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"Saving The Left From Itself"

Is there anything more annoying than those individuals who imagine that they are "saving the left from itself"? You know the people I mean and if you don't you will soon: self-proclaimed gadflies who believe that their own personal understanding of the world is more rational and correct that the left as a whole, who worry that the left is going to far (and sometimes inaccurately use the words "fascist" when they aren't using "totalitarian" to describe said left), who maintain that they are the true left critics of progressive populations who just don't get it, who natter on about liberal free speech as if this convention is inherently progressive, who are repulsed by political violence, and who occasionally like to cite Orwell.

None of this is to say that the broad and mainstream anti-capitalist left does not deserve critique from this very same left, that lines of demarcation need to be drawn between tendencies, and that some practices the left engages in require significant interrogation. The problem, here, is not critiquing certain left conventions and practices (because the "left" is so big and will incorporate ideological approaches that deserve to be attacked) but that the people who usually define their practice as "saving the left from itself" are in fact not delivering a critique of the left from the left. They are always delivering a critique from the right and dressing it up in poor left costuming.

Here are three examples (although there are many more) of "leftists" concerned about "the left": Why I've finally given up on the left; Why this radical leftist is disillusioned by leftist culture; Addressing self-righteousness on the activist left. They all share the belief that they possess some superior insight to the left in general, based on the priority of their individual perspectives. None of them are able to establish why they possess the authority to make this insight (the refusal to speak of organizational experience beyond vague claims is significant), a certain level of liberalism predominates (the first example, admittedly, is a joke because it is clear that it identifies "left" with "liberal" but note how its tone and prescriptions intersect with the others), and all complaints about "self-righteousness" are matched by the self-righteous tone of intervention. At least none of these articles are citing Orwell, though they clearly seem to be placing themselves in that tradition where, most recently, the late Christopher Hitchens placed himself.

But let's bite the metaphorical bullet and admit that, yes, the anti-capitalist left in general has its problems that indeed promote disillusionment amongst those who don't get the fact that: i) the struggle against capitalism should outweigh the messiness of this necessarily messy milieux; and/or ii) an organized and disciplined project within this milieux is the only way to deal with problems that can and will be normative. The anti-capitalist left as a whole is indeed fucked up, if we are looking at it as a complete whole with all of messy multiplicity, but this can and should be expected: capitalism is fucked up and it produces fucked up subjects; subjects who, left in the realm of movementist spontaneity without a disciplined combative project (and sometimes with such projects), cannot help but reproduce the very system they are trying to fight.

Yes, the anti-capitalist left is "self-righteous" because the moralism implicit in confronting capitalism produces a certain level of righteousness. We can and should recognize that this moralism becomes a problem, particularly when it is inculcated in individuals who set themselves up as de facto authorities freed from organizational discipline, but we should also recognize this problem in context. What makes these people less "self-righteous" than the gate-keepers of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois morality? They are in fact less self-righteous than the Hilary Clinton campaigner or the Justin Trudeau apologist; they are not arrogantly demanding the liquidation of class struggle to real politik and mocking anyone who would deign otherwise. In fact their self-righteousness often emerges in response to such liberalism. This is not to say that such self-righteousness is not a problem, only that it is not a problem inherent to the left and that––maybe, just maybe––the left is reflecting, based on the fact that its members are embedded in capitalist society as a whole, a very capitalist way of being. Hence, to complain about leftist self-righteousness and flee back into liberalism (or even worse reactionism) is in fact an endorsement of a very normative self-righteousness. The first aforelinked article, that is a snide defense of the liberal state of affairs, is in fact a paradigm example of liberal self-righteousness; it reeks of this attitude: "I am middle-class and won't suffer under the coming decade of majority Tory rule. Millions need a centre-left alternative, but I cannot see them being attracted by the revival lumpen leftism either." Indeed: your disdain for the poor demonstrates you're an enemy of the left, even more than your care for "a centre-left alternative."

And yes the anti-capitalist left can be censorious, closing its ranks quickly against anything that reeks of oppression. "I am exhausted and saddened," writes the author of the second aforelinked left-critique-of-the-left, "by the fact that any type of disagreement or difference of opinion in an activist circle will lead to a fight, which sometimes includes abandonment of certain people, deeming them 'unsafe' as well as public shaming and slander." While it is indeed the case that call-out culture and anti-oppression politics has significant problems, dismissing this without recognizing why such problems even arose in the first place is also a problem. Indeed, as many times as I have found this practice a problem (and it has been a problem) I have found it useful in the exclusion of people who were in fact chauvinists and predators. The problem here is not the fact that people have been kicked out of the movement but that the movement has lacked a coherent and disciplined practice of censure and/or rectification… And the author of this complaint is unwilling to grasp this point. Radical politics should demarcate itself, but only an organized radical movement can produce a disciplined process of demarcation. The problem with the anti-capitalist left as a whole is that it is lost in a vague identity politics process of censure, not that such censorious behaviour exists––it should exist.

Here is the overall problem: the anti-capitalist left is embattled. Since it is struggling against capitalism it generally lacks a space that is free from conflict and thus is always defining itself in opposition to the state of affairs. In this context every contradiction that would be otherwise be falsely unified by liberalism remains in conflict, viscerally laid bare by the fact of opposition. On the one hand the left is conditioned by capitalism; on the other hand it resists this conditioning. On the one hand the broad anti-capitalist remains disunited in this conflict; on the other hand some tendencies find a disciplined unity that can make sense of the contradiction and produce a counter-hegemony. And those who attempt to save the left from the left have: i) immediately ejected themselves from the broad movement because they failed to recognize its embattled meaning; ii) remained "academic" experts intended to critique the movement as a whole; or iii) refused to find a disciplined site of left organization.

Generally, most of these critiques are levelled by "leftists" who have spent very little time within the general anti-capitalist movement or have always existed at its margins. The tendency to conflate liberal categories with left categories demonstrates this impoverished understanding of what is meant by "left", enabling a left-against-the-left narrative that was never accurate in the first place.

Let's be honest, any talk about "censorship" and "free expression" or what have you is not leftist talk but in fact LIBERAL talk. It's not even honest liberal talk because if the state is not preventing you from speaking your mind, and your problem is a bunch of leftists attacking you online or in organizational circles, than you aren't actually being censored––Mill's marketplace of ideas is in fact being upheld and you are failing in a tiny corner of this marketplace. Hence, those "leftists" who come out against the left in general should at least think through what it means to be left, and what is at stake, before falling back on very liberal perceptions of the world… Because those individuals who desire to save the left from itself––as individuals, as not part of any collective left project––are in fact, and have always been, liberals.