YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 3, 2012

Connecting vs. connecting the dots

George Wallace, ca. 1960s

In this campaign year, pundits are constantly complaining that Romney is not “connecting” with the electorate, because he is wealthy (but lacks “the King’s touch”?). The same accusation was directed at him by his populist competitor Rick Santorum, who did “connect” with Pennsylvania coal miners, because, he stated, it was in his blood. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/.) This emphasis on a vaguely stated  blood and soil “connection” should scare us, for it evades the question of policy, and which candidate offers better economic and diplomatic policy recommendations to maintain American institutions and national security. In the blog that follows, I will try to show how two major books, in their zeal to keep America steady,  fail to inform us of lingering irrationalism in American political culture, an irrationalism that is characteristic of the middle, not the “extremes.” These books are

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself  (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), and Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab: The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1970).

Here are two meticulously documented books written for the general reader. The first, by Klehr and Haynes,  concludes that although the communist movement was messianic and directed from Moscow, it was never a substantial threat to the American consensus; indeed, Communism did itself in through such errors as the blunder in running Henry Wallace for president in the Progressive Party campaign of 1948, preceded of course, by the zig-zagging moves of the late 1920s-early1930s, as it veered against the New Deal (seen as “social fascism”), followed by the Popular Front of 1935 onward, then the shock of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 (that killed the Popular Front), then after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, shifting back to Popular Front politics, only to be sunk once again by the revelations of Khrushchev in 1956. Klehr and Haynes see the years from 1960-1990 as “twilight years.”

I remember reading Ellen Schrecker’s book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford UP, 1986), when I first started my dissertation research.  She claimed that communism had always been relatively weak, and that the crusade mounted against it by the Right and by Trotskyists, had over-reacted to the detriment of our political culture. When I finished the Klehr-Haynes survey of (now defunct) communism in America, I had the sinking feeling that their book was not incompatible with Schrecker’s argument; that two scholars I greatly admired had not deviated from the “moderate” line of liberal anticommunism, which, while stigmatizing Marxist-Leninism as a religion, did not demand that it, along with its statism/bureaucratic collectivism, be banished from the democratic pluralist spectrum of competing interest groups; nor were they alarmed by the arrival of New Leftism and black nationalism from the 1960s onward. Such a drastic erasure would have linked the authors to the dread anti-intellectual, paranoid extremism of the far right, i.e. to the subject of Lipset and Raab’s survey of irrationalist social movements in the U.S.

In my own experience, both as programmer and for 18 months as Program Director at a Pacifica  radio station (KPFK-Los Angeles), then in graduate school at UCLA in the Department of History, I felt the sting of Communist ideology and organizing: Stalinists were entirely entrenched at Pacifica, and CPUSA organizing got me fired when I put a few Trotskyists on the air, programmers who were complaining about the Spanish Civil War and other insults to the amour propre of such as William Mandel, who used to read from Pravda as a legitimate source of news. Trotskyist intellectuals called their “progressive” competition Stalinoids, and that is an accurate term, though the CPUSA, directly and indirectly, continues to influence mass media, alternative media, and the humanities departments of the major universities, not with a nod to Stalin, but rather to Third Worldism and what they insist is the lamentable history of crooked capitalism in America. In other words, Klehr and Haynes did not consider the penetration of communist ideas into the progressive mainstream, though they point out several times communist initiatives that were taken up by the Roosevelt administration, also the general communist/populist hostility to “finance capital.” While at UCLA, there was no animus directed against Stalinism; rather I met many famous Communist academics, and those (Leninists) on the faculty supported separatist ethnic and women’s studies, just as 1930s Communists supported a Black Belt in the American South to compensate the descendants of slaves; i.e., the racialism of the multicultural discourse did not discourage Communists in the UCLA Department of History, and the most anti-imperialist students were rewarded with fellowships and jobs.

Moving on to Lipset and Raab. These authors come out of the Harvard school of sociology and social relations as it developed from about 1939 onward, linked most famously to the cultural anthropology  (or “structural functionalism”) of Talcott Parsons and the political science “typology” of Max Weber, along with the diagnosis of urban anomie postulated by Durkheim.  Here are the liberal anticommunists who contrast “democratic pluralism” with the “patterns of prejudice” they see as a continuing theme in U.S. political culture, all too given to hysteria. They too are progressive pundits, though, unlike journalists, as academics they were at the top of their profession and remain hegemonic. Among their targets such easy prey as the anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and George Wallace. They are big on how conservative elites ensnare unwary little people suffering from status deprivation. (And it was the “moderate” line after WW2, that the Nazis won by capturing the lower middle class, atomized by “mass society.” Democratic pluralism is their antidote to “mass culture.)

It was in their big book from 1970 that I saw multiculturalism/groupiness in action, with the notion of multiple group affiliations as the heartfelt solution to excessive cerebration by such “economic determinists” as Ralph Bunche in his late 1930s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/).  Lipset and Raab’s most important revision of class analysis was to redefine class altogether. Whereas Marxists defined class as a specific relationship to the means of production, analyzing power as distributed in given institutions, these Parsonians define class as a ladder, as “status” (i.e. “caste”) encompassing life style and income. What such a definition does is remove the question of contracts and their potential asymmetry from consciousness. All of mass media buy into this Lipset and Raab managerial definition. This erasure of classes as standing in a particular relation to each other, instead of “life style choices” demonstrates to me that such intellectuals have taken on the task of managing conflict by defining everyone who sees structural problems in our society as extremists. They cut out the anti-statist libertarian right who see free markets as wealth creators and the road to opportunity, and they cut out what is now called “the hard left” who make their case on the premise that capital/capitalism exploits not “labor” but a vaguely defined “middle class.”

Prometheus, Heinrich Fueger, 1817

Say what you will about the failures of the Soviet Union. At least its better advocates saw the communist experiment as the culmination of the Enlightenment and the realization of individuality. The best that the moderate men came up with has been “the inherent tension between social egalitarianism—the democratic impulse—and political liberty—democratic restraint.” (Lipset and Raab, p.514) By restraint, the authors mean the stamping out of excessive moralism and resentment, a moralism exemplified by the awful romantic New England Puritan. Moderates like us do not storm heaven, do not copy Prometheus, are generous of spirit; indeed our groupiness is spirituality personified. Orwell anyone? (For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.)

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6 Comments »

  1. [...] Klehr and John Earl Haynes in their detailed summation of the Communist movement in the U.S. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/06/03/connecting-vs-connecting-the-dots/. ) As Klehr and Haynes demonstrate the heyday of American communism was the Great Depression, or as [...]

    Pingback by Communist ideas go mainstream « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 19, 2012 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  2. A red flag should go up not only when we hear a political candidate criticized for his or her “roots” or ability to connect with the populace, but also when that person is described as irrational. Unless used in a clinical sense, irrationality is shorthand for serious disagreement, and is a useless precursor to what should be a discussion of clashing views. If an opinion seems crazy, exposure and ridicule should be an easy task. This is part and parcel of the same shoddy rhetorical trick of dealing with an opponent with the label of extremism. In modern times, arguments are not only centered on the popular acceptance of the respective positions, but come to a sudden halt at that point. From Paine to Goldwater to Marcuse, whose One Dimensional Man was required reading in the olden days when I was an undergrad at Cal, an American tradition existed of scorn for popular opinion. What has happened? The Maureen Dowd school of political gossip column has replaced a previously vigorous concern about basic political principles and their applicability to current problems. I fear that the Stalinists were not the only ones to consciously manipulate the academic system to promote their views. American intellectual life has been reduced to an emphasis on personal style and fads by academics who have contempt for the very process and discipline of argument, who have no interest in honestly exploring and taking on dissenting viewpoints, and who have created a generation of educated people who are insulted and perplexed when they encounter genuine debate. And those who no experience with debate can only psychoanalyze and stigmatize.

    Comment by Erik Anderson — June 9, 2012 @ 9:38 pm | Reply

    • I enjoyed reading your comment. I, too, find myself perplexed and saddened by the grasp that the academic system you describe has overtaken the “dialogue” that has overtaken the mainstream media and academia in general. You are correct that there is no interest in taking on opposing opinions as anyone with such opinions is automatically relegated to the intellectual scrap heap and scorned as just some rube.

      As a result, the concept of civility is seen by academics and their adoring worshipers in the media as a one way street. One side is free to issue ad hominem attacks and avoid actually replying to the arguments raised. The other side is guilty of not being intelligent enough to see how stupid their ideas are. To the bargain, they are accused of creating the present state of polarization that exists in our politics. “If only those rubes saw the light”. Meanwhile, the major issues of today are not properly debated. One side has, at least in the person of Paul Ryan, offered its approach to the most compelling problem of the day while the other side does no more than engage in temper tantrums and demagogy that do not begin even to approach the seriousness of this and other problems.

      Comment by Robert Ennis — June 10, 2012 @ 7:28 pm | Reply


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