Demands that we just shut up: Why debate important matters?

"We can’t train communists in an invented greenhouse. You can declare (in a small bubble) that certain ideas are wrong, and don’t deserve discussion. But the moment communists leave that bubble they need to be prepared to confront and answer those ideas (which are quite influential broadly in society).

"How do you prepare radicals to argue for our ideas? By declaring them obviously true? By refusing to debate opposing ideas? No.

"We also can't build alliances from behind high self-righteous walls.

"The only way to train and prepare people to (themselves) present our arguments, and understand the views of others, is to go through these things in depth — and to draw many people into such debates."

by Mike Ely


In some ways, this is an odd discussion, but a necessary one.

Mark (who disagrees with me on many points) wrote:

"Mike’s contribution on the need for debate and discussion in the communist movement is one of the best things to come out of this thread. It's actually this problem which has been holding back the development of a mass movement, the development of thinking cadre who are able to operate outside of the 'communist bubble' so to speak, and can actually engage with these debates amongst the masses, where these ideas are held by millions of people.

"The idea that we can build a mass communist movement without debate all these issues is not a perspective which is actually engaged with reality. A movement of millions will be a hive of debate and activity, or it will not be a real movement. We need to develop forms of organisation which can contain debate and differences without the sectarian fracturing which has left our movement small and divided, and develop ways of debate whereby people seek to use debate to come to the truth of the matter, not simply as a way to impose their view, and cadre capable of carrying out these debates amongst themselves and in the wider movement. If we can’t do that then there will be no progress.

Encouraged by this comment, let me share the reason Kasama posts essays we don't agree with, and that we then together debate those views.


What is worth our time?

Emcee8 writes (somewhat uncharitably):

“I don’t know why you would waste your time with hacks like Pham Binh.”

TellNoLies responds (and his whole response is worth reading): is worth spending time with. We have found his arguments and views worth spending time with.


The issue is finding forms and occasions to dig into issues that are important for clarification and revolutionary regroupment. The point is to learn from many different people by studying their views.

Don't we have much to learn by understand from the religious left and from thoughtful anarchists? Didn't we just celebrate the life of the distinctly non-revolutionary journalist Alex Cockburn -- with many of us explaining how we learned from his work and were inspired by him. Won't engaging other (and opposing) views help communists enrich their own understandings?

A royal road means a broad and maintained and easy highway.

Pham has gathered (in one place) a set of arguments for supporting U.S. military attacks in the Middle East. These are some dominant narratives of US. politics, recrafted for a left audience. And there is value in taking them on — in depth and with substance -- especially because the war machinery is bubble around us (talking about Syria, but targeting Iran).

This is about politics, ideas, analysis and different responses to major choices in the world. Where do we stand? How do we respond? What do we value? What do we reject?

I think all beliefs should be contested and vetted in an ongoing way. Including all our own most cherished communist views. Not because they are all flawed or disposable — but because that is the method by which those  understandings will be developed (and because some of our sacred cows will prove exhausted over time).

We will debate our core beliefs over and over. We will debate them among the people, and we will debate them among the ranks of revolutionaries. And this is objective -- we don't have a choice. We might as well get good at it.

The verdicts on all these things are not in among the broad ranks of progressive people– many of whom are as deeply confused as Pham Binh about whether the killers of the Pentagon can play a positive role in world events. And I suspect that a great many communists could benefit from studying a detailed debate on these things — in order to craft their own arguments in the discussions they are constantly involved in.

Our debates carve space within a society under hegemony of the bourgeoisie

We operate in a world where the ruling classes promote a sophisticated flood of argumentation. This has an impact both on the people broadly and also on the left. And it has this impact independent of our desire. We can’t just rule this out of order, we have to deal with it and deal with it over and over.

When I started as a revolutionary journalist in the early 1980s my first serious essay was over exactly the same issue Pham Binh raises. In the world at that time, there were very complex events roiling around us. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, while the CIA covertly armed a resistance movement among that country’s people. There were uprisings of Polish workers in the Solidarity movement. Guerrilla movements that we all had respected (and politically supported) in the 1970s were (in some cases) becoming proxy forces of one imperialist block or another. And so on. And so (inevitably) there were important discussions (and polemics) to be had, over how to view these things (and over how to press for revolutionary politics in these contexts).

Pham is right about one thing: If our position is correct, it can’t just make sense at some level of “general principle” — but that principle must correspond with real living contradictions in the real world. (Mao said, correctly, that “the general resides in the particular.” Or as it was said elsewhere: (with science, history, and facts) to confront all kinds of widely held views (including some with influence among communists!)

What is the alternative: We could sit alone in a small subcultural sandboxes, declaring (to ourselves) how right we are.

And who cares about that?

Dig in.

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People in this conversation

  • Guest (Harsh Thakor)

    Debate is one of the most important aspects in a Socialist Society or the struggle for a revolutionary movement or party.In that light we have to value Bob Avakian's contribution on the need for fostering dissent within a Socialist Society.

    The Socialist Society even in the period of the Cultural Revolution in China lacked enough scope for dissent and debate which created a huge personality cult.I greatly admire the scope and freedom the Kasama project allows for criticism and political debates but the team fundamentally lacks a sound polemic grasp.Even if we visualise greater debate in the past Socialist Societies they had to preserve the backbone.

    I appreciate the spirit of dissent and debate on Maoism or Stalin but I feel Kasama veers towards a rightist path with no staunch defence of the political lines of Lenin,or Mao or even Stalin(Whatever the errors)There is hardly any refutation or counter-resistance to revisionist comments,particularly on Stalin,with proletarian content.It is encouraging that so many types of views and ideas are expressed as I myself am grateful to the views I could express or post on Maoism or mass line.However ultimately the debates hardly lead to a development of the proletarian or mass line.We have to foster the spirit of dissent within a commune but not at the cost of the backbone of Socialist ideology.

    I am particularly alarmed by some of the comments on Comrade Stalin.There is hardly any systematic refutation of new left writers like Alan Badiou.

  • Harsh: I appreciate your positive comments about Kasama, and your defense of the importance of dissent and debate.

    I understand that you feel our discussions lack a communist core. However, I believe they have a strong communist current within them -- it is just one that disagrees with you on some basic issues.

    <strong>For example:</strong> I believe that<a href="/" rel="nofollow"> we face a complex task</a> in evaluating the Soviet experience -- that involves both upholding its achievements as a revolutionary and socialist society, and also understanding how increasingly the line and policies of the government/party (and Stalin), under difficult conditions, weakened the revolution and depoliticized the former revolutionary currents among the people.

    I am not sure why these views (and our disagreements) should alarm you... The world (reasonably) demands of communists a clear and radical assessment of those experiences, and we will (together) provide it. And it will not take the form of an orthodox clutching at all those familiar older official claims-and-denial within the international communist movement, which are historically unsustainable and politically self-damning.

    Virtually no one in the modern world will ever willingly <em>want</em> (prefer) to have a system or policies similar to the Soviet Union in the late thirties (for good and obvious reasons) -- and we need to explain both the value of that socialist period but also how we would do things differently.

    You say:

    <blockquote>"ultimately the debates hardly lead to a development of the proletarian or mass line."</blockquote>

    Well, i think that we will see (hopefully) a process that leads to the development of a common communist view (a common language, set of goals, sense of methods, strategic approaches) that can form the basis for a renewed communist movement in the U.S. I imagine it won't be a basis that <em>you</em> recognize as "proletarian" -- but then again, that may not be something to be alarmed about.

    Finally on Badiou.

    You say:

    <blockquote>"There is hardly any systematic refutation of new left writers like Alan Badiou."</blockquote>

    On a self-critical note: I have to say that I personally have not been able to push our Kasama conversations toward a deeper engagement with Badiou's work. Many people find his work very difficult to understand (for good reasons), and his output is so sprawling and little known that it is hard for us to generate a deep exploration.

    Speaking for myself, I have only started study of Badiou, and several of his major works remain (for me) still unread (Theory of the Subject, and Being and Even are among them). So I am myself only in the shallow waters of this.

    Still, I have to question your twin assumptions.. first that Badiou needs a "systematic refutation," and second that he is merely a "new left writer" rather than a communist philospher. What do you base those conclusions about Badiou on?

    And before we have done a deep and serious evaluation of someone's ideas, how do we know whether parts of them need to be upheld (and integrated into communist theory) and whether they need to criticized (in part or in whole)? It seems that investigation and engagement comes first, summation comes after.

    For my part, i have encountered (in Badiou) insights and approaches I have found extremely valuable, and some basic elements that I (personally) cannot embrace. So my approach to him will ultimately be "systematic" (I hope) but hardly weighted toward "repudiation."

    In particular, I found his recent work on the Arab Spring and Occupy-type movements to be quite interesting and insightful -- and a discussion of how new unseen revolutionary potential might emerge from the current shockwaves of crisis and resistance. (I'm talking about his <a href="/" rel="nofollow">Rebirth of History"</a>;)

  • Guest (ish)

    Mike I've been working my way through Rebirth of History. I'm a little bogged down mid-way; his philosophical writing appears simple but it's so dense it requires mental space to actually work his ideas through that is hard for me to find. But the first few sections of the book I found tremendously exciting. I had not read any Badiou before, and, skeptical of modern or trendy thinkers I was impressed and encouraged at his frequent reminders of his opposition to imperialism, to Islamophobia, to European nationalism.

    I would love to be engaged with other comrades in a study of this work: it seems incredibly relevant to our moment.

  • Guest (The Voice Collective)

    See pages 798 and 799 of this pdf version of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks ( It's pure gold. For a long time I had it on my refrigerator door so that I could read it on a daily basis, like a mantra.

    "It is not very “scientific”, or more simply it is not very “serious”, to choose to combat the stupidest and most mediocre of one’s opponents or even to choose the least essential and the most occasional of their opinions and then to presume thereby to have “destroyed” “all” the enemy because one has destroyed a secondary and incidental opinion of his or to have destroyed an ideology or a doctrine because one has demonstrated the theoretical inadequacy of its third- or fourth-rate champions. Further: “one must be fair to one’s enemies”, in the sense that one must make an effort to understand what they really meant to say and not maliciously stop short at the superficial immediate meaning of their expressions. That is to say, if the end proposed is that of raising the tone and intellectual level of one’s followers and not just the immediate aim of creating a desert
    around oneself by all means possible. The point of view to be adopted is this: one’s supporter must discuss and uphold his own point of view in debate with capable and intelligent opponents and not just with clumsy untrained people who are convinced “by authority” or “by emotion”. The possibility of error must be asserted and justified, but without being untrue to one’s own conception, because what counts is not the opinion of Tom, Dick and Harry, but that ensemble of opinions which have become collective, a social element and a social force. These are the opinions that must be refuted, in the person of those of their theoretical exponents who are most representative and indeed worthy of respect for the high quality of their thought and for their “disinterestedness” in the immediate term. Nor should this be done with the idea that one has thereby destroyed the corresponding social element and social force (which would be pure enlightenment rationalism) but only with the idea of having contributed 1. to maintaining and strengthening among one’s own side the spirit of distinction and division; and 2. to preparing the ground for one’s own side to absorb and give life to an original doctrine of its own, corresponding to its own conditions of life."

  • Guest (The Voice Collective)

    <blockquote>"...what counts is not the opinion of Tom, Dick and Harry, but that ensemble of opinions which have become collective, a social element and a social force. These are the opinions that must be refuted, in the person of those of their theoretical exponents who are most representative and indeed worthy of respect for the high quality of their thought..."

    - Gramsci</blockquote>

    Pro-imperialism, in all its contemporary and historical variations, undoubtedly meets the criteria of an "ensemble of opinions which have become collective, a social element and a social force."

    We're not talking about obscure points of view here, we're talking about the intellectual MAINSTREAM of modern history.

    Racism is another good example. The notion that all questions concerning such things are obvious and answered is simultaneously anti-intellectual and anti-popular. It's anti-intellectual because without a culture of debate about such thing amongst revolutionaries (while attempting to bring in more and more of the masses), we have a very low intellectual level.

    I can cry out "imperialism is bad" until my lungs burst. And for that matter I can cry out, "Jesus is Lord" or any other slogan.

    But being able to think in such sloganistic and formulaic ways doesn't help me much the minute I'm in a real world situation and someone throws out a well-thought-out argument for imperialist intervention, or why the border wall is necessary.

    Short circuiting debate is anti-popular because it means we don't have the tools to merge with the masses.

    Gramsci says we should be "fair" to our opponents. More and more I use the word "generous."

    Forgive me if this sounds New-Agey, but I think we should, generally speaking, conceptualize people with compassion and understanding. Part of that means not assuming that everyone who disagrees with us is an idiot or a pig.

    We should, in general, remind ourselves that the people we interact with are comparably intelligent as us, have taken in a lot of information about the world but have synthesized it differently.

    The fact is that very intelligent people have made imperialist and racist arguments, and they have made them in highly intelligent ways. And the fact is that those arguments, as I said earlier, are the conceptual mainstream.

    I'll use the example of the border again. Often on the left we have really sophisticated understandings of the reality surrounding the border. We might know a lot about it. But how familiar are we, really, with the sophisticated arguments FOR the walls and deportations? It's all well and good (well, not really) if, amongst ourselves, we can just be ignorant of those things, and make jokes about how stupid and evil people are who support those terrible things. And they are terrible - my God! But in reality, there are more sophisticated conceptions out there than "Mexicans=bad, fuck 'em." There are all kinds of utilitarian conceptions that go into this kind of thinking and - believe it or not! - many of the people who support that stuff don't consider themselves racists.

    As soon as we get into conversations with working class black people or white people, for example, and they make a comment about how Mexicans are stealing their jobs, we'd better have a sophisticated analysis to bring to the table (and by that I don't mean pat answers to every question, but some general, ever-expanding conception).

    Usually in these situations I <em>DON'T</em> have good responses, and I've watched opportunity after opportunity slip through my fingers. Often I'm at a loss for words, and isn't that a terrible thing!