During the second half of the twentieth century there was an ideological shift within the left in the West, namely from being the organised expression of the working class to seeing the working class as one among a variety of interest groups to be defended.
The interests of any collective group were gradually subordinated to the rights of the individual. People’s politics became more a statement of their individual identity than one of collective conviction.
In today’s popular understanding, the left is essentially an umbrella term for people who uphold the rights of minority groups within society. It is true, to an extent, that the goal of the left has always been to represent doubly oppressed sections of the working class, such as women, youth, racial minorities, etc. This should not be in contention. A pillar of our ideology is solidarity.
Liberalism is not a lesser evil but a right-wing ideology. However, much as Catholicism had, it has a substantial backing among our class nowadays. We must engage with people where they are but at the same time not be held back by what is the dominant ideology. Oppression and exploitation are not the results of the abstract negative features of human nature but of real material interests: of capitalism.
In the counter-culture of the 1960s various tendencies and movements came to the fore, with protests against the Vietnam War, second-wave feminism, youth rebellion, drug culture and struggles for racial equality forming the backdrop to the movements for “civil rights.” Equality became the new watchword for many of these movements, mostly led by the restless and youthful middle classes.
What was missing, particularly in the United States, was a strong Communist Party to give these flourishing movements direction. This was a direct result of McCarthyism and Red Scare campaigns to crush the communist movement and separate it from the working class, preventing the working-class movement from being strengthened by communist leadership.
As a result, all sorts of esoteric political tendencies—Maoism, Trotskyism, “left communism,” etc.—emerged and made political interventions in the various civil rights struggles. What they all shared was an inability to create ideological clarity, and they served to create confusion more than anything else. The role of intelligence services, such as the CIA, in subsidising various journals and groups only served to worsen the problem.
The result was that a “New Left” emerged that did not have any of the hangovers of the “Old Left,” namely the working-class base as well as sympathy, if not support, for the Soviet Union. In return, the left became mainstream; the struggle for civil rights, equality under capitalism, became trendy and was embraced by many.
As a recent article in Telesur says,
One side, largely made up of social democrats, adopted human rights language as early as the 1970s and 80s since they reasoned it “could advance human equality and not just capitalism.” Many even helped propel the fall of the USSR, claiming it failed to live up to human rights standards—moving away from legalistic and constitutional arguments. “If human rights are the only game in town, then you have to play it,” said Moyn [the legal historian Samuel Moyn]. To access money, state backing and other resources, many found the choice obvious.
The result was that these groups and tendencies achieved very little, with the consequence that the struggles against racism, sexism and so on are still around today. What they did achieve was becoming the establishment they rebelled against. Today the left has more in common with this “New Left” tendency than ever before.
As it stands, much of the movement is still objectively tied to a desire for a nicer, fairer capitalism. Just look at the support for political leaders such as Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, or the likes of Bernie Sanders in the United States, among many so-called radicals. Essentially, the desire is for a sort of capitalism with a human face, which of course doesn’t exist. It makes little difference to people being bombed if the workers who assembled the drones were unionised or had a free health service.
Indeed the struggle for so-called equality or human rights has become a weapon of imperialism. The likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have proved invaluable for the empire’s efforts to overthrow governments in Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, China, Iran, and elsewhere. The National Endowment for Democracy, often quoted by left-liberals, was set up by the well-known defender of human rights Ronald Reagan.
If the left is to provide effective solidarity to the working class in its variety, we need to reconnect with our roots. Class struggle cannot be limited to the number of characters in a Twitter post. Our objective should not be to reform capitalism but to overthrow it.
We need to struggle with our class, not against or around it. Where other countries face an ideological onslaught by imperialism, we need to draw a line in the sand and oppose it, not being afraid of being labelled or discredited. It is exactly this principle that makes a Communist Party a necessity.