THE CULTURE WARS : Lost Cause: Why Intellectuals of the Left Miss Communism

Todd Gitlin is a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. His most recent book is "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars" (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)

Three years ago, during a birthday party, the conversation turned to Bosnia. There were six of us at the table, journalists and academics, New Left movement buddies. We had marched against H-bombs and for civil rights and against Vietnam. Organized the poor. Driven all night to get to some Godforsaken meeting to make plans to rally our sometimes meager forces in the cause of the good. Over the years, our disagreements had been modest. But when the discussion got to Bosnia, we were not sitting--as it were--at the same table. Some, including myself, wanted the United States to bomb the Bosnian Serbs shelling Sarajevo; others said America had no business meddling. It couldn’t have been any plainer that, on foreign matters least, the left had broken up.

The passions and arguments of intellectuals--left, right and elsewhere--have a way of shaping the terms in which a whole democracy debates its destiny. The leftist intellectual debates over Spain in 1936 were a precursor of World War II; the debates over Vietnam might have averted the great inflation of the 1970s. So it is that intellectuals’ failure to take Bosnia seriously have had a great effect.

There was, and is, no single left-wing intellectual policy for Bosnia--or Haiti, for that matter, or, as it turned out, Rwanda. Because you were on the left--believed in equality--it did not follow that your position on a given foreign-policy issue would be X, Y or Z.

Spain, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador--these were, at various times, causes of the whole left and its intellectuals. If there were divisions, tensions, ambivalences, problems of exactly how to feel and couch one’s sympathies with people on the other side of the world, largely because of the sorry record of communist parties--what exactly was the Communist Party up to in Spain? What much slack should you cut for Communist North Vietnam, or the Sandanistas?--in the end, for most intellectuals of the left, there was agreement about what the United States should do. The country should have been in Spain, defending the legally constituted Republic against the fascist military assault of 1936; it should not have gone to the Bay of Pigs, should not have mounted assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, should not have gone to Vietnam, should not have armed the Contras.

The intellectual left, in most of its 20th-Century incarnations, was fiercely internationalist. It believed there was no such thing as “a far-off people of whom we know nothing.” That was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s language for Czechoslovakia in 1928--and something no self-respecting internationalist could say without embarrassment. It was the obligation of those on the left to know about far-off peoples. Ignorance was neither bliss nor alibi. If you couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard, you were obliged to get a better scorecard.

At its best, this led to evenings where one learned more about, say, the slaughter of Indians in Guatemala than was possible in a year of poring over U.S. newspapers. At worst, it led to boring, formulaic evenings hearing the latest about, say, “the struggle in Mozambique.” Often, of course, what leftist intellectuals (like rightist intellectuals, for that matter) thought they knew about far-off people was dead wrong. They were so eager to see the future work. They were hungry to believe that somewhere out there, preferably on the dusky side of the globe where people looked exotic, some decency was under construction. “The international working class shall be the human race,” sang the Communists and their fellow travelers--but so did many an independent socialist who thought the communists had betrayed the international working class. While it is easy to mock the cocktail-party piety, the presumption, the sheer bound-for-glory arrogance and delusion of many, it must also be said that the passion for a universal humanity, the appreciation of people apparently different from oneself, were honorable and necessary traits.

Even George Orwell, who was shot in the throat by Spanish fascists and saw his left-wing faction accused by the Commmunists of siding with Gen. Francisco Franco for his pains, wrote: “This war . . . has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have had the glimpse of such a disaster as this--and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering--the result is not necessarily disillusion and cynicism. Curiously enough, the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.” Orwell, no naif, could not have known how active the KGB was in the cause of the Republic; and while he would not have been surprised to learn just how compromised were the good guys, he would have blamed the West for abandoning the Republic to the not-so-tender mercies of Joseph Stalin.

The ‘60s, in turn, knew two defining causes: civil rights and war opposition. If you were on the left, you knew where you stood. Evil was cattle prods, evil was napalm. You wanted to send federal troops to Mississippi and get them out of Danang. There was abundant naivete about the Vietnamese adversaries (as there was about the Vietnamese allies in official Washington), but the intellectuals of the left were united on the proposition that Americans had no business fighting Vietnamese nationalists--however communist they were. This was more than a conviction, it became, for hundreds of thousands, a way of life. It produced jail terms, exile, alienation, immense disbelief in the government. The war and the movement against it broke, and perhaps remade, the national spirit. For the left, the war reinforced the over-simple proposition that anticommunism was necessarily a murderous passion. Over-simple it was.

For almost a half-century, the Cold War was an organizing principle for the left everywhere. If you were a leftist intellectual, you knew that Soviet power wasn’t the only fearsome, ruthless power in the world. You knew about CIA-sponsored coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Indonesia. Whatever your qualms about communism, you knew it couldn’t be blamed for South African apartheid, or the remnants of Portuguese colonialism, or the Argentine or Chilean juntas. You knew U.S. corporations and government policy were culpable. If you feared the arms race, you were allied with you opposite numbers everywhere--in Europe, in the Third World, even in Eastern and Central Europe,

Then the Cold War thawed out, communism collapsed and the intellectual left was thrown into disarray. Anti-interventionism remained, a sort of Cheshire politics. Divisions emerged over the Gulf War--the left split in Europe and the United States alike. Some looked at Kuwait and saw Vietnam and the ghost of Lyndon B. Johnson. Others saw Munich and the ghost of Chamberlain. What was this superpower anyway? An ignoble empire at last unleashed? An unreliable source of humanitarian intervention?

The left in Europe divided again over Bosnia--catastrophically. This time the divide and retreat amounted to a default, since their nations could have changed the situation. In Britain, left-wing activist intellectuals, such as E.P Thompson, could not believe that the Serbs, their wartime allies against fascist Croatia, were systematically committing atrocities. In France, a 1991 attempt to organize an interventionist party under the slogan “Europe Begins in Sarajevo” soon collapsed in tactical disarray. Intellectuals, including the media stars Bernard-Henri Levy and Andre Glucksmann, threatened to contest the Europarliament elections, only to back away--according to their adversaries, because they feared losing their access to the effectively pro-Serb presidency of Francois Mitterrand. By early 1995, only a few thousand people turned out for pro-intervention demonstrations in Paris. In Germany, Danny Cohn-Bendit (1968’s “Danny the Red,” and now a leading Green) called for German military intervention, and other leading former activists vigorously disagreed.

Meanwhile, in befuddlement and demoralization, the American intellectual left collapsed into a heap of self-preoccupied fragments. It was easier to cultivate fragmented identities than to acknowledge that the military power of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could do some good. This moral muddle is the melancholy reality behind Susan Sontag’s recent essay, “Lament for Bosnia.”

Sontag is right that, for four years, the great majority of intellectuals worldwide defaulted--though she exempts from mention a number of prominent Americans who have been strenuously interventionist, including, for example, Stanley Hoffmann and Robert Jay Lifton. The only American she chastises by name is Noam Chomsky--whose relentless insistence that the United States is irrevocably tainted with imperialism is more responsible for the callousness of the putative American left than any other single body of intellectual work. Few Democrats pressed the Clinton administration to bomb when it would have stopped the Serbs. It was left to Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to urge lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia.

No political tendency looks good in the awful light of what was permitted to take place on ex-Yugoslav soil (much of it on television!) for years. Of course, the intellectual left doesn’t want to be just another faction. It wants to be superior. But it isn’t. Its disgraceful default will haunt that claim forever.*