Belonging on the Left Today: Or How to Avoid the Dissident Trap

Daniel Avatar

There is a seldom discussed short essay by Leszek Kolakowski called “On the Concept of the Left” written at the peak of his Marxist period that I think is worth recalling today. He argues that the left can be understood as insisting on a utopian position, by which he means that the left insists on negation of the existing capitalist social order that aims to preserve class oppression and exploitation. By utopian he does not mean that the left is necessarily idealist utopian in the vein of Saint Simon or Moses Hess, or other “true socialists” Marx and Engels take on in the Communist Manifesto.

The left is utopian because it does not compromise with the conservative position that insists on preserving existing exploitative aspects of the social order. Here we must include liberal and progressive liberal or any pro-capitalist element as the right. The left redefines negation as always constructive, and therefore the left is not to be understood as purely insistent on a negation of the existing order because it also insists on a program that comes from that negation. The left aims to bring about a better society for all and it therefore must ground its mission in a commitment to universality and reason.

But there are times in which the historical situation forces the left to retreat from its core aims due to repression, or due to defeat after defeat from reactionary liberal or fascist forces. This drives us to the core thesis of Kolakowski’s essay which resonates with our times: in times of defeat, the left must define itself at the level of ideas. In capitalist societies, the project of the left is directly bound up with the interests of the working-class but in times of defeat and disarray, the working-class may not always be in concert with the left. It is at these times Kolakowski argues that the left must remain committed to its founding concept and grow accustomed to being a minority in its insistence on the idea of the left.

Such a conception of the left therefore means that a task of leftist intellectuals in times of defeat is not to ground a conception of the left in existing institutions or in a spontaneous solidarity with a pragmatist conception of interest groups or even of the existing working-class. Kolakowski rather suggests that the left must avoid what we might call the hyper activist trap which assumes alignment with liberal and bourgeois institutions has no transitive effect on one’s conceptions of the left.

Kolakowski argues that in times of disarray and defeat the left must fight to define itself at the level of ideas, or it otherwise risks compromising its core commitments. In times of defeat, the left gets bogged down by the weight of conservative and liberal distortions.  At the time he wrote this essay, the left in Poland was weighed down by two reactionary tendencies: the first was the reactionary commitment of the party towards Stalinist inertia and the second, yet related tendency, was more traditional rightist elements that flowed from the deformation.

In such moments when the left has been compromised by sclerotic bourgeois institutions, this drives the left far afield from its historical mission. The very possibility of the left’s grounding in a utopian impulse gets lost and the left begins to exchange in moralistic frameworks instead of practical commitments to universal programs.

In such a situation, Kolakowski argues for a left that keeps alive the core concept and idea of the left in intellectual form. This is not an idealist wager but is rather the only way to retain a distance from rightist tendencies that have overwhelmed the left.

Marx was deeply aware of this precise issue in his critique of the “true socialists” in the Communist Manifesto. Why, after all, does Lukács put to so much importance on the conception of standpoint? Why does Lukács claim that Marx was the first socialist to understand how the intellectual relates to the standpoint of the working-class in a revolutionary way? Much of what Lukács is talking about regarding standpoint of the proletariat is discovered in the fact that for Marx, there is a transitive relation between the institutional affiliations we have as thinkers and the way that revolutionary knowledge of the situation presents itself to us as socialist intellectuals.

Prior to 1848, much of Marx’s polemics were with socialist and communist movement intellectuals in his milieu, many of whom held views of the working-class which were highly Messianic and detached from practical struggle. Referring to these socialists and communists as ‘true socialists’, Marx argued that it was their foothold within the predominant institutions that led to their detached conception of the working-class in terms that were either ultra-pragmatist or too universal. By ultra-pragmatist we can refer to the tendency of Weitling who argued that the suffering of the working-class will be immediately relieved upon revolution and seizure of power. Lasalle and Bauer were falsely universalist as they argued in different ways that the working-class will achieve emancipation by an act of enlightenment.

Marx argued for a conception of communism that was not tied down to a single party but rather as an ideological corrective within the wider existing left. Communists are those who tirelessly militate to win individuals and social strata to their cause, beyond and sometimes despite the structures, transient in essence, of the labor movement. Marx thus placed a major onus on the concept of the left in his very definition of communism. Institutions form us in a habitus, they develop us with a worldview, and they bind us to dependencies that are formed with class-based interests. Marx was acutely aware of how these class-based forces play a transitive role on the generation of our idea of the left.

Two Traps: Dissident and (lack of) Patience

Today we are facing a similar situation of defeat and collapse on the left as Kolakowski identified. There are two risks that come with this crisis. The first is what I will call the dissident trap and the second is what I will call the patience trap. The dissident trap has only accelerated in the post-2020 landscape. With the rise of the “post-left” and strange new movements such as MAGA Communism and Compact Magazine we are witnessing an irrationalist turn in American politics. This is both predictable and to be expected based on the material conditions and the inertia of political power in the Biden era.

The age of Biden has seen the Squad sell out, it has seen immigration policies the left once protested during Trump’s reign simply remain intact from the Trump era and go completely uncommented on, it has seen union-busting embraced by Democrats with little pushback, and the list goes on. What this leads to is a total incoherence of what the left is. It leads to a sense of total ideological disorientation and feelings of personal and in-group persecution set in when you challenge these hypocrisies. The weaponization of in-group identities take over and people feel completely alienated by what the left even stands for, most especially when you challenge the idea of the left.

There is no sense of belonging that the left can offer other than through a sense of fleeing persecution from a real or imagined sense of reaction. Trump becomes an imagined specter and embodiment of failures that are more importantly addressed from within the left. The position one has in relation to the academic, NGO, nonprofit and political institutions of the left become a clear signal of ideological conformity. Old New Left magazines now have a new generation of bourgeois intellectuals that have taken them over and they tow lines of careful support for the general status quo. Leftist intellectuals seem to rarely acknowledge how their own position within these institutions determine their ideological positions. We are taken back to what Lukács meant by standpoint. These hypocrisies of the left lead to what I am calling the dissident trap.

The dissident trap is when the left offers no compelling ideological home for resolving its contradictions and incoherent post-left ideological communities sprout up. Now the home to the dissident trap is Compact Magazine. I have been interested in learning more about Compact Magazine’s core funding stream, its institutional makeup, and the basis by which it occupies a ‘third position,’ somehow between left and right that is seemingly post-populist. It is home to the cancelled and the dissident left as well as elements of the dissident right. Compact Mag seems to embody the ideological incoherence of our present better than anything, and this is why I was interested in having a dialogue with one of their Senior Editors, Nina Power, to shine a light on Compact.

For the record, I did host this conversation. Nina Power and I discussed several things about Compact and psychoanalytic and theoretical topics. Nina has been engaged in an ongoing polemic with the trans community and she is critical of what she and others call “gender ideology.” I do not share Nina’s views on the trans community and gender ideology, and I was asked by members of the trans community to not post my interview with Power as they believe in no-platforming for transphobes. I agreed to not post my interview with Power for two reasons: the first is out of solidarity with the trans community at a time in which they are facing real persecution.

The second reason is that I simply do not know the extent of Nina’s views on the trans community, and I am not knowledgeable enough to determine whether Power has in fact crossed the line in ways that have promoted intense reaction towards the trans community. I take persecution of minority communities seriously and have a long-standing commitment to addressing Islamophobia. While I see many parallels between Islamophobia and the trans movement today, I also see how the dynamic is being used by the right to shut down and to confuse people across the political spectrum. The persecution of minorities needs to be rejected by the left as a universal principle. I take this as a fundamental position.

My interests are to reconnect the left with a sense of universal emancipation, to rekindle an understanding of working-class struggle, and to engage in analysis of socialist thought and history.

A YouTube channel that I really admire, Theory Underground, which has a mission of coordinating working-class theoretical study invited me on to discuss my new work on Nietzsche (my book on Nietzsche will be out in February 2024 with Repeater Books). Dave McKerracher, the host of Theory Underground has developed an idea of what he calls “time energy” and he recently had me on to talk about how the concept of “otium” or leisure time is treated by Nietzsche as a central political concept. You can watch our conversation here.

Halfway through our conversation, Dave suddenly brought Nina Power onto the show to debate with me. While this was unexpected and not planned the debate that ensued was interesting.

What I was left with after this exchange was the feeling that we are all radically alone in the left ecosystem. Our sense of belonging is not securely set for those of us who are committed to the left and this is a major problem. For some people, the fact that my name appears on this stream will itself be grounds for guilt by association. I must be a transphobe because I appeared with Nina Power. That I adhered to the wishes of the trans community and did not publish my interview with Power will go ignored by such people. But on the other side, Nina will accuse me of being a sellout and simply being afraid of being cancelled by the left. What is one to do in such a situation?

After the stream, Dave the host asked me an interesting question. He said, what is the difference between Jacobin and Compact Mag in a material sense? He asked this because I had said that Compact fundamentally aligns itself with the right. This is true. They effectively have abandoned any commitment to being grounded in the left. Nina is presenting at a major national conservative conference soon and is being elevated as a third positionist intellectual. I think that despite the hypocrisies of the existing left, including Jacobin, Dissent Magazine, the academic left and so on, we must maintain a position that is simultaneously critical of all these institutions as well as critical of a third positionist group like Compact.

This might not be a sufficient answer to a working-class intellectual like Dave whose ideologically homeless right now. This is why we have to commit ourselves to the idea of the left by forging debate, discussion and critique within the left. If we don’t do this then the dissident trap will simply continue to draw ideologically homeless intellectuals into its orbit.

This brings us to the second trap that I want to mention which is what I am calling the patience trap. By this I mean that we need to cultivate a sense of patience on the left and to do this we have to be able to engage in dialogues that are grounded in a commitment to left principles. But we cannot do this if we fall into the notion that that left is dead, we cannot simply lose all patience with the idea of the left.

A politics of patience can also be called a reparative politics. This is an implicit goal of my book on the family, to approach this dynamic of ideological incoherence on the left with a reparative ethic and point of view. A reparative approach is defined by the idea that dialogue is a necessary approach to building left-culture; dialogue is a precondition for thinking and for substantive disagreement to be had. Reparative approaches are important in queer theory, they emphasize the need to enter the fray of rifts and debates on the left before they become stalemates or points of total disagreement.

A good example of this recently occurred when Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels’ book No Politics But Class Politics came out and included a 2015 essay by Reed in which he expressed views towards transgender politics that were by today’s standards far from defensible. A reparative approach to this issue would aim to encourage Reed to gain knowledge about the trans movement today, especially from fellow socialist trans activists. A reparative approach does have to draw lines around what is ideological rightist and what is not. Compact fundamentally distorts those lines and this leads to a great deal of confusion for anyone committed to preserving what Kolakowski called the core concept of the left.

I have sought a reparative approach to the issue and the lineage of family abolition. While I am critical of these orientations, I also recognize that these orientations are a real part of the left and there is a tradition associated with family abolition. I realized that in our bleak and ideologically incoherent universe, I would prefer to engage in dialogue with the family abolition community as opposed to simply rigidify a sense of persecution and ideological homelessness. You can see one such exchange that I had last year, here. Without these exchanges no solidarity will be possible on the left and the sclerotic tendencies of division will continue unabated.

I think the only way to retain a robust conception of the left is by forging these sorts of reparative approaches where we can begin to disarm the politics of rivalry, of group persecution and begin to regain a commitment to rational and universal orientations on the left. Our time of disarray and disorientation requires that we both resurrect strong critique while doing so with a reparative ethos at the same time. If we fail in doing this, we risk falling into the ideological no man’s land of the dissident trap at which point we have abandoned the struggle of the left entirely.

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