Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cohen, Mitchell. "The New Atheism: an Interview." DISSENT Fall 2007 Issue

But left-wing illiberalism has also been a catastrophe—both in economic and cultural matters—and it betrays what has always been best in left-wing thinking. I say this as a person of the left. We shouldn’t forget that parts of the left have acted just like religious fanatics. Think of Leninists (and, of course, Stalinists) with an infallible doctrine (“the science of society”), organized like a church, purging now and then, persecuting non-believers (whether social democratic or Christian or whatever). I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the mind-set of left-wing sects who believe that the whole world would be set aright if everyone could just grasp properly the entirety of their theories, just put them exactly in place, and the statement in early July by the Pope that Orthodox and Protestant Christianity are not “true” forms of Christianity. Years ago I wrote a book on Lucien Goldmann, the remarkable Romanian-French Marxist humanist who advocated a liberal – rather than an orthodox -- socialism back in the 1950s and 1960s, arguing also that the left should be heir to the best ideas of liberalism like tolerance, respect for the individual and equality before the law. His chef d’oeuvre, a book entitled The Hidden God, examined the world-views of Pascal and Racine in the context of religious, economic and political change. When I read his description of the sects within Jansenism, the Augustinian movement in seventeenth century France, I remember being struck by the comparison with Bolshevik sects of the 1920s (but also some left-wing groupuscules—Maoist, Trotskyist, etc.—that I came across in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s). Left-wing illiberalism is not just a matter of some left-over believers of old style Marxist orthodoxies. It also animates important segments of the post-modern left. A prime example of this is Antonio Negri who tells us (together with Michael Hardt, his co-author of Empire) that there is a liberating global “multitude” whose “body” can “configure itself as a telos.” This quasi-religious language—please, save us from it!—is really a post-modern reinvention of tiers-mondisme, a failed left-wing doctrine that provided illusions but not much help for the difficult, painful problems of the Third World. It is no wonder that Negri describes Khomeini’s victory in Iran as “the first postmodernist revolution.” Negri’s works have been best sellers on US campuses. Notably, this has been after some two decades in which right-wing religiosity inserted itself so forcefully into the American scene—and at a time when secular, liberal, and social democratic intellectuals were relatively weak (actually, they still are). Negri also needs to be demystified. The American left needs stronger unions that are appropriate to today’s social and economic life—not imaginary multitudes substituting for older Marxist notions of the working class. The same goes globally.If someone tells you that Islamic extremists are part of a “liberating” multitude because they are against imperialism, remind them that some folks in an earlier generation of leftists were quite able to be anti-imperialist and also to be against the Stalin-Hitler pact. They didn’t need hundreds of pages of theoretical delirium to figure it out. And remember that there were leftists whose theoretical hallucinations led them to imagine that the Second World War was little more than a reprise of conflicts among imperialists. I say that despite the fact that I think it is a mistake to make today’s Islamic extremists simply a function of totalitarianism, as if they are the same sort of phenomenon as Hitler or Stalin. They certainly are totalitarian in many ways, but I question the use of 'totalitarianism' as a master-category. It’s too easy. Nonetheless, I am struck at how parts of the extreme left apologize for Islamic extremism in ways reminiscent of how an earlier generation found ways to apologize for Stalinism. The objects excused are different but the patterns of apologetics are sadly similar. . . . More here:

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