For the next little while this weblog is going to attempt some intelligent criticism of the left for a change. Of course the Creator is not interested in the opinions of mere mortals, but at the same time it’s worth noting that some mortals have put things quite neatly (if not altogether accurately). One such is David Harvey, who in his latest book legitimates his developing thesis with the following words:
What remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organised oppositional channels, in the hope that small-scale actions and local activism can ultimately add up to some kind of satisfactory macro alternative. This left, which strangely echoes a libertarian and even neoliberal ethic of anti-statism, is nurtured intellectually by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and all those who have reassembled postmodern fragmentations under the banner of a largely incomprehensible post-structuralism that favours identity politics and eschews class analysis. Autonomist, anarchist and localist perspectives and actions are everywhere in evidence. But to the degree that this left seeks to change the world without taking power, so an increasingly consolidated plutocratic capitalist class remains unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without constraint.
There’s a great deal wrong with Harvey’s analysis, or at least superficial and vituperative, but there’s also a very large grain of truth, as we shall see later. The business about blaming it on Michel Foucault and “largely incomprehensible post-structuralism” is both false and shabby, but it is true about the small-scale fetish, the lack of class analysis, and the rubbish about changing the world without changing power and the consequences thereof.
If Harvey is right, then, (and in this spheres he is) there is something wrong, something above all else lacking in direction and self-confidence, about the left. What is worth examining about the accusations in this paragraph is that there is huge contradiction within the behaviour of the left. They are supposedly leftists but reject the class analysis which is the most important tool of leftism; they are opposed to big oppressive power, and then refuse to organise in such a way that they could challenge it. Most suggestive, if they are libertarian or neoliberal, they would then have internalised intellectual structures which were invented to attack them, and thus are placed in the position of turkeys unconsciously liable to vote for Christmas.
It might seem like a big jump from this to an individual who doesn’t at first sight seem much like this. Louis Proyect is certainly no anarchist nor post-structuralist, and he entered the American far left long ago enough to view such concepts with some scorn. Proyect, who blogs under the “Unrepentant Marxist” label (the Creator has asked before why anyone should expect a Marxist to be repentant; it smells of defeatism) is not a complete nobody on the left; he moderates the “Marxmail” discussion group for Kommunist Keyboard Kommandoes. He’s also also the film critic for the Counterpunch website run by a big cabal of old independent Trotskyites, formerly lead by the late ultra-leftist and red- (and green-, being brought up in Ireland)-diaper baby Alexander Cockburn.
Counterpunch is hard to characterise politically these days, but it might best be seen as anti-establishment and above all else, anti-imperialist. If you hold the opinion that a Western government intervention somewhere in the world is destructive (and these days that is a fairly safe bet) then you can air that opinion in Counterpunch. To that extent it’s a rather narrow website, and one of its failings is that it tends to say the same things over and over again, as if we were all too dumb to understand them said only once (or perhaps because its authors are trying to keep the steady hum of imperialist bullshit in the mass media at bay).
Proyect fits in very poorly with this discourse. His line is, in fact, almost diametrically opposite to it. (Possibly Counterpunch tolerates him because they like his reviews, or because, like most of their contributors, he’s been around forever.) The Unrepentant Marxist supports the fascists and oligarchs of the Ukraine against the Russian menace. Proyect supports the Salafists and Gulf dictator-potentates in Syria (while denying that they are Salafists or that they are dictator-potentates). He previously supported the Salafists and CIA spooks in Libya. Just to complete the trifecta, he’s a huge fan of the military dictatorship in Thailand. It would seem, in practice, that wherever Obama sends his spooks and mercenaries, there we will see Louis Proyect, fluffing up their phalluses.
This would seem a little peculiar for a leftist. One could understand a leftist feeling that the Russian government is far from attractive, that the Assad oligarchy is extremely unattractive, that the Gaddaffi dictatorship was fairly nasty, and that the Thaksin regime in Thailand was hardly democratic. Thus leftists might feel entitled to sit out such conflicts and concentrate on other things, such as movies, or basket-weaving, or whatever. However, Proyect isn’t just critical of these forces, he is also uncritical about the forces which are attacking them — ignoring, or simply lying about, the extremely odious nature of the Ukrainian coup leaders, the Syrian and Libyan rebels, and the Thai military, so that he does not need to feel embarrassed on his website. To be fair, he is sometimes embarrassed when people point out the nonsense he is writing in comments, provided that they do so politely, and the fact that he allows comments and does not delete criticism is a point in his favour. Still, all this is not left-wing behaviour at all; on the contrary, it’s consistently choosing the side of the most odious and destructive and reactionary faction available. What’s going on?
Proyect offers an interesting insight into this when he attempts to account for why some people writing on the Counterpunch website (which he does not name) refuse to follow his lead and instead criticise the American-backed jihadis in Syria. He suggests that these — people like Chris Hedges — are people who have spent their entire lives in the left, and therefore in a weakened condition, in permanent opposition, without power. Therefore, when they discover an opportunity to acquire power vicariously, by supporting someone in authority, they immediately do so. It is a kind of cowardice, he suggests, bred of never having had a success and thus endorsing bad guys who are successful.
That’s a very interesting claim. On the face of it, however, it seems like the kind of argument that a drunken reactionary like Christopher Hitchens would pull out of his arse in an attempt to stifle debate. It is, after all, not clear that the Syrian regime is going to win the civil war, given the forces which it is up against. It is far from clear that the Donbass separatists in the Eastern Ukraine are going to win the civil war, given the forces which they are up against. The Thai government has been overthrown in a military coup, and the Libyan government was destroyed by foreign invasion. These are hardly examples of circumstances likely to be attractive to disgruntled, impotent power-worshippers. (One would also ask why, if Hedges and his friends are indeed despairingly clutching at victorious forces regardless of their moral status, they are all such big supporters of the Palestinians against the Israelis.)
Meanwhile, Proyect’s characterisation of the perspective of his leftist antagonists is thoroughly dishonest (and knowingly so). There are virtually no serious leftist supporters of the Syrian government in the Western world. (An attempt by an Italian commentator to pretend that such existed, published in Znet, was extraordinarily unconvincing and devoid of evidence.) Instead there are a lot of leftists who are critical of the Syrian rebels, either because they distrust their Islamic fundamentalism or because they distrust their obvious dependence on Western imperialist support and adherence to Western imperialist goals. One can argue that the overthrow of the Assad regime is more important than such quibbles, but this is growing increasingly difficult (which is why Proyect falsifies the nature of the Syrian rebel movement, more or less along the lines of NATO propaganda).
It’s notable that an extremely well-informed commentator on the subject, the Angry Arab, was for a long time an adherent of a “plague on both your houses” position, never failing to refer to the “lousy Syrian regime”. More recently the Angry Arab has been enthusiastically praising the Syrian elections. These are obviously rigged, and it is democratically absurd to hold them in the middle of a civil war — but many Syrians not under the gun of the regime have trooped off to vote, thus showing their tacit support for the regime and giving the lie to the claims of those like Proyect who claim that it is unquestionably illegitimate. The Angry Arab’s shift in focus suggests that he has finally decided that, lousy or not, the Assad dictatorship probably deserves support against its still lousier opponents. This, indeed, looks like the reason why most of the leftists who choose to line up in support of Russia or Syria, or who opposed the invasion of Libya or the overthrow of the Thai government, chose to do so. Also, they noticed that their government’s support for the destabilisation of governments in these regions and the installation of friendly governments in places like South Sudan or the Central African Republic had been a catastrophic disaster.
This is also the biggest odd point about Proyect’s claim. If these are people whose morale has been sapped by incessant defeat, and who are therefore inclined to run into the arms of power and associate themselves with it, why are they opposing powerful forces in their own country? The conspicuous thing about the positions taken by the people whom Proyect condemns is that they are all criticising the policies of their government. In contrast, Proyect is siding with his own government, although allegedly on impeccably Marxist grounds which might not suit Mitt Romney, Barack Obama or Victoria Nuland.
In all these cases, Proyect’s account of why people do not do as he does is blindingly obviously invalid about them — but it is curiously apt as an account for Proyect’s own motives. (A Projection, in Freudian terms.) He is, after all, a revolutionary in spirit, and therefore can express enthusiasm for revolution in Syria or the Ukraine or Libya, regardless of the actual nature, agenda and origin of that revolution. Thus he can vicariously experience the activities which he is not able to perform (as Arthur Koestler remarked about the glee with which the French greeted the Winter War while they were sitting on their behinds behind the Maginot Line). Best of all, he can do this in confidence that nobody in authority will criticise him, because he is in full effective agreement with them.
That doesn’t prove that Proyect has sided with NATO and the CIA simply because he would like to be on the winning side for once. It is more than likely that it is a lot more complicated than that. For instance, it is quite possible that Proyect has been so long divorced from real power of any kind that he has come to see everything in abstract terms. More to the point, since he has no organisational affiliation, he has nobody to point out that his deviations from the party line are not in the best interests of the broader Movement. Instead, when he goes to leftist gatherings, he devotes a lot of time to futilely denouncing them on his blog because they are doing silly things like opposing imperialism, colonialism and oppressive military rule. He can’t stop them from denouncing the wrong things, of course — but what he can do is remember that his side is the one that counts, the one with the money and the nukes and the agents and the aircraft carriers and the brave and bold politicians who dare to finance puppets all over the planet and tell lies about their democratic credentials. In other words, once he has become a dissident, there is nothing to stop him from becoming a traitor, because he no longer acknowledges any entity which could make such a charge, apart from the comments threads on his blog.
Can we learn something about the modern left from this horrible example, which so plainly parallels the observations made by Harvey?