TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

An Outstanding Man of the Left: Paul Piccone

Somewhere out there in dialectical heaven, Paul Piccone is smiling at the spectacle of an Alaskan frontierswoman seizing the American political spotlight.

Paul was for many years the editor of a little-known, highly intellectual, and often invaluable magazine of “critical thought” called Telos, which was known as the conscience of the New Left. Unlike many Marxists, he never fell for the utopian lies of the Soviets, rejected the fanciful, romantic idea that the events of 1968 constituted a “revolution,” either here or abroad, and fought fiercely against the centralizing, oppressive welfare state that he saw squeezing freedom, and thus spontaneity, out of Americans.

He created the magazine in 1968, and ran it until his death four years ago. Telos Press has now published a collection of his essays, Confronting the Crisis, and while it’s hard going for readers who have no comfort level with the language of dialectics and with the work of the Frankfurt School, it’s well worth it. Few American intellectuals worked as hard as Paul to figure out what is going on inside our society, the ways in which America is unique among the countries of the West, and what, if anything, can be done to restore serious thinking, productive debate, and philosophical and political creativity. His pursuit of understanding and real solution was admirable, anchored, as Gary Ulmen puts it in his Introduction, in a search for a genuine humanity.

In that pursuit, Paul managed to think himself out of the conventional box of Left and Right, which he correctly saw as at least meaningless and at worst confusing. “Left and Right mean very little,” he wrote, and nowadays “political conflicts have been reduced to administrative squabbles concerning the scope and extent of redistributive policies” (xxi).

He was especially tough on his own former comrades:

…the Left has long since ceased to be radical, does not have even the faintest idea of a meaningful alternative to the existing order, and, in the frantic effort to come up with immediately applicable tactics, has overlooked that its strategy has long since become conformist and uncritical. (259)

The essays cover about twenty years, from the early seventies to the early nineties, and much of it is as contemporary as tomorrow. Few have understood as well as Paul the often sinister way that political and intellectual language is used to mislead the people. Piccone saw that concepts like law, democracy, people, nation, and community had been used by politicians and intellectuals in order to reconcile them “at all costs with current political practices in order to legitimate existing relations of domination-relations today defended by obsessive official calls for “change.”

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Those calls for “change,” in the eighties as today, were phony, in Piccone’s view, because they were really calls for empowering one group of bureaucrats over another; they had nothing to do with addressing the ongoing problems of freedom and oppression, or poverty and wealth, that remain the real challenge to America. He saw through the bogus “changes” of the Johnson era, as for example “equal opportunity.” Calling it “a bureaucratic penetration into the black community,” he delivered a tirade that many would call arch-conservative (thereby reinforcing his point about the deceptive effect of language on contemporary politics):

[It] meant not only the effective disintegration of organic social bonds, but also the development of a deadly relation of dependence upon the welfare state, which condemns the black community to the permanent status of de facto second-rate citizenry. (263)

And he saw the women’s movement was even worse. Whereas women, by dint of their roots in family structure, had previously been able to resist the onslaught of the bureaucratic state, the women’s movement “immediately rendered problematic any relation not based on the exchange principle, and indicted any lingering family function that presupposed an organic division of labor” (264). In short, they became alienated men.

As for the heroes of the contemporary Left, he despised them. He saw that political correctness was nothing more than political indoctrination that would preserve, rather than transform, both the society and independent thought. With the hilarious result that “all this makes FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson, even Bernstein and Kautsky, appear to be flaming revolutionaries. It is light years away from the old dreams of a new society, a sense of the future as possibility, redemption, and well-being” (328). It’s had to say it much better than that. Unexpectedly, he has plenty of sympathy for Reagan’s good intentions to shrink the federal government and give more authority to local entities, although he rightly says nothing of the sort ever happened.

In his later years, Paul argued in favor of a form of federal populism that would diminish the power of the central government and enable Americans to freely organize themselves in accordance with local traditions rather than conform to the dictates flowing from Washington. He knew it would be difficult; he saw clearly that the enormous power of bureaucracy could only be effectively challenged by a determined and politically secure executive: “Only within a context of national or international urgency can a political administration summon sufficient popular consensus to checkmate administrative/congressional interference and act decisively” (163).

He calls his vision of a new populism a “vindication of the ideals of the original American colonial model” (328), which is an odd thing for a Hegelian revolutionary to embrace. Earlier in his life, he would have been tempted to call such a notion arch-reactionary, but Paul was honest enough to recognize that many of the ideas commonly termed “conservative” are actually revolutionary. So far as I know, he was the first English-language writer to recognize that the Italian League of the North was something altogether new in contemporary Western politics, and, despite the near-unanimity of the fashionable press to brand it as racist, vulgar, and chauvinistic, it was (and is) a sign of vitality. He earned his family name, after all.

That is why I am sure that Paul is enjoying the Palin candidacy, for she represents many of the qualities he was searching for in his vision of a federal populism: her willingness to tell Washington to go to hell, her unrelenting morality, even against leaders of her party, her easy embrace of Alaska’s uniqueness, her relaxed religiosity, and her full participation in life on America’s last frontier. That’s just the sort of thing Paul wanted, and he would have been delighted that it came from the mother of five.

So there’s a lot to admire in Paul Piccone, and we are diminished by his passing. To be sure, his work suffers from the usual defects of the excessively structural analysis that afflict so many who come from a Marxist background. One rarely hears about great personalities, and their effect on history (with the exception of great thinkers, of course). He is entirely right to say that we cannot really confront our crises unless there is a real sense of crisis; under the terms of business as usual, the bureaucrats will always prevail. But that political consensus he talks about so hopefully can only be forged by political leaders. Without them, the crisis will only produce further degeneration, and possibly even collapse and the turn of the ancient wheel: the collapse of democracy ushers in the tyrants.

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