The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century
Source Dave Anderson
Date 09/11/18/22:57
The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century
Toward a Theory of Historical Regression

On April 18, 2009, the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted the
following panel discussion at the Left Forum Conference at Pace
University in New York City. The panel was organized around four
significant moments in the progressive diremption of theory and
practice over the course of the 20th century: 2001 (Spencer A.
Leonard), 1968 (Atiya Khan), 1933 (Richard Rubin), and 1917 (Chris

Spencer Leonard

POLITICS in our time has not been, as
past revolutionary thinkers may have feared, an abandonment of
revolution in favor of reformism. Rather, because the revolutionary
overcoming of capital is no longer imagined, reformism too is dead. As
the task of achieving human society beyond capital has been abandoned,
nothing worthy of the name of politics takes its place, nor could it. The
project of freedom has now altogether receded from view. For, while
bourgeois thinkers like Hegel were no doubt mistaken in their
identification of capital with freedom, they nevertheless
grasped that the question of freedom only poses itself
with reference to the capital problematic. Realizing for the first
time a noble savagery that never was before, contemporary humanity is
sunk in the immediacy of second nature.

The year 2001 itself arrived late and now it, too, has slipped into
the past. Still, it retains its significance as the moment when the
light of freedom was definitively eclipsed, when mankind ceased to be
able to discern whether or not night had fallen. For, since 2001, all
recognize that we now live in what the Marxist thinker and critic of
the New Left, Moishe Postone, has termed the “time of helplessness”
(or, as the Spartacist League more colorfully describes it, the
“senile dementia of post-Marxism.”) Though time continues to pass and,
in some sense, continues to intensify, history—understood as the time
when the tasks of freedom can still be performed—seems to have come to
an abrupt, late-afternoon halt. This has caught most on the Left
unawares, though one suspects a widespread relief among many that the
task might finally be abandoned, for good and all.

Accumulated into the year 2001 is what precedes it in time, a mass of
folly and wasted opportunities that may be disaggregated into three
constituent moments. Each of these three stages in the “death of the
Left” conveniently ends in the digit 9: 1979, 1989, and 1999. Each
represents a stage in a process of retrogression that culminates in
what is, after all, a crisis far more portentous than the current
economic crisis that so dominates our discourse: the crisis of the
Left, whose prospects for recovery are, at this stage, very grim.
Rather than a crisis date in the history of the Left, 2001 is
therefore the year in which the crisis of history became clear, though
few noticed, and when it became unmistakable, though few caught the
scent, that what passes for the Left today is a “stinking corpse.” It
was the year in which the founding of Platypus became a necessity,
though, here again, consciousness lagged behind events.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 was and remains a catastrophe. Since
the triumph of the Khomeini-ites the country has been dominated by a
regime far more backward and repressive than its predecessor, governed
in a manner even more reactionary than the way the country was
governed under the Shah. With the Stalinist Tudeh Party subordinating
itself to the Khomeini faction, the road to Islamist power was paved
with the corpses of betrayed Iranian workers and self-betrayed
Stalinists, even as the Western Left drowned out all dissent with its
loud applause for the blow dealt to American imperialism. As the
Iranian unorganized urban masses and the landlord class joined hands
under Islamist leadership to crush the Tudeh Party and other leftist
groups, the Left of the core capitalist states, hopelessly deluded by
a specious Third Worldism, failed almost entirely to recognize the
unfolding catastrophe. As David Greason has observed, prior to the
Iranian Revolution most had simply assumed that any movement able to
the Shah would have to come from the Left.[1] The actuality of
Khomeini-style Islamism as a reactionary ideology, rather than an
authentic “cultural expression” of the masses, was denied, and instead
the Western Left acquiesced in the elevation of Khomeini’s mullahs to
a dominant position in Iran. The Left was incapable of recognizing in
Khomeini, who was hailed as a unifier, a threat no less grave than the
Shah himself had been. Substituting criticism of American imperialism
for the critique of capitalism, dominant strands of the New Left
reshaped anti-Americanism as the touchstone of Leftist thought. This
rendered impossible an adequate analysis of the Iranian Revolution,
and of the Mujahideen’s “resistance” to the Soviet intervention in
Afghanistan as well. In place of an adequate analysis of the Iranian
Revolution, defeat was transmuted into “victory” by the conjuring
tricks of the New Left. It was an act of self-deception that had, by
this time, become almost second nature for a generation that, despite
its professions of anti-Stalinism, still worshipped the Stalinist idol
of the accomplished fact. Accordingly, icons of the New Left like
Michel Foucault saluted the Islamic Revolution as representative of a
new “spiritual” politics, supposedly free of the instrumental
rationality operative in both East and West during the Cold War.

Other events circa 1979 that registered the degradation and
disintegration of the Left were its uncritical responses to the
Solidarnosc movement in Poland, and the Mujahideen’s resistance to the
Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, both of which found support among
a disoriented Left, with slogans—now forgotten in embarrassment—of
“Ten million Polish workers can’t be wrong!” and “Allah-u-Akbar!” The
Left failed to recognize the conservatism manifesting before their
eyes, the right that they themselves joined. Indeed, by 1979, it was
by no means clear, even to leading thinkers of the New Left, how the
project of freedom might be advanced. Fred Halliday reports a
conversation he had with fellow New Left Review editor Tariq Ali, with
whom he was politically parting ways, in which he told Ali the
following: “God, Allah, called the two of us to His presence and said
to us, ‘One of you is to go the Left, and one of you is to go to the
Right.’ The problem is, He didn’t tell us which was which, and maybe
He didn’t know Himself.” Halliday then adds, “Tariq laughed. He
understood exactly what I was saying, and he didn’t dispute it.”[2]

The practice of self-deceit, uncritical celebration of supposed
revolts against reification, and the retreat from the project of
freedom, was again in evidence in the second stage leading up to 2001,
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. As the final, anti-climactic
collapse of the failed attempt to overcome capital launched in 1917,
the rightward fall of the Soviet Union was remarkable for its failure
to prompt serious reconsideration on the Left. Instead, it was
heralded as a rebirth of freedom, as though what happened were not the
institution of neoliberalism but the de-Stalinization of the
revolution. With scarcely a thought respecting the now definitive
failure of the trajectory of the October Revolution that conserved, in
however degraded a form, the emancipatory impulses of Marx, Engels,
Luxemburg, and Lenin, the zombie-Left in 1989 congratulated itself on
yet another supposed accomplishment of 1960s-style
anti-authoritarianism. Celebrating what it ought to have analyzed,
dominant strains on the Left helped legitimize the neo-Tzarism that
rose on the ruins of Soviet Russia. Mirroring Marxism’s degeneration
in the Soviet Union to an ideology affirmative of the status quo, and
in place of the realization of the emancipatory potential of
capitalism, in 1989 capitalism itself was celebrated as emancipation.

The third phase in the total exhaustion of the Left that culminated in
2001 comes in 1999, the year of the anti-globalization protests in
Seattle. This event marked the triumph of our current “post-political”
activist culture, what Liza Feathersone, Doug Henwood, and Christian
Parenti have termed “activist-ism.”[3] As Platypus members Ben
Blumberg and Ian Morrison have observed, with respect both to
activist-ism in general andthe new anarchism that dominated
proceedings in Seattle in particular, “Today’s protesters celebrate
simple altercations with the police as victories… Each blow of the
truncheon dramatizes the difference between protesters [and the
society to which they are being integrated].”[4] It is not unfair to
say, they argue, “Protesters elicit a police beating to sensationalize
their own submission to authority.”[5] Here, the regression already in
evidence in the 1960s has reached full flower.

Reenacting not only the defeat but the defeatism of the 1960s Left,
the Seattle protesters no longer even bother with the old talk about
students or youth as a new “revolutionary force.” Nor do these new
would-be radicals require elaborate rationalizations of their failure.
Theirs is a disarmingly frank acting-out of a discontented
middle-class youth, for whom the schedule of international trade
meetings takes the place of rock concert tours as the site for a
peripatetic anti-authoritarian subculture. This generation of
activists fulfills rather than rejects the low expectations of their
political parents, namely that they should either numb themselves with
the pleasures on offer in neoliberalism—“sex, drugs, and rock ’n’
roll”—or else engage in revolution “for the hell of it.” Only, in the
new protest culture, one can do both at the same time, achieving in
the process only the sensationalizing of one’s own submission to
authority and
social integration of which Blumberg and Morrison speak. Politically,
the embrace of the cult of death that characterized the dominant
Leftist response to 1979 reaches its anti-climax in the full-blown
Romantic-reactionary rejectionism, anti-modernism, and
anti-globalization of “black bloc” anarchism and “turtle protest.”

The historic Left of bourgeois radicalism, culminating in Marx’s
auto-critique of utopian socialism, isolates historyas its problematic
and freedom as its project. As Marx realized, capitalism posed a
question that could only be answered by the overcoming of capitalism.
In a similar vein, Postone has argued that proletarian society, the
society of commodity-producing commodities, “points beyond itself.”
But regression has advanced so far now that critical recognitions such
as Postone’s are the affair of only a handful of intellectuals, while
the labor movement, the necessary condition for the practical politics
of the Left, is in full-scale rout globally. The point of saying this
plainly is not simply to voice a knowing pessimism, but to recognize
the actual character of our times. Platypus harps on the “death of the
Left” in order to begin the work of rebuilding. After all, the
reconstitution of Critical Theory, the specific task to which Platypus
is devoted, does not occur in conditions of our own choosing, but in
conditions we inherit from the past. Indeed, theory can be
reformulated not by supplementing new bits to rectify the supposed
inadequacies of past theory, but only by actually working through of
the history of the Left.

[1] David Greason, “Embracing Death: The Western Left and the Iranian
Revolution, 1978–83,” Economy and Society 34 (February 2005): 105–140.
[2] Fred Halliday, “Who is Responsible? An Interview with Fred
Halliday,” interview by Danny Postel, Salmagundi 150–151
(Spring–Summer 2006). [3] Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, “‘Action
Will be Taken’: Left Anti-Intellectualism and its Discontents.”
[4] Benjamin Blumberg and Ian Morrison, “Violence at the RNC,”
Platypus Review 7 (October 2008).
[5] Ibid.

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho