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‘Political Correctness’ and ‘Cultural Marxism’ – Why the Right is Wrong: A Response to Kevin Donnelly

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.

Bibliography

Beilharz, P. (1994), ‘Postmodern Socialism—Romanticism, City and State, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Donnelly, K (2018), How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia – Enemies Within and Without, Wilkinson Publishing,  Melbourne.
Eley, G. (2002), Forging Democracy, The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Galili, Z. (1989), The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution—Social Realities and Political Strategies, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Gruber, H. (1991), Red Vienna—Experiment in Working-Class Culture 1919–1934, Oxford University Press, New York.
Hudis, P. and Anderson, K., eds, (2004), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press, New York.
Kautsky, K. (1964), The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, University Of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Korpi, W. (1983), The Democratic Class Struggle, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Lenin, V.I. (1996), Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Pluto Press, London.
Marcuse, H. (1968), One Dimensional Man, Sphere, London.
Marx, K. and Engels, F (1989), Selected Works I, Progress Publishers, Moscow.
Mouffe, C. (2005a), On the Political, Routledge, Abingdon.
Mouffe, C. (2005b), The Return of the Political, Verso, London.
Outhwaite, W (1994), Habermas – A Critical Introduction, Stanford, California.
Rabinbach, A. (1983), The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War, 1927–1934, University of Chicago Press, London.
Trotsky, L. (2007), Terrorism and Communism, Verso, New York.


25 comments

  1. New England Cocky

    Oh dear, this is all a bit to technical for me, a mere scientist.

    Donnelly is a member of that class of economic parasites known as Roman Catholic priests who suck the public funding out of state education with the willing assistance both major political parties to provide third rate academic child care to the detriment of quality teaching in state schools. That is after obtaining tax breaks at Federal, state and local government levels for providing a “community service” that too often has been shown to be “community exploitation” of parishioner’s progeny by pedophile priests and their kiddie fiddling “mates”.

    The re-distribution of education finances within the RC system is opaque and the remittance of funds to Rome is an unknown quantum.

    There is little doubt that the present RAbbott Turdball Morriscum LNP misgovernment is better described as “fascist” than “liberal”. Certainly the refugee policies of inhumane treatment are in stark contrast to Christian teaching, while the politicians are fawning to foreign owned corporations and so betraying the best interests of Australian voters. Is this treason?

    And Donnelly remains silent when his Christian beliefs should be screaming for the “Western values” that he advocates, without apparently practising them. So, could Donnelly be accurately described as a “hypocrite” as well as an “economic parasite”?

  2. Andrew Smith

    These big C conservatives like elsewhere e.g. Brexit often use the language of the left, double speak and distortion of meaning to confuse and coopt.

    The latter is about getting to old left and right, exemplified by Brexiteers, Tories and Labour’s youth Momentum (insurgency) complaining about elites, ‘globalisation’ (blame Soros like Rothschild’s) and supranational bodies (EU) encouraging liberalism over national sovereignty.

    Think with the likes of Donnelly their language or definitions need interrogation.

  3. Arthur Toadstool

    Tristan, thank you for a well rounded, thoughtful and informed contribution. Let it first be said that there is great need for an ever mounting and resounding assertion of the broad thrust of Tristan’s article here, and it would be great to hear that echo in other arenas and domains. I hope for that.

    But for the sake of encouraging more posts like this, including the thoughtful responses Tristan’s contribution has generated in reply, I want to take up some issues with some of the ideas and analyses proposed. Speaking as an academic who definitely counts as part of the broad left, I want to make these comments in good faith, the good faith of furthering the thought and analysis going on here, and in good faith in an attempt to salvage some semblance of humanity for the many and not just for the few.

    The first thing I noticed while reading your very thorough piece, Tristan, is the language. Typical of the sort of language that we academics are trained in; calm, moderate, modest, it strikes a tone of reasoned debate of ideas based on reason and logical argumentation. This is a complete opposite to the language that many on the extreme right use. I think the present moment in human history may be marked by a particularly effective use of emotive language in creating an attempt at using a somewhat cliched term of “emotional intelligence”. Writers like Donnelly – not to mention people like Trump and Farage – dont need to stick facts because what they do is they pick up on (and help to generate) fear and other flight-fight psychological responses to the world around us. At this level of discourse, it is difficult to make a good rational logic based argument drawn from facts stick because those who come into contact with such messages and communications struggle even just to remain calm enough to think about what is said. I think the closest I know of this that came earlier than the “now” was the hysteria generated in the early part of the Cold War when people really thought that at any moment, a hailstorm of nuclear missiles would rain upon their homes and so built nuclear bomb shelters out of their cellars (if they were lucky enough to have cellars, of course).

    So my initial reaction to this writing was this…. “how can this well thought through analysis really captivate an audience when they’re already running scared and they need to get a message embedded in alarm bells and bright strobing lights of blue and red before they will even create a space in their minds where they could focus on what is being said.” I believe part of the problem is this, and it has arisen out of the way we use media today and what we see on it. As Baudrillard suggested, the first Iraqi war was staged mostly as a spectacle for our eyes on screens. And it is there where people’s distracted attention spans was and remains focused. As Walter Benjamin said in his still brilliant Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the great problem with the media, and particularly those predominant arms of the media that rest in the hands of the dominant class, is that it gives the onlooker pleasure in observing the disempowerment, the disembodiment, and eventually the dismemberment of workers.

    Secondly, part of the problems has to do with the way this present wave of globalisation has been formed since the 1980s, which again privileges the position of power and authoritarianism as well as militarism and policing through symbolic capital. Trump and his cronies are the perfect example of an end-game the early protagonists of our present day form of globalisation such as Thatcher and Reagan could have predicted. In particular here I am thinking of the role of global media formations, not just of the Fox and CNN types, but rather, intrinsically, the very form of technology such as the internet, which have enabled monoliths like facebook, google, microsoft, and all the other high tech “giants” to take shape. That the present form of new technology – including the development of computers and artificial intelligence – has and is being driven by coporations like Apple and Microsoft (and its ironic that today compared to Facebook and Google, Microsoft looks almost like a user friendly platform!), these corporations have – at least since the 1990s – been deliberately contriving techniques and technologies that ensure their domination and control over every day life.

    Thirdly, there is at least a grain of truth in what people like Steve Bannon have been saying. As always, there is an essence of truth in their criticisms of the so-called “Left” particularly when they point out that there has been a degree of censorship and closure of debate in academia and – arguably – amongst State sanctioned arts and intellectual domains. The labelling of “political correctness” works because there is a grain of truth in this, perhaps more than a grain of truth. To use an anecdotal example, I found out that in some circles, notably the highly polarised and reactionary world of the US today, that to some I appear like I’m a member of the right and hard right myself and have on one occasion been catagorised as a member of the MRA (I had no idea what the MRA was prior to this accusation) all because I happened to voice an opinion that differed (and challenged) the views of the respondent I was addressing. There has been a degree of intolerance to difference even amongst the Left, and if people of different political persuasion than those of the present ruling classes are ever to gain some ascendency again – at least in popular opinion (not to be confused with populism of course) – then we have to have the courage to engage with ourselves and take such criticisms on, and really address them.

    Finally, I would like to humbly add that progressives and radicals of the 60s and 70s were wrong to ever think that the hegemonic order would ever give up power without using every weapon it had at its disposal to retain its persisting social order. Although superficially, the appearances of the social order may indeed look different today to anything that it has ever looked like in the past, it is my contention that the underlying order of power has not changed at all, but, if anything, it has merely become much more rigid at the same time as becoming more refined and more solidified. As Fanon saw in his brilliant analysis of colonialism in The Wretched of the Earth, colonialism is an extremely violent form of domination that will not willingly give up power and privilege accept through the exercise of equal or even greater power and violence. This leads me to a rather more pessimistic conclusion about the future, even if we werent confronted in our daily lives by the imminent threat of the anthroposcene, the fifth greatest extinction event in the history of the planet, I believe, and of people’s “buried heads in the sand” towards problems we have ourselves largely been creating – pollution, (human) overpopulation, environmental degradation and distruction, and climate change. Now if that seems now to be taking a very broad sweep from where your paper started, I do believe all the issues are intimately connected, pointing to human (and particularly Western) complicity.

    Having said that, I also know that the future is and remains unpredictable, even with all the best science we have. So while on the face of things, the situation may look bleak, I remain also of the opinion that the future will be not only stranger and more unpredictable than anything we might have experienced in the past, it will be even stranger and more unpredictable than what we can even imagine.

  4. ajogrady

    Definition of the Right and the Left political thinking. The Right is “how do I get more”. The Left is “how do I hang on to what I have”. Simple!

  5. Miriam

    Just another Conservative with a chip on their shoulder.

  6. Karen Kyle

    I suspect Cultural Marxism is just an updated “reds under the bed” scare tactic. After all what were the poor big C Conservatives to do once the Soviet Union collapsed? The bogeyman was gone, so they had to largely invent a secret Marxism that was sort of magical and all pervasive, one that most people were unaware of and victims of at the same time. They were helped by the extraordinary foolishness of some Left intellectuals who were and are extreme in their “oppressed minority politics”. This spurious argument has been given an additional charge by a softening among many people in the US and elsewhere in their attitudes towards Socialism. Think Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. Think the desire for a universal health care system in the US, the only advanced democracy without this vital service. Instead of seeing this resurgence of limited Socialist thinking as part of the natural swing of the pendulum caused by the excesses of the right wing neo cons it has to be seen as a diabolical plot. May the fleas of a thousand jackals infest their stupid right wing. Now we have to fight the buggers all over again.

  7. paul walter

    Cultural Marxism IS the legacy of the Enlightenment.

    But Donnelly speaks for opposing force, DeMaistreanism, the force that has been winning the battle at the expense of what we think of as civilisation, for at least the last fifteen years and probably since Thatcher.

    You are either for honesty, OR the IPA, for consciousness and thinking OR dumbing down and a return to the Middle Ages.

    And how is a theocratic dystopia that different from an ideological one? If Stalinism is a perversion of socialism, how much has medieval religion and the medieval state a perversion of Christianity? It has been too much of a struggle to break clear of the Ancien Regime, without ending up back there without aresistance.

  8. paul walter

    One thing, I quibble with the writer’s idea of Marcuse as Cultural Marxist break with some sort of “Traditional” Marxism-as dialectic- so much as a development or emphasis on what class alienation actually is; about what it feels like and how it is expressed, since it relates so closely to commodification; the capitalist repressive tolerant reproductive strategem that has “one shoe size for all feet”with its attendent discomfort as a necessity for the continuation of “ressentiment” that maintains the system over generations.

    Marcuse and co ‘s big idea is that it is what is NOT apparent or more immanent, or beneath the surface, for want of a better definition, like the cosmic hum, that fosters a deeper understanding of what Marx grasped in his holistic approach to Civilisation. The Frankfurt school didn’t break with Marxism so much as built on it and developed it to render it more comprehensible by presenting the testimonies of the Alienated as illustrations of what had been proposed. Yes, I can trace feminism and Edward Said and subaltern theory right back to this development, the abstract is rendered comprehensible through the dialectic, the human cost if you like, through the artful representation of Donnelly’s victims given voice and felt and understood.

  9. Kaye Lee

    Tristan,

    I would suggest you have a look at Alan Jones’ Facebook page. It’s an hilarious example of how the right champion free speech as they shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

    Alan put up a thread asking “Have we turned the corner on the free speech issue?”

    He goes on to say….

    “The left have been in charge of universities for too long.

    Remember, the Marxist teaching of left-wing crap has indoctrinated young people to believe that you can do anything you like to those you oppose. Marxism is the only way. All opposition much be crushed.”

    Two posts later he is personally eviscerating anyone and everyone, with very personal attacks that have nothing to do with the topic, who dared to speak out about his interference in demanding his horse-racing buddies be allowed to advertise on the Opera House and his vitriolic bullying of Louise Herron.

    https://www.facebook.com/alanjonesaustralia/
    .

  10. paul walter

    Kaye Lee, you would have LOVED Sheridan on the Drum today.

  11. Tristan Ewins

    Paul I’m not so much saying Marcuse abandoned a dialectical materialism more generally ; more the case that he was pessimistic about the class struggle dialectic specifically.

  12. Kaye Lee

    paul.

    I missed it but I severely doubt I would love anything from the Abbott acolyte.

  13. paul walter

    “…pessimistic about the class struggle dialectic specifically”.

    Triss, can you go into that in a bit more detail?

    I think you are skeptical of how pessimistic determinism can be, but the readings are still from basically the same hymn book.
    Marcuse was elaborating on Marx with the benefit of a centuries hindsight. There is no distinction between different components of the working class, although this was less apparent in the industrial fifties and sixties of course.

    The common denominator is exclusion and alienation. Even the bosses are subject to conditioning/commodification, which is why many of them are such miserable bastards also.

    As for history and teleology, none of us ever thought it was going to be easy, Lenin realised as to Imperialism and colonialism and the system is always adept at coverings its own ass with more illusions, as the likes of Barthes observed.

    As long as everyone, the bourgeoisie included are, bought off with trinkets mirrors and other bright shiny things, it will stay hard and the hope or vision for change obscured through pessimism of the repressive tolerant inscribed sort.

    I confess the status quo drives me to despair, but every so often you something that offers a glimpse of a positive value as to humans and humanity and I’ll only be in REAL trouble if can’t eventually remember that at an impasse.

    Believe me, I am GLAD the posting is up, the substance of deep social thinkers is often buried under trivia and driven out of educational places for fear of upsetting brainless WASP oligarchs.

  14. Matters Not

    The Drum tonight was terrible. Just skipped quickly through the tape. Boring. Sheridan, the (Abbott) bromancer, was his usual self. But now know that Peter Martin works for The Conversation and not the SMH.

    The Media landscape changes at an ever accelerating pace. And not for the better.

  15. paul walter

    Back here to put up a link and caught Arthur Toadstool’s reaction, which was neat.

    I have just read Jeff Sparrow’s piece suddenly popping up with the comments section already closed after it seemingly being hidden for its published life…Good site that in many ways, the Guardian but gee its presentation can be muddled at times- no wonder it also is known as the Grauniad.

    Arthur Toadstool says what I struggled with so much more clearly and adds to Tristan Ewins piece in a way that I think Tristan Ewins would be satisfied with.

    I wanted to add this :

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/08/the-opera-house-debacle-is-neoliberal-hostility-to-the-public-at-work
    It is coming from a slightly different trajectory to the work here, but Arthur, plus tonight’s Media Watch on shock thugs, esp Jones and Murdoch concerning the Opera House inanities, really confirms my idea that Sparrow’s piece relates to what some of this thread is about because Marcuse the Frankfurters and others of later times understood symbolism as part of the evolving battleground involving the warning for the masses concerning appearances versus realities.

    Hopefully this: http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/episodes/climate-calamity1/10353132

    transcribes for background,esp re the Opera House. although it is getting away from the uptake of the theoretics around the mechanics of the dialectic and its workings.

    Y’r ‘Umble servant, etc.

  16. Oscar

    Greg Sheridan is just a slut for hire.He’d say anything for a dollar.

  17. Andrew Oliver

    We disagree about Kevin Donnelly I see him more as a DLP NCC type than as a right wing Liberal.

    Unfortunately Kevin conflates some sexual policy ideas of radical feminists with radical Marxists.

    In the name of diversity and difference genuine liberty we need to reject the whole idea of sexual policy. Let the minority of sissys and tomboys be the way they are and don’t prescribe surgery which is tantamount to child abuse.

    On the other hand I tend to agree with Kevin about educational policy known as dumbing down. In relation to Physics Chemistry Computer Science and Mathematics all crucial to technological solutions to climate change we need to reject dumbing down for practical reasons. The idea that Chemical experiments which don’t work usually like the one popular with dumbing down exponents where the copper sulphate deliquesces and its weight is overstated and the stoichiometry doesn’t add up the students lose faith in science and get the idea it’s all nonsense. I’m not education policy value conflict I just think that teachers who vandalise the maths science textbooks deliberately to confuse students need seven year jail terms cold food in bluestone prisons breaking rocks. I’m right wing social democrat because I’m right wing on education. I support NAPLAN. But I’d in the name of equal opportunity defund all elite secondary schools and all schools run by anti science religious fundamentalists too. The state schools need to have their standards raised I’m with Bill Hayden raise the standard and still have raise the standard badges and stickers.

    As to economic policy and ecological policy ecological policy does have murky associations in the twentieth century if pushed to extremes ecology can be like eugenics. But we face a climate change catastrophe and must address the issue nevertheless. In relation to history it has been commented that Lenin and Stalin killed almost equal numbers of Russians Lenin in forced collectivisation and social class war and Stalin in fighting Nazism.

  18. Mark Hyde

    Conflation as straw man misrepresentation of BOTH The Frankfurt School and its’ project and socialism or Marxism in general.

    Donnelly can’t even argue his case properly and consistently – these talking points are years old, unoriginal and really amount to red-baiting what should be shared assumptions about basic human rights and related matters.

    My simple proposition is that a society that wishes to be built on just grounds can’t have capitalist assumptions underpinning it – we need alternative economic models. It’s the profit driven model that is destroying the planet and sending us into a massive climate change emergency.

    Until those are addressed the power will remain with Donnelly et al and those who think like him on gender and sexuality issues. The only child abuse is calling CHILDREN ‘sissy boys’ and ‘tomboys’ – all they ask for is acceptance and love – not judgement and HATE!!

  19. guest

    Mark Hyde, I am with you with regard to Donnelly.

    I have read Donnelly since about 1990. I collected a large pile of cuttings of his publications in the Murdoch press over time and wrote replies. But it was all a waste of time because he was being used by Murdoch as an agitator. Besides, after a while it was clear Donnelly just repeated the same old same old. He is a conservative Catholic and part of the Catholic Boys’ Daily.

    His ideas on education are conservative and limited. Just teach the basics, the three Rs; no film or computers, only books; books only from the Western Canon; spelling and traditional grammar; phonics; no “creative” writing because young students are not capable of writing anything literary; testing, testing and more testing…

    There were things he did not understand, such as Key Competencies emphasising numeracy across the subjects, gathering and presenting information, working in groups, using technology…He thought it was some kind of new curriculum.

    He supported a national curriculum, a “road map” to indicate what was to be taught and how. But when Gillard worked on it too, he said that it was merely a “top down” take over of education. When states established a broad framework to indicate the kinds of curriculum and levels of learning from R-12 he complained it was not a prescriptive curriculum.

    We see the kind of thinking occurring in the quest to have a course of study on Western Civilisation and the Enlightenment. But is is only for the especially chosen student – and only about the “good bits”. It was not about the “Black Arm Band” school of History.

    Even the University of Chicago’s Great Book program eventually gave recognition to Asian and Middle Eastern learning and literature – and to contemporary writings alongside the traditional “classics”.

    Donnelly is of the old school. And there are those who understand his “traditional” stance. But times change and there are other models and other aspects of learning which are possible as we see in even a glance at world education. What we see more and more is that Oz does not seem to value education in money terms unless someone sees they are not getting what they want. So we see inequality where even in the Catholic system not all student needs are met, but some Catholic schools are more equal than others.

  20. paul walter

    Gone to sleep here? Pity. It offered so much potential, this thread.

  21. Karen Kyle

    I don’t know much about Donnelly and his views on education because I always dismissed him as a bigot and for a spokesperson on education, ignorant

    As far as state aid for religious schools go, I can remember when that came about and the furious debate at the time.. My father was working for a firm that sold text books to schools and he travelled all over Victoria visiting schools. He came home with horror stories about the condition of some of the Catholic Schools.He was a lapsed and bitter former Catholic himself so we were all surprised when he expressed support for state aid for these schools.

    And he was right. The Catholic school system was run down to a potentially disastrous point and as poor as church mice. If Catholic schools were forced to close the state governments would have to step in and take the responsibility for educating hundreds of thousands more kids. An expensive undertaking. It was much cheaper to simply fund them in the existing building and make the same money available to them for building maintenance etc as the state system. No-body dreamed that private schools would eventually be lavishly funded at the expense of what was once a first class state system. It makes me suspect conservative governments have a long term plan to make all schools private.

    As for studies in Western Traditions, I did that very subject for three years as part of a degree course. It was invaluable. But no private money interests paid for it and no-body told my University what and how it could teach. It was an effective way to study your own culture and if one understand his or her own culture it is much easier to gain a glimmer of understanding of others. And if we understand who we are we are not at all likely to be bothered by who anyone else is.

    What my lecturers had to say was that as a society we had become so cut off from our cultural roots that it was now locked up in Universities and available only to the few. Which is all true enough, but time marches on and knowledge accumulates and decisions have to be made about what may safely be dropped.

  22. Andrew Smith

    I am not Catholic (many relatives are), but in the bush, especially the old days before the ’50s, many were dependent upon Catholic schools (many protestants attended Catholic high school due to real or perceived better quality than alternatives e.g. none), which both supplemented and complemented the state system (which was flush with neither funding nor infrastructure).

    Work in education, but no where near mainstream primary or secondary system so cannot add more, except to say in real terms think schools whether state or private, nowadays probably have better funding and quality than in the past (when many were expected to leave school in early teens).

    Donnelly et al. are old stooges for Christian Conservatives et al. to present of inform mainstream media content shaping opinions, of especially older generations of voters, IMO.

  23. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Karen is right that it’s important for us to appreciate our own cultural roots ; and what could be called ‘the Western Tradition’ is part of that ; that includes liberalism and the Enlightenment. It also includes socialism for instance. ‘The Western Tradition’ is diverse and cannot be boiled down to liberalism, Christianity and the Enlightenment. Indeed there are many tensions and contradictions there already. Study of ‘Western traditions’ does not have the be uncritical or ‘purely celebratory’. But there are some things well worth celebrating also. I wonder if Donnelly’s conception of ‘Western traditions’ is radically different than mine for instance. As opposed to being a rejection of ‘all things Western’ , Marxism developed partly from Hegelianism and in response to the Young Hegelians ; which in turn would have been impossible without the influence of the Enlightenment and the resulting (limited) response of liberalisation. Also consider the influence of the French Revolution here. Neither what they call ‘the black armband approach’ nor a ‘purely and uncritically celebratory’ approach are appropriate. Though ideas of a ‘black armband’ are commonly beaten up. What we need is rigorous and critical pluralism. Which is in the Left’s interests also when you consider the question more broadly. When we consider popular culture more broadly we find that overwhelmingly it is uncritically celebratory (of capitalism for a start) ; and that critical voices are marginalised. Academia re: the Humanities and Social Sciences – is largely ‘liberal’ – but much of the media is anything but. Discourses on ‘political correctness’ and so on are exploited to silence critical voices also. As I argue in the essay – ideas of ‘political correctness’ are exploited and blown out of proportion to confuse and disorient people ; and turn them against their own interests. The Left could do with a degree of caution here, also: not to full into those traps created by Conservatives. There are tensions on the Left also with regard how we conceive of liberal rights today. To the extent where we reject liberal rights for our ideological enemies there is the distinct possibility those precedents will be turned against us one day. A worrying thought. Fascism cannot be provided a platform ; but not every Conservative is a fascist.

  24. Karen Kyle

    Good Comment Tris, Pluralism…..I’m with you.

  25. paul walter

    Yes, it was a good summary.

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