November 3, 2023 - 3:15pm

This week, UnHerd welcomed two thinkers from opposite ends of the political spectrum, James Lindsay and Aaron Bastani, to discuss how the Israel-Gaza conflict has led to the creation of another frontier in the West’s “culture war”. 

Lindsay, a cultural critic and author, has for some years positioned himself against the “woke” movement through his writing and social media posts. He claims that this group has now taken to defending Hamas, and has traced the “intellectual lineage” of “woke” politics to explain how this has come to be.

In Lindsay’s view, the early movements geared towards Palestinian liberation were heavily influenced by Marxism. “The word ‘liberation’ referred originally to a kind of Communist liberation,” he told UnHerd. “This was a term that got used for a lot of third-world projects that were either informed by or directly involved with Marxism.” As examples, he cited Vietnam’s Viet Cong, Che Guevara’s National Liberation Army in Bolivia, as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which he described as a “Marxist-Leninist project that was brought into the Arab world […] to answer the West’s incursion in 1948.”

Conversely, Bastani, a journalist and UnHerd contributor, describes his own politics as Marxist. Speaking to UnHerd, he observed that sympathy with the Palestinian cause was not historically a cause célèbre for British Leftists and was instead more of an establishment stance.“If you look at the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, one of the first [countries] to recognise it, then support it, was the USSR,” he pointed out to UnHerd. “And there was also a predilection amongst the British establishment to actually be quite Arabist. So there was once a strong Tory Arabism.” 

Bastani argued that the Labour Party once championed a liberal form of Zionism, with former prime minister Harold Wilson in particular “squarely behind Israel and squarely behind the idea of liberal Zionism”.

Lindsay and Bastani found common ground on the question of free speech in times of crisis, concurring that this right is meaningless if not extended to those with whom one disagrees. “It’s obviously been a really horrific series of events stretching out now over the best part of a month,” Bastani said. “But that’s precisely when you need to uphold your principles.” 

He compared the present situation to the silencing of pacifists in the run-up to the First Word War as an example of the risk of abandoning free speech at a dangerous moment. Bastani declared “profound respect for people on the Right” who continue to defend the free speech of those with whom they profoundly disagree on the current conflict.