Friday, 28 January 2011

The death of polemics?

I've missed Burn's night - but I've  just realised that one of his quotes expresses much more succinctly what I was trying to grope towards in my last post about some recent squabbles on the Left:

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to see oursel's as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, And foolish notion”

And also from north of the border there is a perfect demonstration of the non-application of this principal in the three-way row between the SSP - Solidarity and George Galloway on Newsnight Scotland

I've still not fully resolved what I think about all this. Not so much on the specific  dark corners of the Tommy-gate affair  - but on  the more general question of when the best tactic is to sit on your hands and shut up in the interests of unity.

At home I have bookshelves of Marxist classics. Many, if not the majority, are written as polemics. The first passages of these are often  filled with  scathing but generally tedious  demolishings of political opponents who are now long-forgotten. These passages invariably generate a need for footnotes and historical introductions that  I skim over as quickly as possible: Engel's 'Anti-Duhring' is probably the most coherent summary of the Marxist approach to philosophy that you can find in a single source but frankly I'm not sure that anyone these days gives a toss about who Duhring was or what he said. Engels ' polemics against him may serve as a jumping off point for the development of his own arguments but are actually now more of a hindrance than a help to the modern reader.

Many of the Left would argue that these jumping off points are still needed and that polemics remain an essential part of the political process. The trouble with that argument though is that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky didn't live in a mass media age with a literate and informed working class. The Left and its milieu  of their time was a closed and intimate little world often on the edge of what they would call 'civil society'. I wonder how these founding fathers would have come across in panel debates or online forums: If they stuck to the same styles they used in their written work then I suspect  they would be perceived as sectarian loons. 

But I also suspect that they were far too smart not to have modified their style to be effective in the society in which they found themselves.  Just a thought.

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