Equality and the left

Published by Polity

Don Flynn on the waning of equality

A Brief Global History of the Left: Shlomo Sand published by Polity

Though they are often made to function in that way, the terms “the Left” and “Socialism” are not fully interchangeable. Shlomo Sand argues that the Left emerged out of the struggle against the unequal treatment of human beings which took conscious form at the onset of the modern period of history.

The accident of the seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly of France on 28 August 1789 gave rise to the use of “the Left” as descriptor for the deputies who voted against monarchical power. But Sand points to a longer gestation for the idea, tracing it to the advocacy of equality on the part of the Leveller and Digger currents during the English Civil War and then, in a more articulated form, in the political work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in mid-eighteen century Geneva.

Seeing that inequality “the first source of evil” as Rousseau proclaimed, provided the basis for the political programme of the Jacobin party during the French Revolution, Its further evolution in the early nineteenth century led to the incorporation of equality into the work of the socialist movement as it worked through its utopian and scientific phases. But scepticism was brought into the discussion, with the centrality of fighting inequality diminished under the influence of Marxist urging higher consideration being given to the struggle against exploitation.

Sand’s history to this point is in danger of being branded Eurocentric in its conception and by the time he gets to chapter 8 he moves on to consider inequality as it took form in the struggles against colonialism and fascism. By chapters 12 and 13 he moves on to Maoism and Chinese communism and the “Socialist Imaginary in Post-colonial countries”. Later on, Leftism is considered in contexts as varied as Latin America, the civil rights movement in the US, and gender oppression and women’s liberation.

By the time we get to these points the coherence of the argument has broken down somewhat and it is difficult to trace the importance of his earlier insights into inequality as the wellspring of Leftism and, for example, what was going on during the “Hundred Blooming Flowers” period in the People’s Republic of China.  This is a shame because Sand’s complaint is that the waning of the “modern myth of equality” is the reason why the Left (and by extension, socialism in all its forms) has been drained of vitality in the early decades of the current century. Can it be revived as a new foundational myth for the global Left? Possibly, but it will be the work of other books and perhaps other authors to move us beyond the gloomy point where this history finishes.   


  1. “A Brief Global History of the Left” sounds like another of those books only of interest to academics proposing nothing useful in present times. As usual, “The Left” defies definition, except as a means of self-congratulation. I do hope that at least some of those elected to govern us on 4th July have a clue as to what the new government will do to address any of the multitude of problems we face.

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