Today I found myself reading another article debating how to spread radical, anti-establisment ideas. It briefly outlined the options for spreading a more truthful version of what is going on in the world: a slow movement of persuasion, an outburst of street protest to force discussion, trying to infiltrate the mainstream media, and so on.
The assumption is that once people know the truth, they will take action. This strikes us as almost commonsensical. The truth will surely change things. But try googling ‘truth action’. The results will mostly be evangelical Christian websites with a smattering of conspiracy theorists. The former in particular should ring alarm bells. Perhaps what we regard as ‘common sense’ is something embedded in our culture through centuries of saturation in Christian ideas. Perhaps the truth doesn’t change things.
We can actually see this in the successful career of Noam Chomsky as a political commentator. He is one of the most widely known political dissidents in the world and almost certainly the most widely read radical anti-establishment commentator in Europe and North America. He has been described in the very mainstream New York Times as ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’.
And where has it got us? I suppose it’s difficult to know exactly the impact of a writer, and Chomsky may have had an effect in all sorts of places we can’t identify yet. But the bottom line is this: that millions of people in the Western world have read Chomsky on politics, and the Western world currently has no growing left wing social movements.
Now it’s possible that the material conditions just aren’t right for social movements in ‘rich’ countries at the moment and that nothing anyone could say or do will make a difference. I’m not blaming Chomsky. But I am saying that the truth doesn’t set us free. Jesus was wrong, and Western culture has been loyally wrong ever since.
Perhaps I do blame Chomsky a bit. I feel he ought to be a bit more self-reflective, give a bit more thought to the notion that ‘the truth’ is so important. As someone very aware of the history of the trade union movement, he should be aware that it wasn’t spread by people becoming convinced of the ‘truth’ of class struggle and so taking action. Instead it was spread by bettering people’s working and living conditions, and the socialist ideas spread along with it. Although it should also be added that the trade union movement was not a community of belief. One does not need to be a socialist of any stripe to be in a trade union. Working together with people who believe different things from you is an important part of building a movement, and today’s left ‘radical’ groups rarely manage to do it.
I wouldn’t particular argue for a return to the old organised labour movement of the past – I think the moment for that is gone, though unions are still good and useful in certain situations. But I feel we do need to pay attention to the lesson of that movement: it was action that spread new truths, not the other way round.
People on the left trying to convert other people to ‘the truth’ are playing a bad political game, though perhaps a good religious one. Instead it might be better to fight with people, and take your ideas into the fight. Because I’m not saying that ‘truth’ doesn’t matter at all. Certainly some things in the political arena are more true than others and it is important to point out fictions invented by our rulers. But truth will not build a social movement, only actions to improve people’s lives.
This has an impact on how social movement organisations are constructed too. An awful lot of effort goes into trying to structure left groups according to matters of principle. Some of those principles are important, but none of them should be more important than whether your organisation is effective in improving people’s lives.