The Clare Spark Blog

August 16, 2012

Marx, anarchist rivals, and our enigmatic President

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/. Also, https://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 https://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 might 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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May 15, 2012

Progressive uplift vs. “New Left” nihilism

Bill Ayers, Weatherman

Several writers on the Right have been selling books with the premise that the Progressive movement in early 20th century America was protofascist, or fascist and racist. Their aim is to mobilize their constituencies to vote for organic conservatives like themselves in the hopes of halting “the nanny state.”  Similarly, they dwell on the President’s links to racist extremists in the period before he ran for office as a uniter, not a divider.

In this blog, I argue that it is an error to link in any way whatsoever the Progressive uplifters and more recent advocates of violence and anarchy. For uplift was an orderly process, an expression of the “moderate” strategies of the chief publicists of progressivism. It was also, at its core, defined against “revolutionary radicalism” as evidenced in the I.W.W. or anarchism in the labor movement. Here is a juicy example of their thought, taken from my book on Melville and from a previous blog. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/, also https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.)

[Revolutionary Radicalism, “Epilogue”:] “In this rapid survey of a new and important educational idea we have carried Marja, the immigrant girl, from king and caste-ridden Europe to America, the land of hope and opportunity. We have seen her struggle with an unknown tongue and with ways of life unfamiliar to her. In the end we see her transformed, reborn–no longer foreign and illiterate, but educated and self-respecting. Later she will marry and her children, though they may have traditions of another land and another blood, will be Americans in education and ideals of life, government and progress. It was been worth while that one man has broken through this barrier and made the road clear for others to follow.

“All real education has the development of discipline as its basis. Poise, self-control and self-esteem are characteristic of the well-ordered mind, and the growth of these in the industrial worker makes for efficient service and better wages. Gradually there is an awakening of social consciousness–the awareness of one’s place in society and the obligations such membership entails upon the individual in respect to the group or racial mass, with a constantly developing sense of one’s personal responsibility in all human relationships.

“In conclusion, the higher significance of this work means that we must descend the shaft and share the lives of those that dwell in the lower strata–the teeming populations that never see the stars or the green grass, scent the flowers or hear the birds sing–the huddled, hopeless foreign folk of the tenements. We are living in the Age of Service, and are growing into a conviction that life is not a matter of favored races or small, exclusive social groups, but embraces all humanity and reaches back to God. To those of prophetic soul comes a vision of the day that haunted Tennyson when ‘The war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled/ In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’ ” [From N.Y. State Legislature. Joint Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, Revolutionary radicalism: its history, purpose and tactics with an exposition and discussion of the steps being taken and required to curb it, being the report of the joint legislative committee investigating seditious activities filed April 24, 1920 in the Senate of the State of New York (Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1920), 2014, 2201, 3136-3137.]

Here we have a statement that is clearly ideological in favor of order and their version of Americanization; for a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/ .

Far different was the Prairie Fire contingent of Maoists (along with hippies and anarchists?): See /http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_Underground_Organization#Prairie_Fire_1974) who took over (replaced?) Students for A Democratic Society from the “Old Guard” in the late 1960s. First a bit of socialist history. In 19th century Marxist thought, it was the educated and urbanized working class that would comprise the vanguard of change. But after the stunning success of the Soviet coup in October 1917, Leninism (a branch of socialist thought that lauded bureaucratic centralism and the vanguard of intellectuals), the old Marxist anti-statist paradigm was discarded in favor of “Marxist-Leninism” with its attendant Trotskyist notion that the communist utopia could leapfrog over the bourgeois democratic phase, and stir the victims of imperialism to overthrow their European or American masters by any means necessary. (It was Stalin, not Trotsky, who insisted upon “socialism in one country.”) In China, a model for 1960s revolutionaries everywhere, the rural population was now the revolutionary vanguard, provided that they were taught by the correctly indoctrinated intellectual layer.

Such journalists as Theodore White and Edgar Snow transmitted the Maoist message to American radicals, where they received support from a communist-sympathetic faction in the U.S. Department of State.  (For details, see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.)

To these developments in revolutionary theory, add the general brutalization caused by the slaughter of the Great War, much emphasized by George L. Mosse and his students at the U. of Wisconsin; while in the realm of culture, primitivism ruled the 1920s as a white response to the growing power or prestige of New Negroes, New Women, and working class radicalism. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway’s rise to cultural prominence as a manly prose stylist may be seen as a purification of the too-florid and feminized Victorian culture that had put white males on the defensive. Supermen were wanted, and supermen were provided by our leading writers in the Nietzsche fad that still finds adherents among ambitious students, for instance those who follow such decadent musicians as Jim Morrison and the Doors.

And what were the order-loving nativists of the Progressive movement doing after the war? They were certainly not manning the outposts of the grand innovations of mass media, including radio and the movies. Rather, that task fell to recent immigrants, who sought audiences among the masses whose instinctive populism was fully exploited, as I described here in my blog on Charles Murray (https://clarespark.com/2012/05/04/3957/):

“Early Hollywood had no illusions about mass taste, and provided adventure, sex and violence to a readymade audience that already was alienated from snooty and exclusive nativist old families. The Mayers or Goldwyns or Laemmles and their movie or television offspring still adhere to populist feeling and a hefty dose of primitivism. Social realism and didacticism do not sell, except as a warning to other “liberals” that the natives are restless and gun toting, or that criminals may be running everything. But Murray is worried that the white working class is obese and watches too much television, as if the skinnier upper classes do not enjoy the more sophisticated adventures, romance, soft porn, escapism, and even artiness provided by the younger writers and producers, affected as they have been by counter-culture naughtiness, identification with Marlon Brando or James Dean, clever parodies, and fun.”

When I first started my Pacifica radio programs on the art world in the early 1970s, I noticed that the Los Angeles hipster male artists were fans of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Since I was relatively uneducated in the ways of black supremacy or nihilism* in general, I was not on guard. Not long ago, I checked out a copy of a manifesto titled Prairie Fire (1974), a production of the Weather Underground (authors William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn). It was so violent in its language and in its aims, that I had to put it down; it was simply unbearable in its stridency. For a fictional peek into the European nihilists who were their contemporaries, see William Herrick’s Love and Terror (1981), a brilliant and disturbing work that reveals the mindset of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The intellectual antecedents of such urban terrorists are not to be found in the utopian thought of Marx, but in the ravings of such radicals as Marx’s rivals: Proudhon and Bakunin, earlier Babeuf, later George Sorel. For all of them “property is theft” and no crime is too vicious, no product of human labor off limits to their fury and defiance.

I wrote this blog because I see the some of the same thuggery in some protest movements (the “Red-Greens”, the Occupy Wall Street troops, Chicano irredentism, or black liberationist tendencies–see photo of Michelle Obama associating with the Nation of Islam below). I worry that the Baby Boomer parents of the antiwar generation who raised their children to be spontaneous and creative, will only egg on the mindless acting out in which they, the sadder but un-wiser generation, frequently indulged as young women and men. These nouvelle enragées owe nothing to the progressives who led both American political parties to dominance in the 20thcentury. It is also true that Communists infiltrated the progressive movement, using the Popular Front as their entry. The writing of “cultural history” has been deformed accordingly.

*By nihilism, I do not refer to anthropology that argues for cultural relativism and historicism, but to the apparent promotion of “beast of prey” by Nietzsche in such works as Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, both read and studied by Jim Morrison (see comment below that defends Nietzsche against such readings).

Michelle Obama and friends

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