Where have all the children of the left gone?

Those who used to burn with anger against oppression and were united in fraternity with the vulnerab

Three mementoes of a steamy summer which prove, if proof were needed, that the principled left was a 19th- and 20th-century phenomenon.

1) The hit of the season is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a sort of Fox News for liberals. Among the many clunking contradictions and honking errors, one unforgivable scene stands out. Moore brushes aside the millions forced into exile and mass graves by Saddam Hussein, and decides to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late 20th century as sweet and simple. Boys scamper to barber shops. Merry children fly kites. Blushing lovers get married.

At the end of the film, leftish audiences in America and Europe show they are more than prepared to forgive and forget. They rise to their feet and applaud.

2) In July, Yusuf al-Qaradawi arrives in London to meet the leaders of the Muslim Association of Britain - co-organisers of the great anti-war demonstration of February 2003 - and Ken Livingstone, the "left-wing" mayor of London. Al-Qaradawi's Islam Online website is available for the world to read. It supports the murder of Israeli civilians and declares that "on the hour of judgement, Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them". Homosexuals, the website continues, are depraved and abominable and should be put to death to cleanse Islamic society of its "perverted elements". As for women, they must be kept in their place. Wives are forbidden to rebel against their husbands' authority. A husband may beat his wife "lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts". Rape victims must carry a portion of the guilt if they dress "immodestly".

The liberal media treat al-Qaradawi's views with tact and circumspection. BBC News Online barely mentions them, and instead describes al-Qaradawi as an "articulate preacher and a good communicator". If Livingstone has qualms about al-Qaradawi's endorsement of murder, racism, homophobia and misogyny, they don't show. He sends the limousine anyway.

When they meet, the mayor embraces the priest as a fellow dissident. "Those who raise uncomfortable truths are denounced by those who would rather not consider them," he says.

3) As so often before, you find more of what you need to know in the alternative than in the mainstream media. In August, www.crookedtimber.org, a part of the explosion of political journalism on the internet, investigates John Laughland. He is a regular at the Spectator, and in the course of his work has defended nearly every rep-ressive state on the planet from Belarus to Zimbabwe. As might be expected, he has found that Jean-Marie Le Pen isn't so bad. "Le Pen's views on immigration are the same as Norman Tebbit's," he told readers of the Spectator, "while his views on urban blight, social collapse and the decline of traditional values can be found every week in the columns of the Daily Mail . . ." In May 2002, the Guardian cited the piece as proof that "when they're down . . . they [the Tories] can always go lower".

The ding-dong isn't surprising. The Conservative press, like the Conservative Party, has to accommodate views from the centre through to the far right. The liberal media have always enjoyed rubbishing their Conservative enemies and vice versa. Laughland has every right to express his opinions. Tory editors have every right to publish them. Liberals have every right to denounce them.

As Crooked Timber points out, Laughland's subsequent appearances in the Guardian are more novel. But then editors, including the editors of this magazine, like pungent comment pieces and hope they will stir an angry reaction from the readers.

What is telling is that, with the odd exception, Laughland's defences of Robert Mugabe and Slobodan Milosevic and his condemnation of Tony Blair's concern for the people of Darfur as a sick cover for the Prime Minister's true desire to launch a colonial war for Sudanese oil don't provoke an angry reaction.

The obvious conclusion to draw at the moment is that we are living in a rerun of the 1930s, and the liberal left is once again sucking up to tyranny. It is easy to think that way. Look at how the democratic left in Britain proved its futility and played into Tony Blair's hands when it allowed the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Workers Party to lead the anti-war movement. Look at the Independent, which has abandoned its founding principle of separating news from comment, so its front pages can imitate the manners of the Mail and scream at readers that the troubles of the world are the fault of democratic governments.

Yet the idea that history is repeating itself fails to take account of the weirdness of the times. If the fact that the anti-war movement was as much under the control of the religious fundamentalists of the Muslim Association of Britain as the political totalitarians of the SWP doesn't convince you, look again at the three examples I gave. They are all symptoms of a left that has swerved to the right. Saddam Hussein may have slavishly followed Stalin's methods of dealing with his opponents, but his Ba'ath Party was inspired by Nazi Germany and its programme of exterminating impure ethnic minorities was recognisably fascist. If al-Qaradawi had been a white French or German politician, Livingstone and his kind would have denounced him as a neo-fascist and picketed his hotel. Laughland is scarcely a Nazi. He is what he says he is, a Tory on the Tebbit wing - which flaps on the far right of the party. His foreign policy suggestions are none the less accepted by liberals without protest.

I could go on - the rehabilitation in liberal circles of Douglas Hurd, the Pontius Pilate of the Balkans and Slobo's former business partner, is worth a study of its own. But the point I want to make is that nothing like this has happened before.

Historians may see the similarities between the slave empires of Nazi Germany, communist Russia and Maoist China as more important than the differences, but the differences meant an enormous amount to millions of people at the time. However selective their condemnations and hypocritical their double standards, they knew they were against the far right in its political or clerical guise. (Or, in the case of the Catholic fascisms of France and Spain, its political and its clerical guise.) The solidity of the conviction imposed constraints - however critical the old left was of capitalist democracies, there were alternatives to democracy that it would never tolerate. The constraints also brought honour because they instilled the ideal of fraternity. The victims of far-right regimes were guaranteed support through the international backing from the democratic and the totalitarian left.

Ask an Iraqi communist or Kurdish socialist today what support they have had from the liberal left and they won't detain you for long. Apart from the odd call from the Socialist International, there has been none worthy of the name. One expects the totalitarian left to be stuffed with creeps, but the collapse of the democratic left strikes me as catastrophic. Why couldn't it oppose the second Gulf war while promising to do everything possible to advance the cause of Iraqi democrats and socialists once the war was over? Why the sneering, almost racist pretence that Saddam had no honourable opponents?

The ineluctable answer is, I'm afraid, that there no longer is a left with a coherent message of hope for the human race. The audiences at Michael Moore films don't look at his propaganda images of kite-flying kiddies and pull themselves up short by thinking of what happened to their comrades in Iraq. They have no comrades. They don't support Saddam. They don't support his foes. They have no policy to offer. The noise of their self-righteous anger is merely a cover for an indifference bred by failure.

Marxist-Leninism is as dead as any idea can be - it made the fatal blunder of putting its ideas into practice and died of shame. Fifty years ago, there were revolutionary socialist movements in dozens of countries ready to take power. Today there isn't one, and the world is a better place for that. The nobler traditions of the social-democratic left are also under enormous strain. It seems that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown is about as good as it can get in Britain. Europe has leaders who appear more left-wing on paper, but to date they have failed to pull the Continent away from stagnation.

Unless you believe that the failure of the world's peoples to look leftwards is all the result of brainwashing by the corporate media, you have to conclude that the left is dead. The anger that propelled it is still there, and although it won many battles, some of the oppressions it fought against remain as grievous as ever.

The pity of the aftermath is that while the honourable traditions of the left are forgotten, the worst flourish and mutate into aberrations that would have made our predecessors choke.