When Martin Amis returned to Britain from two years living overseas, he found a liberal-Left wallowing in self-delusion. Asked by the Independent what had shocked him most since he got home he replied: “The most depressing thing was the sight of middle-class white demonstrators waddling around under placards saying, ‘We Are All Hezbollah Now.’ Well, make the most of being Hezbollah while you can. As its leader, famously advised the West: ‘We don’t want anything from you. We just want to eliminate you.’” While critics could say that Leftists boasting of their conversion to Islamism were a fringe phenomenon, Amis made it clear that he was talking about the mainstream, not the fringe, when he went on British Broadcasting Corporation’s Question Time, the most popular political discussion program of the day. “A woman in the audience,” he reprted, “her voice quavering with self-righteousness, presented the following argument. Since it was America that supported Osama bin Laden when he was fighting the Russians, the US armed forces, in response to September 11, ‘should be dropping bombs on themselves!’ And the audience applauded. It is quite an achievement. People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a credal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.”
About the same time as Amis was speaking to the Independent, Ken Livingstone, the ex-Mayor of London, invited me to a “Clash of Civilizations” conference. I refused to go, as I knew the form for this type of Left wing meeting. The token liberal speaker’s sole function is to be ritually denounced by a packed platform and packed audience. However, friends of mine went, and shocked accounts of what they saw are all over the Internet. Yet it took a French feminist from the secular republican tradition to speak plainly. Agnès Poirier pulled out because, although there were no special facilities for Christians, Hindus and Jews, Livingstone had provided separate prayer rooms for Muslim men and Muslim women. “Is Ken Livingstone’s idea of multiculturalism, one that acknowledges and condones segregation?” she wanted to know.
Yes it was. The conference was packed but in an original way. The white Left was in alliance with the Islamist far Right. The attacks on the London Underground were, speakers agreed “reprisal events.” To oppose radical Islam was to oppose all Muslims and hence mark one self as an “Islamophobe.” This wasn’t a one off but a long term strategy. For several years now, Livingstone, Left wing journalists and the leaders of the Stop the War coalition have been pumping up the Muslim Brotherhood and its south Asian sister organization Jamaat-e-Islami. I’ll let Sheikh Yusuf al Qaardawi, the Brotherhood’s chief theologian who has been embraced by Livingstone explain its philosophy:
On Muslims who decide to change their religion or decide they don’t believe in any god, Qaardawi says, “He is a traitor to his religion and his people and thus deserves killing.”. He has excused female genital mutilation and wife beating as long as the husband does it lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive areas. He supports suicide bombers who murder Israeli children and says of gays, “Muslim jurists hold different opinions concerning the punishment for this abominable practice. Should it be the same as the punishment for fornication, or should both the active and passive participants be put to death? While such punishments may seem cruel, they have been suggested to maintain the purity of the Islamic society and to keep it clean of perverted elements.”
Across the Arab world, liberals have risked their lives by taking these ideas on. Iraqi, Jordanian and Tunisian writers organised a petition to the United Nations by 2,500 Arab intellectuals which condemned “individuals in the Muslim world who pose as clerics and issue death sentences against those they disagree with. These individuals give Islam a bad name and foster hatred among civilizations.”Prominent in their list of the “sheikhs of death” was one Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
If I were to ask you to name the most prominent Left wing politician in Britain, you would probably name Ken Livingstone. Yet he is a man who turns his back on liberals, socialists and feminists in the Arab world, while offering succour to their enemies. And there is no outcry when he does, no great debates on the BBC or in the liberal press. Turning your back on what we used to call the Left while supporting what we should call the far Right is what we expect European Leftists to do.
Some further examples of what often passes for Left radicalism today are no more encouraging. The Stop the War coalition, organised the largest demonstrations in British history. This was led by Trotskyists who proclaimed themselves to be Left wing, then formed an alliance with ultra-Right wing Islamist groups rather than Muslims of liberal background. The protest’s chief figure was George Galloway, a degraded man who openly admired the regime of Saddam Hussein, a regime which, to use an overused word, correctly for once was actually “fascist.” It didn’t do him any harm. Indeed he was elected to Parliament at the last election as the first allegedly far Left wing MP in 50 years.
The point I want to emphasise, indeed the point I can’t emphasise to you strongly enough, is how bizarre and unprecedented our present situation is—and how far from Left wing radical politics.
If the reader of this essay comes from the old Left, they will remember that in the 20th century we used to have a hierarchy, or at least we pretended we did. At the top was some form of socialism which we argued about continuously, and like the kingdom of God never came. Next was what we had here in Britain; namely, liberal democracy with its freedoms and a mixed economy and a welfare state. At the bottom were fascist and ultra-Right wing movements that spouted ethnic or religious totalitarianism usually with large dollops of Adolf Hitler’s raging conspiracy theories thrown in.
Now, with regard to radical Left wing politics today, not just in Britain, but overwhelmingly and everywhere, liberals and Leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements. Not their native far-Right parties—as long as local racists are white, they have no difficulty in opposing them in a manner that would have been recognizable to the traditional Left. But give them a foreign far-Right movement that is anti-Western and they treat it as at best a distraction and at worst an ally. The reverse side of the debased coinage of modern Leftish thinking is a poignant spectacle. Democrats, feminists and socialists in the poor world, who are suffering at the hands of the extreme Right, turn for support to the home of democracy, feminism and socialism in the West, only to find that the democrats, socialists and feminists of the rich world won’t help them or acknowledge their existence.
If you think the phenomena I am describing are simply the result of the disastrous Bush administration, I would agree with you up to a point. But they were developing long before Bush came to power and show every sign of continuing after he has gone. In any case, a Left that still had life in it and a European liberal tradition that meant what it said would have had no difficulty in dealing with Bush in an honourable manner. It would have opposed the second Iraq war, deplored the errors and brutalities of the occupation while supporting those Iraqis who fought al-Qaeda and insisted that they wanted something after 35 years of the genocidal Baathist regime. Support was forthcoming from parts of the old and declining labour movements, but the dominant voices on the liberal-Left in the media, universities and political parties stayed silent as al-Qaeda slaughtered Iraqis without compunction. “Internationalism,” “solidarity” and “fraternity” now feel like dead words from a lost age.
Even the one foreign cause that does inspire the European Left, the Israeli confrontation with the Palestinians, is far less altruistic than it seems. Very few on the Left are prepared to support Fatah, which for all its faults is a recognisable national liberation movement that may build a Palestine worth living in, while deploring Hamas, which wants to impose intolerable burdens on Palestinian women, gays, trade unionist, secularists and Christians. The inability to discriminate between democrat and theocrat is a sign of vacuity. Today’s Left cannot tell its friends from its enemies because it has no programme for a better world. Blaming its decadence on Bush is as foolish as holding America responsible for every conflict in the world. Deeper historical trends explain the crisis of our times. I now want to explore four of the key trends which have given rise to this situation.
1. The Rise of Consumer Politics
In the 1960s, those who longed for a radical transformation of the status quo, as many people do at some time in their lives, could draw comfort from revolutionary Leftist movements that were sweeping the world from Cambodia to Chile, as well as the strength of the student radicals in their own countries. History was on their side. Millions were moved by their slogans. Since the fall of socialism, revolutionary Leftism has died everywhere except in Latin America, and even there it is sickly and shallow. The main threat to the status quo comes from radical Islam and the corrupt nationalisms of China and Russia. Far Leftists are open in their support for jihadis. The apologias from some liberals are so comprehensive that they must also support radical Islam in their hearts. At some level, these people understand that they have nowhere else to go now that the revolutionary guerrillas and communist regimes of the 20th century are history. A love of violence and hatred of their own societies—well merited or otherwise—leads them to conclude that any killer of Americans is better than none.
Noam Chomsky in his political writings, the cultural theorising of Michel Foucault, and the postmodernists generally—all anticipated the 21st century Left ideology. Read them and you find that a Leftism without a practical political programme has taken the place of socialism and anti-fascism. All they have is a criticism of the existing order. In this mental universe, no movement that challenges the existing order can be unambiguously condemned. Say what you like about them, but a communist or social democrat in the 1940s had clear ideas about how to transform society. Today, there is no radical alternative that serious people believe they can use, just practical ways of adapting to changes in the economy and environment.
A paradoxical consequence of the death of the socialist idea is that Leftism now suits the consumer society very well. Because there is no coherent Left wing political program, anyone can affect a Leftish posture, just as anyone can walk into a shop. For example, if I were a socialist, you might agree with a proposal I was making on a cause you endorsed. Maybe I would say that we should do more to improve the treatment of animals on factory farms or increase our aid budget. But because I believed in socialism I would have to add that I also wanted the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, penal taxation, and workers’ control. If not you, then other readers might back away saying that after hearing my program they could not possibly define themselves as Left wing. Contemporary Leftists do not have to risk alienating potential sympathisers with proposals that might make them uncomfortable. They rarely have proposals for a new ordering of society. They are merely against the West in general or America in particular, both of which, God knows, provide reasons aplenty for opposition. If someone points out that as Leftists they have a duty to fight crimes committed by ultra-reactionary movements, the new “Manichean” Left ideology, instructs them to say that it is “hypocritical” for westerners to criticise when they carry so much guilt. The correct course is to do and say nothing.
The collapse of socialism also explains the general inability of Leftists in Europe and North America to work on behalf of feminists, democrats and Leftists in the poor world. If you do not have a positive program yourself, how can you see strangers as comrades who have the right to your support? These perfidies may be scandalous but they chime with the psychology of modern consumerism. Shoppers don’t like altruistic commitments. They have no appetite for boring meetings to raise public consciousness and the lobbying of politicians to change policy.
When I go into the homes of the richest people I know, I see Naomi Klein and Michael Moore on their shelves and think, “Why am I surprised? The Left is no threat to the wealthy any longer. Being a Leftist is a lifestyle choice. It carries no costs and no obligations.”
2. Liberal Disillusion
So far I have been talking about the consequences of defeat. But the second half of the 20th century also saw enormous triumphs. European Left-wing movements gave the masses better housing, full-time education, employment rights and comprehensive health cover. But the triumph had the unexpected consequence of turning the liberal intelligentsia against the white working class. The workers let down the intellectuals. They did not lead the charge towards a socialist society as the intelligentsia told them to. On occasion, they voted in large numbers for politicians the middle class Left despised—Reagan, Thatcher, Bush and Sarkozy. And all too clearly in the cities of Europe and North America, the utopian plans of the 20th century social reformers did not always create a better society but welfare dependency, family breakdown and crime.
You can see the disappointment of the middle class in the attempts to prevent democratic votes and deny freedom of speech. The centralisation of decision making in the undemocratic bodies of the European Union, the fondness for asking unelected judges to take political decisions and politically correct speech codes all flow from a belief that the working class cannot be trusted to think as the middle classes would like it to think.
Beyond a fear that they cannot win majorities in open elections, the liberal middle class across the developed world feels a deeper unease. History no longer seems to be going its way. Market economies undermine the status and comparative wealth of the public sector managers who dominated modern states at the high tide of social democracy in the mid-20th century. Financiers and industrialists have acquired fantastic wealth and political status, while the liberal middle classes lingered in jobs their rulers despised for their failure to be market-orientated.
Modern democracy is a system that no longer pleases them. They are less likely than they once would have been to oppose clerical fascist movements and stand up for the best values of their societies.
3. Multiculturalism and its Discontents
Our leftwing radical of the past would be as astonished by the triumph of human rights as the growth of the welfare state. Women, homosexuals and blacks—groups which had been discriminated against for millennia—have won full legal equality. A measure of the transformation is that it is now impossible for a conservative politician who is against equal rights for homosexuals to become the leader of mainstream European centre-Right party, let alone go on to win an election.
Again, there is an ambiguity, however. Although the extraordinary success of campaigns against sexism, racism and homophobia vastly improved the lives of millions of individuals, postmodern liberals did not see them as individuals but as categories. They developed an identity politics based on group definitions that was anti-individualist in its assumptions. They treated women, members of ethnic minorities, gays and others as of blocs with communal interests. Their simplifications weren’t always pernicious —a campaign to tighten the law on domestic violence, for example, is a campaign for women not this or that woman. But postmodern multiculturalists have taken the liberal idea of tolerance and pushed it into an extreme relativism which holds that it is wrong for liberals to attack previously disadvantaged groups—“the other’”—even when “the other’” espoused ideas which were anti-liberal.
In short, it has become racist to oppose sexists, homophobes and fascists from other cultures. Such attitudes are a disaster for progressive forces in the poor world, most notably in the Arab world and Europe’s immigrant communities. We are now in the extraordinary position where liberals consider it “left wing” to argue that the emancipation of women is good for white-skinned women in Stockholm but not for brown-skinned women in Tehran. Postmodern multiculturalists have picked up the reactionary anti-universalist philosophies of the counter-Enlightenment and dressed them in modern clothes.
From the 9/11 atrocities on, the stupidest citizens of the western democracies could be in no doubt that forces were swirling around the globe that would murder them on a vast scale. This is a short and simple point to make, but we are frightened and think it is better to say nothing about the treatment of women, the attacks on freedom of speech, the psychopathic ideologies, medieval hatreds and raging conspiracy theories in case we provoke the killers. Fear is the most powerful of human motives. Add in the despairing and reactionary turn modern Leftish thinking took after the collapse of socialism, the tolerance of the intolerable inculcated by postmodernism and the doubts about democracy in the liberal mainstream, and I hope you can see why so many can’t oppose totalitarian movements of the far Right or even call them by their real names.
However understandable the denial, it remains as pitiful a response to Islamism as climate change denial is to global warming. Both sets of deniers believe that we can carry on as before living our safe, consumerist lives as if nothing has changed.
We cannot in either case, and must face the threats of our time. Reasonable men and women can disagree about how we face them, but we will not be able to see them plainly until we have cleared away the mountains of junk that block our view. The 21st century will not have a Left that is worth having until we do.
The following is a revised version of the 2007 Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture. We begin our journal special-issue with it for its resonant invocation of a number of points central to both Michael Berube’s book, The Left at War, the questions it raises, and the essays below that focus on that text directly (no agreement between Berube and Cohen or anyone else on any given point, or the nuances of complex matters, is implied).—The Editors
Amis, Martin: The Independent 15 January, 2007. Subsequent citations appear in the text. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/martin-amis-you-ask-the-questions-432146.html.
Poirier, A: “A Clash of Hidden Agendas,” The Guardian, 24 January, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jan/24/post968
Qaardawi, Yusuf: Islam on Line (accessed March 2007), http://www.islamonline.net/fatwa/english/FatwaDisplay.asp?hFatwaID=49276
 Qaardawi, Yusuf: Islam on Line (accessed March 2007), http://www.islamonline.net/fatwa/english/FatwaDisplay.asp?hFatwaID=7061
Qaardawi, Yusuf: Islam on Line (accessed March 2007), http://www.islamonline.net/fatwa/english/FatwaDisplay.asp?hFatwaID=100855
Hashim, Jawad, Shakir Al-Nabulsi, and Lafif Lakhder, Open Letter from liberal Arabs and Muslims: Request to the United National Security Council and the United Nations Secretary General for the Establishment of an International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Terrorists (accessed March 2007), http://iraqthemodel.blogspot.com/libreal%5B1%5D%5B1%5D.arabs03.edited.pdf
See Michael Berube’s The Left at War (New York: NYU Press, 2009). “Manichean Left” is Berube’s term—and one employed by most of the essays that follow as well. We have inserted it here for the purposes both of avoiding confusion between the New Left of the 1960s and Cohen’s “new” (lower case) Left of today, and to suggest important continuities and discontinuities between Cohen’s piece and the rest. As we understand it, the term is used to describe those so driven by opposition to the West in general and the U.S. in particular that they are willing to tolerate or even embrace violent reactionary allies, while (at best) ignoring (if not lending tacit or even explicit support for) oppression in the Third World where the West is not clearly to blame, and who cleave to “utopian” total critiques of society without any alternative to offer. (But for a fuller understanding, see the various discussions of this concept that follow.) In Cohen’s British context, Alan Johnson once referred to a “post-left” to name the same thing (a term Norman Geras has taken issue with, however), while some in Britain, France, and elsewhere have called it aptly a “reactionary left,” a “right-wing left” and an “oxymoronic left.”—The Editors