At one time, Zimbabwe's big man Robert Mugabe liked to claim to be a "Marxist." His ZANU-PF party maintains a shell parliamentary structure and conducts rigged elections, but carefully keeps absolute control of the army, the security apparatus, and the organs of propaganda. It's ruling body is explicitly called the politburo. Is there something hauntingly familiar here?
ZANU-PF's recent savage campaign of harassment and intimidation against the opposition MDC was much like the events of 1945-46 in Poland. Then, the minority Communist Party under Boleslaw Bierut, which controlled the Interior Ministry, attacked the far more widely-supported Peasant Party, blocking its rallies, arresting tens of thousands of its supporters, and killing about 100 of them (as it happens, roughly the same as the number of MDC supporters killed by ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe last May and June).
The Polish Communist Party also secured control of the electoral commission so as to falsify the result of an election that was held, following the terror campaign, in January, 1947. Afterward, the Peasant Party's leader, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, fled Poland, just as the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was forced to seek refuge in the Dutch embassy in Zimbabwe this past June.
No surprises here, particularly if one recalls Robert Mugabe's prediction at a rally as early as 1982: "ZANU-PF will rule forever." Today, in this connection, one cannot help recollecting how the model which Mugabe is following worked out in the end, and wondering ... why?
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There is a general puzzle here to be pondered. What, after all, can explain the enormous, the stupefying failures of the Left in the 20th century? What went wrong? We start with ideas that seem, considered in the abstract, so self-evidently attractive in principle: liberty, equality, fraternity, community, production for the use of all. But we end up with the same thing over and over: train-wrecks driven by megalomaniacs and tyrants: Stalin, Bierut, Rakosi, Ullbricht, Ceaucescu, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Robert Mugabe, the military dictators of "the Burmese way to socialism" and so on. Hold those names in mind, we will return later to certain of their characteristics. But first let us consider something else, which I think offers a clue.
What has the American and British Left been doing in recent years? Well, lately the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq gave them something exciting to demonstrate about, but in the 1990s the absence of a plausible cause did not hold them back. In those days, remember, the causes of the day were "globalization" and "Frankenfoods:" our most active activists were out protesting against the insidious threat of international trade and the World Trade Organization, against the iniquity of MacDonald's selling fries to people who wished to buy fries, and against the horrible injustice of ... genetically modified plants!
These causes represented the spiritual line of 1641, 1789 and 1848? And these arguments were to be taken as the intellectual descendants of the Grand Remonstrance, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Communist Manifesto? Wait a minute.
How did the struggle for the Rights of Man dwindle to an obsession with the racial purity of soybeans? In their campaign against the genetically modified beans our contemporary activists of the Left in fact found themselves on the same side of the barricades as such advanced thinkers as the Prince of Wales.
Then, we have the Left's rediscovery of the principle of lifetime executive rule. This characteristic of the ancien regime is not even found in corporations, reputedly the least democratic of contemporary institutions. But it is standard in every political system venerated on the Left, from General Secretary Stalin through Chairman Mao to the champion of them all, President Fidel Castro, recently retired after 48 years in office. President Mugabe, trying to cling brutally to power in Zimbabwe after a mere 28 years in office, is a piker by contrast.
In fact, the Left has even rediscovered the principle of hereditary dictatorship, once the divine right of kings. Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader of North Korea, was succeeded by his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. And President Castro's designated successor is his younger brother, Vice-President Castro. So Fidelismo, the acme of all good Leftists, follows exactly the principles of the Romanov dynasty in which Tsar Peter succeeded his brother Tsar Feodor III in 1682.
The other stereotypical feature of the Left in recent years has been a feverish opposition to the very existence of Israel. Here the Left is now aligned squarely with the religious fanatics of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah. To make this alignment perfectly clear, in 2006 The Socialist Workers Party of Britain declared "we are happy to join the Arab masses in expressing our solidarity with the fighters of Hizbollah." Since Hizbollah means "Party of God" in Arabic, the Trotskyist Left has evidently joined the fold of true believers, discarding the Left's 200 years of secular rationalism. The Party of God's position is that Allah awarded Roman Palestine and all the rest of Islam's conquests to the Islamic umma until Judgement Day, as part of the divine plan manifested to the armies of the Caliphate in the 7th century AD, the high point of human history. How progressive.
The demand for the abolition of Israel is particularly grotesque coming from the Left, for Israel is the only place on the planet where basic ideas of the traditional Left were implemented without the famines and general impoverishment typical of Stalin's and Mao's exercises.
During Turkish and British rule in Palestine, tracts of land were purchased (not seized) from the Arab and Turkish owners for Jewish settlement and devoted to kibbutzim, collectives organized along utopian socialist lines. There were eventually more than 250 of these communal, worker-owned productive enterprises, and at their height they comprised 130,000 members, accounted for a significant part of Israel's domestic product, contributing disproportionately to its political culture.
A similar number of people live and work in moshavim, cooperatives which are less rigorously collectivist. The kibbutzim and moshavim differ from the collective farms of the Soviet Union in two respects: (a) membership was always voluntary, not coerced; and (b) most of them still exist.
If people who call themselves "Left" were serious about alternatives to private capitalism in the real world, then one might expect them to be particularly solicitous about the survival of the one polity on earth where experiments in the practice of Socialist principles managed to achieve a partial success. When bourgeois Leftists insist, instead, on the abolition of that one polity --- and only that one --- one can only conclude they are not serious at all about alternatives to private capitalism. But in that case, what is their posture based on?
It is a curious spectacle: our self-described "progressives" aligning themselves with devotees of Edwardian Church-of-England superstition, with the regular practice of not merely dictatorship but hereditary rule, and with the obscurantist and arch-reactionary Muslim Party of God. By the early 21st century, these disconnects between the historic traditions of the Left and its contemporary behavior had become so grotesque that I wondered whether this very incoherence could be a clue to the puzzle of the Left's continual historic failures. In other words, is the explanation of the puzzle to be found in the psychology of Leftists rather than in the intellectual tradition to which they pay lip-service?
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With this in mind, I thought about a comment from an old friend, an American living in Britain. He is not intensely political, but does exemplify conventionally Leftist attitudes and sometimes passes them on. Discussing Tony Blair, he once e-mailed me: "...His government has done some good things. Strangely though, since this has involved a mild redistributive element, he is amazingly quiet about that because he won't go anywhere near the 'S' word. I call this 'socialism by stealth.'"
So. Although New Labour's policies have "a mildly redistributive element" (thus achieving a central goal of the historic Left), it has nonetheless committed the offense of being "quiet" about it. If the principal offense of New Labour was that Tony Blair "won't go anywhere near the 'S' word," then my old friend's grumbling revealed an unconscious preference for words and postures over outcomes.
And that preference is precisely the key to the incoherence (and ultimately the failures) of the Left. There is not a trace of communality in my old friend's own personal life, which is basically as private and bourgeois as that of a Tory stockbroker commuting to the City of London from suburban Surrey. His longing to hear "the 'S' word" shouted in public is therefore no more than a pose. One begins to see why the kibbutz movement had rather little impact on the world-view of bourgeois Leftists: the kibbutz offered its adherents a way to try actually living "the 'S' word," as opposed to merely dropping it into drawing room conversation.
The service of the S word and other radical-sounding verbiage as fashion statements explains many of the bizarre style changes of the contemporary, recent, and not-so-recent western Left. Ideas with real world outcomes --- like architectural plans --- must hang together, just as the design of a bridge must take account of sizes, weights, load factors, and materials. But fashion accessories are chosen not for logical coherence, but rather for purely decorative effect. Trotsky and the Party of God may not cohere logically, but the London Left demonstrates that they can look divine together as parts of a Savile Row outfit.
Thinking back on the various Leftist meetings that I attended over the course of my life, the memory that stays with me is the sheer volume of words: flows of fine feeling, torrents of self-dramatization, rivers of big-talk. It was mainly a matter of putting on an outfit. Old Leftists of earlier generations were sometimes involved in activities of real social construction ... such as the labour movement and the cooperative movement. From the 60s on, however, actual social construction was almost entirely supplanted by talk and more talk. As I sat in those meetings, two things gradually impressed me: first, the obvious manner in which Left politics and its rituals served as a costume; and second, the sense that many of the congregants seemed to imagine that talk had more tangible reality than physical objects.
The latter perspective immediately explains why the "post-modernist" academics of the 80s and 90s invariably assumed a Leftist pose. The pomos insisted explicitly and at great length that "texts" are all that matter, and that physical reality is no more than a socially constructed convention. What politics could possibly be more appropriate for them than the Leftist idolatry of words over data? And what could possibly enchant academics more than the worship of words?
The fetish of talk explains the affinity of the western bourgeois Left first for the Bolsheviks, then for Stalin, then for the "Peoples' Democracies," then for Mao, and so on, generation after generation. The bosses of police-state, revolutionary socialism made a point of using the "S" word incessantly, which is what their acolytes and apologists in the west pay attention to. The actions that these police states actually carried out were simply overlooked. Bits of this attitude could be found even after the states themselves had collapsed. As late as 1999, an article in the Nation offered a bit of cloudy nostalgia about the exciting sentiments stirred by the 1917 Bolshevik takeover in Russia ... without breathing a word about what actually happened in that lucky country over the next seventy years.
In fact, the fetishism of talk was the defining feature of the Left totalitarian states themselves: the incessant, high-pressure propaganda, the attempt to convert every facet of existence into agit-prop dictated by The Party. Perhaps here we have the solution to the puzzle I alluded to at the start. The police states of the Left were simply the end point of the elevation of propaganda over everything else. While Leftist meetings in the West were orgies of empty talk, the Peoples' Democracies and similar horrors were entire states, with police powers, dedicated to insuring that all of life for everybody became exactly like those meetings. The success and staying power, in historical terms, of this system was about what you would expect: imagine how long a bridge would remain standing if it were designed according to the standards of propaganda rather than those of engineering.
On last June 21, the Zimbabwe Times reported that ZANU-PF youth militia gangs were "forcing residents to attend nocturnal re-education meetings which last up to midnight. Mbare residents told the Times that they were being forced to attend ruling party meetings at night where they were coerced to chant Zanu-PF slogans and to pledge to vote for President Mugabe."
We will see, once again, how well compulsory chanting causes food to grow, wheels to turn, or the economy wrecked by ZANU-PF misrule to recover; and, most relevantly, we will see how well it attracts back any of the millions of people who fled from the wreckage of Zimbabwe to neighboring African countries. What a pity that, in the 21st century, the people of Zimbabwe are forced to undergo the same experiment that had already been inflicted on the people of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the former Peoples' Democracies of Bierut, Rakosi, Ceaucescu et. al., the former Cultural Revolution according to the thoughts of Chairman Mao, and the former Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.--- Jon Gallant