Archive for the 'Leftisms & leftists' Category

Prague, 17 November 1989


Where’s homophobia when you need it? I bought this satirical take on communist comradeship going much too far (original photo here) at Prague’s small but very interesting Museum of Communism when I was there in August.

While there you can watch a video of the student demonstration that 20 years ago today was the beginning of the end of communist rule in Czechoslavakia. I’d forgotten about this event; the amazing scenes in Wenceslas Square a couple of days later with a huge crowd chanting ‘Dubcek! Dubcek!’ as Alexander Dubcek, leader of the crushed 1968 attempt to reform Czech communism, and future president Vaclav Havel appeared before them, had wiped lesser memories.

The video was a reminder that the fall of communism was not entirely peaceful, with police – uniformed and plain clothes – brutally attacking the demonstrators. While no students were killed, many were injured. But the time for accepting this kind of treatment was over, and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ began.

Hello Lenin?

The film Good Bye Lenin is a sweet tale of a son determined to protect his fragile socialist mother from the news that, as we are celebrating today, the GDR is no more. The emotional core of the film is the mother-son relationship, but we are led to a little sympathy for the mother who never lost her belief in a delusional socialist idea.

But what are we to make of people who late in life start making excuses for the dismally failed socialist experiment in central and eastern Europe?

In a bizarre letter published in Australian Book Review last May, Norman Abjorensen, once a Liberal staffer, blamed the collapse of the socialist experiment not on its dysfunctional economic system and cruel treatment of its captive peoples, but on a propaganda campaign and ‘permanent war footing’ by the ‘capitalist ruling class’ determined to ‘discredit and rid itself of a potential alternative’.

How anyone can talk about the ‘promising post-Stalin era’, as Abjorensen does, is beyond me. I very much doubt the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968 thought a brutal Soviet crushing of their attempts at creating a better society was ‘promising’. True, the end of mass extermination by the Soviet Union of its own citizens was an improvement, but the post-Stalin regimes were not ‘promising’ by any normal standard.

Anyone hoping that ABR readers would object to this nonsense would have been disappointed. Read the rest of this entry »

My glimpse of life under communism

I was among the last generation of people whose politics were shaped by World War II and its aftermath, the long struggle between the USSR and its allies and the USA and its allies. Unsurprisingly given my youthful Friedmanite views, I was a strong anti-communist.

While I was on my student backpacking trip around Europe in late 1985 and early 1986 I decided that I had to see Berlin, the place that more than anywhere in Europe had cold war tensions built into – physically, politically, and emotionally – its daily life. So my apolitical travelling companion and I split for a few days; he went skiing and I went to check out communism first hand.

My first impression, from the East German border police, was surprisingly favourable. They boarded the train to check our travel documents, and (as I recorded in a letter back to my family in Melbourne) offered a greeting at the start and a grin at the end. By the standards of passport checkers around the world, they provided an above-average experience.

Technologically I was less impressed. While we were still on the same train, the ride became much worse due to ‘rotten track’ (as I called it). I was bouncing from side to side. The Mercedes and BMWs I’d seen on West German roads were replaced with Trabants. But I enjoyed the countryside and eventually we made it to West Berlin. Read the rest of this entry »

Hamilton for Higgins?

It’s not often that Pollytics, Andrew Bolt and Catallaxy blogs all reach the same conclusion: that Clive Hamilton is not a good candidate for Higgins.

I’ve written a couple of long critiques of Hamilton’s books (here and here). Essentially what Hamilton has been doing over a series of books and papers is to try to give his mystical worldview (he wrote a book in 1994 called The Mystical Economist), which rejects the materialism of the modern world, a respectable basis in both natural and social science. The natural science aspect argues that the environment cannot sustain this way of life, while the social science aspect argues that it is not good for our emotional or spiritual well-being.

While in my two articles on his social science I argued that he was unsuccessful, I do have a kind of admiration for the intellectual ambition behind it. Very few intellectuals try to cover so many fields in advocacy of their one core idea. Read the rest of this entry »

Social democratic consensus

In my Quadrant Online piece on the left sensibility, I argued that the Australian left sensibility had accommodated contradictory ideas over time, including:

protection and free trade, nationalisation and privatisation, empire and republicanism, White Australia Policy and anti-discrimination law.

But I should also have noted that if my political identity survey is a guide, current-day social democrats show a high degree of policy consensus. In the latest issue of Policy, I have an article that collates the survey responses of the three varieties of economic liberal (classical liberal, libertarian, and social conservative and economic liberal) and compares their views with those of social democrats: Read the rest of this entry »

The right on the left

Quadrant Online is running a forum on The Australian‘s ‘What’s left?’ series.

From the classical liberal side there is Jason Soon on social justice and me re-working my left sensibility material from last week.

Angela Shanahan and Bill Muehlenberg represent family-values conservatism.

John Dawson argues with Dennis Glover about equality.

And Mervyn Bendle provides the Quadrant grumpy old man perspective: ‘the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is a shallow, condescending narcissist.. a labored, cliché-ridden, self-serving piece of propaganda, without even a hint of an interesting idea or original vision … the Left is about are simplistic ideas and slogans, jealousy, resentment, opportunism, and a lust for power and personal advancement. ‘

Is the market the ‘greatest dissolver of the bonds of family’?

Unhappily, the democratic Left also now embraced the other dimension of the 60s revolution, the abandonment of social responsibility and the pursuit of self-interest at whatever cost. This eventually provided the opportunity for the neo-liberals, in association with another force on the Right, the neo-conservatives, to make further great headway among the Western working class by supporting the values of social conservatism. By doing this, the neo-liberals managed to disguise from both others and themselves an obvious truth, namely that the untrammelled market was the greatest dissolver of the bonds of family and community.

Robert Manne yesterday, in another of The Australian‘s What’s Left series.

But how obvious is Professor Manne’s truth about the market and families? There is certainly no direct relationship in our current society – those with most market experience, people with jobs and money to spend, are more likely to be in couple or family housesholds. And the period of ‘neoliberal’ policy has coincided with a fall in the divorce rate. In 2008, it was at its lowest point since the liberalisation of divorce law in 1975.

It is nevertheless true that the unmarried or separated proportion of the adult population is high by historical standards. There are a number of proximate causes for this, which are interconnected in a complex web of cause and effect. Read the rest of this entry »

Why no great social democratic thinkers?

One interesting point that Tim Soutphommasane made in his Weekend Australian article is that social democracy has

never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of [its] principles.

There is nobody with the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, or a range of thinkers in the liberal tradition: Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek. In my political identity survey, more than half of the classical liberal respondents said they had read each of the major liberal thinkers (though I did not ask about Locke).

Tim ends up suggesting John Rawls as the closest social democrats get, but notes that he was an American left-liberal rather than an identifying social democrat. And while Rawls may achieve great thinker status within academia, he is not widely read outside academia by social democrats or anyone else. I found his The Theory of Justice heavygoing; much less accessible than the other liberal books. Read the rest of this entry »

The left sensibility

The Australian is running a series of articles on left-wing politics, called ‘What’s left?’. The answer so far is that more than a set of specific beliefs the left is a particular sensibility.

This idea is most explicitly argued for in Dennis Glover’s contribution this morning:

social democracy springs from an enduring but mysterious human desire to create a better society, the challenge for social democrats today isn’t just to produce a newer and smarter program but to appeal to this moral and political impulse on an emotional as well as rational basis. It has to show passion and character, not just logic.

Glover argues that this desire goes back to the start of Western civilization in ancient Greece. The form it takes varies a lot. What was needed to improve the lives of, say, the 19th century working class is very different to the concerns social democrats have today. But the moral impulses are similar.

For Julia Gillard, the left-wing impulse is emotional:

Even when I was at school, … I had a sense of what I thought was right and wrong in a values sense. Instinctively at home, Labor was our team. Even more importantly than the events, we’d talk about the values behind what was happening in the news. A sense of indignation has always burned in me about what happened to my father [who missed out on higher education]. (emphasis added)

Read the rest of this entry »

Jan Palach RIP

Jan Palach

Memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, and millions of other victims of communism. Picture taken in Wenceslas Square, Prague, 12 August 2009

Palach, followed by Zajic a month later, burnt himself to death in January 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion to crush the Prague Spring.

There is so much to see in this beautiful city that I have not done as much political history tourism as I would have liked, but I did take a photo of this memorial to two brave young men.