The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century
Toward a Theory of Historical Regression
Platypus Review 17 | November 2009
On April 18, 2009, the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted the following panel discussion at the Left Forum Conference at Pace University in New York City. The panel was organized around four significant moments in the progressive separation of theory and practice over the course of the 20th century: 2001 (Spencer A. Leonard), 1968 (Atiya Khan), 1933 (Richard Rubin), and 1917 (Chris Cutrone). The following is an edited transcript of the introduction to the panel by Benjamin Blumberg, the panelists’ prepared statements, and the Q&A session that followed. The Platypus Review encourages interested readers to view the complete video recording of the event, available at the link above.
Questions and Answers
Transcribed by Soren Whited
Question: What does “emancipation” entail? To what “beyond” does capitalism point? More particularly, in this beyond what would be the role of the state and how would the economy be organized? It seems to me that learning from the past is important, but unless there is some vision of what getting beyond capital looks like, then we are in trouble.
Richard Rubin: In some sense, this is a question about how a socialist economy might work. But I would want to defer that question, because the main problems with socialism in the 20th century were not economic but political. Again, it is a checkered and complicated history, but the Left’s main criticism of the Soviet Union was neither technical nor economic. Rather, it focused on the regime’s repressive and dictatorial character. As regards the state, I think that Lenin’s idea of its withering away remains valid. I mean, the reasons why you had a Stalinist dictatorship and not a genuinely democratic socialist polity are, of course, complex, but I would argue they are essentially contingent, historical questions, not intrinsic to the socialist project, per se. If they are intrinsic to it, then we are really wasting our time.
Chris Cutrone: To add one thing to Richard’s comments: We do not and cannot yet know what the technical problems of organizing a global economy on a socialist basis would be. When Lenin talks about the withering away of the state, what he means of course is the withering away of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He does not mean the withering away of a national state surrounded by capitalism. There is a sort of traditional Marxist ban on blueprints or images of a future society. The reason for this is that for freedom to be free it cannot be determined in advance. The point of Marxism is to clear the obstacles of capitalism so far as we understand them at this point, and we have only been able to understand them the degree to which we have struggled against them. Part of the thesis of regression is that the struggle against capitalism has ceased, and therefore we do not really understand the problem of capitalism as well as we did. We can only come to understand it, as a real problem, in the process of trying to overcome it. Establishing a global dictatorship of the proletariat would, in this sense, simply allow the problem of capitalism to be addressed.
Another way of getting at this would be to ask, What does it mean to politicize the economy? After all, that is what is raised by Obamaism, right? What kind of a political issue is the economy? Marx’s point was that the emergence of a modern worker’s movement, a historically new and potentially emancipatory politics, posed the question of the organization of the economy on a democratic basis. It poses the question. It has not been worked out by any means, nor does the Soviet experience particularly help in thinking about how it might work. All the Soviet experience points to is the revolution. It would be great if organizing the socialist economy were a technical problem. We lack the political means to render it a technical problem.
Q: What, to your mind, are the forms of political consciousness and practice that block the recognition of regression?
Rubin: I think people are afraid to acknowledge regression, because it is unpleasant to consider. It is much easier to fall into what one might call a naïve progressivism—telling oneself always that “the struggle continues”—than to think through the failure of the Left in the 20th century, a failure that really determined the course of the century and our own time. By contrast, the 19th century was a century of great historical progress, in ways that are hard for us to even imagine now.
Atiya Khan: We should attend to the ways in which political consciousness has actually adjusted itself to objective conditions. Instead of pushing against the limitations of the present, the Left today tends to adapt itself to present circumstances. In order to accommodate itself to defeat, the Left continually describes it as victory. Of course, the possibilities of revolution are always present, given the contradictory character of capital itself. The problem is that those who claim to be on the Left abdicate the task of thinking this contradiction through as a problem.
Spencer Leonard: I was suggesting some of these points when I brought up the continuous replaying of 1960s politics in the present, dancing on the grave of the administered world. Thus, for instance, modern anarchism does not really have anything that we would call a theoretical perspective. At best, it is a variety of liberalism, at worst, the heir to the worst of 1960s-era infantile leftism. At all events, anarchism fails to pose the problem of capital, except as one of oppression or exploitation. So, I guess I would turn the question around to ask if there is really any politics today that is not condemned to repeat the failures of the past?
Q: Does your regression thesis apply on a larger scale, on the global scale? It sounds like what is being discussed here is very much a European history.
Rubin: I think that the problem can be seen on a world scale. If you look at, for example, the “Third World”—leaving aside the problems with anti-colonial politics in the mid-century (which were numerous and by no means insignificant)—there was a much higher degree of political consciousness in the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s than there is today. This is a clear manifestation of one kind of regression. Moreover, it is a mistake to separate political developments in the Third World from political developments in the First World, particularly as they become more intertwined and reflect more and more off of each other. So, on the one hand, there was a kind of abdication by a large part of the New Left in favor of Third Worldism, the impulse behind which was a pessimism about transforming their own core metropolitan societies. This is the reason they invested their hope in societies that were supposedly outside of capitalism. Also, the New Left’s Third-Worldist politics—the dominant expression of the Left by the late 1960s—was a global politics. It was neither just metropolitan nor just peripheral, but a common politics.
Cutrone: The history of anti-imperialism, or, really, decolonization—since most decolonization took place in a highly administered way, not through social-political struggle—was, first of all, a disaster for the ex-colonial world. We can say that the conditions in the post-colonial world are, in many ways, considerably degraded and brutalized in comparison to the early 20th century. In addition to this, as Richard has suggested, the New Left’s adaptation to a Third World perspective of revolution was largely predicated on pessimism about revolution in the core. Fanon famously said, “Let’s take our leave of Europe,” which is essentially a resignation from politics. So, if you say that the world has become more politically integrated, and, in a sense, more inclusive over the course of the 20th century, that has to be matched by a narrative of the degradation and evacuation of politics itself. In other words, people can participate more in democratic politics only to the degree to which politics has become inconsequential.
Leonard: It is by no means the case that the colonial period is the non-political period and the post-colonial, or post-decolonization period is political. On the contrary, in many ways decolonization represented a vast defeat of an earlier and more robust politics. In many ways, then, it is because of the collapse, rather than the radicalization, of the kind of revolutionary networks and internationalist cosmopolitanism that the empires allowed for (or could not subdue), that it has become almost impossible for us to even imagine that past in any but the most caricatured ways.
Rubin: The part of the “non-Western” world that I probably know best is the Middle East, the Arab world. There the rise of Islamic politics is a direct consequence, first of all, of the collapse of the Arab nationalism that had been prevalent in the previous generation. That collapse of Arab nationalism itself has to do with the defeat of the actual Arab Left—mostly a Stalinist Arab Left—but a Leftist Arab politics nonetheless. So the reason you have right-wing Islamist politics is not because of some kind of atavistic impulse in the region. Rather, it has to do with the resounding defeat of the Left. It is both ironic and tragic that two of the places where you had the strongest leftist traditions in the Arab world were, number one, Iraq, and number two, Palestine.
Khan: I could follow-up on that in terms of what is happening in Pakistan these days, namely the Talibanization of the entire society. This results from the failure of the Left, specifically the defeats suffered between 1968–1971, culminating in the Bangladesh War, an event that split Pakistan into what are now the countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan. At that moment the possibility existed for Pakistan to institute a liberal democracy under socialists. And it is in that failure, or because of that failure, that Pakistan has taken the direction that it has.
Leonard: The last thing that I would want to add is that what we are talking about is the political history, so to speak, of global integration. To the extent that we actually live in a globally integrated world, it is the legacy not of anti-imperialist politics per se, but of revolutionary politics. Decolonization in the manner it took place is one form taken by the defeat of internationalist radical politics, though this is not at all how decolonization is generally understood.
Q: I am puzzled by the claim that over the last half-century the Third World has become depoliticized. I wonder if one of the reasons the panelists say this is because the politics that has emerged there is unrecognizable to them as politics. I could not help juxtaposing the themes of this talk—defeatism and regression—with some other, much more hopeful panels here at the Left Forum. I am referring in particular to panels treating developments in South America. The Left in South America is going beyond our notions of what it means to be Leftist, which is primarily rooted in western European theorizing about industrial societies. I would argue that the problems in Bolivia, for example, extend beyond these [traditional leftist] concerns.
Rubin: I think that, if you look at the world today, it is true that, at least in certain respects, Latin America is the least regressive part of the world, and the Middle East the most regressive. So they are sort of opposites. But I think that the fundamental problem is the same in both places. Obviously, Evo Morales is in some sense part of the Left. Certainly he is not part of the right, in the way the Taliban is. But really what you have with both Morales and Chavez (and I prefer Morales) is Left nationalism, and this is nothing new. Politics in Latin America are now, if anything, considerably less radical than they were in the 1980s with the Sandinistas and the FMLN, which in their turn were less radical than the Cuban Revolution. You can only really convince yourself that Latin America is a great beacon of revolutionary hope because the rest of the world looks so dismal.
Q: Well, I was not referring to revolution. I am just talking about hope in general, which might be part of the translation problem here. For instance, you mentioned things like the Cuban Revolution and the Sandinistas. Their basic idea was to take over state power in order to bring about what you call revolutionary changes. But, to me, it is not so much about Evo Morales as it is about the people who elected him, the movement. Morales sometimes trembles before their power. They are talking about things like changing the nature of what it means to be a citizen. One could argue that this is far more radical than anything the Castro or the Sandinistas ever attempted. Of course, it is not revolutionary in the way you define revolution. But I think that is part of the issue I am raising—maybe the idea of revolution has been expanded by people in South America.
Leonard: I think the question really turns on the question of whether an emancipatory politics is possible and desirable. But, I would also argue that it is implausible to speak of the world today—in which prevails poverty, degradation, limited life chances, unfree labor, extended workdays, not to mention the extreme desperation among agricultural workers in the large peasant societies and in the slums of the mega-cities across the global south—I think that to call all this (which characterizes South America as much as Asia or Africa) the realization of a new politics is really very contemptuous of the actual aspirations of people there. I would argue that their conditions do not reflect the world they want to live in. Rather, those conditions represent a terrible defeat of their core political aspirations. Following Richard, I would also argue that, at the level we are speaking here, there is no fundamental divergence between one part of the world and another. Also, it is not as if by analyzing the political and emancipatory potential concentrated in the first world, we are ignoring potentials in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa or Asia. On the contrary, there is no potential in the core that is not inherently international, because we live in that kind of integrated world. And, as Chris and Richard have both implied, the New Left’s turn to the so-called peripheral world required them to misrecognize that world as “non-capitalist,” which is to say, non-reified, outside of the prevalence of instrumental reason and of the grey, administered society. This willingness to romanticize the Third World and its struggles was another expression of the New Left’s defeatism.
Cutrone: In his opening remarks, Spencer referred to the “worshipping of the accomplished fact.” The Left has become adept at calling defeat victory. Indeed, it has long made a practice of that. Today there is a whole industry devoted to it. Entire printing presses are dedicated to dressing up a miserable reality. Something Richard said also needs to be underlined. The idea that the struggle continues is itself the adaptation to defeat. Human beings will always struggle against oppression, they will always resist, but the real question is, are they doing anything that has any prospect of fundamentally altering their circumstances? Since it is assumed that we cannot do that, let’s look at where people are struggling, where they are asserting their dignity against horrific conditions, and let’s say, “That is beyond left and right.”
Q: I think the very facile dismissal of Maoism really gets in the way of being able to sum up the first stage of socialist revolution. There is a big debate in the international communist movement today regarding the nature of what Mao’s theoretical breakthroughs were, about what socialism is, and about the contradictions the Chinese are dealing with within socialism. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not a big, democratic movement against the problem of bureaucracy or the dictatorship of a party. Rather, it was actually about dealing with the deeper underlying contradictions of socialism. In it, the Chinese Communists dealt with the fact that, while they were getting out of capitalism, they had not yet arrived at communism on a world scale and that, in consequence, the bourgeoisie kept regenerating itself. So I guess I wanted people to speak to that, because we do have to look scientifically at the experience of the Chinese Revolution. That is the only way we can go forward. It was, actually, profoundly liberating, even though there were very real secondary shortcomings. So I guess if people could speak to this, because I actually do think there is a Marxism that has already looked at this and moved forward.
Rubin: There are two ways in which Maoism, I think, represents a problem. One is the actual Maoism in China, and, the first thing to say about that is that Maoism is a variety of Stalinism, period. Indeed, Mao criticized de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union. But, leaving that aside, the real problem with Maoism that I want to emphasize is not actual Stalinism in China, that is, the dictatorial bureaucratic regime, but rather the effect Maoism had on the western Left in the 1960s and 1970s. The way it functioned in those years was to supply a way of dodging the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism. Now, the various Trotskyist groups all had their own problems, some more grave than others. But what I want to emphasize here is that there simply are no theoretical breakthroughs in Mao. In fact, much of postmodernism has its roots in Maoism.
Khan: I can speak to the case of Pakistan in 1968, and the kind of role that Mao’s regime played in suppressing and crushing the Left in Pakistan in that moment by actually arming the Pakistani army to crush the labor movement.
Cutrone: Atiya is referring to the support the Pakistani state received from China in isolating and then eliminating the Pakistani Left. This was in some ways a repeat of the history of Stalinism in the 1930s. But, rather than demonizing Stalinism, or demonizing Maoism, our point is to say, look at what it actually was, look at how it came to specialize in adapting to defeat. In other words, the defeat of the revolution that opened in 1917 led directly to the Stalinization of both the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, not to mention the defeat of 1927 in China, and so on. There is a history of defeats that one can talk about, and one can track these through the histories of the predominant forms of communism in the world. Now, Trotskyism served as a dissenting voice and a memory of 1917, but it itself is obviously inadequate to the project of advancing an emancipatory politics today. It has long since ceased to constitute a real alternative. As for the Cultural Revolution, people projected all sorts of fantasies onto it in the 1960s. But, in essence, the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” is simply the name the Chinese Communist bureaucracy gave to the process of “its” revolution falling into disarray. It called that disarray “revolution.” You have social chaos, and you say, “Well, it is the Cultural Revolution,” right? That is what happened. As for the disarray itself, it was barbaric. If you look at what actually happened, Mao essentially just rode it out in the same way that Stalin and the Bolsheviks rode out the social chaos of the first five-year plan and the forced collectivization in the Soviet Union.
Khan: One could also point to the form Maoism took in Cambodia…
Q: But that is a facile analogy.
Cutrone: I do not think it is. When society breaks down and people go crazy, you can call it a revolution if you like. The Right is, in essence, the adaptation to prevailing conditions. That is what defines it as a politics. In this sense, the Chinese Stalinists were the right.
Q: So this is the most optimistic panel here at the Left Forum?
Cutrone: Yes, because we are the only ones who are not going to lie to you.
Rubin: Can I respond a little more concretely to the question? Obviously, there are situations where the Left is defeated merely through superior force. There are military defeats. Having the right theoretical understanding cannot guarantee victory. And, certainly, there are aspects of the defeat of the Left, particularly in the early 20th century, that I would consider tragic. Hence my distinction between tragedy and farce. However, the story about the strength of the right and the resilience of capitalism is typically used to ill purpose. For instance, oftentimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s you would hear this story about how the Left in the 1960s were oppressed by COINTELPRO, and that is why there is no Left today. Now, the German Left was murdered by Hitler, but the collapse of Left in the United States in the 1960s was not really because of state repression. There was state repression and people were killed—I am not denying the existence of state repression—but the core problems were ideological. This is revealed by the fact that, for instance, when the economy collapsed in the early 1970s, the Left did not grow. Rather, it shrank in the 1970s and continued to shrink through the 1980s down to the present, to the point that there is nothing left. There have been four decades of growing conservatism in this country. Now, you cannot explain that just by reference to the shenanigans of the CIA or the FBI. You have to say, if you are honest, that the Left failed to make its case in a way that could be understood or could garner appeal. In some crucial way, the Left failed to understand historical reality.
In the 1990s, I got to know a lot of genuine, old leftists, people who had been radicals, communists—mostly Trotskyists, actually—in the 1930s. What struck me about them was how much more normal they were than the radicals of my generation. They were the sort of people I could hang out with. They were ordinary people who had ordinary working-class jobs. You did not feel that their radicalism was some kind of a sub-culture. It was not a sub-culture and it was not a psychological symptom. A lot of times I meet people nowadays, who are nice people, but I think they are radicals because they do not have a life. [Laughter] I am just trying to be honest, I am not saying that that is the only cause of radicalism; in fact, I hope that is not the case with me. [Laughter]
Q: It seems to me you have a very clear definition of what defeat is, but that you radically under-specify what victory would be. I would claim that this is because you identify problems as ideological, and thereby you inhabit the theory-practice divide and bracket off economic and material problems. It is as if politics were not a material problem, as if war, and black-ops, and all of that, did not entail material organization.
To say that going beyond left and right is essentially a right-wing statement is profoundly ignorant. I could point you to this book called Breaking with the Enlightenment, where the author Rajani Kanth argues that the Left and the right share much in common, while many radical movements express premodern ideologies, as in the case of the cocoa-growers movement. Their relationship to nature and their vision of ecology is not “leftist” or “green.” Just to point to a concrete example, Bhutan, which is a kingdom and a monarchy, has an index called “Gross National Happiness,” with which they are trying to radically redefine what the purpose of a state should be.
Leonard: The issue of the history of the Left is that the understanding of defeat elucidates what victory would mean. We can only recognize defeat in the light of possibility. It is not a defeat in the sense that there is some set of fixed criteria for it. Rather, it is defeat only in light of the potentialities being produced by capitalism. One of these potentialities is the overcoming of scarcity, the radical overcoming of the “economic.” This is at the very heart of Marx’s political and intellectual project, that capitalism is the chief limitation to both productivity and sustainability. Of course, capitalism unleashes this potential for overcoming scarcity, but ultimately it constrains that potential. Worker-organized production would precisely be both a more fulfilling and a more productive form of labor, in which the capacity of human knowledge would be harnessed to radically diminish drudgery while increasing productivity.
Cutrone: I want to get to the issue of the degree to which pre-modern cultural forms continue to exist under capitalism. They continue to exist only in the worst sense. Overcoming capital would allow the unlocking of the past in a different way. What remains of non-capitalist, pre-capitalist forms of life (even if they are only after-images and residues), would gain a completely different quality in the future. They would cease to appear, as they do now, to be a sort of outside or site of resistance to capitalism. Overcoming capitalism would allow the best features of non-capitalist social forms that have existed throughout history to find a new salience, such as they lack under present circumstances. That should not be left out. |P