[sixties-l] Can There Be A Decent Left? Michael Walzers Second Thoughts (fwd)

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    Subject: Can There Be A Decent Left? Michael Walzers Second Thoughts

    Can There Be A Decent Left? Michael Walzer's Second Thoughts

    by David Horowitz
    FrontPageMagazine.com | March 26, 2001

    FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Peter Collier and I assembled a group of disillusioned
    New Leftists for a conference in Washington we called "Second Thoughts."
    These second thoughts had been provoked by many factors and events, but
    most instrumental among them was the wholesale slaughter of innocents in
    "liberated" Cambodia and Vietnam by political forces that had been
    supported by the left. It was not the first sprouting of such radical
    second thoughts. Generations of leftists before us had been repelled by the
    similar crimes of Stalin and Mao and Castro, and had shed their progressive
    worldviews for more sober and conservative thoughts. Indeed, Irving
    Kristol, who was on the panel of "elders" we invited to our conference,
    observed that second thoughts had begun with the creation of the modern
    left during the French Revolution and had been repeated many times since.
    Our second thoughts he said, somewhat sardonically, were in fact a Yogi
    Berra moment of "déjà vu all over again."

    And now it is déjà vu once more. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath
    have produced a whole new generation of second thoughters in various stages
    of reassessment. These include such luminaries of the literary left as
    Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens who this fall joined
    with their sometime opponents to defend America ­ the arch imperial power
    of the age ­against a radical Islamic enemy, which they previously might
    have regarded as the historical agent of the Third World oppressed. Now the
    editor of Dissent, Michael Walzer, has come forward with an articulate
    posing of the question of second thoughts and how far to push them. A
    philosopher, social critic and lifelong Democratic Socialist Walzer has
    pointedly titled his article, "Can There Be A Decent Left?"

    The seriousness of the question can measured by others in the fact that
    insofar as there is a "decent left," Michael Walzer has exemplified it
    throughout his political career. I should interject here that I crossed
    political swords with Walzer nearly 40 years ago, when I was a young and
    combative Marxist in England. I do not remember the substance of our
    disagreements ­ and I no longer have copies of Views, the obscure leftwing
    magazine that printed them. But I am as certain that he, was the more civil
    of the two of us, as I am that he, then being to my right, was more right
    on the issues.

    There is a sense, moreover, in which the faction of the left that Dissent
    represents is itself the decent faction of the left. During the Sixties
    Dissent's founder Irving Howe symbolized the resistance within the left to
    the totalitarian elements who came to dominate its decade. Although in the
    1980s its editors were seduced into a "critical" defense of the Nicaraguan
    regime, they have an otherwise honorable record of having opposed Communism
    throughout the Cold War, even if they only grudgingly supported or ­ worse
    ­ were often excessively critical of America's efforts to contain the
    Communist threat.

    Yet there is a sense, also, in which "decency" more describes Walzer's
    personal temperament than it does the politics of the Dissent community.
    One obvious manifestation of decency is to respect those you disagree with
    if they deserve it. As a matter of disclosure, I must interject here that
    Dissent editor Paul Berman once described me as a "demented lunatic" -- as
    though the redundancy were necessary to do justice to a political enemy,
    despite the ludicrous overkill. Dissent's other philosophical figure,
    Richard Rorty, has defined his left as a movement "against cruelty." But
    his own writings have not been without crude demonizations and peremptory
    dismissals of his neo-conservative opponents (not to mention Republicans
    generally) as dolts and fascists, whose ideas a civilized progressive is
    obliged to dismiss. He has even celebrated the left's political domination
    of the universities, something he well knows is the result of an
    ideological cleansing of conservatives that he would certainly deplore if
    the roles were reversed.

    In eras gone by, political second thoughts tended to focus on the left's
    active support for nightmare regimes, which it mistakenly took to be
    earthly paradises, and the embodiment of its utopian dreams. By contrast
    Walzer's doubts originate in his observations of the left's passivity in
    regard to the defense of America against a nightmare threat. This is not
    wholly different from the past, but it is different enough to warrant our

    "Many left intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to
    identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriot feeling
    as politically incorrect," Walzer writes. "That's why they had such
    difficulty responding emotionally to the attacks of September 11 or joining
    in the expression of solidarity that followed." In their first responses,
    he notes, leftists failed "to register the horror of the attack or to
    acknowledge the human pain it caused." Instead, they felt "schadenfreude,"
    a German word meaning joy at another's sorrows, a "barely concealed glee
    that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved."

    Even though some of these leftists regained their "moral balance" (for many
    it was more likely a sense of political self-preservation) they still
    exhibited a myopic attitude when addressing the problem of what should be
    done. Their sense of being internal exiles in America was again at the root
    of the symptom: "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 ^Å what? To oppose the authorities, whatever they did." Hence the left
    put its energies into defending the civil liberties of ^Å suspected terrorists.

    Walzer is himself still unwilling to put it so bluntly. This would mean
    finally stepping away from the left, which he is unready to do. So he
    applauds the exaggerated concern of the left for, say, the prisoners of
    Camp X-Ray, calling it "a spirited defense of civil liberties" and a "good
    result." But this is a minor hesitation in the face of the large question
    he has raised about the way the left sees and feels itself to be an alien
    force in its own country. For this is a classic second thought.

    In my own passage out of the left, nearly twenty years ago, it occurred to
    me that my revolutionary comrades never addressed themselves to the obvious
    questions for social reformers: "What makes a society work?" Which is the
    preamble to "What will make this society work?" In all the socialist
    literature I had read, there was hardly a chapter devoted, for example, to
    the creation of wealth. Socialist theory was exclusively addressed to the
    conquest of power and the division of wealth that someone else had created.
    Was it any surprise that the socialist societies they created broke world
    records in making their inhabitants poor?

    Michael Walzer puzzles at length over the failure of the left to understand
    the religious nature of the al-Qaeda enemy: "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." He notes that
    "a few brave leftists" like Christopher Hitchens have described the
    al-Qaeda movement as a "clerical fascism." (Actually this is a lingering
    political correctness in Walzer. Hitchens described al-Qaeda as
    "Islamo-fascists," which is quite different from those Catholic clerics who
    supported Franco in Spain.) But he does not seem to grasp the religious
    roots of radicalism generally, and therefore fails to understand the
    affinity of American radicals for al-Qaeda and its Palestinian kin.

    The indecent left reacted badly to 9/11, concludes Walzer, because
    ideologically it is still under the spell of the Marxist schema. These
    "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?"

    This is an excellent reading of the political left. But Walzer is still
    puzzled: "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?"

    This question reveals a gap in Walzer's perception of the left that has its
    roots in his own decency and in the fact that, after all is said and done,
    he is a moralist and reformer, not a revolutionary. There is, in fact, a
    large literature examining the religious character of the modern
    revolutionary left written by authors as different as Berdyaev, Talmon,
    Voegelin, Niemeyer, Furet and Kolakowski. (I have, of course, written
    extensively about this myself in Radical Son and The Politics of Bad
    Faith.) If one looks, it is not hard to see how the left's social melodrama
    fits neatly the traditional Judeo-Christian eschatologies, from which its
    key texts were derived (Marx, after all, came from a long line of rabbis).
    There is the Fall from an idyllic communal state, the travail through a
    vale of suffering and tears, and then a social redemption. There is the
    passion for moral purity and the purges ­ witch-hunts in fact ­ that
    result. The redemption projected of course comes not through the agency of
    a divine Messiah but through the actions of a political vanguard and its
    power in the socialist state.

    In the last thirty years, but particularly in the last dozen it has been
    impossible for leftists to visualize the utopian redemption that one once
    motivated their mis-labeled "idealism." The catastrophe of every socialist
    scheme of the 20th Century has had a devastating effect on leftwing
    optimism and replaced it with the a corrosive, anti-capitalist nihilism
    that makes it impossible for most leftists to defend a country which
    compared to its enemy is a veritable heaven on earth. All that remains of
    the revolutionary project is the bitter hatred of the society its exponents
    inhabit, and their destructive will to see bring it down. This answers
    Walzer's question as to how so-called "progressives" could be either so
    unwilling or so slow to distinguish or defend their own country ­ a
    tolerant, secular democracy -- in the face of an evil force and its
    terrorist attacks.

    Peter Collier and I drew attention to this nihilism more than a decade ago
    in a book we wrote about our second thoughts. We, too, pointed out the
    sense of alienation as the defining element of the "progressive" left. As
    editors of Ramparts magazine, we had produced a cover featuring a seven
    year old ­ the son of our art director Dugald Stermer ­ holding the flag of
    the Vietcong, America's communist enemy in Vietnam. The cover line said,
    "Alienation is when your country is at war, and you want the other side to
    win." Oddly enough, in our "second thoughts" book, Destructive Generation,
    we offered as an exemplary statement of this alienation a quote from
    Michael Walzer: "It is still true," Walzer had written, "that only when I
    go to Washington to demonstrate do I feel at home there." The statement
    made more than a decade ago measures Walzer's present second thoughts. Like
    Christopher Hitchens, who published a beautiful tableau of his own
    transition for Vanity Fair after 9/11, Michael Walzer has come home.

    His second thoughts are not really different from the second thoughts of
    others before him ­ despite his stubborn unwillingness to really let go of
    the alienating force. As presently stated they are inspired by the nihilism
    of the left, rather than a rejection of the left's visionary goals. In the
    end, Walzer does not actually answer the title question of his article with
    a "no." But he comes very close. "I would once have said that we [the left]
    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."

    Those of us who have already had our second thoughts are naturally
    skeptical of this optimism: The left has been beginning over again since
    the French Revolution. And over and over. If it has to begin yet another
    time after all this tragedy -- if it is déjà vu all over again -- why not
    give it up entirely and save the world another century of grief?
    David Horowitz is editor-in-chief of FrontPageMagazine.com and president of
    the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

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