Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 20, 2018

“The Rise of the Leninist Right”? A commentary on a Berkeley professor’s nonsense

Filed under: Academia,conservatism — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Cihan Tuğal

Global Dialog is the magazine of the International Sociological Association, a professional society founded by UNESCO in 1949 that appears to be a safe space for Marxists, given that Immanuel Wallerstein and Michael Burawoy have served as presidents. Burawoy is currently the editor of Global Dialog that appears for all practical purposes to be a Marxist journal, with the latest issue devoted in part to an examination of Trumpism.

One of the articles was titled “The Rise of the Leninist Right”, a rather odd formulation. It was written by Cihan Tuğal, a Berkeley professor who has written some useful articles on Turkey in the NLR. This article, however, was not that useful. It was downright ridiculous.

Tuğal argues that “American right-wing populism is Leninism under democratic conditions.” Proof of that supposedly lies in Steve Bannon saying “I’m a Leninist. Lenin […] wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” The source of this quote is an article by the rightwing asshole Ronald Radosh who claims that Bannon told him this at a cocktail party they were at in 2013. Three years later, Radosh emailed Bannon to confirm that this was what he said and the lout told him that he could not recall it.

In some ways, this is all besides the point because it fails to use the term “Leninist” scientifically. Leninism is not being against the “establishment”. It is a tendency associated with the Bolshevik Party in Czarist Russia committed to socialist revolution. Steve Bannon has about as much to do with Leninism as Adolf Hitler had to do with socialism, no matter what he called his party. You’d think that someone belonging to a high-falutin’ academic association would know better. Maybe not.

Additionally, this rise of a “Leninist” right can be explained by the failure of the left to craft a “populist” message to Trump voters (presumably):

The left can no longer convincingly speak in a populist tone. It doesn’t know how. In any case, most of its ideologues don’t want to. In order to understand the meagerness of populist overtones within the American left, we need to look at the pre-history of our era’s anti-populism.

I trace this devolution, paradoxically, to what seemed on paper to be the most democratic revolt of the 20th century: 1968 (as it was experienced in the West). Alongside its anti-capitalism, 1968 was a revolt against the statist and bureaucratic excesses of Stalinism, social democracy, and the New Deal. Although justified in many regards, the anti-bureaucratic mood of that moment ultimately led many to draw wrong lessons from the downfall of statism and the victory of (neo)liberalism. 1968 was a necessary mistake. The right recovered from it. The left did not.

The two major inheritors of 1968 in the West – the liberal-left and autonomist/anarchist movements – developed an incurable suspicion not only of organization, ideology, and leadership, but also of speaking in the name of majorities, “the people.” All such talk (and politics) came to be branded “totalizing” and totalitarian (by the far left) or “irresponsible” and useless (by the liberal left). Except in Southern Europe (where left populism returned to the scene, but without class, ideological, and organizational anchors) and Latin America, the right occupied the emergent gap.

Defeated on paper, the libertarian spirit of 1968 fueled neoliberalism’s anti-statism. But the more poisonous result was the subsequent split of leftists, between post-modernist nihilism and left-liberalism.

In 1997, Tuğal graduated from Bosphorus University in Istanbul, just 3 years after my wife did. This means that he was probably born 8 years after the events that took place in 1968. I try to put myself in his shoes. Would I have written so self-assuredly about events in 1937, 8 years before I was born? Certainly not. I have trouble enough making sense out of what took place in 1968 and I was deeply immersed in it.

To get to the point, the good sociology professor does not have a clue about what why the right emerged in the post-1960s period. To start with, the autonomist/anarchist left was not a “major inheritor” of 1968. Instead, it was the “Leninist” left that drew all the wrong lessons from the nature of the period and how to reach the people. Yes, the left made mistakes but it nothing to do with “anti-statism”. Instead, the thousands of revolutionaries who formed “vanguard parties” in the 70s and 80s operated in a self-imposed subculture in which the iconography of the Russian or Chinese revolutions was fetishized. The hammer and sickle adorned the newspapers of the period and a language was developed that smacked of an in-group mentality characteristic of sects at best and cults at the most extreme. Been there, done that.

I have tried to explain in dozens of articles about how the groups that emerged out of Trotskyism became an obstacle to the growth of the left. It artificially imposed a glass ceiling on our influence. Max Elbaum had a similar analysis about the Maoist left in “Revolution in the Air”. If the 25,000 or so self-described revolutionary socialists in 1975 or so had come together in a non-sectarian framework and adopted a program similar to the one that Lenin advocated for the Russian left, we’d perhaps have an organization of 100,000 today. To give you an idea of what the Bolsheviks advocated, just consider the draft program that Lenin proposed to his comrades:

1) an eight-hour working day; 2) prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age; 3) uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week; 4) extension of factory legislation and the Factory Inspectorate to all branches of industry and agriculture, to government factories, to artisan establishments, and to handicraftsmen working at home; election, by the workers, of assistant inspectors having the same rights as the inspectors; 5) establishment of factory and rural courts for all branches of industry and agriculture, with judges elected from the employers and the workers in equal numbers; etc.

For us, a program might have taken up questions of socialized medicine, free higher education, a minimum wage of $15, an overhaul of the electoral system that made it easier for a radical party to get on the ballot and that put an end to big money control of the elections, etc. None of this is particularly “radical” and even sounds like the kind of issues that Bernie Sanders stands for. However, unless they are raised by a working-class party, they will never take on the sharp edge that is as necessary to move forward politically as a machete is for clearing a path through the jungle. For radicals, the key to social change is in the streets, not in the voting booth. A nation-wide party with a voice to express such demands could have put the ruling class on the defensive. Our failure to build such a party can be explained by the ideological hegemony of “Leninism” 50  years ago. We have no excuse today.

Besides his failure to understand the extreme left’s problems in the post-60s period, Tuğal raises a bunch of the by-now familiar complaints about “identity politics” that are associated with left-liberalism, the other culprit that supposedly helped the ultra-right’s rapid growth. He writes:

Over three decades, inclusion increased in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation — but the table itself shrank. So yes, Black and Latino men and women, even Muslims, got prominent positions at institutions they could previously hardly dream of; but the Black and Latino prison population in the US increased, as did the number of Muslims bombed, embargoed and starved by the United States.

Left-liberalism spoke to (more ordinary) minorities through targeted welfare programs; but since Democratic leaders shied away from taking from the big sharks, it could only do this by further victimizing the whites pushed away from a shrinking table. Downgraded whites came to be perceived as a bunch of racists, “a basket of deplorables”; people we can no longer talk to (a reality produced by the project itself).

This might sound familiar if you’ve read Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed. It is a well-trodden analysis that turns affirmative action into some kind of con game to placate Blacks, Latinos, and women so that they don’t go after the “big sharks”. Michaels and Reed have been banging away at this for decades but during the 2016 elections and continuing through Trump’s inauguration, it became omnipresent as figures such as Mark Lilla and Mark Penn scolded fellow Democrats for adapting to Black Lives Matter, etc.

As for left-liberalism speaking to minorities through “targeted welfare programs”, I would say that the only thing that has been targeted is the minorities themselves. Let’s never forget that it was Bill Clinton who eviscerated the welfare system, not Nixon or Reagan.

As for being able to speak to Trump voters, it would be a big mistake to think that most of them could be won over to the “populist” message that Tuğal endorses. The evidence continues to mount that his hard-core followers were not factory workers but those excited by the idea of sticking it to Muslims, gays, Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and above all those factory workers who supposedly flocked to Trump. My friend Tony McKenna presented convincing evidence that these truly deplorable people tended to be shopkeepers, upper-level managers, self-employed professionals—the classic petty-bourgeois elements that have been a base for the ultra-right for the past 100 years or so. He wrote:

A similar statistic came out of a March 2016 NBC survey which showed that “only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more, and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites.” If one assumes that working class jobs tend to fall at the lower end of the economic spectrum, then one has to conclude that the vast majority of Trump supporters in the run-up to the 2016 election were simply not of the working class.

You’d think that a sociologist at a prestigious university like Berkeley would have a better grasp of the data, wouldn’t you?

The final section of Tuğal’s article, titled The American Right’s “21st-century Leninism”, is filled with confusion. He writes:

Starting with Andrew Breitbart himself, the founder of the “alt-right” media outlet, the right read the Frankfurt School; it made healthcare a big deal; and with the rise of Trump and Bannon, it promises jobs and infrastructure.

So Andrew Breitbart reading the Frankfurt School is meant to prove that the “Leninist” right was stealing the left’s thunder? Doesn’t Tuğal understand that Breitbart’s obsession with the Frankfurt School (or what he also called Cultural Marxism) was identical to that of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 young leftists in 2011? Breitbart.com is only interested in the Frankfurt School in the same way I am interested in what someone like Michel Chossudovsky or what LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review have to say. I am monitoring them. To get an idea of what Breitbart thinks of the Frankfurt School, get a load of this:

The [Frankfurt] Institute built up a cadre of cultural Marxists, including Max Horkheimer, Erick Fromm and Herbert Marcuse. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the Frankfurt School migrated to the United States. There its members set about poisoning American culture, based in Columbia University. Theodor Adorno promoted degenerate atonal music to induce mental illness, including necrophilia, on a large scale. He and Horkheimer also penetrated Hollywood, recognising the film industry’s power to influence mass culture. The American schools system was a prime target for successful subversion.

I love that business about Adorno promoting atonal music to promote mental illness. What a bunch of howling jackals at the magazine our president reads.

Also, what does Tuğal mean when he says that Breitbart made healthcare “a big deal”. To me, a big deal means you are promoting it, not trying to eviscerate it. How could he could have written such nonsense?

Maybe before Tuğal goes off half-cocked in the future, he should try to understand Lenin in context. That would be much better than writing in such superficial fashion about “Leninism”. I understand that crawling to the top of the academic mountaintop takes a great deal of perseverance and talent but once you reach the pinnacle, it is best to avoid resting on your laurels—especially when it comes to pontificating about a subject that he is clearly in over his head about. You might come tumbling down the mountain.


  1. Executive Intelligence REVIEW, I think.

    Comment by uh...clem — January 20, 2018 @ 8:38 pm

  2. […] “The Rise of the Leninist Right”? A commentary on a Berkeley professor’s nonsense […]

    Pingback by “‘The rise of the Leninist right’? A commentary on a Berkeley professor’s nonsense” | Louis Proyect: the Unrepentant Marxist | COMRADE BOYCIE: VIVA THE ANTI-TORY/BIG BROTHER REVOLUTION! — January 20, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

  3. There is nothing more ridiculous than the love of neoliberal academics for the, as used by them, nonsense word “populism.” It has little or nothing to do with the actual history of populism and merely means “thank God not socialist.” Professors can use it to seem daring when making passes at students. And it’s safe–the alternative nonsense word “progressive” is far too lefty for most of these cheese-eaters.

    Only by invoking Lenin can these moral and intellectual frauds exorcise the demonic “right-wing” in the phrase “right-wing populism.” How relieved they must have been when that idiot Bannon, having once misread a history book, said he was a Leninist. Two birds with one stone!!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 22, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

  4. “A similar statistic came out of a March 2016 NBC survey which showed that “only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more, and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites.” If one assumes that working class jobs tend to fall at the lower end of the economic spectrum, then one has to conclude that the vast majority of Trump supporters in the run-up to the 2016 election were simply not of the working class.”

    One of the core objectives of HRC’s presidential campaign was the marginalization of the working class. Politico reported extensively on the refusal of the campaign to reach out to the working class in the Mideast and Midwest, and Senator Schumer explicitly promoted the strategy when he said that soccer moms in the suburbs of these states would enable HRC to win.

    Of course, they failed.

    So, now, neoliberals in the Democratic Party have fallen back upon blaming the working class for HRC’s defeat. Redefining the working class as white (which, from out here in California comes across as science fiction), they blame HRC’s defeat upon working class racism as a defense against moving the party to the left. They use this, along with the Russian fantasy, to remain entrenched at the center of power within the party.

    Given this abandonment, there is an opportunity for the left to reach people directly. We will see if leftists can take advantage of it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 22, 2018 @ 5:55 pm

  5. …white working class …:”

    Not sure the phrase necessarily assumes working class=white: it may merely mean the white segment of the working class–or working white people who are neither poor nor rich. Since these would be the beneficiaries of white privilege, it makes sense that some of them would make more money and enjoy higher status than the average worker. A recent article–in Time to be sure (fair disclosure)–put it this way, not that i endorse this, but it does not simply equate WC and white:

    This puzzlement becomes a problem in politics. What delivered the Electoral College for Donald Trump in 2016 was a regional effect: about 80,000 votes in Rust-Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The key group was the now-famous “white working class,” who trended for Trump. Analyses that deny this often assume that “working class” is a euphemism for the poor, and point out that the poor did not deliver Trump the election. This is true, but irrelevant — no one is arguing they did. The “white working class” that trended for Trump is the have-a-littles, not the have-nots: Trump performed best among voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000. [http://time.com/4899906/donald-trump-white-working-class/]

    The “have a littles”–a group that IMHO does exist, whatever their relation to the dynamics of social class–certainly have less than they formerly did:

    According to the BLS, the average hourly wage for non-management private-sector workers last month was $20.67, unchanged from August and 2.3% above the average wage a year earlier. That’s not much, especially when compared with the pre-Great Recession years of 2006 and 2007, when the average hourly wage often increased by around 4% year-over-year. (During the high-inflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s, average wages commonly jumped 8%, 9% or even more year-over-year.)

    But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today. [Pew Research study cited in http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/matt-driscoll/article179570826.html%5D

    Whether the term “working class” applies to statistical income groupings as such is intensely problematic. This is of course one reason why Marxists look at the underlying dynamics of capitalist social relations rather simply than at income and prices for a definition. But the expression of those dynamics changes as perhaps the mass of profit requires ever more extreme maneuvers for its preservation and growth and automation makes inroads on the need for toiling masses tout court. The even more problematic traditional notion of “labor aristocracy” perhaps also needs an update in the light of developments since 1973 and the crash of 2008, especially as this applies to white people and their undeniably privileged status historically in the United States.

    The point is that some workers have always identified their interests with those of their masters, never more so than among American “white people.” It would be extremely surprising if significant numbers such people did not fall into line behind the neoliberal othodoxy put forward behind the flimsy “populist” mask of a Trump or a G.W. Bush, as many did behind Nixon in the heyday of the reactionary “patriotic” labor unions.

    In view of this, indeed, the surprising thing may be how hard it is to put one’s finger on “working class” support for Trump, not that statistics can be squinted at in order to conjure this up. This could be construed as a hopeful sign.

    Nevertheless, given the changing nature of work through automation and the success of the so-called one percent in the U.S. in exporting manufacturing, if not the high consumption on which profit largely depends, it seems clear that the definition of “working class” in the US at present needs a refresh. Until we have more clarity on this, the “white working class,” like Casper the Ghost (if not so friendly), will keep on popping out from behind the furniture to surprise and confound us.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 26, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

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