I discussed in my last post the issue of turning the contemporary Communist movement into little more than an intellectual exercise. In this post, I want to address the issue of “loyalty”- that is, the obsession we seem to have with adhering to certain lines of thought, political parties, and even individuals who have been dead for centuries and countries that no longer exist.
Let me jump right into things.
A recurring phenomena you run into in your discussion/debates/rabid scream-fights with Communists is that, almost inevitably, someone will cite Karl Marx and sit back, assuming the argument has been settled. Marx you see (and to a lesser extent, Engels, Lenin, and other prominent Marxist thinkers) is often treated as being infallible. His writings are, to put it bluntly, viewed as “canon”- Das Kapital and the Manifesto are the unimpeachable criterion for all Communist thought and action.
Needless to say, this is a problem.
I don’t mean to attack Marx’s writings- for the most part, I think Marx was right. But when Marx’s words are put on a level usually reserved for religious texts and certain seasons of Dr. Who, issues begin to pop up- the most obvious of which is that it simply isn’t true.
I am going to cite an example, but first, just think about it generally. Isn’t it possible- nay, likely– that a nearly two-hundred year old Prussian thinker didn’t quite come up with every answer to every political, social, and economic problem we’ll ever have? Isn’t it reasonable to suspect that in his extensive writing, he didn’t have total accuracy? Could it be that Marx, as a human being, made errors just like the rest of us?
Of course. I’d even go so far as to speculate that you’d find few people more opposed to this idea that Marx is omniscient than Marx himself.
Now I promised an example of Marx being wrong, and here it is. In 1872, Karl Marx delivered a speech in Amsterdam, in which he claimed
“You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries — such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland — where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.”
Now if you’re familiar at all with the contemporary Communist movement, you’ll recognize that one of the few (nearly) universal views held is a contempt for the belief that Communism can be achieved without violence. Typically the response to such a claim is (at best) “That’s completely utopian and unrealistic” or (at worst) “Die revisionist scum! Die!”. Yet it is a view that Marx held.
So how do we resolve this? Either we assume that the past century or so has been all wrong and that Marx was indeed correct in his view, or that (drum roll) Marx was wrong on this one.
The simple fact of the matter is, this misplaced “loyalty” to Marx and “Orthodox Marxism” (i.e., you interpret Marx’s works) is just, plain wrong, and all that’s to say nothing of the way this “…Because Marx/Engels/Lenin/etc. said so!” mentality damages our innovation and dialogue (but more on that later). We need to stop invoking Marx and putting him on a pedestal.
Which brings us to our next point.
On one Communist discussion board, I encountered a rather gung-ho Stalinist who had a habit of spamming the forum with pictures of Stalin, accompanied by rather creepy odes and love-notes to (not about– to) “Uncle Joe”. Now what I suppose really irked me about this wasn’t that this person was praising a despotic, paranoid murderer who used Communism as a facade for his own ends, or that this person was writing this posts to Stalin, while simultaneously mocking religion (though Iwas bugged by both of these things). It was that this person was turning a political leader into an icon- all in all it was, well, “cult-y”. That kind of twisted obsession usually is only found in the followers of guys who claim to have a spaceship.
“Well, that’s an isolated incident“, you might say, “Just thecrazed ramblings of someone who isn’t a real Communist anyways.”
And that may be true, but there’s plenty of this in mainstream Communism as well- the face is just a bit different.
No matter where you stand on the Communist or even Leftist spectrum, chances are, you admire Che. He’s seen by many as the ideal Communist- the perfect combination of a thinker, a fighter, a public servant, a leader, and a writer; utterly devoted to the cause of liberty and equality. Pretty much every Communist has a poster or picture of Che (myself included)- and in and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. It becomes a problem, however, when this admiration crosses that blurry line over into the realm of devotion.
When we turn our heroes into icons, we distort our perspective not only of them, but of everything. Let me offer this example.
Imagine you admire Che, and even go so far as to practically adore the man. Turning Che from a man into a superhero, you find yourself defending each and every single thing he said or did- including the stuff he got wrong. Che, for all his noble characteristics, cheated on his wife. If you’re such a fan of Che that you find yourself having to defend something wrong simply because to not do so would mean “abandoning” your hero, things have gotten way out of hand.
Not only is this kind of blind faith dangerous (see above for an obvious example), but it winds up dragging our conversations down. I can’t tell you how many times seen two Communists debating each other, and resorting to taking pot-shots at each others’ ideological leaders, rather than actually addressing the issues. If you’re caught up in defending every aspect of Trotsky, you’ll never convince anyone of your point. We need to stop trying to defend every detail of Trotsky, Lenin, or Huey P. Newton’s life and recognize that they weren’t angels- they were people. We need to forget about proving them to saints, and start trying to just prove them right.
And speaking of being right…
Good Old Fight!”:
I’ve touched on this subject before, but it’s worth revisiting. It’s the subject of the Communist obsession with taking sides on fifty-year old arguments which were petty and stupid even then. To this day, you’ll find division within Communism on the subject of who was right- James P. Cannon or Marx Schatman.
Allow me to submit this excerpt from Shachtman’s Wikipedia page, discussing his split with Cannon during the early 1930s:
Frictions between Shachtman and Cannon, especially over Shachtman’s work when representing the League in Europe, broke out into a factional struggle in 1932. Trotsky and other leaders of the International Left Opposition complained to the CLA that Shachtman had intervened against them within the ILO’s fragile European affiliates…
…During this time, Cannon experienced a spell of depression, during which the CLA’s organizing secretary was Abern while Shachtman worked on The Militant. Writing in 1936, Shachtman would criticize Abern’s habit of nourishing secret cliques of friends and supporters by supplying them with insider information about debates in the League’s leadership… It was only a sharp intervention by the ILO in 1933 that ended the fight. Although the line-up of opponents largely anticipated Shachtman’s 1940 split from the mainstream Trotskyists, the years from 1933 to 1938 restored the co-operation between Cannon and Shachtman.
This tussle between Shachtman and Cannon had a huge impact on the development of Communism in the US, the split between these two men serving as a major source of contention, leading to debate even to this day.
Allow me to submit what I believe to be the correct response to all this:
I don’t think there’s a single time I’ve read a book, or listened to a lecture, on Communist history that hasn’t resulted in this basic reaction. These fights are simply dumb. People can bicker all they want, but I have difficulty researching a single split in the Communist movement and finding a shred of evidence that fragmenting into petty little sects was the right or reasonable solution.
Believe it or not, I think the Republicans actually have a pretty decent model.
Think about it. This party is home to both people who are essentially fiscally-conservative Democrats and theocratic psychos who insist that the government occasionally handing out slips of paper to gay couples will ignite the apocalypse. Libertarians rub shoulders with supporters of the Patriot Act and NDAA provisions. Isolationists wear the same elephant-pin sported by neo-cons who hailed Bush’s self-proclaimed “crusade”.
These are all people whose have major differences on a number of subjects, and yet all come together under a single banner. Of course there’s friction, but when two republicans disagree on a subject, chances that’s all they’ll do. The fragmentation of Trotskyism- even the Communist movement as a whole- has nothing on the disagreements Republicans have with each other, and yet, Republicans remain Republicans.
I’m not saying that disagreements are wrong, or that there’s no such thing as a right or wrong course. What I am saying is that splitting over, say, whether or not Cuba is Communist is more than a little dumb.
See, the root problem of all of this is that it’s not about your loyalty to Marx, or your loyalty to your heroes, or your loyalty to your party…
…It’s about your loyalty to you.
Ego- that’s where it all comes from.
Look, we all want to be the next great Communist leader or thinker or icon. We all, on some level, hope that things will play out so that we wind up being the Lenin, Che, or Marx of our time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that until it starts affecting our actions.
Let’s face it- would half of divisions in the contemporary Communist movement exist if we were all a bit more capable of swallowing our pride? Would we have half the scuffles we do if we weren’t so obsessed with our hero whose image goes untarnished, or our interpretation of Marx that goes unchallenged, or our party that gets all the glory.
It seems that we’re incapable of saying “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” or even coming to terms with the possibility that we might make mistakes in the future. Pride is corroding the modern Communist movement, and it’s time to remember that this isn’t about us.
It’s about them.