I want to take up now John Logie's article, "'We Write for the Workers': Authorship and Communism in Kenneth Burke and Robert Wright." This essay, like the other two in this spring 2005 issue of the KBJournal, is a worthy treatment of an important theme in Burke studies, deserving of attention and comment. I'll get to some of its salient features as a critique in later posts. I want, first of all, to play devil's advocate for those who censured Burke for his Marxoid "sins" at the 1935 American Writers Congress in New York City. Burke's (in)famous speech at that conference plays an important role in Logie's treatise, as well as in the lore and mythology of Burke's life and ideological development.
Burke's speech to that gathering of largely recognized and established authors and left-leaning intellectuals was entitled "Revolutionary Symbolism in America." In it, Burke proposed, as you'll recall, that the key term in Marxist propaganda in the U.S. be changed from "the workers" to "the people." Following Burke's address, Allen Porter "argue[d] that Burke's proposed substitution of 'people' for 'worker' has 'historically . . . been the ruse of the exploiting class to confuse the issue.'" More pointedly, Friedrich Wolf complained that "'substitution of the symbol "people" confuses the interests of this fundamental and all-important class and renders a picture of society that is not merely un-Marxian but one which history has provern to be necessary for the continuation of power of the exploiting class.'"
Porter and Wolf had, it seems to me, something of a point. The implied dialectic of the symbol "the workers," in opposition, of course, to capitalistic owners and management, gets blurred and fuzzed up with substitution of the term "the people," an "inclusive" terminology as Logie makes clear---this at a time when the working class was still battling for the right to organize, let alone reap the monetary benefits that later became standard in the labor contracts of the '50's and beyond.
Plumping for the term "the people" reminds me of Rush Limbaugh's recurrent charge in our day that "Liberals and Democrats want to divide us," talking all the time about Blacks against Whites, poor against rich. "We're all Americans," Limbaugh assures us. Yes, and when we think of ourselves as all in one homogenized category of that kind, the corporate interests and the wealthy in general can make off with everything in the store. The ruling class does so via the Republicans' tax cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy, and the postponed payment for the war in Iraq, the bill for which won't come due for them or us, but rather for a later generation, realities this administration hides behind its obfuscating rhetoric.
The same kind of generalized obfuscation infuses Bush's recurrent, all-embracing, globally-explanatory declaration, "WE are at war." As James Fallows pointed out on C-Span a week ago, "WE" are not all at war. Our troops are at war. Their families and loved ones are at war. But the rest of us aren't being called on to sacrifice ANYTHING, especially the well-to-do, who are profiting in spades from the policies of the Bushies.
Burke took note of this same kind of rhetorical sleight-of-hand in his reproof of the wealthy profiteer who says, "We're at war, you know," lumping himself or herself in with the soldiers dying at the front. "Implied identification": The "we" will do it every time, sometimes to a good end, other times not.
Burke, of course, seems to be working toward what in his 1935 speech? "The purification of war," n'est pas? It's a noble goal, but a distinction has to be made between justified self-assertion where injustic reigns, and a program of non-confrontation implicit in a one-term-fits-all rhetorical approach that "euphemistically" (see ATH) glosses over unacceptable realities.
What say you, devotees of a once-Marxist literary critic, philosopher, rhetorician, and placard-carrier?