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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

WHILE I WAS SLEEPING

When you get to be my age, losing a night's sleep takes it out of you for several days thereafter.  While I have been stumbling around in a daze and trying to nap so as to make up what is sometimes referred to as a "sleep deficit," a vigorous discussion has broken out on this blog in the comments section.  The antagonist, or perhaps protagonist, in this discussion has been Chris, who has for several years scolded me on what he sees as my shameful star-struck admiration for Barack Obama.  He has been answered -- intelligently in my judgment -- by several commentators.  Before I move on to what I really want to talk about today on this blog -- the book about South Africa that I have just finished reading -- I would like to say just a few words about the dispute.  My remarks are mostly a response to Chris's angry rebukes, but I hope they will find an audience elsewhere among my readers.

There are two fundamental facts about political action that one must recognize and accept if one is to have any hope of being at all effective in the world.  The first fact is that each of us is born into a specific moment in history that we have not chosen and cannot change.  If I may once more quote the lovely and evocative passage from Erik Erikson's Childhood and Society, "An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."

At the present time, the United States is a hegemonic imperial world power.  I am actually old enough to have lived through the early post-war period in which this country chose to step into the space created by the decline of the European imperial powers.  As that was happening, I and many others argued and agitated against this choice, but we lost, and so I have been forced to live the remainder of my life cycle in a time of American imperial world ascendancy.  Chris, I believe, is a good deal younger than I, so he was born into the world that I watched coming into being.  Neither of us likes or supports America's imperial adventures, but neither of us has any way of stopping them.  Some who oppose the direction of American foreign policy in the past half century and more might approve of an interventionist foreign policy so long as it intervened on the other side -- for Castro rather than against him, for Mossadegh rather than against him, for Ortega rather than against him, and so forth.  Others might oppose any imperial role for America, even if that meant simply leaving a space into which some other nation could step.  But those are idle thoughts.  Chris and I, like everyone else on the left in America today, are confronted with extremely intractable facts, the changing of which would require more political muscle than we are able at this moment to muster.

The second fact about political action is that in a nation of 310 million people, in a world of seven billion people, all effective political action requires the building and sustaining of coalitions of enormous numbers of activists who, one can be absolutely certain, will disagree fundamentally on any number of important questions.  For as long as any one can recall, the besetting sin of leftists has been their lust for ideological orthodoxy and their consequent tendency to splinter into ever smaller and more ineffectual factions.  There have, to be sure, been historical moments when weeding out those who disagree with oneself in any way can can lead to greater power rather than less -- one thinks of the Bolshevik revolution.  But this moment in America is not one of them.  So if you want to work effectively for major social change with any hope at all of success, you must learn to embrace and find common cause with men and women with whom you disagree.  When I was young, this meant working for nuclear disarmament with Quaker pacifists and Catholic activists whose religious commitments were anathema to me.  There is nothing admirable or morally uplifting about the refusal to forge workable coalitions with those who are -- so to speak -- part of the avalanche rolling down the same side of the mountain.

We have just come through a presidential election whose outcome was a good deal more progressive than any of us anticipated.  Several really admirable women have been elected to the Senate;  a wretched hollow man who would have brought in his train a nightmare of aides and appointees has been defeated.  But the election revealed, once again, that very close to half of those 310 million Americans are opposed to the changes we seek to make in this country.  That is a fact that we must confront and acknowledge, for it sets limits to what we can, in the short or medium run, hope to accomplish.

This is not the time for the left to splinter into angry factions more concerned with maintaining their ideological purity than with advancing common progressive policies. 

I can assure you with absolute certainty that if we are successful, against all the odds, each one of us will still be disappointed in what has been left undone.  The acceptance of that fact is, in my opinion, the mark of a truly serious and grown-up progressive.

I have been around a long time.  Trust me.  There are going to be some defeats ahead.  For God's sake, enjoy the victories.

6 comments:

Murfmensch said...

Stepping aside from the comment thread, I can point at a mistake that lefties will face.

Often the argument that supports voting for a compromise coalition candidate extends to all critique of that candidate.

For instance, Joe Klein's defense of our bombing runs in Afghanistan and Pakistan was reprehensible. Klein is a Democrat defending Obama with the rhetorical question "Whose four-year-old is getting killed?"

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/23/klein-drones-morning-joe

Not one question about this in the debates b/c both parties are on board.

When this comes up Democrats and Third-partyers can tear each other to shreds. Leftists among them should just recognize each other's hard predicament. And they should insist on denouncing things like the bombing of civilians. (Smart empires can do without this, surely.)

Breaking the two-party system is not a utopian drive. If Johnson can hold on to one percent and if the Greens can do the same, that may help activists who work within the privileged parties to get instant run-off voting. 40 members of alternative left and right parties could cast a lot of sunshine on a lot of horrors.

This is worth the gamble AND one party is genuinely better than the other. For this reason, progressives need to consider the decision to support the Dems or third parties a matter of taste. And we need to insist that it is irrelevant when it comes to support for campaigns and protests.

My Jobs with Justice locals (in Saint Louis and Little Rock) understood this. There was some stress in October and November but even then we could point to our main mission of campaign and protest support. We had socialists, greens, and democrats. And we resisted the demonization of each other.

Chris said...

Wolff,
I chide you out of good will, never animosity.

For what it's worth, the last time I felt politically happy was participating in Occupy; elections not so much :/

Neil Sinhababu said...

Thanks for this wise and well-written post.

That Guy Montag said...

Are we allowed to add a couple more sins to that of ideological purity? For my money I'd like to add hubris because it's a strange attitude that thinks that the only difference your political values should make is at the presidential or national policy level. Thinking like that ignores the value of local politics. When a third party captures a local council that is a real victory for political pluralism. In fact, in many instances this kind of hubris leads to a kind of paralysis of protest where the kinds of local measures that would in fact be successful, get ignored in favour of grand gestures like protest that are often just too easy for elites to ignore.

mikhail said...

"We are all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator"
-Michael Corleone.
I know my taxes pay for the drones that kill children in Pakistan, but I do not leave this country. But please, please give me the indulgence of not voting for a man who plays Patience with index cards over breakfast to decide who to kill next.

AD said...

This is very good advise.

As a libertarian, who works in DC organizing and consulting for nonprofits that are funded by very wealthy and politically involved oil billionaires, I'd like to note my hope that more progressives will work with us.

Right now, we work with many socially conservative groups because they agree with us on econ policy and are willing collaborators. In practice, this means we end up training them on economics and helping them be more effective advocates generally.

We want to work with more people on the left to make headway on the issues that we both care about, such as corporate welfare, drug prohibition and drug war spending, defense spending, and marriage equality.

Unfortunately, many of the organizations and people we reach out to are unwilling either because they don't like the name on the door or because they disagree with us about entitlements, taxes, healthcare reform, etc.