Thoughts on Friendship, Comradeship, and Political Work

I’ve been thinking about the relation between friendship and comradeship recently. My thoughts are informed by my participation in student activism and political activism more broadly (particularly in the Labour Party).

To begin with, it’s clear that we’re discussing two distinct categories that may or may not overlap. We have friends, those we are socially and emotionally connected to; and we have comrades, those we perform political work with; and some people we know might fall into both categories. These relationships should all preferably be governed by mutual respect and civility, but there is an important difference in their purposes; that is, friendship is aligned to one set of goals and comradeship to another. This can lead to potential difficulties insofar as our relationships with those who are our friends and comrades can be strained as a result of the encroachment of one set of goals against the other.

The end of political action, and therefore comradeship, is power;[1] the ends of friendship are multifaceted but might be summarised as leisure, mutual support, and personal development (this list could surely go on). How do these differences bear on the potentially antagonistic relation between friendship and comradeship?

Comradeship requires exacting standards of argument. If you and your comrades believe that you’re engaged in serious political work which will have a tangible human impact, you have a duty to organise yourselves in the most effective way possible, devise the most effective strategy, and pursue the most effective tactics. These discussions are not easy. They’re more often highly complicated, nuanced, and coloured by their moral consequence. It’s therefore probable that disagreements, indeed passionate disagreements, will arise in the course of such conversations—that’s to be expected of politics. And it’s through such disagreements that we see the antagonism between friendship and comradeship emerge: we want to preserve the feelings of our friends, we want always to be kind and gracious toward them. But comradeship necessitates a different approach: it entails firmness, sharp criticism, and rigorous intellectual engagement between people, at least when it comes to important matters. I think there are two objections that are likely to be raised on this point.

First, isn’t it possible for us to critique each other while maintaining our friendships? Can’t we be kind and rigorous simultaneously? Second, isn’t infighting on the left an enormous problem? Shouldn’t we be productively building on areas of agreement instead of nit-picking and hair-splitting?

My answer to the first objection is that it’s certainly possible for us to critique each other while maintaining our friendships, but that’s sometimes dependent on factors outside our control. A perfectly civil yet robust criticism of a comrade’s political position can easily translate into hurt feelings on the receiving end, regardless of intent. As J.S. Mill wrote long ago of those who find their opinions attacked, ‘experience testifies that … offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.’[2] If we want to be able to have friends who are also comrades, we should be prepared to accept that attacks on our opinions are not attacks on ourselves or our character instead of needlessly conflating the two. We should also be prepared to accept that forceful arguments (as opposed to abusive language or ad hominem attacks) are not equivalent to intimidation or silencing others in a group. To be clear, progressive political activism should be welcoming. There are far too many urgent crises facing humanity— and far too much apathy—for us to turn those who sincerely want a better world away. Equally, however, political activism should have its own etiquette—comradeship ought to be abstracted from the conventions of friendship to a degree. When we enter the arena of debate on controversial questions, it should be understood that frankness is the norm, and that the bitingly honest exchange of ideas is nothing other than a sign of mutual respect. To ignore others by refusing to confront their ideas head on, or to deliberately weaken the argumentative force of your reply for fear of hurting their feelings, is to patronise your interlocutor. Being kind (as distinct from civil) in debate might be preferable, if it can be done without weakening the argument, but kindness might not always be possible or even a reasonable expectation depending on the topic of discussion and the personalities involved.

A corollary of the moral imperative to be truthful in political debate is that it may at times be necessary to criticise a comrade for their political failings. They might regularly shirk their responsibilities within an organisation, even after friendly reminders or admonishment; or they might fulfil their responsibilities incompetently and refuse to learn or seek help. In a democratic organisation this conduct should be honestly and openly scrutinised. It may hurt the subject of criticism in the short-run, but in the long-run might be integral to the functioning of a consequential political campaign. Scrutiny doesn’t mean invective and bullying, but it’s still a question whether someone who has failed the group would be willing to maintain their friendship with those criticising them, especially when political failings might be intertwined with personal failings. It’s not that friendship and comradeship share no properties—they do. But they can’t be approached in exactly the same way. 

My answer to the second objection is that we must distinguish constructive disagreement from infighting. There is such a thing as unproductive infighting: personality clashes, gossip, slanders, sophistry, and so forth. But it seems to me that too often substantive intellectual differences are dismissed on the basis that they represent ‘infighting’, when in reality the dismissal is intended to evade the hard work of engaging with the ideas. We should hope that the political left is the site of fierce debate and discussion. It means that we are refining our positions to conform to truth, and our strategy and tactics to conform to political exigencies. In my view, one of the problems of the contemporary left is that too much of our dialogue takes place on platforms like Twitter, which necessarily constrains nuance and critical thinking. It’s not the debate that we should oppose per se, but the sorry condition of the debate.

Of course the other danger of proscribing discussion, whether through formal mechanisms or the stifling effects of prevailing opinion, is that it turns political organisations into cults based on sloganeering and prejudice instead of democratic bodies based on the search for truth.

Comrades should, like friends, be civil with one another; comrades should, like friends, support each other; and comrades should, like friends, display mutual respect. But comrades also have a duty to be honest with one another, and more forcefully honest and argumentative than we might be with our friends. This duty is imposed by the outsized moral significance of political work. If your friends are also your comrades, be ready to clearly separate these two identities, and thus do your best to avoid transforming strong political disagreements into interpersonal conflicts.

Talal Hangari

28/11/21


[1] This statement on its own might sound sinister, but power in itself is neither good nor bad. It’s how power is wielded that should concern us: for good or ill?

[2] J.S. Mill, On Liberty (1859). 

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