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  Number 363 | Octubre 2011
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International

A Letter to all the Left

These thoughts on the Left from a leftist with international prestige and proven commitment come on the eve of Nicaragua‘s elections, when the governing FSLN is trying to monopolize the Left’s identity and a group of Sandinistas are opposing it in a broad coalition.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

I don’t doubt that there’s a future for the Left but it won’t be a linear continuation of the past. To define what the different Left expressions have in common one must answer the question, “What is the Left?”

The Left is a collection of political positions that share the ideal that all human beings are equally valuable and together constitute a supreme value. This ideal is called into question whenever there are unequal social relationships, i.e., relationships of domination. In such cases, some individuals or groups satisfy their needs by turning other individuals or groups into means for their ends. Capitalism is not the only source of domination, although it is an important one.

The different ways of understanding this idea have triggered various divisions. The main ones have come from conflicting answers to the following questions: Can capitalism be reformed to improve the fate of those who are dominated or must we go outside of capitalism? Should social struggle only be conducted by one class—the working class—or by different classes and social groups? Should this struggle take place within democratic institutions or outside of them? Is the State itself a relationship of domination or can it be used to combat relationships of domination?

The Left of its different stripes
dominated the 20th Century

The conflicting answers to these questions caused violent divisions. In the name of the Left, atrocities were committed against the Left. Together, however, the different leftist expressions dominated the 20th Century despite Nazism, Fascism and Colonialism, and thanks to these movements the world became freer and more equal. This brief century of all the Left expressions ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last thirty years have been characterized on the one hand by ruinous and unproductive mismanagement and on the other by the emergence of new struggles against domination with new actors and languages that the traditional Left expressions couldn’t understand. Meanwhile, free of those expressions, capitalism again showed its antisocial vocation. It’s again imperative that the Left reconstruct itself to avoid capitalism’s barbarity. How can we do this? We can begin by accepting the following ideas:

1) The world has become diverse and this diversity now exists within every country. The understanding of the world is much broader that the West’s understanding of it. There’s no such thing as internationalism, only interculturalism.

2) Capitalism conceives of democracy as an instrument of accumulation. If necessary, it will make it irrelevant and if it were to find another more efficient instrument, it would dispense with democracy altogether. This is the case with China. An intense defense of democracy is the great banner of leftist expressions.

3) Capitalism is amoral and doesn’t understand the concept of human dignity. To defend human dignity one must fight against capitalism, never with it. Under capitalism even charity only exists as part of public relations.

4) The world’s experience shows that there are many realities that are not capitalist, that are guided by reciprocity and cooperation and are awaiting to be evaluated as the future within the present.

5) Last century revealed that the human relationship with nature is one of domination and must be fought against. Economic growth is not infinite.

6) Private property is only a social good if it is one of various forms of property and all are protected. There are common goods of humanity like water and air.

7) The Left’s short century was sufficient to create an egalitarian spirit among human beings that is seen in all surveys. This is the heritage of the Left movements that they themselves are squandering.

8) Capitalism needs other forms of domination in order to flourish. It needs racism, sexism and war. All these forms must be combated.

9) The State is a strange animal, part angel and part monster; but without it many other insatiable monsters would be let loose in search of helpless angels. It should be the best State, never the least State.

With these ideas there will continue to be various leftist expressions, although they will probably no longer kill each other and may even unite to stop the approaching barbarity.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a Portuguese sociologist and academic.

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