The Left

Markovits on the post-1945 Left

Political scientist Andrei Markovits writes in the latest issue of Dissent about the mostly-downward trajectory of the European and American Left since 1945.

What he writes probably applies more closely to the European Left than to the American Left, but those familiar with the postwar history of the former can judge that better than I.

After describing the period of 1945-1968 as an era of orthodoxy (a continuation of the pre-war divide between social democrats and communists), Markovits notes that the years between 1968 and 1979 were more heterodox. He describes four leftwing groupings that emerged in West Germany at the time: the Westerners, the Third-Worldists, the orthodox Marxists and the neo-Nationalists.

The Westerners were, I suppose, precursors of us at Harry’s Place:

Germany’s current foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, is exhibit A. This group, though vehemently against the war in Vietnam, totally supportive of third world liberation movements, and bitterly opposed to Western– as well as West German– capitalism, began to reorder the hierarchy of its negative preferences. Crucial in this reordering was that tyranny rather than capitalism was put at the top of the list. Put positively, at the top now was not the emancipation of the working class or even the liberation of third world peoples from imperialism, but rather democracy, due process, constitutionalism, and human rights. For reasons that probably have more to do with the personal psychologies and histories of the relevant individuals than with macro-sociological factors such as class background, education, religion, geographic origin, and gender, the Westerners successfully differentiated between American culture (which they loved, as is evident from Fischer’s well-known admission that Bob Dylan had a greater influence on his life than Karl Marx) and American politics in the world (which they disliked). Above all, they did not develop a visceral hatred of all things American. And they also began to look at the Holocaust as a development sui generis and not merely as an epiphenomenon of what the rest of the German left then still called– and continues to call– “fascism” rather than National Socialism. As a consequence, the Westerners committed a major blasphemy in the eyes of the rest of the left. They argued that the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany could– and did– on occasion produce good things, such as a stable and democratic order in Germany and Europe; and that liberal democracy, though capitalist, was indeed preferable to tyranny, even of the people’s republic kind. They saw the West also as an occasional force of liberation and emancipation, not only as one of repression and exploitation. Lastly, members of this group upheld the value of universalism-already at this time a ready target for various relativizing particularisms that came to define other groups on the left…

This was also the period, Markovits writes, when attitudes toward the “ubiquitous triangle of Israel, the Jews and the United States” became “the most defining gauge” for where leftists stood politically.

The next era, from 1980 to 1989, Markovits calls a paradigm shift. In this period, he writes:

The left moved from growth, state, class, economy, and politics to identity, gender, empowerment, and deconstruction. Tellingly, much of critical social science, formerly engaged on behalf of a progressive agenda, was now superseded by an increasingly philosophized Marxism, which in turn drifted toward literary criticism and various other poststructural and postmodern intellectual endeavors.

It had become clear by the mid-1980s that green was the left’s trendsetting color instead of the century-old red.

It was also a period of severe setbacks for the trade union movement.

Absolutely crucial in these were the massive offensives led by hard-right governments such as Ronald Reagan’s administration in the United States and Margaret Thatcher’s in Great Britain. On every conceivable front and in every country, organized labor suffered one defeat after another, leading to a substantial weakening of its position in the political arena and the labor market.

The current era, according to Markovits, is one of fragementation and polarization for the Left, marked by the collapse of Soviet communism and the rise of new movements challenging traditional social democracy.

Finally, Markovits says, a new litmus test of progressive politics has emerged: anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. I think he exaggerates here, at least for the United States:

If one is not at least a serious doubter of the legitimacy of the state of Israel (never mind the policies of its government) and if one does not dismiss everything American as a priori vile and reactionary, one runs the risk of being excluded from the entity called “the left.” There has not been a common issue since the Spanish Civil War that has united the left so clearly as has anti-Zionism and its twin, anti-Americanism. The left divided, and divides, over Serbia, over Chechnya, over Darfur, even over the war in Iraq. There are virtually no divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and over the essence of the United States. If one has anything positive– or even non-derogatory– to say about the United States or Israel, one always needs to qualify it with a resounding “but.”

True enough for large segments of what passes for the Left these days. And true enough to drive some decent people out of the Left entirely. But as long as others of us refuse to be driven out– refuse to accept the litmus test– Markovits’s gloomy assessment may be premature.

(Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

Update: I incorrectly identified Markovits as German. He was born in Romania and has lived in Austria and the United States.