A generation ago, when the radical left was a revolutionary worldwide movement, one of the most common antiwar chants was "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! NLF is gonna win!" In 1968, ten thousand leftist students marched in West Berlin chanting this pro-Vietcong battle hymn and it was no less popular in cities across the United States. Nor was vocal, explicit endorsement of the so-called enemy limited to Ho Chi Minh, we recall that the Black Panthers raised money by selling Chairman Mao's Little Red Book and that the Red Army Faction, a German urban guerilla organization, cultivated links with Palestinian organizations now labeled as "terrorist". Ties of solidarity criss-crossed the globe, the arrest or assassination of one group's leadership – whether it be Ulrike Meinhof, Fred Hampton or Vietgong soldiers – only ratcheted up the movement's revolutionary intensity. One can imagine that had a U.S. President authorized the assassination of Ho Chi Minh, Chairman Mao or even, although his popularity was waning, Joseph Stalin - the left would have risen up in anger, perhaps with a fury sufficient to topple capitalism.
Why then has there been no outcry, not even a murmur of dissent, over the assassination of Osama Bin Laden? How did it come to pass that the enemy of American cultural, economic and military imperialism is no longer the friend-by-default of the radical left?
Our first impulse may be to cite Bin Laden's "evil" but let us not forget that Mao's cultural revolution and Great Leap Forward, Stalin's gulags and forced collectivization, and Ho Chi Minh's liberation struggle together killed tens of millions of civilians. No, we cannot locate the left's turn against Osama at the level of the human toll of his political ideology.
The Dali Lama calls Bin Laden's death "understandable", the head of the UN exclaims it is "a watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism", and President Obama proclaims "justice has been done." And the "radicals" on the streets, the Black Bloc smashing windows, the anti-corporate activists fighting against industry? They are all mum, knowing that silence means consent. What has happened to people like Susan Sontag, who two weeks after 9/11 had the courage to ask whether the World Trade Center attack was a legitimate response to the foreign policy of the United States? In The New Yorker Sontag wrote, "Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" Something is wrong with this newly established worldwide consensus.
One reasonable explanation for why the left supported Chairman Mao but turns its back on Sheikh Bin Laden is that Mao's ideology of Communism was essentially Western. Karl Marx was German, the first meeting of the International Workingmen's Association was held in London and, on a deeper level, the march towards economic development adopted by Communism and Capitalism sprung from a shared scientific worldview. Thus, while China's people may have been alien to the students of Paris, their political ideology was not. Solidarity was built on common intellectual heritage. We were all comrades in the struggle.
The same, we are told, cannot be said of Bin Laden whose political ideology is premised on an Islamic worldview. That he offered a specifically religiously inflected politics is offered as the crux of the problem: the left, communism especially, has always seen itself as an atheistic force fighting against the influence of superstition and the Church. Could it be that the left is genuinely opposed to Bin Laden because his political philosophy is so absolutely different from our own that we'd rather side with consumer-capitalism on this one issue than endorse an Islamic worldview? I find this explanation ultimately lacking for two reasons: first, it falsely presumes that the left has thoughtfully considered Bin Laden's political philosophy and found it lacking; second, it does not explain the tremendous climate of fear that surrounds uttering a word of support, whether it be solidarity or merely human sympathy, for Bin Laden.
What is remarkable about the Black Panthers selling Chairman Mao's Little Red Book is that the book was available in English in massive quantities – some estimates place it as one of the most widely published books of all time. Anyone could read Mao, Stalin or Trotsky without fear … and they did. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous philosopher of his time, even went so far as to openly visit Andreas Baader, the most famous leftist terrorist of his generation, in prison. Sure, people knew they might be labeled a hippie or ostracized by the mainstream as an anarchist if they spoke up too loudly, but there was no reason to suspect they'd be sent away for torture at Guantanamo Bay. Who today would dare distribute the writings of Osama Bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki? Who today would even admit in public that they've read these writings at all? No, today we are too fearful of the knock on the door by Homeland Security to even contemplate such things.
American democracy once displayed a supreme ideological confidence, a nearly foolish faith that capitalism would win the battle of ideas and that even if Marx was widely read consumerism would still win the day. That this confidence has been lost is the real reason why Osama was assassinated and not taken to trial. And it is the same reason why no one will publicly mourn his death. It is the natural result of the West's ideological bankruptcy.
Overloaded with debt, a day away from losing their jobs, unhappy with the way life has turned out, few people believe anymore the myth of consumerism. Even the rulers of the Western regimes know that capitalism is losing the argument and that what keeps them in power is the illusion that there are no other options. To capture Osama, to put him on trial, to debate in a courtroom whether his insurrection was legally permissible according to international law, would open up the American empire to critical analysis … a fatal development. Thus, Osama is killed.
But why do we on the left keep silent, allowing ourselves to be seduced by the greatest mass media propaganda machine ever constructed? I suspect we do not protest because we too are afraid that if a debate erupts around the merits of Osama's politics, if he is read as closely as some French philosophers continue to this day to read Mao, then the total intellectual, moral, and spiritual vacuity of the left's worldview will finally be plain for all to see. The left has nothing to offer, so it must promote the illusion that no one else has anything to offer either.
The irony is that in keeping silent about the illegal extrajudicial assassination of an unarmed revolutionary in front of his wives and children, the left has revealed precisely what it tried to hide. The failure to utter a word of protest has shown the degree to which the institutional left has grown complacent, happy to be the loyal opposition, devoid of a revolutionary agenda, nothing but cheerleaders of global capitalism's death rattle. For this reason, it is safe to say that in assassinating Osama Bin Laden, the consumerist military-industrial-complex scored a double-kill, delivering a death blow to the left.
In a world where the global revolution is increasingly looking Islamic, will jumping over the dead body of the left require an even deeper leap of faith?