The most dangerous thing about the Bush administration - and the neoconservatives more generally - is their desire to see themselves as the last, best hope for civilization. This belief of theirs - and in this group, I include alleged "liberals" such as Michael Ignatieff - is what justifies their abandonment of civil rights, their ceaseless emperor-worship, and their utter, total confusion as to why anyone, anywhere, questions their moral vision. It is also why they are so quick to demonize their critics as appeasers and collaborators - not just because it is useful (if cynical) political language, but because they sincerely believe that someone who criticizes their means (unending war, unlimited torture) also criticizes their ends (the protection of the innocent.)
This belief - this claim to unitary moral clarity - is not the neoconservatives' alone. There are far too many old leftists, it seems, who can't forget the Nazis, either. Enter James Laxer.
Laxer, some of whose books I own, have read, and enjoyed, was born in 1941 and raised by avowedly Marxist parents. I don't use this as a slur in the slightest - rather, I'm trying to illustrate what I believe Laxer's fundamental problems are. While I haven't read Laxer's biography ("Red Diaper Baby") I'm familiar enough with other men and women of his generation that I'll describe some common beliefs. (If Laxer, or anyone, believes I've applied these beliefs to him unfairly, please correct me.)
The left of Laxer's generation, and of his parents generation, was still able - for a short time - to believe that Communism represented truly new, better ways of organizing societies. It was not until the coming of World War II - and Stalin's pact with Hitler - that North American Communists began to abandon that authoritarian state. Of course, the wider breech would happen after Stalin's death and Khruschev's airing of the worst of Stalin's crimes. Later still, the Gulag Archipelago would be the final nail in the coffin of respectable Western Communism.
What's at issue here is not, however, Laxer's view on Stalin, but Laxer's views on Hitler and the right more broadly. One of the heroic myths of the fight against European Fascism is the story of the Popular Front - the coalitions of parties who tried, unsuccessfully, to stem the tide of the Right in Europe before the war. Most important of all in this mythology is the French Prime Minister Leon Blum, France's first Jewish, and first Socialist Prime Minister. Blum tried to keep the French right at bay, to the point of voting against giving Petain the dictatorial powers the Nazis demanded. Other leftists, and other Jews, might have tried to keep a low profile and not risk their own deaths so publicly. Not Blum.
Obviously, the story of the Popular Front is not a happy one. The fascists were not stopped, the war engulfed all of Europe, and the Nazis came dangerously close to victory. Unfortunately, I believe Laxer is under the impression that if only the PF had been more successful - if the Left hadn't been so riven with it's own divisions - that the Nazis could have been stopped. Left out of this belief is the reality that French anti-semitism and anti-communism could not abide Blum or the Socialists in power, and that the divisions within France were at least as great as the divisions within the French left. While too much is made of France's occupation, it is enough to say that the resistance to the Nazis was hardly unanimous.
But if you were, like Laxer, born in the 1940s, and raised on stories of the fight against Fascism (like all children his age, not just the left, were) the lesson is clear: the forces of the Right need to be fought, vigorously, and with as much unity as the left and center can muster. It's an inspring call to battle, every time. Except that it's now been at least three generations since the Nazis were defeated, and it's been almost a full 20 years since Communism began to crumble. To put it bluntly, metaphors from the 20th century - even the mid- and late 20th century - are rapdily losing their utility.
So that why I have absolutely no sympathy for Laxer - and other leftists, my fellow travellers - who write things like this:
... there are times in history when truly reactionary political formations come along. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is such a formation. While thankfully, it is not overtly racist in the manner of the far right parties in Europe, apart from that it shares all of the views and instincts of a far right party. Harper himself, as his speeches and writings reveal, would be very much at home in the Republican Party and in the American neo-conservative movement. To blur the differences between this political formation and a run-of-the-mill liberal capitalist party, as the NDP has done, is a blatant denial of the truth. The Harper government threatens all of the societal innovations the NDP and the CCF before it have inspired.If Laxer believes this, then - and I wish there were a more charitable way to put this - he's taken leave of his senses. The Harper government exists in the most precarious minority position of any government since Canada's founding. If Harper sincerely tried to take the axe to national health care, the Canadian Pension Plan, or even gay marriage, his government would fall, and the Liberals could ride to victory in the next election. If, that is, they had competent leadership. But more on that in a moment.
The problem with this belief - that Harper presents a new, malignant force in Canadian politics - is that there's precious little evidence for it. Look at their policies: warmed-over Manningism and a barely restrained social conservatism, kept tightly bound beneath the surface lest they alienate Ontario. There's nothing new here - prairie populism and social conservatism are as old as Canada, and they are (temporarily, one hopes) ascendant because of Alberta's recent boom in numbers and wealth. We could try and draw a line in the sand against Harper, but for what? A misguided and mistaken belief that we can stamp out homophobia, racism, or misogyny in the Conservative mind? I've had enough crusades this decade, thank you.
But for Laxer - and too many leftists, it seems - it was a great betrayal for the NDP to run against the Liberals in the last election. Harper is a scary conservative, I admit. But these disillusioned Marxists are forgetting a simple fact - the Conservatives will always be scary. Stockwell Day was far more frightening to me than Harper is. What Harper has that Day lacked is political success. But the NDP can't be asked to unilaterally disarm every time the Conservatives look close to victory. That's what Laxer is advocating for, and all that means is the NDP - indeed, all genuinely progressive parties - should simply disband and their members join the Liberal Party of Canada. This is, needless to say, an absurd position for a man of the Left to take.
This is especially the case when the Liberal Party lacks any kind of competent leadership. Paul Martin - and this needs to be said, along with all the aspersions against the NDP - was one of the most incompetent politicians of his generation. While Chretien was regularly able to surprise observers who thought too little of him - think back to the 2000 election - Martin had the reverse "gift": constantly amazing his supporters with his poor performance. The man led his party to lose seats in the 2004 election, and blithely assumed that his minority government could proceed as if it had won a majority. When the NDP actually - shockingly, in the view of some - demanded some kind of concession for it's continued support, Martin waited until the last possible minute to swallow his pride and accept a deal. When Jack Layton made clear that his support was not unconditional, and that further concessions would be asked for further support (and this is really the least Layton could possibly have demanded) Martin - not Layton - walked away from the ad hoc coalition, and forced the election. Is the NDP required to follow the Liberals in to defeat, because of one old man's petulance?
The response of the Liberal Party to Martin's idiotic self-immolation has been instructive. While a number of progressive candidates are seeking the leadership, the Big Red Machine has swung decisively in support of the neo-imperialist, neoconservative Michael Ignatieff. What possible reason does the left have to support a party whose leaders so clearly want to ignore and abandon the left?
Well, if you believe that Harper is the next incarnation of the fascists, that's reason enough. But such comparisons are as spurious as they are common. Comparing Harper to Bush is just about as un-enlightening. Harper nominally supports capital punishment, the war in Iraq, and eliminating gay marriage. This doesn't just put him in the Republican Party, it puts him squarely in the conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party, circa 2004. But somehow I don't think that comparison keeps Laxer awake at night.
What was lost in all the hullaballoo of the 2006 Federal Election was a very simple fact: Canadians replaced one minority government with another, even weaker, minority government. Harper has shown no great ability to make friends in the other parties, and still the Liberals have supported this government as much as the NDP or the Bloc have. For Laxer to believe that Harper presents a unique and novel challenge to the Canadian way of life, he'd have to believe that not only did Harper have massive public support for his alleged nefarious aims, but that all of the institutions of Canadian governance - from the public service to the Governor General and the Senate - were willing to lie down for him. I've read Laxer before, and I believe him to be an otherwise intelligent and rational man. So it's a total and complete mystery to me how he could believe this. But his writings make it clear that he does, in fact, believe this.
Now, I believe in a certain amount of pragmatism when it comes to voting. I've made no secret of my disdain for the Provincial Ontario NDP, and I believe I've stated before on this blog that in the last provincial election I voted Liberal. Why? Because the NDP have shown no ability to actually win seats for several electoral cycles in Ontario now, and in the last Provincial election Dalton McGuinty seemed to be a genuinely successful candidate who had - importantly, in my view - become more progressive-minded since his 1999 defeat. So I have no intrinsic problem with the idea that the left should, on occasion, support centrist candidates. But the awfulness of the Right is less important, in my view, than two other considerations:
1) Has the center tried to actively appeal to the left? McGuinty did in 2003, Martin staunchly refused to, and the Liberal party machine continues to push their preferred Right-wing candidate, Ignatieff. I have no obligation to vote for politicians who actively disdain my views.
2) Does the candidate - regardless of ideological stance - stand a chance of success? Martin did not, McGuinty did, and so did Jack Layton. That's right - there was only one left-wing party that added seats in the 2006 general election, and that was the NDP. The Bloc and the Liberals both lost seats. Why should NDP voters reward failure?
If the Liberal machine fails to annoint their boy-king, and someone other than the repulsive Ignatieff actually leads the Liberal Party of Canada in the next election, even I may consider voting Liberal, if only because a) I agree with many of Laxer's disagreements over the increasing centralization of power in the NDP, and b) I still genuinely find Harper to be, as I've said before, making this country worse every day that he's Prime Minister.
But if the Liberal Party gives the anti-war, socially-progressive part of Canada the finger by choosing Ignatieff, any dream of a popular front against Harper is doomed. Not because of the intransigence of the Left, but because the Liberals will have decided that it's better to fight against the left with the Conservatives than fight the Conservatives with the left. Or to put it in language that Laxer would understand, the Liberals will have sided with Petain and Hitler, not Blum and the Republic.
But as I said, such comparisons are silly.