P. B. Minehan: Anti-Leftist Politics in Modern World History

Anti-Leftist Politics in Modern World History. Avoiding 'Socialism' at All Costs

Minehan, Philip B.
London 2021: Bloomsbury
288 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
David Mayer, Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Universität Wien

The Left as a historical phenomenon is both solid and mercurial: everybody has an intuitive understanding of what it is, yet, at the same time, it is exceedingly difficult to define it in a stable and discreet way. One of the reasons for such difficulties is, of course, that the Left, as much as all other major socio-ideological actors in modern history, has emerged and evolved not purely in its own right but as a deeply relational entity. The Left has been constituted through its interrelations with the non-Left as well as the discourses and actions by its opponents. A comprehensive historicization of the Left – much more so when taking the imperatives of global perspectives into account – thus needs to include its adversaries and detractors.

Philip B. Minehan’s book about the long-term continuity of anti-Leftist politics in modern world history is thus a welcome foray into an extended understanding of the Left itself. As Minehan argues, anti-Leftist politics constitutes, though in manifold disguises and different iterations, one of the central continuities of modern history, a sort of anti-red thread that explains a great number of political processes, both in domestic and in international relations, as well as in intraimperial competition and relations between the Global North and Global South.

Minehan presents a relatively old-fashioned (yet not necessarily ungrounded) structuralist reasoning for anti-Leftist politics as a pillar of modern history: capitalism cannot but effect resistance against its economic logics (and the correspondent political expressions), and the Left is the proper manifestation of this resistance. And the Left engenders, by necessity, forces against it (there is a tinge of a Hegelian mode of historical thinking in many passages of the book). The challenges posed by unavoidable resistance has led to different modes of how this fundamental anti-Leftist thrust of the powers that be, together with major structural-economic conditions and geopolitical conflicts, has materialized. Minehan calls them “solutions”: he periodizes his account into “imperial solution” (1871–1917), “fascist solution” (1917–1939), “Second World War” (1939–1945), “US-led global anti-communist solution” (1945–1970s), and “neoliberal solution” (late 1970s–present). Consequently, the idea of anti-Leftist politics used in Minehan’s account is very extensive, comprising an unbroken string of neat epochs. The idea of “solutions”, however, has an odd charge of agency for phenomena that seem highly processual and “emergent”. Although Minehan does ground his analysis in nineteenth-century history, this is, unfortunately, not elaborated upon in detail, leaving the French Revolution, its contemporary intellectual critics, and the birth of “reaction” and “conservatism” as fundamental political models as well as the interplay of “revolution” and “counterrevolution” rather under-explored.

While both the Left and anti-Leftism are given the weight of structural necessities in the introduction, Minehan in later chapters does repeatedly insist that modern anti-Leftism, particularly after 1917, is as much about “perceived”, “alleged”, or even “contrived” dangers as it is about actual challenges. However, the analytic crossover from/to structural class forces, decidedly volatile political processes, and interwoven discursive-intellectual frameworks often does not work out smoothly in the book’s account. Also, the manifold discursive mutations of anti-Leftist arguments – the changing mix of nationalist, racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, moralist, religious, etc. reasoning – are not the emphasis of Minehan’s analysis, and neither is the transnational circulation of ideas in that regard. The default mode is one of a rather top-down comparative political history. For instance, the “conservative revolution” – as a broad and multifaceted reaction to the revolutionary wave of 1917, which involved actors from liberal to “proto-fascist” and which helped to garner broad and deep support for emerging fascist regimes by almost all social elite groups – does not figure in the book at all.

Some readers will take issue with Minehan’s revisionist account of the Second World War: according to the author, it would have been avoidable had the Western powers, above all Britain, not been driven so much by their anti-communist orientation (something they shared with all variants of fascism) and had they entered an alliance with the Soviet Union at the right moment. Yet such revisionism is certainly not new. Minehan’s account provides most flavour and details when he draws on his earlier analysis of the northern Mediterranean and the way the Second World War and its aftermaths actually took the shape of a prolonged set of revolutionary civil wars there. [1]

A great strength of Minehan’s account is the ample space given to colonialism, as well as the dismissal of critiques labelled against it, and the extended bloodshed surrounding the fighting of the anti-colonial movement as well as the manifold conflicts and interventions in post-colonial societies in the context of the Cold War. Decolonization was indeed one of the greatest social movements of modern history, and the Left played a vital role in it – the not always unequivocal stance of the Global North’s Left as well as the ambiguous role of the state socialism, particularly the Soviet Union, notwithstanding.

In such a broad-brush analysis, it will come as no surprise that Minehan’s account has a number of blind spots: actors beyond the top level of official politics and the iconic figures of the Left (both in theory and politics) are often absent. Despite the book being rooted in a Marxist class analysis, different social groups as well as social movements remain suspiciously opaque. Also, there is little exploration of the ways how anti-Leftist thinking gained a following and a constituency – either democratically, through mobilization, or by passive endorsement. Similarly, the imbrication of the Left in politics that, at least from today’s point of view, can be considered non-Leftist, does not figure in the analysis. This includes the Left’s negative record in the tacit acceptance of gendered inequalities, racialized hierarchies, and the recently much-debated benefits of colonialism and post-colonial asymmetries for working classes in the Global North (see the discussions around the term “imperial mode of living”, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen). Finally, the state and its transmutations in the twentieth century (see the recent suggestion of a “project state” by Charles S. Maier), as well as how they have changed the face of capitalism by indeed adopting/co-opting in many cases certain demands of the Left, are not given appropriate space.

Minehan’s book is more an extended historical essay than a research study: the references are scant; archival material is used only in terms of illustration; and there is little engagement with other interpretations and debates (a critical appraisal of heuristic differences between Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Capital and The Age of Extremes being the major exception). Although Minehan takes a comparative angle, it is taken rather freehandedly. The book’s “thought style” (following Ludwik Fleck’s coinage) seems to be modelled on the Marxism-inflected comparative essayism in political and intellectual history, developed by Perry Anderson (not coincidentally the most quoted author in the book, who is also mentioned in the acknowledgements). However, it does not reach Anderson’s scope, depth, and versatility. This leaves the reader with the unsatisfactory impression of both too much (the notion of “anti-Leftist politics” is so broad that it encompasses all realms of politics that are not explicitly Left-wing) and too little (there is no clear level of analysis that might hold together the long period and the vast number of cases). Meanwhile, Minehan’s panoramic account does point to the necessity of acknowledging both the long-term continuities and the comparative and transnational dimensions of the “Contra” in modern history. And it suggests at many points that a lot could be gained if the history of the Left was historicized through the systematic inclusion of its manifold interactions with those who went to great and even greatest lengths to push it back.

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