+ The Origins of Modern Leftism - Preface

The Origins of Modern Leftism

by Richard Gombin


Leftism as described and defined in the following pages is first and foremost a theory : a theory of present-day society, of the society of the future and of the transition from one to the other. very little consideration will be devoted to 'practical leftism', although its haunting presence will be felt behind the text. The reason is that it seemed to me worth while to give an account of leftist theory before embarking upon a description of the practice of confrontation, which at the moment would be fragmentary at best. The theory itself is far from complete, and therefore my principal concern will be with its genesis.

Systematic leftism takes the form of an alternative ( to use a neologism ) to Marxism-Leninism. The interest in analysing it therefore resides in the fact that it presents itself as a successor to a theoretical construction which has practically monopolized radical thought over the last half-century, and which was already the predominant revolutionary doctrine for half a century before that.

The curiosity which modern leftism may excite does not arise simply from the fact that it aims to replace orthodox Marxism as the guiding theory of the revolutionary movement. Other systems of thought have already attempted to supplant it. But most of these alternatives have been on the right : social democracy, labourism, cooperation, pro-planning liberalism, etc. Criticisms from the left, that is to say critiques presenting a revolutionary alternative, grow out of the same tradition and claimed the same parentage; for the sake of convenience, we shall refer to these as the extremists.

Of course there has been anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, and revolutionary syndicalism. But these movements were the very ones to be ousted from their old entrenched positions by the October Revolution. They were to survive only as minor sects, expending the best part of their energies in pursuing a fanatical critique of the Soviet Union and its supporters. There is no getting away from the fact that for fifty-odd years Marxism-Leninism has reigned supreme, monopolizing the ideological leadership of the organized revolutionary movement.

Opposition was made even more difficult by the intolerance of the communist system's 'guardians of conscience' : you were
  • revolutionary only if you came out in favour of Bolshevism,
  • counter-revolutionary if you permitted yourself the slightest criticism of Moscow.
Modern leftism has broken this vicious circle, broken cheerfully with Marxism-Leninism, and has assumed the role of inquisitor in its turn. To enhance further the novelty of its new departure, its propagation has coincided with the coming of age of a whole generation of militants who have not had to suffer the traumas of Stalinism, with its absolutist pretensions that elevated it to the status of an eternal truth. Consequently, the theoretical initiative has found a sociological base in a living movement.

Finally, having consigned Marxism-Leninism to the ideological dustbin of history, the modern leftism theory claims to be the expression of current struggle. In this sense, it no longer represents one radical utopia among others, but the theory of a revolutionary movement in full flood.

This, then, is the extent of the leftist ambition. It seemed to me essential to present the various aspects of the new current of thought in a succinct form. It must be emphasized that it is new only by virtue of its newsworthiness and by the gradual merging of disparate elements. The reader will recognize some familiar themes, which may remind him of other periods of history. For novelty does not in fact consist in erasing the past and starting from scratch. It is the result of a sudden convergence of a number of currents, previously dispersed or forgotten, with a social reality which appears to justify them. What is new, unprecedented, is the fact that these currents have sprung forth unlooked-for on the scene of confrontation, the fact that they are fed by a common inspiration and, above all, by what I shall call an identical vision of the world, which makes it possible to contain several disparate fragments within the same logical framework.

Leftism, therefore, is a way of thinking, of reacting in the face of the same phenomena, of revolting against all attempts at regimentation. The cohesion of leftism is a theoretico-practical cohesion : theory does not find its justification within itself, but in the action it claims to express.

If the leftists are right, if their theory is really the theory of the real, the actual, it cannot fail to acquire over the years all the attributes of a finished theory. Marxism itself is a synthesis of disparate elements; leftism has not yet found its own synthesis. Will it ever do so ? For the moment, we can only trace these elements in outline, while suggesting the Ariadne's thread by which we may pass from one to the other. At the same time, we may sketch the broad features of the recent historical developments that have enabled these elements to emerge.

Publication Details

This book was first published as Les Origines du gauchisme (Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1971). This translation by Michael K. Perl was published by Penguin (London, 1975). Gombin wrote a number of other books including The Radical Tradition..