The Nostalgic Left

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

 

The nostalgic left is a bit of shorthand I’ve started using for those on the left who have reacted to the disintegration of the old left by wishing for idealised simpler times. And perhaps more strangely blaming the collapse on what they see as threatening new developments, like intersectionality. They hold such newfangled nonsense responsible for the current failure of the left to get an echo from the general population.

The nostalgic left wishes for the simpler times of the ‘good old days’. The days when the grouping of massive numbers of workers into mines and factories made the process of class self identification simple, indeed through their eyes automatic. A time when workers looked very different from capitalists but when, as they imagine it, those workers were not differentiated by sex or race. So the complexities of what they term ‘identity politics’ were gloriously absent, submerged in a uniform proletariat. A time when the intellectual leadership of 'the party' could lead an undifferented mass of workers into the final conflict with the bosses.

These were the wonderful days before the internet when left intellectuals could write without fear of participants in the movements they were writing about responding and challenging their right to represent them. A time when commentators who could be heard were calm, rational & polite. Those who were allowed to communicate with the masses first passed through a process that took away that hammer of spontaneous unfocused anger and replaced it with the stiletto of intellectual putdowns, phrased in the correct polite terms to leave a wound that was deep but also invisible to spectators. Not for them the ugly sight of the crushed skull, just the suddenly slumped body and trickle of blood. The right to have ones writing communicated had to be performed for, publication in the party press, the academic journal or the op-ed pages of the mainstream press was not a given, unlike that out-of-control blogosphere or worse still the twitterati of today.

These were the days when leaders of mass movement could operate without their problematic ‘personal behaviours’ being challenged because everyone knew to put the good of the movement first and the few who didn’t were denied a voice. After all Gerry Healy never had to fear the 'dark side of the internet', it was only the massive accumulation of rape allegations that eventually brought him down. 

The nostalgic left are often neo-social democrats, and in that guise, see the voice subalterns have today to be the problem that is holding back the possibility of social democracy. It seems more straightforward to see the end of that project in the ideological triumph of neoliberalism and the technical triumphs that have driven capitalist globalisation. Even in then imperialist heartlands social democracy on the national scale now seems almost impossible. Placing the problem instead at the feet of some people who make angry harsh posts on twitter about people that the nostalgic left would prefer to see left unchallenged seems odd to say the least. But this also reflects another aspect of the nostalgic left, a yearning to be back in the days when only those at the top of mass parties could say critical things about others and be heard. The role of the rest of us was simply to choose sides in such disputes and Go Team our chosen side to victory.

The nostalgic left can also be revolutionary marxists who dream of the days when appeals to party discipline could shut up internal dissent. They forget the chants of ‘discipline, discipline’ that drowned out the Soviet tanks as they rolled into Hungary in ’56. Or sometimes they may even be anarchists, dreaming of syndicalist unions of muscular white guys wielding tools, forgetting that Mujeres Libres arose of necessity out of the machismo of the CNT.

What brings these fragments together is a common howl against the complexities of modern movements, against the many voices that are now heard. Like nostalgic movements of the right they have no meaningful program, the change after all has has happened. The wish for a return to left wing victorian values, when bearded men polemicised by pamphlet, only serves to block the development of movements that might make a difference.

The nostalgic left has forgotten so quickly that the 20th century left was drowned in blood when the leaders who rose unchallenged to the top became paranoid psychopaths in power, murdering the former comrades by the tens of thousands. Like all nostalgia’s the bad parts of the past are forgotten in the wish for a simpler times.

When times are hard its often simple to dream of the imaginary easy days of childhood, to those false memories of endless summer and carefree lives. But to change the world 'that is', the very complex world 'that is', it's the future and not the past we need to embrace. Nostalgia may be a comfort blanket but it is also the blindfold of the executioner.

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

Comments

The nostalgic left is really

The nostalgic left is really uncool, but the anti-nostalgic left is no cooler. As a matter of fact it's the very same logical fallacy. If I were teaching logic in a liberal arts school, this would be my foremost example to illustrate the concept of the false dilemma.

The nostalgic leftist points at the good things in the past to conclude that we should "go back to our roots" while the anti-nostalgic leftist points at the bad things to conclude that we should discard and surpass and eschew everything and become cultural creatives or freegans or whatever is the new trending bullshit out there.

Daniel Marton, Budapest (uncool trotskyist friend of RedJade)

 To an extent I agree - at

 To an extent I agree - at least in so far as both come with their own problems.  This piece is part of a fragment where I'm trying to imagine what 'the left' should look like.  In that context the tendency towards nostalgia is the bigger of the two problems because it tends to arise from organisations that have existed over periods of time and which subsequently have control over resources, communication and even memory that the 'new kids on the block' lack.  My motivation in writing this piece was in part the recent upsurge in attempts to monsterise the new movments, that is to deliberetly set out to exclude them even from debate and the rather disturbing echo for such attempts I saw amoung many old friends and comrades whom I would expect to know better.  But more to the point it is part of my process for struggling with many of these new ideas and methods, a struggle that I find nostalgia is a barrier tol

It was also before the

It was also before the workers realised they were just pawns operating on the great chessboard of global politics.

Excellent article Andrew. I

Excellent article Andrew. I think one of the many causes of this is that much of the left defines it's ideoligy around the ideas of long dead men. Whether it be Marxists, Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists or whatever, this tendency is always going to lead to a desire to go back to the time of god-like figues.

I'm wondering what echo

I'm wondering what echo intersectionality gets from the general population?

My first reaction is to point

My first reaction is to point out that this is an odd measure and not at all relevent to the article.  But I guess buried within it are a number of prejudices that it might be quite useful to uncover and some organisational questions that are perhaps not as self-evident as I assume.  But that task is one for another blog post I think rather than a quick response here.  I would suggest that it would be useful if you elaborated as to whether you mean
1. The theoretical formulation of intersectionality (in which case whose thoretical formulation)
or
2. The organisational practise regardless of theoretical formulation

My own interest is far more with 2. than 1. although I do find the Nostalgic Left often use the claimed obscurity/difficulty of 1. to avoid serious consideration of 2. alltogether.

The Nostalgic Left of

The Nostalgic Left of paper?

It seems to me rather a great battle against a paper tiger. The fact Heally is given as an example, among the most depraved individual figures within the socialist movement, and someone who rose only to infamy but never to significant influence or power, is evidence alone of the weakness of the argument. As if individual evil is specifically confined to any particular social group or "intersecton"

If you scratch deeply you will find human weakness, defects and to varying degrees evil in all persons souls.

Also telling is the choice to use, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in the graphic. Is the goal to slander Lenin and Engels, but not Marx, by association with Stalin.

Though Marx was obviously among the most progressive thinkers of his time an opponent of Slavery in the US and an advocate for the rights of women. It was in fact Engels in the ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE, PROPERTY AND THE STATE, who made the most significant early contribution amongst socialists to and understanding of the roots of patriarchy and who reached out if only intellectually toward a grasp of the social knowlege of pre-capitalist social formations again in the ORIGINS and in his studies of peasant rebellions such as THE PEASANT WAR IN GERMANY.

Lenin was among the first individuals in all of Western political culture to defend on unconditional terms the rights of oppressed nations and nationalities and stood with only a handful of supporters against the nationalistic drumroll in the buildup to the First World War. In his opposition to WWI and in his book IMPERIALISM, Lenin opposed the battle of Western and Japanese imperial conquest over the nations of Asia and Africa, From his deathbed Lenin opposed Stalin's Great Russian chauvinism toward the national groups that had made up the former empire of Tzarist Russia. The Russian revolution, if only temporarily broke the bindings which held myriad separate nationalities and identity groups in servitude to the Tzarist Empire. Lenin's unconditional insistence on the rights of national freedom for oppressed groups was codified in THE RIGHT OF NATIONS TO SELF DETERMINATION, Lenin's total strategy specifically elevated critical democratic demands to the program of his party including that for women and people of color. Lenin himself was of mixed Eurasian heritage (Look at a picture of him).

The cadre of the Bolsheviks were never "muscular white guys" of the type that you see in the Stalinized socialist realist artwork of the 1930's. They were also not for the most part "intellectuals" if you mean by that college professors who write intricate theses and imagine that the power of their theory is such that it must compel workers to action simply by means of its perfect internal logic.

Rather they were organizers part of a mass revolutionary movement against a decaying empire. They oriented both to factory workers in major cities of the time as well as to the poorest layers of the rural classes, peasants farming small plots and agricultural workers. The Bolsheviks spent over a decade building their organization mostly on a person to person basis as field organizers amongst workers and peasants. They numbered 25,000 organized cadre at the moment of the fall of the tzar and their ranks increased tenfold in the six months between the fall of the Tzar and the October Revolution under the simple demands, Land Peace and Bread. A call to feed the cities, to provide land to the peasants and to stop the slaughter of the imperialist war (WWI)

If it is nostalgic to have a full appreciation of the ideas and political strategy of the Bolsheviks, which were an internationalist and multinational movement in which women played a prominent role, then I stand so accused.

But what is the real target here. If it is the emergence of political Stalinism and the remnants of European Social Democracy.? The Social Democrats as is well known supported their individual governments in the First World War The also for the most part supported or made appologies for the Imperial project of their national capitalist classes. The french supported colonialism in Indochina, the British Fabians apologized for British domination of India.

Stalin asserted his dominance over the Communist Party of Russia which had been the Bolsheviks and in so doing the domination Russia over the former territories of the Tzar. The Comintern which had been broadly multi-national and supportive of indigenous struggles worldwide during the few years of Lenin's life, (he died in 1924-- just over six years after the revolution) was usurped as a foreign policy tool of the Russian dominant USSR. The Communist Party USA was embedded in the traditional industrial working class and used its influence to discourage radical class struggle politics during the Second World War due to the Alliance of the USSR with the US and Allied Powers. The CPUSA did however have a substantial involvement in the early struggles of African Americans though your caricature of centralist control is not without substance, see Ralph Ellisons THE INVISIBLE MAN in which the "brotherhood" is a literary substitute for the CPUSA.

But even with the fact of Stalinist degeneration it is hard to deny that among the most dynamic social movmenents in the "global south" have been led by organizations associated with marxism, The Chinese Revolution, The National Liberation of Vietnam, the Cuban Revolution and the Nicaraguan Revolution, all led by people of color all transformative of the social relations in their respective countries. For myself I am quite nostalgic as regards the Nicaraguan revolution as I was a North American volunteer who worked on construction projects and in the coffee harvest.

It seems to me that your target is an imaginary one derived from visions of socialist realist paintings and from the bourgeois caricature of socialism which for whatever reason you have internalized and made your own.

It is true that there is phalanx amongst the contemporary left that has internalized their own caricature of "identity politics" and "intersectionalism" and is sure that the individual demands of people of color, unconventional gender identity or other individually defined characteristics are going to somehow ruin 'the movement.' It is is not that these people have read too much Lenin, but rather that they have not read enough. Consider his comments below at a Session of the Comintern in 1920. [http://rawlinsview.com/2013/11/04/v-i-lenin-preliminary-draft-of-theses-on-the-national-and-colonial-questions/]

"the Soviets, should be adapted to the conditions of the pre-capitalist social system, and that the communist parties should immediately begin work in this direction in all parts of the world.
I wish also to mention the importance of revolutionary work by the communist parties not only in their own countries, but also in the colonial countries, and particularly among the troops which the exploiting nations employ to keep the peoples in their colonies in subjection.
Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party spoke of this in our commission. He said that the rank-and-file English worker would consider it treachery to help the enslaved nations in their revolts against British rule. True, the jingoist and chauvinist-minded labour aristocracy of England and America represents a very great danger to socialism, and is the strongest support of the Second International [the Social Democrats], and here we have to deal with the greatest treachery by the leaders and workers belonging to this bourgeois International. "

In my own view the greatest nostalgia which exists among left formations is not for organizing workers which very few of them actually try to do, but rather for the perceived social stability of the period following the Second World War, in which The USSR appeared to be stable on its surface, and the 'welfare-state' was an established fact in the imperial countries of Europe and North America. That this stability was rooted in the hegemonic geopolitical position of the US, in value extraction from the reconstruction of Europe after the war, and from the ongoing exploitation of the colonial world by means of capital export, unequal terms of trade and rent extraction is forgotten both by Stalinists and Social Democrats.
The successful rising of national movements worldwide including socialist revolutions in some countries has broken, though not eliminated, this value extraction process and is coupled with the internal contradictions of the capitalist system within the imperial powers as well as the impact of social movements such as the civil rights movement in the US. The confluence of events has produced a profound weakening of global capitalism even as commodity production has become a universal social fact worldwide. (globalization)

keep up the fight

rawlinsview.com

This long reply doesn't give

This long reply doesn't give me a whole lot I feel I can engage with. I could argue endlessly about the Russian revolution but TBH that is in itself a rather nostalgic exercise of very little relevancy to where we are today.   But if you are interested in what I think on that matter there are a number of articles here on the Russian revolution I wrote some time back, if you look around you'll also find material I wrote on the Chinese revolution and a range of other now nostalgic topics. Here I'm using nostalgic to describe the idea that in 2013 the right starting point to understand what needs to be done is to look back to assertions of how things were being done in 1917 or 1935.  To be even handed the anarchist equivalent of the same tendency is to look to 1936 and I guess for UK social democrats the key year would be 1945.  For sure there are things to be learned from any of those important periods but I think the tendency to look there first is nostalgic in the extreme and simply serves to reproduce a particular type of left and left discussion that is not fit for purpose.

On your minor opening point Marx got chopped simply because I wanted an image of particular dimensions and including all 4 men would have given me one that was proportionally too wide. There was no terribly deep meaning behind this particular graphic, its simply part of a photograph of an exhibition in the Tate Modern that I took while on a recent trip to London and which was a suitable illustration that I had to hand.

There is nothing new in this

There is nothing new in this piece. We already know that Anarchists hate the traditional left. That is why they characterise the labour movement and the left parties as being bigots, racists and homphobes. Yet no one on the traditional left believes the working class consists of white, CIS males working down a mine or in a factory. But the anarchists insist that is what we think. To make themselves feel relevant, the anarchists have to pretend that they are the only ones who represent women, LGBT people and immigrants. But the reality is the anarchists have nothing to offer. The anarchists have no ideas on how to improve the lives of ordinary people, whatever their gender, skin colour or sexual orientation. Sloganeering about 'No nations, No borders, No bosses, No Gods' is worse than useless.

The only thing that can bring revolution, or even serious progressive reforms, is a well organised and disciplined left wing party that has class politics. Writing endless amounts of blogs or mocking leftists in the social media helps no one. Anarchists only do this for the purposes of their own egos. Which is selfish.

The anarchists certainly adore the social media. I believe this is because it gives them a sense of power they didn't have prior to it. Now they can furiously attack, mock and denounce whoever they like from the comfort of their own homes. In the cyber-world the geek is King, and the Leninists are dinosaurs. And that is why the anarchists so fetishize their blogs and twitter.

 OK you really don't like

 OK you really don't like anarchists and have a nostalgic viewpoint. Your assertions are also not particularly honest or else you are very unaware of the anarchist movement both as it exists now and as it existed.  I'd suggest spending  a bit of time educating yourself by reading the articles on this site, in partiular the FAQ after which I''ll gladly respond to any points that are based on having done the minimum of background work to allow you to present an accurate critique.

Good article, but note the

Good article, but note the following: "The wish for a return to left wing victorian values, when bearded men polemicised by pamphlet, only serves to block the development of movements that might make a difference." What we know of Victorian left wing values centers on bearded men with pamphlets, because the pamphlets are still around. Dealing with the complexities of ethnicity/race and gender were central to to organization of the Old Left, but this was not generally recognized at the time. Women's organizing and interventions were just as much a part of left back in the day, but they were not really given much in the way of recognition.

My area of expertise is the Spanish workers' movement, and while now it is easy from a distance to say they had a homogenous working class, in that place and that time real regional and linguistic divisions were used to divide workers, and a big part of organizing workers was finding ways to overcome and bridge these ethnic/ racial divides.

Wesley

 Wesley I wanted to keep this

 Wesley I wanted to keep this piece short so I only hinted that the past might not be quite at the Nostalgic Left imagine with the inclusion of the phase 'indeed through their eyes automatic' in relation to class identification. But generally I think in a very large number of cases when the historic details of particular movements are examined their composition becomes very much more complex that is 'recalled' & even described. A major problem with the approach of the Nostalgic Left is that in choosing these simple version of the past they are overlooking what may be required in the present to create the 'class for itself' they dream of. But all that was way too complex to fit into this piece which is more about getting the term out there. (plus I'm trying to be disciplined around trying to write short but meaningfully - rather a huge challenge).

I'll try and reply to the other comments posted here over the next 48 hours - thansk for posting them.

"muscular white guys wielding

"muscular white guys wielding tools"

Is this some kind of sly dig at Proletarian Democracy and their 'man with hammer' logo?

 Nope - I'm not aware of

 Nope - I'm not aware of 'Proletarian Democracy' at all and that sort of imagery is far from unusual

Good article, I've noticed

Good article, I've noticed the same issues myself. The need to understand and learn from the past (particularly past mistakes!) is not the same as nostalgia nor is opposing nostalgia the same as refusing to do that (as a few commentators have suggested) -- nostalgia is idealising the past. This can be seen from the Trotskyists who while idealising the Russian Revolution have little understanding of what actually happened between 1917 and 1921.

All in all, the very obvious failure of the left over the last 3-5 years should be causing more pause for thought. While we anarchists are limited by our numbers, we should have done better. The question is making sure we recognise what the mistakes were (both recently and in the past) and try to move forward.

Sadly, many on the left don't actually see the issues and instead we get the nostalgia Andrew discusses.

If you think the Nostalgic

If you think the Nostalgic Left is bad in the west then shed a tear for us in the Arab world, where if you have any leftist tendency whatsoever you have to choose between Nasserism and Baathism. They attract all the young socialists and pan-Arabists like magnets with all the pomp and splendour of the 'good old days' with the songs and operettas and speeches. And once you're involved you get sucked into the tribalistic party system and end up being a self-proclaimed pan-arabist socialist who supports Asad on the basis that he is the last bastion of anti-imperialism and socialism. Which he is, of course, neither.

I think it's time for the

I think it's time for the Workers' Solidarity Movement to rename themselves the Identity Politics Movement.

AddThis

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles


 

Posting comments

 Like most sites we have a major problem with bots trying to post spam into the comments section.  While looking for a better solution we are reduced to only on turning on the ability to anonymously comment for brief periods around the posting of new articles.  But if you are a regular visitor you can comment at any time by creating an account on the site and logging in before posting. But the Spammers also set up accounts so to reduce the workload of deleting those we only turn on the ability to create accounts for brief periods which we announce on our Twitter & Facebook accounts so follow those to hear when we have that turned on.  We do want you to be able to engage with us via the comments and we are very sorry for the fact that we can't find a better way of dealing with spam.