- Category: Kasama
- Created on Friday, 23 January 2009 11:54
- Written by Mike Ely
By Mike Ely
Here is a controversy:
Some people think that "if you give it a platform, you are promoting it. And if you are promoting it, you must agree with it." So they assume that every idea we "give a platform to" on Kasama must be an idea we sympathize with.
And yet we post (and debate) many different ideas -- sometimes different ideas on the same topic (like the Obama campaign, or Nepal, or the relationship between ecology and socialism).
And so that logic means that Kasama, as a project, appears (to those who have this view) deeply confused. As if we are "soft" on all kinds of notorious ideas.
Kasama is sometimes criticized using an argument that goes like this: While claiming to be a communist project, Kasama has hosted discussion that includes some well known social democrats and reformists. By "giving a platform" to such views, Kasama is "promoting" them. And by promoting them, Kasama reveals that it has sympathy with such views and is not (in fact) communist at all.
I am tempted to respond with a flippant remark, like...
"Uh, 'debate.' Not clear on the concept? Look into it."
But flippant is not helpful, so let's break it down more explicitly -- so it becomes clear this is not confusion, or vagueness, but an attempt to regroup with a radical rupture.
Let's start here....
Why did Mao say "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend"?
Was it liberalism? Was it promotion of the "free market place of ideas" -- with all its illusory and capitalist content? Was it relativism? Was because he had secret sympathies for all one hundred?
If you have Marxism, why do you need to give legitimacy to different "schools of thought"? Or is there a strategic (and epistemological) point, both about how we will arrive at truth, and how our movement will train more and more people capable of creatively fighting their way to truths?
Want to be scientific?
We can learn some things for our political work from debate among the natural sciences -- how scientists conduct peer review, vet of a theory, a debate the meaning of a fact. Look at the routine assumption of transparency in the discussion of practical experience (data, experimentation, evidence). Look at their embrace of necessary ambiguity, tentativeness, and partial knowledge. Look at the rather casual way that people disagree without assuming hostility. Look at the way that "a hundred schools of thought contend."
Now let's talk about Kasama.
1) The theory and analysis we need is not "there for the taking."
People who think that revolutionary methods and theories are "there for the taking." They think right and wrong are relatively simple. And they believe THEY hold the truth. And they think other people should "steep themselves" in that truth.
So for them "engagement" is a pretty one-way street -- it should take place on the basis of appreciation of their truths (i.e. their views). The ideas of others can perhaps sometimes be sprinkled onto THAT truth to spice it up (like cinnamon on a freshly baked pastry).
This is a view that Kasama rejected from its very beginning.
In fact, revolutionary theory has crawled up some funky dead ends. There is an intense and unresolved line struggle among the organized Maoists. And there continues sharp creative struggle among revolutionaries broadly ( beyond that organized Maoist movement).
So this is not a good time to put forward a "one way organ" -- that proclaims ITS truths and seeks to refute-or-ignore the views of others.
But some people think that Kasama is a "one way organ."
Meaning: they assume that "if Kasama posts it, Kasama must agree with it."
What makes this doubly confusing is that sometimes Kasama posts DIFFERENT VIEWS on the same topic (like Nepal!), and then such people sometimes proclaim "Kasama is very confused over very basic things. It is all over the place."
In fact Kasama is neither confused nor vague -- Kasama it is an active communist project of reconception that is hosting a series of open debates.
In short: for quite a few people, the very idea of "reconception" among communists is so alien, that they always assume we are still operating with the previous conceptions. Let's dig into one of those previous conceptions.
2) A One-way organ is lousy for a new revolutionary movement
Often communist newspapers only publish views they agree with. I worked on a one-way organ for 25 years: the RCP's Revolutionary Worker newspaper.
The views in that paper were authoritative -- they were to be taken as the party's views and taken as binding on party members. Articles were often unsigned because they were assumed to "speak for the party" -- and the assumption was that there was a seamless unity between writers, between the paper and the party, and so on. The RCP rejected the idea of a monolithic party, but acted like they had one.
The writings in the paper generally made the process of idea-creation and decision-making invisible -- i.e. people got the endproduct of the debate but rarely got any sense of HOW such views had been researched, formulated and decided. And it was invisible that there even was debate.
And there emerged a strange (and undeserved) assumption that there were some special qualities among those producing "the paper" that allowed them to channel the truth.
I believe the Revolutionary Worker was an informative and sometimes mind-blowing newspaper. It played a role in promoting important revolutionary ideas and analysis. But it rarely published criticisms, debates, opposing ideas and not even polemics that acknowledged serious opponents. This newspaper's "one way" nature was, in fact, training for uncritical thinking (even when its views emerged from highly critical thinking).
This helps explain how you can have a communist movement gathered around some startlingly creative insights, yet trains people to be doggedly dogmatic in their own thinking.
Let's not go there again.
3) "Chain of knowledge up and chain of command down" is a mechanical theory
There was a theoretical underpinning to this model: The RCP explained that there was an inherent flow of knowledge going on: where raw, unassimilated ideas flowed "up" to the center, and synthesized correct ideas flowed down. This flow was assumed to be inherent in the Marxist theory of knowledge (i.e. it was assumed to be "epistemological.") And it was proclaimed to be the ONLY way that truely Marxist ideas (about our experiences, and the world generally) could be formulated.
It meant that it was considered unlikely (or even "unscientific") to imagine that there could be correct formulated ideas emerging from outside the party's leadership. The assumption was that "the RCP may have been wrong on homosexuality, but it is not like someone out there was right." If ideas outside the part have "some truth" -- they would STILL need to be synthesized at the heights of the party "chain of knowledge" to ACTUALLY become "correct."
I think that view is reductionist and mechanical, and is (in fact) proven wrong by the experience of the RCP (and elsewhere). People making proposals routinely said they "disappeared into The Black Hole." And the theory that top leaders held an epistemological high ground was used as a stick to beat down (or just ignore) views they didn't agree with. ("What material basis do you have for summing that up?")
In fact, often correct ideas were being formulated "below" and incorrect ideas were "coming down." (The RCP's stubbornly unscientific views on sexuality were one experience that should be mined exactly for its "epistemological" lessons.)
And the assumptions and the very form defining that party's "one way organ" are inseparable from this wrong and self-serving assumptions about how correct ideas are organizationally formulated. The lack of transparency over internal debate and the lack of any "horizontal" airing of views contribute to real illusions about how correct ideas are created. (And I mean "illusion" in the sense that a magician is an "illusionist.")
Our revolutionary movement needs to debate ideas and analysis in ways that don't reinforce uncritical indoctrination but that train revolutionaries to work their way through the complex and contradictory problems of making change.
It may be, that there reemerges a future need and potential for an authoritative organ among communists in the U.S. -- but I suspect we should grab onto a different model, that is much more rich in tentative and contending ideas,where readers are not just trained in verdicts but in the process of evaluation.
For now, hang onto this: Kasama posts ideas it does not agree with. And it often does so without providing "warning labels."
On the contrary we think several things:
1) Revolutionary politics is not a sandbox or a sheltered greenhouse. Revolutionary activists are not children who need lots of protective padding and an information diet. People should encounter ideas straight up here on Kasama (as they will everywhere else in real life). A new idea need not come with a warning label that says "Here is a poisonous weed we are offering as a negative example for criticism."
2) We should expect that the truth about a set of ideas can emerge from the debate (which we will also participate in with our own strong views).
3) Ideas should be presented by people who believe in them. We don't want to only learn about ideas from the characterizations of their opponents. This means publishing wrong views, and even sometimes reactionary ones. And it means affirming the policy of publishing both sides of major debates.
4) People participating in this site may well walk away with different conclusions than we walk away with. Not only is this inevitable, it is ok. And it provides a basis for holding our next discussions on a higher and more substantive plane. It may take quite a while for it to become clear "who is right" -- and in fact, the world is complex enough that it may never be fully clear, and in fact no one may be simply "right." This is not an argument for relativism (i.e. that all ideas are equal in their truth, and so there is no real right or wrong)... it is an argument for understanding in a much more sophisticated way how we will identify and rescue the much-needed relative truths from a morass of mythology and dogma.
4) The Thread is the Locus
We think that having substantive debate over major issues will raise the level of understanding and unity among revolutionaries -- while subjecting to all our previous views to a much needed critical bath. It doesn't work to treat revolutionaries as if they need a world of rubber padding and warning labels. Revolution does not happen in a sandbox or a humid greenhouse.
I confess I was disappointed when I read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's interview with Celticfire -- i thought the politics were not very good, and I thought the presentation of her views was rather superficial.
But look what happened when we posted that piece.... look at the richness of the discussion.
So that Jose M writes:
"I am learning a lot by reading this discussion. Keep it going."
And Tahawus adds:
"This is one of the more valuable threads I’ve seen here, particularly in this moment. Hopefully it isn’t derailed."
In short, we take the thread as a whole as the arena where we expect insights to emerge. Sometimes the post (that initiates the thread) is not especially deep or correct, but the thread is the locus -- and nuanced views can emerge out of that discussion.
5) Different, opposing unities will develop from our debates.
The regroupment process may ultimately produce two or three different reconceptions -- that each then are tested and further developed by their own arcs. That is certainly how it has been in the past -- in every successful revolution. We are not assuming a process of "two into one" -- we do not view Kasama as a funnel that will get the universe of sincere radicals into one small homogenized bottle. No. I
So, let's not imagine that the Kasama Project is some seed or pole from which the next new vanguard will (linearly over time and elaboration) emerge.
The Kasama project is seeking to unleash a process from which new revolutionary organization will emerge -- and we will all be transformed by this process.
6) Wrong views should be engaged deeply, not suppressed.
Debate followed Celticfire's interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In that debate, Green-RedRev expressed some views about the impact of women's clothes on men. This provoked the following:
"can the moderator please take “red green rev”’s first comments off?!!! women are not rape objects. these comments are completely offensive and ridiculous....it would only give legitimacy to this 'argument' to dissect it."
We did not remove Green-Red's comments, though we too disagreed with them. I think we should dig into the view that:
"it would only give legitimacy to this 'argument' to dissect it."
First i think this is simply untrue. Dissecting an argument does not give it legitimacy, it trains everyone in how to tell truth from falsehood. And it enables people to understand (deeply) which approach to a question is the correct one.
All arguments that have social traction should be "dissected." Including racism, or the idea that provocative dressing causes rape.
This argument about "giving legitimacy" is also a "small circle mentality" -- it assumes that this idea has been repudiated and has not legitimacy because (where I hang out) it is unacceptable. So (from this subcultural view) discussing this view is just letting it in through a back door and granting it legitimacy."
But many views are generally discredited within some progressive circles in the U.S. but still need to be confronted (in society in general and, apparently, even among revolutionaries meeting on Kasama!) Just removing the offensive ideas doesn't solve that problem.
How many people can actually make a coherent answer to the racist argument that "black people are genetically different, and those differences explain the position of Black people in U.S. society." How can people finally drive reactionary ideas out of the public arena without powerful arguments (similar to what Gould did in "The Mismeasure of Man")?
This goes directly against standards promoted by some "identity politics" -- which demands that offensive ideas be banned, and argues that allowing (i.e. debating) offensive ideas just creates a hostile and disempowering situation. It is also an approach that doesn't think ideas are really defeated by engaging them -- because identity politics thinks offensive ideas arise linearly from omnipresent "privilege" and so therefore are never really defeated or reachable by arguement (but are, at best, driven under cover). The assumption often is that you can't really win anyone over to anything -- you can only make other people shut up.
But, in fact, we will need to do a LOT of debunking of awful and offensive ideas -- to get millions of people around a revolutionary movement, and to pull a liberated society out of this one. So let's adopt energetic, non-defensive, substantive revolutionary debunking as one of our most basic modes.
Kasama does not exist to debate racists or crude male chauvinists of course -- We have created a place for debate among revolutionaries. But we need to train each other in a culture of civil debate and creative debunking -- because it is so important important for resolving "contradicitons among the people" and for a whole process of raising politicalconsciousness.
Let's confront something directly: The implications of "suppress don't dissect" are (frankly) chillingly fascistic.
If dissecting a view gives it legitimacy -- then the way to deal with wrong views is to just shut them up (and make the people who hold them just shut up). And it assumes that we already and automatically "know" which views are right and which views are wrong. It assumes that allowing opposing views betrays a corrupt affection for them.
What are the implications for socialism? It is an argument for the wholesale suppression of ideas that "we don't like" -- and it would be suppression-without-deep-refutation.... so that we would not be opening the wounds to help finally clean them out.
It is a terrible method now. And it will be a much worse method later (if it was ever backed by state power).
7) The Kasama Project is not the same thing as the Kasama Site.
The Kasama Project is a network of revolutionaries seeking to actively reconceive and regroup a revolutionary movement in the U.S. This Kasama Site is a prominent and active effort by the Project -- to provide information, analysis and debate that revolutionaries need. And it is a way of gathering people together -- to explore politics and theory -- in ways that contributes to regrouping.
Many things are debated on the Kasama Site. Many different kinds of people post here. (Including our favorite libertarian.) But, the fact that people comment here, and the fact that we even elevate some of their comments as "posts on Kasama's central panel" -- does not mean that these are the views of the Kasama Project itself.
This would seem obvious -- but the practice of previous communists has been so rigid, and the presentation of authoritative views has been so onesided, that many people just assume that "if it appears here, Kasama must, somehow, agree with it."
Wanna debate this?