Some Things I’ve Learned in 50 Years of Politics

I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook that this year marks 50 years since I began my political activity and study. Steven Patten on Facebook asked what I’ve learned in that time, which is a fascinating question that’s been buzzing around in my head ever since. Here are some answers:
  • To study nuance, to go after detail, to dig deeper, to be suspicious when I think I finally understand something complex.
  • How impossible it is to the separate the pieces: philosophy, economics, history, news, politics. Every time I try to focus on one, it keeps leading me into another.
  • To look critically at the SEP’s positions rather than accepting them blindly, and yet, after doing so, I nearly always end up agreeing. (It took a year of beating my head against the wall attending protests to come around on #BLM, and I’m still not quite 100% about their position on trade unionism in the abstract, but they’re certainly right in the specifics of unions today).
  • I’m still learning to avoid the glib in favor of serious analysis; I screw that one up more than I should.
  • I’ve learned I’ll never make a really good communist because I have too much Kamenev and too little Trotsky in me, and, above all, because I’m lazy–the hard part involves detailed study and research, rather than repetition of abstractions and slogans. I do that when I’m writing and can only rarely get myself to do that kind of work politically.
  • I’ve learned that it is utterly pointless to argue with hardened reactionaries, unless there is a good opportunity to use the argument to advance my own positions in a positive way for lurkers.
  • I’ve learned that discussions on Facebook and on my blog are not, in fact, the waste of time I’d once considered them. There are people here searching for answers, and there is additional value in sharpening my own understanding.
  • Marxists are very good at Who, What, How, and Why, but really suck at When (at least, when talking about the future).
  • I’m still learning to patiently explain rather than letting myself get frustrated, and that anyone genuinely looking for a way forward is deserving of the time it takes to explain. Working on that one.

Anyway, that’s some of it.  And that is certainly enough time spent on personal reflection.  Back to the fight!

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25 thoughts on “Some Things I’ve Learned in 50 Years of Politics”

  1. I’d argue that, in practice, historical Marxists have sucked at “how”, also, unless you don’t consider Stalin, Lenin, and Mao to be Marxists.

    Their regimes were characterized by chaos, confusion, discord, bureaucracy, famine, and mass murder.

    Of all the Marxists actually having power to execute on “how” I’d somewhat ironically argue that Castro did the best.

    And of all the questions you listed, I’d say their strongest is “why”, which I find myself increasingly in alignment with.

  2. “How impossible it is to the separate the pieces: philosophy, economics, history, news, politics. Every time I try to focus on one, it keeps leading me into another.”
    – Truth!

  3. Of the three you mention, Ray, Lenin was the only Marxist, at least, if we understand Marxism as a particular method, and we look beyond rhetoric. And, of course, the reasons for the apparent ” chaos, confusion, discord, bureaucracy, famine, and mass murder.” are well known and well understood, if one takes the time to study, rather than simply accepting the word of capitalists at face value. I mean, it isn’t as if they have anything to gain from distorting the history of the Marxist movement. Oh, wait, yes it is.

    If you want to understand Christianity, you probably want to go beyond taking the Devil’s word for what it is. And vice versa.

  4. Leaving aside the No True Marxist argument for another day, when I read *Trotsky’s* accounts of Lenin’s Soviet Union, my assessment of chaos, confusion, discord, bureaucracy, famine, and mass murder (albeit under a different name) remains intact, discounting rhetoric, of course.

  5. Interesting. Leaving aside the Reading Through Blinders issue, “confusion” (and chaos, which is redundant) is inevitable after a revolution, but it is certainly preferable to the “order” imposed by a Kornilov crushing the Petrograd working class and imposing a fascist regime or restoring the monarchy. How you can blame the famine on a regime that emerged under conditions of famine and then had to fight against 21 invading armies from 11 countries is a mystery to me. Bureaucracy? Yes, it was indeed beginning to grow during that period, indeed, Lenin’s last fight was against bureaucracy in general and Stalin in specific, and it was a fight he certainly would have won had it not been for the betrayal of revolutions in Germany, France, and Britain. Mass murder? This is either speaking of the civil war, in which it takes a particular sort of willful blindness to blame the defenders for resisting invasion, or else you are making up something out of whole cloth.

  6. I don’t consider myself at all well-informed about all this, and I assume that reports from either side will probably be biased. Reports that appear to come from disinterested individuals — apolitical peasants etc — are likely to be actually propaganda from one side or another trying to fool people. “Truth is the first casualty of war.”

    Here’s something from Wikipedia that I don’t vouch for:

    During the summer of 1918, Moscow sent armed detachments to the villages in order to seize grain. Any peasant who resisted was labeled a kulak: “The Communists declared war on the rural population for two purposes: to extract food for the cities and the Red Army and to insinuate their authority into the countryside, which remained largely unaffected by the Bolshevik coup”.[1] A large-scale revolt ensued and it was during this period that Lenin sent a chilling telegram directive in August 1918 instructing the following: “Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. […] Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts [kilometers] around the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks”.

    Assuming this is biased but kind of factual, it makes perfect sense to me that they would have to get food to the cities, and for the army. They needed a better approach because it’s predictable that just taking the food by armed force would encourage resistance.

    I could imagine something like this from well-meaning city people who were overwhelmed with their own problems. Or maybe it’s entirely made up from the enemy’s propaganda.

  7. “Any peasant who resisted was labeled a kulak:” LOL. The peasants didn’t own the land until the Soviet power gave it to them. So who owned grain? The kulaks! This is exactly as profound as, “Anyone found masticating food is said to be eating.” As for Lenin’s comment about hanging a hundred kulaks, if it had been me, the threat would have been carried out, and it would have been more than a 100. It was a deliberate attempt to starve the revolution into submission by the wealthy.

    I shouldn’t be surprised by this stuff. Anyone who calls the October Revolution a “coup” is demonstrating a stunning combination of historical ignorance and pro-capitalist bias.

  8. The earliest overtly political event that I can recall is Watergate and specifically Nixon’s resignation. I was 10 in 1974 and this certainly influenced my deep distrust of anything or anyone on the right. I recall my dad remarking how even though Nixon won in a landslide, “no one will be admitting voting for him.”
    There weren’t a lot of opportunities to get very politically involved in the middle of cornfields in the middle of Iowa in the 70’s, but I read what I could find.

    I college, I had a number of futile discussions with members of the “Youth for Reagan” — so I learned the same lesson about trying to engage hardened reactionaries. My patience at explain was probably a lot lower back in those days.

    This blog has been really useful in both learning about things (like Trotsky & co.) and further defining what sorts of things I think are the way forward. Thanks Steve!

  9. I feel like almost everything I learned about politics has been upended currently. There is no rule he won’t break and nothing he can’t get away with. What was best for the country used to matter. Facts and logic used to matter – even when I disagreed with the conclusion. If you had told me in the 80’s in my high school US History class that a republican president would support Russia over our own intelligence community, I would have laughed at you. Not to mention stealing a Supreme Court Seat. Elite on the left means a super rich person. On the right, it means a really smart person. When did being intelligent become the enemy exactly? In my 50 years of life, what I learned about this country seems to be on hold.

  10. I know what you mean. If you’d told me that people claiming to be leftists would be using the US Intelligence Community as an arbiter of honesty and integrity, or that supposed liberals would be the ones pushing for war with Russia, I’d have just stared at you.

  11. There are all sorts of interesting things going on. (Interesting as in the old Chinese curse).

    The Democrats (and others further left) are embracing the intelligence community from a kind of “enemy of my enemy” mentality. It turns out there seems to be a lot of substance behind the various allegations as Trump and his cronies continue to display themselves to be approximately the worst and most stupid group ever to be placed in their positions.

    The Democrats have to pretty much take 99.9994% of the blame for putting us in this immediate position as they managed to lose an election to this pack of completely useless and horrible people. The primary reason for this seems to be consistently making promises and not being willing to make the changes in the underlying system that would be needed to support those promises.

    Putin & co. did give a small assist to Trump, but blaming the election on them is pretty much like blaming losing a baseball season on the last guy to strike out in the last game. They really should have been doing a lot of things prior to the final out.

    As long as they keep the nuclear codes out of Trump’s hands, I don’t think there is much of a chance of a war with Russia. Now, it would be nice if Putin & co. didn’t keep interfering with the US, on the other hand, they probably think it would be nice if the US would stop interfering with them.

    Changing all of these things would be great. Maybe, we should really start examining the self perpetuating problems of having representatives who are largely indebted to and supportive of a capitalistic economic model that is solely designed to extract money from the vast majority of people and transfer it to the vast minority.

  12. Sandy–

    By our own intelligence community, are you refering to the intelligence community that is primarily sweeping up data and surveiling the public, to detect, neutralize, and eventually crush any dissent?


    That’s a good set of things to have learned. I remember being in college and drinking the Koolaid. It took many years to gradually open my eyes.

  13. Could you elaborate a bit on the SEP “in the abstract” position on trade unions and what you might not agree with ? To my understanding, the idea is that trade unions were always too narrow in their concerns (there were even broader movements before them, like chartism), but were worth working within as they were the main way through which the working class was politically organised.

  14. I’m not sure I can, OL. Part of the problem is that I don’t fully understand it. I read one document that ended, quoting from memory, “this is just the beginning of this discussion, there must be more,” and I haven’t yet seen the more. So I have no formulated position on it, only a sort of intuitive reaction that it overstates the case, and, well, 50 years of politics has taught me, among other things, to be very leery of my intuitive reactions.

  15. To my knowledge to most developed thing published on the WSWS on this topic is this one : , but it appears to be from the very early days of WSWS so the document you remember is likely to be from a later date… that makes things weird, but, anyway. If I dared sum it up, it means that the narrow concerns of trade unions flow from the fact that their fundamental goal is to get a deal from the opposite class, not to evolve mankind to the next stage. And you can’t get a really fair deal from someone if you’re trying to get him out of business at the same time, right ?

  16. True. And yet, historically, the trade unions have been the foundation cells of the general strike, and the general strike, as Trotsky points out, directly poses the question of state power, and can become the springboard to revolution.

  17. I have to admit that, during my studies, I learned a lot about Mao Zedong that I previously hadn’t. Not enough to turn me into a full-fledged Maoist, but enough to make him a far more sympathetic figure then he typically is portrayed as.

  18. People tend to judge Mao by his results rather than by his intentions.

    He’s far better when you pay attention to what he was trying to do.

    Kind of like in Jack Vance’s _The Languages of Pao_. The main character is absolute emperor of a whole world — in theory. He makes hard decisions that have drastic consequences because it’s the best he can do.

  19. A year and a half ago I was in China. We (2 of us) booked a tour guide and car to go to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. The tour was great and worked very well. As we were driving back, the tour guide was discussing various things and then asked, “What do you know about Chairman Mao?”
    This was kind of an abrupt change of topic and I gave a brief innocuous response along the lines of he was the leader of the revolution.
    The tour guide nodded and then went on at some length about how his grandparents generation loved Mao (still), his parents were ambivalent and his generation (early 20’s) disliked him. This was pretty interesting and seemed to fit what I had observed in general.

  20. That was my general thought. We see the same sort of behavior here where people forget the conditions that created the need for trade unions.

    I was only in China for a week, certainly not enough time for a detailed study, but I did try to figure out what was going on with their economy. An odd amalgam of state control (banks, telecom, …), market based capitalism for small enterprises and oligarchic large enterprises was my general impression. The amount of construction going on was mid blowing. The level of pollution was lung blowing. I don’t like seeing and tasting my air.

  21. I am impressed you lasted 50 years. I’ve only been really paying attention for 1/5 of that and I am already at the end of my patience.

    I love that you have blog discussions on your page! I should have looked up your personal site sooner. (yes, my screen name comes from my becoming enamored of your use of the word Taltos)

    I hope you are doing well and finding happiness :)

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