Left Conservatism?
Patrick Sand in The Nation, March 9, 1998

"A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life," the bulletin warned, "the specter of Left Conservatism." Students and faculty at the University of California, Santa. Cruz, returning from winter break found the campus papered with provocative fliers. They alluded to a specter animated by "hostility to the anti-foundationalist theoretical work of the 1980s and 1990s" that can be glimpsed in the "anti-theory polemics" of The Nation and Socialist Review and in "attacks on critical theory" by three individuals: feminist writers Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich and physicist Alan Sokal. (Sokal is best known for submitting a deliberately nonsensical article to a serious journal, which the journal published to test the intellectual standards underlying some fashionable critiques of rationality and science.)

Such "left conservatives" were accused of "an attempt at consensus-building...that is founded on notions of the real," and of "an uneasy convergence with the anti-relativists on the right." A workshop on left conservatism to which none of the defendants were invited was scheduled for January 31 and featured well-known theorists Paul Bové, Joseph Buttigieg, Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. It seemed to be the kickoff of a public-relations campaign to reassert the hegemony of "anti-foundationalism", otherwise known as postmodernism, and to discourage further impertinence from its increasingly numerous critics on the left.

The workshop got off to a very different start, however, when the speakers arrived at an auditorium filled with people reading a bright red one-page counterdocument titled "'Left Conservatism' or Left Factionalism?" Signed by sixteen UCSC graduate students (including myself), it challenged the bulletin's characterization of any criticism of "anti-foundationalism,, as "anti-theoretical" and "conservative" and criticized the organizers' establishment of a tribunal for those with different opinions. The intervention of the counterdocument changed the tone of the workshop, as speakers fell over themselves backing away from the initial announcement, leaving the moderator, UCSC literature professor Chris Connery, with the dubious credit of its authorship.

As the speakers proceeded with their prepared remarks, it became increasingly difficult to determine what "left conservatism" actually meant. Connnery repeated the original indictments, charging in addition that writers like Politt, Ehrenreich and Sokal (as well as Michael Moore, whom he accused of "populist liberal centrism") are "anti-sixties" and that The Nation is "arguably moving to the right" through its association with them. Bové offered an excellent critique of fellow postmodernist Richard Rorty. Butler conceded that Pollitt and Ehrenreich don't deserve to be characterized as conservatives but described a "new orthodoxy" of socially conservative Marxists who want to revive an "anachronistic materialism" as a tactic for marginalizing feminist, queer and racial justice politics. These characters certainly sounded frightening, though it remains an open question how many of them actually exist outside, say, the Spartacist League. Most disturbing was Brown's use of "left conservatism" to characterize the positions of anyone who "refused" the insights of her favorite postmodern theorists anyone, it turned out, who still wants to talk about truth, reality, materiality, oppressive social systems, revolutionary social transformation or the need for a united radical movement (anyone, in other winds, who disagrees with Brown about these things).

After the challenge posed by the counterdocument and the criticisms voiced by a series of students, faculty and activists, it seemed as if a constructive dialogue might begin. Butler, to her credit, said that since postmodernism implies a commitment to the continual questioning of everything, the questioning of postmodernism itself should be welcome. There was an emerging consensus on all sides that name-calling should be avoided at least until Paul Bové re-entered the conversation. Not only did be defend the term "left conservatism', to describe people like Sokal, who, he claims, shares the values of Rush Limbaugh, he insisted that postmodernism is a technical, professional language that nonspecialists should neither attempt to criticize nor expect to understand.

Which is precisely the problem that many people have with the use of postmodernism as a political ideology. If you put Bové's claim that it should be criticized only by properly trained professionals together with Brown's claim that it defines the parameters of true radicalism in the present age, you're left with the most brazen vanguardism that has ever set foot in American political life a vanguardism, this time, of institutionally credentialed professionals. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see how such a tendency can be dangerous to the left.

Let me suggest the following propositions: First, political radicalism shouldn't be defined by epistemological positions, one way or another. Second, let's stop trying to associate those who disagree with us about such matters with the right. Finally, there are far more important issues out there. We need a left broad enough for everyone who is willing to do something about them, in theory or in practice.


Patrick Sand is a graduate student in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

© 1998 The Nation.

Worskshop Announcement (below)
Flier handed out at the workshop (below)
Ehrenreich and MacIntosh's article in The Nation
Politics index
Workshop Announcement

Left Conservatism
A Workshop
January 31, 1998
College 8, Room 240  1:00-5:30

Jonathan Arac, Paul Bové, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Joseph Buttigieg

A spectre is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the spectre 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.


Jonathan Arac is Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and writes on problems in the historical and comparative study of culture, literature and criticism.  He has edited or co-edited several books, including Postmodernism and Politics and Consequences of Theory. He is author of Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies and the recently published Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time.

Paul A. Bové is Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and Editor of boundary 2, an international journal of literature and culture. The author of several books on culture, modernity, poetry, and the intellectual, including Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American PoetryIntellectuals in Power: A Genealogy of Critical Humanism, and Mastering Discourse: The Politics of Intellectual Culture, Professor Bové is now completing a book on Henry Adams as well as a collection of essays called The End of Thinking.

Wendy Brown is Professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Visting Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and has published widely on feminist political theory, masculinity, identity politics, and power.  Her publications include  States Of Injury: Power And Freedom In Late Modernity and  Manhood And Politics: A Feminist Reading In Political Theory.

Judith Butler is Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a theorist of power, gender, sexuality, and identity.   Her books include Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of "Sex"; Excitable Speech: A Politics Of The PerformativeGender Trouble: Feminism And The Subversion Of Identity, and The Psychic Life Of Power: Theories In Subjection.

Joseph Buttigieg is Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and writes on the intersections of culture and politics in Europe from the late nineteenth century to the present time. His books include A Portrait Of The Artist In Different Perspective, on James Joyce,  and Criticism  Without Boundaries: Directions And Crosscurrents In Postmodern Critical Theory.  A prominent Gramsci scholar, he has edited and translated the first complete critical edition of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks.

Politics index

Flier handed out at the workshop


Who invented this strange and wondrous new term, "Left Conservatism"? And why have they done so?

We will all have to wait to hear what the panelists actually have to say about these matters. However, as UCSC graduate students in the humanities and social sciences committed to left critical thought, we feel the need to respond directly to the publicized workshop description. We are disturbed by the tone of the description, which implicitly mobilizes the familiar language of left factionalism (Out with the Trotskyites! Smash the Petty Bourgeois Revisionists! Down with Feminist Moralists! Out with the Left Conservatives! Etc.). Whether or not this villification of imagined enemies within the left was intended to achieve some parodical effect, it in fact does nothing to serve the organizers' stated interest in furthering "discussion and debate." There is an important difference between honest, if pointed, critique, on the one hand, and attempts to stigmatize those who would dissent from the status quo in theory, on the other.

The text announcing the conference turns on the claim that critique of "anti-foundationalism" = "anti-theory" = "conservatism." This equation implies that the test of true radicalism is adherence to "anti-foundationalism." Yet, strangely, many people who call themselves radicals embrace ideas which run counter to "anti-foundationalist" claims: e.g., that radical politics does, and should, contain an ethical dimension; that there is an essential, not merely nominal, difference between oppression and liberation; that the natural world, and the beings who inhabit it, cannot be reduced to the discursive constructions and meanings that humans beings attach to them; that patriarchy, capitalism and racism are determinate historical systems which can and should be abolished rather than simply resisted, and so on.

Such statements are surely open to debate and revision. Are they, however, "conservative" or "anti-theoretical"? If so, in what way? We would honestly like to know.

We would also like to know whether the organizers consider "anti-foundationalism" (or any other theoretical tendency with which they identify) to be above skepticism or revision. Do they believe that they have stumbled upon the "correct" path of analysis and critique the one that decisively answers the contradictions and mistakes of left-feminist praxis over the course of the last century? One immune, presumably, to new criticism or interrogation? Is the mere questioning of the emergent poststructuralist orthodoxy in the humanities itself a kind of class treason de facto proof of one's reactionary politics? If the organizers had their way, would those who remain disinclined to be incorporated within the postmodernist paradigm be excommunicated from the left? (Or would they just be denied tenure?)

What does it mean when scholars who claim (in their published works) to embrace "difference" and radical democracy resort to name-calling as a form of discourse? When scholars who reputedly oppose "binary" and dualistic thinking feel the need to frame their opponents as a despised "other" (conservatives)? When anti- essentialists invoke a purely essentialist and fictive category "left conservatism" to tar their critics? When writers who often express skepticism toward substantive notions of truth, value, agency, and ideology nevertheless arrogate for themselves the terrain of political vanguardism, replete with denunciation and ad hominem attacks? Indeed, on what possible epistemological, ethical, or political foundation do they feel entitled to do so?

There is surely some irony in the spectacle of well-compensated and comfortable academic theorists in the humanities declaring, with absolute self-seriousness, that their work represents one of the last redoubts of critical thought in the entire United States. In this regard, it seems to us curious that of the three culprits named in the conference description as engaged in "attacks on critical theory" Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollit, and Alan Sokal two are among the nation's most prominent feminist public intellectuals, and the other is a physicist without formal credentials in the humanities. But why name these names and not, say, others who have criticized the postmodern fashion yet are in a better position to defend themselves against the organizers' slings and arrows? Terry Eagleton, Susan Bordo, Barbara Epstein, Sabina Lovibond, Fredric Jameson, Adolf Reed, Alex Callinicos, Ellen Wood, David Harvey, Arif Dirlik, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and many others come to mind.

There must be something more here than the attempt of certain academic theorists to assert their rhetorical hegemony over the entire left, or a naked appeal to academic professionalism (the idea, recently defended by Stanley Fish, that only professionals ought to comment on other professionals' ideas). Isn't there?

We do not believe that being skeptical of poststructuralist claims leads to an anti-theoretical position. On the contrary, we passionately affirm the need for theory as a crucial tool for making sense of the world, and for providing us with the maps necessary for transforming it.

For this reason, we find the workshop organizers' conception of theory to be narrow and impoverished, for it seems to offer a basis only for determining "correct" ideology, rather than for changing the world. This does not make the organizers themselves "conservative," however, only (we believe) wrong.


Julie Beck, Sociology
Ernesto Bustillos, Sociology
Mark Cobb, History of Consciousness
Santosh George, History of Consciousness
Krista Harper, Anthropology
Will Hull, Sociology
Pamela Kido, History of Consciousness
Barbara Ley, History of Consciousness
Jason Moore, History
Sandra Meucci, Sociology
Kathy Miriam, History of Consciousness
Justin Paulson, History of Consciousness
John Sanbonmatsu, History of Consciousness
Sina Saidi, History of Consciousness
Patrick Sand, History of Consciousness


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