Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why I Am Resigning from the Socialist Party USA

Is there any genre of writing more tiresome than the leftist letter of resignation? The protagonist and narrator is always more sinned against than sinning, a paragon of good judgment mired in others' groupthink, and world-historical import of the decisive conflicts is inflated to a degree inversely proportional to the actual stakes of the disagreements. This will not be such a document. I almost decided not to write this, but since I did announce my decision to first join four years ago on this blog, and have defended once or twice since then even when I adjusted my own political outlook from that which first led me to join, it seemed to me appropriate to register my departure. That way, any regular readers--if I have any of those--might not be left with out-of-date impressions of my affiliations.

The fact of the matter is that the decision as to whether or not to renew my membership has been an annual agony. It has not helped matters that the time for me to decide whether or not to renew always, until this year, seemed to coincide with what one comrade whom I like has referred to as "the annual spring schism." The word "schism" implies more in the way of substantive political differences, though, than is appropriate. The general contours of these fights, played out primarily over social media, create an impression of a more or less homogeneous ideological old guard that is comfortable with the party as it is, and more heterogeneous groupings of relatively new members who sense that it is or must be changing. But that is an oversimplification. Close examination of the lines of demarcation usually reveal them to be fractally intertwined, with enclaves and exclaves embedded into one another.

In three prior years, I renewed either because of the combat--it seemed to reveal that things were broadly moving in what I considered the right direction--or in spite of it, because of promising developments on the local level. Indeed the comforting myth repeated by party leaders of longer standing is that the people who get most embroiled in the online fights are least involved in building the party on the ground, and that one should focus on working in one's local area. This year, for precisely this reason, I did not hesitate to renew: There seemed to be no "spring schism" (in fact, there is, but delayed), and things seemed to be going well for socialists here in Maine.

Well, they're not going that well in Maine. And if any local journalists have clicked looking for dish about local activists, sorry, you're not going to find that here. What I will say is that, in the Southern Maine local at least, the things I found repeatedly troubling at the national level about the culture of the SPUSA have been faithfully replicated: An aversion to political discussion and debate, and an emphasis on patching things up interpersonally (or scapegoating individuals when that proved impossible) in lieu of attempting to resolve political disagreements through a combination of argument and action. The new Eastern Maine local, which is less stagnant, seems not quite as uniformly prone to these faults, but there's a real danger of them succumbing to it as well. The notion that there was, in the party, a clear differentiation between online kibitzers and on-the-ground organizers, or that local efforts are an antidote to national malaise, has now become clear to me as what I referred to it above--a comforting myth. Knowing that it is a myth deprives it of all comfort. And lacking any apparent contradiction between what I find banal about the local party and moribund about the national one, there appears to me no available lever for change. At least not internally.

In my initial post announcing my decision to join the SPUSA, I referred to it, tentatively, as appearing "flexible." I recognize now that, coming from a political background of organizations that mistook rigidity for durability, what I mistook in the SPUSA for flexibility was mere softness. The organization is no more flexible than a marshmallow. Subject to pressure, it will nonetheless retain and return to its pre-existing shape. Rigid organizations grow, if they grow, by scaffolding themselves a piece at a time. Marshmallows grow, if they grow, through the amorphous accretion of fluff. In a tumultuous political situation, rigid organizations will shatter; if a marshmallow survives, it does so only by way of being crushed underfoot rather than set ablaze.

And so for the good of my mental health and family life, I will no longer allow myself to be fruitlessly exasperated. There are, within the SPUSA, people who strike me as being quite serious about the need for revolutionary transformation of society. Those I am sure I will see around in other contexts. For those for whom it functions as an ego-boost, a pink-shaded version of Kiwanis, or a secularized church, we're probably mutually better off parting ways.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Aphorisms toward a History of American Marxism

A materialist history of ideas is not an oxymoron: It would be a history of the institutions that shape and propagate the ideas in question.

A visible difference between the histories of European and (U.S.) American Marxism: The predominant institutions to shape and propagate the former have been political parties, trade unions, and in moments of rebellion against the bureaucratization of the first two, collectives. The predominant institutions of the latter have been the academic circle, the sect, and the cult.

This difference is conditioned in part by the differences in mainstream political and civic life between the two continents. U.S. political parties are not membership organizations with defined programs. They are not the means of ideological mobilization, but the ends. A rigid caste delimitation is maintained between the ideologist and the ideologized, so ideas are formed in more delimited elite circles: the think tank, the secret society, the religious denomination.

There have thus been two dominant trends in attempts to Americanize Marxism. One is to ape the methods of elite political formation--to attempt to turn the academic circle into the think tank; the cult into a secularized secret society; to capture the ballot line. The results are Marxisms unrecognizable as such when measured by the notions of a European orthodoxy. The other has been to attempt to Europeanize American political culture: to build a mass political party as such (the Socialist Labor Party and Socialist Party of the 1900s and 1910s; the pre-Popular Front Communist Party; arguably, the Black Panther Party as well); to revolutionize the trade union (first as tragedy: the IWW; then as farce: the more syndicalist formations within American Trotskyism); or to re-create an ideological collective on a European model (the Johnson-Forrest Tendency in the 1950s; the Sojourner Truth Organization and various Maoist formations in the 1970s). State repression has played an inarguable role in the decline of these attempts, especially of the first two types, but this does not negate the fact that all such attempts have degenerated into the forms proper to American Marxism: the circle, the sect, or the cult.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Horse Dances and Goat Songs

I have been reading Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, in the newest version put out by University of Nebraska Press. I am glad to have encountered this text, an essential reference in any discussion of the history and spiritual practices of North American native peoples, in such a complete critical edition, as it helps clarify even to a casual reader which aspects of the text originate faithfully from the visions of Lakota warrior and medicine man Black Elk, and which are intrusions of Neihardt's authorial voice. Neihardt, a poet and journalist, first met Black Elk in 1931. It would not be fair to call Neihardt "a man of his time," since in terms of his respect for the intelligence and dignity of Native American peoples, he was far in advance of nearly all white men of his day. Yet there are traces in Neihardt's prose of a condescension, and a casual acceptance of the race "science" of the pre-World War II Euro-American intellectual atmosphere, that sit poorly with this modern reader.

This became particularly clear for me in Appendix 5, which reproduces a column that Neihardt wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describing his first encounter with Black Elk. In the very first sentence, he speaks of "a contemporary antiquity that, in certain cultural respects, may be described as pre-Homeric." What he means by "pre-Homeric" is spelled out, in embarrassing detail, at the end of the column's lengthy concluding paragraph.

Black Elk's "visions, as set forth in careful detail for this writer, rank easily in beauty and profundity of significance with the supreme things in the rich literature of the Aryan peoples. [sic] ... Unfortunately, for us white people, literature, in our sense, never developed among Black Elk's people. His culture never passed the evolutionary stage of the dance ritual and accordingly the great vision can be adequately expressed only in the dance ceremony, with its accompanying song. One portion of the vision alone--the horse dance, which is poetry of a sublime order--would require some five or six hours to produce.... Black Elk is truly a great poet; and if ever our world shall be privileged to see and understand his masterpiece, the horse dance--as this writer hopes it may--there will be few to question the indubitable truth of this statement."

The reference to "evolution" betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of culture, and the contrasting of dance ritual to "literature, in our sense" indicates a convenient forgetting of the facts of the Homeric and post-Homeric antecedents of that literature. Unlike Homer--who, if he existed, may never have scratched so much as a character into the earth--Black Elk was capable of writing, albeit only in Lakota. And following the Homeric epochs, the next great Hellenic creative outburst, to which "we" trace what is called literature, was what is now called "tragedy." That word in most European languages shares a common ancestor with the modern Greek word τραγούδι, meaning "song." And what did that ancestral word mean in ancient Attic dialect? "Goat." Ancient Athenian men wrapped themselves in goat skins to sing and dance in groups, and from that we now have the written words of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Together with their less reputable cousin comedy, these goat-songs came to be known as drama, which by the time Neihardt was writing had re-accommodated itself to song and dance in the form of musical theater, both on stage and in a new sort of painted vision of shadow and light called "film." A big hit on Broadway that year was a show called The Band Wagon which featured a song entitled "Dancing in the Dark" that became a hit for Bing Crosby. Walking around St. Louis, Neihardt might have heard a passerby whistling the tune.

The emergence of boundaries between various modes of expression is something against which artists and visionaries have rebelled nearly everywhere and every time such boundaries have been around to rebel against. While it can fairly be stated that genre boundaries tend to be an emergent property of "civilization" (for which read, class-divided societies) the precise mapping of those boundaries varied not only over time, as an evolutionary perspective would have it, but with the overdetermined ideological structures developed by dominant classes to legitimate their rule. For example: Christian clerics embraced the liturgical use of instrumental music as a point of differentiation from both Judaism and Islam, with their austere emphases on the unadorned masculine voice. With the lyrics and order of, say, a mass prescribed and known to all, the means of expressing devotion and passion in Western European music shifted from the word to the ensemble of voice and instrumentation, from the melodic line to the harmonic combination. From this decision to J. S. Bach's Mass in B Minor there is not a straight line, but a series of breaks, discontinuities, and alternate pathways. Nor was the victory of the ensemble over the soloist, the composer over the librettist, ever final. From Mozart's collaboration with Schikaneder, through Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Wagner's dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk, to Schoenberg's Gurrelieder or Ned Rorem's simple settings of poems by the likes of Wallace Stevens, the musician longs to be reunited with the poet. This longing is at least partially understood by Neihardt himself, in that he recognizes Black Elk as one of his own, a poet.

As I hope to have shown with my random walk through the cultural leavings of what is called the West, both high and low, "literature, in our sense" has never been as far away from the horse-dance and the goat-song and Neihardt seems to have been taught. Nor is Black Elk's vision, and its description as relayed through Neihardt, far from what might have been recognizable as holy to Homer, or Sophocles, or the prophet Ezekiel. Just as classical sculpture has literally been whitened, by erosion of once vibrantly painted surfaces down to a durable marble base, the literature of the ancients has been metaphorically whitened, through the construction of dubious genealogies that retroactively project the modern myth of the West onto cultural artifacts that should amaze through their strangeness and multiplicity. It is possible to read Black Elk through Homer. It may now be more necessary to read Homer through Black Elk.