Recently, Douglas Lain asked me to consider writing a book “on the history of the left.” After all, he told me, “you have done many, many interviews on the topic. You run two podcasts on the topic with three different co-hosts. You co-edited a couple of left-wing internet publications. You have done research into it tangential to your literary research. Why don’t you just buckle down and write a book.”
I first thought: “Do I want everyone to hate me, and aren’t there like 100 books on the history of the left”? I am not a professional historian and I do host three podcasts and have a full time job as well as works of poetry. Then it occurred to me, this would be a good way to develop a lot of the writing I have done, to formalize the research I have done for Diet Soap, Pop the Left, Former People, and the upcoming Symptomatic Redness. I dashed off something to serve as an intro as a means of clarifying what I want to do. Sure, some of the book will come from articles and kernels of writing on this blog so some of the book may be workshopped on this blog. Furthermore, blogging parts of it (although not nearly all of it) may be a way to discipline myself into writing it.
So here’s what came out of thinking about the nature of the project (Foot notes removed).
Symptomatic Redness: An Attempt of a historiography of the idea of the left.
A Prologue with Caveats
The specter and the rash.
The specter that once haunted Europe is now more often treated as a rash on the skin of history. A symptomatic redness growing slowly various revolutionary centers in Europe and in areas of conquest and colonialism. An inflammation that emerges with the emergence of capital itself. At the moment I write this, we see “class struggle” and the “the left” reemerging in the popular discourse as well as attempts to clarify what “the left” is? Is it the more socialistic, communitarian, and identitarian elements of popular liberalism as has developed in United States? Is it the worker’s movements of the early 20th century whose traces we have extended to the current? Is future oriented strain of the Utopian critique of the present? Was it the communist movement as understood in the Soviet Union or The People’s Republic of China? The indigenous community rebellions in the Americas? The national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia? Is it merely “the left of capital”?
The questions of definition are nearly infinite. What becomes clear as one writes this down is that “the idea of the left” is something that is as historical as the idea of the capitalism or the idea of the nation-state. In its history, however, the very fact so many tangentially related strains show up in any discussion of “the left” indicates that something in the reification of the idea has obscured a more concrete meaning. Furthermore, while it does etymologically arise out of very specific social and political relations in the French Revolution where the Jacobins sat to the left of the other clubs, even that is contested legacy. Is this truly the origin of the left? Or what it earlier in the early modern period concurrent to the obscure early moments in the develop of capital. Is the revolution of the United States truly pre-left/right dichotomies? Was it a counter-revolution as some have claimed? An unfinished revolution as Marx wrote to Lincoln?
Yet, clearly, speaking of Roman slave revolts or peasant uprisings or Zoroastrian, Christian, or Buddhist religious condemnations of private property is anachronistic. When Mazdak the Younger called for the ending of private property and a return to agrarian communalism in the Sassanid Persia in the reign of Kavadh I the birth of the left is that beginning? Or in his conversion of Kavadh I? Clearly, we begin here we must ignore the semi-feudal underpinnings of the Sassanid empire and the metaphysical dualism of the Mazdak’s particular vision of Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, Mazdak would have been predated by “intentional communalism” of everyone from Epicurean gardens to Buddhist monastic sangha to the Qumran community. All of these having “primitive” communistic tendencies, but also come from contexts clearly divorced from the modern world.
Or do we begin with Plotinus as Leszek Kolakowski in book I of his Main Currents of Marxism which he wrote in the transition away from Marxism, or the Marxism-Leninism dominant in Soviet Poland. Kolakowski, like Popper before him who laid it all at the feet of Plato, places the idea of the left as feet of rationalist idealism of those who believe in an Absolute. Even in his earlier, more clearly Marxist-Humanist writings such as “The Concept of the Left” in 1968, one sees the focus on the left as a constantly moving ideal type. A focus in the conception of history which exists mostly in the mind. Kokakowski admits “The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.” Yet defining itself on the level of idea is often in direct contradiction to the Marxian imperative that one is left defined in response to material conditions of social life. Furthermore, this purely ideal view of the development of the left removes even more context than our first Mazdakite example.
Depending one’s inclination one can begin with any number of points and see any number of conclusions. As a historical and historicizing concept, how one defines “the left” determines where one begins and conversely, how one begins can limit what one sees as “left-wing” action. The focus on our understanding the pathology of “the left” and its possibility as grounds for liberation is not a problem of history, but also historiography. It is my contention that as these ideas both emerge from and help shape any understanding of a political event since the development of capitalism and the ends of the Enlightenment as a “tradition” in Western thought. It is also to contextualize the ideas of “left-wing” anti-capitalism in terms that are allow for the historicization of the process of understanding. In a strict sense, this analysis is both rooted in history of social movement and is thus materialist in its orientation while also being meta-cognitive. How has the various left’s thought about themselves and how should we think about those self-justifications? But the purpose here is not just academic, but also in terms of praxis.
In short, what is to be done with all the “What is to be done”s?
The tension between descriptive and normative can seem overwhelming here. In one sense there is a tendency to go “No True Leftist” and delineate the terms to strict rubrics aligned to one particular thinker’s idea of “the left,” or the “socialist left,” or the “communist left,” or the “anarchist left,” etc. The permutations are almost infinite. In another sense, there is a tendency to function purely descriptively and say “anything that has adopted the mantle of leftwing such be considered leftwing” be it the Soviet Union, Japanese anarchists, Thomas Paine, socialistic populists, anti-colonial fighters, feminists, the civil rights movements, and religious movements with an egalitarian bend. This, however, conflates and smooths in the hands of some thinkers as well as gives license to unilaterally condemn large swaths of thinkers in another. For my purposes, I find neither approach strictly speaking useful.
There is a dialectical tension between often directly opposed ideas in the history of social movements. Simple, reified concepts such as “liberty” and “equality” are as amorphous. The legacy of Marxism is contested by liberals and anarchists as well as competing schools of Marxists. The legacy of anarchism is similar. The legacy of liberalism and its relationship the “left” is probably the most contested. I see no simple answer to those equations and our interest in adjudicating them should be largely to understand our own historical development, not come up with easy transhistorical answers.
How does one find an aufheben between a normative and a descriptive approach. One may not be able to, but perhaps focusing on the justifications of historical movements and their relationship to recent developments begins to give us a serious methodology. Furthermore, such understanding is not just for itself, but for the ability to clarify contradictory movements now. There are plenty of histories of “the left”—this is a both more and less.
In search of a praxis
This is a book about thinking in terms of action. It will necessarily be as idiosyncratic as its author. As a person who has actively participated and commented on “left-wing” movements since the battle for Seattle in 1999, it comes from a particular perspective. Since 2009, I have been more active in writing and publishing on developments in the left and now do two separate podcasts on the topic as well has been a managing editor at the web reincarnation of the North Star and a blogger for a group blog on the topic, particularly since the flash-pan of Occupy. This is a prolegomena towards an understanding of “the concept of the left” that arises out of the research and observations of the last six years. It’s context arises from watching political struggles and developments in my various homes: The United States, South Korea, and Mexico, and the history I have learned to contextualize those struggles.
It is necessarily incomplete. It is a series of historical/theoretical fugues that aim beyond the specific instances they are aimed it. As such, the book is likely to move between genres and to move topically more than in linear progressions of history. The history of the development of left will necessarily be fragmentary, pluralistic, and frustrating. It’s actual history and theoretical development mirrors that.