The fact that we are in a terrible situation at the start of the twenty-first century, so that continuing present policies will probably lead to worldwide catastrophe, is not particularly controversial. The people who deny it tend to be people who are in denial about almost everything bad that the power elite have done in the last fifty or a hundred years. This is because the terrible situation has materialised through the agency of this power elite, who were and are short-sightedly greedy for wealth and political power. It was easy to see that putting power and wealth in their hands would be disastrous, and forty years ago the contours of the disaster were already becoming clear.
Therefore, while the actions of the right-wing oligarchy have brought about the present crisis, this would probably not have happened had this oligarchy not gained power; the reason why they gained power was that the left handed it over to them, or rather dropped power and left it lying knowing that the right would pick it up; as a result, one may say that the left is ultimately responsible. If we look over the past fifty years, there are several historical episodes or periods when this process of the left’s surrender to the right displayed itself.
Perhaps, though, it is worth remembering the situation in 1960. The ideas of the left were dominant everywhere and were being revitalised by a new generation of intellectuals. That is, everybody except a few maverick reactionaries agreed that the business of government was to plan the economy. Most agreed that redistributing wealth was good for economic growth and social health. Most believed that human freedom was a noble and desirable goal, and that where possible and convenient, such freedoms ought to be expanded; colonialism was coming to an end, feminism was on the rise again, and homosexual liberation was lurking just below the surface. The actual practice of society was more conservative than its ideals, and many of these were not to be realised for twenty years or more, if at all, but the Creator would say that human liberation, as conceived in the eighteenth century, was more firmly on the agenda in 1960 than ever before, despite the efforts of the right-wing oligarchy to pursue a different agenda.
An important factor which reversed this was the fall of Nikita Krushchev in 1964. This might seem a strange place to start, since even in 1964 the USSR was an unpleasantly repressive place. Nevertheless, in the past decade Krushchev had liberated the country to an unimaginable extent by taking the ideals of Leninism seriously and by abandoning the dishonest paranoid excuse-mongering of Stalinism. He had taken on the right-wing elite head-on, striving to prove that the USSR did not need a gigantic military, but rather needed socio-economic development. He fostered light industry rather than the heavy industry which absorbed so much capital to so much ecological disaster but which created oligarchical factory managers. He permitted more freedom of speech and cultural activity than had existed since the mid-1920s in the USSR, further weakening the position of the secret police whom he had already helped to dethrone by murdering Beria and downgrading the MGB from a Ministry to a mere Committee (the KGB).
Eventually he made so many enemies that the right-wing elite were able to mobilise them to overthrow him, and with him fell the last hope for a degree of Leninist idealism in broad Soviet policy. From the mid-1960s and the rise of Brezhnev and Kosygin to undeserved eminence, the USSR headed downhill swiftly and ceased to provide any kind of alternative challenge to Western corporatism.
Well, maybe that was inevitable, since the USSR was nobody’s Utopia. On the other side of the Berlin Wall, over the next five years, another factor emerged. This was the self-destruction of the promise of the New Left, which was nothing if it was not Utopian.
The New Left arose in the 1950s, in the aftermath of the devastating blow levelled at Western Communist parties by Krushchev’s de-Stalinisation policy — specifically, his admission that Stalin had been a demented mass murderer. Despite the fact that everybody in the world knew this already, this acknowledgement of the truth was considered by some an heroic act (it was fairly heroic to do it at a CPSU Party Congress — it was remarkable that Krushchev himself survived, let alone his career). It was considered by others, particularly Western Stalinists, a tragic blunder for which Krushchev was never forgiven, which is why the Western Stalinists welcomed Krushchev’s fall.
But this freed up space for serious Marxists to return to the origins of Marxism and think about how socialism could build a better world, instead of propping up the Russian oligarchy. Meanwhile, fostered by Krushchev’s policies, a whole new wave of Marxist-oriented states started to appear in the aftermath of decolonisation. Most of these states were really about as Marxist as General Motors, but they had red stars on their coats of arms, their soldiers drove T-54s and carried AK-47s, and their Cabinets toasted the collapse of capitalism (though in Krug rather than Georgian sweet champagne). It seemed that the Left was the wave of the future, and the middle-class youth everywhere began building a better society in communal houses conveniently close to their university campuses, socialistically sharing joints and nationalising their girlfriends.
Actually, virtually all of this was either complete bullshit or self-delusion, driven by the demented and corrupt behaviour of the elite which seemed to legitimate and facilitate any absurd response. It led to a wave of leftist play-acting, in which some of the actors (like Abbie Hoffmann and Danny Cohn-Bendit) had no idea what they were doing, while others (like Noam Chomsky) vainly hoped that perhaps these people who seemed not to know what they were doing, really did know something. As a result, everybody marched in unison until the guns started to go off, whereupon most of the people who had organised the revolution fled in all directions. It didn’t help that this disarray was eagerly seized upon by the Old Stalinist Left, who refused to support any of the new initiatives but, as in Paris in May 1968, was eager to pick up the pieces (though they didn’t know what to do with them).
’68 refuted Marx’s little squib about “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. The collapse of the New Left was a tragicomedy. However, those who had kept their ideals after the fall sat down in the ruins of their organisations, looked about them, and developed a Theory. This Theory was that the inevitable crisis of capitalism was at hand, despite all evidence, but what they had done was to fail to develop a Great Armed Struggle. Therefore they would remedy this deficiency by starting the First Phase of Guerrilla Action, armed propaganda. Therefore, all these potentially productive political subversive writers and leaders went off and started making small bombs or establishing small terrorist cells for the Weather Underground, Angry Brigade, Red Army Faction and Japanese Red Army. Within a few years these people had either been killed, jailed, blown themselves up or driven into perpetual hiding, their efforts utter futility, discredited beyond repair. There’s a sympathetic (to the point of idiocy) portrayal of this in Marge Piercy’s Vida, and a somewhat more realistic portrayal in Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions.
The fact is that the New Left was the best chance the Left has had this century to undermine and challenge the power of the Western elite, and they blew it, and they were not going to be given another chance.
This was made painfully clear in the next decade when the world’s social democrats betrayed their principles for good and all. Social democracy faced a real crisis in the 1970s when conservatism plunged the world into a depression after thirty years of almost continuous growth. It was a crisis which they were fully equipped to meet; for all that time the social democrats had been planning on the basis of what they had learned in the 1930s and 1940s. However, for all that time the social democrats had been failing to build any kind of solid political base. Instead, for a lot of that time social democracy had been propped up by right-wing parties who simply believed that while they had to vilify the left’s ideas to secure support, the left’s ideas were the way to stabilise society. Once the right wing was taken over by people who didn’t want stable societies — who believed that instability was desirable because it legitimised repression and ensured control, a right-wing variant of the “foco” guerrilla principle of forcing the state to expose its repressive character — the social democrats were thrown back on their own devices. They had none. One after the other, social democratic parties went over like a row of dominoes, never to return except in name. This was yet another catastrophic failure, perhaps the last time that the left had a chance to introduce sanity into a Western global hegemony which was growing increasingly demented.
This led to the 1980s, about which nothing good may be said by anyone outside South Africa. (For South Africa the 1980s were the 1960s, a time of ferment and hope, of creativity and resistance, except that unlike the 1960s they ended with a partial victory which took a decade and a half to piss away completely.) However, the 1980s ended with a much greater awareness of how stuffed up the world was becoming. Global warming might be on the back-burner, but everybody knew about the hole in the ozone layer and everybody had seen what had happened at Chernobyl. Meanwhile, the stock market had crashed in 1987, American policies in Central America had generated a bloodbath, Palestine was boiling, Southern Africa approaching holocaust — it was time for decisive action on all fronts. Just at the right moment, then, the USSR announced that it would no longer compete with the United States anywhere in the world, and abandoned its Eastern European puppets to their fate (itself going down in metaphorical flames two years later).
This was an opportunity not to be missed by the United States Government. It was, so to speak, present at the creation of a new world. Furthermore, instead of the senile chauvinist Reagan, the man in charge was the pragmatic aristocrat George Bush. With American power, unprecedented prestige, money and knowledge, all would be possible. The crisis would be resolved.
Well, of course none of that happened. All that Bush could manage was to seize the opportunity to grab some more Middle Eastern oil, and he didn’t even do that very well. Instead of saving Eastern Europe, all that was managed was to plunge the continent into poverty while stoking up war in the Balkans. In Palestine, perpetual war was guaranteed by puppetising the PLO. Nothing essential changed anywhere, and what little changed, changed for the worse.
Yet again disproving Marx’s little dictum, Bush’s son provided a horrible midget repetition of his father’s failure to accomplish anything in the mini-opportunity of 9/11. What little we know about American politics suggests that 9/11 was identified, indeed, as a major opportunity in a time of crisis, with democracy across the world crumbling and a wave of protest against this developing, with global warming now recognised as a major threat to human survival, and with the US economy in perpetual crisis. Unlike Bush I, Bush II had advisors who knew what to do — instinctively they seized the opportunity to make everything worse, destroying what remained of Western democracy, plunging deeper into military quagmires across the world with bullying rhetoric which their military power could not match, and further weakening the West’s economic prowess.
Nothing more can be expected from such people. But where do we go now for our salvation?