Notes on The Concept of the Left by Leszek Kolakowski

Utopia without Utopianism

I have found Leszek Kolakowski history and relationship to leftism and communism fascinating since I discovered his “Main Currents of Marxism” in a used bookshop and noticed that he began the history of Marxism with the history of idealism, reading Marx into a tradition going back to the Neo-Platonists. Although, Kolakowski towards the end of the volume seems to take turn in favor of Karl Popper’s thesis against both historicism and utopianism towards the third volume. Yet in his writings from 1966 to 1972, Kolakowski was a key thinker in a different variant of “Marxist Humanism” from that of Raya Dunayevskaya as opposed to Stalinism and Althusser’s analyzes. Yet he died in 2009 having recanted all of his prior leftism, and settled in as an apologist for the current as well as defender of the current projected into the future in terms of futurology.

So I was fascinated to see that Platypus Affiliated Society took such an interest in Kolakowski’s “The Concept of the Left” including it in their introductory reading group. Furthermore, while there are some problems that one can see in the text in light of Kolakowski’s later recantation of his previous position, it is a truly illuminating read. Platypus has made it available in the link above. I will be quoting that extensively.

The essay begins with the assertion that “Every work of man is a compromise between the material and the tool. Tools are never quite equal to their tasks, and none is beyond improvement” (144). There is a simple and obvious truth to the this metaphor: there is almost always a better hammer, and not ever hammer is fit for every situation: “You cannot properly clean teeth with an oil or perform brain operations with a pencil. Whenever such attempts have been made the results have always been less than satisfactory” (144). If this metaphor is immediately clarifying, you know that we are going to be defining what tool and the project of the left could be and the second part of the metaphor is about why the left is perpetually in crisis.

One of things often not discussed that Kolakowski seems to be implying is that the left itself constantly renewed by crisis: They are by necessity compromised between what we can make manifest and what we can imagine. The failure to see that compromise and acknowledge it as such without bending on what we can imagine causes either regression or terror. Just as the crises of capitalism–and the right whose goal is the maintenance–always renews capitalism if the moment is not seized, this was true of prior periods and prior ways of life and it is not unique to capitalism. It is also not unique to the thought of the left in time. But for that to make sense, we must figure out what is actually meant by the left.

Kolakowski then asserts that “Social revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality” (145). This is under the section title: “The left as negation.” So compromise between utopia and historical reality is actually what is at stake. I would say that Kolakowski gives us a new definition for utopianism here: a failure to compromise with historical reality thus preventing a revolution is Utopianism, NOT dreaming and asking demands prior they seem possible. As Kolakowski notes, “Utopias which try to give history a new form are themselves a product of history, while history itself remains anonymous.” This phrasing is interesting and in a way telling, we cannot see history as it is happening, there we see only events. This is a necessity of our subject relations to others, we cannot see the whole while we are in it and we cannot stand fully outside while it is going on. In so much that we are affected by the historical movement we are in, we are unaware of it. This is like Althusser’s concept of ideology but fundamentally different in a key element: it is not taking the last time of saying we are determined by history (or ideology). Our ideas are products of our social relations, the subject is by necessity, not “me” but “us.” Because as Kolakowski states “On the other hand, history is a human product.” (145). We produce history itself: we make our human conditions even though we are often unaware of how those conditions are predicated in relationships outside of our subject position. History is a product of humans, not human ideas or human mystifications.

A Return to Negation and Creative Destruction:

After outlying his basic understanding of the movement of history, Kolakowski states that “To construct a utopia is always an act of negation toward an existing reality, a desire to transform it. But negation is not the opposite of construction–it is only the opposite of affirming existing conditions” [Italics in original] (145). This is a fascinating turn of phrase and one that applies to ideas some same forces akin to the creative destruction that Marx first saw in capitalism itself.  Since Joseph Schumpeter’s use of the term which he lifted from Werner Sombart, who saw it as implied in the last volumes of Das Kapital and in Grundisse, it has gone unmoved.  Strictly speaking, the social relations of capital  emerge with the pieces created from the destruction of prior economic orders and the destruction of wealth to create new markets.  Schumpeter took this as a positive element of capitalism, but even he saw this as one of the things that would cause capitalist production models to be socially unsustainable.  (This error is interesting because many “Marxists” have taken this view, which is not Marx’s who thought creative destruction was a mains of capital to perpetuate itself).
Indeed, Kolakowski is stating that rupture or negation with the present is an act like creative destruction; However, this is not a creative destruction for the maintaining of the current order as capitalist creative destruction exists to do. It is altogether something different.  A reconstitution of the prior system to work out its contradictions and grievances.   This difference may be why Kolakowski avoids the language of creative destruction.  He says, “that is why it makes little sense to reproach someone for committing a destructive rather than a constructive act, because every act of construction is necessarily a negation of the existing order” (145).  Therefore we have something more akin to the negation of negation qua Hegel.  A rupture with the current inconsistencies to move to something new.    Kolakowski does not explicitly use dialectical models in this work, but it is implicit throughout.

Kolakowski returns Utopia as a necessary element: “To construct a utopia is always an act of negation towards an existing reality, a desire to transform it.”  No matter if we outright reject idealism, we cannot reject abstraction or the possibility of what is currently unthinkable.  Utopia here is not in the negative sense that it is used in Marxist polemic, but only in the sense of something currently not existing.  This is a motivating tool so that Utopia can be realized.  The utopianism of refusal to make any contingent compromises with history negates not the currently existing reality, but the Utopia that one can possibly enact after a change of social relations, and the rupture with the current.

When Kolakowski states that “[t]he differences between destructive and constructive work lies in the verbal mystifications stemming from the adjectives used to describe the change, which are considered either good or bad.  Every change is, in fact, an act both negative and positive at one and the same time, and the opposite only of an affirmation of things as they are” (145). One can easily notice a Hegelian synthesis arising from this move.  Yet this brings one to a conclusion: “The Left–and this is its unchangeable and indispensable quality, though by no means its only one–is a movement of negation towards the existing world. For this very reason it is, as we have seen, a constructive force. It is, simply, a quest for change” (146).

This has profound implications for the current left– anarchist, marxist, etc–any movement that is not moving towards negation of some part of the current order is not leftists.  The left cannot be in a defensive position of the existing conditions. This is why Left-liberalism seems to be an oxymoron as liberalism is the dominant position of the day in many respects.  When one is merely trying to defend a program from counter-revolutionary or counter-progressive instead of also advancing a new critique and new progress,  one loses a sense of the purpose of the left.

Indeed, if the Utopia is achieved there is no longer a need for the left.  The political “spectrum” exists not in fossilized positions, but in an orientation towards the future and an negation of the current as well as an acknowledgement of the current’s negation of the past.  The reality of what can get lost in this highly abstract language is that this has practical consequences.  A Marxian left critiques and advances by critique as well as imaging some possibility through that very critique.   That is why some of Marxist’s clear manifestations of a positive vision are done in negating errors:  most of the key framework of communists regardless of tendency were set out in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program.

This means any fossilization of the past is objectively anti-leftist even if it the ideas and methods of prior thinkers that we employ to achieve our Utopia. Still, this negation (of negation) is not itself enough. In fact, as Kolakowski states, “A Left without a constructive program cannot, by that token, have a negative one, since these two terms are synonymous. If there is no program, there is at the same time no negation, that is, no opposite of the Left-in other words, conservatism” (146).   This is why calls to the “post-political” or “synthesis of left and right” make no sense:  this can only affirm the present conditions.

 The pitfalls of inverted Utopias

It is not negation that is sole goal of an “left” Utopian vision.   As Kolakowski states, “But the act of negation does not in itself define the Left, for there are movements with retrogressive goals. Hitlerism was a negation of the Weimar Republic, but this does not make it leftist” (146). The fact that this has to be continually restated through history is telling: Not all negations with the current are progressive.  Indeed, it is not only the left that is Utopian, but also the right and the center. The right can posit it’s reinvigorated mythic pasts, and the liberal can project its current administrative Endstaat against all classes without dissolving them.

Kolakowski makes it clear: “Thus the Left is defined by its negation, but not only by this: it is also defined by the direction of this negation, in fact, by the nature of its utopia” (146).  For the left it is not just the negation of the present, but an inclusion of all excluded in the present in that negation.  Let me speak in plain terms, to paraphrase Orwell, everyone lives in a decent world, or we all don’t.  That is one of the first axioms built into any left-oriented Utopian negation.   This is a goal: it is not a split between means and ends, but it is both a mean and an end.  If the goal of Utopia is dropped for political expediences there there is a regression.  This is not to say that some concessions to history reality or political necessary can’t be made, but they must be made in a explicit context.  This becomes clear in the way Kolakowski defines “by Utopia I mean a state of social consciousness, a mental counterpart to the social movement striving for radical change in the world–a counter itself inadequate to these changes and merely reflecting them in an idealized and obscure form” (146).  Now there is a lot to unpack in this, particularly in light of Kolakowski’s claim that while he remained something akin to a Democratic Socialist that Marxism was eschatology, a claim that seems to be a self-diagnosis more than anything. Yet this vision of utopia isn’t eschatology, its just orientation. To be able to fight for a negation in a positive sense, one have some notion, however ill-defined, of some of a positive outcome, or of, at minimum, what is absolutely unacceptable in the current. Kolakowski states “Utopia is, therefore, a mysterious consciousness of an actual historical tendency” (147), one can see a tension between spiritual language and historical materialism synthesized. In fact, the mere utopia is a problematic for Kolakowski “[a]s 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, as it should be. But in time utopia become social consciousness; it invades the consciousness of a mass movement and becomes one of its essential driving forces” (147).  The individual utopia is a waste of time, but so is the inarticulate one.  Yet Kalokowski notes that this is always a source of thought even if backed by the power of social movements.  In fact it is unable to manifest in its first utterances or even its first attempts at consciousness in the collective sense.  Yet without this dream nothing is possible: without Utopian socialism for the scientifically and Hegelian-minded Marx to critique, there can be no possibly existing negation of the world.  As Kolakowski notes later, “The existence of a utopia as a utopia is the necesssary prerequisite for its eventually ceasing to be a utopia” (148).  Without a demand for what is impossible in the current, we are limited to historical conditions.  If we limit our goals to the means: a party of labor, a general strike, a third party, or even a revolution.. we have become fundamentally confused.  But as Kolakowski says “utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity”–it breaks the dialectical opposition between means and ends.    When we renounce our first axioms–our utopias–we have lost.

Then Kolakowski reminds us that the left is relative position, not an absolute one.  “the Left is relative-one is leftist only in comparison with something” (147). Even counter-revolutionaries have a relative left to their being, one that favors the more utopian end of the counter-revolutionary goal.  This can make inverted Utopias attractive and can be the way that neo-liberals or, in darker guises and prior, fascists can siphon from any revolutionary movement easily.  Corey Robin’s has written well on this, but many an American Trotskyist dark tunnel to neo-conservatism proves the point. Stalins flirtations with the anti-comintern pact prove the point.  The CPUSA endorsement of Democrats proves the point. Furthermore, if left is always relative, then any movement–even a communist movement–does still have a meaningful left and right branch if it is progressing towards its program.

A left that is not revolutionary-even if its revolution is not violent–is not a left for long either.  Again, let’s look at Kolakowski’s words “[t]he revolutionary movement is a catch-all for all the ultimate demands made upon existing society. It is a total negation of the existing system and, therefore, also a total program. A total program is, in fact, a utopia” (148).  One can think of the seemingly vapid anarchist (or perhaps situationist) slogan: be realistic, demand the impossible.

A few points before I stop and continue this in another post. One can see that one strain of thought between say a Stalinist of the most vulgar variety and a center-liberal is the instance that historical contingency does not just limit the means, but also the goals. Also while Utopias do not arise idealistically, that is to say, outside of material conditions of the present, one is left with a sense that perhaps Kolakowski has not fully reconciled what this meant.  Our imaginations on the future must be tempered by a discipline we do not currently have and a future we cannot currently know.  Our utopias must almost always be progressive in the negative sense: we learn how to transcendent the social condition our the prevailing ideology almost entirely negatively at first.  We know we dream of impossible emancipation because we are exploited and oppressed. We may not be able to see what lack of exploitation and oppression looks like even in the mists of a successful revolutionary struggle. To forgive this is dangerous. While I doubt Kolakowski would have intended this, his implications leave us with something like Adorno’s negative dialectics of emancipation.


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