Already a century ago, political thinkers and philosophers were confronted with an apparent paradox: the failure of revolution. Just when the material conditions and the political organisations of the popular masses suggested a revolutionary moment in reach, the situation turned and, with the advent of fascism, eventually thwarted all efforts to emancipate humanity from its capitalist constraints. An important part of the analyses of the time concerned the relationship between political and social reality, a problem that would continue to be the bone of contention through roughly two opposing camps within the Marxist orientation: those who claimed a priority of the economic conditions in determining the social being—the Marxists of political economy; and those who defended the idea that a free society could never be realised as a logical consequence of the conditions of the unfree society—the political Marxists. The Weimar Republic of the 1920s can be seen as a foundational moment for thinking the latter current, and one among those closely examining this predicament in this period was the philosopher and journalist Siegfried Kracauer. For Kracauer, one of the genuinely new qualities in the composition of capital was to be found in the culturalisation of the economy, closely tied to the new class subjects—the ‘salaried masses’—who, while materially belonging to the proletarianised working class, share all of the ideals and ideological values of the ruling class. The distinctive feature of this new class was its embellishing use of language and ornamentation, which served to cover up the brutal reality of modern misery and, thereby, precluded the possibility of class consciousness proper. Kracauer, quoting a small middle-management employee, called this ideological vision ‘morally pink’.
Today’s situation echoes this past, mainly because its questions remain. In The Conformist Rebellion, a collective volume of ‘Marxist critiques of the contemporary Left’, one could reformulate the question as follows: why is there, in times where the living conditions of the majority of the labouring and unemployed masses are continuously degenerating, no large-scale resistance to neoliberal capitalist domination, no emancipatory subject emerging? What are the reasons for the absence of a (revolutionary) politics? Posing the question in this somewhat old-fashioned way is the advantage of the book’s different theoretical positions, which all share the diagnosis that there is no politics today that holds the promise of radical change, even less of revolution (6). Whereas the material conditions—the chapters mention European disintegration, authoritarian liberalism, the COVID crisis, flamboyant inflation and war in Ukraine—are indicating a steadily growing misery, any political counterpower from the so-called ‘progressive parts of society’ is completely absent from the scene. Worse still, ‘in a bizarre renunciation of classically left-wing tropes such as self-determination, rejection of state power and defence of working-class interest’ (226), those who formally belong to the contemporary left appear to fully accept or even foster neoliberal domination, while rhetorically claiming to advance the interests of the oppressed and the wretched. As the book’s ‘object of critique’ (xxiv), and following Kracauer, one might call this ideological worldview of the left in today’s Western stagnating capitalism: morally red.
It is this progressive left, a left of symbolic victories in permanent material defeat, that mystifies, according to the introduction by the editors, the different ways of gaining class consciousness. More precisely, in leaving aside the perspective of the ‘total dynamic of the social whole’ (xxiv) and the ‘problem of impersonal domination which constitutes capital as a relation’, the contemporary left, characterised by its ‘positivist’, ‘moralistic and epistemologically flawed logic’, has ‘obscured the constitutive dynamic of modern society’, that is, the ‘general and universal social mediation under the rule of value’ (xiv.). What the left is accused of by most of the authors in this collection is its political focus on particular and individual struggles against ‘oppression’, which more and more equal the embracing of a ‘politics of liberal reformism’ (205) within capitalist relations, where the ‘call for ethical singularity has morphed into one for corporate ethics.’ (209) This shift within social critique has finally led to a situation where ‘the critique of the historically specific form of the social totality and the elucidation of its irreducible, yet unfulfilled, emancipatory potential has become the preserve of marginal sects and isolated critics.’ (xxv) Furthermore, as Samir Gandesha adds, ‘there are many signs that critique and criticism are themselves under attack by what presents itself as the “Left”.’ (117)
The different contributions gather evidence for this charge from a Marxist perspective, and the list of accusations is long: the unconscious fetish for democracy, an alleged romanticisation of struggles within leftist groups, the false radicality of post-colonial agendas, the elitist narcissism implicit in liberal identity politics, or the censoring of a supposedly free artistic thriving. Contrary to the prevailing form of left political activism, which seems to naively devote itself to the next best object that appears politically fashionable, its Marxist critics try to avoid the error by locating such ideological contradictions within the social totality of capital: not only has the left completely neglected the task of social emancipation, but it now effectively blocks the way for such an emancipatory politics to emerge.
The ideological role of the left was to create a practical political ‘void’ (66 and 97), alternatively described as either an ‘anti-politics’ (130) or a ‘post-politics’ (133), that its rebellious self-representation simultaneously mystified. This void is maintained by the ideology of what at the beginning of the book is called the ‘trinity formular of the Left’: the prism of ‘race’, ‘class’ and ‘gender’. Within these three categories, the contemporary left constructs a colourful landscape of oppression, of vague, subjective feelings of being wronged, resulting in arbitrary political fights for equity, justice, pronouns or identities (132). By ignoring the question of exploitation as the distinctive feature of capitalism and the key category for the ‘overcoming of bourgeoise society’ (xvi), the left has lost all strategic discernment.
The practical task that follows for Marxist critics is to ask how this void can be transformed into a progressive material force. While for most of the authors this objective cannot be attained without the destruction of the left as the ideology of neoliberal capitalism, the critical strategies to do so differ quite significantly. In the case study of Brexit by George Hoare, for example, the left is exposed as an agent of the status quo who is constantly evoking ‘a threat that renders change undesirable or impossible’ (105) and who finally helps water down mass contestation to a reformist agenda whenever a real crisis—such as the consequences of Brexit—occurs. Shifting the focal point from the accusation of a politically double-dealing left to a more structural analysis of the new ideology, Robert Pfaller claims in his chapter that the left in its neoliberal form, the left of identity politics, is a sort of totem of defeat: not only has the left forgotten how to win, but it finds pleasure in defeat, compensating real material losses with ‘the idyllic image of our oppressed identity’ (37). From Pfaller’s psychoanalytical perspective, the reason that makes defeats repetitive, thereby continuing the torment, is a secret enjoyment, a libidinal attachment to not getting what one thinks they want. Therefore, doing away with the imaginary wonderland of identities, according to Pfaller, becomes the necessary prerequisite in order to start to think politics again. (39) These essays could be seen as just two polemical interpretations, but their declaration of war against the left is also signed by others, such as the critique of post-coloniality by Nivedita Majumdar, or the analysis of the wicked solidarity with marginalised groups that are kept marginal by their left ‘allies’, emphasised by Raji C. Steineck.
Complementing these provocative contributions, other chapters set out to examine the historical development that has led to this current impasse. These genealogies vary. The contribution of Samir Gandesha identifies the causes in the post-1989 collapse of communist and/or Marxist thought and the advent of political-ethical currents (120), which hold that the violence of language is the central problem of political thinking, thereby condemning any material change through organised politics as dangerous and harmful. Alternatively, Maren Thom follows the failed attempts of ‘anti-politics’, in SYRIZA, Podemos, Gilet Jaunes and others in the last twenty years (130f). Starting from ‘aggressive vulnerability’ of the 2000s (65) and passing through the phase of flat organisational movements without political agenda in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (for example, Occupy Wall Street) as well as the wave of left populist parties, Anton Jäger shows in the example of Marc Fisher the close link between political thought and the politics of the left. There, Jäger draws a line that ends with the diagnosis of an ‘illusion of “massness” in an age after mass politics’, a political world in the midst of the COVID crisis where the only perceivable subject ‘just wants bare survival’ (69) and has abandoned any engagement of changing the threatening world of global capital. Even though the chapters do not reach unanimous judgment on what becomes of left political movements, they nonetheless enrich the discursive analysis and add further nuances to the debate.
While the critical objective of shedding light on some of today’s ideological formations and the investigation of their historical origins are quite fruitful throughout the book, the moment where the position of the ‘bad’ left is to be superseded by the ‘proper’ Marxist perspective is a disappointment. Here, in its more constructive theoretical proposals, the aforementioned old-fashioned question of revolution is becoming—practically—a disadvantage, producing nothing but a crude theoretical understanding of social and political causality. Where the initially announced ‘ruthless criticism of the present’ and the development of a ‘political strategy’ from a ‘rigorous critique of capital’ (xxvii) gives the reader insights into the seeming aporias of political thought today, the second part, with its aim to construct a ‘party of extreme opposition’, goes completely astray, stuck halfway in the process by evoking a formally transhistorical fantasy of the (sociologically defined) proletariat. The question then becomes pertinent if the initial problem is not partly due to a certain Marxist critique that cannot but reproduce itself as the heroic piece missing in the knowledge of revolts considered insufficient.
In the same way, the political ‘void’ not only proves that the left did not manage to answer questions about how politics ought to be thought. It also makes visible the long-lasting inability of scientific Marxism to take into account the inconsistency of the social relation of capital. In parts, it remains helpful to clarify classical Marxist notions by confronting them with, for example, analyses of so-called ‘racial capitalism’, as undertaken by Nick Nesbitt (182f), or the question of gender in the editors’ interview with Jane Clare Jones (43ff), to indicate important differences. Nevertheless, left by itself, the orthodox Marxist approach to the critique of political economy fails in seeing in this void anything else than a lack—a lack of class consciousness within the working class. And for the most orthodox of Marxists, this lack of course needs to be filled with ‘scientific (proletarian) consciousness’ (81) that is, the socialist party, for without the party, the ignorant workers will remain in their inferior state, unable to think their own condition. All of these coordinates are present in the chapter by Joshua Pickett-Depaolis as the conceptual framework to think the ‘transhistorical necessity of organizational mediation, scientific consciousness, and strategic leadership’ (86). Unable to dialectically engage with the massive historical failures of such an approach during the twentieth century and seemingly unwilling to draw the conclusions from even the most crucial events according to a historical-materialism, Pickett-Depaolis reduces politics to the question of deduction from our miserable present, continuously trapped in reproducing the logic of domination by reproducing the division of manual and intellectual labour, again and again. If the left is down on its knees, so is this obsolete and reactionary version of Marxism.
At this point, it becomes hard to distinguish between the regressive contemporary left and this crude mechanical Marxist social theory. Both declare themselves to be the real radicals, and both are struck by utter political ineffectiveness. The same goes for the predicate ‘morally red’: it applies to both.
So which way to go? The Conformist Rebellion opens with three quotes, one of them taken from the novel Old Masters by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, referring to the necessity of mass support, of the people, for any vital (political) project. What the Marxist critics’ opening statement is soberly omitting is the context of this quote: in the preceding pages, the novel’s protagonist explains that in order to survive in times of despair, one must betray, abuse one’s own theoretical figures of authority. Analogously, one must not stop in front of the all too familiar image of Marxists comforting themselves in a position of radical and radically self-adulating solitude that we partly find in Conformist Rebellion. Abusing the Old Masters, not at least Marx himself, with the main interest of giving a vital content to his and our theoretical project appears to be one task where Bernhard is ahead of the Conformist Rebellion’s enterprise, since overcoming the morally red impasse implies more than claiming an exclusive right to wave a red flag.
Philipp Nolz is a PhD-candidate, writing on Walter Benjamin and the relationship between philosophy and politics, at the Université Paris VIII (France) and the Bergische Universität Wuppertal.