Monday, February 08, 2010

The left and its plight

In a recent piece I sketched some elements of my political evolution, starting from the doctrinaie leftism in which I had been brought up. The disenchantment about the “future that works”--to echo Lincoln Steffens famous words--gradually deepened as I found little solace in the endless compromises of the Democratic Party and actually-existing liberalism.

In the early seventies a number of factors seemed to be fostering a revival of the left--as distinct from mere liberalism, with which it is often confused. Domestically, there were the civil-rights, women’s, and gay movements. Overseas the colonized lands were revolting. Great hopes were invested in the assumption of the political purity of the Third World polities that emerged, hopes that proved radically mistaken.

Investigating the conceptual background a bit, I discovered that there had indeed been changes (advances?--I’m not sure) in Marxist theory, as seen in the work of such figures as Louis Althusser and Perry Anderson. Still, I was mainly engaged as an observer, not a convert. As a gay activist in the seventies, I saw that my contemporaries, some at least, were buying into this stuff, and it was necessary to achieve some proficiency in Leftspeak in order to communicate.

Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan was anathema to leftists and liberals alike. At the time, it struck me that this personalization and demonization showed both tactical and theoretical weakness. What if Reagan’s advent signified a sea change that would outlast personalities? In many ways it did, as a few honest liberals, like Sean Willentz of Princeton University, have finally got round to acknowledging.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to set a seal on this evolution: the Marxist left had turned out to be an aberration of that most unlovely of centuries, the twentieth.

Yet the left survived here and there, and actually proved to be of some use, as I found with the runup to the disastrous Iraq War, which I strongly opposed. The liberal hawks, such as Paul Berman and The New Republic crowd, were less prescient, to say the least. Moreover, the war was opposed by paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan. Even today, though, the left--unable to renounce kneejerk demonizing--refuses to give the conservatives any credit or to consider the merits of a tactical alliance on specific issues.

As my attention was increasingly drawn to the Middle East I found myself in synch with some leftists, at least, on the Israel-Palestinian problem. Indeed, in the US the left seems to be the only force, such as it is, that has managed to escape the toils of the otherwise all-powerful Israel lobby.

As a result of this rapprochement I have begun to participate in some left discussion groups on the Internet. The limits of this cooperation, though, were revealed by the circulation of a recent position statement by a spokeswoman for the Castroite government in Cuba. This piece spoke of continuing hopes for building a "utopia" in Cuba.

What planet is this woman, and those of the US left who are applauding her statement, living on? After sixty years, Cuba is simply a failed state. One can debate what the causes are, and even, for the sake of argument. accept the leftist claim that it is the heartless machinations of US imperialism that are to blame for Cuba's all-too-evident devolution. Whatever the constellation of causes, the Cuban experiment has failed beyond all possibility of retrieval. The Cuban polity has ossified into a quasimonarchical regime dominated by the Castro family and its cronies. If I am not mistaken this is a familiar pattern in Latin America, sometimes termed caciquism. For the time being Cuba is propped up by petrodollars coming from Venezuela--just as it formerly subsisted on Soviet subsidies. But like Burma and North Korea, it is so far from retaining a utopian potential that it may more aptly termed a dystopia.

The continuing preoccupation on the left with Cuba, and now with the opportunist Venezuelan regime, symbolizes a larger problem, and that is the inability of the left to moderninze itself. One would have thought that 1989 would have been a wake-up call. But no, we still must endure the recycling of the old “anti-imperialist” platitudes that proclaim an quasireligious cerstainty that the US, the Great Satan, is responsible for everything bad that happens in the world. This political Manicheanism simplifies world politics in a way that is not helpful. Outside of the dwindling leftist cenacles it has no acceptance. The cash-value of the meme is almost nil. All the same, it envelopes the leftist body like a shirt of Nessus.

Yes, I too wish the we could dismantle the 800-plus US bases throughout the planet and stop being the world’s policeman. In many ways, the arrival of isolationism might be a good thing. But this change will not result in a net reduction of evil in the world. There is too much mischief going on out there now that is independent of US manipulation, and has the potential of getting worse. The leftist view that the US pulls all the strings is--how shall I say it?--simply racist, as it deprives other peoples of agency.

Come on, now lefties: you can do better than this.



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