Saturday, April 13

Are you a Leftist?

THERE WAS A TIME when a leftist’s definition of “leftism” corresponded pretty closely to everybody else’s definition. The term identified a coherent worldview – to the point where knowing where someone stood on one issue enabled them to predict with surprising accuracy where they stood on a host of others. If a person was opposed to the death penalty, then the chances were high they were in favour of free speech. If they believed in the closed union shop, then they probably also believed in the public ownership of natural monopolies like power and water. It wasn’t easy being a left-winger – especially during the Cold War – but it was remarkably easy to define one.

Today, the term “left-winger” is applied to persons holding an impossibly diverse and self-contradictory set of beliefs. From the traditional leftist who insists that the content and direction of politics should be dictated by science; to the contemporary “leftist” who insists that: “Trans women are real women.” From left-wing parties determined to reinvigorate the public sector; to “left-wing” parties with neoliberal economic agendas indistinguishable from those of their right-wing competitors. From leftists who stand firm on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; to “leftists” who insist that “Hate Speech” be criminalised.

The use of scare quotes is, of course, intended to communicate the author’s rejection of the term leftist being applied to any person or party guilty of rejecting science, endorsing laissez-faire capitalism, or favouring the ideologically-driven restriction of their fellow citizens’ freedom.

There is one more test for determining whether or not one is a leftist – the History Test. If the study of history is reduced to little more than a search for evidence of the crimes of pre-ordained “enemies” and “oppressors”, then by no means can the “historians” doing the searching be accurately described as left-wing. Indeed, those attempting to harness history to ideology are much more likely to be radical nationalists than radical democrats. Always remember that another name for radical nationalism is “fascism”.

Leftists underserving of scare quotes regard history as a teacher, not a prosecutor; as a well, not a syringe. Ideology retreats before history in the way that contaminated judgement retreats before the advance of uncontaminated evidence. Nothing gives away fake “leftism” more irretrievably than its deliberate falsification of history in the name of “social” or “national” justice.

And word or two needs to be inserted here to distinguish “leftism” from its numerous component ideologies: social-democracy, socialism, communism and anarchism. In brief: social-democracy seeks to significantly restrict the size of the capitalist marketplace; socialism attempts to extinguish the capitalist marketplace altogether; communism promotes a state dedicated to operationalising the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”; and anarchism seeks to eliminate the state altogether.

As the world discovered, socialism and communism, precisely because they both sought to replace the economic and social structures with which most human-beings were familiar, provoked a great deal of resistance. In crushing that resistance, the socialists and communists were increasingly driven to rely on state-directed repression and terrorism. Consequently, the states which emerged from these struggles, although proudly describing themselves as socialist democracies, were in fact the cruellest of tyrannies, far removed from the emancipatory well-springs of the radical-democratic project called leftism.

That word, “emancipation” is crucial to a proper understanding of leftism. In societies where power and wealth are distributed in such a way that huge numbers of people are rendered economically, socially and politically defenceless, freeing the oppressed naturally takes political priority. 

The working-class, whose subsistence depends upon permitting the tiny capitalist minority who pays them to appropriate the “surplus value” of its labour. Women, denied their rightful share of life’s bounty by the systemic and oppressive violence which characterises societies dominated by men. Diverse ethnic communities, economically and culturally subjugated by those who claim superiority over all other ethnicities and who have shaped their societies to reward their prejudices. LGBTQI+, discriminated against because their behaviour challenges society’s gendered norms. One way or another, all these groups seek emancipation. Leftists are committed to making a world fit for free people to live in.

But, the emancipatory movement cannot accommodate those who are only able to celebrate one group’s freedom by taking it from another. The expectation, always, among leftists, is that liberty enlarges us. That striking-off a person’s shackles not only frees the person who wore them, but also the person who fastened them in the first instance. 

A fair redistribution of wealth and power ultimately liberates the capitalist as well as the worker. By ceasing to be men’s slaves, women make it possible for men to cease being their masters. The emancipation of the queer marches hand-in-hand with the liberation of the straight. Only by freeing the oppressed can the oppressors themselves become free. Slavery invented the whip, only freedom can make it disappear.

Applying these ideas to the salient political issue of the hour – how best to protect and/or give expression to Te Tiriti o Waitangi – where are the leftists to be found? Are they located at the side of those Māori who insist that Te Tiriti is sacrosanct, and must remain inviolable? That the descendants of those who signed the document 184 years ago – Māori and Pakeha – have no right to interrogate its meaning and relevance in the Twenty-First Century?

The answer can only be “No.” To treat Te Tiriti in this way is to fetishise it and, by doing so, eliminate its power, as a living document, to serve the New Zealand people. It would also entail ignoring the historical fact that notions of the Treaty of Waitangi’s intentions have changed radically over the years. Even worse, it would require leftists to turn a blind eye to the blatant revision of the Treaty’s meaning and purpose by Māori-aligned historians and jurists to facilitate the ideological aims and objectives of Māori irredentism.

If the leftist’s goal is emancipation, then the leftist’s role in this issue is to open up the space for a respectful, but open-ended, national debate on Te Tiriti – beginning, ideally, with the ideas contained in Margaret Mutu’s and Moana Jackson’s “Matike Mai Aotearoa”, and the controversial “He Puapua Report”, and expanding outward from there.

To attack the idea of progressing a national debate on New Zealand’s “foundation document” is to expose oneself as someone who elevates ethnic identity above democracy, and, in the context of the current “official” understanding of Te Tiriti, honours the concept of “rangatiratanga” (chiefly leadership) above the democratic rights of individual citizens. Set within the context of the last 100 years of world history, these beliefs could not be defined, even vaguely, as left-wing – quite the reverse in fact.