Political Theory – Constructive Engagement Between Those With Whom One Disagrees, Not Conformist Unity, Is The Real Way To Have A “Plural Left” – 15 July 2012


I’m providing this link to a bit of fairly recent scholarship – originally published in 2009 – on the subject of Latin American poltics and the concept of a “plural Left” that contains within it many different visions of how to proceed in making the world a more just and egalitarian place.

This article appeals to me for invoking the ideal of a “plural Left” (as opposed to one where only one kind of vision is allowed), but repels me because of its determined efforts to read out at least one kind of leftist, the “social democrat”, for not making the grade as being a “real” partisan of justice and equality. “We respect a plurality of voices, except for yours” is not what I would consider a reasonable motto of a truly pluralistic Left.

Part of the problem, I think, is that many people address this as a “everyone shut up and be unified” concept – in that narrative, believing in a “plural” Left means not criticising others on the Left even when they are acting in an utterly insane and destructive way. Obviously, I don’t believe in that kind of a “plural” Left, and indeed I would advise no one else to do so.

One of the reasons the “diversity of tactics” model for social organising, which became prominent after it was used successfully in the World Trade Organisation protests of 1999 in Seattle, has waned in popularity is that it is now understood to advance the cause of that kind of a “plural” Left. Popular protests today, like the G20 or Occupy protests, consist of violent protesters creating mayhem while nonviolent protesters keep a smile on their faces and stalwartly refuse to criticise – even though the violent protesters are wrecking their credibility with the general public they are trying to influence.

I don’t support a “plural Left” where we can’t criticise others on the Left. I emphatically do not support that. I could not possibly stress this point enough.

But there is something to the “diversity of tactics” model that is salvageable. Any popular movement is going to be based either on something one wishes to promote (a goal-to-embrace) or something one wishes to oppose (a goal-to-avoid). I am willing to stand with anyone on the bases of those things. This does not imply that these people are my permanent allies whom I will never criticise. This implies that we recognise we are for the same thing, and that we should work together to improve our odds of getting that thing.

This article presents us with a vision of the Latin American Left defined by a “diversity of tactics”. The author of the article wants us all to focus on that – though Lula is not Chávez is not Fernández Kirchner is not Vázquez is not Castro is not Morales, and so on…they “walk the same path, in the same direction”, and the differences don’t matter as much as the unity.

Well, yes and no. The problem with this argument is the same problem that we see with the “diversity of tactics” organisational model. As long as it is true that everyone in the movement shares either the same goal-to-embrace or the same goal-to-avoid, then yes, we can work together. The more we doubt that, the more the model breaks down – and should.

That’s not saying much, and yet, it also says a lot.

For example, I am appalled by the politics of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and that of the Castro brothers in Cuba, and I will go to great lengths to impress upon anyone who will listen that I do not trust them. But of course I am going to agree with those individuals, as misguided as I regularly find them, on a great many political issues. This strikes me a lot like saying I would stand with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler, but there it is. And hey, even Winston Churchill would back me up on that one – “If Hitler invaded Hell,” remarked Churchill, “I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

To take another example, Nelson Mandela welcomed into the anti-apartheid movement anyone who was actually against apartheid. This meant that the Communist Party of South Africa was welcomed into the bosom of the African National Congress – where they do, in fact, remain as an institutional affiliate to this day. When asked about this situation, Mandela famously responded “There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?” Note how he did not respond that the Communists were his buddies and he approved of their politics generally and thought they stood for everything that was wonderful, nor did he remain silent and act like the question was somehow untoward and disloyal to the anti-apartheid cause. He said that he fought with the Communists against apartheid, essentially, because both he and the Communists happened to be against apartheid. Otherwise, it is pretty clear, he didn’t think all that highly of them.

To both the Bill Clinton/Tony Blair kinds of representatives of ostensibly “left-wing” opinion and the Hugo Chávez/Fidel and Raúl Castro kinds of representatives of ostensibly “left-wing” opinion, I say the same thing: “I don’t really trust you, but if you are for something that I also support, I am willing to back you on that specific point, assuming I judge that on balance there is more to be gained for justice and equality from being onside with you on the point.”

In short, I think this article emphasises the wrong point. It’s not so much that all these different Latin American leaders “walk the same path, in the same direction” – it’s that they do it as _themselves_ instead of self-censoring conformists. As long as _that_ is the tradition that continues in Latin America, I do not fear for it at all. And that goes for the rest of us as well.

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