Against Personality Cults

The largest obstacle to creating a united radical left in the United States is the ongoing perpetuation of personality cults. Personality cults inevitably lead to revisionism when we discuss popular socialist thinkers or leaders and this revisionism fuels the sectarianism of the True Left. This sectarianism keeps us from accomplishing things like stopping reactionary state policies and inevitably prevents the liberation of the working class, leaving us at the mercy of the capitalist masters. We can see this sectarianism through personality cults especially when we see comrades make excuses for the shortcomings or problematic stances of famous socialists instead of holding them to scrutiny.

First a few points of clarification; 1. the “True Left” is the body of the communists, socialists, and anarchists who are organizing and growing in numbers as we speak. This has nothing to do with liberals or corporate democrats. Further I must state I am not talking about anything except the theories and policies of popular socialists, this is not about the actions of socialists like Lenin, Fidel, or Mao when they came into power but rather this is about the ideas them and other socialists have put forward that both have validity and shortcomings.

2. A personality cult can be described as loyalty to the point of putting the thinker before the thought. The thinker is either infallible or their mistakes are excusable somehow. It is noticeable throughout the left, from loyal Stalinists to diehard Berniecrats. Personality cults are when people are more interested in the personality of the individual rather than the theory or structure of organizing they are proposing. These manifest in some of the oldest cliche arguments that we have seen fill our Leftist twitter feeds.

“Stalin did nothing wrong.”

“Trotsky was right about everything.”

“The DSA killed Rosa.” Etc.

3. Identity politics is when the identity of an individual comes before anything else, in other words who you are as a person is the only thing that dictates your political decisions. Dedications to personality cults on the Left are a form of identity politics, it becomes about the individual versus the individual and prevents a genuine discussion about the ideologies. “I am a Maoist and so you are wrong because you are a Trotskyite!” A simplistic example but one that demonstrates the point that when personality cults manifest in this form of identity politics genuine discussions become difficult. If we on the True Left can’t have a civil dialogue about differing ideologies, both of which agree that capitalism is the central problem, we cannot expect to ever live in a leftist world.

This is not a thesis against any of the great socialist thinkers and leaders. This is not an article discouraging people from supporting Bernie, nor is it discouraging people from enjoying the works of people like Rosa, Lenin, Mao, or Trotsky. I enjoy the work of all these people very much, however I am not about to make excuses for the shortcomings in their theory, praxis, or ideologies. The easiest example to use is Bernie Sanders, he is the politician who I agree the most with out of any other, he factually and numerically has the most policies I agree with than any other politician I can think of. This does not mean I agree with him on everything. Bernie Sanders has some horrifically problematic international policies, especially about Israel, an issue he has flip flopped on. We must not make excuses for these shortcomings, we must acknowledge them and hold him to proper scrutiny so that the policies and rhetoric can be corrected. Excuses play into the fodder of sectarians where as internal scrutiny and self reflection can only help the socialist movement grow, especially if we are able to take away the fodder from the opposition.

When someone loyal to one ideology or thinker finds the excuses made by their opposing ideology, the rift between the two groups continues because as stated above one group now has fodder against the other. This goes back and forth because both sides inevitably are making excuses for their thinkers and leaders instead of listening to the scrutiny of the other side, thus a united radical Left in the United States doesn’t happen.

This is also not an equally distributed problem, I do believe certain schools of socialist ideologies loan themselves to the personality cult more than others, however while the entirety of the True Left is not responsible it is a problem for the entirety of the Left that must be answered.

The answer to the problem is simple, we must be critical and scrutinizing to all sides, ideas, theories, and policies put forward by any public figure, even when they are ones who we agree with or represent our own ideas. Self scrutiny is the key to ending the fodder that can be exploited to derail socialist organizing. We must hold our own to scrutiny, but this does not mean we must think less of our thinkers or leaders. Leftism is still the only true alternative we have in this capitalist world, but what prevents differing True Left ideologies from uniting on a common anti-capitalist platform is the dedication to the person before the theory. We must not let the fact we like certain theorists more than others affect our judgement about the movement and its future.

Published by James J Jackson

I'm a poet from California.

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