The Left Can’t Even Agree on What Politics Is

by Benjamin Studebaker

In helping my undergrads prepare for their exams the last few weeks, I’ve noticed something–one of the major obstacles to successful left-wing organising is the left’s inability to agree on what politics itself is. Different political theorists understand “politics” differently. You can broadly divide conceptions of the political into two realms. Some people think politics is about pursuing the truth and the good, and other people think that politics is about managing disagreement about the truth and the good. Then within those camps you can make further divisions on the basis of what strategy people prefer to use to pursue the good or manage disagreement. Here, let me chart this out for you:

Some people think we can use politics to pursue truth. Within this group, there are some who think every person has what it takes to pursue the truth and be good, and they want every person to be individually morally uplifted. That’s Gandhi. But there are others who think only some people are capable of understanding the truth, and therefore those gifted few must keep the rest of us in line. That’s Plato.

Other people think that we can never come to any agreement about what the truth is and therefore we need to manage disagreement to maintain order. Some people want to do this by creating some form of artificial truth. They propose we do this by having a sovereign determine the truth on our behalf. We may not be able to agree on the truth itself, but these people think we can agree on a person or assembly to represent us and make moral judgements on our behalf. Some envision this sovereign as a referee, intervening primarily to prevent disorder and maintain peace. That’s Hobbes. Others envision this sovereign as a team captain, personally leading a group of comrades. That’s Schmitt. Then there are some people who want the sovereign to switch back and forth between these roles, inspiring the people by acting like a team captain at some points but responsibly defending the peace like a referee at other points, depending on the situation. That’s Weber.

There are other theorists who aren’t comfortable with artificial truths because they think artificial truth is too unitary and final. They prefer to manage disagreement through an endless pluralistic struggle. Within this group there are some who think that everyone is capable of contributing to this pluralism. That’s Arendt. Then there are other people who think that only a select few have the necessary creativity and will to contribute. That’s Nietzsche.

Gandhi prefers truth to everything, and he’s even willing to risk disorder to get it. Plato thinks he can have truth and order together. Hobbes and Weber put order first. Schmitt thinks he can have order and freedom together. Nietzsche and Arendt prefer freedom to everything, and they’re even willing to risk disorder to get it. Gandhi and Plato think the freedom Nietzsche and Arendt want is the freedom to plunge into a nihilist void. They understand freedom as the freedom to pursue truth. Nietzsche and Arendt think the truth Gandhi and Plato want is a totalitarian lie. Hobbes thinks all these other views are irresponsible and will get us all killed. Gandhi, Plato, Nietzsche, and Arendt think Hobbes is a coward attempting to enslave us to big lies. And so on. None of these people can agree with each other. Most people don’t understand politics the same way, so most people don’t just disagree on policy or values–they disagree even on what we’re arguing about. They don’t conceptualise the realm of the political in the same way.

When I present this to my students, I ask them a question. Where is Marx? They can never agree. He is put in four different places:

  • Some have a modernist anarcho-communist interpretation of Marx and want to put him with Gandhi.
  • Some have a critical Popper/Hayek “Marx is a totalitarian planner” interpretation and put him with Plato.
  • Some identify Marx with Lenin and place Lenin with Schmitt.
  • Some have a postmodern deliberative interpretation, identifying Marx with Habermas and putting Habermas with Arendt.

We could argue all day about where Marx goes–it’s not abundantly clear. And so the result is that left-wing organisations have all four of these tendencies within them. This is crippling. It’s often been observed that the methods of the an-coms and direct deliberators conflict heavily with the methods of the more state-facing democratic socialists and centralists. But it’s not just a tactical or strategic division–it’s a division over what politics is for. These people don’t have similar conceptions of the purpose of left-wing politics. Trying to build a utopia is different from trying to build something stable. Trying to build something stable is different from glorying in the existential freedom of instability.

Gandhi and Plato tried to build heaven on earth. Nietzsche and Arendt are wreckers. Schmitt is a Nazi. Hobbes is a coward. None of these proposals are fully satisfying. Anyone who goes for truth will be opposed by those who prefer order and freedom. Anyone who goes for freedom will be opposed by those who prefer truth and order. Anyone who goes for order will be opposed by those who prefer truth and freedom.

It’s paralysing. We might be able to get people to agree that we need two of the three. Those who think we need truth might recognise that we need order to defend that truth, that Gandhi can’t provide that order and isn’t enough on his own. Those who think we need order might recognise that we need truth to make that order worthwhile, that Hobbesian order needs to morally justify itself.  The problem is the postmodern freedom camp. It isn’t committed to truth or even the appearance of truth, and therefore it’s not morally anchored. As we start to move past Weber into Schmitt and Nietzsche, we see political theorists who are okay with all sorts of terrifying violence not in the name of peace or order but in the name of “natality” or “agonism”, purely for the purpose of creating new varieties of values and consciousness. People like Arendt purport to reject the violence and coercion of these projects, but without truth their opposition to violence is purely aesthetic and deeply unreliable. By wrecking order, these people make us slaves to their notion of freedom, and unlike the proponents of truth, these wreckers have no interest in creating anything “good” or “lasting” and consequently they cannot be reasoned with.

Even if politics is an endless struggle, wanting it to be one is the abyss, it is the death of meaning. Nietzsche called those who rejected struggle “life deniers” and “European Buddhists”. But those who reject truth and peace don’t just make life nasty, brutish, and short–they make it pointless.