According to some people who spend a lot of time denouncing the pitfalls of certain parts of the contemporary left, politics is basically like a circle in which one “extreme” on one pole leads to the other(s), thereby making the circle’s center the only space of reasonable ideas, discussion and principles. Not only does this approach ultimately fail to properly analyze the far right, the authoritarian-chauvinist elements on parts of the left, and “red-brownism”, it is also politically reactionary.
It’s funny (or disturbing, you decide) because “Neither Left Nor Right” is a notorious rhetorical-ideological feature of the modern far right, from Third Position to populist formations like Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S, Movimento 5 Stelle). As Tamir Bar-On has shown, the postwar metamorphosis of the far right included an explicit call for transcending the conventional left-right spectrum, especially within the highly influential European New Right (Nouvelle Droite). It goes without saying that this changes nothing from the fact that they are far right, but pretending that they’re not is precisely part of their strategy (an accurate term for this, mostly used in French: “confusionism“) – which mainstream politics and society has already fallen for to a large extent…
Centrism is an ideological stance that characterizes (some actors within) various institutions and spheres of power from the electoral/parliamentary arena to various segments of states’ apparatuses (e.g. ‘counter-extremism’). We can define centrist politics, in their own terms, as both pretending to take ‘good’ bits from the left and the right, and claiming to constitute the enlightened ‘moderate’ middle ground safe from the pitfalls of all ‘extremes’ on ‘both sides’.
It’s largely rooted in the assumption that since liberal democracy (better described in the words of Jacques Rancière as États de droit oligarchiques, “states where the oligarchy’s power is limited by the [note: obviously partial and relative/deficient] dual recognition of popular sovereignty and individual liberties” – La haine de la démocratie, p. 81, as cited here) is better than brutal authoritarian systems or dictatorships, any critique or politics that explicitly questions and rejects this sociopolitical model is necessarily and inherently “terroristic”, “extremist”, “demagogic”, dictatorial, and so on. The premise is that only liberal oligarchic modernism and capitalism are the rightful and “final” forms of human social and political organization. During the postwar Cold War period, this took the form of liberal/centrist (as opposed to, say, McCarthyite fanaticism or the John Birch “Eisenhower [was] a communist” Society) anti-communism, as well as “anti-totalitarianism”. Historian Enzo Traverso has studied and criticized the latter extensively (see here, here, here and here), saying that
even if its content has changed significantly, “totalitarianism” permanently designates the enemies of the West. This inevitably implies a selective gaze on the violence of the past century: in front of totalitarian crimes — genocides and concentration camps — Western violence was automatically legitimized or eventually reduced to a sequence of “collateral damages.” Of course, there are many theories of totalitarianism, some of them fruitful and interesting, but the “public uses” of this concept have been mostly apologetic.[source]
In several Western countries, the “totalitarian” debate of the 1970s coincided with the “crisis of Marxism” and allowed the conservative turn of a significant section of the left intelligentsia towards a quite conventional form of classical liberalism, or even of anticommunist conservatism. The so-called French “New Philosophers” were the most visible expression of this intellectual and political change. The “conservative revolution” of the 1980s wore the habits of anti-totalitarianism and “Human Rights.”[source]
While not always tied to this context – for example, Idrees Ahmad and others don’t seem to be apologetic for Western imperialism and hegemony -, the centrist left-bashing that one can come across today also claims to represent a righteous indignation and crusade against the undeniably despicable and dangerous behaviors of both the far right and rotten sections of the left (often the focus is understandably put on the Western left, but needless to say, this can be found everywhere). The fact that these two poles of what I call the political cesspool (in a word, the worst of the worst of modern politics, people who like genocides and defend tyrants and deny their atrocities) must be opposed, problematically leads many centrists to conflate them, as described by eminent French scholar Nonna Mayer:
A commonly received idea, one strengthened by the post-war debates about the nature of totalitarianism, is that “extremes meet.” Rather than a straight line between the Left and Right poles, the political spectrum would look more like a circle, or a “horseshoe,” a metaphor the philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye used to describe the position of German parties in 1932, from the Nazis to the Communists.Mayer, Nonna (2011). “Why extremes don’t meet: Le Pen and Besancenot Voters in the 2007 Presidential Election”. French Politics, Culture & Society. 29 (3): 101–120.
This isn’t helped by the often sloppy use of the notion of “redbrownism” or “red-brown convergence/alliance”: it’s not because there are (very) bad elements or currents on “both sides” of the traditional left-right spectrum, that they’re just converging or plotting something together. The latter does happen, but just as – if not more – often, we’re really talking about authoritarians and assholes being shitty on either side in their own right. But the core issue lies elsewhere, because there’s no denying the reactionary and harmful elements of a significant part of the left.
The fundamental problem of centrist politics – as defined above – is that their whole ideological framework revolves around defending, reinforcing and legitimizing the status quo (e.g. bourgeois democracy) or status quo ante (e.g. returning to the ‘business-as-usual’ before the Trump years, in the U.S. context) with respect to how society ought to be governed (politically and socially). Reviewing the influence of this kind of ideological framework in government and police “counter-extremism” in the U.S., Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons wrote in 1998 that,
Centrist/extremist theory (…) lumps together dissidents, populists of the left and right, supremacists and terrorists as an irrational lunatic fringe.
The image of a democratic elite guarding the vital center against irrational populists has appealed strongly to many defenders of the status quo, but as a reading of (…) political traditions it is strikingly twisted and inconsistent.
Centrist/extremist theory denies the structural oppression at the core of (…) society; it obscures [countries’] long history of brutality and genocide; it lumps popular movements that fight oppression and supremacy with those that reinforce it.
Again, there’s a spectrum of shittiness within centrism; not everyone is crappy in exactly the same ways, some embolden Western hegemony/imperialism while others don’t, etc… The common thread, however, is a systematic presumption that anyone who doesn’t adhere to the prevailing sociopolitical order is suspicious, and potentially dangerous.
This kind of blind faith in the institutions of liberal oligarchic political systems was described by Marx as a form of “cretinism”. He used this word to talk about a kind of parliamentary–centered reductionism, but it’s easy to see how this concept can be extended to statism, electoralism, legalism, etc…
… Parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honour to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their house—wars, revolutions, railway-constructing, colonizing of whole new (sic) continents, California gold discoveries (sic), Central American canals, Russian armies, and whatever else may have some little claim to influence upon the destinies of mankind—is nothing compared with the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honourable house. 
… that peculiar malady which since 1848 has raged all over the Continent, parliamentary cretinism, which holds those infected by it fast in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, all understanding of the rude external world… Karl Marx –  Article written for the New York Tribune, July 1852. In Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany;  The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Chapter V.
However, it must be said that the word ‘cretinism’ – nowadays and still in this quote (even if it is used as metaphor), can have ableist undertones/implications, and that’s definitely not the point or intention here. Maybe we could call this parliamentary/electoral/legal/… fetishism, if that’s better (or maybe something else, I don’t know).
In the context of North America, liberal presidents like Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden are heralded by many centrists as the reasonable, rational, moderate, and even progressive leaders that the (especially more critical/antagonistic segments of the) left refuses to endorse. And with the recent context of Trump’s time as POTUS, their favourite talking point is to then claim that the “left to the center-left” simply equated the likes of Obama and Biden with Trump or even moved closer to the latter because they were populist contrarians. Now, it can’t be denied or ignored that some peculiarly awful sections of the North American left – in a similar pattern as parts of the European left – have peddled nationalist, syncretic/red-brown and other reactionary views/approaches.
But defending the status quo and the “reasonable center” is by no means a more respectable position than those on the retrograde left who play the game of mixing populism, chauvinism/nationalism, and confusionism/conspiracism (to fill the void in which a more radical and emancipatory form of politics ought to be – if we consider that it ever was part of that authoritarian leftist tradition, which is questionable). One of the latest irritating examples is the presidency and government of Joe Biden in the U.S. Since the win over Trump, many centrists have continually mocked or condemned the leftists and socialists that started being very critical of Biden right from the beginning (and in fact, since even before he was inaugurated). This is sometimes presented as a question of “lesser evil”, which tells you everything you need to know about the abysmal ethical/moral and political standards of these people – and yet, others outright support Joe “I used to promote defend racial segregation” Biden. Here are some sources about Biden’s record as POTUS:
- A full timeline of year one of the Biden administration.
- A comprehensive list of everything that Joe Biden and his administration have done that was against a “progressive” agenda throughout his first year. Including, a few items among many more:
- Using Title 42 to expel 690’000+ people
- Continued support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others
- 30% increase of US deportations of children in the first year of Biden’s presidency
- “approved 3,557 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in their first year, outpacing the Trump administration’s first-year total of 2,658. A 34% increase in drilling permits!” [source]
- Not passing the promised $15 minimum wage, nor the $2000 stimulus to all individuals
- And for balance, here is also a source about the supposedly ‘progressive accomplishments’ of Biden. Low fucking bar innit.
As a friend on twitter said, responding to a case of typical (and really repulsive) centrist smugness:
Obama deported 2 million people and worsened detention for undocumented immigrants and had them in atrocious conditions and we still got Trump. So it doesn’t work, and it makes you the same monster as the Trump administration (whose policies on immigration Biden has mostly continued). Anyways, another example Democrats never gave a fuck about kids in cages and immigration is not a reason to vote for them in 2024 (only reason I voted for them in 2020)https://twitter.com/InvestigadoraP/status/1477343290492166145?t=FXKXmm7ESwvWSeabquLtqw&s=19
For more details on the reactionary record of Obama and Biden on immigration, see this post (with relevant sources/links). Similarly, without much sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of leftist ‘labour’ populism, Keir Starmer is so ridiculously crappy that it’s just not possible to hear anyone promoting him and taking them seriously.
Please keep in mind that as far as I’m concerned, electoral/parliamentary/presidential/bourgeois politics is in and of itself a dead end, from a radical socialist perspective. Simply put, the institutions and conventional practices of the capitalist nation-state are part of the system that needs to be abolished and replaced by a different way of organizing human and social life. Using or appealing to the predominant political institutions and actors can help gain some crucial reforms and relief, but nothing more. Bourgeois democracy and capitalist states in general are not meant to be abolished from the inside, they are self-reinforcing and the social hierarchies and various forms of domination are secured and reproduced despite all the best possible intentions from a leftist or “radical” leader. This entails that there’s a general conclusion that anarchists have been repeating for over a century, and with which many other leftists probably disagree: there’s no ‘leftist’ or ‘socialist’ way to come to power, take control of the state/government, and manage or rule over society in an actual revolutionary way. I share this perspective, but now is not the time to discuss this. I’m generally okay with anti-authoritarian (i.e. non-Bolshevik) leftists who don’t share the same radical anti-statism as anarchists and myself, but it’s necessary to mention where I stand on this issue…
To sum up, I think centrist ‘horseshoe‘ confusionism can be seen as a form of Flat-Earth fantastical nonsense: for these people if you go too far in either direction on the left or the right, you’d end up falling off cliff and bizarrely teleporting right at the other end of the line. It’s theoretically ridiculous and politically reactionary!
Below I briefly address a few manifestations/forms of centrists’ fundamentally conservative worldview and politics. However, I will also write (or already have written) some specific articles/chapters on the separate topics (e.g. populism, conspiracism) in which there is a more comprehensive discussion and an actual alternative to centrists’ positions. Because here’s the central point I want to highlight here: quite often the basic targets/objects of their critiques – for example, authoritarian populism, conspiracism + denialism, or pseudo-anti-imperialism – are legitimate but the ways/standpoint/ideological framing that they have is the problem. In other words, many of the things they point out or target indeed need to be addressed, but their ideological/political/conceptual approach is part of the problem.
Social/radical critique is inherently diminished and compromised by conspiracist elements that sometimes sneak in into the conceptual or critical apparatus of people and groups that are angry at the powers/institutions/systems that predominate in our societies. But the way many prominent actors – in politics, media and academia/think tanks – have responded to conspiracism has been both analytically questionable and ideologically backwards. Their own ‘anti-conspiracist’ approach/viewpoint is conservative – socially elitist, with a significant degree of class and racist condescending contempt – and confusionist – meaning, promoting conceptions and typologies that falsely mix together things that are distinct or incompatible -, and rooted in political centrism, i.e. gatekeeping the status quo and discrediting any critique or alternative to the prevailing state of affairs as inherently nefarious and dangerous.
This reaction can be traced back to Karl Popper and Raymond Boudon (individualist sociologist)’s liberal critiques of marxism that framed it as nothing less than rooted in conspiracism (among other lies). Then, authors and think tanks that studied conspiracism reproduced this fundamentally conservative standpoint, including Pierre-André Taguieff in France and Richard Hofstadter or Daniel Pipes in US/UK. These authors mixed a contempt for the masses/lower classes with an intense rejection of any critical theory or radical/emancipatory politics:
the approach in terms of paranoid style ultimately leads to viewing any form of social criticism of Western democratic and capitalist political systems as constituting conspiracist argumentsJulien Giry (2014) Le conspirationnisme dans la culture politique et populaire aux États-Unis. Une approche sociopolitique des théories du complot. Université de rennes 1, p. 111.
To get a more specific idea of how these people react to and talk about conspiracism, let us look at two French think tanks that were criticized by Sortir du capitalisme for representing this kind of conservative/elitist approach. Conspiracy Watch, a think tank founded in 2007 by Rudy Reichstadt, adopted Hofstadter‘s vulgar conception that there’s a widespread and increasing ‘paranoid style’ in modern politics. As the folks at Sortir du capitalisme describe, their approach is bourgeois and (overly) psychological (psychologisant), meaning that “rather than analyzing what makes people subscribe to conspiracy theories, they are content with merely denouncing individuals who are considered too uneducated and too dumb and thus find ‘shelter’ in reductionist monocausal theories because they are scared of the real complexity of the world”. Obviously, the unstated aim of this response is to protect the status quo, so that any time there’s some questioning of the prevailing order – even if it is indeed sometimes done in flawed or clumsy ways – , people get accused of cognitive bias and so on…”. And their methods reflect this approach (they did this during the Yellow Vests/Gilets jaunes movement, for example), i.e. they will take any dumbass on twitter saying something conspiracist as proving a broader trend or the idiocy of the masses, or whatever…. Similarly, the Institut Jean Jaurès practices what Sortir du capitalisme termed a ‘confusionist anti-conspiracism’, for example by equating adhering to antisemitic conspiracy theories with subscribing to those that target multinational corporations. They produce much-quoted surveys purporting to show that the French public is widely poisoned by beliefs in conspiracy theories (and here also, it must be mentioned that conspiracism – a worldview, a sort of ‘theory of history’ – is not necessarily comparable to adhering to a single specific conspiracy theory…)
So last year, they tried to test the degree of adherence to conspiracy theories in the French population by submitting for each question a dozen conspiracy theories asking the individuals interviewed whether they believed in them or not. And it’s a sort of amalgamation since it puts on the same level the collusion between the government and the pharmaceutical industries and the fact that the United States never went to the Moon. For them it’s the same thing it’s a conspiracy theory and they use statistical indicators to say “here it is gotcha” so fatally that it led to a unilateral denunciation of these conspiracy individuals as if it’s their system of thought that was completely irrational, that it came out of nowhere and that finally it was almost mental disorders…From Sortir du capitalisme‘s discussion (podcast). Transcribed and translated roughly.
And apart from these conceptual/analytical flaws and ideological bias – which is probably the more important deeply problematic aspect of centrist ‘extremist-monitoring’ reporting, as Matthew N. Lyons noted here -, this specific kind of ‘do you believe in conspiracy theories’ survey and report, which they do periodically/regularly, is or can sometimes be methodologically unrigorous and dubious, as pointed out by various people (see here, here, here, and here).
To give you an idea of how ridiculously allergic these conservative gatekeepers are to any kind of social critique or critical perspective, a good example is that the aforementioned Pierre-André Taguieff went after Pierre Bourdieu, one of the world’s most respected (and genuinely brilliant, despite some disagreements/etc) sociologists in the last 50 years:
Taguieff (2013: 81–2) points out that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu entertained the notion of an ‘invisible world government’ in one of his latter books (Contre-feux 2, 2001), and offers it as an example of a ‘sociology of unveiling’, institutionalised in France by Bourdieu himself, which he regards as an updated version of Marxist ‘unmasking’ and, therefore, sharing its conspiracist undertones. Ho and Jin (2011), who examined in further detail the Taguieff-Bourdieu controversy, believe that methodological individualism is not an effective antidote to conspiracy theorising in sociology, since in their view it postulates a transparent and rationalised society that does not exist either.Türkay Salim Nefes & Alejandro Romero-Reche (2020) Sociology, Social Theory and Conspiracy Theory. In Michael Butter & Peter Knight (eds) Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, p. 94-107.
As Julien Giry (whose PhD thesis was a comprehensive breakdown of conspiracism in the United States) noted:
For Taguieff and the proponents of a conspiratorial Bourdieu, the challenge remains (…) to delegitimise any critical approach that blindly rejects the liberal consensus, i.e. adherence to the market, to free trade and, ultimately, to methodological individualism allied to the universal principles defended by the neoconservatives.Julien Giry (2014) Le conspirationnisme dans la culture politique et populaire aux États-Unis. Une approche sociopolitique des théories du complot. Université de rennes 1, p. 18.
Worse yet, Taguieff has himself peddled some outright conspiracist nonsense, rooted in his fundamentally anti-Palestinian, anti-leftist and Islamophobic worldview. He was one of the original promoters of the “Islamo-Leftism” reactionary trope, which has been adopted by much of mainstream French politics and culture/media. I will come back to this bullshit in the section on antisemitism further below.
Against this ideologically/politically reactionary and conceptually/analytically underwhelming critique of conspiracism, I believe a radical socialist critique and analysis is needed. That’s what I attempt to do in my article here, citing various other communists and anarchists that have already contributed to it.
A friend wrote to me something relevant on this topic:
to reflectively mock conspiracy theories is to ignore power and how it has been used against popular movements, other countries, etc…For a long time, people in the US mocked the idea that CIA had something to do with overthrowing Allende, for example. And what was Cointelpro, and why should one believe that it has stopped happening? (Of course you have tankies who do the opposite: everything is CIA, everything is Cointelpro). That doesn’t mean CIA and Cointelpro are a thing of the past, or that CIA has stopped engaging in cover operations against Democratically elected countries. Or a maybe more controversial opinion: you do not need to be a fan of TrueAnon podcast to believe that Epstein didn’t kill himself. The police killing people in their custody and making it look like a suicide is not an uncommon occurrence. My personal position is that you will never know for sure, so it really makes little sense to try to “uncover” that conspiracy, because just knowing who Epstein was and what he did is enough for me to understand how networks of power work
Despite having little to no sympathy for leftist versions of “populism” (let alone (far) right forms of it, duh), the reaction of the political elites, the ‘mainstream’ media and various ideologues has been tainted by similar flaws as what I just mentioned regarding (anti-)conspiracism.
According to many authors, such as Ugo Palheta, Aurélien Mondon and Annie Collovald, the elitist and condescending dismissal and critique of ‘populism’ by prevailing forces and actors largely betrays an irritation with not being able to rule over the masses without resistance/conflict and continue their authoritarian neoliberal project of reshaping and extending control over society in favor of capital and the elites’ power (or, in sociological terms, their social reproduction). According to Collovald:
The word ‘populism’ above all stirs up concern for democracy and suspicion of the working classes, especially over their supposed predilection for supporting short-sighted politicians and overt racism. Rather than advancing our comprehension, the word is disqualifying from the outset by making those it characterises as ‘populist’ undesirable and dangerous; it then dismisses the left/right divide as an obsolete notion in favour of a new divide distinguishing reasonable, open, progressive people from radical, nationalistic, closed-minded people (think of Merkel or Macron’s speeches); in short, from all those who are supposedly “incompatible” (because of their “values” and “attitudes”) with democracy and progress.
I don’t think a ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ populism is either possible, or more importantly, even desirable, because as I explain in my article on this issue, for me it offers only a vacuous and usually chauvinistic (and potentially authoritarian) alternative to the (obviously despicable) status quo, namely bourgeois-neoliberal hegemony. I won’t go into any more detail here, but I still agree that the fear of ‘populism’ among the elites and the political/media/etc… establishment is based on their own retrograde worldview that considers the existing bourgeois socio-political hierarchy the only “natural” and the most rational way of organizing society. Which is why I wanted to write a critique of populism from a libertarian communist perspective: check out my article!
[Check out this blog post for another critique of confused/flawed critiques of – in that case – left populism]
(Anti-)authoritarian leftism (tankies and co)
Unsurprisingly, the centrist worldview views any kind of politics to the left of Barack Obama or Emmanuel Macron as inherently nefarious, utopian, authoritarian and/or worse. It is therefore completely predictable that their reactions the actual authoritarians on the left, who are already criticized by anarchists and other libertarian socialists, are equally frustrating and conservative. In fact, some of the center-left “anti-tankie”/anti-campist critics (e.g., in the UK) are similarly problematic and hypocritical (Daphne Lawless mentions the transphobia in the anti-campist British left, for example).
Some folks when mentioning tankies/authcoms: “I have principles damnit, not like these reactionary assholes!”Originally tweeted by Alex (@alraven3) on February 7, 2022.
The same folks when they’re not targeting the authcoms: *Meh….*
Much of it simply comes out of the same old tired bourgeois outrage against anarchist and communist goals such as abolishing private property/the state/the police/prisons/the bourgeois family/… or seizing the means of production and restructuring socio-economic relations and systems toward a more socialistic and communal/communist horizon. As the (terminally online leftist) kids say, “[Marx and the early anarchists] debunked that shit ages ago!”; and also, there’s no point in negotiating with or respecting the grievances of actors and/or purveyors/supports of the oppressive prevailing capitalist system. It’s kinda like when authoritarians say “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, you know? Well, we don’t “negotiate with” the ruling class and capitalist apologists, sorry (not): expropriate the expropriators.
But putting aside the (irrelevant and illegitimate) whining of capital and its defenders/ideologues (like Steven Pinker), there still needs to be a ruthless critique of the appalling authoritarian cesspool that is the Bolshevik, Stalinist, ‘tankie’, Maoist, etc… Left.
This is also something I plan to do at some point – using/learning from the 100+ years long literature of anarchists and critical communists/marxists going after state-centered jacobinist/’vanguardist’ elements that call themselves “socialist” or “communist” – and I’ll include the link here when it’s done.
(Anti-)fascism & Anti-antifa
As mentioned in my article on Chomsky, some people have taken a weird stance against militant anti-fascism, largely based on what Isaac Russo called ‘reactionary pacificism‘ which often seems to advocate for a non-violent resistance to far right thugs (maybe in the great “debate/battle of ideas”, right?), which is obviously a ridiculous idea:
Adventurist, ultra-left, and isolated actions can alienate the most radicalized elements from the bulk of activism, and can have harmful consequences for the anti-fascist movement if the state takes advantage of this split. And it will. A strategy to defeat fascists has to be based on mass mobilizations. But the discussion about tactics should never be taken to the absurdity of placing Nazis and antifa activists at the same level. This is the best gift for the Right.Isaac Russo (2017, September 2) Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges Are Wrong – Antifa and Nazis Are Not the Same. Left Voice.
In a different situation, Oz Katerji went out of his way to say that only liberal-centrist (which usually means right wing neoliberal) are able to oppose fascism because – get this – they can win elections while the left supposedly can’t and communists “create authoritarianism that rivals fascism”, in a remarkable rant that epitomises the reactionary centrist desire to dismiss anything to the left of authoritarian neoliberalism. His example on Brazil (the PT’s Haddad losing to far right Bolsonaro) is completely decontextualised since Haddad was impopular as a mayor of São Paulo (and failed to win re-election in 2016), there were the corruption scandals, Lula being prevented from running, etc. And his claim doesn’t sit well with the case of Chile in 2021 for example, where Gabriel Boric beat the fasicst José Antonio Kast. According to him, the left and far-left are just by definition incompetent or dangerous: this is the flat-earth “neither left nor right” left-punching conception that liberalism relies on to pretend to be less elitist and reactionary (in particular, anti-egalitarian) than it actually is.
But there’s also a liberal “antifascist” approach rooted in what we defined earlier as parliamentary/electoral/legalistic/statist/… cretinism. Devin Zane Shaw outlines the distinction between militant and liberal antifascism:
- Militant antifascism upholds the diversity of tactics to combat far-right and fascist organizing; it organizes as a form of community self-defense which (at least ideally) builds reciprocal relationships with marginalized and oppressed communities. In addition, it ought to recognize and uphold the “revolutionary horizon” of antifascist struggle: fascism cannot be permanently defeated until the conditions which give rise to fascism are overthrown.
- Liberal antifascism, in Mark Bray’s concise definition, entails “a faith in the inherent power of the public sphere to filter out fascist ideas, and in the institutions of government to forestall the advancement of fascist politics.” Liberal antifascists appeal to the democratic norms of these institutions, but they also assume that law enforcement will apply force to repress fascism when it constitutes a legitimate threat; furthermore, they also tend to accept the converse of the foregoing proposition: if law enforcement doesn’t intervene, then no legitimate threat is present.
Along with these fundamentally liberal reactions to fascist movements (and to the direct actions by militant antifascists), there’s a recurrent issue in some antifascist circles with carreerist, “celebrity” [see for example the case of “Antifash Gordon“] and/or centrist individuals who behave in harmful/abusive/self-promoting ways or end up collaborating with the repressive apparatus of the state.
Another troubling example is Alexander Reid-Ross. While influential on many antifascists, he joined and works for the “Network Contagion Research Institute” (NCRI), an “anti-extremist” think-tank criticized here by Matthew N. Lyons:
Reid-Ross, who teaches geography at Portland State University and used to moderate the Earth First! Newswire, has had significant influence on many liberal and leftist antifascists with his 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep and numerous articles on related topics. Although he has raised important issues, such as collusion between sections of the left and fascists, his past work is a mixed bag; one 2017 review of Against the Fascist Creep rightly faulted Reid-Ross for using guilt by association, name dropping, and just plain bad writing. In any case, by signing on with NCRI he has repudiated the left, yet his background helps burnish the NCRI’s image as an inclusive home for anti-“hate” scholars of every persuasion.Matthew N. Lyons (2021, May 9) Network Contagion Research Institute: helping the state fight political infection left and right. Three Way Fight [blog].
Another antifascist wrote about Ross:
To be clear, anyone working for the Network Contagion Research Institute has definitely crossed a line; whatever “our side” is, Ross has definitely ceased to be on it. Some of those who Ross has criticised in the past, notably Max Blumenthal, the Assadist and frequent Tucker Carlson guest, have seized on this development as a way to attempt to discredit everything he’s ever written and all the positions that he’s been aligned with.
This argument, as a far as it goes, is a fairly asinine form of ad hominem: back in 2018, I wrote “I have no desire to defend everything Ross has ever said, because frankly he gives me careerist vibes and I’m not a big fan of his writing, but to focus on the man himself is kind of a distraction… anti-fascist opposition to co-operation with the far-right is not something new, a neoliberal attack on the left, or something that can be simply equated with the work of Ross… If, for the sake of argument, we were to hypothetically agree that Andrew [typo?] Reid Ross was the biggest prick in the world, that still wouldn’t mean that everything Sol Process, Vagabond or Matthew Lyons has written should be automatically discarded, even if Ross makes some of the same points as them.”nothingiseverlost (2021, March 28) Is Alexander Reid Ross the CEO/dad of antifa?: On contagion, shades of grey, and the three-way fight. Cautiously pessimistic [blog].
They further emphasized that what Ross talks about is not a new theme in anti-fascist/leftist discussions, and indeed has been present in the movements since at least the 1990’s:
Again, back in 2018, I wrote “anti-fascist opposition to co-operation with the far-right is not something new, a neoliberal attack on the left, or something that can be simply equated with the work of Ross. Instead, it’s a theme that’s come up again and again in debates within our movements, running back at least as far as the arguments made by people like the Dutch antiracist organisation “De Fabel van de illegaal” and the authors of the “My Enemy’s Enemy” collection during the summit protest/anti-globalization movement of almost 20 years ago, through to people like Spencer Sunshine warning of the danger of far-right and antisemitic participation in the Occupy movement, and a subject that’s been brought up to the present day by a wide variety of writers including Elise Hendricks, Sol Process, Vagabond, Matthew Lyons andother contributors to the Three-Way Fight project, Andy Fleming, the Olympia anarchists who spoke out against Sadie and Exile, along with others like Bob from Brockley, Louis Proyect and Andrew Coates.”
Spencer Sunshine himself added:
“Ross merely popularized work that others did for many years.
The ur-text here is Chip Berlet’s 100 page report “Right Woos Left,” which looks at Far Right groups from the 1950s to 1990s who did outreach to the Left in various ways:https://www.politicalresearch.org/1999/02/27/right-woos-left
…In addition, Kevin Coogan’s “Dreamer of the Day” (1998) and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s “Black Sun” (2002) were some pivotal books in our understanding of the Third Positionist and other unorthodox fascist currents which sought unity with left-wing currents in various ways.”nothingiseverlost (2021, March 28) Is Alexander Reid Ross the CEO/dad of antifa?: On contagion, shades of grey, and the three-way fight. Cautiously pessimistic [blog].
There’s a clear paradox in the forms that critique/rejection of liberalism can take. On the one hand, some of the most violent and reactionary movements and ideologies in the world – such as neo-nazism, clerical fascism or salafi-jihadism – have an intense hatred for liberalism and ‘modernity’ which represent a decadent – or in the classic far right slang, “degenerate” – virus poisoning and degrading the national culture (the national ‘body’ and/or “race”), or the supra-national community (e.g. the Ummah, or ‘Islamic community’).
But on the other, no serious perspective on modern society can rely on liberalism, or fail to offer some kind of relevant/interesting critique of it. Hence, a radical and emancipatory (as opposed to reactionary) critique of liberalism is indeed necessary, and luckily enough, marxists, anarchists and others have been working on this since the 19th century (with Marx being one of the most powerful critics of liberal social theory and ideology ever since then). Here are a few sources (will add more if/when I find some good and relevant critiques):
- Ishay Landa’s The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism and the “Dark side of liberalism” series, by Dumpster Flower, which is based on it. Among other things, DF outlines the anti-democratic character and white-supremacist roots of liberalism, as well as the links between liberalism and the far right.
- Critiques (bullshit/bourgeois/liberal notions) of “freedom of speech”:
- For a powerful examination of the real colonial underpinning of Western liberalism, see Lisa Lowe: The Intimacies of Four Continents. In this book, Lowe “connects the liberal narrative of freedom overcoming slavery to the expansion of Anglo-American empire, observing that abstract promises of freedom often obscure their embeddedness within colonial conditions. Race and social difference, Lowe contends, are enduring remainders of colonial processes through which “the human” is universalized and “freed” by liberal forms, while the peoples who create the conditions of possibility for that freedom are assimilated or forgotten.”
(Anti-)anti-zionism and (anti-)anti-semitism
As I hopefully made clear in my post on antisemitism, I have no time for versions/forms of anti-Zionism that are antisemitic or even just play a semantic game with “Jews” and “Zionism”, soviet-style (i.e. using the word ‘jew’ was illegal so antisemitism in stuff like legal documents, so they deliberately used ‘zionist’ instead). Left anti-semitism is to a large extent perpetuated by denying that it even exists, and ignoring the actual instances of anti-Zionism that are directly or indirectly (i.e. a cover/mask for it) antisemitic, is part of it.
But as countless people have already said, equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism has been a documented and explicit strategy of the Israeli state and its apologists and propagandists. This has nothing to do with any antisemitic cliché like Israel being a ‘puppet’ for its U.S. master, but it is a fact and must be acknowledge – and combated/resisted/opposed. Palestinian liberation/self-determination should remain a global priority!
An example of backwards critiques of antisemitism is the notion that modern antisemitism mainly comes not from the far right but from the left, Muslims in Europe and the Palestinian liberation struggle. This has been a talking point in the context of Western Europe especially, from figures like Pierre-André Taguieff, Bernard Lewis, Jacob Talmon and Yehoshafat Harkabi . In France, Taguieff is one of the main defenders of this idea, which is in his case inherently tied to his conservative/anti-leftist, pro-Israel/anti-Palestinian, and islamophobic, ideological standpoint. A notorious and revered scholar of postwar far right ideology and things like populism and conspiracism (though his perspective is deeply problematic, as explained above in the relevant sections), Taguieff is the main original source of the notions of “la nouvelle judéophobie/le nouvel antisemitism” (‘the new antisemitism/judeophobia’) as well as “l’islamogauchisme” (‘Islamo-Leftism‘, see also Rim-Sarah Alouane’s conversation with Joey Ayoub here) in France.
The “new antisemitism” thesis, Reza Zia-Ebrahimi explains, “extends the accusation of antisemitism towards Palestinians to the whole Muslim population, more specifically Muslims who live in the West. It enables its adherents to hit two birds with one stone: re-affirming their anti-Palestinian position while opposing immigration from Muslim-majority countries” (this latter position was especially adopted by Bernard Lewis decades ago, showing that anti-Muslim BS is by no means a new feature of Western politics). Not all of its adherents have exactly the same viewpoint, with some saying that the main culprit is the left or European Muslims, others identifying anti-Zionism as the new ‘mask’ of antisemitism. Taguieff’s version of this idea – which defines this ‘new antisemitism’ as an unprecedented targeting of Israel and zionism “instead” of Jews themselves, calling it a form of antisemitism ‘by procuration’ – is rooted in the same trope of so-called “Islamo-Leftism” which has become very popular in mainstream French politics and media. Basically, in the context of Taguieff’s anti-Palestinian/pro-Israel stance as well as the French ‘republican’ brand of anti-Islam/anti-Muslim paranoia (since the Iranian revolution and 9/11), he singles out two groups, as already mentioned. The “Left” – defined in a ridiculously vague and broad sense – is blamed because of its criticism of Israel and of French Islamophobia, and accused to be allied to or supporting “Islamists”. In a most classic and blatant form of Islamophobia and racism, he identifies young “Muslim Arabs” (jeunes “arabo-musulmans”) in France with the latter (“Islamism” is moreover a notoriously vague and questionable notion, which depicts Islam and Muslim politics – obviously both a varied spectrum containing many forms and contradictory elements (just like other religions and belief systems) – in a truncated and essentialist/racist way).
Of course anti-Zionism can be antisemitic, but not automically/necessarily so: only if certain features are there can such a claim be made. As Zia-Ebrahimi writes:
One can be anti-Zionist for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with antisemitism: in defense of international law, human rights, or Palestinians’ rights, or against ethnic nationalism, military occupation, unequal treatment, mass dispossession, etc.. An anti-Zionist can only be said to be antisemitic if there’s some evidence that, for example, they project the the mythological figure of the Jew inherited from antisemitism “onto the State of Israel because it is a Jewish State”, onto “Zionism because it is a Jewish movement”, or if he holds all Jews responsible for the actions of this state.Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (2021) Antisémitisme & islamophobie. Une histoire commune. Éditions Amsterdam, 185. Rough translation.
Apart from these racist and anti-leftist presuppositions, the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis is of course factually and empirically dubious, and just wrong. Obviously, the idea that such a wide array of groups – from non-violent leftists to violent far right Islamic activists (some of which of course did in fact harm or kill Jewish people in France, such as the murder of Ilan Halimi) – is characterized by a common ideology is in and of itself ridiculous. More concretely, experts of antisemitic violence in France have shown that “there is no more antisemitism among foreign-born people in France” than in the general population. Statistics on the contrary emphasize the correlation between different forms of racism, insofar as people with antisemitic beliefs are also more likely to be islamophobic and racist.” Rather than seeing social reality for what it is, Taguieff has actually denied the existence of Islamophobia, rejecting this concept because he sees it as an “Islamist” culture-war trojan horse and thinks the danger of threats/violence against Muslims is overblown.
Obviously, antisemitism – globally, but especially in the French context – has been historically far more prevalent on the right and far right than on the left. And scholars such as Nonna Mayer – one of the most celebrated and famous political scientists in France, known in part for her work on the electoral success/sources of the Front National – have demonstrated that there’s systematically more antisemitism among rightwing voters than leftwing ones.
According to Zia-Ebrahimi, Taguieff’s standpoint is based on his anti-Palestinian position and Islamophobia. This is why he shares many of the views of Bat Ye’Or and Georges Bensoussan – including conspiracist arguments – that view Palestinian liberation movements as a permanent existential threat to the state of Israel and to Jews as a whole.
This ideological standpoint is the reason why Taguieff, an historian of racism who has researched conspiracy theories, refuses to make a critical analysis of the work of Bat Ye’or, the theoretician of “Islamization”. On the contrary: he has quoted her approvingly, published her writings in publications he edited and promoted her theory of ‘Eurabia’. What both individuals have in common, is that they portray Muslims as inherently antisemitic and as a permanent threat not only to the state of Israel, but to all Jews, wherever they are.Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (2021) Antisémitisme & islamophobie. Une histoire commune. Éditions Amsterdam, 187. Rough translation.
Bat Ye’or, aka Gisèle Orebi, actually influenced Renaud Camus, whose now widespread and extremely dangerous “great replacement” theory was inspired by her theory of “Eurabia” (and the notion of “Islamization”, which should remind you of PEGIDA, a far right European group whose name literally includes the words “against the Islamization of the Occident”).
Backwards pseudo-anti-imperialism is profoundly destructive, especially in the sense that leftists who have contributed to it have undermined relations of international solidarity, by betraying Syrians’ struggle against Assad for example. And here again, it seems some centrists have found themselves a niche for punching the left by focusing all the time on this despicable and dangerous section of the authoritarian left.
Anti-imperialism and anti-militarism remain crucial, and it’s not because odious actors and propagandists have peddled poisonous narratives and licked the boots of authoritarians like Assad or Putin, that we shouldn’t still fight for international solidarity and resist imperialist and militarist projects. Dan La Botz wrote an extensive piece on this topic, which is why I will maybe not do my own in-depth article on it, although I will probably make a reading list eventually.
The Takeaway: Rejecting Centrist Gatekeeping and the Necessity of Radical Alternatives
It’s far too easy to just turn your centrist crusade against conspiracism/disinfo/campist BS/denialism/redbrown shit/etc… into a horseshoe theory grift where you not only conflate anything and anyone on the (“far”) left with the worst elements like tankies, grayzone, left chauvinists, left antisemitism, etc…, but also then end up just bashing anything radical or leftist or socialist and bashing movements that don’t accept to take part in the established political institutions and ‘business as usual’. And it’s interesting that quite often the people that do that are or used to be center-left, but at some point found their niche/grift or moved rightwards…
What this means for example is that, as @InvestigadoraP has pointed out, we shouldn’t give a pass to individuals like Idrees Ahmad and Oz Katerji, who are often cited as critics of authoritarian leftism and reactionary “anti-imperialists” like the Grayzone – something anti-authoritarian leftists tend to agree with. Ahmad and Katerji share this self-righteous centrist habit of bashing the socialist or radical left as this milieu of dumb, infantile, immoral utopians who don’t know what’s what – unlike the rational and moderate adults, you see [spoiler: revolutionary anti-authoritarian socialism is the only ‘rational’ political stance, but that’s a topic for another day]. There’s no doubt that much of the left and radical/socialist sections thereof are (very) crappy and ineffective, but both of them don’t have a very nice record either. These two crusaders against irrational leftists have actually themselves contributed to reactionary bullshit in the past and/or present. Idrees Ahmad has (rightly) criticized the likes of Noam Chomsky for spreading dangerous lies about Syria, and as noted in my post about him, Chomsky has also supported antisemitic conspiracist David Miller. What’s pretty ironic is that Ahmad is a former student of Miller (but fell out with him over conspiracy theories about Syria), and in the past wrote on his antisemitic websites, and co-authored a paper with him. He also defended notorious antisemite Gilad Atzmon in 2008 (by signing a petition). Oz Katerji, for his part, apparently used to write, as late as 2019 for one of the vilest and most demagogic publications in the world, the Daily Mail. This gig included such enlightened articles as “Fits like a glove (box)! Migrants are found hiding behind the dashboard and under the back seats of a car in a bid to enter Europe from North Africa”, from November 2019. Apart from that, Katerji called the entire Yellow Vests movement in France “fascist riots” [thereby defending Emmanuel Macron, whose government was the main target of these protests], targeted Aditya Chakrabortty with disingenuous accusations of antisemitism, and according to a friend, has contributed to the dangerous racist anti-Chinese panic in the US in the context of COVID-19.
And yet these guys spend their whole days on this supposedly glorious crusade against all ‘extremes’ (and indeed they do address/cover a lot of important stuff, but that’s not the point), with a special condescending attitude toward the left. After all, these socialists can’t get elected, and some of them are toxic as fuck, so they must all be infantile and ignorant larpers, right?
It’s part of a bigger problem: the tendency of ‘giving a pass’ to critics of campist/pseudo-anti-imperialism, tankieism, Assad, etc… even though they themselves have done reprehensible shit. For example, Louis Proyect (who died recently) is praised by people like Idrees Ahmad (because he’s anti-Assad) despite some pretty horrendous things like defending antisemite Alison Weir in 2015 (for example, see the comments), the fact he kept writing for the appalling Counterpunch mag (despite being aware of how bad it was), his awful reactionary and Serb-apologist views on the genocide and war in the Balkans in the 1990s and their aftermath (see the comments by Bill Weinberg and Michael Karadjis here, and Karadjis’ pieces here and here) including repeatedly and unapologetically defending Milosevic in the 2000s, and sugarcoating the bloody Peruvian Maoists of the Shining Path.
There’s one key takeaway which I have hinted at and mentioned throughout this post, and it’s the main thing I want people to keep from this if they’re still reading these words right now. As I mentioned earlier, some of the targets or issues that the centrists (and center-left hypocritical anti-authoritarians) criticised here are raising or addressing, should definitely be tackled by better radical and critical alternative perspectives. It’s what I’m trying to do with my current/ongoing series called The Political Cesspool.