Down, Down, Down We Go, Politically Speaking

Considering that this is 2022, not 1952, it was quite a surprise the first time I read that a Republican politician called some innocuous Democrat a “communist”. But crazy talk is no longer out of the ordinary for one of our major political parties. Ed Kilgore of New York Magazine was surprised too:

The day after the 2020 vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, then-President D____ T____ did something that is hard to do: He actually shocked me with intemperate language, in this case referring to Harris as a “monster” and a “communist.” The “monster” business didn’t surprise me, actually, given T____’s long history of personal insults to women. But “communist?” Seriously? I hadn’t heard a Republican call a Democrat a commie since the high tide of McCarthyism — and even back then, the rare slur was associated with specific (if lunatic) allegations of subservience to an international Marxist-Leninist conspiracy operating out of Moscow. Sure, for a generation, Republicans have been imprecisely calling Democrats “socialists,” though no more than a handful of Donkey Party members answer to that appellation, . . . but “communist” is actually pretty precise . . . 

It’s not just T____ throwing the term around. One of his favorite Republican acolytes, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, calls Democrats — all of them, not just some of them — communists all the time (most recently in her speech to a white-nationalist group, in which she referred to “Democrats, who are the Communist Party of the United States of America”). When Republicans lost two Senate seats and control of the upper chamber in Greene’s home state in January 2021, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem called the winning Democratic candidates communists. And another Republican member of Congress, Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, betrayed a lack of understanding of communism just last month in explaining that the Russians were invading Ukraine because, as a communist, Vladimir Putin “couldn’t feed his people” and needed Ukraine’s farmland [note: Russia’s authoritarian leader, a fascist kleptocrat, doesn’t even belong to the Communist Party, although some Russians still do].

But amazingly ridiculous accusations are now a sign of the times in Republican circles (even though journalists still refer to Republicans as “conservatives”). From Thomas Zimmer and The Guardian:

Ever since entering Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene has been making headlines . . . The latest escalation came last week, when she smeared her Republican colleagues in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, as “pro-pedophile” after they voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US supreme court; Democrats, she added, “are the party of pedophiles.”

. . . The fact that Greene’s antics are so clearly designed to keep herself in the spotlight has prompted calls for the media and commentators to stop paying attention to her rather than be complicit in the amplification of far-right propaganda. And if what’s on display here were just the extremist behavior of a fringe figure, it would indeed be best to simply ignore her. This, however, isn’t just Greene’s extremism – it is increasingly that of the Republican party itself. Greene and the many provocateurs like her are not just rightwing trolls, but elected officials in good standing with their party. Ignoring them won’t work, nor will making fun of them: These people are in positions of influence, fully intent on using their power.

In any (small-d) democratic party, Greene’s extremism should be disqualifying. In today’s Republican party, she’s not being expelled, she’s being elevated. Greene is undoubtedly one of the rightwing stars in the country, and that’s not just a media phenomenon. Republican candidates crave her endorsement. . . . 

Greene’s rise is indicative of a more openly militant form of white Christian nationalism inserting itself firmly at the center of Republican politics. “America First” candidates like Greene are representing the Republican party all over the country. In Arizona, for instance, state senator Wendy Rogers proudly declared herself to “stand with Jesus, Robert E Lee, and the Cleveland Indians” back in December – all of them supposedly “canceled” by “satanic communists”. .. .  In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor runs on a platform of “Jesus, Guns, and Babies” and openly advocates for the establishment of a Christian theocracy.

The Republican party doesn’t just tolerate such extremists in an attempt to appease the fringe – this isn’t simply a matter of acquiescence out of convenience or cowardice. What we really need to grapple with is the fact that this sort of radicalism is widely seen as justified on the right. The exact language someone like Greene uses might be slightly crasser than what some conservatives are comfortable with, and some Republicans might disagree with specific aspects of the public image she projects. But it’s obviously not enough for them to break with her, or with any of the Christian nationalist extremists in their ranks.

If anything, most of what Greene is saying actually aligns with the general thrust of conservative politics. Republicans are currently all in on smearing anyone who disagrees with their assault on LGBTQ rights [or supports sex education in schools] as “groomers” and declaring any progressive social position adjacent to pedophilia. And it’s really hard to tell the difference between Greene’s propaganda and what much of the reactionary intellectual sphere has been producing. Rod Dreher, for instance, one of the Religious Right’s best-known exponents, has called the Democrats the “party of groomers” and “the party of child mutilators and kidnappers” . . . 

That’s precisely the key to understanding why so many Republicans are willing to embrace political extremism. Greene’s central message is fully in line with what has become dogma on the right: that Democrats are a radical, “Un-American” threat, and have to be stopped by whatever means. Everyone suspected of holding liberal or progressive positions is a “fellow traveler with the radical left,” as senator Ted Cruz put it; as part of the “militant left,” Democrats need to be treated as the “the enemy within,” according to senator Rick Scott; and Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared that Stacey Abrams winning the Georgia gubernatorial election would be akin to a foreign adversary taking over and lead to a “cold war” between the two neighboring states.

. . . Greene’s pedophilia accusations . . .  adhere to the higher truth of conservative politics: that Democrats are a fundamental threat to the country, to its moral foundations, its very survival. “How much more can America take before our civilization begins to collapse?” Greene asked last week. There aren’t many conservatives left who disagree with her assessment. That’s how they are giving themselves permission to embrace whatever radical measures are deemed necessary to defeat this “Un-American” enemy.

Once you have convinced yourself you are fighting a noble war against a bunch of pedophiles hellbent on destroying the nation, there are no more lines you’re not justified to cross. Greene and her fellow extremists are perceived to be useful shock troops in an existential struggle for the survival of “real” America. The right isn’t getting distracted by debates over whether Greene’s militant extremism or Mitch McConnell’s extreme cynicism are the right approach to preventing multiracial pluralism. They are united in the quest to entrench white reactionary rule.

I fear that . . .  we might have become a bit numb to how extreme and dangerous these developments are. Let’s not be lulled into a false sense of security by the clownishness, the ridiculousness of it all. Some of history’s most successful authoritarians were considered goons and buffoons by their contemporaries – until they became goons and buffoons in power.

What we are witnessing is one party rapidly abandoning and actively assaulting the foundations of democratic political culture. Every “Western” society has always harbored some far-right extremists like Greene. But the fact that the Republican party embraces and elevates people like her constitutes an acute danger to democracy.

Unquote.

Yet, if you believe the polls, Americans who are willing and able to vote are going to put these right-wing bastards in charge of Congress next year. Two years later, if given the chance, they’d put the treasonous conman who can only handle short sentences back in the White House. This is America in 2022, not 1952.

Karl Marx: His Life and Environment by Isaiah Berlin

Karl Marx was a monumental figure. I knew that he spent years doing research in the library of the British Museum and wrote several dense volumes, as well as the Communist Manifesto. I didn’t realize that he was personally involved in left-wing politics. He was the leading revolutionary of his time, moving from country to country, attending meetings, writing letters, advising other communists and socialists throughout Europe, Russia and even the United States (he was even a regular contributor to a New York newspaper).

This is the 4th edition of Isaiah Berlin’s well-written biography of Marx, first published in 1939. Berlin, the famous British philosopher and historian of ideas, presents Marx as a brilliant thinker but a difficult person who devoted his life to bringing about the downfall of capitalism.

What is especially striking is that Marx strongly believed in gathering mountains of evidence in support of his political and economic theories. In that regard, he was a social scientist and an empiricist. Yet he labored in support of an idealistic vision of a future after capitalism that seems terribly unrealistic.

It was conceivable that the proletariat would rise up against the capitalists and the bourgeoisie, especially if a group of revolutionaries could seize power, as they surprisingly did in Russia (of all places). But it was a tremendous leap to think that the state would eventually wither away and the workers would create a functioning communist society. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is an ideal that sounds rational and even practical, but Marx doesn’t seem to have given enough thought to how such an ideal would be implemented. At least, Berlin never gives the impression that Marx spent much time thinking about the communist future. He was much too busy trying to overcome the capitalist present.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

The only Marx I’ve ever read is The Communist Manifesto. Given capitalism’s recent problems, I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about him. This book by English academic and literary critic Terry Eagleton was probably a good place to start.

Why Marx Was Right is a chapter by chapter set of responses to common objections to Marx’s thought. In each case, Marx seems to come out on top: “This book had its origin in a single, striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?” It’s a well-written, rather breezy book. Eagleton suggests that Karl Marx was a brilliant social theorist, far ahead of his time, although I’m not sure how accurate Eagleton’s portrayal of Marx is. 

The Marx described by Eagleton sounds like a democratic socialist, a 19th century progressive and proto-environmentalist who understood the world more clearly and was a better person than the Communists who achieved power in the 20th century, claiming to be “Marxists” or “Marxist-Leninists”.

The biggest question I had after reading Why Marx Was Right is how Marx’s ideas would work out in practice. At one point, Eagleton describes what would apparently be a Marxist form of government:

It is not a state we ourselves would easily recognize as such. It is as though someone were to point to a decentralised network of self-governing communities, flexibly regulated by a democratically elected central administration, and announce “There is the state!”, when we were expecting something altogether more inspiring and monumental.

That is the clearest description of a Marxist state in the book (as best I remember). According to Eagleton, Marx “defended the great bourgeois ideals of freedom, reason and progress, but wanted to know why they tended to betray themselves whenever they were put into practice”. Likewise, once socialism takes advantage of the infrastructure created by capitalism and evolves into communism, would that infrastructure tend to wither away, since the profit motive would no longer be in full force?

Eagleton argues that Marx would not eliminate the profit motive entirely, but it’s not clear how a truly Marxist state would function. Communism as instituted in the real world has never resembled the seriously democratic system Marx apparently proposed. Nor have communist governments been established in countries with advanced capitalist infrastructure. Marxism is one of those social experiments that have never been performed.

Yet some of what Marx argued for, especially as expressed by Eagleton, would be desirable correctives to the system we’ve got now. In particular, we in America would benefit from more democracy, more socialism and more environmentalism. In Eagleton’s words: 

Capitalism is the sorcerer’s apprentice: it has summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us. The task of socialism is not to spur on those powers but to bring them under rational human control.

Not complete control, but certainly more control.