The Left Today: A Social Democratic View
An Interview with Mitchell Cohen

The Left Today: A Social Democratic View
An Interview with Mitchell Cohen

Mitchell Cohen: A Social Democratic View

OVER THE last several decades, a deep crisis has developed on the left, and the effort to rethink its politics and ideas has sparked perennial debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Phase 2‘s Robert Zwarg interviewed Dissent‘s co-editor Mitchell Cohen early this summer in Leipzig after Cohen spoke at the university on the panel, “1968 in America.”

Robert Zwarg: The war in Iraq dominated Democratic and Republican campaigns this past year and Americans seem split over it. At the same time it seems to block out other important questions. Given the differences between both candidates, what is your prognosis for the election and how would America’s international role change under Obama or McCain?

Mitchell Cohen: I think America’s international role will change under a President Obama but also under a President McCain. Both candidates—yes McCain too—understand that the type of unilateralism pursued by the Bush administration had very bad consequences. Even the Bush administration seems to have recognized this, at least in part, and had made some changes—a bit late and not enough. Bush was not just a foreign unilateralist. He was also a domestic unilateralist and seems to have assumed that he could do whatever he wanted because of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress and the mounting conservative strength in the Supreme Court. Fortunately, the political constellation changed in 2006 when the Democrats won Congress. The Supreme Court has also put breaks on some egregious behavior by the Bush Administration, but only in some cases.

American public opinion is a complicated matter. I know many European friends think the war is the decisive factor in the elections. Or they want it to be. But I do not think that is so for most Americans, although you are right that there are deep divisions concerning the war and great anger about it. I would not underestimate these factors in the country’s politics. Still, I think the economy will be central—unless there is a terrorist attack.

The rejection of Bush in 2006 was not due to a dramatic shift to the left. Had that been so, Obama would be far ahead in the polls. Surveys, at least in early summer, indicate a tough race coming up. The Democratic victory in 2006 was due to dismay at Bush’s mishandling of the war and scores of other things. It was a protest and a protest is a good start. Still it must be seen for what it was—an electoral success that linked the center and those of us who are more on the left (or who are “liberals” in American parlance). Obama will have no chance of winning without that sort of coalition. If his campaign assumes that the “center” of American politics is on the left today and couldn’t possibly vote Republican again, he will lose. If he wins, and if he wants to make the country more liberal, he will need then to pursue domestic policies that mobilize people and pull them in that direction. McCain has an interesting problem as well. To win, he must also secure that fuzzy, perhaps contradictory, political area that we called the “center,” and he has to make that appeal while the base of his party is on the right.

R.Z.: Let’s talk a little bit more about the international role of the United States. How do the two candidates differ on Middle East policy and the so-called “war on terror”?

M.C.: There are different issues at work here. Obama and McCain have differed sharply on the decision to go to war in Iraq. That is one thing that really separates them. Then things become more complicated. (I happen to disagree with both of their positions). Obama has run against the war and so if he wins and doesn’t find a good way out of Iraq in due time, his presidency will obviously fail. But if he wins and seeks a quick exit that results in disaster, his presidency will also be ruined. McCain supported the war from the beginning, although it should be pointed out that from early on he was a severe critic of the way it was being run. But frankly it doesn’t take an Albert Einstein to figure out that the war was a drastic botch. McCain is mistaken, radically so, if he imagines that the United States can remain in Iraq for decades. The consequences would be very bad and I doubt Americans, even those sympathetic to the Republicans, want that either. McCain talks of “victory” in Iraq and, frankly, I have no idea what that means. Saddam, a vicious dictator and killer, is gone. That is a good thing. But does victory mean an Iraq populated by Thomas Jeffersons? This was never a likely prospect. The U.S. faces very difficult choices in Iraq.

Both Obama and McCain have declared their strong support for Israel and have spoken about the enormous problem that will be posed should Iran have nuclear weapons. Obama seems to have more faith than McCain in the possibility of negotiating a solution with Tehran. Whichever candidate wins, both Iran and the Arab-Israeli zone will test him in addition to Iraq. I think it is important to stress the differences between Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iraq situation. It is a mistake to say, as parts of the left have, that if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, everything else will fall into place throughout the Middle East. Proponents of this view show a limited understanding of the region, both politically and historically-–or else they are obsessed with only one issue, Palestine, and don’t give a real damn about, say, Iraqis or Iranians. In fact, some parts of the left seem so devoted to “the Palestine Cause” that they cannot think in a political or a realistic way about relieving the suffering of Palestinian people.

I am not saying that there are no linkages across the region, only that we must think about them and treat them in a sophisticated manner, not in reductionist ways, and without what I would call “anti-imperialist cheap shots.” The Israeli-Palestinian problem should be solved in its own right, because people—both Israelis and Palestinians—suffer from it. At the same time, we need to face up to how hard this will be. And even if it is solved tomorrow, will Iran become a democratic secular state? If it is solved tomorrow, will it provide a solution to poverty in Egypt? Will Kurdish national rights no longer be an issue and Iraq’s problems solved?

R.Z.: The European Union has presented itself as the great multilateral alternative to the United States, especially after 9/11. This sometimes came along with anti-American undertones, such as in the famous Habermas/Derrida Manifesto of 2003. How do you understand the relationship between the EU and the U.S. in global politics?

M.C.: Anti-Americanism is usually a substitute for real politics and proposals. I wouldn’t brand Habermas or Derrida as anti-American. But when I reread the Habermas-Derrida Manifesto today it seems pretty hollow to me. It comes off as a gesture, a “Kellogg-Briand Pact” for intellectuals, with comparable ineffectiveness because it fails to take real politics into account. After all, did opposition to the war, as they suggested, create a new self-conscious European public? Didn’t France and the Netherlands not long afterwards vote “no” on the EU referendum? And within a few years two of the European political leaders who led opposition to the war—Schroeder and Chirac—were out of power, one of them running off to work for Putin’s Russia and the other tail-spinning into history and succeeded as president by the one member of his party whom he did not want to succeed. Here it should be noted that it is not just a matter of who was for or against the war since Sarkozy supported Chirac’s opposition to it. I don’t point to these things to justify the Bush administration, which has been one of the worst in American history. I am a left-Trans-Atlanticist, so I think Americans need to listen attentively to European friends. But some of our European friends need to listen more carefully to their own voices. It is not a good thing when one side is hard-of-hearing and the other side is shrill or smug.

There have been some positive changes in U.S.-European relations. I hope they are reinforced by the upcoming elections in the U.S. In any event, the Bush administration will be gone after January. But I think we must also distinguish multi-polarism from multilateralism. I don’t think Chirac’s goals were really multilateralist. He wanted a French-led Europe to be a global counter-pole to the U.S. This represented a kind of neo-Gaullism that couldn’t adjust to a new age—an age that is post-Gaullist. Sarkozy’s foreign policy, for whatever its flaws, represents a useful step beyond this. The U.S. and Europe will never have identical interests, but some of our important interests are, indeed, very much in common. Today, in our world, with politicized Islamist movements and the rise of authoritarian China (to mention just two matters), I think reinforcing trans-Atlantic democratic republicanism is important. Those of us on the left would also want societies informed by socially egalitarian values—call them social democratic or democratic socialist or liberal left—on both sides of the Atlantic.

R.Z.: Let’s talk about the anti-globalization movement. Some people have envisaged a new internationalist left arising out of it. They point to the demonstrations in Seattle and later, or the success of the Negri/Hardt book Empire. But this movement also seems to repeat mistakes of the past left. You wrote in Dissent about a “left that doesn’t learn,” particularly concerning Israel but I suppose the argument extends to anti-Americanism too. How would you describe the current state of the left and–to make the question more difficult–how could there be a modern internationalist left that doesn’t fall into the traps of the past?

M.C.: That’s a complicated multi-dimensional question. I am a democrat and an internationalist, but not a simplistic democrat or a simplistic internationalist. I am for an internationalism that doesn’t ensnare itself in slogans. There’s a tendency in parts of the left to imagine that broad principles are all that matter in politics. Particular problems and particular issues get lost or go out of focus—like a country’s political culture, for example. It’s a serious mistake. Democracy cannot work unless you have a community of citizens who are responsible for each other. Just repeating that we are all human beings won’t get you far beyond repetitions. I favor what I once called rooted cosmopolitanism. The left has always been against integral nationalism, and rightly so, but I am also against integral cosmopolitanism, against imagining that we will—and should want—to arrive, finally, in some political and cultural Esperanto-land. We won’t get there, and securing democratic self-government is more important that aspiring to abstractions.

A deep crisis in left-wing thinking developed in the last decades. It emerged before 1989. Nineteen eighty-nine meant the end of communism and what was left of Marxism-Leninism. Actually, there were few serious Marxists by then and almost none in Communist countries. But can you cite any example of a Leninist party that overthrew capitalism and brought about something that can be recognized as “liberation”? In the meantime, social democratic thinking has been running on empty for a long time. Its politics centered on the welfare state as a means for redistribution, but the abilities of states to do that have been at least partly undermined. Postmodern leftism came into vogue but mostly in the academy. It never achieved political traction due to its hermetic preoccupations and its obscurantist thinking.

Those who assert, with obsessive conviction, that they are “socialists” or “leftists” but “not social democrats” are a little too religious for my tastes. They insist on their “convictions” like priests insist on doctrine. It is better, perhaps, to remember Hegel’s criticism of Kant: You cannot really learn to swim without jumping in the water. You learn things by the experience and you are not the same afterwards. Or at least you shouldn’t be. The same is true with left-wing principles. Consequences matter, not just theories and convictions. The point of being on the left, at least for me, is to help people’s lives, especially those damaged by the inequalities of today’s world; the point is not simply to live up to an intellectual’s ideals or to prove that the left had a correct theory in 1880, or 1968 or whenever.

There has been a failure on the left, particularly the social democratic left, to come up with proposals addressing social suffering in a changing world—the “globalizing world.” Blair’s Third Way is about to fall apart. The “anti-globalization left” hasn’t provided much in the way of real proposals either. Being “anti-global” makes little sense to me. Challenging the premises and a lot of the consequences of the last thirty years of “globalization” does make sense to me. It must come with serious programs that go, for example, beyond the Tobin tax (which was itself a pretty good idea). The Hardt/Negri book—I wrote a long critique of it in Dissent a few years back (“An Empire of Cant,” Summer 2001)—seems to me to be hundreds of pages of delirium, postmodern reinvention of the left’s mistakes. Do you really believe that the internet plus the “multitude” (a substitute for the proletariat) will bring utopia? Get rid of all their postmodern fog, and what is proposed by them? “Global citizenship?” Is that a novel idea? They favor a guaranteed social wage for all. Well I do too. But how do you do it? Negri/Hardt want to reapportion the means of production. Has nobody thought of that before? True, nobody thought it would be accomplished by “the multitude” as a “constituent power” at “the site of ontological constitution,” as they put it. I am sure that the 40% of Egyptians who live on less than two dollars a day are pleased to know that they are constituting ontologically. Perhaps they will blog about it soon. That is, if they are not listening to the fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood and getting daily help from its local social networks.

Theories like those of Hardt/Negri are popular because of the failure of the democratic left, of which I consider myself a part, to reinvent itself. Since I help edit a journal of the democratic left, I have to accept some blame. I will say this: When and if new ideas come, they will have to address the global and regional levels, but also and especially the national level, however much the left disdains it and prefers to imagine that the future must be transnational alone. If the left has nothing to say about citizenship and responsibilities on a national level, right-wing populists will step into the breach, particularly in times of economic crisis.

R.Z.: Dissent seems to have a progressive tradition that differs from a lot of the left concerning anti-Semitism and Israel. Here in Germany, it’s easy to trace the sort of discussions that led to a more pro-Israel left and opposition to anti-Semitism. How did Dissent’s position emerge?

M.C.: Dissent is against anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. We don’t have a unified position on Israel. There are disagreements, even sharp ones. Still, I think most of us reject the clichés proffered in parts of the left today. I think, however, it is useful to remember that there are and have always been different types of left. Some people on the left always addressed the world in complicated ways; others relied on formulas to explain everything. I think you can speak about right and wrong on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without concluding that Israel has no right to exist or imagining that Hamas is a force for liberation along with the misunderstood theocrats in Tehran.

Much, although not all, of the left was fairly sympathetic to the Jewish state up to 1967. There were, to be sure, all sorts of zigzags. And Israel was dominated back then by a social democratic party with pretty balanced policies and which had ties with socialist parties around the world. Things changed after the Six Day War. The reasons are many. Israel’s victory led a significant part of the left to embrace what I sometimes call the “anti-imperialism of fools.” The logic was so simple: since the U.S. was doing wrong in Vietnam (which it certainly was), and since the U.S. was now giving considerable aid to the Israelis, there must be something wrong with the Israelis. It is all a matter of imperialism and anti-imperialism. After all, every conflict everywhere is the same. That is one type of thinking that characterizes what I call “the left that doesn’t learn.” I am for a left that is capable of making distinctions. I think Israel was right to preempt militarily its mobilized enemies in the 1967 war and that the Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians were the aggressors. It doesn’t matter who fired the first shot. The issue is who made war unavoidable. I also think a lot of Israeli policy afterwards was flawed, deeply so, particularly the settlement policy. There was a good reason—self-defense—that Israel occupied the Occupied Territories with its army; there was no security reason, and no good reason of any sort, to allow nationalist-religious extremists to establish settlements.

Today, there is also an overlap between a type of anti-Zionism and a type of anti-Semitism. There is a mental structure common to most prejudices—it is shared too by anti-Americanism. It is easy when you can provide all the answers in advance by formula instead of engaging the real world and the lives of real people. I suspect anti-Semitism as well as anti-Zionism in parts of the left trace back to a long-standing failure to understand the particular circumstances of Jews in Europe. This failure was often linked to a blind internationalism that envisaged one solution to all problems. If we create a classless society, there will be no Jewish problem. If we create a classless society, there will be no sexism or racism or…well, fill in the blank. Altogether, this blindness fosters intolerance, smugness, and a penchant for intellectual shortcuts. “Third Worldism” was one such shortcut and now it has taken on a “postcolonial” guise which, when applied to the Middle East, imagines that anything Hamas does is the fault of “Zionism.” Well, perhaps we should ask some questions about Hamas’s internationalism.

R.Z.: Let’s get back again to the terms we’ve used, like “social democracy,” “liberal democracy,” and “democratic socialism.” Dissent comes out of the American anti-Stalinist left of the 1950s. The German left also drew upon similar traditions, like the Frankfurt School, which were strongly critical of Stalinism and Bolshevism. Nonetheless Marxism still inspires more people in the left on the European continent than in the U.S. Around Dissent there is more talk of social democracy. Could you elaborate on these terms and what they mean for an American left position? Moreover, can you really say that social democracy can solve the problems of modern capitalism? Can it really make a change on the global level? The record of European social democrats has not been entirely successful or admirable in tackling economic crises and social democrats have sometimes allowed for some pretty authoritarian measures to be taken, particularly in Germany.

M.C.: I think a little too much energy is devoted to defining oneself by these terms. If someone calls me a social democrat today and a democratic socialist tomorrow and a liberal leftist the day after that—well, that’s ok. Moreover, if you look back at history, you find that these words had multiple careers. In the late 1890s, a “Social Democrat” in Germany was a Marxist. Social democracy became a term of abuse due mainly to Lenin who insisted “Social Democracy” as a pair of words is “unscientific” because democracy is a form of state and a classless society will be stateless. Basta! It’s a sectarian terminological game and my politics are not religious.

You have to decide what’s important. I was once a Marxist, I am not one any longer but I still appreciate Marx’s work, draw on it, and I dislike the histrionics of many ex-Marxists. What is important to me is a democratic and egalitarian social sensibility and a corresponding commitment to its translation into political and economic efforts. It is a sensibility that contrasts dramatically with the way our western societies have evolved as of late, certainly American society. The responsibility of the left is to make people’s lives better, to empower the lives of common people, and to weaken hierarchies and power structures based on illegitimate and unmerited privileges. At the same time, we must remember the disasters of the twentieth century and not get caught up in illiberal illusions. Egalitarianism must be modulated by the counter-principles of liberalism (here I mean in its classical sense). I conclude that it is better to have liberal democratic frameworks and to struggle for more social egalitarianism within them than it is to denounce representative democracy and have no coherent idea of what you would put in its place.

I assume a distinction between social democracy as a general perspective and social democratic parties in and of themselves, although I would vote for them—well, in most cases—if I were a citizen of a European country, just as I vote for the Democrats in the U.S. I don’t mean to let social democratic parties off the hook. They infuriate me often enough, just as the Democrats do. Think back a decade. There were social democratic governments in almost every European country. There was the possibility for coordination across borders (and through the EU) on behalf of a better politics and in support of social legislation. It is difficult for me to think of anything outstanding that they did. But that doesn’t mean, “Hah, Marxism was right all along.” It doesn’t prove that and anyway, that’s a devotional position, not a political one. A religion of Marxist categories is not going to get the left out of its impasse any more than the postmodern lament, “Alas! we are fragmented.” The impasse is, I think, especially dangerous today because I think we are in a time of dramatic changes in the world—a conjunction of many things.

So I don’t think that social democrats have provided a solution—but I also don’t think there is a single solution. The problems posed by globalization are multiple and it is still worthwhile to take a hint from Max Weber: different spheres and processes have different logics. Do we want a global command economy with a five-year plan? That strikes me as an extremely bad idea. Do we want transnational corporations and finance to dictate priorities for the world? That bad idea is, in simplest terms, the agenda of what is often called “neoliberalism.” Its intellectual basis is a religious view of markets and it leaves a lot of poor people in hell while telling them they are soon to be saved. At the risk of being too facile, the social democratic conclusion would seem to be that we need intermediate institutions and power structures like the IMF, the World Bank, states, and the EU (among others). The key question is how to make these structures and institutions responsive to alternative sets of values, needs and interests. One way is to reinvent and strengthen the roles of unions. The IMF is now run by a French social democrat, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and so far, I am not persuaded that he is initiating something fresh. If I were him, I would feel a great burden.

While I do not think social democrats always act admirably, I do think it is better to secure a social democratic framework, with all its flaws, and then work for reform within that context. That is not easy. It often lacks inspirational rhetoric. It requires a persuasive reformist politics that avoids self-deceptions. Let me take a contemporary German example and pose a tough question. Oskar LaFontaine, Germany’s former finance minister, quit the social democrats and leads the Left Party. He accused the social democrats of failing to live up to their own values and of rejecting his ideas. Grant that, but then ask: If LaFontaine, after decades as an SPD leader, could not persuade his own party of his views, just why does he think he can persuade the citizens of Germany as a whole?

Let’s go back to the American case. Remember that Europeans are more accustomed to extensive social welfare provisions, to a more substantive welfare state than we are in America. I know that there are also all sorts of problems and debates about them nowadays—Sarkozy, in particular, wants to challenge them in France—but I think Europeans need to buttress and develop social citizenship rather than move towards a variant on the American model. If the U.S. were more “social democratic,” our citizens would have many more social and economic rights, the sort of rights Europeans accepted as norms. I wish we had to struggle to protect decent health care provision, but in American reality there are close to 50 million people without health insurance. So being a social democrat in the U.S. doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it does in Europe, although the people around Dissent have been called facetiously “the only Swedish social democrats in America” (we take that as a compliment, by the way). What is important to me as a “social democrat” is to create the sort of political and social coalitions that will be able to address and remedy problems like our health care system, which is now dominated by the priorities of insurance company profits. And to address, in the big picture, on both immediate but also structural levels, the extraordinary growth of inequality in America in the last decades. Substantial economic inequalities damage political democracy and one way to counter that is to speak of social democracy.

Robert Zwarg, a graduate student at the University of Leipzig, interned at Dissent last spring. Mitchell Cohen is co-editor of Dissent and a professor of political science at Bernard Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. This interview appeared in German in the September issue of Phase 2, a Leipzig-based, left-wing journal.


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