The Left is Not Consciousness
A Response to Chris Cutrone's Response to My Response to Chris Cutrone's Response to My Response to the Platypus Affiliated Society
It has become clear that, in our ongoing exchange, Chris Cutrone and I are talking past each other. He may feel the same about my entries, but I do not recognize my views in his responses, which read to me like restatements of past disagreements with others. I also suspect that Cutrone sees our debate as a means of triangulating between the intellectually sterile Jacobin/DSA left and an antileftist critique that is beyond the pale for respectable Marxist academics. In other words, it is an occasion to present Platypus as the reasonable Marxist critics of the left who can be trusted not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
To avoid further miscommunication and misinterpretation, therefore, I will not respond to Cutrone’s most recent reply in a conventional article form. Rather, I will list its specific claims and refute them in turn. Perhaps such a format can turn monologue into dialogue.
CUTRONE: “By identifying the ‘Left’ with a group of people, e.g. members of Jacobin/DSA et al., Cryptofash reifies the phenomenon of the Left, and in the worst possible way, by personalizing it. . . . The Left is not a thing but rather expresses a process; moreover the Left refers to the tendency or force of a historical process.”
CRYPTOFASH: Being #DepersonalizedAndCryptofashPilled, I don’t personalize the left, but treat it instead as “the historical movement of the progressive bourgeoisie.” And I refer to “leftism” as the ideological production that emanates from this impersonal process.
CUTRONE: “But even in colloquial discourse it is well understood that Left and Right represent principles not people. This is why someone who was a Leftist can become a Rightist: he can change his mind.”
CRYPTOFASH: In colloquial discourse, it is well understood that left and right represent parties. This is why someone who was a leftist (Democrat) can become a rightist (Republican): he can change his party.
Left and right do not represent firm principles. The apparent “principles” of each evolve in relation to each other over time. The characteristic values of the left today are not necessarily the same as they once were. For example, the left may have once presented itself as champions of free speech against the authoritarian right, whereas in a different context, the right now does the reverse.
CUTRONE: “Aaron Benanav criticized Platypus for its preoccupation with the Left rather than with class — similar to the criticism of Platypus by my old ex-comrades of the Spartacist League— and referred as Cryptofash does to the Left as the Left-wing of capitalism, as if this disqualified the concept. But Marxism always considered itself to be the consciousness of the historical tendency of capitalism that pointed beyond it and that was necessary in order to actually get beyond it.”
CRYPTOFASH: I am preoccupied with the left too, as a bourgeois class expression, the historical tendency of capitalist society to criticize itself “in such a way to shield that society from criticism.” Notice here how Cutrone uses “the left” and “Marxism” interchangeably, even though the former was such an important concept for Marx that he never used it.
CUTRONE: “Bhaskar Sunkara, who recently took over the historically progressive liberal Nation magazine . . . has apparently changed since he published an article in The Nation, ‘Reclaiming Socialism’ (2015), in which, under the influence of my teachings in Platypus, he cited Kołakowski’s ‘Concept of the Left’ to justify his political vision. Back then, Sunkara’s influences were Lenin and Kautsky (from “when Kautsky was still a Marxist,” as Lenin put it). But this is no longer the case. More recently, Sunkara claimed that he was less a follower of Kautsky than of Ralph Miliband.”
CRYPTOFASH: Cutrone portrays some tragic epistemological break taking place in Sunkara’s thought when he traded out Kolakowski and Kautsky for Miliband. Yet if you look at the 2015 essay that supposedly embodies the high-water mark of the revolutionary consciousness he achieved under the tutelage of Cutrone, you will find little that would be out of place in the next issue of Jacobin:
“And socialists have been hard at work organizing, even if our activity is often within broader left formations. We’re doing things like supporting rank-and-file action in the labor movement and keeping a systemic critique alive within the environmental movement. We’re organizing public outreach and education on issues like foreclosure resistance, and engaging with the inspiring new struggles against police brutality and racism.”
How exactly has Sunkara abandoned this intersectional leftist boilerplate?
CUTRONE: “Perhaps Sunkara thinks he has remained consistent, but there seems to be some change of mind. . . . he has abandoned the Left’s role in pushing — and transcending — the envelope of possibility and realizing hitherto unrealized potentials . . . Sunkara has abandoned the task of building a socialist party. Instead, Sunkara et al. among the Millennial Left have fallen back upon the dead traditions of the past post-Marxist ‘Left’ — accepting and reinforcing the liquidation of proletarian socialism over the course of the past century, since Lenin’s time.
This downward trajectory in perspectives is a significant degeneration of consciousness on the part of a key leader of the Millennial Left. Five years ago I called it the death of the Millennial Left, in its liquidation into the Democratic Party. It has only grown worse since then.”
CRYPTOFASH: Cutrone sources the “death of the Millennial Left” to the “degeneration of consciousness” in the minds of its leaders, as if things could have turned out differently if only Bhaskar Sunkara didn’t stop reading his Kolakowski.
Sunkara’s supposed “downward trajectory in perspectives” is an effect, not a cause. His “abandonment of Marxist ideas,” if such a thing ever happened, occurred as his consciousness rationalized the process of becoming incorporated into the machinery of the left (the Democratic Party). The fate of the Millennial Left was determined by its being the left, not the reading list of big-money Bhaskar.
CUTRONE: “Cryptofash derogates consciousness by calling it ‘idealistic’ and ‘metaphysical,’ an ‘abstract’ and so supposedly unreal ‘essence.’ But then one must ask what the purpose of Cryptofash’s own writings is. What is the point of his arguments if all that matters is ‘material reality’? Indeed, in prioritizing empirical reality over consciousness, Cryptofash follows the present dead ‘Left’s’ lead into accommodating the power of the status quo, abandoning the consciousness of how it could and should be changed — first of all, how the present “Left” must be fundamentally changed. Cryptofash’s “anti-Leftist Marxism” merely strikes a pose against the ‘Left.’”
CRYPTOFASH: Cutrone presents my critique of the “concept of the left” as a rejection of consciousness itself, as if these are the same thing. Although Cutrone makes me out to be some crude materialist eliminating consciousness from the picture, my entries in this series have only attempted to eliminate leftist dogmas through conscious analysis of the left’s reality. The “mystical consciousness” that insists against the evidence of history that “the left” inherently signifies ideals of freedom, change, hope, etc., is the “consciousness which is unclear to itself” and which must face ruthless criticism, especially when it presents itself as Marxist critique.
On the relation between thought and being, I follow neither Cutrone’s prioritization of consciousness nor the “dead left” this leads him to imagine. Instead, I follow Marx, for whom, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Although it is ideological to attribute independent existence to ideas, such as “the left,” this does not mean consciousness must be reduced to the vulgar materialism Cutrone ascribes to me. “Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious being,” yet it is the purpose of Marxist criticism to reveal this being as social and historical, not absolute and eternal. My critique of abstract notions of left and right attempts just this, demystifying a central ideological mechanism by which bourgeois society appears to consciousness as natural.
Cutrone claims that my “desire to proceed separately from and in opposition to the Left” is a form of “accommodating the power of the status quo.” My very premise, however, is that by reinforcing the left/right organization of bourgeois class rule, “the concept of the left” proceeds in harmony with the status quo and is itself one of its powers. For Cutrone, I am merely striking a pose against the left by abandoning the consciousness of how it “must be fundamentally changed.” Yet I am the only one in this exchange conscious of the proletarian need to abolish it.