’68, ideology and the alt-right: Are the Left the conformists now?

Ben Wray

David Jamieson explores ideology in the post-’68 world, and argues that the rise of identity politics on the left was driven by the defeats and demoralisation of that era. Without a renewed commitment to economic transformation,  the left will lose a culture war against an insurgent radical right

IN 2013 the European fascist youth movement Generation Identity published its founding document. “A Declaration of War Against the 68ers” was a manifesto denouncing their parent’s generation, the youth of 1968, for upending the social conventions they claimed European civilisation had been built upon.

Like so many other items of fascist mythology, the idea is borrowed from mainstream thought. It is the great historiographical disservice to that year (standing in for a period of radicalisation lasting till at least 1975) that a time of massive workers’ movements and anti-colonial warfare is remembered primarily, or even exclusively, for what it gave to the struggle against conservative social mores and institutions.

Like so much history, this reading reflects the present more than the past. Demands for gender and racial equality still very much animate contemporary political strife – industrial movements speaking directly to the realities of social class, less so.

‘68 was indeed the cradle of modern demands for comprehensive equality, for an end to the numerous oppression that serrate society. From 1968 onward, the new anti-racist, feminist and gay liberation movements successively undermined attitudes and institutions that had held down large parts of humanity since time out of mind.

For many of the young people engaged in these movements, the struggle against racism or sexism was coherent with attempts to undermine the entire capitalist order. The system, it was believed by many activists, could not survive without its apparatus of conservatism. All movements, whatever the very real frictions between them, were more readily understood as part of one advancing front.

Movements face turning points. In the US, the heartland of today’s ‘identitarian’ social movements, they came in a crackle of gunfire. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King (his murder of course one of the ‘68 triggers) and then the leadership of the Black Panther Party, together representing a whole generation of Black radicals, were killed. It is a seldom broadcast reality that the USA often liquidates its internal dissidents. Completing the grim effect, many more revolutionaries were imprisoned or forced into exile.

This is how identity politics was born – in defeat and intimidation. The retreat from the assault on the bastions of the system took the left on a journey into the self, the popularity of “self-criticism” emerging partly from a campus fascination with Maoism.

READ MORE: Liberation movements 50 years on: Has the spirit of ’68 been lost?

By 1990, the ‘68 era intellectual Ambalavaner Sivanandan, surveyed the wreckage:

“By personalising power, ‘the personal is the political’ personalises the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist.

“Hence the fight against racism became reduced to a fight against prejudice, the fight against institutions and practices to a fight against individuals and attitudes.

“…Carried to its logical conclusion, just to be black, for instance, was politics enough: because it was in one’s blackness that one was aggressed, just to be black was to make a statement against such aggression.

“…Equally, you could make a statement by just being ethnic, against Englishness, for instance; by being gay, against heterosexism; by being a woman, against male domination.”

The late editor of the radical anti-racist journal Race and Class was mainly talking about the influence of Afrocentrism as a form of anti-racism. But the argument can be deployed to numerous forms of contemporary identity politics.

‘Beyond the Fragments’ is a collection of essays by leading socialist feminists, crystallising some of the new identitarian thinking in 1979. It centred the slogan ‘the personal is political’ with audacious claims that privileged subjective experience over objective theorisations.

As Sheila Rowbotham claimed: “Our views are valid because they come from within us, and not because we hold a received correctness.”

READ MORE – Scotland and 1968: Did a world in revolt pass us by?

The book also combined this emphasis for demands to radically reconsider organisational questions, long a fixation for the left, since in the absence of wealth or inherited power, organisation is the only resource to hand. The book argued for decentralisation and the substitution of hierarchy with participatory structures which they hoped would stave off tendencies to stagnation in parties and movements.

‘Beyond the Fragments’ involved a sophisticated and nuanced argument, but like all good teachers, it spawned a litter of epigones.

For some activists, subjective experience would come to completely obliterate any attempt to establish a common, agreed, objective analysis of the world. Participatory democracy in social movements warped into the bizarre dogma of horizontalism, which held that movements should not empower leadership or agency of any kind.

The disruption to movements proposing an assault on the institutions of power wrought by horizontalism, combined with the resistance of ‘being’, of simply inhabiting an oppressed identity and subjective experience, naturally militates against any ultimate programme. The manifesto form of politics, so synonymous with the revolutionary left in the 20th century, has been abandoned by some. One danger is that it is abandoned to groups like Generation Identity.

Indeed, the obscurantism fostered by some of these theories works better for the far right than for the radical left. Culture wars favour the side with the largest cultural war chest – and groups like Generation Identity (the name, very carefully chosen of course) have flag, faith, family and the whole weight of mythological tradition stretching back thousands of years.

READ MORE: Jordan Peterson, Mark Meechan and my brief tour of Scotland’s subculture of shy young men

Aleksandr Dugin, perhaps the world’s leading fascist intellectual, openly embraces the new mood of subjective experience as moral and intellectual legitimacy. His ‘Fourth Political Theory’ holds that the established enlightenment attitudes to objective truth should be replaced by a plethora of relative national truths, each equally real to the peoples who hold them. The argument has been thoroughly road tested in defence of the homophobic and anti-democratic policies in Putin’s Russia.

In the meantime, it is not the radical right but what leading ‘68 activist Tariq Ali calls the ‘extreme centre’ that holds all the power. The hope that the degrading of social conservatism would undermine the commanding powers of the capitalist order proved misguided.

In large part, this is because capitalism has proven itself highly culturally flexible. It has typically absorbed the challenges of the so called ‘culture wars’, albeit at the most superficial level.

Indeed, as Glasgow University sociologist Neil Davidson told me, the modern neoliberal form of capitalism is well suited to absorbing at least some demands for personal freedoms.

“I think that it is trite to say that ’68 led directly to neoliberalism, as some writers have done; but certain types of ‘freedom’, particularly to consume, are not just compatible with capitalism, but supportive of it,” Davidson said. “Think – if you can bear to – of the career of Richard Branson. I suppose the point is that if certain types of real freedom (and I’m thinking about freedom from sexism and racism rather than freedom to smoke cannabis) cannot be achieved in socialist ways they will be delivered in capitalist ways, so long as the middle classes find them in their interest.”   

A nightmare scenario is foreseeable, where the very real economic and state power of the extreme centre goes without serious challenge, while the left slowly loses the war of identity to the far right.

READ MORE: ‘Wild, heroic, brilliantly imaginative’: How students nearly inspired a revolution in May ’68

But that is not the state of play now. Indeed, recent decades have been marked by the increasing scale and frequency of protest movements. In opposition to war, the official response to the economic crisis and austerity and in protest to Trump and official state racism, mass movements have trained collective organisation and aspiration against the institutions of power, against, far more often than not, the extreme centre.

The capacity therefore exists, for a revival of the left.

The ‘68ers launched their wave of dissent as part of a ‘new left’. It represented, particularly in Europe, a departure from two political forces – traditional social democracy and the official ‘Moscow line’ Communist parties.

For some years the new left sponsored a range of publications, ideas and, crucially, organisations which sought to break the grip of older and more conservative forces on the left. It is the collapse of these attempts with the receding tide of mass radical politics which led to horizontalism and identity politics.

The post-‘68 condition infects high politics. With little radical grassroots to restrain them, politicians of the extreme centre have pilfered the radical tradition for its identity politics.

READ MORE: CommonSpace forum on 50 years since May ’68 in tweets & pictures

The examples are numerous and loathsome. Madeline Albright, the US foreign secretary who infamously said that sanctions on Iraq, that killed half a million children, were “worth it”, told young women who were backing Bernie Sanders in his run-off against Hilary Clinton that there was a “special place in hell” for them. Indeed, you would think to listen to some backbenchers in the Labour party that any attempt to redraw the economic consensus of neoliberalism necessarily involves bigotry.

In Scotland, this open (and so dangerous) attempt to synthesise economic conformity with a supposed ‘equalities’ agenda hasn’t touched these levels of depravity, but the dynamic is still in motion.

In the wake of the twin shocks of Brexit and the Trump election in 2016, Scotland’s centre left consensus veered towards the culture war. Speaking in Dublin in November of that year, Sturgeon echoed the mantra of New Labour – that husk project of an ideologically expended left – when she said:

“There need be no contradiction between being an open, dynamic and competitive economy, and a fair, inclusive and welcoming society. In fact, what we are seeing around the world demonstrates that the two must go together – a fair society is essential, if we are to sustain support for an open economy.”

READ MORE – Dreams in place of our slow-motion nightmares: Why May ’68 still matters

Not content with this demonstration of a lack of any broad economic and social agenda, so redolent of the post-68 era left, Sturgeon finished the year by issuing a rallying call for defence of “the established political and social order” from the threat of the populist right. This is the inevitable dead end wrought by identitarian attempts to sidestep the material reality of capitalist society. 

Faced with the failure of both these modes of left politics – horizontalism and a desicated political centre – a younger generation has again launched a project of renewal. You might call this ’68 in reverse’.

One case study is the developmental arc of Aaron Bastani. One of the new voices of the left, at the time of the 2010 student movement he was a dealer in the sort of trite theories that abounded at the time.

For a publication called ‘Fight Back’, examining the student and related movements, he claimed protests would take a new horizontalised forms, mirroring changes in the mode of production:

“In the new ‘crowdsourced’ model, the distinction between producers and consumers of dissent is dissolved – there is no hierarchy or membership structure in place, instead all individuals are potential participants within a movement.”

Like so many other student radicals of his generation, Bastani was drawn into the Labour party by the rise of Corbynism – itself the product of street level radicalisation.

“A left prepared to believe in a final victory, freed from the constraints of individualism and the dogmatic obsession with inter-personal politics at least creates the basis for its own relevance.”

In ‘68, dissent moved from the mass parties to the streets. In the years of decline, the intellectual mood moved from a centralised and disciplined focus on the institutions to the diffuse examination of the self.

Now the streets move back into a mass party organisation. The focus is once again on claiming the commanding heights.

Indeed, one might argue the pendulum has swung too far, fostering illusions in the instruments of state reform. But another development signals a different direction. This year, Bastani will release a manifesto, arguing that automation in the economy provides the basis for a fresh attempt a communism. Even in the US heartland of identity politics, the idea of socialism has a new popularity.

There are of course many things that ideas, on their own, cannot change. No clever new theories or presentations can make up for the loss of the left’s industrial power, for instance. But a left prepared to believe in a final victory, freed from the constraints of individualism and the dogmatic obsession with inter-personal politics at least creates the basis for its own relevance.

Picture courtesy of Fibonacci Blue

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