Firstly it needs to be explained why the word 'Leftist' has been used in the title rather than the word 'communist' or 'socialist'. The main reason for this is that - in his account of Leftism - the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (“the inventor of postmodern theory”) goes back to the French Jacobins of the period 1789 to 1794. The first self-conscious uses of the word 'socialist', on the other hand, date back only to the 1820s.
Secondly, Lyotard died before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the British Labour Party. In fact he died 17 before that event – in 1998. That simply means that I've taken the liberty to extend Lyotard's ideas and apply them to Corbyn and to other contemporary contexts.
As for the focus on Jacobins. There's a very broad consensus that Leftism can be dated back to the Jacobins. More specifically, the terms 'Left' and 'Right' were first used during the Jacobin phase (which included “the Reign of Terror”) of the French Revolution (i.e., 1789 to 1794).
Traditionally, and going back to the Jacobins, Leftists have always supported “social equality” and “egalitarianism”. They've also been against “social hierarchy” and “inequality”. Leftists also posit themselves as being morally and/or politically concerned with the “disadvantaged” and with “social justice” generally. Thus even today there's a very popular pro-Corbyn and self-consciously Leftist website called Jacobin. (Jacobin has the tagline “Reason in Revolt” - see later section on Jacobin Reason.)
Thus if one reads the positions of the Jacobins in the 1790s, then one will quickly see that they're almost perfect forerunners of what Jeremy Corbyn believes in 2017.
Like Maximilian Robespierre, Corbyn is very much in favour of the Rousseauian “social contract”. (Or in its contemporary offspring, “social justice”.) So, for example, here's Robespierre talking about merchants:
"I denounce the assassins of the people to you and you respond, 'let them act as they will.' In such a system, all is against society; all favors the grain merchants.”
Think here of Corbyn's soundbite: “For the many, not for the few.” The quote above also expresses Corbyn's views on “bankers”, “Tories”, etc.
More relevantly, like the Jacobins, Corbyn is an economic and political interventionist. To the Jacobins and Corbyn, the collective/state always comes first. Presumably that's why Corbyn wants to be Prime Minister and not a street activist, a cloak-and dagger revolutionary, or a “social entrepreneur”.
Leftism is a Religion
The similarities between Leftism and religion can often be obvious and explicit. That's certainly the case when it came to the Jacobin revolutionaries. In fact the Jacobins acknowledged the religious nature of their revolutionary Leftism.
Take this historical account (found in the book Toward the Post-Modern) from Jean-François Lyotard:
“Officially, dechristianisation opens the way to solemn ceremonies such as the Festival of Reason on 10 November 1793 in Notre-Dame and the Festival of the Supreme Being on 8 June 1794 in the Champ de Mars.”
Of course this wasn't a strictly philosophical use of the word Reason. During the French Revolution it was believed that Reason was expressed in republican Leftism. Leftism, as it were, instantiated Reason. Indeed Jacobinism was Reason made flesh. (Today Jeremy Corbyn's radical socialism is seen – by Corbynites - as making equality, tolerance, peace, etc. flesh.)
In the late 18th century, the religious nature of Leftism was even more extreme than the quote above suggests.
According to Lyotard again, “truly Catholic processions enter the Convention only to be transformed into republican parades”. In other words, the Jacobins weren't hiding (or disguising) the fact that they'd obliterated Catholicism only to substitute it with another - better – religion: Leftist Jacobinism.
As for religious “processions”, we can see this kind of thing during the rallies/meetings of Corbyn's supporters when many Corbynites look intently – and often with watery eyes - into the eyes of their very own patron saint: Saint Jeremy of Islington. You can also see it at the meetings and final get-togethers of the Socialist Workers' Party's annual Marxism “festivals” in London. What we have there the singing of the Red Flag hymn, the holding of hands, collective homogeneity/ecstasy, socialist iconography and so on.
The Jacobinism of the Bolsheviks
Let's move forward to 1921 and the Bolsheviks.
In 1921 (i.e., when the Bolsheviks were actually doing their stuff), Bertrand Russell wrote (in his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism) that
"Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures".
Thus if we have a religion (with its “elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures”), then we must also have both the followers of these scriptures as well as their interpreters. Lenin was one such follower and interpreter. According to Russell:
"When Lenin [whom Russell actually visited] wishes to prove some proposition, he does so, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Engels."
Today you can still come across such blind faith in sacred Marxist texts.
For example, you often hear Trotskyists and communists saying: "What was Lenin’s position on Islam and Muslims?" (As if Lenin would - by definition - have insightful and profound things to say about such things.) If you go to a SWP conference (or check its agenda on the Internet), you'll see titles such as ‘What did Marx think about Sadomasochistic sex?’, or ‘What is the Leninist position on 19th century Italian opera?’. I've also seen Marxist books and lectures on things as diverse and esoteric as quantum physics and chaos theory.
And along with sacred Marxist texts and religious personas, you must also have dogma and dogmatism. According to Russell, the communist
"is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs – such as philosophical materialism, for example – which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty".
Moreover, that dogmatism and zealotry serves a purpose. Russell writes:
"it cannot be denied that, over any short period of time, dogmatic belief is a help in fighting. If all Communists become religious fanatics, while supporters of capitalism retain a sceptical temper, it may be assumed that the Communists will win…"
Thus it's no surprise that to Russell "Marxian Communism" itself
"ha[d] the fixed certainty of Catholic theology, not the changing fluidity and sceptical practicality of modern science".
Except, of course, that Marx himself believed that he was a scientist – even if a social and economic scientist. Indeed all Marxists stressed the scientific nature of Marxism until the 1960s. After that period, Marxist “scientism” began to become largely unfashionable. (However, various communist parties - along with communists themselves – often retained the belief that Marxism is a science.)
The fact is that Marxism is the exact opposite of a science precisely because it owes more to religion than it does to science. Indeed, as implied, the only people who ever thought that Marxism is a science were… well, Marxists.
Russell even made a strong connection between the Bolsheviks and the Cromwellian puritans. He said that communists "are not unlike the Puritan soldiers in their stern politico-moral purpose".
Russell also claimed that the early Bolsheviks had "a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahomet". In what sense? In that
"opposition is crushed without mercy, and without shrinking from the methods of the Tsarist police, many of whom are still employed at their old work".
The Manichean battle between good and evil was seen - by these early communists - as being between capitalism and the working class (or the “revolutionary vanguard” of the working class). Such communists believed that
"all evils are due to private property, the evils of the Bolshevik regime while it has to fight private property will automatically cease as soon as it has succeeded… These views are the familiar consequences of fanatical belief".
That meant that the banning of free speech, the use of violence, the Gulag, etc. were all seen as being necessary when it came to fighting capitalist evil; just as violence and bannings are still necessary today when fighting “fascists”, “Nazis”, “racists”, “neoliberals”, capitalists, “the far Right”, Ukip, right-wing academics and even “Tories”.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault also stressed the faith which many Leftists have in various socialist/Leftist truths. Some of these “truths” were even known – by some Leftists themselves - to be falsehoods. (At least in their heart of hearts.) However, to paraphrase Karl Marx: The point is to change the world, not to interpret it. Truth, therefore, doesn't matter. What matters is bringing about “progressive” or “revolutionary change”. Thus Foucault said (as quoted in James Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault) that Leftists are
“obliged to stand behind… facts that are totally beyond credibility”.
This Leftist self-abasement and knowing subversion of truth “was part of that exercise of the dissolution of the self” for the various communist parties; as well as for Leftist causes. As I said, changing the world is what matters; not truth or knowledge.
In a similar manner, Lyotard quotes Jules Michelet thus:
“A prodigious act of Jacobin faith. They denied the sun at midday. And this was believed. The medieval affirmation of Catholic faith ('This bread is not Bread, it is God.') is no more forceful... Such is the robust faith of the new Jacobins.”
The best example of this is the Leftist's utter faith in a future utopia. Of course it's highly embarrassing – nowadays - to use the actual word utopia. Nonetheless, utopia is hinted at in almost everything the Leftist utters.
Despite that, Marxists and post-19th-century socialists have always congratulated themselves for not being utopians. Yet the very zealous and fundamentalist attitude they have to all things non-socialist (as well as their often implied promises of a better – even perfect - future) are simply a disguised utopianism: a utopianism which dare not speak its name. After all, the actual utopians - in the early 19th century - were all "bourgeois reformists”. Thus how could a Marxist or Leftist also be a utopian? (Do you know who said that “revolutionary socialists” can't be utopians? It was Marx himself.)
In what sense, then, is Marxism/Leftism utopian?
Let’s just think about the heaven on earth Leftists hint at, rather than state. Here again Leftism's religious nature shows itself.
Take communism. What does communism promise? According to Bertrand Russell:
"It promises glorious things: an end to injustice of rich and poor, an end to economic slavery, and end to war. It promises an end of the disunion of classes which poisons political life and threatened our industrial system with destruction… It promises a world where all men and women shall be kept sane by work, and where all work shall be of value to the community…"
The other classic example of Leftist faith is what happened when Marx's apocalyptic prophesies and theories all turned out to be false. What happened? Yes, as everyone now knows, Marxists still kept the faith. That is, they qualified Marx's prophesies and theories. These qualified prophesies and theories were also, in turn, shown to be false. Then those qualifications of qualifications were also qualified... So much so that Marx's ideas are still debated – e.g., in the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Independent - and still seen as being “relevant and important”.
Other articles of Leftist faith include:
The moral/political purity and homogenity of all ethnic minorities and (formerly) the working class.
That the rich are rich because the poor are poor.
That capitalism is in crisis and therefore that it will end sometime next week.
That capitalism invented racism and can't exist without it.
That blacks can't be racist,
That there are infinite funds for the all public services.
That “the rich” and “Tories” are evil. (This is another word – like 'utopia' - that's rarely used; though it's very often hinted at or implied.)
Another important article of Leftist faith is in the Collective (hence the Germanic/platonic capital).
This fantasy of a Collective (or of Lyotard's “political body”) has been with us since the Jacobins. Lyotard states:
“If the body of the Republic in the autumn of 1973 is a monster, it lives on in many other times...”
This belief in the homogeneity of the Collective is commented upon - in reference to the Jacobins again - by Lyotard. He tells us that
“the political body is a monster composed of a unified organism and a plurality of drives that are incompatible both with it and with each other... the 'body' is dislocated by the divergent drives that course through (or rather constitute) all of its surfaces”.
Yet the homogeneous nature of both friends and enemies is required by the Left. In contemporary terms, the Left is as dependent upon positive and negative stereotypes as any other political group – perhaps more so.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard also comments on this Leftist reification of the Collective, classes and groups. In his In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Lyotard wrote:
“One says: ‘the mass of the workers.’ But the mass is never that of the workers, nor any other social subject or object… The mass is without attribute, predicate, quality, reference. This is its definition. It has no sociological ‘reality’. It has nothing to do with any real population, body or specific social aggregate.”
Baudrillard's quote show us that just as individualists are said to obliterate the collective, so collectivists – in turn - obliterate the individual. Of course there are shades of grey between complete and partial obliteration. In the Soviet Union there was a strong attempt to obliterate the individual. Pol Pot's Jacobins went even further. (For example, the very act of wearing glasses betrayed one's “individualistic bourgeois” origins.) In our own day, Corbyn's stress on a class war against “the rich”, the “Tories”, “bankers”, etc. can't help by attempt to obliterate – at least to some extent – the individual on the sacred alter of his socialist collectivism.
The Leftist's Will-to-Death/Power
The Leftist's fight against evil, “intolerance” and “hate” (as it's also called nowadays) nearly always includes evil, intolerance and hate. Lyotard cites the Jacobin Robespierre:
“When Robespierre sets the guillotine into motion in the name of the Republic's safety, it is without doubt due to a very 'erotic' passion for the organic unity of the social body, but it also through the opposite desire to blow it to pieces, even if this means that he will himself perish.”
In other words, there are always profoundly decent and moral reasons for Leftist violence, censorship, bannings, etc. After all, if the enemy is the personification of evil, then not only is violence required – it's necessary! That's was why the mass class/ethnic “liquidations” - of kulaks, “counterrevolutionaries”, “fascists”, “reactionaries” and “conservatives” - were carried out without any qualms or second thoughts by communists/socialists.
This Leftist fixation on violence is summed on when Lyotard quotes Michelet again:
“'In 1793, love appeared as it is: the brother of death.'”
Moreover, during “the intensity of autumn 1793” there was “the intersection of life and death instincts upon the body”. We also saw this in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, China from 1966 to the early 1970s, Cuba from 1959 to 1961 and Cambodia in 1975.
Lyotard also quotes Mona Ozouf saying that
“'the revolutionary festival is exactly what it is meant to be: the beginning of new times”.
Moreover, we also had “the Jacobin desire that time actually be measured from the constitutive act of the Republic”.
Thus, as in Cambodia in 1975, the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution was also a Year Zero. Indeed this has been the aim of every Leftist revolution right up to Jeremy Corbyn. Of course, as stated, they come in degrees. Yet Corbyn himself is often keen to say how much he wants to “radically change” the United Kingdom. How different is radical change from destruction? To paraphrase Lenin: How can an the omelette of radical change be brought about without breaking very many heads?
None of this should surprise us because, according to Lyotard, Leftist “social strife” or activism is “always itself expressed as the struggle for another, more organic society”. In other words, the road to a “classless society” (or a society without “austerity”, racism, war, intolerance and violence) will almost inevitably include mass violence, much suffering and many deaths.