Writing politics in a burning world

How can leftist writing on politics contribute to the struggle for a better world? It’s an old question, but it’s become particularly relevant with the appearance and success of mass-market books like Helen Razer’s Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young and Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist handbook, and the wide reach of publications like Jacobin. With socialist perspectives being defrosted thanks to Sanders and Corbyn, leftists who want to engage in the ‘battle of ideas’ need to always ask themselves both how they can reach as wide an audience as possible, and, once they have that audience’s attention, what they should actually say.

The question of what to say demands especially convincing answers today since, on the face of it, the political situation we’re in seems to call not for words but for radical action. Accelerating capitalist violence, an all-out assault on the remaining legacies of the welfare state, a more and more serious climate emergency – all this seems to demand political action in life, not on the page. It doesn’t really matter that the two are, of course, linked: with the very future of the natural and social environments at stake, it’s hard not to think that real-life political action, not more words, must be the priority.

Confronted with the imperative to act, how should leftist writers respond? However much we might feel the urgency to do something, it’s also natural to think that before the left can succeed politically it has first to win the battle of ideas. The world may be burning, but, so we often think, we have to start by winning the arguments, convincing people of our program and a strategy for accomplishing it. Only then can we gain the numbers we need to act effectively. And to convince people, it’s not enough just to successfully campaign: as well as drawing people into struggle – protests, strikes, campaigns – we have to persuade them that that our goals and our politics are the right ones. When leftists campaign, they participate in a wide variety of shifting alliances with many other political actors, most of whom don’t share the same political aspirations. Melbourne’s recent massive ‘Change the Rules’ march is a clear example. If an ambitious left politics – one of genuine workers’ power, rather than the umpteenth accommodation to the ALP – is to be possible, then we have to convince people in this ‘united front’ that anticapitalist politics are right. Hence the immense energy leftists put into discussion, writing and reading.

No-one could deny that you need ideas to change the world. But we should resist the temptation to break their link to concrete struggle, and to believe that they must necessarily precede concrete participation in political initiatives. At the outset of the modern anticapitalist tradition, Karl Marx railed against the dominant idealism that saw ideas as the main theatre of progressive battle. ‘In order to supersede the idea of private property,’ he wrote, ‘the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.’ That’s an obvious point when it’s stated baldly, but everything in our society conspires to obscure it. Liberal culture continually suggests to us that the battle of ideas is autonomous, that discourse or critique are full-blown arenas of radical politics in their own right. How often do we hear people talking about the need to change the ‘discourse’ on a particular issue, as though oppression could be swept away with a simple change of wording?

There can be few political currents as bookish and intellectual as radical anticapitalism or socialism. But for the direct victims of oppression, the fact things have to change isn’t an intellectual conclusion – it’s a matter of survival. And those who bear the brunt of the most intense domination in today’s world – exploited unskilled workers, the working poor, refugees, oppressed racialised and other minorities – often don’t have the time, energy or opportunity to read socialist writing. For those of us who do, exploitation is less sharply felt. For many people, especially privileged ones (like me), the existence of oppression and the need to overcome it is first grasped as an intellectual imperative, not a directly experienced one.

That intellectual stimulus to radical politics is amply serviced by the current culture of the left. For those who want it, left politics has no shortage of ideas, debate or theory. So it can come as a surprise when we read Marx and Engels denying, as they did in The German Ideology, that the aim of emancipatory struggle – ‘communism’ – should even be seen as an ‘idea’ or a ‘theory’ at all. Instead, they present it as a concretely existing, current force for social change – the ‘real movement,’ as they famously call it, ‘which abolishes the present state of things’.

‘Abolishing the present state of things’ was an optimistic claim, even when Marx and Engels were writing in 1845–46. But their emphasis on emancipatory struggle as a living, concrete force in society has an important consequence for anticapitalist, materialist writing: texts and their dissemination only contribute to the left to the extent that they speed up and broaden real movements for social transformation, not imagined ones.

How might socialist writing meet that requirement? As ‘permanent persuaders’, writers can serve the purposes of political struggle in many ways – putting radical ideas in front of a wider audience, convincing people through lucid analysis, debunking opponents’ claims, articulating ideas or contradictions implicit in political collectives’ existing practice, participating in debates about what the appropriate response to a given situation is. But simply communicating ideas isn’t enough. Everyone in the world could regularly read articles in Overland or Jacobin, understand them, and be in furious agreement. But if it went no further than that, we wouldn’t be one iota closer to a world free of exploitation.

For all the important uses to which writing can be put, it can also raise a wall between ideas and actions by intellectualising political struggle. Especially when they write for a general audience, writers committed to democratic progress must avoid doing this. An intellectualised conception of politics – that is, politics related to principally as a tissue of ideas and arguments – erects a dense obstacle in front of people’s will to effect political change. For newcomers to the left, it suggests that before they can do anything, would-be activists must study and understand – and that the mode of understanding is one that consists, precisely, in not acting. For older hands, theoretical absorption can distract from the real practical tasks that social change requires. We need the continual reminder that politics is ultimately the play of social forces, and that political pressure, not abstract discussion, is ultimately what changes the world. The best way to determine the accuracy of an analysis is by putting it to work in actual political struggle, not debating it continually. The most effective political education is obtained by players when they participate in collective political action, even – or especially – at a local level, not by spectators when they read about it in texts.

Blind voluntarism, for which a hot-headed ‘propaganda of the deed’ is the only possibility, can have no place in genuine political projects, especially those with the gumption to aim at long-term social transformation. But it’s easy for leftist writers and thinkers to overestimate the intrinsic political significance of their texts, and to underestimate the danger that their writing can sever thought from action. Not all writing that’s about politics has any substantive effect on it, even when it’s intended to. Expressing a view about politics is no more a political act than expressing a view about skiing is a winter sport. Spectators and commentators talk about politics, and, like everyone else in the world, may exert various kinds of weak influence on it. If I manage to get an opinion piece published in the mainstream media, people may talk about it for a little while, and it may exert some influence, usually small. Soon enough, however, that opinion will timeout and dissolve amid all the others. Even if I have a regular platform to publish my views, anything I might write is a letter in a bottle, a cry in the desert, unless I link it up to some explicit, collective social force for change. Only when articulated to a collective political project, to a campaign or movement, can ideas have any chance of an afterlife.

That articulation with a real movement, however, is strongly discouraged under the current division of labour in our society. Writers are thought of as people who mainly or only write: they’re spectators or commentators rather than players, and it’s precisely this disengagement that is thought to equip them with the ‘objectivity’ or ‘distance’ they need to comment properly on the social world. We almost never find opinion writers in the mainstream media urging any political action on their readers, such as attending a demonstration or signing a petition. While this may occasionally happen, the overwhelming mode of political writing in the corporate media is disengaged commentary – discussion that is thoroughly alienated from any call to arms or link to concrete political action. It’s considered an intrusion on a reader to urge them to act, so newspapers regularly reject opinion submissions considered too ‘partisan’ or ‘immoderate’. The message to would-be contributors is clear: tone it down, keep it ‘reasonable’, don’t take sides too strongly. Pretend things aren’t as urgent as they are. Don’t violate the reader’s serenity.

To be politically effective, an opinion has to become a position – a location or obstacle to actors going in opposite political directions, which political opponents have to remove or navigate around, and which thereby contributes to the shaping of political space. For an argument to constitute a position rather than an opinion, it should be directed at political actors, and accessible to them. As an individual, you can have plenty of meaningful political opinions, but it’s hard to have a meaningful political position on your own. To assume a political position, you need a collective formation – a campaign group, a union or a party – that can express and exert social pressure.

Hence the importance of a left-wing media explicitly keyed into collective movements for political change. But whether they are writing in the left or outside it, the attitude to political writing that leftists should avoid is a basically superstitious one – the belief that merely communicating a point of view will magically contribute to political struggle, the belief that words on their own can change the world. As Antonio Gramsci, the great Marxist theorist and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party, put it, ‘the real philosopher … cannot be other than the politician, the active man who modifies the environment’. This is an outlandish suggestion given the prevailing liberal view of the relation between ideas and action, theory and practice. But it is the only one that bridges the chasm between talk and action, and has a chance of making ideas an active force in the world.

The superstition that words on their own can bring change is encouraged by the textual form itself. Whether written or delivered orally, the extended textual form, with its arguments, examples, contextualisation and anticipations of objections, encourages a faith that if people only understood then they could not but agree – the idea that if the writer makes their argument well enough, reason will compel everyone to fall into line. That kind of attitude isn’t a political one: it’s the attitude of a religious believer who prays. Just as some Christians seem to think that reciting Our Fathers is the best thing you can do to fight against poverty, so too many people naively believe that going over the facts and the arguments, again and again, is all that’s needed.

For many writers, especially liberals, thinking and writing about politics isn’t a precursor to changing the world; it is an alternative to doing so. That’s particularly the case since writing and reading are individualistic, middle-class pursuits deeply marked by the cultural logic of capitalism. Reading an article is usually a solitary activity, done in a moment of calm, and often partly for enjoyment or relaxation – far removed, in other words, from the chaotic and frequently stressful realities of political action. If being on the left just meant regularly reading and agreeing with socialist literature, you could forget about the struggle for a better world actually succeeding.

Writing, too, can quickly suck us into a vortex of individualism and commodity-differentiation, where to be heard we have to say something new and different. To legitimate our speaking-position, other writers have to always, in a sense, be wrong. Social media amplifies this pressure massively. Once again, Gramsci offers the perfect counterpoint: ‘I would rather repeat an already well-known truth,’ he wrote, ‘than torture my brain to fashion brilliant paradoxes, subtle turns of phrase, verbal feats … The most dismal of truths won’t have been sufficiently repeated until it’s become a maxim and trigger for action for all people.’

So we tread a delicate tightrope when we write about politics. Writing does not always serve to stimulate action: it can also serve to dampen it. If our aim is to encourage political activity in readers – participation in collective actions of different kinds at work or in their communities – then we have to be careful not to evacuate people of the political curiosity, the sense that something may be badly wrong in current politics, that led them to engage with anticapitalist ideas in the first place. Readers must be left with the desire not just to read more, but to join others in action. One of Marxism’s important contributions to the left has been the idea that we ultimately cannot look to intellectual explanation or analysis to resolve political problems: intellectual problems, problems of thought, ultimately emerge from contradictions in the world, and the world is the only place they can be resolved. A satisfaction that is obtained in words, and not in the world, can only be illusory.

Ninety years after Marx, Leon Trotsky perfectly captured the dangers of an excessive investment in words: ‘To the sectarian,’ he wrote in 1936, ‘discussion is a goal in itself. However, the more he discusses, the more the actual tasks escape him. He is like a man who satisfies his thirst with salt water; the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes.’ There are many useful things a leftist writer can do. But if anticapitalist writing replaces, as it easily can, the often banal ‘actual tasks’ – collective-action in the workplace or community, handing out leaflets, making photocopies, organising and attending demonstrations, speak-outs, meetings and other political gatherings – it loses its very reason to exist.


Image: ‘Burning Discarded Automobile Batteries’ / flickr

Nick Riemer

Nick Riemer works in the English and linguistics departments at the University of Sydney. He is currently president of the Sydney University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.

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  1. Great article Nick, though I think you should be more optimistic about the people’s ability to interpret facts and generate their own immanent critcisms. In that sense I feel that writing plays an important and often understated part, in that it helps people grapple with issues. In your attempt to criticise the role of the self-important intellectual ‘teaching’ the masses I feel like you implicitly reinforce the dichotomy between intellectual and ordinary person, whereas for most writers and intellectuals I know, most of us are just trying to grasp at basic truths around us.

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