Saturday, September 2, 2017

Cognitive Dissonance in the Shadow of Bolshevism

A problem of the far left, at least in Anglophone countries, seems to be that we believe our major problem to be "the problem of organization." That "the problem of organization" is posed as such, as if it were a singular problem rather than a carrying case for a great number of other, potentially knottier problems, is a symptom of the fact that, 100 years on, we remain in the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, or more precisely, of a given set of received myths about that historical event. The fact that I even called it "the Bolshevik Revolution," rather than "the Russian Revolution" or "the partially successful Russian-centered episode in the mostly failed World Revolution that concluded and followed the first World War" is in turn indicative of the nature of the received myth--the notion that the relative success of the revolutionary upheaval in Russia can be attributed to specific features of a political party formation known as the Bolsheviks. And from there, that there is a necessary concordance between one's attitude toward events in Russia at that time and one's approach to political organization today. Nor is the recognition of the mythical nature of this story sufficient inoculation against its effects; for evidence of this, one need only peruse prior entries of my own blog. So long as we believe our political disagreements about the type of society to be created and how to go about creating it to be disagreements about the type of political organization that is necessary for the creation of said society, the more we evade the underlying political disagreements and hamper the building of effective organizations.

The thoughts in the previous paragraph are the consequence, not a summary, of those contained in this Twitter thread I wrote about an article entitled "The sociology of Leninist organizations". Where the author of the article, Scott Jay, was coming from is indicated by his formerly having been a member of the U.S. International Socialist Organization, and the article having been published on a British-centered website that serves as a kind of multi-tendency hub for "left communists." (A phrase that I put in quotes because, for readers not steeped in the far left, it would be mysterious. For the moment, I can recommend the Wikipedia article about this political tendency as being both accurate and comprehensive, a good starting point.) Jay's article suffers both from overgeneralizing specific features of the U.S. ISO and its former comrades in the British Socialist Workers Party to "Leninists" at large, and from overlocalizing sharply observed weakness of left political organization to nominal Leninists. Jay's article is valuable more for these observations than for its attempts at analysis.

For analysis, Jay leans appropriately but too heavily on findings from the early days of social psychology and organizational sociology. Ignoring these disciplines, as most leftists do to their peril, is as if Marx had dismissed all of political economy as "bourgeois." Generalizing directly from their findings, as Jay does, is as if Marx had written Capital not as a critique of political economy, but as a pastiche of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Neither is sufficient. The latter is particularly odd, however, inasmuch as some psychologists have begun to recognize the ways in which their discipline is prone to critique. This brief notice from an APA publication summarizes a study which takes some keystone findings of the discipline to task for being too dependent upon populations of human subjects which they characterize as being from "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD)" societies. One can and probably should quibble with elements of the acronym--"democratic" clearly being taken as synonymous with constitutional, representational systems of government, which are hardly democratic in essence, and "Western" being a synecdoche for "white". As a critique of the synchronic overrepresentation of privileged social elements in these studies, it is indisputable. In point of fact it does not go far enough, since it does not take account of historical development.

Consider the concept of "cognitive dissonance," upon which Jay's account leans so heavily. Mainstream descriptions of the phenomenon tend to localize it to fringe elements, such as the UFO cult described by Festinger. Jay's application of it to "Leninist" organizations tacitly accepts the marginalization of anti-capitalist ideology. Yet it is precisely the ways in which we are raised in capitalist society to regard its fundamental preconditions as natural that help to normalize the methods used for resolution of cognitive dissonance, both at the margins and the core. Marx's account, in the first chapter of Capital of the "fetishism of the commodity" is an attempt to induce cognitive dissonance by showing how it is by no means obvious that a bushel of wheat, a heap of cotton cloth, and a quantity of human labor-power should all be "equal" to one another, and to a certain amount of money. He does this in part by historicizing, pointing to how Aristotle regarded the early manifestations of a money economy as "unnatural." Aristotle in turn is an example of how earlier societies both created and addressed different types of cognitive dissonance: Man is a "rational, political animal," so only those regarded by the polis as being part of it can be rational, and thus men. Slaves are not human, but "talking tools." Is the resolution of cognitive dissonance through rationalization a "natural" phenomenon of the human animal, as Festinger argues and Jay follows? Inasmuch as it can be observed in a variety of human societies, of different levels of technical development and a variety of cultural backgrounds, probably so. But with both the objects and the mechanisms of rationalization varying so much, we do not have enough data to be able to pin down the natural core. The objects and methods for resolution of cognitive dissonance are in all cases conditioned by the dominant ideas of society, that is, the ideas of its dominant class.

It would seem then that the aim of a revolutionary organization would be the repeated induction of cognitive dissonance, the disruption of received ideas of how things work. The history of Marxist organizations at large provides few examples of such revolutionary organizations, nor is this limited to those that have called themselves "Leninist". Nor does Jay's essay provide a promising counter-model. Throughout he counterposes to organizations built upon recruitment to shared ideas the notion of organizations based in working-class struggles for concrete needs. I can agree with him about the need for the latter, without regarding it as a panacea. Consider, for example, this paragraph:

An organization with a base in workplaces and neighborhoods would be far less likely to split over the bruised egos of the leadership, because splitting would result in a loss of organized power. Instead, for many, splitting is an improvement over hum-drum, undemocratic party life and the only way to pursue an alternative political direction.

What he seems to have lost sight of, perhaps because of the fact that he is based in the United States, is that "organized power" resting on "a base in workplaces and neighborhoods" was the substance of historical Social Democracy and Stalinism. It is easy to lose sight of that, because in the U.S., all left organizations are sects, including social democrats and Stalinists--yes, including the DSA and their "massive" membership that represents one-hundredth of one percent of the U.S. population. "Why should I join your Spartakusbund when the SPD is a power throughout the nation?" "The CPSU is the vanguard of the proletariat, I don't want to hear any bullshit from that traitor Trotsky!" Organized power has been the aim and rationale of time-serving bureaucrats throughout the history of the workers' movement.

The disorganization of power, the disruption of what power would have us take for granted, the de-naturalization of the given social order--this would require not merely a different structure of organization, but a different conception of politics.

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