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Implicitly believes

Pretending people ‘mean’ what they don’t actually mean

Update: For those in a hurry, I have boiled this post and responses to it down into this handy schematic drama (which is also a pretty good précis of this old thread).

Noted obituarist and music critic Oliver Kamm is baffled by the lack of tributes to his interpretive genius:

As far as I know, no one else in print has picked up the fact that Eric Hobsbawm implicitly believes the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 was “a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion”.

No one has picked up this “fact” because it is not a fact. It is a weaselly and fantastical insinuation that purports to be confident about what Hobsbawm believes while, at the same time, daintily acknowledging (“implicitly”) that he did not actually say it. As evidence for his assertion, Kamm links (faute de mieux, since no one else has recognised the brilliance of his discovery) to his own 2004 article in the Times. There, however, he was not so circumspect, and simply stated a falsehood:

Moving to more recent panegyric, Hobsbawm remarks in On History (1997): “Fragile as the communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989.” He means the 27 Soviet divisions, 6,300 tanks and 400,000 troops sent into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to snuff out political reform.

Uh, no, Hobsbawm doesn’t mean the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, as cannot fail to be clear to anyone who reads the chapter in question. Hobsbawm quite explicitly means violence practiced internally by states on their own citizens: at the point of citation he is talking specifically about torture as an internal practice of states. The sentence Kamm cites appears, after all, in a sub-section headed “The Resurgence of Torture”, and here is the fuller context:

Let me now bring in Amnesty, for whose benefit these lectures are held. This organization, as you know, was founded in 1961, mainly to protect political and other prisoners of conscience. To their surprise these excellent men and women discovered that they also had to deal with the systematic use of torture by governments — or barely disguised agencies of government — in countries in which they had not expected to find it. Perhaps only Anglo-Saxon provincialism accounts for their surprise. The use of torture by the French army during the Algerian war of independence, 1954–62, had long caused political uproar in France. So Amnesty had to concentrate much of its effort on torture and its 1975 Report on the subject remains fundamental. Two things about this phenomenon were striking. In the first place its systematic use in the democratic West was novel, even allowing for the odd precedent of electric cattle-prods in Argentinian jails after 1930. The second striking fact was that the phenomenon was now purely Western, at all events in Europe, as the Amnesty Report noted. ‘Torture as a government-sanctioned Stalinist practice has ceased. With a few exceptions…no reports of torture in Eastern Europe have been reaching the outside world in the past decade.’ This is perhaps less surprising than it looks at first sight. Since the life-and-death struggle of the Russian Civil War, torture in the USSR — as distinct from the general brutality of Russian penal life — had not served to protect the security of the state. It served other purposes, such as the construction of show trials and similar forms of public theatre.

It declined and fell with Stalinism. Fragile as the Communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even a nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989. On the other hand it is more surprising that the period from the mid 1950s to the late 1970s should have been the classic era of Western torturing, reaching its peak in the first half of the seventies, when it flourished simultaneously in Mediterranean Europe, in several countries of Latin America with a hitherto unblemished record — Chile and Uruguay are cases in point — in South Africa and even, though without the application of electrodes to genitals, in Northern Ireland. I should add that the curve of Western official torturing has dipped substantially since then, partly, one hopes, because of the labours of Amnesty. Nevertheless, the 1992 edition of the admirable World Human Rights Guide records it in 62 out of the 104 countries it surveyed and gave only fifteen a completely clean bill of health. ((Cited from the paper, originally delivered as an Amnesty lecture, that was later reprinted in On History: “Barbarism: A User’s Guide”, New Left Review I/206, July–August 1994, pp44–54.))

One might well want to argue with what Hobsbawm actually writes here (or anywhere else), but Kamm’s repeated claim is the specific and manifestly ludicrous one that this particular passage “means” or evinces a “belief” that the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring was “a limited, even a nominal, use of armed coercion”. Of course, it does no such thing.

Hypothesizing freely, I suppose such an embarrassing and easily refuted untruth can arise in one of three ways: i) through ignorance (not actually having read the chapter from which a single sentence is plucked); ii) through deliberate, cynical and malicious falsification; or iii) through mere gross and irremediable stupidity. Which explanation do you prefer, readers?

  1. 1  Guano  May 15, 2008, 4:18 pm 

    Kamm is making a habit of this kind of thing. In a similar way he picked up on a piece by Ralph Milliband in 1980 and tried to make it seem that Milliband supported Pol Pot. There is a thread going on right now at Crooked Timber about it.

    I have this image of Kamm locked in his study going through old copies of New Left Review, trying to catch out dead Marxist historians. Presumably it avoids having to think about present-day Iraq.

  2. 2  Steven  May 15, 2008, 5:02 pm 

    The Leiter Report links to the CT thread (and here!) with the marvellous headline “The Appalling Buffoon Oliver Kamm“. Which also leads one to their rather splendid coverage of Kamm’s attempt at intervention in the legendary Guardian-Chomsky Affair. The Miliband thing, of course, is merely another species of this.

    trying to catch out dead Marxist historians

    To be fair, Hobsbawm is still alive. Although, since in his latest post Kamm gaily promises to repeat the falsehood about what the sentence from On History “means” on the occasion of Hobsbawm’s death, I thought I would do him the favour of publicly correcting this error before, in his capacity as noted obituarist, he makes a fool of himself yet again.

  3. 3  John Meredith  May 15, 2008, 6:36 pm 

    Oh come on. Hobsbawm’s bit is classic unspeak. He elides from a discussion about torture to making a large general claim about the use of armed force which is plainly wrong. If he was limiting himself to a discussion of torture and internal police practices he could have said so. It would have been natural to say so. People do not usually use ‘armed coercion’ as a synonym for torture or internal persecution of dissent (which, after all, may not involve armed coercion). If Bush described torture practices by the US as ‘armed coercion’ you would, rightly, be all over it.

    You are asking us to ignore the natural interpretation of the words and to believe that Hobsbawm actually meant something absurd like: ‘Fragile as the Communist systems turned out to be, only a limited, even a nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain them from 1957 until 1989 [except where massive use of use of armed coercion was necessary as in Czechoslovakia and Hungary which don’t count because they were international events where the force was supplied by an ally and it is obvious that internal dissent in, say, the USSR and the GDR was not at all affected by such displays of brutal military force so they cannot be said to have a bearing on maintaining those states].

    That takes the idea of generous reading to a whole new plane. Unspeak all the way. Your slip is showing, I think.

  4. 4  Steven  May 15, 2008, 8:22 pm 

    If he was limiting himself to a discussion of torture and internal police practices he could have said so.

    Uh, he did say so, repeatedly throughout this section headed “The Resurgence of Torture” and, mostly closely to the extracted sentence-fragment in question, a mere two sentences beforehand.

  5. 5  Picador  May 15, 2008, 10:48 pm 

    To second what Steven just said: the previous sentence begins with “It”, whose antecedent is unambiguously “torture”. The following sentence takes “torturing” as its subject. So this is really, truly a case of a single sentence about “coercion” sandwiched in between two sentences about “torture”, and you’re trying to argue that he isn’t using “coercion” to mean “torture”? Give me a break.

  6. 6  Steven  May 15, 2008, 11:08 pm 

    If a reasonable person sincerely interested in finding out what Hobsbawm thinks — which clearly Kamm is not — really did suspect that Hobsbawm somehow intended to excuse or minimise the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by the dastardly expedient of not mentioning it in a dicussion of torture, that reasonable person would, I expect, cast around for other clues as to Hobsbawm’s view of the event in question. Oh look, here’s one:

    Nineteen sixty-eight was obviously an unforgettable year and not purely because of the student movement. The Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive were accelerating and developments in Czechoslovakia culminated in the Prague Spring, which was then strangled in the summer. I was in Paris in early May, so was vividly aware of the student protests and had myself taken part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in London. Through friends I felt very much involved in the Prague Spring, and can remember the tremendous trauma of discovering in the hills of Wales that the Russians were moving in on Prague.

  7. 7  Karl  May 16, 2008, 12:25 am 

    How about those instances of repression that involved both armed coercion and internal police practices as happened during periods such as Martial Law in Poland in 1981 ? Martial Law is probably what Hobsbawm means by ‘a limited and nominal use of coercion’ when looking at the internal affairs of Eastern bloc states such as Poland. In which case, he might then have written something about Martial Law or mentioned it as such.

    But he didn’t did he ?

    The reason is that he does wish to downplay the existence of the imprisonment and beatings carried out in 1981 by a Communist state. Whether those in Solidarnosc who saw the constant police harassment and psychological warfare as ‘nominal’ or the shooting dead of miners by the ZOMO as evidence of a ‘fragile’ system is unlikely.

    People in Poland at the time did not have the ease of lofty academic hindsight and the subsequent bent for the rationalisation of Communist police brutality that Hobsbawm has when writing this. Mainly because Communism was never popular in Poland and never voted for or supported as it was in the West.

    Still why let quibbles, nitpicking over language and polemical spats get in the way of such an obvious point that Hobsbawm could never quite condemn Communist brutality in the way he did with Fascism when it actually mattered, prefering to blame the detour of Stalinist dictatorship for all of it ? The Amnesty Report refered to was written in 1975 but the terminal date for his analysis in 1989.

    So there is a sleight of hand there. Isn’t there ?

    Moreover, why the great difference between internal police matters and the external interventions when the Eastern bloc was one large armed camp maintained by the threat of coercion anyway. Interventions such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 did tend to threaten other states with what would happen if people resisted Soviet rule. It maintained uniformity throughout and provided the reason why Jaruzelski resorted to Martial Law.

  8. 8  Steven  May 16, 2008, 12:45 am 

    Hobsbawm could never quite condemn Communist brutality in the way he did with Fascism when it actually mattered, prefering to blame the detour of Stalinist dictatorship for all of it

    But this is quite different from the question of what Hobsbawm meant in the particular sentence of the particular chapter cited by Oliver Kamm. It’s not my intention to argue about Hobsbawm’s treatment of communism in general. I can see how someone in sympathy with your general view might think that it doesn’t matter; that because Hobsbawm (in such a person’s view) did not sufficiently condemn the actions of communist states in general, it doesn’t really matter what he meant in this particular instance, and so it doesn’t really matter if Kamm makes the absurd specific allegation that, in not mentioning the invasion of Prague during a discussion of torture as internal state repression, Hobsbawm was trying to excuse or minimise the invasion of Prague, because in some wider and more cosmic sense Kamm is right about Hobsbawm’s intellectual depredations. I don’t really think that will do.

    Having said that, thank you for the counter-example of martial law in Poland, which reflects a serious engagement with what Hobsbawm actually wrote, as Kamm’s squib does not.

  9. 9  John Meredith  May 16, 2008, 10:38 am 

    No, Karl is right that there is an obvious sleight of hand at work, one that you, Steven, would be alive to if you were looking at something written by an ideological foe.

    Hobsbawm begins by talking about ‘torture’ and then elides into a discussion of ‘armed coercion’. That elision should trouble anyone who cares about the dishonest, politically motivated abuses of language. ‘Armed coercion’ is not a synonym for torture and Hobsbawm is not a man who lacks control in his language. If he had meant to talk about torture in the passage under dispute, he would called it that. You point out that earlier on he wasn’t mealy mouthed about it, so why the rhetorical change? Unspeak all the way. Just imagine what you would have to say if a US spokesman, in response to a direct question about torture in Guantanamo, said that there was no use ‘armed coercion’ on the base. I think you would be quick to point out that a good kicking or a long bout of sleep deprivation required no ‘armed coercion’ but were pretty unequivocally torture in any case.

    And while we are looking at Hobsbawm’s peculiar choice of words, what exactly does ‘nominal’ use of armed coercion mean? Is that when you say ‘do it or I will shoot you’ but don’t actually need to pull the trigger because you get what you want? That’s just plain old ‘armed coercion’ then, isn’t it? And why is 1957 the cut off date? What examples of internal armed coercion or torture was Hobsbawm thinking of in 1956?

    I often disagree with the views of posters on this blog but I like it all the same because the subject is a fascinating one and the approach to it is lively and irreverent and, I thought, catholic in its choice of targets. But you let yourself down if you make the idea of ‘unspeak’ serve an ideological commitment. That is just what Orwell stood against. Play the ball and not the man. You don’t have to like Kamm, but he is right here.

  10. 10  Steven  May 16, 2008, 11:02 am 

    No, Kamm is wrong to claim that Hobsbawm, in the passage cited, “means” or “implicitly believes” that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia constituted “a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion”. That is a clear and specific charge, and a false one. Prague 1968 is simply not what he is talking about here. (Why not complain also that Hobsbawm didn’t condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in this passage?) You might believe that there is “an obvious sleight of hand” in the passage even so, but it is not the one Kamm alleges.

    It does not suddenly make Kamm right if we agree to go on to have an interesting discussion about other aspects of Hobsbawm’s language in this passage. I think you are right, for example, to pick up on “nominal”. As you say, “armed coercion” must include the threat of violence as well as actual violence — a “mock”-execution or the threat of electrocution constitutes torture — so I am not sure how we could measure some such coercion and find it to be “nominal” rather than “limited”. And “limited” itself is, of course, a rather movable feast.

    Does “armed coercion” itself constitute a kind of Unspeak, as you argue? I don’t think so. It doesn’t look like a euphemism: it is quite a direct name for making people do things they don’t want to do through violence or the threat of it; and it occurs in a discussion that is very explicitly about torture, right between two sentences that are undeniably about torture. Given your example of Guantanamo, kickings or sleep deprivation are, in the final analysis, backed up by the force of arms that prevents prisoners from simply walking out of the facility, and so I would certainly jump on any official who claimed that they did not constitute armed coercion. I do not see that “armed coercion” is of the same rhetorical species as “questioned by experts“.

    Another interesting question, however, would be to what extent all torture really counts as “coercion”, when it is well known that torture is not always or even often practised in the expectation of gaining useful “information”. I expect the idea is that the coercion is thought to apply not only (or even mainly) to individuals but also to the population as a whole, terrorised by the threat of torture, and it is this coercive terrorisation that helped to “maintain” the “systems”.

    As you point out, Hobsbawm also conveniently excludes Hungary 1956 with his dates. But again, this does not magically make Kamm’s falsehood true.

  11. 11  Steven  May 16, 2008, 12:24 pm 

    Oh, sorry John M, I had forgotten that I previously promised to treat your comments with all the respect they deserve if you did not withdraw your accusations of dishonesty. Normal service will be resumed henceforth.

  12. 12  John Meredith  May 16, 2008, 12:37 pm 

    “Oh, sorry John M, I had forgotten that I previously promised to treat your comments with all the respect they deserve if you did not withdraw your accusations of dishonesty.”

    You should have been clearer in the terms of your excommunications. I had assumed that you meant you would no longer comment on the previous thread only. I had pointed out on that thread out that I was not making a claim of habitual dishonesty (just a specific instance of dishonesty), but this thread rather goes to show that I was being over-generous. Good luck on the witch hunting. It is a pity you have waved goodbye to your self-respect, this could have been a good blog.

  13. 13  Steven  May 16, 2008, 12:56 pm 

    Don’t feel too bad: I’m sure you will continue to be welcome at Oliver Kamm’s blog, where you can carry on making vicious slurs about the mental health of people with whom you disagree.

  14. 14  Dan R.  May 16, 2008, 1:08 pm 

    this could have been a good blog

    It already is a good blog, you pompous twit. (And nasty with it, as the link above shows.)

    I had pointed out on that thread out that I was not making a claim of habitual dishonesty (just a specific instance of dishonesty), but this thread rather goes to show that I was being over-generous.

    So now you are accusing Steven of being dishonest in this thread as well as the last one? Where will it all end?

  15. 15  abb1  May 16, 2008, 3:01 pm 

    Yeah, that’s the problem with true believers: their opponents are not just wrong but wicked.

    Incidentally, it’s a distinctive hallmark of stalinism as well.

  16. 16  Karl  May 16, 2008, 6:18 pm 

    Well, Kamm is creating propaganda for his own ends which is the ‘Left Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy’. This basically means military interventions by Soviet Communist totalitarians are bad e.g 1956. Therefore, Britain and the USA should not have appeased the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956 is much like Iraq by 2003 still under totalitarian rule.

    Consequently any intervention by the USA in the Middle East is ‘humanitarian intervention’ and completely devoid of the imperial strategy and realpolitik which motivated the Soviet Union. This is just the use of history to justify American neoconservative propaganda.

    Kamm at the same time also offers some ‘decent left’ alternative for fellow travellers of the USA as a liberator state and redeemer nation for those who need a new political religion. So you project the demons of power hunger and power worship wholly on to the ideological opponent in order to make your own motives look correspondingly purer.

    Anyway, that’s my take on Kamm. The propaganda he peddles is some anti-totalitarianism which means the USA is allowed to resort to the language and some of the tactics of totalitarian states in order to win history’s battles. Orwell had the word doublethink to cover such ideas. But ,of course Orwell is dead and he did not really write much about the USA did he ?

    That might be a good subject for an essay;the use and abuse of Orwell’s legacy today.

    Just some thoughts.

  17. 17  Steven  May 17, 2008, 10:54 am 

    That might be a good subject for an essay;the use and abuse of Orwell’s legacy today.

    I agree! Most invocations of Orwell these days are both terribly self-righteous and soporific. As it happens, David Runciman has a piece about this in the Guardian today to plug his new book, which is probably very interesting.

  18. 18  Karl  May 17, 2008, 1:12 pm 

    ‘Most invocations of Orwell these days are both terribly self-righteous and soporific’

    Well, lots of people are making them even when they claim that they could not possibly be as astute as Orwell.

    In fact, trying to stand in Orwell’s tradition of opposing totalitarianism has become appropriated by some self defined ‘decent left’ who keep making these spurious analogies between World War Two and anything from Al Qaida to Saddam’s Iraq or the Iranian regime.

    ‘Decent left’ is a piece of Unspeak, meaning anyone who does not share their almost messianic view of military intervention is necessarily some cringing ‘appeaser’. This is basically the ouevre of Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm, and Christopher Hitchens.

    It is the use of history as propaganda and all the more dangerous because if reflects an almost Utopian faith in the capability of the USA and UK to bring about ‘regime change’ and certainly provides some form of ‘moral justification’.

    The invocation of World War Two as the template for all ‘humanitarian interventions’ has taken on an almost religious aspect in my opinion. In a confused world, it is seen as some absolute example of what a ‘Good War’ should be and it has hardened into an unreflective and rigid orthodoxy.

    Yet most people who actually know what they are talking about and who know what totalitarianism of the Nazi or Soviet variety means, such as Norman Davies in his Europe at War, reject this simplistic piffle.

    However, posturing mediocrities such as Kamm, Cohen and the Eustonite/Democratiya groups set the bullish tone in the run up to the Iraq War and exploited that sense that the USA and the UK are always on the side of moral right when the enemy can be called Terrorist, Fascist or Stalinist or some sinister amalgam of all.

    So unravelling Unspeak is the first job followed by the second which is drawing attention to idiotic analogies.

    Yet the anti-war left contains some people who do that as well. Part of the reason Seumas Milne opposes US foreign policy is bacause he tends to think because the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany then those who now fight the US are the worthy inheritors of the anti-imperialist struggle and that the USA is the new Third Reich. John Pilger has referred to ‘the reich of Bush and Blair’.

    If you ever write a follow up to Unspeak, you should really consider taking a look at Seumas Milne’s Unspeak, not least that great line after 9/11 that the Al Qaida attacks had been ‘visted upon them’. Visited upon them like some Old Testament punishment for their collective sins.

  19. 19  Steven  May 17, 2008, 1:49 pm 

    Yes, Milne is one of those who use the word “resistance” for Iraqi insurgents, a usage that I argued strongly against in Unspeak. As for his “visited upon them”, one should point out that he used the same phrase both for the 9/11 attackers and for the US, ie:

    Perhaps it is too much to hope that, as rescue workers struggle to pull firefighters from the rubble, any but a small minority might make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon large parts of the world.

    Nonetheless it is at the least a tasteless choice of rhetoric.

    Part of the reason Seumas Milne opposes US foreign policy is bacause he tends to think because the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany then those who now fight the US are the worthy inheritors of the anti-imperialist struggle and that the USA is the new Third Reich. John Pilger has referred to ‘the reich of Bush and Blair’.

    These days I prefer to refer to the Cheney-Bush régime.

    There is a bit about WWII analogies, by the way, in the Afterword to the UK paperback edition of Unspeak.

  20. 20  Karl  May 18, 2008, 3:36 pm 

    The point I failed to make clearly was that by portraying the Bush administration in Washington as a new Third Reich, Pilger is able to somehow relativise the atrocities that insurgent groups in Iraq commit. That feeds into the propaganda notion that there is some ‘the Iraqi resistance’. For what could be worse than the Third Reich and how could any ‘resistance’ to it not in some ultimate sense be ‘explained’ if not ‘justified’ ?

    Another cant expression is this line that ‘it’s never justified but merely explained’. That seems to be Milne’s spin on the 9/11 attacks which he penned just a day after it happened. More than tasteless, it was all about trying to exploit a terrorist atrocity to make some bogus political point scoring rather than a serious analysis of US foreign policy.

    After all, the mujahadeen was a popular cause in the Middle East amongst precisely those Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood whose British supporters in the MAB he sees as legitimate representatives of ‘the Muslim Community’. Read any article by Anas Altikriti or Tamimi Azzam and it is saturated with Unspeak. In the next few weeks I’ll be providing some of it on your Forum to back up this claim. As comments editor Milne has been responsible for supporting them in that role.

    Back to the Unspeak of Milne, the use of ‘visited upon’ with regards both US foreign policy and 9/11 is intended as a rationalisation of an act of terrorism against civilians because the piece was entitled ‘They just can’t see why they are hated’. In which case, perhaps the attack was a regrettable necessity that was designed to make them see that and force them to make the link between the foreign policy of their government ( democratically elected ) and was was ‘visited upon them’.

    The words implying almost an impersonal Act of God which is, in some ways, pretty much how Milne sees violent theocratic politics. In fact if one accepts that violence is ‘visited upon’ people then that does in fact normalise that violence and suggest there is little way in which human agency could really do that much to have avoided it and that mass murder, bombing and the destruction of buildings and innocent people are to be expected rather like a visit from a wrathful God punishing people for their failure to act long beforehand to stop the source of the outrages committed.

    If Milne’s rationalisation of terror is accepted then absolutely any attack on civilians in the West could be explained away in such a way. That is not to say that terrorism just leaps from the void as though the wicked machinations of some evil ‘cult of death’ or that they ‘hate our freedoms’ but that if such poor blanket explanations are given as to why terrorists are motivated to kill civilians then those who harbour such thoughts anyway would have no reason not to act upon them.

    Why not ?

    I could go into a supermarket tomorrow because I hate Western foreign policy and start gunning people down with tears flooding from my eyes shouting I know its not justified but it is merely explained as an attempt to even up the arithmetic of death and to get you to feel the pain being suffered by Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan. Now obviously, there is still a lot we do not know about Al Qaida and attacks such as 7/7. Not least the connections between the CIA and MI6 and certain operatives. This would be a better line to pursue in trying to ‘explain’ why the attacks happened.

  21. 21  Steven  May 18, 2008, 4:05 pm 

    The point I apparently failed to make clearly was that, since Milne also wrote of the violence that America has “visited upon” others, you can’t exactly claim that he is seeking to justify the 9/11 attacks through the use of that phrase. A better argument might be to point to the contrast in his sentence between the passive (“what has been visited upon them”) and the active “what their government has visited upon [others]”). That might indeed tend to imply that the 9/11 attacks were a kind of impersonal retribution. Also there is an interesting conflation happening in Milne’s use of “their government”. The US government was less than a year old at the time, but previous governments are somehow supposed to be the same government, which is I suppose handy if you are thinking of them as one continuous agent and so an appropriate object for retribution with regards to something that happened decades ago.

    By the way, writers don’t choose the headlines assigned to their articles, in general.

    I can’t really follow your arguments about “rationalisation”, justification and explanation.

  22. 22  abb1  May 18, 2008, 4:21 pm 

    ‘Reich’ just means ’empire’; ‘the reich of Bush and Blair‘ only alludes to the Third Reich, it doesn’t portray Bush’s empire as the Third Reich. Strong rhetoric for sure, but not that strong.

    I don’t see any problem in acknowledging Iraqi resistance movement fighting against the occupation, and it’s certainly legitimate resistance. This is quite obvious. Whatever atrocities they may commit, the fact remains that they have a just cause. Yes, sometimes people we don’t like happen to have a just cause. Quite often, actually. Bummer, uh?

    I have no problem with the “visited upon” construct, if it means that it was a foreseeable reaction to the US foreign policy. That’s quite obvious too, why obfuscate? And this has nothing to do with any justifications of terrorism. Terrorism exists, it’s a real-life phenomenon, and it can and should be analyzed whether you believe that it’s a tasteless thing to do or not.

    I could go into a supermarket tomorrow because I hate Western foreign policy and start gunning people down with tears flooding from my eyes

    You could, couldn’t you – and yet you don’t. Why do you think that is? Is it because you are so morally superior, or, do you suppose, the fact that your house wasn’t destroyed and your children and parents weren’t murdered by people who came from a place 10,000 miles away might have something to do with it?

  23. 23  Karl  May 18, 2008, 6:06 pm 

    Well, I did not exactly claim that Milne had justified 9/11. The mantra is usually the empty platitude that ‘privatised’ terrorist attacks by Al Qaida can never be justified anymore than ‘state terrorist’ attacks by the USA on Muslim civilians.

    Rather that the insinuation-or Unspeak-is that the attacks were just explained by American foreign policy when the language elsewhere in the article does indicate a strong fatalistic sense that ‘the Americans’ had it coming. If Hitchens is to be criticised for saying ‘the Chinese’ or ‘the Saudis’ without distinguishing between the people and their government then the same can be done with Milne.

    That’s why he uses ‘their government’ and why they must ‘make the link’ between the foreign policy over which they have very little control as electors and ‘what has been visited upon them’. Milne’s attempt to conflate ‘their government’ with that is as close as it is possible to get to telling ‘the Americans’ that they did nothing to stop those attacks because they really could not care less about what ‘their government’ does.

    And that actually follows the psychopathology of terrorist actions that those who do not actively wish to change ‘their government’ will get bombed. Milne writes that the Americans ‘still don’t get it’ and can’t make the connections. Al Qaida, however, were able to make that connection which is why they blew up the WTC and show the literal meaning of ‘getting it’ in the same aggressive way that a person might ‘get it’ in the neck if they do not change the way they think.

    The language and tone of Milne’s article is menacing in that sense, not least as he could not have had any idea at the time who was responsible and why. That the attacks acted as a pretext for the USA to then pursue subsequent foreign policies that can in retrospect be seen to give credibility to his claim that US foreign policy ‘fuels the terror threat’ it seems Milne was more concerned with trying t make propaganda use of it to justify his own Marxist-Leninist worldview.

    The key to that is contained in the Unspeak contained in this sentence ‘Since George Bush’s father inaugurated his new world order a decade ago the US, supported by its British ally, bestrides the world like a colossus’.

    What isn’t mentioned is that this ‘new world order’ came into existence as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union he had supported right up until 1991. Milne hated the fact that the USA and UK supported the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, one of the important reasons why it was weakened and collapsed. Yet now he sees ‘the resistance’ in Iraq and elsewhere as somehoe heroic. This is classic Orwellian doublethink

    My opinion is that after 9/11 he was gloating because of the ‘blowback’ even though civilian lives were lost. Those who suscribe to Marxist-Leninist ideas are generally not known for their belief in the sanctity of life.

  24. 24  Steven  May 18, 2008, 6:23 pm 

    It’s hard to find anyone who really believes in the “sanctity of life”, apart from (AIUI) certain Buddhists.

    I agree about the unjustified conflations going on in Milne’s use of “the Americans”. However:

    My opinion is that after 9/11 he was gloating because of the ‘blowback’ even though civilian lives were lost.

    I suppose you can have an opinion about what Milne was secretly feeling if you like, but to describe this article as “gloating” is ridiculous.

  25. 25  abb1  May 18, 2008, 6:51 pm 

    Rather that the insinuation-or Unspeak-is that the attacks were just explained by American foreign policy when the language elsewhere in the article does indicate a strong fatalistic sense that ‘the Americans’ had it coming.

    I don’t see anything at all problematic here if “had it coming” (which is, I presume, not Milne’s phrase to begin with) is indeed used in a fatalistic sense (i.e. “it was inevitable”), as opposed to “they deserved it”.

  26. 26  abb1  May 18, 2008, 7:02 pm 

    What isn’t mentioned is that this ‘new world order’ came into existence as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union he had supported right up until 1991.

    Why does it need to be mentioned?

    Suppose he said: “…his new world order (that came into existence as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union I had supported right up until 1991) bestrides the world like a colossus’. Would it satisfy you? Why? I don’t get it.

  27. 27  Tawfiq Chahboune  May 18, 2008, 9:15 pm 


    Kamm is an exceptionally sinister fellow – even more sinister than William Shawcross! – and someone who is either incapable of intellectual honesty or is remarkably unlucky in persistently coming over as a fantastically ill-informed commentator.

    I’m baffled by the sheer number of media outlets willing to allow him space and time to make up and spout all kinds of nonsense (which crumbles on the most perfunctory inspection) and strut around as if he has anything intelligent to offer. If war, carnage and clownish mutterings are your thing, however, he’s your bozo.

    Here’s a small selection of the kind of stuff he, amazingly, gets “wrong”:

    One could describe Kamm’s oeuvre as outright mendacity and propaganda, but let’s be charitable and say that he’s an outstandingly incompetent and ignorant buffoon.

    His rants do sometimes come unstuck, and in the most wonderful fashion: the day the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons programme Kamm could be read in the Guardian furiously banging the drums for war on the basis that Iran has such a programme. It was all very funny.

    Perhaps Kamm is the creation of the brilliant Craig Brown? And we’ve all been taken in!

  28. 28  Steven  May 18, 2008, 9:24 pm 

    let’s be charitable and say that he’s an outstandingly incompetent and ignorant buffoon.

    Yes, let’s! I do love being charitable.

  29. 29  abb1  May 18, 2008, 9:45 pm 

    Oh, and also: This is classic Orwellian doublethink

    It’s nothing like Orwellian doublethink. Plenty of people approve of the US support of the circa 1980s Afghan mujahadeen and hate the Iraqi insurgency. In fact, this is a standard position of any consistent supporter of the US foreign policy. That’s not Orwellian. So why would the opposite be Orwellian?

  30. 30  Karl  May 18, 2008, 9:59 pm 


    I’m referring to Seumas Milne and not to ‘plenty of people’. Milne opposed the UK and USA’s sponorship of the mujahadeen but supports the right of Iraqi ‘resistance’. He obviously did not support the right of the mujahadeen to defend their country against Soviet occupation because he supported the Soviet Union and was business editor of Straight Left, a faction of the CPGB that supported the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.


    Well, the article showed a callous disregard for life which is not really so much different from those who euphemise civilian deaths as ‘collateral damage’. The danger of Milne’s kind of politics is that it is nihilist and if the premises were correct there would be no reason why war, terror and killing were wrong and the only thing that matters in the end is power.

    Anyway, this is perhaps going off topic but thanks for responding and I did enyoy reading Unspeak.

    Bye for now.

  31. 31  Steven  May 18, 2008, 10:21 pm 

    the article showed a callous disregard for life

    Really? Was that when he referred to the 9/11 attacks as “horrific suicide attacks on civilian workers”, “atrocities”, “tragedies” (although cf Unspeak here obviously), “carnage”, and “counter-productive acts of outrage”?

  32. 32  Karl  May 18, 2008, 10:53 pm 

    I couldn’t resist coming back.

    Yes. Words such as ‘horrific’ ‘tragedy’ and so forth can come cheaply. Whether or not they are just sensational shock horror terms bunged as an afterthought because he does not want to appear callous or actually meant obviously can be judged from looking at the general message of the article which used a tasteless and callous conflation of ‘the Americans’ with ‘their government’. The message being ‘well it is terrible, atrocious and horrific etc but what did you expect ?’

    This at a time, remember, when few had any idea who or why the attacks had been ‘visited upon them’.

    This is a different issue from what the Bush administration sought to make of them and which also showed a callous wish to use the terror attacks as a pretext to carry out the kind of foreign policy they have since pursued. But if there is ‘counter-productive outrage’ what does he mean by ‘counter-productive’. Is that not merely another Unspeak term meaning there is more terror from where this came from. At the time Milne could not have known exactly what the Bush administration was about to embark on.

  33. 33  Steven  May 18, 2008, 11:03 pm 

    You’re welcome to come back!

    a tasteless and callous conflation of ‘the Americans’ with ‘their government’

    Yes, this part I agree with to an extent, as I indicated at #21 and #24.

    if there is ‘counter-productive outrage’ what does he mean by ‘counter-productive’.

    You never know, but he might have meant that killing civilians was not likely to advance the cause, whatever it was, of the people who did it. Actually he might have been wrong there, given the subsequent actions of the US government.

    This at a time, remember, when few had any idea who or why the attacks had been ‘visited upon them’.

    Actually, he refers already to the possibility of it being “Osama Bin Laden’s supporters”.

    Anyway, perhaps we can get back to being charitable about Oliver Kamm. Tawfiq’s article is right to pick up on Kamm’s egregious and impressively stupid attempt to defend “rendition”, which was also nicely blown to smithereens here by sw.

  34. 34  Tawfiq Chahboune  May 18, 2008, 11:15 pm 

    But, “abb1” and Karl, that is not what happened. These people may hold that position, but that doesn’t make it a coherent one, let alone the “conistent” one they imagine it to be. Similarly, one can also believe, as Berlusconi brayed not so long ago, that Mussolini never harmed any Jews and those who were deported to extermination camps were in fact being sent on “holiday”. It doesn’t make it a coherent argument and it certainly is not a “consistent” anti-totalitarian position.

    Anyway, U.S. policy during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which can be found in declassified documents and categorically stated since then with pride by the then CIA director and the then head of National Security, was not to aid the Afghans in ridding themselves of Soviet occupation, but to ensure an extremely bloody war that would break the Soviet Union. Or as Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, give the Soviet Union their “own Vietnam”. That is, to keep the Soviets there for as long as possible.

    This was made possible not by aiding the Afghan freedom fighters, which could have been morally defended, but to enlist jihadis from across the Islamic world who would ensure that the Soviet Union would stay and bleed to death. That, I would suggest, is not something that could be defended morally. The added bonus here for U.S. policy was that these jihadis wouldn’t be in a position to trouble the despotic regimes (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc) allied to the U.S.

    I’m not sure if that’s “doublethink” or plain ignorance. But the facts are hardly controversial. That they’re glossed over is unsurprising. But they remain facts all the same.

    It gets even worse: after the first attack on the Twin Towers, in the early nineties, U.S. policy makers thought nothing of recruiting fanatical Salafists, many of whom now go under the broad umbrella of Al Qaeda, and other fundamentalists to wage a terrorist war against the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo.

    That probably ticks all the boxes for “doublethink”. It also represents one of the the most cynical and stupid foreign policy decisions in recent Western history. It’s right up there with the invasion of Iraq.

  35. 35  abb1  May 19, 2008, 9:49 am 

    I’m referring to Seumas Milne and not to ‘plenty of people’. Milne opposed the UK and USA’s sponsorship of the mujahadeen but supports the right of Iraqi ‘resistance’.

    As noted in 34 (and there’s more) the circumstances are not exactly the same, but let’s pretend they are.

    In that case, why would it be inconsistent to favor the USSR in Afghanistan and, say, al Sadr in Iraq, unless one regards the US and the USSR as equally imperialistic? If someone perceives the US as (mostly) an oppressor and the USSR as (mostly) a liberator (I know, you don’t believe this is possible, but it is, and it’s not too uncommon), then it’s an entirely logical proposition.

    And so is, of course, the opposite point of view, which is probably just about as common as the former one.

    I’ll note that for someone to hold either one of these views, it’s not necessary to consider the USSR (or the USA) to be a perfect society or even a particularly good society – all that’s necessary here is to view it as a lesser evil – which is not really an eccentric belief at all.

  36. 36  Karl  May 19, 2008, 11:04 am 


    ‘..why would it be inconsistent to favor the USSR in Afghanistan and, say, al Sadr in Iraq, unless one regards the US and the USSR as equally imperialistic? If someone perceives the US as (mostly) an oppressor and the USSR as (mostly) a liberator (I know, you don’t believe this is possible, but it is, and it’s not too uncommon), then it’s an entirely logical proposition’

    ( BTW how do I put this in grey type ?)

    The point is that Milne does not regard the USSR as ‘imperialistic’ and he was never written of Soviet imperialism because ‘imperialism’ is a word that he reserves exclusively for the UK and the USA. If Milne ‘perceives’ the USSR mostly as a ‘liberator’ then either he is being utterly mendacious or is trapped within a fanatical Marxist-Leninist worldview that allows him to employ doublethink.

    There is a kind of logic to it but it is a flawed one because based on a total ignorance of the historical record or an unwillingness to face it. Milne did an atrocious hack job on Robert Service’s excellent book Comrades when reviewing it and even lied to his readers by telling them that the archives opened after the fall of Communism had not revealed anything new.

    So it is possible to regard the USSR as a ‘liberator’ if one is prepared to overlook small things such as the historical record of mass murder, the Gulag, the forced transfering of ethnic minorities to Siberia, the Ukrainian Terror famine, and the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, supported by Milne, was not ’caused’ by the USA or the realpolitik machinations of Brzezinki.

    How on earth anybody could regard the USSR as a ‘lesser evil’ is incredible. Apart from Nazi Germany, it would be diffcult to find a greater one when the historical record is examined. That should not mean, however, that the USA is somehow absolved of its crimes either just because windbags such as Kamm keep blethering on about Soviet totalitarianism and the ‘hard left’ some 17 years after it fell.

    The important thing to note here is that there are those apologists for totalitarian regimes such as the USSR that have transfered their support to absolutely any group that can thwart the USA irrespective of how inhumane they are or how fanatical their creed is. This is diffeent from trying to make from this, as Kamm and Gove do, that there is some sinister and monolithic coalition of totalitarian evil transcending borders and that can be used to support the ‘war on terror’.

    The binary thinking of those like Milne or Galloway is actually not really different from Kamm or Cohen or Christopher Hitchens. Its all very Manichaean and one has to remember when dissecting their propaganda that they are not necessarily always concerned with reality. That’s why looking at the Unspeak is important in conjunction with knowing something about the historical record. Not just ransacking it to make partisan political points.

  37. 37  Karl  May 19, 2008, 12:18 pm 


    Not true. The CIA did not fund the jihadis but the ISI who then directed funds to the Afghan mujahadeen. They did not fund the Afghan Arabs who were funded by charitable organisations, Mosques and private donors, not to mention aided by the MAK which built of the existing structure of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only 25% of the funds raised for the Afghan jihad came from state sources.

  38. 38  Karl  May 19, 2008, 12:22 pm 

    Sorry, the CIA did not fund the Arab jihadis or the volunteers.

  39. 39  abb1  May 19, 2008, 12:31 pm 

    How on earth anybody could regard the USSR as a ‘lesser evil’ is incredible.

    It’s quite ordinary, in fact. Ideologically it’s a question of whether you value greater political and economic freedoms over greater equality and rejection of economic exploitation. Values differ, although obviously the US has done much better on this front, no question about that.

    And then there is foreign policy. It doesn’t really take much effort (certainly not any doublethink) to notice that in the post-war struggle for the spheres of influence the Soviets mostly backed revolutionary mass-movements while US was supporting oppressive authoritarian regimes. Not every time, but for the most part.

    Personally, I don’t think the Soviets deserve much credit for that, as I believe those were mostly realpolitik decisions; nevertheless, it’s not difficult to understand how someone could arrive at the conclusion that they are, indeed, a much lesser evil. Not incredible at all.

  40. 40  Karl  May 19, 2008, 12:59 pm 

    The important thing to bear in mind is why this propaganda is important now. Those who criticise Milne are often told that the Soviet Union is not a threat any more and so anyone who criticises Milne for it are diverting attention away from the rapacious plutocracy and Imperial role of the USA today in the absence of what Martin Jacques, another former CPGB member, refers to as a ‘systemic alternative’ ie the USSR.

    It is important for two reasons. The first is that Milne is a Guardian journalist and commentator with a large degree of influence. Many who read him do so because they have a will to believe and share the anti-imperialism of Soviet Imperialism but can never bring themselves to admit the nature of that regime. The support for Third World anti-imperialist movements has shifted from Marxist-Leninist ones to violent revolutionary Islamist ones.

    Secondly, the doublethink is that such revolutionary Islamist movements detested the Soviet Union and the atheism of Marxism’Leninism so that the only reason Milne lauds them is through some cold vindictive rage merely to see the USA humiliated at whatever cost.

    That’s why he refers to the insurgents in Iraq as ‘the resistance’. Later, he qualified that by distinguishing between jihadis of the AQ type and organisations such as the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades but only when he realised it was trying to forge a common Sunni front against other groups and the US occupation.

    However, when I questioned Milne on CiF about the resistance he told me that outsiders had no right to concern themselves with the way in which the resistance actually carried out their operations since it was all a cosequence of the criminal invasion in the first place. So if that apllies to Iraq why all the outrage about supporting the bleedning of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s?

    I’ll provide his response in a bit…

  41. 41  Steven  May 19, 2008, 1:02 pm 

    I’ll provide his response in a bit…

    Please don’t, this is all way off-topic now.

  42. […] is a dangerous thing to disagree with Steven Poole, but I think his defence of Hobsbawm’s Stalinist account of Eastern European history is just […]

  43. 43  Karl  May 19, 2008, 1:18 pm 

    Ok, fair enough, it’s your blog.

    I’ll leave this for a bit and come back some other time on the Forum providing examples of Unspeak.


  44. 44  Steven  May 19, 2008, 1:19 pm 

    You’ll be most welcome.

  45. 45  Tawfiq Chahboune  May 19, 2008, 7:08 pm 

    Karl, the CIA and U.S. policy makers knew very well what the ISI and the various Arab states were up to – and they supported it all. Withous the U.S. directing the overall jihad on the Soviet Union, the ISI could not have armed the “Afghan Arabs”.

    Each had their own reasons for doing what they did. The Saudi Mafia, for example, had to prove their Wahhabi credentials to the clerics who keep them in power. There is substantial evidence to back all of this up. Maybe it was an oversight on your part, but you don’t seem to dispute the aiding of Al Qaeda in the Balkans.

    Moving on, by any stretch of the imagination, Sadr is not a terrorist. Patrick Cockburn’s new book is an excellent dissection of modern Iraq and the various shenanigans the U.S. has been up to since the calamitous invasion. The point is simply that Sadr is now the most popular politician in Iraq. SIIC (previously SCIRI) and Dawa have failed and the Shia population is turning to Sadr instead (he’s also somewhat popular with Sunnis because of his Iraqi nationalism). Their “plan” has come unstuck: aiding the occupation, forcing elections and then, when in complete political control, demand the end of the U.S. occupation.

    In the meantime, however, their power has waned and Sadr’s has increased tremendously. Hence the need by the U.S. to paint him as some Zarqawi-like loony. The plan has also come unstuck because the U.S. is now arming those that were once called “Islamo-fascists” and “fascist Baathists” when they were attacking the U.S. to counter Shia power. SIIC and Dawa are not stupid and understand what the U.S. is up to but have the bigger Sadr fish to fry.

    Sadr’s politics are not greatly different from the Shia fundamentalists the U.S. is currently ading for its own cynical reasons. Evidently, it never crossed U.S. policy makers’ minds that fundamentalist Shia parties would win elections, because the U.S. never planned on having elections. Chalabi and then Allawi were meant to be Iraq’s “President” – that is, dictator.

    The U.S. has been willing to work with SIIC and Dawa because they themselves were willing to cooperate with the occupation for various reasons, which now are almost solely about countering Sadr’s influence. The battle between the Sadrists and Dawa and the formerly titled SCIRI has been going on for decades. Sadr is now winning and he is out and out against the occupation. With elections coming up, things ain’t looking too good for SIIC and Dawa, so they and the U.S. have moved against Sadr. Ergo he is a psychopathic butcher who is at the heart of a diabolical Shia plot called freedom and democratic elections.

    That’s pretty much what’s happened. The U.S. is acting in its own self-interest, like the great British, Spanish and French powers before it. The only difference now is that the propaganda is so much better, but the people, thankfully, are much more sceptical.

    Bush has inadvertently done a remarkable thing: he’s almost dismantled U.S. power in the Middle East. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and a few others had to be sacrificed to show due penance. And the Democrats will try to save what they can from the fiasco of the Bush years. That’s one of the reasons Bush has already been titled worst president in U.S. history.

  46. 46  Alex Higgins  May 19, 2008, 8:44 pm 

    Karl – Since you asked, you can put a quote in grey text by writing “blockquote” either side of the citation in those little triangle brackets (technical name, anyone?) you use for italics and bold type.

  47. 47  Steven  May 19, 2008, 9:56 pm 

    Thanks to html guru Alex.

    Guys, if you want to keep arguing about Sadr, Milne, the CIA and who knows what else that is entirely unconnected to this thread, please take it to the forum. That’s what it’s for!

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