Politics & Policy

Demarcating the Limits of Leftist Extremism

Tamika Mallory (center) and Linda Sarsour (second from left) lead protesters at a march in Fairfax, Va., July 14, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The Left needs to sort out the reasonable from the unreasonable.

On May 18, Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry debated Michelle Goldberg and Michael Eric Dyson in Toronto on the merits of political correctness. The debate was infuriatingly unproductive, turning as it did into a wide-ranging but rather unfulfilling discussion. Still, I was glad to see that despite their frequent digressions, both sides managed to produce the occasional insight.

I wish, though, that one particular point of contention had been further explored. Around halfway through the debate, Peterson asked Goldberg if she thought the Left ever went too far in its theories or tactics. She replied with a bland comment about how she was against leftist “violence and censorship.” This was moral pusillanimity of the highest order. Being against violence and censorship is the ethical equivalent of being against slavery or genocide; it is axiomatic and requires neither serious thought nor moral courage to state such a position. Goldberg failed to answer the real question Peterson was asking: What left-wing beliefs should be forbidden, deemed too radical and dangerous for anyone to hold?

One longs for the day when left-wing intellectuals answer this question — or even begin to contend with it. As Peterson noted, our intellectual culture has been largely successful in delineating the sorts of opinions which are unacceptable for right-wingers to embrace. Race hatred is not okay. Apologetics for Klansmen and National Socialists are not okay. Peterson says, correctly, that the cultural taboos on racial-supremacist sentiment are fully justified; we know what racist ideologies can do and have done, and so we feel disgusted whenever anyone attempts to resuscitate them.

Yet no similar mechanism exists for banishing leftist crackpots from intellectual life. Even today, it is still possible to hear leftist writers say nice things about Lenin and Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao. (If you don’t believe my charge that thinkers on the far left continue to produce sympathetic drivel even of Mao, murderer of dozens of millions of Chinese people, read if you can without vomiting The Enigma of Capital by Marxist elder statesman David Harvey.) No belief, no matter how far to the Left, is morally proscribed; to this reality Goldberg is seemingly indifferent.

It is the responsibility of each side to police and ostracize its own lunatics. National Review knows a thing or two about purging crazies — William F. Buckley Jr. once ousted anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists from the conservative movement. (I would argue that the Right today often fails in its duty to reject unacceptable opinions, but that is a subject for a different essay.) The academic and intellectual Left, however, undertakes no comparable effort. It should begin to.

It is the responsibility of each side to police and ostracize its own lunatics.

Of course, the impetus for demarcating the limits of left-wing opinion must originate on the left, not the right. Essays published at National Review are unlikely to have any discernible effect on what the Left deems tolerable. But an exposition of what the Right finds inexcusable on the Left would not be totally fruitless and might serve to spark further discussion; below, then, is a list of convictions that many conservatives would like to see ejected from leftist thought.

1) Anti-Semitic criticism of Israel. General criticism of Israeli policies is legitimate. Perfectly reasonable thinkers can chastise the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, or its expansion of settlements, or its use of lethal force to suppress Palestinian protests. Legitimate criticism, however, is not to be confused with sympathy for the terrorists and fanatics of Hamas. Jeremy Corbyn, who once spoke of his “friends” in Hamas and who compares the Israeli government record to that of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, would do well to learn this distinction. Other leftists would similarly benefit from appreciating such differences.

Anti-Semitism among left-wing critics of Israel is not a fringe phenomenon. Leaders of the Women’s March openly associate themselves with the virulently anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan. The U.K. Labor party has been forced to deal with anti-Semitic scandal after scandal. Hamid Dabashi, who I regret to say is a professor at Columbia, regularly recycles anti-Semitic canards; a few weeks ago, he wrote: “[For] every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name of ‘Israel’ will pop up as a key actor in the atrocities.” (Bafflingly, Dabashi fancies himself an anti-racist even as he blames all the world’s evils on “ugly” Israel. One wonders how he would explain away the misery and suffering of the people of Venezuela and Cuba and North Korea.)

A serious Left should reject anti-Semitism.

2) Fond remembrance of Communists past. In 1994, the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked if the carnage of Stalinism would have been justified had it succeeded in bringing about utopia. He replied in the affirmative. The editors of the socialist Jacobin magazine refer to the Bolshevik revolutionaries as people who “dared to fight for something better.” David Harvey, whom I mentioned earlier, can still conjure up praise for Mao; when Fidel Castro died, British writer Tariq Ali published an essay which saw fit to mention that Castro had “created an education system and health service that remain the envy of much of the neoliberal world.” (Unmentioned in Ali’s piece was the appalling nonexistence of political democracy in Cuba.)

Now, I believe the West needs a thoughtful, social-democratic Left, the better to keep the free-market system honest, to fight on behalf of labor, to give a voice to the voiceless. I even believe that the Marxist critique of capitalism is insightful and must be taken seriously. On this point, even The Economist agrees. But the historical record of 20th century Communism is heinous, and there’s no point attempting to deny it.

Nor can Communist atrocities be dismissed as accidents of history (“If only Trotsky had won!” and so on). Mass murder took on a familiar form throughout the Communist world. Revolutionary parties would come to power after winning a civil war. Mass killings followed as the traditional elements of the old regimes were liquidated. Real and imagined enemies of the new revolutionary governments were massacred. The “wealthy,” vaguely defined, had their property expropriated, were exterminated, or both. It’s the same, sad story, from Russia to China to Cuba.

A serious Left should reject rosy-eyed interpretations of Communist history.

3) Intersectional theories that breed indignation and hatred. I do not mean here to attempt to define all intersectional conceptual frameworks as morally unacceptable. Intersectionality has served useful purposes historically. It pointed out that extant protections in the U.S. legal system were occasionally failing to protect certain groups from discrimination.

But much of mainstream intersectional theory — of the sort espoused by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins — has become pathological. Intersectionality encourages women to feel aggrieved because they are victims of systemic patriarchal violence. Intersectionality preaches resentment to ethnic minorities, telling them that they live in a white-supremacist country which detests and seeks to destroy them. Intersectionality obliterates the precise use of words and the fine distinctions of language. Intersectionality concocts un-empirical theories about the “social construction of gender” which refuse to concede that any behavioral differences between men and women are caused by biology. Intersectionality tells people (such as white women) that they are both oppressors and oppressed, morally culpable for the former and victims of the latter.

We’ve already begun to see some of the consequences of intersectional dictates in our universities — calls for censorship, sheer meltdowns over racist incidents, recriminations and baseless accusations of racism, contempt for professors who refuse to toe the intersectional line.

A serious Left should reject intersectionality.

I am under no delusion that these suggestions will get very far. But Jordan Peterson is right to argue that the Left needs to begin sorting out the reasonable from the unreasonable. Its marked inability to do so is shocking. Michelle Goldberg should take note, and so should her colleagues at the New York Times.

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