Oslo Accords. It is no exaggeration to say that, at the time, the vast majority of the left, Marxist and not, held anti-Israel positions of various degrees of ferocity; to do otherwise was to risk pariahdom.
While harshly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of the occupation , Halliday proceeded to question—and forcefully rebuke—the bedrock beliefs of the left: that Israel was a colonial state comparable to South Africa; that Israelis were not a nation and had no right to self-determination; that Israel was a recently formed and therefore inauthentic country (most states in the Middle East—including, for that matter, Palestine— are modern creations of imperialist powers); that a binational state was desired by either Israelis or Palestinians and, therefore, could be a recipe for anything other than civil war and a harshly authoritarian government. (Halliday asked a question often ignored by revolutionaries: Why would anyone want to live under such a regime?)
Most of all, he challenged the irredentism of the Palestinian movement and its supporters. Partition, he presciently warned, is “the only just and the only practical way forward for the Palestinians. They will continue to pay a terrible price, verging on national annihilation, if they prefer to adopt easier but in fact less realizable substitutes, and if their allies and supposed friends continue to urge such a course upon them.” Halliday stressed that a truly revolutionary strategy cannot be “at variance with reality.” Solidarity without realism is a form of betrayal.
The reality principle, and its absence, was a theme Halliday would return to frequently, as in his reappraisal of the legacy of 1968. “It does not deserve the sneering, partisan dismissal,” he wrote in 2008. But nostalgic celebration was also unearned, for “the problem is that in many ways, we lost.” Despite triumphal rhetoric, the year of the barricades led not to worldwide revolution but to conservative governments in France, England and the United States (Richard Nixon). In the communist world, the situation was even worse: “It was not the emancipatory imagination but the cold calculation of party and state that was ‘seizing power.’” In Prague, socialist reform was crushed; in Beijing, the Cultural Revolution’s frenzy reached new heights.
Yet Halliday, like most of us, was sometimes guilty of letting wishful thinking cloud his vision too. In 2004, he called for the United Nations to assume authority in Iraq, which was then in free fall. This ignored the fact that Al Qaeda’s shocking bombings of the UN’s Baghdad mission the previous year—resulting in the death of Sergio de Mello, the secretary general’s special representative in Iraq, and so many others—had disposed, rather definitively, of that issue; the UN had withdrawn its staffers and, clearly, could not ask them to undertake another death mission. (Nor was there any indication that the UN’s member nations—many of whom opposed any intervention in Iraq—would have supported such a proposition.) And his claim, made in 2007, that “a set of common values is indeed shared across the world,” including a commitment to “democracy and human rights,” is hard to square with much of Halliday’s own reporting—such as his 1984 encounter with a longtime acquaintance named Muhammad, who had formerly been a member of the Iranian left.
” Iran, which Halliday first visited in the 1960s as an undergraduate, was foundational to his political development; he analyzed, and re-analyzed, its revolution many times, as if it was a wound that could not stop hurting ”
Now a supporter of the regime, Muhammad visits Halliday in London and explains, “We don’t give a damn for the United Nations.… We don’t give a damn for that bloody organisation, Amnesty International. We don’t give a damn what anyone in the world thinks.… We have made an Islamic Revolution and we are going to stick to it, even if it means a third world war.… We want none of the damn democracy of the West, or the socalled freedoms of the East.… You must understand the culture of martyrdom in our country.” Indeed, Halliday’s optimism of the intellect here is belied by even a casual look at any of the world’s major newspapers— whether from New York or Paris, Baghdad or Beirut—on any given day.
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Iran, which Halliday first visited in the 1960s as an undergraduate, was foundational to his political development; he analyzed, and re-analyzed, its revolution many times, as if it was a wound that could not stop hurting. (Iran is the only country to which Political Journeys devotes an entire section of essays.) His initial study of the country, Iran: Dictatorship and Development, was written just before the anti-Shah revolution of early 1979. Based on careful observation and research, the book scrupulously analyzed Iran’s class structure, economy, armed forces, government, opposition movements, foreign policy—everything, that is, but the role of religion, which Halliday seemed to regard as essentially a front for political demands, and which he vastly underestimated. The book’s last sentence reads, “It is quite possible that before too long the Iranian people will chase the Pahlavi dictator and his associates from power… and build a prosperous and socialist Iran.”
Events moved quickly. In August 1979, Halliday filed two terrifying dispatches from Tehran, published in the New Statesman, documenting the chaotic atmosphere of fear and xenophobia, the outlawing of newspapers and political parties, and the brutal crackdown on women, intellectuals, liberals, leftists and secularists. “It does not take one long to sense the ferocious right-wing Islamist fervour that grips much of Iran today,” he began. Later, he would write, “I have stood on the streets of Tehran and seen tens of thousands of people…shouting, ‘Marg bar liberalizm’ (‘Death to liberalism’). It was not a happy sight; among other things, they meant me.” A revolution, he realized, could be genuinely anti-imperialist and genuinely reactionary.
But the problem wasn’t only Iran or radical Islam. As the ’70s turned into the ’80s, it became clear—or should have—that most of the third world’s secular revolutions and coups (in Algeria, Syria, Libya, Ethiopia and, especially, Iraq) had failed to fulfill their emancipatory promises. Each became a one-party dictatorship based on repression, torture and murder; each stifled its citizens politically, intellectually, artistically, even sexually; each remained mired in inequality and underdevelopment. None of this could be explained, much less justified, by the legacy of colonialism or the crimes of imperialism, real as those are. These were among the central issues that led to Halliday’s rift with the New Left Review—and that continue to divide the left, both here and abroad. Indeed, it is precisely these issues that often underlie (and sometimes determine) the debates over humanitarian intervention, the meaning of solidarity, the US role as a global power, the centrality of human rights and of feminism, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. (In 2006, Halliday would sum up his points of contention with his former comrades, especially their support of death squads and jihadists in the Iraq War : “The position of the New Left Review is that the future of humanity lies in the back streets of Fallujah.”)
Halliday’s revised thinking—his emphasis on democracy and rights; his aversion to the particularist claims of tribe, nation, religion or identity politics; his unapologetic secularism; his questioning of imperialism as a purely regressive force—is evident in his enormously compelling book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, published in 1996. (Halliday dedicated it to the memory of four Iranian friends, whom he lauded as “opponents of religiously sanctioned dictatorship.”) In this volume he took on two still prevalent, and still contested, concepts: the idea of human rights as a Western imposition on the third world, and the theory of “Orientalism.”
Halliday argued that, despite the assertions of covenants such as the 1981 Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (which defines “God alone” as “the Source of all human rights”) and the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (which defines “all human beings” as “Allah’s subjects”), there is no such thing as Islamic human rights—or, indeed, of rights derived from any religious source. Such rights apply to everyone and, therefore, must be based on man-made, universalist principles or they are nothing: it is the “equality of humanity,” not the equality before God, that they assert. (That is why they are human rights.) Because rights are grounded in the dignity of the individual, not in any transcendent or divine authority, they can be neither granted nor rescinded by religious authorities, and no country, culture or region can claim exemption from them by appealing to holy texts, a history of oppression, revered traditions or because rights “somehow embody ‘Western’ prejudice and hegemony.”
In this light, the search for a kinder, gentler version of Islam—or, for that matter, of any religion—as the basis of rights is “doomed” to failure; for Halliday, the question of a religion’s content was entirely irrelevant. “Secularism is no guarantee of liberty or the protection of rights, as the very secular totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century have shown,” he argued. “However, it remains a precondition, because it enables the rights of the individual to be invoked against authority.… The central issue is not, therefore, one of finding some more liberal, or compatible, interpretation of Islamic thinking, but of removing the discussion of rights from the claims of religion itself.… It is this issue above all which those committed to a liberal interpretation of Islam seek to avoid.” The issues that Halliday raised in 1996 are by no means settled today, and they are anything but abstract; on the contrary, the Arab uprisings have forced them insistently to the fore. In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, secularists and Islamists struggle over the role (if any) of Islam in writing new constitutions and legal codes; at the United Nations, new leaders such as Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi and Yemen’s Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi argue that the right to free speech ends when it “blasphemes” against Islamic beliefs.
But more than a defense of secularism is at stake here. Halliday argued that the very idea of a unitary, reliably oppressive behemoth called the West—on which so much antiimperialist and “dependency” theory rested— was false. “Far from there having been, or being, a monolithic, imperialist and racist ‘West’ that produced human rights discourse, the ‘West’ itself is in several ways a diverse, conflictual entity,” he wrote. “The notion of human rights was not the creation of the states and ruling elites of France, the USA, or any other Western power, but emerged with the rise of social movements and associate ideologies that contested these states and elites.” The West embodied emancipation and oppression, equality and racism, abolitionism and slavery, universalism and colonialism. Political theories and practices that refuse to acknowledge this—proudly brandishing their “anti-Western” credentials—will be based on the shakiest foundations.
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The argument between advocates of the concept of “Orientalism,” put forth most famously by Edward Said, and its critics—often associated with the scholar Bernard Lewis—was close to Halliday. Lewis had been a mentor of his at SOAS, and one he admired; Said, whom Halliday described as “a man of exemplary intellectual and political courage,” was a friend. (Though not forever: Said stopped talking to Halliday when the two disagreed on the first Gulf War.) Yet on closer look, Lewis and Said shared an orientation: both had rejected a materialist analysis of Arab (and colonial) history and politics in favor of a metadebate about literature. “For neither of them,” Halliday argued, “does the analysis of what actually happens in these societies, as distinct from what people say and write about them…come first.” Increasingly, Halliday would regard the Orientalist debate as one that deformed, and diverted, the discipline of Mideast studies and helped to foster a vituperative atmosphere.
Said had argued that, for several centuries, British and French writers, statesmen and others had created a static, mythical Middle East—sometimes romanticized, sometimes denigrated, always objectified— as part of an unwaveringly racist, imperialist project. (Indeed, Said’s book has turned the word “Orientalist,” which used to refer to scholars of the Muslim, Arab and Asian worlds, into a term of opprobrium.) With sobriety and respect, Halliday considered and, in the end, devastatingly refuted the theory’s major tenets. With its sweeping, all-encompassing claims, he argued, the concept of Orientalism was a form of fundamentalism: “We should be cautious about any critique which identifies such a widespread and pervasive single error at the core of a range of literature.”
It was based on a widely held yet entirely unsubstantiated belief that Europe bore a particular hostility toward the Muslim world: “The thesis of some enduring, transhistorical hostility to the orient, the Arabs, the Islamic world, is a myth.” It was undialectical, ignoring not only the myths that Easterners projected against the West—ignorant stereotyping is, if nothing else, a busy two-way street—but the ways the East itself reproduced the tropes of Orientalism: “A few hours in the library with the Middle Eastern section of the Summary of World Broadcasts will do wonders for anyone who thinks reification and discursive interpellation are the prerogative of Western writers on the region.” In fact, Islamists can be among the greatest Orientalists, for many insist on an Islam that is eternal, opaque and monolithic.
Most of all, though, Halliday questioned the assumption that the presumably impure origin of an idea necessarily negates its truth value. “Said implies that because ideas are produced in a context of domination, or directly in the service of domination, they are therefore invalid.” Carried to its logical conclusion, of course, this would entail a rejection of modernity itself—from its foundational ideas to its medical, technological and scientific advances—for all were produced “in the context of imperialism and capitalism: it would be odd if this were not so. But this tells us little about their validity.” (“Antiimperialism” and “self-determination” are, we might note, Western concepts, just as penicillin, the computer, the machine gun and the atom bomb are Western inventions.) And he questioned a key tenet of postcolonial studies and postcolonial politics: that the powerless are either more insightful or more ethical than their oppressors. “The very condition of being oppressed…is likely to produce its own distorted forms of perception: mythical history, hatred and chauvinism towards others, conspiracy theories of all stripes, unreal phantasms of emancipation.” Suffering is not necessarily the mother of wisdom.
But if Halliday was a foe of the simplicities of Orientalism, he was equally opposed to Samuel Huntington’s notion of “the clash of civilizations”—a concept that, he pointed out, was as beloved by Osama bin Laden as by neoconservatives—and to essentialist fictions like “the Islamic world” and “the Arab mind.” (On this, he and Said certainly agreed.) More than fifty diverse countries contain Muslim majorities; the job of the intellectual—whether located inside or outside the region—was to specify and demystify rather than deal in lumpy, ignorant generalities. “Disaggregation and explanation, rather than invocations of the timeless essence of cultures,” was the Mideast scholar’s prime task, Halliday insisted. He rejected mystified concepts such as Islamic banking and Islamic economics (“Anyone who has studied the economic history of the Muslim world…will know that business is conducted as it is everywhere, on sound capitalist principles”); the Islamic road to development (Iran’s economy was “a perfectly recognisable ramshackle rentier economy, laced with corruption and inefficiency”); and Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia, Halliday noted, has virtually no basis in the Koran). Echoing E.P. Thompson, Halliday argued that much of what passes for the ancient and authentic in the Islamic world—including Islamic fundamentalism itself—is the creation of modernity, and can be productively analyzed only within a political context.
Halliday proposed that even the Iranian Revolution—with its mobilization of the masses, consolidation of state power, repressive security institutions and attempts to export itself—had, despite its peculiar ideology, reprised the basic dynamics of modern, secular revolutions: “not that of Mecca and Medina in the seventh century but that of Paris in the 1790s and Moscow and St Petersburg in the 1920s.” Islam, Halliday insisted, could not explain the trajectory of that revolution or, for that matter, the politics of the greater Middle East.
Was Halliday right? Surely yes, in his refusal of essentialist fantasies and apolitical thinking. And in some ways, the Arab uprisings have confirmed everything for which he had spent a lifetime arguing. Here were populist movements demanding democratic institutions, transparency, and an end to tyranny and corruption; here were hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding entry into the modern world, not its negation; here was the assertion of participatory citizenship over passive subjecthood. Yet the subsequent trajectory of those initial revolts also proved him wrong: nowhere else in the contemporary world have democratic elections led to the triumph of religious parties. Nowhere else do intra-religious schisms result in the widespread carnage of the Shiite-Sunni split. Nowhere else do the democratic rights to freely speak, publish and create collide with strictures against blasphemy—even among some presumed democrats. Nowhere else does the fall of dictatorship and the assertion of self-determination translate, so quickly and so often, into attacks on women’s equality. “Islam explains little of what happens” in Turkey and Pakistan, Halliday wrote in 2002, and he believed this to be true of the region as a whole. Yet I doubt there are many Turks or Pakistanis (or, for that matter, Iranians, Egyptians, Algerians, Lebanese, Afghans, Saudis or Yemenis) who would agree. Can they all be the victims of false consciousness?
Here, I think, lies the problem: in his fight against lazy generalizations about Islam and its misuse as a univocal explanation, Halliday sometimes sought to scrub away, or at least radically minimize, Islam itself, as was demonstrated by his early book on Iran. It is almost as if he—the confirmed skeptic, the lover of reason, the staunch secularist, the self-proclaimed bani tanwir (“child of enlightenment”)—could not quite believe in religion as a force unto itself, and an astonishingly powerful one at that. “What people actually do,” he wrote in 2002, “is not determined by ideology.” This is, we might note, a classic Marxist position, in which the “superstructure” of belief is subsumed beneath class and politics. Yet Halliday’s erstwhile Iranian friend Muhammad— and, indeed, so many of the events that Halliday himself witnessed—told him otherwise. And as organizations as diverse as the Nazi Party and Al Qaeda have shown, rational, politically focused strategies and utterly lunatic ideologies can, alas, coexist.
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In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Halliday was clear about several points: that the attacks would resonate throughout global politics, changing them for many decades to come; that Al Qaeda was a “demented” product not of ancient Islam but of modernity, and represented “the anti-imperialism of racists and murderers”; and that terrorist violence “from below,” though not directly caused by poverty, could not be severed from the grotesque inequalities that international capital had created. In 2004, he wrote, “The central challenge facing the world, in the face of 9/11 and all the other terrorist acts preceding and following it, is to create a global order that defends security while making real the aspirations to equality and mutual respect that modernity has aroused and proclaimed but spectacularly failed so far to fulfil.” This was not a question of either/or, but of and/ and. Ever the dialectician, Halliday observed that imperialism and terrorism are hardly antagonists; rather, they share a “central arrogance,” each “forcing their policies and views onto those unable to protect themselves, and proclaiming their virtue in the name of some political goal or project that they alone have defined.” And he noted with anger and sorrow how terrorism—which has killed far more people in the East than in the West —had transformed millions of people throughout the world into bewildered bystanders, creating an internationale of fear.
Afghanistan had been one of Halliday’s key areas of study, and he repeatedly pointed to several crucial facts that many Americans still resist understanding. Al Qaeda did not spring out of nowhere, much less from its beloved eighth century. It was Ronald Reagan’s arming of the anti-Soviet guerrillas— even after the Soviet pullout in early 1989, when Kabul’s communist government still stood—that was instrumental in creating the Islamist militias and warlord groups, some of which transformed themselves into the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Thus had our fanatical anti-communism led to the empowerment of “the crazed counter-revolutionaries of the Islamic right.” For Halliday there was no schadenfreude in this, no gloating, no talk of chickens coming home to roost or of blowback (a concept that fundamentally misunderstands— and moralizes—historic causation: was Sobibor the blowback from the Versailles Treaty?). But he insisted, rightly, that the crisis of 9/11 could not be understood, much less successfully confronted, in the absence of engaging this “policy of world-historical criminality and folly.”
Halliday had supported the US overthrow of both the Taliban and Saddam (in addition to military intervention against Saddam in the first Gulf War, and against Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo). He criticized three tendencies of the post-9/11 world with increasing dismay, though not quite despair: the retreat into rabid nationalism in both East and West; the Bush administration’s conduct in Iraq and in international affairs generally (“The United States is dragging the Western world…towards a global abyss,” he warned in 2004); and the left’s romance with jihad, especially in relation to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iraqi “resistance.” And indeed, it was somewhat shocking to read Tariq Ali, writing in the New Left Review in the especially bloody year of 2006, exulting in the rise of “Hamas, Hizbollah, the Sadr brigades and the Basij.… A radical wind is blowing from the alleys and shacks of the latter-day wretched of the earth.” Or, more recently, to find his colleague Perry Anderson arguing that the “priority” of Egypt’s new, post-Mubarak government should be to annul the country’s “abject” peace treaty with Israel as a way of recovering “democratic Arab dignity.” Rip van Winkle socialism, indeed.
After September 11, Halliday focused much of his intellectual energy on explaining the ways the attacks and their serial, convulsive aftermaths were decisively changing international relations. While classic internationalism—in the sense of humane solidarity with the suffering of others—was imperiled, a kind of militarized internationalism was on the rise. Conflicts that had been relatively distinct, except on a rhetorical level, had become ominously entwined and the ante of violence—especially against civilians—cruelly raised. “Events in Lebanon and Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey and Libya are becoming comprehensible only in a broader regional and even global context,” he wrote in 2006. This new dispensation, which he dubbed the “Greater West Asian Crisis,” represented a struggle for political supremacy in a region that now included not just the Arab world and Israel but also Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among others—including a plethora of volatile nonstate militias that are beholden to no constituencies and recognize no restraints. While some conflicts, such as Hezbollah versus Israel, might still be geographically confined, none could be politically or, because of the existence of transnational guerrillas, operationally confined. (Consider, for instance, the reported presence of Islamist fighters from Chechnya and Pakistan in Syria’s civil war.) Halliday warned that the resulting strife would be “more complex, multilayered and long-lasting than any of the individual crises, revolutions or wars that characterized the Middle East.” This was written six years ago; despite the hopefulness of the subsequent Arab Spring revolts, it would be difficult to dispute the alarming vision contained therein.
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In the last decade of his life, Halliday turned, with an urgency both intellectual and moral, to the legacy of revolution in the twentieth century. His writings on this topic—precisely because they are the work of a writer deeply embedded in, and respectful of, the Marxist tradition and committed to the creation of what one can call, without cynicism, a more just world—are important for anyone who seeks to understand the history of the past century or the bewilderments of the present one. These essays make for painful reading, too—especially, I think, for leftists—in their willingness to question, and discard, comforting beliefs.
Halliday’s re-evaluation shared nothing with the smug rejection of revolution that had become so fashionable after 1989, or with the disparagement of communism as an “aberrant illusion.” To the contrary: “Millions of people struggled for and believed in this ideal,” he wrote in 2009. “As much as liberalism, communism was itself a product of modernity…and of the injustices and brutalities associated with it.” Nor had Halliday signed on to a celebration of the neoliberal world order: “The challenge that confronted Marx and Engels,” he wrote in 2008, “still stands, namely that of countering the exploitation, inequality, oppression, and waste of the contemporary capitalist order with a radical, cooperative, international political order.” Against flat-earthers like Thomas Friedman, he argued that the globalized world of the twenty-first century is more unequal than its predecessors.
And so the question of what is to be done still remained, but had to be faced with far more humility and critical acumen than ever before. If Halliday had little sympathy for talk of failed gods, he was equally impatient with the “vacuous radicalisms” and romanticized revival of tattered revolutionary ideals that permeate too much of the left, including—or perhaps especially— the anti-globalization and solidarity movements. The idealization of violence (“the second intifada has been a disaster for the Palestinians”); the eschewing of long-term political organizing in favor of dramatic but impotent protests; the failure to study the complex and blood-soaked trajectory of the past century’s revolutions; the Pavlovian identification with virtually every oppositional movement, regardless of its real political aims: all of this was, in Halliday’s view, the road to both tragedy and farce. “The anti-globalization movement has taken over a critique of capitalism without…reflecting on what actually happened in the 20th century,” he told an interviewer in 2006. “I read the stuff coming out of Porto Alegre and my hair falls out.”
For despite communism’s commitment to, and partial achievement of, certain economic and social values (including a planned economy, women’s equality and secularism)—values that, Halliday believed, must be preserved—its record of murder and authoritarianism could not be evaded. “The history of revolution in modern times is one not only of resistance, heroism and idealism,” he wrote in 2003, “but also of terrible suffering and human disaster, of chaos and incompetence under the guise of revolutionary transformation, of the distortion of the finest ideals by corrupt and murderous leaders, and of the creation of societies that are far more oppressive and inefficient than those they seek to overthrow.” What distinguished Halliday’s argument, however, was his insistence that these failures could not be rationalized as the divergence between “Marxist theory and communist practice”; twentieth-century revolution must be judged an inevitable failure, he concluded.
Thus Halliday rejected all “what if” forms of analysis: what if Lenin had not died, or Bukharin had come to power, or the Germans had turned to the left instead of to the Nazis. (These are questions that, I admit, still haunt me.) He did not believe that a more liberalized version of communism could have prevented the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his view, the key issue— one that many leftists want to avoid—is that communism’s “failure was necessary, not contingent.” This was because of four elements that were central to any communist program and, he argued, to Marxism itself: “the authoritarian concept of the State; the mechanistic idea of Progress; the myth of Revolution; and the instrumental character of Ethics.” (However, Halliday did not—at least as far as I know—ever adequately explain the relationship between the socialist tradition that grew out of the Enlightenment and the fatal flaws of communism.)
A kind of ethical wasteland was, in his view, socialism’s greatest failure. No socialist state, at least none derived from the Bolshevik revolution, had developed institutions that defended the rights of the individual or articulated any “justifiable criteria” for the use “of violence and state coercion.” The Russian Revolution had led not to a withering away of the state but, rather, to the establishment of fearsome regimes with almost unlimited powers to control, repress and terrorize their citizens. Halliday added tartly that many leftists “appear not to have noticed this…an index of how little they have learnt, or have noticed the sufferings of others. Unless and until they do, they have no right to claim that they are advancing the cause of human emancipation.”
The seriousness of such revolutionary failures, the massiveness of such defeats, led Halliday to revisit even such cherished notions as internationalism and solidarity: not as values but as practices. In a brilliant 2008 essay called “Revolutionary Internationalism and Its Perils,” he noted that internationalism, though always heralded by revolutionaries, has historically divided rather than united the left (think of the First, Second and Third Internationals, the Sino-Soviet split, etc.). And he noted a fascinating if counterintuitive process: it is nationalism, not its opposite, which has “spread across the world as a transnational force, crossing boundaries and cultures, to become the universally accepted normative code of modern politics.” At the same time, internationalism had, “in the practice of twentieth century revolutions, become an instrument of states”—had been used, that is, to further the interests and fortify the power of individual states rather than to create global unity. Within this dialectic, Halliday wrote, lies “much of the dynamic, and not a little of the tragedy, of the politics of the past century.” Stirring calls for international solidarity will have to confront this history, and these contradictions, if they wish to move from rhetoric to reality.
* * *
From the time of his break with the New Left Review (and haunted, I suspect, by the bitter fates of slaughtered friends in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere), Halliday increasingly, and consistently, affirmed the defense of others’ rights—to civil, intellectual and political freedoms, to self-determination, to an unfettered press, to women’s equality, to human dignity and bodily integrity—as the nonnegotiable foundation of solidarity: “The concept of solidarity presupposes that of rights, and the two were so combined, in rhetoric and policy, in the French revolution.” But he opened a circa-2007 essay called “The Fate of Solidarity: Uses and Abuses” with a troubling observation: “In the course of the twentieth century something strange, and distorting, appears to have happened to the concept of ‘solidarity.’” He traced the circuitous history of solidarity—and the left’s practice of it—from the French Revolution through the era of colonialism to the anti-imperialist independence movements and the fall of communism. “Among the many ironies of this process has been the way in which solidarity has been declared with states, movements, and individuals who in their practice deny the very concepts of rights on which the solidarity is supposedly justified in the first place,” he argued. “At the same time, the ideal and practice of solidarity has been turned against those, in the communist movement, who most sought to espouse it.” To declare solidarity while ignoring human rights abuses and the suffering they entail was the worst sort of empty posturing.
For Halliday, to evade the concept of rights was to reject the very notion of a shared humanity—a tendency that, he argued, had only increased since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, a weird convergence had transpired, whereby the right (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales) joined with Islamists, jihadis and their Western supporters in a mutually enthusiastic denigration of human rights, an embrace of “moral particularism” and a rejection of the laws of war. (From there it is a very short step—really no step at all— to waterboarding, Guantánamo, suicide bombings, and the murder of UN and humanitarian aid workers.) What made this more repellent was that each side proudly proclaimed its internationalist commitments while trampling them to death.
Halliday also questioned the very idea of revolution, and of whether it will prove to be the best way—either ethically or practically—to transform global capital in the twenty-first century. “We are much more certain about the structures, and inherent inequities, in the present system than we are about the alternatives, and the ways to get there,” he admitted in a 2003 essay. Had the traditional opposition between reform and revolution led to productive change, or was it a historic dead end? In any case, he noted, it was late modern capitalism, not revolutionary socialism, that had “formed the global vision of the future” in the 1990s; to succeed, a radical critique of the existing order would have to reverse this momentum and “wrest the initiative within a world of growing inequality and rancor.” This would necessitate the creation of new ideas, new strategies, new ethics and a new capacity for realism in place of reliance on 100-year-old truisms. Even so, it remains to be seen whether revolution—and, if so, what kind—can “fulfill the promise, in terms of economic distribution and the implementation of rights, which modernity has always propounded.” The explosions in the Arab world since December 2010 (and in Iran in 2009)—stirring and heartbreaking, inspiring and ominous—have proved how vital Halliday’s questions, hopes and doubts remain.
Fred Halliday did not live to see the democratic uprisings that have swept the Arab world, which seems like a cruel irony. (One might think of Moses gazing at the Promised Land, except that Halliday didn’t believe in promised lands.) In the days since, it is his voice—calm, knowledgeable, realistic, empathic yet sharply honest—that has been so sorely needed: to explicate the meanings of those events, to look beneath their surfaces, to place them within history, to discover their political and ethical contradictions, just as he did after 9/11. In a lovely essay written in 2005, Halliday praised his intellectual mentors, the Marxist historians Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher, for their skepticism, universalism, wisdom and independence. “Amid a world scarred by state and terrorist violence and debased public debate,” he wrote, these men—these values—are necessary “more than ever.” The same could be said of Halliday and his incisive yet generous intelligence; I never met the man, but I can’t stop missing him.
Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence has been released in paperback, and will soon appear in Turkish and Italian. She directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University, where she teaches journalism.
The openDemocracy Essays.
By Fred Halliday.
The Middle East in International Relations
Power, Politics and Ideology.
By Fred Halliday.
Two Hours That Shook the World
September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences.
By Fred Halliday.
Nation and Religion in the Middle East
By Fred Halliday.
Revolution and World Politics
The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power.
By Fred Halliday.
Islam and the Myth of Confrontation
Religion and Politics in the Middle East.
By Fred Halliday.
Dictatorship and Development.
By Fred Halliday.
Penguin (Pelican). 368 pp. $5.95. [Out of print]
From The Nation: The Journeys of Fred Halliday