Worrying about the far left, part III

(Part one and part two are important preliminary reading.)

For a start, if you haven’t done so already, have a read of Paul Mason from a fortnight ago in the New Statesman. He’s writing about Brazil, but it’s about much more than that: it’s about what needs to be done everywhere to resist the rise of fascism.

Coming from the opposite side to me of the liberal/leftist divide, Mason is pessimistic – rightly, I fear – about the chances of retaining middle class, pro-business interests in an anti-fascist coalition. As he says, “though the liberalism of centrist politics has remained strong, the commitment to democracy and the rule of law has become fragile.”

But contrary to many of his friends on the left, who adhere to Marx’s advice to “throw the bourgeoisie overboard,” Mason thinks it is critically important to keep trying to build such alliances.

The number one lesson is to try as hard as possible for as long as possible to maintain an alliance between the centre and the left.

For this to happen, responsible centrist politicians have to make a choice: to stop calling the left fascists, to stop patronising media empires that stoke xenophobia and rancid nationalism. To agree to disagree, yes, but to commit to a common defence of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The left, in turn, has to decide which is the bigger enemy: neoliberal corporations or neofascist movements whose sentiments are simmering beneath the surface, often misunderstood or downplayed by a complacent media. Too often, especially in the left Anglosphere, this dilemma is dismissed.

I think Mason is absolutely right about this, and his message needs to be heeded, more than ever, on both sides. But for the reasons given in part one, I worry about the ability of the far left to participate in such alliances.

While Marx was right to say that the bourgeoisie proved unreliable allies in the fight for democracy, Marxists have proved even more unreliable, to the extent of casting doubt on whether they were ever in the same fight in the first place. The sectarianism of the far left, particularly of Leninist parties, has become proverbial, and often they have joined coalitions only with the intention of subverting their allies in order to seize total control.

As I expressed it in a Facebook comment a couple of weeks ago, “One person’s united front is another person’s entryism.”

Nonetheless, we live in dangerous times, and democracy needs all the allies it can get. Here is where the assumption of moral equivalence that I made in the last part breaks down: it is at least possible for the far left to support democracy in a way that it is not for the far right.

Although I believe that the conflict between socialism and democracy is very real, it is practical rather than theoretical in nature. It is not incoherent for a socialist to believe in democracy; the hope that the two can be made to work together may be misguided, but it is not absurd.

The same cannot be said, however, for the far right. A fascist who claims to believe in democracy is either lying or is deeply conflicted, because fascism is hostile to democracy in principle.

Finally, a word about electoral systems. Throughout this series, I’ve been mostly thinking in terms of a multi-party situation, as found on most of the European continent (and also, incidentally, in Brazil) – where proportional systems allow the development of different parties to represent different interests and ideologies, and coalition-building is a constant concern.

Things are different in countries with single-member electorates, and particularly with first-past-the-post voting, as in Britain and most of its former colonies. Cross-country comparisons that neglect that difference can go astray.

Hence the British Labour Party has to accommodate both socialists and social democrats, and they battle for control because neither feel they have anywhere else to go. In most other European countries, each tendency would have its own party, giving them the opportunity to work together when needed but to maintain separate identities.

Multi-party systems have the flexibility to make incremental adjustments when issues and intellectual currents change. Two-party systems find that much harder; there is less middle ground between business-as-usual and complete reorientation. Britain may well be headed towards an instance of the latter.

The United States is even more inflexible. There, the Democrats are home to three philosophical streams: the main liberal/centrist bloc, represented by (say) Hillary Clinton; a substantial social democrat wing, symbolised by Bernie Sanders; and a minority (apparently a growing one) of actual democratic socialists.

In a typical European country, those would be spread across three or more parties. Even in Australia, one could choose between the Liberals, the ALP, the Greens, and some small far-left groups. But the US provides only two choices, and with one party having taken itself outside of the pale of civilised debate, the disparate friends of democracy all have to make do with the other one.

For some interesting thoughts on the American situation, have a read of a recent piece by Jon Chait at New York magazine, “Two Cheers for Socialism: Why Liberals Need Enemies on the Left.”

I would probably only make it one cheer, and Chait’s understanding of what drives the Republican Party, and how it got to where it is, is rather different from mine. But he has a lot of good things to say about the dynamics of party competition in a relatively rigid system, as well as the lovely line, “Perhaps one day chunks of this essay will be mockingly read aloud to me by my fellow gulag inmates.”

I don’t expect there will be a part four, but I’ll definitely have more to say about the working of party systems. And there’ll be more about Brazil to come, either tomorrow or Saturday.


6 thoughts on “Worrying about the far left, part III

  1. Oh, I’m sure the socialists have a well-thought-out, workable strategy in mind, Charles – to wit, Antifa-style street-fighting between far Left and far Right which, to adapt Peter Cook’s jibe about Weimar-era cabaret, did so much to prevent the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany.
    Very flexible thinkers, our Marxists are. Some were starting to realise that Stalin was a butcher and the USSR was a police state as early as 1956.


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