Michael Albert, Chris Cutrone, Stephen Duncombe, Brian Holmes
“After the failure of the 1960s New Left, the underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency, in a historical situation of heightened helplessness, became a self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation. Focused on the bureaucratic stasis of the Fordist, late 20th Century world, the Left echoed the destruction of that world by the dynamics of capital: neoliberalism and globalization.
The idea of a fundamental transformation became bracketed and, instead, was replaced by the more ambiguous notion of ‘resistance.’ The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted, or of the politics of the resistance involved.
‘Resistance’ is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by the dynamic heteronomous order of capital. ‘Resistance’ is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of capital and its reconstitution of possibilities for both domination and emancipation, of which the ‘resisters’ do not recognize that that they are a part.”
— Moishe Postone
“History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism”
(Public Culture¸ 18.1: 2006)
The following are excerpts from the transcript of a moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A on problems of strategies and tactics on the Left today, organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society. Panelists: Michael Albert (Z Magazine, author of Parecon: Life After Capitalism), Chris Cutrone (Platypus), Stephen Duncombe (Gallatin School of New York University, editor of Cultural Resistance Reader), Brian Holmes (Continental Drift and Université Tangente), and Marisa Holmes (new Students for a Democratic Society). The event took place in the Columbus auditorium of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on November 6, 2007.
Brian Holmes: I’m Brian Holmes, I’m a writer, a theorist, and I don’t represent anyone, I don’t belong to a party, but through my work I try to maintain a dialogue between artists, activists, philosophers, sociologists and economists. I work at a journal called Multitudes in France. This is involved with a sort of second life of an Italian formation known as Autonomia, or autonomy, which is definitely a post-party political formation, where people try to address the condition of workers in a flexibilized knowledge economy. That is, workers who no longer resemble in very many ways the condition of a proletariat, with a proletarian identity or a proletarian class consciousness, but who nonetheless find themselves subject to exploitation and even severe exploitation in the flexible economy. It’s a condition which clearly has its reality, a reality in a way prefigured over the last ten years, by what have become hundreds of thousands of activists using, broadly speaking, the vocabulary of Autonomia, known best in America through the writings of Tony Negri, but actually quite larger than that.
In all the activities that I’m involved with, I find that the fact of resistance is fundamental—so I don’t really recognize myself in the Postone quote. It seems that a left politics always begins in the concrete experience of resistance, growing out of two basic causes: one is necessity, when people are pushed up against the wall, when they have no other recourse they finds themselves in the position of resistance, which is a defense of one’s actual life, one’s vital energy and it’s a vital response to conditions of urgency and oppression. These conditions allow somebody to experience solidarity, and solidarity is fundamental to any leftist position and is really what distinguishes the Left from the Right. The Right is based on individualism, competition, and the desire to accumulate more. The Left has always been based on solidarity. There’s a second thing that comes in, it’s very important and will bring me back a little bit towards the theme of the Platypus group, and that’s a revolutionary desire. Why do you desire to resist, even if you’re not directly threatened? Even if you feel an urgency that is more abstract, that is something that you’ve come to feel through the way that you see the world—where does this desire to resist come from? One source is immediate solidarity, and the other source is philosophical, or aesthetic. It can come from experiences of a kind of prefiguration of utopia, and here I think that Stephen Duncombe and I could agree on a lot of things because we’ve been involved in similar types of use of aesthetic means, of surprising organizational forms, of unusual slogans, of new ways of converging to do direct actions in cities. All of which can be extremely fun, extremely interesting, and which can be successful, also. It can also come from more deep rooted processes of thought, where one considers for example the kind of ecological damage that’s being done to the Earth, where one uses scientific discourses to examine the causes of this ecological damage and where one can also correlate the ecological situation with the social situation, where life is increasingly fragmented. And I think these basic philosophical issues are wrapped together with resistance, I don’t think that we should see a break between concrete resistance and more long-term projects on the Left.
Stephen Duncombe: I’m Stephen Duncombe, I was an organizer of the New York City chapter of Reclaim the Streets for about five years, a group that tried to combine cultural and aesthetic resistance with political campaigns and political movements. I’ve thought a lot about the politics of resistance and even written a couple of books on it, but before I talk about resistance, I want to briefly dispense with the other two Rs. Reform may be possible, but I’ve always held that the only way one gets reform is to threaten revolution. However, revolution in this country at this moment is not in the offing, and if it was, the Left is in no place to imagine or guide it. It would not be a revolution of our own making. This leaves us with a paradox, which brings me to resistance. The politics of resistance are protean, which gives resistance its power, but also its problems. One way to try to get a hold of resistance is to think about its character historically and think about how it came to play such an important part in post 60s left-wing movements and culture. One of the things I would argue is that its political beginnings in the West are conservative; this helps to explain some of the politics of resistance. It’s Edmund Burke, the British conservative, who actually counsels resistance against the radical change of the French Revolution in 1790. About 75 years later, the same call was taken up by Mathew Arnold, who essentially argues for culture as a means of resistance against the tides of anarchic progress. It’s useful to remember that, around the same time, Marx and Engels, when they are writing the Communist Manifesto, actually single out resistance in the form of reactionary socialism as a major stumbling block to any sort of revolution. In fact, it was capitalism that was “resisting” this inexorable movement towards revolution and communism. Resistance has this sort of conservative cast in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Where resistance gets its radical tinge is with the anti-colonial movements in the early 20th century, for example, the Indian independence movement. Here what is being resisted is not revolutionary progress, but progress as defined by the West, which is racist, destructive and exploitative. And so it takes on a radical moment there. When it returns to our part of the world it becomes adapted by the Left with the western radical identification with third world liberation in the 1960s. Within this new context its fault lines begin to show, because what is being resisted is no longer conveniently identifiable as outside and other, that is, the British, so one must resist, in part, yourself, that is, the part of yourself that is the oppressor. Also what one hopes to return to in our world is a little bit sketchy, and that is the traditional goal of resistance: to return, or to keep away progress. As such, these resistance politics, I would argue, fail. They result in either, one, self-destruction, in which you have to destroy the oppressor which is yourself, and which leads to things like the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army, or, self-delusion, in which you have to create an imagined past, a sort of return to the land a la communes or through the new age. This is one of the ways to look at the implosion that happened in the 1960s in attaching itself to the idea of resistance. Resistance returns to the scene again in the 1970s in the form of cultural resistance. When, after the failures of the 1960s, radical scholars begin to look to subcultures like punks, rastas, mods, skins, for pre -political forms of resistance that might ignite the next wave of revolution. However, as the best practitioners of this school of cultural resistance understood, this cultural resistance is deeply problematic because it can easily be co-opted by the dominant cultural system as new styles for new markets. This has been written about a lot lately and was noticed as early as the 1920s by Malcolm Cowley. This problem points to a far larger problem of resistance, not only that it can be co-opted by the system, but that its very existence is dependent on the system. By this I mean that practices of resistance are parasitically wed to the dominant culture, which it relies upon for its very identity. If I am a resistor I have to have a system to resist. Perversely that means that the health of the system is in my interests.
But I don’t want to end here. I could end with “resistance is futile,” but I actually don’t think that it is. I think what we have to do is recast resistance, to start thinking about what both 18th and 19th century conservatives and 20th century independence leaders understood, that resistance is a means to an end and not and end in itself. We need to think of resistance as a tactic and part of an overall strategy to bring about social change. Resistance is uniquely valuable in this way because it is performative. As such what it does is constitute a visible thread to bring about reform. It also creates a lived imaginary, a space to open oneself and experience revolutionary moments, creating a stepping stone to realizing revolution. It is only in thinking about resistance in this way, as a means rather than an end, that we can supersede resistance’s dependence on the dominant system. In sum, we need to raise the stakes on resistance, asking a new, but also very old question: not resistance to what, but resistance for what?
Chris Cutrone: When we in Platypus conceived the topic of this forum on “Resistance” and the Left, we had in mind the title of a pamphlet written over a hundred years ago by the brilliant Marxist radical Rosa Luxemburg, titled Reform or Revolution?, which sought to argue for the necessity of revolutionary politics on the Left, not against reforms, but against a reform-ist perspective that was developing on the Marxist Left at the time, in which it was regarded that only reforms were possible—and hence that political and social revolution was not only unlikely and unnecessary, but undesirable as well.
We in Platypus seek to respond, in the present, to the development of the perspective on the Left that assumes that only “resistance” is possible. We find this to be a symptom of the degradation and degeneration of the Left over the last 40 years, since the 1960s “New” Left—and, indeed, for much longer than that. We find the current self-understanding of the Left as “resistance” to express despair not only at prospects for revolutionary transformation, but also for substantial institutional reforms. Platypus as a project seeks to develop critical consciousness of the history of the Left, which we think is necessary for the possibility of emancipatory politics both today and in the future. We consider how we might suffer from a more obtuse grasp, a less acute consciousness, of socially emancipatory politics than those on the Left that came before us were able to achieve.
In Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase [after Engels], the world in the crisis of the early 20th Century faced the choice of “socialism or barbarism.” But socialism was not achieved, and so we consider that perhaps the present is the descendant and inheritor of barbarism—including on the “Left.” We follow Marx as a critic of the Left to the extent that we find that the conception of emancipation remains inadequate if understood as deriving primarily from struggles against exploitation and oppression. Rather, following Marx and his liberal predecessors, we seek to specify the freedom-problem expressed in the history of capitalist society, to clarify how capitalism is bound up with changes in the character of free humanity.
We find the true significance and meaning of anti-capitalist politics in its expression of how capital itself is the product of and continually creates possibilities for its own self-transformation and self-overcoming. Modern categories for emancipatory social struggles should be understood as part and parcel of capital and how it might point beyond itself to its own transformation and self-abolition.
We find evidence of failure to grasp capital in this double-sided sense to the extent that the very conception of emancipation—as the freedom-in-becoming of the new, rather than the freeing of the priorly-existent–to be virtually tabooed on the Left today. The Left today almost never speaks of freedom or emancipation, but only of “resistance” to the dynamics of change associated with capital and its transformations. The spirit of Marx’s observation that in bourgeois society, under capital, “all that is solid melts into air,” has been displaced by his other famous observation from the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggle”—but even this observation has been debased to the sense of the perennial suffering of the oppressed, taking the subaltern in their alterity, and not, as Marx meant in his notion of the proletariat, in the figuration of the new—and the new not as an end, but as an opening onto yet further possibilities.
With the reconsideration of Marxian critical theory must come to our mind the reconsideration of the meaning of the history of subsequent Marxism. But this means treating the tradition of the revolutionary Marxist Left of the turn of the 19th and 20th and of the early 20th Century, especially of its best and most effective exponents, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, not in terms of what this Left actually accomplished, which was, from the standpoint of emancipation, minimal and quickly stifled and undone, but rather what the historical revolutionary Marxist Left strived for but failed to achieve.
Platypus seeks to reconsider the legacy of Marxist politics in order to understand our present as being conditioned— and haunted—by its failure, so that we can marshal this suppressed and buried history, its unfulfilled emancipatory potential, to the service of the critique of and the attempt to overcome the most fundamental assumptions of the present, including and especially those on the “Left.”
Michael Albert: I think that I have so many disagreements with the panelists that it’s hard for me to comment, but I’ll try two things. One, there seems to be a lot of pessimism about prospects. I think that the US right now is an organizers’ paradise, but we are not very competent organizers. I would be more hopeful if we were better in what we are trying to do. I put the blame more with us than with the state of the world. One other thing, there is a lot of reference up here to Marx and Marxism, and going back to that and discovering the worth of that. Well, reading anybody who is an intelligent commentator is generally a positive thing. I wouldn’t try to put my energy there at all. Marxism, Leninism in particular, the whole intellectual framework has a flaw, a big flaw: it has nothing to do with the emancipation of the working class, so it has nothing to do with socialism. Socialism, meaning, self-management, meaning, the people who do the work control their own lives. Why do I say that? Well, for the same reason that Marx would say, “you don’t look at religion and say, ‘what do they say they are for?’” Instead you look at the structures and the relationships and see what it actually delivers. The institutions and concepts of Marxism and Leninism not only generate political authoritarianism, but they generate a change in the economy which does not create a classless society. Rather, it elevates intellectuals, people who have control over knowledge, technology, and circumstances, basically people who monopolize empowering work to the dominant position in society. So it’s a movement, not for working people, but for the sector of society that working people in fact, in a gut way, are most antithetical to.
CC: I want to follow up on the idea of resistance as a starting point and on the idea of “prefigurative” politics. I think that one of the things that everyone has mentioned is the problem of a kind of vision of an emancipated future. And what I wanted to get at is to say that we live with the accumulated effect of defeats and failures on the Left. In other words, that the present is not only determined in a one-sided way by the powers that be, capitalism, the rich, et cetera—but rather, the conditions that we experience today are actually the Left’s own doing—the Left needs to be understood as sort of integral to history, and therefore, whether we know it or not, we live with the past mistakes of the Left, and the past failures of the Left, and so, reflecting on those, and specifically reflecting on the way the 1960s New Left failed to digest the problems of the preceding generation of the Left (of the ‘20s and ‘30s)—in two ways: one was a kind of a Stalinophobia (the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution necessarily led to Stalinism); and the other being a Stalinophilia (which is the Guevarism and Maoism that was endemic in the 60s). Both failed to digest the problems of the Old Left, and we live with that. There remains today a kind of fear of organization, a specific scorning of party politics on the Left, and a kind of procedural mania or procedural obsession that most people who have been to any kind of leftist organizing get into. And that’s also another dimension that I wanted to mention, that “resistance” as a category plays into: a kind of fear of actually organizing the Left—and the fear of the consequences of social revolution. In other words, there’s actually a desire, on the one hand, but also a fear. And that is definitely a Cold War relic that we still live with.
Q & A excerpts
Q: Mine is a two-part historical question. First, and it’s addressed to all the panelists, what do you think the attitude of the Left today should be towards the historical legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath? An event that obviously had a huge effect on the 20th century. And, the other is, what do you think that the attitude of the Left should be towards understanding the 60s? Because the 60s seem to have a paradoxical effect on the Left: on the one hand they seem to be a period of radicalization and yet the nature of the Left seemed to have changed in the sixties and subsequently. And since the 60s, there seems to be a steady period of retreat and defeat, we seem to be going more or less steadily backwards.
BH: I think it’s interesting to look at the modernizing vision that the Bolshevik Revolution had—the relationship to exactly the power of science and industry that was basically professed and then managed by a vanguard party. I think we need to actually have that kind of ambition today. But without any of the rest, because I think times have really, seriously, changed, and so to try to emulate the program, a modernizing program like that, would be quite disastrous today. However, the degree of ambition to harness science and technology that the Bolsheviks had is really tremendous, and this is something that can be really learned from and transformed. I think there’s been a fear of that in the sixties in particular—a very reasoned fear, a reasonable fear, a necessary fear. But that fear has led to a lot of romanticizing, and a retreat from the actual task of trying to steer the world somewhere else than the direction it’s going—the direction it’s going is piloted by the people who have the most concentrated knowledge, because in our society knowledge is power. So we somehow have to regain control over this equation of knowledge and power and find a way to make it more humane and directed and then—here I would finally agree with Michael quite very much—directed towards everyone and not towards the desires of this specific elite.
CC: One thing that I wanted to say about the invocation of the Bolshevik Revolution: this is one of these things about the history of the 20th century, that the Bolshevik Revolution had a kind of a multiple legacy. Maybe its strongest legacy, especially in the understanding of it in the 1960s, was as an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, modernizing revolution of a backward country. And I think that in some ways that’s the least important aspect of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution, to my mind, was an international event, there were actually many social revolutions that issued out of the end of WWI, including Germany, Hungary—there was a strong movement in Italy that Gramsci had been associated with. And, in fact, that moment is, historically, the high water mark for anti-capitalist social struggle and revolutionary politics in the last 200 years. It had a profound effect, even though it ultimately failed. The 1917–19 moment was a moment of an attempt that failed. And the nature of the Soviet Union was conditioned by that failure. In other words—and this is an old story—the isolation of the revolution. Specifically, the Marxists prior to WWI had a vision of a transformation of global capitalism, not a vision of simply national revolutions. I think that that vision, the vision of attacking capitalism as a global system, is something that we need to seriously reconsider. It’s something that was essentially taken for granted as not really possible in the 1960s. In other words, there was a notion of solidarity with Third World revolutions that took for granted that revolution in the metropole, in Europe and the United States, etc., was essentially impossible. So we have to at least take notice of the fact that 100 years ago there was a millions-strong workers’ movement throughout the developed industrialized world that aimed at a global transformation. We haven’t really seen anything like that in a long time.
Q: Hi. My name is Nick Kreitman and I am also a member of the new SDS. I would like to pin down some of these speakers on “reform,” on the concept of reform. What reforms do you feel are relevant in today’s society? Strategically I’d like to pin you down on a few ideas that you think have a lot of potential for today’s situation, because all this talk about strategy is kind of irrelevant if we don’t advance a strategy to go along with it. Specifically, Michael, what reforms do you see having promise for eliminating the division of labor in today’s society? What kind of reforms do the panelists believe are relevant and can be incorporated into a revolutionary movement?
MA: Well, there is a lot, I think. Let me give one example: suppose we said that the average work week in the United States was forty hours, I suspect it’s more like fifty or sixty, but suppose it was forty. So we might demand that instead of forty hours we want a thirty-hour work-week. But we might go a little further, so we say that when we go down to a thirty-hour work-week all those who are currently working forty hours and earning under sixty thousand dollars a year keep the salary they have now. So their salary has gone up, they’re working three quarters of the time and they’re getting the same salary they got before. For everybody over a hundred, their salary goes down proportionate to that quarter loss. So they keep the same hourly salary. So we have a tremendous redistribution of wealth, we’ve freed up a tremendous amount of time, but now there’s another problem: the doctors are working three quarters of the time they were before; the engineers are working three quarters of the time they were before. So we say in addition, we want to have education programs inside workplaces so that working people begin to fill up the gap in the work that has occurred. So now we’re beginning to challenge the division of labor. So that’s a demand that you can imagine fighting for right now, that it would be very hard for most people to be against because their incomes would go up if they were at the bottom and wouldn’t go down if they were higher, and yet their lives would be liberated to a degree because they’d have more time, and so on. That’s one possible idea that just comes off quickly.
CC: One thing that is obviously needed, and a couple of people on the panel have done work thinking about this, is a very traditional demand, which is organizing the unorganized, in other words, revitalizing the workers’ movement. In other words, not necessarily reforms that are pitched at the level of immediate state policy differences, but organizing more unions, thinking about how working class people might be organized today differently than in the past. But fundamentally the same challenge exists, because as working-class organizations, unions, have declined, there has been less and less social power available for “resistance,” but even for constraining the kinds of things that can go on in the economy, and therefore undermining the ability to engage in further reforms. So I think that one thing that has come up here—and certainly Brian, for instance, has done work on this, we’ve been reading about it in Platypus—and a question that came up from the audience in terms of changes in the workforce and changes in work patterns over the past forty years: I think it’s a chicken or egg paradox. Meaning that, on the one hand, there is a flexible work regime, on the other hand I think that this was made possible by the fact that there’s been a decline in the workers’ movement. In other words, I think that some of this would have to be reversed and not merely hypostasized as the “new form of capital.” Rather, the new form of capital needs to be understood as the result of the decimation of the workers’ movement.