Above: Conservative Social Commentator, Kevin Donnelly is a high-profile ‘public intellectual’ – best known for his opinions on Education. Donnelly also regularly challenges multi-culturalism and radical views on ‘gender fluidity’. Like many Conservatives, he criticises so-called ‘Cultural Marxism’, (arguably capitalising on fear and ignorance). He argues that ‘Cultural Marxism’ is a threat to Western Civilisation and the legacy of the Enlightenment. But Donnelly’s opinions deserve to be challenged – For the sake of ‘genuine pluralism’; and for the sake of clarity when it comes to understanding the modern Left.
This is the first of what I hope to be two essays in response to Kevin Donnelly
By Dr Tristan Ewins
Australian Catholic University based public intellectual, Dr Kevin Donnelly has established himself as one of Australia’s most prominent big ‘C’ Conservative voices: and undoubtedly as an important influence on the ethos of the governing Liberal Party. This essay is a progressive response to Donnelly’s book, ‘How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia – Enemies Within and Without’. (probably to be followed by a second essay into the future)
As part of the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ in Australia, Conservatives have decried what they call the ‘Black Armband’ view of the nation’s history, (Historian, Geoffrey Blainey’s term): a view of Australia’s complicity in imperialism and colonialism; and a past Conservatism which disadvantaged minorities. Instead, Donnelly and those like him emphasise a narrative of Australia’s broad liberal and Christian traditions, (and even of how liberalism developed in tandem with the broader Enlightenment tradition). Donnelly argues that these have involved pluralism, freedom and intellectual rigour.
What is ‘Cultural Marxism’ anyway? Double Standards in our ‘Historic Memory’
While most on the ‘broad Australian Left’ could probably still fit comfortably into the ‘liberal left’ category, Donnelly and other big ‘C’ Conservative thinkers see something more ‘sinister’ at work. The term ‘Cultural Marxism’ is increasingly thrown around with abandon. (Donnelly seems to prefer that to the use of the alternative term, ‘Critical Theory’) He cites ‘the Left’s’ ‘Long March through the Institutions’ as leading to ‘Politically Correct’ thinking in schools and universities; and more broadly in popular culture. Importantly; this so-called ‘Politically-Correct’ (PC) outlook often has a tendency to emphasise gender, sexuality, culture and race, (a shift from ‘old left’ emphasis on social class and a critique of capitalism).
Despite most of the ‘broad Australian Left’ arguably identifying as ‘liberal left’, ‘Marxism’ in particular is cited as the ‘bogeyman’. The reasons for this are obvious: to capitalise on fear, ignorance and confusion.
Many Conservatives identify ‘Marxism’ as an ‘unbearable evil’; even though most of them cannot pin-point what the term actually means. Donnelly refers to Pol Pot and Stalin amongst others as examples of ‘Marxism’.
A more thorough investigation might have identified the place of US bombing in Laos – in facilitating social collapse, and the consequent rise of Pol Pot, (this is before mentioning the place of Pinochet’s coup and the mass murder in Chile 1972; the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, 1980; and of the massacre of over half a million Leftists and labour movement activists by Suharto in 1960s Indonesia; or other ‘Cold War atrocities’).
Also, the place of Western intervention in giving rise to an outlook of utter desperation amongst the Bolsheviks in the period spanning 1917 through the 1920s – could accompany a more thorough investigation. As would the place of the First World War – which set the scene for Russian social collapse, and itself resulted in approximately 20 million deaths.
Bolshevism specifically degenerated into Stalinism. Other Marxist thinkers such as Karl Kautsky and Julius Martov identified the effective likelihood of this, and the damage consequently done to the broader socialist cause – relatively early on during the Bolshevik Revolution.
Marx himself had identified the threat of ‘Bonapartism’. – whereby a political leader consolidated themselves above social classes and other interests. (That could apply to both Napoleon Bonaparte AND to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III; and finally to Stalin himself). Arguably Stalinism – and the Cult of Personality around Stalin – saw this taken to a level previously unthinkable. Even before Stalin’s rise, ‘Jacobin’ strategies of revolutionary Terror were also an important factor – but that was not the whole story.
To consider the prevailing ‘selectivity’ in our ‘historic memory’: Trotsky’s march against Anarchist dissident Sailors at Kronstadt in 1921 might be compared in nature to Winston Churchill’s sinking of the anchored French Fleet during World War II (July 1940) – following the French surrender to Germany. While the Bolsheviks responded to what they saw as an existential threat to the Revolution, Churchill considered a scenario (Nazi capture of the French fleet) which could have turned the tide of the War in Hitler’s favour. In Churchill’s case over 1000 French sailors (until then Allied to Britain) were killed. In the case of Kronstadt total causalities were over 10,000, (considering both sides).
(As an aside; If the Bolsheviks had heeded the voice of Rosa Luxemburg (in 1918) a maintenance of liberties may have provided an ‘outlet’ through which the whole situation may have been avoided in the first place in Russia. But in reality, now we will never know.)
Both acts could be questioned morally. It could also be argued that desperate circumstances lead to ethically challenging dilemmas, to put it mildly. What is often missing with ‘Conservative critiques’ as usual – is intellectual and moral consistency. Critics of Trotsky, for instance (and I am not a Trotskyist), are often silent when it comes to other ‘fateful decisions’ such as that of Churchill. Dissident Marxist critiques of Bolshevism and Stalinism (eg: Kautsky, Martov, Luxemburg) are also largely absent from popular memory. It should not be like this.
Donnelly points to the ‘Frankfurt School’ as the source of the so-called ‘Cultural Marxist’ movement. The ‘Frankfurt School’ began as an intellectual movement in interwar Germany, before migrating to the US in for fear of Nazism. (Some ‘Critical Theorists’ were to re-establish themselves in Europe following the defeat of Hitler). Forming the ‘First Generation’ of Critical Theory; thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, while retaining a critical disposition against fascism, could not delude themselves about the direction of the USSR under Stalin.
Also, the prospects for the organised working class and traditional socialism had appeared increasingly questionable as fascism rose in Europe.
‘The Frankfurt School’ increasingly became synonymous with ‘Critical Theory’. Broadly speaking; ‘Critical Theory’ developed a critique of Western culture and an emphasis on minority perspectives and rights. Some self-identifying ‘Critical Theorists’ tended to suppose that the ‘traditional’ socialist movement’s ‘historical moment’ had passed.
In other words – that the working class had largely been co-opted; in part because of the role of popular culture, to which you could also add other factors, including religion and nationalism. In more recent decades, the decline of ‘Fordism’, factory labour and so on in many countries – has seen an accompanying decline of organised labour as well.
Nonetheless, Marcuse – with his work, ‘One Dimensional Man’ (originally published in 1964) – focused on the socialist project as one of ‘radical negation’ – of ‘a Great Refusal’ (of capitalism) involving ‘minority’ perspectives, including racial minorities, women, students and so on. This was a break with the traditional (Marxist) view of socialism arising primarily from ‘a Dialectic of Class Struggle’.
Marcuse especially was influential in the late 1960s with the wave of ‘student uprisings’ which swept Europe, (and the rise of the ‘New Left’). Marcuse was notable in rejecting modern society’s emphasis on an outlook of ‘social closure’ for which there is no room for deep criticism or negation; an outlook for which ‘the system delivers the goods’ and should not be questioned. “Democracy” was becoming increasingly tokenistic and shallow on account of its manipulation; a tendency which continues still.
But importantly, some examples of ‘Critical Theory’ are radically at odds with Donnelly’s caricatures.
‘Second Generation’ Critical Theorist’, Jurgen Habermas argued about ‘Legitimation Crisis’; a decline and perhaps even collapse of public confidence in the State and other institutions. For example, the perceived legitimacy of the State (and indeed capitalism itself) – could suffer in the wake of attacks on welfare, and other hard-won gains of working people, such as labour market regulation and workers’ rights and liberties. (all the more so where Social Democratic and ‘Left’ parties actually refuse any ‘consensus’ around austerity, and other policies harmful to the working class and the disadvantaged)
Habermas also argued about the conflict between ‘System’ and ‘Life-World’ – a consideration of capitalism’s economic-system-imperatives; its priorities; and the way these conflict with peoples’ ‘quality of life –, especially for the working class. ‘System’ effectively ‘colonises’ ‘life-world’; becomes detached from the real-world needs of human beings. Economic insecurity and increasing intensity in the processes of exploitation are part of this. (eg: falling wage share of the economy; less free time; increasing class ‘stratification’ or ‘bifurcation’)
Drawing in part from Habermas: Arguably, democracy is increasingly reduced to ‘administration’ in the interests of capitalism. Real pluralism is ‘hollowed out’. And the inability of governments to resolve the economic and social crises which follow intensify the consequent crises of legitimacy. As an aside: the ‘Identity Politics’ which Donnelly opposes so strongly – actually helps maintain an illusion of greater pluralism. This outcome is ironic in light of Marcuse’s original vision of a ‘Great Refusal’. All the oppressed of the world need solidarity more than ever. But to paraphrase Marcuse; objectively, without this ‘Identity Politics’ society and politics would have been better-exposed as being otherwise ‘One Dimensional’.
Also importantly: democratic socialism more broadly is part of what we might call ‘The Western Tradition’. (which Donnelly argues he is defending) Capitalism increasingly puts the gains of democratic socialism – including labour rights, broader liberties, the mixed economy, progressive tax, the social wage and the welfare state – under threat.
But rather than ‘rejecting’ the Enlightenment project, Habermas instead refers to it as ‘unfinished’. So without rejecting ‘Modernity’ and ‘Enlightenment’, Habermas defends the potential for what he calls ‘Communicative Action’ and the achievement of a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’. (that is, perfectly free and rational exchange and engagement without distortions or coercion; And hence: social actors striving for agreement on the substance of human liberation through Reason and Ethics-inspired dialogue).
There is more than so-called ‘Cultural Marxism’ on today’s Left; Past Conservative and ‘Centrist’ traditions also opposed hard economic Liberalism
There is a different emerging tradition on the Left, also, that is worth mentioning. ‘Agonistic’ ‘Post-Marxists’ such as Chantal Mouffe assume enduring pluralism and a permanent place for dissent. That enduring pluralism is at the heart of their perspective. In other words: they assume consensus will not ensue. Indeed, for many either it is thought to be overly-optimistic to seek that consensus – or maybe even it is undesirable.
There is also the question of class struggle; which can be exclusive of communicative action and any ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ in contexts driven by interest. When capitalists have been increasingly (and successfully) dictating terms in response to various economic crises from the 1970s onward – they are not necessarily interested in dialogue which involves compromise. (unless forced)
Crucially, though – in practice, both Habermas and the Agonist democrats assume a need for pluralism, liberty and engagement. The examples they provide ‘fly in the face’ of Donnelly’s characterisation of ‘the modern Left’ and ‘Politically-Correct-enforced-conformity’.
Continuing our consideration of Critical Theory: To assert the centrality of Habermas to Critical Theory is also to assert that the broad Critical Theory tradition cannot be boiled down to post-modern and deconstructionist rejection of Modernity, Enlightenment, Reason; or what might be called ‘the Western Tradition’. ‘Post-Modernism’ itself also has meant radically different things to different people.
While some people claim it as a rejection of ‘Modernity’ and its assumptions, Australian social theorist Peter Beilharz (in ‘Postmodern Socialism: Romanticism, City, State’) suggested it might be constructed as ‘the critical moment in Modernity’.
Here ‘Modernity’ refers to societies and economies of increasing scale and complexity; developing further with industrialisation, and with themes of Enlightenment, Reason, and so on. We’re talking about a frame which in a way is inclusive of certain tendencies in socialist, liberal and capitalist traditions – even though these are historically in conflict with one another as well.
Again we are in highly-contested terrain.
It might be noted, though, that there is also a now-mostly-forgotten tradition – a tradition historically associated with the Catholic working class – a tradition which styled itself as ‘Centrist’. (Though notably, those such as Giddens and Blair have also tried to resuscitate a kind of ‘Centrism’) Yet intellectuals such as Donnelly have apparently chosen to ‘side’ with big ‘L’ Economic Liberalism and big ‘C’ Cultural and Political Conservatism. (if this is not so, Donnelly does a good job of hiding or avoiding it)
The old-style ‘Centrism’ emphasised ‘corporatism’, welfare state, and some labour rights including labour market regulation. Today, Giddens and Blair identify as ‘Social Democrats’ or ‘The Radical Centre’.
But looking back to the original ‘Centrism’: amongst some, there was a clear authoritarianism. Some ‘Centrist’ leaders such as the ‘Christian Social’ President of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss – beginning with his seizure of power and dissolution of a democratically-elected Socialist government in 1934 – historically chose to side with a kind of fascism; (ironically, not long before the formalisation of the ‘Axis’ of Germany and Italy, Dolfuss sought the protection of Mussolini from Hitler – in return for the suppression of Social Democracy!).
‘Corporatism’ –including state mediation – or forcible suppression – of class conflict and differences– was itself part of the broad fascist tradition; though arguably different kinds of ‘corporatism’ (eg: re Swedish Social Democracy) were much more ‘democracy-friendly’; or even co-existed with a kind of ‘democratic class struggle’ (see: Walter Korpi), (the ‘Accords’ under the Federal Labor Government in 1980s and early 1990s Australia could also be considered corporatist ; not fascist in the sense of Dollfuss ; but compromising the interests of the working class on a number of fronts). Importantly: though a right-wing authoritarian and fascist, Dollfuss was not a Nazi. Indeed he opposed Hitler and was assassinated by Nazi agents.
Today – to overcome an ensuing negative electoral response to austerity and other associated attacks, fear of ‘Political Correctness’ is played-upon. This means ‘papering over’ the contradictions which could ‘get in the way’ of preserving right-wing footholds amidst the working class – parts of which feel ‘abandoned’ by ‘self-styled social democratic’ parties for whom issues of economic inequality and exploitation have been largely ‘relegated to the Too-Hard Basket’.
To elaborate: in this context, modern-day Conservatives attempt to make inroads into traditional social democratic working class support bases. They exploit often-exaggerated discussions around ‘Political-Correctness’; with the assistance of the monopoly mass media. This is in a context where much of the working class is relatively conservative on culture compared with the so-called ‘cultural Left’.
In light of the tendency of Critical Theorists to emphasise what they saw as the almost-totalitarian nature of modern popular culture and capitalism in achieving ‘systemic closure’, it is ironic that today some Conservatives see its own perspective as a totalitarian, ‘politically correct’ threat to everything laudable in Western Civilisation. In reality, today’s Left is highly plural. While some still identify with the theoretical lineage of Marxism, many (perhaps most) post-modernists and deconstructionists do not identify as ‘Marxist’ at all.
That said, it would be dishonest to simply ‘deny’ ‘The Cultural Turn’ and the transformation of what passes for progressive politics. The point is to establish that the retreat of a ‘more-traditional’ socialism has not been ‘total’ ; that ‘culture’ and ‘economics’ need not and should not be considered exclusive of each other ; and for much of the Left economics and social class still matters ; though the project of an alternative democratic socialist economic project in ‘The West’ has arguably been mainly in retreat since the 1970s. To some extent, it has been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Much More to Marxism than The Conservatives Understand
Donnelly’s emphasis on ‘Stalinist Dystopias’ and ‘Political Correctness’ also side-steps the matter of Marxism’s original ‘Cultural Project’. For Marx – and many who followed him (including, for instance, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Julius Martov) economic abundance under Socialism was not to lead to surveillance, Terror, Cult of Personality, labour militarisation and labour conscription (In short: Oppression) – but rather to cultural and social opportunity arising from material plenty, including free time. For instance, this might mean freedom to partake in Art and Philosophy – amongst other pursuits.
To take the example of Austrian Social Democracy (or ‘Austro-Marxism’) in the 1917-1934 period: this meant promotion of working-class culture including sport, radio stations and libraries; and involving amenities for working class people. This included impressive public housing estates, including hot running water, communal pools and communal laundry facilities. (rare for the time).
And even before this timeframe; going back to the original theorists of Marxist orthodoxy during the height of the Second International and earlier (ie: pre-WWI): this might even have meant assisting people in seeking after the highest truths for their own sake. In addition to ‘freedom from oppression’ that also includes ‘enabling freedom’: empowerment for the purpose of self-realisation. Understood thus the tensions between collectivism and individualism can also be mediated, and socialism can provide opportunities for individual self-realisation which do not arise under capitalism.
To conclude: Donnelly portrays a Left that has nothing ‘positive’ to say about ‘Western Civilisation’. He totally misses the whole point made by thinkers like Marcuse – that societies which refuse to accommodate debate whereby a significantly-different kind of future can be envisaged and communicated – are not genuinely free! This must also involve the inclusion of dissenting social movements in public debate. But also, the idea of a ‘teleology’ (or ‘necessary direction’) of history – as presumed by orthodox Marxists – is questioned amongst today’s Left. Following the lead of ‘Post-Marxists’ and ‘Agonists’, the future is considered by some a matter of ‘collective will formation’, strategy and choice. (indeed, a matter of ‘counter-hegemony’, or the mobilisation of the broad social forces necessary to facilitate change) Hence as part of a pluralist agenda, we ought to strive for a tolerant Left; though still: radical democrats ought not to be naïve or complacent in the face of existential threats to democracy. (eg: the resurgence of fascism in Europe).
Also, arguably capitalism has always been ‘repressive’, ‘regressive’ and in some senses even ‘progressive’ – at the same time and in different ways. As Marx argued in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848): Capitalism unleashed an unprecedented wave of economic growth and innovation; (establishing the preconditions for socialism). At the same time, capitalism has involved waste, exploitation, excesses, and warped priorities. These conditions gave rise to various movements; for Socialism – but also the Centrism which we have mentioned, and more recently environmental movements.
So in that context: For today’s socialists, the socialist project should still be about ‘radical negation’ in the sense of class struggle (and broader struggle) against the exploitation, warped priorities, injustices and excesses of capitalism.
But socialism can be about affirmation also. We can acknowledge the progressive economic contributions of capitalism: and of ‘modernity’ considered more broadly. And along with the original Marxist Social Democrats – who trail-blazed in their pursuit of Free, Equal and Universal Suffrage as early as the 19th Century (when almost all others neglected that cause as ‘too radical’) – we need not reject the place for some kind of parliamentary democracy and far-reaching liberties. Most definitely we should also be striving to extend the reach of democracy; including economic democracy – whether through the restoration of a robust mixed economy; or through workers and consumers’ co-operatives; or through other avenues such as ‘wage-earner funds’ and comparable projects.
While the perspective of ‘class’ should not be considered ‘sufficient and exhaustive in its own right’; We should not shy away from ‘class struggle’ in the broad sense. We should embrace the fight for social justice; for economic security and distributive justice; and a fulfilling life for everyone. Again, that does not have to mean rejecting the very humanity of individual capitalists; (we must avoid the ‘brutalisation’ of politics where we can). It does mean questioning the morality and outcomes of capitalist social and economic relations.
Finally: we should work to decouple the view of liberties and capitalism- whereby they are seen somehow as ‘essentially and inextricably linked’; (to the exclusion of socialism). In fact, ‘liberty’ and ‘capitalism’ are often in tension and conflict with one another and depending on the specific expression, the causes of liberty and socialism can be mutually sympathetic.
The cause of democratic socialism is not forever exhausted, but ‘hope’ requires of us that we take a stand. Donnelly’s narrative on so-called ‘Political Correctness’, and his ‘beating up’ of the bogeyman of ‘Cultural Marxism’ – is part of the problem. So too is the abandonment of the cause of economic justice by significant sections of the self-identifying Left.
As an Australian Labor Party member of approximately 25 years, it is painful but necessary to acknowledge that for decades Labor has been at the heart of a range of policies which have undermined certain rights of labour, as well as the mixed economy, and at times the welfare state.
Importantly – the Trans-Pacific Partnership has recently been endorsed by the Federal Labor Opposition: a move which could leave governments open to being sued by foreign corporations should they facilitate policies (eg: on the rights of labour) which affect company profits. Even in Victoria under Daniel Andrews of the Socialist Left we see ‘Public-Private Partnerships’ and ‘Asset Recycling’; (‘code’ for privatisation).
It is those kinds of scenarios that leave the broad Left vulnerable to Conservative and Far-Right strategies of ‘divide and conquer’.
We should have learned that lesson by now.
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