Not the time for polemics

November 4, 2009

SOCIALISTWORKER.ORG recently published an article by Paul D'Amato ("Socialism and 'animal rights'") that, to varying degrees, mocked the animal liberation movement and staked out serious differences with it. I've seen a number of articles like it over the years, trading polemics with one or more organizations on the left. While I often agree with the criticisms made, I think this is not the period for polemics.

The simple proof of this can be seen in the International Socialist Organization's (ISO) fairly unique approach towards Barack Obama. The ISO has rightly separated the millions who are inspired by what they believe Obama to represent, and the actual policies carried out by his administration.

While on the one hand, he has been supported for the perception of him as an agent of change--the peace candidate, the health care candidate, the anti-big business candidate, etc.--his administration's policies are striking more for their similarity to Bush's than as a departure.

Yet the ISO maintains its nuanced position towards Obama supporters because it is the correct one--in a period of growing loneliness for the left, we have to do everything in our power to remain patient, to work with radicalizing people, and to painstakingly rebuild a broad, deep, militant left.

It makes sense to separate potential allies from unproductive ideologies in other areas as well. As more and more from this generation radicalize beyond all previous expectations, it is only natural that many of them will gravitate towards anarchism, identity politics, postmodern ideas, green capitalism, individualistic solutions, animal rights activism and so many others. The socialist net is simply not big enough to catch all those people before they are exposed to different ideas.

Nor should it be. The varied and rich experiences of the left--far from being an automatic hindrance--can be a great strength. But before we can work with people to settle these differences, learn from each other and work together, we have to have conversations that don't begin from a position of superiority.

Polemical attacks today are like a drive-by shootings: they may hit their target, but that probably won't be the only casualty. Any discussion of ideologies via letters or short articles forces us to misrepresent these ideologies with simplistic, monolithic strokes. It becomes increasingly difficult to win people that are coming to movements like animal rights for all the right reasons, if the goal is to win an argument over very specific, non-pressing differences.

The ISO's thorough efforts to orient rationally towards support for Obama--in articles, speeches, meetings and one-on-one discussions--should be applied as often as possible in winning other new activists. Everyday, countless new people reject a capitalist world where impotence and worthlessness are beaten into them at every turn.

We have to be the antidote to that--to apply scientific analysis and open debate not just to uncovering the shortcomings of "the other," but also what we can learn from the experience and talents of others.
Jason Farbman, New York City

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