Who are the real extremists?

Seattle activist Steve Leigh looks at what's described as "extremism" by the mainstream--and why it turns out that those ideas are often threatening to the status quo. Reposted from SocialistWorker.org
I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist for love--"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you"...Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist--"This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist--"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
-- Martin Luther King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
IN THE wake of the tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., the media and the politicians have all been calling for a new "civility" in political debate. They have all denounced "extremism," which they connect with violence. But what is "extremism"? Is it really the cause of the problems that plague U.S. politics?

At its simplest, political extremism is just a set of ideas that is extremely different than the status quo. It is any political vision at considerable variance from the way the world is today.

Calling a solution or set of ideas "extremist" is considered the ultimate slam in politics in almost any age. To call something extremist is to take it off the table of rational political debate. As with other forms of name-calling, it replaces rational consideration of ideas with dismissive labeling. But if we look at it logically, calling something "extremist" should not be a value judgment.

Any idea, either extremist or moderate, can be good or bad.

What is extremist or moderate varies from age to age and place to place. Before the Revolutionary War, in 1770, anyone who called for independence from Great Britain, was a raging extremist, rebel and dangerous person. Yet by 1781, anyone wanting to go back under British rule would have been considered a traitor. In 1855, abolitionists were seen as crazy extremists. Yet by 1865, anyone wanting to restore slavery would have been called a hopeless reactionary.

In 1965, demanding immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam was beyond the pale of standard political debate. Yet by 1968, most people were for full withdrawal and, in 1975, the U.S. was out of Vietnam. In 1968, the issue of abortion was laughed at when raised in the presidential campaign. Yet by 1973, abortion rights had been legalized in the U.S.

Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--who every politician now claims to venerate--was called a "trouble maker" and extremist, and was constantly harassed by the FBI. Examples like these could fill volumes.

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SO WHY is "extremism" always denounced and vilified by the press, the pundits and the politicians? Karl Marx explained this well over 100 years ago. He said, "The ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class"-- the owners of the economy and their political representatives. Marx did not think that ruling class control of ideas was automatic. It had to be fought for using the "press, the pulpit" and the politicians.

Vilifying extremism is one way for them to keep control of what ideas are considered reasonable and practical. Extremism is a set of ideas way out of line with what the ruling class thinks and ideas that don't defend its current economic and political interests.

The limits of what is considered moderate or reasonable and what is considered extremist is simply what set of ideas large sections of the ruling class accept at any given time. Just as "standard American English grammar" is the way the upper class speaks, standard American politics is what the rulers believe.

In the U.S. today, the rulers accept conservative and liberal ideas to one degree or another. Some sections lean more conservative, some more liberal. But the ruling class as a whole rejects anything beyond that "mainstream."

Socialism or even social democracy (like the former welfare states of Europe) are considered by the ruling class as extremist. Though capitalists always rule using repression as well as persuasion, today in the U.S., they don't see the need for a fascist or Nazi dictatorship---so sections of the hard right are also called "extremist." (Though as the ruling class has shifted rightward politically, some formerly extremist right-wing ideas are now recast as "moderate.")

So at root, the denunciation of extremism is often simply the reverse side of the advocacy of conservatism.
According to this logic, if extreme changes are not needed, then the status quo is fundamentally okay and should be conserved. If you advocate extreme changes, you are by definition beyond the pale of reasonable debate.

This attack on extremism is just one way to drive people toward the political center, toward acceptance of ruling class ideas and values. It is a way to make social movements less radical, challenging and effective. To the extent that social movements accept this, they are defanged, co-opted and become less threatening to the rulers.

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WHAT DOES extremism have to do with violence? It depends on what kind of extremism we are talking about.

The goal of Marxists is the self-emancipation of the working class. The project we are engaged in is fundamentally democratic. It cannot be achieved by forcing or deceiving the vast majority. It therefore does not depend on violence against ordinary people. It abhors the idea of terrorism against the population.

Marxism, however, is for vigorous defense of working-class interests. Sometimes that will mean self-defense against the repression of the rulers and their agents. Labor struggles throughout U.S. history have been violently suppressed by bosses and their government. Workers have often had to resort to physical resistance.

The extremists on the right, on the other hand, depend on tricking, coercing and terrorizing the population into accepting a repressive/oppressive regime against the interests of the vast majority. Violence and violent rhetoric is an integral part of their program--as attacks on abortion clinics and providers, the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building and the tragedy in Tucson show.

There is a profound hypocrisy and irony in the press and politicians denouncing extremists as violent. Through most phases of history, far more violence has been done by so-called "moderates" than by so-called "extremists." By definition, in almost every case, it is moderates who are in power--since whatever rules is proclaimed to be the new moderate, sensible center.

In U.S. history, it was "moderates" who enslaved Africans, annihilated Native Americans, suppressed union organizing and invaded Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Haiti, Nicaragua and Mexico. It was moderates, not extremists, who started the First and Second World Wars, invaded Korea and Vietnam and bombed, invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

The moderate status quo of capitalist politics in the world is responsible for millions of deaths from starvation and malnutrition every year as well as thousands more from preventable industrial accidents.

People fighting for progressive social change should not be deterred by the charge of being "extremist." When we decide what political ideas and strategies to embrace, the criterion should not be whether they are moderate or extremist, but whether they are effective.

The key questions should always be: Do these ideas further the interests of ordinary working people, or of the bosses? Will this strategy or tactic help build the movement for progressive social change? Will this approach increase the confidence of workers to fight back against exploitation? Will this stance reduce the divisions among us by helping to overcome racism, sexism and homophobia?

In an age where homelessness, lack of health care, deteriorating education, slaughter of civilians abroad in our name, foreclosures and unemployment, racism and sexism, and intensified austerity are all considered the "norm," real solutions will often be called "extreme" by the press and politicians.

If we understand that the interests of ordinary people are in extreme opposition to the interests of the owners of society, we won't run from the label of extremist. Instead, we will embrace it!