We need to engage with the world as it is, and use the language of ordinary people.
The left as a political project does not exist. The question is whether we should try to find a place for the left in the existing political order, or try to change it. I think that radical change is achievable only through terror or mass grass-roots movements. Terror and its inevitable violence are obviously unacceptable, while grass-roots movements seem pretty improbable: the liberal order is too all-encompassing; it deprives people of the ability to imagine another political system. The anarchist and alterglobalist movements are not thought of as real alternatives to the existing state of things.
If, then, radical change is not within the bounds of possibility, given current public opinion, we should consider what the left can offer in public debate. The problem here is that left parties that are actually in a position to influence the political system have nothing new to offer, while extra-parliamentary groupings and organisations are often too elitist, and the language they use is too complicated for the average person. If we were to put all our efforts into such movements, the changes we are arguing for would take decades to come about, and would only succeed if there were major corresponding changes in our societies’ education.
Instead of looking for new solutions, perhaps it is worth considering the old ones, and the reasons why the left has been so successful in the past. It seems that the immense popularity of left ideas in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s stemmed from the fact that the parties that had actual performative power were rooted in left-wing thought. Today this statement is no longer true. Left parties have become too deeply involved in the struggles of particular interest groups, and have lost from sight the fundamentals of a left stance; using the language of Althusser, ?i?ek and Foucault leads to a vast discrepancy between what theoreticians say and the understanding of ordinary people. Yet if we understand the left stance as constituted by a sensitivity to inequality and discrimination, it has never disappeared. What has happened is that a misunderstanding caused by the use of language that is incomprehensible to the average person has led us to a point where the entire discourse of the left takes place in an unintelligible jargon.
In Poland the leading left party has a communist pedigree, and is forced to accept the authority of the catholic church. Yet this does not mean that no left change is viable. The language of political communication could be changed so as to reach public opinion, and be understood by it. The left should speak using the vocabulary of Walesa rather than Foucault – the simple expressions of an electrician that anyone can relate to. Perhaps this would be the way to tell people that, if they think that heritage and religion add value to political discourse; if they do not accept inequality, and believe that everyone should be equally able to participate in public life; if they are convinced that it is worth helping to make other people’s lives better – then they, in fact, represent a viewpoint of the left.
The left has no institutional enemies – the only things it must fight against are its own roots. Alterglobalists and anarchists who hope to overthrow the existing order will never be considered a relevant political movement because of their radicalness. The only parties on offer for left-minded people are the ones which cannot, or do not want to, communicate with them. If the left’s aim is simply to raise a whole new generation of supporters who can understand their abstract notions, the problem will persist for decades. On the other hand, if parties try to learn from their voters, and take on their way of looking at the left, perhaps there is a chance that in the near future tangible political projects of change could be created. This could also allow them to regain people’s trust, rather than affirming their perception of parties as concentrating on particular interest groups. Instead of building short-term programmes of ephemeral change, they could really communicate with their electorate and create long-term projects. Otherwise it could be difficult for them to explain the difference between their kind of leftism and liberalism.
If, then, the only option available is to find a place within the existing order, it is futile to resort to revolutionary violence or root-and-branch change. Rather than investing its resources in utopian projects, the modern left should seek to create platforms of civic cooperation, in which erstwhile left sensibilities could be expressed without being rejected as absurd.
The quest for radical change should be left to the aforementioned intellectual circles –which might one day actually take part in the building of a brave new world.
This text was created with the help of Szymon Ozimek.