A famous economist Lionel Robbins, who was no radical, wrote “…the validity of a particular theory is a matter of its logical derivation from the general assumptions which it makes. But its applicability to a given situation depends upon the extent to which its concepts actually reflect the forces operating in that situation.” An actual radical GDH Cole wrote: “Woe betide those who seek to save themselves the pain of mental building by inhabiting dead men’s minds.” Both had a good and not always attended point.
This is an essay that thinks about thinking about strategy which uses thinking about whether some tactics are worthy to use or not. Consider: What is criticism and self-criticism?
You might answer—“it’s a way to assess and hopefully improve ourselves. I think it was popular among Maoists.” And you might think, in times like these, who cares?
Yes, right on both counts, and implicitly about it being an obscure question too, but still what does it mean?
You might answer, “Self-criticism was a technique used by Maoists. An activist would criticize something the group was doing, or criticize themselves for their feelings or choices and the group would respond, and people would criticize them and so it was this mutual criticism process that was supposed to elevate peoples’ effectiveness and politics.”
Yes, criticism self criticism was indeed meant to uncover false ideas and harmful behaviors and also correct them. It seems like a nice idea. It would be wise to have a tactical tool to use to improve effectiveness.
A strategy is a scenario that involves a sequence of tactics such as strikes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, criticism/self-criticism, boycotts, letter writing, marches. These are all tactical things that you can do in various situations to piece together into a campaign. And then you can piece a lot of campaigns into a scenario, a strategic program. So should we put this tactic or that tactic in our tactical toolbox or not? Criticism self-criticism, yes or no? It’s a serious question.
Well, it seemed like an okay idea to use this approach to lots of people in the U.S. left, for example, 50 years ago, so they accepted it. They didn’t consider that whatever its merit or lack of merit in China, it might be that Americans, because of who we are and our culture and everything else about us and our situations, might take criticism/self-criticism and in just a few minutes of enacting it, turn it into something more like, tear my head off, tear his head off. So it might not be a good idea because worthy desires aside, given who our society has made us it might not work properly in our milieu. But because the Chinese did it, and after all, their movement won big changes, some in the U.S. chose to do it—unwisely, reflexively, 50 years ago—because they wanted to wear the same suspenders that Trotsky wore, or in this case, the same hat that Mao wore, more or less. Is there a more general point? The point is to consider what people in various sects and far larger efforts than sects often do. They emulate one another mindlessly, sometimes even down to clothing. Then they sing, “hooray for our side.”
I think I could go around the U.S. right now and if I were to run into somebody who was a Weatherman 50 years ago, even who hasn’t been very political in decades, there’s a pretty good chance that I would recognize some of the tonal intonations in their voice patterns—and I just knew many Weather members but wasn’t a member myself.
The point is, in such groups, the dominant personality’s attributes tend to spread through the whole group. So after a time members all talk pretty alike. They all walk pretty alike. They look pretty alike in their mannerisms and choice of clothing. They wear the same stuff, sometimes unbelievable stuff—outfits that made them look like Lenin or whoever it was they wanted to look like—and this happens on the right too, of course. But mainly it is about ideas or procedures that spread us examined.
You might reasonably think these are seemingly strange points to raise, and in any event exaggerated, but in fact pressures to conform are a real problem that people can be sensitized to and do a lot better regarding. This is not just trivia. How often nowadays do people strenuously, aggressively, hold some views and attack other views solely for disagreeing even though they are doing so largely or even entirely with little reason other than habit or unity with others who behave similarly? How often are choices closer to reflex than to thought through?
So assessing criticism/self-criticism, to return to that in particular, is consequential. Back in the late sixties some kept trying to do it, trying to do it, trying to do it, because true revolutionaries did it, or maybe because their group did it, or their friend did it. To not do it, well, a kind of peer pressure precluded that. And at least in our context, the U.S., as I saw it unfold, it was self-defeating because as it was formulated and practiced, it didn’t work here. It didn’t lead to good results here. So if we were in fact being self critical about criticism self criticism we would have had to come up with some other method to accomplish the sought end—which was finding and correcting weaknesses—which is certainly an important thing to achieve.
Folks should have asked, what’s the goal of a technique that didn’t work, and if that goal was worthwhile, fine, folks should have realized the need for a technique to accomplish it—and should have asked how can we accomplish the goal given who we are and where we are? Seek the goal but don’t use a method that doesn’t work. My point, however, is not about the case itself—you can agree or disagree about criticism self criticism, or about specific habits and positions prevalent nowadays, and no matter for this essay. My point is about the issue of adopting or rejecting possible tactics/methods/views.
Here’s another example of a kind of operational dynamic or symptom the left often had and often still has. Tom Hayden was a leftist who remained progressive but changed quite a lot as he aged, and now he is gone for some time. At any rate, he was a very smart guy and he had some considerable insights. And one of his insights was that leftists have a tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. What did he mean by that? And why does it happen? When we win something, who’s going to be the one who delivers it? Will we deliver it? Will we get up on TV and say, yesterday we won the end to the war or climate sanity. Hooray for us? No.
So, who will do it? The State. And what does the state get up and say? Could you imagine a president coming on and saying, “due to the courageous activities of the anti-war movement, or the climate movement or Black Lives Matter it has been revealed that I am a slimy bastard war monger, carbon defender, racist who’s trying to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor and annihilate whatever country we have attacked, or the world, and, therefore… I enact the following changes?” Nope. But you can imagine some president saying that “despite the stupid lunatics in the street who have tied our hands for so long in our efforts to reach a just conclusion of our war, or to deal with our energy policies, or the police, or whatever, I have finally reached a just conclusion…blah, blah…”
And the leftist who watches this then often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The Leftist gets upset, that is, when it turns out that the person who signs the decree for the thing the activists fought for doesn’t give them credit for the accomplishment.
Tactic? Part of strategy? Well, more accurately in this example, mindset or approach. But generalized, yes, it becomes part of practice. Often unevaluated. But what the hell did we expect? If we understand what’s going on, such shenanigans shouldn’t depress us. But these are real processes that happen—this one happens due to ignorance on our part. These are not little things. These are the kinds of things that slowly but surely rip movements to shreds. Slowly but surely they lead to disillusion or depression. Regrettably, there’re many things that do that. I am choosing examples that I hope won’t cause readers to lose sight that the issue here is how to think about such things most broadly, not what do we think about the particular examples discussed. Point is, we have to get a grip on how to address recurring aspects of what we do, whether tactics, attitudes, practices, or ideas.
What about the personal is political? An idea summarized in a slogan generated by feminists from way back that resurfaces periodically. What does it mean? You might say, “It’s like… would you be able to apply some sort of macro-political vision if you don’t live it yourself on the personal level.” That’s one thing that it meant—back when it was popular—for some people. It’s a kind of a hypocrisy argument. But it also meant, and this was far more its original meaning, that personal acts are political by their logic and implications sure, but most particularly, in their causes. So it meant all those things, I think. And it was a correct insight. And what sharing the insight was supposed to actually do was to sensitize people to paying attention to the stuff that is called personal but from a political angle. Seeing the social causes. As a kind of instruction, “the personal is political” was supposed to attune us to the fact that personal depression, personal poverty, personal ignorance, personal passivity, personal denigration, personal inadequacies usually aren’t personal failings at all, but are, instead, the product of social forces.
The view emerged when women in the very early days of feminism got together and talked about their lives, their families, their marriages, all of it—and discovered that what they were enduring separately and blaming themselves for, or their partners for, as if it was an aberration, instead recurred for them all. It wasn’t personal. It was political.
But what about the hypocrisy interpretation? The extreme version of it is that each person’s every act is political and more, what it means to be political is to oversee your personal choices and make them perfectly wonderful—or you are a hypocrite. To comply, you sit around and figure out what the absolute perfect human being is. And you claim any deviation from being that perfect human being is a failure. And you call out the failures. To deviate from perfect makes a person a slimeball. They are not practicing worthy politics. So, in such form, the instruction becomes a method, a tactic.
We go from “the personal is political” means that large-scale political phenomena impact our lives and are at the root of many things that seem entirely personal to us, to nearly the opposite mentality. That is, we slip slide to thinking everything is entirely personal and it is our narrow, individual personal choices that constitute all that is politics. This then leads to this kind of attitude where correct insights (the insight that what we do has political implications) are pushed down a slippery slope until they become impossibly extreme (the only thing that matters politically is our private personal daily life choices, our lifestyles). In fact, the idea that one is going to be perfect overnight is horribly self defeating, even if we knew what perfect personal choices were, indeed even if such a thing actually existed in the abstract. So our words in some exchange, our take on some event, even just one utterance can provoke harsh attacks and even spiral into very nearly berserk hostility that becomes so hyperbolic that explanation and understanding entirely exit. Communication exits.
People who think their political focus should be attaining some kind of perfect lifestyle or more generally unassailable stances and choices—often far less examined than one might guess—become timid, defensive, almost the opposite of creative and initiating for fear of making a misstep that brings on hostility. Movement activism becomes an unfolding contest in which many participants generally last about two years of political life, maybe four years of political life. Or they don’t get going in the first place.
We set standards for ourselves that we’re not going to meet. We set standards for others that others won’t meet. So someone missteps and good, caring people hurl epithets and hate. There’s no sense of patience. There’s no sense of humanity, mutual respect, and modesty. There is no careful exploration of new and different ideas. Ironically, once there is a general position in some group, the user of it is often profoundly conservative, to ward off different views. This was the birth process, I think, of what we now call cancel culture and of the too often intense attacks of leftists on other leftists.
What I am saying doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pay attention to our behavior. We should. But to really pay attention to our behavior would include being sensitive to the fact that people take some time to develop good traits and habits and that what is good for one person may not be for another. That would be sensitive. It would understand that challenging existing beliefs is okay, indeed good practice to welcome, even when it is mistaken, though not when it is dismissive and derogatory. But again, my point here is not really about the examples themselves, it is about dealing with choices.
Here’s are two more examples regarding thinking about tactics and strategy. These are probably more controversial for many readers. What about violence? And what about Leninist organization, democratic centralism?
These too are tactical options. They are more widely seen as strategic options but violence and democratic centralism are both like criticism/self-criticism in the sense that they’re tactics. We could use them. We could not use them. Should they be in our toolbox or should we throw them out because they are dysfunctional or even counterproductive? That is the question. How to address it is my point.
Should we have Leninist organization and violence in our toolbox? Are they tactics that we can constructively use in the course of the campaigns, struggles, and scenarios we seek to create? Or is there something about them that’s just so horrible that we can’t even conceivably use them?
You might say, “Well, violence in terms of hurting people, that’s a tactic I wouldn’t put in my toolbox.“ Okay, in that case you would be saying: “violence against people, I don’t think that’s a tool that I want to put in a toolbox.” But why? As soon as we’re strategic, we’re not asking what people want anymore. We aren’t even talking about a goal for society—of course we want a non-violent society—no, we are talking about what means we are going to utilize to get to a desired society.
If I’m asking you what you’re like as a person, then I want to know that you want or you don’t want violence against people in a new society. And I would prefer to associate with people who don’t want it in a better future. But, as soon as I’m asking you about strategy, I’m not asking about your personal wants, tastes, desires for the future. I’m asking about what you think will work well and won’t work well in different situations, times, and places. The issue becomes what are the drawbacks and the virtues of, in this case, violence.
You might say, “violence alienates everybody.” So one set of drawbacks would be the likely effect on others. It might be that violence somehow alienates everybody. Does that make any sense in the United States? It’s a fuzzy, hard question. But one side of what I am trying to convey is, what are the issues we need to consider when we’re trying to figure out to use or to reject tactics?
Will the tactic (or idea or whatever) help us build our constituency? Will it help us strengthen our constituency? Will it help us overcome obstacles we face, weaken our opponents, even divide them? Will it help us build organizational structures that lead to what we’re trying to accomplish. What effects does violence, in this case, have on those we are trying to reach, on policy makers we are trying to win gains from, but also what effects does violence, in this case, have on us as organizers and as activists? What does it do to us? We should analyze a tactic and ask whether or not it has negative or positive effects, on reaching our constituency, on building our strength, and on us as people and as organizers.
But to make such judgements, we also might have to look at the setting that we find ourselves in and ask whether we have any choice. If we simply have to use the tactic and we have no choice, then we may know we need to ameliorate the bad aspects because if we don’t, we lose.
What about the second example, Leninist organization? What’s the issue with that? Well, first of all, what is it? You might say, “It’s a vanguard group that does the decision making.”
So it’s an organizational structure in which you have mind and body… or you have officers and troops, is I suppose the right analogy in some sense. You have some folks who are responsible le to do the theory, do the vision, do the strategy, figure out the campaigns, issue the instructions, hopefully in glorious rhetoric and with great emotional appeal and insight. And then you have everybody else who do what needs to be done. Now, there are some arguments in favor of and against variants of this.
It could promote coherence, unity. It could engender discipline. And then there are some arguments against it. It might drive off members. It might not lead where you want to go. Can Democratic Centralism ever allow or generate victory? Well, yes, we know it can because it has in fact won at times. So this is not an open question. Some of this stuff we’re guessing about and have to be guessing about, because we have no experience of it. We use what experience we have, the concepts we have, and we come to the best conclusion we can. But in other cases we actually know. Advocates of Leninist organization, that’s the first thing they say. We have won. So Leninist organizations can win. So what’s the problem with winning, they then ask? And we might say, for starters, well, it can win what? Bad guys have won, too. Winning is not enough. Winning is not a sole criterion of value. Just like those people who might go somewhere to organize and might say, we have created motion and energy. We are wonderful—and they might be wrong because creating motion and energy isn’t the sole criteria of value. Motion to where? Motion to what?
“But it isn’t the case that every Leninist is a little Hitler or a little Stalin or even a little Lenin or Trotsky,” you may reply. Indeed, a Leninist might say, “don’t be so arrogant with me. I understand the ills of Leninist organizations. I understand the ills of hierarchy. I don’t like the bad aspects of it any more than you do. We want the same democratic, participatory, end. But the other side is waving an M-16 at me. And I know this way of organizing can work and I want to use it not because I enjoy hierarchy and authority, but because I want to change the world and the other side has created a setting where nothing that is more in tune with my ultimate values will succeed. I have to do this for coherence, for discipline, for unity, and I know I have to guard against the bad side effects.”
All right, so that’s a sincere argument. It’s an educated and sensitive argument. Do we have to use this tool? If we use this tool, will it subvert our true desires and steadily substitute new aims for what we thought we were pursuing? And then we have to discuss the issues and figure out what the implications of the role structure of this thing called Democratic Centralism and Vanguard Party are.
And if we look at it and decide not just that it is ideally morally inferior to something we’d personally rather be doing, which is largely beside the point, but that there is something else we can employ that is more likely to attain our desired ends, then we rule it out from our box of tactical options. That’s where I am at — I don’t think Leninist organization is a worthy left option. But I don’t feel quite the same way about violence, though the logic of the discussion is the same, and my feelings are almost the same. But my point here is not what I think about these tactics, or even about what you may feel about these tactics, but about how to assess tactics.
There is another problem with Leninist organization, at least as I evaluate it, which bears on how we think about evaluating choices that I should at least mention. If you’re in the United States and ultimately trying to contribute to a revolution, one of the things we have to deal with is authoritarianism, including the parts of our own mindset that are associated with reproducing current oppressions as compared to battling against them.
We have to address authoritarianism to overcome submission to elite instruction, or we’re not going to get far. But that has strategic implications. We can’t counter authoritarianism, eliminate its impact within our projects and oppose it in society, while we are literally reproducing and even celebrating its virtues in our own practice and rhetoric.
You might ask, “but do you differentiate between a rejection of Leninism and a rejection of things like leadership and education in relatively small groups that have different levels of experience and commitment?” Now I could get sarcastic and say, “Oh, I’m all in against education, clearly.” But better to say, “you’re right. I’m not against leadership and excellence and working hard and emulating people who set a fine standard. There is nothing wrong with any of that unless it is done in a way that subverts your values and aims. It’s a specific structure that I’m against, a set of institutional roles, a set of allocations of power.”
So the point is I’m against Leninism in the U.S. not just because I think if successful it would win the wrong thing—authoritarian political forms and, I also believe, coordinator class dominated economic forms—which is a reason to be against Leninism anywhere. In the U.S., however, I don’t think it would win the wrong thing because I doubt it could ever win anything leftist in the U.S. I don’t think it could attract sufficient support from the needed constituencies in the U.S. to fight its way out of a paper bag. And the reason is because average people in the U.S. are so anti-authoritarian in spirit, but simultaneously so habituated to obedience, that in practice, on both counts it is essential for a left movement to be anti-authoritarian. If that right or wrong? Important question, but not my point in this essay. Rather, does it reveal something useful about how to think about thinking about strategy.
To go left in your morals and sense of right and wrong and to adopt a dissident position that allies with those worst off in society, in the U.S., I believe you have to be highly anti-authoritarian. An approach to organization which emphasizes becoming obedient to exactly the kind of person you are tired of being obedient to, won’t attract wide support and certainly won’t counter the dynamics that reproduce the broader oppressions of society. So, yes, in some places, you can do a Leninist approach and garner support and build a powerful movement, so you might then gain sufficient power to win gains, but the other problem that then enters is that such gains will tend to lead to the wrong end.
What about violence and the left? We didn’t finish with that example. With violence one issue is that if you turn the other cheek, they’ll hit that one too. And if you sit down on the railroad tracks, they’ll run you over. The U.S. is one of the most violent countries in the world, in its culture and its behavior patterns. And this makes a problem for non-violence, obviously. In many settings violence trumps non-violence. Not always, but sometimes. So it isn’t obvious that committing yourself to a principled non-violence in all contexts is actually the way to minimize violence.
Sometimes the fact that you won’t defend yourself literally invites attack. Indeed, in the U.S. I think that an absolute a priori commitment to non-violence most likely guarantees that all violence will be directed at you and there may well be enough to squash you. But being willing to defend one’s self, in certain situations, is not a prescription for going out and buying M-16s and trying to attack the state in which case you’re squashed in seven seconds. The effective way to handle violence, I think, is in most situations to create a context in which the social costs of suppressing you with violence are higher than not doing so. So that’s what you do, you create such costs for the state. And if you don’t, you get attacked. You have to set up a situation, in other words, in which elites will lose more than they will gain if they use their violent apparatus against you. If you can do that, you’re dealing with violence well. Sometimes—rarely—this may include being willing to defend yourself. Consider a picket line outside a facility you are on strike against. Scabs come. They want to enter to violate your strike. They try to break through your picket. Do you defend yourself and ward them off? Or do you non-violently let them pass? Or perhaps sit down and make them struggle to get past? Well, you assess what will strengthen our efforts? What will lead to more strikers on the line the next day? More community support, and so on?
The point here in this article isn’t to exhaustively decide such issues in some apriori way for all cases. If you’re interested in reading people on the side of non-violence as a principled stance you might want to read Dave Dellinger who is certainly one of the most admirable movement participants in the United States in the last fifty or a hundred years. He was an incredible person. Anyway, his autobiography is a good thing to read about this and about many topics.
At the other extreme, how many people have heard of Frantz Fanon? He was an African revolutionary, from Martinique, a psychiatrist, who wrote brilliantly about colonialism but who also had a thesis, or at least many people read him this way, that violence was therapeutic. Violence for the repressed and the oppressed served the purpose of liberating their sentiments and freeing them from psychological subservience, and, therefore, it was a positive factor, not a negative one, in the movement. For Fanon, or his readers, anyhow, violence wasn’t so much a last resort, forced upon us by circumstances, as it was actually something to pursue as part of our way to eliminate the vestiges of repressive beliefs and habits in ourselves.
I happen to think that at least in the U.S. where I reside, this is, well, seriously false, and that violence instead has horrible effects on its perpetrators, more often than not causing them to devalue human life and elevate themselves to a higher status than others—else why do they have the right to exercise this violence? My enemy is a pig not a person.
But the point here is to see how such issues can be tackled and thought about, rather than folks merely screaming at each other this or that position often based on inexpressible intuitions or worse, my team says that, so I say that. Violence and Leninist organizational choices are different things, clearly. But the way we think about whether we should have them and other options in our menu of available tactics should be similar.
We have an understanding of what’s wrong now, and of what we want in the future. In our case, let’s say, we understand key spheres of social life with their defining core institutions that create role offerings that circumscribe options and outcomes in horribly oppressive ways. And we understand the emergence of people with beliefs and habits in considerable part created by these impositions, as well as by our fighting against them. And let’s say we see these different aspects of life, polity, economy, culture, kinship as so entwined and mutually enforcing, intersecting, that to change any one of them the most sensible orientation is to build movements addressing all four. And let’s say we have an understanding of our goals for these four sides of life and their interrelations that emphasizes institutional aims that foster and facilitate necessary social functions but that also further values we care about—for example, equity, solidarity, diversity, sustainability, reciprocity, internationalism, and self management.
And let’s say we also understand something about people and their current conditions, and we see certain constituencies as critical to building movements, and we see certain patterns of struggle for change and for new infrastructure as leading toward our goals. Okay, so do we use Leninist organization, do we use violence, within the choices we make?
If you think there is something about perpetrating violence that structurally, emotionally, or interpersonally contributes to building needed movements, then you likely want to use it. If you think it has some very negative attributes but is required by virtue of the choices of those maintaining oppressive structures, then you will want to use it, but only the minimum possible amount. If you think it not only has bad effects but actually reduces your prospects of being able to ward off the violence of the state or its other means of destroying your efforts, then you will be very nearly unequivocally against the use of violence.
A perfectly consistent position, for example, would be to think violent attacks against oppressive institutions and agencies are wholly justified but that they are very often also utterly insane, at least in industrialized societies. That is the way I feel, by and large, so I certainly hope it is a consistent position.
I know that nowadays many very wonderful, caring, serious people are going out and buying guns thinking that doing so, and that trying to learn to use them, is part of trying to build a better word—and it is painful to see and sad to contemplate…because my own perceptions and thoughts suggest that however well motivated it has no utility for winning a better world and, instead, if it persists it is far more likely to undermine such positive efforts and fuel reaction. It isn’t that it is immoral. It is, well, honestly, that it is so ill conceived as to be politically and socially suicidal.
The same kind of calculations apply to evaluating Leninism, or for that matter national strikes, different types of rhetoric, different choices about focus, different means of structuring our organizations, and so on. Undertaking calculations concerning the effects of different tactics in different situations—or sometimes even for all situations—generally results in liking something a lot, not liking it but feeling like sometimes we must use it and guard against associated problems, or thinking something is just downright subversive of our intentions.
Here is a little story about violence. Consider one of Che Guevara’s tactics. It’s an example of thinking about violence in a very ugly context that has nothing whatever in common with living in a good society—war. So Che said, look, in any confrontation you’re going to have in the jungle fighting against Batista’s Cuban army, you want to make sure that the person who was in the front of the enemy’s line of march is dead when the battle is over. He said, get that person, whatever you do. Why? So nobody would ever want to be in front. If everybody knows that there’s a 100% likelihood that the person who’s in front is going to be dead, who’s going in front?
I don’t know whether this story is totally accurate, or to what extent it worked or not, although we know the Cuban army did crumble even though it confronted a force that was initially relatively minuscule. But what kind of thinking was that? It was vile in some sense. A calculus of killing. And that is a problem, because when you start thinking like that it is very hard to stop. And yet, if you are at war…. I should say, I suppose everybody has their heroes and Che is one of my heroes. Because I think, in the horrible context, the kinds of things he did were—I don’t know this for sure, how can we know such things for sure, lacking enough real evidence—warranted.
But to employ a process that leads people to think about killing like that—you could argue, forget it. The price is too high. We won’t be able to create a good society because if we think like that for long enough, our humanity exits. Or you might say something slightly different which is that all the people that had to think like that, after you win, instead of putting them in positions they can abuse, the first thing that you ought to do with those people is ship them off for a long vacation. I happen to think that’s a pretty sensible viewpoint. In other words, if there are things you have to do, as a movement, about which you could predict in advance the likelihood is that the net result of doing it is going to be that the people involved are corrupted by it, well then whatever your goals are, you probably shouldn’t want to leave the person who did those things any room for subverting desirable outcomes later. Of course, the irony with Che is that later at many points he seems to have been the most libertarian voice in the revolution, though perhaps not always and not regarding violence. Evaluating tactics and ideas in light of their consequences—is not easy.
Another example, How did the Bolsheviks raise money before the war? They robbed banks. And who was the guy who organized the bank robbers? You might guess “Lenin.”
But, no, Lenin was too busy. It was Stalin. So Stalin organized the bank robbers. And that’s pretty interesting. There were others involved, of course, but in any case, Stalin did that and maybe it was his personality that led to his being involved. Or maybe it was just a crappy dangerous job and he did it out of sincere commitment, despite it being out of character. Who knows? The thing is, you do stuff like that and your character tends to change. So am I against robbing banks to get money in principle? Not in principle, no, I’m not against it. If there was a way, tomorrow, that leftists could rip off from Chase Manhattan millions of dollars and then have that money available for activist purposes, or even just for redistribution, without the costs being higher than the gains, I’d be for it.
Choosing what to do and how to do it in social contexts, with human stakes, is not simple. It is partly guided by one’s view of what exists and what is being sought, partly guided by values and intuitions, and sometimes an assessment is hard to pin down.
When I was a student at MIT others used to ask me questions like would you burn down a library? This is during the Vietnam War. And the particular situation I was in was that I would often be talking to a whole lot of students in a big hall because of the role that I was playing and what I was doing and the particular prominence I had. And among more sensible and serious queries, students would often ask questions like, would you burn down a library to stop the war in Vietnam? And I would just look at them and say, well, you wouldn’t? You wouldn’t burn down that library right there, right now, to stop the war in Vietnam? Are you telling me that you would not burn 17 books or 17,000 books and some walls in order to stop a war that’s killing tens and hundreds of thousands and indeed millions of innocent people? Be serious.
So in certain contexts there are things that you do that you wouldn’t do in a good world, or even dream of doing in a good world, but you would do in a war. But the people who are doing it, if it screws them up, they need to be treated not as leaders, but as casualties.
And of course about those books, I would then point out that far from ending the war burning down the library would alienate potential anti-war support and therefore have the reverse effect, so I don’t spend even milliseconds thinking about things like that except to answer your ridiculous question.
Suppose you have spies. So you have some people who are professional liars. What do you do with them after you win? Make them part of your new news bureau? Well, that’s the kind of thing that happens in history to date. Idiot choices like that. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense at all, unless, of course, you intend your news bureau to be an evasive and manipulative and lying institution.
What I am trying to do is to just bring up examples, issues, and experiences that call forth the kinds of thinking that goes into being strategic, being tactical, in a sensible way.
Here is another example to contemplate. In the sixties, there were people who were just wonderful who got on a trajectory of personal interaction and it wasn’t even six months before they were sectarian crazies. They’re running around at night and they’re coming to your house and they’re sneaking in the door and they’re saying, we are the Vietcong. And they really do think they are the Vietcong. I mean, in other words, they’ve lost track of reality. They think the next demonstration will end the war if we are violent enough. They hold a view and if you don’t agree, you are an enemy of humanity. Your motives are vile. Understanding the dynamics by which this kind of devolution happens not only on the right, in fascist trends, but also at times on the left, isn’t some weird diversion from trying to change the world. It is, instead, very much a part of trying to change the world.
A movement isn’t just understanding how the Bank of America or inflation work, or what patriarchy is, in order to staunchly stand against such ills. It’s also partly understanding how choices that one makes about tactics impact us or impact those we are trying to reach, like the impact of violence on us or of our ways of organizing ourselves on us, or of our ways of judging ourselves (like criticism self-criticism) on us, or of our forms of arguing or our modes of reasoning or our choices of concepts, on us—and in each case also on those we need to reach.
And then comes an annoying complication—you can’t go to the opposite extreme of asking everybody to be perfect people overnight. We have to have a sense of proportion, of taking insights steadily forward, but not so far as to turn them into destructive norms used to bludgeon people, or cancel them.
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