Aporiai of Political Action

Binary Star GX 339-4As an example of the aporiai of political action I mean things like the deadly embrace between sectarianism and opportunism. Rather than being simply solitary dead-ends, these aporiai achieve their impasse effect as being binary systems of paired dead ends, the escape from one leading directly into the heart of the other and vice versa.






First a quick definition of the word aporia, which may be unfamiliar. From wiktionary:

From Ancient Greek ἀπορία < ἄπορος aporos, impassable: ἀ- (without) + πόρος poros (passage) Noun
aporia (plural: aporiai)

   1. a figure of speech in which the speaker pauses rhetorically to express uncertainty or doubt as to how to proceed: How can I describe the beauty of the desert?.
   2. An insoluble contradiction in a text's meaning.
   3. Any kind of logical impasse suggested by a text or speaker.

To expand the notion of an aporia or impasse in political terms I would also make reference to Deleuze and Guattari's notions of lines of flight and black holes. A political aporia such as the sectarianism - opportunism assemblage is a pair of black holes, the line of flight from each leading directly to the other. Groups caught in the trap of such an aporia are trapped in a ceaseless oscillation back and forth between the two poles of the aporia. The only true escape route is to be found in a direction orthogonal to the direction of the two lines of flight that link the two black holes. So much for the obscure abstractions, back to the aporia themselves.

Sectarianism - Opportunism

This aporia will be well know to anybody familiar with left and Marxist political writings. For example, the following definition is provided by the glossary at marxists.org.

Sectarianism and Opportunism are the twin errors which may befall any organisation formed in pursuit of some principle.

The Sectarian emphasises the absolute truth of its principle over any other, finds in every small disagreement the seeds of fundamental difference, see the most deadly foe in the closest rival, puts purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refuses to compromise or modify their aims and is proud of being against the stream. Simply put, sectarianism is the breakdown of solidarity.

The Opportunist is always ready to adapt its principles to circumstances, minimises the significance of internal disagreements, treats even opponents as "the lesser evil", puts tactical advantage ahead of being true to its principles, is too ready to make compromises and is all too ready to follow the current of the stream.

Not suprisingly, the sectarian or opportunist invariably repudiates being labeled as such, and instead reverses the claim. Meanwhile, these labels are all too easily thrown against minority positions in the attempt to invalidate their opinions as "anti-party", simply because they are different and challenging.

Naturally, real differences exist within groups and between different organisations. When these are fundamental differences, opposition and conflict is to be expected when a common course is attempted. The trouble with sectarianism is that it behaves as if fundamental differences exist when they do not; while opportunism actively ignores real differences. Thus, when for example Anarchists and Socialists attempt a common action, one can expect some areas of conflict.

In a class struggle political context, too much sectarianism can lead to isolationism - isolation from the working class that comes about through refusal to take part in mass campaigns with limited reformist goals or because of the involvement of different political tendencies even when the immediate goals of the project are not in conflict with the tendencies fundamental programme or political priniciples. The opposite pole of opportunism can lead, similarly to liquidationism - the dissolution of the specific political tendency into a wider more general movement that does not contain the goals of the specific tendency. So we can say that the isolationism - liquidationism aporia is a resultant of the more general sectarianism - opportunism trap.

Fatalism - Voluntarism

Fatalism is found in both anarchist and Marxist variants. It is the notion that the objective laws of historical development are going to bring about the revolution inexorably but any action attempting to hasten it's arrival is fruitless. Pannekoek's accusation against Kautsky that the latter's orthodoxy added up to a policy of "actionless waiting" is a brilliant summation of the character of fatalism as quietism. It's polar opposite, voluntarism, is the notion that determined action of the willing, no matter how few, can bring about the revolution by revolt in the here and now, regardless of the isolation of the political tendency, its lack of numbers, resources, influence in the wider class, the general political economic situation or the consciousness, political composition and readiness of the class for revolution. The inevitable results of such premature activity - defeat and repression - leads to a relapse into the consolations of fatalism until a new generation of militants hungry for action to revolt against being forever told that the time is not yet right.

Ritualism - Activism

The difficulty of continuing existence at the Sectarian - Isolationist - Fatalist poles is the lack of activity for expressing the identity of the tendency. Ritualism fills this role. This is the role of propaganda by the word, whether printed in newspapers, pamphlets and flyers or spoken in meetings, both public and private. The opposite pole is activism, which is the adoption of any form of activity not simply limited to words and ideas, whether voluntary service provision to the poor and oppressed, NVDA in support of any cause that it can be applied to, endless marches and pickets and so on. To clarify this aporia we can think of a separation of logos and praxis - words and deeds. Figuratively speaking we can see ritualism as incantation of the logos. Where it approaches the point of disappearing into the black hole, this incantation becomes like those non-arabic speaking muslim youths around the world who are taught to memorise the recital of the Koran without knowing the meaning of the sounds they are incant. Similarly theory divorced from practice eventually ceases to have any context that might give it meaning and allow its development other than through "first principle" methods of manipulating principles and concepts divorced from any application. An illustrative metaphor for activism is more tenuous, but we can think of the practice of Tai Chi. Today westerners practice Tai Chi in gyms without any connection to or knowledge of the martial art applications of the different movements they are making. Similarly, activism divorced from any political story or articulation of principles that could relate the particular struggles to an antagonist and revolutionary composition of the class.

Escape vectors

So what are the orthogonal approaches that can help us escape these aporiai and others related to them? How can we turn at right angles away from the lines of flight that lead from fatalism to voluntarism and back again? Part of the answer is changing the way we see the picture from an objectivist and essentialist perspective to a more processual ontology, from notions of being to ideas of becoming. This approach has already been touched upon in the post on "What is Orthodoxy?" and will doubtless be the subject of future postings.

But the other approach I want to consider here is the idea of dynamic equilibrium. That is, instead of the substitutionism that is the result of objectivist orthodoxy, we have a multi-centred notion of agency. The most well known anarchist concept in this vein is dual organisationalism. The idea of dynamic equilibrium by holding two or more processes in dynamic tension is a solution to the problem of balance that is found throughout the natural world. From the sets of opposing muscles that both move our body and maintain its balance, through the counter-acting neurotransmitters in brain, the biological and physical world is full of homeostatic processes that maintain dynamic balances by the interaction of multiple different elements.

The idea behind dual organisationalism is that by a division of labour between different types of organisations their interaction can allow (never guarantee!) a development in a direction orthogonal to the lines of flight that oscillate between sectarianism and opportunism, fatalism and voluntarism, ritualism and activism. But in order to do this we must have a framework that allows for degrees of development between the status quo and the revolution in class composition both in organisational and consciousness terms. A framework that rejects the impossibilist position, in other words.



I just want to say I think

I just want to say I think this post is brilliant. It's certainly a sweeping insight into the persistent tendency of the left to run down dead-ends.

Perhaps instead of dual organizations in dynamic tension with each other, the dynamic tension needs to be maintained in all the individuals and writings of one organization...


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