FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Peter Collier and I assembled a group of disillusioned New Leftists for a conference in Washington we called "Second Thoughts." These second thoughts had been provoked by many factors and events, but most instrumental among them was the wholesale slaughter of innocents in "liberated" Cambodia and Vietnam by political forces that had been supported by the left. It was not the first sprouting of such radical second thoughts. Generations of leftists before us had been repelled by the similar crimes of Stalin and Mao and Castro, and had shed their progressive worldviews for more sober and conservative thoughts. Indeed, Irving Kristol, who was on the panel of "elders" we invited to our conference, observed that second thoughts had begun with the creation of the modern left during the French Revolution and had been repeated many times since. Our second thoughts he said, somewhat sardonically, were in fact a Yogi Berra moment of "déjà vu all over again."
And now it is déjà vu once more. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath have produced a whole new generation of second thoughters in various stages of reassessment. These include such luminaries of the literary left as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens who this fall joined with their sometime opponents to defend America – the arch imperial power of the age –against a radical Islamic enemy, which they previously might have regarded as the historical agent of the Third World oppressed. Now the editor of Dissent, Michael Walzer, has come forward with an articulate posing of the question of second thoughts and how far to push them. A philosopher, social critic and lifelong Democratic Socialist Walzer has pointedly titled his article, "Can There Be A Decent Left?"
The seriousness of the question can measured by others in the fact that insofar as there is a "decent left," Michael Walzer has exemplified it throughout his political career. I should interject here that I crossed political swords with Walzer nearly 40 years ago, when I was a young and combative Marxist in England. I do not remember the substance of our disagreements – and I no longer have copies of Views, the obscure leftwing magazine that printed them. But I am as certain that he, was the more civil of the two of us, as I am that he, then being to my right, was more right on the issues.
There is a sense, moreover, in which the faction of the left that Dissent represents is itself the decent faction of the left. During the Sixties Dissent’s founder Irving Howe symbolized the resistance within the left to the totalitarian elements who came to dominate its decade. Although in the 1980s its editors were seduced into a "critical" defense of the Nicaraguan regime, they have an otherwise honorable record of having opposed Communism throughout the Cold War, even if they only grudgingly supported or – worse – were often excessively critical of America’s efforts to contain the Communist threat.
Yet there is a sense, also, in which "decency" more describes Walzer’s personal temperament than it does the politics of the Dissent community. One obvious manifestation of decency is to respect those you disagree with if they deserve it. As a matter of disclosure, I must interject here that Dissent editor Paul Berman once described me as a "demented lunatic" -- as though the redundancy were necessary to do justice to a political enemy, despite the ludicrous overkill. Dissent’s other philosophical figure, Richard Rorty, has defined his left as a movement "against cruelty." But his own writings have not been without crude demonizations and peremptory dismissals of his neo-conservative opponents (not to mention Republicans generally) as dolts and fascists, whose ideas a civilized progressive is obliged to dismiss. He has even celebrated the left’s political domination of the universities, something he well knows is the result of an ideological cleansing of conservatives that he would certainly deplore if the roles were reversed.
In eras gone by, political second thoughts tended to focus on the left’s active support for nightmare regimes, which it mistakenly took to be earthly paradises, and the embodiment of its utopian dreams. By contrast Walzer’s doubts originate in his observations of the left’s passivity in regard to the defense of America against a nightmare threat. This is not wholly different from the past, but it is different enough to warrant our attention.
"Many left intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriot feeling as politically incorrect," Walzer writes. "That’s why they had such difficulty responding emotionally to the attacks of September 11 or joining in the expression of solidarity that followed." In their first responses, he notes, leftists failed "to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused." Instead, they felt "schadenfreude," a German word meaning joy at another’s sorrows, a "barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved."
Even though some of these leftists regained their "moral balance" (for many it was more likely a sense of political self-preservation) they still exhibited a myopic attitude when addressing the problem of what should be done. Their sense of being internal exiles in America was again at the root of the symptom: "That’s why their participation in the policy debate after the attacks was so odd; their proposals (turn to the UN, collect evidence against bin Laden, and so on) seem to have been developed with no concern for effectiveness and no sense of urgency. They talked and wrote as if they could not imagine themselves responsible for the lives of their fellow-citizens. That was someone else’s business; the business of the left was … what? To oppose the authorities, whatever they did." Hence the left put its energies into defending the civil liberties of … suspected terrorists.
Walzer is himself still unwilling to put it so bluntly. This would mean finally stepping away from the left, which he is unready to do. So he applauds the exaggerated concern of the left for, say, the prisoners of Camp X-Ray, calling it "a spirited defense of civil liberties" and a "good result." But this is a minor hesitation in the face of the large question he has raised about the way the left sees and feels itself to be an alien force in its own country. For this is a classic second thought.
In my own passage out of the left, nearly twenty years ago, it occurred to me that my revolutionary comrades never addressed themselves to the obvious questions for social reformers: "What makes a society work?" Which is the preamble to "What will make this society work?" In all the socialist literature I had read, there was hardly a chapter devoted, for example, to the creation of wealth. Socialist theory was exclusively addressed to the conquest of power and the division of wealth that someone else had created. Was it any surprise that the socialist societies they created broke world records in making their inhabitants poor?
Michael Walzer puzzles at length over the failure of the left to understand the religious nature of the al-Qaeda enemy: "Whenever writers on the left say that the root cause of terror is global inequality or human poverty, the assertion is in fact a denial that religious motives really count. Theology, on this view, is just the temporary, colloquial idiom in which the legitimate rage of oppressed men and women is expressed." He notes that "a few brave leftists" like Christopher Hitchens have described the al-Qaeda movement as a "clerical fascism." (Actually this is a lingering political correctness in Walzer. Hitchens described al-Qaeda as "Islamo-fascists," which is quite different from those Catholic clerics who supported Franco in Spain.) But he does not seem to grasp the religious roots of radicalism generally, and therefore fails to understand the affinity of American radicals for al-Qaeda and its Palestinian kin.
The indecent left reacted badly to 9/11, concludes Walzer, because ideologically it is still under the spell of the Marxist schema. These "ideologically primed leftists were likely to think that they already understood whatever needed to be understood. Any group that attacks the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed, and its agenda must be the agenda of the left. It isn’t necessary to listen to its spokesmen. What else can they want except...the redistribution of resources across the globe, the withdrawal of American soldiers from wherever they are, the closing down of aid programs for repressive governments, the end of the blockade of Iraq, and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?"
This is an excellent reading of the political left. But Walzer is still puzzled: "I don’t doubt that there is some overlap between this program and the dreams of al-Qaeda leaders -- though al-Qaeda is not an egalitarian movement, and the idea that it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crazy. The overlap is circumstantial and convenient, nothing more. A holy war against infidels is not, even unintentionally, unconsciously, or ‘objectively,’ a left politics. But how many leftists can even imagine a holy war against infidels?"
This question reveals a gap in Walzer’s perception of the left that has its roots in his own decency and in the fact that, after all is said and done, he is a moralist and reformer, not a revolutionary. There is, in fact, a large literature examining the religious character of the modern revolutionary left written by authors as different as Berdyaev, Talmon, Voegelin, Niemeyer, Furet and Kolakowski. (I have, of course, written extensively about this myself in Radical Son and The Politics of Bad Faith.) If one looks, it is not hard to see how the left’s social melodrama fits neatly the traditional Judeo-Christian eschatologies, from which its key texts were derived (Marx, after all, came from a long line of rabbis). There is the Fall from an idyllic communal state, the travail through a vale of suffering and tears, and then a social redemption. There is the passion for moral purity and the purges – witch-hunts in fact – that result. The redemption projected of course comes not through the agency of a divine Messiah but through the actions of a political vanguard and its power in the socialist state.
In the last thirty years, but particularly in the last dozen it has been impossible for leftists to visualize the utopian redemption that one once motivated their mis-labeled "idealism." The catastrophe of every socialist scheme of the 20th Century has had a devastating effect on leftwing optimism and replaced it with the a corrosive, anti-capitalist nihilism that makes it impossible for most leftists to defend a country which compared to its enemy is a veritable heaven on earth. All that remains of the revolutionary project is the bitter hatred of the society its exponents inhabit, and their destructive will to see bring it down. This answers Walzer’s question as to how so-called "progressives" could be either so unwilling or so slow to distinguish or defend their own country – a tolerant, secular democracy -- in the face of an evil force and its terrorist attacks.
Peter Collier and I drew attention to this nihilism more than a decade ago in a book we wrote about our second thoughts. We, too, pointed out the sense of alienation as the defining element of the "progressive" left. As editors of Ramparts magazine, we had produced a cover featuring a seven year old – the son of our art director Dugald Stermer – holding the flag of the Vietcong, America’s communist enemy in Vietnam. The cover line said, "Alienation is when your country is at war, and you want the other side to win." Oddly enough, in our "second thoughts" book, Destructive Generation, we offered as an exemplary statement of this alienation a quote from Michael Walzer: "It is still true," Walzer had written, "that only when I go to Washington to demonstrate do I feel at home there." The statement made more than a decade ago measures Walzer’s present second thoughts. Like Christopher Hitchens, who published a beautiful tableau of his own transition for Vanity Fair after 9/11, Michael Walzer has come home.
His second thoughts are not really different from the second thoughts of others before him – despite his stubborn unwillingness to really let go of the alienating force. As presently stated they are inspired by the nihilism of the left, rather than a rejection of the left’s visionary goals. In the end, Walzer does not actually answer the title question of his article with a "no." But he comes very close. "I would once have said that we [the left] were well along: the American left has an honorable history, and we have certainly gotten some things right, above all, our opposition to domestic and global inequalities. But what the aftermath of September 11 suggests is that we have not advanced very far – and not always in the right direction. The left needs to begin again."
Those of us who have already had our second thoughts are naturally skeptical of this optimism: The left has been beginning over again since the French Revolution. And over and over. If it has to begin yet another time after all this tragedy -- if it is déjà vu all over again -- why not give it up entirely and save the world another century of grief?