Howard Hampton recently in Film Comment (on May '68 and cinema), like Stephanie Zacharek in the NYTimes on Godard (and the new Brody biography), puts in a torrent of barbs and jabs against "the Left," which is, naturally, painted as self-absorbed, dreamily unrealistic, artistically bankrupt, and responsible for horrific occurrences in China and Cambodia. A reader wrote in to Film Comment responding critically to the conservative tenor of Hampton's piece. The author responded himself with some fine, fine advice about what was earth-shakingly wrong about "the Left," and what "it needs to do" if it's going to be a force for social change to which people might warm up. (More on that point shortly.) The tropes for this kind of rhetoric are readily apparent and are taken loosely from Susan Sontag's description of the CP-controlled Soviet sphere of influence ("fascism with a human face") as well as Bush-supporter Tom Wolfe's "radical chic" epithet. Few things seem to arouse the ire of liberal American intellectuals as much as radical leftism—perhaps "Islamofascism." If the US government and its corporate benefactors-beneficiaries dislike something, all they have to do is insist that it is a thinly veiled form of fascism. As a result, decent, well-educated Democrats will be sure to hurl contempt, disdain, and sarcasm at such forces with much more tenacity than they will at, say, actual fascists and contemporary descendents.
In his response to Allen Keating-Moore's letter, Hampton lays down the law:
"Let's be clear: a revolution is not a beatific movie in which pretty actors shoot blanks; it's not a garden party of philosophy seminar or some poetic-romantic affirmation of Idealistic Youth. We're talking about an armed insurrection aimed at overthrowing the state, a ruthless struggle where terror, death, and coercion are the order of the day."
Yes, indeed, let us be clear. If we are not clear, it would seem that Hampton is of the camp who feels that terror, death, and coercion are not the order of the day under the state and the system we currently have.
The heartrending, irrational justifications of the Good Liberal go like this: because there is relatively little violence, terror, or direct and perceived coercion in the life of a middle-class American, there must be relatively little violence, terror, and coercion in the entire order that enables this life. And (this is a quite obvious assumption of Hampton's) because hordes of middle-class Americans are not signing up for "the Left," it is unthinkable that the popular masses in any part of the globe could ever align themselves with "it," could ever express themselves through "it," could ever feel like "it" was something pluralistic and non-dogmatic that they might "want to join." For some people, "the Left" is not a club that must make itself attractive to prospective members. The fact that pockets of privileged Westerners have, in modern times, been naïve in their support of some leftist movements (or what they [mis]understood to be genuinely popular insurrectionary struggles against oppressors) is no reason to disparage "the Left" in its entirety or to whitewash the crimes of an order which is destroying our planet and immiserating most of our species.
"If the Left today really wants to get serious about being a force for change instead of a calcified form of political Scientology, it's going to have to outgrow its reflexive nostalgia for murderous absolutism, its superheroic fantasies of revolution-by-artistic-proxy, its smug propensity for not only making but valorizing the same mistakes, and do a better job of imagining a pluralistic, non-dogmatic society that ordinary people might conceivably want to join--one good place to start looking could be Alain Tanner's 1976 film Jonah—Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000."
Tanner's film is an impressive one, no doubt. Full of good cheer, good times, a progressivism amidst loved ones and comrades. But the question remains—just which "Left" are we talking about? That's a rhetorical question of course, because the mainstream liberal intelligentsia only seems to allow this one monolithic image. Oh indeed: Which left?
The smug tree-huggers?
Those who are "nostalgic" for murderous absolutism?
Those who doubt the benevolence of the market economy?
Those dandies who mistake art for action?
The dogmatic anti-pluralists?
Shouldn't we be thankful for the upholders of liberty—the liberty to live under capitalism?
The Good Liberal is conditioned not to conceive of a "revolution" outside of certain boundaries, certain regulations. The Good Liberal is conditioned to think of "the radical Left" as embodying all the same coercive and authoritarian structures that most self-identified leftists in history have fought against. The Good Liberal worries about poverty and social justice, but nevertheless aligns himself with the state and corporate forces which do everything in their power to disrupt, fragment, and fashion popular social movements—many of which designate themselves as being on the Left, some of which designate themselves as (yes) communist, socialist, or anarchist—against their own domination, exploitation, and hegemonic conscription.
I would wager that Hampton, like Zacharek, like many (probably) liberal people, dislike George W. Bush, believe his administration and the Republican Congress and the Supreme Court have made a real mess of things. I would wager that Hampton would have no beef if, asked right now, his feelings on the Chipko women, the slaves who fought back, the Chartists and union-organizers of the 19th century, even the Communards. But in their times and places they have been the demonized pipe dreamers, the utopian rabble-rousers and trouble-makers. So I would offer a firm congenial reminder to those who would, could be the allies of "the Left." In forming and maintaining an image of "the Left," of communist revolution, of popular struggle, the Good Liberal must ask himself whose interests he serves by perpetuating this image he criticizes.
If this question is not asked, history will ensure that the Good Liberals of today end up as merely the Goncourts of globalization.
(NB1: I've referred to the Good Liberal with masculine pronouns near the end of my post consciously and with reason.)
(NB2: On the same page of FC where Hampton's letter-response is printed, there is an ad for the Criterion re-release of Pasolini's Salò. Let us remember that it is not simply a "shocking masterpiece" but a deeply political film.)