Thursday, January 02, 2020

Gary Saul Morson, "Leninthink"

Very much worth a read.
   My mother left the American Communist Party in 1939 in response to the Hitler–Stalin pact, but her friends who remained were able, like Pyatakov, to turn on a dime. One morning The Daily Worker followed Pravda and described Nazis as true friends of the working class; the next, nothing too strong could be said against them. Crucially, and as Orwell dramatized in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there was never an admission that any change had taken place.
   When it suddenly dawned on them that issues were pretexts, Wright and some others like him faced a choice. Usually, however, there was no sudden realization and so no choice was required. I speak from memory now. What happens is something like this: when a criticism of the true ideology is advanced, or when embarrassing facts come out, everyone learns a particular answer. One neither believes nor disbelieves the answer; one demonstrates one’s loyalty by saying it. It is interesting to be present when the answer is still being rehearsed. Gradually, one acquires a little mental library of such canned answers, and the use of them signals to others in the know that you are one of them. If this process took place often enough in childhood, the moment of decision lies in the remote past, if it ever happened at all. For those who joined as adults, there is social pressure to accept one more explanation. Imagine not accepting today’s charge against Trump or Chick-fil-A. Why stop now? Wright is unusual in that for him the process became acute and demanded he address it.
   In his history of Marxism, Kołakowski explains some puzzling aspects of Bolshevik practice in these terms. Everyone understands why Bolsheviks shot liberals, socialist revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and Trotskyites. But what, he asks, was the point of turning the same fury on the Party itself, especially on its most loyal, Stalinists, who accepted Leninist-Stalinist ideology without question? Kołakowski observes that it is precisely the loyalty to the ideology that was the problem.
   Anyone who believed in the ideology might question the leader’s conformity to it. He might recognize that the Marxist-Leninist Party was acting against Marxism-Leninism as the Party itself defined it; or he might compare Stalin’s statements today with Stalin’s statements yesterday. “The citizen belongs to the state and must have no other loyalty, not even to the state ideology,” Kołakowski observes. That might seem strange to Westerners, but, “it is not surprising to anyone who knows a system of this type from within.” All deviations from the Party line, all challenges to the leadership, appealed to official ideology, and so anyone who truly believed the ideology was suspect. “The [great] purge, therefore, was designed to destroy such ideological links as still existed within the party, to convince its members that they had no ideology or loyalty except to the latest orders from on high . . . . Loyalty to Marxist ideology as such is still—[in 1978]—a crime and a source of deviations of all kinds.” The true Leninist did not even believe in Leninism.


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