Thinking About Growing Pains

Here are some further thoughts on Upping the Anti, the radical journal out of Toronto, Canada…

The most ambitious part of Upping the Anti #3 is clearly its editorial, titled Growing Pains: The Anti-Globalization Movement, Anti-Imperialism and the Politics of the United Front. This is really a look at the radical left today, bringing some fresh air to the subject and making several interesting claims. While it contains some misplaced analogies and at times remains unclear, it provides some useful tools and insights. Worth discusssing.

Growing Pains starts from the fairly uncontroversial observation that the September 11th 2001 attacks in the united states effectively put an end to the North American anti-globalization movement, a movement which had been marked by a high level of participatory democracy and a willingness to experiment in the politics of direct action and non-violent illegality (traits which were especially conducive to anarchist militants).

Most importantly for my purposes, the authors also note that the anti-globalization movement embraced what they call the “pedagogy of confrontation” – explained as the idea that “people will be moved to action once it is demonstrated that action is both possible and effective.” (35)

After attempting to briefly sum up the successes and failures of this “anti-globalization moment” (1997-2001), Growing Pains notes that following September 11th the pedagogy of confrontation lost much of its momentum:

the anti-war movement – taking its direction from the socialist organizations that correctly read the timing of the twilight of the heart – came to take on the attributes of the united front.

According to this formulation, left currents need to build the movement around minimum demands while at the same time arguing against the limitations of the minimal platform. Consequently, socialist groups built broad coalitions around the slogans “stop the war” and “troops out now.” On this basis, they gathered together broad sections of the organized and unorganized “left” – including the trade union bureaucracy, a wide range of Arab and Islamic organizations, as well as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and occasionally even dissenting Liberal Members of Parliament. (34)

As Growing Pains notes, “the opposition between the pedagogy of confrontation and the united front has been one of the most consistent fault lines in the socialist tradition.” (35)

What the editors are alluding to is a divide many of us have experienced personally, and you can hear comrades complain about it time and time again, though not always with such clarity. Indeed, the reason so many of us, especially in big cities, came to the radical left through anarchism is precisely because of this “pedagogy of confrontation,” which many of us took for granted was almost a litmus test for what was revolutionary and what wasn’t.

As a teenaged radical in the 1980s – and almost all comrades I knew back then felt the same way – nothing discredited outfits like the International Socialists or the various “peace” groups so much as the fact that they had fucking “peace marshals” (we called them “peace cops”) telling us not to act too rowdy or rambunctious at “their” protests. Many of us ended up in one left tradition or another largely as a result of where we fell on this question, and issues of Bakunin vs. Marx were then decided upon retroactively. Once we’d been around for a few years, the idea many of us in the anarchist camp acted on – whether formulated as such or not – was that the best thing we could do was to intervene in movements and try to raise the level of militancy as much as possible. Questions of accountability to those directly affected were tackled with varying degrees of responsibility, or lack thereof. As was the question of why we preferred tactical militancy, or even why we found some movements more attractive than others. (Struck us as obvious, y’know…)

Having grown up in that atmosphere, i always assumed the “diversity of tactics” that existed in the late nineties came about not from some democratic principle but as a diplomatic face-saving compromise as the conservative “radical” leadership of yesteryear tried to make inroads in movements that had emerged from outside of their control.

This conservative and disempowering strategy which was hegemonic in the mid-eighties is (if I am reading it properly) what Growing Pains refers to as the “politics of the united front.”

Having established its terms, Growing Pains goes on a bit of a tangent tracing how these two approaches played out in Europe in the 1920s-30s and the 1960s-70s. While there may have been something to this section, and the authors seem to feel it important to refer to Walter Benjamin’s idea of a “dialectical image,” it struck me as far too undeveloped to be anything but slightly confusing. If this background was really important, i for one would need a few extra pages to understand the relevance (beyond pointing out that there have been other shifts from the pedagogy of confrontation to the united front, which could have been said in a single sentence)…

Back to the present – the post-September 11th conservative shift within the left was the result not only of disarray within the (already declining) anti-globalization movement; more conservative unitedfronters took advantage of the sea change, working “to ensure that the [anti-war] movement would not be overrun by the confrontational logic” of the radicals. “From the standpoint of orthodox socialist strategy, it is far easier to work with liberals than it is to work with radicals who share similar end goals but are committed to the pedagogy of confrontation.” (39)

If the unitedfronters today lead the movement, Growing Pains suggests that more radical comrades are making a mistake by simply continuing as before, albeit with smaller numbers and more modest goals. Comrades are criticized for engaging in isolated militant actions or breakaway marches instead of engaging with the broader anti-war movement, challenging the unitedfronters for hegemony. “Currently the anti-war movement is the only movement with a potentially mass base. If the modest acquisitions of the anti-globalization movement are going to survive, they are going to have to be replanted in its soil.” (35)

First things first…

Growing Pains doesn’t explain the reasoning behind its claim that the anti-war movement is the only place where a potential mass base exists, making it difficult to actually grapple with. There may be a lot of opposition to America’s Iraqi adventure, but there is very little in the way of an actual anti-war movement, especially here in Canada. As for opposition to Canadian military action in Afghanistan, my impression is that there is no mass movement there either. Nor do i think that this is simply due to the fact that what anti-war activities there are remain controlled by unitedfronters…

(i’m not so much disagreeing with this proposition as noting that i remain unconvinced…)

But this point – important though it may be – is not the only thing that i am left wondering about. After all, even if one does agree with the authors’ position that anti-war organizing is the key area where radicals should challenge the conservative logic of the united front, one might be left puzzled by their statement that “The resolution to this problem [of the hegemony of the united front] cannot be found in efforts to reestablish the hegemony of the pedagogy of confrontation,” but instead in “recognizing, synthesizing and transcending these seemingly antithetical terms on a mass scale.” (40)

I am unclear – and Growing Pains doesn’t help me here – as to how these different modes can be transcended at this point in the struggle. Or what is meant by synthesis, beyond simple coexistence. Once again: it’s not that I’m disagreeing with the UTA editors, just that I don’t understand what they mean.

It is worth remembering that the pedagogy of confrontation does not need to take the specific forms it did during the anti-globalization moment in order to remain true to the idea that people will be moved to action once it is demonstrated that action is both possible and effective. While direct action may have flowered between 1997 and 2001, it was a pretty monocultural crop, tame indeed (at least here in the metropoles) by the standards of the 20s/30s or the 60s/70s. For the most part “violence” was aimed strictly at property, and where cops were occasionally targeted (i.e. in Quebec City) this was marginal and still overwhelmingly in self-defense. Throughout most of white North America the frontiers of illegal confrontation were being pushed by anti-fascist youth and radical environmentalists more than by summit hoppers or most community organizers. This is neither compliment nor complaint, just my clearest recollection. (and I should mention that here in Quebec things were a bit different, with some radical community organizations which predated the anti-globalization movement engaging in confrontational actions…)

I could go on, giving many more examples. My point is that the pedagogy of confrontation still strikes me as appropriate, and i can say that even though i would not point to the anti-globalization movement as a model for what we need.

The authors’ objection seems to be more philosophical than strictly tactical, though – which is both good (forcing us to think) but also frustrating, as the concepts touched upon are left undeveloped, leaving a degree of guesswork as to how they might play out in real life… so here we go:

Using as their examples those who argue against confrontation “because-it-will-endanger-vulnerable-communities” and those who argue for heavier confrontation “because-we-owe-it-to-vulnerable-communities,” Growing Pains suggests that both the pedagogy of confrontation and the united front are necessarily grounded in a putative responsibility towards the Other. So recognizing/transcending/synthesizing this dichotomy might simply mean moving past a politics based on the Other, instead grounding oneself in one’s own reality.

If this is what Growing Pains is driving at, it is difficult to disagree. Grounding ones activity in ones own experience is a good habit for us all to have, and developing ones own position in hostility to the State (and not just in solidarity with its victims) is a virtual sine qua non of revolutionary consciousness. As one German political prisoner from the Red Army Faction once put it: “Look into your mirror. Either you see a revolutionary subject there or you don’t.”

But even if this is what Growing Pains is proposing, the confrontation/unitedfront dichotomy is neither transcended nor synthesized, it is merely placed on a different, perhaps even more antagonistic level. Because within communities, amongst people who experience the same oppression, even people who broadly share the same values, we still tend to divide in these terms. Except in situations where one approach or another is clearly useless or suicidal (literally, not figuratively), these two positions tend to reemerge time and time again.

What i would be interested in is thinking of why we should come down on one side or the other of this divide? What effect do our politics have on our tactics? What effect do our tactics have on our chances for success? On our class orientation? On our consciousness?

i suspect that the answers are complex, but vitally important.

Nor are they the only questions that this editorial brings to mind… for instance, what is the connection between the content of our politics and the form in which we act? Are the degree of militancy, illegality, and violence not important aspects of this form, perhaps more complex than whether or not an organization sees itself as the vanguard or practices consensus or democratic centralism, but nevertheless an aspect which should be taken into consideration?

Or is the question of autonomy from the State and opposing class collaboration what is really at issue – with “militancy” relating to this mainly as an imagined innoculation against co-optation?

I understand this examination of the “pedagogy of confrontation” as related to UTA’s goal of exploring forms of radical organization outside of the party-building or reformist community group models. I think Growing Pains is a useful contribution, though at times unclear. The fact that it could have benefited from being longer is as much a compliment as anything else. I certainly look forward to seeing these ideas discussed, and deepened, in future issues. Being willing to take a chance and grapple with these questions, even though such efforts are bound to be imperfect, is what makes Upping The Anti a valuable project.


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