In Dubious Battle

The Left at War (Cultural Front Series) BY Michael Berube. NYU Press. Hardcover, 352 pages. $29.

The cover of The Left at War (Cultural Front Series)

Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War is an important book—though it’s not for everyone. If you want a painstaking critique of Noam Chomsky or of protestors who chanted “Imperialism!” when America attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan, it offers no end of material and thoughtful argument. But general readers will find its last third off-putting. Following the author’s own penchant for witty turns of phrases, allow me this slogan: “Part of the way with Bérubé!”

A perceptive critic of the left, Bérubé is a little like George Orwell, except funnier. His frustration crystallized not with the September 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan but with the debate over the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, which “represented a fledgling attempt, after the tragedy of Rwanda, to wage a war in order to strengthen international standards of conduct, realize a responsibility to protect vulnerable populations, and override national sovereignty in extraordinary circumstances.” But many on the left had reduced US foreign policy to CIA machinations to overthrow left-wing governments, and other excesses of the American empire. Some leftists even defended Slobodan Milosevic, driving Bérubé—among others—to apoplexy.

Bérubé focuses on Chomsky, “a uniquely iconic figure on the left” known for regular diatribes against US foreign policy, and examines Chomsky’s charge that the United States allowed “silent genocide” in Afghanistan, as well as his legitimizing of bin Laden’s opposition to “corrupt and repressive regimes” in the Middle East. When critics point out that neither the Taliban nor bin Laden deserves the status of liberator, Chomsky treats these opponents as “imbeciles . . . and moral reprobates.” Moreover, Bérubé argues, an absolutist style of debate buttressed by a “propaganda thesis of mass media” allows Chomsky to continue preaching to the choir—the self-regarding intellectual faction that Bérubé labels the “Manichean” and “countercultural” left, which envisions “popular politics as a game rigged by corporations and the process of winning popular consent as a form of 'selling out.’” To justify defeat, the countercultural left wallows in the Marxist idea of false consciousness, sloughing off the befuddled masses duped by puppet-string-pulling elites.

Of course, one can ask: Is it worth Bérubé’s time picking these fights and, I should add, dedicating so many pages to block quote after block quote from dumb leftists? If the countercultural left is locked in a perpetual game of self-marginalization, let the lunatics ghettoize themselves. When Bérubé recounts exchanges with wacky-left commenters on his blog, I wonder: Well, what did you expect?

But I’ll allow Bérubé his due. He worries that “the antiwar movement was hijacked” by the radical left in 2001—2003 and knows how liberal hawks like George Packer and Michael Kelly used “the Manichean opposition to war in Afghanistan . . . to delegitimate a far more popular opposition to war in Iraq.” So there’s reason for his arguments in favor of “left internationalism.” But Bérubé’s position between Chomsky and the liberal hawks—with its virtue of patience and faith in “genuinely international and multilateral means”—faces big problems. Consider Bérubé’s climactic argument: The left should stop saying, “We oppose tyranny around the globe, but not to the extent of actually doing anything about it” (his emphasis). Though these words are intended to flay the Manichean left, they sound to me like a blanket statement against realism, the belief that America can only do so much abroad. The problem is that examining the internecine wars on the left from 2001 to 2008 doesn’t help us confront our biggest challenge today, namely, an embrace of a backward-looking realism among ordinary citizens who look skeptically at US policy in Afghanistan, and a broader suspicion that internationalist ambitions have embroiled the country in a morass.

But this isn’t my biggest quarrel with The Left at War. That concerns chapter 4, when Bérubé announces a move from considering “debates over war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo” to “a reexamination of Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism almost a generation ago.” Bérubé himself calls this an “oblique turn”—but I’d say it’s more like a neck-wrenching one. On one level, Bérubé is merely acknowledging an intellectual debt to Hall, who is best known as a founder of the cultural-studies movement in the academy. Bérubé, after all, teaches cultural studies at Penn State, and The Left at War is part of a cultural-studies series he edits for New York University Press. I buy Bérubé’s argument that Hall had good ideas about politics and false consciousness. But I’m not convinced that a re-exploration of a British neo-Marxist flows from a critique of the wacky US left. And a healthy dose of Hall will likely not correct Chomsky’s sins.

Bérubé is such an honest and good critic of the radical left I want to scream, “Stop with the Stuart Hall stuff and do it on your own!” To readers I say: Engage Bérubé’s arguments, skim the block quotes that come almost every other page, and then skip the stuff on Hall (unless that’s your thing). You’ll rejoice that there’s such an intelligent and even-minded critic of the left who takes his principles seriously enough to challenge those who threaten to destroy them from within.

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University and is the author of “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” (Bloomsbury, 2009).