The Left Puzzle

Here is a puzzle to contemplate. What can possibly explain the enormous, the stupefying failures of the Left in the 20th century?  What went wrong?  We start with ideas that seem, considered in the abstract, self-evidently attractive in principle: liberty, equality, fraternity, community, production for use.  But we end up, over and over, ith a succession of vastly destructive train-wrecks driven by megalomaniacs such as Stalin, Rakosi, Ceausescu, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Robert Mugabe.  Hold those names in mind for a while, we will return to certain of their characteristics.  But first let us consider something else, which I think offers a clue.

What has the American and British Left been doing in recent years? Well, very recently the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq gave them something exciting to demonstrate about, but in the 1990s the lack of a plausible cause did not hold them back.  In those days, remember, they were out protesting against the insidious danger of international trade, against the injustice of MacDonald's selling fries to people who wished to buy fries, and against the horrible injustice of ....wait for it...genetically modified plants!  These causes represent the spiritual line of 1641, 1789 and 1848?   These arguments are the intellectual descendents of the Grand Remonstrance, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Communist Manifesto? 

Wait a minute.  How did the struggle for the Rights of Man dwindle to an obsession with the racial purity of soybeans?  In their campaign against the genetically modified soybean, our contemporary activists in fact found themselves on the same side of the barricades as such advanced thinkers as the Prince of Wales. How progressive.

Then, we have the Left's rediscovery of the principle of lifetime executive tenure.  This characteristic of the ancien regime is no longer even found in corporations, reputedly the least democratic modern institution.  But it is standard in every political system venerated on the Left, from General Secretary Stalin through Chairman Mao to the champion of them all, President Fidel Castro, now in his 47th year in office.  In fact, the Left has even rediscovered the prinicple of hereditary dictatorship, once the divine right of kings.  Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader of North Korea, was succeeded by his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.  And President Castro's designated successor is his younger brother, Vice-President Castro.  So Fidelismo, the darling of every kind of sentimental Leftist, follows the same principles as the Romanov dynasty in which Tsar Peter succeeded his brother Tsar Feodor III in 1682.  How progressive.

The other stereotypical feature of the Left in recent years has been a feverish opposition to the mere existence of Israel.  Here the Left is now aligned squarely with the most intransigent Islamists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezb'allah, an alignment made explicit at a London demonstration against Israel on August 5.  Organized jointly by several Leftist and Muslim groups, the demonstration was filled with banners proclaiming "We Are All Hezb'allah".  Since Hezb'allah means "Party of God" in Arabic, the Left has evidently returned to the fold of true believers, after 220 years of misguided (or was it pretended?) rationalism.  The whole of the Party of God's position is that Allah awarded all of Palestine to the Islamic umma until Judgment Day, and that it is blasphemy even to negotiate about giving up a speck of it to infidels; furthermore, Islamic rule in that territory is part of the divine plan manifested to the armies of the Caliphate in the 7th century AD, the high point of human history.

How progressive.

The demand for the abolition of Israel is particularly grotesque coming  from the Left, in that Israel is the only place on earth where basic ideas of the traditional Left were implemented without the famines and  impoverishment typical of the USSR, Red China under Mao, and elsewhere. During Turkish and British rule in Palestine, much of the land that was purchased for Jewish settlement was devoted to the kibbutzim, collectives organized along utopian socialist lines.  There were eventually more than 250 of these communal, worker-owned productive enterprises, and at their height they comprised 130,000 members, accounted for a significant part of Israel's gross domestic product, and contributed disproportionately to its political culture.  If people who call themselves "Left" were serious about alternatives to private capitalism, then one might expect them to be concerned about the survival of the one country on the planet where an experiment in the actual practice of Socialism achieved a partial success, in contrast to the disasters everywhere else.

Old Leftists used to shrug off these disasters as the breaking of a few eggs to make an omelet, even as the promise of the omelet became steadily phonier.  Even Leftists who criticized details of Soviet organization, like the Trotskyites, never, never entertained the thought that the USSR should be abolished altogether on account of its deficiencies.  Yet today, most Leftists insist that Israel's departures from utopian standards unmet anywhere else on earth calls for its destruction. Their disregard of the history and significance of the kibbutzim demonstrates without question that bourgeois Leftists are not serious at all about alternatives to private capitalism in the real world.  But in that case what is their posture based on?

It is a curious spectacle: our self-described "progressives" aligned with devotees of Edwardian Church-of-England superstition, with the practice of hereditary rule, and with the Muslim Party of God, while crying for the abolition of the state which protects the only partly successful collectivist experiments on earth.  These disconnects between the historic traditions of the Left and its contemporary behavior had become so grotesque by the turn of the 21st century, that I wondered whether this very incoherence could be a clue to the puzzle of the Left's failures.  In other words, is the essential clue to be found in psychology of Leftists, rather than the intellectual tradition to which they pay lip service?

With this in mind, I thought about a comment from an old friend, an American living in Britain.  He is not intensely political, but does exemplify conventionally Leftist attitudes and sometimes passes them on. Discussing Tony Blair, he once wrote to me as follows: 

"...His government has done some good things.  Strangely though, since this has involved a mild redistributive element, he is amazingly quiet about that because he won't go anywhere near the ‘S' word.  I call this ‘socialism by stealth' and, in fact, most of these things have been Gordon Brown's doing though with Blair's blessing."
Notice the dismissive tone.  Although the New Labour's policies have "a mildly redistributive element" (thus achieving a central goal of the historic Left), it has nonetheless committed the offense of being "quiet" about it.  If the principal offense of New Labour is that Tony Blair "won't go anywhere near the 'S' word", then my old friend's grumbling reveals an unconscious concentration on words and postures over outcomes.  And there we have the essential clue.  In fact, his own personal life is as thoroughly private and bourgeois as that of any Tory stockbroker commuting to the City of London from the suburbs.  One sees why the kibbutz movement had rather little impact on the world-view of bourgeois Leftists: it offered its adherents a way to actually try living "the 'S' word", rather than simply dropping it into conversation.

Reviewing the psychology I have encountered on the American (and to some extent the British) "hard" Left, I was struck by the sheer predominance of talk over everything else---not talk for its own sake, entirely, but for the purpose of self-definition, in effect as a fashion statement.  The transition from "scientific socialism" to Party of God may lack logical coherence, but logic does not dictate the way fashion statements change from year to year.  In fact, the element of fashion has grown more marked than ever during the last 70 years of the pop-Left, as other kinds of social activity on the Left have declined toward zero.

Communists, Trotskyites, and Socialists of the 1930s were sometimes seriously involved in the labor movement, and to a small extent in other forms of voluntary social construction.  But by the 1960s, in the USA every labor union, virtually all of the cooperative movement, and all that mattered in the civil rights movement, had become entirely distinct from self-consciously Left political groups.  Since the 1960s, the latter have no longer worked on building any communal institutions more substantial than the next sit-in at the college dean's office.

A variety of media, craft, and retail collectives did sprang up during the 60s on the fringe of the Left, but these were generally separate from and often disparaged by the "politicals". The latter, it might be recalled, did lots of posture-striking and talking, and occasionally erupted in a demonstration, the extreme sports version of these two exercises.  This program of activity and sectarian squabbling eventually wrecked SDS, after which the New Left splintered into performance groups doing variously Maoist, Stalinist, Trotskyite, or Fanonist pantomimes. And so it has remained.

By the 90s, we had arrived at groupuscules focused on virtually nothing else than a dress code.  Consider, for example, the bunch of Eugene, Oregon juvenile delinquents grouped around a magazine fittingly called "Black Clad Messenger", who styled themselves "Anarchist".  Far from building worker-managed enterprises, like the historical Anarcho-Syndicalists of Europe, these worthies identified their "anarchism" simply with wearing ski-masks and breaking shop windows whenever an opportunity presented itself, such as the WTO demonstrations in Seattle. 

Here striking a pose is not merely prominent, it is all there is.  For that matter, virtually the entire contemporary Left has elevated "demonstrating" from one of a number of possible activities to the only activity ever contemplated, revealing the same psychology: exhibitionism taken to be the same thing as idealism.  No wonder the Left groupuscules I have looked in on in recent years concentrated on self-congratulation, displays of Fine Feeling, and empty big-talk.

This absolutely central role of attitudinizing is one reason why Left groups have been so impervious to simple data.  The "New" Left was so-called because it had finally moved beyond the Old Left's agitprop  about the "Bolshevik experiment".  This took until the early 1960s, forty years after Lenin, Trotsky, & Co. had dispersed the elected Constituent  Assembly at gunpoint, emasculated the soviets, and begun to construct the  Gulag Archipelago police state which Stalin inherited, and 25-30 years  after the Moscow Trials and the great terror of the 1930s. 

A learning  curve so glacially slow as this represents something more than  an ordinary learning disability.  It represents a politics in which striking an attitude trumps any data from the outside world.  Hence, adherents of the Old Left spent 40 years talking (and talking and talking)  as if it were still November, 1917. This posture of willed ignorance  (still observable at The Nation magazine as late as 1999) is surely one  explanation of how Leftists so easily allowed ideals, or at least stated objectives ("all power to the soviets", "peoples' democracy", and so on) to be betrayed.

There is another factor in Leftists' peculiar blindness to the case after case in which their own slogans were betrayed.  Think about all the western Leftists you know, and how they lead their lives.  Mouthing slogans of communal ownership, do they actually live communally? Claiming to believe in a system of "sharing the wealth", how many of them share their own wealth with disadvantaged strangers?  95% of the Leftists I know live their own lives, like my friend in Britain, in a perfectly Tory fashion.  I believe that this imposture at the core of bourgeois Leftist life is why they fail to detect all the other impostures:  it is the same reason that fish cannot detect water.

Perhaps the attitudinizing dynamic is also the reason that Left groupuscules so regularly come under the domination of an overbearing big-talker-in-chief, like Bob Avakian, the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who is referred to in his group's flyers as its "precious leader".  The prototype precious leader is probably Lyndon LaRouche of whatever his outfit calls itself this year.  It began on what appeared to be the far Left, calling itself the "American Caucus of Labor Committees" despite an absence of any connection whatsoever with the labor movement.

The LaRouchies have since migrated from the extreme Left to a bewildering variety of positions, so dominated by the vagaries of their guru-leader that they have floated free of any recognizable political tradition at all.  Reviewing these cases, one realizes that the "cult of personality" surrounding Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and so on, was no fluke: it comes with Leftism as reproducibly as a hangover does with a binge. 

This psychological pattern--the subordination of everyone in "the movement" to a domineering or manipulative personality and the kind of human relations this embodies--- has been a veritable cliché on the hard Left for a very long time.  These little personality cults also explain why Leftists never found anything ominous or peculiar about the megalomania surrounding Stalin, or Mao, or Castro (or, more recently, Saddam Hussein).  Leftists cannot detect megalomania for the same reason, once again, that fish cannot detect water.

And here at last we have the explanation of the dreadful outcomes I alluded to at the start.  They are an outcome, not of the Left's intellectual traditions, but of the kind of personalities who congregate in Left groups and the kind of human relations the groups embody, time and time again.  When the big-talker-in-chief is only precious Bob Avakian, the social psychology of his devotees doesn't matter to anyone else. Precious Leader has his adoring audience, and the devotees get to congratulate themselves for playing the role of his adoring audience and hence (in their own fantasy) the vanguard of humanity.  No one outside the groupuscule is the worse for these charades.

But when a faction calling itself "Left" manages to seize power somewhere, their Big-Talker-in-chief might be a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot.  In that case, his psychology, and that of his groupies, and above all their standards in human relations, all become consequential for the kind of social construction they will carry out, and therefore for everybody else's life expectancy.  An example of where this psychology can lead is provided by the mob behaviour of the young Chinese Red Guards implementing "Mao Zedong thought" during the lunatic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s.

In short, maybe the trouble with the Left, the source of its endlessly repeated failures, can be summed up in a single word:  Leftists.