How to Work out who the Goodies and Baddies are

As my last post might have suggested, I’ve been reading about the 2nd World War a bit recently. It’s been quite confusing, not so much to understand as to evaluate – who, I feel myself asking, should I ‘support’? Should I accept the very mainstream view that this was the best example of a just war, or should I treat it as a nationalistic and imperialistic enterprise similar to other wars?

The problem is quite tangled because there’s three layers of confusion. The first is just factual – there’s a lot of details, and each account will emphasise some and leave others out, so it’s hard to feel in command of all the relevant data. The second is counter-factual – that is, it’s very hard to say what would have happened if things had gone differently (e.g. if Hitler had ‘won’ in Europe, how long would Nazi rule have lasted?).

But the third difficulty is more properly philosophical. I’m not really sure how to approach the facts, how to make these decisions. What sort of claims would I be making if I said ‘yeah I support Mussolini’, and what sort of justification would they demand? What, in short, should be my criteria of evaluation? This is what I want to approach here.

Note that I think a lot of this is also relevant to other ‘contests’, like an election campaign or the war in Afghanistan.

There are, I think, three competing requirements at work here, or alternatively three things to avoid.

1) Avoid ‘cheer-leading’. By that I mean, finding some one of the parties involved and identifying with it, producing a psychological pressure to apply double standards. When it messes up, we try to make excuses and defend its sincerely good intentions; when it does horrible things, we try to find how they were justified by its noble goals. But when other sides do so, we swiftly conclude that ‘well, that shows us what they were really about’ (either entirely unworkable, or simply bad and evil). In interpreting things like this we end up making one side appear saintly almost by default.

2) Avoid despair and consequent ‘lesser-evil-ism’. The natural result of giving up on cheer-leading is to treat all sides as ‘the bad guys’. They’re all basically the same, out for nefarious ends with ulterior motives. None of them can be expected to provide any more freedom or justice than they find to be necessary or convenient. The whole affair is just bastards killing each other and everyone around them.

The result is that all we can do is pick who’s the least bad and say ‘well, things will be more bearable if this bastard is in charge, so I hope that happens’. The problem with this is that it turns us from revolutionaries into profound pessimists, since once everyone is boiled down to just a bastard, where is anything really good going to come from?

There are good things that happen, right? Life is in fact quite good in many ways. And after we’ve sorted out this whole anarcha-communism thing it’ll be even better (though still not perfect). But if anarcha-communism is to be something other than a magical bolt from the blue, it must be the development of really existing trends – the revolutionary impulse for self-emancipation must be a constantly present potential that expresses itself, though in suppressed form, in political conflicts.

3) Be realistic. It’s all very well to detect the stirrings of nascent anarcha-communism in this popular movement or that sudden crisis, but let’s be frank – if around 0% of them so far have been successful, their likeliehood of success was clearly pretty low (or there’s been one hell of a coincidence). And we can easily start to look like religious prophets: it’s just around the corner! well, ok, now it’s just around the corner!

So how do we navigate these three things: not cheerleading, but also remaining both optimistic and realistic?

It might be useful to take to pieces some of the ideas involved. For instance, typically if I say that I ‘support team X’ this would imply at least the following four things:

1) I think people should not attack them;

2) I think people should aid them;

3) I think it’s a good thing when they become more powerful;

4) I think it’s a bad thing when they become less powerful.

And if I say that I think a certain force is ‘bad’, I’m saying at least the following four things:

A) I think people should attack them;

B) I think people should not aid them;

C) I think it’s a bad thing when they become more powerful;

D) I think it’s a good thing when they become less powerful.

So the key point when looking at things in terms of class interests and class struggles is that any particular ‘force’ (which is roughly defined as ‘the sort of thing that can be more or less powerful and compete in this sort of political conflict) is variable in its good-guy bad-guy status, and this variable can change.

As a result, the four points above, which we normally assume go together, can come apart.

For example, it may well be that a force is led by people with nasty aims, which involves oppressing and exploiting The Masses(TM), but that its power is entirely drawn from harnessing the aspirations of those Masses to not be oppressed and exploited. The result is a single force (that is, in military terms it’s one thing, it works as one) but with internal divisions that make it ambiguous between its popular emancipatory elements and its oppressive elements. This ambiguity is likely to be present also within many of the individual people involved.

And, crucially,  any given event will not only affect the overall force (e.g. make it weaker) but will also affect this internal balance of forces.

For example, it might be that, in some particular case, the leadership would be strengthened against the popular element both by most sorts of attack and by most sorts of aid. The sort of attacks in question (say, military assaults by foreign country X) would help to give the leadership the right sort of climate and excuse to tighten its control, and brand dissent as disloyalty, and so forth; but substantial military aid from foreign country X might strengthen the leadership in a different way, by giving them a source of power (economic and military) independent of the people they supposedly represent, and so make them less dependent on them, and less accountable.

This would produce a curious combination of 1. and B., elements drawn partly from the ‘good-guy/ally’ set and partly from the ‘bad-guy/enemy’ set. If we were just trying to work who’s the goodies and who the baddies, this would be very confusing (which perhaps explains why I was very confused).

So the approach I will try to take in looking at these sorts of historical (or current) conflicts is not so much to work out what the nature of a given force ‘is’ but to try to see what that nature could become under different circumstances. From this, we can construct an ‘evaluation’ as ‘good-guy’, ‘bad-guy’, or something more complex, from comparing it to points 1-4 and points A-D.

No doubt all of this logic-chopping is rather inconclusive, but will hopefully become clearer when applied to some actual cases, as I will attempt to do in my next post(s).

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