“Anti-political” political activists have always been something of a mystery to me. Not so much because of the fact that they have chosen not to read Marx or Lenin but because of the passion with which they attack those who do. One particular quirk of such people is to dismiss currents of critical thought as theologies whose key figures are deified by those who follow them. Something that is always difficult to defend against because of the habit of so many Marxists to squabble by throwing quotes around as “proof” of ideological correctness. What is always shocking though is the standardisation of response to key (and not so key) questions in arguments about Marxism and political theory. On the coach back from the International Peace Conference, when the now traditional argument was set off between the Socialist Worker’s and some independent lefties this raised its head again. These debates had been going on for several years with various individuals but never with both at once and it ended as all well rehearsed arguments do in frustration.
While complaining bitterly about the baseless ness of the retorts (particularly the “you should rename Marxism I mean you don’t get newtonianism”) I started to wonder exactly why these, not especially rational ideas were emerging from people I knew to be both rational and well informed in exactly the same way. The only obvious connection being a affection for a Mr Noam Chomsky and a recommendation of his book “understanding POWER.”I had forgotten about it until today when I picked up said book and flicked through it over a coffee. Attracting strange glances for giggling uncontrollably is nothing new for me, but doing it by reading Chomsky was odd. It was not simply the fact that this is clearly the source of all the responses but how (as the text is speech rather then a book in the traditional sense) they were in fact word for word quotes. As a self defined Marxist I have little problem with this (hardly unusual amongst the left) other then the self apparent hypocrisy of the attacks on people identifying with theoretical writers. The psychology of this trend of identifying with “new” ideas and rejecting out of date ideologies is probably nothing new but it is a debate that has not been this relevant since the peak of the anti-war movement around the 15th February demo.
The argument that will no doubt be offered is that Chomsky is non-theoretical, that he simply researches and reports on the world around him but in the case of this book that can hardly be the case? He offers his own (unsubstantiated, because of the nature of the book) analysis of movements and tactics for changing society. He also does a surprisingly weak hatchet job of Leninism and Marxist dialectics which these two at least have absorbed wholesale. Chomsky himself would no doubt deny this (as would his “fellow travellers”) and say he is merely articulating truisms and “riding the crest of the wave of the movement.” The argument however, becomes frustratingly circular on this level as most of the criticism of Marxism still holds as much water as a kind of tautology. One side of the revelation is that these previously mythical activists influenced by such people (who we were supposed to be engaging with) actually existed and the other was the illogical extreme they took their dislike of our ideology to. Logical arguments about how it is more democratic to be in an organisation where you can debate with the figures like Chomsky who you agree with are powerless in response to the flat denial that there is an ideology attached to the ideas. Arguments however well constructed about the practical utility of Marxism are even more powerless in the face of people more concerned with the use of the word ‘Marxism’ then the ideas it represents. I challenge anyone to argue coherently for more then an hour with an ideological trend which states that “more people would come to your Marxist Forums if you added we might be Marxists but we don’t agree with everything he said.”