Monday, 22 April 2013

Kerry Bolton's The Psychotic Left

The Psychotic Left: From Jacobin France to the Occupy Movement
Kerry Bolton
(Black House Publishing, 2013)

Kerry Bolton’s recent monograph, The Psychotic Left, is, in effect, a book-length investigation of a thesis that links extreme egalitarian attitudes with mental disturbance and moral idiocy, focusing on the intellectuals, activists, and leaders of the political Left. And it proves, unsurprisingly, an educational read, which would also be highly amusing were it not for the fact that the Left, despite its fine ‘enlightened’ language, has, in its fanatical pursuit of equality, been the most murderous and destructive force in human history.

The underlying thesis means that Bolton does not attempt a critique of egalitarian ethics. Since such a critique is much needed, this may be thought as a flaw in this work, whose readership must therefore consist of the converted. Then again, do not most readers read the kind of books that confirm them in their beliefs? Be that as it may, the topic of egalitarianism as a form of moral insanity is so large, and so little has been done in this area, that it would be fatuous to expect a single tome to deal with it entirely. The Psychotic Left should be taken as presenting one facet of a multi-faceted problem, and constituting a critique of egalitarianism from the position of virtue ethics—that is, the goodness or badness of egalitarianism is determined by the moral qualities of egalitarians.

For his analytical framework, Bolton relies on Lothrop Stoddard’s The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman and Max Nordau’s Degeneration. Stoddard’s argument was that the less gifted members of our society, the dysgenic underclass, find civilisation a heavier burden than the rest, and that this is the reason why they are attracted to destructive egalitarian movements (e.g., Bolshevism): they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the overthrow of that burden. The term ‘underman’ stems from the assumption that our humanity is a function of our capacity for civilisation.

Max Nordau is today better known as one of the fathers of Zionism, to which he converted, under the influence of his friend Theodor Herzl, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. Previously, however, he was known for Degeneration, a book that draws from the theories of Cesare Lombroso, of whom he was a disciple. In this very long work, Nordau attacked modern art, rapid urbanisation, and other social phenomena of the period. Bolton quotes him extensively in passages where he, like Stoddard, discusses the psychopathological nature of what the American refers to as ‘tainted genius’—particularly individuals who, when allied to radically egalitarian ideologies, have occupied leadership positions in related movements. Following and elaborating on Stoddard, Bolton chooses his examples from the French Revolution through to the Occupy movement.

Among the psychopaths associated with Jacobin France Bolton profiles Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an unbalanced personality whose paranoid conspiracy theories regarding David Hume—his benefactor in a time of need—led to their falling out; Sade; and Jean Marat, the latter one as obvious a Lombrosian mattoid as one could find.

Perhaps the most amusing chapter is the one profiling Karl Marx. We are presented with the picture of a man who lived in squalor; who treated relatives as his personal wallet; who, anxiously awaited their passing in hopes that he would be mentioned in their Wills; and who, while mooching off Engels’ rich relatives, scorned any kind of employment and still felt entitled to the best wines and cigars.

The chapter on Louis Althusser is frankly amazing. While at university, he was always presented to me simply as an important structuralist theorist. It was never mentioned that he was a member of the French Communist Party, nor that, having suffered from severe mental illness all his adult life, only ten years earlier he had murdered wife by strangulation and committed to a mental hospital, where he stayed for three years before living the rest of his life as a recluse. Bolton traces the origins of Althusser’s Marxism to his early life:
Lewis states ‘cycles of deep depression’ had afflicted Althusser since 1938. He had been born into a Catholic family where the father, Charles Althusser, a bank manager, was seen by Louis as an “authoritative, distant figure, whose nightmares and shrieks and occasional violent outbursts terrified him”; those nightmares presumably being a legacy of World War I.
For Althusser allegiance to Communism might also have be seen as the projection of a conflict between father and son rationalised into an ideology of class struggle: the struggle between [him and] the father as the archetypical bourgeoisie, a bank manager, authoritarian, aloof, and volatile; representative of capitalism. This family scenario fits Marxian doctrine, which sees the family as inherently repressive. Louis was the downtrodden victim in revolt the patriarchal authoritarianism symbolised by his father. He related in his autobiography that he regarded himself since childhood as ‘constantly the victim’ ‘whose work is his escape from this “tombstone of the non-lieu, or silence and public death”’ His Marxism, which was not activated until several years after the war, was his means of projecting his angst onto an entire social order.
Having previously dealt with Trotsky, Lenin, subsequent chapters deal with Mao Zedong, Gerry Healy (a leading Trotskyist in the United Kingdom between 1950 and 1985), the New Left, Abbie Hoffman, the Weather Underground (Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers now enjoy respect as academics), Mark Rudd, New Age cults and therapies, Feminism, Allen Ginsberg, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (madness as social revolt), and the so-called ‘Next Left’, with reference to the Occupy movement.

Bolton points out that radically egalitarian movements have, in modern times, attracted many Jews. It is easy to see how, in a diaspora scenario, a host society that adheres to a radically egalitarian ideology would be beneficial to Jewish interests, since this would preclude their being singled out for exclusion, discrimination, or persecution. Bolton’s survey identifies another motivation, which has not been, as far as I am aware, discussed before: the desire among a subset of young Jews to escape the influence of controlling, domineering mothers, and their transference of this impulse to rebellion onto the larger society. This is more or less analogous Althusser’s projections relating to his father. In other words, Bolton sees radically egalitarian movements of the Left as adolescent temper tantrums, which are then rationalised and intellectualised within the framework of an egalitarian ideology. This maybe less far-fetched than it may seem to some, for egalitarian ideals are inherently adolescent or infantile (being a rebellion against authority and tradition) and the levelling egalitarian impulse inherently destructive, in as much as egalitarianism cannot be achieved without destroying categories and power relations.

Overall, what we have here is essentially a freakshow of narcissists, murderers, and lunatics, many of whom are today taken seriously as luminaries of radical liberalism or the radical Left. This further highlights the degree to which, in the current climate, the work and luminaries of the Right are subjected to extremely rigorous standards and scrutiny, while the work and luminaries of the liberals and the Left enjoy indulgence, generosity, and leniency.

There is, unquestionably, a humorous tone in Bolton’s otherwise moralistic survey, for it aims to entertain as much as it educates. It nevertheless opens up a whole new field of enquiry in our efforts to anatomise egalitarian movements, and there will, no doubt, be further literature aimed at mining this profitable quarry. It would worth examining, for example, the effects of egalitarianism on the human body, the physiognomical characteristics of egalitarian radicals, the egalitarian personality, the effects of egalitarian ideology in manufacture and the consumer culture, the effects of egalitarian ideology in art, and much more. The possibilities are endless.

I look forward to more in this vein.