Column: The death of the Left – Part 1/3. What is the Left?

Platypus is a project that was born out of the recognition that the Left is dead. We consider this recognition the only point of departure that could potentially lay the foundations, or clear the ideological obstacles, for the possibility that emancipation might have a future. We take nothing else for granted, we take no political positions, as they would be inconsequential, we only proclaim: “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!”

All of Platypus’ activities for the last 12 years—reading groups, public fora, journalism, publishing, salons—seek to host a conversation on the death of the Left. We take this liability as an asset, as an opportunity to learn what was not learned from the failure of the Left for the past century.

As we expanded from Chicago to various cities across the U.S., Canada and Europe, Platypus was struck by the total collapse of the Left—not just the labor movement and social democratic parties—but by the absence of revolutionary Leftist politics informing the world. As we hosted events with different activists and academics who consider themselves from the Left, and read major figures from the history of the Left, we learned that the death of the Left has been largely self-inflicted—about the failure to learn from past mistakes—and is decades old.

What does it mean to say that the Left is dead? What is the Left anyway? And why does it matter?

The concept of the Left has become deeply confused and self-contradictory. Platypus contends, that the relevance of the Left has long since ceased to be self-evident. The Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski wrote in the late 50s, amidst the crisis of official communism in the aftermath of the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, that the concept of the Left “remains unclear to this day.” Following Kolakowski, Platypus asserts that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas, such as freedom, and it is not to be treated as a sociological category—as in the working class, or the exploited. Rather, Kolakowski argued, the Left should be understood by its negation of the present, by its vision of the future, and striving towards utopia. “To construct utopia is always an act of negation towards existing reality, a desire to transform it. But negation is not the opposite of construction—it is only the opposite of affirming existing conditions… it is simply a quest for change.” Utopia for Kolakowski is not a derogatory concept but a tool, a means, an ongoing revolutionary task.

So when Platypus says “the Left is dead” it is not a sociological assessment, but a historical one. The Left is dead because it is not motivated by utopia, by a sense of emergent possibilities and potential in history, but it is rather conservative, not merely reformist. Most importantly the Left has abandoned the question of revolution, it has abandoned the historically significant question of the relationship between the bourgeois democratic revolution and the struggle for Socialism, a central problem posed by Marx. In the meantime, the political task of the revolution, while not gone away, has been driven underground. Hence Platypus’s estimation is that we live in post-political times and this is bound up with the death of the Left.

Platypus is part of the dead, zombie Left, we do not offer revolutionary leadership or utopian visions of the future. Our only claim is a consciousness of the Left’s impotence in world politics in light of the history of the Left. Platypus’s approach is of going “against the grain” of historical events, a method exemplified by Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history. The Left is in such a deep state of disorganization and disorientation that the history of the Left cannot provide positive models. Our approach is via negativa, we work through the failures of past attempts at emancipation. The negativity of our educational project is meant to make the frustration pointed and productive, to indicate an absence rather than a presence.

If Platypus sounds like a bizarre project, it should at least come as no surprise we chose to name our project after such a bizarre animal.

Our namesake also has a longer version that we use on our website: Platypus1917. The year of the Russian Revolution is deeply significant for any purported Left because it marks the most profound attempt to change that world that has ever taken place. Our interest in understanding 1917 is to explore the various ways the Russian Revolution has haunted the Left of the 20th century. For the centenary we approached this question with a 7-week reading group of Lenin’s texts written in the course of the year 1917. If anything, the readings highlighted the yawning abyss between our moment and that of 1917, when Lenin wrote, in his most well-known text, State and Revolution, that:

“The question of the relation of the socialist proletarian revolution to the state, therefore, is acquiring not only practical political importance, but also the significance of a most urgent problem of the day, the problem of explaining to the masses what they will have to do before long to free themselves from capitalist tyranny.”

In a time where world politics take a noticeably sharp turn to the right, with new far-right political phenomena and parties, when the demand to move “beyond Left and Right” makes further concessions to the right, one would think the Left would have increased relevance. But in this moment of mass global transformations amidst the crisis of neoliberalism, it seems clear that Lenin does not explain the world we live in, and does not provide a blueprint for revolutionary politics in the present. But he does provide a negative image of the present, that whatever passes for the so-called Left today liquidated its politics to the right—and did so long ago—and is the actual obstacle to reconstituting a revolutionary Left politics.

The revolutionary Left failed. It did not learn from its defeats, instead it proceeded to call a defeat a victory, time and time again. The sooner we recognize that the Left is dead, and recognize that the future of Socialism is not in Bernie Sanders or Corbyn—or Syriza before that—the better chance there is for the Left to reconstitute itself as a political force.

Despite multiple attempts to reform capitalism—via the welfare state or “free” trade, globalization or protectionism—the catastrophic and devastating forces unleashed by capitalism, the dehumanization of humanity in ever increasing barbaric form, still remains. And so, with it, the task to create a consciousness of the necessity, possibility, and desirability of Socialism, still remains.

Part 2/3: Does Marxism even matter anymore?

Read more on the first issue of 'Arts of the Working Class', launched on April 26