The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, September 23, 2011

If the second time was farce, what's the third time?

There's a certain kind of comedy that depends on the actors remaining deadly serious even as the audience is doubled up laughing. It restores one's faith in human nature to catch some of the actors smiling behind their hands. The only evidence of a sense of humour I've ever seen from Western Maoists was a reference (on Kasama, of which more later) to portrayals like this of their Five Great Teachers as '"history of shaving" pictures'.

Back in the 60s and 70s, many thousands of young Americans, radicalised by the Vietnam War and the Black struggle, were inspired by those socialist states that at the time militantly resisted the US: Vietnam, Cuba, China. They began to study what Ho, Fidel, Che, and Mao had to say, and thus found their way to Lenin and Stalin. They also re-examined the history of the CPUSA, which by then was for many young people a quite uninspiring organization, and found 'a usable past' in its early-30s militancy and its mid-30 to mid-40s popularity. The task was to do what the CPUSA had done in its glory days, but this time do it right.

And so the 'new communist movement' was born. Never was the adage 'the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce' more tragically and farcically apt. The strains of applying tactics drawn from the Stalinist line-changes of the past to the even more neck-wrenching lurches and swerves of 70s Maoism were more than enough to reduce the entire squabbling motorcade to roadside wreckage by the 80s. When you find yourself urging US imperialism to take a stronger stand against the Soviet threat, the suspicion must dawn on the dimmest that you're doing it wrong.

Some of the wheels that had dropped off kept trundling on. Some drivers kept walking forward with a steering-wheel clutched in their hands and encouraging imitations of engine noises from the passengers limping behind them.

Now these remnants are being joined by a small but growing crowd. One manifestation of that is Kasama, where posts and discussions are a random mix of sharp analysis, philosophical obscurantism, and Maoist baby-talk. Another is the recent rash of Maoist and Hoxhaist blogs. Despite being divided on whether China is now or has ever been socialist, they often link to each other, striving as of old to unite all who can be united against the main enemy: Trotskyism.

It would be interesting to know, from anyone better placed than I am, how much this reflects anything going on on the ground. Is the American radical left doomed to do the 60s and 70s over again?

We know how it ends, and it ain't pretty (Update: thanks to bensix in comments for the link.):

(This picture, which I think I found on Blood and Treasure is a lot more sinister than it looks. If anyone can remind me of the link, I'll be grateful. Update:, ah, found it.)

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Um... in your alignment if timeliness where ought we be regarding The Weathermen? I'm probably out of the loop big time... but I don't perceive much of a far left, let alone a violent or active far left.

The role of disease in rural areas in inadvertent miscarriage with a differential gender related mortality is probably significant.

Sorry for my earlier typos ... cellphone.

Weathermen? A few years down the line.

Aside from the fact that there's not much of a credible radical left in America these days*, I see no reason why a resurgence wouldn't just go down the same road again. If all you have is an icepick, all comrades look like Trotsky.

More seriously, I was on the edges of the farce in the '60s and '70s, which was the main reason why I turned away from Marxist politics (insert joke about the Marx brothers here). I remain a progressive, and my Marxist economist friend, whom I respect a great deal, has tried on occasion to lure me back. But it sure seems to me that if you get all the same kinds of people together in a room again, you'll just get a huge amount of debate over first principles and ideological theory, and damn little practical discussion on how to change the society around us for the better.

* Though there are a few of the 1960's New Left still waking the walk, like Angela Davis.

@ SpeakertoManagers, I think you do yourself and your friend a disservice. You seem to have hit upon a definition of 21st century political discussion. The only difference between yourself and you friend would be the appearance of TV cameras and talking heads.

You might think you don't see beards like that any more, and I don't think you do in the UK. But the other day, walking past the park in Huesca, I saw a man with a full Fred Engels, as modelled in your picture. I nearly asked him to pose for a photo.

I have to say that Kasama is eye-searingly ugly. I haven't seen anything that looks that bad since, well, The Revolutionary Worker.

That aside, I have fairly limited experience "on the ground" in my neck of the States, but my impression is the younger leftists over here are still mostly "anarchists" and "socialists" of the vaguest description. These are the people I wind up meeting anyway. Friends in New York also tell me that these people seem to be the bulk of the Wall Street occupiers.

Teaching in the Universities over here I have only had one Maoist and one Stalinist wander into my classes. The Maoist was American, the Stalinist was Russian. The Maoist later attempted to use Facebook causes to raise money for Maoist Guerrillas. He was not successful.

Thanks for the interesting comments, everyone. Looks like the left as a whole, let alone the radical left, is very weak anyway. (Via.)

Decades ago, in one or another critical Marxist journal (probably European; my experience was that Russian journals were in plain language and clearly wrong, American journals were not demonstrably wrong but were in such highflown academic language that they bore no discernable relation to any actual experience, but European journals were often interesting and sometimes perceptive), I read a neat little essay on humor. I remember, even now, two bits from it:

The comment that because humor is a reaction to social contradictions, a fully socialist society will have no humor, but during the transition it will be necessary to have people go around telling jokes and arresting anyone who laughs.

The comment that if a worker slips on a banana peel and falls, that's reactionary humor; if a capitalist slips on a banana peel and falls, that's progressive humor; but it's only revolutionary humor if the banana peel is placed there by the concerted action of thousands of workers.

"If all you have is an icepick, all comrades look like Trotsky."

Just so you know, Mr. Cohen: intellectual property is intellectual theft. So when I say I'm stealing the above, I'm actually liberating it.

That abortion ad seems like a bizarre non sequitur. If you're talking about sex selection (as some sort of consequence of some variety of leftism??), I agree with the author interviewed in the post that picture came from:

"Skewed sex ratios at birth are now found in many countries with no tradition of infanticide and no one-child policy. [...] Too often Western narratives about China explain what happens there as either the product of a monolithic government or an immutable past—as if China were not home to the same complexity and deep, varied history as the West. [...] I do find that condescending—especially when Americans are happily screening for sex during in-vitro fertilization."

Anon - you're right, it does seem a non sequitur. That's because it is. I didn't think it through carefully enough.

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