5 min read

Abstract dogma

Mao once wrote, "To let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong, and refrain from principled argument because he is an old acquaintance, a fellow townsman, a schoolmate, a close friend, a loved one, an old colleague or old subordinate. Or to touch on the matter lightly instead of going into it thoroughly, so as to keep on good terms. The result is that both the organization and the individual are harmed. This is one type of liberalism."

This is a common trait raised when bolstering the credentials of a "moderate" in American political parlance; someone like Joe Biden, for example, known as a "steady hand", which refers not to the deliberateness or rationalism of his thought or legislative legacy, but that he could be considered a reliable in-road for compromise with the American political right. Within the Democratic Party, there's some familiarity with Mao's depiction of the pervasive corrosion of liberalism, when you consider the kind of performative hand-wringing that goes on around issues that could be addressed logistically today, but the moderate will invent obstacles in front of, without explaining what they are or how they came to be; "I'd love to do Medicare for All, but as a pragmatist" is something you probably heard a lot in the last election cycle. As Mao describes:

People who are liberals look upon the principles of Marxism as abstract dogma. They approve of Marxism, but are not prepared to practice it or to practice it in full; they are not prepared to replace their liberalism by Marxism. These people have their Marxism, but they have their liberalism as well--they talk Marxism but practice liberalism; they apply Marxism to others but liberalism to themselves. They keep both kinds of goods in stock and find a use for each. This is how the minds of certain people work.

Inherent in this pragmatism, this embrace of something working "in theory", but that it's not realistic, is an admission of policy failure that they embrace over working harder, organizing better, extending a good faith effort leftward (rather than rebuking the left in favor of the passive ease of collaboration with the right, as much as they hate to admit this is the reality). Again, Mao: "To be aware of one's own mistakes and yet make no attempt to correct them, taking a liberal attitude towards oneself."

In Gary Shteyngart's novel Lake Success, there's a subplot that struck me as central to understanding the above principle when it comes to modern American political parlance; an overt capitalist is partnered with a Pantsuit Democrat circa Hillary '16. She can be romantic with someone to whom she shares little in the way of values, at least nominally, and rebukes his open expression of his politics, but is willing to accept, had the election gone off as expected, his donation bundle to secure her a role in the DOJ. They run in the same social circles, suggesting the friendship speaks to their true parity, class solidarity, rather than the distinctions in their politics, both of which heavily pivot on the ability to remain powerful through this sort of economic stratification.

At one point, Shteyngart introduces something I thought was interesting, and perhaps is speculative, I sincerely believe liberal thought would be conducive to finding this kind of art compelling, but Shteyngart begs to differ: This character, Seema, she has plans to see Hamilton– she suspects she will not enjoy it, but wants to enjoy it, wants to be excited, and absent any other explanation, chalks it up to wanting to tune out Trump for a little while, but outside the narrative, as a reader, you're left wondering what of the apparent existential risk that is Trump's presidency to everyone, but especially apparently New York liberals, can really be materially based if it is so easily tuned out for hundreds of dollars spent on theater tickets, for a musical salve.

Shteyngart is the son of anti-communist Soviet-era Russians, and I've seen no evidence that he's terribly amenable to communism or some uncommonly leftist ideology for someone living in the US for a few decades, I know very little of his politics, so I won't speculate on his intentions. However, my reading of many of these scenes remind me further of Mao, "Liberalism stems from petty-bourgeois selfishness, it places personal interests first and the interests of the revolution second, and this gives rise to ideological, political and organizational liberalism."– comfort in taking breaks from what is manifestly ideological combat, to return to a life that was supposedly so disrupted ("everything is different!") without a second thought, and if it is so, then where is the urgency, the action.

When the time came in 2020 to make a bold statement, and rebuke the liberalism that cost the Democrats the election, make the party stand for something that Trump had duped many into believing he stood for, they dug in their heels for the sake of the larger class interests of its principals, and many many rather than interrogating it or addressing the critiques laid passive and defended it, "don't let perfect be the enemy of good" when all that was "good" was objectively enticement to more collapse for a working poor– "Liberalism is a manifestation of opportunism and conflicts fundamentally with Marxism. It is negative and objectively has the effect of helping the enemy; that is why the enemy welcomes its preservation in our midst. Such being its nature, there should be no place for it in the ranks of the revolution."

An example: In a situation where an unbreakable majority on the Supreme Court against labor protections needs no pretext, liberals prefer to blame leftists of no appreciable influence, rather than their leaders who failed to speak to this issue, codify these protections,  etc. This is what is meant in Mao's writings where he is content to write off liberals as a threat to the revolution, however, because they're so preoccupied with conflict of their own making where the stakes are just totally non-existent; Russiagate, dark MAGA, etc.

However, in the modern political economy, it takes on a startling new element: the risk is that these people outside the donor class (where there is a shared, bipartisan class interest with no end to the capital to perpetuate the kayfabe of American electoralism) wield political power by having more money than a reactionary right, so their every consumerist whim is responded to in political economy, while being disengaged themselves; the state does so little because this is who they need to cater to, who are satisfied with as little as the working class get from the state because they, the average liberal, never wanted it, even if they needed it.

I guess the takeaway from all of this is that we're in a frustrating time where liberalism's main opponent is a leftist movement intending to hold them accountable, but failing because of a refusal to synthesize thought from present material reality, and victory for this western liberal democratic order would mean getting to let the class interests of corporatist autocracy fully entrench while they check out into musical and SNL sketches, while they perform outrage while living acceptance of the result. The solution, according to Mao, is to persist in revolutionary thought and let these elements neutralize themselves, choke on their own malaise-desiring drama, and eventually they find themselves, regardless of the power they may wield, unprepared to combat any further.

"Vote Blue No Matter Who" (2020) colorized