A Response by Joshua Blakeney to Professor Richard Falk’s article:
“A Few Notes on WHAT IS LEFT”
By Joshua Blakeney
University of Lethbridge
It is important for those of us genuinely aspiring to improve the world that we recognize the need for an absolutist “counter-ideology” which can act as a tenable and attractive alternative to the ideology of possessive individualism coercively forced upon the planet by the bought-and-paid-for ‘intellectual’ apologists for global capitalism. There needs to be a recognition that authentic Marxism has been overwhelmingly a positive force for humanity and that a Marxist understanding of capitalism should inform any alternative ideology.
It must be acknowledged that past Communist and socialistic governments, belying the stereotype of being callous self-interested elitists, invariably took risks to side with the underdog. Contrastingly the global bourgeoisie ensconced in countries like Britain, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Israel and Australia have consistently buttressed the most reactionary, proto-fascist regimes imaginable on the agreement that such regimes kill communists, trade unionists and anyone who aspires to progress society beyond a class-based stratified economic system. When reading Donald Woods’ exceptional and courageous (he had to flee South Africa to publish it) biography of Steve Biko I came across the following testimony by Nelson Mandela during the famous Rivonia Trial of 1964:
“[F]or many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.”
One key trait of the pre-1968 left was that it, at least to some extent, knew where it was heading, namely towards the establishment of a world based on socialist-Marxian principles (defined primarily as workers’ control of production) and internationalism. What socialism would or would not entail, and the means by which it would be achieved (through armed struggle, through the parliamentary system, etc) was disputed. But there was at least some overarching consensus regarding what was the correct palliative for society’s capitalist-inflicted sicknesses. Each faction of the left (anarchist, Trotskyists, orthodox Marxists etc) harnessed to varying degrees an economistic analysis of capitalism. Most on the left concurred that the ending of capitalism, coupled with the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, were necessary conditions for the resolution of cultural, psychological, legal, political and family-related problems as such problems were direct outgrowths of a capitalist mode of production.
Post-1968 the left began a fatal shift away from the science of Marxism towards the complex of theories, methodologies, attitudes and assumptions which are referred to under the rubric of “postmodernism.” [Although some academics dispute terminology and distinguish between post-structuralism (aka anti-foundationalism) – which refers to particular sets of philosophies and theories – and the wider sets of trends known as “postmodernism” or “postmodernity” I will not split hairs for the purpose of this concise piece and will use postmodernism to denote all of the above.]
The shift towards postmodernism resulted in a preponderance of left-thinkers:
1) Rejecting the quest for objectivity in research and by extension rejecting the possibility or desirability for unmasking absolute truth through experimentation and observation of the natural world.
2) Obsessing themselves with subjective beliefs and subjectivity regardless of the truth or falsity of a subject’s beliefs. This often resulted in outlandish, superstitious beliefs being spoken of as knowledge (a justified, true belief). N.B.- Subjectivism and the study of identity and subculture often reaffirms the core precepts of capitalist individualism.
3) Disproportionately studying the form rather than the content/substance of beliefs, arguments and texts. Whilst studying form rather than content is often justifiable in the arts and with ascetics in general, when it comes to political-historical-sociological analyses involving knowledge, such epistemic relativism has the effect of enabling bourgeois concocted-fantasies and politically expedient myths (e.g. the official interpretation of 9/11) to go unchallenged, contributing to societal obscurantism and the further stupefaction of the working class.
4) Displaying distain towards science, logic and the scientific method; throwing the baby out with the bath water by failing to distinguish between power’s exploitation of science (such as with nuclear weapons and nuclear power) and the scientific attitude itself. This anti-technology, anti-science, anti-progress postmodern disposition likewise contributes to societal obscurantism and allows politicized pseudo-science (such as the NIST report fraudulently explaining World Trade Centre building 7’s collapse) to gain traction among the public which in turn abets imperialism. Natural scientists’ emphasis on empirical evidence, logic and reason are viewed merely as “one paradigm” rather than the only credible way to ascertain external truth.
5) Rejecting utopianism and generalized ideological prescriptions (to quote Lyotard’s favorite edict “incredulity toward metanarratives”); when the failures and crimes (real and imagined) of the Soviet Union reached the consciousness of leftists in the period leading up to 1968, many went through ideological crises. Many leftists asininely rejected Marxism and the aspiration to progress humanity beyond capitalism. The post-1968 attempts to emancipate people via ethnic, cultural and gendered vehicles largely failed and wasted a great deal of precious energy and resources. Such postmodern ethno-gender-politics often served the interests of the class oppressors. During this postmodern epoch we can have a black man as U.S. president but the vast majority of men and women of all ethnicities have experienced a decline in standards of living and an increase in class oppression. It should be remembered that there are rich black women, for example, who have far more power and dignity than poor white men.
There are quite stark limitations to ethnic and gendered approaches to emancipation. Ending class rule should be a priority.
From Left-Anti-Communists to Left-Islamophobes:
Careerist ‘Leftists’ who Refuse to Bite the Hand that Feeds Them
Rather than seeking to diagnose the array of problems with Soviet-style communism (such as the lack of incentives for managers, lack of incentive for technological innovators, inefficient usage of resources and the lack of incentives to fill quotas) and critiquing and learning from those mistakes (whilst also commending the remarkable achievements of communist governments), post-1968 leftists abandoned the quest for economic democracy altogether. Post-1968 the slew of born-again left anti-Communists, the forerunners of the post-9/11 left-Islamophobes, begun (misguidedly) to promote emancipation via ethnic, gendered, race, cultural and religious vehicles metamorphosing into what Michael Parenti calls ‘ABC theorists’ [Anything But Class theorists]. Many leftists rejected the end goal of establishing of workers’ control of production in favour of encouraging (sometimes with CIA backing) postmodern ethnic nationalist projects.
Whenever the Soviet Union or Cuba, for example, intervened to assist the oppressed in their legitimate emancipation struggles, such as in Angola, this would often be critiqued on a par with the imperialism of the bourgeoisie. The fact that typically the Soviet Union backed the underdog and the capitalists backed the most reactionary and militarized elements in a given society (e.g. in Chile, in Nicaragua, in pre-1959 Cuba, Southern Africa) was disregarded by these left-McCarthyists. While Marxists were being ostracized by many on the left, millionaire capitalist restorationists such as Vaclav Havel were held up as progressives. Left-anti-Communists disregarded the fact that such individuals oppressed their people, privatized everything they and their corrupt friends could get their hands on and criminalized dissent once in power (Havel actually suspended parliament and enshrined a law proscribing “class hatred”).
The C-word became taboo among most left-anti-Communists who cashed in on lucrative grants from capitalist philanthropic organizations (e.g. Ford Foundation) to conduct power-serving studies emphasizing ethnicity, gender and culture (divorced from economic analyses) in nations such as Nicaragua and Congo where workers had previously been seeking to transcend ethnic and cultural parochialism and build a society based on universal socialist principles. In 1986 sociologist Stanley Aronowitz opined “When I hear the word ‘class’ I just yawn.” Ronald Aronson in his After Marxism, disregarding statistics indicating increased stratification in society, declared that classes were “less polarized” rendering Marxism obsolete. Others simply argued that because Marx wrote what he wrote many years ago that somehow this rendered his analyses devoid of any contemporary application (which makes one wonder if such people no longer believe in gravity since Isaac Newton wrote Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica over three centuries ago). Sokal and Bricmont write in their Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals Abuse of Science:
For most of the past two centuries, the left has been indentified with science and against obscurantism, believing that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful – not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. And yet, over the past two decades, a large number of “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanities and social scientists…have turned away from this Enlightenment legacy and…have embraced one or another versions of epistemic relativism.
By the 1990s the regressive postmodern current had marginalized Marxian (economistic) critiques of capitalism paving the way for capitalist restoration in communist countries that had made several strides for humanity with the abolition of most private property, the nationalization of resources and in health and education. Under the guise of “fighting dogmatism right and left” many academics criticized an easy target, communism, whilst refusing to bite the hand that fed them.
On Indigenous Peoples
‘Indigenous peoples’ is a fashionable phrase which is interesting to contemplate. By using the word peoples rather than people one is supposing that it is necessary to carve humanity up along ethnic, cultural and religious lines and to express this sectarianism in one’s lexicon. It is assumed that we are not one people – we are many peoples. There are however many ways to categorized humanity. Eugenicists believed not in one human family of people but in different strata of peoples. These different peoples were ranked based on pseudo-scientific, Social Darwinist categories. Social Darwinism served capitalism greatly as it allowed the ruling class to divide the working class and to enslave certain populations when capitalism went into crises. With the Nazis making overt Social Darwinism unfashionable, emphasizing ethnicity became the most convenient way for the bourgeoisie to inculcate notions of ‘otherness’ amongst workers of the world. Dividing humanity up based on (often arbitrary) ethnic/cultural lines is an approach which has traditionally been rejected by Marxists. Marxists have tended to view ethnic-sectarianism as serving to obfuscate the most egregious chasm burdening the human family which is the division of humanity into capitalist and wage labourer.
In attempting to overcome parochialism in Latin America, Che Guevara would proclaim “We are all Mestizo!” Ethnic and religious sectarianism is necessary for capitalism to function as capitalism, like slavery and feudalism requires the vast majority of humanity to toil so as to provide opulence for a small cabal of elites. The oppressed being the majority in a class-based society results in them possessing the collective-power to overthrow their rulers. Hence, the ruling class conspires against the workers annexing them along ethnic and religious lines. By conspiring to create divisions amongst the working classes revolutionary potential remains unrealized and bourgeois hegemony is perpetuated.
To this day, having travelled to almost as many countries as years I’ve been on this planet, and having lived on the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Montana for several months at a time, I have never encountered an ethnic group in which there are not oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited and for that matter aberrant superstitious dogmatists and a rational majority seeking to improve their lot in life independent of cultural and religious (metaphysical) considerations.
The supplanting of class-analyses with cultural, gendered and ethnic based analyses in the social sciences has resulted in 1) a reluctance to assist – or attempt to emancipate – certain oppressed people out of a fear that one might be castigated as being “Eurocentric” or be accused of “trampling on somebody else’s culture”. When, for example, a Mayan Indian is prescribed an aspirin for a headache only the most extreme postmodern nihilists would stop to ask if that aspirin is imposing Eurocentric values, attitudes and norms on that human being. Yet when Marxists have attempted to prescribe palliatives for grave societal problems among oppressed groups, or have merely attempted to educate certain human beings on mistakes they make in every day life, they are denounced as ethnocentric and coercive. In a world of epistemic relativism – where there is no right or wrong – attempting to educate individuals from distinct cultural groups on their failure to properly analyze their exploited status in capitalist society – i.e. tell such people they are wrong/myopic is deemed dogmatic, Eurocentic and unethical. Meanwhile the capitalists lack such mores and with the complicity of the postmodern bourgeois-academic-journalistic complex continue to exploit individuals of all ethnicities globally. Who could deny, for example, that Kurdish ethnic-nationalism has served imperialism rather than been a mechanism for anti-authoritarianism and emancipation in recent decades? Rather than ‘celebrating difference’ as most left-academics do today we need to recognize our few differences as human beings and seek to overcome them.
It is in actuality disparaging to members of non-European ethnic groups to associate them all with the most obscurantist, superstitious factions in their societies. But attempts to define someone as belonging to a distinct people (rather than to a universal class of wage-labourers) necessitates such guilt by association. Why should workers from an individual ethnic group be lumped together with the most superstitious retrograde (I used this word based on a belief in the notion of progress) shaman for example? Would all individuals of Jewish ethnicity like to be lumped together with fanatical religious Zionists? Why should we employ such arbitrariness when categorizing individuals living in, say, Guatemala, Kenya or Bolivia? Professor Hall in Earth into Property illustrates well that the original people of Central America used scientific reasoning and advanced horticultural methods to provide us with the various strains of corn, tomato, potato and squash that us Euro-Americans enjoy today. Rather than exclude such American rationalists from the Enlightenment’s legacy we should recognize that the Enlightenment’s goals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité and the quest to conquer nature is not an exclusively European initiative.
Zionism in The Era of Ethnic Romanticism and Excessive Moral,
Epistemic and Cognitive Relativism
The above discussion leads nicely into a consideration of the Palestine Question. With relativist ethnic-analyses being the paradigm du jour arguing that Zionist romantic nationalism is unjustified because it is inherently exceptionalist and because it feeds racism is a bitter pill to swallow for many postmodern academics. Just as thousands of left-anti-communists were manufactured with ease by capitalist knowledge producing institutions during the Cold War so left-Zionists and their counterparts left-Islamophobes have proliferated since the events of 9/11 (events which Likudniks are heavily implicated in). With the ignominious post-1990s decline of the American Empire we’ve seen the “globalization of Zionist power”, to quote James Petras. Critically analyzing the different factions that constitute the bourgeoisie has become increasingly difficult and politically incorrect due to the reality that a large percentage of the oppressing class consists of those who can play both the “oppressed minority” card and “victim of genocide” card whilst concurrently meting out genocide and oppression in the Middle East. Israeli settler colonialism has, unlike South Africa’s version of it, been able to survive the post-Cold War reordering of world power because: 1) A large portion of the world’s rich are blind supporters of Israel (Israel acts as a safe haven for numerous fraudsters and gangsters). Sociologist James Petras writes of the locus of power he calls the Zionist Power Configuration: “Jews in North America, South America and Europe are disproportionately in the highest paid positions with the highest proportion in the exclusive, prestigious private universities, with disproportionate influence in finance and the media. It is clear that “anti-Semitism” is a very marginal global issue and, in point of fact, that Jews are the most influential ethnic group.” 2) The manufactured events of 9/11 made Israel’s enemies the perceived enemies of Western governments resulting in a perceived convergence of interests between Israel and many Anglo-American political elites. Perhaps pro-apartheid Afrikaners should have conducted false-flag terrorism in Western countries and blamed in on black Africans to allow their political sponsors in the United States and Europe to justify continued support for their racist regime?
We must take a similar attitude towards Zionism that the prolific writer and philosopher Lenin took as he and his comrades attempted to unite the 192 nationalities that the Russian monarchy had been cynically pitting against each other prior to 1917. Writing of the relationship between Marxism and Nationalism Lenin wrote:
Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilized brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity…The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognizes the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness…Combat all national oppression? Yes, of course! Fight for any kind of national development, for ‘national culture’ in general? — Of course not.
Lenin was contemptuous towards Jewish nationalism:
The Jews of Galicia and Russia are not a nation; unfortunately (through no fault of their own but through that of the Purishkeviches (they are still a caste here…[It is] only Jewish reactionary philistines, who want to turn back the wheel of history, and make it proceed, not from the conditions prevailing in Russia and Galicia to those prevailing in Paris and New York, but in the reverse direction – only they can clamor against ‘assimilation.’
Just as leftists ought to have opposed German ethnic nationalism and Afrikaner ethnic nationalism in past epochs so genuine leftists must resist Jewish ethnic nationalism whilst promoting universalist approaches to emancipation today.
The Cure Should Not Be Worse than The Disease
One principle for all revolutionary struggle against capitalism is that the cure should not be worse than the disease. One reason the postmodern holocausts in Iraq, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, currently in Libya and soon Syria, have arisen is due to a latent nihilistic attitude that “anything is better than the status quo.” When one overcomes postmodern anti-progressivism and establishes a continuum for progress one then recognizes that most postmodern, ethnic-nationalist revolts actually regress the standards of living for the vast majority of people. Iraq, for example, was no bed of roses under Saddam Hussein, but it is worse now it has been broken down along sectarian lines. In Saddam’s Iraq people were Iraqi’s first and Shia or Sunni second. Now the situation is the obverse.
Cuba contrastingly was worse before the Cuban revolution with infant-mortality rates diminishing and life-expectancy elongating post-1959. The cure was better than the disease in the case of the Chinese Revolution too. The Chinese Communist Party is responsible for the greatest elevation of human beings out of poverty and privation in history. Hundreds of millions of human beings were liberated from the semi-feudal (dare I say backward?) society which existed before a vanguard of communist revolutionaries mobilized the working class of that region. Mao Zedong and his comrades denounced subjectivism and encouraged a universal language, Mandarin, to allow the different Chinese nations to overcome their differences and build a better future for their children. Many Tibetans, although not all, benefitted from the ousting of the slave-owning, later-CIA sponsored tyrant, the Dalai Lama.
Needless to say the Likudnik faction who orchestrated the ‘war on terror’ and who aspire to balkanize the Middle East benefit greatly from the fashionable celebration of ethnic nationalism contemporarily. Universalist Arab-nationalism was always the biggest threat to the imperialist interventionists in the Middle East. A weak, atomized Middle East will allow Israeli regional hegemony to prevail and civil war to ensue. If Arabs are fighting Arabs then they wont be able to resist Israeli colonialism. The Likudnik ‘Final Solution’ to the Palestine Question will be easily implemented once all the Arab strongmen are finally ousted and the Middle East is carved up like a sharwama into ethnic statelets based on the millet system of the Ottoman Empire.
Towards a Reestablishment of a Paleo-Marxist Critique of
Capitalism, Imperialism, and Its Outgrowths Coupled with a
Revival of Working Class Consciousness
I propose that leftists of conscience return to a Paleo-Marxist critique of capitalism. One reason the international capitalist class have been so audacious and unscrupulous in waging the 9/11 wars has been because they have nothing to fear. With so many leftists jumping on the Islamophobic bandwagon – which is of course predicated on the official conspiracy theory of 9/11 – there is no credible opposition to the ruling class’s exploitative agenda. One can imagine, for example, former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista getting word in Havana of the countless victories of the revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra – at the time when Cuba was faced with comparable lawlessness and impunity to that we bear witness to today – and feeling intimidated, grieved and fearful.
Thanks to the disempowerment engendered by the well-funded postmodern genocidaires in Western academia and due to the success of the war on communism during the Cold War there is little threat posed to our exploiters. Whilst international law does indeed contain many of the concepts – such as a belief in absolute truth, universalism as well as an emphasis on accountability and anti-authoritarianism, – that postmodern relativism destroyed, attempts to enforce international humanitarian law must be accompanied by attempts to cease the legalized theft of the capitalist class. We must not be content with rules for managing imperialist wars; we must end the economic system that begets imperialist wars.
We must reestablish a Paleo-Marxian agenda; critique of capitalism that emphasizes the notion that the economic mode of production in a given society determines the legal systems, culture, academia, family structures present in that society. There is no legitimacy in despoiling the world’s resources and appropriating the fruits of workers’ labour. Let the ‘legitimacy war’ begin by questioning the legitimacy of the economic structure of our society.
We should not romanticize culture, ethnicity and religion which are merely products of a given economic mode of production. Insofar as these metaphysical constructs unify human beings and contribute to the victories we seek let us refrain from excessive criticism of them. When such constructs blind and intoxicate our fellow workers encouraging them to consent to oppression (e.g. religious obscurantism blinding a comrade into being duped into serving as a patsy for imperialist false-flag terrorism) let us not shy away from demystifying such pernicious metaphysical constructs. Call us Eurocentric if you will; the fact that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and other great philosophical humanists came from Europe doesn’t, by definition, falsify their tonics for our oppression. It is axiomatic that without a clearly defined end goal we cannot know where we are heading. It will be impossible to alter the superstructure (legal system, culture, political realm) unless we establish a more rational economic mode of production. Thus our primary goal should be a new economic order.