Introduction to the history of the Left: Changes in the meaning of class struggles
Platypus Review 3 | March 2008
Why do we need a “history of the Left?”—
Platypus differs from other tendencies and organizations on the Left to the extent that we find it necessary and desirable to reexamine the history of the Left to help understand problems on the Left in the present. For focusing on the history of the Left and its problems, Platypus has been accused by a variety of Marxists of obscuring the “fundamental social divide” of the “class struggle” of the “proletariat” vs. the “bourgeoisie,” in favor of emphasizing the ideological and political difference between the Right and the Left.
A central insight of Platypus is that the existence of class society and its forms of oppression and exploitation do not necessarily generate, in response, an effective let alone emancipatory politics. The “materialist” conception of the history of the Left, offered by “orthodox” Marxists, claims that the Left emerges directly from struggles against oppression, whether of a “class” nature or otherwise. We consider this to be inadequate, and, moreover, a stumbling block for understanding what it would mean to struggle for social emancipation in the present.
The first fact that must be addressed by anyone trying to understand the history of the Left is that, although class society is thousands of years old, and, in this sense, one may indeed claim in the words of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle,” such “struggles” either led nowhere or led to new social forms of oppression, that may, at best, have contained within them the seeds of further historical development. But it is only within the last couple of hundred years, since the late 18th Century (where our subsequent series on the history of the Left will begin)—and so in the history of capital—that the possibility of getting beyond all forms of social oppression has been put forward by mass social movements as a this-worldly possibility—and not as a utopian philosophical ideal or as the vision of a religiously promised Messianic future. The modern working class is not merely an object of society, like the slaves of the past were, but is an agent in the history of capital. This is where the “Left” and its history come in.
The history of capital may be seen as having a dual character: On the one hand, it opens up new possibilities for human degradation, for example, its stimulation of technical “progress” even threatens the very survival of the human species and its environment. But, on the other hand, it opens up a potential realm of human freedom that no previous stage of history could have offered. Thus socialism will either fulfill the promise of the best aspects of modern, (historically) “bourgeois” and “capitalist” culture, in socialism, or else the potential barbarism that always lurks under the surface of even the most successful phases of modern society threatens to render an emancipatory anticapitalist politics, or “Left,” impossible.
The history of a single name can illustrate the problem of understanding the history of the Left: Spartacus, the Spartakusbund, and the Spartacist League (U.S.). While Spartacus led a massive slave revolt against the Roman Republic in the 1st century BCE, his revolt to free all slaves was historically doomed to failure. As such, Spartacus is a classically tragic historical figure. The fate of Spartacus’s revolt revealed the (historical) truth of his society. While his struggle was heroic and admirable, it was incapable of being successful for reasons of social structure and historical development. (In a similar way, one may admire the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in WWII, although, as they themselves knew, their struggle was just as hopeless, but for other, more contingent reasons than for Spartacus: we can sympathize with their similar attempts to “do the right thing,” no matter how “impractical” it proved to be.)
With the Spartakusbund of the radical internationalist Marxist German Social Democrats Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during first World War 1914–19, however, the tragedy is of a completely different order. Here the tragedy is not that of a necessary failure but of an unnecessary one. The tragedy of Spartacus is that he and his fellow slaves could not alter the structure of the socialhistorical development of Roman society. The tragedy of the Spartakists, who were crushed during the failed German Revolution at the end of WWI 1918–19, is that if they had succeeded the pattern of modern history would have been radically different than what came to be. It is the unnecessary character of the resulting outcomes of Nazism and Stalinism that makes the German Spartakists’ defeat in 1919 so tragic.
With the Trotskyist group the Spartacist League/U.S., founded in 1966 and named after the German Spartakists who were in turn named after the leader of the great slave revolt, we come to be in a late, tertiary phase in the history of the Left. Unlike its predecessor namesakes, the Spartacist League has encountered no great defeat through which the truth of its historical moment could be revealed, for the SL has never been in a position to influence history at all. Its politics are rather the virtual politics of a propaganda group —like all other sectarian “Marxist” groups of the late 20th Century—and hence one can judge such groups only by the content of their ideas, in the absence of their effective historical action. This is where Platypus’s emphatically theoretical and ideological project of critique of the Left and development of critical historical consciousness of the Left might come into play.
For “orthodox Marxists,” the meaning of a Leftist politics comes down to a belief in a deus absconditus—a “hidden god”—the “class struggle,” which will, in the end, supposedly force the working class to take up its Historic Role. In the meantime all that such “Marxists” need to do is “hold the line” and repeat themselves like automata until someone, someday listens. This is called “historical”—or even “revolutionary”—”continuity.” In this way, the “progressive politics” is understood in terms of struggles against oppression instead of in terms of social emancipation.
Platypus rejects the assumption that “resistance” is necessarily a good thing. Nor, alas, can we take comfort, as our “Marxist” predecessors could, in the “struggles” of “the working class.” We do not believe that the problems of the Left over the last few decades, since the 1960s, can be understood as the result of “defeats” like that suffered by Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund in 1919. Platypus’s focus on questions of historical “regression” reveals a radically different problem and explanation from that of “defeat,” although conditioned by it. We argue that the greatest problems the Left faces—including the prospect of its own extinction—arise from within the Left itself and are deeply rooted in its own history. Indeed, for us, the Right is a secondary phenomenon and its victories are the result of failures of the Left. Hence our focus is primarily on criticizing the existing “Left” and the history of its problematic selfunderstanding, rather than “fighting the Right.” We do not share the false optimism that the “struggle continues,” but face the stark reality that the struggles that defined the historical Left ended a while ago, in failure. We try to understand the meaning of this historical discontinuity for the present.
In our next and first proper installment of this series on the history of the Left, we will turn to the historical origins of the “Left” in the late 18th Century. |P
. See, for example: Spartacus Youth Club (Chicago), “Platypus: Pseudo-‘Marxist,’ Pro-Imperialist, Academic Claptrap” (November 6, 2007).