Saturday, December 25, 2010

Polemics and Discussion: A Sort of Response to Michael Wood

This is the first of the articles that I wrote for the Arise! Journal.  It was written in response to a polemic written by an unrelated former anarchist, turned Marxist-Leninist.  The influence of Foucault is obvious, and folks who have read some of the other material on the blog will probably recognize continued themes and concepts.  There has been a thread in my writing that has been focused in conceptualizing a radical form of pluralism.  I'm not sure if that has been successful or not, but it's been a constant issue.  To be honest, there are some formal issues with the article.  Most notably, I probably wouldn't have brought in so much of Foucault's text, or at least offer more context for the material.  In any case, here is the article.

At the beginning of Michael’s article he states that he was initially interested in the issue of what he calls “left sectarianism” before he decided discussing the “role of white activists in anti-racist struggles.”  Michael argues that because of recent events, these issues have become paramount.  No doubt they are.  But I am going to return to his initial question as a form of a response.  It may be that it is only in examining the questions of “left sectarianism” that we can begin to address the questions that Michael seems to be interested in.
            To be completely honest, I am not so much interested in dealing with “left sectarianism” so much as I am interested in dealing with the inevitable response of “anti-sectarianism”.  This call for a form of “anti-sectarian” politics is inevitable for all parties involved, from reformists, to Marxist-Leninists, and often even anarchists.  At the same time, the individual that is acting as the “sectarian” is always the other, whether that is a member of a different Marxist-Leninist sect, or someone who believes in a different philosophy.  This is the question I want to investigate, how does a call for an end of fighting become another weapon within that fighting.
Before we try to explain this phenomenon directly, we need to take a bit of a detour.  There is an interesting interview with Michel Foucault, in which he is asked about his aversion to polemics, and he responds,  “I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them.  It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics.  If I open a book and see the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism,” I shut it again right away.  That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way.  I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for the truth and the relation to the other.”[1]
            In this section of Foucault’s response, two concepts come up, the idea of discussions and the idea of polemics.  This notion of polemics is defined in the following way, “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 struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat.  For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as an interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning.”[2]
            This creates a specific set of political practices.  “Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment that this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.”[3] These alliances are implicitly built on a framework that is perceived to be already there.  In effect, this type of alliance is built upon a powerful conception of teleology, and one that does not allow for a great deal of negotiation.  The polemicist is the one who can stand up and say that, “I have the way” and just as significantly, those who question this path need to be crushed.  The fact is that the logical path of polemicist is a politics of control, because after all, they do know better.[4]
            Let’s move back to the issue of “anti-sectarianism” and see how it relates to polemics.  Now what does this term “anti-sectarianism” mean?  It’s one that I have heard bandied about quite a bit, primarily within Marxist-Leninist circles.  It has a sort of circular function within the various circles engaged in that type of politic.  Every section looks out and sees a left sectarian in the form of their opponents.
            When the term “anti-sectarianism” comes up, I imagine to men brawling on the streets, I mean really going at, gouging at each others' eyes, kicking, using whatever weapons they can reach for.  At the same time, each man is yelling at the other one, “We must cooperate!  This conflict is futile!  We must put our differences aside to fight the common enemy!”  And yet they continue to fight.
            This may seem like a bizarre, even contradictory situation, until one realizes that the words that the two men are engaging in are just another weapon that have available to them.  They are engaging in polemics.  When Marxist-Leninists scream the same type of slogans, they’re doing the same thing, using a weapon to dominate the others, because the cooperation that they want is in fact no cooperation at all.
            It’s at this point that Michael’s article becomes relevant.  One can argue that the issues are apples and oranges since Michael ostensibly doesn’t deal with the issue of “anti-sectarianism”, but rather the issue of white organizers dealing with issues of people of color.  In making an attempt to examine this issue, Michael creates a narrative of anti-racism.  At the moments of progress, we find a proper Marxist-Leninist analysis occurring, when there are failures, there was a lack of understanding, and frequently a betrayal[5] of this understanding.  So we are faced with an opinion that change can only occur through a specific form of Marxist-Leninist politics.
            In doing this, Michael makes a strong polemical attack against the Communist Party of the United States.  Now an interesting piece could be written about the CPUSA and the ways that it approached race within different periods of its history.  It would be a history of contingencies, a domination of the Soviet Union’s interests over the interests over the interests of the indigenous party, ambitions, alliances, and yes, even betrayals, but we don’t get that from Michael’s narrative.  Instead we are given an easily digestible narrative that presents a polemic of a shining path forward that has been constantly betrayed.
            The frustrating thing is that Michael asks an interesting question, one that is certainly not a new one, but still an interesting dilemma nonetheless.  The simple fact is that activism has had a propensity to follow that same exclusionary logic of the rest of the country, separate and unequal.  The problem is that this dilemma simply cannot be untangled within a polemic.  Michael puts up a question, what is the role of white activists when dealing with issues that touch upon people of color, but it is clear that the focus of his article is in support of a particular form of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
            In fact the issue of white activists working with people of color isn’t really dealt with at all in any substance.  Michael makes a few maneuvers to state that proper activists should act with “principle”, but that’s about all.  Instead, I think that we need to look at this question within what Foucault referred to the “relation to the other.”  
            Audre Lorde makes an extremely cogent comment about this issue, “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.  As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate.  But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.  As a result those differences have been misnamed and misused in the name of separation and confusion.”[6]
            Lorde’s comments present us the problem that Michael’s article never really wants to address.  After all, the attempt to negotiate difference within the framework of equality puts one into rather murky waters.  It’s very possible that in the attempt to do this, he could possibly say something that would take him from his position as the polemicist judge and place him in the position of fallibility like the rest of us.  After all, Lorde is stating rather explicitly that we do not have a way of negotiating difference in front of us, and by implication, it is something that we need to create.  In effect, we must abandon the safety of any teleology, whether that is the shining path forward of Marxist-Leninism or the golden road backwards of primitivism.
            In effect we need to return to Foucault’s second concept to pull us out of this bind.  In his discussion of polemics and discussion, he privileges discussion.  He defines this as a “serious play of questions and answers”, and one in which “the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion.”  He goes on to point out that “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 what he said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue 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 take pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue.”[7]
            This form of communication that Foucault entitles “discussion” is perhaps the way out of the dilemma that Lorde puts in front of us.  It creates a forum for difference to be negotiated in a manner that neither demands assimilation nor destruction of the other.  There is nothing assumed within this relationship.  If a project or telos comes out of it, it will have been created within the logic of the relationship and not beforehand, and more significantly, it will be subject to constant revision within that relationship.
            To return this question to the issue of white activists working with people of color, it seems that the primarily white activist community makes far too many assumptions when it makes contact with communities of color.  These assumptions take a number of forms, ranging from making assumptions on issues and tactics, to making assumptions by not recognizing the complexities and antagonisms that exist within those communities.  Additionally, those activists don't recognize the structures of privilege that there activism is built upon.  It’s not productive to enter into these discussions in a state of abjection, at the same time; neither can we enter under the premise that we have the answers to everything.
            I know that there is nothing contained within that last paragraph that hasn’t been said a hundred thousand times before, and yet, for the most part it is ignored.  The question of why that is true could probably fill a book, but the one thing that I want to return to is the absence of real discussion.  Our primary modes of communication with the other, whether that other is someone who disagrees with us ideologically or simply not an activist, is one of polemics.  We chant at demos, ask choreographed questions at forums, our publications are painfully predictable in content and form, etc.  In short, the responses that we give to questions of difference are really not all that far off from the ones that Audre Lorde describes, we ignore it, and if we can’t do that, we try to assimilate to it if it seems powerful, and destroy it if it seems weak. 
There is nothing simple contained within this model.  It is not just a matter of behaving in a “principled” manner, but changing a whole series of entrenched informal structures in the way that we communicate with each other.  It’s hardly hip or popular right now, but late second wave, and early third wave feminism has given a great deal of thought to the issues of communication and difference, and a return to those discussions and practices might allow for new forms of community to arise.      

[1] Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations” in Foucault, Michel, Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth (New York: The New Press, 1997), 111.
[2] Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations”, 112.
[3] ibid., 112.
[4]I would argue that there is an interesting parallel between the concept of polemics that Foucault describes as a “parasite” to discussion in the way that Antonio Negri points out the way that constituted power (potere) acts in relation to constituent power (potenzas).  In fact, I would argue that there is not just an analogy between the two, but a homology.  (See Negri, Antonio, Insurgencies  and Negri, Antonio and Hardt, Michael, Empire)
[5] ironically, by invoking the tradition of “betrayal”, Michael is engaging in the primary mistake that dogmatic Trotskyists make by ignoring structural problems, for individual faults, and villainy
[6] in Sandoval, Chela, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 117.
[7] Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations”, 111.

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