Monday, February 18, 2013

Peer Groups, not Propaganda Groups?

My attempt at a juvenile biography of Rosa Luxemburg may end up being one of the shortest things I have ever written, in terms of word count, but the research I intend to do to make sure I get it right will be no less arduous for that. As part of that, I am revisiting J.P. Nettl's two-volume biography of her--a book that, due to the implicit political attitudes of the author, I had difficulty working my way through in my college days, when I was a fairly doctrinaire Trotskyist. The following passage is one that I likely did not read well the first time around, but which has deeper significance for me now:
"The Polish Social Democrats (SDKPiL), that small body of intellectual activists who broke out of the main Polish Socialist Party (PPS) in 1893, a year after it had been founded, was much more than a mere doctrinaire sect. This Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania was a group of intellectual peers long before it became a political party. It provided its members with all the attributes of a primary group, an association which all the other émigrés lacked--a family, an ideology, a discipline, in short a constant and reliable source of strength.... The discipline was largely voluntary and was confined to public action; for the rest, it left large areas of freedom and choice to the participants, even room for profound intellectual disagreements.... Trotsky, with all his friends, admirers and disciples, never had the benefit of a peer group; hence his difficulty in building a following before the revolution and the fragility of his political support after 1923." (v. 1, pp. 22-23)

In a footnote to this paragraph, he explicates further:

"A peer group is a sociological term denoting a latent relationship among a group of people of roughly similar age and outlook, whose opinion is of particular importance with reference to one's own. Thus it is intended to express both the concept of reference group as well as convey a group source of ideological and moral strength, but not to imply a sense of conformity strong enough to subsume self-made decisions...."

Regardless of the historical accuracy (or not) of this passage as a description of the SDKPiL, or as a psycho-social cause for Trotsky's difficulties after Lenin's death, as a description of a radical political peer group it is a reasonable summary of some of what I think is needed right now.

So if nothing else, this project will serve the purpose of forcing me to re-read, more attentively, some things I might not have been equipped to understand two decades years ago.

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