Leftist Anti-Intellectualism Essay

“Ignorance never yet helped anybody!”

These words of Karl Marx from the 1846 are often ignored by most of his present-day disciples. 

Yet they remain as true today as when they were uttered. Marx was not one to shy away from engaging with rival ideas, taking the time to study and develop the intellectual tools necessary to change the world. Yet most of the contemporary socialist left, who boast of their fidelity to Marx, are more inclined to do the exact opposite and promote anti-intellectualism. This socialist anti-intellectualism manifests itself in many ways: underestimating the ability of working people to grasp advanced ideas, a teaching of revolutionary theory in the form of dogma and a refusal to actually engage with ideas outside of their tradition, all of which produces political activists devoid of critical thinking skills. 

On many sections of the socialist left, workers are viewed as not possessing an aptitude for critical thought. This stereotypical working class is more interested in beer than books, can understand football statistics but not the inner workings of capitalism, and would rather tell a dirty joke than have an intelligent conversation on the world they’d like to live in. True, there certainly are working people who are anti-intellectual and are just looking out for just their own interests. However, there is another side to the working class. Throughout the long history of the labor movement, there have been many workers who have hungered for knowledge and to better themselves in the struggle for a new world. For example, Cuban cigar workers in the late 1800s were largely illiterate and worked more than 12 hours a day. Yet they did not accept their fate as beasts of burden, but wanted to learn and to that end, they hired someone to read to them on subjects ranging from history to astronomy while they rolled cigars. Their thirst for knowledge enabled these workers to become understand not only the wider world, but taught them to question and to think.

And these examples can be multiplied. Historically, workers would teach themselves economics, philosophy and revolutionary theory because they knew it was necessary to know the world in order to change it. And out of the working class emerged, as Antonio Gramsci would say, organic intellectuals such as James Connolly, Big Bill Haywood, and Mother Jones. All of them were devoted political activists with little formal education, but understood the importance of learning and were able develop themselves to grasp advanced ideas and believed that other workers could do the same.

Yet too many on the socialist left act as if the stereotype of the anti-intellectual working class is the norm. These socialists speak down to workers, treat them as stupid and belittle their abilities to think critically. Often they hold the workers some political actions may seem beneath their ability to comprehend or divisive such as solidarity with Palestine or immigrants. And if your political line is one that assumes that people are half-witted, then your politics will not lead to the liberation of people, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

And while there are workers with backward views and not all that interested in advanced ideas, this just shows that class and political consciousness is not something innate in workers. This means that we as socialists have a role as teachers as well as learners. And our approach to teaching should be one of patience and understanding where we view workers as eager to hear and be inspired by our revolutionary message. And once inspired, they will earnestly participate in the struggle, taking the time to develop themselves intellectually and practically for the needs of the struggle.

A second manifestation of socialist anti-intellectualism is how socialist organizations intellectually develop their own activists. In most socialist organizations, when a new activist is recruited, they are not taught how to use Marxism as a critical and  revolutionary tool to analyze the world in order to change it. Rather, they are taught by rote from particular political tradition, whether it is the three heads of Marx, Engels and Lenin with perhaps Trotsky or Mao add on. This approach to learning is more akin to the religious instruction of revealed truths than to that of an independent revolutionary. Thinkers and texts outside of the approved socialist tradition are frowned upon and ignored. And when you teach revolutionary theory as dogma and rote, then you have not taught the critical ability of revolutionary theory, but in actuality dogma and rote wrapped up in leftist phraseology.

The quality of an activist is judged not by their ability to analyze but by their ability to repeat back the accepted dogma of such questions range from “was the Soviet Union a degenerated workers’ state or state capitalist?” to “can you give a correct answer to the nature of the popular front in France?” For many socialist organizations it is assumed that if you have the 'correct' verdicts on every historical question, then you will act properly in the future which of course, is not true. Many socialists with a seemingly pure historical pedigree have backed retrograde political positions such supporting the Democratic Party as the 'lesser evil' in elections.

Teaching by rote as opposed to the development of critical thinking manifests itself starkly in polemics with rival left trends. For example, it is not uncommon to find Trotskyist polemics against Maoism that don't engage with any of Mao's arguments, positions, or the history of Maoism. Or at best, you will get some quotes ripped from Mao which are totally out of context. Rather than actually investigating what the other side has to say and criticizing it, polemics of this type just make assumptions not based on actual  evidence or employ over-used words that describe such varying movements, countries and figures that they wind up devoid of meaning (Stalinism being a prime example, although the ever-favorite anarchist term statist is another). The purpose of these polemics is not genuine debate, learning or understanding, but to dogmatically defend the 'truth' from any challengers.

In fairness, Trotskyists are not the only offenders. There are plenty of Maoist attacks on Trotsky, which either repeat slanders from the 1930s or attribute positions to him that he  never held. And anarchist arguments against the Russian Revolution show an inclination to rely on Noam Chomsky's negative assessment (although he has never studied it) rather than any critical engagement with Lenin, Trotsky or any of the historians of the Russian Revolution.

Yet for most socialists, when someone misrepresents our position, that we, rightfully, call them out by saying they have not investigated our actual positions, arguments and the wider context? However, there is a certain level of hypocrisy practiced by many socialists who repeat the same behavior they criticize in others in their dealings with other currents. Shouldn't we have enough respect for our comrades to act differently?

Rather than writing empty polemics where we talk past each other, we should learn to investigate, listen and actually engage with what the other side has to say. We should stop teaching revolutionary theory by rote and develop critical thinking. And we should step outside our own bubbles and learn what the other side actually argues and believes. A good first step would be for Trotskyists to read Mao, Maoists to read Trotskyist, and anarchists to engage with Lenin to understand the Russian Revolution instead of Chomsky.

Ultimately, socialist anti-intellectualism whether in its view of workers, how we teach theory, or argue with one another ultimately produces political activists who will be unable to mobilize workers and devoid of critical thinking abilities. And for the sake of the cause we serve, we need to do better. We have to break with sterile anti-intellectualism and instead to look upon working class people as capable of grasping advanced ideas, developing activists who can think and engage with what other leftist currents actually say. This is a call on us as socialists to do better, to live up to our creed, and, of course, to think. Until we do that, the socialist left will remain far away from Marx's contempt for ignorance and closer to Orwell's ironic slogan from the novel 1984 that proclaims “ignorance is strength.” 

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, LINKS International Journal for Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint and Greenleft Weekly. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.

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Anti-intellectualism refers to the resentment or mistrust of intellectuals, intellectual pursuits, and the sciences. Its prevalence in the United States of America is perhaps one of the nation's most major hindrances to solving the problems it faces collectively. Anti-intellectualism is a prejudice that produces an unreasoned fear of objective study and scientific expertise, often taking the guise of anti-elitism in the face of outrageous dystopian caricatures of a world run by an aristocracy of callous monoliths in laboratory coats or by an armada of machines and computers. Obviously, anti-intellectual sentiment has its basis mostly in misunderstanding, but a persistent stream of misinformation spewed by the impassioned yet hollow rhetoric of shallow politicians and self-proclaimed orators has only served to maintain ignorance. Over the course of this essay, I hope to explain the history and causes of anti-intellectual sentiment as it has manifested and grown in the United States of America and to demonstrate the detrimental effect it has had and will have on our nation, from there seeking to encourage whoever might view this essay to reverse this trend by embracing objective problem-solving and developing an interest in critical thinking and the sciences.

On the influence of agrarian lifestyle[edit]

In the 19th Century, the population of America was still largely rural. Agrarian lifestyles demanded a capacity for consistent physical labor and a highly specialized knowledge. The study of classical knowledge, of poetry, philosophy, mathematics, history, etc., was seen as largely unnecessary. The old adage "Curiosity killed the cat," perhaps best exemplifies some of the quasi-spiritual association of intelligence with a tendency towards wickedness. For example, Rev. Bayard R. Hall is said to have written of frontier Indiana in 1843, "We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness" ("Renaissance"). Perhaps the idea was that, as every man is supposedly just as likely as the other of being evil, it was a safer bet to disarm all men intellectually that they might not have an arsenal of wit with which to commit some heinous crime. Also, as America was (and is) still a relatively young nation, a bitter taste was still fresh in the mouths of colonial descendants, of aristocracy and the so-called "high class". The image of the self-made man, the underdog, or a bumpkin who had no need for anything but his own determination, developed into an ideal, perhaps even exemplifying the American dream. After all, we were nothing but a series of little colonies that had rebelled against and won our independence from the great British Empire.

On the influence of Christian revivalism and historical fundamentalism[edit]

It is of worthy note that in the 19th Century, there took place a wave of rural Christian revivalism called the Second Great Awakening, and another wave of revivalism later in the century, quite aptly named the Third Great Awakening. This latter "awakening" had its roots in events actually taking place in the former, as in 1823 William Buckland, Dean of Westminster Abbey, published Reliquae Diluvianae, describing accumulations of bones found in caves, which were interpreted as indications of Noah's Flood, or relics of a pre-deluge world. Geology at the time was an emerging science and already we can see a clash between science and religious fundamentalism, particularly in regards to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Attempts to pacify simmering conflict are manifest in Hugh Miller's Foot-Prints of the Creator in 1849 and Testimony of the Rocks eight years later. These exemplify some of the earliest attempts in America by the dogmatically superstitious to construe scientific findings as evidentiary support for a biblical history, relying particularly on a misunderstanding of the evidence at hand and an often impressive display of mental contrivance. However, perhaps most influential in the conflict between religious dogmatism and science is the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The Third Awakening, recognized as being the most fiercely evangelical of the four that would occur, was characterized by mass-conversions and relentless missionary work, perhaps solidifying the place of religious fundamentalism in historically rural America.

On the impact of World War II, the Holocaust, and Stalinist Russia[edit]

As we move onward through history, we can begin to see a misguided association between science and ruthlessness or dehumanization. The strongest example of this would have to be the National-Socialists' pseudo-scientific justifications of racism and genocide, the butcher-like finesse of Hauptsturmführer-SS Dr. Josef Mengele playing no small part in connecting inhuman atrocity with a cold, calculating indifference to human suffering. Even in the realm of dictatorial pseudo-Communism, it could be said Stalin dehumanized his own select list of "undesirables" by some inexplicable, cold scientific process. Accusations that either regime founded its actions in science (DeWitt, Morris 179, Weston, Weston-Broome, "What happened"), of course, have no basis in fact as the National-Socialists and Stalinist dictatorship both dressed their own prejudices and irrational, unwavering dogmas in pseudo-scientific language as an attempt at legitimacy, a tactic often employed by creationists and fervent anti-intellectuals. (It is also worth noting that, among the Nazi book burnings were included evolutionary texts, Hitler himself advocating creationism and grounding his ideas in a "divine right", 65, 214, 383, 398 & "When Books Burn".) To say otherwise would imply, among other things, that science is inherently anti-Semitic, a notion contradicted not only by Albert Einstein, David S. Eisenberg, and the World Congress of Jewish Scientists, but by anti-Semitic rhetoric itself, including a claim from the infamous forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that evolutionary biology and geology were attempts by the World Jewry at subverting the Christian religion and social order (Nilus 45).

On leftwing currents[edit]

In modern times, we can still see that these attitudes persist, notably in the rhetoric of rightwing and fundamentalist politicians, but to some extent in movements, such as PETA, often considered "liberal". The atrocities committed in wartime camps not yet a century old in memory, it is easy to find on the conservative end of our political spectrum an association between "Darwinism" (by which is meant methodological naturalism) and social Darwinism, as might be manifest in Nazi-fascist or dictatorial policies (DeWitt, Morris 179, Weston, Weston-Broome). (That such ruthlessness and authoritarianism be always associated in the collective mind of the American Right with communism is unfortunate and, with some thought, paradoxical.) We do see, however, leftwing currents of anti-intellectualism, most notably in the 1960s, in which anti-war sentiment was also very strong. Illustratively, the Secretary of Defense at this time, Robert McNamara, was considered as having viewed war casualties merely as statistics, his indifference to humanity a token stylization of the lab-coat monolith. Particularly common in the leftwing mindset of the era was the conspiratorial idea of the educational system and scientific experts as functioning to maintain the status quo and ensure conformity. Marxist, music man, and sociologist Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno noted a trend in the youth as relying not on reasoning and evidence to achieve the societal change they wanted, but a romantic image of uneducated mountain men and moonshiners and preferred symbolic gesture as a means of affecting change (Adorno 165-168). He labeled this tendency "actionism". Another more contemporary liberal current of anti-intellectualism is the idea of un-schooling, that a child will learn everything he needs to by his own play or exploration.

On rightwing currents[edit]

Modern rightwing currents of anti-intellectualism are far more apparent, particularly with the association of American conservatism and Christian fundamentalism. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin demonstrated a rather ignorant, if smug tendency for dismissing sciences as eccentric, so often found in neoconservative rhetoric, in her first policy speech urging the federal government to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Here is the quote itself:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? [...] You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

Palin did not seem to be aware of the fact that, one year previous, a study at the University of North Carolina, of fruit flies, demonstrated the need for a specific protein called neurexin for nerve cell connections to form and function properly (Li, Jingjun et al. 741-55). To quote: "The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism" ("Specific Brain Protein"). In fact, there was another such study done the very same year ("Drosophila Drug Screen" & S, Chang et al. 256-63) and plans to further explore the implications of these discoveries (Leuven). I hesitate to make any conjecture based on this alone, but I can't help but wonder what state Sarah Palin's youngest offspring Trig would be in for the rest of his life had the Governor's version of reality been enacted as policy.

Concerning "academic freedom" and intellectual paranoia[edit]

Compounding a perceived uselessness and eccentricity held over from the 19th Century, neoconservative anti-intellectualism manifests also in an interesting paranoia over "liberal indoctrination" in academia. The founder of a reactionary wiki known as "Conservapedia", self-proclaimed to be an unbiased and reliable source, Andrew Schlafly (Simon), has maintained a website whose so-called sciences are dedicated to biblical literalism, creationism ("Theory of Evolution"), and anti-relativism ("Conservapedian Relativity" & "Theory of Relativity"), for the simple fact that scientific relativity is similar-sounding to moral relativism (a philosophy abhorred by most of his wiki's contributors) ("Conservapedian Relativity"). In fact, quite often is a user banned for making any changes to the open wiki that are perceived as having any connection to liberalism ("User talk:Jpatt"). What is most disturbing about this is that Andrew Schlafly, a man of limited education and scant credentials (in fact, no evidence in the public domain for his training or qualification in the fields of education or childhood/pre-college development), runs a home-schooling business. Considering this is a man who rejects relativity for its phonetic similarity to an entirely different idea and accepts three-word, incomplete sentences ("Student Eleven") or factually incorrect answers ("Student Four") as A-grade AP-level responses to essay prompts ("American Government 101"), I think I can be allowed my concern. Also perpetuating the liberal-schooling conspiracy theory is David Horowitz (FrontPage Mag), exemplifying a persecution complex common amongst the religious right in his founding of what he calls the "academic freedom" movement (Media Transparency). On several occasions, when Horowitz has been asked to substantiate his claims of liberal indoctrination in academia (Marklein), such as a student receiving an F for not condemning Bush as a war criminal (Horowitz "Victory!" & Call) and a professor showing his students Fahrenheit 9/11 as a means of influencing their votes for the 2004 presidential election (Horowitz "Freedom"), he has consistently failed to do so ("Retractions", "Tattered Poster Child"), despite odd, yet victorious claims to such accusations being "confirmed".

On sensationalist media[edit]

The most damning source of anti-intellectualism in our nation, however, comes from a seemingly more legitimate source than the sophomoric demonstrations of a student protester or the borderline-insane ramblings of a dogmatic religious nut: our own media. Our media necessarily grabs the most sensational stories it can find and has, historically, paraded half-baked hypotheses as being dire predictions for humanity's immediate future. A few examples of sensationalist trends are vaccine, SARS, and swine flu panics. Of course, when such craziness is later corrected or shown even to the layman to have not been viable, science takes on the appearance of constantly shifting from one extreme to the other in prediction. People are turned off by the idea of some eccentric eggheads who think one day that the world will freeze and the next that it will flood. Some of them even come to believe that scientific experts are really no more knowledgeable than they, and so set out on their own trek of inadvertently spewing misinformation while convinced that they, through their own philosophical conjecture, know, fully, how the world works. And then there are just some people who really don't care that much about anything past their next party or fix; a nihilistic apathy.

On the effects of anti-intellectualism[edit]

The effects of mass anti-intellectual sentiment are themselves devastating to any civilization. Our most fundamental system of supplying our people with problem-solving abilities and useful skills, our educational system, comes under attack from anti-intellectualism, sometimes by radical leftwing sophistry, but more often by rightwing fundamentalism and paranoia. Already cited as examples were Andrew Schlafly's home-schooling program and wiki, and David Horowitz's so-called "Freedom Center". Both are hypocritical affronts to education on the grounds of political indoctrination and both are founded in their respective creator's personal prejudices and preconceptions. But history has shown us numerous instances in which anti-intellectualism has endangered us, both in education and freedom. The Butler Act of 1925 in Tennessee demanded that the biblical account of man's origin be taught as science, not only superseding evolutionary biology and evidentiary science, but also the creation myths of all other conceivable religions. Likewise, the laws leading to the Scopes Trial and Epperson v Arkansas forced education to tailor to the superstitions of one particular religious sect, at the cost of our children's education. The Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act (McLean v. Arkansas), Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act (Edwards v. Aguillard), as well as creation-"science" and intelligent design (Kansas evolution hearings, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) all represent dogmatic religious prejudices and superstition being disguised as science to generate an artificial air of legitimacy. Likewise, they show that even these ridiculous ideas do represent danger to actual science, as these are attempts at creating an illusory controversy or balance of evidence between evolutionary biology and creationist magic. Even worse, there are still schools today, such as Providence Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, Pensacola Christian College, and countless others, that cater to creationist dogma in their own science texts and force constant political indoctrination on their students. (I honestly don't know how the sinfulness of Brazilian culture came up in Geography back in seventh grade, but we were only going by the book.)

Concerning appeal over efficacy[edit]

In politics, anti-intellectualism, outside of religious leanings, takes a more subtle form. Our entire system is currently based alone on the appeal of character of our candidates. Our leaders and bureaucrats are often admired for their "convictions" over their expertise or credentials. This often sets the stage for personal opinion as precedence for policy, obviously not the most effective way to deal with the issues facing us considering most people do not know a thing about North American resources or quite exactly what our effect is on our environment or the world economy. Our entire economy, in fact, is based on a monetary holdover from the days of perceived scarcity and the necessity of assigning subjective value to goods for the allowance of bartering, as opposed to, say, objectively valuing goods by units of energy used in their production and distribution. Such an idea would be abhorred, if not for that it upsets the status quo and is unusual, then that, since it is obviously not capitalistic in theory, it must be communist and, therefore, a step towards dictatorship.

Concerning belief as validity[edit]

When subjective impressions or "convictions" become the mode of problem solving over reasoned logic, arbitrary decisions are made and no problem is ever really solved effectively. Appeal becomes credential and leaders, engineers of society, are selected for what can be called their general "attractiveness". This has a tendency of entrusting societal problems to the incompetent and incapable. Further, it creates unnecessary conflict. When reason is superseded by subjective impression, then there really can be no true consensus other than what is coerced through rhetoric, peer pressure, or indoctrination, and when no objective mediator, like reality, can set the criteria for viability, passionately conflicting opinions enter an arena from which they are likely never to return from battle. Even worse, that the most arbitrary opinions are endowed equal validity, it is assumed that the sciences and objective reasoning are themselves as viable as any conviction or deeply-held belief. When this is the case, we see more stagnating and completely unnecessary conflict arise, particularly the largely illusory "battle" between science and religion. This non-conflict is actually seen by some anti-intellectuals as being a tool for deliberately confusing issues in such a way as to force an undeserved sense of legitimacy on their positions, most notably in the "wedge strategy" as proposed by the Discovery Institute. When our society is so focused on non-debate and on bickering, it is doubtful we will ever come to a consensus and move forward on effective solutions to our society's problems.

A plan[edit]

The problem of anti-intellectualism in our society (perhaps now more accurately called anti-rationalism) at first seems overwhelming and may even seem to be so thoroughly sewn into American culture that it is impossible to ever eradicate. Of course, the most viable approach to this seemingly daunting task is a levelheaded, rational one. It is first necessary to realize that rationalism, logic and reason, is a tool like any other for achieving what one seeks to accomplish. Rationalism is not the cool absence of passion; it is desire's ultimate medium. What is faced is not the elimination of subjective impression and altogether irrational emotions, but rather a reasoned, scientific approach to satisfying them. "Scientific" here need not connote a sterile laboratory or cosmic-scale devices of computation, but even the most mundane application of the scientific method, of careful consideration of the facts and, perhaps most of all, the humility in understanding one's own quite human propensity for error and bias. (It is quite possible this essay itself demonstrates bias in many areas; due to its persuasive nature, it necessarily carries a bias in favor of reason and intellectualism.) Accepting that one is fallible and one's conclusions are all potentially falsifiable, all within the realm of question and test, one loses the fear of being shown to be in error. One seeks not the ultimate confirmation of one's ideas, but the constant improvement of them. No word or idea is beyond the realm of questioning, not even rationalism. The only judge of viability in this regard is a naturalistic and objective universe common to men of all creeds, cultures, races, and backgrounds, independently of whether they admit such.

Advancing with this in mind, this fundamental tenet of reason, the daunting feat of encouraging critical thinking be applied to the societal structure of our America no longer seems quite so daunting. It becomes simply a matter of effort.

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