Holding the Good Hostage

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Good vs Perfect

I have been interested for years in the debate about how we should pursue a better world.  Do we settle for compromises?  Do we stick to our guns and demand more from others?  I constantly come across pithy little axioms that help me only to then come across one that concludes differently.  My favorite so far is “do not hold the good hostage to the perfect.”  Sadly though, it is usually accompanied by some nonesense such as, “our health care system is the best in the world.”  1. Debateable.  2. Tell that to someone who is un(der)insured.  3.  Even if it is, it can be better.

I’ve made it no secret that I think Obama has shirked from what he really wants, campaigned on, and from what we deserve.  But do I then support the reform that will come out of Congress?  Do I refuse to support it, a la the sans papier, as a minor tinker that merely placates true anger?

Case for the Perfect

What is even more ironic is that ‘moderates’ who practice what they like to call ‘pragmatism’ lend credibility to the genocidal enterprise, and in doing so they contribute to very ‘inevitability’ of genocide, which they then decry as the very reason for the need for pragmatism. Sometimes you will hear the bit about ‘losing the middle class’ by abandoning some supposed middle road. This is curious, since one would be lucky to have half the population turn out for an election in a place like America, where half the population is already alienated from the entire political system. This is not surprising when you consider that they are being offered choices in evil. The choice is between genocide and genocide, and the wide spread alienation is a symptom of the very ‘inevitability’ of systems of genocide which pragmatic moderates help to cement into place by lending credibility to the system by functioning as ‘moderate critics’ and thus normalizing genocidal systems.  (Lifton and Markusen 1990)

This argument is initially compelling to me, but it misunderstands apathy.  If apathy was created by moderation and by choices among only immoral poles then how was apathy originally caused?  Lifton and Markusen’s account is totalizing and incomplete.

The example some refer to is slavery, but that analogy breaks down.  A person can choose not to be a slaveholder and can try to change laws allowing slave holding, even if that change is merely a reform and not an abolition.  Abolition should be the goal, and that pressure should never let up, but if it is not achievable then some restrictions can be better than none.  Accepting a reform, a step in the right direction, does not necessarily have to detract from theultimate goal, especialy when it does improve material conditions for some.  It does seem a fine line to walk, and maybe it is too fine a line.  But that remains a question for the particular struggle.  Clearly, health insurance reform pales in comparison to the magnitude of slave trade.

Case for The Good

The best answer I have seen so far to the “moderation as genocide” argument is in the end of the Elbaum book.  It’s a lenghty passage but given its reliance on past experience and not just abstract speculation as well as the centrality of apathy and pragmatism it seems appropriate and necessary to include the whole argument:

But this entire framework (shared – though with different post-1917 icons – by pro-Soviet commnism and Trotskyism) is fatally flawed.  The conditions of economic , political and social life are so marked by constant change – and the history of popular and revolutionary movements is simply too complex – for there to be one pure tradition embodying all essential truths.  A great deal can be learned from previous left experience, and identification with the history of the revolutionary movement can be a great source of strength.  The contributions of Marx and Lenin still shed light on the workings of capitalism and the process of social change.  They stand out for their breadth of vision and insistence on linking theory, practical work, and organization-building in an internationalist prject.  But it is an unwarranted leap from there to belief in a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to present.

This nevertheless was the mindset of the New Communist Movement, and it had profound and negative consequences.  Even when activists learned through bitter experience that a particular system of orthodoxy was fundamentally flawed, impulses to break with dogmatism and explore new theoretical terrain were overwhelmed by the push to find another orthodoxy.  From one angle the history of the movement boils down to a series of such shifts, with each juncture seeing a previously dominant group fall by the wayside and a new organization rise to proclaim that at last the true path had been found.  From the early 1970s to the 1980s this process was repeated again and again – each time with more fallout.  By the late 1980s too little energy or confidence was left for another cycle.

Additionally, this theory-as-orthodoxy mindest prevented the New Communist Movement from making any new and significant intellectual contribution to the left’s understanding of US society.  In cotnrast to nearly every other 1970s/early 1980s US left tendency, the New Communist Movement produced almost nothing in the way of original studies illuminating new features of US social and economic development or hidden chapters of US history.  A few thoughtful works were produced by “independent” Marxist-Leninists or individuals associated with some of the movement’s atypical groups (the Democratic Workers party, Sojourner Truth Organization, and Line of March).  But the publishing houses of the main New Communist organizations issued almost nothing that remains of value to serious left researchers and scholars.

The movement’s narrow conception of revolutionary theory also contributed mightily to its descent into the sect-buildng trap.  For a sect, allegiance to past doctrine takes priority over engaging with current reality.  Doing battle with heresy takes precedence over finding common ground with others.  Control over affiliated “mass organizations” is equated with leading popular movements.  Most of the largest groups avoided the worst manifestations of sectarianism for at least a few years.  But even the most broad-minded ultimately succumbed to the lure of such a mechanical and miniaturized version of Leninism.

Indeed, at the very moments when the most promising organizations seemed on the vege of breaking out of their sect mentality, they typically became dizzy with their small-scale success and lost sight of the tremndous distance between their intial accomplishments and what it would take to become a historically significant force.  Instead of accepting and grappling with all the complexities that accompany building deep ties to the working class, they retreated to the safe ground of dontrinal purity and of being a big fish in a small pond. (2002, 323-5)

It’s a mouthful but easily the best answer yet to the orthodox positions.  I do not advocate the ad hominem attack of the last sentence but it is a criticism that finds significant traction in popular culture (I am thinking here of Governor Pawlenty, Representative Wilson and conservative pundits who consistently criticize health care reform advocates as being to lazy to understand complexities.)

In any case, Elbaum provides a better accounting of public apathy as well provides historical study of the effects of such orthodoxy.  Those refusing to compromise are never able to achieve gains in material conditions by holding firm to the perfect.  Only those willing to make reforms can effectively improve conditions.  However, if one is forced to stand outside the system then the never-give-in call for change can make the reformers seem more moderate.

As a person who can only hope to influence policymakers I should tell my representatives to push for a single payer knowing and hoping that this makes them more willing to establish  massive bargaining power with insurance companies.  I do not want to accept such a minimal approach to politics because it denies creativity and micro-political maneuvering.  And again, however, that is a risk that need not be necessary.  It’s only a possibility and one that can be countered as long as radicals remain vigilant.

Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air. London: Verso Books.

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