Things I didn’t know I didn’t know

Following on from the Deutscher “God that failed” blog.

I didn’t know that Howard Fast had ever denounced his own communism, much less that he subsequently denounced his own denunciation.

From the WaPo

Best-selling novelist, author of books such as “Spartacus” and “Freedom Road.” Fast was a prominent communist activist in 1940s and 1950s, left the party in 1956 and published a scathing attack on it called “The Naked God.” Worked as Hollywood screenwriter and published a popular book series, “The Immigrants.” Before his death in 2003, he repudiated his anti-communism, writing another autobiography that praised the party.

Electoral Politics

Electoral politics are like the heroin of political activism. When people first get involved with electoral politics, they think they won’t let it take over. And sure there are some who manage to do a little bit of electoral politics here and there and don’t get too sucked in. But there is noone who takes electoral politics seriously, and does electoral politics everyday, and who actually expects and hopes to keep doing it everyday for years to come, who doesn’t ultimately allow everything to become second place to electoral politics. 

Deutscher and Combined and Uneven Development

And early post linked to Isaac Deutsher’s wonderful essay “The Ex-communist’s conscience” and I said I would say a bit more about Deutscher.

Deutscher of course lends his name to the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, which is awarded every year for the best book in Marxism and is one of the few book awards worth paying attention to. The reason I mention this is because receiving the award brings with it the compulsion to give an lecture. One particularly interesting lecture given in this circumstance was Justin Rosenberg, who had been given the award for his book “The Empire of Civil Society”. Available on amazon and libcom.

Rosenberg’s lecture was on “Isaac Deutscher and the Lost History of International Relations”. It is a fascinating little essay/lecture and I very strongly recommend reading it.

I had always thought the idea of Combined and Uneven Development was a load of nonsense and Rosenberg’s essay has convinced me its not. There’s something there.

Rosenberg is running a research group in Sussex on this question and you can read about it on their site:

“The Ex-Communist’s Conscience”

A few months ago I discovered a wonderful little essay by Isaac Deutscher. (More about him later.) The essay is a review/response/critique of the famous 1949 volume “The God That Failed”. “The God That Failed” was one of the first of many subsequent examples of the literary field – “I used to be a lefty, but now I am wise”.

Deutsher lacerates the book beautifully.

There’s a pdf of it online which I link to above, but unfornately I can’t find a scanned version anywhere. Although, I did find a link to a geocities site where it used to be (the closer of geocities is something I’ll never understand), and I found a few little quotes from it, which I provide below…

Our ex-Communist now bitterly denounces the betrayal of his hopes. This appears to him to have had almost no prece­dent. Yet as he eloquently describes his early expectations and illusions, we detect a strangely familiar tone. Exactly so did the disillusioned Wordsworth and his contemporaries look back upon their first youthful enthusiasm for the French revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

The intellectual Communist who breaks away emotion­ally from his party can claim some noble ancestry. Beethoven tore to pieces the title page of his Eroica, on which he had dedicated the symphony to Napoleon, as soon as he learned that the First Consul was about to ascend a throne. Words­worth called the crowning of Napoleon “a sad reverse for all mankind.” All over Europe the enthusiasts of the French revolution were stunned by their discovery that the Corsican liberator of the peoples and enemy of tyrants was himself a tyrant and an oppressor.

In the same way the Wordsworths of our days were shocked at the sight of Stalin fraternizing with Hitler and Ribbentrop. If no new Eroicas have been created in our days, at least the dedicatory pages of unwritten symphonies have been torn with great flourishes.

In The God That Failed, Louis Fischer tries to explain somewhat remorsefully and not quite convincingly why he adhered to the Stalin cult for so long. He analyzes the variety of motives, some working slowly and some rapidly, which determine the moment at which people recover from the in­fatuation with Stalinism. The force of the European disillu­sionment with Napoleon was almost equally uneven and capricious. A great Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, who had been Napoleon’s soldier and composed an Ode to Bonaparte the Liberator, turned against his idol after the Peace of Campo­formio—this must have stunned a “Jacobin” from Venice as the Nazi-Soviet Pact stunned a Polish Communist. But a man like Beethoven remained under the spell of Bonaparte for seven years more, until he saw the despot drop his republi­can mask. This was an “eye-opener” comparable to Stalin’s purge trials of the 1930’s.

There can be no greater tragedy than that of a great revo­lution’s succumbing to the mailed fist that was to defend it from its enemies. There can be no spectacle as disgusting as that of a post-revolutionary tyranny dressed up in the ban­ners of liberty. The ex-Communist is morally as justified as was the ex-Jacobin in revealing and revolting against that spectacle.


It seems that the only dignified attitude the intellectual ex-Communist can take is to rise _au-dessus de la melee_. He cannot join the Stalinist camp or the anti-Stalinist Holy Alliance without doing violence to his better self. So let him stay outside any camp. Let him try to regain critical sense and intellectual detachment. Let him overcome the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie. Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for phony peace with the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation. This is not to say that the ex-Communist man of letters, or intellectual at large, should retire into the ivory tower. (His contempt for the ivory tower lingers in himself from his past.) But he may withdraw into a _watchtower_ instead. To watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world, to be on a sharp lookout for what is going to emerge from it, and to interpret it _sine ira et studio_—this is now the only honorable service the ex-Communist intellectual can render to a generation in which scrupulous observation and honest interpretation have become so sadly rare. (Is it not striking how little observation and interpretation, and how much philosophizing and sermonizing, one finds in the books of the gifted pleiad of ex-Communist writers?)


Worse still is the ex-Communist’s characteristic incapac­ity for detachment. His emotional reaction against his for­mer environment keeps him in its deadly grip and prevents him from understanding the drama in which he was in­volved or half-involved. The picture of communism and Stalinism he draws is that of a gigantic chamber of intellec­tual and moral horrors. Viewing it, the uninitiated are trans­ferred from politics to pure demonology. Sometimes the artistic effect may be strong—horrors and demons do enter into many a poetic masterpiece; but it is politically unrelia­ble and even dangerous. Of course, the story of Stalinism abounds in horror. But this is only one of its elements; and even this, the demonic, has to be translated into terms of human motives and interests. The ex-Communist does not even attempt the translation.

In a rare flash of genuine self-criticism, Koestler makes this admission: “As a rule, our memories romanticize the past. But when one has renounced a creed or been betrayed by a friend, the opposite mechanism sets to work. In the light of that later knowledge, the original experience loses its innocence, be­comes tainted and rancid in recollection. I have tried in these pages to recapture the mood in which the experi­ences [in the Communist Party] related were originally lived—and I know that I have failed. Irony, anger, and shame kept intruding; the passions of that time seem trans­formed into perversions, its inner certitude into the closed universe of the drug addict; the shadow of barbed wire lies across the condemned playground of memory. Those who were caught by the great illusion of our time, and have lived through its moral and intellectual debauch, either give themselves up to a new addiction of the opposite type, or are condemned to pay with a lifelong hangover.”

The entire essay is really beautifully written. I had heard Deutscher was a great writer and that is certainly in display in this essay. It makes me almost want to read his mammoth 3 volume biography of Trotsky.

Do Corporate Taxes hurt growth?

There was an interesting little blog by Dylan Matthews on the wonderful Wonkblog at the Washington Post back in June on some research by Thomas Hungerford at the Economic Policy Institute. Hungerford argues in his paper that corporate taxes do not hurt growth.

Here’s one of the relevant graphs:

However, as Matthews writes

One issue with this chart that emerges immediately is that it doesn’t control for any non-corporate tax factors that might affect economic growth, such as population growth, federal spending, Fed policy or the population’s education level. All it shows is that changes in the corporate tax rate do not drive changes in economic growth, not that the rate does not affect growth. Everyone should agree to that much; I don’t think there’s ever been a recession prompted by a sudden uptick in the corporate tax rate.

Matthews then goes through some of the countervailing evidence.

Interesting little blog anyway.

“Germany’s finance minister warns of a ‘revolution’ if Europe adopts America’s tougher welfare model”

According to the Daily Mail, back in May, Wolfgang Schäuble

said that abandoning the continent’s welfare model in favour of tougher U.S. standards would cause ‘revolution’.

‘We need to be more successful in our fight against youth unemployment, otherwise we will lose the battle for Europe’s unity,’ Schaeuble said.

While Germany insists on the importance of budget consolidation, Schaeuble spoke of the need to preserve Europe’s welfare model.

If U.S. welfare standards were introduced in Europe, ‘we would have revolution, not tomorrow, but on the very same day,’ Schaeuble told a conference in Paris.

Comments on “The Problem with “Privilege””

A few people have shared this article “The Problem with “Privilege” on MAS’s page now. And I’m a bit puzzled. I wonder do people actually like it and agree with it? Or is it just that it argues against ‘the politics of privilege’ and like that, regardless of the content of the argument?

To me the argument seems weak as. The author explains the theoretical content of the article in this paragraph:

“My analysis is informed the work of Denise DaSilva. She argues in Toward a Global Idea of Race that the western subject understands itself as self-determining through its ability to self-reflect, analyze and exercise power over others. The western subject knows that it is self-determining because it compares itself to ‘others” who are not. In other words, I know who I am because I am not you. These “others” of course are racialized. The western subject is a universal subject who determines itself without being determined by others; the racialized subject is particular, but is supposed to aspire to be universal and self-determining.”

But what the fuck is this “western subject”? Is it the fantasy of the bourgeois subject? But if it is, surely she should at least acknowledge that it is a fantasy – not a subject position that people actually occupy. Or is she actually claiming that this is what western subjects are? In other words, that “western” non-others [eugh] are “self-determining through [their] ability to self-reflect, analyze and exercise power over others”? Because once you say that its pretty immediately obvious how completely inaccurately this applies to anyone in the west. I mean on the one hand the idea that “western subjects” like the non-racialised kids in flats around from my house, are certainly not “self-determining through [their] ability to self-reflect, analyze and exercise power over others”. But also, Master-Slave dialectic and all that. I mean the idea of power as a “self-reflective”, “self-determining” “exercise of power” – who actually believes in that?

It seems like a total strawman. 

But worse, it seems like an awful place to start to think of what liberation means. The actual conclusion seems really weak as well – like freedom is not self-determination it is seeing yourself as a social being. And seeing how your freedom is a social freedom.

To be honest, I think Bakunin got much further in the 1870s when he wrote:

The materialistic, realistic, and collectivist conception of freedom, as opposed to the idealistic, is this: Man becomes conscious of himself and his humanity only in society and only by the collective action of the whole society. He frees himself from the yoke of external nature only by collective and social labor, which alone can transform the earth into an abode favorable to the development of humanity. Without such material emancipation the intellectual and moral emancipation of the individual is impossible. He can emancipate himself from the yoke of his own nature, i.e. subordinate his instincts and the movements of his body to the conscious direction of his mind, the development of which is fostered only by education and training. But education and training are preeminently and exclusively social … hence the isolated individual cannot possibly become conscious of his freedom.
To be free … means to be acknowledged and treated as such by all his fellowmen. The liberty of every individual is only the reflection of his own humanity, or his human right through the conscience of all free men, his brothers and his equals.
I can feel free only in the presence of and in relationship with other men. In the presence of an inferior species of animal I am neither free nor a man, because this animal is incapable of conceiving and consequently recognizing my humanity. I am not myself free or human until or unless I recognize the freedom and humanity of all my fellowmen.
Only in respecting their human character do I respect my own. …
I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation