The joy of being on the left
To be left-wing means that you must never be satisfied - to want it all and to want it now
Friday 23 October 1998
"You have to think certain things," she said, "whereas if you're right- wing like me you can think whatever you bloody well like!"
In a week when the ghoulish apologists for Pinochet have indeed shown that it is possible to think whatever you like, even in the face of horrific accounts of torture and brutality, her words came back to me with a jolt. Even in this paper we have read how a preoccupation with bringing Pinochet to justice is somehow an infantile ideal. Competing versions of history circulate, one which involves the CIA and one which doesn't. There is no dialogue between left and right on this one. Competing histories look, in the end, dangerously like competing ideologies
And thank god for that. With all this natter about the Third Way, it seemed for a while as if there were no competing ideologies any more. Everything could be thrown into the cultural minestrone that constitutes Blairism and all opposites would dissolve into bite-sized pieces full of warmth and value. All nasty edges will be smoothed away, we had been lead to believe, in a bid for the radical centre. The ruthlessness of Blairism is all the more stunning when one considers how fluffy he makes it all sound.
Personally, however, I like a bit of rough. What is the point of a politics with no rough edges, no sharp corners that you can snag yourself on, no dissent? Isn't this what we used to call totalitarianism? Eighteen months into this government, through accident more than design, we are reminded by their distaste for Chilean murderers that some members of this government were once what we would have described as left wing.
Back then, when life was simple, being left wing was far easier than it is now. The bundle of causes came prepackaged. The badges and the T- shirts were easy to find. I knew at school that I must support the IRA, the PLO, Allende and the workers because that would really upset my Tory- voting Mum.
Years later when I told her I was working for a magazine called Marxism Today she just said she'd never heard of it. Mind you when I told her that I was working for The Guardian, she'd never heard of that either. She just explained to the neighbours that I was still "Against everything", which to her was a terrible shame when I could have got decent job in Boots.
The cliche is that as you get older you become more right wing. Inevitably, or so the thinking goes, you acquire property and children and you want the best for your kids rather than the best for the while of society. The right have always depended on this privatisation of hope. Left-wing politics on the other hand is always seen as implicitly adolescent, because right wingers pass from puberty to senility in just one go. The best people obviously are those who refuse to be cliches and retain their passion and sense of injustice.
The special issue of Marxism Today, to which I contributed, is full of such people who should be old enough to know better. Eric Hobsbawm is thankfully still refusing to toe the party line, seeing in the global crisis a window of opportunity for those who believe that the freemarket cannot deliver paradise on earth. Of course, predictably enough, this effort has been slagged off on the grounds that some of the key figures at Marxism Today wore Armani and sometimes - I can hardly bear to say it - even Issy Miyake.
Well, Marxism Today always did upset people. It upset me and I worked there. It upset other parts of the left far more than it ever did the right. Ringing around trying to get some intellectual or other to write for us, I would often be yelled at: "Don't you know I hate Eurocommunism. I am in the other bit of the Communist Party."
Even in the late Eighties there were a surprising number of the great and the good who actually believed that sending the tanks into Czechoslovakia was a jolly good thing. The argument in The Life of Brian between the Judean Peoples Front and the People's Front of Judea was never a parody for anyone who had anything to do with the left.
Not much has changed, I was happy to hear that although The Guardian had graciously lent office space for this one-off issue of the magazine to be put together, graffiti had appeared on the wall which read "Fuck off, Commies".
The left have always had the best haters. But what some people really hate now is that we are not grateful. "You've got a Labour government," they say, "Isn't that enough?".
"No, it's not, and what this edition of Marxism Today does, in many respects, is simply to demand some return to first principles - little things such as equality and liberty. With Marx currently being resuscitated as the prophet of globalisation, it is not just the left which is demanding some controls on flow of capital but many right-thinking capitalists themselves. It might have seemed lately that Darwin had replaced Marx as the most significant thinker of the 20th century, but once more global inequality is on the agenda.
It is still necessary, therefore, to point out that inequality is both unhealthy and unacceptable. All this talk of social exclusion cannot hide the facts of genuine material deprivation. If you poll people to ask them whether they would pay higher taxes many will say no. But why don't we try polling them to ask if they want to see 16 year olds sleeping rough, if they want to live in fear of burglary, if they want to have to fundraise for their kids to have books at school?
To talk of inequality in a straightforward way these days is to announce oneself a member of the extreme left. The re-invention of Roy Hattersley as a lordly loony lefty who dares to say the unsayable is testament to this.
The success and the failure of Marxism Today though was that it understood the value of modernity. It thought, and maybe still does, that it is OK to wear a designer suit and to be incensed about the poor. It thought that to be popular the left also had to aspirational. It thought things had to change. Its enemies always thought it had more power than its supporters.
Indeed it is now even accused of having been responsible for Blairism itself - a huge feat for a tiny publication. Now, of course, it is accused of nothing more than whinging.
I prefer the word dissent to whinging and I would hate to live in a country where whinging was discouraged. Er ... Chile perhaps? To be left wing, if it means anything, means that you must constantly complain, that you must never be satisfied with what you've got, to be left wing means to want it all and to want it now.
Yes, it's adolescent, yes, it's idealistic, yes it may not happen in our life times. But what's the alternative? Not to want? To be made to feel guilty for asking? To be practical about the limits of change, who would want to live like that? Certainly not me. For this is true powerless.
"You know your problem? You are never satisfied." I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that. But what am I to be satisfied by? Tony's great grin? The Third Way? A recession? A widening gap between rich and poor, between men's and women's wages?
With the notion that only four men and their feuds really determine what happens in this country? Be happy with this government if all you ever wanted were crumbs from the table. Me? I'm afraid I still want the whole damn cake.
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