The left needs to free itself from the dominance of radical-seeming liberal ideas if it is to offer a real anti-capitalist alternative, argues Mike Wayne

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is often used as a way of understanding how the dominant classes manage to maintain relative social stability over the mass of the population, even when on any objective totting up of their record, they should have been ushered off the stage of history by now. Hegemony refers to the influence that the ruling group has, the esteem it has, the capacity to mould opinions, agendas and values. To rule, in short, without having to resort to calling the army out of the barracks every other week.

But the term hegemony is less often applied to how the left itself, even the self-declared Marxist left, may fall under the sway and the influence of ideas and values that are not conducive to its stated objectives. The principle of hegemony was in circulation in the Russian revolutionary movement at the turn of the twentieth century, but it was Gramsci who gave the concept a significant expansion in its range. He was certainly alive to the way economic liberalism from the nineteenth century had surreptitiously spread into Marxism and shaped its thinking on economic matters in ways that retarded Marxism’s development. Any notion of ‘materialism’ as a set of forces that were separated from agency and consciousness was a case in point.

He also saw how economic liberalism’s classical suspicion of the state and faith that the spontaneous movements of the market would lead to happy outcomes was quietly at work in radical syndicalist movements. Syndicalism’s suspicion of political parties and the work required to turn a crisis into a revolutionary outcome was evident in the thinking of George Sorel for example. Sorel hoped that, as a tactic, the general strike would create a great cleavage between the classes, and that alone would be enough to lead to revolutionary transformation.

Today, we would do well to look a little more deeply at some of the positions which the contemporary left has ended up defending, and ask whether or not, despite their superficial radicalism, here too we are witnessing the surreptitious influence of liberalism. I think in fact on far too many issues, the left has fallen under the hegemonic sway of liberalism, which in the current situation, is aligned to economic individualism or neoliberalism.

Liberal radicalisms

I am thinking about common left positions such as ‘critical race theory’, with its notion of an undifferentiated ‘white privilege’, and its tendency to moralising and individualising calls for atonement, especially evident in numerous human-resources training sessions up and down the country.

I am thinking about the whole movement towards ‘sex work is work’ which is now common on the left. You can see the appeal. After all, work has always been imbued with a certain moral and political force for the left. The withdrawal of labour provides a crucial point of leverage that strikes at the heart of the profit machine. If prostitutes are exploited, they should collectivise and fight for better conditions like the rest of the working class, etc. etc. Yet it is a position that extends the principles of contractual choice and entrepreneurialism into areas they should not go. The left should be resisting commodification, not encouraging it. Or, as many feminists would say, a woman’s mouth, anus or vagina is not a workplace.

Gender identity is another area that the left would do well to re-evaluate. For example, the novel idea that you can choose your pronouns subtly normalises the notion that sex is a matter of personal choice rather than biological reality. The logic of identity politics is that the ‘I’ is who the ‘I’ says they are. This is a form of individualism at which even the thinking right draws the line, though they are less clear that the impetus for this trend comes from their own capitalist system. But much of the left seems even less able to spy the rampant individualism and a wild-eyed idealism at work here. This philosophy was incubated in part in academia, and once upon a time I would have expected the revolutionary left to soberly dismantle the latest fashionable trend, not fall prostrate before it. Unfortunately, Judith Butler is all the rage and can be found in the windows of revolutionary bookshops.

It is not hard to see why the left has succumbed to the hegemony of liberalism. Our side has seen forty years of defeat and demoralisation. In such circumstances, the influence of the ideas and values of our enemies, in the ascendency, are bound to coil around our roots. The revolutionary left will have to develop its independent positions once more on these and other matters. The paradox is that although liberalism has a hegemonic reach over the left, it certainly does not have a hegemonic position over the rest of the population. But unless the left can uncouple itself from liberalism, the only other alternative to the crisis of capitalism that the majority of the population will have available to them is the right, and perhaps ultimately the fascist right.

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