Norman Finkelstein is a leading activist and scholar of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the author of, among other books, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000) and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End (2012).
In this adaptation from an unpublished autobiographical sketch, written a decade ago just before his fiftieth birthday, Finkelstein reflects upon his previous incarnation as a dedicated Maoist. Among other things, it contextualizes Finkelstein’s recent criticism of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Although committed to political activism, I’ve always felt a need to be in full command of the facts, and not just mouth mindless slogans: that is, “no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory”…as the slogan went. I’ve also derived great pleasure and gratification, not to mention pride, from the life of the mind. Unwilling to abandon it for the sake of practical politics, I sought ways to combine both. In my youth I was a Maoist, a political tendency prone to crude anti-intellectualism. I used to relish quoting a passage of Mao (from his “Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” I believe) that heaped abuse on intellectuals while praising the virtue of ordinary workers and peasants. Nonetheless, I devoured every book I could find on China (I became the first undergraduate at my university to precept a college-level course, on modern China), and gravitated toward erudite Maoists such as Charles Bettelheim, a French Marxist teaching at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études in Paris, and Paul M. Sweezy, a Harvard economist who subsequently started up a small but influential socialist journal, Monthly Review.
Eager to read the latest word from this fount of Marxist wisdom, I used to hang around the Monthly Review office for the first copy off the press of each new issue. Sweezy, the gentlest and most decent of souls, later became a generous mentor as well as supporter of mine. On Wednesday afternoons, Sweezy and his collaborator Harry Magdoff presided over a lunchtime roundtable with local Marxist luminaries and whichever flashy superstars happened to be in town. Magdoff (an autodidact) used to carry on like the Pope, rendering final judgment on everything from banking to the bible. Sweezy would sit silently until the very end, when he chimed in with a few pearls of distilled wisdom. Once, at a Monthly Review Christmas party I inquired after Sweezy’s health. “I’m in the endgame,” he replied. (He was in his early 80s.) “Oh, Paul, please don’t say that!” I plaintively rejoined. “It’s okay,” he consoled me. “I’m ready.” He uttered these words so serenely, that it seemed as if he genuinely did not fear death. As it happened, Sweezy lived many more years (he died at 94), although eventually he was overtaken by dementia. To this day, I rue not having spent more time with him, providing some warmth, in his final years.
In 1979, filled with anticipation and awe, I went to study with Charles Bettelheim in Paris. Avowedly a revolutionary, Bettelheim was also a typical French mandarin. I can still see in my mind’s eye his long slender fingers that, for all Mao’s preaching about the virtues of manual labour, probably never lifted anything weightier than a quill pen. One didn’t meet with him during office hours, but instead waited for a much-coveted gilded invitation to dine with him at his home. Nonetheless Bettelheim seemed genuinely committed to making Marxism a living reality. “It’s my raison d’être,” he unaffectedly told me. His students were too caught up in the academic side of Marxism at the expense of “revolutionary practice” for my taste—but, in all candour and to my chagrin, I must also confess not being able to keep pace with them intellectually.
What clinched my disenchantment was the increasing sterility of Bettelheim’s, and my own, “problematic.” After Mao’s death, his heirs, the “Gang of Four,” were in short order dethroned, and his legacy was dismantled. The theory of socialist transition, on which I intended to write my doctoral dissertation, seemed more than ever divorced from reality. In addition, the rapid collapse of Maoism forced me to rethink many of my beliefs. There must have been a lot more rot at the core of the Chinese Revolution than I was led—and allowed myself to be led, and led others—to believe. What hurt most for someone who thought he knew so much was how foolish he had been. I remember one non-believer telling this true believer that, before I ever got to China, there would be a McDonald’s at the Great Wall. I sneeringly dismissed his “petty-bourgeois” cynicism. (He in turn recoiled at being labelled merely a “petty” and not a full-fledged bourgeois.) Well, a McDonald’s did open for business at the Great Wall while I lost all interest in making pilgrimage to China. In fact, from the day the Gang of Four was overthrown to this day I’ve not opened a single book or read through to the end a single news article on China. The wound runs deep, the pain lingers. For the first three weeks after the coup I could barely make it out of bed. I was later told that Bettelheim had to be hospitalized. Whether, in my case, this was due more to disappointment or embarrassment, I cannot say. In any event, I learned an important, albeit excruciating, lesson: de omnibus dubitandum (Marx’s credo).
* * *
Those not wondering what a Maoist is wonder how I could have been one. It’s a historical moment that has vanished without a trace.
In the early 1970s, when I came of age politically, the U.S. government was raining death on Vietnam abroad and hunting down Black militants at home. The system manifestly required more than a little tinkering to be set right. Anyhow, I had committed myself not just to a reformed world but a world turned upside down. For all its Marxist pretences, Russia seemed to resemble the United States. The grey-on-grey of Soviet-style socialism didn’t exactly fire the imagination. On the other hand, China appeared on the brink of ushering in a new world. Those coming back from Maoist China echoed the writer Lincoln Steffens on his return from Lenin’s Russia: “I have seen the future, and it works.” From Chairman Mao down to the ordinary worker and peasant, everyone seemed to be practicing a simple, austere lifestyle, contemptuous of bourgeois amenities and devoted to a larger collective purpose. I still remember the sense of moral inferiority on my first sighting of a real-life exemplar of this “new socialist man” from China (in fact, a woman, Carmelita Hinton, daughter of famed Maoist author William Hinton) at a left-wing conference in New York. Shamed by my bourgeois baggage, I decided against introducing myself to her.
Maoism seemed irrefutable proof of an alternative to the rat-race existence. To cynics who maintained that creating a society based on non-acquisitive values was utopian, I replied: Look at China! It was even said that petty theft had disappeared. Bicycles weren’t chained up, lost items were returned. While I was taking a nap late one winter’s night in my college student centre, someone stole my brand new work shoes from, literally, right under my feet. Furious at the theft and having had to walk home barefoot in the slush, the next day in my Chinese foreign policy class I indignantly declared, “This wouldn’t have happened in China!” Many of my classmates no doubt silently thought that it served this self-righteous ass**** right.
The precepts of Chinese Communism mirrored my own of a decent society. Prime Minister Chou En-Lai always had pinned to his lapel the button, “Serve the people.” Praising the wisdom and dignity of ordinary workers, a Mao quotation declared that the “workers and peasants were the cleanest people, and even though their hands were soiled and their feet smeared with cow-dung, they were really cleaner than the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals.” A sports meet in China would open and close with the chant, “Friendship first, competition second.” The eyes of a sceptical female co-worker of mine lit up when I quoted Mao’s aphorism, “Women hold up half the sky.” In one parable I emotionally recited, Mao wrote, “Death can be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather. To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to die for the fascists and oppressors is lighter than a feather.”
Backs bent, spirits broken, the Chinese people had borne ten thousand insults and injuries at the hands of the European imperialists. It sent prideful shivers down my spine each time I read Mao’s pronouncement in 1949, “The Chinese people have stood up.” A resounding blow had laid low the arrogant wielders of power. The dignity of the Chinese people had been restored. On the international stage China had become, if not a material force, still, a moral force to reckon with, everywhere commanding, if not love, at any rate, respect.
It was undeniable that, under Mao’s leadership, China—hitherto the “Sick Man of Asia”—had eliminated abject hunger, and dramatically improved levels of health care and literacy. When, simultaneously, China came under communist rule and India achieved independence, they had stood at a comparable stage of development. But in Mao’s China one no longer witnessed the scenes of wretchedness ubiquitous in India. The squalor I witnessed in New Delhi, where I attended a U.N. conference on poverty in 1979, came as a shock. It was my first trip to a Third World country. After handing to one street urchin a peanut, I suddenly found myself trailed by scores more. It was a scene straight out of the Pied Piper of Hamlin—but were those raggedy, filthy creatures besieging me the rats or the children? I couldn’t sleep that night, haunted by the recurring nightmare of being devoured by them. Overcome with guilt at my luxury hotel accommodations, and disgusted at the lavish banquets prepared for this U.N. conference, I abruptly bowed out and headed home.
Unlike the Soviets, who had embarked on a policy of détente, the Chinese Communists stridently proclaimed the necessity, as well as the possibility (didn’t Mao say that “a just cause is bound to win”?), of defeating U.S. imperialism. “Mao Tse-tung, / Live Like Him,” we fervently chanted, “Dare to Struggle, / Dare to Win.” Silly as it now sounds, back then the slogan inspired.
The reader no doubt wonders how I could have been blind to the numberless crimes of Mao and, for that matter, the Bolsheviks. In my mind I was able to adduce a thousand justifications: some more, some less plausible, one often contradicting the other, each containing a morsel of truth, but, although not wrong, none—when I look back—finally adequate. I could facilely draw on an arsenal of clichés: “Revolution is not a dinner party” (Mao), “Revolutions are not pink teas” (Rosa Luxemburg), or the old Bolshevik standbys, “To make an omelette, you have to break eggs,” and “When you fell a tree, chips will fly.” If on occasion I found myself inwardly unnerved by the bloody horrors, I imagined that it was because I was too faint of heart, lacking the requisite ruthlessness to be a true revolutionary: it wasn’t Lenin’s problem but mine. Anyhow, loving Beethoven and revering Tolstoy, as Lenin did, logically precluded, in my mind, being a brutal murderer.
It wasn’t merely glib slogans, however, that persuaded. The lack of democracy, the violations of civil liberties: however deplorable, weren’t these actually extreme responses to extreme circumstances—civil war, imperialist encirclement, the rise of fascism, Nazi invasion, capitalist machination? No one can deny Rosa Luxemburg’s humanistic and democratic sensibilities. Yet, despite her withering critique of Soviet Russia, Rosa ultimately defended it, arguing that the “distortions” had been “prescribed by necessity and compulsion,” and praising Lenin and Trotsky as “still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’” And errors—even colossal and criminal errors—seemed inevitable in the process of creating something altogether unprecedented. Wasn’t it utopian to expect a flawless execution on entering the uncharted territory of building a radically new kind of society?
Furthermore, wasn’t bourgeois democracy a fraud, the façade of free elections and free speech actually concealing the rule of a super-rich minority, and wasn’t the dictatorship of the proletariat a higher form of democracy, protecting the rights not of the exploiters but the masses of labouring people? Every worker in the “socialist bloc” had the right to a job, health care and education—didn’t these rights count for more than the hollow political rights of an American-style democracy? And, the monumental crimes notwithstanding, wasn’t the balance-sheet of Stalin’s Russia—“the undeniable economic successes…the Red Army’s victory over Hitlerism…the improvement in the Soviet people’s standard of living” (Charles Bettelheim)—still positive?
Even if I did harbour doubts, it seemed that openly venting them would aid and comfort the “class enemy.” Although Paul Robeson was appalled by Stalin’s murder of leading members of the Yiddish theatre, he refused to go public on the grounds that it would have “objectively” supported U.S. imperialism. Criticizing these revolutions from afar, without daily confronting the hard choices that had to be made, felt like an armchair indulgence, as did criticizing those who had lent support to these revolutions. When I asked him how he could have praised Stalin, Sweezy, who had written a gushing obituary after the Soviet dictator’s death (“There can be little doubt that history will account Stalin one of the greatest men of all time”), simply replied: “You have to understand the times.” Perhaps the range of options was impossibly narrow.
And wasn’t Mao’s socialism different from the Soviet prototype? It seemed that the Chinese communists were striving to do away with exploitive and repressive social relationships from the ground up. William Hinton’s Fanshen depicted how the Communist party, while orchestrating the revolutionary process, nonetheless sunk deep roots in the people, heeding their hopes and aspirations, and incorporating them in a process of radical self-transformation. Its avowed goal was not merely increasing material prosperity, important as this was, but overcoming the fundamental class cleavages of society between countryside and city, peasant and proletarian, and mental and manual labour.
When the Communist party began to lose touch with the Chinese masses, didn’t Mao call on the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution to “bombard the Party headquarters,” proclaiming that “it is right to rebel”? True, the cult of personality ran amok during the Cultural Revolution. But hadn’t Edgar Snow written in Red Star over China that during Mao’s ascent to power there was “no ritual of hero worship built up around him,” and that “he appeared to be quite free from symptoms of megalomania”? So, perhaps Mao was telling the truth after the Cultural Revolution when he rationalized the cult as his only means of rallying the Chinese people to unseat the ossified party bureaucracy. Just before launching the Cultural Revolution Mao whispered in the ear of French writer André Malraux, “I am alone, with the masses.” I still savour that line.
My lamentable habit of deferring to intellectual pedigree squelched any lingering doubts. True, the Great Leap Forward had been a human disaster, but didn’t the eminent Cambridge economist Joan Robinson ascribe the catastrophe partly to unprecedented natural calamities? Even if perhaps millions of Chinese perished from famine during those years, weren’t people everywhere else in the Third World dying in droves from famine every year? True, Maoist “theoretical” polemics could be egregiously crude, but when Sweezy said, “The Chinese Communists are just too busy making revolution to write up sophisticated analyses,” I figured, he was formerly a Harvard professor so he must be right.
Like everyone else, I learned to live with my contradictions. In the opaque, sectarian world of left politics, Maoists were supposed to despise Trotsky as a “counter-revolutionary.” In fact, I didn’t like Trotskyists. Bookish armchair radicals, they arrogantly assumed that, on account of having mastered Marxist Theory, title to lead the benighted and backward masses into the Promised Land belonged to them. But when the revolutionary wave crested and crashed, they typically switched sides and sold out. For Trotsky’s followers—whether grouped around Partisan Review in the 1930s or New Left Review in the 1960s—it was mostly about overweening ego. But Trotsky himself was cut from a different cloth. Although no less arrogant and vain than his acolytes, he was also, undeniably, a brilliant, committed and courageous revolutionary. Trotsky’s “Ego dominated his whole behaviour,” an intimate of his observed, but “the revolution dominated his Ego.”
To reconcile my internal Trotsky conflict, I would accent Trotsky’s “negatives” (didn’t Rosa despise him and Georg Lukács call him a “poseur”?) and Stalin’s “positives” (admittedly not easy, but didn’t Lenin once praise his essay on the “national question”?). In the end, however, I settled for inconsistency. Organizing a May Day celebration in my last year at college, I invited both a Trotskyist and a Stalinist to speak. As it happened, the Trotskyist was the leader of the ultra-pure Spartacist Youth League. True to Trotskyist form, Sam later became a successful class-action lawyer and is now an eminently moderate law professor at New York University.
* * *
During the summer of my junior year in college, eager to put revolutionary theory behind me and plunge into the cauldron of revolutionary practice, and aspiring to become a radical lawyer, I went to work as a volunteer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a hotbed of Movement advocates.
Spacious as its offices were, the centre could just barely accommodate the oversized egos of these radical lawyers. Didn’t Mao say: “Fight self”? The CCR also housed the firm of the great people’s tribune William Kunstler. Expecting an idyllic reply, one day over lunch I asked Kunstler’s secretary what his marriage was like: “As good as can be when he f***s every woman in sight.” Didn’t Lenin say sex wasn’t like drinking water? When a notorious Black militant was indicted for armed robbery, Kunstler righteously proclaimed his innocence but everyone in the office privately assumed his guilt. What happened to the Marxist credo, “The truth is revolutionary”?
After college I went to work as the manager (and only personnel) of the circulation department at The Guardian, a Maoist newsweekly. Starting salary was a derisory $55 per week, but I didn’t object since, in true Maoist fashion, no one at the Guardian got paid much more. I soon discovered, however, that my co-worker at the front desk had many years earlier made a killing in the stock exchange while the executive editor owned two luxurious homes. Although poverty was supposed to be the rule, it appeared as if quite a few “comrades” managed to be an exception to it.
On my first day at the Guardian office, the staff assembled for a meeting on armed struggle and overthrowing the state. Oh my god, I inwardly trembled, armed struggle. This wasn’t college games anymore, it was the real thing! Suddenly I was overcome with this sinking feeling that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a revolutionary after all. In fact, the closest we ever came to armed combat was when an ultra-Maoist sect unimpressed by the Guardian’s revolutionary credentials sought a showdown. Leaving work one evening I noticed a grim-faced mob all wearing the trademark lumberjack boots, blue jeans and work shirts of the Revolutionary Union approach our building. I quickly rang up Fred at the front desk, who, I was later told, braced for the worst with wrench and crowbar in hand. (At the time he was eighty years old.) The RU’s plot was foiled, however, when they crowded into the elevator and it sank to the basement. It seems that they hadn’t read the bourgeois warning about maximum elevator capacity.
I quit the Guardian after every idea of mine to increase circulation was shot down by the managing editor. Was that what Mao meant by overcoming the division between manual and mental workers? On the anniversary of the Chinese Revolution this vocabulary-challenged editor proclaimed in the paper’s lead editorial, “We must never stop gainsaying the achievements of Chairman Mao.” Had he made that error in China, he’d probably still be undergoing re-education. Through the magic of Google I later re-established contact, after a quarter-century hiatus, with the staff member I most admired. A very smart and modest guy, he renounced a promising academic career to become a revolutionary. But, rather than gearing up to storm the Winter Palace, I now found out, he had spent the past twenty years battling a chronic drinking problem and had settled into writing self-help books for recovering alcoholics. “It’s not what I expected to do with my life,” he said bitter-sweetly, “but I’m content.”
Being a revolutionary was supposed to be a round-the-clock job, so after putting in 10-hour days at the Guardian, I walked the picket line for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union. “Flatbush Liquors, we say no,” I would screech into the late hours of the night, “Scab Gallo’s gotta go,” my voice echoing down Flatbush Avenue. One of the store employees and a fellow proletarian decided, however, that I had to go—so he decked me. Driven to depression by the stultifying life of a graduate student, I later took time off while studying at Princeton University to work on the Princeton grounds crew, mowing grass and digging ditches. I never missed an occasion to raise the class consciousness of my work team. But, alas, the only knowledge they craved was of the carnal variety. One day “Lucky” Lou expressed shock that I had never heard of John Holmes, a.k.a. Johnny Wadd, a porn star revered for his larger-than-life member. A few days later I reacted in shock that none of them knew who Lenin was. “So what,” Lou shot back, “you never heard of Johnny Wadd!”
None of these misadventures in the class struggle, however, dampened my revolutionary ardour. There was still Mao’s China. In wintertime, I used to stride across my college campus wearing a blue People’s Liberation Army jacket. Back at home I papered my bedroom walls with revolutionary posters from China, beatific workers and peasants marching under slogans such as “Socialism is Advancing from Victory to Victory!” and “Long Live the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!” Once a bullet was fired into our house (not the armed struggle, just carousing teenagers), so my mother called the police. Checking out all the rooms in the house, they finally entered mine, scanning the walls. Keeping her cool, my mother, turning to the cops, explained: “My son likes Chinese people.”
As my mental horizons shrunk, my confidence in the socialist tomorrow expanded. I didn’t know enough to suffer doubts, but did know enough to silence most doubters around me. My stubbornly unbelieving friend Maxine proved a harder nut to crack. Walking along the Far Rockaway seashore, I tried convincing her by analogy: “If you accept that 2+2=4, then why don’t you accept that when the forces and relations of production come into contradiction, we get socialist revolution?” She wasn’t persuaded. Beyond being an insufferable bore, I reeked of smug certitude. Counting out on my fingers the number of newly born socialist countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau—I acted as if you had to be blinder than King Lear not to see which way the wind was blowing. A friend of mine recently returned a letter I had written her back then. Lucid as my memory is of those days, I still cringed at its pomposity. Dismissing the anguish of a mutual friend as petty-bourgeois alienation, the pity, I lectured, was that, had he grasped the proletarian worldview, he wouldn’t be so depressed. (It turned out he was coping with a gender-identity crisis.)
The sole defence I can offer for these years is that my motive wasn’t the worst. I sought neither fame nor fortune, just a more decent world. Ripe for the big fall, I tumbled vertically into the abyss. After Mao’s death in 1977, his heirs apparent, the Gang of Four, were deposed, and the “capitalist-roaders” targeted by Mao during the Cultural Revolution seized the reins of power, scrapping the full gamut of Maoist principles and practices. After dreaming for years of a world turned upside down, I stared aghast as China was turned right side up. Although Mao couldn’t have been more correct that “the bourgeoisie is right inside the party,” he couldn’t have been more wrong about the totalitarian methods he used to fight it. And, although Mao had forewarned that transforming the world was a protracted, centuries-long struggle, and that there might be many setbacks and even counterrevolutions, it still bewildered me how easily everything was undone, how much popular support the new regime garnered and how reviled Mao’s followers were, and—the worst blow of all for this starry-eyed true believer—how pervasive the personal venality had been. While Mao preached that women held up half the sky, it turned out that half the time he was holding their legs up to the sky. What happened to “Never forget class struggle”?
* * *
The most daunting challenge of my adult life has been to preserve the ideals of my youth while learning from its mistakes: to be hopeful but not naive, realistic but not cynical. Luckily for me, I was able to see many of the errors of my ways while still young. (The whole of my Maoist phase lasted under a decade.) My political convictions had no practical consequences: not even indirectly did anyone’s suffering, let alone death, weigh on my conscience. Political revelations didn’t so morally deplete me that I couldn’t bounce back. A lapsed Communist once told me that what destroyed the party wasn’t McCarthyism but Khrushchev’s 1956 speech. Had I been a true believer through my adult life, the revelations about Stalin would probably have irrevocably devastated me as well.
The core political lesson I extracted from the foibles of my youth concerns the importance of, and the method of obtaining, truth. It is a cliché that one can’t learn until one is ready to learn. In my case, disillusionment with Mao cleared the path for inspiration by John Stuart Mill. Determined that, insofar as it is preventable, young people wouldn’t repeat my mistakes, I later included On Liberty in my teaching syllabus at every opportunity.
During the 1960s I, along with many others, had pinned to my lapel the button Question Authority. Regrettably I myself didn’t follow this salutary advice. Allowing others to decide questions for me, I presumed, in Mill’s terms, their infallibility. It required jolts, such as accidentally coming across in a back issue of Monthly Review Sweezy’s gushing obituary for Stalin, for me to realize that people can be so smart and so decent yet so wrong.
Although I did back then study, just as Mill counsels, the opposing side, I didn’t do so to learn from it. Presuming that I already had a handle on the truth and those who disagreed hadn’t, I scoured so-called bourgeois sources only for supplementary evidence to buttress my preconceptions, dismissing out of hand what did not. A few weeks before the ousting of the Gang of Four, I glanced at an article by a prominent Sinologist predicting that this quartet of Mao’s disciples would soon be deposed. Laughing it off, I mused that bourgeois academics just didn’t get revolutionary China. To this day I’m still astounded that he got all four names right. The hard-won lesson was that, albeit jaded and reactionary, the opposing side might yet be closer to the truth, or, at any rate, possess a portion of it. Whenever I quoted in class from Mill that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” and “even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves,” my mind was drawn back to those Maoist years.
Lies, I’ve come to believe, are the bane of a radical politics, whereas truth is its method and measure. A movement aspiring to win hearts and minds for the long haul, yet exceeding the narrow limits of a cult, cannot be built on falsehoods. “To shut out discussion entirely,” Mill observes, “is seldom possible.” A movement lacking the instruments of power is least able to stem the tide of unwelcome truths. Once such truths do come crashing through, discovery of them—especially if one’s ideals have already been mocked as naive—mortifies: How could I have been so dumb? Morale collapses, people drift away.
A movement built on lies, however exalted its goals, does not deserve popular support. The deceptions of leadership spring either from the patronizing belief that ordinary folks cannot grasp the subtleties of decision-making or from the opportunistic pursuit of gain at the people’s expense. Either motive casts a dark shadow on the leadership’s professed commitment to an emancipatory ideal. On the other side, the people will never give their all if they intuit that the leadership holds them in contempt or profits at their expense, while if the people don’t give their all the movement cannot bring about radical change, which always and everywhere entails much suffering and sacrifice. Even if a leadership were able to exact penalties for noncompliance, such punitive threats could not elicit from people exertions comparable in depth and scope to those rising forth from a people convinced of the cause’s rectitude.
Lies have an eddying effect; their ripples cannot be contained. Some decades back a controversy swirled around the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diary. “Even if she didn’t write it,” a Vietnamese communist friend lectured me, “she did write it.” He meant that a lie in the service of a noble cause isn’t really a lie. At the time his argument impressed me. It no longer does; in fact, it disgusts. The Bigger Truth can only grow out of little truths. Lies cannot contribute to a Bigger Truth, they contaminate it. If one starts tolerating little lies, they quickly multiply and the Bigger Truth metamorphoses into a Big Lie. The inevitable exposure of the little lie throws into question the Bigger Truth. When new evidence surfaced confirming that Julius Rosenberg had indeed been a Soviet spy, no amount of rationalization—“But he didn’t steal the secret of the atomic bomb”… “But Ethel Rosenberg was innocent”… “But he didn’t deserve the electric chair”… “But it was better that the Soviet Union did get the bomb”—could allay my deeper turmoil: if those who professed Julius’s innocence were either liars or dupes, then perhaps all the struggles that inspired me in my youth, of which the Rosenberg case was exemplary, had been a sham. Inversely, the Big Lie can smother little truths. When the foundational lies upon which the Soviet Union was built finally gave way, the Russian people went along with scrapping everything from the Soviet experiment, even what was perhaps of value—replacing it, alas, with a new platform of lies, as many belatedly rued.
A movement comprised of the dispossessed must husband its scant resources. It can ill afford the wastefulness of lies. A state compensates for errors and delusions with the superabundant resources at its disposal. In a radical movement clarity of mind must compensate for lack of resources. The crucial prerequisite for being grounded in reality is truthfulness. Once leaders start resorting to lies, so do their followers. The resulting disorientation leads to material squandering and often prefigures defeat. On the eve of the 1990 election in Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega boasted that there wasn’t even a “theoretical possibility” he would lose. He did, signalling just how out of touch the Sandinistas were with reality and how corrupt they had become. The estrangement born of lies might not in itself cause defeat, but it surely contributes to it.
“Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”: this exhortation of African revolutionary Amílcar Cabral packs much wisdom.