Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 27, 2010

Fred Halliday

Fred Halliday, who has died of cancer aged 64, was an Irish academic whose main interest was the Middle East and its place in international politics. His first major book, Arabia Without Sultans, was published in 1974. The culmination of adventurous field research in the region, including Oman, it was a study of Arabian regimes, their support from the west and Iran, and the revolutionary forces fighting against them. “The Arab Middle East is the one with the longest history of contact with the west; yet it is probably the one least understood,” Fred believed. “Part of the misunderstanding is due to the romantic mythology that has long appeared to shroud the deserts of the peninsula. Where old myths have broken down, new ones have absorbed them or taken their place.”

read full obituary

* * * *

The bilious Fred Halliday

posted to www.marxmail.org on February 1, 2005

One thing that a number of high-profile self-described leftist enemies of “Islamofascism” have in common is that they were all once members of the editorial board of the New Left Review. What they also had in common was support for NATO’s war in the Balkans, which implied a much different attitude toward imperialism than that found in classical Marxism.

Ex-editors Quentin Hoare and his wife Branka Magas spent most of the late 1990s writing article after article demonizing the Serbs and demanding that they be bombed into submission.

In October 2000, the NLR asked Marko Attila Hoare, the progeny of Quentin and Branka, to write an article on the anti-Milosevic revolt. However, editor Susan Watkins nixed the article since it implied political support for the forced absorption of Yugoslavia into Western European economic and political institutions. (Watkins is married to Tariq Ali and appears to be one of the more radical-minded of the editors there. Apparently–despite her husband–she hates the idea of the left voting for John Kerry.)

While not as visible on the frontlines as the Hoare and Magas, Norman Geras and Chris Bertram were also being seduced by the notion of Cruise missiles as agencies of Yugoslav democracy. For reasons that remain somewhat murky, Hoare, Magas, Geras and Bertram all resigned from the NLR in 1993. What is clear, however, is that they are for Woodrow Wilson style imperialist interventions as the need arises–a variant on the bastardized socialism that compelled Lenin to draft the Zimmerwald manifesto at the start of WWI.

Although I don’t know if ex-NLR editor Fred Halliday left with this crowd back in 1993 and am not aware of any pronounced hostility toward the Serbs on his part, he certainly has emerged as a prominent supporter of military efforts to tame the unruly Moslem. Halliday’s earlier work, like “The Making of the Second Cold War” in 1983, is written from a fairly conventional academic leftist standpoint but more recent work reflects a kind of creeping Thomas Friedman sensibility about the need to punish “bad” Islamists and reward good ones. So, this means supporting the war in Afghanistan while at the same time pressing for Turkey’s admission to the European Union. You find a certain convergence between Halliday and the batty ex-radical and current Sufi neo-conservative Stephen Schwartz, whose latest book also makes the case for sorting out good Islam from bad. Needless to say, the bad Moslems are those who tend to attack Israeli or US interests.

Like others who have traveled this route, Halliday is developing a rather bilious personality that is rapidly encroaching on Christopher Hitchens’ turf. I refer you in particular to an item in last Sunday’s Observer penned by Halliday and titled It’s time to bin the past. It rather shamelessly appropriates Leon Trotsky’s verdict on the Mensheviks being consigned to the dustbin of history, since Halliday–an ex-Trotskyist–must surely be aware that Trotsky was attacking reformists just like him.

Halliday discusses three “dustbins” of history in his screed. The first two relate to the former Soviet Union and Washington and make rather obvious points about Putin and Bush. It is the third dustbin that gets Halliday into a proper lather:

The Third Dustbin is that of the contemporary global protest movement, to a considerable degree a children’s crusade of intellectual demagogues, recycled 1960s bunkeristas with their fellow travellers in literary circles, dreamers and political manipulators, of the old and new lefts, whose claim to moral and analytic superiority too often masks a set of unexamined, and themselves often recycled, platitudes from the Cold War period and, indeed, from the ideology of the communist world.

Which intellectual demagogues would Halliday be railing against here? Naomi Klein, the most prominent spokesperson of this global protest movement? Is she recycling ideology from the communist world? Sigh, if only this were the case. Halliday lurches ahead:

Indeed the contents of this Third Dustbin are familiar enough: a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th century (for example by Stalin or Mao); a complacent attitude, innocent when not indulgent, towards political violence (witness the cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man, and the invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran, to name but three at the London Social Summit in October).

One has to wonder if the editor assigned to Halliday’s piece was drunk when he worked on it, since the above citation can barely stand on its own feet. Not only is it a 129 word sentence in clear violation of the Gunning fog factor, it also spells ‘incantation’ wrong.

With respect to the “cult of Che Guevara, a cruel and dangerous man,” one can only wonder if Halliday must be upset by the hit film “Motorcycle Diaries,” which inspired an over-the-top verbal assault from Christopher Hitchens on Slate. One supposes that Che gets people like Halliday and Hitchens all upset because he reminds them of their long frozen-over youthful idealism. And those invitees from Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iran. They should have known better than to be born in such places. Far better for them to have been born elsewhere or at least to have forsaken radical politics as Halliday did long ago. Our angry professor concludes:

We can assess the outcome of discussions in Davos and Porto Alegre to see if thinking on the current crises of the world has moved on. Here ideas and policies should meet what I term the ‘Vilanova Test’, named after the flinty Spanish writer Pere Vilanova, who, on the basis of years of political engagement and debate in Spain and the Arab world, has argued consistently for pensamiento duro, ‘tough thinking’, in the contemporary world. We certainly have, and may again be treated to, plenty of the other.

What can I say, when I hear business about “tough thinking”, Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik comes to mind. This, after all, is what Halliday and his co-thinkers are about–reshaping the planet in pursuit of geopolitical goals. I don’t mind if that’s their agenda. The least they can do is can the leftish rhetoric.


  1. This breed of intellectual (Halliday) reminds me of how the Pentagon utilzes anthropolgists in order to dream up more effective ways of killing insurgent populations.

    Fred’s dead but his odious legacy lives on. Talk about a “cruel and dangerous man”!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 27, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

  2. Excuse me, Karl, but while the Pentagon would certainly *like* to use me and my colleagues for the nefarious purpose you describe, I and my colleagues have so far (wo)manfully resisted the temptation to drink that particular Kool-aid (I mean, with the exception of a few misguided souls).


    Comment by Dr. X — April 27, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

  3. Hm ironic you condemn Halliday for badmouthing Muslims when the Serbian soldiers went after the same type of minority.

    there’s also this:


    Comment by Jenny — April 27, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  4. Well, Jenny, while I would find his books useful and worth reading, I wouldn’t classify him as a personal hero. Why not? To answer that question, NOW READ ON. . .

    I saw him speak in Belfast years ago, and he told an anecdote about meeting someone in (I think) the Yemeni security apparatus. He and the security apparatchik had an evening singing socialist songs – a good time was had by all.

    All except the socialists, who were all dead. Because the Yemeni apparatchik had helped suppress them.

    Comment by Dr. X — April 27, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  5. I loved Arabia Without Sultans. I had no idea he ended up the way he did. Sad.

    Comment by ish — April 27, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  6. “…the Serbian soldiers went after the same type of minority.”

    And while yo’re at it, don’t forget that the Iraqi soldiers tossed babies out of incubators in Kuwait in 1990!

    They both deserved to be bombed!

    Comment by Christopher Hitchens — April 27, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  7. Dr. X(if that is your actual name), I wasn’t addressing you, I was addressing Louis.

    Comment by Jenny — April 27, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

  8. The turning point for Halliday, Geras and other NLR-types who became apologists for western imperialism was not the war in the Balkans but the first Gulf war in 1990-91. After that, it was all down hill.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — April 27, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

  9. {And while yo’re at it, don’t forget that the Iraqi soldiers tossed babies out of incubators in Kuwait in 1990!}

    Who is this fool who does not know tha was a LIE. It came from the same war criminals who constructed the lie that Saddam has WMD. These fools should be bombed and bombed immediately so the world can breath again.

    Comment by Azadeh — April 27, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  10. Surely Hitchens is joking. That must be sarcasm because nobody who imagines themself as a journalist could be so stupid or uneducated about the outset of that war.

    According to a definitive report by “60 Minutes” a week after the bombing started in the First Gulf war — the babies ripped from incubators lie was proven to be a sheer invention by the CIA, which Bush Sr. of course used to head, planted in the brain of the Emir’s niece. That’s right, she admitted on camera that she lied to the faces of the US Congress people about that episode, which she conceded never happened. Got that. NEVER HAPPENED. She admitted she said it only because her Uncle, the Emir, who was of course constantly in touch with the CIA, told her to, in order to sway a wavering and skeptical American public opinion for the war.

    That hoax was just more episode of imperialist turpitude manufacturing a pretext for invasion on par with the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

    Nevermind that Kuwait, formerly Province 19 of Iraq with large port but by the 1990’s a parasitic excrescence drawn up with a ruler and pencil by Sir Percy Cox of the Anglo-American oil consortium in 1922, was slant drilling for years into Iraq’s largest oil field.

    When Saddam, who dutifully fulfilled the CIA’s requests to harass the Iranian revolution, asked big shots at the State Dept. their opinion on his long standing beef with Kuwait they gave what he interpreted as a green light.

    But for this Hitchen’s cheers on while tens of thousands of Shia conscripts (who would have loved to kill Saddam themselves no doubt) get carpet bombed into oblivion while hunkered in the desert.

    7 mile high B52 bombing raids overe Iraq & Serbia — more cowardly forms of genocide scarcely exist.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 28, 2010 @ 12:15 am

  11. Interesting to note that the modest Dr. X says claims “while the Pentagon would certainly *like* to use me and my colleagues for the nefarious purpose you describe, I and my colleagues have so far (wo)manfully resisted the temptation to drink that particular Kool-aid (I mean, with the exception of a few misguided souls).”

    “So far” he says — as if having “resisted the temptation” was an enormous personal struggle akin to an alcoholic who breaks out in a cold sweat when the nefarious wave a bottle of gin under their nose.

    And who were these “misguided souls”? Name names — as next time I’m in DC I might run into one of those sots urinating behind a pub and I could maybe…. introduce myself, and him, to another point of view.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 28, 2010 @ 12:29 am

  12. De mortuis nil nisi bonum? Whyever the fuck not, when it’s a fuck like Halliday? Kick when alive; kick when dead, too. “Tough thinking”; aaack! Note that it is generally less tough on the thinker than on those he is thinking about bombing; it sounds more like the Iron Lady than Mad Bomber Henry, though. Note that Louis Proyect is considerably angrier at Halliday than is the Angry Arab–no mean feat: http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2010/04/fred-halliday-is-dead.html

    I think Halliday may have left NLR after the large-scale purge in the early nineties that also removed Ellen Meiksins Wood.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — April 28, 2010 @ 12:58 am

  13. Karl Friedrich and Azadeh, I think you need to set your sarcasm meter a little higher. Clearly “Christopher Hitchens” was responding to Jenny’s remark about the Serbs with a canard about the Iraqis, The pseudonym makes it both more obnoxious and, well, more ironic. It’s clearly written by someone who, like me (though assuredly NOT by me) who believes the NATO bombing of Serbia and the first US attack on Iraq unjustified.

    Comment by ish — April 28, 2010 @ 2:41 am

  14. The real Christopher Hitchens at the time actually launched some of the best articulated cases AGAINST the Gulf War: http://bhaskism.tumblr.com/post/475999647/hitchens-in-his-prime-circa-91-ill-probably

    Comment by Bhaskar — April 28, 2010 @ 4:27 am

  15. Frankly, Louis, you seem to be a lot more “bilious” tahn Fred Halliday.

    Why not discuss ideas and developments without attacking personalities?

    Why not tell us what you think Fred got right?

    Just because he favoured a different side in some war, possibly out of good intentions, and where the case was pretty difficult either way, does not make him a villain.

    Poor Marx, to have such “followers”!

    Comment by Daulat Ram — April 28, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  16. A friend of mine was taught by Fred Halliday at the London School of Economics and had nice things to say about him, but then had nice things to say about just about everybody.

    However,”Just because he favoured a different side in some war, possibly out of good intentions, and where the case was pretty difficult either way, does not make him a villain.”
    Yes it does. Not as great a villain as those actually organising the wars, but still.The fact that you say “the case was pretty difficult either way” suggests that you agree with him, as for Marxists who reached the opposite point of view the case was a lot more simple, not about defending international peace and security by defending the right of imperialist powers to cause chaos to defend their domination of the world, but to stand with those they wish to bomb into smithereens.
    Maybe he did have good intentions. Apparently the road to Hell is paved with them.

    #10 I would guess that that’s not actually Christopher Hitchens, if it is his decline is more advanced than previously thought.

    Comment by skidmarx — April 28, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

  17. Ram – His “ideas” were that of the Cruise Missile Left and their “developments” reactionary.

    Politics is “who gets what” & war is the sharpest expression of politics.

    “Just because he favored a different side in some war…” What? The bombing of the Serbs wasn’t just “some war.” According to a CIA spokesman when asked by Jim Lehrer on his news hour during the Clinton regime: “What exactly are US interests in Yugoslavia anyway?” — the analyst replied: “It is to ensure that the last vestiges of a soviet style planned economy are eradicated from the European Continent.”

    No mumbo jumbo about alleged rapes and ethnic cleansing, no, the CIA guy knew that was all pretext for bombing while the real aim was to stomp, while it was down, the remains of actually existing socialism in Europe.

    “Possibly,” you say, Halliday cheered on such Pentagon bombings “out of good intentions”? Yea, right! Where Fred’s at now he can see the road to hell is paved with them.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 28, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  18. skidmarx, Friedrich:

    No wonder Marx said he was glad HE was not a Marxist…

    With followers like this who needs enemies?

    Just because Fred thought the Americans were doing a good thing to intervene in a couple of wars does not make him a villain. The US is not the be-all and end-all of villainy in the modern world. There are many, many regimes a lot worse.

    Sometimes the US gets it right. They did a good thing to fight Hitler. They did well to fight the Japanese.

    They did well to get rid of the murderous thug called Saddam Hussein. I have Kurdish friends who are endlessly grateful for that.

    They did well to prevent the Serbs massacring the Kosovars.

    They had their own interests in mind, in some of this. But that does not make their interventions in THESE cases unacceptable in the name of humanity. The Vietnamese intervened against the genocidal regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia to a large extent for their own interests. But they helped the Cambodians to survive.

    I am an Indian. I know the US is not always right. They supported the genocidal regime of Yahya Khan in Pakistan in 1971 which wiped out millions of Hindus and Muslims in what later became Bangladesh. So I am not an uncritical supporter of the US. But they are sometimes right and like Fred and Christopher Hitchens in THOSE cases I am prepared to support them.

    We need a less angry and dismissive way of discussion if the Left is to get anywhere.

    Comment by Daulat Ram — April 28, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  19. Sometimes the US gets it right. They did a good thing to fight Hitler. They did well to fight the Japanese.

    The poet Archibald MacLeish, at that time an Assistant Secretary of State, predicted the outcome of an allied victory. He declared, “As things are now going, the peace we will make, the peace we seem to be making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping, a peace, in brief…without moral purpose or human interest.”

    full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/fascism_and_war/zimmerwald.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — April 28, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  20. “They did well to get rid of the murderous thug called Saddam Hussein. I have Kurdish friends who are endlessly grateful for that.”


    see http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/iraq for some relevant numbers.

    Comment by jp — April 28, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  21. JP:

    If the US is always wrong as far as you are concerned, there is nothing more to discuss.

    I happen to think it isn’t, always. That it is a democtatic country, by most world standards. That people can speak more freely there than in much of the world. These are good things.

    And yes, their crucial role in defeating Hitler was a great contribution. after all, what was the alternative? A Europe and much of Asia under genocidal fascism.

    What odd guys we get on the “left”…..!

    Comment by Daulat Ram — April 28, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  22. By the way, are you sure the US killings in Iraqe not a million times more than is thought? Or a BILLION? A TRILLION?

    Don’t be modest about these things.

    Comment by Daulat Ram — April 28, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  23. Daulat, I’m going to do you the favor of assuming you are a troll, not willfully ignorant, so I’m signing off.

    Comment by jp — April 28, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

  24. Jesus Christ Daulat are you going to start singing the US anthem? Btw its dumb to come to a Marxist web site with just a drop of marxist knowledge then claim to know his pedigree. Your contempt towards the facts about the Iraq war would have won no favour with him if he were alive Im sure.

    Comment by SGuy — April 28, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  25. SGuy:

    You are assuming it IS a “Marxist” website. Writing up Islamic expansionism is an odd thing for a marxist or even socialist website to do.

    The US has plenty of faults. Which country does not? As I explained above, as an Indian I am not likely to be blind to the self-interested and downright foolish steps the US Government has often taken in the world – for example in its support of Pakistan.

    At the same time, it is a democratic country where people have a chance of expressing their views without fear. There is a chance of getting the government to change its worst errors in time. It is certainly a great deal better than a totalitarian tyranny in which public opinion has no chance.

    And the US has sometimes done good things: in World War II, in getting rid of the monsrous tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

    Many people make the mistake of adulating any force in the world that is anti-American. A huge error. If Hitler were around today, no doubt they would praise him, too. After all, he was anti-American.

    Comment by Daulat Ram — April 28, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

  26. Daulat in #18:
    Sometimes the US gets it right. They did a good thing to fight Hitler.

    Daulat in #21:
    And yes, their crucial role in defeating Hitler was a great contribution.

    Daulat in #25:
    And the US has sometimes done good things: in World War II, in getting rid of the monsrous tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

    Well, this is a new one for me. I am banning Daulat Ram for being a repetitious bore.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 28, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  27. Daulat Ram, well, it is called “The Unrepentant Marxist.”

    But speaking of World War 2, you are aware that American imperialism, in fighting Japanese imperialism, was really backing up British imperialism’s rule of India, right? Perhaps you’ve heard of Subhas Chandra Bose?

    Comment by ish — April 28, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

  28. Daulat sounded like another good candidate to join Progressives For Obama…

    Comment by jp — April 28, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

  29. Support of Pakistan? You were right to delete that Indian nationalist screwball. I bet this is one area where hes bound to be very critical, until the US makes them give up any claim to Jammu and Kasmir and disarms Pakistans nukes hes going to be a bit upset.

    Comment by SGuy — April 28, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  30. He is referring to U.S. hostility towards one of the few justifiable interventions in history, the Indian launched, Soviet-backed war on Pakistan in 1971, which legitimately helped ameliorate a genocidal situation in Bangladesh. (another one being Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia.)

    Comment by Bhaskar — April 28, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  31. Ram imagines he can’t be wrong about Uncle Sam vis a vis Hitler & Tojo, being such a seemingly safe argument, but he is. We’ve gone over this a dozen times on this site with these generic interpretations of WWII and they’ve never withstood scrutiny, so no need to rehash them all again, but needless to say it’s been proven ad nauseum that Uncle Sam’s aims were hardly as noble or heroic as they appear at first glance, yet the official story still easily fools the gullible, especially Eastern transplants living off their parent’s money, educated with America’s crud-filled textbooks.

    Being determines consciousness after all. If Ram polled the toilers in those Indian provinces that have consistently voted communist for the last 40 years he’d learn how differently they view America’s role in WWII?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 28, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  32. Friedrich

    Just for the record, the Indian Communist Party staunchly supported Britain, the US and of course the USSR in World War II (after Hitler’s invasion of Russia).

    So much for the “Indian toilers”.

    I am amazed at the drivel that passes for Marxism here.

    Comment by For the Record — April 28, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

  33. Im sorry bhaskar but what? He says nothing of the sort, your ascribing nuance to an individual who has shown nothing of the sort!

    Comment by SGuy — April 28, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

  34. Have you missed his constant praising of US Imperialism? Indian Imperialism is bound up with US, guess what Saddam was a thug that doesn’t make the US war justified. Bringing up accounts of Pakistans sins doesnt make him any less of a reactionary nationalist bastard just because you may feel India was in the right this one instance, try not to associate so much with such obvious trolls.

    Comment by SGuy — April 28, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  35. Hey Record: the CPUSA backed Roosevelt. So what? We’re not CPers here and the Indian masses have always despised Anglo imperialism despite their being habitually bamboozled by Stalinist party blunderers.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 28, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

  36. Friedrich

    I thought you were talking about Indian habitually communist voters’ attitude to the Second World War?

    Wish people here would do some “toiling” getting the facts.

    So it turns out only Hitler and Idi Amin are the perfect Marxists of our time.

    Comment by For the Record — April 29, 2010 @ 6:58 am

  37. BROKEN RECORD: Why don’t you just come out of the closet and admit it.

    You admired Fred Halliday and believe that the Serbs in the 90’s deserved the same fate as the Germans in the 40’s.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 29, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

  38. Remember the absurdity of those times when there were so many pundits & cruise missile leftists comparing Saddam to Hitler? As if a 3rd World despot were comparable to 1st World Militarism threatening all of Europe! Fucking ignorent imbeciles they were. The disgusting patriotism of those days actually made me puke in my mouth.

    It’s as if RAM is stuck listening to a BROKEN RECORD that only plays that dubious mantra of HITLER & SADDAM that ignores 65 years of American War.

    As Australian journalist John Pilger documents:

    “Since 1945, the United States has overthrown fifty governments, including democracies, and crushed some 30 liberation movements, and supported tyrannies and set up torture chambers from Egypt to Guatemala. Countless men, women and children have been bombed to death…”

    This is taken from the reality-rocking Pilger film documentary “The War On Democracy” which you can watch for free below. Among other things it includes illuminating footage of the revolutionary changes the masses enjoy in Venezuela since Chavez:


    Here’s some other facts for Ram to consider when unfurling his American flag next 4th of July.



    The stubborn facts of fistory proves that the biggest, most odious terrorist in human history is Uncle Sam — whose really like that Uncle who molests naive & unsuspecting children on Thanksgiving.


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Wars (lots of little-known wars there)



    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 30, 2010 @ 2:20 am

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