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In Defence of ‘Soft Left’

People don’t like it — or us. Nearly day brings an attempt to relitigate the question: “is the term ‘soft left’ appropriate for the grouping that occupies the space between the orthodox left and the right of the Party”. I’ve changed my mind, I like it now and therefore wanted to draft a short endorsement of the descriptor.

The values implied in ‘soft’ — humility, flexibility, ‘unsoundness’ and revisionism to either the left or right are in fact virtues, which define this productive middle of the Labour spectrum in opposition to the ‘hard left’ and Labour First right. I will quickly outline how the orthodox poles of the ‘hard left’ and ‘hard right’ make their claim to purity so I can then reject that purity in favour of a messier, polyphonous soft left.

I make no apologies for using terminology derived from Christian, Jewish and occasionally Islamic theology — primarily, it’s what I’ve been reading recently, but also, as Yuval Harari recognises in Sapiens and elaborates in Homo Deus, socialist humanism operates on the same social mythmaking level as religious thought. Apologies for whenever my appropriation of terms from Christian or Islamic thought might seem crass — I intend the use as a compliment, as theological terms better expressing reality than historiographical or political thought. Analogy, in particular, I find particularly useful — metaphors help us understand more complex processes by symbolism and simplification.

Tom Wilson (@feedthedrummer) ’s excellent blog on the distinctiveness of the New Left, organised in the US around the Bernie Sanders campaign and in the UK around Corbyn movement, talks of the new leftism as a way of life. It is a way of understanding activism that focuses on its evangelising aspects and on the need to convert the politically active mass, understood as the social media sphere self-identifying as left, into proud, united spokespeople for socialism that can then take the fight to those who do not subscribe to the doctrine.

I wanted in this to expand a bit into what is meant by “unified”. Namely, how unity is established, how exclusive this becomes in regard to deviation and how it is the soft, open, squelchy left’s role to counteract this process and play the role of creative heretics (or revisionists, if you prefer) and reopen the gates of socialist ijtihad.

The process of creating an orthodoxy begins with the creation of a political centre, around a key figurehead that might form the focal point of organisation, with many parallels with the creation of episcopal monarchies in the early years of the existence of a church. Around that figurehead more theoretically able and more doctrinaire voices, promoted by virtue of their outspoken and provocative views (all couched in terms of how ‘pure’ their understanding of their figurehead’s thought is), begin to organise. In the twenties, this would be Lukacs writing about Lenin. Today, it is Chapo elucidating the completeness of Bernie thought (I say this as someone who would vote for Bernie in the US). Lukacs, of course, was much less orthodox than he first seems — but he too made a great claim to purity.

Through the actions of those arms-length spokespeople (outriders, as they were called in the UK), the acceptable and unacceptable is defined. Within those outrider groups, reshuffles and power plays take place to claim the position of the purest interpreter of the distant figurehead. An order of priests is established through infighting. Those better resourced, with connections to pre-existing power bases, gain, to the detriment of more free-thinking opponents. The rise of Tribune versus the exclusion of Paul Mason within Corbynism is the perfect example.

As Tom Wilson eloquently described, those interpretative outlets move from general prophecy to more prescriptive codes. After the prophetic warnings of Isaiah and Amos comes King Josiah and codifies the law in Deuteronomy. Those who listen now need to act in a specific way — not only accept the precepts, but refrain from criticism, occasionally express (in this modern world, Tweet) outrage at opponents outside and inside, and right their path to the paths of the priests. Socialism becomes effectively a way of life. More than that, it is a way of living ethically, as the Greeks would call it, a diet. Those that adhere to what is required are promoted; they are, in a word used by all factions, ‘sound’.

This bears striking similarities to theological discourse, particularly in the day to day ethical importance of the condemnation of unorthodox views; to quote Paul Tillich: ‘Theological polemic is not merely a theoretical discussion, but rather a spiritual judgment against the gods which are not God, against those structures of evil, those distortions of God in thought and action’. You could substitute ‘socialist’ for ‘theological’ and ‘X figurehead-thought’ for ‘God’ and the exact same happens in our spheres of discourse.

Moreover, it is a way of life that puts a severe burden on its adherents. Not only must they refrain from committing sin themselves, they must be able to recognise it in others and proactively call it out — particularly if it is deviation of thought. Note how the confused Labour position under late Corbyn of rent deferrals or suspension was continued as deferrals by Starmer, who (as a heterodox believer) was then condemned. Starmer not endorsing UBI — which Labour never endorsed — was seen as a great departure from the purity of prior years. Appropriately, adherents needed to Tweet out this accusation despite it not having any grounding in previous reality.

Note how this pattern ostensibly prioritises static perfection over dynamism and reinvention, when it is itself constantly changing and reinventing. Corbyn and, to a lesser degree, Bernie’s longstanding and immovable views were presented as a paragon of virtue — despite Bernie revising them constantly. Bernie’s modern views on gun control have changed significantly from the beginning and even Corbyn as LOTO accepted compromises he would have castigated twenty years ago. The loud but few Twitter MLs are reinventing a purity of the USSR that even the CPB once moved away from. It is a paradoxical trend — of canonising static while the canon is developing via evolution.

The standard pattern of activity can therefore be reduced to: a figurehead is created, an orthodox view is established; a deviation identified; a heretic condemned. Orthodoxy re-establishes itself around the most pure.

Orthodox in itself is an interesting term — it implies exclusivity and an imperial power to establish orthodoxy to the exclusion of the heretical splinter sects. It is a term indelibly linked to the concept of a power base. Today, it functions as the name of that branch of Eastern Christianity that sees itself as the direct descendant of the faith of the Roman Empire, with the primus inter pares patriarch (who somehow found an accommodation with the Kaiser-e Rum post-1453) still seen as presiding over the Greek territories. The patriarch of the Third Rome asserts primacy over the Slavic element.

The idea of a power centre of true orthodoxy, with concentric circles extending over acceptable deviations from the norm is how we define what is acceptable in Labour discourse. And, moreover, we all accept this hierarchy — though the few remaining Labour rightwingers accept it in inverse. We signal ostensible adherence (declaring, whenever we want to express something even marginally away from the most orthodoxest of views, “I feel closer to X of the party, but here…”). We constantly signify our alignment with one pole or the other. We make clear our minor deviation is solely to further the cause of one of those poles. We feel the pull, the need, to condemn an action that others we claim identification with are condemning.

Here, I want to return to the original point. By accepting that ‘soft’ has negative connotations, those of us who are in the ideologically productive middle are conceding to this arrangement of the left discourse-world. We are accepting that those who claim to be the orthodox are, in the main, right, and that ours is only a secondary glory, a soft, impure version of the original orthodox truth. We admire the static purity of an ideology when those who create the myth of that static purity are in fact dynamically reinventing it.

Before this period of reflection, I preferred ditching for soft left for ‘open left’, precisely to set up an opposition with a ‘closed’ left — in thought, in interpretation, in programme, in membership. I’ve changed my mind. That just substitutes one binary with another. I want to decisively reject that formulation.

To rediscover the dynamism of thought we need to create a popular, dynamic, party effective inside and outside Parliament, we need to stop buying into this fake diet of ethical socialist purity. I want us to praise the ‘unsound’, to revere the unorthodox and to celebrate the revisionist. To value the clash of ideas in the productive middle of the left. I want us, to quote theologian Elizabeth Johnson, to break the ‘idolatrous fixation on one image’ of socialism. Let’s start by appropriating the term ‘soft left’ as a positive virtue. Let’s reopen the gates of socialist ijtihad. It has the added bonus of ceasing this ‘is soft left the appropriate term’ discourse forever.

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