AC: Why do you think Mao looks so good?
PS: Because he said the kind of things – believed them and really inspired people to believe them – which have to be done to have a decent society. ‘Serve the people.’ ‘Public service not private gain.’ Marx, if he had come back alive, would have said Mao’s his boy… I haven’t seen anything in Marx that isn’t good. I think he’s got better and better, I really do. Mao is the only real Marxist at the leadership level in the post-Marx period. (Paul Sweezy[i] quoted in Alexander Cockburn’s excellent The Golden Age Is In Us)
It refers to the “revolutionary” Mao of the 1960s when he attacked the party apparatus, and in Harry Magdoff’s words, in the same interview, realised that the only way to remove the conflicts between the different parts of society, between bureaucrats and workers, intellectuals and the rest, was through hard struggle. We must fight for peace and equality!
One of the curious things about the fall of the Berlin Wall was that along with the concrete and graffiti went Socialism, and the majority of the Marxist Left in the West.[ii] This was despite the reconfiguration of the Sixties, when the Soviet Union was no longer seen as a viable alternative, the Communist Party had lost influence; a Left independent of the two superpowers was the main goal, and there was increasing scepticism about the role of the state.[iii] This passage may help explain why.
In part of course it was that Socialism had ossified. Massively influenced by the Russian Revolution the various strands of Socialist thought had coalesced around the need for the state to run things. We see this in the Labour Party with its inclusion of Clause 4 in its constitution in 1918; and the later monomania of its left wing around nationalisation, as the goal of a Socialist Labour Party. By the 1980s both the reality of the Soviet Union and our own nationalised industries condemned these ideas. However, the Communist countries embodied the ideal of state Socialism. Here was an existing society that was state run, and though admittedly oppressive and inefficient, it did offer a model on which a modified version, more liberal and free, within the greater prosperity of the West, could be based. Of course, Socialists knew of the problems of the Communist countries, but like everybody else they needed something substantive on which to attach their ideas (very few people can only live with abstraction). The Soviet Union sharing the same intellectual origins, and in part fulfilling them, offered an alternative that could be built on; it also offered hope that the Capitalist West could be transformed. When the Wall came down the hope and the ideal vanished too.
Thus in the passage above rather than a condemnation of the inhumanity of Mao, which is well documented, we see praise both for his words and deeds, but the latter, note, are idealised: “serve the people”, “public service”… It is that elision, of the actual record, between the intellectual ideas and the idealized pronouncements, that allows these illusions to live. The ideas are given a body that speaks; and it is this body’s words that count. So while something real needs to exist, to embody one’s own thoughts, not too much of its reality is required; just enough to give the barest outline, to provide the pedestal for the theoretical sculpture. Thus, as in so many cases, here too the mundane world of fact is of little consequence for our intellectuals; it is merely a springboard to dive off into the clear pools of speculation.
Too much of the Left has been too academic. Marxist theology allowed for arcane and complex theories on the workings of capitalism, complexity being an absolute need for most intellectuals, and became divorced from any real engagement with the society.[iv] Theory came to replace praxis, in the jargon of the times, and it could be done quite comfortably, with academic chairs, conferences, even appearances on the BBC. It was respectable, and like all such views formed part of the cultural establishment, which it influenced to a significant degree. So in the 1990s I witnessed a quite extraordinary discussion on the Late Review between Brian Sewell and the curators from some of our most prestigious art museums, the latter expressing very radical positions on the arts. They were the revolutionaries! Yet all were without doubt born and raised, and were working, within the utmost privilege. Watching the discussion from a council house in South Wales gave the whole thing a fantastic quality, for it had no connection whatsoever with the lives of the people around me: they did not exist as far as the debate was concerned.[v] We had become simple abstractions to be bounced around a television studio.[vi]
By the late 1980’s Karl Marx was safely ensconced inside the establishment…. Because he didn’t mean anything anymore. In the world of political action there is little difference between a follower of Milton Friedman and Karl Kautsky; where they only propound their theories in mathematics or abstruse language for other professors to understand. Friedman had influence because powerful actors in the establishment took his theory up, though it wasn’t the quality of the ideas themselves that was valued, but their ability to give a technical gloss to the counter-cultural prejudices of the reactionary Right, like the Thatcher government.[vii] Ideas in themselves, no matter how radical, will have little effect if they only participate in post-graduate seminars. Or in the art talk of our curators. If we are honest, what real effect is a Left critical position on the Impressionists really going to have, outside some mild controversy within the Academy? Few students leave the educational system with much memory of what they are taught, where too much is crammed for quick regurgitation. They are not going to change the culture. Indeed, it may have a negative effect, associating art with boring and overly arcane intellectual work; and thus leading to a loss of interest in the arts generally. To have an effect in the culture these views have to be popularized; their authors must be engaged with the general public, to allow these ideas to become a living part of a person’s mental life. However, when people in the university system are radical, and try to do something about it, they are attacked, removed or even raided by the FBI.[viii]
The Socialism of the 19th century became an academic subject in the 20th; although even before the change from practice into theory there were tensions within the working class movements between the narrower concerns of trade unionism and the wider horizons of the intelligentsia, between workers and the middle class Socialist intellectuals. One way to resolve this tension is to pretend it doesn’t exist: by removing the actual workers and trades unionists to create abstractions like The Working Class or The Proletariat; another is get a chair in Politics, and to escape the political arena completely. The Labour Party was a good example of an unstable accommodation between intellectuals and workers, between ideas and material interests, and allowed for much progressive activity, though mostly based on Liberal ideas (much of the Welfare State grew out of the Asquith and Lloyd George governments, and the later work of Beveridge and Keynes). However, it was also a drag on the party, with the innate conservatism of the majority of the membership preventing any radical innovation of either the economic or political system.[ix] In the Labour Party this tension was always there, until resolved by Tony Blair when he effectively removed the power both of the unions and the activists within the party; intellectuals were then welcomed, providing they promoted the Neo-Liberal agenda.
For those Left intellectuals outside the political mainstream Marxism was the answer to the big Capitalist questions; with the Russian Revolution as inspiration for political action. This served a number of purposes.
Rather than piecemeal change it demanded a revolutionary overturning of society. This is very difficult, requiring major societal breakdown; and something that is way beyond the actions of single individuals. It is too big to do anything about. Although the implacable laws of history then come to the rescue – the revolution will happen no matter what; we just have to wait.[x] Thus, like peasants looking for portents in the Middle Ages, we have Socialists looking for signs of the next economic crisis.[xi] This keeps up the interest and the intensity,[xii] for the next one might just be the one where it all falls apart. It also allows for much theoretical and theological discussion (in Medieval thought a lot of time was spent reading signs and symbols which was thought to reveal the underlying godhead). This can quite easily itself become a complex academic discipline, theoretical models of the new society replacing future prophecies, which have no connection with a person’s actions in the here and now. When these theories began to lose influence amongst the intelligentsia another way of dealing with this powerlessness was found: we celebrate the Post-Modern alternative. If there is nothing we can do, why worry about it?
Such views encourage an intellectual purity – we demand nothing less than a revolution that brings our ideas to power! Radical intellectuals tend towards utopian projects, in part perhaps because they are reflections of their own minds. The inside of our heads is the only sphere of our existence where we can exhibit complete freedom (the mistake is to project this outwards onto the world). Unfortunately complete freedom inside often translates into absolute control outside – the Anarchist in our head becomes the totalitarian in the street (this is the danger of intellectuals in politics). And why risk the defeat of your ideas or your status, why gamble your party control, when you can live as an autocrat safely inside your own mind? For some this means a very narrow political programme within in a tiny Trotskyist group; with complete ideological control over a few people. For others: the occasional paper in a prestigious journal.
Politics is a messy business, often boring, and requiring little intellectual content. Not particularly attractive for academics and professors of philosophy; or the fanatics who want their ideas alone to rule. And this may provide another incentive for this kind of “revolutionary thinking”. It is not about politics as it is actually practised - the distribution of interests, the little compromises, the hard slog of administrative drudgery[xiii] - but about life and death struggles, where to win is to win all… Much of this thinking is anti-politics, which gives it so much of its force; and for which there are many compensations. Because it is not going to happen you can have the self-righteous satisfaction of Olympian disdain, your ideas never to be remaindered in the market place, while you can enjoy the spice of vigorous argument, which doesn’t go beyond the trade journals or the dinner parties. There is none of the hard work of physical implementation, fighting the hard facts of corporate power or proletarian lethargy. The kind of work that may force severe modification to your theories, or question your competence.[xiv] No! You can just theorise away, comfortable in your capacious study. Perfect for intellectuals! Who can believe themselves at the forefront of the radical avant-garde; because they have ideas that are new and original.
An all or nothing scenario can increase the excitement, necessary if you’re outside the mainstream, but it reduces the likelihood of the New Society from ever happening. Do intellectuals want it to happen? Most are not men of action, but observers, often tied to secure and profitable employment. Revolution and a widespread distribution of resources is a potential threat to their position (think of the fate of the liberal intelligentsia following the revolution in Russia). For them turning revolutionary politics into a metaphysical world system might actually be to their benefit: respect within the present society, and reduction in the possibility of real transformative change.[xv] It is in their own class interest not to want a revolution.[xvi]
Marxism, and later the Russian Revolution, also offered another model: intellectuals in charge.
According to the theory of Mr. Marx, the people not only must not destroy [the state] but must strengthen it and place it at the complete disposal of their benefactors, guardians, and teachers – the leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr. Marx and his friends, who will proceed to liberate [mankind] in their own way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand, because the ignorant people require an exceedingly firm guardianship; they will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies – industrial and agricultural – under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific-political estate. (Michael Bakunin)
…In the same way now especially the intellectuals, considering themselves the rightful rulers of tomorrow, claim their spiritual superiority. They form the rapidly increasing class of university-trained officials and free professions, specialized in mental work, in study of books, and of science, and they consider themselves as the people most gifted with intellect. Hence they are destined to be leaders of the production, whereas the ungifted mass shall execute the manual work, for which no brains are needed. They are no defenders of capitalism; not capital, but intellect should direct labor. The more so, since now society is such a complicated structure, based on abstract and difficult science, that only the highest intellectual acumen is capable of embracing, grasping and handling it. (Anton Pannekoek)[xvii]
[Rosa Luxembourg] predicted that Lenin’s organization concepts would “enslave a young labour movement to an intellectual elite hungry for power… and turn it into an automaton manipulated by a Central Committee.” (all three quoted in Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, in The Chomsky Reader)
What prizes are at stake! In this essay Chomsky shows how the End of Ideology discussion of the early Sixties was really about the transformation of this radical intelligentsia, critical of State Capitalism, into the technical experts, who run it.[xviii] Though by the end of the Sixties the End of Ideology thesis was in ruins, only to be resurrected as the End of History with the collapse of Communism.[xix] Bringing with it a new breed of Neo-Conservatives; many ex-Marxists and radicals. In both cases there is a desire for power: where the Marxist-Leninist possibility fails it is replaced by the technical expert, or later by the disciples of Leo Strauss.
There will always be intellectuals who stand outside the prevailing norms of mainstream society, either because of their values and ideas, or because of their upbringing. Most will become followers of a theory; and for about a century the most captivating one around was Karl Marx’s; easily the most powerful critique of the economic system. This theory changed over time, as different generations interpreted it in light of changing circumstances. Thus in the radical Sixties Marx had a new life, but with a twist – less concern with his economically determinist ideas, but much more interest in his earlier writings, about the effects of Capitalism on the worker; the alienation of the individual.[xx] But one element has remained constant: its radical critique. Marx was the great prophet of modern rebellion; out of which he created a religion. And like all religions it has many different levels, from high intellectual abstraction to a simple catechism to ensure loyalty. Often this religion was simply a tool to gain support and grab power; and in the Third World it offered the means for state led development. If we want to make sense of Marx, to understand his value and his mistakes, his ideas and influence, and the work of his followers, we must separate all these different strands out, and consider them on their own merits; just as we need to understand their later application, in very different circumstances to which he envisaged (he believed that all countries had to go through stages, with the most economically advanced the first to fall; the almost complete opposite of what actually happened). The passage I quote at beginning of this piece goes in the opposite direction, with the usual mixing up of ideas and actions, theories and personalities. Everything has been jumbled together! A typical quality of religious thought.
So why is Mao so attractive. Colin Shindler has the answer:
The figure of Lenin was a focus of fascination and respect… for many young Zionists. This was due not his brand of communism but, rather, to the fact that he alone had shown how to translate theory into practice - how to be a man of action and not just words.[xxi]
In the Russian Revolution there were certain intellectuals, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, who were also supreme men of action.[xxii] But their success did not depend upon their intellectual work; though in both cases it helped foster great myths and attracted them to much of the intelligentsia. It depended on their political and organisational ability; which made them somewhat inhuman; for to achieve that sort of power, and to fight a civil war, and then reconstruct a society along ideological lines, required a certain pathology; viewing individuals more as mass units or passive objects rather than as people; and manipulating them with little thought to the human consequences of often brutal actions.[xxiii] But what if you were never part of a revolution, and have never arranged for people to be killed and tortured, or brutally dispossessed? That is, what if you have no experience of any of this inhumanity, but read about it in the history books? It becomes just a mental activity, with no real feeling, because there are no real consequences to one’s daily actions. It can also include a lot of self-glorification: I could be Lenin. Of course, Ben-Gurion quoted in the footnote above was! His diary note is as much a description of himself as of the great master. But most people do not have to deal with the impact of their thoughts, because there is no impact. They can write about class struggles and civil wars, of fights and conflicts, because it is outside their life experiences; and will not become part of that experience. However, if you really want to improve society, if you really care about the working-woman and the office clerk, you will be wary of big historical changes, of social conflict that could reduce a nation to civil war (how many of the Neo-Cons so concerned about democracy in Iraq thought about the people inside the country; later ripped apart by an internecine strife?). If one cares about individuals, rather than abstractions, we should be very careful about promoting class war and revolution; they should be the last options available when everything else has failed. Rather then creating idealisations of the Individual, or the Working Class, we should try to see people as they really are, who are not that much different from ourselves, and imagine how radical changes would affect us, if imposed from without, with little control or security.
In this passage what is interesting, and revealing, is everything is subordinated to the idea. Marx’s ideas rule! A typical intellectual slight of hand, which in this case ranks Mao not by his actions towards people, but his ideological discipline; his ability to follow the Marxist gospel. But why believe his words. Do we believe Reagan or Thatcher, when they talk about Freedom and Individuality? Are they to be judged simply by their words, banal and commonsensical as most of them are?[xxiv] Of course not, we judge them by their actions, and of how their words relate to those actions, and the motivations that lie behind them. But then, they are adherents of another faith…. In one’s own creed actions are less important that the theological motivation, ensuring that our means accord with the ideological end.
And what were those means?
During 1950 and 1951 tens of thousands of Chinese intellectuals of all ages were given six- to eight-month-long “courses” at the “revolutionary colleges.” These courses, carried out on pre-existing campuses or at sites in specially designated cities, were an attempt to lead the intellectuals to a true understanding of their class background and the sheltered nature of their lives hitherto. As well as being lectured by veteran CCP cadres on the nature of the revolution, and introduced to the thought of Mao Zedong along with the basic works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, they met with small groups of other intellectuals in joint sessions for discussion and self-criticism, and prepared “autobiographies” in which they analyzed their own past failings and those of their parents. The last requirement caused profound crises for many who had been brought up believing in the strict tenets of filial piety as derived from the Confucian tradition, and in general the entire process subjected the intellectuals to severe mental stress. As the process advanced, they moved from an excited appreciation of the shared group solidarity, through a period of intense isolation and guilt, followed by fear and insecurity, to a final “resolution” in which they both acknowledged and expressed their gratitude to the CCP for making their new lives possible. (Jonathan D. Spence)[xxv]
Marx, although a notorious authoritarian personality, wanted the freedom of the workers; so they could enjoy the same rights as the more privileged classes in Capitalism. He did he really want to enslave them under a new clergy? And himself, he did want to be re-educated? He didn’t, although we should always remember Bakunin’s criticisms, quoted above, which allude to the complex nature of Marx’s psychology. His attraction was his call to freedom; but he was too much the prophet, too keen to impose his views, which were too dogmatic, becoming an evangelical faith for his followers. Faith. What is it? Too strong a belief in a fixed idea, coupled with too much certainty? There is a very close fit between religion and intellectual work generally, with a strong tendency for the latter to fall into the former. We have to be aware of this and keep up our scepticism; but how many intellectuals are that conscientious? Too often they come to believe their ideas are absolute; fine if they are not involved in public life, but a disaster if they run the country. Intellectuals are, perhaps because of their very nature, a natural priesthood; and this may be the terrible legacy of Marx: he gave them the belief they could be in charge. So that over a hundred years later a leader could be rated not by the numbers he killed but the quality of his doctrinal adherence. He is rated by his thought, not his actions; for it is only the intellectual standard that counts.
[i] Paul Sweezy was the founder and editor of Monthly Review, and Harry Magdoff was one of its founding editors.
[ii] Many became Post-Modernists, retaining a veneer of radicalism; although this was a trend that preceded the Wall’s collapse. See Ernest Gellner for an interesting trajectory, where he traces the origins of Post-Modernism from the intellectual failures of Marxism. Initially it believed itself to be a science, but when its predictions failed the theorists moved towards theories that were more metaphysical and subjective (eg The Frankfurt School), which in turn metamorphosed into the relativism and narcissism of Post-Modernism. This short book also offers a highly plausible and devastating explanation for its rise, particularly in academic America, where it took off spectacularly.
- In anthropology the end of colonialism made fieldwork difficult, which encouraged a natural tendency to favour other kinds of study that were office based. Navel gazing at the mutual incomprehension of cultures was a perfect solution; for this can be done without leaving the university building.
- The culture of America itself. Born modern, it doesn’t have the overlap of different worldviews in the same way as Europe (see Art and Life for more analysis). So, for example, if you are born into the American Mid-West and suddenly discover that there are other cultures very different from one’s own, this can become something like a revelation; it can also create a certain fanaticism. In this case extreme cultural relativism.
- The nature of the university system, and the divide between Science and the rest. There is model of cognitive growth based on the success of the hard sciences, which the humanities have tried to follow, and which has been only partly successful. However, extreme subjectivism, where you write of your reactions to a culture or text, and then analyse your reactions to your reactions, and so on to an infinite regress, can give the illusion of cognitive growth; and is particularly useful at a time when the university system encourages high productivity (funding is based on the amount of published research).
There is a very odd book by Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, which tries to reclaim it for Marxism! Though ostensibly about the origins of this phenomenon the book is more concerned about Marxist thinkers ability to theorise it, and to make it their own. Indeed, one chapter is triumphantly called Capture; and is a homage to the work of Frederic Jameson. This book in many ways proves Gellner’s point; but leaves a strange impression: it is as if Pope Leo X had tried to claim Protestantism for the Catholic Church. Maybe the need to be at the vanguard of thought, which was part of the attraction of Marxism, was becoming a little desperate, as the Marxist doctrine grew old and stale?
[iii] There are many Lefts! Here I’m thinking of the radical Left that was Marxist orientated, and generally to the left of the Labour Party; and which lost faith after 1989. The group around Living Marxism, probably the most influential Left journal in the Eighties, is a good example, who in the Nineties transformed themselves into an ideas factory for large corporations. See Jenny Turner for an excellent summary.
[iv] Perhaps the last real attempt was the intellectuals around the Alternative Economic Strategy in the late 1970s, and its drive to remove Britain from the world economy, to create a sort of autarky, and which was connected to the Labour left wing. However, Andrew Gamble’s analysis, in Britain in Decline, is quite telling: even its supporters were doubtful for the programme’s success; most thought that it would fail, while those who thought it would succeed believed it would lead to civil war. One therefore has to ask how serious in fact where even these proposals for political change in the real world?
[v] And this radicalism, far from encouraging the poor to engage with art, raises another barrier to its appreciation. At a time when it is the fashion to attack the elitism of art, the means to make it more understandable, to open it up to the general population, have been removed. I write, of course, of television, which until the 1990s was the great educator, for those without privilege who wanted to be educated. During this same period art has become intellectualised, both in the way it is discussed (Deleuze, Lacan….) and in its content, with Conceptual Art highly visible; though this is an art form that tends to alienate most of the uninitiated. Fluxus, possibly the most influential art movement since the 1950s, seems to me the best example of this disconnect between a “radical” art world and the working class it is supposed to radicalise… Unfortunately the truth is where working people are interested in the arts they taste tends towards the conservative. Thus Fluxus’ idea of removing the divide between art and the world can be seen, rather than as an attempt to bring art into people’s lives, to make their own life art, as just another example of Marx’s insight that the middle class universalises it’s own experience (“that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions through which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided.” From The Responsibility of Intellectuals in The Chomsky Reader. Chomsky goes on to show how this analysis can be extended to include special interest groups; like the technical experts who were lauded at the time he wrote the essay. See below, point x, for more analysis). One way around this is to create a populism based on one’s own image. This was Brit Art, which mixed art with celebrity (see Julian Stallabrass’ High Art Lite. Though he shares the radical bias – art must be radical!). But do we really want to turn art in a sort of OK magazine? Surely, this is pure contempt, for it makes some very large assumptions about the non-art world, and their supposed lack of capacity for aesthetic appreciation.
Is there an alternative? Yes! To provide the environmental and intellectual tools that will allow people from all classes to understand and enjoy art (the majority in all classes probably won’t).
[vi] Alasdair Macintyre’s Marxism and Christianity suggests when this might have happened. In the 1920’s when the tension over the predictive ability of Marx’s theory was high, the Hungarian thinker Georg Luckacs suggested a metaphysical interpretation of Marxism, locating it in the consciousness of the time. Separating its historical analysis from its future speculations, the former factually true, he thought that the essence of Marxism was embedded within social reality, and which the self-consciousness of the proletariat (enacted through the Communist Party) could recognise, and therefore fulfil.
“…Marxism is that consciousness which is constitutive of contemporary social reality – contemporary, that is, for the age to which Marx and Lukacs belong – and as such is itself a basic social datum.
Who are the selves of whom Marxism is the self-consciousness?… they are the proletarians, the class continuously created and recreated by the capitalist system, but which can find no satisfaction for its wants and needs within [it].” (Mcintyre)
Notice how the working classes have been turned into a deity, and which its church (the Party) mediates and interprets. Later in the book Mcintyre writes of the difference between Marx’s view of his theories and later, 20th century thinkers. For him they were a means to action, elucidating reality in order to revolutionise it. For the others they became merely ideas, divorced from any social action at all. And for Mcintyre this is just like today’s religion, where ideas become icons or “talismans”, an intellectual ritual, a kind of homily that we read each day. They are religious signs and symbols to give us faith; no longer actually engaging with the world, for they have little relationship to the empirical reality – you cannot test if God (or The Proletariat Consciousness) exists. There is no longer any tension around them, no pressure to mould the world to the theory, or to work the theory out in one’s daily life; it no longer matters if propositions are proved wrong by facts, the facts can be ignored as irrelevant, or interpreted anew in light of the theory. And thus they become just another cluster of ideas that an individual can choose to accept or reject. I would add some nuance – Marxism was always a religion, but the 20th century Western version (what J.G. Merquior calls Western Marxism), was a ‘cold’ one compared to the ‘hot’ evangelical faith of Marx and his most immediate followers, who were committed precisely because of the tension between fact and theory.
[vii] See Andrew Gamble’s The Free Economy and the Strong State. In Adam Curtis’ Pandora’s Box Alan Budd, an advisor to her first government, raises the possibility that the political and business leaders didn’t believe in Monetarism at all, but saw it as a means of increasing unemployment, and thus reducing the power of the trade unions (to create a crisis of capitalism – he uses Marx’s term – in order to increase their own power).
[viii] The exceptions stand out because they are exceptions: Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein…. See Democracy Now! for a recent FBI raid on activists, including a trade union rep at Illinois university. See also Chomsky’s Year 501 for an excellent discussion on the failures of Left intellectuals.
[ix] An excellent discussion can be found in David Marquand’s The Progressive Dilemma. He has an extraordinary quote from R.H.S. Crossman which highlights the problem perfectly. Crossman is recalling a conversation with Hugh Gaitskell:
“Of Roy Jenkins, he said, ‘ He is very much in the social swim these days and I am sometimes anxious about him and young Tony [Crosland]. We, as middle-class Socialists, have got to have a profound humility. Though it’s a funny way of putting it, we’ve got to know that we lead them because they can’t do it without us, with our abilities, and yet must feel humble to working people. Now that’s all right for us in the upper-middle class, but Tony and Roy are not upper and I sometimes feel that they don’t have a proper humility to ordinary working people.’”
Imagine if you are at the receiving end of such condescension. Often, of course, there was just plain arrogance.
[x] There was much discussion at the time of the Russian Revolution around this belief. See the discussion in Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy about the incapacity of many of the Russian Socialists, who, with no practical programme, were waiting for History to deliver the revolution. Also within the Bolsheviks there was much intellectual uncertainty – by rights Germany, as the most advanced economy, should have been the first to be revolutionised. Thus the discussion about whether their revolution should be a holding operation until the more industrialised country collapsed.
[xi] For in the theory it is economics that determines how a society is run. Compare with the apocalyptic tendencies of the Millenarian Christians, detailed in Norman Cohn’s classic The Pursuit of the Millennium.
“The coming of the Antichrist was even more tensely awaited. Generation after generation lived in constant expectation of the all-destroying demon whose reign was indeed lawless chaos, an age given over to robbery and rapine, torture and massacre, but was also to be the prelude to the longed-for consummation, the Second Coming and the Kingdom of the Saints. People were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final ‘time of troubles’; and since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them.”
Likewise with Capitalism; periodic crises are built into its very nature. In his book Cohn is very explicit about the connections between these Millenarian religious groups and the Messianic ideologies, both Left and Right, of the 20th century. Though he correctly makes a distinction between the irrational cults and the more ameliorative ideologies, linked to trade unions, cooperatives, and political parties generally.
[xii] Very important for those intellectuals linked to fringe groups, where the religion is still ‘hot’. Any fundamentalist religion, which requires a strong faith and a part denial of reality, will be linked to strong emotions, which protects the doctrine, by fusing it with one’s personality, and provides the energy to sustain it, which in turn give them an evangelical quality (all that energy and emotion has to go somewhere).
[xv] Gaitskell’s comments in the note above went far too far (ix). However, it contains some truth: ideas are needed to form and change a society, and people with the leisure and the ability are the ones who can formulate them. Thus any progressive change will need an engaged intelligentsia (Russell’s comments on a leisure class in The Conformist). If that intelligentsia is made up of people who think this is impossible, thus reducing all and sundry to passivity, they may actually make it harder to achieve.
[xvi] There are the messiahs of course who do believe in action and a complete transformation of society in accordance with their ideas. Norman Cohn’s book is full of these people; though the point he makes is that these ideas are independent of the needs of the poor who follow them. In the 20th century because of the catastrophic collapse of European civilisation following the Great War these messiahs were able to control powerful states; and to create, in Hitler’s case, a real apocalypse.
Another striking analogy in Cohn’s book is that these intellectuals or “half-intellectuals”, as he calls them, were able to have such influence because the established church was alienated from the poor it supposedly served – its radical doctrine clothed in wealth and privilege, with its own arcane theology. There was no established clergy (the intelligentsia in our day), who could provide a moderate alternative of piece-meal progressive reform. Extremism became the only alternative.
[xvii] Compare with Gaitskell, previously quoted, and with J.K. Galbraith in the New Industrial State:
‘…the future of what is called modern society depends on how willingly, rationally and effectively the intellectual community in general, and educational and scientific estate in particular, assume responsibilities for political action and leadership.”
[xviii] See footnote iii: an almost perfect example of Chomsky’s point, occurring over twenty years after he wrote this essay.
[xix] The author of the latter, Francis Fukuyama, is a good example of someone with little credibility, but who attains popularity in the mainstream because his ideas fit perfectly with the conventional wisdom of the time; in this case the western triumphalism after the Communist collapse. Thus his later championing of democracy promotion in the Middle East, and his support, and his later retraction of that support, for the invasion of Iraq.
[xx] Which in turn had a new life in the 1970s as former radicals became lifestyle enthusiasts, looking for spiritual or mystical meaning in their own personal lives; or turning more towards culture, making politics into an expression of their personalities. Adam Curtis’ series on advertising, The Century of the Self, captures this very well. A lot of these people voted for Reagan and Thatcher, believing the freedom propaganda of their campaigns.
[xxi] He also gives a fascinating quote from Ben-Gurion, and his idolisation of Lenin:
“Here is a man who is the quintessence of revolution, single-minded, disdaining all obstacles, faithful to his purpose, knowing neither surrender nor concession, a radical of radicals who knows how to crawl on his stomach through deepest mire to gain his end; an iron-willed man who spares neither the lives of grown men nor the blood of innocent children in order to further the revolutionary cause; the tactical genius who knows how to retreat from battle in order to gather forces for a new assault; who is not afraid to deny today what he supported yesterday, and to support tomorrow what he denied today; who does not permit webs of phrases to entrap his thought and refuses to be entangled either by formula or doctrine. For this sharp and clear vision sees only naked reality, the brutal truth, and the actual balance of forces.”
Notice how Ben-Gurion’s understanding is the exact opposite to Magdoff’s and Sweezy’s: ideas and actions are separated out, with the former merely a tool of the latter.
[xxii] In Bryan Magee’s Confession of a Philosopher he recalls Bertrand Russell as saying that Lenin was the greatest character he ever met, though he morally he deplored him, for this unfeeling inhumanity.
“Lenin combined a brilliant mind with genius level ability as man of action, and this gave him extraordinary stature and effectiveness as a person.”
[xxiii] The Ben-Gurion’s quote above captures this exactly.
[xxiv] This is not a criticism. You would expect party political discourse be straight forward, and easy to understand; otherwise a substantial part of the population would be excluded from the democracy. Imagine if citizens had read 20th century critical commentary on Jean Jacques Rousseau in order to vote.
[xxv] Compare with this account of Catholic practice in the 16th century.
“Jesuits particularly promoted… the general confession. This was a solemn systematic view review of the sins of one’s life, a carefully guided form of self-examination…”
And the Scottish Protestants at roughly the same time.
“Once at the stool [of repentance], and having endured the hour of the sermon under the gaze of the assembled parish, the penitent must make a speech of repentance, and it should be sincere: the congregation was the judge as to whether the tears were real, and there would be no more penances to come if the general opinion was that the offender was scorning the system. If the verdict was positive, then the repentant sinner was customarily welcomed back to proper fellowship with a symbolic gesture: a handshake or kiss.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation).