Sunday 18 December 2016

In Defence Of Conservative Leftism.

Standing Up For Democratic Socialism: In the present political climate, speaking up for the Left’s core principles and the protection of the constitutional framework that makes such expression possible, should be the progressive movement’s top priorities.
“CONSERVATIVE LEFTISTS” espousing “conservative leftism” have become a thing. The term is applied (neither generously nor kindly) to those ageing members of the broader New Zealand Left whose understanding of progressive ideals was forged in the 1960s and 70s. Generally speaking, conservative leftists are depicted as political has-beens whose only continuing contribution to the progressive cause involves standing in its way.
Conservative leftists (among whom I proudly count myself) naturally dispute this extremely negative characterisation of their contribution. They would argue that, in the present political climate, speaking up for the Left’s core principles and the protection of the constitutional framework that makes such expression possible, should be the progressive movement’s top priorities.
Balancing individual rights against collective need has always been the Left’s most daunting challenge. Err too far in advancing the former and we end up like the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) in the 1980s. Advance too energetically the claims of the latter and we rehearse all the worst aspects of Soviet-style socialism and the Bolivarian populism of present-day Venezuela.
The political system which makes possible the simultaneous advancement of both individual rights and collective needs is representative democracy. Which is why the NZLP, in its post-war search for a term to distinguish its own political philosophy from the totalitarian Marxist-Leninist doctrines of the Soviets, hit upon the term “Democratic Socialism” (the promotion of which still constitutes one of Labour’s key objectives). That political parties are required to seek a popular mandate for their policies – and then have that mandate reaffirmed – militates against the sort of revolutionary extremism that, for nearly a century, has led so many people to associate socialism with regimentation and repression.
Conservative leftism’s unwavering commitment to democracy (and to all the patient political persuasion that goes with it) not only earns it the scorn of the revolutionary left, but also the enmity of the neoliberal right. This mutual loathing has, on occasion, given rise to some pretty unholy political alliances. Confronted with the unwillingness of the Pakeha majority to elect Maori to public office, for example, radical leftists have cheered on the Executive’s use of special appointments to by-pass the electoral process altogether.
This “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” approach to politics is deeply offensive to conservative leftists. If the history of the last forty years has taught us anything, it is that neoliberalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. The “governance” we hear so much about from neoliberal bureaucrats is a very different beast from the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that defines representative democracy. Neoliberals understand as well as conservative leftists the power of the democratic process to enforce an equitable balance between the demands of the market and the needs of the population – and they will go to almost any lengths to undermine it. Just ask the people of Canterbury.
Allowing the ruling class to pull off an end-run around democracy may work to the short-term advantage of the radical left on a limited number of highly contentious issues – like affirmative action – but in the long run such tactics can only weaken the institutions that make it possible for ordinary people to challenge their rulers. Conservative leftists would further argue that by offering no serious opposition to the radical left’s anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and pro-immigration agenda, neoliberalism has shown the politics of identity to be entirely compatible with extreme individualism and unfettered market freedom.
It should go without saying, but in the febrile atmosphere of contemporary leftism I suppose it must be stated explicitly, that the conservative left in no way resiles from its long and proud history of battling racism, sexism and homophobia. The dismantling of all legislative barriers to the full and equal participation of all citizens in the life of their communities is fundamental to the Left’s emancipatory narrative. Where conservative leftists part company with their more radical comrades, however, is over the degree to which the coercive powers of the state should be deployed to curb the expression of personal prejudice. State sanctions against hate speech may silence hateful expression, but they do not extinguish hatred itself. Hate is a patient and depressingly resilient human emotion. Just ask Donald Trump.
The conservative left’s wariness of asking the state to fight the progressive movement’s battles for it also extends to the foreign policy arena. Some of the most vituperative critics of conservative leftists are to be found among those radical left-wing “humanitarian interventionists” who, on the vexed issue of the Syrian Civil War, have argued themselves onto the side of western imperialism. They rail against the alleged hypocrisy of leftists who criticised the US invasion of Iraq, but have maintained an immoral silence over Russia’s support for the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Conservative leftism’s response is simple. Wars are such appalling things that the best foreign policy course is almost always to avoid getting into them. If war rages on nonetheless, then the next best course of action is to bring the fighting to an end. If this can be done by negotiation, then negotiate. If negotiation fails, then the next next best way to stop a war is to win it. This is exactly what Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are doing.
It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that those who cry: “Let justice be done though the heavens fall!” are seldom to be found living in the rubble. It is equally true that over the course of the last three unnecessarily bloody decades, western imperialism’s “humanitarian interventions” have created a great deal of rubble.
The conservative left’s unwavering purpose is to preserve progressivism as a movement with mass appeal. That means articulating and adapting the Left’s 250-year-old narrative about freedom, equality and solidarity to a post-modern age in which there is little patience for the grand narratives of the past. If Frederic Jameson is right, and post-modernism is indeed the “cultural logic of late capitalism”, then the system’s impatience with metanarratives is unsurprising. Stories are powerful things. Big stories show us how to live, and how to die. Even bigger stories teach us about the values that are worth living – and dying – for.
For the very good reason that it has freed and fed more people than any other grand narrative in human history, we conservative leftists will continue to guard closely the story of the Left.
A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Sunday, 18 December 2016.


Anonymous said...

Rather good.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" I suppose it must be stated explicitly, that the conservative left in no way resiles from its long and proud history of battling racism, sexism and homophobia. "

The only problem is, that many of the natural supporters of the Conservative left – the working class – are racist sexist and homophobic. "Battling" these prejudices actually can offend them. Luckily they seem to be becoming a smaller proportion of the population. At least in their outward expression of racism sexism and homophobia. Which is pretty much all we can ask unless we want to engage in social engineering. Not that I have any great objection to this. After all the conservative right have been very successful with it.

" State sanctions against hate speech may silence hateful expression, but they do not extinguish hatred itself."

Perhaps not, but unless we want to turn into thought police, all we can do is condemn and possibly punish people whose hatred expresses itself in speech. We can't really stop people from thinking bad stuff, but we condemn will stop them from expressing it in public.

"They rail against the alleged hypocrisy of leftists who criticised the US invasion of Iraq, but have maintained an immoral silence over Russia’s support for the government of Bashar al-Assad."

And so they damn well should. Vietnam and Afghanistan aside American interventions have been very quickly over with, while the Russian one has dragged on for some time. And the Russians are going to run into the same problem that the Americans have in Iraq and Afghanistan, establishing a stable society that people will at least tolerate. Otherwise it's going to be yet another running sore in the Middle East. Only not being an American mess of course, Wayne won't keep telling us that it's "stable".

Mark Hubbard said...

I don't agree with a lot of this Chris, and have no idea what your last two sentences of the seventh paragraph mean, but, re my two litmus tests of a free society, where does conservative leftism stand on a) euthanasia law, and b) legalisation of (at least) cannabis?

Victor said...

I’ve never had any difficulty reconciling philosophic conservatism with social democracy. To my mind, the former leads logically to the latter and not to the persistently inhumane, permanent revolution in our lives that is neo-liberalism.

Social democracy, as I see it, involves the defence and extension of all that is good in the social, economic, cultural and institutional achievements of our species, particularly as manifested over the last century and a bit. I suspect that you hold to a similar definition, even though you prefer to think of yourself as a democratic socialist rather than a social democrat.

Whatever we choose to call our beliefs, it’s easy to see why someone of conservative disposition should favour them over either rampant individualism or radical despotism. What’s not to like?

Primarily, social democracy is a creed for preserving and improving the specific societies in which we live. But “no man is an island” and, if the attainments we prize are to have any permanence, we also need to preserve and improve the international conventions and architecture that hold our world together and which are also part of the collective achievements of our species.

Amongst these achievements are international law as it relates to war (both ‘jus ad bello’ and ‘jus in bello’) along with the United Nations and its Charter.

From this perspective, it’s simply not good enough to say that wars that can’t be prevented need to be fought to the finish, without any respect for legality, proportionality, the lives of innocents caught in the crossfire or the vast array of subordinate international agreements that are meant to govern conflicts.

There is nothing remotely conservative or remotely social democratic about throwing out centuries of fragile, tenuous but never totally silenced attempts to place limits on the inherent awfulness of war. To affirm “no law except the sword, unsheathed and uncontrolled” is to deny crucial and valuable parts of our human heritage.

Nor is it good enough to keep repeating (dare I say, ad nauseam) your favoured mantra of the moment about those who cry “Let justice be done though the heavens fall!” seldom being found living in the rubble.

To affirm the importance of justice and humanity is not to pull down the heavens. It is merely to affirm the importance of justice and humanity. How will the world be better if we fail to affirm them?

Victor said...


I'm in essential agreement with the points you make.

But, from next month onwards, the US and Russia will be on the same side.

So such comparisons will lose some of their rhetorical force.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris

Victor might like to ridicule this

Cheers David JS

Nick J said...

Wonderful column Chris. Years back I agreed with the goals of revolutionary socialism but could never quite reconcile the methodology. That being compulsion where persuasion fails.

I have got into conflict on the blogs when being told how to think, labelled when I resisted. More often than not I have been in agreement but resistant to coercion and compulsion. So when a progressive liberal uses "must" and "can't" you are placed in a binary position of being forced to accept or disagree. And this use of verbal and doctrinal force leads only to real force. The progressive liberals quickly morph to lliberal doctrinaire authoritarians. Next step the gulag metaphorical or real.

So thank you Chris for flying the flag of the conservative Left. I'm pleased to be associated.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Is it just me, or are there ONLY two sentences in the seventh paragraph. And both seem fairly clear to me.

greywarbler said...

God rest ye merry gentlemen (and women) over Christmas so you can recharge your batteries and march like little toy soldiers in the worthy battle that Chris has described in his thinkpiece.

Sitting and talking with a generosity of spirit to achieve an end that is best for all and being willing to consider and give instead of demand to preset targets, would be a good change from the present. We have to get rid of the neolib approach of treating humanity as plastic refuse governed by base instincts, and its downplaying all our good qualities so the received view leaves us tarnished by the limited, avaricious minds of the cream of the psychopaths that have inveigled their way to the top.

May there be a long enough break in fighting to play a symbolic game of football, just to remind us of what humans really like doing when they get the chance. And while the game proceeds, may there be time for the civilians to leave, a civil gap for humans to care for the afflicted by war and a place where they can stay in safety, unbombed by heartless war controllers, or unskilled or uncaring killing contractors with various sorts of destructive machinery. My own father was a bomber pilot in WW2 and only one of his crew escaped their flaming plane. Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events should be a rare occurrence.

It is time that military spending was wound down to minimal, the height of it is a wound on the world, and a juggernaut that will roll over live bodies for a 'greater' goal. Keep in mind the individual when hearing of the overview. Perhaps Rachel's story is the best to review.

Chris Trotter said...

Fine sentiments, Victor, but how would you apply them in Aleppo?

If the people you are fighting are happy to use civilians both as human shields and propaganda tools (in which crime the western media has proved an eager accomplice) what alternative is there? Constantly resupplied by the Saudis and their Sunni allies, the Jihadis in East Aleppo have demonstrated repeatedly that, rather than surrender, they are prepared to extend the suffering of the civilian population more or less indefinitely.

The Syrian Government and their Russian and Iranian allies are doing nothing that the Allies of World War II (and the Americans in Korea and Vietnam) didn't teach them to do - and for the same reason - to bring the war to a speedy end.

Just read the latest reports emerging from the battle zone - of Jihadis burning the busses in which Shiite civilians were about to escape the fighting. Against such reckless hate, Victor, your fine sentiments count for nothing.

Morals are cheap, Comrade, when you don't have to pay the price of enforcing them.

Polly said...

"it has freed and fed more people" and I may add given social health care to countless millions of people.

A great article, well done.

Jens Meder said...

Congratulations Chris, for raising thoughts on Conservative Leftism, i.e. only moderately, not extremely (revolutionary) innovative Leftism, in association with the concept of Democratic Socialism, which obviously is somewhat different from our current Social Democracy because:

Since Socialism is defined as "social (govt.) ownership of the means of production" which in practice is bureaucratic (totalitarian?) govt. monopoly capitalism, then is that not clearly converted into democratic socialism through all citizens participating also in direct economic power ownership through at least a minimally meaningful level of individual capital ownership ?

In other words, are not all the conditions of egalitarian fairness and FULL DEMOCRACY with at least a measurable share of individual economic power and responsibility beside just a vote only - under the concepts of conservative leftism and democratic socialism -

perfectly fulfilled also by the "Ownership Democracy" or "People's Capitalism" concepts - at the easily recognizable absolute Centre on the traditional political spectrum based on the wealth ownership pattern ?

Charles E said...

Your point about first being entirely democratic is the key one, and so from my conservative right point of view your type of leftism is the only one I regard as legitimate. Everyone to your left tries to undermine democracy, and always complains about democracy when they once again lose an election.

But your final point is ludicrous, unless you say or 'admit' that regulated capitalism is an essential element of the conservative leftist system. However you fail to mention it at all. You say:
' has freed and fed more people than any other grand narrative in human history,.....'
Come off it. Capitalism is what did that. About 3 billion people lifted out of absolute poverty in the last 30 years by globalised free trade being ‘exploited’ by global capital. The conservative left mostly supported free trade so may make a claim to have contributed along with the centre right to it, but it was free market capitalism that did all the work essentially. And who were and still are the most avid proponents of that? Neo-liberals. Congratulations neo-liberalism, your invisible hand is now claimed to be holding the torches of the centre left & right. Now that is success!

Victor said...


We've already argued on several occasions about the Syrian imbroglio.

My position remains that there's nothing inherently desirable about a total victory for the Russo-Shi'ite alliance vis a vis a partial victory for the Sunni insurgents.

Both prospects are extremely unpleasant and neither prospect would facilitate peace in the wider region.

It also remains my position that pounding Aleppo to hell won't mean the end of the conflict. So the utilitarian justification for the pounding remains distinctly questionable.

But even if these were not my views, I would take issue with your belief that circumstances such as Syria's justify just about any degree of brutality on the part of the side you champion.

And so I ask you exactly what I ask friends and family in Israel, whenever the IDF storms into Gaza in disproportionate response to a sudden spike in terrorism, perpetrated, as often as not, by militants embedded in civilian populations, viz: "Just tell me what you're NOT entitled to do? What are the limits? There, surely must be some!"

Finally, the notion that we can dispense with the laws of war serves New Zealand particularly badly. Flout one part of Public International Law and you weaken the entire corpus. But where is a tiny, independent country such as ours to look for its ultimate safety if not to the law?

Victor said...

David Stone

I take no pleasure in "ridiculing" the questionable sources that you insist on parading before us, as if they contain a Holy Grail of ultimate truth hidden from us by the nefarious MSM.

Frankly, I'm more than a little bored by it.

In this case, you've chosen a website founded by someone who thinks (or at least thought) that 9/11 was a "False Flag" operation, which is probably hokum but not as palpably so as time travel.

But, assuming it's true, what does this latest story prove? Whoever thought that there weren't US, Saudi, Jordanian, Israeli etc operatives active in Syria? That's the small change of special ops that every country of any significance gets involved in wherever there's a trouble spot. So what?

Mind you, having Moroccans involved was a nice touch.

Victor said...

Actually, Charles, the countries where millions have been lifted out of poverty have all had very active state sectors.

Some are dictatorships and some nascent social democracies. And some have been a mixture of both. But I can't think of a single one which has been ruled by neo-liberals.

I agree, of course, that capitalism has played a major role in this transformation. But it's been capitalism as guided, regulated and enabled by the state.

Jens Meder said...

As Conservative Leftism includes personal capitalism as an essential tradition of it, it is clearly also a factor in the success of free market neo-liberalism - but by insisting on direct universal participation in capitalism , Democratic Socialism or Conservative Leftism can surpass what neo-liberalism can and has achieved - by eliminating the inevitable social polarization of capitalism into haves and have nots under free market neo-liberalism.

The superior performance of Conservative Leftism was demonstrated even in the state capitalist Soviet Union, when the humble peasantry of collective farms with the meager capital (e.g. 1 cow) they were allowed to feed themselves and even earn extra to what the state or the collective was able to grant them -

and actually contributed through the permitted public and illegal black markets enough to their collective living standard for the people to lose confidence in Socialism.

Through regulated universal individual participation in wealth and productive capital ownership, Left and Right meet and unite at the Centre.

David Stone said...


If you don't think it is significant that these agents have been embedded with al nusra and fighting with them rather than against them as has been U S stated policy, I think you will be in a minority.
Cheers D J S

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well said Victor. Capitalism has indeed played a part in alleviating poverty. But anyone who believes it was unregulated capitalism is a fool. The Asian Tigers for instance develop their economies using strict government intervention and control. And the development has come at a price, whether you think it's worth it or not. The price has been environmental degradation, growing inequality, and the oppression of minorities, and in the West – the growth of relative poverty. Lack of choices, lack of opportunity. Enough said – this is complicated.

Victor said...


Sorry to be personal but I doubt whether a majority shares your naivety.

I suspect there will have been Russian and Iranian agents there as well, although, like the Israelis, they'd have had to keep their identities firmly under wraps.

Welcome to the looking glass world of espionage and special ops.

Of course, that's assuming these guys really exist and are really "agents" rather than mercenaries or something similar.

Daniel Copeland said...

Conservative leftism has, however, failed one rather critical test. It got beaten by neoliberalism. And in thirty years it hasn't beaten neoliberalism. Any new leftward movement has to have a plan better than "Let's put things back the way they were right before we lost."

David Stone said...


Sorry to have prompted you to engage so heartily in a pursuit from which you can derive no pleasure.
Cheers David

Jens Meder said...

I think for Conservative Leftism to beat free market libertarianism cannot be achieved through moving further to the left, but closer to the Centre - and the most effective way would be to take up the leadership of the Centre,

From there then the competition will not be so much between the sectional interests of the Left and Right - but between the most agreeable policies
UPWARDS for all like with a rising tide, in a more fair and effective way than what has been happening so far.

greywarbler said...

Daniel Copeland
Conservative leftism V Neoliberalism. Fight on Now! Bring popcorn, beer, dildos, rotten eggs and over-ripe tomatoes.

Are we discussing some pastime of a sporting match or the important matter of who is in power over people's lives. Try and differentiate this in your mind will you. The people whose standard of living and opportunities for a satisfying human life are diminishing every year would appreciate it.

Victor said...


I can't speak for Daniel Copeland but I'm not sure he's being as flippant as you suggest.

Anonymous said...

What a very good defemse of the traditional left you present here, Chris. However, I take issue with one thing. You say that the silence the left has greeted Russia's action in Syria should be compared to the noisy objections to the US's invasion of Iraq. But actually the two can't be compared. Russia has not invaded Syria; the ruling and recognised government invited its assistance. And it's my impression that the left world-wide is viewing Russia's role in Syria through the eyes of what may well turn out to be Al Quaeda's propoganda.

But thank-you for the article... RJMCQ

manfred said...

Daniel Copeland

Conservative Leftism is a label created by Daphne Lawless from Fightback (the refounded and reconstituted Workers Party of New Zealand). At least as far as I'm aware.

It seems in my mind to refer to baby boomers who possess these political traits:

- a failure to detach themselves from the mentality that the United States-led camp of Imperialism is always in the wrong.

-Whomsoever stands against that camp is the enemies'enemy, and therefore at least a temporary friend.

- a nostalgia for postwar Keynesianism and a an attitude that all we have to do is go back to that, more or less.

- a justifiable abhorrence and bafflement at the ever-mutating algorithms of campus led identity politics.

- a lament for the capitulation to the Right in the field of economic matters

- a disconnection from the real life struggles of new generations of the working class and middle classes.

- a tendency to abandon independent critical thought and substitute it for romanticism and nostalgia.

- sometimes con Leftism can refer to reactionary thinking in hippie guise. An obsession with cabals of people controlling things. This means that nothing an expert or an institution says can be trusted. This annoying psychological phenomenon gets to the point where we are actually taking backwards steps in terms of scientific progress and empiricism in any field.

We social democrats, as opposed to marxists, try to avoid mechanical thinking.

So as much as the marxists will neatly categorise sections of society into political/ideological groupings based on their relationships to the means of production or position within capitalism.... we see that one can be have political traits to a certain degrees. We don't have to be caricatures.

Daniel Copeland said...


It is supremely important who is in power over people's lives, and what policies they have. That's why we need strategies that win, which in turn is why we need a philosophy that generates strategies that win. I'll be 40 in a little over a year, and I've never seen a world (or a New Zealand) not run by neoliberalism. And I can tell you why the idea of entrusting the economy to the government is not attractive to people my age and younger: it's partly no doubt because we never saw what we're missing, but it's also because of what we have seen governments do, all our lives, with the economic responsibilities they were given to hold. I've been an unemployment beneficiary, and I'll never support a party that cuts benefits -- but I have heartfelt sympathy with the view that government departments can't be trusted with decisions affecting people's lives. I gather it's only gotten worse since I got out.

Victor said...

Daniel Copeland

That's a very interesting perspective.

I'm 70 plus a few months, which means that my first approximately thirty years were spent in a world which took extensive government involvement for granted. And, by and large, it was a much better time to be alive, provided you were mainstream, hetero and white.

Not everyone will agree but my own view is that governments were quite good at dealing with the big picture but were less good at coping with individual people's lives.

But, at least, in those days, policy guidelines weren't aimed solely at driving down the tax bill. Today, in contrast, we have, to quote a friend of mine, "Stalinist bureaucrats playing at being red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists".

Now the good thing about real red-in-tooth-and-claw-capitalists is that they don't tend to kick you when you're down. There's no percentage in it and it's a waste of good shoe leather.

Stalinist bureaucrats are another matter. Their true currency is power rather than money. And so you get the worst of both worlds.

jh said...

Johnathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the elephant and it's rider. the progressives have concentrated on the rider ignoring the basic human nature (the elephant - Boas preached that there was no human nature, except basic instinct). One thing that has stood out in social policy over the last 25 years is a denial that there is a moral hazard/free rider problem amongst beneficiaries. For example Anton Blank dismisses family size as "unhelpful" when referring to PI child poverty.
Haidt also says conservatives understand human nature better than liberals. You can observe that regarding immigration and it is a situation which reminds me of an episode in the old Andy Griffith Show where another Gubers "girl" is all over his good looking friend and Guber says "that's because he's my friend"

manfred said...

^Incoherent bullshit. Who else is going to manage WINZ if it's not the government?

It's a responsibility of the democratically accountable legislature to make laws which address people's concerns and change people's lives.

Please tell me which viable model you would have for WINZ if it is not run by the government?