I left the left when the left left me, but I’m not gonna “turn to the right”

Politics. When I was young lad “humping a ruck” through mountainous Vietnamese rain forests, there was a guy named Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, sending orders to the Air Force to bomb Cambodia and to the cops at home to crack down on people who wanted him to stop. The left back in those days called him a fascist. By today’s standards, on economic matters at least, he’d be half a hair to the right of Bernie Sanders.

If you’re still hanging onto those old notions of what left and right mean in the politisphere, that is. It was back then, when I was a teenage occupation troop, that the left-right model began to be confused with what we now call “cultural wars,” whereas before that right and left were understood to be economic matters. Honestly, it was already breaking down back then through the sly sexual revolution, drug culture, and unfocused rebellion for its own sake. The actual left then had already shrunken into warring cells.

The left has a hard enough time surviving its competing egos and sects, and a few years of consumerist prosperity will quickly suffocate even that. By the time I left the Army in the mid-1990s and joined a couple of leftist cadre organizations, there were still vestiges of the old class-orientation, though many of my comrades had taken to recruiting from the tiny pool of those who might be interested in our style of politics by scraping the corners of the cultural bowl for anyone who felt left behind and finding only a few “edgy” academics. Apart from a few outliers, like myself, the shrunken left — disoriented and disillusioned by the fall of the Eastern Bloc and China’s hard turn to capitalism — was largely comprised of these heterodox academics who spoke in a language understand only by one another.

I was attracted by the left because they said some things I knew to be true from experience that others were disinclined to say; and there was an element of my own “fuck you” to the establishment of which I’d been so long a part — because I knew them to be treacherous, even murderous, liars who’s co-opted me into being the same. So, I went through a long process of regret and repentance, but a long “fuck you” as well.

The Army, like today’s “left” and “right,” had been its own kind of bubble, and it was a very busy bubble; at least it was for me. Which is why my own leftist associations lagged behind the times a bit. My lefty conversion experience, such as it was, kicked into high gear when I was deployed to Haiti in 1994, where I got into some trouble with my own chain of command. Upon my return, I sought out information about Haiti, and the most valuable information I found was from left-liberal, leftist, and anarcho-leftist publications, which I consumed like a Rottweiler with a pot roast. I made contact with some of these outfits when I left the army less than two years later, and found myself in a new, unfamiliar, and invigorating milieu. I also started consuming Marx, and in short order, I became a communist. Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound.

As I said, this was when the left was in a state of crisis; though I’d discover that the left was always in some kind of crisis. I became philosophically stuck there on the left — where history and life begins with Hegel. I became an obsessed “activist,” as busy as the Army again, so I was more preoccupied with practical and strategic matters than I was with re-examining my own philosophical assumptions . . . or the philosophical roots of what was then the crisis of the left. My political activities were concentrated in three areas: leftist feminism, Black politics in the South, and war. What I hadn’t yet recognized was something already in train, and that was the left’s contamination by the Academy — with which I had little direct contact — to where much “leftism” had retreated. That transition had been first to “new” leftism — which, in retrospect, was a decades long flailing upon the discovery that the American working class was not a revolutionary force — to . . . and here’s where it went all hinky . . . Nietzsche, via Foucault.

The fault line this turn to “postmodernism” (or post-structuralism . . . whatever) had created on the “left,” once again too polymorphous to really deserve its own category, became clearest to me when I broke with my last cadre organization as they came to embrace the Nietzsche-Foucault-Butler “gender” insanity — which was a bridge to far into academic reality-denial even for me.

The left, I came to discover, was a dead letter on its own merits — just another false universalism — but whatever it had on offer (and it did) has been pretty much undone by it’s academic eagerness to assert wild stupidities, then demand that others validate them (or risk being called names). When my “comrades” started to demand that I call someone with a dick a woman because he’d declared himself that, I tapped out. (There were other reasons, too, but I knew from this that these people weren’t serious . . . or even sober.)

The right, of course, is now mostly a crowd of clueless and terrified people reacting against the “left’s” stupidities and contempt, lashed forward by power-hungry demagogues filling their heads with its own stupidities and a kind of counter-contempt. And like the left, the zaniest culture warriors on the right could be deflated in short order by about ten years of general prosperity — but that ship has sailed (another story).

When I see commentators today calling everything from Joe Biden to RuPaul leftists, I have to shake my damn head. When I see these same folks suggest that something called a “new right,” or a “counter-cultural right,” is an alternative to this sodden, ill-defined “left,” I experience a powerful sense of deja vu. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are leftist? Really? Because their records show them to be neoconservative neoliberals all the way down. You couldn’t fit a playing card between them and Dick Cheney.

Our public language has become little more that prevarication and manipulative spin.

I left the left when the left left me, but I’ll be damned if I’ll go to the right, an equally soggy category. When I left the left, I decided to explore other avenues of thought, and I discovered, to my surprise, that there was a group of thinkers whose philosophical acumen exceeded anything I’d seen on the left or right, one which swallowed whole Hegel, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and the rest: Christians.

Like almost all others on the left, I was the philosophical captive of modernity and, like most Americans, I was the situational captive of a hyper-plural culture within which the most vocal and prominent people calling themselves “Christians” were themselves part of an enormously shallow and mostly idiotic Christian nationalist heresy which now constitutes a goodly portion of the right. I wasn’t quite as bold or arrogant as many on the so-called left as to make specious and dismissive commentary about Christianity, because I at least recognized, before I joined the God-botherers, that I had no real intellectual grounding in Christianity beyond what I’d learned studying literature five decades ago.

Likewise, my philosophical ignorance was compounded by my ignorance of philosophy’s inevitable companion — history. Even as a Marxist, who professed interest and grounding in historical processes, I was trapped in Marxism’s universalizing pretension and its restrictive conflict focus. That’s not to say that Marx was useless to me; on the contrary, I still recommend Marx — not as a philosopher, but as a social critic — to everyone and anyone. His descriptions, incomplete as they may have been, are indispensable; whereas his prescriptions are the embodiment of that old saw, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

History gives philosophy its many contexts. Philosophy lifted out of history is like a plucked flower, folded into a book and dried. You can make some pretty art out of it; but it’s no longer alive. It all started a long time before Hegel announced that he was the smartest man in the world, but we’re not going to do an historical compendium of philosophy. It wasn’t linear anyway. It’ll be enough just to check out Kierkegaard on Hegel. You’ll get the idea. Then compare Dostoevsky to Lenin. Read The Communist Manifesto alongside Rivers North of the Future, and you get the same contrast. Soulless, technocratic, systems-thought, delivered with a few inch-deep references to the personal experience of our human condition, alongside thinkers who were unafraid of the phenomenological, unafraid to speak of the ways in which death hovers over our every moment, unafraid of the hot mess that is the human psyche, and unafraid to face the fact — well-demonstrated by history — that we can never manage our way into some uncomplicated, stable, and even luxurious future.

Christians of the kind who attracted me — philosophical and otherwise — failed to conform to the left-right line, because that line is fundamentally “post-Christian” shading into anti-Christian.

The leftish evasion of the brokenness of the human condition is only matched by the right’s belief — one given the lie by centuries of the church aligned with power — that we can manage our way around that brokenness through prohibitions and forcible control — what Illich called the criminalization of sin — backed by disgust-fueled hatred of those on the outer-edges of conformity.

I heard the Orthodox Christian Jonathan Pageau — who entertains conversations with “conservatives” — bring one of his rightish interlocutors up short recently with an interesting metaphor regarding the current “left-right” gender/culture war — which is a left-right far removed from the more prudent self-restrictions of the past to matters of economy. He described a medieval Gothic church.

In the church, the altar is at the intersection of the cruciform building and the highest point attached to the floor in the sanctuary. It is over this altar where the priest raises the Eucharist for its blessing, holding it above his head — a place joining heaven and earth — like Jesus, who is embodied (blood and flesh) in the wine and bread. Jesus, the Eucharist, is the center-most point in a God-formed existence.

But it wasn’t the whole church. In the pews were everyday people leading everyday lives who came and went. On the outside of the churches, on the margins, were sculpted gargoyles — figures with strange forms, sometimes scary, sometimes expressing various emotions, sometimes whimsical.

They were not the everyday, not the “normal,” but they were still built into the margins of the church — still part of God’s creation. There is an implicit hierarchy afoot here: The everyday encompasses most of us, but there are marginal forms, and then there is our highest aspiration — the reconciliation of heaven and earth accomplished by Christ and reenacted with communion.

Prior to the pinched, punitive, and puritanical bent that took hold during the Reformation (a flu the Catholics caught for a couple of centuries from the Protestants), all aspects of life were celebrated. Medieval Europeans had a lot of feasts and holidays. A lot more than we do. Medieval Europeans — from peasant to monarch — liked to eat, drink, and be merry. They were a bawdy lot who discussed sex quite openly, and they loved a good off-color joke.

One form of celebration was carnival — a public party (think Mardi Gras) where stuff from the margins was given full reign. Men dressed as women, women as men, peasants made fun of nobles, people wore crazy masks, there was lewd dancing, and so on. Most of life was everyday. Sometimes you had to celebrate Christ and the Saints. Sometimes, you had to celebrate the marginal. All part of God’s creation. There was an altar in the church, the pews, and the gargoyles outside. All part of the great cruciform church.

Pageau’s conservative guest had some obvious issues with this metaphor, because his puritanical conservative default was to roll in like a modern Cromwell and batter the gargoyles into dust. To his mind, he had a right to hate the odd, marginal ones — sexual minorities, cultural minorities, (for some “conservatives”) racial minorities, even the unfortunate people captured by the fashions of a time; and in the interest of order, he’d have a right to manage the brokenness away with a sword if necessary . . . ignoring the fact that he who wields the sword is broken, too.

Pageau reminded him that what brought them together — a critique of this cultural left — had to differentiated. Pageau’s critique of modernity’s antipathy to hierarchy and the complementarity of forms means you don’t center the marginal and marginalize the center. One doesn’t worship the gargoyles; but one doesn’t destroy them either. Pageau’s critique of the pop-postructuralism that has destroyed the old left is that it wants to center the margins. Conservatives want to blast away the gargoyles; liberals want to place them on the altar, if not tear down the whole building. It’s liberal modernity’s flattening effect, which finds it analog in the reduction of the entire world into rootless, self-optimizing “individuals,” “resources” and “commodities.” That’s a pretty old-leftish observation. Old lefties were and are right about a hell of a lot.

I was a gargoyle, and I’ve hung out with quite a few different kinds of gargoyles. God loves the gargoyles, too. Shit, if God can love Elon Musk, he can love anything. I will never be a conservative. And though I’ve repeatedly said I understand the resentments against liberal perfidy and stupidity that have provoked people to “vote Republican” as a giant “fuck you” to the libs, this is not a sober and reasonable reaction. “Fuck you” is insufficient grounds for any decision . . . unless you’re like eight years old . . . and its generally not only insufficient, but malignantly counterproductive. The last reason I’ll never be a conservative is that what they appear to want to conserve, even many who claim to be Christian, is the worship of an idol called the nation — which most “conservatives” I know mean, whether they say so or not, is ethno-nationalism.

I left the left, and I invite others to leave the right, the left, and the center. There’s a wide road to walk down. You don’t have to stay on the artificial lines.



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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”