In this week’s Observer, Andrew Anthony writes of the disillusionment that he has felt growing in him about the left since 9/11 when he was shocked by the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of many reactions. Billed as someone “questioning basic assumptions” as though this was some kind of shocking innovation, Anthony and his upcoming book “The Fall-Out: How a Guilty Liberal Lost his Innocence” (Jonathan Cape, to be published 6/9/2007) actually could be seen as standing comfortably upon the path well trodden by Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen and other left-wing figures who have to one degree or another reassessed themselves and their comrades in light of events since 9/11. Anthony seems to have rather gone further along this road; the longest extract from his “gripping” book is a rather tedious tract about liberal attitudes to crime. He appears to suffer from the two drawbacks of being neither as politically interesting, nor having as entertaining a written style, as the libertarians Hitchens and Cohen. He also has none of Hitchens’ natural gift for controversy, and as such appears to be trying too hard. To be honest, judging at least from his extracts it would appear that what promises to be voluminous book could be summarised in a few words: “I’ve gotten more right wing since I grew up”. At least, that’s the sentiment that strikes me. Therefore, in spite of superficial similarities, perhaps Anthony is more Peter Hitchens than Christopher, after all.
That having been said, there is nothing wrong in my view with constant questioning of basic left-wing assumptions, as long as the purpose is the furtherance of radical politics rather than its abandonment. Sometimes people doing this will come up with conclusions that may strike many of us as bizarre: the most immediately proximate example that strikes me is of those pro-war leftists who did remember the “left” part, the Drink-Soaked Trots for War. Good friends of this blog though they are, the decision that they took to support the war on Iraq strikes me as both wrong and irrational. However even then, it seems to me very clear that theirs is a left-wing politics and one whose motivation is the furtherance of the interests of the working classes against those forces which seek to oppress us. Ergo, they fall into a very different category than those who have simply moved to the right – indeed the contention of more than one of them is (similar to Cohen) that the left itself has become a cheerleader group for the far right overseas, on the back of a spurious concern to appear “anti-imperialist” by challenging the USA. I personally think their criticisms of sections of the left have weight whereas their politics on the war in Iraq do not. However theirs is nevertheless a unique and therefore valuabble contribution to the debate.
Challenging orthodoxies, even “left wing” orthodoxies may be a dangerous game, and one with precedents that have previously led to exponents simply advocating a right-wing politics, but nevertheless that process of political re-examination is crucial to our not becoming completely irrelevant and ossified as a tradition. Ideas are supposed to be in a constant state of debate and conflict, not preserved in aspic like religious artifacts.
It’s evident to me that this isn’t a feeling which is held by me alone. I was both surprised and delighted by the response to my article on the human search for immortality, which threw into stark relief the way in which some people on the left really do wish to challenge even accepted “liberal” political bounds that may have since become authoritarian. What also struck me was the way in which others instinctively did operate within those bounds, even volunteering themselves to furiously defend Blairite legislation on smoking in pubs, which had barely been attacked in the course of the article. And yet, the fact that the assumptions of a political culture which now seeks to legislate “good” behaviour into the populace had been challenged, drew more support from more people than I had dared to expect.
Sometimes pushing the bounds can be as simple as being the first person to say something uncomfortable which others may be thinking, albeit that they don’t want to broach the subject. A decision about whether to offer automatic support for a campaign by an anti-fascist organisation is just one example of a case in point. Such is the state of the left now that discussing such issues can be seen as a form of heresy. However it should not be, and the left should not be allowed to become a Stalinised rump run by “Leninist” clerics and heresiarchs; if that ever does become completely true, then the Andrew Anthonys, Peter Hitchenses and Leo Mckinstrys of this world will simply have been proven right.
So next time you all write something, maybe you might want to consider that being a little contrarian is no bad thing. You might even help to keep radical politics alive.