Leftist self-criticism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sat Jul 8 15:52:14 MDT 1995

Louis Proyect:

One of the more dramatic casualties of seeing the history of the left
undialectically, exclusively in terms of failures which reflect
dispositions built into socialist and communist politics, was a
weakening of support on the part of many democratic socialists for the
Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, on the grounds that neither was
"democratic". The principle of this rejection was undefinable as
typically stated, and in no case was it or could have been generalized
rationally to other more favored nations. The judgment was, in that
form, anti-historical and inconsistent with any notion of politics as a
self-reflective and complexly mediated development of organization,
consciousness, direction, definition, and power.

When we refer to this as a casualty, then, we mean that is a casualty
*for* the North American left's understanding of itself: In particular
for attempts to reconcile prescriptions for reforming that left with
descriptions and analyses of what is happening elsewhere in the world.
We are not claiming that particular cases should never be evaluated
and criticized, but only that being judgmental in so categorical a way
is inconsistent with respecting the types of non-institutional political
processes which are inevitable as such under conditions which
generate a left (including the left attempting to reform itself). Such a
categorical attitude assumes as well that referring to historical
conditions of those instances of social/political action which make it
necessary and possible to reflect on further prospects of action is
merely incidental to such reflections and, indeed, can only be
disruptive of them.

This is analogous to someone attempting to come terms with his or her
self by doing so as a radically-other-deliberative-self against which the
object-self (of such rational deliberation) can only be seen as inferior,
poorly formed, irrational, symptomatic, or otherwise incapable of
reflection and self-knowledge. If this were so, one could not have been
anything like one had become, nor could one ever tolerate what one
had been. Self-reflection and practice would be utterly divided and
opposed, as the master and the slave. The former would know and
decide, while the latter would do. Knowing would be altogether
incompatible with doing, if only because detachment is sullied by
interest and pleasure, and engagement is endangered by the relativism
of perspective and choice. As Hegel showed for the phenomenology of
self-consciousness, the subjectivity of master can only reenter the
realm of practice by rediscovering the subjectivity of slave (the actor in
the world) *within the self*, thereby rejecting the dualism of an
*activity* altogether external to and other than *thought*.

The contradiction inherent in the relationship between conclusiveness
and doubt, described above, presents quite a different sort of "crisis"
from the notion of failure currently diagnosed by those who find it
both necessary and convenient to take an absolute distance from their
own leftist past. It requires that it be admitted at the outset that the left
is always in crisis, that crisis is, in a sense, the left's mode of being--if
only because it is explicitly burdened with the obligation continually to
reconsider whatever relationship of theory and practice had been taken
for granted and, in the process, to reflect critically on its own
experience of the activity of reconsideration. Otherwise, one is too
easily led to agree that the fragmentation of the left and the failure of
some leftists to deny that their own history is significant to their
project of symptoms of a totalizing disease which must be cured and
for which a cure can only be found from a perspective outside the
disease and the diseased body.

(From "Left Futures" by Michael Brown and Randy Martin, in
"Socialism and Democracy", Spring 1995)

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