YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 19, 2012

Communist ideas go mainstream

Rosa Luxemburg

[This blog should be read in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2012/08/20/ernest-hemingway-carlos-baker-and-the-spanish-civil-war/.]

The most important idea in this blog: that the original Progressives wanted a regulated capitalism that would stave off the specter of red revolution. Their enemies were Gilded Age robber barons/ finance capital, but more so, a militant working class that seemed to be on the march, especially during the riotous year of 1919, but before that, in the take-off period for industrial capitalism after the Civil War. In the first eight months of 1919–in August introducing the first article publicizing the ostensibly forgotten Herman Melville (1819-1891), The Nation magazine advised its conservative readers to move sharply to the left, outflanking the Industrial Workers of the World and its evil twin the Socialist Party. Oswald Garrison Villard’s influential magazine preached “honest Anglo-Saxon populism” of the communitarian sort that such Anglo-Saxon upper-Midwesterners such as Ernest Hemingway would embody in his novels, for instance in A Farewell to Arms (where war is blamed on the upper classes, and suffered by hapless peasants), and then For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940, written shortly before EH was to be recruited by the KGB as revealed in The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, 2009, see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/).

Nation writers in 1919 also made a vital distinction between industrial capital and finance capital: the latter were Shylocks, while industrial capital was, by contrast, close to the earth, *suggesting the same primitivism, earthiness, and regressive use of language [childish prattle?] that Hemingway (a.k.a. “Hemingstein”) admired. They also posited mystical bonds to unite society, for they were at heart organic conservatives, hostile to anything that smacked of empiricism or “materialism.” Above all, they preached deference to gentlemanly, compassionate Anglo-Saxon experts, who, properly reconstructed, would avoid the extremes of heartless laissez-faire capitalism and communist revolution (Jew/Jacobin-led mob rule). That is why I call them the moderate men, and these moderates can be found in both political parties today, arguing for “the neutral state,” while at the same time, the moderate men are attuned to life among the lowly (see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/, with its bizarre notion that all conflict can be reconciled by the artful, manipulative “mediator” bringing progressive ideas of order to the “mixed-economy”).

For a detailed account of The Nation line in January-August 1919, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. For more on the separation of finance capital from industrial capital see https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.

In a more recent blog, I summarized the main ideas of Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes in their detailed summation of the Communist movement in the U.S. (See https://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 literary scholars say, the Red Decade, where virtually every important writer studied Marx and Lenin, with many joining the communist movement, though there were vicious animosities between Stalinists and Trotskyists that remain relevant today (for instance, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, between readers of The New Masses and Partisan Review). Klehr and Haynes argue that the communist movement today is weak and nearly defunct, but did not trace the infiltration of Leninist statism into the progressive movement and the New Left, though they mention several instances where New Deal strategies such as social security were first introduced by the CPUSA (but see Professor Cherny’s objection to this claim below in his lengthy comment).

Marcus Garvey

New Left developments: The civil rights movement, under infiltration by communist thinkers and organizers, quickly turned from an integrationist movement (the MLK Jr. line) to a militantly cultural nationalist movement, drawing on both the cultural pluralism introduced by earlier progressives, and the separatism advocated by avowed fascists such as Marcus Garvey (a petit-bourgeois radical and precursor to Malcolm X), or by Communists  advocating a Black Belt in the deep American South as reparations for the horrors of slavery, debt-peonage, and Jim Crow.

Schine, McCarthy, Cohn

The New Left (many of whom were readers and admirers of the anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist British Left still reeling from the 1956 revelations about Stalin) defined itself as “anti-anti-Communist,” with a great horror of McCarthy and his vile [Jewish] henchmen, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, arguing that anticommunism was a (continued) cover for right-wing opposition to the statist New Deal, and of course that we had not “lost China” as “right-wing loons” had insisted. It was this 1960s generation that turned once again to history from the bottoms up, or social history or cultural history, histories that had already been made fashionable and appealing by 1930s progressive journalists, authors, songwriters, filmmakers, and playwrights  celebrating the Common Man/the Salt of the Earth.  See https://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/, but also recent blogs on such figures as Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein, and Martha Gellhorn. Today, NPR, the Pacifica Foundation, and academic departments of humanities  continue the populist-communitarian strain extant since the last decade of the 19th century, antisemitism and all. What a shock it must have been when Yale University Press published its series of books that delved into the briefly opened Soviet archives, revealing that Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, et al, were guilty of espionage after all, that Whittaker Chambers was no sociopath, and though McCarthy was a vile opportunist, he was not so far off the mark as liberals had insisted.

TIME Cover, March 8, 1954

Although in prior blogs I have made sharp distinctions between liberal anticommunists (social democrats) and hardcore communists and fascists, the statism and crypto-elitism advanced by “progressivism” have so blurred the boundaries between social democracy and full-fledged Marxist-Leninism that I cannot blame those on the Right who conflate all the variant statisms into one huge encroaching monster. Popular Front politics did not stop in 1939, but persist into the present.

*It was Nation writer Lincoln Colcord who draw a distinction between “international bankers” versus “commercial bankers”; the latter were closer to the site of production, hence would make concessions to labor, whereas the international bankers were solely involved with the extraction of profits. Cf. J. A. Hobson, also favorably cited by The Nation in this period.


November 24, 2009

Perceptions of the enemy

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (1990)


I have reformatted this blog and added material: see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/. Ignore this version.


Some mistaken identities. I don’t think that some “Right-wing” partisans understand Leftists, often conflating revolutionary socialists, anarchists, and [anticommunist] social democrats. And yet media pundits constantly refer to “the Left” as if it still existed in its historic 19th and 20th century red-hot formulations and in the same numbers. What is lost is the memory of moderate conservatives or conservative reformers like FDR (descendants of New Dealers, now called “the Left”) and their practices of lopping off those who were to their left, that is, the structural reformers, unless there was a “Popular Front” against looming internal and external fascism, as did exist from 1935 until the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939.  At what point did these “moderate conservatives” as they called themselves  metamorphose into “the Left” as sole defenders of the little guy? I am guessing around 1919. More on that another time, or see chapter two of my book on the Melville revival. 

From long experience with leftists and the entire socialist-communist-social democratic traditions, however, despite their sharp differences in goals and tactics, I can generalize about them as follows:  All factions of “the Left” believe themselves to be the true bearers of morality and that conservatives are heartless fascist* murderers. By contrast, as progressives they see themselves as sacrificing their own personalities, economic interests, and happiness for “the public good” or “suffering humanity”; to be one of them, you must “stand with the oppressed,” even if that means helping Hamas. In other words, they seek to uplift those whom “the Right” (e.g. Israel) knowingly and viciously victimizes. And unless they follow Kant and Rosa Luxemberg, they may accomplish this grand goal “by any means necessary.” (e.g. see Trey Ellis in HuffPo, 12-16: “The Obama administration needs to course-correct immediately. He needs to make a series of bold, muscular, ruthlessly political moves immediately (reconciliation anyone?) to put the fear of god into all those puny adversaries out there that have been pushing him around with impunity.”)  So they are the true humanitarians in their own eyes and the antitheses of the “fascists” they valiantly oppose.

 Also, do not minimize both continuities and ruptures between the factions of what is loosely called “the Left.” Anyone who has studied or had contact with revolutionary socialists knows about their history of sectarianism. It makes Protestantism look demure and pure. They have killed or sacrificed  each other without hesitation: just look at what the Stalinists did to Trotskyists and Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, or the notorious Stalin purges of his former comrades, not to speak of other communists with Jewish backgrounds, a process that ceased only with his death in 1953. But mixing them in with social democrats is absurd, for the motley Marxist-Leninists inhabit mostly such outposts as Pacifica Radio, a few journals, and increasingly-criticized departments of comparative literature and other humanities.
 But most crucially, “right-wing social democrats” (as some Leftists call them, distinguishing them from the Second International left-wing social democrats favoring incremental reforms) have an entirely different lineage from the Marxist-Leninists.  As I have shown in other blogs, European aristocrats, following Bismarck and before that, reformers in Great Britain, “christianized” the new [“jewified”] industrial society with social insurance that we now call the welfare state. (See my blog The Enigmatic Face of Philosemitism https://clarespark.com/2009/10/29/the-enigmatic-face-of-philosemitism/.) 
As for those artists who once were reds in the 1930s, many of them shifted to populism/progressivism when they saw that the Communist Party wanted to control their work. Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan are two examples. I was particularly disturbed by their film, A Face in the Crowd (1957), that pinned fascism on the media-worshipping mass audience that had elevated the loutish “Lonesome Rhodes,” whose meteoric career had been aided and abetted by a female sentimental liberal–a stand-in for the moral mother, perhaps the figure who had driven them into the arms of the 1930s authoritarian Left. In other words, though Schulberg and Kazan  professed themselves to be progressives, they replicated the aristocratic explanation for fascism as “the revolt of the masses,” bamboozled by the new mass media (radio and television), and shadowed by anti-progressive old money, particularly as embodied in immoral and hidebound Southern politicians.
    Here are some quotes from the screenplay: Lonesome Rhodes (the demagogue who has risen from the People):  “You made me, Marcia.  You made me, Marcia, I owe it all to you.” [Marcia, the arty, sentimental Liberal]:”I know it.”  Marcia, explicitly linked to “marshes” (i.e., quagmires) and ever the guilty mother, finally aware of the duplicity of her monstrous birth, opens the microphone to expose Lonesome’s secret contempt for the TV audience (the common folk) who adore him and who would turn the State over to his fascist backers. [Lonesome Rhodes is ruined:]  “It was the sound man.  I’ll get that dirty stinking little mechanical genius [who did this to me].”  [Marcia:] “It was me.”  The Muckraker’s last words rectify the sentiment of Lonesome’s banner (“There’s nothing so trustworthy as the ordinary mind of the ordinary man.”)  [Muckraking journalist to Marcia:] “You were taken in.  But we get wise to him [the Lonesome/Hitler type]; that’s our strength.”  Mama’s boy, a.k.a. Lonesome’s last words wailed from a balcony (and the night) as Marcia and muckraker depart:  “Marcia, don’t leave me…come back.” That Marcia destroyed her monstrous birth is missing from Nicholas Beck’s “bio-bibliography” of Schulberg, where Lonesome is supposed to be the agent of his own destruction (p.59, fn4, quoting Donald Chase).
Stand-ins for the controlling parent? Conservatives must read their antagonists without caricatures and without mistaking their objectives.  Revolutionary socialists and social democrats are not simply “elitists” who think they know what is best for others (though many think that “the Right” is not only monolithic, but selfish, square, dumb, and fanatical, unlike, say, those who run National Public Radio, while many on the Right return the favor, lumping all leftists and social democrats together as elitist conspirators/fascists). It is more complicated than that, though reds and “liberals” do favor various degrees of statism to rectify social inequities and achieve what all call “social justice.” In the end, we could make the public discourse on politics more rational by specifying competing theories of the good society:
Libertarians find wealth creation through free markets a good thing and, in the case of the better educated, believe that the state should protect this process through sound monetary policy. The social democratic Left (a.k.a. the moderate men) sees the state as planning rationally to compensate for what they believe to be a weak and unstable system: capitalism. Nothing is so scary as great gaps between rich and poor, for that portends another bloody French Revolution. If that means that everyone is relatively poor in the quasi-socialist utopia, such asceticism is better than the suffering of the victims du jour while the ever libertine rich feast and thoughtlessly indulge their animal appetites for glitter and other luxuries, hence “bourgeoisifying,” i.e., corrupting, the tastes and desires of the working-class. And some conservatives, angry combatants in the culture wars, even as they invoke the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers, seek to impose their own morality on those who don’t share the same “values,” (e.g. pro-life, anti-gay marriage, opposition to stem-cell research using frozen embryos, creationism or intelligent design, the superiority of a rural way of life), thus nullifying the separation of Church and State that has served us so well. But I caution my readers who remain somewhere on “the Left” that conservatives are not evil or demented when they find such developments as the hyper-sexualization of women and children to be dangerous and destructive, or wonder, as I do, how it happened that sadomasochism became acceptable, even fashionable. And remember that Lord Maynard Keynes thought that his measures to relieve a depression were not to be permanently institutionalized. 
POPULISM. According to Rasmussen Reports, 55% of the American public is populist, i.e., they believe that government and big business are in cahoots, which makes sense if you understand that small business and big business are in conflict. Interestingly given our generally anticommunist polity, this is the analysis of the Marxist-Leninist Left: the state is an executive committee of the big bourgeoisie (as opposed to the state being an independent institution with its own interests, see sociologist Michael Mann’s books). Populism is a subject I have written about extensively on this website. It claims to speak for “the people” against “the special interests” or “Wall Street” or “the military-industrial complex” or some other dread agglomeration such as “the Jews” or “white males.”As such, it speaks to class resentments and is irrational. Whether of the Left or of the Right, populism is not good for analyzing concrete institutions and their policies. Moreover, as indicated above, it does not distinguish between fractions of those who make decisions for the rest of us, each of which has different and possibly clashing interests with others in the so-called “ruling class.” Populists are incapable of writing accurate histories, but seem content to follow their leaders. And their leaders, insofar as they resort to demagoguery, don’t really care about the folks.
*Contending defintions of “fascism.” By “fascists” the social democratic ‘left’ means a society practicing “laissez-faire” economics, militarism, hypernationalism (“national chauvinism”), the manipulation of public opinion through heavy-handed propaganda, and imperialism/racism. This absolves social democracy of continuities or comparisons with statist fascism and Nazism, not to speak of their zealousness in attacking “rugged individualism,” the American unpardonable sin that is imagined to persist beyond the pioneer period. By contrast, revolutionary socialists generally refer to the rule of finance capital or monopoly capital or “late capitalism” when they write of fascism and Nazism. Social democrats, true to their Platonic Guardian-philosopher-king heritage, tend to see fascism as the revolt of the masses, as noted above. Much psychiatry/psychoanalysis seeks to manage these “id-forces” and may be more powerful than we think in influencing the medical culture of postwar America. For more on the practice of psychoanalysis at a distance, see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/. The importance of the father as leader and as commander of a tight militarized family unit with high morale cannot be overemphasized, a point forcefully made in the last section of the blog just cited, where I analyze the politics of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

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