an infamous “struggle session” underway
Introduction and Method
As readers comb through tendencies and currents of Marxism, the system of thoughts known as ‘Maoism’ always catches an eye.
Perhaps because of its historical connotation with guerrilla movements, people’s wars, popular armies, and the like. Perhaps because of its conflation with a more (albeit ‘totalitarian’) simplistic and accessible “left populism” which could be appealing in many ways. Perhaps it catches an eye only because it has that one guy’s name in it (he was the one in China, right?).
Nevertheless, Maoism and Mao Tse-Tung Thought seems to attract quite a bit of attention on the left.
One particular feature commanding so much attention, which many consider to be the most intrinsic, is the emphasis on criticism and self-criticism. Obviously there are many interpretations to consider when analyzing criticism/self-criticism and its history within the Marxist lineage and Maoism; however, we will attempt to limit ourselves (in this piece) to the importance of self-criticism and why it holds such an esteemed position in our contemporary discourse. In addition, we should offer a brief interpretation of our own which empowers the masses by making the notion of “self-criticism” a tool for class struggle.
Let’s start by dismissing misinformed notions of criticism/self-criticism which seem to dominate any critical discussion of the matter.
1. Self-criticism is not simply “saying sorry”. Self-criticism is not an apology. Certainly there are self-criticisms where an apology is in order, in fact many “proper self-criticisms” throughout history have incorporated an apology for some form of wrong-doing. However, an apology is a simple placation for behavior which was undeserved or simply “wrong” in some sense of the term. Apologies are also something of a more personal matter, and as we will elaborate later self-criticism entertains a far different understanding of behavior and self within a social context.
2. Self-criticisms have been applied wrongly by organizations of the past and the term is continually abused by contemporary groups with very little understanding of the actual methodology. This creates much confusion for everyone trying to access the term and certainly for those who are in some way involved with an organization or persons who use the term incorrectly. Ultimately this is something which demands special attention in and of itself but for the sake of brevity we will leave it at this: some organizations, of past and present, apply the principle of self-criticism for arrogant and often times malicious purposes. It’s for this reason, and many others related to it, that we find it often times imperative to delineate exactly what we mean by a self-criticism.
3. Self-criticism is not some mystical or cultish tenet which is applied for mere purposes of homogeneity or conformance. It should not be a point of fear or undue anxiety. Instances where it is used to intimidate or manipulate a person should be firmly criticized. There is historical precedence to believe that self-criticism is simply a weaponized form of denial which is used to suppress dissidence or political rivals. However, can we truly assess this precedence as being self-criticism par excellence? The constructive self-criticism we hope to popularize? Even if, perhaps, all self-criticism, in all of its historical variants, has been a tool for exercising depreciation we should still explore all possibilities for its greater significance (to be self-critical).
4. Self-criticism isn’t something you have “done” it is something you “do”. Of course, we’re reminded of great self-criticism, decades prior, which were more than often complete shams, fabrications for some purpose or another. Others were more formal, invoking a sense of performance in how they were disseminated and received. Certainly there is reason for this performative nature employed and we will explore this reasoning a bit later (including the socio-historic significance of such “rituals”). However, self-criticism should not be treated in such a way where it is easy to establish a ‘1-2-3’ method and then discard any genuine interest or organic nature beyond some political instrumentalism. This generally occurs when self-criticism is abused (as discussed in point 2) or the principle is simply treated as a spectator event.
5. You should question why you have allowed me to speak with authority on this matter. What sort of experience do I have? What grants me an understanding which is worth sharing? In what ways could you imagine my influence to be unwarranted or undeserving? Are there better explanatory powers at be?
The final point was not some attempt to be skeptical for the sake of skepticism or to call into question my own understanding (as I would hope it to be as convincing as possible). The point was to exercise a seldom understood feature of self-criticism via my own invitation to the reader; a very proper segway into the next discussion on the topic of self-criticism, which is what self-criticism actually is or at least how it should be understood and employed.
Knowledge itself is instrumental. Not entirely to the sense most often understood. As in, we don’t simply know things to better access our world, although this is definitely a large part of forming any knowledge imaginable. Knowledge is also about knowing the one who is trying to know; the one “doing the knowing” is simultaneously composed by the information which is understood. Perhaps this is all a bit too philosophical or abstract to be accessible to everyone, so allow us to entertain a practical example.
If you knew there was certain death behind a door, would you open it? Most of us would not. Certainly that knowledge we have is informative and instrumental in as far as we have avoided certain death. However, that knowledge has also constructed an image, an understanding, a representation of the door in question, as well as the method by which you were informed, and this process has been internalized without notice and becomes instantly recallable in a narrative. All of which leads us to perhaps the most important conclusion of all: knowledge is powerful; knowledge is power.
Perhaps the reader is unconvinced of our explanation, and to this end there may be reason to be so. Maybe knowledge is just something we utilize; it’s basic, straight-forward, and there is no critical or disciplining element to it in the slightest. Perhaps this is the case. Regardless, one should still be critical to oneself as to whether the knowledge they have ascertained is “true” or not. Whether or not it does what it’s “supposed to do” or at least what you “want it to do”. In the case of making revolution, or being radical, or doing anything political at all, knowing what you know and how you know it is absolutely required.
This is the starting point for any understanding of self-criticism. Essentially, why we do it. In the most basic sense, we self-criticize because having a correct understanding and/or behavior (or correct understanding of behavior, or understanding of correct behavior, etc.) is necessary to be successful. This is obviously one of the more simple reasons, but certainly one which is equally important to all others. It’s from this point of departure where we are able to summon the urgency necessary for correct theory/practice. The urgency that every revolutionary needs to stay “with the program” and constantly working to improve – first themselves, then the situation at hand.
Naturally then, our first issue when engaging in self-criticism is to contextualize our current understanding and behavior. This includes having a healthy dose of skepticism when encountering all explanations and reasoning provided especially those which are provided by an established force of the status quo; although, not entirely limited to just those explanations which are already in disagreement.
Dogma is never formed by disagreement. Dogma is never consolidated through self-criticism and self-inquiry. Dogma is a fundamental enemy of self-criticism as a principle and the whole scope of Marxism.
Yet, it is not enough, being skeptical, to be fundamentally self-critical or critical in any sense. Ultimately, self-criticism requires that the person, in addition to taking a good measure of skepticism, must also be very open, creative, and imaginative; and we should specify that we mean so in an emotional as well as intellectual sense, not in the same form one might be creative with an application to the arts (although there are parallels to be explored). Self-criticism is an integrative engagement. Integrating new experiences, explanations, structure and understandings, to the current field of action. The integrated knowledge is then synthesized and systematized through a network of established practices, behaviors, and thoughts which are to themselves “correct”. If no integration occurs, then nothing is gained. If no synthesis occurs, then the “mistakes” will only reoccur and perhaps in more imperceptible forms.
As the reader might have noticed, our basic analysis is missing a very crucial element and without it the whole concept is nonfunctional. What we have not considered is what exactly it means to be “correct”, what is the form and content of this “correctness” and how do we determine it?
The purpose of this piece is to examine the nature and importance of self-criticism, as a process and more importantly as a ‘mode of thought’ (here we use ‘mode of thought’ loosely as this can be employed quite dogmatically, more or less we are talking about a set of conceptual tools and understandings which to themselves are principles more than guides). However, the question supposing the nature of this “correctness” is absolutely vital to any working route of self-criticism and it is for this reason that we should suspend this discussion to a space where a more full context permits greater understanding.
Determining what is “correct”, however, does not require the same depth. We should not complicate this matter and certainly not make this a banal discussion of ethics which tends to predominate this field. To put it quite simply, and maybe even crudely (which is always a risk when dealing with brevity), it’s not a matter of what is “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, but rather what is most instrumental toward and indicative of revolutionary hegemony (broadness here is justified) with respect to any given contingency. As cliche as it sounds, determining what is “correct” most often makes itself apparent through struggle and theory/practice. In that sense, the correctness begins to “exude” from the line which is to be integrated. And not by some fetishist understanding of the “things to themselves” but by the concrete theory/practice of individuals interacting within concrete social conditions.
Making these abstractions for analysis is always a real matter of caution for anyone hoping to advance themselves. There is a real danger of abstracting away the nuance, complexity, and particularity which uniquely composes such circumstances; generally, we tend to abstract ourselves into rigid and deterministic structures which in themselves become dogmas when we are unable to transcend them. However, this is one instance where perhaps the abstraction is justified in that it allows the reader to come to a very basic understanding of how one determines what exactly is to be considered “correct” and then formed towards.
“Correctness” is not the only thing which concerns self-criticism, though. And here we are most certainly considering self-criticism as an attitude of thought, a conscious self-inquiry into the established frames of thought. Indeed the biggest concern for any radical should not even be this consideration of “correctness” but rather a consistency within the inquiry. What is “correct” in one instance might be incorrect or simply impossible with respect to given circumstances. This requires a radical to be not only honest and inquisitive with respect to investigation and criticism but also consistent and undogmatic through the course. In this respect, we would advocate that the current paradigm of self-criticism applied by most Marxist and Maoist formations (at least in North America) is insufficient. It’s not enough to simply perform a “self-criticism” when the contradiction in question has shown your action to be “incorrect”, uncomradely, or wrong in whatever fashion. In fact, this is a lazy form of “self-criticism” which is simply a ritual for a specified audience. The real criticism should be performed before such behavior even occurs. The real “problem” is not in the behavior but in the predominant thoughts and beliefs which enables and justifies this behavior before it is even determined “wrong”.
An exception to this rule would be within the resolution of a contradiction among radicals (political in nature). Wherein, the “losing side” actively criticizes their failed political line as being insufficient or incorrect for whatever reason established. In this instance, the ritual of self-criticism is crucial to the healthy functioning of the formation and among the agents in question. What this ritual demonstrates is that no one is above the “correctness” and political objectives of the greater cause; the ideal of socialism and emancipation must be carved through the mistakes and failures of would-be leaders and revolutionaries. This was observed historically in the “struggle sessions” held by Chinese communists and the more high-profile self-criticism’s of Party officials and leaders. Everyone must be made accountable to the possibility of liberation; this is the first concrete ideological step towards an epistemic rupture with the totality of capitalist significance materialized through the actions of revolutionaries.
Principles of this “Attitude”
A principle of this attitude (the word “attitude” is the best substitute we have for a more complex and expansive notion of self-criticism which we hope to explain here, however the word “attitude” should not be taken at face value and the reader should consistently redefine their understanding of its usage in this context) is of course a radical understanding of what knowledge entails. More than a critical epistemology, we are advocating a criticism of normative epistemology as found in capitalism-imperialism; the epistemology of the oppressor and the “knowledge” therein.
Therefore, the first departure of self-criticism, and perhaps the most important, is unknowing what is known. Furthermore, prioritizing the unknowing of this imperialist “knowledge” (interpret this as widely as possible) becomes paramount and the foundation for all radical knowing in and of itself.
This might seem too abstruse or academic; inaccessible to the common person and those for whom socialism is the real project. However, this is a phenomena which already exists in everyday life, those microcosms of radical anti-power, which masses themselves know the best. What is being done here is a mere systematization of these ideas and the formation of building blocks so that the masses can begin to “weaponize” their experiences against capitalist hegemony.
The worker who understands her exploitation in the workplace; the woman who understands her sexualization as being part of the patriarchy; the Black man who understands his criminalization in relation to Whiteness. Everyday people who “find their place” within white supremacist cisheteropatriachal capitalism are utilizing criticism and self-criticism to constitute a genuine agency (something we will explain later in the piece).
Establishing alternative understandings of our social reality begins first with recognizing the powers that be. Rejecting fully and fundamentally these oppressor narratives which define our everyday lives and understandings. This is a profoundly important self-inquiry and the starting point of any engagement with self-criticism; furthermore, this profound “self-inquiry” is impossible without a social terrain. The radical nature of self-criticism is dependent on an analyzable relation to the “social whole”: the means of production, labor processes, the patriarchy, heterosexism, national oppression, Whiteness, etc. The overwhelming structures, narratives, and hierarchies which we all relate to, as well as the mediating ‘events’: those everyday interactions which form our social reality often without our knowledge of such, particularized to transcend our recognition of general structures.
Our self-criticism is not only a deeply personal and singular transformation but one which is enabled by contingencies only imaginable in a social context.
Up to this point, the reader might be curious why we have employed the use of the phrase self-criticism instead of criticism (proper). The reason is indicative to the lineage of Marxism itself.
Certainly there is a time and place for criticism to be utilized. In fact, most of what we do as radicals and revolutionaries is merely a performative criticism of the status quo (rallies, demonstrates, even riots etc.). However, the primary force of social change is not external, it is internal. This includes “change” which is not radical or progressive. This can mean change which is repressive, disciplining, focusing, denying, and a continuity of the powers at be. In fact, the greatest fortress of bourgeois power is within the individual-self; that ubiquitous and malleable invention of capitalism from which all measure of bourgeois power can exude.
Self-criticism is the weapon of the oppressed against this individual-self. By understanding the localization of bourgeois power within the individual-self we can begin to recognize these pathways of oppression as they make their flows into our daily interactions, ideas, and thought-structures.
Through the use of self-criticism an individual is able to historicize this individual-self, but in the sense suggested by the use of the term “criticism”. The functions of power, the fluxes and multiplicity of oppressive thought-forms, becomes an object of criticism from a new constitution of self: the genuine agency referred to earlier.
We should not mystify this genuine agency with quasi-religious nonsense regarding “authenticity” or “unique affinities”. What genuine agency really confers is the socially necessary capacity to radically challenge the existent forms of power. In this sense, what we are referring to is a historically constituted subject itself, observable throughout the sum of history, and a reflection of those radical contingencies which offer themselves into the study of scholars and bourgeois experts.
This genuine agency indicates the destruction of the individual-self as it exists ‘for-itself’; however, not as it continues ‘in-itself’. We mean this to caution the reader. This attitude of self-criticism is not a moment of ‘ideological baptism’ wherein the individual-self is abolished through the grace of Marx-Engels-Lenin. The individual-self exists amorphously in the interaction and thought-forms of a subject and should not be confused as an absolute object of study or dismissal. This is why self-criticism must always be consistent, undogmatic, and creative in the exorcism of this “wrongness” we identify as the opposite aspect of our contradiction.
It’s not by accident we utilize the term exorcism here. The spectre of white supremacist cisheteropatriachal capitalism hangs over the genuine agency of any revolutionary formation or radical. To paraphrase Marx, the minds of the dead rest heavily upon the living; the dead society, the bourgeois power in all its flows, weighs heavily upon the energy of emancipation. These spirits of capital must be exorcised from every fiber of our being and from the social fabric of the new modes we engender (e.g. radical social relations). The spirits of capital are always looming; moving on; appearing for a moment, a fleeting event, and then gone again. We find them where they are least expected, and it is where they are least expected, in the ‘uncentered zones of thought/action’, where they establish their possession over our intersubjectivity. They are dangerous to the project of revolution; to the “spiritual well-being” of the revolutionary and they must be struggled with at every given opportunity. Hence, the consistency and intimate nature of the self-criticism we advocate.
Now we should do away with our use of the term exorcism as the analogy with the spirits of capital is useful in as far as an illustration. An overzealous usage and we will find ourselves “chasing ghosts”. Not to mention the awful historical examples of this religious fundamentalism. Our mode of action must be creative in form and consistent with content. A holistic and epistemic rupture with the capitalist hegemony and the significance it conveys. The whole matrix of hegemonic knowledge and information, meaning and plausibility, must be deconstructed through exercising genuine agency over the individual-self.
What does Self-Criticism Mean Today?
Now that we have established a background, let’s answer this question through a few points.
1. Self-criticism is the Mass Line at its most atomistic level. The Mass Line “from the masses, to the masses” involves the concentration of advanced ideas into a revolutionary formula which can empower the oppressed against their oppressors. Self-criticism, the attitude of radical self-inquiry and intrigue, enables the radical to participate in this Mass Line and is in effect a self-discipline according to the Mass Line. By annihilating the bourgeois self, both in thought and action, the self-critical revolutionary can highlight within themselves the advanced ideas of the masses and synthesize this with others into the concentrated theory/praxis which we all regard so highly.
2. Self-criticism keeps the formation and the individual politically healthy, correctly oriented, and dynamic. Dogmas, uncritical attitudes, and thought-forms which are complacent encourage a culture of esoteric insignificance. A culture of insignificance will never be anything but insignificant; nothing but a footnote to the scholars of history.
3. Being wrong is the only way to be right. We cannot expect what was useful yesterday to be useful today. All ‘useful sciences’ are built upon models of change, uncertainty, and contingency and this is why predictive and explanatory methods are so prized in their fields. Sometimes we have to bite the bullet and erase what we thought was useful and begin to re-imagine our approach and our objectives in themselves. This is more than a thread of pragmatism (although that is useful) its an attitude towards “success” which is both radical and repeatable.
4. Revolutionary power requires a revolutionary space. The spatial dominance of capitalism-imperialism is constantly being redefined and reconceptualized; surely, it is also being extended and consolidated. The genuine agency of radicals and the like offers a space for revolutionary anti-power: the annihilation of the individual-self in its spectre-like amorphous forms. From these spaces power is challenged, criticized, and the hegemony of oppressive-currents is overcome. From these spaces Dual Power is established, white supremacist cisheteropatriachal capitalism is defeated and its residuals transcended. From these spaces, as has been the case before, history is wrestled from the oppressors.
5. Self-criticism provides a historicized “meaning of self” which is no longer a direct subject to capitalism. At the risk of sounding humanistic, we should note this as being the molecular foundation of an emancipated society. Although nothing is humanistic, nor deterministic, regarding the contingencies of what is retrospectively deemed “historical ruptures” there is a uniquely ‘immanent element’ to the way in which our social reality is challenged and transformed. Perhaps the most profound regime of control is located in the realm of “meaning”; if we can challenge this control and transform this realm then truly history is broken wide open and we begin to approach the desirably unknown.