We live in disorienting times, lurching from one catastrophe to the next, led by bewildered clowns who clearly have no idea what to do. And that’s the good news. With things changing so fast, it can be difficult to read the signs of what’s actually happening: one minute we’re going about our lives, then a pandemic hits, then we’re under lockdown, and then a Minnesota cop kills an unarmed black man by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — and before you know it we’re in the midst of a full-blown Cultural Revolution, complete with mass rallies, struggle sessions, toppled statues and a revolutionary vanguard marching forward to remake the world, radical texts in hand.
Or are we? They don’t teach the history of Mao’s China in schools — I mean, why would they? — but for those who have read a book or two, the surface similarities to the present moment can be unnerving. Yet while the rallies are a powerful phenomenon and Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi are certainly selling well on Amazon, I think our tendency to look for past precedents that confirm our present anxieties can blind us to the uniqueness of the now. Yes, a shift is taking place, but not only is it not 1968, it is not anything else either: this moment is its own thing.
Take the mass gatherings, for instance. In China these went on for months and were not so much protests as state-sponsored displays of loyalty towards a monstrous narcissist who would turn up to bask in the frenzied love of his adoring worshippers. Here the monstrous narcissist is so reviled by the crowds that he had to tear gas his way into a church so he could wave a Bible at a camera for a photo op that may well go down in history as the moment when even his most ardent apologists thought: oh hell no.
Unlike the Cultural Revolution, or the Iranian Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, this moment has no clear leader. It does have spokespeople, however, and the American media — being the sad, decadent, exhausting travesty that it is — has unerringly zeroed in on the most unreasonable and extreme voices, providing them with a platform upon which they can undermine their own cause.
Excusing looting that destroys the livelihoods of working-class people is fairly typical for bourgeois radicals and so lacks sufficient frisson; thus they quickly moved on to demand that the police be defunded or even abolished — though there is some disagreement as to what that actually means. Fortunately for them, Trump is now so damaged that even this generous attempt on their part to hand him back the political advantage may fall short.
The iconoclasm, too, is very different. In the UK a monument to a slave trader was tossed in the water, and activists have set their sights on everyone from Churchill to Gandhi to Baden-Powell. In the US it was Columbus who took a bath while a statue of Thomas Jefferson in Portland was pulled down, and the bitter debate over Confederate monuments has flared up again. During the Cultural Revolution, however, the destruction was so thoroughgoing that radicals didn’t just topple monuments; they smashed up the tomb of Confucius, dug up a dead emperor and denounced him and incinerated countless artistic treasures. Sadiq Khan’s review of London’s statuary is a feeble and unambitious affair in comparison.
Then, too, there are the texts. There is no equivalent to Mao’s Little Red Book, and not just because White Fragility has a long way to go before one billion copies are in circulation. This is America and voices are many. The ideas of critical race theorists might be leaving campus and entering the mainstream, but its leading authors — unlike Mao — will have to compete with other writers on the same topic, with readerly indifference, with critical readings, and with the fact that most people will never read them.
It is striking, meanwhile, that they have so far aimed their texts exclusively at an affluent, well-educated audience, making no effort to sell their message to the masses, which all great revolutionaries know is essential. Lenin and Mao were experts at crafting memorable slogans, while Stalin took the dense body of Lenin’s works and produced the catechistic Foundations of Leninism. Meanwhile, despite the increasing conformism of elite American journalism, it remains a fact that the best critical review of both Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi was published in The New Yorker.
Which brings me to another point: the inestimable Ed West, seeking to illustrate the difference between now and a similarly radical moment in 1968, recently pointed to the “almost universal establishment approval” bestowed upon the 2020 protests and the ‘Great Awokening’ in contrast to 50 years ago, when the establishment was less united in its response to protests.
This is true, but isn’t the establishment looking kinda rotten? Trust in the media is low; newspapers and magazines rely on billionaire patrons to survive, new media can’t turn a profit, and while rebellious NYT staffers successfully defenestrated their opinion page editor so their 5 million subscribers could have a more soothing reading experience, Joe Rogan gets 100 million downloads a month and promotes the kinds of thinkers NYT staffers dislike intensely.
‘Woke’ corporations are only woke up to the point where it hurts their bottom line; Google was firing employees at the center of labour-organising efforts not long ago; and nearly half of the American workforce works for small businesses anyway. Meanwhile, America’s elite universities, founded by Puritans to instill purity of heart and thought in future preachers, have gone back to their roots, only students now have to pay a fortune for the privilege of having their minds narrowed.
These institutions are so rich they can do what they like, of course, but two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree and, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out long ago, America has a strong anti-intellectual tradition. People here do not defer to their ‘betters’ and that seems unlikely to change any time soon, given that America’s elites are not exactly covering themselves with glory, hyper-polarisation having destroyed much of their capacity for anything remotely resembling intellectual honesty.
And that, in turn, brings me to another point: the fundamental unruliness of American culture. Puritans may have climbed off the Mayflower and founded the first colony, but it was tea-dumpers who kicked off the revolution and founded the Republic. Nobody in America ever gets it all their own way; at most, you get two years. The horror of George Floyd’s death, and the moral bankruptcy of the president created a moment of unity, regardless of the excesses of some asshats. Everybody could agree that this kind of thing had to stop.
But already I can feel the centrifugal forces kicking back in. The disappearance of what was left of the centre means that the dismal state of politics and journalism will likely get worse; the two sides will push each other further out to the extremes, the national discourse will grow more bitter, and the loudest voices in the country will resume the unhappy work of tearing things apart, while the many millions of reasonable people look on in dismay.
Even as I type this, Sean Hannity’s researchers are undoubtedly providing him with a cheat sheet on critical race theory so he can start rambling on about it much as he did about Saul Alinsky during the years Obama was president. I’m so old I can even remember Greta Thunberg: she promised us that we didn’t have a future. Well, she was wrong about that. When that cop killed George Floyd, time didn’t just start moving again, it accelerated.
But even if I am mistaken, and this truly is a revolutionary moment, let us not forget that revolutions never turn out as planned. Let us return to the Cultural Revolution. How did it end? Well, after an awful lot of destruction, Mao grew tired of the excesses and imposed discipline, sending the youthful radicals away to live in the country with the peasantry. After he died, the surviving ringleaders were sent to prison, and Deng Xiaoping, whose son had been tossed out of a window during the madness, came to power and introduced the economic reforms that began the transformation of China into the not-terribly-communist place it is today.
In Russia in 1917, there was similar disappointment: the revolution that started in Moscow was supposed to sweep across the world, starting in Germany. Instead it got as far as Mongolia and then stopped. Stalin had to invent a new doctrine to justify the failure, and resort to massive violence to keep everyone in line.
And so on. Complex, messy reality has a way of reasserting itself over both the best (and worst) intentions. If I were Joe Biden, I’d be worried about what I was letting myself in for: should he come to power, he will inherit the highest unemployment rate since records began, an intensified culture war and possibly a new wave of coronavirus. Meanwhile the emboldened radical wing of his party will almost certainly overreach (as victorious parties always do), provoking a comeback from a Trump-free Right two years later.
There are reasons to study the history of communism other than to learn about what went wrong: you can also learn about what those who didn’t lurch to extremes got right. Radicals have long been frustrated by the fact that most people are not interested in revolution; that the workers, when given a choice, always chose reform over millennial dreams of transformation. The radicals will be disappointed again.
The pendulum will swing one way, then it will swing another way. And yet mysteriously, America will continue to move forward, and people of good will shall do what they can to try and prevent tragedies such as the death of George Floyd from happening again, despite all the histrionics and performative showboating. And things will get better.