Posted March 24, 2008
The “crisis of the Left” is usually referred to the disarray of movements, its weakened political and social power, the effects of demise of bureaucratic “really existing socialism”, and the neoliberal offensive. It remains our responsibility to seriously interrogate these conditions, study our world, and chart strategies for a new socialist project.
But these sociological discussions leave out a precious dimension of our project – the questions of vision and morality; why we choose to do what we do and how we do it; our habits and hearts; what we support and solicit in one another; and what it means to be good and plant the seeds of a liberated future.
Isaac’s essay ‘Love in the Movement’ [click to read] tries to tackle these issues. And he says something very profound when he writes that “classes are made up of people”. In a sense, this isn’t true. Class, strictly defined, is a category, and it isn’t made of Sandra or Peter, but of the workers, managers, capitalists, etc. In other words, my ‘class’ is a description of my relationship to property and the means of production. “Class identity” is determined by your relationship to things qua your identity as a worker, capitalist, peasant, whatever. Not as a person.
But he’s utterly right in a different, and deeper, respect. One’s class identity, in the strict definition supplied by political economy, does not say much about a person, or even give us a good indication of their values, what a person is about, and what they want to fight for. The working class is the agent of the socialist revolution which I fight for; but categories don’t go very far in telling us how workers become socialists or what a revolutionary is. If we fight to build a mass class movement for socialism, we also must recognize – as Isaac does – that it is actual people who become socialist and revolutionaries, not categories and entire classes.
The Eclipse of Morality
Why are we revolutionaries? Is it because we understand things better, see the ‘real picture’? What do we care if the majority of humanity daily toils in violent exploitation under the rule of a tiny minority? What’s a human life ‘worth’? What do we really value?
There’s a certain vulgar sociological Marxism which cannot even pose these questions. A simple and crude Marxist materialism says our personalities are fundamentally shaped by our conditions, primarily those of our class position. Our ideas and values are determined our position with respect to the existing mode of production, and the realms of the soul and religion are nothing more than happy illusions stemming from our lot in the world. Material, historical forces ‘out there’ in the world are the really important things, so let’s just try to study those and prepare ourselves for scientific “intervention”.
But it’s rarely “forces” that transform people, but rather other people, whose patient work, fortitude, morals and vision inspire others to be better, more courageous, to reach beyond themselves. Barbara Ransby’s book shows that Ella Baker was ‘produced’ as much by the Baptist missionary milieu of her youth with its “values of charity, humility and service,” and the Communist activists and educators in Harlem she worked with and learned from, as she was by the inhuman regimes of Jim Crow and white supremacy. Her formative experiences built in her more than a ‘correct’ analysis and ideas for change; they also created a deep moral vision and strong character that, in turn, influenced so many around her.
Forces do not operate on us a like a mold shapes some passive substance. We are not mere raw material shaped by world, but also a force which can in part determine the effects of the mold. We can respond in various ways to it and, at times, have something to do with shaping the mold itself.
My own experiences in college were deeply formative for me. I went to a very small “great books” school, then in Waukegan, Illinois. “Great books” means, largely, the works of dead white men of the ‘Western Canon’. But the college was a small community, diverse and radically democratic. All major decisions were made by a General Assembly, where the first term student’s vote counted as much as the President’s. Students sat on and voted in all bodies of the college. Students and kids ran an after-school tutoring/day-care center for the working-class Black and Latina kids from the neighborhood. All the campus activity, from theater productions to campus maintenance, was done by combined student and staff/faculty teams. There were 16-year old high-school dropouts attending classes along with folks who’d come to the college from Ivy League schools.
Most of all, I was inspired by the professors (who made the same salary as full-time administrators by the way!). They’d given up reputation, stature and much more money in the more prestigious, urbane academic world to be a part of this small project they were morally called upon to build, many of them for decades. The tea’s at Barbara’s house, movie night’s and wine at Albert’s, all the hours of intimate conversation with the teachers, and the raucous ‘Solidarity Nights’ – when students at the one dorm hosted a party for all members of the community, including faculty – produced in me a profound appreciation for folks like these, and adults twice my age, who continue to go against the grain. The experience created in me what will be a life-long distain for professional pseudo-privileges and snobbish distinction, and a real cherishing of people who, even in ways that seem little on the world-historical scale, resolve to attack bourgeois habits and live differently.
What encourage these professors to make such a choice? What shapes how we respond to the conditions we’re in, the myriad choices we make and actions we take?
If we allow that some part of how we respond can be determined intentionally by us – that we ourselves have something to do with the formation of our character – then how are we to work on that part to strengthen and support ourselves and others, and add a bit more good into the world? Our morals and character are political, and have something to do with how we effect others and the conditions we find ourselves in. We have the ability and responsibility to do what is in our power to shape them.
So much of our political attention is focused on what so and so wrote, who said what, the ‘big ideas’, this or that strategic decision. Now, I am definitely not calling for less theory or that we’re too focused on strategy; if fact, I think the socialist Left has much ground to catch up in producing a analyses of our situation and perspectives for moving forward.
But this focus on the overt, public realm of political events, meetings, interventions and conferences – focused almost exclusively around the verbal presentation of knowledge – ignores the less public, more covert realm of social and moral life. This is the often behind-the-scenes arena of our behavior, character and habits we which we also have to interrogate, work on and act from. So now I share a few of the moral virtues so important, but often overlooked, to politics and building another world.
A Few Moral Virtues Revolutionaries Should Embrace
Frugality and Cooperation
Do things on the cheap! Some of the most politically important experiences of my life as a revolutionary have been occasions when circumstances or desire compel us to experiment with the limited resources available to us, and do things – creatively! – on our own. As an organizer – at a housing organization, and then for Solidarity – I’ve seen the very different processes and effects that result from indifferently shelling out cash to produce some element – food, the space itself – for an event, versus trying to do as much as possible on your own. Unlike occasions when we’ve paid universities to host and cater events, our best efforts show when we cooperatively cook, clean, do child-care, etc.
My perhaps most cherished mentor is a model of creative frugality. During a summer in Chicago when we spent nearly every day together, we’d daily peruse the shelves of grocery stores for the cheapest discounts available and not buy anything that wasn’t on sale. We’d exit with a weird mixture of dinner ingredients, but more often than not our meal turned out to be pretty good and we’d be proud of our ingenuity. I also remember him fortifying a Thanksgiving stew with a half pot of day-old coffee. What a political act! These times taught me that it’s not the ‘what’ that we’re doing that is often the most important and political, but the manner in which we do it and how this manner brings us together, or not. Our relationship would not be nearly the same if we’d gone out to dinner all those times to be waited on and served food from who-knows-where.
My comrade Isaac complains about how New Yorkers go out too much and throw money around, rather than getting together with people in parks, or for a lunch or dinner in one’s home. It’s true, we do. And his own intentional providing of meals for his comrades and friends is inspiring me to rely less on the bland and alienating ‘pay as you go’ style of life here.
Frugality and cooperation force us together in creative ways. We learn more about one another and learn to be better ourselves, then if we, say, pay a bunch of money to sit around and talk and be catered to. It’s better and less alienating to organize a pot-luck than go out to a restaurant. This is the “comradely love” Isaac says Judith wrote about experiencing at the youth school.
This virtue is especially important for us, if we are to build real relationships with the majority of the poor and working-class who are so often excluded from more expensive environments.
Too much of “politics” these days happens in the noisy, expensive, usually exploitative and alienating public sphere. Too often, after a meeting or especially after a weekend conference, I just want to get away, and retreat to my books and Sportscenter. Especially for older folks with families and who may live outside of our cities, the pressures of the bourgeois order build a tall wall between our public personas and private lives.
We have to learn openness and hospitality again. Again, often circumstances – like expensive hotels – compel us to open our doors to comrades, often creating new relationships in the process.
My great, inspiring friends and comrades Catherine and Erin have an apartment in a 3-story coop in Brooklyn. They intentionally got the place with their housemates , in part, to provide a resource to the organization and our movements, a place to meet, host dinners and parties. And they’re always having folks stay over. Without them and their place, this city and our work would be significantly less bearable for those of us who treasure them.
For those who’ve stayed with comrades you’d never met before on your travels, of those who’ve been set up with solidarity housing for a conference or convention, think of how those experiences compare with the alternative of staying in an anonymous (and expensive, again) hotel or with relatives.
Hospitality will compel us to a more expansive, flexible view of human relationships, and help break-down deep assumptions about ‘family’ and household structure. We’ll be learning to build the cooperative and open social order we’re fighting for. Also, they’ll help us recognize and wean away from nasty habits like watching Sportscenter all night!
After a meeting or demo, I notice a nasty tendency in myself to want to catch up and gossip only with my already-close comrades, to the exclusion of newer folks around. I am not a gregarious or ‘people’ person, but as I get paid to do organizing, I’m constantly working at getting past this and reaching out to new people. But some of my comrades probably don’t even notice this in themselves.
Solicitude is a posture of anxious, serious caring, desire and concern for another (the Latin root Sollus means entire or whole). It suggests that we want something from another – and I’d like to think we want one another’s wisdom, comradeship, care and commitment.
Look, not all revolutionaries are going to announce themselves loud and clear to us. Many folks who we want to be with us in the struggle are shy, and actually have understandable reasons for hanging in the background. Not everybody enjoys or operates in the verbal, declarative, ‘presentation’ style so prized by the Left.
Too often, it is the ‘job’ of a particularly socially and morally aware comrade to engage with newer people who are not at the center of things. But it has to be all of our ‘job’.
People don’t become a part of community automatically or through some mechanical process; there are always decisions, gestures, entreaties, and solicitations that create it.
People on the Left often manifest a seemingly determined lack of curiousity about actually existing other people, especially poor and working-class people. This is partly a result of the alternative languages adopted by Left activists, and partly a result of the small size and social isolation of the Left. We have to work on being more curious and entreating towards people.
I like the word also, with its roots in entire. This calls us to assume a wholistic posture with respect to one another, the opposite of a callous, partial, instrumental approach (e.g. “she’s ok because she’s smart…or “yeah, he’s obnoxious, but he’s got the right ideas”) where we identify with or build a stereotype from bits of one another, instead of relating to one another as whole persons.
This wholistic attitude also means that we put ourselves at the service of others even when it is not immediately political useful or convenient to do so: we visit comrades when they’re sick in the hospital, we celebrate occasions and our own history with them, and we honor our fellow fighters who’ve died. We do ourselves, others and the movements a supreme disservice in relating to one another instrumentally as types or representatives of this or that category, useful to us in this or that way, instead of as developing, learning, suffering and struggling whole beings.
To Be Continued
Many in my organization and on the Left might be annoyed by these reflections. I am not a utopian, and do not believe we can destroy capitalism by improving our moral character. We should be cautious about temptations and politics which want to internalize all the contradictions produce by capitalism and substitute moral, ideological improvement amongst a few for a class movement of the many. But, while we recognize that the class emancipates itself – or not – and that the contours of the class struggle determine in the main the contours of politics, we should also not exclude the part played in educating and inspiring ourselves and others, building movements, and advancing struggles by our habits and character.
I look forward to Isaac’s and others thoughts on these matters. I have more to say, on sex in our society, the material constraints on producing an “infrastructure of dissent”, and why iPods may be the biggest threat to the revolution. But later.