TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Rejecting Their Terror: A Reply to Julia Hell’s “Terror and Solidarity”


Rightly, I think, Julia Hell argues that the RAF has become topical again because of 9/11—but why would Hell want to become part of this particular media construction of an affinity? Why should 9/11 call the left out onto the mat for its presumed past transgressions? What does 9/11 have to do with RAF? Are there any high profile leftists who, like Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit with respect to the RAF during its period of activity, feel that they are at one with al-Qaeda? Isn’t it left writers like the late Eqbal Ahmad who long ago insisted that Osama bin Laden began as a White House hero fighting the Soviets with the Afghan Mujahideen?

If terrorism refers to a violent political tactic, then the left, like the right, has doubtless made use of it—”terror” was already Edmund Burke’s term for describing the French Revolutionary left in 1790. In 1969, a year before the RAF was founded, Karl Heinz Bohrer’s book Threatened Fantasy or Surrealism and Terror berated the left for reasons akin to Burke’s: its lack of style, its ideological muddling of a “beautiful terror” that is properly left unburdened by any political load. Sure, Burke and Bohrer are ready to concede, terrible violence happens under the auspices of more or less sublime sovereign powers, but political terror itself is, well, disgustingly low brow. A civilized response insists on distance; insists that a populist political vocabulary be shed. Like Bohrer just before the RAF, Hell after 9/11 has the same problem with the unwashed left: it takes terrorism too seriously as referring to the real world.


“Bleierne Solidarität,” or leaden solidarity, is the emotional state that, according to Hell, underlies the left’s ongoing failure to distance itself from terrorism and to analyze it rigorously. Not only this emotional state, but in general “emotional states really do not have a place in politics—not on the respectable right and especially not on the left.” Well, of course, “leaden solidarity” does not sound like a pleasing or productive state of mind. But surely a politics without affect is a strange goal as well, recalling Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance,” and the Weimar Republic’s resurrection of it in the cult of “cold conduct,” with Bohrer’s modernist icon, Ernst Jünger as its avatar. In this clinical view, politics is a quasi-aristocratic enterprise conducted among those deemed capable of satisfaction, whether such satisfaction is of juridical, military or aesthetic nature. Politics, however, never remains an elite monopoly, and some of its more dangerous practitioners are precisely those barred from receiving such satisfaction.

The left’s social starting point is this populism, and its historical starting point is the conviction that people have real reasons for their grievances and real options for their redress. While the left has had its share of aristocratic avant-gardes, technocratic reformers, and warm-hearted advocates of community, one thing that it has never had is a single affect to define its position. On the contrary, even among its leading intellectuals it has shown a pronounced affective bifurcation. On the one hand, the reformist left—from Kautsky and Hilferding to Chomsky and Habermas—has always emphasized the possibility of rational progress. On the other hand, especially with the shock of WWI and the failure of popular revolts in its aftermath, the radical left has emphasized rupture, mass strike, revolution, and the “underdetermined” event. This more esoteric left—from Luxemburg and Benjamin to Badiou and Butler—responds to unprecedented events as signals for political initiative, rather than as fixed signposts along the path to a better world. In the face of 9/11, both sides of the left have raised their voices against the heightened claims of American sovereignty that, in this instance, characterize “the right.”


What does this way of building fronts between left and right mean? Hell cites Negt’s formula for the leaden solidarity of the 1970s as born from a mixture of cultural pessimism and avant-garde messianism: “between hopelessness and blind actionism.” Is the international left—whether we mean its academicians like Chantal Mouffe or Tariq Ali or its popular movements like the World Social Forum, ATTAC or A Jewish Voice for Peace, or even its clay-footed icons like Hugo Chavez or Andrés Manuel López Obrador—a quasi-Spenglerian pack of doomsayers and voluntarists, creating the glum “anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist aura” that, finally, bolsters today’s purely autonomous—i.e., fantastic, fanatic and ideological—acts of terrorism? Could a more temperate left tame the irrational Arab street and assuage the antimodern campesino? Are these peripheral actors, no longer explicable as dupes of the Soviet Union, now graspable as children of an irresponsible leftist chatter? Do their fanatical causes reside fully outside of their dire situation? On the contrary, a left that is true to itself has to come from the general standpoint that these actors are, even if not in all cases, best understood as part of their situation.

In creating itself from its own realist commitments, the left establishes a block of opposition against the grid of friend and foe constructed by the “realists” shaping the Bush administration’s foreign policy. This means, of course, that the leftist block looks messy, even aesthetically unsavory, from the vantage of Bush’s awesome amity line: it includes elements from outside the regulated spaces of legality and satisfaction, dignity and prosperity. Is it the left’s task to shrink from establishing its alternative block because it looks chaotic to Condoleezza Rice and James Baker, and soberly to attend to the blameless affect that would keep the given lines of world security taut? To the extent, however, that the left has the morale to risk its messy project against the aroused wrath of the world’s defining superpower, it does indeed struggle within and against itself to determine new boundaries of risk and assurance. I could put this another way: it searches for the anchors and vanishing points around which it organizes its alternative project. It is—of course—sometimes betrayed by its choices; i.e., by itself: that is the nature of even the most humane of risks.


Let me move away from the broad gesture and suggest that the left has distinguished itself quite clearly since 9/11 in a set of not always neatly complementary projects. Even if the elements of its identity are only fractiously bound together, however, its distinction from the right remains operative. From the beginning, the left has doubted that war is a legitimate response to terrorism, arguing that terrorism is a tactic, and al-Qaeda is not a sovereign enemy in the form of a nation-state. Even moderate leftists like Richard Falk or Michael Walzer who supported the invasion of Afghanistan held to what might be called a “legalistic model” of just war, namely that any military response demanded severe limitations, limitations that would exclude the Bush administration’s—and willy-nilly the public media’s—commitment to an open-ended “war on terror,” the very war I think Hell is asking the left, if not to join, then to accede to. From others further to the left, skeptical of U.S. military legalism, there has been a less formal legal argument, namely, that identifying and punishing aggressors also demands a specification of mitigating circumstances; demands, that is, that our sovereign representatives duly recognize the extent to which even a guilty criminal nonetheless emerges from relevant circumstances.

Bin Laden might be a wealthy Pied Piper, but if his recruits were simply the children of Hamelin, they would not have evoked such enduring terror and consternation—even those, perhaps especially those most gung ho about punishing the enemy reveal in their animus that the enemy’s causes are more intractable than merely seductions by a privileged left, foreign to the realities of the masses. Left legalism, then, does not imply that every terrorist is a poor victim of circumstances. It does, however, refuse the implication that terrorism is the result of neat ethical failings or casual ideological seductions, as though Mohammed Atta only failed to heed the lessons of Kant during his stay in Hamburg. As Hannah Arendt argued about the Eichmann case, the circumstances that allow a perpetrator to have an effect on such a devastating scale exceed any individual psychological biography. Where Eichmann is the prototype of the Schreibtischtäter, the pencil-pusher criminal, bin Laden’s minions are prototypes of viral criminals—propagated by the most modern means of circulation, they are nonetheless denied circulation’s stable ends: they don’t even get their own desk out of modernity. Perhaps an easier way to put all this, however, is that the left juridical position has always been a historicist one, that as long as there are no universal rights (an impossibility before the end of history), there are also no universal wrongs.


Here is where the other face of the left response comes in. If there are no universal wrongs, then unprecedented acts can never be ultimately judged by reference to some transcendental standard of right and wrong. That implication is at the center of what might be called the anti-Hegelian left tradition, a tradition complementary to the legalistic left tradition, but just as important to understanding the leftist standpoint on terror. Twentieth century left thought, from the surrealist rebellion through Althusser and Laclau, has positioned itself against the rational teleology of Hegel’s philosophy of history. In the anti-Hegelian view, there are always events in history whose significance cannot be ultimately determined. These events irrupt outside of continuities and thus generate the periodization of political time. Accordingly, the left project is not to supply something like 9/11 with a universal judgment, but to seek to position it in a way that progressively distinguishes it from the right’s position. This relative temporality, relative progress, means no more than that left will never establish the kingdom of equality on earth, but will aim for that movement of redistribution of power, dignity, representation—of satisfactions—that effects the greatest equity. I do not see the clinical defense of Western values—by either U.S. geopolitical leadership or intellectual temperance with respect to it—as promoting that sort of articulated redistribution.

Comments are closed.