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Dogmatization and Thought Taboos on the “Left”


The meaning of self-censorship on the Left

The following remarks were delivered on a panel on “self-censorship” at the Sublation Media launch event held in New York City on June 26th.

The title for my opening remarks is “Dogmatization and thought-taboos on the ‘Left’,” which is a phrase taken from Theodor Adorno’s 1966 book Negative Dialectics on what Marxism succumbed to in the 20th century. I want to begin with a quotation from Georg Lukacs’s essay on “Class Consciousness” from his 1923 book History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs wrote that,

Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. But the proletariat is not given any choice. As Marx says, it must become a class not only “as against capital” but also “for itself;” that is to say, the class struggle must be raised from the level of economic necessity to the level of conscious aim and effective class consciousness. The pacifists and humanitarians of the class struggle whose efforts tend whether they will or no to retard this lengthy, painful and crisis-ridden process would be horrified if they could but see what sufferings they inflict on the proletariat by extending this course of education. But the proletariat cannot abdicate its mission. The only question at issue is how much it has to suffer before it achieves ideological maturity, before it acquires a true understanding of its class situation and a true class consciousness.

We have a lot more suffering yet to endure, it seems. The true understanding of the working class’s situation and of its true class consciousness has yet to be achieved. Marxists do not have it ready-made for them. But they act like they do. This is how and why Marxism has become a parody of itself, a farce of proletarian class consciousness. Marxism has come to serve entirely other ends than those of proletarian socialism: It has become a middle class — bourgeois — ideology of discontents within capitalism, actually of aspirations for more “progressive” capitalism, and not for overcoming it. The bitter lesson of history — attended to by the avowed Right — is that attempts to improve capitalism have made it “progressively” worse. At least worse in the sense of accumulated problems more difficult to overcome. And certainly worse in terms of a more confounding task politically difficult to engage and achieve. In comparison to past times, the working class seems hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of capitalism, confronted immediately by a host of every conceivable problem more directly than by capitalism itself. It is wishful thinking or ugly naiveté to think that as Marxists we can point to all these problems and simply call them “capitalism.” In this sense, the problem of capitalism has yet to actually present itself. It must be made to. And that will not happen before the working class is organized as a social and political force to confront it. The issue is what stands in the way of that. The Left today is itself an obstacle to working class struggle. If not the most major obstacle, still a very significant one.

The topic of this panel is “censorship on the Left,” but I am going to address that indirectly, by articulating myself the Marxism that is censored on the Left, and not just recently but for a long time already. What is censored is what is tabooed, and what is tabooed is proletarian socialism as Marxism understood it. When Marxism is expressed today it is in self-censored form, as dogmatic. The certitudes of Marxism cover up a crucial uncertainty, namely the content of the task of proletarian socialism.

One thing that frustrates students of Marxism is its lack of a blueprint for the liberated society beyond capitalism — what socialism or communism is meant to look like. But while Marxism accepted and promulgated the Hegelian notion of “determinate negation,” this did not mean a determination of the socialist society. Rather, capitalism was the determinate negation of bourgeois society in the contradiction of industrial production. The proletarianized working class was the determinate negation of bourgeois social relations as objectified in capitalism, the contradiction of living and dead labor. Etc. What Marxism was certain of was not the content of emancipation — freedom — that will have overcome capitalism, but rather the negative necessity with which the working class must overcome capitalism. Capitalism is the negation of bourgeois society that must itself be negated, and by a negatively determined subject, the proletariat. Marxism was not positive about anything but this. The proletariat was not to posit its own being in the place of bourgeois society, but to abolish itself in overcoming capitalism.

The present condition of the ostensible “Left” is due to its thought taboos about socialism. Everything flows from fear of and hostility to the working class. There is no trust in empowering the working class, which is seen as racist, sexist, homophobic etc. or otherwise ignorant and backward. Socialist revolution is regarded as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable by the “Left.” The Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, apart from any technical details, is something to which the present Left is fundamentally averse. One key reason for this is avoidance of objective criteria for societal transformation beyond capitalism in favor of more subjective concerns, indeed matters of cultural taste. The old Marxist adage that the goal and task is to change conditions not attitudes has been forgotten.

Leftist intellectuals today are unable to subordinate their activity to the requirements of building working class social and political power, but assume rather that the working class ought to submit to the ideology of the Left, a complete reversal of the historical Marxist approach. The Left regards the working class as its instrument for implementing its ideology rather than aspiring to become the working class’s political instrument in changing society. It seeks support from the working class for its power, rather than offering its support for working class power.

Looking out onto our audience, I would love to be able to say that you are proletarian socialist revolutionaries, but, no, you are petit bourgeois intellectuals, with all the problems this entails. How do I know this? By everything that you say and do, what you think and how you feel. (I don’t mean this pejoratively or to call out or disqualify you, but just to attend to the actual roles you play and functions you perform, which cannot be changed but only potentially turned to a different purpose, to serve proletarian socialist revolution, through discipline to its social and political tasks, rather than to reproduce capitalism.) You find the problem of capitalism — when you are really considering this at all, which is very rare — to be a moral one of unfairness and injustice, of abject suffering and misery. This is not how Marxists once approached things.

Sohrab Ahmari recently published in Compact Magazine a report on the Labor Notes conference in Chicago, where he observed a cultural divide between unionized workers in attendance and the conference organizers — one might say simply, between the workers and the organized labor bureaucrats. The latter, as dutiful Democrats, engaged in woke culturalism, while the former ignored the discursive and behavioral rules for the conference, for instance neglecting COVID masking and proclamations of gender identity. Why do things like the latter matter, if they do at all? Perhaps they don’t. But in trying to model behavior prefiguratively, the Left gives a misleading impression of the kind of society we are living in and the one proletarian socialists aspire for. By following the lead of Democratic Party woke capitalism, the Left proclaims itself to be part of the ruling ideology. It wrongly identifies the interests of the working class and “socialism” itself with the political fortunes of “progressive liberal” capitalism. They channel working-class organizing and any potential struggle into the terms of the capitalist employers and managers, if not their immediate ones then the more general staff of the capitalist state and its crony corporate rackets and their interests. It is a massive concession to workplace discipline imposed by the bosses to protect them from lawsuit litigation. Indeed, this is because organized labor today is mostly in the business of legal disputes over labor contracts and not class struggle at all.

How can I say that? Because I am a Marxist, and hence for me class struggle means the struggle for socialism, and the struggle for socialism means the constituting and growing, building and developing of the social and political organization and power of the proletarianized working class, leading to their taking over the control of society as a whole. Organized labor has nothing to do with that today, but only for managing an increasingly raw deal for the workers to protect the unions’ own vested interests. They are not organs of working class power but rather the opposite, for capitalist power over the workers, only negotiating the terms for the latter. This is why they concede all the major points and terms to the capitalists, all the way up to the culture demanded and promulgated by the state and corporations for the everyday practices of capitalism.

To the degree that this culture remains utterly foreign to the working class in its lived reality and consciousness, this is a good thing and a great opportunity for actual socialist organizing. If workers are cynical about the rules and etiquette they are forced to observe on the job, then this means that their hearts and minds are available for entirely other consciousness. For the most part this is taken by religion and other traditional cultural values. The latter are wise enough to concede to this fallen world its sinfulness and to “render unto Caesar” whatever might be demanded, while preserving true spiritual values separately and apart from this.

But the Left makes it seem that practical struggles over matters of life — pursuit of which was never foresworn entirely but accepted by religion, again wisely! — must take place within a framework of social and political power that must be accepted as such, and this massively undercuts and hobbles not merely the attitudes and ideas of the working class but its material concerns as well. It actively lowers the political horizon of what seems possible and necessary, and indeed creates the very space in which socially, culturally and politically reactionary ideology — and the regrettable cynicism — can flourish.

If working class people seem to agree or say what you want to hear, it is because they have learned the wisdom to keep their mouths shut and their true feelings private. They have learned to suffer in silence. Occasionally, they might find some resonance in what you say and find a glimmer of hope of recognition, but it is always qualified with a great deal of reservation, hard-bitten with past discouragement. Workers are seldom in the position to indulge in the enthusiasms of true belief. But the Left are nothing if not true believers— they can afford their illusions, however disposable they prove to be, blown from one passing fad to the next. The working class knows the difference between entertainment and real life. The Left are hucksters — who are themselves the most easily bamboozled. But socialism will not be a swindle — that is, if it is not merely another capitalist ideology. “Socialism” today is just that, what Marx criticized ruthlessly as a pernicious illusion of capitalism by another name.

This is because the Left, as a petit bourgeois intellectual phenomenon, itself can neither feel nor see, let alone believe in, the necessary task and potential society as a goal beyond capitalism to be engaged and achieved. The Left’s vision and imagination are conditioned by the very wrong — opposite — perspective of considering only what can be controlled or managed differently, rather than as a fundamentally different state of being.

Not that working class people can imagine or envision this, either, but at least they know that it is not a matter of managing or controlling, getting others to do what they want or convincing themselves of something to do, since that is not true to their experience, but only of cooperation, motivated by working together. The labor bureaucracy takes advantage of this to the detriment of the workers by posing matters as those of co-management of work by unions in cooperation with employers, labor and capital working together. A fine bourgeois sentiment, but woefully inadequate — need I say so? — to the struggle for proletarian socialism, from a Marxist perspective.

You will always remain mere petit bourgeois democrats — whether lower-case or upper-case Democrats — not socialists, because you will always submit to whatever “progressive” capitalists dangle before you.

What is the true task of socialist intellectuals, then? To grasp the truth of this society that underlies and transcends its immediate realities, but which constrains things in a deformed image of what they could and should become beyond them. The trick is how to distinguish overcoming capitalism from merely its next phase. Generations of purportedly “socialist” intelligentsia have performed the function of more or less brain-trusting the renovation of capitalism. But this is actually the very least of their crimes.

The principal issues of present society, today, globally and historically — as a matter of world history — how it is that conditions everywhere came to be as they are now, are not racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. (for instance, religious sectarianism and ethno-cultural differences), which are either thousands of years old or, on the contrary, indeed very modern phenomena, but rather are due to capitalism, which is only two hundred years young.

This is not a world of blacks and whites, or Muslims, Jews, Christians, animists, Buddhists, and Hindus etc., or men and women, or queers and straights, or nonbinaries and cisgendered, or Latins, Anglos, Germans, Slavs, Celts, Scandinavians, Nordics, Mediterraneans, Turks, Arabs, Semites, Caucasoids, Negroids, and Mongoloids, Neolithics and Paleolithics, etc., but of workers — and a few capitalists who have thankfully saved the funds necessary for investment in old and new production.

The fact that Leftists today must mis-imagine socialism in progressive liberal terms of pluralist democracy and cultural tolerance and respect — which is actually the more or less official dogma of liberal democratic and international cosmopolitan capitalism, and not only recently, but for the past 200 years — means they are profoundly mistaken from the start, and proceeding in a way utterly foreign and alien(ating) to the working class, both of their own and of any other country in the world. If workers ever listen to them, it is actually as their social and cultural “betters,” as their friendly bosses, rather than the strict hard-asses following more directly the imperatives of capital without the polite discursive couching and legalistic disclaimers and expressions of sympathy.

Insofar as young people appear to be more idealistically Leftist, this is only because they haven’t yet learned, let alone mastered, the actual rules of the game, and have been misled by their teachers into thinking that something different is possible in capitalism than is actually the case: They call “capitalism” everything that thwarts or disappoints their ingenuously naïve sense — actually lack of sense — of reality.

Not that their fantasies are utterly valueless, but they must be recognized as what they are, capitalist fantasies, to be actually useful in any way. This society does generate felt senses of possibility that are cruelly betrayed constantly by the onrush of history in capitalism. But they are not exact and indeed are necessarily and not accidently indeterminate. We do not — cannot — know what a socialist society beyond capitalism will look like. This is because the future will not in fact be our doing. Nor will it be that of anyone today who is able to deliberately determine it consciously — of whom there is in fact no one now.

This is not so bad as it might sound, since we neither are nor ever will be in a position to create such a world. Only the working class could ever be in that position, precisely because the world as it is now is the result of their action — and inaction — for the last two hundred years. If we hate the world as it now is, it is because it is the world the working class has created — and we hate them for it.

By contrast, if we ever confront actual capitalists about the state of the world, they can legitimately shrug their shoulders, sincerely express their regrets, and point to conditions beyond their control — by which they mean the billions of workers. If we resent them for this, it is because we are under the illusion that, if instead of them we were in charge, things would be so much better. It is not as workers but rival capitalists — as petit as opposed to haut bourgeois — that we challenge their authority (we don’t really dispute their power but only envy it).

And that is the point: The world will not be what we as Leftist or socialist intellectuals might imagine or envision or want it today in capitalism, but only what the working class might make it in the future, whether or not they ever overcome capitalism, they will have made the world as they will — and precisely not as we would. Our task is to support and help them in their overcoming of the capitalist limitations to their remaking the world.

The best we can do is to understand the limitations of capitalism. And to do so means overcoming — actually, first recognizing — the dogmatization and thought taboos of capitalism that we will otherwise enforce, over ourselves and over any (mercifully few) workers within our reach, even and especially when we don’t think that we are doing so.

We ourselves, in everything we feel and think, do and say, are the blinders from which we as well as others must be freed. We are the instruments which will be used, more or less, to remake the world, either as capitalist — through the capitalist tools that we are — or otherwise. Can we allow ourselves to be remade — by the working class — to help remake the world other than as we would?