From the September-October 2021 issue of News & Letters
V. Ideology vs. Reason
In the face of revolt such as has fermented throughout the world since the 2008 economic crisis, at times underground and at times openly, ideology is a crucial weapon of the system.
Ideology—false consciousness, as Karl Marx explained it—is always operative in class societies. The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. In “normal” times, these ideas operate under cover in plain sight through their seeming naturalness, as he revealed in the section on “The Fetishism of the Commodity” in Capital.
The commodity appears as if it has a life of its own, driven by the need for value and more value—so that it appears normal that tons of food are plowed under during a pandemic while millions are going hungry. In a dialectical inversion, the objects—money and commodities, including machines in the workplace—appear as the subject dominating the actual subject, the living human being who does the work. These alienated social relations appear so natural that, as is often said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
In a moment like today, the status quo’s seeming naturalness becomes discredited in many minds. Especially among the youth, there is a growing rejection of capitalism and reach for socialism—which is why we published our new booklet What Is Socialism? At such times ideology jumps into the spotlight, propagating the most absurd delusions, demanding obeisance to them, and calling for harsh repression against opposing ideas, not shrinking from calling for the death of their proponents. All of this can be seen today.
There is nothing new about propaganda and manipulation per se. They are rampant in internet-enabled capitalism, so much so that lies in advertising, public relations and politics are considered normal.
But mass delusion has reached such a fever pitch that many of its spokespeople, from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on down, have flaunted their spurning of safety measures, even at the risk of their own lives. Bolsonaro, like Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, had the kind of healthcare after getting COVID-19 that most people could not afford, including many of their followers, some of whom experienced hospital-bed conversions and started advocating vaccination.
Social media algorithms, which are designed to mimic addiction, favor “engagement,” which puts a premium on stoking fear and anger and downgrades Reason, let alone “the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative” that is needed to overcome oppression and fight reactionary movements. And yet social media have become the primary source of news for a growing number of people. That “news” is selected algorithmically but slanted by human intervention behind the scenes. Facebook, for example, allows false posts from oil companies and their shills about climate change, since they are labeled “opinion,” but has frequently banned fact-checking of those posts by climate scientists. The right wing plays victim when some of the most outrageous white supremacist groups are banned, but in fact left-wing sites such as Gabriel Levy’s People and Nature blog are unaccountably blocked with no explanation.
Propaganda and ideology are not the same, but they are working together in a particularly lethal way because of capitalism’s crisis. Ideology cannot be reduced to the play of material interests alone, but its worldview must be fought without separating it from its material underpinnings. As Marx pointed out, these kinds of false conceptions are rooted in “a state of affairs which needs illusions” and the point is not simply to expose the illusions “so that humanity shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain” but to simultaneously revolutionize the oppressive state of affairs and “shake off the chain.”
ATTITUDES TO REASON AND THOUGHT
There is no simple solution to the ideological onslaught and the mass delusion that opens the door to fascism. Plenty of leftists have realized that there are times that call for fighting and not just debates—particularly when dealing with reactionary mass movements—just as strikes are not won by reasoning with the boss. Still, fighting alone cannot solve the problem.
What is needed is to shake off the chain, and that requires masses in motion and a unifying philosophy that does not stop with the first negation of fighting what we are against but keeps bringing out the negation of the negation, so that the positive in the negative can become the foundation of a new human society, with totally new human relations.
The battle of ideas is therefore crucial. Far-Right ideas are extremely dangerous but are not the only ones that need to be opposed. The liberal wing of the ruling class like the Biden administration and the leaders of the Democratic Party speak out and criticize the far Right, but at the same time they twist and turn to avoid recognizing how those politics flow from capitalism in crisis. Their opposition to Trumpism is a defense of the status quo and a wish to “return to normal,” as if normal isn’t what got us into this mess. The key point is not that Biden and his ilk are always searching for a compromise with the Republicans, even as the latter nakedly grasp for one-party rule. For the Democratic Party it is imperative to limit the horizon of thought to the perpetuation of “normal” capitalism.
Joe Biden’s July 13 speech in Philadelphia railed against the raft of laws Republicans have passed subverting elections:
“There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today—an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are as Americans…. threatening the very foundation of our country.”
He called it “the 21st century Jim Crow assault,” and even connected it to the Jan. 6 coup attempt: “In 2020, democracy was put to a test—first by the pandemic; then by a desperate attempt to deny the reality and the results of the election; and then by a violent and deadly insurrection on the Capitol, the citadel of our democracy.”
So what did he tout as a response? The two voting rights bills passed by the House of Representatives, although they are dead in the water in the Senate because of the filibuster. Biden, along with key Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, wants to keep the filibuster because it is favored by corporate titans to prevent mildly social-democratic reforms from passing. Historically it was favored by defenders of white supremacy, including Jim Crow laws, and today the filibuster is championed behind the scenes, particularly by billionaires and by oil companies desperate to stave off serious climate change mitigation.
Democratic liberals like Biden are more opposed to Jim Crow and corporate domination in rhetoric than reality. Because of this anti-revolutionary standpoint, they seek compromise and indulge in illusions that pointing out the facts of climate change, for example, can defeat climate denial, or exposing Trump’s lies about the election and what really happened on Jan. 6 will convince his followers. Facts and science are important, but you cannot simply reason away lies and delusions.
CONTRADICTIONS OF ENLIGHTENMENT
As far removed as it is in history, liberals and the social-democratic Left are repeating contradictions of an earlier incarnation of bourgeois ideology, that of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. As Europe’s feudal order was decaying and the capitalist class was consolidating, the Enlightenment arose to champion knowledge—philosophy and science—against oppressive traditional hierarchy and the dogmas that supported it. The progress of knowledge and education would enable social progress.
This genuine reach for emancipation, however, was refracted into ideology since it was tied to the advance of capitalism and colonialism. Its universals disguised the universalization of the particular interests of an aspiring ruling class. As Marx put it, “Only in the name of the general rights of society can a particular class vindicate for itself general domination.” Thus the liberation of the bourgeoisie “appears as general self-liberation.”
That is the ground from which all the contradictions of the Enlightenment grew—including its sexism, racism, and participation by some of its most prominent proponents like John Locke in colonialism and slavery. That same ground remains the basis of liberal thought in a very different context today, though with modernized ideas and more woke language, and it is unwittingly assimilated by non-revolutionary “socialists” (and some who do advocate revolution).
It is not that Enlightenment philosophy is truly alive today. It is that its ground of progress defined by accumulation of knowledge circumscribed by capitalist alienation has been absorbed by the administrative mentality characteristic of state-capitalism. One of its characteristic 21st-century examples is Silicon Valley’s many-voiced paean to “connecting” people through technology and making life better by accumulating mountains of information, while glossing over who controls the technology and information, how, and to what end.
Yet another facet is the mania of part of the Left for making plans for the masses, whether to reform capitalism or replace it. One shape that takes is the belief that the masses will not move until they are shown the proof of a viable alternative to capitalism, with a scheme for equalizing payments per hour of labor.
The critique of Enlightenment is germane not only because it is not the absolute opposite of counter-revolution and therefore not the solution, but because its contemporary descendent is seen in the liberal wing of the ruling class, especially in the anti-revolutionary quest for a return to normal. That too must be battled in ideas and movements.
The ground of that battle is crucial. Universal emancipation, revolution, must not be thrown out just because the universals of the Enlightenment’s emancipatory project were confined within the revolutions of the bourgeoisie. One line of misdirected critique can be traced to the ground of the counter-revolutions of the era of the Depression and World War II. Those included the counter-revolutions from within revolutions, as in Russia 1917 and Spain 1936, which called forth—for some revolutionaries—new questions and a new plunge into Marx’s Humanism and its roots in Hegel’s dialectic.
At the same time, however, the new stage of state-capitalism overwhelmed Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, two theorists of the Frankfurt School, and they took the ground of defeats of revolution in their critique of Enlightenment. “Enlightenment is totalitarian,” they caustically declared in Dialectic of Enlightenment, disparaging universals, totality and absolutes. They attacked Hegel’s dialectic of negation:
“However, by finally postulating the known result of the whole process of negation, totality in the system and in history, as the absolute, he violated the prohibition and himself succumbed to mythology.”
In the wake of the defeats of near-revolution in the 1960s, postmodernism recapitulated the rejection of universals, undermining the theoretical ground for revolution and total social transformation.
Hegel, on the other hand, recognized the contradictory nature of the Enlightenment’s achievement of using science to dismantle superstitions that upheld the old social order, and yet still building its culture on the foundations of an alienated social reality. The very nature of the Enlightenment cuts through old thought but presents a barrier to thought’s further self-liberation. The same is true of scientific institutions and the liberal press today, and the way science and facts are used to counter the mass delusions fostered by Trumpism.
Even some in the climate movement advocate above all, “Listen to the science.” As crucial as that is, it is not adequate to solving the social crises that undermine and misdirect scientific and technological solutions, and channel both mitigation and adaptation efforts into directions geared to perpetuating capitalist relations. As Dunayevskaya pointed out (quoting Hegel in her letter to Erich Fromm relating Marx’s critique of fetishism to Hegel’s critique of Enlightenment, Feb.-March 2008 N&L, p. 4):
“Despite its great fight against superstition, despite its great achievement—‘Enlightenment upsets the household arrangements, which spirit carries out in the house of faith, by bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of the Here and Now…’—it remains ‘an alienated type of mind’:
“‘Enlightenment itself, however, which reminds belief of the opposite of its various separate moments, is just as little enlightened regarding its own nature. It takes up a purely negative attitude to belief….’
“In a word, because no new universal—Marx too speaks that only true negativity can produce the ‘quest for universal’ and hence a new society—was born to counterpose to superstition or the unhappy consciousness, we remain within the narrow confines of ‘the discipline of culture’—and this even when Enlightenment has found its truth in Materialism, or Agnosticism, or Utilitarianism. For unless it has found it in freedom, there is no movement forward either of humanity or ‘the spirit.’”
The delusions and propaganda that recall the spirit of fascism cannot be defeated simply by countering them with facts implicitly grounded in a different type of capitalist ideology. The new universal required must be grounded in the movements from below, their actions and ideas, their reach for a totally new future, and the philosophy of liberation that roots itself in those movements both of today and historically. (See “Lies, Facts and Ground,” May-June 2017 N&L.) What is needed is to begin, not from the particular facts, but from the Absolute of the projected new society. Anything less ends in capitulation. Our world on the precipice of interacting disasters cannot afford to get mired in more compromise and capitulation.
THE ABSOLUTE OPPOSITE OF UNREASON
What is crucial in defeating fascist unreason is the Reason of masses in motion for freedom, as manifested both in movements from practice and in the historic continuity of freedom struggles, which are concentrated as Ideas in theories and philosophies of liberation. In other words, the absolute opposite to this unreason is the philosophy of revolution in permanence, grounded in and always returning to and interrelating and exchanging with movements from practice.
As Dunayevskaya remarks in her Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, the incompleteness of Enlightenment’s attempt to battle alienation set the stage for retrogression. “To go forward,” she says, “Substance had to become Subject. This is where Hegel comes in. The last three pages of the Phenomenology are an outpouring of ‘simple mediating activity in thinking’ where the whole process releases itself, History and Science, Nature and Spirit are ‘born anew from the womb of knowledge—the new state of existence, a new world and a new embodiment of spirit.’
“This new world, which Hegel calls Absolute Knowledge, is the unity of the real world and the notions about it, the organization of thought and activity, which merge into the new, the whole truth of the past and the present, which anticipates the future.”
It is this grounding in freedom, this quest for universality, the transformation of Substance into Subject and the releasing of the new world latent in the old one that we aim to help come to pass by projecting the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism as we participate in social movements and battles of ideas.