Globe Scan
by Chanakya Sen

Left Wing left out? 

A British friend with socialist convictions lamented last year, "there is no longer a Left wing party alternative in the UK." Prime Minister Tony Blair's political success lies in stealing the right wing thunder from the Conservatives and fancifully christening it 'New Labour.' Old timers and those who know history are wondering how on earth a Labour government in London is pushing the envelope for privatisation of transport, education and health care, buttressing the American military empire unquestioningly, resurrecting atavistic projects of 'new imperialism' (Robert Cooper), and eliminating the BBC's independence. Surely, these are Thatcherite and Reaganomic policies! Whatever happened to the ideal of the welfare state supplying public utilities that Labour made its trademark agenda since World War II? But then, we are now well into the 21st century. The past is another century.

Leftism as a force has lost appeal and charm not just in Britain but most corners of the globe. In the 1992 classic The End of History & The Last Man Standing, American thinker Francis Fukuyama tabulated a list of countries from all continents in historical progression towards liberal democracy, defined as a free market economy with a representative government that respects civil liberties. In 1790, only 3 countries qualified as liberal democracies. By 1848, 5 qualified. By 1900, 13 qualified. By 1919, 25 qualified. By 1940, 13 qualified (retrogression). By 1960, 36 qualified. By 1975, 30 qualified (another retrogression). By 1990, where Fukuyama stopped counting, 61 qualified. If he were to update the chart to 2004, the figure might read closer to 100. A parallel table of Marxist-Socialist states from 1917 onward would document continuous decline. 

Except for brief interludes of Fascism and Cold War communism, the march of liberal democracy has been unstoppable. It is a liberal democracy wave essentially of, for and by the middle classes or the petit bourgeosie. It is a liberal democracy wave that has institutionalised neo-classical laissez faire policies with a vengeance. It is a liberal democracy wave that has seemingly defeated leftism. The whole of Eastern Europe, including Russia proper and the former Soviet satellites, is today in capitalist thrall and referred in World Bank lingo as 'Transition Economies' or 'New Emerging Markets.' Freedom House International, a western think tank, calls them 'Nations in Transit' that are undergoing "democratic consolidation."

China, the other major communist bastion, has evolved into a paragon of state capitalism and 'new development economics' based on free trade-spurred growth models. Neighbouring Laos and Vietnam are ruled technically by communists but are following Beijing's cue. 

France, Germany, Italy and Spain do have established 'Social Democratic' parties, but are no match to conservative powers-that-be. In any case, European Social Democracy has always been a Left-of-centre liberal business, not leftist in the strict sense. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany is in many ways similar to Tony Blair by championing the 'Third Way' or the oxymoronic "Socialist Market Economy." Schroeder is as anti-leftist as his predecessors in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), whose failure to unite with the Communists in the 1930s allowed Hitler's ascent to dictatorship. Income inequality indexes in such superficially leftist countries have zoomed beyond sanity.

In 1936, Stalin declared the USSR to be a 'classless society.' In the late sixties, Mao did likewise during the peak of the Cultural Revolution in China.  Today, such claims would come across as poor jokes. Where are the collective farms and communes now? Where did nationalised industries and centralised planning go? Philosophers used to state from podiums that socialism and nationalism are the two most powerful ideas that shaped the modern world. Clearly, socialism is no longer a defining principle of governments worldwide. Former socialist republics are now setting objectives like foreign investment maximisation and liberalisation of trade.

The Left as an organised entity capable of undertaking radical social re-engineering is out of power almost everywhere. Cuba stands out as a honourable exception. Extreme leftists swearing by violent revolution and overthrow of bourgeois superstructures survive in pockets as Marxist-Leninists and Maoists. Nepal is currently gripped by a devastating Maoist insurgency that has challenged the monarchical democracy. Sri Lanka's Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), drawing support from unemployed youth and the poor, has attempted two bloody putsches in the past and is presently flirting with democratic processes without giving up its basic ideology that power flows from the barrel of the gun. In Colombia, the FARC and Guevarist ELN are major guerrilla armies professing faith in overthrowing the capitalist order by the sword. Then there are the Naxalites of the People's War Group whose writ of terror runs in parts of India.

But it appears unlikely that 'people's wars' wedded to Che Guevara's tactics can succeed in any of the above cases. The last time people's wars were victorious was when they intertwined with nationalism and fought for liberation from foreign occupiers all over Africa and in Vietnam. Once the target of these wars turns away from Western imperialism and is pointed at internal elites, the result is civil war and chaos, not dictatorships of the proletariat. 

Another interesting global demographic trend can explain why leftism is dying. The share of developing countries in the global middle class has risen from 20 per cent in 1960 to 70 per cent in 2000. The middle class has grown in 1989-2000 from 1 per cent of the population to 22 per cent in India and China. In absolute terms, it is a whopping 450 million people. Add Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, the other big developing countries, and we have a steadily rising constituency of consumerism and anti-leftism. This is the corpus of the 'international middle class'  oweing its rising economic fortunes to the private sector and benefits of globalisation. They have a strong stake in maintaining the status quo of liberal democracy.

Ironically, the same globalisation phenomenon has given the Left wing a major outlet to mobilise and show street power at G-8 and WTO meetings.  A fast spreading Green political movement concerned with nature and environmental protection is another outlet for the Left to stay in public eye.

Anti-globalisation and anti-corporate sentiments have risen simultaneous to the decline of socialist states. As the Left lost power around the world, leftists reread in dusty copies of Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto that the state is an expression of class oppression and should be resisted, not wooed. The Left should be in opposition, not government. A sizeable chunk of anarchists always opposed state power, even in the heyday of 'people's republics.' Instead of trying to grab power, an enfeebled Left is now the inveterate enemy of multinational corporations and their client states.

So, will this sorry state of affairs for the Left wing continue globally? Some stress that the rout of the Left is not permanent. As wealth disparities increase around the world and as the global economy straggles in recession, there will be avenues for the Left to stage comebacks. History is cyclical. But wait…didn't Marx preach the opposite, that history is linear?

*Also read in Comment



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