Why does the Left keep getting defeated?

Beginning in the late 1970s, capitalist elites began a deliberate, carefully planned attack on essentially every institution that provided a material basis for leftist organization and loyalties. That attack was hugely successful, in large part because most of those institutions had largely devolved into self-serving bureaucracies bent on preserving their own privileges with no eye toward a greater struggle.

At the same time, the Soviet Union entered into a crisis of leadership, revealing that it had been unable to reproduce the conditions for its continued political viability in the “native Soviet” generation that had never known a pre-Revolutionary state of affairs. When a member of this generation (Gorbachev) did finally take control after the last halfway plausible candidate from the gerontocracy had died, it began a sequence of political events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked the end of international Communism as a major global force.

Hence within the space of a little over a decade, both the domestic material base for leftist organizing and the external threat motivating some compromise with leftist demands had been rendered effectively moot. This allowed the forces of reaction to accumulate unprecedented military and monetary resources to press their agenda — a trend that only gets worse with each passing year. Even when the capitalist elites were at their weakest, in 2008, they were still able to bounce back and reestablish the trend in their favor, and surely that’s because they had such a huge head start.

In my mind, all of these material factors are much more pertinent than identity politics or rhetorical strategy. Indeed, it seems to me that antagonizing broadly left-wing groups that are organized around particular identities, as many white leftist intellectuals apparently feel duty-bound to do, is the surest way to exacerbate an already terrible situation by alienating groups that are actually able to put “boots on the ground,” if you will.

It’s not about persuasion or arguments, but about trust and loyalty — and if black communities, for instance, don’t trust the white male leftist intellectual elite, then maybe that’s not proof that black people are divisive in their insistence on identity politics, but rather that the white males themselves are the divisive party, squandering what should be a natural alliance on the left in favor of their abstract preference for supposedly more “universal” causes.

I know this may be hard to process, given that white males are trained from birth to regard themselves as the direct embodiment of the universal, untainted by mere particularities. How could we be the divisive ones, given that we are immediate unity itself, the telos to which everyone should aspire? Yet I can’t deny my own experience from the milieu of academic theology: all “identitarian” theologies are in a rich and productive dialogue across groups and with “mainstream” white male theology as well. If a white man is willing to take all of them seriously, they’re more than happy to be in dialogue with him as well (trust me, I’ve tried this and it works). It is strangely the “anti-identitarian” white males, disdainful as they are of the pollution of mere particularity, who are walled off into their own little ghetto, boldly pronouncing their “universal truths” to an audience of basically no one.

And it’s unclear why anyone should give a fuck what the self-appointed white male representatives of leftist universality have to say, given that it was the institutions they built that proved so useless in the face of the neoliberal onslaught. The white-male-first (oh, I’m sorry, class-to-the-rigorous-exclusion-of-any-other-identity-first) strategy has failed, definitively. The left is thrown back onto the part-of-no-part, the unassimilables, the ones the system structurally cannot buy off. Hard as this teaching is for us poor, long-suffering leftist white men, James Cone’s demand that we become “ontologically black” may be more immediately practical than the abstract assertion of a class-first, class-only strategy. For example.

14 Responses to “Why does the Left keep getting defeated?”

  1. Hill Says:

    Did Cone provide any instructions for becoming ontologically black? Asking for a friend…

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In principle, it’s much easier than becoming ontically black.

  3. amaryahshaye Says:

    He talks a bit about knowing black history and black people. I think that’s probably always a good place to start.

  4. Hill Says:

    Ok my friend thinks he’s on the right track, then.

  5. bzfgt Says:

    What would it mean for the Left to be victorious?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think we can all agree it wouldn’t look like this.

  7. Drew Sumrall Says:

    Adam, when you say “it’s unclear why anyone should give a fuck what the self-appointed white male representatives of leftist universality have to say, given that it was the institutions they built that proved so useless in the face of the neoliberal onslaught,” what “institutions” are you referring to? Just curious.

    Good piece, thanks.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Unions, the Democratic Party, etc.

  9. Ruth Marshall Says:

    I’ve never imagined the Democratic Party to be an institution of leftist universality, self-appointed or not. And unions certainly haven’t been for decades. It strikes me that leftist institutions are distinctly lacking in contemporary US political history… but maybe that’s just my perverse non-Americanism talking.

  10. Ruth Marshall Says:

    Of course, your point still stands. Take France for eg., where arguably institional leftism still survives. It still amounts to impotent posturing.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s true — at best, both institutions I mention were sometimes vehicles for broadly left-wing goals. And I’d suggest that a big reason they were unable to function as principled leftist organizations is that they were both so completely shot through with racism.

  12. Black Catholic History Month: An Invitation to Remember | Daily Theology Says:

    […] the President.  Exceptions like Barack Obama do not point the way to a post-racial society–exceptions prove the rule.  If there are cracks in the hegemonic reign of white-maleness in the US, they look pretty small […]

  13. Raz Says:

    “…a sequence of political events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and marked the end of international Communism as a major global force.”

    And thank god, at least, that the rise of neo- liberalism helped that end,yes? You are not seriously invoking the soviet union as a progressive force in global politics, surely?

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    During the periods when the Soviet Union was a major power, there were significantly more progressive outcomes in the Western world at least. And it’s not at all clear to me that people living within the former Soviet republics are currently better off than they were under the Soviet Union. So yes, I’m claiming it was a progressive force in global politics, based on the evidence at hand.


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