Sunday 21 December 2008

Can the Left Argue Honestly?

A consistently frustrating feature of the British far left for me is our polemical culture. There's nothing wrong with debates between different socialists and rival currents, in my opinion, though I suppose it could be off-putting to the casual observer. All the more reason for arguments to appear measured, comradely, and concerned with getting to the truth of the matter. Unfortunately it is very rare we reach this standard, and shows our movement still has a lot of growing up to do.

Take this line from Alex Callinicos's
contribution to number four of the SWP's pre-conference bulletin, for example:
The problem is compounded by the fact that we have seen the most important working- class action this year – the public-sector pay revolt – collapse in the last couple of months. This is all the more significant because it was the doing of the left wing of the union bureaucracy. This partly because of the pessimism of large sections of the left – the apparent belief of the Socialist Party, for example, that economic recession automatically means a collapse in working-class resistance.
As a member of the Socialist Party and a reader of its publications, this came as a bit of a shock to me. It makes you wonder how the SP can simultaneously hold the belief that we're entering a more favourable period for socialist ideas while the very agency of those ideas, the working class, is politically paralysed. Is this a case of dialectics moving in mysterious ways? Or is it a clumsy misreading of the SP's position by brother Callinicos? It's certainly a case of the latter. The nearest SP publications have come to describing such a scenario is the idea the economic downturn could stun sections of the working class. And guess what, there is some evidence this is happening. Take for example the acceptance by JCB workers of wage cuts in return for no job losses, as opposed to a struggle to defend their position (an agreement management has already reneged on). Or take the Woolworth's fiasco - there is resistance, but primarily of a petitioning/Facebook campaigning character. See the narrow vote in the PCS ballot for strike action. Some of the responsibility can be heaped in the sections of the trade unions, but it tends not to be the case of bureaucrats derailing action. Rather it's a case of the passivity of the membership that let them get away with doing very little, which itself is a legacy of decades of neoliberal attacks. But whatever, recognising how a recession can impact on some parts of the class in the short term is not it is the same thing as saying that recession means a collapse in working class resistance, is it?

Unfortunately, this has probably gone down into SWP legend, alongside the fiction the SP is weak on LGBT rights, we do not stand in elections, and all members are required to carry a photo of the executive in their purses and wallets. But this is a two way street, and it's only fair and balanced we take a look at the myths that have aggregated around an SWP position. And the one that comes to mind is
Tony Cliff's theory of the downturn in the class struggle, which he formulated in the late 1970s. This theory was not, as it immediately appears, an argument that class struggle was going to be less intense in the 1980s. Instead it was a forecast that workers' disputes would tend to be of a defensive character. Not all struggles, but the general trend would be in this direction. It was not an iron law and could have been changed by, say, the victory of the miners. But it has become generally accepted that Cliff and his comrades had come up with a recipe for passivity - the same crime Callinicos accuses the SP today!

All too often workers in the polemical foundry take opponents' political positions and bend them into shapes unrecognisable to their author. This is used to attribute foolishness to that position, which in turn feed into the established divisions on the left. Wouldn't it be better to take arguments in their own terms and respond to them as they stand? How about it? Is it too much to expect the far left to develop a polemical culture that owes more to understanding and solidarity over invective and distortion?


Charlie Marks said...

He says apparent belief. So, apparent to him.

So, if it's just what appears to him, he's being honest.

Perhaps a better question might be - "can we understand each others arguments?"

I'd argue that we don't try hard enough to listen carefully and respond in a respectful manner. So, my hopes for next year are that we can all improve our communication skills, be polite, and work towards unity, the better to defend our class.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the polemic style has much relevance today.

In the labour movement its roots are in the nineteenth century and some very different circumstances: No online forums - revolutionaries in exile, often writing is isolation and most importantly weeks and months elapsing between polemic exchanges.

In that context reducing your opponent’s arguments to their ad absurdum conclusions and pre-empting their every rebuttal was an effective tactic. But in an age when you can actually have a dialogue, virtual or otherwise, in almost real-time it just makes you look shouty and crude.

We (the SP) have not been immune to this ourselves but the SWP who persist in their stop/go overly simplistic perspectives are definitely worse.

In socialism

Anonymous said...

It has a lot, I think, to do with this stylistic quirk of Russian Marxists who always stated their views as if they were totally correct and their factional opponents totally wrong.

What sort of undermines that is that Lenin and Trotsky violently disagreed with each other and they couldn't both be right...

Actually, in the spirit of goodwill, the SP's style has improved a lot - you don't hear "only our tendency" nearly as much nowadays. You do still get some mythologising, but that's par for the course.

Funny thing is, if you get Callinicos in an academic conference, with people whose opinion he cares about, you don't get this style at all. Maybe the left can learn from the academy?

Charlie Marks said...

Hand gestures, lisping, and scatalogical jokes a la Slavoj Zizek would do much to help, I think...

Anonymous said...

Hanna Sell was so stung by Calnicos's remarks she was forced to respond in her latest article.

The unofficial walkout of Southampton Ford Transit workers, in the face of opposition from their trade union leaders, shows the potential for militant struggles in defence of workers’ jobs and living conditions in the coming months and years.

ModernityBlog said...

Phil, you right when you say:

"Wouldn't it be better to take arguments in their own terms and respond to them as they stand? How about it?"

funny, that the British Left so attuned to student politics hasn't learnt in 4 decades that arguing in bad faith doesn't really work.

my gut feeling is that the SWP see the SP as their nearest competitor and so are trying to put distance between them and aiming to supply arguments to the dwindling band of SWPers, etc

I can't see that the SWP's headbanging style of politics has much future, I think it is just a case of WHEN do the SWP implode, not if.

The Sentinel said...

Instant polemicist reactions from the left over any issue it regards as anathema is standard practice, something I have pointed out in many places, including this one.

Measured and reasoned argument - logic - almost immediately gives way to emotionally charged insults and Orwellian labels. Cheap petty smears and fear mongering, all designed to demonise the dissenter- to identify them as somehow subhuman and not worthy of any human regard at all - essentially a totalitarian and extremist tactic to close down any dissent.

Fascists are by actions not by labels.

Merry Christmas!

Highlander said...

The sheer self-indulgence of some of the petty bickering that does occur prompted this post, but then I am not a member of any particular party so perhaps the relevance of the personalities involved passes me by. But it doesn't half get on my nerves...

Phil said...

You're right, Splinty. Mind you, the "polemical" style can creep into the cosy, academic world from time to time, though it is the height of rudeness. For instance in the course of a presentation I've been subject to the 'what's the point/use of your research?' question. I had to remain calm and reply to his points. Dismissing his objections as a naive empiricist wouldn't have got me anywhere (though that was the case ;))

Mod, I just see Callinicos's remarks as part of the mischievous style that polemicising leftists have picked up, and one designed to secure the political integrity of his organisation against its opponents. As my fellow SP blogger, Journeyman points out, the SWP aren't alone and some of our comrades lapse into it from time to time. I hope the development of the community of left blogs will do something to positively overcome this culture.

Phil said...

I couldn't leave you out, Sentinel. The problem is when we debate is that, as I think was revealed by our long exchange nearly two years ago(!), was that we begin from different bases, have different ideas what constitutes standards of proof, and so on. That's why your arguments with leftists here and elsewhere inevitably devolve into zero-sum games. That said, even though I find your politics repugnant, and vice versa, that's no reason why we shouldn't try and be calm when it comes to debating each other.

But anyway, merry christmas to comrades, and to you too.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty bad in America too, although the radical left appears to be a lot larger and therefore there are so many viewpoints buzzing around that a lot of stuff tends to get lost in the noise. But the polemics over here across the pond is just as bad, if not worse.

I blogged about kinda the same thing earlier:

Basically on all the splits the radical left has had in the Post-World War II era, it's pretty ridiculous. I agree with Foucault (gasp!) that we need to reject (kinda) "the dilema of being either for or against" and to try and "turn off these mechanisms which cause the appearance of two separate sides."

I think if we struggle with this internal and external differences within the radical left can become more like fruitful discussions (with struggle) as supposed to polemical fist fights.


Charlie Marks said...

Let our new year's resolution be this:

I promise that I will not talk about what divides us, but what can unite our class in struggle. For every criticism I make of a comrade, I will provide a compliments and an encouragement.

Madam Miaow said...

Amazing to see the Great Thinker opening up another front (with the SP) just as the SWP is embroiled in its worst fight in decades. So much for strategy and tactics.

And now, Charlie, a compliment. Um ... er ... Ooh, I know. SWP — not dead yet.

Adam Marks said...

Well, I'd say this is a bit rich coming from the blog that gave the world "Bunny La Roche was rude to me - renew against facsism now". Or is that too polemical?

The fact is it is apparent to ME as well that the SP has an excessively pessimistic outlook, combined with an eagerness to pander media generated opinion (such as the dreadful slogan "no to war, no to terrorism"), which it's keen to share with everyone else.

That said I am tapped into a borg-like mind melda and will be zapped on the testicles if I deviate from approved opinion. Man, SWP members are evil and, if Peter Taffe is right, the greatest obstacle to working class emacipation.

Phil said...

Not polemical Roobin, just a distortion of what that whole affair was about, which to remind you was how you conduct yourself when you're in the business of building a broad coalition.

But anyway, it's not enough to assert those things about the SP. You have to demonstrate how the arguments the SP have a pessimistic reading of the class struggle. Is it not the case the recession can have a stunning effect on some sections of the working class? Or are workers champing at the bit, determined to make the bosses pay for their crisis?

Likewise, it's not enough for anyone to suggest the SWP have (in the past) had overly optimistic readings of given periods in the absence of textual or other evidence. If the left's going to ever get on, we have to engage with what we actually say and not what we'd like to read into others' positions.

Daphne Watermelon said...

And how you (Phil) conduct yourself is to post on 2 blogs a load of unfounded (and mostly downright false) accusations. So don't for a second try to take some kind of moral highground on this.

Phil said...

Keith, as you weren't present at the event(s) in question nor it would seem aware of the detailed rebuttal I provided in reply to the furore, it may be wise if you acquainted yourself with them before making claims about false accusations. And as any reader of this blog is aware, I'm hardly in the habit of posting constantly about the misdemeanors of the SWP.

But this is all beside the point isn't it? We should have a better culture than this, surely? I've made some observations and arguments about how we can deal with it, so why not address them instead of trying to come the wounded innocent.

Anonymous said...

Game fighting Seymour over at Splinty. Wonder what this shadow-boxing is all about.

Care to let us know what's going on there, Keith or Roobin?

And why does that guy call himself "Lenin"?

Adam Marks said...

"You have to demonstrate how the arguments the SP have a pessimistic reading of the class struggle."

Na, I might do, if the topic was what is the SP's perspective on class struggle. The topic is can the left argue honestly. Alex may be right, he may be wrong. Calling him dishonest is another thing.

If you ask me it's merely time for another SWP internet pile on. Not only is what SWP members say and do wrong, it is fundamentally illegitimate.

Phil said...

My hope, Roobin, is that we move away from that culture. What has happened since the split in Respect is an outpouring of criticism, frustration, and in some cases, bile, against the SWP. It is possible that that well is near enough empty now and we can get on with building comradely relations across the left.

Adam Marks said...

9/11 was a buck up. The generally uninterrupted success of the anti-war movement up until the incredible period of January - April 2003 (which much more indepth analysis btw), sorted the wheat from the chaff.

What's going on now resembles political exiles arguing. So long as we are not able to crack open resistance to the recession our internal exile will continue, and that will feed the frustration and bile.

I don't generally post my thoughts and feelings about other left groups because it would not be reliable or helpful (as the above demonstrates).

So, I think it's a funny way to frame a can't-we-all-just-get-along post. Very funny.

Phil said...

The intention was partly polemical - I felt Callinicos's remark needed replying to. But the aim was to demonstrate unhelpful exaggeration - hence the comment on the distortions of Cliff's position on the downturn.

Re the idea of internal exile, it's a good one, but I do have a feeling that if this technology was around 20 odd years ago when the far left had greater social weight and more activists, what goes on now online would pale in comparison to the arguments and atrocity stories that would have been flung about.

Adam Marks said...

Well, if the internet could have helped the miners win, maybe.

Anonymous said...

Were you as shocked as Captain Reynaud in Casablanca when he discovers that gambling is taking place?
Perhaps it would have been simpler to have said: Callinicos said this about the SP, I disagree, here's what we actually say, end of story.
Polemical debate certainly seems better than never pentrating the fog above the swamp. If polemicists are open to correction, all the better.