Monday, July 25, 2011

Comments on a Talk by Milt Rosen

A member of the Left Book Group to which I belong has posted a speech by Milt Rosen, a founder of the Progressive Labor Party, on the occasion of his recent death. This has given me a welcome opportunity to expound on some of my thinking on the relations between politics, philosophy, and psychology. You can read the original speech at Here are my comments:

There are some valid points here about the importance of developing relationships with people, even outside of politics, and really listening to them. But I think the implementation of this idea is hampered by the Leninist framework, which tends to lead people to interpret reality more on the basis of what the party (leaders) say, and less on their own experience and that of coworkers and neighbors. This is because of the cognitive dissonance effects that Dennis Tourish (among others) has discussed in his paper, "Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism, and Cultism."

It's interesting that he gives the Chinese Army (pre-Revolution) as an example of how it's possible to incorporate discussion in the context of action. As we now understand, a lot of that "discussion" was probably what the Maoists called thought reform, which they started practicing even before they took power. This involves "struggle," all right, but there's nothing really scientific about it since it involves a high level of psychological coercion. This is also the context in which they developed the concept of "criticism and self-criticism." This doesn't prove that every group employing these terms is a cult, but when they're applied in conjunction with other concepts like democratic centralism that are also conducive to conformity pressure, the hazard to intellectual (and emotional) autonomy is particularly high.

Another key difference with scientific method is that the latter requires controlled experiments. Coming up with a "scientific plan" based on a "correct line" means you are acting on a single hypothesis — not on two or more hypotheses. This means you are not able to compare the relative merits of different ideas, which is fundamental to science. (True, you can compare the relative efficacy of your group's ideas to those of other groups; but you are unlikely either to have unbiased information on which to base such an evaluation, or the psychological ability to evaluate it in an unbiased way, since your group identity is invested in your own hypothesis and you likely regard the other groups as opponents if not class enemies.)

Rosen is doubtless right that sometimes people express differences for selfish reasons and not out of deep conviction. But it's disturbing how readily he attributes some people's "falling away" to an unwillingness to intensify struggle. He claims they had no fundamental differences, but doesn't quote them to prove that they would agree with that statement. On the other hand, this kind of explanation is extremely characteristic of how every cult describes those who leave — it's never for valid reasons, always because the individual was weak or had some flaw. For that matter, one can't even tell from the text that these people actually dropped out of politics; they may simply have chosen to join a different group or continue their activism without an affiliation.

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