Only Connect

Only Connect

Richard Rorty’s case for “prosecuting campaigns” (“Movements and Campaigns,” Dissent, Winter 1995) rather than “defining movements” rests on a carefully built construction of superimposed oppositions: tactics versus strategy; focusing on “what is to be done here and now” rather than on the “significance of events”; concern with “what the strong are doing to the weak” rather than with “deep questions about the spirit of the age or about underlying causes of social and cultural change”; “fighting injustice” versus self-promotion in “intellectual or political circles”; pragmatism versus “fantasy”; reformism versus changing things “utterly”; plurality versus a pattern centered on a “single thing”; taking things “in one’s stride” versus total identification, “self-purification,” and “self-surrender”; seeing history as an “endless network of changing relationships” and a “process of random mutation” rather than as an “immanent teleology of maturation” leading to “a process of emancipation and enlightenment”; a “sense of the finite” rather than “a passion for the infinite.”

But this construction is a house of cards. If you believe that these distinctions either coincide with or entail one another, then you will believe that to be concerned with wider issues of political strategy, the significance of events, and the deeper causes of social and cultural change is or leads to self-promotion, utopian fantasy, revolutionary radicalism, monism, religious or quasi-religious identification, and a passionate commitment to the exploded grands recits of the past. You will then be ready to accept Rorty’s proposed alternative conception of politics for the left: a tactical, issue-based politics concerned with “fighting injustice” and protecting the weak against the strong, free of the illusion that there are deeper causes for that injustice and that weakness, or that there is a wider point of view than the local (how local?), or that there could be a larger strategy within which individual campaigns might be related to one another.