Bosnia leaves leftist intellectuals in a moral muddle

April 23, 1996|By Todd Gitlin

NEW YORK -- Three years ago, during a birthday party, the conversation turned to Bosnia. There were six of us at the table, journalists and academics, New Left movement buddies. We had marched against H-bombs and for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Driven all night to get to some godforsaken meeting to make plans to rally our often meager forces in the cause of the good.

Over the years, our disagreements had been modest. But when the discussion got to Bosnia, we were not sitting at the same table. Some wanted the U.S. to bomb the Bosnian Serbs shelling Sarajevo; others said America had no business meddling. It couldn't have been any plainer that, on foreign matters at least, the left had broken up.

There was, and is, no single left-wing intellectual policy for Bosnia -- or Haiti, for that matter, or, as it turned out, Rwanda. Because you were on the left -- believed in equality -- it did not follow that your position on a given foreign-policy issue would be X, Y or Z.

This confusion matters. The passions and arguments of intellectuals -- left, right and elsewhere -- have a way of shaping the terms in which a whole democracy debates its destiny. The leftist intellectual debates over Spain in 1936 were a precursor to World War II; the debates over Vietnam might have averted the inflation of the 1970s. So it is that intellectuals' failure to take Bosnia seriously adds up to a bigger default.

Causes of the left

Spain, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador -- these were, at various times, causes of the whole left and its intellectuals. There were divisions, tensions, ambivalences of exactly how to feel and couch one's sympathies with people on the other side of the world -- largely because so many of the arguments and claims of leftist intellectuals came through communist parties, with their sorry records. But, in the end, for most intellectuals of the left, there was agreement about what the United States should do.

The country should have been in Spain, defending the legally constituted republic against the fascist military assault of 1936; it should not have gone to the Bay of Pigs, should not have mounted assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, should not have gone to Vietnam, should not have armed the contras.

The intellectual left, in most of its 20th-century incarnations, was fiercely internationalist. It believed there was no such thing as ''a far-off people of whom we know nothing.'' That was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's language for Czechoslovakia in 1938 -- and something no self-respecting internationalist could say without embarrassment. It was the obligation of those on the left to know about far-off peoples. Ignorance was neither bliss nor alibi. If you couldn't tell the players without a score card, you were obliged to get a better score card.

At its best, this led to evenings where one learned more about, say, the slaughter of Indians in Guatemala than was possible in a year of poring over U.S. newspapers. At worst, it led to boring, formulaic evenings hearing about, say, ''the struggle in Mozambique.''

Often, of course, what leftist intellectuals (like rightist intellectuals, for that matter) thought they knew about far-off people was dead wrong. They were so eager to see the future work; they were hungry to believe that somewhere out there, preferably on the dusky side of the globe where people looked exotic, some decency was under construction.

''The international working class shall be the human race,'' sang the communists and their fellow travelers -- but so did many an independent socialist who thought the communists had betrayed the working class. While it is easy to mock the cocktail-party piety, the sheer bound-for-glory arrogance of many, it must also be said that the passion for a universal humanity, the appreciation of people apparently different from oneself, were honorable and necessary traits.

The '60s, in turn, had two defining causes: civil rights and war opposition. If you were on the left, you knew where you stood. Evil was cattle prods, evil was napalm. You wanted to send federal troops to Mississippi and get them out of Danang. There was abundant naivete about the Vietnamese adversaries (as there was about the Vietnamese allies in official Washington), but the intellectuals of the left were united on the proposition that Americans had no business fighting Vietnamese nationalists, however communist they were.

This was more than a conviction; it became, for hundreds of thousands, a way of life. It produced jail terms, exile, alienation, immense disbelief in the government. The war and the movement against it broke, and perhaps remade, the national spirit. For the left, the war reinforced the overly simple proposition that anti-communism was a murderous passion. Simplistic it was.

The Cold War

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