[Marxism] Cretinism, electoral and otherwise
jbustelo at gmail.com
Wed Aug 15 20:55:22 MDT 2007
Nestor and other comrades have expressed surprise at Luko's outburst
against "electoral cretinism" on this list, and ask, "what is electoral
"Electoral cretinism" is a form of a disease first described by
Doctor Karl Marx as "parliamentary cretinism" and it is perhaps useful to go
back to Dr. Marx's original description of the condition. He spotted a
particularly virulent outbreak among the Left or Democratic party in the
Frankfurt Assembly, a parliamentary body set up during the German Revolution
"They had, from the beginning of their legislative career," Marx wrote,
"been more imbued than any other faction of the Assembly with that incurable
malady Parliamentary cretinism, a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate
victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and
future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that
particular representative body which has the honor to count them among its
members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their
housewars, revolutions, railway-constructing, colonizing of whole new
continents, California gold discoveries, Central American canals, Russian
armies, and whatever else may have some little claim to influence upon the
destinies of mankindis nothing compared with the incommensurable events
hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment
occupying the attention of their honorable house."
"Electoral cretinism" in its purest form is parliamentary cretinism
by proxy. It is the delusion that the (usually extremely distorted)
parliamentary reflection of the clash of real social forces IS the actual
battle, and therefore that the outcome of the battle depends on who the Left
succeeds in getting elected to legislatures, rather than the outcome of the
parliamentary battle depends on the relationship of forces in broader
However much THAT disease may be rampant on the U.S. Left (and there
is no question but that it is, the QUANGO/non-profiteers, labor bureaucracy,
and Stalinists of various flavors being more-or-less permanent reservoirs of
infection) that is clearly not what Luko meant nor is it something you'll
find much of on this list.
I believe that what Luko was referring to is the derivative of
"parliamentary cretinism by proxy," in other words, electoral cretinism, the
illusion that some electoral initiative or combination can somehow reverse
the deepening crisis of the U.S. Left.
I believe the use of the term "electoral cretinism" is legitimate,
because the illusion arises from the idea that since so many of the masses
suffer from full-fledged "electoral cretinism," by going into the electoral
arena we can attract the attention of the masses, some followers, and
thereby reverse what appears to be a death spiral.
Like Luko, I just plain don't believe it, and postulating some
magical, Deus-ex-machina united left ticket in 2008 is simply one MORE way
of not facing up to the crisis.
* * *
Decades ago, I think it was in the 1977 interview with Barbara
Walters, Fidel was asked whether he thought there would be a socialist
revolution in the United States, and he answered yes, but that he thought it
would take 300 years, although perhaps American revolutionaries would not
agree with him on that.
I remember thinking then that Fidel was wrong, or perhaps he was
just trying to telegraph that he was being diplomatic with his aside about
American revolutionaries. And that certainly, not in a few years, but within
my lifetime, there would be a revolution in the United States.
I have since developed a much keener sense of the possibility for
historical twists to surprise me, but also, I think, a keener sense of
actual historical possibilities, or at least likelihoods.
And looking back at the 30 years since Fidel made that statement,
I'd have to say that history has once again absolved him.
Looking at it socially and politically, and not chronologically,
we'd have to say we are further away from a socialist revolution is the
United States today than then. The left of 1977 was qualitatively stronger
in every way than it is today. The unions were stronger. The social
movements were stronger. The socialist political organizations were
stronger. And it's not a question of how many decades or centuries, the
essence of Fidel's assessment was that it was so far away you couldn't even
see it from here.
There are objective reasons for this, but there are also subjective
ones, and they are the ones I worry about. The left in the United States
squanders the BULK or its potential and resources. Our organized socialist
groups have dozens, hundreds or perhaps --in the case of the ISO-- one
thousand members. I believe there easily could have been a socialist group
in the United States today with five, ten or fifteen thousand active
members. The people exist, even today. What doesn't exist is the group that
would make it possible. Nor, I have become gradually convinced over the past
few years, do the OBJECTIVE conditions exist that would make it possible to
easily or quickly overcome the SUBJECTIVE reasons that make that unity
So my conclusion is that it is going to be a tough, hard road that
we will have to travel, a road that will have to be made by walking, but
that it will be possible to advance on only with a machete in one hand and a
pick and shovel in the other, constantly slashing away at the underbrush and
somehow going over, under or through all sorts of other obstacles.
And therein lies, I think, the frustration I felt, and I suspect
also Luko, with the discussion of the imaginary united left ticket for the
It's like that scene at the end of "The Sun also Rises" (Hemingway's
"Fiesta," as it is known in other latitudes) where Jake Barnes and Brett are
back in Madrid, and they're in a horse-drawn cab together and she turns to
him and says, "Oh Jake, we could have been so happy together."
And he answers, "Yes, isn't it pretty to think so."
Pretty, but it ain't going to happen.
Except, at least in Hemingway's story, we know why.
* * *
We need to know WHY the left in the United States has failed.
Dogmatism and sectarianism. Of course. But WHY do we have so much of it, why
is it so virulent? Bad social (class) composition. But why is the
composition so heavily skewed to the intelligentsia? Unrecognized and
uncombatted rampant white and especially (I am increasingly convinced) male
privilege. OK, but why?
Why don't we learn? Why don't we conclude in a group of a few dozen
or a few hundred, that sets as its aim to change the world, that if we've
been unable to change OURSELVES, then perhaps the best contribution we can
make to changing the world is to dissolve, and clear the way for someone who
will do better?
Why did Marx and Engels find it so EASY to resist joining the League
of the Just UNTIL it was ready to become the Communist League, and so EASY
to set it aside when revolution broke out, and so EASY to dissolve it when
there didn't seem to be much for it to do in the next few years? Why did
they find it so easy to pretty much abstain from organized political group
activities for a decade or more, and then, Marx having pretty much been the
architect of the International, why he found it so easy to just pack it up?
Why don't WE ever do that?
There are all kinds of questions, dozens, hundreds or thousands of
them. These are URGENT questions. We constantly seem to be humming Fleetwood
Mac. "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." But we made our today with our
yesterday. And if tomorrow is anything like today, we'd better stop thinking
about where inertia is taking us tomorrow and think about our whole
* * *
I doubt anyone noticed, but there was something unlike me in what I
wrote above about Fidel, and the general character of the period, or in
reality, era, in the United States. Most usually when I write about these
sorts of issues, I'm talking about things like the disappearance of a real
social movement of the working class, and my time frame isn't 30 years but
But there is a reason why I stuck to 30 years, apart from the
natural bracketing provided by Fidel's interview. I could not have said the
decline of the left between 1947 and 2007, because between 1947 and 1977,
there was an entirely different kind of period, commonly referred to as "the
60's," when there was not just in this country but throughout the world a
rare historical moment that I see as like what must have moved Wordsworth to
"Bliss was in that new dawn to be alive
"But to be young was very heaven."
Comrade Ricardo Alarcón, dedicating the statue of John Lennon in
Havana seven years ago, captured the same thing:
"Nostalgia does not bring us together. We are not inaugurating a monument to
the past, nor a site to commemorate something that disappeared.
"This place will always be a testimonial to struggle, a summoning to
humanism. It will also be a permanent homage to a generation that wanted to
transform the world, and to the rebellious spirit, innovative, of the artist
who helped forge that generation and at the same time is one of its most
"The Sixties were much more than a period in a century that is ending.
Before anything else, they were an attitude toward life that profoundly
affected the culture, the society and politics, and crossed all borders.
Their renewing impulse rose up, victorious, overwhelming the decade, but it
had been born before that time and has not stopped even up to today.
"To these years we turn our sights with the tenderness of first love, with
the loyalty that all combatants feel for their earliest and most distant
battle. With obstinate antagonism, some still denigrate that time -- those
who know that to kill history, they must first tear out its most luminous
and hopeful moment."
* * *
I know at least some of the factors that made those years what they
were. The anticolonial revolution. The tremendous economic expansion. The
Bomb. The War. Freedom. Justice.
But I do not know why the 60's happened. I don't even know how it
could have been possible for the 60's to happen. But they did. And if they
happened once, they can happen again. And if the 60's could happen in the
60's, they could certainly happen now. And much more easily.
I feel --and feel very strongly-- that it is the responsibility of
those of us who had the enormous privilege of being part of that generation
to give a true account, and especially a true account of where we were wrong
-- politically, socially, culturally and organizationally.
We will not agree. There will be no new "Foundations of Leninism" or
"Little Red Book" that can be presented to the generation of the new 60's
with the assurances that here is what there is to know. They will have to
find their own road by making it. But at least in some obscure corner of the
Internet, in an article someone saved or a blog someone else decided to
continue, or something they read years before and stuck with them, they will
be freed from having to repeat at least some of our mistakes, and perhaps
inspired by some of the struggles we lived through.
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