WHATEVER ELSE it was, 1989 and what it further presaged should have been a liberation for the Western left–a liberation from the incubus of a model of socialism that, even when qualified as “actually existing” and therefore far from any ideal conception, had discredited the whole idea of socialism in the eyes of many. It may be said that against this potential gain had to be set the loss of a visible alternative to capitalism in a large part of the globe, keeping alive the idea, at least, that alternatives to capitalism were possible. Yet the nature of the alternative on offer and display in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China was itself so rebarbative that whatever the putative theoretical loss in this respect might be, a new opportunity now presented itself for unshackling the programs and visions of the left, and the public reputation of the socialist idea, from an image of societies at once undemocratic, authoritarian, closed, and corrupt.
Twenty years on, it is impossible not to be struck by how that release and the opportunity it held out have been wasted by a substantial section of the left. For many it has turned into an unmooring also from what were valuable strands in the left tradition. So far from progressing intellectually and politically, they have deteriorated, fallen back. A broad post-Stalinist new left–schooled in criticism of the structures and practices and crimes of actually-existing socialism–has also been cut loose since 1989 from the best elements within the Marxist tradition, a tradition that had formerly kept it in touch with universalist assumptions concerning justice, democracy, and human freedom.
How has this come about? Paradoxical as it may appear to some, the existence of the USSR and its Marxist pedigree–however narrowed, distorted, and traduced–linked the Marxist and Marxist-influenced Western left to the notion of working-class agency as crucial to their politics, and thereby linked it, also, to democratic principles and forms of action. The link was strengthened by the practice of alliance with other democratically minded constituencies.
Working-class agency was, of course, one of the crucial problems that Marxism yielded to its followers and to the broader body of opinion that it influenced. It was a problem because the working class in the developed capitalist countries failed to play the revolutionary role allotted to it. Be this as it may, the idea of the working class, and the political traditions of the working class in the Western democracies, had provided the Marxist-influenced new left with a kind of anchorage.
The transformations in the East after 1989, quickening the decline of Marxism’s reputation as a political credo, seem not only to have liberated part of this section of the left from a rightly discredited model of socialism; it also freed many leftists from the demands of democratic agency that the tradition had embodied. Post-Marxist currents, brought up in the playground of postmodernism, only accentuated the free-floating tendency. Together these developments picked up on an earlier “Third Worldism” and went further with it. If the classical proletarian agent was not playing the role that it had been expected to, then other agents of opposition to Western capitalism and imperialism had to be found.
This has meant the indulgence by some would-be leftists of movements with the most dubious of credentials from any democratic point of view (and that is putting it mildly)– movements ready to engage in terrorism, to deny democracy to those under their jurisdiction, to speak in the accents of religious obscurantism, of gender oppression, of old-style anti-Semitism. Such movements are seen by a section of the Western left as, in some sort, representatives of the wretched of the earth.
A double tendency accompanies this bizarre standpoint. Because they are seen as, to one degree or another, representatives of legitimate popular grievance, the democratic shortcomings of these movements are downplayed. And because the Western democracies are seen mainly in the guise of imperialists and oppressors, the real achievements of these democracies, and the very fact of their being democracies, are made light of.
What an outcome: released from the long forward shadow cast by Stalinism, only for this–for a section of the left to be ambivalently or worse than ambivalently aligned in relation to some of the world’s most reactionary forces.