There is one component of the work of Karl Marx that is undoubtedly an abysmal failure. It is this legacy that continues to haunt the left, above all other intellectual problems with his work.
No, Althusserians, I’m not talking about his “historicism” or his “early” humanism. No, those who understand historical contingency, I’m not talking about the creeping mechanistic language that pervades the sloppier and shorter pieces.
Nothing could be more expressive of a general lack of a comradely spirit than the practice of lacing every criticism with vitriolic slander of the most personal type. Although we may find these creative insults from a beautiful mind to be entertaining, we have to separate this affect from the simple reality that Marx’s behavior is reflective of the kinds of mental states appropriate only for patriarchal forms of intellectual competition; it is not fit for constructing a revolutionary mass movement capable of overthrowing the powers of global capital.
Every day I enter into the world of the cyber-left I am treated to new and astounding ways in which political differences are articulated by rude, un-comradely monologues which serve more to stroke and strike our egos than the purpose of criticism. That comrades simply cannot accept that there are those on the left who are intellectually wrong about something in spite of their good intentions and yet still worthy of being called comrades seems to be an impossible concept for the left to swallow.
We might look to our enemies for instruction here. With the exception of our contemporary period which has seen the rise of a one-party tendency among Republicans (finding its greatest expression first during the Bush years and now with the Tea Party), the ruling class in the United States has generally been able to carry out debate within its ranks and still present a united front to the world. Through competition and careful manipulation of public image, these two great political expressions of the ruling class have been able to present an image of difference while maintaining (more or less) continuity between different management teams.
In other words, even those who run an authoritarian system are able to function at a level of manageable differences and remain “on the same team.” What the left (as a whole) manages to do is present itself as competing factions of authoritarians who not only cannot present a united front, but rather cannot seem to understand that there is an ocean of difference between intellectual and political error by a small minority and the machinations of capital and empire.
For instance, to claim that comrades who oppose the revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad are equivalent to that regime is false. Likewise, to claim that those who support the Syrian opposition are equivalent to imperialism simply because of the opportunistic relationship between imperialism and some of the opposition is also false.
Now, one or the other points of view here is the “correct line” so to speak, or at least some nuanced version of the two, but failure to adhere to this correct position ought not to be a condition of a comradely relationship. One can see well-reasoned arguments on both sides combined with a general lack of good information can yield smart, good people to end up on different sides.
In general, we ought to practice one of the most elementary forms of democratic practice: majority rule with the formalization of loyal oppositions organized as formal tendencies who utilize debate and forums of various kinds to argue their points. That no organization in the U.S. left really has this structure is a testament to our political immaturity.
There are of course limits to this. If one faction or another feels that essential principles are being compromised, then of course one must move on from the right to dissent to the right of secession and leave whatever formation one is currently in. Even here, however, is there a role for personal attack and vitriol?
Indeed, in general, is there a productive role for personal attack and vitriol in any way, shape or form for our lives in general, and in particular for our political activity?
Of course some may see no harm in this kind of activity within their personal life, and for those who feel this way and engage in political work I feel that they will have to engineer a deeper separation of their personal and political activities than most.
But for those of us who feel that such slander and vitriol directed against individuals does nothing to harm the target (well, most of the time) and does everything to harm ourselves and those around us who are exposed to such poison, where does this leave us? What are we to do when we enter a political space dominated by personalized slander and vitriol, the paragon of which is the classic works of left-wing political thought themselves?
What this does to people like me is that it basically closes off the space for political interaction in a very immediate and material way. If participating in debate about how a revolutionary should view the Cuban government or how we ought to relate to the Democratic Party means diving into a swamp of personal attacks and toxic slander, then I usually opt out. Countless others—particularly (but not only) female comrades of mine do the same. Whether the words come from a male or a female mouth (and mostly they tend to come from males) they are harmful and implicitly patriarchal in their very structure. Their goal is to strike, to drive a wedge, to whack with a club when our goal ought to be to carefully and surgically influence one another and the course of discussion.
When I bring this point up, undoubtedly there are some who say that those of us who hold this position are simply not “tough enough for revolution.” I would retort that if petty, personalized attacks are the only packaging in which political debate can be expressed by someone, then that person’s argument likely has some intellectual weak spots and the person likely has some personal issues around their ego that they need to resolve before they try to build a mass movement of selfless comrades dedicated to establishing a world of liberty, equality, and solidarity.
So see this as a cry for comradely behavior between each other, among different organizations, and so forth. If every faction of the left is armed to the teeth with vicious arguments against one another, it makes us only appear to be petty, squabbling siblings, not the courageous leaders of tomorrow’s revolutions.
Postscript: Upon posting this, my argument was misunderstood by many who felt that what I was claiming was that Marx was the source of this kind of behavior. I do not wish to make that point and should have strongly emphasized this in the transition from a critique of Marx to a critique of ourselves. This behavior, I feel, is a result of a variety of sources including impulses that arise among individuals to belittle others in a personal way so as to drive a substantive criticism deeper than it might otherwise be driven, or alternatively as something to stand in the place of a substantive criticism that is lacking. I feel it is mostly part of the communicative patterns common to people in a society grounded in competition and a subculture that values intellectual rigor, one that is profoundly structured by the impulses of patriarchy.
Another misunderstanding is that I was claiming Marx’s criticisms of Stirner, Proudhon and Bakunin—to name a few—to be identical with these personal attacks. Far from it. I agree with Marx’s substantive criticism of these figures and feel that the lacing of these critiques with personal attacks detracts from his arguments and spins them off towards a petty form of masturbatory intellectual saber-rattling.
Finally, for those who saw this as a passive aggressive attack at things I refused to name, the prime motivation was the acrimony and intellectual blood spilt over the Libya and Syrian crises. Although I’ve seen these flare-ups over other circumstances (most notably Cuba, the nature of the class nature of the former Soviet Union, the relationship of radicals to the Democratic Party, the nature of intersectionality, and so on), it was the vitriol expressed among members of a variety of left organizations including Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Fight Back, Socialist Party USA, Kasama Project, the Socialist Equality Party, and even some comrades abroad concerning the Libya and Syrian crises that was the immediate cause of my writing.
This is not isolated to debates between these groups but rather what I feel to be the more vicious internal spats on various listserves and so forth, something that I personally experienced in conversations with individuals during the Libyan crisis.
In the last estimate, I would say that those who fight for a better world alongside me are my comrades, and largely the people in these formations fall within that grouping, even if the respective organizations as a whole have irreconcilable differences. Furthermore, this extends even beyond the circle of Marxists to include anarchists and many militants who regard themselves as the stewards of no particular ideological tradition. It is my sincere hope that, when the dust settles over the struggles over austerity and economic crisis over the next few years, there will be a large new left party with a significant following in the U.S. that will allow us to look back on these days as a time of immaturity, as a time when we were all children and that once we have become adults, we will put away those childish things.