“If you’re a university student and you’re not a communist, start worrying. And if you’ve left university and you’re still a communist, start worrying,” someone once told me. In my case, there was no cause for anxiety. At university, I initially drifted into a lukewarm flirtation — including a bizarre and mercifully brief championing of Joseph Stalin — with left-wing ideologies. Over time, this gradually dissipated as my innate conservatism asserted itself. The process was accelerated by my mounting distaste at the rigidly dogmatic, judgmental and morally inconsistent nature of those who had set themselves up as the guardians of what was supposed to be the truth and ideological purity. It came as a bit of a shock to realise that traditional liberal thought was as unwelcome in left-wing circles as it was in right-wing ones.

During the late 1980s, it was relatively easy to affix “left” and “right” labels on people. The more you were opposed to apartheid and supportive of the underground liberations movements, the more left you were. It went without saying that any support for the ruling National Party made one a right-winger, although in reality merely to question the correctness — moral or otherwise — of the direction the Struggle was taking made one a suspected rightist during those McCarthyist times.

All this begs the question: Do the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” have any applicability in South Africa today, 15 years after the demise of apartheid? Indeed, do they have any applicability anywhere, now that international communism has been so thoroughly defeated and discredited? Finally, some would argue that the distinction between “left” and “right” was always as meaningless as it was artificial, and should be jettisoned.

Andrew Kenney, writing in the February 5 2005 issue of The Spectator, argues the latter case rather persuasively. Just what exactly distinguishes a left from a right point of view, he asks? If it is related to state control of the economy as opposed to the free market, then how does one explain right-wing regimes like Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, where the economy was heavily state-controlled? If being on the left is to be internationalist in outlook, why is there such opposition to globalisation in traditional leftist circles? Why was it Oswald Moseley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, who was so vociferous in advocating a massive increase in public spending when this was supposedly a socialist leftist concern?

An extraordinarily successful intellectual sleight of hand by those considering themselves of the leftist persuasion has been to position themselves as the voices of justice and human rights, the champions of the weak against the tyranny of the strong, and the implacable opponents of racism and colonialism. In debunking this, Kenney cites the example of Pol Pot in Cambodia, whose extreme version of communism resulted in acts of genocide proportionally on a par with Hitler’s. These crimes, it hardly need be said, elicited a fraction of the moral outrage that resulted from the United States’ vastly lesser misdeeds in Vietnam.

The left’s inconsistency goes beyond mere silence in the face of atrocities by those not on its ideological hit-list. There are numerous examples of its spokespeople openly acting as apologists for tyrannical regimes, be these Lenin and Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s Red China, Castro’s Cuba or Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong. Today, one sees consistent solidarity shown by left-wing academics, politicians and journalists for radical Islamist movements (British MP George Galloway and former London mayor Ken Livingstone are two especially egregious examples, but there are countless others). As a result, Israel and the United States are more hated on the left than Al Qaeda and its gruesome proponents. All too clearly, if there is a difference between left and right, it has nothing to do with opposition to oppression and injustice.

Since reading Kenney’s article, I have wrestled unsuccessfully with the question of how to distinguish between “left” and “right” modes of thinking and behaviour, because notwithstanding his arguments, I remain convinced that there is such a distinction.

One theory I mulled over was that it is perhaps characteristic of the right that it supports traditional religion and the norms and values it encapsulates whereas the left rejects it. Once could cite in support of this such historical examples as the White faction in Russia and the Nationalists in Spain in those countries’ respective civil wars and also our own “Christian National” apartheid regime. That being said, why was Nazi Germany, surely the quintessential tyranny of the right, so overtly opposed to traditional religion (including the “Jewish disease” of Christianity?).

Another possible distinction is that rightists are essentially conservative, suspicious of change to the existing order, whereas leftists tend to be iconoclastic, forever seeking to usher in new and supposedly more advanced norms and institutions. Plausible as this seemed at first, it fell to the ground when I considered how intolerant the left can be when its own basic assumptions are questioned, how very thoroughly it closes ranks to quash heretical views and how dissident voices are sidelined and discredited.

All in all, I’m at sea on this whole question. Can anyone out there help me out?


David Saks

David Saks

David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African...

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