The Remaking of the European Left

25 08 2007
paul berman

Paul Berman in The New Republic

As late as the 1980s, everyone could have described the political left without much difficulty. The left–and by the left I mean whole swathes of modern politics, not just in Italy but everywhere in the modern democracies–was the heir to the nineteenth-century workers’ movement. The left stood for the veneration of labor and the demands of social solidarity–stood for the oppressed against the oppressors; the colonized against the colonizers; the victims of irrational hatreds against the irrational haters. The left stood for the dynamic idea that political action could change the world, and mankind did not have to wait around for God or providence or the “invisible hand” to make life a little better. More: The left, on its radical wing, stood for the idea of a wholly alternative society–the superior world that already existed in the Soviet Union (as a great many left-wing Italians supposed); or could be imagined in the future, if only because the Soviet Union, for all its deplorable qualities, demonstrated that alternatives were feasible; or could at least be pictured as a utopian aspiration, suspended timelessly in the political imagination.

But that was 20 years ago. In the spring of 2006 at the Cinema Capranichetta, it was no longer obvious what the modern left believed, deep in its moldy heart. Everyone knew that, over the decades since the Soviet collapse, the political left had undergone a gigantic modernization, almost everywhere around the world. But in exactly which ways? A reasonable person could wonder if the political left, in Italy or anywhere else, had made a permanent peace with modern economics. Or was the peace only temporary? Maybe the political left continued to harbor a secret hope that some kind of alternative method of analyzing trade and production might still be discovered, as if by Marxist scientists toiling midnights at the lab. The left of the long-ago storied past had fought against the Christian tyrannies of the feudal age and, in more recent ages, had fought against the fascist currents of the European far-right. No one could doubt that, in the present age as well, the political left would fight tooth and claw against any modern resurgence of priestly oppression or fascism in Europe, so long as the resurgent priests and fascists looked exactly like their counterparts of long ago. But there was reason to wonder: Could the modern left be counted on to put up any fight at all against religious bigots and fascist-style militias dressed in newer costumes, invoking some less familiar theology? And how did the modern left, the left of the Western countries, feel about putting up a struggle against oppressive regimes in other parts of the world? There was reason to wonder if the modern left hadn’t become a force for a conservative social order–a political tendency dedicated to a see-no-evil outlook on world events and a gated-community vision of the good society, intended to thrive in the West and nowhere else. People did ask those questions, and they did so around the world and not just in Italy.

More here




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