Ron Radosh

Why There Cannot Be a Decent Left: An Answer to Richard Landes

Last week, I wrote a column challenging Professor Richard Landes of Boston University to respond to the critique I wrote of his own arguments against Judith Butler. In that article, I argued that well-meaning men of the Left like Prof. Landes should give up trying to tell people like Butler that the reasons for their hostility to Israel contradict the humanist values of the Left. I argued that it is a fool’s errand trying to save the Left from itself; that in today’s world, what defines being on the Left are precisely the kind of positions Landes and others disdain.

Writing a day after my column appeared — ironically on the anniversary of 9/11, on which most of the Western Left took the position that “the chickens had come home to roost” and that the attack on the United States by al-Qaeda was nothing but payback for American imperialism — Landes countered that I was only talking about “the revolutionary Left,” whereas when he talks about the Left he is referring to what he terms a “demotic” Left. Its principles, he wrote, are really basic “liberal” principles — those of “free people, entering with personal dignity into uncoerced relations with others,” including “the dignity of manual labor … equality before the law,” and “the value of human life (rather than the sacrifice of the well-being of the many for the pleasure of the few.)”

These principles, Landes argues, were “hijacked by revolutionaries on the Left in the 2oth Century,” from Hitler to George Bernard Shaw, Heidegger and Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Noam Chomsky, all of whom, he writes, defend “revolutionary state terrorists.” Landes praises the work of Bruce Bawer on the threat of Islamism in the West, and he accuses scholars like Judith Butler of adapting “aspects of the authoritarian personality” and of identifying with aggressors against the humanist values he supports.

Landes’ flawed argument falls apart when he writes — after showing how stupid people like Butler are when they argue that terrorist groups like Hamas are part of a “progressive social movement” — that “every decent person is on the demotic Left.” What he has done, literally, is to argue that all those who oppose evil are on the Left. Really? Is he now going to therefore continue to argue that Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and other conservative opponents of Hamas, who unlike so many of the Left, fully realize the evil of that movement, are all on the Left? I agree, as I said last week, with Landes’ own attacks on Butler. But I am a conservative. According to Landes, however, I too am a leftist. Or, are the Republicans I named and myself as well all leftists?

Landes argues that the Left stands for “fairness,” and that the Left Butler represents is a “deviation” from the real Left. He calls their Left “the self-destructivist Left,” while the one he identifies with is not one that favors appeasement of evil, while their Left supports “suicidal versions” of leftist “folly” that marches in the streets in support of a movement that would make all non-Muslims dhimmi. They have lost their “moral compass,” while the members of the Left he supports do not support the Islamic radicals, out of fear that to not show solidarity with them would make them “right-wingers.”

I discussed Landes’ argument with my friend David Horowitz, and he e-mailed me a thoughtful response with which I mainly concur. Horowitz writes:

The distinction he makes between a demotic Left and a revolutionary Left is fairy dust. Yes there have been and still are a handful of decent but impotent people on the Left whose political weight is non-existent. Whatever happened to the Euston Manifesto? What are the leftwing publications, organizations, recognized spokesmen who are defending Jews and Christians and even gays and women against the Islamo-Nazis? Were the same even calling them Nazis, which is what they are (and yes, the Nazis themselves were leftists)?

There is a fundamental snobbery and arrogance evident in the postures of the so-called demotic mini-Left. The leftists actually have a monopoly on all the values that we associate with human decency, equality, liberty, etc. But these values were actually instituted and made into a global force by conservatives — American conservatives who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and created a political system to make those values real. Judith Butler doesn’t act out of good intentions. She acts out of the same emotion that motivates the Left generally, which is hate. Henry James described them all in describing the feminist heroine of his novel The Bostonians: “It was the usual things of life that filled her with silent rage, which was natural enough, inasmuch as to her vision almost everything that was usual was iniquitous. … The most secret, the most sacred hope of her nature was that she might some day … be a martyr and die for something.” Or as Marx — who is the inspiration for all leftists — put it: “Everything that exists deserves to perish.” That is the true voice of leftism. What the demotic mini-Left is about is sentimentality.

At the YIVO conference on Jews and the Left, the keynote address was presented by Michael Walzer, the co-editor of Dissent and a man who himself wrote a major essay a decade ago titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” in which he expressed his disappointment with so much of what the current Left stands for. In my own comments, I mentioned that Walzer embodied a contradiction — a man of the Left who is pro-Israel but who stood out as one of a few precisely because there are hardly any others of the Left who are joining him. As I said, his own position was hardly known in the country at large, while the Left of The Nation magazine and its open hostility to Israel exemplifies the actual position of 99 percent of America’s leftist intellectuals. Therefore, I argued, Walzer was quite irrelevant.

The proof, as David Horowitz writes, is disappearance and disregard of the Euston Manifesto, a statement of some British and European leftists in defense of Israel and Western democracy. When it was published, it got a flurry of press reports on the day it was issued, and then was quickly forgotten about. The American version had a group of prominent signers, but went completely unnoticed. Some of its signers were affiliated with The New Republic, which since the manifesto’s publication has all but abandoned its once liberal hawkish principles and fired its most prominent defender of Israel, its former publisher and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz. Now, in his place, one sees regular columns by John Judis such as the most recent one attacking Mitt Romney as a dreaded neocon.

The truth is that the Left in the West, including our own Left, is largely anti-American, favorable to extremist radical social movements, and sees any one or group who is not on its side as not only incorrect, but morally evil. The answer to Michael Walzer’s own query is still the same: it would be nice if there was a decent Left, but its small and ineffectual numbers prove that its creation is something that will never take place.