The Culture Wars of the Left

Georges Demeny (1850–1917), Fencer, Photograph, 1906.


The world we had to live in.


The leftist tradition has always been characterized by an internal questioning of its intermediate strategies and objectives (ultimate ideals are sacred and inalienable). Its controversies have been the reason for clashes and divisions throughout history (reform or revolution, internationalism or socialism in a single country, popular front or split between socialists and communists, USSR or China or China or Albania, basic income or job guarantees, socioliberalism or statism, leftism or populism, institutional politics or street protests, etc., etc., etc.).

Internal struggles escalate when things don't go well, as they do now. I am not referring only to the electoral results (which, in any case, are not good: in Europe social democracy gets half the votes it did a few decades ago and the alternative left is unable to fill the gap), but, above all, to strategic disorientation. There is a proliferation of explanations and proposals of all kinds about the problems that afflict leftist parties.

There is a set within these explanations that have a familiar air, although they are quite different from each other. I list some of them. For some, the left did not know how to fight neoliberalism and allowed itself to be absorbed by the globalizing and financial elites. For others, the left was wrong in its policy of alliances with national, ethnic or cultural minorities, which led it to abandon its universalism. There are also those who think that the problem lies in the abandonment of the working class: the left has become elitist, it no longer understands or reasons like the workers. And finally there are those who believe that the underlying problem stems from postmodernism and American cultural studies: relativism (whose seed was sown in May '68) has sunk the left.

In all these diagnoses there is, more or less explicitly, an appeal to a purity that at some point was lost. In fact, it is possible to find a common denominator in all these diagnoses: it is the thesis that, in order to win, the left has to be internationalist, rationalist and working class (the ingredients can be mixed in very variable doses), and, of course, materialist , that is, we have to forget the ideological and identity disputes, which have almost become theological, and talk about wages, exploitation and distribution of wealth. If the left recovers these deep roots, which go back to the Enlightenment, it will be able to reconnect with society, that is, with the working class, which today hesitates and is tempted by neo-fascism, xenophobic forces and conservative parties.

The thesis states that it is necessary to go back in time, to make a clean sweep of the changes that took place in the late sixties and to resurrect the defense of workers' interests, speaking a language that connects with people's concerns. In practice, this thesis can even lead to positions that its critics call “red-brown” [“rojipardas”]: by assuming the working-class culture, the xenophobic outbreaks (the so-called “welfare chauvinism”) or the intolerance of what is different can be understood or excused. Naturally, those who are labeled “red-browns” [“rojipardos”] accuse their rivals of being elitist, neoliberal and postmodern, of living in a bubble and of pontificating from a moral superiority.


I will not give reasons for or against these positions. Instead, I would like to show, without resorting to ideological assumptions of any kind, that these polemics do not sufficiently correspond to social reality, moving on an excessively ideological plane. To unblock the game of oppositions I referred to, it is worth reviewing what we know about the social changes that have taken place in recent decades. From a more sociological point of view, it is possible to discover the limitations of these cultural wars within the left.

It is striking that in the ideological conflicts I referred to, so little attention is paid to the cultural and axiological changes that have taken place in advanced countries since the end of the XNUMXs. The pioneer in the study of cultural change, Ronald Inglehart, recently deceased, already showed in his first book, The silent revolution (1977), that there was a growing generational divide between those who suffered the harsh post-war conditions and the new generation who had the opportunity to enjoy the well-being brought by the “glorious thirty”. While the older generation was preoccupied with material issues (a living wage, housing, basic consumer goods), the next generation, having satisfied these basic needs, began to be preoccupied with other issues (rejection of war, criticism of consumer society, the pursuit of personal fulfillment, women's liberation, sexual freedom, the environment) what Inglehart generically called "post-materialist values" and, later, "self-expressive values". Post-materialists attach great importance to individual freedoms, lifestyle choices, in short, identities. In a way, the great mobilizations of young people in the late sixties and early seventies were an affirmation of post-materialist values ​​that did not have a political translation (they did not find the beach under the sidewalk) but considerably expanded the margins of personal freedom in relation to industrial societies.

This generational shift has continued ever since and has produced increasing tension between groups with materialist and post-materialist values. The consequences are evident. Issues such as civil rights, ecology and feminism, which did not play as much in the past, have become increasingly important on the left. However, not everyone shares these priorities, which generates tensions that are sometimes irresolvable. One way of understanding this transformation of politics is to consider that, in addition to the classic line of rupture in economic matters between more interventionist and redistributive positions and more liberal and less statist positions, a second line was imposed that has to do with the opposition between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, between VAL (green-alternative-liberal) and TAN (traditional-authoritarian-national), or between winners and losers of globalization.

An example will serve to illustrate the general thesis. In the referendum of Brexit, the Labor Party was split in two. On the one hand, the traditional working class, older in age, who miss the times of industrial society, imbued with a strong English nationalism, fearful of globalization and supranationalism, and very concerned about immigration, which they perceive not only as an economic but also a cultural threat, capable of dissolving society's traditional values; and, on the other hand, professionals, students, young people trained and integrated into the global economy, ecologists, pro-diversity, concerned about ethnic minorities and, of course, in favor of the European Union. The main difficulty for the Labor Party is to forge a coalition that includes both progressive materialist (and anti-EU) and post-materialist (and pro-EU) voters. They tried this with several leaders after the end of the Blair era (Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn and now Keir Starmer), with very different profiles, but none worked as expected.

The cultural shifts had, at first glance, disconcerting consequences. For example, the effect of education on ideological positions was reversed in relation to what occurred in the first post-war decades. So, in the past, a high level of education was a pretty clear sign of liberalism or conservatism, while less educated people opted for the left. Not only has this not been the case for some time, but the relationship has been reversed and, in fact, more educated voters (and in some cases with higher incomes) opt for green parties or parties of the new left. In Spain, without going too far, the most educated voter is in Podemos.

In European countries, the most solid group on the left is formed by “sociocultural professionals” (people who work in the culture, journalism, education, health or social care sectors). On the other hand, the working class, which in the golden age almost monolithically supported the social democratic or communist parties, now has important cracks. Important segments of this class have abandoned their traditional loyalties and vote for xenophobic parties of the radical right. Several explanations have been offered for this behavior, many of which have to do precisely with that second dimension or axis of conflict that I referred to earlier between cosmopolitanism and nationalism: the defense of national identity in the face of globalist cosmopolitanism would explain the transition of part of the class worker for the extreme right.

The greatest tensions are found in countries with a two-party system. With only one progressive party, the heterogeneity is enormous and the coalition between different groups seems precarious. The Democratic Party in the United States is an odd amalgamation of educated professionals from both coasts, ethnic minorities, and a cross section of the traditional working class. How long this coalition can hold together is anyone's guess. In countries with a multiparty system, greater specialization in electoral niches is possible. In recent years, green parties have grown considerably and bring together more educated young people with more emphatically post-materialist values, as opposed to traditional social democratic parties that maintain a more materialist culture.

With certain variations, some of these trends are visible in Spain. A moment ago I made passing reference to the case of Podemos, with a strongly “post-materialist” basis. The PSOE continues to appeal to the less qualified working classes. Vox lacks broad working-class support; however, it weighs slightly more in the party's global vote than in the case of the PP, which should be a cause for concern. This vote is a result of both the Spanish nationalism that Vox advocates in the face of Catalan independence (which includes everything from bullfighting to chuleta) and anti-immigrant attitudes.


The fragmentation of the left is a consequence of very profound social and cultural transformations. It won't be solved by simplistic diagnoses, nor are there miracle cures waiting around the corner. As of now, appeals to the past are a lost cause. The glorious working class will not return, even if ties with ethnic and cultural minorities are severed. And the cultural conflict between generations and productive sectors will not evaporate by decree. The problem is not in diversity, nor in nationalisms, nor in postmodernism. Today it is extremely difficult to find the glue that holds together the old working classes, the skilled post-materialist youth, the cosmopolitan professionals and the disadvantaged minorities. The left means very different things in its different support groups. Hence the virulence with which culture wars develop within the left; but also its futility.

*Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca is professor of political sciences at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Author, among other books by The democratic impotence (Cataract).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the magazine Context and Action (CTXT).


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