Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
17 March 2003

Why left and right should unite and fight

There is nothing to lose but the chains of political correctness. Neil Clark, unashamedly old Labour

By Neil Clark

The war against Iraq will not be the war to end all wars. Three years ago, the same forces now planning “Shock and Awe” were dropping cluster bombs and depleted uranium on civilian targets in Yugoslavia. In 2001 it was the impoverished Afghans’ turn to get the B-52 treatment. And in two years’ time we will no doubt be hearing of the danger Syria poses to world peace and how President Assad is the new Hitler. After that it will be the turn of Belarus, Turkmenistan and Libya. The neo-cons and their liberal imperialist allies appear unstoppable. They have hijacked the major parties on both sides of the Atlantic and have an entourage of journalists eager to peddle their propaganda.

Yet the overwhelming majority on both sides of the Atlantic oppose the policy of “endless war”. The demonstrations against war in Iraq have been the biggest since Vietnam, attracting people from all walks of life – not just the usual peaceniks, trade unionists and women’s groups, but soldiers, farmers and businessmen, too. After initial squeamishness, conservatives and socialists, right-wingers and Trotskyists have marched together. But, encouraging as all this is, it won’t be enough. The anti-war alliance has to be put on a more permanent and formal footing. And that requires the left to take a bold and historic step. If we really want to “give peace a chance”, we need to take off our beads, remove Joan Baez from the turntable and start to embrace warmly those at whom we have been hurling insults for the past 40 years.

I write as a committed, and totally unreconstructed, old leftist. Yet if Pat Buchanan announced he was standing for US president again, I would be on the next plane out to join his campaign team. But how many of my fellow socialists would join me? Until the left is ready in its hordes to link up electorally with the “old” anti-war right, the brutal truth is that we have no chance of defeating the Bush/Blair axis. Buchanan himself has already called for such an alliance. With the 82nd Airborne about to take off for Baghdad, I believe it is now or never for the anti-war left to answer his call.

To make the Peace Party work, however, the left needs to jettison some baggage and spruce up its thinking. Since the 1960s we have picked up several false friends, who have done our cause no good at all. The first of these is political correctness. I was a card-carrying member of the Labour Party until Tony Blair came along and told us we had to stop worrying and love big business, Big Macs and big bombs. I continue to support the National Health Service, free school meals and state pensions. But I have never understood why a belief in the mixed economy, where transport, the utilities and the coal mines are publicly owned and run for the benefit of the whole community, also entails assenting to same-sex marriages, an open-door immigration policy and free abortion on demand. Social conservatism and socialism, far from being contradictory, complement each other. The most destructive, anti-conservative force in our societies is not old left socialism, but unbridled free-market capitalism, which destroys communities, the environment and traditional ways of living. Pete Seeger, the authentic voice of the old American left – a man once described as “so far left he has probably never been called a liberal” – said that he was more conservative than Barry Goldwater. Goldwater just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax; Seeger wanted to go back to “when people lived in villages and took care of one another”. Political correctness, the biggest threat to free speech of our time, has plenty to do with neoliberalism, but precious little to do with socialism.

On globalisation, too, there is much muddled thinking. The anti-globalisers of the left rightly point out the destabilising effects of unregulated capital flows, and rail against parasitical currency speculators such as George Soros. Yet most also welcome the unrestricted movement of people, which can also destabilise societies, as well as leading to unemployment and lower wage rates among indigenous workers.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Next up, the left has to drop its traditional antipathy to organised religion, and in particular the Catholic Church. The Vatican has always been anti-Marxist, but it has, at least in some teachings, been anti-capitalist, too. Pope Pius XI believed liberal capitalism and communism to be “united in their satanic optimism”. The present Pope, in Riga in 1993, condemned “the international imperialism of money” and spoke of Marxism’s “kernel of truth”. Far from being an enemy, the Catholic Church is an ally of all who oppose the tyranny of neoliberal globalisation and the cult of materialism it engenders. It is also the ally of those who oppose war. The Vatican stands for peace now, as resolutely as it did 12 years ago in the first Gulf war and in 1999 over Yugoslavia.

Last, but certainly not least, the left needs loudly and unequivocally to declare its support for the increasingly endangered concept of national sovereignty. We should defend national sovereignty not because we are nationalists, but because we are democrats. The essence of democracy is that decisions are taken as close as possible to those affected, and that those affected have a say in the decisions. This cannot happen when the decisions are imposed by supranational bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, Nato and the EU. The War Party sees national sovereignty very differently. If there is one issue that demarcates who exactly the Peace Party’s enemies are it is that of Kosovo. The “humanitarian” intervention, in which a sovereign state that threatened no other was bombed for 78 days and nights for prosecuting its own “war against terrorism”, exposed all the neo-cons and liberal imperialists in broad daylight. And what a sight it was – the Clintons, the Bushes, Madeleine Albright and James Rubin, Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman and Bob Dole, Tony Blair and William Hague, Baroness Thatcher and, last but not least, the “young contrarian” Christopher Hitchens, all clamouring for B-52s to bomb Belgrade back to the Stone Age.

The very same people are as dismissive of Iraqi sovereignty today as they were of Yugoslavia’s four years ago. For the War Party, national sovereignty is a tiresome, outdated and disposable notion that gets in the way of its plan to globalise the entire world and, in the name of democracy and human rights, eliminate all known dangers to the freedom of operation of Goldman Sachs.

T he old right also needs to shift ground. Its anti-war, anti-interventionist stance is unimpeachable. But even something as splendid as isolationism has to know its limits. Ash-canning war crimes courts is one thing, but a rejection of all international agreements is another. Whether or not the US executes its murderers, denies transvestites the right to marry, or wishes to protect its domestic steel industry is its own concern and nobody else’s, but issues such as global warming, wildlife conservation and a ban on the use of landmines can be solved only by international co-operation. Acknowledging this does not make one a Wilsonian liberal, nor does it undermine a principled defence of national sovereignty.

Even if an old right and old left alliance can be forged, many differences of opinion will remain. My views on public ownership, healthcare and redistributive taxation will be anathema to many conservative readers. However, my instinct to reach for the nearest brick on passing any branch of McDonald’s or Starbucks is one I believe many conservatives would share. And on the issues that really matter – globalisation, war, threats to national sovereignty and the relentless march of transnational capitalism – the old right and old left are already, by and large, singing from the same hymn sheet. The world of 2003, with its globalised grunge, skinny lattes and stealth bombers, is not the world any of us wanted.

In France, Jean-Claude Michea, in his book The Adam Smith Impasse, has called for socialism to be uncoupled from liberalism and instead to draw its strength from “the altruism of ordinary people”. Tariq Ali, a good PM for our Peace Party (see panel above), argues for a “campaigning coalition” that unites “all sections of society” against “the pirate politicians who serve the interests of global and local financial institutions”. And when Pravda reprints an anti-war article written by the editor of the American Conservative, something strange and wonderful is surely starting to happen.

The old left has nothing to lose, but much to gain. Far from giving up our identity, we will, I believe, be reclaiming parts of ourselves long lost to liberalism. We can get “back to basics” and start to reiterate our core beliefs: our opposition to the international rule of money power and the idolatry of market forces; our unequivocal rejection of all forms of imperialism, whether they fly under a military, financial or human rights banner; and, above all, our denunciation of war as the primary method of solving international disputes.

The global crisis we face makes all the old left-right arguments over public ownership and income tax rates irrelevant. Let’s have those debates later, but first let’s get rid of those who threaten us with Armageddon. If we don’t now form the Peace Party, the people had better start building the air-raid shelters in Damascus.

A longer version of this article appeared in the American Conservative