How eerie and unsettling it can be when people change their minds: From Thomas Mann to today

In the wake of the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a number of people have been commenting, complaining, celebrating, noticing how quickly mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—has been moving toward Sanders-style positions. And without acknowledging it. Positions, policies, and politics that two years ago were deemed beyond the pale are now being not only welcomed but also embraced as if the person doing the embracing always believed what he or she is now saying.

This, as you can imagine, causes some on the left no end of consternation. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their shift, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And for some less legitimate, if understandable, reasons: people are pissed at the way Sanders-style politics was attacked in 2016 and want folks to own up to it. Understandable, from a human point of view, but not really the way you build a coalition or a movement. If the left is going to grow, everyone should be welcome to join, without having to hand over a bill of lading upon their arrival.

But I’m not bringing this up to settle scores or to enforce some kind of norm of the welcome mat. I’m actually just super interested in this phenomenon, in this kind of change at the both the human and the political level. By “this kind of change” I don’t meant the deep transformations that a fair number of political people undergo over the course of a lifetime: the proverbial migration from left to right, for example, that we saw throughout the 20th century. That’s a deep, one-time change that you don’t easily go back from. I mean more these micro-shifts that happen under the pressure of events, the subtle coercions of new opinion, the ever-finer movements to keep up with where things are going, so as not to be left behind.

I just finished reading Thomas Mann’s letters, and Mann in many ways is an exemplary figure in this regard. Leading up to World War I, he was a fairly standard old-school conservative militarist/nationalist. That continued until the end of the war. After the war, he slowly became a dedicated liberal defender of Weimar. Once the Nazis took over, his liberalism morphed into staunch anti-fascism, humanist in its outlook. By the end of the war, that antifascism had come to include overt sympathy to communism and the Soviet Union (he even praised Mission to Moscow on aesthetic grounds!). That continued into the late 1940s, when he supported Henry Wallace for president and was outspoken in his opposition to HUAC and defense of the Communist Party in Hollywood and elsewhere.

But then, around 1950 or so, you see, ever so slightly and subtly, Mann’s opinions starting to change once again. He never comes out in defense of McCarthyism, but he slowly starts becoming more critical of the CP, of the Soviet Union, and less critical of the repression. Till finally, in a 1953 letter to Agnes Meyer, his close friend and matriarch of The Washington Post, he confesses that he has decided not to publicly oppose McCarthyism. He reports to her that when he was asked—”probably by someone on the ‘left'”—what he thinks about the censorship and restrictions on freedom in the US, he replied, “American democracy felt threatened and, in the struggle for freedom, considered that there had to be a certain limitation on freedom, a certain disciplining of individual thought, a certain conformism. This was understandable.”

It just about broke my heart. That “left” in scare quotes (previously he had seen himself as a part of the left), the clichéd endorsement of Cold War confinement, the betrayal of all that he had said and done in the preceding decades—and most important of all, the seeming inability to see that he was betraying anything at all.

Who was the real Thomas Mann? The German militarist, the Weimar liberal, the humanist antifascist, the Popular Fronter, the Cold War liberal? Who knows? All of them, none of them? I think in the end, his most authentic moment was probably in his combination of Weimar liberal and early antifascism, with its humanism. That was the one true shift (from early militarist to humanist liberal anti-fascist) that he could endure and narrate. But the rest of those shifts? That was just the way the game was being played. As the climate of opinion changed during the war, he changed with it. And then at the onset of the Cold War, he changed again. But watching how his positions changed—within a very short period of time—without him even realizing it, without him even remembering what he had said, a mere three years prior, was eerie and unsettling. And heart-breaking, as I said.

During the McCarthy years, Arendt wrote in a letter to Jaspers how terrified she was of the repression. Not just the facts of it but by how quickly the mood of the moment had gone from a generous and capacious liberalism to a cramped anticommunism. “Can you see,” she wrote, “how far the disintegration has gone and with what breathtaking speed it has occurred? And up to now hardly any resistance. Everything melts away like butter in the sun.”

We’ll never know what combination of incentives and forces and genuine beliefs are at play in one person’s shifting positions. And like I said, I welcome the change that is happening today. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was sometimes unsettled by it. Particularly when it’s unacknowledged.

Intellectuals like to think of themselves as above this kind of thing, but I think we’re especially prone to it. Intellectuals live in the world of ideas, with an emphasis on that word “world.” The world is not what goes on in our heads; it’s what’s happening out there, between heads. Intellectuals want to be in that space of the in-between (Arendt knew this more than anyone). They want to be in the swim. That can make them chameleons of the first order.

Intellectuals are probably not that different from anyone else in this regard, but they do like to take and defend positions as if they were emanations of pure reason. Or unblinkered empiricism. The proverbial “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Which always gets attributed to Keynes but was in all likelihood said by Paul Samuelson.

I confess I’m always suspicious of these “when the facts change” types. In part because the most pressing fact that seems to change people’s opinions is…other people’s opinions.

Among intellectuals, that doesn’t always lend itself to an honest narration of change. Just the opposite: it can become an ever-shifting, ever-more baffling, and often unacknowledged, litany of changes.

Not sure what there is to be said about that. Just noting how universal, if sometimes eerie, it is.

40 Comments

  1. Chris Morlock July 4, 2018 at 11:17 pm | #

    I was just watching a “Buddenbrooks” German made TV series (in German) with my Mom recently. She reads and watches, I only watch. I got the feeling Mann had a classical Marxist tone to it, but I could be mistaken. It definitely seems to dwell on class struggle.

    As for the corporate Dems using progressive language, I think we already saw this phenomenon back in 2008. My question to them now (as it was back then) is what policy does this effect? Specifically what economic policy. I know in American politics we can’t ever argue with winning (as with Ocasio-Cortez) but I didn’t see any of these guys stop taking corporate money or endorse pro-labor policy.

    Instead we get mass demonstrations about ending ICE, with attendees including Kamala Harris. Did she just swing to the left or did this message just get co-opted on a dime?

    • frestdjm July 5, 2018 at 1:20 pm | #

      It’s political triangulation, seeking the most visible and effective signal that costs you the least amount of “centrism points” or hypothetical midwestern independent white voters.

      To call it co-opting would be ascribing some sort of intelligent motivation, or some sort of, “I have decided I want this,” urge that I don’t think truly exists. It’s a mercenary performance, the same as a social media trending algorithm. It detects an uptick of public opinion based upon undeniable reality (screaming children in detention centers) and then serves the feed that it thinks offers greatest likelihood of connection.

  2. xenotropic July 4, 2018 at 11:41 pm | #

    The need for social belonging is seated a deeper, older, and sometimes stronger (especially if you’re not fully aware it’s there) part in the human brain than the analytic part that does, say, political science analysis. Sometimes that is good, sometimes it is bad, but it does have this sort of positive-feedback-loop effect on political change. I’m reading “Battle Cry of Freedom”, the Civil War history, and it is amazing how fast abolition went from a fringe movement to mainstream war policy.

  3. Ramy July 4, 2018 at 11:48 pm | #

    These are the most beautiful words of yours Ive read yet, Corey.

  4. wisedupearly July 4, 2018 at 11:59 pm | #

    I believe you can blame Aristotle for the mental flexibility you are interested in. Aristotle destroyed the absolutes of Plato and the arete of Homeric Greece. In its place he enshrined “facts”. Facts are metal constructs and so rest upon other mental constructs and assumptions. This yields a near infinite amount of flexibility, which, of course, is essential if the scientist is to uncover hidden truths.
    As you say, it would be interesting to know if Mann had core beliefs.

  5. mark July 5, 2018 at 4:20 am | #

    “Don’t you think that basically we’ve lost the track since ’89? Instead of continuing along the highroad which was broad and splendid, like a triumphal way, we’ve wandered off along little bypaths and are floundering in quagmires. Perhaps it would be wise to return to d’Holbach for a time? Before admiring Proudhon, shouldn’t we know Turgot?”

    (Flaubert to Sand, Saturday evening 29th September 1866).

  6. David C Unger July 5, 2018 at 6:44 am | #

    Very interesting subject. One might consider the intellectual migrations of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and others. Maybe even Paul Berman and Todd Gitlin

    • “Maybe even Paul Berman and Todd Gitlin”.

      Damn right. Those two got some ‘splainin’ to do. Especially folks like Gitlin who back in the day wrote those f*cking books “apologizing” to America for having been a progressive. I mean, WTF?! My own guess regarding those guys is that the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era did not open their eyes to see anew so much as it made them think that they were on the losing team (the progs) and thus just wanted to join the winners (the cons). After all, the cons pay better and have mastered the art of moral deception.

  7. Tom Moody July 5, 2018 at 8:05 am | #

    Not to criticize your main point about intellectual flexibility, but according to Jeffrey Meyers’ article “Thomas Mann in America” (Michigan Quarterly Review), Mann was quite outspoken against McCarthyism and left the US for Switzerland because of it. Even his “private” correspondence reflected these views. Meyers doesn’t attribute the source but writes: “He privately called the witch hunts, combining the worst traits in the American character, ‘a disgusting exhibition of primitive Puritanism, hatred, fear, corruption and self-righteousness.’ Attempting to explain the intolerable situation and his emotional anguish to friends in Europe, he exclaimed, ‘the sick tense atmosphere of this country oppresses me and I have to steel myself, despite trembly nerves, to ward off detestable and mortally dangerous attacks on me. . . . I have no desire to rest my bones in this soulless soil [to] which I owe nothing, and which knows nothing of me..”

    • Corey Robin July 5, 2018 at 8:59 am | #

      I hadn’t known of that Meyers article so thanks for calling it to my attention. There’s no date on that quote from Mann that he cites and the previous graf leads me to believe it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1950 or so. As I said up through the early years of the Cold War, he was still a Popular Fronter. Something happened to him, I think, just about that time, 1950. It could be that the reference to Puritanism and such was before or still just around then. The letter I’m citing was in 1953. A lot can happen in three years.

    • WLGR July 5, 2018 at 1:11 pm | #

      Tom, you’re definitely onto something in highlighting this distinction between liberal technocratic anticommunism and McCarthyite vigilante anticommunism as the center of a crucial ideological tension of the early Cold War, except to any leftist the most crucial aspect of this tension was actually a meta-opposition, over the extent to which the surface-level distinction was ever particularly meaningful. Certainly plenty of liberals at the time made great hay over how terrible McCarthy was, and Mann or Arendt could easily fit right alongside liberal Cold Warriors like Irving Kristol or Sidney Hook in the anti-McCarthy chorus — but at least for the latter two if not for all four, the problem with McCarthy had nothing to do with any opposition to the substance of systematically rooting out communism and potential communist sympathizers, it had to do with the idea that McCarthy’s flamboyant public witch-hunting style was discrediting the otherwise noble anticommunist cause by making it look too amateurish and paranoid.

      Which is to say that there’s something deeply short-sighted about Corey’s opening plea not to interrogate too sharply the ideological credentials of those attempting to posture as fellow travelers with the Left in opposition to Trump. On the contrary, if these people’s opposition to Trump is as superficial and style-focused as liberal Cold Warriors’ opposition to McCarthy, loosening our grasp on the deep establishment solidarity underneath the shallow partisan disunity would be one of the worst mistakes the Left at this point could possibly make.

  8. jonnybutter July 5, 2018 at 8:10 am | #

    There is the factor of aging in Mann’s case. I see that he was in his mid 70s in 1950. Personality in old age can be quite a mystery. And maybe there were reasons we don’t know about for his squishy turn. It is heartbreaking though.

    And, in dealing with artists of any age, there is a difference, sometimes a large one, between the implications of the works they create and the explicit political opinions they have. The art pieces they create – if they’re worthy – have a life and volition of their own, while political opinions can be transient and tossed off. A few months back several lefties on Twitter were crestfallen to learn that Stravinsky was quite right wing in the 19-teens – ’30s: ‘Now I can’t listen to Rite of Spring? But, I really like it…”. I’m not an Adorno scholar, but I do at least know that, while there probably is no such thing as strictly apolitical art, good artists often create a world beyond even their own rational understanding. In Stravinksy’s case, the more explicitly political, intellectual, and deliberate he was about his work, the further he barked up the wrong tree. Unlike those early ballets and some other pieces from that era, few are conflicted about listening-or-not to work from his crappy neo-classical period. Le Sacre still blows people’s minds; who cares about ‘The Rake’s Progress”? Only slavish fanboys and girls.

    It’s trickier when the artist is a writer, particularly an intellectual one like Mann, because word-language (opposed to music-language) is so explicit – I think James Baldwin called language ‘devastatingly explicit’. Perhaps it’s *misleadingly* explicit at times. As self-concious as any artist might try to be, intuition can always override the work of those smaller quotidian-level gears. Frequently, artists’ political opinions are laughably simplistic and/or uninformed – like actors’. Many of them *are* actors of a sort – they are only special when they’re playing their role.

    The politics of an imaginative *non-fiction* writer like Corey is different – and more reliable as such, IMO. Unlike some art works, imaginative non-fiction is more likely to be about what it claims to be about.

    • Derrick July 6, 2018 at 2:44 am | #

      FWIW, young Stravinsky [up until the October Revolution] was a liberal and supportive of the Constitutional Democratic Party. He even wrote an anthem for the Provisional Government. So when he composed his more radical works like “The Rite of Spring”, he was a liberal, while his fascist sympathies coincide with his neo-classical period, and his later serial period coincides with his embrace of American New Deal liberalism.

      I updated Stravinsky’s wikipedia page to reflect these facts.

      To return this to Corey’s post, I think what motivated Stravinsky’s shifts was a desire to compose in peace. During the interwar period, like many, he deluded himself into believing that only a strong right-wing authoritarian government could prevent another World War and prevent the spread of Bolshevism, which he hated for obvious personal reasons. Once it became apparent that wasn’t true, and America offered him a far more congenial environment, his loyalties shifted accordingly.

      • Jonnybutter July 6, 2018 at 5:08 pm | #

        Isn’t this a little too neat? I don’t want to derail this thread, so I’ll leave it at that.

        • jonnybutter July 6, 2018 at 8:16 pm | #

          Maybe *I’m* being a little too neat too. But it just struck me as ridiculous that you couldn’t like Le Sacre because Igor liked Mussolini for a while. Or you can’t like L’Histoire du soldat. The work is what matters. So many artists are not very sophisticated about explicit politics. To me it’s his neo-classicism which is conservative in an unforgivable way, because so much of that work sucks. And he did that for a very long time. He dabbled in serialism at the very end.

  9. emorej a hong kong July 5, 2018 at 8:14 am | #

    The Mann story, and the general question, are interesting. But this is a weak news hook for it:

    “less legitimate, if understandable, reasons: people are pissed at the way Sanders-style politics was attacked in 2016 and want folks to own up to it. Understandable, from a human point of view, but not really the way you build a coalition or a movement.”

    It is more than legitimate to require politicians and their advisors to explain their reasons for belatedly appreciating Sanders’ positions and strategy, as a form of assurance that their appreciation is genuine, rather than merely an interim tactic to be discarded as soon as it gets them through a moment of threat to their careers, and they are permitted to resume conforming their policies to the demands of big donors.

  10. Nate July 5, 2018 at 10:10 am | #

    The link between Mann and the opening gambit (“a number of people have been commenting, complaining, celebrating, noticing…”) is not persuasive. What those of us who’ve been involved with Ocasio-Cortez for a while (me for just over a year) are concerned about is not true leftward shifts in opinion among the liberal elite—shifts we would very much welcome, whether or not they come with an apology or admission of error—but superficial shifts.

    Unlike you, apparently, we are not seeing this as a drama of personal awakening, but in terms of the institutions within which these people operate. Our concern is simply that unless linked to some fundamental commitment to undoing the Democratic Party’s deep institutional commitments to corporate power (and reliance on corporate money) even the most sincere “change of heart” are meaningless.

  11. BKS July 5, 2018 at 10:18 am | #

    What exactly do you take to be the evidence that mainstream liberal opinion has shifted in this way? More interestingly, what evidence is there that whatever shifts in the rhetoric liberal politicians use is reflective of a genuine shift the sort an intellectual like Mann might undergo, and not the sort politicians with their fingers to the wind routinely make to stay relevant? It’s not a matter of needing to present a “bill of lading,” Corey – the question is how to recognize who your actual allies are as opposed to those who wish to appear as such for their own purposes, and not yours.

    The dominance of the market media model means that most mainstream discourse is to some degree opportunistic. It has a touch of the troll to it – even Aristotle could see that 🙂

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-american-philosophical-association/article/aristotle-on-trolling/540BB557C82186C33BFFB61E35A0B5B6/core-reader

  12. Gail Brock July 5, 2018 at 11:25 am | #

    The liberal elite is still hammering on those who didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016 — the third-party voters and the abstainers. The non-Clinton voters are responsible for everything bad the current administration and the Supreme Court do, according to them. I am convinced that if Clinton had won, none of the leftward movement would be happening. The Democratic Party would be reveling in how corporate politics is the only way to win, so we’d better keep sliding right to appeal to Republicans.

    Part of “asking people to own up to it” is a demand that the elite acknowledge the value of the voters. Adopt policies and nominate a candidate that people want to vote for, rather than spending the next five electoral cycles claiming that all bad emanated from third party voters.

    • Chris Morlock July 5, 2018 at 5:43 pm | #

      I see the dems and the Left making an agreement in coming months leading to the election to push certain co-opted messages of the left: immigration (which is supported in the form of open borders by most corporate interests)and a litmus test for reproductive rights (blocking next SCOTUS pick).

      Gone from the core progressive message will be anything about economic justice, minimum wage, medicare for all, or free education. They will gleam from Ocasio-Cortez and her followers the basic messages they deem fit for public consumption and bury the rest. The message gleamed will barely be able to gain them a few seats and they will herald that as a progressive advance in the narrative and lose to Trump in 2020.

      It’s just a question of how and when they will co-opt then silence the progressives- they are like vampires. I still think the only step forwards we can take is to rid the corporate Dems of their power, not try and beat the Trumpists with a lame watered down social message. Trump is less of a threat to progressive than the corporate dem.

      • Donald July 5, 2018 at 6:19 pm | #

        I think you are right, except I won’t make any predictions on who will win in 2020. But there is nothing that suggests to me that the Democratic Party leaders are changing much. I am surprised to see people in the Crooked Timber section saying that they support Ocasio Cortez while still bashing Sanders when as best I can tell their positions are virtually identical. In particular both stress the corrupting nature of money in politics.

        • Donald July 5, 2018 at 6:30 pm | #

          I was replying to Chris just above, but I also agree with Gail. IMO one of the worst things many liberals have done is to make voting for the Democrats a rock bottom moral obligation, to the point where if you are a third party voter or an abstainer you are a bad person and nothing you say on any issue matters, because you are a bad person. I happen to be a lesser evil voter for the Democrats myself, but the stance these liberals take removes the burden off the Democrats to be worthy of people’s votes or to persuade them to vote and makes it all about the personal virtue of the voter. It turns politics into a type of religion. And these people always claim to be pragmatists as opposed to the purists they condemn. To me it seems like another form of purism.

        • Jonnybutter July 5, 2018 at 7:46 pm | #

          But it’s better for everybody if the Dems do move left using AOC as a face saving excuse than not to move at all. It’s materially better if that happens than the alternative

          • Donald July 5, 2018 at 10:56 pm | #

            “But it’s better for everybody if the Dems do move left using AOC as a face saving excuse”

            Agreed. But I don’t know yet who will end up co- opting whom.

    • jonnybutter July 5, 2018 at 10:43 pm | #

      The estab Dem party has to be done away with just for aesthetic reasons – they are a national symbol of fecklessness and humiliation, over and above their underlying substantial faults. The Dems have ‘kick me’ signs on their backs.

      Corey (and others I think) have pointed out that the AOC victory shows how fragile a Dem ‘machine’ can be. I mean, it’s there, but probably brittle in a lot of places. If they are out organized by the Republicans, which they usually are, then they can be out-organized by candidates from the left too.

      So it’s perfectly OK with me for some estab dems, enough of them, to briefly pretend it is they who are coopting the ‘youngsters’, rather than the other way around. I doubt AOC or Sanders or most of these other DSA ppl really give a shit about sharing that little bit of credit so long as something HAPPENS; as long as it is *they* who are doing the coopting. And well they shouldn’t.

      • Jonnybutter July 6, 2018 at 12:50 pm | #

        Agreed. But I don’t know yet who will end up co- whom.

        I don’t see how the older group *can* co-opt the younger group at this point.

  13. Burt Voorhees July 5, 2018 at 12:41 pm | #

    Mark Lilla’s essay The Lure of Syracuse has some relevance to this topic.

  14. fauvette July 5, 2018 at 3:10 pm | #

    Agree with Emorej … unless I am missing something the essay’s news peg is slight. Well before Ocasio-Cortez’s victory there has been an inexorable drifting to the politics of Bernie Sanders, post-2016. Consider for example a recent poll that gives Sanders’ high favorability ratings while Hillary Clinton’s were lower than 45’s. Sanders in 2017 was something of a regular on nationally televised town halls (CNN and MSNBC). I’d venture to say the purpose of the town halls is not to do Sanders a kindness. Rather, broadcasters were smelling the zeitgeist.

    As an heir apparent to Sanders, the dazzling and substantive Ocasio-Cortez creates further opening for Sanders-inspired messaging, menos perception of “crankiness.”

    Nate is spot on … how meaningful is it that right-leaning/corporate Democrats chime in with a call to abolish ICE a day after AOC’s win?

  15. Lichanos July 5, 2018 at 9:44 pm | #

    “…I confess I’m always suspicious of these “when the facts change” types. In part because the most pressing fact that seems to change people’s opinions is…other people’s opinions.”

    One of the more honest assessments of intellectuals I have read.

    Personally, I think they are too involved with ideas, debate, and facts, real or otherwise, and too little aware of their own values. How does one go from being a militarist to a leftist to a HUAC supporter? Well, if your primary values are order and stable hierarchy, including the hierarchy of elite culture, that’s one way. There are others. But Mann would have said it was all about ideas.

    Maybe it was all about fear, his.

  16. Roquentin July 6, 2018 at 10:00 am | #

    I’ve long taken the stance that fashion applies to nearly everything. Intellectuals are no exception. One of my more recent views is that a certain really vulgar Marxism has come into vogue. Maybe you’ve been exposed to Leftbook, maybe you haven’t, but among the young there’s an attitude towards “really existing socialism” in the 20th century that’s completely uncritical. I get it, I was young once, and kids have a sixth sense for the lies their parents told themselves and lived with. There’s still too much residual Cold War propaganda left in the atmosphere in the US, and its half-life hasn’t come soon enough. The kids understand their parents were lying about the USSR to some extent, but there’s also a tendency to think all criticisms of it were lies. I guess that’s how it goes.

    I have the suspicion that this vulgar Marxism will look just as ridiculous in 10-20 years as the glory days of postmodernism in the 90s do now. Sort of like bell bottoms in the 70s or big hair in the 80s. Ideas and politics go in and out of fashion, everything does. And just like with a lot of trends, there are always some people who are really committed to them, really believe in them, and a whole bunch of others who are just along for the ride because it’s the cool thing to do. This happens even in supposedly scientific fields like medicine, certain treatments become hot and everyone hops on the bandwagon. Postmodernism is at a sort of nadir right now, and it genuinely upsets me. Even people on the left repeat the most conservative criticisms of postmodern thought. That won’t last either.

    I’ve taken a “better late than never” attitude towards the whole thing. With the ICE protests, I know damn well that ICE has existed across three administrations, Dem and Republican alike, that Obama set records for deportations in the 20th century, that they’re trying to make this a Trump thing when it’s far deeper and much worse than that. I get all that, but in the end, if they’re mad about it now we sure as hell shouldn’t be turning people away. It was wrong under Bush, it was wrong under Obama, and it’s wrong now. I’ll point stuff like this out, but won’t flog the dead horse.

    • F. Foundling July 6, 2018 at 6:44 pm | #

      >One of my more recent views is that a certain really vulgar Marxism has come into vogue.

      Not enough for me to notice it or for it to have any practical results, so I hope it doesn’t last only for 10-20 more years. More vulgar Marxism for me, please.

      >among the young there’s an attitude towards “really existing socialism” in the 20th century that’s completely uncritical.

      That’s a separate issue from vulgar Marxism, but I’d say, again, that there is not enough of this attitude for me to notice it or any of its effects. Some of it will need to spill from the Leftbook into the textbooks before I think there’s too much of it.

      What I still see is an extremely dominant ideological status quo that is very critical of “really existing socialism” – with even economic leftists accepting uncritically all the output of current Cold War propagandist historiographers – either favourable or blind to current and past US/Western imperial and militarist policies, and where the only powerful and fashionable form of radicalism is identity politics radicalism (which, for me, includes the issue of immigration). If there is a new wave in the opposite direction, I welcome it, but it is only just beginning and even if some of its representatives are overdoing it and getting some things wrong, the status quo is so utterly predominant that a tendency in the opposite direction is something that I can only view as a positive phenomenon for the time being. And, what’s worse, it is exactly the lessons that *should* have been learnt from the socialist experience – things like the importance of democracy, accountability, due process, observance of procedures, individual critical thinking, freedom of thought and rational debate – that don’t seem to have been learnt or taken seriously either by most ‘leftist radicals’ or by most mainstream ‘centrists’.

      • Roquentin July 8, 2018 at 9:45 am | #

        It’s really simple, the tankies on Leftbook are just an inverted version US imperialist line. Yes, there was a fantastic amount of Cold War imperialist propaganda involving the USSR, but this has lead many young people to conclude that everything written about it was lies except for Soviet propaganda, which they seem to think was totally honest. I minored in Russian in college, and it’s telling that these people are with almost no exceptions actually Russian. When you do meet Russians who have a relatively positive view of the USSR, it’s usually for different reasons or the tone is different. There’s a long and absurd tradition of Westerners who don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture, and don’t even really know the history of Russia that well writing hagiographies of Soviet leaders and the Russian Revolution. It’s not something I have much interest in or time for.

        I don’t see this entirely uncritical repetition of the crudest Soviet propaganda to be a good thing, at all. What I see on Leftbook are kids trying to one-up each other with who can be the most extreme, combined with a sort of macho posturing because the militaristic aspects of Marxism-Leninism make them feel tough. I get it, I was young once. They want to appear tough and shock people. It’s no accident the primary demographic of these groups is young men under the age of 25.

        • Donald July 8, 2018 at 12:02 pm | #

          Roquentin, do you have some specific examples of these people? I am not arguing against you because I have a vague sense that people are romanticizing the Bolshevik Revolution again— I am wary of this because it went sour very very quickly, at least in my view. But I don’t have anyone to pin this on— the romanticizers, I mean. There is China Mieville (sp?), but I think he acknowledges how quickly it went downhill if I recall correctly.

    • Roquentin July 10, 2018 at 9:24 pm | #

      I already told you. I guess it really is a thing for the youth. Leftbook is a real thing, it consists of a network of groups on Facebook. /r/socialism on Reddit has gotten better, but it used to be really bad too. /r/fullcommunism is almost self-parody, but there are no shortage of communities like this on the internet.

  17. F. Foundling July 6, 2018 at 6:23 pm | #

    I can think of a more recent example than Mann: all the bleeding heart economic lefties who had been railing against the neoliberal policies of the corporate Democrats in the party establishment and then suddently switched to supporting Clinton in the primaries, or all the anti-war lefties who were opposed to Bush’s imperial actions and violations of civil liberties and then turned into patriotic militarists as soon as it was Obama and Clinton doing the same; not to mention those who claim to be opposed to the historical HUAC and are nevertheless enthusiastically engaged in the current Russia-baiting – recently even hawkish North Korea-baiting – of opponents left and right.

    As for the current symptoms of a shift, that’s the blessing and the curse of winning: you get the conformists and opportunists on your side, you get the conformist and opportunistic tendency in every individual on your side, and you become surrounded by a lot of unreliable friends and allies, who will betray you or pull you in the other direction when the wind blows the other way. And yet there is no way around this; you have to accept it and use it to get things done. That’s the humankind that you are dealing with. This also means that while accepting and using the phenomenon, you also need to be on the lookout for its dangers. Keeping watch is tiresome, but it is only in a hermitage or in a grave that one can rest from it.

    I also heartily agree that intellectuals are ‘especially prone’ to be ‘chameleons of the first order’. It is particularly unpleasantly striking in them, because they supposedly ‘should know better’. I don’t think the main reason is their need to communicate in ideas: everybody needs to communicate, and there is an extremely slippery slope for everybody from communicating to adapting, conforming and mutating; from changing the language of one’s message to changing its substance and, finally, the content of one’s own thoughts. I think that the main reason is that intellectuals work with ideas for a living, and that makes them, perhaps, especially irreverent to ideas, and especially inclined to treat ideas more or less cynically as a mere tool to advance their interests. Mann is not among my favourite authors, but I have observed such variability in other politicians, writers and people that I have liked, and I have embraced the principle of being a fan of principles and not an especially enthusiastic or loyal fan of any person – even though one cannot deal with principles, or live at all, without also dealing with persons. Still, not everybody is a chameleon to the same extent, thankfully, and there are those who do earn one’s admiration and respect by remaining, largely, constant and decent human beings, and demonstrate that it can, in fact, be done.

  18. Roquentin July 8, 2018 at 10:04 am | #

    Couldn’t you just as easily argue the reverse? That foolishly sticking to a position in spite of all evidence to the contrary is a bigger problem? I’ve been around a lot of conservatives you could show incontrovertible evidence of global warming to, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. Why is it even important that people always hold the same views throughout our lives? I mean, I get why Mann’s shifts are upsetting and problematic, but I don’t think the idea that one should or even could hold the same political view through the entirety of his or her political life is very realistic or even desirable. Everyone’s views change over time. If you demonize changing political views, how do you ever hope to win people over to your side? Wouldn’t a much healthier attitude be “if you come to believe you were wrong, changing your political views is totally okay?” Just where does the left in the US think its support is going to come from if not from people who changed their views?

  19. Thom Prentice July 15, 2018 at 6:09 pm | #

    I don’t think I caught that at all or I missed it in the Heilbut bio of Mann …

  20. Billikin July 29, 2018 at 1:26 am | #

    So. People have changed their minds, and they do not acknowledge that fact. Well, there may be nothing to acknowledge. Nietzsche pointed out the illogic of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Descartes’ awareness of his thoughts only allowed him to say that those thoughts existed, not that Descartes existed. One of the beliefs of Western culture is that we, as individuals, have minds and thoughts. The Dinka people believe that thoughts have them.

    Our culture, particularly our political culture, is in flux, and contains contradictory ideas. Socialist ideas are gaining ground, which means that more people are voicing them. We may ask what internal (private, personal) process was involved when a person voices an idea that contradicts ideas that they voiced a few years ago, i.e., how and why did they “change their mind”. There may be no such process.

    • Billikin July 29, 2018 at 1:34 am | #

      Humans are good at rationalization, and intellectuals are very good at it. That’s one reason that smart people can successfully resist changing their opinions. They can come up with reason not to. Similarly, if they do change their opinions, and they are asked why, they can come up with reasons, just as though those reasons had caused the change.

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