Back to Istanbul, I attended a very interesting political meeting to organise the precarious, insecure, contract, part-time workers. I had already attended (and sometimes organized) several of those meetings before going to England for the Msc/PhD and I am usually extremely bored with their length, inefficiency, lack of joy and energy… so I did not have high expectations. Indeed, I had a deja-vu feeling first. Very similar meeting roles were performed once again, after five years: Some left wing people who determine a ‘need’ (to organise a union) on behalf of millions of workers, representatives of workers’ movements who are cautious about those people, yet want to cooperate, people who offer to use the traditional methods of organising meetings, people who offer to do proper research about workers’ lives before any action, people who have good rhetorical skills yet whose talk reflects little proper content, people who ask brilliant questions, yet unable to have a leadership position, people who talk non sense… etc. Yet, the meeting differed from old ones in many ways: It lasted only two and a half hours, everybody listened to each other carefully, accepted their insufficiencies against criticisms, a kind of realistic plan was set forward at the end.
A general contradiction which underpinned the whole meeting and I observed clearly was between those who came from the tough practice of organisation, from localities and those who have a more generalised view about class. This brought me to my notes about the tension between what I call the deductive reasoning of the devoted partisan and the inductive logic of the organiser.
In the monumental and amazing biography of James Cannon, the leader of the working class and Trotskyst movement in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, Brian Palmer tells how, after the Russian Revolution, Cannon felt that he needs to read ‘more theory’ since the Russians knew the theory of revolution. Cannon came from a working class background, started organising workers at a very young age, and traveled constantly. He knew how to talk to people, how to agitate, how to network and how to build class solidarity despite extreme problems of unification given the extreme diversity of working class (e.g. migrants). Yet he felt that he needed a kind of what we can call ‘revolutionary epistemology’. When I was reading Cannon’s words, I remembered the words of the leader of a grassroots working class movement. He was criticised by his master for being a ‘narrow practitioner’. He would later accept that his movement did also need a ‘theoretician of revolution’, someone who would see things from a different perspective, someone who would show things he is unable to see.
While the organiser complain about lack of theory, the devoted partisan is criticised for being ‘too theoretical’, ‘book-based’ since he tries to apply his general theoretical knowledge about revolution and strategy to reality, without doing a context-specific analysis of the situation.
Why does the local organiser envy and aspire to a theory of revolution? And why does the source of the organiser’s envy make the dogmatic partisan ridiculous? Why does the former suffer from little theory and the latter from too much of it? Does the problem reside in the absence/presence of theory itself or its very usage? Isn’t the organiser already a theoretician, already, something he is unaware of? The tacit intuitive knowledge he has about what to do is based, in fact, on observations, talks with others (similar to interviews of an ethnographer), trial and error (testing hypotheses for a scientist), deriving conclusions. Those are all components of an inductive type of reasoning, which does not accept easily the over-generalised statements of a deductive type of thinking. The organiser relies on great resources of research and can see, with his eagle eye, what external eyes cannot. He has the capacity to respond to the immediacy of the situation, act with his intuitions, the by-product of experience rather than expertise. He knows what to do in a given context, but he is unable to pick up the best long-term strategy. He can respond quickly to changing circumstances, yet would find it more difficult to adapt to a new context. In a new context, his previous knowledge can be a good resource to begin with, but he may rely on it too much so that former experience can be a barrier rather than a facilitator. Even in his own context, he can get stuck after a while because he may not design a long-term strategy, which can be judged to be successful for this or that reason. He has no chance to compare his experience with others. He has immense material, which can be used creatively, but he is unable to sytematise properly. He can develop immediate tactics in a given situation but is unable to make long-term plans. There is a kind of order in his chaotic behaviour, but he does not reflect enough on this. His behaviour and strategies can be of use to many, but may be self-replicating and unproductive in the long term.
The partisan, on the other hand, has absorbed the didactic teaching of of his master, of the party, of the classic books of revolution and Marxism. He has general statements from which other statements can be derived and which are, from his perspective, applicable to all situations. He has assumptions about what a proletariat, a revolution, an objective condition is. He has the potential to see the forest rather than the trees, in contrast to the local organizer. Yet, his conceptual tools are frozen rather than alive. He wants to apply the same framework to every situation and is unaware that, some of the general formulations of great theoreticians were the outcome of context-specific knowledge and experience. He even cannot see that some of the statements of the theoreticians he cites are contradictory, because they were stated in different contexts. When he observes an empirical fact, which contradicts his own view, he tends to disregard it as an exception or abnormality. He has clear opinions of what is wrong and what is right. His strategy can be successful occasionally, when people he appeals to start fitting his assumptions or even performing his theory. For nowhere can one find a pure social setting which fits his assumptions. He makes coherent plans, yet does not think about tactics. He may find ideological supporters proponents in different milieus, but finds it very difficult to have a mass base.
The local organizer and the revolutionary partisan do not like each other very much. But one day they need each other: The local organizer realizes that he has to go beyond the immediacy of the situation in order to make progress. His perception about what he lacks is a revolutionary epistemology for which he turns his face to the revolutionary partisan he humiliated once. The partisan, on the other hand, realizes that he lacks local knowledge and empirical data to make his theory more efficient. He is more prepared to test his assumptions, for which he decides to listen to the organizer. Neither of them is ready to give up arrogance. What comes out of their reluctant yet much obliged encounter?
to be continued…