On the fractious diversity of The Left (Updated)

I’m always surprised by “the left” (whatever that is). There seems to be a rolling, tumultuous mix of a thousand competing ideologies, but with people’s individual views overlapping dozens of them. How any broad grouping can possibly house somebody who argues that human trafficking figures are overblown and that many migrant prostututes chose freely to do so, big (p|m)aternalistic governmentalists, anarcho-greenie localists and pro-market World-Bank-supporting developmentalists all under the same umbrella is beyond me.

I read today in the Economist that Dilma Rousseff, a Brazilian politician who is currently chief-of-staff to President Lula in one of the most financially conservative, rightward-looking “left” governments of South America, was once a Trotskyist. The Wikipedia entry on her is clearly a highly-biased stub, but alleges (without evidence) that in the late 60s and early 70s, she was a member of a revolutionary guerilla group bent on taking Brazil down the route of outright communism. I might be completely wrong, but I think that you just don’t see that sort of change in extremes of position in “the right”, or if it does happen, it does so much, much less frequently.

To some extent, it seems that one of the key differences between the left and the right isn’t so much about ideology (although there is that) but about the practicalities of how to achieve their respective goals. Those on the left seem, on the whole, to prefer to stay in the stratosphere of broad, sweeping statements of ideological policy, while those on the right seem more likely to focus on the particular details of change. It’s a gross exaggeration to be sure, but I imagine that 80% of those on the left are more interested in where we ought to be than in how we can get there and that a further 10% seem to think that the only way to get there is in a single step by revolution.

Here’s a snippet from a recent interview of Karl Rove by GQ magazine:

What’s the biggest misconception about your role in the Bush White House?
That it was all about politics.

If that’s the misconception, what’s the overlooked truth?
Look, I’m a policy geek. What I’ve most enjoyed about my job was the substantive policy discussions. Being able to dig in deeply and, you know, learn about something, ask questions, listen to smart people, and form a judgment [sic] about something that was from a policy perspective.

The lefties may not believe him when he says that (e.g. Kevin Drum), but I’m inclined to agree more with Matthew Yglesis:

I don’t know about Rove in particular, but I’ve been consistently surprised since moving to DC of the extent to which the true policy geeks and the utterly cynical political operatives often really are the same people. These are the folks who while away their days ginning up dozens of bite-sized policy initiatives and selling them around to politicians. They’re the ones who give you your targeted tax credits, and they’re also the ones who are helping lobbyists sneak little tidbits [sic] in here and there. Hard-core ideologues often don’t care that much about the details, because geeking out over the details means you’re talking about incremental change.


Adam points out my literary ignorance (again) by asking if I’ve read “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (Foyles, Amazon) by Milan Kundera.  Of course I haven’t, but Adam is kind enough to send me some quotes that go along with what I’m saying:

How nice it was to celebrate something, demand something, protest against something; to be out in the open, to be with others. […] He saw the marching, shouting crowd as the image of Europe and its history. Europe was the Grand March. The march from revolution to revolution, from struggle to struggle, ever onward.

[… chapters later …]

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.


What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.


4 Responses to “On the fractious diversity of The Left (Updated)”

  • From the point of view of the lefties, I’m sure that the policies of the Howard government over their time seemed like huge jumps, but I’m equally sure that from the point of view of the Howard supporters, they seemed like incremental change.

    I’ll grant you that the US Patriot Act was a pretty huge step, but it seems to me that overall, the erosion of the US government’s willingness to grant me some privacy has been continual over Bush’s term.

    More to the point, though: I don’t think that the crazy-right is interested in incremental change. They want dramatic change just as much as the crazy-left does. The difference is that the crazy-right are willing to move towards their goal one step at a time, while the crazy-left want a bleeding revolution.

  • Ummm… You criticise the crazy left, but if you think the crazy-arsed right is interested in incremental change you just don’t read the news.

  • Dani points out that it might be partially explained by the fact that often, those on “the left” are advocating a move to an entirely new place for the given society, while those on “the right” advocate a return to what (they believe) once was. There is a reason why those on the right call themselves “conservatives” and those on the left (are trying to rebrand themselves as) “progressives”.

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