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What is "the Left"? Ten Remarks
Originally published in Greek, in Lenin Reloaded, 21 June 2014
1. In Greece, "the Left" exists since 1951, and the foundation, during that year, of the United Democratic Left (EDA). As a category of political thinking, it had no significance in the country in the period before the 1950s. "Anarchism" was far more important as a designator of ideology at the beginnings of the Greek worker movement than "the Left" -- not to mention the significance, for an anti-bourgeois politics, of terms like "Bolshevism" and "Third International". Structurally, the precondition for the birth of "the Left" was the self-censorship of the self-designation of a sector of the population as "communist" as a result of state terror. "The Left" is born under conditions of state repression as a defensive misnomer and as a pseudo-apellation for purposes of self-protection.
2. The defeat of the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE), in combination with state terror and repression, however, also created the preconditions for the pseudo-category of "the Left" (as a nominalist abstraction, rather than as a concrete designator of a tendency within a worker-socialist party -- a use with an entirely different genealogy) to acquire its own substantive meaning. It created, to put it more simply, the possibility for a section of the communists to really (and not just superficially) make the transition to "democratic ideology", which in conditions of unshakeable capitalist domination necessarily means the transition to the side of bourgeois democracy. "The Left" is the product of the effective surrender of a section of the communists to the victorious bourgeois state.
3. Economically speaking, "the Left" signifies the demand for "a more just distribution of wealth", or of the "social product". It never means the struggle to change the mode of production, never the change of relations of production, never the socialization of the means of production. Already in 1875, Karl Marx showed, in his Critique of the Gotha Program, how contradictory the very concept of a "fair distribution" of wealth within capitalism is. The cultivation of the delusion that the stakes of "the Left" were ever anything more than this vague demand for a "fairer distribution" was something enabled by the compulsory co-existence, under the regime of state terror of the 1950s, of social democrats and communists. This coexistence was used to foster confusion and generate pleasant placebos for a disarmed and defeated movement.
4. Because "the Left's" ultimate demand is "fairer distribution" of capitalist accumulated wealth, the Left is by definition on the side of Reform against Revolution.
5. Because the financial crises of capitalism render the margins for satisfying the demand of "fairer distribution" extremely narrow, "the Left" can have no economic content that is different from that of bourgeois parties in such periods. It can acquire such a content only in periods of economic development of the rates of capitalist accumulation, always under the precondition that it has in its grasp means of exerting pressure such that it is allowed to appear as a "provider" for the working class and a "negotiator" on its behalf. But the subversion of actually existing socialism means that no such means exist, either during financial crises, or during periods of capitalist development. Consequently, "the Left" cannot be expected to obtain an economic content that differentiates it from any bourgeois political formation in the near future either.
6. Given the absence of a distinct economic content in the category of "the Left", both in Greece and abroad, the term evolved, beginning in the 1960s and in the 1970s, into a category of the superstructure.
7. The first fundamental sphere within which "the Left" obtained a content was aesthetics, in all its forms. For this reason, it remains far more easy today to locate a "Left" cinema, poetry, painting, imagery, rhetoric, than a "Left" economic program that would be distinct from bourgeois economic programs at large. After the 1960s, "the Left" became predominantly an aesthetic category; a proposition for an aesthetic.
8. The second fundamental sphere in which "the Left" obtained a content, during the same period, and as it was being disseminated in the terrain of aesthetics, was "social rights", conceived as individuated rights based on "difference". These, inevitably, are rights that presuppose a norm they simultaneously question. All the social movements "the Left" created since the 1950s are determined by this contradiction between the non-questioning of the existence of a norm --the acceptance of the stability and the sustainability, effectively, of the capitalist mode of production-- and its questioning on the ideological and rhetorical level; as well as by the derivative contradiction between the rejection of normativity as such and the effort to make it more "inclusive" than it has been in the past.
9. In periods of recession, the victories of "new social movements" do not so much disappear as reveal themselves as mirages; for no deviation from the necessities of capitalist accumulation is possible, so "social rights" are either revealed to be devoid of substance or utterly "safe" for the social system, even during periods of social repression. This is the era in which gay marriage can be perceived as a far less radical demand than the right to a home or to medical care, because the latter have a cost for capital, whereas the former only demands "ideological adjustment" in the bourgeois state.
10. "The Left" is the essential and organic aspect of the "Great Illusion" of an important sector of middle and lower strata; these strata derived erroneous conclusions concerning the nature of the capitalist system by limiting their observations to the period in which the rhythms of economic development and the pressure made possible by actually existing socialism allowed the demand for a "fairer distribution of the social product" to have some limited practical consequences for everyday life and its quality in western societies. Today, the only utility of "the Left" is to advance confusion concerning the real nature of a category that is far more historically important and substantive --Social Democracy-- and to assist in the reproduction of the intellectual and technocratic elites who use it to win popular legitimacy, thus leading to its ever higher delegitimation in the eyes of popular strata, with all the serious political consequences this may have for the conversion of the latter to Reaction. It goes without saying that the entire debate, in Greece and abroad, concerning what "the real Left" is and what political party "really" expresses something devoid of any real economic content is definitionally disorienting; the only purpose of such debate is the perpetuation of the political paralysis and impotence of the lower social strata.