Monday, May 23, 2005

The Left, Iraq and the perils of prophecy

For the politically committed, a descent into clairvoyancy is fatal
Nick Cohen, "Pretty Straight Guys" - p115

Since the dawn of time, mankind has sought to divine the future pattern of human events in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of certainty. The weight of historical evidence would suggest that this is something we are not very good at, to put it mildly.

The long - and for the secular-minded, amusing - history of religious eschatology should be enough to demonstrate the point, although the failure of the atheist prophets of the 19th and 20th centuries shows this to be a universal phenomenon: human beings cannot tell the future, period.

The left should have a particular interest in unburdening itself from the business of divination because it has been, arguably, conspicuously bad at it. Although from different perspectives, the historian Eric Hobsbawm and the journalist Nick Cohen argue from a left-wing position that the 20th century has not been kind to socialist prophecy.

Hobsbawm's "long 19th century" ends with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Three years into his "short 20th century" sees the world's first communist regime-change in a country at no time considered by Marx ripe for a proletarian revolution and ends with its largely un-anticipated demise with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (This man was one notable exception to the rule).

In the interregnum, the advanced economies failed to cave in under the weight of their internal contradictions, although Hobsbawm argues persuasively that they came very close. Two Western European states did fall to plebian revolutionary movements - but these were of the extreme right, not the left.

Some argue the prophets of the right have been more prescient. After all, Edmund Burke had predicted with uncanny accuracy the Terror and the Napoleonic expansion that followed the 1789 revolution. However, he failed to foresee that it would be those states that were subsequently the most exposed to the ideas of the French Revolution (and the Enlightenment in general) that would prove to be the most stable. (This he shared with Marx - neither anticipated the relative stability of the emerging bourgeois state.)

Nick Cohen is right to argue that the normal function of political prediction is to silence debate, although his accompanying statement - that "if the prophet is proved wrong...his authority vanishes" - requires some qualification: the prophet's loss of authority requires people to notice and to remember that he got it wrong.

And history - as well as recording man as an incompetent fortune-teller - is littered with examples of prophets and millennial movements that have survived prophetic failure. For instance, two heterodox Christian sects - the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's witnesses - remain to this day, despite having in their past been foolish enough to give a precise date and time to the coming apocalypse.

These strange phenomena are possible because of the way in which the soothsaying business is so closely tied to what people want to believe; wearing the prophet's mantle always and everywhere represents a desire for moral vindication.

This can, I think, be clearly seen with Iraq. During his Senate Committee hearing, George Galloway spoke for probably most of the anti-war movement when he claimed that he had been "proved right" about "everything" he had said about (the invasion of) Iraq. Yet true to historical form, to agree with this wildly inaccurate statement requires the selective amnesia that is so characteristic of the millennial believer.

One could enumerate the anti-war left's clanging false prophecies (I'm particularly fond of reminding people of Galloway's expression of surprise that Saddam's Arab neighbours didn't pitch in to defend the tyrant who - George assured us - would be the "last man standing in the bunker" in the second battle of Stalingrad) but they were mostly variants of the mistaken belief that Iraq was brimming with people who were prepared to die in order to preserve Saddam Hussein's regime.

As failures to read situations go - surely this should be classed as something of a whopper?

The pro-war left's predictions were a bit out too: Christopher Hitchens wrongly anticipated that "weapons of poison and disease" would be discovered under mosques in post-invasion Iraq. He correctly predicted the discovery of mass-grave, secret prisons and "maniac palaces" but was wrong to think that this revelation would "astonish the world"; most people just shrugged.

Nick Cohen's use of the term "Cassandras" to describe the posturing of the anti-war soothsayers captures perfectly their spirit - but doesn't completely fit on the details: Cassandra was fated to foresee future calamity and be ignored; the anti-war prophets were consistently wrong about almost everything - yet today they are feted as seers.

Because we can't know the future, perhaps the political heirs of the Jehovah's Witnesses will eventually be "proved right" in their dark warnings about the future prospects for democracy in Iraq.

But this will not vindicate them - and not just because they can only ever be right in the way a stopped-watch is right twice a day: it should have been obvious from the outset that catastrophe in Iraq is something they earnestly wish for - and it's this that should have been given more attention.

Does every car-bomb that explodes in Baghdad fill you with a secret sense of satisfaction because you take each one as further evidence that you were "right all along"? I'm so glad I'm not you.

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