The Left is not a concept
Platypus Review 142 | December 2021/January 2022
OVER THE PAST YEAR AND A HALF, I have been developing a seemingly paradoxical theory of anti-leftist Marxism in an effort to explain how the Left enforces bourgeois class domination. Refined in dialogue with a handful of fellow travelers on social media and now through an ongoing series of articles, anti-leftist Marxism rejects the conventional association between Marx and the Left, arguing instead that the former provides the critical resources for revealing the latter’s role as the leading ideological force of capitalist society today. Even for many invested in what they thought were leftist principles, this situation has become increasingly difficult to deny, as they have watched the Left spearhead every bourgeois ideological campaign in recent memory. From Russiagate and various other Trump derangements to the endless liberal panics around fascism, racism, sexism, and domestic terrorism to COVID-19 vaccine fanaticism, whatever the latest mental production of bourgeois society might be, one can be sure that it is being achieved by its foot soldiers in academia, media, tech, activism, the arts, i.e., the ideological factories of the Left.
My critique of the Left as nothing but the left wing of bourgeois democracy has brought me into contact with the Platypus Affiliated Society, which is similarly critical of the pseudo-radical contemporary Left. But whereas Platypus conceives of itself as a project for “the practical reconstitution of a Marxian Left,” I contend that, as merely one side of bourgeois politics, the Left is anti-Marxist to begin with, and that the path toward a revitalized Marxism lies in the critical demolition of the Left, not its reformation. To support my claim that leftism is antithetical to Marxism, I rely on a few key historical facts.
Firstly, the language of Left and Right is foreign to classical Marxism, which interpreted social contradictions in terms of objective class antagonisms, not with regard to the subjective differences of the political compass. Secondly, Left and Right only emerged historically as the relative poles of bourgeois democracy, whose parliamentary terms only came into being and spread across the capitalist world to naturalize the bourgeois system of government. Lastly, I emphasize how Marx’s theoretical originality manifested through a ruthless criticism of the left-wing politics of his time, namely, the various bourgeois and utopian schools of socialism and anarchism against which he sharpened his historical analysis of class society. Marxism, in my interpretation, gains its critical force by demystifying the Left’s habitual idealism, moralism, and utopianism, unhistorical tendencies marking the Left of Marx’s time and our own.
Platypus’s criticism of the New and contemporary Left’s “pseudo-radical anti-Marxism” brings it as close to anti-leftism as a project can get while still clinging to an ideal of the Left. Therefore, I welcomed its invitation to contrast my approach with that of Leszek Kołakowski’s “The Concept of the Left,” a pivotal influence for Platypus. Despite our shared objections to the contemporary Left, an analysis of Kołakowski’s text will illuminate some of the key theoretical differences between my anti-leftist Marxism and Platypus’s efforts to “reconstitute a Marxian Left.” Kołakowski’s conception of the Left as a philosophical abstraction that holds a moral and ideological essence is the common premise of many leftist true-believers, who set their ideal of the Left against the contaminations of the actual Left, convinced that the latter only needs purification to enter the true light of the former. Indeed, a central excuse that keeps many critics of class society tethered to the Left, despite its recurring submission to bourgeois imperatives, is the Kołakowskian belief in an ideal conception of the Left worth saving, the dream of a “real” Left that transcends the existing one.
Anti-leftist Marxism overturns this mystical consciousness of pure leftism by interpreting the Left not as a romantic ideal but in terms of its actual historical existence, as one side of the Left/Right political organization of capitalist society, the artificial division of bourgeois democracy which the Left is historically responsible for promoting at the expense of the Marxist centrality of class struggle. In other words, the Left is not a shell of its former proletarian self, nor has its corruptions removed it from the grace of pure leftism. Instead, the Left has always embodied the parliamentary logic of the capitalist state it exists to naturalize. The Left came into being as the left wing of bourgeois democracy and as its long history as the advance guard of liberal capitalism reveals, its interests are not identical with those of the proletariat, something Kołakowski is proud to emphasize. In short, the Left is not a concept. It is the historical movement of the progressive bourgeoisie. In the contemporary United States, it is the Democratic Party.
In a 2014 Platypus panel devoted to Kołakowski’s “The Concept of the Left,” Chris Cutrone observes that its author only “became a very virulent anti-Marxist” much later, after the composition of this essay in the late fifties when he was “still writing within the tradition of Marxism.” I argue, however, that in its own way Kołakowski’s essay is itself a pernicious work of anti-Marxist utopianism that epitomizes the kind of leftist metaphysics that keeps today’s quixotic Left-reformers tethered to the concept of the Left despite its practical existence. I contend that Kołakowski’s misconception about the Left stems from his desire to imbue it with an essence, to romanticize it as a utopian “ideal born in the realm of pure spirit and not in current historical experience.” In his attempts to define the Left as a philosophical abstraction “on the level of ideas,” in “intellectual, and not class, terms,” he only shrouds its real social function in the abstractions that historical materialism emerged to demystify.
Although at one point Kołakowski concedes that “the concept of the Left is relative,” that “one is a leftist only in comparison with something, and not in absolute terms,” he nevertheless spends most of his essay contrasting the essence of the Left with the essence of the Right, a relation that, for him, forms a transhistorical dynamic. Indeed, Kołakowski often appears to eternalize the Left, claiming that “its unchangeable and indispensable quality [...] is a movement of negation toward the existent world.” In Kołakowski’s moral drama, the Left is the “quest for change” striving for utopian impossibilities that “lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning.” By contrast, Kołakowski sees the Right “as a conservative force,” whose “essence is the affirmation of existing conditions.” Whereas Kołakowski’s Left represents the transformation of reality, the Right “strives to idealize actual conditions, not to change them.” Therefore, unlike the Left, “What it needs is fraud, not utopia,” the latter being what the Left gives forth “just as the pancreas discharges insulin — by virtue of an innate law.”
This romantic leftism paints a simplistic moral dualism in which the Left is the “dynamite of hope that blasts the dead load of ossified systems, institutions, customs, intellectual habits, and closed doctrines” represented by the historical inertia of the Right. As Platypus panelist Nikos Malliaris observes, “Kołakowski has a tendency to reduce Left and right to abstract philosophical concepts, and then to identify the Left as ‘Good’ compared to the right as ‘Evil.’” Such sanctimony may please the moralistic leftists of the Democratic Party, whose partisans never tire of demonizing the Right as the source of all evil. But Kołakowski’s Left/Right metaphysics have nothing to do with Marx, who never oriented his thought according to this moral binary and only opposed such idealistic frameworks. Furthermore, it is at odds with history itself, in which the Left has more often worked “to idealize actual conditions, not to change them,” the very tendency that Kołakowski considers to be the essence of the Right. Consider, for example, the utopian socialism Marx insists the proletariat must abandon to the petty bourgeoisie, for with “great sentimental rhetoric” it “only idealises present-day society, makes a shadowless picture of it and seeks to oppose its ideal to its reality.” The utopian Left Marx critiqued in his time is after all not very different from the bourgeois socialists of today, who as the ideological shock troops of the Democratic Party, function “to perpetuate things as they are” as much as anyone on the Right.
The original leftists of the revolutionary bourgeois may have negated feudal society, in keeping with Kołakowski negative essence of the Left, yet as one side of emerging bourgeois democracy, the Left/Right polarization they created fundamentally affirms the parliamentary logic of the existing capitalist order. Although Kołakowski presents Left and Right as eternal moral opposites, “both terms originate in the debates that shook revolutionary France back in the 1790s.” As Malliaris details, “They express the mounting current of political republicanism and constitute its two main forms: the Left a radical one, and the right its more moderate counterpart,” the latter being “a moderate way to support the post-revolutionary order.” From a Marxist perspective, therefore, Left and Right are not opposites; they are relative tendencies within the ruling class, the advance and rear guards of liberal capitalism.
Kołakowski contrasts the Left as revolutionary negation and the Right as reactionary affirmation by claiming, “The opposite of blowing up a house is not to build a new house but to retain the existing one,” but ever since bourgeois revolution blew up the ancien régime, both Right and Left have combined to preserve the existing house of capitalist society. In short, it is a mystification of history to claim that capitalism is inherently right wing, for the Left is the political force that ushered capitalism into the world and it is the Left that continues to take credit for the “liberating” effects of the advancing bourgeois epoch.
Proletarian Marxism rejects the intra-bourgeois Left/Right divide because it only obscures the class nature of social antagonisms with its idealistic framework of competing values and “moral attitudes.” Perhaps the most anti-Marxist aspect of Kołakowski’s essay is indeed the way it submerges the real social contradiction between classes into a moral and metaphysical opposition between the abstractions of Right and Left. At odds with Marx’s method of historical materialism, Kołakowski insists that “the Left must be defined in intellectual, and not class, terms,” and embraces the discrepancy between the proletariat as a social class and the Left “as a certain ideological and moral attitude” that transcends class interests. While many leftists seek to retain an illusion of proletarian politics by equating the ruling class with the Right and the working class with the Left, Kołakowski is more transparent when explaining “why the statement that it must be in the interest of the working class to belong to the Left does not always hold true.” This is because “the Left must define itself on the level of ideas,” which for Kołakowski include “change,” “hope,” “the destruction of all racism,” and “the abolition of inequalities, discrimination, and the exploitation of certain countries by others.” Few leftists (i.e., Democrats) today would disagree.
The Left/Right mystification of class struggle is as antithetical to the thought of Marx as it is useful to bourgeois interests, yet it is the Left that creates and perpetuates this superficial dichotomy. “The Left draws the dividing line between the Left and the Right, while the Right fights this division systematically — and in vain, for the Left’s self-definition,” as Kołakowski celebrates, “is strong enough to define the Right and, in any event, to establish the existence of the demarcation line.” But what use to the proletariat is this intra-bourgeois dividing line cultivated by the Left? As the two sides of liberal democracy, “Left versus Right” ensures all political conflict remains within bourgeois parameters. Its very purpose is to divorce politics from class, to divide people instead based on ideas, values, beliefs, identities, “ideological and moral attitudes,” etc. The Left/Right ideology of capitalist society is ultimately worse than useless to the proletariat, for it denies its existence and historical purpose as a social class, submerging its objective conflicts into the idealistic terrain of bourgeois politics.
Unlike leftist true-believers such as Kołakowski, Marx does not interpret social antagonisms as a matter of competing ideals, but as a difference in class interest. Whereas “Left versus Right” dissolves class divides into moral differences, Marx italicizes class contradictions in revealing the historical nature of the proletariat’s conflict with the bourgeoisie. The Kołakowskian suggestions, as echoed by Cutrone, that “The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities,” or that “the Left is concerned with freedom, and the right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom” are exactly the kind of meaningless abstractions that Marx ruthlessly criticized as unhistorical, utopian, and idealistic. But vague romanticism about the abstract essence of the Left is where the true-believer must retreat when confronted with the Left’s actual historical existence, which is devoted not to pure ideals of “freedom,” “possibilities,” and “hope,” but to the capitalist development it secures as the progressive faction of its ruling class. In Platypus’s panel on Kołakowski, Cutrone makes the familiar left-wing argument that “needing to get ‘beyond left and right’ is just a right-wing argument.” But the Marxist argument is that the class need of the proletariat — not the leftist projection of utopia — contains the potential negation of bourgeois society, and its Left/Right political organization along with it.
Just as Marx stood Hegelian idealism right side up, anti-leftist Marxism inverts “the concept of the Left,” viewing it as it really is, as a historical faction of the bourgeoisie, not as some abstract ideal. Whereas Kołakowski leads Platypus to mourn the “defeat and failure” of the Left, anti-leftist Marxism confronts the success and triumph of the Left. Whereas Platypus laments the “post-political” Left, anti-leftist Marxism understands its relentless bourgeois politics. Whereas Platypus seeks a “‘return to Marx’ for the potential reinvigoration of the Left,” anti-leftist Marxism recognizes the vigor of the Left in its castration of Marx. Whereas Platypus proclaims “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” anti-leftist Marxism responds, “The Left is alive! — Abolish the Left!”
 Platypus Affiliated Society, “Statement of Purpose,” available online at <https://platypus1917.org/project/statement-of-purpose>.
 Platypus Affiliated Society, “A Short History of the Left,” available online at <https://platypus1917.org/project/a-short-history-of-the-left/>.
 Chris Cutrone, Nikos Malliaris, Samir Gandesha, “The Concept of the Left and Right,” Platypus Review 68 (July 2014), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2014/07/04/concept-left-right>.
 Leszek Kołakowski, “The Concept of the Left,” in Toward a Marxist Humanism (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 69.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 68, 70.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 72.
 Ibid., 72, 70.
 Ibid., 83.
 Cutrone, Malliaris, Gandesha, “Concept.”
 Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 10. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978), 127.
 Kołakowski, “The Concept of the Left,” 68.
 Cutrone, Malliaris, Gandesha, “Concept.”
 Kołakowski, “The Concept of the Left,” 68.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 74.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 73.
 Cutrone, Malliaris, Gandesha, “Concept.”
 Chris Cutrone, “Vicissitudes of historical consciousness and possibilities for emancipatory social politics today, ‘The Left is Dead! — Long Live the Left!’” Platypus Review 1 (November 2007), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/project/the-left-is-dead-long-live-the-left>.