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A Prelude to the History of the Left

The Platypus Historians Group

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007


The Platypus Historians Group is a collective of members of Platypus who are researchers into the history of the Left. We will be publishing this series on the History of the Left under this collective authorship to indicate the collaborative nature of our research and the questions it raises. Each article under this byline will be written by one or several members of this collective, but with contributions and review by as many others of this group as possible and appropriate to the topics essayed.

Preparation for these articles on the History of the Left was done through a series of lectures and discussions conducted in Chicago in summer 2007 by members of the Platypus Historians Group. These lecture-discussions addressed a broad overview of movements and events in the emergence and trajectory — and passing — of the revolutionary Marxist Left, in an attempt to formulate a perspective on this history that is specific to the Platypus project. Hence, the development of our perspective on the history of the Left is our development of a theory of the present.

In subsequent issues Platypus will serialize a “History of the Left”. The phrase has a strange ring to it! A human being has a history, a nation, a people have a history. One is not the “same person” one was twenty years ago perhaps, yet one can not make sense of who one is now without a sense of who one “was” even if that person has come to seem as alien as a stranger. A people too may “remember” its past, its becoming, its suffering, its ancient glories and yet no living member of that people may have experienced any of these. Such remembering and rethinking what has been whether personal and collective is obvious to us. But “the Left”?

What sort of object is this “Left” whose history we seek to explore? Certainly it is not something that is a permanent part of our species being. It has existed for perhaps a mere seven generations, and ours could easily become the last of them. For thousands of years human beings existed without a “Left”, miserable and exalted, oppressed and oppressors, creators and transmitters of culture, complex curious creatures like ourselves, political beings even, for politics in one sense — the dominant sense it seems nowadays so deep is our regression — is quite independent of the categories of “Left” and “Right”. (Before there was a “Left” there could not be a “Right” either. By a peculiar irony whose effects are already beginning to be felt, only the memory of the Left seems to make possible the historical continuity of the Right today. )

To pose therefore the fragility of the Left, its lack of necessity, its potential to be lost, or to disintegrate into incoherence, is therefore to read “history against the grain” . It means accepting, indeed deepening, our alienation from the present, for the twofold task of both not betraying the past and the even more important task of not betraying the future — a future that has not been promised to us — a future that is not certainly ours. (But how wonderful the past faith of generations of leftists that Socialism was the promised bridegroom of humanity at the end of History!) Yet if this “future” is not promised, if it is not certainly ours, it is still potentially ours. Capitalism precisely in its creative destructiveness gives us reason to hope. Those who denounce “greed” miss the point. It is not “greed” that is the problem but lack of imagination. And behind this failure of imagination lies a failure of nerve.

Has it not all been tried before? Do we not know how it all turns out? The Gulag and the Guillotine. Are not these the inheritance of the “Left”? Long gone are the glorious invocations of 1789 and 1917. Those who have inherited the mantle of the left seem no longer to wish to be the victors of history. Indeed the idea strikes them as obscene. Is the “left” not always with the losers? With the oppressed, the mute, forgotten, subaltern? And are they not always there, outside of history, looking in?

Is this not why a history of the Left causes a certain embarrassment? A resistance, unconscious or semi-conscious, rises up against an historical conception of the Left. To think this way is immediately to raise so many Red Flags. It is to remind people of so many things better left unmentioned, of uncomfortable “sectarian” words like “Stalinism” and “Trotskyism,” that have no “relevance” anymore. Indeed it seems to many who consider themselves “leftists” that nothing of relevance happened before this year’s class of entering college freshmen was born 1989. History became a blank slate that year. Or, if one is more generous, or is a bit older and burdened with a personal history that was already quite event-filled by 1989, then perhaps the history of the Left began in 1968. The Sixties were glorious, weren’t they? But then Ronald Reagan was elected. (How did that happen?) Admittedly, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” are here to stay. But it appears that none of these are as emancipatory as was once believed, and all of them are quite compatible with an oppressive capitalist society. And the politics of the 60s? Well, let’s not think about that too closely. Let us rather focus on the spirit of the 60s which is so much more edifying. Hillary Clinton it is rumored to have once had posters of Yasser Arafat and Che Guevara up in her dorm room. Of course, this may only be one of the pornographic fantasies of Fox News, but surely one wishes it to be true! For it speaks so much of the ironic truth about our time.

It is against the common sense conception of contemporary “Leftism” that seeks, at worst, “unconsciously,” in its blind “Bush hatred,” and, at best, with a kind of “honest bad faith,” the election of Hillary Clinton, that this series on the history of the Left is intended, and Platypus itself as a project conceived. We will of necessity seem archaic because we still believe in a potential future for humanity which we identify frankly with the task of abolishing capitalism — and with enlightenment towards that end. We will not shy away from “meta-narratives.” Nor will we shy away from the crucial word “defeat”. We must no be afraid of this word. Without admitting the possibility of defeat, we deny ourselves the possibility of victory. It is only in the context of past defeats that the present can be understood. At times like the present, if one is not completely numbed, a great animal-like cry of pain, a howl from the depths of one’s being, might seem the only appropriate response, but that would be a mistake. A great man, one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, which was the ground out of which the Left grew, chose as his motto “Humanas actiones non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (“We should with human actions neither laugh, nor cry, nor curse but seek to understand.”)

With that motto, let us too go forward. |P