Lincoln and the Coronavirus — A Parable

One of my favorites of the stories Lincoln used to tell is the one about the farmer who had a magnificent old oak of which he was terribly proud. One day, while looking at it, he saw a squirrel appear to vanish into it.  He went out to take a look, and, thanks to the squirrel, discovered the whole tree was rotten, hollow, and needed to be cut down. He said, “Damn that squirrel anyway.”

Supporters of capitalism are saying, “Damn that coronavirus anyway.”


Selections from an Historian’s Diary

Nov 22: Talked to Bob today, and, wouldn’t you know it, he brought up that goddamn 1619 thing again. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. No, I will NOT commit career suicide. Let the rest of them fight it out.

Nov 30: Christmas party at Christine’s. Guess what EVERYONE WANTS ME TO WRITE ABOUT????  Maybe I’ll move to Tibet and become a monk.

Dec 2: Talked to my mother today. Guess what SHE had on her mind? Et Tu, mater? You’d think she, at least, would understand. If I attack the 1619 Project, the internet falls on my head, we probably lose funding, and the University puts me on the Volleyball Recruitment Committee forever.  If I defend the project, I lose all credibility as an historian.

Dec 5: Okay, no, I can do this. I’m the editor of a renowned historical journal. I’ve got mad skills.  I just need a kind of flippant, “what’s all the fuss about?” attitude, shade a few things, make a few implications.  I mean, it isn’t ignoring history, right? It’s emphasizing other things in history. Like, I’m not denying the Abolition movement existed, I just don’t happen to be talking about it in this case. Yeah.  And, oh!  I’ll make it all about me.  I’ll talk about my feelings!  The neolibs love it when people talk about their feelings, and the Trotskyists are going to hate me anyway.

Dec 8: I need to hit just the right tone on the title.  It has to be dismissive, like, “Oh, here’s this big kerfuffle about nothing,” but I can’t actually, you know, say that.

Dec 10: Started on the editorial, and it’s going all right. I gotta kinda pat myself on the back for the New York memorial bit. The neolibs will take it as saying, “see, no one in the North cared about slavery!” and people who know history can’t argue, because, hey, all I’m doing is stating what’s on the memorial. Damn I’m good.

Dec 13: Back to the editorial again. Ugh. I wonder if I can get away with pretending that the Project is saying things everyone already knew? Can I count on no one examining that too closely? Because that would make everything easier. Gonna take a shot at it.  Worst case, well, hey, I got tenure.

Jan 3: Brainstorm! If I just ignore Reed, I can say the WSWS only interviewed white people!  Now if that isn’t scoring points, what is? I just need to find a respected black historian—a black woman would be best—who they haven’t interviewed, and I can imply they didn’t ask her.  Fields will work.

Jan 4: This business of sounding like you’re saying something without actually saying anything isn’t easy at first, but it’s coming along.  Phrases like, “central to the experience of” are really useful, because what does that actually mean, right?

Jan 5: Trying to the do the summary of the WSWS position, and it’s a pain the you-know-what. If I get it wrong, I discredit myself, but if I don’t hit the right condescending tone, I’ll piss off the neolibs. And all the world knows what happens to an academic who pisses off the neolibs.

Jan 6: I have to admit I feel kinda bad about taking that cheap shot at Wood. But omelet, eggs.

Jan 7: OH! I’m going to say I’m befuddled.  Wait,  baffled?  Something like that.  Anyway, gonna say I don’t understand why there’s all the hostility to the Project! Ha ha! That way I can say it’s reasonable history without actually lying! Well, only lying a little bit.

Jan 8: Almost done.  All I need is a quote from Fredrick Douglass that implies Lincoln was a racist, and I’m there. Should be easy enough to find.

Jan 9: Dammit.

Jan 10: Dammit.

Jan 11:Well God DAMMIT.

Jan 12: What the?

Jan 13: Jesus, Fred. Help a guy out, will you?

Jan 14: BINGO.  Snip away the context, and I’ve got it! Ready for press!

Jan 16: Dammit, they interviewed another black historian. Why are they doing this to me? Well, never mind.  What’s done is done.

Jan 23: Welp, here we go.

Jan 31: WSWS responded. Currently, tickets to Tibet are running around around $1200.  I can do that.

On Civil War and Ideology

When ordinary men and women got it into their heads that it was a fine thing, by the grace and power of God, to be “downright separatists,” the secular as well as the spiritual order was threatened. The “gathered Churches” of the separatists were democratic institutions. The congregation came together of its own will, chose its own minister by free election, supported him by contributions freely organized and given. Now that all authority was shaken and every speculation possible, the “gathered Churches” would soon be taken by some as the pattern for a reformed secular order, a society which came together by free consent of the governed, by agreement of the people.
— C. V. Wedgewood, THE KING’S WAR, 1641-1647 page 481
There are several reasons this passage fascinates me so much. It expresses, in a certain way, the moment in the English Civil War that is analogous to the Emancipation Proclamation in the US Civil War—the moment when, we might say, it went from potentially revolutionary to actually revolutionary.
Here, also, we see the role of ideology in human struggle: merchants, manufacturers, and commoners of England (the Scots were notoriously opposed to the “Sectaries” at this point, and the Irish still wanted their Church back, and I’m not at all sure about the Welsh) used their religious ideas in the same way that, five quarter centuries later, the Americans would use “pure reason,” which same ideology would be brought to its culmination a quarter century after that in France. In all cases, the ideology serves the needs of its social class in its efforts to break out of the oppressive grip of a social order that was strangling it.
Here, too, is where we see the sharp separation between the nobility, many of whom supported Parliament against the King, and the commoners: the former were fine up until this point, but reforming the secular order to give more power to the riff-raff was going too far! And, parallel to this, the bourgeoisie, about to step into power for the first time, accepted it, but were unwilling to go as far as those below them: this was the period when the Leveler Party was created.  This is also a period in which the House of Commons, through the “Committee of Both Kingdoms,” had almost complete power; the House of Lords was all but irrelevant. 
The needs of the capitalist class clashed sharply with the old forms of feudal property relations, and so, in an almost perfect parallel, the new class used its relationship to God (a personal relationship, up to each individual’s conscience, and not requiring a member of the nobility, uh, I mean the priesthood, to intervene) to begin the transformation of society into its own image.
What began as a war to limit the powers of the king, to save him from “evil counselors,” transformed into a revolutionary struggle in which Charles was separated from his kingship, and his head from his body. Praise be to God, or, rather, to the ability of the human mind to use the ideological tools at hand to move society forward.

First Thoughts on the English Civil War

I’ve been working to alleviate my embarrassingly poor knowledge of the English Civil War (1642-1651). As I’ve been studying, one thing has really smacked me hard: the interconnections among science, technology, economics, and politics (and religion and the arts, but that’s for later). They all feed into each other.
We see scientific advances in agriculture and in cloth, creating better technology which is putting pressure on old economic forms. The advances in coal mining lead to a limited restoration of serfdom (which had been pretty much gone by the late 1400s) in Scotland to make sure there are a steady supply of miners.  Meres are drained destroying the livelihood of old-school hunters. Cottage industry is increasingly threatened by workshops. Increased yields make farming and herding more a matter of commodity exchange, which in turn made the price of crops more significant, and thus created unrest among yeoman farmers when increased yields caused the price to fall, all of which required measures of political repression, which in turn had an influence on scientific development and on economics.
We know that these things all interconnect, but looking at what is about to become the first capitalist nation, and seeing how all of these interactions combined to bring the old feudal property relations to the breaking point, really drives it home. And the parallels with today, where science and technology and ever-stronger socialized production make the capitalist distribution system ever more absurd (and stir up all the ignorance and backwardness and filth that’s been lying like a layer of silt at the bottom of the social pool), are inescapable.
There will very possibly be more posts on this as I study more.

The Stalinist School of Internal Debate

It’s been a long time since the Communist Party has been a strong force within the American labor movement, so it seems worthwhile to review a few things that have been largely forgotten. As the influence of Stalin grew within the international movement (the Third International, or Comintern) beginning in 1924, the changes, though gradual, were profound: the interest of the working class began, more and more, to be subordinate to the interests of Stalin and the bureaucratic clique of which he stood at the head.

The prestige of the Communist Party came from its role in 1917 in leading the Russian working class to power, a tremendous inspiration to workers in, literally, every country in the world. Working against that tradition, while simultaneously attempting to keep the loyalty of millions upon millions of workers who were inspired by the party of Lenin, produced some remarkable pathologies.

The Left Opposition (later the Fourth International) worked to expose this contradiction, and to show where the activities and program and methods of the Stalinists worked against the interests of the working class. Over time, the best, the most intellectually honest members (I say with pride that this includes my father) were won over to the Left Opposition.

The arguments of the Trotskyists were necessarily reflected within the Communist Party itself, requiring that the arguments be answered.  These “answers” took the form of rote recitals (which changed quite drastically as the interests of the Kremlin changed: Trotskyism was officially denounced as “ultra-left” which changed to “fascist” literally overnight, then went through other changes). These rote recitals were followed by a system of suppressing dissent within the party.  In the Soviet Union itself, this suppression took the form of midnight visits from the Cheka followed by exile, prison, or murder.  Lacking state power, the other sections of the Comintern had to find other methods of keep party members in line, of using their commitment to equality, to the rights of the working class, to prevent any examination of how best to carry out those goals.

That is the origin of the Stalin School of Party debate, and, though the Communist Party in the US is, at this moment, isolated and largely ineffective, and though no longer directed specifically against Trotskyism, the method of “debate” of international Stalinism, still lingers.  That makes it worth a moment to review. It was present in the CP press, and in large conferences, but most often found expression in the meeting of local Party branches. It worked like this:

1) Someone is accused of the grievous crime of Trotskyism or being soft on Trotskyism, or perhaps saying something that indicates that there is something worse than Trotskyism or bringing up a point that sounds too much like one of the points Trotskyists bring up.

2) The accused is then permitted to speak and apologize for this crime.

3) Those in charge (usually whoever is the leader of that Party branch) then decide if this apology is acceptable, that is, if the individual is sufficiently contrite, and has apologized enough, and put his apology in the proper form.  There were various pieces of that, including praise for Stalin, denunciation of one’s self,  often going further than the original accusations in speaking of one’s own depravity, followed by the promise to do better.  If this apology and ritual self-humiliation is accepted, the accused receives some level of forgiveness, though, of course, he can never be fully trusted again.

4) If the apology is deemed insufficient, everyone present must dutifully attack the offender, speaking from a position of deep moral outrage. Any defense made by the accused is cause for still further, deeper, and more profound attacks, because your unwillingness to recognize the “Trotskyite” influence in yourself means you are deliberately attempting to “sabotage the Party” with these influences. Should anyone be so rash as to defend the accused, or attempt to soften the attacks on the accused, go to step 1 with this person as the accused.

5) Eventually, the accused is either sufficiently humiliated, or makes a sufficiently abject apology, to be forgiven, at least provisionally; or else, if not, is expelled from the Party and shunned by all loyal Party members, after which the remaining Party members congratulate themselves on a job well done.  Those who have doubts about what just happened keep these doubts to themselves, either because they still believe in the ultimate goal and accept that such methods are “necessary,” or simply out of fear of immense social pressure to conform.

Some discussion of this method can be found in the work of James P. Cannon, one of the founders of American Trotskyism (a quick google search of Cannon’s work didn’t bring up anything on line, but I’ve read about it in his work).

This method, to be clear, was neither invented by nor is it confined to the Stalinists: they simply brought it to new heights of formality and rigor.  But any movement defined by political bankruptcy on the one hand, and the sacrificing of the search for truth at the altar of social acceptance on the other, is likely to find itself using these methods, until what remains are quasi-political automatons repeating formulas and attempting to outdo each other in their protestations of loyalty to the Accepted Ideology. It is a good thing to be aware of.