A Marxist critique of the lifestyle left

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 20 April 2021

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.” That was the beginning of The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

When German communists write books these days, they sound different. They are unlikely to trigger revolutions. They do not aim for dictatorship of the proletariat. Indeed, they are unlikely to even be translated into other languages.

That is a pity because there is at least one contemporary German communist whose writings would deserve a global audience. I am talking of Sahra Wagenknecht and her new book Die Selbstgerechten (‘The self-righteous’).

Wagenknecht is an unusual character. Born in 1969, she grew up in communist East Germany where she joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SUP) at an early age. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, she studied philosophy in Berlin and the Netherlands, culminating in a thesis on Marx and Hegel. She later received an economics doctorate for her dissertation on The Limits of Choice: Saving Decisions and Basic Needs in Developed Countries.

Her political career saw Wagenknecht lead the communist wing of The Left party, the successor to the SUP. She was then elected to the European Parliament and later the Bundestag, where she was leader of the opposition for a couple of years.

With such Marxist credentials, there are no great surprises on Wagenknecht’s economic policy positions. She is a fierce critic of ‘neoliberalism’, small-state and free-market approaches.

What makes her new book more interesting are her poignant attacks on what she defines as ‘left-liberalism’. This is not the left-liberalism of old which combined a quest for increased social participation with a preference for wealth distribution. Rather, the new ‘left-liberalism’ is essentially a lifestyle choice.

For the new left-liberals, she writes, “the focus of left-wing politics is no longer on social and political-economic problems, but on questions of lifestyle, consumer habits and moral attitudes.”

Wagenknecht asserts this is a pervasive attitude across many left-of-centre parties: “In its pure form, the Green parties embody this lifestyle-left political proposition, but it has also become the dominant current in most countries in the social democratic, socialist and other left parties.”

For a traditionally educated Marxist like Wagenknecht, lifestyle-based left-liberalism is irritating. But its origins can be understood. After all, according to Marx, the circumstances in which people live shaped their perceptions (“Das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein” – “Being determines consciousness”).

It is worth quoting one of Wagenknecht’s core sections in full (my translation):

“In general, the lifestyle leftist values autonomy and self-realisation more than tradition and community. He finds traditional values such as performance, diligence and effort uncool. This is especially true of the younger generation, who were so gently guided into life by caring, mostly well-off helicopter parents that they never got to know existential social anxieties and the pressures that arise from them. Dad’s small fortune and mum’s relationships at least provide so much security that even longer unpaid internships or professional failures can be bridged.

Since the lifestyle left has hardly come into personal contact with social issues, they are usually only marginally interested in them. So, they do want a fair and discrimination-free society, but the path to it no longer leads via the stodgy old topics from social economics, i.e. wages, pensions, taxes or unemployment insurance, but above all via symbolism and language.”

Wagenknecht dissects the contemporary left in a Marxist class analysis. She writes at length about the university-educated class to whom existential anxiety is unknown. These people can afford philosophising about “post-growth economics and biologically sound nutrition”, as she puts it.

But in doing so, the new left-liberals are precisely alienating those to whom the left used to give a political voice: “What makes the lifestyle left so unappealing in the eyes of many people, and especially the less fortunate, is its apparent tendency to mistake its privileges for personal virtues and to glorify its worldview and way of life as the epitome of progressiveness and responsibility.”

No matter your own political leanings, you are unlikely to get through Wagenknecht’s 345 pages without profound disagreements. For example, she rejects a universal basic income – but not because of its work incentives or fiscal costs. No, she rejects it because she sees it as “the abolition of the welfare state in favour of a Thatcherite market society with humanitarian welfare for the poor.”

She will further infuriate neoliberals and left-liberals alike when she declares that they are virtually identical. She even claims that yesterday’s neoliberals are today’s left-liberals: “Thus, egotism became self-realisation; flexibilisation became diversity of opportunity; the end of certainty became a farewell to normality and conformity; globalisation became openness to the world; and irresponsibility toward people in one’s own country became cosmopolitanism.”

The core of Wagenknecht’s biting critique concerns her own fellow-travellers on the left – or what passes as the left these days. Against their prevailing focus on identity politics and lifestyle choices, she defends the cultural preferences of lower socio-economic groups. She maintains that it is unwise for the left to instinctively label anyone not going along with identity politics and language codes as ‘right-wing’. Many conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians might want to go along with that.

At the same time, Wagenknecht’s alternative to this kind of left-wing politics is a hard-left, even Marxist political programme. It includes a rejection of free trade, introducing high taxes on wealth, and an active, winner-picking industrial policy.

The book is a call to greater clarity in the political debates of our time. If Wagenknecht had her way, there would be a choice between competing alternatives based on different ideas of how the economy and societies work. It would be a competition between free markets and state planning. But it would no longer be a battle over the cultural values that people may or must no longer hold.

There is only one regret I had after reading Wagenknecht’s book. Despite many furious disagreements with many of her views, I wished it was available in English. It would shake up and enrich our political debates in a way no German communists since Marx and Engels have done.

Absent a Wagenknecht translation, we only have a few blogs in New Zealand for an enlightened version of traditional Marxism.