My grandfather was, for the greater part of his life, a communist. To few people might you have more aptly asked, with ample self-satisfaction at the delicious double meaning of the question, “excuse me, but what is the Left for?” For the last twenty years of his life this bolshie Jewish pensioner chaired a monthly discussion group, bearing the fantastically bourgeois name of The Anjou Luncheon Club—in essence little more than an opportunity for him and his lifelong comrades to bang their fists on the table in front of some hapless guest speaker. These meetings could scarcely have furnished a more stereotypical picture of the aimless and desultory “Old Left” in modern Britain. Taking place in The Gay Hussar, a hungarian restaurant in London’s Soho district renowned as a haunt of major figures in the British Left since the Sixties, each session seethed with frustration. After decades of disappointment, the assembled octogenarians were fundamentally distrustful of every politician under the sun, many of whom were unflatteringly depicted in satirical portraits adorning the Gay Hussar’s suitably reddened walls. Privileged by visits from what often seemed disproportionately significant public figures (including thenChancellor Gordon Brown and his advisor ed Balls, now Shadow Chancellor), Anjou sparked with internal divisions and disagreements more than half a century old.
“You were a revisionist in ’56…” intones one gray haired battle-axe, a tremulous weathered finger jabbing violently across the room and veering dangerously close to a thin vase of table flowers, “and you’re a revisionist now!” The finger turns into an open palm and slams down definitively on the table, causing all the wine glasses within range to tremble in agitation, and preventing listeners from slipping into a brief slumber and missing these important observations. “All I’m saying…” the accused revisionist implores in reply, “is that if we want to criticize Blair, we should write down a manifesto … some sense of what we would like to see Labour do…” A mixture of derisive snorts and approving murmurs just about manages to drown out a man in the corner complaining that he can’t hear. And so we go on. Naturally there was always something deeply heartwarming about these lunches. Perhaps, in a world where the elderly are so often pushed to the periphery of public culture as defunct and addled has-beens, it was because of how fully these grandfathers and grandmothers followed Dylan Thomas’s famous plea: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But there was no disguising the futility that bedeviled them. These genuinely extraordinary individuals were rarely able, when faced with the bewildering developments of twenty-first century capitalism and the self-declared (and certainly bogus) “post-ideological” nature of modernity, to articulate what it was that they did want. Everything was too infected by “inadequacies,” too tainted by duplicity and spin, and their traditional political solutions were, in turn, all too transparently antediluvian. And while many younger Leftist activists misguidedly identify with international leaders of dubious standing, that was not a palatable option for Anjou’s old-timers. They were wise enough to have learnt the lessons of the twentieth century, with its long lineage of revolutionaries-turned-dictators. This was not the place to support hugo Chavez, Muammar Qaddafi or the Castros just because they opposed America and styled themselves as “socialist.” So these meetings seemed “for” nothing in the sense that they endorsed no political program. And their truly vital function probably had less to do with politics than friendship.
Anecdotes like this will be familiar to many, containing some essentially unsurprising observations about a certain form of seemingly antiquated Leftism. But such “anti-politics” (or rather “anti”-politics, as it is a politics of opposition, not the opposition of politics) runs against two pieces of conventional wisdom. First, it will be judged as hopelessly impotent by those political gurus who teach that political movements must have a positively-defined vision or program to achieve success. “We know what Labour’s against,” a columnist of Britain’s leading left-wing Sunday newspaper assured readers recently. “Now let us hear what it is for.” And from a second, more academic standpoint the very existence of “anti”-politics seems puzzling. Modern specialists typically define ideologies as systems of beliefs that collectively provide guidelines to political action. Such a view does not, in principle, foreclose the possibility that such guidelines involve what is opposed as well as what is actively advanced, but this is typically assumed to be an afterthought, rather than the dominant mode of political thinking.
But neither viewpoint seems quite right to me. On the contrary, it is vital for the Left to be characterized by “anti”-politics. While various components of the Left—political parties, lobby groups and so forth—must certainly advocate concrete policy programs, these do not define the Left; they are not the enduring starting point of its politics. The other side of the coin, the antipathetic oppositional element, has just as vital a role to play. Old communists arguing in vain over lunch and delusive protest rallies ineffectually chanting into the night are not an epiphenomenal and misguided periphery of the Left but a crucial, if sometimes frustrating, part of its beating heart.
But why break with the conventional wisdom? for a start, its underlying assumption—that oppositional politics occurs only peripherally, and in ineffectual and insipid forms—does not appear to be borne out by reality. The news in 2011 was dominated by some of the most archetypal instances of oppositional politics that human society can produce, in the Arab Spring and then Occupy Wall Street. Millions have been mobilized without any specific vision of the future or common political program, united instead by common antipathy towards authoritarianism and injustice. The extraordinary acts of bravery displayed in Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain have not been impelled by any concrete picture of the future institutions of the country, or an intellectual philosophy depicting the just society. They are rooted in deep-seated dissatisfaction and a profound sense of outrage at the status quo, and at the daily experience of torture, murder, corruption and poverty. As Mariam Soliman, an egyptian protester quoted by the New York Times, put it: “I am not a socialist, I am not a liberal, I am not an Islamist. I am an Egyptian woman, a regular woman rejecting injustice and corruption in my country.”
And the North African revolutions are far from exceptional in this regard. W.C. Fields’ quip, “I never vote for anybody, I always vote against,” might only be a slight exaggeration for many of us. A huge number of people are far clearer, politically, about what they are not, than what they are; about what they are against, than what they are for. As the recent London riots may testify, anti-politics always emerges, one way or another. The suggestion that the looting and violence in London was motivated by what would generally be recognized as a political agenda was debunked almost as soon as the riots began. But as people increasingly lack traditional avenues to express antagonism and antipathy (such as highly activist youth movements), it seems likely that they will eventually find other ways to rage against the machine.
It is true that a century of ethnic conflict, and the consequently heightened awareness of racism and other forms of discrimination, have made us understandably wary of a politics based on disliking, particularly disliking certain people. But this is too sweeping an attitude. In democracies with few major parties, we all too frequently have to choose the lesser of two evils. And so opponents of Silvio Berlusconi in italy had to swallow their reservations about the alternatives, for example, to concentrate on what mattered: their outrage at his egregious abuses as an incumbent. Without an overwhelming range of options, there are rarely going to be leaders, candidates or parties who elicit our wholehearted approval. “We’d all like to vote for the best man,” remarked the nineteenth-century journalist Kin Hubbard, “but he’s never a candidate.” As such the repudiation of vices remains wholly legitimate. A memorable episode of the U.S. television drama The West Wing involved a congressional campaign manager, Will Bailey, continuing to solicit votes in spite of his candidate’s death. Defending his campaign for a dead man by listing many of the abuses of his Republican opponent, Bailey simply concluded that “there are worse things in the world than no longer being alive.”
Anti-politics is, therefore, as integral a part of politics as anything else. But why should it be of specific relevance to the Left? The first step is to abandon the notion that the Left should be identified with a political party, core policy program, or even a nebulous political “movement.” All of these imply too great a level of coherence compared to our political realities: the enormous differences between many parts of the Left, and the strong similarities they have with some of their counterparts on the Right. Instead, I would characterize both Left and Right as collections of stories told by both insiders and outsiders. Some of the stories may be denigrating, others laudatory; some critical, others positively hagiographic. Some will be blithely simplistic, portraying the Left as a group of foolish utopians who want to change the world. Others show stunning complexity, charting a Leftist history that begins with the Montagnard and Jacobin delegates to the French eighteenth-century états généraux, whose practice of sitting to the left of the President’s chair is assumed to be the origin of our modern sinistral metaphor. But whatever the variety, what is crucial is that when we talk about Left and Right we are not using some sort of tight taxonomy for categorizing political beliefs, but engaging in the vital human activity of story-telling. Vital because, without stories, it is hard to make sense of the world around us, and our place within it.
Such stories shape politics. Your attitudes toward a government proposal are clearly going to vary depending on whether your story of it depicts a long overdue effort to provide basic healthcare to millions, or a socialist (by which is meant: “monstrous”) attempt to eliminate peoples’ basic freedoms. If one’s story about the American Republican Party, while acknowledging it as a diverse coalition, first and foremost portrays it as advocating responsible government, states’ rights and skepticism of bureaucratic efficiency, one is hardly likely to hate it. Not so if the story is of an alliance of xenophobic and ignorant racists in league with elitist, uncaring and corrupt big business.
What we need to ask, then, is “which stories constitute the Left?” The Left’s stories, I suggest, are characterized by a fundamental concern with identifying and eliminating injustices in the world around it. It is a concern which runs through the stated motivations of individual Leftists, and which is embedded in the keystones of the Leftist narrative—the abolition of property requirements to vote, the new Deal, the national health Service, affirmative action, the Sixties. It is a story with a clear villain: the Tory party in the U.K., the Republicans in the United States, the Bonapartists and Gaullists in France. This villain is the defender of privilege and the interests of the wealthy few, engaged, as Leftist intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith tells us, in “one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy … the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” The story may have the simplistic overtones of a children’s tale, but plenty of political discourse is simplistic. Even if we do not happen to agree with Joseph Schumpeter’s ultra-elitist conception of democracy, it is hard not to see the wisdom in his claim that:
the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.
The need for easily understandable narratives simply reflects our societies’ limited political capacities. And the Leftist story is a real epic, with long periods in the wilderness (the pre-1930s for British Labour), glory years (the post-war transformation, the Blair hegemony—although that part of the story is recollected with ambivalence), and years of failure and downtrodden futility (the Thatcherite Eighties). If devoid of purpose, this tale of at least a hundred years would be unbearably confusing and ambiguous, so it needs a unifying thread—the long struggle for justice in an unjust world.
The Right, by contrast, is characterized by wariness regarding concerted human action and the dangers of radical change, accompanied by a compelling historical narrative of its own, but that is quite literally another story. The nineteenth-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone may have disparaged the underlying Conservative sentiment as simply “distrust of the people tempered by fear,” but both Leftist and Rightist attitudes are valuable, and they are clearly not mutually exclusive. The Right does not aloofly disregard all injustices, and the Left is not utterly in denial about the possibility of human tragedy through sudden transformation. What differentiates them is how they prioritize these two concerns.
This conception of Left and Right as co-existing, interrelated and dynamic bundles of stories yields a series of reasons as to why the Left must involve “anti”-politics—why it cannot be definitively “for” some sacrosanct program, like industrial nationalization, income equality or trade union power. Politicians may want to define themselves around such programs, but those who declare the abandonment of old commitments as a “betrayal of the Left” are wrongly attempting to appropriate that vast and complex tradition to legitimize their own particular ideology. The Left as a cluster of stories has no universal program or policies that it is definitively for.
But the Left must involve oppositional politics because its foundational attitude is one of opposition: antagonism with an unjust world. While the Right has a specific world—the present one—to defend, it is that world which the Left starts by critiquing. Protest against injustice often necessarily precedes the suggestion of alternatives; dissatisfaction with the status quo paves the way for dreaming up visions of the future, utopian or not. True, one of the great flaws of Karl Marx’s work was the belief that little could be prescribed about the future communist society in advance. Until capitalism falls, Marx reasoned, we remain too ensnared in its ideological grip to see the full range of possibilities that will present themselves to us in the post-revolutionary order. Such vagueness opened the door to catastrophic individual human discretion by those who held the reins of power in Marxist societies. But the idea wasn’t baseless—it often is necessary to tear down or critique an institution or state of affairs before we can begin to see what it is possible to put in its place. It would be mad (and callous) to demand of those revolting against oppression that they come up with a detailed plan of the new society before going out onto the streets. “The future is to be built,” Tunisian filmmaker Ben Mourad Cheikh tells us. “It can only be better. I don’t know how it will be built … But there is no more fear today in Tunisia.” And in a world where, from the most developed societies to the least, thousands still live in fear, it remains crucial for the Left to fight against oppression.
A focus on “anti”-politics can also guard against two forms of dogma. The first is the powerful set of social assumptions about what is “possible.” Intellectual developments of the past thirty years have revealed the radical extent to which such assumptions—about what is “unchangeable,” “unrealistic to oppose” or “unfeasible”—are rarely neutral and self-evident, but produced by powerful social institutions such as the media, political parties and educational bodies, many of whom have deep vested interests in making certain things unthinkable. It is naïve idealism to ignore this form of social power, hence Che Guevara’s appeal: “Let’s be realists—let’s dream the impossible.” If the Left is to seriously question society’s most powerful institutions, and the features of social life which they assert as “natural” and “necessary,” it must not hamstring itself by solely trying to work with the range of solutions prescribed by the very institutions and systems it identifies as unjust.
But “anti”-politics may also guard against the Left’s own dogma as well, against fundamentalist attachment to unworkable policies. If the real goal is to oppose injustice then the Left must address moral grievances that impact people’s lives, rather than defend ancient sacrosanct commitments that mean little to those beyond the party faithful.
Recognizing that the Left is for “anti”-politics also counters some worrying features of the contemporary political Zeitgeist, beyond those already suggested. In much of the world, Leftists seem to have become overwhelmingly concerned with presentational issues and media coverage. As a result, the meandering search for a new set of policies to be “for” has become governed by novelty and the ease with which they can be “sold” to the public. If this were just accommodation to the harsh realities of politics, it might be understandable, if lamentable. But it has come at the cost of a willingness to identify major injustices that can be undone. Hence, the Left has remained deafeningly silent on the fact that the income of the median male American voter has been flat in real terms since 1973, that British median wages, relatively flat even before the recession, will be lower in 2015 than in 2001. In other words, for all the growth of the American and British economies over these periods, literally none of the proceeds have gone to the bulk of average-income citizens, let alone to many of the poorest. These should be genuinely startling statistics, which seriously recast the meretricious assurances of liberals and libertarians that accumulated wealth will “trickle down” in the end. And they render the narrative of rapidly disintegrating class boundaries hugely implausible.
Yet Leftist parties seem uninterested. Even in the wake of the Occupy movements, politicians continue to adopt ever harsher standpoints against immigrants, advance radically authoritarian policies on criminal justice and state security, and avoid backing democratic reform. Much of the Left seems to find itself in a bind between three equally wrongheaded strategies—quietly bowing to the demands of the Right; peddling vacuously banal policies and sentiments which remain as genially inoffensive as they are pathetically ineffectual; or returning to the same old platforms they found comfort and success with in the past. Some, such as elements of the new movement in the British Labour Party marching under the staggeringly bad soubriquet of “Blue Labour,” are pursuing all three.
This, I desperately want to believe, is not what the Left is for. What contemporary politics needs is people willing to articulate the injustices lurking below the public consciousness, and more broadly, to raise questions about the fundamental sort of society in which we wish to live. Yet political forces which should be engaging in social critique and moral reproach have become co-opted by the very systems and processes they are supposed to scrutinize and reform. And those social institutions that shape public attitudes and discourse to suit their interests, assuring us that the current state of affairs is “natural,” “necessary” and “efficient,” are having far too easy a victory. Progressive politics requires us to challenge such assertions and to fight against the institutions that peddle them. I am not convinced that either the public or politicians really do know what the Left is against, aside from losing elections. If our societies are to be dynamic, self-reflective and progressively more just, we need to avoid denigrating “anti”-politics; new policies should follow from critique, not be a substitute for it. Antagonism toward an unjust world and the vested interests which sustain it remains the essence of the Left. For all their sense of impotence, it is this antagonism that my grandfather and his fist-pounding comrades excelled at, and that millions outside the West rely on daily. We lose it at our peril.