YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 16, 2012

Marx, anarchist rivals, and our enigmatic President

[For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/. Also, http://clarespark.com/2012/09/14/ron-paul-anarchist-in-chief/]

Because the history of radical thought is rarely taught objectively, if at all, in the universities, much of the electorate is at the mercy of any anti-statist conservative who takes it upon himself to write a book about his political enemies, tarring them with the brush of either communism, fascism, or “totalitarianism” (the latter conflating communism and Nazism/ fascism, which have differing political genealogies, and differ sharply with respect to the Enlightenment).

We remain in an attenuated political culture, because leftists and liberals alike dominate the teaching of the humanities in the public schools, and elite universities (both private and public). Right wing protest attempts to overcome the leftist monopoly with largely religious claims that are often flawed, for instance, holding “atheism” or “materialism” or “science” or “technology” or “feminism” or “gays” responsible for the perceived decadence of our times.

At the same time, many vocal post-60s leftists refuse to acknowledge that this is a big country, with diverse belief systems. Hence their political tactics may be intolerant and lacking in empathy for those who find purpose and meaning in Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, etc. Enter the fiercely argued culture wars, where “secularism,” to take one example, has been transformed from the separation of Church and State to “godless Communism.” Do we enjoy Ayn Rand’s novels? She must be the devil, for she was a materialist who lauded creative achievement in this world. What we may not do is view her as the product of a particular moment in history, when collectivism (either Soviet Communism or the New Deal) was justified as the realization of altruism, a quality held to be lacking in dog-eat-dog hyper-individualistic industrial society, controlled by “economic royalists” as FDR named his opponents. At a moment when social bonds were mystical (as envisioned by either the corporatist liberals or the Soviets), Rand defended science, technology, and the materialist Enlightenment:  for Rand social bonds were rational and based on competence in manipulating the materials of this world.

What to do when there is no common basis for agreement regarding fundamental values, let alone the application of the Constitution to an industrialized or post-industrial society such as our own? My personal solution is to defend scientific method, political pluralism (on “cultural pluralism” see http://clarespark.com/2013/09/26/cultural-pluralism-vs-multiculturalism/), and creative freedom against all authoritarian tendencies, whether these emanate from the Left, the “moderate men,” or the Right. That is the purpose of the website, and decades earlier, was the project of my radio programs on KPFK-FM, Los Angeles. Whereas “leftists”(including anarchists) claim to stand with “the oppressed,” I stand with artists, the unleashed imagination, and the creative spirit in general, which I believe each one of our species possesses.

Yesterday, I promised my Facebook friends that I would try to write a blog distinguishing between Karl Marx and his anarchist rivals. Looking over the various Wikipedia biographies of the major actors in this (anarchist) trend in European history (see below), I was daunted, even floored. But I did discover that Noam Chomsky admired such anarchist thinkers as Bakunin (add Perry Anderson to that list), while Martin Luther King, Jr. is better seen as a descendant of Tolstoy.

As for Marx versus Lenin versus Mao-Tse-tung, I will summarize all too briefly what their differences were here (and note that I am drastically oversimplifying, and everything I write will be seen as reductionist and dumb by those who are intellectuals in the many left-wing sects):

  1. Marx was  hardly the sole critic of industrial society, but it is his apocalyptic prophecies of socialist revolution that distinguish him from his rivals. He believed that the working class would become immiserated, and that portions of the bourgeoisie would desert their class to join with the workers to “expropriate the expropriators.” This could  only happen in advanced industrial societies where the working class comprised the majority. Marx had little use for petit-bourgeois radicalism  (such as utopian socialism advanced by many of his contemporaries, including Robert Owen and the Fourierites in America). And he famously despised “the idiocy of rural life” and societies he considered to be backward, which aroused the fury of such as the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist Edward Said, along with other primitivists and antisemites. Most controversially, Marx predicted the withering away of the state after a relatively brief period of working class dictatorship. In his fantasies, the creative spirit soon would be enjoyed by everyone, once the commodifying capitalist boot was lifted from the necks of hapless workers.
  2. Soviet Communism. It was not supposed to happen in a backward country, but Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades took advantage of the Great War and Russia’s defeat to mount a  coup and a separate peace. Lenin was deeply influenced by J. A. Hobson, and one emphasis was breaking the stranglehold of finance capital (“the Jews”). Rather than allowing worker’s councils (as had sprung up in numerous locales), he supported “war communism” and “bureaucratic  centralism” that easily was transmuted by Stalin to “socialism in one country.” Meanwhile, Trotskyists broke with Stalinism to foment international revolution, while I. N. Steinberg, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries, fled for his life.
  3. Maoism. The Chinese Communists broke with Moscow from about 1958 onward. Mao’s theory that the peasants were the revolutionary class in China appealed to many radicals  with an agrarian bias. Such incendiary radicals as H. Bruce Franklin,  however, managed to defend Stalin while advocating Third World revolution  in the 1960s. Here is where the New Left and the anti-urban, libertarian, anarchistic “counter-culture” could join hands. “Old Guard” members of SDS finally lined up with the Democratic Party, while some of the “direct action” folk blew themselves up and their ideological offspring can be found in parts of the Occupy Wall Street, anti-globalization demonstrations. In pop culture they may “rage against the machine.”
  4. The irony of Marxism. For true Marxists, the bourgeoisie was a progressive class. This is basic, for without Adam Smith and Company, there would be no industrial society that could lead to a utopia that would eliminate toil and drudgery for the majority of humanity. For the others mentioned here and below in the biographies of the most important European anarchists, the bourgeoisie was evil, amoral, and thieving of the labor of workers and peasants. Nihilistic  gangs such as Baader-Meinhof or the Weathermen (as embodied in Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers) hold to the violence of George Sorel. To what extent their beliefs have penetrated youth culture I cannot say for certain, but it should worry us all.

Bernadine Dohrn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_materialism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proudhon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakunin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Tolstoy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Kropotkin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Sorel

Finally, given the intricacy of these European social movements and their chief ideologues, I hesitate to apply them willy nilly to American political figures. We are too given to easy labels, without nuance and without knowledge of revolutionary theories that were developed on crowded continents with autocratic ruling classes. There is no substitute for studying the labor movement in America. Let the intellectuals fret over “Why there is no socialism in America.”  We do better to study shifting coalitions in American political parties as they existed in the past and in the campaign year of 2012. Are the varied components of either the Democratic or the Republican parties compatible with each other, or are they at odds? And does or does not this internal incoherence complicate our picture of the often enigmatic Barack Obama and his challengers?

[Illustrated: Isaac N. Steinberg, briefly in a coalition government with Lenin, leader of the Left Social Revolutionaries, and author of Workshop of the Revolution, that denounced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the suppression of the mutinous Kronstadt sailors. Steinberg and his family--including his son Leo who went on to be a great and revered art historian--fled the Soviets in 1923. Steinberg went on to search for a homeland for the Jews that would not make them vulnerable to a sea of Arab neighbors.]

I.N. Steinberg

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5 Comments »

  1. I enjoy your blog and I find it very useful to discover the various strains of intellectual movements. In many respects I see these strains as the losers of numerous intellectual debates. They are in a sense the fodder that gave fuel to the winners as they honed their arguments and rose politically. As with all human thought, it moves in two directions, 1) toward a deeper understanding of various arguments and 2) toward wider abstractions that subsume the various intellectual strains and provide a wider understanding of the movements as they advance. I love studying history but I also think, in many respects, we sometimes ignore the wider abstractions because it is more difficult to find the commonalities and “take a stand” so to speak. As for myself, most of these intellectual movements and debates can be understood by finding their common premises and then determining whether those principles are good or evil. Almost all “leftist” movements were characterized by determinism, altruism and coercion. These ideas, for me, make the left undesirable and anyone who follows those strains of thought are worthy of rejection without a debate. I have already studied these strains and find them wanting for good reason. I save time and energy by rejecting them out of hand. Those ideas, as history has shown, will always end in total control so why argue or compromise? Why argue the same points over and over when you know they are wrongly conceived? Because the universities have become dominated by leftists and those ideas have been filtered through to society, our society is moving toward leftism. You’re right, conservatives are hardly a viable response but not all those who disagree with the left’s widest abstractions are conservatives. Some are actually scholars who look at philosophical movements and understand the fundamental premises that have harmed society through the ages – and they can argue on a higher level of discourse. There have been plenty of anti-leftists in our history but they have been censored by the left. This is why the right has devolved into anti-intellectualism…their intellectual champions have been ignored. We should fight this long-term trend and give the intellectuals who advocate reason, representative government and freedom a platform in the universities.

    Comment by Robert — August 17, 2012 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the informative post. I read your blog regularly because of its engagement with such ideological issues. However rather than tracing anti-establishment ideologies back to the 18th century enlightenment, I would look to the reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond to various heretical movements within the Catholic church during the middle ages, and, ultimately to the bible. By the same token, the theory and practice of statism has a history of millenia. That being said, I must admit that the question of historical beginnings is well nigh insoluble. Whatever historical origin one may posit is itself the product of a previous origin. By this line of thought all history begins with the big bang, if not before.

    Comment by david gansel — August 17, 2012 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

    • The figures I mentioned in the blog were all responding to the 17th century scientific revolution, then the French Revolution, but more, to the industrial revolution that had produced a new class. Also urbanization, a subject taken up elsewhere on the website.

      Comment by clarespark — August 17, 2012 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  3. [...] his political base as incoherent , thus bringing together most of the items listed above: (See http://clarespark.com/2012/08/16/marx-rivals-and-our-enigmatic-president/, and http://clarespark.com/2010/04/05/is-potus-crazy/ especially the sentence in bold face type: [...]

    Pingback by Diagnosing POTUS « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 17, 2012 @ 12:00 am | Reply


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