Notes on Cryptofash
Posted by <Chris Mansour> on 2022-02-15
As a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, I became curious about a recent phenomenon known as “post-” or “anti-Left” Marxism after I learned Benedict Cryptofash was planning to submit a critique of our organization. Before his article was published in the December 2021 issue of The Platypus Review, I spent Thanksgiving Day reading the essays he wrote to date. (footnote 1) The notes below are a product of the time I devoted to studying this material. While most of my thoughts are unsystematic and lack the rigor a formal piece would require — Cryptofash also deserves a closer textual read than I give him here — this piece nonetheless provides an outline for a critique of his corpus (which is still clearly a work in progress). In the spirit of the Do Not Research community, I hope these notes will generate further discussion in the future.
Cryptofash’s general meta-theory is that Marxism is contrary to the history of the Left, that Marx would never consider himself a “leftist.” Those who imagine themselves as “leftists” historically and today are the epitome of what Marx harshly criticized in his political writings, especially in the first half of the Communist Manifesto. These character types are, as Cryptofash puts it, caught in the web of “idealism, moralism, and utopianism,” (footnote 2) much like the utopian socialists of Marx’s day (Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, et al.).
Instead, classical socialism à la Marx understood that the oppositional forces of society were grounded in class antagonisms rather than ideological or moral struggles: the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie. According to Cryptofash, the claim that socialism is driven solely by the proletariat's sociological class position is Marxism’s historical materialism, whereas understanding history through the lens of the Left/Right distinction is purely ideational, and hence mystifying. The way that the terms “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” are defined will be fleshed out more in section VI, but it is my contention that Cryptofash’s application of these categories substantially differs from Marx’s own.
For Cryptofash, the main reason the Left/Right distinction is moot, and ultimately anti-Marxist, is because this schism within bourgeois institutions arose in a period of crisis, when the French monarchy was restored in the 1810s to ’20s. It is that moment when the distinction became a frame of reference for defining the political landscape. Although we telescope the Left/Right divide back to the French Revolution days — when the seating at the National Assembly was split into supporters of the king (on the right side) and supporters of the revolution (the left side) — this vocabulary did not become common until later in the 19th century. It took the crisis of France’s newly won liberal democracy during the Bourbon Restoration for these leftist and rightist positions to crystallize as accepted categories.
Hence, the Left became a term that defined a progressive wing that wanted to further carry out and realize bourgeois liberal democracy — liberté, égalité, fraternité — and the royalist Right wanted to reestablish aristocratic rule. Of course, a lot has happened since then. Most relevantly, for Marx, the capitalist organization of work transformed the modes and relations of production from being based on cooperation and manufacturing — as they are posited by the bourgeois revolution — to an industrialized process, sharpening the conflicts between classes and jeopardizing the stability of liberal democratic norms.
Society became organized and structured in radically different ways but, according to Cryptofash, the Left still clings onto a language formed by an anachronistic period (dated from the French Revolution). The result, as he writes, is “a perpetually and evenly divided society that lacks any historical movement that can bring about resolution of its contradictions… left and right eternalize the bourgeois political horizon.” (footnote 3) Here, all social conflicts unwittingly get sealed within bourgeois parameters because the Left does not address the irreconcilable tensions of capitalism by rehearsing old problems. Based on Cryptofash’s analysis, the ambitions and desires of the Third Estate are hypostatized and class divisions are consequently misunderstood and glossed over, meaning they can never be overcome by the Left as it envisions itself.
Thus, at least in his own understanding, Cryptofash is taking on an orthodox Marxist standpoint by claiming Marxism is actually an “anti-Leftist” force. He wishes to distinguish Marxism from all the petty-bourgeois elements that make up the Left, meaning those who elide class differences and instead base their politics on an abstract set of ahistorical values. Today, the main culprits of petty-bourgeois ideology, according to Cryptofash, are the Democratic Party and its so-called progressive wing, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as well as loosely knit organizations such as Black Lives Matter. Cryptofash believes leftists naturally get absorbed into these reformist organizations and perpetuate class divisions not in spite of, but because of their stunted political imaginations. Put differently, they lack a proper understanding of class dynamics and the revolutionary potential of the proletariat as a class in itself and for itself.
While I agree with many of Cryptofash’s political conclusions about the dead ends of the Democratic Party and DSA, and find his historiography accurate in its broad strokes, as far as it goes, there are some thoughts that remain underdeveloped in his position as well as some glaring omissions.
He accuses the Left/Right distinction of being undialectical, which I agree with, to the extent that our current historical context appears to be stuck in “capitalist realism,” (footnote 4) as members of Do Not Research often lament. The way these terms are used today is not only unhelpful, but can also be actively misleading. However, this does not exhaust the question. Is a more rigorous and historically grounded version of the Left-Right distinction helpful in understanding the ideological disputes that have recurred in the history of Marxism, itself? Can such an understanding illuminate how Marx(ism) is relevant, in the present?
Undoubtedly, the Left — utopian socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and radical liberals — consciously or unconsciously dropped their revolutionary ambitions, both in theory and practice. But, in turn, the distinction Cryptofash makes between the Left and Marxism is undialectical, despite his best polemical intentions. For Cryptofash, the Left merely equates to bourgeois ideology; respectively, Marxism equates to an anti-bourgeois stance because of its commitment to proletarian struggles. In this formulation, Cryptofash fails to see how the proletariat emerges out of bourgeois society, in its crisis, and carries this birthmark everywhere it goes. Even the aspirational demands that the proletariat makes on society may be bourgeois in a certain sense — the right to vote, better pay, leisure time, etc. — but attain a different character from a historical and political perspective, because it is the proletariat who are making them. (footnote 5)
In his various writings, Cryptofash does not clarify why the proletariat is an exemplary revolutionary agent for Marx, and seems to assume it is merely based on its sociological position in the class composition. My claim is that rather than understanding the category of the proletariat through the prism of sociology, it must be rendered as a politico-historical category. In Marx’s view, the proletariat is not valued because of its sociological characteristics, nor for simply being “anti-bourgeois.” Rather, given the historical context of the manifest crisis of bourgeois society, during which “all that is solid melts into air,” the workers represent a social force whose political organization may point to the overcoming of capitalism, rather than merely reconstituting it. In so doing, the proletariat would complete and transcend the bourgeois revolution, which has necessarily betrayed itself — necessarily, not accidentally — in the age of industrial production and the many horrors — and new potentials — unleashed by it.
So how is it that Cryptofash’s formulations are undialectical? This is best illustrated through the example of workplace struggles.
Through capitalist crises, when organized workers demand that their bourgeois rights be recognized through, e.g., better pay or safer working conditions, they actually end up reconstituting capitalist production and their exploitation, not overcoming it. All three volumes of Capital go into how this happens. So the contradiction that Cryptofash stamps onto the Left also applies to proletarian struggles: in seeking to overcome its plight, the proletariat just ends up reestablishing bourgeois society and capitalist production in new forms. So it can be said that, like the Left, the proletariat “eternalize[s] the bourgeois political horizon” precisely when it resists this trajectory. This phenomenon is entirely unremarked upon in Cryptofash’s writing to date.
If Cryptofash were to introduce consciousness into the picture — the question of subjectivity — it would help deepen his argument and expose the contradiction of his cleanly presented dichotomy. Such an introduction would jeopardize his whole foundation of counterposing Marxism with Leftism, as if the former is materialist and the latter idealist (nota bene, also an undialectical formulation). I think this main shortcoming stems from the way Cryptofash misidentifies the role of the proletariat.
As I mentioned above, for Marx, the term “proletariat” is not merely a sociological position but a politico-historical one, which raises the problem of self-understanding. Lenin’s idea of “trade union consciousness” and “social democratic consciousness” (read: “revolutionary consciousness”) (footnote 6) would be useful, here. What kind of consciousness would the workers need to develop in order to overcome reproducing bourgeois social relations, as they have been doing through their resistance struggles since the 19th century? If Cryptofash had to ask this question, and not just assume that the material standpoint of the proletariat is enough to make it a revolutionary agent, then he would be forced to determine which struggles within the proletariat are left-wing, and which are right-wing.
In other words, the question is: How can we redeem the revolutionary potential in the struggles of the workers, the outcome of which is otherwise liable to reconstitute capitalism, even when those struggles negate the bourgeois social order in one aspect or the other? That is an ideological-political question, and underscores why the Left/Right distinction remains important for Marxian political discourse.
Certainly, Marx was the most incisive critic of his leftist contemporaries. While Cyptofash solely focuses on Marx’s relationship to his contemporaries during the First International and the leftist organizations of our day, the most glaring omission in his writings to date concern what happened in the interim: the Second and Third Internationals. What would he make of the revisionist dispute between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg in the early 20th century? Or Leon Trotsky’s trajectory of forming the “Left Opposition” contra Stalinism? After all, like Cryptofash, all these figures thought of themselves as carrying forward the torch of Marxism. But did any of these strains have more revolutionary potential than the other? Was one more “Left” than the other? It would be interesting to see Cryptofash address these moments in future writings.
1. Since the time I wrote these notes, Cryptofash has published a couple of additional essays on his Substack, and Chris Cutrone has submitted a response to Cryptofash’s essay in The Platypus Review. See Chris Cutrone, “The Left is a concept — but social revolution is not: A response to ‘Benedict Cryptofash,’” The Platypus Review, Issue 143, February 1, 2022, accessible here.
2. Benedict Cryptofash, “The Problem Proposed,” The Anti-Left Marxist, November 25, 2021, accessible here.
3. Cryptofash, “Left/Right in Context,” accessible here.
4. For a critical take on Mark Fisher’s body of work, I encourage DNR members to read Efraim Carlebach, “Forgetting Mark Fisher,” The Platypus Review, Issue 115, April 1 2019, accessible here.
5. For a compressed history that outlines how the proletariat emerged out of bourgeois society and is part and parcel to it, see Chris Cutrone, “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today,” The Platypus Review, Issue 51, November 1, 2021, accessible here.
6. At our historical juncture Lenin’s descriptor “social democratic” might seem confusing. When he originally wrote What Is to Be Done? in 1901 to ’02, social democratic organizations were still considered radical and communist. They did not become reformist institutions until the crisis of World War I split Marxism internationally in several directions. See Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “What is to Be Done,” Marxist Internet Archive, February 1, 2022, accessible here.