January 6, 2023
On Criticism (Jan 4, 2023)
In the misbegotten days of my youth when I was a flaming Maoist, one of the rituals was criticism/self-criticism—or, among insiders, crit/self-crit. Each comrade was supposed to subject themselves to group criticism at meetings’ end and also to fess up to their own transgressions. The ritual was more benign than it sounds: you might be criticized for not tying your sneaker laces (it was before untied sneakers were chill), and you might self-criticize yourself for the petty-bourgeois deviation of never having learnt how to tie them. Still, it would be wrongheaded to dismiss the notion of criticism/self-criticism. In a mass movement of the have-nots committed to radical change, possessing a firm grasp on truth is a critical weapon in our arsenal. Those holding the levers of power can afford to make and repeat errors. They have ample resources—money, media, raw force—to compensate for poor judgment. Indeed, it is largely our grasp on truth that compensates for all our other (inevitable) deficits: truth is a powerful weapon for winning over public opinion, and it enables us to husband our scarce resources, not squander them on committing and repeating errors. But it’s impossible to get a handle on truth until and unless one’s past mistakes have been subjected to exhaustive criticism. During the first Russian Revolution of 1905, Rosa Luxemburg noted that the political party in Poland with which she had repeatedly crossed swords, the nationalist PPS (Polish Socialist Party), had revealed itself to be wrong on all major points, whereas the party she led, the Marxist SDKPiL (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) correctly anticipated the unfolding revolution. “To say this,” Rosa went on,
is not to engage in some sort of party boasting. . . . The welfare of the workers’ movement requires above all a sincere and uncompromising criticism of the errors and deviations that this movement makes, rather than covering up and masking the full truth from the workers. (“A Political Settling of the Score,” 1905)
Looking back on my life, I feel blessed that I had, for the most part, chosen the right heroes and heroines. They had stayed the course; each remained until their last dying breath unreconciled to a radically unjust world and still committed to its radical transformation. One reward of writing my forthcoming book (I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!) was that I could repay, by publicly acknowledging, my debt to them and, in some small way, help preserve their memories for posterity. I even got to include a page titled “The Red Stars in My Firmament” with their photographs: Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Paul Sweezy, Rosa Luxemburg, Annette Rubinstein. But one thing has always nagged at, troubled me: they didn’t appear to have conducted that “sincere and uncompromising criticism” even as so much of what they had believed—and persuaded others to believe—proved to be dead wrong. (Rosa excepted, as she criticized from its inception aspects of the Bolshevik revolution while still embracing its aspirations.) They either pretended as if nothing had happened or they forged ahead, lending unconditional support to one radical cause after another, without looking back. But something did happen, something awful: shouldn’t we pause to figure out where we went wrong so as not to make the same mistake again? Paul Robeson was the idol of my youth. I can still see my 17-year-old self in my mind’s eye, perched on a step ladder in my college bookstore while reading Robeson’s testimony before Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. (The volume collecting these transcripts, Eric Bentley’s Thirty Years of Treason, was too expensive to purchase.) His stinging ripostes to the anti-Communist witch-hunters leapt off the page. I committed much of his testimony to memory and even to this day can recite it. His fearlessness was unmatched by any of the others dragged before McCarthy. (Even Pete Seeger was mealy-mouthed and later rued that he didn’t show Robeson’s defiance.) But Robeson was clearly wrong about Stalin’s Russia. He was even a personal witness to one of its numberless crimes, but couldn’t extricate himself without appearing to align with the U.S. in the Cold War. To his last days, Robeson remained faithful to the Soviet Union. When his 75th birthday was celebrated at Carnegie Hall in 1973, he was too ill to attend (he died three years later) but he did send a recorded message. “I want you to know that I am the same Paul,” it began. And indeed he was. He went on to say that he was still “dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood”; that “my heart is with the continuing struggles of my own people . . . not only [for] equal rights but an equal share”; that he saluted “the colonial liberation movements of Africa, Latin America and Asia, which have gained . . . from the heroic example of the Vietnamese people;” that he “rejoiced together with the partisans of peace—the peoples of the Socialist countries (my emphasis) and the progressive elements of all other countries . . . that the movement for peaceful coexistence has made important gains and that the advocates of ‘cold war’ and ‘containment’ have had to retreat.” In the rare photographs of Robeson at the end of his life (he lived in seclusion), it’s as if his formidable frame had caved in, a shrunken giant. If he had refrained from criticizing the Soviets or self-criticism of his past, it was not, I believe, because of political blindness or calculation. He was too smart and too principled. It was pride. It’s hard enough to admit one’s errors. It’s a thousand times harder to concede that, even if driven by the basest of motives, those who criticized you and destroyed your life had been vindicated. Such an acknowledgment would have been, for someone of Robeson’s personal honor, mortifying. The tragedy was, he was sincerely wrong while those who hounded him were squalidly right.