The Concept of Left and Right
A panel held at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention on Saturday, April 5th at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
“We are the 99%”
- Occupy Wall Street (2011)
"The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority"
- Leszek Kolakowski, The Concept of the Left (1968)
The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the “Old Left” the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the "end of ideology"; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists and the 1990s post-Left anarchism.
Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 – from the Arab Spring to Occupy - there seemed a sense that the Left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the "99%" has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by Left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, Left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the “Left” was not really expected to be competitive.
This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the “New Left's” struggle to overcome the “Old Left” the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left "remained unclear". In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as "freedom" and "equality", could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist "Left" had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.
What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of "Left" and "Right", there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of “realpolitik” --a better tactical response -- rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the “Left” and the “Right” only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static and trapped in history. But wouldn't this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?
1) How is the Left distinguished from the Right? Is it important to continue to discern and define the Left? How would this be done?
2) Do social struggles today express the distinction between Left and Right and if yes how is this visible?
3) Do you believe that the Left expresses better “collective” demands and the Right refers to “individual” demands? If not this, then what?
4) Today, many relate the Right with neoliberalism, with the state or with reformism and opportunism. What defines the Right? How is one to recognize it? What and who does it now refer to?
5) In the history of the two previous centuries Left was to a large extent associated with the struggles of the oppressed and the idea of social emancipation. How would the Right relate to these social struggles differently?
6) How would you define the history of the 20th century in terms of the influence and prevail of Left or Right ideas? Can the course of the Communist states be grasped according to this distinction?
7) Are there Right ideologies inside the Left? If yes, how should they be treated and why?
8) What is the role of ideology within political movements today? How do you regard the centrality of ideology to Kolakowski's concept of the Left? Can the Right have ideology? Do you feel there is active engagement over ideological questions on the Left or is it more often relegated below tactical questions?