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The Left and Its Meaning


Joti Brar, founding deputy leader for the Workers Party of Britain (WPB), has denounced the concept of the “Left” as the “Left-wing of capitalist politics.” She clearly associated the Left not with Marxism but with bleeding heart liberalism—in other words, with moralism and social justice politics. George Galloway, as leader of the WPB, has drawn his own distinctions between Left “identity politics” and working-class politics. 

Similar ideas are echoed by Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany and Fabien Roussel in France. Wagenknecht claims that it is typical for “left liberalism” to cater to “ever smaller and ever more bizarre minorities” at the expense of working-class politics. Her increasing disgust with the Left prompted her to break with the Die Linke party earlier this year.  In France, Roussel and the French Communist Party are fighting with Left-liberal feminists like Sandrine Rousseau around the question of how to win over French workers. Rousseau’s approach of mocking French workers for being too patriotic and masculine does not seem to be working. 

It is my contention that a significant portion of what calls itself the Left cannot be equated with Marxism, as it leans much too heavily towards moralism and puritanism.

All these politicians treat Left politics as anathema to class politics and Marxism. This debate is not new, though it seems to be entering a new phase. Most of this hatred of the Left comes from confusion about what the concept of “Left” even means. It is my contention that a significant portion of what calls itself the Left cannot be equated with Marxism, as it leans much too heavily towards moralism and puritanism. The question of how the Left relates to Marxism is of course quite complicated. 

The simplest explanation of the political Left and Right dates back to the French revolution. Here, the Left was embodied by the Third Estate and political clubs like the Cordeliers and Jacobins. Liberty, equality, and fraternity were the core principles of the Left, with liberty taking center stage. While equality of rights and fraternal brotherhood were seen as prerequisites for liberty, the lack of both—especially fraternity, which the later socialists emphasized—ultimately undermined liberty, making them all critically important. The Right was embodied by the Ancien régime. Its central principle was tyranny, though it never framed its project as being tyrannical. Tyranny was instead framed as being cosmic, god-ordained, a “great chain of being” with castes stretching far into the heavens.  

In this early bourgeois sense, the Left and Right was a divide between freedom and order. While this conception of Left and Right found its most coherent expression in the French Revolution, it was interpreted as universal and unchanging. French revolutionaries, for example, frequently evoked the overthrow of Caesar, believing their actions to be a reenactment of that primordial drama. We begin to see then how Left and Right, despite being relative concepts, can appear to be eternal. To say they are eternal also makes their antagonism unending. Hence why Thomas Jefferson, the most radically Left of the founding fathers, wrote that the mere victory of liberty was not enough, that it had to be maintained by an unceasing revolutionary reprisal—an eternal war against tyranny. This led Jefferson to famously claim that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Later figures like Robspierre, Blanqui, and Lenin, have all made similar claims to this effect.[1]

[T]he concepts of Left and Right lack a fixed essence, staying mostly grounded in the relative circumstances of politics and history.

Leszek Kołakowski’s 1968 essay The Concept of the Left informs my attitude towards this topic. Important to his argument is the idea that the Left and Right are relative concepts. This means that individuals can switch between the opposing concepts, holding a Left position on certain issues and a Right position on others. Worse still, one can hold a Left position, never budging an inch, only to find that the changing times have placed them on the Right. During the French revolution this scenario was grounds for execution, as Brissot and the Girondians discovered to their dismay. When viewed in this way, the concepts of Left and Right lack a fixed essence, staying mostly grounded in the relative circumstances of politics and history. 

But insofar as Left and Right are reducible to the struggle of liberty against tyranny, as the old bourgeois radicals understood things, we find the most abstract and static expression of the two concepts. No one can doubt that the struggle of Left against Right has, in this sense, been waged for quite some time. History is littered with stories of tyrants and freedom fighters. When history ceases to offer them, they are presented instead through legends and myths.[2]

Because the Left desires something new, and because it wants to expand possibilities for freedom beyond current necessities, it must hold true to its ideals despite their present unreality. This leads the Right to accuse the Left of being liars and utopians, because the Left always stands for something that is, at present, untrue.

For us to better understand the Left and Right as relative concepts, we need something less abstract and more concrete. Kołakowski defines the Left as being driven by the desire to negate existing reality, in contrast to the Right, which seeks to affirm existing reality.[3] Because the Left desires something new, and because it wants to expand possibilities for freedom beyond current necessities, it must hold true to its ideals despite their present unreality. This leads the Right to accuse the Left of being liars and utopians, because the Left always stands for something that is, at present, untrue. The Left is therefore ideological—or to put it in more charitable terms, principled—in a way that the Right is not. Whereas the Left is challenged to envision a new society, the Right uses whatever tactics it needs to preserve the status quo. The politics of Left and Right are thus reducible to a difference between principles and opportunism.[4] The Right is better at politics because it is less restricted by the need to change things in pursuit of some principled aim. This allows the Right to frame present reality as being far superior to anything the Left desires, since its only conviction is that we live—or have lived—in the best of all possible worlds. The Left, in response, can only raise the uncomfortable question posed by Voltaire’s Candide, “if this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” 

Given its difficult political task of envisioning a new world, the Left invariably consists of a minority of day-dreamers, even as it projects itself as acting in the interests of the “people” or “proletariat” in the long-term. Though the Left hates to admit it, historical change is tied to the immediate desires of ordinary people, who are easily contented and lethargic. Freedom, by contrast, presses itself beyond the limits of contentment and comfort, or else it ceases to be freedom. This guiding imperative makes the project of the Left dangerous because freedom is dangerous, which means that the Left finds its strongest support when ordinary people have nothing left to lose. 

Expanding freedom means expanding the capacity for humans to be self-determining. This is why the Left has supported—or at least not opposed—things that open up new pathways of being human. The Left therefore pushes modernity to its furthest limits, for its conception of the human subject is unsatiated and defiant. Like the ranks of the Levée en masse or the Bolshevik Red Army, the Left expands as an all-consuming enthusiasm, finding with every conquest only new frontiers.[5] These frontiers include new social practices, ideas, technologies, forms of art and creativity—in short, dynamism and vitality. Yet the Left chases these things with the principled aim of creating a freer world. 

The Left’s adherence to principles makes it politically dogmatic and inflexible. This is the entry point of its puritanism. Principles, especially those concerning society, easily degenerate into blueprints and schemes, which collapse, in turn, into the deadly promise of heaven on earth. So long as the Left has existed it has been sustained by the hope of utopia.[6] This hope amounts to a pure principle, unblemished by individual error. Whenever the Left deals in utopias, its love for humanity quickly outpaces its love for individuals, who it sees as far too sinful.[7] The root of this impulse is, ironically, the desire for freedom. Human nature rescued from humans becomes infinitely determinable and free. The error resides not with the principle, so the Leftist thinks, but with the failure of individuals to match the principles criteria—in other words, a failure of virtue. We find this mentality with Robespierre and his desire to mold France into a “Republic of Virtue.” Enemies of the utopia become enemies of the Left, “enemies of liberty” as Robespierre called them. Utopia reverts to tyranny—and Left becomes Right. 

One of the chief criticisms that guided Karl Marx was the tendency for the Left to become fixated on purity at the expense of effective and truly emancipatory politics. By Marx’s day, the industrial revolution and expansion of wage labor had given rise to the socialist Left, whose love of utopia was inherited from the old bourgeois liberals. Marx’s task was to throw the Left into self-contradiction, turning socialism into a critical-practice distinct from the utopianism of the Left-liberals and socialists—thus creating Marxism. 

What does it mean to claim that Marxism is a critical practice, and how does this differ from Left utopianism? Marxism is critical in the sense that it is dialectical and historical. It is dialectical because it does not treat its principles as an uncompromising unity and instead treats them as self-contradictory. According to Marx, the struggle to overcome capitalism will not lead to a clean break—the creation of a pure anti-capitalist utopia—but will rather be a transition that bears markings of the old capitalist society.[8] Marxism is historical, because it roots everything in a process of historical development. Marxism understands that this development is not only linear, but cyclical and regressive, as history can repose problems it already seemed to solve. Marx understood that freedom—the ability to negate and change present reality—must spring from certain necessities if it is to be lasting. A consciousness of history brings one closer to understanding these necessities, while rejecting necessity outright only degrades freedom by turning it into tyrannical utopia. Lastly, Marxism is a practice because it is political. It is not an ethical code or religion. Marxism lays no special claim to truth and realizes that truth in politics is provable and contestable.[9]

The reason the Left lapses into the worst forms of puritanism, moralism, and finger-wagging, is partially attributable to the way in which it treats its principles as eternal unchanging truths. This allows the Left to separate its principles from political activity, for the already convinced have little interest in convincing. As far as the Marxist Left is concerned, the absence of political activity means the abandonment of the class struggle and of a revolutionary working-class party. In light of recent claims by figures like Brar and Wagenknecht that the principle of identity is an impediment to the class struggle, the relation of identity to the Left requires some investigating. 

The current—though hopefully waning—Left obsession with identity is organic to both the Left and the Right. The Left has always taken a principled stance on questions like race, gender, and sexuality, based on its opposition to opportunism, which often wears the mask of prejudice. The Marxist Left in particular, treated prejudice as an irrationality that was exacerbated by capitalism, though not wholly reducible to it. The struggle for socialism, it was understood, would mark a positive transformation in the direction of overcoming identity and prejudice. In practice, this involved subordinating identity to the class struggle.  

Like all ontologies, this gives identity a conservative quality. Identity operates, therefore, as a tyrannical imposition that undermines the Left’s conceptual basis in freedom. The historical Left understood this well enough when it opposed attempts by the Right to associate socialism with “Jewish plotting,” or to label it with any other fixed ethnic attributes.

Unlike the principle of class struggle, which is reducible to practices that can be changed, the Left’s fixation with identity is rooted in questions of ontology and “being.” Identity, after all, is not what you do but who you are. Like all ontologies, this gives identity a conservative quality. Identity operates, therefore, as a tyrannical imposition that undermines the Left’s conceptual basis in freedom. The historical Left understood this well enough when it opposed attempts by the Right to associate socialism with “Jewish plotting,” or to label it with any other fixed ethnic attributes. The current Left, however, treats identity as something that is an expression of free choice, and also as an oppressive imposition that demands moral redress. This redress is typically moral, because identity offers little means of political redress, aside from the forms of capitalist redress that Marx critiqued Pierre-Joseph Proudhon for supporting—a reshuffling of property disguised as liberation or reparation.[10]

Since identity usually takes the form of an ontology not reducible to practices, identity must conjure these practices through a steady stream of denunciations and recriminations, which compliments the Left’s capacity to think in moralistic and uncritical terms. Identity becomes detached from historical specificity as an eternal injustice that must be adjudicated without ever being overcome.[11] Through this, identity is further ontologized, less and less reducible to genuine practices. A man can be gay without ever having slept with another man. A woman can be racist irrespective of her actions towards other races. Yet a worker remains a worker insofar as he works. No matter how aristocratic or bourgeois the worker’s self-conception is, he is tortured by the knowledge that he can be more than a worker. No possibility for transcendence exists with identity categories as such. 

I am reminded of a quote by the late Hungarian Marxist G.M. Tamás, who wrote that “[i]t is emotionally and intellectually difficult to be a Marxist since it goes against the grain of moral indignation which is, of course, the main reason people become socialists.”  Naturally, many people arrive at Marxism after having first been moral crusaders. Even Marxists like Galloway are not immune to the recent heart-wrenching scenes in Gaza, which, insofar as they have any relevance for the global class struggle, remain by their very nature sentimental and fleeting in aspect. The same holds true for other moral crusades, from anti-imperialism to the struggle for minority-rights. 

It bears remembering that as a critical-practice, Marxism is class struggle politics grounded in history and critique, while the politics of the Left is moral crusades without end. The problem of moral crusades repeats the problem of utopia and identity, for it presents principles that have no hope of practical redress. Impractical principles turn into imprecise demands—an end to “hate speech” or “oppression” for instance—which brush against a system that is more cunning and practically minded than the Left. Thus in the words of Chris Cutrone, “what the Left proposes the Right pushes through,” revealing the inadequacy of the demands through their very fulfillment. So long as this swindle occurs under buzzwords like “social justice” or “progress,” the Left smiles and nods along. Brar’s critique about the Left being simply the “Left-wing of capital” is therefore alluring, for the outcome of present Left demands falls short of revolution in the Marxist sense of the term, amounting to little more than Right opportunism. 

Yet Marxism remains bound to socialism, and socialism is the purest expression of the Left. To separate Marxism from the Left risks cultivating a blindness about its history, which, being rooted in the struggle for working-class freedom, will continually attract Leftist moralists and bleeding hearts into its ranks. Abandoning the Left also risks losing sight of its conceptual basis in freedom, which lowers Marxism into a tyranny like any other, and surrenders it to the worst forms of opportunism. Without Marxism, the Left for its part loses its ability to critically reflect, and is thereby co-opted by a system that delivers its utopian dreams as still-births. Worse still, the moralistic tendencies of the Left cloud its vision. Whereas the Marxist sees in the absence of freedom also its enduring possibility, the Leftist sees only oppression and injustice without end.[12]

This illustrates the central contradiction of Marxism, for it stands as the Left’s greatest and most practical hope—as well as its harshest critic. 


[1] Robspierre claimed, regarding the 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that “[w]hen the government violates the people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.” Blanqui in his 1872 work Eternity Through the Stars speaks of a cosmic “eternal cycle” where eternity “imperturbably plays the same representations in infinity,” while Lenin writes of the struggle for freedom repeating itself through historical “zig-zags.”  

[2] I refer, for quick example, to the mythical allegories of Prometheus and Icarus from Ancient Greece. 

[3] Taken from The New Left Reader (1969), Edited by Carl Oglesby, The Concept of the Left— Leszek Kolakowski: “The Left—and this is its unchangeable and indispensable quality, though by no means its only one—is a movement of negation toward the existing world.” 146. 

[4] “The Right, as a conservative force, needs no utopia; its essence is the affirmation of existing conditions…The Right strives to idealize actual conditions, not to change them. What it needs is fraud, not utopia.” The Concept of the Left, 149.

[5]  Taken from Marx’s writings in chapter 3 of Capital, Volume 1: “This antagonism between the quantitative limits of money and its qualitative boundlessness, continually acts as a spur…It is with him as it is with a conqueror who sees in every new country annexed, only a new boundary.” 

[6] “The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin.” The Concept of the Left, 147.

[7] Recounted by Elder Zosima in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov: “I marvel at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love humans in particular…No sooner is that someone else close to me than his personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom.”

[8] As Marx explains in his Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy,[The dictatorship of the proletariat] only means that, as [long as] the proletariat still acts, during the period of struggle for the overthrow of the old society, on the basis of that old society, and hence also still moves within political forms which more or less belong to it, it has not yet, during this period of struggle, attained its final constitution, and employs means for its liberation which after this liberation fall aside.

[9] Taken from Marx’s Thesis on Feuerbach: “Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.” 

[10] In his 1865 letter to Letter to J B Schweizer “On Proudhon,” Marx lambasts Proudhon for treating bourgeois property as an eternal relation, degrading Proudhon’s political solutions into a petty-bourgeois attempt at property redistribution, with the aim of converting the proletariat into small proprietors: “the contradiction [is] that Proudhon is criticising society, on the one hand, from the standpoint and with the eyes of a French small-holding peasant (later petit bourgeois) and, on the other, that he measures it with the standards he inherited from the socialists.” 

[11] Hence the fixation of modern race and gender studies to project these identities, along with modern nationality, far into the past, into the Middle Ages and Antiquity for instance, obscuring their contingent roots in early bourgeois society. These attempts, usually quite idiotic, fall short in every respect to their postmodern antecedents in Nietszche and Paglia. 

[12] As Marx writes in Poverty of Philosophy, So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.”