10 September 2015

You don't win arguments with communism

What's wrong with this picture?














It's certainly precisely the kind of thing that would make poor old George Orwell cough up another lung. Remember, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a satire on the wartime BBC as well as Stalinist Russia/Nazi Germany. Orwell knew perfectly well what Chomsky put into academic language decades later - that democracies use propaganda where dictatorships use brute force. Or as Gramsci, decades earlier, understood more clearly, the difference in the two is just a matter of proportion.

Anyway, for those of you who don't get the point, the eminently punchable Senator from Texas, Rafael "Ted" Cruz, was born in the Province of Alberta, which - I'm sorry to inform some of the Wildrose Party - is not in the United States. As he makes no secret of, to his credit. Perhaps a couple of that 40% figure above are sincerely ignorant. But I wager that most of them know perfectly well otherwise, but say different because he is one of their tribe and being "born in the US" is a good thing. Same for the tiny coterie of Obama "birthers", to the left.

Slavoj Zizek, before he became a professional contrarian/troll, understood that "ideology" (which Terry Eagleton described as "imaginary solutions to real problems") could also be called "what you believe even though you know that it's false". "Believe" here means "act as if it's true". Or, in Newspeak, doublethink. Liberals react to factoids like the above by saying "lol, those lumpenpleb teabaggers are STOOPID". No, they're just doublethinkful. Which is what everyone is in civilisation-as-we-know-it; Lacan would say it's the price of entering into language. You - yes you, gentle reader - have your own blind spot, something that you do or believe even though you know that it's wrong or contradicts your values, and if you even know you have a blind spot you're in a tiny minority. So don't be so quick to mock someone else's, as I think Jesus said once.

So this is why, just like you don't win friends with salad, you don't win arguments by appeals to the truth of the Marxist analysis. It's so much easier to go for the easier option. Trotsky bitingly points out in The Revolution Betrayed that the British chattering classes hated the Russian Revolution until it became a dictatorship under Stalin. A big boss man creating a new order by force of his mighty will? That was understandable, not this crap about every cook learning to govern. Some of us hoped that when the Eastern Bloc collapsed, so would this perversion of Marxism - actually authoritarian developmentalism/nationalism which killed Marxism in the gulags and the Ukrainian famine, then wore its victim's face in ghastly mockery. But it goes on. Those other imperialists are always preferable to our own. And sadly Trotsky fell into this campist logic himself by never being able to admit that the Revolution had not only been betrayed but had come to an end.

We've discussed the appeal of ganzer macher (Yiddish: "big man") politics previously - and pointed out that Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist politics (because of their incomplete critique of the Stalin counter-revolution) tended to fall right back into this trap. Yes, even the Third Campist ones (look at the careers of such British political entrepreneurs as Tony Cliff or Sean Matgamna). But that's only one possible short-cut. Appeals to emotion or nationalism? Coddling bigotries or conspiracy theories?  Anything to get the masses in motion. Once they're in motion, a cunning manipulator finds it easier to hoosh them in the direction (s)he considered appropriate. And that is what certain dime-store Machiavellis out there think revolutionary politics really is.

It is ironic that Marxism - which, as the old song says, is supposed to be "reason in revolt" - has been turned by some into its opposite: cynical realpolitik and its younger sibling, just plain being a manipulative bastard. It's not enough to say the masses make history - the masses make history for themselves. They're not your personal army. It's interesting that this hollowing out of rationality in favour of gang warfare also happens among the followers of Ayn Rand (who love emotional abuse and anathema towards their opponents) and the New Atheists.

But you don't even need a manipulator. Groupthink will do the job, especially among those who really need the group. Paul Zimbardo showed us that. And James Cannon - whom I hold responsible for bringing Stalinist methods into American Trotskyism - correctly said that small groups of people can talk themselves into the wildest ideas. Was it him who decided that "democratic centralism" meant that the Centre not only got to instruct the locals how to act, but how to think, and how to talk? No better way to brainwash yourself into something you don't believe than being forced to pretend that you do believe it, as Althusser rightly put it.

The Marxist phrase is "being determines consciousness" - Chaos Marxism might refine that to "activity and patterns of identity determine consciousness". You think what you do, and you are what you repeatedly do. And - among the kinds of social flotsam who find themselves attracted to revolutionary politics in non-revolutionary times - the desperate, burning need to find somewhere to belong ends up an open door to allow an unreflective group or an unscrupulous group leader to install Groupthinking-Zombification software in their brain.

Reflexivity and positionality are of course the answer. An activist or group which strives to compensate for its own blind spots (get better wing mirrors?) and be aware of its/their actual position in the capitalist socio-economy can begin by enacting Marxist praxis for themselves, and holding conversations with other groups of the broad masses. Walking into someone else's struggle with the idea that you can give them "the leadership they need" and "teach them how to win" is, once again, a hollowing out of the critical and dialectical core of Marxism, turning it into nothing but power politics aimed at a different constituency. Screw that.

Anyway, the point is: political arguments usually have zero to do with philosophy or practical action, and boil down to ape-against-ape territorial posturing. Which is why the wrong people almost always win them. Only praxis can win the day for communism.