The Alt Left and the "Cultural Turn" as Dolchstosslegende

The term “alt-left” started out more or less as a joke in the culture wars within the left. Although originally an exonym, there are signs that the term is persisting and has even begun to be tentatively accepted as a badge by some of its targets. Now is a good time, then, to put a brief outline on some of the beliefs and attitudes that lie behind this phenomena.

The term alt-left is a reference to the alt-right. The association was probably first made in reaction to the appropriation of certain alt-right terms like “social justice warrior”, “virtue signalling”, etc by one side in the culture wars and used in the same derogatory way. The parallels do go deeper, starting with an overlap in attitude to “cultural marxism”.


Cultural Marxist Conspiracy


The term “cultural marxism” appeared in a 1973 text “The Critique of Domination: The Origins and Development of Critical Theory” by Trent Schroyer. Schroyer’s essay was a critique of “Critical Theory” anti-Soviet Marxism of the type developed by the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, latterly, Habermas). It was a critique from within an academic and orthodox Marxist perspective. However the term was then appropriated by the American far right as a term for a conspiracy theory whereby the (mainly Jewish) Marxists of the Frankfurt school smuggled cultural developments like feminism, liberalism, anti-war, pacifist, homosexual, etc, etc, basically “commie” ideas into Western culture as part of a Jewish plot to undermine the West. Adopted by far right figures from Pat Buchanan to Anders Breivik, it’s basically a far right snarl word of abuse for any attitude that’s vaguely socially liberal in any way.


The DolchstossLegende

Dolchstoss (Dolchstoẞ) is German for backstab (Legende as you can guess, means legend). In the aftermath of defeat in WW1 and the humiliation of Versailles, right-wing German nationalists refused to come to terms with defeat on the battlefield by inventing a conspiracy theory that they had been “stabbed in the back” by Communists (and Jews) on the home front. It became a centre-piece of Nazi ideology and part of the official history of the Third Reich. It also lead to the denial of the real balance of forces that meant that Germany could not realistically hope to win a world war against the other imperialist powers of the time, and thus the devastation of the Second World War.


Although the DolchstossLegende is the most historically famous and iconic form of this escape from the realities of defeat through resort to a conspiracy of betrayal, it is far from the first or the last example of this common human temptation. Large sections of the US military and political right refused to believe that the defeat of Vietnam was due to the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people, and instead blamed it on being stabbed in the back by liberal, commie and hippie anti-war protestors on the home front.


The Legacy of Defeat and its Denial


The effects of post-Vietnam war globalisation, followed by the neoliberal political revolution of Thatcher and Reagan led to outright confrontation with organised labour in the US and UK. A confrontation that organised labour decisively lost in the 1980s. In the middle of the 1980s, during the UK miners strike, a split occurred in the UK Communist Party between the Stalinist old guard and the more middle class (including the so-called “Cambridge Communist” generation of kids that working class communist families had sent to Cambridge under Moscow’s directive to infiltrate the bastions of class power) Eurocommunist wing, who saw the writing on the wall and were preparing to jump ship from the old, soon-to-be crushed trade unions, to the refuge of the “new social movements” and academia. The two published organs, the Morning Star and Marxism Today represented the two wings respectively.


With the fall of the USSR on the cusp of the 80s and 90s, the political and financial support from Moscow dried up and the Eurocommunist wing disappeared into comfortable academic and journalist niches (or New Labour) and abandoned any Marxist pretences. The red pensioners of the Morning Star and CPB tottered on, nourished on their bitterness, rage at betrayal by the culturally and economically privileged Eurocommunist ex-comrades and their remaining entrenched positions in certain unions. Out of this bitterness arose the myth of the defeats of the 1980s not just coinciding with this “trahison des clercs” (betrayal of the “clerics”/intellectuals) but coming to be seen as the actual cause of the defeats. This is the origins of the old Stalinist myth of the “stab-in-the-back” by the “retreat from class” (see book by Ellen Meiksins Wood of that name) in the “cultural turn” of the Eurocommunists, inspired by the Western Marxism of the Frankfurt School and Gramsci. The whole gamut of this “cultural Marxist conspiracy” of the left eventually became summed up in the snarl word “identity politics” and the belief that identity politics “ruined the left” and led to the defeats of the the 1980s.


This nascent leftist DolchstossLegende of the old Stalinists has been taken up by a new younger generation, the alt-left. While the overt antisemitism of the alt-right version of the cultural marxist conspiracy has been ditched, the suspicion of not just the Frankfurt School, but nearly all post-war Western Marxism (including developments like Althusserianism, operaismo, and so on) has led to an intellectual retreat to an earlier time when Marxism was purer and more untainted by “alien influences”. Consequently we are seeing the rise of young hipster alt-leftist recuperation of 1930s Communist Party ideology, including even the cults of personality around Mao or Stalin, in a kind of hipster Stalinism 2.0 revival.

It’s [materialism] Jim, but not as we know it


The first and most obvious issue with the alt-left dolchstosslegende is its blatant idealism. The defeats of the Air Traffic Controllers strike in the US and the Miners in the UK were not brought about by a bunch of middle class academics changing their fashion choice in ideologies. The defeats were inflicted by state power, by truncheon, tear gas and fist of the bootboys in blue, combined with a logistical revolution in international shipping and logistics that allowed for the stockpiling of 2 years supply of Polish coal by Thatcher, prior to the Miners strike, for e.g. Everywhere the defeats of organised labour in the West was prefaced by the defeats of the Longshoremen and dockers at the hands of containerisation, and the relocation of production to virgin territory made possible by the dropping of the capital controls that had been the foundation of the Keynesian post-war economic and financial order. This was a material defeat and putting it down to the power of misleading or wrong ideas is the worst kind of idealism. And to name this conspiracy theory Marxist, is an insult to one of the great historical beards of progressive materialism.

The proletariat? She’s just not that into you…


The other obvious problem is the idea that the working class are a bunch of helpless losers who depend on middle class Marxist experts for their class power. That is, if a bunch of middle class students give up proper class analysis in favour of “identity politics”, then the workers will be left to wander like lost sheep in the neoliberal wasteland, unprotected from the predations of the bosses by the absence of their awol intellectual shepherds. This, we are told, is what “proper class politics” looks like. What self-centred, self-congratulatory, egotistical toss! It’s no surprise that the leading exponents of the alt left (as opposed to old school Stalinists) are not trade unionists or community organisers but middle class academics. While it is understandable that leftist academics throw up their hands in disgust at the absurd political posturing, poorly disguised as politics, that goes on amongst their recalcitrant students, the idea that what is happening within the walls of academia really has anything to do with the power and political composition of the working class out in the real world, is parochial beyond any reasonable defense.


A poisonous legacy


There are two main issues with the poisonous legacy of the alt-left DolchstossLegende. The most visible is the ongoing culture wars between the alt-left and the rest of the left, in which it often seems that the alt-left find more in common with the alt-right’s hatred of the “SJW” and “woke” boogeyman, than the actual boss class. This results in endless cycles of mostly textual and/or online provocations and baiting of both sides of the culture war. It also leads to denial by the alt-left that there are any actual class warriors outside of their walls (despite the lack of much actual class struggle for either side to either engage with or ignore). All of this is tedious, but actually not that important (apart from the emotional damage inflicted on participants and the general animus of mutual suspicion, bitterness and rage generated).


The bigger problem is the refusal to look at the reality of defeat and analyse it from a materialist point of view, rather than finding a convenient cultural scapegoat to blame it on. This precludes any serious discussion around strategies for class recomposition in the changed circumstances of the 21st century world market capitalism. Strategically the alt-left are reduced mainly to doomed projects of electoral regroupment (Sanders, Corbyn) of the left-over (albeit likeable) dinosaurs of the 1970s old left. This is a strategy for defeat. Ultimately class power will have to be rebuilt around organising and direct action, not electoralism. But of course that means work, not just cultural hate-tennis.




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