Fay Niker recently talked with Marius Ostrowski about his new book Left Unity: Manifesto for a Progressive Alliance

I want to make the case for why the left urgently needs to snap out of its current mindset, stay abreast of the deep changes taking place in society, and find new ways to counteract its fragmentation.

Fay Niker [FN]: I’m excited to chat with you about your new book, Marius. Perhaps we could start with what you take to be the book’s central claim?

Marius Ostrowski [MO]Left Unity starts with a diagnosis of the long-term crisis that progressive politics is facing. Societies are growing larger and more densely-populated; more complex, specialised, and differentiated; and more fluid, interconnected, and mobile. This has disrupted the old social ties and identities that the left has taken for granted—whether as ‘friends’ or as ‘enemies’. Cultural tensions are increasingly central within ideological contests, alongside older divisions along the faultlines of economic class and political nationality.

The result has been polarisation: a realignment of the right towards more extreme positions, and a left fragmented into more-or-less moderate and radical streams. Bluntly, history has nothing good to tell us about the last time this happened: the totalitarianism, unrestricted warfare, and genocide whose first beginnings were felt during the interwar period. I want to make the case for why the left urgently needs to snap out of its current mindset, stay abreast of the deep changes taking place in society, and find new ways to counteract its fragmentation.

Left Unity is my attempt to respond to this crisis. I argue that the left—which I define as broadly as possible, including liberals, socialists, anarchists, greens, republicans, regionalists, feminists, anti-racists, LGBTQ* activists, etc.—needs to overcome its internal differences and join forces into a progressive alliance. The resentment, suspicion, even outright hostility that characterises encounters between these rival ideologies is neither sustainable nor an authentic expression of what it is to be ‘on the left’. The underlying changes in modern society as well as the left’s own central social concerns both push the left towards pursuing a ‘possibilist’ stance towards cooperation. This must be informed by a rigorous assessment of the balance of forces in society, and a clear sense of the criteria—intensity, ‘extensity’, and timescale—that govern projects of ‘left unity’.

FN: You take a historical approach. Can you tell us about this and why this is important to you?

MO: I try to avoid hard divisions between ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ social/political thought. It strikes me as impossible to do either one without at least a decent sense of the other. History adds the perspective of context, the present adds that of consequence. Many of the ideas in Left Unity crystallised in my mind precisely through conducting historical research. I work on political thought in the early 20th century, specifically the rise of social democracy and the emergence of the ‘European idea’. Too often, this period is instinctively treated as neither ‘definitely the past’ (pre-1900) nor part of the ‘long present’ (post-1945)—and is neglected as a result.

I find that bizarre and worrying, especially given the many similarities between the interwar period and our current context: rising right-wing radicalism, schisms within the left, economic crisis, and now a global pandemic too. This is not about ‘learning from history’ in a trite ‘avoid the mistakes of the past’ way. An awareness of history is essential to reminding us how contingent and fragile everything we know and take for granted really is. Who/what we do and do not know about, how society’s underlying conditions favoured certain outcomes but could have permitted others, what trajectories for society were ruled in and ruled out at key ‘forks in the road’. That is what is interesting about history: less what did happen and why; more what could have happened and why it did not.

FN: What does it mean, in practice, for the left to have rival interpretations of concepts like liberty and justice?

MO: On the surface, the fact that different ideologies on the left disagree over how to interpret liberty, justice, equality, solidarity, etc., sets up an internecine struggle over ‘who is right’. Both ink and blood has been spilled by those trying to uphold or overturn different positions in the ‘battle for ideas’. But the way out of this is not to try to detach concepts from their ideological moorings. For a start, defining liberty, justice, etc., discretely and without reference to any other concepts is at best a semantic exercise. As soon as you come to apply these definitions in theory, let alone in practice, you have to take a stand on areas of conceptual tension and overlap. Once you do so, you have committed to some kind of conceptual map—i.e., an ideology, whether or not you choose to use that term. The stated project of (at least) some areas of political theory—achieving conceptual clarity—does not put an end to disagreement, but instead manufactures and entrenches it into factionalism.

That the left’s core concepts can be filled out in a range of ways is not a sign of ‘messiness’, but simply a consequence of rising societal complexity. Differences in conceptual interpretation reflect different domains of action, different social groups, and different contexts. So the theoretical work of reconciling concepts is just part of reconciling the variety of societal functions, interests, needs, conditions, policy preferences, etc., that these concepts capture. The left’s social coalition is spread across these domains and groups, so conceptual disagreement is the price it pays for having something to say to a wide section of society. Indeed, this disagreement is what keeps left thought alive, and prevents it from ossifying into arcane, irrelevant—and unelectable—dogma.

I am exasperated at the culture of highly conditional solidarity on the left

FN: More personally, if I may, what was your main motivation for writing Left Unity?

MO: To a certain extent, I think every book is born out of a sense of deep frustration with ‘what is’. Definitely with any piece of political writing or social critique, but probably beyond that too. There is an intangible deficiency in ‘what is’, beyond what else has been said about it. And in the act of making it tangible to yourself the ideas for a piece of writing emerge.

The frustration that underpins Left Unity is twofold. One is the perennial sense of left disappointment, birthright of anyone whose ideological journey lands them at the progressive end of the spectrum. My entire adulthood has taken place in the shadow of a growing catalogue of threats: terrorism, financial crisis, climate crisis, polarisation, fraying European solidarity. But in that time, the moments where the left has unambiguously won are few and far between. Of course, some progress has happened—but at the start of my 30s, positive social transformation seems if anything more remote than it did a decade ago.

Second, I am exasperated at the culture of highly conditional solidarity on the left. With that, I am not referring to any part of the noxious ‘free speech’ debate—e.g., ‘cancel culture’, ‘callout culture’, or ‘no-platforming’—though towards the end of Part III of Left Unity I talk about how this debate should be reconceived from a left perspective. Rather, I mean the way in which an openness to cooperation is often supplanted by the expectation of alignment. Instead of seeing progress as a collective endeavour, much of the left has fallen into a binary of ‘my way or the highway’. Factions, ideological tendencies, even parties have succumbed to a zero-sum logic; either they lead the whole progressive movement, or they go their own way in splendid isolation. The idea that each leftist or left organisation might—only (!)—have a partial role to play has all but vanished.

FN: Left Unity is framed as progressive manifesto. Who did you write it for?

MO: The time is long past—if it was ever here in the first place—where progressives could look to a single social group to be the bearers of progress. Possibly the greatest source of puzzlement and despondency for the turn-of-the-century socialists my academic research focuses on is that the industrial working class was never unanimously, reliably arrayed on their side. Even then, social complexity made it necessary to build progressive coalitions with amenable fractions of other classes. Fast forward 100 years, of more specialisation and differentiation, and the self-assertion of identities other than class—sex and gender, ethnicity and race, sexual orientation, education, age, health and disability—and the coalition the left needs to build has grown even larger. ‘Going it alone’ by any one of these intersecting social groups is at best ineffectual, at worst actively damaging to the other parts of the left.

That is why I have tried to orient the book towards anyone who subscribes to two fundamental views:

  1. That the world is characterised by binaries, or spectrums, of advantage/disadvantage, or privilege/underprivilege;
  2. That the most logical, or useful, or necessary, or desirable course of action is to fight for ‘those without’ such advantage/privilege and fight against ‘those with’ it who use it to harm ‘those without’.

Those might seem a little abstract, but they really amount to saying: Left Unity is for anyone who considers themselves a member of the progressive left. Specifically, anyone who feels called to reflect on their own and others’ positions within the wider left movement—and who recognises that there is no heroism in continuous defeat. Like many other social identities, ‘leftness’ is highly porous and anything but ‘pure’—and that is how it should be! We have yet to find a more reliable barometer of ideological motivation than self-identification, so I would rather err on the side of inclusion than exclusion.

FN: Who are the three people (alive or dead) who you’d most like to read Left Unity (and have a conversation about it with)?

MO: Alongside my research, Left Unity is a product—not always in obvious ways—of many conversations with those closest to me: my partner, family, friends, and academic mentors. What they have in common is a keen sense of worldview: not just what they believe, but also why. They have clarified my thinking and changed my mind more times than I can count, and I would be intrigued to see how they find these conversations mirrored in the book—hopefully opening the door to many more!

Aside from them, two historical figures who I would dearly love to read Left Unity are Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg. More than any other figures in left history, they have come to personify the divide between reform and revolution, revision and orthodoxy, social democracy and communism. Yet both ended up on the same side when facing nationalist, militarist reaction. They disagreed vehemently, even rancorously, and they often had cause to regret each other’s theoretical and strategic choices. But neither was in any doubt about the other’s ferocious intelligence and (in their own ways) their significance for the progressive cause. I feel I would have much to learn from both of them, as do we all.

Beyond them, my choice is framed by the knowledge that—as a white bourgeois cishet man—it is more my job to be a left ally than a leader. So for my third figure, I know that I would choose to hear what one of the many brilliant women of colour who are at the forefront of rejuvenating the left thinks about Left Unity: Ilhan Omar, Camila Vallejo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, or AOC. To listen, far more than to speak. For guidance in how I think of left politics myself.

FN: How do you see the book’s aims and argument shining a light on contemporary events, such as the US Democratic primaries?

MO: There are some obvious points to make here about what a Left Unity-led approach to the US Presidential election or to the post-Corbyn Labour Party looks like. Every leftist needs to think to themselves whether their differences versus a given electoral candidate or party leader are more of degree or of kind. Parties are not there to perfectly embody every facet of their members’ beliefs. Like trade unions, charities, advocacy groups, etc., they are organisations set up to serve a purpose—for parties, that purpose is to win political power. Voting Democrat or Labour is less about personally endorsing Joe Biden or Keir Starmer, and far more to do with depriving Donald Trump and Boris Johnson of political power. So the leftist calculus, as ever, is: which party strikes the right balance between (1) its areas of ideological difference (if any) being mostly of degree, and (2) being best-placed to win power.

To me, that means voting for the most progressive and most plausible option available. Left parties, in turn, need to make that decision easier by pre-empting areas of left-on-left conflict. In formal election campaigns, that means agreeing ‘united’ or ‘popular front’ electoral pacts ahead of the vote, rather than fetishising partisan differences that would be largely suspended in coalition negotiations after it anyway. And in the interstices between campaigns, left parties must become more open to collective policymaking. There is no need to have rival liberal, green, and socialist approaches to (e.g.) climate policy, equalities legislation, or fairly sharing the costs of the coronavirus response. All of them would be some shade of progressive. The point is to make them as streamlined and effective as possible a counterweight to the reactionary approaches on the other end of the spectrum.

Marius has also recently written a post for Justice Everywhere called “What are the values of the left?“, which you might also enjoy reading!

Fay Niker

Fay is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Stirling. Before taking up this role, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy.