Sunday, February 06, 2011

Norm nails it again

An excellent piece here by Norman Geras about the seriously screwed up state of much of the Left in the West :
At the risk of startling you, or some of you, but not just for that effect – rather in order to register my own conviction that here is a way of being a Marxist that no longer recommends itself – I am sorry to say that to be a member of the Marxist left today is to be part of something, a body of opinion, a political current, that is accursed. Steady on, you may think, that's a bit strong, isn't it? Accursed? Why that? And why now? In view of the history of the Soviet Union, or of the international communist movement that supported and excused it, or of China under Mao (to mention only those sorry examples of Marxism gone wrong), how has the Marxist left become accursed only today and not long before that?
I will not shirk the question, which is fair. This is my answer to it. It is partly personal, but also partly general. Like everybody else, I was – I am – of my generation. I was inducted into Marxism already knowing about Stalinism and all its horrors; but knowing also that that experience didn't exhaust the totality of Marxist thought or, as I thought and hoped, of Marxist possibility. Stalinism had been one grossly distorted realization of Marxism's anti-capitalist project, embarked upon under maximally unpropitious historical conditions, but other better realizations were still possible, and under the watchword this time of socialist democracy. Furthermore, what I knew in this regard, or at any rate hoped, I knew and hoped in the company of large numbers of others on the Western left, people not at all indulgent towards the crimes of Stalin. We were a part – for those who remember the 1960s and 1970s – of a new left, a left that had learned the lessons of the historic tragedy that the Stalinist experience had been. So, although there was even then a section of the Marxist left that one could aptly regard as compromised by an ugly past or indeed present, apologists for the crimes of Stalin and/or Mao, this was not the Marxist left as a whole, as we knew it.
Today, in the light of what has happened in the first decade of 21st century, it is not so easy, if you believe in human rights and the importance of the fundamental civic and political freedoms that we owe to historical liberalism, to find a Marxist left that is worth belonging to or being broadly identified with. In both its organized and its looser, more amorphous forms the Marxist left is a place of the most disgraceful apologetics and ambiguous or worse than ambiguous alignments. What makes this a matter for especial regret and criticism today, by those of us who still think of ourselves as Marxists in either or both of my first two senses but feel no identification with, and eschew membership of, the Marxist left as such, is that this is a Marxist left that can make no further appeal to historical 'innocence'. It already knows the consequences of undemocratic organization, the absence of liberal safeguards, the elevation of the great leader; and of turning a blind eye to all this so as, supposedly, not to give comfort to enemies on the political right. It should know better, but it doesn't.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about a Marxist left from within which after 9/11 there came voices ready to make excuses for an act of mass murder that the whole left should have forthrightly condemned. And which, more generally, is always free with forms of 'understanding' of terrorism – by another name, murder of the innocent – in a shallow root-causes sociology of grievance, alienation, poverty or what have you. And from within which there have been people willing to march side by side with radical Islamists – that is, anti-democratic and reactionary theocrats – and to shout 'We are all Hezbollah' (also not an organization renowned for its commitment to Enlightenment or, for that matter, Marxian universalist values, to say nothing of liberal and democratic ones). And within which there are still those who will sing the praises of Cuba as a post-capitalist society, its harsh way with political dissent notwithstanding. And those who will turn out in Camden to give a warm welcome to Hugo Chavez, just the latest in a line of adored leaders whose merit seems to be that they are from somewhere else. And who will speak up even for the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the Chinese leadership where there is a matter of some criticism directed at them by Western politicians who enjoy the moral advantage of being leaders of countries with free electorates and free elections.

I anticipate, as one possible response to all this, that these ideas and activities may be features of a small fragment, the 'far left', but that it is too quickly generalizing on my part to treat them as any more widespread than that, or as typifying the Marxist left in general. I am familiar with this response and I don't accept it. To put it briefly and bluntly, I read. I read what goes on in the opinion pages of the national press, and so far from these tropes being confined to the far left, the SWP and its like, they extend even beyond what I have referred to as the more amorphous Marxist left, into broadly 'progressive' circles that would not willingly own to the name Marxist. This is, if you want, an ironic and distorted coming to fruition of the notion of Gramscian hegemony. Even with Marxism as a body of thought in overt political decline, some of the most lamentable apologetic tropes and moral compromises of Marxism's least glorious realization have taken hold more widely amongst the left-liberal intelligentsia.
I do not say, just to be clear about this, that there are no distinctions within the body of opinion that I have here evoked, no gradations. Distinctions and gradations there certainly are. There are the 'hard' crowd: the out-and-out 'we-are-all-Hezbollah'-niks; unashamed apologists for terrorism, dressed up this in the obscuring language of 'the right to resistance' and of 'revolutionary violence', as if either formula could justify murdering the innocent; the apologists for Cuba, or China, or Iran. But there is a softer version too, offered by the practitioners of the mumble and evasion where authoritarian movements or regimes are up for assessment and possible condemnation; democrats to a man and a woman, and as insistent as anyone on the importance of basic rights when some misdemeanor of a Western government is under scrutiny, but much more 'nuanced' when patently undemocratic polities or organizations are the object of critical attention.
A despicable state indeed and there will only be a Left wortth belonging to once these gross distortions are finally removed from intellectual and political discourse.

What is the reason for the distortions of thought described above, well there are many but in my view sadly much of it is just a decadent form of dislike of one's own society, something as childish as cheering any team against your sworn pet hate. Such visceral and tribal dislikes have more place in politics than most of us like to admit.

Of course defending or being "nuanced" about China, Cuba or Chavez for such reasons or for "anti-imperialist" rabble rousing is vile in itself but what is unforgivable is that such people give succour to tyrannies. Still who cares about that when there's Gitmo to worry about and a big anti-war rally coming up for your sect to sell papers at.

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