Debating Humanism by Dolan Cummings (eds)
Nick Cohen reads between the lines
The aims of the Manifesto Club must have struck many as laudable. At the launch in January, its supporters declared that they wanted to ‘renew the spirit of the Enlightenment: to champion our capacity to think and judge things for ourselves, and, insist on the need to develop human control over, and knowledge of, the world to the greatest extent possible.
Who can deny that the Enlightenment needs defending? Islamists, who reject everything it believes, want to kill us and suppress about 1.5 billion people. Postmodernists denigrate its values and hold democracy and human rights in contempt. All recruits to the fight back must surely be welcomed.
Only the politically literate will be wary, and notice that the Manifesto Club and this collection of essays comes from the Revolutionary Communist Party, the strangest and most strangely successful of the 20th century Trotskyist sects. It was once the most ultra of the ultra-left groups, and fully justified the old cliché about the far left turning full circle into the far right. What the RCP hated was reform that would prolong the capitalist system and avert the glorious moment when communism came. Its members were ‘revolutionary defeatists’, in the old jargon of Leninism, who campaigned for the world to get worse so it might one day be better. RCP activists would disrupt demonstrations to protect the National Health Service or against apartheid and cry that saving hospitals from closure and ending white rule in South African were worthless palliatives. In the 90s, they belatedly gave up on communism. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, just about everyone else had, except that the party moved as a disciplined unit. The politburo instructed the rank and file to abandon Leninism and, as good Leninists, the rank and file obeyed and U-turned as one. The comrades regrouped first around the magazine LM (previously Living Marxism) and then a think tank called the Institute of Ideas. They remained a part of a vicious movement – RCP members were the first political activists on the Left in Britain to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of the Serb concentration camps in Bosnia – but they also became popular with the media class.
The advance of obscure Trots into Broadcasting House and Wapping isn’t as astonishing as it might appear. For if you strip revolutionary defeatism of its revolutionary content, you have what modern editors and producers want: contrarianism, the willingness to fill space and generate controversy by saying the opposite of what everyone else is saying – an affectation most people get over around puberty. Frank Furedi, the sect’s guru, and Claire Fox are all over Radio 4. Mick Hume has a column in the Times and the party can always get a hearing from Channel 4’s current affairs department. In fairness, the RCP isn’t completely useless. Claire Fox has a rare ability to organise intellectually challenging debates, while Munira Mirza is a consistently interesting writer. But its leading men are as shallow as ever, and Debating Humanism shows why humanists should be as mistrustful of the RCP today as the opponents of apartheid and defenders of the NHS were in the 80s.
Remember that its typical tactic is to say it supports a cause and then try to undermine it. Many of the contributors to Debating Humanism, not all of them associated with the party, follow the old pattern, and not one of them wonders why humanism needs to be defended from the threat posed by Islamism and the potential of radical fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism to imitate it. Instead of looking at what menaces us in the here and now, two of the essayists concentrate their fire on the perennial liberal enemy. Dylan Evans and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn denounce “secular fundamentalists”,’ whose narrowly anti-religious version of humanism “mirrors the intolerance of the religious”. Yes, you’re right, our old friend moral equivalence is back. It’s as if he’s never been away. There is no difference between those who would subjugate women, kill the Jews and homosexuals, place the dictates of a seventh-century holy book above the parliaments of free peoples and establish a theocratic empire and those who wouldn’t. Each side is as bad as the other. We’ve no obligation to make a choice between them, and can indeed devote our energies to attacking the latter rather than the former.
Furedi provides a reason beyond their inability to grasp elementary principles for keeping our new friends at arm’s length. His essay shows in embarrassing detail the leader of the RCP isn’t very bright. First, he flirts with epistemological relativism while denying he is doing it. Then he makes a good point for bad reasons but lacks the courage to follow it through because its inevitable conclusion conflicts with the party line. He, too, insists that opposition to religious intolerance shouldn’t define humanism. Instead, we should challenge the environmental movement’s culture of misanthropy which denigrates the human race as greedy and destructive.
He has a case. Misanthropy undoubtedly informs the dominant strand in the post-modern European left. It takes a special combination of self-hatred and selfishness to insist that we can’t judge other cultures, place democracy higher than tyranny or say that brown-skinned women in Kabul must have the same rights as white-skinned women in Paris. A genuine humanist would notice that cultural relativism leaves its adherents naked before their fanatical enemies, but Furedi can’t acknowledge the logic of his argument because to do so he would have to admit that there are movements of the religious far right and it is the duty of humanists to oppose them. The admittedly grim truth that we are going to have to fight the old Enlightenment battles for freedom of thought, the vote and the emancipation of women all over again – and not only for our own sakes – is too much for him to bear.
It’s easier for Furedi and his comrades to carry on as before and get in the way of people with serious work to do. ■
Debating Humanism is published by Societas