The Paradox of the Honest Liberal (reblogged)

A Young Dan Carlin

An excellent reflection by C. Derick Varn, reblogged from his equally excellent blog, The Loyal Opposition to Modernity.  A blog well worth following.

The Left and the Right both square off with liberals–often for deeply divided reasons–for two major reasons: 1) this epoch is largely a liberal epoch shifting ever more towards the “right” side of liberalism, and 2) Liberalism is the current traditionalism of both the US and the EU, it has been the current traditionalism of the US for longer as both Republicans and Democrats in power until the middle 1970s functioned with liberal values. Indeed, classical liberal values spawn both the American Left and Right, and while Keynesianism, anarchism, Marxism has added to the thick veins of the American left-liberal tradition making it resemble its Marxist-Saint Simonian-LaSallean-Left Keynesian cousin, Social Democracy, and libertarianism has increasingly became close to reactionary elements in the “conservative” tradition obscuring the character of what is going on, both are heirs to a liberal tradition.

Furthermore, all the reactions against the Enlightenment are largely rooted in it: counter-enlightenment thinkers such as De Maistre or Herder or the fundamentalists or the Romantics are still locked in categories set by the Enlightenment. Also, “Left” critiques of the Enlightenment that material in origin are developments out of contradictions within liberal modernity itself–one can see this as analytic developments, or dialectical developments, and it would still stand. So in that sense, the background to the hostility non-liberals feel towards liberalism is partly cultural (Haidt’s research can be useful here) and partly pathological–we all see parts of our tradition reflected in what is currently deemed “liberal.”

In fact, I don’t think the failures of the Left are liberal failures, and leftists would do well to quit blaming our failures on outside parties or on competing but related traditions. No, but the failures of liberalism now is encapsulated by two things: a willingness to engage in almost tribal support for leaders whose compromises even disappoint liberals themselves, and often a failure to even conceive of the reactionary position liberalism has put itself in as a “current traditionalism.” In other words, the dominant thought form will be by-and-large concerned with maintaining its past gains, and given the inability of liberalism to deliver on Enlightenment promises, this will only get worse as the economic situation makes the contradictions obvious.

Look at Dan Carlin: Carlin is an independent, but crucially he is a liberal in the old sense of the term. Yet he sees the fundamental incoherence that both sides of a partisan debate have to can be illustrated in both healthcare and war policy. Carlin, being an honest man, no longer sees an answer, but his question as to the problem is corruption. His paradox is that his self-effacing honesty still has one hampering: he can not easily admit that the past he so valorizing contained all the contradictions of the current, and yet he does almost admit when he openly calls most of American self-conceptions “myths.”

The paradox of the liberal is that contradictions of the declining effacement are so great that they are left like the Soviets in the late 1980s, doing too little far too late, and letting resentment build so that the other side wins. Carlin sees the ad hoc nature of what the constitutional regime and the piecemeal developments of the 20th century have left so many elements of daily life, and he is furious at the disconnect with the leadership. Yet he can not square the circle either, and how can one expect it him to? He is in a defensive position. The questions for left-liberals and the paradox of the liberalism is thus though: if Carlin does square the circle, will what he produces look liberal anymore? Will it avoid the bloodshed? Further imperialism? Resource depletion? Or would maintaining the liberty he wants to maintain cost much in blood and treasure? Would he accept that cognitive dissonance? Or will he act like some Trotskyist or Maoist sectarians stubbornly refusal to acknowledge the contradictions of their own history and trying to pretend that so much of the past didn’t happen? Will anything that resolves these splintering and contradictions even be liberal anymore? I don’t know.

I doubt it. In the meantime, the Left has one major responsibility: to hold itself to account for its failures and to offer an alternative to the current–either through liberalism or against it. At the current, it does neither element of that responsibility well, and thus also cannot be said to have answers to the questions at hand.

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of the Honest Liberal (reblogged)

  1. “The Left”; “the right”; “liberals”. What are these categories but abstractions? They have no class content. From a Marxist perspective they are utterly meaningless.

    In the United States, “the Left”, in the bourgeois press, means the Democratic Party: a right-wing, pro-capitalist political party, as well as their “liberal” fellow-travelers and the fake-socialists who are the “moral center” of the “left” in the US, and who talk about socialism and then vote for the Democrats as the “lesser of two evils”. In Lenin’s term: a “swamp”.

    You are absolutely right when you say that the revolutionary socialists in the US have no one but themselves to blame for their inability to win over the working class to the banner of socialism. They blame Reaganism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the unions with their pro-capitalist leadership, etc., etc. But the fact is that there is not one single socialist newspaper worth the name here in the United States – not one socialist daily that every worker feels he MUST go to for enlightenment whenever any incident of world-wide importance takes place. Who can be blamed for that but the socialist parties themselves, whose websites seem to be written as if it was 1967 – or 1937 – instead of 2012, where young workers don’t even know what the hell socialism IS, never mind whether or not they should support it?

    Also, some working-class parties seem to believe in the “inevitability” of socialist revolution. They have an almost religious belief in this “inevitability”, during which process, of course, the “working class” will “inevitably” search and search until they find the front door of the socialists’ tiny offices, when the working class will stream in by the millions begging for the socialists to lead them!

    On top of all this, they seem to believe that they, the socialists, have all the time in the world to get ready for the big day when the revolution begins – as if the capitalists are not driving the whole planet inexorably towards a WWIII which may not be very far off at all!

    It’s a terrible state of affairs, particularly in the US, whose working class is uniquely poised to put a monkey wrench into the works of the capitalist world’s most dangerous and murderous capitalist class and its military forces.

    There is much work to do and time is running out, yet, particularly in the US, the attitude seems to be: “you go first”.

    Occupy Wall St., which seemed to bring so much promise to the US political scene has never had as a goal the creation of the one thing the US working class needs more than anything – its own political party. This of course is because the Occupy movement is organized by pro-capitalist reformists who – at best – spout vaguely “radical” sounding phrases devoid of any class content or working-class program.

    “Why do the Russian workers still manifest little revolutionary activity in response to the brutal treatment of the people by the police, the persecution of religious sects, the flogging of peasants, the outrageous censorship, the torture of soldiers, the persecution of the most innocent cultural undertakings, etc.? Is it because the “economic struggle” does not “stimulate” them to this, because such activity does not “promise palpable results”, because it produces little that is “positive”? To adopt such an opinion, we repeat, is merely to direct the charge where it does not belong, to blame the working masses for one’s own philistinism (or Bernsteinism). We must blame ourselves, our lagging behind the mass movement, for still being unable to organise sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc. As yet we have done very little, almost nothing, to bring before the working masses prompt exposures on all possible issues. Many of us as yet do not recognise this as our bounden duty but trail spontaneously in the wake of the “drab everyday struggle”, in the narrow confines of factory life…

    “[We workers] are not children to be fed on the thin gruel of ‘economic’ politics alone; we want to know everything that others know, we want to learn the details of all aspects of political life and to take part actively in every single political event. In order that we may do this, the intellectuals must talk to us less of what we already know.[12] and tell us more about what we do not yet know and what we can never learn from our factory and ‘economic’ experience, namely, political knowledge. You intellectuals can acquire this knowledge, and it is your duty to bring it to us in a hundred- and a thousand-fold greater measure than you have done up to now; and you must bring it to us, not only in the form of discussions, pamphlets, and articles (which very often — pardon our frankness — are rather dull), but precisely in the form of vivid exposures of what our government and our governing classes are doing at this very moment in all spheres of life. Devote more zeal to carrying out this duty and talk less about ‘raising the activity of the working masses’. We are far more active than you think, and we are quite able to support, by open street fighting, even demands that do not promise any ‘palpable results’ whatever. It is not for you to ‘raise’ our activity, because activity is precisely the thing you yourselves lack. Bow less in subservience to spontaneity, and think more about raising your own activity, gentlemen!”

    “Without a strong organisation skilled in waging political struggle under all circumstances and at all times, there can be no question of that systematic plan of action, illumined by firm principles and steadfastly carried out, which alone is worthy of the name of tactics” (Iskra, No. 4).

    “What Is To Be Done?” by V.I. Lenin


    • I am glad that you agree with me (as well as my friend Derick, who is the author of this post) regarding the necessity of self-critique in forging any viable radical politics of the future.

      • The material you present on your blog is interesting – I wish I had more time to read and review it, but right now I am quite busy trying to cope with the tremendous amount of material we have to read analyze and transform into useful articles to explain to workers why we need a political party of our own, and why we must get rid of capitalism if we want to have a decent, civilized future for the working class of Planet Earth.

        Self-criticism is essential to the healthy functioning of any revolutionary party. Trying to create a party that is internally cohesive in its programme while at the same time allowing for the widest debate within that same party is not an easy task. The Leninist Bolshevik Party, before it was taken over and destroyed by the Stalinist bureaucrats, was one of the most internally democratic organizations ever. They applied the principles of “democratic centralism” in their organization: complete freedom within the party for members to criticise and debate, while once decisions had been made, it was the duty of members to publicly support the decisions of the party while continuing the fight to change the policies internally.

        This was a great model to follow, so long as honest and decent people were running the Bolshevik Party. But as history shows, once conniving, bureaucratic office-seekers led by Stalin and his cohorts began to organize inside the Bolshevik Party, the system that should have prevented the rise of a bureaucratic clique was made to protect and then develop into the hideous caricature of revolutionary Bolshevism, where internal debates were ruthlessly suppressed and an entire generation of great revolutionaries were framed, given kangaroo-court trials, forced to falsely confess, and then executed on Stalin’s orders.

        Obviously, this is not an historic precedent we wish to follow!

        The difficulty lies in building a revolutionary party using human beings who have grown up steeped in the office politics of the capitalist system, where corporate and political ladder-climbing to attain top positions at any cost is the norm. While the problem is usually manageable before the revolution, when only those very few selfless people who are truly dedicated to the struggle to overthrow the status quo will be willing to place their lives in the balance, it is AFTER the revolution, when the fence-sitters who once worked as cogs in the system of the old order come forward in vast numbers to join the NEW status quo, overwhelming the actual revolutionaries with phalanxes of yes-men and -women who seek to glom onto and rise up through the new “system” using the same cynical methods they used before that the serious problems set in.

        Stalin was a third-rate functionary in the Bolshevik Party before the revolution. After the revolution, when the Bolshevik Party suddenly had this enormous country to run, and they were forced to bring in millions of workers of all political stripes to handle the day-to-day work of the government, was when Stalin was able to recruit thousands of cronies who were very willing to trade their votes in all the political debates in exchange for positions of power. They eventually got the upper hand over the revolutionaries and were able to drive them to the margins of the party. They were able to slander Trotsky, who actually was one of the creators of the Red Army to such an extent that they could bring him up on charges of being a counter-revolutionary… and the workers were so confused that they could not rise to his defense.

        Unfortunately, there is no prophylactic available to prevent such a thing from occurring in any revolution, in any historical epoch. Why did the two great bourgeois revolutions of the 1700s evolve so differently? In the US, the “democratic” revolution of the bourgeoisie was forced to compromise with the landed aristocracy of the South and had to incorporate the slave system into its founding principles. In France, a very broad and deep uprising of the most downtrodden people in Europe – the French peasantry and sans-culottes – wound up with a bloody reign of terror (which was not as bloody or monstrous as the aologists for the brutal reign of the “Sun King” would have us believe) an Emperor instead of a bourgeois democracy? Neither of these outcomes were on the agenda of the theoreticians of these two revolutions (Tom Paine and Maximilien Robespierre).

        Our task is to retrieve the banner of socialism from the sewer of history where the Stalinists and Maoists have left it and create new socialist workers parties worthy of the brilliant ideas and ideals of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky… to win a nation full of workers who have been taught from the cradle that socialism is “evil” and capitalism is “the best of all possible worlds” over to this “un-American” banner of socialism…

        So, you see, I’d better get back to work!

        Best wishes,


  2. I am afraid I have to disagree with you. These terms have both an historical and a social (i.e., class) content.

    The language of the Right and the Left emerged in the context of the French Revolution. It is a language that continues down to the present, in however degraded a form. I have no idea your feelings about Trotskii, but if you maintain that the idea of a “Left” has no content, then how are we to understand his leadership of the Left Opposition?

    Even Stalinists accept this language, insofar as Stalin himself positioned himself at various times as a Centrist, part of the Right Opposition, and then the Left Opposition.

    Class is undoubtedly a central component of any Marxist analysis as well as its politics. But it hardly has the final word on it, nor is it unique to it:

    It is often said and written that the main point in Marx’s theory is the class struggle. But this is wrong. And this wrong notion very often results in an opportunist distortion of Marxism and its falsification in a spirit acceptable to the bourgeoisie. For the theory of the class struggle was created not by Marx, but by the bourgeoisie before Marx, and, generally speaking, it is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the bounds of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics. To confine Marxism to the theory of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. — Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917

    The veracity of Lenin’s remark is confirmed by Marx himself in a letter he wrote to his friend Weydemeyer, who had moved to New York after the 1848 revolutions:

    And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

    Obviously class is central, insofar as it is necessary that class itself be abolished in order to achieve an emancipated society. But even the language of class is rooted in history.

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