What is the left?
In the last episode of my narrative, I described the Fédération Anarchiste’s mobilisation in response to the fascist attack on the Plume Noire. This pulled me into active, explicitly political activism for the first time and exposed me to a whole new world which I had only been vaguely aware of until then. For, while I had been moving within counter-cultural anarchist circles for a couple of years, the FA existed in a different world altogether – the far-left – and there was little in common between the two worlds beyond the shared word “anarchist”. This far-left world quickly became my new home.
At this stage, I had read a reasonable selection of the history and theory of the various strands of the left, but the experience of practically dealing with real organisations is always informative above and beyond what can be read in books. I found it particularly interesting to see how the different groups on the left responded to the call for solidarity from the anarchists because, on the face of it, one would expect that the left should be pretty unambiguously opposed to fascists burning down left-wing bookshops. However, this was not the case.
Different left-wing groups responded in a variety of way. The Socialist Party did not support the anarchists in any way – their only response was an article in their daily paper, Libération, which poured scorn and derision on the anarchists for having reported the attack to the police. The Communist Party, for their part, wrote a supportive article in their daily paper, Humanité, and one of their members, the mayor of one of Lyon’s regions, helped carry the banner at the front of the march. However, they did not mobilise any of their members, nor did the CGT trade union, which they controlled, mobilise its large membership. The counter-cultural anarchists supported the march, but their cortege was small and relatively badly organised. The great bulk of the support came from the far left – anarchist and Trotskyist groups. At the time, I did not understand how any of this stuff worked - but over the subsequent years, I gradually came to understand the contours of the left and the attitudes they took to various different issues. Before launching into my account of my journey through the left, I will introduce a basic overview of what I discovered for those who are not familiar with that world.
Understanding the Left
The left is famously byzantine. There are many small political groups, often bitterly divided by apparently subtle differences in political analysis. It can take many years to understand the complex family trees of ‘isms’ that ties any given leftist organisation back to its favoured bearded ancestral gurus. Most people are not interested enough in political theory to put themselves through the pain of reading lots of century-old political history and theory in order to figure out the differences. However, on another level, the left isn’t really all that complicated. The differences between countries and continents are smaller than the similarities. The behaviours, relationships and outlooks of the various strands of the left obey regular patterns. The patterns vary from place to place and time to time, but they are deviations from the same basic pattern which changes surprisingly slowly. In short, a fairly simple model is sufficient to gain a useful generalisation that goes a long way to understanding the political left.
But before introducing the model, I need to describe what I mean by “the left”. An explicit model that rests on a vague concept is no improvement over a vague concept. By the left I mean: Those organisations and individuals who work for greater social equality, compared to the status quo, with a particular focus on economic equality.
It’s a reasonably narrow definition which only includes those who actively work towards equality and not those who are merely sympathetic to the concept. I’m sure many people could raise justifiable objections to it as a general definition, but I’m happy with it. In any case, it describes what I’m talking about here when I refer to the left.
The diagram above illustrates the model. It divides the left into five distinct categories with slightly tongue-in-cheek labels. They are: the Far Left, Team USSR, Social Democrats, Hippies and Freedom Fighters. The size of each circle represents a rough approximation of the relative “social weight” of the groups and individuals who occupy that category. Social weight includes things like membership, support base, influence, media output, and resources. The colouring of the nodes distinguishes between those who have a structural analysis of social inequality (red) and those who do not (green). The Social Democrats are coloured in slightly reddish brown to indicate that they generally represent a coalition between those who have a structural analysis and those who do not.
By structural analysis I mean a world-view which holds that inequality is a consequence of current economic, political and social structures. In practice, this separates out those who follow Marx’s basic model of capitalist dynamics from the rest because there really is no competing theory in broad circulation which provides a systemic explanation of economic inequality without seeking to justify it. In a nutshell, Marx’s structural theory holds that there is a basic conflict of interest between the owners of capital and those who depend upon wages to survive and that economic equality can only be advanced by taking part in this conflict, on the side of the workers: participating in the class struggle.
The first group is the Far Left. It is highly fragmented, consisting of many groups, most of whom are tiny. The far-left tends to be very concerned with political theory and fine-grained details of historical theoretical programmes. It has very little social weight with negligible influence within trade unions or other broad organisations and a tiny reach in terms of communications. What it does have is a highly committed membership who often sacrifice large parts of their life for their political activity. The membership tends to be predominantly young, intellectual men. Tactically it is highly confrontational, hoping to translate discontent into outright social conflicts in order to bring about a crisis and revolution which will overthrow the current political and social system. The most distinctive feature of the far-left is probably their practice of selling their newspapers on the streets or in other public places.
The second group is Team USSR. The name refers to the fact that this group supported the USSR during the cold-war and were affiliated to the third International, also known as the Comintern and later to its various successors. Team USSR tends to be fairly coherent, with only 1 or 2 organisations per country, often, but not always, called the Communist Party. Strategically, it is primarily concerned with gaining influence in mass organisations, particularly trade unions. It is socially conservative and tactically cautious with a focus on structural economics and industrial development. Compared to the far left, it has significant social weight, primarily via the trade unions, although it also has some communication resources, infrastructure and something of a social support base. The membership tends to be older and less intellectual than the far-left, although males still predominate. The most distinctive feature is the hammer and sickle and the images of Marx, Engels and Lenin, which often adorn their flags and banners.
Although, the majority of the political left can trace their origins back to the structural analysis of Karl Marx, in practice if not in theory, the Left includes other groups that do not have a structural analysis of the world. Some would probably exclude these forces from the Left, on account of the lack of a strong theoretical basis for their opposition to social inequality. However, in practice, they are to be found involved alongside the structuralist left in many of the real-world campaigns and movements in favour of economic equality. They do not have an understanding of social inequality that is rooted in the world's structural dynamics, but oppose it all the same. These groups have instead an idealist or eclectic analytic framework. There are two groups that belong to this category.
Lastly, we have the hippies. This label is a little unfair as hippy is generally considered a pejorative term nowadays, but I think it is reasonably apt and conveys the core features of this group better than any other label that I can think of. Hippies are culturally bohemian, typically well-educated and draw ideas from an eclectic mix of philosophies. Many hippies are not on the left, but some are, often simply due to them having significant empathy with the poor and having strong sympathy for more collective and communal modes of living - the commune based on sharing and cooperation is a powerful utopian idea within this group. On the other hand, they have a strongly individualist ethos and, although they may support economic equality in the abstract, they are often suspicious of mass organisations such as trade unions. Rather than seeing the problems and solutions of the world as stemming from structural dynamics, they often consider current social problems as stemming from failings in inter-personal relationship patterns or even in failings in collective relationship patterns such as that between humanity and the environment, or between humanity and spirituality. They often have highly idealistic or mystical views as to how social change can come about. They are typically badly-organised, with relatively weak and unstable organisations, a consequence of their eclectic philosophical roots. Although they are reasonably numerous, their poor organisation and lack of a coherent analysis means that they have relatively little social weight despite their numbers. What social weight they do have is normally expressed through ecological movements or alternative cultural spaces.
Applying the model
The model presented above is, obviously, a great generalisation and simplification of the actual left that one might find in any real country. However, it is still a very useful model as a first approximation because the left in the real world tends not to diverge all that greatly from the model. Almost wherever you are, in any given country or broad left wing campaign, you will find active representatives from each of these groups and there are very few real world organisations that are active on the left that cannot be easily mapped to one of these abstract groups. As a demonstration of this, I'll apply it to Ireland, the country that I am most familiar with.
The far left is made up of a half-dozen tiny organisations: the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, the Workers Solidarity Movement plus a bunch of others whose active memberships rarely grows beyond single figures. Although they have a couple of members of parliament, the social weight of their organisations is virtually non-existent - no media resources, no entrenched popular support bases, no significant influence in the trade unions.
Ireland's Team USSR consists of the Workers Party and the Communist Party of Ireland - tiny organisations, much reduced from their heights, but still with some social weight through their influence in the trade unions and their resources - bookshops, meeting spaces and magazines that are far beyond what the far left has to offer.
The social democrats in Ireland exist as a minority within the Labour Party, which gives them some social weight through having elected representatives in parliament and in local councils. However, their real social weight is mostly manifested through NGOs and the institutions of the welfare state - where they exert significant influence.
Ireland's left wing Freedom fighters exist within the broad republican movement as tendencies within Sinn Fein and its various off-shoots (Eirigi, 32 Country Sovereignty Movement). Their social weight is leveraged mainly through traditional family based networks and their armed wings which give them the capacity for violent action that the other strands of the left lack. While Sinn Fein does have some weight in parliament, the left wing of the organisation has little presence there.
The left wing hippies in Ireland generally exist as a disorganised network of individuals who are active in single issue campaigns around environmental, anti-war, or cultural issues. Most people who identify primarily as 'activists' belong to this group. They are extremely marginal and have very little social weight beyond the counter-cultural networks in which they move.
A stable model
At first glace it might look like the model is somewhat antiquated - surely Team USSR has been in rapid and radical decline since the fall of the USSR? However, if one looks more closely, it is the entirety of the left that has suffered the decline, which has occurred almost uniformly across the board. The Social Democrats are now little more than a small fringe within their parties. The Labour Party in Ireland and England, the Socialist Party in France and the Democrats in the US, which once contained strong social democratic wings, are now dominated by apolitical electoralism with little or no remaining structural analysis of inequality. On the other hand, while it may look like the Communist parties have disappeared from the scene, it is still the case that wherever there is a large movement to the left of the social democratic parties, one will find a core formed from the remnants of the old Team USSR parties. The French Communist Party is the organisational bulwark on which Mélénchon achieved almost 12% of the vote in the most recent French presidential election. Similarly, a splinter from the Greek Communist Party was instrumental in establishing the Syriza party, which achieved 27% of the vote in the general election of 2012. Germany's Die Linke Party, which won 12% of the vote in the Federal elections of 2009, was also formed around the core of the old communist party. Although many on the far-left expected that the demise of the USSR would open the path to greater influence, this proved to be a false hope, almost everywhere. There are a couple of countries where they have established some influence, but the general trend has been for small groups to become smaller and even more marginalised.
The stability of the planetary model of the left, in terms of the relative size of the groups and their common features suggests that they occupy environmental niches which define their character, as much as do their specific beliefs. The relative size of the various groups is mostly a consequence of what segments of society they appeal to, how confrontational their tactics are and what organisational forms they favour, rather than the correctness of their theoretical propositions. The Far Left are small because intellectual young men are not a very large cohort within society and the mix of confrontational tactics and deep theory that characterises their practice is unappealing to many beyond this core demographic. Team USSR are much bigger because their tactical caution and focus on mass, practical organisations are more in tune with a broader swathe of society. The Social Democrats are the biggest because their mix of social liberalism, gradualism, constitutionalism and broad social insertion most closely reflects the inclinations of the population.
There are, of course, organisations which do not fit neatly into one of these groups, and span more than one of them, but history suggests that they are unstable and that they will tend to gravitate into one or other of their constituent groups. A good example is Ireland's Sinn Fein. They split in 1969 into the officials and the provisionals, representing Team USSR and Freedom Fighter factions respectively - and the respective groups were relatively stable thereafter (in terms of their character, if not the specific organisations).
The model presented here is very much a simplification and an approximation of the actual left that one can find in any country. It does not refer to the beliefs or 'isms' of the organisations in these groups and while these are undoubtedly important, the sociological overview of these groups is much more illuminating in gaining a basic understanding of the configuration of the left. This is, of course, insufficient for understanding the details of the political relations between specific groups in specific countries, but it is a pretty good first approximation which allows one to understand what is going on without having to read a great deal of dense theory and it does at least provide some context for those who are not familiar with the intricacies of left wing politics.