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What I am Working on Now


I have recently finished drafting a book entitled

Provisional Contents:






Progressive Radicalism before the Left


The French Revolution and the Original Left


Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man


Socialism’s Wrong Responses to the Right Problems


Marxism’s Wrong Turnings: Class War and the Collectivization of Everything


Down the Slippery Slope to Totalitarianism


Keeping Left: In Defence of Democracy and Individual Rights


After Vietnam: The Left Descends into Cultural Relativism


Final Full Turn: The Left Condones Reactionary Religion


Two Open Letters to Friends


Capitalism and Beyond: Toward a New Old Left

Book Summary

The global Left is in deep crisis. The twentieth century saw murderous Communist regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere, with millions of deaths. But other stands of Left thought also face severe challenges. There have been successful social-democratic governments in northern Europe, but social democracy as a movement is also in crisis. The global economic calamity in 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession have not yet resulted in social democratic governments in the largest European economies – in neither the UK, France nor Germany.

After major twentieth-century achievements, including the welfare state,European social democracy is in retreat. After abandoning outdated positions it has found little to replace them. This ideological vacuum has resulted in resurgences of versions of retro-Marxism and outdated statism, as exhibited by the overwhelming membership vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party. But unfortunately, this has put Labour way behind in the opinion polls and the party seems to rushing headlong toward electoral disaster.

What is to be done? We need not only a policy rethink but also a complete overhaul of our concepts of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. To find a new political space we must draw a new map, and pull down all the signposts that point to past failure.

The language of politics is broken. This book looks at the current disarray of political thinking on the Left and challenges much conventional wisdom, including the very meaning of the term Left. George Orwell wrote in 1946: ‘One … ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.’ This book takes up Orwell’s suggestion, first showing that the term Left has gone through several monstrous changes of meaning in the last two hundred years. It then shows how a reconfiguration of the political map, with attention to new possible lines of policy advance, can help those pushing for positive and feasible change in modern society.

Background and motivation

An aim is to salvage some vital progressive ideas, and to undo the damage that has been done by reckless distortions and inversions, particularly by the abuses of terms such as Left and Right. I propose a very different way of positioning various political views. The book opens the way for new political alignments and alliances.

This book is a crie de cœur. In part I write for many of my contemporaries of the heady 1960s, who have become politically lost as the world has changed, and to others who have descended into impracticality, obscurantism, nihilism, apathy or indifference. I write too for those who are embarking on the journey, and are looking for a progressive road forward.

This book addresses enduring modern themes concerning human rights, human liberty and human fulfilment. But while these topics have been discussed for millennia, some crucial terms in the language that we use to describe key positions in the struggle for emancipation have changed or fractured beyond recognition in the last two hundred years.

The term Left has its roots in the Enlightenment and first appeared in the French Revolution in 1789-1792, to describe doctrines of liberty, rights, solidarity and equality under the law. Left meant opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, state monopolies, and other institutionalized privileges. It meant liberty (including freedom to own and trade), equality (under the law), and fraternity (in the community). The Left opposed justifications of authority derived from religion or from noble birth. These rights and principles were held to be universal. But since then they have been confounded. Much of political discourse has been turned upside-down, in multiple, spectacular, linguistic revolutions.

From the 1830s, equality and solidarity were underlined by advocates of socialism on theLeft, but sometimes to the detriment of liberty, autonomy or democracy. Then, in the 1840s, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels joined their version of socialism to the predicted victory of the proletariat, proposing that their struggle should lead to the expropriation of the ruling social class of capitalists. The first enduring Marxist government in Russia quickly evolved into a one-party state. A regime of purges and terror emerged. The Marxist Leftbecame associated with totalitarianism.

Accordingly, the term Left was widely used to describe totalitarian regimes with minimal human rights, execution without trial, little freedom of expression and arbitrary confiscation of property. This is practically an inversion of the original meaning of Left.

It is argued in this book that a slide towards totalitarianism is inevitable within Marxism. This is because the Marxist concept of class struggle and its proposal for a proletarian government undermines the notion of universal human rights, developed in the Enlightenment and proclaimed in the French Revolution.

The militant nationalisms and fascisms of the first half of the twentieth century delayed any major shift in the meaning of the word Right. But eventually the term Right also shifted massively, from nationalist and traditionalist apologies for the privileges of aristocracy, to greater advocacy of free markets and private ownership, which ironically had been the territory of the original Left of 1789-1792. By 1980, many on the Right had captured a swathe of territory that had been long vacated by the original Left.

Many 1960s radicals were were opposed to the military confrontations of the Cold War. There was a huge movement of opposition to the war in Vietnam. There were also large demonstrations against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

By the 1970s some on the Leftwent further, to oppose any exportation of Western ideas, and to rejectany notion that poorer countries deserved to enjoy the same human rights that were promoted and (partly) realised in Europe and North America. Even peaceful proposals to extend these rights or values were seen as apologies for ‘Western imperialism’ or the ‘US Empire’. Any attempt to export Western-style democratic institutions or rights, was seen as an ideological excuse for capitalist imperialism.

Hence, for many on the Left, their anti-militarism turned into opposition to any attempt to export Western values, peacefully or otherwise. What were held up by the French revolutionary Left of the 1790s as universal principles and rights were, for some of the 1970s Left, regarded as mere excuses for Western oppression or invasion. A major section of the anti-war Left mocked universal rights and principles, thus mimicking the 1789-1792 Right.

Many on the Left adopted a form of cultural relativism, where it was deemed illegitimate to criticize the values or practices of other cultures. Some leftists and feminists made excuses for such practices as widow-burning and female genital mutilation.

In Britain and elsewhere, where there was large and growing immigration from other cultues. When dealing with ethnic or religious minorities, police forces and prosecuting authorities were sometimes slow or negligent in dealing with cases of violence against women, forced marriages, brutality or murder in the name of family honour, female genital mutilation, witchcraft rituals involving mutilation or murder, and the grooming and rape of girls. The slogan of ‘multi-culturalism’ had made it difficult or unfashionable to criticise despicable practices in other cultures.

In Britain, France and elsewhere, under the ambiguous terminology of ‘multi-culturalism’, state-funded faith schools were expanded in terms of the numbers of institutions and religions involved. This led to cases of indoctrination, religious challenges to established science, and various forms of institutionalized bigotry. ‘Anything goes’ meant the toleration of intolerance.

Attitudes of partial sympathy for religious authority are even found on the militant extremes of the so-called Left. In the name of ‘the struggle against Western imperialism’ or the battle ‘to defeat the US Empire’ several members of the Far Lefthave supported al-Qaeda and other jihadists in Iraq, give open ‘critical’ support for the theocratic regime in Iran, or even for the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The bombings of innocent civilians and use of torture by Western powers does not justify any form of resistance, or any alternative, to Western domination. While there have been noble struggles for national independence from Western powers – Ireland and India come to mind – we should not ignore the trajectory and declared aims of the nationalists. Struggles for human rights, pluralist democracy and national independence are very different from those for a sectarian and reactionary caliphate.

Instead of addressing this vast confusion of political terms and alignments, many radical and progressive thinkers have failed to distinguish racism from criticism of religion, or from criticism of laws, norms and practices within a religion. This elementary failure to distinguish racism from criticism of religion is sadly widespread. It has entered academic discourse. In a television interview in October 2014 the American actor Ben Affleck described forensic criticism of some doctrines in Islam as ‘racist’. Intelligent leftists have described demonstrations in the UK against Sharia law as ‘right-wing’.

Many on the Lefthave done excellent work since the 1970s in campaigning against racism and fascism. But the frequent confusion of criticism of religion with racism has diluted their anti-racist efforts. Their resources have been misdirected into campaigns against legitimate and democratic political parties that are not necessarily racist in terms of their official policies, although they, like all other large political groupings, contain some racists.

Hatred of a religious law or other religious doctrine does not mean hatred of an ethnic group. Voltaire campaigned against religion but defended the right of anyone to peaceful religious worship. His advocacy of free speech included the right to offend others. He mocked, but did not incite others to violence.

We enter a very dangerous zone when criticism of religion is banned. While freedom to worship must emphatically be protected, tolerance of religion does not mean that we should remain silent about acts of discrimination or oppression that have been carried out by religious institutions. People have the right to criticise or protest peacefully against any religious doctrines or practices. And it is absurd to label automatically such criticism or protest as ‘right wing’.

Chapter outlines

Chapter one concentrates on European ideas in the period from 1381 to 1789, noting that early revolts appealed to religion for their own justification. But, by contrast, the English Levellers of the 1640s saw the legitimacy of government as grounded on the will of the people, rather than on religion. They promoted democracy and defended private property.

Chapter two explains how the original terms Left and Right emerged in the French Revolution in 1789-1792. The Left and Right were divided primarily on the question of the legitimate source of authority for government, and secondly on the question of universal and equal human rights. To be Left was to reject aristocracy or religion as sources of authority, and instead somehow to root authority in the will of the people. The Left leaders of the French Revolution advocated a democratic polity and a property-owning, market economy, just as the English Levellers had done in the 1640s and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s. This chapter also contests the Marxist notion that this was a ‘bourgeois revolution’ and hence a precursor of the proletarian revolution to come.

Chapter three is devoted to the contribution of Thomas Paine, who developed an alternative way forward. He has been wrongly aligned with socialism (in the original sense of that term). His innovative arguments for a guaranteed income and a redistribution of wealth are examined and shown to be highly relevant for today’s capitalist economies. Paine charted a different route for the Left, which was quickly eclipsed by socialism and collectivism.

Chapter four examines the early ‘utopian socialists’, namely Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon, François Marie Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Each attempted to justify their planned society on the basis of some version of science. But their schemes were inflexible and they abandoned Enlightenment principles concerning universal human rights.

Chapter five is the first of two on Marxism. It critically examines the Marxist notion of class struggle, with the proletariat as the ‘universal class’. The chapter also looks at the incipient utopia in Marxism of a planned economy. It summarises criticisms of collective planning from leading economists. Marx ruled out an economy consisting of autonomous worker cooperatives, but such a scheme is much more viable than nationwide collectivization and the abolition of markets.

Chapter six continues the discussion of Marxism. It argues that advocacy of the rule of one class over another, even if the ruling class is a majority, nullifies the principle of universal human rights, and paves the way for a totalitarian system, where accusations of being ‘bourgeois’ or a ‘counter-revolutionary’ serve as a sufficient pretext for punishment. The realities of organization of any large-scale society mean that majority direct rule is impossible and some kind of leadership or elite is necessary. Marxists are also negligent about the rule of law. Marxism generally carries the seeds of totalitarianism.

Chapter seven is a defence of democracy and human rights. It opens with some examples of Left apologetics for repressive Communism in Russia, China and Cambodia. There is a comparison of death tolls, first between capitalism and Communism and second between democratic capitalism and totalitarianism generally. It is argued that democratic systems, where there is some protection of human rights, can evidently reduce the risks of famine and war. Democracy may also help economic development, at least for countries above the lowest levels of output per capita. The penultimate section discusses rights and their possible justifications. The evidence of the twentieth century shows decisively that the protection of rights helps to reduce human suffering.

Chapter eight is an attack on normative cultural relativism, by which is meant the view that we (especially from the imperialist West) should not criticize the moral values of other cultures. The popularity of this cultural relativism is partly explained as a reaction against Western atrocities in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere. But being cautious about Western hypocrisy does not mean that one can be indifferent to female genital; mutilation, wife-burning or dowry murder, as some prominent ‘feminists’ seem to propose.

Chapter nine deals with religion, with a primary focus on Islam. It upholds that criticism of a religion is not racist, and the ill-defined charge of ‘Islamophobia’ has prevented full discussion of the nature of Islam in particular. The immense contribution of Islam to world art and culture is acknowledged. But Islam differs from other major religions – including Christianity and Judaism – in important respects. First, Islam has not yet accomplished an adequate separation of religion from law. Second, Islamic doctrine devolves the implementation of several religious-legal rules onto the believers themselves, who in the name of God and under instruction from the Qur’an may take the law into their own hands. Some Muslims are trying to modernise Islam, but the blanket charge of Islamophobia dissuades critical discussion that may help reform.

Chapter ten contains two letters to imaginary friends. This is a comparative device to triangulate my own political position. The first is to a free-market libertarian. I recognise the strengths in her position but argue that the basic libertarian stance needs to be updated in the light of developments in the financial and corporate world, and of growing inequalities in the distributions of wealth in developed economies. The second letter is to a lingering socialist, who still wishes to maximize public ownership and minimize markets. I argue that this position has received fatal blows in the twentieth century, from theoretical critiques and from practical catastrophes. Socialism – at least in its classic sense – is dead. The welfare state, perhaps also with a significant public sector, is not. The real debate concerns what direction we would wish to take capitalism.

Chapter eleven concludes the book by outlining a policy agenda for a New Old Left. There are foremost emphases on the problem of inequality and on the survival of democracy in a complex world. Possible measures to deal with inequality include the enhancement of educational provision, a guaranteed basic income, and a politically viable mechanism for substantial redistribution of wealth.