What is a platypus?
On Surviving the Extinction of the Left
A story is told about Karl Marx’s collaborator and friend Friedrich Engels, who, in his youth, as a good Hegelian Idealist, sure about the purposeful, rational evolution of nature and of the place of human reason in it, became indignant when reading about a platypus, which he supposed to be a fraud perpetrated by English taxidermists. For Engels, the platypus made no sense in natural history.
Later, Engels saw a living platypus at a British zoo and was chagrined. Like Marx, a good materialist and a thinker receptive to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which dethroned a human-centered view of nature, Engels came to respect that “reason” in history, natural or otherwise, must not necessarily accord with present standards of human reason.
This is a parable we find salutary to understanding the condition of the Left today.
In light of the history of the present, we might ask, what right does the Left have to exist?
Every right — as much as the platypus has, however difficult it might be to categorize!
We maintain that past and present history need not indicate the future. Past and present failures and losses on the Left should educate and warn, but not spellbind and enthrall us.
Hence, to free ourselves, we declare that the Left is dead. — Or, more precisely, that we are all that is left of it.
This is less a statement of fact than of intent.
— The intent that the Left should live, but the recognition that it can, only by overcoming itself. And we are that overcoming!
So, then, what are we?
We are thinkers on the Left educated and warned by the history of the 20th Century — but not terrorized by it! “Let the dead bury the dead.” Our actions might redeem their suffering yet.
We are motivated, after failed and betrayed attempts at emancipation, and in light of their inadequate self-understanding, to re-appropriate this history in service of possibilities for emancipatory struggle in the present — and the future.
Towards such ends, we might begin (perhaps provocatively) with the list of names that indicate the thoughts and problems issuing from events that, reading history against the grain (with Benjamin), still speak to us in the present: Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Adorno. — Not much more than what is represented by these figures, but absolutely nothing less.
We will overcome any easy and false recognition of such names, and all received wisdom about the thoughts and actions identified with them, to better possible critical recognition and development of our purpose.
In the history of the Left, the dates 1848 and 1917, but less 1968, and not 1989: the aftermath of ambiguous defeats and victories; but, more, the insights yielded by defeats, and the recognition of a present and a history that need not have been, for a future that need not yet be. The restive spirits of 1848 and 1917, in their unfulfilled possibilities, will continue to speak to an unredeemed future.
The history of modernity is not finished yet, nor will it be, short of redeeming its promise. Therefore, we do not share the (mislaid) feelings of exhaustion with the modern, but we recognize a certain abdication of its emancipatory transformation, which haunts us with its necessity.
We recognize our necessity.
We agree with the young Marx in “the ruthless criticism of everything existing.” Unlike Hegel in his struggle against Romantic despair after 1789, we recognize the necessity of our present only as “bad.” Our present does not deserve affirmation or even respect, for we recognize it only for what came to be when the Left was destroyed and liquidated itself.
And so, with the story of Engels and the platypus, let us begin to address the improbable but not impossible tasks and project of the next Left.