Po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy and the chang­ing tides

Left­ist groups need to get in­volved in par­ti­san elec­toral pol­i­tics

The McGill Daily - - Contents - James Ward Com­men­tary Writer James Ward is a U1 His­tory and English Lit­er­a­ture Ma­jor. To con­tact the au­thor, please email james. ward@mail.mcgill.ca

When I re­turned to the U.S. to protest the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, I no­ticed that many of the groups or­ga­niz­ing the first demon­stra­tions af­ter the elec­tion had not been pre­vi­ously in­volved in par­ti­san elec­toral pol­i­tics. Most had never been as­so­ci­ated with the Demo­cratic Party, or with any main­stream Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal groups. In­stead, the or­ga­niz­ing forces be­hind these demon­stra­tions orig­i­nated in the far left, among peo­ple who often iden­ti­fied as revo­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ists or an­ar­chists and fre­quently ex­pressed a dis­dain to­wards par­ti­san pol­i­tics in gen­eral.

This should not have been all that sur­pris­ing. Left­ist groups, often called ‘rad’ groups at Mcgill, are used to demon­strat­ing. For those out­side the main­stream po­lit­i­cal dis­course, demon­stra­tion and di­rect ac­tion (such as shut­ting down in­au­gu­ra­tion en­trances) are strate­gic de­ci­sions. It was these groups that had the fer­vor and know-how to get peo­ple into the streets march­ing against a semi-fas­cist dem­a­gogue who had taken the pres­i­dency on a plat­form of racism, sex­ism, and vi­o­lent rhetoric. Yet these protests, both dur­ing and af­ter the elec­tion, were re­ac­tionary and limited in scope, tar­get­ing the iso­lated phe­nom­e­non of Trump rather than pro­mot­ing a dis­tinct al­ter­na­tive vi­sion. If left­ist groups had in­volved them­selves more di­rectly in the po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses through which can­di­dates and po­lit­i­cal plat­forms are cho­sen and cre­ated, we might be fac­ing a very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion-– push­ing for the ad­vance­ment of truly pro­gres­sive poli­cies in­stead of lament­ing the vic­tory of a rightwing dem­a­gogue over a de­fender of the ne­olib­eral sta­tus quo. Mov­ing for­ward, left­ist groups need to use their prin­ci­ples and tac­tics to take an ac­tive role in cre­at­ing the po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion, rather con­stantly re­act­ing to it.

The rea­son why left­ist groups tend to avoid di­rect par­ti­san in­volve­ment is be­cause their po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies often char­ac­ter­ize the cap­i­tal­ist state and all its el­e­ments as in­her­ently op­pres­sive, thereby defin­ing any pos­i­tive ad­vo­cacy ( by which I mean any ad­vo­cacy in sup­port of a po­lit­i­cal out­come) as com­plic­ity in state op­pres­sion. I am sym­pa­thetic to this view in the­ory, but an un­com­pro­mis­ing ad­her­ence to these prin­ci­ples ham­strings the abil­ity of left­ist groups to af­fect change. The ‘ rad’ left can op­pose gov­ern­ment pol­icy ef­fec­tively, as in the 2012 stu­dent demon­stra­tions in re­sponse to Que­bec univer­sity tu­ition hikes, but it lacks the abil­ity to ad­vance con­crete poli­cies along the same lines (like free tu­ition, for in­stance), be­cause do­ing so would in­volve en­dors­ing gov­ern­ment ac­tion and the politi­cians who drive that ac­tion. Left­ist groups, es­pe­cially those on univer­sity cam­puses, can­not af­ford to limit them­selves like this. You may think “smash­ing the state” would be ideal, but there is a greater re­spon­si­bil­ity to aid and em­power those who, right now, live un­der con­di­tions of vi­o­lence and op­pres­sion– racist, pa­tri­ar­chal, colo­nial, eco­nomic, or en­vi­ron­men­tal– ex­pressed through the state or the pri­vate sec­tor or any­thing else. We can­not dis­tance our­selves from a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that af­fects the lives of mil­lions. We must en­gage.

It is often ar­gued that struc­tural change has not been and can­not be made through po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment. The truth in this is that change can­not be made through po­lit­i­cal cen­trism and ap­pease­ment. How­ever, not only is it pos­si­ble to af­fect change through rad­i­cal en­gage­ment in pol­i­tics, it is through this en­gage­ment that the left has made its great­est ac­com­plish­ments. The Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC, or “snick”), for in­stance, can claim sig­nif­i­cant credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, leg­is­la­tion that, while in no way end­ing struc­tural racism in Amer­ica (as is often claimed on the right), re­shaped the land­scape of racial pol­icy for the bet­ter­ment of Black Amer­i­cans. SNCC, founded at Shaw Univer­sity and even­tu­ally ex­pand­ing to chap­ters across the coun­try, was a ‘rad’ group by any mea­sure. Its tac­tics in­cluded di­rect ac­tions often car­ried out in the face of lynch mobs or­ga­nized by lo­cal po­lice and the Ku Klux Klan, and its rad­i­cal stu­dent ac­tivism in­spired other cam­pus groups like Stu­dents for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety (SDS). Many of the touch­stones of con­tem­po­rary ac­tivist cul­ture, like con­sen­sus based de­ci­sion-mak­ing, have their roots in SNCC. How­ever, SNCC was di­rectly en­gaged with po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. It de­manded spe­cific po­lit­i­cal ac­tion from spe­cific po­lit­i­cal ac­tors and con­demned half-assed at­tempts to pla­cate it. At times, it was deeply an­tag­o­nis­tic to­wards the Demo­cratic Party, as when it formed the Mis­sis­sippi Free­dom Demo­cratic Party in par­al­lel to the na­tion­ally rec­og­nized, and en­tirely white, Mis­sis­sippi Demo­cratic Party. How­ever, SNCC did not dis­avow po­lit­i­cal change, just as it did not rely on the benev­o­lence of elected politi­cians to en­act it. In­stead, those in SNCC un­der­stood that rad­i­cal ac­tion is nec­es­sary to force po­lit­i­cal ac­tion, and through their meth­ods can claim to have re­shaped the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial land­scape of Amer­ica.

Rad­i­cal ac­tion is needed for democ­racy to func­tion cor­rectly be­cause, as any ‘rad’ ac­tivist will tell you, democ­racy is rigged in favour of those in power. Voter dis­en­fran­chise­ment, ger­ry­man­der­ing, me­dia cap­ture, cam­paign fi­nanc­ing– these crit­i­cisms of the demo­cratic process are fully valid. These are not, how­ever, rea­sons to aban­don demo­cratic en­gage­ment be­cause, firstly, struc­tural bar­ri­ers ex­ist to any form of anti-op­pres­sive ac­tion, and se­condly, ‘rad’ groups specif­i­cally are needed to fight these bar­ri­ers. The me­dia can­not stop peo­ple from see­ing marchers in the streets, and the po­lit­i­cal ef­fect of oc­cu­py­ing build­ings or con­duct­ing mass strikes can­not be bought. For those who are ed­u­ca­tion­ally or eco­nom­i­cally dis­en­fran­chised, rad­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion out­side con­ven­tional chan­nels lets them bring their po­lit­i­cal weight to bear.

The fi­nal false con­cep­tion about demo­cratic en­gage­ment is that it re­quires aban­don­ing other rad­i­cal or revo­lu­tion­ary ac­tivism. In his 1965 speech “The Bal­lot or the Bul­let,” Mal­colm X crit­i­cizes the Demo­cratic Party for in­ac­tion and be­trayal. He lauds Black Na­tion­al­ism, sug­gests that Black Amer­i­cans ought to arm them­selves, and threat­ens guerilla war­fare against the white su­prem­a­cist state. Yet, his mes­sage was not to aban­don the bal­lot—it was to use the bal­lot “like a bul­let,” as a weapon to force change. Po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment does not con­tra­dict rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy or meth­ods, as long as the ul­ti­mate goal is to bet­ter peo­ple’s lives. You can be revo­lu­tion­ary, or­ga­nize in a revo­lu­tion­ary fash­ion, and still en­gage with the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. We do not have to choose – we can­not af­ford to choose. We should pur­sue change down all av­enues.

What that means, prac­ti­cally, is that left­ists and left­ist groups should meet with, speak to, and de­mand change from politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal par­ties, pub­li­cally and pri­vately, at ev­ery level. It means that when those politi­cians and par­ties ig­nore those de­mands, or make only a pre­tense of ef­fort, we should call them out by name in our ac­tions and demon­stra­tions, in our lit­er­a­ture and in our dis­course. It means that, if a politi­cian demon­strates they are truly com­mit­ted to tak­ing con­crete po­lit­i­cal ac­tion against vi­o­lence and op­pres­sion, we should give them what­ever sup­port we can. In­di­vid­ual left­ist groups have power, es­pe­cially at the lo­cal level, to mean­ing­fully in­flu­ence po­lit­i­cal out­comes. When they band to­gether na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, that power is mul­ti­plied. We should not aban­don this power out of ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity or par­a­lyz­ing cyn­i­cism.

Per­haps it is eas­ier, in prin­ci­ple and prac­tice, to re­act, to op­pose, to fight back. Fight­ing for things is com­pli­cated, and what­ever is achieved will al­ways be a com­pro­mise, not mea­sur­ing up to what is prin­ci­pally de­served. But we do not have to be sat­is­fied with those com­pro­mises to ac­knowl­edge that they may im­prove the lived ex­pe­ri­ences of mil­lions of peo­ple. The po­lit­i­cal process shapes those ex­pe­ri­ences. We need to be in­volved.

We can­not dis­tance our­selves from a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that af­fects the lives of mil­lions. We must en­gage. Crit­i­cisms of the demo­cratic process are fully valid. These are not, how­ever, rea­sons to aban­don demo­cratic en­gage­ment.

Ma­rina Djur­d­je­vic | The Mcgill Daily

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