The Volokh Conspiracy

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Far-Left Support for Hamas is not an Aberration

It's rooted in a long history of defending horrific mass murder and other atrocities.


Bones of tortured prisoners. Kolyma Gulag, USSR (Nikolai Nikitin, Tass). (NA)


Since the horrific October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, there has been much shock and dismay about Western far-left support for Hamas, and tendencies to minimize or justify its atrocities. What is the cause of this moral deformation?

There is surely more than one. The most obvious culprit is anti-Semitism. There is undoubtedly anti-Semitism on the far left, as also on other parts of the political spectrum (including many parts of the right). But this overlooks the fact that the far left includes a substantial number of Jewish intellectuals and activists, and has had many such throughout its history, including some of the most famous far-leftists. Such extensive Jewish participation at least complicates the claim that anti-Semitism permeates the entire far left (though, as we shall see, the socialist left has its own distinctive type of anti-Semitism).

Prominent political scientist Yascha Mounk blames the rise of recent extreme forms of left-wing identity politics, with its focus on crude theories of "white privilege" and "colonialism." There is surely something to this, as well. But it implicitly assumes that far-left defenses of terrorism and mass murder are a relatively new phenomenon, coextensive with the rise of the new identity politics. That just isn't true. In reality, the Western far left has a long history of excusing or minimizing massive atrocities, including some on a vastly larger scale than anything Hamas has so far managed to do.

Before going further, it's worth clarifying the meaning of "far left." I do not use this term as a pejorative label for anyone to the left of me. Rather, I refer to people who seek a radical transformation of society towards socialism, with the end result being state control of all or most of the economy, for purposes of promoting egalitarian values.

Such radical socialists are distinguishable from those who merely seek a larger welfare state or more extensive regulation within a generally market economy. And the former are far more likely to defend or excuse Hamas than the latter. To take one dramatic example of the contrast, compare the forceful condemnation of Hamas by the relatively moderate current British Labor Party leader Keir Starmer with the views of Jeremy Corbyn, his radical socialist predecessor, who has a long history of praising Hamas and other similar movements.

For over a century, far-leftists have had to confront the reality that regimes attempting to implement their socialist ideals have committed massive, horrific atrocities in the process. In the first few years of the Bolshevik regime in Russia, Lenin's communist dictatorship banned all opposition parties, slaughtered many thousands of people in the Red Terror, and imposed a collectivization of agriculture that led to a famine that killed millions more. Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin, accumulated an even larger death toll.

Subsequent radical socialist regimes were no better. With his Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong managed to surpass Lenin's and Stalin's records by perpetrating the biggest mass murder in the entire history of the world, with an estimated 30 million dead or even more. Communist rulers of smaller nations could not match such totals. But Fidel Castro (some 100,000 dead out of a population of just 6 million), Pol Pot, and many others did still amass horrific death tolls relative to the much smaller populations of their respective countries.

This pattern of atrocity and mass murder was not an aberration arising from the flaws of particular leaders. For the most part, it arose from the reality that imposing socialism requires massive coercion, and creates numerous opportunities for abuse of power.

Faced with this pattern, Western far-leftists had a number of options. They could 1) repudiate their previous ideals, 2) claim the regimes trying to implement them were not actually doing so (the "not real socialism" defense), 3) defend the regimes' atrocities, or 4) try to deny or minimize them. There are some prominent examples of 1; 2 has proven a popular choice at times (usually late in the history of the regime in question). But from the days of Lenin to the present, a great many chose option 3 or 4, or some combination of both.

In his classic book Political Pilgrims, sociologist Paul Hollander chronicles numerous examples of radical left-wing Western intellectuals praising Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and other communist mass murderers. Those who did this include prominent figures like Jean Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and many, many others. Some of these people focused primarily on option 4—denying or minimizing their idols' atrocities. But others actually argued the Gulags, executions, and famines were justified as necessary means to achieving a greater good. The famous British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, defended Lenin and Stalin throughout his long life (he died in 2012) and said that killing 15 to 20 million people was a defensible price to pay for the achievement of a socialist Utopia.

The kinds of people who are willing to justify, minimize, or deny the slaughter of millions by the likes of Stalin and Mao are unlikely to blanch at Hamas' much smaller-scale atrocities. If you are willing to embrace the Great Leap Forward, Stalin's purges, or Lenin's Red Terror, there is probably no limit to what you will accept, so long as you think it is moving the world in the right direction.

There is, however, a notable distinction between Hamas and the likes of Mao and Stalin. The latter were pursuing left-wing socialist ideals. Hamas, pretty obviously, is not. They seek to establish a medieval Islamist theocracy, in the process oppressing women, religious minorities, and LGBT people, among others.

Why would Western far-leftists have any sympathy for such a movement? How could the likes of Jeremy Corbyn describe it as  seeking "long-term peace and social justice"? The answer comes from the old adage that the enemies of our enemies are our friends.

For most far-leftists, the greatest evil in the world is capitalism. Abolishing it is their primary goal. And the great mainstays of capitalism are the US and other Western liberal democracies. This inclines many far-leftists to be sympathetic to any movement that is anti-American or anti-Western, more generally. There is a long history of them praising or at least looking favorably on such movements, even in cases where their ideology was far different from that of the Western leftists themselves.

The conflict between Israel and radical Islamists and Arab nationalists is one of the world's most visible confrontations between Western liberalism and opposing movements. While radical socialists would surely prefer to cheer for an anti-Western movement that fit their ideology closely, they are willing to support one that doesn't.

This tendency is reinforced by another development in radical leftist thought over the last century: the belief that the overthrow of capitalism is likely to emerge from the poor and underdeveloped parts of the world, through processes of "decolonization" and "national liberation." Karl Marx argued that socialist revolution would first emerge in the world's most advanced nations, through the growth of "class consciousness" in the working class. He even believed that the spread of European colonialism was, on balance, a good thing, because it promoted industrialization and thereby brought the coming of socialist revolution closer.

But Marx's expectations proved spectacularly wrong. Radical socialists have only managed to seize power in relatively poor and backward nations, beginning with Russia in 1917.

As a result, Western radical leftists have developed a special sympathy for anti-Western nationalist and anti-colonial movements in what we used to call the Third World. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians fits this pattern well, even if the ideology of most of the latter is far from what Western leftists would ideally prefer.

Finally, far-left sympathy for Israel's enemies is augmented by the distinctive socialist brand of anti-Semitism, which differs somewhat from the more familiar right-wing version. Instead of focusing on the racial, ethnic, or theological characteristics of Jews, this one focuses on their economic role. A movement that seeks to abolish private property and capitalist economic transactions is likely to view with suspicion an ethnic group that is disproportionately represented in the worlds of entrepreneurship, trade, and finance.

It is often said that anti-Semitism is "the socialism of fools." Foolish socialists single out the Jews instead of focusing their ire on capitalists more generally. But even relatively non-foolish socialists often look askance at a group that seems disproportionately represented among what they see as the capitalist "exploiter" class.

Karl Marx's notorious 1844 essay "On the Jewish Question" exemplifies this tendency. In that work, he called for equal rights for Jews. But he also wrote this:

What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew…. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general.

Marx further believed, as he wrote in 1856, that supposed Jewish control of the world of finance props up regimes he disapproved of and the capitalist system more generally. Of Jewish descent himself, Marx did not claim that Jews were inherently bad. He just thought they must be removed from their role in the capitalist system, and should give up elements of their beliefs he claimed were conducive to that role.

Such ideas persist in modern far-left thought, often transmuted into attacks on "Zionists," rather than Jews as such. Just as Marx denounced Jewish "moneychangers of our age enlisted on the side of tyranny," so some modern radicals claim that Zionists control finance and the media.

The economic focus of socialist anti-Semitism also explains how it can persist in a movement that has many Jewish members. By virtue of becoming radical socialists, the latter are viewed by their comrades as having rejected Jewish connections with capitalism, thereby making themselves kosher, so to speak.

Western socialists took a less negative view of Israel in its early years, when that country was dominated by the left-wing Labor Party, and Israel's image on the left was in significant part influenced by the small-scale socialist institution of the kibbutz. But as Israel has moved to the right, and even the kibbutzim have become more capitalist, far-left anti-Semitism has reemerged and focused its energies on Israel and its backers in the Jewish Diaspora.

The left-wing anti-Semitic element here is likely less important than the more general tendency to excuse or minimize atrocities by those radical socialists see as being on the right side of history. But it probably makes things worse at the margin.

In making these points, I do not mean to deny that there is also a horrific history of right-wing anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust. I also fully recognize that many right-wingers have their own history of praising or minimizing horrific atrocities by movements they approve of.

It is also important to remember that radical leftists are far from the only types of people who sympathize with Hamas. It has plenty of supporters who are radical Islamists or Arab nationalists. Especially outside the West, these groups are likely a much larger proportion of Hamas backers than the radical socialists. Far-leftists, though, are especially prominent on college campuses and other intellectual institutions, where they are hugely overrepresented relative to their proportion of the general population.

Finally, it should go without saying—but nonetheless, in the current political environment, must be said—that I don't claim that any and all criticism of the Israeli government and its policies amounts to support of Hamas. I have been highly critical of some of those policies myself. But actual defenses of Hamas' terrorist attacks or attempts to minimize them, are a different matter.

Ultimately, right-wing (and radical Islamist) awfulness does not excuse that of the far left (and vice versa). And if my analysis is correct, much of the awfulness is deeply rooted in the ideology of radical socialism. It goes well beyond specific details of the current conflict.