SIAW make an impressive contribution to what they call the non-debate over the life of the left triggered by the recent Nick Cohen piece in the New Statesman, in which they make a number of very good points: that Cohen’s piece is quite muddled,
that Norman Geras’s defence of the life and mission of the left is over-generalised [see above], and that “an entity that can expand to include New Labour and the Liberal Democrats, or their equivalents in other polities, then contract, often within the same passage, to exclude everyone but the obscure sect and/or obscurer guru a given writer is loyal to, is probably not worth spending much more time on”.
We disagree, I think, over the interpretation of the scope of what we might (pretentiously) call the Cohen thesis. SIAW expressed the hope that while “dancing on the corpse of the one big left, there are indeed many little ‘lefts’, as Cohen (we hope) was trying to say”, and they list some of them. But I think this hope is misplaced, given Cohen’s remarkable claim towards the end (which I’ve quoted before), that, “unless you believe that the failure of the world’s peoples to look leftwards is all the result of brainwashing by the corporate media, you have to conclude that the left is dead.”
But I think the key to our disagreement over our diagnosis of the life or otherwise of the left can probably be found when SIAW note that the words like liberty, equality, fraternity, solidarity, justice and peace “are the kinds of terms that cause arguments rather than resolve them”, therefore not any kind of key to the unity of the left. But perhaps we should be thinking of the left not as organised around a particular set of strong, contestable interpretations of various value words, but as loosely structured by the existence of the arguments themselves?
SIAW argue that there’s no single, coherent, institutional left, organised by an International around a coherent programme for change. True enough. But why should we leftists be terribly bothered by that?
Again, SIAW write that “the left ‘as a serious political project’ died long ago, some time in the early 1920s if not before, when the deepest division of all – that between reformists and revolutionaries – became set in stone. From that basic division there followed many others, as the ‘left’, far from controlling the currents of history, was buffeted to and fro.” But no left ever “controlled the currents of history” (whatever that might mean) — not the Bolsheviks, not the Second International, not the Jacobins — and the distinction between “reformists and revolutionaries” can be crucial, and sometimes lethal, but if it became “set in stone” and of immense importance in real-world politics, that was only because of the polarising effects of the Bolshevik revolution on the European and, later, world socialist parties. Now that those regimes are consigned to the dustbin of history, there’s no particular reason to allow that distinction to dominate our political thinking any more.
So to come back to SIAW’s direct challenges to me: early on they write:
(On the other hand, it does seem surprisingly sniffy of Chris Brooke – who normally comes across as being unusually free from academic snobbery – to take Cohen to task for restricting himself to Anglophone examples, given that he is, after all, an Anglophone journalist writing a limited-wordage column for Anglophone readers, not a theoretician free to cite sources in several different languages across hundreds of pages, whether heï¿½s read them or not; and, by the way, can Chris, or anyone else, find plausible counter-examples from some non-Anglophone left or other?)
And they repeat the point at the end:
Of course weï¿½d prefer to agree with Chris Brooke that ï¿½rumours of deathï¿½ are ï¿½greatly exaggeratedï¿½ – do you really think that we enjoy looking at the twitching corpse of a tradition that we can only wish was going strong? – but weï¿½re still waiting for those counter-examples.
What can I say? Against the charge of academic snobbery, I plead not guilty. The point of what I wrote wasn’t to convict Cohen of not reading enough difficult theoretical texts in foreign languages — far from it! — but to highlight the problem, or so it seemed to me, of drawing such sweeping conclusions from such parochial examples.And what of the counter-examples? Well, they’re the usual suspects, I’m afraid: the global justice movement, or the “movement of movements”, as it’s sometimes called, and the various bits and pieces that get grouped together under that heading: those who work with refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants; the Brazilian landless workers movement and other land rights movements around the world; the Karnataka State Farmers Association and many other trade unions; ATTAC and the international Social Forums (Fora?) which it’s helped to spawn; Oxfam; the opposition to Robert Mugabe’s thuggish regime (and yes, even some of the neoliberal MDC opposition to Mugabe); the Rawlsians and their leftist critics in the universities; Amnesty International; the Zapatistas; Students United Against Sweatshops and their ilk; the governments of Lula and Hugo Chï¿½vez (much of the time); European social democratic governments (some of the time, increasingly rarely, in fact); the food sovereignty movement; just about any attempt to redistribute resources from the affluent to the poor; together with the usual spectrum of organisations continuing the long, hard work of liberating and empowering women, sexual minorities, the disabled, indigenous peoples, and so on, and so forth, and so it goes on. You can guess some of the rest.
That’s my left, perhaps it’s even my Left, and it’s one that gives me quite a lot of hope for the future, even if it does get buffeted a bit by the currents of history along the way. But then, how could it not be?