Letter to the Left: Boaventura de Sousa Santos

It’s interesting how in English, people talk about ‘the Left’ tout court, in ways that drive many people nuts: ‘The Left’ should do this, such and such is a failure of ‘the Left’, whereas in other languages it is quite common to talk about ‘the lefts’, thus recognising different strands and tendencies rather than habitually lumping them all together as a single object when analytically this can obscure more than it reveals.

Rather than bother trying to find some sort of formulation that sounds idiomatic (‘left forces’?, ‘left tendencies’?) or to use the standard ‘the Left’ (as suggested by the often scarily good Google Translate), I have stuck below with ‘the lefts’ in the translation of these two letters by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos. I will post the second letter in a separate post. As he himself notes, thinking about the world is not the same as thinking about the world with western conceptions. The same principle ought to apply to those who view the world as a series of anglospherical objects.

These are mostly translations of translations, and thus their bootleg tape quality should be borne in mind, but that does not render the content any less compelling. The Portuguese version is here and the Spanish translation used is here.

Letter to the lefts


I do not doubt the existence of a future for the lefts, but their future will not be a linear continuation of its past. To define what the lefts have in common is the same as replying to the question: what is the left? The left is a collection of political positions that share the ideal that all human beings have the same value and constitute the supreme value. This ideal is placed in doubt whenever there are social relations of unequal power, that is, of domination. In this case, some individuals or groups satisfy some of their needs by transforming other individuals or groups into means for their ends. Capitalism is not the only source of domination, although it is an important source.

The different ways of understanding this ideal have provoked various divisions. The main ones have arisen from opposing answers to the following questions? Can capitalism be reformed so as to improve the fate of the dominated or is this only possible beyond capitalism? Should social struggle be driven by a class (the working class) or by different classes or social groups? Should this be carried out inside democratic institutions or outside them? Is the State, in itself, a relation of domination, or can it be mobilised to combat relations of domination?

The opposing answers to these questions were at the origin of violent devisions. In the name of the left atrocities were committed against the left; but, as a whole, the lefts dominated the 20th century (despite Nazism, fascism, and colonialism) and the world became freer and more equal thanks to them. This short century of all the lefts ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last thirty years have been characterised, on the one hand, by a management of ruins and inertia, and on the other, by the emergence of new struggles against domination, with other actors and languages that the lefts could not understand.

Meanwhile, free from the lefts, capitalism showed once again its antisocial vocation. It is once again urgent to rebuild the lefts to avoid barbarism. How to begin again? With the acceptance of the following ideas: The world has diversified and diversity has been installed within each country. Understanding the world goes far wider than the western understanding of the world; there is no internationalism without interculturalism.

  1. Capitalism conceives of democracy as an instrument of accumulation; if necessary, it consigns it to irrelevance and, if it were able to find a more efficient instrument, it would get rid of it (the case of China)/ The defence of democracy at high intensity is the great banner of the lefts.
  2. Capitalism is amoral and does not understand the concept of human dignity; its defence is a struggle against capitalism and never with capitalism (in capitalism, even charitable donations only exist as public relations.
  3. The experience of the world shows that there are many realities that are not capitalist, guided by reciprocity and co-operativism, which are waiting to be recognised as the future within the present.
  4. The past century revealed that the relation of humans with nature is not a relation of domination against which one must struggle; economic growth is not infinite.
  5. Private property is only a social good if it is one among various forms of property and all are protected; there are common goods of humanity (such as water and air)/
  6. The short century of the lefts was sufficient to create an egalitarian spirit among human beings that can be identified in all surveys; this is the heritage of the lefts that they themselves are squandering.
  7. Capitalism needs other forms of domination to flourish (from racism to sexism to war) and all must be combated.
  8. The State is a strange animal, half angel half monster, but without it many other monsters would stalk the land, insatiable in the search for defenceless angels. Better State, always; less State, never. 

With these ideas there would still be numerous lefts, though it is unlikely that they would kill each other and it is possible for them to unite to stop the approaching barbarism.

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