When the Left is in the opposition, it talks about the responsibilities of government. When the Left is in the government, it talks about what is Left.
To take the current Greek case as an eloquent example, when the Left was in the opposition, it advocated economic and political reforms necessary for governance. Since it came to government, it has been debating its stance in the Brest-Litovsk treaty, the Kronstandt rebellion, the Weimar republic, and the Varkiza agreement.
The Left does not govern because, when in the government, it needs to debate its place in past and future history since it feels accountable not to its supporters but to something much larger, its history.
The reason for this accountability is that the reflective Left is Hegelian. The Left that is willing to give an account is the Hegelian one. (The rest is Jacobin.)
All Leftists are by ethical disposition Left Hegelians.
In ethical terms, the history of the Left is not a succession of defeats but a tradition of failures. Adrian Little’s provocative view of the “constitutive failure” of radical politics may be relevant here. He argues that, while agonistic advocacies of polyphony and dispute promote open debate, they do not “recognise explicitly enough that democratic politics contains the seeds of its own failure, that is, its inability to meet its ambitious goals. This is the ‘constitutive failure’ of democracy that is implicit in various post-foundational approaches to politics and which translates into a dynamic conception of democratic politics founded on the inevitable failings of normative models of democracy” (“Democratic Melancholy: On the Sacrosanct Place of Democracy in Radical Democratic Theory,” Political Studies, December 2010, p. 975).
Commenting on the Greek “hopelessness,”, Slavoj Žižek too has written succinctly on the failure of the victorious Left: “The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive, half-democratic regime, … it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans that one cannot but characterise as crowd-pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, etc. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realise that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. … In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself … In short, we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent in this principle itself. To learn this move from the distortion of a notion, its incomplete realisation, to the distortion immanent to this notion is the big step of political pedagogy” (New Statesman, July 20, 2015). The victorious Left has no time to govern because it is too preoccupied with the flaws and failures inherent in the principles that brought it to power.
What, then, if self-questioning in rule and failing in government are fundamental to Leftist conduct? Alternatively, what if they simply turn the story of radical autonomy into a Bildungsroman? We may never know since the German speakers who do know usually go mad or commit suicide. In our more melancholic moments Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I think of Heinrich von Kleist, the radical who by 1811, at 33, had effectively questioned all his convictions and reached an all-too-familiar Leftist aporia.
August 14, 2015