“…Every new movement, when it first elaborates its theory and policy, begins by finding support in the preceding movement, though it may be in direct contradiction with the latter. It begins by suiting itself to the forms found at hand and by speaking the language spoken hereto. In time the new grain breaks through the old husk. The new movement finds its forms and its own language.”
A concept I have come to again and again in the year since I wrote Organizational Materialism is the distinction between ideological and material differences. It was one of the number of things I purposefully put off from the paper, knowing that any discussion of it would over-load my analysis. Furthermore, there was a of purpose in completely bracketing ideology and intellectual differences. It would be far too easy to act as if all of history is cleanly differentiated between true radicals I agree with and villains I don’t, but this isn’t satisfying and doesn’t impart any knowledge that couldn’t be expressed in a Drake No Drake Yes meme¹. Getting around the problem of looking at history back from one’s own preconceptions is a part of why I developed Organizational Materialism, and yet the problem remains.
This is going to be a part of a series of essays I am going to write, in an attempt to fill out the aspects of Organizational Materialism I had bracketed. I’d suggest reading the essay in full before getting to these essays, but ideally it won’t be necessary.
The difference between ideological and material differences is whether these differences manifest within or without a practice or organization. This may seem like a small distinction but disagreements over tactics have routinely brought down organizations, and have dominated the whole radical discourse during periods when radicalism is narrowed down to a single organization or practice (as with Communist Parties in Cold War Europe or Direct Action during the 80s/90s).
In such a situation these ideological differences can seem massive but actually hide a greater practical unity. The struggles within different parts of the 90s-00s activist scene, between consensus+spokes council led direct actions and vanguard led direct actions + newspaper selling occurred without major push-back on the degree to which ‘direct action’ was the movements response to everything. The fact that these seemingly existential tactical arguments came to the forefront just as the movement as a whole came to a nearly deafening consensus on strategy shows the degree to which we should suspect purely ideological disagreements. The later disagreement within the anarchist and later generalized activist movement on non-violent versus violent tactics served a similar purpose: both sides agreed that for some reason protest was the tool which should be applied to every possible issue, the issue at hand was the degree to which things should be smashed in the process (or in the newest iteration of this discourse, whether we should hold guns while protesting).
A similar tendency now afflicts the online left. The pharonic amounts of effort spent on ideological fights regarding the ideal society we are fighting for, what literary lineage you hail from, what position you have on issues you have no power over conceals a deeper unity, that there is some relation between your activity on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr and the radical left’s broader capacity for revolution. Despite dozens of different tendencies existing online all nominally wanting different end states and nominally working in different ways, they all manifest themselves through the exact same practical behaviors and actions.
Note that there is not necessarily anything wrong with tactical differences being expressed, there is an unquestionable purpose to finding out best practices. Nor is there even anything wrong with major ideological splits or disagreements, in fact the socialist movement deeply needs a conversation about end goals which would necessarily be an ideological conversation. But a movement which is able to devote all its time to literary, theoretical, or tactical disputes is either a movement which has all its ducks in a row, or these arguments are not actually that important because the rancor over them is a cover for a deep if silent agreement on practices.
It is in moments like this, where discourse is dominated by a din of ideological conflicts, that organizational materialism is at its most necessary. By reorienting our analysis towards practice, by asking “what are we really doing?”, we can more thoroughly critique a movement which speaks with a million voices all saying roughly similar things. Furthermore, it provides the answer to this discourse, that the only way for a movement to avoid being involved in utterly ideological conflicts is, ironically, for it to diversify, and be involved in practical conflicts.
We are currently at the beginning of precisely such a development.
¹I realize that this will make the essay seem horribly dated within a couple of months.