The Left, the Right and Authoritarianism

Published here in Estonian.

The meaning of political Left and Right has often been somewhat arbitrary and confusing, and now it seems more and more so. In parts of the post-Soviet world ten years ago members of the decent society were wary of anything on the “Left”, as the Left was connected to Communism and the past that we were rightly striving to get away from. That connection wasn’t always justified, but it was not totally unfair either, because some Western left-wingers had indeed idealized the Soviet Union, or at least justifed its existence as somehow necessary to keep capitalism under control.

Now intellectual circles use the adjective “right-wing” as a term of abuse, but it is increasingly unclear what that actually means. It seems that a Cold War style opposition is back; for some reason world-hugging idealists are lured by authoritarianism again.

Making sense of the left-right division is hard especially when one takes as a point of reference the values and ideals that divided liberals and conservatives in early modern times. The “liberty, equality and fraternity” slogan of the left liberalism of the Enlightenment was opposed to a conservative respect toward the hierarchies of a strict class society. In our times left thought and left politics is associated with not just greater economic equality but also the rights of women and minorities, tolerance and social liberal values. Those values, however, have been more and more established as the mainstream norms of Western democratic societies. The question is, should those who strive to preserve the liberal democratic status quo be seen as liberals or conservatives?

Those bleeding heart idealists who are always keen to find new objects of sympathy have actually declared traditional liberalism “conservative”, and instead of supporting its norms of human rights and equality, they have moved on to promoting a strong moral relativism in favor of idealized cultural “others”. More consequent liberals have wondered about their more left-wing colleagues’ eagerness to support e.g. the Islamists who openly despise women’s and gays’ rights as well as secular democracy. Likewise one can wonder about the re-emerging sympathy of the Left toward the increasingly assertive Russia.

At the turn of the century it seemed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had brought the last pro-Soviet idealists to their senses. The left wing movement focused on fighting against the financial and economic power of transnational corporations and for the rights of all the more or less oppressed social groups. This New Left looked rather liberal and democratic, and it seemed that pro-totalitarian Left had irreversibly disappeared.

Now, 70 years after the Hitler-Stalin pact and the beginning of WW II, old oppositions have gained new strength. Apparently as a result of Russia’s attempts to prevent an honest analysis of the results of the war, one can discern an emerging strain of thought in the West as well that dislikes not just the equating of Communist crimes with the Nazi ones, but also any criticism of, or even just lack of humility toward contemporary Russia. It is ironic that this mood is emerging on the Left, because it is hard to find anything in today’s Russia that resembles left wing values even just nominally. Authoritarian capitalism combined with the oppression of minorities, neo-imperialist pursuits, military show of muscle, limited political freedoms and unpunished violence against human rights champions would qualify as hard-line right-wing politics under any other circumstances.

Following the geopolitical patterns of the Cold War either out of habit or because of the influence of more recent propaganda, the new far left considers its enemies to be the United States, Israel and also the all-too-American Eastern Europe; and they see Russia, the Arab world and other authoritarian states from Venezuela to Cuba as their friends. Limiting democratic freedoms seems to be justified or at least irrelevant, if the state in question is somehow opposed to “Western imperialism” or represents a regime that is euphemistically called “a different kind of democracy”.

So we have seen anti-Israel and anti-American demonstrations in Europe where the symbols of religious fundamentalism go hand in hand with red flags and Che Guevara posters; the idealists who used to fight for feminism and gay rights now support ultraconservative movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah. A common enemy unites most different ideologies, the West is blamed for everything and anything representing “non-West” is measured by lower moral standards. Thus also the Kremlin’s restored assertiveness is being justified, or treated as a natural necessity beyond moral judgment.

This twisted logic eventually explains why Russian ultranationalists are most likely to find their Western supporters among left-wing activists and intellectuals. The uncomfortable parallel between being on the Left and being Soviet-minded that left-wing liberals worked hard to get rid of ten years ago, is back. Those who condemn Soviet totalitarianism or criticize today’s Russia are automatically defined as “right-wingers”.

We got a taste of these classifications in connection with the so-called “Obama letter” that a group of Eastern European intellectuals and former political leaders wrote to the US president, that appealed to reinforcing the Atlantic alliance and reminded that a threat from the East has not disappeared from the region. One can easily dispute particular formulations or claims in the letter, but blaming the undersigned for being “anti-Russian”, as Rein Müllerson and Jaan Kaplinski have done in their subsequent comments, sounds pretty absurd in a time when Russia herself does not hide its attempts to restore a politics of “spheres of influence” as well as its “former glory” as an imperial superstate.

Those critics strongly classify their East European peers as being “on the right”, which is underlined by hints to their allegedly representing Republican and “neo-conservative” interests. They accuse the intellectuals of creating tensions in relation to Russia and of lacking reconciliatory attitude, while paying no attention to the signs of hostility exposed by the other side: the war in Georgia, the power demonstrations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, using energy resources as a weapon for political blackmail, smear campaigns against the Baltic nations, the refusal to recognize the crimes of the Soviet Union, laws to “protect” Russian citizens abroad, cyber attacks etc.

The critics leave an impression that whatever tensions there are between Russia and its neighbours can be blamed on the Cold War ideologists to the West of Russian border who do not know how to deal with their powerful neighbour. Similar reproaches have been heard from elsewhere in Europe. Jonathan Steele in the Guardian claims directly that condemnation of Soviet crimes is an attempt to “smear the Left” and to express hostility to contemporary Russia, and likewise Seumas Milne dismisses such condemnation as an agenda of the “nationalist Right” in Eastern Europe. Such accusations tie the contemporary Left to the Soviet heritage as well as Russian nationalism in a way that completely overshadows its recently achieved liberal image.

The Western anti-Western Left likes to present itself as a guardian of righteousness, justice, freedom and equality, but their love for human rights, open society and solidarity disappears when they are facing others than the West. Talking about foreign policy the term “value-based” is presented in quotation marks and in a negative light. Any conflict situation can be blamed on the West that fails to take care of peace in our time.

It is beyond comprehension why one could not worry about our eastern neigbour’s growing imperialist attitudes from a left-wing point of view, while cherishing the good old liberal values of liberty, fraternity and equality. Would it not be a good idea to stop interpreting these debates as ones between “the right” and “the left” and instead discuss on whether we support human rights and democratic values in general, or just selectively?

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One Response to The Left, the Right and Authoritarianism

  1. Andres says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. Jacques Ellul’s “The Betrayal of the West” (pdf) might be of interest.

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