Left, Right and Centre
As the Party Conference season begins we look at politicians’ politics
Today politics is about achieving political power, with the main political parties contesting to maximise their share of votes in a political market in the same way as competing companies do in their areas of commercial interest. Power and influence has become an end in itself for political parties because those interests that traditionally separated them have been absorbed into the tapestry of modern capitalism. In Britain, for example, the Conservative and Unionist Party evolved out of the Tory interest which was committed to the landed aristocracy, the upper class, and those institutions like the church that promoted the concept of the ‘divine right of kings’ and the social stratification of society.
As the middle class – the bourgeoisie or capitalist class – evolved and gained strength economically, it challenged the aristocracy for political control in order to throw off the impeding legal structures of feudalism which confined and restricted its continued economic expansion. The political interest representing the burgeoning class interests of the bourgeoisie was known as the Whigs and subsequently evolved into the Liberal Party.
In a property-orientated society such as feudalism or capitalism all real wealth is produced and can only be produced by the labour power of a subject class. The patents granting ownership of land to the feudal lords and barons may have derived from a parasitic monarchy but the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the lords and ladies of the manor was founded on the labour of their feudal serfs.
Similarly, the new revolutionary class of capitalists needed the labourer to work their engines of production; the serf would be converted from a feudal slave into a wage slave under the illusion that they were being given their freedom. Obviously, since the labourer was the key element in the wealth-producing function of both the feudal establishment and the new capitalist system of social organisation, the terms governing the future control of labour were a primary element of contention between the old order and that of the nascent capitalist class. This conflict of interest between the landed interest and the interests of the bourgeoisie was reflected in the post-revolutionary world of capitalist politics.
Left and right
The terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ as political designations emerged innocuously out of the seating arrangements in the Legislative Assembly of Revolutionary France in 1791, when the royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber and the radical Montagnards occupied the seats on the left. This almost incidental occurrence was to bring the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ into the lexicon of politics, where inevitably their wide generality would make them universally both an instrument of confusion and often a means of deliberate obfuscation.
By the middle of the 19th century the expression of political conservatism was regarded as ‘right wing’ while their liberal opponents were designated ‘left wing’. It was not solely, however as labels for political parties that the terms were to bedevil political consciousness but increasingly the most irrelevant matters that could be construed as having political moment found description within the spectrum of Left and Right.
So when the German and French socialist movements tactically retained programmes of ‘immediate demands’ – reformist strategies intended to bring about what they hoped would be the piecemeal evolution of capitalism into socialism – they inevitably became the political Left. The British Labour Party when it was formed in 1906, unlike its continental cousins, did not choose reformism as a tactic but was founded on a strategy that held that inevitably and gradually capitalism could be reformed into socialism. It became the principal focus of the Left in Britain, lingering long after the Labour Party’s pathetic failure to exercise any real influence in government when it first got the opportunity to do so in 1923.
For decades Labour and Social Democratic parties throughout the world have contended for political office and the power of government on the claim that they were acting as bona-fide socialists. The multiplicity of left-wing groups, ‘tendencies’ and parties, like the various Trotskyist organisations and the fragmented periphery of ‘the left’, have traditionally supported the main Labour or social-democratic parties in general elections only to become implacably opposed to their policies when they formed governments.
The basis of this inter-left enmity is always related not to socialism but to aspects of capitalism and is based on the chastening reality of political power. In fact politics within the left is similar to politics outside the left: it is all about capitalism and its endemic problems. Not only that but right across the entire spectrum of politics from so-called Left to Right and through Centre the basic ideas that are perceived as representing Left and Right have been adopted and abandoned by parties of differing political complexions.
British politics currently illustrates this point: the Blair government is pursuing viciously authoritarian policies and backing the aggressive expansionism of a particularly vicious United States establishment. Judged by the absurd yardstick for determining positions on the swingometer of Left and Right such policies would be seen as extremely right-wing. Conversely, the new Tory leader, David Cameron, is trying to lead his party back to favour with the electorate with gestures of sympathy for the poor, the oppressed and the intellectually deprived which he believes might fool people into the belief that the Tories really do care. In fact policies wrongly seen by the pundits to be essential parts of Labour’s political stock-in-trade.
Historically, all three of the big political parties in Britain have advocated or used nationalisation — once the sacred cow of the British Left – when economic circumstances have shown a need for such a policy. Again, all three parties accepted the economic thinking underwriting the welfare state and all three have accepted the Keynesian economic philosophy when it was wrongly believed to be the panacea for the intractable ills of the system and especially the problem of managing economic demand.
The reality of politics today is that political parties represent the corporate face of organised groups of career-orientated politicians whose cushy, well-paid jobs are dependent on selling old and failed political formulae dressed in worthless verbiage to a gullible electorate. It is not a question of honesty, sincerity or sagacity; wise and sincere people elected to government may indeed be able to soften some of the nasty features that capitalism throws up, but a government endowed with a surfeit of wisdom and sincerity could not make a system of economic anarchy and competition Ð a system predicated on the exploitation of the many by the few Ð run in the common interest.
Mere poverty and absolute destitution, the gigantic organisation of mass murder, which is war, homelessness, crime, social alienation and all the other features of the capitalist way of life are not caused by stupid, brutal or insincere politicians; they are endemic to capitalism. That is the demonstrable assumption on which the case for socialism – our case – is based; that is why we say it is social and economic system that has got to be changed and not its political functionaries.