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September 29, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Challenge to the Left

I have a love/hate relationship with the Left.

On the one hand, I strongly believe that the Left plays a pivotal role in the social and political process. Not only are they a vital counterbalance to the conservative Right, they are also the driving force behind radical social change. Civil rights, the feminist movement, social democracy and the welfare state – these are just some of the many brainchildren of the Left that have profoundly changed the face of our world for the better.

On the other hand, I find myself increasingly disheartened by the shape and direction the Left has taken over the last few decades. The once great intellectuals of Leftist thought have been usurped by virulently vocal protestors who spend more time screeching at authority figures than they do developing genuine suggestions for change. An ideological platform once rich in powerful tools for social justice has degenerated into an endless cycle of marches and flag-waving. The spirit of free choice and constructive argument, once the cornerstone of Leftist thought, has been replaced with a mob mentality masquerading as moral righteousness. Revolutionary ideas have been swept aside by pointless catchphrases and slogans, inappropriate (and often vicious) name calling, and a ‘with us or against us’ attitude that both stifles and condemns debate.

The true spirit of the Left has been thoroughly commandeered. Where once it held a unique and substantial footing in its own right, it is now all too often defined solely in opposition to its opponents. Nowadays, rather than presenting alternative viewpoints, liberal protestors posit themselves as challengers of tyranny and oppression; their opponents, whoever they may be, are cast as ‘Big-Brother’ type overlords with fascistic intentions.

I am aware that this is not always the case, and there are exceptions to any rule; however, a large proportion of the Left is in danger of being reduced to a shadow of its former self.

But this was not always the case. The essence of the Left is not truly represented by the one-track battle-cries of its hijackers, any more than the essence of the Right is monopolised by tinpot dictators or global military voyeurism. At its core, the Left is about the desire for change, equally opposed yet complimentary to a Right that is about preserving the status quo. Traditionally, this has represented itself through the philosophy of promoting the state as a means to affect beneficial change. The Left views government and the nation as a vessel through which social and economic equality can be more efficiently ensured – thus, it aims to increase the power of the state to enable it to do so. The Right, in contrast, seeks to limit the power of the state in the belief that increased personal liberty is the key to equality. The view of the Left as a tool to combat tyranny and dictatorship – a dictatorship inherent in anything not in line with its own message – is quite modern and, in my view, is the very means by which the true message of the Left has been corrupted. By its own hand, the Left is in danger of becoming the very tyranny it now claims to combat.

The extent of the derailing of the Left is most evident when compared to the efforts of its best known thinkers. Martin Luther King, a man of peace and a stalwart champion of civil rights, backed up his passionate rhetoric with a just vision that was heartfelt and practical. Betty Friedan, gender rights campaigner and visionary of second-wave feminism, wrote with an eloquence that awoke a nation of women to the inequalities in their lives and inspired them to achieve much needed change. American Presidents like Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson saw the flaws inherent in unbridled capitalism and sought to restructure the state to combat poverty, unemployment and economic inequality. These renowned personalities wrought a better and more just world through a dignified and pragmatic challenge to the status quo. Moreover, their positions stood as unique and solid in their own right, rather than mere empty railings against their opponents. They defined themselves by what they stood for, and not merely by what they stood against.

And so, I challenge the Left. Do not degrade yourself to a mere caricature. Step beyond the confines of the narrow-minded and take up arms for the social causes that need you. Challenge the lingering cultural inequities that women are faced within the workforce. Challenge the prejudices in society that prevent gay couples from celebrating their love in the same legal fashion as their heterosexual counterparts. Formulate, motivate, aggravate, legislate! Combine passionate ambitions with practical steps and get things done! By doing so, you’ll find that people like me are far more likely to cheer you on rather than dismiss you.


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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    Yeah, it does seem to be the case that the Left has “lost its moral compass” (to some extent), with regards to how things are actually being done on a day-to-day, practical level.

    On the other hand, the following statement may require more clarification:

    “The Right, in contrast, seeks to limit the power of the state in the belief that increased personal liberty is the key to equality”

    – Does the “Right” really believe in “equality” (however defined) as the highest good, ahead of liberty?

    – And, in a world where the status quo is such that people already enjoy vastly different amounts of liberty, how would increasing liberty per se result in more “equality”?

    (By the way, not all those from the “Left” support increased “state” power – anarcho-communists, for example.)

    But, on the whole, a well thought-out and coherent article.

  2. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Hi Stardust, cheers for the feedback.

    “The Right, in contrast, seeks to limit the power of the state in the belief that increased personal liberty is the key to equality”

    You’re right, the way i’ve written this sentence is problematic, and not entirely indicate of what I was trying to get across. Basically, as I interpret the Right (and I am making an over-arching statement of this side of the political spectrum rather than trying to label every kind of right-wing ideology), it aims to limit the size, the reach, and the power of the state apparatus. The reasoning for this is usually connected to the idea of free markets and laissez-faire capitalism – the idea that society and economics work best with the least amount of interference from government. So by ‘personal liberty’, I mean freedom of action – the freedom of the individual to pursue their life with the least amount of encumberance from the state. Essentially, the Right belives that, with increased personal freedoms, society will sort itself out through maintaining a sort of dynamic equilibrium. I personally disagree with this belief, but that’s another story.

    And you are right – historically, this has quite often equated to disparate amounts of liberty across social, ethnic, and gender lines. To me, this is where the left plays one of its most crucial roles – pointing out these inequities and, quite often, the hypocricy of the status quo.

    You are also right in that not all Left-wing ideologies seek to increase the power of the state – much the same as Right wing ideologies do not always seek to lessen it. I’ll see your anarchism and raise you an authoritarianism. But I refer back to what i’ve written above – I am using over-arching statements in my article rather than dealing with specific variants. A bit of a shortcoming, I admit, but when viewing a situation from the 30, 000 foot vantage point it comes in handy.


  3. Electrum Stardust says:

    Thanks for the (very sensible) reply.

  4. cvalda says:

    Not to get too finicky, but I’ll point out that Republicans, for one, actually regulate more than Democrats. It’s just they regulate in favour of big business.

    So it’s probably most accurate to define the right, in practice, as simply supporting upward redistribution of wealth.

  5. Cameron says:

    Matthew. Your article is very vague. You do not give any examples to back up your assertions about today’s ‘left’. Also you do not define what you mean by the term ‘the left’. Are you talking about the Labour Party, The greens, Marxists, socialists, anarchists? All these groups are incredibly different. In fact many heavily criticise one another. (usually greens, Marxists, socialists and anarchists ripping into the Labour Party for being just as reactionary as National)

    The fact that you refer to Kennedy and Johnson as great presidents of the left to me shows a lack of understanding. At the time much of, what is usually called, ‘the left’ around the world hated these two presidents. I am sure you have heard of anti-Vietnam war protesters chanting “hey hey LBJ how many kids have you killed today” during the 1960s.

  6. Jackson Wood says:

    Defining political positions has become a tricky business. For sometime the left/right continuum has been generally discarded. The four way Political Compass approach has some benefits in categorising peoples’ beliefs. However is still not complete. As one Richard Meros points out no scale takes into account time.

    Many people have in this post-modern, post-Rogernomic haze become more pragmatic in their beliefs. Their sitting on any political spectrum changing from issue to issue. I agree with Mr. Cunningham that the once proud tradition of ‘left’ thinkers has been eroded. I think in some ways that this can be attributed to the internet: People being able to spread incorrect information at the click of a button. But this goes the same for both camps. Also the pushing of the Enlightenment ideal of free speech is interesting. People have started arguing without self censoring their true base thoughts. They act on emotional impulse in favour of putting together well thought out arguments.

    Cameron: I think that it is fair to say that Kennedy and LBJ were lefties if you look at them through the lens of American politics as a whole being further right on the spectrum. Sure Kennedy and LBJ escalated Vietnam but Eisenhower was the one that set them on that track. They were actors operating on the advice of the military who were not always being truthful. Also you forget LBJ’s Civil Rights & “Great Society” plans that he inherited from JFK. These really indicate that both were lefties.
    New Zealand example of a similar situation was the first Labour government – indisputably on the left – sent troops into WW2. Point is that leadership often corrupts ones true ideals and opens them to compromise (Savage and Fraser were conciseness objectors in WW1).

    As a lefty (fuck… I’ve just given myself away) I prefer debate to polemics. I am disgusted by people who I like to called Reactionary Radicals. People who protest for the sake of it. People who blindly follow some vague ideology with no actual basis. People like this are the face of the left because they yell the loudest. To quote NOFX: “sometimes the smallest softest voice carries the grand biggest solutions”.

    So I urge any lefties out there to not be disheartened by the state of the left and to not give into the skulduggery these of the pseudo-leftist. I am sure that if we scrape through that horrible writhing mass of Reactionary Radicals we will find the strong beating (bleeding?) heart of the liberal left.

  7. Christopher Gilbert says:

    “As a lefty (fuck… I’ve just given myself away) I prefer debate to polemics. I am disgusted by people who I like to called Reactionary Radicals. People who protest for the sake of it. People who blindly follow some vague ideology with no actual basis.”


  8. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    cvalda: I disagree. Whilst you are right that Republicans tend to legislate in favour of big business, the amount of regulation they impose upon the economy is much less that the Democrats. The reason for this is because they feel that big business and the rich are better positioned to create new jobs and wealth, thus benefiting the economy. They also sponsor tax cuts in the belief that it will lead to increased private spending.

    The justification lies not in the upward redistribution of wealth – in fact, quite the opposite. Republicans tend to believe that generating a bigger economic ‘pie’ will result in a bigger slice for all. Personally I think that’s nonsense, but that’s just me.

    Cameron: The ‘vagueness’ you speak of can, I hope, be forgiven by the fact that I am arguing my case from the 30,000 foot view (see my response to Electrum Stardust above).

    I cited many examples in the magazine via a number of pictures of recent protests and the like. Unfortunately they aren’t reproduced here on the website. If you can’t get a hold of the printed copy I will be happy to email you my original document, complete with pictures and captions.

    I feel I have very clearly defined what I perceive the Left to be. My criticism is directed against the wide body of left-leaning supporters in society. More specifically, I am referring to non-political or semi-political bodies rather than the main political parties in government. The predominance of leftist thought on campus is a prime example of this – passionate and fiery, yet all too often stereotypical and impractical.

    Kennedy referred to himself as a liberal. He dramatically increased government spending over the levels of his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Much of this came from his ‘New Frontier’ program aimed at increasing wages, combating unemployment, state housing programs, healthcare for mental health patients and the elderly, promoting equal rights, and curbing juvenile crimes. All of this fell under his belief in Keynesian spending – the belief that government investment in the economy will cause a snowball effect in private growth – which contrasts strongly with Rightist ideas on state spending.

    Johnson is indeed well rememered for his commitment of American troops to Vietnam; however, if you have a look at his ‘Great Society’ program you will find that it is very similar to Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Roosevelt’s New Deal before it. The Vietnam war protestors were doing just that – protesting the Vietnam War, not Johnson’s Presidency as a whole. Beyond Johnson’s escalation of a decade-long military blunder lies his stalwart commitment to civil rights and combatting poverty.

    Together, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s policies were very leftist ideas generated by very left-minded individuals.

  9. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Jackson: Well-put. If I could type faster I might have seen your post before I finished mine. You are right that ‘Reactionary Radicals’ fall on both sides of the spectrum, and the fact that I haven’t discussed Rightist extremes in my article is a bit unfair of me. I might have to do a sequel!

    Overall though, I feel that it is more observable on the left. Right-wing extremism is far more easily and readily discredited, whereas left-wing extremism is all too often mistaken for that ‘light-bulb’ moment of truth where our eyes are opened. I think this is due to the fact that when one decides to look beyond the typical news sources, left wing interpretations are the first alternate opinions they find.

    “I prefer debate to polemics” – i’ve noticed. You’re pretty damn good at it too.


  10. Tara says:

    haha. i agree. that’s why i had to leave university and go out and get a job. haha. but now unfortunately i am seeing the classist reality that happens in NZ. about 8% of kiwis have degrees (me thinks? certainly not that many in the south island!). so i’m back at uni getting a piece of paper arguing about abstract thoughts of dead people. and then i can go back to actually effect change within my community.
    with a degree you get trusted and paid to do jobs with your head, strategy jobs. otherwise, manual labour and production line for you!
    i think its a great challenge to lay down for aspiring leftists. its relatively easy to protest – and sometimes even useful- but too often its just individuals expressing a bit of their anger and annoyance. the thinking bit and expressing well thought out solutions to problems is harder. it means you might have to engage with people whose opinions you despise, but if it changes some wrong, then maybe it is worth it?

  11. Thanks for the highly articulate, thought-provoking discussion. As a political science and economic scholar that has lived in the real world long enough to create a body of observation large enough to make a confident statement, I will forever argue that the Republican theory of trickle down economics has never and will never be a practical or sustainable means of economic growth. Redistribution of wealth to empower the middle class is absolutely necessary to fuel the economic engine. Consider the simple concept of tracking $1 million dollars that is placed in the hands of a single multi-millionare versus $1 million that is spread evenly ($10,000 each)between 100 members of the middle class.

    In the hands of the middle class, this money is spent on food, clothing, healthcare, education and possibly the development of new small businesses. This upward stratification of the middle class creates higher incomes that produce more tax revenue while pumping consumer-driven revenue into our economy like blood through a human body.

    In the hands of the multi-millionare, there is no further spending on food, clothing, healthcare or education because they are already consuming their maximum share of these goods and services without limitation. At best, this money is invested in the capital markets or real estate. Or, some of it is gifted to worthy charities and organizations. At worst, it is placed in trust funds and other non-taxable accounts to be passed down to their children who will, like their parents, never want for more.

  12. Matthew_Cunningham says:


    Cheers for your post, and apologies for my late reply.

    I agree wth you that economic redistribution is necessary to ‘fuel the economic engine’. I quite like your million dollar example and might have to steal it for myself. One of the major problems a market economy can face is the underconsumption of consumer goods. The only real way to combat this underconsumption (and the resulting overproduction) is to increase the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes.

    In saying that, I will play devil’s advocate and take a right-wing economic position for a moment. A Republican, or a Libertarian, or a member of any party advocating minimal state intervention in the economy, would argue the following:

    1.) By limiting state spending and intervention in the economy, a government can afford to reduce taxes. This means, at the end of the day, more money in the pockets of everyday citizens, which in turn allows them greater purchasing power to ‘consume’ goods. This has a positive effect on the free market which facilitates economic growth.
    2.) By not directly addressing the rich / poor economic divide through state intervention, the government allows the rich to keep more of their money. This is beneficial for the state because, statistically, the rich spend more of their money in areas of the economy that facilitate economic expansion. This includes domestic investment in existing businesses as well as the creation of new businesses. Creation of new companies and new jobs means more wealth is being brought into the country, meaning that a bigger financial “pie” is available for everyone to take their slice from.
    3.) The kinds of essential services that are most frequently argued as being necessary for state intervention (i.e. healthcare and medicare, education, etc), can be far more efficiently provided by a free market system. State-run enterprises are cumbersome and are not held to the same level of accountability that free market enterprises, by necessity, are. If a free market enterprise is inefficient and loses too much money it goes belly-up; if a state-run enterprise does the same it will continue to operate in this fashion without being affected because its source of capital is drawn from the state coffers. In oher words, taxpayers are held accountable to governmental inefficiency.

    Your thoughts?

    Cheers, Matt.

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