Where now are the earthly paradises from which an idealist can take hope? | Tim Bale

With Barack Obama on his way to a changing Cuba, the left is fast running out of countries to revere

It is only natural, when that hopey-changey thing is in short supply at home, that idealists start looking overseas for inspiration. And for some, it doesn’t stop there. Not content with attending demos and maybe tweeting and Facebooking in support of whatever country they happen to be making common cause with, they actually go there to express their solidarity.

That is not, of course, why Barack Obama is visiting Cuba this week, but it is why British leftwingers have made the self-styled socialist paradise their holiday destination of choice for decades. Sure, the weather’s great and so is the music. But what really attracts them, as long, that is, as they can forget about all the political prisoners and all the rationing, is its defiant refusal to compromise its principles.

Lefties aren’t entirely alone in this. The British right, after all, began its ongoing love affair with the US long before the left fell head over heels for Havana. Rightwingers’ affection for the Anglosphere also means that Canada, Australia and New Zealand regularly get prayed in aid of a policy being pushed at home, be it a supposedly no-strings-attached free-trade deal, a tough-as-it-gets asylum regime, or a system of contestable advice and recruitment from the private sector in the civil service.

But the left has always – and perhaps has always had to – cast its net rather wider when looking for shining examples and sources of optimism, revolutionary or otherwise. Sadly, however, the sheer variety of countries in which it has invested its hopes, as well as the sometimes wilful naivety that helped nurture them in the first place, has seen those very same hopes dashed time and time again.

As long ago as 1956, Jimmy Porter, the antihero of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, was lamenting: “There aren’t any good, brave causes left.” And in some ways the first cut was the deepest. Many progressives had put their faith in the Soviet Union – and continued to do so long after it made any moral or practical sense – only to see it smashed to pieces by the invasion of Hungary that same year.

Fortunately, for the British left anyway, the often dark and disturbing legacy of this country’s colonial past provided plenty of other causes to latch on to. Perhaps the most significant, because it was so self-evidently ethical, was the long-running campaign against apartheid South Africa, a cause that could be easily converted, once Nelson Mandela became its first black president, into sympathy and solidarity with the “Rainbow Nation” he hoped to build.

To claim that Mandela’s project has run into the sand would be going too far. But anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to how things have gone since his departure would be hard pressed to regard today’s South Africa with starry-eyed admiration.

The same goes for the Latin American countries that used to command so much of the left’s empathy and attention. There were times, in the 80s, when deciding between the T-shirt advertising your support for the ANC and the one showing your solidarity with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua represented a serious political, as well as fashion, dilemma. It turned out, as it always seems to, that things weren’t quite as black and white as we thought.

Daniel Ortega and chums might not have been the devils they were accused of being by the Americans, but they were no angels either. And dammit if the same doesn’t apply to heroes of more recent vintage such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who left a legacy of chronic shortages and human rights violations, and now Brazil’s Lula and Rousseff, both of whom are facing allegations of high-level corruption.

Turn to the Middle East and it’s a similarly sad story. The same year that Soviet tanks trundled down the streets of Budapest, Britain, France and Israel were involved in an outlandish conspiracy to snatch back the Suez Canal from what some of the more zealous progressive opponents of the operation came close to portraying as plucky little Egypt.

Rather embarrassingly for the left, however, it was the Americans who put the mockers on the whole thing. And, once the heat had gone out of the situation, even the most dedicated anticolonialist found it hard to retain sympathy for the Egyptian dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his brutal successors.

For a time, Israel’s kibbutz-style socialism seduced some on the left. But they couldn’t ignore the plight of the displaced Palestinians for ever, especially once voters started chucking out the centre-left in favour of rightwing hawks reliant for their Knesset majorities on some seriously dodgy characters. And then, just when the British left had begun to get comfy in their Yasser Arafat scarves, Gaza goes and elects Hamas, an organisation that even the most dedicated fan of its welfare work in the occupied territories would have to admit isn’t really progressive poster-boy material.

So where is a self-respecting radical to turn these days? Not even Scandinavia, long a good bet and a safe haven for those of a vaguely socialist or social democratic demeanour, seems up to the job any more. Maybe there was always less to it than met the eye, as Perry Anderson suggested in his 1961 essay Mr Crosland’s Dreamland. But it is harder today to argue, as Anderson noted some on the British centre-left did back then, that Stockholm is where “[e]lectoral realism and social idealism sublimely coincide”.

Nordic social democracy isn’t dead. Indeed, its entrenched values and institutions continue to constrain its opponents in ways that leftwingers living in Anglo-Saxon democracies can only dream of. But its political representatives are in no ruder health than they are anywhere else in Europe.

The Swedish Labour party may be clinging to office but the centre-right is in power in Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway. And in the last three cases, it governs with the support of radical rightwing parties. And the virulently xenophobic Sweden Democrats are now the third biggest force in that country.

Still, there is always Spain, in whose civil war Jimmy Porter’s idealistic dad supposedly received the wounds that eventually killed him and where the pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias is the latest leftwing pin-up – and Greece, even if its rock-star radical Yanis Varoufakis long since left the building.

Yet, if the past is any guide to the future, both countries are bound to disappoint sooner or later. Who knows, though? With Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, perhaps the British left no longer needs to look overseas to have its hopes raised and then dashed on the rocks of political reality.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London


Tim Bale

The GuardianTramp

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