Dogmatization and Thought Taboos on the “Left”
July 1, 2022
The following remarks were delivered on a panel on “self-censorship” at the Sublation Media launch event held in New York City on June 26th.
The title for my opening remarks is “Dogmatization and thought-taboos on the ‘Left’,” which is a phrase taken from Theodor Adorno’s 1966 book Negative Dialectics on what Marxism succumbed to in the 20th century. I want to begin with a quotation from Georg Lukacs’s essay on “Class Consciousness” from his 1923 book History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs wrote that,
Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. But the proletariat is not given any choice. As Marx says, it must become a class not only “as against capital” but also “for itself;” that is to say, the class struggle must be raised from the level of economic necessity to the level of conscious aim and effective class consciousness. The pacifists and humanitarians of the class struggle whose efforts tend whether they will or no to retard this lengthy, painful and crisis-ridden process would be horrified if they could but see what sufferings they inflict on the proletariat by extending this course of education. But the proletariat cannot abdicate its mission. The only question at issue is how much it has to suffer before it achieves ideological maturity, before it acquires a true understanding of its class situation and a true class consciousness.
We have a lot more suffering yet to endure, it seems. The true understanding of the working class’s situation and of its true class consciousness has yet to be achieved. Marxists do not have it ready-made for them. But they act like they do. This is how and why Marxism has become a parody of itself, a farce of proletarian class consciousness. Marxism has come to serve entirely other ends than those of proletarian socialism: It has become a middle class — bourgeois — ideology of discontents within capitalism, actually of aspirations for more “progressive” capitalism, and not for overcoming it. The bitter lesson of history — attended to by the avowed Right — is that attempts to improve capitalism have made it “progressively” worse. At least worse in the sense of accumulated problems more difficult to overcome. And certainly worse in terms of a more confounding task politically difficult to engage and achieve. In comparison to past times, the working class seems hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of capitalism, confronted immediately by a host of every conceivable problem more directly than by capitalism itself. It is wishful thinking or ugly naiveté to think that as Marxists we can point to all these problems and simply call them “capitalism.” In this sense, the problem of capitalism has yet to actually present itself. It must be made to. And that will not happen before the working class is organized as a social and political force to confront it. The issue is what stands in the way of that. The Left today is itself an obstacle to working class struggle. If not the most major obstacle, still a very significant one.
The topic of this panel is “censorship on the Left,” but I am going to address that indirectly, by articulating myself the Marxism that is censored on the Left, and not just recently but for a long time already. What is censored is what is tabooed, and what is tabooed is proletarian socialism as Marxism understood it. When Marxism is expressed today it is in self-censored form, as dogmatic. The certitudes of Marxism cover up a crucial uncertainty, namely the content of the task of proletarian socialism.
One thing that frustrates students of Marxism is its lack of a blueprint for the liberated society beyond capitalism — what socialism or communism is meant to look like. But while Marxism accepted and promulgated the Hegelian notion of “determinate negation,” this did not mean a determination of the socialist society. Rather, capitalism was the determinate negation of bourgeois society in the contradiction of industrial production. The proletarianized working class was the determinate negation of bourgeois social relations as objectified in capitalism, the contradiction of living and dead labor. Etc. What Marxism was certain of was not the content of emancipation — freedom — that will have overcome capitalism, but rather the negative necessity with which the working class must overcome capitalism. Capitalism is the negation of bourgeois society that must itself be negated, and by a negatively determined subject, the proletariat. Marxism was not positive about anything but this. The proletariat was not to posit its own being in the place of bourgeois society, but to abolish itself in overcoming capitalism.