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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 26 New Delhi June 15, 2019

A New Left for a New World Order

Monday 17 June 2019

by Somdeb Lahiri

Historically, Leftist politics has been identified with socialist ideology—whether democratic or reformist or revolutionary. The socialist ideology emphasises the extension of democracy to the workplace. The process of production requires the application of labour to land and/or capital, to convert inputs into outputs. The socialist position upholds democratic and participative management which provides a primary role to the workers in the decision-making activities in the organisation that they are employed. This has been referred to as “worker’s self-management” in the Yugoslavian experiment with socialism prior to 1990.

In the early stages of capitalism the owners of capital employed workers to work on the capital and managed the organisation in which the production took place. In the process of extracting profit from the production process, the capitalist owner-managers subjected the workers to inhuman exploitation. The socialists of that time being sympathetic to the workers wanted to reverse this exploitative process and in the absence of any other institution that could help the reversal, they concluded that the only way to remedy this problem was for the workers to own the organisation they worked in. There were two ways in which this solution seemed to be implementable. The first required the workers to cooperatively own the organisation they worked in; the second required a benevolent public authority like the state to own the organisation and let the workers manage it. This led to the concept of socialism as a social system which requires public ownership of the means of production, as opposed to capitalism which permits private ownership of the means of production.

Fast forward to the twentieth century experi-ments related to the creation of a socialist society led by the Communist Parties...Since the capital required for large manufacturing firms and heavy industries was beyond the means of the workers, it became imperative in the national interest that large firms and organisations were owned by the state and in reality, instead of the workers being responsible for the management of such organisations, supervision and managerial authority was delegated to an increasingly greedy and powerful bureaucracy. The nature and style of management in these organisations has been well documented in the classic by Milovan Djilas entitled the New Class. Thus, instead of public ownership of the means of production, the social system in the socialist countries was an extreme form of Keynesian monopoly state capitalism. Unlike the early stages of capitalism, modern capitalist societies are not characterised by production units being managed by owners. The owners are shareholders spread all across the world and these shareholders delegate managerial responsibilities to individuals employed in or by the organisation. Hence workers participating in the management of the organisation that employs them, do not require that they own or even own a share in the organisation. Whether, ownership of shares by the workers of the organization would increase their stakes leading to higher profits, is a different matter altogether and not relevant to our present discussion. Nor are issues concerning efficiency in labour managed firms. As far as the latter issues are concerned, there are innumerable examples of firms managed by workers, who have either undergone training in participative management or have sufficient experience gathered over their working life, to ably fulfill managerial tasks.

What is important is that in this day and age of joint stock corporations, socialism or social ownership of the means of production, is not required for democratic or participative management. That worker’s self-management is perfectly compatible with capitalism (perhaps a regulated version of it) was realised as early as in 1968, if not earlier by Michael Harrington and outlined in his book Towards a Democratic Left: A Radical Programme for a New Majority. In the book written in the context of the United States of America, Harrington proposes a revival of liberalism in the spirit of the New Deal, with the support of a coalition formed by the trade unionists, the White and “Negro poor”, and a compassionate educated class who are favorably disposed towards significant governmental intervention in economic matters. While the inclination towards “state intervention” is a flavour of the times the author lived in, the author does not require the democratic Left to espouse socialism or socialisation of the means of production as a cause to march forward with.

In 1994, Norberto Bobbio in a monograph entitled “Left or Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction”, provided a definition of the Leftist ideology that had nothing to do with either property rights or government. According to Bobbio (and perhaps Amartya Sen?), Leftists are those who are inclined towards equality as opposed to Rightists who are comfortable with inequality if that be the outcome in a capitalist society. An alternative characterisation of a Leftist as an individual who was inclined towards a more inclusive society was suggested by a university professor, Alesandro Pizzorno, during an interview. Professor Pizzorno admitted that historically, there were more adherents of the definition of a Leftist in the way Bobbio had defined than in the way he did so. This was erroneously interpreted as an acceptance of Bobbio’s definition, further emphasised by the example of providing free medical aid to the poor which most Leftists would support. According to Bobbio, providing free medical aid does not lead to greater inclusion but to greater equality. I beg to disagree with Bobbio on this matter, since providing free medical aid to the poor could be viewed as including the poor in the group of citizens that a society cares for, which is what greater inclusion in the context of this debate is meant to imply. Even otherwise, defining a Leftist as an individual inclined towards more equality has significant problems. Equality of what? Equality of opportunities or equality of outcomes? If by a Leftist, we mean an individual who is more inclined towards equality of opportunity, then there is little difference between a Leftist and one who is simply meritocratic. Most Leftists are really concerned about the well-being of those individuals who have fallen behind in the meritocratic race that capitalism entails and many people who are meritocratic may see nothing attractive in Leftist thought. On the other hand, if a Leftist champions the cause of equality of outcomes, then such a person may in an extremely naive manner be betraying the cause that he/she has set out to promote. Equality of outcomes will lead to serious incentive problems for the workers and further imperil the financial balance-sheet of the society, ultimately leading to its bankruptcy. As the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A definition of the Left that has survived the test of time, since the French Revolution when those who supported the absolute monarchy sat on the right in the National Assembly and those who supported change sat on the left, may be found in a recent monograph by the political scientist Ruy Teixeira entitled: “The Optimistic Left: Why the 21st Century will be better than you think”. On page 11 of the book, the author writes: “The Right today generally defends the class structure and economic outcomes of the current system (capitalism) as fair and efficient, sees traditional norms and social structures as fundamentally positive and does not believe that the scope of political and economic democracy needs to be expanded. The Left generally believes the class structure and the economic outcomes of the current system needs to be significantly changed, sees traditional norms and social structures as negative constraints on human potential and does believe that the scope of political and economic democracy needs considerable expansion”. The author goes on to add: “There is no sound reason to confine one’s definition of the left to those who believe capitalism is fatally flawed and must be replaced with something different or those who believe, more generally, that the current system must be radically restructured to achieve any modicum of justice.” Further “... the left should be defined on the basis of commitment to change, rather than on a single preferred strategy for achieving change.” Of course the change being invoked in the definition of the Left as well as in its defense is the beneficial effects of expanding the scope of democracy in public life.

The definition of the Leftist viewpoint by Ruy Teixeira provided above is very much in the spirit of Michael Harrington’s concept of democratic Left and Harrington’s inclination towards liberalism is echoed later in the book by Teixeira when he points out that Leftists have achieved more when measured by way of actual social reform and improvement in living standards of the people, rather than organising loud mass protests, when the times and places have been good (as for instance in advanced liberal democracies) than when the times and situations have been difficult. Further liberalism, whose twin pillars have been liberty and security, has been among the most significant reward from social change that Leftists have always promised the masses in order to bring about social change, and Leftists, whenever they have not been in a position of power and authority, have assiduously and sincerely fought to realise these two ends.

There is a general consensus among those for whom democracy goes beyond one or other version of electoral majorityism that its meaning in practice should read something like the following: Democracy is a system in which all citizens participate either directly or indirectly in the management or governance of the unit of which he/she is a member. Further all citizens are treated equal before the laws by which they are governed and these laws uphold the freedom and safety of the citizens for whom these laws apply. With this basic understanding of democracy in place a definition of a Leftist that we can filter out of the above discussion is something like the following: a Leftist supports change in favour of the socially under-priviledged, affirms the promotion of human rights to life (as in Article 3 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person) and expanding the scope of democracy in all aspects of public life—political, economic and social.

The dominant intellectual and spiritual inspiration behind the Left movement in the twentieth century has undoubtedly been Karl Marx and the humane sociological theories that he propounded, which is known as Marxism. Karl Marx himself said that he was not a Marxist and very likely never imagined that a doctrine in his name could be possible. He was a sober and brilliant scientist with memorable and brilliant contributions to the social sciences. Like all such scientists, it is in the fitness of things that Karl Marx and his contributions to the social sciences remain immortal and venerated forever, but within the scientific community. That he continues to remain a household persona among a huge population across the globe, is really accidental and definitely unjustifiable. It so happened that that he was an active participant in the workers’ movement and his scientific contributions provided an exalted status to the workers in the process of social change and in the society that was to be brought about by this social change. It was through the workers’ movement that an imperfect understanding of his scientific contributions has been handed down from one generation to the next and thus without any additional merit on his part, he has been able to outlive his scientific contemporaries, in popular imagination very much like a religious leader. The official Left, with the help of the iconic status enjoyed by Marx among the toiling masses, was able to win the support of the public to overthrow brutally exploitative regimes as in Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam, to mention a few. Having captured power, this same official Left, distorted the teachings of Karl Marx to lord over the toiling masses, who they had, before the social change had occurred, promised “eternal bliss” on earth. For many countries with such abusive power elites, curtains came down on this kind of confidence trick accompanied by inefficient mismanagement of the economy, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.

The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s guided intellectually by Herbert Marcuse shed the heavy Marxist baggage of the vanguard role being played in a revolutionary social change by a party of the proletariat. We do not intend to say that social change brought about by Leftists does not require the participation of the proletariat and peasants or is not meant to benefit them. Of course it does require their support in order to succeed and certainly intends to benefit them, but only to the extent that they belong to the disadvantaged and marginalised sections of society. Those sections of society could very likely comprise of individuals who are mercilessly exploited in return for a bare living made without using either the hammer or the sickle. They could be the unemployed poor or prostitutes whom traditional Leftist-thought in the Marxist tradition has contemptuously relegated to the category of “lumpen proletariat”.

The new world order that came into existence towards the end of the last century requires a new Left in order to challenge the exploitation to which the disadvantaged sections of society are subjected. The Left movement is a political activity that requires the active participation of the masses to be carried forward. No amount of writing or reading of books and scholarly articles can catalyse the masses to challenge the exploiters, which they must for their own redemption. Leftist politics needs to be practised in order to bear fruit for humanity. It is the aspiration for more liberty, greater security and more democracy that will henceforth inspire the new Left in its search for a better world for human beings to live in.

The author belongs to the School of Petroleum Management, PD Petroleum University, Raisan, Gandhinagar (Gujarat). He can be contacted at e-mail: somdeb.lahiri[at]

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