Daphne Lawless Comments on MHI’s Perspectives

 
by Daphne Lawless
 

Editor’s note: The author is a 15-year veteran of radical politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and current co-editor of the Fightback magazine and website. We thank her for the remarks below, and for participating in a Left Forum panel with us last month.

I’ve had a good read through the MHI Perspectives today, and about 95 percent I would have no hesitation in giving my entire support for. I particularly like the emphasis on explaining how left economic populism not only gives too much away to Trumpism/right economic populism, but is also based on the same kind of dumbed-down “post-truth” politics; you seem to be describing the same phenomenon which I called “conservative leftism”.

I admit to getting a bit lost during the Hegel/Dunayevskaya discussion, having a very limited background in philosophy myself.

One issue that I would have with the discussion of post-truth politics is the link you make with the postmodernists (Foucault, Lyotard, etc). I do know several of my intellectual heavyweight interlocutors on social media get very huffy about suggestions that unreason and conspiracy theory follow from postmodernist uncovering of the genealogy of ideas and discourses, arguing that on the contrary, such ideas tend to stem from vulgar “scientism”. I would certainly not have the allergic reaction to “social constructivism” (the idea that social “facts” are established by practice and discourse and are not things in themselves)–I’m not sure how this is contrary to Marxist-Humanism.

One final point that is interesting is that the word “Stalinism” doesn’t appear in your Perspectives. I would have argued myself that the rebirth of “Marxist-Leninist” (Stalinist/Maoist) ideas on the Left, when we all thought they were dead and buried in the 1990s, is linked precisely to the various pathologies you point out on the Left–voluntarism; the cult of Great Leadership; the willingness to believe and promote lies if they “help our side”; the belief that liberals are “no different” from fascists; the willingness to support the most hideously brutal regimes if they are “socialist” or “anti-US”.

 

2 Comments

  1. Daphne

    I think that you put your finger on a topic that is a source of confusion and division on the Left, when you say:

    “One issue that I would have with the discussion of post-truth politics is the link you make with the postmodernists (Foucault, Lyotard, etc)… I would certainly not have the allergic reaction to “social constructivism” (the idea that social “facts” are established by practice and discourse and are not things in themselves)–I’m not sure how this is contrary to Marxist-Humanism.”

    I think that the issue turns on what you mean by ‘social construction’. In the sociology of ‘race’, for example, there is widespread agreement that: a) there is no biological basis to racial distinctions amongst humanity; b) racial categories (e.g. ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘negro’, ‘African-American’, ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘Black British’) are socially varied, in their salience and in the content that they denote; c) the salience and content of these categories is derived through a process of imposed categorisation (from above) and self-identification (from below); d) ‘race’, thus, has a social existence.

    So, the consensus amongst social scientists is that, (in the terms you put it), ‘race’ is a social ‘fact’ that is established by practice and discourse, not a thing in itself. I don’t think that Marx would disagree. Marx recognised that all social categories are socially and historically relative ones (e.g. the comment’ in Capital V1, that a chair is simply a chair in one context, but is a throne in another context).

    The problem with postmodernism is not with the recognition of the historically relative nature of social phenomena – it is the anti-foundationalist epistemology (i.e. the conception that there is no objective foundation to knowledge). You can see this in the idea, as you expressed it, that social facts are ‘established by practice and discourse’. In other words, it is human action and speech ALONE that account for social existence. This way of understanding the world, views the social world as a product of human subjectivity. If the social world is founded on subjective grounds, how do we judge one view as better than any other?

    Capital has a power, independent of the wills of individual (or even conglomerates of) capitalists. It is not something subjective. It is a way of organising production that imposes a logic on all capitalists. They are forced to act as the personification of capital, or, if they don’t, they fail as capitalists and go out of business. Capital is a power that towers over us. It is dehumanising for all of humanity. The difference between the capitalist and the worker, is that it is against the capitalist’s objective self-interest, as a capitalist, to overcome this dehumanisation, but it is in the worker’s objective self-interest, as a worker, to overcome this dehumanisation.

  2. I understand that social constructionists take a phenomenon and then try to make sense of it by consensus. So to use Chris’ example of the throne, the throne is the result of consensus.

    But I also understand that this is not what Marx did. He tried to understand what is behind the phenomenon, how and why it arises. So for Marx, the throne is there irrespective of whether people reach a consensus.

    In my opinion Marx rejected an early form of social constructionism, that promoted by the Young Hegelians. They had promoted the view that society can be changed by raising awareness of issues. So they had, among themselves, reached a consensus understanding of the phenomena at the time.

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