September 21, 2010

More on the Fake Left: The Chimaera of “Dissent” Magazine

Posted in Communism, Theory tagged , , , , , at 22:54 by Matthijs Krul

In the last article on the fake left, one of the greatest menaces to socialist politics in the West today, I criticized the hypocrisy of the Euston Manifesto clique. Now it is time to turn towards their American equivalent, the so-called Cold War liberals and the supposed ‘radical democrats’ who represent the left foot of imperialism. For several decades they have found their home at Dissent magazine and its sister paper Democratiya, which recently has merged into the former. It is worth taking a brief look at the content and outlook of these bulwarks of false leftism in America, since they are all too common among the intelligentsia in the wake of the massive expansion of militarism in the West since the days of Eisenhower-Kennedy. Moreover, it is precisely the claims to left-wing, even socialist, legitimacy that makes these tendencies of thought so dangerous; it hopelessly muddles the boundaries between genuine socialism of whatever stripe and a liberalism that is dressed up in the language of the social-democracy of old but has more in common with Noske than with Marx. It is not because of sectarianism that we must insist on the importance of differentiating an essentially liberal attitude to politics – even a ‘left liberal’ one – and socialism, but it is because sometimes a similarity of language can mask highly significant differences in the goals either group genuinely seeks and the interests they represent in practice.

Dissent was founded by Irving Howe and others as a paper of the pro-NATO ‘left’ in the Cold War, seeking to support American foreign policy on the one hand and a broad social-democratic tendency within Western nations on the other hand. The name itself is a good indication of the attitude of such people – they are very proud of their supposed oppositional role within the United States and appeal to the long American tradition of popular politics against the establishment – but on the greatest question of the day, that is that of the fundamental global struggle of the Cold War, they supported said establishment wholeheartedly from beginning to end. Not just has Dissent always supported American foreign policy against any leftist opponent, real or imaginary, but it also has been consistently an opponent of any Third World independence movement of significance, of any liberation movement whether for women or for gay. Here we encounter the first aspect differentiating liberal attitudes from socialist ones: While proclaiming to “speak for the spirit of democratic utopianism that runs like a bright thread through America’s intellectual life”, they achieve the exact opposite. Liberalism and socialism both appeal to ‘democratic utopianism’, but only socialism supports it in its this-worldly construction. Liberalism will claim the inheritance of the Enlightenment and Romanticism and criticize from this viewpoint, but socialism will take this inheritance and make it more than an immense accumulation of dead letters from the past generations.

What this means in practice can be shown very well by an example of the sister magazine Democratiya, which was founded as a paper specifically aiming to attack the ‘totalitarian’ tendency wherever it might appear. Totalitarianism as a category is wholly meaningless, as it is a description of political opponents on the basis nothing other than attempting to make a whole out of their system, when any economic and political system necessarily strives towards fullness – this is merely the working out in practice of the contradictions and currents inherent in that economic or political system. But Democratiya did not see this. Instead, it saw ‘totalitarian’ tendencies in all those movements that attempted to enforce upon a given state of conditions a whole system, political platform or theory, including even movements like that of May ’68 and similar student revolts. As one can readily see, although this sounds as an appealing anti-dogmatic idea in name it leads in practice to opposition towards any theoretically-informed radicalism, any radicalism that has coherence and knows where it is going. In other words, the position of seeing ‘totalitarianism’ in any kind of systematic opposition and especially collective thought and action is nothing other than a holier-than-thou denunciation from a liberal pedestal of the reality of political change. This is nothing other than conservatism in its classic form. Here we encounter the second political differentiation between socialism and liberalism, whatever its language: the instinct of socialism is towards collective change; the instinct of liberalism is towards moral denunciation.

Lest anyone think this is all exaggerated, a few choice examples should show us what the real nature of this ‘radical utopianism’ of the liberals is. In a 2005 edition of the paper Democratiya, a nobody with the fitting name Harry Hatchett fulsomely and uncritically praises a collection of pro-war articles about Iraq from a putative left standpoint. He then adds the following gratuitous broadside:

And what of the decision of the ‘Marxist’ leaders of the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, and similar groups elsewhere, to view fascism as a legitimate ‘resistance’ to bourgeois democracy? This is such a remarkable adaptation of even Leninist tactical flexibility that it surely
merits a book in itself. And what of the failure of many liberal co-passengers of the anti-war movement to distance themselves from the turn to fascism of their leaders (the slogan ‘Not in My Name’ would have sufficed)? What does this failure tell about the contemporary left?

(1)

This is a telling example of the kind of ‘dissent’ these gentlemen and -women specialize in: any kind of moral denunciation, any high-flying talk and condescending prattle is permitted, but as soon as it threatens to actually challenge any existing power in our parts of the world the ‘radical utopian’ of Democratiya stripe is about as inclined to radicalism as Benjamin Disraeli was to become a Chartist. Moreover, apparently any consistent opposition to the endless justifications for militarism this type of liberalism conjures up is to be considered ‘totalitarian’; but our ‘dissenting’ friends see no problems in immediately branding their political opponents, however peacefully and democratically organized, as somehow both ‘fascist’ and ‘Leninist’ for having a popular slogan. If this is the Left, who needs a Right? And this is not some incidental case. Eric Lee, who was Democratiya‘s supposed specialist in trade union issues, in the very last issue produced some astounding imperialist heel-licking on the issue of boycotts against Israel:

By the end of 2008, Israel had in its Kadima-Labour coalition the most dovish government it had ever known. First Ariel Sharon and later Ehud Olmert spoke in
a way that was unheard of except on the far Left only fifteen years earlier. None of this affected the growing calls for boycotts and divestment targeted at the ‘apartheid regime’ in Israel. It was as if the anti-Israel left were frozen in time, with events taking place in the real world having no influence at all.
Most of that Left was increasingly pro-Hamas and unfriendly not only towards Israel, but also towards the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. The Left was choosing a sexist and homophobic clerical-fascist movement above the more
secular (albeit corrupt) Fatah. During the period leading up to the Gaza war, the focus of attention for many in
the labour movement who care about Israel has been the academic boycott. In focussing primarily on that, in a sense we’ve taken our eyes off the ball.

The real battle is taking place in the giant industrial unions – not inside academia. The threat to Israel comes not from far Left academics with time on their hands to write long anti-Zionist manifestos. It comes from dock workers in Durban.

(2)

A very interesting phenomenon, no? Here we have an actual trade union movement in a Third World country standing up for a fellow oppressed people elsewhere regardless of local or national interests. The very summit of the kind of internationalist defense of human rights one would think the nonconformist heroes of the West would approve of. But no, instead we are treated to a series of denunciations which are notably aggressive towards the supposed anti-Semitic tendencies of “the Left”. But here we were all thinking these writers claimed to be part of “the Left”! Must be a small editing mistake there. That is not all though. What is also intriguing about these professionals of His American Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is the terms in which they put their criticism. They denounce intellectuals as useless and irrelevant eggheads; they call their opponents names rather than attacking their positions with substance; they are utterly uninterested in the democratic support for whatever cause they are engaged in, since not a word is used to pointing out the fact Hamas legitimately wins elections against Fatah, however secular Fatah may or may not be; and they tar by association, in calling their bogeyman Left “pro-Hamas”, even though not a single leftist genuinely supports Hamas’ actual programme. What does that remind us of again? Is it the principled moral stance of a Koestler or a Silone, whose inspiration extends to socialists and liberals alike? Or is it perhaps more certain ‘totalitarian’ tendencies we have seen all too often in the days of McCarthy? Which of these two political positions holds more attraction for the ‘radical utopians’ is becoming altogether too clear.

This points us to the third defining criterion to distinguish between the Dissent clique and a genuine leftist politics: by their fruits ye shall know them. The genuine left supports socialism in theory and in practice, defends the exploited and oppressed of our world wherever they may appear, oppose war-mongering and militarism, and have no truck with capitalism or any of its fruits. The ‘dissenters’, on the other hand, have such an interesting interpretation of the ‘radical utopian’ meaning of leftism that they defend every settler state, oppose every radical mass movement, reject any collective politics, support any American war, and do so in terms a hundred times more slanderous and full of invective than any supposed ‘totalitarian’ leftist party or group ever has. Any leftist author or movement is a “fascist” as well as “Leninist”, as we have seen, or is an “apologist for Pol Pot”(3), and so forth. The London Review of Books is ‘cleverly’ described as “The London Review of Hezbollah”(4); or the internationalist left is excoriated for its lack of empty ‘patriotism’(5).

Do any of these invectives sound like a tradition of real dissent in a sense that matters? The strength of socialism has always, everywhere been its ability to dissent where it truly matters, when it is truly unpopular. The real dissenters during World War I were not the ‘moderate’ war-mongers in social-democracy, and neither are the ‘dissenters’ of today when they urge for the left foot of imperialism to come down on the Third World rather than the right. The true dissenters were those few ‘unpatriotic’ men at the Zimmerwald Conference who opposed the mass slaughter altogether and saw in this the test for a genuine socialism that seeks peace and an end to exploitation. If the entirety of one’s intellectual posture consists in applauding whatever one’s imperial government gets up to but occasionally mildly scolding it for a lack of subtlety, what exactly differentiates this ‘radicalism’ from the ‘radicalism’ of, say, O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984? For indeed that is what this type of ‘dissent’ most resembles: an intellectualized, liberalized, subtle way of ensnaring the bona fide progressive into the trap of smug condescension to real radicalism and a slavish desire to sacrifice any critical attitude as soon as the powers that be decide the question is ‘too important to be left to the Left’. In this, like O’Brien they have much more in common with the ‘totalitarianism’ they pretend to oppose: this is a totalitarianism of liberalism that suffocates and destroys from the inside out any radical criticism by turning any issue into an opportunity for careerists and backstabbing false leftists to support all war, all imperialism, all oppression and in the end all conservatism from a ‘left viewpoint’. No doubt had they had the chance they would have told us why the Left should support the Boer War, should vote for war credits in 1914 yet be pacifist toward Franco, should oppose Stalin in 1939 yet support Lyndon Johnson in 1962, should reject anti-colonialism yet take a ‘dissenting’ stance of critical support for George Gordon in the Sudan.

This false leftism is a true chimaera, a hybrid with an impressive front, but as soon as one looks past its aggressive posture, a misshapen monster. Pay heed! It is what happened to Lassalle, to the social-democrats in 1914, to the Comintern so often (ironically given the Cold War origins of Dissent) and what will happen to socialism time and again if we allow liberal and opportunistic attitudes to overcome our socialist standpoint: the roaring phrases of the left remain, but the body more and more turns into that of an old goat, a conservative and stubborn ruminant looking down from its isolated mountaintop on the real events below.

1) Harry Hatchett, “The ‘Pro-Liberation Left’”. Democratiya (Summer 2005).
2) Eric Lee, “Jews, Gaza and the Unions”. Democratiya (Spring 2009).
3) Michael Ezra, “Malcolm Caldwell: Pol Pot’s Apologist”. Democratiya (Spring 2009).
4) Eugene Goodheart, “The London Review of Hezbollah”. Dissent (Winter 2007).
5) Michael Kazin, “A Patriotic Left”. Dissent (Fall 2002).

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