YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 2, 2013

“Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics

Leninism-picturePolarization. Pundits and politicians today often complain about “polarization” as an obstacle to “compromise,” without acknowledging that there may be irreconcilable conflicts that cannot be mediated, no matter how skillful or flexible the warring parties. However, it is acknowledged that the two major political parties are at odds over the best way to achieve economic growth: Democrats  want Keynesian demand-stimulus and government spending, while conservative Republicans and libertarians want free markets and limited government as the road to prosperity, for it is the private sector that holds their attention, though some of their admired forbears advocated a government safety net (the Friedmans, Hayek). Perhaps we should calm down a bit: there are two capitalist parties, and no one is ideologically inclined to eliminate the other Party, at least not yet.

Single-issue politics. Social movements of the 1960s that piggy-backed off the civil rights movement  (antiwar, feminism, gay rights, animal rights, environmentalism, now Latino/Hispanic rights) are generally supported by liberals, but tend to dismay conservatives, who see such issues as feminism and gay rights as destructive to the family and even causes of cultural decline and coarsening): hence the “culture wars.” And no one is giving an inch, so that single-issue politics tend to polarize us even further, with each side in the various struggles accusing their opponents of authoritarianism, narrow-mindedness or even “totalitarian” tendencies.

Leftists would have to view single-issue politics as mostly disruptive and even a bourgeois distraction to the class struggle, which will, after the revolution, remove all obstacles to the development of the human personality under the new dispensation. Whereas I see these various movements as incommensurate, that is, they should be treated as separate entities with different histories and implications for how we manage the economy. They should not be jumbled together or even compared to the struggle of black Americans to achieve equality of opportunity.

Totalitarianism. I asked some of my Facebook friends to explain what they meant by “totalitarianism.” They agreed that it signified a kind of statism that would go beyond anything we have now in the West, eliminating all civil liberties, freedom of speech, etc. Nearly all read Orwell, and already feel the heat of Big Brother in some tendencies of the Obama administration, or even in the social movements mentioned above insofar as they impose PC or are alarmingly “secular.” Orwell was unenthused over “secularism” too: see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/. Meanwhile, pundits of the Right and even the middle, tend to use “totalitarianism” in a manner that equates Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany as functional equivalents, which Orwell did not, hoping for an English “Socialism.” (Orwell did see Socialism as an ongoing theme in Nazi Germany, but he was mistaken. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/12/10/were-nazis-socialists/.) For other writers, the Holocaust is viewed as terrible, but a distraction from the millions of victims under the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In his conclusions to The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution: Ideological Polarization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 1981, Transaction Press paperback ed., 1991) Jacob Talmon does not equate the terror states of Nazis and the Soviets, reducing each to a kind of ultra–statism, though both regimes had to resort to terror in order to discipline their constituencies. They had different historical trajectories as I have constantly argued here before. Nazis regressed to the brutalities of the archaic and to feudal social relations, while Reds believed they were emancipating the lower orders from the modern world as directed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Reds would complete the unfulfilled bourgeois project, while Nazism was a counter-revolution. (Irving Louis Horowitz appropriates Talmon to paper over the polarities that Talmon emphasizes between Nazis and Soviets, in my view, because Horowitz is allied with such as Hannah Arendt. Page numbers below are from the Transaction Press version.)

Several years ago, I vehemently criticized Jonah Goldberg’s best seller Liberal Fascism as misleading and wrong-headed. (See  https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) Since reading the Goldberg  book, one that was much admired on the Right, I have read Eric Hobsbawm’s  tetralogy on modernity that does find communism to be an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/, https://clarespark.com/2013/01/15/golden-globes-lincoln-clinton-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/) .

The redoubtable historian Jacob Talmon covered the same period as Eric Hobsbawm, but from a liberal anti-communist point of view. He faults both Leninism and the various fascisms for erasing the conception of humanity and the value of the individual, but would never agree with Jonah Goldberg that progressivism was a precursor to a kind of “liberal fascism”, i.e. to the excessive statism that alarms the Republican Party, libertarians, and some of the writers for National Review.

Jacob Talmon Stamps

Jonah Goldberg, a popular writer, was in over his head.

Here is an example of what Talmon means by “totalitarianism” in the drive toward Soviet bureaucratic centralism or “totalitarian democracy” : “Lenin experienced that sense of movement, of the eternal tug of war, of unbridgeable contradictions, of the approaching crisis, with an intensity and urgency unmatched by anyone in his circle….movement, contradiction, conflict, breakthrough, change were to him encased in an evolving totality held together by the iron-cast law of historical inevitability. The irresistible march of history could neither be affected nor could be allowed to be interfered with by human arbitrariness, caprice, preferences, feelings, sentiments, residual inhibitions.” (p.339) In Lenin’s historical imagination, the bourgeoisie (finance capital) was the oppressor standing in the way of the development of “personality.” A dictatorship of the proletariat” would destroy the bourgeoisie, thus going all the way to fulfilling the promise of Enlightenment and its liberation of thought.

For these authors, “totalitarianism” is less about total control, but rather a “breakthrough,” a “vision of revolution” that seeks to overturn the world as it exists in its totality. Totality is the essence of the world “totalitarian.”  Nazism overthrows the German Right and the Weimar social democrats, while celebrating neo-feudal social relations, with the Leader directing the organic racially purified “people’s community” (the integral Nation). By contrast, communism imagines an international working class proletarian brotherhood, who have abolished nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Without these evil “isms” all people would be able to develop a full individuality. But the fascisms deter anything smacking of the individual, glorifying instead the State/Party/as the embodiment of the people’s community. For Mussolini there was nothing outside the State, and the State would work its coercive magic on the sindicati (He had once been a revolutionary Syndicalist, influenced by George Sorel, and his masculinist cult of violence and war.)

(Hitler’s volkischness would be enlarged globally so that each state, under German leadership, would be its own racially pure polity, but his war aims were mostly directed to stopping the  Soviets and expanding into the Slavic areas that were bread  baskets; that would entail enslaving the inferior Slavs.)

Populism. But everyone, Populist-Progressives, anarchists, George Sorel, and all the anticapitalists in Europe, including Nazis and Leninists alike, hated the rule of money, going so far as to stigmatize “economic determinism” as a Jewish imposition. For  Lenin. insofar as he was influenced by J. A.  Hobson,  finance capital was seen as a Jewish plot to take over the world (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/, and Talmon pp. 204, 439, 473-74 and passim); for Hitler, “Jewish Bolshevism” was a front for finance capital (also “Jewish”) and worse, the Jews were the “anti-race,” for they valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species: Talmon insists on this.

We should get our history straightened out, recognizing the stunted political imagination that the careless use of political language imposes. Now that defiled brain is a species of terror. And it feels “totalitarian” to me.


March 26, 2011

“Race,” Class, and Gender

Alexander Saxton, ca. 1948

One Facebook friend (a neocon) has asked me to justify the current emphasis on “race, class, and gender” throughout the curriculum. He believes that the Battle of Gettysburg (i.e. military history) has been squashed in the general stampede toward relevancy. It happens that when I was program director of Pacifica’s Los Angeles radio station, KPFK-FM, I initiated a resolution that was adopted by all the other program directors and then ratified by the National Board of the Pacifica Foundation, that all programmers in our network should be responsible for educating themselves in the history of minorities, women, and labor, understanding that we were to attempt new syntheses that other, more constrained, journalists were not likely to emulate.  I did the same when I was in graduate school at UCLA, and encountered stubborn resistance to the identical resolution I proposed while representing all the graduate students in the University of California system. This blog is about what I meant, why I advanced this proposal, and how other academics and journalists have dealt with the issues I raised.

1. Why I did it in the first place. All in my generation and in the one following were deeply affected by the civil rights movement and by the turmoil on the campuses of the major universities in opposition to the Viet Nam war. Had I not been a science major, laden with mostly science classes, perhaps I would have learned something about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow in college, but I did not. Even in graduate school, academic study of race in America was mostly centered around two debates: First, did slavery pay? And two, did slavery destroy the black family and to what extent did slaves revolt, resist, or accommodate to their condition, with lingering effects into the present? Since then (the 1980s) a massive amount of work has been done in these fields, though I have complained about black nationalism as controlling these studies, and hold to that view today, as my prior blogs have demonstrated.

Moreover, the 60s movements and the feminist movement were intertwined. I had never thought that there was anything particularly odd about the socialization of women until I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the early 1970s. I cannot count on any man to fully understand the subjugation of women unless he is particularly enlightened and has daughters (especially if he has no sons). The gay rights movement too has focused our attention on gender socialization and power between the sexes. My early socialization has not yet been repaired, to my sorrow.

2.  Race, class, and gender at UCLA Department of History in the 1980s onward.  As I have written previously on this website, the left-liberal professors with whom I studied often collapsed class into race, following the historian Edmund Morgan, who had been much affected by the 1960s movements for native American rights and civil rights in general.  With the exception of a Trotskyist professor, class struggle was no longer the engine of history, it was racial struggle that was front and center. The feminist professors were generally progressives (i.e., statists), which could mean straight-up communism or social democracy.  Even labor historians bought into the new social history, and attributed the failure of socialism in America to cultural reasons, mostly attributing its flaws to white working-class racism and/or embourgeoisment.  Although my dissertation director, Alexander Saxton, thought that “race,” unlike class, was “socially constructed,” he still wrote books about working-class racism and “the white republic.” Everyone was hostile to the “consumerism” that afflicted “mass culture.” Luckily for me, my dissertation topic was the revival of Herman Melville’s reputation between the world wars (thank you, Alex! a “proletarian novelist” in his pre-academic life), so that led me into European intellectual history and away from an obsession with heterosexual white male supremacy. I became extremely interested in the massive transformations in politics that followed the invention of the printing press and the gradual spread of mass literacy and numeracy. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/.) This focus emancipated me from reliance on class, race, and gender as the explanation for everything and, with a new alertness to the construction of the 20th century humanities curriculum, I soon found myself deep into the history of racial theory and the origins of multiculturalism. “Race” was indeed socially constructed, and a racialist discourse dominates cultural history today, blotting out conflicts of interest having to do with both class and gender, each of which is a material fact. (In this respect, Saxton and I were in complete agreement.)

3. Is class of any relevance? For communists and populists alike, class is everything, and whole upper-class lives may be darkened with fears of servile revolt or, in “the lower orders,” deep, roiling unfocused anger at such targets as Wall Street and the rich in general.  (Antisemitism can be found in rich and poor alike: for the wealthy, Jews are innovators and troublemakers, stirring up revolt and class hatred: Christian love is the antidote for “Jewish” hate. For the poor, Jews are often the agents of modernity that uprooted them from an idyllic, communal, agrarian past and abandoned them to the lonely crowd. )

However, no historian can ignore concrete class interests in describing continuity and change. My (male) reader who objected to “race, class, and gender” was worried about military history and diplomatic history, and I would add international relations in general. Very few individuals in any period of history are so brilliant and versatile as to be able to form a comprehensive history of even one significant event, taking all variables into account.  It is true that international relations and diplomatic history require intensive study and special training  (and even then, the fields are filled with factions that despise each other). But to deprive oneself of crucial analytic tools (i.e., class interest, views of race and national character, or gender roles and socialization in a given historical moment), is to etiolate one’s own grey matter as one undertakes the daunting task of writing history and constructing new and better syntheses. [This blog should be read in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/.]

Alexander Saxton as I knew him

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