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Posted at: Jan 11, 2017, 12:53 AM; last updated: Jan 11, 2017, 12:53 AM (IST)

1917-2017: Revolution to Alt-Right

Hasan Suroor
Actually, the centre has collapsed and the only way “up” is to the Right. How far to the Right must the Left keep moving in order to stay politically relevant without compromising its fundamental principles?
1917-2017: Revolution to Alt-Right
PUTIN POWER: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised New Year''s message in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. The message was televised just before midnight on December 31, in each of Russia''s nine time zones. AP/PTI
THIS year is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Russian Revolution that led to the creation of the world's first Communist state, the Soviet Union, offering a progressive and humane alternative to Western capitalism. It was a historic moment that shook the world, though it didn't quite live up to its promise, ultimately collapsing 80 years later due to a combination of factors, not least Western meddling. In coming months, we can be assured of being treated to a hefty diet of old stories of repression, economic stagnation and political thuggery--some true, some half-baked, some plain fiction. 

Yes, excesses happened, mistakes were made and those still in denial about Stalin's reign of terror should stop rationalising it, and confront the truth. At the same time, we should resist attempts to distort history and dismiss 80 years of communist rule as a madcap project and an “evil empire”.  The flaws (and some of the things that were done in the name of defending the Revolution were no doubt inexcusable) that ultimately undermined arguably the world's most ambitious project  should not blind us to its many achievements, notably in education and science and technology. Without any doubt, its most important achievement was lifting millions of people out of dire poverty and insecurity; and giving them dignity. Not in some abstract sense but in real tangible terms through guaranteed employment, and universal free education, housing and healthcare.

A poor and backward agrarian society was transformed into a global super power confident enough to challenge American hegemony. Flawed though it might have been, the Soviet model of socialism had a profound influence on policy makers in many newly independent developing countries around the world, including India. The modern liberal-Left politics is an enduring legacy of a belief in a system of ideas that inspired the 1917 Revolution. Sadly, however, its centenary coincides with a difficult phase in liberal fortunes.  2016 was a particularly bruising year for them as a tide of populist nationalism swept large swathes of the democratic world —from Europe and America to Latin America and Asia. In India, a  semi-fascist BJP  continued to make gains at the cost of the Congress and other Left-of-centre parties with the Left getting further pushed on to the margins. And the outlook for 2017 looks grim as well with the populist Right-the self-styled “alt-right” — likely to retain momentum.

In politics, as in fashion, trends come and go; and this is not the first time that liberals find themselves out in the cold. But seldom before have they had it so bad, spawning cruel jokes about them. In addition to being seen as arrogant and complacent, they are looked upon as political dinosaurs and an anachronism in an increasingly complex world. Given the hostile environment, liberals could be forgiven for thinking that the world has ganged up against them. If they feel under siege, it is because they are under siege. The crisis has set off a great deal of handwringing, even self-flagellation, in liberal quarters. Many have actually started to believe their detractors’ narrative that portrays them as being on the wrong side of history and no longer fit for purpose.  Feeling humiliated and demoralised, liberals have turned on themselves.  Just look at the op-ed page commentaries dripping with mea culpas, and pleading guilty to whatever nonsense is hurled at them. As the European Council president Donald Tusk pointed out they've got themselves into a “trap of fatalism”, like the 1930s liberals who gave up “virtually without a fight, even though they had all the cards”.

But here's a question: assuming liberals were really willing to step out of their bubble, and get a grip on the new reality, what exactly should they do? It's not a rhetorical question. For the liberal dilemma is very real. Many of the old certainties they took for granted — class solidarity, tolerance of other cultures, internationalism,collapse of capitalism— have been  proved wrong. This has been compounded by the rise of a new kind of  identity politics rooted in  nativism. So, while liberals are still consumed by old causes — racism, gender equality, gay rights-— their traditional supporters have switched gears. Their concerns are now more to do with protecting their social and cultural identities which they believe are threatened by forces of globalisation and unchecked immigration. They pose a threat to “social cohesion”, according to British Prime Minister Theresa May. “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society,” she argued rubbishing  the liberal notion of a global citizen. These native concerns have got conflated with other issues such as the impact of government policies on local communities. Liberals have been too slow to notice the change, and meanwhile a variety of populist “insurgent” groups have stepped into the vacuum as champions of people who feel let down by the mainstream  political establishment. The clever policy mix  of these groups has  appeal that cuts across large swathes of different sections of the society disaffected for a variety of reasons. Another factor hurting liberals is the increasing fluidity of  political loyalties. The era of “once a liberal, always a liberal” is gone; today we have lifelong Labour voters in Britain who see nothing wrong voting for  a racist party like UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party); or once-loyal American Democrats cheering Donald Trump. 

The trend has also affected the mainstream Right. The US presidential election was won not by the Republican Party but by  Trump; Brexit was won not by Tories but by UKIP; and the 2014 Indian elections were won not by the BJP but by Narendra Modi and the RSS. Left-liberals, however, are under more pressure, and their ideological dogmatism makes things harder for them. So, what should they do? Tony Blair revived Labour by controversially moving it to the Right. But since then the centre has shifted even further to the Right.Actually, the centre has collapsed and the only way “up” is to the Right.  How far to the Right must the Left keep moving in order to stay politically relevant without compromising its fundamental principles? It will need a great deal of imagination for it to find its way out of this crisis. What is required, is “a new 21st century, post-industrial progressive agenda that takes more account of factors like inequality, localism and climate change”, wrote The Guardian columnist Martin Kettle. Is the Left up to it? 

Meanwhile, it seems Vladimir Putin wants to keep the Revolution centenary celebrations in a low key because he regards revolutions as “de-stabilising” and doesn't want people to get ideas.

The writer is a London-based commentator


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