Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

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Goldwater Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” February 2007, MRR #285

It’s one of the most famous television commercials in history. Called the “Daisy Girl” ad, it opens with a little girl in a sun-drenched field, picking the petals off a daisy. As she counts the petals, the voice over segues into a launch countdown. The girl fades into a nuclear explosion, and the ad ends with a pitch to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The Daisy Girl ad was instrumental in defeating Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential elections. Johnson portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous extremist, and used Goldwater’s support for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam to put the fear of global nuclear holocaust into the American electorate. Johnson won a landslide victory, and Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party was thoroughly crushed.

Goldwater’s was the conservative wing of the GOP. Conservative on all counts. His was the original small government, free market, anti-communist, isolationist conservatism we associate today with paleoconservatives like Patrick Buchanan. Goldwater sought to roll back both the New Deal and federal involvement in the civil rights movement which ended legal segregation, guaranteed blacks the right to vote, and attempted to halt racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Goldwater’s free market economics was trumped by a patriotic nationalism that sought to protect American industry from unfair foreign competition, much as his isolationist, anti-interventionist foreign policy was trumped by a virulent anticommunism that sought to forcibly role back the Soviet bloc, with nuclear weapons if necessary.

In the 1964 primaries, Goldwater’s Republican faction trounced the GOP’s other major faction, the liberal wing led by Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s Republicans basically accepted the New Deal, government economic intervention, the welfare state, and federal support for civil rights, though perhaps not as fervently as the New Deal liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by Johnson. The Democratic Party also had a second main wing, a conservative faction, a gaggle of pro-segregation, populist, states rights southern Democrats led by George Wallace. All four groups were anti-communist, of course, with the Republican Party more zealously so.

[The claim that the United States is a democracy with two distinct political parties can be challenged on the basis of this political line-up alone. Despite American politics having moved decidedly to the right since 1964, one would be hard pressed today to separate out two ideologically distinct political parties based on the likes of Junior Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Zell Miller, each politician representative of a major political tendency in their respective political parties.]

The GOP’s liberal wing gained ascendancy after Goldwater’s defeat, contributing to Richard Nixon’s presidential victory in 1968. And, given the rightward shift in US politics over the last three decades, it’s accurate to describe Nixon as America’s last liberal president. He continued to push through civil rights legislation, ignobly ended the Vietnam War, recognized Red China, and implemented wage-and-price controls to combat economic stagflation, all of which were anathema to the Republican Party’s conservative faction. Decimated by Goldwater’s rout, GOP conservatives made a crucial strategic decision to return to their base-churches, communities, civic organizations-and rebuild their power, with the goal of eventually retaking the leadership of their party.

School boards were often the first steppingstone for these conservatives in retaking the Republican Party, followed by municipal and state governments. Formulating an ideological and programmatic consistency-admirably accomplished by the New Right and evangelical Christianity-was also critical, as was establishing effective party discipline. Moderate and liberal Republicans were labeled RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), attacked by conservative Republicans as vehemently as Democrats, subjected to political dirty tricks during Republican primaries, denied funding and support from party institutions, and shorn of power and influence once in office. In addition, Southern Democrats, long disenchanted with their party for its championing of desegregation, civil rights, and affirmative action, and denied a third-party alternative with the defeat of George Wallace’s American Independent Party, deserted the Democratic Party in droves to become conservative Republicans. The conservative wing of the GOP first tasted national victory with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, thanks in part to support from working-class “Reagan Democrats.” Conservatism’s triumphant comeback was sealed with the capture of Congress in 1994 under Newt Gingrich and the “Contract for America.” The Republican Party’s conservative wing has maintained its dominance in national politics every since.

[An interesting sidebar to this discussion comes from realizing that the very recent rise to national prominence of Republican neoconservatives is actually not a part of this conservative Republican “revolution.” Neocons are often nowhere near as socially, politically, or economically conservative as their properly conservative brethren, and they’ve junked traditional conservative isolationism for an aggressive democratic imperialism that has the Republican Party aping the Democrats in initiating major military campaigns around the globe. Riding the coattails of the conservative GOP’s rise to power, the neocons should be considered usurpers, not inheritors, as folks like Patrick Buchanan make clear.]

This brief analysis of how Goldwater’s conservative faction of the Republican Party went from abject defeat to sweeping victory is why I don’t hold much hope in things significantly changing, now that the Democratic Party has narrowly seized control of Congress. The Democrats, especially moderate and liberal Democrats, did not learn the vital lesson from their defeats in 1980 and 1994 that long-term success requires they return to their social base to rebuild their political power. As a consequence, the Democratic Party lacks effective organization, forceful party discipline, a unifying program, and an inspirational vision to challenge Republican hegemony. Democrats won by default in 2006. Put another way, the Democratic Party did not win, the Republican Party lost. The Iraq debacle, a string of ethical and moral scandals, a lackluster economy, and hemorrhaging federal spending eroded the Republican conservative base to a degree. More important, these issues drove independent voters en masse into the arms of the Democratic Party. Without anything substantive to hold them there however, it’s not a matter of if, but when, the Democrats once more find themselves out of power.

Regular readers of my column know that this isn’t my main beef with those who are ecstatic over the Democrats gaining majorities in the House and Senate. Even if the Democrats somehow, despite the odds, retain control of Congress for the next six years, and even if the Democrats miraculously manage to win the presidency in 2008, nothing much will change, because there isn’t a rat’s ass worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. All the differences between the four factions of the two parties I outlined above would fit nicely into a single European political party, with room to spare, in a system of parliamentary democracy that frequently includes significant participation by fascists, communists, monarchists, and greens. Democrats got us involved in the first and second World Wars, not to mention Korea and Vietnam. And much as it took a Republican president-Nixon-to normalize relations with Communist China, it took a Democratic president-Clinton-to gut LBJ’s Great Society welfare state. I predict that when Medicare and Social Security go under the axe, it’s a Democratic president who will be doing the chopping.

That Barry Goldwater wouldn’t exactly be welcome in today’s conservative GOP is an enlightening footnote here. Goldwater hated the influence of religious extremism in politics, supported racial desegregation, considered abortion a matter of personal choice, favored the legalization of marijuana, and didn’t have a problem with homosexuality. Karl Hess, in his autobiography Mostly On The Edge, understood that Barry Goldwater was as much the father of modern day American right-wing libertarianism as he was of GOP conservatism. In the end a self-reliant communitarian anarchist, Hess started as Goldwater’s speechwriter, credited for penning the famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

A sentiment that’s anathema to today’s GOP.

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