George Walford: Secret Science

Leo Strauss died in 1973; some of his books are now being re-issued. He thought advanced political ideas valuable but also dangerous; the Enlightenment led to Hitler. His answer was to keep scientific and philosophical thinking secret from the general body of ordinary people. (TLS 1 Dec 89). Such caution hardly seems called for; the general body of the people do a remarkably good job of keeping serious thinking secret from themselves.

Joan Campbell’s Joy in Work, German Work: The national debate, 1800-1945 (Princeton UP) draws attention to the Nazis’ enthusiasm for work. In the Third Reich any who could not or would not work were likely to be murdered, and Germany’s attempted extension to the East was justified by the claim that Germans worked harder than Slavs. It is time for IC to take up once more its campaign against work.

Where does power lie? Should Anarchists Vote Labour? (FREEDOM, December 1989) declares that it lies “with big business finance capital, the upper civil service, judges, police, military,” and goes on. to speak of workers throwing out the rotten and crumbling capitalist system.

If the workers can do this then the power enjoyed by finance capital (etc.) is only provisional, held by favour of the workers and liable to be withdrawn. The power to decide whether capitalism should continue, the power overriding all others, final and supreme social power, lies with the workers.

If this is not so, all appeals to the workers to overthrow the system are futile and should be abandoned forthwith.

The firman ran:

… the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death.

One might not have thought of looking to the late Ayatollah Khomeini for a lesson in ideology, but he made it clear that even the complex of views and attitudes centring around tolerance, pluralism and rationality, the beliefs going to make up liberalism with a small “l,” comes under this heading. Regarded by its adherents as highly un-ideological, nothing more than an absence of restraint, something nobody can reasonably object to, when seen in a context that includes Islamic fundamentalism this shows up as one ideology among others, and one the fundamentalists see as undermining Truth, Religion and Righteousness.

Alec Nove reviews a new and enlarged version of Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge, the origins and consequences of Stalinism, in which he considers why the revolution produced the consequences it did. (TLS 17 Nov 89)

Medvedev holds that Stalin, in effect, betrayed the revolution, but Nove says such views are being challenged, in his view rightly, by other Soviet scholars who point out that all Stalin’s articles and speeches demonstrate his continuing commitment to the basic principles of Marxism. Nove mentions an influential series of articles in which A. Tsipko argues that Stalinism finds its roots in the Utopianism and extremism of the Marxist movement. He cites a forecast made by Plekhanov, that a revolution for which social conditions were not ripe could “result in a political monstrosity, such as the ancient Chinese or Peruvian empires, Le.a Tsarist despotism with a communist lining.”

That is probably as good a brief description as any of what did happen, but what are these “social conditions” of which Plekhanov speaks? The principal one (although he is unlikely to have thought in these terms) is the mental attitude, the ideology, of the general body of the people, and Tsipko reports’ that most of the Russian Communist Party believed that the peasantry (at the time of the Revolution comprising 80 per cent of the Russian population), formed a major obstacle to the construction of a socialist society.

They were, of course, right, and Russia differed from more advanced countries only in that peasants, rather than workers, formed the obstacle. The Revolution failed to change the ideology of the peasant masses, and so did rational persuasion, education and propaganda. The general body of the people, in Russia as elsewhere, resisted communism, obliging the rulers to choose between abandoning their intentions or trying to enforce them against the popular preference. Far from betraying the Revolution Stalin, with his followers, strove to impose economic collectivism by force. They failed, and now Gorbachev and those who work with him are abandoning the attempt.

The Chinese peasants also resisted socialism, presenting their rulers with the same choice as the Bolsheviks had, and the outcome has been the same. After repeated attempts to impose collectivism, producing a body-count higher than many wars, the attempt is, reluctantly and with much backsliding, being abandoned.

Systematic ideology credits the ideology of Domination (expressed in British politics mainly by conservatism), with political collectivism and economic individualism. John Mortimer puts it more concretely. Speaking of the present government he draws attention to a contradiction between, on the one hand, freedom for the market, freedom to make money, freedom not to have to join unions and, on the other, “an apparently uncontrollable desire to boss the population about, tell them what’s good for them and tick them off for not doing it.” (Sunday Times 19 Nov).

His direct Anglo-Saxon carries more impact than the polysyllables of s.i. Can we go farther? “Groupthink” might perhaps stand in place of “political-intellectual collectivism,” but no equivalent for “economic individualism” comes to mind; “groupdo” can hardly be considered English, and in any case it does not cover the attitude towards ownership.

This draws attention to a limitation commonly suffered by these more concrete terms; although more vivid than the latinate vocabulary they carry a narrower reference. It’s rather like the difference between remarking that if you drop something it falls down, and formulating the Law of Gravitation.

from Ideological Commentary 43, January 1990.