[sixties-l] Can There Be a Decent Left? (fwd)

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Date: Mon Mar 18 2002 - 02:29:53 EST

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    Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 23:09:39 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Can There Be a Decent Left?

    Can There Be a Decent Left?


    by Michael Walzer

    Leftist opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded in November and December
    of last year, not only because of the success of the war but also because
    of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghanis greeted that success. The
    pictures of women showing their smiling faces to the world, of men shaving
    their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer in shorts: all
    this was no
    doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but
    also politically disarming. There was (and is) still a lot to worry about:
    refugees, hunger, minimal law and order. But it was suddenly clear, even to
    many opponents of the war, that the Taliban regime had been the biggest
    obstacle to any serious effort to address the looming humanitarian crisis,
    and it was the
    American war that removed the obstacle. It looked (almost) like a war of
    liberation, a humanitarian intervention.
    But the war was primarily neither of these things; it was a preventive war,
    designed to make it impossible to train terrorists in Afghanistan and to
    plan and organize attacks like that of September 11. And that war was never
    really accepted, in wide sections of the left, as either just or necessary.
    Recall the standard arguments against it: that we should have turned to the UN,
    that we had to prove the guilt of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and then
    organize international trials, and that the war, if it was fought at all,
    had to be fought without endangering civilians. The last point was intended
    to make fighting impossible. I haven't come across any arguments that
    seriously tried to describe how this (or any) war could be fought without
    putting civilians at risk, or to ask what degree of risk might be
    permissible, or to specify the risks that American soldiers should accept
    in order to reduce the risk of civilian deaths. All these were legitimate
    issues in Afghanistan, as they were in the Kosovo and Gulf wars. But among
    last fall's antiwar demonstrators, "Stop the bombing" wasn't a slogan that
    summarized a coherent view of the
    bombing, or of the alternatives to it. The truth is that most leftists were
    not committed to having a coherent view about things like that; they were
    committed to opposing the war, and they were prepared to oppose it without
    regard to its causes or character and without any visible concern about
    preventing future terrorist attacks.
    A few left academics have tried to figure out how many civilians actually
    died in Afghanistan, aiming at as high a figure as possible, on the
    assumption, apparently, that if the number is greater than the number of
    people killed in the Towers, the war is unjust. At the moment, most of the
    numbers are propaganda; there is no reliable accounting. But the claim that
    the numbers
    matter in just this way, that the 3120th death determines the injustice of
    the war, is in any case wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best
    understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended
    killing. And the denial isn't accidental, as if the people making it just
    forgot about, or didn't know about, the everyday moral world. The denial is
    unintended killing by Americans in Afghanistan counts as murder. This can't
    be true anywhere else, for anybody else.
    The radical failure of the left's response to the events of last fall
    raises a disturbing question: can there be a decent left in a superpower?
    Or more accurately, in the only superpower? Maybe the guilt produced by
    living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to
    sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics.
    Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable
    result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach
    of American power. Certainly, all those emotions were plain to see in the
    left's reaction to September 11, in the failure to register the horror of
    the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused, in the schadenfreude
    of so many of the first responses, the barely concealed glee that the
    imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved. Many people on the left
    recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed; there is at least
    the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But
    many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really
    Is there any way of escaping the politics of guilt and resentment on the
    home ground of a superpower? We might begin to worry about this question by
    looking at oppositional politics in older imperial states. I can't do that
    in any sustained way (historians take note), only very sketchily. The Boer
    War is a good place to begin, because of the fierce opposition it aroused in
    England, which wasn't marked, despite the cruelty of the war, by the kind
    of self-hate that we have seen on the American left.
    Nor were the "little Englanders" hostile to English politics and culture;
    they managed to take a stand against the empire without alienating
    themselves from its home country. Indeed, they were more likely to regard
    England as the home country of liberalism and parliamentary democracy.
    After all, the values of parliamentarism (self-government, free speech, the
    right of opposition) did
    not support imperial rule. George Orwell's defense of patriotism seems to
    me an actual description of the feelings of many English liberals and
    leftists before his time and after (even of the Marxists, some of the best
    of whom were historians, like E.P. Thompson, who wrote sympathetically,
    indeed romantically, about the English people). Later on, during the
    Thatcher years, and particularly during the Falklands War, the tone of the
    opposition was more bitter, but by then there was no empire, only sour
    I think that the French story is similar. For most of the imperial years,
    French leftists were as proud of their Frenchness as were people on the
    right, and perhaps with more justification. For wasn't France the
    birthplace of enlightenment, universal values, and human rights? The
    Algerian war gave rise to a more familiar self-hatred, most clearly
    manifest in Jean-Paul Sartre's defense
    of FLN terrorism (in his preface to Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth):
    "To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy
    an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a
    dead man and a free man." This suggests that it is actually a good thing to
    kill Europeans (they were mostly French), but Sartre did not volunteer to
    go himself
    and be killed so that one more Algerian would be a free man. His was a
    generalized, not a personal, self-hatred.
    Why shouldn't the American story be like these two, with long years of
    healthy oppositionist politics, and only episodic resentment? Wasn't
    America a beacon of light to the old world, a city on a hill, an
    unprecedented experiment in democratic politics? I grew up with the
    Americanism of the popular front in the 1930s and 1940s; I look back on it
    now and think that the Communist Party's effort to create a leftist pop
    culture, in an instant, as the party line turned, was kitchy and
    manipulative, and also politically very smart. Paul Robeson's "Ballad for
    Americans," whatever the quality of the music, provides at least a sense of
    what an unalienated American radicalism might be like. The days after
    September 11 would not have been a bad time for a popular front. What had
    happened that made anything like that unthinkable?
    The cold war, imperial adventures in Central America, Vietnam above all,
    and then the experience of globalization under American leadership: all
    these, for good reasons and bad, produced a pervasive leftist view of the
    United States as global bully, rich, privileged, selfish, hedonistic, and
    corrupt beyond remedy. The sense of a civilizing mission, which must have
    parts of the British and French left in a more fully imperial setting (read
    John Stuart Mill on British India), never got off the ground here. Foreign
    aid, the Peace Corps, and nation-building never took on the dimensions of a
    "mission"; they were mostly sidelines of U.S. foreign policy: underfunded,
    frequently in the shade of military operations. Certainly, there has been
    much to criticize in the policies of every U.S. government since World War
    II (see virtually any back issue of Dissent). And yet, the leftist
    critique, most clearly, I think, from the Vietnam years forward (from the
    time of "Amerika," Viet Cong flags, and breathless trips to the North)--has
    been stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate. It is the product of what
    Philip Roth, in his novel I Married a Communist, aptly described as "the
    combination of embitterment and not thinking." The left has lost its
    bearings. Why?
    I will suggest four reasons, without claiming that this is an exhaustive
    list. It is nothing more than a rough argument, an attempt to begin a debate.

    1) Ideology: the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism and
    of the third worldist doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s. We may think that
    we live in a post-ideological age, and maybe most of us do, but the traces
    of old ideologies can be found everywhere in the discourse of the left.
    Perhaps the most striking consequence is the inability of leftists to
    recognize or acknowledge the power of religion in the modern world.
    Whenever writers on the left say that the root cause of
    terror is global inequality or human poverty, the assertion is in fact a
    denial that religious motives really count. Theology, on this view, is just
    the temporary, colloquial idiom in which the legitimate rage of oppressed
    men and women is expressed.
    A few brave leftists described the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda movement
    as examples of "clerical fascism," which at least gets the adjective right.
    And maybe "fascist" is close enough, even if this new politics doesn't look
    like the product of late capitalist degeneration. It gives the left a
    reason for opposing Islamic terror, which is an important achievement. But
    it would be
    better to find a reason in the realities of terrorism itself, in the idea
    of a holy war against the infidels, which is not the same thing as a war
    against inferior races or alien nations. In fact, Islamic radicalism is
    not, as fascism is, a racist or ultra-nationalist doctrine. Something else
    is going on, which we need to understand.
    But ideologically primed leftists were likely to think that they already
    understood whatever needed to be understood. Any group that attacks the
    imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed, and its agenda
    must be the agenda of the left.
    It isn't necessary to listen to its spokesmen. What else can they want
    except...the redistribution of resources across the globe, the withdrawal
    of American soldiers from wherever they are, the closing down of aid
    programs for repressive governments, the end of the blockade of Iraq, and
    the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel? I don't doubt
    that there is some overlap between this program and the dreams of al-Qaeda
    leaders, though al-Qaeda is not an egalitarian movement, and the idea that
    it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is
    crazy. The overlap is circumstantial and convenient, nothing more. A holy
    war against infidels is not, even unintentionally, unconsciously, or
    "objectively," a left politics. But how many leftists can even imagine a
    holy war against infidels?
    2. Powerlessness and alienation: leftists have no power in the United
    States and most of us don't expect to exercise power, ever. Many left
    intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify
    with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as
    politically incorrect. That's why they had such difficulty responding
    emotionally to the attacks of September 11 or joining in the expressions of
    solidarity that followed. Equally important, that's why their participation
    in the policy debate after the attacks was so odd; their proposals (turn to
    the UN, collect evidence against bin Laden, and so on) seem to have been
    developed with no concern for effectiveness and no sense of urgency. They
    talked and wrote as if they could not imagine themselves responsible for
    the lives of their fellow-citizens. That was someone else's business; the
    business of the left was...what? To oppose the authorities, whatever they
    did. The good result of this opposition was a spirited defense of civil
    liberties. But even this defense displayed a certain willful
    irresponsibility and ineffectiveness, because so many leftists rushed to
    the defense of civil liberties while refusing to acknowledge that the
    country faced real dangers, as if there was no need at all to balance
    security and freedom. Maybe the right balance will emerge spontaneously
    from the clash of rightwing authoritarianism and leftwing absolutism, but
    it would be better practice for the left to figure out the right balance
    for itself, on its own; the effort would suggest a responsible politics and
    a real desire to exercise power, some day.
    But what really marks the left, or a large part of it, is the bitterness
    that comes with abandoning any such desire. The alienation is radical. How
    else can one understand the unwillingness of people who, after all, live
    here, and whose children and grandchildren live here, to join in a serious
    debate about how to protect the country against future terrorist attacks?
    There is a pathology in this unwillingness, and it has already done us
    great damage.
    3. The moral purism of blaming America first: many leftists seem to believe
    that this is like blaming oneself, taking responsibility for the crimes of
    the imperial state. In fact, when we blame America, we also lift ourselves
    above the blameworthy (other) Americans. The left sets itself apart.
    Whatever America is doing in the world isn't our doing. In some sense, of
    course, that is true. The defeat of fascism in the middle years of the
    twentieth century and of communism in the last
    years were not our doing. Some of us, at least, thought that these efforts
    merited our support, or our "critical support." But this is a complicated
    and difficult politics, and it doesn't allow for the favorite posture of
    many American leftists: standing as a righteous minority, brave and
    determined, among the timid, the corrupt, and the wicked. A posture like
    that ensures at once the moral superiority of the left and its political
    4. The sense of not being entitled to criticize anyone else: how can we
    live here in America, the richest, most powerful, and most privileged
    country in the world, and say anything critical about people who are poorer
    and weaker than we are? This was a major issue in the 1960s, when the New
    Left seemed to have discovered "oppression" for the first time, and we all
    enlisted on the side of oppressed men and women and failed, again and
    again, to criticize the authoritarianism and brutality that often scars
    their politics. There is no deeper impulse in left politics than this
    enlistment; solidarity with people in trouble seems to me the most profound
    commitment that leftists make. But this solidarity includes, or should
    include, a readiness to tell these people when we think they are acting
    wrongly, violating the values we share. Even the oppressed have
    obligations, and surely the first among these is not to murder innocent
    people, not to make terrorism their politics. Leftists who cannot insist
    upon this point, even to people poorer and weaker than themselves, have
    abandoned both politics and morality for something else. They are radical
    only in their abjection. That was Sartre's radicalism, face-to-face with
    FLN terror, and it has been imitated by thousands since, excusing and
    apologizing for acts that any decent left would begin by
    What ought to be done? I have a modest agenda: put decency first, and then
    we will see. So, let's go back over my list of reasons for the current
    Ideology. We certainly need something better than the rag-tag Marxism with
    which so much of the left operates today, whose chief effect is to turn
    world politics into a cheap melodrama, with all the villains dressed to
    look the part and one villain larger than life. A tough materialist
    analysis would be fine, so long as it is sophisticated enough to
    acknowledge that material interests don't exhaust the possibilities of
    human motivation. The spectacle of European leftists straining to find some
    economic reason for the Kosovo war (oil in the Balkans? a possible
    pipeline? was NATO reaching for control of the Black Sea?) was entertaining
    at the time, but it doesn't bear repeating. For the moment we can make do
    with a little humility, an openness to heterodox ideas, a sharp eye for the
    real world , and a readiness to attend to moral as well as materialist
    arguments. This last point is especially important. The encounter with
    Islamic radicalism, and with other versions of politicized religion, should
    help us understand that high among our interests are our values: secular
    enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government.
    Left politics starts with the defense of these three.

    Alienation and powerlessness. It is a common idea on the left that
    political responsibility is something like temperance, moderation, and
    cleanliness, good bourgeois values that are incompatible with radical
    politics or incisive social criticism. You have to be a little wild to be a
    radical. That isn't a crazy idea, and alienated intellectuals may well
    have, more than anyone else,
    the anger necessary to begin the critical project and the lust for
    intellectual combat that sustains it. But they don't necessarily get things
    right, and the angrier they are and the more they are locked into their
    combative posture, the more likely they are to get things wrong. What was
    necessary after September 11, and what is necessary now, is an engagement
    with our fellow citizens that recognizes the fellowship. We can be as
    critical as we like, but these are people whose fate we share; we are
    responsible for their safety as they are for ours, and our politics has to
    reflect that mutual responsibility. When they are attacked, so are we; and
    we should join willingly and constructively in debates about how to defend
    the country. Once again: we should act as if we won't always be powerless.
    Blaming America first. Not everything that goes badly in the world goes
    badly because of us. The United States is not omnipotent, and its leaders
    should not be taken as co-conspirators in every human disaster. The left
    has little difficulty understanding the need for distributive justice with
    regard to resources, but we have been practically clueless about the just
    distribution of praise and blame. To take the obvious example: in the
    second half of the twentieth century, the United States
    fought both just and unjust wars, undertook both just and unjust
    interventions. It would be a useful exercise to work through the lists and
    test our capacity to make distinctions, to recognize, say, that the US was
    wrong in Guatemala in 1956 and right in Kosovo in 1999. Why can't we accept
    an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had
    good and bad effects in the world? But shouldn't an internationalist left
    demand a more egalitarian distribution of power? Well, yes, in principle;
    but any actual redistribution will have to be judged by the quality of the
    states that would be empowered by it. Faced with states like, say, Saddam
    Hussein's Iraq, I don't think we have to support a global redistribution of
    political power.

    Not blaming anyone else. The world (and this includes the third world) is
    too full of hatred, cruelty, and corruption for any left, even the American
    left, to suspend its judgement about what's going on. It's not the case
    that because we are privileged, we should turn inward and focus our
    criticism only on ourselves. In fact, inwardness is one of our privileges;
    it is often a form of political self-indulgence. Yes, we are entitled to
    blame the others whenever they are blameworthy; in fact, it is only when we
    do that, when we denounce, say, the authoritarianism of third world
    governments, that we will find our true comrades, the local opponents of
    the maximal leaders and military juntas, who are often waiting for our
    recognition and support. If we value democracy, we have to be prepared to
    defend it, at home, of course, but not only there.
    I would once have said that we were well along: the American left has an
    honorable history, and we have certainly gotten some things right, above
    all, our opposition to domestic and global inequalities. But what the
    aftermath of September 11 suggests is that we have not advanced very far,
    and not always in the right direction. The left needs to begin again.

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