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Voices of the Collective: Left Conservatism

A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the specter of Left Conservatism....

Issue #36, February 1998

On the "Bad List," the electronic discussion list to which Bad Subjects gives a home, questions of language are the subject of frequent debate. Because both academics and non-academics participate in these conversations, the relative accessibility of scholarly prose is a particularly hot topic. This was amply demonstrated in a recent thread prompted by a conference on "left conservatism." Longtime list member Doug Henwood started things rolling by commenting on the following flyer, distributed to publicize the conference:

UPCOMING MINI-CONFERENCE: Left Conservatism: A Workshop
Saturday, January 31 College 8, Room 240 1:00-5:30 PM
Jonathan Arac, Paul Bové, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler,
Joseph Buttigieg
A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the specter of Left
Conservatism. Within academia and without, in events such as the
Sokal affair, in the anti-theory polemics in The Nation and the
Socialist Review, in work by authors such as Katha Pollit, Alan
Sokal, and Barbara Ehrenreich, there is evidence of a phenomenon
that might properly be labeled Left Conservativism: that is, an
attack by "real" leftists on those portrayed as theory-mongering,
hyper-professional, obscurantist pseudo-leftists. Left
Conservatism's hostility to the anti-foundationalist theoretical
work of the 1980s and 1990s shares features with left opposition
to the radical anti-rationalist politics of the 1960s. The
current polemics bring to the fore long unresolved questions
about how the left conceives the nature and stakes of critical
work, over the past fifty years and into the future.
There seems to be at present an attempt at consensus-building among
Left Conservatives that is founded on notions of the real, and of
the appropriate language with which to analyze it. We can see, in
the work of some of the writers listed above and in other work,
claims for a certain kind of empiricism, for common sense, for
linguistic transparency. Post-structuralist thought, often lumped
together in all its varieties, is in the Left Conservative view
guilty not only of its own intellectual failings, but of taking a
wrong turn for left analysis in general. Left Conservativism
challenges post-structuralists' left credentials on a variety of
fronts, but a recurrent position is the claim for the
incompatibility between anti-foundationalism and a political
agenda predicated on real claims for social justice. If
everything-class, race, gender, poverty, alienation- is
"constructed," what is the real basis for political activism?
This attack on anti-foundationalism and what is perceived as a
disabling relativism, however, often brings Left Conservativism
toward an uneasy convergence with anti-relativists on the right.
What does it mean, then, when Barbara Ehrenreich and Roger
Kimball (author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted
Higher Education) make similar critiques? What does it mean when
Alan Sokal, an avowed leftist, finds inspiration in Paul Gross
and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition : The Academic Left And
Its Quarrels With Science, an openly anti-left polemic?
A discussion of the stakes in this division is important and
timely. U.S. university humanities departments are among the few
locations in this country where critical analysis of society,
culture, thought, and ideology takes place, and the attacks on
critical theory are not without effect. Identifying Left
Conservatism, and discussing its historical, political,
ideological, and theoretical character, is the focus of this
one-day workshop at UC Santa Cruz.
The workshop is structured to encourage discussion and debate.
There will be considerable time for discussion following the
participants' presentations.

After noting that the conference seemed particularly one-sided, Doug concluded his initial post by asking "Why doesn't somebody have a conference and see if Butler and Pollitt would talk to each other?" This led Ariel Reinheimer to compose the following response, which he later concluded may have been a little too one-sided in the opposite direction:

Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 00:34:16 -0500
From: Ariel Reinheimer <>
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Re:Left Conservatism
[Excerpts from Doug's initial post have been excised]
So, postmodernists are now equating rejection of their nonsense
with conservatism. They should take it one step further and state
that rationality is inherently conservative. Sokal did a great
service to the left by exposing the meaninglessness of
postmodernist "theory". What perturbs me most about this matter,
is that like conspiracy theory, postmodernism is just another
phenomenon draining the limited resources which the left has in
academia. What a better way for grad students who actually care
about progressive issues, to waste their time. Ariel

Doug responded with a reference to the so-called "Sokal affair," in which an avowedly left-wing scientist tricked editors of the academic cultural studies journal Social Text into printing a parody of the sort of work they regularly publish:

Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 10:31:01 -0500
From: Doug Henwood <>
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Re:Left Conservatism
[Excerpts from Ariel's post have been excised]
Me, I refuse to play this game of sides any longer.
"Postmodernism" is many things, including Robert A.M. Stern,
Beavis & Butt-head, Michel Foucault, and the unintentionally
hilarious Stanley Aronowitz. And Sokal didn't prove the
meaninglessness of anything; he assembled a pastiche of silly
quotes that tricked Stanley & Co. He didn't engage anyone in
serious argument. Yeah, there's lots of nonsense in that Science
Wars issue of Social Text, but it just won't do to say "Nonsense!
Nonsense!" and think that settles it. Doug

Katha Pollitt, one of the people mentioned in the conference flyer and a regular contributor to The Nation, soon joined the fray. She wrote that "it's very strange to call a meeting attacking people politically--flying in three professors, no less, as if the local talent were insufficient for the magnitude of the task of condemnation -- without so much as faxing the targets a notice," adding that "Barbara Epstein, who teaches at Santa Cruz, is not mentioned in the flyer, although she is clearly the person meant by the reference to Socialist Review, since she is the only socialist review writer who challenges postmodernism's relevance to politics. Is this a way of avoiding an actual debate with a real person?" Pollitt went on to express her displeasure at being called a "left conservative," concluding that "there are more than two sides to this issue. To be 'against' Andrew Ross's role in the Sokal affair is not to be 'for' conservatism, however one defines that term." Bad Subjects Production Team member Joe Lockard amplified this problem with the catch-all "left conservatism" tag:

Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 10:56:13 -0800 (PST)
From: Joseph Franklin Lockard <>
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Left Conservatism
[Excerpts from Ariel's post have been excised]
Pretty well stated. The Santa Crux conference announcement
appeared to adopt a quite defensive formulation against a
critique of intellectual incomprehensibility, strangely calling
it 'left conservatism.' Since it has emphasized accessibility and
clarity in its work, would Bad Subjects then be called a 'left
conservative' zine? So far as the conference purposes are
represented through citation of its circular, then it would
appear to be backlash against the very significant numbers of
left-oriented academics and/or intellectuals who are muttering
'this is horseshit and we're not going to take it anymore.' I
have sat through too many theoretical papers where it appeared
that the sole purpose was to impress listeners with the speaker's
command of Academese and instant textual mnemonics (quick! what's
Fichte's Seventh? don't know? you ill-educated lout!); where we
sat in the back rows rolling our eyes at each other (what's
really embarassing is when the eyerolling starts among other
speakers on the conference dais); and where basic issues of
class, gender and racial injustice look as remote as Alpha
Centauri. In their elegant avoidance of such issues, much of the
body of pomo criticism seems to share the governing
intellectuals-talking-only-to-intellectuals bias, if a different
aesthetic, as the New Critics, some of whom were actually far
more down-to-earth and populist. So since Sokal's message was
'talk to people respectfully and make sense,' more power to him.
Joe, remembering the Langston Hughes poem "Mister Backlash"

David Hawkes offered a different take on the problem, noting how difficult it has become to make sense of the contemporary political landscape using traditional terms:

Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 16:05:16 EST
From: dh05@Lehigh.EDU (DAVID HAWKES)
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Re: Left Conservatism
Ariel Reinheimer writes: > So, postmodernists are now equating
rejection > of their nonsense with conservatism. They >
should take it one step further and state that > rationality
is inherently conservative.
Didn't they, particularly the psycho-analytical feminists among
them, take this step about 30 years ago? Anyway, here's a good
test which I tried on one list recently. When an intellectual
starts going on about "oppositional" discourse or politics, ask
him what he wants to oppose. You may be sure that he will not say
"capitalism". When he does not say this, laugh at him very
loudly. This will annoy him greatly. Pressing your advantage, ask
him to tell you what is wrong with capitalism. You may be sure
that he will not give the correct answer, which is "capital is
objectified labor". Rather, he will burble on about inequality,
and probably change the subject to race, gender or sexuality. Or,
even more likely, he will not be able to think of anything wrong
with capitalism. He may even claim that capitalism no longer
exists, or that we can no longer identify it, or that we have
wrongly constructed it as "the other" or some such thing worthy
of ridicule.
As I've said before, the time has probaby come to cast off the
seating arrangements of the National Assembly, or the myth of
teleological history, as our metaphors for the political
spectrum. But if we do want to continue speaking in terms of
"right" and "left", "progressive" and "conservative",should not
the degree of one's opposition to capitalism be the factor
determining how "left-wing" or "progressive" one is? And by that
definition, are the organizers of this conference to the right or
to the left of those they seek to denigrate?
Cheers, Dave

Posts like this one prompted participants in the debate to consider what they have in common. This post from Jessica is a good example:

Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 18:55:14 +0000
From: Jessica <>
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Re: Left Conservatism
Everyone keeps ending their posts on this string with a question.
Anyone else notice that? I think the whole stupid debate about
who's more left than who is ridiculous, circular, tautological,
maybe; and a waste of time. Of course I "oppose" capitalism. I
also oppose inequality, racism, genderism and binary thinking. I
think a lot, and I also do stuff. I am no more valid or less
valid as an opposer than anyone else. And what else can be said
to unite the left, but an opposition to social injustice? You may
think and/or believe [personal aside excised] that the source of
all injustice is capitalism and objectified labour; or not. I bet
we all agree on some common understanding of injustice, at least
from our own cultural or personal perspectives. Jess

Kenneth MacKendrick offered a rejoinder to this point, underscoring the ways in which concepts such as "injustice" are a function of language:

Date: Sun, 18 Jan 1998 14:52:18 -0500
From: Kenneth MacKendrick <>
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Re: Left Conservatism
[Excerpts from posts like Jessica's have been excised]
Wonderful kiddies. We all agree that injustice is the categorical
imperative of the contemporary horizon. It is just that we
disagree about the contents of such a categorical imperative.
Hmm... not much sense here.
Injustice is just a word. It is understood in about 8 billion
different ways - that is to say - if a rendering of the word
injustice can be made into other languages.... In any event it is
nonsense to uphold a concept of injustice, as a universal
concept, whilst ignoring the fact that this is not defined in a
similar way by the folks using the term. For instance - a
fundamentialist Christian may understand injustice as spiritual
injustice (those not committed to the will of God)- because the
works of the flesh are all of the devil. This departs from my
understanding which probably departs from Jess's and dex's
understanding. Would they trust me to run the justice department?
I doubt it. I would surely be, and this would be just, metaphored
to death.
Ken, letting particularity be, well... particular.

As the discussion progressed, participants reexamined the divide between so-called "public intellectuals" and academics. Katha Pollitt implied that academics have themselves to blame for being misrepresented in the mainstream press, adding that "critical theorists, deconstructionists and other postmodernist academics are FAMOUS for their impenetrable, jargon-ridden prose" and that "even academics groan at the prospect of wading through it." As the thread came to a close, Pollitt's post inspired Sara Murphy to offer this cautionary note:

Date: Sun, 18 Jan 1998 13:56:13 EST
From: SMurphy691 <>
To: Multiple recipients of BAD <>
Subject: Re: "Left conservatism"
Katha Pollitt writes:
> The fact that few journalists have PhD's in critical >
theory is one reason why, however, it is very > important for
critical theorists to communicate > their ideas clearly--if
they care about their press > coverage (which they might
justifiably choose to > ignore).
Indeed they might choose to ignore it--but I guess what this
draws attention to is that this debate around clarity and
language is not necessarily isomorphous from the economic issues
confronting the academy right now. One of the ways in which state
legislators are rationalizing public university downsizings is by
recruiting instances of "unclear language," "jargon" to fire up
anti-intellectualism among their constituencies--among other
strategies, including--as was instanced in a recent Times
Education supplement article--claims like "these people only work
twelve hours a week. Let's pay'em for just twelve hours a week!"

Don Jordan, a lawyer, rounded off the discussion with a thoughtful post about the necessisty for leftists to make their work as accessible as possible, regardless of how unfair attacks on the university might be. Seconding Pollitt's comments about the difficulties journalists face, Jordan wrote that "as a criminal defense attorney who has had personal knowledge of whether certain stories have been accuarately presented, I believe that most reporters try to fairly present their subject, but in many cases, perhaps especially in my field, editorial control overrides the reporter's desires." He concluded by affirming the importance of having a space like the Bad List in which to debate these matters: "I also believe that people's interest in academics explains why even non-academics such as myself subscribe to Bad Subjects. I agree that my view presumes that a function of academics is to work for social benefit, and I agree that this role is not for all academics and not for all fields of academics, such as art; that is their choice, but I hope it is one many choose, since academics have more knowledge than most people."