Read this article to learn about the New Left in Contemporary Marxism: Origin, Features and Theoretical Aspects!
In contemporary Marxism, the New Left occupies a very significant place. In our analysis of Frankfurt School and critical theory it is observed that there was a strong reaction against Stalin’s mode of administration and his attitude towards Marxism-Leninism.
In the thirties and forties of the last century serious efforts were made by a good number of intellectuals haying deep command over Marxism and these efforts related to the unearthing of what Marx and Engels exactly said.
They refused to study and understand Marxism through the Russian interpreters directed by Stalin and his cohorts. The leitmotif was revival of Marxism in its original form or to interpret Marxism in the background of what Marx exactly said.
These thinkers came to be known as the New Left. The members accepted Marxism or Marx’s doctrine, but they wanted to explain Marx’s ideas in a correct and proper perspective. But the above cannot be regarded as the exclusive source or origin of the New Left.
David Held is of opinion that in the second half of the last century some liberal thinkers challenged some of the basic concepts of liberalism, particularly the laissez-faire or free market doctrine and, at the same time, some aspects of neo-liberalism.
It appeared to these thinkers that under neo-liberalism and laissez-faire system the responsibility and freedom of individuals have considerably diminished. This development is unwelcome. At the same time, bureaucratisation proliferated beyond imagination.
Many began to think that shrinkage of the individual’s freedom cannot be accepted. These persons came to be called the New Right.
“The New Right is concerned to advance the cause of liberalism against democracy by limiting the possible uses of state power”.
The New Right thinkers demanded that the policy and the state action should be kept at a minimum level so that the individual gets enough freedom of action and thought. In the opinion of the New Right the policy and action of the state are always imperfect and aim at limiting the freedom of individuals. Hayek in his Road to Serfdom emphasized this aspect of liberalism and the New Right accepted it.
Against the New Right there emerged a new group of thinkers popularly known as the New Left. Held argues the New Left “Emerged primarily as a result of the political upheavals of the 1960s, internal debates on the left and dissatisfaction with the heritage of political theory, liberal and Marxists”.
Another critic is more specific as to the origin of the New Left. It has been observed the “New Left emerged from the disintegration of Soviet hegemony over the international communist movement as shown by the de-Stalinisation process begun at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956”.
A large number of intellectuals of Soviet Russia were so much dissatisfied with the mode of functioning of Stalin and other leaders that they decided to find out the real meaning of Marxian philosophy.
Large number of thinkers began to analyse Marx’s views on social, political and economic issues few of them are CB Macpherson (The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy), Pateman (Participation and Political Theory—1970), Poulantzas (State Power, Socialism, 1980).
The chief purpose of the New Left thinkers was to analyse and interpret Marx’s doctrine in the perspective of new situations and incidents. The central idea of the New Left is “there are fundamental difficulties with orthodox Marxist theory”. Marxism must be freed from this confinement. The action of the state has created only inequalities. This is to be stopped.
Some Features of the New Left:
Kolakowski, the noted Marxist interpreter, at the very beginning makes the following comment:
“The so-called New Left is a complex of phenomena, witnessing on the one hand, to the universalization of Marxist phraseology and, on the other hand disintegration of the doctrine and its inadequacy to modern social problems”.
This short comment of Kolakowski reveals, at least partially, the nature of the New Left. It is not a coherent concept. Different ideas and views of Marx have met together. When Marx’s main doctrine was faced with serious problems and some noted Marxists challenged the basic aspects of Marx, but did not abandon them and even did not show the sign of abandoning, the New Left emerged.
We can say that in the sixties of the last century fissures in the so-called coherency of Marxism appeared and that showed the beginning of the New Left. We can interpret it in another way.
Academic doctrines are never static, with the change of time and material conditions some of the basic aspects of the academic doctrine are faced with questions Marxism is no exception.
It is generally maintained by many renowned scholars that Marxism is not a monolithic theory. It has a good number of aspects and many of these are confronted with questions. This is a vital feature of the New Left.
During the last half century Marxists of different countries have made efforts to apply Marxism in their countries and in this attempt they were forced to change some of the vital aspects of Marxism. For example, Lenin did this and he is pioneer in this field.
Mao of China is again a great leader to apply Marxism but not in its original form. Marxists of Italy, Cuba and several other countries also changed many aspects of Marxism to suit their own countries. All these led to the loss of uniformity of Marxism.
The New Left enjoyed the full freedom of thought and expression which was unimaginable in the Stalin era. The members of the New Left condemned Stalinism and supported de-Stalinisation.
The New Left did not support Moscow’s invasion of Hungary. Even it strongly criticised Moscow’s big-brotherly attitude towards the East European states.
The New Left called it a new type of colonialism. On the other hand, the members of the New Left showed their utmost fidelity towards Marxism. The fact is that the New Left was fully loyal to Marxism but could not tolerate its aberrations. The New Left also denounced the degeneration of the Soviet system in general.
During Stalin’s rule there were a number of aberrations and gross misuse of Marxism. This considerably disheartened the Marxists and they were determined to stop the degradation of Marxism in this way.
A very important aspect of the New Left is that New Leftists were quite eager in the revival of Marxism as a living ideology. They were determined to save Marxism from the vortex of misinterpretation and misuse.
It was observed that Marxism was not exclusively meant for the developed capitalist states but for all states particularly the states of the Third World.
Kolakowski writes, “In the sixties the term New Left was generally used in Europe and North America as a collective label for student ideologies which used the phraseology of worldwide anti- capitalist revolution and looked chiefly to the Third World for models and heroes”.
In other words, the New Left has more relevance for the developing countries of Asia and Africa. The nationalist leaders of these states are quite eager to materialize the national goals through the proper and prudential application of Marxism. This is rather the vital point of the New Left.
Theoretical Aspects of the New Left:
The New Leftists are of opinion that only a revolution can bring about radical change of society. But it is needless to wait for the most opportune moment of revolution. That is, it is not correct to say that the “ripeness” of revolution has not yet arrived and in that situation it is not judicious to call for a revolution.
The New Leftists are against the theory of “ripeness” for revolution: “There is no reason to wait existing states and growing elites must be destroyed by force, without arguing about the political and economic organisation of future the revolution will decide these in its own good time”.
The New Leftists argue that there is nothing like ripeness of revolution. The true revolutionaries must call for a revolution.
If the revolutionaries think that the existing system must be destroyed or changed then they must call for a revolution. Not only this, the revolution must be total; that is, it will be against the whole structure of the society or system.
The members of the Frankfurt School and the theoreticians of the critical theory advocated for a total revolution.
The New Leftists demanded true revolution and not reform, because reforms and revolution do not fall in the same category. So a true revolutionary must oppose reform.
Marx, Engels and their followers relied heavily on the ability of the working class to lead a revolution. But the New Leftists have rejected this. They are of opinion that only revolution is capable of changing a bourgeois society, but this revolution must be led by the students and not workers.
The working class is not a completely deprived class; on the other hand, the students are really oppressed. Again, the student community is resolute in its aim and decision. The students are not easily purchasable.
Marx, Engels, Lenin and many others emphasized the importance of revolution in the field of radical change of society but they have been found to be silent on the nature of revolution and in this regard the members of the New Left are quite outspoken.
The revolution in all senses must be total and all-embracing. The revolution conceived by the New Leftists is of a different nature.
It is not aimed at the bourgeois class; it is “directed against fraudulent academic institutions”.
The revolution of the New Left aims at cleansing the academic institutions of all categories. This revolution must remove corrupt and inefficient teachers and unworthy education system.
Another aspect of revolution of the New Left is that the revolution must check over-population, pollution of environment, and misuse of scarce natural resources. The objective of revolution must be to remove backwardness, poverty, and check all sorts of tension particularly political and military. This revolution must save society from all types of insecurity, parochialism, and narrowness. It shall be the objective of revolution to free mankind from hunger and fear.
The central idea of the New Left revolution is the people of the Third World are in the midst of all types of crises and, naturally, the revolution must be total so that a new society can be built up on the ashes of the old society. The members of the New Left believe that students are the victims of maximum frustration, oppression, deprivation.
They are alienated from the mainstream of society. They do not calculate loss and profit, they do not hesitate. Naturally, only the students can provide bold and necessary leadership in any form of total and violent revolution. In the fifties and sixties of the last century many capitals and academic institutions were in the grip of revolution’ led by students.
Pateman and Poulantzas are two pioneers of the New Left movement. Pateman’s book: Participation and Democratic Theory (1970) and Poulantzas’s book: State, Power, Socialism (1980) throw ample light on the various aspects of capitalist society.
They have thoroughly investigated the nature and functioning of capitalist society and have arrived at the conclusion that the bourgeois concept of liberty is ill-conceived and highly limited because this does not treat liberty in proper perspective.
In the opinion of the bourgeois liberty and equality before law is enough. If this condition is fully satisfied people will enjoy liberty. But both Pateman and Poulantzas argue that “to enjoy liberty means not only to enjoy equality before law, but also to have the capacities to be able to choose between different courses of action”.
According to Pateman and Poulantzas the bourgeois theoreticians have imagined about liberty, freedom etc. in their own way. But, in practice, such type of conception is not found in practical society.
These two pioneers of the New Left have further announced that in theory and ideology many types of liberty and right are found but in practice there is no existence of these rights and freedom.
In other words, paper announcement of rights is not enough, people must have free access to all these rights and freedoms. But for this a new type of society is required and only a revolution can ensure such a situation.
The doors of Justice and the doors of a Five Star Hotel are open to all. But how many people have the capacity to go to the house of Justice and the hotel? Only a new society, radically reconstructed, can ensure the liberty, rights and justice.
Marx and Engels strongly advocated for the seizure of political power for the emancipation of the common people from capitalist exploitation. The New Left, Poulantzas and Pateman have lent their unqualified support to this concept. But they differ in certain vital aspects.
They are of opinion that mere seizure of power can never be treated as Aladdin’s lamp capable of solving each and every problem. Rosa Luxemburg once said democratic and parliamentary procedures can effectively be used for the realisation of certain basic demands of the workers and Engels in his Preface to Class Struggle in France supported this. Luxemburg once said: without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution.
Poulantzas is of opinion that there are innumerable inequalities in societies and if these are not removed for ever there cannot be free development of all men.
Supporting Poulantzas’s view David Held says:
“Inequalities of class, sex and race substantially hinder the extent to which it can legitimately be claimed that individuals are free and equal”.
“Poulantzas emphasizes two sets of changes which he believes are vital for the transformation of state in West and East into forms of what he calls “socialist pluralism”.
The state must be democratised by making parliament, state bureaucracies and political parties more open and accountable while new forms of struggle at the local level must ensure that the society as well as the state, is democratised, that is, subject to procedures which ensure accountability”. This is the central idea of the political thought of the New Left.
The members of the New Left do not subscribe to the popular view that with the advent of communism the state will wither away. That is absolutely a Utopian thought.
In the past there were states, today there are states, and, in future, there will exist states. But the New Left wants to emphasise that the state shall be democratised, socialised and pluralism shall be the foundation of every state.
In other words, the state conceived by the New Left is pluralist, socialist and democratic. Only in such a state inequality cannot thrive in any form. The state can be a vehicle to achieve certain coveted goals and these goals are related to economic, social, political, cultural etc.
If the state is not democratised these goals will remain a far cry. Both Lenin and Stalin adopted an erroneous way of building up a socialist society. They ignored the democratic feeling of the common people.
They thought that the party was all in all and the supremacy of the party could help people in attaining their goals. But ultimately it proved wrong. It is painful that Lenin failed to estimate the importance of representative institutions, and their contributions to the development of thought and ideas of the common people.
Lenin absolutely neglected the importance of multiplicity of power centres in a society. The New Left firmly believes that through the multiplicity of power centres people can develop their multiplicity of thought and, in this way, the society can be democratised.
By ignoring the democratisation both Lenin and Stalin committed a Himalayan blunder. The New Left, it can be said, made some modest attempts to rectify the mistakes of Lenin and Stalin. But the problem is the vision of the New Left is yet to be achieved. The vision is faced with a big question mark.