Roderic Day

On Three Short Stories (2024)

7 minutes | English | The Crew

In the first few weeks of 2024, amid intensifying news of world war and a flare-up of the global pandemic, I made the strange decision to focus on readying for publication three short fiction stories. On some level this is just because of my mood. However, I also chose the three stories because I think they convey some relatively rare bits of wisdom, so I’ll briefly explain that aspect, in case any reading circles might benefit from the clarification.


The Billionaire (Russian Empire, 1897) [1]

Maxim Gorky was one of the most renowned fiction writers throughout the Soviet Union’s history and a politically active old Bolshevik when the new government was founded. Early on in his career, before even Lenin’s rise to notoriety, he wrote a little fable about how a man used to imagine American billionaires as inhuman monstrosities, but then met one, and was surprised to discover a mostly unremarkable — if unpleasant — old gentleman. This is a metaphor for learning about political economy and dispelling exaggerated myths developed in the course of being subject to it.

The wisdom of this story, in my view, is that it enshrines a fundamental and key tenet of Marxism (“Nothing human is alien to me”), by showing that humanization can lead to more powerful and penetrating understanding of the problem at hand, rather than in any way entailing resignation. [2]

Way too often the gesture of attempting to understand the logic of capitalists, and explain it so as to harness its inner truths into better ends, is derided as apologia. But, as Gorky shows through fiction, wrongly caricaturing the billionaire as a headless monster with three stomachs does not really help us defeat capitalism.

The Lost Horse (Ancient China, 139 BC) [3]

Many authors, such as J. W. Freiberg, [4] have examined how various key tenets of dialectics had pre-existing, non-Hegelian roots in China, and how this cultural soil provably lent itself to the later adoption of Marxism. This is important because Western liberal culture seems comparatively very hostile to Marxism. In trying to understand this phenomenon, then, it’s good for Westerners to get a sense of what this culture looks like in the colloquial and very accessible way in which it is actually passed down through generations.

The ancient Chinese tale illustrates in words the Daoist concept behind the symbol of the “yin-yang”: there is fortune in tragedy (white in black), and tragedy in fortune (black in white), and they lead in and out of each other. It shouldn’t be hard to see similar accents here to Romain Rolland’s classic communist aphorism, popularized by Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” [5]

As Freiberg points out, however, Hegelian and especially Marxist dialectics cannot be reduced to ancient Daoist wisdom. This ancient wisdom was far more pessimistic: if in the West we see Marxist dialectics challenging simplistic linear narratives presenting liberalism as the cusp of human development, in the East they challenge circular and cyclical notions that there is no progress at all, that we’re forever stuck in a loop. The line and the circle are both superseded by a spiral. [6] As Lenin explains in an intervention into discussions of tendencies within Western philosophy: “Dialectics — as Hegel in his time explained — contains the element of relativism, of negation, of scepticism, but is not reducible to relativism.” [7]

In any case, it’s a nice story to revisit whenever tragedy visits one’s life.

Ask a Foolish Question (The United States, 1953) [8]

One of the most difficult things about learning in the West is that not only are good resources hard to come by amid a sea of scams and irrelevance, but in fact even the very act of learning is derided and modelled poorly. Noam Chomsky, for example, is routinely referred to as a foremost intellectual, and yet when asked to discuss dialectics he excuses himself thus: “I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. It seems to mean something about complexity, or alternative positions, or change, or something.” As Roland Barthes writes, far from humbly and genuinely confessing ignorance, he’s in reality modeling for his disciples a dismissive anti-intellectualism that will shield them from better ideas indefinitely: “One believes oneself to have such sureness of intelligence that acknowledging an inability to understand calls in question the clarity of the author and not that of one’s own mind.” [9] Anyone who approaches anything they don’t already instinctively understand with distrust and disdain is unlikely to learn anything new.

When I began to study Hegel (having read in Lenin that he was a pre-requisite for a true understanding of Marxism), and hit snags like everybody else, I had to draw on something to persist. And that something often ended up being this little bit of 1950s American Sci-Fi that I had come across earlier in life, very representative of the better aspects of the wide-eyed curiosity of those times. It’s a story illustrating a point that it perfectly sums up in its last sentence: “In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer.”

Of course, once again, it’s not a Marxist story. It conveys a kind of Kantian fatalism about our eternal inability to understand things and each other, and in this sense it is basically post-modernist and non-materialist. However, its kernel of wisdom remains: we shouldn’t be discouraged when things aren’t immediately intelligible to us. As Marx put it, “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

[1] Maxim Gorky, “The Billionaire” (1897). [web] 

[2] For an extended discussion of the serious self-sabotaging perils of freely indulging in demonization of the enemy, see “Masses, Elites, and Rebels: The Theory of ‘Brainwashing’” (2022). [web] 

[3] Liu An, “The Lost Horse” (139 BC). [web] 

[4] J. W. Freiberg, “The Dialectic in China: Maoist and Daoist” (1977). [web] See especially Charts 4, 6, and 7. 

[5] Antonio Gramsci, “An Address to Anarchists” (1920). [web] 

[6] V. I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics” (1915). [web] 

[7] V. I. Lenin, “Absolute and Relative Truth, or the Eclecticism of Engels as Discovered by A. Bogdanov” in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908). [web] 

[8] Robert Sheckley, “Ask a Foolish Question” (1953). [web] 

[9] Roland Barthes, “Blind and Dumb Criticism” (1957). [web]