Lawrence & Wishart and “institutional suicide”

marx2by Scott Jay

In recent weeks, Lawrence & Wishart (L&W), a British publishing house long associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain, has asked the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) to take down material from their version of the first ten volumes of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels. That Marxists would object to such a request should be unsurprising and really needs no further comment. What is interesting, though, is that L&W has defended themselves precisely the same way that self-proclaimed Leninists have defended themselves against criticism since time immemorial. Or, at least since 1924.

A few excerpts from their defense follow:

Over the last couple of days Lawrence & Wishart has been subject to campaign of online abuse because we have asked for our copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected. The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W. . .

Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W as a ‘private publishing house’ and of our actions as ‘capitalistic’ betray a complete lack of understanding of L&W’s historic role in British radical publishing, of its organizational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production. . . Without L&W and the work which its employees have invested over many years, the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist. . .

Ultimately, in asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, MIA and their supporters are asking that L&W, one of the few remaining independent radical publishers in the UK, should commit institutional suicide. At the same time they are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers . . .

Long time followers of sectariana may find this commentary familiar. In fact, it is almost as if there is a script that all Leninists fall into once they have come under criticism. The arguments usually contains something like the following defenses:

1. We are under attack from the outside by hostile forces. (“a campaign of online abuse”)

2. The fact that these forces are so hostile to us now is evidence that they have always been hostile to us. (“The panic being spread . . . is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W. . .”)

3. We are the ones holding onto principle. Those who attack us are the ones without principle. (“Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W . . . betray a complete lack of understanding. . . of its organizational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production.”)

4. If we allow our opponents to win, we are not the only ones who will lose out, but rather everybody who has benefited from our indispensable work will lose out as well. (“Without L&W . . . the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist.”)

5. Our critics are not only our enemies, but they are the enemies of everything that both we and they claims to stand for. (“[T]hey are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers”)

There is also often a non-denial-denial expressing outrage at some especially harsh claim, when in fact something quote close (though not precisely the same) is precisely what the accused are guilty of.  (“The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output…”) This is a great way to rhetorically and loudly defend yourself to the uninformed–but tells those who are actually informed that you are unwilling to defend yourself. Hopefully, they won’t get in the way.

One might think that this pattern of argument is so obviously misguided that nobody would ever carry it out again, and yet it appears over and over. Those who read the L&W statement with derision today will turn around and make exactly the same arguments tomorrow. After all, criticism looks much different when you are the recipient as opposed to a passive observer, not to mention being the critic oneself. When somebody criticizes your hard work, well, they must be an unprincipled sectarian shithead because otherwise you are a bad person. At least, that is how it feels.

The key phrase in the L&W statement is the comment that their critics are asking them to “commit institutional suicide.” What a stark suggestion! We were just having a friendly conversation about the content on a web site when suddenly L&W is talking about killing themselves. The suggestion of suicide conjures the deeply hurt feelings of those at L&W–and there is no reason to believe that their feelings were not hurt, as they most likely have worked for many years for little money out of a labor of love.

The specter of institutional suicide–or institutional murder by their critics–encapsulates the response of those who come under collective, institutional defense. It is not about principle or ethics but about the continued existence of an institution. An institution need not have a hundred year-old tradition, but can simply be a group of people working together with a common purpose and a collective–institutional–identity. They need not even like each other, but once they have accepted that their collective labor is important and worthwhile as a collective, at that point organizational and institutional behavior, with all the logic inherent to it, rules the minds of the individual when dealing with the institution. A bubble of groupthink surrounds even the cleverest of individuals. You can go home and have dinner with your spouse and spend time with your parents while thinking and doing whatever you want, but once the issue of the institution comes into play, institutional psychology takes over.

While completely unconvincing to the outsider, it is incredibly appealing–even comforting–for the insider. It can be amazing to watch otherwise thoughtful individuals go through these exact same intellectual contortions–amazing, because it is so predictable to anybody who has seen these things before unavoidable for those who find comfort in this script.

None of this would come as a surprise to sociologists or psychologists who have studied these things for decades. The entire field of social psychology has not only theorized these issues but carried out studies–again, for decades–which show that when people hold two (or more) views that are contradictory to each other, they will go to great, often illogical, lengths to avoid having to come to terms with it. The first response to having these views challenged by argument or fact is always to double-down on the illogic and insist on its correctness. Once you have come “under attack,” insisting that your critics are hostile, have always been hostile, are unprincipled and do not appreciate what is at stake is unconvincing to everybody but yourself. This is precisely why these arguments are employed–they are convincing to those making them and the organizations they stand with even if they are completely unconvincing to absolutely everybody else.

It does not take a genius to realize that there is a contradiction between calling yourself a Marxist–ie an advocate of the working-class replacing capitalism with their own self-rule–and advocating that Marxist ideas should be less available in order that you can make money off them. Which is not to say that the L&W staff has not worked tirelessly for years for the benefit of many, or that their continued ability to make money is not in fact the only way they can continue to tirelessly work for low wages to contribute this valuable work. But when institutional survival is at stake, it is more likely that survival will win out over principle. It is almost an axiom of organizational behavior.

It should be added that the L&W statement was not written for us–though they may have thought we all would find it convincing. No, it is a defense of the institution itself. It lives and breathes the institutional order and is a document of their psychology as they hold hands in the bunker of cognitive dissonance while the rest of us look on in bemusement.

Sociologists have also studied how organizations and institutions behave at length. The study goes back much further, but a modern classic that encapsulates many of these issues is Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The text is much less a post-modern defense of the absence of reality outside of individual perception–though it can be employed to those ends–than it is an analysis of how concepts are made to seem real by the actions of those who accept them. Once an organization is founded around a set of ideas, those ideas are then made to seem even more real and natural in spite of any evidence or alternative viewpoints because people act so firmly in the belief that they are true.

Groups of people form institutions and construct their own “subuniverse” or version of reality, which then needs to be protected and defended against alternative views. Arguments and institutional positions are created and maintained, only further hardening the sense of reality that has been constructed. Berger, it should be noted, was an expert on religion and sects, although the book also explicitly mentions revolutionary organizations several times as being among these types of institutions.

Berger, Luckmann and social psychology make sense of the arguments spouted by L&W and many others. It is not that political and religious sects are weird. Rather, their behavior is quite typical and even predictable. What is weird is looking at this behavior from the outside, precisely because their actions are taken in order to protect their institutional subuniverse from the outside world.

The late Socialist Workers Party (UK) is a goldmine of psychological and sociological study. Members of the party did not follow various twists and turns for years because they were zombies, but rather because they believed, deeply, that their organization was valuable and even necessary. In other words, they constructed an institutional subuniverse around the party and, in particular, their version of “Leninism.” Once this came under criticism, they fell into precisely the same patterns described above. When George Galloway criticized them in the RESPECT Party, they claimed “the Left”–read the SWP–was being witch-hunted. When a leader of the party was accused of raping a teenager, even he was accused of being witch-hunted–a grotesque commentary utterly at odds with any understanding of women’s liberation, but for some a worthy defense of their institutional subuniverse.

The entire “Comrade Delta” rape scandal in the SWP was a lengthy battle between a defense of the subuniverse and a defense of political principles. These are not the same thing, but it is a weakness of Leninism that these are often conflated with no sense among Leninists of why this might be a problem. It is assumed that “our” organization will not suffer from groupthink, will not be opportunist, will not be sectarian and will not become a bureaucracy because “we” are aware of these problems. “We” are fighting for something good, so something bad cannot happen.

The demise of the SWP is evidence that all of these assumptions of innocence are completely wrong. Their inexplicable defense of a rapist in their own leadership did not occur simply because of their model of Leninism or because they were led by Alex Callinicos–though these factors certainly deserve a share of the blame. Rather, these institutional defense can occur with any organization, be they socialist, anarchist, libertarian or vegetarian.

It is a shame that Leninists do not take the study of organizational behavior seriously. People who dedicate their political lives ought to see what others have to say about these things and there is a wealth of literature from academic fields which may only interpret the world, but can be used by those who want to change it.

Marxists need a Marxist analysis of their own organizational behavior–not just a Marxist explanation of why they need to have an organization in the first place–rooted in the insights already gained by sociology and social psychology, otherwise they will fall into these patterns every time they are criticized by supposedly hostile critics from the outside.


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