Thursday, February 15, 2007

On bad leftists and nice liberals.

Danny Postel is one of Anthony Barnett's employees at Open Democracy, a friend of Doug Ireland, and author of a book entitled Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran. He has interviewed Ramin Jahanbegloo before he was imprisoned by the Iranian government for four months last year and campaigned for his release. These days, he is a supporter of a new Iranian Revolution. Fine by me.

What is a little bit irritating is that liberals like him feel entitled to blather and blather incoherently about the failure of the Left to be more like him, as he does in this interview conducted by a sympathetic Scott McLemee. Oh, it's the usual. The Left doesn't support the Iranian dissidents, displays "unseemly reticence", is only interested in opposing regimes supported by US imperialism. "Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons." Further, if some on the Iranian left have migrated to the neocons, it is because the European Left and American Left have abandoned them. Therefore, "Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi, Akbar Ganji, Emadeddin Baghi, Abdollah Momeni, and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them."

As usual, there is an element of biography in the charges, such as when Postel relates that while he opposed the Stalinist regime in Russia and Eastern Europe, somehow "the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me ... Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold — many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin)." (Some of those dissidents could at various times have claimed the Left Opposition as a legitimate predecessor, but Postel does not appear to be that interested in the Modzelewskis, Kurons and Michniks in their radical years). Having spent so much time supporting dissidents in Central America, Danny Boy at long last hears the pipes of liberty calling in the East: alas, too late for 1989 and all that, but certainly in time for what he imagines is going to be a similarly earth-shaking event in Iran.

I fail to see why anyone else should be impressed by Postel's report against himself, but apparently it has something to do with the ubiquitous failure of the Left and Leftists in general to form alliances with Iranian intellectuals and to publicise their cause and have big meetings advertising their slogans. There is a snide, moralising, red-baiting tone that pervades the whole thing. As Sean Andrews points out on LBO Talk, this is not an anomaly. It is not, as it happens, hard to find American or European left intellectuals and groups prepared to support Iranian dissidents. Some of us have long cooperated with Iranian dissidents and argued against allowing the movement from below to be manipulated or coopted by imperialists. Postel knows that among those supporting Jahanbegloo's release from prison were people like Chomsky, Zinn, Wallerstein, Laclau, Mouffe, Zizek, Juan Cole etc etc. It is by no means unreasonable to suggest that the organised left, such as it is, could be of some service and could do itself some good by associating more with currents in the Iranian opposition. However, to successfully pitch such an argument, it is rather important not to begin from a position of supercilious hostility to the Left. One could, for instance, equally upbraid the American and European left for not having forged significant links with opposition to the Mubarak regime. How many left intellectuals have forged links with the Moro insurgents in the Philippines? Or Kashmiri groups? Or indeed those resisting the tyranny in a state directly contiguous with Iran? Actually, how good has the US left been at opposing Bush? Really? How far have they got? I'm not being nasty, but if one is not sufficiently empowered, for whatever reasons, to stop Bush from bombing, torturing, assassinating, running death squads and international kidnapping rings, then what the hell has one to offer the Iranian dissidents? Similarly, if the issue is a strategic one (and not this preposterous fairy tale about the left's alleged moral failings, the sort that Cohen started to go on about when he was being flattered by the PUK), then one has to be in a position to point to an agency in Iran that is capable of doing something with that support, which means broadening the perspective beyond the intellectuals. Some of us still look to the organised working class, but this is entirely absent from Postel's purview.

Anyway, having raised some of this, I was forwarded a gently condescending reply from Postel indicating once more that the Left is inadequately involved in the campaign that he champions, and that the liberal websites don't talk about it enough, and that at any rate, the only ones who really know anything about the Iranian dissident intelligentsia usually turn out to be liberals or at least non-Marxists: thus proving the failure of the left, or some parts of it, on the question of Iran. And so on. All of these denunciations of the left, all of this rhetorical energy expended on proving that the left is bankrupt, irrelevant, all of the shrill moralising - it is hard to take seriously the idea that it is fundamentally about supporting Iranian dissidents. We have, after all, been here several times before. Kanan Makiya got a rapturous reception from American commentators and European liberals when he started to denounce the left for being insufficiently appreciative of the legacy of Mill and Locke, declared the left's stock analytical apparatus moribund, denounced the alleged 'silence' of Arab intellectuals in the Middle East and so on. For this, he was branded a "Vaclav Havel" of the Arab world by the absurd George Packer, whose book The Assassins Gate is a prolonged apologia for and love-letter to Makiya and American pro-war liberals. Postel is not a warmonger, but he is positioning himself as one of those tiresome liberal finger-wagging idiots, his pet cause merely providing ample opportunity for him to pursue this course.

There are too many of these creatures around, these characters who have recently developed an attachment to liberal rights-based discourse, as if it was some kind of advance on the historical materialist problematisation of that discourse. As if, in fact, the entire body of socialist critique has been somehow discredited, revealed as a narrow and dogmatic deviation from the venerable tradition of liberalism, and that on account of one's own imperfect radical past! Makiya does this all the time: he cites his own apparently banal and vulgar conception of revolutionary socialist attitudes from his Trotskyist years (in which America and Israel are the source of all evil and the Palestinians are hallowed saints), and contrasts this with a heroic idealisation of liberalism. Cohen's the same: his own boring political past is constantly invoked as a condemnation of his contemporaries. The same with Marko Hoare, condescending to and upbraiding his former radical self. The ex-communists used to do much the same in the Fifties, and the antitotalitarians of the Seventies could be scathing about their former selves, even while hubristically and narcissistically fortifying their present comportment.