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The Problem with the Left (1/2)

regressive birthIn the UK the Labour party is currently a shambles. In the US the democrats managed to loose an election to a reality-show host. Clearly there are some serious issues with left wing politics in general. In this article I try to explain what the problem is and how it arose.

Before I go on I will define what I mean here by 'left wing'. In broad terms there are two viewpoints regarding society and politics. One view is that we should strive to arrange society according to a historical blueprint or a past ideal. The other view is that society is better than it has ever been but needs to progress further by looking to the future, not the past.  We can call the first conservatism and the second progressivism.



Conservatives will typically look to a constitution, historical past or religious scripture for their blueprint of an ideal society. They will tend to resist changes which they believe take society away from the values contained in that blueprint - hence the term conservative.

Progressives believe this is fundamentally mistaken. They do not look to the past for their ideas of how society should be. They believe that society must change by examining how it lives up to the abstract ideals developed during the enlightenment - reason, autonomy, equality etc - and changing it to bring it closer to these ideals.

enlightenment ideals

Within the broad progressive banner there are two important divisions - radicals and liberals.  

Radicals belong to the tradition established by Rousseau, who asserted that humans are, if left to themselves, naturally moral and good. The wrongs and evils we observe in society are a result of inherently good humans being corrupted by structural inequities and oppressions within existing societies. They believe that the best way to a fairer society is to completely discard current society, with all its inherent injustice and systems of oppression, and allow a fairer society to come about in accordance with the fundamentally 'good' nature of humans.  A simplistic but useful way to summarise this would be that radicals are revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the system.

Liberals, in contrast, believe that humans are fundamentally 'flawed'. They understand that our evolution means that our nature contains tendencies and traits from the distant past which are in tension, or even in contradiction to the requirements of a just and fair society. They do not believe in a utopian ideal, as the radicals do. Instead they seek to change society incrementally. They believe that we should constantly critique society, measuring it against the enlightenment ideals, and change those parts which do not meet those ideals.  In this manner society will progressively become fairer and more just and equitable over time. Again we can summarise this as liberals believe in evolution rather than revolution.

For most of the 20th century the radical left signed-up to classical Marxism. Marx set out in detail how he thought societies evolve.  His basic theory was that capitalism was a natural evolutionary phase of societies as they developed beyond simple feudalism.  A small group of people would gain control of the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and the rest of the population (the proletariat) would be forced to work for the enrichment of the bourgeoisie as wage slaves.  This, Marx predicted, would increase the wealth of the bourgeoisie whilst the proletariat would remain poor and oppressed. Eventually the inequality would become unsustainable and a revolt would be triggered in which the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a new utopian, or communist, state.


In the first part of the 20th century all seemed well for Marxists. Russia had undergone the predicted revolution and it seemed only a matter of time before the same happened in the other European states.  The great depression in the US, at the start of the 1930s, was widely believed to be the beginning of the end for capitalism.   In reality the right-wing collectivists (the Nazi party in Germany, and the fascists in Italy) proved better at exploiting the social pressure generated than the left-wing collectivists (Marxists/socialists).  As the world drifted into war the Marxists were still confident that extreme right Nazi/Fascists would fight with the liberals, weakening both to the point where the radicals would be able to assume control.  This proved mistaken.  The right were indeed smashed, but the liberal West capitalist states were psychologically boosted by their victory and, despite the huge economic costs of the war, the capitalist states flourished in the post war period.  As the century progressed it became clear that capitalist market economies enriched not only the bourgeoisie but everyone within the society.

As the 20th century entered the last quarter, it had become apparent to most people that classical Marxism had utterly failed. Marx had seriously underestimated the sheer power of markets generally,  and had also failed to predict the emergence of a new group within society - the middle-class.   Worse, those societies which HAD undergone a Marxist-style revolution, or had come under the control of Marxist states, were financial basket-cases compared to those which had retained a large element of capitalism.

communist states
Even so, many Marxists argued that although communist states might well be economically less efficient than capitalist states, the much more important issues of morality and social justice still made communism the better system and the one to which we should aspire.  Socialists believed themselves driven by altruism and selflessness, in comparison with the greedy and selfish capitalists. Socialism, therefore, they believed, MUST lead to a morally superior society.  This would, they maintained, become evident in the way that citizens were treated and progressed within the new communist states, compared to citizens of the decadent and morally inferior liberal capitalist states.  In 1956 this belief came crashing down about their ears.  In February of that year the Soviet leader - Nikita Khrushchev - made a sensational revelation of the crimes of the Stalinist era. Up until then it had been maintained that rumours of Stalin's atrocities were merely capitalist propaganda. It was now admitted that, in the name of the future of socialism, Stalin had had millions of his own citizens tortured, subjected to inhuman deprivations, executed, or sent to die in Siberian labour camps. The flagship socialist nation was guilty of horrors on an unimaginable scale.

commuist carnage
Great schisms now appeared in the radical left. Some maintained that Khrushchev  was a traitor to socialism and that Stalin was an aberration that could not be blamed on socialism generally. As more information came out, however, culminating with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, this position became untenable in the eyes of most. A rapidly shrinking group of radicals shifted their allegiance from the USSR to Maoist China. This proved disastrous, however, since within a year or two the atrocities committed in China under Mao became public - including 30 million deaths between 1959 and 1961. The remaining faithful shifted their devotions to Cuba as the next great hope, and then to Vietnam, then to Cambodia, then to Albania for a while in the late 1970s, and then to Nicaragua in the 1980s. In each case socialism was eventually seen to have been disastrous, not only economically, but in terms of morality and social justice.

This is the state that the radical left was in during the last quarter of the 20th century. Many radicals had abandoned their revolutionary goals and become more mainstream liberals. A significant group, however, were so heavily invested in their revolutionary opposition to capitalism that they began to reshape the radical left.  Over the next two decades the 'New Left' discarded Marxist theory and adopted post-modern and post-structuralist theory - particularly that coming from a small group of French ex-Marxist/ex-Maoist academics headed by Michel Foucault,  Jean- François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty.  There is not space here to detail the process, but anyone wishing the details of how the radical Marxist left changed from the 1960s to the present should read the excellent Explaining Postmodernism by Steve Hicks which details the changes in the radical left during this period.

This new post-modernist theory, adopted by the radical left, can be classed as 'non rational' in that it rejects the whole notion of objective truth (or at least denies that it is available to humans).  In this new theory, emotion and feelings are more significant than evidence and reason which are merely abstractions of sensory perceptions which, themselves, are abstractions from reality.    All social interaction is defined in terms of power, and individuals within society are defined by how oppressed they are, as a result of membership of various minority groups.  The universal oppressor, replacing the Marxist bourgeoisie,  is patriarchy - a rather nebulous concept which we understand to mean a system of oppression, designed and operated to maintain white male dominance in society by oppressing all other groups within the society - particularly women.

Into this toxic world-view, is thrown an idea which originated with black women during the US civil rights struggle - that of intersectionality. This notion basically holds that oppression occurs because of membership of a variety of oppressed groups, so black women were oppressed differently to black men, because they belong to two oppressed groups - women AND blacks.   Only people in a particular oppressed group are really qualified to speak about that form of oppression, and everyone else should defer to their 'lived experience'.  

A new matrix of oppression was constructed to replace the old notion of a proletariat. This new system split people according to membership of certain minority groups deemed to be oppressed.  The corollary of this is that white males are the oppressors and therefore their views about oppression within society are not important.

matrix of oppression
Identity politics had originally been conceived by the liberal left as a way to deal with the structural and attitudinal discrimination they observed in post-war western society. Groups such as women, homosexuals and blacks were clearly NOT being treated equally, as demanded by the enlightenment ideals. Identity politics was basically a way to draw attention to this and allow members of those groups to voice their grievances.  The goal was to change societal structures and general attitudes to make discrimination both illegal and socially unacceptable, and produce a society where access to resources and services was equal - ie equality of opportunity.

equal opportunity
Towards the end of the 20th century most on the liberal-left side (including me) believed that this had largely been accomplished. Attention then switched to other inequalities - such as the health and life-expectancy inequalities related to income.  This left the way clear for the new radical left to impose their own version of identity politics, as described above.

Since the radicals believe in an essentially moral and good human nature, they believe that any equalities of OUTCOME in society must result from inequalities of opportunity.  Unlike liberals, they do not accept the basic fact that humans are widely spread in terms of ability and potential. Liberals understand that even where opportunity is equal across a society, we would still expect to see differences of outcome.  This may be down to individual choices, or biological differences between groups, or a mix of the two.  

The new radicals, in contrast,  deny that biology has any significant role in producing different outcomes - some go so far as to deny that sex differences between males and females are biological, describing them as largely socially constructed.  This fundamentally erroneous view means that the new radicals will ALWAYS claim that oppression exists because they will always be able to point to some unequal OUTCOMES within society.

Because the new radicals define individuals according to membership of various (rather arbitrarily chosen) minority groups, they have essentially reversed the progress made by the liberal left in making such differences largely irrelevant.  This is the main reason that many liberals believe that it is now inaccurate to describe the new radical left as progressive. They are more accurately described as the REGRESSIVE LEFT since they are actively reversing changes brought about by liberals in post-war western society.
UK Universities - What you should know
The Problem with the Left (2.2)

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