by Ravi Bali
Debate between revolutionaries is an important way of clarifying issues and trying to better understand the truth of how the world is, in order to transform it. To do this in good faith requires the acceptance of certain rules of behaviour that are important to conduct a good argument. I will first outline what some of these rules are; how the founder of our philosophical tendency, Raya Dunayevskaya, demonstrated the use of some of these rules; how the rules fit with the kind of organisation Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) aspires to be; and finally, I will look at some of the ways in which these standards have been observed, or not, in recent commentary directed at Marxist-Humanist Initiative.
Have truth seeking as an important goal
In our seemingly ever more cynical world, people’s intentions are frequently suspected of being self-serving and manipulative. While finding and telling the truth is a recognised virtue, especially in intellectual and scientific pursuits, it is suspected that, in practice, truth is often sacrificed for convenience. However, MHI operates in a different manner. In our Statement of Principles, MHI states that:
The interests of working people and freedom movements as a whole guide our thoughts and actions, as well as our structure and rules. We have no interests separate and apart from these.
As a central principle of our organisation, this is an eschewal of sectarianism. Establishing the truth of how the world is, and what is actually required to overcome the present society in order to create a new one, is not to be compromised for any immediate advantage for our organisation. Sacrificing the truth for short-term political gain is never the right move. The name we chose for our online publication and its banner quote from Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto is a declaration of that belief:
… people are at last compelled to face with sober senses their real conditions of life, and their relations with their kind.
This quote comes from a passage in Chapter 1 of the Manifesto, about how capitalism strips away all sentimentality and attachment to values other than naked self-interest, and subordinates humanity to the imperative of ever-expanding capital.
The struggle to overcome capitalist society is not a battle of ideas between people who just happen to have different views, but an effort to influence the struggle between people with different material interests. This will, in turn, affect how we conduct an argument. One important, but retrogressive, development in recent years is the rejection by some radicals that there is any such thing as objective truth. The act of trying to establish “the truth” is treated as inherently suspicious, and likely as the effort by those seeking power to get others to accept their authority for how the world is, which often contains an implicit justification for how it should be. The way to be radical, in this way of thinking, is to refuse to engage in the process of establishing truth, and instead to insist that truth is necessarily subjective and personal, and that nobody can decide what truth is for anybody else.
We do, however, all inhabit the same objective world and can appeal to evidence of how it works, regardless of whether we benefit from the world as it is. In a society divided into classes, the ruling class have a material interest in obscuring the real nature of their exploitation of the working class. Once this is recognised, it may be tempting for revolutionaries to dismiss anything that comes from establishment sources as inherently biased and not to be trusted. It may inversely be tempting to trust the sources that identify as anti-establishment. The problem is that someone’s intent does not automatically invalidate the truth of what they say. The claims made or the case advanced still has to be examined, on the basis of the evidence for believing or accepting what is proposed.
It is not acceptable for a revolutionary to dismiss the specific claims of establishment sources on the grounds that they are made by those who accept or support our existing society. It is important that any scepticism regarding the claims be rooted in a full appreciation of the matters under consideration, and not be a blanket dismissal based on who says something, rather than on what they say. To prove the bad faith of someone’s argument, we would need to demonstrate that they were wilfully ignoring relevant evidence presented to them.
Revolutionaries recognise that the effort to create the conditions for a new society will require a battle of ideas to win the minds of people as to its possibility. Thus, it may be tempting for us to think that, in arguments between revolutionaries, the fundamentals are agreed upon––that we all want to see a different kind of world beyond capitalism. If all revolutionaries aspire to a society that is more geared to meeting the needs of humanity as a whole, is that not the most important thing we have in common? The Monty Python parody of radical sectarianism where people argue over inconsequential nonsense while essentially representing the same thing, is not how arguments between revolutionaries should be perceived, let alone be actually conducted. The problem, however, is that being “leftist” and wanting a different kind of society does not mean you agree on what kind of new society is needed, or how to achieve it.
The problem is not that leftists disagree or that we have differing conceptions. It is the false assumption that rejecting our existing society is enough, and that we don’t need to make clear what our different conceptions imply. It is only when an idea is drawn out and fully explained, so that it can become a basis for action, that people can make an informed choice as to whether that is what they want.
There are many occasions in bourgeois life where self-interest encourages winning at all costs. This can encourage an egotism that prevents one from looking at the limitations of one’s own ideas, in case it undermines one’s authority and future credibility. As revolutionaries, we should recognise our need to transcend this limitation by being willing to continually check whether a better alternative than what we are proposing is being offered. Since the interests of humanity as a whole is our benchmark, it means winning an argument, by any means other than the strength of evidence, is not our goal. Our aim in argument is to arrive at truth by working through differing ideas; not just to beat our opponent, but to see who has the more convincing claim to truth. If, in the course of arriving at that truth (or a demonstrated closer approximation to it), the ideas we proposed are shown to be wrong, then conceding and moving forward––without ego, but with new knowledge––is the only proper behaviour for a genuine revolutionary.
Proper behaviour also requires us to be continually putting our own theory to scrutiny by assessing how well it can encompass, or be extended, to deal with evidence marshalled for alternative theories.
Structure an argument so people can follow the logic of what you are saying
An honest argument between revolutionaries and an honest debate by bourgeois standards have some features in common. Revolutionaries need to avoid all the logical fallacies that can impoverish any bourgeois discussion. We also need to recognise that there might be historically conditioned assumptions that revolutionaries are willing to accept, but perhaps shouldn’t accept. These assumptions may come from established intellectual traditions that shape how we think about the world. If we uncritically accept these assumptions, it will undermine any rigorous investigation into an issue of revolutionary significance.
No truth about the real world can be known by deduction alone; knowledge of the real world requires observation or experience of the event, thing or process. Propositions about the real world are always inductive: the stronger the evidence they have to support them, the more inductively strong they will be; in other words, the more likely it is that the propositions are true. An argument is reliable when its premises are true and its inferences are inductively strong. In philosophical terms, we should try to operate with “inference to the best explanation”. This means accepting, as true, what can most comprehensively and clearly make sense of all the available evidence or data. This truth claim will most likely be provisional, in the sense that, at some point in the future, it will be proved “limited” in important ways. This does not undermine the point that, as a basis for human progress and increasing knowledge, inference to the best explanation on the basis of what we currently understand is the way we will advance.
In dealing with explanations of social developments, there will be a contestation over what is the meaning and significance of what has happened. In trying to work out who, if anybody, is right in an argument, it is important that all sides in a discussion try to make explicit all the assumptions that their proposition is based on. If enthymemes are present, it will likely result in people talking past each other, because they may not be able to grasp and explain either the hidden assumptions in their own case or the true foundations of their opponent’s case.
The establishing of premises or foundations is the most important part of setting up an argument. If there is a faulty premise, one that cannot do the required work of supporting the argument, this needs to be clear. For the purposes of clarification, there should be as few enthymemes as possible.
Do not assume what is more popular or widely understood is always true
Making assumptions explicit, so that people can more easily follow one’s logic, is even more important for revolutionaries than in bourgeois debate. This is because a capitalist society will develop dominant forms of understanding that rationalise our existing society. Or, as Marx said in The German Ideology, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. When assumptions are unstated and taken-for-granted, they are more likely to be reproducing capitalist forms of thinking. By contrast, if the unstated assumptions are not reflecting society as it is, they are less likely to be grasped intuitively. This is the danger of unthinkingly absorbing “obvious” truths, when it is precisely the obvious that needs to be questioned. For revolutionaries seeking to project a possible alternative to capitalism, this means that the projected alternative will have to be informed by a total alternative vision, if it is to avoid reproducing the dominant ideas of our existing society.
If there is an assumption on which an argument rests, then, for the purposes of clarifying the real issues at stake and the real strength (or otherwise) of an argument, it is best that the assumption is drawn out and made explicit, not left unstated. Problems arise when, as revolutionaries, we believe that we are all working towards the same goal, but we have very different philosophical assumptions of how to proceed. Again, it is not the disagreement that is the source of the problems, but the lack of rigorous argument, in which the differences are not made explicit.
For an example of contrasting philosophical assumptions that are unstated and can go unrecognised, consider Marx’s view of the working class as the revolutionary class under capitalism, whose self-emancipation is the key to creating the conditions for a new society. The key idea here is that workers will free themselves and be the ones that create a new society beyond capitalism. Marx’s conception does not allow for any substitution for the self-emancipation of the workers.
In contrast, many post-Marx Marxists have had, and still have, the idea that we can move beyond capitalism by means of a revolutionary minority acting in the interests of the workers. The substitution here––somebody acting for the workers instead of the emancipation of the working class needing to be its own act––is at variance with Marx’s conception. It is a different philosophical starting point. This means that most people who call themselves Marxists do not base themselves on Marx’s insistence that the workers themselves must be their own liberators. A revolutionary transformation carried out by the masses of working people is not the same as a revolutionary transformation that is to be carried out for the workers, or in the name of the workers.
As a fundamental philosophical assumption, the belief that a vanguard party to lead the masses is a Marxist concept would have to be justified in relation to Marx’s thought, since he did not argue for this and much of what he did say seems to run counter to vanguardism. It should not automatically be assumed to be an “obvious” development from Marx. Yet this is indeed the typical assumption. Because vanguardism became a part of “official Marxism” ever since Lenin developed the idea via Kautsky, and it has been so central to official Marxism for more than a century, very few “Marxists” question whether vanguardism originally came from Marx.
However, Marxist-Humanists do not accept the assumption that vanguardism is a development from Marx. We think that the distinction between self-emancipation and a vanguard leadership is a critical one. Unlike other revolutionary groups, we do not have a vanguardist outlook; we do not think it is our job to lead the masses. We think the working masses already have revolutionary potential, once they overcome their divisions, so that our role is to offer ideas that will allow the movements to self-develop in that direction, and after the overthrow of capitalism, to go on the develop a new society.
This conception of the role of our organization informs “our take” on issues. We regard our contribution as a theoretical one of clarifying the ideas that form the basis for current and future action. People’s conceptions of how things are will inform what they think is possible, so arguing about theory (whether philosophical or political) is not some esoteric activity, just for professional academics, but a matter of vital importance to the masses of people who want a new society. Although the role of a revolutionary vanguard party is a foundational belief amongst most revolutionary activists, and one so “obvious” that it is rarely made explicit, this belief is exactly what needs to be drawn out and interrogated.
Provide evidence, and be explicit how this supports particular claims being made
There is a big difference between an assertion and an argument. An assertion is made without evidence, an argument is not. If we care about the claims we are making, then they should be grounded in evidence; i.e., reasons should be given for why others should believe them.
In today’s world, where political life is dominated by the use of social media, it is not just the tin-foil-hats of QAnon or the deranged pro-Trump mobs that fail to engage in proper reasoned discussion. There is plenty of unsubstantiated sniping on the so-called left too. Often this doesn’t even rise above trolling (online behaviour intended only to upset or hurt people). There is so much of this trolling that goes on, even within the left, when what is needed is, instead, more reasoned debate that would actually illuminate the important issues at stake. There should at least be a minimum respect between revolutionaries and an expectation to seriously engage with each other and not be dismissive when an argument is laid out. There is no left-wing equivalent of a shock jock. That provocation-to-get-a-rise behaviour has no progressive role. This does not mean, of course, that we have to bother with arguments that are patently ridiculous or presented in bad faith. To indulge diversionary people like that does not further understanding and, when they are taken seriously in debate, it encourages them and gives them credibility.
Slandering people and engaging in ad hominem attacks is not dealing with what they say. This is not a genuine challenge, and it does not make clearer to the forces of liberation what is actually at stake. Revolutionaries’ most important contribution is the theoretic one of providing clear ideas as a basis for action, now, and in the future. Serious claims with supporting evidence should not be dismissed as “obviously” false. Instead, we demonstrate, with counter-evidence and/or deconstruction of the argument, why it is false. Even if it is an oft-repeated argument that has been regularly debunked, we give references or provide a link to where it has been debunked, so that people can refer to it to judge for themselves whether the argument in its present form is indeed essentially just a restatement of a previous argument.
Recognise that what is regarded as true, like arguments, develops over time
When we argue in a way that is genuinely geared towards truth-seeking, it is often cumulative. There are questions that cannot be answered in a single exchange, because they contain complex sets of interrelated issues that need to be properly unpacked in order to be understood. In such a cumulative, complex argument, it is unproductive to keep rehashing a point that has already been dealt with, so we have to expect that opponents will honestly engage with each other’s arguments and take on board new information that may require us to rethink. It is arriving at truth that should be our goal, not winning the argument.
A genuine argument will develop and build upon what has gone before. In advancing an idea over time, perhaps generations, care must be taken not to elide relevant distinctions. Yet how do we know when a distinction is relevant or alternatively without consequence for action? This may not be easy to know because, in the light of new experience, distinctions in thought that previously seemed inconsequential suddenly become clearly important. Historical experience can illuminate implications of thought that previously had not been fully appreciated. An old argument can take on a new life when new circumstances give fresh evidence that shakes what had previously seemed settled. Revolutionaries should avoid dogmatism and be willing to subject even their cherished beliefs to scrutiny. The requirement of inference to the best explanation should be our guide. When new evidence, or a new interpretation of existing evidence, is presented, we have to be prepared to reconsider our existing ideas.
Consider, for example, how the relationship between Marx’s Marxism, Leninism, and Trotskyism is typically understood and how it has been reconsidered. Those who think that Marxist-Leninism is just Marxism, updated after the experiences of the Russian Revolution (which is a very widespread belief) or that Trotskyism is just the continuity of Leninism after the death of Lenin (which is also a widely held belief), are eliding some very important distinctions. And that is not even getting into the perversion of Marxism by Stalinists and Maoists. Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism in the US, was the first to make arguments, both textual and historical, as to why Marx, and Marx alone, should be considered the originator of the body of thought that we now call Marxism. With the temporary alliance of the Soviet Union with the Nazis as her vantage point, Dunayevskaya was able to ask questions about what revolution meant, given that the contradictions of the Russian Revolution could have resulted in such a horrifying alliance. This question could not conceivably have been asked by any revolutionary, with such concreteness and specificity, until that moment. How could a working-class revolution led by Marxist revolutionaries have resulted in something so reactionary?
The reason that Dunayevskaya’s questioning of the received wisdom on the revolutionary left was so important was that her questioning did not lead her to abandon revolution as a practical project nor to justify Stalinism. Instead, her critical approach led Dunayevskaya to develop revolutionary philosophy, as a contribution to the project of creating a new society. She gave this body of thought the name Marxist-Humanism (the hyphen serves to distinguish her body of thought from other variants of Marxist humanism).
Dunayevskaya actually insisted that the thought of all the great Marxist revolutionaries after Marx, beginning with Engels after Marx’s death, and including Lenin, diverged in important and problematic ways from Marx’s thinking. She thought that the distinction between Marx and all who came after was so important that she coined the pejorative term “post-Marx Marxists”.
As a way of demonstrating the uniqueness of Marx, Dunayevskaya delved into the Hegelian roots of Marx’s thought and showed the continued influence of the Hegelian dialectic (as transformed by him) through all of Marx’s activity and thought. The re-examination of Marx’s thought, and of the ways in which it had been interpreted and expanded upon by subsequent generations, led Dunayevskaya to reject all the major Marxist tendencies of her day. This re-evaluation of “official Marxism” and its dissidents was informed not only by new experiences but also by her close attention to Marx’s actual words and the ways in which they had been interpreted.
Dunayevskaya was not an academic, but she had very high intellectual standards, with a close fidelity to what people actually wrote when drawing out any interpretation. This is why her appreciation of the Hegelian influence on Marx was so important when establishing her whole way of thinking. She saw that retrogression was always a possibility and that it existed as an ever-present danger to be guarded against, both in theory and in reality. A successful revolution is not an automatic consequence of the workers rising up; instead, it has to be built on new types of human relationships, which need to be consciously developed in both theory and practice.
From Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, right through to Capital and finally to the Ethnological Notebooks he was working on in the final years of his life, the influence of Hegel on Marx never waned. Marx described his own thought as “a thoroughgoing naturalism or humanism”. Those of us in MHI regard most of what has historically been passed down as the “Marxist canon”, from the Second International onwards, as importantly divergent from Marx’s humanism. We base ourselves primarily on the thought of Marx, and on Dunayevskaya’s explication and further development of it in the form of Marxist-Humanism.
Why, you may ask, is this important for the rules of argumentation and arriving at truth? Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of the Hegelian dialectic––having absorbed how it influenced Marx––gives a very special vantage to understand truth-seeking. In her view, the development of revolutionary thought and the development of revolutionary action of the masses form a single dialectic. It is critically important that, to truly understand either revolutionary thought or revolutionary mass action, we have to understand both of them in relation to each other.
Ideas are carried by people; these people should be identified
Even though ideas, in the Hegelian sense, undergo their own self-development, this is not done separately from the people who articulate them at a certain moment in history. In the Hegelian system, thinking and the development of thought encompasses both Spirit, representing thinking as such, and individual contributors to thought.
When we deal with particular thinkers, whether to challenge them in favour of an alternative, or to build upon the insights of their ways of thinking, it is a good idea to refer to the individuals by name and to identify where and in what context they put forward the arguments that we are engaging with.
One really bad practice on the revolutionary left is to try to obliquely defend one’s own ideas without explicitly identifying who is challenging these ideas and where the actual words of the challenge can be found. This is a really dishonest practice for a revolutionary, because it does not allow a proper clash of ideas, in which the proponents of different views and what they have to say can be readily identified by observers of the argument. It is dishonest to indirectly defend ideas by substituting one’s own characterisation of the opponents’ arguments while failing to provide substantial quotes from opponents, or to name them, or to indicate where their arguments can be found. Such indirect representation of others’ ideas is fine for satire, but not for argument. Arguing against ideas, but not identifying who you are against, is an act of intellectual cowardice; it suggests a desire to be seen as right, rather than a desire to seek truth. Hiding what one’s opponent has actually said and where it can be found is even more cowardly.
Understand the relevance of authority to speak on an issue
The world is a complex place, and accurate sources of information about it are necessary, not only for us but also for those who wish to maintain it as it is. Unless there is reliable data on the world and its workings, very little of the modern world would be able to function at all. That makes expertise in specialised areas an important thing for revolutionaries to acknowledge, even if it does not seem to serve our purposes. Acknowledging expertise and the ability to speak on a subject is important. If experts’ statements have reactionary implications, then we must interrogate either their arguments or their evidence. It is not an honest way of arguing to dismiss their expertise or to dismiss their arguments because we don’t like the conclusions. If an intellectually honest response to them requires a lot of specialised knowledge that we don’t possess, and the issue is important, we should do research, to see whether there are other experts who disagree with them and whether the clash of expert opinion illuminates something. It is bad faith to argue on the basis of who someone is, or what they believe, if it is otherwise irrelevant to what they are saying. If experts make arguments that one wants to challenge, it is important, as part of truth seeking, to challenge them on the basis of faulty reasoning or evidence, not dismiss them simply because you don’t agree with the experts’ aims.
If rules of conduct are not adhered to, shun the violators
I have been discussing rules of conduct for an honest debate. It is entirely fair to refuse to engage or stop engaging with someone who does not respect these rules. The aim of reasoned debate is to advance understanding, so someone who refuses to conduct themselves by these rules is likely trying to pull a fast one; their goal is not to advance understanding at all. Someone who consistently displays these kinds of behaviour should be shunned as untrustworthy.
What kind of revolutionary organisation is MHI?
It would perhaps be helpful, when engaging with those in MHI, to understand when something we publish is collectively agreed to or, alternatively, when it is the personal opinion of individual(s) who broadly agree with MHI’s body of ideas. An article carried on MHI’s website is that of the person whose name it carries. That an article is accepted does not mean that it reflects the views or positions of MHI, but only that it has been accepted as a contribution to the discussion.
We generally do not take political positions as an organisation. We will carry pieces by people involved in workers’ struggles or freedom struggles, because having the thoughts of these people in their own words is important. We have carried pieces in which two or more people express differing opinions on a question. Because such articles are the views of individuals offered as contributions, not a definitive position that MHI has agreed to, they need not mesh perfectly.
It is a mistake to think that everything in With Sober Senses is agreed upon by MHI as a whole. We are not a top-down organisation in which any one person can speak for the organisation as a whole. If an article has not been voted on and approved as the organisation’s statement, it is the individual view of its author. Occasionally, MHI will assign people to draft editorials or other statements in its name, on issues of special importance, or someone suggests that an article submitted as the view of an individual be adopted as the view of MHI as a whole. In such cases, we discuss whether the piece is the view of the organisation, and we generally request revisions until it is ultimately agreed to as the position of MHI itself. If and when such agreement is reached, the piece is no longer just an individual’s view, so the author identified at the start is “MHI” rather than an individual person.
Our social-media engagement, in contrast to MHI’s own site, works rather differently. Even though we have Facebook and Twitter accounts in MHI’s name, individuals are authorised by MHI to maintain these pages. This means they act on behalf of MHI without every formulation in our posts and replies having to be organisationally approved.
Recent criticisms of content carried by MHI
Here are three examples of bad practice in criticisms of MHI, followed by three examples of better practice. The better-practice criticisms that have been made are, unsurprisingly, of greater length than the bad-practice ones––as one would expect from people who are trying to make substantive points.
Example 1 of bad practice
In an episode of MHI’s podcast Radio Free Humanity, put out 20 August 2020, Lesley Rimmel, a professor emerita of history at Oklahoma State University who specialises in the history of Russia under Stalin, was invited onto the show. Rimmel explained the well-evidenced facts of Stalin’s crimes, against the claims of Stalin-apologist Grover Furr, who denied, without credible evidence, Stalin’s culpability in the crimes for which he is condemned. There are links at the bottom of that episode page to internal USSR documents from 1937, both photographs of the originals and the digitally transcribed English translation, showing Stalin’s knowledge of mass liquidations of people. Professor Rimmel also indicated that much of Furr’s “evidence” consists of forced confessions obtained under torture. The podcast participants discussed why evidence obtained under torture was obviously unreliable, in contrast to the official orders “On The Operation To Repress Former Kulaks, Criminals And Other Anti-Soviet Elements” which would have had to be known by Stalin as the head of the Soviet government.
A few supporters of Grover Furr responded to the podcast on MHI’s website. The interesting thing was that not a single one of them tried to defend Furr or attack Rimmel on the basis of the evidence each provided. Susan Sotillo asked that Furr be allowed to present evidence from the Soviet archives, without even addressing the issue that his “evidence” consists largely of forced confessions obtained under torture or the podcast participants’ criticism of Furr for relying on such “evidence.” Sotillo engaged in an ad hominem attack on Rimmel, insinuating that her being a “retired ‘specialist’ in mainstream Soviet history from Oklahoma State” made her less credible. Sotillo also tried to cast doubt on all “mainstream Soviet historians and other darlings of mainstream history”, as if they cannot deal with evidence and facts in a critical and honest manner, independently of their political leanings. It is not that what Rimmel or mainstream Soviet historians say has to be accepted, but rather that critics should deal with their arguments and evidence, not impugn their alleged motives or engage in ad hominem attacks.
The failure to confront the official Politburo document that authorized mass repression is an act of bad faith. So is the failure to confront the issue of whether confessions obtained by torture or threats are legitimate evidence. The most ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim that Sotillo made was that MHI were engaging in “fascist freedom of speech repression”, as though, by broadcasting a critical response to the writings of Grover Furr without immediately having him respond during the same episode, we were preventing his free speech. We were not; nor is there anything fascistic about the podcast episode. To engage in public criticism of someone’s writings, on the basis of the inadequacy of their evidence, is the opposite of fascism.
There were a number of other comments from people asking that Grover Furr be allowed to answer the charges made against his scholarship. Not a single one of them addressed the issues of substance or referred in detail to the evidence that Furr bases his writing on. In principle, it might be the case that there is credible evidence that “mainstream” historians ignore. Furr, however, bases much of his interpretation on what was said by defendants at the Moscow “show” trials, as though what people say when their lives and families are threatened can be treated as reliable testimony. He contends that the fact that statements in a confession were obtained under coercion does not mean that they are untrue. This is true, strictly speaking, but it ignores the fact that evidence obtained through coercion is not credible, since people will say anything to stop the (threat of) hurt to themselves or loved ones. Thus, it is proper to discount such “evidence” unless and until there is also strong supporting evidence, not tainted by coercion, that corroborates it. When even bourgeois courts regard coerced “evidence” as tainted, a case needs to be made for why it should be deemed acceptable by revolutionaries, because we would seem to have the same reasons for also regarding it as tainted.
Example 2 of bad practice
In a 29 Jan 2021 post on Twitter, MHI tweeted an article from Talking Points Memo on the incoming Biden administration’s gathering of intelligence on far-right violent white extremists, in order to assess the threat they pose. In the header of our tweet, we wrote:
What stands out here is the “fact-based” approach to white supremacist threats, emphasising intelligence. We would agree that to fight white-supremacist vigilantes effectively, we must know more about who they are, how they operate, & ties among them.
We then got a flurry of replies from Henri Lafleur (an account subsequently deleted):
please say sike
Does Kliman endorse this view? If you could ask and get back to me I’d appreciate that.
Like, who is “we” here? MHI as a whole? Kliman? Cooney? Someone else? Be transparent. Not a good look. Seriously.
In these first three replies, Lafleur did not engage with anything in the article or the header we wrote to explain why we were drawing the article to people’s attention. Instead, he wanted to learn which person from MHI wrote that knowing who the fascists are, how they operate, and their links to each other would be helpful to effectively fight them. The comment “please say sike” is slang for: please tell me you are joking, suggesting that it is ridiculous to find information about these violent fascists.
The “we” that he wanted us to identify, if you give it a moment’s thought, is clearly MHI itself, not any particular individual, since it is our Twitter account that posted the comment. The point of having an account as MHI is that it broadly speaks for MHI.
It is MHI’s belief that finding out what we are up against and identifying where vigilante racist attacks might come from is a good thing. If you object to this idea, you can do so without knowing which individual made the post. Just reply with something relevant.
A little later, when we showed a section from the MHI statement on the BLM Movement and included a link to it, Lafleur responded:
I appreciate that “fighting terror” gave us DHS and the Patriot Act etc. Opposing white supremacy is obviously the right thing to do, no qualms about that. But through the state and intelligence apparatus? I really, really think that’s the wrong move.
There is reason to think that targeting white supremacists has never been a high priority for the state. So if they are choosing to do that now, this might not be a bad thing for the rest of us. It is better that they use their limited resources to chase down fascists than to harass minorities or protestors against injustice or striking workers. Our recognition of this fact does not mean that we suddenly believe that the armed wing of the capitalist state has finally become our friend.
If the US government’s declaration to oppose white supremacy is obviously the right thing to do, how exactly is the intelligence gathering for that to be done, if not by state employees? There are, of course, voluntary dedicated anti-fascist organisations and regular people who report on fascist activity, but the need for this work to be coordinated and systematic across the country, given its penetration into law enforcement, suggests that, for now, the state will have to be involved. As our BLM statement noted, it was Michael German, a former FBI agent, who uncovered white-supremacist groups’ deep reach into police departments across the US.
If someone wants to make a case that looking toward one arm of the state to gather information on another arm of the state is a problematic strategy, they should make the case in a proper argument, not just hint at it. Hinting, unlike making an argument with evidence and clear reasoning, is of course relying on enthymemes rather than plain speaking. It is underhanded, because Lafleur knows that if he were to make a proper argument, there would be nothing to sustain the impression he conveys that there is something suspicious about what MHI is proposing. If Twitter is not a suitable platform to make a full case, due to its restricted character limit, the case can be put directly on the MHI website. Unlike some other sites that claim to be for free speech, but will not allow genuine debate in their publication, MHI will carry articles and interview people that challenge us, in order to further understanding.
Example 3 of bad practice
There are also attacks on MHI that cannot even be treated as criticism of ideas; they come from people engaging in trolling. A lot of these attacks are directed at Andrew Kliman, MHI’s most high-profile theoretician. In a blog called “The Real Movement” by someone who goes by the name Jehu, there was a picture of Kliman with the caption “Will somebody out there tell Kliman to get off his knees and stop servicing “Jim-Crow” Joe. It’s embarrassing now.” The hyperlink within the caption was to an article, carried in With Sober Senses. It consisted of contributions from three people who normally don’t bother to vote but who cast their ballot for Joe Biden in 2020 with the express wish to get Trump out. The article was not pulled together by Kliman; the views of the contributors were those of those individuals, none of whom is Kliman; Kliman is not the editor of With Sober Senses; and he did not commission these pieces.
The effort to portray everything from MHI as something that comes from Kliman personally ignores the fact that we are an organisation, not just an individual, with a set of principles and by-laws that govern our functioning. It is an ad hominem attack on Kliman and––by misattributing a piece not written by him, but carried in With Sober Senses––it is the dismissal of MHI as an organisation. The misattribution by Jehu is also an example of the false cause logical fallacy, because it assumes that everything done by MHI comes from Kliman, who in fact had nothing to do with that article. In addition to insulting those of us in MHI who are assumed to be the puppets or mouthpieces of Kliman, Jehu’s attack is also objectionable because of his homophobic use of the words “servicing” and “on your knees”.
While it is true that Biden voted against the bussing of Black kids to predominantly white schools as a means to break down school segregation, at a time when the efficacy of bussing was widely questioned amongst liberals, to slur him with the term “Jim Crow” Joe is wholly misleading. Jim Crow was the system of local and state laws that allowed the discrimination against Black people after the Supreme Court ruled in 1883 that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. Jim Crow was officially ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Joe Biden did not enter politics until he was elected to the US Senate in 1972. He never voted or campaigned for discriminatory laws or practices against Black people. Biden’s record on issues of racial justice, while questionable, does not merit the epithet “Jim Crow” Joe.
This distortion of Biden’s record, by Jehu, is particularly troubling given that Biden was the only presidential candidate able to electorally stop the proto-fascist Trump (who has actually repeatedly defended the cultural legacy of the Confederacy) from winning a second term.
Example 1 of better practice
Evald “Tim” Ilyenkov is an example of someone who at least tried to advance an argument. In response to MHI’s recent BLM statement, he tried to triangulate a position somewhere between the online magazine Jacobin and what he imagined was the position of Raya Dunayevskaya. But in order to do this, Ilyenkov had to completely mischaracterise Dunayevskaya as being “an advocate for the emancipation of the marginalised within capitalism.”
This is completely wrong. In truth, Dunayevskaya saw rank and file labour, in all its multiplicity, as the most important source of revolutionary force and reason to do away with capitalism and create a new society, a project to which she dedicated her entire life. There are probably many reasons that Ilyenkov gets her completely wrong, apart from not being sufficiently familiar with her work. He shares the prejudice that Dunayevskaya railed against her whole life: that the workers are backward and need to be persuaded about the evils of capitalism, by revolutionary intellectuals, in order not to be duped by bourgeois apologists. Dunayevskaya was for both the revolutionary movement of workers and other freedom struggles, including those of Black people, and she saw the potential for them to combine as a total movement for new conditions of life and work, in a different society.
I am highlighting this as better practice (though not as “good practice”, since Ilyenkov presented no evidence to support his claim), since it is an instance in which a critic of ours at least offered the outline of an argument.
Example 2 of better practice
Someone who did engage with MHI, in an effort to defend his work in detail against earlier criticism on our platform, was the value-form theorist, Patrick Murray. He appeared on Episode 25 and Episode 26 of MHI’s Radio Free Humanity podcast series. Murray made a genuine effort to defend his interpretation of Marx’s theory of price determination against criticism. Because the interrogation of Murray’s ideas by the hosts was so pointed, and Murray was expansive in his answers, many issues were clarified through their engagement. MHI itself does not have a position on the so-called value-form paradigm, but we would be in a much stronger place to work one out if we chose to do so, as a consequence of this engagement.
Example 3 of better practice
In response to MHI’s Black Lives Matter statement, Christopher Coey wrote a lengthy comment that actually engaged in detail with the points being made in the statement. He made a number of substantial points, based on what we actually wrote. His comment is thus an example of good practice, and it is amongst the better responses to what MHI has put forward. It is not in accord with everything we said in the statement, or even with MHI’s broader philosophy, but it is genuine and substantive, which is what a real engagement needs to be.
The benefit of explicit arguments
Patrick Murray and Evald “Tim” Ilyenkov have been commended here, not because they were correct, or coherent, or because they backed their arguments with solid evidence, but because they both actually tried to make a case. They had the minimal outlines of an argument––which is the very least one needs to provide in order to persuade someone of one’s claim. Christopher Coey went further, by drawing out some of the implications of MHI’s statement on BLM and providing information from the UK about how racism works.
The danger faced by those who actually make a case is, of course, that they leave themselves more exposed to having their arguments demolished, if those arguments can be shown to be built on shaky foundations. The clarification of issues that would take place by means of that demolition would, however, be an advance for the revolutionary movement as whole. It should be recognised as an honourable way for revolutionaries to conduct an argument.
If we take seriously our role in trying to develop liberatory ideas, as revolutionaries should, then we need to take more seriously the issue of how we conduct our arguments. The clarification of differences, and of the reasoning behind them, is the greatest service that revolutionaries can make to advance the cause of revolutionary transformation. I submit the rules put forward in this article as a contribution to how we need to conduct our arguments. I think that acceptance of and adherence to these rules will advance the movement for a new society.
How will it do so? The answer is that billions of people around the world desire new conditions of life and work, and they need a proper demonstration of a path toward that new society. That, in turn, requires a process of clear argumentation about how their desires can be made into a reality. It is not possible for billions of people to desire a new society without this desire pushing towards “the real”. But to properly consider how to deal with real problems, in order to actually change the world, clear reasoning is required. It is only when there is proper engagement that the clash of ideas coming from different vantage points helps to clarify to the masses what is at stake. We do not all have to agree with each other, but a clear process of argumentation is what allows mass movements to more readily work out which ideas form the proper basis for action going forward.