Look left today and you will see intellectual crisis. Look first at the mainstream. Social democrats led governments across Europe in recent years. Their talk of a “third way” often displaced social imagination. They rushed to be the “center” instead of trying to pull the center to the left. Now they are losing power or are in electoral jeopardy across the continent.
The French Socialist Party seemed to be a partial exception. It made a credible effort to balance socialist concerns with market exigencies: it enacted a thirty-five-hour work week, extended health insurance to poorer citizens, reduced unemployment by nine hundred thousand. But it could not link these measures to a larger vision. Lionel Jospin failed to mobilize political support through social legislation and even fled the word “socialist” at election time.
Some “radicals” have a canned explanation of what’s wrong: nobody is “radical enough.” What does this mean? Siphoning off votes, Nader-like, so that governments are delivered into conservative hands? Trotskyists and Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s faction did this in France, and “Refoundation Communists” did the same in Italy. They are part of a left-that-never-learns. If the social democratic left is in deep crisis, and if the growth of right-wing populism in Europe is cause for considerable concern, it doesn’t follow that the left-that-never-learns offers an alternative. It follows only that extremes burgeon when democratic debate about social justice dissolves into a mythical “middle,” and when an “end” is proclaimed to “ideology” and “history.”
What of movements critical of neoliberal globalization? They have provoked vital arguments about really-existing capitalism and its impact on the world’s poor. But there are some worrisome developments. During the early years of the cold war, peace movements surfaced that somehow always “understood” Moscow but viewed all anti-Stalinists, even on the left, as “McCarthyist.” Discussion of serious matters such as nuclear proliferation was effectively hijacked. A similar danger arises today if a 1960s-style third worldism (a legacy of the left-that-never-learns) hijacks the agenda of critics of neoliberalism. Indictment of global economic inequality is in danger of being conflated with intellectually corrupt efforts to “understand” Osama bin Laden and to turn Yasir Arafat into Nelson Mandela.
Dissent has tried since September 11 to sharpen debate within the left. We continue and broaden the effort in this issue. Jeffrey W. Rubin’s article on the evolution of the Latin American left, Jeffrey C. Isaac’s reconsideration of the cultural cold war, and my own essay raise some troubling matters for the left. None of them addresses the events of September 11 directly, but they...
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