30 August 2004


Socialism in the Age of Waiting has responded to my last post (click here) with the following (click here for full post):

"We have some doubts about the suggestion that the present malaise afflicting so many leftists will pass, much as previous 'waves of cretinism' passed because . . . 'some part of the left kept its head and argued the case against the prevailing delusions consistently and publicly'.

"This seems more optimistic than the present situation warrants: try arguing with those who are thus deluded and see if they are even capable of conceding that they could possibly have got anything wrong at all. It also seems more rationalistic than the past cases he cites might suggest. It’s at least arguable that 'enthusiasm for the Soviet Union' and 'sucking up to the IRA' succumbed to the attrition of changing circumstances - ranging from very well-known historical events to less well-known but highly effective organisational manoeuvres within labour movements - rather than to rational argument, which largely (though not, of course, entirely) followed on from those circumstances. As for 'anti-Europeanism' and 'uncritical support for any third world populist would-be tyrant claiming to lead a national liberation struggle', both are still going strong in at least some sections of the left, and precisely those that are least amenable to argument. . .

"We remain unconvinced that 'left' in the singular has much use or relevance, and we’d still prefer to see the pluralism that some celebrate, others deplore and we ruefully put up with acknowledged more consistently - notably, and most helpfully, through the making of some necessary and very sharp distinctions, such as between liberal lefts and socialist lefts, and between genuinely democratic lefts and the lefts that are either anti-democratic or (even worse, because even less honest) contemptibly self-deluding about democracy and its enemies."

Well, I agree with some of that – in particular the contention that the notion of a singular "left" has little use or relevance. There are today and have been for 200 years many lefts, some of them little short of despicable. Where I disagree is in my estimation of the power of argument to change minds.

To take the example of the left's enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, because I think it's the most important left delusion of the past 100 years. I don't deny that changing circumstances had a massive effect in opening people's eyes — from Kronstadt, through Spain, the show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, Stalin's colonisation of eastern Europe after 1945, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and the rise and suppression of Solidarnosc, right up to the collapse of "actually existing socialism" in 1989-91.

But the relentless arguments of left critics of the Soviet Union – seizing on these events, to be sure – also had a crucial impact. Bertrand Russell's anti-Bolshevik polemic of 1920, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, which remained in print until very recently; Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman's records of their disillusionment with Russia in the 1920s (published in the UK as well as in the US and widely read); Malcolm Muggeridge, Walter Citrine (TUC general secretary) and William Henry Chamberlin (Manchester Guardian correspondent), who all produced critical accounts of Stalin's Russia in the early to mid 1930s; George Orwell, the Tribune left, the ILP, the anarchists and the Trotskyists in the late 1930s and (particularly) the 1940s, who published a stream of material of their own and from foreign experts; the cold war social democrats from the 1950s (among whom I'd include Robert Conquest and Leonard Schapiro and most of their Menshevik-inspired friends in the US); the democratic socialist, libertarian, Trotskyist and ex-communist defenders of the Hungarian revolution; the defenders of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia and Solidarnosc in Poland; the Edward Thompson wing of the 1980s peace movement – all of them stuck to their guns, and I think they had a cumulative impact in changing the political atmosphere. Certainly by the 1960s pro-Sovietism was the prerogative of a small minority of British leftists, and by the 1980s the only pro-Soviet diehards on the Brit left were either extraordinarily stupid, on the make or both (let us not forget that the Soviet Union funded the Communist Party of Great Britain almost until its death and that freebies in "socialist" spas were enthusiastically taken up by trade unionist bollock-brains right up to the end of the 1980s).

I think it would be possible to tell a similar story of left sucess against anti-Europeanism or kneejerk third world national liberationism (with some of the same people playing key roles). Whatever, I can't see any reason why opponents of left cretinism today shouldn't prevail again. As Bob Marley put it, don't give up the fight.

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