Wednesday, May 4, 2016

How should we think?---Part 1

Critical thinking is, or should be, a rigorous means of analysis, assessment and reflection most often used to solve problems and build a discipline of thinking and action. Most proponents of critical thinking talk about the primacy of observation, experience, and reason as guides for belief and action. A distinction is made between beliefs and values, and biases are acknowledged. Critical thinking draws on the hard sciences in its work.

Critical thinking has its critics. People who operate solely from a place of faith have different methods of getting to their conclusions, people who see the acquisition of knowledge as an end in itself will not stretch into critical thinking, people who emphasize negation or conflict or who privilege contradiction above all else will not see a need for critical thinking and people who are good with a command/control paradigm will discount critical thinking.

Our group and this blog tries to take up questions of interest to the socialist movement, national liberation struggles, the labor movement and everyone fighting for liberation. Some of us frequently find ourselves at odds with others on the left and engaged in struggles over specific issues of theory and practice. I think that many of these differences are more rooted in how people think than in what we ultimately want. I want to explore some of these problems of thinking in a few posts.

Most of my experience is in the labor movement and as a worker and as a union staffperson. Over the years I have seen an absence of critical thinking in the labor movement, a real inability to analyze, assess and act on the basis of firm values. There is an unwillingness to confront and deconstruct problems, pull them apart, examine their sources and map a way forward based on real data and science. And not only that---union leadership is often threatened by members and staff who do think critically and who bend towards collective solutions based on collective and disciplined thinking. We can say that if the leaderships are not actually threatened by members in motion in this way then they do most often try to harness this energy to a particular political or contract campaign, devaluing thinking and action over the long haul or as a value that can be carried by “ordinary” workers into everyday life. And certainly very few unions teach or model critical thinking skills.

There are exceptions, of course. The UE, NUHW and NNU unions all do at least some critical thinking on the local and regional levels and don’t block members and staff from taking up critical thinking. The closer a union is to social movements like the civil rights movements, the Latino/a struggles and popular education models the more that union will privilege critical thinking. These social movements have gone very far in strengthening critical thinking and critical thinking skills. And perhaps it is so that white people---and most union leaders and staff are white---have a distance from these movements and have to work extra hard to “get it.” It may also be a matter of white people having distance from, say, the kinds of experiences and thinking which led Bernice Johnson Reagon to write If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me---a deceptively simple book that shows critical thinking and a dialectical approach to history in real-time action.

If we must be results-oriented here then let’s look at where the absence of critical thinking in the labor movement is taking us. At SEIU union staff are constantly engaged in assessing the union membership: do members fit into the union’s program or not, are they good with following the leadership or not, can they be moved in a particular direction or not and who can move them? Members are scored by staff based on assessments.

Assessments may be a basic feature of union organizing, but when making assessments are subordinated to real conversations between equal partners, and a union program then exists above and beyond the lived experiences of workers, we end up with clique-driven organizations that are incapable or unwilling to think about and take up issues which stretch across the entire working class. Problems may be “solved”---or bandaged---for some period of time for a particular group of workers, but working-class life still lurches from crisis to crisis. We set about managing the crises instead of solving the problems, and as we do this our numbers naturally diminish.

Perhaps another example will help. We have a large bloc of Sanders supporters who are unwilling to think in terms of building a united front against the far-right and unwilling to work on forcing Clinton to take more responsible and left positions, we have a Democratic party establishment using below-the-belt tactics against the left and being unwilling to back progressive-left candidates, we have a weak liberal center shifting incrementally to the right and we have a divided left which has not consolidated around a principled program based on organizing the people and fighting back. The Democratic establishment under Obama, and many of the union leaderships, and some other social forces worked to demobilize us with Obama’s first election and then to mobilize us when he ran again, and this mobilizing undercut organizing. It sought to replace real organizing with either e-mail protests or acquiescence. We have lots of activists and busy people but very few organizers, and activism is proving to be allergic to critical thinking. When some politicians and union leaders can’t make principled arguments for weak positions they substitute polling for leadership. None of this builds fighting capacity, and it is fighting capacity which builds numbers and victories.

We aren’t pulling apart and critically examining the core problems----capitalism, racism, oppression--in science-based ways. The crises we’re in gain much of their power and momentum because we can’t see the balance of the quantitative and qualitative forces at work and then go into motion in ways which confront these crises head-on. Unions tend to step into the vacuum and try to manage or ameliorate the crises; sometimes this works for the good, but more often it doesn’t---and it never builds real unin power. We say that all working and oppressed people need to learn thinking and action skills and need organizations willing to take on the big fights based on an analysis put forward by the workers, the oppressed and our allies.

Sounds abstract and difficult, doesn’t it? We will try to break it down in future posts.

Our basic assumptions and points here are:

1. The lived experiences of people matter.
2. People develop complex class, race and gender-based relations over time.
3. Within these relations there are inevitable contradictions which emerge over real time.
4. Some of these contradictions are necessarily antagonistic and some aren’t.
5. Understanding these relationships, the balances of power and the social contradictions at work is a kind of science.
6. Critical thinking is a tool used in grasping this science, but it is not enough.
7. There are correct and incorrect ideas.
8. We best learn what is correct and incorrect through lived experience and we determine truth based on social relations and through collective processes.

The principles to keep in mind here are:

1. The quality of a thing must be studied.
2. The quantitative features of a thing must be studied.
3. Transitions between the quantitative and qualitative must be understood.
4. Development occurs through a confrontation or struggle between opposing forces.
5. A necessary tension exists between the passing of the old and the emergence of what is new.
6. We prioritize practice, or activity, in determining what is correct and incorrect.
7. Practice, or action, lays a basis for theory, theory is tested in practice and then changes in light of our reflection and practice. Practice tests theory and truth.
8. There are necessary tensions between truth and opinion and between absolute and relative truth. There is also a unity between absolute and relative truth.

When we say “thing” here we are referring as much to objects and items as we are to society and struggle and to the labor and social change movements. Please think about how these principles impact you in your real daily work.

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