In 2015 Nick Cohen announced his ‘resignation‘ from the left in protest at its open support for the Islamist extreme-right. Christopher Hitchens lost many an old comrade on the proposition that the secular left should oppose ‘theocratic fascism’. Muslim reformers such as Ayann Hirsi Ali and Majid Nawaz have been left out in the old by those on the left who consider themselves the champions of feminism, secularism and homosexual rights.
Why is theleftincreasingly shy about confronting the very illiberal dangers of Islamic extremism and evermore willing to embrace figures of intolerance and preachers of hate?An alignment between the left and Islamism would have been inconceivablebut in retrospect this should not come as a surprise. Serious figures on the political left have had a soft spot for non-leftist extremists and political leaders in the past.
When it came to Western military action against Argentina during their invasion of the Falkland’s Jeremy Corbyn sympathized with Argentine irredentism. When Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait Tariq Ali and John Pilger viewed it as American overreach. After Milosevic’s paramilitaries rampaged over the Balkans Noam Chomsky took exception not to the massacres but to neo-conservative attacks on the Milosevic regime.
What these cases have in common is that the aggressor nations were not free and open democratic societies but most importantly they were opposed by free and open democratic societies. And therein lies the justification. Those throughout the world who have imbibed personally or culturally a Marxist informed world view are predisposed to treat liberal democratic and hence ‘capitalist’ societies as the negative, imperialist and paternalistic actor. And those who oppose Western societies and their global influence, whatever shape they come in, can reasonably be viewed as motivated by the noble pursuit of anti-imperialism.
Marxism has had an enormous intellectual impact across the world and despite its failure to survive as a serious ideology in economic affairs it nonetheless remains a major influence on political thought today. Those on the left who espouse sympathy for the origins of radical Islam and offer justifications for their recourse to violence may be drawing on Marxist doctrines concerning opposition to imperialism.
Anti-Imperialism figures prominently in Marxist thought but it is readily used in other movements as well. Marx himself considered that the industrialisation of Europe would precipitate a demand by capitalists for raw materials in the backward parts of the world leading to subjugation and colonialism. This was the basis for Lenin’s telling essay entitled ‘Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism’.
In orthodox Marxism the proletarian led revolution was supposed to come after societies had abandoned agrarian feudalism and progressed to industrialisation and urbanisation. But across the world the conditions for proletarian revolution as Marx would envision it simply did not and do not exist. However there are forces that style themselves as opponents to imperialism, capitalism and bourgeois democracy and it is these movements that purist Marxists have been willing to collaborate with to achieve the eventual revolution.
Nationalists, especially in colonial settings tend to be stronger than Marxist movements. Stalin realised that the Maoists stood little chance of victory if they did not align with the nationalist Kuomintang. In Mao’s directive to the Central Committee entitled ‘on the question of the National Bourgeoisie and the Enlightened Gentry’, he spelt out a rational for supporting non-Marxist non-proletarian forces that shared the same goals of national glory and independence.
It is this reasoning that sees Marxism’s common cause or ‘United Front’ with ultra-nationalists and reactionary theocrats. Anti-democratic movements whether left or right have much more in common with each other than their democratic left and right opponents.
The lefts sympathy for the authoritarian Tito in Yugoslavia or the IRA in Northern Ireland is an understandable if troubling instance of sympathy for one’s own extreme partisans. But Tito was an iron-fisted ruler and by the time Yugoslavia had fallen into the hands of the unabashed Serbian ultra-nationalist Milosevic many on the left were suspicious of Western intervention to interdict his campaign of ethnic extermination. As with the IRA, they could be classed as an oppressed people challenging a Western imperialist regime and its bombings of innocent civilians across the United Kingdom excused in that way.
Now that left-wing violence has largely abated around the world those who grew up internalising justifications for violence against Western societies and interests can easily transfer those justifications to ultra-rightists and theocrats with amazing alacrity.
Jeremy Corbyn and his fan club in 1983 and since were arguably more sympathetic to the attempts of the neo-fascist Argentine dictator to annex the Falkland’s than he was to the efforts of Margret Thatcher to recover sovereign British territory. Seamlessly, Corbyn has since attached himself to radical Islamic voices who form part of his political coalition that is hostile to the United States, Israel and NATO.
And this new relationship of the left and the Islamist right is far from hyperbole. There is substantial support for both Hamas and Hezbollah and a rapidly shrinking level for Israel. I need not go into the multitude variations on the argument that the September 11 attacks were the ‘chickens coming home to roost’. Social practices such as forced and underage marriage, female genital mutilation and a general hostility to the full and active participation of women in our world are shrugged off more and more with the not so ‘revolutionary’ refrain that cultural practices are relative to their societies.
Nonetheless it remains a strange sign of the times that the radical left in Western democracies castigate their own mild patriots and nationalists yet fawn over more sinister nationalists elsewhere in the world. Nationalists like Chavez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua or Putin in Russia pump by nationalist fervour domestically in order to reinforce their shaky regimes.
When the offender is Le Pen everyone remembers that famous refrain of Samuel Johnson ‘that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. And he was right but they tend to blind themselves to the fact that sinister autocrats outside of the West use reactionary nationalism to shore up their regimes. Now it appears that the ‘common front’ against imperialism is making room for Islamic extremism. With friends like that who needs imperialists?