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LI Poland Contact Tim Clapham’s article published in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

Future of the Left

The Left in Europe or at least what can be called the established Left in Europe is in crisis. The elimination of the Left from the Polish Parliament, while in some ways specific to Poland, is symptomatic of problems that, to a greater or lesser extent, affects all of the established Left in Europe. Now in some ways one could argue that the established Left had it coming as they have been unable to get to grips with many of the social changes affecting Europe but paradoxically it comes at the same time as capitalism, the neo liberal dream and markets  are seen to have failed. The financial crisis of 2008, the moral corruption of the financial system which only this week saw more senior bankers sacked for manipulating interest rates for personal gain, rising inequality, continued unemployment for nearly 23 million European citizens with an EU unemployment rate of nearly 10% that disproportionately affects the young, lack of housing and a Europe wide austerity programme that is biting deeply into the social fabric are all evidence of a societal crisis. Yet the established Left throughout Europe has been unable to transform these structural failures into electoral gains.

Note however I said the established Left. By this I mean those social democratic and socialist parties who are members of the Party of European Socialists most of whom have been in power or were seen as the main parliamentary opposition in their respective countries. I exclude here for reasons that will become clear the more modern parties of the left such as Syrizah in Greece, Podemos in Spain or our very own home grown variant Razem.

Now a characteristic  of these parties is that they were either established in or have their roots in the social dynamics of the late 19th century. Germany 1863, France 1870, Sweden 1863, Norway 1887 Spain 1879 and Britain’s Labour Party 1900 (whose actual founding parties reach further back into the 19th century). Many of them, though not Britain’s Labour Party, were strongly influenced by Marx’s analysis of the depredations of 19th century capitalism and were originally strongly Marxist in character. They drew their strength from the organised working class and their reason d’etre was the improvement of conditions for working people. They became an integral part of national life and provided a social milieu for many. Some of these social structures still exist, Labour Clubs in the UK, sports clubs in Germany and summer camps in Norway(tragically famous because  of Breivik’s massacre of some 77 young socialists on Utoya-let no one say terrorism is purely an Islamic phenomena). These parties were an integral part of people’s lives and looked to the social, economic and political welfare of working people.

And they had considerable success. Over the course of the 20th century they were fundamental in creating the modern welfare states that comprise the social Europe of EU discourse. Worker rights, minimum wages, equal pay, maternity pay and state pensions all find their genus in the agitation of or in legislation passed by the established Left.  The collapse of communism saw an expansion of the established Left as the rump of the communist parties transmuted into social democrats in which guise they did achieve electoral success (the SLD in Poland being just one example). Yet despite this the established Left are seen to be in crisis in Europe as a whole. They are unable to gain governing majorities and seldom receive more than 30% of the popular vote. As in all generalisation there are and will be exceptions such as the current left government in Italy.

On one side they are challenged by right populist or social conservatives  parties such as UKIP in Britain, PiS in Poland or FN in France and on the other by emerging left grouping such as Podemos in Spain and Die Linke and the Greens in Germany.

I was in Madrid last week and meet with a number of people from the established Left but it was a breakfast encounter with a political scientist from Belgium that started to give me the clue to the problems afflicting the Left. He reminded me of the work of the early 20thcentury German sociologist Robert Michels and in particular his book ‘Political Parties’ (Available for free on Google – wonderful thing modern technology).  Michels points out that while parties start out with good intentions power gradually coalesces around a small number of individuals within the party and gradually they begin to dominate the membership. At the same time in policy terms there is a tendency to move from a radical position to more and more moderate policies expected to result in electoral success. He calls it the ‘iron law of oligarchy’.

Voila! We have here the problem of the Left but we can also see in it a solution. The Third way espoused by Blair and which in part explain his success at a particular point in time was in fact moderation carried to extreme and indeed some would argue that his emphasis on markets, low taxes   with a  reasonable level of social support was nothing less than a policy that could be characterised as neo-liberal ‘lite’. Not so much beer as flavoured water! The Third way saw Left parties acquiesce in policies across Europe that were fundamentally at odds with their founding mission. So why chose ‘lite’ when you can have a full flavoured beer in the form of the many liberal and conservative alternatives.

Moreover as Left Parties became ever more centralised party members started to drift away and Left parties gradually run down with occasional burst s of forced enthusiasm when it came to an election. The drift to the centre and the lack of alternatives making politics a rather dreary business for the electorate as parliamentary rent seekers sought election on manifestos of anodyne irrelevance. This is what was happening in the case of the UK Labour and the evidence suggests it exists elsewhere. The failure of the established left to tackle the structural deficiencies  of capitalism referred to earlier led to the rise of what one can term the new Left namely the likes of Syrizah, Podemos et al.

Beyond the decay of their founding principles and the centralisation of control lie a number of deeper more hidden problems for the established Left. The parties were established at a time when social engineering was in vogue, when science was considered omnipotent and a new world order was possible. In part this dream has been realised for the majority of Europeans but there is at the heart of the utopian dream authoritarianism, a belief in standardisation, in knowing what is best for other people. In other words freedom can be disregarded if it is considered not to be in your best interests. The lack of support for the Snowdens and the Assanges of this world contrasted to  the support for renditions, for state secrecy, for ever tougher terrorism laws, for the removal of civil liberties  that is typical of  Left parties when in power is sad but it reflects an underlying authoritarianism within those parties. This is something that conservatives, in their better moments, intuitively understand and social democrats often don’t. It is one of the reasons why Left fail to secure the support of the small business sector when in truth Left policies can benefit them in economic terms,  the spiritual heart of the founder of any small business is a desire for freedom.

Part of the problem for the Left is that many citizens now recognise the State (left) and the Market (right) dichotomy does not really exist.  The fact is that the left embraced free market liberalism during its Third Way /New Labour phase and started to believe the market was the most efficient delivery mechanism for private wealth and social welfare. Traditionally the right was seen as privileging the market over the state yet in reality they now recognise that the state is the best means of protecting the property rights of the very rich and furthering the interests of their client group. The failure of the traditional Left to oppose TTIP a state driven project to enhance market power despite the unprecedented opposition to it from the demos (the petition against TTIP currently carries 3.3 million signatures) merely illustrates the bankruptcy of thought  on the traditional Left.

There is also the importance of identity to a citizen that comes from being a member of a particular group and identifying with it. The sense of identity that comes being a Varsovian or a Londoner, or whatever, is important and social democrats ignore it at their peril. We see that in the attraction of the National Front in France, of PiS in Poland and of UKIP in the UK.   Now I happen to believe that patriotism, as Samuel Johnson so famously remarked, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Wearing patriotism on your sleeve is often a case of merely hating others rather than loving your country. (Yes dear Reader I am referring to that particular political group)  But nevertheless it is essential for the Left to understand the importance of the village, the town and the community to people.  Again the Left has a tendency to disparage such feelings with its tendency to centralise. It is noticeable that it is the conservatives in the UK that are driving the idea of a Northern powerhouse in the UK not Labour and  that it was Labour that led the opposition to self-rule in Scotland which led to its electoral wipe out in the subsequent election.

Does therefore the Left have a future or is it doomed to decline has is currently the case in Poland? Provided it understands how society and the world has changed , provided it accepts a pluralistic view of the Left and provided it prefers Polanyi to Marx, Herder to Hobbs and supports the individual as part of a community rather than the individual as a self-interested actor then most decidedly it has a future.

Adrian Pabst a catholic political theologian associated with the magazine Telos and Radical Orthodoxy has written ‘Karl Polanyi combines a compelling critique of unbridled ‘free-market’ capitalism with a non-statist vision of socialism that is politically far more democratic and economically much more egalitarian than the false ‘third-way’ of Clinton and Blair or the vapid communitarianism of the post-neoliberal centre-right’

Polanyi argued strongly that market systems had to be subordinated to society not the reverse as a self-adjusting market cannot exist   ‘without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness’. Now who said the problems of climate change did not require significant intervention in the market.

Herder, one of the Enlightenment’s central figures, points in the same direction when he argues that ‘the institution of central political power is not the beginning but the collapse of politics: it is the symptom of social decay and political bankruptcy’. Plurality and diversity were his guiding principles.


What both guys are saying is that power has to be decentralised and that it is community that is the critical factor not the State. The beginning of the 21st century saw the Left when in control of States falling over backwards to appease a centralising neoliberal economic system that was increasing inequality and placing ever greater strains on working people. When the system collapsed in 2008 the Left lacked the intellectual resource to construct a viable alternative. They were rightly deserted by their traditional electorate which left the field open for the plethora of political forces that now occupy it. Thankfully for the established Left many of those forces are of the Left be they called Green, Razem or whatever.

The decentring of society, the establishment of a digital world means that the Michel’s iron law of oligarchy need no longer apply. An ‘accident’ has demonstrated the way forward and shown that the left is capable of regeneration. Membership of the British Labour party was in long term decline and the new labour leadership, in a bid to reduce still further the residues of traditional left influence, decided to introduce a policy of one member one vote. It backfired spectacularly as, in a show of defiance, the membership voted overwhelmingly for a traditional left candidate who only just made it onto the leadership ballot, Jeremy Corbyn. His election, much to the chagrin of the rent seekers in the Parliamentary Labour party and the oligarchs controlling its administration, totally revitalised the Party. Now it has only been a few months but already we are seeing policy changes that actually seem to resonate with the electorate. Unfortunately the attacks on Corbyn by the media and by members of the Parliamentary Labour not to say those of Blair and other New Labour dinosaurs have had an effect on perceptions. Time will of course tell as over 20 years of New Labour and the Third Way has taken a toll of that Party’s ideological resources as it will have done for much of the European Left.

Nevertheless we can now see how the Left could prosper. First opening themselves to their memberships so that power is decentred and policy comes from below. Two accept the diversity of political forces and work with those that have the same political aims. Third reject austerity and the imperatives of the neo liberal agenda (dump TTIP for example). Forth recognise inequality for the evil it is and make positive policy proposals to reduce it. Fifth devolve power from the centre to the towns and communities. Sixth and seventh and eighth and —– oh dear! This is becoming rather a long list, clearly a lot of work to be done by the established Left if it is to prosper and regain some power.

So perhaps they should merely remember the words of the medieval Friar John Ball sometimes seem as the spiritual father of British socialism (told you it wasn’t Marx) which encapsulates their founding vision rather well

‘When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman’

Tim Clapham

22nd November 2015

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