On Political Principles

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.

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14 thoughts on “On Political Principles”

  1. Isn’t one of Vlad’s snide speeches to Kelly in Teckla about people vs. principles? The worship of ideas speech. I understand that we are meant to find Vlad’s grasp of the subject flawed and he loses that argument, but Kelly’s cou terpoint was good enough I still use it today when someone tries that argument on me.

  2. There is something happening in society whereby, quite honestly, it at least looks like the former Establishment, a traditional empowerment majority, has long recognized the potential for their paradigm to roll over in its sleep. Unfortunately for them, there really is no rousing this decrepit beast back to any real and useful function. As each part of our society’s traditional conservatism has decayed markedly in recent years, those groups have started panicking. Remember, for instance, that whatever else, the Gay Fray was, at heart, about women for conservatives; that’s why when it was clear they were losing the marriage equality fight, they shifted back to contraception.

    It’s a personal thesis: Within this decline, having seen their own principles fail not only to fulfill, but even merely sustain, many are tempted to challenge the value of any principles. And that latter is, of course, reflective of our human tendency to project our own selves onto others; “If our principles fail, then all principles fail, because our principles are all principles.”

    Any investment or connection we have to such societal Establishments or traditions include potentials for this manner of self-wallowing, self-loathing self-sympathy.

    Quite clearly, that’s never the whole of any particular thing or notion or whatever, but, still, it has its place on some relevant board, table, or flow chart.

  3. Doylist: Well, I was putting the idea I hate into the mouth of my protagonist, in order to make myself play fair with both sides.

  4. skzb, Great rant. As Steve Halter said, principles have gotten in the way of people with no principles. So Principles have to go.

  5. The question about principles is, as always: “Whose?”

    Leaving aside the whole question of molestation, Judge Roy Moore was already a horrible candidate to become a lawmaker, because he was removed from his post as judge (twice!) for putting his personal religious principles over the rule of law.

    I could come up with a dozen more examples in the US alone, and hundreds globally, of politicians prioritizing principle over people, to everyone’s detriment.

    Yes, principle is important, but only when someone’s principles are those that benefit people. I hear it from Republicans all the time: “You’re asking us to respect your principles, but you won’t respect ours!” And they’re right.

    When I say Roy Moore should have upheld the rule of law and told the local county clerks to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage was legal, I’m imposing my own principles over his own. My principles being that in a secular court, man’s law is supreme; his being that God’s law trumps man’s law in any court.

    “To rigorously seek out the truth, and to tell the truth, however unpopular—those are political principles.”

    Those, indeed, should be the required principles for anyone seeking public office, and those are principles that I’d never suggest that someone should abandon.

    But to hold all principles to the same level as that, when people sincerely hold principles like “A wife is required to satisfy her husband sexually, so a husband having sex with his wife can never be rape…”

    Well. Let’s just say that I think some principles are innately harmful, and are worth abandoning, as we’ve abandoned the principle that blasphemy should be punishable by death, or that a slave’s life is worth less than a free man’s.

  6. If your point is that principles, like any other aspect of human thought, ought to be held up to the light and examined, then, with all due respect, that seems kind of obvious. No doubt many CIA officers, cops, FBI agents, and capitalist politicians are acting on principle. No reasonable individual would excuse their crimes on that basis. But to say the cure for that is that they ought not to have principles at all is just, well, silly.

  7. “People are more important than principles” is, itself, a principle. :-/ They are not escaped so easily.

  8. @evergreen:Principles are the rules we try to follow to ensure that the set of people we wish to benefit are so benefited.
    There are several words in that statement that are points of departure. First, there is the size of the set of people.
    For some people, the set of people to be benefitted is of size 1 — the set holding exactly themselves.
    For others the set should be as large as possible — the set of all sentient beings, for example.

    Then, there is what exactly the word benefit means. For some, this benefit is defined via old manuscripts supposedly handed down from some sort of supernatural force.

    For others, it would be in terms of observable effects upon the physical manifestation of said sentient beings. (You can see lists of these in previous posts here.)

    The interaction between these two definitions result in the current set of applied principles for a given person.

    For people trying to apply principles according to current knowledge, as skzb states above, the current set of applied principles should be constantly reexamined to determine if there needs to be any adjustment.

  9. My point was, largely, that any call for a return to politicians who stick to their principles must be accompanied by a call for better principles. Otherwise, you’ll merely encourage the same politicians to stick to principles that you disagree with.

    And, while you and I may find it obvious that principles should be held up to the light and examined… that’s not exactly the most common human trait. Look at the story of Ignaz Semmelweis. When researching why midwives had a lower fatality rate when delivering children than doctors had, he determined that the most likely reason was that the doctors’ patients were getting infections from contaminants picked up during autopsies performed by the same doctors. He theorized – and proved – that the women were dying of pyaemia, and that a proper sanitation process could save lives. The doctors’ reaction: “It can’t be our fault! We save lives, we don’t hurt patients!”

    So Semmelweis lost his job, travelled around futilely campaigning for proper sterilization, ended up committed to a mental institution, and, in a morbid twist of irony, died of pyaemia.

    We humans are not exactly good at changing our minds once they’re made up.

    Your post, taken as a whole, seems to be arguing mainly for politicians to adopting the principle of seeking out truth, and speaking out about what they find. Which, again, is a damned fine principle, especially for someone in public office. If your post had limited itself to playing up the need for that principle, I wouldn’t have had a bad word to say about it.

    However, if the options are telling certain politicians “don’t shut up about your [regressive, harmful] principles even though there are real people being hurt,” or “go with the flow,” I don’t see how the former is preferable.

    Yes, I know that’s a false dichotomy, but unless you incorporate a stand for better principles, it’s the dichotomy that your post presents.

  10. I’m not, in general, talking about politicians at all. There are no active politicians (in the usual sense of politicians) for whom I could give any amount of support, ever; they either have no principles, or have principles I oppose. I’m talking about us, about people fighting for change, and I’m arguing against the reactionary notion that those of us trying to change things should not be guided by principle.

  11. “I’m arguing against the reactionary notion that those of us trying to change things should not be guided by principle”

    Seems like that could be a problem with revolutions. Noble principles subverted by those who insist the ends justify the means. I’m not criticizing your insistence on principles, I’m more concerned with the propensity for revolutions to develop a life of their own that is divorced from the generative principles.

    I think the problem of subverted revolutions pairs well with a quote you recently referenced: “All revolutions are impossible until they happen. Then they become inevitable.”

    Yes. Insist on principles. I support that. I hope it is enough.

  12. “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.”

    I wonder how much that’s still true. People talk like it is not true at all with voters generally, or people influenced by the media. Saying the right thing too early is saying the wrong thing and you get punished for that.

    Like the politicians who came out against the Iraq war. They got voted out. Later a whole lot of people decided that they were right, but that didn’t get them voted back in again.

    Is the working class especially good at remembering who told the truth, or have they gotten fooled by the media like the big majority of others?

  13. Modern studies on voter decisions imply that voters care only about the last 60 to 90 days of news on a candidate, and nothing older. Now, you can make someone’s actions in the past a news story in that window, but that’s actively refreshing the memory, not relying on it.

    Of course, in the case of a revolution memory may function differently; not sure anyone’s been abke to conduct a study about that.

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