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Anti-Communism in Left Philosophy

23th of October, 2022

Every Marxist writer in the 21st century, especially for those of us working in the West, has to reckon with an episode in the late 20th century where it became uncouth to be an unreconstructed Marxist. Theoreticians of the academy saw in Marx the seeds of a useful philosophy of liberation, but found in the end when engaging with the dialectics of the dedicated communists that it isn’t as simple as all that. The consensus moved towards anti-communism, in that new (which is taken to mean more nuanced) theories were developed which were intended to account for exploitation by annexing it into some wider and more eclectic theory of political sociology. I am of course being flippant here, because the intellectual development of this new anti-communist “Leftism” which became the global theory industry (to borrow a phrase from Gabriel Rockwell) was about as organic as Beyoncé track.

“Suggesting that there has been a relative ideological balance between the left and the right in the history of the French intellectual world, the report highlights the monopoly of the left in the immediate postwar era—to which, we know, the Agency was rabidly opposed—due to the Communists’ key role in resisting fascism and ultimately winning the war against it. Although the right had been massively discredited because of its direct contribution to the Nazi death camps, as well as its overall xenophobic, anti-egalitarian and fascist agenda (according to the CIA’s own description), the unnamed secret agents who drafted the study outline with palpable delight the return of the right since approximately the early 1970s. More specifically, the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.”
—Gabriel Rockwell, The CIA Reads French Theory: On the Intellectual Labor of Dismantling the Cultural Left

The analytical tools of dialectical materialism and the framing of class struggle remain the most powerful conceptual tools the left has. The problem then is this: how do those of us who find the eclectic developments of 20th century philosophy to be compelling and beautiful reconcile them with the reactionary interference that contributed to their development, and the reactionary causes they have historically served? I want to develop a versatile and genuinely beautiful organic methodology of thought and writing; to write about an “ideal topology” of understanding a text; to explore novel and formally radical approaches to phenomenology and understanding time and space, without falling into the faux-radicalism of a Michel Foucault. In a discussion recently about the radicalism of Gilles Deleuze’s presentation, I said I thought he was a brilliant writer, and a brilliant philosopher, but a poor socialist. Deleuze then has more in common in my mind with the Pinochet loving fascist Jorge Luis Borges than he does with Lenin or Che. I could never accept this for myself.

The communist approach to theory mirrors the scientific approach: thinkers engage critically with group dialogues and produce a collective body of knowledge which can be used as a tool for the generation of further production. This is essentially the productive capacity that praxis implies. The radically individualist and aesthetically aristocratic circles of the global theory industry contrived other patterns. The generation of novel perspectives in philosophy is of course to be welcomed, but these are conceptual tools for understanding that ought to be generalisable and translatable. For Marxists: they are different angles of viewing the same material situation: global capitalism; and the same contending forces: the class struggle. To the superstar public intellectual of the late 20th century, working to further a collective intellectual cause is inherently less attractive than the generation of wildly novel ideas that can only exist as part of their own personal philosophical system, both because of individualistic egotism and because the structure of publishing heavily disincentives anything that isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel.

In practice, this meant that high profile “leftists” were denying the centrality of the class struggle and even denouncing the core of Marxism as a reactionary 19th century humbug¹. The novelty of the ideas which were to supplant this core involved a great deal of what I, as someone interested in the conceptual creativity of philosophy, am genuinely enthusiastic about. But this enthusiasm is somewhat similar to my enthusiasm around, for instance, the work of Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s work is fascinating in how it produces compelling images of the deep sickness in the hearts of the bourgeoisie. To name just one example of this, Inception and Memento are both deeply concerned with how fiction as commodity object (film, comic books, novels etc as opposed to fiction as social myth), instrumentalises human beings as agents in the movement of some narrative mechanism whose ultimate purpose lies outside of the grasp or understanding of those agents. The enthusiasm is for the work as a representation of reality—a reality which is afflicted with the diseases of individualism, Liberalism, capitalism, patriarchy, and many others. To be fascinated by the formal and aesthetic movements is one thing, to accept the premises and conclusions are quite another.

One of the most important ongoing projects in epistemology is to define the relationship between knowledge and the things that are to be known. For most of the history of Western philosophy, but described most plainly by Descartes, we have God as the guarantor of the continuity between our knowledge of things and things in themselves. Karl Marx famously said that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Postmodernism not only inverts this (the observation of this inversion is trite at this point) but asserts in fact that the object of philosophy is to deny that there even is a world to be changed: there are only alienated and incommensurable fragments of understanding that work in concord only once there is a clandestine ideological fiction to rout them. What beggars belief is that these same thinkers wonder why it is that, after denouncing the cause of challenging the ideology of the ruling class in favour of instead just challenging the concept of ideology itself, it is the ideology of the Western ruling class that weathered this storm and ended up serving as our Cartesian God, rather than an ideology of the workers. It is certainly easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism if you have already outright dismissed all existing alternatives to capitalism as worse than the end of the world because they are dogmatic. “Better dead than read” they say, in more elaborate constructions.

One of the most pervasive sources of left pessimism to emerge from the global theory industry is that the critiques of capital are adopted by capital to serve its own ends. Capital is treated as a sort of cursed logic which is able to transcend and make use of any and all cultural phenomena that attempts to reckon with it. Making culture part of its own operation and not the other way around. Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, a compelling and generally inoffensive survey of the various social reflections of this conceptual tendency, is fundamentally limited by the weakness of this premise. He writes the following as a demystification² of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia project:

“Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunted all previous social systems. Capital, they argue, is the ‘unnamable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’. When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis.”

A dark potentiality. Compare this potentiality with dark matter: the hypothetical form of matter named dark because it is indetectable, does not interact with the electromagnetic field, and which has been proposed to exist only because its non-existence would produce incongruencies in physics greater than supposing its existence. Dark energy, too, is a hypothetical form of indetectable energy proposed to solve a problem which would be exacerbated by its non-existence. Without dark matter 85% of the universe’s mass is unaccounted for, and without dark energy we cannot explain why the universe’s expansion accelerates. What is it that capital’s proposed causal influence in prior epochs explains? What hauntological flow does its non-existence make impossible?

Theorists superstitiously treat themselves as if they are just as prone to the inexorability of capital’s operation as the working classes of the idealised society they describe. Capitalism here is naturalised: treated as the default mode of production once the humanity of tradition, religion, and ethical scruple is shaved away. This is essentially a Liberal idea. It takes for granted that markets are natural. To say that capitalism is a dark potentiality is to say that it must constantly be warded off, in the tributary modes by sovereigns looking to preserve their unenlightened despotism and in the socialist modes by a blanket ban on markets which has to be instilled not just in the legal codes of the state but, by a totalitarian ideological campaign, into the DNA of every living cell. This is clearly untrue as soon as one does any cursory material analysis, as opposed to idealistic philosophical speculation.

Actually existing capitalism did not sleepwalk into its overwhelming hegemony. It did not arrive by accident once the bulwark of the European Christian theocracy finally broke under the tension of its contradictions, and it did not return in Russia once the Soviets’ resolve to keep their guard against it faltered. The European bourgeoisie had to work to break the fetters that the feudal orders had imposed on them, and then they established new fetters that they imposed on the peasants, workers, and the ruling and working classes outside of Europe. The European and American bourgeoisie had to work to undermine the socialist experiments of the 20th century, and the leadership of those nations not only acquiesced to this pressure but consciously suppressed the working class objection to creeping post-war revisionism. Capitalism is not a dark potentiality. Capitalism is a highly specific order that must assert itself constantly via an active class that works tirelessly to suppress alternatives. Capitalism sweats its own spinal fluid every day to appear as if it belongs.

“The very term imperialism has been placed under prohibition, having been judged to be unscientific. Considerable contortions are required to replace it with a more “objective” term like “international capital” or “transnational capital.” As if the world were fashioned purely by economic laws, expressions of the technical demands of the reproduction of capital. As if the state and politics, diplomacy and armies had disappeared from the scene! Imperialism is precisely an amalgamation of the requirements and laws for the reproduction of capital; the social, national, and international alliances that underlie them; and the political strategies employed by these alliances.”
—Samir Amin, Eurocentrism

Classical Liberals long contended that capitalist markets were a naturally occurring and self regulating phenomenon that worked best when state involvement was extremely limited. The Neoliberals have been so much more dangerous largely because they were less naive in this respect: they understood that markets are historically contingent social constructs, and that the justification for the existence of the strong state with militarised security apparatus was only as a guarantor of this market.

There is no invisible hand of the market, there are only the hands of the ruling class. The extent to which they are invisible depends on the proficiency with which they conduct their magic tricks. The working classes on the capitalist periphery are more keenly aware of this than the French intellectuals because the objects of coercive control have not been hidden from them. A theory of power as subtle—or as clandestine—as that offered by Foucault is unnecessary to a worker who has seen police in riot gear deployed in response to a general strike. In short: these theorists belong to the bourgeoisie, and so curate the proletariat’s temporary helplessness.

¹ The works of the continental philosophers of the 20th century were rarely concerned with an analysis of reactionary politics as such; the level of generality and abstraction with which these thinkers were dealing with analyses of oppression normally precluded any serious activity there. Where significant attention was paid to (for instance) anti-racist or feminist analysis, this was most often conducted on Marxist lines, as in the writings of Frantz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir. Attempts to flank Marxism from the left—what one might describe as the progressive wing of anti-communist academia—are a more pressing issue in the 21st century, and particularly from inside the American “decolonial” academic movement.

When the indigenous president of Bolivia Evo Morales was ousted by a US backed far right coup in 2019, many American academics supported the affair. Morales was officially removed from office on charges of election rigging which were obviously spurious then, and have since been proven so. Disregarding the usual right wing ideologues, a smaller collection instead cloaked their support for US imperialism in pro-indigenous and pro-environment language: the deposition of Morales was a cause for social justice because his planned nationalisation of Bolivian natural gas and rational development of that industrial sector would disturb indigenous communities and natural habitats. Of course this is not true, and even if it were the development of the Bolivian public sector would only bolster the nation's prospects of economic independency from the US and serve to strengthen and stabilise the fledgling welfare and infrastructure programs that the Movimiento al Socialismo government had pursued for the past decade. For this reason it be would be far more beneficial to the Bolivian indigenous population—an overwhelmingly proletarian and peasant group. The interim president put in place, supported by the American academics, was Jeanine Áñez: a fascist white supremacist Catholic theocrat who received only 5% of the vote. As interim president, Áñez was authorised only to organise new elections. Instead, she moved to replace cabinet ministers and top military commanders with members of the Bolivian far right. The independent OAS (the pro-US organ which was originally responsible for manufacturing the public consent for the coup—hardly a leftist organ) reports that Áñez’s 362 day regime oversaw “massacres,” “systematic torture,” and “summary executions” of political opponents and indigenous activists critical of her undemocratic appointment.

² One of the generalisations that can be made about Left Anti-Communism, which is a simplification almost past the point of usefulness but bears mentioning here in passing, is that it tends to flank the orthodox Marxist literature from either side of the spectrum of simplicity. Marx has a reputation for being obscure at times; some of his work is difficult at least in part because it was stitched together from unfinished manuscripts after his death. Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the other hand is downright arcane, and revels in this. This is not a criticism of it as a work of literature but simply a matter of fact. Various continental philosophers work in less extreme versions of the same palette. Anglo-Americans on the other hand tend to produce what Christian Noake has described as reproductions of common sense. Calling a spade a spade is fine in theory, but when we are talking about the complex moving targets of class across history and contending political forces within and between states, failure to apply a dialectical analysis produces reifications of unchallenged bourgeois ideological priors.

Marx’s dialectics were deployed to combat a tendency for critics of capitalism to produce only an economist’s critique—technocratic critiques of market forces which fail to account for historical and social forces. It is no wonder then that what conservatives identify as the clique of Marxist professors embedded in academia are nothing of the sort: they are almost always social chauvinists interested primarily in a nebulous “anti-capitalism” which in the end is about as revolutionary as J.K. Rowling’s hysterical anti-Trumpism.

Further Reading:

On Genre Tourism
Oxymoron: A Philosophy of History in Avant-Garde Jazz
Inception: How An Unspiritual Film Treats Time and People