The Left

Can we still belong to the left?

As part of our summer re-issues, here is another post from the HP archives – this one was the first that got linked to across the web and brought the site to wider attention.

Reading it now, the arguments seem rather worn – we have debated these issues here so many times and what seemed a very isolated viewpoint at the time certainly isn’t any more – there no longer seems anything radical about the views I express.

The position I took over three years ago is not exactly the stance I would take now – I’m not sure I would make the argument in terms of a cold war hangover, probably because today I would not be so generous regarding the record of the left during the cold war. But the point about the existence of ‘another left’ has been proven in the form of the Euston Manifesto and I still think this post remains relevant in terms of drawing a line between what I consider a progressive position on international issues and what dominates discourse in the op-ed pages of the Guardian and on the Stopper left in general.

Anyway, here it is, from Harry’s Place on February 18, 2003:

In a recent conversation with a long-standing friend who attended the February 15 demonstration in London, as an observer rather than participant, he remarked that while he was not on the right, he could no longer really consider himself as a ‘man of the left’. Some of the readers of my posts here have made it clear to me that they no longer consider me to be of the left. I disagree. I think I am of the left and I think my friend still is of the left.

So my apologies for the lack of links, the usual chatty blog format, and for the length of this post. But if the point of all this is to provide space for ideas, then just for once forgive me if those ideas are my own. Your comments are, as always, most welcome.
Reading the coverage of the February 15th demonstrations in the liberal press in Britain one is given the impression that the left has been reborn and with the end of the ‘age of apathy’ a fresh vibrant movement has emerged which can finally spring some life back into radical politics.

Enough time has been spent here dealing with the nature of that demonstration and with the arguments of the ‘anti-war’ movement. What I want to try and begin to address here at least partially, is the broader picture. Because what is absolutely clear from Feb 15 is that there is a major division among people who at one time were broadly seen to be within the same political camp – the left.

This division is not specifically about the ‘rights and wrongs’ of a possible use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is more applicable to those who were lined up on the different sides of the barricades over the Afghan issue and to some extent Kosovo.

But nor is this division merely restricted to the whole moral/political question of international interventions. What has become abundantly clear in the post-September 11 world is that there are now two lefts.

This distinction is not, as in the cold-war era, about two competing tendencies, tactics or outlooks within the left (social democracy v communism, or Trotskyism v Stalinism) but between two essentially opposed world views, based not on shared beliefs, but on opposing ones.

There is no need to speculate about the ideology of what I will call the cold-war left. Take them at their word. Throughout every argument put forward by these opponents of military action in the post-communist world has been the view that what democracies do in the world is usually malevolent and the enemies of the liberal democracies represent, if not the friends of the left, the understandable if misguided response of the oppressed victims.

This way of thinking is deeply rooted in the cold war divisions. And it is a mistake to think that only communists and western hawks were trapped within the mindset of the cold-war. The outlook of the broader non-communist left, was shaped by the view that, while the Soviet Union was certainly no model for the future, it at the very least represented a check and balance on capitalism and imperialism. According to this outlook the third-world liberation movements may have often been allied with the Soviets or the Chinese, but they represented a viable alternative to capitalism and therefore may have had a progressive character about them.

In this world view, American influence in the world was necessarily a negative. Nicaragua, Chile and Vietnam (amongst others) were examples where the left was able to comfortably view the US as an imperialist aggressor, fighting against what was perceived as progress.

Opposing the actions of the US in the cold war meant allying yourself with its opponents, or at the very least lending them your sympathy and that was really not a problem for the left, including people who would call themselves liberals rather than socialists or communists. They could see a fair case for democracy in Chile, land reform in Latin America etc and I am still not convinced there was a lot wrong with such view.

But I don’t want to go over the historic rights and wrongs of the cold-war debates at this stage. What I think is critical now is that the same outlook has been maintained for a world where the opposition to the US and liberal democracies in general, comes not from leftist or national-liberation movements but from essentially fascistic forces. This is the point where the line has been crossed, where what may have been a progressive outlook in a previous era becomes a fundamentally reactionary position. The date that line was crossed was September 11.

At its most blatant this reactionary character of the cold war left can be seen in the case of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, who are worth looking at closer because have been able to take a dominant position in the anti-war movement and their influence has spread beyond their own ranks.

The SWP subscribes to a quasi-Trotskyist ideology which during the cold-war adopted the slogan ‘Neither Washington Nor Moscow’. They were one of the few groups on the ‘hard left’ that opposed Soviet state socialism (they called it state capitalism) with as much fury as it rejected western capitalism.

During the cold war, the SWP were basically against everything. They were unable to support the ANC in South Africa because they believed the support of the USSR made Nelson Mandela a Stalinist. With the same logic they opposed the left of the Labour Party because they operated within the framework of a capitalist state. It was a plague on both your houses road to socialism.

But after the collapse of the USSR, the SWP obviously had to drop their opposition to Moscow. Now there was only Washington left to oppose along with its allies in Europe and elsewhere. So the SWP have since been guided by one single philosophy – opposition to liberal democracies. Their current liberal allies might wish to remind themselves that the SWP’s programme actually commits them to overthrow such democracies.

It is hardly surprising that such a nihilistic view should result in the SWP attempting to veto a Stop the War statement that condemned the attack on the Twin Towers. Their reasoning was “that is exactly what the imperialists want us to do”. Their ‘socialism against everything’ was actually unable to be against Bin Laden and now it is unable to be against Saddam or Hamas.

The SWP and many of their friends live in the political version of the film The Matrix – the hand of the US and Israel is everywhere. Its intentions are always malevolent and they are the brave warriors who hope to break the system down with almost anyone’s help. Whereas in the past they shunned alliances with other leftists, now they are happy to jointly organise meetings with the reactionary Muslim Association of Britian and globally simply shrug off the threat from terrorist groups who wish to bomb us back to the Middle Ages.

It is perhaps worth noting that a similar organisation to the SWP, Workers World, heads the American anti-war campaign. But even if these ugly heads of the cold-war left were to be cut off, we would still be left with a broader left that is locked into a related, if less extreme, world view.

This broader left, which includes many ‘well-meaning liberals’ as well as ‘Old Labour’ figures, shares the SWP’s view that the post cold-war era has become a battle between a single superpower and those who oppose them. For these people, at least, the opposition includes mainly ‘anti-globalisation’ forces and they are much less willing to act as apologists for Islamasists or Saddam.

Yet unlike the left in the 1930’s, they are unable to even take up the minimum principled position of even a temporary, tactical defence of liberal democracy in the face of its reactionary enemies.

The perfect illustration of how cold-war thinking has continued into the new era was the sight of Tony Benn meeting Saddam in Baghdad, affording him the cautious diplomatic respect that was given to East European communist leaders.

If we are to be generous we could describe this part of the cold-war left as muddled and confused, still unable to get to grips with the rapid changes of the past 15 years. But allied, as they are at the moment, with the harder, nihilistic left they produce a political tendency which is simply no longer viable as any sort of partner in progressive politics.

It is a left that sadly swamps the reasonable and legitimate arguments specifically against the use of military force in Iraq. I do not wish to spread the brush too widely here. There are many people who were correctly able to give their backing to action against the Taliban and Bin Laden but who have real reasons for objecting to war now. These are principled democrats and my argument here is not against them but those who have also opposed the liberation of Kosova, Bosnia and Afghanistan and even oppose internal action against terrorists. As I said the line was drawn on September 11.

These reasonable opponents of war though have had to find themselves in uncomfortable company if they have attended the recent demonstrations.

I am told that on February 15, the stewards of the march were informed to keep an eye out and try and dissuade the kind of openly anti-semitic slogans that had found their way into some of the previous anti-war and Palestine solidarity demonstrations.

Of course it is welcome that the organisers were at least this time aware of the dangers of allowing such racism to enter their movement. But some of us remember a time when the left marched against the anti-semites, not worried themselves about their presence within their own ranks.

I also recall a left that was able to distinguish between conservatives and fascists, between social democrats and outright reactionaries. The SWP-led left revels in blurring the distinctions. It enjoys demonising the elected representatives of the labour movement and treats its left critics as heretics to be cast aside and scorned.

It is no wonder that many feel, like my friend, unable to identify themselves as being ‘of the left’.

But is there a progressive alternative to this left or are we all ‘right-wing libertarians now’?

I would contend that there is a new left emerging, not out of the remnants of the ‘cold war left’ which must be left to die, but in direct opposition to it.

There are signs of a left that is able to see through the fog of the past century and reclaim the original aim of progressive politics – to build upon the hard-gained achievements of liberal democracy, to defend it fiercely when it is threatened and, what should distinguish the left from others, to expand its principles to benefit all layers of society in all corners of the world.

A left which sees globalisation not as a threat to an old world which is vanishing but as an opportunity and which fights to protect the modern world from its declared enemies.

Because if we believe in a progressive future it can only be built upon the foundations of what is best in this world and not from the ruins of its failure in the face of the enemies from the past.

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