Looking back: A self-critique

It’s never easy to look yourself in the mirror and own up to your mistakes. For a long time, I balked at the very idea. Part of it felt too reminiscent of Stalinist/Maoist self-criticism, in its ritualized form of самокритика or autocritique. Whenever a person demands that someone else “self-crit” online, the image that most readily comes to mind is that of medieval flagellants — lashing their own backs while begging forgiveness for their sins. Quite often it feels forced and insincere, as if the people who yield to the demand are just going through the motions in order to be quickly absolved and be done with the matter as soon as possible.

But another reason I refrained from public self-criticism is that my views change rather gradually, to the point where I only notice that I’ve changed my mind well after the fact. Sometimes I think a certain degree of stubbornness can be a virtue, insofar as it means you stick to your guns and don’t just bend in the direction of a shifting wind. Other times, however, it is clearly a vice, especially when you are in the wrong. Even then, when I recognize that I no longer hold my former position on a given issue, I am reluctant to announce that this is the case. Not because I’m unwilling to admit I was wrong, but because I’d prefer to demonstrate this through my actions moving forward instead of dwelling on the past.

Unfortunately, though — or maybe fortunately, for those who like to keep score — the internet has a long memory. I’ve certainly said plenty of stupid shit in my time, things I either regret or simply don’t agree with anymore. There were things I shouldn’t have said, situations I should have handled differently, arguments I should’ve considered more carefully before posting or tweeting or whatnot. You can probably find evidence of them if you look hard enough. Really it shouldn’t even be that hard, as I have not made much of an effort to scrub Twitter or other social media of dumb controversies I’ve been involved in (unless someone specifically asked me to take something down).

Perhaps it would help to be a little more concrete. Just to give one example of something I’ve changed my mind on, or have rather come to a better understanding of, take trans struggles. When debates over gender fluidity first came up several years ago, I knew virtually nothing about the issues trans people have had to deal with. I’m still far from an expert, obviously, but to get a sense of how ignorant I was at the time, I only learned what the prefix “cis-” meant around 2013. Before then, I had no idea what any of it meant. Or really what a whole host of related terms signified. By late 2014 or early 2015 I’d rethought my views.

Much of the discourse on this topic, to be fair, was pretty new back then. And it’s still evolving, though it seems to have stabilized a bit. Regardless, I could’ve done more to learn about it before shooting my mouth off or weighing in on the matter. For example, when Facebook introduced its exhaustive list of fifty-six new gender options four or five years ago, I poked fun at it on social media, since I figured the more customizable taxonomy was introduced so Zuckerberg would have more data about the users of his website to sell to ad agencies. Looking back, I don’t think what I said was too egregious or intentionally hurtful, but probably came off as insensitive all the same. 

There’s still a lot of work I have to do on this, I realize. Often I forget someone’s preferred pronoun (they/them is especially hard for me to get used to, for whatever reason) but would never purposely misgender anyone. Please, if I’ve fucked up, just let me know and I will make every effort not to repeat the mistake. Back when I started to read about the debate within feminism between trans-exclusionary radfems and transfeminists, it seemed a really trivial thing to get hung up about. I even sympathized at first with the radfems, who insisted that people were just “language policing” them and looking to shut down open debate.

Years of seeing the bad faith engagements, if not outright bigotry, by transphobic radfems has erased any sympathy I might have had with them. At this point, the radical feminists who oppose measures like the bathroom bill — allowing trans individuals to use bathrooms in accordance with the gender they identify — are indistinguishable from evangelical Christians. I do think some of the rhetoric used by trans activists can seem overly aggressive and off-putting, particularly to those who are unfamiliar with the terms of the debate, but I have no patience left for TERF ideologues committed to baiting trans people under the pretext of having a dialogue.

Julian Vigo and Meghan Murphy are odious figures, while Michael Rectenwald and Spencer Sturdevant are just out-and-out reactionaries. The former pair insist they are “human rights consultants” and feminist lawyers, while the latter pair present themselves as freethinkers challenging the thought-taboos of the Left. Even those with more leftist credentials succumb to this crap, though. Paul Cockshott is a well-known Marxian economist, to provide a further example, but lately all he seems able to do is bang on about homosexuality and “transgenderism” on his blog. Christine Delphy is a noted materialist feminist, with several translations of her works put out by Verso, but on her blog at least she is busy repping Julie Bindel and Murphy of late.

Nevertheless, I still think articulating a materialist critique of identity politics is a crucial task for revolutionary Marxists today. Despite its status as a bugbear for rightwing types, who associate it with “cultural Marxism,” it remains one of the chief ideological obstacles to building workers’ power today. Of course, it will not do to simply replace one form of identity politics with another, say vulgar workerism, as this is in many ways the Urform of every identitarianism that came later. And we must take pains, in our critiques of identity politics, not to echo reactionary talking-points. Here an old distinction might prove useful: i.e., the notion of criticizing something “from the left” versus “from the right.”

So I am certainly not disavowing everything I’ve ever written or argument I’ve ever made. J. Sakai’s Settlers is still a bad book, even if I appreciate some of the stuff he has written about contemporary fascism. “Decolonial theory” is still mostly academic crap. Contemporary art still mostly sucks and art in general needs to be abolished. I hope I’m not just going soft, but I don’t have an appetite for controversy like I did when I was younger. Polemic is still necessary at times, but perhaps more sparingly than in the past. Online drama is mostly idiotic, and gets in the way of the vital work that needs to be done, so I sincerely apologize to anyone I’ve offended and hope to be better.

17 thoughts on “Looking back: A self-critique

  1. I read it, I didn’t get it. Why apologize? Changing our minds is a good thing. As for transgenderism, a materialist would see it as a matter of objective truth, not a political stance. How we (I) treat individuals is another matter, but no one should try to tell me a rock is a frog, and be able to get away with it.

  2. Dear Ross,

    As you might recall, in past commentary on this site I’ve tried to be true to some of my own core beliefs while either criticizing or lauding certain of your positions. My political journey started in the campus anti-war movement in Canada in the sixties and ended when I left the Trotskyist League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere in the seventies because of their lukewarm support for the nascent gay liberation movement into which I had started to pour my energies. Rightly so I believed given my earlier whole-hearted commitment to various other causes of the left.

    One thing I did learn from the never ending Trotskyist tendency towards factionalism and splits (mergers too), was the hubris involved in each tendency’s belief that they now held the true gospel of St. Trotsky and, therefore, the rest must be heretics to be ignored, shunned or fought tooth and nail. How did that all turn out? Well, there are dozens of “Trotskyist” groupscules around the world with barely a scintilla of influence in the world of realpolitik. The American SWP which provided important leadership in the anti-Vietnam war movement has morphed into a cult of personality.

    All that just a lead-in to, if I may, my affectionate salute to your mild self-flagellation. I too came to a similar point of view quite some time ago, probably at about your age today. That is I will argue as best I can for my strongly held beliefs, based on what I’ve coined as an unrequited love of humanity; but grumpily acknowledge reality when it turns out my analysis is lacking or dead wrong. Given the state of the world today I think your penitential political codfish and humble barrel of oysters sent to us, your usually admiring followers and sometimes critics, will be received with the same grace and honesty in which it is given. Thank you.

  3. I am usually hostile to the Ross Wolfe Persona, but I must say that recognizing former mistakes and missteps is something courageous to be taken into consideration

  4. Will you also, at any point, address whether you’ve grown less misogynistic (do you regret, for example, the public comments you made about your ex)? I appreciated you and your blog, as a Marxist woman, until I read those comments, about her appearance, and then further about your shame, and felt very sick. Your insults may have felt justified in the context of your relationship, but making commentary like that public has a chilling effect on comradeship and solidarity. While I agree with the critique of Federici published on your blog (“Federici Versus Marx”), she has a wonderful set of lines in her book Revolution at Point Zero:

    We hate it because we know that so much depends on it. On how our body looks depends whether we can get a good or bad job (in marriage or out of the home), whether we can gain some social power, some company to defeat the loneliness that awaits us in our old age and often in our youth as well. And we always fear our body may turn against us, we may get fat, get wrinkles, age fast, make people indifferent to us, lose our right to intimacy, lose our chance of being touched or hugged.

    This ideology is wielded against women in a brutal way, to which it seems you were at least still partially attached 4 years ago. Have you changed? Will you change?

    • Yes, I’d be happy to address that.

      The post to which you refer was indeed absolutely appalling, and I regret having written it. It was mean-spirited, low, and misogynistic, as you point out. A few months after it was posted, I deleted it and issued a public apology. More importantly, at least in my opinion, I apologized to my ex in private for saying such shitty things about her.

      Still, I could have perhaps done more to convey just how sorry I am for that episode. What I wrote and how I behaved at the time was utterly shameful. I sincerely hope I have changed for the better, but there is always room for improvement. Please let me know if I ever say anything insulting, insensitive, or out of line again.

      Thanks for that quote as well. Federici sat near me at a talk George Caffentzis gave at Woodbine in NYC last month and helped answer a question I asked.

  5. I’m sure “A” may have done hurt to others in her time, regardless of their gender or former relationship to her, notwithstanding the very high horse from which she speaks. Unless you’re a Shi’ite Muslim whose acolytes take self-flagellation seriously, please let’s do future contrition in private. Most of what Ross and the commentariat on this thread have to say (and, yes, often enough quite politically off the mark) do not worry. Nothing we say here for perceived good or ill has any effect whatsoever in the world of Realpolitik.

    • Brian,

      I don’t think her conduct is in question, nor is it relevant to the issue she raises. What “A” brings up here is a post from several years ago where I said some awful things about an ex, for which I am deeply sorry. Please don’t intervene on my behalf in this matter.

    • Brian, as a reader of Ross’s blog it’s relevant to me what views he holds & how he has or hasn’t changed, which is literally the topic of this post. We have no personal relationship, so all of my knowledge of Ross is made from what he chooses to say publicly, for good or for ill. My question was genuine, not in bad faith, and also a difficult and painful one for me to pose — it’s the first time I’ve been moved to comment here. It does seem hard, however, for you to hear Ross offering an apology.

  6. My point was obviously poorly made. Now I am being excoriated by both Ross and “A” as some kind of misogynist enabler of views made in haste and anger by Ross four years ago. I am accused of not wanting Ross to apologize. Let me state categorically, neither intimation is true.

    If you read my first post here, you will see that I do have issues with the efficacy of public self-criticism as a vehicle for political growth. Your comrades and fellow activists will be aware of such developments. And what if the self-criticism has been coerced by malevolent forces within your political fold which happened in Mao’s China? And, of course, I do recognize how the personal becomes the political, particularly in the context of the patriarchal society in which we live and the misogyny it engenders.

    As for the personal, first and foremost must be the apologies and amends made to the recipient(s) (there have been many in my own life) of our cruel words or actions with hopes that they will have the good grace to receive them. And, if you’ve had the misfortune of taking your private failures public, you end up here where Ross has honestly and forthrightly re-iterated his shame for words and actions past. I’d not heard of this before and thought Ross’s worst failing to date has been his animus towards Castro’s Cuba.

    My inference that “A”s commentary was being made from a high horse was immaterial to the discussion at hand, unnecessary and mean-spirited, and I’m sorry for that.

  7. Now that at last (better tan never, I suppose) it’s considered that Michael Rectenwald is “an out-and-out reactionary”, what’s your opinión on Angela “closed borders” Nagle, James “libertarian laughing stock” Heartfield and his Friends from Spiked and Douglas Lain and his Zero Books??

    • The thing with Rectenwald came sort of out of the blue, at least to me. Looking back maybe I should have seen it coming.

      With Nagle it’s a bit different. I read Kill All Normies and thought it was maybe a decent intro to the subject, albeit horribly edited, mediocre but not bad. Matthew Lyons’ writings on the alt-Right were infinitely more informative.

      Obviously I find Nagle’s “case against open borders” abhorrent, but the logic of her argument isn’t all that different from Corbyn or Sanders. A lot of the people who despise her for making that “case” love Corbyn and Sanders.

      The problem, as I see it, isn’t that she’s a Strasserite or whatnot. It’s that she’s a social democrat.

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