The rise of left-wing conspiracy theories

The view of Brexit as a neoliberal conspiracy confirms the paucity of left-wing thought.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Brexit has ruthlessly exposed the poverty of mainstream left-wing thought, which is now mobilised against Brexit itself. Not all of the left is anti-Brexit, of course. But certainly the UK left’s leading proponents are, from the Corbynised Labour Party to the pundits and academics who so ostentatiously style themselves as left-wing, radical and sometimes even Marxist. The poverty of their thought lies principally in their embrace of conspiracism.

This can take the form of overt anti-Semitism, as it has frequently done in the memes and tweets of Labour members and even some MPs, who believe that international affairs are being driven behind the scenes by an all-powerful network of pro-Israel lobby groups. But more often the conspiracism is far easier on the conscience, comforting its adherents that they are really just sticking up for the poor and the downtrodden who are being conned and duped by a cabal of the super-rich, intent on using Brexit, and the populist surge in general, to advance their evil plans.

The characters change depending on the teller. Sometimes the conspirators are ‘disaster capitalists’, sometimes ‘corporations’, sometimes even specific individuals, or entitled ‘moneyed wreckers’, such as one-time UKIP donor Arron Banks, ex-media exec Steve Bannon, or antediluvian Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg, all, implausibly but allegedly, doing the bidding of Russian president Vladimir Putin. And sometimes the motivations of the conspirators change, too – from libertarian, small-state zeal to simple, undiluted avarice.

But the basic conspiracist logic always persists, unaltered and compelling in its simplicity. There is a ‘cadre’ of bad people who are the agency behind the scenes, the power behind the people, the not-so-great men making history. And they are manipulating a mess of resentments in order to realise their vision of an utterly deregulated free market, a neoliberal utopia. Or something. ‘This, after all, was the point of the exercise’, says one pundit about Brexit, as if it was all just one big ruse.

The power of left-wing thought

Such leftish conspiracism has the veneer of radicalism, but none of radicalism’s desire to dig at the roots of society. It lambasts capitalism, often lending it an amplifying prefix, such as ‘disaster’ or ‘hyper’, but it ventures no critique of capitalism. The forces and tendencies at work in the social and political world, like the ideas of democracy and sovereignty that have once again become real material forces, remain out of sight in this new left worldview. Instead, it turns Brexit, and the populist moment in general, into little more than a morality play, attributing the complex movement of history to the actions and motivations of ill-intentioned individuals.

This is not to say that the actions and convictions of such individuals are irrelevant. Rather, it is to say that they are not absolutely determinant. If they were, Change UK, having spent the most of any party on social-media ads during the European elections in May, would be a formidable rather than a spent force. Men and women can try to make history, but they have no control over the conditions in which they do so.

Of course, conspiracy theory is not solely a left-wing problem. It is equally prevalent on the right, and nastily so. What makes the degeneration of mainstream left-wing thought into conspiracy theory so striking is that, in the past, left-wing thought was critical of conspiracism – ‘the socialism of fools’, as August Bebel, the 19th-century German socialist, described the anti-Semitic obsession with Jewish bankers.

Historically, drawing deep on the legacy of the Enlightenment, left-wing and especially Marxist thought was never content to take the world at face value. It sought, through reason and action – or theory and praxis – to understand what causes the world to appear other than it is. It grasped and grappled with the processes by which social reality is continually being reproduced. Karl Marx, taking a critical cue from the French Physiocrats and especially the classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo, set out to do precisely that. He started out in Das Kapital, with the thing as it appears to us – the commodity – and proceeded, over hundreds of pages, to lay bare its social essence (in alienated form), and ultimately ‘the economic law of motion of modern society’ (1). He was concerned not with individuals pulling the strings, be they illuminati or freemasons, but with impersonal forces, with a mode and relations of production. People were ‘bearers’ of economic relations, not the drivers.

The left was traditionally opposed to conspiracy theories – now it is at the forefront of conspiracist thinking

His materialist method, like those who were later to think and act in his spirit, was dialectical. But his metaphors, such as capital’s ‘law of motion’, were often drawn from the physical sciences. It meant that in the hands of some, Marx was presented as a natural scientist, merely studying objective laws of historical development that operate independently of the observing subject. History was seen as automatic and the subject was viewed as passive. As a result, ‘economism’ dominated large sections of the 19th-century left.

The correction came with the Russian Revolution in 1917. There was nothing automatic about the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. It was a moment in which history was being made, in which a revolutionary subjectivity was consciously mediating objectivity. And through the work of Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch and, to an extent, Antonio Gramsci, it was a moment in which the dialectical understanding of history as a unified if contradictory process was not only restored to the canon of left-wing thought, but also reached a radical pitch. Consciousness – class consciousness – was not the product of economic forces, or a mere reflection of a material position; rather, it was dynamic and active, transforming itself in action, and transforming the object in theory.

Almost inevitably, in re-emphasising the subjective side of the historical dialectic, many left-wing and Marxist thinkers began focusing on the relationship of cultural forms to economic relations. They were interested in how the subjective moment of thought and ideas, and of art and literature, expressed and mediated objective developments; how, for instance, the historical novels of Walter Scott expressed and mediated the objective experience of the progressive bourgeoisie; how Tolstoy’s work engaged with and illuminated populist opposition to Tsarism; and, later, how modernist and avant-garde art reckoned with and framed the experience of modernity.

Cultural politics

The left-wing, Marxist thought of the 1920s and 1930s that flourished in, and also outside, the Soviet Union – so-called Western Marxism – marked an advance on the soon-to-be Stalinist dogma that proscribed all subjectivity. In its emphasis on and exploration of culture, it sought to enrich rather than replace a left-wing tradition, whose theoretical power rested on its penetration into the material, economic depths underlying the forms in which social life appears.

But in the hands of the New Left and the counterculture more broadly, the stick starts to be bent too far the other way. The work of the likes of Lukács and Gramsci is revived during the 1960s, but only one-sidedly. If late 19th-century socialist thought, and 20th-century Stalinism, fetishised the objective laws of economic development at the expense of the subjective moment of the dialectic, then the postwar New Left starts to fetishise the subjective moment at the expense of the economic, objective element. Culture as a sphere almost seems to acquire a quasi-independence during the late 1950s and 1960s. It becomes a site of political struggle and resistance in its own right. ‘The personal is political’, came the rallying cry. ‘Smash monogamy’, went the order. ‘Tune in, turn on, drop out’, drawled the counterculture.

In a sense, the shift away from an economic theory towards a cultural one makes sense. The New Left in the US and Europe emerged apart from, and frequently in opposition to, a workers’ movement that was still too often in thrall to Stalinism. The New Left developed its critique of existing society free of involvement in workers’ actions. As Herbert Marcuse noted in One-Dimensional Man, 1960s radicals accepted ‘the absence of demonstrable agents and agencies of social change’ (2). The New Left’s departure from the old left was a departure from the politics of the working class. Radicals’ natural home now, like Marcuse’s, was the university, not the dockyard. If the New Left had a vanguard, it comprised angry graduates rather than pissed-off proles. Likewise, its objectives were not economic – they were cultural. They amounted to the total rejection and transformation of the values of the affluent society, sustained and legitimised as it was by the postwar boom.

There was much to admire in New Left thought. It remains challenging and intellectually curious. And in its opposition to the values of the postwar West, in seeking to resist anything that smacked of conformity, of ‘one-dimensional thought and behaviour’, as Marcuse had it, it strained to give new shape to individual freedom (3). It went hand-in-hand with a period in which many really did engage in what John Stuart Mill called experiments in living.

The New Left of the 1960s no longer viewed ordinary people as agents of change, but rather as objects shaped by ‘the culture’

But there was a considerable cost to giving up on the social agent of change. It meant moving from a theory that sought to grasp and change social reality from the perspective of its dialectical, alienating production, to an approach that challenged social reality from the perspective of its consumption.

The result is a moment in which subjectivity – culture – is fetishised. Which in turn results in a mode of theorising in which subjectivity is pacified. It becomes something that is shaped by external forces of production, which consumes what it is fed by an alien power. Hence, subjectivity is celebrated at the same as its celebrants claim it is administered and controlled, stupefied by the ‘automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment’ (Marcuse); named and ‘interpellated’ by a ruling ideology (Althusser); and captured by the culture industry (Adorno). A left-wing social critique, which might once have dived deep into the contradictory processes by which reality is produced, becomes superficial, concentrating on the way in which we are determined by our consumption – of media, of adverts, of ideas.

And crucially, as cultural critique, it conceives of social relations in interpersonal terms, in terms of manipulation, of conning, of ‘managed consent’. The impersonal forces of the older Marxist critique become personalised. They are transfigured as the forces of manipulators, hidden persuaders – in short, bad guys. They’re the advertisers, the corporations, the organisations.

During the 1970s, this latent conspiracy theory even becomes a paranoid fantasy. One consumed, ironically, by those allegedly manipulated masses themselves, in a cycle of films in which society is depicted as being controlled by corrupt economic and political elites. Think Klute (1971), Executive Action (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), and Network (1976).

Conspiracism goes global

The theoretical and practical abandonment of the sphere of production in favour of that of consumption – a movement signalled by the shift away from an economic towards a cultural critique – does not necessarily result in leftist conspiracism. Conspiracism becomes more pronounced through the inclusion of other forms of cultural politics, too, from the concern with identity and recognition to the New Labour-ish politics of behaviour.

However, what the cultural turn of the 1960s and 1970s does is lay the ground for a form of leftist conspiracism in which the subject, seen apart from its economic activity, becomes the victim of shadowy forces beyond its control. After the defeats of the organised working-class during the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union, the conspiracist moment fully arrives. And it does so most notably in the anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and its Occupy revival in 2011.

Journalist and activist Naomi Klein is a significant figure here. Her No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (1999), an evocative essay on consumer activism, provided the theoretical mood music to an era punctuated by the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and the Carnivals Against Capitalism of the early 2000s. In the spirit of earlier New Left theorists, the anti-globalisation movement addressed itself to the seeming colonisation of every aspect of life by the corporations. No cultural nook or cranny was out of their grasp, it suggested. As a treatise, it had the aura of profundity, hinting at some more authentic life beyond the brand. In style, it even had the appearance of an economic critique, couched, as it was, in terms of anti-capitalism. But in substance it was conspiracist, conjuring up a set of corporations, aided and abetted by the World Trade Organisation, as the source of our collective inauthenticity, our unreality, our unfreedom.

In her 2002 collection, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Line, Klein’s conspiracism starts to come out more explicitly. Globalisation starts to reveal itself as a global conspiracy. Every local problem, she writes, from food security in Europe to the rise of HIV in Africa, is the effect of ‘a global ideology, one enforced by national politicians but conceived of centrally by a handful of corporate interests and international institutions, including the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank’ (4). This depthless insight forms the basis for the fully fledged capitalism-as-conspiracy schtick of Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), in which she contends that a neoliberal clique, acting out the dreams of Milton Friedman, use disasters and crises in former colonies and elsewhere to leverage loans in return for mass privatisations, tax cuts for the rich and public spending cuts for the rest.

It sounds almost economic. Almost like an objective analysis. It talks of economic policy, of high finance, of profit. But it has no depth, no penetration, no genuine theoretical movement from appearance to essence. Instead, it sticks at the level of how things appear, and reduces relations of production and so on to interpersonal relations, to relations between individuals. Between ‘brand bullies’ and dupes, between a set of baddies and those to whom they’re doing bad things. Capitalism is not a mode of production anymore – it is a plot, a get-rich-quick scheme.

Klein was only the most high-profile of the new left-wing conspiracists. There were others, too, such as Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor of Adbusters, who set out, like Klein, to challenge through subversion the branded colonisation of our lives, before his conspiracism, like Klein’s, broke out into the open in the mid-2000s. As Brendan O’Neill reminds us, this culminated in Lasn publishing his infamous 2004 list of neoconservatives intent on advancing the US as a ‘hyper-power’ around the world, complete with an asterisk next to their names if they were Jewish.

In 2004, Adbusters magazine published a list of neoconservatives and put an asterisk next to their name if they were Jewish

And it was Lasn who, on 13 July 2011, released the call to action, #OccupyWallStreet. ‘Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?’, it read, referencing Egyptian protesters’ stand against President Mubarak. ‘On 17 September, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.’ (5)

Lasn may have invoked the Arab Spring, but that was misdirection. Occupy was a Western phenomenon, an opportunistic revival of the anti-globalisation movement. It took the post-2008 economic crisis and interpreted it through the conspiracist lens ground out by the likes of Klein. In doing so, it added a new manichaean gloss to the Kleinian conspiratorial landscape. The bad guys of anti-globalisation – the corporates, the WTO, the disaster capitalists – were now grouped under the banner of the ‘1%’, and they were to be held directly responsible for the travails of the ‘99%’. The 1% were driven by ‘greed’ and dedicated to the ‘corporate takeover of the political system’, opined Occupier Sarah Ruth van Gelder (6).

Klein herself even delivered a speech to the protesters, embracing Occupy’s fractional lexicon. ‘If there is one thing I know, it is that the 1% loves a crisis’, she told activists. ‘When people are panicked and desperate and no one seems to know what to do, that is the ideal time to push through their wish list of pro-corporate policies: privatising education and social security, slashing public services, getting rid of the last constraints on corporate power. Amidst the economic crisis, this is happening the world over.’ (7)

Occupy is a comforting and righteous tale. A tale of an evil 1% sowing discord, and fomenting chaos, which it then uses to pursue its dream of a neoliberal world order. It is not insightful, let alone true. But, as its adoption by those self-styled left-wingers opposed to Brexit shows, it is all-purpose. The ‘disaster’ to be exploited today, however, is not a financial crisis in South America, or civil breakdown in North Africa. It is Brexit itself.

Brexit is not a conspiracy

In the Brexit version, there are moderations to the basic thrust of the Kleinian/Occupy narrative, with Russian president Vladimir Putin often being introduced as the grand power behind the populist surge. ‘The Kremlin is no longer the heart of the Soviet Union’, writes one conspiracy theorist: ‘It’s at the centre of a network of billionaire power built by Russia’s disaster capitalist-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, sometimes said to be the richest man in the world. It’s no surprise that this vortex of neoliberal plunder would want to use [the Brexit] crisis to influence the management of their preferred money laundry [the UK].’

Some of the conspiracy theorising around Brexit is impressively granular, identifying meetings between salient individuals, shared addresses of think tanks, and, of course, the bias of the ‘corporate-owned’ media. ‘They’re all in on it.’

But the differences in detail shouldn’t obscure the essential conspiracism of the anti-Brexit ‘theory’. It is not penetrating or theoretical. It is superficial, shallow, undialectical. It treats Brexit as something that was done, in bad faith, to the British electorate by ‘a cadre of moneyed wreckers’, ‘the world’s pollutocrats’; ‘the disaster capitalist-in-chief, Vladimir Putin’. Largely working-class Brexit voters are presented as the 1%’s ‘cannon fodder’, seduced by the illusion of taking back control, much as the New Left’s stupefied masses were by consumerism and the culture industry.

It is a conspiracy that salves the guilt of a left that, historically, would have supported Brexit rather than betray it. It allows them to imagine they are still where they feel they belong, on the right side of history, defending the 99% against the evil plans of the 1%. But it is an illusion, and a fateful one at that. For it obscures what Brexit could be said to represent: the reassertion of a historical subjectivity lost in the New Left’s cultural turn; a desire to exercise power rather than just being shaped by it. There is a dialectical opportunity there. But too many on the left can no longer see it.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by:Getty Images.

(1) Capital Volume 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, by Karl Marx, (ed) Friedrich Engels, Lawrence and Wishart, 2003, p20

(2) One-Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse, Routledge, New York 1964, pxliii

(3) One-Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse, Routledge, New York 1964, p14

(4) Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the front Line, by Naomi Klein, Vintage, London, pXV

(5) Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, by writers for the 99 per cent, OR Books, 2012 p1

(6) Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, by writers for the 99 per cent, OR Books, p13

(7) Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, by writers for the 99 per cent, OR Books, p45

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Cody Bailey

3rd August 2019 at 11:49 am

“poverty of mainstream left-wing thought”

You repeat yourself.

Have you seen what is going on over here in the US? Our democrats have swung as far left as they can go.It isn’t a political party any longer, it’s a damned clown car. Free everything for everyone, open borders, pussy crystals to combat dark psychic powers, too late on global warming we have to evacuate to higher ground, go around the law and just seize all guns from law abiding citizens, get rid of airplanes and gasoline (what is it with leftists and trains? You know who else wanted to force people to ride trains?), there is a Russian agent hiding under every bed and behind every bush, the list of lunacy goes on and on.

It isn’t a poverty of thought, they have just gone off of the rails in downtown Crazytown.

We have seen this before. It happened in Nazi Germany, the crumbling of the USSR and every other failing regime. The goal of the left is to destroy western enlightenment and replace it with a totalitarian’s iron fist. Before that can be done people’s ability to think has to be demolished.

Don’t believe me? This guy can explain it:

denis daly

26th July 2019 at 4:10 pm

There are some, and there have been in the past left wing conspiracy theorists. However, rather than write an opinion piece, I prefer to cite research on conspiracy theorising.
A number of factors have been found to predict conspiracy theorising in the research.
Right wing authoritarianism or RWA is one of the biggest. RWA has been tested by Bob Altemyer and relates to deferring to an authority, outgroup aggression, and a preference for tradition. These people tend to outsource their thinking, and tend to have a strong need for certainty, and to simplify their world. Conspiracy theories tend to be invoked as a way to explain complex phenomena in simple terms. Conservatives generally tend to late lower IQs (Onraet et al. 2015), than liberals, and a higher need for certainty (Duckitt & Sibley, 2010; Hodson & Dhont, 2015), and so score higher on RWA conspiracy theorising, and prejudice.
What is more, they tend to see more threats in their environment, even when they are not there. This is related to having more grey matter in their amygdala (Amodio & Jost, 2007), as has been shown in fMRI studies. In addition, they tend to have less grey matter in another part of their brain, the ACC, that helps people monitor reality. This impairs the ability to look for evidence, and to reason.

Further, conservatives tend to score lower on openness to experience, and gather less knowledge over their lives. Liberals score higher on openness to experience, which is related to knowledge gathering of crystallised intelligence, and verbal intelligence (De Young et al. 2014), so they see a more complex world, and therefore have no need of conspiracy theories to explain complex phenomena.

Threat, uncertainty and lack of control, can nudge all people towards more conspiracy theorising (van Prooijen, 2019). This has been found to be a big contributor to Brexit (Swami et al. 2018) who stewed that brexiters scored higher on conspiracy mindedness, and prejudice. Brexiters wanted certain control over immigration because they perceived immigrants to be a threat. Hence the replacement conspiracy theory, the Soros conspiracy theory, and on and on.

People who engage in conspiracy theories are aiming to take control. Who would like to gain more control? Well, lower class, uneducated, and lower IQ people, many of whom voted for labour for economic reasons. These have now shifted and coalesced with sections of the higher class, who want Brexit because they think they will profit from it. In this way you have people voting against their own interests, for certainty sake. This is similar to the US. There has been a realignment.

By the way, conspiracy minded people have been used by authoritarian leaders, and today, by social media to spread fake news and destabilise democracy. The Jews were scapegoated in the 1930s in Germany. Conspiracy theories are predominantly, but not exclusively, a right wing phenomenon. A lack of knowledge, an unappreciation for complexity, and being anxious and lacking control fuel this. this is why climate change had been called a hoax, though all glaciers are known their way to being extent by the end of the century, and we continuously experience record heat waves, every month, across the globe. Vaccines have been deemed to be a hoax by the same right wing section of society. And much of this is explained by wanting to feel unique, non critical thinking, and cognitive inflexibility, that is examining a range of alternatives and opting for the most plausible, and keeping track of what else is the case, and how new information fits with that. We have known since 1950 by Adorno et al. that conservatives tend to be inflexible and dogmatic in their thinking.

I would encourage readers to read the psychology of conspiracy, ed by Michal Bilewicz, and the psychology of conspiracy theories by van Prooijen 2019.

Jeff Laster

23rd July 2019 at 7:49 am

DEAR TIM BLACK: This is more of a question of clarification than a comment. The article rightfully points that the recent Naomi Kleinist Anti-Globalisation/Occupy ‘Left’ has been preoccupied with (Anti-Globalisation) Conspiracy Theory ideas. Yet it is also a preoccupation with the hardcore Right Wing Conspiracists Alex Jones Nigel Farage Ann Coulter etc. to talk about their fight against the so called ‘Globalists’ who ironically are often the same people a la Naomi Klein (and many other Progressives) who identified as Anti-Globalisation activists. Is there a contradiction between these two agendas/points? Are the so called ‘Globalists’ who Alex Jones etc. targets (Naomi Klein among many others) the same people/activists as the Anti-Globalisation people/activists? It seems so from where I am sitting. Or are the terms/words themselves (‘globalism’, ‘globalisation’) the problem/source of confusion. Is Klein’s ‘Anti-Globalisation’ agenda different in meaning than Alex Jones’s Anti-Globalist agenda? I am confused about this. Perhaps I am missing the Obvious. I ask Tim Black to clarify. Best, Jeff Laster

Justin Bieber

18th July 2019 at 7:51 pm

Wait a minute, do some people out there still believe the official 911 story?

Hana Jinks

19th July 2019 at 2:12 pm

Yes. Some cave dudes without any real training were able to fly jets into buildings before the jets blew apart at the height relative to the speed they were travelling at, defying physics. They’d obviously been to the trade centre a few days before so as to rig the skyscrapers with explosives. This mads it lookas if it was solely the plane that was responsible. I’m sorry, l can’t explain the smaller building falling, given it wasn’t hit by anything. Perhaps it was all the dodgy documents inside. A bit like a how they could fly the jet into the area of the penragon where all of accounting secrets were held. Secrets like how 4 billion in cash was lost. That was a minor one.

Tommy Peters

14th July 2019 at 10:34 pm

Coincidence Factorist! Folks, Tim’s piece appears to be a follow-up to Brendan O’Neill’s on Carole Cadwalladr’s Orwell Prize with the preamble “No one ever thinks of themselves as a conspiracy theorist. Even the people who believe 9/11 was an inside job.”

Other hints the garden variety is not on the same page with the conspiracy theorist is when it subscribes to the notion the UN is an independent entity, not an arm of a cabal of bankers, or the POTUS is elected by the people, rather a ‘power consolidation exercise’ by the same cabal, or say nineteen jihadi armed with box-cutters brought down three towers, with two planes, or perhaps Orwell himself may have been a theorist, and not armed with the projected agenda, when he spelt out Brexit in 1949 with a map of the future world where England is singled out from Europe.

Point is, have we considered the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ as conjured by conspirators themselves to obscure a ‘theorist’ from re-stating facts and juxtaposing them, with coincidences? There you have it; a new term – Coincidence Factorist.

As an aside, a Coincidence Factorist would say 116 nations, Israel inclusive, signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty proposed by Kennedy. It was a JFK milestone but as Ed Haslam said of his fatal mistake ‘He thought he was President.’ All eyes were on the USSR as it was dragged into the room kicking and screaming but no one but Kennedy noticed the most miffed of them all, Israel. It is said Kennedy was taken out because his main ambition was to stifle the nuclear ambitions of Israel as well, the prized baby of the cabal that installs the POTUS.

cornelius bonkers

14th July 2019 at 9:46 pm

Of course, what the writer is describing here is the trap into which not only Marxism but also Islam tumbles. Let’s call it the heteronomy/autonomy collision. Lurking within both discourses is a kind of deterministic fallacy – perhaps even an aporia. What’s so ridiculous about Marxism taken as a unity of its economistic and humanistic versions in their ultimate totality, is that it is HISTORY which ends up being the causal force i.e., the fait accompli which all determinisms are – or they are not determinisms! At least Islam honestly excludes autonomy and hence history from its deterministic framework. All that remains for humans to do in Islam is to choose to obey or not to obey the text and hence to attain or not to attain PARADISE. What Das Capital and the Koran do however have in common is their status as texts which are not to be questioned as to their truth, their very existence and their right to exist, i.e., as holy scripts. Sooner or later Marx and Allah will be the last prophets left standing amongst the rubble of the Western world – then the sparks’ll fly

Jack Enright

14th July 2019 at 9:34 pm

“If late 19th-century socialist thought, and 20th-century Stalinism, fetishised the objective laws of economic development at the expense of the subjective moment of the dialectic, then the postwar New Left starts to fetishise the subjective moment at the expense of the economic, objective element.”

Mr Black may know what this means, but I’m damned if I do. If I wanted to write an article, to be read by the general public, on the development of the internal combustion engine in the 20th century, I would NOT write it in such a way that it could only be understood by graduate engineers.

Hana Jinks

14th July 2019 at 1:05 pm

This is such a weird site. Just non-stop drivel about irrelevant, commie non-entities.

Julian Assange is rotting in Belmarsh too. What is wrong with you guys? You have the chance to make some kind of difference.

I appreciate that the British press thrives on gossip and bitching about the guardian. I guess that’s the level you want to be at, and that’s fine. But it’s just that you seem to be attempting to pass yourselves off as vital, edgy and hard-hitting, and all of these qualities are admirable.

Not one Assange story. What is going on in pommieland? I mean you guys competently cover so many issues…and yet there are things that for some reason can’t be covered. It’s not a crime that he’s being held for exposing murderous secrets?

Credibility v bitching. Are there too many commies in the office?

Chauncey Gardiner

13th July 2019 at 3:51 pm

I think this essay has a lot of promise but could stand for a lot of revision.

Hana Jinks

14th July 2019 at 1:20 pm

I like to watch…lol

Amelia Cantor

13th July 2019 at 10:52 am

Yeah, for example the idea that Spiked are funded by neo-liberal billionaires is just a conspiracy theory, folks. Stop your McCarthyism. Spiked are freedom-fighters who want everyone to be able to rape, loot and pillage Gaia gamble, watch porn, and have the hardest of hardest possible Brexits.

How US billionaires are fuelling the hard-right cause in Britain, George Monbiot

That Spiked magazine’s US funding arm received $300,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation suggests a hidden agenda

Hana Jinks

14th July 2019 at 10:57 am

Ameliorate Cant.

Did you just quote George Monbiot to make your point?

Amelia Cantor

15th July 2019 at 9:46 am

Yes, I quoted Monbiot, who uncovered some very pertinent facts about Spiked’s funding by neo-liberal billionaires that Spiked themselves did not want to be made public. For obvious reasons. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, which is why Spiked prefer to operate in the dark.

Hana Jinks

15th July 2019 at 12:11 pm

I hardly think it’s a secret. Even l know about it.

So how did you change your chromosomes? And are brown, kommie trannies the only one’s with any credibility these days?

Stephen J

13th July 2019 at 9:38 am

I watched a BBC programme last week entitled something like:

“Roundhead or Cavalier, which are you?”

At the outset, I believed myself to be a roundhead, but unusually for a BBC programme, it made me change my mind. By the end, I was definitely a cavalier.

In other words, during the English civil war, the establishment was cavalier, conservative and dedicated to the arts and the pursuit of wealth and happiness. The proletariat were the roundheads, puritan of thought and deed, purveyors of the protestant work ethic. The result of that war was that for the next twenty years, the proletariat ruled and created the ground rules for the parliamentary system that we had until Maastricht.

What I gained from this was gradually revealed as heaps of moralistic anti-human ordure were piled onto ordinary folk by the people that claimed to be fighting their corner. This was done, because it was for our own good. Puritanism/socialism was all about punishing the bad examples.

In other words, during the last three hundred years, there has been a 180 degree turnaround in the nature of what we know as the establishment.

The truth is that the cavalier, is the new roundhead, we are the radicals that are against globalism… the left are hopelessly sold on support for the 1%.

Chauncey Gardiner

13th July 2019 at 3:49 pm

Stephen J.

I enjoyed your comments.

One thing about those puritanical Roundheads: They did set up the question: Is the king above the law? Stated more classically: Who guards the guardians? Who rules the rulers? Who governs the governors? And, so far, constitutional government is the best answer — and it is a very good one at that — to these questions. Even the king is subject to constitutional process.

It may have taken 50 years to establish constitutional monarchy in Britain (about 1640 to about 1690), but even those Jacobites in the 1740’s challenged it. Yes, the Jacobite rebellion is the great of romance: Scotland the Brave and England the Strong and all that. But the Jacobites were anti-constitutionalists, weren’t they? They wanted to restore their kings and their divine (and thus extra-constitutional) rule. (Some of my own people were on the wrong side [I think] of that matter and took more than a few losses at Culloden.)

digby jackson

13th July 2019 at 9:29 am

There’s some great historical and philosophical analysis here, but when we live in a world where the 8 richest men have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the planet combined, and the 3 richest American more than the bottom 64%, only a disingenuous fool would call this extreme concentration of power t the very top a superficial conspiracy theory…

All the publicly documented evidence from the Panama Papers to Fortune Magazine demonstrates that our earth has bifurcated into two separate and unequal worlds: one inhabited by a global plutocracy of 200,000 ultra high-net-worth elites who employ the same handful of companies to hide their money in offshore tax-free havens, and the other by the 7 billion left behind.

And so, when the ONLY thing that we can ALL agree upon is that concentrated power at the top is the womb of the systemic global corruption that we see everywhere these days, calling the reality of this obscene ‘cadre’ of unelected oligarchs that unduly controls our governments, corporations, universities and culture a shallow “conspiracy” is just a nefarious form of gaslighting the masses pure and simple. Get with the global political paradigm shift that we see everywhere these days: yesterday’s crazy conspiracy theories are rapidly becoming tomorrows established orthodoxies…

Christopher Tyson

13th July 2019 at 8:55 am

I think that Marx and Descartes were embarked on a similar mission; the search for certainty, a building block on which we can construct reality as it really is. For Descartes everything was open to doubt, but what he could be sure of was that he was a thinking thing. I may be a brain in a vat, or a bot or whatever, I don’t know what I am but I know that I am thinking. Many words have been spilled as to how successful or not Descartes was. How does Descartes break out of his subjective consciousness? I am attracted to private language type arguments. I did not write the article above, they are not my words or thoughts, I believe that there is another consciousness in the word other than mine, and if there is one, why not others? In truth we are looking for arguments that support our common sense experience. Maybe we can refute private language arguments, possibly I have invented a language and communicate in this language to people who I have also invented, but that would seem to me to be a clear case of insanity.
Marx takes the commodity and traces its history. The need to do this shows that people were already alienated from their social environment. Today that alienation is even more multi-layered than it was in Marx’s time. I have a mug in my hand, where did it come from? I bought it in IKEA, where did they get it from, who made it, who painted it, who designed it, who was paid for producing it, and who profited from it? It the history of the commodity is complex, the working of today’s financial systems will defeat most of us. In the 90s there was a spate of publication arguing that we were now in a post-material economy. This was an acquiescence to our alienation, a giving up on the idea that the material economy could be understood. When people are alienated and living in a world that appears to be beyond comprehension, we tell each other stories.

Eras Bonus-Mus

13th July 2019 at 9:23 am

“How does Descartes break out of his subjective consciousness?”

Descartes establishes the existence of the external world, refuting the ‘deceptive demon’/brain-in-vat hypothesis, by appealing to the existence of a god whose perfections – omniscience, omnipotence, & omnibenevolence – are incompatible with the success of the demon’s deception.

Winston Stanley

13th July 2019 at 2:38 pm

Which is circular, Descartes’ thoughts guarantee the existence of God and God guarantees the veracity of his thoughts. All epistemology (the possibility and conditions of knowledge) is entirely undermined by circularity in the attempt to use reason to prove reason. As Chris alludes, all that we can know with certainty is the intuition of own momentary existence – not “God”, the outer world or other people, not the reality of the past or the future. On that note, I must get on with my itinerary.

Winston Stanley

12th July 2019 at 11:41 pm

“History was seen as automatic and the subject was viewed as passive. As a result, ‘economism’ dominated large sections of the 19th-century left. The correction came with the Russian Revolution in 1917.”

I am in interested in whether 1917 and its aftermath should be read as disproving orthodox Marxism, understood as the primacy of the objective development of the productive forces, and the secondary influence of the subjective agent, in the determination of relations of production.

Yes, 1917 did herald the abolition of feudalism, and the establishment of a new mode of production, but what was that new mode, and why did Lenin and the others adopt it? It is notable that Lenin in 1921 established the New Economic Policy, which was basically capitalist development under the control of the Soviet State. The reason given is that Lenin accepted the historical materialism of Marxism. (See quotes at the end.)

The socialist state is supposed to come at the end of capitalist development, only once capitalism has developed the productive forces to the utmost of its capacity to do so. The productive forces thus developed provide the material basis of socialism, while the inability of capitalism to further develop the productive forces provides the occasion of the transition.

History has to progress gradually and in an orderly fashion through successive stages of economic history (ancient slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism), each eventually providing the basis and the occasion of the next.

If that is so, then 1917 was a bourgeois or capitalist revolution. The revolutionaries were conducting a transition from feudalism to capitalism. The situation is similar in China today, where capitalist development is overseen by the Communist Party.

It may seem odd that socialist revolutionaries should conduct a capitalist revolution but, on the other hand, it is entirely consistent with the primacy of objective productive development that some subjective agents, be they socialist revolutionaries or bourgeois parties, should do so, once the industry had been developed that made capitalism possible as the next step forward.

On that reading, 1917 can be interpreted as a demonstration that the force of the subjective agent to redirect the course of epochal history is limited to what is afforded by the objective material development. Even socialist revolutionaries ended up conducting a capitalist revolution, both in Russia and in China.

That is the dialectic between the objective force and the subjective agent in historical materialism. At a certain point of objective development, further development is made possible, and possible only, through the intervention of the subjective agent. Then and only then is the intervention of the subjective agent possible in its efficacy. The subjective agent then becomes the deciding factor in the transition to the next stage of objective material development, but only when, and in the manner, determined by the objective development.

Firstly, the objective development is decisive, it determines property relations. Once hindered in its development, the objective trend is decisive in the efficacy of the subjective agent to intervene. The agent is then decisive in the establishment of fresh property relations but only in the manner objectively determined.

If 1917 had actually established socialism, then we could say, “OK, the subjectivists (or utopian vanguardists) were right on the money”, but that is not what happened. 1917 confirms the primacy of the objective trend and the secondary influence of the subjective agent, as does China.

Here are some quotes from the Wiki article about Lenin and his motivation for the New Economic Policy. Admittedly I am a dilatant in Soviet history.


Lenin characterized the NEP in 1922 as an economic system that would include “a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control”, while socialized state enterprises would operate on “a profit basis”.[1]

Under the NEP, not only were “private property, private enterprise, and private profit largely restored in Lenin’s Russia,” but Lenin’s regime turned to international capitalism for assistance, willing to provide “generous concessions to foreign capitalism.” [16] Lenin took the position that in order to achieve socialism, he had to create “the missing material prerequisites” of modernization and industrial development that made it imperative for Soviet Russia to “fall back on a centrally supervised market-influenced program of state capitalism”.[16] Lenin was following Karl Marx’s precepts that a nation must first reach “full maturation of capitalism as the precondition for socialist realization.”[17] Future years would use the term Marxism-Leninism to describe Lenin’s approach to economic policies which were seen to favor policies that moved the country toward communism.[18]

16. b A. James Gregor, Marxism, Fascism & Totalitarianism: Chapters in the Intellectual History of Radicalism, Stanford: CA, Stanford University Press, 2008, p. 55-56
17 A. James Gregor, Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship, Princeton: NJ, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 59
18 Zickel, Raymond E (1991). Soviet Union a Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress. Federal Research Division. p. 64.

Thomas Smith

12th July 2019 at 9:59 pm

The identitarian, pseudo-liberal Left has “bent the stick,” as Lenin said, in one direction (the “Cultural Marxist Left” so to speak–which, as Brendan points out, is a contradiction in terms). You, Tim Black, despite all your obvious intelligence, have bent it toward the Right–into right wing populist support on the Left, for the Populist Right. No, the “people” are not just the victims of brainwashing. They have agency. They are, as Brendan, the SEP and the IG, and Tom “Jonathan Pie” Walker never tire of pointing out, responding with justified anger to their class oppression by the neo-liberal elitists. BUT THAT DOESN’T MAKE BREXIT-and especially not FARAGE (!!!!!???) WORTH SUPPORTING! Duhhhhhhhhhh……
As Marx said to Schapper at the last meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist League, “I have never been interested in the momentary impulses of the proletariat.” That is NOT elitist. That is principled Bolshevik Leninism. That is to attempt to educate and to lead, DEMOCRATICALLY.

Thomas Smith

15th July 2019 at 4:58 pm

And for the 100th time, Ilhan Omar’s anti-ZIONIST comments were neither anti-Semitic, nor conspiracy-thinking.

christopher barnard

12th July 2019 at 7:36 pm

The left are now part of the establishment – most of them do very well out of capitalism via their taxpayer funded jobs.

They have no incentive to rock the boat by championing Brexit and they have little in common with and care nothing about the working class.

Their paucity of thought is a result of existing in the bubbles of various types of public sector or subsidised employment where virtually no diversity of political opinion is tolerated, and no debate allowed.

Tinfoil Hat

12th July 2019 at 9:35 pm

Public Sector…Thrive by conforming.
Private Sector..Thrive by diversifying.

EU wants conformance across the continent of Europe leading to a uniform world government.
Brexit wants global trade and life enriched by the diversity of 200 nation states.

How did the EU ever go so wrong?

Jack Enright

14th July 2019 at 9:46 pm

Tinfoil Hat – the EU has not ‘gone wrong’, as such. On the contrary, it has developed exactly as planned by its originators, from 1944 onwards (no, that’s not a typo – do an internet search for the ‘Red House Report).

Regardless of what any of its supporters claim, it was NEVER meant to be the ‘United States of Europe’, but a monolithic superstate, with the structure clearly described by Ken Clarke, who said that he LOOKED FORWARD to our Parliament becoming “a regional council in the EU”.

In other words, that our Parliament should have as much power as a county council of the 1950s, with the EU having absolute control. Voters in 1950s Britain, however, had the absolute power to sack every MP in Westminster if they chose to do so. Now, as long as we stay in the EU, we have NO electoral authority over those who make our laws – as that is the sole prerogative of the EU Commissioners. The EU Parliament is a mere talking shop, which is there to rubber-stamp decisions made by the Commissioners.
As, at present, we voters do not have the power to hire and to FIRE our lawmakers, we are not living in a democracy, but in a dictatorship – and leaving the EU is the only way to change that.

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