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Mourning Precedents and the Inability to Read

Apparently my previous and rushed post regarding Jack Layton's death has been circulating on Facebook and Reddit where it has been intentionally misunderstood by that large sector of confused leftists who are under the impression that Layton was a comrade.  One commentator called me "cold" and "provocative", and another, who I guess refused to read precisely what I wrote, complains "now we're trying to establish precedents on who should or should not be mourned?"

First of all, the inability to read carefully and precisely seems to be a hallmark amongst internet self-proclaimed experts.  It definitely is a common characteristic of the occasional random commentator on this blog (for example, the people who comment on my first and somewhat juvenile Nietzsche post, from way way back, without actually reading or understanding the argument I was making).  It is also one of my largest pet peeves because: a) I have to deal with lazy readings as part of my job when I mark student papers; b) I cannot stand, as part of my training, logical fallacies––especially the straw-person fallacy (nor can I stand false accusations of straw-person fallacies that are actually, in and of themselves, straw-person fallacies).

Secondly, opinions exchanged on Facebook and Reddit are, generally speaking, annoying and ignorant. The latter context, for example, seems to be a place where people can make up wild anecdotes about their experience that no one can prove and, anonymously and pompously, act as expert commentators.  As far as left-wing reddits go, I have rarely been impressed by what I've witnessed (aside from some commentators who usually are also critical of the entire reddit context), and often I've been shocked by the statements of the supposed "left" reddit commentators.  The "socialism" reddit, for example and aside from a few commentators, should change its name to the "social democracy and/or welfare capitalist" reddit due to some of the weird statements flouted by its champagne socialist crowd.  One of my blogger comrades showed me a set of posts where a commentator claimed Keynes was a "socialist"––a statement that would power all of America with the power of John Maynard's spinning coffin.

And this returns me to the comment, quoted above, where someone asked "now we're trying to establish precedents on who should or should not be mourned?"  I want to deal with this question because I think it directly relates to my point about misreading––it also demonstrates a general ideological confusion that I find extremely telling.  (I will also keep in mind that whatever I write in the following paragraphs will be ignored and/or deliberately misread.)

The fact that someone complained that the point of my article was to establish a "mourning precedent" ignores the fact that the mourning of Jack Layton is in itself the establishment of a mourning precedent amongst the left.  And THIS was the point of my hurried post: I wanted to question why we were choosing to mourn one capitalist when the "mourning precedents" we already possess would prevent us from mourning other capitalists.  Would the person who wrote this comment mourn Stephen Harper?  It seems doubtful, and thus demonstrates that the left is already qualifying who should or who should not be mourned.  Would we mourn fascists?  Of course not: to complain about mourning precedents is ludicrous, especially since the complaint, as aforementioned, is driven by the fact that mourning Layton's death is already about deciding who and who should not be mourned.

We on the left already have our mourning precedents because we choose who to make into heroes and villains all the time.  The point of my last post was to clarify a certain confusion surrounding this choice that I found inherent in the celebration of Layton as some sort of leftwing comrade when, based on his own choices and class politics, he was definitely not a comrade.  None of this was ever to say that we should be utterly dogmatic about our choices in this regard: I would mourn the death of another Tommy Douglas even though he was not a full-fledged communist because Douglas was still someone who did, in his own limited way, struggle on behalf of the people.  But Jack Layton was not Tommy Douglas.

Furthermore, this complaint about "mourning precedent" demonstrates a banal bourgeois humanism where people get hung up on a hypocritical morality about the sanctity of human life.  As I wrote in that post, and I want to reemphasize this, "the point is not that a human being's life isn't worth mourning but, rather, why some of us on the Canadian left seem to care about mourning the life of a social-dem-turned-liberal."  I was not interested in mocking people for caring about the death and life of another human being, but asking questions about our choices for mourning one type of capitalist over another.  I was not critiquing those who are mourning the loss of a family member or close friend, but those whose only relationship with Layton was on the political landscape and who, as leftists, are mourning the politics he supposedly represented.

So the larger point, and the one that was misread, was an historical materialist question about the structure behind our mourning.  I am a communist, not a bourgeois humanist, and so my approach has to do with the the structural questions, which always concern class struggle, not questions about the sanctity of human life.  A good historical materialist does not focus on vague and ahistorical platitudes about the sanctity of human life when it comes to events like, for example, September 11, 2001.  No, a historical materialist places the ethical question in historical context and asks why the attack on the WTC happened in the first place, why some deaths are considered worth more than others in the bourgeois-imperialist mindset, etc.

And yet we have a Reddit "socialist" commentator arguing the bourgeois humanist position that "every human life is valuable, socialist or otherwise" and, because of this, that my post was cold and provocative.  The fact that, again, my point had nothing to do with whether or not a single human life was valuable but that we on the left were celebrating one type of capitalist when we refuse to celebrate others was obscured by this misty-eyed humanitarianism.  Layton is not being mourned by the Canadian left simply because his life was as valuable as every other human life––if this was the case, we on the left would also be mourning every dead reactionary and dead liberal for the same humanitarian reason––but because this Canadian left somehow imagines he was a comrade and that his death contains a weight that it certainly does not.  If I am to be attacked for pointing out this problematic assessment, then those who claim Layton is being mourned simply because he is another dead human being should get off their high humanitarian horses and spend the rest of their life attending every funeral of every person, no matter their politics or actions, that they can.

My post was never about Jack Layton the human being.  I never knew Layton personally, I am not a member of his family, and I know that if we were close than I probably would mourn the death of a close relation regardless of the difference in our politics.  But the majority of people mourning his death with leftist eulogies also never knew Layton personally and, like me, would only know him by the politics he represented––that is what they are writing about.  So the critique is about Layton's position, the structural politics he represents, and not who he was as a person.  These eulogies do not pretend to know him as person, either, so it is in complete bad faith when they appeal to the sanctity of human life.

Again, my point was about the left's amnesiatic and delirious reaction to the death of someone who was a member of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  As I wrote before, but that bears repeating, "I'm not saying that we should celebrate Layton's death, I'm just saying that we as the left should not care because the death of a liberal capitalist politician should be treated as meaningless.  I care more about the anonymous deaths of women and children in third world factories than the death of a man whose policies, if he had ever been in power, would allow these factories to continue functioning."


  1. The thing about reddit is that it is terrible.

    I'm glad you expanded on your point. I think it's easy for people who haven't been educated with a revolutionary perspective to misinterpret things that are outside of their imaginative boundaries. It's almost as though they unconsciously misinterpret. They read, but their eyes skip over the logic. When you restate an argument in even simpler terms, like you do here, it becomes more difficult for people to misinterpret. And I always learn something from even your simplest posts!

  2. Thanks, angrykarl... Although I'm certain that even this post will be treated as worthy of misinterpretation and might, at the end of the day, be like waving a red flag (intentionally red) in front of liberal bull.

  3. JMP, although I agree with your posts, I think that there needs to be, on your part, more consideration for what a strategic approach to the question is.

    For one, your post doesn't actually explain just how Layton was a tool of capitalism or imperialism (other than something about Libya). Your post is rushed, as you explain, but what is required at the moment is a systematic assessment of policy and the NDP's shift to the right under Layton. What is required is an explanation for why Layton is a so-called running dog.

    This goes into the second point, which is that you expect too much of the left. The left is itself composed of different sections with different ideological trajectories. What would be a strategic way to make leftists red? By lashing out against their mourning Jack Layton's death?

    Part of communist strategy will have to be understanding the extent to which sheer bourgeois mentality has pervaded many sections of the masses, including sections of so-called leftists or left-wingers. We have to deal with it accordingly.


  4. Fair enough, but in the earlier post there was also a link to a previous post about how the NDP's policy under Layton was rightist - I linked rather than rewrite previous points in other posts since I don't like regurgitating. I probably could have also linked the series of boycott the elections posts that also explained why all of the parliamentarian parties were worth rejecting.

    The question about a "strategic way to make leftists red" is apt, but it is a larger question that these posts are not aimed at answering. What they are aimed at, however, is confronting those of my comrades who will say on the one hand that the NDP is worthless and yet, on the other, valorize their policies in the way they approach the mourning situation.

    I don't expect too much of the broad left in North America, really, but I do expect those who claim to be communists to represent those politics. I agree that sheer bourgeois mentality has pervaded many sections of the masses, and even the left, but I do not agree that the answer is quietism or, even worse, Blanquism. Nor would I agree that the masses care overly much about Layton's death because large sections of the masses refuse to vote for any parliamentarian party––the only people who seem to care are NDP hacks (who are now pretty much liberal hacks) and confused leftists who should know better - and who say they know better in other contexts.

  5. I agree that there is not much to expect of the broad left in North America, but I am not talking about the left as the left. I am talking about individual youth who are drawn into the broad left -- working class youth -- who are still open to radical analysis (as is evident from their openness to Chomsky, etc.) but have no actual interaction with Marxian analysis (other than Trotskyites pushing papers).

    I meant to say bourgeois sentimentality, not mentality. I think that although the NDP is a bourgeois party of the working-class, Fightback has a point that it is the most visible attraction to those looking for a progressive alternative. I agree that quietism and entryism are not appropriate strategies.

    As I said, certain sections of the masses are moved by Jack Layton's death. It happens, people cried over Aaliyah. I think you're confusing the refusal to vote or engage in parliamentary politics with a lack of bourgeois sentimentality toward prominent figures.


  6. Thanks for this post (and the last), JMP. It's a nice note to come back to your blog on!

    Perhaps people did admire what he stood for, beyond his party politics - fair enough (though I don't think you can actually separate these things). He is cited as being an advocate for the poor, abused women, the gay community, etc. I think that's great. But i think these issues need to be addressed beyond a capitalist welfare system.

    In the words of Joe Hill, "Don't mourn, organize!"

    This is rushed and written in annoyance because I see a lot of people writing these eulogies on Facebook, but I also hope that these sentiments go beyond simple words. If you truly believe in the "spirit" of Jack Layton, then I hope that there would be some kind of organizing to actually fight against oppression of the poor, etc. Instead, I fear that there is the risk of canonizing Jack Layton and ignoring his political shortcomings.

    Ok, enough rambles...

  7. Red Traveller: you might have a point but my argument is still that these posts were aimed at those amongst the self-proclaimed "communist/socialist" left, and not some catch-all educational act for "the masses" in general. And even in that sense, I believe that we are in a period of accumulating revolutionary forces and so it is important to openly take the type of line I took while, at the same time, agitating irl in a way that is honest but, in daily encounters, works to demystify certain things. I know my readership and my readership is the communist (and sometimes anarchist) left and it is to that readership this blog, which has always never hid its politics, is aimed. It's also not the masses in general who are writing peonages about Layton being their representative, it's the self-proclaimed left.

    And again, I back-linked to an article about the NDP (that I posted here months ago) that does explain the background reasons for Layton's position. And Fightback only has a point about the NDP being a party that is seen as an alternative for a certain group of people: predominantly the petty-bourgeoisie and a swathe of the labour aristocracy.

    In any case, I feel that since we're in a position of trying to accumulate revolutionary forces in order to build the kernel of a revolutionary organization, there is no point in flattening down our politics - though I would agree there is a point in approaching these politics, though doing so in an honest and non-Blanquist way - in forums like this. My prime aim with this blog is to make contacts with people who are sympathetic to revolutionary politics, and so far the blog has been successful in that regard. Different forums/mediums require different approaches. (This is also, for another reason, that I only rarely post overly academic pieces here or, vice versa, present blog posts at a conference.)

    And Xtina, maybe people did admire for "what he stood for" but I would still ask what he stood for overall and whether or not these admirations are inaccurate and blow him up into something he was not. There is a certain amnesia being promoted, and an almost intentional blindness in the way the NDP under Layton is being depicted - especially that it now has a Trudeau-era liberal politics (and, as I was recently reminded, is probably more right than Trudeau on foreign policy questions), and that it does *not* represent, in any way shape or form, the working class... And yet people still argue, unscientifically and without doing any social investigation, that it is the party of the working-class! It's the party of the labour aristocracy and the liberal petty-bourgeoisie, but there is a reason that large portions of the masses don't vote for the NDP just as they dont vote for any other bourgeois party.

    The Joe Hill words are appropriate, and I agree with your point, though sometimes there are some revolutionaries who I think are worth mourning. Although, when it comes to Layton, there is clearly the risk of canonizing him with the mourning.

  8. JMP, i don't see another contact on this page to reach your directly. I'm looking for a personal email i can reach you at to send you some info on a Riot special we are working on at MTV. can you hit me back at

  9. I totally agree with you regarding the amnesia. Someone we both know was shamed on facebook for asking people to consider the very real shortcomings of the NDP under Layton.

    One thing I forgot to say regarding my Joe Hill quote is that of course we're looking at completely different contexts. Where Joe Hill was actually a "champion" of the working class (I can't think of a more appropriate word), I don't think the same can be said of Jack Layton - at least not lately (I don't know much about his earlier political career).

    Oh, I just saw that there is a facebook "page" to get people to support re-naming Yonge and Dundas square as "Jack Layton Square". When I think Yonge and Dundas square I think "consumerism and capitalism", not "working class". Though I think the square is privately owned anyways, so that probably won't actually happen.

  10. I've heard about the facebook shaming, of various people, even some who only ask questions about why we are calling Layton a "socialist" now... The lack of critical reflection on these things is mind-boggling, especially amongst a population who claims they are "critical."

  11. Woot, I got quoted!

    As I said on ~reddit~, first of all, polemics arguing against emotional responses to death, regardless of the deceased's political affiliation and ideological bearing, wreaks of "thought-policism". Regardless of who or what Layton was, his passing saddened me. Who are you, or anyone, to tell me this is "wrong"?

    Second, for your claims that "I'm just saying that we as the left should not care", you sure are putting a lot of time and effort into caring. You seem to care a lot more than I do, in fact. I stopped mourning the day after he died. When will you? :)



  12. Hey JMP, I reblogged this (hope you don't mind).

    I learned about Layton's death because I woke up on Monday to what seemed like half the Canadians I know on FB mourning his death. I was shocked, but I really shouldn't have been. I know lots of people who identify as anti-capitalist and anti-colonial in their politics (and who are not Trots) who still vote NDP like they have a gun to their head and are mourning Layton's death like he died taking up arms to fight for freedom.

    I nearly through up to say the least.

    My status in response was something like "I heard some Canadian politician died today..." And then I reblogged this to my site and linked it on FB. I was totally expected walls of hate to just come crashing in, but they didn't. I think deep down inside my NDP loving anti-capitalist friends know that the NDP is actually bad news, because a lot of them also begrudgingly accepted my election analysis (

    Interesting thought though. Other than the dear friends of mine who are hopelessly electoralist, even if they are self-professed revolutionary socialists, it is mostly queer and feminist friends of mine who seem most supportive of the NDP and consequently the most shook up over Layton's death. A lot of them, as critical as they may be of social democracy, seem to believe that Layton was the only thing standing in the way of Harper and the CPoC taking Canada back the 1950s. Anyway, that always intrigues me.

  13. M: I care that large sectors of the mainstream left call themselves socialist but then waste their time in confusion about friends and enemies - that is the main issue, and one that you still are unable to read apparently, and is behind my complaints. That and the fact that, as other commentators have noted, the supposedly critical left is engaging in some bizarre amnesia about the NDP and Layton's legacy rather than doing what it should do: provide a viable political alternative.

    And who are you, M, to tell me that doing an actual historical materialist critique about a class enemy is *wrong*? What I care about is not the death of Layton but the fact that, as judged during the way the left in Toronto acted during the last election, is the liberalization that has crept into the movement... a liberalization especially prevalent in your comments about thought policing and all the other red herring liberal nonsense inherent in your argument.

    Stop abiding by this individualist humanism that prevents you from seeing that my complaint has nothing to do with you, or anyone else, as an individual but is a structural critique. Mourn who you want, any time you want, my argument was always about why the left that calls itself left can't get its priorities straight and to ask questions about that.

    (Also, the "you seem to care a lot more than I do" is a red herring fallacy that shifts the terms of the debate and, by throwing up rhetorical dust, provides an escape mechanism for actually dealing with the terms of the argument.)

    Hi Enaemaehkiw - you're always welcome to reblog. Like you, my reaction was one of bafflement. I was even more baffled when supposed socialists like M above made very non-socialist and liberal arguments about my position. Also, as Xtina pointed out above, people who made even mild criticisms about the orgy of mourning surrounding Layton's death have been shamed and silenced (but apparently this is not "thought policing", to use M's uncritical orwellian terms).

    The belief that the NDP is our only line of defense against fascism is typical, I think, because we definitely encountered it during the boycott campaign (not amongst the people in general, but only amongst the same sector of [privileged] left who are now mourning Jack). And though it's erroneous and ahistorical (did the SDP in Germany prevent the rise of fascism or contribute to it?), it still persists.

  14. Excellent post Josh. I find the accusation of "thought policing" absolutely absurd. Clearly this anonymous poster has no conception of what policing entails.

    I think the political character of eulogies and hagiographies has to be emphasized here. This kind of eulogy is not a private, apolitical form of mourning. The death of a political leader is a moment in which the emotional force of the eulogy can be an effective means of organizing the supporters of that leader and consolidating the forces of the party or faction s/he represented. It is entirely legitimate to criticize such eulogies, especially when they are used to manipulate people's emotional reactions to death in order misrepresent the policies and politics of a given party. To say your emotions make you immune to criticism, M, is completely fallacious, especially given the fact that these eulogies you defend are themselves using the appeal to emotion fallacy in order to confuse, mislead, harass or scapegoat people. It is the eulogizers who should be condemned for their "cold" and manipulative use of death.

    I say this as someone who has in the past defended strategic voting and elements of social democracy (limited as it is). I never thought such pragmatism could lead other socialists into this trap of emotional manipulation, ahistorical sermonizing and hypocritical sentimentalism.

  15. Hey Jude, thanks for the comments.

    Your point about how this eulogizing/hagiography is "not a private, apolitical form of mourning" basically clarifies what I've been trying to argue. Especially now with the state funeral, lights flashing orange on the CN Tower, and the rest of this crazy spectacle.

    Although we have had disagreements about the role of elections in the past, I generally feel these are tactical rather than essential disagreements and I was shocked that some people I see as comrades allowed what they saw as strategic "pragmatism" lead to the type of "emotional manipulation" you've criticized.

  16. Not our comrade at all:

  17. Enaemaehkiw, I had a similar experience during the elections where the accusation was levelled at me that I was oppressive, homophobic and sexist because I chose not to vote. I did not engage for the most part because I didn't consider it worthwhile to try and mount a defence and that I would probably be digging myself into a hole. One person confronted me and asked me whether I didn't care about GLBTQ and women's rights and the only response I could really give was that I'm not prepared to support the bombing of Libya as a trade-off to seem like I'm more supportive of the women's movement and queer rights. The point you bring up though, the idea that depending on who gets elected, social norms will be rolled back into the 1950s, was one that came up a lot. I thought there were problems with that idea, for instance the far right has been elected all over Europe, and I haven't heard of major attempts to take away gay or women's rights, or even the right to choose, but I never really challenged it. If you ever have any other thoughts on this please blog about it. I was frequently told that if I didn't support the NDP I was sexist, homophobic, oppressive - maybe even racist, I can't remember - and that's something people will have to confront in the future.

  18. John Francis: I don't think it even needs to be put into terms of not preparing to trade one problematic position for another otherwise it ends up being a counting up of sites of oppression. I think people need to be reminded that women's rights and GLBTQ rights were won not because of opportunistic politics like Layton who was (obviously) more liberal than the Harpers of the world, but by grass roots movements and real struggles on behalf of the people *outside* of the parliamentary system. Moreover, the radical needs behind these rights can be better accomplished by a revolutionary society than a liberal capitalist one - and the demands were always and initially radical before they were cordoned off by liberal boundaries... boundaries policed by liberal politicians.

    Has the NDP, since its never been in power, actually done anything aside from agitate, as a minority party that knows it has a niche market, for queer and womens' rights? Under Chretien queer marriage was legalized, not the NDP, and under the Liberal party abortion was legalized, so by this logic maybe we should be voting for the Liberal Party! Again, these were rights won by the masses, and mass movements, not the wheeling and dealing of parliamentary opportunists who, when push comes to shove, will only back these demands as long as they are not truly revolutionary.


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