Antonio Gramsci’s famous quip, about pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will, is well-suited to the historic failure of Leftist movements to bring about desired change.
Slavoj Zizek has asserted that Marxism is based on learning from failure. Enzo Traverso has written about the “Left-wing melancholy” following from repeated defeats.
There is even a radical journal, Salvage, co-founded by sci-fi author China Miéville, devoted to exploring the place of lament and mourning for socialists.
Nevertheless, a desire to take-over society’s commanding heights remains. Jonathan Smucker has recently written a book, “Hegemony How To: A Roadmap for Radicals”, to demonstrate how.
But it pays to be skeptical. While there remains, for example, a Communist ideology, there is no extant Communist system, except perhaps North Korea!
The only game in town is Capitalism. All radical regimes have had to kow-tow to its demands – except maybe Venezuela, and that is in trouble now.
The struggle over ideological hegemony is, however, a vexed one, as Gramsci knew. For, in practice, the forces of neo-liberal conservativism have been simply more successful.
To be sure, this is due to their supremacy at conspiracy politics, as Jane Mayers’ book, ‘Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right’, shows.
The Koch brothers, for example, have funded a number of far-right, pro-business, think tanks, at popular, party-political, and academic levels, to skew debate.
Consequently, for the last half-century, the Right has been much more successful than the Left at dictating the terms of discussion.
Their defeat in these ‘hard’ sciences has led the Left to retreat into academia, where they have paradoxically achieved their own success in the ‘soft’ fields of cultural studies, gender, and sexuality.
The issue of ‘identity’ has thus replaced ‘class’ in their analyses. And, although used as a slur by the Alt-Right, ‘Cultural Marxism’ is actually an accurate term to describe the result.
They have thereby gained some relevance at the time of #MeToo and gender insecurity, but at the cost of abandoning the economic playing field to the ideologues of neo-liberalism.
Though the recovery of socialist politics under Sanders and Corbyn may provide a return to the economic, perhaps radicals are missing a trick, and should learn from the far-right’s play book?
The problem with copying the Koch’s methods, of course, is that the Kochs are able to deploy their considerable resources, of hard cash, to buy people.
Left wing groups are not noted for their nearness to sources of ready money! Which is why, in the absence of liberal millionaires, they have to commit to the longterm slog of grassroots activism.
Here though, as Smucker points out, with repeated disappointments, the temptation is to adopt a righteous remnant mentality, reconciled to ineffectiveness.
Ironically, however, the respective successes of Right and Left are mirror-images, of the same individualistic ethos.
Albeit achieved in contrasting areas, of economics and sexuality, for example, their ideological victories are expressions of an identical western shibboleth – unconstrained personal autonomy.