Two critiques of "the left"

There's a sensible critique of the left, and then there's the other one.

Glance at the discourse these days and you could be forgiven for concluding that there is some grand indictment of “the left” that is shared by right-populists, independents, and even some Marxists.

Look a bit closer, however, and you’ll see two distinct critiques. On one hand, there is a pretty ordinary and familiar critique of “leftism” that falls well within the Marxist tradition; on the other, meanwhile, there’s an elaborate argument that has nothing to do with Marxism at all, but that seems custom-built as a concern-troll from the right.

Here, I’m going to go spell out both of them. As you read, it’s worth paying attention to how these critiques are different — and how the second is often presented as an extension of the first.

I. The Marxist critique

Beginning with the French Revolution, the “left” has historically been defined as a set of egalitarian political movements and factions that oppose the “natural” or “traditional” hierarchies defended by the right. From a Marxist perspective, this definition of “the left” cannot refer to those committed to maintaining capitalism’s hierarchy of class; it can only refer to a working class politics that opposes capitalism.

In contrast, however, the discourse often uses “the left” in a very different way, referring to a whole range of institutions, organizations, and political actors who are not even ostensibly opposed to capitalism. This includes everyone from “progressives” who may be tolerant of anti-capitalists to hardline capitalist Democrats. This also, of course, includes groups and figures who profess opposition to capitalism — but who in practice tolerate and even defend it.

These conceptions of “the left” are directly at odds. Thus, the Marxist critique is that we must be wary of the way that this category of “leftist” often operates as a way to valorize politics that are not actually committed to a working class struggle against capitalism. We must also be wary of the way that this term can be used to vilify groups and actors who are aligned with the working class against capitalism, but who do not necessarily identify with the left: for example, large swathes of the working class who are politically demobilized.

II. The concern-troll critique

The two conceptions of “left” spelled out above are indeed at odds. But opponents of capitalism must not, for some reason, insist that “left” refers exclusively to their politics, and that the champions of capitalism — liberals and progressive Democrats among them — are on the right. Instead, we must in this instance concede that the liberals and progressives are correct in their claim to leftism, even though we contest so many other things that they say. We must abandon “the left” to capitalists.

For this reason, any opponent of capitalism who identifies with “the left” is necessarily allying themselves with the capitalists who do so incorrectly. In fact, we can even go a step further and say that anyone who identifies as a “leftist” necessarily has the same politics as the capitalists who do so: they are “all the same thing”, a part of the same Democcommieanarcho monoculture. Moreover, even though this expansive definition of “leftist” includes the entire Democratic coalition — which is disproportionately poor, especially compared with Republicans — we can nevertheless insist that people who call themselves “leftists” are not workers, either.

Put this way, it’s easy to see how one critique is simple, coherent, factual, and fits well within ordinary ideas about working class politics — while the other has nothing to do with any of that, and relies instead on odd rules of linguistic prescription (how we may and may not use “the left”); bizarre sweeping generalizations that place Michael Parenti and Joe Manchin in the same monoculture; and demonstrably counterfactual generalizations about the class position of “leftists”.

Why is the concern-troll critique so popular, then? Two reasons.

First, because it’s just a slight variation on one of the most cliched Republican narratives there is: the Democrats and the radicals all want the same thing, and they’re all elites, by the way.

Second, because the concern-troll critique is often presented as if it is part of the Marxist critique. From the (obviously true) observation that most of what is often called “the left” is not anti-capitalist, we are supposed to draw the (obviously false) conclusion that none of it is; and from there, we can then safely conclude that any group or person or institution that identifies with the left is not participating in working class struggle against capitalism. If, meanwhile, you object to this chain of logic, then we can pretend that you reject the Marxist critique as well, and believe that even the liberals and progressives who call themselves “leftists” are somehow committed to bringing down the class hierarchy of capitalism.

It’s never very difficult to distinguish between the first and second critique. Rhetoric within the first critique is always narrow and specific, making careful distinctions between liberals and anti-capitalists and avoiding sweeping generalizations and unqualified claims that indict the latter. Rhetoric within the second critique, in contrast, is pointedly indiscriminate, expansive, and essentializing: its entire aim is to conflate anything and everything that makes any kind of claim to “the left”, to dismiss elementary distinctions between capitalists and anti-capitalists, and in so doing to indict all of them. Once we recognize the difference between these two rhetorics, we would do well, when we encounter them, to pry them apart.