Is It Still Possible to Be a Leftie? (Part Three)

Why we need a left In my first two posts of this series, I tried to defend opponents of violent jihadism and supporters of the Iraq war from the charge that they had abandoned the values of the left and … Read More

By / December 2, 2007

Why we need a left

In my first two posts of this series, I tried to defend opponents of violent jihadism and supporters of the Iraq war from the charge that they had abandoned the values of the left and indeed attempted to make a case that tackling Islamofascism and tyranny are on the contrary, authentic leftist positions to take.


I promised that my next post would look at the broader issue of why a left is still necessary. Clearly this is a topic more suited for a lengthy polemical book than a blog post (Yes, I am open to offers….) so what follows is a brief and simplified attempt to make the case that in the modern world, the values of the left remain absolutely essential if the combination of chaos and dynamism that prevails is to meet with a progressive response.


The first thing that has to be said in any attempt to state the case for the left in 2007 is – forget the far left. Leninism is dead, Trotskyism is dead, Stalinism is dead, Maoism is dead, the concept of ‘socialist revolution’ is dead and the idea of a planned socialist economy is dead. And to that one should add a long overdue – thankfully.

Millions of people were murdered, perished or were incarcerated as a result of ‘socialist experiments’ in the last century. Millions more had their lives and their family’s lives wrecked by communist dictatorships and in countries now described as ‘formerly communist states’ the impact of over four decades of totalitarianism are still felt.


That tiny minority of oddballs who continue to believe in the ‘dictatorship of the proleteriat’ and other euphemisms for state terror should be as unacceptable to democrats as far right-wing opponents of liberal democracy – what is amazing is that they are still regarded as acceptable leaders for ‘peace movements’ and labour movement organisations.


But, of course, while Marxist inspired revolutionary socialism was a horrendous catastrophe, social democracy (or democratic socialism if you prefer) came out of the last century with a pretty good balance sheet. Western European welfare states were inspired by and largely created by the social-democratic parties of the labour movement. The health care systems, the universal education systems, the progressive housing solutions, the victories in terms of wages and work conditions for millions of European workers are a credit to the social democratic project. It was never plain-sailing of course and there were times when the tide turned against social democracy (the era of Kohl-Reagan-Thatcher) and there were times when one wondered if anything would remain of the core aims of social-democracy (the era of the third-way).

But on the whole, social-democrats can be justly proud of the achievements of their parties in the past century. In countries where social democracy took root, real acute poverty is a thing of the past even though great inequalities of wealth remain. Likewise the values of social liberalism also can look back on great progress – great steps forward have been made in gender equality, gay rights, racial equality and religious freedom.

Together social-democracy and social-liberalism have improved the lot of millions of people and won real and lasting victories – if one steps away from the disasters of revolutionary socialism, reject it utterly, then the left has actually enjoyed enormous success – successes which of course need to be defended, expanded and improved upon. But while social democracy in Europe has been able to make headway in the main goal of taking the benefits of a capitalist economy and using the state to more broadly distribute the resources available and has, through regulation and intervention, been able to force capitalists to pay better wages and offer better working conditions, on a global scale poverty remains at an intolerable level with millions living in starvation conditions.

And while liberal democracy reigns across the continent of Europe – no longer restricted only to the western half – large parts of the world remain in the grip of tyrannies or face threats from violent totalitarian movements. It is no coincidence that many of those parts of the world where poverty remains acute are also countries where democracy has yet to be able to take root. And there, surely, lays the answer to what the purpose of a modern left should surely be – defending and expanding on the gains of the victories of social democracy in the west, tackling the scar of global poverty and pushing for the expansion of democracy internationally. In an era of rapid globalisation, the moment seems perfect for the western left to make a real effort to globalise its values.

Yet at the same time, when one reads the debates over the past decade, a lack of confidence in the core values of both liberalism and social democracy emerges which hinders the ability of the democratic left to take on the tasks facing it. Cynicism about the value of democracy as opposed to an enthusiasm to spread it globally and cultural relativism rather than international solidarity risk making the left into a club of parochial critics. An unwillingness to tackle economic questions and a Luddite anti-globalisation stance rather than a concerted effort to create a social-democratic world, leave the left looking like a snooty western elite who wash their hands with some charity rather than address the need to shift globalisation in a progressive direction aimed at eliminating poverty.


The democratic left has much to be proud of (including its opposition to the anti-democratic left) but it must leave behind the cynicism and nihilism that has infected it in the past decade or so and confidently take on a new role as champions of a progressive globalisation and the internationalisation of democracy. In my final part of this series I will sketch out some rough ideas for how that might start to take shape.

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