What’s Left?

I became active on the left when I was in my mid-teens. The main issue, as I recall, was ‘capital punishment’. The Victorian State Government was determined to proceed with the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1966. I have vague memory of attending May Day rallies prior to that, with my dad, but it was around the age of 15 that my self-conscious direction moved to the left. Other issues were the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa. The scenes from both countries on TV filled me with anger – not just at what was happening but at the hypocrisy of the societies that did nothing to stop it other than words. Within a year or two, the war in Vietnam came to dominate and I distributed banned literature at high school against the US and its allies in Vietnam. I had dabbled in some Marxist readings prior to going to university in 1969 and, caught up in the spirit of 1968, I was determined to be active at uni.

I couldn’t have imagined in 1969 that my activism, and embracing a Maoist position, would lead to several arrests on demonstrations, suspension from university, loss of my Education Department Studentship and in 1972 imprisonment for contempt of court at Pentridge Gaol with two comrades. 1972 was a bad year to be gaoled because the movement generally was in decline. It never recovered its spirit, or its politics. With some notable exceptions, people wandered off into the ALP or, like me, became nasty dogmatists akin to zombies mindlessly doing what they knew best; torn between feeling self-fulfilment but deeply frustrated at the same time, sensing, but not comprehending, what had gone wrong. Essentially, those of us who failed to keep thinking became ‘religious’. This remains a huge problem today, as so many adopt the ‘correct line’ on issues without any need to investigate first. They found the formula of Truth long ago; everything can be slotted into it. The resultant disconnect from reality is palpable – and bizarre.

The years 1968 to 1971 stand out, to me, as a time when the Left existed loudly and clearly, through struggle against authority outside and within the established Left. What passes for left-wing today strikes me as antithetical to the rebellious optimistic outlook we had back then, and antithetical to the desire to argue and debate and, most importantly, to oppose fascist regimes and stand in solidarity with those fighting them. Slogans such as “Not in my name” or “Hands of Syria” have nothing in common with the sadly evergreen “Smash Fascism!” An ‘Anti-imperialism’ that results in objective support for tyrannies that oppress people struggling for democracy is no different than the anti-imperialism of Mussolini and Gaddafi.

What’s Left? can be defined best by values and historical experience, and of course theory.

To me, key elements are:

– Support for Progress. I use a capital ‘P’ in order to stress that there is such a thing. It happens through human imagination, ingenuity and engineering. As Engels pointed out long ago, humans are distinguished from all other animals in that we can create what we can imagine. Harmony with Nature – Sustainability – have never been part of the left’s lexicon. Marxists believe in unleashing the productive forces through the further mastery of Nature and through freeing research and production from the social relations imposed by capital. This is the opposite of the ‘green’ world outlook.

– Internationalism: ‘they’ are ‘us’. Be ‘they’ oppressed people resisting a fascist regime in Syria or asylum seekers reaching our shores in unauthorised boats. Or ‘foreign workers’ arriving lawfully on special visae. In a globalising world, humanity is one, as never before.

– Democracy. The left understands that democracy has come about through struggles against ruling classes over centuries, resulting in rights such as universal suffrage. We take so much for granted in bourgeois democracies. It was 800 years ago that a king was forced to seal a charter with rebellious barons to agree to be subject to law and not above it. Yet today even in developed democracies, we still have to resist encroachments on liberty, be they in the form of Section 18C that allows the state to decide what is offensive or the new anti-terror security laws that open the way to a police state.

– Last but not least, the working out of a left-wing position has always come through struggle against its opposite: the pseudo-left position. This was true when I was first active in the Vietnam solidarity movement, when we struggled against the old Left Establishment that tried to constrain our youthful rebellion and to gear the movement to serve ALP electoral objectives, and it is true today, in the new century. To the media and to most people, the pseudo-left is ‘the Left’. Which explains why that kind of left is nothing more than an unpopular set of sects. I find the pseudo-left dull in its predictability and undialectical thinking. That is why I have used the terrific slogan from Paris 1968 as the sub-heading to my site: “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!” It was either going to be that one or “Reach for the stars!”

Feedback welcome.

16 thoughts on “What’s Left?

    • Thanks Arthur. I’m reading up on pingback and blog rolls and think I understand about ‘critical mass’. Off to a reasonable start. Critical advice along the way will be appreciated.

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  1. What?! Someone who dares to challenge the progressives by brazenly embracing progress?Someone on the left who still reaches for the stars, and doesn’t just sit around talking about the weather? This is outrageous, this is heretical, this WONDERFUL! Congratulations, Barry.

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  2. Very good piece. To me, this is one of the most burning questions of our time — how do we recover true leftish values, the kind that were espoused by those who stood on the LEFT side of the National Assembly in Revolutionary France: progress, liberty, universalism, reason. It saddens me no end that every one of those values has been ditched by those who call themselves left-wing today, progress replaced by eco-superstition, liberty by nannying, universalism by ghetto-producing multiculturalism, and reason by emotional incontinence. You are so right: the pseudo-left needs a metaphorical smackdown, and we need to remind people that being left-wing once meant being humanistic and optimistic, and it can again.

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    • Indeed defending the achievements of the bourgeois revolution is a necessary condition to be left, however it is not sufficient. It is only sufficient if you are a bourgeois liberal.

      I would like to see a bit more post-capitalist revolution in your writings Brendan.

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  3. You’re spot on with the need to give Progress a capital P, Barry. Charles A. Beard wrote: “Science tells us that – apart from the incalculable chances of catastrophe – man has still myriads and myriads of years to live on this planet under conditions that need not hinder his development of impair his energies. That period of which his whole recorded recorded history of six or seven thousand years is a small fraction.”

    …”All the epochs of the past are only a few of the front carriages, and probably the least wonderful, in the van of an interminable procession.”

    That’s from his introduction to J.B Bury’s The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Growth and Origin (1920) which, for some reason, appears to have been left off the National Curriculum

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  4. Pragmatism, the cold water pouring on hopeful ideology.

    How do you improve the world, the conditions of its people when self-indulgent and selfish short-term thinking is such a large piece of the human experience? When each revolution wants to codify, cement and legislate its two or three good ideas, to the exclusion of new ideas?

    The continuous revolution – the Trotskyite idea so dangerous to Lenin – is too disconcerting to people. It says that whatever you think or do is incomplete. Whatever you visualize will be viewed later as inadequate. This is a bodyblow to the extra-large ego of the mover and shaker. Nail it down and vilify the new reformers: that is how we work.

    In geology we talk of “punctuated equilibrium”. Long periods of stability are separated by sudden changes. Life is good as a hadrosaur, a big rock falls from the sky, nothing is good and then, when the dust has settled, life is good … for a chimpanze. PE looks like how social “progress” actually works.

    Continuous improvement. The ’60s thought this reasonable. But are we a reasonable species? Look around: I think not. Obama has great power. Has he used it well, or are things more chaotic than before? The President of the United States is just a high profile example. We are flawed.

    Pragmatism, again. The whiskey gets watered down through time. Periodically we have to make more. Perhaps if we recognize this, work on incremental change instead of abrupt system change – like ending capitalism to counter CAGW – we’ll get further, faster. But maybe not. Maybe every second generation has to go a little crazy to tweak things to how they like them.

    Once more, just thinking out loud.

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    • Thinking aloud is good Doug, the results are not so tight and scripted that they close up the cracks; I’ll join you.
      The demise of the left – Barry’s description of pseudo left covers most of it but the demise also applies to those of us with more revolutionary aspirations – is, as you hint, frustrating and dispiriting.
      I’m not so sure however that pragmatism deserves the backhanders you give it, nor that it is the antithesis to revolutionary principle as you seem to imply. I would agree that pragmatism elevated to the level of principle, one’s guiding light if you like, quickly degenerates into opportunism and I’m reminded of Brecht’s The Swamp, the last stanza of which reads:
      Helpless I watched him, leaning back
      Covered with leeches
      In the shimmering
      Softly moving slime:
      Upon the sinking face
      The ghastly
      Blissful smile
      Now that’s depressing and all too familiar but I don’t see too much wrong with a pragmatism that is guided by and serves a principled framework. I really admire Noel Pearson in this respect. Over the years he has shown a great capacity to pragmatically weave a path between the major political parties – those in a position to form government – and the big corporates without ever losing sight of his goal of furthering the interests of his people through concrete forms of development. The problem I see Doug is that the Marxist left has failed to either apply Marxism (instead treating it like a holy text) or to develop it in order to meet contemporary challenges. I think it’s telling that successful Marxist revolutionary movements have been able to weave their magic in under developed societies, in a state of transition from feudalism to capitalism, where the former has become a dead man walking – unreal’ in Hegel’s sense of the term – and the latter is too weak to push it over, while we’ve ended up being pretty hopeless in our own backyard. I have no magic or rational solutions to this other than to state the obvious – we’ve got some homework to do. I’m personally not fussed that we find ourselves in a period between high tides and that we have no way of knowing when the next upsurge will be (if it came now I think we’d miss the wave) – it’s a bit pointless to expect to be ‘blessed’ by good fortune all the time and probably self indulgent to boot – because there is obviously work for us to do. I also think we can afford to keep Gould’s idea of punctuated equilibrium at arm’s length, not because change doesn’t happen in this way (smooth gradations on the graph are just convenient ways of ironing out the zigzags) but because the idea of linking social change to geological time frames takes ‘depressing’ not to mention frustrating to another galaxy, far, far away altogether.
      Tom

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      • Interesting reply. I am a pragmatist by philosophy, but there is no real political leaning in pragmatism other than recognizing built-in or intrinsic limitations to human behaviour or the environment in which we operate. Man’s selfish disregard for those he doesn’t identify as “his” group is the one I see limiting social progress either through pure capitalism or pure communism. It takes very little to differentiate the in- from the out-crowd. Which is why we have to legislate equality of treatment: wouldn’t happen otherwise.

        We as people stay the bullying child in the sandbox far too often. IMO, certain cultures retain this quality as a virtue to this day, but that this is a legacy of more primitive times and problems. With time social evolution and the complexity of a “modern” life show that mutual benefits accrue in a more – not perfectly – equalized society. We sure as hell ain’t there yet, as the financiers of Wall Street, the Al Gore and DeCaprio green elites demonstrate on both sides of the intellectual divide.

        Dunno. Seems a muddle. But is the world actually not better now than it was in even 1950? South America, Central America, China, Africa – parts are very bad, but other parts that were bad, are they not better now, and having the possibility – denied before – of becoming better?

        Revolutionary fervour drives progress, change being anti-conservative by definition, and subject to immediate pushback. Existing power is always threatened by change, even if the power is small, as, for example it is for the “powerful” in North Korea (relative to outside North Korea). Revolutionary fervour devours its initial supporters, however, as most of us want some improvement but the kind that comes with later stability with which to enjoy the improvement.

        More thinking of a non-revolutionary but improving-the-situation kind.

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  5. The standard of debate and ideas is so constrained by pseudo-left (great term) ideology. Those wishing to oppose this in Australia generally find ourselves siding with conservatives these days. Now, Australia’s conservatives are far from a terrible bunch, but we urgently need a genuinely leftist alternative as well.

    I’m not necessarily interested in overthrowing capitalism, but a leftist movement motivated by a belief in real capital-P Progress would hugely improve our political landscape.

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    • Other than the fact that I am interested in seeing capitalism overthrown and superseded there is nothing in what you say that I have a problem with. The standard of debate has been poor for quite some time and the ascension of the drab to the frankly reactionary is a result. But I don’t think there’s much to gain by complaining about this without also complaining about ourselves, that is, examining our contribution to this. We can hardly get narky about the conservatives now appearing progressive because the’re the only ones prepared to stick up for the progressive aspects of capitalism when we (the revolutionary left) have helped create the vacuum into which the Greens and the pseudo left have stepped. Thinking about Brendan’s comment elsewhere on this thread, where he attacks the pseudos for ditching Enlightenment values for those that are essentially pre- Enlightenment, it is not as though liberalism and Enlightenment values have suddenly been able to rid themselves of their contradictions and shortcomings, things exposed by Marx and Engels, among others, in the 19th C. These remain. It’s that they start to look pretty good (ends in themselves) when stacked up against an opposition which no longer includes voices from a left which promotes and struggles for development, progress and democracy both within and beyond capitalism.

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  6. I think it is important to know your left from your right. There should be the same amount of lefts as rights, they just don’t know it. When I was at school they were so fascist they made write with my right hand couldn’t have any lefties in the school. It was sometime later I discovered that I was actually left not right. I discovered right was not correct but actually wrong, my first introduction to dialectics. However was turned of science when they told me every action was followed by a reactionary.

    Think we have to let people know left is correct and right is wrong

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  7. ‘I’m not necessarily interested in overthrowing capitalism, but a leftist movement motivated by a belief in real capital-P Progress would hugely improve our political landscape.’

    Indeed, but only the right is moving that way and I imagine bullet trains and new cities in the outback will soon become reality, after we sign up to a free trade agreement with China. The infrastructure revolution should be something to behold and have political ramifications.

    The pseudo left failed to inspire the masses, whereas Abbott is a pragmatic political animal and intends staying in power for a decade.

    This sort of progress may require a massive inflow of new immigrants, like a doubling of the population in a few decades. So real progress is all about doing deals with our brothers in the celestial kingdom and I can’t see any place for the ALP or Greens in this scenario.

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