The left, we might think, has had a bad time of it intellectually over the last 15 years: socialism has collapsed, Marxism has little or no credibility and supposedly left of centre governments across the world have accepted privatisation and the private sector.

But in the academy things are very different. It is very rare indeed to come across a classical liberal or a conservative in a university humanities or social science department (I have to look in a mirror to see one in my public policy department). However, it is also rare these days to come across the old fashioned unreconstructed Marxist who openly argues for class struggle and solidarity (having said that, trips to Cuba, with a stop-off in Venezuela, are still popular).

Left wing ideologies have moved on and the really sophisticated no longer look to Althusser or even Marx but will quote contemporary theorists like Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek. These new thinkers have excised a lot of traditional Marxist ideas from their thought to the extent that they will now refer to themselves as post-Marxists. The major difference in their thinking is a rejection of structural determinism, the idea that there are necessary social relations which cause class conflict and, wait for it, revolution. Thinkers like Laclau and Zizek claim to be anti-essentialist. In other words, they are relativists who argue for contingency instead of determinism, and suggest that there are no necessary truths, only power relations. “Truth” is a fiction created by the powerful to further their own interests.

There are two main sources for post-Marxist thought. The first is the idea of hegemony, developed by Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony is defined as the common sense view of the world that is imposed on a society by the dominant interest. In essence this is a rather more developed form of Marx’s false consciousness. Second, they look to post-structuralist thinkers, like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who argue that social relations are determined by discourse and language. Putting these two ideas together post-Marxists tend to look at the ways in which discourse is used to manipulate social relations and to mask dominant interests.

Post-Marxists have little to contribute to economics, preferring sociology, cultural studies, literature and political science. This is perhaps a legacy of the collapse of traditional Marxism, but it has seriously hampered their ability to contribute to recent debates on the financial crisis. Indeed a common criticism of them is their apparent inability to engage in everyday political and economic debates.

But the idea of discourse is a very slippery one, in that it is virtually impossible to gainsay, because the discourse theorist will merely accuse you of representing the dominant discourse. However, the main weakness of this position is that it is based on nothing but language itself. It is therefore susceptible to its own arguments: a relativist cannot suggest that their argument is true and remain a relativist. As Roger Scruton has said, they are asking you not to believe them, so don’t.

10 thoughts on “A guide to modern lefties”

  1. Posted 04/01/2010 at 11:24 | Permalink

    Language is important, as Hayek, like George Orwell, recognised. ‘Crimethink’ seems not a million miles (or do I mean 1.6 million kilometres?) from ‘political correctness’. And Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ aimed to make thoughtcrime impossible because there would be no words with which to express it.

    I came across this concept in connection with inflation accounting. Both in the UK and the US, governments interfered with accounting rules to prevent accountants using ‘constant purchasing power’ as the unit of account. Why? Because they could not tolerate expression of the truth that both governments were responsible for debasing their domestic currency.

  2. Posted 04/01/2010 at 14:27 | Permalink

    I don’t particularly like this name-calling: “lefties” sounds like the sort of thing you’d have said in a student union. And while there are indeed new pro-state ideas out there, I wouldn’t have thought post-Marxists etc were any danger. They’re people talking to themselves, confined largely to sociology departments in universities. I think the more obvious dangers at the moment are ostensibly more moderate and certainly have more political nous – climate change activists, “Spirit Level” egalitarians, “nudgers” etc etc.

  3. Posted 04/01/2010 at 15:36 | Permalink

    Len, you’re quite right that post-marxists talk to themselves and they are not particularly dangerous, apart from within academic circles where they are reasonably numerous. One of their most dangerous habits, however, is to try to tell others what they should talk about and how they should say it!

  4. Posted 04/01/2010 at 16:11 | Permalink

    I hate to disagree with both Len and Peter, but I think ‘post-Marxist’ thought is exceptionally dangerous. The application of some of these ideas for political ends has stifled free speech (see DRM’s comment) and helped make many debates ‘off-limits’. Even the Conservative Party today uses the language of political correctness and adopts largely egalitarian concepts such as social justice and environmentalism. This may reflect the extent to which the political/cultural agenda has been shaped by ‘leftist’ ideas in recent years. In particular, some of Gramsci’s ideas are thought to have been particularly influential on the New Labour project.

  5. Posted 04/01/2010 at 16:40 | Permalink


    I suppose we need to distinguish between the ‘true believers’ and the rather insidious way in which terms and styles of politics seep into the mainstream. Of course, as someone whose work depends on the peer review of colleagues, saying that post-marxists are ‘only’ dangerous in academic circles was meant to show they they are not completely ineffectual.

  6. Posted 04/01/2010 at 17:41 | Permalink

    We must start looking at left and right from a social Darwinian preservation point of view, in which:

    1) One side keeps the individual survival trait as its most important expression in order to secure the collective survival.

    2) The other side, recognizing its weakness, tries to spread its failures (collectivism, subsidies, etc.), increasing the risk of other individuals and the collective as a whole. It manages to do so, by building a critical mass of weak individuals and corresponding interest groups. We can say that is the ‘one’ thing that lefties are competitive at: amalgamating stupidity and incompetence.

  7. Posted 05/01/2010 at 19:30 | Permalink

    […] what has the Left really added to economic knowledge in recent years  – a point made on the IEA blog? Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)aero-what?BENIN / COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL […]

  8. Posted 07/01/2010 at 15:04 | Permalink

    Don’t know if it’s related to Post-Marxist academia, but I’ve heard the interpretation quite often over the last 1 1/2 years that the crisis ‘proved’ Marx right, in retrospective. And sales of Das Kapital have gone up sharply as well.
    But then again, anyone who had ever mumbled something about ‘Casino-capitalism’ over the last years now claims that they had ‘predicted’ all this.

  9. Posted 07/01/2010 at 17:34 | Permalink

    Kris, interestingly the sales of Ayn Rand’s books have also increased dramatically and there have been a number of new studies about her work.

  10. Posted 28/01/2010 at 21:53 | Permalink

    […] have convoluted theories for why their opponents think the rubbish that they do.  (see the IEA on Leftist […]

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