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?
A panel held at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The First International (1864 - 1876), or International Workingmen's Association, was founded in the long shadow of 1848, amidst Polish and Italian national liberation movements and the upheaval of the American Civil War. As an organization it pushed against the limitations of radical Republican politics (in both its European and American iterations). It was the first to present the need for an organized body of the international working class in order to develop the political forces capable of challenging industrial capitalism on the world's stage. The recognition of the global nature of capitalist society, coupled with a critique of radical democratic politics of the second half of nineteenth century -- both from an Anarchist and Marxist perspective -- make up the political content of the First International.
Any history of the First International in the present is necessarily informed -- consciously or unconsciously -- by the experience and assessment of the Marxist Internationals in the twentieth century. A critical history of the First International today would have to be part of a larger reflection on the origins of Marxism and the mid-nineteenth century shift in leftist political practice (the transformation of both its means and ends). In assessing this history, one discontinuity immediately presents itself: unlike the history of the Second, Third, and Fourth International, the First International was composed of largely heterogeneous political tendencies, including (but not limited to) British labor reformers (including Chartists), Polish radical republicans (in opposition to Russian Tzarism), Italian supporters of Mazzini (for national unification and the end of the papal state), German Lassallean radicals (followers of Ferdinand Lassalle), et. al; at the center of these ideological differences was the conflict between Marxism and Anarchism (with Marx and Bakunin in the foreground). While the First International is known as the moment of this infamous political split, it remains the task of leftists today to specify what this historical division on the Left might mean for the present. In this spirit, this panel asks: what is at stake in the history First International? And how might it help us advance an understanding of the tasks of the Left today?
The First International died "almost unnoticed" (as one historian has put it) four years after its transfer to New York. In 1924, when Karl Korsch raised the specter of the First International, it was to make sense of the shortcomings of the Second International. His mention of this brief organizational experiment provided the historical distance from which to reflect on both the theory and practice of Marxism. Today, the historical regression advanced in the twentieth century has left us with a diminished capacity to assess the historical tasks of the Left, thus limiting the imagination for a future emancipatory politics. In this impoverished present, the history of the First International, and its contribution to the problem of freedom in the Age of Capital, can help us deepen our understanding of the meaning and tasks of the Left today. Perhaps then we will finally be able to give the First International a proper burial.
1. What is the political climate at the birth of the First International? How was the organization's political horizon shaped by the revolutionary efforts in Europe 1830s onward? How did this climate inform the composition of the First International? What common vision of social revolutionary practice (if any) was shared by its members? Despite its ideological heterogeneity, what held the First International together?
2. A current trend on the Left today is a push for local engagement (sometimes presented as "think globally, act locally”, in light of such a development how do we understand the attempts by the First International to organize globally? How did this international scope help the First International advance a politics against capitalism? What if anything is left of this tradition? In what ways does it depart from its nineteenth-century iteration?
3. Does Anarchism in the nineteenth-century present us with a different set of problems than present-day anarchism? (If so, in what way?) How does the Marx-Bakunin split in the First International help us understand the content of Anarchist politics? What does it illuminate about the relationship between Marxism and Anarchism? What are the different perspectives of history and freedom held by Anarchists and Marxists (in what way are these meaningful)? Lastly, how were both Marx and Bakunin (and, we might add, Proudhon) critics of the radical democratic tradition in the nineteenth-century? And where do their critiques differ? How does this difference shape their political practice?
A panel held at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Anarchism and Marxism. They emerged out of the same crucible - the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.
There are a few different ways these ideologies have been taken up. Recent worldwide square occupations reflect one pattern: a version of Marxist theory — understood as a political-economic critique of capitalism — is used to comprehend the world, while an anarchist practice — understood as an anti-hierarchical principle that insists revolution must begin now — is used to organize, in order to change it. Some resist this combination, claiming that Marxism rejects anti-statist adventurism, and call for a strategic reorganization of the working class to resist austerity, and perhaps push forward a “New New Deal”. This view remains wedded to a supposedly practical welfarist social democracy, which strengthens the state and manages capital. There is a good deal of hand waving in both these orientations with regard to politics, tactics, and the end goal. Finally, there have been attempts to leave the grounds of these theories entirely — but these often seem either to land right back in one of the camps or to remain marginal.
To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these ideas must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. To see in what ways the return of these ideologies represent an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost. Where have the battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?
1. What do Marxism and Anarchism have to say to those politicized today? Do they instruct us as to how we might act, now? Must we return to these orientations? If so, how?
2. Many recent leftist groupings tend toward square occupation and leaderless horizontality, while retaining an unclear, even reformist, ideological orientation toward capitalism and the state. How do you understand the advent of these forms? Do they challenge traditional Marxist theory and ways of organizing? Are they affirmations of Anarchist modes of thinking and practice? In general, what forms of organization are necessitated by the theories we inherit and the tasks of today?
3. Can you briefly assess the most important splits and breaks between and within both traditions? Does the historical divide between Marxism and Anarchism still matter? What are the significant splits within Marxism and within Anarchism that continue to shape the context?
4. What are the inalienable values and the end goals of radical politics? Are Marxism and Anarchism ideologies of freedom? Of democracy? Of the working class? How do they handle the objective contradictions of realizing these principles under the conditions of capitalist life?
5. What should we fight for today - more state or less state?
6. Has history vindicated Marxism or Anarchism or neither at all?
A panel event held on April 5th, 2014 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention.
Alex Gonopolskiy (Platypus London)
With the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Communist states the world has witnessed the unchallenged restoration of capitalism. This new configuration seems to radically alter the conditions in which the Left thinks and acts. Economically the collapse gave the European Union an unprecedented upwind and allowed it to integrate the markets of many countries that were formerly part of the Soviet hemisphere. The EU set out with the aim to be a competitive economic entity on global markets and on the international political arena. The EU project was to guarantee for a lasting peace and prosperity in Europe – a “lesson learned” from war and destruction that shaped the first half of the 20th century. And yet there is no grand idea, no ideological driving force accompanying the close economic ties and dependencies that have developed throughout the continent.
After two decades of economic expansion Europe hit a severe crisis in 2009 that was neither foreseen nor properly resolved. The attempt to solve this problem, five years on, has resulted in the wholesale unravelling of the gains brought about by Social Democracy over the past 150 years. And yet, there does not seem to be any clear answer and not even a vague direction proposed by the Left to tackle it. While on the streets of Greece, Spain and Italy – the countries directly affected by austerity programs – there is popular unrest against the remedies imposed by “the Troika” there is no course of action by the Left that would be adequate to the international character of the problem. In the powerhouses of the EU the quiet and – at best – sporadic protests seem to aim at reproducing the politics of anti-austerity from their southern neighbors. From the Social Democratic suggestion of a “European New Deal” to the slogan of “Blockupy” the Left response speaks to the lack of imagination and possibilities through which to seriously challenge the course of events. The European Left seems to have lost its inspirational character for world politics, not to speak of any real organizational capacities.
This panel will focus on the meaning and potential effect of the crisis in Europe for the Left internationally. What are the conditions that created the crisis, what can it tell us about the world we currently live in and what lessons does it provide for the project of reconstituting an international Left?
1. What is the European Union in light of the historical reconfiguration of international geopolitics after the Cold War? Does it have an impact on or is it a sign of a change of how capitalism operates today and in the future? Does thinking about the EU help us to understand the world of today or is it a merely retarded duplicate of changes that the US has undergone a long time ago?
2. What does the Euro-crisis signify for world economy and politics? Does it have a global or a merely “local” character? Is it just a more complicated instantiation of the global economic crisis of 2008 or does it have a “life of its own”, pointing to deeper problems either with the EU itself or global capitalism more generally? What caused the crisis and how can it be resolved – and what does “resolve” mean in this context?
3. What political answers are out there suggested by the Left? Are their regional, European or international in nature? Are they equipped to tackle the problems analyzed above? Is the Left equipped to politically answer or even understand the current crisis? Can you suggest any answers and a path to achieve it? What would need to happen to change the current deadlock?
4. Do the austerity programs mean an end of European Social Democracy? Does the dismantling of the welfare state mean an end of Europe's “third way between Capitalism and Communism”? What implications does this have for the global Left?
A panel held on April 4th, 2014 at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“‘I became a Trotskyist in 1933. The theory of state capitalism is a development of Trotsky's position.... But at the end of the Second World War, the perspectives that Trotsky had put forward were not realized. Trotsky wrote that one thing was certain, the Stalinist bureaucracy would not survive the war. It would either be overthrown by revolution or by counterrevolution.... The assumption was that the collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracy would be a fantastic opening for the Trotskyist movement, for the Fourth International. The Stalinist bureaucracy not only didn't collapse but it expanded.... Therefore, at that time, Stalinism had a fantastic strength. And we had to come to terms with it.’
— Tony Cliff, interview with Ahmed Shawki (1997)
Tony Cliff's recognition in his own moment of a certain kind of impasse within Trotskyism and his attempt to overcome it require full consideration and appreciation both in terms of the merits of its potential and a consciousness of its limits. Panelists will address this legacy for the Left today.