Almost a year ago, I wrote a rather nasty article about today’s socialist parties. At times, I looked back with a little regret. I’ve got friends in the NDP, and like most, the party tends to fall into the “best of a bad bunch” category. The trends I described, however, were real, and have reached disgusting new depths. And so, it is with a heavy heart that I must again lambaste their leaders, a group who might as well now be known as the ‘far right of the left wing’.

The story of the French “Left” and the Algerian war for independence is something of a historical black eye, to the point where Socialist President Guy Mollet’s visit to Algiers in 1956 is still known as “la journee des tomates” for the hail of rotten fruit he had to endure. Despite some misgivings, French control of Algeria was seen as a necessary precondition of any “socialism” there, and so Mollet (with communist support) opted for a troop surge and widespread use of torture. In the end, this exceptionally brutal war cost them not only control of Algeria (and soon, many others), but also their government (the “Fourth Republic”) itself. There were, of course, a few dissenters – names you might know like John-Paul Sartre, Guy DeBoard and, of course, French anarchists of the time such as Daniel Guerin. For the most part, though, the self-interest of leftist parliamentarians kept them from any Support for this appalling war wasn’t just a betrayal of their “principles” or a horrible strategic choices, it put them squarely “on the wrong side of history”, and both the French left and Algerian population suffered dearly.

Of course, they talk of Algeria, but moderately. In order not to lose face the press growls a little. But it is understood that there shall be no agitation. . . The effect on the working-class — and this is, perhaps, the aim of this policy — is to demobilise it completely. Nothing like the Marseilles dockers strikes or the demonstrations for the release of Henri Martin have developed. The workers are disgusted with the Algerian war but they have been left without guidance or direction. The [Communist Party] is reaping what it has sown — when it needs the masses it no longer finds then) . . . Meanwhile 500,000 young men waste their time, if not their health or their lives in Algeria, the economy stagnates and workers goon short time. And this is the result of this Ballet of the Left, with one partner waltzing smartly off to the right in order to avoid the embrace of the other . . .
– John Paul Sartre (from “Is This The Time“, a critique of Socialist and Stalinist Imperialism)

One might think today’s French socialists would be a little hesitant to try such a thing. Alas, they’re not.

Faced with sagging approval ratings and a lacklustre term so far, France’s new “Socialist” president, Francios Hollande, did something any (dis)respectable politician would do. He started a war. Launching air-strikes and a ground invasion of Mali at the invitation of a government openly run by generals, his government is now doing battle with one of only fifteen countries listed lower than Afghanistan on the UN Human Development Index.

Can we stop calling them “freedom fries” now?

The French socialists, of course, are not alone on the left in their support for this war. Canada’s (still ostensibly socialist) NDP recently sided with Harper on support for the French war effort through, which now apparently includes special forces. This has allowed Harper to talk of a “broad national consensus”, which he states will be necessary if we’re to expand our involvement. This is exactly why I warned about Thomas Mulcair last year. Unlike his predecessor Jack Layton, who routinely questioned Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, Mulcair is using the party’s newly found clout as Official Opposition to welcome the war, thus avoiding any unpleasant parliamentary criticism.

If there’s one conclusion which can be reached from the examples above, it’s that opposition to this kind of militarism tends to fade as these parties get closer to power. It’s a lesson we’ve learned too many times from parties of all colours, only to continue hoping that next time, things will be different. These are necessary sacrifices, we’re told, if the party is to survive and thrive. What few stop to ask is: what good is a party that can’t or won’t stand by their principles if ever they should actually find themselves in a position to make the changes they talk about?

A politician is a politician is a politician, I suppose. And they wonder why people are so cynical…

This kind of thing almost never goes unnoticed. “Left” or “right”, everybody loves to hate hypocrites. Anybody who was previously irked by the moralistic tone is going to seize the opportunity to single it out, as will anybody who previously agreed. Both the National Post and Socialist Worker seem to be taking particular delight on in the domestic politics behind this war. Beyond the sectarian warfare, though, is the effect on those who aren’t hardened warriors in those battles. For most, the entire affair is just one more reason to avoid politics altogether. If this was only a problem for “politicians” I wouldn’t have much problem with it, but as these parties bring a lot of radical imagery into their marketing campaigns, they tend to cast a lot of suspicion on grassroots organizers as well. This is what Sartre means when he talks about completely demobilizing the working class.

Politics needs to be more than a fashion statement on behalf of groups vying for power. If the ideas put forward by parties are no less superficial than the colours and mascots of football teams, then why bother ‘getting off the couch’ at all? Many people, if not most, already feel this way about “politics” in general, and that’s a big part of the reason Canadians and Americans are so famously disinterested. At what point do we stop shaming people for being “apathetic” and “ignorant”, and admit that their feelings aren’t exactly baseless.

In the face of the biggest upsurge of “leftist” beliefs since the 1960s, the “parliamentary left” is instead taking a hard turn right. While this gives me a lot of hope for the future of social movements, it doesn’t exactly encourage me to vote. Attempting to get ahead in a battle of ideas by becoming more like those you oppose may win a few supporters in the short run, but over the longer term it starts to resemble surrender. I must admit, this leaves me confused – why join a socialist party if you honestly don’t think “the masses” have any appetite for socialist ideals?

It’s hard to know how “the masses” would react if confronted with a clear, honest and concise explanation of “socialism”. It’s been so long since anybody’s had the guts to say such a thing publicly that it’s hard to guess. One poll last year found “socialism” with triple the approval rating of Congress. Another poll in 2010 found that 42% of Americans thought the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was taken from the Bill of Rights or other founding documents. Keep in mind, that’s America. We may never know how such an election would go, since these positions just aren’t being articulated by anybody who might conceivably win an election. Then again, given the history of states which actually attempted “socialism”, that might be just as well. Either way, I’m not holding out a lot of hope for parliamentary activism.

Last weekend on the streets of Toronto I saw what might be the largest demonstration I’ve attended since Quebec City in 2001, and it was only one of a great many in the few weeks alone. With or without politicians, the revolution is going ahead. The incredible and unprecedented wave of demonstrations which has swept the globe over the last few years has been almost entirely disconnected from traditional parties, and it’s not hard to see why. Just as Obama crushed our hopes that Democrats might be less interested in dropping bombs on Muslims, Hollande and Mulcair are showing that “socialist” politicians can be just as big a disappointment. Thankfully, as Bookchin reminds us, there’s a lot more to politics than statecraft.