The sad case of Paul Mason: a victim of post-modernism – a reply by Alan Woods

An article by our British comrades at Socialist Appeal (‘Storytelling, “culture wars” and the Left’) has drawn the ire of ‘left-wing’ journalist Paul Mason. He said that our “mouldering” organisation needs to abandon its outdated worldview. Alan Woods explains that the thin gruel of Mason’s post-modernism is no substitute for the science of Marxism.

A terrible disease is spreading throughout the world. Medical science knows no cure for this sickness. There is no way of avoiding it. Neither facemasks nor handwashing will do any good. And the effects of this disease are horrible to behold.

Once you have caught it, your brain turns to jelly. The unfortunate victims become human zombies, who suffer from persistent bouts of verbal diarrhoea and become utterly incapable of rational thought.

The name of this terrible affliction is post-modernism.

The first recognisable symptom is constant repetition of the quite meaningless word “narrative”.

This is an early warning of a degenerative process that renders the sufferer incapable of putting two rational sentences together, contradicting himself without even noticing it, and finally descending into completely incomprehensible gibberish.

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday when my attention was drawn to a rather heated polemic between the well-known broadcaster, journalist and political commentator, Paul Mason and comrade Khaled Malachi of the IMT who recently wrote an article in Socialist Appeal entitled ‘Storytelling, “culture wars” and the Left.’

In reply to the aforementioned article, Paul immediately dashed off the tweet:

“The mouldering IMT is really, really mad at me for pointing out aspects of contemporary reality that don’t fit their world view: case study in cult ideology vs empirical data.”

Now, I doubt very much that any comrade of the IMT was really, really mad at Paul Mason, since I do not believe that the great majority of our comrades follow what he writes, or are even aware of his existence. But the very fact that he felt obliged to write this tweet at 6:34 on the morning of 8 August suggests to me that it was Paul Mason himself who was “really, really mad”.

That is a pity, since it is not our intention to make anybody mad, but only to defend the ideas of Marxism. As for myself, I am certainly not really, really mad at Paul Mason, or anybody else.

If I were to express my reaction to what Paul Mason writes, I would characterise it, not as anger, but as mild perplexity that such an intelligent man could be taken in by the post-modernist rubbish.

A hard-hitting article

I must confess that I had not read the article published in Socialist Appeal to which Paul has reacted so heatedly. Having read it, I can, at least in part, understand his hurt feelings. It is certainly very hard hitting and it does not mince words. But I sometimes feel there is not sufficient hard-hitting debate in the labour movement nowadays.

We British are too polite, too well-mannered to call things by their right name. For fear of hurting someone’s feelings, we beat about the bush, going endlessly round in circles, avoiding any issues that might cause unpleasantness. And in the process of this endless circumlocution, the central questions are avoided altogether. Such tame “debates” do not serve to clarify anything.

As a Marxist, I firmly believe that content is far more important than form. But let us begin with the formal side. The author of the article uses terms like petty bourgeois and even renegade to characterise the ideas defended by comrade Mason. I can understand that these are not pleasant things for him to read.

Comrade Mason evidently takes these words for mere insults, which makes him feel entitled to reply with choice epithets of his own, like “mouldering”, which, in his opinion, is a fitting description of the International Marxist Tendency, the organisation to which I have the honour to belong.

As an experienced person, Paul must know that one can learn absolutely nothing from an exchange of insults, which reduces a debate to a slanging match, the result of which is decided, not by the superiority of one’s ideas, but by who shouts the loudest. From such verbal brawls it is impossible to learn anything at all.

The meaning of words

Paul Mason 2 Image RwendlandThe intelligentsia – the social layer to which comrade Mason belongs – has been infected with the postmodernist sickness / Image: Rwendland

But let us analyse the question a bit more closely. Marxists understand that ideas do not drop from the sky; and that particular ideologies, political theories and even philosophical trends will ultimately reflect the ideas, prejudices and interests of particular classes, castes or groups in society.

For Marxists, the word petty bourgeois has a very precise meaning. It refers to the middle class, that intermediate layer that lies between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. That is a fact of which Paul is well aware.

The petty bourgeoisie, which includes the intelligentsia, is not a homogeneous class, but a kind of amorphous mass with different layers and sub-groups. Its intermediate position, and physical amorphousness is reflected in its outlook: which is inconsistent, unstable and constantly shifting, pulling now to the left, now to the right, as it vacillates between the two major poles in society.

This precisely defines the psychological traits of the intelligentsia – the social layer to which comrade Mason belongs, and the class that has been most seriously infected with the postmodernist sickness.

The working class, which Paul tells us no longer exists, has been mercifully spared from this madness, despite the persistent efforts of ‘Left’ intellectuals to disseminate these poisonous and reactionary ideas in the labour movement. I very much regret to see that Paul Mason has now joined in that noisy postmodern chorus.

But I suppose it is not all that surprising. Periodically, the petty-bourgeois intellectuals experience an irresistible urge to take up a new idea (or something that passes for it). They then insist that it is positively the last word in philosophy – until they discover some other fashionable fad with which to amuse themselves for a few years, before they abandon it in search of some new source of amusement.

Like many other “academic Marxists”, Paul Mason has been taken in by this latest craze. He is tired of the old (“mouldering”) ideas of Marxism and is looking for something new and exciting to replace them. Ah well, the world of academia, like the rest of society, loves to be in touch with the latest fads and fashions.

But, just like the latest models in the shop window, the acquisition of “new ideas” (which turn out not to be new at all) comes with a hefty price tag. In the final analysis, all the vagaries of Paul Mason’s political evolution can be traced back to this source, and its negative consequences are all too clear in his case.

It cannot escape anybody’s attention that, in recent years, despite constant zig-zags, his evolution has proceeded always in the same general direction – that is, to the right. To describe this as a petty-bourgeois deviation is therefore not an insult, but a precise sociological characterisation.

But to return to our analysis of linguistics. Matters seem a bit more complicated when we come to the word “renegade”. That has, indeed, the most unflattering connotations. But before we start getting hot under the collar, matters can easily be clarified by looking up the definition of the word in the Cambridge Dictionary, where we read the following:

“Renegade: A person who has changed their feelings of support and duty from one political, religious, national, etc. group to a new one:”

Does this definition not accurately apply to comrade Paul? I believe that it does – 100 percent. Of course, if it makes him feel a bit better, we can use another term: say, deserter – but that sounds even worse. Perhaps we can settle for apostate? That will do nicely. But no matter what word we use, the content remains just the same.

A case of retrogression

David Harvey and Paul Mason The World Transformed Image JwslubbockAcademic Marxists often drift away from the revolutionary ideas they embraced in their youth in favour of trendy 'new' ideas / Image: Jwslubbock

Far from being angry at Paul, I feel a sense of sadness. It is always a sad spectacle to see someone who once held left-wing views and defended the basic principles of Marxism throw all that into the dustbin and pass into the opposite camp.

I have observed this process many times before, and it always follows the same pattern. First, they find fault with this or that aspect of Marxism. They claim that the “old ideas” (“dogmas”, they always call them) no longer correspond to the present conditions (“empirical facts”).

Then, they look around for “new ideas” , which they easily find readily available from the mass of obscurantist and reactionary theories that are constantly being churned out from the philosophy, politics and sociological departments of the universities with the monotonous regularity of sausages from a sausage machine.

They find these intellectual sausages very much to their taste. They provide them with the necessary arguments with which to settle accounts with the “old, mouldering dogmas”, which satisfied their intellectual curiosity and social conscience in their younger days.

But that was then. Now that they have reached the maturity of middle age, those ideas can only be regarded with disdain as hopelessly utopian dreams. They do not fit “the empirical facts” – and especially the most obvious of those facts: the necessary existence of capitalism.

So, they make up their mind to cross the dividing line that separates the classes. But this transition is not so easy! They first have to settle accounts with their past, proving with irrefutable arguments the falseness of the “old, mouldering dogmas”, that are only suitable for crazy sectarians, “cults” and so on and so forth.

Naturally, they must also find a way of silencing a guilty conscience. So, while rejecting Marxism in practice, they still indignantly protest that they are, after all, “still Marxists”. They shout at the top of their voices that this is the case, even when they have positioned themselves very firmly in the camp of the enemy. Some poor souls may actually believe them…

To indicate just how far Paul has travelled in a few years, permit me to give just one example. I am holding in my hands a book entitled Live Working or Die Fighting: How The Working Class Went Global. I read it some years ago and found it very good.

Now, from what I see, Paul has had second thoughts. The “narrative” has changed, you see. Instead of calling on the workers of the world to stand up and fight, we are informed that the working class does not exist – at any rate, in any meaningful way, that the class struggle is a myth, and that we should embrace “alternative” strategies, such as identity politics etc. Postmodernism strikes again!

It is abundantly clear that Paul Mason has made his choice. He has crossed with arms and baggage into the camp of the pro-bourgeois right-wing of the Labour Party, headed by Sir Keir Starmer and his Blairite pals in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

When I was a young man, we used to sing a song to the tune of Solidarity Forever, which went:

“We’ll make John Strachey

Read the books he used to write.”

John Strachey used to be a left-wing writer who wrote books defending the basic ideas of Marxism. I remember reading one called Why You Should Be a Socialist, which made a great impression on me, as it did on many others. But Strachey moved away from Marxism and travelled far to the right. Perhaps the time has come for us to start giving Paul Mason the same sound advice.

The “empirical data”

And what advice does comrade Mason have for socialists in Britain? He instructs us to forget about “old” ideas such as class struggle, working-class solidarity, socialism and other utopian concepts, and instead throw all our weight behind Sir Keir Starmer – the supreme realist, and the man who can really win elections.

Paul Mason insisted that Labour had to adopt a position of defending a second referendum and Remain in the last election. Banging the drum for the Remainers immediately alienated swathes of traditional Labour supporters in the North of England, which was a major factor in the election defeat. Bravo, Paul! Long live political realism!

Not content with backing the Labour right wing, Paul Mason is advocating a coalition of Labour with “Progressives” – that is, the Liberals and “Left” Conservatives. But do we not have enough of these already sitting in the Parliamentary Labour Party?

Paul insists that we turn away from our “world view” (it is known as Marxism) and instead examine the “empirical data.” Yes, indeed. Let’s do just that.

The empirical data tells us that it was precisely the Blairite Right – that is, the people who deliberately stabbed Labour in the back to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from entering Number 10. And what are Paul Mason’s pals on Labour’s front bench doing now?

At a time when there is a blazing anger in society against the Johnson government, there is no real Opposition worthy of the name. The Blairites who used to howl like an enraged mob at Jeremy Corbyn now act like a bunch of frightened rabbits. I have honestly seen more life on a fishmonger’s slab. And that, too, is a matter of empirical data.

Keir Starmer presents a lamentable image of weakness. To every action of the Tories, he replies “Me too!” He speaks as if he were just another Tory sitting on the opposite side of the House. And that is just where he is longing to be.

He is aiming, not to defeat the Tories or win an election, but to enter a National Government with the “progressive” Tories and Liberals as soon as the opportunity presents itself. And this is what passes for “political realism” in Paul Mason’s book!

The truth about the IMT

IMU halfwayFar from 'mouldering', the IMT is growing! / Image: own work

One could say a lot more, but all that needs to be said was said in comrade Khaled’s article in Socialist Appeal – and said very well. What was Paul Mason’s reply to the many specific criticisms made in that article? Nothing at all. He confines himself to a contemptuous reference to “the mouldering IMT”.

Now, the word “mouldering”, unlike petty bourgeois and renegade, has no sociological significance whatsoever. It belongs specifically to the category of insults, and nothing else. It is a synonym for “slowly decaying”, something that is old, worn out, moth-eaten and so on.

To be described in such a way would be quite unpleasant – if it had the slightest basis in fact. But since it bears absolutely no relation to the present, thriving and vibrant state of the IMT, we can afford to shrug our shoulders and laugh.

If Paul Mason paid the slightest attention to the empirical data, to which he refers so frequently, then he would know that the IMT and Socialist Appeal are in a state of rude health. While every other left group is in crisis, splitting and falling to pieces, we are growing and spreading our influence by the day. And this fact is acknowledged by friends and enemies alike.

About one week ago, the IMT held a summer school under difficult conditions of lockdown, which was subscribed to by 6,400 people from 116 different countries. That shows that the ideas of revolutionary Marxism are thriving and finding an ever-wider and enthusiastic audience on a world scale. Empirical data, my friend, empirical data!

We do not change course!

Comrade Mason has abandoned Marxism, believing he has found “new ideas”. That is his privilege. Many people like to feel that they are thoroughly modern in their views and outlook. And what could possibly be more modern than to be post-modern?

The title itself is quite sufficient to dismiss all other ideas as old, stale and hopelessly out of date – or mouldering, to use comrade Mason’s elegant turn of phrase. All previous ideas are immediately consigned to the dustbin of history. No debate is required. End of story!

All this chattering about “entirely new and original ideas” seems superficially attractive – after all, who would not prefer a nice new car or computer in place of last year’s model? But in reality, the analogy is false and contradicts our most basic experience.

But to be new is not necessarily a good thing in all cases, nor is something necessarily bad because it is old. A new car or computer that does not work is worse than an old one that does work. The wheel is a very ancient invention, but it still works rather well after thousands of years.

What would we say of a man who demands that we abandon the wheel (because it is old) and look for an entirely new kind of wheel – a post-modern wheel? What kind of wheel would that be – a square one, perhaps, or a triangular one? Whatever shape it may be, we are convinced that it will not carry us one step further.

For our part, we do not believe there is any need to reinvent Marxism, just as we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Of course, it will be necessary to introduce this or that modification, but what is really remarkable is how few adjustments we have to make to the ideas that were worked out by Marx and Engels in the 19th century and developed and enriched by Lenin and Trotsky in the 20th century.

Therefore, we see absolutely no need to change course. Those who, like Paul Mason, wish to abandon ship are very welcome to jump overboard and disappear beneath the waves. But please do not invite us to join you!

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.