If I can’t think for myself then its not my revolution.
In Red Flag Mick Armstrong warns us that Hanson cannot be defeated by rational argument (05 August 2016 here). But I think this line is totally incorrect. When I was 18-19 I was a Nazi punk. Mainly older people took the time to argue with me rationally in the ANU Bar in Canberra (here is a description of the discursive and radical activist environment that soon after developed in and around that pub). They did not simply ridicule or assault me. So I am in their debt, and it is a debt I wish to repay. Read on and find out why (see also Anthony Hayes’ reply to Armstrong, more theoretical than what follows, and not biographical).
Armstrong tells us that rational argument did not stop fascism. But things are more complex than his account of Hitler etc suggests. He would agree there were counter-movements – sometimes, as in Spain, very significant on the ground opposition to the fascists. It is ridiculous to suggest good rational argument was not part of these movements. These movements organised discussions and articles. All the anti-fascist movements involved intellectuals. Like the Surrealists, and also George Orwell, a writer of clear arguments prepared to learn by discussion as he went. European fascism enjoyed triumphs from the 1930s on, but then as now rational argument is an important tool by which to oppose bigotry .
To deny this, Armstrong gets valid and sound argument confused with moralistic rubbish and half-arsed argumentation. Anyone who knows anything about critical thinking knows that his examples of “viral forgiveness” and the like are not rational arguments. Likewise the problem with what passes as rational argument from the Australian Labour Party and soft left media pundits is that they do not have a critique of capital as exploitative. The problem here is not argumentation per se, but crap arguments and blithering morons. Claiming that argument does not work because of lame pretensions to it is like claiming all physics is nonsense simply because the New Age has given us some dubious interpretations of physical theory.
Now it is true that if I am in a fist fight over bigotry, I am probably not going to be yelling out arguments at the same time, or even ala Bruce Lee eating a donut from the local bakery. That would all actually be pretty impressive, but given my age, skill level and size I am going to be concentrating on getting my mouth guard in, thereby making talk difficult, and using (kick) boxing and street fighting techniques in order to pummel the bigot. (Not pretending to be the tough guy here, even then I would much rather be arguing over a beer since I really hate being in the punch ups I have often attracted. Once it starts tho, the best advice is to be the one who finishes it). Equally, social struggle requires a whole lot of tactics that are not rational argumentation, or not just argumentation. For instance locking on etc.
However just as we do not dismiss pickets for lock ons, or rallies for occupations, so Armstrong cannot without ground dismiss rational argument in the struggle against Hanson. Let me just mention a couple of examples. Back in 2011 before the police used to separate the sides, we used to have to face the bigots off in Brisbane’s King George Square (KGS). Anyway after a bit of argey bargey to show we meant business, we got to talking and two of ’em pretty much admitted I knocked down all their arguments for bigotry. Those two never returned to later rallies. There is also the example of the Tasmanian organiser for Reclaim Australia who wound up drinking in a pub with activists. They figured out who he was and instead of abusing him, argued with him and won. He left Reclaim and publicly apologised to the Muslim community of Australia for his former membership. (Here is a media article about the apology, the back story I know because I contacted him).
Now lets imagine those older people who convinced me in the Uni Bar in the 1980s also convinced others. Let’s imagine those two I convinced in KGS also go out and convince others. Let’s imagine I continue to convince. Admittedly certain social conditions have to be maintained by coercing bosses for this to be viable – other tactics would also have to be in operation so conditions for argument are maintained. But the convinced and convincing just look like they could keep adding up. More and more folk convinced not just that bigotry is bullshit, but, fully knowing why, also convinced that we need a brand new society. They are thence transmuted from dirt and broken eggshells into solid gold revolutionaries, the real thing, becoming both ends and means (see here for further details).
The root problem with bigotry is not that it is immoral, it is that it is stupid. It means the exploited are divided not empowered, and it re-presents us with a world of exploitation and the exploitation of the world. The arguments for bigotry are consequently universally poor. If the arguments were any good, maybe I would still be a Nazi. However, have no fear, none of the arguments have any redeeming features. All can be universally debunked by science like the genome project, by a simple understanding of culture, and most of all by good, well-argued political critique.
It is then literally insane of Armstrong to alienate the most powerful weapon against stupidity: rational argument. For ‘reason’ in this sense, as Marx found Hegel arguing, lets us alchemically transmute stupidity into smarts. If you wanna get rid of bosses people have to think as well as act for themselves instead of someone else doing the thinking and “management.” It starts now with the common stupid ideas we confront everyday. People cannot put off arguing and thinking until after the revolution. There will be no revolution if people do not rationally change their ideas.
Not all of us are born with the truth thrown into our laps by willing and smiling gods, no matter what our class background. Leading by example is one thing, but at the same time we all struggle to make sense of what is good for us and what is not. As for me, I am a wretch, prone to dumb ideas and to acting disgracefully. At the same time I very painfully seek out the truth about a better life. For me the struggle for ideas that help me act, live and communicate better was, and is, a hard fight. It has driven me to drink and herion abuse, to despair. It has also driven me to creativity and to what can properly be called “truth,” as well as to being part of inspiring struggles. It dressed me in fabulous costume and gave me fabulous comrades. Rational argument was key since it made explicit how and why I fought as I did. The more I recognised rational argument the better I fought. And soon I realised: I am not the only salvageable wretch. Aut consiliis aut ense.