A few thoughts

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Sat Jul 5 21:39:35 MDT 2003


Louis,

Still a bit of an internet "junkie", but cannot resist a comment, hope it
doesn't kill me. Yeah, you are correct. The poetic imagination about empire
has its limits, because, you see, just as mathematics has its limits,
language has its limits. I cannot objectively specify the limits of language
in terms of quantitative permutations of grammars and sentences, clauses,
sub-clauses, phrases and freestanding words. You would need one hell of a
whopper of a computer programme to get an estimate.

Anyway. In what might well have been a moment of frustration, Ernest Mandel
wrote in an article (Marx, the crisis and the future of labour, in Socialist
Register, he sent a copy, paraphrase:) that the game of chess offers more
possible moves than there are stars in the milky way, or even in the known
universe (?). I do not recall the exact formulation. Logically, language
offers more possibilities than chess. But my mate Geoff Pearce would say to
me, philosophically, "you get these people - not you and I, but some of
these intellectual types - and they 'think' everything is relative, but in
material reality there are absolutes, insofar as human beings have material
needs, and if those needs are not satisfied, either life goes downhill or
you are dead as a doornail". I had come to the same conclusion by a
different route, because an ex- Jesuit scholar had pointed out to me as a
first year student that if everything is relative, relativism is also
relative, which was more a logical take really. Lateron Ernest came out with
an article highly critical of the social democrats, published in that
journal Socialism of the Future, and he said, the dillemma is not socialism
or barbarism, but socialism or death. And he died a convinced and
incorrigible Marxist.

You wrote:

My only problem with this sort of thing is how do you keep track of your
progress. When I was in the Trotskyist movement, we used to have goals.
Like recruiting a 100 new members between conventions, or selling 1000 new
subscriptions to the party newspaper. In the libertarian communist and
anarchist milieu, one supposes this is as much of an anathema as a Pet Shop
Boys video at a Focus on the Family convention. So when all the blood and
mud is being flung about, how do you know you are moving forwards or
backwards? Why do when I read this sort of thing does the image of a 20
year old Mark Rudd hover in my mind's eye? I guess I am just not hip.

Very good point ! In the Fourth International in fact they did even better
than you say, because at a world congress, they would set out perspectives
and a basic strategy, and then at the next congress they would evaluate how
it went, what mistakes were made, what had changed in the world, and so on
(reality checks), what needed to be adjusted in perspectives and analyses,
and so on. They would talk about "learning the lessons", "balance sheets of
experience" and so on, originally it was intended that this would be done in
a rigorous, exacting, precise and conscientious way, in contradiction to the
official communist parties who would sack or imprison analysts if they did
not say what the omnipotent and all-seeing CC wanted them to say. Which is
part of a good cumulative learning method, incorporating the temporal
dimension, you knew where you were coming from and where you were going to,
just as when Lenin (whom I am critical of in some ways as you know) talks in
his famous WITBD about taking each other by the hand and dodging the marsh
(lateron this "learning the lessons" bit became more rhetorical, a sort of
stock phrase, it was applied indiscriminately to whatever the political
bureau wanted to focus on). In other words, historical consciousness,
dialectical consciousness if you like.

But how fast was that learning process, really ? As somebody who spent a bit
of time at university thinking about educational processes, I have often
wondered about that. But as the Supertramp song goes, "the questions run too
deep for such a simple man". There were things wrong with the political
language being used, they didn't have much maths (notice how already van
Heijnoordt settled down to a quiet career), there was a problem with dogma
and the evaluation of dogma, the Trotskyists were also very keen to be the
people who had "got it right" ("we were right"), "said it first", "did it
first" and so on (whereas Lenin insisted that you had to be correct at the
correct time, not before or afterwards), and so on, you got numerous
confusions and conflations and conundrums.

In fact Geoff and me archived all that stuff and the rest he stuck in his
garage, he went on with the union, and I got a boot up the bum from
Christine who said "get a job". And I DID get a job, left Christine, I was
chosen out of something like 95 applicants to work in the Dept of Statistics
on questionnaire design and classifications development. I said to my
supervisor, "why did you give me the job ?". You got to ask yourself these
questions.  Ummm. "People tend to hire people like themselves". Thanks a
lot, if I die of a brain hemorrage you know why (I'm a bit somber here;
lateron the same woman said to me "I don't like Dutch men" - she was a
Jewish-Catholic Australian with a degree in psychology).

Actually, just before I started that job, Mandel said he wanted me to write
a reply to an anti-Trotskyist tract published by a Russian communist scholar
called Vasetzky, and okay, I did it under Geoff's supervision, it was
difficult because Vasetzky had severe problems with cogent argumentation and
rigorous examination of evidence, it was more in the nature of a religious,
unctious Stalinist polemic using the familiar techniques of the amalgam,
insinuation, false accusation and so forth, all of which make any rational
learning impossible. He would devote a lot of space to Posadas and so on.
Ernest did not publish it in QI and never told me why, maybe the thing is
still hanging around in his archived papers and all will be revealed one day
when the dust has settled. But lateron I noticed (after the CPSU had
crashed) there was another of these scholarly Trotsky conferences, and, sure
enough, Vasetzky was invited to it, and Ernest elaborated on the concept of
"revolutionary forgiveness".

Just leave the libertarian communists and anarchists to their thing, it's a
phase, see it in motion, stick to your own batallion or regiment, that is
what I suggest. There is the rearguard, there is the vanguard, there are
different "wings" and so forth and so on, scouts, fanfares, all sorts. A
place for everybody and anything under heaven. Elton John does this number
and he sings "it's no sacrifice". I do not wish to confuse love with
politics, but there must be some overlap, don't you think ?

Geoff and I did discuss this problematic once, and Geoff said: we have been
through the wars together, we have a stock of shared experiences, we have
our own club of people that we know, the sea of humanity is very big, and at
least if we stick together we can make sense together in some productive
way. This was a variation on a theme mentioned to me earlier by Alan Freeman
in correspondence, which was that if you had 4 and a half Trotskyists in New
Zealand, it was better that they were all in the same group. As for me, I
had to let that go, and I am not going to give you a bunch of poetry by way
of justification or explanation, I will just refer you to Bush, Powell and
their club of old warriors. I am not in the league of the Koestlers, that is
not how my socialism was formed.

George Orwell was in his own way a pioneer, and he had the audacity to think
for himself. He is full of interesting observations but he is mainly talking
about life (and his life) and not talking about how to move the socialist
movement forward. But, to get back to what I said earlier, "thinking for
yourself" also has its limits, as socialists (whatever our stripe) we are
supposed to work together to get to better solutions of political problems,
no one person can claim to have all the answers, unless you believe in Jesus
of Amsterdam, and I don't (in my philosophy, one Jesus was enough, we don't
want any more). It's about co-operation, team work, collective work, that
gets results.

Look, we are not alone in our problems ! Just look at the World Bank, they
have difficulty forming a good concept of what corruption is ! Why do you
think that the US government is investing big in killing techniques during
the week and going to church on Sundays ? The remarkable thing about the
working classes and peasants is really how honest and helpful they are. I do
not want to romanticise it, I am aware of human nature, but for the most
part, the scams of the labouring classes are rather petty compared to the
owners of big capital. That is logical anyway, because in the normal run of
events they don't have the property required for big scams. My mate Geoff
said to me once, one way of looking at it, as a very simple model if you
like, is that people who own nothing are prepared to take big risks, because
they have little to lose; people who own a lot will take big risks, because
even if they lose, they still have some capital stashed away somewhere; but
the people in between, who work for a living, have families, mortgages etc.,
they take fewer risks. I had an argument with him about that.

Getting back to Orwell, if you carefully examine his sources, he wasn't so
original and he did not really have any kind of steady job, and he could not
break free of the ideology of the ruling classes and their acolytes
completely and he could not adopt a vantage point totally removed from the
struggles of different social classes because that is impossible. For a
simple example (I do not have a degree in English literature as you know),
in his essay "The mysticism of cruelty",  Isaac Deutscher notes that
Zamyatin had already done the "1984" bit much earlier in his novel "We"
(Paul Flewers said something similar).

What you have to ask is, "what was Orwell's ultimate goal, what was the
theme or algorithm or iteration that is the unifying thread of his thought
and striving ? Suppose that we re-assemble all the issues that Orwell
displaces to another context back to some sort of whole, what do we get ?
Now there is a thought. My hunch is that we are talking about something like
individuation, Orwell felt his individuation was denied, and within that
there is more themes.

I do not have a lot of time to write at the moment, as I said, I got to
clean up around my flat and stuff, sort out paperwork, think about my
health, that sort of thing, what an ordinary person has to do. I am just
mooting a few ideas which you may find useful in some way. I don't have all
the answers you know, I have never said so, I do not believe it. If I start
to stray into discussions where I do not really know my ass from my elbow,
then I get into deep trouble. The answer does not reside in having the
answers to all of the questions, but in organisation which provides the
answers to the questions we want answered, through a collective practice.
But there are a lot of these Marxists who don't even know what organisation
is for ! And then they want to tell me I am not revolutionary enough, as if
I want a brain hemorrage.

When I worked for Statistics, Harry said to me very clearly, "there are
times you just have to say, I DON'T KNOW." and his colleague Roger assured
me I was "human". My dissatisfaction or disillusionment with the
intellectual spheres is similar to a Swedish scholar, Gunnar Myrdal I think
it was, and he said something extremely radical like (paraphrase, not exact
words), there are all these intellectual people and technocrats in the West
and what are they doing ? They publish all these contemplations about the
world's miseries and the poor, but they are the "whores of reason", and that
is a concept which needs to be understood, and if we are really working well
together, then we are providing an alternative to that practice. And that is
the point here. Someone told me humorously a joke: Why does a Jew answer a
question with another question ? The answer being: Why shouldn't a Jew
answer a question with another question ? But the ultimate answer being,
because an answer is required.

At the end of his last book, called "Trotsky as Alternative", written after
his piece "The role of Marxism in History" (his titles were becoming more
postmodernist all the time), Mandel refers to Primo Levi's novel The Wretch,
and Mandel says something like "Trotsky would have liked that character."
Well you know what happened to Primo Levi.

"Man you should have seen them, kicking Edgar Allan Poe" - John Lennon

Sincere regards

Jurriaan












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