The Left is Not the Right
A Response to Chris Cutrone
In his writings, public events, and appearances on various online media, Platypus’s lead figure Chris Cutrone has been a particularly sharp critic of today’s left. He says things that virtually no other leftist would say (Why not Trump?), and I have enjoyed when he offends the sensibilities of a leftist interlocutor with an inconvenient truth about the nature of the left. More than any other leftist, he appears to maintain a friction with the left, which in its current form, he finds completely unacceptable.
Yet he does not have a problem with the left in general, only its degraded present state. Indeed, his issue with today’s left is that it isn’t a real left at all. It represents instead the simulacra resulting from the historical failures of Marxism and the corresponding “death of the left,” which he and his organization dutifully mourn. They criticize the left, not as its opponents, but as defenders of what it is supposed to be.
As anyone familiar with my criticism knows, this leftist idealism that contrasts the pure idea of the left with today’s artificial left is precisely what I have sought to demystify. Since Platypus and specifically Cutrone do the most to exemplify this tendency of severe criticism of the existing left born out of a romanticization of the left in general, I accepted their invitation to critique “the concept of the left” in the Platypus Review as an opportunity to bring this contradiction to a head, something I believe I have accomplished, judging by Cutrone’s recent response.
The specific occasion for my Platypus article was a critical review of Leszek Kołakowski’s “The Concept of the Left,” a cherished text of Cutrone. My article highlighted the utopianism, idealism, and romanticism of Kołakowski’s leftist metaphysics, attributes it shares more with the modern left criticized by Cutrone than with Marx, who neither had patience for mystical talk of the left’s “mysterious and obscure” utopias, nor any need for the concept of the left at all.
Nevertheless, Cutrone’s response relies on dubious connections to “the question of reform vs. revolution in the 2nd Socialist International” and implicit reflections on Stalin’s “crimes against Leninism” to insist that “The Concept of the Left” is in fact continuous with Orthodox or revolutionary Marxism. We can accept that Stalin looms over this text, which groups “Stalinist inertia” along with “the inertia of capitalism” in the right that must be opposed by the left. Yet Kołakowski’s text primarily meditates on its title concept as an abstract quality—the essence of “leftness” in general—rather than specifically addressing the history of the left and right within Marxism as Cutrone implies.
But squabbling over the subtext of Kołakowski’s essay is beside the point. The greater significance of my exchange with Cutrone is that in defending “the concept of the left,” he reveals that for all of his provocations, he isn’t fundamentally in conflict with the left, which for him, doesn’t exist.
Cutrone’s Kołakowskian premise of a “real left” is indeed shared by the very “fake left” he criticizes. For Kołakowski, Cutrone, and every Jacobin writer and member of DSA, left and right are not relative, historical categories of bourgeois democracy (my position), but instead have transhistorical essence. Although Cutrone and a DSA member might disagree on the “leftness” of the existing left, they both accept the existence of an abstract “concept of the left” against which historical phenomena can be measured.
For the DSA member, today’s left is really the left. For Cutrone, it isn’t. But this is only because they have different conceptions of the left, not because they disagree over whether the left is a concept. To illustrate this basic harmony, consider the familiar leftist refrain that “the Democratic Party isn’t really the left; it’s a right-wing party.” This is because such bourgeois parties do not match their ideal of the left. To distance themselves from the stain of the Democratic Party they serve in practice, the DSA member will therefore replicate the underlying idealism Cutrone uses to distance himself from the stain of the left.
Cutrone enlists Kołakowski’s essay against today’s left, but the latter are Kołakowskians too. Whereas their concept of the left might emphasize Kołakowski’s point that “the destruction of all racism is an essential part of the Left’s position,” Cutrone or a “class-first” leftist might emphasize another. And whereas the proud leftist (and ashamed Democrat) will point to their Kołakowskian concept to insist that the Democrats are the right, not the left, an ashamed leftist like Cutrone will merely extend this same logic to the left itself: “The Left is dead today because it is the Right — not because it is the Left.”
This claim encapsulates my basic difference with the leftist true believer, for whom the left is conceptual and not historical. Whereas I aim to historicize the left according to the left/right organization of bourgeois democracy (without which it wouldn’t exist), the true believer denies the left exists according to their romantic idea of it. In the Kołakowskian “moral attitude” of the latter, the left is good, and the right is bad, and since what passes itself off as the left today is bad, it can’t really be the left. The Platonic form of leftism is nowhere to be found in this fallen world. The Democratic Party is a right wing party! The left is the right!
Cutrone attempts to give his concept a history by claiming, “The Left as a historical idea of Marxism motivating the proletarian struggle for the socialist transformation of capitalism has become instead a late bourgeois ideology of the ‘progressive’ reform of capitalism.” But as I have outlined elsewhere, the historical emergence of left and right is tied to the naturalization of bourgeois parliament, not Marxism.
Cutrone can point to Trotsky’s “Left Opposition” as “uphold[ing] the true spirit of Marxism and proletarian socialist revolution,” but the fact remains that “the concept of the left” has nothing to do with “the true spirit of Marxism.” It was never part of classical Marxism and as the left side of liberal democracy it was already an early bourgeois ideology of the progressive reform of capitalism before it appeared in a different context within Marxism.
Why must those engaged in a Marxist critique of the left cling to this particular usage and indulge Trotskyist narratives of betrayal and melancholy about the true left that failed, when the left’s popular association with left-bourgeois parties like the Democrats has a deeper historical basis? For what good reason should they burden themselves with the absurd task of explaining that the existing left is the fake left and the real left can be found in sentimental memories of Trotsky’s “Left Opposition”?
Cutrone is right to say “Marxism is entombed in history.” But “the real left” will never resuscitate it because the history of the left is its tomb.