The B Vocabulary: The Western Left and Its Sterile 'Field of Ideas'
05 July 2015
By Ramzy Baroud
Over the year, I realized that the term ‘left' is not exclusive to a
political ideology, but a mode of thinking championed mostly by self-tailored
‘leftist' western intellectuals. I grew to dislike it with intensity.
But that has not always been the case.
My father was a communist, or so he called himself. He read the translated
work of great communist and socialist thinkers, and passed on to me his own
reading of what a socialist utopia could possibly be like. Living in a
squalid refugee camp in Gaza, locked in by a heavily militarized sea to the
west, and various Israeli ‘death zones' everywhere else, a proletarian utopia
was a great idea, where the peasants and the workers ruled unhindered.
Of course, there was a reason that made the fantasy particularly meaningful.
Before the establishment of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine, most
Palestinians, who constituted the majority of the refugees after the war of
1948, were fellahin – or peasants. Following their forced expulsion into
refugee camps, lacking land to cultivate, they became cheap laborers,
especially after the war of 1967, where all of Palestine was colonized by
Israel. No collective anywhere in the Middle East experienced such historical
tension in a relatively short period of time as did the Palestinians.
My family, like numerous others, became peasants-turned-workers; in fact that
marking became part of the refugees collective identity.
While the political manifestation of socialism failed in Palestine, socialist
thinking prevailed: anti-elitist and revolutionary to the core. Even those
who subscribe to other ideologies, including Islamic thinking, have been
influenced one way or another by early Palestinian socialists.
But Palestinian revolutionary socialism, at its peak in the 1960s and 70s,
was rather different from the ‘left' I experienced living in the West. The
latter seemed more detached, less risk-taking, driven by groupthink and
lacking initiative. It was also patronizing.
Even in my early twenties, I still couldn't comprehend how a group of
self-proclaimed ‘leftist', who largely existed on the margins of mainstream
politics had the audacity to cast judgement on Palestinians for resorting to
armed struggle to fend off a very vile and violent Israeli occupation, and
busied themselves debating what constituted ‘humanitarian intervention'.
While socialist movements in the south, from Asia, to Africa, to the Middle
East to South America took real risks to bring about social equality and
political paradigm shifts, many in the West offered ‘solidarity', yet largely
reserved for themselves almost a total hegemony over the socialist political
They dominated and perfected the language, and dictated the platforms from
which ideas – loaded with the right terminology, but vacant of any practical
meaning and removed from real-life situations – are imparted.
Like the rest, I parroted the same language, of colonialism and imperialism,
hegemony and class struggle, skipping from South America, to Angola and South
Africa, to Indochina.
But many gaps in the perfectly summed-up understanding of the world befuddled
Firstly, I never understood why those who speak on behalf of the global
‘left' are so far removed from the actual battlefield and mostly engaged in
the ‘battlefield of ideas'.
Secondly, I found it strange that while leftists are meant to be critical
thinkers, many of those who spoke as leftist gurus, tended to parrot recycled
thoughts, which they embraced as if religious doctrines. ‘Where is the
Palestinian Gandhi?' I was asked by numerous leftists as if the inane
question, which reflects more ignorance than inquisitiveness, is a talking
point, handed down and repeated without thinking.
Thirdly, I found many western leftists largely oblivious to international
conflicts that don't involve directly or otherwise western hegemons. For
example, there are many conflicts that are brewing in Africa right now, from
Congo, to Burundi, to the Central African Republic to Sudan and elsewhere.
Almost none of them ever register on the leftist radar as long as there is no
palpable link to western governments or corporations. Only then, the lives of
the Congolese, for example, would register; only then would Sudanese become
‘comrades' and selected few of them would be celebrated as heroes, while
others are cast aside as villains.
How long did the Syria conflict carry on before the western ‘left' began to
formulate a stance? Months. The conflict was just too involved, and initially
removed from western engrossment that only few knew what to think. Only when
western governments began pondering war, urged on by their regional allies,
did the left began to formulate a position around the same old discourse.
While the West and their allies had their own sinister reasons to get
involved in Syria, the war in Syria, as the war in Libya before it, was not
as simple as picking and choosing the good guys versus the bad guys. While
vehemently rejecting western military crusades that have wreaked havoc is an
admirable act, turning local dictators into modern-day Che Guevaras reflects
recklessness, not camaraderie.
Fourthly, if conflicts throughout the so-called Third World are determined
largely, if not entirely by western hegemons, then where is the element of
agency in the local actors in these conflicts?
Are local populations so submissive and docile that they are hardly
considered a factor in determining the outcomes of any conflict? What about
regional players? How about the historical context of national and regional
conflicts and struggles? Do ordinary people, when they behave as a
collective, matter at all?
This belittling view of any other actor aside from western governments,
although sold as if global solidarity, carries a degree of racism, where only
the ‘white man' determines the flow of history and outcomes of conflicts.
Everyone else is either a helpless bystander or a ‘client regime' that
receive a ‘cut' from the colonial spoils once the bad deed is done.
Which brings me to my final point: The left's insistence on the ‘client
regime' theory is beyond limiting, yet, many find it impossible to challenge.
When some rightfully noted that Israel had much greater sway over American
politics than the traditional ‘client regime' theory suggested, many leftist
intellectuals threw a tantrum. For them, accepting that there might be a need
to examine fixed ideas on how power relations play out, meant that the entire
discourse is in danger of collapse, from Cuba, to Angola, to Indochina.
In 1984, George Orwell wrote of the ‘B vocabulary', which "consisted of words
which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that
is to say, which were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the
person using them."
While conflicts brew throughout the globe, demanding critical thinking,
mobilization and action, many in the standardized western left are actively
engaging in branding others who dare disagree with them (thoughtcrime). They
resort to the Orwellian ‘newspeak' and overused dogmas that seem to give them
more comfort than true understanding of the world at large, a world that
exists beyond the West and its ‘battlefield of ideas'.
– Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20
years. He is author of several books and the founder of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).