The Failure of Left-wing Imagination

“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”
Fredric Jameson, “Future City”

Over the course of the last year North America and parts of Europe have seen the left return to a prominence that it has not had for decades. One aspect of this newly ascended left that has particularly struck me has been how limited its socialist imagination has remained. In the United Sates we find the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders to be the most popular politician in the country. In the United Kingdom, a committed socialist in Jeremy Corbyn is the apparent next prime minister. Meanwhile socialist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America quintupled its membership in the matter of a few months. A majority of voters under the age of thirty-five express support for socialism and hold a negative view toward capitalism. Yet, despite this change in fortunes that few would have predicted even a couple years ago, many of the most prominent members of the left remain unable to imagine a socialism that goes beyond an idealized version of Scandinavian socialism.

Rather than demand radical anti-capitalism, many prefer a pragmatic fight for a few tangible goals such as universal healthcare or the $15 minimum wage. These are important causes in that they offer material improvements to the lives of millions and thus should not be discounted just because they are inadequate; however, the entirety of the socialist ambitions cannot be limited to recreating 1950s-60s social democracy. A defense for the current narrowness of left-wing imagination is that, as a friend put it to me on twitter, we have to work within the “window of possibility.” In other words, radical socialism is not possible at the moment and, therefore, we need to moderate our ambitions and focus on immediate, pragmatic goals. Social democracy dominated much of Euro-America until the 1980s and the social democratic policies like medicare/Medicaid remain extremely popular despite decades of conservative attacks. Thus, the revival of social democracy appears to be eminently practical. Social democracy did not come into being because it was the furthest left option available. It was, in fact, a rather weak compromise that sought to protect the core interests of capital against the socialist threat.

As I argued in a recent article about the right flank of the British Labour Party from the 1950s through to the present, pragmatism is the guise under which the centrist obscures anti-left ideology. In the case of Labour, its right-wing members persistently made the argument that the British are inherently conservative in nature; therefore, it was necessary to ease them into socialism. The British people might be amenable to specific socialist policies (for instance, the NHS, once it became established was, and remains, enormously popular), the argument went, but they had no truck with radicalism. Thus, socialism must be presented in a moderate package and doled out piece-by-piece so that people would have time to get used to the idea and not be overwhelmed by too much change all at once. In practice, however, the result of such an incremental approach is primarily to undermine socialism. Instead of working slowly toward ever greater socialism, the so-called moderates are unceasingly intransigent in their resistance to socialist objectives. Thus, the Labour right made significant contributions to the conditions that resulted in Thatcherism and once Thatcher was elected consciously took actions that ensured she remained in power.

It is not the moderates who affect left-wing change or get things done. Instead, the moderates are the ones who inhibit real change as they seek “pragmatic” “compromises” and “bipartisanship.” Their real objective is to protect capital against a left-wing “populism.” The consequence of this is that capital and the bourgeoisie maintain their positions of power and are able to undermine and undo leftist gains. The process by which social democracy has been undone by neoliberalism over the past forty years is one obvious example. A more rapid example can be seen in the speed by which the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has acted (with the support of the US) to break apart the important social gains achieved by the Bolivarian revolution.

We can see a possible alternative unfolding right now in Portugal. For years the country has been ruled by alternating centre-right and centre-left governments and the Troika was able to impose its austerity economics on the nation. However, recently the Portuguese left has gained enough political power to force the centre-left away from its neoliberal norms and toward more leftist, anti-austerity policies, which have been highly successful in the immediate term at improving the material conditions of the Portuguese people. It is essential to recognize that this would not have happened without the constant pressure of the Portuguese communists whose objectives are considerably more radical and whose imagination is far greater than simply reducing destructive, cruel and economically disproved austerity policies.

As Daniel Finn has recently explained in the New Left Review:

From the French and Italian communists to Denmark’s Socialist People’s Party, erstwhile radicals have been repeatedly drawn into service as impotent appendages of the centre left, and paid a stiff political price. By resisting the temptation to enter Costa’s government, and extracting modest but tangible concessions in return for external support, the Left Bloc and the pcp have steered a path between sectarian closure and political neutralization, and still have the opportunity to put more radical solutions to Portugal’s distress on the table when the next Euro-crisis intervenes.

The example of Portugal, then, provides a tangible example of the importance of a greater socialist imagination than just Scandinavian social democracy. It is only by constant, persistent pressure from a strong and committed radical left that meaningful leftist reforms will take place. As the Democratic Party has shown over the past few months, the corporate centrist will expend considerable effort and accept significant political cost in order to impede the implementation of a leftist agenda.

The Nancy Pelosis and Chuck Schumers of the world are not allies of the left and should not be expected to act as such. However, the self-identified left possesses a fairly broad range of views from the revolutionary communists to the socialists to the social democrats and it is crucial to recognize that part of what separates the Marxist-Leninist from the social democrat is the boldness of their imagination. The social democrat cannot imagine a world without capitalism and, therefore, considers it futile to try to achieve such a world. Because they lack a grand vision, social democrats are left to seek small victories within the confines of capitalism. Yet, as I have argued in this short piece, even these limited ambitions will not be accomplished without a robust radical left. Even if one believes that the path to socialism is through small, incremental gains over time, it is clear to me that these moderate gains will only occur under heavy pressure from the far left. Thus, it is essential that we do not limit our imagination of what can be achieved to merely Scandinavian social democracy.