A Joke, But a Very Serious One Indeed

In a new book, historian Shlomo Sand presents an overview of the ideologies, movements and personalities associated with the political Left. The reactions of contemporary Leftists to Hamas' October 7 massacre serve as a pitch-perfect test of their legacy.

There is a potentially productive aporia in contemporary criticisms of the political Left. It seems that the Left is both viewed as politically impotent, or at least on the descendant, and at the same time an essential ethical weathervane. The Hamas terror attacks of October 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza have brought this contradiction into sharp relief. On the one hand, the Left—or what is taken to be an accurate image of the Left—is mocked for its marginal political position in calling for a ceasefire. On the other, the demonstrations from the Left against Israel’s retaliation are taken as symptomatic of a larger societal ill, namely antisemitism. To its external critics, the Left is a joke but a very serious one indeed.

 

With some exceptions, such as the Never Trump movement in the United States, one seldom encounters hand-wringing about the moral state of the Right. It is generally taken for granted that the right expresses what we might consider hegemonic (or previously hegemonic) conceptions of morality or, alternatively, embraces a populist assault on the “elites” who invest their lives and intellects in thinking about the future structure of society. To put the map of the political Right in crude but not unfair terms, conservatives tend to want to preserve something like the status quo while the reactionaries to their right hope to restore a distant—usually mythical—past. When a serious challenge to the status quo from the Left emerges—communism after the Russian Revolution, for example—conservatives may seek a coalition with reactionaries to beat them back. This was the rationale for Italian and German conservatives backing Fascism and Nazism, respectively.

 

If forward-thinking idealism is what distinguishes the Left, then it is less surprising why what the Left believes matters even when it is out of power. Maybe even especially when it is out of power: that is when the Left is required to make fewer ideological compromises to the realities of government. The realities of politics and practical alliance-building always apply: but it is when the Left is in the distant opposition that it has the space and incentives to think most idealistically.

 

What is, then, at the core of the Left’s worldview? According to historian Shlomo Sand, professor emeritus of History at Tel Aviv University and author of the global bestseller The Invention of the Jewish People (2009), it is the myth of equality. “Equality among all humans,” Sand writes in the introduction to his Brief Global History of the Left, “must be understood as a central notion when trying to decipher the central appearance of the Left.”

 

In this compact account of the Left, first published in Hebrew in 2021, Sand takes on a sweeping subject matter in which his partial expertise is deep. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, on the French socialist thinker Georges Sorel, whose syndicalist philosophy and flirtation with violent revolution endeared him to some on the far-right. It is from Sorel that Sand draws a specific idea of myth: “not a misleading or illusory image of the past or present, but a set of representations that serves to unite people and encourage them to take collective action.” It is a pity that Sand, a sensitive and sagacious reader of Sorel, does not dwell much on this oft-misunderstood political theorist whose work Jean-Paul Sartre dismissed as “fascist chatter.” (For a more extensive discussion, readers can turn to Sand’s 2017 book, Twilight of History.)

 

Opening with a caveat on the impossibility of performing the task to perfection, Sand mostly delivers on the promise of the title, offering a sweeping narrative of the Left from Rousseau to Naomi Klein, from the rise of the English Levellers to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The book’s 19 chapters (excluding the introduction and postscript) average around a dozen pages each, covering subjects as complex as “Proudhon, Bakunin, and Anarchism as Freedom” and “The Socialist Imaginary in Post-Colonial Countries.” Limited space and wide scope guarantee critical omissions, but Sand does cover many bases. Several times I made a mental note to highlight a certain oversight, only to encounter the person, idea, or school in question mentioned cursorily on the next page. Though the presentation feels listless at times, Sand is obviously well acquainted with this history.

 

But few scholars write a primer purely for the sake of enlightening the students of an introductory course. There is often a thesis, usually a controversial one, at the heart of the project. We have already touched on the first part of Sand’s argument: that the animating idea of the Left is an ideal of equality. There have of course been numerous disagreements over what equality means and who is entitled to equality. Some major figures associated with the Left, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, never addressed equality. Sand chooses not to spend much time justifying equality as the overarching theme of centuries of leftist politics, but his brief history certainly depicts left-wing intellectuals, parties, and movements as aspiring to expand the zone of participation in political life.

 

The second part of Sand’s thesis concerns progressivism today and its future: the Left’s failure to profit from the crisis of capitalism exposed by the 2007-8 recession and the nationalist Right’s success. The Left has been in political disarray since the end of the Cold War, when the triumph of neoliberalism globally forced the center-left in democratic countries to move to the right in order to win elections. This search for “a third way” had the effect of almost totally removing a critique of capitalism from the political mainstream. Social democratic parties decided to absorb the losses of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution, such as the decimation of public services and labor unions that underwrote the class compromises of the postwar period. The upshot was that by the time the Great Recession put millions out of work, voters could only choose between different versions of the economic system which had so clearly failed them. Unlike the dislocations of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the poor in Western countries bore the brunt of neoliberalism, the bourgeoise too was squeezed in the wake of the Great Recession. University graduates with credentials that had guaranteed a respectable income and desirable housing for their parents a generation earlier learned that the socioeconomic ladder had now been pulled over the castle walls. At the same time, the lowest rung of the middle class was not being proletarianized, for the manufacturing sector that employed the proletariat in the developed world had been devastated or relocated to “cheaper” countries, where standards of living had improved despite horrific exploitation. It is not an exaggeration to say that our political age has been definitively shaped by the simultaneous emergence of new classes of excess elites and humiliated lumpenbourgeoisie.

 

Into the vacuum entered the populists. While some of these new (and old-new) movements are on the Left—Syriza in Greece, Occupy Wall Street in the U.S., Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise in France—they have for the most part been parties of the radical right. In some cases, former conservative or even liberal parties transformed into populist vehicles—bringing with them from the older era what political scientist Cas Mudde has termed a “reputational shield” against the charge of being far-right. (Though the historical context for Israel’s right-wing populism is slightly different, the Likud’s “reputational shield” is how for years Benjamin Netanyahu managed to balance leadership of an increasingly unhinged political operation rife with the most brain-dulling conspiracy theories and his image as a sober if disagreeable statesman, which took a remarkably long time to be corrected in American and European halls of power.)

 

Sand is not optimistic about the Left’s prospects in this neo-populist era. Toward the end of his book he namechecks Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a 1985 book written by political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, which argued that traditional socialist class politics was no longer practicable, and that the Left must turn to a Schmittian struggle where “the people” and “the elites” map neatly onto the friend/enemy distinction. Laclau and Mouffe forged their argument in socialist sources, particularly Sorel and Antonio Gramsci, but their framework represented a decisive break from class politics of any kind. They saw no social class as a privileged agent of change; rather, in their framework, the “identity” of the Left’s popular coalition is historically contingent. (In later books, Laclau and Mouffe would make their affinity with populism and its constructed notion of “the people” more explicit.) Sand seems to agree with the couple’s view of class struggle as outmoded, but he is not hopeful about left-wing populism, suggesting that the working class—far from being a politically irrelevant category—may in fact be an impediment to the Left’s aspirations. “[T]he ‘authentic’ people prefer the original populism, the one that promotes their own representation of themselves, namely the muscular populism of the Right with its far harsher nationalist and xenophobic discourse.”

 

Or, as Sand told Haaretz ahead of the book’s original publication in Hebrew in 2021, “One of the great blows to the vision of the left [sic] is its failure in the face of national sentiment. Marx was right in almost everything he said about capitalism, and wrong in almost everything he said about the proletariat.”

 

**

 

Sand is correct. The Left is in trouble, and it is at least in part due to the difficulties that it has faced in harnessing the resentment of a growing mass of people turning to nationalism to unite with their neighbors against real and perceived elites. Despite a continued alliance with oligarchs and plutocrats, the far-right has been much more successful at populism. The Left no longer has a natural base among the working class. Equality does not seem to have as much purchase on the people as community. The nation may be an imagined community: but that doesn’t make it any less real.

 

What can the history of the Left tell us about contemporary progressivism? While the idea of equality is not obviously present in the Left’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, there is an echo therein of the anti-war and anticolonial struggles of the 1960s. Recently, a conspicuous image snapped at a demonstration against Israel caught my eye: in lieu of a protest sign, one participant held a paperback copy of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth. Fanon was, of course, a well-known chronicler of the Algerian War of Independence against France. He has also been mislabeled as the chief theoretician of the Algerian revolution—his position was much closer to that of a propagandist for international audiences—but he was without doubt the most prominent thinker to emerge (albeit posthumously) from the war. His soaring rhetoric about the righteous violence of the colonized against the colonizer, though considerably more complicated than many of his enthusiasts and critics allow, strongly appealed to New Left activists in the West rebelling against the social democratic establishment, which either supported or failed to oppose the Vietnam War and other imperial adventures. In France, the revolt was also against the Communist Party, which refused to support the Algerians and remained hidebound on emerging struggles against racism and sexism. It can be said that today’s student protesters against Israel’s war in Gaza, and America’s support for it, are consciously mimicking their New Left forebears in “the heart of the empire.” Alongside disgust with the United States and Israel, there is genuine identification with the wretched of the earth. As Sand writes of the New Left: “The youth were not only motivated to revolt by narrow class interests, but exhibited an altruistic and generous impulse towards the oppressed and exploited.”

 

No analogy or comparison is perfect, but I find this a more persuasive interpretation of our political moment than, say, one which dubiously evokes the specter of an eternalist and transhistorical antisemitism. This is not at all to say that antisemitism and disregard for the welfare of Jews has not been present at demonstrations for Palestine—they are in fact distressingly prevalent among a consistent minority. But antisemitism is not convincing as an all-encompassing explanation for why the Left throughout the West has taken to the streets in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. It seems much more likely to me that the western Left marches against Israel not because it is a Jewish state but because of the following combination: a) Israel oppresses the Palestinians; and b) Israel is an ally of the United States, the premier imperial power in the world. Such attitudes have not always been predominant on the Left. In tracing so many strands of the Left through centuries, A Brief History of the Global Left helps tell the story of how we got here.

 

The current manifestation of the Left is one forged in the era of populism; understanding it as such could help make sense of the coalition politics at play. Today’s Left is a selective and contingent patchwork of interest and identity groups, united by opposition to an unjust reality in a number of spheres, some of which are no doubt connected. In turn, the Left has faced opposition from interest and identity groups that seemingly fall on the wrong side of this divide. The Palestinian cause was slow to enter the Left’s consciousness, but it has now clearly done so. This has had significant social and political consequences. Pro-Israel American and European Jews who felt comfortable on the Left a few years ago now feel spurned by former comrades, their willingness to selectively criticize Israeli governments no longer being sufficient. Centrist and moderate Democrats have seized on every misstep by the protest movement to attack the Left, especially the members of the House of Representatives known as “The Squad,” as antisemitic. Opponents of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, like the conservative writer Bari Weiss, have sought to capitalize on the Left’s perceived weakness on or even complicity in antisemitism. In truth, DEI more likely has a disciplining effect on activists than anything else: the jobs are, after all, paid for by major corporations and elite nonprofits, neither of which are known for supporting revolutions. But Weiss and other conservatives are not wrong in making the broader connection to the politics of solidarity, as captured in slogans like “From Ferguson to Palestine.” These alliances are the beating heart of the activist Left today.

 

**

 

The fact that the Left is mostly out of power today—and therefore can follow its dreams—makes it quite striking that progressive activists have embraced the pragmatic slogan of “Ceasefire Now!” while centrist politicians throughout the West have pointed out that ceasefires cannot resolve the underlying causes of the war. To listen to President Joe Biden and Democratic Party leaders in Washington DC, Israel is an embattled liberal democracy facing an existential threat from a terrorist group with no rational aspirations. This is an assertion of a political dimension to the Gaza conflict which heretofore, even if implicitly, had been denied by the U.S. and Israel, which preferred to see the problem as solely one of security. In previous wars between Israel and Hamas, it was the Left which highlighted the political and structural in the face of immediate carnage. We are now witnessing a reversal of these roles, at least temporarily.

 

This irony goes some way in explaining the Left’s reaction to October 7 and its aftermath, and draws the clearest link to the oft-cited historical parallel of 9/11. Following Al-Qaeda’s terror attacks, what would have been dismissed as hawkish madness a day earlier became the unimpeachable consensus, with only very limited divergence On September 18, 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an Authorization for the Use of Military Force so broad that it continues to be used to legally sanction military operations over twenty years later—sometimes against targets who were not born when the 9/11 attacks took place and could not have “planned, authorized, committed or aided” them. The vote to approve this authorization at the time was 420-1. The lone opponent, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, warned precisely of the dangers of acting rashly at a moment of grief. Today, Lee’s view of America’s response to 9/11 is shared by many in the Democratic and Republican parties. But I am sure it won’t surprise anyone that she was treated as one of the exemplars of left-wing extremism and “unseriousness” in the immediate weeks, months, and even years after that vote. As was the cultural critic Susan Sontag, whose immediate response to the attacks in The New Yorker triggered a wave of cancellations from a readership never especially enamored with George W. Bush. Her concluding words are an eloquent précis of leftist criticism of heightened and wounded patriotism:

 

“Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”

 

The message from the Left after 9/11 was to stop, think, and not immediately act with righteous fury. The same is arguably true in the days following October 7, in which we are still living. The Left is marching in the streets yelling “Stop!” while those in power demand that the status quo must change now and through the force of violence. To many traumatized by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and October 7, the Left’s position is understandably (mis)interpreted as callousness. Vengeance, and the desire to make a previously illusory sense of security “real” can be many things; but they are usually not unpopular. In this context, the Left’s ambivalent relationship to popular nationalism in established and powerful states (as opposed to national liberation movements) is highly germane.

 

Of course, the Left agrees that a ceasefire in Gaza is not a magic bullet solution. The U.S. responding to 9/11 with targeted air strikes on Al-Qaeda bases rather than a worldwide War on Terrorism would not have addressed the entirety of a progressive critique of post-Cold War American foreign policy. A restrained Israeli response to October 7 would likely have done the same. There are underlying beliefs about the conflict which are invariably expressed in statements and demonstrations. Additionally, the Left’s opposition to the Israeli war in Gaza is hardly rooted in a general rejection of violence. That some—maybe even many—initially welcomed the October 7 attacks as an act of resistance by colonized peoples is an indication of this.

 

I do not believe October 7 apologism is the majority tendency on the Left, but there is a related and no less serious problem. A much greater number on the Left, while personally empathetic to innocent Israeli civilians, believe that they cannot condemn the Hamas terrorist attacks without participating in a dominant discourse which depicts all Palestinian acts of resistance, including distinctly nonviolent boycotts, as terroristic. In this somewhat warped (and I would argue not very progressive) moral universe, it was necessary to suppress grief for innocent Israelis lest it feed the machinery of death—as if such displays of coldness could somehow douse the flames of war burning in the hearts of the traumatized. The historian Gabriel Winant, in an essay in Dissent, went as far as to say that, “The genuine humane sentiment that it is possible to grieve equally for those on both sides is, tragically, not true.”

 

No. The real tragedy is the limited moral ambition of Winant and his ideological compatriots. Instead of directly confronting “the grief machine” which seeks to exploit sympathy for Israeli civilians, they meekly accept its overwhelming power and choose to engage in elaborate avoidance strategies. These are counterproductive in the extreme, with several news cycles now dedicated to the Left’s supposed moral failings in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, from which it has arguably still not recovered. It is mind-boggling that any intelligent person thought that such a posture might contribute to a lessening of the horror of Israel’s war in Gaza. As academic David Schraub wrote, “Does [Winant] truly believe that, if the collective global reaction to massacred Jews was a stoic shrug, that would have deterred an Israeli response? That it would have even ameliorated it? That it would have spouted greater humanism?”

 

As maddening as much of the Left’s apathy was—and I am unfortunately well aware of Western indifference to Palestinian lives, which is likewise unacceptable—I do not believe they were dehumanizing Israeli civilians. In their minds, refusal to mourn Israeli lives could have been an assertion of civilian innocence. In an otherwise noble effort to stand in solidarity with Palestinians living under a system akin to apartheid, some leftists have clearly attached a provisional label on Israeli national identity itself. One of the most disheartening experiences of the last few weeks has been confronting intelligent people who seem to believe that Israeli society is a collection of European and Middle Eastern Jews whose primary allegiances are (or ought to be) to the countries where their great-grandparents were born. When this comes from those who I know have spent time in Israel, it is downright stupefying.

 

A misuse of the settler colonial paradigm, which some academics have employed to understand the history of the conflict, has something to do with our despondent intellectual state. Politically, “settler colonialism” creates the understanding that Israelis are like the pieds-noirs of Algeria—over a million of whom departed from the country after independence—when in fact their position is more like that of successful settler populations in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, and Canada. Despite living in the territory for more than 120 years, settlers in Algeria never broke away from the metropole. Perhaps there is a proper analogy to be made between Israel’s West Bank settlers and the pieds-noirs. But in that case, the metropole to which they would return is just over the 1949 armistice lines, in Israel.

 

In December, I was among the signatories of a statement by an ad hoc group of progressive intellectuals deploring some of the trends on the Left discussed here. Titled “For a Consistently Democratic and Internationalist Left,” the letter has attracted much controversy, as most political documents that manage to be both interesting and lengthy do. It is worth reading in full, but I was especially taken by the section on nationalism and the Left. After noting the Left’s inherent problems with nationalism, the writers acknowledge that “transcending nationhood is hard to conceive of in a world in which people are oppressed, occupied, and sometimes massacred on the basis of their national background.” Yet: “Supporting a given people’s right to defend or win self-determination does not mean vicariously adopting their nationalism. An internationalist left [sic] should not uncritically wave any national flag, or uncritically support any national state or movement.”

 

In this respect, most leftists correctly identify the Palestinian cause as a progressive and liberatory one. Palestinians are oppressed, occupied, and sometimes massacred by Israel. Freedom and statehood for Palestinians should be treated as a matter of utmost urgency on the Left. But where they have failed is in exceptionalizing (or, in the words of the letter writers, “fetishizing”) Palestinian nationalism from its subaltern position. It is this specific solidarity that is wrongheaded. The Left does not betray the oppressed when it denounces grisly murders committed by reactionaries acting in their name. What is at the heart of equality, if not a total rejection of hierarchies of human life?

Shlomo Sand, A Brief Global History of the Left, Polity Press, 2024, pp. 271

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