Barbarian Left

Photo by Pete Birkinshaw | CC BY 2.0


Socialism or barbarism.

That’s the famous phrase attributed to both Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg. This is what Red Rosa wrote, crediting Engels: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”

It was, however, through my newbie-graduate-student hero worship of Jean-François Lyotard that I first encountered the cogent, poetic call to leftist revolution.

Yeah, that Lyotard. The one credited with—more likely cursed for—tattooing “postmodern” inside our collective cranium. A couple of decades before he coined that term, the philosopher was a member of a radical Marxist group and its eponymous publication, Socialism or Barbarism.

I became acquainted with his work while taking a nighttime Postmodern Theory seminar at a state university in Alabama’s Magic City. I was a working-class poet trying to go legit by becoming a middle-class pedant. I wasn’t a rarity in the 1980s and 90s; for evidence, just take a gander at the middle-aged legion of burnt out high school English teachers and adjunct humanities instructors who can’t pay back their student loans or afford their antidepressants.

Of all the theorists covered in that course, there was something about Lyotard that resonated.

It’s really no surprise that Lyotard would attract an artsy-fartsy, hyperactive mind like mine. Of the philosophers France produced in the wake of such giants as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he was one of the more poetic and mercurial. It also strikes me as more than coincidental that someone who’d joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) at the age of eighteen would, a few years later in grad school, find a kindred spirit in a postmodern rock star philosopher who had started out as a bona fide radical leftist.

Like a freshly converted acolyte, I read everything he wrote on master-narratives, language games, pagan ethics, libidinal economies, the postmodern sublime, and the différend. Ate. It. Up.

After a while, I stumbled on Lyotard’s explicitly political writings. I witnessed something in those that saddened and repelled me in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on back then, but have since. Through all the cool terminology and clever rhetoric, I saw a man grief-stricken because the left hadn’t added up to his youthful expectations, expectations rooted in more orthodox early-20th-century interpretations of Karl Marx’s work. I saw a Socialism or Barbarism guy who oedipally and indelibly parted ways with Marx. I realized that, after the divorce, he spent the rest of his brilliance chasing down the sublime je ne sais quoi, shooing off totalizing narratives, and pumping out inconsistent, ephemeral critiques of the insidious, hydra-like totalitarianism of late capitalism.

I, more or less, parted ways with Lyotard.

Not in the “kill the father” way he had with Marx. Not because I was some dyed in the wool Marxist, which I wasn’t. Not because I thought everything he’d written was moot. To this day, I maintain that Lyotard’s work in ethics and aesthetics is underrated, that his artistic approach to philosophical problems and his insights into “the crisis of knowledge” aren’t valued enough. And I find good things in Lyotard’s ex-Marxist, postmodern politics, which is an ethical politics centered on bearing witness to and demanding justice for the colonized, the displaced, the silenced, the “impious,” and the “pagan.” In fact, I find that some of his later political theories and those of, say, Luxemburg or Pyotr Kropotkin are compatible.

I parted ways because his postmodern critiques of capitalism tended toward abstractions and sophisticated musings, which danced in the air above material reality and political struggle.

I parted ways because, along with his New Left contemporaries, he joined a trend that would become a commonplace among 20th- and 21st-century leftist intellectuals: If you couldn’t beat the empire, then be absorbed by it and yap incessantly about challenging and reforming it from within, all the while drawing a hefty salary from a comfy university and maybe pulling in good cash from sweet speaking gigs.

By moving away from radical engagement with the empire of late capital, leftists like Lyotard have practically condemned the left to obsolescence. They’ve thus given liberals a huge pass and the right a huge gift. Even while parroting terminology memorized from courses in critical theory and cultural studies, liberals can and do abandon all but the most superficial concern for anyone who doesn’t have a degree from a top-tier school, a marketable persona, an entrepreneurial spirit, or an investment portfolio—whether that anyone is black, brown, white, gay, straight, transgender, female, or male. And the right-wingers grin.

By abandoning the revolutionary left—anarchist, antifascist, antiracist, antiwar, autonomist, ecosocialist, Marxist, or other—the opportunistic and disgruntled leftists of the last few decades have played a significant role in suffocating viable leftist opposition against the empire of late capital. Regardless of their intentions, they’ve enabled the almost complete subjugation of those the empire deems to be barbaric, which would be 90-plus percent of the human species.

Barbaric Yawp

About 60 white nationalists, skinheads, and walking bed linens took to the streets of a Southern city under a low pewter sky on a summer day. Protected by white and black cops and a nine-foot-high chain-link fence, the demonstrators marched defiantly to a 52-foot-high obelisk in a public park across from a public building named after a mayor who held office when black citizens were attacked by the city’s police dogs and fire hoses. The counter-demonstrators—a few heroes of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, scores of black locals, a smattering of black, brown, and white leftists—mocked the spectacle in large part for its irony: in 1990s Birmingham, Alabama, a bunch of white guys with a police escort were gathering in what was formerly named Woodrow Wilson Park around a conspicuous Confederate monument where they would claim Alabama as a “designated white homeland,” across from Boutwell Auditorium, under the shadows of businesses which owed much of their spoils to an economy that had recently been based on the racist exploitation of black people. The obvious question on counter-demonstrators’ lips: “Alabama, and America for that matter, stopped being a white homeland when exactly?”

A lanky, long-haired nineteen-year-old who was maybe 160 pounds when wet, I was prepared to take a pounding from some white-powered fists. I didn’t have to take one, and the kind of terror that recently charged through Charlottesville, Virginia, didn’t come to pass that day. Yet what those fascists represented and the possibilities they foretold were no less harrowing.

It’s tempting to call those right-wingers barbarians. They’re not. They’re enforcers of the dominant regime. They’re the types that rulers throughout history have dispatched to terrorize and subdue barbarians.

I get it: bad people and their bad actions need a noun, adjective, or -ism attached to them. The connotations of “barbarian,” “barbaric,” and “barbarism” we’ve inherited from the Ancient Roman and Holy Roman Empires seem like a natural fit for those fascists who stormed the streets of Birmingham and Charlottesville.

But taking a closer look at “barbarian” invites a serious review of its application.

Early on, “barbarian” indicated someone was just an outsider or foreigner; then, a bit later, it came to connote a peasant or commoner or, more negatively, a country bumpkin. So, a barbarian was someone not connected to or taken seriously by a given society’s ruling order.

Over time, though, political and economic elites began to realize the barbarian nobodies were actually somebodies who could, in fact, pose a threat to their dominions. Just ask the Romans about the Celts and Parthians who didn’t give unto Caesar what Caesar wanted.

On that note, the diverse peoples who gave the Roman Empire hell weren’t quite what the Romans and their descendants have made them out to be. In a popular book and film series, Monty Pythoner and medieval historian Terry Jones humorously corrects the record about the European and Middle Eastern barbarians, pointing a finger back at the chauvinism and hypocrisy of the invading Romans who were pretty damn barbaric to the barbarians. Some American historians have done the same for the “savage,” “heathen” (read “barbaric”) Native Americans and African slaves terrorized and slaughtered by America’s Young Goodmen and Manifest Destinarians.

Barbarians, then, aren’t necessarily the bad guys when the power dynamics of particular situations are considered.

So, what’s to be done with “Socialism or Barbarism,” a slogan whose spirit I embrace?

Beyond etymological curiosity, it contains a logical problem when we take into account the fact that today’s ruling civilization—the empire of late capital—is the most destructive and expansive force in human history. It’s a rapacious force stealing from, tormenting, and conquering most people and all the natural world. On top of that, the beneficiaries of this empire aren’t the ones in whom socialism will take root; today’s “barbarians” are.

Here’s a possible replacement, then: “Barbarian Left or Extinction.”

In our time, the barbarians are the ones from whom the possibility of an up-to-date, situation-specific left will emerge to counter the full-spectrum right (neo-liberal to fascist) which expands and defends the empire.

In America, the barbarian left is more than a cadre of declared leftists. It draws from many of the working folks, poor folks, and young folks of all colors, genders, and sexualities who’re disgusted by a rigged political system that insists on being called egalitarian and democratic. It’s composed of people sick from the economic pie-crust promises that their supposed betters have been feeding them for decades. It includes those who’ve figured out that appeals to vague hope and crude nationalism are guarantees of growing impoverishment and increased alienation.

Some within the barbarian left may read Alain Badiou or Mikhail Bakunin or Noam Chomsky or Gene Debs or Frantz Fanon or Emma Goldman or Martin Luther King or Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Marx or Antonio Negri or Malcolm X. But they don’t have to in order to reach the same conclusions reached by those leftist visionaries. The barbarians have their experiences and the experiences of those around them to inform them that they’ve been railroaded into giving away their labor, their time, their communities, their health, their freedom—and that they’re expected to cherish the privilege of doing so.

What will undoubtedly disappoint quite a few orthodox and genteel leftists about the emergence of a barbarian left is that it won’t be predictable or polite; it won’t abide by meticulously crafted theories or protocols.

For those very reasons, a barbarian left might succeed where the civilized left—composed of both dogmatists and opportunists—has failed.

The barbarian left has endured the civilized left long enough.

The compromises of opportunist German Social Democrats in the early 1900s played no small part in what led to Red Rosa’s execution and the rise of the Third Reich. The complacent social-democratic Spanish Republicans of the 1930s repeatedly shot themselves in the foot and hamstrung other leftists, thus practically handing Spain to Francisco Franco’s fascists for a big chunk of the remaining century. More than a few so-called American leftists and liberals played key roles in the “Red cleansing” waged inside and outside the US during and after the Cold War.

More recently, many leftists in the Western and Northern Hemispheres have at best remained silent while the US-headed empire of late capital has undermined, terrorized, or disappeared leftists in Cuba, El Salvador, Greece, Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, Vietnam, and on and on.

Today in the US, there are aptly named roadkill leftists who delude themselves into believing they can both police the left and reform the hopelessly pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist, pro-bomb-the-brown-people Democratic Party. And there’s even a handful of leftish types who think collaborating with fascists is a nifty idea. Good grief.

Again, the barbarian left has endured the civilized left long enough.

And the empire’s gates aren’t going to hold forever.

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