At https://blog.reaction.la/economics/national-capitalism-and-sanctions-on-russia/ some of us had a debate about the role of sincerely held beliefs among leftists, particularly in the left’s internal power struggles. At first the debate shed rather more heat than light, but it was ultimately worth it because it culminated in the following very good comment from the blog proprietor.
While one should not treat the claim that the owner of an applecart is oppressing the proletariat, causing global warming, or whatever, as sincerely held, nor suppose they give a tinker’s dam about the sufferings of the proletariat or the temperature of the earth, one does need to take seriously what their story implies about what apple cart they are coordinating to knock over, and what mob they are assembling to knock it over.
These are not individual conflicts, Stalin versus Trotsky, but struggles over Schelling points for group coordination.
Trotsky was a purer communist than Stalin, because his communism was unconstrained by practical economic considerations. Since there had been repeated cycles of the ever lefter grabbing power from the insufficiently left, his purity was likely to result in him grabbing power from Stalin, which was undoubtedly the real motive behind such lunatic purity and the real reason for Stalin crushing the Trots – but such purity was likely to result in someone grabbing power from Stalin, regardless of what happened to Trotsky. The ideas, rather than Trotsky himself, were the threat.
Ideas matter. And they still matter even when they should not be taken seriously. They may not be the real motives for the left’s actions, but they are the real mechanism for left coordination to take action.
The details of Trotsky’s superior purity are irrelevant, uninteresting, hypocritical, and not sincerely held. And in this sense, it would be pointless to pay attention to the ideological argument. But the argument was real enough regardless. Stalin was impure, because concerned with practical consequences. His reasoning that Trotskyism was “objectively fascist” was that it was likely to have stupid and disastrous practical consequences that the fascists would be happy about.
Consider the question, “Are internal power struggles among leftists about ideology?” As with Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, the correct answer to this question is not “Yes” or “No” but “Mu.”
The left’s attitude toward ideas is on the whole one of brutally amoral cynicism. Yet they can take conflicts over ideological questions very seriously indeed. This is because the stakes are often life and death. If you don’t already know, look up what happened to Robespierre and Trotsky. (I could tell you, but it will have more impact if you discover it yourself.) It is not only that the “ideas” are used as weapons to justify taking power, killing people, etc. They are also used as coordination mechanisms to settle on just who is going to be attacked in the first place.
The particular ideology the left coordinates on determines who is going to be attacked, and at the same time, why they are going to be attacked. In fact the Why determines the Who: If “racism” is the big problem, then it’s whites who are to be attacked; if pollution is the problem, then corporations. If “left deviationists,” then Trotsky. Etc.
The ideologies are both the terrain on which the ideological battle is fought and the weapons with which it is fought. They are at the same time the prize for which such battles are fought, since the winner of the ideological battle has won the power to coordinate and direct violence.
So again: “Are internal power struggles among leftists about ideology?” From a behavioral empiricist point of view, all that is going on is that evil people are engaging in gang war, both against targets in the broader society and against each other. But because coordination is all-important in war, an immense amount of energy is devoted to proving that one’s own gang has the correct ideology and opposing gangs are incorrect. It must be so, because the stakes are life and death.
Thus the apparent paradox:
Leftists, who are utterly cynical in terms of taking ideas seriously, treat ideas with the seriousness of a gutter knife fight.