Is discipline a good thing?

I'm part of a political group called the Black Orchid Collective, and recently we've been doing a study group on revolutionary theory and biographies. For the past few weeks we’ve been reading Black Radical, Nelson Peery’s memoirs from his years in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and similar organizations. Peery, a Black working class revolutionary who devoted his life to Black liberation and class struggle, writes a gripping account of the twenty year period between World War II and the Watts Rebellion. Showing the mistakes the Communist Party made, this book provides some crucial insights about what kind of revolutionary organization fosters healthy development of its members, and what kind of organization stifles its members. For more on the book, check out our blog post on it.

One of the most important questions that emerged from our discussion was the question: is discipline a good thing? Peery had been a veteran in World War II, and he carried the discipline he learned in the military into his life as a revolutionary after the war. Over at Black Orchid, we wrote:

We really admire the discipline that [Peery] espoused while recognizing that there were probably a number of negative aspects to it. This is very much related to our ongoing questions of what type of person is required to be cadre in a revolutionary organization. The Bolsheviks were soldiers. Is it too much to ask people to be soldiers right now? Is it unsustainable? Is it unreflective of our times? Does a revolutionary organization have to conform to the times in which it finds itself, and develop member expectations accordingly?

Our current society isn’t producing people with high levels of discipline and commitment to revolution. But this could change fast if things heat up. Back in Peery’s day, it was very uneven: the experience of WWII vets produced a lot of highly disciplined and motivated Black militants. The white working class, on the other hand, was experiencing upward mobility. Society produced very few disciplined white militants. That’s not the case for white working class now. That might mean more of a chance for highly disciplined multiracial organizing.

We also want to know how can we talk about discipline that’s not authoritarian? It might be useful to reclaim discipline with a Marxist-Humanist character, embracing creativity, love, and joy. You have a purpose because it makes you feel good, and because the struggle deepens your connection to humanity.

Katie and Scott from the Workers Self Education Project shared their thoughts on this topic in the comments section over at Black Orchid. I'm reposting their comments here because I think they shed light on how we can develop a revolutionary spirituality today. Katie wrote:

Discipline comes from learning that one’s actions have consequences. (The word “discipline” is from the Latin for “teaching” – the consequences are what do the teaching!) This can take the form of reward and punishment, so that becoming disciplined is akin to being trained like a dog. But it may also be that one’s actions have consequences for something other than oneself that one begins to care about – for another person, for learning an art or skill, for some common endeavor, or for a cause. When one realizes this, really feels it or sees it in practice, then the process of becoming disciplined isn’t just imposed from the outside. Rather, it is internally motivated by a larger aim – learning the skill, or not letting others down, or whatever. This is clearly a better kind of discipline!

It sounds like Nelson Peery’s experiences in the war instilled in him both kinds of discipline. On the one hand, he was at the bottom of an authoritarian power structure, expected to follow orders without asking questions. On the other hand, he and his fellow soldiers depended on each other for survival, and they also felt they were fighting for higher ideals such as democracy.

As you say, “our current society isn’t producing people with high levels of discipline and commitment” – not just to revolution, but to anything. Capitalism has made it extremely easy to live a life in which one’s actions don’t really have consequences. As a worker, you are replaceable. Relationships are transient – you can always move on to the next person. Immigrants with families still have discipline; so do the few workers who really want to claw their way to the top. The rest of us, lacking traditional responsibilities and having nothing particularly enticing to work toward, feel that we could pretty much disappear off the face of the earth with little effect. Why bother to cultivate discipline? Discipline toward what end? Of course, a life without consequences is also a life without meaning – and this is why, as you suggest, the end of upward mobility means “more of a chance for highly disciplined multiracial organizing” today. The problem is how to create an environment in which workers can begin to realize that maybe their actions can have meaningful consequences.

This is where I think community comes in, as they key to creating a culture of discipline that is not authoritarian. Here I am conceiving ‘community’ not as a ‘feeling’ but as a co-ordinated set of communistic projects that make workers’ lives better: living together, teaching and learning arts and skills, doing childcare, food preparation, etc. at a community-wide scale. In such projects, people’s actions really do have meaningful consequences – they have to work together, and they have to be reliable and committed, in order to succeed. And the results, the common goods and the feelings of solidarity that flow from these activities, are palpable. In this environment, social expectations will encourage discipline, but more importantly there will be things worth cultivating discipline for. This, I think, is how we can “reclaim discipline…embracing creativity, love, and joy”.

The life-affirming discipline learned in community can then carry over to class struggle – and here it will be an antidote to the fanaticism, the self-imposed authoritarian discipline, the willingness to sacrifice oneself and others to a merely abstract goal, that can come from conceiving all of one’s actions as directed toward ‘the revolution’. This isn’t to say that sacrifices won’t be necessary, just that they should be motivated by love (and guided by reason) rather than by the desperation that comes from having nothing worth living for. We need to have experience, real knowledge of the better world we are fighting for – because we’re not just going to win it, we have to build it.

Scott followed:

I’d like to submit a few words from radical psychoanalyst and humanist Erich Fromm. In the Art of Loving (1956) he writes:

“One might think that nothing is easier to learn for modern man than discipline. Does he not spend eight hours a day in a most disciplined way at a job which is strictly routinized? The fact, however, is that modern man has exceedingly little discipline outside of the sphere of work. When he does not work, hew wants to be lazy, to slouch, or to use a nicer word, to ‘relax.’ This very wish for laziness is largely a reaction against the routinization of life. Just because man is forced for eight hours a day to spend his energy for purposes not his own, in ways not his own, he rebels and his rebelliousness takes the form of an infantile self-indulgence. In addition, in the battle against authoritarianism he has become distrustful of all discipline, of than enforced by irrational authority, as well as of rational discipline imposed by himself. Without such discipline, however, life becomes shattered, chaotic, and lacks in concentration.”

The routinization of life under advanced capitalism, the spending of our time for a purpose alien to us as human beings and about which we have no say, produces an aversion to discipline and a lack of skill in practicing it. We are thus robbed of the opportunity for self-directed activity and self-mastery, which only come as a result of rational, non-exploitative discipline.

Later, in the same vein he writes:

“How does one practice discipline? Our grandfathers would have been much better equipped to answer this question. Their recommendation was to get up early in the morning, not to indulge in unnecessary luxuries, to work hard. This type of discipline had obvious shortcomings. It was rigid and authoritarian, was centered around the virtues of frugality and saving, and in many ways was hostile to life. But in reaction to this kind of discipline there has been an increasing tendency to be suspicious of any discipline, and to make undisciplined, lazy indulgence in the rest of one’s life the counterpart and balance for the routinized way of life imposed on us during the eight hours of work. To get up at a regular hour, to devote a regular amount of time during the day to activities such as meditating, reading, listening to music, walking; not to indulge in escapist activities like mystery stories and movies [and today one might add, video games], at least not beyond a certain minimum; not to overeat or overdrink are some obvious and rudimentary rules. It is essential, however, that discipline should not be practiced like a rule imposed on oneself from the outside, but that it becomes an expression of one’s own will; that it is felt as pleasant, and that one slowly accustoms oneself to a kind of behavior which one would eventually miss, if one stopped practicing it. It is one of the unfortunate aspects of our Western concept of discipline that its practice is supposed to be somewhat painful and only if it is painful can it be “good.” The East has recognized long ago that that which is good for man—for his body and for his soul—must also be agreeable, even though at the beginning some resistances must be overcome.”

Here is my response, which connects their comments to the type of spirituality I'm attempting to express through my writings on this blog:

Thanks Katie and Scott, your comments are really helpful, and I agree with what you’re arguing. You make Marx’s ideas in the 1844 Manuscripts (Alienated labor) concrete, accessible, and up to date. You also pull the ground out from under the kind of conservative critiques of modernity that I grew up around as a Catholic. Catholic critics are correct when they argue that modern life provides no positive vision of discipline and hence dissipates our energies and saps our creativity. However, they have no solution except for patriarchal, authoritarian, and repressive forms of spirituality and religion that bring us backwards instead of forwards. Your take on Fromm provides the basis for a different type of spirituality, one that unites the struggle for personal wholeness and positive self-discipline with the struggle against alienated capitalist labor. Instead of saying we should work hard and offer it up as a sacrifice, Fromm’s ideas suggest we should abolish alienated work, which then will allow us to abolish undisciplined, dissipated “play” so we can build a new type of human self-activity. This self activity would unite play and work into a creative whole, expressing our social humanity.