Fred Halliday

The issue of rights is absolutely central. We have to hold the line at the defence, however one conceptualizes things, however de-hegemonized, of universal principles of rights. This is how I locate my own political and historical vision—it is my starting point – Fred Halliday

Fred Halliday’s death from cancer in Barcelona has deprived the thinking Left of one of its most articulate minds. My introduction to this Dublin born scholar came in prison when I read his book The Making of the Second Cold War, essential reading for a course I was then trying on Global Politics, otherwise I would never have picked it up. It was refreshing to come across a professor who could write both clearly and persuasively. Some academics use difficult syntax to baffle the intellect; Halliday used big ideas, clearly expressed, to stir it.

His early education took place in Dundalk from where he travelled to England, an intellectual journey that soon saw him identified as a leading light among Europe’s intelligentsia. European renowned Dundalk spawned intellectuals are a rare bird but Halliday was one of them. Prior to a professorship in International Relations at the London School of Economics, he had served on the editorial board of New Left Review for 15 years, leaving in 1983 after - what else? - ‘one of the journal’s periodic internal disputes.’

The one thing that can be said about NLR was that it was a great fount of intellectual stimulation. A favourite of mine, the Poulantzas-Milliband debate between structural and instrumentalist Marxism, which featured in its pages four decades ago is still well worth reading today. Many schools of thought contended through NLR. As a Left journal it remained without equal on the British Marxist scene, happily denuded of the crude reductionism that for the most part characterised the mono-Marxist sects.

In his early political life, along with Tariq Ali, Halliday was heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War Movement. Other acts of international solidarity would see him travel to Iran at the age of 19 to pass on a translation of Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. Later he would raise questions about the shallowness of the act on the grounds that in order to show real solidarity activists had to make strong efforts to understand the background and history of the people they yearned to stand alongside. Outside of acquiring such understanding solidarity could become infantile, emotive rather than thought out.

In his later years Halliday developed positions which left a bad taste in my mouth. He would claim that the Left shibboleths of old no longer served any purpose other than to confuse. Because the sects that continued to propagate them seemed to draw mainly social oddities with domination urges, it was easy to succumb to the temptation to abandon the concepts that throughout its duration had been the staple diet of Marxism. That hardly made abandonment right. But Halliday et al had an advantage in that nobody was paying the slightest attention to the authoritarian Left which had set itself up as the keeper of the Marxist flame. Its ability to corral within an intellectual gulag the people it screamed ‘deviationist’ at had eroded in proportion to the extent that it had become caricatured. Questionable positions amounting to new departures that did not always seem plausible won the day simply on the grounds of the authoritarian Left having ranted against them.

So, it was with no great difficulty that Halliday and those of like mind were able to endorse certain Western military interventions on the basis of a logic which appeared to the more traditional Left as arrant nonsense.

It seems to me that certain interventions in defence of rights are justified—Bosnia and Kosovo, to take two obvious examples, or the defence of the Kurds in Iraq in 1990-1991 … I supported the move to drive Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991. Then there was the Bosnia intervention in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999.

In this and other areas Halliday very much seems to have been conceptually influenced by the Marxist analyst Bill Warren who developed the school of thought that there were circumstances where imperialism could play a progressive role in helping to bring development to regions of the world.

Sections of the Left howled at such innovations, feeling that there was nothing novel in them, just a rehash of what so many other ‘backsliders’ had done in the past. But Left thinking would be better served if the critique of positions such as these were made through the application of reasoned and forensic argument rather than the simplification-hugging rant handed down by some Central Committee dictator. It is not as if we do not know that a failure by the West to intervene in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994 helped fuel and prolong one of the worst genocides in recorded history. We can also be certain that had the US intervened as demanded at the time the authoritarian Left would have been at the forefront defending the anti-imperialists of Hutu Power and offering invitations to the ‘resistance’ leader Theoneste Bagosora to speak at Marxism 1995. In issues of this kind how the authoritarian Left tackles the problems posed serves to retard progress. Its urge to censor rather than explore is self defeating.

Halliday’s main gripe with large sections of Left lay in what he construed as their hostility to the concept of rights. There was a strong anti-human rights tradition embedded in Left consciousness. He felt Karl Marx ‘doesn’t score very well on the issue of rights. Of course Lenin and Stalin and Mao score much worse.’ Halliday underscored this point in his reference to the position of Tariq Ali:

I think Tariq is objectively on the Right. He’s colluded with the most reactionary forces in the region, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. He has given his rhetorical support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq—who have no interest in democracy or in progress for the people of Iraq whatsoever, whether it’s the Baathists, with their record of 30 years of dictatorship, or the foreign Sunnis with their own authoritarian project.

When Halliday argued for military intervention he explained the difference between himself and Tarq Ali.

He took a conventional anti-interventionist position, and I took a more complex position, guided not by the interests of the West but by what I saw as the interests of the peoples in the countries concerned. The issue of whether the U.S. should or should not intervene in a country is a contingent one. Each case has to be debated on its own merits … The key issue is not: Is the U.S. intervening? Nor: What are the U.S.’s motives? The key issue is will that intervention plausibly help those people or not? That’s the question … imperialism has played a contradictory role … not everything it did has been bad. It fought fascism in the Second World War, for example … One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own.

In spite of his concerns on these and related matters he was no academic cheerleader for US foreign policy:
Let us be clear about it: the U.S. role in international medical and
family-planning policy, its opposition to contraception and abortion, and its
mishandling of the issue of AIDS—it’s criminally irresponsible and will lead to
the deaths of many millions of people. George Bush should be indicted for mass
murder because of his policies on AIDS. As should the Pope—both this one and the previous ones. So I’m not enamoured of the U.S. policies in principle.

Not surprisingly Fred Halliday’s views brought him into conflict with the contemporary global protest movement, describing it in terms which are less than glowing. It was:

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.

This would complement his disillusionment with socialist revolution: ‘the socialist experiment of the revolutionary kind failed and failed badly? It failed necessarily and not contingently.’

Halliday proved resilient when the authoritarian left betrayed its own radical secular tradition, abandoned the victims of what Tony Cliff once termed clerical fascism, and in censorious manner defended Islamicist reaction against free inquiry. He flagged up the massacres, pogroms and purges that the Left were forced to endure when Islamicism had the power to hammer socialists literally deep into the ground. Now in an attempt to become relevant and capture something of yesteryear the authoritarian Left were seeking to build alliances with reactionary homophobes and misogynistic thugs, while concealing beneath a veneer termed ‘the resistance’ the fascist impulses guiding armed Islamicist actions.

Many in the sectarian leftist factions (and beyond) who marched against the impending Iraq war showed no qualms about their alignment with radical Muslim organisations, one that has since spiralled from a tactical cooperation to something far more elaborated. It is fascinating to see in the publications of leftist groups and commentators, for example, how history is being rewritten and the language of political argument adjusted to (as it were) accommodate this new accommodation … its effect is to reinforce one of the most pernicious and inaccurate of all political claims, and one made not by the left but by the imperialist right. It is also one that underlies the US-declared “war on terror” and the policies that have resulted from 9/11: namely, that Islamism is a movement aimed against “the west” … This claim is a classic example of how a half-truth can be more dangerous than an outright lie. For while it is true that Islamism in its diverse political and violent guises is indeed opposed to the US, to remain there omits a deeper, crucial point: that, long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking “imperialism”, they were attacking and killing the left - and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west.

Halliday stood four square against any reactionary Islamist project. It was not simply a post 9/11 knee jerk response. He had voiced support for the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world, since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century. It was the kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out. Just as Italian and German fascism trained in Spain for the broader conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean, the militant jihadi Islamists, of whom bin Laden was a part, received their training, their primal experiences, in Afghanistan. They have been carrying out this broad jihad across the Middle East and elsewhere ever since, including, of course, the attacks of September 11th. You cannot understand this unless you go back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It was Halliday’s urge to understand rather than betray that caused him to dig deeper and move position, to the chagrin of many of his erstwhile colleagues, if his passionate commitment to the defence of human rights required it.

It does not need slogans to understand that the Islamist programme, ideology and record are diametrically opposed to the left – that is, the left that has existed on the principles founded on and descended from classical socialism, the Enlightenment, the values of the revolutions of 1798 and 1848, and generations of experience.

Although the Left proved lamentably wanting when it came to defending human rights against the dictates of the clerics there are many aspects to Fred Halliday’s thinking that were deeply worrying and at times unpalatable such as military intervention by Western powers. But his prioritisation of rights above all else seemed a genuine attempt to authenticate the spirit of the Left even where it contravened its letter. He challenged the Left to abandon the dogmatic, the doctrinaire and the delusional in favour of a wider nuanced progressive tide that would make a change in people’s lives where it ultimately mattered – ensuring they had rights which could not be trampled into the dirt for reasons of expediency.

For those of us who still feel that it is from a Left vision that a much better society will emerge, Halliday seems to have insisted on the vision being clearly displayed and not waffled about by people with white sticks pushing papers into the hands of down town shoppers. Ultimately he wanted the vision measured by deeply enshrined rights and not the arbitrary whim of some dictator of the proletariat.


  1. pleased to see your tribute to Fred Halliday he was always a touchstone for me.Surprised you didn't refer to some of his writings on Ireland see "Ireland:Ends and Beginnings" on the Open Democracy web site.Best wishes

  2. vrj5556,

    thanks for your comment. I had not read much of him on Ireland. I was not a constant reader of Fred and would come across him periodically. I believe he had a critical take on the Irish nationalist narrative. Not that I would criticise him for that. I will read the piece you recommended. His Second Cold War book impressed me. And his willingness to challenge the dogma was always uplifting. He made me uneasy with some of his positions but that is what good analysts do. The first steps on any journey of intellectual exploration begin with confusion. Some challenge is made to the perspective we hold and causes a bit of confusion, forcing us to impose order again and examining means that give us intellectual peace of mind. I was sad when I learned he had died.

  3. What I know of Fred Halliday could be written on a postage stamp,thank you for bringing this most interesting man to my attention Anthony,I was going to ask about his views on Ireland but vrj5556 has answered this so I,ve a wee bit of reading to do,really enjoyed that post a cara.

  4. Marty,

    glad you found it useful. I'm sure there is a lot in the guy's thinking you could be critical of. The obituary will irk some who see things differently. But c'est la vie

  5. Good post, Anthony. I'd never heard of Halliday before, so I'll definitely check out some of his writings now. Have to say that I agree with him on the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo; whether it's by Mao or Thatcher, an intervention to stop mass slaughter is a good thing. By the way, Anthony, would you class Tariq Ali as totalitarian Left?

  6. Alfie,

    never much thought of Ali in those terms. Don't really know a lot about him. Geneally speaking I think those who belong to self-styled vanguard parties, who adher to democratic centralism and have penchants for dictatorships, are the type I regard as totalitarian. But it is a loose term not scientifically applied. My experience tells me that the type of people drawn to such groups are predisposed towards authoritaranism. They like to obey and be obeyed. They can't stand an alternative point of view and are forever devising labels to stick on people who disagree with them.

  7. Good post Anthony. Reading Fred on the the Kuwait War in 1991 totally changed my take on the question of Imperialism. One of the consequences for me was also to start questioning the habit that the left often has (or had?) or using the prism of 'National Liberation' and the reflexive opposition to imperialism and the conflation of anti-imperialism with 'progressive' (or whatever less-debased word you want to choose).

    I've not read Fred on Ireland either, but other 'Decentist' fellow-travellers such as Henry Patterson and his questioning of the usefulness of 'social republicanism' were - for me - quite a challenge to the left case for Irish nationalism.

    I was wondering if this was something that you've written on elsewhere Anthony?

  8. Alfie,

    'an intervention to stop mass slaughter is a good thing.'

    Hard to object to the logic.

  9. Paulie,

    I am surprised at the response so far to this piece. Thought it would have been much more hostile. What precisely are you asking have I written on elsewhere Paulie? Is it the Left and interventionism or social republicanism and the Left critique?

  10. I'm specifically thinking of Henry Patterson's 'Politics of Illusion' - a book that I personally rated very highly and one that changed the way I looked at Irish Republicanism) but actually, as a relatively new reader of your blog (I dipped into the late-lamented 'The Blanket' occasionally when I saw a copy) I'd be interested to see if you've written on the general left-critique of Irish Republicanism (hitching a wagon to a nationalist horse is always likely to be counter-productive).

    I'm asking this less to tax you with a lengthy reply than to ask for a link to something in your archive ;-)

  11. Paulie:

    Revisionist Marxist Theory in Ireland
    Author: Robert Perry
    Critique, Volume 36, Issue 1 April 2008 , pages 121 - 139

    Munck, R. (1992). "The New Marxist 'Revisionism' in Ireland." Capital and Class(46): 95.
    (available here:

    The conflict in Northern Ireland: Marxist interpretations. Capital & Class Winter 1982 6: 56-71
    available here:

  12. Anthony, I don't know an awful lot about Tariq Ali, only having read some of his articles on South America. I wouldn't call him totalitarian either; for example, though he broadly supports communism in Cuba, he is critical of its censorship and persecution of dissidents, saying that there need to be changes in Cuban political structures to allow for criticism and accountability. However, I think he was wrong to support the Iraqi insurgency (or segments of it anyway), though I myself was against the invasion of Iraq. For me, the insurgency just exacerbated human misery in Iraq rather than convinced the Americans and British to leave. Incidentally, I don't have too much time for the so-called 'Decent Left'; they have far too itchy trigger fingers.

  13. Paulie,
    I found Henry’s book a very worthwhile critique. I read it shortly after it came out. Think I was the last person quoted in it – reference to a prisoner. For me it helped identify the parameters of the Provisional struggle. I don’t believe I have written anything specific for the web on ‘the general Left critique of republicanism.’ If memory serves me right I wrote a couple of pieces in prison dealing with it which were published in the WRP paper or something called Marxist Forum. I see Liam has provided you with a few sources. They will be worthwhile if they carry the imprimatur of his approval.
    Good job in providing those sources for Paulie.
    I found the war on Iraq galling. I was not however about to back the clerical fascists in their resistance. What they were resisting as an encroachment on their freedom to dominate people. Other elements of the insurgency I would feel different about. I thought the Brits were a bit rich in wanting to prosecute the Iraqis who killed their troops. It is a war and the invading army is being attacked by combatants who should be treated as POWs until the war is over. The Brits can’t be expected to like the armed opposition but they can’t call every country they invade ‘criminal.’

  14. AM, Paulie,
    The WRP stuff you are referring to is available online as 'POLITICS FROM THE PRISONS' available at
    Cedar Lounge: