A few months ago, a friend told me that she was tired “principles,” that people mattered more, or some such. I didn’t engage on the subject. For one thing I was a little too shocked at how you could manage to counterpose principles to people—I mean, what are political principles except generalizations of what we’ve learned about how to make things better for people? But I’ve been worrying at that remark in my head. What I kept coming back to is, “why now?” Why at this moment is the idea emerging that we ought to reject principles? It reminds me of a time years ago, when certain right-wing ideologues discovered that nothing worthwhile in history had ever been accomplished by people trying to do good except on an individual, “help your friends and family” level—that the desire to improve things based on ideas always made things worse. Crazy on the face of it, but I asked myself, “why now?” This was, by the way, during the Reagan administration, which ought to indicate the answer.
Turns out, my friend wasn’t the only one; I’ve come across it several times. “Shut up about your stupid ‘principles,’ this is something that effects real people,” is the battle cry.
Those who reject principles are, in general, distinguished by a willy nilly, shifting, fluctuating attention span that latches onto whatever the upper middle class is most concerned with at the moment. Going along with this, each one of those issues is seen in isolation, unconnected to the others except by the most vague talk of “the conservative agenda” or some such. The task, I believe, is to base one’s program, instead, on what is actually happening, both on and under the surface, on telling the truth, even when it is unpopular. The middle class does not want to hear, right now, that the media flood of allegations of sexual harassment and the way the results are playing out are more than just distractions, but are bringing back the methods of McCarthyism as part of the continuous attacks on democratic rights. It would be easy to just go along with the flow, or even stay silent, and avoid a lot of conflict.
But the working class has a better memory than a lot of people realize. The secret of Lenin’s policy was just that: to tell the truth, even when it was unpopular, even when it resulted in being reviled or mocked, because the working class remembers who told the truth, who gave the warning, who pointed out the danger. Kerensky, you know, was a “socialist.” What sort of fools would say he will betray, that he will not withdraw from the imperialist war, that he will not give land to the peasants, that he will not take not address the threat of famine, and that he is preparing for dictatorship? Only an “isolated sect” could say such things. Except they were true, and the Russian masses remembered who had told them the truth when it was unpopular. The most sympathetic of those elements pleaded with the Bolsheviks to “give Kerensky a chance” before condemning him. Had they “given him a chance,” he’d have taken it to crush the Petrograd working class in a Kornilovist bloodbath.
Those who adapt themselves to the masses’ beliefs of the moment without constantly studying the international political and economic situation as a whole, and thinking things through, and connecting the dots, are preparing themselves to be isolated. Those who want to be part of moving history forward, of true progressive change, need to constantly struggle to reject the easy, simplistic answers, to understand the truth, and to tell it. Willingness to do so provides the opportunity to give a conscious political expression to the needs of the working class, which in turn can result in a great step forward in human equality. The failure to do so results in defeat.
To rigorously seek out the truth, and to tell the truth, however unpopular—those are political principles. Rejecting principles leads to saying what people want to hear, with going along with the flow. It is opportunism, betrayal, giving aid and comfort to the enemies of equality.
That is the importance of principles in politics.