Anyone who has spent time in the far-left knows that, along with those you have become incredibly close to (comrade is a class of social relationship all its own), some of the people sitting in that branch meeting with you are folks you would never, in a million years, find yourself associating with if it weren’t for politics. In the US particularly, I think it takes a bit of a social outcast to cast their lot with communism. Seven out of ten times that’s a good thing; rebellion needs rebels. However, three times out of ten (sometimes more, a lot more, depending on the tendency) it means you’ve made common cause with folks whose eccentricities would, in polite society, at the least be frowned upon and at the most be grounds for some sort of institutionalization.
I’ve often said that the very best thing about being in the movement are the honest-to-goodness, genuine heroes beavering away at the class struggle and filling their brains with the world around them that you get to learn from and get to know. Without a doubt, the most interesting and intelligent people I know are Marxists. Fact. It’s also true that some of the strangest people I have ever met have also been Marxists. Some of the odd is just fine, I’m plenty odd myself. Human variation is rich; let a thousand flowers bloom and all that. But some of the anti-social socialists I have met are characters that just couldn’t be made up.
At any number of meetings I have seen frothing mouths, wild eyes and heard things fall from damaged psyches that neither Marx nor Freud could account for. Sometimes it leaves me scratching my head and lamenting the smallness of the movement where characters like these are on Central Committees, other times it has made me wonder what I was doing there at all. Like a family, we find ways to accept the ways of others and like any family we like to keep certain things ‘in the family.’
I’ve been in a few left groups over the years and none has been free of strange. The ones I left many years ago, where many of these vignettes come from, being by far the worst offenders. I must say, though it may just be lost in translation, that on trips abroad the quotient of crazy seems to be much lower, but let’s face it – our species is strange. It’s bound to manifest itself wherever we are and the left is hardly the only place where simple variation or complex social ills are seen, but it does seem to abound there, especially in down days. I’ll not name names of people or groups, let me just assume that you know folks like these yourself.
-The potential psychopath who at meeting declared of an ‘opponent’ leftist organization, ‘I wish this were Beirut, then we could kill them and nobody would care.’
-A comrade who throughout the meeting picks his toenails and crumbles his finds on the conference table.
-The comrade who in an oral assault on Pabloite revisionism hits the table causing his pen to fly up and smack him in the face or the comrade who, in a tirade against sectarianism, gesticulated coffee right across the table.
-The frothing at the mouth bit mentioned above. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times.
-A comrade who ends her incoherent 7 minute intervention from the floor of a union meeting by bah-ing like a sheep.
-The leading comrade who never leaves his house and has the personal hygiene to prove it, whose entire nutritional intake consists of diet soda and wheat germ and who hides his baseness behind the ‘dialectic’.
-The comrade who in front of a small crowd screams an entire 10 minute speech on health care into a bull horn (the bull horn is there so you don’t have to yell, comrades).
-The literary comrade who ends every single article, including movie reviews, with a sentence beginning with ‘Genuine Troskyists uphold….’.
-That comrade with an utterly unique, room enveloping, body odor who ate only raw root vegetables.
-The comrade who makes uncomfortable reference to bestiality when outlining his tactics in the union election, then makes additional uncomfortable references to bestiality when discussing tactics in the anti-war movement. A theme has developed and sensing comrade’s twitchings of discomfort as chuckles of laughter continues with said references for length of discussion.
-A comrade whose sexual peccadillo was attempting to sleep with every new recruit then claiming, when they inevitably left the organization, that it was because they “were moving to the right.”
Tip of the iceberg, comrades. Tip. Of. Iceberg. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the left and the movement. I’ve been a partisan now for 22 years of my young life and I’m for the long haul. But on occasion it’s good to take a little step back, look at the weirdness around you and laugh if it’s funny and cry if not.
Agreed. Only the kind of left that a working class revivals needs has little in common with the one we have now.
I remember a conference of a left party in Britain years ago where a delegate or observer came dressed as Napoleon. The kind of thing that makes the assumption that left-wingers are loonies seem credible. I don’t like control freakery, but coming across as a bunch of psychiatric outpatients is not good either.
The book was a Cold War classic and the underlying motivations were dubious, but the contribution of the black writer Richard Wright to “The God That Failed” had an interesting episode. He was in some cultural group sympathetic to the CPUSA in the 1930s, and one day a man showed up and came to meetings. One day he denounced another member as a spy and demanded investigations. There was one and he became more and more frantic. Then one day he disappeared. In luggage he left behind there was an address so the other members of the group wrote to it. They received a reply that the man they were asking about had escaped from a psychiatric hospital but had been recaptured.
I think the guy who cited Mao is on to something. Just as you can’t have theory divorced from practice, you can’t have communism divorced from the working class.
As long as would-be revolutionaries are not rooted in the class they claim to speak for, or rooted in their organizations (unions) and their struggles, however few and far between they may be, the kind of eccentricities that RR describes here are going to be par for the course.
That especially holds true for groupuscles that are made up mostly of students and which place a premium on the purity of program (as they define it) above all else. The more detached you are from reality, the purer you can be. It would be hard to imagine a group of militant workers, steeled in struggles against the bosses, actually paying attention to, let alone, listening to any of the characters described above. I can’t imagine that in the few countries where Trotskyism did manage to become the dominant tendency within the workers movement, even for a short period of time, that this kind of crap would take place, let alone hold sway.
Of course, this was not always the case insofar as US Trotskyism was concerned either. Back in the days when the old IWWer (and SPer and CP leader) Jim Cannon was the top Trot in the US, being a Trotskyist may have meant being an “agent of the Mikado” or a “Fifth Columinist” to some, but it didn’t mean being a “wierdo.” That’s because the original Trots were mostly trade unionists and came out of the CP, which, in turn, came out of the SP. Whatever their shortcomings may have been, both were based on the vanguard (most advanced) layers of the working class and intellectuals who had gone over to the working class. Marxism and the class struggle were legitimate schools of thought (in the eyes of militant workers) that even influenced Hollywood movies and popular culture, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. The sixties may have been more far out in terms of sex and drugs and rock and roll (and Mao and Che and Ho Chi Minh) but they didn’t dent the working class the way the 30s and 40s did. Give me John Garfield, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson any day over their 60s equivalents.
What changed all that was the post-WWII “cold war” and anti-communist witch-hunt and the prosperity that went with it. Repression and co-optation pretty much destroyed the working class based left in this country in a way that fascism and Nazi occupation wasn’t able to do in countries like France and Italy. With the brief exception of the possibilities presented by the anti-globalization movement, the left here has never recovered from it and as long as it remains based on the same social milleau that it is currently mired in, especially those sectors mired in sixties style identity politics, lesser evilism and single-issuism, it never will.
P.S. I’m glad I didn’t make your list, although I can figure out who a few of those of who did are!
You might make into part two. Left recovery in this country will be impossible without a working class revival, but a working class revival needs a left too. I’m actually pretty optimistic, if only because the last 30 years have been so bad.
I co-lead a support group for people with anxiety and have been meeting all types there. As I read this I was laughing and hoping I was one of the seven and not one of the three…Would that I were colorful or eccentric enough to qualify!
As Marxists we know that these categories aren’t fixed and neither are we; most of the time I’m in the seven of ten, but some of the time I cross over to that 30%. It’s probably the same for most of us.
I guess there are quite a handful of weirdos in our Left movement here in Nigeria, tambem. some, despite such shortcomings (not counting in anti-emancipatory dimensions of such as emtdingchung points out) are so genuinely committed to the work of the movement. for some though, you can not but see their commitment as more of a crutch, which could, but for the what got to them first, have been filled by the church or some other secular drift…but yes; the farther away from mass working class politics groups here are, the greater the preponderance of such likes.
Baba Aye, it’s heartening to know that we here in the US are not as unique as we think we are. I think what we are talking about here is not unique to the left (though the forms ares), but the dynamic of small, relatively isolated groups of people. It’s easy, as I have done, to poke fun of the left, but my guess is that there are just as many weirdos in chess clubs and even more in local theater troupes. We all have our crutches, in some ways politics isn’t as bad as some others, even if the results are negative.
it is my experience that on the revolutionary left, you generally do find all kinds of lunacies occuring in society, some in a lower, some in a higher per-centage, in case of some comrades, it is fortunate, in other cases unfortunate, that they joined the far left and not a religious or psychoanalytical cult or a pyramid scheme network … but the far bigger problem is, that you have to certain per-centage also people in our organisations, who behave in their private life in a way, which is diametrically opposed to any kind of emancipatory programme (rape, domestic violence)
yeah, I agree. it’s the folks who act counter to the mission that are the real problem
All revolutionary communists must grasp fully Mao Zedong’s concept of the mass line.
Or put another way: if people think you’re a fucking weirdo then you’re doing it wrong.
I’m in tears, I know all those comrades! and plenty more, you know who you are! including me! you have to be a little anti-social, if you weren’t you would get along with whats going on and you would truly be demented.
I think you have been doing politics in the extreme margins to amass a litany of such types The marginal extreme sects foster the patronage of the mad and unusual but the getting of wisdom is to occupy a very different political space that does not pander to such traits. A lot of it is desperation of course. That said I think it would be hard to top a character like Tommy Sheridan and pass off the indulgences as ‘normal ‘ left activity.
Similarly the way left politics — ESP Trotskyism — panders to the elevation of sect mad dies wallowing in charisma — Healey, Posadas, Robinson, Wolthith, Barnes, et al — must be cause for wondering about the culture that pervades the whole current. There was/is a cult over Trotsky and Mandel wasn’t free of such cultivation.
So I cannot see this phenomenon easily separated from the whole strange communist package. It’s all driven by the marginal existence of course, but there’s a ready option for egos to be pandered to by dint of individuals thinking that what they do changes the world separate from the dynamics of mass movement and history.
A motor for this mistaken POV is a chronic idealism that pervades far left politics. A view ruled by the purity of Ideas separate from the concrete actuality of living struggles. The problem is that the easy celebration of ideas and ‘program’ elevates that activity to a sort of raison d’être rather the everyday struggle.
How is all this overcome? I think there is a steep learning curve involved that takes guts to negotiate.
“I think you have been doing politics in the extreme margins to amass a litany of such types”
All revolutionary Marxists in the United States since I’ve been politically active have done politics in the “extreme margins”. We don’t have anything approaching mass working class politics as you well know. Since you don’t know my personal political history it might be best to admit what you don’t know first. On the substance of what you say, I agree with much of it.