Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Time out with Nick Cohen; for Ted Honderich, If You Don't Give Money to Oxfam or the Red Cross, You Are Killing Africans as Surely as If You Had Deliberately Stopped a Food Convoy Reaching a Refugee Camp

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Time out with Nick Cohen; for Ted Honderich, If You Don't Give Money to Oxfam or the Red Cross, You Are Killing Africans as Surely as If You Had Deliberately Stopped a Food Convoy Reaching a Refugee Camp

Article excerpt

I've had Professor Ted Honderich's books on my shelves all my adult life. I won't pretend to reach for them often, but the argument of his 1976 essays on violence has stayed with me. Inequality kills, it runs. The poor have shorter lives than the rich, not only in famine-ridden Saharan hell-holes but in Europe and North America, too. We should, therefore, overcome squeamish liberal objections to the violence of the left and consider the possibility that it might end the greater violence of poverty. Honderich did not dwell on the record of revolutionary violence in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China in promoting the equality of the mass grave. Nevertheless, it struck me that his claim--that our failure to alleviate poverty was a kind of complicity with murder--stood up.

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Thirty years on, and the world has been transformed. In the Seventies, there were revolutionaries from Peru to Cambodia. Today, with the exception of the Maoists of Nepal, no radical movements of the far left are close to seizing power. Everything has changed except Ted Honderich, who is churning out books on how 9/11 and all that has happened since are a payback for our sins of commission and omission. I can't say I'm a fan. I am hugely suspicious of the belief that irrational movements have rational causes, but maybe I'm wrong. Everyone, from the Independent to the Daily Mail, is saying so, asserting with varying degrees of vehemence that we are the "root cause" of Islamist violence. Who better to dissect my faulty thinking than University College London's former Grote professor emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic?

Our meeting began badly and got worse. I had arranged to talk to him at a conference at the Royal College of Art in London's museum district: a bland, modernist building overshadowed by the exuberantly gothic Natural History and Victoria and Albert museums. The college is an anonymous place where it is easy to miss people, but there was no missing Professor Honderich. Six foot five inches and 73 years old, he was all flowing grey hair and dramatic poses as he marched up to me and began to denounce a Channel 5 documentary by Times columnist David Aaronovitch. I hadn't the faintest idea what he was going on about, but so vigorous were his condemnations that I assumed he had been pilloried.

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Only later did I learn that Honderich himself had made a documentary for the channel (which the Guardian described as a "fatheaded" attempt to blame Islamist terrorism on "almost everyone but Islamist terrorists"). The station's controllers then commissioned Aaronovitch to argue that you couldn't make excuses for terror. At no point did he mention Honderich. Nevertheless, the professor was furious that a different point of view had been aired.

Fascist traditions

It took me a while to work that out, and I responded with polite bafflement when he pressed a closely typed, 16-page attack on Aaronovitch into my hands. I glanced at it and saw the professor was suggesting that Aaronovitch was a part of "Israel's fifth column". I should have realised then that I was in front of an academic who was more used to giving lectures than listening to them.

What interested me, I said, as I tried to calm him down, was that in the Seventies, when he had originally argued that revolutionary violence may be justified, there actually were movements of the revolutionary left. Now, nearly all the violent threats to the status quo come from the far right. Did it make a difference to him that the proponents of violence were the Iranian ayatollahs, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, organisations which had incorporated parts of classical fascist tradition?

At the mention of fascism, the professor's head shot back. "Fascist tradition? I think that's an amazing utterance as a matter of fact. It's an utterance, by the way, which is gone for by the makers of that Aaronovitch programme . …

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