Eternal sunshine of the progressive mind

Leszek Kolakowski, 2007. Photo: Mariusz Kubik

Leszek Kolakowski, 2007. Photo: Mariusz Kubik

Every now and then, I’m instructed to have more faith in the progressive tendencies of humanity. Racism and sexism, I’m told, are relics of the past, and especially so in science and tech. Progressive, open minded people are against discrimination. Scientists and tech geeks are open minded almost by definition, therefore progressive, therefore against racism and sexism, which therefore are no longer a problem. I should just look around and see how many Chinese and Indian immigrants work in tech and science; clearly, this means that the field is not racist. And if there aren’t so many women around, that’s obviously because they’re not interested – or, as the progressive feminist Steven Pinker explains, maybe it’s just the innate differences. Progress! We’re all in this together! Let’s forget our differences, join our hands and work together for a better future.

Except I’ve seen it before: the unquestioning conflation of all possible good causes, the expectation that good intentions alone guarantee progress and enlightenment. Take, for example, the Western New Left in the 1950s and 60s. Leszek Kolakowski in “My correct views on everything: A rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s ‘Open letter’” from 1974:

[S]ocialist writing [...] amounts to saying that the world should be good, and not bad, and I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth, and that the profit motive, instead of use-value, is ruling production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not.

Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was being subjected to a practical implementation of that wondrous dream of progress and unity. If the Party represents everything that’s good and progressive, why would anyone ever want to oppose it? Who would need other political parties? Why, indeed, should any organizations be independent of the Party and government – surely, progressive and well-meaning people would want to associate themselves with the historic forces of good? Who could possibly be against world peace? The logical consequences are obvious. Kolakowski again:

… we got rid of this fraudulent bourgeois device of the division of powers and we achieved the socialist dream of unity, which means that the same apparatus has all legislative, executive and judicial power in addition to its power of controlling all means of production; the same people make law, interpret it and enforce it; king, Parliament, army chief, judge, prosecutor, policeman and (new socialist invention) owner of all national wealth and the only employer at one and the same desk-what better social unity can you imagine?

Clearly, if some Eastern Europeans were unhappy with this arrangement, this was just because they didn’t understand. They had “false consciousness,” in the language of the Marxist-Leninist theory, and therefore needed to be told what was really good for them, and beaten into submission if necessary. Not to say that the system was perfect, of course:

… you, not unlike most of both orthodox and critical communists, believe that everything is all right in the Communist system as long as the leaders of the party are not murdered. This is, in fact, the standard way of how communists become “critical”: when they realize that the new alternative socialist logic does not spare the communists themselves and in particular party leaders. Did you notice that the only victims Khrushchev mentioned by name in his speech of 1956 (whose importance I am far from underestimating) were the Stalinists pur sang like himself, most of them (like Postychev) hangmen of merit with uncountable crimes committed before they became victims themselves? Did you notice, in memoirs or critical analyses written by many ex-communists (I will not quote names, excuse me) that their horror only suddenly emerged when they saw communists being slaughtered?

I’m thinking of the progressive folks who believe that the main focus, always and in all matters, should be on them. I’m thinking of the men testifying on feminist blogs that they, too, have to prove their merit all the time, and there was even this committee meeting three years ago when someone interrupted them twice. I’m thinking of the journalism genre that “treats race as an intellectual exercise – a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence.” I’m also thinking of how the same people, when asked to stop and listen for a moment, respond with “I’m listening” followed by yet another barrage of words on how their arguments are really superior. Which of course they must be, seeing how eagerly they are accepted and applauded by the important target audience of other like-minded progressives. If someone like me continues to dissent, that’s my false consciousness speaking. Or maybe I’m simply too emotional and pessimistic. I should just continue to do my good work and we’ll all benefit, as I’ve been told many times. Kolakowski again:

… the spontaneous and almost universal mistrust people from Eastern Europe nourish towards the Western New Left. By a strange coincidence the majority of these ungrateful people, once they come to or settle in Western Europe or in the US, pass for reactionaries. These narrow empiricists and egoists extrapolate a poor few decades of their petty personal experience (logically inadmissible, as you rightly notice) and find in it pretexts to cast doubts on the radiant socialist future elaborated on the best Marxist-Leninist grounds by ideologists of the New Left for the Western countries.

Czeslaw Milosz:

I lived through two phases in Paris. In 1950, I was an attaché of the Polish embassy and attended parties with Paul Éluard and Pablo Neruda. The following year, after breaking with the Polish Communist regime, I came to live there as a refugee. At that time, French intellectuals were completely in love with Communism and Stalin. Anyone who was dissatisfied and who came from the East like myself was considered a madman or an agent of America. The French felt that their so-called ideés générales were valid for the whole planet—beautiful ideas, but hardly realistic. At that time the political climate of Europe was dismal; millions of people were in gulags; their suffering contaminated the aura, the air of Europe. I knew what was going on. The West had to wait for Solzhenitsyn to write The Gulag Archipelago to learn about it.

I’ve never been a fan of sloppy comparisons to communism, and I want to be very specific here. My beef is with those who say, “I’m a nice, progressive person, therefore I can’t be doing anything wrong and your complaints are not valid.” It’s with those who believe in the theory and refuse to see the evidence. It’s with those progressives who feel that every “good” cause, by virtue of their self-identification with it, is about them; and that their opinions trump everyone else’s experience because they, sensitive and enlightened as they are, would obviously notice any signs of injustice or discrimination; and that, when such experience is presented to them, the proper answer is to point to the bright future that is sure to descend on us soon like a state of grace.

Progressive minds such as those like to be unburdened by history and evidence. For all the talk of “inevitable historical forces” in Marxist theory, socialist writing rarely respects history as history. Instead, it invokes history as the future, the promise and the fairytale. “Historical determinism” was then, as “progress” is now, the magic wand that would forge a perfect world out of the fairy dust of good intentions. Forgive me if I’m a little bit skeptical.

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