The difficulties begin with the pronoun “we”. Who are “we”? Then, there’s the position: Left. But who and what is “Left”? Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, there have been and still are impressive left-wing movements across national borders. But anti-democratic, anti-feminist, and authoritarian forces are also growing.
This makes it all the more important to acknowledge that protests and movements are emerging all over the world and in various forms. Despite their differences, they are fighting the status quo. They desire a better life that is no longer better at the expense of other people elsewhere in the world — a life that takes planetary boundaries as the basis for a radical transformation of conditions. They fight for self-realization in community, freedom, and equality. They are diverse, they are different. There is no such thing as the one, true Left, just as there is no one, true path. Capitalism has ensured that this that desire for a better life leads to political movements. But it will not dig its own grave itself.
For the latest issue of maldekstra, Kathrin Gerlof spoke with Berlin-based communist theorist and artist Bini Adamczak about what is and isn’t “Left”, why leftists have so much trouble getting along, and why optimism might not always be the best medicine for movements fighting for a better world.
We’ve attempted to provide a sense of motivation with this edition of maldekstra, which is themed “Left-Wing Actors – Left-Wing Movements”. Motivation for us, because we need it; and motivation for others, because they seem to need it. But it’s not so easy, because even when attempting to define the term, we’re confronted with the question: who are the left-wing actors and movements of today?
You’ve chosen an easy question to start with! As it happens, we’re often told that the dichotomy between left and right is a thing of the past, that this way of dividing the world doesn’t really serve much of a purpose anymore.
I think that’s wrong. The left-right dichotomy might even be the only dichotomy that we should not only be deconstructing, but also defending. And doing this doesn’t require a historically conclusive definition of what the left means. There are a number of different provisional meanings we can give the term. For instance, we could take ‘left-wing’ to mean ‘emancipatory’, and use ‘emancipatory’ to describe movements and endeavours that are geared towards liberty, equality, and solidarity in the tradition of the French Revolution.
Bini Adamczak is a social theorist whose recent publications include Yesterday’s Tomorrow (MIT Press, 2021) and Communism for Kids (MIT Press, 2017).
This article first appeared in maldekstra #14. Translated by Louise Pain and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
But it’s also not enough to focus on only one or two of these three terms. Of course, historically speaking, the question of what — and thus also who — is left-wing has always been hotly contested. There are socialist movements that utilize extractivist tactics and environmental movements that cater to racist colonial rationales. There are feminist movements that don’t take an anti-capitalist stance and anti-fascist movements that don’t operate in line with feminist principles. The list goes on.
But what’s the benchmark that we can use to scrutinize these left-wing movements in a meaningful way? It’s a left-wing benchmark. Measured against it, movements such as these can be criticized at the points where they articulate specific interests at the expense of others, in the guise of universal demands; where they pit certain struggles against others. The benchmark of left-wing criticism is therefore that of universal emancipation — one that does not seek to replace one system of domination with another, but is instead oriented toward the goal of abolishing systems of domination entirely.
What seems to characterize leftists is their irreconcilability and their desire for demarcation. Dividing lines are drawn up, even before any kind of common ground has been established. Even before we’ve identified a unifying mode of relating, we outline all the fundamental points of division. Is this a disease? And is it curable?
I’m not entirely sure that this is actually any more pronounced on the Left than it is in other parts of society. At the end of the day, the Left emerged from the same set of circumstances; it’s governed by the same forces. As long as the basic modes of relating in which this society reproduces itself continue to organize our dependence on one another in terms of indifference and competition, it should come as no surprise that other social relations will also continue to be shaped by this — especially under neoliberal capitalism, which further exacerbates social fragmentation and individualization. This also has an impact on political movements that are fighting to overcome precisely these modes of relating.
At best, we could speculate that conflicts are becoming more visible on the Left, on the one hand because — unlike the so-called political centre — the Left doesn’t succumb as easily to being sedated by reassuring formulas of normality, such as the lie that everything is on the right track; that our fight against the pandemic, for example, is already going really well. And on the other hand, because in comparison with the Right, the solution of subordination is blocked, because it’s more difficult for the Left to establish commonality via forced unification and submission, through orders and obedience.
Having said that, it is indeed surprising that even on the Left, which is part of a materialist tradition, there are so many disputes about what constitutes the correct position, approach, or opinion. After all, the materialist Left is less concerned with changing ideas about living conditions and more concerned with changing the actual conditions themselves.
Perhaps what needs to happen here is a shift in focus — away from the question of what it is that we stand for, and instead towards the question of what kinds of relationships we foster and conduct; away from the question of who we are and towards the question of what kinds of bonds we’ve forged. But less in the sense of a theoretical reflection, and more in the sense of practical organizing.
Leftists have a tendency — if you think of Greece, for example — towards hero-worship in the beginning. And when the heroes then find themselves having to get their hands dirty in their concrete efforts to change living conditions, they’re looked upon with a certain degree of contempt, and people retract their solidarity. Either the sense of entitlement is too great, or demands simply cannot be met at all.
High hopes can of course lead to crushing disappointments. The conclusion that a considerable number of leftists — especially in Germany — have come to in this respect is that it’s better to simply deny any sense of hope from the outset. In doing so, they subscribe to a fundamental political position held by the majority of society. Since the end of the Cold War at least — the end of history — the dominant ideology has not been one that sees capitalism as a positive force synonymous with freedom, prosperity, and happiness, but rather that there’s simply no alternative to it. Even though capitalism heralds pandemics and climate catastrophes, it still won’t be replaced. Resistance is futile. Surrender before the battle has even begun.
I wouldn’t want to fault the Left for sometimes kindling people’s hopes, only for them to later be dashed to pieces. More often than not, the hope is justified. The Left has won a great many minor battles in recent years, and even in the instances where it lost or failed, this wasn’t necessarily set in stone from the outset. What’s more, in certain spheres, such as the politics of remembrance, part of the radical Left’s task is also to fight losing battles.
In the case of Greece, I can already see a problem in terms of the choice of heroes. At first, demonstrations of solidarity were oriented towards a radical democratic movement that occupied squares and established economic initiatives rooted in a sense of solidarity; that was broad in scope and expanded the concept of the political to include the realm of reproduction. Then all of a sudden all of this libidinous energy was channelled towards a party, towards two men at its helm, towards traditional representation in the international arena. An unfortunate detour.
Capitalism as a “global fatality”, which is how Sloterdijk describes the melancholic sociologist’s view of the world. To start, this image, this idea that nothing can be changed would have to be smashed up, shattered. Has this sense of fatality imprinted itself in our DNA? So that we are no longer able to fully embrace all eventualities?
We usually use the term capitalism in the singular, and not entirely without reason. Capitalism represents a society that is in a permanent state of change and yet somehow perpetually at a standstill. But at the same time, capitalism can assume thousands of different forms — not only in a temporal sense, but also in a spatial sense. We’re not always dealing with the same capitalism. And this means that the fatalistic air that seems to enshroud it is also not the same at all times and in all places, and is not always equally impervious.
In this respect, Germany is already at the very least in the throes of fatalism. Things are already different in France, where it’s easy to revive the memory of a triumphant revolution. And in Latin America, too, many activists are breathing a different kind of air. The radical feminist mass movements, for example, have fought for a great many things that most people would hardly have thought possible not so long ago. But it doesn’t look like these tremendous endeavours have exhausted them, but rather have reinvigorated them with a new sense of strength.
It makes sense to regularly look outside the national box, just as it makes sense to celebrate local successes accordingly. And there have been a number of successes recently — in struggles over housing, gender, sexuality. It’s essential we recount these stories in order to break free from the neoliberal emotional prison that perpetually limits the scope of action to the individual, to career, and to family.
I’d like to invoke the rather old fashioned-sounding term “historical optimism”. We like to think that history cannot take the side of any one person. But it can provide courage. What could this courage be drawn from? You’ve written about two failed revolutions and the ways in which they relate to one another: 1917 and 1968. It would be too easy to say we can learn from this and then resolve to do things better next time. Because in actuality, we seem inclined to forget too much. Or — even worse — to learn too little.
I struggle a bit with the concept of optimism. There’s also the tradition of “purposeful optimism” within the history of the Left: the insistence that a left-wing victory is inevitable, guaranteed by the laws of history; it’s only a matter of time, it can’t be too far off. These are words of motivation that have often led to burnout and more often than not to the very people who were thus coaxed into what was supposed to be the final battle ultimately perishing in it. Rosa Luxemburg knew this. But we also can’t perpetually recount the history of emancipation as a story that consists exclusively of a string of defeats. It’s a history that’s densely populated with burgeoning beginnings, an abundance of possibilities that transcend what has come to constitute our reality. It’s a worthwhile exercise, exposing these moments that lie buried beneath counter-revolutions and internal counter-revolutions, in order to be able to pick up their threads and keep pushing forward.
But even before we do this, we need to first acknowledge our defeats — even the crushing ones. If there’s a specific form of left-wing melancholy that’s prevalent in Germany, it’s also because this mood is prompted by historical experience — of the betrayal, suppression, and containment of revolutionary efforts, of the destruction and partial extermination of left-wing traditions. This is still palpable today.
It’s essential that we recount our successes and celebrate our victories, and it’s just as important that we reflect on our failures and mourn our defeats.
Eva von Redecker calls it inherent necessity or material rule. According to her, the only way this can be overcome is by means of moving out of something. One thing that is inherent in a number of movements is that they are very good at analysing the misery of the present, but not so good at describing — let alone naming — the promise of a different future.
It goes without saying that we want out, but where we want to go is not so clear. We’ve had the end of human history prophesied to us, and many of us have thought: maybe it’s true. What could possibly be left to befall us after capitalism, apart from aliens? But the present can’t be changed without first having an image, an idea of the future, can it?
The end of history has already come to an end — ever since the global economic crisis of 2008, which then went on to become a political crisis in 2011. Since then, history has opened itself up once again. Only, this openness amounts to an openness in several different directions, including in the direction of fascism. The so-called centre has lost a considerable amount of power and appeal. This may be less visible in Germany than it is in other European countries or in the US, but it does also ring true here. The status quo is teetering on unstable ground.
I agree with what you said about many left-wing movements being framed in a more negative light; that it’s often clearer what they’re fighting against rather than what they’re fighting for. This is evident when it comes to anti-fascism: stop fascistization, stop the swing to the right! And it’s the same with the environmental movement: prevent destruction, curb catastrophe! Saving democracy, saving the planet — at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking these were conservative movements seeking to preserve something that already exists. But both of these struggles also point beyond preservation, even at the very moment they address the causes of the problems they fight against. Fascism cannot be understood without the context of capitalist society, whose crisis it reacts to as a kind of conformist revolt. And environmental destruction cannot be fully comprehended without the growth imperative of surplus-value production, which absolutely cannot be stopped for anything in the world.
In the places where these struggles take themselves seriously, something else is emerging other than what is already there. The promise of a sense of collective strength, for example, that is not predicated on devaluation or excluding weakness. A sense of cohesion that is not achieved by way of subordination. A humanity that is not founded on the marginalization and exploitation of non-human life. A form of socialization that bridges the divide between the human-built world and the natural world.
This is clearer in other struggles, where the fight is less against the deterioration and decline of life, and more for its improvement. One example can be found in queer feminist struggles that target power structures with complex legacies that predate capitalism. The yearning to bring an end to these traditions of hegemony is also simultaneously a yearning for a more liberated existence for bodies, desires, pleasure; for a less exclusive relationship between anonymity and intimacy; for more communal forms of care, and thus more peace of mind.
This grasping towards the future seems to me to be our Achilles’ heel. And this is where we are so vulnerable. We don’t really talk about revolution anymore; instead, we talk about transformation. And we hope that there is enough momentum to fuel this — rather gentle, non-subversive — transformation of the capitalist system.
Faced with the threat to our entire global system, the question of power seems like one we can no longer really pose. Yet the resolution of this question of power — in other words, the global triumph of an economic system that is both extremely efficient and incredibly inventive — ultimately constitutes the point of origin for the predicament we currently find ourselves in. But we still can’t say whether or not the question of power is always a violent one.
Our experience of all past emancipatory endeavours has taught us to always anticipate violent counter-revolution. Those who indulge in the fantasy that the next time will definitely be non-violent — just because it would be nicer if those who benefit the most from the prevailing conditions would have to voluntarily relinquish their power — are behaving irresponsibly. The fact that the most powerful among us are also products of the prevailing conditions does not mean that they would not go to any and all lengths to maintain their distance from their neighbours. Those who fight against the structural violence of these conditions must reckon with the manifest violence that will inevitably be used to defend them, and must therefore contemplate ways to counter it.
The Bolsheviks always anticipated a counter-revolution. Their entire politics took the form of pre-emptive counter-counter-revolution. In order to defeat the counter-revolution, they assimilated it. This is the second danger that we should be aware of: anticipating counter-revolution means not dismissing from the outset the possibility that it might come. But it also means not taking for granted that it definitely will come. We need to search for non-violent transformational paths, if for no other reason than because violence always erodes the potential for a community that is rooted in a sense of solidarity. But we will only be able to find these paths — if they do in fact exist within the concrete historical context — if we are under no illusions about the danger posed by counter-revolution.
Clever people have tried to create a non-violent narrative by articulating a development from economic constraints that will inevitably lead to the death of capitalism. I see this — in view of capitalism’s successful history over 500 years — as an evasive action, but one that is nonetheless motivating. Or has banking on the prospect of capitalism digging its own grave lulled us into a sense of complacency?
We can take for granted that capitalism is riddled with crises, and that the economic crisis of 2008 will not be the last. And we can also assume that the crises will worsen. But what do we gain by thinking in this way? Even if capitalism were to automatically implode, this still wouldn’t answer the question of what comes next, and how what comes next can even be allowed to happen. This is a trick that distracts us from the real task at hand. We have to address the question of what can and should take the place of capitalism, because the crisis certainly won’t give us an answer to that.