There is No Regressive Left

A common language of reaction is emerging on social media. If you’re anywhere online, you may have noticed new phrases such as ‘social justice warrior’ and the ‘regressive left’ being used. The latter term was coined by Maajid Nawaz, the director of the Quilliam Foundation, to refer to sections of the left that are “soft” on radical Islam. It has since been taken up and expanded by the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, Dave Rubin and Bill Maher, among plenty of others.

Essentially, the ‘regressive left’ is counter-posed against the sensibilities of right-wing liberalism. Anything that departs from the politics of business as usual is a potential threat in this view. The term has become a common swearword online. Naturally, the concept has become blurred in its scope. It is regularly deployed against safe space advocates, feminists, queer activists and those calling for racial justice.

In one such instance Sam Harris bemoaned the state of the left and went on to call for a ‘new centre’. “There’s virtually no space to occupy between the extreme left and the extreme right,” Harris said in his podcast. “I actually think the left is irredeemable at this point. This is why I’ve begun to use the phrase the new centre, I think we need a new centre to our politics.”

He was commenting on the case of Milo Yiannopoulos being evacuated from Berkeley amid the protests against him, but Harris went on to make a wider point. He charged the left with taking the side of illiberal forces, painting Linda Sarsour as a ‘closet Islamist’ and her involvement in the Women’s March as a key instance of this red-brown alliance. The implication being that a substantial wing of the left has aligned itself with tyrannical and reactionary forces.

Unsurprisingly the words of Sam Harris are nothing new, the call for a ‘new centre’ is not made in a historical vacuum. Much like the neoconservative Douglas Murray, Harris blames the left’s weaknesses on its alleged moral relativism and nihilism. As if the left would be able to see that the use of torture and drones can be justified if it just had a better sense of right and wrong. This is an old story.

Dividing the left

There’s a long record of liberal hawks making such distinctions and the idea that the left suffers from moral blindspots is a common suggestion. Paul Berman likes to frame the split between what he calls the ‘anti-totalitarian left’ and the ‘anti-imperialist left’. You’re either for totalitarian regimes or against the American empire. This distinction has been influential because it denies there can be any principled opposition whatsoever.

It was later rearticulated by Nick Cohen to defend the invasion of Iraq. In the Cohen version the ‘anti-totalitarian left’ is swapped for the ‘anti-fascist left’ framing Ba’athism as a modern Arab equivalent of Nazism and the critics of the war as little more than a fifth column. Since then Cohen has declared his departure from the left after Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour leader, as if anyone still believed he was a man of the left.

We’re meant to face a simple choice: we can either support Saddam Hussein or the US invasion. The same can be applied to Assad in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The agenda reveals itself by what it disallows. Apparently, there can be no principled opposition to war and dictatorship. You’re either with us, or you are with the enemy. It should be clear to any sensible reader that this is a form of moral blackmail.

As true as it may be that there are people who support Gaddafi and Assad, the conflation of this view with the majority of anti-war sympathy is unfounded. The possibility of a principled opposition to the NATO bombing of Libya and the Gaddafi regime is foreclosed by such a maneuvre, and this is precisely the point of this tactic. Likewise, we’re told we can only either support Assad or the jihadis when it comes to Syria.

The ‘regressive left’ is supposed to be an amalgamated bloc of liberals and progressives, who have failed the moral test of criticising Islam and cheering for the home team in the Middle East. If you’re outside the foreign policy consensus in particular, you can expect to be vilified in this way. It is even more predictable, if you challenge the idea that Islamist violence is committed just out of personal conviction – rather than the result of social conditions engendered by Western foreign policy.

At first, the term referred to liberals and leftists, who allegedly make excuses for radical Islamism. Professor Noam Chomsky is regularly slimed in this way, despite his consistent opposition to terrorism of all kinds. Other favourite targets include Robert Fisk and Glenn Greenwald. This McCarthyite tactic has been somewhat successful in building up a residual opposition to leftist talking points, even as it falls short of redeeming the “war on terror”.

It’s obvious why neocons and liberal hawks have jumped on the phrase. It works so well because it flips the left-wing claim to progressivism (itself an increasingly meaningless concept) on its head as if conservatives better embody the idea than any socialist ever could. The right has long been fond of claiming that the left fails to live up to its own moral standards and therefore guilty of hypocrisy in the extreme. This is how to degrade the left’s support for Muslim rights at a time of racist hysteria.

In a way this comes down to a much deeper historical divide between liberals and radicals. On countless occasions, the liberal left has turned on the radical left fearing its exuberance will threaten the gains of moderation. In every case, the point was to set limits on radicalism. This was true in the European revolutions of 1848, but it has recurred since through the twentieth century to today.

The call for a new centre

Against this background, the call issued by Sam Harris for “a new centre to our politics” can be taken apart. No doubt Harris means a common sense position beyond the extremes of left and right, yet the centre can be understood in more ways than just the middle ground between the left and the right.

In the late 1940s Arthur Schlesinger laid out the case for a ‘vital centre’, but it wasn’t intended as the centre ground we might think of today. The vital centre should not be confused with the centre ground in terms of domestic politics. Rather the vital centre is posited as the space between two totalitarian foes: Communism and Fascism. In Schlesinger’s mind, this was where democracy stood.

Of course, what counted for ‘democracy’ in the 1940s was far from what we would take for granted today. Black Americans were excluded from the political process, and much of the economic prosperity of post-war America. This would later be the undoing of the vital centre consensus in the Democratic Party. But, until the 60s, the Democrats held together a Cold War coalition with Southern white supremacy.

At the time the Truman administration and the liberal establishment were wedded to the idea that the Soviet Union and its allies were an international threat to the West. After victory in the Second World War, the United States had to find a justification for its military presence all over the world – and, by extension, the war economy that had been vital to the country’s recovery from the Great Depression.

The Soviet Union and the “loss” of China became the focus of a new politics of fear. In the minds of US policymakers, Communism had succeeded Fascism as the new enemy at home and abroad. What would become later known as McCarthyism really started when Harry Truman began screening the civil service for “loyalty”. The new red scare would grip American society until the late 1950s.

Any serious look at history suggests that the USSR was far from eager to fight a new war. Stalin was looking to use the Eastern bloc as a buffer with the West. He was not about to go for a conquest of Western Europe. In fact, Stalin offered to handover East Germany shortly before his death, but the Western powers did not take this offer seriously. We now know that this proposal was taken very seriously in the upper echelons of the regime.

In Schlesinger’s conception, the vital centre is the guarantor of freedom against the threat of Soviet domination. This presupposition was a key part of hawkish arguments. As it was right to fight Nazi Germany in World War Two, it is now right to fight the Soviet Union wherever it tries to expand its reach. The Korean War and later the Vietnam War were both justified on this pretext. Supposedly the US was standing up against the spectre of totalitarianism in Asia.

In this period Cold War liberalism took hold. The common sense of the day was that the United States had to stand up for freedom at home and abroad. However, the New Deal reforms would create the material basis for a challenge to this consensus in the form of the peace movement and the 60s counterculture. This coupled with the civil rights movement would change the Democrats and US politics for decades to come.

The rise of the neocons

Unsurprisingly the rise of the student left, the civil rights movement, and later feminism and gay rights, was seen as a threat to social order by the Democratic establishment. It looked as if the Great Society had failed to bring the liberal dream to fruition. Instead it had brought riots in the inner-city and occupations and marches onto the campus. Almost inevitably this meant a crisis for the vital centre.

This came to a head in 1972 as George McGovern emerged as the anti-war candidate against Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson. The party’s record of aggression in Vietnam came back to haunt it and the primaries became a battle for the heart and soul of the Democrats. In the end McGovern won the nomination on the back of a democratic opening within the party.

After the election there was a serious attempt to build a coalition between the Hubert Humphrey wing of the party and the Scoop Jackson supporters in order to restore the vital centre. But the problem was that the Humphrey wing wanted to reconcile with the McGovernites, whereas the Jackson fan club wanted to throw out such people. Then it became clear that Jackson himself was reluctant to become the group’s candidate.

Fearing the loss of the vital centre, some of these liberals decided to seek out new alliances outside the Democratic establishment. Despite the catastrophe of the US war on Indochina, these liberals did not give up their commitment to the Cold War. Instead they began to look for a new safe haven and a new hope, they found it in Ronald Reagan and so the neocons jumped ship to the Republican Party.

During the Reagan era, Jeane Kirkpatrick deployed the phrase ‘moral equivalence’ to level all criticism of US foreign policy. Much like the contemporary right, the neocons would deploy the terms of debate to slander and blackmail their opponents. This was necessary to whitewash American support for Apartheid in South Africa, the Contras in Nicaragua and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

The notion of the ‘regressive left’ belongs to this Cold War phrasebook used by a cross-section of conservatives and liberals to police the left. If you dare to question certain assumptions about the world, you will inevitably come up against these tactics. Setting the limits on what can be questioned is a key part of preventing real opposition. Thus, if the left is to succeed it must dispense with this language of reaction.

Josh White is the author of Goodbye United Kingdom: Descent into Chaos (2015-2022).