Big idea

By James Harkin (THE GUARDIAN, 29/04/06):

A fortnight after it charged forth from behind the fetid turrets of the blogosphere into real life, arguments about the Euston Manifesto (PDF) still ricochet around the worldwide web. Named after the London road where the plotters met in a pub (O'Neill's), the manifesto is a political movement born out of frustration among sections of the left with the anti-war movement. Prominent bloggers, journalists, activists and academics, including my Guardian colleague Norman Johnson, have already lent it their support.

The Euston Manifesto is a tiny alliance, but one indicative of a broader shifting of intellectual chairs. To their critics they are known as "muscular liberals" - to distinguish them, presumably, from the flabby and weak-willed ones. But there is much that is useful and spirited about their manifesto - the signatories score some eloquent points against the left's opportunistic flirtation with radical Islam, its lazy anti-Americanism, and its retreat into flaccid relativism. Nor does it make any sense to label them as neoconservatives and apologists for American imperialism. The American neoconservative right and the Eustonian left might have arrived at similar positions, but they did so from vastly different premises and backgrounds.

A better clue to the conviction of the Eustonians can be found in the work of one its most thoughtful supporters, the American writer Paul Berman. In his partly autobiographical new book, Power and the Idealists, Berman, a former 60s radical and inhabitant of a Maoist commune, tracks the political trajectory taken by many of his peers on the international new left as they moved towards the political establishment - the former Nato secretary general Javier Solana, for example, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2003. The soixante-huitards, he argues, were the orphans of a Europe that had capitulated to fascism and nazism. For many of the European radicals, their politics were a rebellion against this past. They were haunted by their parents' failures and wanted to be sure they would resist when the time came.

The best of them, Berman says, felt their way towards political responsibility in the 1990s by standing up to Serbian expansionism in the Balkans. He reserves his bitterest ire for former leftists such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer, who threw in their lot with Nato military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo but drew the line at the invasion of Iraq. The true legacy of 60s idealism has evolved into an anti-totalitarian progressive politics that will have no truck with dictatorships or large-scale abuses of human rights.

Berman's is an intriguing and nuanced argument, but it would be just as easy to turn it on its head. Amid the fevered rhetoric of 1968, the student left lobbed the labels of fascism and nazism indiscriminately, and tended to the conclusion that there was little difference between the postwar democracies and totalitarian regimes. When they move to enforce their demands for global democracy and human rights decades later, the most vulgar Eustonians make rallying cries out of "Serbo-fascism" or "Islamo-fascism", and are tempted to bid up human rights abuses into genocide and authoritarianism into fascism. Like an intellectual dad's army, they are hunting around for Nazis when there are none to be found. The radical students were young as well as idealistic, and had more excuse.