TCS Daily

What's Left?

By James Pinkerton - April 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Has the left lost it? That's the question posed by veteran British journalist John Lloyd in The Guardian on April 11. "A large part of the British left-and the left elsewhere-has made a fundamental mistake," he writes. "In opposing the invasion of Iraq, it has shown itself incapable of thinking through not only the nature of the world as it is today, but also its own claims to be the leading force in making the world better."

Such biting words would be familiar fare from a conservative or libertarian. But Lloyd is neither. He's the former editor of The New Statesman, the magazine founded in 1913 by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the couple famous for their founding role in the socialist-agitating Fabian Society. But now, in the middle of the Iraq war, the veteran leftist has fully and finally broken with his erstwhile comrades.

Lloyd, of course, is one of a number of leftists, on both sides of the Atlantic, who have switched sides. Another is Christopher Hitchens, who memorably labeled Saddam Hussein an "Islamofascist" and resigned as a columnist for The Nation last year. Another is Paul Berman, a longtime writer for Dissent, whose new book, Terror and Liberalism, picks up on the Hitchens critique; Berman argues that much of contemporary Arab thinking owes more to 20th century totalitarianism than to the 7th-century teachings of Mohammed. And yet another about-face has been made by The New Republic, which has distanced itself from much of the Democratic Party establishment, including Al Gore, who was once the apple of the magazine's editorial eye.

No wonder the Bush administration has been able to generate such strong support-two-thirds of self-described liberals, 70 percent of Democrats-for the Iraq war, according to an April 5 poll in The Los Angeles Times.

So what's left of the left, at least on the Iraq question? Lloyd, the ex-New Statesman-er, launches a particularly blistering critique. He scorns those who ask, "Why pick on Iraq?" That is, why single out Saddam for developing weapons of mass destruction or mistreating his own people, when other countries do similar things? In his Guardian piece, Lloyd zaps such war-foes for "relativism," arguing that Iraq should be judged "on the basis of truths, which should be self-evident and held in common." And by that simple clear standard, he argues that the Ba'ath regime deserves to go.

Fair enough. But even as he embraces the "moral clarity" thinking of American neoconservatives, Lloyd opens up a larger question when he notes that the Iraq controversy, pro and con, "cannot be squeezed into left-right categories."
Which is a good point: indeed, on some issues, parts of the left and parts of the right have merged. Some of this merger is simply tactical; the March 14 issue of Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine offered a cover story entitled, "A Necessary Alliance: The Case for a Left-Right Anti-War Coalition," by Neil Clark, a British socialist.
But there's a deeper argument, too; much of "the left" isn't really on the left anymore. How so? When leftists such as former Great Society Attorney General Ramsey Clark end up dispensing legal counsel not only to Saddam, but also to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, when veteran radical lawyer Lynne Stewart has been indicted for aiding Arab terrorists, when former black activists H. Rap Brown becomes reborn as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin-the name under which he was convicted of killing an Atlanta cop-then it's apparent that something big has shifted on the port side of politics.

What's the shift? Fred Siegel, professor of American history at the Cooper Union for the Arts and Sciences, himself a New Democrat, answers the question by stepping back into time, then tracing the dynamic of leftist thinking over the last hundred years. "In the early decades of the 20th century, American leftists had high hopes for the revolutionary potential of the proletariat," he recalls. But the Progressives and New Dealers co-opted the radicalism of the working class. So, Siegel continues, by the late '30s and '40s, lefties were mostly pinning their hopes on the Soviet Union to advance the "international class struggle." Those hopes, too, were dashed by the terrifying, stultifying reality of the USSR.

In the '50s and '60s, therefore, hard-left enthusiasm had shifted over to newer communist countries, such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba. And softer leftists embraced such once-idolized figures as Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Nyere of Tanzania, and Nasser of Egypt. Most of these men called themselves socialists, but for the most part, they were nationalists; their loyalties weren't to the red flag or the red rose, but rather, they said, to the red blood of their own kind. In other words, the revolutionary universalism of the left gave way to a kind of reactionary particularism. Third World leaders might be willing to mouth proletarian platitudes, but what they really cared about was defending their unique notions of national dignity, sovereignty, even ethnicity.

By the 1970s, concepts such as "revolution" and "national liberation" were often impossible to plot on the left-to-right spectrum. What, for example, to make of the Symbionese Liberation Army, best known for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst in 1974? The SLA's slogan-"death to the fascist insect that preys upon the people"-was suitably lefty sounding, but its logo, a seven-headed cobra, was pure pagan mythopoeia. Where's that on the ideological spectrum? Leftover '60s radicals had come a long way from Bolshevik red stars.

And how to interpret an influential book of 1976, The Promise of the Coming Dark Age-note the noun, "promise"-by Northwestern University's L.S. Stavrianos? The author, frustrated by the failure of grand left ideologies, defaulted to a kind of nihilism; as he taught school in leafy Evanston, Illinois, he figured that anything done by peasants and brigands had to be better than the status quo he saw all around him. Invoking trendy eco-sensibilities as a metaphor for his vision of a new communal order-emerging from what he hoped would be the rubble of modern civilization-Stavrianos lyricized that "fresh green shoots are sprouting everywhere amidst the ugly wreckage of obsolete institutions." One might ask, to be sure: were the Dark Ages really progressive?

Finally, how does one peg, left to right, the 1979 coming to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran? He was anti-Shah, anti-Western, and anti-American, which makes for three checks in his favor on the leftist scorecard, but he was hardly the type to discuss dialectical materialism. Indeed, once in power, he made short work of the Iranian Tudeh (communist) party.

Of course, even as leftism lost much of its solidarity, the remnant self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninists of that era were the worst of the worst. For example, the Dirgue in Ethiopia and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were so genocidally awful that many on the left finally gave up their failed Red god.

But many others did not. Many leftists simply switched allegiances; they abandoned the idea of, say, a New Soviet Man in favor of a deconstructed and multiculturalized vision of peoples and perspectives. Many attempted to apply neo-Marxism-the p.c. term is "Marxisant"-to new causes and concerns. As described by the conservative sociologist (yes, there are a few) Peter Berger, Marxisant thinking is notable "in its antagonism to capitalism and to bourgeois culture, in its denial of scientific objectivity, in its view of the combatant role of intellectuals, and, last but not least, in its fanaticism. In recent years this version of sociology has intoned the mantra of 'class, race, and gender.'" In other words, say goodbye to "Workers of the world, unite!" and say hello to the protection of "indigenous peoples" and the propagation of Queer Theory.

To Fred Siegel, reviewing the century-long search for a counter-force to American liberal capitalism-from the proletariat to the USSR to the Third World to the academy-the present-day grab bag of gripes and grudges represents not a counter-force at all, but rather a big nothing. He sees instead an ideological crater, the result of an intellectual implosion that he summarizes, bluntly, as "the collapse of the left." What he means is that all that's left of the left, at least in the international arena, is a general hostility to America and a vague support for anti-Americanism. In other words, leftists aren't orchestrating America-bashing; leftists are merely applauding America-bashing wherever they can find it.

So what is the current world-model that opposes the American model? What is the model that opposes what Bush calls the "single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise"? There is none. There are only small counter-models, which appeal, it seems, to various and sundry clans, countries, and conclaves.

And the next question: what will be the outcome of Uncle Sam's effort to push a new ordering of world affairs, a vision that has excited the imagination of many ex-leftists, such as Lloyd, Hitchens, and Berman? Will this grand and ambitious universalism of the resurgent right-a revivified doctrine of democratic capitalism-win or lose against the multiethnic and multicultural particularisms of the remnant left? There are, after all, no final victories in ideology, or in history. And there are also the "X" factors of tragedy, as well as Murphy's Law, to keep the prideful in check.

But still, this crusade for the remaking the world should not be confused with the smaller clash between right-tilting capitalism and left-tilting socialism-because that fight, happily, has been won.

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