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  • Published in Book Reviews

Dan Poulton welcomes Seumas Milne’s excellent collection of articles eviscerating ruling-class views on everything from the ‘War on Terror’ to the economic crisis

Seamus Milne, The Revenge of History: The Battle for the Twenty-First Century (Verso 2012), xxii, 298pp.

Seumas Milne’s latest book, a collection of his Guardian articles covering over a decade of international and domestic politics, is both an impressive counter-narrative to rampant right-wing propaganda and an exquisitely pitched valedictory cry for the left. Milne’s relentless critique of Western domestic and foreign policy runs parallel to more than a decade of lies, obfuscations, misdirection and spin from the right-wing media, the political establishment and the neoliberal order as a whole. There is so much highly condensed information and analysis in the book and so many pithy rebuttals of imperialist and neoliberal myth that any review of it is necessarily a taster of the richness of his prose and the clarity of his analysis.

Milne takes apart argument after argument in these superb, forensically condensed essays, which expertly combine close reading of geopolitical events with an unwavering humanitarianism and far-sightedness that is rarely seen in the mainstream media, and would give most far-left commentators a run for their money. From US neocons insisting that the ‘liberation’ of Iraq would be a ‘cakewalk’, to former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld predicting the invasion to last only six days (and Blair claiming fewer civilians would die than in any year under Saddam), Milne exposes just how devastatingly misplaced ruling-class confidence was in the early years of the ‘War on Terror’, arguing that ‘it was the opponents of war who were again proved correct’ (p.xiii).

Neoliberalism

From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the beginning of a more multi-polar world with the reassertion of Russia’s military presence on the global stage, the rise of China and India and social-democratic resurgence in Latin America, to the neoliberal crisis of 2008; from the wars in the former Yugoslavia to sanctions against Iraq and the War on Terror; from the Seattle anti-globalisation movement to the 2010 student revolt and the Tottenham riots of 2011, Milne provides a blow-by blow running commentary consistently putting a left-wing perspective that is firmly anti-imperialist and pro-social justice. Wherever movements rise up to challenge the neoliberal imperialist order, Milne is their unwavering champion.

Referring to the post-Seattle, pre-crash years he writes, in the book’s introduction, ‘in grassroots campaigns and social forums across the world the case was hammered home that the neoliberal order was handing power to unaccountable banks, private corporations and Western controlled global institutions, fuelling poverty and social injustice, destroying communities and the environment, eviscerating democracy, undermining workers’ rights – and was both economically and ecologically unsustainable’ (p.xiii). Milne is an expert of using the right wing’s moments of honesty against them, as when he writes: ‘the meltdown at the heart of the global economic system, described by Bank of England governor Mervyn King as the worst financial crisis in capitalism’s history, turned a powerful case against the neoliberal order into an unanswerable one’ (p.xv). He also puts paid to neoliberal fatalism, writing of the Communist era, ‘no economic and social model ever came pre-cooked. All of them, from Soviet power and Keynesian welfare state to Thatcherite-Reaganite neoliberalism, grew out of ideologically driven improvisation in specific historical circumstances’ (p.xxii).

The book opens with a stark note of foreboding, when, following the 9/11 attacks, Milne writes, ‘if it turns out that Tuesday’s attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden’s supporters, the sense that the Americans are once again reaping a dragons’ teeth harvest they themselves sowed will be overwhelming’ (p.2). The Revenge of History charts the imperialist turn of the UK political establishment, reminding us that former Prime Minister Tony Blair framed intervention in Yugoslavia as a ‘war of values’ (p.4). Blair’s government, he writes, ‘has emerged as the most interventionist British administration since decolonisation’ (p.5). We hear one US Democrat describe post-‘98 Anglo-American attacks and sanctions on Iraq as ‘infanticide masquerading as policy’ (p.6). Despite the best attempts of the mainstream media to white-wash the UK's imperialist bent in humanitarian colours, Milne will not let them forget the dark legacy of British adventurism:

‘The fact that Iraq, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone are all former British colonies doesn’t trouble the cheerleaders of the new ‘doctrine of international community’, enveloped as they are in a blanket of cultural amnesia about the horrors of Britain’s colonial past. It is less than half a century since British soldiers shot dead striking Sierra Leoneans on the streets of Freetown, nailed the limbs of Kenyan fighters to crossroads posts and posed for pictures with the severed heads of Malayan guerrillas’ (p.6).

It is remarkable, when reading these essays, to think that the ruling class could ever portray their intentions as anything even approaching humanitarian concern. We hear Ariel Sharon saying that the way to tackle pro-Palestinian protesters is to ‘cut off their testicles’ (p.8) and former Israeli PM Ehud Omert confesses: ‘if the day comes when the two state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights … the state of Israel is finished’ (p.142).

The US and the UK’s allies are shown to be the bloodthirsty neocolonialists the far left has always made them out to be. ‘Israel’s decision to launch its devastating attack on Gaza on a Saturday,’ writes Milne of 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, quoting  Israel’s biggest selling newspaper Yedioth Aharonot, ‘was a “stroke of brilliance … the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed.” Whilst another Israeli paper agrees, “we left them in shock and awe”’ (p.176).

Neoliberalism after the fall

Time and again the failures of the post-’89 neoliberal order are laid bare:

‘Migration into western Europe is the inevitable product of pauperisation and conflict at its periphery, in an arc stretching across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through the Middle East and North Africa. The free-market globalisation policies promoted by Britain and other EU governments have decimated jobs and living standards throughout those regions, while conflicts for which Britain and its allies share responsibility have become a veritable engine of refugees’ (p.14).

The calm but firm tones of Milne’s writing occasionally give way to barely concealed anger, as he rails against ‘American-proscribed shock therapy’ posing ‘under the banner of reform', whilst describing a post-Soviet Europe of ‘mass pauperisation and unemployment; wild extremes of inequality; rampant crime; virulent anti-Semitism and ethnic violence, all combined with legalised gangsterism on a heroic scale and the ruthless looting of public assets’ (p.17).

Even on their own, the facts he brings to light are startling:

‘By the late 1990s,’ he writes, ‘national income had fallen by more than 50 percent (compare that with the 27 percent drop in output during the great American depression), investment by 80 percent, real wages by half and meat and dairy herds by 75 per cent. Indeed, the degradation of agriculture [claimed one author] … worse even than during Stalin’s forced collectivisation of the countryside in the 1930s’ (p.17).

With these statistics borne in mind, we are perhaps not so surprised to find that, by 2001, ‘86 per cent of Russians regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union’ (p.18). But Milne does not glorify the Stalinist regimes that gave American imperialism a run for its money in the post-war years. He merely points out the hypocrisy of a Western capitalist narrative that spares no ink highlighting the horrors of Nazism and Communism but omits to outline the barbarity of its own colonialist past.

He argues that colonialism represents the ‘third leg of twentieth century tyranny’, writing that, ‘there is no major twentieth-century political tradition without blood on its hands.’ For Milne however, ‘the battle over history is never really about the past – it’s about the future’ (p.42).

Anti-capitalism

The concept of the ‘revenge of history’ that provides the book’s title is never explicitly drawn out, but is a constant theme of Milne’s prose. Briefly stated it could mean that every victory of the capitalist class sows the seeds for further instability and the fomentation of resistance, both actual and ideological. But the question as to whether the gains of the ruling classes actually constitute some sort of Pyrrhic victory over the oppressed and exploited remains openly contested. This is the urgent message at the heart Milne’s writing over the last decade and more.

There’s plenty of fuel for the fire of resistance present in the rise of widespread anti-systemic views in society as a whole. Milne comments on a NOP poll for Channel 4 which found that most people believe multinational companies have more power over their lives than the British government, and that the corporate giants care ‘only about profits and not the interests of the people in the countries where they operate’ (p.20).

The War on Terror

Milne reveals the UK and the US to be the rogue states they really are, pointing out that between them the two powers have taken military action without United Nations’ approval five times, up to and including the invasion of Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan (p.25). Nine-Eleven is treated with an appropriate balance of respect for a Western tragedy and the proper contextualisation of the events themselves, so often submerged beneath the tide of albeit understandable outcry. Milne’s urgent warning at the time could not have been more succinctly put, though of course he was not the only one sounding a note of forewarning:

‘The September 11 atrocity was certainly an unprecedented act of non-state terror,’ he explains. But the actions of the conspirators were ‘also unquestionably the product of conditions in the Arab and Muslim world for which both Britain and the US bear a heavy responsibility, through their unswerving support of despotic regimes for over half a century’ (p.29).

However, Milne’s warnings go deeper, and are routed in an understanding of the geopolitical balance of forces secured over the last century:

‘The anti-colonial storm that swept away Western direct rule in the twentieth century cannot be reversed,’ he tells us. ‘If the US and Britain are set on a continuing course of armed intervention, punitive sanctions and multinational colonies, that is a recipe for indefinite war’ (p.32).

Likewise, are we reminded that the present imperialist epoch of the early twenty-first century is in conformity with America’s earlier strategy of ‘benevolent domination’ from the 1990s (p.36).

Milne deftly skewers the bombast of a state ‘with less than one twentieth of the earth’s population,’ which is nonetheless ‘able to dictate to the other 95 percent and order their affairs in its own interests, both through military and economic pressure’ (p.36). Writing in 2002 Milne neatly foreshadows the Arab Spring nearly a decade hence, noting the ‘likelihood of social eruptions in client states like Saudi Arabia which no amount of military technology will by able to see off’ (p.37). The ‘War On Terror’ also had its unlikely harbinger in one Al Gore, who said that around the world the US had created fear over, not what the ‘terrorists are going to do, but at what we are going to do’ (p.43). All these voices Milne evokes like a radical composer conducting a musical polemic.

The Crisis

Articles covering the financial crisis make for particularly insightful reading. The 2008 crash, we are told, ‘delivered the funeral rites on the corpse of high Thatcherism – strangled to death by the very monsters it brought forth from the deep in the reckless frenzy of Big Bang deregulation more than two decades ago’ (p.148). Another hidden gem is Milne’s observation that, conjured up from the depths of the crisis, ‘Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hailed by everyone from the German finance minister to the Pope’ (p.151). Confirming the anti-systemic mood, a Financial Times Harris poll reveals that ‘large majorities believe the financial crisis has been caused by “abuses of capitalism”, and in Germany, 30 percent of people blame the “failure of capitalism itself”’ (p.151).

Meanwhile in Britain, after the public bailouts of UK banks, the Tories seize upon every opportunity to turn the tables on those who point to the failures of the financial system as the source of the crisis:

‘For the Tories, this is a happy return to their small-state comfort zone. The argument is no longer about the failure of the market, but of the state; not the reckless greed of the City, but the cost of public sector pensions; not the devastating impact of the recession, but the deficit. And the sharp increase in government debt is now somehow attributed to a burst of Labour fecklessness, rather [than] the billions spent bailing out the banks and paying for the slump’ (p.163).

In what is described as a ‘kind of political coup’ (p.229) the political establishment force through austerity measures whilst blaming Labour profligacy. ‘In reality,’ Milne reminds us, ‘the ballooning of Britain’s budget deficit mirrors the average deficit rise across the thirty three most developed countries, from 1 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 9 per cent in 2009, as tax receipts slumped and dole payments mushroomed in the wake of the 2008 crisis’ (p.230).

Iraq

It’s almost embarrassing how many sacred cows of Western ruling-class ideology are slain over the space of around three hundred pages. Iraq brings forth an understandably angry trashing of mainstream narratives regarding this century's most controversial conflict. ‘It’s not only the hundreds of thousands of dead and 4 million refugees,’ he notes with studied calm. ‘After seven years of US (and British) occupation, tens of thousands are still tortured and imprisoned without trial, health and education have dramatically deteriorated, the position of women has gone horrifically backwards, trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is divided by 1,500 checkpoints and blast walls, electricity supplies have all but broken down and people pay with their lives for speaking out’ (p.193). Thus, in this steady but resolute manner, no ideological prisoners are spared.

Elephants in Rooms

The Revenge Of History also traces the more positive developments of late twentieth and early twenty-first-century politics, paying due credit to what Milne describes as ‘the decade’s last globally significant shift’. Here he is talking about ‘the tide of progressive social change that has swept Latin America’:

‘Driven by the region’s dismal early experience of neoliberal economics, and assisted both by US absorption in the War on Terror and the emergence of China, a string of radical socialist and social democratic governments have been swept to power, attacking social and racial injustice, challenging US domination and taking back resources from corporate control’ (p.199).

And by 2009 the already gargantuan financial crisis had put the dampers on any chance of a vehement trumpeting of the fall of the Berlin Wall and beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years before. According to Milne, the rather muted celebrations displayed none of the ‘ideological confidence and enthusiasm’ one would have expected only a few years before (p.218).

Revenge

Milne may be a staunch defender of progressive causes, but he stares strategic reality in the face, particularly in his analysis of the way forwards for the movement in Britain. The 2010 student revolt is rightly championed, but Milne must have been amongst the first to point out that students and other protesters filled a gap where organised political opposition should have been. Yet he also notes the progressive policies of Unite the Union’s General Secretary Len McCluskey, and his stated aim of constructing an ‘“alliance of resistance” around the trade unions, still broader than the campaign that saw off Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax’ (p.233).

Perhaps the most salient message to take from Milne’s The Revenge of History is that, as with the left’s arguments around the ‘War on Terror’, alternative voices like those sometimes hosted in The Guardian, that were once mocked as a ‘babble of idiots’ for opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, later became wholly vindicated, by the facts as well as by public opinion (p.276).

But if it is the history articulated by the radical left that is to finally have its 'revenge' over the blinkered, self-satisfied narratives of the global ruling elites, it is necessary to transform the ‘babbling idiocy’ of anti-austerity politics into the kind of sound, progressive arguments of which Milne is such an eloquent proponent.

Dan Poulton

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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