A new vision for the left

Equality and security are means to a greater end: ‘the evolution of a people who are kindly, intelligent, free, co-operative, enterprising and rich in culture.’

Harry Hendrick
10 July 2017

Credit: Flickr/Jacob Anikulapo. Some rights reserved.

Now that the UK general election is over, it is time to think about the political future of the left. Whether the current popularity of ‘Corbynism’ endures remains to be seen, but we should resist surrendering critical awareness to the idea that the political ground has shifted in a manner likely to automatically reinvigorate radical thought and practice.

While few observers would dispute that neo-liberalism’s self-confidence has been severely undermined since 2008, what remains of our civic culture is uncertain. Everywhere there is nervous ambiguity and ambivalence, which is all the more reason to conceptualise a new programme that eschews jargonistic sloganising. I’d suggest it should focus on three areas: reducing economic precariousness, resetting the parameters of social life away from the market and individualization, and initiating an open debate about the cartography of moral and ethical standards.

Clearly, electorates are questioning social-liberalism’s amalgam of middle-class political and cultural interests which have tended to marginalise the majority of ‘ordinary’ people. Consequently,  liberal elites  are in a kind of psychic turmoil, engaging by turn in denial, sarcasm,  sulks, bravado and—until  Corbyn’s recent success—dreams  of forming a new centrist party. Despite that success, the left is no less in disarray, and has hardly begun to provide an effective intellectual analysis of either neo-liberalism’s austerity thesis or the ‘radicalism’ of  the ‘soft left.’

If the left is to become more influential, it needs to expand on its traditional Marxist-influenced critique of capitalist rationality, coupled with an avowed commitment to a fashionable politics of recognition. Rather than trying to offer sectional interests feel-good narratives, we should propound a vision of society marked by a belief in individual and collective 'mental progress' of the kind that exemplifies a clearly articulated ‘moral politics’ that stresses the duties and obligations of commonality and universalism.

Vision, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a mental image of what the future will or could be like; the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” We need to appreciate that vision is important in politics because it provides an emotional prism that allows people to feel the ideology of a Party. Such a vision should be constructed so as to reflect a commitment to a particular kind of politics, both reasoned and emotional, not so much laws and structures, but those inner beliefs and values with which voters intuitively engage.

In thinking about vision, the left could do worse than begin the process by resurrecting aspects of the Labour Party’s traditional ethical thought, if only through reminding themselves of the post-1945 Labour administration when Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison  advised the Party that it was more than a vote-winning machine; it was, he said, “something great and glorious that stands for a new way of life.” Morrison grasped the essence of a critical thread in the moral priorities of Labour’s ‘historic mission’ when he declared that “one of our purposes is to make men and women better than they are, and to promote sweetness and light.’”  

In similar vein, Michael Young, the Secretary of the Labour Party’s Research Department who helped to draft the 1950 election manifesto, claimed that socialism was about “human dignity” and “communal solidarity,” and called for “people’s needs to be thought of psychologically as well as materially.” Unsurprisingly, the manifesto declared that “Socialism is not bread alone ... Economic security and freedom from the enslaving bonds of capitalism are not the final goals. They are the means to the greater end—the evolution of a people more kindly, intelligent, free, co-operative, enterprising and rich in culture.”  

This sentiment echoed that of the influential Labour economist, Evan Durbin, a junior minister in Clement Atlee’s government, who, in collaboration with the child psychoanalyst John Bowlby, made two critical claims in a study of personal aggressiveness. First, that the kind of people “who can support the responsibility, freedom, and toleration required by democracy are also likely to be peaceful;”and second, that “They are not peaceful because they are democratic. They are peaceful and democratic because they are the kind of people they are.”  

In other words, thinking psychoanalytically, our behaviour is all mixed up with our attitudes and values which are always open to change and development. What these assertions have in common, however, is a belief that in seeking to transcend capitalism, Labour’s socialism aspired to promote personal and collective progress in the human faculties.  

With this background in mind, it is worth remembering that one of the defining features of democratic socialism has always been a belief in ‘Progress’ of the kind that incorporates ‘individual moral and intellectual advance’—meaning caring and unselfish behaviour towards others, and rational and logical thought. Believing in this form of human betterment privileged the Victorian liberal idea of ‘character:’ “the ability to rise above sensual, animal instincts and passions through force of will.

It was, in effect, a commitment to notions of goodness, human rationality, and the belief that social progress stems from the moral improvement of individuals. This is not to say that in promoting a vision of making people better than they are, we should discount economic and political determinants of progress. Rather, in the frantic and often toxic atmosphere of public discourse, it is to remind ourselves that individual moral aspiration is real and that it is critical to the sustenance of all forms of justice.   

But what, exactly, does it mean to make people ‘better than they are?’ It certainly should not be taken to imply an authoritarian didacticism. Nor does it urge us toward impossibly idealistic goals. Instead, it is positive about human endeavour in emphasising not perfection but the will to do better. It means giving people the opportunity to see that each possesses what Martha Nussbaum calls a “soul:” “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relations rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

These faculties, of course, are inseparable from morality: deciding between is and ought in a vision that encourages us to subjugate selfishness and vindictiveness, and to believe in our capability for improving the world for the public good. In saying that we can usually do better, it is supportive of our ‘moral needs.’ These needs, says philosopher Susan Neiman, are so strong that “they can override our instincts for self-preservation” and include the need to “express outrage...reject euphemism and cant and to call things by their proper names.” Basically, she says, “we need to see the world in moral terms...grounded in a structure of reason,” for it is through reason that we are able to ‘conceive the possible’ and not simply accept what is.  

If, however, a vision is to be more than merely a slogan, it needs to promote its own virtues. Margaret Thatcher had a vision that was in stark contrast to that of John Donne’s “no man is an Iland, intire of it selfe.” The essence of Thatcherism was to restore the age of the individual. This lent itself to a certain kind of moral outlook that espoused, as one of her admirers expressed it, ‘vigorous virtues’ such as uprightness, independence, self-sufficiency, energy and loyalty.

While these are ‘moral’ virtues, socialist morality requires others in addition. The centre-left political theorist David Marquand has referred to the ‘softer’ virtues of kindness, gentleness, humility and sympathy. The brilliance of Thatcherism, he says, was that it successfully harnessed its supposedly-classless virtues to its philosophy. These ‘softer’ virtues, however, also need to be promoted as classless, and the left should harness both kinds in order to show people that it is, indeed, both socially and morally worthwhile to be ‘better than they are.’

Working in a reciprocal manner, these virtues can be the start of a process whereby they are channeled to make them come alive culturally so that they become part of the socio-political dialogue, one that leads to a new awareness of the scope of possibility as a reasonable and manageable course of action. Just as cultures are not fixed, so a socialist culture can, with the necessary forethought and planning, be nurtured. Mental progress, then, has to be seen to be a step on the road towards an ethically sensitive democratic left-socialism, which can be expressed through ‘moral clarity:’ a public fearlessness, driven by personal integrity.  

Thus, in deploying a vision of individual moral advance, the left could take a lead in inspiring the electorate to cast off its unhealthy narcissism in favour of reason, altruism, fraternity, understanding, tolerance and commonality. If we ignore or reject these things, we will be writing the tragedy of our times, namely a willing self-destruction of Enlightenment ‘hope.’ Hope, as courage, is a necessary virtue because, being predicated on uncertainty, it is rarely achieved without struggle.

A socialist vision enables us to reject what often appears as the dour inevitability of despair. It presents the opportunity, underpinned by beneficence, to seize the chance to become our better selves. Nothing is certain, but in so doing, we may begin to make socialism inescapably relevant to our condition, and therefore, to begin to make a better world.  

Of course, a successful political ideology involves more than a vision; it requires ideas of the kind that sustain long-term goals and accompanying strategies. But, as a flag of identification of what the left stands for—an encompassing moral vision, crisply, succinctly, thoughtfully, and sincerely expressed—it would be a good place from which to start.

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