The Decline of the Left


Opposition to established culture and politics often consists merely of scattered little groups working in small-circulation magazines, dealing in unsold cultural products.  Outsiders, however, may also be members of an oppositional establishment of their very own.  Sometimes such “Left” establishments have been as confining in their values, as snobbish in their assignment of prestige as any national establishment.  In fact, they may seem more restrictive because of their usual pretensions not to be; and because dogmatic gospel is frequently needed by more by minority circles than by those who are secure in major institutions and who readily borrow prestige from indubitable authority.

So it is naive to assume that the major divisions among the cultural workmen of a western nation is between those who are “established” and, somehow, unfree and those who are of an advanced guard—creative in culture and radical in politics.  People who call themselves “Left,” or “advanced guard,” or “high-brow” are often as fully routinized—although usually not as durable—as those in a national establishment.  The Left establishment also creates and sustains a cultural and political climate, sets the key tasks, the suitable themes, and establishes the proper canons of value, taste, and reality.

In our time, there is nowhere any Left establishment anywhere that is truly international and insurgent—and at the same time, consequential.

Today in the Soviet Union there is no legal basis for any opposition: opposition (or “revisionism”) is disloyalty; political and cultural activities are embraced by the establishment of the Communist Party, which is nationalist, official, and—on due occasion—coercive.

Today in the United States there is no left: practical political activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities—although formally quite free—tend to become nationalist or commercial, or merely private.

Today in Western Europe, what remains of the older left is weak; its remnants have become inconsequential as a cultural and political center of insurgent opposition. “The Left” has indeed become “established.”  Even if the left wins state power, as in Britain it often seems to its members to have little room for manoeuvre—in the world or in the nation.

There are two major explanations of this condition in Western Europe and in the United States: first, the nationalization of Communism, which was the seat of the old Left; and second, more generally, the expropriation from cultural workmen of their means of distribution, and, increasingly, of cultural production.

During the ‘thirties most people on the Left in Western society had to define their position with reference, primarily, to the doctrines of the Communist Party whether they were in it or not.  The history of cultural and political opposition within most nations was closely linked with the history of the Soviet Union which is, in brief, the story of the nationalization of the international Left and the translation of Marxism itself into a rhetoric of rigid cultural defense and political abuse.

Up to the end of the second world war, all this could be overlooked by many intellectuals.  Cultural and political struggles still seemed to be within and between nations as the encounter in Spain made evident.  Right and Left could be defined as Fascism and anti-Fascism.  But for many people, the nationalization of Communism soon became obvious—and unbearable.  Although still worldwide in its efforts, Communism had become the instrument of one national elite, and its political force within various nations was often as reactionary as that of any other great power.  No longer could socialism, in its viable meanings, be identified with the Soviet Union, nor the Soviet Union acknowledged as the carrier of the values of the Left.  Communism—or Stalinism—in fact, was no longer unambiguously “Left” and in some countries—Poland and Yugoslavia, for example—it became, on occasion, conservatism.

In the West, many leftward circles were so closely identified with Communism that when communism was reduced to Stalinism, those Leftward circles declined or collapsed.  They had become too dependent on this one orientation to survive intact, much less to flourish.

The case of America in these respects is of special significance because of the enormity of that nation’s means of power, because of the formal freedom that political and cultural activities enjoy, and because inside the United States Communism has never been a real political force.

In the ‘thirties many American intellectuals made believe they were revolutionaries.  Came World War II, and rather suddenly they became patriots.  To be sure, at this decisive turn in the history of American life and thought, they did grumble a bit, in a literary way, but, it was a grumbling about a society with which in actual practice they were well satisfied.  Now, after the war, they have come to celebrate this society, but in reality, they know very little about it; and they are not trying very hard to find out.

Often, the remnants of the Left circles of the ‘thirties —the ex-Communists—have become what I should like to call “The Old Futilitarians.”  In their U.S. version, these ex-fighters are often quite shrill: they have stood up in another fashion in another era, but now they are done with fighting.  This is the simple fact underlining the rich assortment of their guilt.  Out of that guilt, many of them have become dogmatic and often, professional anti-Communists.  They have not carried forth into the ‘fifties any traditions of the Left.  Rejecting these altogether, they have come to embody and to display a kind of weariness with any politics of moral concern; for which they have substituted the nationalist celebration.

What is interesting about the ex-Communists turned professional is the fact that their anti-Communism is quite similar in psychological form to anti-Semitism.  At least I find it rather difficult to tell the difference between the anti-Communism of some of my ex-friends and the anti-Semitism of those who have always been my enemies.  Both assume the immutability of Communists (or of Jews): once a communist or a Jew always a communist or a Jew.  Both assume that any contact is polluting: that in any attempted co-operation with “them,” the Communists or the Jews will exploit the chances offered and clannishly win out; that anyone who may doubt this is simply naïve, or perhaps secretly, or unconsciously, a Communist or a Jew.  There is the same choked-up exasperation with detached reasoning about Communists; about new beginnings in the Soviet bloc after the death of Stalin.  There is the same interpretation of texts to reveal “Stalinist mentality.” In brief, any detachment from unconditional nationalism is identified as treason.

In the United States today, the ex-Communist turned professional is not as shrill as he was several years ago; but he has certainly played an important part in creating the sour and disillusioned atmosphere that younger cultural workmen have grown up in since the end of World War II.

The complacency of the young is a counterpart of the futility of the old.  It is difficult to find pure types or examples of The Young Complacents.  They represent more an underlying mood than a stable type of man, and they are very much subject to fashion.  For a British case, consider one Englishman with many American connections.  Writing about himself in a curious and, surely, un-American magazine called—of all things—Encounter, he asserts  that he feels “like a contented lackey of the Welfare State, a flattered traveller on gravy trains …Her Majesty’s Government fed, housed and clothed me (in khaki) for four years, then civilly obliged me to jump the demob queue and return to Oxford.  By way of bonus it gave me an interest in soldiers that I still retain.  The Commonwealth Fund nurtured me on two long visits to the United States … the Social Science Research Council wished on me money to prepare a study of American military attitudes: I hope to complete this in the next year while basking in California at the expense of the Ford Foundation.  A philanthropic publisher advanced some dollars for a book on George Washington which I have just about finished.”

Perhaps the clue to this mood is The Young Complacent’s feeling that, after all, he has been created rather well; behind that, of course, is the glorious and vulgar fact of economic prosperity.  Political passions and moral convictions “leave him cold.” Perhaps this posture results from the strain to be bright and interesting—and fashionable.  Perhaps it results from the fact that he tends to judge the society in which he lives on the basis of his personal career within it, thus confusing his own modest personal success with the quality and conditions of social justice.  He does not examine the criterion of success itself, and the effects of meeting it upon those selected and formed by it.  To base one’s political mood and moral judgment upon modest success is—and it is still a good phrase—the Philistine mood of the petty bourgeoisie.

In the West, especially in the United States, apart from the postures of sophisticated weariness and the curious complacency of the literary young, there are many further attitudes that stop political reflections as an active force—for example, “The Scientific Posture” of Social Investigators.  So many intelligent academic people won’t talk seriously about the politics of war and peace, slump and boom, democracy and tyranny.  They won’t or they can’t, go beneath the official stereotypes.  They favour such terms as “speciality” as used in “not my speciality,” thus treating themselves, in a sense, as minor divisions of a big department store.  Many of them are ever so bright and clever, but they seem unable, or they refuse, to relate their skills to reason.  Anything outside their particular methods they call speculation or scholarship—which they define as “writing books out of other books,” and which they think quite a low form of activity.  They are often dogmatic, less about any set of beliefs than about the limits of reason itself.  Many of them today are administrative intellectuals—head-deep in war relevant “social research.”  Some of these types, who now head up semiofficial research-cartels, published marvellous stuff during the thirties.  But now they are so committed to the cultural and military apparatus, and to their own affluent role in it, they cannot afford, psychologically, to confront their own opposition and the political meaning of their work.  Too sophisticated to attempt explicit argument for their politically weak alternatives they are in fact practising; they simply refuse explicit comment.

The collapse of the left, and the more general attempt to divorce intellectual activities from politics of any sort, is based, then, upon the dogmatic and sour anti-Communism of The Old Futilitarians; upon The Young Complacents’ uninformed boredom with politics and their ignorance of its human meanings today; upon the merely literary fads and personal prosperity of The Philistine as Thinker; and upon the unexamined conservatism and scientific pretentions of The Behavioral Scientists.  As a loosely knit coalition, largely unconscious, these types are attempting to establish a nationalist mood to which conformity is demanded, and in terms of which reputations and careers are made and unmade.

Behind the rise of these intellectuals and behind the fatal nationalization of Left establishments, there is a structural trend in the cultural apparatus of America.  Today, the real treason of Western intellectuals is based on the bureaucratic establishment of their very cultural existence.  It is not—as Julien Benda would have it—that they are “useful” but that they, themselves, do not control the uses made of them and their work.  What now confronts them in the Overdeveloped Society is the expropriation of their cultural apparatus itself.

In capitalistic societies over the last two centuries, all that has happened to work in general—is now rapidly happening to cultural, scientific, and artistic endeavor.  In different nations this alienation occurs in different ways: but whether it occurs by political or commercial co-ordination from above or by voluntary withdrawal of cultural workmen themselves, the results are comparable.  We, the cultural workmen, do not have access to the means of effectively communicating images and ideas; others who own and operate the mass media stand between us and our potential publics.  But more than that, we are losing control of the very means of cultural production itself.  The condition of intellectual work, as well as of the distribution of its products, is increasingly bureaucratic.  More and more culture becomes an adjunct of marketing, or of the bureaucratic ethos, or of both.  The demands for intellectual and technical personnel and for new kinds of what Lionel Trilling calls “consciousness by formulation” are being eagerly met by intellectuals in research-cartels and busy teams of semi-intellectuals.  Is not the deplorable situation of the serious movie-maker the prototype for most cultural workmen?  We are cut off from possible publics, and such publics as remain are being turned into masses by those businessmen or commissars who do control the means of communication.  In their hands, these are often less means of communication than means of mass distraction.

In several basic trends and official actions, the United States and the Soviet Union are becoming increasingly alike.

Both are supersocieties, geographically and ethnically.  Unlike the nations of Europe, each has amalgamated on a continental domain great varieties of peoples and cultures.  Each has expanded mightily in territory as well as in power.

The power of both is based on technological development which has been made into a cultural and social fetish, rather than an instrument under continual public appraisal and control; and to this military and economic fetish, the organization of all life is increasingly adapted.  The means of production are so arranged that in the name of efficiency, work is alienated; the means of consumption are culturally exploitative.

In both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as the political order is enlarged and centralized, it becomes less political and more bureaucratic; less the locale of a struggle then an object to be managed.  Within both, most men are the objects of history, adapting to structural changes with which they have little or nothing to do.

In neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. are there nationally responsible parties which debate openly and clearly the issues which the world so rigidly confronts.  The two-party state is without programmatic focus and without organizational basis for it.  We must recognize that, under some conditions, the two-party state can be as irresponsible as the one-party state.

In neither nation is there a senior civil service firmly linked to the world of knowledge and sensibility and composed of skilled men who, in their careers and aspirations, are truly independent of corporate interest (in the U.S.) and of party dictation (in the U.S.S.R.).

In neither are there voluntary associations, as central facts of power, that link individuals, smaller communities, and publics with the state, the military establishment, and the economic apparatus. Accordingly, there are no readily available vehicles for reasoned opinions, no instruments for the rational exertion of public will.

The kind of public that democratic theorists imagined does not prevail in either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R., nor is it the forum within which a politics of real issues is regularly enacted.

The classic conditions of democracy and democratic institutions do not flourish in the power structure of the United States or the Soviet Union.  Publics, voluntary associations, and responsible parties have, at most, a restraining role in the making of their history.  Accordingly, most men of decision in these countries are not men selected and formed by careers within such associations and parties, and by their performances before such publics.  History-making decisions and lack of decisions are virtually monopolised by elites who have access to the means—both material and cultural—by which history is now being made.

In cultural affairs, as well as in basic structure, similarities are becoming apparent.  In the United States, we must remember there is no long-standing traditional establishment of culture on the European model; in Russia, we must remember such an establishment was destroyed by the Revolution.

The “Materialism” of the Soviet Union, for example, is no more important a religious and spiritual fact than the “Christianity” of the West—especially of the United States, where religion itself is now a quite secular activity.  Neither the official atheism of the Russians, nor the official Christianity of the Americans means very much today for national policy, for cultural endeavour, for the quality of everyday life.  In our time religious—as well as educational—institutions tend to become other mass media, tend to be shaped by major economic, military, and political forces.  They do not originate; they adapt.  What real moral issue in our time has any sizable religious community discovered, defined, or witnessed.

In their classic period, liberal observers expected and assumed that universal education would, no doubt, replace ignorance by knowledge, and so indifference by public alertness.  But educational matters have not turned out this way.  Nowadays, precisely the most “liberal” educators feel that something has gone wrong.

Like religion, education in the United States competes with, and takes its place alongside, the other mass means of distraction, entertainment, and communication; These fabulous media do not often truly communicate; they do not connect public issues with private troubles; they do not often make clear the human meaning of impersonal and often atrocious events and historic decisions. They trivialize issues, and they convert publics into mere “media markets.”

In both United States and U.S.S.R., education becomes a part of the economic and military machines.  Men and women who are trained to fulfill technical functions in bureaucracies, have little to do with ends and meanings.

In underdeveloped countries, of course, we witness a movement from mass illiteracy to formal education; in the overdeveloped nations, from mass education to educated illiteracy.

Although cryptic, does not this formula indicate in one sentence “the natural history of mass education?”

Everywhere the image of self-cultivating man as the goal of the human being has declined.  It is the specialist who is ascendant both in Russia and America.  The man whose field is most specialized is considered most advanced.  Many cultural workmen, especially social investigators, try to imitate the supposed form of physical science.  As a result they abdicate the intellectual and political autonomy of the classic traditions of their disciplines.  Much social science nowadays is pretentious triviality; it is a set of bureaucratic techniques inhibiting social inquiry by methodological pretentions; that congests the work at hand by the obscurity of grand theory and trivializes itself by concern with minor problems that have no connection with issues of public relevance or troubles of individuals.

In both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. the specialist’s ascendancy is underlaid, of course, by the ascendancy of physical science in the form of military and economic facts.  In America, today, man’s very relation to nature is being taken over by science machines, which are, at once, part of the privately incorporated economy and military ascendancy.  Now, “science” is regularly identified with its more lethal or its more commercially relevant products; it is less a part of the broad cultural traditions than of a closed-up and secret set of internationalist enterprises; less a realm in which the creative individual is free to innovate than a bureaucracy in which its cultural legacy is exploited by crash-techniques.  The secrets of nature are made secrets of state, as science itself becomes a managed part of the machinery of the World War III, and in the United States a part of the wasteful absurdities of capitalism.

There is no set of free intellectuals, in either country—in or out of the universities— that carries on the big discourse of the Western world.  There are no truly independent minds that are directly relevant to powerful decisions.

I do not wish to minimize the important differences between the establishment of culture in the Soviet Union and in the United States.  I wish neither to excuse the brutal facts of Soviet cultural tyranny, nor to celebrate the formal freedom of cultural workmen in the West.  Surely there is enough such celebration of self and denunciation of enemy.

The formal freedom of the West rests upon cultural traditions of great force; this freedom is very real; it has been, and is immensely valuable.  But, now, we must ask to what extent the continuation of this freedom is due to the fact that it is not being exercised.  Certainly, in America today, there is much more celebration and defense of civil liberties than insurgent and effective use of them.  Are not the cultural workmen of the West, by their intellectual and moral defaults, throwing away the legacy of their freedom?

We should bear in mind, however, that the ideals that we Westerners associate with the classic, liberal, bourgeois period of modern culture may well be rooted in this one historical stage of this one type of society.  Such ideals as personal freedom and cultural autonomy may not be inherent, necessary features of cultural life as such.  Our general belief that they will arise everywhere as insurgent ideals whenever occasion permits may be merely a provincial generalization of one historically specific place and epoch.  The conditions of freedom that were characteristic of much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century West, are as well known as the fact that these same conditions have never prevailed in most of the world and, now, do not flourish in the West.

Also, we must understand that bureaucratization of culture may be brought about not only by co-ordination from above—by total persuasion—and by coercion; but also may result from the dominance of a completely commercial use of culture, with the voluntary self-co-ordination of cultural workmen.

Often in totalitarian societies, intellectuals are locked up; in formal democracies, often, they lock themselves up, they withdraw from politics.  This, I think, is what has been happening in the Western societies, and especially in the United States of America.

The withdrawal of intellectuals from political concerns is, in itself, a political act, but it is a pseudo-withdrawal.  To withdraw from politics today can only mean “in intent”; it cannot mean “in effect.”  In reality, its effect is to serve whatever powers prevail if only by distracting public attention from them.  Such attempts may be the result of fear or fashion; or of sincere conviction—induced by success.  Regardless of the motive, to attempt withdrawal is to become subservient to existing authorities and to allow other men to determine the meaning of one’s own work.  In 1790 John Adams wrote: “Bad men increase in knowledge as fast as good men, and science, art, taste, sense and letters are employed for the purposes of injustice and tyranny, as well as those of law and liberty; for corruption as well as for virtue.”

In our present situation of the impoverished mind and lack of political will, United States intellectuals, it seems to me, have a unique opportunity to make a new beginning.  If we want to, we can be independent craftsmen.  To suggest programs for men who work culturally is not the same as for any other group.  In the West it is precisely the character and position of many intellectuals and artists—and to some extent, still, of many scientists—that they are free to decide what they will or will not do in their working life.  They are still free to consider the political decisions that they are making by their work.  No other group of men is as free in just these ways; no other group, just now, is so strategically placed for possible innovation as those whose work joins them to the cultural apparatus; to the means of information and knowledge; to the means by which realities are defined, by which programs and politics are elaborated and presented to publics.

But what kinds of “politics” can intellectuals now pursue?

Today, a direct party struggle is not open to intellectuals either in America or in the Soviet bloc.  (Whether it is open to intellectuals of Western Europe you would know better than I.)  There is no movement or party or organization in America today that has a real chance to influence decisions of consequence and, at the same time, is open to the work of intellectuals.  Given this, I think it is a waste of time and of talent for American intellectuals to busy themselves with merely local and ineffective “politics” in the name of independent political action.

Yet we know that we cannot expect to maintain, much less to use, cultural freedom without waging a political as well as a cultural struggle, without realizing that these two struggles must be joined; and I think, this joint political-cultural struggle must be waged in intellectual and moral ways rather than in a more direct political way.  I do not believe that American intellectuals should attempt, merely, to guide or relate themselves to one class or organization.  I do not believe, for example, that it is only “Labour” or “The Working Class” that can transform American society and change its role in world affairs.  In brief, we can no longer say what ought to be done without saying, specifically, who ought to do it; and I, for one, do not believe in abstract social forces—such as The Working Class—as the universal historical agent.

Intellectuals have created standards and pointed out goals.  Then, always, they have looked around for other groups, other circles, other strata who might realize them.  It is time now, for us in America to try to realize them ourselves—in our own lives, in our own direct action, in the immediate context of our own work.

Now, we ought to repossess our cultural apparatus and use it for our own purposes.

This should be done personally and literally. It is a mistake for us to swallow ourselves in some great, vague abstract, political “We.”  Of course as creators and upholders of standards, we do want to generalize for other men the ideals for which, as public men, we stand; but we ought not to do so in a merely optative mood.  We ought to do so, first of all, by acting in our own immediate milieux.

We are free men.  Now we must take out heritage seriously.  We must make clear the perils that threaten it.  We must stop defending civil liberties long enough to use them.  We must attempt to give content to our formal democracy by acting within it.  We must stop whining about our own alienation long enough to use it to form radical critiques, audacious programs, commanding views of the future.  If we do not do these things, who will?

National establishments and official lines have always benefited by denying close connection between culture and politics.  Left thinking has always assumed these connections and tried to make them explicit.  Now, we must make clear the absurdity of the definitions of reality and the pretensions to truth of established culture by debunking it and revealing its political meanings.  As intellectuals, we should conduct a continuing, uncompromising criticism of this established culture from the stand point of—what so-called practical men of affairs call—utopian ideals.

Unless we do this we have no chance to offer alternative definitions of reality.  And, of course, that is our major business.  If we, as intellectuals, do not define and re-define reality, who will?

The writers among us bemoan the triviality of the mass media, but why—for the money and the prestige—do they allow themselves to be used in its silly routines by its silly managers?  These media are part of our means of work which have been expropriated from us and are being used, now, by others for corrupting purposes.  We should write and speak for these media on our own terms or not at all.  We should ostracize the ghosts and the hacks who accept the terms of the expropriators, and attack them as men who prostitute their free talents and who disgrace us as an intellectual community.

Professors in America complain, yet they allow themselves to be exploited, turned into tired and routine people, or into ineffectual entertainers.  Why do they not demand that staffs be sufficiently enlarged to enable men and women to be properly educated, and to enable educators to control the serious work they have to do?

It is easy for anyone to see that the two political parties—and Congress—have often defaulted, that they neither represent nor clarify alternatives to policies or lack of policies.  But why must their obfuscations be elaborated, their confusions echoed by writers and newsmen who make a routine of the journalistic lie?

It is easy to see that officials of the United States Department of State now operate a censorship that is as arbitrary, rigid, and stupid as any in the Soviet Zone; but why do American publishers and newsmen accept, for instance, the ban on news of China, on what is happening among one fourth of mankind? Why don’t they fight for the right—in both the U. S. and China—to know and to tell? Why don’t they really attempt to send one hundred newsmen to China tomorrow morning?

It is easy to see that military metaphysicians are making science into a Science Machine.  But why must scientists and technicians be so eager to develop the new weaponry; to turn themselves into such public servants?

It is easy to see that religion has publicly become a mere blessing of the thrust toward World War III.  But why must preachers and rabbis and priests support the moral irresponsibility of the elite that is serving this thrust?

It is easy to see that official definitions of world reality are often absurd and, sometimes, even paranoid lies.  But why must scholars and publicists disseminate these absurd, inadequate definitions of reality?  Why must they study the trivial subjects they do, rather than confront the insistent and significant problems of our time?

We cannot expect to create a Left with mere slogans—much less with the tired old slogans that bore us so.

We cannot expect to create a Left by abdicating our roles as intellectuals to become working-class agitators or machine-politicians, or by play-acting at any other direct political action.

We can begin to create a Left by confronting issues as intellectuals in our own work, and is it not obvious that the issue is now World War III?

In our studies of Man and Society, we must become fully comparative on a worldwide scale and in particular, we must re-examine with all the technical resources at our command our views concerning the Soviet Union, China and the United States; and we must do so from viewpoints that are genuinely detached from any enclosure of mind or nationalist celebration.

What must become international again.  For us, today, this means that we, personally, must refuse to fight the Cold War: that we, personally, must attempt to get in touch with our opposite numbers in all countries of the world—above all, those in the Sino-Soviet zone of nations.

With them we should make our own separate peace.  Then, as intellectuals—and so as public men—we ought to act and work as if this peace—and the exchange of values, ideas and programs of which it consists—is everybody’s peace, or surely ought to be.

In summary, what we must do is to define the reality of the human condition and to make our definitions public; to confront the new facts of history-making in our time, and their meanings for the problem of political responsibility; to release the human imagination, in order to explore all the alternatives now open to the human community, by transcending both the mere exhortation of grand principles and the mere opportunist reaction in order to explore al the alternatives now open to the human community.

If this—the politics of truth—is merely a holding action, so be it.  If it is also a politics of desperation, so be it.  But in this time and in America, it is the only realistic politics of possible consequence that is readily open to intellectuals.  It is the guideline and the next step.  It is an affirmation of one’s self as a moral and intellectual centre of responsible decision; the act of a free man who rejects “fate,” for it reveals his resolution to take his own fate, at least, into his own hands.

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