Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the winter of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings: but today the struggle.
HOW uncanny that first line seems now, how disturbingly familiar seventy years after the start of the Spanish Civil War, the event which inspired WH Auden’s poem and much of his generation. In 2006, of course, it is not anti-fascist poets but Islamic fundamentalists who may be found volunteering abroad, and the notion of intervention – once a clarion call for the Left – has been crudely soldered onto ‘Rightist’ lapels. Yet Spain continues to compel and inspire a broad range of progressive opinion, from Michael Foot over Kosovo to Paul Berman on Iraq, and the spirit of the Republican cause – its foresight, its relative veracity, its unashamed romanticism – speaks to all but the most parochial and doctrinaire. “An anarchist’s war, a poet’s war”, wrote Stephen Spender; but a Liberal’s too, one that “offered Liberal individualists the chance to attach Liberal democracy to a people’s cause”: here, however briefly, and despite the Communists, was diversity and nonconformity to be found. Spain sparked a remarkable creative response from Europe’s writers and artists – Auden, MacNeice, Spender, Day Lewis, Orwell, Hemingway, Neruda, Paz, Koestler, Gide and Malraux all wrote or reported from the front line – and the ferment facilitated a series of informed and impassioned contributions; when Auden included in the first draft of ‘Spain’ the phrase “the necessary murder” – itself a variation on “Murder is necessary” from Spender’s 1934 poem ‘Vienna’ – George Orwell declared that “Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is possible only if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled”. If Orwell was wrong (and he was; the line may be more honestly read as directed at contemporary pacifist sentiment, much of which was swayed by Spain), both writers were driven by their understanding that the Civil War offered an opportunity to stem the spread of fascism before the weed engulfed all of Europe.
In ‘The Age of Bronze’, a satire initially intended for publication in The Liberal, Lord Byron lamented the European Powers’ failure to heed the Greek call for independence: “Lone, lost, abandoned in their utmost need”, he raged, “Greece can show / The false friend worse than the infuriate foe”. Such a bold show of intervention is not readily to be found among many of today’s politically-committed writers, who generally might be considered a little less particular in questions of political commitment. Those who currently affiliate themselves with ‘oppositional’ or what they term ‘leftist’ positions tend to be fond of a shrill, often didactic, highly aestheticised turn of phrase, whether it be in verse (Pinter, Paulin) or prose (Arundhati Roy: “When NATO bombed Yugoslavia, a tiger in the Belgrade Zoo got so terrified that it started eating its own limbs. The people of the Narmada Valley will soon start eating their own limbs”). For all this striding, forceful language, many of these authors have little to offer in the way of a progressive discourse; despite their vocations, they tend to be timid, wary of the fluid, free and open exchange of ideas that globalisation has bought. Where an affirmative sensibility prevails artistically, reaction and negation are their political creeds; theirs is the anti- (‘Just Say No’) mentality, more at home with a boycott than a cry for liberty. (More inclined, for example, to boycott Israeli academics – many of whom form the backbone of the nation’s dissent movement – than rally for liberal Iranian lecturers banned by Ahmadinejad’s theocracy, after he declared (in the style of Mao Zedong) that “a student must yell against liberal thoughts”). At the heart of this posturing is a profound distrust of the polis, and of the process of democratic politics; averse to the liberal impulse of devolution, here power itself is, and can only be, tyranny (“The only way to keep power on a tight leash is to oppose it, never to seek to own it or have it”, Roy recently remarked). Rather than seeking to enfranchise the marginalised citizen, to realise and recognise his autonomy and response-ability, this thinking patronises and strips him of all volition, to the extent that (particularly if he is Muslim) he is judged by a less demanding ethical standard, and so – by virtue – deemed less capable of living and sharing in the ethical life.
It is clear, however, that many on the Left are not opposed to the notion of intervention per se, but merely peculiarly selective about where they would choose to intervene. When in August John Williams asserted in The Guardian that “if ever a situation cried out for ‘effective collective measures’, this is it”, surely he would have been more accurate referring to the genocide in Darfur, in which over 300,000 black Sudanese have been slaughtered by government-sponsored militia (p.12), than the situation in the Middle East, whatever one’s misgivings about Israeli government policy. A heady mixture of colonial guilt and politically ‘correct’ prejudice – one that identifies Muslim victims by their religion only when they are murdered by non-Muslims – has encouraged too many on the Left to neglect or downplay the urgency of the situation in Sudan (“The aid evaded and the cold delay”, as Byron put it). The fact that refugee rations in the region were cut by half in May due to a lack of funds puts to shame the EU countries who have sought to offer themselves as a moral counterpoint to American hegemony, only to offer in response less than 1% of the amount of aid allocated by the US. Moreover, the Left’s unwillingness to comprehensively critique the UN, and in particular the inept and ineffective leadership of Kofi Annan, has done a disservice to the organisation at a time when it desperately needs critical friends. As with the British Liberal Democrats, where Menzies Campbell’s recent assertion that “Foreign affairs is a world of relative values” marks a distinct movement away from the radical ethical approach trailblazed by Gladstone and Ashdown (p.6), too often the Left has dodged moral challenges by hiding behind the processes, and disregarding the spirit, of international law (their motto: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, unless the UN thinks it so’). But an organisation whose members often engage in an amoral realpolitik (the behaviour of France and Russia being a keen example), and lead by the former head of UN peacekeeping forces during Rwanda and Srebrenica, can hardly claim moral supremacy, even at a time when the world cries out for long-sighted solutions to the challenges posed by the forces of illiberalism.
“Tomorrow, perhaps, the future”, begins an earlier stanza of Auden’s ‘Spain’, a remark bearing figurative truth for the poet’s generation but one which – in the light of global warming – speaks to us as a literal warning. It is difficult to comprehend quite how radical a change in culture is required if we are to survive and prosper into the next century, and in the belief that such a transformation necessitates, and in part follows from, an intellectual shift, The Liberal has commissioned a pamphlet entitled (after Sartre’s 1946 essay) ‘Environmentalism is a Humanism’, a preview of which may be read on p.22. We are compelled by the prevailing situation to cultivate an environmental consciousness, one that is progressive and grounded in the belief that man is capable of restoring and tending to the earth, and making good on its munificent bounty. Further to the discussion about strands of liberal theory, our title perhaps ought to have been ‘Environ-mentalism is a Liberalism’; for what is Liberalism if not the belief that the flower may flourish more fully if the garden itself is nurtured with care? Regrettably, Liberalism as a coherent philosophy has for far too long been on the defensive, at times adopting positions of reaction, unable or unwilling to set and direct the terms of debate, and subsequently incapable of expressing its complex understanding of the world and its vision for the future. This is particularly evident on the crucial issue of aid and trade (p.16), where the public is often presented with a false choice between what is termed ‘free trade’, but which in practise is selectively protectionist (it selects the national economies that least need protection) and ‘fair trade’, which can be extremely so. In order to break down this dichotomy, it is imperative that figures such as Adam Smith be rescued from the clutches of the former and the contempt of the latter, and liberals reaffirm the aspiration of an anti-monopolistic and inherently democratic model of voluntary exchange. Such voluntariness, however, is possible only if communities whose natural resources have been unjustly appropriated – by, or as a direct result of, colonialism or corruption – are allowed to develop from a level playing field. In Latin America, the continent that liberals forgot, we would do well to recognise this demand from indigenous movements who, despite their branding, are not socialist in nature (at least not in any Western conception of the term), but committed to a communal self-determination, one denied to them by the self-interested Creole creations of Simón Bolívar (pace Hugo Chávez): theirs is the revolution not of Marx but, belatedly, of San Martín.
Seventy years ago, two avant-garde artists, both ardent supporters of Republican Spain, met in self-imposed exile in Paris. There, shortly after composing Guernica (p.50), Pablo Picasso sketched a portrait of the then little-known Peruvian poet César Vallejo, recently returned from the International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Valencia. Vallejo was a mestizo born into poverty in Andean Peru, and so a witness at first hand to the debilitating legacy of the savage Spanish Conquest. In España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, Take This Cup from Me), the poet seeks for grace, imagining a Spain not wracked by avarice and inquisition, but one devoted to building what Auden called “the Just City”:
si la madre
España cae – digo, es un decir –,
salid, niños del mundo; id a buscarla!
Spain falls – it’s a mere saying –
go out, children of the world, go look for her!