The Slow realignment of the Left
Between the French Revolution and the later stages of the Cold War, there were many who associated under the banner of the Left. This Left represented a congeries of traditions. Those who took their cue from the France of 1792 were prepared to make their compromises with terror and violence, and embraced revolution as an idea of social detonation. Others came from what should probably have been opposed Christian sources, and upheld Christ's gospel message of equality as fiercely as some remembered his treatment of the rich and the money-changers. A part of the left overlapped with market liberalism, and after 1968, upheld the narcissism of modern identity politics, replacing class with lifestyle and 'community' identity. No one ever synthesised an 'essence of Left' however. It was easier to define the Left against the Right.
This Left is now clearly not so much dead as part of the hammer horror undead. It has kicked the bucket, passed across the river, paid the ferryman and gone to meet its ancestors. However, many people hang on to its image, and fight old fights over the badness of the criminal, Stalin, or the national socialism of Hitler. The instinct to be against things, like Catholicism or Israel, still sends a slight shiver down some faux-radical spines, and the deadly embrace of Islamic Bolshevism in its various death cult iterations is in a way a sort of homage to old cold-war behaviours.
As many with eyes to see have seen , however, there is still a great deal of sense in a politics of democratic, pragmatic and class-conscious compassion. As the world slowly runs out of oil at viable prices in sufficient quantity, the tolerance of vast private profits and waste in the provision of transport, energy, the basics of life, and food, is going to be very tested. Social ownership and cooperative enterprises are going to be necessary and are a serious part of the political future.
The axe of philistinism and modern teaching is now reinforced in its swings by the loss of teachers who remember any sort of canonical education, and their replacement by those who have no clue why they should know about it. A proper defence of what is good in the western mind through public libraries and universities is necessary. A radical rethinking of statism in education, and a recovery by the left of the idea of local education, and local provision, and financing of services may be another response.
Most of all, however, there is a need not for something new but for a new synthesis. There were, as I noted, many rooms in the Left's once great mansion. One led to Christian tradition; one touched in agrarian radicalism; one sought to embrace the idea of human freedom in pluralism. One legitimated class action as a basis for political action. We are seeing in Britain the rediscovery of that latter tradition, as small parties in old labour areas begin to win councillors and the energies which used to pour into the Labour Party move into movements to challenge the family courts or represent poorer voters in places like South Wales.
What makes it difficult for the left to realign, however, are those who claim to represent it itself. At the moment, there are two groups who tend to lend it a sour air. One is the professional liberal elite, for whom environmentalism, anti-racism, secularism, and the politics of sexual lifestyle, sprinkled with abortion and drugs, are the defining issues of their radical pretence. Some of them have morphed into liberal imperialists in recent years; some have used their 'left' identity as a final fevered clearing house before they moved to neoconservatism. It is one of the sad things about the decline of the left that that clearing house has also led to the revival of another old collective tradition that began in the French Revolution, that of Fascism.
Another group on the left, however, think of themselves as belonging to 'below', and through the grassroots embrace a politics of hatred and division in which the working class is squinted at, deified, and used as cover for assaults on reason or sense. Sometimes they pretend to the sagacity only poseurs bring off. Their natural territory is the wittering of the far left, of the socialist workers, their ideas the culled remnants of dishonesty of the Chomsky sort. You know what they think of Israel, hard work and benefit-abusing criminals before they raise the megaphone at you, and they drive me mad. More importantly, they cause ordinary working people to run to the likes of Dick Cheney and Nicholas Sarkozy, and they subsist in a dreary puritan doctrine of struggle that probably had its bureaucratic roots in Calvinism. Frankly, I wish they would go away, but politics takes all sorts.
Just imagine what could be done with a politics of limits, pragmatism, courtesy and humility. A politics which drew from all classes and conditions, and which proceeded on the basis that positivism does not provide all solutions, and that some problems must be managed not solved because they are immutable. I'd like to see a rethink of structures, parties and institutions.
Such a new politics begins with figures who are outwith the political sphere, sometimes, and in an understanding of human nature and economic growth which will be highly unpleasant for some of those on the left. As John Hemming MP seems to have grasped, peak oil is approaching and will force this anyway. Statism and the regulation of families is unworkable. Trying to force flawed human beings into policy boxes won't work. We can't expect to grow, we can't expect human improvement in all spheres, and we cannot as a society encourage people to do what they want. The state is also, probably, going to emerge from what is coming as a much denuded, shrunken body.
I want to explore all of this in this blog and others in the coming months. I'd welcome any debate, and I hope that I can point you towards others, whether libertarians, liberals, or collectivists who have the same thoughts. Any comments of your own would be welcome. The usual rules apply; don't send anonymous posts if you can help it, leave off swearing, and no personal abuse. Openness should come with both hands free of weapons, and your arms should be your arguments.
That's me off to the gym.