Ignorance is Strength: On Socialist Anti-Intellectualism
“Ignorance never yet helped anybody!”
These words of Karl Marx from the 1846 are often ignored by most of his present-day disciples.
Yet they remain as true today as when they were uttered. Marx was not one to shy away from engaging with rival ideas, taking the time to study and develop the intellectual tools necessary to change the world. Yet most of the contemporary socialist left, who boast of their fidelity to Marx, are more inclined to do the exact opposite and promote anti-intellectualism. This socialist anti-intellectualism manifests itself in many ways: underestimating the ability of working people to grasp advanced ideas, a teaching of revolutionary theory in the form of dogma and a refusal to actually engage with ideas outside of their tradition, all of which produces political activists devoid of critical thinking skills.
On many sections of the socialist left, workers are viewed as not possessing an aptitude for critical thought. This stereotypical working class is more interested in beer than books, can understand football statistics but not the inner workings of capitalism, and would rather tell a dirty joke than have an intelligent conversation on the world they’d like to live in. True, there certainly are working people who are anti-intellectual and are just looking out for just their own interests. However, there is another side to the working class. Throughout the long history of the labor movement, there have been many workers who have hungered for knowledge and to better themselves in the struggle for a new world. For example, Cuban cigar workers in the late 1800s were largely illiterate and worked more than 12 hours a day. Yet they did not accept their fate as beasts of burden, but wanted to learn and to that end, they hired someone to read to them on subjects ranging from history to astronomy while they rolled cigars. Their thirst for knowledge enabled these workers to become understand not only the wider world, but taught them to question and to think.
And these examples can be multiplied. Historically, workers would teach themselves economics, philosophy and revolutionary theory because they knew it was necessary to know the world in order to change it. And out of the working class emerged, as Antonio Gramsci would say, organic intellectuals such as James Connolly, Big Bill Haywood, and Mother Jones. All of them were devoted political activists with little formal education, but understood the importance of learning and were able develop themselves to grasp advanced ideas and believed that other workers could do the same.
Yet too many on the socialist left act as if the stereotype of the anti-intellectual working class is the norm. These socialists speak down to workers, treat them as stupid and belittle their abilities to think critically. Often they hold the workers some political actions may seem beneath their ability to comprehend or divisive such as solidarity with Palestine or immigrants. And if your political line is one that assumes that people are half-witted, then your politics will not lead to the liberation of people, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
And while there are workers with backward views and not all that interested in advanced ideas, this just shows that class and political consciousness is not something innate in workers. This means that we as socialists have a role as teachers as well as learners. And our approach to teaching should be one of patience and understanding where we view workers as eager to hear and be inspired by our revolutionary message. And once inspired, they will earnestly participate in the struggle, taking the time to develop themselves intellectually and practically for the needs of the struggle.
A second manifestation of socialist anti-intellectualism is how socialist organizations intellectually develop their own activists. In most socialist organizations, when a new activist is recruited, they are not taught how to use Marxism as a critical and revolutionary tool to analyze the world in order to change it. Rather, they are taught by rote from particular political tradition, whether it is the three heads of Marx, Engels and Lenin with perhaps Trotsky or Mao add on. This approach to learning is more akin to the religious instruction of revealed truths than to that of an independent revolutionary. Thinkers and texts outside of the approved socialist tradition are frowned upon and ignored. And when you teach revolutionary theory as dogma and rote, then you have not taught the critical ability of revolutionary theory, but in actuality dogma and rote wrapped up in leftist phraseology.
The quality of an activist is judged not by their ability to analyze but by their ability to repeat back the accepted dogma of such questions range from “was the Soviet Union a degenerated workers’ state or state capitalist?” to “can you give a correct answer to the nature of the popular front in France?” For many socialist organizations it is assumed that if you have the 'correct' verdicts on every historical question, then you will act properly in the future which of course, is not true. Many socialists with a seemingly pure historical pedigree have backed retrograde political positions such supporting the Democratic Party as the 'lesser evil' in elections.
Teaching by rote as opposed to the development of critical thinking manifests itself starkly in polemics with rival left trends. For example, it is not uncommon to find Trotskyist polemics against Maoism that don't engage with any of Mao's arguments, positions, or the history of Maoism. Or at best, you will get some quotes ripped from Mao which are totally out of context. Rather than actually investigating what the other side has to say and criticizing it, polemics of this type just make assumptions not based on actual evidence or employ over-used words that describe such varying movements, countries and figures that they wind up devoid of meaning (Stalinism being a prime example, although the ever-favorite anarchist term statist is another). The purpose of these polemics is not genuine debate, learning or understanding, but to dogmatically defend the 'truth' from any challengers.
In fairness, Trotskyists are not the only offenders. There are plenty of Maoist attacks on Trotsky, which either repeat slanders from the 1930s or attribute positions to him that he never held. And anarchist arguments against the Russian Revolution show an inclination to rely on Noam Chomsky's negative assessment (although he has never studied it) rather than any critical engagement with Lenin, Trotsky or any of the historians of the Russian Revolution.
Yet for most socialists, when someone misrepresents our position, that we, rightfully, call them out by saying they have not investigated our actual positions, arguments and the wider context? However, there is a certain level of hypocrisy practiced by many socialists who repeat the same behavior they criticize in others in their dealings with other currents. Shouldn't we have enough respect for our comrades to act differently?
Rather than writing empty polemics where we talk past each other, we should learn to investigate, listen and actually engage with what the other side has to say. We should stop teaching revolutionary theory by rote and develop critical thinking. And we should step outside our own bubbles and learn what the other side actually argues and believes. A good first step would be for Trotskyists to read Mao, Maoists to read Trotskyist, and anarchists to engage with Lenin to understand the Russian Revolution instead of Chomsky.
Ultimately, socialist anti-intellectualism whether in its view of workers, how we teach theory, or argue with one another ultimately produces political activists who will be unable to mobilize workers and devoid of critical thinking abilities. And for the sake of the cause we serve, we need to do better. We have to break with sterile anti-intellectualism and instead to look upon working class people as capable of grasping advanced ideas, developing activists who can think and engage with what other leftist currents actually say. This is a call on us as socialists to do better, to live up to our creed, and, of course, to think. Until we do that, the socialist left will remain far away from Marx's contempt for ignorance and closer to Orwell's ironic slogan from the novel 1984 that proclaims “ignorance is strength.”
Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, LINKS International Journal for Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint and Greenleft Weekly. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.