The Third International after Lenin

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"People who disagree with you may not have less knowledge. And the disagreement may not be resolved by just handing them information. "

This post by Mike Ely on his Kasama website really brings back so many rich experiences I had while a member of the Socialist Workers Party, participating in our own party campaign of industrial "colonization" - and what my coworkers taught me!

Linc and Me: On the Material Basis of Incorrect ideas

Posted by kasama on February 28, 2008

mine.jpgby Mike Ely

In an earlier post I wrote:

“Ray Lotta once urged me (as we were working on a polemic together) to ‘Struggle harder to understand the material basis for incorrect ideas.’ And I found that startling at the time — since it was so different from my previous method, which was to assume that people with incorrect ideas ‘must be’ simply ignoring the ‘basic facts’ of any situation.”

Paper tigers responded to this:

“Can you maybe expand and elaborate on that comment? How can we ‘Struggle harder to understand the material basis for incorrect ideas.’?”


* * * * *

First a self-critical note:
I have at times looked at wrong ideas (of many kinds) as if they were just a matter of not having enough of the right information. As if wrong ideas and summations about complex things are mainly a result of ignorance, and the “solution” to wrong ideas is simply a “download” of revealing information.

Among Maoists, we often talk about the “contradiction between ignorance and knowledge,” and “the contradiction between correct and incorrect” — and in my earlier view, I conflated (confused and combined) the two. To put it plainly: People who disagree with you may not have less knowledge. And the disagreement may not be resolved by just handing them information. Perhaps they have more knowledge, or they assemble available information differently into opposing ideas.

Let me give you a personal experience that changed me:

In the 1970s, I worked at one of the few coal mines in West Virginia that was heavily African American. It was a time when (almost universally) in the U.S., Black people were on the cutting edge of struggle against racism and the larger system, and where (like today) the political consciousness of Black people was often far ahead of the understanding of white people.

In the West Virginia coalfields, the sixties had produced a raging firestorm of struggle — as literally thousands of illegal wildcat strikes broke out against all kinds of injustices large and small. And as communists, we were seeking to unite with the miners and the struggle they were waging, while working to connect that struggle to the larger radical upsurge in the U.S. — we had the intention of swinging a section of coal miners into the revolutionary movement if the possibility of overthrowing the system emerged.

One of the many paradoxes of the situation was that, in West Virginia, the backbone of the wildcat strike movements was overwhelmingly among white miners. And the mines that were heavily Black struck much less often, and were much less willing to walk out in support of the grievances of others. In fact, when strikes spread through the coalfields, it was often necessary for the militant active miners to keep picket lines as at the racially mixed mines, because there was a greater tendency for the workers there to return to work (or even slip in to scab). This was especially true of the mine I worked at, where many of the workers had a reputation of being opposed to wildcats and a bit attached to the company that owned the mine. This seemed extremely odd to me (and to the other communists) who came from a movement where it had sometimes been assumed that “Black Workers Take the Lead.”

Part of my experience there, over almost ten years, was coming to understand what this was all about.

I worked with an older Black worker, Linc’, who was rather remarkably “backward” (or so it seemed to me). He was, over and over, opposed to taking unified stands, on the job or over larger issues. He “yessired” the foreman in a way that seemed slavish to me. And so on… (you get the picture). And my response, as a young communist about twenty years old was to “struggle” with him, over and over — in a way that started to escalate (on my side). I argued about how people were being fucked over, and the importance of solidarity, and the nature of this exploitative system, and the importance of the struggles that had arisen worldwide, and the urgency of fighting against the attacks on Black Lung Benefits, and supporting the militants of other mines who were being thrown in jail for leading strikes, and so on…. And Linc’, in his good natured way, was unmoved. And i got a bit bitter about it, starting to openly tease him for being a “suck.”

Then one night, late on a Saturday, a car drove up the holler, and pulled in front of my house. These were tense times, and I went out to check. There was Linc, sitting behind the steering wheel. Waiting on me. “Jump in,” he said. And we started driving, and he started talking (really talking) for the first time since I had known him. Perhaps it was the one of the first real heart-to-heart talk I had ever experienced in all the “political work” i had been “doing.”

He started off very simply, saying “You think I don’t know they fuck us over…..” And then he said, “Let me tell you about my life.”

And he described what it was like growing up as a Black man in this corner of West Virginia. How Black people had been worked like dogs in the mines and coking ovens. And then, when World War 2 was over, and the railroads switched to diesel, the coal market had crashed, and a third of miners laid off (during a blizzard of mechanization). And how the companies had preached that Black men couldn’t run the new equipment, just weren’t up to it, and how Black miners were laid off in huge numbers across the coalfields. Linc had been forced out, as a young man, trying first to survive as a numbers runner in the rackets of a nearby town (which was famous for gambling and prostitution). And how he had gotten caught up there in some bad shit and fled to Washington DC. And then he described what it was like to be a penniless Black man in that notoriously racist Southern Jim Crow capital — how he had gone without until he got a job as a doorman and bouncer. How he had bottomed out on booze, and all the bullshit.

To survive he had come back, and found there was only a thin strip of mines that hired Black — concentrated in U.S. Steel’s Gary Holler and a few other mines. Getting in was desperate. Holding on to the job was vital. White miners were jumping from mine to mine in the 70s, as all kinds of hiring went on, and as they tried to find themselves the best situation. But for older Black miners like Linc — it was here or nowhere. And then he started in on the strike movement (which we communists were totally infatuated with, and preoccupied with day and night!), and talked about in the waves of strikes some issues were treated as a huge deal, and others were not. He talked about how the young men wanted to strike just cause going to work was so unbearable, while the older men (like him) had different needs and pulls. He talked about the larger question of where it was all headed, and whether we could see an outcome from a thousand bee-sting actions carried out mine by mine.

As all this went on, and as I listened, I was pretty stunned. Really. Because all the lecturing and agitating I had done, about the discrimination of this system, and the oppressive nature of capitalism and these companies, etc. were really not news to him. Those things were written deep in the bitterness of his life.

He didn’t “love the oppressor.” He wasn’t oblivious to the fact that they ground everyone down and discarded people like garbage. He was not unaware of the acute antagonism of class society — and he was not confused about which class he was in (or what he was assigned to because of the color of his skin).

Now, when all is said and done, Linc did had some deep-seated views and summations that we would have to insist were “wrong.” He was into looking out for himself. He had concluded that you couldn’t beat “them” — at least not easily or quickly. And he had decided (long ago) to keep a low profile, and put personal survival first.

But, when I climbed out of that car, it was with a real appreciation that his views were not rooted in some simple “ignorance” (a lack of knowledge) about all the things I would rap about. Many things we communists raised WERE new to people — many people did not know much about the revolutionaries of Vietnam, or the GI resistance movement, or the unities that had been built between radical students and Black militants, or the fact that there were socialist countries where people were liberated… There were things that had been kept from people, including Linc. And there were many ways that the wider world and the “larger questions” were supposed to forbidden territory for the often-barely-literate workers of these mines.

But Linc’s wrong views were really not rooted in simple ignorance of “facts,” but in a particular summation of very real things — of very real contradictions and experiences. He was not a “blank slate” waiting to be filled with the “good news” that I was bringing — he was a grown man, who had lived a full and eventful life, and who had views (about religion, class struggle, white people, coal operators, and much more) that were rooted in those experiences.

In other words, there was a material basis for the things he believed — even the things that were “wrong” on the larger scale of things (seen from the overall). He was backward, he was opposed to collective struggle, he was (viewed from the outside at least) unmoved by the idea of fighting for a radically new and liberated world.

And then, he also unveiled for me a little bit about what had been going on among the older Black workers — including their debates about me. My wife and I were, after all, the only communists in that county, and the only communists anyone had ever met. And so there was quite a bit of curiousity and heated conversation after we “showed up” bringing that radical breath of the 60s with us.

For years, this pig company had tried to trap me and fire me, always failing — but what I had not understood was the unseen layers of what went down… how many of these older Black workers (who came from a pretty tightly knit community of folks) had pressured the local union’s officials not to allow me to be “set up,” how they had passed on word to me about dangers, how they had argued (unknown to me) with some rock-hard reactionary patriotic types among the workers who were arguing that the radicals should simple be run off.

I had seen some of this, but not SEEN it.

To put it another way, my own “incorrect ideas” (about Linc, and a whole section of workers like him) has been rooted in some material reality (what i had “seen”) but there was a whole lot more I had not been seeing, and there were ways I “put it together” that did not correspond with the real and objective relationship between the “facts” i was analyzing.

I’m simplifying all this somewhat, obviously, and using this personal experience to make a larger point.

To connect with people, you have to learn from them. To help transform people’s thinking, you have to understand that thinking. We can’t look at people like they are “empty vessels” waiting to be filled (or blank paper waiting for our brush). In fact it should perhaps be pretty obvious (even if it wasn’t to me as a twenty-something radical activist!) that people at all levels of society have complex ideas rooted in real experiences — not just their own experiences, but broad experiences of events in society (wars, layoffs, years of exploitation, defeat in struggle, racist divisions, on and on.) And without understanding the material basis for their existing ideas — without actually treating people as thoughtful — it was really not possible to very creatively dig into alternative ways of looking at reality (including alternative ways of summing up their own experience).

For me, it has been a process learning this. Because just a few years later, it was still a revelation for me when Ray put this insight into words — when he criticized me for writing a polemic as if people held the wrong line because they didn’t “have the facts.” He said that I had to word harder to understand the “material basis for the incorrect ideas” i was criticizing — that I should dig into what our opponents were “seeing” and describing, and work to draw an alternative (and hopefully more correct) interpretation that encompassed those facts, and yet refuted those arguments.

In reality, people often hold wrong views because they assemble “the facts” differently — into different constructs and theories about how those “facts” interrelate, how causality works, and what conditions what.

So anyway, that is what I mean by the “material basis for incorrect ideas” — and the importance of “what people are seeing and responding to” when they firmly hold views that we might not understand or agree with. This is part of the thinking that lay behind my criticism of Avakian’s superficial and rather deliberately disrespectful view of religion among the people — because it starts from the simple place of “there is no god, so no basis for religion but the indoctrination of the enemy.” When in fact the roots of belief are complex and deep and contradictory (even though there is, in reality, no god!)

It is similar now on a different scale, where so many progressive people are “chomskied out” — where they have all kinds of “facts” about how fucked up things are, but don’t leap from there to a hopeful and energetic engagement with revolutionary change. It’s not that they “don’t know” — and that they need more “exposure” of how fucked the system is, or how resistant it has been to reform…. The “problem” is that we need to grapple together with people over the way they have assembled those “facts” into a particular worldview (one that often sees no place for an alternative future.)

I often think of Linc (and his brother Pete) and many dozens of miners of their generation who I learned a great deal from — who i assume are all long dead now. And I think of them in connection with one of my favorite quotes from Mao on the mass line:

“The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding, it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.”

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