by Garry Kasparov
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran of his party’s far-left wing, is suddenly London’s man of the hour. He surprised everyone by dramatically boosting his party’s share of the vote in the general election on June 8. When he spoke recently to the British House of Commons not long thereafter, he received far more applause than Tory Prime Minister Theresa May. Corbyn drew roars of approval from his backbenchers by saying that May’s government had “run out of ideas altogether,” and in the chaotic aftermath of the Brexit vote — hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit? — it’s hard to disagree. Now, however, we face the danger of filling a void of ideas with bad ones.
The extremes are thriving these days on both sides of the Atlantic. The traditional swing of the ideological pendulum from right to left and back again is gaining speed — and it is increasingly bypassing the center. Decades of decline and apathy under the establishment status quo have empowered the far right and the far left, both true believers and opportunists.
Corbyn’s success, fueled especially by his popularity among the young, is no one-off. In the first round of the recent French election, the ex-communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon surprised everyone with his strong showing among young voters. And though President Trump remains safely in power in Washington, young Americans are reacting by expressing fondness for socialism and candidates of the populist left like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Backlash has led to whiplash, a dizzying condition of perpetual overreaction and outrage with no time to catch our bearings. Backlash against Brexit led to the surprising rise of fossilized leftist Corbyn and chaos in British politics. Trump’s shocking election on the back of demagoguery and nationalism has awakened a politically complacent America, but it’s far from clear where things are headed. Will the pendulum slow in the middle, or will it race by once again? If Trump was America’s Brexit moment, will there also be an American Corbyn, ready to meet the far right’s coloring-book fascism and isolationism with socialism and, well, its own version of isolationism?
I’m very worried about the answer, whether it comes from familiar faces like Sanders and Warren or in the guise of some younger, more charismatic figure with whom angry young liberals will identify even more. The siren song of socialism has always been a popular tune among the young. For all the horrors it spawned, socialism possessed a utopian narrative that was genuinely attractive to many. The honeyed promises of justice and equality appealed to those who failed to see that the only way to guarantee equality is coercion, and that those in charge of that coercion soon become “more equal than others,” in George Orwell’s flawless phrase from “Animal Farm.” That every communist state has also been a brutal authoritarian state is not a coincidence — it is the natural and inevitable outcome.
An entire generation has passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist in the closing days of 1991. Young Americans and Europeans know little of communism beyond the mercantile regimes in China and Vietnam, and an occasional mention of Cuba. Socialism today is more likely to be seen not as Red China but through the rose-colored lens of the wealthy nations of Scandinavia. Inequality in the free world is a huge and growing problem, and the far right’s answer is to demonize immigrants and to try to turn back the clock. Unfortunately, the left is just as focused on scoring political points instead of acknowledging that any remedy will be complex and difficult. Meeting ignorance with ignorance of an equal and opposite value is no solution.
The political response to Trump in America is still pending, but there has been a noticeable salutary reaction in Europe. Elections in the Netherlands and France repudiated the far-right candidates who were associated with Trump by reputation and rhetoric, and Germany looks increasingly likely to follow suit. And the election of Emmanuel Macron showed that the sane center can win with capable candidates presenting a positive vision. But this is no time to relax. The domestic conditions of political, economic and moral stagnation that allowed these threats to arise have not abated.
The center must respond with ambitious plans and bold leaders that address these conditions in order to compete with the heated rhetoric and outlandish ideas coming from the extremists on the left and the right. Just as Trump was against so much and for so little, being against him can only be the beginning. The opposition must work to ensure that the backlash against Trump doesn’t result in something even worse (as hard as it is to imagine such a possibility now).
I have been asked frequently to use my life experience with authoritarian regimes to shed light on Trump’s plans and behaviors, which are very troubling indeed. But I hope the anti-Trump forces on the left will also heed me when I say that those who believe that the government cannot solve anything are easily matched in their potential to do harm by those who believe the government can solve everything.