The Purity of the Left: A Foray in Theory

A View from Mexico

By Rodrigo Saldaña Guerrero

There are people who insist that politics must be pragmatic. Its
purpose is reaching power and using it, not passing a test on party
principles. For others the most important thing in politics is
ideological authenticity. They complain about leftist support to Kerry,
for instance, and about the lack of true left credentials of that

One gets the impression that being leftist is a question of ideological
purity, and little else. It does not really matter if the power goes to
someone else, as long as leftists are true to the faith. Both sides
have their pros and cons, of course.


The strength of pragmatism is an insistence in doing things and
(hopefully) a sensibility to detect what one has to have in order to do
things. That’s necessary, because politics is a practical, not a merely
theoretical, activity. Its weakness is that doing something is not an
end in itself.

Doing things is something widely admired today, so much so that someone
who “has done a lot” can be praised even if it is not very clear
whatever he did that for. We have to think of ends and consequences. We
act to do something or to get something. Did we achieve the end we
aspired to? What we do has results. How do we feel about them?


Its strengths and weaknesses mirror those of pragmatism. Its strongest
point is its attention to ends. The loftiest values are very important
to us, give sense to our life and actions. Ideals are not necessarily
utopias (utopia, a word coined by Thomas More, means etymologically no

Ideals are not unrealizable ends, they just can not be achieved
immediately, completely, perfectly. They are in fact found everywhere
in provisional, incomplete, imperfect ways. This is all right, but it
presents us with a problem: if we have to admit that we will never have
a perfect implementation of an ideal, how can we criticize an imperfect
realization? The answer of some idealists is to center their interest
in formulas, not in facts. Since we know that we will never achieve
perfection, the only thing that matters is to be absolutely right in
our formulation of the ideals.

The Politics of the Left

When a supposedly leftist party or movement is in power, all this may
lead to a Manichean approval of everything the regime does. The right
(the enemy) is always wrong, no matter what it does. The good side
(ours, of course) is always right, whatever it does. The Soviet regime
probably killed, tortured, terrorized, more people that the Nazi one.
No problem, for some time at least.

It took the left decades to understand the true nature of what was
eventually called real socialism. When they did, the Soviet Empire
dissolved from within, leaving an enormous void in the hearts of the

What happens when the left is not in power is what really interests us
here. Policies that have had scarce effect in helping the poor are
defended because they are ideologically correct. A few decades ago many
shared that ideology, but most people have moved in the opposite
direction, and do not like the old leftist prescriptions.

Some social democrats (González, Miterrand, Blair, Lula, Lagos) have
done what to the eyes of the old left is at best a Socialist
administration of capitalism. Whatever the truth of that perception,
those politicians have done something at least for the poor, in
practice, while the pure leftists go farther and farther away from
popular support, and from power.

In the United States the left demands that a politician like Kerry take
positions that may be admirable examples of ideological orthodoxy, but
which now would keep him from any position of power.

Whither the Left?

I think that Marxism is one of the secular religions proceeding from
the Enlightenment, worldviews that have in their core a secularization
of the Christian History of Salvation (deprived of the divine guarantee
of success offered by the religious version, unless we assume that the
role of divinity has been taken over by History). It sees history as
ineluctable progress: at its end, there will be an earthly paradise,
whatever we do.

This belief did a terrible damage to the left, since it disconnected
rational evaluation and success from the means used by the
revolutionaries. No matter what strategies they used, or how clumsily
they applied them, triumph was assured. Temporary failure was no
argument against their way of thinking, just a setback that would
inevitably give way to final victory.

The self liquidation of what once seemed to be their earthly paradise
was a terrible blow to their faith. Some have faced it in a way that
would have surprised Marx enormously: making Marxism into an
ideological superstructure of a Capitalist society.

It is doubtful whether the unilineal left-right model ever was adequate
for the complexity of the ideological universe, and now everybody
admits that what is called the left is in a serious identity crisis.
Still, many of us would insist that something like that must exist.

I am not going to enter now the whole question of the reinvention of
the left; I will concentrate instead in the attitude of many leftists
toward the realization of its ideals.

Ideological Purity or Service to Mankind

Many leftists seem to think that the really important thing is to be
faithful to the right dogmatic formulations of the left ideals. It
matters much less or not at all if they are put into practice. Or, to
put it otherwise, it is clear that they can not be put into practice.
What one must do is to keep the purity of those formulas, and the best
way to do it is to be out of power, in the opposition.

Denouncing the wickedness of the right without the embarrassment of
having to perform a perfect leftist policy, something one knows to be
impossible. That is a way of being leftist. I think the problem is in
the way we see the relationship between the ideals and their
realization. The old left would say, as we have seen, that their
realization was assured, so that was not their problem.

A disenchanted left is used to think that the only possible thing is to
keep saying the right things, even if one knew that had little or no
effect in the real world. My solution is that we can realize those
ideals in the way I said before: provisionally, gradually,
incompletely, imperfectly; moving from a static conception of society
toward a dynamic, historical one. And our duty is not to do them in a
perfect and definitive way, which would be impossible anyhow, but to
keep improving the imperfect, tending asymptotically toward the perfect

What the left should do, and what it can not see, is to take the
necessary steps to bring social reality nearer and nearer to a real
social good, to a society in which inequality and inequity tend to
disappear, even if they never do in fact disappear.

By static criteria society will always be imperfect, that is to say,
unjust. Knowing that helps little. What matters is that it can be made
less unjust, that we can cooperate to give it a dynamic that means a
real movement toward a more just society and the improvement of the
conditions in which our less fortunate siblings have to live. And the
effective way to do this is to build popular strength, to convince
great numbers of citizens to support what is supposed to be the cause
of the people, a goal that seems to be now, paradoxically, very far

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