Response by Joe Grim Feinberg

15 June 2024

Engaging with the tragic condition of our contemporary world

It seems like the left has been in crisis for my whole adult life (which is already a couple of decades now), but the crisis has taken new shape and become especially acute. This is happening despite the fact that social movements close to the left become enormously important. Black Lives Matter, the women’s movement, the movement for LGBTQ rights, the movement against the destruction of Gaza—all these have made great impact on public discourse, but they haven’t resulted in a strong international left. So far, the left has been better at dividing itself over these movements rather than unifying around them. 

At the risk of hasty generalization, I think it’s fair to say that the left has lost the power to set the terms of political debate, demanding that political forces take a position for or against the left’s visions and proposals for a better world. Instead, the left is divided along lines set by a conflict between the alleged liberal establishment and the self-proclaimed subversives of the conservative right. 

The left’s historic criticism of liberalism has led many to add their voices to the conservative anti-“wokeist” chorus, to indulge in paranoiac and sometimes antisemitic conspiracy theorizing, to sympathize with right-wing dictators or Islamist rebels. Other parts of the left respond—quite reasonably—by coming to the defense of “liberal” bugbears like democracy, antiracism, the fight against antisemitism, women’s equality, and LGBTQ rights. But leftism is often lost along the way, at least as an independent position that can challenge the forces of power to take positions on our issues, on our terms.

To be fair: democracy, antiracism, anti-antisemitism, women’s equality, and LGBTQ rights are leftist issues, which only became liberal issues because the left forced liberalism to adopt them. The fact that liberalism now admits and sometimes upholds these positions is a sign of the left’s historic success. But this is not translating into current success for left movements, and even less so for left political parties, especially in Europe, where I live and to which I happen to pay disproportionate attention.

I think it’s time to remind ourselves of basic leftist principles. Which might also mean realizing that we don’t all agree on exactly what those principles are, that and we need to talk things through. Recognizing that we aren’t all sure and aren’t always consistent is a place to start. 

A couple of points that I would raise in this kind of discussion—points on which the left’s principles have seemed especially unclear or inconsistent in recent years:

Geopolitics is not leftism. Geopolitics tells us how the great powers of the world interact and understand their interactions. The left needs to understand that, because it needs to understand its enemies. But if it adopts its enemies’ subjectivity as its own, it stops being the left. The seductive power of geopolitics lies in the fact that every geopolitical perspective provides ammunition against some of our enemies. But for us, all the great powers are problems, and we should be looking at the world from the perspective of its inhabitants, of people outside positions of power who try to find their way through the geopolitical morass that the great powers have gotten us into.

Simplification is not leftism. Just as there’s nothing leftist about latching uncritically onto one imperial power against another (e.g. Russia as a savior from the corrupt West, or the United States as a savior from Russia), there’s also nothing particularly leftist about demanding ideological purity or condemning people who make pragmatic decisions to work with dubious friends. We can be critical of the United States and still understand why most Ukrainians find it preferable to accept US military aid instead of surrendering to Putin’s Russia. We can also try to understand the complicated position of a country like Armenia, which for a long time found no power other than Russia that was willing to offer it significant support (though Russia proved an unreliable friend, which didn’t bother to stop the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh). The point isn’t to run away from all devils, but to use them and beat them.

Being uncritical is not leftism. There have been several waves of argument in recent debates on the left that take the form of “You aren’t [XXX], so you have no business telling [XXX] what to do and think.” It’s true that non-Blacks tend to have difficulty understanding the Black experience, Western Europeans and North Americans tend to be ignorant about Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and settler-colonial descendants have trouble grasping the psychology of the colonized. It’s also true that oppressed people should be in charge of their own liberation, deciding for themselves how to accomplish it. But if the left means anything as an international force, it should make its ideas clear and available for all to debate. And that includes critical ideas—we should tell people when we disagree with what they’re doing. Anything less would be disrespectful. If we treat other people as equals, then we don’t patronize them by saying, “Everything you say and do must be right.” We don’t treat their societies as monolithic, and we don’t treat their leaders as if the leaders perfectly represented their people. We engage with people and their leaders critically. If what we tell them is ignorant, they’ll be correct in telling us to go to hell. But we should still try our best to articulate what we’re thinking and provide our own perspective. After all, the perspective of the outsider has value, even if it shouldn’t have disproportionate authority. If we don’t like Hamas, for example, we should say so, and we should express solidarity with those Palestinians who oppose Hamas. We should give our reasons, and they will decide if what we say is reasonable.

Positionality is still important, but it shouldn’t be invoked as a means of silencing our rivals. My views are shaped by where I stand in society, but where I stand doesn’t make me wrong or right. It would be a truncated left that took only one part of society and declared that what it says is right (the workers are right, the colonized are right, people of color are right). A left that doesn’t take shortcuts finds place for all of society in the world that’s being transformed. And that means allowing socially positioned arguments to clash, entangle, and lead to something new.

Settler colonialism is not absolute evil. It is the tragic condition of our contemporary world. It is easy to see the evils that have resulted from settler colonialism—and then to ignore the interwoven phenomena of immigration, exile, and intermingling. Most of the left, fortunately, still defends immigrants from the attacks of the right. But the same leftists will often denounce all settler colonialism in terms that, if taken literally, could mean the expulsion of immigrants from any settler-colonial society, because there is insufficient consideration of the distinction between the immigrant and the colonist. This doesn’t mean the two figures are the same. There are many levels of privilege, many different roles played, many forms of exploiting the settler’s or the immigrant’s labor. The left should take up the challenge of unraveling these interwoven strands, not in order to decide who has the right to stay somewhere and who should be expelled, but in order to move toward a world where people can live where they want to live and not be forced to migrate against their will.

The case of Israel and Palestine is not important because it’s unique, but because it’s typical. The scale of violence in Gaza may be exceptional; at the present moment, it might count as the greatest brutality taking place in the world. But the point should not be to reveal Israel and its American benefactors as extraordinary. The point should be that Israel’s policies reveal in especially stark terms the fundamental principles of a global system of apartheid, which has resulted from carving up the earth into nation-states, without giving states to all nations. Israel has taken the contradictions of this system to their extreme, but Israel did not create this system, and the globally systemic oppression won’t end when Israel’s local apartheid ends.

If we want to return to a left politics that unifies people in struggles against class oppression, the left can’t afford to ignore problems of cultural, national, and colonial oppression, or to focus exclusively on one of these forms at the expense of others, reifying one type of identity while denouncing the others as hated “identity politics.” The left should figure out how to address these complicated questions in a shared framework that enables us to talk about class again, and that forces the rest of society to talk about class again, not because class will make us forget about everything else, but because the category of class can be a window to all else, to understanding how all the things that divide us are connected.