Fred Halliday’s Writings on Global Politics Are a Vital Resource for the Left

The Irish scholar Fred Halliday covered an extraordinary range of subjects in his work, from Middle East revolutions to the Cold War. Halliday brought a Marxist perspective to the study of global politics and left behind a rich intellectual legacy.

Fred Halliday as a young man. (Alex Halliday / openDemocracy)

Fred Halliday (1946–2010) made an enormous intellectual contribution to both the discipline of International Relations (IR) and what is usually referred to as “area studies” of the Middle East. When Halliday began his intellectual and political life, Marxism was a relatively marginal presence in both of these fields. Although Halliday later moved away from Marxist political positions, the expansion of space for the Left in these disciplines owes much to his work.

Halliday represented a type of public intellectual virtually unknown today, combining popular exposition with regional expertise and global analytical reach that was articulated, at least initially, from a position on the Marxist left. A glance at the covers of Halliday’s books, most of them published by nonacademic presses, reveals the wide currency of his ideas: for example, the Sunday Times described 1989’s Cold War, Third World, a still avowedly Marxist extended essay, as “a brilliant, tightly argued, timely study.”

Such a reception is unthinkable in the British press today, testifying to an intellectual culture long submerged beneath slews of middlebrow pap. We might criticize his later conclusions and theoretical underpinnings — so robust an intellectual pugilist as Halliday would expect nothing less — but there is still much for the Left to learn from his legacy.

Child of the Enlightenment

Halliday was born in Dublin in 1946 and raised initially in Dundalk, a town close to the Irish border. His sense of origin in a place where imperialism, armed nationalism, and both religious devotion and sectarian identification were everyday realities informed his study of the Middle East and his political positions.

There was also a more direct connection in the influence, at secondhand, of the British and Irish Communist Organization (BICO), a small Marxist-Leninist group that had an outsized intellectual influence in the 1970s and ’80s. BICO opposed Irish unification and republicanism, seeing the (predominantly Protestant) skilled working class of the north of Ireland as a historically progressive force.

Halliday was never a member of BICO, and his sympathy for Trotskyist figures such as Isaac Deutscher would not have sat well with the organization’s self-proclaimed Stalinism. He was, however, a student of Bill Warren, BICO member and author of Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism (1980). Combatively opposing the widely held position that imperialism retarded the capitalist development of the Third World, Warren argued that imperialism produced such development in its colonies — and was therefore, to some extent, welcome.

At one level, Halliday’s lifelong worldview derived from a superposition of Warren’s muscular “stage-ism,” in which capitalist (and imperialist) development progressively provided the foundation for a planned economy, upon Deutscher’s Trotskyism, which was based on ideas of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution. Deutscher was an outspoken anti-Stalinist, while Warren was quite the opposite. Yet both converged around a conception of socialist revolution as a program rather than a process of self-emancipation of the working class: one that could therefore conceivably be achieved by a form of “revolution from above.”

This view informed Halliday’s bedrock understanding of an unevenly unfolding global modernity — either of capitalist development or Enlightenment rationality — whose contradictory progress was the only hope for human emancipation. This was what Halliday meant when he described himself as a member of the Bani Tanwir or “child of the Enlightenment.”

The anticipated endpoint of this process for Halliday gradually shifted from socialist revolution to a kind of radical liberalism, as noted by his former students Alex Colas and George Lawson. This reflected the fortunes of the political projects with which he was engaged. In the 1970s, Halliday reported on and fostered solidarity for the late flowering spurt of revolutions in the Third World that followed the US withdrawal from Vietnam. The Iranian revolution of 1979 marked a caesura, bringing to power not the left-wing currents with which Halliday had worked but an Islamic Republican regime.

Halliday’s work then turned to explaining the Cold War as the “intra-systemic” conflict that was the context for these revolutions. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Gulf War marked a third and final phase in Halliday’s intellectual and political life, in which he turned toward a rights-based cosmopolitanism — although he produced his most substantive work on revolutions at this time.

Across each of these phases, Halliday contributed to three distinct but interlinked fields: the study of revolutions; connected to this, an account of the Cold War and IR based on a historical materialist approach; and finally the specialism for which he is most well-known, the study of the politics of the Middle East, including Islamist movements. In each he brought to bear not only his intellectual acuity and immense erudition across several languages, but also the conception of historical progress that reflected his engagement with Warren and Deutscher.

Revolution, Rationality, and Modernity

Halliday’s engagement with revolutionary movements predated and gave rise to his intellectual work. His first published book, at the age of twenty-four, was a translation of Karl Korsch’s 1923 work Marxism and Philosophy with an accompanying introduction. His first major contribution was 1974’s Arabia Without Sultans.

Halliday was a member of the Middle East Report and Information Project, which would go on to produce Middle East Report, and the editorial collective of the New Left Review. Halliday’s engagement with the region therefore sprang from a particular revolutionary perspective and the need to inform a Western left-wing audience about its revolutionary movements. Arabia Without Sultans emerged from a long personal engagement with the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf (PFLOAG) in the Dhofar region of Oman.

Halliday’s purpose was to dispel the “mystified flummery” about the Arabian Peninsula as a land of “sheikhs, deserts, holy places and camels,” the better to inform a revolutionary strategy for the region. The work of a group like PFLOAG in Dhofar, an area that not only lacked an industrial working class but even large urban settlements of any kind, represented an extreme example of the general trend of radicalizing Third World revolution. Rather than taking hold in the industrialized core of the capitalist system, it was in the partially industrialized or agrarian — in the case of Dhofar, nomadic — regions that the most revolutionary movements were emerging.

This phenomenon Halliday ascribed to a version of Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development. The Middle East, like the Third World as a whole, had been incorporated into a global market and system of states, but in ways that “accentuated” rather than eradicated their differences with the industrial-capitalist core. The emergence in the Gulf of an oil-dependent rentier bourgeoisie that was nonetheless largely composed of monarchs and tribal aristocracies represented a case in point.

For Halliday, it was in such “weak links” that we could most expect revolutionary movements to emerge. It was unclear in this argument why such movements would be able to maintain their rule, lacking a working-class base with the material interest in and social capacity for the building of socialism. This was a problem that Halliday later confronted later in his books Cold War, Third World and (coauthored with his then-partner Maxine Molyneux) The Ethiopian Revolution.

Demonstrating his debt to Warren, Halliday stressed that capitalism and even imperialism produced potential for revolutionary change as much as they retarded it. The most striking example of this potential in the 1970s, for Halliday, was Iran. His next book, Iran: Dictatorship and Development, appeared in 1979, shortly before a revolution ousted the US-backed monarchy that had played an important role in the eventual defeat of the PFLOAG. Halliday showed how Shah Reza Pahlavi, by building a “bourgeois dictatorship” in monarchical form based on oil rents, had produced a new revolutionary social force, the urbanized working class, albeit a highly stratified and diversified one.

This analysis of Iran was in some respects vindicated and in others overturned by the revolution of 1979, an event of seismic importance for the region. Although the Iranian working class played an important role in the revolutionary movement, leadership fell to the fraction of the Shia religious establishment associated with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, supported by the traditional petty bourgeoisie of the bazaar. Just a few months later, the USSR occupied Afghanistan to shore up the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), riven by factional conflict and isolated in a predominantly rural and socially conservative country.

These developments forced Halliday to engage in a rethinking of the relationship between revolution, modernity, and international relations. This was to culminate in his 1999 book Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. This work also drew upon reflections begun in 1981’s The Ethiopian Revolution, and his PhD on revolution and foreign policy in South Yemen, later converted into a published work.

Revolutions From Above

The dilemma with which Halliday struggled in the late 1980s and 1990s was no mere intellectual exercise. The idea of revolution, as Halliday was to write in The Sixth Great Power, covers both the phenomenon of popular uprising and the metahistorical concept of “the Revolution” as systemic change. The late Third World revolutions of the 1970s seemed to unite both — or at least permit the systemic change to be achieved by revolution from above.

In The Ethiopian Revolution, Halliday and Molyneux considered the seizure of power in 1974 by a committee of military officers, the Derg, as a “coup in the context of social revolution.” Drawing on Ellen Kay Trimberger’s work on revolutions from above, they argued that we should in some instances consider such phenomena to be “not so much an alternative to revolution from below” but rather an extension of a mass movement. Halliday and Molyneux were highly critical of the Derg’s violently coercive polities. Yet they believed that it could nonetheless be seen in these terms, although the nature of the postrevolutionary society in Ethiopia was still to be decided.

Writing for the New Left Review, Halliday applied a similar framework to events in Afghanistan during the same period. There had not been a revolution “in the sense of a seizure of power by an oppressed class.” Nonetheless, he argued that a “revolutionary process” was under way in the country by means of the PDPA’s program of “socialist transformation” and “expropriation of the existing ruling class.”

This view of social transformation as a program that could be implemented from above was not uncommon on the Left at the time. It also reflected a really existing conundrum in revolutionary experiences: Did revolution consist of the moment of rupture and heroic mass mobilization, or of the subsequent process of profound social transformation? If the latter could be achieved without the former, was it still “revolutionary”?

Halliday’s answer to this question in the late 1970s was a qualified “yes.” Over the next two decades, however, experience brought this model of revolutionary transformation into question. As Halliday recognized, the late Third World revolutionary regimes in Afghanistan, South Yemen, and Ethiopia stood fractured and besieged. Lacking a wide social base from which to pursue their programs of radical transformation, these regimes were mired in civil war and increasingly dependent on internal repression as well as external support from a sclerotic Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, an eminently modern revolution in Iran, bearing all the hallmarks of universalism, mass mobilization, and urban uprising, had brought an avowedly theocratic regime to power. The capstone to this series of disorienting trends was, of course, the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European dependencies in 1989–91.

The Sixth Great Power was Halliday’s response to these transformations. The title derived from Marx’s remark that in addition to the five great powers of nineteenth-century Europe, we should expect a “sixth great power” of revolution to eventually prevail. Halliday no longer shared Marx’s belief in such an outcome. However, he did seek to rescue the idea of revolution, to which he gave the dual meaning noted above, from the malign neglect it suffered in the study of IR.

Revolutions, Halliday wrote, demonstrated an evident similarity in their various manifestations from France in 1789 to Iran in 1979. Their ideological invocations, their self-consciously heroic narratives, and their aspirations to universal revolutionary order all appeared alike. Yet here again, Iran constituted a fulcrum. While the Iranian revolution partook of all the familiar forms of modern revolution, its eventual content stood against that heritage of 1789 with which Halliday strongly identified.

As the book amply demonstrated, not only were revolutions generally international in their origins, courses, and consequences, but much of the history of international relations (the phenomenon) and International Relations (the discipline) was a response to revolutionary threat. To a degree unusual in the field, the book also discussed counterrevolution — particularly the formation of counterrevolutionary international coalitions against a revolutionary state or movement.

Halliday still identified the uneven and combined development of capitalism as the “inescapable context” of the metahistorical “Revolution.” However, he argued that the unfolding of that development process had demonstrated that Revolution — at least the upper-case variety — was a phenomenon of capitalism’s earlier phases, not an endpoint.

Explaining the Cold War

We can trace Halliday’s interest in the interaction between revolution and the international system back to the burst of post-Vietnam Third World revolutions: he counted fourteen between 1974 and 1980, from Guinea-Bissau to Nicaragua, Grenada to Iran, yet none thereafter. These social revolutions interacted with — but were not determined solely by — the confrontation between the nuclear-armed superpowers.

That confrontation, Halliday argued, pitted two different economic and social systems (not classes) against each other: capitalism and socialism, whatever the deformations of the latter. If revolution and counterrevolution at a domestic level meant a programmatic contest between different economic and social systems, the Cold War (waged since 1917, in Halliday’s view) constituted the international analog for such a contest.

For Halliday, we could explain the Cold War neither as a historical accident nor in terms of domestic politics alone (nor indeed by reference to the reified geopolitics studied in IR departments). He developed this argument in his 1983 book The Making of the Second Cold War, which looked in detail at the intensified rivalry between Washington and Moscow that led many to fear a nuclear conflict might be imminent.

Halliday identified several key weaknesses of the Soviet-led bloc in its competition with the United States: slackening growth rates, the reversal of political liberalization under Leonid Brezhnev’s long rule, and the sheer drabness of everyday life for citizens of the “people’s democracies.” When Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to deal with these problems through glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, he inadvertently precipitated the demise of the Soviet experiment.

Halliday incorporated the collapse of the USSR into his argument after 1991. If the Cold War was fundamentally a “systemic” rivalry, that meant that the entire edifice collapsed when the ruling elite of the USSR lost faith in the socialist system. He never resolved this tension between materialist outcome and idealist explanation in his account of the Cold War.

All the same, 1989 forced Halliday to engage in greater depth with theories of IR as he sought to construct a Marxist response to them. The product of this endeavor was 1994’s Rethinking International Relations, in which Halliday attempted to bring about what he called a “necessary encounter” between historical materialism and IR.

Marxism and IR

Marxist scholarship in the field of IR is now common, but it was lesser known in the early 1990s. Leading figures in IR, such as Kenneth Waltz or Stephen Walt, certainly engaged with Marxism in general and the thought of Vladimir Lenin in particular, while John Mearsheimer enthusiastically welcomed Halliday for a guest lecture at the University of Chicago. Realist IR scholars have tended, if anything, toward the Left in their own politics rather than being hidebound conservatives.

Nonetheless, the core premise of the discipline was then (and to some degree remains) ideological: to abstract the state from the social relations in which it is embedded on the grounds that the latter are “domestic” rather than “international” phenomena. The various schools or “paradigms” of IR — Realism, Liberalism, the English School, and so forth — followed this approach in one shape or another.

Marxism had received a place in IR textbooks in the form of one such groupings: “structuralism.” Those textbooks informed students that Realists explained conflict in terms of power and security while Liberals explained cooperation in terms of shared interests. For their part, “structuralists” were said to explain global inequality (particularly North-South inequality) by reference to imperialism and exploitation.

Halliday’s enormously influential London School of Economics (LSE) colleague Susan Strange was also developing international political economy as a subfield. Strange attempted to reintegrate the study of “power” into accounts of “markets” — albeit operating with a rather reified conception of both.

Halliday argued that this version of “structuralism” was an entirely unsatisfactory engagement with, and by, Marxism. As a theory of social totality, Marxism aspired — or ought to aspire — to explain the relations between powerful states just as much as anything else. Moreover, the fundamental Marxist debates on imperialism before and after World War I fundamentally concerned the origins of conflict between states of the capitalist core, not the rule of the core over the periphery.

The international level of social reality nonetheless posed a challenge for historical materialism, because Marx formulated the latter as if there were only one society, rather than a plurality of state-society complexes. For Halliday, there were no purely national histories — therefore there could be no historical materialism without the international. It should be noted here that Halliday also saw the study of gender as a major blind spot in both IR and Marxism. Together with Margot Light, he introduced some of the first teaching on the subject in IR courses at the LSE.

To develop a form of historical materialism that was adequate to the task of understanding this international society, Halliday deemed it essential to discard the “vulgar polemic” that he believed to characterize much Marxist writing on the international, including many of the anti-imperialist positions he had previously criticized. In particular, Halliday argued that we had to sever Marxism as an analytical framework from Marxism as a political program. This meant dropping the idea that an alternative social and economic system was immanent to capitalism or even a possible outcome.

Halliday saw the contribution of historical materialism to IR as sitting not in one particular geographical or thematic area but rather in terms of a threefold approach. First of all, Marxism placed international relations in the context of specific modes of production and the social formations they generate — or to be more precise, the one specific mode of production that has generated a global system of sovereign states: capitalism.

A second point following on from this was that Marxism historicized concepts and practices, eschewing the idea of transhistorical or natural categories. This may seem like a banal point, yet it was a call to arms in in a discipline characterized on the one hand by purely empirical diplomatic history and on the other by purposefully ahistorical modeling.

The third aspect in which Marxism challenged existing IR approaches was through its focus on classes and class struggle. This fed into the fourth main aspect of Marxism in IR, the importance of revolution, as discussed above.

The Middle East, Orientalism, and Islamism

The best-known aspect of Halliday’s work concerns the study of the Middle East. From his early iconoclasm in Arabia Without Sultans onward, he sought to promote an “analytic universalism” that was at odds with both poles in the debate on “Orientalism” in Middle East studies.

Broadly speaking, this debate polarized the field into two camps. The first comprised the adherents of an older, European tradition of study of the region’s languages, religions, and cultures, that saw those cultural characteristics as explanations for contemporary political phenomena. Their opponents were galvanized by the publication of Edward Said’s 1979 book Orientalism, which castigated this tradition as a handmaiden of imperial power, inventing the object of its own knowledge the better to dominate it.

For Halliday, both sides of this polemical divide were trafficking in linguistic meta-analyses rather than concrete historical or political problems. Although the “Orientalist” side indubitably served the colonial enterprise, he argued, Said’s disciples ignored the fact that accurate knowledge can still be produced for objectionable aims. In Halliday’s blunt analogy, if you want to rob a bank, you need to know where the safe is and when the employees go home after finishing work.

This perspective informed Halliday’s response to the emerging strategic landscape of the 1990s. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Islam and Islamism were already beginning to feature as the new antagonists of US hegemony. Samuel Huntington’s 1996 work The Clash of Civilizations — a now justly ignored mishmash of Pentagon realpolitik and “third-rate Orientalism,” in Halliday’s words — offered ideological justification for this perspective. Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (1995) was Halliday’s riposte.

The Myth of Confrontation was not a book about Islamic doctrines. As Halliday was keen to point out, the assumption that such doctrines determined the social world was in itself a category error. “Islam” as an object of study had to be disaggregated. There was no timeless essence of Islam that could “clash” with an (equally mythical) European or Christian civilization. As Halliday pointed out, both — or indeed any — cultural traditions were historically riven with conflicts of power, interest, and emancipation.

He also stressed that we should not ascribe any particular status to the Middle East, although it was more frequently conflict-prone than other regions. Its social formations were naturally the product of their specific histories, and that included the role of religious and nationalist discourses within them. However, in order to grasp such specificities, we needed categories “of general and comparative application” — what Halliday called “matching an analytic universalism with historical particularism.” He aimed this argument not merely at adherents of Huntington’s thesis but also at the Islamists whom Halliday regarded as their equivalents.

In the early 1980s, Halliday had opposed those Western socialists who he accused of supporting the struggle of the Afghan Mujahedeen — which he saw as a “counter-revolutionary rural movement” — against the Soviet occupation. In making these arguments, he was sometimes prone to a kind of rhetorical looseness that is unfortunately common on the Left (and to which the present author is probably not immune!). As Gilbert Achcar recounted in his book Eastern Cauldron, he had opposed the Soviet invasion in a document coauthored with Halliday’s New Left Review colleague Tariq Ali. This was not because they supported the Mujahedeen, but rather because they believed — correctly as events were to progress — that the Soviet occupation would have disastrous results for any progressive causes in Afghanistan.

Rhetorical shortcuts aside, Halliday’s underlying faith in the expansion of the universal principles bequeathed by the Enlightenment and its successors informed his perspective. As Halliday saw it, siding with the Mujahedeen, Iranian Islamists, or Iraqi Ba’athists was worse than siding with imperialism, because it promoted the reactionary opponents of those Enlightenment principles. His support for the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was a notable example of this stance and marked Halliday’s break with most of the Left.

Such questions dominated global politics in Halliday’s final decade. Published after the 9/11 attacks, Two Hours that Shook the World reprised Halliday’s previous arguments about Islamism. While Halliday was critical of the US occupation of Iraq, he considered the war itself justified, and had little time for the anti-war movement — or anti-capitalists more generally — whom he accused of dallying with reactionary jihadism. By the mid-2000s, Halliday no longer called himself a socialist: in his own words, while he did still identify with the “radical critique of capitalism,” he no longer believed it was “possible to have an equal world” or to “abolish the state.”

One of his last notable political acts was to decry the acceptance of Muammar Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam into a PhD program at the London School of Economics, where Halliday taught for many years. Erstwhile apostles of the “Third Way” like Tony Blair’s ideological guru Anthony Giddens ignored his warnings and eagerly made obeisance to the “Brother Leader.”

Halliday’s Legacy

Where does Halliday’s legacy stand more than a decade after his death? Although he witnessed a renewed upsurge of protest in Iran toward the very end of his life, Halliday did not live to see the tumult of the Arab revolutions of 2011. These uprisings constituted as fundamentally international a revolutionary wave as any studied by Halliday.

However, they produced no new state form challenging the system as a whole — with the partial exception of two radically divergent experiments in northern Syria, under the rule of ISIS and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) respectively. Universalist demands for “bread, freedom, and social justice” animated the uprisings, but Islamists were important participants in as well as beneficiaries of them.

Most of all, 2011 reopened the question of the historicity of revolution which Halliday left unanswered in 2000. To the extent that these uprisings did not result in fundamental social transformation, they confirmed Halliday’s idea that the era of revolutions (or Revolutions) has passed.

Yet these upheavals did not take place in countries that were going through an earlier phase of capitalist development — at least not if that phrase refers to some absolute criteria of urbanization or industrialization. They are, indeed, better considered revolutions of late capitalist development, emerging from a context of increasing inequality, crumbling public spheres, and the cliquish, authoritarian neoliberalism that rules over these states.

This point suggests a further way in which Halliday — and even to some extent Bill Warren — has been proven right. Imperialist hierarchy has not blocked or prevented capitalist development in the global South. Only the most blinkered paleo-Maoist can look at the People’s Republic of China today and see anything but the throbbing core of a global capitalist economy. Even societies such as Egypt, although marred by extreme poverty, inequality, and international subjugation, are now more industrialized than service-based economies in the North.

Mass workers’ movements were key features of the Arab revolutions of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Yemen, where Halliday once began his career studying Third World revolutions. This reflects a broader trend in which capitalist development has produced in the urban working class the most consistently democratic social force, adding support to another of Halliday’s arguments.

A Tragic Sensibility

What does the reality and the fate of these revolutions mean for the form of radical and emancipatory critique with which Halliday identified as bani tanwir? On some issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which he advocated a two-state solution on practical grounds, it is difficult to reconcile Halliday’s position with contemporary political realities such as Israel’s increasingly ultranationalist governments.

Halliday’s later writings reveal a tragic sensibility, entirely understandable within the parameters of his political formation. He identified the contradictory possibility of universal progress with the expansion of economic development, pace Warren. He also identified that possibility, at least in some sense, with the systemic alternative offered by the socialist bloc.

Of course, Halliday held no illusions in the sclerotic Brezhnevite system he visited in the early 1980s. He nonetheless saw it precisely as a different system. The failure of that system then left us with little alternative, he believed, but to mount such defenses of the gains of modernity as were possible. From this perspective came his wariness of left-wing approaches to Islamists.

Yet two connected questions arise. First, if the will of the leaders of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China was enough to change their systems into capitalist ones, were they really that different to start with? Secondly, if such systems (and their erstwhile imitators in the Arab world) were not systemic alternatives, then where is the political subject of progress to be found?

If, as the revolts of 2011 suggest, it is in the multifarious and frequently impoverished urban masses of the region, then that subject is likely — at some points and in some places — to include not just believing Muslims but also Islamists. Such revolutionary subjects are even now being recomposed, without regard to how enlightened or not they are perceived to be.

As I write, revolutionary mobilizations are doggedly continuing in Sudan, now into their fourth year and second transitional agreement with a military regime that was veiled for two decades in Islamic garb. In Iran, the extraordinary mobilization of women, young people, workers, and Kurds appear to have forced the “hijab police” from the streets.

It is cheering to think that Fred Halliday, whose first experience of Iran was smuggling a copy of Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare to an unknown contact in a cafe, would look on and approve — and perhaps think that more things are possible than we might believe.