Thursday, May 03, 2007

Michael O'Hare's May Day tribute to several generations of American Communists--including, he makes clear, thousands of loyal Stalinists--is a fascinating study in partisanship. "They were misled by their leadership more than once", he writes, "and there's a lot they didn't understand about how societies and people really work, but they were brave and their hearts were in the right place."

The usual partisan retort to such an encomium is to declare it equivalent to--that is, as unthinkably obscene as--a celebration of, say, American Nazis. But as a committed non-partisan, I find it much more interesting to compare it with an equally unthinkable (for Prof. O'Hare), but rather less obscene, hypothetical: a tribute to supporters of the current American president.

It seems obvious, accustomed as we are to partisanship, that O'Hare would never dream of including contemporary Republicans in such a misty-eyed paean. But in fact he almost certainly has more in common with them, politically speaking, than with at least the most extreme of those he actually chose to celebrate. And this relative affinity goes well beyond the paramount fact that both he (I assume) and today's Bush Republicans prefer democratic politics over, say, a totalitarian revolutionary vanguard's violent seizure of absolute dictatorial power. Indeed, "on the issues", as they say, today's compassionate conservative probably occupies the mushy middle ground between O'Hare and his beloved Marxist predecessors. Let's consider a list:
  • The environment: Pure bourgeois frivolity. The industrialization of the Soviet Union--achieved at a horrific environmental cost--was uniformly celebrated by Communists of pretty much every stripe. In those days, conservationism was the preserve (so to speak) of wealthy brahmins with plenty of free time for birdwatching and the like, and little concern for maximizing industrial production.
  • Immigration: Surely I don't have to review Communist doctrine regarding control of movement of people across borders. The mere idea of allowing wealthy American capitalists to import millions of foreign laborers to underbid local workers would have given any self-respecting Red apoplexy.
  • Welfare: In the Soviet Union, those who refused to work were declared "parasites" and prosecuted.
  • Civil liberties: 'Nuff said.
  • Iraq: This is the only (slightly) tricky one--certainly, 20th-century leftists were generally in favor of deposing fascist dictators by military force, but on occasion (say, when the Soviet Union had entered into a non-aggression pact with one), the most orthodox among them were inclined to waver. Still, it's safe to say that absent a direct Soviet interest, invading a country to replace a fascist dictatorship in which Communists had no hope of seizing power with a democracy in which they were free to organize would have met with the approval of most Communists.

Given this list of sharp disagreements, what could O'Hare possibly have meant when he declared that those old Stalinists "had their hearts in the right place"? He gives a hint in his comparison of his historical heroes to his current enemies:

As the United States slides further and further toward the kind of outrageously unjust income distribution my parents and grandparents fought against, and every day's news has another injustice by the strong against the weak, what's worth remembering is the generations of people who paid some real dues trying to make a better world.

Is this really the root of O'Hare's identification? Shared preference for a more progressive tax policy? Delusion that a self-professed "revolutionary vanguard" seeking absolute power really only wanted to defend "the weak"? Well, sort of. In practice, these shared symbolic ideals are a kind of coded signal, indicating to others that their holders' hearts, as O'Hare would say, are in the right place--that is, that they're "the right sort of people". In this particular case, "the right sort of people" are relatively educated folks of plebeian origin who think of themselves as clear-thinking, truth-seeing intellectuals, and embrace the values such people could be expected to embrace: erudition, rationality, articulateness, intellectual discipline. In their utopia, what counts are these qualities, not wealth or social class or talent or hard work--traits that could elevate people other than themselves to positions of wealth and power (over them).

Other forms of political partisanship are, at heart, similarly constructed out of tribal fraternities of the like-spirited. The nerdy libertarian pines for a world where impersonal markets govern everything, and physical strength and social skills are powerless against (his own self-attributed) raw talent and brilliance. The working-class heartland conservative imagines a country where "values" and "tradition" (that is to say, his values and tradition, since they are, he believes, the dominant version) shape policy more than wealth, social status or education. The self-identified minority group member dreams of a world where his minority is privileged and superior where possible, and otherwise no less favored than the majority. The ambitious, hard-working ladder-climber envisions a world where hard work and ambition are all it takes to get ahead, and lazy bums, busybodies, do-gooders and pointy-heads (that is, people unlike him) can't interfere. And so on.

As I've pointed out before, ideology has always been, for the most part, a cover for the alliance of constituencies with common interests. That today's middle-class intellectuals would imagine themselves in solidarity with a previous generation of middle-class intellectuals--despite disagreeing with them on virtually every concrete particular of public policy--shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, that's what partisanship is all about.


robeiae said...

Nice blog. A well-reasoned analysis of the idealism so many easily succumb to. "Make the world a better place"...pffft.

I added a link to your blog on my blog. No expectations. Really.



Doug said...

Surely the reason liberals find that there are no emotional barriers between themselves and Stalinist totalitarians is because both share a fundamental committment to equality. Stalinists have a well-worked out rationale for why "bourgeois democracy" is a fraud, and why one-part dictatorship on the way to the classless society is justified. Liberals have no well-worked out rationale for why this is not the case.

Thus today liberals are perfectly happy sitting down and working with partisans of the Shining Path organization, which murders rival leftists. (Not that the liberals know about this in any detail.) And why not? Both share the same goal -- a society of fairness and equality -- and liberals are not nearly so aware of and committed to their particular means of achieving that goal as the Stalinists are aware and commited to theirs.

Dan Simon said...

As I explained, I view "fairness" and "equality" as shibboleths whose meaning depends entirely on who is interpreting them. A radical Islamist, for instance, would have little trouble embracing "fairness" and "equality" as cherished values--although his or her definitions might well differ from those of either a liberal or a Marxist.

And that's the point: when a liberal advocates "fairness" and "equality", he or she has in mind the implicit modifier, " intelligent, rational, decent people like me would define them". When a Marxist advocates them, he or she adds the implicit modifier, "according to the definitions we Marxists have derived from careful analysis of Marxist theory". (And when a radical Islamist advocates them--well, you can guess....) In fact, I doubt you'd have much trouble getting even a diehard libertarian to embrace those values--under suitable definitions, of course.

And in each case, I claim, those definitions are driven primarily by tribal affinity, rather than by moral or ideological principle. That is, they are based on what's intuitively right according to "people like me", rather than some underlying moral precept that can be interpreted equally well by someone of a very different cast(e).