Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New Left revisionism



The inability of the New Left rank and file and the movement’s ideologists to accept Marxism as an integral teaching and apply it in practice, and the absence of any political ties between the New Left and the revolutionary proletariat have brought about a situation in which the New Left, determined to break away from the illusions held by the “integrated” man in the street in bourgeois society, itself on various occasions has proved the victim of various political and ideological illusions and mystifications that have become an important factor in the formation of the movement’s ideology. This applies among other things to the influence which Maoism has had on the movement’s consciousness and world outlook and which finds expression in a formula taken from its own ideology, viz. "three M’s: Marx, Mao, Marcuse”.

This at first glance strange formulation of New Left sympathies cannot be explained without taking into account the distortion to which events that took place in a distant country and ideas which took shape in a quite different socio-cultural context were subjected in the minds of the European and American New Left. Radicals in the West who had an extremely vague idea of the "cultural revolution" and its true aims and inner mechanisms, in their anxiety to find some sort of moral, political and theoretical model for their actual social activity, were ready to accept in good faith Maoist slogans concerning the struggle with consumer ideology and psychology which were so closely in tune with their moral principles, slogans such as " liquidation of bureaucratic methods" and the "building of true socialism". The New Left was also impressed by the Maoists’ profession of principles of "permanent revolution", of violent (and even armed) methods to bring about the transformation of society, and of "uncompromising struggle against imperialism". An important factor in this process was the presentation of Mao himself not only as a true "revolutionary rebel" but also as the "friend of youth" with a clear understanding of young people’s actual needs and ready without reservation to provide youth with direct access to the levers of power.

The ideas proclaimed abroad by the Maoists were particularly attractive to the New Left in that on the one hand they were couched in Marxist terminology, yet at the same time were clearly imbued with an anarchist spirit, which meant that they were still more in tune with the moods of the European and American radical Left.

Finally it should not be overlooked that Maoism appeared to the New Left as the fruit of Eastern culture, and the latter has always possessed attraction of almost magical power for Western nonconformists. Over the last two hundred years or so men in the West have sought in the esotericism of Buddhism and Taoism for a source of strength and inspiration in their struggle against "machine civilisation" and technological fetishism, and for "man’s regeneration". Today interest in the East (or rather in the so-called Third World) has found a new lease of life in the West: it is precisely in the Third World that the West discovers social dynamism, a supposedly “radical” break-up of traditional social structures, determined endeavour to remould the present and regenerate a spirit of egalitarianism and militancy. A haze of exotic contrasts that are dearer to the New Left than any more substantial truths conceals the fact that this social dynamism is often bereft of real content, i.e., anything that goes beyond the confines of sensational and bloody "palace revolutions", that this egalitarianism is of an illusory nature and when it has any real weight is nothing other than equality in poverty, and that, finally, social relations in many Third World countries are based on principles of totalitarianism.

Admittedly the experience of the peoples of the Third World has been gleaned mainly through the medium of concepts formulated by certain ideologists of the national liberation movement that have won popularity in the West, for example from the works of Frantz Fanon. His writings in particular Les damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) which was published in Paris in 1961 became, to use the words of a contemporary publicist, a "bible for the new American revolutionaries, black and white". Fanon came from Martinique and was closely associated with the FLN in Algeria as doctor, journalist and diplomat. He inclined to conclude that the proletariat of the developed capitalist 51 countries had ceased to be the motive force of the world revolution, the vanguard of the "wretched of the earth, the hungry and the slaves" and that it should be replaced by the former colonial peoples, in general by all those who were subjected to humiliation and oppression, who were “outlawed”. These outcasts who had achieved liberation— both political and psychological—were called upon to bring into the world (if necessary resorting to violence) a spirit of liberation and become the vanguard of those forces fighting for the liberation of mankind.

However the ideas and slogans that crystallised in the context of the Third World were only of a limited relevance for practical implementation by the New Left in America and Western Europe. The New Left needed an ideologist nurtured by the same society as its members, in whom it would be able to see its alter ego, and who would be able to formulate an alternative of some kind that would be more or less acceptable. Just such an ideologist was provided by Herbert Marcuse.

Herbert Marcuse’s biography has been a complex one and his path has not followed any of the main currents of the revolutionary movement. Admittedly in his early years Marcuse was attracted to left groups of bourgeois philosophers, developing their ideas in particular at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. Events conspired to see to it that Marcuse become if not an anti-fascist (he was always more attracted by the position of outside observer), then at least a critic of fascist totalitarianism. Finally Marcuse like many other "Frankfurt philosophers" attempted, many years before he became an ideologist of left radicalism, to explain a number of social phenomena by means of psychological factors tracing out the dependence of the organisation of society on spontaneous manifestations of psychic energy.

All these factors helped to account for Marcuse finding himself among those "social critics" who were all of a sudden in great demand in the sixties. "The demand for critical theories of society is easily accounted for by the fact that the contradictions of social development assume the form of violent paradoxes, grasped by the general public.... People, who are aware of themselves as cogs in the overall bureaucratic organisation of capitalism, are bereft of rights 52 and oppressed by the threat of social catastrophes ( including wars), the threat of fascism and militarism, bestow a humanistic halo on ideas of this sort if only because they often find their own moods voiced in these ideas and raised as it were to the level of general social protest, namely their discontent with a specific situation and awareness of the critical condition of the society they live in."

Better than any of his colleagues Marcuse succeeded in formulating both the paradoxes of capitalist society at the contemporary stage of its development, and likewise the paradoxes in the outlook of those representatives of that society, whose very existence is threatened by the material and ideological processes at work within it. He succeeded in giving expression to the moods of the radical 61ite, its restless searching and Utopian edifices. In short Marcuse was offering the very commodity that was in demand at the time.

It should be pointed out that Marcuse himself is very cautious when it comes to assessing his part in the modern radical movement. The Marcuse cult was blown up by the bourgeois press, radio and television, however not only in a deliberate effort to disorientate the anti-capitalist movement, but also for the simple reason that Marcuse’s books and interviews with him—in other words everything he said or wrote—became highly saleable.

Marcuse’s role should not be exaggerated. Many left radicals have not even read his books at all. Many of those 53 who have do not by any means share all his views. Yet at the same time it would be short-sighted to underestimate the significance of this "radical critic", not as personality but as a representative of a specific type of consciousness. Marcuse has little affinity with the New Left movement, in so far as he takes no direct or active part in their political demonstrations and in so far as the movement of the radical Left where its social and political significance is concerned cannot be identified with Marcuse’s theory. Yet there is no doubt that he has exerted a powerful influence on the radical elite. It was precisely Marcuse who defined a number of tenets interpreted by the radical Left as criticism of dominationsubjection relations which they are anxious to do away with. It was precisely Marcuse who urged the New Left to make a clean break with "traditional politics" and "traditional ideology", terms he used to refer to the policies of the Communist parties and Marxist-Leninist theory. It was Marcuse and none other who praised many dubious aspects of the practical activities of the New Left.

Marcuse is of course not the first nor the only ideologist of the radical Left, and his theories are not as original as his more ardent supporters and the bourgeois media have tried to suggest. The evolution of the New Left’s ideology, particularly during the early stages of the movement’s growth are, as pointed out earlier, closely linked with the name of the well-known American sociologist G. Wright Mills.

There are a good number of things which separate Wright Mills from Marcuse. Despite various misconceptions and his bourgeois limitations Wright Mills was a progressive thinker bold enough to challenge anti-communism. He was one of the first American intellectuals to pay due credit to the Cuban revolution (at the beginning of the sixties after visiting Cuba he published an interesting book entitled Listen Yankee! which made a strong political impact). At the same time a number of theses taken up by the New Left and later elaborated by the radical ideologists of the sixties, including Marcuse, stemmed originally from Wright Mills’ writing. It was he who in the autumn of 1960 published in the New Left Review an open letter in which he attempted to formulate the basic principles of the New Left. Although Marcuse in his critical works and speeches makes hardly 54 any references to Wright Mills, it can be said without exaggeration that as an ideologist of the protest movement of the sixties he owes a considerable debt to the author of the Power Elite.

Among the philosophers and sociologists whom the radical Left held in high esteem, particularly in Europe, and whose views definitely helped to shape the world outlook of those taking part in the protest movement the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre deserves special mention. During and after the May events in France he took an active part in the debates among students, encouraging and supporting the radical Left.

The outlook of the New Left was moulded under the strong influence of existentialism, above all as represented by Sartre and Camus. In fact it can even be said that existentialism found "second wind" in the ideology of the radical Left, although it appears here in a vulgarised form that its “fathers” had always criticised. Indeed a good number of prominent ideologists of the radical Left of today went through an existentialist training and are extremely well-grounded in some of the existentialist concepts. This applies above all to Marcuse, who at one time was a pupil and follower of Heidegger’s. It was also the case with Regis Debray, a pupil of Sartre, and Frantz Fanon who was also indisputably influenced by existentialist philosophy.

An essential precondition of the radical Left’s negative and critical attitude to social reality in advanced industrial society is their acknowledgement of the absurd nature of that reality intrinsically hostile to man, senseless and irrational. This outlook of the radical Left’s “finds” itself in 55 the existentialist conception of the absurdity of existence and revolt, particularly in that form which had been elaborated by Albert Camus in his L’Homme Revoke. Supporting the Nietzschean proposition that "God is dead!", i.e. the negation of authority as such, as a symbol of social repression, the existentialism of Sartre and Camus is very much in the same key as the radical Left’s anti-authoritarianism. In so far as the radical Left is unable to find in social reality the material preconditions of liberation, it adopts as the starting-point for its arguments abstract-Utopian ideals. Moreover these very ideals, just as the need to implement them by means of revolt are deduced from anthropologically reduced social reality, from abstract man, from his existence as a non-determined freedom of choice.

When writing of the radical ideology of the sixties, mention must at all cost be made of the fairly large group of bourgeois philosophers and sociologists who unlike Sartre and Marcuse did not take part in political struggle, nor even in the New Left’s theoretical discussions. Yet they played a conspicuous role, if not in the direct formation of radical views then at least in the theoretical substantiation of radical Left’s attitudes and action. Their number should include such figures as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Ernest Bloch and Jurgen Habermas. The activity of the majority of these sociologists was in one way or another bound up with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, and despite disparities of approach and political orientation they all came out against bourgeois totalitarianism and the ideology of integration and tried to find a path leading to a world free from repression.

At the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies when the New Left movement entered the next stage of its development, trends, moods and values began to come to the surface, whose advocates could no longer closely associate their views and sympathies with the schemes of Sartre or Marcuse. New sources of intellectual inspiration were needed, new idols who would sensitively reflect the changes in the world outlook of the New Left and in their turn offer methods and plans in keeping with new demands.

It was then that Charles Reich and Theodore Roszak appeared on the scene and won truly wide popularity: these 56 two sociologists, while retaining the critical drive of their predecessors, at the same time expressed more accurately the inclinations for intellectual self-criticism, which are predominant in the New Left movement today. For inner transformation of the agent of radical change which in the future might lead to radical change in society itself.

However it is important not to exaggerate the differences between Charles Reich and Theodore Roszak, on the one hand, and their predecessors on the other. They complement rather than contradict each other, in the way that the radicalpolitical and cultural-enlightenment orientation in the New Left movement complement each other and overlap. Although different “generations” of ideologists in the protest movement lay emphasis On different methods of action, they paint existing society into which fate has cast them and the new world into which they are anxious to lead mankind, in almost the same colours.

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