On Political Slogans

January 4, 2023

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On Political Slogans (Jan 2, 2023)


It’s something of an enigma how to formulate a political slogan.  In the classic era of (revolutionary and reformist) European socialism at the turn of the 20th century, slogans traced back to a Marxist schema of successive historical epochs.  Socialist movements in those countries aspiring to enter the modern capitalist world put forth demands such as convening a “constituent assembly” (to replace absolutism), universal and equal suffrage as well as the secret ballot, the eight-hour working-day, freedom of speech and assembly, and a people’s militia.  These were the necessary and inevitable slogans in a “bourgeois” revolution.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the revolutionary left sought to address a new stage of capitalism marked by the emergence of militarism and imperialism climaxing in World War I.  Declaring it a capitalist-imperialist war in which the proletariat had no stake, the Luxemburgs and Lenins put forth the slogan, “the main enemy is at home.”


It’s rare nowadays that leftist political movements thus reason through political slogans. Alas, no agreed-upon political framework has superseded the Marxist tradition.  The absence of such a framework has been painfully apparent in the current failure of so-called progressives to think through the Ukraine war. There is, as the expression has it, no daylight between Biden-Pelosi and Bernie-AOC.  The inability to formulate political slogans was also palpable in the demonstrations after George Floyd’s murder.  The most popular slogan in New York City was “NYPD [New York Police Department], Suck My Dick!”[1]  This slogan was not just juvenile, it was also counter-productive.  “In times of revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote:


when the cause of the fighting proletariat has become the cause of all working people, the cause of all the oppressed and exploited, in that situation there awakens in the heart of the soldier his feelings as a citizen, the son of the people, the proletarian.Those who in their thinking oppose the present-day military as an unchangeable hostile force to the people’s revolution forget that the revolution draws the military itself into its whirlpool; they forget that behind the external noise and alarm of revolutionary struggle is hidden its most powerful, and socially and historically its most important, side, the political-educational work of the revolution.And this work becomes fulfilled not only among the mass of the working class but also in the broader strata of the population, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and also among that part of the masses who are dressed in the “king’s uniform.” (“The Solution to the Problem,” 1905)


Police departments are no longer—at any rate, in urban areas—the racist bastions they once were.  Their class, ethnic, and sex composition more or less reflects the population at large.  Even as the George Floyd demonstrators rightly manifested their outrage and resolve, it was not smart to gratuitously alienate those who could potentially be won over.  Not (yet) by getting them to quit, let alone switch sides, but by fanning the instinctive embers of moral sympathy with their oppressed brethren, which is the “most important … political-educational work” in preparing the ground for future reckonings.[2]  


[1] In my forthcoming book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It, I address the slogans of “Defund the police!” and prison abolitionism, so I won’t repeat myself here. 

[2] The corollary demand occasionally heard in the demonstrations that the police “take the knee” was no less ill-advised as it was designed not to win them over but, instead, to humiliate them.