The legacy of the 1980s Left

2013 annual Platypus President’s report

Chris Cutrone

At the 2013 Platypus Affiliated Society’s (PAS) annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 5–7, Chris Cutrone, President of the PAS, delivered the following presentation, which has been edited for clarity. A full video recording is available online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeNM87ztYlg>.

The 1980s were the time in which the New Left hunkered down for a “march through the institutions” after the failure of the countercultural revolution of 1968 and the economic crisis of the 1970s to transform society in emancipatory directions. These institutions included both academic higher education and the labor movement (as well as other civil-society “non-governmental organizations”): in some cases, it also meant joining the mainstream political parties, attempting to “transform them from within.”

What this meant was a disintegration of the “Left” into: 1.) “activism,” attempting to be the most militant participants in and thus leadership or at least “Left pole of attraction” in various social and political movements; and 2.) “academicism,” attempting to reproduce and perpetuate the radicalization of students through posing and participating in higher education as a permanent counter-culture. The former as well as the latter, however, meant the institutionalization of the “Left,” but not as a form of political organization so much as a permanently organized anti-politics, an institutionalization of the liquidation of politics that had already taken place prior to the 1960s: what C. Wright Mills, among others, had decried in the “death of ideology.” Adorno warned of “brutal practicism” and the “instrumentalization of theory,” what he considered the long playing out of the aftermath of the 1930s-40s, in similar terms to Mills’s.

After the 1980s, this has become wholly naturalized, almost entirely invisible to later generations. Indeed, it is only visible, as it had been already to Mills and Adorno in the 1950s-60s, by contrasting the present with history: where Mills no less than Adorno clearly discerned the missing element in terms of Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, our present further distance means that we cannot clearly discern this phenomenon as even a liberal like Mills and not only Marxists such as Adorno could. This says something of the liquidation of liberalism, too, and not merely Marxism, in the history leading to our time.

So, the liberal vocations of both civic activism and education, both non-state phenomena of the bourgeois public sphere, stand in serious doubt: the “neo-liberal era” has been decidedly illiberal and not merely anti-Marxist in precisely these domains. University education evinces this especially. What Clement Greenberg had warned already in the 1930s about “Alexandrianism” has been underway for some considerable time. (In recent discussion on our members’ list, Spencer has pointed out the collapse of university education already visible in Hegel’s time, and certainly for Marx.) The medieval institution with its guild structure cannot revert unscathed after bourgeois emancipation, but must be less than it was before: the postmodernist wish for perpetual medievalism, that “we were never modern,” is a vain one: any Left must face the barbarism of our time. The 1980s has contributed to the blindness to this, naturalizing barbarism, in ways that that must be overcome. But first they must be recognized.

What was clear already to Adorno in the 1940s as the “racketeering” of the labor movement can be said of all vestigial civil society institutions. What shocked and outraged the 1960s generation about the collusion of civil society in the politics of the state (during the Cold War) is now a matter of course. A curious reversal has thus taken place: whereas once the demand, from the 1960s through the ’80s, was to assert the independence of, e.g., institutions of higher education from the state (or labor unions from war policy), now it appears that activists attempt to influence state policies through contesting civil society. One sees this in the current BDS campaign against Israel, for instance, which is a direct descendant of 1980s activism such as anti-apartheid solidarity campaigns. This is rather hopeless. For what was once regarded as an unfortunate compromise owing to prevailing Right-wing conditions and was hence considered temporary has now become the only imagination of possible politics, permanently conceived. “Academic Leftism” has rendered not only the academic supposedly “Left” but has made the “Left” academic, in both senses of the term. Ideology is entirely superfluous, and so what Mills warned about the “end of ideology” being the end of politics has only come true in ways he scarcely imagined. The New Left didn’t reverse this trend, as Mills had hoped, but institutionalized it.

The labor movement itself has long been condemned to acting merely in its own self-interest, as a form of social corporatism: its almost entirely defensive struggles in the last four decades have contributed to this.

So, what happened in the 1980s that led to the present impasse?

Not only did 1968 not bring revolution but brought Nixon instead, so did the 1970s not bring about the deepening radicalization of society owing to the crisis of both the counterculture and the economy, but rather Reagan and Thatcher. Elsewhere, where it appeared to issue into an institutionalization of the “Left,” it actually brought about a more obscure hence pernicious Right-wing development: for instance, Mitterand’s Socialist Party in France, in which many New Leftists joined up. In the U.S., many former New Leftists joined up with the Democratic Party, also seeking ostensibly to transform it from within. They did, but as a function of neoliberalism, not the “resistance” to it they imagined, but rather through “multiculturalism” etc., updating the longstanding ethnic political machine racket of the Democrats.

The 2nd Cold War of the 1980s was experienced by the 1960s generation as a return of McCarthyism. But this alibied their own adaptation to prevailing society, their own Right-wing tendencies. Already, by 1979, the post-’60s “Left” had adapted to the Right in significant and today well entrenched ways. Support for the Islamic Revolution in Iran as well as opposition to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, as causes célèbres of the time, was accompanied by less stark representations of the politically Right-wing tendencies, such as the support for African nationalism in the anti-apartheid struggle, today cruelly exposed for what it always was, not only with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe but in South Africa itself, and indeed in the Central American solidarity movement facilitated by enthusiasm for “Liberation Theology.”

Those coming of age according to the “Left” in the 1980s faced an academic as well as political culture well defined by 2 figures that had started out as contrasting each other in the late 1960s-early ’70s: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. The 1980s reconciled them, not in terms of their own thought but rather in their reception: an etiolated (sub-)”anarchism,” as well as a taste for abject suffering, united them.

But in academic and bohemian intellectual culture, it goes far beyond these venerable standard bearers: indeed, it only gets worse, with Giorgio Agamben’s “homo sacer” and the collapse of Althusserian “materialism” into Badiou’s “anarchic equality” neo-Scholastic ontology and a second wind for Deleuze’s “Spinozism,” etc.

What would have been ruled as far afoul of Marxism in any form previously, by the 1980s had become incorporated into ostensible “Marxism” itself, both for activists as well as academics.

This was not merely a matter of intellectual currents, but of practical politics as well. The model for activism in the 1980s derived from the 1960s, and involved both neglecting and naturalizing developments of the 1970s. Two different phases of reaction and retreat contributed to this: 1.) the failure of 1968, signaled by the election of Nixon; and 2.) the Reagan/Thatcher reaction and reinvigorated, 2nd Cold War at the end of the 1970s (which had already begun under Carter). But the lessons learned were biased in favor of a positive evaluation of the 1960s. Where the 1970s failed, the 1960s seemed to have succeeded: a nostalgia for youth and selective amnesia about failed attempts of young adulthood played a role in this. What appeared to have succeeded were the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement.

This apparent success however buried the crises of both. The turn to “Leninism” in the 1970s was abandoned by most participants of the “Left” in embarrassment, leaving only the hard-core to carry on the standard: cranks. By 1980, the “Left” was utterly decimated in terms of numbers: not one in ten culled, but perhaps at most one in ten left standing from the radicalization of the 1960s-70s.

Those who remained on the “Left” in the 1980s remained the only custodians of the preceding history, and they all abused their role, abdicating their responsibility to history. Recognition of failure was repressed.

Both the academicized and die-hard activist “Leftists” thus became responsible for the miseducation of those who followed. Whatever didn’t fit their pat and pseudo-triumphalist account, that the “struggle continues,” a stalwart trope of Stalinism descended from the 1930s, was left to utter neglect and oblivion.

Though both Frankfurt School Critical Theory and Trotskyism, as disintegrated remnants of prior Marxism, experienced something of a renaissance in the 1970s, by the 1980s they were abandoned as dynamic phenomena and became merely museum-pieces of the history of the Left and of Marxism. It is significant that Moishe Postone and Adolph Reed, both influenced deeply by the Frankfurt School, have no greater pejorative for the dead “Left” than “Trotskyism.” What they mean by this are the cranky sectarians who await the unwary activists. But the attempt to preserve Marxism intellectually, even by the most theoretically and politically principled of academic “Leftists,” has clearly failed: Postone and Reed have no student successors, and have not really tried to have any, since the 1980s. Only Platypus can claim their pedagogy, and must alter it significantly to give it any potential purchase in the present.

The 1980s generation, in its selective canonization and amnesia of problems of the 1960s New Left, will be the actual gravediggers of the Left and Marxism and its history that the New Left had only wished to be.

That is, if Platypus doesn’t prevent it! | §

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