Since its origins in the French Revolution, leftist politics has been about using the state to improve the human condition.
At their best, leftists pressed to extend the vote from white men to women, on down to every citizen, regardless of race, creed, or religion. They built programs like social security, universal health care, unemployment insurance, and welfare for the poor. And in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, they built some of the most successful states in the history of the world, which were prosperous, inclusive, and participatory.
The left is usually at the forefront of anti-war movements and without their hostility to imperialism, it is quite possible that European powers like Britain and France never would have abandoned their empires. Moreover, without the dedicated activism of countless leftist environmentalists, there would be little if any hope in the fight against climate change. Countless millions of acres of rainforest would no longer exist without their devoted work, and the vast stores of carbon they released into the atmosphere would have cooked the planet by now.
But the liberal left also has a shadow—least of which is their authoritarian streak. Many activists on the left are fiercely unforgiving in the face of what they view as moral lapses.
Karl Marx used to write nasty notes in the margins of his books in a perpetual fight with the authors, whose intelligence he routinely insulted.
We can only imagine what was going through his mind when he died at his desk while reading, but if he had gotten it down it writing, it probably would have sounded something like an angry Twitter rant.
Perhaps if social media existed in 1855, he would have alienated so many supporters that other more mild socialists would have come to the fore, staving off the most bloody excesses of the 20th century.
The excesses of vegans and feminists are pilloried to no end, because all too many not only want us to be better but expect us to be as well. Seldom do they say it outright, for most are compassionate people who understand human limitations, and it is precisely this empathy that leads them to care so much. But their disappointment and frustration is often more evident than they believe, and there is always some ranting fanatic who fails to hold back.
And, from its inception, the left has also been strangely genocidal, and shockingly prone to its denial.
The Soviet Union under Stalin killed almost four million people through the Ukrainian famine of the early thirties in which overzealous activists went door to door requisitioning the grain of starving families in an effort to punish hoarders.
It is easy to blame Stalin, who also killed half a million in the party purges of the later thirties, but Lenin did much the same in the earlier years of the regime in the Ural Mountains, and Chairman Mao killed about ten million in the Cultural Revolution, which would not end before the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed another million.
Leftists the world over tended to overlook these excesses, heaping praise on the leaders who carried them out, long after they had been exposed. Few abandoned the Soviet Union until the later thirties, long after it had killed millions, and Chairman Mao was loved by trendy leftists in the late sixties, well over a decade after he announced his government had murdered over half a million elites, shortly after taking power, in the early fifties.
But these, it may be argued, were merely the excesses of another time and place. And yet, it was Noam Chomsky, the high priest of the anti-imperial left, who led the fight against recognizing ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia. And it has been a rogue’s gallery of leftist journalists, like Seymour Martin Hersch, Robert Fisk, and Patrick Coburn, who have repeatedly defended Assad and Putin from attack. There may or may not be any merit to their counterintuitive claims about chemical attacks, but what is most astounding is the way they tended to neglect Assad’s starvation sieges and the tens of thousands of people tortured to death in his prisons.
The last quarter century or so saw the rise of a far more gentle and forgiving left. Its movements were more likely to oppose unjustified wars and promote greater empathy, advocating for universal health insurance and women’s rights. But something changed in the left as the war crimes of the Assad regime intensified: the anti-imperial, anti-war left became the principle apologists for the most brutal war of the 21st century.
To be sure, it was not the whole of the left, and many of the people mistaken for genocide apologists simply saw a stalemate that required peace making. But all too often, it was leftist anti-imperialists supporting Russian and Iranian imperialism; and it was so-called peace activists justifying war crimes. But there is a logical explanation that should make every leftist activist and defender of Syrian human rights the world over sit up and take notice.
Leftists believe the human condition can be improved substantially and that the most efficient means of doing so is through the use of state power. The leftist state treats all citizens as equals—and this requires that it looks on individuals statistically, which takes personal attachments out of the equation, thereby facilitating a more impartial distribution of resources.
Leftist thinkers are able to extend the scope of their moral commitments by adopting such a statistical approach, which allows them to look upon a forest and quickly estimate the millions of beings whose lives will be destroyed if it is cut down, or peruse the rates of poverty and propose realistic solutions that benefit the people who need it most. So far, so good.
But the same capacity for statistical thinking can also result in the reduction of human being to mere numbers. Millions are routinely dying of cancer and car accidents, malaria and malnutrition, so the hundreds of thousands killed in a genocide will tend to be downplayed by the leftist statistical thinker. Moreover, the further a person moves left along the political spectrum, the more they tend to be comfortable with state power, for a stronger state can do more good. However, it is precisely the unimpeded power of the state that all too often makes genocide possible.
Most also see a vast gulf between the world as it is and what they know to be possible. Leftists become accustomed to railing against their own societies for not doing more, and this tendency can become a habit, which when taken elsewhere is simply absurd. American leftists have good reason for railing against the failures of their own society to use its power more responsibly and to better care for its own most marginalized citizens. But America is astonishingly progressive and moral compared with middle-income autocracies, like Syria and Russia, and the failure to recognize the difference can result in bizarre apologies for brutal injustices.
Many on the left have simply built their identities around attacking their own countries, and in an age of political tribalism, attacks on political enemies tend to be less about improving the human condition and more about how we experience ourselves. And so, what in better times might be the protectors of the poor and marginalized who care for the struggling masses in far away places and defend the rights of gang-raped women in prison mortuaries, become little better than the apologists of mass murderers when the conditions are ripe.
Everything has its shadow, not least the most enlightened of political ideologies. Leftists themselves would do well to look to it in an effort to be better. Critics of the left could sharpen their criticisms by putting the source of their criticisms in context.