The Anglo-American left has lost sight of every principle that matters. That much should be obvious from progressives’ reactions to last week’s publication of the Durham report, which ranged from “nothingburger” sneers to a recent headline for the leftist Youtube show Majority Report that screamed: “Trump DESPERATE To Find ANYTHING in Durham Report.”
Of course, the Durham report would be significant to any left that conceived of itself as independent from the Democratic Party. Only a sycophantic left marching in lockstep with Democrats could fail to notice that the security state is running roughshod over democracy. Only a totally submissive and cowed left could defend the FBI’s wholly unprincipled and unjustified investigation into a sitting president. Only a totally craven and inhumane left could ignore how the Russiagate hoax helped to set up the proxy war in Ukraine. Only a schizophrenic left thoroughly trained in doublethink could understand the Biden presidency as something other than a disaster for humanity, given that we are, according to the commander in chief himself, closer to nuclear war than we have been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The same blasé attitude characterized much of the left’s response to the #TwitterFiles, which exposed massive, systematic censorship carried out by a few giant firms, frequently at the behest of the US security apparatus. For many progressives, however, the #TwitterFiles embarrassed the Biden administration, with the real goal being to help Elon Musk turn a profit at Twitter. Yes, the same social-media platform that has rarely posted annual profits, and that has relied on cheap money, low interest rates, and an insane amount of speculative investment throughout its 17-year history.
We—the media left—have clearly lost our way. Clicking on tweets, mingling in bars and clubs in Brooklyn, discussing all the great philosophers and the history of the left in the same way that teenagers discussed metal bands and movies when I was growing up in the 1980s, the media leftists have become utterly unserious. Calculatedly unserious.
And this unseriousness runs deep. It runs back all the way to the failure of the Soviet experiment to create socialism. Spencer Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society recently explained what has happened on the Sublation Media podcast. He said that the left’s refusal to stand up for basic constitutionally protected rights is a product of the Stalinist insistence on distinguishing between bourgeois and socialist revolutions, as if the socialists or Marx himself aimed at something other than achieving liberty, equality, and fraternity. There is no difference between bourgeois aims and socialist aims. In 2023, it’s clear that there can’t be a difference. Today’s liberals who cling to the state, saying they’re “Still With Her,” even as the FBI trawls our direct messages for wrongthink, are abandoning these bourgeois aims.
For the socialist left, rejecting liberal, bourgeois ideals is a fatal mistake. Since 1848, the socialist project has been to complete or realize what was an international bourgeois revolution. The unfinished character of liberalism is what necessitates socialist organizing, and this organizing will only ever succeed if it is undertaken to address the longstanding crisis of liberalism. Socialism is nothing other than the organization of the various demands from the working class into a demand for the realization of what liberalism or bourgeois society can only promise to deliver but perpetually delays.
“Marx, perhaps surprisingly to many, conceived of free speech as primary.”
To put it more clearly, since the 19th century, socialists have demanded the right to universal free speech. Marx, perhaps surprisingly to many, conceived of free speech as primary. Writing for the Rheinische Zeitung during a regional debate on freedom of the press, Marx wrote,
The question has now for the first time been given a consistent meaning. It is not a question of whether freedom of the press ought to exist, for it always exists. The question is whether freedom of the press is a privilege of particular individuals, or whether it is a privilege of the human mind. The question is whether a right of one side ought to be a wrong for the other side. The question is whether ‘freedom of the mind’ has more right than ‘freedom against the mind.’
Tracing the source of socialists’ rejection of freedom back to really existing Stalinism gives contemporary Marxists a chance to break free from contemporary American-style Stalinism, or to break free from the Democrats. One way we can start to achieve this is to understand the contemporary distortion of Marx and working-class politics as a product of the defeats that are marked as epochs historically, and by reconsidering a few of the old Marxists who attempted to engage critically with those defeats.
Starting with the postwar left, we might re-examine Theodor Adorno and understand the Frankfurt School as critics of Fordism. Why did they reject the statist solution to the crisis that appeared as a depression and a world war? If we understand that, we could reject the Sanders side of the Democratic Party and its self-defeating nostalgia for this era of defeat.
Adorno and Max Horkheimer, describing fascism, wrote in the_ Dialectic of Enlightenment_, “The concentration of command throughout production is causing society to revert to the stage of direct rule. As the detour of power via the internal markets of nations disappears, so, too, do intellectual mediations, including law.”
That is, from the other side of World War II, Adorno recognized that as precarious and riven with inequality as 19th-century competitive capitalism had been, when capital takes up the state to protect itself from its own contradictions, and when monopoly power replaces competition as the form that capital takes, the masses suffer not only bodily, but in their souls, as well. They are no longer allowed to think on their own.
So when we see that the Pentagon has launched an Influence and Perception Management Office, we should understand this as a deepening of the monopoly power of a capitalist state. When we encounter reports of the Department of Homeland Security training social-media companies and mainstream newsrooms on what counts as disinformation and what should be dutifully reported, a sensible and cognizant left should understand this as a deepening of our own defeat.
Of course, both of these examples have been made public, and both have been either dutifully ignored or openly celebrated by an American left that sees its mission as entirely separate from the struggle of ordinary people, of civil society, of the masses, of the working class.
A while back, in 1988 to be precise, when the left still had some remnants of an understanding that the aim of revolutionaries and radicals was to emancipate people from authoritarian systems of control, the French radical filmmaker and theorist Guy Debord explained how to understand the term “disinformation.” He told us what it meant when the state created an exception so it could break from the rules of law and the constitutional order that legitimated its own existence.
The confusionist concept of disinformation is pushed into the limelight instantaneously to refute, by the very noise of its name, all critique that has not been sufficiently made to disappear by the diverse agencies of the organization of silence. For example, it could one day be said, should this appear desirable, that this text is a disinformation campaign against the spectacle; or indeed, since it is the same thing, a piece of disinformation harmful to democracy.
If I were to revise this statement for today, I would add only this: that an FBI that can turn its vast powers of investigation into a weapon deployed to protect the center of power from a reality-TV-show-host president can certainly do the same to you and me. This FBI will be turned against any attempt to organize an actual left project for emancipation.
How can the left fail to object? How can we fail to take up the responsibility to realize our inheritance by organizing outside of and against the Democratic Party? We have to risk suffering recognizable defeats and the frightening prospect of becoming the next targets of the current security state. Given the betrayals that have been exposed, to continue on with the Democrats would surely be to abandon all hope in the name of cowardly accommodation.