Crisis of the left

Capitalism is in difficulties, but the left doesn’t emerge stronger

There are very few people on the Left who are ready to accept the fact that the Left movement has been facing a crisis of ideology since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and Social Democracy since the 1990s. With the collapse of Social Democracy and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Left lost its ideology and its way.

The failure of the Left to develop a new ideology in the last thirty years is the underlying reason for its weakness today. A huge credibility gap exists about socialism and the Left in the minds of the working class. And that is not surprising at all.

The Left failed to respond when its ideology faced a deep crisis in the early 1990s. By then it had become obvious that the Left’s 19th Century socialist ideology had failed when put into practice in the 20th Century.

The collapse of social democracy represented the failure of the reformist wing of the socialist movement. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc (the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) represented the failure of the more radical wing of the socialist movement. These two wings represented the whole socialist project in the eyes of the world’s population. The failure of the socialist project raised serious questions on the credibility of the socialist ideology.

Tragically, this momentous defeat was not recognised as such by almost all socialists. And thus, they failed to take the steps needed to reconsider and renew their ideology.

The main challenge before the Left movement was to develop a democratic model of socialism after the failure of the top-down bureaucratic and authoritarian model. But the Left movement failed to develop a democratic model of socialism which guarantees democratic and political rights, freedoms and liberties.

In particular, the Left was unable to see that its old ideology had been missing the vital ingredient of democratic control by the working class. The Left’s emphasis on planning, public ownership and public services had left out the key question of how these institutions were going to be run. How they would be made accountable to their workers, service users, customers etc.

In the absence of any clear programme for participatory democracy in the state and the public sector, these institutions had ended up under the control of bureaucrats or elites. As a result, each attempt at socialist reform or revolution has produced top-down, bureaucratic and inefficient systems. In all the experiments of implementing socialism, there was a common feature – the working people were alienated from power.

Experience has shown time and time again that democratic control of society by working people will not emerge automatically. It must be specifically planned for and campaigned on if we are to see it arrive and flourish. Because of this, popular control has to be at the heart of any new democratic socialist ideology for the 21st Century. Not added on as an afterthought. The lack of this is the root cause of the failure of the old socialist ideology.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and right-wing turn of social democracy, socialism was a viable alternative to capitalism. It was part of the political consciousness of the wider layers of working people around the world. Socialism was a credible alternate in the eyes of millions of working and young people. The Left was a credible political force in society.

But today’s reality is different. Even though capitalism discredited itself in the eyes of millions of people around the world in the last three decades, the Left has failed to emerge as a viable alternative. Socialism is no more on the agenda and the Left is not a credible political force in society. The Left has been pushed aside since the rise of the neoliberal capitalist ideology.

Millions of young people, workers, unemployed, small traders, farmers, peasants and women are angry with the existing socioeconomic conditions in which they are forced to live in. They wanted to get rid of inequality, poverty, exploitation, alienation and unemployment. The anger against authoritarian neoliberal capitalism is growing in many countries — both rich and poor.

Under neoliberal capitalism, there is a growing level of discontent. The decades of austerity, cuts on social spending, privatization, deregulation, pro-market reforms and attacks on the welfare state have fueled anger against neoliberal policies. Life meanwhile gets harder and more uncertain for most of the working class. Thus, increasingly obscene wealth for a shrinking, super-rich minority starkly contrasts with the falling living standards for the rest of the population. Under modern capitalism, each new generation is increasingly worse off than the one before.

In response to these worsening conditions, we see increasing anger and prejudice, political polarization and degenerating public debate. All reflected in the rising racial, ethnic and religious conflicts that sometimes break into civil war. Looming over everything there is the threat of climate change — and the wider destruction of our animals, forests and habitat forced on us by the incessant drive for profit.

But the lack of any alternative to capitalism constantly undermines the consciousness of working people and cripples their struggles. Who can really resist an attack when they can’t see an alternative or even the hope of success?

Many people asked why the Left has failed to capitalize on the failures of capitalism. The main reason is the failure of the left movement to develop a new ideology of socialism since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and social democracy.

In the absence of a new credible ideology, the Left is badly fractured. Ideology often acts as the glue that holds a movement together. In its absence, the Left is repeatedly torn by disunity — constantly sidelined into potentially disunifying struggles such as identity politics, rather than able to integrate such struggles into the central need to create a democratic socialist society.

In society more generally, the collapse of the Left’s old ideology has left a vacuum into which has rushed not only neoliberalism, but nationalism, racism, sectarianism — and all sorts of divisive movements.

This article was originally published at the Pakistani platform The News. Its author is Khalid Bhatti. 

Photo: Inner fight (source: The Barricade)

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