So before we go any further forward with the Eric Hoffer quote we started last week, I think I have to quote him slightly out of order to talk about his exceptions to mass movements - those moments, not many of them but hugely consequential when done correctly, when mass movements can be harnessed for good, just so we can understand right away that these mass movements of ours may, not will, but may, eventually have a beneficial outcome. I'm sure you understand at this point that I'm pessimistic about it, but I'm willing to concede that it's certainly possible. But in each of these cases, there is a leader who directs them. It's in the nature of bottom up movements that their benefits can be snapped up all the easier by people with power. A mass movement is too chaotic to not eventually cohere behind a single leader because once the scale is tipped to a single flank of the movement, no other flank is yet powerful enough to stop them - or usually him. The more leaderless and democratic a mass movement seems, the more it usually seems to cohere behind a single leader, and once it does, it's at the leader's mercy, whether that leader aims to for the good of the people for whom he or she speaks, or for the good of his or her own glory, is something that cannot be controlled by its followers once the leader takes its reins.
There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind.Let's start unpacking this with a sidenote: to include Churchill in 2018 among this band of great leaders in 2018 is an extraordinarily controversial opinion - Churchill's reputation took a huge dive in our era given both his extreme imperialism and his lionization by Bush-era neoconservatives. So nobody should deny that to call Churchill one of the world's greatest leaders is, in some ways, an extremely problematic claim. But ask yourself: if the urge toward Conservatism is always going to be with us no matter how badly we want to curb its most reactionary excesses, and I certainly believe that the evidence shows it will, what kind of conservatism do you want to help foster among people who will always believe in it? Do you want right wingers who excuse the authoritarianism of the Right because at least it's Right Wing, or that looks at the authoritarianism of the Right and says 'absolutely not'? Racism will always be with us, so would you rather have racists who believe it's acceptable to treat supposedly inferior races in any and all manner of inhumane ways, or racists who believes that civilization demands that you treat the people ruled with at least some level of decency. The latter is the kind of conservative that you want as an opponent, a voice that demands respect for tradition and cautions against change that's too fast. It's the kind of conservatism that has fundamentally died in America, as I've said before, the closest national figures we have in our era to those who practice that form of conservatism is the Clintons.
It's all well and good for a person of the Left to say 'I don't want any kind of conservative.' But that's not an option, and every time you write conservatives off as the enemy, you leave them to their own devices and leave their worst urges to fester. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, and ideologically, I think he's clearly an authoritarian reactionary rather than a conservative, there is a reason that the Obamas have made an enormous show of embracing the Bushes. The Bush Administration was far beyond the pale of any kind of conservatism that is good for America, but in showing a united front against Trump, the Obamas (and yes, the Clintons too), have shown how American liberals can embrace conservatives and even try to influence them to come around to less reactionary views.
The True Believer was written in 1951, and since then, you would have to at very least add Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to this list, and possibly Hispanic-American labor leader Caesar Chavez, Alice Paul who for fifty years headed the National Women's Party which fundamentally was the organization that secured women the right to vote and the inclusion of women as a protected group under the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, and even Lech Walesa, another name that would make liberals distinctly uncomfortable if they remembered who he was anymore... look him up.... or even, gasp... David Ben-Gurion!...
There is a second uncomfortable truth to which this leads us. It's one thing for leaders like Lincoln or FDR to use violent means, staring into the abyss of a world that was headed for war anyway, and turning that war machine into something that can restructure humanity for the better, but when you have leaders like Gandhi, MLK, who have no backing of a state, or Mandela, who did not have the backing of a state during his most consequential period... I'm sure you see where I'm going with this...
If you were to ask, in a vacuum, whether an oppressed group of people is morally justified in taking up violent means to overthrow their oppressors, no matter where or when, the answer would have to be 'of course.' It would be repugnant to deny them that. But moral justification has never been an effective calculus to overthrow any power at all. To say that violent resistance is an effective means to empower the disempowered is to pretend the disempowered are less trapped they are. It would seem that history's consigned the world to live through an infinite series of class wars in which every revolutionary movement thinks it is the one to have cracked the code that stops the most violent and self-aggrandizing revolutionaries from rising to the top during the chaos of warfare.
Let's just think of a tale of two neighbors. South Africa, and Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe. The leaders of both countries were longtime prisoners - though Mugabe "only" for eleven years in comparison to Mandela's twenty-eight. Mugabe was a violent revolutionary before he became the quote-unquote "President" of Zimbabwe, and he never changed his tune. After Mugabe's release from prison in '75, his army forcibly seized farms owned by white families, roughly thirty-thousand died in this semi-war. After he'd seized power, he outright killed another 20,000 citizens. He'd criminalized anyone who had the scientific education to make the land arable, which inevitably caused famine and extreme hyperinflation. With leftist dictators of various stripes, people inevitably like to point out widespread health care and literacy - but what's the point of health care when you don't have enough to eat, and how can you prove either actually exists when you have a political system that falsifies everything else? The point is that when a militant leader says that violence is the way forward, he generally means what he says. Violence is an addiction like any addiction, and once you open its many doors of chaos, you don't choose which doors you walk through, the path chooses you.
The point of comparing him to Mandela is not to compare a saint to a devil; Mandela was never the saint he's often made out to be. Part of his great achievement is not because he forswore violence, but because he eventually renounced it. His whole career as a leader was begun by his break with African National Congress leaders who promised non-violence to create a terrorist wing of the Congress. After he was imprisoned, Amnesty International never listed him as a 'political prisoner' because he was so clearly involved in acts of terror. From behind bars he sanctioned a car bomb in 1983, he suggested cutting noses of Black South Africans who were suspected collaborators with Apartheid, and the African National Congress ran a camp in Angola in which they literally tortured and burned suspected black collaborators to death. Mandela was an ally of Castro, Arafat, and Qaddafi... but what made Mandela extraordinary was not his advocacy of social change of non-violence, but his gradual giving up of violence when he realized that non-violence was more practical. His attitude was always that 'non-violence is a good policy when the conditions permit.' As the world began to pay attention to South African Apartheid, Mandela began to move further and further away from his violent positions, and in many ways, what made the world pay more and more attention to South Africa was Mandela's gradual renunciation of violence. Mandela was much more important than a saint, he was a practical leader who reacted to the changing conditions of every moment. Even at his most violent, Mandela was such a far cry from Mugabe, because the violent acts sanctioned by Mandela were specific, limited, and targeted. Mugabe, on the other hand, deliberately instigated indiscriminate riots to implement a full-scale civil war in the late 70's, which alone is enough to prove Martin Luther King wrong when he said that 'rioting is the language of the unheard.' More on that in a few minutes.
What made Mandela's great was not his means but his end. The end result was, as he put it in the 1964 trial that imprisoned him until 1990, "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." And he proved that he meant it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission meant that there would a public record of who did what, both white and black, but also that no matter what people did, there would be a second chance without retribution. Mandela was a Marxist to the end, but he refused to nationalize South Africa's industries, and corporations pumped money by the billions into the South African economy.
All the same, South Africa is quite far from great these days - in some ways still worse for South Africans than under Apartheid, who are apparently murdered at the crime rate of fifty a day with a disproportionate number of victims being black. The unemployment rate occasionally goes above 30% and never below 20%. And we won't touch the statistics about sex crime in South Africa, we'll just say that it's a problem, and mention that 5.7 million South Africans have HIV, no less than 12% of the country. Meanwhile, a million white South Africans have left, and the South African government no longer puts much stop to black terrorist organizations which requisition farms away from white families through murder and arson.
But this is Africa, upon whose backs all manner of modern European greatness was created, forced to struggle, day by day, in their agonizingly slow climb from a status of mass enslavement into taking their rightful honored places among the nations. The fact that the tensions in South Africa could be as fraught as anywhere in Africa, yet avoid the kind of apocalypse that befell Zimbabwe, or Somalia, or Sudan, or Ethiopia, or Rwanda, or Nigeria, or worst of all, the Congo, has to be counted an unambiguous triumph. The country muddles through, lives another day, fights the good fight against a world structured to cause their failure.
And since we're already on South Africa, we could go down a very long rabbit hole and talk for episodes at a time about Gandhi, whom people often forget spent the first half of his career there. I'm sure Gandhi will come up in future episodes, perhaps many times.
But the reason to even mention Gandhi is to emphasize how different a figure he was to Mandela. The historical figure Mandela resembles far more - and I'm sure this comparison will drive a number of listeners crazy for completely opposed reasons - is David Ben-Gurion - the first Prime Minister of Israel and the most important Zionist for a full half-century. Both Mandela and Ben-Gurion were practical socialists ready to give up their supposed principles at the first sign that they could create advantages for their constituents, were willing to make peace as often as use violence. In their wake, they both created great, vital, democratic societies that, in spite of extraordinary flaws, survive from one era to the next, comprised of peoplehoods who had every reason to expect that the world would hand them the same suffering handed to their peoplehood elsewhere. Through a combination of olive branches and violent strikes that were reactive to the violence which surrounded them, their vision created nations. Would, however, either their nations have less problems if had their tactics been still more selective in their violence? Well... the world will never know.
And that brings us to Martin Luther King, who now seems to be all things to all people. There has, in recent years, been a serious push on the left to reclaim him as an agitating, discomforting force. It's not hard to understand why. In an age when Martin Luther King gets lip service paid by the same old racists who in their youths wished for his death, his embrace by the Right should be considered a scandal.
Yes, Martin Luther King was an agitating force in American life who aggressively pushed Americans to realize all manner of inequalities: racial, legal, and financial, that, properly applied, would still be an incredibly uncomfortable message for the vast majority of Americans. He is now taken up, though, by people who refuse to renounce the validity of violence as a specifically political tactic. And to claim that MLK would ever do the same is a revisionist history of a revisionist history. It's true, MLK said that rioting is the language of the unheard, and even if that's not necessarily true - Mugabe among many, many other examples, proved that riots can always be directed by richer and more powerful people toward the objects of rage they sanction, it's not completely untrue either. But even so, understanding the reasons why people riot should never be confused with the support and encouragement of directed acts violence for political means, which MLK never gave any indication of supporting. There is an ocean's gulf between spontaneous rioting of the poor and specific acts of violence, one is the language of desperation, one is the language of terror. And just as the Right wing has an innate temptation to excuse authoritarianism, the Left wing has an innate temptation to excuse terrorism.
You could never say with any certainty that, to take one of the most common accusations, Black Lives Matter endorses specifically targeted political violence, and that would be so completely outside the mainstream of what it stands for that it would almost be offensive to suggest it. Yet it wouldn't be completely offensive either. Black Lives Matter a much larger, perhaps unwieldy, political movement than itself. When people speak about BLM, they as often as not don't know to which organization they're speaking. They may not be speaking specifically about BLM but instead about The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella organization for the campaign for which all the groups under which BLM protests, they might be speaking of Campaign Zero - a movement for police reform, they might even be speaking about the National Anthem protests. If these people are particularly sloppy, they might even might be speaking about Antifa, the even more nebulous conglomeration of extreme protest groups worldwide whose tactics are not limited to dressing in black from head to toe, breaking windows, and throwing molotov cocktails. Or 20 other more minor protest movements. All of these movements are related, but they're far from the same, and therein lies the spirit of our times when the wings of inclusion spread so wide that it's just assumed that anything noxious which inclusion picks up along the way will be so watered down by all the other elements that the noxiousness will simply dissolve. And that's a big and very risky wager not backed up by the trajectory of similarly inclusive movements in the past. All you have to do is take a quick glance at the trajectory of 19th century socialist movements to see where that ended up in the long term.
Whether it's been Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or Me Too, there is a deliberate looseness to all of these non-Presidential mass movements in the name of inclusion. But as a result of it, the flanks within them have to distinguish themselves to become noticed. Therefore, the more extreme the rhetoric of any flank within it, the more noticed it becomes, and the more widespread a chance the rhetoric has for adaptation. And when poisonous ideas get the cover of good intentions, it becomes still easier for people to adapt to concepts they would otherwise see as ideological poison.