“The Man Behind the Curtain”

“The Man Behind the Curtain”

As a sometime student of the mechanics of mind control, I’ve been aware of the ways in which, nowadays, well-intentioned people of diverse climes and views must walk in fear of being denounced.  For what?  For bigotry and the whole parade of other bad names.  The denunciations are not precisely tailored to peoples’ actual intentions.  It doesn’t seem to make any difference what they meant or felt inwardly.  It’s as if – whatever they meant subjectively – they’re deemed bigots objectively.

To my knowledge, this marking out of guilt as something that can be incurred “objectively” – regardless of whether the accused had what is called in law a guilty mind – first came into use in the Vyshinsky Trials of the 1930’s.  Andrey Vyshinsky was the prosecutor.  There was trial after trial of old communists who’d been in the forefront of the Revolution that brought the communist party to power in Russia.

My parents who, like many intellectuals of the period, had been initially sympathetic to the Great Soviet Experiment — which was to bring into being an ideal society of universal brotherhood, equality and justice — were appalled by the Vyshinsky Trials.  Assuming the defendants were telling the truth, and really had betrayed their own child, the Revolution, why had they all done so?  And if they’d been forced to “confess” and were not guilty, what did that say about the regime that had been the great hope of the future?

In his Humanism and Terror, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty explored this very question.  Although at the time, Merleau-Ponty did not oppose the Trials as such, he held out for preserving the subjective zone, for recognizing that the accused had not meant to become a counter-revolutionary.  In Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty thought that Vyshinsky was wrong not to at least recognize the zone of intentions as a reality.

Our current style of denunciation recognizes no such distinction as the one between subjective and objective zones.  One can even be oneself a member of an oppressed group.  No matter.  One is just as eligible to be nailed as an oppressor and one’s intentions – the subjective side –- simply edited out.  There is no subjective side.  One is a “hater” even if one hates no one and is not even angry at anyone!

What’s the game here?  What are the stakes?  How does one win or lose at this game?  Who’s in charge and who or what can stop it?

The topic is on my mind because I’m beginning my Long March through the three-volume, best available edition of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.  I haven’t gotten into the actual text yet, but have finished the editor’s lengthy introduction, which includes many quotes and what look like clear explanations of Gramsci’s thought.

G. W. F. Hegel, the great nineteenth-century philosopher of history, wrote that the solitary thinker in his tower can make more of an impact on history than the world-historical figure on horseback (like Napoleon). In Gramsci’s case, that certainly seems to be true. So what’s he saying?

He’s saying that all the putatively objective intellectual disciplines, such as the natural and social sciences, should be subordinated to something he calls “the philosophy of praxis.” By that, he means revolutionary activity.  If we do this strategic subordination of the disciplines, then there will be no objective psychology and therefore no such thing as “human nature.”  A human being will be, from back to front and top to bottom, only a changing ensemble of social relations.

Of course, if one aims to harness human beings in the service of revolutionary activity, it is better not to have to figure out what to do with their actual intentions, desires and proclivities.  The inner life, like the outward life, will be of interest only insofar as it has revolutionary potential.  If we learn that the established academic and research disciplines have rules or laws, we should break them — if that turns out useful for the revolutionary activity.

How does this trace back to the Vyshinsky Trials and the current style of denunciation?  Gramsci, of course, bears no responsibility for the Moscow Trials, being far away and behind bars.  He died in 1937 while the trials were still going on.   Nevertheless, connections can be discerned.  In the current case, as in the earlier cases, anything that has an existence or form of life separate from the approved attitudes – for example a personal intention, a style, a quality of experience, an achievement, an attachment, a tradition, a habit – can be unplugged from the social circuitry and deprived of its life energy and legitimacy.  Why?  On what grounds?  Because it stands out as insubordinate to the activities and styles approved by the denouncers.

The odd thing is that nowadays the approved activities and styles are not usually referred to as “revolutionary.”  They might be called that, but it’s optional and is sometimes avoided.  Why avoided?  Ordinarily, a revolution has an aim.  It might be well-guided or misguided but the aim is there, open to evaluation as to its objective and its methods.  About a revolution, one can ask, has this sort of effort ever worked out as planned?  What should count as evidence?  Writing in the 1930’s in his Italian prison, Gramsci could be thought honestly to envision a regime in which human liberation might flower in some never-before-seen way.

Today, however, one hears little talk of a future state of things.  No such picture is filled in or, in most cases, even referred to.  The preparations for the revolution seem to have replaced the revolution itself.

Long ago, Richard Wright, the black-American expatriate writer, was one of the contributors to a volume titled The God That Failed.  It was a collection in which writers and other public intellectuals described the experience of becoming believing communists but eventually feeling morally obligated to leave the camp of the believers.

In Paris, Wright and I were, I think, friends.  Aware of my then love for a young communist, Wright quoted to me a relevant remark by Albert Camus, the French existentialist:

I refuse to kill my brother

For an unreal city in the future. 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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