The beautiful uprising against institutionalized racism, police brutality and murder that was sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, is powerfully challenging the “established order” and entrenched “tradition” in wave after wave of protest and rebellion of various kinds. In response, those who are determined to maintain, fortify and carry to even more hideous extremes the white supremacy that has been built into this system from the beginning of this country are at one and the same time going so far as to deny the existence of this white supremacy while vigorously upholding it, and seizing on, and blowing entirely out of proportion, secondary negative tendencies within the outpouring against it.
The latest version of this reactionary chorus (whose lunatic ravings can be repeatedly heard out of the mouth of the racist-in-chief in the White House and are regularly broadcast on the fascist Fox “news”) has actually involved the defense of white supremacy—and yes, at least objectively, of slavery—in the form of tirades against the pulling down of statues honoring leaders and soldiers of the Confederacy! Things are beyond the realm of rational discussion when it becomes necessary to point out that these statues, honoring those who fought to maintain slavery, are precisely monuments to white supremacy, and that the outcry against tearing them down is one of the clearest demonstrations of the poisonous presence of ongoing white supremacy, from the White House to the white people (and a few Black lackeys) who are defending these statues as part of the “great history and heritage of this country”!
Crucial Methods and Principles
Rather than attempting to speak to every front of attack by the aggressive “soldiers” of white supremacy, or every kind of situation where someone or something has become the target of attack in connection with the righteous uprising, it is more important and more helpful to speak to basic methods and principles that can help to distinguish right from wrong and positive from negative, in regard to all this. A fundamental understanding that flows from a scientific materialist (reality- and evidence-based) method and approach is the dialectical recognition that all of reality—everything and every person—is contradictory. Even things which are overwhelmingly one way have an aspect of the opposite within them. So, it is not surprising that this beautiful uprising, which is overwhelmingly positive, also has some negative aspects associated with it. And things are not “static” but constantly in motion and in the process of development, so that the character of something can change.
It is crucially important to identify what, in any given phenomenon (a system, a movement, a person), is the main thing (the principal aspect), which defines the essence of that phenomenon at any given time, and overall. For example, both Nat Turner and John Brown, who led heroic (if ultimately defeated) rebellions against slavery, were highly religious—and it is not wrong to see each of them as a kind of religious fanatic. But their religious zealotry was in the service of fighting the main (the most egregious) form of exploitation and oppression of that time—slavery. We cannot condemn Nat Turner or John Brown because they did not recognize that, to lead the struggle to do away with all oppression, it is necessary to cast off the mental shackles of religion and take up a consistently scientific method and approach—just as we cannot condemn them for not fighting against what is today the main system of exploitation and oppression subjecting the masses of humanity to horrific suffering, the system of capitalism-imperialism, because in their time the most decisive immediate question was not (yet) the abolition of the capitalist-imperialist system and the ending of all relations of exploitation and oppression, but the abolition of the system of outright slavery. That was the main (principal) contradiction being confronted. And the main (principal) aspect of what they did, in rising up against slavery, was overwhelmingly positive, even with certain definite secondary shortcomings (including the fact that, in the rebellion led by Nat Turner, they killed not only the adults but the children of slave-owning families).
This same basic (dialectical materialist) method and approach needs to be applied to all phenomena in order to be able to determine the essential and defining character of something (or someone), and to sort out right from wrong, positive from negative.
The Question of Excess, Negative Trends and Cancerous “Cancel Culture”
In any righteous movement of people, aimed against injustice and oppression, there are bound to be some negative aspects, along with the principally positive ones. With regard to these negative trends, it is necessary here again to make important distinctions. In any social movement of major significance, there are bound to be certain “excesses” that are committed by people who are coming from the right place overall, but whose fully justified outrage and passion spills over into actions which run counter to, and/or go beyond the bounds of, the principles and aims of the struggle and what is helpful in developing that struggle in a positive direction. In handling contradictions in a way that will not undermine but will strengthen the movement, it is necessary, first of all, to determine if something is actually an undesirable excess, or is in fact something that contributes to the struggle, without allowing the powers-that-be and those who act on their behalf to dictate what is “legitimate” (and what is not “legitimate”) protest and rebellion. And, even with what are actually harmful excesses, it is necessary, on the one hand, to recognize that excesses are bound to be committed, even by honest people, in a situation where years, or even decades, of pent-up anger and frustration at being forced to endure degrading oppression are finally breaking out into open rebellion, but at the same time it is necessary to act on the understanding that excesses must be combated and curtailed. This requires that struggle be waged against these excesses without “pouring cold water” on the passionate commitment of those making such mistakes, or on the struggle as a whole.
And then there are other kinds of negative tendencies, where the principal and defining aspect of things is (at least objectively and in some cases consciously) in basic opposition to what should be the principles and aims of the movement. There are the political opportunists—for example, those who are more concerned with “ownership” of the movement than with involving as many people as possible, and making the struggle as powerful as possible, on the basis of uniting around what should be the common objectives. There are those representatives and operatives of the ruling powers who work systematically to take the struggle into channels that will render it meaningless, or even turn it into something that actually reinforces injustice and oppression.
And then there is the whole “cancel culture.” Especially in the all-too-common form of poring over the entire history of an individual’s life, looking to find one negative thing which can then be seized on to obliterate (“cancel”) that person, this is an extremely cancerous trend, which does a great deal of harm, not only to individuals targeted in this way but often to crucial social causes and struggles.
Clearly, this kind of approach runs completely counter to the correct method of looking at the overall “arc” of someone’s life, and what is the principal and defining aspect of this. Failing to do this—and instead falling into the simplistic, and often deliberately vicious, “one strike, ever, and you’re out” mentality and approach of this cancerous “cancel culture”—can lead to all kinds of terrible conclusions and actions.
For example, former slave and dedicated abolitionist Frederick Douglass failed (or refused) to support the right of women to vote in the period shortly after the Civil War, insisting instead that the focus should be (only) on getting the right to vote for Black males (and then the right for women to vote should follow some time after). Should Frederick Douglass be “canceled”?!
Or should the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse be “canceled” (should the monument that is being built to him in South Dakota be abandoned or destroyed) because, after fighting heroically for years against the U.S. Army, at the end of his life, when finally defeated and held in captivity, he apparently cooperated and collaborated with that same army in its suppression of other indigenous peoples?!
What is principal (and what is secondary) in the overall life and role of Crazy Horse and Frederick Douglass?
Many other examples could be cited. But what these examples sharply illustrate is once again the crucial importance of applying the scientific dialectical materialist method and approach to all phenomena, including the struggle against injustice and oppression, in order to carry that struggle forward, through all the obstacles, of many different kinds, that are thrown in its path, toward the final goal of abolishing and uprooting not just one particular form, but all forms, of oppression and exploitation, everywhere.