Hey! Cultural Marxism! I: Thought Becoming Action, Research Time, 24/08/2017

That much-too-long meditation on political agency was only one intriguing idea that I picked up reading Perry Anderson’s books a while ago. Here are some thoughts on an idea I found in his book Considerations on Western Marxism.

It's a history of ideas, tracing how the marxist tradition of political philosophy developed in the American-aligned bloc during the Cold War. One of the narratives of this book is how theory was cleaved away from real-world activism in the movement.

All this research in the marxist tradition is part of a strain in Utopias
that will examine the role communism plays in rhetoric against
utopian thinking, from the most florid think tank essays to the
dankest memes. I hope I won't have to get too dank.
Okay, you might be thinking, how is that weird? Well, it’s a truism in our society that theoretical thinking doesn’t have anything to do with practical action. I remember when Eric Foreman told his dad that he was thinking of studying philosophy in university, and Red asked if he had plans to work in a philosophy factory.

Say what you will about how well most communist countries worked out.* One really interesting part of that tradition was a deep link of its most profound theorists and researchers with its activism and community organizing.

* Actually, don’t. Because it’s all been said, I’ve heard it, I’ve said it myself, and it doesn’t matter that I fundamentally disagree with a lot of the political and economic principles of a tradition. There is still value here, as in a lot of places. You can read works without devoting yourself to their ideas. It’s called being critical.

Karl Marx himself was a union organizer, first locally in Cologne and Paris, then internationally through the International Workers of the World. Same with Friedrich Engels. It was the same with Vladimir Lenin and Lev Trotsky as well. They all wrote historically significant, philosophically rich books of theory while leading political outreach and activism.

After the First World War, the break happens. Antonio Gramsci is the first philosopher of the marxist tradition to equal the insight, intensity, and influence of Marx himself. But he was a weird spin on the philosopher-activist. Marx, Engels, and Lenin were theorists at the same time as they were activists.

Marx was writing dense and complex theoretical essays and manuscripts while organizing radicals and activists. But Gramsci did all his philosophical work at the end of his active career.** There was a clear break in his own life – the slam of a gavel – of his activism as a political party organizer from his most important and best writing.

Just look at this fucking hipster. Shame what happened to him, though.
** Prison will do that to a guy.

Yet from Lenin’s death onward, theory decisively broke with practice. The main reason was some dirty hipster named Josef Stalin, who took over the Soviet Union with the help of his secret police apparatus. So from about 1924 to 1953, any writer who wrote anything dissenting or even departing slightly from the letter of official government doctrine fairly quickly expired.

In Russia, the intellectual tradition of the radically creative philosopher-activist was stamped into the dirt and buried. Thanks to the international political organizing of communist intellectuals across borders, all countries’ communist parties were networked together.

Over the 1920s, the Russian faction became more powerful and began dictating terms to the other parties – occasionally even making some party members around Europe disappear if they were deemed too Trotskyist. The creativity of the movement disappeared too.

Activists now just parroted standardized doctrine, approved by the Central Committee of the COMINTERN. First because they knew what was good for them. Later because they knew nothing else. Later still, because they knew nothing.

The irony is that Marx himself set up that structure and the incentive for communist philosophers to rely on it. He did it to make sure that community organizing against monarchist rule and for the rights of workers to see more profit from their own labour would always include a philosophically creative side.

The point of including philosophers in your activism organizations is to prevent your activists from letting their thoughts fall into empty dogma. A social movement is only powerful when people understand and embrace those ideas.

But the networks through which those ideas can spread can just as easily expose and silent the creators of new ideas.

Next post: Where did the philosophers go?

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