Marching towards the centre: Old socialism is dead; long live post-fascism. David Selbourne on what's left for the left

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The Independent Online
THE revolution of greatest intellectual and political scope since 1789 - the revolution against Communism and old socialism - proceeds into its Year Four with as little sense of its true significance as ever. The 'right', having for generations perceived each successive variant of socialism as a form of the anti-Christ, understandably wants to hear and think no more about it; the 'left', having coddled itself for nearly two centuries with the belief that socialism represents the onward march of human progress, refuses to accept overtly that its aspirations ended in global debacle.

Wrong and intemperate about many things, Nietzsche was at least right in this: 'Wishing-not-to-see what one does see', he wrote in 1895, 'is almost the first condition for all who are party in any sense. The party-man of necessity becomes a liar.' The left is, in general, fully aware that socialism's ideals came a cropper in 1989-90, but damns itself, ethically and intellectually, for refusing to admit it.

The consequences of the 1989-90 fall have been enormous. We live now in a world which is not only post-Communist and post-socialist but in which even 'fascism' (for all the continuities of far-right reflexes) is changing its form and some of its tunes; 'post-fascism', the Italians wryly call it. It is a world in which not only old socialism's nostrums, movements, parties, organisations and publications are mutating or disappearing, but in which many traditional expressions of conservatism - as in Britain, Canada and Italy - are also being transformed, disabled or abandoned. In this, as in other respects, 'Thatcherism' was a forerunner.

Gone, too, in Britain, France, Germany and Italy are the old worlds of left intellectual self-admiration and vicarious proletarianism on the part of their 'socialist' middle classes. Today's Anglo- American poses of 'political correctness' - that seedy McCarthyism of the beaten left - are all that remains of this kind of thing. Gone, or going, is the old ideological and cultural reach of the interests of organised labour, and (in Britain) of Labour; gone, or going, the Marxist enterprise; arrived, or arriving, the discrediting of party and party thought as such.

Burgeoning everywhere is the non-party and cross-party desire for the political, moral and educational rehabilitation of the civic order in these violent times of social dissolution; President Clinton's State of the Union address on 25 January was a clear expression of this universal priority, a priority which knows no bounds of geography or party.

Equally significant is that both left and right since the 1989-90 revolution have made ideological tracks, parallel and even converging tracks, towards the putative 'centre'. On left and right, established political faiths have been disowned in the name of 'realism', or in support of the 'values of the market', or in surrender to the most idle of consumer demands and desires.

Yet if this is a world disoriented by the collapse of so many of the certitudes of old socialist left and old conservative right, it is also one which mostly does not wish for their return. At the same time, the diminishing prestige of the old parties, the dislodging of old party ideals and the discrediting of professional politicians are generating an intellectual and political ferment of new cross-party ideas and aspirations, as well as giving birth to new parties and movements, all of which represents a positive outcome of the anti-socialist revolution.

At the heart of this ferment is a hostility towards whatever smacks of failed socialist projects and socialist anciens regimes. This post- revolutionary hostility attaches in particular to the old left's vested interests in Tammany trade unionism, the incubus of welfarism and wasteful state ownership.

In consequence, the old socialist argument that such shibboleths were in the wider civic and national interest can no longer be safely put to any electorate; I fancy British Labour's lead in the opinion polls owes little or nothing to nostalgia for old socialism's return. It is a hostility which, especially in those countries that experienced Communism, can extend even to the limpest of social democratic pretensions: in the former Soviet Union, Yegor Gaidar, the ex-Communist-turned-marketeer, declared in the weeks before his resignation that he would not remain in a government that 'crawled off into social democratic policies'.

Bound in with this recoil, more developed in some countries than others, is a growing rejection of centralised political fiefdoms of all kinds, and even of party-rule itself. Suffering, too, are projects to create statist and supranational Utopias, that of 'Europe' included. For they recall, however unjustly in some cases, the old left's hankerings for bureaucratic order of every kind. The political upheavals under way in Italy are a microcosm of these changes. There, as new parties wrestle over the 'centre ground' in the run-up to the March elections, the former Christian Democrat Mario Segni - whose old party has dissolved (Tories beware]) - has called for the defence of democracy and citizenship against corrupt party rule, for less state centralisation, less welfare and more regional and municipal autonomy.

Even the old fascist MSI, renamed the National Alliance, now condemns (or pretends to condemn) the invasiveness of the state in individual life and the 'perverse dysfunctions of welfarism'. The federalist Umberto Bossi of the Northern League equally denounces both welfarism and the 'destructive domination of public life by national parties, their programmes, bureaucracies and interests'. Such positions, although coloured in Italy by a reaction to nearly five decades of Christian Democratic rule, have been given dangerous extra force by the discrediting of the 'socialist project' in the world.

But this confident rejection by the right of the left's legacy is also an ulterior consequence of the left's attempts to scuttle its own ideological inheritance - or seem to do so - and seek the safety of the 'centre'. In Western Europe, Italy is again in the forefront of such radical developments; British Labour, the French and Spanish socialists and Clinton's Democratic Party are going, or have been, through a similar crab-like process of distancing themselves from their erstwhile beliefs.

Achille Occhetto, leader of the former Italian Communist Party, now the Party of Democratic Socialism, has not only rejected collectivism and the principle of state ownership - or so he says - but, in specific terms, Keynesianism and 'welfarism-for-all', too; he has not only accepted the 'free market' but the ongoing privatisation of much of the state sector of the Italian economy. Bidding, like everyone else, for the 'centre' - but, unlike others, denying it - on 3 December he declared the left in Italy was 'not the ideological and big- spending left of the past, but a modern left ready to provide efficiency and stability in the context of the laws of the market'. He may even, come March, get the chance to prove it.

It is, however, in China, the world's fastest growing neo-capitalist economy, that the consequences of the 1989-90 revolution are being writ largest. The 50-point communique issued by the Chinese Communist Party's central committee on 14 December declared that 'the market' is 'the fundamental factor in the disposition of resources under state control' in its so-called 'socialist market economy' - a meaningless term. At the year's end, with investment flooding into China from Hong Kong, Japan, the US, Taiwan and South Korea, the Peking People's Daily described chairman Deng's market-led philosophy, which rests upon the rejection of socialist aims, as the 'Marxism of contemporary China'.

But such a bouleversement - was there ever a larger one in the history of ideas and systems? - has not been confined to the left. Both the Italian neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini and the dangerous Russian maverick Vladimir Zhirinovsky have claimed to be 'centrists'. The former, who was born a decade after the fall of Mussolini, has declared (without abjuring Italian fascism's record) not only that 'fascism and anti-fascism are out of date', but that his remarkable political progress in the last months has been owed to the support of 'moderate electors'. Zhirinovsky, between manic bouts, is also given to describing himself as a 'liberal democrat' who supports the market economy and private business; the Italian 'federalist' Bossi, threatening the unity of Italy while preaching the virtues of the free market, likewise declares himself to be 'liberal democratic', and his separatist League the 'nucleus of a liberal democratic movement'.

In these post-1989-90 upheavals, the most significant gains may well turn out in the long run to be those being made by extreme right-wing nationalists and regionalists with the gall (and the guile) to call themselves liberal democrats and centrists. Former Communist apparatchiks of the Democratic Left Alliance, with their Peasant Party allies, may have won the Polish elections in October 1993; socialist parties may have taken the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (with its 120 million population) from the BJP in November 1993; the reconstituted East German Communist Party may have done well enough in Brandenburg in December 1993; and, today at least, Labour has a long lead in the polls. But for the 'post-fascists' of the old Italian far right to have gained 46 per cent of the vote in Rome in December, and for Zhirinovsky to be seen as a plausible Russian president by anyone at all, let alone by millions, is of another order of importance.

Why so important? Because in the new worldwide round of struggle over ideas, the intellectually dishonest left, unable to come to terms with the defeat of socialism, yet simultaneously and without conviction espousing market doctrines, looks as poor a long-term match for the 'post-fascist' zealot as does the genuine liberal democrat. Indeed, the far right could, if their opponents are not careful, be setting the 'moderate' political agenda in many countries by the century's end. 'Our epoch has begun,' says Zhirinovsky. With their populist hostility to old socialism, their racism, their defence of family, nation, work, civic order and - crucially - their rejection of the wholesale privatisation of enterprises and institutions, the ideological tide may well flow their way.

Certainly, some of the accents of 'post-fascism', in contrast with the ideological fumblings of the left and of liberal conservatism, are more confident than ever. 'We need an intellectual, moral and institutional reconstruction,' wrote Domenico Fisichella, one of Italian neo-fascism's spokesmen, recently, 'a new ruling class with an exalted vision of the role of the nation in Europe' as well as 'new measures for the reaggregation of the social order'.

Against this kind of intendedly renovatory doctrine, glib as may be, old socialist schemes for a shorter working week and the 'saving of the welfare state' are as limp as appeals for a return to 'basics' in the absence of a practical, coherent and persuasive vision of the post-socialist and post-conservative future.

More ominous, and more important than the old distinctions between right and left themselves, is that the rescue of the civic order from its foes, and the reversal of its disaggregation, are now the largest of all political imperatives in most countries. Yet this terrain of the civic is ground upon which the old left, still saddled with its anti-civic class reflexes, is most ill at ease; the creation, for example, of a popular culture of civil responsibilities and duties is quite beyond it, as it is beyond the Labour Party. But those who espouse the ethics and politics of the 'free market', dismantling and surrendering to competition the very institutions that hold the civic order together - while bemoaning the social consequences of their own actions - are in no fitter state to recommend a civic sense to others.

Upon these issues, therefore, 'post-fascism' will yet have much more to say, as the dissolution of the civic order continues.

The writer is the author of 'The Spirit of the Age' (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993). His next book, 'The Principle of Duty', will be published later this year.