What happened to the Left’s moral compass?

The worst traditions of the liberal-left are flourishing while the best are rusting from underuse.

– Nick Cohen, What’s Left?, p.361

The key point made by Nick Cohen in his book What’s Left? is the shift over recent decades in the Left’s basic principles and motivations.

In the thirties, forties and afterwards, the Left’s key guiding principles included:

  • Anti-fascism: as Cohen points out, if there is one thing the Left could be relied upon to do from the 1930s onwards, it was to oppose fascism (albeit this often leading to double standards as contrasted with the frequent apologism for left-authoritarians).
  • Solidarity with those fighting against oppression around the world: democratic socialists, trade unionists, feminists and so on.
  • Universal values: a belief that what was right in the west (democracy, human rights, freedom and so on) was right anywhere in the world.

However, a fundamental shift has occurred in many sections of the Left, a recalibration of its “moral compass”:

  • Fascism has been replaced as the “great opponent” by America, Israel, the West, “the hegemon”.
  • As a result, solidarity is denied to those (such as Iraqi trade unionists or socialists) whose oppressors are themselves opponents of America, Israel or the West, even if those oppressors are fascistic (such as Baathists or Islamists).
  • Universal values are seen as an instrument of western hegemony: just because it’s wrong in the West to oppress women or to be racist or homophobic, doesn’t mean we should “impose” those values on other cultures.

If there is one thing I think is missing from Cohen’s analysis, it’s providing a positive statement, in broad terms, of what a revived “decent Left” should look like. The answer to that is implicit in his book, I think, but it would be useful to draw this out more.


14 thoughts on “What happened to the Left’s moral compass?”

  1. P’raps Cohen’s writing a sneaky sequel. 😉

    One of the problems with the general Western political discourse on matters like democracy is that we universalise the wrong thing. We make elective representation the essence of democracy, when in fact one can have elective representation and yet be in the most anti-democratic of nations. Look at Israel, where religious freedom is seriously curtailed and Christians persecuted, and yet which has a representative parliament and Western support as a “democratic” nation.

  2. Phil: it’s true that the mere formality of having elections can be over-identified with democracy, and people can get overly impressed by the fact that elections are held. Though that formality is still a necessary condition of democracy, even if not a sufficient one.

    As for Israel: for all Israel’s flaws – not to mention its shameful and counterproductive behaviour towards Gaza and the West Bank – I’d still rather live in Israel any day than Syria or Saudi Arabia, say. Or China. Or Zimbabwe. Or, for that matter, in a “united” Palestine run by Hamas or the PLO.

    Even if Israel only has a half-loaf of democracy, that’s better than no bread.

  3. I’m not sure elections are even a necessary condition, to be honest. They’re probably “practically necessary”. But the main point is that you can have a “half-loaf” as you put it; something that few Westerners seem willing to admit. For most, democracy is a binary choice, an unalloyed good to be identified with “the will of the majority”. It’s an over-simplification, something to which the West seems particularly prone at present, and its grip encompasses not only the Left but the Right.

  4. Ah, I’ve just seen what might have confused. I didn’t intend to call Israel “the most anti-democratic” of nations, although I think I might have managed to do so inadvertently. I would quite firmly say that they’re far less democratic than Western Europe and North America.

  5. Phil: understood.

    As for “democracy”: the fundamental democratic right is the right to “throw the buggers out”, if you’ll pardon my French.

    “Democracy” can be a vague and abstract notion, but what is more concrete is that there are some countries in the world where it is possible for a change of government to occur peacefully as a result of votes being cast in an election, and there are some where that is not possible. That’s the key distinction. Israel passes that test; Egypt (say) doesn’t. It’s highly questionable whether Russia does.

  6. The Benn Tesht, of courshe.

    It’s fair enough as far as it goes, but I’d be wary of making “democracy” a cardinal political virtue if that’s the essence of democracy. The usual example suffices: a free-and-fair election which places the odious Nick Griffin behind the door of Number Ten would be “democratic”, but even if Griffin held free and fair elections afterwards, I’d not want to dignify his (hypothetical, ever may it remain so) government with the term.

  7. Phil: of course! Had forgotten where it came from.

    Altogether now: “It’sh all about oil, y’know.” 😉

    As for Nick Griffin as PM: I think that’s why it is significant that the principle is stated as being anti-fascism rather than pro-democracy. Hence no-one on the left saw Jean-Marie Le Pen as being legitimised by getting the second-largest share of the vote in the French presidential election a few years’ back. You don’t stop being a fascist simply because people vote for you.

    Ditto the way in which Austria was treated as almost a pariah state when Jorg Haider’s party formed part of a coalition government.

    But then that principle is forgotten in other contexts. For example, when Hamas won the elections for the Palestinian Authority, and we were solemnly informed that to treat Hamas like a fascist – no, scrub that, Nazi – organisation was to deny the Palestinians their democratic rights.

    What it amounts to is this: electorates in white European states must face the consequences for electing fascists. Electorates elsewhere in the world cannot be expected to live up to our standards, the poor things, and so should not face the same accountability for the electoral choices they make.

  8. Locke v. Hobbes? Bentham v. Mill? Hamilton v. Jefferson? Elected representation is really a symptom of pessimism concerning human nature. As a recent Poli-sci grad I’m going to be following this blog with interest. Too bad I’ve almost forgotten everything I’ve learned.

  9. There is really only one democracy in the Middle East. It is Saudi Arabia…no, it’s Jordan…no, it’s Syria…no, it’s Egypt…no, it’s Iran…well Iraq has a fledgling democracy (they have voted a few times in spite of all the death threats)

    What would the world look today, had there been no Great Britian, no America, no Austrailia, no Canada, no Fr…never mind on that one. (just kidding)

  10. A democratic state needs a people ready for democracy. Whereas Russia is most likely not a fully democratic state (whose going to throw Putin out – good luck!), it is debateable if a fully democratic system is what Russia needs right now.

  11. Resistor: thanks for those links. I’ve printed out those critical reviews to read over the next few days.

    Your comments got caught in my spam filter when you originally posted them, which is why they didn’t appear initially.

  12. “Resistor”, please go and look up the normal definition of “murder”, write it out 100 times, and then come back and post.

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