Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Leftist Socialism

Kolakowski, Leszek. “The Concept of the Left.” [from The New Left Reader]

How to give the Left a conceptual definition? Leszek Kolakowski begins with a quasi ontological point: “every work of man is a compromise between the material and tool” (144). This principle is as true of dentistry as it is of revolution, “social revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to be ludicrous” (145). Utopia is the negation of a currently existing reality, but it is a constructive negation. Negation is not the same as simply destruction, “the opposite of blowing up a house is not to build a new house but to retain the existing one” (146), and thus we have the space of politics. The Left wants to build a new house, which must be done through critical negation of the existing house. The Right wants to maintain the house just as it is. The two are at loggerheads, except for the moments, tactical and never determined by ideology, when they are united in the desire not to see the house blown up.

Utopia is negation, but not only negation. It is worth giving Kolakowski’s extended definition of the term,

By utopia I mean a state of social consciousness, a mental counterpart to the social movement striving for radical change in the world—a counterpart itself inadequate to these changes and merely reflecting them in an idealized and obscure form. It endows the real movement with the sense of realizing an ideal born in the realm of pure spirit and not in current historical experiences. Utopia is, therefore, a mysterious consciousness of an actual historical tendency. As long as this tendency lives only a clandestine existence, without finding expression in mass social movements, it gives birth to utopias in the narrower sense, that is, to individually constructed models of the world, as it should be. But in time utopia becomes actual social consciousness; it invades the consciousness of a mass movement and becomes one of is essential driving forces. Utopia, then, crosses over from the domain of theoretical and moral thought into the field of practical thinking, and itself begins to govern human action. (146-7)
And this movement, this utopian moment, is an absolutely essential part of the Left. Utopias generate internal contradictions within Left movements, but “the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law” (147). Just as not all of the Left is utopian, so not all of the Left is revolutionary. But the revolutionary utopia of total change is a necessary part of the Left, because it is a necessary part of significant social change, “utopia is a prerequisite of social upheavals, just as unrealistic efforts are the precondition of realistic ones” (148). You must ask for the stars to receive even a warm bed for the night. This does not mean that in all cases the most radical possible position must be taken, but it does mean that obviously unobtainable demands are an inherent part of the moral existence of the Left.

Left and Right are unavoidably relative terms. One can speak without real difficulty of the Left wing of a Rightist movement. And, indeed, the success of the Left forces it always to change, “as time passes, the Left just define itself ever more precisely. For the more it influences social consciousness, the more its slogans take on a positive aura, the more they are appropriated by the Right and lose their defined meaning. Nobody today opposes such concepts as “freedom” and “equality”; that is why they can become implements of fraud” (150). In the same vein, although we can give a very nice abstract definition of Leftness, for instance as “the degree of participation in the process of social development that strives to eliminate all conditions in which the possibility of satisfying human needs is obstructed by social relations” (150), we cannot remove the manifold contradictions and ambiguities wrapped up in such a general definition.

Rather, we must define the concept of the Left within concrete historical reality. Reality today is marked by two kinds of conflicts, “first of all, class conflicts and, secondarily, political ones” (151). The social world contains many kinds of divisions other than those of class that could give rise to conflict, and further, “classes themselves are becoming more, rather than less, complicated” (151). So, it follows that “political life cannot reflect class conflicts purely and directly but, on the contrary, ever more indirectly and confusedly” (151). And from this it follows that the Left cannot be pegged to the wishes, even the benefit, of the working class, “the Left cannot be defined by saying it will always, in every case, support every demand of the working class, or that it is always on the side of the majority” (151). The intellectual realm is autonomous from the material one, “even though in today’s world there is no leftist attitude independent of the struggle for the rights of the working class, though no leftist position can be realized outside the class structure, and though only the struggle of the oppressed can make the Left a material force, nevertheless the Left must be defined in intellectual, and not class, terms” (151).

Although Kolakowski distinguishes between capitalist and non-capitalist countries, and the utility or force of the distinction might well be worth probing, his laundry-list of positions is much the same for both. Social privilege must go, whatever its source. Colonial oppression and other forms of unequal and exploitative relations between countries must be resisted. Limitations on the freedom of speech are everywhere to be thrown off, and here “the Left fights all the contradictions of freedom that arise in both kinds of social conditions: how far can one push the demand for tolerance without turning against the idea of tolerance itself? How can one guarantee that tolerance will not lead to the victory of forces that will strangle the principle of tolerance? This is the great problem of all leftist movements” (152). In addition to fighting racism and obscurantism in the name of “rational thought,” “the Left strives to secularize social life” (152). The left is willing to use violence, willing to compromise in the concrete when it seems best, “everywhere the Left is ready to compromise with historical facts, but it rejects ideological compromise” (152). Toward reality, “it takes a position of permanent revisionism” (152), while “the Right is the embodiment of the inertia of historical reality” (153). The Left is always willing to grasp reality as it is in the hope of making it how it should be with the aid of a lodestar utopia, its “political ideology,” the Right is incapable of this and “has nothing but tactics” (153). The Left, then, is practically defined as political engagement that does not abandon ideology, so that unlike the Right, it “rejects any means of political warfare that lead to moral consequences which contradict its premises” (153). It follows from this expansive definition that it is impossible to unite into a single political movement all of the Left. There will always, practically by definition although also for practical political reasons, be splinters.

Kolakowski is of course thinking from the specific position of Poland. The Communist Party, then, is the main issue: “For a long time the division into a Party Left and Right did not exist, although some members were more or less to the left…because the Party was deprived of any real political life, because its ideology did not grow out of its own historical experience but was to a large degree imposed upon it” (154). The situation in Poland now is somewhat peculiar, “the forces of the Left stand between two rightist tendencies: the reaction within the Party, and traditional reaction. This is a new historical development, awareness of which has arisen only in the past few years” (155). About this it is pointed out that, “the New Left appeared within the movement when it became apparent that a New Right existed,” without going in to how the old Left moved Right, Kolakowski emphasizes that “it does not seem that this process was caused by the mere fact of the Left’s coming to power…it does not seem that the Left can exist only in a position of opposition, or that the possession of power is incompatible with the nature of the Left and leads inevitably to its downfall” (155). In more poetic language, “the Left protests against the existing world, but it does not long for a void. It is an explosive charge that disrupts the stability of social life, but it is not a movement toward nothingness” (156).

There are many concrete political reasons for the relative weakness of the Left, but the central conceptual reason is that it is always in danger of dissolving into mere moralism. This has to do again with the Left’s ideological commitments. The difference with the Right is definitive, “let us speak openly: contempt for ideology is the strength of the Right because it allows for greater flexibility in practice and for the arbitrary use of any verbal façade that will facilitate the seizure of power” (156). The malleability of the Right means that “it is important for the Left to have available at all times criteria of recognition in the form of attitudes toward those actual political matters which, for one reason or another, force the Right to reveal itself for what it is” (156-7). The ideological danger that faces the Left, its most difficult task, is to resolutely oppose the two kinds of Right, “the Left is in grave danger if it directs its criticism toward only one pressure, for it thus blurs its political demarcations…it must take the same clear rational attitude toward both the sclerotic religiosity of the Stalinist version of Marxism and the obscurantism of the clergy. It must simultaneously reject socialist phraseology as a façade for police states and democratic phraseology as a disguise for bourgeois rule” (157). This returns us to what emerges as Kolakowski’s central point, “the Left’s greatist claim is ideological…it is to differentiate exactly between ideology and current political tactics. The Left does not refuse to compromise with reality as long as compromises are so labeled…While the Left realizes that on occasion it is powerless in the face of crime, it refuses to call crime a ‘blessing’” (157). Put differently, “the intellectual and moral values of communism are not luxurious ornaments of its activity, but the conditions of its existence” (158). Kolakowski calls this position “leftist socialism.”

The Left, then, is a position taken in relation to actually existing society, oriented at every particular turn by utopian dreams that arise out of this reality although they may seem far from it. The Left is therefore permanent. This gives a melancholic and Sisyphean note to Kolakowski’s ending. The Left’s demands are permanently necessary, and so will often enough be defeated, “but such defeats are more fruitful than capitulation. For this reason the Left is not afraid of being a minority…It knows that history itself calls forth in every situation a leftist side which is as necessary a component of social life as its aspect of conservatism and inertia” (158). “The Left the fermenting factor in even the most hardened mass of the historical present…It is…the dynamite of hope that blasts the dead load of ossified systems, institutions, customs, intellectual habits, and closed doctrines. The Left unites those dispersed and often hidden atoms whose movement is, in the last analysis, what we call progress” (158).

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