Reconstructing the Left

by Shayn McCallum

A striking dilemma facing the Left almost everywhere outside Latin America is that, despite a massive crisis of globalised capitalism and the nakedly ideological bloody-mindedness of neo-liberalism, the Left is largely failing to rise to the occasion.  How is it that, in a time of economic meltdown brought on by rampant, neo-liberal (il)logic concerning the desirability of untrammeled free-markets, there has not been a sharp turn to the Left and a call to reassert popular sovereignty once more over the market?  Why is the cry of “people before profits” limited to the activists of the street?

There are, of course, a number of reasons for the difficulties of the Left in this period, certainly a massive neo-liberal counterrevolution, picking up momentum since the 1980’s, has transformed our societies in directions that do not favour the Left.  It is not only the liberalisation of economics and hollowing out of democratic politics that we need to contend with but also the pervasiveness of economism and  individualist culture that have undermined the popular basis for Left activity.  The Left parties however have failed to do their part in combatting these trends. In several cases (New Labour and the SPD in the 1990’s are noteworthy examples) Left wing parties have even crossed the battle  lines, embracing and deepening the inequalities and injustices of Centre-Right policies.  Under such circumstances, there is little wonder that those citizens feeling the squeeze of austerity fail to turn to social democracy for answers;  social-democrats are  part of the problem.

That however, needn’t be true.  Social democrats need to get back to their roots.  It’s true that times have changed and we need to rebuild our parties.  Reform and renovation are absolutely necessary if we are to remain relevant but the key question is the direction of that reform.  What is our core identity?  Our origins are clear, social-democrats are the proud inheritors of a long tradition of democratic socialism.  The social-democratic tradition is not one of violent upheaval or bloody revolution but is, in inspiration, a path aiming at a politics of transformation.  Our goal ought to be a better kind of society in which people feel free, equal with their fellows and unoppressed. Naturally, the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not always ideal, yet the social democratic way, at its best, has always been to make the best of circumstances to achieve improvements to our societies that come closer to bridging the eternal divide between what is and what ought to be.

The Left must become brave, visionary and ready to lead just as it once was.  We must realise that, important as it is to win government, state power is not everything.  I am pleased to see how the Centre-Left parties have woken up to this fact and are recognising the need to be rooted in communities, to become a part of people’s lives again.  There is a need to try to disseminate our politics and reacquire some of the social democratic hegemony that prevailed in the sixties and seventies.  We should not be upset when we see the Centre-Right attempting to steal our policy initiatives, this is the greatest sign of victory, a sign that we have succeeded in pulling the political centre leftward so that the Right must accommodate to us rather than the other way around, which has been the case for too long.

The Left must relearn skills it was once a master of, organising and building communities of purpose.  We need to have a clear political stance that we are capable of defending, explaining and popularising rather than falling into the trap of following opinion polls and timidly going with the crowd.  Given the powerful effects of neo-liberal hegemony in reconstructing the political “common-sense” notions of citizens, there is little to be gained from the Left in merely “going with the flow”.

Our job is not easy and, to be fair, we’ve made some mistakes.  The Left needs to reinvent itself.  What is crucial is how this is done and which direction we decide to move in.  Neo-liberalism has had its day and yet it persists, we need a bold, fighting  social democracy to rise up and slay the dragon.

Shayn McCallum is an Australian-born resident of Istanbul and PES activist (working as a member of the Irish Labour Party and French Socialist Party). He is employed as an instructor at Bo?aziçi University in Istanbul and is also currently working on his doctoral thesis on the subject of European Social Democracy.

Social Europe Journal