‘Who’ exactly is the left anymore?

Martin Kettle has been reading Nick Cohen‘s book What’s Left?, and finds that, “Socialism is dead. There now remain only socialists.”Some of the crisis in the left, Kettle argues is that it has been too successful:

If leftwing Britons of 2007 saw themselves more clearly than they do, they would notice two big things. First, they would see what the leftwing Britons of 1907 would have grasped – that much of what the left of a century ago yearned for has actually been achieved, imperfectly and incompletely to be sure, but unmistakably achieved all the same. As Cohen points out, the 20th century may have been largely governed by the party of the right, but it is the worldview of the party of the left that triumphed.

Second, they would have to acknowledge the paradox that, while its agenda has triumphed, the left itself has in most respects wholly collapsed.

But he also believes Cohen’s analysis is possessed of its own flaws:

…he never quite pins down what “the left” is. Discussions of the book risk reproducing the fault. But it is facile to deny that the problem exists. Neither socialism as a programme nor the parties that espoused it – and these are surely somewhere near the heart of any definition of the left – have survived into the modern age with credibility. Foul though they and their ideas are, the parties of the extreme right actually have more purchase on the politics of the early 21st century than the parties of the left.

That doesn’t mean there is no one left on the left. Self-evidently there are lots of people, even if they are neither as numerous nor as influential as the rightwing press imagines. But they lack anything remotely resembling a programme, let alone a programme that all of them agree on. With nothing to say to the rest of the world, the left tradition has taken cover in single issue campaigns, in inertia, or in the gesture politics of so-called defiance.

He picks up on Cohen’s anger with detachment of the left from committment to action:

Yes, the left has increasingly retreated from the street to the sofa. Watching The Trial of Tony Blair qualifies in some quarters as proof of political commitment. The left has always been far too comfortable in the purity of its own ethos, a comfort which absolves it from the inconvenience of having to take responsibility for anything, and gives it the self-sustaining gratification of permanent betrayal.


…he is also very unfair. Most people who think of themselves as leftwing are not hypocrites. They want to live an ethical life. The trouble is they are waiting for a call that shows little sign of ever coming.

But Cohen is far angrier than this. His charge can be summarised by saying that, driven by a post-cold war resurgence of anti-Americanism, the liberal-left has abandoned its anti-fascist roots, denied the terrorist threat embodied in 9/11 and thus become an apologist for radical Islamic totalitarianism.

Indignation about western military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, followed by the much wider outrage over Iraq, has swept liberals towards swallowing a guilt-ridden untruth about Muslim victimhood that increasingly betrays the enlightenment inheritance of secularism, equality and human rights at home and abroad. Bits of this are uncomfortably true, but not the whole package. To paraphrase Lincoln, all the left believes some of it all of the time, some of the left (though not many) believes all of it some of the time, but all the liberal left does not believe all of it all of the time. There are plenty of us who strongly supported intervention in Kosovo and then strongly opposed it in Iraq. There were even more who opposed Iraq without embracing the wider claims of Muslim victimhood.

He finishes on a note that will be resonant on both sides of the Irish Sea:

Again, one asks: who is this “left”? As the British Social Attitudes survey pointed out this week, political alignment is weakening and is a poor guide to the way people respond. Many of us, moreover, believe more than one thing at the same time. Very few people reading Cohen’s book are likely to see themselves precisely reflected in it.

It’s a question that the Irish Labour Party (and any other future pretenders to poll position on the centre left) must be asking themselves over and over again.


  • Nevin

    Will a socialist party in/for NI continue to founder on the constitutional question?

    Those who promoted a socialist revolution on the island of Ireland in the 1960s hoped to sweep away the ‘conservative’ administrations in Belfast and Dublin but the usual sectarian confrontation rapidly dissipated such hopes.

  • mickhall

    “Socialism is now dead”

    What again, in my own lifetime socialism has been buried at least ten times; and always by those like Mr Cohen and Martin who are about to desert the ship. What better way for Mr Cohen to cover his monstrous retreat away from common decency and socialism when he became a cheer leader for Mr Blairs murderous adventure in Iraq, something he hardly touches on in his book I understand.

    Look around the world, far from being dead socialism in many different colours is taking hold once again of peoples imaginations and hopes for a better life. Only this time around we will not have the dead weight of Stalinism dragging us down and we now understand only to well that socialism in one country, if it is to prosper is an impossibility.

    The mistake Martin makes is failing to understand the most basic thread of socialism, i e its internationalism. Thus he makes his judgements on his own middle class life, and proclaims the majority of the aims of the pioneers of socialism have been achieved. Not only is this not true within the UK and Ireland, where the gap between economically rich and poor ever widens, but in most parts of the world even the most basic of socialistic demands, clean water to drink, let alone free health care and education at the point of need, are far from the realty of the majorities daily lives.

    The leftist slogan lutta continua sums up our situation perfectly.
    socialism is a work in progress.

  • Jesus Christ

    Talk of the left and right in America is as daft as talk of the left or right in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s SU; this is despite what Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Tony Blair or other war mongers might say or think. America, both Democrat and Republican, voted to make war on Islam in Iraq. Every death in Iraq that happens (over 100 a day) lies at the door of all of us. Although some – Israelis, Americans and Brits – might well be guiltier than others – prawn sandwich socialism is the worst kind of hypocrisy.
    Old style socialism is gone and dead. I don’t think it ever even existed in Ireland. Irish eadicalism was a mixture of nationalism, Catholicism and Labour syndicalism. You only have to look at the rosary reciting GPO 1916 or the Republicans who knelt in prayer after MI5 agent Mick Collins was whacked.

    BIg Jim Larkin: I make an exception for that fine son of Liverpool. When I went on the NGA tour of Glasnevin, the tour guide dismissed him with a line something like “His monument is a lump of granite. All he deserves”.

    Contrary to what the song said, Irish Labourism died in 1913. The anti Black and Tan strike was its death knell. In the Occuplied 6 cos, it was the plaything of the Orange Order. Probably stil is, with a few Provos grease monkeys thrown in.

  • Aaron McDaid

    My own tuppence worth is that the left can’t make up its mind whether it is for:
    a) giving poorer people a better life/chance
    b) pushing a very specific set of policies which they think (pretend?) will help poorer people.

    Their problem is that their policies, such as nationalization, are now pretty much discredited and people will eventually realise that even with schools and hospitals it’s absurd to suggest that hospital cleaners or government ministers have any clue how to run a hospital.

    So we are lumbered with socialists, who self righteously bang on about their daft policies, and push policies that most of us think (know?) will actually harm poorer people. On the other hand, we seem to have the ‘centre left’, which does know a little more about how to actually deliver objectives. The problem with them, and I’m thinking of New Labour here, is that they are just a bit corrupt or incompetent, and end up just shovelling money into the pockets of the managing class without even directing it towards the more competent managers.

    The left needs a party that actually wants to deliver, and is actually knows enough about economics to be able to deliver it. The real stumbling block though, is the need to get average voters to think a bit more about economics and listen for more than a few seconds.

  • kensei

    “Their problem is that their policies, such as nationalization, are now pretty much discredited”

    To an extent. People understand the value fo competition. I’d wager there would be more support for renationalising the railways in England than you’d expect. And what is opposition to water charges at heart other than opposition to privatisation.

    Even in the US there are a lot of things owned by the government AFAIK – but it’s mostly at the state and municipal level.

    “and people will eventually realise that even with schools and hospitals it’s absurd to suggest that hospital cleaners or government ministers have any clue how to run a hospital.”

    Really, but What?

  • The left has, to a large degree, moved away from promoting good old fashioned state-controlled economies because of the dismal failure of centrally planned economies.

    On the other hand there are a cluster of issues which socialists have adpoted or deepened their interest in since 1990 which now fairly clearly mark out the territory of the left, viz.:

    * environmentalism
    * racial/gender equality
    * public health concern/authoritarianism/paranoia (delete to taste)
    * interest/obsession with the so-called diseases of affluence

    As Aaron hints at above, increasingly these issues bring them into conflict with the working-classes who one provided the power base of the list. Interesting history which is still working itself out.

  • Aaron McDaid

    Agree with you on the railways. It was a big cockup and was privatised in a pretty weird way. I don’t really define myself as being particularly pro- or anti- privatisation, simply that the left needs to be less dogmatic (as do some on the right). Ultimately, it is OK to have multiple shops on one street competing with each other, or telecoms, but it’s not realistic to have multiple sets of train lines running alongside each other in competition. The nitty gritty of the detail is something I’m not too interested in now, the main thing to remember is that there were many more resounding privatisation successes than failures.

    My point about cleaners not knowing how to run hospitals is directed partly at the unions. But also remember that a successful organisation, for example a successful football club, is to a large extent about getting a good manager. Alex Ferguson decides the formation every week, not a weekly poll of the staff at Man U.

    If a party was unashamedly pro-market, couldn’t it still be ‘left’? In particular, does anyone see the contradiction in left wingers looking for an increase in benefits or tax cuts for the poor in order to feed themselves or their children better? It is a contradiction because they are not looking for a change in the privately-owned, market-driven status of the food industry. You would think the simplistic left would be looking to have a state run food industry which gives everyone rations for free? Surely a totally free market in health, where the state pays for (but doesn’t directly deliver) everyone’s healthcare, is a policy the left should consider? A National Food Service would be an unhealthy disaster, so why cling to the current model of health?