On being ‘Left-Wing’

What is ‘the left’? What characterises the ‘left-wing’?

It’s sometimes suggested that ‘the left-right spectrum is too simplistic’, which is fairly obvious (what with it being, you know, one-dimensional) but which has sometimes prompted attempts to ‘replace it’, most commonly with ‘the political compass’, a two-dimension chart which has an economic axis from planning (left) to market (right) and a political axis from ‘libertarian’ to ‘authoritarian’.

I’m not too impressed with this. For a start, it always seems a bit invented – it’s designed to reflect logical differences in ideas, whereas part of the rationale for the left-right spectrum is to reflect ideological differences in orientations, i.e. sides in a conflict, not in an academic debate. But more importantly, if these two axes are to be separated, we might as well introduce more – an axis reflecting views about the roles of women, men, sex, and families, an axis reflecting views about science, nature, religion, and technology, and however many others.

But once you have five or six axes, you find that you haven’t actually helped yourself to understand real politics, just clarified certain logical distinctions about ideas – the question poses itself, why do positions on some axes correlate with positions on other axes? Why are feminists and socialists generally ‘on the same side’? And what you find yourself doing is looking for over-arching dimensions, such as ‘being on the side of the oppressed against the more powerful’ or something, and then you find that you’ve stumbled back to something very much like the left-right spectrum.

So let’s suppose that there is some meaning to ‘left-wing’, and in particular, let’s suppose that it is something like ‘supporting the oppressed against oppression’. Let’s take, for instance, the idea that ‘left-wing’ is in a certain sense defined by socialism, by the struggle of labour against capital. These definitions still leave questions about that real entity that’s called ‘the left’: what manner of beast is it?

Insofar as the left is defined by socialism, it will be marked by a certain dialectical tension, between the sorts of ideas associated with the methods of bringing about socialism, and the sorts of ideas associated with socialism itself.

The former will be militant, confrontational, and focused on class-consciousness, class loyalty, and class identification – at least according to the received wisdom that socialism will be brought about by a militant, class conscious proletariat. The latter, however, will be quite different: the culture of a socialist society will hardly be militant or confrontational (because conflict and antagonism will no longer be structural necessities), and won’t feature class identification (because there will be no classes). Its culture will (hopefully and presumably) be marked by co-operation, friendliness, self-reliance, autonomy, and peacefulness. Fighting for peace, shouting for silence, etc.

Now, what I have for some time suspected, is that this tension, which is striking but not a contradiction in theory, becomes a contradiction in practice under normal conditions. That is, I suspect (some of my thoughts are elaborated more in yesterday’s post) that the social and psychological profiles of the people whose position and interests make them the ‘agent’ of socialism, and that of the people who are drawn to socialist ideology, will, under non-revolutionary conditions, not only be quite different, but will show only quite small overlap.

So one reason for this is that, as Nietzsche nicely puts it, ‘man’s problem is not that he suffers, but that he does not know why he suffers’: the most important defense against suffering is to find meaning for it, to make it make sense. But this will tend to lead people to hold views on which such suffering is normal, necessary, and meritorious – in which it could not have been otherwise, in which they deserve respect for suffering it, and in which others deserve to share it. And this is the opposite of the sort of view that would seek for, and be able to provide, an end to that suffering.

So for example, those who work and hate it, may often come to develop a ‘work ethic’, a sort of ‘asceticism’ in which those who don’t work are derided and the compulsion to work is aimed at – which is almost the opposite of the communistic desire that work not be a chore, not be imposed upon people, not be compulsory.

Similarly for anarchism, those who have to obey, may often come to develop a sense of virtue and merit for doing so, and a resentment and hatred of those who disobey. Similarly for feminism, those women most oppressed by patriarchy may usually reach for the most easily available source of security, happiness, and acceptance, which will usually be a patriarchal script, a way to play on sexual availability or unavailability in whatever way, and the resultant identification with a gender role isn’t the most fertile ground for gender-abolitionism.

Now this isn’t a counsel of despair. Clearly at certain times the oppressed masses of whatever flavour have taken real action against their oppression. But I suspect this may be something typical only of revolutionary situations, when hope and confidence becomes strong enough that resolving to struggle for revolution becomes a more effective psychological response to oppression than whatever form of ‘adaptation’ (revolutions, one might say, are the special time for the maladjusted).

What I’m suggesting is that 99% of the time, the people who believe in socialism (or in radical-feminist anarcha-communism) will tend to be, by and large, relatively remote from the ‘sharp end’ of capitalism (or statist-capitalistico-patriarchy). Of course everyone suffers from class society in one way or another, but there’s a big difference between being oppressed with a comfortable income and a relatively autonomous sort of job, and being oppressed with shit wages for spending 8 hours getting bullied by your boss while doing boring tasks.

So what is the left? There may be – if I am right in this suspicion, which I wouldn’t bet on – two standard parts of ‘the left’: on the one hand, ‘revolutionary’ intellectuals and those who embrace their ideas, often students, usually though not always somewhat ‘middle-class’, and on the other, ‘class-conscious militants’ of various stripes, all those who honestly, intelligently, and unpretentiously struggle for their own liberation from the oppression that affects them. But the two groups may not often share many members.

But it doesn’t stay as simple as that. These two elements, I’d call ‘genuinely’ left-wing (and trust me, I’m totally objective). But there’s also what I’d call the ‘pseudoleft’: the attempt to find some other way, outside a revolutionary situation, to overcome the impotence that this divide produces. Revolutionary intellectuals who are frustrated that the workers aren’t overthrowing capitalism, workers frustrated that there’s no socialism on the horizon to raise their wage packets, and various others who are maladjusted at the wrong time – some alternative must be found for them.

Maybe a classless society can be imposed from above! Maybe a highly-educated party leadership can compensate for an insufficiently revolutionary population! Maybe parliament can use taxation to make everybody happy! That’s much easier. This is pseudoleftism: hoping to achieve revolutionary goals without revolutionary movements.

I’ll talk more about this tomorrow. Suffice it to say that to my eyes, there looks to be a lot more pseudoleftism around than real leftism.  😦

5 Responses to “On being ‘Left-Wing’”

  1. Colm O'Connor Says:

    In parliamentary democracies, the system is geared towards producing two opposing sides. This is pretty clear in the UK parliamentary democracy – with Tories on one side and Labour on the other (with Lib Dems sort of tacked on, although not wielding much real power nationally).

    Even in multiparty democracies, a line is usually drawn with a coalition marking where it is.

    Thus you get multiple different kinds of ‘left’ in different countries. The left in the US, for instance, is markedly different to the ‘left’ in the UK, and arguably even more far ‘right wing’ than the left in the UK is.

    This is why you get lots of fairly unrelated topics lumped in together – why it’s difficult to be “pro abortion” at the same time as being very keen on guns. Or a gay capitalist. Or whatever…

    To me, a truly revolutionary classless movement would have to reject the strictures of left vs. right wing. You’d have to refuse to play that game altogether.

    And while capitalism hasn’t been overthrown, the ‘pseudoleft’ has won many battles against the interests of pure capital (both in its rentier form (e.g. landlords) and entrepreneurialism (competitive business)) – securing worker’s rights, free healthcare, state pensions, etc. while not explicitly rejecting the system.

  2. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    The political compass thing is not totally useless (although it does completely fail to correctly place anarchism, and asks the wrong questions to do so). It does at least identify three different types that are normally lumped together as two. Right wingers are divided into those who are socially liberal and those who aren’t, and this is an important distinction I think. There’s a case to be made that there are (socially liberal) right wingers who are not ideologically opposed to the left in the sense that they are also ‘for the oppressed’, but rather opposed in their analysis of what will best achieve that. I disagree with their analysis, and moreover I think there’s a considerable contingent amongst them who are disingenuous and in reality really are on the side of the rich against the poor, but there is definitely a non-negligible group of right wingers who are not ideologically opposed to the left. This gets complicated by the fact that they tend to socialise more and discuss with the other right wingers, meaning that some less nice ideas tend to sneak in, muddying the waters.

    On the other stuff, this fits with the anarchist position that parliamentary socialism can never really achieve very much, and that vanguardism is likely to lead to bad places. I found Mike Albert’s stuff about the coordinator class quite useful here too.

    The question is – if parliamentary routes and traditional revolutionary routes don’t work – what does? It would be great if you could find an answer! 😉

  3. David Says:

    Interesting post. I had been thinking of something similar also–in fact I wrote a post about it, but I didn’t find any justification on why so many members of the left are not its nominal benefficiaries.

  4. David Gendron Says:

    I have no great interest in the left-right debate, because in mainstream media, all leftists and rightists are statists!

    The real debate is “anarchists vs statists”!

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