The left-wing protest movements of late fifties and early sixties in the US and UK are often used as a point of comparative judgement for activists today. As the modern historian David Steigerwald succinctly notes, the decade of free love combined ‘the emerging temper of nonconformity and alienation… with the liberal resurgence in a developing mood that anticipated a great awakening.’ Furthermore, this was ‘unquestionably confined to a minority of youth.’ The same atmosphere of youthful, leftist vigour is being observed around the globe today, particularly with the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the popularity surge for Bernie Sanders in the US. Does it herald a great awakening, or are those on the intellectual left simply repeating the mistakes and patterns of their political ancestors? And what does this mean for governments on both sides of the Atlantic?
The intellectual left of the 1960s and 1970s was a disparate and wide-ranging group. Those who lived through the era of protest movements and cultural dissent claim that everyone was a liberal in those days. In hindsight, this view is a rose-tinted one. Yet the images of university sit-ins and kaleidoscopic rebellion have burned into the human psyche an expectation of what the left was during the era of free love. In reality, the student movements of the Sixties and Seventies used polarizing protest methods, lacked cohesion and leadership, and proved woefully out of touch with the communities they were representing, just as many people argue the ‘champagne socialists’ watching YouTube videos of Russell Brands The Trews in their student halls are out of touch today.
The memory of these protesters meant that the so-called current ‘rise’ of the intellectual left this year is hardly a new phenomenon to anybody who has cast even the most cursory of glances over the history of the twentieth century. The prevalence of left or right popular politics ebbs and flows much like the highs and lows of financial markets. Yet the patience of the left to sit by as centrist and right-wing governments continue to pose political obstacles in the highest echelons of government seems to be running out. The catalyst in the UK was undoubtedly the Conservative majority formed on 34% of the vote. In the US, it’s the frustration with a liberal elite that seems morally apathetic (see: Hillary Clinton) and unable to address the real issues of campaign financing and wage gaps between the rich and poor.
Yet do the supporters of Sanders and Corbyn have anything new to bring to the table? It would seem that their leaders do not. Neither Corbyn, (aged 66) nor Sanders (aged 73) are fresh on the scene. In fact, both of them could be considered veritable dinosaurs of their countries’ respective liberal movements. It seems somewhat odd that they have mobilised youth voters in the way that they have. Arguably, there’s a sense of nostalgia for an era that the young political activists today never experienced. Corbyn champions a retro set of Labour policies: nuclear disarmament, nationalisation programs, caution of NATO and the EU, and a scepticism towards US foreign policy. Sanders’ is a similar relic of a bygone era that never realised its full potential. Both of them are ‘self-proclaimed socialists’ – that in itself has a magnetism for the student crowds that have just bought themselves a new copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Yet Corbyn and Sanders both legitimately believe in grassroots politics, and this undoubtedly appeals to those who often feel disenfranchised with the system. One only needs to look at the polls for proof.
That Corbyn and Sanders (and indeed their supporters on the intellectual left) are making a dent in popular politics is self-evident. Whether this popular surge in anti-austerity, socialist-democratic policies translates to real change is another matter. In 1968 after a decade of iconic protest and rebellion in the US and Britain culminating in the deaths of JFK, MLK, Malcolm X and RFK, the historian and intellectual Arthur Schlesinger Jr expressed his disappointment with the liberal wave. Once an idealist, he remarked in grief: Americans were a “violent people with a violent history, and the instinct for violence has seeped into the bloodstream of out national life.” The leftist wave on both sides of the Atlantic had been a two-sided coin; one side riding on pacifism and flower power that masked an opposite side of violent urban riots and working class discontent. While the supporters of Corbyn and Sanders celebrate a wave of ‘hope’, they must not forget that the reasons for their populist victory lie simmering beneath the surface. In Britain, an ugly anger at ever-expanding gentrification and a new ‘working poor’ threaten the peaceful politics of hope that Corbyn espouses. In America, racial tensions are once again near breaking point, with protests turning into riots as heavy-handed police are given weapons beyond their service. The problems simmering under the surface remain the same after decades. All that has changed are the ways that intellectuals think about and respond to them.
If the current sweep of leftist popular politics hopes to change anything, they must go beyond catchy slogans and hashtags to address real issues. To do so means not disassociating from politics itself, or sharing a petition on Facebook. It is to face the ugly truth of the problems that the intellectual left save for conversations at dinner parties and society events. The intellectual left needs to engage much more effectively with those who are disenchanted with their movement and the establishment of politics itself. Otherwise, they represent no more than another wave in the tide of ever-changing populist politics.