On the state of the State of the Left
by Sam Kriss
If he up, watch him fall, I can’t fuck wit yall.
Pimp C, Big Pimpin’
Among the guardians of sclerotic radicalism, the ones who like to make grand pronouncements on the Current State of the Left, it’s become a grim axiom that we’ve somehow been defeated. This is pronounced with all the usual apocalyptic wailing: we’ve become weak and petty, we’ve splintered into irrelevancy, we’ve retreated into academia, we’ve polluted ourselves with all manner of useless theory – Nietzscheanism, Foucauldianism, intersectionality, ontology, cultural studies. Those who still hold to some kind of Marxist or communist line are like the seventh-century squatters in Diocletian’s palace, shivering in the walled-off ruins of something grand and terrifying and extinct while the barbarians scour the countryside. They’re right. The State of the Left is a terrible one: palsied, liver-spotted, emphysemic, crying out with its sandpaper rasp for a strong dose of barbiturates in a comfortingly bleak Swiss clinic. The point is that the State of the Left is not the same as the actual Left. Like all states its function is to arrive to us already in an advanced state of decay and to wither away as soon as possible. The left itself is doing just fine.
The moaners and complainers are ignoring a central lesson of the dialectic. Marx describes precisely its revolutionary quality in his 1873 postface to Volume I of Capital: the material dialectic regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and [does] not let itself be impressed by anything. Deleuze and Guattari touch on a similar point in Plateau 1730 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: in a becoming-animal what is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes. Any single State of the Left will be dead as soon as it is pinned down. Those who gripe about this or that static problem in the radical movement will see it as an endless succession of corpses, rather than a living motion.
And it is alive. As China plunges ever deeper into the watery graveyard of neoliberal accumulation, autonomous peasant uprisings are becoming a near-daily occurrence. In India the Naxalite insurgency governs vast swathes of the country. Radical left parties – both Cold War relics and newer coalitions – are gaining increasing support across much of Europe. Radical left magazines are reaching and radicalising new audiences. Protest movements are flaring up across the globe. Whatever the ideological or practical failings of these individual bodies or movements (and they exist), their emergence and resurgence is reason enough to be hopeful. The evidence is mounting for the radical – and correct – idea that the current way of doing things simply doesn’t work. There is significantly more debt than actual money in circulation, we’ve invested well over one planet’s worth of resources in the existing order, the wealth gap gets broader and more perilous with every crisis, the conditions necessary not only for social but biological life are being eroded, Macklemore won every rap award at the Grammys. Most importantly, this increasing consciousness of the sheer insanity of existing conditions has prompted an unashamed and unapologetic revival of the signifier communism.
In The German Ideology, Marx writes: Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The State of the Left is not communism. Politics, properly understood, is the practical arena in which the question of how life should be lived is contested and the method through which human beings can through mass action entirely overhaul their mode of existence. The State of the Left, more concerned with ossifying the present state of things with the basilisk stare of its displeasure than abolishing it, is not only non-communist but non-political. It’s squabbling for position and the allocation of immaterial resources, the reconfiguration of left politics into left politicking, and beyond any ideological or practical objections it’s profoundly, abyssally boring.
It’s for this reason that I try to engage with this stuff as little as possible. My last flight into the turbulent miasma of leftist infighting was a response to Mark Fisher’s ‘vampire castle’ nonsense, mostly written because everyone else was doing one and as an excuse to spend a few paragraphs playing around with Gothic metaphors, which are always fun. This intervention is prompted by something a little less conceptually fecund. Recently, Richard Seymour (formerly of the Socialist Workers Party and author of the often excellent and occasionally execrable blog Lenin’s Tomb) resigned from the International Socialist Network; much of the crowing at his apparent fall from grace has been led by Ross Wolfe (formerly of the Platypus Affiliated Society and author of the often execrable and occasionally excellent blog The Charnel-House). The dispute that prompted this move centred on the racial implications of a work of art-cum-furniture owned by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova, with Seymour insisting on the acceptability of something called ‘race play.’ Personally, I think that to complain about the chair that an oligarch’s girlfriend chooses to sit on is to miss the point a little (especially when cops are shooting people of colour in the streets with impunity), but I’ve no interest in trying to wave away someone else’s sense of outrage or direct it from the outside. What’s important here (for a given value of ‘important’) is that an argument about a chair ended in a further split in what’s still masquerading as the left.
Seymour (and others) have previously complained of a ‘politics of anathema’ within the ISN; others have pointed to a supposed culture of excommunication throughout the left and tied it (unfairly, I think) to the increasing influence of intersectionality theory. It’s easy to disdain all this polemicism as being contrary to the spirit of reasoned debate, but the practice of polemic has a very distinguished leftist pedigree – Marx against Bakunin, Lenin against Kautsky, Stalin against Trotsky, Mao against Khrushchev, Tito against his own conscience, Hoxha against the slimy creatures scurrying inside his walls at night, Kim against the oral stage of psychosexual development. We have a leftist duty to engage in criticism and self-criticism, to get rid of a bad style and keep the good, to not let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong. What we shouldn’t do is confuse these duties with communist praxis.
Purely rational debate isn’t something that’s ever existed; it’s a transcendent regulative ideal buttressed with violence and used to hold back people who actually have a stake in the game. Insisting on measured reasonableness in a time of crisis is madness. Something’s changed, though. The new polemicism and the old polemicism don’t look very much alike. The discussion inevitably ends up veering away from politics because politics is fundamentally not a concern here. One of Seymour’s accusers on Facebook wrote: I hope a bird shits on you. I hope a bird shits on you every day. Catullus it ain’t. (Besides, isn’t being shat on by a bird supposed to bring good luck?) This is the real problem with the current leftist infighting: rather than being too vicious, it’s not vicious enough. I’m not going to make prescriptions about how this stratum of contest can be reformed; it’s a useless husk, and its uselessness is affirmed by how seriously everyone involved takes it. Calls for unity and pleasantness in a State of the Left already clotted into paralysis miss the point entirely. If anything, more splits, more divisions; everyone knows that communist cells reproduce asexually. But if we are to have a pointless squabbling sideshow to left activism, the very least it could do is make itself interesting.
PS: For all the complaints of excommunication, the State of the Left is hardly catholic or Catholic in nature. Excommunication is a profoundly dialectical censure; the object is to prod the wayward sheep back into the fold precisely by showing them what going it alone would mean. Instead, the function of contemporary left infighting is a kind of secular takfirism, a static universalism within strict horizons. Excommunication is vicious, takfirism is merely brutal. Once you’ve been pronounced apostate, there’s no return. You might follow the same doctrine and the same liturgy; it doesn’t matter – you are our enemy and always have been. This can be seen in the doctrine of Platypus: only one obscure Marxist reading group can rescue the left from its ruin, everything else must be destroyed. It’s hard not to be reminded of the splinter groups in the Algerian Civil War that were able to declare themselves to be the only true Muslims and every single person outside their militia kafir.
A nice bit of writing, this.
Of course I disagree with you regarding the present state of the Left, however. That the ISN has fallen flat on its face is unsurprising. More promising than the Naxalite rebellion, though, is the resurgence of leftish parliamentary parties in Europe, Left Unity in England, and the “socialism in one district” of Kshama Sawant. None of this indicates anything like a sea-change in the present state of politics, however. Perhaps things don’t seem so desolated as they did immediately after 1991, but that’s hardly saying much. There’s no threat of revolutionary social or political transformation immediately on the horizon, and without that, even reformism is without content.
I’m somewhat more heartened by groups like the CPGB in England, who seem to at least have a vague awareness of what might be required to make Marxist politics relevant once more. The Platypus Affiliated Society is for the most part right in its diagnosis of the Left’s current historical impasse, its origins and implications. But the group has rendered itself totally irrelevant through its own incompetence, blunders, and needlessly outrageous rhetoric. As far as I can tell, they’ve continued to hemorrhage members (except in Germany) and survive mostly comprised of an aging “old guard” of Cutrone’s original students from Chicago. I wouldn’t pay them too much heed; they’ll either disband in the next couple years or fade into even greater obscurity.
Closing thought: If the death of the Left has been greatly exaggerated, then the supposed signs of its rebirth are all the more so.
Regarding the “unabashed revival of the signifier communism,” I’m curious as to what you think the significance of this development actually is. Is anything meaningfully discrete signified by this term? Or is it just an empty, floating signifier, devoid of content? Maybe it’s a good sign that it’s no longer a taboo term, stigmatized by (neo)liberal common sense. But I’m not sure. People are still terrified by the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat, a phrase that not even the most radical of the “conference communists” seem willing to touch with a ten foot pole. Not that this phrase is necessarily more meaningful outside of the historical memory to which it alludes, of course. I’m just confused as to why you think that this revival is cause for celebration.
given the extensive smear campaign against the word communism i don’t think it’s an empty signifier at all. i think there has been a significant recent shift in popular usage where it’s no longer used to refer to a past historical period but a current movement and set of demands, uttered loudly, without apology, which can only be a good thing
mass automation, which is right around the corner, will be the arbiter of social reform. without all those fucking jobs to sweat about, fecundity will decompress and expand.
‘Social reform’ … ‘fecundity will decompress and expand’ – Dangerous nonsense! If mass automation was ever achievable it would greatly cement the power of the elite, accelerate inequality – create ever greater immiseration and larger surplus populations and – eventually – lead to outright fascism and genocide.
Where does this dangerous belief come from?
gosh, i didn’t mean to scare you. sure, with enough fuckwits like you around who play right into THEIR psychopathy it’s gonna be an even longer and more painful process. haven’t you noticed that we already live in a place where people are unhappy and afraid because they’re not treated fairly? haven’t you noticed that it’s our frantic scramble for ‘jobs’ that succors ‘the elite?’ don’t you realize that, anyway, there will NEVER be enough ‘jobs’ for everyone? you’d better start thinking outside the box, hombre, ’cause mass automation ain’t a hypothesis…
good post, and as i keep saying, remember who the enemy is. That said; it is a bit like like nobody ever thinks THEY are the sideshow…
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