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"More Radical Than Thou"

Due to the upcoming provincial elections in Ontario, I have again found myself reflecting on something that has become a common theme, either explicitly or implicitly, of this blog in the past few months: the default social democratic and/or opportunist consciousness of the self-proclaimed left in Canada and the United States.  Generally, I have been concerned with that gap between theory and practice where on one hand, anti-capitalists will proclaim that capitalism must be superseded but, on the other hand, will focus most of their energy in building social democratic coalitions and organizations.  And though I have tried to qualify my critique by pointing out that leftists should be prepared to support initiatives that defend social democratic rights, but must do so in a principled manner, I have still found that even this nuanced perspective is met with hostility by self-proclaimed anti-capitalists who should know better.

In this context of excavating the opportunistic consciousness that seems pre-programmed amongst large sectors of the North American left (and please note that I also hold myself guilty of often possessing this consciousness), I have also encountered two troubling ideological trends.  The first is the tendency to attack any principled anti-capitalist critique of practice as "sectarian" and/or "dogmatic": this tendency speaks, ironically, to an unquestioned dogmatism (that I briefly described here); it also conflates the categories of sectarianism and political commitment, a category mistake that the revolutionaries of yesterday––those committed communists who coined the concept of leftwing sectarianism––rarely made.  The second trend, of which today's post is concerned, is the tendency to proclaim the most radical position in speech and theory, and to use this theoretical position to critique other progressive organizations and initiatives, but to continue to practice the same social democratic approach to activism when it comes to actual practice.

There are multiple groups and activists who have nothing but criticism and scorn to expend on other groups and activists.  A "more radical than thou" discourse has emerged amongst the left that is self-righteous and often terribly destructive to organizing.  A group or individual will write a devastating critique of another group or coalition, mobilizing all the proper radical language of feminism, anti-racism, etc., thus disparaging organizational activities that aren't up to par with some Platonic notion of an advanced revolutionary consciousness.

I am not arguing that feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, etc., critiques should not be made––if that was the case, then this post would be in contradiction with the majority of the blog––but rather that sometimes the way in which this language is often used: a) demonstrates a self-righteous dismissal of all activism; b) ultimately represents political hypocrisy.  After all, I think that a principled political position must be willing to question itself, to confront the problems in the movement, and to grow through a process of ideological intervention alongside radical practice.  But just as dogmato-revisionist groups spend all their time working on correct slogans and hoping that the "stupid masses" will just figure things out and join them, being principled can often lead to a political puritanism that––even amongst the supposedly non-dogmatic left––leads to another type of sectarianism and political paralysis.

To argue that a group or action is racist/sexist/homophobic is obviously necessary, but there seems to be a tendency to seek out these problematics in other groups.  This is what I meant when I said this trend often demonstrates a self-righteous dismissal of all activism: some individuals making these critiques occupy positions of academic privilege, imagine that they are (in the words of a close comrade) "pure souls" who are themselves above criticism, and refuse to really involve themselves in organizing because they are convinced ahead of time that every group is problematic.  Perhaps they will involve themselves in organizations with similar "pure souls", working very hard to explain why their group is superior to others because of their advanced understanding of anti-oppression politics and equity.  (Or perhaps they will just be like me, writing grumpity blog posts about their pet-peeves.)

The problem with this position is not only that it demonstrates a self-awareness––an inability to accept that there are no "pure souls" and everyone in this society is tainted by capitalist ideology––but that the desire for a perfect political organization can never be satisfied.  Every group, no matter how progressive, will have its problems: there are no pure organizations and if you go looking for problems in theory and practice you will always find them.  Again, we should be looking for these problems just as we should be willing to dismiss those groups and individuals whose guiding politics are extremely problematic.  The point, however, is that if you begin from a position that you know better than everyone else, then you will always find ways, no matter how tiny or forced, to dismiss every single leftist individual and group in your social context.  You will even be able to dismiss groups whose members you have never met, whose ideological approach or actions you barely comprehend, simply because you have decided ahead of time that they must be corrupt.

More importantly, however, is the larger political hypocrisy represented by the trend of self-righteous dismissal.  In my social context, the majority of the individuals and organizations that have used radical equity language to critique every group and individual except for themselves are people who, in practice (if they are involved in organizing), are actually committed to social democratic politics.  It is a laughable contradiction to claim that you are more radical than everyone else when, at the end of the day, your entire political practice (again, if you are engaged in practice) amounts to reformism.  Pointing out everyone else's supposed and unquestioned racism and then spending all your time mobilizing around NGOs, or fighting for the capitalist-colonialist state to protect certain "rights", is extremely hypocritical––especially if you are also the type of uber-critical activist who likes to remind people about the racism of multiculturalism.  This is not to say that such reform work should not be supported (again recall the qualification mentioned at the beginning of today's post), but that it is rather odd that the "more radical than thou" crowd, who has no problem pointing out the problematic limitations of everyone else, embraces in practice the largest political limitations.

To argue that every other group is limited by perceived equity problems while pursuing ONLY an opportunistic politics that in practice supports the very context of oppression you ascribe to everyone else is hypocritical.  And it is especially hypocritical when, while pursuing these opportunistic politics, you bad-mouth principled revolutionary groups by saying things like: "I would never join that group, even if it talks more about revolution than my group, because Marx was a white man."  It is all fine and good to critique potential eurocentrism in Marx and marxisms, but there is a serious problem in declaring a group suspect because of its communism––and arguing that you would never join such a group because you also suspect its communism will be oppressive––when your entire political practice consists in doing support work for capitalism.

I also find it rather troubling when this "more radical than thou" tendency (that in practice is often nothing more than reformism veiled in radical language) uses revolutionary language for social democratic demands.  Using the language of "decolonization" to simply describe a desire to make colonial institutions be nicer to colonized and racialized people is an insult to anticolonial politics.  You are not "decolonizing" an institution that is a colonial institution simply because you are making equity concerns part of its policy.  Once again (because I know there is a tendency to misunderstand what I write on this blog), I want to qualify that I am not opposed to the practice of making equity concerns part of institutional policy; I am opposed to reformist demands being misrepresented as revolutionary––especially by people who like to represent themselves as more revolutionary than everyone else but who seem to be committed in practice only to a reformist politics. [For example, saying "decolonize wallstreet" when you mean overthrowing the market is a proper use of the term decolonization; saying "decolonize the city council" when you mean you want equitable representation amongst city councillors is definitely not.]

Since I have always argued for the necessity of maintaining principled politics within progressive spaces, and have rejected Blanquism as politically useful, I know this post raises an interesting question: how do we openly maintain a principled political commitment (that will also be committed to the equity concerns mentioned above) without being self-righteous––how do we critique the practices of other individuals and groups without being holier-than-thou?  We seem to be caught between two extremes, both of which result in political paralysis: on the one hand, there are those who refuse to struggle ideologically, often defaulting upon social democracy, because they feel the masses "aren't ready" to engage with radical politics; on the other hand, there are those who deliver nothing but critical scorn and are always seek to be disappointed in the politics of the masses.  Both positions, I would suggest, represent a condescending and patronizing attitude towards other people; in both cases people are perceived as stupid and incapable of learning.

Still, seeking a nuanced position between these two positions is extremely difficult and I don't think I have the answers.  I would argue, obviously, for a mass-line approach of unity-criticism-unity where we must be principled but are principled because politics is in command: not the politics of social democracy, but a commanding revolutionary politics.  Will this mean that some groups and individuals will need to be held to be severely critiqued?  Definitely: it is always important, as Mao advocated, to understand our friends and enemies.  And if I didn't believe that this was the case, I wouldn't be writing half of the things I write or supporting half of the blogs I support on my blogroll (many of which make excellent interior left criticisms).  But the terrain of critique changes, and the point of leftwing critique is the principle of revolutionary unity not criticism simply for criticism's sake.  Moreover, this criticism applies to even those of us making the critique in the first place––and we should always be asking questions about our own practice, whether our criticism is about revolutionary unity or about political paralysis.

We should never shunt aside principles just for the sake of growing––and I have always argued that a communism for the 21st century must have an understanding of class struggle that comprehends colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, abelism, etc.––but we also won't grow if our principles are insular and we aren't willing to openly agitate for these principles amongst people who, though not perfect, may actually want to engage with revolutionary ideas they have never had the chance to encounter.  Nor will the radical politics we preach flourish if, despite all our talk of decolonization and transfeminism, our actual and concrete political engagement is nothing more than an academic exercise or abstract notions wallpapered over reformist activities for a system upon which all oppression is contingent.