Professor Mary Kaldor in conversation with James Stafford and George Morris
Over a career spanning five decades, the peace activist and academic Mary Kaldor has argued for a cosmopolitan left: supportive of global governance, the European Union and the human rights movement, and sceptical of the nation-state's ability to provide security or justice. Renewal met Kaldor to discuss her support for left campaigns against Brexit, and to ask what remains of projects for a left-liberal globalism in our current age of revived national power-politics.
Europe and the Cold War
James Stafford: You were involved with European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and with Hungarian and other Eastern European dissident movements in the i970s and i980s. How important were those experiences for forming your subsequent scholarship and activism?
Mary Kaldor: They were actually pivotal. My first job after university was working for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and my early work in the 1970s was very much about the arms trade and military technology. When in i980 we founded END--it really shifted, I think, the way I thought and what I thought was important. END seemed to suit me very well, because my father was Hungarian, my Uncle had been a dissident, in prison from 1948 to 1956; the idea that we would try to end the Cold War by bringing democracy to Eastern Europe, and that this was the best way to get rid of nuclear weapons, was a very appealing idea.
There were two big influences arising from that: E. P. Thompson and his conception of 'history from below', driven by citizens' movements; and travelling to Eastern Europe and meeting all these incredible intellectuals who were developing completely new concepts, like civil society; that was new to us then... anti-politics, the nature of totalitarianism, it was an entirely new experience. That had a huge influence on my subsequent thinking.
JS: Can you say a little more about END: what made it a distinctive position in the left of the 1970s and 1980s, compared to left positions on the Cold War?
MK: At the end of the 1970s, the Americans announced the deployment of Cruise and Pershing Missiles and the British announced they were replacing Polaris with Trident; that was the beginning of a new wave of anti-nuclear activism. I'd been involved in the first wave, my mother was an anti-nuclear activist, I'd been involved in Young CND; that's why I went to SIPRI, I was very committed to the anti-Cold War agenda.
END was actually started by E.P. Thompson; I was one of the founding members. Thompson launched this appeal in 1980 alongside Ken Coates and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. (1) The idea was that instead of merely focusing on unilateral nuclear disarmament for Britain, we would talk about a nuclear-free Europe 'from Poland to Portugal', and we would link democracy to disarmament.
What was interesting was that Thompson was very keen not to split the movement. We produced this pamphlet, largely written by Edward, called 'Protest and Survive'; even though lots of groups were springing up all over the country, some even calling themselves END, Edward recommended that everybody join CND, the old campaign for unilateral disarmament for Britain. (2)
But there were still deep political divisions; which interestingly enough are echoed now in our current debate over Brexit. It feels very much the same to me. A lot of people in CND felt that you should end the Cold War by making peace with the Soviet Union; that nuclear disarmament came before human rights, both because a nuclear war was the worst thing that could possibly happen, but also because if you created peace between us and the Communists, somehow human rights would follow.
Whereas we made a different argument--actually initially on tactical grounds. It had always been easy for governments to attack the peace movement on the basis that we were fellow-travelers with the Soviet Union. It was very easy to marginalise the peace movement. By showing that we really were engaged with and cared about human rights in Eastern Europe, it gave us a certain degree of integrity.
JS: It feels to me that this paradigm of European or global civil society; of cosmopolitanism; of human rights discourse is coming in from a lot of criticism from the left. A kind of left neo-realism, people like Perry Anderson or Peter Gowan, is becoming the left's dominant mode of thinking about world politics. (3) Why do you think that is happening?
MK: I think that was one big mistake we made. The Eastern Europeans we talked to and engaged with, they really ended up as neoliberals. Of course we were critical of neoliberalism, but we felt that wasn't the key issue: the key issue was democracy and human rights. And my worry is, now, that the thrust of the left is anti-neoliberal, but people are forgetting the importance of democracy and human rights.
There was always this idea that socialism needs the state; and that social justice is perhaps more important than political and civil rights. That was true in the 1980s as well. I remember I wrote an essay called 'Warfare and Capitalism', in which I argued that the Soviet system was a war system. (4) It wasn't a socialist system; it was a war system organised like capitalism is in war-time. Centralised planning, autarchy, the state controlling everything....
People were quite unhappy with the argument. They still saw Eastern Europe as socialist. I think now people still think that socialism is about defence of the state. Whereas activists for human rights see international institutions like the UN and the EU as their allies, activists for social justice hate the World Bank and the IMF and the international financial institutions. They see the state as the alternative, rather than arguing for the reform of global governance.
Socialism and the Nation-State
George Morris: It's striking that one of the things about the 'human security' approach you advocate is that it goes beyond the state: both in terms of international institutions but also civil society. But as you say in your latest book, the trajectory of global politics is back towards the nation-state. Is there any point in the left advocating for reform of the international system? How would we do it?
MK: I think it's the only possibility, actually. It just seems to me that the Lexit argument that we're better off in a nation-state... it doesn't take into account how incredibly interconnected the world is--not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of politics and culture.
Beyond that, it doesn't take into account the fact that a very powerful state enables authoritarianism and doomed attempts to control borders and immigration. I just don't think it's feasible any longer. All it will lead to is increased violence and violations of human rights.
It seems to me that the only alternative is reform of international institutions. The question then is how do we do that as left-wing movements. It's about creating alliances; but key to it all is the European Union. Reforming the European Union is the only way to reform global governance.
JS: Why is that? Is it because global governance has been constructed on a European model?
MK: It's precisely because the European Union is not a state...