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24 July 2014updated 01 Aug 2014 12:55pm

How the left was lost: the need to relearn what true progress means

Incomprehensible scholasticism, emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure.

By David Selbourne

Image: Sonia Roy/


The word “progress”, which signifies a “going forwards”, cannot have a fixed meaning. In these quickly changing times, we have to ask what is really future-directed and in the majority interest, as the far right advances. If “progress” is not to be measured by the statistics of “growth”, by the pretended success of a “pro-competition and pro-enterprise agenda”, by open borders, by a moral free-for-all and the rest of it, what is the alternative?

Certainly it is not “socialism”. Its time has come and gone, whether in its state-socialist or in its innocently idealist forms. In particular, the “working class” has never been further from dethroning capital, and has itself been near consumed by market forces. The classless utopia dreamed of in Marx’s heaven was an illusion, while the collapse of communism took socialism down with it, too.

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Rifling through the goods on the free market’s stalls from Milan to Moscow and Birmingham to Beijing, the productive “proletarian” has turned into a mere shopper, poor as may be. It is market-thought (not Marxist thought) which now promises humanity’s salvation, and with the same degree of illusion. In times that have brought Starbucks to Hanoi, even the word “socialism” – let alone “class” – is increasingly avoided in public debate, including by most British “progressives”; and few readers of the New Left Review or the London Review of Books would swap Islington and Hampstead for Pyongyang or Havana.

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State socialism’s failures have made the privatisation (or theft) of public goods seem to many a virtue, and the common good appear synonymous with the good of the market. Even modest measures of economic regulation and social intervention – let alone renationalisation – are condemned by the free marketeer as “socialist”, while the freedom to exploit others is seen as an expression of freedom as such. There is little “working-class solidarity” now, and protest is sporadic.

The out-of-date “progressive” must therefore reckon with the fact that despite the free society’s dangerous inequalities, bank crises, cuts in welfare provision, real-estate bubbles and youth unemployment, today’s collapsing liberal democracies cannot be saved from themselves by socialists of whatever stripe or kind. They had their chances and blew them.

In Britain, to make matters worse, the trade unions have been harmed by their Tammany practices, falling memberships and overpaid leaders, while MI5 “Trotskyites” skilfully discredited the British left in the 1970s and 1980s, steering it to self-destruction. Even May Day was cancelled by Mrs Thatcher, while “Blairism” ate away at the old Nonconformist and upright Labour ethic to its very core, an ethic of mutuality, decency, equity and co-operation. Or as Peter Mandelson declared in October 1998 when he was Labour’s trade and industry secretary, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” It was the most repellent statement made in Labour’s name since the party was founded.

In order to stake out new ground for the true progressive, nothing less than a new (and very old) chapter in political thought is needed. Most sectarian “left” intellectuals – who always needed the working class more than it needed them – are not much use for the task, endlessly talking to themselves in their private enclaves. Some, like Tony Benn, were mere flatterers of the “lower orders”. Other pretended class warriors went off to well-paid jobs in the US once the Marxist tide in Britain had ebbed, while more moderate left and pseudo-left thought was impoverished by banal “Third Way” nostrums made of chalk and cheese.

Incomprehensible scholasticism, “fluttering over its bookes”, as Thomas Hobbes expressed it, and emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure. Talk of “class struggle” was plain enough. But it gave way to the mystifying nonsenses of structuralism and semiotics, with their “narratives”, “discourses” and “tropes”, their “moments”, “shifts” and “ruptures”: the language of political and moral paralysis.

With socialism at the end of its historical evolution, the “left” now lacks a coherent sense of what progress is. It has only a ragbag of causes and issues, rational and irrational, urgent and idle: a politics of personal rights and “lifestyle choices”, of anti-racism and environmental protection, of multicultural separatism, individual identity and gender, and much else besides.

Neither rhyme nor reason – and certainly not socialist reason – can be made of it, especially when mere transgression is confused with progress. In fact, we are now landed with a “left” concept of freedom which is little different from Milton Friedman’s “right to choose”, a libertarianism that has overshadowed the social in what used to be socialism. It is itself a market freedom; after all, self-restraint has less market worth than self-indulgence. Nor is today’s “freedom’n’liberty”, whether right or “left”, the freedom fought for in the Reformation or in the revolutionary overthrow of the anciens régimes. It is not the freedom for which the 19th-century emancipationists and the suffragettes struggled. It is the freedom to do what one wants and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder that the far right is advancing.

There is ignorance, too, in this pseudo-left libertarianism. It is reactionary, not progressive, to promote the expansion of individual freedoms without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole. Those who want the right to choose, and who object to moral or social restraint as “authoritarian”, cannot logically object to the rights of Capital to do whatever it wants also. The rapacious equity trader has as much right to be free as you or me; these “rights” differ only in scale and consequence, not in essence.

Together we are smashing the essentials of any society, and especially a free society, in the name of a false notion of freedom. “Doing what one wants, as happens in democracies, is the very reverse of beneficial,” as Aristotle put it. Instead, as I will argue, restraints on some forms of liberty are essential to both individual and public well-being, and therefore essential to a new definition of what is truly progressive.

Yet most on the “left” have lost their way in the political desert created by socialism’s demise. Or, as Ed Miliband declared in his first conference speech as party leader in September 2010, Labour’s purpose – with “growth” as “our priority” – is to “expand freedom and opportunity for all our people”. This was Milton Friedman’s aspiration, too. “I am determined to make Labour the party of enterprise,” Miliband added for good measure. In February this year, he also pledged to govern with the same sense of conviction as Thatcher. It is not possible. The damage done by Tony Blair to Labour purposes and to its former movement has been too great, and Miliband’s political inheritance is too incoherent, for such resolve. It is also unfair to accuse him of being “weird”. Anyone attempting to make public sense of Labour’s “project” would be hit by a speech defect.

But that Labour should be wandering about in circles in ideological limbo when a “top football star” earns as much in a week for kicking a ball as a nurse earns in ten years for the care of the sick remains astounding. “Growth” brings wealth to some and increasing indigence to many, yet the discrediting of socialism is such that increased public spending or hiking the minimum wage raises the spectre of a “leftism” that would be “anti-business” and “hostile to wealth creation”, rather than helping to save a disintegrating free society from itself.

All that remains for Labour to do, it seems, is to work on its “brand” – but it has no “brand” – and give its leader a cosmetic makeover. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of trade unionists are said no longer to vote Labour, and rootless consumption rules. “What I’m about is how do we make markets work properly in the public interest?” Miliband clumsily declared in May; his “Trotskyite” father, with his professed contempt for “parliamentary socialism” itself, would turn in his grave to hear of a project so paltry. Instead, these times of greed, “growth” and globalisation – while Islam advances and free societies degrade to the benefit of the far right – demand bold reconsideration of what being “progressive” should mean today.

Most important of all, now, is the defence of reason. Today, true progressivism must above all be secular. It must pit itself against the advance of obscurantism in the free society in order to protect
our – yes, our – Enlightenment’s hard-won conquests in the realms of political and ethical thought.

What obscurantism? The obscurantism that is expressed, for example, in racism, or in the more benighted provisions of sharia law and Islamic practice, which would impose its ways even in non-Muslim lands. With the arms of reason, but if necessary by authoritarian sanction also, progress must hold out against all who would intrude darkness of mind upon us, an intrusion increasingly justified by libertarians in the very name of liberty.

Certain forms of feverish or hysterical belief are merely absurd: superstitious food taboos, for example – halal or kosher. Others are fearsome, as is the case with the barbarisms of FGM, against which western feminism has been able to do little. The excision of the clitoris is not Enlightenment’s work, yet “progressives” have not turned out in their thousands in Trafalgar Square to protest it. Reason is also repelled, and mental progress also set back, by the stigmata of a Padre Pio or the obsessional nitpicking of ultra-Orthodox Hebraism. But the fatwa death sentence against Salman Rushdie was in a league of its own.

Islam is right to scorn the “infidel’s” bending of the knee to plaster saints, holy relics, bleeding martyrs and other idols. But Islam is wrong and must be fought by true progressives – Michael Gove is one such, in this respect – if it should seek to shackle our hard-won freedoms of thought and speech, and most grossly wrong if it attempts to do so in education’s name.

Instead, it is the most important of all truly progressive causes to help each new generation, whatever its origins, to make sense of our increasingly embattled and complex times. The rule of reason must be taught; it is Enlightenment’s continuing task as a means of societal self-defence. Yet educational standards are falling at the very moment when the need for knowledge of our – yes, our – history and culture, traditions, language and literature is growing. Why the need? Because such knowledge is future-directed, in the interests of the majority, and therefore progressive; while the true reactionary of today, backwards-looking, describes as “elitists” those who want to see higher standards.

Here, as in so many areas of debate, truth about the free society’s woes is stopped in its tracks by “political correctness”. It is a creed as rigid as any religious dogma. In some instances it dictates a just sensibility in language, and objects to insult and incitement, but for the most part it is a form of reactionary self-censorship driven by cowardice. It blocks reason with repressive taboos about what may be said and (almost) about what should be thought. At its command, crime rates are said to be falling even when they are rising, and educational standards rising when they are falling. The true progressive must reject such political correctness as yet another orthodoxy of mind, a product of fear of the truth.

The pseudo-progressive’s “non-judgementalism”, holding its tongue, is no virtue either. Without moral judgement of our mounting ills there will be no true progress in social reform. Equally dishonestly, pseudo-progressives, letting down the secular cause, keep quiet about aspects of the morality of Islam that they would not tolerate for themselves. Similarly, fear of being thought an “Islamophobe” is more potent among pseudo-progressives than fear of radical Islam itself. True progressives in the 1930s were not so scared of reason’s foes. They knew unreason for what it was, and rallied their political and intellectual forces against it.

On the right, bad faith is also rife, as when it denies the worldwide harms that corporate interests and free markets cause. On the “left”, equal falsehoods rule: “Family life’s the best it’s been for a thousand years,” a Guardian columnist told readers in May 2012. Moreover, phoney progressives make their own pick’n’mix selection of ills on which to focus and ignore others, or oppose measures to deal with them. Their politically correct, “non-judgemental” and random concerns are easily understood. They help fill the hole in the ground where the “socialist project” once stood, and are surrogates for real belief.

The pseudo-progressive’s refusal to face up to the lost sense of identity, place and nation in today’s free societies leaves the field even wider open to reaction. Indeed, “political correctness” denotes as “right-wing”, or even as “fascist”, those new and true progressives, or forward-thinkers, for whom tradition is not a “deadweight”, “law and order” is not a matter for mockery and mass migration not a boon, and for whom belief in nation does not make one a Nazi. What was the New Statesman called from 1931 to 1957? The New Statesman and Nation. Perish the thought, says the dumb political corrector.

Today, true progressives must come to terms with a hard fact: that neither socialist nor libertarian prescriptions can deal with the free society’s accelerating disintegration. Wishy-washy centrists, for their part, need to recognise that a market-driven liberal democracy such as ours, with a few human rights protections thrown into the mix, does not stand at the summit of political evolution.

Meanwhile, the far right waits at the ruined city’s gates. Why ruined? Because the combination of a market free-for-all and pseudo-progressive libertarian excesses is bringing the whole lot down. Yet some on the loony libertarian “left” believe that we are living in a “police state”; they did not know Honecker’s East Germany or Ceausescu’s Romania, as I did. The truth is quite different: civil society, which was wrecked in the “Soviet bloc” by state socialism, is being wrecked now in the name of “freedom”.

Indeed, most members of the free society are no longer real citizens at all. What was once a polity is now largely composed of rights-bearing isolates, wheeling their trolleys through a shopping mall in unending file. Disoriented by its swirl of entitlements and choices and overwhelmed by incomers – forget the political correctness – democratic politics is increasingly helpless in the face of the free society’s disorders.

Mainstream parties are in fluid motion, most of them searching in confusion for the “centre ground”. “What is to be done?” is an old political question. It is a question that most of our democratic politicians cannot answer, while the far right’s knocking at the door gets louder.

The true progressive must start recoiling in earnest from the free-for-all in the market’s merry-go-round, in which most bounds are broken, relationships founder, the collapse of self-esteem quickens, and the search for palliatives grows more despairing. It is also clear that redemptions by coke, Botox or a gastric staple are poor alternatives to the devout Muslim’s vision of Paradise Garden.

Even the sense that we belong to a social order is evaporating. It is untaught in school and lost from view in the digital limbo most of us inhabit, while the term “civil society” is largely unknown. There could be 15 billion people in the planet’s global market by 2100, bringing even more flux and disaggregation.

Yet despite the quickening dissolution of the free society, public institutions that stand at the heart of the body politic continue fatally to be sold off, to the harm of the ethos of community service itself. Private contractors in free societies now collect taxes, manage citizen databases, gather military intelligence, conduct army recruitment, patrol borders, control air traffic, preside over and even own prisons, deport illegal migrants and operate key areas of the social security system – for profit. As citizen-identity wanes to disappearance, it is a civic philosophy, not “socialism”, or “statism”, which demands the taking-back of the purloined public domain. The provision of public goods by public authority is an essential component of civil society’s very existence.

Worst of all is the unscrupulous belief that nothing is owed by us for the rights we possess. Instead, true progressivism in a free society demands a politics and ethics of duty. If freedom is to survive, we must fulfil our obligations to the civic order to which we belong (or may have recently joined), the civic order that serves us. There must be reciprocity between our rights and our duties, or the far right will insist upon it for us, to the greater harm of millions.

It is a civic consciousness, not a class consciousness, that we need. Pluralism, yes; but we are citizens before we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, or freethinkers.

That is the true centre ground, or foun­dation, on which state, civil society and nation stand; indeed, a lively and popular sense of nation is a valuable source – among others – of identity in dangerously identity-less times. Above all, to rescue our sense of civic belonging and obligation from the self-regarding libertarianism and anti-“moralising” of the phoney progressive is the work of true progress, if the far right’s hankerings for a “new order” are to be countered. 

David Selbourne’s “The Principle of Duty: an Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order” (1994) was republished by Faber & Faber in 2009