It has often been said that the Left is its own worst enemy. We bicker like cats. We cry for unity yet attack eachother at every turn. Are Republicans worse than Democrats? Socialism or Anarchism? To defend Labor or throw ‘corrupt Labor beaurocrats’ to the wolves? Inside or outside the Democratic Party? Admit it, Dear Reader. You’re already pulling on the gauntlets. Your fingers itch for the ideological sword.
Marx’ most important contribution to the class struggle was to take the fight for social change out of the realm of endless debate rooted purely in ideas (philosophy) and into the realm of materially-based, measurable action (science). What is truly ‘modern’ about Marx is not his advocacy of socialism but his insistence on a scientific approach to getting there.
So: what does that ‘scientific’ approach consist of? To paraphrase Carl Sagan, there are three components. The first is passion, in the everyday meaning of the word: desire, hope, outrage, anger at injustice. The second is scepticism: yes, yes, it all sounds great. But can it be done? How can we be sure that this is the situation, these the potentialities? The third is a commitment to following the evidence. Good evidence. Evidence we can all see and agree on (a).
It may seem strange that the three qualities of a good scientist are subjective ones. Why not logic and a strong grounding in math? The reason is that scientists are human beings, with all the flaws of human beings. Science is not an ‘objective’ pursuit. It is a human pursuit that functions as well as it does because those who participate in it have a similar commitment to truth.
All science makes use of ‘experiments’ — sets of ‘make-or-break’ observations that can point the way between two opposed hypotheses. If the data break one way, it means that hypothesis ‘A’ is correct, and any reasonable person can see that. Otherwise, it is a clear ‘win’ for position ‘B’ and any reasonable person can see that. So long as the numbers add up and there are no excesses of flighty logic, the end result must be clear-cut — one way or the other.
Of course, were this the world of Facebook, many on the ‘other’ side would simply choose to ignore the evidence. And this is where we have to ask ourselves what we are passionate about. Too many ‘leftists’ would be perfectly happy to go down fighting, to live our convictions, not as a real attempt to change the society we live in, but as a personal statement. Only when our anger at what we and those around us go through every day is coupled with a conviction that change is really possible, do we de-personalize the research. Only then do we push to find the sharpest tools and the best understanding. Only then do we face our own biases and follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
There is a scene WEB DuBois paints in one of the essays of ‘Souls of Black Folk’ (b) where he is on his way to his editor, his latest poetic achievement in hand. Hurrying along, he happens on a crowd in front of a shop window. Curious, he pushes to the front. There, on a sheet of butcher paper, lie the knuckles of a man who had been lynched the night before. That moment marked the beginning of the end of DuBois’ ‘Talented Tenth’ and the birth of his engagement with Socialism. DuBois did not like the working class, Black or white, and he did not like left-wingers. But those bloody knuckles drove home to him that it would take a vast, determined, mass struggle to rid this country of racism. To get there, he had to throw his biases out the window. DuBois changed because his need was great.
We are all familiar with the spurious argument that the social sciences are not ‘hard’ sciences. We cannot ‘experiment’ on groups of people — divide them into a ‘test’ population we change and a ‘control’ population we leave alone. Yet, in a certain sense, governments (and other large agents, like corporations) do this all the time. Every time a policy is implemented in one place but not in another, it becomes possible to study the effects of those changes. These studies are called ‘quasi-experiments’. Of course, to do this one must first account for intrinsic differences between the two populations. Fortunately, we have a very powerful tool for that: Statistics.
The social sciences pioneered statistics, but statistics have turned out to be very useful in the ‘hard’ sciences as well. The electrons that surround the nucleus of an atom are best described using a ‘probability function’ — a technique of statistics that shows the chance that an electron is in a given spot in a given moment. The molecules that make up gases, liquids and solids all vibrate constantly. Even in a solid, the molecules vibrate (‘heat’ is a measure of this vibration). The molecules in gases are also in free motion, constantly bouncing against eachother. The effects these movements have on the materials they compose are described using statistics. If we heat those molecules over a flame, it is statistics that describes the way that the heat disperses through the mass. Statistics will tell you the probability that an electron moving at a given rate (amperage) through a copper wire of a given diameter will hit a copper atom, generating heat. The equations electricians use to determine the gauge of the wire needed for a given length of run at a given amperage and voltage are based on this statistical calculation.
It was by use of ‘quasi-experiments’ and statistics that scientists determined that smoking is dangerous and that global warming exists and is human-caused.
Still, even in the ‘hard’ sciences, the ‘perfect’ experiment has yet to be invented. In practice, all experiments contain bias — bias in the way they are structured, bias in how the test population is picked, bias in the interpretation of the results. Science’s defense against bias is scepticism, enshrined in the practice of ‘repeatability’. Any experiment that one person performs, another person should be able to duplicate with much the same results. This principle also extends to methodology. If a given factor is included in a piece of research, the choice to include it needs to be defensible. There needs to be good reason. The results need to be clear enough, strong enough, that even excluding some secondary factors, the base trend is clear. Wherever the choices made are illogical, wherever the process cannot be justified and reproduced, we must be wary. More than that: we need to go looking for the errors.
In 1994, Hernnstein and Murray published “The Bell Curve” to rave reviews (c). The book became a bestseller. Nevertheless, the book was not peer-reviewed before its publication and its assumptions and methodology were severely flawed. Yet I personally know a professor, at the time a leader in the field, whose meticulous attack on the book’s methodology found no publisher anywhere in the US. Her critique eventually appeared, months after submission, in translation in a French sociological journal. Only the attitude of a Vincenzo “Vinnie” Gambini — tearing into assumptions, ferreting out weaknesses, exposing flaws — can create the assurance that the research and, equally importantly, the conclusions, are sound. In the case of “The Bell Curve,” it took US society years to get around to this task. Many in the US have never gotten around to it at all.
When Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, there were many in my political party, the Communist Party, USA, who initially dismissed him out of hand. “People are not ready,” they said. “Nice idea, but it’ll go nowhere.”
The “it’ll go nowhere” was a prediction based on a theory of the state of the US electorate. At the time, this theory was driving a CPUSA program which de-emphasized a class struggle approach to democracy in favor of a ‘Jenny-bar-the-gate’ one. Absent a working class and petty bourgeoisie that were prepared to fight on advanced social and economic demands, the only viable road to defending the country’s democratic institutions was subservience to the embattled ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie.
At the same time, there were voices arguing that the US electorate was actually much more advanced than that. According to these voices, the lack of a left, advanced democratic program to rally the electorate was actually driving voters out of politics. This, in turn, doomed any chance of building an effective anti-Right ‘front’.
In reality, there were other ‘data points’ in this discussion, including falling CPUSA membership numbers around the country and a drop in the CPUSA’s relevance to the mass movements. But the CPUSA is a small organization. In a small organization, it is difficult to determine by ‘internal’ evidence alone when a ‘line’ is effective or not —in the language of statistics, we would say that the ‘sample’ is too small. In our case, only a close brush with self-annihilation made clear the need to change paths. But it was Senator Sanders’ showing in the 2016 Democratic Primary that gave the decisive push.
Many Left commentators have chosen to emphasize the un-equal nature of the Democratic Party playing field, as if to minimize Sanders’ achievement. Others attacked Sanders’ ‘electibility’. Still more claim that Sanders is not a ‘revolutionary’ but a social-democrat at best. These are all valid points that nevertheless miss the central issue. What Sanders showed is that a mass Left electorate exists in this country, an electorate large enough to sustain a mass political party — if that electorate is energized with an advanced democratic program to fight on.
Sanders’ nomination bid was in fact a quasi-experiment. Sanders ran to test the hypothesis that the US electorate was ready for something different. Had Sanders flopped, it would have confirmed the ‘the Left is weak and isolated’ assessment. In that case, the proposal to hunker down into a purely defensive battle against the bourgeois extreme right would have been justified — even if that position led to the dissolution of the CPUSA. Instead, Sanders’ Primary bid provided clear evidence that the US electorate is far more advanced than some in the CPUSA had thought. The logical conclusion was that a class-based offensive against the far Right was not only possible, but necessary. The renewal that we in the CPUSA have been experiencing in these past months is a direct consequence of our members’ willingness to take to heart the lessons of the mass arena — even when those results contradict our own cherished beliefs.
An evidence-based approach can also help decide other contentious issue on the Left. For example, although Left-wingers never tire of raging over the ‘inside or outside the Democratic Party’ debate, there is remarkably little modern evidence to suggest one line over the other. Yes, Corporate Democrats did everything in their power to wreck Bernie Sanders’ Presidential bid. But so did the Mensheviks do everything they could to hamstring the Bolsheviks back in the day — but that didn’t make the Bolsheviks abandon the Russian Workers Social Democratic Party.
On the other hand, historical precedent strongly suggests that the workingclass needs a mass political party of its own. Historical precedent does not, however, tell us clearly where and when the workingclass should do this. This is especially true given that the other thing that historical precedent strongly suggests is that the workingclass needs allies in its bid for power — allies among the other oppressed groups in society and, if possible, from within the ranks of the bourgoisie itself.
Put another way, the ‘inside/outside’ debate is being fought primarily on ideology and historical precedent — not on a detailed analysis of what is happening today in the United States and the world. This, in turn, suggests that the debate is a sterile one and that the opposing parties would do better to support eachothers’ efforts, recognizing the importance of both, rather than tear into eachother every step of the way. Alternatively, let us do the work necessary to assess the actual needs of today.
To again paraphrase Carl Sagan, ‘not better arguments, but better instruments’ are necessary if we want to move this country forward politically. Not the words of (even the greatest) long-dead leader, but changes in actually-existing, material reality, bring masses of people along. It is time we on the Left do what we have always professed to do: take a scienfic approach to societal change. Passion, scepticism and an honest adherence to evidence must be the hallmarks of our work.
(a) Given that our objective, as ‘left’ Americans, is to direct the grand-scale development of a society of nearly 330 million people, ‘good’ evidence should be ‘macro’ in nature — widespread and clear-cut. To argue, for example, that ‘the recent victory of Kari Lerner in the District 4 State Assembly race in New Hampshire [where a total of 1804 votes were cast -MyS] shows that the Democrats are winning again’ is not good evidence of anything. Yet this is exactly what Daily KOS did in a article published Sept 26, 2017, “Eight is great: Democrats flip SECOND Republican seat in one night for eighth pickup of the cycle”.
(b) The quote is actually in the introduction to ‘Dusk of Dawn,’ and the details I narrate are less than accurate. Nevertheless, the essence is there. Said DuBois, in the introduction to ‘Dusk of Dawn:’
I have essayed in a half century three sets of thought… The first of these, “The Souls of Black Folk,”… was a cry at midnight thick within the veil… The second, “Darkwater,”… was an exposition and militant challenge…”
The quote I refer to above is to be found in chapter 4, ‘Science and Empire:’
“At the very time when my studies were most successful, there cut across this plan… a red ray which could not be ignored. I remember when it first, as it were, startled me to my feet: a poor Negro…, Sam Hose, had killed his landlord’s wife. I wrote out a careful… statement… and started down to the Atlanta ‘Constitution’ office… I did not get there. On the way news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down on Mitchell Street, along which I was walking…”
(c) Jim Naureckas, in the January, 1995 issue of Fair.org, has an excellent discussion of the reaction of mainstream media to the book’s publication. Most telling is his comment that, “media accounts showed a disturbing tendency to accept Murray and Herrnstein’s premises and evidence even while debating their conclusions.” Yet in science, if the premises and evidence are valid, the conclusions must logically follow. Jim Naureckas, “Racism Resurgent: How Media Let The Bell Curve’s Pseudo-Science Define the Agenda on Race” , fair.org/home/racism-resurgent .