The Final Crisis of the Left

by Fergus Downie (September 2012)


Today’s ideology of the Left is a boutique of fragments …. the ‘debris of dead Marxist galaxies’
                                                                               
--Robert Wistrich


If one had to identify those cultural trends which have done most to define the political terrain of the 21st century, the descent of the Left into barbarism must rank high on any conceivable list, and the alliances forged in the heat of the anti-war movement provide ample evidence of this intellectual and moral decay. If the left historically stood for anything it was the for the principles secularism, and the universal values of the enlightenment against the religious authoritarianism and blood and soil mysticism of the Reactionary Right. Nothing should have been less likely than the Red-Black alliance which, behind the scenes, has been the prime mover behind the mass protests and the political fronts spawned in their aftermath. Few individuals on the million plus marches organised by the Stop the War coalition, would have been aware the latter was a front movement dominated by the Socialist Workers Party and Islamist party the Muslim Association of Great Britain, or, with less excuse, that these parties are also the dominant force in the Respect Party. A certain ideological throat clearing was needed to justify this, and as is the nature with such things, necessity was to prove the mother of invention. Islamic fundamentalism might fall short of true class consciousness, but as with anti-Semitism for a previous generation of Marxist intellectuals, it might at least count as the socialism of fools1 and the payoffs for the Left were obvious. Like most Trotskyite fringe groups, when deprived of a gullible moderate host to attach themselves to, the SWP would have been condemned to dissipate their energies in the obscure theological hatreds that Marxist are wont to take so seriously when they have only each other for company. There is always a student audience for this kind of thing, its political irrelevance being part of the attraction, but to those interested in at the very least, municipal power, a Faustian pact with Islamists promised a critical mass which could never be delivered by sterile Marxist-Leninist dogma. There were tradeoffs to be sure and Lindsey German the SWP leader was quick to hint at the price of piety:

I’m in favour of defending gay rights, she graciously intoned, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth [created by] people who won’t defend George Galloway and regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence.

Clearly, If Paris was worth a Mass, Tower Hamlets was worth sacrificing a few queers, and this would not be the last shibboleth to be shed by this degraded Popular Front. As the pointed question mark over Israel’s right to exist illustrates, there is an unhealthy obsession with Israel and Zionism as the root of all evil in the world, which mirrors the fetid conspiratorial obsessions of the Islamists and manifests itself in anti-Semitic tropes which are now interchangeable between the two movements. Given the Trotskyite tactics employed by this sordid coupling, where broad based umbrella groups are and fronts are set up to magnify the  influence of a small vanguard this debased anti-Semitism has acquired a much wider respectability than anyone previously thought imaginable. The anti-globalisation movement in particular with all its nebulous resentments, has proved particularly receptive to conspiracy theories lifted straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and propagated energetically through bodies like the European Social Forum by the dominant cabal of Trotskyites. Not since the Nazi-Soviet Pact has the Left sunk so low.

The assumption, needless to say, was that the massed ranks of the pious were useful idiots to be dispensed with when the vanguard seized power. Lenin had after all exploited the religious sentiments of Muslims to wage a jihad against the Whites in the darkest hour of the Civil War, and their reward was the Religion of Man, but there was also a less reassuring precedent closer to hand. In Iran, Communists had co-operated with fundamentalists in overthrowing the Shah in 1979, but having ridden the tiger soon found themselves devoured; the Tudeh Party being the victim of salami tactics they might have expected to use themselves, before being picked off in a particularly bloody coup d’état. This wholesale purge of the secular Left in Iran had strangely little effect on either the consciousness or conscience of the Left, an anomaly which is perhaps best explained by the narcissism of small differences – people rarely hate the alien other quite as much as they do milder opponents closer to hand, and clearly in this case, the humbling of America was worth a few indecent silences. Even so this admittedly sordid improvising was not an endorsement of the Counter-Enlightenment in itself. Good Marxists still held their noses and bided their time. For the gurus of the postmodern left, whose dense allegories and faux profound mysticism was soon to crowd out this vulgar Marxist tradition, there was, by contrast, a real attraction to this resurgence of religious obscurantism. In the case of Michel Foucault, Shiite fundamentalism was not a primitive form of false consciousness, but rather a revived political spiritualism which promised to regenerate the decadent civilisation of the west, and he followed up this this endorsement with some toadying pilgrimages to the new Utopia, as creepy as anything performed by any literary Stalinist in the thirties. A practising homosexual who indulged his risky pursuits in the seedier salons of San Francisco, Foucault would not have lasted long under the Mullahs, but this did not move him to condemn the mass execution of homosexuals, nor of his secular academic colleagues. Revolutionary Iran he opined in a typically vacuous piece of prose had a ‘different regime of truth’.

Foucault was a revolting man personally and politically, and his morbid ‘classics’ with their relentless trawling of dark basements and misanthropic temper, bring to mind Bertrand Russell’s observation that most of what is supposed to be idealism is in fact disguised hatred. Nothing would be easier than to dismiss his public influence or that of the wider intelligentsia whose rarefied reflections look as remote from our daily lives, as the Arian heresies of the 4th century. Intellectuals, as Keynes noted, however, have a greater second hand influence on our thoughts than is commonly allowed.

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

The truth of Keynes’s remark is perhaps most evident in the moral relativism which is condensed into bite sized pieces for public consumption by mainstream organs of the herbivore Left. Few journalists are capable of getting blood on their hands and making a commitment to the barbaric causes taken up by cranks like Noam Chomsky, but through the careful finessing of the unacceptable in fashionable broadsheets they can experience the vicarious thrills of a nihilism which rots societies from the head down, without the fear that they will have to deal with the consequences. Further down the food chain these thrills soften into the poise of agonised objectivity struck by liberal journalists seeking out nuances where only hard choices lie, until it ends in the kind of smug non-judgementalism which now seems to be the de fault moral setting for BBC Question Time audiences. A telling example of this sullen moral inertia revealed itself in an audience’s response to a question from mugged left winger Martin Amis as to whether they did not feel morally superior to the Taliban. Only a third felt able raise their arms, and affirm their superiority to a regime which had dismantled the country’s health and education infrastructure as comprehensively as the Khmer Rouge by banning women from work, and confining them to the most primitive patriarchal slavery

This is a brutally successful long march by any standard and the first steps were trod in the universities. Anyone with even the faintest familiarity with the higher education system could not fail to note the entrenched infantile leftism of academia and its withdrawal from any serious attempt to engage as a public educator.

In part this is a simple reflection of worldly concerns – Mencken noted long ago that Professors are obscurantists or they are nothing, their central aim after all is not to expose the truth clearly, so much as exhibit profundity. Speaking an intelligible language here is a concession to vulgarity that most academics now manage to avoid, and they can always in any case persuade themselves that clear language is the tool of reaction. As noted cultural critic Henry Giroux helpfully informs us:

The fashionable use of clarity to delegitimize any struggle over meaning and language distinguishes among forms of writing based on a facile opposition between what is deemed complex and what is deemed clear - denying altogether the political motivation that drives it. This binarism presupposes that the simple invocation to clear language can by itself confer sense, if not a certain type of spontaneous and immediately recognized truth and legitimacy.

The class interest in all this is pretty self-evident; postmodernism with its tortured self-referential language and infinite regresses into the void is the opium of academic special pleading. In the past such individuals remained secluded in caves or dwelt in clay pots wishing only the warmth of the sun, in societies caught in the grip of a credentialist obsession, where adults can drop out of the productive economy until they are thirty, this subspecies of infantile leftism has a greater reach. Examples of this systemic adultescence transmuted into political ideology abound and is aided by a postmodern sensibility which is itself nothing more than a rationalisation of this abdication of political responsibility; one extended and gloomy exploration of ubiquitous oppression which ultimately destroys any sense of perspective. As all societies reproduce systems of power and domination, all were equally condemned whether liberal democracies with all their intrinsic follies or primitive theocratic totalitarianisms. This is harmless enough in teenage Goths but the death of serious politics.2 If radical political change was no longer attainable, room was freed up for the more demanding task of symbolic transgression. This needless to say is a very convenient ideology for bourgeoisie bohemians – no need to expend powers on the flat ephemeral pamphlet or boring meeting when one can revel in poses of jaded irony and sacrifice nothing of your wealth (It is often observed that the Left won the cultural arguments and the Right the economic one – the Bobo, with that new ruling class's characteristically incongruous blend of hard economic calculation and smug social conscience is the result). 

Much of the ‘theory’ this mindset produces is beyond parody, such as the French anthropologist, lamenting the fact that the banishment of smallpox from India, had eradicated the cult of Sittala Devi, the Goddess superstitious peasants used to pray to, to avoid the disease, and constituted yet ‘another example of the western neglect of difference’. Challenged that it is better to be healthy and without illusions, and to live rather than die, the anthropologist was unwavering – this kind of thinking, she opined, was a typically western way of thinking, ‘which conceives things in terms of binary oppositions’. Examples like this could be multiplied ad nauseum but a perhaps more revealing example is a paper by Melanie Butler in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Had the journalist Nick Cohen not stumbled on it the snappily titled ‘(re)Production of Women in Afghanistan’, with its attack on a Canadian aid agency promoting the cultural imperialism of girls education and protection from rape, would doubtless have languished in the obscurity enjoyed by countless other papers on postcolonial feminist theory, and in ordinary circumstances singling out a Masters Dissertation for such withering and public criticism, might be considered a little harsh were it not for the light it shines on the frivolity of campus freethinking, with all its semi-literate nihilism parading as intellectual and moral sophistication

However many allowances you make for Butler, it is impossible to get away from the fact that she was able to look at the plight of women under the Taliban, with all the codified misogyny alluded to by Amis, and think it a priority to attack the ‘orientalising’ discourse of Canadian feminists and moreover that such dirge was nevertheless able to make it onto the pages of a respected academic journal. That an effective rebuttal had to wait upon the intervention of a 13 year old girl,3 whose moral sense had not been neutered by this advanced thinking is an eloquent testimony to the Left’s intellectual descent as you will find.

The end product of all this funk is well known; the ultimate low cost no obligation morality of multiculturalism; high pitched tones of piety concealing a sordid genealogy. The formulae is a transparent one - in the absence of any moral conception which might ground rational commitment, celebrate diversity and make a virtue of this ethical promiscuity. This is a consumer’s morality, tailor made for the deracinated and privatised existence of urban gentrifiers shopping for ethnic vibrancy and it is no coincidence that any attempts to articulate the philosophy rapidly degenerate into culinary metaphors which belie its fundamental lack of seriousness. This is not to say shallow convictions cannot be intensely held, as with all fundamentalisms the tone is so shrill because the faith is so weak, and it also has the merit of exclusivity; the etiquette of diversity is a class marker par excellence. 

Orthodox Marxism with its redeeming lack of sentimentality, and its faith in the superiority of western civilisation as an image of the future held up to primitive societies, has little to say on such matters – and the beginning of the end was in sight when higher minds began to denounce vulgar Marxism. Vulgar Marxism is of course Marxism, and the script grew stale a long time ago. No Marxist sophisticate can take dialectical materialism seriously anymore and the desperate attempts to create an existentialist or a Freudian Marxism simply highlight the fact that the Left’s spiritual nourishment comes from other sources. High brow Marxists take their cue from Nietzsche, whose influence on modern culture is almost impossible to overstate. It was Nietzsche who in effect set the defining challenge of modernity, namely how to impose meaning in a world where the death of God has driven out any objective standards of truth and morality, and its disenchanted vision, has always exerted a strong hold on the avant garde. For Nietzsche this sweeping clean of the ethical horizon was an unparalleled disaster; God may not have existed but belief in him was a projection of what was best in man and the precondition of great human endeavor. Restoring a basis for the decisive exercise of the will was critical, and as Nietzsche was driven ineluctably to reflect on the creation of God – the value on which all others are parasitic, so were the prophets of the Atheist Left driven to seek out new deities.

In Maxim Gorky and Anton Lunasharsky this was manifest in the philosophy of ‘God building’, an attempt to give Nietzschean myth creation a Marxist pedigree, by worshipping humanity as a transcendent entity, and briefly indulged by the Bolsheviks.4 Lenin quickly snuffed out this putative religion of socialism and his Critique of Empirio-Criticism has become the classic template for the vulgar Marxist materialism which took root in the Soviet Bloc. Elsewhere, these Nietzschean tendencies which had more in common with the Bakuninite tradition of anarchist nihilism took a firmer grip, and are apparent in the reworking of key Marxist concepts.

Consider ideology, a key term in the Marxist schema, and in its original usage, a pejorative term denoting a false system of ideas which serves the interests of the ruling class. Ideology in this sense, being the distorted epiphenomena of more fundamental causes is to be sharply distinguished from scientific theories like Marxism which apprehended the truth through an understanding of the laws of historical necessity. Marx famously could only rescue his theory from the charge that it itself was an ideological rationalization by enlisting some dubious Hegelian tropes, but by 1905 even Lenin was talking of Marxism as an ideology. Moreover, ideology was no longer conceived as something causally determined but as the projection of a will, a worldview imposing itself on a disenchanted world – a vision which owed more to Weber (Nietzsche’s most important disciple in the social sciences), than Marx.

Another related and critical indicator of Nietzschean influence was the growing preoccupation with the act of revolution. For an older generation of Marxist thinkers, the violent theatre of revolution was a dispensable side effect of the cause, and revolution in any case did not necessarily imply a seizure of power in the Blanquist sense – so much as a radical social transformation which could be attained by peaceful means. Even Marx himself acknowledged at times that in countries like Britain this could be achieved through democratic politics, and as the fledgling welfare states delivered tangible benefits to workers a spirit of peaceful gradualism came to permeate the workers movement.

For Marx most of the time, and other bourgeoisie theoreticians by contrast, a certain joy of the knife was inseparable from their attraction to the cause – and the increasing immiseration of the proletariat was as much a wish as a premise of cod-economic science. Rosa Luxembourg’s dialectic of spontaneity and organization, with its almost mystical invocation of consciousness raising struggle amongst the masses and her vitriolic attacks on blue collar trade union hacks and party managers is atypical of this tendency to sacralise struggle, and her enduring popularity rests as much on her violent martyrdom as her (comprehensively refuted) theories on monopoly capital and imperialism. Lurking behind all this is a Nietzschean insight, that creativity presupposes chaos and hence the conditions of overcoming and therefore chaos must be willed. It is remarkable, in this context, how many earnest left wing intellectuals were troubled by the brooding thought that the socialist utopia, once it was the object of contemplation rather than a project to be realized, would have an unmistakable whiff of ennui and sterility to it (one thinks particularly of George Bernard Shaw). This is the dilemma of the Last Man, which Marx himself also recognised by default with his understanding that the greatness of man lay in his perpetual striving to overcome contradictions.

For all this, Luxumbourg remained unquestionably on the radical Left, but Georges Sorel’s oscillating political commitments showed what could happen when a doctrine is exchanged for a myth.

Beginning his career as a marginal Marxist thinker Sorel’s criticism of the reifying tendencies in orthodox Marxism, and its tendency to paralyse vital impulses led him to view Marxism not as a scientific theory making any objective truth claims, but as an energizing myth whose ‘truth’ was simply a function of its ability to galvanise men to achieve great deeds, all of which, needless to say, begged the question – what deeds, which causes?. In the case of Sorel’s political journey this was a live question: his defection from the Socialists to Charles Marraus proto fascist Action Francais being followed by a stampede of French syndicalists and Maurassists into the Circle Proudhon, the prototype of a Left fascism which was to become so common in the 1930s. So much of our contemporary understanding of fascism is a product of laboured Marxist analysis that we still find it difficult instinctively to recognise these elements of kindredness between the extreme left and right but they were obvious to contemporary observers who could see how easily someone like Ernst Junger could migrate between the Nazis and Communists.5 Contrary to heroic Marxist mythology the Conservative Revolutionaries whose ideas provided the fascist-Nazi movement with much of its ideological cement were more hostile to bourgeois civilisation than to communism, and both were fascinated by the idea of what Sternhell called a ‘violent relief from mediocrity’. What is most striking moreover is the extent to which the trendy postmodernism ushered in by the sixties counter-culture has its philosophical roots in this proto-fascist thinking. The influence of Martin Heidegger on the French leading lights of Postmodernity is too obvious to require much elaboration, but the influence of French surrealist George Battaile, whose philosophy is marked by an obsession with virility, combat and the seeking out of violent death, has not received the attention it might have merited, especially in view of his influence on Foucault and Derrida.6 In the sixties there was just enough distance from the war for this aestheticisation of violence to become de rigeour again, and the ‘necessary murder’ made a lugubrious comeback. Few books were more influential amongst the radical intelligentsia than Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, which shorn of its political content, amounted to an endorsement of violence as therapy, and this in a decade when a very bleak German nihilism was being mainstreamed into everyday speech. As Alan Bloom noted in his classic The Closing of the American Mind, our unreflective language is saturated with terms – one thinks instantly of charisma, and lifestyle - which have their origins in a dark German basement of the soul even as they are given bizarrely (and typically American) optimistic gloss.

A further whiff these degraded impulses was apparent  in the voyeuristic identification with terrorists which Bloom noted amongst his students in the sixties and which is on tawdry and prim display even or perhaps especially amongst the sated bourgeoisie. Asked what depressed him most on his return to Britain – Martin Amis had no hesitation – the sight of white middle class men marching in the streets with placards proclaiming 'we are all Hezbollah now'. Further examples of this fetishisation of violence are not hard to find, and pose uncomfortable questions about the purity of the revolutionary heart. As Paul Berman has noted, in relation to the phenomenon of suicide bombing chic among Pro-Palestinian activists, periods of intense left-wing mobilisation are invariably bolstered by the violence of the cause, as if willingness to spill blood is a surrogate for idealistic commitment – how else is one to account for the morbid attraction to the death cult of bolshevism and its bastard offshoots except on the reasoning that Helots need to be culled in order to produce Great Men. At its worst this aesthetic might even venerate a murderer without a cause. Norman Mailer, with his murder chic, was at least one of the few sixties gurus to plumb the depths with a sense of intellectual consistency, and you only had to read his works to see where the sixties counter-cultural Left led. The White Negro, with its drooling caricature of the most degraded aspects of black ghetto culture, and its justification of the murder of a shopkeeper (as always the petit bourgeoisie Kulak, singled out for revolutionary justice) as an authentic act of courage and a blow against private property, is the classic expression of this higher nihilism.



[1]  The expression is usually attributed to German social democrat August Bebel.

[2]  This change in outlook is reflected in language always a key battleground for the Left. In Murder in Amsterdam Ian Buruma dismissed Somali feminist Hirsi Ali as an Enlightenment fundamentalist, a charge by neologism subsequently repeated by Timothy Garton Ash in a sniffy article in the German press. The phrase as clearly intended to accomplish by linguistic fiat what rational debate could never do – namely, that the Enlightenment with its insistence on the sovereignty of reason and individual freedom was a species of quasi religious fanaticism comparable to Islamism. Conjoining the two terms involves a subtle variation of what Thomas Schelling called a persuasive definition – i.e. a definition which purports to describe the true nature of a term whilst in reality attempting to substitute a  radically altered meaning, a Gramscian strategy pursued with great vigour by  Marxist-Leninists and manifest in such oxymorons as democratic centralism People’s Democratic Republic. Language, as Orwell knew so well, shapes thought – and his dystopian novel 1984 where dissent is rendered literally unspeakable by the development of a language purged of its subversive words could have been penned with political correctness in mind. Hirsi Ali to her enduring credit recognized the stakes and forced Garton Ash to withdraw the oxymoron at a televised debate

[3]  Alaina Podmorow, an incensed pre-adolescent responded to Butler ‘No one will ever tell me that Muslim or any women think it’s ok to not be allowed to get educated or to have their daughters sold off at 8 years old or traded off at 4 years old because of cultural beliefs. No one will tell me that women in Afghanistan think it is ok for their daughters to have acid thrown in their faces. It makes me ill to think a 4 year old girl must sleep in a barn and get raped daily by old men.’

[4]  The project had its origins in the insight possessed by even the dimmest of communist party functionaries that state enforced atheism could simply not provide the meaning and direction in daily life which the Christian faith had provided. Lunasharsky’s Marxist remedy was the sacralisation of materialism  'You must love and deify matter above everything else, [love and deify] the corporal nature or the life of your body as the primary cause of things, as existence without a beginning or end, which has been and forever will be’ This would have failed for exactly the same reason that orthodox Marxism-Leninism failed  to provide an enduring surrogate faith – Religions require a contrast between the sacred and the profane to give them their peculiar spiritual intensity.

In the sixties Lunasharsky’s ideas were briefly in vogue again and were reflected in the creation of new official ceremonies intended to relate citizens to the ‘social, political, and ideological unity of society under socialism’ How successful the ‘Holiday of the Hammer and Sickle’ in Ukraine was in capturing the sublime mysteries and beauty of religion can be surmised from this slightly underwhelming write-up:

'On an early December morning tractor drivers [from the surrounding region] converge in Zhitomir. At the entry to the city they are met by the representatives of the city factories who report to them on the progress of the socialist competition and invite the drivers to their factories, where the peasants and the workers engage in heart-searching and business like discussions. Then a parade of agrarian technology takes place at the Lenin Square. Solemnly, accompanied by an orchestra, the best workers and peasants receive their prizes and diplomas. Then all of them make public production-quota pledges for the forthcoming year at the city theatre’. Reprinted (lovingly) from Dimitry V. Pospielovsky. A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory, and Practice, and the Believer, vol 1: A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Anti-Religious Policies, St Martin's Press, New York (1987) pg 96

[5]  These cross-migrations are still occurring. A noteworthy case is that of the former Red Army Faction lawyer Horst Mahler who has transferred his loyalties to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party.

[6]   The cachet of socialism amongst intellectuals rested to a great extent on its imaginative hold on the future but fascism/and Nazism had impeccable modernist credentials – hence the widespread support amongst surrealists and futurists. Arthur Koestler’s wartime novel Arrival and Departure contains a prototypical Nazi diplomat anchored in the modern technological world.


The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.


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