The Enduring Dangerous Legacy of the Sixties New Left

The New Left is already pretty old, and for many, quite irrelevant. As many liberals argued during the 2008 campaign, trying to smear Obama by bringing up his friendship with Bill Ayers was as silly and irrelevant as Democrats “waving the bloody shirt” years after the Civil War in campaigns against Republicans, or Democrats running against Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression in the post-World War II era.

Now, however, two articles have appeared that offer a direct challenge to the view that the old theories of the '60s Left are completely irrelevant in today’s 21st century world. First, writing in his blog at the website of World Affairs Journal, British professor Alan Johnson ties together the anti-Zionism and hatred of Israel of today’s leftists with that originated in the 60s by its earlier brethren. Johnson recalls how 35 years ago this week, two young German leftists were among those who hijacked an Air France jet and flew it to Entebbe, where they and Arab terrorists set about separating Jewish from non-Jewish passengers, and prepared to execute the Jews.

How, he asks, did idealistic New Leftists join with Arab terrorists in an act that mimicked the policies of Hitler’s regime, especially since these leftists all thought of themselves as anti-fascists? Johnson writes:

The answer lies in modern left-wing “anti-Zionism.” But to understand that phenomenon, we must go deeper still, to the worldview cultivated in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the decidedly non-calloused hands of this largely student, spectacularly arrogant, but largely know-nothing New Left, an already-authoritarian Marxism became completely unmoored from the working class, the West, and democracy and moored instead to ideologies of the noble savage, fantasies of “Third World Revolution” and an irrational belief in the redemptive power of violence. The New Left saw the world in a very peculiar way. A third world “periphery” was pitted against the metropolitan “center” and “good” oppressed nations were at war with “bad” oppressor nations. “Camp” replaced “class” as the track along which a great deal of left-wing thought would now run.

He goes on to say that “Much of what is said and done by today’s left—including its ‘anti-Zionism’—is unintelligible without grasping that when ‘anti-imperialist struggle’ displaced ‘class struggle’ as the organizing category of thought and the basis of political identity.” After 1967, that outlook quickly became the necessity of branding the Israelis as “the new Nazis,” and the supposedly oppressed Palestinians as the “new Jews.” As Johnson writes:

Increasingly, after 1967, this upside-down left had taken as the ultimate expression of “anti-imperialist struggle” the armed Palestinian, while Israel became the ultimate expression of “imperialism.” Drawing on some older traditions of left-wing anti-Semitism, and influenced by more recent but well-funded Soviet and Arab antisemitic propaganda campaigns, it became left-wing common sense that supporting Israel’s enemies—whatever these enemies actually stood for, however they actually behaved—was an “anti-imperialist” duty.

So if you want to understand what motivates the American supporters of the flotilla, and the participation in the movement of leftists like Alice Walker, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and Michael Ratner, the above explains how they think about the present. Thus an academic leader of the movement who spoke at a Berkeley Teach-In, Judith Butler, explained that “Understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are on the global left is important.” So, Johnson notes:

Because inside their heads the abstract symbol of evil "Israel" confronts the equally abstract symbol of good "Palestine"  they can’t quite bring themselves to condemn Hamas, who must be "anti-imperialists" even as rockets are fired at Jewish school children. And they hold aloft placards reading "We are all Hezbollah" even as that organization acts as a proxy for an Iranian regime that seeks to wipe Israel off the map.

Johnson, I must state, writes as one who is still on the political Left, and who seeks to work, alongside his Dissent colleague Michael Walzer, for what he hopes will be a “decent left.” Like former German foreign minister Joschka Fisher, he favors what he calls a “decent, anti-totalitarian and social-democratic leftism.” The problem with that is that his group is rather small and without influence. The Left today, such as it exists, has managed to build a movement and to create for itself the mantle of leftism. When one uses the term “the Left,” most people refer to those whom Johnson attacks. They alone have the right to the title, since without them, no Left to speak of exists. The one favored by Johnson and by Paul Berman in our country is nothing but a hope in their minds, and at best, a small circulation magazine.