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Definitely maybe? The rise of the ‘definite’ left

In an essay in Byline Times, openDemocracy co-founder Anthony Barnett celebrated the emergence of what he calls the ‘definite left’. It triggered a range of responses, including this exchange with the writer, historian and Kremlin critic Kirill Kobrin

9 to 11 minute read

Head and shoulder photographs of the two authors

What is the ‘definite left’?

A new development of radical and progressive green politicians working with centrists in the US and Germany

They grasp that economic improvement needs empowered people, so they are real DEmocrats. They are FemINIsts who practise human equality, and most distinctive of all, TheyExist – they are not outside official politics

The politics of the definite left is distinguished by its ecological commitment, its feminist culture, its support for real democracy – not paternalism or Labourism – and its exercise of power in alliance with the traditional centre

Dear Anthony,

Thank you for sharing your article. It’s rare today to find something optimistic at this end of the political spectrum. Just the effort of defining a progressive perspective is invaluable. Political thought should always contain an intention to transform. The case you set out is that a kind of consensus about the possibility of progressive change has emerged. I like it a lot.

I agree there is now an opportunity. The Wild Republican Boys are losing ground in the US. Bolsonaro lost in Brazil. Moreover, I agree with you about the Biden presidency. It is a slow but steady movement in the right direction; disguised by media noise, it has made important improvements almost silently, in a pragmatic way.

The new progressive agenda (ecology, feminism, human rights and demands for a fairer society) has a chance to consolidate popular support in many countries and to defeat the right-wing agenda of nationalism and pseudo- traditionalism. At the same time, this is where the main problem, even the main danger, starts.

I apologise for my old-fashioned Marxism, but as a progressive agenda it is too vague. It works with abstract political ideas and addresses too many social and national groups. Often it contradicts the interests of those it is supposed to support. Coal mining is bad for the environment, so mines have been closed in western Europe, which is then dependent on Russian gas. This helped trigger Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, because the little guy was confident ‘western snowflakes’ would prefer economic cosiness and their ‘liberal progressive rhetoric’ was worthless.

That was Putin’s mistake. But it was not the liberal progressive countries who led the anti-Putin coalition. It was Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania, plus British Brexiters. And one of the most effective tools of the economic resistance to Putin is in part a return to coal, nuclear, etc. From a progressive ‘definite left’ perspective, this solution is absolutely right because victory against Russian evil is necessary. But it opposes one of the most important elements of the ‘progressive agenda’: the environmental one.

One reason far-right populism is so attractive is it disguises itself as ‘practical’ in opposition to the vague, wishful thinking world of ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’. A lie, of course, but the Trumps and Farages are far more effective at this kind of rhetoric than progressives.

My main doubt, however, lies in the field of strategy. Definite left is a very good tactical idea; it could be advantageous in immediate political campaigns. But what next? Democratic procedures and institutions are defended and strengthened. Some of the most urgent environmental and social legislation is passed. But then the different social and political groups that form such a ‘progressive coalition’ will separate and take different directions.

Middle-class representatives will prefer the old-new status quo – a refined, fairer version of late capitalism. But those who are unhappy with the system itself will be disappointed. And they are the majority. Let’s call them the precariat or anything else, it doesn’t matter: the people outside western and central Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who work without contracts. For them, even in an improved and refined form, the capitalist system does not contain any real hope.

Soon, they are likely to understand that ‘progressive coalitions’ (and even ‘definite lefts’) are not ‘their’ proper political representation. They need practical improvement in their lives but also a clear perspective that leads to a different world in which they could play a better role, not as individuals but as social (ethnic, religious, etc) groups. Only a new kind of socialist idea, with the powerful image of a better future, can satisfy such – still undefined – aspirations.

Dear Kirill,

I’m honoured to be in correspondence with you. Your account in Granta of the day your country invaded the land of your partner is desperately moving. So I hesitate to disagree. But you see the definite left as a repeat of traditional reformism, bound to frustrate the majority around the world who want to replace the existing system – your emphasis. But the approach of the definite left is not just tactical.

Socialism as an ideology has been trounced and the historic left utterly defeated. Nonetheless, since the 1970s, ‘organic’ forces have resisted ultra-capitalism’s market priorities. These forces, now being expressed in the US by the definite left, have an intrinsic ‘system consciousness’ (of what western Marxists used to call ‘the totality’). Ecological understanding is fundamental to this. Feminism, human rights, intersectionality, holistic medical health, including pandemic responses – each is about connectedness as well as self-interest. The immense technological creations of modernity, such as cyberspace, may threaten but also empower us socially.

The younger generation especially see things ‘as a whole’ and seek to change society as a system. But their system-consciousness has not come about thanks to socialism and it need not be expressed as a desire for socialism.

As an example of how the emerging definite left is characterised by its passion for connectedness, I quote Elizabeth Warren: ‘Americans understand that the economic well- being of families is inextricably linked to democracy and to individual rights.’ My emphasis. She is not exceptional in making the link. I describe it as the ‘double-helix’ that joins democratic empowerment with economic and social improvement. Such a combination provides the ‘DNA’ of definite left politics and will ensure it lives and grows. So I see it as potentially transformative, not merely tactical.

Socialism as an ideology has been trounced. Nonetheless, ‘organic’ forces, now being expressed in the US by the ‘definite left’, have resisted ultra-capitalism’s market priorities

Does the majority see the answer as socialism? Or ‘socialisms’ in the plural, as Raymond Williams suggested (before he moved on to the more multi-dimensional concept of livelihood)? Jon Alexander, the author of Citizens, agrees a revolutionary citizens’ movement is under way but says it must not be seen as left wing at all. Greens want capitalism constrained to save the planet from the environmental emergency but refuse a class-based politics.

Is capitalism compatible with genuine democracy? That’s the heart of the issue. China shows modern capitalism can be governed – if the state is authoritarian. In Taking Control! I argue the only way to find out if it can be governed democratically is by our developing real democracy under capitalism. It presents a challenge to, not a reform of capitalism, i.e. ‘the system’.

Also, such processes will be ineluctably national. We two are helpless spectators of our respective homelands. Both Russia and England need ordinary democratic revolutions, to relieve our neighbours and the wider world of a bellicose desire for ‘greatness’ and also so that Russians and the English have a chance to be definitely left.

Dear Anthony,

First, thank you for the opportunity to discuss what is the most important contemporary concept, namely ‘change’. ‘Change’ as an idea and especially as an image (not to say ‘myth’) has been appropriated by second-class political speechwriters and commercial advertising. It is labelled as something positive and desirable. ‘Our society needs change’, ‘We are waiting for changes!’ (a line from the most popular rock anthem of Soviet perestroika).

Such ‘change’ is empty. Individually and collectively it is an expression of an almost hysterical, convulsive wish to get rid of boring, annoying and oppressive routine. In Russia, the birth of public discussion grew out of the instinctive need for change on a personal level that I have tracked among a half- dozen authors from the end of the 18th century to the first half of the 19th (from Karamzin to Herzen). Absolutely opposite trends of political thinking, from socialism to ultra-conservatism, grew from the same seed of internal tiredness and exasperation with the everyday empty routines of the bureaucratic Russian empire.

But the nature of change appears only as a result of change itself. In other words, the real meaning of any change is hidden inside its implementation and remains unknown, even unrecognisable, until the point of no return.

This is not amateurish philosophising about terminology. It takes us to the root of the problem of leftists’ attitude to far-right populism. Leftists mostly perceive it as an outcome of conscious swindle, of dirty tricks done by neoliberal politicians and their media hacks. It’s a familiar image: the illiterate crowd manipulated by rich evil conmen. Partly it is true, but only partly.

First of all, this crowd is not ‘illiterate’. Many of them know a lot – but the area of their knowledge and interest is outside regular contemporary western ways of thinking. The right-wing populist crowd is irrational, but it insists on its ‘real, true rationality’ against the ‘fake rationality’ of the liberal state of things, which is ‘stupid and irrational’ (from their point of view).

Key words, or ‘political discourse’, can play a crucial role. Which is why it is so important to rehabilitate the positive meaning of the term ‘socialism’, especially in the US

It means the initial tiredness and irritation of so many people when they face injustice, inequality and the incompetence of the state and institutions, including the idiocy of pop culture and the destruction of the educational system, leads them to want ‘change’. Any change.

Only after they start being involved in this or that political or social movement do they begin to understand its direction. Members of an ultra-right populist crowd elaborate their ideology only while participating with others. Right-wing swindlers may organise the crowd. But the very urge for change, the first public gestures, and the beginning of the individual and collective process of asserting the need for change with a political consequence, happens at the previous level, whether right or left.

In other words, this urge for change itself alters its nature from the psychological to the political in the course of the initial action. And this is the point where key words, or ‘political discourse’, can play a crucial role. Which is why it is so important to rehabilitate the positive meaning of the term ‘socialism’, so that we can return to it, especially in the US.

I agree with your use of Raymond Williams’ plural ‘socialisms’. There are many socialisms; they begin at the same point but later part their ways. The shared point is the idea of a fair – not fairer – society based on the balance between individual and collective. Unlike communism, socialisms are not based on the concept of class society, which eventually ends up as a classless paradise. Socialism is closer to the ancient Greek/Roman idea of ‘cultivating’ individual and social life, of ‘self-care’ in modern form. From this perspective, Elizabeth Warren is a socialist – in my opinion more socialist than, say, Cuban leaders.

I have set this out to hint at the possibility of merging ‘definite left’ with ‘socialism’, and the need to combine the ‘first stage’ of fighting for a fair society with the second one. From this point of view, the definite left agenda is socialist by its nature; the problem is how to move its ideal of ‘change’. Ideas of democracy, environmental politics, gender equality all already exist in our world, but only as the projection of possibilities that need to be filled with real content.

Politically this can only start in the ‘change mode’. Otherwise, it would never be accepted by the majority as having something to do with their lives. It starts with progressivism (singular) ‘amending our social reality’, then moves towards socialisms (plural) aimed at profound change in the nature of this reality. Progressivism tries to make capitalism better; socialisms try to make something better from the material of capitalism.

This interview first appeared in issue #240, Summer 2023, Debt. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Anthony Barnett is an English writer and was a co-founder of openDemocracy in 2001

Kirill Kobrin is a Russian writer and historian

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