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On Combat Liberalism [part 2]

Continuing from the last post, I'm following up on a promise made in an entry I logged two years and a month ago.  And though my audience in 2010 was barely a tenth of what is now, and it is doubtful that anyone now is going back and reading those old posts, some of recent concerns have caused me to follow up on that long delayed promise.  Indeed, I doubt anyone who read that old post cared enough about my blog to be upset that I never delivered on that promise.  Judging from the quality of my posts back then–– along with my uncreative URL and blog name I'm still stuck with, as well as that hideous old format I kept up until the end of 2011––apparently I didn't care enough about my blog either.  (The message in all of this is please don't waste your time reading through the posts of 2009 and early 2010.)

Before proceeding to the other examples of liberal behaviour provided by Mao, however, I have decided that, after reading through my last post, it might be worthwhile to make some general comments about the meaning and intent behind Combat Liberalism.  First of all, I want to examine the organizational context of the piece.  Secondly, I want to discuss its overall importance when compared to other left-wing approaches to personal behaviour.

As should be clear from a cursory reading of Combat Liberalism, the piece is intended for people working together in revolutionary organizations.  Outside of these organizations, after all, we are generally programmed according to liberal ideology: since birth we are socialized to be selfish little individuals because this manner of being-in-the-world is advantageous to capitalism where people are individuated to be separate, placed against each other, and competitive.  Our behaviour within a revolutionary organization, however, is meant to be different.  If we are intending to overthrow the capitalism and its law of value, then we also have to overthrow the social relations that allow capitalism to function.  One of the great insights of the Chinese Revolution under Mao was that capitalist ideology lingers––the way we have been socialized and the ideas that were the most popular before a socialist revolution do not suddenly disappear and, in fact, become points through which capitalism can be restored.  So if we wish to be in an organization that is fighting for communism, and will continue pushing for communism throughout the period of socialism, then we have to fight the capitalist ideology within ourselves, cease being selfish individuals, and learn how to serve the people.  Simply put: we have to learn how to become the apparitions of the type of people who would exist beyond capitalism.  Obviously, until capitalism dies (if it ever dies), we cannot truly be the kind of human who would be born in a truly communist society, but at the very least we can try to predict that type of human through our behaviour.

None of this is to claim, however, that we should ignore this piece if we are not part of a revolutionary party honestly engaged in the pursuit of communism.  Indeed, even if we are part of other leftist organizations, or just circulating through the general left population, we can still learn from Combat Liberalism because, if we truly are interested in serving the people, we need to start thinking about how we can be self-critical.  But my point here is to point out how it might be extremely difficult to combat this sort of liberal behaviour by ourselves, in organizations disinterested in a fostering self-criticism, since trying to develop this sort of behaviour by ourselves is precisely the sort of liberalism the piece is critiquing.  If we imagine we can purely serve the people alone, can be perfect revolutionaries as individuals and not as a collective, then we are missing the point.  Healthy criticism and self-criticism is really only possible within a collective that has adopted the revolutionary attitude of serving the people. We need others to criticize our ideas, we need to be held to account, and none of the behaviours are by themselves cardinal sins since we will all be guilty of some or all of them during the course of our lives.  It is good to have others point out our errors, just as it good for us to point out the errors in our comrades, as long as this exchange of criticism is intended to bring us closer together as comrades.

Which brings me to my next overall point: the criticism/self-criticism context of Combat Liberalism is not at all like what passes for "revolutionary" criticism amongst the broader and loose-knit activist left.  Take, for example, so-called "anti-oppression training" that has become popular in leftist circles over the past decade and a half.  Due to oppressive behaviour in leftist spaces, the solution has been this sort of training and there are even anti-oppression "experts" who are brought into certain left-wing spaces to teach us about anti-oppression.  I have attended several anti-oppression sessions, and have read the general anti-oppression literature, and find that this is approach, though well-intentioned, is a crude reflection of the politics represented in texts such as Combat Liberalism.

For one thing, anti-oppression training, by spending its time examining privilege in a disparate and often non-materialist manner, fails to offer any solution other than "these people are privileged so they should be mindful of their privilege."  Yes, this is correct: those of us who are white and male and heterosexual and able-bodied and economically well-off should be aware that we occupy privileged social positions.  But aside from pointing this out, this type of training fails to offer any solutions to this problem other than some "we'll all get along if the privileged folks amongst us realize they're privileged."  Nor is there any attempt, aside from cosmetic suggestions, to explain how we can achieve revolutionary solidarity––to explain why we should be critiquing oppression in the first place aside from the fact that it is "bad".  How does one deal with mistakes in this context, or how does one even deal with the possibility that those in underprivileged positions might also be assholes to their comrades because, though their lack of privilege should be acknowledged, they are also covered in the ideological filth of capitalist society and probably trained from birth, like everyone else, to be selfish little individuals?

The lack of a clear political line in the anti-oppression approach means a lack of revolutionary pedagogy.  Comrades who come from privileged positions should be held to account, but this accounting should be done in such a way that there is education, reconciliation, and increased revolutionary solidarity.  Unfortunately, anti-oppression politics tends to produce a self-righteous individuality amongst those "in the know" that is liberal and ultimately retrograde.  The politics expressed in Combat Liberalism, however, goes so much further.

So back to the examples…

Example #6: "to hear incorrect views without rebutting them and even to hear counter-revolutionary remarks without reporting them, but instead to take them calmly as if nothing happened."

When I was just finished with anarchism and moving into the marxist world through the autonomist door, I definitely found this example of liberal behaviour discomfiting.  Indeed, when I first read Combat Liberalism I laughed aloud at this example, along with the rest of my petty-bourgeois friends, because of the statement about "reporting" incorrect views to the party.  Obviously (and this might be the ghost of my past anarchist self haunting the nether-regions of my mind), we need to be careful to avoid the type of organizational paranoia where everyone is reporting on each other for the most asinine reasons––this does more harm than good––but at the same time we cannot dismiss the statement about "reporting" out of some knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism.

Since many of my readers will be familiar with the example of trade union organizing, which is structured but not revolutionary, we should look at this: suppose we have a friend who is on the Bargaining Team during a round of Bargaining, who tells us that they're going to cut a back-door deal with the employer, and instead of bringing this up at an Executive or General Membership Meeting we just, because we want to protect our friendship, say nothing.  The end result is that larger solidarity is undermined because the strength of our organization is disrupted by this betrayal.

Why is it that we have no problem engaging in the second type of liberalism––where we think it is okay to gossip about this sort of problematic behaviour outside of organizational spaces––but have a problem with bringing up this behaviour to the organization at large?  Why does unprincipled gossip not count as "reporting", even though it is a private reporting to others in spaces outside of the organization to make us feel good about ourselves?  These are serious questions we need to address.

The thing is, as frightening as it might be for us to accept, the moment we commit ourselves to a revolutionary organization, if we are to cease being selfish individuals then we need to start putting the collective will and safety of this organization before our own desires.  This does not mean we shouldn't critique this organization, and always be involved in a collective process of criticism, but it does mean that we need to worry about "counter-revolutionary remarks" that might harm the organization.  Do we stay silent when someone tells us that they plan to give information to the police?  Most of us would answer no but we still have this hang-up over "reporting."

On the whole, however, the "reporting" part of this example is only a secondary consideration, an extreme case.  The general point is about how we often fail to confront incorrect views and, rather, pretend that we didn't hear them.  Again, falling back into the second type of liberalism, we would rather gossip.  But how are the people making these statements going to be held to account––going to develop as comrades and be given the chance to learn––if they aren't confronted, and confronted in a principled manner?  And how are we going to learn if we don't challenge those views that we might imagine are incorrect only to discover that we are the ones with incorrect views in the process of challenging?  For we also could be wrong, and we'll never discover our wrongness if we stay silent.

Example #7: "to be among the masses and fail to conduct propaganda and agitation or speak at meetings or conduct investigations and inquiries among them, and instead to be indifferent to them and show no concern for their well-being, forgetting that one is a Communist and behaving as if one were an ordinary non-Communist."

Okay, we're all guilty of this one.  This is because, especially at the centres of capitalism, we're generally scared of people outside of the safe circles of leftist agitation––universities, trade unions, rallies, etc.  For over a year I've been trying to train myself to conduct agitation and propaganda and have found this extremely difficult, even though it is performed as part of a group.  It is difficult to break from the belief that "the masses aren't ready" or "the masses hate us"––that we are also not a part of these masses, that we owe it to them to reveal ourselves rather than hiding in leftist comfort zones.  This is a way to show disdain for the people, to pretend that their concerns don't matter, and that if they were just "smart enough" they would come join us in the utopian world of the already converted left.

And yet there are those who are proudly guilty of this type of liberalism.  Theories of spontaneity that hinge on the axiom that the overall working classes will figure out their politics and structures without any revolutionary agitation, without any attempt to produce a co-ordinated party of the advanced guard, when they are ready and in their own time––as if there is only one, homogenous working-class with a perfect revolutionary essence that is simply biding its time and preparing for that long-prophesied historical moment––are paradigmatic of this type of liberalism.  These theories actually speak to an unwillingness and fear to engage with people in a revolutionary manner, to represent ourselves as communists… Those spouting these theories would rather avoid the people they claim to be supporting, going so far as to argue that it is "elitist" to speak to them openly as a communist in the first place.

Well, yes, it can be elitist to interrogate the average proletariat as a communist––we all know more than one condescending communist asshole (who should be rightly convicted as another type of liberal)––but it is also elitist to ignore the people who are not members of the "initiated left", act as if communism is some invisible college, and pretend we aren't communists at community meetings, street discussions, etc.  This practice is generally known as blanquism and it should be relegated to the dung-heaps of history where it belongs.

Example #8: "to see someone harming the interests of the masses and yet not feel indignant, or dissuade or stop him or reason with him, but to allow him to continue."

This type of liberal behaviour is obviously wrong, and I'm certain that all of my readers will agree that it is wrong.  But I'm also certain that most of us can name at least one time where we've failed in this area.  Feeling "indignant" is one thing, but Mao ends the example by pointing out that we are also guilty of this liberal behaviour when we allow this harming to continue.

We really are good at talking to death how we would defend the masses, or die in the revolution, but we really aren't so good when it comes to day-to-day interventions.  Did we say anything when that group of frat boys were harassing that homeless person on the subway in the middle of the night?  Or the liberal racists in the streetcar attacking some person of colour who was trying to bring their baby unto the transit for free?  Indeed, this type of intervention might require some sort of party authority that is solely lacking at the centres of capitalism, but we still need to criticize ourselves for not saying anything.  It is easy to pretend that we will courageously defend a revolution that does not yet exist, but we still find it difficult to act in a manner that puts the needs of the masses before the needs of the self.

[As it turns out, due to the general comments at the beginning of this part of what was meant to be a two part series, this is going to take one more post to complete.  This is a good thing because it saves me from trying to figure out what to post on next.  Thus, in the next post, after more general comments, I will conclude this series.]