Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Short Essay on Tolerence, Polemics, Sectarianism, etc. (a recent talk and a forward)

       I gave this at a conference on academic activism at the University of Minnesota last year.  I had a great time at the conference, and enjoyed spending time with my Santa Cruz colleagues, Don, Katy, Erin, and Madeline.  Each of their papers was fantastic, and is deserving of a lot of attention.  In addition, I met a lot of interesting people there, from union organizers to malcontented undergrads.  Morgan really went out of her way to get me on the schedule despite the fact that I put in my proposal far beyond the deadline, and I really appreciate that effort.  One should never forget the value of old friendships.  That being said, the conference was overwhelmingly white.  My hope is that we'll see some changes in the next conference that occurs, or at least a conversation about that situation with practical ends in mind.

     I also want to make a couple notes before I begin.  1.  The essay presents a very critical view of Lenin's approach to organization.  I would like to make it clear that this description doesn't exhaustively describe Lenin's thought or practice.  Lenin's work is dense and complex, responding to contingent situations.  Within those responses, its impossible to draw out a single coherent Lenin.  The Lenin critiqued here is a critique of a real dimension of his thought, but we can see a different Lenin other works, notably State and Revolution, but also What Is To Be Done.  That Lenin contains a radical democratic impulse, one that I am deeply sympathetic with.  2.  The talk provides a critique of the polemical controversies that have occurred in the UC system, but it isn't meant as a 'balanced' critique, implicating all sides equally.  I believe that one needs to begin with an anti-racist methodology to enter into the conversation, and sadly, that excludes some of our colleagues at this point.  To be blunt, I can't help but noting that despite their often good qualities and my genuine fondness for them, this critique is most pointedly directed at the sub-cultural anarchist formation within our school.  These last points probably need to be discussed more thoroughly, but they should be discussed in the collective topography of the class struggle.  To put it more cynically, when one has the choice between an often problematic and sectarian anti-racist politics and a sectarian politics of whiteness, the choice should not be that difficult.  I'll be interested if this produces conversation.  In any case, here is the talk.

     Within the context of the struggles against privatization at the University of California, the top administration has deployed the language of tolerance and civility to criticize the various actions against the privatization of the university, linking them with the racist actions occurring at UCSD.  The governor of California took up this approach in order to make the same claims about protests of the Israeli ambassador by the Muslim Student Union at UCI.  In both situations, disruption was reread as a sort of repressive violence, and at the same time, a legitimization of harsh disciplinary action.  Tolerance and civility then becomes a way to distinguish between a legitimate set of speech acts from a set that are illegitimate, a way of marking actors as authentic members of the academic community and those who are interlopers and upstarts.  The problems with this problematic have been discussed frequently, from the work of Wendy Brown to the frequent critiques presented by anti-racist activists in a variety of settings.  Tolerance as a method to negotiate difference is both marked by its depoliticization effect and its erasure the forms of domination and exploitation that constitute those forms of difference.

     However, the question that I want to pose is not answered by these critiques.  Rejection of tolerance as a negotiation of difference doesn’t erase the problems that tolerance the set of practices tries to respond to.  It must be recognized that the conflicts that have arisen in the movements against privatization in the UC system cannot be limited to the conflicts between activists and the upper administration.  Instead, the movement has often been defined by serious conflicts along cultural, ideological, personal, racial, and ethnic lines.  Simultaneously, a number of conflicts have occurred because differences in institutional loyalties, that is differences in the ability to speak and act due to job status or involvement in administrative positions.  Fights have occurred over both tactics and the goals of the movement.  These differences have been negotiated to various degrees of success, but the Irvine movement in particular has been marked by a series of contentious splits that have occurred from its earliest discussion.  These naturally link back to conflicts that have occurred long before the beginning of this particular budget crisis.

      These differences are irreconcilable through simple claims for a need for unity, and need to be worked through by seeing what works in practice.  One approach to negotiating these issues has been the slogan, ‘diversity of tactic’, which makes the demand for the acceptance of difference in organizing styles and political tactics.  The slogan certainly invites a form of the acceptance of difference that is far wide ranging than those contained in tolerance.  At the same time, the slogan is also used to reject any critical inquiry into the ethics or efficacy of any particular tactic, turning its negotiation of difference into an often atomistic and individualistic approach to the other.  We are given an approach that allows for the experimentation and freedom to fail that is needed to develop new approaches and conceptualizations of the problem, but the possibility of recognizing our invariable failures and collectively reimagining those projects is taken away.  In the end, we need to formulate a new approach to critique that both refuses the fantasy of easy forms of unity and the notion that every critique needs to end in an easy form of dialectical synthesis, as well as a conception of difference that refuses critique as a collective right and responsibility.  I intend to explore the possibility of creating this through the critiques of conventional Marxism made by Rosa Luxemburg in her critiques of Lenin and Kautsky.  In addition, it will draw on the exploration of ethics by Michel Foucault through his critique of polemics.

      In a recent interview, Labor Notes activist Mark Brenner noted that union activism wasn’t necessary simply for the immediate accomplishments of the movement, but also for its ability to act as a sort of training ground for a new socialist project.  In other words, the terrain of reform activity is both an end, achieving a set of concrete goals, as well as a means to creating the stage towards greater radical change.  In order to understand this, I want to look at Luxemburg’s contributions to the debates within the Second International. 

      These engagements are frequently read as conventional defenses of Marxist theory and practice against revisionist and reformist tendencies within the international, particularly her debates with the revisionist theorist Edward Bernstein.  However, rather than looking at these more conventional debates, I intend to look at a different set of debates, a set of debates that Luxemburg had with her fellow defender of revolutionary Marxism, Vladimir Lenin.  This debate, along with the longer debate with Karl Kautsky around the tactic of the mass strike, present a different picture of Luxemburg, one that emphasizes the processes of the revolution, rather than a simple set of correct doctrines, also one that takes seriously the very pedagogical tasks posed by Brenner.

     Luxemburg takes on these pedagogical questions most directly in her engagement with Lenin’s response to opportunism, in his book, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.  In response to the combined problems of reformism and the split in the Russian party, Lenin proposed a number of stringent controls over party organization.  These proposals emphasized the control of the central committee over all aspects of party life, from the naming of local committees to imposing rules of party conduct.  For Lenin, this control over the everyday life of the party would exclude the possibility of revisionism or opportunism.  The central committee would act as a disciplinary mechanism on the party as a whole, as well as a brake on forms of error arising from the subalterns of the party.  In crude terms, a successful form of organization is dependent upon the brain of the central committee controlling the body of the membership, a kind of crude organizational Cartesianism.
Discipline is the key term for distinguishing Lenin and Luxemburg’s concept of organization.  She distinguishes the two in the following terms.

      “We misuse words and we practice self-deception when we apply the same term – discipline – to such dissimilar notions as: 1. the absence of thought and will in a body with a thousand automatically moving hands and legs, and 2. the spontaneous coordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men. What is there in common between the regulated docility of an oppressed class and the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation?"

      The first model can be drawn to a polemical critique of Lenin’s concept of discipline.  Lenin argued that the factory acted as an ideal pedagogical space for the working class, molding it into a collective subject. The proletariat then takes the form of the docile, manipulated body, linking it to the Taylorist project.  This concept then legitimates the control of the central committee over the automaton worker.  But Luxemburg argued that this concept of discipline misses out on the practices and forms of disciplines that allow for an insurgent social democratic politics.  In opposition, Luxemburg argues that these formations of discipline oppose each other.  Social democratic practice is defined by a collective political consciousness, a self-directed body operating through the mode of spontaneous, in incomprehensible and terrifying to the instrumental reason it operates within.  However, this second mode of discipline begins as a potentiality within the everyday practices of the work day, or what Luxemburg calls ‘unconscious’ practice.  Luxemburg argues that the shift from the “unconscious” to the “conscious” constitutes the ‘tendency’ towards centralization.  Centralization is, in effect, the ability of the proletariat to coagulate itself into a conscious and acting body.
      "The self-discipline of Social Democracy is not merely the replacement of the authority of bourgeois rulers with the authority of a socialist central committee. The working class will acquire the sense of the new discipline, the freely assumed self-discipline of the Social Democracy, not as a result of the discipline imposed on it by the capitalist state, but by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility.”

      A social democratic transformation can’t be a simple replacement of the head of the bourgeoisie with a ‘socialist central committee.’  Instead it needs to operate through creating a new form of discipline, linked to the rejection of ‘the old habits of obedience and servility’ that define the current system.  The working class needs to acquire this through political practice.  But the benefits of that practice can’t be simply limited to the concrete gains from the success of those actions.  Action also allows for the working class to reconstitute itself, but this process is thwarted when the central committee makes all of the decisions.  Reconstitution needs to be linked to a collective decision making process, perhaps best identified anachronistically as participatory democracy.  This means that the terms, ‘organization’, ‘socialism’, and ‘discipline’ can only be defined through the terrain of the class struggle.  It turns the class struggle into a sort of laboratory, a space for creating new forms of life.

      Okay, how do we bring this back to the conversation of the university?  To do that, I want to turn briefly to a comment on the current struggles in California made by a significant ally, Rei Terada.  Terada notes,

       "Taken together, the student movements project formations that are sometimes difficult to describe using words like “class,” “society,” or “state.” That should not be assumed to be a symptom of incoherence, but absorbed as a sign of the unknowability of experience that is contemporary, experience that is not yet history. We can be glad that the situation requires the expression and discussion of differences without delimiting those discussions in advance."

      Terada correctly picks up on the fact that despite the gallons of ink spent, the movement remains undefined.  She links the movement’s ‘unknowability’ to the often indecipherable relationship to a series of past struggles, whether it’s civil rights, Situationism, or others, is inescapable.  This Babel of voices necessarily draws into the history of the public university, a history of crisis and struggle, inclusion and exclusion.  To put it bluntly, our relationship to this institution is changed by the ways we are overdetermined by the struggles of race, gender, sexuality, and class, particularly in the way that the post-war institution included and excluded populations into the new consensus.  Our entrance into this terrain of struggle is therefore always marked by this uneven terrain.  But Terada argues against dismissing the movement as incomprehensible because of its current unknowability.  Instead, unknowability points to the contingent possibility of the moment, the possibility of forms of political thought and action, gesturing towards the Novum.

     For Terada, this potential is allowed by the ‘expression and discussion of differences without delimiting those discussions in advance.’  But in order for this to occur we need to conceive of how this conversation can occur.  In order to pose this question, we need to shift from a conversation around classical Marxism and the contemporary struggle, to a late interview with Michel Foucault around the question of polemics.  He opposes this mode of communication with what he considers a genuinely ethical mode of communication.  For Foucault, polemics act as a ‘parasite figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for the truth.’  He notes that,

     "The polemicist… proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question.  On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that the struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat…. Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans unites interests or opinion, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.

      Undoubtedly, there is something immediately appealing to this formulation when in conversation with the state or the upper levels of the administration, but our most conversations as organizers and activists are not with them.  Instead, our most important conversations are with colleagues, allies, and new potential members of the movement.  To engage with them on this terrain of conversation may lead to new recruits in the war, but disallows reimagining the forms of struggles. Perhaps Rosellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis offers the best way of thinking of this figure, in the section on the bandit camp.  The chief of the encampment has found a set of armor to protect him from any possible threat of attack, but this form of armor also completely immobilizes him, allowing the mobile figure of the organizer to enter into the camp and destroy it through his willingness to make himself vulnerable to the bandits.  Polemics offers a perceived armor to the potential attacks from the other, but it destroys our mobility.  Most radical organizing is, on the contrary, defined by vulnerability.  That vulnerability can be seen historically in the violence perpetrated on organizers, but that vulnerability also occurs in the little risks that we take in the everyday conversations that are the day to day activities of organizing.

     This image gestures towards the concept of communication that Foucault desires, a “morality that concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other.”

      In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion.  They depend only on the dialogue situation.  The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given to him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on.  As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to the questioning of the other.  Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given to him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue."

     Our ability, for lack of a better term, to move forward depends on this game.  There is a tendency on the part of certain sections of the radical movement to dismiss the importance of this dialogical negotiation as ‘mere talk.’  I think that this suspicion is, in part, understandable.  After all, the primary model of conversation we are given is the kind of bourgeois synthesis defined by Habermas amongst others, and so often, those modes are used to neutralize radical activity and voices, to operate as apparatuses of capture.  But we have to recognize that we give up a lot when we accept the notion that those are the only forms of communication available.  More significantly, it’s profoundly dishonest to the actual practices that occur in social movements.  I haven’t been to an action, a demonstration, an occupation that hasn’t been anchored by often endless and lengthy meetings, and informal conversations.  If one were working in conventional Marxist terms, one could think of the event as the superstructure to the communicative base.  Perhaps, its time to take that process seriously.

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