Roderic Day
Editing: Alice Malone, Jacob Weiser, Ghazanfar Sultan

Masses, Elites, and Rebels: The Theory of “Brainwashing” (2022)

76 minutes | English Español Svenska | Anarchism Art & Propaganda The Crew “Brainwashing”

Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle. The modern industrial proletariat does not belong to the category of such classes.
 — V. I. Lenin, 1910. [1]

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.
 — O’Brien, the triumphant antagonist of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1948. [2]



I’ve become very skeptical of the concept of “brainwashing.” Over the past few months this skepticism has boiled over into open and explicit disagreement with even well-meaning pushers within the Marxist-Leninist corner. I often find it difficult to explain concisely why it is that I am increasingly hostile to the almost undisputed preeminence the theory enjoys — because it is a very extensive and complete theory, even though it’s rarely fully laid out for cross-examination. Since I am active in the project of documenting and exposing atrocity propaganda narratives, my antagonism tends to cause confusion. In this essay, I will attempt to offer a systematic explanation for why I believe we should basically abandon the concept “brainwashing” in its entirety, and what I believe is the correct replacement for it in every instance: the notion of licensing.

I’m not speaking here as an outsider. Not long ago I wrote an essay titled “Brainwashing”, and it basically amounted to an accusation of hypocrisy: Westerners accuse everyone in adversary nations of being victims of “brainwashing,” but what about their own? [3] I attempted to illustrate, by citing verifiable incidents of major historical consequence, the main characteristics of the modern Western propaganda strategy. I also highlighted the historical origin of the term “brainwashing” in the journalistic work of undercover CIA agent Edward Hunter. However, my protest against the usage of the term was much milder, limited to distancing myself from uncritical usage by consistently encasing it in quotation marks. In retrospect, my strategy could be summarized as an attempt to expand the scope of the concept in hopes that it might acquire a more universal and self-critical character.

My current strategy does not represent a break with that previous effort, but instead it’s a kind of radicalization thereof. In short, this essay will make the case that “brainwashing” as a political theory breaks society down into three mutually-exclusive camps: 1) a group of elite manipulators, 2) vast masses under their control, 3) a rebellious group of enlightened critics (to which the person launching the accusation of “brainwashing” implicitly always belongs, since they are neither unaware of it nor abetting it). An unstated premise of this political theory is that what determines which of these camps any individual belongs to is a mixture of intellectual enlightenment and moral purity. Unsurprisingly, this purely ideological tripartite division doesn’t map well to Marxist class analysis. In fact, it obscures it, with catastrophic consequences for political strategy. As soon as the problem is understood, however, the way out becomes clear.

The Bourgeois Proletariat

The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie.
 — Lenin (1916) citing correspondence from Engels to Marx (1858). [4]

(And they all believed him?)
I don’t think anyone actually believed it.
He just said it… and no one had the balls to defy him.
 — Captain Garrett to Billy Bones, Black Sails, XXXIII. [5]

Anyone working in counter-propaganda can testify to a curious experience: we’ll put in hours of careful research collecting an impeccable set of resources that undermines some warmongering narrative, and we’ll eagerly share it with someone who claims to despise racism in all its forms — say, an outspoken opponent of the West’s so-called “War on Terror.” Unexpectedly, we are met with a response that is somewhere between chilly reticence and downright hostility. What’s going on?

From our perspective, we’re offering water to a person who’s self-identified as thirsty, and yet they react as if we were trying to poison them! They turn on a dime to defend the same institutions whose lies they were denouncing just moments before. At this point the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from seeing through propaganda and putting puzzle pieces together into a satisfying historical account gets brutally transformed into its exact opposite: a sense of crushing defeat. In response to this bitter experience, many researchers — serious people, with plenty of experience reading and writing, and sometimes even of being published! — lash out. They decide that people have been “brainwashed” beyond the point where they can be reached by words or rational appeal. They “realize” that the masters of propaganda have been far more successful than we first imagined: it turns out we’re not David fighting Goliath, we’re more like an ant facing an asteroid.

The same inquisitive nature that first led them to unravel war propaganda narratives begins to feed an even larger psycho-historical narrative, and nihilism takes hold. The tragic cycle begins to appear eternal: innocent, well-meaning, hard-working folks are, time and again, viciously tricked by the scapegoating of a new rogue in the gallery — Indigenous, Black, Spanish, Jewish, Soviet, Vietnamese, Cuban, Serbian, Muslim, Libyan, Syrian, Korean, Venezuelan, Russian, Chinese. Due to the sheer power of propaganda and mass-media, the masses helplessly fall for hatred and volunteer for war, even though it comes at a very high cost to ourselves, our loved ones, and our ideals (religion, environmentalism, etc.). Sadly, the innate human propensity to “hate the Other” seals our fate as a society… or something along those lines.

I am going to argue that this narrative is nonsense. It tries to pass off as universal and eternal something that in reality is particular and ephemeral. In short: Westerners aren’t helpless innocents whose minds are injected with atrocity propaganda, science fiction-style; they’re generally smug bourgeois proletarians who intelligently seek out as much racist propaganda as they can get their hands on. This is because it fundamentally makes them feel better about who they are and how they live. The psychic and material costs are rationally worth the benefits. As for those anti-imperialists who don’t participate in this festival of xenophobia — and here I include myself — we have our own elitist consolation: we accept the tragedy of masses of gullible sheeple falling for cunning propaganda because having overcome it flatters our own intelligence. The more we condemn society’s stupidity, the smarter we feel in comparison.

But am I not just worsening the problem, aggravating our hopelessness, by criticizing the critics in a way that suggests that no one escapes ideological self-flattery? I don’t think so. Paradoxically, it brings us all back to a more even and possibility-rich playing field.

The prevailing populist narrative grants the People (of the West) moral innocence by attributing to them utter stupidity and naivety; I invert the equation and demand a Marxist narrative instead: Westerners are willingly complicit in crimes because they instinctively and correctly understand that they benefit as a class (as a global bourgeois proletariat) from the exploitation enabled by their military and their propaganda — organs of coercion and consent. [6] We’re not as stupid as we’re made out to be. This means that we can be reasoned with, that there is a way out.

None of this is meant to downplay the scale of the propaganda project. I’ve spent enough time chasing down leads on different intelligence fronts and their plots to know that they are real and have real effects. [7] I do not deny that the outcomes we observe are at all times incentivized and enforced both overtly and covertly by our various societal superstructures (police, education, culture) and that principled and effective truth-tellers have been assassinated. I reject only the common misconception that propaganda “manufactures consent” (Chomsky) or “invents reality” (Parenti), because it exaggerates the feat accomplished by propagandists, and, in doing so, it obscures the real material basis that has historically made even the working poor in the imperial core complicit.

Talk of “manufacturing” and “inventing” suggests an imposition over and against the individual’s will. I believe that, on the contrary, the process of Western propaganda is better understood in terms of “licensing”: the issuing of moral license for the bourgeois proletariat to profitably go along with bourgeois designs without the feeling of shame overwhelming. In this alternative account people aren’t “brainwashed” insofar as they don’t actually believe the lies, not in the way that we generally understand belief. It’s more correct to say that they go along with them, whether enthusiastically or apprehensively, because it’s actually their optimal survival strategy. When we concede that the time horizon and scope of responsibility within which we all make our decisions varies, it becomes much easier to see how their choice could be smart and intelligent. The enlightened critic can plead that if we all agreed to denounce the status quo in unison we’d be immensely rewarded, but the average worker in the first world cannot be accused of naiveté for preferring to keep a low profile, particularly after being subject — very often by that same critic — to so many grim stories of murder and of punishment and of how any attempt at radical change always goes awry.

To colour our understanding of this process we can borrow here from a larger tradition: the counter-critique of consumerism. After all, news media — atrocity propaganda included — is itself a consumer product; we select it off of digital shelves no differently than we select a candy bar or a novel. What this critical tradition focuses on is the strange harmonious coexistence of 1) incessant advertising pressing us to spend our incomes on myriad products and 2) scathing interventions berating us as a collective for indulging in those same vices. Western regimes brutally repressed communist organizers of every stripe, but French theorists inveighing against our unsalvageable vulgarity somehow always found a fashionably marginal soapbox. Sometimes, such as in Pixar’s WALL-E, the consumerist blockbuster and the sermon against consumerism are one and the same! In this social context, it becomes interesting and rare to find defenders of consumerism as such. These defenders don’t aim to defend imperialism or wanton environmental waste, but instead to defend the rationality undergirding what is so often dimissed as manipulation. These thinkers highlight how the masses have been accused of being tacky and short-sighted in their taste and decision-making prowess for as long as there have been economic elites able to look down their noses at them.

Consider Ellen Willis:

If white radicals are serious about revolution, they are going to have to discard a lot of bullshit ideology created by and for educated white middle-class males. A good example of what has to go is the popular theory of consumerism. As expounded by many leftist thinkers, notably Marcuse, this theory maintains that consumers are psychically manipulated by the mass media to crave more and more consumer goods, and thus power an economy that depends on constantly expanding sales. […] When a woman spends a lot of money and time decorating her home or herself, or hunting down the latest in vacuum cleaners, it is not idle self-indulgence (let alone the result of psychic manipulation) but a healthy attempt to find outlets for her creative energies within her circumscribed role. [8]

Consider Tressie McMillan Cottom:

Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but that also define ourselves. Status symbols — silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags — become keys to unlock these gates. […] You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it. [9]

Consider Ishay Landa:

Liberal strategy regularly revolves precisely around the conviction that anti-fascism must entail curbing and diluting as much as possible the political influence of the mass, seen as an irascible force, threatening to undermine liberal democracy, either acting on its own impulses or being goaded by reckless demagogues into a frenzy of destruction. Given the presumed “affinity between democracy and dictatorship,” the best recipe is to ensure that liberal democracy stays just that, liberal, keeping the mass beast contented, perhaps, but never allowing it to roam free around the social arena. Much of left-wing theory echoes these concerns in its critique of the culture industry and of mass consumerism, understood as forms of political indoctrination, mind-numbing, and pacification. [10]

The attitude being identified here by these three writers in the context of “consumerism” has explanatory power in the narrower context of counter-propaganda. In my experience, it’s too often the case that the keenest and most trenchant critics of propaganda become cynical, depressed, and resigned. Their interpersonal behaviour becomes condescending and thus repulsive, and it gets to the point that they make the causes that they ostensibly advocate for appear dire and unappealing. Vast troves of historical knowledge should be a weapon in the hands of our best champions against CIA propaganda, but these bookworms often end up being the most convinced believers within our camp that the enemy’s victory is inevitable. They’re in fact scarcely an inch removed from Marx’s scathing 1844 sketch of the Young Hegelians:

That very school of Criticism […] has proclaimed itself the pure, resolute, absolute Criticism which has achieved self-clarity, and in its spiritual pride has reduced the whole process of history to the relation between the rest of the world, which comes into the category of the “masses,” and itself. It has assimilated all dogmatic antitheses into the one dogmatic antithesis between its own sagacity and the stupidity of the world […]. It has daily and hourly demonstrated its own excellence against the mindlessness of the masses […]. The school of Criticism has made known in print its superiority to human feelings and the world, above which it sits enthroned in sublime solitude, with nothing but an occasional roar of sarcastic laughter from its Olympian lips. [11]

The problem here, in short, is elitism. Unchecked, presumed to have been neutralized in some way by the adoption of a counter-cultural ethos, it festers. The way to solve it, however, is not to shy away from studying or exposing bourgeois propaganda, but to delve even deeper and radicalize our understanding of it. In my view, this entails accepting that the main way propaganda safeguards power today — whether patriarchal or anticommunist or white supremacist or environmental — is through licensing people to embrace resignation as the smartest choice. This is achieved by demoralization. The ruling class has received a lot of support from radical thinkers in this endeavor ever since “brainwashing” as political theory went mainstream.

Let us look at a specific example. A claim like “There’s cultural genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang” is simply unreal to most Westerners, close to pure gibberish. The words really refer to existing entities and geographies, but Westerners aren’t familiar with them. The actual content of the utterance as it spills out is no more complex or nuanced than “China Bad,” and the elementary mistakes people make when they write out statements of “solidarity” make that much clear. This is not a complaint that these people have not studied China enough — there’s no reason to expect them to study China, and retrospectively I think to some extent it was a mistake to personally have spent so much time trying to teach them. It’s instead an acknowledgment that they are eagerly wielding the accusation like a club, that they are in reality unconcerned with its truth-content, because it serves a social purpose.

What is this social purpose? Westerners want to believe that other places are worse off, exactly how Americans and Canadians perennially flatter themselves by attacking each others’ decaying health-care systems, or how a divorcee might fantasize that their ex-lover’s blooming love-life is secretly miserable. This kind of “crab mentality” is actually a sophisticated coping mechanism suitable for an environment in which no other course of action seems viable. Cognitive dissonance, the kind that eventually spurs one into becoming intolerant of the status quo and into action, is initially unpleasant and scary for everybody. In this way, we can begin to understand the benefit that “victims” of propaganda derive from carelessly “spreading awareness.” Their efforts feed an ambient propaganda haze of controversy and scandal and wariness that suffocates any painful optimism (or jealousy) and ensuing sense of duty one might otherwise feel from a casual glance at the amazing things happening elsewhere. People aren’t “falling” for atrocity propaganda; they’re eagerly seeking it out, like a soothing balm.

We should also wonder how our appreciation of the sophistication and totality of the propaganda apparatus and its ongoing repression squares with the peculiar kind of “critical” media that does make it to wide circulation, usually to universal praise from both the mainstream and the counter-cultural “left.” Women getting constantly raped and murdered in film is deemed a protest against the patriarchy. Black people getting mauled by dogs, the most horrific traumas in their history ritualistically re-enacted in high-definition — this is an assault on white supremacy. Disaster movies insist that the end of the world is inevitable, that we are all complicit in ecological devastation for not doing our part recycling cans — this is environmental critique. Triumphant, handsome, charismatic, “alpha” men climb to the top of their respective empires of crime in highest-budget four-season shows and are awarded the highest accolades in their profession — this passes for an indictment of capitalism. [12] Eileen Jones insightfully observes, about David Fincher’s Gone Girl:

Even as I watched it and shuddered with revulsion, I had to admit it — Fincher’s got our number. He’s figured out how to regularly wow contemporary audiences, to present us with the appalling truth of how despicable we are in a way that never really strikes home, by alternating coldly disapproving, feel-bad effects with conspiratorial smirking ones that remove any real sting. He so often uses the trappings of film noir to showcase our “badness,” but since we’re all perverts together, it’s just the “badness” of S&M sex-play, so who cares? [13]

This license to feel despondent and yet always superior comes in many forms. However, it is handed down to many of us in the anglophone world very early on in our schooling, in the form of the parables of one universally beatified Saint George…

George Orwell’s Very British Antisemitism

The farm possessed three horses now besides Clover. They were fine upstanding beasts, willing workers and good comrades, but very stupid. None of them proved able to learn the alphabet beyond the letter B.
 — George Orwell, 1945. [14]

You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.
 — Rebecca Solnit, 2015. [15]

These days Orwell’s reputation among socialists is in well-deserved shambles. Invocations of the specter of his memory as some kind of aspirational revolutionary ideal — as a staunch opponent of “totalitarianism” — are increasingly buried under citations proving he was in fact a colonial cop, a rapist, a snitch, a racist, a proud Englishman, and so on. [16]

However, his work fares much better. Whenever a bourgeois state makes its presence felt, even communist and anti-imperialist critics cannot seem to resist adding colour to their harsh indictments by sprinkling in references to the “Ministry of Truth” or “Big Brother.” The notion of the “death of the author” offers intellectual cover: we’re all familiar with the work, and it triggers some familiar and suitable mental images. What harm could it do?

Let’s start by stating unambiguously that George Orwell was certainly Judeophobic, as the work he carried out on behalf of British intelligence readily attests:

There is a notable and obvious overlap in Orwell’s notebook between many of 1940s London’s prominent gay, Jewish and anti-colonial public figures and the accused “cryptos.” Orwell’s bigoted commentaries fill his suspects notebook. Jews are clearly labeled (“Polish Jew,” “English Jew,” “Jewess”) whilst others were mislabeled (“Charlie Chaplin — Jewish?”). [17]

However, this must be understood beyond simple antipathy. After all, Orwell, displays a serious degree of relative sympathy for Trotsky. In Animal Farm, the Trotsky figure (Snowball) is always favorably compared to the Stalin figure (Napoleon). And likewise in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the renegade Goldstein compared to the ruling Big Brother. To fully understand the way the Orwellian critique is antisemitic, then, it’s necessary to understand the relationship between antisemitism and Judeophobia. Richard Levy explains:

What prompted the coining of the neologism “antisemitism” was the perception of an altered relationship between Jews and the peoples among whom they lived that could not accurately be described as mere “Judeophobia” or “Jew-hatred.” The felt need for a new word affected not just self-identified antisemites. It was recognized by Jews and non-Jews throughout Europe and wherever Europeans settled in the world.

Antisemitism, as a concept and a movement, was a response to the so-called Jewish Question, which was itself precipitated by the remarkable economic, cultural and political ascent of the Jews during the 19th century and their entry into mainstream European life. For some of the peoples among whom they lived, this rapid accumulation of power was ominously threatening. Accustomed to seeing Jews as small-time chiselers, heretics, peddlers, and parasites, they were now confronted by Jewish political leaders, cultural luminaries, bankers, captains of industry, army officers, professors, and bosses. No longer powerless outsiders, Jews were seen as wielders of surreptitiously acquired power.

Seeing only the dramatic success stories, this view ignored the thousands of still impoverished Jews dwelling in Eastern Europe and in the slums of central and western European cities. Nevertheless, it was the fear of what Jews would do with their wildly exaggerated power that animated efforts to disempower them before it was too late — first in Germany, and then in many other countries. [18]

The 19th century was a time of triumphal imperial apogee, where “the sun never set on the British empire,” and Jews were certainly not the only ethnic minorities co-habiting with “White” Europeans. Antagonism and phobia brewed wherever “Whites” abusively interacted with East-Asian, South-Asian, Latin American, African, and Middle-Eastern peoples. Why was it Judeophobia in particular that metastasized into extremely politically-organized antisemitism?

It’s essential to grasp that the fall of the Roman Empire weighed very heavily in the imaginary of the European ruling classes, particularly in the aftermath of momentous events such as the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. And so European ruling classes pondered the fall of the Roman Empire, and wondered if and how theirs would meet their own. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of many intellectuals who devoted his life to studying this “tragedy.” In The Genealogy of Morals (a title which should be read quite literally) he traces it thus:

It was the Jews who, in opposition to the aristocratic equation (good = aristocratic = beautiful = happy = loved by the gods), dared with a terrifying logic to suggest the contrary equation, and indeed to maintain with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of weakness) this contrary equation, namely, “the wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation — but you, on the other hand, you aristocrats, you men of power, you are to all eternity the evil, the horrible, the covetous, the insatiate, the godless; eternally also shall you be the unblessed, the cursed, the damned!” […] — it was, in fact, with the Jews that the revolt of the slaves begins in the sphere of morals; that revolt which has behind it a history of two millennia, and which at the present day has only moved out of our sight, because it — has achieved victory. [19]

Nietzsche here is furiously railing against the narrative of “the chosen ones.” In his view, Jewish history is one of ultimate vengeance, but not in prophetic or religious terms. Their national revolt, one of the first major anti-imperialist movements in human history, is seen from the perspective of the Roman ruling class against which they rebelled. The first act ends with the fall of Jerusalem — a brutal and relentless Roman siege and occupation after which Jewish people were exiled from their homeland and dispersed. The second act is the toppling of the Roman Empire by Christianity, which is seen as the culmination of the slow but steady and purposeful spread of “slave morality” by the vanquished. Jewish people are seen by Nietzsche to eventually prevail in a terrifying victory over the mighty Romans, one which continued to threaten to consume everything he deemed beautiful and sublime. (Nietzsche was particularly horrified by atrocity propaganda falsely accusing French communards of burning down the Louvre!) [20]

There is a logic here, and it’s the same exact logic that would later find expression in the genocidal Nazi project. It’s a logic which enables us to understand why those antisemites continued to pursue extermination even after their hopes of territorial conquest were extinguished. To paraphrase Che Guevara’s last words: they were trying to kill an idea.

What is often forgotten — or, rather, deliberately obscured — is that this line of thinking, far from being a strange German quirk, enjoyed complete hegemony throughout the imperial, white supremacist world. Winston Churchill, a born aristocrat and then ascendant political figure, mourned the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, publicly and for mass circulation in a 1920s newspaper, in these peculiar terms:

This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxemburg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing. It played, as a modern writer, Mrs. Webster, has so ably shown, a definitely recognisable part in the tragedy of the French Revolution. It has been the mainspring of every subversive movement during the Nineteenth Century; and now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become practically the undisputed masters of that enormous empire. […] Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing. [21]

With this historical context at hand, we can ask ourselves some questions about Orwell’s much-celebrated and oddly-embraced “socialist” body of work:

  • Why does Animal Farm — an allegory so unimaginative it even mocks the anthem L’Internationale — not feature a metaphor of the Holocaust? [22]
  • Why does Nineteen Eighty-Four feature an English hero in Winston Smith, and an Irish villain in O’Brien? [23]
  • How come both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four studiously ensure that we understand that Napoleon and Big Brother are both caricatures of Stalin, while neglecting to introduce any Hitler (to say nothing of Churchill) stand-in? [24]

Orwell provides an unambiguous answer in his review of Mein Kampf:

I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Ever since he came to power I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. […] One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. […] However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. [25]

At play here is a trite literary technique whereby the author, rather than assert his own preferences, attempts to exempt himself from criticism by alleging that he’s merely ventriloquizing the opinions of the dumb masses. However, something is evident: after the stunning upset Nazi Germany experiences at hands of the Soviet Union, Orwell can’t seem to help but tell and retell — depressed — the story of the taming of individualism at the hands of “totalitarianism.” In other words, the overarching tragedy of the 20th century for Orwell wasn’t colonialism or fascism, it was the seemingly definitive victory of socialist statehood. What Orwell achieves in his work, and what makes it so politically useful to the ruling class that tiredly propagates it, is that he serviceably repackages the main tenets of the antisemitic political project without the accompanying stench of Judeophobia.

The point here is not to argue that Orwell and his crypto-fascism played a pivotal historical role, but rather to make it clear why the ruling class finds him and his ilk so non-threatening. After all, we could here easily substitute Nineteen Eighty-Four with its dystopian twin, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Although different in some important ways, they reproduce the same basic theory of society in the form of a cautionary tale: a few extraordinary rebels navigate a dystopia where a small clique of sinister elites already achieved full control over gullible and hedonistic hordes.

The logic of antisemitism, far from being banished with the Nazis, became completely naturalized in the West. From Lord of the Rings to The Dark Knight Rises we hear the same story again and again and again: swarthy hordes are surreptitiously manipulated behind-the-scenes by crooked wizards and deceptive illusionists — often hiding in plain sight, in our midst! — and lay siege to everything that is balanced and well-rounded and pure and good and holy and white and which by rights should be eternal. The manipulators do so for no discernible reason other than greed and ressentiment. It’s in every instance nothing but the bourgeois terror of a worker uprising led by a Communist party made intelligible to adjacent social classes by appealing to their individualistic self-esteem, the claim that there are yet darker parts of the world above which the imperial poor can still stand tall.

This is how it came to be that in 2022 the U.S.-Russia proxy war in Ukraine is primarily depicted in Western media as hordes of sub-human Russian orcs under the commanding grip of a tiny, crooked, and often hook-nosed Vladimir Putin attacking Aryan-European knights and damsels. Russia’s actions are discussed of course not in terms of their explicitly declared national security concerns, but in terms of speculation about the depths of their envy, resentment, greed, inferiority, ugliness, jealousy, and depravity. Meanwhile, Andriy Biletsky, an avowed Nazi from Ukraine’s National Guard who openly declared that “the historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival, a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen,” [26] is glowingly cited in The Economist as one of many “defiant” “outnumbered defenders” blemished only abstractly by “far-right sympathies.” [27]

The Economist is, of course, not a “left” publication. Where is the “left” in all of this? The quintessential example is once again British. This is how NovaraMedia justified their giddy promotion of aforementioned anti-China atrocity propaganda campaigns:

The Uyghur people are being persecuted by the Chinese state. The left must not be too afraid of siding with western imperialists to act in solidarity. [28]

It would be unfair to shore this all up with Novara, however. After all, John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi film They Live, considered a rare left-wing classic, tells the story of a hunky white working American who dons glasses that allow him to see past the illusion and realize that costumed reptilians control society through money and advertising. In disregarding with a supercilious hand-wave all evidence coming out of Xinjiang or Donbass by referring to the testimony of renegades in Washington D.C., these “leftists” do speak with the force of authority conferred to them by a grand tradition.

A “left” defined by petty-bourgeois and bourgeois proletarians cannot help but flatter themselves in this self-flagellating way again and again. Lacking in imagination but absolutely starved for respectability and approval, they freely denounce Stalin and Mao while attempting to build up Nietzsche and Orwell (literati in whom they see themselves) as authentic socialist revolutionaries in embryo. With the “betrayal by an evil clique” and “brainwashing” narratives in hand, these “leftists” press a Faustian bargain: masses everywhere are granted innocence, but robbed of their intelligence. Salvation is not forthcoming in this life, but it is at least well-deserved. Ostensibly pro-worker theory, now suffused in elitism, nihilism, and condescension, becomes the doctrine of the petty-bourgeois lumpen-intelligentsia, repulsive to proletarians.

Even staunch anti-imperialists are partly to blame for this state of affairs. It’s foolhardy to insist that “brainwashing” rules the West and then act aghast that accusations of “brainwashing” are widely deployed by the West against its enemies in service of imperialism and war propaganda. If we allow that this technique succeeded even once, then who is to say that it won’t succeed again, or that it isn’t already succeeding elsewhere, or everywhere? This is the problem with embracing the tripartite narrative, and identifying oneself as one of the enlightened rebels.

Now, what would it look like if we were to reject this theory of “brainwashing” altogether, and approach instead all of the aforementioned in an actually revolutionary way?

Karl Marx, Tupac Shakur, and “The Jewish Question”

“Nothing human is alien to me.”
[Nihil humani a me alienum puto.]
 — Karl Marx’s maxim, 1865. [29]

I had to grapple with Karl Marx’s response to Bruno Bauer, On “The Jewish Question,” for a while — particularly the second part, The Capacity of Present-day Jews and Christians to Become Free. Because of a combination of its polemic character and philosophical complexity, it tends to be a rather under-discussed text — some would understandably prefer it wasn’t part of the Marxist canon at all. Marx reproduces anti-Jewish stereotypes unabashedly, and seemingly without a trace of a challenge:

Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew — not the Sabbath Jew, as Bauer does, but the everyday Jew. Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time. An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. [30]

And later on,

In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. […] The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. [31]

What are we to make of this text? The usual response begins by pointing out that, although an atheist, Marx was ethnically Jewish. Because of the way “stay in your lane” discourse works today, this somewhat neutralizes the potential of the text as a shot against Marx’s personal character. That said, this parts from a mutual agreement between Marxists and anti-Marxists that the text is abject (thus in need of apology), and my impression is that the result of this strategy is that the work receives little interest outside Marxology compared to his others.

The problem with declaring Marx’s maneuver here out of bounds is that it stops us from actually evaluating how well it works as a legitimate strategy to fight antisemitism (Bruno Bauer, whom Marx was writing against, was an antisemite) — and, more generally, how to fight any other vile idea. Properly understood, the strategy taken here by Marx is just part of the family of immanent critique in general: rather than run away from the accusation, Marx leans into it, exposes its absurdity, radicalizes it into its opposite. As Nia Frome puts it, “once an idea’s come up against its own limits, that’s a blow it can’t recover from.” [32]

I propose that the best way for contemporary readers to understand what Marx was trying to do in that intervention against Bauer is, rather than pursue a complex philosophical exegesis, to look instead for a comparable example of how the same strategy would play out in a context that we are more familiar with. This happens to be essentially what rap legend Tupac Shakur did in a 1995 interview:

(Knowing what you know, what do you think about youth and gang violence in America? Especially in the Black communities and Hispanic communities using gang violence…)

I think… um, I think I’m gonna get a lot of flak for it. I think gangs can be positive. It just has to be organized and has to steer away from being self-destructive to being self-productive. I think this country was built on gangs and, you know, I think this country still is run on gangs. Republicans, Democrats, the police department, the FBI, the CIA… those are gangs, you know what I mean? The correctional officers. I had a correctional officer tell me straight-up “We’re the biggest gang in New York State.” Straight-up, you know what I mean? This whole country is built on gangs, we just have to not be so self-destructive about it. Organized, you know?

(But the violence…)

The violence? But it’s violence in America. What did the USA just do, flying to Bosnia? We ain’t got no business over there, you know what I mean? It’s the same thing. How can they tell us not to have gangs. You know what gang violence is, mostly? And the people don’t want you to hear this. Somebody shoots your family member, so of course you retaliate. You know what I mean? Same thing the U.S. does, except nobody even shot their family members, you know? They see somebody bomb a school and all these people get killed, so the United States is like “Oh, that’s messed up, we’ve got to go show them who’s the real killers.” The same mentality these gangsters get, you know what I mean? So until they stop that mentality we won’t stop. Or they won’t stop, because they watch this country to see what they do. America is the biggest gang in the world, you know what I mean? Look at how they didn’t agree with Cuba, so what did they do? Cut ‘em off. That’s what we’re doing the street: we block things off.

I want to say stop the violence. I want to say the violence ain’t good…

(Why can’t you say that?)

Because that’s not realistic! I know it’s not good. If anybody will speak up against violence, it’ll be the brother that got shot five times. I got shot twice all up in my… trust me, violence ain’t cool. And they know violence ain’t cool! Ain’t nobody out there with a gun saying it’s “cool” to be shooting people. It’s just, you know, in certain situations where there is no way out… But there are situations where we can find the way out. But until we find that way out we can’t say not to live this lifestyle. [33]

Marx and Tupac are both subject to hatred on account of being members of a despised minority of a prejudiced society, “alien” elements. It would be understandable and even sympathetic if these two men opted for what are common strategies when pressed to express themselves on their peers by the ruling order: to denounce, to dissociate, to declare either that the stereotype is false (which usually initiates a messy discussion: whence the stereotype, then?), or to concede the stereotype but plead that they are “one of the good ones.”

The greatness of the strategy chosen by Marx and Tupac lies in that they refuse to grant the existence of a large gulf separating polite society from its target of exclusion, they reject the very conceit that their interlocutor is in a position to pass judgment on anybody. A Jewish “huckster” in 1840s Germany and a Black “gangster” in 1990s America — targets of untrammeled social scorn and vitriol — are held up in each case by the men as a reflection of the rotten society that deems itself so superior. They firmly assert: “We, or they, may not be innocent. But neither are you, or us.”

For those unsure whether this interpretation of Marx’s intent stands to expert scrutiny, the view that Tupac and Marx’s arguments are commensurate can be defended with reference to existing Marxological experts such as Oxford University’s David Leopold:

In short, the focus of Marx’s discussion of rights in Zur Judenfrage is provided by Bauer’s insistence that the religious and egoistic nature of Jews makes them ineligible as bearers of human rights. Whereas Bauer took the received language in which the Christian majority abused the Jewish minority (as egoistic individuals who worshipped money) and repeated it, Marx took that language and extended it so as to include the majority Christian population (as egoistic individuals who worshipped money). […] The widespread derogatory association was an exclusive one, in that it suggested that Jews were ‘egoistic’ in a way that the Christian majority were not. This exclusive association was endorsed by Bauer and rejected by Marx. However, the form of Marx’s rejection is significant. That exclusive association could be challenged in two ways: either one might question the association as such, or one might question the exclusivity of that association. Marx’s linguistic extension adopts the latter strategy. [34]

We can also eschew experts, and simply notice that there is in fact a clear continuity between Marx’s very controversial 1844 formulations and his much more celebrated bars from only a few months earlier, in late 1843. Notice how different this reads to much of what passes for critique of religion — or consumerism — today:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. [35]

“Nothing human is alien to me.” This is what Marx chose as his maxim. And it’s apt, for it defines his entire body of work. At the same time he engaged in the project of identifying and understanding social classes and class struggle, he refused to imbue them with rigidity or eternality, or to establish — as colonizers self-servingly did — genetic and psychological hierachies. He did not see himself as outside of the class project he was analyzing. [36] This required him to insist on understanding “the rational kernel within the mystical shell,” the logic underlying what we deem the madness or even villainy of another — even the miserly capitalist. This is precisely what enables Marx to truly discover and understand the inner secrets of capitalism, far surpassing myriad predecessors who satisfied themselves with ever more strident and grandstanding denunciations of its evils.

Is this a superior approach? If so, why? Consider by way of stark contrast the attitude of Marx’s contemporary rivals in anticapitalist organization in 19th century Europe. Anarchists took immense pride in what they felt was their far more uncompromising break with the existing state of affairs. Why attempt to understand something as vile as the ruling class — does it amount to anything other than its rationalization? Why attempt to take over their grotesque weapon, the State — should it not instead be abolished outright? This aggressive pursuit of a sharp break, this summoning of moral indignation towards the end of rejecting any possible explanation for why undesirable things might have naturally arisen in the first place, eventually landed two leading lights of the anarchist movement, first P. J. Proudhon in France and later Mikhail Bakunin in Russia, directly in rabid and conspiratorial antisemitism:

Jews. Write an article against this race that poisons everything by sticking its nose into everything without ever mixing with any other people. Demand its expulsion from France with the exception of those individuals married to French women. Abolish synagogues and not admit them to any employment. Demand its expulsion. Finally, pursue the abolition of this religion. It’s not without cause that the Christians called them deicides. The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. H. Heine, A. Weill, and others are nothing but secret spies; Rothschild, Crémieux, Marx, Fould, wicked, bilious, envious, bitter, etc. etc. beings who hate us. [37]

The Communism of Marx seeks enormous centralization in the state, and where such exists, there must inevitably be a central state bank, and where such a bank exists, the parasitic Jewish nation, which speculates on the work of the people, will always find a way to prevail. [38]

The antisemitic bile here in both cases turns out to be far more than a colourful side-swipe: anarchists’ simplistic understanding of the causes of evil renders them nihilists. They are unable to conceive of class struggle as anything else other than the annihilation of whomever or whatever they have deemed other. [39]

Marx, in On “The Jewish Question” and elsewhere, always pursues a more complex project:

The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion, without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it. […] Hence, man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property. He was not freed from the egoism of business, he received freedom to engage in business. [40]

Estrangement appears not only in that the means of my life belong to another, and that my desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in that all things are other than themselves, and that — and this goes for capitalists too — an inhuman power rules over all. [41]

It is not individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free. [42]

It is therefore as absurd to regard buyer and seller, these bourgeois economic types, as eternal social forms of human individuality, as it is preposterous to weep over them as signifying the abolition of individuality. [43]

The way I see it, a properly Marxist analysis of the world relentlessly attempts to understand and make sense of everything — every phenomenon and every state of affairs. Thus, one cannot simultaneously claim to belong to the Marxist tradition and then be satisfied by rambling about puppets and puppetmasters and the CIA and “sheeple.” Any account in which two antagonistic human categories conjured appear equally alien to the self-righteous and enlightened critic of society is a non-starter.

Strategy and Imagination

You see, dear reader, so much of what’s doled out as punk merely amounts to saying I suck, you suck, the world sucks, and who gives a damn — which is, er, ah, somehow insufficient. Don’t ask me why; I’m just an observer, really. But any observer could tell that, to put it in terms of Us vs. Them, saying the above is exactly what They would want you to do, because it amounts to capitulation.
 — Lester Bangs, 1977. [44]

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
 — Ursula K. Le Guin, 2014. [45]

What are the strategic consequences of decisively rejecting the tripartite social theory advanced by Orwell, and adopting Marx’s all-encompassing one instead? The basic call to action looks something like this:

  1. Stop accusing the masses of being “brainwashed.” Stop treating them as cattle, stop attempting to rouse them into action by scolding them with exposure to “unpleasant truths.”
  2. Accept instead that they have been avoiding those truths for a reason. You were able to break through the propaganda barrier, and so could they if they really wanted to. Many of these people see you as the fool, and in many cases not without reason.
  3. Understanding people as intelligent beings, craft a political strategy that convincingly makes the case for why they and their lot are very likely to benefit from joining your political project. Not in some utopian infinite timescale, but soon.
  4. If you cannot make this case, then forget about convincing the person in question. Focus instead on finding other people to whom such a case can be made. This will lead you directly to class analysis.

I began this essay by relating the tough lesson that people often weren’t receptive to my research into anticommunist atrocity propaganda narratives. However, this wasn’t the only lesson I learned in all this time. I also learned about an actually effective strategy against anticommunist propaganda, centered around the steady share of positive communist accomplishments, both contemporary and historical. I learned it from other folks, because it did not come naturally to me. The dynamics at play are palpable: when people are on-board with positive accomplishments, they shred false negatives (and reason through the real negatives) all on their own.

Debunks of atrocity propaganda are still very useful, just not in the way I originally imagined. Initially I hoped that sheer anger at becoming aware of imperialist machinations would elicit a response, but now I instead think of them as an auxiliary tool. Sharing positives is primary, and debunks are secondary. Secondary, however, does not mean optional. There is a persistent myth that social accomplishments like sane pandemic management or quality public transit come at the cost of one’s soul. Confronted with such a notion, appeals to hypocrisy — e.g. insisting one’s soul is already foregone due to complicity in Western genocides — are worse than useless. Insofar as they read like a confession, they are extremely harmful. A confident, evidence-based rejection of such claims is both a more principled and a more effective strategy. All it takes is work.

Perhaps this may seem like too much dwelling in the realm of rhetoric, but here it is important to affirm that a rejection of liberal idealism shouldn’t send one packing straight into mechanical materialism. Marxism is alternatively referred to as dialectical materialism for a reason. There’s no shame whatsoever in thinking about how to approach engagement in the realm of ideas calmly and strategically.

Moving into more polemic territory now, the usefulness of Orwell (and Nietzsche) to the ruling class suggests that communists in North America, in their effort to distance themselves from the all-talk-no-walk intelligentsia, have too reflexively shrunk from some important ideological tasks. One of them is the articulation of a compelling, realistic collective vision for the future, a task which cannot be eternally deferred as an implementation detail for “after the revolution” or “after the seizure of power.” Mere statements of virtue and principle simply won’t cut it.

There is an even more pressing issue, however. If we accept that the so-called “victims” of propaganda in the imperial core don’t really believe fabricated facts and figures but instead more casually go along with them, a controversial but essential conviction of mine follows: we should not treat the content of news media and entertainment media all that differently, and we should treat entertainment media much more seriously than we currently do. In the realm of opposing atrocity propaganda I’d say communists already far outclass imperial propagandists. The writing is more rigorous and the evidence is much more clearly laid out and readily verifiable. The problem is that we’re failing to get people to the point where they even care about facts in the first place!

It’s absurd to see people rabidly complaining about, say, BBC’s China reporting being rife with orientalist falsehood, then turn around to make excuses for why the same exact stereotypes must be tolerated or even praised as they worm their way through high-budget entertainment productions. It’s absurd to see communists defend sinking dozens upon dozens of hours into reactionary, soul-crushing media like Breaking Bad or Mad Men or Game of Thrones, then turn around to ridicule and condemn the entire realm of ideological struggle as mere superstructure. A common refrain goes: “The news must be reported correctly, but let people enjoy things — artistic freedom is sacrosanct.” I deem this nonsense liberalism. When we do this, what we throw out the window comes right around through the backdoor.

In reality, entertainment media and news media serve the same propaganda purpose: they target not our reasoned beliefs about right and wrong, but our perception of social risks and rewards. People’s actual rationality, their ability to discern cause and effect, is far too resilient to be tampered with when their own immediate interests are at stake. People’s pride, however, is much more malleable. For communists to refuse to challenge media that makes them invisible — or, worse, aggressively humiliates them — is to surrender before the fight is even scheduled. And I genuinely believe that we do this every single time we refuse to challenge an Orwellism, or a Nietzscheanism. We have largely failed to create nourishing communist alternatives — not only in reality, as with the Black Panther breakfast program, but also as far as the imagination goes. And in the realm of imagination, as in others, nature abhors a vacuum. In absence of social-realist agitprop, Orwellism thrives.

Lenin titled his world-changing revolutionary pamphlet directly after Chernyshevsky’s beloved and influential revolutionary fiction novel What Is To Be Done? [46] Stalin took his pseudonym “Koba” from The Patricide, a heroism-romance novel that was popular in Georgia when he was a youth. [47] We could speak similarly of Mao’s esteem for Lu Xun [48] and Water Margin. [49] Assata has spoken about the insidiously grim messaging in our media. [50] Where is our revolutionary fiction today? Anarchist authors like Ursula K. Le Guin often appear the closest thing we’ve got to mainstream communist literature. I genuinely think that if one can truly imagine in fiction a viable transition from our current state of affairs into a better one, that plays a huge role in mustering the conviction to assert that it can be achieved in reality. Conversely, if we cannot even imagine what a transition might look like in our wildest dreams, any “real” organization is doomed.

I feel strongly about the idea that politics in art matters because art has affected how I view the world. Therefore, since I reject the idea there’s some kind of unbridgeable gap between me and “the masses,” I imagine it has to matter to everyone else too. More generally, I imagine that what I feel are my needs — food, peace, society, ego, dignity — are also the needs of others. This categorical rejection of “entertainment vs. news” segues into the rejection of the “heart vs. mind” divide, the “feelings vs. facts” divide, and the “morality vs. intelligence” divide. These are all liberal delusions arising from the powerful justifying their abuse, and the powerless coping with the consolation prize of self-righteousness.

As long as we Marxists continue to operate in environments where everyone’s ideas about what the past was like and what the future can be like remain vague and noticeably beholden to the reactionary elitism of the likes of Orwell and Nietzsche and other cultural gatekeepers, any kind of revolutionary communist movement will rely solely on material desperation to rally adherents. If we want to take the initiative here, we must cease to celebrate the “telling of hard truths” for their own sake. We must begin to demonstrate to people how social organization can solve our problems, with schematics as well as with stories, so that rather than pity or scorn the collective as self-styled outsiders, we take pride in seeing and recognizing ourselves as individuals within it.

A Way Out

This is how they survive. You must know this. You’re too smart not to know this. They paint the world full of shadows, and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true. We can prove that it isn’t true. In the dark, there is discovery. There is possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it. And who has been so close to doing it as we are right now?
 — Captain Flint, Black Sails, XXXVIII. [51]

One acquires in the face of work the old joy: the joy of fulfilling a duty; of feeling important within the social mechanism; of feeling oneself a cog that has its own unique characteristics, that is necessary — although not indispensable — to the production process. And, moreover, a conscious cog. A cog that has its own engine, driven further and further every time, in order to bring about to happy conclusion one of the key premises of socialist construction: the availability of a sufficient quantity of consumer goods for the entire population.
 — Ernesto “Che” Guevara, 1964. [52]

In the final analysis, no matter how radically anti-system the thinker appears to be, understanding society in terms of on the one hand rebels and on the other masses controlled by elites turns out to be a particular instance of a more general tendency: liberalism.

Liberalism counterposes the interests of the individual to the interests of the collective, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that illogically and wrongly implies that the collective isn’t made up of individuals. It may seem scholastic to harp on logical issues here, but notice how ubiquitous this innocent-seeming rallying cry turns out to be: like Orwell, it’s not only favored by capital-L Liberals, but also by Anarchists and Conservatives and every other radical liberal. Not such a small feat!

As it turns out, we can derive the entire logic of colonial history from this tiny axiom. Liberal rhetoric does not stop at an uncompromising, one-sided, and absolute defense of (a set of) individual rights. It transitions seamlessly and with equivalent passion into a defense of the family, the business enterprise, an economic class, a race, a nation, an empire. When we proudly assert that we are for the individual over the collective, we’re essentially saying that some people count as people, and some don’t. At the heart of liberalism lies dehumanization; we should not forget that slave ownership was one of the original “individual rights” that was so fiercely fought for by American revolutionaries.

Therein the arguments against socialist states. Every death under socialism is a failure of the government, because it dared to try to solve problems collectively. Under capitalism, deaths are due to the individual’s failures, and therefore no one’s responsibility. Therein the ability to justify angrily and self-righteously calling for a “return to normal” in the face of mass death and disablement.

The good news is that we’re further along than we think in overturning this state of affairs. If we relinquish anarcho-liberal fantasies of utopias where we no longer work, if we instead accept that we are workers, if we are able to do so with pride, many realistic victories turn out to be very much within reach. Everywhere that workers already work hard, they simply need to socialize the fruits of their already-socialized labour. Admittedly, reorganizing production isn’t a trivial task. However, the point here is that our social mechanism already offers ample proof that our skills and abilities are in plentiful supply. We already accumulated Alexandrian libraries of scientific knowledge as well as entertainment, and the ability to produce infinitely more without any “help” from capitalists!

Capitalists don’t fear individual rebels. They shower us with such bohemian stories. They fear exactly the opposite: the proliferation of an authentic working-class consciousness that pointedly rejects their “idle rich” lifestyle as everyone’s ultimate ideal. The hatred of “herd mentality” ultimately derives from the aristocratic hatred of the collective wisdom of the underclasses, of their choosing to work together in order to defend themselves from predators that would otherwise pick them off one by one. The project of repurposing this elitist attitude towards utopian goals is a dead end.

If you want to be radical, then, begin by radically rejecting the oldest and most vicious and most widespread bit of ruling class ideology: the idea that there is no wisdom whatsoever to be found in the behaviour of the masses. Reject the idea of “brainwashing,” and insist on seeking the kernel of intelligence and truth and wisdom in everyone’s current actions, even when they seem repulsive or hopelessly short-sighted. Identify where exactly you can intervene, and with whom, in such a way that it dovetails with existing tendencies, but always with an eye to revolution and the prize of a better future. Address yourself to reality in just this way, and you might just begin to change it.

[1] V. I. Lenin, “L. N. Tolstoy and the Modern Labour Movement” (1910). [web] 

[2] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). [web] 

[3] Roderic Day, “‘Brainwashing’” (2021). [web] 

[4] V. I. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (1916). [web] 

[5] Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine. Set in the early 1700s, aired in 2017. 

[6] Populism is not Marxism. Populism could be described as a shoddy imitation of Marxism in which the only classes are “The People” and “The Rich,” or “Us” versus “Them.” Populism, under the mistaken belief that numbers are all that matters, opportunistically erases important distinctions within the working class (e.g. between the proletariat and the peasantry), within the ruling class (e.g. between the national bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie), between the global North and global South, between men and women, etc. 

[7] See e.g. Everyday Subkulak, The Xinjiang Atrocity Propaganda Blitz, and Another View of Tiananmen. [web] 

[8] Ellen Willis, “Women and the Myth of Consumerism” (1969). [web] 

[9] Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” (2013). [web] 

[10] Ishay Landa, Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt Against the Last Humans, 1848-1945 (2018). 

[11] Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy” (1844). [web] 

[12] The media items I have in mind are Game of Thrones, Django Unchained, Don’t Look Up, and Breaking Bad. For a brilliant in-depth dive into this subject, see Sobrina de Alguien’s The Narrative Devices of Criticism. [web] 

[13] Eileen Jones, “Horror for the Whole Family” (2014), Jacobin. [web] 

[14] George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945). [web] 

[15] Rebecca Solnit, “Men Explain Lolita To Me” (2015), LitHub. [web] 

[16] Roderic Day, On Orwell (2020). [web] 

[17] Ben Judah, “Why I’ve Had Enough of George Orwell” (2019), The Wire. [web] 

[18] Richard Levy, “Where the Word ‘Antisemitism’ Comes From” (2020). [web] 

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals (1887). [web] 

[20] “I was for some days completely destroyed and drenched in tears and doubts: all scholarly and philosophical-aesthetic existence seemed to me an absurdity, if a single day could wipe out the most noble works of art, or whole periods of art.” — Friedrich Nietzsche in correspondence to Baron von Gersdorff, 1871. Quoted in Domenico Losurdo’s Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel. 

[21] Winston Churchill, “Zionism vs. Bolshevism: A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People” (1920), The Illustrated Sunday Morning Herald. [web] 

[22] Jones Manoel, “Review of Animal Farm” (2022). [web] 

[23] John Dolan, “George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens eXposed” (2005), eXiled Online. [web] 

[24] Isaac Asimov, “Review of Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1980), The New Worker. [web] 

[25] George Orwell, “Review of Mein Kampf” (1940). [web] 

[26] Tom Kington, “Fighting Russia takes focus off Azov Battalion’s Nazi roots” (2022), The Times. [web] 

[27] “Mariupol’s outnumbered defenders refuse to give in” (2022), The Economist. [web] 

[28] Ben Towse, “Neither Washington nor Beijing: The Left Must Stand With the Uighurs” (2020), NovaraMedia. [web] 

[29] Taken from Roman African playwright Terence, and described by Marx to his daughter Jenny in “Karl Marx’s Confession” (1865). [web] 

[30] Karl Marx, On “The Jewish Question” (1844). [web] 

[31] Karl Marx, On “The Jewish Question” (1844). [web] 

[32] Nia Frome, “On Dialectics, or How to Defeat Enemies” (2021). [web] 

[33] Tupac Amaru Shakur (1995). [web] 

[34] David Leopold, The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing (2007). 

[35] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843). [web] 

[36] I have not seen it remarked upon much anywhere, so perhaps it’s not quite correct, but I think it’s very interesting that between Karl Marx, his wife Jenny von Westphalen, his friend Friedrich Engels, and Engels’ partner Mary Burns, four social classes are clearly represented: the petty bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat. This certainly would’ve presented some obstacle to sweeping generalization and prejudice! 

[37] P. J. Proudhon, On the Jews (1847). [web] 

[38] Mikhail Bakunin, Marx and Rothschild (1871). [web] 

[39] As J. V. Stalin remarked many years later in 1931: “Antisemitism is of advantage to the exploiters as a lightning conductor that deflects the blows aimed by the working people at capitalism. Antisemitism is dangerous for the working people as being a false path that leads them off the right road and lands them in the jungle.” [web] 

[40] Karl Marx, On “The Jewish Question” (1844). [web] 

[41] Karl Marx, Third Manuscript (1844). [web] 

[42] Karl Marx, Grundrisse (1858). [web] 

[43] Karl Marx, Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859). [web] 

[44] Lester Bangs, “The Clash,” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1977). 

[45] Ursula K. Le Guin, “Speech at National Book Awards” (2014), The Guardian. [web] 

[46] V. I. Lenin, “Remarks on Books” (1910). [web] 

[47] Alexander Kazbegi, The Patricide (1882). [web] 

[48] Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” (1942). [web] 

[49] J. W. Freiberg, “The Dialectic in China: Maoist and Daoist” (1977). [web] 

[50] Assata Shakur, “Assata Shakur interviewed by Pastors For Peace” (2000). [web] 

[51] Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine. Set in the early 1700s, aired in 2017. 

[52] Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Discurso en la entrega de certificados de trabajo comunista en el Ministerio de Industrias,” Reflexiones sobre el trabajo en la sociedad socialista (1964). [web]