On not staging a mock conversion to the right
Here’s a slightly edited version of my opening remarks at last night’s panel on the right, featuring Corey Robin and me, moderated by Christian Parenti, held at UnionDocs in Brooklyn. It was a fine event, and thanks to all who made it possible. Audio will be posted somewhere soon.
Given the day, I’d originally thought I would rue the absence of an actual right-winger on this panel, then recount my political history as a brief libertarian in my early college days, and announce my return to the fold after a long, frustrating career on the left—and ended with an April Fool’s!
I decided not to do this: 1) because it’s a cheap trick, and therefore beneath me, and 2) because my wife and counseling editrix, Liza Featherstone, pointed out that many of the critiques of the left I was going to use in my conversion narrative were critiques I’d want to use from inside the left, and by associating them with the right, I’d be discrediting the critiques. I was persuaded.
To steal a rhetorical trick from Gayatri Spivak, had I done that, I’d have said several things. One would have been to recall that during my right-wing days, Yale’s Party of the Right (for more, see here and here), to which I belonged in my undergrad days, began its meetings by reciting Charles I’s execution speech, which contains the startling revelation that affairs of government involve “nothing pertaining to” the people, because “a subject and a soveraign [sic] are clean different things.” And then his head was lopped off with an axe. This is absolutely odious stuff, and it’s amazing that an elite institution of the American right would baldly embrace something so deeply at odds with official American ideology, but the truth value I’d want to extract from it is that while we on the left often talk about democracy, the populace that’s been created by the alienating life under capitalism and the deeply antidemocratic structure of American government is full of incoherent and, to most of us in this room, often odious opinions. And that’s a problem for leftists who tout democracy.
Another point I would have made is that the left often bases itself on a sunny view of human nature, one utterly foreign to the right. Noam Chomsky, for example—and he’s certainly not alone in this—basically believes that humans are hardwired for decency and freedom, but they’re distorted by bad institutions. (For an analysis, see this essay by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers.) Aside from wondering how Chomsky knows this, I’d want to say that there probably is no human nature aside from the institutions that shape us, and we’re back to the problem of working with an unsatisfactory populace. It’s a lot easier to solve this problem when you’re an elitist. And on that point, had I announced my return to the right, I would have quoted for support these comments on Marxism from a liberal icon—someone admired even by some radicals, including me, John Maynard Keynes: “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement?” What an odd secret affinity between Charles I, the Party of the Right, and Anglo-American liberalism.
And, finally, and not unrelatedly, peace. For years, we had up in our apartment a poster that someone gave us for a wedding present that celebrated a Museum of Peace in Chicago, done by a German artist who’d been a Communist. It always kind of annoyed me, and I insisted we take it down the other week. I’m certainly no fan of violence, but somehow the celebration of peace seems drained of politics. And back in the days when Communists did such things, they were actually taking sides in the Cold War. There was something dishonest about using peace as a cover for a political struggle. But in a world as divided as ours, peace as an ideal seems to invoke, to use the old phrase, a premature reconciliation of contradictions—not to mention somewhat banal. Oppose every instance of American imperialism, yes—even in humanitarian guise. But if we want a better world, it’s probably not going to come without violence. In his introduction to Marx’s essay on The Civil War in France, here’s how Engels characterized the response to the earlier uprising of the French working class in 1848: “It was the first time that the bourgeoisie showed to what insane cruelties of revenge it will be goaded the moment the proletariat dares to take its stand against them as a separate class, with its own interests and demands.” We can see this reflex in modest form in the incredibly brutal police response to something as mild, so far, as the Occupy movement.
I would have said, as a pseudo-rightist, that dreams of peace are naïve; I’ll say something similar as the leftist I still am, though of course from a different perspective. And that’s no April Fool’s.