If you’ve been around the left circles with some sort of Marxist flavor you may have heard said and also read someone charge others of “idealism.” It’s certainly one of the strangest insults to be thrown around, but when used properly the charge works to signal those charged with idealism, and those watching on the side, to stop a second and think through what is being claimed.
The charge of idealism comes mainly from Marxists and those inspired by Marx in some way. The idealism referred to in this context functions with dual meaning: one is either being idealist in the sense that one thinks ideas drive the world, or one is being idealist in the sense that one is treating something real in an abstract way (treating it without context or history). Marxists stress materialism as a proper way of thinking in the sense that materialists do not make these mistakes. For materialists in this sense ideas arise out of the world of human existence and activity and are determined by them, and things are understood in a way that includes their current context and historic development.
In the past, and even today, there are strains of what Marx called utopian socialism. These socialist movements based themselves on ideas of what they thought the world could or should be if only people saw the light of reason and saw that there was a better way to live life. These modern movements, such as the modern Zeitgeist movement which preaches an enlightened technocratic-communism, or spiritual movements that preach universal peace and love, are idealist in the sense that they believe that it is the spread of their ideas which will cause world change and a revolution in human social existence. Anarchists are often slapped with the label of idealism for the same reason: calls against “authoritarianism,” centralization of economic planning, and state use of coercion against its perceived enemies from a moral standpoint do not offer real solutions to anything. The problem with idealism, to reiterate, is the disconnection of end goals from a historical perspective in which they could actually be realized. The idealist sees the problems of the world clearly as black and white, right and wrong are obvious to them, and all that must be done is to do the right thing if one just sees that one is going to take a wrong step against the purity of the ideas aimed to realize. This, of course, is stupid and naïve dreaming.
Let’s look at the example par excellence of Left debate that often devolves into idealistic thinking: the USSR. Anarchists and left communists constantly bring up criticisms of what went on in the USSR through claims that free speech must never be abrogated, that use of political terror is not justifiable, that the USSR did not meet the criteria of the definition of socialism as “worker ownership of the means of production,” that the reason the Vanguard Party doesn’t work is because it centralized power into the hands of too few and that such power cannot be trusted to anyone.
These criticisms, though they may be logically valid in structure, do not fit as criticisms that are worth taking seriously at face value. Why? The great aim of communists and anarchists is freedom, but while both strains often claim materialism for their own methodologies, the truth is that for most this is nothing but a label. Freedom, in an abstract sense, as a basic idea, is simple. A materialist conceptualization of freedom is problematic only in that it cannot be a simple abstract idea as a definition, and as such it is not fit for short smartass quips to prove people wrong. A materialist conception of freedom is also a theory of how freedom is possible at all considering the present conditions of human existence and the necessary moves that must be made in the material objective conditions of the structure of the political-economy and culture in order to bring material existence to embody the full concept of freedom. The idealist utopian demands to see the truth of reason are now centuries old and have failed to actualize themselves for objective reasons. One cannot merely proclaim a definition of freedom and demand that all that needs to be done is to see the truth and simply enact this conception universally. There are many reasons for the limited existence of freedom in the world up to today.
It is not enough to know a definition, it is also necessary to know the ways in which this definition can find its realization in the world.
Those who criticize the USSR’s and Cuba’s limitation of speech do not take into account the power of alien propaganda to sway an ignorant populace with abstract claims of greater freedom and higher livelihood if they change their political economy to match the dictates of the centers of imperialism. The criticism of suppressive practices such as terror ignores that enemies of the revolution are not simply drawing capacity of action from dissenters from within, but also from exterior powers that wish to see the revolution subverted and crushed, as well as that those who pose as the truest revolutionaries may be part of counterrevolutionary movements. The criticism of the failures of central planning of the economy overlooks its successes as well as the historical contingencies and the problems of internal politics. Given the real historical material conditions of socialism in the countries in which revolution occurred, one may come to a realization that socialism in its full concept and the freedom it implies were incapable of actualizing themselves given their material context. Contrary to what idealists may claim, that the great problem was a betrayal of the democratic power of the people and the active negation of freedom, the materialist may discover in their analysis the truth that for many reasons it was not yet socialism’s time. This, however, does not necessitate a defeatist and mechanical attitude towards socialism that remains inactive because the perfect conditions have not realized themselves. None know when the time is right, and the struggle must be waged as fully as possible at any opportunity given that each attempt builds on the recognition and correction of past failures, fresh insights into the unique circumstances of the present, and the hope that the next revolution may indeed be the spark which ignites global revolution. To remain inactive for fear that the project may go astray or die in the cradle is a problem of the belief that theory can be perfected without empirical failure to correct it.
The problem of idealism is the same problem as utopianism: the desired goals are perfectly understood and known in the mind, and their truth unquestionable and perfectly reasonable, but given the actual conditions of existence there is no answer that can be given to offer a theory of realistic activity to find and develop in the present the conditions of the possibility of these end goals. Ironically the so called arch idealist, Hegel, once wrote, “It is easier to discover a deficiency in individuals, in states, and in Providence, than to see their real import and value” (Lectures on The Philosophy of History). It is much easier for the idealist to sit back and judge the actual world from his throne of abstract definitions which remain clean of history’s dirty progression through blood, sweat, and grime. The materialist, on the other hand, if they are to actually be a materialist in their understanding, must wade through that loathed history of details and see the reasons that moved that moment in history to its end. They must analyze as fully as possible and see what aspects of socialism or freedom were possible given the material conditions of the world at the time.
The materialist cannot simply judge based on abstract definitions free from concrete reality, but must seek to understand the real empirical content of a historical moment in relation to its internal and external content and its aims. With this kind of view in mind, the dogmatic mind soon finds itself at a loss of self-righteous indignation and moral elevation when it discovers that the price to attempt the highest dreams of humanity can be great and horrifying , and that not all attempts can succeed for it is not merely the will of the participants of revolutions which shape their destiny, but also the predators and enemies that may in the end undermine and overpower it through no fault of its own.