From edition

Toward A More Rational Left?

It would be difficult to discuss Michael Berube’s latest volume without registering a degree of ambivalence.  On the one hand I am impressed by the author’s honesty, seriousness and efforts to carve out a position that allows him to retain many of his core convictions while criticizing and dissociating himself from what he calls “the Manichean left,” that is, the radical, illiberal left, and its orthodoxies. On the other hand I don’t share many of his core convictions and have additional reservations about the way The Left at War is written and put together. The structure of the book is fuzzy, parts don’t hang together. There are too many detours from the central arguments and themes, too many lengthy quotes both in the text and in the notes and it is not obvious why some arguments and citations are relegated to the Notes. There may be some connection between these organizational problems and the apparent unawareness of the author that this book is likely to be appreciated only by a small number of readers who are familiar with the somewhat esoteric and sectarian preoccupations and disputes among the many branches of the academic left in this country and Britain.

Berube admits that he is not altogether happy with being a critic of the radical left:

Compiling such a list of leftist follies is no fun – and often leaves one’s readers and interlocutors wondering whether the object of the compilation is to discredit the left altogether. I cannot imagine a reasonable reader who, upon completing this book, would attribute such a motive to me, since my purpose here is to defend and elaborate a democratic international U.S. left that opposes U.S. hegemony and seeks to create and enforce supranational means of securing human rights.[1]

Early on he differentiates the Manichean from the democratic left in the following way:

The Manichean left has lately argued that the U.S. is a leading sponsor of terrorism…and uses the cover of human rights for a program of imperial conquest. The democratic left…is undeceived about U.S. crimes in the world and knows that at its worst(though not always and everywhere) the United States does indeed clothe vile foreign policies in the language of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’; but it [the democratic left, that is] insists that some forms of terrorism…have roots causes other than those associated with U.S. imperialism…. (13)

This is not a huge difference, since Berube seems to suggest that the bulk of terrorism results from U.S. misconduct while allowing that “some” of it cannot (“not always and everywhere”) be blamed on the U.S. I would reverse the proportions and suggest that much, or most of terrorism has causes independent of U.S. policies and misdeeds. Admittedly it is not always easy to disentangle the two sets of causes from one another.

Many of Berube’s strictures directed at the radical left are not particularly original but they are significant because they come from a well known leftist academic in good standing and as such strengthen similar critiques emanating from other points on the political spectrum. Doubtless, the book will anger, or has already angered many of the author’s erstwhile colleagues or comrades-in-arm.

Berube is well aware and properly critical of the longstanding reflexive leftist belief that there are “no enemies on the left” and, especially timely, that “the enemies of my enemies are my friends.” These two axiomatic beliefs taken together encompass and explain with great clarity and economy the mindset of the radical left and many specific positions it has taken.

Berube’s main concern seems to be that the radical left is elitist, arrogant, isolated from and contemptuous of the American mainstream and not really interested in social change – as well as wrongheaded about specific issues. It is a major weakness of the radical mindset that the revulsion toward existing Western liberal institutions is not complemented by a credible vision of what should replace them. He writes:

Mere liberal democracy…is thin gruel, served up by tepid wimps who can’t imagine anything… more satisfying. This is a supple and versatile complaint…because [it] never has to specify just what kind of society should replace the boring, procedural liberal democracy that constraints us…it can be mobilized to any end, even… to provide cover for profoundly antiliberal forms of government in the Islamic states or the developing world. (3-4)

The “self-marginalization” of the radical left (241) and its propensity to attribute false-consciousness to all who see the world differently prevents it from being an effective force in America politics. The attribution of false consciousness “serves as a blanket excuse for the left’s failures to win over a significant fraction of the public …” and it is linked to “the belief in the all-encompassing power of that system” (10-11) – that is, the American political system that supposedly has succeeded in brainwashing the entire population, or, in Chomsky’s words, in “manufacturing consent.” These beliefs are derived from “seeing the United States as the primary actor in world affairs” (112) while everyone and everything else merely respond to the malign American policies and initiatives. That is to say, only American policies and actions matter and are freely chosen (prompted by disreputable motives like greed, profit-hunger, and the desire for domination) – the rest of the world, and especially the supposed underdogs merely respond, their actions determined by the U.S.

Time and again the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” mentality is apparent and determinant of partisan positions taken. The radical left is irresistibly drawn toward assorted despots and demagogues provided that they are sufficiently anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israeli or anti-capitalist. As Berube puts it:

…the Manichean left has lost sight of what should be the central emphasis of the left: the advocacy of equality and freedom… [it] has been willing to entertain (and sometimes even sympathize with) any ‘anti-imperialist’ who comes along to challenge the Western powers, from Milosevic to Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad…the left has no business expressing ’solidarity’ with figures like Milosevic or Muqtada al-Sadr…” (11, 244)

These attitudes are further illuminated by amazing undertakings such as the “International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevich,” that was headed by Michael Parenti, an old,  sixties radical, and included Harold Pinter and Ramsey Clark (32). Another similar organization, The “Srebrenica Research Group,” founded by Ed Herman (co-author of several books with Chomsky), was “dedicated to overturning the findings of the ‘Western media’…” about the Srebrenica massacre (105), and was further dedicated “to the proposition that the massacre…at Srebrenica in 1995 never really happened in quite way reported by the mouthpieces of Western propaganda” (32). Berube is rightly dismayed by the indifference of the radical left toward human rights violations in Kosovo and its “denying Serbian atrocities outright” (202), for no other reasons than the United States’ opposition to these Serb actions and policies, and because of the bizarre elevation of Milosevich to the status of the “Last Socialist” (202). The same mindset informed the website of The Monthly Review, a venerable radical left organ, that not only contained “effusions about the anti-imperialist virtues of Ahmadinejad…” but also claimed that “antigenocide rallies for Darfur are driven by…the U.S. appetite for oil and ‘an odd alliance of evangelicals and establishment Jews’”(33).

If indeed the United States is the only real “evil empire,” as Chomsky and co. aver, then of course “all its opponents are worthy of our support” (112), and those it supports, such as the Albanians of Kosovo should be denied help. The latter, Chomsky suggested, were supported by the U.S. only because Serbia was “an annoyance, an unwelcome impediment to Washington’s efforts to complete its…take-over of Europe”(108).

Such inability or unwillingness to differentiate between disreputable and decent allies abroad has its counterpart in the radical left’s refusal to allow for qualitative differences between domestic political forces – democrats and republicans – all of whom are written off as disreputable upholders of the status quo. Berube is also critical of the recurring comparisons of the United States to Nazi Germany on the pages of The Nation (29) and in the writings of Chomsky (among other places), of the blanket attribution of moral equivalence to the United States and its enemies.

Berube examines in considerable detail the remarkable misrepresentations of Chomsky. Even among those on the radical left, Chomsky is a special case given his longstanding, unwavering hatred of the United States and Israel and his impregnable self-righteousness packaged in soothing phrases and a mask of rationality. Thus he likes to support his assertions by invoking “many who know the conditions well,” or “virtually every knowledgeable source” (74, 79).[2]  Chomsky even opined that “many who know the conditions well [their identity unspecified – P.H.] are also dubious about bin Laden’s capacity to plan that incredibly sophisticated operation [9/11] from a cave somewhere in Afghanistan” – a claim repeated by Michael Moore(74). Especially notorious has been Chomsky’s baseless charge of the “silent genocide” supposedly perpetrated by the United States in Afghanistan by preventing food deliveries (71-73). He also asserted that the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan killed more people than 9/11.

Such allegations are deeply rooted in Chomsky’s conviction that the misdeeds of the U.S. by definition invariably exceed those of its enemies, (or anyone else’s, except Israel’s). Understandably Berube is critical of Chomsky for harming the credibility of the left by “present[ing] his claims as the only legitimate ‘left’ positions… not only by portraying the Western media and ‘intellectual elites’ as a solid phalanx of propaganda spewing and propaganda swallowing apparatchiks, but also by mischaracterizing, or simply ignoring competing commentators on the democratic left” (43-44).

Sometimes Berube’s critiques of the radical left made me wonder what were their major determinant: was it his rejection of their positions on substantive moral grounds, because they were wrong, or his concern that these utterances damaged the credibility and political influence of the left in general, and the democratic left in particular “provide[ing] right wingers with still more fodder” (26).

I am not sure what to make of Berube’s defense of cultural studies which follows from his admiration of Stuart Hall, a founder of these studies. Given the irrelevance of these studies to practical politics and social change, and their elevation of the trivia of popular culture to the place of a significant subject of social scientific inquiry it is not self-evident why Berube he would think well of them. As I see it, cultural studies, and their popularity, reflect the decline of both academic standards and intellectual discourse in general.

More difficult to come to terms with is Berube’s apparent support of political correctness: he believes that its dangers have been greatly exaggerated even by liberals such as Jim Sleeper, Richard Bernstein, Paul Berman and Todd Gitlin. He also seems to endorse Richard Rorty’s belief that political correctness ”has made our country a far better place. American leftist academics have a lot to be proud of” (214]). One may wonder how Berube (and Rorty) managed to avert their eyes from the contribution PC has made to the lowering of academic standards (in curriculum design, requirements, student admission and evaluation, faculty hiring etc), to the imposition of very noticeable restrictions on free expression as well as to self-censorship internalized to avoid expressions of political incorrectness? Would he dispute that PC has encouraged, (paradoxically) both identity politics and cultural relativism?

Some disagreements of ours don’t involve core beliefs, such as Berube’s remark that during the 1980s and 1990s “New Right Conservativism still remained hegemonic in the culture at large,” while acknowledging that in the same period the left came to dominate the humanities and social sciences (213]). I wonder what this “culture at large” refers to, it could not be mass culture since the latter too has absorbed diluted and popularized versions of leftist values and perspectives of the 1960s.

Elsewhere Berube writes that “the right had hung for decades the albatross of Soviet communism around the necks of anyone who suggested that people’s access to basic social goods should not be dependent on their ability to pay for them…” (187). There are several things wrong with this statement: you did not have to be a right-winger to be critical of supporters of Soviet communism or Soviet communism itself; such supporters were not criticized because they believed that access to basic social goods should not depend on the ability to pay for them, but on account of their whitewashing or ignoring the profound inhumanity of the Soviet system. It seems further implied (in the citation) that the Soviet system had in fact succeeded in making the distribution of these goods equitable. Missing from the statement is the awareness that there were excellent grounds for criticizing the Soviet system, for both the failure to distribute basic social goods in an egalitarian fashion and for being highly repressive.

Berube also observes that a portion of the left “was willing to tolerate a certain degree of tyranny [in communist states – P.H.] if it advanced the material well-being of the peasants or the proletariat” (151). This makes it sound as if these systems did in fact advance the material well being of peasants and workers albeit at the cost of their personal freedom. Unfortunately this was not the case: they caused horrendous famines and inflicted other widespread material deprivations in addition to the massive, institutionalized human rights violations. This was the case in both the Soviet Union and China as well as the smaller communist states. Nor is it correct to say that these leftists tolerated “a certain degree” of tyranny – they tolerated huge amounts of tyranny if they thought it was the means to the achieving a more egalitarian society, or if the tyrannical states were sufficiently anti-American and anti-capitalist. More often they simply denied that there was tyranny.

Was the American press “complaisant and often jingoistic” [131] as regards the Iraq war? There has been a great deal of criticism of that war from its beginning up to the present. Likewise it is an overstatement that “by 2003 the American press, television networks and cable channels had done a most impressive job of mainstreaming even some of the most vicious right-wing pundits and positions and marginalizing even the most tepid forms of liberal dissent” (132). I also doubt that placing Pershing missiles in Western Europe under Reagan was “potentially provoking another Cuban missile crisis” (200).

Finally, I believe that Berube’s critique of Slavoj Zizek (4-5) is far too gentle and restrained, though on target as far as it goes. There is even a lurking, residual admiration toward this dubious intellectual celebrity shown in the questionable attribution of brilliance and “formidable theoretical sophistication” (4). This is an author who admires both Stalin and Mao and displays a mindless longing for purifying revolutionary violence and expresses his perverse views in impenetrable jargon.[3]

Berube’s own core convictions are summed up at the end of the book:

That then is my hope: for a democratic-socialist, international left that seeks not to smash the state and crush capitalism but to pursue human equality and realized the four freedoms. It would not be a fully ‘socialist’ left in the sense that it would not institute central economic planning; it would be aggressively redistributionist, and it would harbor no illusions about ‘free’ markets. It would insist that food, shelter, education and medical care are human rights, and as such, must not be contingent on anyone’s ability to pay for them; it would put workers in control of factories and companies…  It would … establish an egalitarian and closely monitored and regulated market that fosters innovations and promotes policies that bring food, clean water, housing, schooling and medicine to all as well as establishing forms of democracy that extend to every person … This would be something of disappointment to those radicals whose utopian longings led them to cry, ‘be realistic, demand the impossible…’ (253).

But perhaps Berube himself nurtures some utopian yearnings such as his belief in the capacity of human beings to devise benign as well as powerful international institutions which would bring order, justice, harmony and relative abundance to social existence and put an end to the vast amount of conflict and suffering that has been part of the human condition throughout history. His hopes include “a robust international framework that makes possible fair trade and equitable economic development – and forbids violations of women’s human rights while hauling Bush and Cheney into the Hague for trial as war criminals” (251). Elsewhere he writes that “we all bear the obligation to devise multilateral and global institutions to deter threats to peace (be they the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or the U.S. war in Vietnam) and to protect vulnerable populations everywhere… from tyranny, genocide, starvation and scorched-earth neoliberalism” (35). It is hard to imagine how and by whom such institutions, or such a “robust international framework,” would be devised to accomplish all the good things he expects from them.

My reservations notwithstanding, there many valuable and insightful observations in this study. The author articulates and highlights important differences between the Manichean, illiberal left and the democratic left. This is an important distinction that deserves emphasis and elaboration.


[1]Berube, Michael. The Left At War. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 34-5. Subsequent citations appear cited in the text.

[2]On another occasion I collected a small sampling of such soothing, self-supporting phrases, sprinkled throughout Chomsky’s writings. They include: “it is surely not in doubt..”; “assuming that facts matter”; “it is an obvious truism that…”; “for those who care to consider the factual record…”; “the available facts lead to one clear conclusion…”; “evidence from sources that seem to deserve a hearing…”; “observers of evident bias and low credibility” (those he seeks to discredit] which are “never subject to possible verification” or possess “a shred of credibility” like the author who “might have troubled to inquire into the source of his allegations.” Most memorable: “evidence is slight and informed opinion [again, unspecified – P.H.] ranges over quite a wide specturm” – the last quote referred to the massacres in Cambodia under Pol Pot. See my, The End of Committment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries and Political Morality(Chicago: Ivan R. Dee 2006), 298.

[3]See also Paul Hollander: “Slavoj Zizek and the Rise of the Celebrity Intellectual,” Society, July-August 2010.

This entry was posted in Articles and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues