Left and right united: the victory of Maoism

Hazem Saghieh
23 November 2005

The ultra-left ideology of Maoism that inspired China’s cultural revolution of the 1960s was known for its analytical focus on “the principal contradiction”. Only when this contradiction had been solved, said the Great Helmsman, could secondary contradictions be addressed.

It was always a very simplistic view of politics as well as of philosophy, one that applied a dogmatic sheen to the complex, interrelated affairs of everyday life. Its consequence in practice was to treat people as ciphers, capable only of a mechanistic rather than a dynamic understanding of reality – as if they were incapable of walking, thinking and smoking a cigarette all at the same time, and regarding each of these activities as integral to the other (moreover, this approach ignores the fact that many people can only think when smoking, or walking along and reflecting, as the ancient Stoics used to do!).

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat

Among Hazem Saghieh’s articles on openDemocracy:

“Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes” (June 2004)

“Rafiq Hariri’s murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?” (February 2005)

“How to make Israel secure” (August 2005)

(with Saleh Bechir) “The ‘Muslim community’: a European invention” (October 2005)

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China’s explosive economic growth on the basis of market economics has rendered Maoism for China’s modern rulers a mere rhetorical reference-point, a legitimacy-granting heritage deprived of any meaningful ideological content. But as it has declined in the east, a Maoist mindset has regrettably made one conquest after another in the forms of political thought of both leftists and rightists in the contemporary west. As they survey modern international politics, each side reduces the complexity of reality to a single “principal contradiction”, and proves itself incapable of addressing any other question at the same time.

The right today (especially the neo-conservative right dominant for a long time within the Bush administration) has a single mantra: terrorism. As a result, it has no room left to discuss poverty, health, the environment, or other pressing issues. It condenses international affairs into a polarising template that leads its global Comintern, the United States, to reject the Kyoto Protocol, impose ideological conditions on help for people with HIV/Aids, and to restrict further its already minute aid to poor countries.

The left today also has a single obsession: resistance to America. This can lead leftists to feel a kind of sympathy for terrorists, or at least to turn a blind eye to their actions and treat the struggle against them as secondary. This outlook is often accompanied by an openness to all “cultures” and customs, even the most reactionary, which are excused because they are held to be victims of “imperialist oppression”! The left has turned into a kind of nurse tending the wounds of the victims of globalisation.

This trend of mechanistic, cultic, one-dimensional, instrumental – in short, Maoist – thinking on right and left is the direct outcome of two interlocking global trends since the 1980s: the triumph of neo-liberal ideology since the Reagan-Thatcher years, coupled with the retreat of universal consciousness and the rise of local identities. There has been a simultaneous reaction against the Enlightenment and the state: as transnational capitalism has expanded unchecked, local, sectarian and tribal allegiances have gained sway. The result is that the state and the sense of a wider public interest are squeezed between pre-state local allegiances and identities on one side and globalised capitalism on the other. In a condition of crisis for the social whole, political thinking on right and left abandons complexity and becomes a form of sectarianism.

This development has been accompanied by the decline of progressive, rationalist structures, institutions and alliances. Perhaps its first manifestation was the collapse of the alliance between Jews and blacks in the United States. Instead, there are swarms of single-issue groups at every turn, capable of seeing with only a single eye: full of people who condemn anti-Semitism and ignore crimes against Palestinians, who oppose racism as long as its victims are Arabs and Muslims rather than Jews, who support the Americans in Iraq while avoiding mention of Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo, or who back the Iraqi “resistance” yet manage to overlook the slaughter of innocent civilians.

A dogma that prefers the symbolic and the rhetorical to the substantial is closer to its putative “opponents” than it would wish. To take three examples:

  • most supporters and opponents alike of the veil in France avoid issues of unemployment and education and limit their contribution to the “cultural” (that is, totemic) aspect of the matter
  • most critics of globalisation pay no regard to the progress that India has made because of it, nor the evidence that the country’s caste system (which Karl Marx, supposed inspiration to the anti-globalising “left”, frequently noted) damages India more than does globalisation
  • most staunch supporters of free markets remain silent about American and European agricultural policies, which cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of African farmers

The political left and right have each adopted an attitude based on total rupture and hostility, contrary to what the values of the Enlightenment once taught: that though humanity’s histories and experiences are uneven and diverse, people ultimately belong to the same universe. The search for sophisticated understandings capable of holding two or more thoughts at the same time is the way not just to a more truthful philosophy of life than Maoism can ever produce, but to a more humane politics.

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