Revolution has become a dirty word on the socialist Left. This might sound strange when it is dominated by so many pseudo-revolutionaries, resurgent with their own hifalutin rhetoric about ‘radical change’. But strip away the wordplay and what is left is a disposition that is deeply conservative.
This is perhaps most obvious in the area of foreign policy. To be on the socialist Left in the twenty-first century is to be staunchly opposed to ‘regime change’ of any sort, especially when the regime in question is hostile to the United States. This is defined not merely by hostility toward western military intervention – perhaps understandable considering the recent history of botched American invasions – but opposition to revolution tout court.
This can be seen in the response to Venezuela. The economic incompetence of the Venezuelan government has prompted the largest refugee crisis in the history of Latin America. A brutal regime that imprisons, tortures and occasionally murders its political opponents is assailed by mass protests involving all sections of society.
The demands of the protesters are modest: free elections and the replacement of the dictator Nicolas Maduro by the elected head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido. The United States has directed veiled threats at the Maduro government and tightened economic sanctions. But no one seriously expects the US to launch a military invasion of Venezuela any time soon.
Yet the Western socialist Left – bar a few exceptions – has reacted to events in Venezuela by throwing its weight behind the discredited dictatorship. The Labour Party has set itself in opposition to almost all European and Latin American governments by failing to recognise Guaido as the legitimate representative of Venezuela. The Left’s activist media outlets have come down firmly on the side of the dictatorship. Others who in the past acted as mouthpieces for the Chavez/Maduro regimes have, for the most part, fallen into an embarrassed silence.
This indifference toward the aspirations of the Venezuelan people is of a piece with the socialist Left’s hostility toward the Syrian revolution. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly equivocated when pressed about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Following the poison gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, Corbyn refused to be drawn on whether Assad was responsible and remained silent when a UN investigation confirmed what the British, French and US governments had been saying all along – that Damascus was responsible for the attack. Corbyn’s favourite newspaper, The Morning Star, has thrown its full weight behind the dictatorship, describing Assad’s bloody bombardment of Aleppo as a “liberation”.
The socialist Left adopted a similarly hostile stance toward protests against the Ayatollahs in Iran. As the ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009 saw Iranians pour onto the streets to demand freedom, Labour’s director of communication, Seumas Milne, dismissed the protests in a column for the Guardian as “an attempted coup”, and the protesters as “gilded youth”.
Milne went on to heap praise on the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who has denied the Holocaust – as a politician who “is seen to stand up for the country’s independence, expose elite corruption on TV and use Iran’s oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority”.
And you can look further back at the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and find, once more, much of the socialist Left firmly on the side of discredited dictatorship.
This Leftist hostility toward ‘regime change’ goes well beyond fear of American military intervention. Indeed, the unlikely spectre of an American invasion is frequently summoned as an excuse for withholding solidarity from oppressed people. Last month Labour MPs including John McDonnell and Diane Abbott co-signed a letter together with Guardian columnist Owen Jones which claimed there was “no justification for backing the US attempt at regime change under way [in Venezuela]”.
As in Iran and Syria previously, no attempt was made to draw out the amorphous nature of the crowds protesting against a brutal dictatorship. Instead, Venezuelans were stripped of individual agency and dismissed as pawns of American power.
This betrays a conservative disposition on the Left that has become dominant in recent years. To understand it, you must delve into some of the internecine squabbles of the mid-twentieth century, when debates raged on the Left over whether despotic regimes deserved conditional support because their economies were run on the basis of nationalised property.
The faction of the Left that argued in the affirmative won out, solidifying the notion that, as the critical Marxist theorist Sean Matgamna has written, “no crime by totalitarian rulers could destroy their credentials as a residually progressive locum… no crime, that is, except the dismantling of the nationalised economy”.1
Thus regimes such as Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Maoist China, Stalinist North Korea – and even despotic governments that resembled fascism more than socialism, such as Ba’athist-regimes in countries like Iraq and Syria – received and continue to receive backing from sections of the Western socialist Left simply because economic life was ordered on a model that was distinct from Western capitalism. Never mind the restriction of trade union activity, the murder, disappearance and torture of dissidents, and the grey-wasteland of state-sponsored cultural life – the rejection of capitalism was seen to trump everything else.
In truth, the socialist Left – as opposed to the social democratic Left – no longer has a credible economic programme to fall back on. State economic planning has left a sorry record of inefficiency and failure wherever it has been tried. Even where it has produced rapid economic growth, such as in China, it has been combined with a strain of capitalism as virulent and cruel as anything documented during Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
The social democratic Left grasps this and seeks to use the market economy to fashion a society that people actually wish to live in. The hard-Left doubles down, adopting an oppositional posture in which any movement that pertains to oppose American capitalism – however backwards or autocratic – receives support or acquiescence.
Look at any Left-wing news website to see this played out. Economic chaos in Venezuela is blamed on US sanctions and a drop in the oil price – despite sanctions not applying to the Venezuelan oil industry and no similar economic catastrophe occurring in any other oil-reliant nation.
Poverty in Cuba is blamed entirely on the embargo, while chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government are attributed to the opposition. Russian annexation of chunks of Eastern Europe are said to be the fault of NATO and the European Union. And mass uprisings that yearn for democracy rather than Marxist utopia, as in Venezuela, are ruthlessly attacked and smeared.
“A conservative is a fellow who stands athwart history yelling stop,” the American author and commentator William Buckley Jr once said. Today this applies just as well to the socialist Left – for wherever you look, the more an individual styles themselves as a revolutionary, the more terrified they are when a genuine democratic revolution comes along.