Most of the angst in international politics over the last couple of years has been about the far right – often called the “populist right”, or, even more misleadingly, just “populism”. About people like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and the latest pressing concern, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
From time to time, someone will say “But what about the far left? Aren’t they just as dangerous, just as anti-democratic, just as much something to worry about?” Sometimes those questions are posed in bad faith, by apologists for the far right, but not always. And regardless of motive, they are valid questions.
Recall, for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s lukewarm opposition to the 2016 referendum for Britain to leave the European Union, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s refusal to endorse Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 runoff against Le Pen. There seems to be a sectarianism at work on the left that, at best, is hampering the formation of a united front against barbarism.
At worst, some on the far left seem to be giving active encouragement to the barbarians. Back in July, the Guardian reported that some among the leadership of the Left (Die Linke), Germany’s far-left party, were pitching to attract votes from the far-right Alternative for Germany by copying some of its anti-immigrant stance. One leftist charmingly expressed the position as adhering to “the materialist left, not the moral left.”
Two things have made me think more about the topic this week. One is this article by David Winner in the New Statesman on the way in which the German Communist Party in the 1930s aided and abetted Hitler’s rise to power, by treating the Social Democrats as the main enemy and the Nazis as a sort of tactical ally.
Winner compares that to Corbyn’s position on Brexit: a little unfair, perhaps, but an analogy worth making. As I’ve said many times, the far right is not strong enough to take power on its own (nor was it in the ’30s); its gains come from established parties being willing to do deals.
Usually it’s the centre-right that deserves the blame, but the left is not immune as well.
The second thing, which helps to explain why this happens, was going to hear Jeff Sparrow speak at the New International Bookshop on Monday evening about his new book, Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the right. (You can read an extract here.)
I think Sparrow is right about the problem of “smugness” on the left, and on the way the right has weaponised notions of free speech despite being itself much more prone to censorship. And I certainly don’t think that (as the event blurb puts it) progressives should “double-down on identity politics and gender theory.”
But the way he presented his position on Monday (influenced, perhaps, by the nature of his audience) struck me as prone to a dangerous sort of far-left sectarianism. I was left concerned about whether those who accept his analysis would actually be able to participate in a united front against the challenges that we face.
It’s not that Sparrow is in any way sympathetic to racism, sexism, or bigotry in general – I’m sure he is completely genuine on that point. But he sees all those evils as products of capitalism, and his remedy is always the same: mass activism to fight capitalism and capitalists.
The danger with that diagnosis is that you may foreclose on the option of finding allies for progressive policies among the supporters of capitalism. Or worse, like the “national social” turn in Germany, you might find yourself abandoning progressive positions on racial and gender issues just so you can make new allies in the fight against capitalism.
For example, Sparrow had a theory to explain of the alliance between (in his terms) neo-conservatives and neo-liberals, or social conservatives and economic free-marketers: roughly, that economic reform produces social tensions that right-wing parties can capitalise on to build electoral support, which they will then exploit to ratchet up their economic program.
That’s not a crazy theory; indeed I think there’s some truth in it. I think it’s closer to the truth to say that economic liberalism and social progressivism are natural allies, and that giving in to resistance to the latter inevitably leads to betrayal of the former as well.
But I can accept people who hold Sparrow’s view, or some other view altogether, as allies in the fight against repressive social policies. It’s not so clear, however, that he can accept people like me as allies, because we disagree on what for him is fundamental: the primacy of the struggle against capitalism.
While the Communists of the 1930s eventually realised they had made a dreadful mistake, you can see how, in their intellectual framework, it made sense. If all progress ultimately depended on the overthrow of capitalism, then anyone who compromised with it, or softened its edges in any way, was a dangerous enemy.
In the same way, Marxists today have difficulty co-operating with bourgeois liberals, because while they may agree on the need to fight misogyny and xenophobia, there is a strain in their thinking that will always subordinate those struggles to the fight for control of the means of production.
Of course, if the Marxists are right, and socialisation of capital really will usher in an earthly paradise, then maybe it’s worth compromising in the short term. You might have to accept a few bigots as allies today, but tomorrow (or whenever the revolution comes) everything will be just fine. But that’s a big gamble to take.
And certainly not all Marxists want to take it: many have done sterling work for progressive causes, in alliance with liberals and others. It seems to me, however, that those allies have reason to be cautious.
In part II (coming soon) I want to look at how much this matters, and what it all means in electoral terms.