Who are the real 'post-leftists'?
Alan Johnson trying to recruit a merchant banker to the 'decent Left'
The British Professor Alan Johnson, a former Trotskyist* turned self-styled intellectual heavyweight of the pro-war "left", has been hard at work recently trying to come up with new ways to denounce those of us who still refuse to bow down before the power and glory of the American Empire. His last attempt to coin a suitable phrase to attack anti-imperialists was to say we had fallen ill with 'neoconitus', a disease of Johnson's own fevered imagination. Now one or other of his co-thinkers have come up with a new expression - 'post-leftism', which Johnson now seems very excited about indeed. The idea is simple enough, and I am surprised that it took the 'pro-war "left"' so long to come up with it, though like 'neoconitus' the problem with it is that it is really too simple to stand up to any critical examination. But lets at least try and follow Johnson's 'thinking':
Post-leftism has its roots in the inter-war decades of the last century when the old left's belief in a future socialist society first began to drain away. It grew, as the late Lionel Trilling put it, in the form of an "adversary culture" - a comprehensive opposition to "bourgeois" society ungrounded in a positive alternative. The post-left has radicalised this inchoate hostility until "Amerika" is the satanic principle in the world.
Can we really mark one single historical period where defeat led to disillusionment and claim that 'post-leftism' had its roots in that one period? Was there not some draining away in the belief in a future socialist society after say the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871, an event which effectively killed the First International? Or what about say 4 August 1914, which effectively killed the Second International when that organisation (with one or two honourable sections an exception) decided to abandon internationalist principles and line up behind their own ruling class during the First World War?
But perhaps I am being slightly pedantic - we can concede that Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia in the 1930s inevitably and ultimately did lead to a wider disillusionment with the socialist project, and that various people ultimately decided to throw the socialist baby out with the Stalinist bathwater, leading to a phenomenon that one could legitimately call a 'post-leftist' one.
But where Johnson goes wrong is when he tries to claim that the history of the left since the 1930s is actually about the development of a 'post left' as though it represented one mass coherent intellectual current, albeit one rooted in 'inchoate hostility':
'The post-left luxuriates...in anti-Americanism, anti-westernism, anti-Zionism, anti-capitalism, and anti-liberalism'
In reality, if 'anti-Americanism' grew in the post-war world it was because it was a response to the growing power of America and the whole bloody history of attempts by America to try and dominate the world through imperialism in the post war world. If 'anti-Westernism' grew during the post war world it was because 'the West' had before then bequeathed to the world the slave trade, colonialism, imperialist scramble for Africa, two barbaric World Wars, the Great Depression, fascism, and the Nazi Holocaust. Quite a few people had quite a few reasons to be raising doubts about 'Western Civilisation'. If anti-Zionism grew in the post-war world then that might have had something to do with the fact that in 1948 the State of Israel was established by force and terror in Palestine and has acted as a colonial outpost of the West in the Middle East ever since then. As for anti-capitalism and anti-liberalism, haven't 'the Left' always kind of opposed capitalism and counterposed socialism to liberalism? What is particularly 'post left' here?
Indeed, rather than Johnson's imagined community called the 'post left' it was those people who stayed ideologically committed to the 'old left' in whatever form who from the 1940s and 1950s onwards who tended to express what Johnson calls 'post left' beliefs. Johnson denounces Noam Chomsky as a 'post leftist' for arguing that 'America is the greatest terrorist state'. But Chomsky was someone who radicalised politically out of the Great Depression and general crisis in America in the 1930s and who made his name in part analysing and attacking American imperialism at the time of the Vietnam War. He is about as 'old left' as it gets. It was those who broke from the left (the 'post-left' if you like) in the 1940s and 1950s who went all over the place ideologically, but if they went anywhere initially tended to go towards 'Western' liberalism of one sort of another - and support for the Vietnam War. Indeed, Johnson kind of acknowledges this in his discussion of the 1960s 'New Left':
'The nihilist movements of the late 1960s denounced "Amerika" and the "great white west".'
It slowly becomes clearer what Johnson is really taking exception to, then. It is not an imagined community called the 'post-left' at all but rather the rise of the 'New Left' out of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and also in particular the rise of militant black nationalism and the raising of the banner of 'Black Power' as the American Civil Rights movement radicalised as a result of the Vietnam War and also in the face of vicious state repression. Indeed most of Johnson's article is precisely aimed at the radical black preacher Rev Jeremiah Wright - who seems to be coming straight out of this 'Black Power' moment. Now there are of course aspects of black nationalist thought that are problematic for socialists, but Johnson's attack on the 'anti-American' Rev Jeremiah Wright misunderstands American history, particularly African-American history, profoundly. Johnson may prefer to ignore completely the fact that American 'civilisation' was built up first on the racist genocide of native Americans and then on the slavery of black Africans, but it will take more than the election of Barack Obama for American society to truly face up to its legacy of its racist past - particularly when Obama seems to be committed to fighting future imperialist wars that will only allow racism of another sort to flourish. The Rev Jeremiah Wright, whatever his particular eccentricities, in attacking American power understands something profoundly important about American society, its past and present, while Johnson's attacks on Wright reveal only his ignorance.
Worse than that - Johnson's breathless praise for Obama as a hero of the 'decent left' shows exactly who are the real 'post leftists'. Obama may come across as a decent enough bloke, but there is nothing 'left' as far as I can see about him, while there is certainly no longer anything remotely 'decent' or 'left' about Johnson and the rest of the 'decent left'. There is however a political radicalisation similar to that in Vietnam going on today as a result of the movements against Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnson hates the way this new mood of against war, imperialism and racism is spreading up from the streets and 'gaining influence in the academy, media and politics'. Johnson attacks 'the postmodern academic [who] tells students that the human condition has been blighted by "western-patriarchal-racist-homophobic-logocentric-capitalist-imperialism" and talks of the "multitude" that resist this new "Empire".' Whatever the failings of postmodernism, and there are many (logocentrism anyone?), at least those who understand that America is an Empire and therefore oppose it not because it is American but because it is an Empire show that there is hope still for humanity. But for that hope to be realised means that it is vital that out of the political radicalisation seen in the international anti-war movements, a new left committed to revolutionary socialism emerges.
*'A PARALLEL REACTION AMONG MANY ON THE LEFT -- the so-called B52 Liberals or Stealth Socialists -- has been to look to the military power of the United States and NATO to police the globe in defense of human rights. This reaction is a reprise of Americans for Democratic Action [A.D.A.] of the 1950s which, after condemning the latest "mistake" in U.S. foreign policy, would then call on the U.S. government to lead a social revolution in Asia. Hal Draper's reaction at the time -- "How naive is a liberal allowed to be?" -- must be ours today' - Alan Johnson, New Politics, 1999.