Dr. Dawg

Stalinism, 2014

| Disqus Comments

Progressive-minded people need to work together or be forever divided and ruled. But we’re historically poor at it. We can speculate whether this is at least in part the legacy of Lenin, endlessly railing against this tendency or that, or the still-smouldering tendencies of his godawful successor.

Certainly we can hear the ghost of Stalin in our progressive movements every time denunciation takes the place of discussion, and the purity of an imaginary “line” confronts nuance. We can see Uncle Joe in the authoritarian, angry, dogmatic personalities that we have all encountered at one time or another within our ranks.

Things get more complicated, however, when the voices of the oppressed are raised. Oppression makes people angry. It makes them intolerant of excuse-making, of unawareness of power and privilege, of the refusal to listen, and the consequent silencing that would-be “allies” impose upon them. Professor David Leonard has written eloquently on the subject: this challenging interview is a must-read.

But it isn’t the whole story. Leonard’s critique does not extend to the practical problems of organizing resistance. How do we steer the necessary path through the discursive minefields to organize across gender, race and class boundaries?

A good question—it has certainly been asked by many others. Expect nothing definitive from this older, white, male First-Worlder, then. All I can do is engage by throwing an idea or two into the mix, as I did once before, from my perhaps too-well-defined subject-position. But, while I’m one for hard, even painful, reflection, don’t expect the ritual abasement of a Maoist self-criticism session. (I found this, from a feminist in the UK who has my unqualified respect, frankly cringeworthy, utterly unbearable to read—far too reminiscent of what defendants were forced to regurgitate at Stalinist show-trials.)

So here is the latest cat among the pigeons. In brief, twenty-one feminist bloggers and online activists held an online meeting at Barnard College in 2012 to discuss the future of feminism, with the Twitter hashtag #FemFuture. And the Stalinists lost no time ripping and tearing:

Online, the Barnard group—nine of whom were women of color—was savaged as a cabal of white opportunists. People were upset that the meeting had excluded those who don’t live in New York (Martin and Valenti had no travel budget). There was fury expressed on behalf of everyone—indigenous women, feminist mothers, veterans—whose concerns were not explicitly addressed. Some were outraged that tweets were quoted without the explicit permission of the tweeters. Others were incensed that a report about online feminism left out women who aren’t online. “Where is the space in all of these #femfuture movements for people who don’t have internet access?” tweeted Mikki Kendall, a feminist writer who, months later, would come up with the influential hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

“Maoist hazing,” says the author of the Nation article, Michelle Goldberg. Or what used to be called “trashing.” There’s nothing new about the viciousness here.

The Stalinists weren’t done, of course. A Black women involved in the #FemFuture project was lectured by a white woman, who told her she should get herself educated about racism. Even the word “vagina” is now supposed to be “transphobic.” And progressive women, hip to the nuances of intersectionality, don’t even have the luxury of checking their words against the latest edicts from the Femintern, because of course there is no such thing. Instead, they can just expect a series of Internet drive-by shootings, no matter what they say or think.

How was the Nation article received? “Vileness,” says Sarah Kendzior. “White supremacist revanchism” huffs some guy, eager to be on the cutting edge.

“You’re going to have to deal with anger, you’re going to have to deal with hurt, says Kendall, quoted in the piece. “Self-care comes into this. Sometimes you have to close the Internet.” Well, certainly: on one level, this is just common sense. Oppressed people have a right to their anger, and to the verbal expression thereof. But that doesn’t, cannot, should not, mean that every word uttered by an oppressed person is gospel, and that white folks should just take the yelling and learn about themselves from it. Sometimes abuse is just abuse, bullying is just bullying, insults are just insults. Sometime criticism is educative and important, no matter how expressed; but sometimes it’s merely destructive and unfair.

There is no so-called “tone policing” in what I’m saying here. There is only the desire to build a movement that can fight effectively on many fronts. Comradely discussions, as we used to call them. Forms of address that don’t scare off folks on the same side of the divide. By all means, be angry: but building a movement also means being strategic. Or are we white folks going to succumb to the soft bigotry of low expectations?

Once, when I was much younger, I was invited to an organizing meeting where my union hoped to certify a bargaining unit and create a Local. I was an earnest militant, and my revolutionary zeal scared them witless. I took that lesson to heart, believe me, and I was better for it—although other militants later on accused me of selling out. They wanted me and my colleagues in leadership to call for a general strike. The most obnoxious of these couldn’t muster four people from his 700-member Local for a demo.

My point? Straight Alinsky. “Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.” Building solidarity requires tact. People are human; they don’t like to be yelled at or sternly lectured, and are likely unfamiliar with, and therefore put off by, angry rhetoric. By “your people,” Alinsky is talking about the rank and file, a leader’s constituency. But one can easily extend that organizing principle to building solidarity with other people, those whose privilege has made them unfamiliar with the full extent of the anger, pain and anguish of the oppressed—including those who may be unwittingly contributing to it all. Everyone has work to do if bridges are to be made. That’s Organizing 101.

I’m not even going to try to sort out the ideological questions in this latest brouhaha—I simply can’t, and neither can anyone else. (That’s a deliberate preemptive challenge, folks.) Instead, I just want to move the common struggle forward. Perhaps we can do that in a more generous spirit on all sides.

Last word to Samhita Mukhopadhyay, activist, writer, and a former editor of Feministing.com: “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.” Bravo and brava: we’re all silenced, regardless of race, class or gender. Guess who wins?

Return to the home page

blog comments powered by Disqus

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 30, 2014 7:31 PM.

This isn't who we are was the previous entry in this blog.

The Harper government's "Deport Omar Khadr" bill is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 6.3.6