A Q&A with psychologist, scholar and author Daniel Burston
One of the remarkable things about Substack is that it transforms digital writing — often a knee-jerk, inflammatory affair — into an exercise in actual, productive dialogue. Substack writers get to work ideas out, in public and in real time, with the benefit of thoughtful discussion and debate.
In that spirit, I want to share one such example. In January, a reader, Daniel Burston, commented on an essay I’d written on the modern left. I was intrigued to read his recent book, Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University, part of a series on critical political theory and radical practices, and a deeply engaging outing.
Burston is a Canadian author, public speaker, and psychology professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; his books have been reviewed everywhere from The New York Times to The Financial Times. Here, in our conversation, we delve into critical theory and the culture wars, the problems of contemporary leftism, and the moment of profound global uncertainty triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I want to start with how you and I began corresponding. You offered criticism on an essay I’d written. What did you see as missing from my analysis?
The way that you characterized critical theory in that piece, How Did We Get Here, is quite consistent with the way in which most conservative critics of contemporary cultural and political trends construe critical theory. This can be summed up in the popular mantra which proclaims that Marxism begat critical theory, which begat postmodernism, which begat cultural Marxism. And with that, all the new woke orthodoxies that people find so disturbing.
The problem with this assessment is that it’s a straw man. It only seems plausible if you cherry-pick and decontextualize ideas from different theorists in these various schools of thought. But to someone like me, who studied critical theory at York University in the ‘80s, the lines of demarcation between Marxism and critical theory on the one hand and critical theory and postmodernism on the other are crystal clear.
I find it interesting, as a journalist, that we have these very academic ideas, with a long and complex history, that are now impacting the mainstream discourse in such a profound way. Let’s start by defining terms. How would you define Marxism?
At its inception, Marxism was actually a radical extension of the French Enlightenment’s program for human emancipation, and it was predicated on a belief in progress. So, for example, in 1794, Nicolas de Condorcet wrote a book entitled Sketch for the Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. It was the first book, to the best of my knowledge, on the subject of progress to appear in print. Condorcet was an abolitionist and a feminist who depicted progress as a slow but inexorable process that would eventually dispel ignorance and superstition through the dissemination of knowledge and science, and confer previously undreamt-of moral and material benefits on all humankind by ending poverty, abolishing slavery, and granting women full and equal rights.
Marx shared these Enlightenment values and ideals, but he stipulated that progress is not a simple or a linear process. On the contrary, he said it’s marked by oppression and exploitation, class conflict and class struggle. Marx believed that the working class would eventually acquire something called class consciousness and work together across national boundaries to promote the emancipation of all humankind.
Marx also had a typical Enlightenment fondness for technological innovation. He believed that new technologies are intrinsically liberating and should be welcomed because they dramatically alter social conditions and political relations between people, thereby hastening the, he thought, inevitable crisis of capitalism that would set the stage for the proletariat to seize the means of production and to affect a more equitable distribution of goods and services and create the conditions for general human flourishing. That was what Marx had in mind initially.
This is materialist — this is about the material conditions of people’s lives.
Yes, absolutely. Marx called his approach historical materialism, and he was withering in his assessment of idealistic systems of thought in his time. He was very much a materialist and that’s a legacy of the Enlightenment. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were also materialists.
Let’s talk about critical theory now.
Marx predicted that in the course of the next major crisis of capitalism, the working class would seize control of the means of production from the bourgeoisie — and that didn’t happen. That never happened. In 1929, the stock market crashed and this was the biggest crisis of capitalism to that point. And the proletariat did not seize the opportunity to mount the revolution that Marx had anticipated.
Critical theory arose as a response to the historic failure of Marx’s predictions. Now, admittedly, the first director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research was an orthodox Marxist, but his much better-known successor, Max Horkheimer, was not. Horkheimer and his associates rejected the Leninist variety of Marxism that was extant in the Soviet Union at the time, vehemently. Horkheimer believed that the European and British working class were failing in their historic mission because of social psychological processes that orthodox Marxism is not actually equipped to elucidate or to address.
So, with the help of Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer and his colleagues attempted to develop what they referred to as a Marx-Freud synthesis, a theoretical framework that would account for the failure of the working class to initiate the transition to socialism and from there eventually to a classless society. And this is how the idea of the authoritarian personality first came into being. Meanwhile, orthodox Marxists in Moscow and around the world roundly condemned the Frankfurt School for incorporating psychoanalytic ideas and perspectives into their work, not least because Freud was a severe critic of Marxism, and the Politburo in Moscow dismissed him as a bourgeois anachronism.
Finally, Horkheimer and his successor, Theodor Adorno — he was the third director of the Institute for Social Research — they both witnessed the galloping Nazification of Germany at close quarters from 1926 to 1933 and they were extremely critical of the concept of progress. Unlike Marx, they said that while scientific and technological progress proceed at pace, they typically disguise and facilitate a deepening regression to cultural barbarism, which culminates in the Holocaust.
They blamed the Holocaust on the Enlightenment, which is an unusual position to take. So, while they clung to Enlightenment values and hoped to foster human emancipation in the way that Marx did, critical theorists did not have any faith that relentless technological innovation would bring all this about. On the contrary, they feared it would only deepen the oppression and exploitation of the past. In short, because of their historical situation, which placed them just in Germany before World War II and then in the United States during and after the war, critical theory’s attitude towards the Enlightenment was not predominantly positive like Marx’s — but was actually acutely ambivalent.
Now, postmodernism is still a different kettle of fish. Critical theory waxed ambivalent about the Enlightenment, but postmodernism rejects it completely. And therein lies the crucial difference. Let’s face it, Marx and Freud were both children of the Enlightenment, albeit in different ways. But unlike critical theory, which draws on Marx and Freud, postmodernism is an approach to philosophy and social theory that's inspired by fiercely anti-Enlightenment thinkers. People like Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, both of whom are right-wing icons. I mean, they have admirers on the left as well, but in the first instance right-wing.
Postmodernists dismiss Marx’s philosophy of history and the very idea of progress, which they regard as just one more grand narrative that’s ripe for deconstruction. So, postmodernists seldom suspect the working class of harbouring any revolutionary potential. And unlike Marx and Freud, they claim that there is nothing like a universal human nature that all people share regardless of race, class, or gender. And if true, this state of affairs would render it impossible for us to understand, or to fully empathize with the experience or the identity of anyone whose cultural context is quite different than our own.
Now, queer theory and critical race theory, which inform many contemporary social movements, are predominantly rooted in postmodernism, not in critical theory or in Marxism per se.
The popular mythology about critical theory and cultural Marxism encourages people to lump all these forms of radical social critique into a single category, or a single bag, if you like. That’s harmful in the long run because it discourages clarity and meaningful dialogue, and it encourages, on the conservative side, a kind of smug, know-it-all attitude about the left that masks a certain intellectual laziness and complacency.
In our emails, you raised the issue that a critique of left-wing authoritarianism has been overlooked. Why is this critique not more widely known?
The study of authoritarianism was initiated by Max Horkheimer and his colleagues at the Institute for Social Research. Two leading figures in this research effort were the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and the sociologist and musicologist, Theodor Adorno. But they had different takes on the nature of authoritarianism.
One thing is clear, in retrospect, and that is that the authoritarianism on the right — this is based on a study called The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno — it’s evident that authoritarianism expresses itself on the right in a pronounced tendency to favour hierarchical social relations over egalitarian ones and to fundamentally mistrust democratic forms of governance. It’s strongly correlated with tendencies towards racism, sexism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and hostility, sometimes profound hostility, towards racial and ethnic minorities. It’s also characterized by dogmatism, dichotomous thinking, and a penchant for violence.
Left-wing authoritarianism is also characterized by dogmatism, dichotomous thinking, and a penchant for violence, and by tendencies towards antisemitism … Like their right-wing counterparts, left-wing authoritarians have an impoverished and distorted grasp of reality, which is infused with righteous indignation and intolerance towards other points of view, also with a wary and dismissive attitude towards the liberal democratic norms of conduct on which democracy rests.
In theory, left-wing authoritarians may profess to have democratic and egalitarian ideals, but in practice they often support authoritarian regimes abroad, provided that they’re anti-Western or anti-American. So, that’s my way of configuring left- and right-wing authoritarianism.
The concept of left-wing authoritarianism, which is enjoying a modest comeback nowadays, didn't really catch on at first. And I think it’s partly due to the widespread misconception that left-wingers are inherently anti-authoritarian. But anyone who studies history knows that that simply is not true.
Why is it so important that we acknowledge that piece? Why is it so important that the broader conversation doesn’t miss that?
To be honest, I think in the short-term, right-wing authoritarians pose a much greater threat to American democracy than their left-wing counterparts do because they’re much better funded, they’re much better organized, better armed, and better trained than their left-wing counterparts. In fact, many of them are ex-military men with extensive combat experience who espouse white supremacy, or Christian nationalism, or some combination of the two. Left-wing authoritarianism poses a less potent and immediate threat to democracy, but it remains a serious long-term problem because it’s infiltrated our universities.
One place it shows up nowadays is in equity, diversity, and inclusion trainings, which are inspired by critical race theory and whiteness studies. These workshops and trainings are of questionable value, and they may actually do more harm than good. But here's the thing: They now represent an eight billion dollar industry. Eight billion a year is spent on these trainings.
They provide more employment for people from communities of colour, which is not a bad thing. But in the process, they enable the capitalist class to engage in virtue signaling on a massive scale, by appearing to be progressive and caring while they continue to rip off the working class.
So, as a result of these trends, I have friends and colleagues in academia who live in fear of losing their livelihoods, or being “canceled,” for saying or doing something that will offend the woke sensibilities of their colleagues and students. And the resulting censorship is harmful. It’s harmful to the process of rational inquiry and deliberation, and it’s harmful for freedom of expression. As a result, many accomplished scholars and many gifted teachers are leaving higher education for other careers because they feel that their departments or universities have been thoroughly captured or compromised by the new activist agendas. So, yes, cancel culture is a real thing. It’s not simply the invention of right-wing pundits, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notwithstanding.
You are a critic of the left. I come from the left. I’m feeling very disillusioned about the left right now. What are your biggest concerns about where the left is at?
I'm also on the left, believe it or not. The left is, frankly, often unable to acknowledge authoritarians in their own midst. They’re unable to identify them, call them out, and dissociate from authoritarians.
The other serious problem is the fact that the left has become disconnected from the working class, from its experiences, from its sensibilities, from its needs and desires. Because they don't see any “revolutionary” potential in the working class, they’ve basically abandoned it. And this process started at the same time that neoliberal economic policies were introduced in the mid ‘80s and ‘90s. That's when postmodernism took root.
So, these two trends, neoliberalism and postmodernism, are contemporary. And in some ways you might say they facilitate each other. Certainly, most university administrators have a neoliberal approach to education, which I find to be troubling, as I mentioned in the book. But they also will make use of postmodern ideas that percolate into critical race theory, whiteness studies, and queer theory for the purpose of collective virtue signaling, so that they don't have to address the underlying economic inequalities that create the deep polarization in our society.
In your book, you wrote that left-wing authoritarians posed the biggest threat to themselves because they splintered the left. Do you think that’s still the case?
I do. Partly because whenever left-wing authoritarians grab headlines in one way, shape or form, they create ammunition for the right. And rather than mitigating the severity of the culture wars and creating a space towards the centre where centre-right and centre-left people can meet, and give each other credit for their good intentions, and try and come up with solutions they can both live with — which is how democracy is supposed to work — rather than doing that, they give the right ammunition, and the culture wars get more envenomed, more intense, more unmanageable to the point where it leads to chaos.
Talking bigger picture, we’re in this moment where, as I said, these academic ideas have incredible influence and power. Yet most people I interview have no understanding of where these ideas come from. How have these ideas gained so much traction in the mainstream?
To be perfectly honest, I’m at a loss to understand why postmodern social theory has had such a profound influence on left-wing social movements in the past four decades. To some extent, I think, this is a sign of the times, and it reflects collective disappointment, collective disenchantment, and collective disbelief in the continuing relevance of Marxism and critical theory, and the whole legacy of the Enlightenment. Which is a great pity, of course. But the reasons why postmodernism seems so sexy to many people in academia still eludes me. I really don’t know why. I really don’t.
What are its positive attractions? Maybe it’s that you can make a career out of this if you learn how to speak the languages that they speak. Although most of what these people do is just political theatre. It doesn’t really have any impact on people’s lives. It is so far detached from ordinary people’s lives that this gets back to one of the big problems of the left today — that it’s out of touch with the working class.
We’re in this crazy moment in history. We just had this national emergency in Canada. Now there is an international crisis with Ukraine. What are your thoughts on where we go from here?
The geopolitical situation is so volatile right now that I don’t think we can anticipate what the future holds in store. There are so many different possible scenarios. Like many people, I’m hoping — I’m not at all convinced that this would happen, but I’m hoping — that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will rally the West and non-Western democracies to their senses and bring about an economic and geopolitical realignment which will help protect the world’s remaining democracies, prompting people who score low on the authoritarianism scale to gradually disassociate themselves from the more extreme positions of their higher scoring counterparts on both sides of the political spectrum.
Because if democracies in Europe, the Anglosphere and non-Western countries like India, Japan, Taiwan, and so forth, if they can withstand the all but inevitable assaults they’re facing, and we are facing from Russia and China, in the not-too-distant future, and if centre-left and centre-right constituencies in these democracies can find viable ways to dialogue and cooperate in defensive democracy, we may still have a fighting chance. But if not, I'm afraid we're done for.
So, a moment of incredible uncertainty.
Yeah. And a lot of people are feeling it. A lot of people are feeling it acutely. In terms of the truckers’ strike, I think that’s been completely overshadowed by events in Ukraine. The people who actively supported the strike no doubt still harbour resentments about the ways they were treated and depicted in popular media. In the long run, I don’t think it’s going to have a huge impact on Canadian politics. The Ukraine situation overshadows everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.