Influential left-wingers

I've been thinking further about the Left Foot Forward challenge to come up with the most influential left-wingers. (See here.) I decided to present my own lists, one of good influences, one of people who have been too influential, and one of people I wish the left were more influenced by. I have confined myself to living people, and the idea of the left I had in mind is probably very anglocentric.  Being negative, I start with bad influences, to get them out of the way.

Bad influences
  • Noam Chomsky - gives a veneer of apparent wisdom and academic rigour to simple-minded explanations and a manichean view of the world, thus giving teenagers of all ages over the world permission to think they are being clever and radical when they're not.
  • John Pilger - has squandered the immense credibility he has accumulated from his investigative journalism to promote a darkly moralistic view of the world, but a moralism that is curiously silent about dictators and falsely attributes all evil to the US/UK/Israel axis.
  • Slavoj Zizek - admittedly funny and clever, this posturing windbag and his ne plus ultra radicalism (oh so daring celebrations of violence and of totalitarian dictators) is so completely divorced from the real world that anyone caught in his headlights is lost to the effort of making it a better place. 
  • Hugo Chavez - hugely influential for attempting to de-link Venezuela from the neo-liberal hegemony, Chavez has managed to persuade otherwise sensible people outside his country that socialism can be achieved via thuggish repression of journalists, trade unionists and dissidents.
  • Frank Furedi - Furedi and his cult have probably been more influential than any other bit of the British far left in the last decade. Although some of this influence has undoubtedly for the good, some of it has been very malignant. They give a veneer of intellectual respectability to denialism about climate change, have acted as PR agents for the agribusiness, airline and pharmaceutical industries, aided and abetted AIDS denialism and its enormous death toll in Africa, given succour to Serb nationalism at its most aggressive, helped Boris Johnson capture London, provided ideological cover for cuts in the funding for arts, reduced the number of decent free festivals in the parks of London, and, arguably, are the architects of David Cameron's election victory. Or am I paranoid?
Good influences
  • Norman Geras - a pioneer of political blogging (and therefore influential in opening up on-line audiences to left-wing cranks and crackpots like me), but also a profound thinker of Marxism and its limits, and an inspiration to those of us who like to think that left-wing values of justice and freedom are compatible with moral sense.
  • Evo Morales - his election five years ago, with his humble ways and stripy sweaters, was a great inspiration, and his landslide re-election last year was too. In contrast to his companero Chavez, he showed that it is possible to de-link from the neo-liberal world without going down an authoritarian route.
  • Maryam Namazie - although she comes very much from the trad left, she exemplifies what was best about it: an uncompromising internationalism and secular humanism.
  • Antonio Negri - I have a lot of criticisms of Negri, and find his celebrity cult status unnerving, but he has introduced a generation to some of the most important ideas of the left, and helps provide a ground for the possible renewal of radical thought.
  • Peter Tatchell - although sometimes I think he is a little nutty, and some of his obsessions (e.g. the Pope) are quite alien to mine, Tatchell is an inspiration because of his extraordinary courage, consistency and commitment – despite his health problems caused by taking beatings from  Mugabe's thugs in 2001 and Russian bigots in 2007.
Not influential enough
  • Gita Sahgal - stands for a recognition that human rights are for everyone, not just for brown-skinned men with beards, and that some apparent forms of radicalism are also forms of repression.
  • Eric Lee - stands for a commitment to the class struggle and social justice, globally, rather than all the fads and obsessions that the left has been seduced by.
  • Terry Glavin - stands for genuine internationalism, and a great writer.
  • A Sivanandan - Sivanandan has always been an untimely figure, and has therefore always been marginalised by the left - his savage critiques of the dogmas of ethnic identity politics, fashionable New Times postmodernism and bureaucratic multiculturalism in the 1980s were not heeded by enough in the movement, and more recently he saw before almost anyone else the way in which racism against immigrants (including "white" ones) was eclipsing older colour- and even culturally-coded forms of racism in British society.
  • Peter LinebaughI think the left would be a better place if it was Linebaugh and not Zizek or Negri who was the global superstar. He is a much deeper and richer thinker than them by a country mile.
Would this work as a meme? As (following LFF), I've listed bunches of five, I'll tag five people. Let's see if it has legs. Here's my five: Harpy, Phil, Dave, James, Jim.


Waterloo Sunset said…
Zizek wrote the sleevenotes for the Laibach singles collection. I find his work less annoying if I assume he's part of their whole artistic project about subverting the imagery of totalitarianism. Or if I imagine reading it to a kicking industrial beat.
Flesh said…
Despite that I like this list very much, heart sinks at the task - it's no surprise that Maryam Namazie and Gita Sahgal are the only women (to pre-empt Jim Jepps' likely inclusion of Caroline Lucas, the antisemitic climate she has helped to foster in the Green Party's international circles should put her in some more ambivalent category than 'good influence').

Understand why it's often politically conducive to use a human face to bring a set of ideas into focus, but from another point of view maybe better for Left Foot Forward to get us thinking about influential left wing ideas rather than prominent opinion-formers. Because what are we to think of these people other than that they are role models? If we're to have role models, and they are mostly men, isn't this likely to compound the exclusion of women from political prominence?

I think asking about the five most influential left wing ideas would be more empowering - more left foot forward.
bob said…
WS - OK, Zizek works if you take him as a joke, except it's own of the jokes that when you try and tell it to someone else you can't remember the punchline.

Flesh - very good points. I realised after I posted it that it says something bad (about me, about the left) that I only tagged one woman in my five and named less than one woman in five in my lists. I started thinking of a New Labour style all woman shortlist version, and, oddly, Lucas was on it under "bad influences".

Some of the people I thought of as role models (Peter Tatchell, Gita Sahgal), others as intellectual influences (Chomsky, Linebaugh), but point taken about that.

Influential ideas - a good point too. Ideas, of course, are so much more elusive! I might think about doing the same lists but with ideas.
Anonymous said…
Cheers...will give it a go!!
Flesh said…
Not intending to lecture, Bob - it's an unfortunate habit of tone I need to shake. If I were to try to answer that particular question, my response would say something similar about me (even if I interpreted it literally like Socialist Unity did) because the question isn't really doing the trick, I don't think.

Everybody has a problem with personality politics, political hierarchies and elites. Having an ideas meme rather than a people thing is an antidote to those. Norm has a question about influential ideas among the questions he gives to people he profiles on Fridays, which is one of the most interesting ones I think.

True that ideas are harder - you have to think harder, but everybody who comes to your blog is equal to that. Top of my head - a rediscovery of the importance of equality is a pervasive idea. Mutualisation of business is another. Regulation of the money markets - not sure how that differs across right and left. Industrial relations (but what??). It's no good if people disappear, but fortunately they don't, because the ideas lead into the networks of influence, which trace back to individual people (e.g. for equality, Wilkinson and Pickett's 'The Spirit Level', the architects of the Equality Act). But they aren't necessarily celebrities, and that's the exciting thing.
jams o donnell said…
I know that a discussion of political thinkers is most definitely not my forte and there are one or two persons on your list that I am not familiar with (eg Peter Linebaugh) but you are bang on the nail regarding Chomsky and Pilger (despite my faded memories of Cambodia, Year Zero!).

As for the LM/Spiked rabble, what planet are they on? I made the mistake years ago of subscribing to LM for a short period.. how can I describe my views of the rag or the RCP (or was that the RCG?)without using expletives?

As for Zizek, what little I have read or seen of him (very little admittedly), he left me with the impression that he is an arse!
Frank Partisan said…
Really interesting post.

Jams: Hitchens wrote an essay about how Chomsky has been accused of supporting the Khmer Rouge, but nobody comes up with the documents. I don't like Chomsky, but I have to defend him against an unfounded charge. I think he's a simpleton.

It's disappointing how disoriented the left can be.
Bella said…
I would add to influential menaces:
Naomi Klein who is a great sound bite writer but has a very reductionist third worldist view of the world and consequently despises Israel.

Alexander Cockburn, ditto
Michael Moore, ditto, add populist
bob said…
I've been thinking a lot on the influential ideas thing, and may post on this at some point!

In the meantime:

Hitchens wrote an essay about how Chomsky has been accused of supporting the Khmer Rouge, but nobody comes up with the documents. I don't like Chomsky, but I have to defend him against an unfounded charge. I think he's a simpleton.

I agree that Chomsky should be defended from the false charge that he supported the Khmer Rouge. But I don't think Hitchens' defence is the final word. We've had a little bit of discussion of this issue here before including heated comment threads at and I'd also recommend Jim, Bruce Sharp, and Mike Ezra.

I like the word "simpleton" for Chomsky. The reason he's on this particular list is people think he is smart, but he promotes a simplistic view of the world, that makes pseudo-wadical kids (to use Jim's phrase) think they themselves are smart.
Oliver Kamm about Chomskey:

"See here, comrade. I know of no significant critic of Chomsky's political writings - say, Steven Lukes or Adam Roberts - who who has levelled a charge of Holocaust denial or sympathy for the Khmer Rouge. These accusations are straw men, the construction of which serves to obscure what is genuinely disturbing in Chomsky's political writings. This is that Chomsky does not see what is distinctively heinous in Holocaust denial and the genocidal campaign of the Khmer Rouge.

Chomsky's notorious defence of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson in 1981 was far from being an unexceptionable libertarian argument for free speech, as Chomsky liked to present it. On the contrary, Chomsky took issue with the obvious conclusion that Faurisson was an antisemite. Chomsky wrote: "As far as I can determine, [Faurisson] is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort."
Nice one, Bob. I'll have a stab next Sunday :)
bob said…
Thanks Phil. I look forward to it.

Thanks CC. I completely agree with Kamm. And it is worth noting (as I posted on Friday, I think) that Chomsky is at it again:
I'm on to it Bob. I'll post a link hopefully later today with my 'list'.
Anonymous said…
I strongly disagree, Zizek makes the case, in popular philosophical and political discourse, against the fashionable postmodern and post-ideological left which has come to saturate leftwing politics in the last few years, as well as all the other shit that it leaves in its tracks (i.e. cultural relativism, nonchalance towards fundo Islam, tolerance of Naomi Klein etc etc). Zizek needs to be taken more importantly. Or it might be thoughts like this that render my absence from the "good influences" totally justified.
Sarah AB said…
I understand why you don't like Furedi (and his associates) but I find much of what he has to say about education, and (in particular) against instrumentalism, pretty sound.
modernity said…

I think Flesh's point concerning ideas is a good one, but much harder, as they ebb and flow to the point where a once critical notion is either commonly accepted, not seen as relevant or often has out lived its prior context and fallen from favour, etc

I think with a lot of ideas, politically, on the Left it is start from scratch again, given the dire circumstances we find ourselves in.

I am not familiar with Zizek, apart from seeing his name mentioned at Lenin's Tomb, does he have any significant existence outside of academia and the fag end of student politics?

What can you say about Chomsky that has an already been said? Apart from the fact that he'll probably be canonised when he dies, making Cardinal Newman's beatification seem insignificant by comparison.

I must defend Peter Tatchell.

Is he *really* that nutty when you compare him to what a past generation of British student believed? E.g. The supremacy of the Fourth International and the transitional programme?

Whatever you say about Peter, he's inventive, highly principled and put himself in danger for those principles...

Surely, we should be trying to get away from this quasi- deification of all too imperfect individuals?

Hasn't the Left's an unhealthy obsession with political "lines" and hierarchy been one of its major failings?

Other than that I enjoy the post :)

PS: I think that feminism, the rights of women, etc is still very much an idea that needs to reemerge on to a wider stage
Jimmy said…
bob said…
Carl, I knew you'd disagree about Zizek and list him among good influences - that's part of why I included him ;) I'm hoping Dave notices I've tagged him and then tags you so you can include Zizek in your good influences.

Mod, I'm a big fan of Tatchell precisely because he is "inventive, highly principled and put himself in danger for those principles". I quite like that he is a bit nutty, as it is a benign nuttiness, in contrast to most left-wing nuttiness.

Sarah, I do think Furedi is right about lots of things, maybe even more things than he is wrong about. He has an excellent instinct for catching the prevailing winds on the liberal left - and then sailing against them, which makes him right more often than wrong, as the liberal left is so stupid.
Sarah AB said…
Thanks Bob - I like your analysis of Furedi! It fits in with the fact that I have sometimes asked myself whether the Spiked crowd's anti-anti-zionism is simply a contrarian impulse.
bob said…
Sarah, inspired by you, I am writing a post on the RCP. I'll try and finish it this evening, kids allowing!
bob said…
Thanks CC.

Carl, just noticed that Dave has not posted since August and is presumably, as they say, away. Would it be insulting to transfer his tag to you?

Sarah, the Furedi post is nearly written!
Anonymous said…
I would not be insulted at all, I have in fact completed my own which can be found here

Dave has been away, I think he went on holiday, the meme may have lived and died before he comes back
bob said…
My Furedi cult post finally up here. It got a bit bloated.
Bob Morris said…
I would add Saul Alinsky. He invented community organizing and influenced thousands of organizers.