The most important point to make at the start of a feature on the global left is that there is no such thing as “the global left”—but we should still talk about it anyway. Workers of the world have not united, and neither has anyone else, which means that the global left remains an abstraction. But it’s a useful abstraction to keep in mind. A global campaign for equality, freedom, and dignity is an ideal worth striving for, and a yardstick to measure ourselves against. Asking how movements within a particular nation—which, for most of the people reading this, means the American left—fit into a global narrative is also one of the best ways to think through questions of strategy. Which problems are unique to one country? Which are part of international trends? What are the limits constricting our room for maneuver? And where are the opportunities to push for more?
Those were the questions on our mind as we put together this special section. Although we don’t claim to have produced a comprehensive diagnosis—the focus is on electoral politics, and you can only fit so many countries into one issue—you will find snapshots from around the world: from Brazil to Israel, Turkey to South Africa, Poland to Guatemala, and much else besides. In some instances, the dynamics will be familiar, with a populist right facing off against a left struggling to reconcile its historic commitment to the working class with the preferences of a coalition that has grown more educated and cosmopolitan. But this framework, which applies to large parts of the West, is by no means universal. Across much of the Global South, parties that at least claim to speak for the left have retained strong support with working-class voters. At the same time, those parties face issues of their own, including protests spearheaded by left-wing populists disillusioned with electoral politics.
The tension between movements and political parties is just one of the recurring challenges facing leftists around the world. So, too, is the difficulty of balancing class politics with cultural emancipation, the divide between pragmatists looking to improve daily life and radicals with visions of comprehensive transformation, and the conflict between a short-term battle for democracy (which often requires coalitions with the center and establishment conservatives) versus a long-run battle for left-wing structural reform.
In this section, you’ll see authors taking strong positions on both sides of these debates. The split is real, but this brief tour around the world has lessons for how it can be managed. Faced with these choices—whether it’s class or culture, pragmatism or realism, democracy or reform—we deserve a left that can do both.
And we can have it. If you’re lucky, then you know what it feels like when the divisions that normally structure our political life melt away and electoral campaigns have the energy of movements united around a vision that transcends the ordinary fights. But it doesn’t happen by accident. The first step in building a better world is reckoning with the one we have. It’s rational to feel like politics today is a prison. Consider this section the beginnings of an escape route.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.