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The postmodern left: part two

By Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler - posted Thursday, 29 March 2007

Today’s Labor is haunted by the spectre of Marx, which it thinks to exorcise by redefining the left as a politics for all seasons, disinherited from the ideas of Marx and Engels, from the idea and the ideal of democracy to come and from a social-revolutionary history on the side of liberty, equality and fraternity.

In its abject compliance with a politics of never-ending policy polling and ceaseless popularity ratings, today’s ALP continues to allow conservatism to turn the democratic values and traditions of the labour movement into an electoral liability for Labor, under the threat of a single charge - “Marxist!

Nothing causes the postmodern left to recoil in such horror as to be reminded that the left has got something inexorably to do with Marx, whose name conservatives have perversely succeeded in making synonymous with the sort of violent, undemocratic power exemplified by Stalinism … and the pigs in Animal Farm.


With “Marx” having been made so unpopular, present-day Labor pins its electoral hopes on other candidates (both real, as it were, and discursive). Yet in its make-over as the party for all seasons, while it remembered to banish Marx it forgot to ban Brian Burke.

This may be far from Labor’s first act of forgetfulness (the retreat from Marx stretches back, indeed, to the beginning), but by now the memory loss is almost total. In its simulated politics of conversation and consensus - never to be confused with a politics of conflict and contempt - today’s ALP plays the game of posing as an alternative to conservatism through the cynical appointment of voter-friendly celebrity candidates dressed up as just the sort of compromised “lefties” an electorate might be persuaded to buy.

So, with Marx gone, what sources of revolutionary tradition, what well-spring of democratic values, what heir to the Enlightenment project of critical thought and freedom should the left turn to for political guidance in Australia today? Playing “snap” with the conservatives, Clive Hamilton - Executive Director of the reputedly left-leaning Australia Institute in Canberra - proposes an answer to this question in a recent essay for Eureka Street (December 26, 2006):

... despite the suspicion of many progressives, the churches could be the answer. […] The churches remain the repository of the deeper understanding of life that once motivated some elements of the Left. There has always been a tradition in the Left to focus on alienation, the sense of the loss of self. And we can use this idea to understand the way in which modern consumer society deprives people of the opportunity to pursue a more truthful, a more authentic life.

There are many people in the churches who still cleave to that stream of progressive thought. Although I have no connection with it, it seems to me that this is particularly true in the Catholic Church.

What the Left desperately needs is a new approach to morality. The error of post-modernism, which grew out of the broad academic Left and now dominates Western society, is that it has no metaphysical foundation for a moral critique. Without a metaphysics that is common to humanity, any moral stance must be relative and therefore be contestable and lacking in conviction. (Hamilton, “Churches”)


Let’s be perfectly clear about the political path Hamilton seeks to take us back down in this passage, in the name of the left: at the end of it lies the church as the ultimate authority on the meaning of life. This points him against not only everything in Marx and the entire left history of the labour movement (a movement inspired by the idea and the ideal of democracy to come, despite its history of failures and betrayals), but also the politics and philosophy of the Enlightenment.

The superstitious idea that we should all put our faith in religious decrees is profoundly anti-modern and therefore undemocratic, having nothing whatsoever to do with the left.

Marx’s views on the church are well known and we don’t need to repeat them here. But before Marx, writing in 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted that knowledge and understanding, as opposed to superstition, must be sought “without guidance from another”.

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About the Authors

Niall Lucy is a professor in the humanities at Curtin University. He hosts weekly music/culture show The Comfort Zone on 720 ABC Perth, Wednesdays @ 1.30pm. His latest book is Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Downunder (Fremantle Press). He co-edited Vagabond Holes: David McComb and The Triffids.

Steve Mickler is Head of Media and Information at Curtin University. His latest book, with Niall Lucy, is The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press (UWA Press, 2006).

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Niall Lucy
All articles by Steve Mickler
Related Links
A travesty of logic - On Line Opinion
Postmodern left: part one - On Line Opinion
Right wing columnists - anti-democratic? - On Line Opinion

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