The New Authoritarian Marxism (2): An Anti-Democratic Theory of Socialism

The New Authoritarian Marxism (2): An Anti-Democratic Theory of Socialism

Alan Johnson: New Authoritarian Marxism II

In his book Did Somebody say Totalitarianism?, Slavoj ?i?ek tells us what has gone wrong on the Left and how we are to put things right.

The Left has accepted the basic coordinates of liberal democracy (“democracy” versus “totalitarianism”) and is now trying to define its (op)position within this space. The first thing to do, therefore, is fearlessly to violate these liberal taboos: So what if one is accused of being “anti-democratic,” “totalitarian…”

There are three things to say about this.

First, it says a lot about the state of our intellectual culture that ?i?ek is idolized?just listen to the fawning from the academics and the teeny-bopper shrieking from the students at his talks?while speaking in this ignorant and menacing way.

Second, we should note that there is a very serious point in Clive James? joke in the London Review of Books that ?i?ek “should be encouraged to put away his inverted commas until he can use them responsibly.”

Third, ?i?ek makes clear a defining feature of the new authoritarian Marxism. It takes precious ideas hewn from bitter experience and the mutilated lives of the anti-Stalinist left, and it re-presents those ideas in bowlderized form to the historically ignorant as nothing but the ideological props of the right.

Take the relation of democracy to socialism. That socialism can only come to life as an extension of democracy was the idea of the anti-Stalinist Left. ?i?ek hopes to obscure this.

Hal Draper, the revolutionary socialist and Marx scholar, spent his life trying to clarify the relationship, making it the basis for a renewal of Marxism itself. He summed up the thinking of an entire tradition–one to which Dissent can trace its roots, by the way–in these terms:

The political character of the Independent Socialist League quickly broadened…to a wide reinterpretation of the meaning of revolutionary socialism for our day. Reacting sharply against the bureaucratic concepts of both official Stalinism and official Trotskyism, it swung to a deep-going emphasis on the integration of socialism and democracy in all aspects of politics.

Draper devoted the last two decades of his life to a scholarly excavation of, as he saw it, the democratic nature of Marx?s own socialism: “For me, Marxism is the gateway to a revolutionary socialism which is thoroughly democratic and a democratic socialism which is thoroughly revolutionary.”

In a general way Marx’s socialism (communism) as a political program may be most quickly defined, from the Marxist standpoint, as the complete democratization of society, not merely of political forms(…)Marx’s theory moves in the direction of defining consistent democracy in socialist terms and defining consistent socialism in democratic terms. (Draper, 1977: 282)

Draper died in 1990, but in his understanding that socialism has always had “two souls” he can help us understand who ?i?ek is. Draper recalled that,

In the middle of 1958, after dropping the weekly burden of journalism and after a knockabout tour of Europe taking most of a year, I settled down to a period of reading and research in the history of socialism that went on for almost a year and a half. Its focus was on tracing the antidemocratic (in modern slang, ‘authoritarian’) currents in the early and later formation of the socialist movement. I knew well enough that these currents existed.

What I discovered, however, which penetrated beneath the surface of popular socialistic historiography, was this: The difficulty was not in finding the antidemocratic elements, it was in identifying any representatives?even a very few?of consistent advocacy of a socialism-from-below, the only “democratic socialism” worth recognizing. “Stalinism” and its forerunners?or, in general, authoritarian forms of socialist thinking and organization?had far more claim to the socialist tradition than I did. It was not a wild aberration, as the joint statement had seemed to say.(…)

Today?s new authoritarian Marxism is not a wild aberration. It is only the latest example of the “authoritarian forms of socialist thinking and organization” that have always disgraced the socialist idea.