Article 4: The left that never learns

In 1964 Richard Hofstadter wrote the essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In it he identified a common mentality on the far right of the American political spectrum which was conspiracist, xenophobic, and apocalyptic in nature. His essay has become a classic of political analysis. It also stands out as a work which surprisingly enough has never really sparked much similar research despite being frequently cited. This while there are dozens of political movements, some on the fringes of the political spectrum and others not so much, which can be understood by means of a similar analysis of their internal logic.

The left too has its own poisonous attitude. While perhaps not as old as the left itself it is old enough to have impacted the left throughout the 20th Century. Mitchell Cohen, previously an editor at Dissent Magazine, characterized those who express this tendency as follows:

those folks who twist and turn until they can explain or ‘understand’ almost anything in order to keep their own presuppositions—or intellectual needs—intact. Once some of them were actual Leninist; now they more regularly share some of Leninism’s worst mental features—often in postmodern, postcolonial, or even militantly liberal guise.

He dubs them “the left that never learns”. Unwilling to be wrong – or rather to admit this – they are unable to advance. However, like those fluent in the paranoid style aren’t always on the far-right, Cohen points out that this is not an exclusively left-wing tendency. Remarking on their distinctive voice, “that of a prosecuting commissar”, he adds “[i]t’s a voice you can often hear as well in ex-communists turned neoconservative”.

Plenty of descriptions of the attitude which characterizes this political inclination can be found in literature. It is for example a recurring theme in the work of Haruki Murakami. His novel Norwegian Wood, for example, is situated in Japan at the height of student radicalism in the 1960s. At one point Midori, a friend of the protagonist, recounts her experiences at a student club which was enthralled by the faux-leftism of that era:

… Everybody would use big words and pretend they knew what was going on. But I would ask questions whenever I didn’t understand something. “What is this imperialist exploitation stuff you’re talking about? Is it connected somehow to the East India Company?’ “Does smashing the educational-industrial complex mean we’re not supposed to work for a company after we graduate?’ And stuff like that. But nobody was willing to explain anything to me. Far from it – they got really angry. Can you believe it?

The irony is of course that Midori is a working class girl herself as opposed to her well-off club members.

An even more characteristic portrayal is made in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “There was something mysterious and smug in the way he spoke, as though he had everything figured out – whatever he was talking about.”, the protagonist recounts of his first contact with Brother Jack, leader of the Brotherhood.[1] Not only does this give an accurate description of the attitude held by communists in the 1950s, but it also captures their phraseology perfectly.

It is this formulaic way of talking which makes it easy to identify the different tribes of the left that never learns. It is in this way that they identify and police each other. This latter part is a crucial feature determining whether one does or does not fall under this group. To a certain extent all politics will rely on common terms and expressions to communicate itself to others. However, in the case of the left that never learns the main purpose of these phrases is not self-articulation, but guarding the doctrinal purity of the group. Their premises are infallible and the conclusions have been drawn; what remains is to make the facts compatible with them.

* * *

[1] Nonetheless he joins the Brotherhood, but after tirelessly working for them he is informed that the section of the organization he built up will be closed down:

“Look, Brother Hambro,” I said, “what’s to be done about my district?”

He looked at me with a dry smile. “Have I become one of those bores who talk too much about their children?”

“Oh, no, it’s not that,” I said. “I’ve had a hard day. I’m nervous. With Clifton’s death and things in the district so bad, I guess . . .”

“Of course,” he said, still smiling, “but why are you worried about the district?”

“Because things are getting out of hand. Ras’s men tried to rough me up tonight and our strength is steadily going to hell.”

“That’s regrettable,” he said, “but there’s nothing to be done about it that wouldn’t upset the larger plan. It’s unfortunate, Brother, but your members will have to be sacrificed.”

The similarity of this passage to the real life experiences of Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher of science and liberal thinker, during his time with the Communist Party of Austria is striking:

…The incident that turned me against communism, and that soon led me away from Marxism altogether, was one of the most important incidents in my life. It happened shortly before my seventeenth birthday. In Vienna, shooting broke out during a demonstration by unarmed young socialists who, instigated by the communists, tried to help some communists to escape who were under arrest in the central police station in Vienna. Several young socialist and communist workers were killed. I was horrified and shocked by the brutality of the police, but also by myself. For I felt that as a Marxist I bore part of the responsibility for the tragedy—at least in principle. Marxist theory demands that the class struggle be intensified, in order to speed up the coming of socialism. Its thesis is that although the revolution may claim some victims, capitalism is claiming more victims than the whole socialist revolution.

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