The Left: communicating without “razor blades”

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Academics & political activists

All groups and organisations have their ways of communicating that often act as a shorthand enabling easy communication within each group.  Such styles of communication also serve to give a sense of belonging.  The downside is that communications that bring some sense of solidarity to one group can make others feel excluded.  This is the kind of thing that can happen in both the academic world and various political groups. The result is that groups in both worlds can be viewed negatively by each other and the wider public.

I recall hearing a student complain that reading a worthy, but particularly dense piece of social science theory was “like reading razor blades”.  Along with many students who have passed through universities, she questioned why such dense language was necessary. The political world tends to favour verbally combative styles of engagement, sometimes using cutting, one-line, put-downs rather than genuine engagement and debate.

Sue Bradford seminar

Many left wingers have expressed concern about the state of the political Left in Aoteatora/NZ, seeing it as weak and lacking in productive ways of working together to achieve political power.

For Sue Bradford, part of the solution is to develop respectful relationships and to find more productive ways of communicating within and beyond the Left.

Sue Bradford seminar 16 March 2015_1

Bradford spoke at Auckland University on Monday, at a seminar focused on the academic-activist divide within the radical Left in Aotearoa.

The seminar was video-conferenced with participating groups at universities around New Zealand.

PhD research on the feasibility of left wing think tanks

Bradford’s current focus has developed from her PhD research in which she investigated the feasibility of developing a left wing think tank. [The PhD thesis is available here.]

She has been seeking a way to match the powerful, well-funded, and influential right wing think tanks.

Bradford’s research involved a massive amount of interviews with activists, academics and politicians. The content of these interviews showed there was a fair bit of demoralisation on the Left: a sense of having lost, weakened unions, a depoliticised community sector, a fractured Left, and discontent with parliamentary parties moving to the right.

Sue Bradford seminar slide state of left 16 March 2015
Slide that was part of Sue Bradford’s presentation at the seminar. Photo: Carolyn Skelton

On the upside, there had been a recent rise in activism, and a willingness to work across old factional boundaries. Many of the interviewees saw the radical left in NZ as being very weak.  In her thesis Bradford defined the left in broad terms, deciding not to include class or capitalism, so as to include the moderate left [p. 18].

Bradford’s research shows divisions between left academics and activists – for instance belittling of academics who are criticised for researching and not doing anything, while operating in a secure environment; contrasted with academics feeling a sense of isolation, and concerns that research outside universities could be diluting standards [see p 95 Bradford thesis].

Some of Bradford’s interviewees felt there is a need to become braver and to “find or rediscover the will to power”.  Bradford also found that for Left activists theory does matter, even though they critical of academics.

Academia, activism & beyond

Bradford had been a lecturer at UNITEC after finishing her PhD. With some regrets, she had decided to give that up in order to focus on grassroots activism, especially her work with Auckland Action Against Poverty, and to work on developing a radical left think tank.  In her PhD Bradford concluded that a pan left think tank is not possible.

Bradford distinguishes between the social democrat, progressive, reformist left and the radical or transformational left.  The former aims to work within the current capitalist system, while the latter is campaigning for an end to capitalism [p. 18 Bradford PhD].

Sue Bradford seminar slide first steps Kaupapa 16 March 2015
Slide that was part of Sue Bradford’s presentation at the seminar. Photo: Carolyn Skelton

Bradford stated that there is a lot of academic research that could be very useful to the activist Left, which rarely got much coverage beyond academic publications and sites. The most noticeable change for her after leaving her UNITEC job was the loss of access to the full range of academic databases. The radical Left think tank would be separate from, but connected to a much larger mass movement/organisation/or party. The think tank, with limited financial resources, would aim to disseminate relevant academic research, rather than do a lot of it themselves.

She also argued for change to the way those within the Left talk to each other, as for instance seen on political blogs. A different style of language and writing is required by both academics and the activist Left.  They need to be using language in a way that communicates effectively with “ordinary” people: more power can be achieved by doing this communication through the mainstream media.

Bradford pointed to examples we can learn from, while not trying to mimic them exactly: the context of each example differs and the Left needs to be open to fresh ways of doing things. One of the lessons from Podemos and Syriza is that both groups build and work with the grassroots organisations of and for the most vulnerable.  The Left would also benefit from academic research into the “Mana experiment”.

Bradford would like to see workshops in which both left academics and left wing activists participated.

Into the future

As it happens, there does already seem to be a step in this direction: on Monday, a call went out for submissions to a new journal to be published two times a year: Counter Futures: left thought and practice aotearoa.

Bradford is one of the members of the editorial board for this.  It does seem to be a pan left journal, inviting submissions addressing, among other things questions about the connections between “‘revolutionary’ and ‘reformist’ forces”.

As Bradford says, in order to overcome internal divisions within the Left, and to spread the ideas more widely, there needs to be a focus on developing respectful relationships, and using appropriate language.

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Carolyn is committed to economic and social justice. She has researched and taught in film, TV and media studies, sociology and gender studies. Carolyn is actively interested in local history, and its impact on the present and future. Carolyn currently works part time as a research librarian in Auckland Libraries, which is part of Auckland Council. The views, analysis, and opinions she expresses on this site are her own, and not those of Auckland Council.

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