For a while following the collapse of communism in Europe, it looked as though there might be an apology forthcoming from those who had devoted their intellectual and political efforts to whitewashing the Soviet Union or praising the ‘people’s republics’ of China and Vietnam. But the moment was short-lived. Within a decade the left-wing establishment was back in the driving seat. Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn renewed their intemperate denunciations of America, the European left regrouped against ‘neoliberalism’, as though this had been the trouble all along, and the veteran communist Eric Hobsbawm was rewarded for a lifetime of unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union by being appointed Companion of Honour to the Queen.
The Manichean vision of modern politics, as a fight to the death between left and right, good and evil, has now been fully restored to its dominant position in intellectual circles. The term ‘right-wing’ is as much a term of abuse today as it was before the fall of the Berlin wall, and left-wing intellectuals and politicians have adapted themselves to the new world order with very little moderation of their oppositional zeal.
Jeremy Corbyn is a case in point. The Labour leader believes that Britain will not be governed properly until war is declared on the wealthy, the corporations and the toffs. Once again we are being invited along the path of socialist resentment, encouraged to hunt down success wherever it shows its ugly head and to present it with an exorbitant tax demand.
Corbyn claims to be something of a Marxist, led by a vision of social justice that includes all oppressed groups within the scope of its compassion — not merely Irish republicans, Palestinians, immigrants of all stripes and the battered remnant of the old working class, but animals too. All are the victims of corporate greed and upper-class oppression, and the purpose of good government is to rectify this by establishing equality in the place of domination.
As with all socialist visions, I ask myself what is hiding behind Corbyn’s catch-all idea of equality. What institutions will exist in his socialist future, and how will they be reconciled with the rule of law and the inheritance of free association, free opinion and the right to close a door on an intruder?
It is useful to refer to Marx, as Corbyn does, since Marx was a model of dishonesty in this respect. ‘Full communism’ was to be the outcome of the historical processes that made revolution inevitable; hence it was not necessary to describe it. Marx says only that it will involve the ‘withering away’ of the state and the law. In other words, a society without institutions. Marx’s ‘full communism’ embodies a contradiction: it is a state in which all the benefits of legal order are still present, even though there is no law; in which all the products of civil society are still in existence, even though nobody enjoys the property rights which hitherto have provided the sole motive for economic co-operation.
Like Marx, the left in Britain has been short on giving a positive account of the future, while never withholding its negative view of the ‘neo-liberal’ present and the ‘imperialist’ past. By taking from the rich and giving to the poor, Corbyn tells us, we will punish those who are responsible for the ‘crisis’ (there is always a ‘crisis’ and it is always the wealthy, the privileged, the successful who are to blame). Thinking on the left is dominated by a kind of zero-sum illusion. Those who succeed do so at the expense of those who fail and the purpose of politics is to rectify this injustice by reining in the successful. And the result is what we see in Greece today: an economy in which there are no successful people left to tax.
Looking back on what has happened since 1989 — or, rather, what hasn’t happened — I am forced to recognise that this zero-sum fallacy, which was the animating force behind Marxism and the intellectual origin of all the destruction released in Marx’s name, will never lose its hold on the human imagination. It is hard to make wise decisions for the future and impossible to predict the long-term effect of radical policies. But it is easy to feel resentment towards the powerful and the successful, and easy to believe that, by depriving them of their advantages, we will benefit the remainder. That way we can turn a blind eye to our real motive, which is not compassion but resentment, not creation but destruction.