The Sunday Review: Left in the past: radicalism and the politics of nostalgia, by Alastair Bonnett

by Anthony Painter

There is a tragic oscillation that occurs cyclically on the left between over-confidence and capitulation. It is summarised by a Christopher Lasch quote in Alastair Bonnett’s study of the complex relationship between nostalgia and radicalism:

“Their confidence in being on the winning side of history made progressive people unbearably smug and superior but they felt isolated and beleaguered in their own country since it was so much less progressive than they were”.

As Labour enters office, it is certain in its knowledge of how progressive the country is. It leaves office in despair at how reactionary it is. Having tried to buy it off with reactionary and authoritarian language and policies, it is generally also perplexed. Labour, meet reality; reality, kick Labour. Only neither perspective is true. Britain is neither predominantly progressive or reactionary. It is, however, deeply conservative, which is an entirely different proposition altogether.

Progressives look to the future with gleeful zeal. Conservatives warily eye the past, in part longing and part warning, and step into the future only tentatively. In that sense, they are more attuned to the default human condition. We are a species that is disconcerted by convulsive change. How strange then that we have built an economy and society around such change – a key part of the radical critique of where we are. And how predictable it would be if there were a social and psychological reaction to such change. As Ian Dyck writes of farm labourers in the early nineteenth century:

“They remembered a better life and they wanted it back”.

For agricultural labour in the early nineteenth century read miners, car-workers, administrative assistants, ship-builders, and anyone else who has been cast aside by economic, administrative, technological and political change. In fact, we all look at the landscape of our world, with its atomised geography and anti-social organisation, and feel a sense of loss and regret. Because that is what humans do. Like everyone else, the left shares this nostalgia but we pretend that we don’t.

Alastair Bonnett’s core argument is that nostalgia – “a yearning for the past, a sense of loss in the face of change” – is a core part of the radical left’s instinct and world view. It is a sought after returning to a better, more humane, more social world – no matter how much a progressive instinct may deny nostalgia.

Bonnett’s strategy is not to save the left from nostalgia but rather the reverse – to save nostalgia from the left. The left has a habit of either dismissing nostalgia as an ill-informed and backward romanticism or (with a sense of irony) distorting the past for its own ends. All the while it has been deeply nostalgic for a world that is or was imagined. And what is true progressivism if not a kind of nostalgia for the future? So just as nostalgia is a deep and important human emotion – one that reminds us of what is meaningful – it has had an important place for the left.

There has been much talk in recent weeks about conservative socialism and blue labour. I see these discussions as a healthy route to Labour recapturing its social meaning. This in itself is a nostalgia and a reaching back. Both New Labour and the socialism of the alternative economic strategy were two modernist expressions that left a deracinated movement. Labour no longer had a relationship with the people it sought to represent. They turned away from Labour to Thatcherism in the 1980s and to political silence in the 2000s. Labour had silenced those who it is its mission to empower. Modernity has an emotion kick-back. Labour is now paying the price of that.

The attacks on blue labour/ conservative socialism have included the caricature – see David Aaronvitch on Merrie England (Robert Blatchford and his faintly ridiculous yet widely successful Clarion movement is one of the radical nostalgists studied by Bennett). Other accounts have seen it as an electoral trick – Labour pulling off its reactionary over-reaction yet again in a desperate bid for power. Part of this is a coincidence that the searchlight Fear and Hope report has been published just as the conversation on blue Labour is really getting going. The two aren’t related and the Fear and Hope report simply looks at where we are – there are a whole myriad of strategic responses that could come out of it (personally, the reactionary response is the wrong response would be my personal view- a debate for another time.)

The third category of attacks is on any notion of “conservatism” at all. This critique is a misunderstanding and confusion of “conservatism”. The small “c” is important. It is a moral and philosophical outlook rather than a political ideology or programme. Both conservatives and liberals have a similarly strong aversion to harm to others and a sense of fairness, according to Jonathan Haidt. The difference is that conservatives have a much greater propensity to respect authority and value group loyalty. That is its morality and it is that bonding characteristic of conservative morality that blue labour forces us to address. It is also reminds us that we should understand the past as a guide to a more tentative future – the philosophical element of conservatism. And nostalgia for a pre-mechanistic world, a more social time, and for a movement that was embedded in the communities it sought to serve are all elements of this conservatism.

So blue Labour/ conservative socialism are important conversations for a movement that is looking to re-authenticate itself and become more organic and human and less machine-like. It doesn’t provide all the answers by any means (and nor, from my understanding, does it seek to). Bonnett’s brilliant book – which, quite simply, must be read by anyone wanting not only a richer understanding of the patriotic, conservative and radical nature of the English left’s past, but a guide and contour to current debates – forces us to refine our attitude to nostalgia as a human impulse and deeply constructive trait.

Of course, Labour only wins when it is the future. What this book does, and the broader conversations into which it feeds, is condition the manner of that victory. Instead of patronising them and ignoring them, if we are more empathic of the sense of loss, drift, and rootlessness that people feel, Labour might surprise itself and surprise others. In the process, it might be able to shed both the initial smugness of progressivism and avoid the subsequent reactionary over-compensation. Here’s hoping. Left in the past is a guidebook in that endeavour.

Anthony Painter co-wrote Fear and hope: the new politics of identity, published by searchlight educational trust.

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