Problematising the Left (III): What Causes The Disconnect?

There is surely no reason to become a leftist for the money or the power. Nor is there a good reason to become a leftist in order to support the established elite. Therefore we can assume that bribery or good connections are not in themselves reasons why leftists come to support imperialism or plutocratic capitalism.

Still, they do. The previous couple of posts demonstrates this in some cases, and there are many more. The “neoconservative” movement in the United States, and the “New Labour” movement in Britain, rely heavily on former far-leftists who have shifted to reactionary positions. The reasons are obviously not simply idiosyncratic — the occasional intellectual who happens to have psychological problems, as one could argue that Arthur Koestler did. There are too many cases for that. Hence it must be some sort of problem arising out of some ideological assumptions or organisational circumstances related to the left.

It is tempting to see this as an epiphenomenon of the collapse of Communism; certainly that event did immense harm to the self-confidence of actual Marxists. (Nearly three decades later people like David Harvey are terrified of being overly prescriptive for fear of seeming Stalinist.) On the other hand, a lot of the people who are in this space, like most organised Trotskyites (and their predecessors) were always opposed to the USSR and the Communist Party (and are currently opposed to the Chinese government). So that might be a contributing factor for many, but not the sole or even the most important one.

Perhaps it is a more complex variant of such an epiphenomenon, however. The collapse of Communism meant the collapse of left-wing disciplined organisation, the collapse of confidence in the idea that socialism could be attained by the efforts of a massive phalanx of intellectuals and activists backed by the gigantic fist of the working class. Under such conditions all that was needed was unanimity around the correct line, which usually turned out to be the line provided by the Central Committee who received it from the Chairman, and which usually turned out to be the wrong line, so that the entire party and its allies marched together towards disaster. It is easy to see why this kind of political activism lost its attractiveness once it lost power — although in practice, despite their disavowals of it and their endless blather about democracy, most left-wing organisations adopt strikingly similar techniques.

But these techniques do not work without a tight-knit organisation backed by a powerful guiding ideology. Therefore left-wing organisations fragment and their members see themselves in individualist terms rather than in collectivist terms. Therefore again, such members, having adopted left-wing principles, feel no organisational or ideological allegiance. Nothing overrides their private opinions, as it does in an organised political movement; there is no sense of “Well, I don’t really like this, but I’ll do it for the good of the cause”.

In the contemporary world, this is particularly problematic because the overwhelming propaganda of the neoliberal reactionary movement is everywhere. Thus on one hand such individualistic leftists are in danger of buying into the propaganda inadvertently, and on the other hand, because they are individuals and lack collective support, they are in danger of adopting the position that since the propaganda is overwhelming and there is no visible sign of an alternative, some kind of compromise is necessary and even sensible. This compromise would probably take the form of accepting some of the policies of the neoliberals while rejecting (or pretending to reject) others. This is exactly what the social democrats did, and it proved to be suicidal; the left condemned them only, seemingly, to fall victim to the same disastrous practices.

So the left is not only organisationally dissipated, but its members are liable to become stealth supporters of the current oppressive and exploitative regime. This is not the same as the way in which non-members of left-wing organisations have always flitted in and out; people who impulsively decided to join a radical movement and then equally impulsively decided to leave were leftists before they joined and remained leftists afterward. What seems to be happening now, however, is that many leftists are finding ways to cease to be leftists after they have become dedicated leftists, and therefore use their existing leftist techniques to pursue their no-longer-leftist policies, while continuing to pretend to be leftists! What we have, therefore, is a flood of Koestlers rather than Burnhams; a flood of people who insist that their socialist god has not failed, but who, when you look inside their temple, turn out to be worshipping the golden calf with a cartoon of Marx sellotaped onto its face.

Since these people don’t know that they are frauds, because they are fooling themselves, they are convincingly self-righteous, and many who see through them are repelled from the whole left, deeming this a typical characteristic — which all too often it is.

Another problem which may help account for the curious disconnect of the left from sane or healthy political standpoints is its state of being frozen in time. There is a sense in which the left’s lack of faddishness is healthy. Admittedly, the left does have its own intellectual fashions, certain ideas or patterns of ideas which are (or were, back when the left was more coherent) in vogue from time to time. However, for much of the history of the left there was a strong sense of not being fooled by the accident of contemporary circumstances. Believing that they were in touch with a historical movement which might take centuries to work out but which would almost certainly end up in their favour — a coherent popular exponent of this was Jack London in The Iron Heel — they did not allow themselves to be distracted by momentary issues whether these were for or against them. (Of course, this was taken to mad extremes by the Stalinists, who didn’t allow trifling problems like the suppression of the German Communist Party to distract them into focussing much serious attention on the Nazis until it was much too late.)

But today the left takes this to even more of an extreme. Louis Proyect, for instance, refers to those who choose to support the Eastern Ukrainian resistance (or at least condemn the imperialist project which installed the junta in power in Kiyiv) as “campists”. Does this mean that he is accusing them of being ostentatiously homosexual? No, he is accusing them of dividing the world into a socialist camp and a capitalist camp, unlike sensible Trotskyites like himself who recognise that the two sides are both capitalist and therefore should both be rejected. In other words he is living in the 1960s, or at least wishes that he were and wants his readers to believe the same. A large part of the left, at least the renegade, pro-NATO left, has adopted comparable tactics — where appropriate, adopting Cold War attitudes towards Russia or China, or transposing these onto the Islamic world (while, usually, finding themselves able to support those “Islamofascists” who happen to be receiving military assistance from NATO and its Wahhabi friends in the Gulf).

But the world is not exactly the same as it was in the 1960s. The left is in an infinitely weaker position across much of the world than it enjoyed in those days. The most important problems confronted by the world are even worse than they were in those days — and meanwhile most of the problems which existed in the 1960s have not gone away. It’s just that the left no longer possesses the power to address them, which makes it tempting to assume that they cannot be addressed except by more powerful forces — which usually means forces which are actually opposed to the left, like “civil society organisations” and plutocratic entities and so on, but which are often perfectly willing to adopt leftist guises and even permit leftists to act as their frontpeople. There, again, the left is fooling only itself — especially since the left’s ideological structures are increasingly unknown to the broader public which is not exposed to them because the left lacks the means to promote its ideas.

Can all this, then, be solved? Can the left avoid this process by which so much of its leadership, and sometimes even its organisations, turn into the opposite of what they set out to be, while loudly declaring the success and integrity of their positions?

One hopeful point is that this doesn’t really seem to happen so much in situations outside the ambit of the Western left. The Maoists in India and its environs, or even the more left-wing of the Bolivarians in Latin America, do not seem so liable to fall into this trap — perhaps because, however improbable their causes, they nevertheless have something which needs to be accomplished and which they know cannot be accomplished by reciting the phrases of their enemies while implausibly mumbling about one’s commitment to Marxism in stale jargonistic phrases. Nor are they, by and large, plagued by a lack of organisation, or even of desire for organisation. They know that there is real danger out there with which they must deal, even if their response to this danger is often irrational. Even our own Economic Freedom Fighters, however doctrinally insipid or intellectually shallow they may appear, know that things are tough and getting tougher and that someone has to fight their corner if they are to survive, and that if they don’t, nobody else will, and that their enemies are not going to magically transform into their friends through compromise or adopting their phraseology.

However, the Third World is not the solution. Ultimately, the leftists of the developed world are needed to bring about revolutionary change and stop the developed world from attacking the rest of us. Somehow, then, the wealthy leftists of the world need to be persuaded to shed their insufferable smugness and their treacherous weakness and become real leftists again, or else we are all still in big trouble; victory in Vietnam did not matter when the Western far right was able to transfer its aggression to other things, and today Vietnam is more neoliberal than not. It’s hard to see how this can be done, but perhaps South Africa and Latin America are the places to learn how to do it.

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