Monday, October 30, 2006

Up from Communism

In his second major work, The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville held that in undertaking their Revolution the French had not changed as much as they thought they had. The pre-Revolutionary decades anticipated what was to come after, while the years following 1789 were often eerily reminiscent of what had preceded the great upheaval. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Well, perhaps not so completely as the adage suggests, for there were differences as well.

In the life of individuals continuity tends to prevail also. Take the realm of religion. Many adherents have left the strict evangelical churches in which they have been brought up. But the early conditioning persists, so that backsliding is always possible. I understand that there are several support groups for ex-evangelicals who might be tempted to go back to their earlier status.

As far as I know, there are no such support groups for those who have abandoned Communism. They are not at risk of reversion. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kulakowski has astringently remarked: “That skull will never smile again.”

Maybe not, but ex-Communists retain more of their earlier formation than they are willing to admit.

Here I must go into confessional mode. Sometimes, of late, I speak of having been reared in a “far-Left sect.” That sect, I must avow was the Communist Party USA. Like many American intellectuals in the Depression years of the 1930s, my stepfather had become a convinced Marxist who joined the Party. He converted my mother after their marriage in 1939 and, willy-nilly, I was brought up in that faith—as that was what it was. In former years my father had read some of the foundational texts of Marx and Engels, yet I never remember seeing any in our home. My mother used to speak of reading them, but as far as I know she never did. We relied upon the vulgate dished out by the People’s Daily World, a Stalinist paper through and through.

At the age of sixteen I became disillusioned by the Party line, the occasion being Tito’s break with Stalin. I wrote a long letter to the editors of the People’s Daily World asking them to explain this schism. They never replied. No, as one friend claimed, I did not become a Titoist then either. With the aid of Arthur Koestler and George Orwell I deprogrammed myself, becoming an ex-Communist.

During the 1970s I was active in several movements for social change as they were swept by a wave of neo-Marxism. Such latter-day European thinkers as Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Perry Anderson were the guiding lights of this trend. I dutifully read these writers, and also some of the Marxist classics. This reading failed to bring me back into the fold. In fact it had the opposite effect. When Marxism essentially disappeared following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I could only cheer. Curiously, some die-hards thought the fall of the USSR was a good thing, as it would allow “genuine Marxism” to reappear, untrammeled by the “distortions” of the Soviet Experiment. Alas, Soviet Marxism was genuine Marxism.

I have repeatedly had the experience of finding myself disdained, even shunned when I mention my Communist past. I suppose that those who are “progressive” expect that I should remain true to the Enlightenment heritage—shared by both Marxists and democratic socialists—so as to favor big government, multiculturalism, and speech codes in the name of civility. These people accepted that I could be an apostate, but I was only to disavow the authoritarian side of the progressive heritage.

Both Communists and left-leaning liberals make much of their disagreements, which can be quite bitter. I remember in my distant days as a true believer how scornful some Communists were of Franklin Roosevelt who, in their view, had used legerdemain and chicanery to save a capitalist system that would otherwise have been doomed. Still there remain major commonalties, and one is bound to ask whether the conflict between the authoritarian socialists and the democratic socialists is not a version of the narcissism of minor differences.

So progressives are annoyed at me because I went too far in their view. By the same token my avowals of being an ex-Communist who saw the light do not get much applause from the conservative side, even though some of their guiding lights in the neo-conservative camp had been Trotskyists in their youth.

One of my conservative friends said that my youthful Communism was a “deep moral stain.” I replied that I’d always wanted one of those, but I didn’t think that being a teenage Commie qualified me.

Perhaps my conservative friend had a point, though, and the heritage of those early years is still with me. To Ignatius of Loyola is sometimes attributed the following precept. “Give me a child until the age of seven; then you may do with him what you will.” I think that the imprinting takes more than seven years. The mid-teens is a more likely cutoff date. That though was when I defected.

I like to think that those early years (and my subsequent reimmersion in the seventies) were not all wasted, and that I may have retained some useful lessons from the experiences.

One aspect has to do with international affairs, where I have worked out a world-systems approach. Most pay little attention to foreign affairs. Those who do are selective. Once Vietnam called for urgent attention. Now it is the Middle East and Islam. I have had a long interest in China; and more recently in Latin America. The focus is not just the importance of these major regions, but the ways in which they interact with others.

Then there is the lesson of looking for underlying economic motives when high-minded reasons are proffered. This must be done selectively and critically. We were not in Vietnam because of the oil, as some leftists claimed. But sometimes we are. Two weeks ago Bush finally admitted that one reason we are in Iraq because of the oil. The idea of spreading Democracy in that part of the world was always window dressing. And now there is no more talk of it. A stable, if authoritarian regime in Iraq is all that is hoped for. Even that goal is unrealistic—though that’s another story.

Then there is the principle, well expressed in another context by Frank Lloyd Wright, of “truth against the world.” To be a Communist was to stand up against the group think dispensed by the capitalist press and the pundits in Washington. Such skepticism is warranted for non-Stalinist reasons. And it applies across the board. For a decade a belonged to a group that was totally smitten by the cause of gay marriage. It would lead almost to nirvana. While I favor gay marriage, I was glad that I stood up against the extravagant claims. Now they are being withdrawn. As the messenger with unpleasant news, I get no credit for my foresight. It figures.

Some other aspects of the heritage were less benign. As the Cold War became more intense and my stepfather feared losing his job with the US Postal Service, my parents instructed me to secrecy about our views. I was a closet Communist. Later on, this tendency reinforced my being a closeted gay. I escaped from that benighted status, but only in my thirties.

Somewhat paradoxically, along with concealment went contentiousness. It might not have been wise to wrangle with my teachers and other authority figures, but one could always participate in the disputes among the various little leftist sects. Here Marxism had left a rich but baneful heritage of invective. Even in the fifties one had to try to thwart the “Kautskyist renegades” and the “Trotskyist wreckers.” Comrade Tito, of course, had turned into a social fascist.

Today I oppose the term Islamofascist because I remember how tendentiously the accusation of fascism was hurled in those days.

In arguing vigorously with other people’s ideas, I can be psychologically obtuse, for I fail to recognize that they may take my critique personally. I think that I am talking solely about some general principle, but they understand the matter in ad hominem terms. Recently, on another site I equated psychoanalysis with quackery. One rather decent chap (who happens to be a practicing clinician in that field) took it personally. Who can blame him?

Perhaps these last failings are more personal traits than the residue of ideology. At this stage of life the best I can do is to attenuate them, as they are unlikely to disappear completely.

I have emphasized the authoritarianism as the main disadvantage of orthodox Marxism. There are other temptations. One is that form of scientism that seeks to apply laws to history. In difference between poor countries and rich countries today Marxists speak of the "law of separate and combined development." Alas, there is no such law and the formula just restates what we already know without offering any real explanation of the condition. A friend who is also an ex-Marxist says that he is unwilling to give up the dialectic. I have concluded that this Hegelian relict is simply another way of saying that some matters are complex.

If we are astute we learn to harvest something from all major experiences along life’s way. Yet the content of the harvest varies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not critically, but affirmatively, this post might better be identified as "Beholding Life," -- a stream of consciousness with bold insights and powerful claims without needing an "argument."

One of the best among them is the "critical stance," the "questioning sceptic" seeking coherency, consistency, and commonsense (or more formally known as "naive realism").

Early imprinting has various effects, but peer imprinting appears far more "effective" than the parental kind. Or so the psychologists tell me. I still don't believe it's that clear cut. Too many of us rebel, conform, or muddle through it in dissonance for that to be viable.

The philosopher John Searle makes "background" a central theme in his works, which is summarily more than imprinting, history, context, beliefs, language, experience, and the kitchen sink. An "ordinary" word for an immense concept. By applying "intentionality," one can either open the whole thing up, or conversely narrow it down. He admits most of us do the latter, but the preference is the former. And with a "critical intentionality" see how it all "fits" of fails to fit.

As a naive realist (which he has rebaptized to biological realism), he opposes reductionism and materialism. but his principal objective is to "open" the world up, not reduce it to narrow interests. One often disagrees with some of the "particulars" he prefers, but not the "stance," the purpose of which is to open it all to scrutiny. Not "doubt" as in the Cartesian method, but scrutinize as one might do in dissection, microscopic study, or logically, or any other device that allows examination. Needless to say, it hasn't endeared him to the more ideological-oriented among his fellow academics.

I see a very similar project here. And yet, taking this type of "stance," which seems eminently worthwhile, angers those embedded in their certitudes and opiates and nostrums. It's not only the Evangelical "faith," it includes Marxist, Freudian, Foucauldean, Postmodernist, Materialist, etc. "faiths" too. It apparently still "comforts" and "soothes" like an elixir -- even if it itself is strident. I surmise that some of us just cannot dwell in the next possibility, too comfortable in their unbending niche.

The "problem," of course, is that our biological niches are dynamic, not static. We're all interacting and impacting everything around us. If we didn't, we'd no longer "adapt," and lacking adaptation, we'd fail to survive. That is Darwin's central point. Yet many scientists fail to capture this important point. The "critical stance," whatever else the merits and demerits, is a strategy for survival, and we may readily agree, but do the opposite.

I understand the "indifference of the masses," but I fail to understand the provincial narrowings of the intellectually curious. Maybe it's nothing more than a pretense. But it's bad form, bad strategy, and usually has bad consequences. And still it persists. So those of us who enjoy serendipity appreciate your critical stance. I wish it were more prevalent. I really want it to be pervasive, but I'll take success anywhere I find it.

A very, very good reflection, Wayne, keep it up.

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