Mr. Finkelstein on self-deception and the collapse of his identity
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our series of interviews with Norman Finkelstein.
Thanks for joining us again.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN, POLITICAL SCIENTIST, ACTIVIST, AND AUTHOR: Thank you.
JAY: So all the biography’s down there, and just I’m just going to plug Norman’s book. His latest book is Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza.
So, as everybody knows, we do a lot of personal back story before we get into some of the issues, and we’re going to continue.
So we left off. Your parents had great loyalty, fidelity to the Soviet Union. You had kind of internalized the same thing and are arguing at school in defense of Stalin and so on. Well, it ain’t that much longer, I’m guessing, you’re a Maoist. And part of being a Maoist may be a defense of Stalin, but it sure is critique of the Soviet Union, which your parents never accepted. So how did you get there, and what did that mean in terms of your relationship with your parents?
FINKELSTEIN: I’m not really sure how I got there. I’d have to search my memory how I ended up a Maoist. But I can say as a general proposition, even though I attach a lot of value to ideas and the intellectual department of the human personality, I want to see practical change, I want to say see real lives improve. That was something I got from my parents. And so in China it seemed to be happening. There seemed to be real genuine improvement in the lives of ordinary people. And–.
JAY: I think most of the evidence says in those early years there was.
FINKELSTEIN: Yes, there was, but there–also a lot of illusion; there was, but there was also a lot of illusion. And so for me it was the proof of the pudding–the eating is the–the test of the–proof of the pudding is in the eating. And there it was not a theory. It was a reality. We believed back then, or many of us, some of us who called ourselves Maoist, that human beings were [genuinely (?)] being transformed, the new socialist man putting society ahead of the individual, as Mao Zedong–the slogan was to fight self. And I believed all that. I believed it with the whole–the wholeness of my being. I believed it. So for me it was the practical fact that the lives of human beings were being improved and that a better world was not just in theory but in practice possible. It was real.
I mean, I was to the point–I remember when I was in college I had a pair of work shoes like one of your camera persons is wearing now, and I was napping in the study lounge. I was a very hard worker, always reading, always studying. I took off my shoes. I went to sleep. And when I woke up, the shoes were gone. And it was winter and I had to walk home barefoot. And I come to my class on China the next day, angry at the fact that my shoes were stolen. But what do I say? I said, this would never happen in China. I mean, that’s how I saw China was God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. This was China. China’s great, or Mao is great, Mao is good, let us thank him for–.
JAY: And for people that don’t know the period, this was not so unique. There were Maoists all over the world.
FINKELSTEIN: No, it wasn’t so unique. Now it’s an era that’s completely vanished, but back then it was not so uncommon. Even people like Shirley MacLaine were flaming Maoists back then. People will have forgotten–actually, your listeners won’t even know who Shirley MacLaine is.
JAY: The Black Panthers were holding up the Red Book.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, marketing the Red Book. So I–.
JAY: But let me go back to–go back to your parents, though, ’cause you–to be a Maoist you have to disengage from the Soviet Union.
FINKELSTEIN: No, you don’t really appreciate the capacity for self-deception. My parents were absolutely convinced that there was no split between the Soviet Union and China. Yes. They thought it was all made up by the CIA and the usual thing. You know, everything is the CIA, everything is a conspiracy.
JAY: They didn’t believe that Mao Zedong had denounced the Soviet Union after Stalin.
FINKELSTEIN: No, absolutely not. They didn’t even believe that Stalin killed Trotsky. No. That’s–listen, you’d be surprised how much people can–.
JAY: Okay. But what about you and your beliefs? Because you’d grown up internalizing this Soviet argument. You knew the Chinese were attacking the Soviet Union.
FINKELSTEIN: Look, I was a contradictory figure, because I believed in the ideology, but I attach too much value to intellectual life to believe it blindly. And so I always embraced the intellectuals who were Maoists. So I was close to Paul Sweezy at the time. The leading intellectual Maoist in the world was–nobody will remember his name now, but he was quite prominent back then–was Charles Bettelheim in Paris. I went to study with him. I read everything.
I didn’t read to learn. I have to be honest about that. I read so I can answer any argument. I was looking for information, data which would enable me to defend the cause. But I didn’t really try. I didn’t want to see if the cause may be flawed. I didn’t read with that in mind.
JAY: There was no skepticism.
FINKELSTEIN: No. It was we’re arming for the war, intellectual war, and I needed to–that was–the books were the ammunition.
I knew so much about it. I’m not boasting. I’m just–that’s an element of fanaticism. I knew so much about it. And in my undergraduate institution, I was the first undergraduate to /ˈprisɛp/ the course on China, ’cause I knew more than any professor. I was a fanatic, but a fanatic in an odd sort of way. I wasn’t a fanatic in the sense of being blindly wedded to a cause; I wanted to be–I wanted to reconcile the ideology with the intellectual side of myself.
And so for me it may sound odd now, but Paul Sweezy, he went to Harvard. He was first in his class in economics at Harvard. He was in the same class as Paul Samuelson, the same class as John Kenneth Galbraith, and still he was /dətɑːp/. And then he was a professor at Harvard. And so he had all the conventional bona fides, credentials of a scholar. And he was a Maoist. And for me that was such a relief, that you can function in the world of ideas, you can be the top rank in the world of ideas, and still share the same political belief as I did, which was a kind of eccentric political belief.
JAY: So what happens? What breaks it for you?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, it’s very simple what breaks it for you. It was the overthrow of the gang of what was called back then the Gang of Four.
JAY: This was Mao’s wife and–.
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, believe it or not (I know it’s odd), I could tell you all their names. It was Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, Jiang Qing, and–Wang Hongwen, Jiang Qing. The other guy’s [crosstalk]
JAY: Well, that’s okay.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, yeah. I was devastated. I wasn’t devastated so much because I was wrong.
JAY: How did that prove you were wrong, though?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, because everything was overthrown overnight, the whole Maoist system, which we thought new socialist men, they all believe in putting self second, fighting self. And then overnight the whole thing was reversed–
JAY: But there were other people kind of in your shoes that–.
FINKELSTEIN: –which meant the people weren’t really that committed to it.
And it also–it came out there was just an awful lot of corruption. The people who we thought were absolutely selfless were very self-absorbed. And it was clear. The overthrow of the Gang of Four had huge popular support. It’s not like it was some midnight military coup. Everybody was thrilled at the prospect of ridding themselves of these ideologues, as if they had now been freed from shackles.
So, as I said, it wasn’t so much that it was wrong; it was I had made a fool of myself because I would denounce everyone who disagreed with me as being a bourgeois and a petty bourgeois. I remember I had a friend–his name was Roy Friedman. And his father, his father said to me once, Norman, before you get to China, there’s going to be a McDonald’s at the Great Wall. And I just laughed [at him (?)]. In fact, he’s right. He was right. But I [said], oh, you’re such a petty bourgeois. He said to me, you know, Norman, why do you always call me a petty bourgeois? Why can’t I be a bourgeois?
JAY: Make more money.
FINKELSTEIN: Why do I have to be a petty bourgeois?
But that’s the–I was absolutely insufferable. No, I was, ’cause I–look, I have a friend, her name is /ˌzinəˈrʌθgɪn/. And she saved some of my postcards and letters. And she sent them to me a few years ago. I mean, I cringed when I read them. Everything I dismissed with this all-knowing knowledge–you know, Marxism, Leninism was the science, as if I even got past chemistry in high school. But the science. And we knew everything. We knew where history was going. We knew everything. We knew nothing. We were very foolish.
JAY: You write that you had to go to bed after you heard the news of the overthrow of the Gang of Four.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, I was in bed for three weeks. I was totally devastated. Professor Bettelheim, who was the world’s most distinguished Maoist intellectual, he was hospitalized. Yeah. You don’t know.
But it shouldn’t altogether surprise you. You know, many people think it was McCarthy that destroyed the Communist Party. That’s absolutely not true. You know, when you were a communist back then, you had the inner strength to withstand McCarthyism, because it was the cause. What destroyed the Communist Party was Khrushchev’s speech.
JAY: On Stalin.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, when people suddenly discovered they had been duped, they were fools. There were not an insignificant number of people who committed suicide. They gave their whole lives to a lie. It’s even true–
JAY: Just for people that don’t know–.
FINKELSTEIN: –it’s even–if–.
JAY: Just one sec. This is–Khrushchev makes a speech in 1956, which are about the crimes of Stalin, and this is kind of–
FINKELSTEIN: And as it happened,–
JAY: –many people quit the communist parties.
FINKELSTEIN: –to make it topical, it was an Israeli who got hold of the speech, because it was an Israeli member of the Communist Party of Israel who got hold of speech and then distributed it. And people, communist party people were absolutely devastated. That’s when they left the party in droves.
JAY: But not your parents. Were your parents in the party?
FINKELSTEIN: No, they were never in the party, because–.
JAY: But they never gave up on Stalin. So what I’m trying to get at is–.
FINKELSTEIN: Because they never left the Nazi Holocaust behind them. That was–always has been a perplexity in my life. Many people moved on–they were able to move on. I’ve never understood why my mother and father could not move on. It was–for my mother it was clearly–every single member of her family, as with my father, every single member was exterminated. They were alone in the world. And my mother was never able to get over that.
JAY: I’ve met people like that, but I’ve never met people like that that didn’t think of Israel as their salvation.
FINKELSTEIN: No. My parents actually, I would say, they–I don’t want to use strong words. Let’s just say they disliked Israel with an intensity.
JAY: Let’s go back to your three weeks in bed.
FINKELSTEIN: Also because they were very sympathetic to the Palestinians. Originally, Palestinians didn’t exist. But once they existed and once the endless wars started, then their feelings of sympathy with the Palestinians–you couldn’t–it was an unusual home. You couldn’t–and my house was kind of like the first politically correct home on earth. You couldn’t say anything. You couldn’t use–when I was growing up in my neighborhood, I grew up roughly in the same neighborhood as, let’s say, Charles Schumer, our current U.S. Senator. He went to my high school. He was four years ahead of me. I knew his sister, who was one year ahead of me, Fran. And I knew the ambiance. It was so racist. You never called a black person a negro. You called them a nigger, a schwarze. That’s how everyone carried on, except in my home–impossible. I’m not saying my parents were saints and I’m not saying they didn’t harbor racist sentiments. They did. But you could never use pejoratives like that in my home. It was unthinkable. That was all the legacy of the war.
JAY: Let me go–I want to go back to these three weeks in bed. It’s not just Mao. I mean, does not come kind of crashing an important piece of your whole identity, which was faith in the Soviet Union, Stalin, now Mao? There’s a big piece of who you were.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, it was not a big piece; it was the whole of who I was. I was–as I say not happily–but I remember a friend of mine, a childhood friend–he’s now the chair of the History Department at Cornell University. He’s a real right-winger now. But he once said to me, you know, Norman, you’ve become a bore. If you went into my room, I had pictures of Lin Biao, Lin Biao and Mao Zedong. The posters: “socialism is advancing from victory to victory”. Another poster: “long live the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
It was so funny that, once, it was New Year’s Eve and some nut just randomly shot a bullet into our home. It had no political resonance. My mother calls the police. The police come. So what do the police do? They want to look into every room. So, of course, they have come to my room. They open the door: “long live the dictatorship of the proletariat”, “socialism is advancing from victory to victory”. My mother looks at the police officer, police officer looks at my mother, and she says, “My son likes Chinese people.” That’s how she extricated herself.
But I was a complete bore. I was completely monolithic.
JAY: Okay. So you,–
FINKELSTEIN: Some people still think I’m a complete bore.
JAY: –you’re saying it was–this identity is not a part of you, it was the whole of you. So what’s left after this three weeks? Who is Norman at the end of this three weeks? What happens?
FINKELSTEIN: I got involved in other causes, I was involved with Central America, but nothing that totally consumed me anymore. I guess I was tired of ideologies. I was tired of theories. I was not a big fan of the Sandinistas. I went to Nicaragua at the time. I happened to have the misfortune of having gone there on the centenary of Marx’s death, I think that week or something. I arrived the same day as the Pope. I remember that, when–the day the Pope arrived to Nicaragua. It was ’82, I guess, or ’84, maybe ’84. And all I heard was science of Marxism, Leninism, the science of Marxism, Leninism. And I just–it rubbed me all the wrong way.
I remember I was in one factory. I was working in a textile factory just to get experience at the ground level. And one of the militantes, as they were called back then, she calls over a worker and she says, this is our best worker. He’s our best worker. I said, oh, really? What makes him our best worker? She says, oh, he does everything we tell him. And I said, uh-uh, I ain’t going back there. I mean, [I’m not saying I ain’t (?)] going back there; I said, I’m not going back to my Marxist-Leninist phase.
I was a nut. I went to Paris to study. You know what I did? I mean, it’s just an embarrassment even to say it now. I spent the whole time in Paris. I read 25 volumes of Lenin. That’s what I did. I brought over the collected works, which were not so expensive back then, ’cause they–.
JAY: They were heavy.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah. I had a roller. It was 55 volumes. A brought over all 55–yes, because for me it was not just–it was an eccentric form of fanaticism. I had to grasp it intellectually, or I thought I was grasping it intellectually because I was reading. In fact, I wasn’t grasping it intellectually.
JAY: So as you start to put together what amounts to a new identity, which I guess has a big piece of it not wanting to accept stuff blindly, when does Israel-Palestine become your focus?
FINKELSTEIN: Oh, I would say the big influence, the big influence at that time was Professor Chomsky, because he had the same, quote-unquote, radical view of the world, but he prided himself in his works on being ideologically free. He said just a little common sense, what he calls Cartesian logic. Look for the facts, and that’s all you need. You don’t need big theories. And as I said, I was theoried out at that point.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’ll pick up the story, and as you begin to focus your work on Israel and Palestine.
So please join us for the continuation of our series with Norman Finkelstein on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.