vrijdag 1 september 2006

Random reading matters, no. 1.

A few, somewhat longer, articles on the internet struck me as interesting enough to draw my reader's attention to them. Here we go...

Left wing activists like me (and like part of my readership) will recognise a whole lot in "
What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? Ritual and Engagement", written by Matthew Smucker, and published on Znet. He distinguishes different kinds of behaviour of radical leftist, in order to make them (i.e. us...) more aware of the pitfalls that they may bring.

For instance, why do we shout certain slogans on demonstrations? Is it to influence the people around us, outside the ranks of the demonstration itself. Do we mean to shift their opinion in the direction we would like? Or is it just to comfort ourselves, to make us feel better?
"Why do we chant? Why do we carry signs? Why do we march? Is it primarily communicative or expressive? Meaning, are we trying to commnicate something to someone, or are we merely expressing ourselves? If the former, then we should concern ourselves primarily with the meaning others will take from what we say and how we say it, strategizing oaround what methods, mediums and messages will
most likely persuade our target audiences. if the latter, then our protest may serve more therapeutic than instrumental purposes."
Making ourselves feel better, or changing people's ideas? Both may be worthwhile - but they are not the same thing.

To keep our spirits high, we as radicals have our own rituals, our own collectieve patterns of behaviour. Nothing wrong with that! But the ritual is directed at the people who already belong to a left wing movemont - not to the people we would like to convince: "collective ritual expresses an ideal among people who already believe, long for and/ or live it; strategic engagement aims to meet everyoine else where they are. We can create opur own spaces where we speak our internal language, but we must not lose our ability to speak the ability to speak the language of the people who are around us." And, I would add, the two languages better be not too far apart...

A related matter concerns the tendency of radicals to seperate themselves off from other people by behaving like what Smuckers calls "the righeous few", the small number of people who think themselves so enlightened and radical and all, while the rest of humanity is still in the dark, in the grip of reactionary ideas, eager slaves of the system. This attitude is, to say the least, not very a fruitful way to communicate with wider groups of people. No one likes to be disdained or looked down upon.

This attitude of "the righteous few" works as follows. We, leftists, organize an action. We see that people outside our circles do not support us. So, we assume that, just becuase they do nt actively oppose the powers that be and their values, they mus accept those official valus hook, line and sinker. But people may very well doubt thes official values without actively opposing them. people may have all kind of reasons for not supporting leftist actions: they may distrust us because of the way we look, the way we talk. people might just not understand us, because we speak in an unintelligible jargon. In other words: maybe there is nothing wrong with our potential audience. Maybe there is something wrong with ourselves. The posture of "the righteous few" blinds us for that possibility; it shows arrogance towards our potential allies, and it hurts our own cause.

Smucker is to be applauded to draw attention to all this. His own experience and refenence points seem to lie in anarchist-oriented movements. But comparable counterproductive attitudes and confusions should be very familiar for people operating from other inspirations and traditions, for instance, for Trotskyists like me. There are lessons to be learned for all of us.

MR Webzine has an "
Interview with Paul le Blanc" on August 28, and the result is fascinating. Le Blanc is a Marxist scholar, writing from a Trotskyist perspective. He is the author of a number of books. His "Lenin and the Revolutionary Party" is, in my opinion, a masterpiece: a clear explanation of lthe way Lenin's organisational concepts developend in close connection with his political principles, against the background of the class struggle in Russia and beyond.

Now, he has written anothe book: "Marx, Lenin and therRevolutionary experience". The interview is obviously related to the publication of that book. Michael Yates, editor of Monthly Review (the 'mother country' of MR Webzine) is the interviewer.

Le Blanc tells of the influence that the ideas of Marx and Lenin had on all kinds of radical movements in the United States. Not just in the labour movement, the explosive rise of the trade unions in the 1930s, but also in the beginnings of the Civil Right s movement, the struggle aigainst racism, activist and leoders experienced that influence. Le Blanc gives interesting examples of that submerged connection.

His attidude to non- Marxist radical traditions is very open, and refreshingly so. here is what he say about religion in politics:
"It is certainly the case that organised religion incklined very much in the direction of being pillars of a very reactionary status quo in the specific national cultures wich Marx and Lenin experienced. Such "religiosity" is certainly in absolute contradiction to the orientation of Marx and Lenin, and they bluntly said so.

On the other hand, both Marx and Lenin expressed respect for religious revoplutionaries who were prepared to challenge the powers-that-be and to help mobilize the poor, the exploited and the oppressed in struggles for social justice. Secular revoplutionaries certainly have more in commonwith religious evolutionaries that with secular opponents of religion."
In times when even parts of the left seem drwan to the idea that the defence of secularims against "religous obscurantism" (usually connected to "the threat of Islam" or the like), Le Blanc's attidude is even more valuable and praiseworthy.

His attududes to other traditions of the left is nuanced. He sees how distorted the Communist tradition is because of it's Stalinism. He sees how the same applies to Maoism. But he recognises that hat people active in these movements were, and otheen are, committed fighters to whom critical respect is due. Blanc refuses to throw babies out with the dirty bathwater, even thoufg his evaluation of these two traditions strikes me as e bit too positive.

Le Blanc takes a similarly nuanced approach towards anarchism. Some aspects of it he sees in a very positive light: "
For a young activist today to become an anarchist today is - in some ways to accept a vibrantly "new" stance" that clearly distances him from "old" and seemingly discredited elements of the Marxist-oriented Left (whether Social-Democratic, Communist, Trotskyist, or Maoist).

This can have a positive impact, I think, by helping to create an activist space for a rising layer of youthful radicals similar to what the new left represented. Also, the actual anarchist tradition historically contains a rich accumulation of insights, concepts and ideas that can have a valuable impact."

He mentions the anarchist-oriented workers' movement of the 1880s im the US as a positive example, wit good reason, I think. But he also recognises the narrow, sectarion dimensions anarchism sometimes can have: "One of the worst examples occured in Genoa a few years back, when the irresponsible utilisation of violent tactics by a militant minority did serious damage to the work of a broader international global justice coalition. That hardly defines the practice of all today's anarchists, but it certainly represents a problem."

Near the end, Le Blanc summarises the central relevant ideas of Marx and Lenin: "Capitalism making socialims possible and necessary, the centrality of the working class and working-class democracy in replacing capitalism with socialism; the importance of internationalism; and the necessity of organisation." He then goes ont to explain these ideas somewhat more, in what is in effect a concise summary of what Marxism is about.

All this hardly does justice to the whole interview, rich in insights as it is. Very inspiring reading matter - as I expect the book to be, even more so.

(I intend to write pieces like this, onder the title "Random reading notes", every Friday, as I used to do on my old weblog. However, from now on, as in this case, I will generally write them in English).

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