- Category: History
- Created on Tuesday, 23 August 2011 03:03
- Written by Red Fly
"I think there’s a temptation to conclude from the failure of the 60s and 70s upsurges that the problem was precisely the introduction of all these new ideas, that somehow these ideas were/are inherently “petty bourgeois revisionism” and that if only the people had stuck to “the true Marxist-Leninst” path (by which is meant the official Marxism-Lenism put forward by the CPSU in 20s — not necessarily Marxism-Leninism as it actually developed in Russia) then all would have gone swimmingly.
"I think a better way to look at this period is to see it as one in which necessary elements for something new and liberatory emerged but, due to many factors (including, but not limited to, massive state repression, factionalism, adventurism, and very sharp generational contradictions), they never quite congealed."
by Red Fly
Maybe a (generational) outsider’s perspective here could be helpful.
As a younger communist I have no direct experience of the 60′s and 70′s. But in studying the period I often get the feeling that I’m not getting the real 60′s and 70′s, but an idealized, often even romanticized version of the past. And I’m not just talking about the commodification and promotion of a false pacifism of the era by the capitalists and certain bourgeois historians, but also a tendency among the revolutionaries that came out of that time to embrace, sometimes unwittingly, a politics of nostalgia.
The embrace of the politics of nostalgia is a phenomenon not unique to this era of course. Too often ICM has been, at least since 1917, fixated (sometimes quite dogmatically) on the good ‘ol days. Those who would like to try to forge a new path are often deterred when the branding reproach of revisionism is hurled at them. In lieu of a coherent materialist approach to theory and practice, i.e a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, we get a (very conservative!) politics of retrenchment, where the self-styled keepers of the truth faith moralize endlessly about this deviation and that deviation.
This priestly caste of communists rarely attempt to take responsibility for the failure of their politics to resonate with the people, and choose instead to hide behind a false veneer of scientific authority. When their approach fails, as all idealist dogma must, they conjure up the spectre of the counterrevolutionary revisionist. And with this charge they enforce conformity and a rigid adherence to the dead-end politics of their petty ideological fiefdoms.
The ironic thing about all this is that revolutionaries have been most successful in those times when they’ve consciously chosen to make breaks with the reigning orthodoxy. Immediately one thinks of Lenin’s break with the reigning social democratic orthodoxy of the Second International, and Mao’s break with the workerist dogma of the day that proclaimed that the industrial proletariat must always be the leading force of the revolution and that urban insurrection is the only real path to power.
This holds true, to a large extent, even in failed revolutionary upsurges, like we saw 60s and 70s, in both the Western “democracies” and the nominally socialist states of the Eastern Bloc, but also in the Third World (the GPCR, various national liberation struggles), when a tide of radical new ideas washed over parched shores in powerful and creative ways: the radical student movement, sexual liberation, radical feminism, black nationalism, French Situationism, Italian Autonomism, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (and the various Maoisms, both First and Third World, it inspired.)
I think there’s a temptation to conclude from the failure of these upsurges that the problem was precisely the introduction of all these new ideas, that somehow these ideas were/are inherently “petty bourgeois revisionism” and that if only the people had stuck to “the true Marxist-Leninst” path (by which is meant the official Marxism-Lenism put forward by the CPSU in 20s — not necessarily Marxism-Leninism as it actually developed in Russia) then all would have gone swimmingly.
I think a better way to look at this period is to see it as one in which necessary elements for something new and liberatory emerged but, due to many factors (including, but not limited to, massive state repression, factionalism, adventurism, and very sharp generational contradictions), they never quite congealed.
But these elements, though never synthesized correctly, have played a progressive role on the world stage and have the potential to play a more progressive role in any coming revolutionary upsurge (the portending of which we’ve been seeing all over the world in 2011). The last thing I think we want to do is go back to an era where we didn’t have radical feminists dissecting the hidden dimensions of the patriarchy, or oppressed national minorities putting the national question at the forefront of revolutionary politics in much more organic way, taking a leading role in the struggle for liberation, or when sexuality was seen as something shameful, to be hidden behind a facade of bourgeois moralism, or when the job of the masses in a nominally socialist state was to simply obey the instructions of the Party’s bureaucracy, or when radical new aesthetic movements were reflexively deemed to be manifestations of “bourgeois decadence,” etc.
But while most on the revolutionary left emerging from the 60s and 70s have come to embrace the vast cultural changes wrought by the New Left and have rejected the staid, orthodox Marxism-Leninism of the 1920s CPSU (many wholesale; others, correctly in my view, trying to separate wheat from chaff), we now see, amongst some, a tendency to idealize this era, to make of it something more (and less) than it was.
While it is correct to say that very important things emerged from the era, and even that the upsurge of revolutionary energy was something “precious,” I think it would be wrong to treat this preciousness preciously. By this I mean that we need a cold, hard, unsentimental assessment of the successes as well as the failures of the era.
We need this because it will help prepare us in our ability to make correct assessments of new emergences in the future, and help us decide whether or not we should embrace these new emergences. Nostalgia for the past, clinging bitterly to old models, appealing dogmatically to the authority of Great Leaders…all of this clouds our (materialist) thinking and represents a fundamental conservatism and a betrayal of Marxism as science, as the science of revolution.
One of the things the Kasama Project has done well in my opinion has been to promote what’s good about the past without idealizing it and making of it something to be worshiped. I hope this continues. Because there’s a strong temptation in non-revolutionary or pre-revolutionary times to cling to what is familiar, what is comfortable, what earned you your communist stripes, etc. This temptation actually serves the forces of the status quo and helps prevent the new from emerging.
Know the past in order to break with what is irretrievably past and assimilate what is still living within it.