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Posted: May 6 2008, 02:58 PM
reaching for higher ground
Group: kasama project mods
Member No.: 5
Joined: 2-May 08
I've long held that the Achilles heel of the US left is it's pragmatism and associated anti-intellectualism. Doug Henwood co-wrote a piece on this persistent problem calling it "activistism."[ http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/actiontaken.html]
What things this to mind are some recent exchanges on kasama and my reading of Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason in which she builds on Richard Hofstadter's study of anti-intellectualism in the US. There are a lot of elements in the book so I won't attempt to summarize it here, but I think it is one place we can begin looking at the transformations of cultural life in the US and how it has affected revolutionary politics.
One of her argument is that intellectual pursuits have not always been reviled by the masses, but due to some important historical shifts, like the Civil War, have come to be associated with a liberal elite, influenced by foreign [read "French" as in Voltaire and Rousseau] ideas, while the transcendental claims of religion tended to offer more solace to the masses. I am unfairly simplifying her point and leaving out many crucial parts, such as educational policy, the increase in immigration, the [mis] representation of Darwin's ideas, etc.,
This process has obviously taken new forms over the years, but I think we need to also study how it affects revolutionaries. There are many who still downplay ideological struggle on two related premises: 1] privacy, ie, the right to retain one's own opinion and not express it openly, and 2] irrelevance - as long as the work is done why does it matter? I think refusing to address these problems in a deeper way will continually lead us into dead ends, that we won't even have the tools to recognize.
Just putting it out.
Posted: May 7 2008, 08:02 PM
Dance the wind
Member No.: 1
Joined: 28-April 08
This is only one part of what you are talking about. It is also just one personal experience and I am sure there are other reasons for anti-intellectualism. Some of it is taught as well in the movement. It was pretty strong in the CP-USA, for example.
For years I saw things within the realm of bourgeois politics. There was nothing to do but protest and hope that this or that action would lead to some real change, gradually over time. It took me a long time to realize that was not the case – it simply would not work. But during the whole time that I was approaching it this was I did not see any relevance of theory to what was actually going on in the world. Everything seemed random and haphazard as well.
And it was not that I did not have access to the philosophical and theoretical works. I grew up with Marx, Lenin and a set of philosophical encyclopedia on a shelf in the den. I had of course read the Manifesto but with about as much interest as a kid reading a Sunday school lesson. It just all seemed very irrelevant and old. Having all that I just did not realize there was any necessity. I never saw the possibility that I might need to know how to structure an economy or break down a set of contradictions although I was deeply fascinated with economics.
What changed all this for me was the stark realization that there was no way to get to somewhere better with the voting system – and then I realized I had no clue what that somewhere better would be. I’d called myself a communist since I was 15 but could not explain why you could not have capitalism and communism. I could not tell you what role the state would play. I became intensely interested in theory at that point.
By then I had changed my major in college. I was no longer a nursing student. I took up philosophy, economics and sociology with no idea how to chose between the three. As a 9th grade drop out I was not even supposed to have made it this far.
I’m not going to say it was not a pain in the ass. It is easy to be in the dark but when you start to get into theory you are met with words no one ever taught you used in ways that are not in the dictionary. I had to find brains to pick and learn each new word carefully. At times I went back to the grade school method of writing words over and over with their definition and a little at a time I was able to crack things open.
I ran into another barrier. Its not easy to find people that have gotten into things like Capital so it became hard to find people that could help me move past difficulties. Trying to find books was another thing, too. I knew about the classics and I also found out rather fast that there is a lot of crap out there as well as stuff that I would buy that I ended up just not being at the place to understand – like Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” which I found to be incomprehensible at the time. I also had a bit of resentment and disbelief when people claimed to understand these things but could not explain them to me. It felt like they were talking down to me, did nor really understand it themselves or just did not believe I could get it or that it was worth their time.
Of course it was not like that with everyone or I would not be writing this. I do think that certain objective things get in people’s way – not just some kind of hate of intellectual things. First I had to see why it was necessary, then I had to find a way to get into it somehow and that was the hardest thing and I think it is also a lot of concentrated work. I also think most people CAN do it – if someone shows them how.
Posted: May 8 2008, 01:44 PM
Group: kasama project mods
Member No.: 6
Joined: 3-May 08
I think this also touches on a massline issue. I have noticed a lot of the hyper-activity anti-intellectualism in my anti-war work for a while now. Over the past year I have been telling students that Obama isn't really going to end the war, without ever realizing that wasn't the question on their minds. What they were wondering was what was going to happen to Iraq after we left! Was it really going to collapse into civil war? Was terrorism going to sky rocket? These were legitimate questions that I couldn't (and still can't) answer! Practice without theory is blind, and boy have I been blind.
It's not just intellectualism in relation to analysis but also being intellectually aware of what others are thinking. If you're analyzing the wrong issues you won't be able to answer anyones questions.
Good article! More later!