Critics often accuse revolutionary socialists of being “out of touch with reality”. Usually, what they mean is something like “well to the left of Brendan Barber”. But let me offer a sobering thought to anybody who locates themselves in the Marxist political tradition: the claim isn’t always wrong, is it?
Some of the more celebrated idiocies have passed into leftie folklore. There have been Trotskyist sects who believed that flying saucers were emissaries of Bolshevik civilisations on other planets, that the Second World War did not “really” end in 1945, that the USSR should have strengthened proletarian property relations by launching an all-out nuclear first strike on the West, or that the world was in for centuries of degenerated workers’ states.
I have even heard rumours that one sizeable bunch of British Trots was once crazy enough to insist that Respect was a viable electoral project. Personally, I would discount that one — it strikes me as just too far-fetched to be believable.
There is also a wide range of slightly less fantastic misapprehensions. There are plenty of cases where two or three people have declared themselves to be a boldly-named “group” or “league”.
That’s understandable from a marketing perspective, I suppose. A more accurate description, such as “Johnny and his Revolutionary Marxist Trio”, would make them sound like some ghastly semi-professional club turn featuring keyboards, bass and drums.
Outfits with a few dozen adherents, if that, describe themselves “the party of October” in direct apostolic succession to Lenin himself. They routinely call for general strikes and the building of soviets every couple of weeks or so, raise the slogan of “a workers’ and farmers’ government” in Britain, and hope to see Qaddafi win the current conflict in Libya. Sorry, but these are not the actions of sane people.
I say all this not to disparage hard-working activists, but in genuine bewilderment that anybody basing themselves on an intrinsically rational problematic such as Marxism can actually end up reaching patently whacky conclusions.
After all, the vast majority of Trots are clearly not stupid. Sometimes they have impressive academic qualifications from elite universities, and almost always the walls of their homes are lined with books.
However endearing some of their foibles look to others on the left, they can also be seen as collective delusions that would in other contexts be indicative of mental health concerns.
The alarming thing is that even the most extreme positions are reached, step by step, starting from a belief system that I broadly share, and culminating in Unidentified Flying Object spotting and revolutionary socialists forming alliances with the religious right.
One partial explanation is that Marxism explicitly postulates a difference between things as they appear, and things as they really are. This is a recurrent theme in Marx’s writings, from his analysis of alienation in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts to his description of commodity fetishism in Capital.
Arguing that there is a divergence between essence and appearance has been a mainstream position in western thought, from Plato onwards. To reject this stance is to reject some of the central tenets of Marxism, and I am not questioning its validity.
But the obvious danger is that the way is open for all manner of preposterous charlatans and self-proclaimed dialecticians to present all sorts of gobbledegook as the Marxist truth, brushing aside obvious objections by dismissing the questioner’s lack of Marxist understanding.
To point out that collapse into cultdom is always an inherent risk for small Marxist tendencies is not the same as arguing that it must inevitably happen. It is instead to insist on the need for constant reality checks on small group leaderships, based on scrutiny from politically worked-out rank and file comrades capable of recognising bullshit when they see it.
Either that, or maybe those Bolshevik aliens could do us all a favour and abduct the central committees of Trot outfits that have absolutely lost the plot.