Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mervyn F. Bendle on the New Left, Islamism, and Existential Terrorism

C. Wright Mills
Coining the "New Left"
(Image from Wikipedia)

Given the puzzling, yet observable sympathy that the Left often appears to have for Islamism, I thought that I might be able to clarify this through excerpting from -- and summarizing of -- Mervyn Bendle's article "Terrorism and the New Left in the 'Sixties," published in the National Observer (No. 71, Summer 2006/07, pages 8-28). First an excerpt setting up the enigma that demands explanation:
The popularity of such notions [as the legitimacy of violence aimed toward civilians, i.e., terrorism,] reflects the penetration into popular consciousness of the assumption that civil society and individual citizens have little or no unique value, autonomy, or integrity in themselves, but are merely components of totalised social systems and are therefore appropriate targets of terrorist violence. This outlook is a prime example of what Robert Jay Lifton has identified as "ideological totalism". This characterises Islamism’s global mission to destroy American power and ultimately bring the world under the rule of Sharia law in accordance with the Muslim insistence on the absolute Unity of God (tawhid) as the foundation of all individual and social life under Islam. However, a secular version of this totalist worldview is also present within sections of the Western intelligentsia that are heirs to the radical ideology of the New Left, and is seen in their willingness to defend terrorism in various ways, even when it serves the interests of an ultra-repressive theocratic absolutism that should otherwise be anathema to the secularism of the radical left. (pages 9-10)
If I might now oversimplify, Bendle traces the "Revolutionary Subject" from its identity as the proletariat in the analysis of the Old Left, which focused on class conflict within industrialized societies, to its identity as the Third World wretched of the earth in the analysis of the New Left, which focused on imperialism in the international system. Here's a relevant excerpt:
This theory of revolutionary internationalism was a crucial moment in the ideological history of the 'Sixties. It marginalised the traditional Marxist economic analysis that focused on the forces and relations of production within capitalist societies, and instead focused exclusively on the relations of exchange that apply between societies in the global economic system, reducing the latter to a zero-sum game where any gains made by Western societies were inevitably seen as losses incurred by non-Western societies. Similarly, it also rejected the Marxist political analysis that focused on class struggles occurring within nationstates, in favour of a model that elevated class struggle to a global level, occurring between the capitalist states at the core, and the dependent states on the periphery who constituted an "external proletariat". (pages 22-23)
Bendle gives an example of how this analysis came to justify "existential terrorism" -- terrorism that "seeks to undermine the taken-for-granted sense of ontological security that both underpins everyday life in liberal democratic societies and facilitates their dynamism . . . and . . . [that aims] not at forcing concessions from such societies but rather at achieving their extinction" (page 8). He offers the case of Germany's Red Army Faction (RAF), which turned, in principle, to existential terrorism after ordinary terrorist acts failed to garner support from the German people:
[T]he RAF responded with the precise type of logic that continues to characterise theories of existential terrorism. It decided that the reticence of the German people to ratify the terrorist actions of the RAF confirmed the assessment that the people had betrayed the revolutionary ideal. As [RAF] Ulrike Meinhof observed: the system "has pushed the masses so deeply into its dreck that they seem to have lost a sense of being exploited and oppressed", and in exchange for consumerist goods they "excused the crimes of the system". The national proletariat had betrayed the revolution, while the imperialist enemy "systematically sought to kill those it could no longer exploit". In this fashion, the revolutionary internationalism of the RAF propelled it into an abstract political realm where murderous violence against non-combatant civilians and the institutions of their own society was seen as a legitimate terrorist strategy. It fantasised that its terrorist campaigns formed part of universal history operating on a global stage. The Revolutionary Subject was no longer the actual proletariat of their own society with which they could engage in concrete political action directed towards achievable goals. Rather, the Revolutionary Subject had become an abstract "external proletariat" with which the RAF had not the slightest actual contact, while the enemy -- the agent of oppression and exploitation -- was one's own society considered as an inherently corrupt totality and therefore readily identified as a legitimate terrorist target. (page 25)
If I might again summarize, Bendle's further argument is that Islamists then took on this Leftist critique of Western 'imperialism' -- especially with its focus on America as the source of evil in the world -- and integrated it within Islamist critiques of Western capitalism and imperialism, turning this analysis into a justification for "existential terrorism" by Islamists. Here's another excerpt:
After the New Left, the most important subsequent step in the theory and application of existential terrorism was not taken until the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was articulated in such key statements as "The World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders", incorporating the purported Fatwa issued by Osama bin Laden declaring that "the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it". By this time, little of the original theory of revolutionary internationalism remained unchanged, beyond a Manichean hatred of America and a conviction that it is the principal source of evil in the world. Nevertheless, its basic principles remain intact: the Revolutionary Subject is now identified with global Islamism, while the dominant revolutionary ideology has become Islamist Jihadism. One of the most striking things about this development is the extent to which the New Left's obsolete revolutionary internationalism of the 'Sixties lingers on within the Western intelligentsia, obscuring its comprehension of this world-historical event.
Bendle's twenty-page article deserves a longer analysis, but readers should by now have an inkling of the argument. I believe that Bendle is correct, that there is an ideological thread to be traced from the New Left to Islamism in their shared hatred of capitalism and their strongly similar critique of imperialism. I think, however, that Bendle has not yet clearly followed out the thread, at least not in this article, for that thread is not drawn tight. What I'd need to see are Islamist thinkers citing, or at least clearly using, New Left concepts, somewhat as Paul Berman has done in The Flight of the Intellectuals concerning the link between Fascism and Islamism by noting the way in which the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem collaborated with Adolf Hitler during WWII, offering radio broadcasts inciting Arabs to antisemitic hatred and support of the Nazis, the medium by which these things entered into current Islamist ideology.

My central question focuses upon Islamist "existential terrorism,"for I wonder if Islamists would really need New Left ideology to justify that sort of terrorist attack. From what I've seen, the Islamists draw on deep sources at the core of Islam. Now, it's true that the 9/11 attacks were unprecedented in their scale, and that Islamist existential terrorism is not so easily justified on Islamic principles, so New Left justification of it might have played some role. But I'd need to see clearer ideological links. Bendle has shown that Islamism reflects the New Left, but he needs to show that at least some aspects of Islamism radiate from the New Left. Nonetheless, I do now feel better grounded in plausible Leftist sources of Islamism, and I know what to look for.

By the way, I don't know what C. Wright Mills would think of the New Left as it turned out, for he died in 1962, before existential terrorism had clearly developed, but I like the Wikipedia image above, which reminds me of that other, still living New Leftist Noam Chomsky, and Wright did, after all, coin the expression "New Left" way back in 1960, so he's definitely in the pantheon and deserves a place of honor.

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At 4:46 PM, Blogger John B said...

This is a fairly tangential, but I just started watching the French movie/TV miniseries "Carlos", about Carlos the Jackal, and it shows his early career as a Marxist-Leninist working as part of the Palestinian liberation movement in Beirut, which is something of a link between the Old Left and the Islamist movement. At any rate, the film is a pretty interesting take on 1970's terrorism.

At 8:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Supposedly, Carlos the Jackal (aka Illich Ramirez Sanchez) converted to Islam and advocates terrorism:

"A convert to Islam since his imprisonment for three murders, Sanchez preaches 'revolutionary Islam' -- which is the title of his book -- as the new, post-Communist answer to what he calls US 'totalitarianism'."

But there has been some doubt about this, though if true, it illustrates what Bendle analyzes.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ideology of violence--or the study of ideologies which embrace violence--seems a fertile field for enquiry. I hope we might hear more from Professor Bendle, as well as from other scholars who can bring additional perspectives to our understanding.

Ideology is one thing, however, and business and the structures of power are another. What might be revealed by turning the jewel slightly to view this subject through the facet of geopolitics? That is, which countries, political movements, institutions, board rooms and corporations benefit from the programs (thematically parallel in some respects) represented by the "Left" and the "Islamists"?

It might be noted here that William Ayres was recently denied emeritus status at the U of Illinois for dedicating his book Prairie Fire to Sirhan Sirhan, among others.

Robert Kennedy's son sits on the U of Illinois Board of Trustees....

The University of Illinois student newspaper has published an editorial arguing the denial was inappropriate:

Ayers’ emeritus status handled poorly

The treatment of the Ayres emeritus story in an article in The American Spectator provides some background on the radical Left and the contents of Prairie Fire, and then turns the story into a hit piece on President Obama:

Obama's Prairie Fire Companion

At 4:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the comment.

"Ideology is one thing, however, and business and the structures of power are another. What might be revealed by turning the jewel slightly to view this subject through the facet of geopolitics? That is, which countries, political movements, institutions, board rooms and corporations benefit from the programs (thematically parallel in some respects) represented by the 'Left' and the 'Islamists'?"

Not all of these are circumscribed by the term "geopolitics," but the point about structures of power is a fair one.

Thanks for the links.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Philippe said...

Considering that over the last three deacdes, America and its allies have killed between 30 and 100 times the number of Muslims, as they have killed Americans, the question must be asked: Who are the real terrorists?

It was long ago suggested that terrorists be classified between retail (Bin Laden and Co) and wholesale (nation states).

Such a classification has merit, since anyone killed by a wholesale terrorist is as dead anyone killed by a retail one.

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Philippe, are all wars terrorism, too? We have to make analytical distinctions, or we can't genuinely compare and contrast.

Terrorism intentionally targets civilians. Legitimate acts of war do not intentionally target civilians.

To make a justifiable point of comparison, one would need to define what constitues a terrorist act in wartime. The firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden during WWII would likely count, and we would consider those attacks war crimes these days. Yet, WWII -- despite those terrorist acts -- was a justified war, on the part of the allies, at any rate.

I thus don't agree with you on this.

Jeffery Hodges

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