March 1, 2002
Fifty years ago a few of the leading intellectuals on the left, such as Lionel Trilling and Dwight Macdonald, began to perceive growing weaknesses in the dominant liberal ideology of the time, and began to look hopefully for the emergence of a reasonable, responsible conservatism. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, as conservatives wonder whether a reasonable, responsible left is possible. As David Brooks has pointed out, being on the left in recent years has meant being for freeing Mumia and cheering infantile leftists when they throw bricks through windows to protest globalization.
September 11 made the position of the radical left even more acute, and brought out the worst instincts in many leftists. It has also provided a clear dividing line between two kinds of leftists: those who genuinely love America but who are confused, and those who resolutely hate America; between those who now fly the flag (some for the first time in their lives), and those who still want only to burn it. A number of prominent leftists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman, have responded splendidly and correctly in the aftermath of September 11, while many of the usual suspects—Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, etc.—have reacted according to script.
Which brings us to Michael Walzer’s immensely important article in the spring issue of Dissent magazine, entitled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” It might well be thought of as “Walzer’s Razor,” providing a cutting divide between the serious pro-American left from the frivolous anti-American left. (The article can be seen at: www.dissentmagazine.org/wwwboard/salon.html.) Walzer, a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of numerous books, including Just and Unjust Wars and Spheres of Justice, and thus is a serious man of the left. His chief complaint about his fellow leftists is that they are not serious. The leftist critique of American power, Walzer says, “has been stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate.” Walzer suggests that his fellow leftists begin to acknowledge that not all uses of American power are evil. The left conducts itself on this point with “willful irresponsibility” that Walzer thinks is “pathological.” David Horowitz would be hard pressed to exceed this critical vocabulary.
“The radical failure of the left’s response to the events of last fall raises a disturbing question,” Walzer writes; “Can there be a decent left in a superpower?” Walzer thinks there can, but only if the left jettisons most of its frivolous intellectual contrivances and emotional extravagances. Patriotism is not politically incorrect, as an earlier generation of leftists (George Orwell and Mary McCarthy, for example) understood. The leftists of earlier generations understood that it was possible to lend western democracies their “critical support.” Mary McCarthy famously remarked that she began to set aside her contempt for “bourgeois society” during World War II when she realized that she cared about the outcome of the war, and hoped the Allies would win. Too many of today’s leftists are embarrassed by, if not opposed to, America’s success to date in Afghanistan.
More fundamentally, Walzer calls on the left to find “something better than the rag-tag Marxism with which some much of the left operates today—whose chief effect is to turn world politics into a cheap melodrama.” Egalitarianism—the cornerstone of leftist social thought—is one thing; in recent decades the left has been overtaken with elaborate theories of imperialism that give off an air of paranoia worthy of the black helicopter crowd. Walzer notes that many leftists revel in their self-marginalization and irrelevance. Walzer calls for the left, in essence, to grow up, and “begin again.”
This may turn out to be the most difficult step for the left. Consider that the hottest book on the left today is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, which argues, among other risible ideas, that terrorism is merely “a crude conception and terminological reduction that is rooted in a police mentality.” (Worse: Hardt and Negri write that the Soviet Union was “a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom.”) Empire has been selling out at bookstores and is being translated into 10 languages. It has received the blessing of the New York Times, which commented on the “buzz” surrounding the book (thereby adding to the buzz). So long as Empire is a guiding light for the intellectual left, Walzer’s noble project has little chance of success.
Walzer is not an isolated voice on the left, however. The left-leaning sociologist Alan Wolfe took square aim at Empire in The New Republic just three weeks after the World Trade Center attack (it appeared in the October 1, 2001 issue of TNR), which means that his review did not receive the attention it deserved. Calling the book “shabby” and “a lazy person’s guide to revolution,” Wolfe writes that “Empire is to social and political criticism what pornography is to literature. . . Empire is a thoroughly non-serious book on a most serious topic, an outrageously irresponsible tour through questions of power and violence.”
So Walzer has one ally, at least. Responses to Walzer’s article will be posted on Dissent’s website as they arrive. Their tone and substance will reveal whether the left is participating in the post-September 11 sobriety that has swept much of the rest of the country.
Steven Hayward holds a joint appointment as senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and as Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. He is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.