That Infamous Turn To The Right (Our "Problem" with Liberalism)

LeoCasey at aol.com LeoCasey at aol.com
Mon Jul 24 19:01:03 MDT 1995


I would like to begin a thread that deals with the issues which were NOT
taken up in the postings on Eugene Genovese and his latest political
incarnation. In particular, I want to challenge the view that looks at such
"turns" as little more than apostasy, and then searches for earlier "signs"
that such a falling away from the "faith" was in the works. (Let it be said,
for example, that whatever the faults of Genovese's scholarship on slavery --
and there are faults -- it made an important and serious contribution, from a
certain Marxist perspective, to the literature on the topic, and it should be
seen as something more than a foil for examinations of ideological heresy.)
By contrast, I think that a very interesting argument can be made for a
certain underlying continuity of political perspective in some of these
(especially contemporary) turns, and that placing this underlying continuity
in reveal poses some serious issues which are at the center of radical
thought -- Marxist, post-Marxist, and democratic radicalisms of various
stripes.

To begin, it should be noted that Genovese's "turn to the right" is by no
means an unique phenomena. There are other interesting parallels, some of
which come to mind very quickly. One of the most interesting has been around
the journal _Telos_, which had once dedicated itself to being an expounder
and developer of critical theory and the traditions of the Frankfurt School
in the Anglo-American West. Those that remain of the original editorial
collective have dropped all pretense of being on the Left, and are now
espousing a politics, rooted in a certain interpretation of Carl Schmitt,
which takes up the anti-statist and anti-intellectual themes of the new
Republican right. (Indeed, there is a connection between the work of
Christopher Lasch, a one time colleague and political ally of Genovese, and
the emerging politics of _Telos_.) As well, of the group that left _Telos_ in
the early 1980s and went on to _Dissent_, some individuals have moved on
explicitly right wing intellectual work (ie, Fred Siegel, now a member of the
Manhattan Institute, a neo-conservative think tank for urban issues in New
York City.) {One could also find some parallels between the contemporary
phenomenon, and "turns" to the right in early generations, such as many of
the ex-Trotskyists, neo-conservatives of the 1960s -- Kristol, Himmelfarb,
many of the _Partisan Review_ crowd, but these parallels are beyond the scope
of the argument I want to make here.}

Looked at in a comparative perspective, certain points of commonality between
the different political incarnations of  Genovese, Lasch, _Telos_, et. al.
emerge. There is a common, longstanding and overriding antipathy toward the
new social movements of the 1960s, especially feminism, gay liberation and
African-American liberation, expressed first in Marxist and neo-Marxist
terms, and now, in explicitly conservative and reactionary political
formulations. It is worthwhile noting, for example, that Genovese was the
Marxist poster boy for the right wing American scholars association when, in
the wake of the Cold War, there was the campaign against "political
correctness" on American campuses. "See," they said, "even Marxists believe
that political correctness has taken over American campuses and imposed a
'group think'." I will forego all of the documentation here, but there is
ample proof of this contention. One image sticks in my mind: Fred Siegel on
the PBS commentary panel discussing the 1992 Democratic National Convention,
and complaining bitterly that the platform and the convention was unequivocal
in its defense of a woman's right to choose.

This antipathy has been a central point of continuity in the political
trajectory of these individuals, and the wedge issue which has separated them
from the organized left. It reflects an underlying theoretical continuity
which I want to describe as a enduring hostility to liberalism. In other
words, what the Marxist Genovese and the reactionary Genovese have in common
is an unrelenting, complete opposition to liberalism.

The writings of Carl Schmitt which have so enthralled what remains of _Telos_
 provide some insight into the nature of the problematic at work here. An
implacable foe of liberalism (and a Nazi collaborator in WWII), Schmitt find
in liberalism as anti-politics unwilling to recognize the essence of the
political, the friend-enemy opposition. Starting from the a concept of the
free and autonomous individual, liberalism conceives of the political as
their peaceful interaction, either in models based on the market (the
economic Madisonian/Dahlsian vision) or in rational conversation of moral
choices (the ethical Kantian/Rawlsian/ Habermasian vision). By contrast,
Schmitt insists that the political opponent is not an economic competitor or
a debating adversary, but the enemy.
What Schmitt finds so disturbing in liberalism are precisely those principles
-- pluralism, hetereogeneity and openness -- which define not only that
philosophy, but in many ways, the political thrust of the new social
movements of the 1960s. A concept such as multi-culturalism, with its
implicit cultural pluralism and heterogeneity, is, for Schmitt, a classically
liberal notion.

The challenge of Schmitt's analysis lies in his argument that the principles
of democracy are in opposition to liberalism, and that the ground he stands
on is democratic theory. Since modern democracy is by definition a state of
popular sovereignty, Schmitt contends, it must be understood as "an identity
of governed and governing." The people, that category upon which the
legitimacy of the democratic state rests, must be politically one, a singular
identity, and that status is realized only through its identification with
the state. As a category, the people exists only in the public sphere, and
there it follows the political logic of closure and homogeneity. If this
notion of democratic identity is taken seriously, then "no constitutional
institution can withstand the sole criterion of the people's will, however it
be expressed." Thus, all of the classic liberal restraints on state power --
the rule of law, the division of governmental powers, individual rights,
parliamentarianism -- are ultimately nothing but barriers to the realization
of the democratic identity. Bolshevism and fascism are thus anti-liberal, but
not anti-democratic, Schmitt concludes.

Now there is a terminological issue that must be understood for Schmitt's
argument to be grasped. When, in the West, we commonly use the term
'democratic' we are referring, in fact, to the articulation of liberal and
democratic principles. What Schmitt does is disarticulate this combination,
and say once the principles of liberalism are disavowed, what are the
democratic principles that remain. His analysis of the democratic principle
is very troubling precisely because it is so incisive. If we start with the
first modern democratic political philosophy of the West (which means that we
can put to the side both Hobbes and Locke, who are quintessential _liberal_
philosophers), we find in Rousseau the definition of democracy as the one
single 'general will' of the people, and a prescription for democracy which
involves the homogenization of the people and the identification of the
people with the state. This is troubling because the Left is the heirs to
that democratic philosophy, from the French Revolution on. There is some
truth (a kernel of truth?), therefore, to the Hegelian critique of Rousseau
and the French Revolution: a PURE democratic principle does lead to the
Terror.

Seen in this light, there is a clear continuity between the Marxist Genovese
and the reactionary Genovese -- both political incarnations base themselves
on a pure democratic principle which is unremittingly anti-liberal. In this
respect, his contribution to the Summer 1994 issue of _Dissent_ -- an essay
entitled "The Crimes of Communism: What did you know and when do you know
it?" -- is especially, and unintentionally, revealing. By his own admission a
die-hard supporter of Stalinism until the Berlin Wall fell, Genovese now
tells us all of the critics of the Communism on the democratic left (the
Trotskyists, the anarchists, the social democrats, the radical democrats)
really shared in his silence. The Question, as he calls it, was not addressed
because we were not prepared to examine "the allegedly high ideals which we
placed at the center of our ideology and politics." Thus, by sleight of hand,
we are all guilty by definition, Genovese no more than the rest of us. And
this connection is made through a connection between Stalinism and "political
corredctness": "The deepest trouble with 'political correctness' arises from
its thinly disguised invitation to an endless repetition of crimes,
atrocities, and worst of all, failures." (Am I wrong to read this
symptomatically, that the worst problem of Stalinism, according to one of its
last defenders, was not its crimes and its atrocities, but its abject
historical failure?)

Underlying this Genovese trajectory, then, is an issue which seems to bedevil
the left project -- does one hold to a pure democratic principle, and seek
social reconstruction and transformation only to end up in a totalitarian
nightmare, or does one resign oneself to the liberal principle, to
accomodation and piece-meal change? (One might recognize in this dichotomy
the shadows of the old and crude revolution-reform oppositions.) I would
suggest otherwise. We need to overcome this dualism, this opposition, and
construct a political philosophy which recognizes that a radical democratic
project is located on a ground defined by the inescapable tension between the
liberal and the democratic principles, between liberty and equality, between
individual rights and the common good. In her recent work, Chantal Mouffe has
used an analysis of Schmitt to begin this articulation.

A reassessment of traditional left hostility to liberalism (Remember that
fine old Maoist slogan, Combat Liberalism) is central to this political
project. Let the lesson we draw from Genovese's 'turn to the right', and the
theoretical continuity underlying that turn, be the need to rethink our
relation to liberalism, to begin to assimilate important liberal principles
into our thought. Unless, of course, we want to follow Genovese down his
road...


     --- from list marxism at lists.village.virginia.edu ---

     ------------------



More information about the Marxism mailing list