This is the first in a series of posts I’m working on which will focus on studying and (hopefully) understanding the left. Partly, this is based on my experience of studying the left academically via Social Movement Studies, but also from my own experience of being “on the left”.
What even is the left?
There’s a tendency when talking or writing about politics to use totalising political terms. We imagine a political landscape where “the left” stands in opposition to “the right.” Mainstream media political writing, no matter how good, tends to use such totalising terms without interrogation. There’s a good piece in the morning’s Guardian about the future of the left, which is a fine article in of itself, and can be found here, but never once tries to unpack what is meant by the left, beyond a very cursory analysis.
Part of the problem comes from the fact we tend to use what are meant to be economic terms to define entire political entities and ideologies. A very simple way of mapping out politics can be seen in the image below:
Implicit in this horizontal model of politics is the belief that the further you go from the centre, the more extreme social and economic control becomes. Authoritarianism lurks on the edges, ergo those who are on the far left or far right tend to favour control of the economy or civil liberties of individuals by either a monarch, or the party apparatus of state Communism. This model of politics also idealises the centre ground, a seemingly legendary area which obsesses the political classes.
Of course, this model is flawed, because it interweaves economic and social politics together. Historical and contemporary events suggests that parties and movements cannot be fitted onto this neat scale; for instance, until around 1922, the Bolshevik party of the Soviet Union operated on a model of extremely liberal sexual politics, arguably more so than, say, the US Democrat Party of the same period.
The above diagram is often referred to as the political compass, and maps out the position of parties, ideologies and individuals based on a scale that measures not just the economic position, but also the social position. Based on the work of Wilhelm Reich and Theodor Adorno, the political compass model shows how, when left/right are terms confined to economic analysis, that the distinctions between groups can be blurred. A party may be economically on the far left, but deeply socially conservative, or vice versa, or somewhere in between.
Above in a map of the UK political parties during the 2015 General Election. A couple of things are notable; the so-called populist protest “party of the people” UKIP actually sits very much on the conservative, authoritarian right. Interestingly, the often lazily labelled “extreme right” BNP is only slightly more authoritarian than UKIP, economically closer to the middle ground. Of the “left” parties, we actually see a pretty bleak picture: Labour’s 2015 manifesto only put them slight less to the right, and slightly less authoritarian, than the Conservative Party. The SNP’s left credentials are questionable, given their economic positions, and only the Green Party occupied the place where most would assume left parties exist: economically left, socially libertarian.
Hopefully, this method of thinking about politics is clear. What I’m going to do now is trying to categorize and position left parties and social movements on this compass. Some generalizing is necessary for this to work, but I hope to illustrate the heterogeneity of the left in this way. After that, I’ll try to explain why I think all of this is so important.
Two notes on terminology:
1)”Radical” or “Extreme”
In the second half of this post, I’m going to make the point that the naming of things in mainstream political commentary is often lazy and misleading, leading to grotesque misunderstandings of the nature of parties and movements. One I’d like to address straight away is the descriptors “radical” and “extreme”. These are terms often used in journalistic political reporting: (“Extreme Leftists hope to lock Jeremy Corbyn in power” –The Telegraph; “Meet the Radical Rightwing Activists waging social media war for Trump,” –I News). The two words are often used interchangeably, which I believe is problematic. To my mind, a radical party is very different from an extreme party, and the distinction I offer here is what is commonly agreed in the field of Social Movement Studies.
Extreme parties or social movements are those who operate in contempt of the principles of liberal democracy. They tend to eschew parliamentary politics all together, and engage in political praxis via direct action, protest, and in certain cases actual of political terrorism. A group like Daesh, therefore, can be seen as an extreme political organisation. Their political programme will only be implemented through methods that exist outside of the democratic framework. Certain extreme organisations can have parliamentary wings – a good example of this is the relationship between the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein.
Radical groups on the other hand tend to operate within the framework of liberal democracy, but are deeply critical of elements of it. This is by far and away the more common form of political organisation. The Greek SYRIZA party, for instance, is the governing party within the Hellenic Parliament, but also organises street demonstrations, protest actions, community political initiatives and so on.
It is worth noting, however, that certain groups can be both radical and extreme. The Greek Golden Dawn party is a good example: while it holds seats in the Hellenic Parliament, it is also not above using violence, arson, and even murder, to terrorise its political opponents.
Political terminology is very commonly used as a pejorative. The best example of this is the term “Nazi” or “Fascist” which I have heard applied to everything from the Golden Dawn Party to the UK Independence Party, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, and even in one case, myself. “Fascist” in common discourse, tends to just be another way of saying “someone I don’t like who may or may not have an authoritarian element to them.” Overuse of “Fascist” is quite dangerous in my experience, as it tends to water down antifascist messages. There are, certainly, some accurate uses for these words: the Golden Dawn Party is called Neo-Nazi because it simply is; it follows a Hitlerist philosophy, updated for a Greek Political context. Indeed, as I am going to argue in a future post, Trump’s political philosophy is if not fascist then certainly fascistic.
(I should add that defining fascism can be very tricky, and I am using Umberto Eco’s essay “Ur Fascism” as a starting point for any discussions of fascism – because it is very good. I’ll explore Eco’s theories of fascism, and how I think they apply to Trump, in a later post, but you can read Eco’s original essay here and if you really want, you can see how fascism has become linked into heteronormativity – in my humble opinion, at least – here)
More recently, words like “Trot” (a diminutive of “Trotskyist”) has become a pejorative among mainstream political writers in the UK when writing about the Labour Party. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are lumped together under this term, with all its implications of loony leftism, soviet political organizing and the like. As I hope to suggest below, Corbyn himself is not a Trotskyist, or even a Marxist, and you can read some of my thoughts on the Labour Party here, and here.
In the Western World, there are very few major organisations that actually espouse state socialism as seen under the actually existing communist states. The Communist Party of Great Britain, for instance, while it is the descendent of the old Communist Party which pledged loyalty to Moscow, is now more on the libertarian left. This is in contrast to the KKE (the Greek Communist Party). The KKE is on the edge of the left of the economic spectrum, but is, confusingly, deeply conservative on social issues. In 2015 the KKE voted against civil partnerships for gay couples. The Party’s position on marriage was outlined as “It includes social protection of children, who are biologically the result of sexual relations between a man and a woman. With the formation of a socialist-communist society, a new type of partnership will undoubtedly be formed—a relatively stable heterosexual relationship and reproduction.” (Source here). Ironically, then, the KKE ended up voting against their seemingly more natural political bedfellows, the Coalition of the Radical Left (or SYRIZA) and instead siding on LGBT rights with the Socially Conservative Nationalist ANEL party, and also the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. KKE embodies a phenomena which is known as “Conservative Communism.” Those of us who have studied or been part of the left will know this well; economically left, but socially conservative and authoritarian, the old Communist Parties embody the common understanding of communism as a totalitarian ideology as opposed to an emancipatory one. Sexual and gender issues seemed to be the main sticking point for Conservative Communists; the French Communist Party, PCF, branded both homosexuality and feminism as “capitalist” indulgences, and until well into the 1970s were virulently homophobic and anti-feminist.
It is perhaps worth making the point here that “communism” is often equated with “Marxist-Leninism”. Not all communists are Marxist-Leninist – take, for instance, the anarcho-communist and libertarian communist movements. Furthermore, not all Marxist-Leninist movements use the term “communism” or “communist” (this is especially the case in Eastern European states where communism is often associated with the totalitarian barbarism of the Soviet Union.)
Far Left/Hard Left
Terms like “hard left” or “far left” are rarely found in academic discourse, or, indeed, in use by left groups themselves. These terms are unhelpful from the perspective of critical analysis, as they are intended to be read emotively, and with certain connotations. A “Hard” leftist is someone who perhaps operates on a rigid, militaristic, uncompromising political ideology, whereas someone of the “far” left is by their very naming, on the fringes of the political spectrum, and should therefore be treated with suspicion. Further more, “far” left can be tricky to justify as some left parties are not actually that far to the left economically, even if they sit at the far libertarian end of the political compass.
Left Parties and Left Populism
There is has been an increasing movement within the European left to dispense within any sort of premodifier all together and just define themselves as “left”. The German “Die Linke” (which translates literally as “The Left”) is prominent example of this. Kate Hudson, the current General Secretary of the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament, and visiting Research Fellow at London South Bank University, charts this reclaiming of the stand alone “left” in her book The New European Left: a socialism for the twenty-first century? and additionally is the National Secretary of Left Unity. Left Unity is an interesting example within the UK Left. The Party is committed to “anti-capitalism” (more on that below) and also to “socialism” but draws many of its members from Trotskyist groups like the Alliance for Workers Liberty (a group I was once involved in, see here) and Socialist Alliance. Left Unity was formed by film director Ken Loach, who believed that only the Green Party was speaking for the Left in the UK. Left Unity, currently, still exists but has encouraged its membership to join the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn (this is not really entryism in the sense fantasied about by rightist commentators, since most of the members of Left Unity were, in fact, former Labour party activists anyway.
One potential flaw in parties defining themselves simply as “left” is that they implicitly suggest that the have the monopoly over leftism. There is inherently an appeal towards a kind of authenticity of leftism in this self-designation which elides, say, Green parties, which can more often than not be more “left” than left parties (but more on that later).
It’s interesting as well that the rise of self-defined “left” parties is a symptom of the resurgence of left populism. Generally speaking, media coverage has focused on right populist movements and parties (as exemplar, UKIP, and, indeed, populism doesn’t really naturally find a home with either the left or the right. Cas Mudde defines poplurism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that populism is not a doctrine, as much as symptom of a certain kind of politics. Right wing populist groups have traditionally built on working class dissatisfaction with existing left movements, for instance the gains of UKIP from Labour after the latter’s rightward shift, or of Front Nationale at the expense of the PCF (French Communist Party). Left populists often utilize the people versus corrupt elite narrative as an extension of the orthodox Marxist view on class war – it takes very little to apply the interests of the urban proletariat to the people at large. Populists want to speak for the people, and thus, perhaps an attempt to claim the title “left” for themselves is part of some conception of building a people led mass movement.
Direct Action Networks
Ask people to think about left movements as opposed to left parties, and what they generally think of are Direct Action Networks, or DANs. Occupy was one, and some would argue that Black Lives Matter and Queer Lives Matter are similar. DANs are political movements which do not have a direct involvement in parliamentary politics, though individuals within them may stand for political office, although this can sometimes be more to make a statement of political intent. Generally, DANs act outside of the parliamentary sphere, and prioritize direct action of some form of another. The Occupy protest camps of 2011-12 are an example of this, or the protests and marches of the Black Lives Matter movement.
DANs can be single or multi-issue, though single issue DANs are more common. For example, Black Lives Matter is often characterised by the media as a left-wing social movement, yet I cannot find any evidence of a left economic policy programme within the group (if there is, and I’ve just missed it, please post a source in the comments below). DANs tend to have more success than political parties linguistically, in that their slogans tend to enter common political dialect. “We are the 99%” is one of the most famous examples, and its various derivatives, and the discourse of 1% vs 99% has become a part of the language of those interested in economic justice. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement has given its own name huge political weight, and has also been bastardized by reactionary forces under the ironic “all lives matter.” Comparably, the linguistic interventions of political parties tend to not have the same impact, or are often referred to cynically – take the Conservatives “We’re all in this together” (a phrase I have only ever uttered sarcastically) or, going back further, Tony Blair’s “education, education, education,” a phrase which only ever provokes a cringe. This linguistic interventionism on the part of DANs is extremely interesting, and requires further analysis, though I suspect commonness of social media as a tool for organizing and propagandizing has some strong role within in.
Parties vs Social Movements
In the clusterfuck that is the Labour Party’s internal battle, an interesting trend has emerged from the pro-Corbyn camp: to try to rebrand the Labour Party (at least in part) as a social movement. In an interview with Novara Media, Paul Mason linked the idea of Labour as a social movement to a pathway to electoral success (you can watch the full interview, which is immensely interesting in and of itself, here ). Jeremy Corbyn himself announced the intriguing idea of academies for ʟabour activists (source here). Training activists is a very common feature of social movements (there is, for example, among radical left social movements, importance placed upon “activist educationals”). Putting aside the inevitable hysteria that greets anything Corbyn says or does, there is a question here of the differences between a party and a social movement. This is a question that I will dedicate its own post to, since this one is now nearly 3000 words long, but a few thoughts are necessary at this point.
Generally speaking, academics have seen a clear divide between a party (which has the goal of winning electorally) and a social movement (which may have a myriad of vaguer goals relating to awareness raising, changing public consciousness, and the like). There is a traditional wisdom (of which I am sceptical) in Social Movement Studies which suggests that the growth of social movements arises from dissatisfaction with political parties, and is therefore representative of a crisis in liberal democratic party politics. Occupy, for example, is often cited as an example of the failures of socialist and social democratic parties to deliver on electoral politics. The main reason for my skepticism about this argument is that it imagines that engagement with political parties and social movements are two mutually exclusive and totally irreconcilable forms of political praxis. This is simply not the case; I am, for example, a member of the Labour Party (a parliamentary party) and also a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (a social movement) and the interests and political goals of the two overlap regularly.
But can something be both a party and a social movement at the same time? The only example I can think of currently is the Italian Five Star Movement, the populist group which claims that it is not a party (source here, in Italian) , yet has 91 seats in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and recently won key mayoral elections in Rome and Turin. The Five Star Movement is rather hard to categorise on the political left-right spectrum, since on the one hand it is committed to environmentalism, sustainable development and transport and LGBT rights (policies traditionally found in the social democratic project) yet it is part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the EU Parliament, a membership it shares with UKIP, the xenophobic Swedish Democrats, and the classical liberal Czech Party of Free Citizens. Regardless, though, the Five Star Movement’s successes suggest that a dual party/social movement identity can work, and to great effect.
I hope this post has gone some way towards unpacking what we mean by “the left”. All thoughts and comments welcome below. The next post in these series will explore the difference between a party and a movement, and after that, I’ll try to explore what gender means to the radical left.