In politics, at different times in my life, I have been on the center-right and the center-left and the center. But in spite of having co-authored a book entitled “The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics,” I have never really been a radical of any kind. I understood why recently when I read, for the first time, one of the late philosopher Richard Rorty’s most celebrated essays, “Campaigns and Movements,” published in Dissent in the Winter of 1995.
Rorty began by poking fun at the belief of the editors and writers of Partisan Review in the middle of the twentieth century that it was very important to support both democratic socialism and avant-garde modernism in the arts, which were both linked in some obscure way to “the crisis of modern society.”
Back in 1995, Rorty wrote:
I do not think that the art and literature of the early twentieth century marked a major turning in the cultural history of the West … Virginia Woolf’s claim that “Around December 1910, human nature changed” now strikes me as ludicrous. The most that changed was the sexual behavior of some of Woolf’s friends and relations.
Writing in the mid-1990s, Rorty was amused by the belief of mid-century intellectuals that the demise of capitalism was imminent:
The idea of “the breakdown of capitalism” has lost its force, as has the assumption that the world as a whole has entered upon a process called “modernization.” The big question for the coming century seems to be something like “Can either the rule of law or the ideals of human equality and of global fraternity survive in an over-populated and poisoned world, most of which is under the control of semiliterate warlords brandishing nuclear arms?”
Rorty contrasted the politics of “movements” with the politics of “campaigns.” Movement politics “assumes that things must be changed utterly, so that a new kind of beauty may be born.” Campaigns, however, can succeed even if they change only one feature in an otherwise unchanged world: “By contrast, campaigns for such goals as the unionization of migrant farm workers in the American Southwest, or banning big trucks from the Alps, or the overthrow (by voters or by force) of a corrupt government, or legal recognition of gay marriage, can stand on their own feet. They can be conducted without much attention to literature, art, philosophy or history.”
The mentality of movement radicalism is best exemplified by Marxism in its various spin-offs and denominations. The essential idea is that the end of an age is nigh, and that by paying attention to the signs of the times, we can not only anticipate the future but also know when and how to shape it.
As my phrase “signs of the times” suggests, Marxism and other apocalyptic secular creeds owe a lot to Western Christian providentialism, as John Gray among others has argued. In providential secularism, the prophet like John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, is replaced by the genius theorist like Marx or Lenin or Trotsky. If the prophet is also a political leader, like Moses, you get Lenin or Trotsky, who, along with Mao and Che Guevara later, inspired generations of romantics not so much with their ideas, which mostly turned out to be wrong and harmful, as with their examples as “action intellectuals,” combining scholarship with armed revolution.
Something like the movement approach to politics informs New Left Review, a worthy successor of Partisan Review. Like its long-time editor Perry Anderson, New Left Review is erudite, rigorous, cosmopolitan, and urbane. It is the most intelligent journal of the radical left, if, as a moderate reformist liberal, I have any standing to pass judgment.
I enjoy every issue of New Left Review, as a simple Methodist pastor might enjoy studying the impressive Thomist theology of a Vatican encyclical. There might be a thoughtful article on the cinema in the Philippines, along with a rich discussion of global shadow banking and an account of new forms of feminism in Latin America. I read them all, even though I know I am not the intended reader of New Left Review because I am not knowledgeable and intelligent enough. The ideal reader of New Left Review — or for that matter of any “movement” magazine, of left or right — would have to be a genius blessed by an encyclopedic memory and superhuman powers of insight. Only a reader as brilliant as idealized versions of Marx and Trotsky would be smart enough to discern the subtle pattern of history that is divulged to the eye of genius by Filipino cinema, global banking crises, and Latin American feminism.
Only a reader as brilliant as Mycroft Holmes.
Those who have read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories will recall that the ingenious detective wasn’t the real genius in the family. That honor belonged to his older brother Mycroft Holmes, whose peerless intelligence was such a national security asset that he worked exclusively for the British government while his less gifted younger brother solved mysteries of less consequence.
The fictional Mycroft Holmes, Doyle implies, spent his time monitoring obscure but potentially important naval incidents among European great powers and searching for messages from spies hidden in newspapers. But what if Mycroft had been a left-wing radical? Much of his daily research would have been the same. But he also might have kept abreast of trends in the arts, protest movements around the world, and the ups and downs of business, in the conviction that a pattern in global events would reveal itself to him if only he stared at the carpet long enough.
I understand why Mycroft Marx Lenin Trotsky Holmes would be appealing to radical leftists. But then, I understand why Ayn Rand’s fantasies of capitalist supergeniuses appeal to libertarians. What bookish nerd does not dream of being a superhuman world-historical figure?
To paraphrase the description of the Roundheads and Cavaliers in 1066 and All That, in my view liberals are Right but Repulsive while radicals are Wrong but Wromantic. I’m with Rorty. To use my example, Latin American feminism may in fact have nothing to do with Filipino cinema today, any more than democratic socialism had anything to do with the high modernism of Eliot and Pound in the glory days of Partisan Review.
You don’t have to fix everything to fix something. And you don’t have to understand everything first, either. •
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