On hypocrisy

Dan Oudshoorn has a long post on what boils down to the old problem of hypocrisy, the connection between what one says and how one lives. His targets in particular are the ‘tenured radicals’ of academia, and his favoured examples are those who hold to Marxist theory but not a Marxist ‘lifestyle’ (I wish Dan had chosen another word here, since ‘lifestyle’ has that foul odour of bourgeois ‘freedom of choice’). He compares them with biblical scholars who assume some normative claims from the Bible and yet steer clear of any collective religious involvement with marginalised people.

This fault line turns up in all sorts of places. For example, as one self-professed Marxist said to me a couple of years ago, standing at the front door of a sprawling mansion in the US northeast, ‘why can’t a Marxist be rich?’ By contrast, there was the grizzled and scarred front-line activist, with a long goatee and shaved head, beer-gut and cigarette propped in one ear, who said to me at a left congress, ‘if you’re not an activist, you’re not a f&*cking Marxist’.

I don’t want to deal with all of the points Dan raises, but rather focus on two or three. To begin with, the problem he addresses is not an anomaly but crucial to the self-definition of academia. One needs to take the mythical ‘step back’ and analyse a situation from a ‘critical’ distance. This move goes back to the time when the academic disciplines hived off from theology and sought to establish for themselves an independent basis. In this situation, ‘objective’ meant ‘free from theological dominance’. Eventually biblical studies and theology themselves tried the same trick, ending up with ‘secular’ biblical criticism and ‘scientific’ theology. What is usually missed in this standard account is that it was part of the process by which the bourgeoisie came to class dominance. One of the signal marks of that rise was the shift from the church as the dominant cultural power to education, which became a distinct zone outside church control and under bourgeois control. So those who hold to objective, secular, critical, scientific approaches, especially on matters religious, are enthusiastic ideologues of the bourgeois project.

But that means Marxist intellectuals and others are a little caught, especially if they are involved in some way in the educational system. The structural criteria by which that system operates are fundamentally bourgeois and yet the position they espouse seeks, to invoke Lenin, to ‘smash’ the bourgeois system. Yet this is not unique to Marxists, as Dan observes in passing, for it applies to any praxis-oriented approach, that is an approach that has an explicit and (more or less) radical political dimension to it. You are left with three options: buy into the system as it is, opt to be an activist, or live a contradictory life in which both are in some way held together. The pressures towards the first are immense. Journals that have the title ‘socialist’ in them are regarded as less-than-academic. Activists routinely are denied promotion and influence. Anyone who writes from a committed position is derided as ‘ideological’ or out to ‘save the world’. Or, on the theological side, academics continue to sneer at theology as a pseudo-discipline – as though they are still living the crude battles of half a millennium ago.

The solution? I will never forget a moment at a left conference, in the midst of a heated discussion about ‘what is to be done?’, about the integration or ‘merger’ (Kautsky) of intellectuals and the global proletariat. One person stood up and simply said, ‘does anyone here know how to dismantle and reassemble a rifle?’


45 thoughts on “On hypocrisy

    1. Comrade Boer, knowing who can, or cannot “dismantle and reassemble a rifle” isn’t the same as knowing who is, or is not, a Trotskyite saboteur or a capitalist roader. You cannot know these things just by looking at their clothes and their haircut. I had a high school science teacher who appeared the very model of suburban petty bourgeois “respectability”. Guess what? Two tours of duty in Vietnam with the SASR. Above all “we must be dialectical about these things,” comrade.

      1. Bunga bunga, a man such as yourself needs to learn to control his temper, especially in light of the important task of fending off all those court cases and dreaming about how he might have led Italy to bankruptcy should those EU bastards not have dumped him from leading the glorious Roman Empire.

      2. So we are now taking the Khmer Rouge approach to culture and class, are we? Should we demand the Mentals videos be pulled from youtube because the lead singer’s grand mother was a property-owning enemy of the people? Let’s ban post-Zooropa U2 clips too because we all know anyone who wears glasses is just a stuck-up petty bourgeois who has never worked a day in the fields and probably wouldn’t even know the first thing to do when they pick up a rifle.

      3. You drinking again, bunga bunga? You impute all manner of weird and tangential thoughts from a simple observation that I once knew an old biddy in rural Australia. Is it perhaps that you are beginning to show the signs of unhinged bourgeois mental ramblings that comes from spending just a little too long with Christian punks?

  1. “Anyone who writes from a committed position is derided as ‘ideological’ or out to ‘save the world’.”

    This is totally what Bono gets all the time, just because he is committed to overcoming centuries of Western hegemony over Africa. When challenged in one interview that he was out to “save the world”, he replied, “But the world needs saving!” And yet people still mock him.

    “Faith, if it hath not works, is dead!” Was not The Epistle of James derided as an “epistle of straw” by the Protestant intellectualising of the scriptures?

      1. Bono waxing intellectual on Africa (for those willing to put aside their elitist prejudice against Pop Stars):

        “Look, if we really thought that an African life was equal in value to an English. a French. or an Irish life, we wouldn’t let two and a half million Africans die every year for the stupidest of reasons: money. We just wouldn’t. And a very prominent head of state said to me: “It’s true. If these people weren’t Africans, we just couldn’t let it happen.” We don’t really deep down believe in their equality.” … “This is a fifteen-year-old’s geography textbook. I was looking at this today, and it tells about it exactly. [Eventually finds the passage and proceeds to read out] ‘Income gap. Two hundred years ago, it appears that very little difference existed in living standards between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Today, a very wide income gap exists: the North is many times richer than the South. What brought about this gap? The answer seems to lie in colonialism, trade, and debt.’ They’re explaining to this fifteen-year-old kid how the reason why Africa is still in the Middle Ages is largely to do with us, and our exploitation through French and British colonialism, but also in their present exploitation of unfair trade agreements, or old debts. You can’t fix every problem. But the ones you can, you must. To the degree we are responsible, we must fix. When you ask me to just accept that civilizations are just at a different level, there is a reason why they are. That is my answer.”

  2. Jut like Bono says:

    “When I visited Nicaragua, I was shocked to see how much the people’s religion had inspired their revolt. Here was revolution rooted in something other than materialism. There was a spiritual coefficient. The reason the Nicaraguan revolution had to be put down was because it had caught fire. That was terrifying for the Americas. It could have spread all through Mexico, and up north. There was one church I remember going to, where they had these murals all around the walls of the church, of scenes from the Holy Scriptures, like “The Children of Israel escaping from Pharaoh.” But Pharaoh would have Ronald Reagan’s head on him! [laughs]… I remember just being amazed at how the populace were being taught revolution through Bible stories. All over they were being taught that Jesus preached the Gospels for the poor, which he did. But Jesus did not take up arms… I saw it as a disappointing outcome of the reading of the Scriptures. But I was inspired by the application of the Scriptures into people’s real life… remember saying to the minister [of culture, Ernesto Cardenal]: “But there’s nothing glorious about people losing their lives, and bloodletting.” You may be able to argue for it, facing no other escape route, but it’s never glorious. In Irish folklore, even Yeats talked about “the rose that is made red by the blood of the martyrs, that’s dripped to the ground.” I hate all that stuff….
    It’s not that I couldn’t understand where the Provisional Army were coming from, and it’s not that I don’t understand violence myself, personally. I was just trying to figure out: was there ever any reason to take up arms? On the one hand, you had Martin Luther King saying “Never,” Gandhi saying “Never:’ Jesus Christ, both their inspirations in this, saying “Never.” On the other hand, here were the Sandinistas saying “We have to look after the poor, we have to defend the poor.” That position had to be studied from my point of view, even if I didn’t buy it. I wanted to know more about liberation theology and the Sandinistas. I was very moved by them when I was there. They suffered a lot. Their revolution was very costly, and it didn’t turn out their way in the end. Same with the French Revolution. Ironically, it was the French Revolution that inspired America….
    In the end, ideas are not worth as much as people. Whenever you meet a philosophy where that is not true, and where ideas are worth more than people, you have to be on your guard. A dangerous idea that almost makes sense is a very compelling thing. In a way, when the devil gets it right, it’s usually not a wrong fighting with a right, it’s usually two half-truths fighting it out. It’ll do the most damage. Marxism-Leninism was an extraordinary idea to lead mankind out of its squalor. It was a dangerous idea that almost made sense. There are many.”

    1. I concur with Comrade Roland, Comrade Deane. Those are the sad and objectively petty bourgeois ramblings of a man who does not know the peace that comes from accepting Comrade Lenin and his Heavenly Consort Joseph Stalin as Brother Number One and Savior. We can pray that Bono will find the faith of the heart that we know, such that he can look upon the liquidation of pig farmers, stuck-up intellectuals and cosmopolitan troublemakers and know that it is all in accordance with the partisan love of the almighty.

      1. “Confirmation bias is ubiquitous. We succumb to it when we pay attention to evidence that supports our beliefs while ignoring evidence to the contrary.”
        – Sherry Seethaler, Lies, Damned Lies, and Science, 145

        “No one is blinder than he who will not see.”
        – Bono, Pop Star and Intellectuel

  3. While it is not particularly useful, from the perspective of building a viable socialist movement, for Marxist academics to be isolated in the ivory tower, approaching the question as if it were just a question of individual choice, as the author of the article linked to does, doesn’t advance us much either.

    The right in the US have come up with a clever solution: think tanks. The months before they invaded Iraq you couldn’t turn on the television without Frank Gaffney or Richard Perle or some other incarnation of the obnoxious lie blathering away. The media love to quote reports from “Freedom House”, “The Council on Foreign Relations” etc etc. Obviously the bottomless pit of money that the capitalists can throw at these think-tanks is a great advantage to them.

    While the influence of the intelligentsia isn’t always immediately apparent, it does tell over time. The lack of a coherent socialist ideology has left the labour movement defenceless in the face of ever forward march of neo-liberal idiocies. A left intelligentsia is vital; whether it needs to ensconced in the academy is a mere tactical question.

    Bebel once remarked to a conservative SPDer who was complaining about the party’s subsidy for Die Neue Zeit that it was necessary so that the intellectuals could earn a living. If they couldn’t do it within the party, they’d be forced to bend the knee to the bourgeois institutions. It’s true that academics don’t need a 150k a year, but leaving them in poverty isn’t going to help either.

    All the mass movements which were serious contenders for power, from the SPD to the CNT to the PCI, were able to integrate the intelligentsia into the mass movement. If the labour movement could create counter-institutions in much harder times it should be possible to do so now.

    The issue isn’t solvable by denouncing individuals as hypocrites any more than exploitation is solvable by finding a nicer employer. It is worth considering how we can facilitate the integration of progressive intellectuals with socialism, that is, *make it easy for them to choose to work for socialism* within a mass movement rather than confine themselves to critiquing capitalism.

    As long as the party/movement can support these guys to a decent standard of living, that should be enough. Many people don’t particularly want to be rich but like everyone else they do want material security and securing it would free up their minds to focus on projects that are of interest to them and of use to the movement.

    So we need an institutional solution which enables the intellectuals to merge into a wider movement. At a minimum this requires a mass party which is flexible in terms of theory as distinct to a tiny sect that insists on strict ideological unity. The latter is a turn off if you happen to be in the minority and it’s not going to help create the robust ecosystem necessary to take on capitalism itself.

    Intellectuals like nothing better than a good argument! And division over the theoretical issues can not only be illuminating they also project to the public the image of an open-minded, tolerant and dynamic movement. The party should be able to organise a series of semi-autonomous think-tanks whose remit is broadly *socialist* but without having a strict line dictated to them.

    Of course this requires money. Which sadly is in short supply amongst any small group of individuals. But we have unions and we could have co-ops which send a set percentage of their surplus to the party to compete against the pro-capitalist parties. Guilt-ridden academics with cash to spare could even get the ball rolling by seed funding *political* co-ops 🙂

    1. It’s the classic ‘merger’ approach, characteristic of the German SDs and the RSDLP. One approach that has been used fruitfully from time to time is to find a wealthy scion of a banking or industrial dynasty who has become a communist and decided to divest all of the family’s ill-gained wealth to a better cause: the Frankfurt School comes to mind, as does the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam. Come the think of it, the Bolsheviks had a rather wealthy sponsor in Piter. Then there’s always the tried and true ‘exers’ – expropriations, of which the Bolshies were absolute masters. Once they relieved the Tiflis Treasury (Stalin’s stamping ground) of so much cash in such large currencies that the tsarist regime notified all the European banks of the banknote values. It became a little tricky to exchange these ruble notes for francs etc (1 ruble was equivalent to 2.66 francs at the time).

  4. James, interesting question. Would Marxists and anarchists and other lefties be willing to put aside anything earned beyond, say, $100,000 for such a purpose? I am being cautious, since my preference is to go much lower ($50,000).

    1. If someone were to invest say 50k a year for three years that’d be quite a commitment. There would have to be an organisation that you have confidence in.

      Clearly there is a risk that such an investment might not pay off: the co-op might not be able to gain traction and simply go out of business. But I reckon people can accept that risk. So it’s not confidence that their money won’t be lost, because let’s face, it probably will be!

      It’s more confidence that the co-op will make a genuine go of it, i.e. not immediately blow the money on snorting cocaine off the tits of high-class hookers. And they will need to be confident that if the co-op is actually successful that the people running it, again, don’t drain it of the capital needed for reinvestment and political funding for personal consumption.

      It’s one thing to lose money; it’s another to lose it to a bunch of gobshites who are laughing at you from their yacht in the Caribbean.

      But if there was a credible organisation, then I’d say it’d be doable. There are a lot of decent folks out there and people do give a fair amount to other causes.

      If you only got a small fraction of moderately well off leftists to contribute it would be enough to put you in the game since the costs of the means of production are vastly less in industries such as software compared to manufacturing. And the surplus is potentially very high. Much higher than a vegetarian cafe / bookshop that folks on the left often have a go at.

      But then it becomes a chicken and egg situation. It’s difficult to create a serious alternative without money. And hard to get money without a well known and credible organisation.

      I think one way to overcome that dilemma is for the initial co-op members to be on the same page ideologically. I know I’d be supportive of a project even if I didn’t really know the founding members as long as they had a clue about, say, the LTV, capitalism, and had the long-term aim of socialising the means of production. I’m less inclined to dip into my pocket for the generic well-meaning but liberal capitalist one.

      Maybe on this one we’ll only be able to attain salvation through some good old-fashioned leaps of faith.

  5. Ha – you made me remember those ‘military training’ classes in my russian high school. it was such fun to dissassemble and reassemble kalashnikovs especially since you had to compete for time with a girl next to you 🙂

    1. I bet there are very few intellectuals elsewhere who would know how to disassemble and reassemble a kalashnikov! Although it is true that a required first-year course in Chinese universities is ‘Military Theory’. Seeing that in place would be the one and only reason for getting into educational policy development.

  6. Pingback: Berlusconi Youth
      1. You know, I was watching an interview with the comedian Frank Skinner the other night. He talked about an experiment to limit the swearing in his stand-up sets. What he discovered was that if he only dropped an f- or c-bomb once or twice in his set, the humor in the joke increased greatly. My point is, denouncing everyone and everything as “bourgeois” or “petty bourgeois” has long since lost its meaning. I don’t even know if you’re trying to be insulting anymore.

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