Problems with Red Menace Method

Your attempts to develop a positive alternative to DiaMat Marxism and Marxist-Leninist sects suffers from a polemical method which reproduces the very problem you want to get away from.

By Greg Renault

Red Menace:

I have just finished your third issue (Spring 1978) and am fully sympathetic with your attempts to formulate a non-authoritarian socialist theory and practice. I offer the following comments as constructive criticism.

It strikes me that your attempts to develop a positive alternative to DiaMat Marxism and Marxist-Leninist sects suffers from a polemical method which reproduces the very problem you want to get away from. That is, your last issue seem to consist mainly of a series of one-sided abstract debates whose intention is libertarian but whose execution is partisan at best, and often mystifying or even unfair. Such an approach is clearly self-defeating for a libertarian project. Here are two examples, chosen from Ulli Diemer's three articles.

(1) The article on leftist jargon ("Words, words, words...") raises an issue crucial to socialist practice. Clarity of terms (concepts) and of expression (syntax) is necessary for the left's communication and education, as well as far precision of social analysis. Jargon such as Ulli points out badly needs to be pruned. The verbal baggage of the left, heritage of infighting and persecution, needs to be critically re-examined, and cleansed of unnecessarily ambiguous, mystifying, or authoritarian terms. While such is clearly the intent of the article on language, it is executed in a manner which sees to encourage, not critical reappraisal, but abstract dismissal.

For example, while the term "concrete" criticized in the first third of the article is surely abused often enough, it is one component of the dialectical pair (antimony), 'abstract-concrete". The use of such antinomies as analytical tools is part of the valuable Hegelian heritage preserved in Marxian analysis, and the use of the term "concrete" implicitly acknowledges this, attempting to relate empirical (concrete) examples to general (abstract) theoretical frameworks. Instead of indicating how the term could be constructively used in leftist analysis, Diemer presents the abuses alone in a negative light, implying that the term's use should be stopped altogether.

(2) The polemic against anarchism in the following two articles ("Anarchism vs. Marxism" and "Bakunin vs. Marx") is even less constructive. First of all, Diemer is concerned to present a more "faithful" reading of Marx to counter the vulgar generalizations he claims anarchists use in their denunciation of Marxism. I question the relevance of this method of rationalization through dual exegesis: Marx did not use the term "capitalism" (following the form of Ulli's critique of "dialectical materialism"), but that certainly does not limit the effectiveness of the term's descriptive power, or mean that it cannot be used by "Marxists".

In other words, the issue is whether or not mere Marxology is sufficient (or sometimes even necessary at all) to deal with problems or controversies in socialist theory and practice. Somehow, the analytical, explanatory powder of a theory seems more important.

Secondly. Diemer argues for a plurality of Marxes ("...his writings and actions span some 40 years...") to counter the monolithic generalized theory criticized by anarchists. Fine, I say, this is a first step towards a critical appraisal of Marx's complex and sometimes contradictory work. However, in his polemic against "anarchism", Ulli committs the same sin he accuses them of - that of ignoring differences and contradictions, lumping everything under one grossly over-generalized label whose essential characteristics are not even clearly defined. Further, if he argues a plurality of interpretations of Marx against simplistic over-systematization of one "Marxism", how can he consistently argue for a "correct" reading at the same time?

Finally, the manner with which the argument is conducted has the function of reducing the issue to an either-or choice between two hypostatized alternatives abstracted from both their historical development, and from the relation of theory to the development of capitalist society. The issue is presented as a case of incorrect with the correct answer presumably determined by accurate quotes rather than relevance in explaining contemporary capitalism. While I prefer the "libertarian" reading of Marx myself, I have no delusions about its being anything but an interpretation, that is, a specific emphasis on certain parts of the text to the exclusion of others. Ulli's interpretation, is in part conditioned by the abuse of Marxism as ideology by the Soviet Union and by Western Marxist-Leninists, a historical burden that must be critically dealt with by any socialist movement today - yet no reference is made to this important context conditioning his choice of interpretation. Most importantly, the issue of the controversy, "abstract term vs. abstract term", is presented as though it could be decided without any reference to the society the theory is supposed to explain and help change.

I submit that the task facing socialists sincere about working towards human liberation is not one of repeating old formalist debates concerning the "right" interpretation of Marx or the a priori "correct" theoretical solution, but one of (a) the theoretical interrogation of social reality via a critical appropriation of our radical heritage and a continual testing of new concepts in concrete analyses, and (b) practical attempts to develop tactics and strategy for human liberation on all levels of experience. From this standpoint, I found the article about office work, despite its limitations, more relevant than the question of Bakunin's unethical scholarly or political practices.

It strikes me that might be slightly problematic attempting to achieve human liberation via repressive means. By the same token, the aims of contributors to this newsletter must in good faith be reproduced in the journalistic methods they use in writing. I have taken Ulli to task (the loudest but by no means only offender) in the hope that my criticism will be of assistance in your ongoing self-constitution.

Greg Renault