Thursday, December 23, 2010

The rhetoric of the preamble

Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)
(RCP Publications, Print, October 2010, $8 from Revolution Books)

  1. Introduction
  2. Republic or democracy?
  3. The Preamble
    1. Rhetoric
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

One can criticize the United States Constitution on a number of grounds, not the least of which is that the Constitution perpetually privileges the capitalist ruling class, albeit indirectly. But one cannot criticize the US Constitution on rhetorical grounds, and its preamble, despite (or perhaps because of) its transparent simplicity, is a masterpiece of rhetoric.

Any society, if it is to be a society with a distinct identity, must have some way of speaking with one voice. The purpose of a Constitution is to define what constitutes that voice, what we can and cannot say with that voice, and how the people are bound to that voice as members of the society. In a time of crisis — such as the imminent failure of the Articles of Confederation or after a communist revolution — a proposal for a new voice must be sold to the population. Any state must maintain at least the passive cooperation of the people; Even the most brutal and oppressive state must still establish the instruments of oppression: the loyalty of the army and police, which must come from the people. As we have seen time and again, even the most oppressive states have fallen when the people are no longer willing or able to cooperate. A candidate state that resolves to end brutality and oppression must therefore pay even more attention to selling its voice. It must gain not just the passive but the active cooperation of the people, not just their acquiescence but their enthusiasm.

I am learning from my experience as a writing tutor that the most important part of any persuasive writing is the hook. The very first sentence must make the reader want to read your paper. If you do everything else exactly correctly but your hook is lifeless, limp, boring, you cannot hope to persuade the reader: She will not be motivated to critically engage in your arguments; she will read it "at a distance" without bothering to link it to her own opinions and attitudes.

Hence the rhetorical brilliance of the preamble to the US Constitution. It gets across two of the three aims of the Constitution quickly, simply and compellingly. First, the voice of society is the voice of the people*. We the people — not the King, not God — ordain and establish the Constitution. And the people speak with this voice "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility," and so forth. These phrases are of course vague as to what specifically constitutes a "perfect union", "justice", etc., but it's important to note that they are not at all vague in the sense that these are things we definitely want. The preamble to the US Constitution definitely "hooks" the reader: it at least offers what we want; the reader is motivated to critically engage with the material.

*At least in theory. In practice, of course, the voice of American society has always been the voice of the economic ruling class, first the slave-owning class, then various capitalist classes. But I'm talking about rhetoric, not substance.

There's a lot of good substance in the preamble to the RCP Constitution, but in contrast to the preamble to the US Constitution, the rhetoric is limpid and boring. I speak with all due humility: I myself am an incompetent rhetorician; indeed I fancy myself an expert at rhetorical incompetence. I can't offer any advice on how to write it, but I know what I want to read: I want to read something uplifting, something that makes me eager with anticipation to join this great new project. There's a time and a place for all the complications and qualifications of communist social and political theory, but the preamble to a draft constitution is not that place. There was no need in the US Constitution to quote Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau; there's no need to quote Marx and Lenin in a communist Constitution.

The best advice I can give is to lay out the positives simply and clearly: We are going to transform society to bring about true justice, true democracy; we are going to end the systemic oppression of the working class, of racial and ethnic minorities, of non-English cultures, and most especially of women. We are going to bring about not just political democracy, not just political justice, but economic democracy and justice. No longer will the oppression of the capitalist ruling class be able to hide behind the fiction of economic necessity. And — in line with my earlier comments — be explicit: are we establishing a democracy? A republic? A one-party state? A benevolent dictatorship? Whatever form of government is proposed, you're not going to sell it if people don't know what it is. If one were (entirely hypothetically) to think a benevolent dictatorship of a person or a party were necessary, come right out and say so; obfuscation doesn't sell. (And if one were (not just hypothetically but contra-factually) intending to actually deceive the people, obfuscation belongs in the small print of the contract, not the sales brochure.)

If your first sentence, or even your first clause is not compelling, you will lose half your readers. (Hence the preamble to the US Constitution begins with the phrase "We the People", itself stirring, novel and engaging.) If the first paragraph is not compelling, you will lose half of what's left. And if you don't say everything you have to say in two or three paragraphs, you will again lose half. If you don't intend to sell the people on the Constitution, there's no need to keep them, but a people under the grudging acquiescence of a superior constitution will be worse off than a people who enthusiastic embrace an inferior constitution.

Rhetoric matters. The RCP can write to its long-time membership, but I don't believe they can communicate with the people at large. Whether they view this inability as a problem, and how to correct it if they do view it as a problem, is up to them.

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