The hysterical reaction of the Western Left to the reelection of President George W. Bush is not just a primal scream from politicians and intellectuals deprived of political power. The violent language, numerous acts of violence, and demonization of Bush and his electorate–the same as that directed against Tony Blair in Britain, Jose Maria Aznar in Spain, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy–portend a more fundamental event: the death rattle of the traditional Left, both as a dominant political force and as an intellectual vision.
For the most part, the Left only wins elections nowadays when their candidates run on their opponents’ platform (Clinton and Blair) or when panic overwhelms the political process (Zapatero and Schroeder). Under normal circumstances, leftists running as leftists rarely win, proving that their ideology–the ideology that dominated political and intellectual debate for most of the last century–is spent. When their ideas were in vogue, leftist advocates took electoral defeat in stride, as they were confident that their vision was far more popular–because far more accurate–than their opponents’ view of the world. History and logic were on their side. But no more. Incoherent rage and unbridled personal attacks on the winners are sure signs of a failed vision.
Ironically, the Left’s view of history provides us with part of the explanation for its death. Marx and Hegel both understood that the world constantly changes, and ideas change along with it. The world they knew–and successfully transformed–was a class-bound society dominated by royalty and aristocracy. They hurled themselves into class struggle, believing it to be the engine of human history, and they fought for liberty for all. Successive generations of leftists preached and organized democratic revolution at home and abroad, from the overthrow of tyrants to the abolition of class privileges and the redistribution of both political power and material wealth.
In true dialectical fashion, they were doomed by their own success. As once-impoverished workers became wealthier, the concept of the proletariat became outdated, along with the very idea of class struggle. Then the manifest failure and odious tyranny of the 20th-century leftist revolutions carried out in the name of the working class–notably in Russia, China, and Cuba–undermined the appeal of the old revolutionary doctrines, no matter how desperately the Left argued that Communist tyrannies were an aberration, or a distortion of their vision.
Thus the ideology of the Left became anachronistic, even in western Europe, its birthplace and the source of its historical model. But the biggest change was the emergence of the United States as the most powerful, productive, and creative country in the world. It was always very hard for the Left to understand America, whose history, ideology, and sociology never fit the Left’s schemas. Even those who argued that there were class divisions in America had to admit that the “American proletariat” had no class consciousness. The political corollary was that there was never a Marxist mass movement in the United States. Every European country had big socialist parties and some had substantial Communist parties; the United States had neither. Indeed, most American trade unions were anti-Communist. As Seymour Martin Lipset and others have demonstrated, the central ideals of European socialism–which inspired many American leftist intellectuals–were contained in and moderated by the American Dream. America had very little of the class hatred that dominated Europe for so long; American workers wanted to get rich, and believed they could. Leftist Europeans–and the bulk of the American intellectual elite–believed that only state control by a radical party could set their societies on the road to equality.
The success of America was thus a devastating blow to the Left. It wasn’t supposed to happen. And American success was particularly galling because it came at the expense of Europe itself, and of the embodiment of the Left’s most utopian dream: the Soviet Union. Even those Leftists who had been outspokenly critical of Stalin’s “excesses” could not forgive America for bringing down the Soviet Empire, and becoming the world’s hyperpower. As Marx and Hegel would have understood, the first signs of hysterical anti-Americanism on the Left accompanied the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The resurgence of American economic power and the defeat of the Soviets exposed the failure of the Left to keep pace with the transformation of the world. The New York intellectual who proclaimed her astonishment at Reagan’s election by saying, “I don’t know a single person who voted for him,” well described the dialectical process by which an entire set of ideas was passing into history.
The slow death of the Left was not limited to its failure to comprehend how profoundly the world had changed, but included elements that had been there all along, outside the purview of leftist thought. Marx was famously unable to comprehend the importance of religion, which he dismissively characterized as the “opiate of the masses,” and the Left had long fought against organized religion. But America had remained a religious society, which both baffled and enraged the leftists. On the eve of the 2004 elections, some 40 percent of the electorate consisted of born-again Christians, and the world at large was in the grips of a massive religious revival, yet the increasingly isolated politicians and intellectuals of the Left had little contact and even less understanding of people of faith.
Unable to either understand or transform the world, the Left predictably lost its bearings. It was entirely predictable that they would seek to explain their repeated defeats by claiming fraud, or dissing their own candidates, or blaming the stupidity of the electorate. Their cries of pain and rage echo those of past elites who looked forward and saw the abyss. There is no more dramatic proof of the death of the Left than the passage of its central vision–global democratic revolution–into the hands of those who call themselves conservatives.
History has certainly not ended, but it has added a new layer to its rich compost heap.