(I’ve had sporadic internet and computer access for a bit here so I’ve written bits of drafts of a few posts over a few days, I’m going to post this stuff all now.)

I’ve been uneasy for a while with value-laden assessments of activity in political groups. At the same time, these assessments strike me as indispensable. I think groups should share a core set of values, and should assess how well the group’s activity expresses, hones, and spreads those values. If groups don’t evaluate their activities in this way, the activity won’t improve as much as it would otherwise.

One problem though is that groups are also made of people whose sense of themselves and whose relationships with each other are tied into the activity of the group. It’s really hard to disentangle assessments of the group’s activity from assessments of individuals’ activity, which is hard to disentangle from issues of status and respect within the group. To put it another way, I think it’s very hard to avoid overlap between a group’s goal-directed activity and the group’s being-together as a group. This area of overlap means that shortcomings and achievements with regard to the group’s goal-directed activity are likely have effects in the group as a network of relationships.

If people’s activity is assessed in relation to the group’s core values, it will be hard to avoid a condition where this feels like an assessment of the people themselves, and as having an impact on their relationships with other people in the group. If someone drifts far enough from or falls short enough of the group’s core values, this can easily become a problem in their relationships with other group members.

I think as a result of this stuff, people are likely to want to see their activity and their own contributions as reflecting the group’s core values and making a contribution — not only because of issues of relationships with each other but also because of wanting to see themselves in a positive light. (As an parallel, parents typically want to see themselves as good parents, and they try to interpret their behavior in ways that depict them as such.) This means that people have incentives to make mistakes – the logic of association, that is, people’s interest in relationships with each other and their sense of themselves, can exert a pull against clarity of evaluation. I suspect that this intensifies as groups go through conflicts such that ending associations (breaking off relationships) becomes a real possibility — conflicts often take place between people who are convinced and have relatively convincing accounts to show that they are the righteous and the aggrieved party. I think this is an ineliminable potential difficulty, because groups have to include a limit on association — people can only go so far from the group’s core values. Those values can only be stretched so far; of course “stretching” is relative, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

This is all quite abstract. Trying to be a bit clearer… I remember several years ago it seemed like fairly quickly a great many people I knew were suddenly dropping the terms “activism” and “activist” and taking up the terms “organizing” and “organizer.” The shift in terms only partly went along with a change in activities. To some extent, it seemed to me like some people were calling things “organizing” that had previously been or would have previously been called activism. Part of the reason for the shift was a change in approval, in what I called above “the logic of association.” Activism became less valued and respected. Organizing became more so. People often want to conduct activities that are respected, and even more want to be people who are respected, and want to see themselves as respectable, so people had incentives to change their self-description to “organizer.” This wasn’t deception so much as it was a social and emotional condition that made certain mistakes more plausible and likely. (Note to self: revisit the idea of “structure of feeling” and stretch it to fit this…!)

It seems to me that some patterns or habits of communication intensify or accelerate these dynamics. I think a “ruthless criticism of all that exists!” posture is likely to contribute to this. That can aid clarity (though “criticism” itself requires interpretation…), but it doesn’t necessarily do so, because it can provide incentives for people to avoid being on the receiving end of the vitriol. It can lead to the appearance of (and sincere belief that there exists) agreement between people with less substantive agreement underneath it than people realize — and when this become apparent it’s often unpleasant. (It can also lead people to just shut up, creating silent majorities that appear to agree but whose actual views are hard to read.)

I think it’s important to introduce some mediations or some distance between the group’s core values and the group’s practices. To put it another way, I think it’s useful to have sort of two tracks or tiers of conversation. There are issues of principle that have to be resolved and whose stakes are not only evaluative but associational — we might break off over this! Then there are issues of how we act on the good faith commitment to our core values that we all presume we all have. At that level I think it’s best not to turn disagreements into matters of principle. In general, I’m for principles, but I think disagreements at the level of principle should only come up when it’s worth placing association at risk. That’s not quite what I mean. What I mean is, there are time when it’s necessary to consider changing association. We should be clear about when and why we do so and we should do so as a result of decisions. When we’re not doing so, we should be clear that we’re not doing so, and reinforce the common presumption of commitment to our core values that all members share. I think doing this would allow a maximum of evaluative conversation and a maximum of efficacy in that conversation by minimizing the overlap between evaluation and association.

Here’s another try:
I think terms have a shelf life. Especially when they carry a moral charge. I think we really need morally charged terms, but because they are likely to cross association with evaluation they are also likely to encourage people to try to understand their practices as fitting with the term. (This reminds me of a joke I can never fully remember correctly – my small religious group is a church, yours is a sect, and that guy’s over there is a cult. I think it’s sort of like that.) I think this makes discussion of principles really important, and also makes it important to minimize the bile that goes along with when we draw lines – because no one wants to be on the receiving end of bile, using it tends to encourage people to stretch terms further and faster.


On a semi-related note… I was recently on the margins of a discussion on democratic centralism, which sent me to wikipedia chasing references to matters Russian that I know like zero about. I followed this because my friends were arguing about the meaning of democratic centralism. I had a hunch that there was conflict over the meaning of the term from very early on, because I think generally core ideas are as much a matter of conflict – conflict over their interpretation as well as using interpretation as a way of carrying out conflicts with people. My digging turned up this wikipedia entry –

In one article cited there, Lenin writes about “the democratic centralism of Comrades Sapronov, Maximovsky and Osinsky” that it “is muddled! Such things cannot be tolerated. Such things drag us back theoretically.” He lists as an example “They say that democratic centralism consists not only in the All-Russia Central Executive Committee ruling; but in the All-Russia Central Executive Committee ruling through the local organisations.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/mar/29.htm)

In another article he talks about “the Sapronov platform (signed: “A group of comrades standing for democratic centralism”, Bubnov, Boguslavsky, Kamensky, Maximovsky, Osinsky, Rafail, Sapronov)”, which he calls “not so much historical as hysterical,” “confusion and disintegration,” and syndicalism. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/jan/19.htm)

What’s striking here in my opinion is that the group he’s opposing call themselves democratic centralists who are for standing up for democratic centralism. In the ensuing argument I think there was one of those “you’re not *really* a democratic centralist, you just call yourself one!” kind of fights kind of like “you’re not *really* an anarchist, you just use the term!” ones that we’re probly all familiar with.

Among other things, in my opinion this means that any reconstruction of the meaning of the term “democratic centralism” will have to either reconstruct it as a field of ideological conflict between interested actors, or will have to take sides in past conflicts like that (at least implicitly). I think this kind of thing – fights over the true meaning of words – is pretty common in the marxist tradition, and I think it’s kind of funny because it’s sort of ahistorical to be like “here’s the essence of the term!” and yet most marxists make a big deal out of marxism being all about historicalness and whatnot.

Those articles also show that at least some members of the Bolsheviks had concerns about the dominant practice/Lenin’s version of democratic centralism prior to Stalin, and I think it’s arguable that this –


in 1921 on Lenin’s watch emphasized the “centralist” bit over the “democratic” bit in a way that’s not attributable to Stalinism.

I should also say (or maybe I shouldn’t), I don’t really care about who is right here (though I would like to know more about all sides of this, especially the folk denounced as syndicalists) so much as I think this is a good illustration of my point about terms being arenas of conflict as well as tools often used (via interpretation) in conflicts. To my mind one follow on point from this is that it’s easy to overemphasis paper agreement on terms and to think that that means more than it might actually. I can’t think of a better metaphor – it’s less important what kind of genre the band is or if we like the same genres, it’s more a matter of if we have similar or compatible dance moves in response to music, and even more than that how well we manage to go with each others’ moves.

Another aspect related to all this is about actually existing marxism(s) and the actually existing Marx(es), as a parallel to my post on theoretical vs historical capitalisms. I sort of got into this in my review of Black Flame, http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2010/08/24/does-black-flame-have-to-say-about-marxism/ though I wasn’t as clear on it as I should have been (because I’m not as clear as I wish I was [note to self: this reminds me, I still need to finish reading the article Phebus sent me in the comments to that post, then post comments on it]). I think Marx and marxisms as talked about is often boiled down to what are claimed to be essences, as distinct from the Marx and marxisms that have actually existed, which have been divergent, multiple, internally conflicted, changing over time, etc. I think in dealing with Marx and marxism we’re always selecting and reconstructing, but I think we probly ought to foreground our reconstructive/selective moves – here is what I do with this — rather than claim to be uncovering the real heart of the matter as it actually was.