Friday, June 18, 2010

The why of it - part 1

Previously, I'd said that my politics had changed sometime between 1992 and '94, but that this change had little if anything to do with actual events in that time period -- that instead it was the culmination of a process that had begun sometime earlier, and that I could be fairly clear about why that process had begun but not so much about how it worked. That distinction itself may not be entirely clear, but I'll come back to it (I hope) in subsequent posts in this thread.

As to the why of it, though, it's first necessary to see where I began. From high school, my politics had been leftist, though liberal, and then, following a well-worn trajectory, had moved further left in university and grad school. I'd witnessed the upheavals of the 60's and, though never much of a joiner, participated in enough of them to burn in a commitment to radical politics, where "commitment" needs to be understood as perhaps the central virtue for the politics of the time, akin to a kind of lefty "born-again" status. Frequented leftist book stores, argued Marxist theory and practice in the beer parlors of the time (and this was a time in Canada when "beer parlors" attached to seedy hotels, in all their terry-cloth tawdriness, were the only drink outlets available to thirsty grad students), attended the odd protest and the even odder study group, etc. Still have not just all three volumes of Capital moldering at the bottom of a book shelf, but the three separate tomes of the supposed fourth volume, Theories of Surplus Value, and the preliminary notes of the Grundrisse. I put this out not to boast of my reading (whether out of laziness or maybe just a sense even then that life might be too short, I've never even made it all the way through the first volume), but just as an indication that I've always been interested in the intellectual underpinnings of what was then, and still must be, the most serious and "scientific" brand of socialist theory available. I never quite called myself a "communist", and of course the actual Communist Party (of Canada) was by that time just a geriatric joke. But I was about as convinced as any intellectual/activist wannabe of the time that socialism -- i.e., state control of "the means of production" -- was the ultimate goal, and the only question, hashed over incessantly among the various sects and disputants on endlessly recurring beer nights, was how to get there.

Now, though pretty much everyone in those sessions was a leftist, some were more or less Maoists, and, in any case, most were one variety or another of Marxist, I can safely say that virtually no one was an unreconstructed Soviet apologist, much less a Stalinist. It was readily admitted, if and when it came up, that the Soviet Union was a sclerotic bureaucracy, and that the socialist states of eastern Europe were largely its puppets. Still, for me, and I think for most involved in this kind of politics, there was always a soft spot for the birthplace of the first successful Marxist revolution, always a defensiveness about it vis-a-vis the predatory and nefarious designs of the US-led imperialist West, always a kind of puzzlement as to how things had gone so wrong with it, and always a certain hope that eventually it would moderate into what had been so ironically called, back in the tragic Prague Spring of 1968, "socialism with a human face".

Time passed, reality bit, though slowly, and the argumentative enthusiasms of youth congealed into a solid structure of belief. Solid at least on the outside, though still a bit fluid underneath where, all through the late 70's and 80's, deeper concerns about the seemingly increasing mismatch between Marxist theory and capitalist reality continued to generate some heat. This wasn't at all helped by the fetid miasma of post-modernism that spread like a dense fog over virtually all the humanities during that period, depositing layers of obscurantist jargon that sometimes went under the comically pretentious label of "Theory". In fact, this whole academic fad was deeply anti-theoretical, requiring its devotees to acquire a style of verbal posturing that was about as immune to thought, critique or analysis as computer-generated gibberish. Nevertheless, alongside family, career, and the other accoutrements of bourgeois, middle-class life that I'd acquired by this time, my leftist belief-system carried on, surviving, and perhaps feeding off of, the Reagan-Bush years in America, the Mulroney years here in Canada, the Thatcher years in Britain.

And then along came Gorbachev. Here, finally, was a relatively young, intelligent, well-read, open, and healthy man as the head of the state that was the origin of "actually existing socialism" -- and he was full of new ideas, including, famously, "perestroika" or "restructuring", and "glasnost" or "openness". Here, then, at last, was the great historical opportunity to put right whatever had gone wrong in the Soviet Union under Stalin and after, and to show the world what real socialism -- that "socialism with a human face" that had bloomed so briefly and then been crushed some 30 years earlier -- could do. It's important to understand, at this juncture, that while I'd always been critical of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, as I've said, I also was appreciative of what I'd felt was its real socialist accomplishments, in terms of its "free" education and health care, its moderate and more or less equal costs of living, its full employment, its technological and industrial triumphs, etc. I'd thought that the great majority of the Soviet people appreciated those too, despite the bureaucracy and despite, of course, not being given the chance to show such appreciation in a free vote -- and in this I think I was similar to the majority of fellow leftists of the time (though they may not want to say so now). So Gorbachev's moves toward democracy seemed to be just the icing on the cake. Yes, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and much of the rest of the east European puppets as well as chunks of the USSR itself had broken away from Moscow, but this was all really to the good -- all aspects of perestroika. But in 1991 a vote was looming in Russia for the first time since the Bolsheviks came to power -- on one side was Gorbachev-supported figure who carried the mantle of Gorbachev's openness and promise though remaining a communist, and on the other was a buffoon with alcohol problems, who was the anti-communist candidate. I think, before the election, I considered it a bit unfortunate that the pro-free market Yeltsin was such a poor figure himself, since it wouldn't be a fair test of the systems they each stood for. But, of course, when it was over, the buffoon had gained  57% of the vote in a large voter turnout; the candidate of Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, but still communism, got 16%.

This, finally, gave me pause for thought, a pause that lasted some two or three years.

(To be continued.)

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