Love is the Only Law
It’s been a busy week as I help my comrades prepare for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national convention, to be held here in Chicago in only a few months. I’ll also be running for a leadership position in our local chapter — a prospect that, I must admit, fills me with dread. Ever since my anarchist days, I’ve been allergic to the idea of leadership; who am I, after all, to tell anyone else what to do? I want to be a strong leader but not a martinet, an effective leader but not a mere administrator, a leader who listens but isn’t just there to be manipulated. I tell myself that the mere fact that I volunteered to run speaks to my commitment to socialism, but I’m terrified of doing wrong.
Part of what keeps the various factions of the left, whether it’s liberals and leftists, or democratic socialists and democratic centrists, or social justice advocates and economic justice advocates, or whatever other division you care to unearth, from presenting a united front is that they’re very highly attuned to the small differences of ideology.
Now, I don’t discount ideological motivation. Ideology is not incidental; it’s hugely necessary. I believe that the key to organizing on the left is building solidarity with working-class people and marginalized groups, reaching out to the people no one reaches out to, giving voice to the voiceless — to making the people who are written off by everyone else the cornerstone of your movement. The key to democratic victory isn’t voters, it’s non-voters. If there is hope, it lies with the proles, as Orwell said in a way that was even more ironic than even he intended. But I don’t think organizing can happen without ideology; I don’t even think it should. An ideologue who doesn’t organize is just masturbating, while an organizer who doesn’t have an ideology is just a mercenary. It’s finding the right balance between those two, and pairing the people who are good at one and not the other together, that I think is of critical importance in movement-building.
But ideology is too often put in the driver’s seat, with the small differences exaggerated to world-historical importance. The result is the effective alienation of organizing power, and that means that instead of us all getting on the bus that’s going to drive us to the end of capitalism, there’s dozens of us sitting behind the wheels of cars that don’t have any motors.
All that said, I don’t think the solution to ideological purity is ideological neutrality. We don’t want everyone on the bus, because then we’re going to start having arguments about what direction it’s going — and that’s something that needs to be decided before anyone starts it up. We tend to get wrapped up in the microscopic aspects of the journey to the point where we’ve all forgotten the destination — we are, to borrow the language of another politically shady operator, mistaking the map for the territory.
That’s why I wish that more comrades were as versed in a widely misunderstood philosopher as they were on so many other prominent left thinkers. Richard Rorty understood better than almost anyone the way I think we ought to approach organizing AND ideology: not as a battle over meaningless essentialism, but as an ongoing process of discovering and agreeing on our goals, and finding the most practical ways of achieving them. Rorty had insights that I can’t begin to encapsulate here, but I can list a double handful of ideas from the neopragmatist approach built by people like Habermas, Peirce, Kuhn, Quine, and Rorty that I wish the left would adapt more fully:
– Communism should be utopian, not ‘scientific’.
– Practice should always have primacy over theory.
– Irony builds solidarity, and solidarity unites humanity.
– Reality is a game in which using language is a move. The language that’s a good move in one community is a bad move in another.
– Getting things ‘right’ or ‘correct’ is secondary to making them useful.
– Almost every form of essentialism is ultimately a dead end because of the vast power of contingency.
– Since there is no unassailable platform on which to make judgments about differing experiences of reality, making them central to your argument is usually wasteful.
– Principles are good unless they hobble your ability to get things done. (It ain’t your word, it’s who you give it to.)
– Believing our vocabulary is not final opens us up to greater understanding, and thus the possibility of hope.
– Restrictive moralism, especially when tied to metaphysics, can never be liberating. It can only be cruel.
As for what all this means in practice, I wish I had that answer; I feel it’s the key to a better world through socialism, but I just don’t know how to fit it into the lock. I agonize over this stuff all the time, trying to be a good comrade while thinking the essentialist underpinnings of so much liberal thought still remains in fragmented form in a lot of the left. I think my approach is right, and I try to spread it subtly, like a bad cold in a crowded office, so that eventually everyone comes down with it while never quite knowing where it came from. (Rorty would be the first to argue that it doesn’t matter anyway.).
But I know that some of the approaches we are taking as we organize in these important moments — making sure we don’t beat people over the head with ideological constructs while still keeping them as the foundation to our work; using the incredible power of story and metaphor as our most critical organizing tool; recognizing that language is a tool for constructing reality and not for reflecting it, and using that recognition to engage different people in different languages that help them construct a sympathetic model of reality — is what’s going to help us win, and if I have any real value to the movement (and I’m never quite sure I do), it’s in directing those approaches towards victory.