There seems to be a notion out there that there are different stages of being left-wing or progressive. This goes back, of course, to Hegelian ideas about the Spirit of History, the End of History, and stages of development, which, in some way, were given a materialist spin by Marxism.
Anybody who believes that somehow, “as a society”, “as a people”, “as humanity”, we are moving in some direction through time, following the laws of History (with a capital H), is somehow believing in a “progressive” vision of society, in the sense that we are “moving along” an imaginary arrow of time leading somewhere. If you believe that eventually we will get flying cars, that we will colonize space, that humanity will somehow “evolve” through this process, and that this process is inevitable and that we should help it along, this is what it means to be a progressive, probably. History (with a capital H) is not just the more or less understandable accumulation of events that have happened, but it is a force that can be studied, whose laws can be understood, and the lessons of such study can be applied to our lives and our political vision. This is what “Historical Materialism” means, in a nutshell.
One opposing vision – and there can be many – would be that we are rather ambling along in an un-Historical way through our somewhat chaotic, unpredictable lives, hoping to make sense of things, but living in the humility that every society that ever existed has eventually crumbled, every state fallen, every human being eventually died, and humanity always living under the condition of being an imperfect approximation of larger goals, but never truly being able to live up to it, because of what is called the human condition. The lesson here would be to live your life as much as you can in a moral fashion, to improve the lives not just of yourself but also of others around you, to realize that nobody is perfect and that nobody should be blamed for that, but also, that such realization should not crush you down, but should enable you to pursue realistic goals, to live with hope and with the confidence that no matter what roadblocks life will have for you, you are doing everything you can, and this is just what life is all about. I would call this an agnostic view, maybe even mildly conservative, and it certainly is not seductive, even though probably more realistic.
Even less comforting would be fatalism, or complete acceptance of the order of things, although that could be liberating in the sense that the realization of your eventual complete inability to live forever saves you from even the semblance of false hope.
Yet people seem to need a positive vision, they need hope, they need something to cling to in order to go on. They need comfort, they need something to distract them from those parts of life that are not uplifting. Religion might be a solution, but true religion (true in the sense of not offering false promises or too simplistic answers), or rather theology, is more complex than typically desired, and that which could be called folk-religion may provide some hope, but it oftentimes falters under pressure. The classical question of Theodicy, “how could God let that happen,” does not really have theological substance. If “God is always greater” than our understanding, such a question is pointless, and it does not fit very well with higher-order religious systems. “God wills it” – if not applied to justifying horrendous human activity – is probably the best theological equivalent of Murphy’s Law. While probably true, it is surely neither uplifting, nor attractive.
Thus we come back to how to craft a vision for society. Some Progressivist vision – i.e. the general idea that things will improve over time – can certainly prove attractive. It might thus also seem seductive to help History along and shape that vision politically. Why wait unnecessarily if we can already make things better for everyone? As Marx remarked in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” So far, so understandable. But how? Marx himself – contrary to popular belief – did not have a concrete vision. He never finished Capital himself, and we should be careful about drawing too concrete conclusions from his incomplete thinking on this. But there is one point that Marx has been making consistently – and most clearly in his letter to Ruge – and it bears repeating time and time and time again, and deserves to be quoted in full. It begins as follows:
“everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. …”
Tough stuff. We do not know the future, so it is better now to rather than to “dogmatically anticipate the world” (i.e. to create some dogmatic utopian state), the new one will come about through criticism of the old. Criticism, or critique, is more than just liking or not liking an idea, but a critical interrogation (truly open-ended) of the powers that be (and – because of the rejection of dogmatism – of the powers that challenge the powers that be. Then follows one of the great Marxian pen-drop put-downs, that caustic and acerbic wit for which he is so well known. But let’s continue, let the past be the past, and what do we need now?
“… Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. …”
Maybe Hegel appeared in Marx’ mind and whispered something of consciousness and spirit, and we get Marx at his most Hegel-ish aloof moments where bold statements are pounding the argument. There is no proof here, only him saying that there is. But it sounds cool. What he probably means is that philosophers can no longer be content at warming their armchair only with presumably complex thoughts spouted at adoring apprentices, but have to apply themselves at matters relevant for the people, for society, to actually liberate people from Plato’s cave rather than to bedazzle them with their skill. Thus now:
“… But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge)
Thus if we aim to create a better future, we need to be careful, and make sure that we stay skeptical. This sense of skepticism and critique is interwoven into all of Marx’ thought; it is practically his conditio sine qua non, the condition without which you cannot think about him. Ruthless skepticism means a skepticism even of skepticism. All power needs to be critiqued always. This position is more important than any other political idea Marx may have had; and it is the one impulse remaining throughout all of Marxist intellectual history. And Marx is, or should be, or is frequently declared to be, the cornerstone for the leftist movement itself. You could start with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, or with Jesus, or with Francis, or Acquinas, or many others, but Marx it is, typically.
Marx’s demand for criticism is a demand for intellectual freedom, and thus for democracy. Utopia ruins freedom, as it is by definition perfect, and the enemy of perfection is the enemy of, well, everyone who wants a utopian future. Marx wants to make things better, but he wants to keep thinking.
The enemy of thinking is dogma. Whenever dogma enters the equation, you enter the perversion of leftist thinking. The “left”, or in French “gauche”, or better, in Italian, “la sinistra”, gets its “sinister” reputation partially from the caustic personalities of a Karl Marx, a Richard Wagner, a George Orwell, a Lech Walesa, or a Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, or Slavoy Žižek. This is as sinister as things should go.
Communism is dogma, it left-wing is utopianism of the worst and most oppressive kind. It is the utopian vision, and states who pursued it, called themselves Socialist (and aspired towards the Communist ideal). “Socialism” and “Communism” are thus the same thing, and “Democratic Socialism” is the term used by revamped Communist parties in former Soviet-style Socialist countries to delude people about what they really are. Socialism can never be democratic if it attaches itself to the idea of dogma, of utopia. You cannot modify socialism through democracy; socialism is a dogma, and dogmas are inherently anti-democratic, anti-criticism, and anti-thinking.
The only thinking alternative is Social Democracy, where democracy (which tends to align with capitalism, because free thinking and free markets go well together) is modified (or mollified) by social thought. Social Democracy is not a failed attempt at becoming socialist or communist. It’s the other way round. Dogmatism, whether it is socialist or communist (or national socialist!) is always a perversion of social democracy.
There is nothing wrong with being moderate, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical, there is nothing wrong with thinking. Any system that wants people to comply rather than to think on their own is not something a thinking person should want to pursue. As Kant said in “What is Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, dare to reason on your own. He was more polite than Marx, but Marx still asks us to think for ourselves, and to support others to do so as well. After all the sound and fury of Marxist discussions and arguments, this is what is, and should, be left.