Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why the left gets it wrong

TC's short post on Iran created quite an interesting debate on the left and internationalism. Modernity weighed in with an analysis of why the left gets it wrong, which I am extracting here, with added formatting (plus one added hyperlink for the un-inititiated):
1. Decline of trade union activism. Being a lay official or activist in the trade union forces you to interact with a varied membership, whose political views could vary from entrenched Tories to the apathetic and the nonpolitical, plus of course a few like-minded souls. But because you are working for and on behalf of a diverse membership you have to use many skills and types of arguments. That is not the case when interacting with other lefties, most of the arguments are shortcuts and basic. Questions such as why trade unions are important or why nationalization might be a good idea often goes unanswered.
A prime example, is the Martin Smith Newsnight interview, he wasn’t prepared to think about other people’s arguments, how they saw it and respond cogently. But those of some of the skills that you need to be a competent trade unionist.
That’s been lost in the past 20 years as far as I can see it.
2. The bubble, much of the British Left seems to exist within a nice confined bubble, without too many external distractions and that breeds lazy thinking. It means that sometimes Lefties and politicos have a problem talking to ordinary people in ordinary language, too much jargon is used. My favourite is “neoliberal”,when you know what it means it’s obvious, but to the uninitiated it might sound like a quasi member of the Liberal party :)
3. The decline of antifascism which tends to go hand in hand with various groups political priorities, but it means overall that the Left doesn’t reach out, or go to those awkward places, unless an election is on or something similar. Equally it means that one whole aspect of previous Left thinking is lost, opposition to fascism whatever shape or form it comes in, opposition to authoritarianism whatever shape or form it comes in, etc Skills are lost.
4. Crass Leninism. Whilst I could see a case for a Leninist party in Iran or Syria, Burma, etc all of those repressive regimes, it doesn’t really work too well in the West. Or at least all of the implementations since the 1930s seem to have failed one way or the other.
I think that Leninism is inherently hierarchical, it concentrates far too much power in a few individuals and not unsurprisingly those individuals sometimes become power crazed and act as if they can do no wrong, when the reality is they are probably more fallible than most of us.
On top of that it breeds a mentality, the leaders and the led, someone who gives the instructions and someone who takes it, which I think profoundly limits debate.
Finally, there is a problem with the “line”, where Leninists will often spin you some argument that they don’t really believe in, but have been told to push out, and it often comes over as very insincere or silly. People switch off as a result, so when these Leninists actually have something interesting and intelligent to say, no one is listening, or very few people are.
5. Which brings me to the final problem as I see it, argumentation skills or lack of.
The British Left are notorious for believing the worst of their political opponents and wish the most charitable interpretation to be placed on all of their endeavours, no matter how ridiculous or obviously faulty.
This links into the preceding points, so much of what passes for discussion on the British Left is done in bad faith and the motives of others always open to question.
The net result is that people switch off.
If someone is going to cynically produce fallacious arguments, ignore evidence, wish for charitable interpretations but put the worst on everyone else’s view, then in the end no one really wants to discuss issues in that cynical way.
It doesn’t happen absolutely all the time, but surprisingly, in my experience, much of the time and in turn it breeds a very bad atmosphere, it is not conducive to winning people over. It makes the British Left look like a pile of argumentative cranks, quick nitpickers but slow to the do anything meaningful.
That’s not a comprehensive list but I suspect portions of it are true on different occasions with different people.
I think the culture of the British Left has to change or be consumed by a resurgence neo-fascism, which is just waiting to flex its muscles.
That’s a few of my ideas, I have probably miss some.
For a spectacular example of the left getting it wrong, we turn to our old friend George Galloway, defending the Ahmadinejad theocracy. (H/t Ent/JohnnyG.) A slightly softer version comes from John Wight at Socialist Unity, wondering (in an article which, I have to say, is pretty good in places) if what we are seeing is a "counter-revolution" because it is middle class people doing the protesting. (Odd that when Palestine Solidarity action, university occupations and throwing eggs at BNP leaders is done by middle class people in the UK that doesn't make it counter-revolutionary.) He also uses the uprising as an opportunity for facile anti-Americanism, comparing the political energy of the Arab street to "the apathy of the American people which met the constitutional coup d’etat which ushered in the Bush administration back in 2000". (Hmm. Maybe because the Bush "coup" didn't involve shooting at Ralph Nader supporters or beheading Al Gore supporters.) Endemic anti-Americanism: ought to be no.6 on Modernity's list.

As an antidote (and I'm not sure how I missed this: it's from April), Christopher Hitchens on how Karl Marx speaks to the current economic crisis.


Iran links: I'm re-posting the Iran links from my post earlier this week, where the sites have continued to be updated or where I added the link more recently and suspect you might have missed it: Revolutionary Road,Michael Totten, Jeff W, Entdinglichung, Maryam N, Bataille Socialiste (mostly in French, but lots of photos and videos), AWL, The Hitch, Jams. Links and more links from Mod.


Euro-fascism and left unity: I've been adding more links to this post too.


jams o donnell said...

Bob, for something even more spectacular than Galloway, try Stalin, sorry Seumas, Milne in today's Grauniad

Scumbags like Milne and Galloway spit in the face of brave protestors, incluuding friends of mine, who are potentially putting their lives on the line in a cause that goes far beyond just rigged election

Noga said...

I've got a deranged sort of hunch that Wight's and Milne's real concern is with the possibility that Achmadinejad's genocidal bellicosity against Israel may depart from the world stage. Of course they are not saying it but does anyone else have that uncertain feeling that they are disappointed in the Iranian people?

BTW, this report of Hamas helping in the suppression of the Iranian "intifada" gives me pause to wonder whether God has a sense of irony:

BTW, Salma, the blogger from Tehran, began to post again after a long and uneasy silence:

jams o donnell said...

Noga the presence of Palestinians in Tehran may be a rumour but it is a very strong one. I had it from a friend in Tehran yesterday that some of those doing the oppressing speak no Farsi, just Arabic.

Okay Arabic is used by a minority in Iran but the speakers are not likely to be monoglots.

ModernityBlog said...

Well Bob, I didn't think anyone would notice that.

I rattled it off of my head, but if I were to critique the British Left deeper, and most of the my previous comments were essentally organisational and method, then I probably would include in knee-jerk anti-Americanism, along with an unhealthy colonial outlook which masquerades as 3rd worldism/fake anti-imperialism in the West, and with the racism of low expectations when it comes to the Middle East.

An example of that is shown in my exchange with a leading member of Respect, ID, here:

Andrew Coates said...

Perhaps it's because we are trade union activists that we backed the brave Iranian protesters. When I brought up the issue of HOPI (that's the pro-democracy wing of the far-left) on Iran at a Trades Council Meeting a beautful single mum who is a worker in Boots beamed and took the issue to heart.

bob said...

Only just saw (thanks to Ent.) that Chavez has joined Galloway (and the King of Swaziland) in supporting the dictator of Tehran.
WW4 Report

Here's a clickable link to the lovely Salma:
and her very useful Twitter page:

ModernityBlog said...

You couldn't make it up...the status quo is threatened in Iran and they all gather around to support the reactionaries.

I suppose they'd like to send in the Soviet tanks, if they could?

jams o donnell said...

Whay am I not surprised that Chavez has taken this stance. Is there a despot that he does not love either?

Anonymous said...


an excellent list, both in its original and revised version, of how many who claim to be on the left got it wrong. i would only add one more item: the left's seeming technophobic luddism. the failure, for example, of anyone to have made an mp3 or video of moishe postone's talk at soas is one example out of countless others (oh, and was there even any follow up to his talk in print?). by way of contrast, note how many iranians are currently using the new technology to help them organize and propel their own movement, and, which, by the way, we here, either in the states or europe, now depend on for any sort of information whatsoever about events over there.


ModernityBlog said...

Agreed Les,

With modern technology you've got an audience of potentially millions and yet people can't be troubled to reach out and engage them.

The Iranians are wonderful in their use of technology, getting around the State's clamp down is no minor task.

I doubt the British Left could have managed 1% of what the Iranians have done. A fair few British Lefties are still trying to grasp mobile phones.

SOAS? Yeah, I wanted to listen to that, it would have been easier to get a student to record it and less hassle.

The organisers of these meetings are in my view, politically parochial and their own worst enemies, because at some point their supporters won't bother to communicate their ideas, suggestions or wishes knowing that no one seems to be listening, and the organisers along with the campaign against antisemitism ultimately loses out.

Anonymous said...

spot on, mod, again. let me put it to you like this: the left doesn't organize to win, we organize to whine. and so much follows from that...


ejh said...

so much of what passes for discussion on the British Left is done in bad faith and the motives of others always open to question.


Physician, heal thyself.

ModernityBlog said...

well ehj, even if I did it would not detract from the evidence.

If you are going to argue that most debate on the left (SU blog is an example, but you could pick Dave Osler's, etc) ARE conducted in good faith then please, do.

Otherwise, I hold to that original point, as there is plenty, nay, volumes of evidence to back it up.

bob said...

the left doesn't organize to win, we organize to whine. Perfectly expressed. Les, I think you've seen this Postone write-up, but others might like to too:

Moishe Postone on history, the Holocaust and the anti-capitalist Left « Greens Engage