Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The starting point for progressive politics

‘The Left’ is a nebulous section of political humanity to which I – often unwillingly – feel I belong. It covers an extremely broad spectrum, which in Britain stretches from the current Labour government to the ‘revolutionaries’ of Marxism-Leninism, anarchism and other such tendencies. So nebulous is this ‘left’ that it is worth asking whether the concept has any real or positive meaning at all. It is not a straightforward question.

I was a Trotskyist during my teens and early twenties, but gradually came to the painful conclusion that most so-called ‘left-wing socialists’ were in fact nihilistic reactionaries of the worst kind. My mother comes from the former Yugoslavia, and when the country was torn apart by mass-murdering fascists in the early 1990s, I thought it natural that ‘socialists’ should be defending the victims of mass murder and fascism. Does this sound naive ? It should. It was made brutally clear to me by most of my then socialist heroes and comrades that the job of ‘socialists’ was not to defend ordinary people from fascism and ethnic cleansing, but to defend the fascists and ethnic cleansers from negative media coverage and ‘Western military intervention’. Never mind the fact that the Western powers had no desire militarily to intervene against the Yugoslav ethnic cleansers, and were actually aiding and abetting them. The problem, in the eyes of my then comrades, was not that fascists were slaughtering tens of thousands of people for belonging to the wrong ethnic groups, right in front of our television cameras, but that the television cameras were pointed at them in the first place. This was unwelcome because the regime responsible for these atrocities was itself avowedly ‘socialist’. Left-wing ‘socialists’ in Britain therefore widely identified, on a tribal basis, with the ‘socialist’ Yugoslav mass murderers, while resenting and hating their ‘non-socialist’ victims. How did the left come to be so morally bankrupt ?

Reduced to its element, ‘left-wing’ implies a belief, firstly, in defending the interests of the disadvantaged, oppressed and exploited; and secondly, in ‘progress’, i.e. in making the world a better place. It is with regard to the concept of ‘progress’ that the anti-capitalist left has failed.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was still possible to believe, on the basis of the available evidence, that the ‘state socialist’ regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR represented a ‘step forward’ from capitalism; the outposts of a future ‘post-capitalist’ world. It seemed to many that these regimes were the carriers of ‘progress’, while the Western capitalist states were historically bankrupt – in keeping with Karl Marx’s belief in the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of socialism. The revolutions of 1989-91 in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, however, showed the opposite to be the case: ‘state socialism’ was historically bankrupt and destined for the dustbin of history, while capitalism was stronger and more dynamic than it had ever been. Capitalism was still brutal and exploitative, but it was the force of the future, while ‘socialism’, in its statist and dictatorial East European and Soviet form, belonged to the past.

At this point, in 1991, leftists were faced with a choice between abandoning their belief in progress, or reevaluating where ‘progress’ lay and abandoning their discredited shibboleths – the ‘socialist’ dictatorships and their bankrupt socio-economic system based on the command economy and public ownership of the means of production. The largest part of the ‘radical’ left preferred to keep the shibboleths and abandon belief in progress. They clung ever more stubbornly to the last bits of floating debris from the vanished socialist Atlantis. In Europe in 1991, the most prominent of these bits of debris was the neo-Communist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Milosevic became the hero of the unreconstructed Western left, whose members vented all the hatred and rage of their dying tribe on the Croatians and Bosnians who had the impudence to want to abandon ‘socialist’ Yugoslavia and join the capitalist West.

What I found most incomprehensible about this was not even the collusion with massive atrocities and oppression – this was nothing new: leftists had after all supported Stalin and Mao. More shocking was the readiness to engage in this collusion out of solidarity with a model of socialist dictatorship that was self-evidently historically bankrupt; that so obviously belonged to the past. The leftists in question found it easier to abandon all pretence at solidarity with the victims of ethnic cleansing, than to abandon their identification with this last, crumbling remnant of East European ‘state socialism’. The Bosnians and the Croatians were sacrificed for the sake of something that was already dead and rotten.

Somehow, loyalty to the dogmas of a discredited worldview is seen as a virtue in the eyes of many ‘left-wing socialists’. The ‘abandonment of socialist principles’ is seen as the worst of all possible sins – no matter how discredited and irrelevant those principles have been shown to be: ‘No matter how corrupt the world is, we will remain pure in our belief’.

This tendency to counterpose a supposedly ‘pure’ inner belief with an ‘impure’ world stems from the moral instincts we have inherited from Christianity, and in particular Protestantism, according to which one’s virtue is measured by what one believes in, rather than what one does; by one’s loyalty to the creed. This is equivalent to the ethical system of conservative Muslims who see virtue in terms of absolute obedience to the rules of the Koran, which are set in stone for all time. This way of thinking is contrary to any belief in progress. It means one’s values are divorced from what is happening in the world. It means one is destined to rage increasingly at the ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ world, as this world leaves one behind and renders one’s values anachronistic. It means that, as what one is in favour of becomes more and more remote, one ends up defining oneself by what one is against. It means one ends up celebrating destruction, whether it is Serbian forces smashing ‘capitalist’ Croatia and burning the libraries and mosques of Bosnia, or Hezbollah shelling ‘imperialist’ Israel, or Al Qaeda destroying the twin towers or blowing up women in night clubs. One certainly would not celebrate such violence and destruction if one wanted what was best for the Serbs, or the Lebanese, or Muslims globally.

The precondition for any genuinely progressive politics has to be that it is constantly in flux, evolving as the world changes and new lessons are learned; that it never rejects the real world in the name of a utopia or of ‘pure’ principles; and that it defines itself by what it is in favour of, not what it is against. This means accepting that the capitalist system is here to stay, and that supporting those who are attempting to destroy or disrupt it may kill lots of people and cause massive suffering, but will not bring its overthrow any closer.

This raises the question of what such progressive politics would mean. Which in turn brings us back to the question at the start of this article, of whether the concept of a ‘left’ has any meaning.

It does have a meaning. There is a reactionary left that – consumed with hatred for the democratic Western order – allies with fascists, fundamentalists and terrorists. But there can also be a progressive left. Through abandonment of the destructive nihilism of ‘anti-capitalism’, ‘anti-Westernism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’, a new, progressive left-wing politics can emerge. There is a great revolution worth fighting for, one that – unlike the failed revolution of the Marxists – is rooted in the real world.


Wednesday, 7 November 2007 Posted by | The Left | Leave a comment