The spirit of the left has been extinguished. But there is still a case for radical ideologyby Michael Jacobs / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Over the last quarter of a century something very large, and not entirely understood, has happened to politics in western Europe. It is a commonplace that labour and social democratic parties-not least New Labour-have become more moderate, and more accommodating to capitalism. But a change much deeper than merely one of policy has occurred. It’s a cultural, indeed a psychological, shift. A kind of spirit has been extinguished.
When Max Weber analysed the way in which the post-Enlightenment processes of rational thought gradually permeated European consciousness in the 18th and 19th centuries, he described the world as becoming “disenchanted.” The religious world view which the Enlightenment largely destroyed had made the world an enchanted place, filled with the magic and mystery of gods and God. But cold, hard rationality killed them off. Even for those who remained religious, Weber observed, the world ceased to be magical. It was subject to physical laws which were knowable through science. God did not die, but he no longer inhabited the everyday world.
In the last 20 years, something similar has happened to left-of-centre politics in European societies. Up to the 1980s, politics on the left was enchanted-not by spirits, but by radical idealism; the belief that the world could be fundamentally different. But cold, hard political realism has now done for radical idealism what rationality did for pre-Enlightenment spirituality. Politics has been disenchanted.
There are many who welcome this process. But it is equally possible to argue that it has been profoundly damaging, not just for the causes of progressive politics but for a wider sense of public engagement with the political process.
It is true that the British Labour party was always pragmatic in office. But there is something that Labour has lost, which it used to have-an ideology of social transformation. Until at least the mid-1980s most members of the Labour party, in common with its sister parties throughout Europe, believed in a different kind of social and economic order, with institutions and social relationships founded on morally superior values. This was socialism, and belief in it infused the whole of left-of-centre politics.
Socialism was not merely the end-point towards which those on the left believed themselves to be working. For large numbers of activists and politicians, it was an animating force in their lives. People were socialists in the way that others (sometimes the same people) were Catholics or…