Andrew Sullivan is not my favourite blogger/commentator but, unlike many in this medium, what he writes does have some influence.
His blog is one of the most widely read of all on the web and more importantly he writes for mainstream media and is taken seriously in some quarters of conservative/libertarian opinion.
Today he makes a prediction that I think is worth looking at:
The fledgling links now forged between left-wing anti-war campaigners and Islamo-fascism will get stronger in the years ahead. The anti-globalization far left has nowhere else to go. Fanatical political Islam provides them with an over-arching structure for the loathing of the West. Now that Marxism is dead and post-modernism has shown itself inept as a basis for a real political movement, Islam will fill the void.
I share much of Sullivan’s opinions about the anti-war movement and the threat from Islamic reaction. But I think he is wrong with this prediction and his noted tendency for exageration and his deep seated dislike of the left as a whole, leads him to ignore a more real and therefore more dangerous development.
It is clear that the Iraq war has shown that a certain section of the left really has nowhere to go except self-hatred and that a reactionary antipathy to the US and the western democracies has moved from beyond the ultra-left fringes into the mainstream of left-liberal oppositionalism.
It is precisely the spreading of ‘pure oppositionalism’ that makes it worthwhile looking closely at the activities of the Socialist Workers Party and others. Because while the details of their quasi-Trotskyist ideology remain restricted to a tiny minority, their broader outlook has gained something close to hegemony on the radical left.
One need only look at the attitude to Israel of many leftists to see how the SWP’s influence has spread. A couple of decades ago most socialists, even Trotskyists and communists, took a straightforward and perfectly sensible position of support for a ‘two-state solution’ in the Middle East. Solidarity with Palestinians was just that – it rarely turned into the hate-filled ranting against Israel and ‘Zionists’ that has sadly become the norm today – the odious SWP founder Tony Cliff has much to answer for.
It is also true that the likes of the SWP do see, in their theory, Islamic reactionaries as being part of an ‘anti-imperialist’ camp, which while not explicity progressive in terms of its programme, is part of the broad ‘fightback’ against capitalist globalisation. This crude and utterly un-Marxist analysis fits rather conveniently with the opportunism of the SWP who have organised their peace demonstrations with British supporters of Sharia law.
But while the SWP make no secret that they see ‘radical Muslim youth’ as a constituency in which they can find supporters for their marches, buyers for their newspaper and maybe even the odd recruit, I see no evidence that they, or any other element of the anti-war hard left are about to convert to political Islam in the way that Sullivan suggests.
Instead what is happening is arguably more dangerous – at least for those of us who want to see a renewed radical left.
Despite their popular depiction as naive idealists, the SWP and their fellow-travellers, have adopted, since the cold war, a world view which is essentially nihilistic. Their Marxism has been shorn of even the most basic understanding of historical materialism, of the progress of and changes to societies throughout the ages. The basic principles of anti-fascism which were accepted across the left for decades have been largely abandoned.
They have rejected the understanding of Marxists as to what liberal democracy represents, why it is worth defending from its reactionary enemies and why clerical fascism, whether expressed purely politically or through terrorism, is one such enemy.
In doing so they (and I include here the retro-communists of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain among many others) have shamefully turned their back on the genuine progressives in the Muslim world who face the very real threat from Islamic fanatics. Their current attitude to the restorationist/Islamisist alliance against democracy in Iraq is the most clear example of where this sort of politics takes you.
As the influence of this outlook spreads so, tragically, the secular, democratic left in the Middle East and Asia is slowly losing its old friend in the European left.
The Iraqi left are mocked by their British ‘comrades’ for joining the provisional government in Iraq and backing the coaliton’s efforts to establish security and democracy in the country. But in fact by switching allegiance to the enemies of Iraqi comrades, it is British leftists who are the ones guilty of betrayal.
All of which is hugely depressing to anyone who still considers themselves part of the left. But why is this process a threat to anything other than the ranks of socialists whose movement is tarnished by association with such betrayal?
Well, precisely because the growth of nihilism, allied with the different but growing cynicism in our societies, weakens the ability of democrats to win their battles – at home and abroad. Democracy, even the limited version that we live with, survives to a degree on a level of participation or at least voluntary acceptance. Nihilism, the rejection of politics, is corrosive.
(Nihilism is not restricted to the far left of course. It is there on the far right too in both its fascist and ultra-libertarian varieties but that’s another post.)
Sullivan’s scenerio of the hard left turning to the Koran is merely colourful phrasemongering. It is nihilism which is the real danger.
If humanitarian or anti-terrorist interventions in the future are to win the public support they need then the smug and hopeless oppositionalism we have seen over Iraq is likely to be a growing opponent. Action will be greeted with a chorus of conspiracy theories and rejection of even the idea that the democracies can intervene in a progressive way. The less than honest way in which the case for war was presented in the UK and the US assists this process.
If the left’s old internationalism, anti-fascism and militant defence of democracy is finally defeated by the spread of reactionary nihilism it will not only be the left who are the losers.