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Abusive language in working-class culture

Postscript by Haines Brown

It is often the case that dialog is really just two people talking with themselves past one another. That, and a feeling of guilt for having been so wordy discouraged me from responding to Jim's last contribution. But upon reflection, I can't leave Jim's final rhetorical question unanswered.

It seems to me that we have been talking about two quite different things. I am concerned with class struggle; he is concerned with revolution. Of course, Jim and I support both, but it seems we differ in emphasis. Primary for me is class struggle and I see revolution as an aspect of it; primary for Jim seems to be revolution, which he may feel arises out of class struggle, but it remains the central issue.

Involved here are several difficult questions. For one, revolutions don't just happen, but are made, and so there are undoubtedly certain kinds of behavior that heat up revolutionary possibilities. Abusive language, for example, might draw a line in the sand of our values or make very clear just who the bad guys are.

While useful, even necessary, it seems to me such an endeavor is hazardous. For example, if others don't happen to agree with our definitions, they are likely to be alienated by our effort to impose them. We then find ourselves a lonely vanguard, and that is surely not conducive to the kind of mass-based revolution we would like to see.

That is one reason I prefer to place primary emphasis on class struggle. It depends on social solidarity and therefore favors tolerance, forebearance, and accomodation within the working-class.

Does the sociability so necessary for class solidarity contradict the anger and principled resolve needed for revolution? I don't think so, especially if the distinction between our friends and our enemies is clear to us, which means we base it on relations of production, not subjectivity. Here I and Jim may well differ.

The question of whether or not one lives in a revolutionary situation is a hackneyed question and probably not very constructive if we see ourselves as creating that situation. Rather than fall between the chairs of social democratic accomodation on one hand and adventurist vanguardism on the other, we need to see revolution as a dialectical process in which we are both constrained by circumstance (being accomodating) and at the same time able to construct an alternative future (being revolutionary). So in principle, we should not be asking whether or not we live in revolutionary times, but instead go ahead and act in a revolutionary way - challenging the status quo through a creative and determined imposition of the needs of the modern working class. We need to see evolution and revolution as aspects of class struggle, not as different phases of that struggle.

However, a distinction probably remains between revolutionary development and actually carrying out a revolution. The first builds things up; the latter expends the potential so built. I'm sure there are revolutionary situations that must come down to a brute contest over state power, and in such times winning may be all that counts. But no one suggests that is the case right now, and our concern at this point is to give our class struggle a revolutionary character in a broad sense. Arguably, a contest over state power is not really revolutionary, but is only a means to that end.

So just what does "revolution" then imply? My guess is that it means we acquire a clear understanding of our class needs and interests and seek to impose them on the capitalist ruling class in a consistent, determined, and courageous way. We can't know the future, and the present seems highly ambivalent. But the one thing we can grasp without hesitation is that the strength of the working class arises from our social being - our solidarity, and this creative social character of the modern worker entirely contradicts the needs and aims of the capitalist system, which tends to atomize society and expropriate the fruits of our creative struggle as social beings.

Given this, sociability is our strength and our joy. It surely is not a source of weakness, as might be the case in an atomized society. It surely does not encourage accomodation with the capitalists, for it constructs, validates and strengthens the needs specific to the working class that necessarily contradict those of capital.

But this dialectical process that is at once evolutionary and revoluionary has little to do with "revolution" in the narrow political sense of barracades and pitched battles. One would hope that revolution might proceed without them, but history suggests otherwise. If that battle does impose itself upon us, then it will of course require discipline and a leading vanguard. But we are not currently in such a situation. I assume that WTO skimishes don't count, nor the various general strikes, such as in Nigeria over fuel prices deregulation, for these are not contests for state power, but over policy.

The revolutionary process might well lead to a contest over state power, and that in turn might require the use of abusive language by one section of the working class against another. That is possible, but I don't think we should embrace it gladly or define the dialectic of our present class struggle in such eschatological terms. Rather, I think we need to lend our daily struggles a revolutionary character by injecting into them our social being, and this in turn implies a language that is not abusive. Anything that is divisive and reduces us to our biology seems hostile to working-class struggle.

Haines Brown