2014/07/10

What we talk about when we talk about the Left

Left In Europe (World University Library)Left In Europe by David Caute
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reflecting on the confusion of aims and strategies of all the parties and movements calling themselves "Left" in Europe today, I turned again to this little book with its capsule histories and profuse illustrations (engravings, photos, posters) of revolutionary movements from the French Revolution of 1789 to the mid-1960s. Caute's intention was evidently to rescue the notion of the Left from many misunderstanding and confusions, but he does not manage to come up with a concise, convincing definition of his own. He critiques descriptions such as anti-racism, anti-clericalism, pacifism, and social reformism because conservatives and even reactionaries may adopt similar positions (Bismarck and Napoleon III were reformists, etc.). Nor are the movements he considers Left always anti-authoritarian (remember Lenin's vanguard party) or democratic, in the sense of always accepting what the greater number of voices demand; he suggests that "'popular sovereignty' is preferable to 'democracy' as a term descriptive of the central creed of the Left" [p. 32], but that hardly solves the problem.
I don't think there's any point in trying to define the Left, with clear delineations of what it includes or excludes; no definition — whether by Lenin, or Caute, or Hugo Chávez or anybody — will be accepted by everybody. The term originated from a vote in the assemblée nationale in Paris on September 11, 1789, where those opposed to a monarchical veto took seats to the left of the chairman; but those députés did not necessarily agree on anything else. Protest movements, then and now, are volatile and contradictory. What we can do, and what Caute's little book does in part, is describe some of them to find common characteristics and aspirations.
Over 50 years ago I was part of an informal seminar with the very young David Caute (I was 5 years younger), discussing some of these same ideas. The controversies live on.

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1 comment:

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

In discussions like this in many fields, I often return to Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance. He takes as an example recognizing a painting of a Habsburg. If you wander the meusea Europe, you'll see many paintings you immediately recognize as Habsburgs. The family face had a set of very distinctive features, but not all faces had all of them. One might have olive skin instead of the characteristic rose gray; one might have a small nose instead of the characteristic bulbous one, one might have a weak chin as opposed to the characteristic bulbous one, etc. But the preponderance in any given face is always quite recognizable.