War, Human Rights, and the American Left: Thoughts Inspired by Michael Bérubé’s The Left At War
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War, Human Rights, and the American Left:
Thoughts Inspired by Michael Bérubé’s The Left At War1

Adamant leftists in the U.S. have a problem. Especially since 1945, their outraged critiques of corporate capitalism and U.S. imperialism have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. FDR’s ringing denunciation of “economic royalists” in 1936 would never fall from presidential lips today. The draft-fueled protests against the Vietnam War offered a momentary glimpse of the promised revolutionary land, but even chaotic 1968 witnessed the election of Richard Nixon. Faced with their persistent failure to spark a truly mass movement, the hard core left spends an inordinate amount of time trying to affix blame. The powerful mandarins of government and Wall Street, the disinformation spread by a corrupt media consolidated into a few hands, the sniveling cowardice of liberals, careerist intellectuals, and even the poor benighted masses themselves take their turns as objects of scorn. But somehow the finger of blame never points to the hard-core left itself. They never consider their own tactical and strategic errors in the war of position they have lost so badly over the past sixty years. Even after the stunning successes of the American right since 1980, the left still parties like it is 1968 or 1935, as if the Wobblies or the SDS were out there just waiting to be called into action. And these leftists have never come to terms with the meaning of 1989, with the essential question of what vision the left has to offer in the wake of communism’s loss of credibility.

Who are the Manichean leftists, as Michael Bérubé dubs them in his thoughtful and thought-provoking book The Left at War? Surely their small numbers and their take-no-prisoner style marginalizes them past significance. Noam Chomsky, the most prominent among them, is revered in some quarters, but ignored in most. Why then should Bérubé bother to anatomize [End Page 323] their failures and inanities? Because, he insists, their ritual denunciations of any action taken by the American government and their repeated claims that revolution is stifled by massive disinformation and the silencing of dissent leaves potentially more productive leftist voices unheard. The left at war, whether the war is the Cold one or Vietnam or Iraq II, manages only to self-destruct. With the arguable exception of Vietnam, it never manages to be effective. Bérubé sets out to explain these failures—and the first step toward understanding is to forego the cherished belief that the left’s marginality is something “they,” the powers that be, do to “us,” the vast army of the righteous. “They” are simply not that fully in control. They do not orchestrate all that happens, even on the national scene, no less on a global scale. Manichean leftists do not simply describe established power (whether identified as corporate capitalism or American imperialism) as unremittingly evil; they also describe it as all-powerful, the better to explain their own impotence.

Bérubé offers an alternative path for the left that relies on a theoretical argument and on an ethical/political disagreement. The theoretical argument is easier to come to terms with: it depends on recommending to the readers’ attention the ways in which Stuart Hall deployed Antonio Gramsci’s work both to understand the rise of the New Right (Thatcherism in particular) in the 1980s and to chide British Marxists for their political and analytical blunders. (Bérubé also enlists the aid of American leftist Ellen Willis, whose sharp and witty work is too little known, even as Hall’s critique of the “hard left”—Hall’s term—have been mostly ignored while his work on identity and representation has been highly influential.) Hall, as quoted by Bérubé, understands that “there is no simple, one-to-one correspondence between a ‘correct’ analysis and an ‘effective’ politics. Nevertheless, the failure of analysis cannot be totally unrelated to the obvious lack of political perspective which now confronts the left” (169). Most crucially, the hard-core left has never grasped the centrality of rhetoric to politics. The game is not entirely rigged (which...