The Left is a concept — but social revolution is not: A response to “Benedict Cryptofash”
LESZEK KOŁAKOWSKI’S “THE CONCEPT OF THE LEFT” (1958) is useful for addressing what it means to say that there is a Left and a Right in Marxism. It is derived from the Revisionist Dispute regarding Orthodox Marxism and the question of reform vs. revolution in the 2nd Socialist International. The actual occasion for Kołakowski’s article was Soviet Premier and Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin for “crimes against Leninism” and against socialism. What did this mean?
It goes back to the accusation against the Socialist Party-associated labor unions and the Marxist theorist Eduard Bernstein and his Revisionist associates in the 2nd International, who advocated reform struggles within liberal democratic capitalism at the expense of socialist revolution, that they were “opportunists.” This is what characterized them as the Right. Kołakowski describes this as adaptation to and expression of the “inertia of the status quo” that characterizes the Right as conservative.
By contrast, Orthodox and “revolutionary” Marxism upheld what Kołakowski called the Left as “utopia.” Kołakowski wrote that what characterized the Left was an “idea” and moreover its “negation” of the status quo, not programmatically as in a blueprint for a better society, but rather as a “mysterious and obscure” expression of historical potential and possibility that is not yet realized.
This goes back to the bourgeois revolutionary philosophy of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and others which contrasted what “is” with what “ought” to be, the process of becoming within a state of being that expressed what could and should be but “is not” yet. Marxism descended from this revolutionary philosophy of the era of bourgeois emancipation and enlightenment from traditional civilization.
So what is the difference that makes this such a contentious issue? Capitalism has its origins in the bourgeois revolution, but for Marxism expresses a potential beyond it: socialism/communism — “communism” as an Ancient religious ideal of collective equality; “socialism” as a modern political ideology stemming from the potential inherent in capitalism but not possible previously and not yet existing in historical reality.
The problem is not that the Marxist Left — the revolutionary political ideology and “[Hegelian] scientific theory” of historical Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, among others — is descended from bourgeois revolutionary philosophy, but rather that since the failure of Marxism historically to achieve socialist revolution in the early 20th century, capitalism itself has tried to adapt to the threat of proletarian discontent and disorder through “progressive liberal” democratic capitalist welfare-state measures and the national organization of capital accumulation.
Stalinism was an adaptation to this failure of world socialist revolution and assimilation instead to “progressive capitalism,” thus making Stalinism the modern expression of the Right wing of Marxism, expressing the inertia of history and society and becoming the ideology of the liquidation of the proletarian struggle for socialism. Trotsky called Stalinism the “antithesis of Bolshevism” — of Marxism.
The Left is dead today because it is the Right — not because it is the Left. The Left as a historical idea of Marxism motivating the proletarian struggle for the socialist transformation of capitalism has become instead a late bourgeois ideology of the “progressive” reform of capitalism. This already happened nearly 100 years ago and is still in effect very strongly today. Marxism is thus entombed in history.
The Left–Right distinction is not social but political and ideological in nature. Its meaning for Marxism comes from a division and split in the political party for socialism — the split of the 3rd Communist from 2nd Socialist International in the Russian Revolution and its world-historic aftermath: the old Socialists were the Right and the new Communists were the Left. From a Marxist perspective, the established Socialist Parties existing today are still the Right, despite being called the “Left.” Trotsky and his comrades called themselves the Left Opposition to Stalinism in the Communist International. They made a claim to uphold the true spirit of Marxism and proletarian socialist revolution that still haunts us today.
Lenin (in)famously observed that socialist ideology must come from outside the social and economic and political struggles of the working class within capitalism. What was this “outside”? It wasn’t sociological — from bourgeois intellectuals — but rather historical: it comes from the past accumulation of experience of the bourgeois democratic revolution and its self-contradiction and defeat in capitalism. Lenin called socialists “Jacobins indissolubly connected to the workers movement.” This is the idea.
The workers movement comes from bourgeois discontents in capitalism: capitalism’s contradiction and betrayal of “equality of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson — who importantly led the Left wing of the American Revolution). Only historical experience and its critical lessons can teach the proletarianized working class in capitalism that the goal of its struggle is beyond bourgeois emancipation and freedom, within which their struggles are otherwise inevitably circumscribed, reproducing capitalism.
Only a Marxist socialist Left could possibly lift the horizon of such struggle beyond capitalism. But only the working class can actually achieve the real goals of this struggle in social revolution. |P
 See Benedict Cryptofash, "The Left is not a concept," Platypus Review 142 (December 2021 – January 2022), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2021/12/01/the-left-is-not-a-concept/>.