I was fascinated last month while writing about the great Distributist G. K. Chesterton, to find his description of why he stopped being a socialist. Because, although he wrote it more a than a cemtury ago, it is again the main reason why I can’t be a socialist, despite the fact that I have always considered myself on the left, somewhere or other.
Chesterton’s stumbling block was the “tone of bitterness [and] atmosphere of hopelessness” encouraged among socialists. And, a century on, take a long hard look at those on the socialist left that you know, and it feels remarkably similar.
it struck me that, this may be among the reasons why the left, including the centre left, is losing across Europe. Here are my others.
- Rage. As Chesterton implied, the peculiar psychology of socialists tends to be that they are angrier than anyone else. Every political tradition had its own underpinning profile – conservatives have a bizarre and unjustified self-belief and liberals feel somewhat left out. The anger issue is peculiarly offputting, and it does them no favours, particularly when it is linked to cynicism about most of what happens. None of this suggests that there is no reason for anger. But there has to be some openness to possibility, which is hard to do when you approach any new idea as if it needed first to prove its purity.
- Conservatism. In its gestures and its policy, and also in its symbolism, the left currently reaches back – not just, in the case of Corbyn, to the reheated nationalisation of the 1970s – but to the marches, placards, sloganising, demonstrations and revolutionary symbols of the Russian revolution and before. As if anything more clever that a good old-fashioned demo was somehow suspect. What for example should we call children bunking off school to demonstrate against climate change? Why did it have to be a ‘strike’? Quite apart from anything else, they are the employers. And was that the most likely narrative to bring middle England over to the cause?
- Institutional blindness. There seems to be difficult for the left to distinguish between the purpose and the practuce of our national and international institutions. If the purpose of the European Union is to keep the peace, for example, it must be defended in its current form, even if it is failing. This is, I believe, why the left is constantly defending institutions, even when they are less than effective and some debate about reform might be a reasonable idea.
- Language. The rise of politically correct language, especially recently, may – as it was once portrayed to me – represent a kind of politeness. Bui I have a more sceptical view, since I think some excluded groups are right to see it as a way to undermine their legitimacy, and render them unable to take part in political debate for fear of giving offence. In some way, it really hardly matters what the purpose is if that is how it is understood. In the UK, it also puts particular pressure on excluded white communities, who regard this further exclusion as some kind of revenge from the chattering classes for supporting Brexit.
- Puritanism. Taken together, this amounts to a new kind of puritanism – one that has developed protestantism so that it now rejects all religion as supersition, and all complementary medicine too if it is unable to prove itself in the conventional way. When nearly 80 per cent of the population has some religious belief, and when many articulate adults are attracted to the claims of unconventional medicine, this is not an efective way forward.
Those are my five. They overkap in worrying ways and amount together to a kind of intolerace that now seems to have infected the Labour Party and is horribly obvious, for example, when you read comments below the political contributions, for example to the Guardian.
Taken together, they also imply a different way forward, more emotional and human, less aggressively cerebral. It is no coincidence, for example, that complementary medicine has played such a role in the new political movements emerging across Europe. about which I can do no more to recommend our new book on the subject...