Let’s talk about political action. We are in the month when we remember the May ’75 student uprising, which was political action. But, of course, action to be political implies firstly “thinking”. So, let’s look into “thinking”.
When yesterday I quoted Albert Einstein saying, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think,” I meant it to reflect the underlying philosophy of the main demands many students had in the May ’75 uprising. One of them was the introduction of the use the mother-tongue Kreol as medium in schools. The mother-tongue is, as we know, the human tool for “thinking” – in precisely the sense Einstein used it in. Making your own brain work something out consciously.
The quote reminds me of the three-year-old boy-child of friends. The father was a young Oxford don who specialized in thinking up systems by which to analyze reality – mathematical systems, in particular, to represent socio-economic realities. So, he would sit at home “working”. This meant he sat dead still in an upright chair, one leg crossed over the other, head tilted to one side, and a pen in one hand hovering over a blank scrap of paper, in the other hand. He had learnt to think. For hours on end, he would be working away, like this. When his two young children would go and jump on him, or in other ways try to attract his attention, his wife would intervene, saying, “Children, can’t you see your father is working. Don’t interrupt him!” Well time passed. Then one day, the little boy was found sitting all alone dead still on an upright chair, one leg crossed over the other, head tilted to one side, and a pen in one hand hovering over a blank scrap of paper in the other hand, when his mother, all concerned that he was not well, asked him, “What’s the matter, Oliver?”, and he replied, “Can’t you see I’m working. Don’t interrupt me!”
And how does this relate to political action today? You need to think in order to act politically, and in order to think, you need to concentrate, and to concentrate you need to focus. Today, there is an industry, the tech industry, that grabs young people’s attention, the so-called “attention merchants” so that many young people are often doing two things at once, like following social media and doing homework. Many young people are actually addicted to things that prevent them from actually thinking. A University College London study showed that IQ tests (for what they are worth) show a drop of 15 points if you multi-task, in the sense of doing two things at once. They point to how, looking at a twitter feed while participating in a meeting, harms your ability to understand both. Note that top cadres at Silicon Valley inevitably send their children to schools like the Waldorf Schools that do not allow any technology, let alone the internet, at school and often even at home. They know the harm it does to “thinking”. So, the coronavirus epidemic can have a higher toll than we imagine on students, as they are pushed more and more on to devices, and thus risk damaging their cognitive development, their ability “to learn to think”, to quote Einstein again.
There are 5-10 years of research now showing that “multitasking”, like looking at your cellphone while working on something else, reduces your power to think about either. You may believe you are doing well, but you are not. Recent experiments show that participants in one group, who were asked to do two tasks at the same time, forgot details the other group, who were asked to do two tasks one after the other, remembered. They also made three times more mistakes than the second group. The part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex needs to co-ordinate information from all over the brain, and can only handle one task at a time.
I am not going into all of this for academic reasons, interesting as it is.
I am comparing young people at college in 1975 – I was a young teacher then – and their enormous powers of concentration, and their brilliant ability to “think” with the clear difficulty that most young people that age experience today. University lecturers often complain.
And it is not just thinking that is necessary for political action. It is coming to a common understanding that counts.
You have to think, listen to what others are talking through their thoughts in their mother tongue, then share your own thoughts with them. This is spoken language – which has the advantage of being up for immediate debate and discussion and even criticism, then also written language – which has the advantage of giving you more time for “thinking” and putting order in any new thought, relative to all the thoughts already in your mind at your own speed. You can put the magazine down, and, like Oliver’s father, sit and think. And then think out your reply, draft it, correct the draft, check that the points actually make sense and so on. This way more and more people can “think together”, and thus develop a program. A program is no more than a “common understanding” to quote Leon Trotsky, a great activist, great thinker and great writer.
So, we have, in the year 2020 to create space for thinking – space that has been shrunk. We have to create the occasions for thinking together. And this is the process whereby a movement, which implies action, is built. And build it we must, as we come out of lockdown.
And, that is why we are encouraging people to send in their fragments of memory of May ’75. The humble, modest, myriad of meetings and gatherings there were then, all contributed to building a huge movement that culminated in the confrontation with the State at the GRNW Bridge on 20 May. We need the overall political viewpoint that a party can give, too. In 1975 it was mainly the MMM but also the MMMSP. Today, LALIT tries to build that kind of coherence at the grassroots. That is why we have branches. That is why we have Commissions. That is why we have a rich web-site for people to consult. That is why we are in the housing movement. That is why we have built the “Joint Neighbourhood-LALIT Branch Committees” in dozens of regions. That is why we maintain contact with as many working class organizations as we can – not just their leadership, but their delegates.
These small units, within an overall political analysis and program, encourage everyone to develop his or her own ability to concentrate, focus, think, relate our own experience to that of others, and develop ideas that lead to actions that relate to the moment of history we are in.
But, we are in difficult times. Imagine right now: Students are not even meeting. unions cannot hold proper assemblies. Parties cannot hold branch meetings. It is indeed a State of Emergency. But we can use it to come out enriched.
Remember the working class has really, as a class, only come to power twice perhaps, in all history: the Paris working class in La Commune 1871 for 3 months or so (until massacred), and 45 or so years later, the Russian working class in the Russian Revolution for 3 years or so (until slaughtered by the combined massive military intervention on the side of the Capitalists and Tsarists from Britain, France, USA, Germany, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Japan, as well as soldiers from other countries organized in units within these armies, and then taken over by what we now call “Stalinism”.) The point is both times the working class broke capitalist rule, it was after severe crises, wars. A second point is, it is important to do humble work in small groups around an emerging common understanding, in the meantime; a great revolution is not just the summation of these, but it is impossible without them. A third point is that both movements had programs (The Communist Manifesto and the Bolshevik Program), an essential kernel of a proper political organization for change.
for LALIT, a personal view.