Whose Left?

Lenin Tribune. El Lissitzky. 1920
Lenin Tribune. El Lissitzky. 1920

To indulge oneself in writing yet another piece about the western ‘left’ and its prospects, or lack thereof, feels like a bit of a faux pas; to suggest some solutions, a real outrage. Who, after all, has the heart (or stomach) to read the latest indistinguishable Jacobin, N+1, or New Inquiry-esque article about such embarrassing a topic anymore? Nonetheless, the outpouring of articles along these lines is not without cause: we are lost, and profoundly so.

This is not, as some would have it, merely a function of ‘bad theory,’ or, at the very least, bad theory is not the primary source of the current situation; though academics of all stripes miss no chance to remind us that ‘[w]ithout revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’, we must just as crucially recall what Marx informs us in The German Ideology:  “the existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class.”1

In fact, we might go so far as to suggest that in a peculiar, somewhat inverted fashion, our predicament is not unlike that of Feuerbach and the German “True Socialists,” addressed by Marx therein– even the tedious pretensions of Karl Grün and company to a ‘true socialism’ bathed in the edifying verbiage of the idealist German philosophy and thus free of what they saw as the crude, overly political formulations of those French actually engaging in class struggle at the time seems to ring uncannily familiar to anyone acquainted with the vaunted claims of so many Trotskyite micro-sects and the like– or, even more so, the specious pretensions of this or that grad school leftist fed on an all too strict diet of critical theory.

For, as Marx detailed, Germany’s relative backwardness, and thus their lack of a sufficiently developed working class with which intellectuals might form the relationship necessary for them to develop any sort of genuine “communist consciousness” — which, barring actual membership in the proletariat, can nonetheless arise, given the right conditions and a serious scientific commitment, out of the “contemplation of the situation of this class”2– gave rise to a so-called “socialism” which in reality served principally the needs of the “two most numerous classes of men in Germany” at the time: “the petty bourgeois with its philanthropic illusions and … its ideologists, the philosophers and their disciples.”3

Over the course of capitalism’s development, as the proletariat grows, and as the internal contradictions of capitalism progressively sharpen its antagonism with capital, revolutionary ideas arise from that struggle; to the degree, however, that such ideas are taken up by those who fail to orient themselves towards that class, they become misappropriated, co-opted, often even turned against themselves. Apropos, Aijaz Ahmad once very insightfully commented in an interview with Ellen Meiksins Wood on a certain very pernicious tendency in which :

… the more anti-bourgeois, and anti-colonial etc. one becomes, the less one talks about socialism as a determinate horizon. In the process, critiques of capitalism are also sundered from any necessity of working class politics. Indeed, one may use the word “bourgeois,” in a cultural sort of sense, but the word “proletariat” makes one distinctly uncomfortable, as if using such words is some kind of anti-social activity.” 4

Ahmad’s comments cut to the quick of a fundamental issue most evident, as he identifies it, in the ‘North American university’, but it must be stressed that the logic of his criticisms has profound implications for the left more broadly; for the opportunistic university leftists he assails are but a particularly obvious caricature of a much more widespread issue: the consequences of losing one’s orientation towards the proletariat, and consequently, the ‘determinate horizon’ of socialism which its existence entails.

There is a significant part of the western left which no doubt conceives of itself as in no way guilty of Ahmad’s charges: for countless Trots and other Marxists, Euro-communists, social-dems, Labourites, and even the odd Democrat, sincerely believe they are concerned with the working class– and this is precisely the problem, because the ‘workers’ towards which this left overwhelmingly orients itself is categorically not the ‘proletariat’ proper, but the labor aristocracy.

As recent interventions such as Bromma’s The Worker Elite and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class have helped to shed some desperately needed light on, the tremendous (and growing) gap between the lots of workers in the imperial core nations and periphery cannot be explained merely by the former’s historical militancy or greater productivity, and, perhaps even more crucially, their unwillingness to make revolution and tendency towards reformism cannot be ascribed to such activities’ successes, nor to ideological hegemony alone.

Rather, under fully developed imperialism in particular — rather than mere resource colonialism — a vast global transfer of surplus-value from super-exploited proletarian and semi-proletarian masses throughout the periphery to the core is enacted– and, crucially not merely to the ‘1%’ as common first-worldist populism generally suggests, but to a significant degree to large portions of those countries citizenry, even most of the organized workforce.

As Cope concludes from his rigorous study of the political economy of imperialism in Divided World, Divided Class, since “the amounts of super profits in the world economy exceeded the surplus-value produced by First World workers as a whole, the class interests of the latter could no longer be said to align with the socialist project.”5 Capitalists in the imperial core have historically been able to a) displace otherwise inevitable contradictions in the capitalist mode of production through constant expansion and primitive accumulation beyond their own borders and b) dissolve (temporarily) the antagonism between themselves and their own working classes through embourgeoisement and integration insofar as imperialist superprofits allow them to offer artificially high conditions to their domestic workers as the price of internal peace and stability, and even more fundamentally through the welfare state’s taxation or distribution of their wealth.

To recognize such facts is to recognize that the vast majority of western workers have a material stake in the ongoing imperialist project of their own nations– that they, so to speak, have very much more than chains to lose — and that any honest materialist must realize the implications of this fact: that most workers in the imperial core are not, at the current historical conjecture, a revolutionary class. It is not, after all, on moral grounds or sentimental appeals that Marxism posits the revolutionary nature of the proletarian proper (who, it must be remembered, likely include some 80% of the global working class), but because of their objective and irreconcilable antagonism with capital.

And it is precisely for this reason that the Western left, to the degree that it sincerely hopes to be any more meaningfully ‘left’ than Strasserism– that is to say, seeking only more egalitarian distribution of the exploited value of others within a parasitic class—, must ask themselves, not ‘who’s left?’, as seems to be the prevailing sensibility among those tedious leftists who wax nostalgic about the hay days of western labor militancy, and miss no chance to go on about their party or traditions historical relationship with those labor movements, the endless Owen Jones types blathering on about their credentials as ‘fourth generation socialists;” we must ask ourselves, whose left we are: in the interests of what class do we constitute ourselves as a genuinely progressive movement. This class cannot be the labor aristocracy, as their persistent chauvinism, first-worldism, and refusal of solidarity with the real global proletariat– the exploitation of which they materially benefit– has made all too clear.

We in the imperial core, are just as alienated from the proletariat as the German True Socialists of the 19th century, and as such we must with genuine scientific conviction analyze the real social makeup of our current historical totality– we must take up the, it must be said not only difficult but extremely uncomfortable task of seeking out the real proletariat wherever it exists. In large part, this means a much more serious solidarity with those movements in the periphery and semi-periphery– which, no doubt, will often be as offensive to lofty conceptions of pure socialism as the political movements of French workers in the 19th century were to their German counterparts, but vulgar third-worldism will hardly suffice. The whole labor-aristocratic edifice is built upon the stratification of workers in terms of race, creed, and gender, and internal colonies abound along such lines, particularly in the case of undocumented migrant workers.

Barba non facit philosophum; nor does a blue collar make a proletarian; nor, most certainly, does a red-flag and some tired rhetoric, divested of all real content or connection to its (previously) concrete basis, make a ‘left.’

1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German ideology, Parts I & III. Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011. p.40.

2. Ibid. p. 69.

3. Ibid. p. 81.

4. Wood, Ellen Meiksins. “Issues of Class and Culture: An Interview with Aijaz Ahmad.”Monthly Review: Oct 1996: 10.

5. Cope, Zak. Divided world, divided class: global political economy and the stratification of labour under capitalism. Montreal, Quebec: Kersplebedeb, 2012. p.256.


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3 thoughts on “Whose Left?”

  1. This essay resonated with me. There are two main parts that I would like to respond to. 1) Marxism’s penchant for objectivity and mefiance for morality and 2) vulgar third worldism. Actually I will begin with the second. The question of third worldism has been of a lot of interest to me (I critiqued Jason Unruhe and the Leading Light Communist Organization and “vulgar third worldism” is perfect to describe their politics), and I think part of the reason I felt such a strong need to critique them is exactly because with first world left-liberals having a serious problem with ignoring and barely taking the interests of the global poor into account if at all, there is a real need to “seek out the real proletariat” as you say. However, what defines vulgar third worldism, for me, is its utter lack of nuance which I think you are getting at with the “internal colonies”, the nesting of imperialisms. A part of this lack of nuance is that vulgar third worldists virtually never so much as mention the existence of a second world, presupposed by the existence of a first and third. It is the missing link of vulgar third worldism. The second world is a border world, a world in a border. Does more border thinking (the kind talked about by Glora Anzaldua) happen in this border world? It seems logical. But what makes vulgar third worldism so vulgar is its unwillingness to do border thinking, and a huge part of that is its secular fanaticism (the kind talked about by Subcomandante Marcos in The Story of Cat-Dog). It is its pathological adherence to binary categorical options. Either one is idealistic bourgeois first worldist reformist or scientific proletarian third worldist revolutionary. There does seem to be something problematic in the way many Marxists conceive of proletarian revolution as rational economic agents acting amorally in their collective self-interest. Another riff on “greed is good”, which is actually to say, while trying to hide it, that self interest is moral, salvation from much suffering, perhaps salvation of the planet itself, its species and habitats, future generations, will come from the self interest pursued by the working class. Where the devaluation of “moral grounds and sentimental appeals” breaks down is at the valuation of the proletariat’s interest. What motivates the slave to act to abolish the master-slave relationship if she does not think that relationship is evil?

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