Browsing the Leftist Mindset

Is there such a thing as a good left, a “decent left,” to quote Ernest Sternberg from his controversial Orbis article, “Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For”? Sternberg doesn’t think so. For him, the left’s “grand historical vision” of human renovation, in which “diverse communities can harmoniously share an earth that has been saved from destruction,” is nothing less than a toxic nightmare. Nonetheless, leftists continue to invest in the noble yet disastrous fiction of “world purification,” doing their utmost to pursue the corpse candle of “a global network of beneficent culture” and “a new era of global social justice and sustainable development.” Is such a vision merely a predatory chimera or does it represent a feasible project?

The issue is earnestly debated by many leading intellectuals. For example, in Left in Dark Times, Bernard-Henri Lévy seems to believe there is -- or was -- a good left and that “there are still reasons to remain on the left,” namely, its opposition to violence, oppression, and prejudice, predicated on what he calls images, visions, and reflexes (anti-authoritarianism, anti-colonialism, etc.). Yet Lévy reveals a palpable uneasiness with the left, or what it has allowed itself to become, that is, a revolutionary utopianism “that brings out the worst and that transforms men into beasts.” The adherence he rather bizarrely professes appears to shuttle between two uncomfortable psychological states, ambivalence and nostalgia.

We see the same ambiguity on display in Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22. Speaking of losing his old left-loyalties, he confesses that “on some days this is like the phantom pain of a missing limb. On others, it’s more like the sensation of having taken off a needlessly heavy overcoat.” He continues:

I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist is to surrender the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which "sacrifices" are justified. With some part of myself, I still "feel," but no longer really think, that humanity would be poorer without this fantastically potent illusion.

I am reminded of Aesop’s fable of the duck trying to stay out of the impending war between the birds and the beasts. When recruited by the birds, the duck claims he is a land animal waddling about the barnyard; when solicited by the beasts, he flaps his wings to demonstrate his counter-nature. But fittingly enough, when peace is declared, he is not invited to the celebration.

Similarly, in Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman has yet to decide whether he is bird or beast. Although critical of the modern left’s perversions, he still holds to the left-oriented “vision of a borderless, federal, peaceful, technocratic Europe,” a transpolitical scheme which has “turned out to be solid and lasting.” At the same time, he repudiates utterly “the defining quality of all totalitarian movements and systems -- role-playing by totalitarian militants who feel entirely justified in liquidating everyone who fails to have a proper role in the grand tableau of the reigning mythology.” Berman’s condemnation applies, obviously, to the excesses of both the right and the left, to fascism as well as to communism. The scenes enacted on the “grand tableau” today, however, derive mainly from the theoretical platform of the left, whether we are looking at Putin’s Russia, Chavez’s Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba, Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, or Hu Jintao’s China (among others).

Of course, the theocratic despotisms in Iran, Gaza, Sudan, Somalia, or Hezbollah’s Lebanon do not emerge from a leftist ideology, but the Western left has not scrupled to form an ideological alliance with the centers of radical Islam. As Nick Cohen points out in What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way (re-subtitled How The Left Lost Its Way), this mentality is really a quasi-revolutionary daydream that allows its proponents “to pretend to themselves that they were covertly building up the radical left rather than riding the Islamic tiger.” Although it is moot whether the left has been punk’d by Muslim window-dressing or is, in fact, fully aware of its ideological commitment against the weal of the democratic West, there is little question that it has come to behave like the junior branch of Islam. Jamie Glazov gets it right in his United in Hate: “The common denominator between the left and Islamism: Ground Zero must be engendered everywhere so that the earthly paradise can be built on its ashes.” (Indeed, the plan to build an Islamic center and mosque, called Cordoba House, near Ground Zero is a physical expression of this aspiration.)

Leftists are convinced, writes Sternberg, that the planet can be “remade pristine,” rescued from the depredations of a world system “known as Empire.” The Babelian hubris of the project is evident in the claptrap idiolect of that manifesto and war manual of the new left, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s scarcely intelligible Empire, from which the word and the concept was launched into widespread circulation. “The mythology of the languages of the multitude,” the authors write, “interprets the telos of the earthly city, torn away by the power of its own destiny from any belonging or subjection to a city of God, which has lost all honor and legitimacy.” The revolutionary violence these authors promote has been tried before in the various social gulags of the Communist backwaters, leading to the suffering, disempowerment, and impoverishment of hundreds of millions. But no matter. As the old saying goes, eggs must be broken to make an omelette -- even if, as Isaiah Berlin commented in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, “The eggs are broken, and the habit of breaking them grows, but the omelette remains invisible.”

What the left has simply not understood is that in this world Paradise is not an option. The quest for political transcendence can lead only to eventual banishment from the imagined garden and to the flaming sword which turns every way. History has shown that when the paradigm of the City of God is imposed without humility or nuance upon the earthly city, whatever imperial modification that beau ideal may assume, or when the earthly city replaces in its self-sufficiency the heavenly city, some sort of political deformation invariably ensues.