Marmalade and the “Ancient” Dilemma of the Left; or “What the Hell is Wrong with Left Intellectuals?”
Immanuel Wallerstein has a blog. That itself is a wonderful thing.
In one of his latest posts he talks about a debate among Leftist Brazilian intellectuals about Lula. Lula, the former union-leader and left wing dissident, has become quite a popular president, and successful by most standards, but this has caused a bit of anxiety among these intellectuals, who now worry that he has lost his Left credentials by governing in a pragmatic manner.
It is “the ancient dilemma of the Brazilian left–how to be both popular and on the left.”
Oddly enough they all seem to generally acknowledge that Lula has gained popularity among the poor. So he has not sold out his base, and in fact it is his popularity among the “masses” that is itself evidence of his retreat from the “utopia of a democratic left.”
He has become, said one, “part of the ‘general marmalade’ of the Brazilian party system.” Delicious, one assumes, but not of the true Left.
I do understand the perception that mass popularity seems to somehow call into question whether any group or politician can be truly living up to its principles. This idea– that one must sell out to gain power is deeply engrained in our culture. We’ve all bought the Weberian definition of politician a bit too much.
But this seems like a much more recent dilemma of the Left, rather than an ancient one. There is a long tradition of Left thinkers/activists– Paine, Marx, Frederick Douglass, Debs, Jaures, Lenin, Gandhi, King, etc…– who saw little conflict between utopianism and fighting for meaningful political power. In fact they understood that a utopian vision was necessary for the Left to achieve political power, but that without the pragmatic exercise of political power utopianism is nothing but narcissism.
It seems relatively recently that we have lost the ability to imagine a true Left leader achieving political power and popularity; presumed an inherent conflict between popularity and principles.
Its partly a lack of imagination. As Zizek says, we can imagine global warming– the end of the world!— but when asked to imagine an alternative to the Washington Consensus we seem tongue-tied.
But its also a sign of the times: in the neoliberal counter-revolution of the last 40 years, Left intellectuals have internalized the idea of their own unpopularity. Worse, they have embraced it, turning their unpopularity and alienation into a sign of righteousness and purity, like some weird medieval flagellant.
I also blame Foucault, though I’m not exactly sure I can articulate why. I think I just blame all of the Left’s problems on him.
Update: I should have been more clear that Wallerstein himself does not appear to agree with these intellectuals he is quoting. He points out that the rise of Brazil under Lula has undermined US hegemony in Latin America, and that even Castro thinks he has been a force for good.