The Left in an Age of Fracture

(Illustration: Rafał Kucharczuk)

Dissent editor Michael Kazin recently participated in a symposium on the future of the left for the Polish website Kultura Liberalna. The following is his contribution; for the others, including Zygmunt Bauman and Marcel Gauchet, visit Kultura Liberalna.

We are seeing the ongoing fragmentation of what it means to be on the left. In the United States, many of those who care deeply about ecology, human rights or redistribution would not even see themselves as leftists, preferring some other term. This is in part because the mass media often describes as “left” the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which, for radicals of various stripes, is seen as an intrinsic part of the “establishment.”

Certainly, as long as most self-identified leftists come from professions and are economically comfortable while the labor movement and allied movements are in decline, redistribution will not be the major issue for the left. And, of course, the politics of growth increasingly comes into conflict with the need to stop climate change.

But when I think about main ideas for the left today, I do think–as Jacques Julliard suggests–that “justice” in its many definitions (racial, gender, sexual, environmental, even class!) is the most common trope of the left in the U.S. and perhaps in Europe. And when I think of “progress,” I would not say that the left is more anti-progress than the right, unless one equates “progress” with the proliferation of large manufacturing facilities powered by fossil fuels. We can say that the left is afraid of science, but that may be true only of a small number of anarchists or the kind of environmentalists who hammer spikes into trees to stop, temporarily, them from being cut down. Still, at least in the U.S. and Canada, there is a large cohort of young leftists who put their scientific knowledge to use in such fields as environmental engineering, alternative energy development, and data analysis.

On the other hand, I often hear in Europe that we need to choose between a more “progressive”, morally liberal, and culturally advanced left, and the left of the old working class which supports, e.g., the death penalty and is against gay marriage. I strongly oppose that. Choosing one or the other of these foci would be a historic and perhaps a fatal error for the left! When the left has been able to make a legitimate claim to being the only force that wants to advance both freedom and democracy, it has embraced both cultural modernism/pluralism and economic egalitarianism. And young working-class people–at least in North America and much of Europe–are often more open to cultural issues than to redistribution. This is one of the results of over three decades of neoliberal or libertarian hegemony. Activists in the now mostly defunct Occupy movement (or “uprising” since it never really jelled into a social movement) strongly denied there was any contradiction between the two foci. But they were stronger on utopian hopes and rhetoric than on political strategy. The problem is that the historic institutions of the redistributionist left (labor unions, left parties, informal and often locally based working-class societies of various kinds) are weaker and on the defensive nearly everywhere. If they cannot be reimagined and reinvented, then intellectuals who want to concentrate on economic equality will be speaking mainly to themselves.

At the same time I do not think that we need to choose between imagining society as a group of classes with certain interests (teachers, workers, etc.) or as a society of individuals with different cultural, social and religious needs. In my view the basis for a good society remains as follows: “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Nonetheless, the kind of class consciousness envisioned and advocated by Marxists clearly no longer describes reality, nor does it inspire large numbers of working-class people, left-wing intellectuals, and activists (some of whom are workers, of course). But we all do live nowadays, as Marx once predicted, in an almost fully capitalist political economy–and it would take an extremely naïve analyst to say that classes or, at least, fractions of classes don’t exist and struggle to defend their interests– both nationally and internationally. A left that is not rooted in social movements–old, new, yet to be born–would not be anything more than une gauche caviar.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.