The following article is by Tom Griffiths…
“Follow me and you need never think again.”
This was the pithy saying uttered by an old comrade to describe secular religious thinking, or blind faith, in adhering to the Party line, no matter what the line was or how it was arrived at. It need not be confined to, or even predominantly associated with, Communist Party politics of course with yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir, the Daleks “I obey” and other variants all treding the same path. Follow me … arose in the aftermath of the CPA M-L kindly informing a number of us that we had “expelled” ourselves and the sense we then made of how a reputedly revolutionary organization, prompted by the arrest of the Gang of Four, could perform a 180 degree pivot overnight without discussion and still keep a straight face. I need hardly add that we did not keep a straight face but saw this as a joke – and not one on us.
I don’t know about others, but there are some sayings I hear that are gold and are instantly hard wired. “Follow me …” was one of them. It spoke to me then, and has done so since, most recently after reading Richard Wright’s American Hunger, the second part of his autobiography Black Boy that deals, in large part, with his experiences in the CPUSA in the 1930’s. I will come back to this, for while this post is not about Wright per se, his experiences have certainly prompted it. Not for the first occasion it brought into sharp relief the contradiction between communist aspirations (what we believe in, this is what we are fighting/struggling for), and the more disturbing, at times reactionary, internal and personal processes involved with what the ‘correct line’ is, how it is arrived at and ‘followed’. Walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, in other words; how what we do, and how we do it, as a reflection of our revolutionary (transformative or synthesizing) aspirations and practice.
So let me come back to Richard Wright and American Hunger. Wright (1908-1960) was a black American writer of great talent and vision who effectively fled the Jim Crow south when 19. Like so many of his black contemporaries he headed to Chicago. “The environment the South creates is too small to nourish human beings, especially Negro human beings.” he said later in a radio interview. He brought with him an intense curiosity, a hunger, a desire to grow. It was this that enabled him to observe in himself and others who had fled the south, loneliness and confusion. “Wherever my eyes turned they saw stricken, black faces trying vainly to cope with a civilization that they did not understand. I felt lonely. I had fled one insecurity and embraced another.”
By his mid twenties his hunger and curiosity, containing as they did a worldly, universalizing vision, had led him to the CPUSA. “Of all the developments in the Soviet Union the method by which scores of backward peoples had been led to unity on a national scale was what had enthralled me. I had read with awe how the Communists had sent phonetic experts into the vast regions of Russia to listen to the stammering dialects of peoples oppressed for centuries by the czars. I had made the first total emotional commitment of my life when I read how the phonetic experts had given these tongueless people a language, newspapers, institutions. I had read how these forgotten folk had been encouraged to keep their old cultures, to see in their ancient customs meanings and satisfactions as deep as those contained in supposedly superior ways of living. And I had exclaimed to myself how different this was from the way in which Negroes were sneered at in America.”
He wanted to use his ability and drive, with the organizational and political support of the CPUSA, to give the ignored and sneered at a place and a voice on the political stage. This was not simply a political quest, but also one that unavoidably required acculturation. In the same decade Mao was developing the mass line in China, while in still unoccupied Europe Bertolt Brecht was writing The Life of Galileo, the sixth scene of which begins with this couplet: ‘Things indeed take a wondrous turn/When learned men do stoop to learn’. In effect Wright advocated the adoption of a stooping stance and he began a process of taking oral histories from men, like himself, who had migrated north, effectively changing planets in the process. The one we hear about in American Hunger is Ross, a fellow Party member. But rather than applauding and supporting his initiative, what in Maoist language would be termed ‘learning from the masses’, the CPUSA viewed his project with suspicion. Paranoid thinking, in partnership with anxiety, is probably more accurate.
Outside of Ross, who was initially cooperative, this suspicion came from both black and white members. I think I get the nervousness of his black comrades. The confusion and insecurity Wright refers to above sounds very familiar to utterances I have heard from refugees. One, a young Hazara man from Afghanistan, said to a colleague some eight years ago, that what he really needed to know was “where do I fit in?” Coming from a society still dominated by strictly hierarchical and tribal norms this is a question he would never have had to seriously consider before he changed planets. Another, from a Sierra Leonean colleague, put the anxiety and confusion this way: “We have come from hell to find heaven. And it is heaven, if you change overnight.” Wright’s black comrades were still finding their feet, not yet standing on culturally solid ground and needed the support and approval of their white comrades.
Empathic understanding (an interest in, and understanding of, the hurdles they faced) appeared not to be present or offered, a situation Wright found baffling. Offering feelings of acceptance and purpose, probably patronizing, where the rules pertaining to these are too heavily sourced from above, was not good enough. Fascist organizations, and there were a few around at the time, provided this too. Indeed they were arguably better at it as they had no desire at all to see their membership grow intellectually or emotionally. Unthinking loyalty was what was demanded to both the organization and its ideological script.
Under a veil of suspicion Wright was repeatedly questioned about his motives and actions. His explanations fell on deaf ears and he was, again repeatedly, told by members higher up the food chain that he did “not understand”. Projection is an interesting psychological defence mechanism. It is a pity that those not listening to Wright were ignorant of their use of it. More disturbing, however, was the parallel process being reproduced in the party. Being a ‘good communist’ – being seen (needing to be seen) and understood as being compliant, obedient, well behaved and toeing the party line, qualities valorized by Lui Shao-Ch’i (see Quotations of Liu Shao-Ch’i, Paul Flesch and Co.1968, a ‘Little Yellow Book’ worth getting hold of), is not the same as being a good communist. The latter has the capacity, in reality develops the capacity, to swim against the tide, be that tide external or internal and to accept the associated risks. The party line down south was the Jim Crow line where the consequences for not being seen to be ‘good’ and obedient to Jim Crow cultural norms could, and often were, fatal. What Wright and so many others from down south were doing in heading north, was learning how to swim against the tide.
There is a difference between toeing the line (being obedient) and agreeing that a given line or position will be supported and acted upon, and that the processes by which it has been arrived at are democratic and not autocratic. Wright’s experience speaks of the latter and it was something, on a lesser scale, that I recognized at the time I and others ‘expelled ourselves’.
Walking hand in hand with this, and generally justifying it, was the question of organizational security. Wright mentions that, to his understanding, security was reckoned using the conditions under Czarist oppression as a measuring stick. The darkening clouds beginning to engulf Europe will have done nothing to abate this. But the USA was not a fascist state – unless you happened to be black living under the heel of Jim Crow. That this was not sufficiently grasped, underscores the importance of what Wright was trying to do and the failure of the CPUSA in supporting him in doing it. It also indicates that any purportedly revolutionary organization that is too reliant or wedded to top down decision making and the concomitant creation of a culture of membership obedience or compliance is likely to miss what’s under its nose.
None of this is meant to downplay the significance or need of security or measures to maintain a Party’s viability and effectiveness, considerations that become pressing the more oppressive and reactionary the prevailing context. The activities of the Czar’s secret police, the Okhrana, gave the Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks et al good reason to take those activities seriously. So too the activities of the Italian fascist secret police OVRA, the organization upon which the Nazi Gestapo was modelled, not to forget the Gestapo itself. But none of this could justify closing the minds of party members. Caution, in the face of external danger is not the same, and should not be confused with, closed or narrow mindedness in the face of such danger. Paranoid mindsets can be cultivated.
The most influential, and moving, account from a communist who kept the distinction between external danger and internal openness as distinct as circumstances would allow comes from Julius Fucik and his Report From the Gallows. Fucik, a central committee member of the Czech Party, was arrested and gaoled in 1942 and executed the following year. With the assistance of two patriotic cum anti fascist prison warders he was able to write and smuggle out notes of his experiences and thoughts, his report from the gallows. I came across Fucik’s work in the mid to late 1970’s and, given recent events, I found it refreshing, insightful and invigorating. Here was a man experiencing the harshest of treatments, knowing that death was near, yet still embracing life rather than merely clinging to it. What I found particularly impressive was his ability to listen, to want to understand what made his jailers and wardens, most of whom came from working class stock, tick. Much of the book is devoted to what are dubbed in my edition “Figures and Little Figures”, nuanced reflections on comrades (Figures) and those in a more mixed bag, such as the prison superintendent who were certainly enemies and others among the wardens who deserved a deeper level of understanding (Little Figures), His ability to reflect upon and engage with both/all sides of contradictions was an ability, it would seem, that was absent, or certainly wanting in the CPUSA and the CPA M-L
One of the things Fucik’s book did for me was to reinforce or make less abstract the absurdity of the CPA M-L adopting the same organizational structure as that used by the Czech and, I presume, other communist parties in occupied Europe (three member cell structures with one reporting higher up the chain, secrecy over membership etc). In occupied Europe this made a lot of sense – it was about survival. But not in the Australia we lived in. And in attempting to explain the rationale for its being, without getting sidetracked in theoretical bushland, the temptation to reach for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association) to determine the clinical criteria is difficult to resist. ‘Fucked’ seems an appropriate term to use that bridges the theoretical/clinical divide.
It is tempting to see my use of the concept ‘fuckedness’ as somewhat flippant. And to a degree it is because the ‘clinical’ component can seem like a cheap shot. But there is also a serious side to this that goes well beyond the drab manifestations I and others saw in the CPA-ML or the more disturbing, but not yet out of control manifestations that Wright witnessed and was subjected to. The example I wish to point to is the fate that befell the El Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton who was murdered by elements in his own party with whom he was in disagreement over the importance of the party developing a mass base if it were to have any chance of overthrowing the regime. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given his murder, Dalton was argueing the importance of developing a mass base.
Dalton’s poetry is worth chasing up and to give a flavour of it – and of its relevance to this post – the following is the first stanza of his Dialectic of Genesis, Crisis and Rebirth:
‘For you we will not put the Party on an altar/Because you taught us that the Party/is an organism which lives in the real world/and it’s sickness is the same as bankruptcy/Because of you we know, Lenin/That the best crib for the Party/Is fire’
A bitter irony exposed in these lines is that Dalton’s murderers, and those who sanctioned it, were trying to put out the fire.
The fire that Dalton was speaking of, was not simply, or even primarily, that of the class enemy, whose fire belongs in the blindingly obvious department, but, as with Mao’s view of swimming against the tide being a revolutionary principle, refers to internal fire. Using gentler language, but making the same point, Wright referred to this as a “nurturing environment”. To see the meaning of this sentiment as being only directed against the tide generated by one’s political foes misses the point.
The proposition, be that stated openly or assumed, that the party line is, by definition correct, is a reflection of one sided, non dialectical thinking, the heritage of which comes more from medieval or pre medieval mind sets than modernist ones. If ever history were able to assume a sentient human form its reaction to the idea that leadership, be that in revolutionary organizations or not, automatically confers correctness and is thus deserving of deference, would be hysterical rolfing.
Our experience in the CPA M-L exposed political fuckedness, an organizational suspicion cum aversion to internal democratic processes, and a gift for paranoid thinking. This also seems to be the case in Wright’s experience of the CPUSA. The same cannot be said for Dalton’s. Politically fucked, certainly. But his murder exposed something pathalogical that was not only not organizationally contained, but was organizationally facilitated.
Revolutionary movements and parties in the developed world have disintegrated leaving in their wake a smug capitalist class and an opportunist and reactionary ‘left’ cum pseudo left drawn to every form of oppression other than that of class. It is ironic and certainly telling that we now live in an age where the capitalist class is quite happy to bend to and accommodate ‘woke’ agendas. And why not? The property question, the goal of expropriating the expropriators, has been successfully swept under the carpet. No prizes for guessing who/what has been doing most of the sweeping.
One of the tasks of a reemergent and genuine revolutionary left, will be to clean up its act regarding democratic processes; or to borrow from Dalton, to actually understand that the best crib or nurturing environment for its existence and growth is ‘fire’. It is not enough that a leadership pays lip service to the idea, as opposed to the practice of criticism and self criticism, reducing it to an auto de fe in the process. It must be open and be seen as being open, to itself being a target of fire.
One of the things communist parties, in whatever form their new iterations take, will need to do is to ensure that, to paraphrase and tweak Wright, the environment it creates is large enough to nourish the development and growth of rebellious and critical spirits, spirits who can not only keep an active eye and involvement on fire that is externally targeted and generated, but internally generated and directed.