Basics of a New Left

The following essay is from 2018 and was written by the author shortly after the election of Ms Rendi-Wagner as the new chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party of Austria.


The political left - whatever that may be; we will devote ourselves later to an attempt at a definition - is in crisis, and has been so for some time, since, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The collapse of the Eastern bloc has led the population to believe that Karl Marxens teachings have been definitively refuted; the classic recipes of the left have failed, that they cannot work. Although Marxism was by no means historically the only variety of socialism that existed, for some reason it had largely established itself within the political left - probably because it was the most radical of all. This Marxist monoculture led, in the eyes of many observers, to a refutation of socialism as a whole after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The only question that arose was what alternatives the left-wing parties, which had always presented themselves as the representatives of the interests of the workers, now had. In Austria, there was still a party in power in the nineties that initially called itself socialist, but no longer pursued Marxist politics; after all, Marx's teaching also included the "abolition of private ownership of means of production," that is, the nationalization of all enterprises. But what the SPÖ did in the 1990s was exactly the opposite: the privatization of numerous state-owned enterprises took place. This was the reason why Chancellor and party leader Vranitzky decided to rename the SPÖ from "socialist" to "social democratic". But the exact difference between "socialism" and "social democracy" remained open. Only the turning away from the orthodox Marxist doctrine was a fact that could not be denied.

In my view, the crisis of the political left is such that, although they are no longer prepared to understand Marx's teachings, they have not yet formed a new foundation capable of supporting a movement dedicated to representing the interests of workers. In addition, the political right has largely taken over opinion leadership in the print media. Here in Austria, for example, many people have allowed themselves to be misled by the views of Andreas Unterberger; under the Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann who belonged to the SPÖ, this man was even editor-in-chief of the Wiener Zeitung, the official organ of the Republic. Was there no man on the left in the camp with comparable abilities who could become editor-in-chief of the Wiener Zeitung under an SPÖ-chancellor like Unterberger? I suspect that I was not the only one to ask myself this question.

This text is intended as an attempt to give new foundations to the political left as a representation of the interests of the economically active population.

Historical development of reality and ideology

Marx has written that in human society since ancient times there has always been a class of people who have ruled and exploited another class.

The modern nation states of today have their basis in the Middle Ages. At that time they were still association states. The actual rulers were the sovereigns, whose private ownership the respective countries were de facto. This property also included the people who lived in these countries - they were serfs.

This feudal system faded away only with the Enlightenment and later with the burgeoning liberalism of the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution created a working class in the cities that was de jure "free", but de facto wage-dependent. Working and living conditions prevailed which are hardly imaginable in this country today: Job-work between two and sixteen hours a day, plus hunger, which was just enough to survive; it was not possible for ordinary workers to call on capital and prosperity through thrift. The early Socialists thought about how these economic dependencies could be mitigated, thus extending their thinking beyond liberalism, which was only concerned with the abolition of political dependencies.

There wasn't just one, there were different socialisms. Don't forget, for example, that the ideology of the German SPD is primarily to be found in Lassalle and not in Marx. The fact that so many socialists later referred to Marx may be due to the fact that Marx was the most radical thinker of all.

After the two world wars, the world was divided into a capitalist West and a communist East. Although socialist parties were temporarily in power in the West in some countries as well, no ruler of a Western country seriously questioned the basic order of a market economy.

The "real existing socialism" of the East collapsed partly because of the horrendous national debt; the governments of these countries were simply no longer able to service their creditors. But anyone who believes that the peaceful revolutions in the East came about spontaneously without the influence of the West must be quite naïve.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States of America in particular has been forcing globalization. New markets are to be opened up, customs dismantled and free trade agreements signed with as many states as possible. The European Union should also be seen in this context. The dividing line between the various political strands has shifted in part from "employee-friendly versus employer-friendly" to "globalists versus advocates of nation-state solutions", with some of these boundaries passing through the parties.

A second recent development is increasing automation and digitization. The enormous progress that Artificial Intelligence has made in the last five years raises many questions. Will not only manual workers but also academics soon be replaced by machines? Will education still protect us from unemployment in the future? What perspective do we want to give to those people who "nobody needs anymore"? These are precisely the issues that responsible politicians should take care of. In this respect, it may no longer be quite contemporary if the left concentrated only on the working people.

What's "left"?

My personal definition of "left" policy is: it is a policy that primarily benefits the broad mass of working people, especially those working people who do not have their own private property in means of production. Secondly, there is politics that seeks to overcome the opposition between the "ruling" class and the "serving" class: All people should at least be equal before the law; it would be ideal if they also met each other in real life on equal terms.

The fact is that there is a Babylonian linguistic diversity in the political discourse. Only recently I read a book by the former German SPD politician Peter Glotz in which he wrote that under "links" he understood, among other things: advocacy for the rule of law and human rights, democracy instead of tyranny, rational thinking and acting. These are all things that I, as a liberal, also advocate and which I had until then rather classified under the term "liberalism". Obviously, terms like "left", "right" and "liberal" are obviously blurred; it could easily be that someone who sees himself as a left thinks in reality just like someone who sees himself as a liberal, and the only difference is that the two people use different terminologies.

Basics of a New Left

The end of the Cold War has, as one can often read in the media, brought about an age of a new performance orientation. This means that criteria such as "efficiency" are playing an increasingly important role in the economy; attempts are being made to "optimise" processes in and around the company; employees are regarded as "human resources", not as people; employees can be exchanged or dismissed at will when they are no longer needed. Often the keyword "social coldness" is also used.

The fact is that many commentators wrote after the fall of the Berlin Wall that it was now finally proven that socialism would not work. It has been forgotten, however, that public debt is also a major problem in Western countries; as the example of Greece showed a few years ago, even a country fundamentally governed by market principles can become insolvent and ungovernable. However, it seems to me that the collapse of the Eastern bloc was simply a pretext for many right-wing political forces to push through their agenda.

What unites rights in all heterogeneity is the rejection of the view that all people are equal (at least before the law). Thus it is clear that even a New Left must first and foremost push the principle of equality (before the law). But at the same time it must not leave the principle of freedom to the rights without a fight. The simple equation "left is equality, right is freedom" is too simple to be true or to be allowed to be true. Because: Inequality is by no means synonymous with freedom - on the contrary! In the end, serfs are anything but free people.

If, for example, the social democracy in Austria attaches the four values "freedom, equality, justice, solidarity" to its flags, then at least in principle it is already on the right track.

It is not enough for the left to position itself as an antithesis to so-called "neoliberalism" (a Marxist combat term). One must not only be against something, one must also be for something. But: one can argue, for example, that "efficiency" is not the decisive factor; what is decisive is rather effectiveness. What counts is what comes out in the end. The means used to achieve this end are secondary (as long as they are admissible). The disadvantage of trying to achieve the highest possible "efficiency" and "optimisation" of work processes is that it puts pressure on the participants, creates stress, causes illness and thus weakens the performance of the participants, so that in the end the result is often worse than if you had not tried to achieve "efficiency".

In order to counter the view of people as "human resources" with something, the New Left must gain clarity about its own image of man; it must perceive man as a holistic being to whom not only the will to perform and the ability to perform are added; the main thing is that the human being is not only a person's will and ability to perform, but also his or her needs, wishes, desires, and desires; people have both "brains" and "hearts," everyone has different interests and passions; one cannot reduce people to qualifications and lifelong aspirations alone. The question arises as to whether changes in the school system might be necessary in order to focus on the aspects of being human that have been neglected so far.

A New Left must also take to heart what many liberals are burning for, namely that people like to have the freedom to think for themselves, to think about everything possible of their own and also to express it, put it on paper or discuss it with other people. Freedom of expression must not be allowed only within a narrow "framework". If the New Left is committed to tolerance, then it must also tolerate strongly divergent opinions, which some readers, emotionally speaking, could bring "to the palm of their hand". Admittedly, this does not mean that the New Left should refrain from regaining opinion leadership in the media. It should only be clear to itself that liberal parties are also supported by those who have nothing to do with meaning and what Marxists call "neoliberalism", and who would certainly be willing to support a coalition government with left-wing parties if they were more "open to the world" and "tolerant" of "strangers".

The New Left must also think about all those who are unable to participate actively in the acquisition process, whether because of a disability or simply because they cannot find employment. It has already been demanded from many sides to introduce an "unconditional basic income". I don't want to say that this idea of wisdom is the last conclusion, but it is at least to think about how to make a humane existence possible for those excluded from the acquisition process. In any case, it is untruthful to claim that the welfare state is unaffordable: in fact, state social benefits currently account for only a fraction of the budget; much more money is spent on pensions than on social welfare.

It is also a fact that Marx's demand for the "abolition of private ownership of means of production" has become obsolete. If the state were really the only employer, from an employee's point of view it would have enormous disadvantages: if for some reason it were to make fun of its superior, it would have no chance of switching to another employer. That alone is reason enough, in my view, to finally say goodbye to Marxism.

Marx's demand for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" must also be rejected. It may well be that he did not necessarily mean a dictatorship of Soviet influence, but simply that the working class should take power in the state. Basically, however, I find it unacceptable that anyone should rule anyone else. The principle of rule should at best be replaced by the principle of leadership: A leader is someone who, through his personal example, shows other people what a good way of life looks like. No one should dominate anyone; there should at most be people who serve others as role models and thus offer them guidance.

In addition, the New Left must be clear whether it supports or opposes globalisation. Disagreement can be observed in this respect. Some leftists, such as Hans-Peter Martin or parts of the Green Party, are very critical of globalisation. Others, on the other hand, seem to be open to it, perhaps because one wants to distance oneself from the nationally minded right. As long as there are still nation states, the Left should insist that national law be observed in the international movement of goods and money, i.e. that the taxes incurred in a country are actually paid in that country. From the Left's point of view, at any rate, the abolition of interstate differences must not be at the expense of employees. That is clear.

If one takes into account the points I have mentioned, then one has laid the foundations of a New Left that can claim to represent the rights of the working population without resorting to Marxist recipes.

Claus Volko, MD MSc

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