The left’s tragic flaw

As the economic disparity grows today fresh proof is emerging that ideas seldom die


Farrukh Khan Pitafi May 02, 2020
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

The First World War was raging when the German authorities struck gold in a clever idea. If they could send Vladimir Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership, mostly in exile in Switzerland, back to Russia, it could weaken the Russian war effort. Russia had fought bravely but trouble had already begun in the country as a consequence of the loss of life and property during the war. The czar had abdicated and a provisional government was struggling to contain the unrest. Hence, 32 Bolshevik leaders including Lenin and his wife were put in a sealed carriage and smuggled into Russia. As the country transformed into the Soviet Union it dropped out of the war. While in the short term the clever plan had worked, it could not save Germany from defeat and humiliation at the end of the war in the long run. As the country plunged into chaos, for the Soviets it was payback time. The national socialists or the Nazis rose to prominence in reaction to the Soviet attempts to install a communist government in the country.

The success of Lenin and his associates permanently fixed the nature of communism for the world and doomed it to eventual failure. Had a slightly more flexible and democratic faction, say like the Mensheviks, taken over in Leningrad and Moscow, history would have been considerably different. The rigidity and expansionism of the Soviet authoritarianism in trying to install its exact replica in Germany, elsewhere alienated many like-minded potential allies, made some serious enemies, and created a blind spot for the far-right in the eyes of Western powers which made Hitler’s rise and the Second World War possible. And as we were to learn by the end of the Cold War, it all amounted to nothing in the end.

Meaningful change comes incrementally, with great conviction and patience. The churlish absolutism of Marxist-Leninist thought obscured the fact that there were smart people around from the very start whose flexible approach could have made the socialist brand far more effective. In the end the purpose of ideologies driven by the desire for equality is not to create oligopolies, meaningless authoritarian structures, or prefer form over substance. The purpose is to improve the human condition. But rigidity and absolutism brought the socialist movements in conflict with Western democracy. Just think of a world where the socialist movements and the West were not in conflict but engaged in a dialogue. Imagine how that could have made a far better world possible for all of us. A world where the poor did not have to suffer and yet we all kept our private properties, freedoms and free will.

If you have read the writings of Karl Marx with an open mind, you can never deny that the man was a genius. But that is the problem with geniuses. They make you want to believe that no genius will come after them. That their word is the law and there is only one pathway to emancipation: theirs. How can that be true though? Has human evolution or the evolution of mind stopped? Why should ideas stop growing then? Or grow only in one direction? Two groups have shown why growth is important. Our Chinese friends have manifested that even little doses of flexibility and tweaking can go a long way in ensuring longevity and stability of the system. The second group is the Frankfurt school. In this space I have mentioned Habermas twice. That his communication theories could be the next logical evolutionary step for the socialist thought.

In any case, for every person with a socialist, progressive bent of mind, the days and years following the fall of the Berlin Wall were very painful. You spent your entire life building your identity and one fine morning it all is gone. How do you come back from that? Consequently, it was bedlam. As the people of the former Soviet bloc went through hell, progressives elsewhere did their own things. Some decided to join NGOs, later to be dubbed as traitors to the cause by some fellow progressives. Some seamlessly turned to religion when aging helped. Political parties in electoral democracies had a far more challenging task of reinventing themselves. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for instance had to position itself as a liberal party with the manifest overtones of moderation and secularism. Politicians with intellectual depth like Aitzaz Ahsan and Raza Rabbani helped. In the UK, the Labour became the new Labour. In India, Congress shifted gears and opened the economy to private and foreign investment. While their collective identity crisis might have taken them in different directions, the left’s foot soldiers could not change their spots for a long time. One such spot involved their impatience and lack of emotional intelligence. It took a generational shift for the old wounds to dissipate. But the spots are still there. If you find someone otherwise moderate with a propensity for exploding, you have found yourself an old and exhausted Marxist.

As the economic disparity grows today fresh proof is emerging that ideas seldom die. We are witnessing a revival of socialist worldview among the younger generation. You can attribute a lot of this to Bernie Sanders’ effective campaigns. Like-minded politicians elsewhere helped. But don’t let this resurgence fool you. The brand recognition of old Marxism is nowhere near it was three decades ago. Then these movements for revival are still being driven by the old guard like Bernie. This could easily be a flash in the pan. And then there is the problem with the strategy. The existing my way or the highway approach is oddly reminiscent of the communism of the early 20th century. The problem with that brand was that it made peace with the idea of suffering humanity as an acceptable cost in order to get what it wanted. If you want to create a proletarian utopia first let the people get abused by the exploiting class. Right? Only that it will not work now. Why? Because the exploiters are far more powerful now. And the new breed of Nazis that may emerge in the meantime could destroy whatever remains functioning. Also, since the old communist jargon is rooted in the suffering of the working class, a class which might not be working for long due to automation, this strategy takes you nowhere.

Perhaps one day the progressives will have enough brand recognition to effect meaningful change. But for now, they seem to destroy their natural habitat and allies in liberal parties like the Democratic Party, the Congress party, the PPP, and so on. Over a hundred years of historical experience could not cure them of this tragic flaw.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2020.

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