In “Stray Thoughts,” I put together musings and jottings that are too underdeveloped or cursory to be turned into full articles. This feature is semi-weekly: some weeks I remember to do it and other times I fail. But thank you to the reader who emailed to chastise me for my untimeliness. It made me feel missed, and gave me motivation!
- I am just finishing reading Ignazio Silone’s wonderful 1936 novel Bread & Wine. It is about a young revolutionary, Pietro Spina, who returns to his native Italy while it is under fascist rule, in an effort to get the peasants to rise up. Because human beings are complicated, many of the peasants do not show much of an interest in rising up. Spina disguises himself as a priest, and there is a good deal of comedy in his attempts to avoid having to actually carry out the duties of the priesthood. (His standard response is “I’m sorry, but I do not belong to this diocese,” which usually does the trick but doesn’t work as well when he is asked to administer last rites in an emergency.) I am generally put off by “political” novels, and even though I love Orwell’s nonfiction I actually really dislike 1984 and Animal Farm. But Bread & Wine is not didactic; Silone allows Spina to become less rigidly dogmatic without losing his faith in people and in human liberation. Here is one passage I enjoyed. (Major spoiler, watch out.) Don Benedetto is a rebellious priest, beloved by the revolutionaries, who is poisoned by the state. In an atmosphere of oppression, three peasant youths respond this way: “They have formed themselves into a group of writers of the truth. At night they get on their bicycles, take pieces of chalk or charcoal, and go to neighboring villages and write the truth on the walls. The truth they write is ‘Don Benedetto was poisoned.’ We discussed whether anything ought to be added to that, but decided that nothing ought ever to be added to the truth, or it would cease to be the truth. We also agreed that it would be idle to add anything to reinforce the truth, because nothing is ever stronger than the pure and simple truth. So we decided that ‘Don Benedetto was poisoned’ should be written up everywhere, and that this should go on until everybody knew it. We decided to use just those few words by themselves, without even an exclamation mark, so that even those who do not want to understand will have to understand. When it looks as if some people are beginning to forget, we shall start writing ‘Don Benedetto was poisoned,’ again, and those who want to forget will be forced to remember. That, for the time being, is the function of those writers.” I like this as a summary of the modest purposes of political writing. It’s not that it will necessarily change anything (elsewhere, a character admits that when he “took the trouble of refuting point by point the ideology of the dictatorship… it took me a long time to find out that I was wasting my time”). It’s that there is a duty to guard the truth and to make sure it’s available, to keep the flame alive. Norman Finkelstein, in his book on Gaza (which you should read), suggests that while he’s under no illusions that anyone will pay attention, he believes it’s important that the evidence of what happened is preserved for the future. For those of us who sometimes wonder whether writing has any impact, thinking of ourselves as writing “Don Benedetto was poisoned” is useful encouragement.
- I recently wrote an article explaining why some of the main arguments used against socialists are weak. Today, George Will has produced a perfect example of the kind of silly criticism I was writing about. In a column about the prospects for socialism in the United States, he writes: “Consider two questions: What is socialism? And what might a socialist American government do? In its 19th-century infancy, socialist theory was at least admirable in its clarity: It meant state ownership of the means of production (including arable land), distribution and exchange.“ I am sorry to pause before Will’s rant really gets going, but I should note that he’s botched his description of socialism from the very beginning. If 19th century socialism was about “state ownership,” what explains the fact that many 19th century socialists were anarchists who detested the state and wanted to see it destroyed? What about Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman? If the core of socialism is state ownership, we don’t have a good explanation for why Kropotkin said “the state, both in its present form, in its very essence, and in whatever guise it might appear, [is] an obstacle to the social revolution, the greatest hindrance to the birth of a society based on equality and liberty,” and the task is to “abolish the State and not to reform it.” Many socialists actually saw the state as the enemy of socialism, because they felt states could never be truly democratic. What unites socialists, then, is not a belief that the state should control the means of production. It’s a belief that workers rather than capitalists should have control over the means of production, and there is actually a huge divide in the socialist tradition over the extent to which that should involve the state and what kind of state it should involve. (Worker cooperatives are a way of “democratizing” the economy that does not involve state ownership, for instance.) George Will is writing a column about socialism, then, without understanding the first thing about it. He seems to think socialism is synonymous with Marxism (the only socialists he even quotes from are Engels and Lenin), but that leaves him powerless to explain the existence of everyone from Emma Goldman to Noam Chomsky. Read News from Nowhere and The Conquest of Bread and then tell me how 19th century socialism was defined as “state control of industry” in which “government picks winners and losers” and “tells consumers what to buy.” It really is a shame that newspaper editors don’t check whether columnists know what they are talking about before publishing their work.
- I watched the 1970s documentary Hitler: A Career last night (it’s excellent, with lots of period footage I had never seen, though the narrator has an odd tendency to psychoanalyze the sexual dimensions of Hitler’s appeal), because I have been interested in understanding the rise of fascism and figuring out how it could have been stopped and what one ought to do to make sure it never returns. I came to a disquieting revelation, which is that I think the rise of Hitler would have been very difficult to stop. It’s true that internal division within the left, and a weak central government, created a political opening for the Nazis even though they had never received a majority of the vote. But Hitler was also a formidable and terrifying political force from early on. Because we’re removed in time and place, it is sometimes difficult to see how Hitler achieved such popularity, especially when one watches his furious, spittle-spraying speeches. The speeches should be watched more closely, though. I understand a bit more what people mean when they say he was a powerful orator. When you watch with the closed captions on, and you watch from the beginning, rather than just watching the clips where he has worked himself up into a fit, you can see how he lured people. What alarmed me most is that, if someone with equivalent political talent emerged in the contemporary United States, I think it might be difficult to stop them. I do not think Trump is like Hitler: Hitler was a true fanatic, committed to a rigid ideology, whereas Trump is a corrupt capitalistic schmoozer. Fortunately for us, corruption is actually more desirable than ideological purity; if someone just wants to enrich themselves and play a dictator, it’s better than if they are hell-bent on committing mass murder. (It’s still not good.) But I do imagine that someone who comes after Trump, a millennial right-winger who worships him, could be that kind of fanatic. And the only thing I can see to do is: Be prepared with a compelling alternative ideology that can keep people from flocking to that person. If your side has no answers and no direction, you do not stand a chance against someone who comes along offering hope, destiny, struggle, and strength.
- I have learned another important lesson from examining the early history of fascism: never declare victory too early. When neo-Nazi Richard Spencer announced he was calling off his college speaking tour, because the presence of Antifa had made it so that it wasn’t “fun” anymore, a lot of people I know on the left declared victory. Antifa has chased the Nazi away! Hooray! I am reminded, though, of a New York Times headline from 1923: “Hitler Virtually Eliminated.” You have to be very careful with Nazis; they are a bit like Terminators, and as you walk away from their defeated and lifeless forms, you may not notice as an eye slowly opens and glares. I am not saying that the alt-right isn’t dead, I’m just saying: Often, these things do not grow over a period of one or two years, but ten or so. As late as 1928, nobody could imagine the possibility of Hitler taking power five years later (though they should have, because the signs were there). Especially when unexpected crises happen, such as economic collapses or terrorism, groups that were marginal can suddenly become mainstream. One needs to be ready. Once fascism actually shows up in force, it could already be too late. The difficulty is that you have to try to get rid of it right at the phase where people take it the least seriously.
- I know leftists think “debate” is often fruitless, but I dearly wish that any of them who were going to engage in it would learn how to do it well. I could barely make it through Tucker Carlson’s interview with Cornel West. West is a truly impressive speaker, but in these interviews you need to have knock-down responses to the questions prepared. When you are asked how socialism worked in Venezuela, instead of talking in abstractions about dignity and justice, you need to talk about how socialism worked in Milwaukee, and everyday examples of mutual aid and collective enterprises that have experimented with the principles we advocate. Authoritarianism is not socialistic, and never will be, no matter what it calls itself. I am not sure whether it’s ever wise to go on FOX News, but if you do, make sure you wipe the floor with Carlson.
- Two quotes for you that I liked. First, in Rob Larson’s excellent new book Capitalism vs. Freedom, I encountered a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. that I have never seen before, about the connection between labor and civil rights (or, if you like, class and race), that he gave to the AFL-CIO. The quote is ahead of its time and talks about the struggles of labor and the importance of ensuring a fair distribution of wealth as automation takes hold: “Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights… and led a life which was socially submerged and barren. He was hired and fired by economic despots whose power over him decreed his life or death… [Today,] those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century… Labor today faces a grave crisis, perhaps the most calamitous since it began its march from the shadows of want and insecurity. In the next ten to twenty years automation will grind jobs into dust as it grinds out unbelievable volumes of production. This period is made to order for those who would seek to drive labor into impotency by viciously attacking it at every point of weakness… But automation can be used to generate an abundance of wealth for people or an abundance of poverty for millions as its human like machines turn out human scrap along with the machine scrap as a by product of production. Our society, with its ability to perform miracles with machinery has the capacity to make some miracles for men if it values men as highly as it values machines. To find a great design to solve a grave problem labor will have to intervene in the political life of the nation to chart a course which distributes the abundance to all instead of concentrating it among a few.” The second quote, from George Orwell, is about the difficulty of establishing objective fact, and why people are bad at figuring out the truth: “Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps even tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the present war. The calamities that are constantly being reported — battles, massacres, famines, revolutions — tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources. What were the rights and wrongs of the Warsaw rising of August 1944? Is it true about the German gas ovens in Poland? Who was really to blame for the Bengal famine? Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.” I find this quote especially interesting because I’ve also been reading They Thought They Were Free, another thing about Nazis. That book is about ordinary Germans, and how they conceived of the Third Reich. There is a tendency for them to brush away the facts by saying “Oh, well, you can’t believe what you read” and “Well, I don’t know about any of that.” And it’s hard, because you can’t believe everything you read, and people usually don’t know about the underlying thing. It’s really difficult to figure out the truth actually, especially in a climate of nonstop ideologically-motivated lies. I am not sure how you can actually show someone they’re wrong, if they’ve come to doubt all authority that disagrees with them, which is one reason that I recommend trying to slowly build your credibility and authenticity in the eyes of the public rather than simply “fact-checking” everything and then getting mad when they don’t listen.
- Katie Aronoff at the Intercept has a sobering reminder of just how urgent climate change is, and why it makes supporting left candidates all the more important. Honestly, if we were to face the facts of climate change seriously, it would be the main thing we talked about, all the time. I still don’t understand why climate scientists aren’t doing a speaking tour across every town in America, explaining the urgency to people and answering all of their skeptical questions. It’s not enough to be right on the science, the public has to feel the urgency, which means that climate scientists should be like Jehovah’s Witnesses and be going door to door offering to talk to people about the problem. Anyway, here’s Aronoff on why it matters: “CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATES SUGGEST that greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized nations like the U.S. begin rapidly declining after 2020. For just a two-thirds chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s 2 degree celsius warming target, emissions in such places need to draw down to zero by 2050. And even that scenario assumes that so-called negative emissions technologies that can suck carbon out of the atmosphere will be by that point deployable at scale. Though most climate models assume these technologies will soon or already exist, they currently don’t — at least not in any meaningful way. Without them, the timeline for decarbonization gets much shorter and means shutting down every coal- and gas-fired power plant and taking every single oil-fired, combustion engine car off the road worldwide within a decade. Alas, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the U.K.’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, told me last year, “We have to mitigate as if these negative emissions technologies do not work.” Bloomberg and others like him have held up the Paris Agreement as our saving grace; even without the White House on board, citizens, businesses, and local governments can stay on track. Altogether, though, the track the Paris Agreement leaves us on currently is for around 3 degrees of warming. That would leave around 4.5 billion people vulnerable to heat waves, decimate large chunks of the world’s arable land, and render coastal cities like New York virtually uninhabitable by the end of this century. Getting in the neighborhood of 2 degrees means countries “ratcheting up” their commitments over the coming years. And even that 2 degree target will still lead to warming that is too high for many people — especially those in low-lying island nations or agricultural communities vulnerable to climate-fueled drought. That’s why representatives from the Global South have for years chanted “1.5 to survive” to U.N. climate talks, calling for a more ambitious, 1.5 degree target that grows farther out of reach every year.
- There is a new episode of the Current Affairs podcast available to the public, and it’s a good one. Consider becoming a supporter on Patreon so that you can get special bonus episodes! Oh, and subscribe to the magazine, of course. We’ve got a delightful new print edition just leaving the printers right now, and a new digital newsletter going out shortly.