In my previous post I considered the question of religion and the left in Poland. I argued that secular liberalism had shrunk to a minority political current due to its close association with the neo-liberal economic reforms of the transition. I also postulate that the left has sometimes fallen back upon anti-clericalism as a way of compensating for its lack of a left programme on socio-economic issues. This has meant that it has become isolated from large social groups who have become politically 'represented' by the conservative right. In the article below I look at how sections of the left internationally have justified their support for the US led wars in the Middle East and Islamophobia in Europe through formally deploying the language of secularism and atheism. This is an example of how the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment can be falsely used in order to justify inequalities and injustices. The left in Poland should consider how to advance the progressive ideals of secularism, while not isolating themselves from the vast majority of society who continue to associate themselves with Catholicism.
(This article is partly based on a version that appeared in Polish in the journal Bez Dogmatu in the Summer 2008)
The American led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was met with the largest international coordinated demonstrations in history. The vast majority of the international left united with millions around the globe to express their opposition to the latest in a series of unilateral aggressive military actions instigated since the end of the Cold-War. However, as millions of people, in over 800 cities around the world, demonstrated against the invasion, a section of the intellectual liberal-left, predominantly in the Anglo-Saxon world, were marching in the opposite direction. Broadly known as the ''pro-war left'' a group of intellectuals and academics articulated a liberal-left justification for supporting the second Gulf War.
Two books, by the authors Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens, divulge the thinking of the pro-war left. Cohen argues that in the post-Cold War age the left has lost its principles. He writes that although the left never accepted that communism was as bad as fascism, it had always stood firm against the latter. However, Cohen continues, in recent years this has changed, as the left has begun to excuse 'fascism', in a manner reminiscent of how the right had done previously. The collapse of 'socialism' in Eastern Europe disorientated the left, with the idea that history progresses towards a higher and more equal social order disappearing along with the bi-polar international order. In such circumstances, argues Cohen, the left started to embrace a form of extreme liberalism, relativism and nihilism, supporting anyone who opposed to the 'international hegemon', i.e. the USA. In such conditions the left has fled from giving its support to the principle of universal values and has sought an alliance with forces of the 'ancien régime' against the ideals and practices of the Enlightenment. Cohen, along with other representatives of the 'pro-war left', specifically writes about the relationship between the left and Islam. For Cohen there is an historical continuation that runs from the counter Enlightenment, through to fascism and then metamorphoses into twenty-first century Islamism. He says that the left first opposed the overthrow of Sadam Hussein and his government (described as being fascist) and then refused to support the occupation of Iraq, thereby giving its de-facto support to Islamic fascism. This accommodation by the western left to Islamism is, contends Cohen, similar in essence to the actions of that part of the left that supported appeasement with Hitler before World War Two or gave support to the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1933.
Cohen raises a broader philosophical point by claiming that the left has forgotten a fundamental lesson of the Enlightenment: i.e. that all religious faith carries the possibility of tyranny, as God is placed above differences of opinion, electorates, tolerance, etc. It is this theme that is taken up by the American based British journalist Chirtopher Hitchens. Hitchens has made his name through writing diatribes against the 'multi-culturalist' left and tracing the well-trodden path from avowed Trotskyism to neoconservatism. Hitchens' intellectual contribution to the debate over religion goes no further than Nietszche's famous maxim that 'God is Dead' and his view that belief in a single ultimate judgemental authority represents an escape from worldly realities. In Hitchens' book 'God is not Great' (which inverts the Islamic dictum 'God is Great': Allahu Akbar) he argues that religion derives from a time of human pre-history and that its doctrine of blind faith has been superseded by the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment. Despite it banality, such thinking seems to lie within the boundaries of basic liberal-left thinking. However, such rationalising has provided the intellectual cover for Hitchens to not only support the occupation of Iraq but to take political positions that place him in the camp of extreme neoconservatism. For example, Hitchens described conditions in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison as having improved markedly since the US-led invasion of Iraq and defended the USA's claims that Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction. Some of the depths that the 'pro-war left' has sunk to is most shockingly shown in Martin Amis's arguments on how the Muslim communities should be policed in Britain: 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children..." In these lines we can read how the views of a section of the liberal-left have transmuted entirely into a political viewpoint that belongs securely in the camp of the extreme conservative right. (http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article349125.ece)
What we are dealing with is the use of liberal, secular ideals, obtained from the Enlightenment, as a means to explain and justify the actions of the USA and its allies in the Middle East and the systematic coercion of the Muslim communities in the West. The demonisation of Islam and de-humanisation of Muslims, in the name of liberal democracy, is a means of gaining social acceptance for the suffering inflicted by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly beyond. The use of atheism and rationalism as a philosophical covering for oppression and war is not new. Enlightenment philosophy was the product of a rising bourgeoisie, rallying against the mystic philosophies of the ancien régime that sought the restoration of feudal absolutism. However, on the eve of the imperialist age, philosophy moved away from concentrating its attacks on feudalism to advancing a critique of the alternative of socialism (as well as the realities of liberal democracy.) Famously, Friedrich Nietzsche developed a philosophical outlook that regressed back beyond the Christian idea of the 'equality of souls' to the Greek belief in an elite and the view that civilisation would perish without slavery. Therefore, for Nietzsche, injustice lies not in the realm of unequal rights but in the claim to equal rights. A new 'class state' needs to be created that would establish the rule of 'masters' over 'slaves', against both popular representation and socialism. Nietzsche mythisised this theoretical state, through his concepts of the 'superhuman' and 'lords of the Earth', and his advocation of nihilism and decadence.
Nietzsche's atheism was built upon a similar mix of myth and reaction. During the late nineteenth century a large section of the intelligentsia was drawn away from religion due to developments in the natural sciences, not least the discoveries of Darwin. Nietzsche transformed atheism into a myth that rejected the 'slave mentality' of Christianity and 'liberated' humans from moral constraint. In place of religious belief Nietzsche devised the theory of 'eternal recurrence', a theory with no scientific grounding, that stated that the emergence of something new is a cosmic impossibility and that a first principle of philosophy is that of the 'rotating' cycle. The purpose of this philosophical reasoning was to counter the idea of becoming with that of being and to show how the existent order was a natural and permanent one. Nietzsche condemned both Christianity and socialism for containing ideas of transcendence, replacing this with the notion of immanence, which essentially equalled the everlastingness of capitalism. Nietzsche's philosophical outlook embraced pessimism, nihilism, inequality and an amoral society. Nietzsche became the philosophical vocal point for a range of conservative thinkers of the twentieth century, including the ideologues of National Socialism, who distorted the Enlightenment thinking by becoming apologists for capitalism's worst side and eulogising the values of decadent individualism, egotism, barbarism and domination.
Nietzsche urged the construction of a 'New Enlightenment' that would differ from its original version through rejecting the spirit of the 'democratic herd' and the ideal of a universal levelling. Neitzsche's New Enlightenment would be built upon an acceptance of the inequality and domination within nature and the nihilist morality that 'everything goes'. This idea of a New Enlightenment has been replicated in the writings of the 'pro-war' left, who advocate a 'Second Enlightenment'. The declared aim of a 'Second Enlightenment' would be to bring progress and liberation to the peoples of the Muslim world. However, talk in the West of a 'Second Enlightenment' is nothing more than an ideological obscurity for the continuation of the succession of wars unleashed over the past two decades. It is hard to imagine that anyone could seriously conceive, for example, that a war against Iran would advance the cause of progressive social and political change in the country. One of the most commonly used arguments of the 'pro-war left' has been that the majority of the international left has moved away from supporting the universal values of liberalism and secularism. Therefore, the argument goes, the international left, by opposing the military activities of the USA, has adopted the mantra of an 'enemy's enemy is my friend', thus siding with extreme conservative political movements and regimes. Such reasoning originates in neoconservatism, whose roots are found in those intellectual circles that combined extreme anti-communism with an idealistic belief in universal rights and social progress. The 'pro-war left' and the neo-conservatives are at one in believing that historical progress and liberation can be brought about through military interventionism. However, although neoconservatism is purportedly founded upon the principles of secularism and the Enlightenment it gained power through allying with the apocalyptic religion of the American Christian fundamental right. It was this curious mix of secular Enlightenment thought and religious fundamentalism that underpinned the Bush administration in the USA. Also, Tony Blair frequently evoked religious language to justify Britain's activity in Iraq, even claiming that 'God will judge whether he was right to send British troops to Iraq'.
The ideals of atheism and secularism are now being used by some to justify a process of historical regression, that includes subjugating large sections of the world's population to a new form of imperial rule. Religious belief is no longer a secure guide for determining left/right political alignment. For example, the left turn in Latin America has been marked by many of its leaders (most notably Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) declaring their Christian beliefs. In Europe liberal secular ideals have been used to justify a series of anti-Islamic laws and propaganda alongside a range of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments and policies. Behind this lies the use of secular rationalism as an ideological cover for the wars in the Middle East. The language and ideals of scientific rationalism and secularism had originally developed in a context of social progression and inclusion. It is now being deployed, in some quarters, for the opposite purpose, with the banners of atheism and secularism raised as ideological crucifixes for the conflicts and wars of the twenty-first century. This surge in 'religious atheism' thus reduces materialist thought to a dogmatic schemata. It is worth recalling Karl Marx's quip that those brandishing the title of atheism 'remind one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man'. The historical lesson that should be recalled is that religion is a product of earth and not heaven and that it is only through improving humanity's condition that materialist thinking will gain an ascendancy. The social desolation and rising global inequalities, wrought from the policies of neo-liberal economics, have eroded the conditions for the growth in materialist thinking and have thus been replaced by the invectives of the 'fundamental atheists', who use some of the terminology of progressive Enlightenment thought to justify their own abandonment of humanist internationalist politics.
N.Cohen , What’s Left? (UK, 4th Estate2007)
T.Eagleton, ‘Rebuking obnoxious views is not just a personality kink’ The Guardian (10.10.2007)
G, Hitchens, God is Not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything, (USA, Twelve Books, 2007)
G Lukac ‘Nietzsche as Founder of Irrationalism in the Imperialist Period’ (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/destruction-reason/ch03.htm)
J.Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, (2007, UK, Penguin)