Left discourses, antisemitism, racism and gender

1. The discourse on antisemitism and the German-language radical left

The issue of antisemitism has been an important element of debates in the German-language undogmatic left over the last 15 to 20 years. The proposition that antisemitism is not some contingent prejudice, but a “structural” and necessary element of capitalist social relations has become increasingly accepted as true or at least a point of view to be taken seriously. With this ideological shift the issue of an antisemitism of the left has also come to be more accepted in many quarters of the undogmatic left as an issue that needs to be addressed.
This shift, that has occurred since the mid to late eighties, is due to no small part to the continued efforts of “antinational” tendencies who mostly base their political thinking on or are strongly influenced by the Frankfurt School of critical marxism. Over the years, “antinational” and “antigerman” groups in Germany and Austria have differentiated considerably: originally a pretty small scene with a relatively homogeneous ideology, dominated by male intellectuals politically formed in various marxist circles of the sixties and seventies, the scene today comprises a greater diversity of ages and political heritages, there are more women involved in it, although it remains by and large male-dominated in terms of numbers, who’s in charge and styles of comportment, and there are many different ideological subcurrents, some blending antinational critical theory with poststructuralist thought (anathema to “traditionalist” antigermans such as the ISF Freiburg), some aggressively sexist, some (few) relatively open to feminist concerns, some blatantly racist in their discourse on “islam” and “the palestinians” and some (not so many) at least not more so than the average German antiracist.
Of course there are many left circles who remain completely uninfluenced and unimpressed by the arguments presented by antinational leftists (from surviving orthodox marxist-leninist organisations, the sad phenomenon of the current of German left dubbed “anti-imperialists”, some people active in internationalist solidarity work, to some anarchist circles who manage to completely ignore critical theory along with all other kinds of critical marxism).
It has also been said – and I find this an interesting assessment – that antinational intellectuals are “overrepresented” in left media: they have considerable influence in the domain of text production, but this influence does not necessarily translate into real influence on the thinking of the people that participate in radical left demos, events, etc. This fits in with my impression that, as the debates after 11. september have shown, it seems today that the critique of left antisemitism has actually had surprisingly little effect on the thinking of many leftists.

2. Ideological shifts within the undogmatic marxist left

The modest ideological gains made by proponents of critical theory-based approaches over the last 15 to 20 years of left debate have to be seen against the backdrop of the evident bankruptcy of orthodox marxism, particularly in relation to the fall of nominal socialism (the speedy transformation of state bureaucrats of eastern bloc countries into new capitalists in the full glare of international media attention included) and the inability of traditonal left ideologies to account for the intensification of mainstream majority popular racism, nationalism and antisemitism in Germany in the nineties, to name just two factors.
At the risk of overgeneralizing, I would say that as far as the German-language undogmatic marxist debate (pursued in papers and journals such as analyse und kritik, jungle world, argument, prokla, spezial, krisis, karoshi, 17 C, etc) is concerned, at least one important aspect of the ideological shift was away from an understanding of labor and capital as antagonistic principles and towards an understanding as labor as an aspect of capitalist social relations. This of course implied a critique of reifying and personalizing notions of “capital” (in the worst case this could mean “capital” being equated with the owners of the means of production, the bosses, or even just the “parasitical” finance capitalists – in the latter case we have already left the bounds of block-headed leftism and are way out there in “red-brown” territory). Understanding labor not as antipode to but as part of the capitalist “system” means reading Marx in a particular way. As far as I understand, Moishe Postone has been at least one of the theoreticians most explicit in interpreting Marx in such a way that labor is understood not as a transhistorical, ontological principle, but as a historically specific, capitalist institution. (The Krisis circle theoreticians – who have moved closer to Frankfurt School positions over time but can by no means be said to be “Critical Theorists” – have popularized a certain version of this “critique of labor” in the German language area).
Deontologizing and historicizing labor of course throws the whole theory of revolution aspect of marxism into question, and it demolishes the cult of the proletariat so dear to orthodox marxist ideology.
Now, although I heartily agree with the essence of this shift towards a critical, “historical” interpretation of Marx (especially in the version Postone gives in his “Time, Labor and Social Domination”), I would like to make the following point:
I think the move away from a cult of the proletariat and towards an understanding of labor as part of the ensemble of capitalist social relations, not its antipode by any means, can be undertaken in such a way that class domination and exploitation become obscured as an issue and the status of the intellectual (more often than not a white male from a middle or upper class background) is rendered unproblematic. In other words, critical theory can be (ab)used to get rid of one’s traditional leftist bad conscience for being bourgeois, a method for finding a new, unproblematic kind of pride in one’s own intellectuality etc.

3. Parallels between the ideological shifts in marxist and feminist thought

I see some parallels in the shift in marxist thinking away from seeing labor and capital as absolute antagonists, and labor as a positive essence, to some developments in feminist thought, where a view that was prevalent in some circles in the seventies, namely, that feminity is a positive essence suppressed by the ruling sex-class, males, was superseded by a view of femininity as produced by and part of patriarchal social relations.
Although I very much agree with this latter view in general, I hold that, especially in its more poststructurally inflected versions, it can be used to obscure the issue of domination of men over women and to avoid any practical critique of masculine subjectivity.
The reason I mention this is that I see the unselfcritical attitude of many exponents of antinational, critical-theory based thinking about antisemitism and other issues, regarding their class and gender privileges as one of the major obstacles to a development of antinational debates in the direction I would like them to go, namely towards integrating antinational with antiracist and feminist approaches.
I think that a certain version of critical marxism and a certain version of poststructuralist feminism can be used to obscure class and gender relations of domination and help middle class male intellectuals avoid questioning their bourgeois masculine subjectivity. This is why I wish to criticize these ideological defenses.

4. The issue of intellectuality

Although this is never explicitly stated, in my eyes many antinational left intellectuals communicate, implicitly, by their habitus, their self-assertion as bourgois intellectuals and their pride in their bourgeois-masculine intellectual prowess. Sometimes this may be a provocation, or a kind of overreaction to a longstanding tradition of self-denial of middle class left intellectuals, but I am convinced there is a strong element of (re)construction of male bourgeois pride here, that should be taken seriously as a political statement, even if it is not made explicit (on the contrary, my interpretation would surely be vehemently denied by many of these people).
The reason I spend time on this issue of male bourgeois intellectual pride is that I think the issue of intellectuality is a central one that needs to be approached in a complex way.
Intellectuality arouses many passions, passions as divers and contradictory as the social relations we live in:
There is the proletarian resentment about the fact that intellectual labor is socially valued higher than manual labor. This resentment fuels proletarian counterstrategies of disparagement of the privileged classes. These strategies in the class struggle around images are bound up with struggles around gender imagery, specifically with the positing of reason as masculine, emotion as feminine and the contradictory nature of masculinity.
By the contradictory nature of masculinity I mean that masculinity is bound to the body, so to be truly masculine one must be very physical in a specific way; on the other hand, masculinity, not only in the modern west, is associated with reason, therefore to be truly masculine one must be as independent from the needs and constraints of the physical as possible. Obviously, a double bind: it is impossible to be a perfect male, either one is a mere primitive animal, or one is a wimp and an egghead, either way, you lose, and this contradictory dynamic is partly what keeps men on their toes, always competing, always striving. (Poor things, aren’t they? Well, of course not.)
So, there is a pro-intellectual / anti-intellectual dynamic at work in masculinity itself, and there is a kind of proto-feminist anti-intellectualist resentment against certain kinds of “rationality”. The boundary between such resentment, vague at times, and nuanced feminist critiques of androcentric thought, masculine rationality, patriarchal logocentrism, what have you, are of course fluid.
There is also a specific German anti-intellectualism that is related to the German romantic and anti-enlightenment tradition (one way in which this shows, I think, is that feelings towards “intellectuals” in Germany, especially in the lower middle and working classes, are a bit different from those in France, for example).
And, last but not least, anti-intellectuality is an important aspect of antisemitism, the stereotypical image of the Jew being one of a person who is unfit for military service or tilling the soil, has flat feet and is bookish and too intelligent, is wedded to the abstract and part of an ungraspable principle, the Jewish world conspiracy.
So we have an interesting collection of conflicting and contradictory frameworks in which intellectuality – and thus, of course, its antipode, physicality, as well – plays a major part.

5. Racism, antisemitism and left projections

At the time of the second Gulf War, heated debates broke out in the German left. Reading and hearing these debates confirmed my belief that certain themes and theories must fulfil specific projective needs for German leftists.
What I mean is this:
Those who are more into fantasies of ragged, rebellious masses – very physical and emotional, of course – (so different from how one sees oneself, in secret, or actually how one constitutes oneself: as an inhibited, intellectual German, more often than not), will have no problem getting all excited about “a people in struggle” and will magnanimously overlook certain blemishes on the object of desire (like the fact that the movement in question is actually not socialist at all, but authoritarian, misogynist and antisemitic, for example…)
This combines with the tendency, quite well grasped in some antinational analyses of the egregious “antiimperialism” of traditional German leftists, to act out one’s own latent nationalism and antisemitism via “solidarity” with nationalist and antisemitic tendencies elsewhere, for example in the Near East.
Those who wish to identify positively with their own intellectuality, on the other hand – and intellectuality is, especially in the German left, bound up with lots of guilt, guilt about not being concrete and practical enough, a feeling that thinking just for fun and excessively is somehow not ok – will quickly find out how to use Critical Theory for their ends. The analysis of antisemitism it provides, if you just abuse it right, allows you to “unmask” any critique of intellectualism as “voelkisch” antiintellectualism and antisemitic resentment. And the way is free to a new self-confidence as an oh so critical intellectual, to a newfound pride in your mental potency.
Part of this syndrome is the identification with the fantasy of the “intellectual jew”. It is the (supposedly) philosemitic flight out of belonging to a collective of murderers into the identification with a “good object”. Adorno as identificatory object for Germans with self-esteem issues – can anything be more absurd?
Such “philosemites” are not interested in understanding racist and sexist elements of certain constructions of “the jew”, and neither willing nor able to undertake a critique of certain zionist self-constructions of jewishness (for example, the “muscle jew” of early zionist literature, a reaction to – and a way of remaining stuck in – the stereotype of the jew as weak and effeminate; the construction of the jewish people as a western, white, civilized people, and the racist devaluation of oriental jews contained therein, etc).

But mapping the body / mind split onto the racism – antisemitism binary as I do here is too simple, just like Postone’s mapping of romantic and rationalist tendencies in Western thought onto the fetishized abstract and concrete aspects of capitalist social relations (in his essay “National Socialism and Antisemitism”) is too simple.

I don’t have the answers, but realizing that the answers we have are too simple might be a good start for a discussion.

Daniel Mang

One thought on “Left discourses, antisemitism, racism and gender

  1. Pingback: Left discourses, antisemitism, racism and gender | Contested Terrain

Comments are closed.