Doing the same thing, expecting different results: notes on revolutionaries in electoral politics

Shelly Provost | Wikimedia Commons

By DAPHNE LAWLESS. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

See also: Electoralism and Socialist Party-Building in Aotearoa/New Zealand (discussion document by Ani White).

The infamous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has described “ideology” as something that you know isn’t true; and yet even so, you behave like it is.[1] That seems a pretty fair description of how revolutionary socialists seem to react to electoral politics. We know that elections under capitalism only have impact at the margins; that whoever we vote for, Wall Street wins. And yet even so, if the social democrats or the liberals lose to the Right, we’re depressed for ages.

The dust is settling on the defeat of a small and yet promising electoral project in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland – the mayoral campaign of former Manukau councillor Efeso Collins. Winning candidate and new Mayor Wayne Brown is effectively described in terms of Simpsons memes as “old man yells at cloud”. An embodiment of white boomer privilege and reactionary pushback against recent mild urbanist reforms, Brown – backed by his advisors, notorious Right-wing Twitter influencers Matthew Hooton and Ben Thomas – racked up huge majorities in the white, property-owning suburbs.[2]

The point here is not to criticise the Collins campaign as such, which was always pushing uphill against several factors. These include massive funding behind the Brown campaign; somewhat half-hearted support from the Labour Party from the Collins campaign; the sheer force of racism among the privileged section of Aucklanders who actually vote in local elections; and the general reactionary trend which has prevailed in politics since the ruling class lost interest in fighting the COVID pandemic.[3] The question is to ask: what exactly is the activist Left’s theory behind why we get involved in electoral politics – or even care about the results? What do we expect to get out of electoral politics – win or lose?

Against ultraleftism…

Fightback published an article two years ago, summing up the defeat of the electoral movements behind Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Part of our conclusion was this:

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings.[4]

We feel our analysis in the last part of that article – under the heading “Direct Action gets the goods” – stands the test of time. This analysis stands against two symmetrical errors. We firstly reject the ultra-leftist analysis, that elections and democratic institutions and rights under capitalism don’t matter, or even worse, aren’t worth defending in the face of Right-wing populism and resurgent fascism. It’s obviously in the better interests of working people that the elected bodies of capitalist democracy be run by whichever faction is less interested in attacking working-class wages, jobs, communities, and democratic rights.

To dig a bit deeper into this, we have to materially analyse exactly what happens in elections. There is a real impact – the actual transfer of the leadership of elected bodies from one person/ideological tendency to another. Revolutionaries are right to point out that this is often a marginal change, and that the unelected bureaucracies and the capitalists and corporates who call the shots in the background are unaffected. But there are also what we might call memetic effects – what the election “means” in terms of an impact on how people think and feel, what it does to the confidence of one broad social group or another.

A significant recent example of this comes from outside electoral politics – what happened when Elon Musk finally closed the deal to buy Twitter. It provoked an orgy of racist and transphobic posting – before anything had changed in actual moderation or banning procedures – because the racists and transphobes felt that they had “won”. Similar things happen in the real world when the Right win elections, as we saw with the outcome of the Trump and Brexit votes in 2016. To return to the Auckland local body elections, one of incoming Mayor Brown’s first actions was to send Auckland Transport a letter instructing them to cut back on cycleway construction – something which he legally has no power to do; and yet, Auckland Transport’s leadership complied, presumably because that’s what they wanted to do anyway.[5]

… and against electoralism

Because bourgeois election campaigns and outcomes have real impacts on working people’s confidence and feelings of safety – and those of their fascist enemies – socialists can’t be indifferent to the outcome. A socialist electoral intervention might most often be geared to making an impact on the memetic side of things – raising issues on the campaign trail, and amplifying the voices of workers and the marginalised, at a time when people are actually paying attention.

But conversely, when socialists decide to make electoral politics a focus of their activity, they’re generally not very good at it. To put it less bluntly, the “ideological” contradictions of being involved in electoralism while knowing full well that the working class’s road to power isn’t through elections leads to several counter-productive patterns of behaviour. Here I will try to list out a number of the ways in which socialist interventions in electoral politics can go wrong – some of which contradict each other, as things can go wrong in many directions.

1. The Red-Brown temptation

This is probably the greatest danger in the current environment where Right-populism and even fascism are ascendant on a global level. The sad reality is that the public health initiatives which were necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19 have also delivered an angry and fearful mass audience to the entrepreneurs of fascist-style conspiracy theories, as revealed (in this country) by the occupation of Parliament grounds in February this year. The temptation here is to see a real mass movement rising up against the Leftish wing of neoliberalism, but to not understand (or not care) that a fascist mobilisation against bourgeois liberalism is not only different, but actively poisonous, to working-class communities. This despair and wishful thinking, leading to a desire to jump on the bandwagon of those who wish us dead, is the root of what I’ve previously termed “the Red-Brown Zombie Plague”.[6]

The United States, with its lack of recent experience of independent workers’ organisation, is “Ground Zero” for this kind of politics. The Green Party of the USA and the newer “Movement for a People’s Party” run electoral campaigns which centre the principle, hard to challenge on the US left, that it is impermissible to ever give electoral support to Democrats/liberals. But to do this in the current climate, they have to soft-pedal or deny the threat to democracy and the lives of minorities posed by the contemporary Republican Party, controlled by Donald Trump’s fascistic “Make America Great Again” movement. Worse still, the most “mask-off” of this Red-Brown current actively paint MAGA as a “working class” movement with which socialists must unify.[7]

With regard to the recent Brazilian presidential election, an American socialist on Twitter recently commented:

…I worry the US left is falling into a pattern: 1) our international bodies and magazines uncritically cheer a left or center-left candidate. 2) they ignore contradictions and fail to educate our members or provide analysis 3) we get blindsided when we lose[8]

This uncritical cheerleading of Left-flavoured electoral alternatives is the flipside of the self-righteous refusal to support centrist politicians as “lesser evils” against extremist conservatives or fascists. It is fundamentally dishonest in that it refuses to admit that the difference between – say – Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders is one of degree, not kind. They are both capitalist politicians, one of which has a better programme from a socialist point of view. And yet, both are supportable options if actual fascism is on the line. To prioritise bashing the centrist mainstream over a sober electoral calculus of how workers and marginalised communities would be impacted by the victory of the Right is not voting based on a class line, and it is not building an “electoral alternative” if it will have nothing but a spoiler effect. It is reducing politics to a simple “insider/outsider” or “elites/people” duality, which either ignores the very clear and present danger of Right-populism and fascism, or takes the Red-Brown path to welcoming it as an ally.

2. Program fetishism

A less dangerous, but still counter-productive, tendency in socialist electoralism is the presumption that electoral success comes from a sufficiently Left-wing programme – that is, one of strong social democratic reforms. To begin with, this is a paradox, since such a programme is significantly to the “Right” of what revolutionaries actually want to happen. The essential flaw of this strategy is the assumption that “real” Leftist social democracy would be popular enough to win; but actual social democrats won’t do it, so revolutionaries have to substitute for them.

One amusing example of this came about in the 2017 election in New Zealand. The Labour Party came well back in second place in terms of votes; one socialist website (which no longer exists)[9] took the opportunity to explain that Jacinda Ardern had lost because of her party’s inadequately left-wing programme. Of course, two weeks later, Ardern put together the coalition numbers to become the new Prime Minister. In contrast to this, we can see what happened to the British Labour Party in 2019 – a strongly supportable Left-wing manifesto went down to humiliating defeat at the hands of the clownish and corrupt Boris Johnson. (Arguments about the biased media are beside the point – there is no electoral road to socialist reforms which will face a supportive or even neutral media.)

If working people are just waiting for a sufficiently Left-wing manifesto to turn away from the establishment parties and from apathy, then if the mainstream centre-Left parties choose not to run such a manifesto, it must be because they don’t really want to win – a conspiracy theory which, like all others, thrives on defeat and is therefore particularly popular in the United States. This is an essentially moralistic rather than materialist view of politics, that the system can be made to function for working people if the right comrades take control of the electoral parties, and consequently the State. But as Marxists and revolutionaries have always pointed out, controlling a capitalist state, in a global capitalist economy, means your options are limited to what capital can tolerate. When “staunch socialists” do manage to replace discredited social democrats at elections, they are forced by the realities of living with capitalism to adopt essentially the same politics – as was shown in Greece, where the PASOK party was replaced by their left-wing rivals of SYRIZA and not much changed at all.[10]

To paraphrase a famous internet meme, if elections could be won by turning a big dial marked SOCIALISM, and looking back at the audience for approval, our job would be so much simpler. Even worse – when the radical Right win by appealing to a mass audience’s fear of change with appeals to bigotry and authoritarianism, that can prove disastrous for socialists who see their role in politics as “giving the people what they really want”. See The Red-Brown Temptation, above.

3. Doing it right is expensive

The logic of electoralism requires building the biggest possible support base among those who’re not politically active or interested at most times of the year. Outside of a revolutionary situation, revolutionaries are a minority; the logic of electoralism requires building a much broader coalition than a consistent anti-capitalist politics can sustain.

The inescapable fact about mass politics under capitalism is that success means funding; and it means media coverage. Funding means appealing to people with money; that is, a sufficiently large swathe of the middle and upper-middle classes, or perhaps one or two renegade “left millionaires”. Media coverage means “playing the game” as set out by the political economy of the mass media, and the agendas and preferences of leading journalists and opinion makers – who, inevitably, themselves reflect the agendas and worldviews of the property-owning middle classes.

Now, this isn’t a moralist argument that any support (financial or mediatic) from the big or little bourgeoisie instantly disqualifies a Leftist project. Lenin’s return to Russia to lead the Bolshevik Revolution was made possible by a free train ride from the German imperialists.[11] And we reject the “campist” argument that funding from the agencies of the US state, or from billionaires such as George Soros, instantly disqualifies any popular uprising in non-Western authoritarian regimes. But any such support introduces contradictions into the movement. It inherently imposes limits on what the movement can possibly achieve; limits which have to be justified in themselves. In this country, the “Internet-MANA” electoral project of 2014 failed despite having the backing of a “radical billionaire” – and given that that particular billionaire is now an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, we may well feel that we “dodged a bullet”.[12]

4. The Rasputin temptation

A final pitfall that is often seen when socialists get involved in electoral politics is a similar shortcut to the “programme fetishism” trap, in that it requires a kind of “top-down manipulation” which is counterposed to what we claim to believe in. Simply put, this is the attempt to steer the movement in a “Left” direction by gaining influence over the existing leadership of the movement – often by just being the “best activists” for whatever the leadership were planning to do anyway, or even worse, the leadership’s most devoted partisans within the movement.

As we discussed this in our analysis of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, this cynical move might reap results in the rhetoric or the programme which the leadership issues; and certainly in terms of material benefit for the activists who get themselves paid gigs as “researchers” or “advisers”. But to maintain these positions of power requires preserving the power and influence of the leadership – generally by squashing challenges from within the movement’s base. It also requires the kind of trade-off where revolutionaries are expected to put a “Left” face on some horrible, sell-out policy if they want to keep their precious influence.

There is also a general problem that when Left activists get embedded in the leadership of a mass electoral movement, they bring with them particular political “obsessions” of their subculture of origin which end up being poison when introduced to mass politics. The classic example of this, as we explored in 2020, was the influence of Communist Party of Britain veterans over the Corbyn leadership’s foreign policy, leading to not only electorally poisonous pro-Putin, pro-Assad positions, but also turning a blind eye to an antisemitic fringe – a more potent weapon in the hands of Tories is impossible to imagine. As with the question of funding explored above, the gap between the politics of ideological bubbles or sects, and the politics of mobilising people at the scale which can shift elections, is something which canny revolutionaries often seem convinced they can jump. They haven’t been proved right so far.

Build worker and community power

It’s worth repeating that electoral politics are not a bad thing in themselves, and may deliver gains for working people and their communities. But to be able to intervene effectively, the radical Left have to admit to ourselves that this is not our core competency. To centre electoral politics or movements in themselves, rather than building the self-organisation of the masses, is Hal Draper’s “socialism from above”.[13]

Fightback’s alternative is based on the fundamental Marxist insight that workers’ power at the point of production – and community power through self-activism and self-organisation on the ground – is the only power which can refute and subvert the power of capital and the power of the capitalist state. It is of course the only path to an actual revolution, that is, the only form of social organisation which could take over. But it is also the only weapon that workers and their communities have that can put effective pressure on capitalists and their State – including winning the kind of electoral victories which “stick” and make lasting changes for the better.

Through winning victories in the workplaces and communities through direct action, such a movement will build both real and memetic power; meaning that, even where it might not be strong enough to make changes directly, mainstream politicians will see in it a possible ally, and amend their programmes and strategies directly. When the union movement in Western countries was strong in the 1950s, even the conservative parties had to pay lip-service to working class demands.

Part of revolutionary politics is not to tell lies to the working class, and to politically campaign with a message that the current system is the way it is because the current crop of politicians is rotten or feckless – thereby implying that “good” politicians could fix things – is not only untrue. It opens the field to fascist organisers, who can tell a much more exciting and compelling story with villains such as “Globo-Homo” or “the International Jew”. It also fosters dangerous illusions in how much power a nation-state government has to accomplish a serious break with international capitalism – a mistake which led many British socialists to support Brexit from a “Left-nationalist” point of view, again, playing directly into the hands of the radical Right.

In contrast, understanding that elections are important, but not central, allows revolutionaries to, at the same time, advocate electoral support for social democrats or liberals where the alternative would be disastrous for people’s rights and safety; or alternatively to support or even help build a “more Left” electoral formation where the calculus allows for it (for example, the Greens or Te Pāti Māori in Aotearoa). But this must go along with prioritising the building of a political movement independent of all electoral, systemic forces, capable of direct action to win material gains, which may in turn influence electoral politics. Attempts by Left-wing pundits to attempt to “shame” Labour politicians into being more radical through essays and Twitter posts won’t cut it.

Similarly, if revolutionaries decide to get involved in an electoral campaign for the sake of “building the movement”, then we need a strategy that will mean that the movement will keep going after the election night celebrations (or, much more likely, drowning of sorrows). It will be interesting to see what happens to what’s left of the Efeso Collins coalition in Auckland.

As the quotation above from our 2020 article might indicate, Left-wing electoral movements usually come into existence as a consequence of defeat of direct-action mass movements – and vice-versa, in an endless cycle. Could it be that the way forward is through a synthesis of these two opposing paths:to build organisations of workers’ and community power which can wield real influence on electoral politics, while always remembering that the electoral struggle can never be central to our goal of emancipation?


[1] https://iep.utm.edu/zizek/

[2] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/local-government/130317630/new-voting-detail-shows-mayor-wayne-brown-lost-the-west-and-south

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/a-shift-in-political-thinking-why-many-of-new-zealands-cities-have-lurched-to-the-right-local-elections

[4] https://fightback.org.nz/2020/08/25/left-populism-at-the-dead-end-where-to-after-corbyn-and-sanders/

[5] https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2022/10/28/concerning-news-coming-out-of-auckland-transport/

[6] https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[7] For some examples, see https://twitter.com/search?q=%22people%27s%20party%22%20maga&src=typed_query

[8] https://twitter.com/mangosocialism/status/1576768106449764352

[9] The site of the short-lived “Socialist Voice” group.

[10] https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[11] https://spartacus-educational.com/Lenin_Sealed_Train.htm

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Party_and_Mana_Movement

[13] https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/

Book Review: Dialectics of Revolution by Kevin B Anderson

Book title: Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender, and colonialism
Author: Kevin B Anderson
Released: 2020
Review by: Victor Osprey

What is Marxism? Is it a philosophy, a science – or both? What distinguishes science from philosophy, and is it a distinction as easy to determine as we might imagine? After all – what even is science? And what does dialectical reason, or indeed philosophy in general have to offer when it comes not only to understanding but to changing society?

Kevin Anderson, a long-time scholar-activist and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, has set himself exactly this task in the latest book, Dialectics of Revolution. Taking the form of a collection of essays, Anderson examines Marx, Engels, Lenin and Bukharin – and especially Hegel – in considerable detail, alongside the ‘Western’ Marxists Herbert Marcuse and Georg Lukács. Coming from his distinctive Marxist-Humanist perspective, drawing upon the work of Russian-American Marxist Raya Dunayevskaya, Anderson provides a substantive explication and defence of dialectical reason throughout and in dialogue with its critics.

This red thread serves as a launching pad for the topics examined in the essay. These range from Lenin’s encounter with Hegel, to Lukács 1948 work The Young Hegel, the relationship of critical theorists like Marcuse to Hegel, and other related subjects.

Underlying the whole text is a proposition as to what Marxist (or what Anderson may prefer to call Marx’s) philosophy can give philosophically and politically to struggles around race, class, gender, and colonialism. In other words, the unity of theory and practice – praxis.

Science as compass, philosophy as guide?

The interrelationship between science and philosophy goes back thousands of years, with each interpenetrating and influencing the other in conceiving reality, social processes, and the natural world. The separation of science from philosophy into strictly delineated fields is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the intellectual life of humanity.

When it comes to socialist theory, the extent to which it is a ‘science’ has long bedevilled the movement. One approach has been to attempt to mirror the hypothetical-deductive model approach of the natural sciences, as if Marxism were a branch of chemistry. Another approach rejects this positivist tendency, instead pushing Marxism’s merits as a philosophy and an ideology in itself. For example, the insights derived from dialectical and historical materialism and indeed the critique of political economy, without attempting to prove it is an exact science that could be replicated in a lab like other fields of knowledge.

The former, and similar currents in the social sciences attempts to prove that their methodology is on par with physics, and believe this necessary to be taken seriously as a ‘science’ in the sense of being a lookalike of physics. However, it is perfectly acceptable for science simply to be a field of study; the difference between chemistry and Marxism is that humans cannot change the laws of chemistry or biology, only make use of them as far as they are understood. Whereas societal formations and social relationships are human made, and thus their laws can be changed, which is where Marxism as a social science has genuine insights in comprehending and transforming such social structures.

Marx and Engels, deeply influenced by the natural sciences of their time for all that they were dialecticians and dialectical thinkers anchored in German philosophy, relied on now partly outdated science as a metaphor and stimulant to their theoretical conception of mutually interacting and excluding agents. Taking Engels as an example, he toyed with rapid developments in chemistry ‘to get a better understanding of interacting and mutually determining systems. In other words, abstract dialectics could be seen in the metaphorical mirror of chemistry.’1

As author Joost Kircz notes, attempting to prove whether nature is or is not dialectical according to human-made models (Hegelian or not) may be an intriguing intellectual exercise; what is more important however is how it spurred creative thinking around the concepts of mutually interrelated and determining systems, and how they could be extrapolated further and built upon. Whether applied to the natural sciences or, perhaps more appropriately, the social structures investigated by the social sciences.

Evolutionary biology is one example of a crude scientific materialism that, while superficially super-scientific, is an abstract materialism, largely excluding history and its processes – in other words, a non-historical, non-dialectical materialism. As Kevin Anderson notes: ‘Sociobiology/evolutionary biology denies historical materialism’s notion that human consciousness grows and develops through history, which is a product of the self-creation of human beings.’2 It has also regularly been used as a ‘scientific’ justification for predetermined racist conclusions.

Marx’s debt to Hegel, and to ‘German’, ‘philosophical’ critical science precisely comes in handy in teasing out the limitations of the ‘hard’, positive sciences, without simply rejecting them. French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd summed up the contribution of positive sciences nicely: ‘They are a necessary moment in the movement of knowledge – on condition that we not stop there.’3 ‘German science’ forms part of an intellectual tradition which French rationalism and English empiricism have always rejected, despite themselves regularly falling into the trap of scientism; of taking the scientific conclusions of the moment for a permanently settled reality. Critique in the sense of Marx’s approach instead undertakes to critique an established science and its underlying intellectual assumptions while critically assimilating its real insights – hence Marx’s conception of his task as the critique of political economy.

Bensaïd further elaborated in an interview about the ‘misinterpretation’ of Marx as a scientist, in whose shadow was constructed a scientistic, doctrinaire Marxism4:

Marx points out the difference between what he calls “German science” and “English science”. For him, English science means the exact or positive sciences. He is very admiring, sometimes excessively so, of the progress of physics, chemistry, geology… And then there is German science, Wissenschaft, which is not ‘science’ in the French sense of the term: it is the dynamic movement of knowledge. Very few people in France realised this. In particular, the early Althusser, the one of the 1960s, built his fame on a complex scientificity, on a wish for Marxism to be so scientific that Marxists could be recognised by their academic peers as serious people, and not as signatories of petitions, as intellectuals for hire. Hence the (unaccomplished!) search in Marx’s work for an untraceable ‘epistemological break’: when did Marx become a scholar, instead of an ideologue and philosopher?

Louis Althusser, Marxist philosopher and long-time member of the French Communist Party sought as part of his effort to make Marxism more scientific to de-Hegelise Marx, to ‘drive the shade of Hegel… back into the night.’5 Althusser downplayed the extent of the continuity between Lenin’s conception of the dialectic and Hegelian idealism – a difficult task, given the assertions made in more than 200 pages of notes and commentary Lenin wrote on Hegel in 1914-1915 (published as the Philosophical Notebooks).

Raya Dunayevskaya herself criticised making a fetish out of science: ‘glorification of science is the mark not only of the ruling classes… but also of theoreticians busy revising Marxism… genuine historic revisions have always used “science” in the fight against “the Hegelian dialectic”… Eduard Bernstein was the first, back at the end of the 19th century; Louis Althusser is the latest but he is sure not to be the last since, of necessity, these proponents of “science” and opponents of “philosophy” are sure to keep reappearing…’6

Although it may be said among certain sections of the ruling class these days the glorification of science no longer holds as much purchase as it once did, with these types preferring instead outright mysticism and submerging into wells of conspiracy theory.

Nonetheless, there was value in Althusser’s effort, despite its foundational flaws and unhelpful schemas (an artificial distinction of a break between young, humanist Marx and old, scientific Marx, and the attempt to excise Hegelianism like a leftover evolutionary tail).

Notably his understanding that ‘unlike a science, an ideology does not provide us with adequate instruments of knowledge’ and how ideology as a system of representations ‘is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important than the theoretical function (function as knowledge).’7

Or as Norman Geras, a then-sympathetic critic of Althusser puts it in more nuanced fashion: ‘The problematic of a science (or ideology) governs not merely the solutions it is capable of providing but the very problems it can pose and the form in which they must be posed.’8

Despite his appreciation, Geras reserves significant criticisms for Althusser, stating that his account of science is idealist, and goes as far as to say Althusser’s account of the relation between Marxist theory and politics is both ‘theoretically incorrect and harmful.’9

Moreover, if Althusser begins by stressing the universality of knowledge in its content, ‘he ends by denying the historicity of its condition and processes of production’, a point exactly like Kevin Anderson and Marxist-humanists of various shades would make.10

And to top it all off, in what is perhaps his severest critique, Geras elaborates how Althusser’s concern to stress the scientificity of Marxism ‘fails to provide an account of what distinguishes this particular science from the other sciences.’11

In effect, the differences between Marxism, mathematics, the physical and natural sciences are submerged rather than highlighted, all so Althusser can assimilate the entry of Marxism into the hallowed halls of a high respected science.

The problem is, when cracks are identified in that carefully constructed, apparently scientific edifice, the whole thing tends to come crashing down soon afterword; much like what happened after an initial wave of Althusserianism swept the world, then quickly receded in the wake of serious problems identified with Althusser’s approach and account of things years later.

A more all-rounded and nuanced conception of the interrelationship between science, philosophy, and the distortion of Marxism by Stalinism and other factors into economic reductionism (to take one example) is provided by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács.

Lukács details how this degeneration of Marxism was12:

directly connected with the fact that the specialisation of knowledge led to the separation of the sciences from each other… the working class movement and its ideology adopted this division of labour, the independence of scientific disciplines from each other. Marx had defined the economic as the material foundation of a more total historical process.

By the 20th century, the economic had become a more or less ‘exact’ individual science, and this was largely replicated in the workers’ movement, including its Marxist component. Marx had seen the economic as one factor of social evolution, organically interconnected with other social causal determinants. Individualised sciences for Lukács, removed from their interdependence with other causal agents, ‘easily slides into mere tactics’, distorting the ‘Marxist conception of the economic [into] mere industrial productivity.’13

Thus, the turning of economics into an isolated science laid the methodological basis for its ability to be manipulated.

As a result, when the moment came, Stalin was able to first distort the meaning of the economic ‘on the theoretical level, and this distortion then became an instrument for his brutal manipulation of socialist development. When Stalin distorted the economic as a specialised positivist science, when he detached it from any political connectedness, he could claim to be building socialism by exclusively concentrating on industrial growth while totally ignoring the question of socialist democracy.’14

This sat entirely at odds with Marx’s notion that the economic is ‘more than just technology, more than a specialised individual science, but one causal factor within a larger total social formation.’15

The larger total social formation remains a major focus of Marxists today, influenced by a form of dialectical reason deeply indebted to Hegel’s intellectual offerings.

The alternative of dialectical reason – and its critics

Dialectical reason as a mode of analysis and thinking has come under sustained assault for some time, with its popularity significantly declining in the last half century in the face of other ideas like positivism, pragmatism, poststructuralism and postmodernism.

Explaining and elaborating foundational Hegelian thinking is first necessary in order to understand the discussion and criticism that follows.

Hegel’s classic example of the dialectical process is the master-slave dialectic.

Despite the inherent power imbalance, the master lacks something – the fulfilment of their need for acknowledgement. Being acknowledged by the slave is insufficient, as they are merely a thing to the master, and vice-versa. The twist is that while the slave works and the master receives the products of consumption, in their work the slave fashions and shapes material objects, becoming aware of their consciousness as objectively creating the fruits of their labour.

As author Stuart Jeffries explains16:

Clearly, this connects with the Marxist notion of man as essentially a producer, one who defines himself or rises to self-consciousness, even personal fulfilment, through meaningful work. For the slave, Hegel thought, labour, even at the direction of a slave master, makes him realise he has a mind of his own and means that the situation is not stable; its tensions generate a dialectical movement that leads to a higher synthesis. That synthesis leads to another dialectical tension, to another synthesis, and so on, at least in Hegel’s conception of history. Forty years after Hegel set out this dialectical process, Marx argued that if the object produced through labour is owned by another (be that another slave-owner or a capitalist), the worker has lost his own objectified essence. Such is alienated labour.

For Hegel, history was the unfolding of these dialectical processes towards the self-knowledge of what he termed the Absolute Spirit.

One of the key propositions of Hegelianism is that all the phenomena of any one epoch – its law, philosophy, economy, polity – are ‘merely the externalisations of one moment of the development of the Idea, i.e., of one internal spiritual principle which is the essence of those phenomena, manifesting itself in each and all of them…’17

In other words, ‘Hegel conceives every social totality… as having a unique spiritual principle to which all the diverse realities can be reduced, since each of them is only an expression of it.’18

Hegel’s dialectical conception of the social totality was profoundly idealist, while Marx’s dialectic, by turning Hegel on his head, functioned as a materialist inversion of Hegel’s dialectic. This gave it an interpretive power an idealist dialectic alone could never have, getting at the root of social phenomena and their historic emergence.

German Marxist and prominent member of the Frankfurt School Herbert Marcuse broke down the critical virtue of a materialist version of dialectical thought in the 1960 preface to his book, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory19:

Dialectic thought… becomes negative in itself. Its function is to break down the self-assurance and self-contentment… to demonstrate that unfreedom is so much at the core of things that the development of their internal contradictions leads necessarily to qualitative change: the explosion and catastrophe of the established state of affairs.

Although Hegel’s dialectic of negativity critiques the existing world on the basis of a ‘principle of freedom’ such freedom is ‘relegated to the realm of pure thought, to the Absolute Idea’ according to Marcuse.20

Expanding the boundaries of dialectical reason beyond the realm of ideas, and its role as a ‘negative philosophy’, i.e., the negative and critical stance towards the world as illustrated in German philosophy, was a task was taken up by a wide range of Marxist and Marx-inclined figures in the 20th century – like Marcuse.

Ranging from activists and scholars to rank-and-filers in the socialist and workers’ movement, theoreticians, and organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense.

They faced up to the charge levelled at dialectics by pragmatist, postmodernist and post-structuralist camps positing that it was a totalising, false perspective incapable of conceptualising particularity and difference.

That is, dialectics did not have room for the perspectives of oppressed racial, ethnic and national minorities, or of women, because it can only grasp grand totalities like progress and capitalism, not special oppressions at the interstices of society.

On the contrary, the Czech Marxist Karel Kosík, an original philosopher of Marxist humanism in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, regarded dialectics as fundamentally ‘the opposite of doctrinaire systematisation or romanticisation of routine ideas’; his concept of the pseudoconcrete serves a useful function in this regard.21

For Kosík, the pseudoconcrete represents ‘the collection of phenomena that crowd the everyday environment and the routine atmosphere of everyday life’ i.e., the world of ‘man’s fetishized praxis (which is not identical with the revolutionary-critical praxis of mankind).’22 The pseudoconcrete would include unsubtle totalities that crowd out differences and the ability to understand them, standing essentially at odds with revolutionary-critical praxis and communist potentialities.

Interestingly enough, the late 19th century founders of pragmatism first embraced and then broke with Hegel. Pragmatist William James called Hegel’s philosophy a form of ‘vicious intellectualism’, because Hegel sought truth through reason instead of the multiple truths of a relativistic worldview.23

Perhaps this is a partial explanation for the hostility of the esteemed German jurist, political theorist, and prominent Nazi Carl Schmitt, who wrote that on the day Hitler came to power, ‘Hegel, so to speak, died.’24

Indeed, a contemporaneous review of Marcuse’s book on Hegel noted how ‘Hegel’s philosophy was fundamentally rationalist, while the philosophy of national socialism is fundamentally irrationalist.’25

Another review came from the US Communist Party orientated journal Science & Society. While highlighting the ‘interesting argument’ of Marcuse demonstrating the Hegelian component in Marx’s philosophy, it came down on the side of positivism, declaring it scientific and therefore revolutionary.

If that latter approach represented a dead end, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, influenced by poststructuralism and sharing the postmodernist critique of totality, essences and dialectic, took it even further.

Rorty wished to uproot not just Marxist dialectics but the entire tradition of critical dialectical thinking from Plato onwards.

In the name of pragmatism, given no alternative to capitalism exists, Rorty concluded in 1992 that the only hope for getting the money to end intolerable inequalities is to facilitate the activities of those like Henry Ford – and Donald Trump.

Thus, the political-philosophical nadir of pragmatist philosophy was reached; acceptance and conciliation with the untrammelled existence of the likes of Donald Trump. Needless to say, it failed to reach even that low bar. A system facilitating such individuals, far from moderating inequalities, has only made them worse.

Poststructuralists proposed, instead of dialectical reason, a philosophy of difference, with the goal of, as Gilles Deleuze and Daniel Cohn-Bendit put it in 1986, a ‘culture of dissensus’, striving for ‘a deepening of individual positions and a resingularisation of individuals and human groups. What folly to claim that everyone – immigrants, feminists, rockers, regionalists, pacifists, ecologists, and hackers – should agree on a same vision of things!’26

Kevin Anderson’s response is brief and effective: ‘How the various spheres of the left, even if taken seriously in each of their particular manifestations, could eventually come together with enough force to challenge the rule of capital is probably not advanced by such a formulation. It should also be noted that Cohn-Bendit and Deleuze conspicuously leave aside the labour movement from their list of movements…’27

Long-time collaborators and communists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, influenced by postmodernism, took a more distinctive approach. Critiquing dialectics, they saw their project as being in sync with both Marx and Lenin while asserting ‘the postmodernist project must be nondialectical.’28

They alleged that Hegel’s theory of contradiction subsumed difference ‘into totality and teleology’, and labelled all forms of the dialectic as part of the logic of modern domination.29

Dialectics relegate, as they put it, ‘the multiplicity of difference to binary oppositions and its subsequent subsumption of these differences in a unitary order.’30

Hardt and Negri are referring specifically to the process in Hegel’s Science of Logic where identity is broken down into difference, with difference then subsequently subsumed by contradiction.

Reconciling the particular into the universal is a legitimate criticism of dialectical philosophy. Is it an inherently negative feature, or actually the basis to address and overcome the issues and oppressions poststructuralists and postmodernists identify?

The particular and the universal – race, class, gender, colonialism

Hegel’s notion of the concrete universal is undeniably related to Marx’s own views about universal emancipation.

Drawing upon Hegel, the pull of the universal upon the particular, steering it in the direction of universal human emancipation is evident in Marx’s body of work, for all that he addressed the particular.

Particulars like race, ethnicity and nationalism, especially in relation to subjects like Ireland, Poland, and the United States during the Civil War.

He distinguished between more narrow forms of group consciousness and more emancipatory ones, as when he emphasised how Irish Fenian nationalists had a class politics that opposed all landlords, pointing to the possibility of class unity across ethnic and national lines.

Such writings ‘belie the notion that Marx’s conceptualisation of capitalist modernity constitutes a “totalising” grand narrative under which the particulars of race, ethnicity, and nation are subsumed.’31

Or indeed gender, given Marx considered gender oppression a foundational form of social hierarchy and domination. Marx paid special attention to gender and family relations in non-Western societies like stateless Native American ones, perceiving elements of gender equality and women’s social power ‘far beyond the limited women’s rights of his time.’32

The women’s rights of Marx’s time were themselves a focus of his, concerned as he was with the social conditions of life for women across varying class strata. This included middle and upper-class French women driven to suicide by parents or husbands.

One of the specific tasks Raya Dunayevskaya set herself was to reinterpret absolute idea as absolute negativity, ‘rather than as any kind of ultimate metaphysical rest in a closed totality.’33

In other words, a reinterpreted dialectic that didn’t emphasise totality to the exclusion of difference and identity.

This enabled the dialectic to connect to the rich variety of progressive movements for change – the emerging LGBTI+ movement, women, ethnic and national minorities, without giving up on a universal drive towards emancipation in its most absolute and complete form.

Through the dialectical vision of a new society as a unifying point, free of the domination of capital and its value form alongside racism, sexism, and other oppressions, Dunayevskaya ‘avoids the pseudoconcrete that envelops so many of the postmodern philosophies of difference.’34

If dialectical thinking seeks to stay relevant, it must not seal itself away from questions of difference, otherwise it would atrophy into a fetishized ‘classical’ perspective, instead of remaining a living, critical philosophy in the present.

Moreover, dialectical reason can critically assimilate genuine insights from poststructuralism and postmodernism without ceasing to be dialectical reason. If it didn’t, it would cease to be a critical science.

Criticism

Kevin Anderson’s book is well deserving of a wide readership and audience, given the clarity with which it explicates and summaries key ideas, debates, and the histories it engages.

In terms of criticisms, there is slight repetition in the text, understandable due to it being a compilation of essays thematically if not chronologically linked. Some of the repetition is not entirely unwelcome, as it reinforces points made earlier and then provides greater detail.

A background in Hegel or the particular ideological and intellectual controversies and debates would certainly help, though it is not a requirement to understand the essential arguments in each of the essays.

The main objection is to Anderson’s assessment of Engels.

While Anderson is careful to note the ‘highly significant’ contributions of Engels, he largely agrees with ‘the philosophical critique of his tendency towards positivism by Lukács… his reductionist writings on gender even after studying Marx’s far subtler treatment in the 1879-92 notebooks… his disparagement and misreading of the strength of the Union side in the U.S. Civil War, and his editing of Capital, Vol. I.’35

Fair enough, although it is also fair to say that most of the criticisms of Engels in general are equally applicable to Marx. Intellectually, some figures have sought to ‘rescue’ Marx from Engels, ascribing to Engels alone the blame for Second International determinism (Althusser and Lukács) and the crudities of the Stalinist version of dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism, at least in its Stalinist version, had strongly positivistic qualities, especially evident in the work of its English popularisers like Maurice Cornforth, and French popularisers like Georges Politzer. Engels was much more nuanced than either, although a positivistic element can be read into certain writings of his.

As Joost Kircz explains: ‘The Diamat ideology of Stalinism is a prime example of taking creative reasoning out of its socio-historical context and recasting it in eternal truisms.’36

Herbert Marcuse, Georg Lukács, Karel Kosík and Raya Dunayevskaya, whatever the strengths and limitations of their own politics and perspectives, were four individuals who sought to do the opposite without ceasing to be dialecticians or Marxists.

Moreover, for all the real determinism evident in the thinking in the Second International’s leading thinkers, it is perhaps sometimes a little overstated.

Exaggerating the differences between the two life-long intellectual partners strikes this author as a largely unnecessary and unfruitful exercise. To be fair Anderson makes an effort not to do that – but it does read like that is the direction he is more than once heading in.

While nobody could disagree with Anderson that we need to assess what Engels had to offer critically, like with other Marxist figures (Luxemburg, Bukharin, Lenin, Trotsky) the framing of them as ‘post-Marx Marxists in a negative sense’ (and here Anderson is following Dunayevskaya) seems unhelpful.37

Does it matter whether or not such figures ‘do not measure up to Marx’ as Anderson puts it?38 What about aspects of their political and intellectual activities that arguably exceeded those of Marx? It seems to lead ultimately into an argument about who was better, smarter, or less compromised intellectually and politically as a result of the historical role they played in their time.

The ‘power of the negative as the creative element’, words written by Dunayevskaya (echoing Marx’s 1844 manuscripts) was a central concern of hers, and it is for Anderson.39 Such power points in the direction of new beginnings, the ‘dialectic of negativity as the moving and creative principle’ as Marx described it.40

To give the last word to Karel on dialectics – it ‘dissolves fetishized artifacts both of the world of things and the world of ideas, in order to penetrate to their result.’41

For communists today, that is just the first step in unlocking ‘the present that is in the future’ as CLR James once said, and dissolving the present day structures that uphold oppression and unjustifiable hierarchies.42

All so the red shoots of a universalist emancipatory project breaking through the concrete – and pseudoconcrete – can flourish in the air of freedom.

1 Kircz, J 2014, ‘Elements of an essay on human change’, in R. Farris (ed.) Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis, IIRE, Amsterdam, p. 187.

2 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 157.

3 Bensaïd, D 2009, Marx For Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, Verso Books, London, p. 207

4 International Institute for Research and Education 2021, ‘What it means to be Marxist’ (2007), https://iire.org/node/965?fbclid=IwAR2BeKiMEcy3txDUe72Ds-o3Gpj4bO_j0TjQmR0vUUZRRb-rc9gbnuSpqsU

5 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 115.

6 Dunayevskaya, R 2017, Russia: From Proletarian Revolution to State-Capitalist Counter-Revolution: Selected Writings, Haymarket Books, Chicago, p. 433

7 Geras, N 1983, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment’, in New Left Review (ed.) Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, Verso Books, London, pp. 255-56.

8 Ibid, p. 244.

9 Ibid, p. 259.

10 Ibid, p. 264.

11 Ibid, p. 266.

12 Lukács, G 1968, Democratisation Today and Tomorrow: Part II.The Pure Alternative: Stalinismor Socialist Democracy. 6. Stalin’s Method, marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/democracy/ch06.htm

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Jeffries, S 2016, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso Books, London, p. 143.

17 Geras, N 1983, ‘Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment’, in New Left Review (ed.) Western Marxism: A Critical Reader, Verso Books, London, p. 249.

18 Ibid, p. 249.

19 Jeffries, S 2016, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso Books, London, p. 143.

20 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 101.

21 Ibid, p. 165-6.

22 Ibid, p. 166.

23 Ibid, p. 161.

24 Ibid, p. 97.

25 Ibid, p. 98.

26 Ibid, p. 159.

27 Ibid, p. 160.

28 Ibid, p. 160.

29 Ibid, p. 160.

30 Ibid, p. 160.

31 Ibid, p. 186.

32 Ibid, p. 222.

33 Ibid, p. 168.

34 Ibid, p. 169.

35 Ibid, p. 220.

36 Kircz, J 2014, ‘Elements of an essay on human change’, in R. Farris (ed.) Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis, IIRE, Amsterdam, p. 174.

37 Anderson, K 2020, Dialectics of Revolution: Hegel, Marxism, and its critics through a lens of race, class, gender and colonialism, Daraja Press, Ottawa, p. 222.

38Ibid, p. 222.

39Ibid, p. 168.

40Ibid, p. 164.

41Ibid, p. 201.

42Ibid, p. 191.

Is there a ‘middle class’ or ‘Professional-Managerial Class’?

By ANI WHITE

This article was written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine or e-publication here.

A podcast discussion based on this article can be heard at Where’s My Jetpack.

In common vernacular, the concept of a ‘middle class’ has currency. 70% of Americans think of themselves as ‘middle-class.’1 It may seem bluntly obvious to many that there is a middle class. But what is the middle class?

Classical Marxists have tended to define the working-class as those who draw their income from work rather than capital, which would include most who self-identify as ‘middle class.’ Conversely, sociologists have tended to divide society into multiple classes by income, status, and other indicators. Recently, the concept of a ‘Professional-Managerial Class’, or PMC, has gained currency on the left.

So, is there a middle class? Is this the same thing as the ‘petite bourgeoisie’, or the ‘Professional-Managerial Class’? What might the answers to these questions mean for those of us who aim to take on capitalism?

Professional-Managerial Class

We will start with the concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, currently popular in ‘democratic socialist’ circles around Bernie Sanders. This concept was originally coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, founding theorists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), partly to address a descriptive limitation in classical Marxism.

Although the Ehrenreichs do identify a historical dynamic needing further investigation, one central problem with the PMC category is the equation of professional and managerial. Professional simply means ‘high-skilled’, admittedly by a definition that devalues the skills of other workers. This may include a nurse, a tutor, or an IT worker, and any of these may be employed under poor conditions. Managerial simply means managing workers: it includes those who manage the nurses, tutors and IT workers categorised as ‘professional.’

In a classical Marxist conception, capitalist society ultimately polarises into two classes: workers who sell their labour, and capitalists who exploit it. Although there is a ‘petite bourgeoisie’, comprising mainly small business owners but also other middle strata, classical Marxists have tended to argue they will dissolve into one of the two major camps, often because economic insecurity would lead to proletarianisation. The Ehrenreichs argued a new class had emerged over the 20th century: the Professional-Managerial Class, defined as salaried, educated workers who do not control the means of production but are relatively privileged, and employed to reproduce capitalist social relations.2

Managers are generally expected to enforce the company line, so even if they don’t own capital, they may perceive contradictory interests with subordinate workers. Furthermore, managers may also wear a blue collar. So, you can be a professional without being managerial, or managerial without being a professional. Who does the average IT worker manage? Is the average IT worker in the same position as their office manager? The assumption that anyone wearing a white collar plays a managerial role does not stand up to scrutiny, but the PMC category does not make the distinction.

The PMC was the target of the recent book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional-Managerial Class by Catherine Liu, which is an influential in circles such as popular socialist magazine Jacobin.3 An excoriating critique of Liu’s shallow historical account and populist politics can be found on Libcom’s article “The PMC and the Tucker Carlson Left”,4 but I want to zero in on the author’s facile culturalist assumptions about class. These are asserted in the introduction:

The much-maligned Hillary Clinton was honest in her contempt for ordinary people when, in 2016, she dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Their 2016 defiance of PMC and liberal nostra has only hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism, which another reactionary demagogue will seek to exploit. PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable child-rearing habits.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

The equations here are revealing – Trump supporters equal blue collar working-class, liberals equal white-collar managers. What data does the author marshal to back up this argument? Nada. We in Fightback have argued before, on the basis of exit polls and other data, that Trump’s support is primarily among the petite bourgeoisie and wealthier sections of the working-class5 – putting it simply, those earning over 50k tended to vote Trump, those earning under 50k tended to vote Democrat.6 In keeping with the hoary cliches of the Conservative Left,7 Liu goes on to attack the PMC for their ‘culture wars’:

When the tide turned against American workers, the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying the favor of capitalists it once despised.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

If anything is an insult to low-paid workers, it’s the assumption that they are on the conservative side of the culture wars, in other words opposing rights for various social minorities. Once again, the author marshals precisely no hard evidence for this, only her own assumptions. In fact, a majority of Americans support progressive measures such as marriage equality.8

Liu contends that the shift towards capitalist-led ‘culture wars’ occurred after 1968. If there is a kernel of truth to the critique, it’s that capital has appropriated progressive symbols for its own benefit. However, this is in large part a concession to social movements, and would not work as branding if progressive social change did not have popular support. Discrediting Black Lives Matter because corporations post the slogan on Twitter is like discrediting Che Guevara for appearing on T-shirts. It’s admittedly true that at the height of neoliberalism, neoliberals were able to win over swathes of leftish-liberal middle class support, however this apparent consensus has been in crisis since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Liu comes to the point when she associates Elizabeth Warren’s campaign with ‘PMCs’, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign with resistance to their dominance. However, this perceived gulf between Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s politics reveals a limited political imagination. For all his rhetoric, Bernie Sanders equates ‘socialism’ with the police and army,9 as mayor of Burlington supported the arrest of anti-war protestors,10 and has repeatedly backed the centrist candidates openly loathed by his vocal left flank.11

Accusations against PMC Democrats can be diagnosed in many cases as projection. This echoes the old-fashioned sectarian Marxist deployment of ‘petite bourgeois’ as pejorative for anyone the sectarian disagrees with, by such a broad definition that it usually encompassed the people making the accusation. Catherine Liu herself is an academic, undoubtably a position that would be attacked as PMC if she supported Warren. The term PMC itself is hardly used beyond prolific Twitter users, who constitute around 2% of the US population and tend to be higher income than average (in a statistic worthy of Occupy Wall Street, 10% of Twitter users create 80% of the tweets).12

Liu admits to her membership in the PMC herself, and casts herself as a traitor to her class. However, without anything in the way of an empirical analysis of economic class, or an admission that the PMC in general are politically divided, casting herself as a noble exception is precisely the kind of individualistic moral positioning that she denounces, albeit with a more militant rhetoric in line with the times. In general, Liu’s insistence on her anti-liberalism is protesting too much, as she’s ultimately backing a Democratic electoralist strategy with no perspective for building working-class self-organisation.

The reality is that the various middle strata of class society are divided by liberal, conservative and even radical politics (especially during periods of upheaval). It’s not even necessarily true that left liberalism is predominant in the middle class as Liu and many others contend: upper-income workers and the petite bourgeoisie tend to support right-wing populism. Likely as a Humanities academic, Liu has encountered many leftish liberals without a serious critique of capitalism, but this is just one slice of the various professions identified as PMCs. Liu’s ‘class analysis’ essentially replicates the arguments of mainstream right-wing populism, repeating Murdoch talking points such as casting anti-sexual violence campaigns as irrational panics, rather than conducting an independent empirical investigation of class composition.

Although Liu’s book does outline the basic political economy of the global financial crisis, it does nothing to define economic class, ironic for an author who insists on the ‘antimaterialist’ nature of her political opponents. Liu justifies this theoretical looseness with a rhetorical gesture that her approach is polemical rather than ‘objective’, as if that lets her off the hook of actually analysing class society.

What is class composition today?

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with socialist, or communist approaches to class that an analysis of its economic character is the necessary starting-point. As previously outlined, classical Marxists tend to define class in terms of relation to production. More popular definitions tend to focus on income, or consumption habits. So how do we conceive class composition today?

Taking Sydney as their case study, Political Scientists Lisa Adkins et al argue that contemporary class should be conceived in terms of financial assets – particularly housing – rather than income.13 This argument draws on the influential work of Thomas Piketty, who emphasises the accumulation of wealth over income.14 The Anglosphere has very inflated housing markets – Aotearoa New Zealand has the second fastest growing house prices in the world15 – against a backdrop of steep inequality.

Marxists also define class based on property rather than income, but whereas classical Marxists emphasise the property of employers, Piketty’s followers emphasise assets such as housing. In studying the financialisation of everyday life in Australia, political economists Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty conceive of class as having both industrial and financial dimensions. They note that industrial and financialised views of capitalism can be complementary:

The industrial, workplace-centred view and the financialised view are compatible in many ways. People work for wages or income and produce a surplus and also live in households and absorb risk. In this dimension the financialised view is just adding a new emphasis.

Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

This new emphasis on financial assets is partly due to a shift within the composition of capital. Financial capital has come to predominate over industrial capital.17 Related to this financialisation, it seems hard to deny that the inflation of housing assets in recent decades has created a ‘middle class’ relying on assets rather than wages (Daphne Lawless’ article in this issue goes into the implications of this for recent clashes over housing in Aotearoa New Zealand).

Sociologists also distinguish between economic capital and cultural capital.18 Cultural capital refers to accumulated signs of status: say being fluent in formal English, owning a Lexus, or grinding your own coffee. This notion of cultural capital undoubtably underlines the attack on ‘PMCs’ hoarding cultural signifiers of virtue, whether or not adherents of the theory admit to this concession to culturalism. Yet in identifying cultural capital with class position, they imply an automatic relationship which doesn’t necessarily exist. Academics, for example, are sharply divided on many political questions. In general middle, or mediating strata are divided over cultural, political and economic questions.

So, returning to the initial question, is there a middle class? Perhaps, to a point, we can accept the common sociological argument that there are many middle classes, or middle strata. There are small-business owners, managers in various industries, white-collar salary workers, self-employed contractors, union officials, those retired but owning housing assets – these are all different positions that could fit into the ‘middle-class’ box, but may have clashing interests and politics (e.g., whereas small-business owners have an interest in reducing tax, public sector workers have an interest in redistributive policies). The most you can say in general is that they do not straightforwardly fit into the binary of industrial worker and capitalist, but rather play various mediating roles.

Decline of ‘middle class’

Although many popular talking points about class are misleading, the widespread talking point of the ‘decline of the middle class’ has more truth to it. Young adults across the Anglosphere are less likely to own homes than their parents,19 face a more insecure labour market,20 and are more saddled with debt.21 In short, even many from relatively privileged backgrounds are downwardly mobile.

In their work “Death of the Yuppie Dream”, Barbara and John Ehrenreich place this ‘decline of the middle class’ in the context of a capitalist offensive beginning in the 1970s. Ehrenreich notes that alongside the gutting of working-class power that even undermined the position of many PMCs, there was also a cultural offensive against the ‘liberal professions’ such as academia (the inverse of Liu’s argument in Virtue Hoarders that PMCs were waging a cultural offensive against workers on behalf of capital). Following outsourcing of industrial labour, information technology increasingly facilitated outsourcing and automation of white-collar labour. Conditions in tertiary education were undermined. All of this was exacerbated, of course, by the global financial crisis. The Ehrenreichs argues this undermining of the PMC may be a basis for radicalisation22:

In the coming years, we expect to see the remnants of the PMC increasingly making common cause with the remnants of the traditional working class for, at a minimum, representation in the political process. This is the project that the Occupy movement initiated and spread, for a time anyway, worldwide.

Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

Yet in Virtue Hoarders, despite drawing on the Ehrenreichs’ concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, Liu is dismissive of their thesis regarding the decomposition and radicalisation of the PMC, largely justifying this dismissal on the basis of Occupy Wall Street’s failure. However, for all the limitations of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s politics, downward mobility is central to the revival of socialism among young people that has made these previously obscure backbenchers household names. Liu’s positioning of herself as an honourable exception to the PMC rule precludes an analysis of this shift in class composition and subjectivity.

Conclusion: Political transformation over moralism

In Marxist Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, Lukács disputes the notion that revolution would be ‘purely proletarian.’ By necessity, any mass social transformation must draw in various sectors, including middle strata. Moreover, this will not happen automatically, rather it requires the organisation of middle strata in the meantime:

Ay revolution will not be a purely proletarian affair; it will not be solely and clearly be a conflict between Capitalism and the Working Class. A revolution is a swirling grey affair, populated with clashing strata from all across the framework of society… At that point when the heat is on, we can’t be spending our time educating our newfound allies, we need to have done the work beforehand, it is too late to be trying to collect our hand when the hand needs to be played.

Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

The aim of a principled socialist critique of class society is not to moralise, but to transform. Sectarians attacking comrades on the basis that they are ‘petite bourgeois’, or the contemporary variant of PMCs trolling other PMCs on Twitter, are forms of point-scoring that do nothing to advance the cause of social transformation. Clearly there are middle strata in class society, with a greater degree of relative privilege than the most oppressed sections of the working-class. However, many can be organised, on the basis of a common programme encompassing the interests of all oppressed and exploited people. Past revolutions and social movements show that a section of the middle strata will join the right side of history, and the question must always be posed: which side are you on?

1 Martin, Emmie. “70% of Americans consider themselves middle-class – but only 50% are.’ CNBC, Jun 30 (tinyurl.com/cnbc-middle).

2 Ehrenreich, John and Barbara.” The Professional-Managerial Class”, in In Between Labor and Monopoly Capital (Pat Walker ed). South End Press. 1979

3 Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

4 Comrade Motopu. “The PMC meets the Tucker Carlson Left”, Libcom, 21 Feb 2021 (tinyurl.com/libcom-pmc).

5 White, Ani. “What is the base of right-wing populism”, Fightback, 17 Mar 2021 (tinyurl.com/populism-base).

6 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020”, Financial Times, 8 Nov 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base).

7 Lawless, Daphne. “Against “conservative leftism”: why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail”, Fightback, 16 Feb 2016 (tinyurl.com/conservative-leftism).

8 PRRI Staff. “Dueling Realities: Amid Multiple Crises, Trump and Biden Supporters See Different Priorities and Futures for the Nation”, PRRI, 19 Oct 2020 (tinyurl.com/majority-marriage).

9 Healey, Patrick. “Preparing to Define Democratic Socialism, Bernie Sanders Points to Public Libraries and the Police”, The New York Times, 19 Oct 2015 (tinyurl.com/police-socialist).

10 Seelye, Katharine Q. “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist”, 25 Nov 2015, The New York Times (tinyurl.com/bernie-protestors).

11 Sullivan, Eric; Sullivan, Kate. “Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden for president”, CNN, 14 April 2020 (tinyurl.com/bernie-biden).

12 Wojcik, Stefan; Hughes, Adam. “Sizing Up Twitter Users”, Pew Research Center, 24 Apr 2019 (tinyurl.com/very-online).

13 Adkins, Lisa; Cooper, Melinda; Konings, Martijn. “Class in the 21st century: Asset inflation and the new logic of inequality.” EPA: Economy and Space0(0), pp. 1–25, 2019. Sage Publications.

14 Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press. 2014.

15 Bell, Miriam. “NZ number two in international house price growth ranks.” Stuff, 4 Jun 2021 (tinyurl.com/nz-no2).

16 Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

17 Peet, Richard. “Contradictions of Finance Capitalism.” Monthly Review, 1 Dec 2011 (tinyurl.com/mr-finance).

18 Bourdieu; ibid.

19 Nova, Annie. “Here’s why millions of millennials are not homeowners”, CNBC, 30 Aug 2019 (tinyurl.com/millenials-usa); Stats NZ. “Homeownership rate lowest in almost 70 years”, Stats NZ, 8 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/millennials-nz); Savage, Michael. “Millennial housing crisis engulfs Britain”, The Guardian, 28 Apr 2018 (tinyurl.com/millenials-uk); Chau, David. “House ownership is out of reach for ‘disenfranchised’ millennials, says CoreLogic property analysts”, ABC News, 28 Sep 2019 (tinyurl.com/millennials-aus).

20 Martinchek, Kassandra. “Young Millennials and Gen Zers Face Employment Insecurity and Hardship during the Pandemic”, Urban Institute. 18 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/yz-insecurity).

21 DeMatteo, Megan. “How Much Debt Do Millennials Have?”, CNBC, 19 Mar (tinyurl.com/millennial-debt).

22 Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

23 Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

Intersectionality and class

By BRONWEN BEECHEY

This was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The concept of intersectionality originates from a 1989 article by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law studies professor and one of the founders of Critical Race Theory. While Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become one of the latest spectres haunting the right-wing in the US, it originated in the 1980s and 90s among a group of legal scholars, including Crenshaw, who took issue with the liberal consensus that discrimination and racism in the law were irrational and “that once the irrational distortions of bias were removed, the underlying legal and socioeconomic order would revert to a neutral, benign state of impersonally apportioned justice.” Crenshaw and other CRT founders argued that racism was not an aberration that could be legislated out of existence, highlighting the continuing economic inequality between whites and minorities, and the lack of minority representation in supposedly “colour-blind” institutions such as universities. Instead, Crenshaw wrote, discrimination continued due to the “stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance” – in other words, the American legal and political system was inherently racist.

The concept of intersectionality came from the ideas debated in CRT. Crenshaw’s 1989 article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, centred on three legal cases that dealt with issues of both racial and sex discrimination. Each case, Crenshaw argued, demonstrated the limitations of a single-issue analysis of how the law considers racism and sexism.

For example, DeGraffenreid v General Motors was a 1976 case where five black women sued General Motors over its seniority policy. General Motors never hired black women until 1964, and so when seniority-based layoffs occurred after a recession in the early 1970s, all of the black women were laid off. The women argued that General Motors seniority policy was discriminatory on both racial and gender grounds. However, the court refused to consider the two categories together, stating in the words of the judge that “black women” could not be considered as a separate, protected class, as to do so would open up a “Pandora’s box” of minorities who would demand protection by the law.

Crenshaw argued that the 1976 case and others ignored the specific challenges facing black women as a group. She wrote:

The point is that Black women can experience discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.

In a 2017 interview, Crenshaw said that “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

Intersectionality is also linked with the development of identity politics, a concept that was first articulated in a public statement by a black feminist social work, the Combahee River Collective. The statement highlighted the need to “develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of black men.” It concluded:

Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.

Identity politics was criticised by many on the left, on the basis that it encouraged an inward-looking focus that elevated differences between activists and emphasised the importance of lived experience over the development of solidarity between different groups. It was also criticised for creating “hierarchies of oppression” where the more types of oppression an individual suffered from, the higher their status. Others pointed out that identity politics was co-opted by the mainstream political parties, allowing them to present progressive legislation on women’s rights and LGBT+ issues while continuing their austerity policies toward workers and the poor. Intersectionality can be seen, at least in part, as a response to the limitations of identity politics, although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

The concept of intersectionality was quickly picked up by other academics, who applied it to queer theory, feminist legal theory and numerous studies on race, gender and sexuality. Over time, it began to appear outside academia. In 2015, “intersectionality” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and shortly after the term became widely, though not always accurately, used in mainstream media. It quickly became associated with North American feminist campaigns such as Me Too and the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. As a result, “intersectionality” was added to the vocabulary of right-wingers as a term of abuse, along with “political correctness”, “cancel culture” and “privilege checking”. It was variously described as “a new caste system”, “a conspiracy theory of victimisation”, and representing a form of feminism that “puts a label on you. It tells you how oppressed you are. It tells you what you’re allowed to say, what you’re allowed to think.”

Interestingly, a number of conservative commentators have acknowledged that intersectionality as an idea or legal concept is valid. Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who has described intersectionality as “really dangerous,” told Vox that “the original articulation of the idea by Crenshaw is accurate and not a problem” The issue for conservatives is the application of intersectionality beyond the academic sphere, where it is perceived as an attempt to invert an existing hierarchy of oppression so that white, straight, cisgender men are on the bottom. In response, Crenshaw points out that her aim is not to replicate existing power dynamics but to remove those power dynamics altogether. She adds that “There have always been people, from the very beginning of the civil rights movement, who had denounced the creation of equality rights on the grounds that it takes something away from them.”

Less predictably, intersectionality has also been criticised by left-wing and Marxist commentators. These critiques are focused on the role of class, which is recognised in intersectional theory as a form of oppression, but not given any more importance than other forms such as race, gender or sexuality; whereas Marxism traditionally views class as the primary form of oppression. Some of these arguments have been crudely reductionist, arguing that any discussion of race, gender and sexuality is a diversion from the class struggle. These arguments seem to assume that the working class is composed primarily of white men, a situation that has not existed for at least the past 30 years, if ever.

Other Marxist scholars, such as Barbara Foley, Eve Mitchell and Asad Haider, recognise the importance of anti-racist, feminist and queer issues, but argue that these “identities” are largely a product of capitalist social relations. According to Foley:

…the ways in which “race” and gender—as modes of oppression–have historically been shaped by the division of labor can and should be understood within the explanatory framework supplied by class analysis, which foregrounds the issue of exploitation, that is, of the profits gained from the extraction of what Marx called “surplus value” from the labor of those who produce the things that society needs.

Eve Mitchell describes intersectional theory as in part, a response to the marginalisation of women of colour in the 1960s and 1970s feminist, Black Power, and other anti-racist organisations. She states:

It is important to note that identity politics and intersectionality theorists are not wrong, but they are incomplete. Patriarchal and racialized social relations are material, concrete and real. So are the contradictions between the particular and universal, and the appearance and essence. The solution must build upon these contradictions and push on them…Embracing womanhood, organizing on the basis of blackness, and building a specifically queer politics is an essential aspect of our liberation. It is the material starting point of struggle.

However, both Mitchell and Haider argue, the essential next step is to move beyond organising around identity and towards an understanding that solidarity between all those oppressed by capitalism is the only way to defeat it.

Other Marxist commentators argue that there is no incompatibility between intersectionality and Marxism. Sofa Saio Gradin, a queer non-binary Marxist, writes:

Radical queerness and anti-racism are not forms of identity politics; and class struggle is not free from questions of identity. All forms of social life are already coded by class, race, gender and disability, so there are no forms of politics or struggle that exist outside these structures of social power. The claim that intersectional critiques distract from the ‘real struggle’ or are divisive is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both intersectionality and socialism: the question is not whether the two can be integrated, but how.

In her 2020 book, Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism, Ashley Bohrer also argues that “a thorough analysis of capitalism requires insights and tools from both Marxist and intersectional traditions.” She adds, in a recent interview:

We can’t understand race (in its gendered, sexualised, ability-laden senses) without understanding that the modern notion of race was invented in a capitalist world, that we all experience race in a capitalist world. There is no separating any of these categories from capitalism and there is no separating capitalism from race, gender, sexuality, ability or nationality.

The role of intersectionality in Aotearoa New Zealand is particularly relevant in a nation that Marxists describe as a colonial-settler state. Like Australia, Canada and the United States, Aotearoa New Zealand was settled by Europeans as part of an imperialist project, where the colonising nation (England) displaced and often physically extinguished the indigenous population with the aim of seizing its resources. Later waves of migration brought other nationalities in, particularly Pacific Islanders who were used as a cheap labour force following the post-Second World War boom. As a result, a large percentage of the working class in New Zealand (if not the majority) are Māori, Pasefika or other ethnicities such as Chinese or Indian. This has given class struggle an intersectional dimension. To give one example, the support of unions for the occupation of Takaparawhau/Bastion Point in the 1970s was instrumental in ensuring that, even after the occupation was violently ended by police and army, construction was not able to proceed.

The effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa NZ also can be seen through an intersectional lens. The most affected community in the wave of the delta strain has been the Pasefika community. This is due to several factors. Firstly, many of the “essential workers” who have been working through the lockdowns – medical staff, retail workers, supply chain and transport workers – are Pasefika or Māori and therefore at greater risk. These workers are low paid and generally live in substandard, overcrowded housing. It is also customary in Pasefika and Māori cultures for elderly family members to be cared for at home by relatives, meaning that COVID-19 (particularly the Delta variant) spreads rapidly and affects both the old and the very young.

The importance of the church to the majority of Pasefika families has resulted in super-spreader events at large church services, and some churches have shared anti-vax conspiracy theories among their followers. Historical memories of the Dawn Raids and racism has created an understandable distrust of government; and there are many in the community who have overstayed work visas and are reluctant to go to vaccination or testing centres (although there is no restriction on eligibility due to immigration status).

Added to this is the chronic underfunding of health services, particularly in South Auckland where the majority of Pacific peoples live.

The low vaccination rate among Māori can also be explained by the legacy of colonialism, where Māori were dispossessed of their land and food sources, had their language and culture suppressed and lost thousands to diseases introduced by the settlers. Māori in rural areas have limited access to health services and transport. Disinformation about vaccines has also had an impact, feeding into general distrust of government and health policies that have disadvantaged and discriminated against Māori in the past.

Taking an intersectional approach means supporting efforts by Māori and Pasefika communities to organise vaccination and testing at marae, churches and other sites where community members feel comfortable, and to develop resources in their own languages to encourage vaccination and counter disinformation. It means supporting efforts by Māori and Pasefika to counter food insecurity. It means calling on the government to increase benefits and wages and build more public housing. And it means supporting the fight against climate change, which in many areas is already being led by Pasefika and Māori youth.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that capitalism is prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to keep its profits coming. The majority of those lives are those of the poor and people of colour. At the same time, there have been countless examples of solidarity in responding to the pandemic. This solidarity can be built upon a basis of understanding that different people experience oppression in different ways, as well as understanding the common cause of that oppression – a system that considers certain lives to be expendable so that the rich can survive.

SWERF and TERF: The Red-Brown alliance in Policing Gender

Trans communism
Transcommunist flag by NinjaDrawsDBZ

by DAPHNE LAWLESS, from Fightback magazine’s upcoming issue on Socialist Feminism. Subscribe here.

Late last year, a veteran of communist politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand decided to contribute to a march for the traditional working-class demand for reproductive rights by standing outside it with a sign bearing only the words “WOMAN = ADULT HUMAN FEMALE” – a dogwhistle for anti-trans feminists (or “trans-excluding radical feminists”, TERFs). Another veteran from the same organisation now has the same phrase at the head of her Twitter biography – displacing all mention of her record as a socialist and a union organiser. And they’re not the only ones. How has the motivation to punch down on trans people – and defend the “free speech” of fascists and others who do so – come to substitute for the fight for workers’ power and a post-capitalist world in the minds of veteran activists?

Freeze peach

Daphna Whitmore and Don Franks are veteran socialists and union organisers, who were founding authors of the blog Redline when it was set up in 20121. Whitmore’s Twitter account identifies her as part of the “Left Network for Free Speech” (LNFS). The Redline post in which this “Network” was announced says:

As partisans of the working class, we know that the working class has historically been denied democratic rights, including free speech. Even after hundreds of years of struggle, workers today face being fired for expressing, in their own time and on their own computers, views which their employers disapprove of.

Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of employers and the state disempowers workers and oppressed sections of society such as women, Maori, gay people and migrant workers… Free speech is necessary to expose racism, sexism and bigotry. In contrast, ‘hate speech’ restrictions don’t challenge these ideas. ‘Hate speech’ laws in practice are an arbitrary tool that are used to impose social regulation. They can be used to silence progressives on a range of issues.2

Given their defence of free speech as a weapon in defence of the interests of workers and gay people, it is strange that almost all the articles posted by the LNFS on their Facebook page since it was founded are in defence of Israel Folau – the millionaire athlete who was released from his contract with the Australian Rugby Union after violating his contract by making religiously-based homophobic social media posts – or of “gender-critical” (i.e. transphobic) commentators and academics. The link between these and working-class activism seems thin, to say the least.

Free-speech absolutism on the Left has had a historical record of degenerating, first into tolerance for Right-wing ideas, then actual sympathy with them. The classic historical example of this is the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain, originally a split from the Socialist Workers Party. This organisation – always somewhat of an outlier on the British far-left – began to be distinguished in the mid-1980s by opposing the consensus that fascist movements such as the British National Party should not be given platforms on campus. This clearly prefigures the LNFS’ insistence that state action against “hate speech” in fact makes things worse, as well as its concern about “academic mobbing” of professors who promote transphobia.

The subsequent transformation of the RCP into an outright Right-wing libertarian outfit is quite notorious. Opposing the liberal consensus had become for them an end in itself, detached from socialist principle. The organisation itself wound up in the 1990s, as their Living Marxism magazine was sued out of existence for denial of the horrors of attempted genocide during the Yugoslav civil wars. They cropped up later in the form of the “Institute of Ideas”, promoting climate-change denial through documentaries such as The Great Global Warming Swindle. They continue to exist as Spiked, a libertarian Right-wing website funded by American billionaires the Koch brothers, some of whose writers have recently been elected to the European Parliament for the Brexit Party.3

It is interesting to note that the place where this degeneration began – minimising the threat of fascism in favour of the supposed greater threat of liberal “thought policing” – is a very common trope on the anti-liberal Left, the kind of people whom Fightback has criticised in our previous articles on Conservative Left and Red-Brown tendencies. As we have previously stated, this kind of underestimation of the fascist threat – or even seeing fascist movements as having a positive side, in mobilising opposition to a centrist/liberal consensus – was the kind of thinking from Communists which led to the victory of Hitler in Germany.

The most shocking and disturbing thing on the LNFS Facebook page, however, is the un-ironic posting of this image4:

This is an extremely common meme in online “free speech” circles (and was recently quoted by none other than Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter). But this is not a quote from the 18th century French writer Voltaire at all. It is in fact a quote from Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi writing in 1993. The clue to whom he was really referring is given in the following, full version of the meme:

There is no reason to believe that Whitmore, Franks et al. were aware of the true nasty nature of this meme. But in a way, that makes it even worse. Fightback has previously characterised the spread of “Red-Brown” ideas as like a “zombie plague”, in that socialists or others on the Left who start descending into Right-populist or even fascist politics don’t even realise that they’re doing so. It is a case of losing one’s political (or even moral) compass.

“Progressive” transphobia

Unfortunately, trans-exclusive ideas are not confined to the comrades of Redline/LFNS. TERF politics are very strong on the British left, and one union activist recently arrived from Britain tried earlier this year to defend the free speech of transphobes on the “Unions NZ” Facebook group.6 Prominent veterans of the socialist movement in New Zealand – such as Unite Union stalwart Mike Treen and retired academic David Bedggood7 – have also made social media or blog posts opposing “transactivism” or defending local anti-trans activists such as Renee Gerlich. Such comrades often try to justify themselves by arguing that they are against discrimination against trans people, but that “transactivism/the transgender movement” goes too far. These are not dissimilar in form from the arguments against Gay Liberation from 1970s Communists, which are still used by fringe Stalinist groups like the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”.

This is particularly ironic in an era where some of the staunchest young communists in Aotearoa/New Zealand identify as trans, non-binary or in some other way “genderqueer”.9 As we noted in “Against Conservative Leftism”, incomprehension of new ways of living which have become common among young people in the era of neoliberal globalisation is a common feature among many veteran activists.

Beyond that, many activists have pointed to an extremely strong link between anti-sex-worker (sex-worker-exclusive radical feminism, or SWERF) and anti-trans politics. English sociology professor Sally Hines put it like this on Twitter:

If someone is a trans exclusionary feminist they will almost certainly have anti-sex work and anti-porn politics – and vice versa. The constant is a denial of body autonomy and a feminism that insists it knows what is best for other women (even when told otherwise).11

It is no coincidence that, due to social exclusion from other work, trans women have been disproportionately represented among sex workers. It is rumoured that several prominent TERFs in New Zealand developed their hostility to trans people after getting a hostile response to their anti-sex worker activism.

English trans musician “DeadBitBabe” also comments:

SWERF’N’TERFS can’t acknowledge the autonomy of sex workers because to them power only comes from maintaining the integrity of their fantasy construction of a female body… Are the cries of Lesbian erasure not strangely reminiscent of the fascist’s cries of white genocide?

The “lesbian erasure” trope is an interesting one. The AfterEllen website recently published an article entitled “A Butch Eradication, Served With a Progressive Smile”, claiming that the network of lesbian spaces and business which had been built up since the 1980s had collapsed due to an increasing tendency of “butch” (masculine-appearing) lesbians to identify as trans men. The author laments:

Our lesbian spaces are already dead. Our bookstores, our dances. Everything we built is dead and taken over by the trans nightmare.

If nothing else, this is a change from the usual TERF narrative, which tends to ignore the existence of trans men and non-binary people altogether, and instead to whip up moral panic about trans women “colonizing” or even “raping” cis women’s spaces. What should really make people stop and think about both these TERF narratives is how similarly they resemble fascist narratives about “The Great Replacement”, as made notorious by the manifesto of the terrorist who murdered 51 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch earlier this year.

Following the analysis of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Fightback has previously argued that fascist politics everywhere can be characterised as a movement led by the insecure and frightened middle-class. People who may have worked hard to build a little privilege for themselves under capitalism become terrified that an ethnic or cultural Other (classically, “the Jews”) might take it away from them. The AfterEllen article quoted above mourns for the death of a network of lesbian/woman-identified small businesses. In most cases TERFs tend to be older, whiter feminists who have had some success in academia, writing, or in the bourgeois lesbian community (the most globally prominent example being Germaine Greer).

Analysing TERF politics as a variety of fascist ideology might seem shocking or over-the-top; particularly because to do so would require us to categorize many veteran socialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand to have slipped over into the “Red-Brown” camp. But defining fascism as a movement in defence of the threatened privilege of the downwardly mobile middle class seems to make the parallel unavoidable. As does the habit of TERF ideologues of suggesting that trans people are part of some kind of conspiracy of “elites”, as in the tweet reproduced below:

TERF conspiracy theories on Twitter about "elites backing the trans movement" are not dissimilar to fascist ones.

The full antisemitic force of that term “elites” can be grasped when you read a transphobic academic explicitly name George Soros, the Jewish liberal billionaire who has become a common bad guy in fascist conspiracy theory, as a guilty party. “Deadbitbabe” on Twitter again:

Real talk: the primordially whole female body is to TERFs what the primordially whole nation and its people is to fascists… A mythological fantasy that serves to displace all sorts of anxieties.

The anarchist-communist website LibCom puts it more bluntly: “Transphobic feminists are, for all practical purposes, the women’s division of the global far-right.” Given this, the support given by the fascist and religious-fundamentalist Right for TERFs, described in other articles reprinted in this issue, begins to look less like an “enemy’s enemy” situation and more like a meeting of ideological bedfellows.

Perhaps the final word can be left to the author of the blog nothingiseverlost, in a criticism of the similar descent of the socialist-feminist academic Nina Power into TERF and other forms of right-wing politics: “you never seem to get people becoming less sympathetic to the far-right at the same time as getting into “gender critical”/trans-exclusionary versions of feminism.” It is extremely interesting that Power’s main move in defending her dabbling with transphobic and fascistic memes is an invocation of … free speech.

What is to be done?

Fightback has previously discussed what we see as another irruption of Right-wing ideology into socialist circles, here and elsewhere in the Western world – the demonization of the Syrian revolution. The repetitive argument from such people is that the Syrian people fighting against the Assad regime and its Russian allies are not “real” subjects of liberation (such as, to take a more popular example, the Palestinian people), but instead pawns of some Zionist-jihadi-US State Department conspiracy against Syria’s “national sovereignty”. The really perverse issue is that some of the TERF-adjacent leftists we have quoted– and we might name David Bedggood here – have agreed with us in staunchly rejecting this dehumanizing rhetoric when used against the Syrian people in struggle… only to use similar rhetoric against trans people in struggle.20

At the very least, what this can tell us is that “it’s difficult to be right about everything”. But it also warns us against a sectarian response to SWERF/TERF ideas on the Left – that is, refusal to deal with anyone who might hold such views at the moment. We all live under a suffocating blanket of capitalist ideology, in which it becomes “natural” for different groups of the oppressed to be suspicious or hostile towards each other. Even with the best intentions, it can be very hard to consistently hold to a materialist analysis which can clearly identify patterns of oppression, exploitation and privilege, and not be confused by the “DARVO” (“Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”) tactics habitually used by fascist movements and domestic abusers.

Fightback believes that to effectively fight capitalism today means to fight fascism, the most dangerous form of capitalist ideology, which is currently on the rise. To fight fascism, we must have a united front of working and oppressed people. To have a united front we cannot tolerate racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, state-worship or any other ideology which suggests that some oppressed people are “deserving targets” within our united front, because that is literally the thin edge of the Fascist wedge.

The Left has had far too much opportunism recently – refusal to face Right-populist or even fascist ideas within the movements for fear of alienating people, of breaking up the mass movement. We need to hold to a practice of honest, sharp criticism of SWERF and TERF ideas where-ever they are raised, even by “comrades” or “good Leftists”, as contrary to the unity of all the oppressed we need to build a better world. We also need to centre the experiences of trans people and sex workers within our movement in such debates – nothing should be “about them, without them”.

At the same time, it is crucial to build the biggest possible anti-fascist, anti-capitalist united front – which will mean sometimes linking arms with SWERFs, TERFs and even partisans of Bashar al-Assad against a common enemy. No-one said it was going to be easy.

Special thanks to Sage Anastasi, Lisandru Grigorut and Anne Russell for their help with this article.

1 The founders of Redline were former members of the Workers Party of New Zealand – the organisation from which Fightback is also descended. We are aware of the historical ironies involved.

2 For refutations from the Left of the case against hate-speech restrictions, see Max Rashbrooke at Overland (liberal) and R. Totale at LibCom (anarcho-communist).

3 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_Marxism, https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spiked, and https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/us-billionaires-hard-right-britain-spiked-magazine-charles-david-koch-foundation

4 If this image is taken down before then, it was accessed July 13, 2019.

6 This post raised strong negative feedback and has since been deleted by the group administrators.

7 Treen has republished several anti-“transactivist” articles on social media, including those from Redline. Bedggood is the author of this blog post.

9 Not to even mention the contribution to the Communist movement over decades by “transactivists” such as the late Les Feinberg.

11 Hines even suggests that SWERFs and TERFs might be brought together under the label “Genital-Obsessed Feminists”.

20 An excellent article on LibCom shows how a Red-Brown conference in Sweden brought together transphobic speakers with some of the most notorious defenders of Assad, such as Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley.