Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why reading about socialist movements can help you, Lassalle and Vahlteich

Lassalle and Vahlteich were two often conflicting leaders of the German Social Democratic Party. Neither of them was a theorist on the level of, say, Marx or Bakunin. Their importance lies in the movement that they were part of. When it comes to studying socialism, as opposed to participating in it, there are two ways of going about it: the conventional way, studying the big names, the big theorists, and the alternative way of studying the movements and the lesser names, both activists and thinkers, who came out of them. Personally, I think that while having a good grounding in the big names is very important,the real understanding comes from studying how these ideas played out in reality.

I remember hours spent, years ago at this point, in an isolated library in a conservative Christian town in central Florida, reading "The Encyclopedia of the American Left". They were some of the most interesting and productive hours I've had. There wasn't a lot to do in the town in your free time, and so I would go there, sit down, and read it.I went through most of it, looking at connections between movements and personalities, finding out about municipal socialism in Milwaukee and Farmer-Labor parties in Minnesota, to say nothing of the unsung people who are otherwise forgotten in American history who made substantial contributions. Many forgotten people have immediate connections with the present, for instance Harry Hay and his "Mattachine Society". A 40s and 50s socialist gay rights group, it grew out of Hay's speculations on Marxist history during his tenure as an official educator for the Communist Party, and pioneered the gay rights movement.

Memoir and interviews also played a large part in my life during that time: Howard Fast's "Being Red", outlining his time in the Communist Party during the '30s and '40s, and '50s, told me more about the Popular Front, the best time for the CP in the US, when it actually made a tangible difference in people's lives, than a hundred theoretical statements ever could. "Tender Comrades",by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, a book of interviews with blacklisted Hollywood actors, did the same thing. Talking to people who were forced out of Hollywood during the McCarthy years, some of whom literally left the country for Europe and never came back, gave life to an era.

The same can be said for Anarchist history as well. In fact, Anarchist historians have done a superb job in documenting the real force of the movement. Murray Bookchin's study of pre-Civil War Spanish Anarchism "Spanish Anarchism: The Heroic Years" is crucial. Paul Avrich's books, particularly Anarchist Voiceshis oral history of American Anarchism, "The Haymarket Tragedy", have a similar importance. And although Bakunin is wonderful, second generation Anarchists like Malatesta provide information on how Anarchism actually worked as a social movement in late 19th, early 20th century Europe that you'll never get from the first generation big names.

This strategy, focusing on movement importance to understand the philosophical concept, is also successful when it comes to socialist theory in general. "Socialist Thought: A Documentary History" put together by Fried and Sanders, is an amazing collection that should be near the top of the list for people interested in real socialism. It's only transcended by the similar, but more local "Socialism in America: from the Shakers to the Third International" also produced by Fried and Sanders.

Movement history isn't overlooked by the traditional, Trotskyist, or rank Stalinist, Marxist-Leninists either. In fact, if you press their saner representatives you'll find that they think of Lenin as the one who actually took Marx's work and made it work in reality, not an uncontested opinion. As an unintended consequence, their minds are often stuck in the early 20th century, circumscribed to viewing the present through Russian history and mechanically imitating Lenin's suggestions about how to conduct party politics. That's where the increasingly anachronistic commandment to parties to found newspapers came from. It's certainly responsible for producing many mediocre papers but on the positive side has surely benefited independent small printers. Arguably, they're the only group who's really seen any profit from most of them. In their self-appointed vanguard minds, if not in their hearts, they're on the right track.

The take home from this? Marx is great, but if you want to break out of your mind, movement history is the scholarly way to do it. And eat your vegetables, especially broccoli.

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