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Casting Spells: the Enduring Allure of Leftist Mysticism

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In the case of leftist mysticism, the greatest obstacle to this transformation appears to be human nature, which, in part, explains the bloody reality of socialism and communism.”

As a former radical, I know a thing or two about the allure of leftist mysticism and how those under its spell tend to perceive reality: as an affront to their vision of a world without constraints. This perception connects many seemingly unrelated ideas and beliefs of the radical Left, from revolutionary communism to the postmodern denial of biological sex. 

These ideas and beliefs require a special, incantatory rhetoric designed to not only conceal but also bend reality. Non-believers are either diagnosed as suffering from “false consciousness” (as the bourgeois conception of reality is often referred to); condemned as reactionary (which is to say, as being on the wrong side of history); or accused of being in league with the devil (the far-right). Exorcisms, witch hunts, and heresy trials—better known today as cancel culture—are a logical consequence of this mindset.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  defines mysticism as “a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation.” In the case of leftist mysticism, the greatest obstacle to this transformation appears to be human nature, which, in part, explains the bloody reality of socialism and communism. As the myrmecologist (myrmecology: the scientific study of ants) E. O. Wilson put it, “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.” 

However, rather than learn from history and develop an evidence-based politics in line with human nature, leftist mysticism seeks fundamentally to transform humanity, relying, it seems, on the power of wishful thinking (or wishful theory) and revolutionary rhetoric. The philosopher Roger Scruton  has described this approach as “an attempt to change reality by shouting at the top of the voice.” 

Occasionally, this zealous attitude leads to ecstatic rites of violence and iconoclasm (wishful action), directed against the symbols and representatives of an evil system—Western capitalist democracy—whose destruction (or, in the case of the postmodern Left, deconstruction) carries the promise of total liberation. 

Most leftists, however, will settle for social justice. “Leftists believe,” writes Scruton, “that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practiced by a dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.” To this end, they attack not only capitalism but “such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us,” says Scruton.

The appeal of leftist mysticism, despite its disastrous track record and apparent historical illiteracy, comes in part from its detachment from the realpolitik that it inspires. Leftist mystics mainly deal in abstractions and thus evade concrete accountability. Empirical histories of human progress, such as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, reveal the tremendous liberating power of the very mechanisms the radical Left seeks to destroy.

Wishful thinking thus becomes magical thinking. 

The fact remains, however, that leftist mysticism has real-world consequences, albeit unintended ones. Communism is estimated to have killed 100 million people in the name of the people. Ignoring this patent disconnect between intention and consequence, the hard Left keeps repeating the same old mantras, hoping for different results. There is an underlying belief that truths—rather than being discovered by empirical means and tested by the method of falsification—can be theorized into existence. Wishful thinking thus becomes magical thinking. 

The trouble with this approach is that human beings do not exist in the abstract. To treat real people as abstract entities is inherently dehumanizing and tends to lead to inhumanity. In fact, it is often the very people on whose behalf the radical Left crusades in abstracto who suffer the consequences of ideologues’ blind faith in theory and rhetoric. 

Take the proletariat, for example. In leftist mythology, the term refers collectively to ordinary workers whose labor is exploited by the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, who own the means of production. This means that capitalism reduces the worker to his labor power, while deluding him into thinking himself free. Bourgeois society is, therefore, “the perfection of his slavery and his inhumanity,” according to Marx

In reality, however, it is the abstract concept of class interest that dehumanizes and deindividuates the worker. In Scruton’s words: “The worker is reduced to a mere abstraction, not by the drudgery of capitalist production, but by the fiery rhetoric of the intellectual left.” It is no accident—but rather a painful irony of history—that so many proletarians experienced the perfection of their slavery and inhumanity under regimes inspired by Marxian communism. 

Abstraction also has a “totalizing” effect. By removing the human element, which roots us in concrete reality, abstraction allows pure ideology to take over reality. Totalizing theory thus leads to totalitarian praxis, dissolving all social contradictions into total cohesion around a common end goal. In leftist mysticism, revolution is, thus, portrayed as a purifying event—not unlike The Rapture in Christian theology. The end goal of total liberation—a condition in which opposition to the one true faith no longer exists—justifies and purifies the crimes against humanity committed in its name. 

A mythology of oppression similar to that of classical Marxism—albeit one that replaces class with immutable characteristics such as race or sex—also underlies modern identity politics. Analogous to the concept of class struggle, there is an assumed identity between membership in an oppressed or marginalized group and leftist politics. Indeed, those who refuse to get with the program, sinning against the prevailing orthodoxy, are often treated like heretics and ostracized. A black person with conservative views, for example, may be disparaged as not really black (or as “white-adjacent” in Wokespeak). In other words, there is a belief that, by casting the right spells, even a person’s race can be altered. 

Whiteness, on the other hand, is seen as a permanent stain not just on white people but on Western society as a whole. In certain branches of leftist mysticism, it has been elevated to the status of Original Sin, passed down from generation to generation and deeply entrenched in the institutional structure of society, where it reveals itself as systemic, structural, or institutional racism. For those who believe that we live in a white supremacist patriarchy, however, the scriptural phrase “Sins of the Father” may be more fitting. 

Atonement for the inherited sin of Whiteness, in any case, involves ritualistic self-flagellation and unconditional acceptance of “antiracist” dogma, laid out in canonical texts such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Rhetoric, needless to say, plays a central role in this open-ended process. By repeating the right mantras and incantations—all white people are racist; there is no such thing as ‘not racist’; white silence is violence; and so on—one can signal virtue and allyship to other believers, while shaming those who are not (yet) on board. Planting the seed of white guilt is the first step towards conversion.

Woke language taboos can be seen in a similar light. They, too, reflect a belief in manifestation—in the spiritual sense of the word—which, in turn, reflects a deep faith in the reality-altering power of rhetoric. Parallels to the Catholic concept of transubstantiation can be drawn here. Indeed, there appears to be a belief (or fear) in woke culture that certain words not merely evoke (oppressive) violence but, rather, that such words are violence. 

The leftist tendency to use language that abstracts, dehumanizes, and deindividuates—a tendency which the hard Left shares with fascism—is prevalent in woke identity politics. Take, for instance, the peculiar habit of using the word bodies in place of people. According to the media site and educational resource New Discourses, “This rather unsettling term appears most commonly in phrases such as ‘black bodies,’ ‘brown bodies,’ ‘black and brown bodies,’ ‘gendered bodies,’ ‘sexed bodies,’ ‘abled’ and ‘disabled bodies’ (society is believed to do the abling and disabling), ‘fat bodies,’ and ‘queer bodies.’” 

Forged in the fire of hegemonic power and oppression, these bodies are believed to be socially constructed. To again quote New Discourses: “Using the term ‘bodies’ in place of ‘people’ when they are subject to (and subjugated by) the power dynamics in the system is a potent rhetorical tool for giving this impression.” It also implies a fundamental and existential power struggle, an epic war between oppressor and oppressed (essentially, between good and evil), which requires the deconstruction of all oppressive social constructs in the name of social justice.

Such mundane considerations are, tellingly, left until after the glorious revolution. 

Women are one such demonic construct. Incantations and mantras such as trans women are women or assigned female at birth (AFAB) serve to deny the biological basis of womanhood and, thus, contribute to its ideological deconstruction. This tendency has given us “progressive” terminology such as birthing bodies (meaning pregnant women), which is not just deeply dehumanizing but unsettlingly reminiscent of historical misogyny. Yet, those who use such jargon in an effort to suspend the laws of nature and bend reality to their ideological will tend to consider themselves to be on the right side of history. 

This brings us back to Marx. According to Marxian metaphysics, specifically his theory of historical materialism, a mystical force bends the arch of history towards communism, rendering the latter an inevitability. However, Marx’s “scientific socialism” (as opposed to utopian socialism), which promised “full communism” as its predictable outcome, was about as scientific as transgender ideology. Scruton offers a succinct summary: 

“The ‘science’ consists in the ‘laws of historical motion’ set out in Das Kapital and elsewhere, according to which economic development brings about successive changes in the economic infrastructure of society, enabling us to predict that private property will one day disappear…and everything will be owned in common. There will be no division of labour and each person will live out the full range of his needs and desires…”

In short, what we are promised is nothing short of paradise on earth. As Scruton points out, though, “The ‘historical inevitability’ of this condition relieved Marx of the necessity to describe it.” How, precisely, would this new society work? Such mundane considerations are, tellingly, left until after the glorious revolution. 

Scruton’s observation, which corresponds to my own experience as a former radical, applies not only to Marxism but to leftist mysticism more generally. Those under its spell tend to believe that uttering the right words or phrases—such as patriarchy, white supremacy, or biological essentialism (not to mention transphobia, fatphobia, and the rest of it) —relieves them of having to make falsifiable, evidence-based arguments. But, as the socio-political critic and famous atheist Christopher Hitchens used to say, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies.

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