(Part II: Neo-Communism Made Simple, will run tomorrow in our Friday weekend edition)
How to identify the political left? Current usage refers to everyone left of center as "liberal." Yet what are currently identified liberals liberal about except hard drugs and sex? In regard to everything else, they are determined to intervene, regulate and control your life, or redistribute your income. Obviously, when terror-hugging radicals like Ramsey Clark and Communist hacks like Angela Davis are referred to as "liberals" – as they routinely are – the obfuscation works to their advantage and against the interests of veracity and democracy. The term "liberal" should be reserved for those who occupy the center of the political spectrum; those to the left should be referred to as leftists, which is what they are.
This is the easy part of rectifying the political lexicon. There is another more difficult aspect, however, which is how to identify the "hard" left, which is to say, those who are dedicated enemies of America and its purposes? In practice, it easy to identify such leftists and it is not difficult to describe them. They are people who identify with hostile regimes like North Korea, Cuba, and China, or – more commonly -- believe the United States to be the imperialist guardian of a world system that radicals must defeat before they can establish "social justice" on the planet.
Adherents of this anti-American creed variously describe themselves as "Marxists," "anti-globalists," "anti-war activists" or, more generally, "progressives." Their secular worldview holds claims that America is responsible for reaction, oppression, and exploitation across the globe and causes them to regard this country as the moral equivalent of militant Islam’s "Great Satan." This explains the otherwise incomprehensible practical alliances that individuals who claim to be avatars of social justice make with Islamo-fascists like Saddam Hussein.
Among the intellectual leaders of this left are Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Gore Vidal, Edward Said and Cornel West; among its figureheads, Angela Davis and Ramsey Clark; among its cultural icons, Tim Robbins, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhhti Roy and Michael Moore; among its political leaders, Ralph Nader and the heads of the three major "peace" organizations (Leslie Cagan, Brian Becker and Clark Kissinger); among its electoral organizations, the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party; among its elected officials Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California) and Congressman Dennis Kucinch (D-Ohio); among its organizations, the misnamed Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild; among its publications and media institutions, The Nation, Z Magazine, The Progressive, Counterpunch, Pacifica radio, Indymedia.org and commondreams.org. Like the Communist Party in the heyday of the Soviet empire, the influence of the hard left –intellectually and organizationally – extends far beyond the institutions, organizations and publications it controls.
Yet what to call them? One of the hard left’s survival secrets has been its ability to embargo attempts to identify it by labeling those who do "red-baiters" and "witch-hunters," as though even to name it is to persecute it. These same people, on the other hand, think nothing of labeling their opponents "racists" and "fascists," or calling the President of the United States a "Nazi" puppet of the oil cartel. Yet their defense strategy is highly effective in the tolerant democracy they are determined to destroy. I myself have been called a "red-baiter" and "McCarthyite" for pointing out that the current "peace" organizations like International ANSWER and Not In Our Name are fronts for the Workers World Party – a Marxist-Leninist vanguard that identifies with North Korea -- and the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist sect. The facts are obvious and unarguable, but their implications are unpleasant and therefore suspect.
Nothwithstanding this difficulty, a more significant concern is that the term "Communist" in the context of the contemporary left can be misleading. While the Communist Party still exists and is even growing, it is a minor player and enjoys nothing approaching its former influence or power in the left. Even in the hard left, the Communist Party USA is only a constituent part of the whole whereas once, along with its front groups, it dominated progressive politics.
In these circumstances, for reasons I will soon make apparent, the best term to describe this left is "neo-communist," or "neo-coms" for short.
The place to begin an understanding of the neo-coms is the period following 1956, when the left sloughed off its Communist shell and became first a "new left" and then what might be called a "post-new left." In my own writings, particularly Radical Son and The Politics of Bad Faith I have shown that the "new left," was in reality no such thing. While starting out as a rejection of Stalinism, by the end of the Sixties the "new left" had devolved into a movement virtually indistinguishable from the Communist predecessor it had claimed to reject. This was as true of its Marxist underpinnings, as its anti-Americanism or its indiscriminate embrace of totalitarian revolutions and revolutionaries abroad.
The new left imploded at the end of the Sixties a victim of its own revolutionary enthusiasms, which led it to pursue a violent politics it could not sustain. America’s withdrawal from Vietnam in the early Seventies, deprived the left of the immediate pretext for its radical agendas. Many of its cadre retired from the "revolution in the streets" they had tried to launch and entered the Democratic Party. Others turned to careers in journalism and teaching, the professions of choice for secular missionaries. Still others took up local agitations and discrete campaigns in behalf of saving the environment, feminist issues and gay rights -- without giving up their radical illusions. In the 1980s, spurred by the Soviet-sponsored "nuclear freeze" campaign and by the "solidarity" movements for Communist forces in Central America, the left began to regroup without formally announcing its re-emergence or proclaiming a new collective identity as its Sixties predecessor had done.
At the end of the decade, the collapse of the Soviet empire ushered in an interregnum of confusion for the left, calling a temporary halt to this radical progress. In the Soviet debacle "revolutionary" leftists confronted the catastrophic failure of everything they had believed and fought for during the previous 70 years. Even those radicals who recognized the political failures of the Soviet regime, believe in what Trotksy had called "the gains of October" – the superior forces of socialist production. But the leftist faith proved impervious to this rebuttal by historical events. Insulated by its religious devotion to the progressive idea, the left survived the refutation of its socialist dreams. Instead of acknowledging their wrongheaded commitment to the socialist cause, they looked on the demise of what they had once hailed as "the first socialist state," as no more than an albatross that providence had lifted from their shoulders.
In short, having defended the indefensible for 70 years, they were suddenly relieved that they would no longer have to defend it. Turning their backs on their own past, they pretended it was someone else’s. They said, "The collapse of socialism doesn’t prove anything because it wasn’t real socialism. Real socialism hasn’t been tried." This subterfuge rescued them from having to make apologies for abetting regimes that had killed tens of millions and enslaved tens of millions more. Broken eggs with no omelet to show for it -- not a workable socialist result. Better yet, there was no need to acknowledge that the country whose efforts they had opposed and whose actions they had condemned had liberated a billion people from the most oppressive empire the world had ever seen. They had no need for second thoughts about what they had done. They just went on to the next destruction, the newest incarnation of the radical cause.
This act of cosmic bad faith was the foundation of the left’s revival in the decade that followed. It was the necessary premise of its re-emergence as leader of the anti-globalization and "antiwar" movements that came at the end of the Nineties and the beginning of the millennium. The hard left was now ready to resurrect its internal war against America at home and abroad.
If one looks at almost any aspect of this left – its self-identified intellectual lineage (Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger, Fanon, Gramsci -- in sum, the totalitarian tradition), its analytic model (hierarchy and oppression), its redemptive agenda (social justice as state-enforced leveling) and its enemies – imperialist America and the American "ruling class" -- one would be hard put to find a scintilla of difference with the Communist past. Of course leftists themselves will have none of this. Most of them will proclaim their anti-Stalinism (even as they embrace its practices); and will not defend the Communist systems that have in any case collapsed. But so what? The Soviet rulers denounced Stalin. Were they any less Communists for that?
It seems appropriate, therefore, to call the unreconstructed hard-liners, "neo-communists" --a term that accurately identifies their negative assaults on American capitalism and their anti-American "internationalist" agendas. It may be objected that the term "neo-communist" does not describe a group, which itself identifies with the term, but then neither does "neo-conservative." There is, for example, no current movement calling itself "neo-conservative," nor do the individuals so designated refer to their own ideas as "neo-conservative." "Neo-conservative" is, in fact, a label that was imposed by the left on a group of former Democrats, loosely grouped around Senator "Scoop" Jackson who left the party fold at the end of the Seventies to join and support the Reagan Administration. It was accepted out of necessity for a while, because the left so dominates the political culture that resisting it was futile. But it is no longer used by neo-conservatives because, as Norman Podhoretz long ago observed, "neo-conservatism" is indistinguishable from conservatism itself. No "neo-conservative" that I am aware of has challenged Podhoretz’s conclusion. Yet others insist on describing conservatives – particularly those whom they regard as "hard-line" conservatives -- with this label. If the "neo" shoe can be made to fit conservatives, why not the hard-line left?