Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Far Left and Revolutionary Identity Politics

The Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. An outfit nearly everyone, and I include hardy leftyspotters among their number, had never heard of until a few days ago. A. Balakrishnan, as with all little Lenins (or Mao Mini-Mes), has probably long-fantasised that like the dialectic itself, the WIMLMZT would become a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie. The Toy Town "institute" have certainly achieved that, but rather than keeping the company of the revolutionary heroes some might suggest our "comrade" should count Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro among his fellow travellers. Of course, Balakrishnan and his partner are entitled to a bourgeois concept they are unlikely to recognise - the presumption of innocence. But once again, after a terrible year for the far left, cult-like practices among revolutionary socialists are back under the spotlight. They serve as a reminder of why old Karl turned his back on those who would describe themselves as 'Marxists'.

As Tariq Ali notes, Maoism was never a big deal on these shores. The Communist Party followed by the big three of Trotskyism more or less had the lion share of self-identifying Marxist activists. As such from the get go Mao-fans were consigned to the fringes. And we're not talking the labour movement here, their fringe was of petit bourgeois radicalism, of politicised intentional communes, "hard" anti-American/anti-imperialism, and uncompromising ultra-leftism. Taking their cue from the Trotskyists, but with a different pantheon, revolutionary history was of betrayal after successive betrayal. When Khrushchev betrayed and denounced Stalin, proletarian leadership passed to Mao. After his passing and the disposal of the Gang of Four by the "capitalist-roaders", the red thread was - depending on your preferences - grasped by Albania's Uncle Enver, or sundry Maoist groupuscules. Judging by Balakhrishnan's denunciation of British, Irish and Canadian Maoists I'm guessing he thought the world historic task of global proletarian revolution fell to him.

Messianism is not the unique property of Maoists. Just as the far right is divided among would-be fuehrers who brook no opposition, so the far left is split between collectives of varying sizes, each uniquely offering the correct politics and the right leadership to sweep capitalism away - if only the working class would listen to them instead of their traditional (mis)leaders. If you subscribe to a group with grand pretensions of a glorious mission, one shouldn't be surprised if they act a bit strange. Or self-destruct spectacularly.

Marxism remains the basis for a thoroughly materialist explanation of human societies. Its understanding of the dynamism of social relations and, particularly, how capitalism works remains unsurpassed. Just as one can only build on Darwin and Einstein, not junk them; so it is with Marx. So why are Trotskyists, Maoists, whatever, not prepared to turn the Marxist tools they fetishise back on themselves? Let's play with some rough and probably unready thoughts.

The upsurge of radicalism across Western Europe and North America in the late 60s did not correspond to an economic crisis, but were the consequences of newly-hegemonic processes unleashed by the post-war boom. One strand, at least in Europe, was the institutionalisation of class struggle via the various corporatist arrangements national capitals struck with labour movements. Across the Atlantic, the civil rights movement was shaking up politics. But at the same time, for both, culture was coming to terms with a new individual: the consumer. This was, and remains, a figure heavily coated in middle class varnish, but since the early 50s the media technologies of the day inculcated a kind of individualism that realised itself through commodities. This individualism had a heightened sense of self and a common sense feeling of freedom that could be explored away from the workplace. What was the preserve of the wealthy from previous ages, the individual, the self, was a "project" within the parameters the prevailing order conceded. So far, so Frankfurt.

There were limits to the new rules of the game. You were blocked from realising individuated freedom by your gender. By your skin colour. By your sexuality. By your education. By the money in the bank. And the subjectivity appropriate to consumption was never completely dazzled by commodity fetishism. The Civil Rights movement was, first and foremost, a reform-minded movement that wanted the American promise extended to African-Americans in the South. It assumed a more revolutionary quality in the North because the much more abstract intertwining of race and class thwarted that promise in the absence of easily-identifiable Jim Crow laws and overt institutional racism. Freedom, dignity, recognition, these were obviously denied in this case. In all these cases. And when society is hailing more and more people as individual selves, when capital needs them for the growing domestic markets, blockages caused by gender, race, class and sexuality make for social explosions.

Trotskyism predated all this by four decades. Before the war, the struggle between it and the dominant Stalinism was bloody, and it was almost always the Trotskyists on the receiving end. Key cadres were systematically murdered. Trotskyism was under siege. By the time the 1960s came around Stalinism and Trotskyism, a vast differential between them, had adapted to the corporatist arrangements of their respective countries. For the Stalinists, communism had some validity among West European labour movements. The Trotskyists too were firmly oriented toward trade union activity and/or entry jobs in their country's dominant social democratic party. Both were oriented toward a certain idea and understanding of working class consciousness.

This changed. Millions marched on to the political stage in the late 60s, and for most of them it was a fleeting experience. Yet some stuck around, being attracted to the New Left and the anti-Vietnam War movement, and latterly the "new" struggles against oppression. These hooked into the senses of self of many activists - women getting a raw deal in the movement, and they were many, entirely understandably gravitated toward each other on the basis of their experiences. The same was true of gay men. And, albeit to a more limited extent in Europe, black and minority ethnicities. A number of activists likewise gravitated toward Maoism and Trotskyism (giving dour Stalinism a body swerve). In Britain, the International Socialists (the SWP's forerunner) and the International Marxist Group (of Tariq Ali!) scooped up the new generation of activists for whom socialism and revolutionary politics wasn't rooted in "old-style" class consciousness, but a congruence of values and identity between the group and the new recruit. Such individuals had always been around radical and revolutionary causes. But what was different were the much larger numbers who were so motivated.

Throughout the period the class compromise of the post-war settlement was dismantled, the cultural trends driven by capital and encouraged by neoliberal reworkings of the state and politics strengthened the new individualism. The labour movement base of the far left, which was never massive, contracted sharply and the recruits picked up were increasingly drawn toward revolutionary politics out of personal disenchantment. The class wasn't the same, but The Class as an identity marker became more important - whether one was "authentically" working class or not. And with increasing numbers entering revolutionary politics and imbibing positions and party branding as markers of personal identity, so new drivers of sectarian behaviour came into play - one wasn't necessarily asserting one's self against the crushing anonymity of capital, but against "betrayers" in the labour movement. Up to and including other self-described revolutionaries, of course. Identity was reinforced by an insularity, of Stakhanovite paper sales and financial sacrifices, of the amount of work you personally undertook, of positions won in trade unions or wider struggles, of collective get togethers and jamborees, and a party press whose primary audience was an organisation's own members.

As the culture of individuality has shifted these last 10 years in an even more narcissistic direction, so the politics and activities of far left organisations have assumed more pathological forms. Accentuation of senses of self-importance is one, allowing some to think they're above morality and the law. The depravity and cultishness that sees an alleged rape survivor harassed by people who call themselves socialists is another. Into this mix you can add a determination to continue ploughing the same furrow, despite reality confounding perspectives time and again. Without the connection to the labour movement, indeed thanks to their growing alienation from it, membership replacement absolutely depends on picking up the atomised and the disenchanted. The more they lose their moorings, the more they are absorbed in the identity work the party is increasingly involved in. Analysis and policy is no more about changing the world. Revolutionary politics, which was always a tenuous proposition in Britain anyway, has given away fully to revolutionary identity politics.

Balakhrishnan's group was a product of the shouty, shouty ultra-leftist milieu of the 70s. British Maoism bypassed the decades-long fall of Trotskyism into revolutionary identity politics because they were adrift and degenerate to begin with. They were the vision of Trotskyism's future, of a fringe movement which, admittedly, did impact on wider politics from time to time, but were nonetheless in historic decline. Isolated, unable and unwilling to match its ultra-revolutionism with the real rhythms of British capitalism outside its 13 properties, it would have been remarkable had the Workers' Institute cult not collapsed into barbarism-in-one-household. With a future for British Trotskyism that holds nothing but the revolutionary treadmill, of ceaseless sidelining and permanent impotence, one is left hoping that whatever future pathologies and dysfunctions their condition manifests, please let none be as awful as the appalling abuses revealed this week.


Robert said...

I suspect most members of these far left cults, even the ones who eventually leave, have had the experience of arguing themselves into believing, at least for a short time, something that they knew was not true. It’s a fascinating study in the corruption of the intellect. To start with, much more often than not, questions of the truth of the belief in question are ignored or actively evaded; what matters is that accepting the false belief will bring practical benefits, or please another person, or identify the believer with an admirable person or group.

As the false belief is affirmed in public and expressed in action, though, the critical space required to accept the belief publicly without believing it inwardly trickles away. The cognitive dissonance that comes from affirming and enacting a belief without believing it is hard to bear, and the more the belief is affirmed and enacted, the more painful the dissonance becomes. One way out of the dissonance is to abandon the false belief, but social pressures often make that a costly and embarrassing step; the other option, to make yourself believe that the false belief is true, routinely comes with equally substantial social rewards. It’s not surprising that a significant number of people make that latter choice.

Once it’s made, though, the pathologies of repressed disbelief unfold in predictable ways. The believer becomes brittle and defensive about the false belief, affirming it loudly and publicly, and taking on the familiar social role of the strident true believer. Elaborate arguments for the truth of the false belief take on an ever larger role in his mental life; if books of such arguments exist, you can count on finding them on his bookshelves, while his willingness to encounter differing views—not even opposing ones, but simply those that are not identical to the cherished false belief—drops like a rock.

Convincing the rest of the world of the truth of the false belief becomes a central concern, since every new convert to the false belief helps shore up the believer’s self-imposed conviction that the false belief really is true. Onto those who refuse to be converted, meanwhile, the believer projects not only his own unspoken doubts, but the bad faith and hypocrisy that surrounds those doubts. Thus, in the mind of the believer, the unbeliever gets turned into a caricature of everything the believer can’t stand in himself, and serves by turns as a straw man, a scapegoat, and the supposed cause of everything evil in the world.

How this trajectory ends is determined by the nature of the false belief itself, or more precisely by the relation between the false belief and the world of objective fact. If the belief does not require the world to behave in a way that it manifestly doesn’t, it’s entirely possible for believers to spend the rest of their lives loudly proclaiming the truth of a belief they know is false, and hating those people who reject the belief for openly speaking the truth the believers are unwilling to utter, without going further into oughtright psychopathology. It’s when the false belief makes specific, falsifiable claims about the way the world works that problems crop up; the more central these claims are to the belief system, and the more obviously and repeatedly the claims are falsified, the more difficult those problems become.

The most productive way to cope with those problems is to abandon the false belief, and of course a good many people do that after a sufficiently forceful disconfirmation. Much less productive is the option of doubling down on the belief system, insisting on its truth in the face of any amount of evidence, and following it out to its logical conclusions no matter how horrific those happen to be.

Loz said...

Blog post of the year mate. Tremendous stuff.

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe, but ... given that the whole far left knew back in the '70s that the Workers' Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-Tung-Thought were nuts, it is pretty problematic to draw any broader inferences from them. From the SWP crisis (and the previous enactment of similar dynamics in the WRP) maybe. But from this lot? It's like drawing inferences about the nature of Protestantism in general from the snake handlers.

Mike Macnair

Anonymous said...

As Mike says, they were well-known notorious, and beyond the pale, as quick look at the lengthy comments Chez Coatesy will show.

Andrew Coates

Howard Fuller said...

Not being a Marxist I took a different view, albeit inspired by your peice above!

Anonymous said...

your a dick

Phil said...

Mike, I was making inferences from British Maoism and not "the institute" specifically.

Maoism was disconnected, and it behaved rather strangely. Trotskyism as a whole has also become progressively disconnected, hence the ramping up of pathological behaviour.

The cpgb always reported on lefty meetings. Now it writes about Facebook spats as well. Make of that what you will.

Phil said...

And you can't spell.

Ken said...

Well, if the way forward is not through the sects, how might one go about building on Marx's insights in places like Britain today?

One possible way would be to use the spaces available - and more that could be opened up - in the education system to develop and propagate Marxism as a scientific outlook, and to put whatever immediate policies such a science would suggest before the public through the actually existing mass party based on the working class.

An example of someone following this course might be, oh, I don't know, a very public sociologist active in the Labour Party.

Strangely enough, Marxist influence in the universities, the trade unions and the Labour Party is still a bete noir of the right, giving rise to a lot more concern than the activities of shouty paper-sellers.

Incidentally, my own experience of being in a sect was that I was quite keen to read strongly opposing views, but truculent, scornful and dismissive about alternative views closer to my own (and to those of the sect). So I fell out at the other end having read a lot of (say) Ayn Rand and Karl Popper, and virtually nothing of (say) Althusser and Poulantzas, let alone of such monsters of iniquity as Alan Woods and Ted Grant.

Anonymous said...

Robert comes across as a messianic figure don't you think? He knows turth and knows falehood, he knows the right path and the wrong path. All kneel before him!

Anyway, we are all part of one big cult that condemns us to slavery and subservience. We are free to leave in some ways but trapped in others. We are fed daily what they want us to hear, we are designed from birth.

Anonymous said...

i'm sure this has been done to death, and i don't know if i should post this here or in your most recent post about the ISN, but i do need to ask: what is it that makes this "revolutionary" identity revolutionary, at least in a substantive sense? it seems in this post you're talking about the production of a particular kind of rhetoric or discourse coupled with the manipulation of various symbols, all of which is aimed at an increasingly smaller and smaller audience. one more niche market, actually, but one with an incredible amount of pretentiousness. in fact, it seems a more accurate term would be an infantilized identity. the real problem is that the phenomenon where discourse substitutes for political practice, identity for action, rhetoric for program seems to extend well beyond small far-left grouplets these days. so where's the virtue in virtual?