Leftism Old and New
The More the Left Changes
The left/right dichotomy is bound to the history of the bourgeois state whose parliamentary system divides its political factions along these lines. Although it appears to be a transhistorical political orientation, the left did not exist prior to its emergence after bourgeois revolution and only achieved universal recognition as fast as the capitalist mode of production and its corresponding political superstructure pervaded the world. It may present itself as challenging the existing order, yet as nothing other than one side of the authorized division of that order, the left by definition reinforces the logic of the capitalist political system and therefore bourgeois class rule.
There is no eternal essence of leftism that stands outside the historical process in which it is involved. It gains its meaning relative to the right in a particular moment of capitalist development. Evolving according to the historical trajectory of bourgeois society, the left may at times find overlap with workers’ movements, although its interests never become those of the proletariat, and any apparent convergence between them is only the result of the historical contingency that will break them apart in time.
Eric Hobsbawm elucidates this ontological difference between the left and the working class in his narrative that segments the history of the former into three distinguishable phases of engagement with the latter:
The revolutionary bourgeois.
The social-democratic left spanning the workers’ movements of the nineteenth century to the twentieth-century welfare state.
The new left of the 1960s and beyond centered on the college campus and issue-based activism.
While the left has formed alliances with the working class throughout its history, most notably in the second phase of Hobsbawm’s narrative, it has remained distinct from the proletariat with which it has sometimes partnered.
The first left, for example, approached the masses as a tool to mobilize “for its political objectives,” namely, “to overcome monarchical, absolutist, and aristocratic governments in favor of the bourgeois institutions of liberal and constitutional government.”1 The long phase of the second left saw a continuation of the first left’s “demands for civil, political, and social rights,” only now with the support of workers who “organized themselves into movement, sometimes in alliance with the traditional Left, but increasingly on their own.”2 The social democratic welfare state produced by this dynamic ultimately succeeded throughout most of Europe in accomplishing “the old objectives of the Left,” even as the “situation was very different in America,” where in the absence of an independent working-class movement, “this new phase of the Left remained within the Democratic Party.”3
During its postwar zenith, the second left “achieved everything [the first left] had ever hoped of achieving . . . with the formation and triumph of the Welfare State,” yet its apparent success in improving conditions for workers only spelled deeper strategic problems. Indeed, the second left exhausted itself, in Hobsbawm’s narrative, precisely because it achieved its reformist objectives, which did not include “battles for the permanent change of society’s structure,” accepting instead “a certain degree of state intervention in the economy, in terms of both management and ownership.” In the face of a globalizing economy that “undermined its ability to defend its social constituency within national borders,” the reformist parties of the second left were stuck attempting to conserve “that which had already been achieved,” and thus without a “suitable program” for “the construction of a different society . . . the second Left came to an end.”4
The demise of the second left amid a globalized economy and the ultimate downfall of the Soviet alternative conditioned the rise of Hobsbawm’s third left, the so-called new left that emerged in the sixties and which continues to exist in more or less the same form in the present. Unlike the social-democratic left it supplanted, the new left lacked the foundation of a working-class base and a single, coherent project, as it was shaped instead by a middle-class layer of students, intellectuals, and activists and their mosaic of single-issue causes such as anti-racism, feminism, anti-war, and environmentalism. The legacy of the long history of the left, therefore, is this new left that remains firmly attached to the left-bourgeois parties, and committed to a pluralism of intersecting causes.
Although this eclipse of objective class struggle in favor of intersectional fragmentation is at odds with Marx’s entire philosophy, this situation is embraced by the left itself, the supposed descendants of Marx. Denying Marx’s theory of social totality and the central historical role of class struggle, the contemporary left, as Steven Lukes observes, “requires a pluralistic agenda, embodied in different movements, and a network form of organisation that promises more equal and democratic forms of participation than the old hierarchical forms, enabling different, single-issue and geographically dispersed movements to fight for greater equality locally and globally.”5 Under the old banners of democracy and equality, the new left, in other words, has not strayed very far from the radical liberalism that originally inspired the first one.
Leftist true-believers like Hobsbawm portray this outcome as a fall from grace, in which “private and selfish interests have seriously eroded left-wing values,” leaving an inadequate, depoliticized left that has lost touch with the working class and its essential commitments.6 Yet in the context of Hobsbawm’s own history of the left, it is clear that even the glory days of the social-democratic second left were a historical anomaly in terms of left-proletarian convergence and merely the furthest limit attainable by a counter-revolutionary arrangement in which proletarian forces were diluted within bourgeois institutions like the Democratic Party.
Hobsbawm may mourn the supposed erosion of “left-wing values,” but the new left’s anti-hierarchical fight for “more equal and democratic forms of participation” is in fact perfectly continuous with the commitment to securing and expanding liberal rights within bourgeois democracy that has defined the left throughout its history. Indeed, “what unifies the left as a tradition across time and space,” as Lukes summarizes, is a rejection of hierarchy that “contests unjustifiable but remediable inequalities of status, rights, powers and condition and seeks to eliminate them through political action.” The new left simply takes leftism’s longstanding “principle of rectification” to its logical conclusion by aiming to remedy all the various inequalities it finds within bourgeois society rather than emphasizing the proletariat as the revolutionary vehicle to abolish that society altogether.7
As much as it has transformed over time, it is the enduring moralistic tendencies of the left which bring all of its phases into direct contrast with the impulses of classical Marxism, something that gained its critical edge by departing from the abstract humanism and idealism of its socialist competitors. The left’s urge to ameliorate injustice “starts from the basic humanist idea of equality: the moral principle that all human beings are equally deserving of concern and respect,” but such abstract “left-wing values,” reverberating from the bourgeois revolutions to the present, have little to do with classical Marxism.8
As William McBride observes, Marx’s development of the materialist conception of history and the critique of political economy led him to “eschew abstract talk about ‘man as such,’ ‘human nature,’ etc., as much as possible, in favour of making limited generalizations about human beings within specific societies.”9 At odds with the left-wing activists and reformers of his time who generated utopian theories based on unhistorical ideals of justice, equality, and human nature, Marx based his method of historical materialism on the analysis of class society as it actually exists, the tendencies inherent in the real historical process.
As we are now prepared to grasp, Marxism is at bottom the critical demolition of the utopian leftism that the proletariat must surrender to the petty bourgeoisie, for with “great sentimental rhetoric” it “only idealises present-day society, makes a shadowless picture of it and seeks to oppose its ideal to its reality.” Indeed for Marx, class need, not the ethical projection of utopia, impels the proletariat toward “the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations” and find expression in the bourgeois ideology of leftism old and new.10
Eric Hobsbawm, The New Century (London: Little, Brown, 2000), 96.
Hobsbawm, 101, 99.
Steven Lukes, “Epilogue: The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, eds. Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 619.
William McBride, The Philosophy of Marx (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), 85.
Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 10. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978), 127.