Decent left

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The decent left has been described by Martin Bright as "the tendency on the left generally associated with backing the Iraq War (though some of the key advocates of this approach did not), opposition to alliances with extreme-right Islamism and the identification of a tendency towards anti-Semitism in some left-liberal discussion of Israel and the Middle East."[1]

Origins of the term

The "decent left" is a concept first promulgated by Michael Walzer in a Spring 2002 Dissent article, which attacked the left's reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan:

The radical failure of the left’s response to the events of last fall raises a disturbing question: can there be a decent left in a superpower? Or more accurately, in the only superpower? Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics. Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power. Certainly, all those emotions were plain to see in the left=s reaction to September 11, in the failure to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused, in the schadenfreude of so many of the first responses, the barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved. Many people on the left recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed; there is at least the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really happened.[2]

British reception

Alan Johnson used the phrase In a January 2005 Labour Friends of Iraq article marking the Iraqi elections:

The decent left will emerge as a political force by turning each negative refusal into a positive policy and campaign. For each refusal of ours does carry a positive charge: pro-human rights above all, pro-international solidarity with the victims of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, pro-worker, pro-feminism, pro-gay rights, pro-democracy, pro-liberty, pro-social justice. A decent left politics in the post-cold war world will define itself positively as the pursuit of these values and not as a negative coalition of 'antis'. On such values we can build a culture not just a political movement.[3]

In a blog discussion of the Unite Against Terror campaign, Johnson said he owed the phrase to Walzer:

As regards this ‘decent left’ business. I do NOT think those who dont sign the statement are not part of the decent left. That would be absurd. I can understand hesitations. Fair enough. Maybe we can work togeter on other things. Is the term useful? Not sure, I took it from Michael Walzer, of course. Others think it a problem because it suggests indecency in those who dont ‘join in’ which is not the intent. The intent (on my part anyway) was to point out that sections of the left – the Galloway-SWP-Respect-Ali- lot, with their talk of ‘you cant be choosy’ and ‘its not pretty but’ and ‘indefatigable’ and ‘any means necessary’ need to be opposed. To be honest Im more bothered to encourage people to saddle up than what they call themselves when they do.[4]

In the introduction to Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews, Johnson highlighted the influence of Walzer's formulation on the British online magazine Democratiya:

We were alarmed by the rise of a Blame America First mentality, and a demented ‘anti-Zionism’ which bled from the lunatic fringe to the respectable mainstream. We began to take very seriously the question posed by Michael Walzer in Dissent in 2002: ‘Can there be a Decent Left?’ And we were angered by the non-aggression pact that existed between the anti-Western left and the mainstream left. When the heavy lifting of criticism was to be done you could be sure the mainstream was not going to do it. So, believing this to be another moment when stubbornness was called for, we started Democratiya.[5]

He went on to suggest that "Neoconitis is now an obstacle to grown-up political debate on the decent left."[6]

Neoconservatism is not a conspiracy. As an influential school of foreign policy it has roots in that part of the Democratic Party which refused to follow George McGovern and Jimmy Carter in their embrace of détente and their abandonment of antitotalitarianism in the 1970s. Our differences with neoconservatism may be many, but neoconservatism can only be excised from the history of the eclipse of cynical Kissengerian realism and the rise of democracy-promotion – two preconditions for any ‘progressive foreign policy’ – by doing violence to the historical record. In that sense there is an overlap of sorts with the liberal and social-democratic antitotalitarian traditions, and we should have the self-confidence to establish for ourselves our points of contact with, and our critical distance from, neoconservatism.[7]


  1. Martin Bright, What Next for the "Decent" Left?,, 21 September 2009.
  2. Michael Walzer, Can There Be a Decent Left?, Dissent, Spring 2002, hosted at Kenyon College.
  3. Alan Johnson, The Worst Advertisement: The Socialists and the Iraq Election by Alan Johnson, Labour Friends of Iraq, 29 January 2005.
  4. Unite on this and swivel, Crooked Timber, 2 August 2005, Alan Johnson comment, 4 August 2005.
  5. Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews, p.xiv, accessed 13 May 2009.
  6. Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews, p.xxii, accessed 13 May 2009.
  7. Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews, p.xxiii, accessed 13 May 2009.