How to turn a ‘leftist’ into a rightist (or a socialist into a conservative)

The following is a translation from Spanish of an essay I read earlier this afternoon (Sept. 22, 2012) and wanted to share, by Brazilian Marxist activist and writer Frei Betto. The translation is not verbatim, and I took some liberties in an effort to convey in English the meaning which I believe Betto intended. While I am not a Marxist myself, I hope Betto’s essay provides food for thought.

How to turn a ‘leftist’ into a rightist or How to turn a socialist into a conservative by Frei Betto

The political left, ever since that category first emerged during the French Revolution, entails advocacy on behalf of the poor, the struggle against social exclusion, a refusal to be complicit in any form of injustice or, as Italian leftist philosopher Norberto Bobbio put it, the perception of social inequality as an aberration.

To be on the political right is to tolerate injustice, value market imperatives over human rights, regard poverty as an incurable social ill, and believe that some people and communities are inherently superior to others.

But over time, ‘leftist’ has come to mean something different. ‘Leftism’ – a pathology diagnosed by Lenin as ‘the communist’s childhood malady’ – entails confronting the power of the bourgeoisie until one becomes part of it. The leftist is a fundamentalist for his own cause, who embodies the same religious zeal as the fundamentalist man of faith. He fills his mouth with dogma and idolizes a leader. If that leader sneezes, the leftist applauds, if the leader cries, the leftist becomes lachrymose, and if the leader changes his mind, the leftist quickly reexamines the situation in an effort to demonstrate that under the present circumstances…

The leftist adores the academic discourse of the left, but generally agrees with former Brazilian military dictator João Figueiredo on one point: he can’t stand the stench of the plebes. For the leftist, the ‘people’ is an abstract noun which only seems concrete when the need to garner votes arises. Then, and only then, will the leftist speak of defending the poor, not out of preoccupation with the plight of those less fortunate, but for the sole purpose of amassing votes for himself and/or his clique. After the election, it’s ‘So long!’ until the next campaign.

As the leftist has no principles, only interests, there is no easier task than to disabuse him of his leftist ideology, to transform him into a rightist. Start by offering him a ‘good’ job;  but not the sort of labour by which ordinary mortals earn their daily bread, with blood, sweat and tears. It must be one of those jobs that delivers handsome wages and provides more rights and privileges than duties. Especially if these rights and privileges come at the expense of the public. Although said job may also be in the private sector; it doesn’t matter. All that matters is ensuring that the leftist feels he’s made it.

The following occurs when the leftist is elected or appointed to public office, or takes the helm of a particular company: He immediately lets his guard down. He eschews self-criticism. The scent of money, combined with the trappings of power, produces an irresistible alchemy, enough to twist the arm of the most devout revolutionary.

A healthy salary, authority, royalties, these are the ingredients able to intoxicate a leftist in his journey toward the realm of the ‘bashful’ right, those who behave like rightists but are ashamed to admit it. Soon thereafter, the leftist leaves behind his old friends, whims and stomping grounds. He abandons cheap liquor for imported wine, beer for Scotch whisky, the run-of-the-mill apartment for the lavish condominium, and the pub crawls for upscale balls, receptions and sumptuous feasts.

If a companion from the good old days comes knocking at his door, he hides, distances himself, delegates the task to his secretary, and complains surreptitiously about how he ‘can’t be bothered’. From now on, all of his steps proceed, with surgical precision, along the path to power. He relishes the opportunity to socialize with important people: businessmen, millionaires, landowners. He curries their favour with gifts and handouts. In the converted leftist’s mind, the gravest misfortune would be a return to an existence devoid of flattery and ego-stroking, the straits of ordinary people struggling for survival.

Goodbye ideals, utopias, dreams! Long live pragmatism, policy outcomes, collusion, chicanery expertly manifested! (Although there are occasional mishaps along the way, the leftist now has an arsenal of tricks up his sleeve: obsequious silence, acting as if nothing happened, tit for tat…)

I remembered this characterization because, a few days ago, I ran into an old friend from my activist days, a former compatriot in the struggle against dictatorship. He asked if I still allied myself with the ‘people of the periphery’. And he pontificated: “It’s such a shame you’ve left the government. You could have done more for the people there.”

I was on the verge of laughter in front of this man who, years earlier, had made Che Guevara seem mildly bourgeois by comparison, so ardent was his revolutionary fervour. I contained myself so as not to be indelicate with this ridiculous character, with his slick hair, designer suit, shoes fit for an angel. As I said: “I turned back, and returned to my old principles. I’d rather run the risk of making mistakes working on behalf of the downtrodden, than convince myself I’m doing right without them.”