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Posted by: Doug Henwood | April 2, 2012

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.

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Responses

  1. Thanks Doug. Anyway it will be available for download, either on your itunes feed or maybe Uniondocs? So I can listen to it without sitting in front of my computer?

  2. “I’d want to say that there probably is no human nature aside from the institutions that shape us”

    You really think that??

    You dont think millions of years of evolutionary pressure for social cooperation might have had some effect?

  3. There’s a tendency to cooperate, there’s a tendency to compete. Who knows what mix is “innate”?

  4. I’ve always been struck by your nuanced relationship to left ideals. Opposed to hairshirt values and enthused by Seattle protest or comradely solidarity with workers struggles as a Yalie with an appreciation for Wall Street finance.
    I can’t argue against your sentiments or analyses but I also can’t live with them. The swing at the naivete about peace reminds me of that Woody Allen joke at the end of Annie Hall:

    ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘well why don’t you turn him in?’The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’

  5. “You dont think millions of years of evolutionary pressure for social cooperation might have had some effect?”

    There are amusing similarities between chimpanzee aggressive behavior and human behavior. Chimpanzees form tribes that mark out and patrol a territory. When a patrol encounters a foreign chimp they attack it, sometimes beating the chimp to death.

  6. “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.”

    I don’t know. I’m often surprised that I’m with the majority on most issues according to polls. Odious opinions tend to fade in sunlight.

  7. I’ve heard interviews where Chomsky basically takes your view in terms of human nature. Rather than finding a few scattered quotes (amongst hundreds of books), Rogers could have just called the guy and asked.

    Chomsky believes humans do have certain innate qualities relating to language and probably creativity and there are very good reasons to hold that view. Behaviorism is an effective tool if you want people to behave like rats.

  8. I think all animals have an instinct for freedom. Tie one up and see the struggle begin.

    Modern humans are all tied up in social relations based on the dominance of a class of parasites who appropriate most of what we produce and gain similar shares of political power for hiring others to make it so. These kinds of social relations are bound up with the establishment and maintenance of class society. In the thousands of years we humans lived in classless societies, we used our reason to help us adapt and thrive. The instinctual drives for freedom and survival were at work, producing and reproducing egalitarian social relations. Reverse dominance hierarchy was the rule:

    http://intersci.ss.uci.edu/wiki/eBooks/Articles/Egalitarian%20Behavior%20Boehm.pdf

    We’re at a point now where the fetters on our freedom are becoming an unnecessary impediment to our survival. Our instinct for freedom is struggling out of the straight jackets of class rule. Occupy X only scratches the surface of our collective survival instincts. Realistically, we should use our reason and admit that we are driven both socially and biologically.

    Will we make the changes in social relations necessary for our survival before class rule runs the planet into environmental collapse?

    Maybe.

  9. Any news as to when and where that audio’ll be posted?

  10. Why do Lefties always dodge the real contradiction, as aptly charecterized by Jay Gould Robber Baron extraodinaire. When asked about working class resistance, he sniffed “The working class- I’ll hire one half to kill the other.” It seems there’s never shortages of cops, prison guards, military personnel and intelligence operatives, does it? Maybe the motherfuckers socialism purports to save don’t deserve it.

  11. The problem with Chomsky is not that he thinks people are innately good, but that he thinks they are innately rational.

  12. Yeah, dumb Chomsky. He thinks because human animals have the ability to communicate with language, write books, plan and construct bridges and change their social relations as they make their own history, that their somehow rational. He contradicts himself all the time when he criticises irrational acts by human beings. Can’t he see?

  13. I meant, ‘they’re’ not ‘their’…sheesh…that’ll teach me to sip my coffee before I type.

  14. Agreed about peace. No war but class war, and this one will not end with a whimper.


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