Reply to Mark Lause: the heterodox socialist line on tea parties

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Tue Jul 22 19:24:48 MDT 2003


Hi Mark,

Thanks for your response. I stuffed up a bit today and didn't get the work
done I wanted, still more administration work to come (check out Trotsky's
observations in his speech "Attention to detaill" in his little book
Problems of Everyday Life). I couldn't get back to you quickly.

You mention:

the idea of a separate organization of "intellectuals" and "academics."  I
asked very specifically, though, what was to be gained by doing this
separately from those who are not "intellectuals" and "academics".  Your
long email ignored these specific concerns in favor of a meandering
discourse on whether to organize or not to organize.

Reply:

Well in a sense you are correct, because I did meander a bit through the
park today, thinking of the greener things in life, being a bit slow and
klutzy, but as I said, I do side with Yosh on the question of organisation
versus no organisation. I am fully aware, that this is not the ONLY question
there is to be discussed, but I was trying to explain something about the
first principles of political reasoning, the basis from which we get going,
before we start talking subtleties. If you want to have a debate, then, so
Aristotle informed us, you must have some premises in common. This is
rationality, this is praxis.  If we are to debate organisation, we must both
first agree on the importance of organisation. If one of use disagrees about
the importance of organisation, or doesn't really get organised, or doesn't
have the willingness to get organised, well then it is useless to have a
debate, because all we are doing then is debating the validity of our
stance, which is infantile, it has no substantive content, a bit like the
cartoon where a little boy says to a little girl "I have got one of these"
and the little girl says "But I, have got one of these, and with one of
these, I can get as many of those as I want". or we might talk about our
political genealogy.  So then, the condition for entry into the debate, is
unanimity on the question of the necessity for organisation. Which is
probably why you aren't hearing anything from Yoshie, who, probably, thinks
"I have better things to do", a point of view for which I can have sympathy
in this case.

You kind of implied "well it is useless to try and organise these
intellectuals, it's just pettybourgeois windbags, the whole thing explodes
pretty soon after you have started it, pretty soon they are quarreling
again, lots of status envy and so on." You think in advance that is going to
be a waste of time, and if you think that in advance, it is probably going
to be a waste, at least from your point of view, it is a selffulfilling
prophecy. And you are a bit suspicious of intellectuals organising on their
own, without being under the control of the working classes. Perhaps you
think, "couldn't they become a 'new class' or a 'new elite' if the working
class doesn't police over them ?". But then you see, you haven't really
examine the class structure of American society yet properly and the place
of intellectuals in it, and you romanticise the working classes too, because
many American workers are far more capable than any academic intellectuals,
of forming a 'new class' or a new bureaucracy. Workers ain't dumb, they have
computers too.  Another aspect of the question could be, that you feel these
"fat overpaid intellectuals" should get their "hands dirty" and should
develop the proletarian mentality, be forced to understand what real life is
really like for the "real workers" and so on. Well just look at what
happened in the Chinese cultural revolution, which was a very crude approach
to the problems we have to solve, in a much better way, today. The Maoists
wanted to abolish the division of labour by sending the intellectuals into
the countryside. In a certain sense, this idea had some merit, but the
division of labour wasn't abolished at all, really.

But this is not how organisers operate, at least not if they follow the
Lenin line, the heterodox socialist line. Like I said, the organiser starts
off by asking, how could we best utilise the resources, skills, knowledges,
inspirations etc. of these intellectuals, help them organise and form new
connections, from the point of view of the kind of society that we aspire
to, the goals we wish to realise, how do we link them into our project on
the basis of mutual respect and common goals. If we do not ask this
question, if this is not our point of departure, why then bother to have
contact with these people ? It would be completely unprincipled to try and
work with these people on any other basis, manipulative, dishonest. And we
do so, through organising activities which confirm the validity of what they
do, which make them better at what they do already, which increase their
effectiveness. In so doing, we make a specific analysis of the specific
situation, taking into account personalities, predicaments, logistics and
suchlike. There are times, when we think it is important to encourage
intellectuals with similar concerns to work together and get organised. And
there are times, we wish to focus there attention on specific problems of
the working classes. But nothing is to be gained from a commandist stance,
we seek to persuade, get people on side, try to access fresh pools of
intellectual resources. We know what we think already, we want to know how
they think. We do not impose our political analysis on them, rather we aim
to provide a stimulus for intellectual ferment and encourage people to
organise collectively, and then, through that collective organisation
process, new ideas are generated, political awareness is deepened, and so
on. This is just ABC. The extreme concern with intellectual autonomy and
individual freedoms that intellectuals have, can get in the way of getting
organised, and we have to find a solution to that. On the other side, the
intellectuals help us to defend our freedoms and our intellectual autonomy,
and help us to organise.

You say:

My own sense is that intellectuals and academics who want to do
something, should do what Yoshie's been doing--try to build something
worth building with persons who are not "intellectuals" or "academics".
Also, if you want to build a movement or try your hand at building a
party, do it.

Reply:

Well agreed. But Yoshie is, I understand, attached to the Ohio State
University, so it is perfectly natural that she should try an organise
something at that level, that is quite appropriate. Hostility against
intellectuals gets you absolutely nowhere, as Marx told Weitling, "ignorance
never helped anybody". Knowledge and learning are necessary.  Weitling was
full of fervour for "the workers, the oppressed" and so on, but completely
failed to understand precisely the function of intellectuals and their place
in the socialist movement, and how to utilise this expertise. And Marx got
almighty pissed off with Weitling, rude and unpleasant in fact, because
Weitling wanted to piss and shit on intellectual work and thought he was
really "revolutionary" in so doing. A similar attitude can be found in
Hitlerite, Stalinist and more dogmatic (undialectical) Maoist circles, who
glory about the culture of "real workers" and try in their deformed
workerism to depict this adulation through heroic, socialist realist art
which shows proletarian slaves and Stakhanovites in glamourous, virile
postures, a bit like Greek or Roman sculptures (totally fake in other words,
has nothing to do with realism).

You said:

For that matter, if you want to build another academic treehouse--there
are legions of them--and have your own tea parties, that's fine, too.  I
think it's in the nature of these things that "radical" is never more
than a label, but the value of a conference requires substance.  Still,
I don't oppose academic conferences.  Just don't pretend it's something
else.

Reply:

Well, it could be "something else", it could be much more, but if your point
of departure is one of hostility against particular people, in this case
intellectuals, then you are not the person to help organise them. I recall I
had this group of intellectuals once, in the mid-1980s, we called it the
Revolutionary Communist League, the Revolutionary Communist Club or the
Reading Circle Library, I cannot recall exactly which just now (we kept it
pretty anonymous), but anyway we would meet at each others houses and drink
tea and discuss things through. And a lot of political learning and
awareness came out of that, also, a lot of organisation, a lot of contacts,
publications. It led, later, to a nationwide group of sixty-odd socialists,
it led to a socialist meeting & educational centre being built, which was
also used by trade unionists and some other community groups, it led to a
new trade union, and so on. It started off with tea-drinking, but it went a
helluva lot further than that, and the congenial atmosphere we developed
(even though we occasionally got into heated argument) developed lasting,
strong bonds between people, friendships, professional contacts, some of
which still exist to this very day. I could go back to many of these people
now, and I might ask them for help in some matter, and they would probably
do it, they would know who I am, they would provide appropriate info where
required, and so on. And so, all this intellectual capital was developed
through tea-drinking in a congenial situation originally. Tea parties are
appropriate sometimes, not appropriate at other times, we have to look at
our goal and who drinks the tea. I am not all that familiar with American
history, but in America you had the Boston Tea Party and they really did
have an effect from memory. Tea Parties have definite revolutionary or
radical potential, IF you know how to use them. It may be a storm in a
teacup, but then again, it may unleash a real storm.

You say:


Frankly, though, your response confirms my concerns that the whole
project is likely to be a bad idea, as so clearly confuses academic
conferencing and serious mass politics.  Of course, I really wouldn't
lose sleep on this either way.  My opposition has never slowed the pace
of "radical" academic treehouse construction, and those
constructions--or any other sort of fads--have absolutely no special
influence on what I do or don't do.

Reply:

But this whole concept of "it is likely to be a bad idea" is vague and
woolly, unless it refers to a judgement based on a specific analysis of a
specific situation. But you make no such analysis or explain yourself.
Instead, you prima facie want to advance an a priori moralistic thesis as
outsider, in which you depict a contradiction, a split, a division between
"serious academic conferencing" and "serious mass politics", disregarding
what the people involved are NOW capable of doing. You invent a source of
disunity, whereas the organiser seeks to create unity, the organiser is
preoccupied with the problem of, how do I transform academic conferencing
INTO serious mass politics, create a conduit FOR serious mass politics. John
Lennon and Yoko Ono did a bedpeace in the Hilton here in Amsterdam, and they
got the whole world media focusing on their conferencing, and that wasn't a
bad piece of politics, people still remember it, they weren't even
delivering a substantive academic or political paper or anything !! An
event, which to you may seem a miserable academic triviality, may in fact be
promoted in such a way, that it attracts a lot of political attention, if we
approach it in the correct way. It may make political links, even although,
on the surface, it seems all sorts of other things are going on.  We are not
talking now about Czarist Russia after Nicholas disbanded the duma, we are
talking about modern American democracy functioning on the basis of
near-universal literacy and very sophisticated media.

We are interested in "fads", not in the sense of the Kinks song "dedicated
follower of fashion" or opportunism, but rather in the sense that we ask
specifically "why is the fad really a fad at the moment, what is the basis
or source of it, and how can we utilise this in our work, how can we
transform it into an appropriate political stance". Often, intellectuals and
 journalists are helpful to us in this, by illuminating causes, antecedents,
contexts and so on. You would of course dismiss all this, but the organiser
on the other hand has to utilise whatever means are available to organise,
knowing what he or she knows, in terms of political analysis. If our analyis
is good, objective, imaginative, then practically anything can be used in
the furtherance of our aim. My good friend Louis Proyect would affirm this,
being partisan to the Lenin line I described previously.  It does not really
matter if a bunch of Mark Louses come along and dismiss it all
contemptuously, because we can utilise that too, in the furtherance of our
aim.

By way of conclusion, an anecdote. I sat down, after a sleep, with Youssef
tonight, who had come home after working in the factory, his shift finishes
later at night. He was a little angry from experiences during the day, and
had a lot on his mind, and we had a conversation about a number of topics at
the kitchen table. In the course of that, he referred to Allah and his black
belt qualification in karate, and I asked him this time to demonstrate some
moves for me, perhaps releasing some anger and showing some assertion (I did
Judo myself as a kid, and am not so familiar with Karate moves). Which he
did. But he also said reflectively, well, you can have quarrels, fights, but
the thing that really hurts is this (he pointed to his tongue). I asked,
what do you mean ? Well, he said, "what hurts most, is the words, what
people say". And that leads directly back to the political mission I was
discussing, namely that you might for example be a strong, tough worker with
a black belt in karate, equipped with rockhard Marxist-Leninist dogma, but a
soft, maybe flabby intellectual, who does not work in a factory, has no
rockhard Marxist-Leninist dogma and has no blackbelt in karate, might in
fact say certain words which hurt much more, which do much more damage, than
a karate kick. In this sense, the PEN can be mightier than the sword, if it
is well targeted. Those of us who are good with the PEN, should use the PEN.
Those of us who are good with the sword, should use the sword, and the
organiser tries to get them to work together, rather than the intellectual
smashing the worker with a word, or the worker giving the intellectual a
kick in the head. It is no use trying to get the PENperson to be a
swordsman, or the blackbelt karate expert to be an expert in the subtle
intricacies of the English language and conceptual precision. To each his
own, and if we can work together, learn from each other, and complement our
activities, all is well. But to do this, we of course do not "dismiss
contemptuously", rather we seek to "include", and we can only include, if we
are able to place the issues in a wider frame of reference, a broader
picture, if we have a road map for socialist development, which does not put
intellectuals and workers on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence.

Regards

Jurriaan










More information about the Marxism mailing list