The Left Artem Magun

This political concept—which goes back to the early 1790s, when it signified the liberal opponents of the Old Regime—has been both valid and widely used up to the present day. It has moreover become more pertinent in the recent past (since the 1960s and 1970s) as the traditional socialist and communist parties have gradually lost their old platforms. The social democrats abandoned the revolutionary platform and became a ruling force of the liberal welfare state. Communist parties (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the East European communist parties among them) became associated with the cynical and bureaucratic party-state. This is why, in the 1960s, a “New Left” emerged, which abandoned the rational and technocratic aspects of socialist and communist programs, and freely combined elements of anarchism, Maoism, and other revolutionary ideas. This “New Left” has since, to a certain extent, become a part of the establishment as well. Nevertheless, in the current ideological climate in which communist and socialist ideas have become discredited, the “Left” often appears as a more pertinent designation of one’s political position than any substantial definition. Social welfare, nationalization of the means of production, the workers’ state—all of these ceased to be univocally emancipatory. But there is still room for an emancipatory political position which would reject the claims of bureaucrats, big capitalists, and technocratic experts to absolute power and stand for actual, not declarative, democracy. And the designation of the “Left,” which claims to inherit the glorious revolutionary tradition of the last two centuries, is the most suitable for this emancipatory democratic position. Being formal (spatio-temporal), it poses an open question as to the specific substance of its program, which remains to be elaborated. It is in this sense that the current “Left” still depends on a historical future, in the sense of an open horizon—in a different way from the earlier Left, which was defined through linear progress into the future.

It is curious that the spatial metaphor for structuring the political and ideological field has proved as long-lasting as the “right-left” division. This division emerged during the early years of the French Revolution (1789–1799) when, in the National Assembly, the more radical republican deputies sat on the left and the constitutional monarchists on the right. The fact that we still use the concept signifies that in an important sense we still live in an era defined by the French Revolution as a world-historical event and that the promise of emancipation announced by this revolution has neither been fulfilled nor made irrelevant. The spatial metaphor indicates the political orientation that a subject chooses, in order to identify him/herself politically. Both the left-wing and the right-wing positions are, in this sense, characteristic of a modern political subject.

The asymmetry of right and left is usually relative in space (although not necessarily within one plane or space; one cannot superimpose the right and the left hand within three dimensions so that they coincide with each other). Endowing these formal categories with real political content becomes possible only because space is here projected into time, and is conceived as inseparable from time. As Reinhart Koselleck argued, around the time of the French Revolution political thinking is restructured as a function of temporal orientation, and most concepts become future-oriented. The Left and the Right fit this picture completely; in the late 18th and early 19th centuries these terms unequivocally signified orientation toward the future, and back to the past. The “future” and “past” are understood here either in the context of the revolutionary event itself (of its inner temporality) or, increasingly, in the context of the linear progress of humanity toward a better future (understood first as a liberal, later as a social republic). However, in the second half of the 20th century the belief in continuous progress was demonstrated (by Walter Benjamin, among others) as a liberal concept incompatible with true emancipation. Nevertheless, a sense of the future, which can only be fleetingly glimpsed through revolutionary action, remains a distinctive mark of the Left.

The spatial “left-right” asymmetry also becomes meaningful if we look into the archaic structures of the meaning as witnessed in primitive myths and rituals, and in the everyday mythologies and rituals of the majority of modern societies. In the mythological world, the left is always associated with the bad, dangerous, demonic, etc. It is therefore curious that this negative word came to signify a movement that univocally places itself on the side of the higher moral good. This seeming aberration has to do with the specific nature of modernity as a revolutionary, topsy-turvy world, where servants become masters, where the people become sovereign, and other similar inversions take place. The position of the Left cannot therefore be simply moralistic; its political ethics invariably involve a dialectical turn, or a revolution: the last shall be first—the central theme will be the subordinated left and not the dominant right. Hence also a substantial caveat of the true leftist position: its power and ideology should never be positivized by way of a mere inversion. Efforts should be made, in case of victory, to ensure that the negative layer of the positive political values advanced by the Left remains. The revolution, at least in one sense, should be permanent; it should be able to perpetuate itself. This is a difficult if not utopian task that we must resolve if we want to make a real difference.

In today’s world, after the demise of the Soviet Union and socialist countries and after the neoliberal technocratic governments came to power, there is increasing talk of the end of the Left-Right divide, of the need to study the substantial political claims of different parties instead of the formal orientations. A “proof” of this is also the common confusion of the terms. Indeed, in post-Soviet Russia, as in some other countries in the region, the “Left” usually applies to the purely conservative, nationalist parties, which preserve only a few elements of the socialist program. But does this mean that the Left does not exist anymore? Obviously, this argument comes always from the Right and from those who wish to remain apolitical (and are thus also unconsciously on the Right). The desire to forge ahead and forget the political question of modernity is a desire to destroy the grounds of political orientation, the grounds of political subjectivity. It is usually very easy to say which parties, if any, are now on the left in any country—those which insist on true democracy and criticize theocratic and Fascist tendencies, together with government by technocrats, etc. It is equally clear then, who is on the right. Order, family, and God are still on their agenda, as they were 200 years ago. The internal divide between the Left and the Right, emancipation and authoritarianism, seems perpetual, and maybe this is precisely what the Left should insist on, to remain faithful to its name and origin.