The Left has confronted the same problem since it acquired that name, over 225 years ago: how to strike a balance between pragmatism and idealism, pursuing what people need to live better now without forgetting what they might want in a world less needy. It’s remarkable how little progress has been made towards achieving this goal.
Pragmatists are excoriated for selling both those they speak for and themselves short; idealists for pricing their plans for the future too high to sell them to much of anyone. It was that way in 1790, 1848, 1871, 1919, 1968, and 1989 and it’s still that way now. No matter how hard a movement may strive not to favor the short over the long term or vice versa, external pressures ineluctably drive them to make a choice.
Will you work together with moderates against reactionaries or hold out for a true revolution? Participate in a flawed electoral process or wait for right-sized communities to congregate under a tree? Reconcile yourself with the argument that we are more interested in our own comfort than other people’s or insist that we rise to the standard of our better natures?
This advertising campaign for Die Linke, the leftist party that emerged from the former East Germany, makes a very clear choice for pragmatism. “Revolution? No, just up-to-date: 10 Euro minimum wage immediately by law, 1050 Euro minimum pension, the introduction of a millionaire tax, energy and rent affordable for everyone, a guaranteed minimum income instead of Hartz IV, forbidding weapon exports!”
It’s the sort of program to make Rosa Luxemburg turn fitfully in her grave, another iteration of the evolutionary socialism she despised. From her perspective, after one abandons the prospect of completely rearranging the social order, there won’t be much Left left over. Groups like the Red Army Faction of the 1970s pushed this line of thinking to an extreme, vowing to wage war not only conservatives but progressives with reformist tendencies as well. Even now, despite the reality checks that came with the end of the Cold War and the financial crisis that began in 2008, there are plenty of radicals in Germany, not to mention other parts of the developed world, who continue to advance this uncompromising attitude.
But it’s very difficult to convince ordinary people to sacrifice the betterment of their own lives for the creation of a better society. However sympathetic they might be with the idea of revolution, they usually hesitate when informed what it could cost them personally. Although letting reactionary forces further disassemble the welfare state might be the easiest way to revive the fortunes of left-wing radicalism, the consequences for those who benefit from its ministrations could be severe.
That helps to explain why Die Linke have steered a course into waters that Eduard Bernstein would have found too placid. Demanding an increase in the minimum wage or pension may have concrete effects, but it also serves to legitimize the system in which such thresholds are necessary. A revolutionary outlook, by contrast, would ask why such controls are necessary at all, wondering whether the concept of wages does not itself represent a hopeless ideological compromise.
It would also need to attend, as Marx and Engels insisted on doing, to international matters. Demanding that only Germans be given a minimum income is both less fair and less effective than demanding that every one in the Euro zone partake of that guarantee. To be sure, Die Linke has a set of goals for Brussels as well as Berlin. Yet the parochialism of its agenda is still painfully apparent. When the best hopes for fundamental change lie on the continent’s fringes, pushing to restore some of the social welfare benefits of Germany’s postwar boom can seem downright counter-productive.
Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photo courtesy of Joel Schalit.