Diana Johnstone: The socialists took up the cause of anti-racism. Well, I’m all for anti-racism, but the point is that the left then became a matter of attitudes rather than policies.
Diana Johnstone’s memoir is ‘Circle in the Darkness: Memoir of a World Watcher’. Johnstone was the European editor of In The Times from 1979 to 1990, and her work has appeared in New Left Review, Counterpunch and Covert Action Quarterly.
Diana Johnstone: The socialists took up the cause of anti-racism. Well, I’m all for anti-racism, but the point is that the left then became a matter of attitudes rather than policies. Became a matter of enforcing good thoughts, good attitudes, be nice rather than the policies that would bring people together. I mean, if certain minority groups are discriminated against, it’s also because the economy is like that and, you know, a socialist or for that matter a Christian way of bringing people together, you overcome–you overcome racism by being–bringing people together in a common cause. But this was just not–it was the opposite of that. It was telling people they should have good attitudes about other people and you see where that’s–where that leads, in fact it leads to antagonism.
Chris Hedges: Diana Johnstone has spent over half a century chronicling contemporary history from the Cold War to the rise of groups such as Antifa. Her memoir Circle in the Darkness is not only a fascinating window into the contemporary events that have shaped us, but a blistering attack on the left which she argues correctly, betrayed its historical role as the champion of social justice and peace, replacing it with the boutique activism of identity politics, political correctness, and what has become known as humanitarian intervention. The justification of US and NATO, military adventurism, and the prosecution of wars on the specious belief that it would somehow liberate the women of Afghanistan or the peoples of Iraq. She excoriates the new left philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Bernard-Henri Levy who peddle social attitudes that are compatible with the ravages of the neo-liberal policies advocated by finance capital, as well as the wars of aggression carried out by the United States. She also attacks new left groups such as Antifa. Joining me from her home in Paris is Diana Johnstone. So let’s, as you do in the book, you really start your own career as a journalist not long after World War II and the rise of this new formation of the Cold War Liberal, and they inculcate within this ideology this Manichaean struggle, explain that process, you were also in Yugoslavia, but just explain the beginning.
DJ: Well, it really began when at the end of World War II of course, the left was very powerful, we’re very strong because they say powerful but strong worldwide because fascism had been defeated and so on. And I–putting it retrospectively, the US leaders simply found that it was too advantageous and profitable to have an enemy. And I look at it now that they really created the Cold War to keep an enemy which allowed the military-industrial complex to grow in order to have a military Keynesianism rather than social welfare. And because communism became the enemy, the whole left was on the defensive. Are you–have you ever been a member of the communist party and guilt by association was used for the entire left.
And the liberals worked to dissociate themselves from this new enemy that had been discovered and became then the advocates of the Cold War, partly starting off I would say in self-defense because there were a lot of liberals left there were from the new deal and it was a political self-defense to join the new crusade against the new enemy. And at home, this put–this put the left on the defensive. And abroad, it made it impossible to really understand what was going on in the world. I think this is very important because since the official doctrine was that the United States is freedom against this communist monster that is trying to take over the world which was not true actually, every progressive movement in the world was taken–was misinterpreted as some sort of Soviet move and this made it impossible to understand and explain Asian–what was happening in Asia, the Asian revolutions, the Asian independence movements, notably in China and there in Vietnam, so that the whole world picture was distorted and the liberal media went along with this distortion.
CH: We also point out in the book that the whole interpretation of the Soviet Union following World War II by this anti-communist movement was incorrect. The Soviet Union had suffered tremendous damage after pushing the Germans back all the way of course to Berlin and was really attempting to rebuild. It wasn’t–it didn’t–it didn’t–it wasn’t peddling this Trotskyite notion of permanent revolution, so even the whole reading of the Soviet Union, not just as you correctly point out to the rest of the world, but even the reading of the Soviet Union was wrong.
DJ: Absolutely. And you know, I think today it’s all the more evident in that the united States is treating capitalist Russia just the way that they treated communist Russia with the same dishonesty because again, they need an enemy and if the enemy changes ideology, well, that doesn’t matter, we still need this enemy. But it’s absolutely–it’s true that the Soviet Union did want to have a buffer zone in Eastern Europe to avoid being reinvaded as it has been evaded by Germany and–but they were not really so much trying to export communism as to be secure. And what is–was overlooked then is that the Russian–one thing that they have–tradition has very good diplomacy and the Russians really accepted the division of Europe, I mean Russia, Stalin, Moscow whatever you want to call it accepted the fact that the capital–the difference between their buffer zone and Western Europe and they had no intention whatsoever of invading Western Europe or even a promoting revolution there. They were perfectly–they wanted peace and when they said they wanted peace, they–that’s what they really wanted. And this was–this was totally overlooked with the United States needs a big enemy. It needs a big enemy in order to have its military-industrial conflicts and this has just been going on for 75 years.
CH: Well, it’s–you have all the arms manufacturers recalibrating the countries in Eastern Europe with NATO military equipment it’s a big–it’s a huge business and of course has allowed them to push right back up to Russia’s borders. I want to talk about the Vietnam War which you were involved in you were at, you know, within the United States, you were actually one of the leaders for a while of the Anti-War Movement. But talk about that, the rise of the Anti-Imperialist left in the 1960s.
DJ: Well, a lot of the old left came out of–out of its dormant state. Although I must–wanted to point out that the old left in the communist–American communists have been valuable in fighting for Black Civil Rights in the south, not by their own name usually but they had really contributed to that movement. And this all-left including that new generation of red diaper babies became activists against the war and this–they played a role in getting it organized and getting it started and then it became a huge movement. And it became so power–so big that there was a real feeling in that generation that we were heading for great changes and revolution and so on. But the movement was very divided as most movements are and the critical divide–division, there’s no doubt between those who had serious organizational intentions and educational intentions and people who were just sort of showing off and a part of the trouble is that the media–much of the media gave the attention to people who were not serious and were showing off and would even be showing off in ways that would turn people against the movement when in fact the educational work, because I know I was involved with gaining people to the movement, whereas show–acting silly or worse, still using violence, pushed people away from the movement and contributed to finally destroying it.
CH: Let’s talk about, so the spirit of May ’68 and what you call an inflated imaginary left which then exploded in the ’70s. Talk about that process.
DJ: Well, yes, I mean I was in–I was in Paris for this, what they call the events, and that’s a good word because it’s vague, you know, and the–it–I think it came out of the Vietnam–the anti-war movement. But it was–it was–it was two kinds of revolts together. It was–it was an anti-war movement and it was also–and this is–it was also kind of libertarian movement. This is represented by Daniel Cohn-Bendit who–whose crusade was to let boys go into the girls dormitory at Nanterre University. This is a very different type of revolt. The two merged and so you had this ambiguous revolt and it has its version in the United States too, a mixture of serious political revolt and individual, and the explosion of individualism.
And at the time, I think people weren’t aware that these two things are–become quite incompatible because peace work, socialism, put–constructive–I think take discipline and rampant individualism is not compatible with progressive movements, or with discipline and organization. And unfortunately, the individualistic tendencies of course were tremendously encouraged from outside, they were encouraged by the media in particular. You get a lot of attention, if you do something spectacular and individualistic. Whereas if you’re studying imperialism, who knows you exist. And so this imaginary revolution fragmented into a whole lot of things in the ’70s.
CH: Great. When we come back we’ll continue our conversation about the disintegration of the left with the author and journalist Diana Johnstone. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the disintegration of the left with the author and journalist Diana Johnstone. So one of the results of this imaginary left as you call it is this weakening of the working class and even, I would say, severance between the left and the working class. Can you talk about that?
DJ: Yes. The weakening of the working class first of all it comes from within and in Europe–in Europe, it has to do with the Cold War situation because I used the example of Italy in my book, and I can’t go through the whole thing there but you see there was a–there was a conflict between the far left which wanted to go have a revolution and the communist party which was extremely strong in Italy. And really if things had been normal, would have been the governing party because it really represented the best things in Italy. And it would have been a democratic socialist or demo-something, a democratic but socialist Italy. But of course it was opposed on the one hand by the United States, Elijah, everything reactionary in Italy including the mafia, and leftover Secret Services from the fascist times. And on the left, by those who wanted to go ahead and make a revolution, and the communist party was in the position of being realistic and realizing that it was not realistic to make a socialist revolution in a NATO-occupied country and this realism was cut–was cornered by US repression and spying and all kinds of dirty tricks on the one hand, and this ultra-revolutionary thing on the other.
So that was one trouble and then along with that, with the fact that some ideologues and intellectuals considered that the failure of the Western working class to make the revolution that it was no longer the revolutionary agent and they started looking around for other revolutionary agents, it could be women or I don’t know but, which doesn’t make a lot of sense as I can explain in the book. But at the same time, there was the attack of capital against the working class which was automation, weaken the left, weaken the working class by getting rid of the workers and to–I mean there’s automation but then there’s decent delocalization. And so there was a–which culminates in Thatcherism which really means that the West gets rid of this industry and all its workers to become a services society and let the poor countries do the heavy work. And all the…
CH: I want to talk about this moment–I want to–I just want to ask you, Diana, about this moment in history because it’s pivotal. You talk about how the left then shifts from social and economic issues to societal and ethical issues which you, I think, pinpoint as perhaps the deadliest blow to the eft. Can you talk about that?
DJ: Yes. Because notably in France, because in France in 1981, there was a real–the common program of the left was elected with major law and it was socialists and communists together, mostly the socialists took the big pieces and left the crumbs, but it was a real social democratic socialist, we call it what you want, program. And it ran into–it ran into the demands of international capital in the–in the–in the form of the European Union. And the Mitterrand that’s, we counted in the book, but Mitterrand recapitulates to international capitalism if you will. And at that point, the left changes its values to, like, what is, I called here, the societal values and Mitterrand’s main accomplishment was about abolition of the death penalty. That’s very nice but it has nothing to do with the economic order of society. And then the socialists took up the cause of anti-racism. Well, I’m all for anti-racism, but the point is that the left than became a matter of attitudes rather than policies, became a matter of enforcing good thoughts, good attitudes, be nice, rather than the policies that would bring people together. I mean, if certain minority groups are discriminated against, it’s also because the economy is like that. And, you know, a socialist, or for that matter, a Christian way of bringing people together, you overcome–you overcome racism by being–bringing people together in a common cause. But this was just not–it was the opposite of that, it was telling people they should have good attitudes about other people. And you see where that’s–where that leads. In fact, it leads to antagonism. It leads to…
CH: Well, that’s–this process also happened in the United States and one of the tangents of this, and I won’t get into your critiques of Bernard-Henri Levy all of which I share, but you have this whole idea, and I was in Sarajevo during the war of humanitarian intervention which of course has been used to justify the debacles in the Middle East. But this becomes adopted by the “left” itself.
DJ: Yeah, and you see there’s the idea–if you–if you have the idea that the most important thing is to defend the minorities, then it’s ideologically very easy for imperialism to say, “Oh, there’s a minority in that country that we need to defend.” And so it becomes the pretext for overthrowing governments you don’t like that you are–you are–you are going to save some people from the disaster that hypothetically would befall them. And you see, this–there had already been the first Gulf War and there was–there was opposition to that, but once you–once the United States started having its wars for humanitarian reasons, the left goes along and becomes the most enthusiastic advocates of that. And you see that the horrible thing that happened to Libya, this terrible destruction of Libya on falsified–on falsified, just being lies about what was happening but it was justified by humanitarianism.
CH: Well, the same thing was that Afghanistan–will invade Afghanistan, the Afghans had–the Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11.
CH: Or they gave sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden, and then of course weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You have a long discussion in the book about globalization and the stripping of sovereign power under the EU and how economic decisions have essentially been seized by international corporations. And the left doesn’t even ask the questions anymore. It focuses almost exclusively on societal issues and ignores in a real way the disparity of wealth for identity politics. This brings me to the last part of our discussion on Antifa, you have been very critical of Antifa as have I, but you really see groups like Antifa as the natural culmination of the disintegration of the left itself, explain why.
DJ: Well, you know, the–well, there are many things wrong with them but, it’s also–it’s also–it has the psychological aspect of identity politics in this–once this group of people just identify themselves as anti-fascists, nobody has given them that role. They identify themselves as we are essentially good and the people we don’t like are fascists, or proto-fascists, or would-be fascists, or they were leading to fascist. And they treat other people as if they were essentially that fascist rather than treating other people as people who have a different point of view and we could discuss and define our differences, or perhaps find ways to deal with them. And it’s very essentialist in that one group feels it has a vocation to eliminate another, they have been extremely harmful to–they’ve been harmful to movements everywhere.
Most recently they’ve been harmful to the yellow vests movement in France by going in groups to see who is not properly on the left and chase them out physically, physically–so at a time when you should be bringing people together against the tyranny of financial capital which is determining everything, which has taken away our democracy, when you should be bringing ordinary people together to talk about, “How in the world do we get out of this situation? How do we restore democracy? How do we accomplish things?” Instead, you have this group going around and saying they’re not pure enough, get out. And you see, it’s absolutely catastrophic to my point of view. They’re a very–and of course there’s no thought there at all. It’s just–there’s no analysis. They don’t have any positive program for anything. And that means that what they are in fact doing is they’re acting as a thought release of the system because they don’t–they don’t attack the real powers. They don’t attack–they attack marginal. And the marginals might get together and be something. They attack people who do not have power and simply they’re the Stormtroopers of the system, is what they are. The–obviously that’s not what they think they are but that’s what they are.
CH: Well, it’s also another form of spectacle which goes back to the events of May, it’s all about spectacle. They don’t organize, they don’t educate, and as you said, they don’t have a vision. They’re also a gift to the security and surveillance state because they allow the security and surveillance state to demonize the left and make people frightened of it.
DJ: Yes, I mean of course that’s one of the reasons that I’m not–I mean I don’t like violence anyway. I don’t even like to see it in the movies. I–that’s a personal thing. It’s a personal value. But beyond that, when you have a system that is based on violence, you don’t use their methods. This is a very practical matter of not using violence. Because if you use violence, that’s what they’re good at and that’s what–they will win in that.
CH: That’s right. That’s what they’re good at. That’s what they’ll win at. Great. That was Diana Johnstone on her new book Circle in the Darkness: Memoir of a World Watcher. Thank You.
DJ: Thank you.
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