The new ‘regressive’ left welds the worst elements of Modernism to some of the worst elements of Postmodernism
This is the second article in a series about rebuilding the left and the problems it faces, particularly as a result of postmodernism and its ideological ripples. It isn’t necessary to read the first article in order to understand this one, I hope this article will prove useful in and of itself. You can read that first article here.
Many talk about the left eating itself, and the various weaknesses of the modern left that are crippling it. Any discussion of the left’s decline is incomplete without delving into the effects of postmodernism. I summarise here various factors contributing to this seemingly destructive trend, beginning with the end of the second world war. I do this not to postulate an immediately definitive answer, but rather a basic summary as I understand it in order to prompt further consideration.
The left wing of politics was originally born out of the ideals of the Enlightenment. A belief that through human reason, society could be understood, deconstructed, and then reorganised into a system which maximised liberty and equality. These ideals eventually evolved into Modernism. Modernism is a continuation of Enlightenment beliefs that human society is, and can be an ordered affair within which recurring patterns which can be identified. It is faith in the human power to comprehend such structures, and that understanding and knowledge is a fundamentally good thing. Modernism began to fade from popularity in the years after the Second World War.
In its place emerged Postmodernism. This philosophy is characterised by a denial of universality, an embrace of emotion over reason and scorn for any claims of objective knowledge. Along with Postmodernism came Cultural Relativism. This denies any inherent human nature, and therefore maintains that conditions which may seem abhorrent to some are perfectly acceptable and even necessary for others. Different cultures are considered to have their own truths which are equally valid, and science and reason are seen as eurocentric tools of imperialism.
The Decline of Marxism
In the first half of the 20th century, Critical Theory was developed with a noble purpose – to understand human society, so that it could be improved upon. There are many fantastic Critical Theorists who have contributed towards this goal, and continue to do so. However, some Critical Theorists began to examine the principles of rationality themselves. What they realised was that the application of logic can only be considered a valuable tool through logical principles themselves. Hence, logic itself is circular – we know reason and science work because we put the methodology into practice and can therefore test the ideas. But proof through testing, as they saw it, was only valid insofar as it is the logical and scientific method to determine the truth. Rather than concluding, therefore, that science and reason must be the foundation for all knowledge, this particular group of Critical Theorists concluded that rationality was only equally as valid as any other method of determining the truth.
In the years following the Second World War, people began to blame science and reason for the horrors which had been unleashed – genocide and nuclear destruction. On the left, the Soviet Union, which had stood as a beacon of hope to many, began to reveal its true nature. The show trials and persecutions of the 1930s, the mistakes made by the Communist International in their approach to fighting Fascism, their failures, betrayals of their allies in the Spanish Civil War, even some of the earliest actions of the original Bolsheviks came under new scrutiny. In particular the denunciation of Stalin and subsequent invasion of Hungary in the 1950s put an end to a lot of goodwill of Western leftists towards the Soviets. The struggles the left had been fighting in the West, resulting in universal suffrage, the welfare state and eventually the civil rights movement, challenged the Marxist assumptions of an inevitable revolution against capitalism.
Marxism was perhaps one of the most Modernist philosophies available and the backbone of the 20th century left, but at this stage it began a slow decline in popularity. One of the key elements of Marxism was its materialism. That meant it focused on the material world – in particular, economics. Although limited and often times entirely incorrect, Marxists had an explicit doctrine of how oppression worked and how it would be ended. The capitalists controlled the means of production and therefore made a profit from the labour of workers. If the workers rose up and took control of the means of production, they would enjoy the full benefits of their own labour. The stark black and white struggle between capitalists and workers became diluted with these new angles of black people against white people and women against men. These conflicts were not so easy to unravel, and since they often largely focused on immediate political goals such as the right to vote, failed to cement a materialist analysis of how and why oppression happened on as popular a level as Marxism had.
Meanwhile, countries across the world were fighting for their independence from Western powers. Even after nominal independence, the West continued to meddle in their economic affairs, fighting wars and organising coups to limit the spread of Communism. The remaining Marxists began to see anti-imperialism in the same terms as their old worker-capitalist dynamic. Inspired by Leninist doctrine, derived from Stalin, of national self-determination, and the decidedly nationalist element of Maoism, they began to see the West or white people as a whole, as inherently oppressive forces. While they were right to oppose imperialism, they began to believe that the anti-imperialist movement as a whole would provide a basis for a new class struggle that would overcome the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that drove war. In fact, traditional forms of nationalism were often the driving factors behind independence movements, even if they were combined with socialist policies.
This concept of ‘national self-determination’ is an entirely flawed one which is disturbing to see still celebrated today. Besides Stalin, the concept was popularised by Woodrow Wilson, an American president and staunch white supremacist. Propagandists would have you believe that national self-determination means liberation from imperialism, and that therefore to oppose it means to support imperialism. But ‘self-determination’ requires the existence of a ‘self’. The only selves which matter are the individuals who exist now or will in future. There is no national self for which to pursue determination. The interests of two people in any one country are not in any way necessarily aligned more than the interests of two people from different countries. What matters, therefore, is individual self-determination, not national self-determination. In a supremely absurd turn of events, postmodernist conceptions of communities and those of racial supremacists are strikingly similar.
Another of Lenin’s strategies played a role in turning Marxists against the West. The concept of revolutionary defeatism recommends that the task of the revolutionary party in every country is to see the defeat of the rulers of their own country. This is a pragmatic approach given that each national party desires to take power, and the fastest route to power is the fermenting of discontent within their own country. However, it is disastrous for international cooperation since no united strategy can be decided upon. In practice it is just as self-centred and nationalistic as the opposite principle adopted by much of the rest of the left during the First World War, that of supporting their own country in the hopes of lessening repression and proving themselves legitimate. The principle of revolutionary defeatism was largely forgotten by the time the Second World War came around, but it has been increasingly revived in order to justify modern left wing support for ‘anti imperialism’ in the form of brutal nationalist and religious fundamentalist dictatorships rather than the local left wing revolutionaries. In an absurd twist of irony, revolutionary defeatist opposition to Western imperialism has led Western leftists to berate the left in the rest of the world for their own ‘revolutionary defeatism’ – that is, in hoping and struggling for the downfall of their oppressive governments.
The final nail in the coffin for Marxist universalism, though, was 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’. In particular, opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to bring together Marxist groups and Islamic organisations. Marxists came to believe that the wider Muslim community could be won over to communism by building upon their mutual opposition to Western imperialism. This process would mean, of course, refraining from any criticism of the veiling of women, merging Communism with religion and rejecting reformist and liberal Muslims. Rather than Muslims being attracted away from Islamism towards secular leftism, however, leftist groups have compromised their own beliefs in order to appeal to Muslims, while Islamism increases in popularity.
Birth of the New Left
Amongst the mainstream left, which had largely abandoned Marxism, the causes of feminism and anti-racism began to be adopted by those looking for money and recognition. Wealthy and powerful individuals set up non-profit organisations which operated on newly emerging corporate strategies, allowing them to outcompete their rivals. Peddling the most banal, feel-good approaches to social justice, relying on postmodernism’s denial of rationality, it leaves their adherents feeling empty and alone, ready to latch on to the next campaign for another hit of self-esteem. In the same way that a pest exterminator goes out of business when they have exterminated all the pests, unscrupulous social justice organisations are incentivised to stir up as much conflict as possible rather than resolving it. Perhaps the worst element of this, though, must be the collaboration between political figures, intelligence agencies, government agencies, nonprofits and industries. Many of the 20th century’s most influential people and movements of the left have worked hand in hand with the CIA.
In the 70s, faced with economic troubles and changing political circumstances, Democratic Party strategists gave birth to neoliberalism when they consciously abandoned the New Deal coalition in favour of relying on progressive movements such as feminism and anti-racism. Getting to grips with social policy was absolutely necessary, but in doing so while abandoning their economic policies they alienated poor whites and therefore drove a wedge between the working classes. This gave ammunition to the Republican ‘Southern strategy’, which involved convincing poor whites that ethnic minority groups were living off the sweat of white workers via welfare programmes. This has evolved into the anti-immigration fervour and the paranoia we see amongst the political right today in the US.
As the left was adapting its strategies, so were governments. In the wake of the civil rights struggle in the US, organised opposition to racism began to develop in the UK. This activism threatened the social order and authorities were forced to respond. They came up with the policy which we know of as multiculturalism. By creating appointed representatives of various ‘communities’, they could claim to have given people representation. This strategy of separating people out into various identities successfully deflected the resentment born of inequality away from the establishment, and instead turned these ‘communities’ against each other. Although this may seem like the unfortunate result of good intentioned, bumbling bureaucrats, it appears strikingly similar to the strategies practised by the imperial powers earlier in the century. It’s an almost textbook example of a divide and rule, or ‘divide and conquer’ strategy.
Meanwhile the universities, which had always been a bastion of progressive thought, have become increasingly commercialised under establishment pressure to become self-sustaining. Much like non-profit organisations, competition between universities, as well as demands from governments to tone down student radicalism, have led to a widespread embrace of postmodern philosophy in academia. Rather than offering an education to students, universities are required supply a service to customers. They are incentivised to offer courses which feel transgressive and exciting but are ultimately insubstantial. This makes postmodernism and cultural relativism very attractive approaches in the social sciences. The harder sciences, while they have their own problems, still rely on evidence and reason and therefore suffer far less in this regard. Since each new generation of left-wing theory is at least partially incubated within universities, this has had a significant impact on the development of the left in general.
All the elements discussed above have, in the past few decades, produced an incredibly confused mix amongst the left. Supposed Marxists and anarchists profess their hatred for ‘liberals’ while wielding slogans taught to them by billionaires. Others refute Postmodernism while condemning any criticism of cultures or religions. Mainstream social democrats flounder without a strong economic strategy and consistently fail to tackle right wing narratives, instead reverting to smug superiority over their social positions. Now stripped entirely of rationality, the left has little means to properly rebuild their understanding, fully embracing the new corporate and government approved ideologies. Even worse, this shift in attitudes among the left has allowed the right to claim the language of the Enlightenment. Freedom, democracy, reason and rationality have become buzzwords in the service of inequality. The right wing now uses an appearance of formal logic to justify pre-existing assumptions and prejudices.
Right-wing economic thinkers developed their idea of an assumption of rationality in the 70s and 80s. Drawing from the now old fashioned Modernism, they argued that people were fundamentally rational beings who knew what was in their best interests and acted on it. Ironically this has turned out to be perfectly compatible with Postmodern relativism. The principle that each individual knows best what is good for them sounds benign on the surface. It seems to appeal to both Modernist and Postmodernist sensibilities. But human beings are not entirely rational. Furthermore, rational decision making is constrained by the information one has access to.
Leftists influenced by Postmodernism took this right-wing ideology further and began to argue that the only people who could understand what was necessary to fight oppression were the oppressed people themselves. This right wing concept of ‘rational’ behaviour, coopted and validated by postmodernists, bears little resemblance to a coherent or evidence based argument. Instead it is most similar to religious philosophy which exalts personal experience. Religious apologists argue that it is impossible for a nonbeliever to understand the perspective of a believer, because they can never share the experience of feeling close to God without becoming a believer themselves.
When a correct interpretation of the circumstances is said to follow not from reason but from experience, those without experience can do nothing and trust nobody, because for every experience there is another which contradicts it. Most postmodern activists, knowingly or otherwise, exploit this contradiction. They simply pick and choose which oppressed people to hold up as representatives of their entire social group, and dismiss any others as frauds or outliers. This elevation leads to grave repercussions when relatively privileged members of an oppressed group are given centre stage to express their beliefs and the less privileged are ignored.
All this being said, we cannot simply reject Postmodernism out of hand. By elevating human reason, Modernism serves to hide the role of emotions in decision making, and leads its adherents to a dangerous level of certainty. This certainty spawns authoritarian attitudes and a close minded unwillingness to consider alternative perspectives. The new ‘regressive’ left welds the worst elements of Modernism to some of the worst elements of Postmodernism. Therefore it is imperative that we develop our philosophical worldview by learning from the mistakes of the past. I will discuss recent developments towards that end in the next article in this series.