Contribution to a critique of Decent discourse

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I’ve been working on a post about the psychopathology of the Decent Left, and intend to have that up before long. In the meantime, I direct readers to this excellent discussion on Aaro Watch, and especially to Justin’s sharp contribution in the comments, which I hope he won’t object to me reproducing here for your reading pleasure. 

1. The “Decent Left” is, essentially, an anti-left movement: criticism of the Left, not only criticism but basically damnation, is its main thrust and purpose. It is a contemporary phenomenon although nothing that it says is basically new, nor is the way in which it says it. It has a great deal in common with the old Atlanticism of the rightwing of the Labour Party, the more aggressive rightwing and anticommunist strands within the Labour movement, and Cold War liberalism.

2. Its proponents, broadly speaking, come from two basic political backgrounds. One is the number of small leftwing groups outside the Labour Party, mostly, in Britain, Trotskyite in nature where they were not the Communist Party: but also the old Right of the Labour Party, especially that part which was most hostile to CND and Bennism and yet did not leave the Labour Party. In either case the Decent Left has attracted a minority of these political trends (which were, of course, hostile to one another).

3. We therefore have those who were always deeply pro-NATO and opposed to the Left and to peace movements, or those who used to be on the opposite side but have renounced those positions. In both cases a certain visceral hatred of the Left is central to their outlook.

4. In the case of the ex-members of the far Left, there is a great deal of score-settling involved, which may in part reflect distress at the amount of time they feel they wasted in a politics they now consider harmful. As is not uncommon with the politics of the “ex”, their hostility can be utterly unbalanced and disproportionate and they will tend to be unaware of this. Issac Deutscher’s comments are still of relevance here.

5. The ex-far-leftists in particular can be accused of importing a number of bad rhetorical habits from their old politics, including an extremely aggressive polemical style, a fondness for identifying betrayers and apologists, a keenness for denunciation and for requiring their adversaries to disassociate themselves from one another, and a liking for inference in analysing other people’s statements, so that they are made to say what they probably do not. They are unaware of the aggressive, bullying character this gives them. They also have the old red-baiter’s liking for a witch-hunt.

6. Although, as said above, there is nothing entirely new about either the politics of the approach, they are like all political trends, formed by political characteristics particular to their times. These would include the invasion of Iraq and the Afghan and Yugoslavian interventions that preceded it, all of which they not only supported enthusiastically, but took as an opportunity to denounce people who did not. (It does not follow that because one supported any or all of those actions, one is on the Decent Left: what matters is the enthusiasm and the denunciation.) It would also be impossible to understand their emergence without reference to the general worldwide decline in socialist belief over the past generation, or the contemporary problem of radical Islam, which they are in favour of tackling with the same aggression that is their most obvious characteristic. Other political trends, including a certain aggressive pro-market liberalism (e.g. the Progressive Democrats in Ireland) tend to resemble them in their attitude to the Left.

7. In some ways their development can be seen as a problem of agency. In either of their backgrounds, they used to be attached to a labour movement which was considerably more powerful, in a number of ways, than it is today, and whose decline is perhaps the most important background factor in influencing contemporary politics. In a way similar to that observed (fairly or otherwise) by Orwell in locating enthusiasm for Stalinism as a transferred patriotism, they have shifted their allegiance to the Western democratic state in general but to its overseas military interventions in particular. They expect it to perform a world-transformative role in a way analogous to that which they previously expected (or hoped) of the proletariat and they retain the belief that the casualties will ultimately be proven to have been worth it.

8. Their enthusiasms extend to Israel, which they support critically in theory but enthusiastically in practice. They take a psychopathologising view of the opponents and critics of Israel. They also tend to be enthusiasts for the politics and personality of Tony Blair.

9. Their domestic enemies, whom they lump together, include the remaining far-Leftists, leftwingers in general and opponents of military action in Iraq. They see themselves as the left because they wish to define themselves as the furthest point Left in acceptable political discourse. In this desire to exclude the Left from the bounds of acceptable politics – and to see it as essentially violent and pathological in nature – they are not entirely unusual among those closer to the political mainstream.

10. A certain philistinism can be detected in their output, perhaps reflecting a dislike and distrust of intellectuals, who may be suspected of relativism. This, in turn, perhaps reflects their propensity to see the world in black-and-white terms and to take a position that who is not with them is against them.

23 Comments

  1. Liam said,

    March 29, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    I especially agree with the section where you write

    “extremely aggressive polemical style, a fondness for identifying betrayers and apologists, a keenness for denunciation and for requiring their adversaries to disassociate themselves from one another, and a liking for inference in analysing other people’s statements, so that they are made to say what they probably do not. ”

    There is a discussion going on at my site at the moment. It has become so heated that I disabled the comments last night and will do so again tonight because I don’t want to have to deal with a bucketload of drunken comments when the writers get back from the pub. Below is a section of a reply to one of my sensible commentators.

    Some of this discussion seems strongly influenced by a neo-Cannonite version of denunciation and polemic. I’ve seen little evidence that this is an effective way of sorting out disagreements even in left groups. In a pretty small party with an assortment of political views it would be simply counter productive and would smash the organisation rather than politically educate it.

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 29, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    I think you’re absolutely right about the Iraq/Yugoslavia/etc aspect, and also the nature of the support for those interventions. It’s not that they might be pragmatically right (or wrong) but that they are in and of themselves somehow so utterly defining that any other course or viewpoint isn’t merely wrong, it’s malign. Funnily enough I was thinking that my view on Israel is enthusiastic in theory, profoundly critical in practice.

  3. tomgriffin said,

    March 29, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    The ex-far-leftists in particular can be accused of importing a number of bad rhetorical habits from their old politics

    This is a very old pattern. A lot of the old Labour right were ex-communists. The resemblance between the m, the Cold-War liberals, the neo-cons and the decent left, is much more a matter of homology than analogy.

    There were a remarkable number of people working for the Comintern in the 1930s, who ended up in the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1950s, and they’ve been busy co-opting people into various front groups ever since.

  4. Louise said,

    March 29, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    “It has a great deal in common with the old Atlanticism of the rightwing of the Labour Party, the more aggressive rightwing and anticommunist strands within the Labour movement, and Cold War liberalism”.

    This is a very good and useful post.

    I think it is very true that the Decents have a lot in common with Atlanticism. The unquestioning adherence to the USA and that’s central to its ideology. There’s been no shift or break.

    There are continuities and discontinuities such as the Labourite from the past would have seen the state as the main agency of affecting social change and management whereas now it is the corporate sector that will provide the social change and the state acts in an auxiliary role.

  5. Lobby Ludd said,

    March 29, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Good stuff.

    A tiny point: you refer in point 6 to an enthusiasm for invasion. Strangely, Alan Johnson describes himself on the Guardian’s CiF as:

    “…..An opponent of the invasion of Iraq, since 2003, he has supported the work of Iraqi democrats, including Abdullah Muhsin of the Iraqi Workers Federation……”

    Interestingly, the “since 2003” bit refers not to his opposition to the war, but to the commencement of his support work. How supportive he actually is we can only guess at.

    Has his opposition to the invasion in 2003 had any enduring effect? Pointless to ask, it has disappeared down the decent memory-hole. It’s ghost remains as a convenient marker for the acceptable limit for the left. (Against the war, but now OK with its pursuance – welcome aboard.)

  6. Martin Wisse said,

    March 29, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    One thing that’s missing is that the Decents are not just Atlanticists or pro-American: they’re fully attempting to replicate American-style politics in the UK, which includes importing US political obsessions into a context where they make much less sense.

  7. Phil said,

    March 29, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    I think it is very true that the Decents have a lot in common with Atlanticism.

    Yes, although that’s not to say that the old Atlanticists are now Decents – a lot of both groups hate the others’ guts. There’s something very Kinnockite about the Decents (ejh made this connection in a comment on Aarowatch). It’s Cold War liberalism as a mood rather than an ideology, perhaps. To borrow one of my comments from Aarowatch, it’s

    “that weird kind of gritted-teeth evangelism that combined self-flagellation with megalomania. First let’s face it, there are enemies to the Left, you’ve just got to be brave enough to admit it – then actually we on the democratic Left have a particularly important part to play… TGISOOT has an awful lot in common with Cold War anti-Communism.

  8. mastershake said,

    March 30, 2008 at 8:56 am

    A certain philistinism can be detected in their output, perhaps reflecting a dislike and distrust of intellectuals, who may be suspected of relativism.

    Their approaches to the arts, and to comedy, evince this completely. If a writer is perceived to be ‘on their side’ – essentially, if they regularly denounce ‘the left’ and say Nick Cohen’s book is good – they are ‘serious’, no matter what this political views (see Nick Cohen’s interview with Martin Amis, in which Nick blithely sidesteps Amis’s apparent support for Thatcher’s union-breaking by saying that ‘he lives in a nice house’ and, in which Cohen does not mention Amis’s taking Mark Steyn at face value). If any artist dares to break with perceived Decent wisdom, they are denounced as part of the sinister ‘arts establishment’ and are generally rediscovered as ‘light entertainers’.

    And that’s before we get started on Nick Cohen’s approach to hollywood, in which an apparent lack of viewers for the oscars indicates that the films that eventually won were ‘not films for the people’, and that the British film industry is in a terrible state because its films aren’t popular enough with – er – the Academy. And why aren’t there more Muslim baddies, too?

    There is, on the whole, an approach to the arts which would like to be anti-elitist, but which is based on the mistaken idea that anti-elitism means taking issue with anyone who is perceived as popular with the ‘arts elite’, whose work (on a cursory reading) deviates in even the smallest way from Decent thinking.

  9. March 30, 2008 at 9:54 am

    …based on the mistaken idea that anti-elitism means taking issue with anyone who is perceived as popular with the ‘arts elite’

    That’s an overlooked aspect. Much of the output of Decency is classic US wingnut culture war with a British face. Note Nick and DA’s habit of defending the policies of the government by painting all dissent as braying, elitist, brie-munching groupthink, and the use of words like “liberal” as an insult. Then there’s the relentless grievance seeking, bemoaning any thin-skinned minority taking offence at (x), while trawling the internet for anti-semites and Saddam fans to be affronted by… Who are, of course, only saying what the elitist liberals would say if they weren’t so evasive and sly.

    In America, they call people who disingenuously flack for the interests of the nation’s ruling elite while pinning all the nation’s problems on snooty liberal fifth-columnists “Republicans”, not leftists.

    That’s before we get to the abject concern-trolling.

  10. Dr Paul said,

    March 30, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    My critique of the Euston Manifesto can be found here.

    The manner in which they attack the far left, less numerically and influentially strong today than at any point during the last four decades, indicates that we are their main enemy. Decency is the new McCarthyism.

  11. almata said,

    March 31, 2008 at 3:42 am

    For those of who are following this discussion from across the pond can someone just briefly put some names and orgs. to the Decent-Left? We have our own variety here which which I am sure plenty of others could identify. It would be much appreciated.

  12. Phil said,

    March 31, 2008 at 9:25 am

    almata – follow Dr Paul’s link.

  13. April 1, 2008 at 9:35 am

    The decents do remind me of the stuff written about the Nouveaux Philosphes, the group of ex-Maoists who emerged in the 70s in response to the excesses of the cultural revolution and disappointments of May 68. But whereas these were primarily philosophers and was a rebellion against the kitsch leftism of French academia of the time, our decents are mostly journalists. The Nouveauxs ended up on the right, and the Eustonites are rapidly heading into that territory too. Any other parallels?

  14. Garibaldy said,

    April 1, 2008 at 11:41 am

    So Orwell – whom we may not unfairly characterise as a petty bourgeois English nationalist informer – is not the blueprint for the Decent Left but still a good thing? Seems to be a cognitive dissonance there to me.

  15. Binh said,

    April 1, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Great post!

    Todd Gitlin, Hitchens, and many others fit into this category. Orwell not so much, but that is debatable I suppose.

  16. April 2, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    […] as some major features of the Decent Left and its group psychology. This follows on from Justin’s excellent analysis – I especially want to expand on his points 4 and 5, pointing to Decency’s historic links with […]

  17. D.B. said,

    April 6, 2008 at 11:43 am

    On point 10, I see Cohen is at it again in today’s Observer. Modern satire is rubbish, apparently. He should know: he is a comedian after all.

    I may have posted this on here before, but Aaronvitch did a similar piece a few years ago to which Marcus Brigstocke responded in kind.

    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/marcus_brigstocke/2006/11/marcus_brigstocke.html

    Class!

  18. ejh said,

    April 9, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    I hope he won’t object to me reproducing here

    Well, not that I actually got asked. But as the photo at the top is among my favourites, I shall be indulgent.

    I probably should have made more of the Kinnockism bit, although I wrote the original piece in about three-quarters of an hour and there’s probably lots I’d add if I went through it thoroughly. I think it was a recent discussion (see comments) as well as the already-notorious first comment here which really reminded me that one of the roots of the Decent heresy-hunting style is the Labour Party wars of the Eighties. A fair number of LP people, ever since, have basically made it their business to go hunting after anybody and everybody who they thought might be outisde the bounds of whatever the Labour Party establishment might find acceptable.

    Now I don’t hold quite the same views about the aforesaid wars as I did then and I certainly don’t want to re-run them: but whereas many of the people who started off on that road had the laudable goal of wishing to see the Labour Party return to power, the people who are still doing it are doign so with the much less laudable goal of trying to provide aggressive support for a wicked and stupid war. Apart from anything else, this leads them to lash out at quite a lot of people who would probably have agreed with them twenty or so years ago. And the more isolated you are, the more agitated you get and the more you thrash about.

  19. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 10, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for that – and I thought the picture might appeal…

  20. Jim Denham said,

    April 12, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Some truth in your overal analysis: but on Israel you talk bollocks. “They support critcially but enthusiastically in practice”. What the hell does that mean? Speaking for myself, I’m very “critical” of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians…but I am also “enthusiastic” in my support of its right to exist as a Jewish state behind 1967 borders. My “enthusiam” drives from my opposition to those who would deny Israel’s to even exist…and *they* are the modern anti-semites.

  21. dancing with mr d said,

    April 15, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    “They support critcially but enthusiastically in practice”. What the hell does that mean?”
    Perhaps it would have more meaning if you quoted it accurately: “they support critically in theory but enthusiastically in practice”. That means that like you, they occasionally allude to criticisms of Israel which they allegedly have but can never be bothered to write up or get worked up about, while expending enormous amounts of energy in practice fulminating against anti-semites like UNRWA, the Red Cross, Jimmy Carter or anybody else who actually is trying to do something about “Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians”

  22. ejh said,

    April 16, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Quite so.

    Also see “Professor Falk”.

  23. Dr Paul said,

    April 16, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    Jim D wrote: ‘… I am also “enthusiastic” in my support of its right to exist as a Jewish state behind 1967 borders. My “enthusiam” drives from my opposition to those who would deny Israel’s to even exist…and *they* are the modern anti-semites.’

    The idea of a socialist defending the right of a state to define itself by a racial and/or religious criterion seems a bit odd to me. And then to say that it is racist to deny the right of a state to define itself along a racial and/or religious criterion — now that is an interesting twist of the dialectic. But it is a typical product of Comrade Matgamna’s remarkably creative thinking: the great man himself accused me of being anti-Semitic because I support the call for a single democratic, secular state in Palestine/Israel in which all inhabitants have equal religious and national rights.


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