Response to Ron Radosh: The Demotic vs. the Self-Destructivist Left

Dear Ron Radosh,

In a column on Judith Butler and the anti-Semitic left, you put out a challenge to those of us who would still like to consider ourselves “on the left” but don’t have Israel Derangement Disorder.

The logic of the left is the same logic its ancestors used to defend Stalinism in its heyday — the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the enemy of the left is Western democracy, as it exists in both the United States and Israel. Butler’s anti-Americanism and anti-Israel posturing defines the left.

Isn’t it time for good men like Landes and Geras to face reality, and to stop trying to get the left to change its tune? The fight to defend Israel must henceforth include the effort to fight the left, whose agenda, as always has been the case, leads to horrendous ends.

I’d like make a distinction between a “demotic” left and revolutionary left, and then address why the sharp differences between those two styles of “being left” have been lost in the last decade(s).

First, everything that you describe as “left” is actually “revolutionary left.” They are the ones who served as useful idiots for the Stalinists back then, and who, today, as Dan Pipes chronicles, serve as useful infidels for the Islamist Jihadis. They in fact pursue – like Marx – a profoundly apocalyptic millennial agenda that wants to radically transform/perfect society and the world now. So while they derive their ideology from demotic leftist principles – egalitarianism, anti-imperialism, dignity of manual labor, un-coerced cooperation and sharing – their impatience draws them into a whirlwind of emotions that end up compromising the very principles they began with. Marx made some very fine distinctions between crude (rohe) Communism, based on “universalizing envy” of others, and (presumably) the real thing (based on generosity?).

I’d like to define demotic principles (which are also “liberal” principles) as the behavior of free people, entering with personal dignity into uncoerced relations with others (Die Würde freiwilliger menschlicher Interaktion). This means the renunciation of coerced, domineering relations at multiple levels in social and political interaction. These are the basic principles that underlie fundamental demotic values like the dignity of manual labor (rather than stigmatizing laborers), equality before the law (rather than legal privilege, apartheid), and the value of every human life (rather than the sacrifice of the well-being of the many for the pleasure of the few). These are the basic cultural building-blocks of successful democracies, that is societies of abundance in which commoners are empowered. Carl Schorske argued that there’s no Liberal Party in England is because the liberals won: both the Tories and Labor were liberal (in comparison with real authoritarians).

Now in fascist revolutionary circles, where violence is redemptive and coercion, even mega-death, an attractive tool with which to crack the eggs necessary for the omelet, many of these fundamental commitments to non-coerced relations become problematic. (Judith Butler tries to maintain her technical virginity on this point in her statements on Hamas.) This is what happened with terrible consequences in the 20th century, including the mega-death of tens even, in total, a hundred million.

The real question is, how, with our knowledge of how these demotic principles got hijacked by revolutionaries on the left in the 20th century – Hitler’s initial “party” was the DAP, the German Workers Party – and the knowledge of how appallingly some of the most brilliant (and not so brilliant) intellectuals of their day behaved as fellow travelers – George Bernard Shaw, Heidigger and Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky) in their defense of revolutionary state terrorists (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot) – the main figures on the left have (collectively, consensually) not learned anything from this, but instead gone from being useful idiots for a demotic millennial ideal to being useful idiots for one of the most abhorrent and regressive cultural and religious movements in recorded history.

I think Bruce Bawer’s recent book offers one of the most important bases on which to pursue the answers to these questions, and personally, I would, had I some graduate students, set them to work on exploring the millennial/messianic dimension of critical theory, the impossible utopianism built into the theory and practice (transgressive performativity as apocalyptic deed, as a form of what students of early Christianity call “realized eschatology”). I think an analysis of their post-apocalyptic cognitive dissonance (since the fall of Communism in particular), helps understand how they can get into such ludicrous oxymorons such as “gays for Palestine” or “Hamas is a progressive social movement and part of the global left.” The book I want to write is entitled, They’re so Smart cause we’re so Stupid, and it was inspired by Fort Hood, but works as a key to understanding lots of things, like the stunning success of so cheap a product as Pallywood and its most poisonous and much relished fruit, the Muhammad al Durah bloodless libel.

When Judith Butler attacks Berlin gays for being “Islamophobic” and humiliates them publicly, and yet calls homophobic Hamas a “progressive social movement,” she does so out of the best and most sincere of motives, as she herself insists. But she effectively betrays them despite the fact that it was conceptually “on their [‘queer’] backs” that she rode to theoretical prominence. Not much gratitude in her karma. She both adopts aspects of the authoritarian personality (with the weak) and identifies with the aggressor.

So personally, I think most every decent person is on the demotic left, in the sense that they treat others (including women) with respect and dignity; they agree to abide by the isonomic principle “whoever’s right, my side or not” (i.e., limits to the “my side right or wrong mentality); and they use violence only to defend themselves from unwarranted aggression and not to dominate others. Obviously in the real world, no one (or very few) can sustain this positive-sum ethos all the time, and judgments about what is aggression and what is defense always arise.

How the Left could mistake the Israelis defensive moves as right wing aggression (the “Nazionism thesis”) when they are among the most committed culture to demotic  principles on the planet (e.g., the size of their camp of suicidal self-abnegators), and correspondingly mistake the Palestinians for the innocent victims of Israeli hegemonic aggression, when their most salient cultural product is a cult of death and hatred with few rivals on the globe, is a major question that needs addressing. But it includes the fundamental understanding that we’re not trying to understand the “left” whose principles of fairness we all wish to see implemented, but a deviation from that. Let’s call the non-violent, useful infidels like Judith Butler, who go down this path of betraying the very values they think they embody, and who refuse any “reality testing” lest it prevent them from performing their redemptive deeds on the global stage, the “self-destructivist left.” Such people flock to Human Rights NGOs and journalism.

And behind the moral preening, lies intimidation. These self-destructivists heap the criticism on powers that do not strike back (i.e., hegemons committed to non-coercive principles like the US and Israel), and don’t dare criticize those who do (Hamas and the revolutionary left). Like journalists covering the Arab-Israeli conflict (and the Islamist-West one), they are too cowardly to resist intimidation, too in need of success to admit the intimidation to their audiences, and too vain to admit it to themselves, so they become “advocates for the underdog.” Appeasement, as feeding everyone else to the crocodile with the hope that he’ll lose his appetite before he gets to you, is a classic form of this behavior, played out right now with Iran. All the self-destructivist left is against a strike in the name of peace, and the Israelis, who seem to be the only grown ups in the room to understand that a nuclear Iran will be a catastrophe for the entire global community, are considered warmongers.

I see it as a massive case of the emperor’s new clothes, starting in October of 2000 with Al Durah as the icon of hatred, paraded in the streets by an advocacy-driven media, as an act of “solidarity” with the oppressed Palestinian people. This arouses widespread loathing of Nazi-like, apartheid Zionist settler-imperialism. This narrative, which, for the West is suicidal, and which animates a genocidal Muslim apocalyptic narrative, in which all infidels will be rendered dhimmi,  has so strong an appeal, that the voice of the “youth” speaking the truth is (still) drowned in the cheers for high priestesses of the self-destructivist “left” like Judith Butler. And if I had to write a Jared Diamond-like book on how civilizations die, I’d pay special attention to the suicidal versions of this leftist folly.

But right now, I’m still working to avoid that suicide, not conduct an autopsy.

Our problem now, as I see it, is that these self-destructivists, who have lost their moral compass even as they think themselves at the (millennial) cutting edge of moral performativity, dominate the public sphere. They’ve mistaken the most responsible hegemonic behavior in the recorded history of mankind (and therefore, ironically, the most successful and productive) for the worst, and the worst political culture for misunderstood children who just need their moment in the sun. They somehow imagine themselves closer to Islamic radicals than what they derisively call “right-wingers.” In fact, in comparison with the political culture of the Middle East, the most right, authoritarian wing of our mainstream is on the margins of their demotic left wing. And this drives our self-destructive culture wars. The massive failure/refusal to understand that, accounts for why Islamism has had such massive victories in the cognitive war during the brief years so far in the 21st century.

Time to turn it around. Maybe what we need is something other than the “left-right” political dichotomy.

Thanks for the challenge. Hope you find it useful.

Richard Landes

8 Responses to Response to Ron Radosh: The Demotic vs. the Self-Destructivist Left

  1. N. Friedman says:

    Your definition of the demotic left includes, as you acknowledge at the end, people like Ron Radosh. So, this is, in the end, a disagreement about labels, not about Ms. Butler or about the forces that are trying hard to make the left a disaster for Israelis, among others.

  2. Richard Landes says:


  3. thesadredearth says:

    Radosh dumps whole traditions of the left in his eagerness to conflate the left and the far left. There has long been, even at the time of the Russian Revolution, a liberal-social democratic nexus that stands in opposition not only to the cultural reactions of the right but to what Ernest Sternberg has called the utopian “purificationism” of the far left. It’s like arguing there is no difference between David Frum and Franco.

  4. martin j.malliet says:

    Richard Landes: “Maybe what we need is something other than the ‘left-right’ political dichotomy.”

    I fully concur with that interrogation, and the only serious alternative I can see is the anti-political alternative of natural law. I learned this from the (Belgian) philosopher of (natural) law Frank Van Dun, who as far as I can see is completely ignored by ‘institutional’ thought, but whom I would rank higher than Ronald Dworkin (also an anti-positivist, but from what I understand rather inconclusive). Frank Van Dun got the libertarian label stuck to him by others, but he is in truth a classical philosopher founded in logic (as demonstrated in his little masterpiece on deconstructing David Hume’s “an ought doesn’t follow from an is”).

    You can find his bibliography with links here:

    “Hobbesian Democracy” (as opposed to ‘lawful democracy’) is a good entry point, as is “The Lawful and the Legal”. “The Logic of Law” is a formalisation of law (in first order logic) that helps a lot to understand his fundamental principle of law in comparison to other possible theories of law. But his dissertation “The Fundamental Principle of Law” (1982 – only in Dutch) is still an important book to understand why you need a whole theory of law before you can make sense of concepts such as coercion for instance (a concept with no precise meaning as long as you cannot distinguish between lawful coercion and unlawful coercion).

    Through Frank Van Dun I then discovered Eric Voegelin (“Order and History”), of whom I had never heard, although he was professor of political science in Munich from 1958 to 1969. And by discovery I mean major intellectual discovery, of what is needed to get over “the positivist destruction of science (in the humanities)” in Voegelin’s words. (I’m far from having finished, of course.)

    (By the way, I’ve been posting notes to your blogpost on Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture (“the joke nobody gets”), which is quite an interesting lecture, and very Voegelinian – Ratzinger was acquainted with Voegelin in Munich.)

    Hereafter a little note on how I would connect Richard Landes’s work (I still must read the book) with Gregory Clark and natural law.

    Richard Landes and Gregory Clark (“A Farewell to Alms”)

    Gregory Clark also thinks that the Industrial Revolution can only be explained by the formation of a critical mass of people within the general population that possessed the adequate skills and attitudes to make capitalism work. But he has no more than a vague characterisation to offer of what these skills and attitudes are (‘protestant ethics’), which is of course understandable, as he is no psychologist.

    The zero-sum positive-sum mentality alternative offered by Richard Landes seems to me to be a good starting point for this explanation of skills and attitudes. Because one could think that it is indeed an alternative in the motivational make-up of people, with the zero-sum envy-fight configuration being the basic make-up, and the positive-sum opportunity-reciprocity configuration the higher make-up that is only acquired through learning, with ‘boundaries’ being the central element in this learning process.

    This concept of ‘boundaries’ comes from natural law, of which the shortest definition after all is Cicero’s ‘suum cuique’. Humans have this astonishing ‘mimetic’ faculty to sense and understand others as themselves. That is to say that the ‘boundaries’, which exist in reality – you are you and I am I, are no obvious obstacle in thought. The boundaries must be learned.

    To give just one example: how many people do you think are conscious of the fact that listening to bad advice is their own choice? After the financial crisis of 2008 it appeared that one of the major lessons we (as a society!) had to learn was that “banks must be regulated to offer understandable financial products to their customers together with adequate information”. The learning curve for ‘boundaries’ is obviously steep.

    PS: Karl Marx was “an intellectual swindler”: Eric Voegelin proves that quite conclusively in the 5th chapter on “Gnostic Socialism: Karl Marx” in the 8th volume titled “Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man” of his “History of Political Ideas”. As an economist I already knew, of course, that Marx’s objective labour theory of value, the foundation of his ‘scientific socialism’ (the ‘scientific critique’ of capitalism as exploitation), made no sense. But to fully understand the sense of Marx’s nonsense I still needed Voegelin.

  5. [...] Landes, “Response to Ron Radosh: The Demotic vs. the Self-Destructivist Left, The Augean Stables: [...]

  6. Anat T. says:

    Richard Landes: “Maybe what we need is something other than the ‘left-right’ political dichotomy.”

    I agree. May I suggest: collectivism as opposed to the rights of the individual. As far as I can see, collectivism covers everything from Hitler and Stalin to Hamas. Individualism covers everything from Jefferson to present day conservatives.

    And may I also suggest that “conservatism” is merely the opposite of the “revolution” cherished by the Left. The disagreement between well-meaning people on both sides is therefore a matter of means rather than aims, and history in fact proves the conservative approach to be far less bloody and more productive than the revolutionary.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    There was always a confluence between the “Revolutionary Left” and the “Liberal Left”. Many of their goals were shared (abolition of monarchies and established churches, civil equality of sexes and races, anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, industrial and scientific progress, remediation of poverty). Thus the notorious classification of Communists as “liberals in a hurry”.

    The Stalin-apologia of the 1930s Left is very different from Butler’s excuses for H&H. Stalin’s professed goals were generally similar to those of the British Labor Party or the American Progressives.

    Butler and her ilk are different. They oppose virtually every detail of the public program of H&H, but ignore this to focus on the one detail they share.

    This is analogous to the position of the Spanish “Republican Left” (middle-class liberals) in 1936.

    They refused to recognize that the Red Socialist Left was fundamentally anti-democratic, while the Catholic/monarchist Right was not. Their leaders deeply loathed the Church (until recently a legally established force opposed to personal liberty and freedom of thought), monarchy (recent Spanish monarchs had been fools, brutes, or both), and aristocracy (a collection of wealthy, privileged twits). Therefore the Catholic/monarchist Right had no legitimate place in politics. But the Red Left (which shared their loathing) was OK – even though the Reds openly proclaimed their intent of overthrowing the Republic for a “soviet” regime at the first opportunity.

    The liberals formed a coalition government with the Reds, and let them start taking over the police and armed forces – ignoring Red violence, including murders. This led to the right-wing military rebellion and the Spanish civil war.

    The modern analogy is that for self-hating Westerners, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism is the issue that trumps all others. Their sense of guilt won’t allow anything else. They embrace jihadism because it is “right” on that sovereign issue. Like the Spanish liberals, they enable its penetration into positions of power, and its violence, while remaining implacable critics of its foes.

    One possible outcome is a right-wing or nativist rebellion in Europe. Unlike Spain there is no organized vehicle for this, and the Left is boiling the frog slowly.

  8. Jack S. says:

    Just want to comment that I’ve recently discovered this blog and find it to be incredibly insightful. I happened upon it after a google search while I was trying to explain to someone the role of honor-shame culture in the repulsive behavior of the Muslim world lately. Anyway, I’ve been making my way through the posts and there are many new insights here and I appreciate it.

    If I could make a comment about this particular article, we have seen the left make the “useful idiot” mistake at least three times in the 20th century. One was refusing to condemn Stalinism and the Soviet Union, another was the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War referenced in the comment above mine. The third was the support the Iranian left gave to the Islamic revolution in 1979. You would think after all of this people could learn from precedent and we wouldn’t be dealing with this again in the 21st century.

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