I cannot recall how many times during discussions I’ve heard the same refrain about unity and divisiveness. It seems that whenever I chart my way into the territory of critically examining sections of the Left I am ultimately faced with accusations of being sectarian. I’m urged to focus on unity and solidarity and often treated as naive for even attempting to voice an opinion about this tactic, that strategy, or some other theory. Interestingly enough – these same groups and individuals feel that they have full authority to demean, deliberately misinterpret and criticize my positions. This is nothing new and nothing unique to radical politics, either. I also don’t want to give you the wrong impression. These people are allies. They are not enemies. We organize together, we support one another, we work together. However, this does not mean that this issue is merely personal. It has ramifications for our organizing and also for the broader Left.
I am not opposed to unity. Not in the slightest. I am opposed to pie-in-the-sky ideas informing our opinions about how we conduct ourselves, though. The idea that we can merely believe in unity and subsequently act upon it is silly. It is a dream. There are many different opinions on the Left, and while we are all united by basic core beliefs, these opinions are not simply thoughts that can be pushed aside or let alone for a different time. Many of these differing opinions involve very important aspects of our organizing efforts. Some of the greatest differences involve process – and I’m not sure if you’ve figured it out yet or not, but without a collectively agreed upon process we’re not likely going to get very far. So if we attempt to organize and have a terrible time deciding on process (especially since, in most cases, you need a process to determine the process) it’s something that needs to be seriously addressed. We can not simply ignore it and it is not divisive to address the issue.
I’ve written about the damning consequences of firmly established liberalism in the United States before, and it bears repeating here. We are infected by a liberal understanding of terms that places more stress upon the appearance of things than on their substance. Preaching unity and decrying critical analysis and internal debate on the Left has the same characteristics as those silly “coexist” bumper stickers. Brilliant concept, but there tends to be a long, arduous process between violent factionalism and beautiful harmony. The fact is that there are concrete differences between liberals, anarchists and socialists that have real world implications for how we interact, just as there are concrete differences between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Saying and thinking something isn’t the same as making it a reality.
If we really want to be united, the first step is to get over this concept that everything is tidy, easy and pleasant. Discussions need to be had, ideas need to be challenged and unfortunately (while we all wish otherwise) some feelings are going to get hurt. We’ve slowly been challenging the concept of color blindness – the idea that if we just pretend that racism doesn’t exist, it will go away. The concept ultimately stems from (mostly) white people trying to avoid having to have their feelings hurt by listening to some real talk about race in society. The same is true about multi-faith sloganeering. “Be the change…” is nice, but it’s not a revolution and part of “be[ing] the change” is doing the uncomfortable work of holding people accountable.
If we want to have real unity, we have to be unified and that unity is going to come dialectically, not linguistically. Opposing ideas need to be smashed against one another – bad ideas should be crushed with logic (not bullying) and good ideas should be accepted until further notice. It is not dogmatic to defend a position against another position and it is not dogmatic to criticize a bad position on its merits (or lack thereof). What’s dogmatic is clinging to a set of beliefs, refusing to defend them logically and accusing anyone who criticizes those beliefs of being sectarian. Most of the time, though, I’ve encountered people who don’t even hold the beliefs in question. They often confuse legitimate debate and discussion with personal, meaningless quibbling – forgetting (or perhaps being completely ignorant of) the fact that these beliefs are not just thoughts in our heads, but are the seeds of our actions.
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The Working Class As Vanguard Fighter for Democracy by V. I. Lenin
“…the Social-Democrat [Socialist]’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat”. - “Trade-Unionist Politics and Social-Democratic[Socialist] Politics: The Working Class As Vanguard Fighter for Democracy” in What Is To Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement by V. I. Lenin
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