As we were saying: the trap of “left-wing” relativism

Submitted by Matthew on 14 March, 2012 - 9:27

This article from Solidarity’s forerunner, Socialist Organiser (11 June 1991), criticises “political correctness”, focusing on art and culture, from the point of view of the Marxist left, (as opposed to right-wing prejudice). Jim Denham argues here in favour of free speech and objective standards in aesthetics, in a still-pertinent debate.


A number of colleges and universities in the US have begun adopting PC codes, supposedly intended to curb behaviour and/or language that might give offence to racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians.

Some of this is quite reasonable and no-one but a bigot could object. But quite a bit is downright silly, and some of it is an affront to any conception of free speech.

The University of Connecticut, for instance, has prohibited “inappropriately directed laughter”. The New York Times has adopted a “style book” that requires the use of the term “adult male” in place of “man”. The word “burly” is also on the PC banned list.

I tried the “burly” on my boss, a committed feminist and anti-racist. What images and implications did the word conjure up? “Male”, “big”, maybe (but not necessarily) “stupid”. The PC movement has banned “burly” because it supposedly gives a negative image of black men.

As my boss pointed out (when I explained the point of the exercise to her), that argument only makes sense if you are pre-disposed to the assumption that all black men (sorry, males) are big and stupid.

But linguistic Stalinism is only one manifestation of the PC: it comes as part of a package deal that involves extending (or rather, reducing) multi-culturalism to an absolute “relativism”. According to this view, there is no such thing as objective “knowledge”, “facts” do not exist; philosophically “reality” is a complete illusion. One culture, philosophy, scientific theory, concept of history, or whatever, is as good as another. It’s all subjective, a matter of opinion.

But here we come to the central contradiction of PC/relativism: instead of applying their own laissez-faire approach to themselves (as well as everyone else) they proclaim it to be the only acceptable point of view, and set about purging reading lists, limiting free speech and hounding “incorrect” academics.

A special target are “DWEMs” — Dead White European Males. These include Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Newton and (presumably) Marx. The object seems to be the complete repudiation of the entire Western cultural tradition (tainted as it is with racism, sexism, etc) in favour of more “Politically Correct” alternatives.

In particular, mighty efforts are being made to “prove” that Western civilisation has its origin not in the Greeks but in black African sources. Similarly the science of Newton (and Einstein) is rejected in favour of “ethno-mathematics” and “feminist science”.

Now, it is certainly not my intention here to deny that mainstream education and culture has always downplayed the contributions of women and black people. In particular, the superiority of early Asian civilisation over European ones has been consistently ignored by most Western historians. And who knows what unrecorded contributions to culture and science were made in Africa over the centuries?

But that cannot detract from the fact (sorry to have to insist on prosaic old “facts”) that the highest achievements of art, literature, science, history and philosophy that we have on record tend to be the work of “DWEM”s. They are (or should be) everyone’s birthright.

To reject mainstream European culture because of racist, sexist societies that produced it, is to deny the working class and the oppressed their opportunity to arm themselves ideologically for the battle for a new, better society.

Ironically, the chief victims of the PC movement are black students. According to the Marxist historian of slavery, Eugene Genovese, “we have transformed our colleges from places of higher learning into places for the technical training of poorly prepared young men and women who need a degree to get a job in a college-crazy society”.

Meanwhile, young black people are ghettoised into Afro-American studies and their educational achievements devalued accordingly.

The PC relativists no doubt disdain such formal categories as “left” and “right” but my guess is that they would not object too strongly to being called “left wing”. In fact they are profoundly reactionary.

The exiled Iraqi architect Samir al-Khalil recently published a book (The Monument) which examines the role of art and architecture in Saddam’s military dictatorship. Khalil is especially scathing about Robert Venturi, the “post-modern” architect presently in the news because of his National Gallery extension.

Venturi was one of many Western architects who tried to make money from Saddam’s huge programme of grotesque public works, climaxing in the infamous “Victory Arch” based on giant replicas of Saddam’s own arms holding sabres. Khalil accuses Venturi of something more than simple greed and opportunism: his artistic prostitution is the direct result of his relativism.

I didn’t follow this line of argument at first, but then it fell into place. For the likes of Venturi, Saddam’s regime and the requirements it places upon arts and culture is just as acceptable as any other commission. You want grotesque, militaristic kitsch? You’ve got it! For Venturi there are no objective standards, either in aesthetics or in politics.

This is a particularly extreme example of “relativism”, and it would obviously be unfair to bracket all the PC movement adherents together with this particular charlatan.

But they are linked by a common philosophical approach, and it’s one that Marxists should fight tooth and nail.

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