by Dan Swain and Lorna Finlayson

"Revolution isn't rational anymore, but a breath of fresh air would be."

Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of Mind and Logic at University College London. Since 9/11 he has written several books on the subject of terrorism and war, most recently Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War, and has become a vocal advocate of the right of the Palestinians to a state, and to the means of achieving that state. We interviewed Honderich following his paper at  Cambridge University's Moral Sciences Club – their anachronistically named answer to a departmental seminar - where he laid out his views on Zionism, neo-Zionism, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that support for the Palestinians includes acknowledging their right to terrorism. The discussion was mostly cordial, though it was clear that most of the philosophers and students present were sceptical.

Honderich is, in fact, very critical of the institution of academic philosophy and its role in politics: “The contribution of the overt and the more common covert conservative political philosophy is the same. It is to pretend that the political tradition of conservatism, as in the case of New Labour as much as the Conservative Party past and present, does actually have an arguable principle of what is right and wrong to support the self-interest of an economic and social class. In this, the tradition of conservatism in general is different from the tradition of the Left and of old Labour. Liberal political philosophy, as in the case of John Rawls, escapes the viciousness of conservatism, but lacks resolution in thought, feeling and action, and seemingly always will.” His interests haven't always been in this area – and he continues to work, for example, on the philosophy of consciousness - but he sees a connection between a wider commitment to philosophy and his recent focus on politics: “These interests arose more or less accidentally, but maybe less accidentally than I have supposed. I take it that all decent philosophy is a concentration on -- not sole ownership of -- the logic of ordinary intelligence. That comes down to clarity, usually in the form of analysis, and consistency and validity, and completeness. What goes with that has to be generality, and truth as against convention. Any philosopher aspires or pretends to aspire to that logic, whatever his or her area.”

The observation that New Labour is now firmly within the tradition of conservatism is clearly a saddening one for him. He calls the old Labour party  “the great party of humanity and civilization in British history”, and the reason he came to Britain from Canada: “I wouldn't come now.” But what about the hope over the Atlantic, Obama? “Chomsky, the great reality-judge of our age, is not hopeful. I myself think we can still expect more from Obama than from anybody else you could have dreamed would be president. Certainly I haven't given up. The plain fact is that he is the president of the most powerful of the hierarchic democracies. Its national strength, it seems, is or contributes greatly to the power of the economic and social classes near and at the top. Surely it is also clear that as an astute and morally decent politician, so appallingly superior to our criminals against humanity Blair and Brown, he is judging what is possible and going forward in that rationality.”

For Honderich the modern democracies presided over by Obama and Brown are profoundly hierarchic. We ask what he sees as the alternative: “The alternative is real or realer democracy, of course, where not only two heads are better than one and more heads better than two, but the heads are equally free in expressing their judgements and wants. The question brings back to mind Colonel Rainborough's moral truth in the Putney Debates in the time of the English civil war. 'Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he....'  Are there tanks in those army barracks somewhere around Pimlico? I think some successor to Rainborough should think on him, and on our society, where not only the poorest but at least the six bottom economic deciles are being cheated of fuller lives. He should arrange for his tank to break down in Parliament Square for a while, only long enough for our political class and the telly to become aware of it, and then take himself back to the barracks, and also take his punishment for his civil and other disobedience. Revolution isn't rational anymore, but a breath of fresh air would be. It might have a little effect on our coming election. Maybe remind some of our low politicians that the response to a question is an answer, that selling isn't their proper line of life, that the House of Commons isn't the Student Union in Oxford, and that our elections shouldn't be Afghanistan with drapery.”

Turning to the questions of terrorism. Words like terrorism, radicalism and extremism have developed a strange currency in recent years. As we are learning, one can be a domestic extremist merely for attending a demonstration or going to the wrong meeting. Honderich is struck by the speed of this development: “It has surprised me that transparent terminological means, such as persuasive or loaded definitions, or indeed the pretence of actual definition, have been so successful in the forming and manipulating of public feeling and opinion. This has something to do, presumably, with a new and larger role of the media in society. The effect is more pervasive than supposed, far wider than the effect of such organs as The Daily Mail.”

Precision in terminological definitions is crucial here. 'Zionism', defined as the project of establishing a Jewish state in 1948 and within those borders, is a project Honderich defends. It was justified in part by the horrors of the holocaust, he says, and the reality of that state now requires the defence of it. He is an implacable enemy of what he calls 'Neo-Zionism' - “the taking from the Palestinians of at least their liberty in the last 5th of their homeland”, and is critical also of 'semitism' - “the prejudice in favour of Jewish people right or wrong.” Whilst justifying the creation of the Israel, and therefore a commitment to what is commonly called a two-state solution, is a common (though far from universal) opinion amongst the Palestine solidarity movement, one of his reasons for it seems odd. In Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War... he attaches considerable significance to the question of whether the Palestinians were ‘fully a people’ in 1948, arguing that they were, but that it was reasonable to believe otherwise on the basis of the best information available at the time. Why is this so important? “I have the feeling that you have hit on the weakest point in that book, as some others have. But I still stick to it. The Principle of Humanity, in short, is that we should take rational steps to get and keep people out of bad lives -- with bad lives defined in terms of deprivation of the great human goods, these being length of conscious life, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, and the goods of culture. A people not organized into a state and society, I take it, not well-defined as a group, are not open to a kind of insult, a kind of disrespect. They are also less likely to have already achieved the other great goods. That is a beginning of a reply.”

Over the past few years the question of Palestine has played a controversial role in universities. There is anger over the government's requests for lecturers to spy on students, the way in which Islamic societies are being monitored and clamped down on, and controversy over strategies for delivering solidarity. There has been much concern over the desire of the government to channel funding towards such 'key issues', with terrorism being a primary one. Honderich puts this in perspective: “In a society as morally stupid as ours, nearly always a stupidity owed to ignorance and the success of keeping people in that ignorance, I am tempted to have the feeling that research funding should not be at the forefront of our concern. The cosmeticism of New Labour comes higher. So does not forgetting about the estate agents and the private schools along with the bankers. So does Noam Chomsky not having a Nobel Prize.” What about two of the most controversial solidarity strategies on campuses? “I have not myself joined the academic boycott of Israel, which so to speak has left me with a bad conscience as well as a good one. The main difficulty, as always, is a factual one. Same as with terrorism. Will a boycott serve the end of the Principle of Humanity and more particularly the cause of the Palestinians? There are arguments both ways, but maybe I am moving towards the boycott. As for the pro-Palestinian student occupations, I am absolutely for them. They don't come to much, incidentally, against the neo-Zionist and semitic activities in the universities.”

This year we mourned the death of Marek Edelman, the heroic resistance leader of the Warsaw Ghetto. The widespread respect for him surely shows that the notion of legitimate armed resistance is something people are, at least historically, happy to assent to. Why, then has Honderich's position made him such a controversial figure? “I wonder if the explanation has partly to do with a perception of philosophy, not only a popular one. It is a perception, even in this degraded society, that carries with it respect, even in the midst of our monstrous plague of the celebrities. That a member of a respected profession and line of life, not gone over entirely to journalism, holds particular views, gets him or her attention. The explanation also has to do, of course, with the convention that we leave such judgements to governments, and in particular our hierarchic democracies. I suspect my view, on Zionism and neo-Zionism and Palestinian resistance to or self-defence against neo-Zionism, is in fact easily the majority view in the world, however quiet people are about, however reluctant to express it.”

The Moral Sciences Club meets Tuesdays during term time in St. John's College Cambridge.
Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War is published by Continuum.

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7 November 2009