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?]


The Problem of Agency: “What’s Left?” February 2015, MRR #381

I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding,
The effort it takes just to keep on dreaming

Of better days, and better ways

Of living.

Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
“Fairytale,” The Wilderness: The Nomad Series

“A new world is possible” was the slogan that emerged from the era of anti-globalization protests, which in turn evolved into an endless series of social forums that continue to this day. Airy and tentative compared to the insurrectionist communizing nihilism that followed, this sentiment is the lite version of a prefiguring politics that goes back at least as far as the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World constitution which called for “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Indeed, it can be argued that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” So wrote the young, still Marxist Leszek Kolakowski in his essay “The Concept of the Left.” Thus, I intend to define who and what is trying to make a new world possible, and how successful such efforts have been to date.

I’ve always considered myself on the side of those who would create a new and better world. And I have more than a passing interest in the claimed existence of The Historical Agent (THA—also called the revolutionary agent/subject, or the social agent/subject), the radical social grouping with the human agency to affect revolutionary social change not just in the past but in our lifetime. Walter Benjamin proposed a similar messianic understanding of history, a sense of messianic time or a weak messianic power he associated with Marxist historical materialism and couched in cryptic, poetic terms in “The Concept of History” which ends with the statement that “[f]or every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.” Unfortunately the four broad terms usually synonymous or often conflated with THA—The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement—each tries yet fails to be sufficiently all inclusive.*

The modern workers movement which congealed out of Medieval artisan and peasant strata can be said to have its origins in the practice of English Chartism at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Marx’s theoretical efforts to define such workers as a social class based on their relationship to the means of production. The economic labor unions and political workers parties of this emerging working class, not to mention the labor syndicates and workers councils that combined economic and political power, spread widely well into the 20th century, extending working class culture and consciousness internationally. Efforts to make The Workers Movement either less Marxist (by describing workers as simply “everyone who works for a living”) or more Marxist (through Leninist notions of the “industrial proletariat” or Maoist concepts of “proletarian consciousness”) must now give way to discussions of post industrial workers, marginal or precarious workers, or the abolition of the working class altogether.

Socialism refers to political theory and practice, as well as organizations, movements and regimes based upon social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of economy and society. Socialism as such goes back to the 18th, if not the 17th centuries, centered primarily in Europe. With roots in millenarian and utopian traditions, socialism diversified through the 19th and 20th centuries, though it can be generally categorized as either working class or non-working class based. In a 21st century rife with capitalist triumphalism, socialism has become a curse.

Born from an accident of seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly after the 1789 French Revolution, The Left means the politics and activity that arose from 1848 onward. Centered in Europe, it comprised Marxism (and eventually Leninism), anarchism, syndicalism, unaffiliated socialisms, even types of political democracy and liberalism. The Left’s configuration dramatically changed after 1945. First, there was massive proliferation as Leninism of Stalinism, Maoism and Third Worldism. Second, there was the consolidation and attenuation of Marxist social democracy. Third, there was the virtual extinction of anarchism/ultraleftism before its youthful resurgence. Fourth, there was the purposeful non-alignment of other forms of socialism. And fifth, there was the rise and fall of democratic liberalism. With the exception of anarchism/ultraleftism, these political forms experienced a contraction and retrenchment on or before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Finally, The Movement covers Leftist politics and practice, as well as organizations and movements within the United States from the mid-1960s on. This was when the Marxist-Leninist old Left was superseded by a New Left rapidly differentiating into New Communist Movement and other kinds of Third World politics, an evanescent anarchism/ultraleftism also quickly diversifying, proliferating forms of non-affiliated socialism and liberalism, and a plethora of social movements such as Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black (brown/red/yellow) Liberation, etc. In turn, the “crisis of socialism” that has riven The Movement since 1991 has produced a near universal turn toward identity politics and postmodern Leftism.

It’s not enough to consider whether THA is an adequate analytical category, a viable classification comprised of the intersection between The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” Walter Benjamin said, “he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.” Four overlapping Venn Diagram shapes cannot magically yield a clearly defined collective human entity with historical agency within the convergence of these four nebulous social movements. There is still no precise historical delineation of who or what is responsible for the meager successes and overwhelming failures that I identify with as a socialist, a Leftist, a member of the working class, or a part of The Movement.

Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, history was one of three painful steps forward and two excruciating steps back. The period of world wide social upheaval bracketed by the first and second World Wars produced a sudden revolutionary surge from 1945 through 1985. “Real existing Socialism” (Soviet and Chinese style Communism, the so-called Second World) dominated a fifth of the earth’s land surface and a third of the world’s human population. Social democracy and social movements contested ground in the First World. And socialist struggles for national liberation and socialist national non-alignment proliferated in the Third World.

There were indications that all was not well however, especially in the West. I have argued for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the 1968 Generation’s impact (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) in a previous column. In covering much the same ground (“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08), John Lichfield reposted the overly simplistic formulation that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” Timothy Brennan spends many an essay in his book Wars of Position contending that the poststructural, postmodern Left, especially in Western universities, had embarked by 1975 on a “war against left Hegelian thought” that successfully buried Marxism, its “dialectical thinking and the political energies—including the anti-colonial energies—that grew out of it” by the mid ‘80s.

These setbacks were minor however compared to the watershed collapse of “real existing Socialism” between 1989 and 1991. Kenan Malik summarized the consequences that followed this turning point in his 1998 essay “Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference”:
The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation.
The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the power of the organized working class dramatically declined, all fronts from anti-colonial to social justice struggles experienced profound retreat, labor and social democratic parties and regimes were neoliberalized. Any one of these historical events is immensely complicated and deserving of deep historical analysis. Yet, collectively, they have been naively hailed by Establishment pundits as the results of the world wide triumph of capitalism, an end to the bipolar world order under neoliberalism’s Pax Americana, even “the end of history.”

I don’t have the space to disabuse my readers of this jejune myth of capitalism’s unequivocal victory and socialism’s undeniable defeat. But I do have the time to shatter the delusion, promulgated principally by anarchists, that with the near universal decline and defeat of the “authoritarian Left” their time has come, and that the future is anti-authoritarian. Clearly, forms of anarchism, neo-anarchism, libertarian Marxism and even leaderless Leninism are some of the fastest growing political tendencies on the Left over the last two or so decades. Yet those who wish to understand how things change, historically and socially, need to heed the conclusions arrived at by Max Boot in his comprehensive historical overview of guerrilla warfare entitled Invisible Armies:
Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

It should be obvious with the end of the Cold War that matters are far more complicated than a superficial battle between, and facile triumph of, good over evil. Equally obvious is that the concept of THA remains a slippery one, resonant with messianic intent, and hence one not easily pinned down by its successes or failures. Finally, I hope I’ve made it obvious that anarchism’s history is one of unmitigated defeat, and that anarchism by itself lacks the historical agency to do jack shit.

*[A discussion of agency is a consideration of human subjectivity. In contrast, emphasizing the objective to the point of denying the subject has a long tradition in Marxism, beginning with vulgar Marxism which contended that inevitable economic crises caused by predetermined historical circumstances would bring about the certain downfall of capitalism, whether or not humans had anything to do with it. Louis Althusser formulated a Marxist Structuralism in which ideological and material structures define the human subject out of existence. Thus, history becomes “a process without a subject” according to Althusser. Finally, the current Marxist school broadly subsumed under the rubric Krisis, or the Critique of Value, argues that capitalism is a single interconnected system of capital and labor components bound together by the valorization of capital, which transforms into the valorization of value and which will inevitably collapse due to crisis. Labor has no historical agency, but is merely an abstract historical category. History might harbor many revolutionary subjects, but the working class as a class cannot be one. Workers cannot constitute a revolutionary social class.]


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