A debate I attended at the Oxford Literary Festival highlighted growing tensions between classical Enlightenment thought and postmodernism—tensions that threaten to cause a fissure on the British left.

Hosted each year by the Sunday Times, the festival affords authors the opportunity to discuss and tout their recently published works.  This year’s lineup included Richard Dawkins, John Julius Norwich, P.D. James, Philip Pullman, Niall Ferguson, and David Starkey, along with a host of lesser-known writers.  Not surprisingly, given the state of British culture, the presentations were of varying quality, with talks on, for example, Kingsley Amis and W.H. Auden competing with lectures bearing such titles as “Filthy Shakespeare” and “The Dirty Bits—For Girls.”

The festival’s final day featured a debate between Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens.  Cohen, a columnist for the Observer and New Statesman, has been making waves among British liberals since his book What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way was published in February.  Americans are more familiar with Hitchens, who now lives in the United States and is a frequent contributor to Slate and many other publications.  Since defecting from orthodox Marxism (though not from the left) some years ago, he has enjoyed a rather bizarre popularity among neoconservatives in America, thanks, in large part, to his support for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The room rapidly filled with earnest leftists, eager to hear the comments of two eminent British journalists affiliated with their movement.  An ardent feminist near me on the front row gushed that “this will be the best event of the whole festival.”  She seemed a bit offended when I told her that the only reason I was present was that my first choice of session at that time slot, a panel discussion on the Tudors, had sold out.

Despite the billing, the Cohen/Hitchens exchange was not really a debate.  Cohen commented on the mixed reception of his book, the thesis of which is that the left has betrayed its historic identity by embracing the cultural relativism of Michel Foucault and other postmodernist writers.  In so doing, it has come to support radical Islam and other movements that deny everything it claims to hold dear, such as egalitarianism and secularism.  To support this contention, Cohen cited, among other things, the pandering of Ken Livingstone, London’s communist mayor, to the city’s Islamic groups; statements by prominent British journalists; and the Communist Party’s granting of concessions to Muslims at its conferences (e.g., separate facilities, segregated by sex) that it would never afford to any other group.  Cohen repeatedly called cultural relativism “racist,” accusing its advocates of holding that “liberation is good for white women in Britain, but not for brown women in Afghanistan.”

Hitchens spent his time discussing his new book on Thomas Jefferson, whom he has reinterpreted to be, along with Thomas Paine, the wellspring of all American progressivism.  Like others before him, Hitchens cherry-picks quotations from Jefferson and other Founding Fathers to demonstrate that the American project has never had anything to do with religion.  According to Hitchens, America is great because she embodies secular Enlightenment values and spreads them around the world to such places as Iraq, and we have Jefferson to thank for this.  In this framework, Jefferson’s action against the Barbary Pirates is the model for all subsequent American intervention overseas—the rational, secular West confronting the superstitious and oppressive bad guys who hate it and want to destroy it.  George W. Bush is simply following in Jefferson’s footsteps.  (Hitchens’ referencing the current Iraq conflict was his only point of contact with Cohen’s remarks.)

Cohen and Hitchens seemed essentially in agreement that the left has taken a wrong turn, but not all of the audience members appreciated their consensus.  In fact, the Q&A session became fairly heated at times, particularly when the speakers criticized the tens of thousands of Brits (some of whom were in the room at that very moment) who had participated in the protest marches against the Iraq invasion in early 2003.  Cohen argued that the marches had been coordinated from Cairo in meetings at which representatives of Saddam Hussein’s government were present, and that the demonstrators had carried signs bearing slogans that were simply translations of Ba’ath Party propaganda.  Hitchens made the stunning claim that, before the war began, no prominent opponent of the invasion had argued that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction; this assertion was greeted with many cries of “Rubbish!” from the crowd.  One humorous exchange involved an audience member’s attempt to associate Hitchens with “far-right Christians” who supported the Iraq invasion.  Hitchens replied in kind, saying that his accuser’s bedfellows in opposing the war were such unmentionables as Pat Buchanan.

Eventually, the discussion turned to Iran.  Here again, Cohen decried the numerous figures on the British left who have made public statements in defense of a “fascist” regime.  In perhaps the session’s most ludicrous moment, Hitchens attempted retrospectively to psychoanalyze Michel Foucault, who embraced Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980’s despite the latter’s vigorous persecution of Foucault’s “co-sexualists.”  Neither discussant took a stand on a hypothetical invasion of Iran.

Although the majority of the people in attendance seemed to appreciate the positions articulated by Cohen and Hitchens, it was evident that many were very dissatisfied.  Afterward, outside the lecture room and even in the streets surrounding Christ Church, I overheard heated discussions.  The gist of these conversations was that the identity and future of the British left are at stake over the issues raised during the debate.  Cohen had pointed out that, whereas the left had a more or less unified program in the 20th century (e.g., the nationalization of industry), the left of 2007 has little to hold it together save antipathy toward the U.S. government and the American “Religious Right.”  Now a split seems possible between, on the one hand, those who hold to egalitarianism as a universal ideal and, on the other, those who are willing to put up with the beliefs and practices of almost any group (such as Muslims) who will help them tear down whatever is left of Western civilization.

A pox on both their houses.  If the left in Britain does tear itself apart, however, it should be at least mildly amusing to watch.