In previous installments of this series, we've examined the development and influence of regressive leftism in post WW2 western societies. It is partially due to the failures of Marxist-Leninism that critical theory and postmodern strands of leftist critique and activism rose to prominence.
What has thus far saved the 1st world can, I believe, be attributed to the psychological effects of white European male guilt on the western psyche. Ironic, given how crucial this has been as a foundation for regressive left ideology in the first place. Those who believe themselves and their cultural traditions to be inherently tainted, who view their identities as a kind of secular, postmodern original sin, are more likely to have a diminished “will to power” so to speak.
It is to this cultural inferiority complex that I suspect the relative lack of political success enjoyed by the post WW2 western left can be attributed. Even when they do achieve periods of relative success and influence, such as during the late 1960s or the early 2010s, they can’t help but end up sabotaging this success, usually by a descent into ideological excess, factionalization, indulgence in rioting and other antisocial behavior, the deliberate cultivation of an adversarial stance vis-à-vis mainstream society, withdraw from society and so on.
This has, in part, been our saving grace, as has been the checks and balances and limitations and separation of powers inherent to constitutional liberal democracies. As the history of regressive leftism in the former communist bloc and 3rd world illustrates, they are infinitely worse where and when these checks and limitations are absent.
I won’t lay out a history of the Soviet bloc here. What is of interest, though, are elements of Marxist Leninist theory that echo down to the present day. The ideology of the Kremlin never gained much traction in the western world, especially after McCarthyism. But, as mentioned above, Frankfurt School and postmodern academics were inspired, to some degree, by Marx. Marcuse’s doctrine of repressive tolerance, or Patricia Bidol-Padva’s doctrine of power plus prejudice trod worn paths even in their own time.
As some relevant examples:
Martin Ivanovich Lācis, deputy chief of the Cheka in Ukraine in 1918, established the principle that sentences in criminal cases were to be determined not by guilt or innocence but by social class. He is quoted as explaining the Red Terror as follows: “Do not look in materials you have gathered for evidence that a suspect acted or spoke against the Soviet authorities. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror.”
Soviet legal theorist Andrey Vyshinsky, “Procurator General” of the Soviet Union from 1935 to 39 – while Stalin’s terror was at its height, according to his Wikipedia article: “recommended that investigators and judges consider "the wider social perspective" of each individual case in the context of class struggle. As a result, an actual committing of a crime was not required for conviction: people could have been convicted for being perceived as bourgeois ("class responsibility") or simply if that was considered to be beneficial for the Communist Party, for example in the "educational" role of the judicial system (thus, the importance of show trials, even with completely false accusations). Regressive left God-mother Catherine MacKinnon did not invent this kind of legal thinking, and would indeed seem to have been inspired by it.
The heart of Soviet regressivism was embodied in the concept that Lenin called “Kto Kovo” meaning “Who, whom?” Who benefits? Leon Trotsky expressed the same basic concept in a 1925 article entitled, “Towards capitalism or towards socialism?” Fundamentally, the extremely Manichean and apocalyptic doctrine of Marxist-Leninism, later expanded upon by Mao and others, saw the world as being locked in a titanic, winner take all struggle of good – embodied by “the workers”, “the people” or “socialism” vs. evil, embodied by inherently exploitative “capitalists”, “imperialists” and “oppressors.”
This lends itself to a reductionist logic whereby any actions taken by the forces of good, either directly or by their self appointed vanguard, were by definition good. Naturally, the reverse is also true – since exploitation is at the heart of any non-socialist social system, definitions of human rights and civil liberties not based in Marxist-Leninist thought and not advanced by Kremlin sanctioned Marxist Leninist sources amounted to nothing more than apologetics for capitalism, imperialism and exploitation.
Western postmodernism did not pioneer the rejection of western liberal notions of universal human rights on relativistic grounds. Quote Lenin, “In the guise of equality of persons generally, bourgeois democracy proclaims the formal or juridical equality between the property owner and the proletarian, between the exploiter and the exploited, and thereby deceives the oppressed classes. The bourgeoisie transforms the idea of equality which is itself the reflection of commodity production relations into a weapon in the struggle against the abolition of classes on the plea of alleged absolute equality between individuals. The real meaning of the demand for equality lies exclusively in the demand for the abolition of classes.”
In this view, dignifying the rights of the individual requires first the abolition of class distinctions, as defined in Marxist materialist terms.
This is not to say that class (or race or gender) inequalities cannot undermine liberal notions of liberty and rights. This is not even to say that “rights” in the “bourgeois liberal” sense cannot be leveraged by the powerful and privileged to maximize their advantage vis-à-vis the disadvantaged. But there is a huge difference between criticizing the corrupting effects of inequality and privilege on outcomes in a liberal democratic polity, on the one hand, and viewing the entire concept of equal rights before the law as little more than a rationalization for or even a conspiracy to buttress inequality and privilege, on the other. Failure to make this distinction is a consistent core feature of regressive leftism.
The manipulation of the meaning of social power differentials, from the currently popular “power plus prejudice” doctrine to its Leninist precedent in “Kto Kovo” is the perhaps the most dangerous tendency in regressive leftism. While the capacity for powerful and propertied majorities to oppress minorities with a history of marginalization should be obviously much greater than the reverse, the flagrant abuse of this doctrine and its persistent use as a get out of jail free card for preferred groups is behind many of their most obnoxious behaviors.
By this line of reasoning, they can rationalize any self serving double standard or offensive behavior they wish. The consequences that this kind of thinking can excuse and enable run the full gamut from the obnoxious but generally harmless self righteousness and double standards of internet feminists and social justice warriors, to notions that women are incapable of domestic abuse or that minorities are incapable of hate crimes which can at least potentially be admitted in a court of law, if not inhibit their arrest for such crimes in the purpose, and finally to the bloody extremes of Stalin’s liquidation of the Kulaks in the Ukraine, a crime against humanity that approaches the holocaust in its viciousness and body count.
It is imperative that we learn to factor out the unjust realities of power differentials between groups and legitimate struggles against those inequalities from our evaluation of the conduct of individual members of those groups. All people must be accountable and responsible for their actions, regardless of the range of their influence in a more abstract, sociological sense. Statistics demonstrating social inequality are fair to use when justifying social programs aimed at reducing those inequalities. They must not be admissible when justifying demonstrably malicious behavior perpetrated by members of supposedly disadvantaged groups.
The grotesque errors in logic inherent in “power plus prejudice” thinking, ranging from two wrongs making a right to the fallacy of relative privation to ad hominems and false dilemmas make it an obviously deeply flawed way of thinking completely independent of the shitty behavior it enables and its natural tendency to provoke counter reaction in the supposedly “privileged” people who are often its targets.
Compounding this are legitimate questions about just how powerless so called “marginalized people” – or at least the pseudo intellectual class that so consistently appropriates their identities and struggles for their own political purposes – are when this line of reasoning is so pervasive in academia, media, government bureaucracy, human resources departments and so on, to say nothing of the full resources of a totalitarian state in the case of the former Soviet sphere? It should be borne in mind that it is the state, not the poor minorities themselves that oppresses when regressive leftists get their hands on real political power.
As a direct corollary to this, those deemed “privileged” in these reductionist ideological indexes of power quite frequently aren’t. The image of the six digit salary earning tenured college administrator, celebrity or media personality using their bully pulpit to tell unemployed white male laborers to “check their privilege” has become almost cliché in criticisms of SJWs. Sadly, it is a cliché too frequently based in truth.
Perhaps that is why the tendency to sweep the glaring problems with “power plus prejudice” and “Kto Kovo” lines of thinking under the rug is so strong in cultural institutions. It is so much easier to reduce complex questions of power, privilege and the abuse thereof to simple, two variable equations that make the good guy and bad guy easy to identify. But this is done at the expense of the intellectual and moral integrity of left wing movements. So long as the scapegoat – be it a male falsely accused of rape, a white Donald Trump supporter assaulted by Black Lives Matter or Antifa fanatics or a Kulak who dared hoard corn from Stalin’s secret police - has some arbitrary characteristic that the “revolutionary class” or “marginalized peoples” don’t have, the actual tendency of those scapegoated in this manner to be quite powerless can safely be ignored and any actions taken against them justified. Just don’t ask troublesome questions and you shouldn’t get in trouble.
Marxism was not contrived to be a regressive leftist doctrine – Marx himself insisted that his worldview was a “science” based on demonstrable material and economic factors. For Marx, who was exploited and who was privileged could be demonstrated through analysis of relations of production and how alienated labor produced surplus value for the benefit of the capitalists at the expense of the workers.
Nevertheless, it did open the door to many regressive tendencies, most notable of which was its secular variation of apocalyptic eschatology. The end times were conceived of as an inevitable confrontation between a proletariat made morally pure by its lack of exploitative relationship vis-à-vis another class, and a bourgeoisie wholly and utterly corrupt beyond anything seen prior to the capitalist era.
The popularity of heroic narratives stressing conflict of good vs evil is timeless and seems to be beyond even Marx’s notions of economic primacy, as demonstrated by the consistency of these themes in mythology, religion and even present day popular culture. But projecting this kind of thinking onto one’s view of the world carries with it certain innate dangers.
Like religious zealots thinking themselves God’s chosen people and theirs the one true faith, Marxism ennobled its followers with a sense of grand historical mission and therefore vulnerability to the notion that they could do no wrong. The “scientific” aspects of Marxism strengthened rather than tempered their self righteous resolve. It naturally lent itself to the “ends justify the means” kinds of logic used to rationalize the egregious human rights violations in Soviet Russia, Maoist China and elsewhere.
While orthodox Marxism straight out of Das Kapital is rare among 21st century regressive leftists (though it is making a bit of a comeback), its influence on current regressive leftism cannot be understated.
But do some elements of even today’s regressive leftism predate even Marx?
... Continued in Part 8: The Regressive Soul
It was not a large jump for the disillusioned remnants of the 1960s New Left to substitute race and gender based identity politics for class analysis into the Marxist oppressed/oppressor dialectic, although the materialist economic relations were a core aspect of Marx’s theories.
The result was an ideology stressing a bourgeoisie/proletariat style contradiction across race and gender lines that was insoluble by a revolution in the relations and means of production, as Marx stressed was both possible and necessary in class relations. This has left us with race and gender based theories of privilege that negate economic relations, however essential such relations may have been to the rise of racial and gender inequality in the first place. What we are now left with is an endless future of strained racial and sexual relations and endless culture wars, wherein innocuous comments are considered “microaggressions” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are among the few tools left with which intersectional regressive leftists – themselves oddly ensconced in high places in media and academic institutions – may fight privilege and inequality.
But do some elements of even today’s regressive leftism predate even Marx?
... Continued in Part 8: The Regressive Soul