Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

These days talk of socialism is creating a buzz of sorts on various university campuses, and on social media. But which strand of socialism is being talked about?

I conducted a quick study, and I can somewhat conclude that it is not any classical form of socialism, even though many recent enthusiasts are likely to swear, or at least pretend, that they have read Marx, Lenin and Mao in their entirety and find them to be great sages.

It is not classical socialism because names of men such as the next US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders also keep popping up. Nevertheless, those currently propagating socialism and swearing by it (in more ways than one) are largely ambiguous about what their socialism is really about.

I believe this is by design, considering the damaged historical baggage that socialism carries, the heaviest being its sweeping defeat at the hands of capitalism in the 1990s.

Philosopher and author Dr Stephen Hicks has studied this purposeful ambiguity in his book, Skepticism and Socialism: From Rousseau to Foucault. He charts its evolution from the tactics of the original figureheads of what emerged in the early 1960s as ‘the New Left.’

The New Left’s relativist and psychological critique of capitalism made intellectual vagueness ‘hip’ in the postmodern world

Hicks writes that, from the early 1960s onwards, a lot of young Marxist intellectuals were perturbed when news began to trickle in about the horrors of collectivist economic policies in communist countries, and of sweeping purges.

With capitalism’s pragmatic approp­riation of various ideas formulated by socialism — and due to capitalism’s own reformed ideas of economic growth — it became apparent that the classical Marxian prediction that the exploits of capitalism would create monumental proletariat uprisings in industrial societies had come to naught.

Led by the German-American intellectual Herbert Marcuse, the New Left began to shape a different variation of socialism, aimed at a whole new generation of young people in a time when capitalism, in the industrialised democracies, was eroding the appeal of a socialist order. Simultaneously, many disastrous economic experiments were taking place in communist regions. For example, between the 1930s and early 1960s, millions starved and died due to man-made famines and environmental degradation in the Soviet Union and China.

In an essay for the July 1979 issue of Social Scientist, KL Julka wrote that the New Left intellectuals confessed to the failure of the Marxian view of capitalism and its relation to human behavior without agreeing that capitalism had proven to be the more successful and enduring idea. Instead, after unloading the more materialistic and ‘scientific’ musings of Marxism, Marcuse and his New Left contemporaries, inspired by the Frankfurt School ofwhich Marcuse was a leading light, incorporated theories of the German psychologist Sigmund Freud, to form a new socialist understanding of capitalism.

According to Freud, humans were inherently irrational and that their ‘natural’ irrational impulses (the ‘id’) are kept in check by ‘artificial’ means of civility. He went on to claim that man’s irrational nature was not entirely suppressed by this ‘artificial’ civility. It often seeped out in the shape of phobias and neuroses.

Similarly, to Marcuse and his New Left comrades, the overall economic contentment found in industrialised nations was an ‘artificial construct’, shaped by capitalism which suppressed man’s inherent ‘natural spirit’ to be more dynamic and revolutionary. In his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse tried to demonstrate how, instead of understanding capitalism through materialistic Marxian rationalism, it needed to be looked at psychologically, because capitalism was now largely about ‘psychological repression.’

In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (written with RP Wolff and Barrington Moore) and in An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse wrote that, just as the suppressed irrational self seeps out as phobias and neuroses, in capitalist societies it emerges in the shape of marginality. He claimed that the idea of democratic tolerance in capitalist societies was fake and could be unmasked for what it really was, if those on the margins are activated against it. Therefore, Marcuse and many of his New Left contemporaries encouraged young radicals to draw inspiration from those on the margins and indulge in purposefully irrational and offensive behaviour to blow the lid off of ‘repressive tolerance.’

Hicks believed that this thinking largely inspired the youth radicalism of the 1960s and the urban radical outfits of the 1970s, before they were eventually consumed by their own anarchic fire. However, as he and political theorists such as Alex Callinicos and British journalist Francis Wheen have repeatedly observed, the New Left’s ideas in this context were salvaged by former leftist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Edward Said and others.

Hicks and Callinicos are of the view that the aims of such intellectuals were similar to those of Marcuse and the early New Left thinkers. They migrated the New Left’s relativist and psychological critique of capitalism to a new period by actually making intellectual vagueness ‘hip’. For example, as Derrida believed, if you unpeel a text (deconstructionism) you will reveal more layers. Therefore, there is no truth, so this too is a lie and thus a contradiction, but so be it.

Since class warfare was won by capitalism’s more mutable disposition, today’s New Left, taking the cue from Marcuse, replaced class conflict with conflicts between genders and races and between marginality and the mainstream. Interestingly, this paradigm is being described by political scientists as a form of political tribalism which, ironically, is being mirrored by the new populist right as well.

In his brilliant 2004 documentary series The Power of Nightmares, the famous BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis demonstrated how terrorist groups operating in Muslim countries believed that the Islam practised by their fellow Muslims in their countries was fake. And, like Marcuse and his legacy today, the Islamist terrorists too believed that, if they instigate irrational violence in societies, the fake mask will come off and show Muslims the true face of the system.

Hicks wrote that since Derrida tried to prove that language was nothing more than just aesthetic play, and texts do not have absolute meanings, words, labels and phrases could be used as weapons without bothering to connect them to reality. Hence, objective reality too was an ‘artificial construct’ (of capitalism). Socorroborative objective evidence was necessary.

But if there is no concrete reality, what reality were the New Left and their current off-shoots fighting against or for? Hicks suggests that New Left thinking — which mutated to become ‘postmodernism’ from the late 1970s onwards — perversely celebrated contradiction.

At times, even when criticised by some formal Marxists, most strands of leftist or left-leaning social activism that one comes across today is a repetition of Marcuse’s plea to provoke or attack ‘repressive tolerance’ with irrational, intolerant attitudes and words that need not be corroborated with any objective truth. A postmodernist word-dance should suffice.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 15th, 2019