Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

A revolution worth fighting for

Is there any point in speaking today about ‘the left’ ? This question formed the main bone of contention, in a discussion that took place last year between, on the one hand, Norman Geras and Nick Cohen, two left-wing friends whom I consider politically kindred spirits, and on the other, the editors of, the American hard-line conservative magazine. Frontpagemag’s David Horowitz posed the following dilemma, which I summarise here in my own words: if one views ‘the left’ as a radical body of opinion that encompasses totalitarians such as Stalinists and apologists for Islamism, then is it not surely an entirely negative phenomenon ? But on the other hand, if one sees the positive section of the left as represented by Blairism and other essentially centrist tendencies, then is one not identifying with the section of the left that is actually least left-wing ? Is what is bad about the left precisely its left-wing part ? Can one throw out the totalitarian, anti-democratic bathwater while keeping the progressive baby ? Horowitz’s answer may be guessed.

It is a good question. But I think Horowitz got it wrong.

It is entirely true, that totalitarian socialism as represented by Stalinists, Maoists and most Marxist-Leninists represents an incomparably greater evil than just about anything the world of conservatism has ever produced. Whatever one may think of Margaret Thatcher, the worst she has ever been accused of is sinking the Belgrano, crushing the miners’ strike and creating mass unemployment. By any sane standard, this simply cannot be compared with the crimes of Marxism-Leninism: the crushing of Kronstadt; the murder of tens of millions of people in artificial famines; genocide; mass terror; the abolition of all vestiges of democracy; the Nazi-Soviet pact; the Great Leap Forward; etc. Thatcherism simply has a better record than Marxism-Leninism in treating the working class.

To put the contrast still more strongly: in the civil war in the former Russian Empire that began in 1917, the Reds were victorious in Russia and the Whites were victorious in Finland. The Finnish Whites under the aristocratic Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim crushed the Reds and the revolutionary workers, thanks to which the Finnish working class today is among the most prosperous in the world. In Russia, however, the Bolshevik party of the proletariat triumphed, as a result of which the old Russian proletariat was wiped out and subsequent generations subjected to all the horrors of Stalinism, while today the living standard of Russia’s working class lags far behind that of Finland’s.

So it is simply ludicrous to maintain the fiction that, automatically, ‘left-wing = good’. Nor will it do to counter by pointing to all the crimes in which conservative British and American statesmen have been complicit (e.g. slavery, the genocide of the native Americans, the crimes of colonialism, free-market-induced mass-famine in Ireland and India, the fire-bombing and ethnic cleansing of German civilians during and after World War II, etc.). Exposing the right does not vindicate the left. The crimes of the left and of the right are anyway inexorably intertwined: Churchill and Roosevelt allied with Stalin; the US armed and financed Soviet imperialism during World War II. Communism triumphed in Yugoslavia with the direct and massive military assistance of Britain and the US; Tito set up his HQ in 1944 on an island under British military protection. Lenin’s Russia was a satellite of Wilhelmine Germany; Nixon and Kissinger befriended Mao; Reagan and Thatcher supported Pol Pot; John Major’s Tories colluded with Milosevic. And Fascism and Nazism arose from syntheses of left-wing and right-wing political ideas.


To cut a long story short: the crimes of the right are matched by those of the left, and often the left and the right killed together. Whether one defines oneself as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ – or as ‘centrist’ – one cannot avoid identifying with a tradition that has innumerable crimes to its name. So why choose the left ?

As a renegade Trotskyist who has spent ten years moving closer to the political centre-ground, I shall readily admit that, so far as policies are concerned, I feel much closer to Blair, and even to David Cameron’s Conservatives, than I do to ‘radical’ leftists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore or George Galloway. I vote Labour, but I would vote Tory if it were the only way to keep out Respect. Yet where I feel an affinity with left-wing radicalism, and a lack of affinity with the politics of the mainstream left represented by Labour or the European Social Democrats, is in the fundamental interest the former puts on ideals, issues and causes, in contrast to the necessary but ‘humdrum’ business of building a parliamentary party and winning elections, with all the compromising of principles and de-emphasising of ideas that this involves. It is not that I do not respect and appreciate the work of the mainstream parliamentary left; it is simply a different world from my own. 

This, then, is the resolution to Horowitz’s riddle: the progressive left is left-wing, because while it rejects all the horrors of totalitarianism and extremism, and is politically much closer to the mainstream, parliamentary left, it retains an emphasis on ideas and activism. Its starting point is its desire to make the world a better place and to fight for the liberation of the oppressed, the exploited and the marginalised. In this respect, it agrees in principle with its enemies from the ranks of the anti-capitalist, anti-Western left. Where it disagrees with these enemies – absolutely, uncompromisingly – is in its vision of what this liberation would look like, and in its strategy of how to bring this about.

Even twenty years ago, it may have seemed that the progressive, democratic leftists were the ‘moderates’ while the ‘anti-imperialist’ radicals were the ‘revolutionaries’. But today, it should be clear as daylight that this is not the case.

Here in the liberal capitalist West, we have achieved the best the world has to offer. We have parliamentary democracy, free speech, the rule of law, the welfare state, free trade unions, universal education, emancipated women, female prime ministers, gay civil unions, laws against racial discrimination, diversity, tolerance, personal freedom, recycling, laws against animal cruelty… Of course, the precise combination varies from country to country, and there is everywhere plenty of room for improvement – Britain needs better child-care provision for single mothers, for example. But improvement would simply make a good system better by degrees. It is true that the US, with its absence of free healthcare, powerful anti-abortion lobby, terrifyingly hard-line conservative right, prohibitively expensive higher education and other defects presents a less rosy picture. But what the US needs is to catch up with Western Europe, not some sort of socialist revolution. And we need to defend our system from religious fundamentalism, not attack it with a left-wing fundamentalism of our own.

The real struggle for progressive change is taking place around the world, in countries whose populations do not enjoy all the rights and privileges that we do here in the West. There is the struggle to end the genocide in Sudan; the struggle for democracy in Burma, Zimbabwe and Belarus; the struggle for the emancipation of women and homosexuals across Africa and the Middle East; the struggle to save Iraq and Afghanistan from the Islamists; the struggle for the national liberation of Kosovo and Chechnya. And on all these issues, it is the ‘moderate’, democratic left that is on the side of progress, while the ‘radical’, anti-Western left is on the side of reaction. You cannot oppose the genocide in Sudan, or the Islamists in Iraq, if you oppose ‘Western intervention’; you cannot support women’s rights in the Middle East if you ally with Muslim fundamentalists on an ‘anti-imperialist’ basis; you cannot support democracy in Belarus if you celebrate President Lukashenka’s resistance to the West.

We are for the revolution; they are for the counter-revolution. And it is our task to influence public opinion, to lobby our politicians and to pressurise our presidents and prime ministers to support progressive change worldwide. There is a global liberal-democratic revolution worth fighting for. We in the West, with our existing system, are much closer to any conceivable socialist utopia, than the genitally mutilated women of Somalia or the Saudi homosexuals living in terror are to our degree of liberation. More important than giving ourselves more than we have, is helping these people to try to get to where we are.

Friday, 9 November 2007 - Posted by | The Left

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