Has the left lost its way? Has it become so diverse that it has lost sight of its goals and values? What is the left exactly? Does it even make sense any longer to speak of the left? Having said all that, was there ever a time when the left was united around a common set of assumptions?

For the purposes of this article I am going to treat ‘the left’ as the socialist left. Not that that helps particularly because for reasons we shall explore, the socialist left is itself far from being a homogenous whole. In fact, it is precisely because the left holds such diverse opinions that finding common ground seems, at times, to be an impossible task. 

Those new to socialism, or left-wing politics, are often shocked at the venom with which people who are supposedly on the same side can, at times, attack one another. They wonder, as we all have at one point or another, if my friends treat me this way, what chance do I stand against my enemies?

Although many of the divisions appear new, most have their origins in debates that have been raging since the term socialism was first used. Understanding how those divisions arose may not necessarily help us to overcome them but at least allows us to see why they arouse such passion in their supporters.

Early socialism

The early socialists such as Saint-Simon and Robert Owen were philanthropists and social reformers who were often driven by their religious beliefs toward a utopian socialism which, whilst critical of the brutality of the nascent capitalist system, regarded industrialisation, and often imperial expansion, as civilising influences in a brutal and dangerous world. 

Until the twentieth century, socialism was pretty much the preserve of God-fearing, social reformers on a mission to change, for the better, the depraved existence of ordinary people. Alongside these new ideas was growing, as a result of industrialisation, a new form of organisation among those most brutalised by the excesses of capitalism. Enter stage left: the trade union movement.

In a sense this was the first divide between those calling themselves socialists. For some, socialism is a moralistic set of ideals which may, or may not, have religious forebears. For others, it was a practical means of improving the conditions of the labouring classes. It seems to me that the division still exists, with some arguing for socialism as essentially a set of values that all socialists should sign up to and others seeing socialism as a response to the material situation created by capitalism. It’s not that the two sides of that divide cannot talk but whilst for one side those ‘values’ represent socialism, for the other the ‘values’ are an off-shoot of struggles between workers and bosses over material conditions. One important point here is that neither side are, by definition, strong on theory. However, many materialists are attracted to Marxism itself, a materialist reaction to the idealism of Hegel.

Historically trade union struggle gave birth to the socialist movement as we understand it today. It is difficult now to imagine just how brutal life was for the average working person in those days. Workers would have to work 14 or 15 hour days, six days a week, with no holidays, sick pay or pensions. Workers were not just men, but entire families, including children as young as five or six. Life was, in the words of the conservative philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”.

Trade unions and the working class

Trade union organisation, fought at every step of its development by employers who claimed it would ruin the economy, was something anybody who called themselves a socialist could support. For Marx it brought into being a new class that, ultimately, could challenge the ruling class for dominance – the proletariat.

People often conflate the proletariat with ‘the working class’ but, in a strict Marxist sense, the proletariat are a small part of the entire working class, comprising that part of the class who are engaged in active productive work.

By 1848 the new trade unions were finding their voice. Demands for better pay and more humane working conditions led to a wave of proto-revolutionary movements across Europe. Many felt, as William Wordsworth had felt, when inspired by the French Revolution in 1789, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. Cities from Paris to Palermo, Budapest to Berlin were littered with barricades, built from paving stones and heaped up with furniture, overturned carriages and even pianos. The outcome of 1848 was, ultimately, a defeat, but it was a defeat that taught some socialist thinkers a massive lesson.

Although not written in response to these events, Marx’s and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party was published at the same time. This tiny booklet gave a condensed rendition of the key parts of Marx’s historical materialism, and, perhaps most importantly, gave socialists something to unite around. Whilst the 1848 revolutions were mainly nationalistic in flavour, they inspired hundreds, even thousands, of young radicals who, armed with a Marxist understanding of history and class began to form themselves into ‘working class parties’. 

Reform or revolution?

By the early 20th Century genuinely radical and popular parties had emerged. The majority of socialists had no issue at all with nailing the colours to the Marxist mast, and most of the social democratic parties which sprung up across Europe adopted one form or other of Marxism. The direction that these parties should take in pursuit of Marxism was hotly contested. This was no more so than in the German Social Democratic Party where rival factions under the leadership of Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg contested the road to socialism as a contest between reform or revolution. In arguing for a gradualist approach to social change, Bernstein used the formulation: “The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” 

Luxemburg opposed Bernstein and party leader Karl Kautsky at the SPD congress in 1898, launching a blistering attack on Bernstein who she regarded as a traitor to Marxism. This division into reformists and revolutionaries characterised the socialist movement for most of the twentieth century. It is a divide that still exists and, since the downfall of the USSR in 1989, is one in which the reformists have been in the ascendancy. Part of the problem is that desiring social change creates for many people a belief that they are part of the socialist movement, which, of course, they are. But, social change without a theory is simply activity. Some of that activity will be successful – strikes, protests, even parliamentary elections, but each of them leave capitalism intact. So for years the socialist movement has harboured under an illusion. That socialism can be achieved within the capitalist system simply by managing it in the interests of ordinary people, not the rich. It’s an appealing idea but totally devoid of any empirical support or theoretical foundation. 

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 were a cause for celebration amongst socialists seeking a transformation of the world. By 1914 and the outbreak of World War One the social democratic parties across Europe were uniformly in favour of the imperialist war. The SPD, the British Labour Party and others all swung behind their national war efforts. The Bolsheviks in Russia were the exception and it was, at least partly, to bring an end to that horrendous conflict that spurred the revolution’s battle cry. The slogan behind which millions of ordinary Russians rallied was ‘Peace. Land, Bread’. There is no doubt that the Russian Revolution was the seminal event of the 20th Century but it was doomed from the start without the revolution spreading. The failed German Revolution of 1919, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnicht’s Sparticist League, was the death knell for socialism in Russia which quickly found itself surrounded on all sides by hostile forces.

By 1921 the revolutionaries were turning on each other, and the death of Lenin and the succession of Stalin meant a turn from workers’ councils (Soviets) and a bureaucratic regime in which, as Trotsky said, “The party organisation would at first.. substitute itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organisation; and finally a single ‘dictator’ would substitute himself for the Central Committee..

The socialist movement, already split between reformists and revolutionaries, now had a new split between those who believed Stalinist Russia represented actually existing socialism and those who regarded it as either a ‘deformed workers’ state’ or ‘state capitalist’.

Unity and values

When I see people saying that we need to unite and that we need to do so around our common values I am reminded that a disunited left has been a feature of socialism since its earliest days.

Many people who claim to be socialists and are absolutely passionate in their belief that we need social change have no idea how that change can be achieved. They move from one social movement to the next, arguing for first this new policy, then this new leader and are prone to believe in whatever the current popular theory is without stopping to ponder why we never seem to take a step forward.

The left, if indeed we can talk of anything as coherent as ‘the left’, is actually a variety of different people with different values, different beliefs and different theoretical positions. Each is passionate that they know the answers but most would seriously struggle to tell you what the questions are. If this seems a harsh judgement, it is not meant to be. I have the greatest respect for those who glue themselves to banks and turn up for endless meetings to select the next parliamentary candidate. Many believe that Marxism has been disproven by events in Russia, China, and so on, but in rejecting the Marxist analysis of social class, historical change and capitalist economy they have not been able to provide a theory of change to replace it with. The abandonment of Marxism by so many on the left has left a void which is not simply theoretical. It is practical. Marxists, for all their flaws, do have a theory which explains the capitalist mode of production, exploitation, alienation and offers the means by which those things can be overcome.

Instead of promoting a vision whereby the working class can take control of their own lives and plan production in a way which benefits everybody, too many on the left have opted instead to put all their faith in ‘representatives’ to vote through social changes on their behalf. This parliamentary infatuation has left us arguing for the various reforms that might alleviate the worst symptoms of capitalism without fundamentally changing the system.

Capitalism is a fundamentally flawed social system in every respect bar its ability to create enormous wealth for one small sector and then to convince the rest of us that this arrangement is natural. The left took a wrong turn in losing sight of the real goal of socialism which remains the total transformation of society. Stalinism, as the real world application of Marxism, did so much damage to the credibility of socialists worldwide, but it is nothing compared to the damage done by reformism which provides false hope and has drained the energy and commitment of socialists for generations. The answer to the question “Whatever happened to the left?” is rather simple. They haven’t gone anywhere.


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