What do you actually do?! Ruthless Criticism


“What do you actually do?!”

[Translated from: MSZ 10-1986]

Excerpts from the letters of two readers:

“Either we combine all possible means (and I really mean all means: the whole spectrum of the Revolutionary Cells and the Red Army Faction on up to Pax Christi!) of all persons and groups interested in the cause, or they will know how to eradicate us in one way or another.

And immediately the question occurs to me: you reject a lot of methods and approaches rather categorically from the start. From you I see ultimately only the approach of agitation. Do you believe that verbiage can help us? Seriously, I have so far not heard of any MG actions – what do you do in this area? I think it’s sad that a relatively apolitical organization like Greenpeace can muster up the courage and imagination to defeat the powers that be every so often, even if only in battlefields of minor importance (but who knows, Mururoa can possibly be one more victory) – and that at the same time the left is stuck in never-ending debates of principles, is caught up in destructive criticism and so never gets in action.

This also applies to you in some sense. You reject my idea of voter participation as a means of change, certainly with good reason from your point of view – so then please suggest another sensible method which goes beyond the realm of agitation and which can really have an effect on the political opponent.”

– R.S., Regensburg

“ … all counter-movements participated in … all as yet admittedly without success, and therefore incorrect and futile.

But what do you do? Okay, you publish the Marxist Student Newspaper. You do some good things apart from that. Your publishing house, the Marxist Workers Newspaper, etc. Also I know about your activities in Mainz and Frankfurt. At peace rallies, you distribute writings against the peace movement. Do you seriously believe you will be able to achieve something this way? No nation states, no exploitation, no armed forces, no police, etc. Okay I agree, but how do we get there? So far I’ve found no suggestions from you. How then is the future supposed to look? To date, only resignation could come out of all your work.”

– W.A., Bad Kreuznach

Answer of the editors:

Once and for all: “What is to be done?!” is a stupid question!

With its ponderous undertones, this question doesn’t exactly belong with the daily inquiries at the dinner table. The question does have an existential touch. When posed in politician’s speeches or during dramatic scenes in soap operas, a broad range of applications opens up. Meanwhile, in everyday life the answers can be quite trivial, such as “let’s go out for dinner” or “the spark plug has to be changed.” When posed by a left-wing party, this question doesn’t ever mean something as trivial as: “How do we get leaflets to the factory gates and distribute them?” Instead, it deliberately plays dumb. After all, such a party already reveals in its simple existence that it has a purpose in mind and does something for it. What it does is easy to see – even if it is only the answering of letters to the editor, which in turn arise from the activities of the party. By posing this question in such a fundamental way, the only intention is to put down both the purpose and the means adopted for it by qualifying them as “doing nothing.” This is done without giving any reasons but with an implied comparison. The one who poses the question has more sublime matters in mind and cannot but emphasize his disappointment.

This question, so totally fraught-with-meaning, must be very popular in today’s left. That is, with a left that simply conceives of itself as a colorful hodgepodge of morally pure people and which as the left – but this goes with along it – is unsuccessful. With this supposed unity, a completely empty claim is laid on the other members of this community, which assumes a common purpose. And if one was not unsuccessful then one would also not have to constantly discuss with others about what they do for “the cause” – one would just do what one could. Meanwhile, the reasons for the lack of success could easily be detected, and as a consequence of this, the striving for a common cause would reveal itself as nothing but cheap self-adulation. But no, this left simply cannot imagine that its mission could possibly be a waste of time; and still less can it imagine that this is its own fault. But least of all can it imagine that the posing of stupid questions is also a rather fundamental method of not concerning oneself with the circumstances one is facing.

Therefore, the end of this kind of discussion is always the “suggestion” – which is actually a reproach because everyone knows we think nothing of it – to abstain from “destructive criticism of others” and instead: let’s stick together! So after ignoring the lack of success and its reasons, the order is issued: do something! This reproach/suggestion therefore does not insist that this or that must be done, but is rather a veneration of activity qua activity, which as such may not be attacked. Contrary to his initial approach, the critic who poses this question is actually quite content with the present state of affairs: there are movements and all the time “something” is happening.

This practice, which consists of not opposing capitalism and the bourgeois state, but rather in simply asbtractly upholding the justification of one’s own causes and thinking up purely symbolic actions for them which are not at all meant to accomplish anything, gives way to the reverse argument: anybody who does not take part in this poor self-conception of the left – whose most distinguished task consists in leading the debates about it – makes himself guilty of three crimes:

– doing nothing

– being divisive

– propagating/spreading resignation

Go ahead then if you please: unify Pax Christie and the Red Army Faction; that will certainly keep you busy with “something” to “do”! Defeat the powers that rule the world in the ballot box and in Mururoa Atoll! Devise sensible methods to go beyond the realm of agitation! Do stupid and pointless things! Keep at it, so that the resignation which is constantly spoken of does not overtake you (by the way: it’s been there a long time, and you love it) – but stop comparing us with your world-historical mission of “the left.”

– MSZ Editors