- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 18 March 2012 10:59
- Written by Mike Ely
"Politics is symbolic as well as analytical....
"The audiences we need are gathered by cultural and social means, not just won over by words.
"As Lenin once noted the oppressed and awakening were demanding to know how to live and how to die (and not just what to believe).
"People need living inter-human expressions of world view and morality that are more than tracts on worldview and morality. Successful radical politics need words that are evocative and penetrating -- not just precise."
by Mike Ely:
I have always been frustrated by the assumption that we can draw people toward revolutionary politics mainly by "explaining" everything -- as if people become conscious, militant, and determined in the fight for a new society largely by being told a series of exposures backed by elaborate structures of analysis. I have called this problem "the fetish of the word." Its more formal name (if we need another label) could be rationalism.
And meanwhile we can see both in society and politics all around us, suggestions that "explanations," however detailed and correct, are not enough -- and people are often attracted to politics that are quite anti-rational through powerful symbolic means.
We can trace the rise and fall of Louis Farrakhan's bizarre and fantastical politics that combines completely delusional mysticism with a gut level appeal for self-respect, self-advancement, pride and biting political alienation.
Or we can see large sections of people breaking into political life in during this Arab spring, being freed for from decades of repression and yet far too often grasping first for deep resonance of "Allahu Akbar!" and naive hope in the justices of Shariah law.
Where does that power come from?
Secular rationalism often assumes (sometimes with a stark singlemindedness) that "incorrect ideas" come from a mix of ignorance and the outside indoctrination by "alien" classes -- and so assumes that the antidote is simply hammer the right ideas into the uninformed-- a method I call "fire your ideas, hire mine." It has an element of truth -- we do need to be evangelical about communism. But it is often very onesided. In other words, this rationalism has views of people, ideas, culture, and change that are somewhat flat -- and its failures confirm this.
I believe in spreading revolutionary exposure and ideas. I think revolutionary theory will play a powerful role in regrouping a new revolutionary movement. I've often resented as unfair the familiar stereotype of the communist militant "just peddling newspapers at the sidelines." After all, I have written, designed, edited, sold, promoted, and nurtured radical newspapers all my life. And I think we should (now!) be develop biting, attractive, irresistible centers of news, opinion, analysis, satire, humor, and theory.
But... but... despite all that, I do think, at the same time, we should create and use our new revolutionary media without naively reproducing the assumptions and practice of previous rationalism.
Here is something that has often been missing: Politics is symbolic as well as analytical. Political attraction is also visceral and cultural. It involves a verbal "winning over." It requires us to be fearless about representing our beliefs.
But, looked at all sidedly, the audiences we need will gathered by a number of cultural and social attractions, not just "won over" by words.
As Lenin once brilliantly described the oppressed and awakening were coming, demanding to know "how to live and how to die," and not just what to believe. To be able to carry through a real process of base-building, we have to learn from our audience (i.e. "from the people") as well, not just the other way around. That is the process Mao called the mass line.
I'm saying (among other things) that political movements need to buttress and tap into a desperately needed sense of community (in a society of isolation and atomization). A movement for a new society needs to have powerful symbols and rituals (from which people get meaning and express common belief in non-rational ways). People need living inter-human expressions of world view and morality that are more than tracts on worldview and morality. (And here we mean things like rebelliousness not respectability, internationalism, love of the people, self-sacrifice, solidarity, critical thinking, scientific methodology, modesty, listening, an honest and self-critical fidelity to truth, and more).
To drive it home: We need to understand what it means for a phrase (like "Allah Akbar!" or "Freedom now!") develops a deep symbolic power. And we need identify and appreciate those cultural themes, expressions that have power for the discontented and visionary in our society -- and that are applicable (with inevitable transformation in major ways) to our project of profound social change and liberation.
Successful radical politics need words that are evocative and penetrating -- not just that are precise. Successful revolutionary movements all (without exception) have great symbolic power. Within the U.S., the Black Panther Party, in particular, had quite a bit of genius when it came to creating powerful symbolism in politics.
Black men and women in leather, berets and guns were -- in that moment, in that context, in that crossroads -- something that made millions of hearts beat faster. When the Panthers warned followers and enemies alike: "Blood to the horse's brow, and woe to those who cannot swim" -- there was analysis in the poetry and poetry in the analysis.
Just one important example: The Panther slogan "Power to the people" returns over and over since the 60s. It is one slogan from that time that has a continual rebirth.
For all the well-known flaws of Eldridge Cleaver -- we would do well to study his brilliance at developing new symbols and powerful slogans -- popularizing a politics in a living way that was not over-intellectualized.
And obviously, we can't just imitate the previously successful: we need to understand how the symbolic changes with the times.
In the 60s, slogans of like "Black is beautiful," or "drop out and expand your mind" and a sometimes-naive communal vibe all had a powerful meaning (and attraction) for millions of people emerging from the racist, conformist 1950s. Even when such themes were not explicitly political, in some stereotypical sense, they helped formed context and pre-condition for mass revolutionary politics. But then, just ten years later, punk was built on an angry rejection of hippie "peace and love" thinking -- and expressed a different new symbolic and artistic language of rebellion. Hip hop had its own language and aesthetic with its depiction of street grievance and pride. Times moved. And new expressions gained symbolic power.
Because of that, rapid cultural change can put very heavy demands on our creativity. We have to be awake and nimble to even hear what is being said on the wind. And we have to be creative enough to appreciate the uses of novel expression, to grasp their potential power and to adapt them.
In short: We need to conceive of the very project of developing an alternative post-capitalist society as far more than conceptual and analytical matters (such as are expressed by particular and important ideas like: how to break up the old state, how to plan the economy, how rearrange borders to allow autonomy and liberation for Native people, etc.).
We also need to be developing (articulating but also manifesting) alternative morality and meaning for people (in the place of the current "dog eat dog" and in the place of atomized bourgeois meaning fixated merely on accumulation for self or pleasure for self or the religious salvation for self).
This involves identifying "spheres of experiment" (around us) where we can (together with others) try to carry out and refine symbolism, morality and connections to meaning in ways that can represent the movement and society to come (analogous, perhaps, to rural base areas where Mao's forces developed their "Yenan road" -- whose promise so gripped China like a mass conversion).
Some of that is within movements of struggle -- where people combine their efforts to demand change. But it is not just there.
A communist rite of passage 1
I had a friend who was raised a Roman Catholic, and was recruited (by some of us) into the early Maoist organization Revolutionary Union. We had a recruitment "meeting" -- where we discussed political unity, disagreements, his past, his aspirations, his situation, etc. And then we explained that he had been accepted, and told him the next time and place for the internal organization meeting.
He got this look of disappointment, almost dismay. What, he asked, No ceremony? No induction? I don't get to make an oath? No celebration party of welcoming? No ritual sharing of secret methods and procedures? No transfer of an artifact (no card? no secret sign? no private code of conduct?) He was disappointed -- and he felt like he had not been fully "connected."
He was passing through a major "gate" in his life and in the life of a society -- making a profound, conscious commitment to the world, the oppressed and the future -- that (to him, and to us) represented everything. And yet we (as a movement) had not marked it, or affirmed it, or celebrated it -- and had not known how.
The fundamentalists welcome people into their communities with passages of rebirth and baptism -- with words and community rituals people have found meaningful for centuries. Every historical grouping has welcomed the newborn in distinctive ways that marked identity and belonging (including baptism and bris by mohel). Early in our emergence of our species there are signs of ritual funerals and burial of the dead that are startling in their diversity and power. The fundamentalists encourage damaged and troubled people to be "born again." The Catholic have sophisticated mechanism for self-examination and confession. Many social groupings have developed ideas about forgiveness and how to express it.
But, here, (in the embryonic days of our new communist movement of the 1970s) we had paid attention only to the words that defined us (the explanations) -- identifying the almost legalistic requirements of the transition (basis of unity, agreement to commitment, acceptance of disciple).
But we ignored (almost militantly) the necessary symbolism and cultural markers by which humans actually define meaning for themselves and their moments.
Now, at the ground floor of new projects, we don't want to overdo all this, of course.... like some revolutionary parody of the Masons. But we do need to do it.
And (for a movement so full of talk) we often haven't known how to talk about these things -- beyond "no more traditions chains shall bind us" (which is a precious statement of negation without the needed creativity of critical affirmation.) In other words if we are not bound by tradition, fine -- then how shall we be bound together? And how shall we express that? And how does that emerge, as revolution moves from being the belief of small circles to the political climate in whole communities?
I think there are elements of communist practice that are good starting points -- including Mao Zedong's orientation in "Combat Liberalism" (an essay arguing for honest and forthright dealing among revolutionaries) and in the collective practices Maoists call self- and mutual criticism -- confronting mistakes (even serous mistakes) in collective ways that help people toward a redemptive "way out" through a commitment to transformation.
A communist rite of passage 2
I attended a conference of young communists (to speak about investigation, writing and the expressing of ideas). And I heard the story of one young brother asking a veteran communist (i.e. an elder) for advice: about the "correct" way to initiate a sexual relationship with someone he thought was very special.
There was something touching and positive about it: He was aware that women get "hit on" all the time. He was aware that our movement wanted young women to be able to join without feeling like "fresh meat" for the unattached men (or male leaders, for that matter) within the movement. And he wanted to initiate a relationship in line with what our values and mores are.
But unfortunately, he had entered a movement that had not given much thought to this. There was never (that I saw) much discussion, debate, synthesis, essays, summations about such crucial processes of human life (processes that are deeply involved in the liberation and equality of women) -- birth, dating, marriage, intimacy, experimentation, living solidarity, child-rearing, liberating education, divorce, resolution of interpersonal conflict, forgiveness and transformation, caring for each other in illness and death, forms of celebration and festival.
(An aside: There is an interesting book on the proliferation of community festivals in Soviet Russia... how much do we understand that as part of a new society and its culture?)
A living revolutionary movement needs to be enveloped by a sense of new revolutionary culture (not just art, but ways of being and forms of meaning, and symbolic ways of expressing that meaning and being). It needs to accumulate, transmit, practice and debate bodies of new "wisdom" that help people imagine (in the now) how a new society might handle all the many contradictions of human life.
Such a culture can't be invented from scratch -- as if we and society are blank sheets. But it is something living people create and then recreate, refine and then morph again -- in a process of experimentation we should welcome and participate in.