Time for a New Popular Front?

Time for a New Popular Front?


The British press seems to have finally recovered from President Obama’s supposed "diss" of Gordon Brown. Instead, today’s papers wonder if the Troubles have returned to Northern Ireland and whether Jade Goody a Z-list celebrity who became famous for her fecklessness on reality TV, and has since been diagnosed with terminal cancer, will really die–I was going to say "live"–on camera. Or, for the London chattering classes, the pressing question of whether it was criminally malicious or just pathologically stupid for a novelist to use her her teenage son’s addiction to "skunk"–and subsequent family torment–as grist for her new book.

Since I think the answers are obvious (No. Who cares? Give me a break!), and because this is supposed to be a conversation, I’d like instead to come in behind Eyal Press. I don’t often find myself on the same page, politically, as Roger Cohen. But like Eyal, I’d noticed Cohen’s searing denunciation of Israeli brutality in Gaza, and had indeed emailed several American friends both an earlier column and Henry Seigman’s even more powerful, and prophetically angry, contribution from the London Review of Books. Perhaps American Jews really have reached a limit, with more and more of us refusing to remain silently complicit.

But Eyal’s argument implicitly raises another point–namely about the left’s ability to make common cause with people we don’t always agree with. For far too long we on the left have allowed ourselves to be mesmerized by what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences." Properly distrustful of power, the stories radicals told ourselves were all about betrayal and defeat. And after so many decades under siege–with even "liberal" considered a term of abuse–maybe that was only to be expected. But the truth is that recently all sorts of notions shunned by the mainstream–from national health care to nationalizing banks–have suddenly entered the realm of political probability. We may not all be socialists now but those of use who were socialists all along need to get ready for some company. Indeed we might start by improving our manners.

During what we will doubtless come to call the first Great Depression radicals, made desperate by circumstance but also mindful of the dangers of fascism, embraced the broadest possible coalition. This was the Popular Front, a turn, as I write in my forthcoming biography of I.F. Stone "away from a Bolshevik model, where power is seized from the margins of society, towards a social democratic politics in which the machinery of the state might actually be used for radical ends." I.F. Stone, who never forgot what the New Deal coalition of radicals and liberals was able to accomplish, remained a believer in the Popular Front all his life. I’m not suggesting we go back to the future–though the history of the New Deal, particularly the way labor and the left kept up the pressure on FDR’s administration, has a lot to teach us. But at the very least we ought, once again, to cultivate a willingness to take "yes" for an answer.

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