The ‘Conservative Left’ – An Oxymoron

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Jiří Dolejš criticises the ideological crises and splits within the left in the Czech Republic – and offers proposals to overcome them

The political left has existed in various historical forms for two centuries now. Its essence has always been to articulate the interests of the underprivileged and to uphold the values of universal humanism through social progress.

The left has always degenerated when instead of a rational project for a better world it has offered a mixture of social hatred and authoritarianism.

The historical defeat of the socialist experiment on the basis of the Russian Revolution has occupied a special place in the crisis of the left.

A modernisation of the left project instead of escape into nostalgia

Within the crisis the left can seek refuge in a nostalgia for utopian traditions and moralisms. But, unlike religion, politics is the art of the possible, and its practices requires heuristic content. Therefore, only the modernisation of this rational project of the political left can provide a political service to a left clientele. The lack of modernisation necessarily leads to further degeneration.  In Czechia, both the year 1968 and 1989 saw impulses for modernisation. These impulses objectively prolonged our lifespans, but they have unfortunately objectively turned into stagnation once again.

Crisis of the left: transformation and the creation of illusions

The crisis of the political left is seen today in the weakening, indeed even in the loss, of its parliamentary representation. The year 1989 brought the degeneration of the communist left to light, but it also presented serious challenges to the reformist left. During the first free elections within the transitional systems of the former Soviet bloc, what was involved was more a break with the past than a right-left duel. Although the majority of the population affirmed the values of solidarity and social security, their guarantors gradually were no longer the traditional parties (the communists and social democrats). Despite the dominance of social values, the majority of society is now pro-capitalist. The phase of enthusiastic transformation was logically followed, at the end of the 1990s, by a phase of disillusionment, which also brought with it a new opportunity for the political left. In the 2002 elections in the Czech Republic the ČSSD and KSČM together occupied a majority of seats in parliament. At the same time their mutual animosity prevented them from establishing unity. The chairs of the parties, Špidla and Grebeníček, could not find a way to each other. Unfortunately, the relation between the radical and reformist left was burdened by a historical schism. It was only towards the end of the legislative period that the objective left majority could be utilised. But in the end, the Czech left was not able to use the year 1989 in order resurrect itself.

The left’s share of seats in the Czech parliament then began gradually to sink. In 2017 it only held 15% of seats, and in the 2021 elections the left disappeared from parliament altogether.

Getting out of the national snail’s shell

This situation led to a defensive attitude, and in parts of the old left to a retreat into ideological rituals. The defeat also led to scepticism about the mobilising role of left values, and the conservatives within the left came alive again. Under pressure of the objective globalisation of civilisation the tendency to retreat into a national snail’s shell increased, especially among the ranks of the aging left.
Cultural progressivism or neo-Marxism has essentially become a term of abuse amongst dogmatists and nationalists.

As far as social democracy is concerned, its welfare-state policy lost its efficacy and attractiveness. The politics of small social concessions was taken over by the populists, and the left began to lack a new project.
It can be confusing that voices of protest tend towards right-wing extremism and that the traditional electorate of the left, above all in Eastern Europe, is old and thus seemingly conservative.

However, to want to organise any progress or avant-garde on the basis of conservative premises and returning to obsolete traditions is in itself a contradiction.

Today’s political left will not be revived through a mixture of nostalgia for the former regime and nationalist identitarianism. It is thus bizarre when the traditionalists prefer to combat the liberal left rather than capitalism. The progressive or cultural left is not the Satan that must be driven out of the left.

In addition, the liberal younger voters in Czechia first felt more drawn to the Greens, and then, after the latter’s discrediting and exit from parliament, to the Pirates (Czech Pirate Party – with a liberal-progressive orientation). The left’s conservative course has caused it to fully decouple from the younger generation. Despite this, the struggle over this course has continued and, under the influence of the events in Ukraine and Russia’s geopolitical pressure, has even been aggravated.

A conservative left – an oxymoron

The Communist Manifesto of 1848 already described an analogy to this situation, when Marx and Engels called certain reactionary tendencies ‘paternalistic’ or ‘conservative socialism’ in which pious people living in the past sprinkled social progress with holy water and injected the poor with national egoism. Today too many consider progressivism to be an elite aberration and do not hesitate to resurrect old taboos. In populism they see a guarantor for the plebs. Since insecurity is on the rise among people, they avail themselves of irrational instincts, including hostility to people who are different. Unfortunately, we see a divide opening up among the left as well between the so-called ‘slunickari’ (do-gooders) and xenophobes. And this problem is found both in the reformist and the radical left.

The term ‘conservative left’ is an oxymoron. Social justice is not protected by national authority, and aversion to the universalism of human rights is absurd. Solidarity is not charity and cannot be reduced to traditional communities and historical constructs.

The mobilisation of protest voters is understandable tactically, but not at the expense of programmatic identity. The extreme right is ideologically toxic. Accommodation to hate-filled xenophobia, the excusing of imperialism and colonialism when it does not come from the West but from the East, as well as hostility to progress and cultural intolerance, are incompatible with the values of the left and only feed mistrust and provoke processes of division.

The betrayal of fundamental values through an alliance with toxic figures of the ultra-right scene would impede the indispensable cooperation among the left. That Jean-Luc Mélenchon shook Marine Le Pen’s hand in order to encircle the hated centrist liberals is insanity. Traditionalists of the left may be right in pointing to the need for a hierarchy of themes. In reality, some cultural themes are harder to understand for the social basis of the left. But this does not mean that the cultural left must be betrayed with fascistic groupings. Enlightened authoritarians and mass hypnotists are not the right way to reawaken the left.

A foot in the door of the left’s future

Resolving the crisis of the left requires greater emphasis on the synergy of left forces. The ability to communicate with one another and to handle debates will be crucial. Whether the left will decide in favour of a loose alliance model or a closer institutional cooperation depends on local conditions. There is the experience of the Polish left and the Spanish left. When this succeeds, the plebeian base can be connected with the creative and emancipatory potential of the avant-garde. It is above all the young generation that has to put its foot into the closing door of the left future. It is improbable that the old left will bring new impulses. If it has a sense of responsibility it will be in a position to pass on its experiences and give more space to the lefe Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z.