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December 15, 1972: On Proselytizing Printer Friendly Version

On Proselytizing
Points From A Discussion With Ellen

James Herod
December 1972

  Liberals always resent anyone `putting people in categories' – a key element in their outlook. They especially resent being placed in a category themselves, like being called a liberal, for example. But they claim they don't like putting anyone in categories, e.g., they don't like calling people radicals. Obviously this is an inconsistently held belief. They readily put people in categories themselves, for example, Marxists, fundamentalists, sectarians.

  Ellen speaks from a partial liberal Christian position (flavored a little by an ambivalent fundamentalist position, i.e., a mild belief in evangelizing). She perceives my position as dogmatic though and compares me with dogmatic fundamentalists in the church (i.e. she perceived a lack of tolerance in my views). Thus she perceives a continuum from Right to Left – both the extreme right and the extreme left are alike in being dogmatic, intolerant, evangelical, sectarian, and proselytizing. She is in between these positions. This continuum notion is very interesting. I don't see a continuum at all. I see the liberals and rightists (including the religious fundamentalists) as two sides of the same coin and on one side of the fence (I also include dogmatic Marxists in the right) and on the other side of the fence proletarian thought based on the dialectic, which is neither liberal (i.e., tolerant, neutral, pluralist, noncommittal, objective) nor dogmatic (i.e., sectarian, intolerant, proselytizing, closed). This is an excellent way to make the point. Reject the liberal continuum image and lump liberals in with both extremes, that is, with all varieties of dogmatism – Marxism-Leninism as well as Bourgeois – in opposition to genuinely revolutionary thought. This is very good because it shows that liberals and mechanical Marxists are very similar in their outlook (liberals, after all, are fanatics – fanatically committed to a policy of neutrality) and both of them are in the same camp with the dogmatic right.

  The working class is predominantly fundamentalist in religious orientation and correspondingly right wing in political orientation. No wonder the dogmatic Marxists have such success in their attempts to proselytize the working class with Marxism-Leninism.

  Ellen lumped me in with fundamentalists because she said I proselytized just like they did. I denied this. I said I did not proselytize. That's what vulgar Marxists do, but not me. But I was unsuccessful in convincing her. It is a very difficult thing to get across, a very tough question, but a good one to work on. Why is the attempt to `radicalize' the working class and the attempt to win over the majority to a proletarian point of view (as I have been developing this line of thought) and make the revolution – why is this not proselytizing? Proselytizing implies a conversion to a set of preconceived ideas, to a dogma, whereas the proletarian revolution implies an achieving by the working class of the right, possibility, and capability of thinking for itself, of self-reflective thought, of decision-making power and capacity. It could be said to be proselytizing only in the sense of being committed to a certain use of the intelligence, to the dialectic, to the concrete examination of the concrete situation, to constant re-examination and revision of one's ideas in light of changing circumstances.

  But isn't this merely the liberal's commitment to openness and lack of dogmatism? Liberals, after all, fanatically defend the principle of nonsectarianism and openness and examination of the situation. No it isn't the same. The trouble is that with liberals, openness gets combined with neutrality, i.e., non-committal, i.e., blind acceptance of the established order. They are not open, in fact, except perhaps only in their own narrow field of specialty (as long as that specialty is not social science, for then they are notoriously blind to the society as a whole, i.e., they are not open to the larger questions concerning the structure of society as a whole). There are obviously some good elements in liberalism, although in a grossly distorted form and hence meaningless or ineffective or neutralized in this liberal form.

  My position is not one of proselytizing because it is contradictory to say that one is proselytizing `freedom'. If it is proselytizing to fight for ones freedom and the freedom of others, if it is evangelical to seek to eradicate myth and superstition and instead to create a situation where intelligence and rationality can once again hold sway, and where a new type of human being and human consciousness can come into being which is capable of thinking for itself and making judgements and decision on the basis of sound investigation of the real world, free from myth and superstition – if this is to be called proselytizing I think the word is being misused. Proletarian thought is not a matter of conversion; it is a matter of liberation. Conversion implies an enslavement to the past, past ideas and past circumstances. To practice the dialectic, to engage in a dialectical mode of thought is precisely to free oneself from this stifling past and to view reality with unshackled energy, through unglazed eyes. But this is not the liberal's fanatic and blind devotion to the facts, to objective science, to empirical investigation. For as I have already said, the liberal's commitment to the pursuit of truth is a bourgeois commitment and hence stops short of an empirical analysis of its own social world, the status quo of the bourgeois order. The difference between proletarian thought and bourgeois thought is precisely this: that the bourgeoisie is willing to examine everything in a concrete way except itself and its impact on everything else. Hence, it, in fact, sees nothing in a concrete, empirical (impartial) way. It is a minority class, but claims to have a majority consciousness, which is an obvious lie. This lie permeates everything it says. It's examination of the world is a lie. But the proletarian class is a majority class. It is unafraid to examine anything in a concrete way, including itself. It is capable therefore of achieving a real self-consciousness, i.e., a consciousness based on truth as opposed to the false self-consciousness (if it can even be called self-consciousness) of the bourgeoisie, which is based on a lie.

  Liberals usually confuse being for something with being dogmatic and authoritarian. Thus, being for freedom is seen as the same thing as being for dictatorship. That's why they see radicals as extremist, dogmatic, and authoritarian. Such a view merely betrays their own neutrality and noncommitment. It's exactly like the liberal anti-elitists (whose anti-authoritarianism flows out of a commitment to individualism and tolerance rather than collectivity and criticism) who accuse those who start fights to achieve workers control and democracy of being elitist. In liberal eyes, anyone who takes any initiative to achieve any program is an elitist, since they themselves exist in a world of private initiatives only, but a world of social neutrality. It should be obvious that it is only with regard to the program that one is fighting for that he or she can be judged an elitist. It is not elitist to take the initiative to achieve freedom and democracy, but it obviously is elitist to fight to establish dictatorship, whether it be of a right wing general or a left wing party bureaucrat. But in liberal eyes both types of initiative are elitist. Vanguardists make the same claim but from a different point of view. They are trying to defend their own behavior in the factory against the charge of elitism by arguing that it is impossible not to be elitist. Anyone who goes to work in the factory, they say, to fight for socialism would be an elitist or vanguard. They therefore feel justified in constituting themselves as the vanguard. They have missed the point completely, just like the liberals do.