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Big Picture Thinking for the Left in the New Year (Part I)

The following humble screed is the first of a two part article inspired by Alex Cockburn's admirable talk here in Portland a while back entitled "6 ways to change the world." Here are my "three or four ways to direct our thinking to prepare for changing the world", prefaced by my summary defining what the word "left" really is or means politically, to me.
I really liked some of the things that Alex Cockburn said in a talk last month here in Portland, entitled "Six ways to change the world." In that spirit, I'd like to offer what may end up being a random hodgepodge, but with the same aim. I will call it "three or four ways to direct our thinking to prepare for changing the world."

But first, I'd like to address the following question: "What is 'The Left'?", does it really exist at all anymore, and if so what purpose does it or should it serve, and should any of us still admit to being a part of it?

Part One

Definitions:"What's Left?"

To me, "The Political Left," although conceptually abstract, does have some basic common features, and for me they can be summed up as follows:


People on "the left" embrace the basic truth and merit of the three legged political pedestal of the Enlightenment, and its most celebrated offspring, the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." This is the most fundamental thing that pretty clearly and unambiguously distinguishes the political left, in both the historical past and present. Now, at first glance, this might not seem like anything special. Afterall, doesn't little George Jr. never tire of urging us onwards toward "freedom," ie., "liberty" (whatever he may mean by that word -- surely something quite different from what most of us mean)?

But notice that he always leaves out the other two pillars: "Equality and Fraternity," leaving the entire edifice resting on a most shaky and unstable foundation -- if it isn't being actively shaken off altogether to fall tumbling into the dark mud of superstition, bigotry, and medieval theocracy by his "Christian" fundamentalist followers. This is very significant. It is a chief distinguishing characteristic dividing "rightwing" and "leftwing" thinking ever since the days of the Jacobins and Thermidorians in the original French national assembly, the very origins of the terms "left" and "right." You can always sniff a rightwinger out because of his fundamental horror at the notion of human equality. Whereas folks on the left are pretty fond of basic equality, certainly not inherently suspicious of it.

The rightwinger will always try to find examples of "perverse consequences" that always supposedly lurk anytime the principle of human equality becomes "excessive" in human affairs. They will always point to things like the Terror, mob rule, the Khmer Rouge, the death of poor little Louis XVII (the elder King Louis's prepubescent son, starved to death in prison in the days of the Terror), etc etc. They like to say things like, "Look at the Soviet Union. Sure everyone was equal: equally miserable and politically repressed." The leftist will readily admit that excesses occur during revolutionary times, and that power corrupts people even when they claim to be committed to higher principles. But he will continue to insist that, still and all, the world is always better off whenever the powerless shake off their shackles and demand their dues from their masters.

The rightwinger likes to say things like "positive and negative freedoms are in eternal conflict." By this he means that whenever someone insists that things like "freedom from hunger" should be elevated alongside "freedom of speech" as a basic right, the two will eventually conflict, because, he claims, it will always take an authoritarian state to secure "positive freedoms," (for example, "the right to have adequate food,") and that such a state will eventually threaten to take away the "negative freedoms" (e.g., "the right NOT to have one's speech stifled by authority.") "Positive freedoms" are things that promote the second pillar, "equality" (the right to HAVE or GET certain things) and "negative freedoms" support the first pillar, "liberty" (the right NOT to have certain things imposed on one).

The leftist, on the other hand, argues that the notion of an inherent conflict between these two pillars is a fallacy and that, rather than accepting being forced to settle for one or the other, the truth is closer to the opposite: A society that doesn't secure minimum guarantees for EITHER one of these two pillars will lose BOTH, echoing the words of FDR, "necessitous men cannot be considered truly free men." He will cite examples like campaign financing: even though we have elections, and so are supposedly "free" to choose our own political leaders, in fact it is the wealthy who have the luxury and wherewithal to utterly dominate politics. A thoroughgoing leftist would argue that, without some check on the grotesque inequality that prevails in a country such as the US, true political freedom will always be an impossibility.


Now, in addition to this basic commitment to all three pillars of Enlightenment political philosophy, the leftist also emphasizes a broad and existentialist view of human behavior and potential. "Existentialism" is the opposite of "essentialism," the notion that there are inherent "essences" that are built into and predetermine human existence, that no reform, revolution or evolution can change. The classic example would be "Social Darwinism," or the notion that "the poor are poor because of genetics," for example. (Notice that this way of thinking also undermines the third pillar of Enlightenment, "fraternity.")

Whereas, the leftist tends to insist that human existence cannot be predetermined in such a way, that all human beings have limitless potential, contingent for its full development on the healthy development of the rest of the society (existentialism). In Sartre's classic formulation, "one cannot even say who a man or woman is" until they have lived their entire lives out to the end.

The rightwinger tends to offer excuses for injustice in the world ("the poor are always with us," "it's all just human nature", etc) whereas the leftist tends to systematically refute such thinking as crude fallacies designed to promote smug complacency with the status quo. The leftist will point out that the very expression "human nature" is largely meaningless, because it is no more than the sum total of all the things human beings are capable of. Seen in this light, St. Francis of Assisi, Jesus Christ, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein are all as much examples of "human nature" as Adolf Hitler, George W. Bush, or Ebenezer Scrooge. Seen in this light, the real question is not "what is human nature," but rather, what kind of organization of society will tend to promote the really admirable aspects of human nature (love, cooperation, sharing, creativity, courage, and so on) versus promoting the uglier aspects (greed, fear, hatred, pettiness, etc).


Now, no one likes being on the losing team, so it's understandable that a lot of people these days who are clearly leftwing in most aspects of their political thinking will quickly demur from identifying with this term. However, as should probably be obvious, I DO think the political left is a useful and honorable -- and frankly necessary -- concept, for all the beatings it's suffered lately. Necessary because under any circumstances we would have to come up with some general name for this collection of tendencies, in order to speak about them intelligently or in any fashion at all. So we had might as well own up to them and be proud of and honor them. Slinking away into the corner and never referring to them at all, with any overall term to group them together, or trying to come up with a different word, to me stinks of cowardice and defeatism, hardly a recipe for any positive future.
Quote from Alice in Wonderland 26.Dec.2005 21:30

Louis Carroll

Humpty Dumpty:
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.

The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.

Humpty Dumpty:
The question is: which is to be master - that's all.

You're right . . . er . . . left 26.Dec.2005 21:44

g.d. dem

First, your article is great -- sound and true thinking. Your approach is consistent with the dictionary definition (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language):

4.a. The individuals and groups pursuing generally egalitarian political goals by reformist or revolutionary means, in opposition to broadly conservative, established or reactionary interests.

However, my thoughts on the topic diverge in another direction, which derives from the very next definition given in the dictionary:

4. b. The relative degree of commitment to such goals, considered as part of a measurable political continuum: [example] moving further to the left.

That's how people think about it, as a continuum. I don't know how the people on the right see it -- starting from wishy-washy moderates in the middle, do they get to the extreme of libertarianism or to the royalists or to the fascists? Somewhere in there you probably get the bulk of them calling themselves "conservative", although how a person can be a "conservative" in favor of destroying the environment, blue sky mining and so forth, always confuses me. Shouldn't a conservative be a conservationist? AND a traditionalist? Shouldn't a conservative really be in favor of keeping ALL of our traditional Bill of Rights rights? Of course, that would exclude the truest conservatives of all -- the royalists. But even there, it isn't clear: are those in favor of installing the descendants of George Washington as our rulers to the left of those who want us to enroll ourselves as subjects of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II? IT'S ALL RELATIVE.

BUT BACK TO THE LEFT SIDE OF THINGS. Seems like we start way out on the edge with Communist revolutionaries. But maybe not, because aren't the anarchists to the left of the Communists? Not to mention the Trotskyists, the Maoists and the Stalinists? Moving toward the center, though, we can sort things out pretty systematically, like this: In the exact middle, of course, are the wishy-washy mainstream Democrats (along with a vanishing few old-time populist Democrats, who are just too cantankerous to be pigeon-holed); moving to the left, we find the notorious "liberal" faction with its corporate labor allies; a little more to the left and we reach the European category of "center-left" (like the Social Democrats in Germany); then we get to the "progressives" (a category that sort of reaches out to include "social democrats" and "leftist" labor on its right); and then the system begins to break down about where the Greens are (sort of the left wing of the broad category of "progressives"). To the immediate left of the Greens we find the socialists (who could even be included in the "progressives"), and, then everything to the left of the socialists is up for grabs because they all are fighting to prove themselves "lefter-than-thou" -- often, paradoxically, by proving themselves "more right"! I tend to lump them all together as "radicals" -- meaning they want to get to the root (Latin: "radix"), as in pulling up the weeds in the garden, leaving no way for them to re-establish themselves. I also understand that the radicals consider the rest of us to be (pardon my language) "reformists". But, my radical friends, please note that according to the dictionary, we are just as much included in the "left" as you are!

I realize that these thoughts aren't nearly as lyrical as gb's -- it's just the more pedestrian and prosaic side of the left thing.

BTW: looking forward to Part II.

dictionary games 31.Dec.2005 11:43


If you allow the owners to trick you into thinking in one dimension, you will end up defending Joe Stalin and John Kerry, and they will win.

Don't allow anyone to trick you into saying, "left". Don't allow anyone to label you, "left". As soon as you allow them, they stick Joe and John on you.

Talk about "freedom". Talk about "justice". Talk about "equality". Whenever anyone drags in a red-herring, ignore it. Ask why they oppose "freedom". Ask why they oppose "justice".

When thery say you sound like a pinko, quote the Bushes and the Reagans.

Dictionaries are for losers. Doctrinal purity is for losers. Don't allow anyone to trick you into those traps.