Why I still think of myself as a man of the left (Part 1 of 3)
I support the left wing in spite of myself and in spite of itself. —Albert Camus
Socialism means justice and common decency. —George Orwell
He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. —Aristotle
I have thought of myself as a man of the left since I first began to think of such things back in the 1960s when my take of the issues of the time put me squarely in that camp. There were traces of romanticism, idealism, and the contrariness of youth in it and not nearly enough of humility and perspective. It was a sensibility informed and influenced by the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and a passion for books, reading, and learning that brought escape from the bounds of everyday life and broadened horizons beyond what was conventional in that time and place. Only later did I realize how much my thinking and values were shaped by family and community. In the Dutch Fork region of South Carolina settled by German Protestants, my family being Lutheran, that meant they were shaped in no small part by religion and church. There was a shared sense of right and wrong, responsibility, respectfulness and courtesy owed all people, and simply how we ought to conduct ourselves.
The strain of social and political conservatism that ran through the world view of my mother, my grandmother, and many relatives, friends, and neighbors was a ways removed from what passes for conservatism under the aegis of Donald J. Trump and the Republican Party in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Decency and compassion would have them profoundly troubled if they were with us today. I am reasonably certain that Mom voted for Republican candidates for president from Eisenhower on up through Bush the elder. In 1992 and again in 1996 she voted for Bill Clinton despite reservations about aspects of his character because she thought that things the Republicans wanted to do would harm a lot of people. There is no reason to believe she would feel differently today except insofar as she would be even more disturbed by things Trump and his party are doing that harm a lot of people.
I want to note before forging deeper into treacherous terrain that references to left and right, progressive, liberal, and conservative, and so on will be made rather loosely. In my defense, such as it is, common usage of these terms is generally imprecise anyway. I hope to think and write with precision adequate to the subject.
Comrades out on the far left, lunatic fringe, and perhaps some not all that far out, may be consternated by my inclusion on the left of people they consider moderates and centrists, little better than a damn Republican. The nether expanses of the know-nothing right may be similarly aggravated by my endorsement of an agenda they see as a precursor to a socialist or communist takeover of the government that will turn us into Venezuela. Nothing in my argument is likely to appease any of them.
Neither left nor right has a distinct, univocal, unambiguous meaning. Each is made up of a mix of factions and sects whose internecine wrangling can be as rancorous as conflict with foes on the other side of the ideological divide. Where are we to place those who agree with much of the left's agenda in principle while at the same time dubious about the prospects for implementing that agenda in toto and willing to compromise on the principle that pragmatic accomplishment of something, however imperfect, is preferable to ideological purity that persists in banging its gnarly head against the proverbial wall? What is the relation between traditional conservatism and libertarianism when distinctions between the two are blurred or outright mutilated by many Americans who identify themselves as conservative? Do anarchists who reject hierarchies and the state belong on the left or the right? All of this comes without even getting into the muck of Trumpism, populisms of left and right, the alt-right, and all that.
Differences and distinctions lie in ideas about the role government can and should play in providing for the general welfare; the scope, competence, and appropriate limits of government; and, more a concern on the left than on the right, the scope, competence, and appropriate limits on the power of wealthy individuals, organizations, and institutions, including religious, who make up the private sector. Individual freedom and autonomy are values of both left and right, but just what those concepts encompass is a matter of earnest dispute. Digging deeper we could get into notions of what it is to be human, going back to the old, gray Greeks, Plato, Aristotle, and the rest, if I were up to the task. This essay, in the spirit of the French from which the word is derived, essai, a trial, an attempt, may be of more value for me in clarifying, and justifying, my own thoughts on the subject than it is of interest to others. If fortune smiles, maybe a few readers will find something of worth in it too.
The left does not make it easy. This is nothing new. In the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier, published in England in1937, George Orwell describes the miserable conditions he witnessed while living and traveling among the working poor and unemployed in northern England. The book's second half is devoted to why so many people are turned off by socialism, which Orwell saw as the only way out of the mess they were in and the only alternative to fascism. These chapters include pointed analysis of English middle-class prejudice that infected socialists no less than others. Orwell's criticism of socialists and that widespread class prejudice was not a denunciation of socialism. His aim was to save socialism from socialists. This needed doing because much of the hostility to socialism, he wrote in language that resonates today, had to do with socialists themselves:
"We have reached a stage when the very word 'Socialism' calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half grammophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island [Britain] does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win."
Orwell goes on to say,
"It would help enormously...if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly! But that, I am afraid, is not going to happen. What is possible, however, is for the more intelligent kind of Socialist to stop alienating possible supporters in silly and quite irrelevant ways."
That crankishness still plagues the left. It has not aged well. More than a whiff of it hangs over grim commissars of political correctness run amok, theorists of intersectionality, and post-postmodernist pedants for whom free thought, free speech, and principles of intellectual rigor and integrity are quaint relics of a bygone era. The enthusiasm for suppression of thought and speech deemed offensive, hateful, hurtful, or otherwise untoward smacks of priggish and puritanical impulses that bedevil the left as much now as they did in Orwell's day.
Even those of us weighing in with the best of intentions and good faith are well-advised to scrutinize our words carefully to steer clear of tropes decreed illicit by, well, someone, in an environment where accusation suffices to establish guilt of racism, misogyny, and an ever-growing catalogue of other crimes against, well, somebody or something. The taste for banishment of apostates to the outer realms runs to a fever pitch. Agitated partisans hurl epithets such as moderate, centrist, and old white men at foes real and fantasized with all the delirious animosity once directed at the bourgeoisie, Trotskyites, capitalist running dogs, lickspittles, and lackeys. Very real issues of privilege, race, ethnicity, gender, &c., are trivialized by the attribution of every perceived wrong to some proscribed belief or attitude, while violence, mob bullying, and intimidation are rationalized as acceptable responses to right-wing provocation.
Utopian programs to address the climate crisis, health care, and other pressing issues are rolled out in a glitzy wrapping of rosy scenarios and wishful thinking, with a puzzling disregard for the challenges of implementation in a nation not nearly as progressive and ready to sign off on a progressive agenda as many progressives want to believe. True believers in the cause stand blithely oblivious to the impression that tests of ideological purity and purges of those accused of deviant thought, word, or deed might make on our fellow citizens who live, breathe, and think outside the echo chamber where we too often pass too much of our time.
I readily grant that this catalogue of excesses reads almost like caricature. The extent to which this stuff is all too real and not just a false impression created by an omnipresent media, both the conventional and the social, ravenous for sensational headlines and vacuous sound bites is difficult to gauge. Even if not as pervasive as they sometimes seem, the excesses and plain silliness that come from the left can inflict real harm on people and do real damage to the cause supposedly being served.
How can I align myself with the left if this is how I see the left? Does conscience oblige me to leave the left? Or does it perhaps compel me to remain a dissenting and sometimes cranky voice within it? Consider the alternative.
to be continued
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Harcourt Inc., 1958 (as noted above, the book was first published in England in 1937)