The Telegraph is celebrating the Labour Conference by listing Britain’s 100 most influential Leftwingers.
The first two individuals are Gordon Brown (natch) and Tony Blair. One is a recognition of the reality: the other, the Cheshire cat of British politics, (disappeared except for the rictus grin): a nod at “legacy”. The precedence of one, at least, will be gone in a twelve-month.
The bronze medal spot disturbs Malcolm: Alex Salmond. This takes the Scot Nats on their face value, as a self-declared party of the Left. Malcolm demurs from reciting his numerous objections to Salmond and the Tartan Tories of the SNP being “Left”. If it were so, it would be a world’s first for an oil economist and his paid creature of a major Bank.
After that it’s a beauty parade of Cabinet Ministers, political advisers, union bosses, the usual suspect journos, a couple of Greens, with the odd nod at blue-sky merchants on the way. All the way down to Blasted Pilger as la lanterne rouge.
A real curiosity is Gerry Adams (number 85): that must represent a double mischief, in putting him on a ‘British’ Left-list and so low down, too. Malcolm would have thought that Máirtín Mag Aonghusa deserved at least at much acknowledgement.
And there’s Billy Bragg (number 80) as “one of the party’s elder statesman” [sic]. Bragg’s proposal for sorting the Upper House has some validity. His songs are worth half an ear. Malcolm would suggest that, in the scheme of things outside the Metropolitan bubble, Dick Gaughan has been at least as significant.
Fortunately, these exercises are little more than page-fillers, inflating the vanity of those who need such, but inevitably ignoring claims of many worthier bods. Were they to be taken seriously, as a kind of check-list for precedence on Lenin’s Tomb, that would be a nightmare.
All Malcolm can add is it kept him amused for a few moments, before he returned to real life.
Far more significant is the issue which prefaced the list, the problem of definition: what is the Left?
Until 20 years ago the answer would have been straightforward – to be on the left meant believing that the state could transform society into a more equal place. Today being on the left cannot be reduced to this formula because many of those who would see themselves as “left” have little time for state intervention, let alone ownership of industry or direct taxation or even equality.
Perhaps the left should be defined as “radical” or “progressive”. But such a definition is hard to sustain in an era in which revolutions have come from the right—the Thatcher revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union for example.
That caused some serious harumphing from Malcolm. He accepts that the term “Left” may be degraded, even over-elastic (as this list proves), but there remains one essential shibboleth: that little word ‘equality’.
Malcolm tends to the antinomial at the best of times, but here his differentiation is precise. The Left/Right thing is not a dead metaphor. Let him recapitulate. The conceit come from the French Revolutionary Convention of 1792-94, and refers to where in the Chamber the factions seated themselves. On the Right were the Girondists. On the Left, the Montagne (named because they occupied the higher benches). A fuller description looks like this:
The Girondists were the party of orderly progress, sweetness and light the men who dreaded all violent, i.e., energetic measures… Such men, however well-intentioned they may be, must always in the long run become the tools of reaction from their timidity and hesitancy. The Girondists desired a doctrinaire republic, led by the professional middle-classes, the lawyers and literateurs. Their main strength lay in the provinces, the name being derived from the department of the Gironde, whence some, of their chief men came…
The Mountainists advocated uncompromising revolutionary principles (besides aiming to some extent, at economic equality) a vigorous policy and strong centralisation in, opposition to the Girondists, who favoured strictly middle-class republicanism, a timid and vacillating policy, and federalisation, or local autonomy. The struggle between the Mountain and the Gironde was in part a struggle for supremacy between Paris and the departments.
So far, so good? Fair enough. That section of Malcolm’s argument is hereby dedicated to Bob Mitchell, distinguished son of Kinnegad, in the County Westmeath, and MA of Trinity College, Dublin, who maintained that, “History began in 1789, and everything earlier was archaeology.” And then went off to study medieval trade routes.
Malcolm now humbly submits that adherence to Liberté, égalité, fraternité is as good a way as any to define a Leftist.
Fortunately, the Declaration of the Rights of Man is quite clear about two of these ideals:
- Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These bounds may be determined only by Law [Article 4].
- The Law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to take part, personally or through their representatives, in its making. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes [Article 6].
The fraternité bit amounts to: Do as you would be done by.
According to wikipedia, the French did not get their motto until later:
it was only in 1848 that Pierre Leroux revived the phrase. Pache, mayor of the commune of Paris, painted the formula “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la mort” on the walls of the commune. It was under the Second Republic that it took on its final form and only under the Third Republic was the motto made official.
There’s something seriously confusing there. Jean-Nicholas Paché was Mayor of Paris in 1793-4 and originally a Girondist. He is not to be confused (as a casual reading of that quotation might do) with the Mayor during the 1871 Commune: Jules Ferry, later twice Prime Minister in the 1880s.
Pierre LeRoux could qualify as the original woolly Christian Socialist. He is often credited for giving the French the word “socialisme” in 1834. English had recognised “socialist” the year before, when it appeared in The Poor Man’s Guardian of 24th August. There are earlier uses of “socialisme” (for example The Globe of 13th February 1832), but there it implies the antithesis to “personnalité”. The Encyclopedia Britannica believes that Robert Owen’s followers were using “socialism” by the later 1830s.
The motto was current in Paris by 1793, and was undoubtedly widely displayed, and painted on walls. It was not original: Fénelon made the connection in the later 17th century. Robespierre was proposing it as a national motto in 1790.