What is the point of the Left? A dispassionate assessment of its virtues and vices


After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s there was a brief window in which it was predicted that the forces of democracy and the free market had triumphed and leftist and socialist parties would thereafter only wither away. The view from the present is of a very different political landscape, with a resurgence of interest in leftist politics, socialist parties coming to power in Europe and South America, and even a candidate of the left (by American standards) a strong contender in the Democratic primaries. Yet the aetiology of the left seems to be well understood and to flow along only three routes: ideological purity and marginalisation; ‘selling out’ to conservative forces; or – worst case scenario – taking power and creating a totalitarian failed state. This raises the question, most interestingly from an evolutionary perspective, of what the left is for. This is not a rhetorical question, for something so persistent in modernity cannot simply be dismissed.

The socialist parties across Europe are generally conflicted internally between the first two routes. In the UK the political left seems to be in disarray, with the Labour party seemingly in a death struggle between the moderate left and the hard left, with the majority of its MPs out of step with their leader. President Hollande of France came to power on a platform of radical socialist policies, which have been abandoned in the interests of financial realism. Syriza in Greece swept into power with a popular anti-austerity message, only to cave in to the EU’s conditions for a financial rescue package, which has naturally caused a backlash against the government. Only Tony Blair seemed to manage for a few years the intricate balancing trick of allying socialist ideals with financial acumen; however, he managed both to betray the left over Iraq and empty the coffers of government. Even the Scandinavian social democratic model, widely admired but rarely achieved outside the particular cultural and demographic conditions to be found there, has withered in the new economic reality.

China is the case par excellence of a revolutionary party that abandoned socialism for market economics, and accepted some measure of social liberalism, although has shown no sign until now of allowing political freedom. Cuba, though more tentatively, appears to be treading the same path. Interestingly, these countries do not generally seem to have attracted the opprobrium of the left for having abandoned the path of pure socialism. Perhaps having been the emblems of radical chic and poverty tourism for so long before their transition, they had become unspoken embarrassments to the ideologically pure. It raises the question though of whether a country like China even belongs to the ‘left’ anymore, despite being run by a communist party. Russia is also an interesting case study. The communist utopia of radical intellectual leftists throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, only some of whom were deflected from their idolatry when the reality of Stalin’s purges became evident, it sank slowly into being a corrupt, inegalitarian, illiberal, though basically functioning state kept afloat by territorial expansion and proxy wars, until Afghanistan. Then after a few brief years of social, economic and political liberalisation it resumed its centuries-old characteristic of being under authoritarian rule. Given the resurgence of nostalgia there for the Soviet era, it is interesting to speculate at which point it ceased to be the darling of the left and instead began to be be name-checked by the far right.

Meanwhile, socialism continues to exert its hypnotic fascination upon a good part of the globe, with the fatal attraction to its ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, segueing unerringly into economic dysfunction, subversion of democratic checks and balances and resistance to reform when in power, compounded by the intellectual impermeability of its acolytes and apologists to reasoned criticism. We need look no further than Zimbabwe and Venezuela to see all these criteria in play. Zimbabwe, under the aegis of the nonagenarian national liberation hero Robert Mugabe, has played out the theatre of socialist national decline since independence, only briefly interrupted when genuine democrats managed to loosen his arthritic grip on the tiller, due to a brief, incautious dalliance with relatively free and fair elections. In Venezuela things have, if possible, moved more deeply and more quickly, from reasonable stability and sufficiency (though one should not overstate the case here; poverty was endemic in the rural areas and among the indigenous Indian population) to economic catastrophe. It does not help that their real head of state, Hugo Chavez, is actually dead, and his anointed successor’s only demonstrable qualities stubborn adhesion to power and ideological rigidity. But even these sorry cases are still only at the midway point on the road to the holocausts of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

Given the evidence of history and the present of failure of epic proportions at every level, it is remarkable that socialism continues to exert such a powerful pull on the imagination of so many, and is a phenomenon which begs an explanation. Let me start with the cynical view, propounded by the conservatively-minded, which is that socialism tends to attract those who are politically naïve, the evidence being that it is disproportionately attractive to the young and people like celebrities. There is certainly a superficial plausibility to this; a reasonable parallel would be with those who are attracted to radical Islam, who tend to be young, religiously naïve or non-practicing Muslims. However, if the argument is turned around, it is not obvious that the politically sophisticated are to be found crowding the political right, and the same charge, of naivety, could be levelled at those who are drawn into right wing politics, particularly of the far right nationalist variety.

A more objective, scientifically-rooted perspective is that our political affiliations, like much else about us, is determined genetically. This seems more plausible, after all personality and temperament, which do have a strong genetic component, play a significant part in the type of worldview we develop. This view also correlates with data from the research of Jonathan Haidt that indicates there are five or six fundamental values in a ‘moral matrix’ which are shared across all cultures, but that liberals typically emphasise a smaller range of fundamental social values than conservatives, being disproportionately committed to care and fairness, but less so to other values such as freedom, loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity, an effect that is more marked the more liberal a person considers themselves to be. The lack of balance in values may help to understand the epic failures of socialism in power, and perhaps also why conservative parties tend to be electorally more successful over the long term.

Haidt’s view is that whatever our political inclinations, it cannot be a bad thing to be more self-aware and that as a society we need to engage more in dialogue, although current trends suggest we are becoming more entrenched in our views, aided by the self-selecting and bias-reinforcing tendencies of the internet. I suspect that the desirability of dialogue is itself something of a liberal predilection. Moreover, dialogue almost never changes minds. Rather, familiarity with different perspectives fosters a degree of empathy and tolerance for the other, in other words contributes to shared meta-values. From this lofty perspective it is possible to discern that the left does indeed contribute to human social evolution:

  • First, socialism can be considered the modern political manifestation of the age old and timeless human sense that the focus on money is not only immoral but fundamentally damaging to the cohesion of society. In a recent article Marian Tupy has argued that there is a pedigree of thought, stretching from homer and Plato through medieval Catholic theology to Martin Luther and Thomas More, which argues that mercantilism is fundamentally inimical to human life. This tradition is, therefore, embedded in western thought and the history of major institutions. It underlies the contemporary critique of corporate greed that has been adopted across the political spectrum.
  • Secondly, it manifests and embodies the more caring and compassionate side of human nature in continuity with the Christian tradition exemplified by Jesus’ forgiveness of sinners and care for the poor and marginalised, sometimes explicitly religious, but more commonly now through humanistic ideals. To grace this idea with a few examples: the changed attitudes towards and improved social circumstances of children, animals, the disabled, and homosexuals.
  • Thirdly, liberals are more open to new ideas, particularly social ideas and trends, than conservatives. Conservatives by their very nature, tend to be content with the status quo, not necessarily because they are beneficiaries of the existing conditions, but because they are averse to change. From the perspective of human social evolution it makes sense to have adaptability as well as stability, and liberal attitudes allow for a greater degree of social experimentation. Although many of these ideas turn out to be culs-de-sac, some are adopted into the social mainstream, such as many of the changes to education.
  • Fourthly, the militancy and obstreperous nature of much of the left means that ideas that might have simply been passing trends remain in the collective consciousness long enough to be adopted more widely, which contrasts with the generally more complacent attitudes of the right. Environmental concern has largely been driven by the left, as has concern with racism, both unfinished campaigns.

Capitalism portrays the world in functional, impersonal and ruthless terms, but has proved to be the only viable economic system for developed societies. But people are not automatons and citizens not functioning units in the economic machine of society, although even our education systems sometimes treats us as if we are. As well as crackpot theories the left embodies virtues that when woven into the narrative of our societies, and accepted by many on the right as on the left, not only make society fairer and more humane, but probably more efficient if they result in just social policy. While socialism as a political and economic system has been tested to destruction in the social experiments of the last 100 years, the fundamental values that it embodies will always re-emerge, as they are not the preserve of leftist revolutionaries or a liberal intellectual elite, but fundamental to all decent human life.



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