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Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

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On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

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 Georg Lukács in 1913

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing—even under alienated or distorted conditions—that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis—enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices—there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.

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The interior of the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, Frankfurt, Germany.

JS: To come back to the last part of my previous question, isn’t it the case, for Lukács and Adorno, that reification does not merely represent the ossification of social relations, nor just the objectification of individuals? For both thinkers reification also had a positive significance, as the basis for abolishing current social relations. Adorno, for instance, in his “Reflections on Class Theory,” argues that, “in reified human beings reification finds its outer limits.”[1] In several places Adorno stresses that every second nature is always already a new first nature. Similarly, Lukács speaks of how, during a revolutionary period in the crisis of capital, one sees the intensification, not the diminution, of reification. Indeed, he makes clear that reification is integral to the dialectic of theory and practice, and not simply an obstacle to it. How does this dimension of reification figure into your account? Or, to put the question a different way, what are the limitations to the immanent analysis of reification?

AH: I do not see that, I’m afraid. That has to do, I think, with one’s strategy for identifying reification. There is a huge difference between Lukács and Adorno, on one side, and myself, on the other. For them, the background idea is that capitalist exchange relations, as such, are producing reification. I have doubts about such a totalizing idea. I do not think forms of reification are automatically or necessarily produced by capitalist societies, but rather that specific forms of capitalism and specific forms of practices within capitalism are what produce really reified attitudes. Aside from this difference, however, I also think that Adorno and Lukács make mistakes even in terms of their own conceptualizations. If you take reification literally, which I think Lukács wants to do, then you cannot really say that all economic exchange, even exchange directly involving the labor force, is reification as such. Not all practices involved in the production process necessarily require that the human potentialities of the workers must be exacted from them. Capitalist production as such entails the use, as a commodity, of the human potentialities of the labor force, but only in some specific cases does this form of production also exhibit the opposite—namely, an ignorance of, or disregard for, human potential. Only in these particular cases does it make sense to speak of reification. In the sex trade, for example, we have a clear case of reification. But reification does not obtain in all forms of capitalist production.

JS: In an essay you wrote that concludes the Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, entitled “A social pathology of reason: on the intellectual legacy of Critical Theory,” you argue that the process of social rationalization, or what Hegel would have called the historical unfolding of freedom, has been interrupted, and that it is the task of Critical Theory to think through the contradiction between capitalism and the aspirations of bourgeois society. You claim that this interruption poses a moral or ethical challenge, whose resolution does not necessarily require the sublation of capitalism, and that history has demonstrated that the “Marxist wing of left Hegelianism” was wrong, since the working class did not “automatically develop a revolutionary readiness.” You argue that, in light of the failure of Marxism, psychoanalysis may offer powerful tools for analyzing social irrationality. In your view, what would be the significance of psychoanalysis for a revitalized emancipatory politics?

AH: It is a very complicated question. First, I would not claim that Marxism as such has failed, but that it has clearly erred in one respect, namely in its conviction that the proletariat or the class of the labor force will automatically develop a critical perspective. An empirical doubt of that premise had already been formulated by the early Frankfurt School. Their starting point, in a way, was hesitation as to precisely that premise.

I think Adorno and some of the other representatives of the Frankfurt School relied mainly on psychoanalysis as a way to think through the emancipatory mechanisms already immanent in capitalism. In certain passages Adorno suggests that a certain component of our psychic life simply resists the existent capitalist conditions because of the element of suffering implicit in these conditions. However, if you follow Freud, suffering produces certain dispositions, not for emancipation, but for enlightening knowledge. Nonetheless, Adorno, until the end, believed in that kind of psychic mechanism. With Marcuse it is completely different. Marcuse argued there are certain drives that permanently resist the capitalist form of rationalization, which would point to a completely different usage of psychoanalysis. But, regarding how I think psychoanalysis might contribute to emancipation, I would give several answers. First, I am most interested in object relations theory, a certain strain within psychoanalysis. In brief, I think this strain, and the work of Donald Winnicott in particular, is very helpful in order to think about emancipatory moments in normal human life. More generally, one element I would take from psychoanalysis is a deep suspicion about the completely rational actor. Psychoanalysis is one tradition among others that helps us to see that human beings are driven not only by their purposive rational interests, but also by their unconscious wishes. I take this insight to be necessary for any analysis of emancipatory potentialities within a given capitalist society.

JS: In a recent interview, you announced your support for the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance (Institut für die Vergleichende Irrelevanz, or IvI), just before the building it has occupied for nearly a decade was seized. In a February 2012 dispatch entitled, “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space,” available on its website, the IvI writes that it sees itself as offering an alternative form of politics based around a self-organized space within which it is possible for participants of any age, gender, or ethnicity to achieve autonomy.[2] Do you think this sort of alternative political project realizes, or at least approximates, the kind of mutual recognition and de-reifying behavior that you call for in your work? Adorno argues in several places, most notably in his late essay “Resignation,” that attempts to “rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society” amount to pseudo-activity, obscuring the need for change on the level of society.[3] How would you respond to this critique?

AH: I would hope that the notion of mutual forms of recognition can help to make a little bit clearer what Adorno had in mind, actually. Concerning the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, I think one should support it, simply because this is one expression of the interests of students to have alternative spaces for their own way of thinking, within a non-regulated, non-hierarchical form of university education. And I think it is a good sign for a generation of students if they develop interest in creating such spaces. I do not think that these spaces represent another form of life. In the IvI’s own self-description it does sound as though the IvI has already created an alternative form of life. I do not think it has done that, but the IvI nevertheless has, through a legitimate form of occupation, created a unique place close to the university. They occupied the building in order to reclaim a space for free thinking and free discussion outside the control of official representatives of knowledge. I think this is a good step. There is still a determined group of students who believe they need these places, beyond the specific regulations of education within the university, where they can debate and discuss their own matters, their own theoretical interests, their own insights. It is a good sign if a university allows those spaces, because that’s the whole idea of a university — not to distribute formal knowledge that allows one to attain a position within society, but to represent a space where free thinking is possible. And, if the usual forms of teaching are being put under greater pressure of certain economic interests, then more places like the IvI become necessary. |P


[1]. Adorno, Theodor, “Reflections on Class Theory,” in Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 110.

[2]. The full text of “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space” (“Kritisches Denken brauchtund nim- mt sich-Zeit und Raum”) can be found online at <http:// ivi.copyriot.com/ueber-2>.

[3]. Adorno, Theodor, “Resignation,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 291.

Ivo Furman

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

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Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) on the 11th of June. ‘Isyan’ means revolution or uprising in Turkish © Mehmet

On May 28th, 2013, a group of environmental activists gathered to protest the demolition of Gezi Park, a small, urban park in central Istanbul. As the municipal authorities intensified their efforts to evict the activists, the number of demonstrators began to grow. On the morning of the 31th, police raided the demonstrators’ camp and resorted to violence, resulting in more than 100 civilian injuries. Even Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a MP, was hospitalized after being hit by a tear gas canister. Images and videos of the incident quickly spread via social media and a demonstration of more than 10,000 participants gathered on nearby Istiklal Avenue. The protesters held Istiklal Avenue and Gezi Park overnight as demonstrations spread to Ankara and Izmir. Gezi Park was no longer a protest against the demolition of a park, but instead the focal point for people from all walks of life expressing their frustrations with the government.

On the June 1st, Istanbul was at a standstill as thousands of protesters closed down the Bosporus Bridge and crossed over on foot from the eastern side of the city to support their embattled comrades in Taksim Square, a large public square located next to Gezi Park. Mainstream media outlets in Turkey were still refusing to cover the ongoing protests while social media was awash with images of appalling violence. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a televised speech accusing the demonstrators of being çapulcu (looters) and threatening them. A couple of days later, the mainstream media blackout of the demonstrations finally ended and the prime minister left the country for a 3-day tour of North Africa. Meanwhile, the occupation of Gezi Park had expanded and was beginning to turn into an autonomous area, complete with its own kitchen, hospital, and municipal services. Since June 1st, the police had withdrawn from the park and from the neighboring Taksim Square area, allowing demonstrators to occupy vacated buildings in the vicinity. Amongst the buildings occupied was the iconic Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM). The absence of the police in the area lasted until June 11th, when the police returned and took back Taksim Square from the protesters and washed off the graffiti and slogans. Finally, the occupation of Gezi Park ended on June 15th, when police stormed the park dispersing the occupiers.

A schism emerged during the 10 days of occupation around the Gezi Park and Taksim Square area between two separate groups of occupiers. The majority of protesters occupying the area were middle-class citizens with no affiliations to radical organizations. For most of these participants, the Gezi Park protests were about making a statement against a government with an Islamist agenda, which had begun to encroach on the secular lifestyle of the protesters. These protesters were mainly gathered in the Gezi Park area and were the focal point for both national and foreign media outlets covering the event. There was another group of participants in the protests, however, that received a lot less media coverage. This group consisted of the radical left and often outlawed organizations that had established themselves around Taksim Square and around the barricades built during the occupation. The two groups of protesters cooperated in the face of their common adversaries, but tensions between the two groups were soon evident, as the first group tried to distance themselves from the ‘other’ Gezi Park. Eventually, the escalating rift between the two groups created an opportunity for authorities to intervene. The pretext of the first police incursion on the 11 was to rid the area of so-called “marginal elements.” Despite the break between the radical left and the other Gezi Park occupants, the protests have re-vitalized the radical, non-parliamentary left traditions throughout Turkey. As was the case globally, the Left in Turkey, and the radical left in particular, had been in steady decline since the early 1980s. Yet in Turkey the decline can be can be traced more specifically to the coup of 1980.

Prior to the Gezi protests, most radical left organizations in Turkey were running the risk of being forgotten by the younger generation. The archives of websites and forums that have Turkish-speaking online communities with leftist inclinations show a steady decline in any references to organizations such as DHKP-C (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party– Front) or TIKKO in the 2000s. This is partly because the post-1989 generation in Turkey grew up without any contact with the Left. Any sort of reference to the communist or revolutionary left was outlawed in the 1982 constitution and the anti-terrorism laws of the 1990s put most organization members in jail. After the Gezi protests, which offered a great publicity opportunity for these organizations, one can see a visible increase in the number of (positive and negative) references made to radical left organizations on the same websites. The online communities on some of these websites have over 340,000 registered members. One can also see a lot more news in the mainstream media on police operations directed against illegal leftist organizations after Gezi Park. Both examples are ample evidence that some sort of re-vitalization of interest in the radical left has begun.

On September 12th, 1980, a military coup suspending all kinds of political associations, labor unions, and political parties occurred in response to the escalating political violence between the Left and the right in Turkey. Prior to the coup, Turkey’s political scene had been characterized by chronic instability. In 1975, a conservative coalition government formed by the Justice Party (AP), the Nationalist Front (MC), the Islamic fundamentalist National Salvation Party (MSP), and the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) attempted to govern the country after the collapse of the center-left, socialist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) government. However the coalition did not last for very long and there was another general election in 1977 with no clear winner. In the meantime, there was a severe economic crisis, which was triggered by the OPEC oil crisis of 1973. Inflation reached triple digits by 1979. The combination of economic crises and political instability precipitated a cycle of violence between leftist and right-wing organizations that resulted in over 5,000 deaths. A number of incidents, including the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977, the Bahçelievler Massacre in 1978, and the Kahramanmara Massacre in 1978 heightened the crises in Turkish society and created a pretext for military intervention. On the return of democratic elections in 1983, the Left in Turkey experienced a steady decline both in parliamentary and non-parliamentary settings. One of the primary causes of the decline of the Left was the set of new electoral rules contained in the constitution of 1982. The new constitution brought by the military junta of 1980-1983 introduced the so-called 10 percent law for general elections. The law mandated that political parties must win at least 10 percent of the popular vote in order to be represented in the Turkish parliament. The implementation of the new electoral law meant that smaller leftist factions were entirely excluded from political representation. These smaller factions had to either endure exclusion from the Turkish political system (both in terms of financial support and representation) or be subsumed into larger political movements. As a result, a number of leftist factions folded into the nascent Kurdish separatist movement, which was also founded on socialist principles.

The alliance between the Kurdish movement and the radical left during the mid/late 1990s was partly connected to the lack of an active radical left political party in Turkey during this period. The 1980 coup caused both the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) and the Turkish Worker’s Party (TIP) to be banned from politics. In the aftermath of the coup the parties formed a united communist party (TBKP) in 1988, which was banned in 1991. In the place of the TBKP, the Socialist Unity Party (SBP) was founded in 1991, only to be banned by the constitutional court in 1995. After 1995, the former cadres of TIP and TKP separated, causing a fragmentation in the parliamentary Left.[1] The lack of an active radical left party during this period created an opportunity for the Kurdish movement to either marginalize or subsume radical leftist organizations from the pre-1980 era, either fusing leftist politics with Kurdish nationalism, or monopolizing the agenda of the radical left. As a result the non-Kurdish elements of the radical left to were excluded from any sort of political struggle. On the other hand, political parties with small electoral bases such as DSP and SHP were eventually merged into the umbrella organization of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP).

History of the Parliamentary Left in Turkey

Prior to the Gezi Park protests, the parliamentary left in Turkey had been dominated by the secular, state socialist Republican Peoples’ Party and the Peace and Democracy Party, which is the parliamentary representation of the Kurdish movement (BDP). The CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was the first party to rule modern Turkey after the declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Between 1923 and 1945, the CHP ran the country as a single-party state. During this period, there was a fierce ideological rivalry between the state-socialist CHP and the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), which had been founded in 1920. Despite cooperating against western imperialism during the Turkish War of Independence, the CHP subjected the TKP to a number of purges (1925, 1927, and 1929) after the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923. These purges weakened the TKP and caused the party to be marginalized from politics after the transition to multi-party elections in 1945.[2] After the transition into a multi-party system, the CHP lost its first election to the to the Democratic Party (DP) in 1950. The military coup in 1980 saw all political parties, including the CHP, banned. The Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) succeeded the banned party until the pre-1980 political parties were re-legalized in 1992. In 1995, the SHP and the CHP merged into one party under the CHP party umbrella while the DSP remained independent until 2010 when the party administration was finally persuaded to merge with the CHP. Emphasizing a strictly secular/statist/nationalist political tradition, the CHP, despite being the second most popular political party in Turkey, has not won a popular election since 1977. The elitist historical lineage and the secular/ statist/nationalist dogmatism of the political party prevents it from gaining popular appeal within the religious/ethnic under-classes of Turkey and tends to be favored by the secular, white-collar class. Despite electing Kemal Kilicdaroglu who is partly of AleviKurdish ancestry as its new party leader in 2010, the CHP has not yet managed to reach out to the masses of Turkey or reap any significant electoral gains.

On the hand, the BDP is a left social-democratic political party with a Kurdish ethnic underpinning. While currently debates starting out by the symbolic leader of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan, about trying to evolve from the ethnic nationalist line of the BDP towards a wider political platform under the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), the BDP is still firmly an ethnic party dominated by Kurds and the Alevi religious minority. The political tradition of the BDP comes from a long line of political parties that have been banned by the Turkish state in its efforts to curb nascent Kurdish separatism from the late 1970s onwards. The first pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Labour Party (HEP) was founded by seven members of the Social Democratic Populist Party who had been expelled from the party on allegations of Kurdish separatism. Existing for just three years, HEP was banned in 1993 by the Turkish Constitutional Court for the promotion of Kurdish rights and was succeeded by the Democracy Party (DEP). DEP became divided over the issue of support for the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and six deputies of the party were arrested by the Turkish state and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The party was closed down in 1994 and was succeeded the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) in the same year. HADEP was a moderate Kurdish political party that tried to distance itself from the PKK. Nevertheless, HADEP was closed down due to allegations of political support for the PKK in 2003 and was succeeded by the Democratic Society party (DTP). DTP was also dissolved by the Turkish Constitutional Court in 2008 for promoting Kurdish nationalism and was succeeded by the BDP. The emergence of the Kurdish question is very related to the rise of the revolutionary left in the 1970s. Rather than the Kurdish question being important for the Left, it is the Left that is important for the Kurdish question. Prior to the 1960s, Kurdish ethnicity was severely repressed during both single-party and multi-party rule. It was from the 1960s onwards that Kurdish nationalism re-emerged in Turkey through the contact of Kurdish intellectuals with Marxism and anti-imperialist struggle in the FKF. One could argue that Kurdish nationalism in Turkey has always been a socialist and anti-imperialist ideology. This has also a lot to do with the social organization of Kurdish society. The patriarchal, conservative, clan-based organization of Kurdish society has always profited from maintaining the status quo with the Turkish state and marginalizing any grassroots egalitarian movements. Kurdish nationalism is a rejection of the inequalities created within Kurdish society through clan politics just as much as a rejection of Turkish cultural imperialism. After 1971, the Kurdish movement, just like the radical left, realized that their demands for cultural rights would not be implemented through parliamentary reform. The failure of parliamentary politics after 1971 can be seen as the start of PKK’s armed revolutionary struggle against the Turkish state.

While the representational, parliamentary left is still experiencing an identity crises vis-à-vis the populist, Islamic, neo-liberal politics of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gezi Park protests have contributed to the revitalization of those segments of the radical left that are detached from Kurdish movement. The distancing of the radical left from the Kurdish movement can be attributed to the silence of the BDP over the protests due to ongoing peace negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government. The only BDP MP to take an active stance on the protests, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, has been ostracized and excluded from the team of BDP representatives who are in dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan. This political situation has created the opportunity for the radical left to pursue an independent agenda, perhaps for the first time since 1980.

History of the Radical Left in Turkey

The origins of the revolutionary, non-parliamentary left in Turkey can be traced to the Federation of Debate Clubs (FKF), which was a network of university clubs founded in 1965 by Marxist political science students studying in the various universities of Ankara. By the end of the late 1960s, the federation had expanded to include political science clubs throughout Turkey and had grown into an active platform of debate and dialogue for students active in the Turkish left. The events of 1968 and the ongoing anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Latin America were inspiration for the participants of the FKF and the network eventually began to take a more radical stance as Turkey’s participation in the Cold War and NATO deepened. The FKF evolved into the Turkish Revolutionary Youth Federation (Dev-Genç) in 1969 and decided to take up revolutionary struggle against the Turkish state. After the military coup of 1971, Dev-Genç was banned by the state and continued its revolutionary efforts as an underground, clandestine organization. While Dev-Genç was primarily a student movement, a number of armed groups including People’s Liberation Army of Turkey (THKO), People’s Salvation Party Front of Turkey (THKP-C), the Maoist Revolutionary Workers and Peasants Party of Turkey (TIIKP) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were organized out of Dev-Genç members after the banning of Dev-Genç in 1971. The failure of armed struggle against the Turkish state during the mid to late 1970s meant that the core cadres of the radical Left were either imprisoned or killed. By the end of the 1970s, THKP-C had evolved into the pacifist, legalistic Revolutionary Way (Dev-Yol) from which a splinter group advocating armed struggle, Revolutionary Left (Dev-Sol) emerged in 1978. On the other hand, THKO ceased to exist after the execution of its founding members (Huseyin Inan, Yusuf Aslan, and Deniz Gezmi) in 1972 by military authorities. In southeast Turkey, the PKK took up a protracted armed conflict against the state that has lasted until today. The Turkish Communist Party-Marxist Leninist (TKP-ML) split from the TIIKP in 1972 and the party evolved into a legal political entity, the Workers and Peasants Party of Turkey (TIKP), in 1974. However, after founder Ibrahim Kaypakkaya died in 1973 while under state arrest, the TKP-ML slipped into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army in Turkey (TIKKO), founded in 1972, which advocates armed struggle.

After the coup of 1980, most members of the radical left organizations were either executed or imprisoned by the junta, causing surviving members to either emigrate overseas or to go underground. The harsh political conditions imposed by the military junta combined with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact states and the U.S.S.R created a precarious political situation for the radical Left in Turkey. Most of the surviving factions found themselves marginalized by the PKK and the Kurdish movement. For example, Dev-Sol which, by 1994, had evolved into the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP/C), signed a cooperation agreement with the PKK in 1999, effectively subsuming DHKP/C into the much larger PKK. Factions such as the Kemalist-Maoist TIKP, which became the Worker’s Party (IP) in 1992, managed to stay independent from the PKK by acting as legal political parties but could not achieve electoral success.

By the early 2000s, the radical left in Turkey was in a state of crisis. State prosecution had intensified over the 1990s with the enactment of the anti-terror bill in 1991 and many cadre members found themselves imprisoned with lengthy sentences. This turned prison dormitories into a recruiting ground for the radical left as imprisoned cadre members began to form cells that would be activated upon the completion of the prison sentences. To combat the situation, the Turkish state decided to put prisoners convicted of terrorism and armed struggle in the so-called “F-type” prison which was essentially a form of solitary confinement. The decision to move convicts into solitary confinement caused the inmates in Ankara, Aydin, Bayrampasa, Bartin, Buca, Bursa, Çankın, Çanakkale, Ceyhan, Gebze, Konya-Ermenek, Malatya, Nigde, Nevsehir, and Usak to go on hunger strike during October 2000. In response to the hunger strike, Turkish security forces stormed the prisons in an operation, ironically named “Return to Life”, that resulted in the death of 30 prisoners and two soldiers. The survivors of the operation continued on with the hunger strikes resulting in the further deaths of 48 prisoners and 12 self-immolations. One of the effects of “Return to Life” was that the cadres of the radical Left were drastically diminished. Following this, any survivors of the hunger strike and operation “Return to Life” were put into solidarity confinement, effectively ending the possibility of recruiting new cadre members.

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Protesters gather during a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 9, 2013.

Conclusion: The Other Gezi Park

After years of marginalization, the Gezi Park protests have created an opportunity for the radical left to re-establish itself as a player on the Turkish political scene. On the one hand, the protests pose an unprecedented opportunity for the radical left to reach out to a post-1989 generation, which has no recollection of Communism and radical student movements. On the other hand, the protests have created the opportunity for the radical left to update it’s theory and praxis to accommodate and comprehend the demands of a generation that has just begun to discover politicization. While it is too early to foresee the outcomes created by this cross-pollination between the radical left tradition and the post-1989 generation, what the Gezi Park protests demonstrate is that a collaboration between the two can pose a much more radical threat to the hegemony of the AKP, at a bio-political level, than any representational party currently active in Turkey. Although it is unlikely that Gezi Park will ever translate into a wider political movement, the subjectivities created out of a common experience of police violence, as well as the establishment of new social networks between spheres of society, which have been fragmented and isolated through years of systemic neo-liberalization and consumer culture, are a much greater threat than anything electoral, as they will radically alter the dynamics of Turkish society in the next decade. |P


[1]. Former cadres of TIP went on to found the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in 1996. The ÖDP, which was a coalition from the remaining leftist groups of the pre-1980 period, entered into a coalition with the Green party of Turkey in 2012, forming the Greens and the Left Party of the Future. Additionally, the TKP was re-established by former cadre members who took over the Party for Socialist Power (SIP) in 2001 and renamed it. The politics of the so-called ‘new’ TKP has been described by many as chauvinistic, reactionary, and outdated, with some commentators going so far as to reject the historical lineage between the TKP of the 1920s and the new TKP.

[2]. The TKP has never won any seats in the Turkish parliament. Also, TIP, which was founded in 1961, had much more success in electoral politics. The TIP became the first independent socialist party to enter parliament in 1965.

Larry Everest, Joseph Green, James Turley

 

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

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On April 6, 2013, a panel on “What is Imperialism? (What Now?)” took place during the Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The panel was motivated by the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and aimed to discuss whether we are any closer to understanding what imperialism is and the relationship between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. This panel brought together Larry Everest from the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), Joseph Green from Communist Voice, and James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was moderated by Lucy Parker of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Video is available at the above link.

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Protesters march down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on September 15, 2007. The march was organized by Veterans for Peace and the ANSWER Coalition.

James Turley: Imperialism poses a series of problems for us as Marxists and they can broadly be divided into theoretical problems and political problems. The theoretical problems are characterized by the sharp inequalities between states, and this is as much a feature of the global order as the very obvious inequality and exploitative relations between classes. This arrangement has serious effects on how the class struggle plays out in different countries. Imperialism also poses a problem of the historical periodization of capitalism. This is the problem of imperialism as a particular stage of capitalism. Even if imperialism is not a particular stage, it is still in this historical sense a kind of carbon dating mechanism. With regard to political problems, it is clear that imperialism, as a system of unequal relations between states, is a way in which state power is organized globally. In this sense, the paramount political problem facing us as Marxists and revolutionaries, if we want to overthrow capitalism globally, is that the highest level of state power requires a serious political challenge.

Another issue which has come up, particularly in the last ten years, but which really has existed since at least the early days of the Comintern, is the attitude that we take to forces that are not strictly speaking of the Left but that nevertheless confront and oppose imperialist powers in military conflicts or in other ways. This issue, of course, has caused a serious division on the Left. The guidebook for how we have traditionally dealt with this as a movement is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), which is a sort of brief and very empirical analysis of the nature of imperialism. The background for Lenin’s work was the much larger debate over colonial policy and imperialism in the Second International that began in 1896. Karl Kautsky, who was the foremost theorist of the Second International, wrote a series of articles called Socialism and Colonial Policy arguing that early empires—such as those of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch—were effectively pre-capitalist in nature. They did not export capitalist relations of production, but rather were coercive, absolutist exploitation operations. According to Kautsky, these empires gave way, with the ascent of England as an imperial power, to what he called “Manchesterism.” This was free-trade imperialism. Instead of having coercive and brutal operations—this is Kautsky’s view by the way, it is obviously not true—what you had was the elimination of trade barriers and the expansion of capitalism as a system. Kautsky was writing in 1896 and 1897, by which point it was clear that the mechanisms which led to the First World War were accelerating, and the German state was attempting to acquire colonies. Kautsky’s argument is that the Scramble for Africa and similar forms of late-nineteenth-century imperial expansion are an expression of pre-capitalist forces in Germany and other states, and that this imperialism is actually reactionary with regard to “Manchesterism.”

Lenin breaks radically with the final part of Kautsky’s periodization but keeps the other two parts essentially intact. He argues that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism and that—with the accelerated concentration of the forces of production, the formation of monopolies, and the dominance of finance capital (a term Lenin takes from Hilferding)—there is a drive to find external markets for capital and to export capital. Lenin argues that, previous to this period, imperial powers exported commodities rather than capital. He also famously argues that this is the ground for the emergence of reformism in the workers’ movement because a layer of the working class is effectively bribed with the super-profits won via imperialism.

My view is that this is ultimately no longer an adequate account. “Manchesterism” never existed. Inasmuch as Britain promoted free trade, it was because Britannia “ruled the waves” and benefited from free trade since it controlled the trade routes. In places such as India, as we all know, the brutality of the colonial project did not go away. Furthermore, capital exports began much earlier and did not originate in the 1860s and 1870s. Finally, the concept of the labor aristocracy does not explain the emergence of mass reformist parties in Latin America or anywhere else that is not an imperial power. Where are the super-profits in Brazil being used to bribe the Workers’ Party? I do not see them.

I would argue instead that imperialism is not a stage of capitalism but rather an underlying, fundamental dynamic which goes hand in hand with the rise of capitalist state regimes. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance acquired colonies and exported capital to them in order to establish sugar production. The export of capital goes back to the fifteenth century, and was a feature of the earliest capitalist state regimes in Holland and Portugal. Not all modern empires were capitalist— the Spanish empire was effectively feudal—but many of the early-modern empires, such as that of the Dutch, maintained colonial plantations to which capital was exported. British expansion in India entailed the export of capital, the building of railways, and the establishment of cotton farms which were tied in with high industry in northwest England.

There is a tendency for world-hegemonic states to arise simply because capitalism needs such a state to reproduce itself in any meaningful sense. Capitalism requires means of coercion that are global in extent in order to enforce international trade, as it is fundamentally a worldwide mode of production. Hence, the Dutch supremacy was followed by the British supremacy. The hegemonic project ultimately leads to the hypertrophy of military and financial capital as it were, which then leads to additional problems and decline. What Lenin interprets as a terminal stage of capitalism—and he is absolutely correct to state that the world was breaking down—can retrospectively be seen as a period in which British hegemony broke down, eventually to be surmounted by American hegemony. It is clear now that U.S. dominance has peaked, although it is not going away anytime soon. This is clear from the actual outcome of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which is simply chaos. With regard to the conclusions we draw from this, it is a political necessity to disrupt imperialist activity. As long as we have capitalism, we will have the problems of imperialism. It does not matter who happens to be the top dog at a particular time, imperialism will always be a mechanism for the imposition of capitalist order. If we are going to be strict about the terms, to be anti-capitalist is to be anti-imperialist.

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Thousands gather in London's Trafalgar Square at rally against possible US strike in Syria on August 31, 2013. Rally was organized by Stop the War Coalition.

Joseph Green: The struggles of the Arab Spring have led some to ask: “Should we side with anti-imperialism or should we back the anti-fascist struggle?” This is a false dichotomy, for there is neither real anti-imperialism nor real anti-fascism without the masses. I refer to such so-called anti-imperialism as “non-class anti- imperialism,” a would-be anti-imperialism that attributes every development in the world to this or that Western power or corporation and fails to grapple with what is going on among the masses themselves. “Non-class anti-imperialism” is very widespread on the Left. Over the past few decades, it has repeatedly degenerated into support for oppressive tyrannies and despair over the prospects for mass struggle. Several left-wing groups even regard the Taliban as waging anti-imperialist struggle in Afghanistan. All of this has threatened to discredit anti-imperialism in the eyes of millions of people. The “non-class anti-imperialists” argue that when a regime comes into conflict with the U.S. state, even if such a regime has worked closely with U.S. imperialism before, the internal situation of the country it governs is irrelevant. They ask: “Didn’t Lenin say in his article ‘Socialism and War’ that it did not matter who attacked first, India or Britain, because it would be a war of aggression on Britain’s part and a war of defense on India’s—is there any reference there to the internal situation in India?”

But Lenin contended that a great revolutionary wave was spreading across India and elsewhere, a gigantic movement that imperialism was seeking to suppress. Millions upon millions of oppressed people were standing up in opposition to old social relations and this process had been developing for decades. War was the continuation of politics by other means, since a democratic movement of liberation was taking place in India and elsewhere. In that light, such matters as who struck first were not particularly relevant.

The issue today is: What is the longstanding situation that has led to the Arab Spring and the uprising against Gadhafi and the Assad regime? The people of the region are standing up to demand a say in their lives. The situation now is different from the revolutionary wave in the immediate years after the Second World War. Then, in the Middle East, there was a series of struggles waged by colonies for independence and the overthrow of monarchies. In some countries, working-class parties fought for influence. These struggles changed the face of the Middle East and North Africa and brought economic development—albeit capitalist modernization— but, in country after country, the resulting governments became long-lasting dictatorships that humiliated working people and destroyed their organizations, or transformed such organizations into adjuncts of bourgeois rule. These governments spoke in terms of old ideals and aspirations—even in terms of socialism—but the old revolutionary movement was dead. Typical for these countries, with their supposedly anti-imperialist regimes, Syria and Libya cooperated with U.S. and British imperialism in the torture of each other’s prisoners.

Taking place today is neither the re-colonization of the region nor an anti-imperialist struggle, but rather the masses are fighting for the right to breathe in their own countries. This is not the result of manipulation by foreign powers, but these powers are seeking either to smash the movement or to use it to their interest. No upsurge against these regimes could have succeeded without the global imperialists being divided among themselves. It may perhaps appear that we are facing a wave of democratic revolutions in the Middle East, like those that swept Asia earlier, but this is not the case. We are facing important struggles that have ended decades of political stagnation, but no matter how bitter or tragic the fighting, they are not democratic social revolutions of the old type. What is effectively taking place in the Arab world is a process of liberalization, as took place in the Philippines with the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship, as took place in Mexico with the end of the one-party rule of the PRI, and as took place in Eastern Europe and Russia with the downfall of state capitalism. These are revolutions in the narrow sense, but capitalist development has generally proceeded far enough in these countries that there is no basis for the old-style democratic revolution that eliminated feudalism and semi-feudalism in the countryside. At the same time, the working class is far too disorganized, thus negating the possibility of a socialist revolution. The democratic social revolution is a matter of the past and the socialist revolution is a matter of the future. This affects the character of these movements and, over and over again, the resulting regimes are a disappointment. In these struggles, the working class may fight but it is politically disorganized, as it is around the world.

Nowhere in the world yet does the working class lead such struggles. So the result of such struggles, if these struggles are successful, is that the political situation might open up to this or that extent, but the new regimes will ultimately pursue market-fundamentalist measures. The masses may achieve some political rights, but they will not achieve economic liberation. These are not the grand, liberating revolutions one dreams of but rather liberalizations that may possibly lead to intensifying class struggles. Does this mean that these struggles are useless? Not from a Marxist standpoint. For Marxism, class struggle is the path towards organizing the working class and preparing for socialist revolution. From the standpoint of utopianism, these struggles have failed. From the standpoint of organizing the working class, these struggles are essential. If one genuinely believes that the working class is the master of revolution and the motor of history, then these struggles are our struggles. If one disregards these struggles, one becomes utopian or, worse, an unwitting backer of rival imperialisms.

This situation has tested the political stands and theoretical views of the various trends on the Left. Some supported these struggles because they thought the working class might be liberated. The Trotskyist sects, for example, had to do this as part of their theory of so-called “Permanent Revolution.” Various groups declared that these struggles had to bring the working class to power or else they would accomplish nothing. These struggles continue to disappoint the Trotskyist groups. The perspective of such groups had a marked utopian flavor: either full liberation now or forget it.

Let us also examine the standpoint of an ordinary democrat. I know this does not sound like a very radical thing to consider but it is instructive. Marwan Bishara is a senior political analyst at Al-Jazeera and he wrote a book called The Invisible Era: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution. This book is an expression of a certain stage of the Arab Awakening, namely the period of democratic euphoria. He is passionate about what he calls today’s revolution and how it is completing the previous wave of struggles. In his terms, today’s revolution is liberating the people, while earlier struggles liberated the land. He is not aware that the class, social, and political alliances that have brought about the Arab Spring are inevitably going to break down and lead to a period of struggles, haggling, and popular depression. Nor does Bishara realize how serious is the threat of very horrible setbacks, such as periods of fundamentalist government. He has no idea that democracy and liberalization will lead to mass struggle, and that the more thorough democracy is, and the more successful the working class is in utilizing this democracy, the more intense will be the resulting struggles.

From the standpoint of the political trends I support, it was clear from the start of the Arab Spring that everywhere different class factions opposed the old regimes and everywhere different class interests were represented in the movements. It was also clear that these struggles were not anti-imperialist and that the need to resort to a certain amount of Western imperialist military support was a danger to them. We continue to oppose Western imperialist aims, but we also recognize the legitimacy of insurgencies taking advantage of the differences among foreign powers.

This mixed situation is characteristic of the struggles today. The working class today is disorganized and in crisis around the world. The working masses are divided by a multitude of differences. In this situation, the major struggles that break out are not dominated by the revolutionary viewpoint. However, to abandon these struggles is to make a mockery of belief in, and support for, class struggle. Thus, we have a choice: either utopianism—that is, abstaining from all struggles until one great revolutionary struggle appears—or determining where the working-class struggle lies in these struggles, and using these struggles as a means for the working class to learn the interests and features of the different classes and to become class-conscious.

“Non-class anti-imperialism” adjudicates theses struggles not in terms of their effects on the masses, but rather in terms of how they affect relations between the different imperialist powers. This form of anti-imperialism does not realize that the temporary gains or losses of this or that Great Power, or of this or that multinational corporation, are at most minor aspects of these struggles. The most important factor is how these struggles open a pathway to the class struggle. Moreover, “non-class anti-imperialism” misunderstands the nature of imperialism today. It is not enough to say that imperialism still exists today. One has to be able to see what has changed in the situation and how the basic features of imperialism remain despite these changes.

Several of these changes are of particular importance today. For the sake of brevity, let us deal with just one: the rise of new imperial powers. “Non-class anti-imperialists” believe that only the countries that were imperialist a century ago can be imperialist today. They ignore the rise of new imperialist powers and would-be imperialist powers. They may even argue that the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa— are some type of bulwark against U.S. imperialism. However, the working masses of the BRICS face the opposition of the imperialist bourgeoisie of these countries. Now, it is not only the BRICS bourgeoisie who have become imperialist. The bourgeoisie of all countries with some advantages, and which thus can exercise influence, have sought to become an imperialist power and to join the Great Powers. The failure to recognize the new imperialism, and the backing of one imperialist or regional power against another, are travesties of anti-imperialism. We live in the most powerful imperialist country, which remains the world’s only superpower. The only way to undermine this imperialism is to support the development of working-class struggle around the world. Whatever aids this development, ultimately assists the anti-imperialist struggle. Whatever aids other imperialist powers that seek to hold down the working class, ultimately retards the anti-imperialist struggle.

Larry Everest: What should we think about imperialism? Let us begin with what it has done to Iraq over the last ten years. We need a theoretical sense and, especially living in this country that has caused so much murder and mayhem in the world, a visceral sense of what imperialism is. In Iraq, over 120,000 people were directly killed in the war, 1.2 to 1.4 million people have died since the 2003 invasion, over four million have been wounded or injured, and over four and a half million have been driven from their homes. What about the situation of women in Iraq? It has worsened: a secular constitution has been replaced by Sharia law, there are two million widows, and there is an epidemic of violence against women that is more and more institutionalized. In Fallujah, the rate of malformation of children is greater than that of Hiroshima due to white phosphorous and depleted uranium weapons that were used there beginning in 2004. There is the torture and degradation of thousands and thousands of Iraqis in U.S.-run prisons. The U.S. has fostered a reactionary, sectarian civil war under the Malaki government that it placed in power, a civil war that includes torture with electric drills, massive ethnic cleansing, and secret U.S. support for death squads (the so-called “Salvador option,” as Rumsfeld put it). What we are describing here in Iraq, we can find in countries around the world. And then we can talk about the fact that around the world ten million children die of starvation or preventable diseases every single year. There is a global sex-trafficking industry that is based on the rape of millions of women a year. There is the destruction of the environment. There is the global horror of poverty. All this is the product of imperialism. The single greatest obstacle for humanity today is the system of imperialism, particularly U.S. imperialism. The single greatest thing we can do for humanity is to overthrow U.S. imperialism as soon as possible and usher in a world free of imperialism.

What is imperialism? To be clear, the invasion of Iraq was not Bush’s war as so many thought. It was not on behalf of corporations. It was not fought for the military-industrial complex. It was not an erroneous foreign policy based on faulty intelligence. The invasion was a war of imperialism, a war fought to further the interests of a worldwide empire based on plunder and exploitation, an empire rooted in the dynamics of capital accumulation on a global scale. The U.S. maintains a global empire with a home base in the United States itself. The U.S. state is the embodiment, personification, and enforcer of this global empire. Regardless of who is in power, as we have seen with Obama, the function and role of the U.S. state is to maintain this global system of empire. This is a system that requires the exploitation of markets, labor, and resources across the world. This is a system that is based on a great division of the world, a fundamental production relation, and the domination and control of the vast majority of humanity in the oppressed colonial or third-world countries by the imperialist powers. Yes, there is complexity, there is development. However, we cannot ever forget that this production relation is foundational to the entire way the world works. On this point, Lenin is excellent.

Lenin’s work is not merely a technical manual on imperialism, but rather a polemic written against social chauvinism and capitulation in the name of the fatherland, and against basing political struggles on the bourgeoisified sections of the working class rather than on those who hungered or yearned for revolution. This is why the Second International was brought up here. This was an International of betrayal and capitulation that sided with its own imperialists during the First World War, and that helped bring about the slaughter of millions of people. Lenin was the only one who broke with this capitulation and refused to go along with Kautsky’s traitorous betrayal. This is a lesson that we must learn very well here in the U.S. because we have to understand that every single aspect of this society is steeped in and infused with the parasitism that stems from the position of the U.S. in the world and U.S. domination. I am not arguing that there is not a great deal of oppression in this country, for there is, especially among black people. The situation among women is terrible, and there is a tremendous amount of poverty. Nevertheless, the thinking, the class relations, and the social relations of the U.S. are stamped, as Lenin put it, with a seal of parasitism derived from imperialism.

Thus, I think that one of the key things we have to do is point this out, counteract this, and fight for an orientation in which the whole world comes first. We have to reject any orientation in which the workers in this country, or a particular union, or a struggle in any particular place comes first. The whole world comes first and American lives are no more precious than the lives of other people. Right now, there should be thousands and thousands of people in the streets denouncing the torture taking place in Guantanamo and supporting the hunger strike that prisoners there are currently on; many of these prisoners are being force-fed by the U.S.

I think we have to argue for the fact that there is no such thing as a humanitarian intervention. This is a complete oxymoron. How can you have a humanitarian imperialist intervention? You can look at any country, including Iraq, where this was done—even what was done with the Kurds—and you will discover that every single thing the U.S. has done around the world is in the service of perpetuating its empire of exploitation and plunder in rivalry with other imperialist or would-be imperialist powers. The U.S. seeks strategic advantage by maintaining control over various regions of the world, which is of course why it is now threatening Iran.

The other matter we have to confront is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a force that has been clashing with the United States, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bob Avakian, the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, made a very important analysis of this phenomenon, situating it in “outmoded reactionary strata” while being clear that, on a world scale, imperialism wreaks far more havoc. The clash between U.S. imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism actually fuels a dynamic in which, if you support one, you are strengthening the other. This is a dynamic we urgently have to break out of, and the way in which we have to break out of it is through revolution.

The other panelists have failed to talk about revolution in any substantial way. They treat it as a very distant prospect. This is a powerful system but it is ridden with deep contradictions. Revolutions are possible due to these profound contradictions, based on the fact that the system is in direct antagonism to the interests of the vast majority of people.

Avakian has done path-breaking work in summing up the very important and emancipatory first wave of communism from Marx through Mao. By analyzing and summarizing the first wave’s great strengths and lessons, as well as its shortcomings and weaknesses, Avakian has brought forward a new synthesis of communism, as well as a strategy for making revolution right here in the belly of the beast. I do not have time to elaborate the entire strategy that the RCP has developed, but I recommend people see the film BA Speaks: Revolution, Nothing Less!. I would also recommend that people take a look at the “Constitution for the New Socialist Republic of North America” draft proposal, which is a thoroughly internationalist document. The proposal makes the argument that there is no genuine, emancipatory communist revolution that does not proceed from internationalism and on the principle that the whole world comes first. This constitution calls for—after the seizure of power and the creation of a revolutionary state, a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat—the immediate dismantling of U.S. bases all over the world, sundering all current trade and economic relations and restructuring those relations across the globe, making every economic decision on the basis of advancing the world revolution, meeting the needs of people here, and protecting the world’s environment. Among the key elements of the strategy for revolution are changing thinking and changing action. In terms of changing action, we vigorously oppose all U.S. interventions, sanctions, bullying, and threats throughout the world.

 

Q&A

I am curious how you perceive significant non-state actors such as the European Union and the United Nations. Are these imperialist institutions? Also, there seems to be disagreement among the panelists regarding the issue of inter-imperialist rivalry. Some speakers emphasized such rivalry, whereas the speaker from the RCP seems to think that there is no longer inter-imperialist rivalry, and that, basically, the U.S. runs the world.

JG: With regard to “non-state actors” such as the UN and the EU, I think this is an extremely important matter. I think the UN is fundamentally a world-imperialist agency that represents the interests of the leading imperialist powers. I am often astonished when people say: “Oh, you know, we’re against what’s going on in this or that country but the UN says otherwise!” What do you think the UN is? Whose interests does it represent? Yes, these are imperialist agencies.

LE: I was trying to make the opposite point, that there indeed is inter-imperialist rivalry, although perhaps not as pronounced. I think you misheard that.

JT: There is rivalry but there is no significant rival to the U.S. at the moment. Europe is not able to marshal forces such that it could inflict a defeat on America. China might be able to in another thirty years and perhaps Europe as well. However, at the moment, no power can seriously challenge the U.S. As for international organizations, such as the UN, these are crystallizations of relations of forces on a global level, both economic and military. In the contemporary world, the UN is effectively a tool of the U.S.-led state order.

 

I think one of the motivations for this panel is the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War. Why was the anti-war movement, which entailed millions of people mobilizing across cities throughout the world, not able to build a movement towards socialism—a working-class, proletariat, class-conscious movement? Why was it not able to do this, in your estimation?

LE: I think the mass anti-war movement showed potential insofar as it exposed the depths of the people’s hatred for what was going on, but I think it also showed that any movement struggling for socialism has to be led by a revolutionary vanguard party. Even if they are opposed to a particular action of the ruling class, people do not spontaneously understand what is driving this action, what the solution to it is, and what sacrifices and struggles that are required in order to realize this solution. I think it is particularly important that the revolutionary movement be rooted in those that society has cast off. I was in San Francisco and I was at the major demonstration. Afterwards, I think what happened was that a lot of people were sucked into the illusions of U.S. democracy. That is, if you simply got rid of Bush or elected Kerry in 2004, somehow things would change. They did not understand what we are talking about on this panel, that what exists in the U.S. is not democracy. It is capitalism, imperialism, and the political structures that support them. I think the other major issue that people do not want to face intellectually, and in terms of their activity, is what it is going to take to actually challenge U.S. imperialism. I do want to commend and uphold the work of “World Can’t Wait” in organizing to try to drive out the Bush regime at the time. In leading this effort, “World Can’t Wait” sought to change the whole political terrain, to prepare the political terrain for revolution.

JG: I think the anti-war movement played a tremendous role with regard to motivating the Left. In my own case, the war in Vietnam played a very important role in how I became a communist, and in generating a desire both to defeat U.S. imperialism and to find a force capable of doing it. With regard to the struggle against the war in Iraq, I do not think the movement was flawed because things ultimately did not move further. I think it is a very serious issue. The working class is disorganized. Trade unions almost everywhere are class collaborationists. The political parties that one would expect to support the working class do not support it. For example, the Socialist International maintained relations with the Mubarak regime until right before its downfall. Ali in Tunisia maintained relations with the Socialist International. There exists a great deal of disorganization, and the anti-war movement by itself could not overcome it. Now, it is not simply a matter of subjective desire when these struggles grow to a certain level. There are certain objective conditions. From my point of view, I think the anti-war movement played a tremendously important role, and the people who took part in it will remember their experience. However, this one struggle alone could not change the whole situation.

 

I would like to push the panelists on the topic of the anti-Iraq War movement. Recognizing that the anti-war movement did not succeed, I am wondering whether or not it contributed to the confusion regarding what it means to be anti-imperialist today?

JT: It is clear that the demonstrations against the war in Libya and the war in Syria were pretty depressing experiences in Britain. There were two to three hundred people outside of the embassy and half of them were vigorously pro-Assad types with dubious politics and the other half were liberal Iranians. They would get into physical fights. It was a far cry from 2003, when we had one and a half million people out in the streets. It was an enormous opportunity. However, there will be another anti-war movement on that scale as long as they keep having these bloody wars. I cannot speak about the U.S., but the Left in Britain made an error when it did not realize that the situation had changed after 2003, after the troops went in. In the run up to this, it was clear that large sections of the international bourgeoisie, for their own reasons, thought that this was not a good policy. This is why there were all the issues surrounding UN resolutions and the French opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The international bourgeoisie were bashing heads with each other, which actually meant that it was easier than it was ever going to be again to get through this message to oppose the war. That is why I said earlier, one has to take advantage of these moments of mass demonstration. This was a real opening and a real opportunity and it is not gone completely.

LE: First, the revolutionary communists were not confused. They realized that, unless you overthrow imperialism, wars are going to continue. Furthermore, they realized that a mass movement is not going to sustain itself in the way that some people expect. The anti-war movement was a spontaneous struggle. It included a very broad section of the middle class, and masses of people came out in support of it, but it nevertheless was a spontaneous struggle. The idea that one could simply take up this spontaneous struggle and gradually push it towards revolution is what may have confused some people. I think it is important that the RCP’s strategy— which is in BAsics, and I highly recommend people read that strategy for revolution—entails seizing on these outbreaks and crises in order to broadly plant the pole of revolutionary communism, to build an organization, and to raise the consciousness of the masses of people to the realization that anything less than revolution is bullshit. While a revolutionary crisis did not take place on February 15, 2003, the mass demonstrations certainly showed the potential for millions and millions of people to be drawn into political life very quickly. The key is that the revolutionaries have to accumulate the political strength to lead the masses in a revolutionary direction during a crisis. Then, when millions of people are determined not to live in the same way and the rulers are divided, you actually have the prospect of seizing state power, which is ultimately the only thing that is going to end imperialist wars. Certainly, war flows from the core dynamics of imperialism. We should expose where these wars come from and why revolution, and an entirely different economic and political system, are needed to prevent them. I also want to point out that one of the things the bourgeoisie did in response to this uprising and upheaval was to put in power Barack Obama, whose mission is not to change what the ruling class is doing but rather to bamboozle the masses into passivity. I am not saying this passivity is simply a result of Obama’s presidency, but achieving it was and is the chief mission of the Obama administration. Putting Obama in power allowed for a rebranding of imperialism and quieted the growing discontent. There was tremendous hatred of Bush and in many ways we were starting to see the beginnings of a legitimacy crisis.

 

Do you think the oppressed people of Libya, the working class and peasants, would have been better off had the West been able to prevent a NATO military intervention?

LE: I am against NATO military intervention in Libya. I am not a supporter of the Gadhafi regime. Raymond Lotta wrote a very excellent article on this in Revolution. The NATO intervention was an intervention by imperialism to put pro-U.S. reactionaries in power and kill many, many people. Certainly, the RCP protested and opposed the NATO intervention in Libya.

JG: The movement in Libya was not a creation of foreign powers. It was an upsurge of the Libyan people who had been oppressed for decades. There were no independent trade unions and no political rights. The Berber people in Libya were being compulsorily turned into Arabs and their national identity was denied. The Libyan uprising was a genuine uprising. The Libyan uprising did not require a massive foreign intervention on the ground. However, it did require a U.S. intervention in the air. Without that intervention, it is likely that the rebels would have drowned in blood in Benghazi and elsewhere. Our task is always to expose the imperialist motives of our government. We know the U.S. government did not do this out of humanitarian motives, but it was nevertheless legitimate for the Libyan people to take advantage of this contradiction among the imperialists. It is astonishing that a person who defends the Soviet Union for receiving massive U.S., British, and French support in the Second World War would deny the Libyan people the right to have these alliances. That said, it makes for a complicated political situation and it is one of the reasons why the anti-war movement got disoriented.

JT: I disagree. I think it is too early to tell but there are not promising signs. We have seen this kind of parachuting-in of a government before, a government that does not really seem to have power in the country. I do not foresee a stable state regime emerging from this situation. Approximately ten years after the U.S. invasion, Hamid Karzai legalized marital rape in Afghanistan. This is already happening in Libya. There is no way around it. A lot of people died because NATO blew them up. However, the uprising would have been crushed by Gadhafi. The problem is that we are not learning from the lessons of Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It is clear that the U.S.-led international imperialist order is increasingly unable to impose a state regime in occupied regions, even one that serves its own interests. I think the euphoria of the Arab Spring led people to think that these movements were just going to sweep up everything. It is clear that has not happened. If you look at what has happened in Egypt, it is clear that things are entering a bad stage. The underlying point is that there is going to be either tyranny or chaos, and my judgment is that we will end up with chaos. |P 

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

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On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.

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Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask, Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings—stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations—we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy.

Sunit Singh: When Marx confronted the possibility that a university career might be closed (once Friedrich Wilhelm IV initiated a rightward, anti-Hegelian shift in Prussia around 1840) Marx turned to work as a journalist and editor. You describe Marx the crusading young newspaperman as follows:

Marx blasted [the] enemies [of the freedom of the press], linking their arguments to an archaic society of orders, to an authoritarian Prussian state trying to prop up this society, and to intellectual trends defending it…. [He also set about] praising freedom of the press as part of a broader encomium of freedom, articulated in opposition to the nature of the Prussian monarchy… [and] the debates on freedom of the press in the recently concluded Rhenish Provincial Diet…. Marx brought together liberal aspirations for an effective legislature, and for a constitution guaranteeing basic rights, such as freedom of the press, and liberal hostility to the society of orders…. [Marx argued] in Hegelian fashion, [for] a free press as the objectification of the people’s spirit and not an objectification alienated from its spirit, but one that knew itself as such (83-87).

As editor of the Rhineland News, Marx adopted a “liberal, anti-protectionist, and even anti-communist stance” that the “bourgeois liberals who were financing the newspaper” could rally around. Moreover, this commitment to free trade or even his criticisms of communism were, on your account, not the ideas of a liberal youth that Marx would later discard. So what were Marx’s formative political experiences and how does a Nineteenth Century Life reframe our understanding of them?

JS: I’ll mention four places where I show Marx’s formative political experiences. One was his relationship with the Prussian monarchy. Marx was born in Trier, a city that had been annexed by Prussia by the time of the Congress of Vienna. Its inhabitants were deeply hostile to Prussia. Marx himself was profoundly ambivalent towards Prussia. Nevertheless, as a Young Hegelian, he looked to it as a source of liberalism, reform, and enlightened ideas. However, he would ultimately become a strong enemy of Prussia. This break with liberal illusions about Prussia was formative for Marx. It led to him becoming a radical, who saw the resolution of political confrontations in violent revolution. Then, there are the ideas of Hegel, which shaped Marx’s views of historical process, and social and political struggle. Third, was Marx’s confrontation with the ideas of classical political economy in the form of figures like Adam Smith, and Smith’s most important disciples, such as David Ricardo, and James and John Stuart Mill. We see this in a very early form in Marx’s advocacy of free trade, which was something he maintained throughout his life. Although Marx, of course, broke with nineteenth century pro-free-market and pro-private property liberalism, becoming a communist, he did so while retaining the basic tenets of classical political economy. Marx always criticized socialist thinkers like Proudhon, who tried to prove Ricardo wrong. (This was one of the central points of Marx’s critique of Proudhon in his polemic, The Poverty of Philosophy.) Finally, there is Marx’s confrontation with the French Revolution, the dominant political event of the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The revolutions that Marx the radical advocated were modeled on those occurring in France in 1789 and 1793. These were Marx’s formative political experiences. His developed theory was an attempt to combine all four into a cohesive view of the past development and future trends of European history. This developed theory reminds me a little of what happens when you put a cat into a box. Cats like boxes, and they often climb into them even if they aren’t big enough. No matter how much they contort their bodies, there’s always some part sticking out. Marx’s effort to combine all of these influences into one theory strikes me as very much like this.

SL: While editing the Rhineland News in Cologne, Marx criticized many of his fellow Young Hegelians for their foppish “lifestyle-based radicalism.” How did this critique of bohemianism develop into more politically pointed criticisms of fellow socialists in Paris and Brussels?

JS: What Marx disliked about the Young Hegelians was the way their interests revolved around carrying on an atheist lifestyle, making fun of established religion and gender relations. When Marx became a newspaper editor, and began to hang around with businessmen and politicians who were actually trying to change things, he began to see the Young Hegelians as a frivolous lot and their efforts as non-serious, as leading to no changes in state and society. This attitude was expanded and developed in his various critiques of fellow socialists in the 1840s, such as Proudhon and Karl Grün. Marx criticized them for trying to smuggle communism into existing capitalist society by making it a lifestyle choice (e.g., by joining workers' cooperatives or Fourierist phalansteries) instead of seeing it as a political issue involving revolutionary social struggle. So Marx developed this critique of the lifestyle-based politics of the Young Hegelians into one of communists skeptical of political struggle. They saw the implementation of communism as a matter of changing people’s opinions and social habits, rather than of overthrowing the government.

SL: They thought if people’s ideas changed, political change would follow?

JS: Yes, but in that case political change would become unnecessary. If people’s ideas changed, then there would be no problem. Marx was well aware that people’s ideas must be changed, but he saw such change as being effected through political struggles.

SS: You argue that Marx’s developing worldview in the mid-1840s is perhaps best captured by his articles, “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” and the review of Bruno Bauer's “On the Jewish Question,” both written for the Franco-German Yearbooks. The two articles represent his attempt to digest Hegel’s theory of modern society after the collapse of the society of orders and, despite this collapse, the apparent antagonism between the state and civil society. While the rhetoric of, especially, “On the Jewish Question” has forced “Marx’s defenders [to] tiptoe around the essay in embarrassed fashion” (127), you take Marx’s engagement with Bruno Bauer over Jewish emancipation to mark a crucial stage in his development as, so to speak, a late Hegelian. How did Marx’s position in these pieces mark a real crystallization of his thought?

JS: As far as Marx’s review of “On the Jewish Question,” in the second part in particular, Marx really lets loose on Jews, accusing them of being greedy, selfish, and capitalistic. He claimed that in a communist society, Judaism would no longer exist, and Jews would no longer be an identifiable group. Seen from the point of view of the 20th century, with the Nazi and Stalinist persecutions of the Jews, this is very embarrassing. Indeed, many have denounced Marx as an anti-Semite and a proto-Nazi. One of the things I argue in the book is that this is a false perspective on the essay. What we actually see here is Marx making a very interesting distinction between what he calls “political emancipation” and “human emancipation.” He argues that the emancipation of the Jews would involve granting them equal rights with Christians and the creation of a society like in the United States with a separation between church and state, which marked a crucial step in the completion of the program of the French Revolution.

Now if Marx had stopped there, no one could have accused him of being an anti-Semite. But Marx believed that the completion of the program of the French Revolution (the creation of a democratic republic, a society in which people were equal under the law, an end to discrimination on the basis of religion or race), while a historic step forward from the old regime society of orders, itself created a society marked by alienation and capitalist exploitation. So, in the second part of the essay "On the Jewish Question," the part which tends to offend people, he went on to argue that true human emancipation requires an end to this capitalist society of alienation, exploitation, and the separation of state and society. This is the beginning of his Hegelian argument for the creation of a communist regime. It seems in some ways an odd argument. Marx was saying that Jews needed to be emancipated in order to act freely as members of civil society, but that when they do that, the moneyed among them will simply end up as capitalist exploiters. So the question becomes: Why would you bother doing this in the first place? What was Marx talking about? And this becomes a central element of his political aspirations, a dilemma he would wrestle with for the subsequent 40 years: How would it be possible to do both, to complete the tasks of the French Revolution by overthrowing monarchies and creating democratic republics and societies of equal citizens, but also go beyond that by creating a communist society in which alienation was abolished, and society, the state, and individuals were harmonized. Trying to carry out these two revolutionary acts at once turned out to be impossible. Marx never found a way to resolve this issue.

SL: One major theme of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is that, as you have indicated already, Marx understood himself as heir to the French Revolution. Specifically, Marx expected and, indeed, in perhaps the most famous passages of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, described 19th century revolution as a repetition of the 18th century French Revolution, particularly in its 1789–1794 phase. Thus, Marx simultaneously longs for the revolutionary poetry of the future, even as he argues that the past necessarily recurs. You describe Marx’s thinking at the time of the Revolution of 1848–49 as follows:

Using his influential position within the newly reorganized Communist League… Marx took scant time to join the revolutionary fray. For a little over a year, from the spring of 1848 through the spring of 1849, Marx was, for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary: editing in brash, subversive style the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organize the working class in Cologne and across Germany; and repeatedly encouraging and fomenting revolution. In all of these activities, Marx persistently promoted the revolutionary strategy he had first envisioned in his essay on the Jewish Question, and would present in scintillating language in the Communist Manifesto. He pressed for a democratic revolution to destroy the authoritarian Prussian monarchy. At the same time he aspired to organize the working class to carry out a communist uprising against a capitalist regime he expected such a democratic revolution to establish. In effect, Marx was proposing a double recurrence of the French Revolution: A repetition of its 1789–1794 phase in mid-nineteenth century Prussia, and also a workers’ seizure of power… (195)

And, again, when you come to address the Manifesto itself, you note the magnetic influence of the French Revolution upon its programmatic aspect. “The ten-point program in the Manifesto,” you write, “was designed for a revolutionary government, one modeled on the radical, Jacobin phase of the French Revolution in 1789” (210). How and why does Marx, who is after all, the great theorist of modernity’s historical dynamism, also view history as subject to this sort of repetition such that he expects the French Revolutionary past to return under changed conditions?

JS: Maybe we need to revise our notions about Marx’s attitude toward modernity’s historical dynamism. Marx’s political thought—like most of his contemporaries’—was centered on the French Revolution. This was just a reality that dominated the first two-thirds of 19th century Europe. When people thought about politics, they thought about it in terms of the French Revolution. Marx was no exception in that respect. What’s interesting about Marx is this idea of what I like to call the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution. On the one hand, the French Revolution would literally recur in Central and Eastern Europe, with an uprising against the Prussian and Austrian monarchies and their replacement by a revolutionary German Republic. This would probably include a revolutionary war against the Tsar—a literal rerun of 1793 in mid-19th-century Germany. But there would also be a recurrence by analogy. That is, Marx saw the bourgeoisie as seizing power, bringing the feudal society of orders to an end, and replacing it with a capitalist economy. By analogy, the workers would do the same thing: They would overthrow capitalism and create a communist society. Marx wants to do both at once in 1848, but he finds it very difficult. He discovers, in trying to overthrow the Prussian monarchy, that you can’t get the workers riled up against the bourgeoisie, because the bourgeoisie then won’t support you in overthrowing the monarchy. In his speech to the Cologne Democratic Society in August 1848, he ends up describing the class struggle as nonsense. The problem was that organizing the workers against the capitalists did not necessarily mean opposing the Prussian state.

SL: What I meant by Marx as a thinker of historical dynamism is the way that Marx thinks about industrialization as producing constant historical change. It is in this respect that the 19th century looks different from the 18th century, the century of the French Revolution. In this sense Marx is quite conscious of holding on to the French Revolutionary conception of politics under vastly changed circumstances.

JS: I really think that Marx here is a primarily backwards-looking figure, who is reading capitalism’s future out of its past. He sees the future political crisis of capitalism being resolved by a movement along the lines of the French Revolution. His whole economic vision of the future of capitalism (e.g., the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit) is based upon the ideas of David Ricardo, who wrote in the early 19th century, the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw these conditions, which by the mid-1800s were capitalism’s past, as being capitalism’s future. All of Marx’s invocations of dynamism and constant change—we all know the famous (and actually mistranslated) section of the Communist Manifesto proclaiming that “all that is solid melts into air”—tend to end up parsed in terms of Marx’s past.

SS: Could you provide your translation of “all that is solid melts into air”?

JS: The German original is “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft.” “Stehende” and “Ständische” both come from the verb “to stand,” and is used here as sort of a pun—it refers to both “that which exists” and the society of orders, the old regime world that still existed in Prussia and Austria. “Verdampft” means to “evaporate,” to “go up in smoke.” What Marx was suggesting here is that the power of capitalism—capitalist steam engines (“Dampf” means “steam” in German)—would “evaporate” the society of orders. This would also bring to an end the intellectual world that went along with it: Romanticism, the glorification of the Middle Ages, and religion. Marx’s comment at the end about “man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life” is about an age of realism, e.g., literary realism. One of Marx’s friends when he was in exile in Paris was Heinrich Heine, the great early German realist.

Mine is a very different take on the passage. The way it has been interpreted in the 20th century is that capitalism produces many new consumer demands; we have a world which is constantly changing in communications, artistic trends, etc. That’s a 20th century reinterpretation of Marx’s ideas.

SS: One of “Marx’s least successful predictions” from the Communist Manifesto, you note, is that of the imminent end of nations and nationalism: “National distinctiveness and conflicts between nations disappear more and more with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the relations of life corresponding to them.” As you note, the resurgence of nationalism in pre-1914 Europe belies any straightforward affirmation of what Marx wrote. But as you also note, Marx’s view nevertheless contained an element of truth rooted in Marx’s own experience. Marx had participated with the London Fraternal Democrats and the Brussels Democratic Association, both of which “were based on the cooperation of radicals of different nationalities” (207) and, of course, Marx, whose own perspective was resolutely internationalist, went on to participate in other organizations dedicated to international cooperation. Given this, might we not take Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto as indicating, if not straightforward dissolution of nationalism, then its substantial, if subtle, transformation from British patriotism or, later French revolutionary nationalism of the 18th century? In the history of European nationalism, how does the revolution of 1848 serve as a watershed moment? How did Marx and Engels relate to post-1848 nationalisms—particularly Polish and Irish (we’ll get to Marx’s brand of German nationalism later)—and how did this shape their political outlook?

JS: The early advocates of nationalism in the first half of the 19th century tended to envisage antagonisms and military conflicts between different countries as the result of the lusts of monarchs for conquest, glory, and expansion of their domains. They imagined that when states were ruled by nations, by peoples, all of this would come to an end, and nations would spontaneously cooperate with each other. These were the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini, the leading democrat in 1830s and ’40s Europe, whose organizations Young Italy and Young Europe were designed to be an alliance of different nationalist groups against the existing monarchical order. The Brussels Democratic Association had an absolutely fabulous name: The Democratic Association Having as its Goal the Union and Fraternity of all Peoples. This expresses exactly what nationalists thought. But in 1848, the old regimes are swept away, bringing nationalist governments in power and the first thing that happens as a result is that all these different nationalisms go to war with each other. This is especially the case in the Austrian Empire, with the Germans, the Slavs, the Hungarians, and the Italians all at war with each other. This also happens to some extent in Prussia with the Germans and the Poles, and in the far north of Germany between Germans and Danes. That is, it then became clear that nationalist movements were profoundly antagonistic to one another and that nationalism was a militaristic, bellicose ideology. This was a great disappointment and left many nationalists frustrated.

Marx and Engels developed an instrumental relationship to nationalism. For instance, Marx was a fan of Polish nationalism because it was violently anti-Russian, and he saw the destruction of the Tsarist Empire as a central revolutionary step. Marx’s daughter Jenny, who followed in her father’s political footsteps and became a left-wing journalist in her own right, wrote mostly about her support for Irish nationalism, not communism or the labor movement. Marx and Engels ended up supporting Irish nationalism, because they thought it might ultimately destroy the position of the landowning Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and this, they thought, would be a blow to English capitalism and capitalism worldwide. There were lots of other nationalisms that they didn’t like, like that of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe—which tended to be anti-German and pro-Russian. Engels states in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, which is a sort of post-mortem of the revolutions of 1848, that if we have a revolution in Germany and the Czechs are opposed to it, we’ll just kill all of them—frankly genocidal rhetoric. We see here the way that that these disillusioned nationalities will not in fact spontaneously fraternize, and so it is necessary to view nationalism through its usefulness for revolutionary goals.

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The final issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

SL: Marx’s stint as an active revolutionary was spent editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. Reminiscing about the paper in later years, Engels asserted that “war with Russia and the creation of a united German republic were its two main themes” (226).[1] Explain the logic of this and, more generally, the strategic orientation of the paper vis-à-vis other socialists, such as Andreas Gottschalk, whom you described as a “True Socialist, [and] a friend, pupil, and close confidant of [the Young Hegelian philosopher] Moses Hess” (220). What was Marx’s political aim in the revolution of 1848? How did Marx’s political development over the previous half decade or so prepare him for the role he played as editor-in-chief of the New Rhineland News? How did his position evolve over the course of the 1848–49 revolution?

JS: You will remember this idea of the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution, the literal and analogous. Marx had a “double-track” political strategy in 1848 of achieving both of these revolutionary goals at once. His work in Cologne on the New Rhineland News represented the literal, “Jacobin” wing of this strategy that would call for a united German republic, the overthrow of the Prussian monarchy, and revolutionary war with Russia. Marx spent a lot of his time really socking it to the Prussians: making fun of the monarch, the royal family, government officials, tax collectors, and army officers. He stirred up the population against them all. The Prussian officials got angry because Marx was quite good at it. And in the western provinces, the Prussians were widely despised.

The other thing that Marx wanted to do was to organize the workers and to form a nationwide German workers’ association that would prepare for a new revolutionary struggle against the capitalists once this democratic republic was achieved. The first “Jacobin” part worked pretty well, but the workers’ association did not. Marx’s working-class, communist followers were disappointing. They spent a lot of time drinking in the cafes and playing dominoes, rather than trying to organize their fellow workers. In Cologne itself, Gottschalk headed a very large workers’ association—something like every one in three adult males in the city belonged to it—but to be honest it would be fair to describe him and his mentor Moses Hess in contemporary terminology as “airheads”—fabulists who believed that everybody was in favor of communism, and all you had to do was wait a little while in order for communism to emerge on its own. Gottschalk was notorious for refusing to take part in political campaigns. He sabotaged the elections to the German National Assembly by calling the democrats bourgeois frauds and calling on workers not to vote, thereby allowing the Cologne conservatives to dominate the election. He refused to join the republican and anti-Prussian campaigns. He was really screwing everything up, and all the democrats in Cologne were hostile to Gottschalk—Marx was no exception in this respect. When Gottschalk was arrested by the Prussian government in June 1848, Marx and his followers took control of his organization and attempted to use it to support the democrats. But instead the organization itself collapsed, so that Marx found himself, in 1848, pursuing only the Jacobin/democratic half of his political agenda.

In the fall of 1848, a period of revolutionary crises, Marx was busy stirring up efforts to overthrow the Prussian government, and in November these came very close to succeeding. He continued in this vein until the very end of the revolution, until in the spring of 1849 he suddenly changed his mind and began trying to organize the workers again. He broke with the democrats and the movement for German National Unity, and stood aside in the last revolutionary crisis of May 1849. There’s this odd back-and-forth pattern, which would be the same with the International Workingmen’s Association, within which we see the difficulty Marx had in getting both prongs of his “double recurrence” to work simultaneously.

SS: As the U.S. Civil War reached a revolutionary pitch and Polish nationalists rose in revolt against the czar, Marx came to help form the International Workingmen’s Association. Respecting Marx’s involvement in the association and its original aims, you write,

Marx’s plans for the association appeared in his agenda for the First Congress of the IWMA... The items for action included the advocacy of social reform—a shorter workday, limitations on women and children’s labor, the replacement of indirect with direct taxation, an international inquiry into workplace conditions, and the endorsement of producers’ cooperatives and trade unions. There were just two expressly political points, both taken from the arsenal of nineteenth century radicalism: the replacement of standing armies with militias; and “the necessity of annihilating the Muscovite influence in Europe... [via] the reconstitution of Poland on a social and democratic basis.” (358, ellipsis in original)

Starting from this basis, how did the IWMA politically evolve? What developments did it face and what were the central tensions within it? What were the primary aims Marx sought to advance in his struggles over the direction of the First International? How did these evolve into a struggle with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and what was at stake there?

JS: As you can see in the quote, one might think of Marx’s objectives in the IMWA as not involving any specifically revolutionary goals. He saw the IMWA primarily in terms of trade union and workplace-related reform movements. Marx believed that these would ultimately be revolutionary in nature because of his theory of surplus value, according to which capitalists gain their profits by taking part of the product that workers have produced. Marx saw unions as trying to seize some of that surplus value back from the capitalists. He hoped that, if the unions continued this effort with the support of the IMWA, it would tend to reduce capitalist profits and lead to a revolutionary crisis. This was a long-term strategy that would take a while to work out. Marx was supported in these ideas by the English trade unionists that formed the backbone of the IWMA and provided it with most of its meager finances.

The opponents of Marx were revolutionary adherents of secret societies, who saw the IWMA as a means by which to overthrow the existing order in Europe. They were interested above all in this idea of a secret society organization. At first, this was less the case for Bakunin than for the followers of the French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, who spent the 1830s–1870s plotting revolutions, trying them out, going to jail, being released, and plotting new ones.

There were two things that created tensions in the IWMA. One was its spread, from Northern and Western Europe (where it began), to countries in Southern Europe, where there weren’t really any trade unions, but where the tradition of secret societies was still very active. The second was the Franco–Prussian war of 1870, which disrupted politics all across the European continent. Marx was actually not at first hostile to Bakunin. The two became friends when they met in exile in France in the late 1840s, and Marx was always very impressed with him. When they met again some 15 years later, Marx wrote to Engels saying that Bakunin was one of the few people who had moved forward in the interval rather than backwards. Bakunin was an enormous fan of secret societies, and became involved with some very dubious ones like that of Sergey Nechayev, who was famously depicted in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. He therefore found himself increasingly in opposition to Marx. This eventually led to a break between the two, and a struggle for control of the IWMA. As part of this struggle, Marx decided that the IWMA had to endorse the idea of workers’ political parties. At the time, very few workers’ political parties existed. There were two competing ones in Germany at the time, but Marx trusted neither entirely. This led to a ferocious struggle between Marx and his followers, and frankly every other element in the IWMA. In the 1872 Hague conference, Marx’s followers were victorious and they expelled Bakunin. They then moved the headquarters of the IWMA to New York, basically with the intention of destroying the organization; Marx realized that plans for revolution probably had to be shelved after the repression of the Paris Commune. Just as Marx took control of the organization, he chose to bring it to an end.

SL: Why was Marx concerned to maintain the IWMA as an open, democratic political activity? A quarter century before, Marx and Engels had fought to publicize the activities of the Communist League, though it is true that, after the reverses of 1849, the Communist League took on a secret, underground form. Still, is it fair to say that the struggles in the IWMA repeat his struggles in 1847 for an open form of politics and publication?

JS: I think so. The Communist League did adopt a clandestine form after 1849, but that’s because open political activity was essentially impossible in an age of revolutionary repression. Marx was always a proponent of open politics. He was a newspaper editor—this was always one of his chief forms of political activism. Marx was suspicious of secret societies and believed wholeheartedly in open politics. One of the ironies of his struggles against Bakunin was that Marx was convinced Bakunin was trying to undermine the IWMA by smuggling in his followers in order to form a secret society within the IWMA itself. This was actually not the case, and it was ironically one of Marx’s allies who was proposing this idea, the veteran German revolutionary Johann Philipp Becker. Marx flew off the handle at Becker’s suggestions, and thought he was being manipulated by Bakunin.

SS: Two of Marx and Engels’s key associates in the German workers movement were Ferdinand Lassalle and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Eventually, it was Liebknecht, who opposed Lassalle’s coziness with Bismarck, who came to enjoy Marx and Engels’s support. One crucial division between the two, and what eventually divided Lassalle from Marx as well, was again the question of nationalism. As veterans of 1848, they all supported in some sense the cause of Germany, but Marx articulated this as an anti-Prussian demand for a German republic. Yet, in the face of eventual German unification enforced by Prussia, Marx and Liebknecht were forced to make something of it. This meant coming to some sort of terms with the followers of Lassalle. What were the fundamental underlying tensions expressed by Liebknecht’s opposition to the Lassalleans and to what extent were these overcome?

JS: There were three issues here. One was the question of the nature of a united German nation-state. Would it be a Grossdeutsch one that included the ethnic Germans of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or would it be a Kleindeutsch one, without those Germans, and so exclusively dominated by Prussia? Marx was always a Grossdeutscher and, certainly, Liebknecht was a follower of Marx on this point, while Lassalle was strongly opposed. But the issue was ultimately decided by war: The Prussians trounced the Austrians in 1866, therefore Bismarck’s state would be a Prussian–dominated Kleindeutsch state. Marx was unhappy with this, but he understood that he had to come to terms with it.

The second issue was whether the German nation-state would be a democratic republic or not. Liebknecht, as a veteran of the revolution of 1848, was a strong adherent of the idea of a democratic republic. Lassalle was too, though he flirted with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and had conspiratorial meetings with Bismarck. This tension too was decided by history. The united German nation‑state persecuted both the followers of Liebknecht and Lassalle equally, and the followers of Lassalle increasingly became opponents of the existing monarchical order.

The third issue, and this was the really tricky one, was the question of relations between the labor movement and liberal–progressive parties in the German government. Lassalle and his followers clearly despised the liberals and made deals with the conservatives, while Liebknecht and his followers were willing to make deals with at least those democrats that shunned the conservatives. This was an issue that, even after the two wings of the labor movement united at the Gotha Congress of 1875, remained alive in the German socialist party. There were some who felt that opposing liberalism was their primary aim, even if it meant collaborating with conservative authorities. Others felt that opposing the conservative authorities should be the primary aim, even if that meant collaborating with the liberals. |P

Transcribed by Tom Willis


[1]. See Friedrich Engels, “Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49)” available at <ahref="http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/03/13.htm">http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/03/13.htm. In that 1884 piece, Engels observes, “The political program of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung consisted of two main points: A single, indivisible, democratic German republic and war with Russia, including the restoration of Poland.”

Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz, Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording] 

 

Last spring, in response to Paul Mason's article “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?,” the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an event on the “death of art.”[1] Speakers included Julieta Aranda who was represented by Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz, Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee. The discussion was moderated by Chris Mansour and was held at the New School in New York on February 23, 2013. Complete video of the event can be found online at the above link. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

 

Anton Vidokle: These are Julieta Aranda’s opening remarks: It was with a strange sense of déjà vu that I accepted the invitation to attend yet another funeral for art. Of course I have heard about all the previous ones, but this is the first time I have been invited to attend one. As an artist it is hard to understand the compulsion to establish our sense of art history through the recurrent announcements of “the death or art.” Art seems to be constantly dying, but we never talk much about its birth. It must have been stubbornly reborn on countless occasions, since we are here again, trying to measure its vital signs. I tried to do a bit of a research into the many deaths of art—but I was quickly overwhelmed: In one way or another, we have been trying to put art in a coffin and nail it shut for the past 2,000 years.

In the 1980s—during the art market boom—there were plenty of death calls: the death of painting, the death of modernism, and also the death of postmodernism. Meanwhile, the New York art market was very much alive, fueled by the usual suspects: speculators, investors, real estate developers, social climbers, and so forth. Of course as with everything that is artificially inflated, there was an eventual market crash, and this crash had many casualties. Many galleries disappeared, and many artists’ careers dried out. But this wasn’t understood to be the death of art as it had been previously announced.

I am skeptical about the Peter and the Wolf announcements of an imminent death of art –this time in its “contemporary” incarnation. For me, it is more interesting to question the favorable disposition—almost a wish—that we have towards the demise of art. The death sentence on contemporary art comes not only because the current operative model for contemporary art is deficient. (Under the current model, meaning is often quickly emptied out from objects and images, and market artists are a renewable resource.) But this wish also comes partly because we want a new big thing, we want the new thing to come now, and we want to be the new thing while the market is booming. As Hito Steyerl, a German video artist and writer, points out in her Kracauer Lecture, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” “To declare something over or dead is a form of production, that purposefully kills off something in order to launch new commodities or attract attention.”[2]

To assume a one-to-one equivalence between contemporary art and the art-market for contemporary art—so that we can pass a summary judgment and quickly condemn it to death as an evil that needs to be eradicated—would be like holding a perfunctory trial, the outcome of which we know in advance.

What happens, in this case, to artistic practices that have no market value? And, what happens to art that is currently produced in situations where there is no market? Is this art not contemporary? Is this art also dying?

If we choose to talk about the art of the past 50 years only in the ways in which it has been coded by capital, we may be simplifying the body we are trying to find, and giving it an outline we can reject. Paul Mason’s recent article for the BBC refers exclusively to a contemporary art that is full of obscenely rich “concept artists,” whose work is executed by “minions” and subsequently, that artists involved in Occupy are pitted against a world described as “the white-walled gallery: with its air of non-committal, its preference for meaningless gesture, its reliance on interpretation by the viewer, and its extreme focus on commercialization.”[3]

The problem is that, if we accept the above definition of contemporary art’s body, we are (again) defining this body; we are ready to bury it as that of a white male. In the interest of the art that I care for, I feel compelled to challenge that definition. While the structure of the gallery system is indeed troublesome, to use it as a synonym for all of the contemporary artistic practices outside of the work of the artists affiliated with Occupy would be a gross misrepresentation; more so, it would be one that persists in depicting the West, and specifically New York, as the center of the world. While this is true for New Yorkers, it is not necessarily true for everybody else.

We could go ahead and declare that contemporary art, as we know it, is dead or dying, and replace it with the next new black: today, Occupy; tomorrow, something else. But to be ready to broadly dismiss contemporary art in a summary gesture, replacing it entirely with a “new” understanding of art that is advocating an obligatory commitment to explicit leftist political ideologies and a sense of social purpose, doesn’t actually sound so new to me. Hasn’t this conversation been going on continuously since the 1920s?

In fact, it makes me think of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and of Cambodia’s Year Zero, or of Plato’s position towards poets in the Republic:

But, for our own good, we ourselves should employ a more austere and less pleasure-giving poet and story-teller, one who would imitate the speech of a more decent person and who would tell his stories in accordance with the patterns we laid down when we first undertook the education of our soldiers.[4]

Good intentions aside: isn’t this model slightly prescriptive?

As far as it goes to meaning in contemporary art, when I see the work of artists like Walid Raad or Jimmie Durham or Katerina Seda, what I see is the ways in which they successfully smuggle into the dominant narrative of histories and images what would otherwise would not be accessible. I do not consider their practice less meaningful just because they enjoy a considerable degree of success, and I certainly appreciate the histories and images that they smuggle in that retain all of their original political complexity and their uncomfortable qualities, without being flattened or prepackaged into ready-to-eat morsels.

It is extremely problematic that there is a financial apparatus currently rigged around contemporary art—since it may be the biggest instance of an art market that has ever been in operation. On top of this, the concomitant professionalization of the art system, which aims at feeding this market through a proliferation of expensive art schools and training programs put in place to train domesticable and reliable artists that can produce viable commodities, only adds fuels to the fire.

However, it is possible to understand to a certain degree the willingness of certain artists, but not all, to enter this problematic situation. It has been tacitly agreed that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with money. And while the idea of making a living from art is interpreted as being morally corrupt, there is no alternative system in operation to guarantee the welfare of artists. Artists who “sell out” are bad. But if they refuse to do that, then what happens to them? How are they supposed to make a living? It has always been unclear to me how are artists supposed to take care of mundane needs such as paying rent, going to the dentist, having dinner, and taking a child to the doctor.

The current conditions of production of art are dire. There has been a shrinking of unpredictable spaces, an erosion of relationships that are not professional, and a disappearance of a bohemian and non-domesticated world. This may be a temporary condition, only applicable “while the market lasts”, but it is a damaging condition nonetheless, a condition that could render the soul homeless.

As I look at the shape-shifting body of art on its contemporary inception—a body that doesn’t seem to fit its coffin or even its own definition—it has become clear to me that contemporary art may not be as simple as the single thread constructed that we try to collect as a digestible unit. Art produced today has many paradigms, some of them depleted, others full of potential. Art will transform, as it always has historically, and become something other than contemporary; an art that we don’t know yet—and which we will only know when it has arrived. Instead of a coffin, with all of its irreversible solemnity, it may be better to make sure that there are fertile conditions in place for the new art to come.

The patient will live! Let’s build a better world for her.

Paul Mattick: I will begin with Paul Mason’s suggestion that “Occupy signaled the death of contemporary art.” Since Occupy’s wonderful but short life has been over for some time, while contemporary art is rolling on, with its full panoply of artists, dealers, writers, auctions, museums, and collectors, the obvious response to this is, “No.” Mason’s own article confirms this, as it focuses on an Occupy activist turning, once the movement has been dispersed, to market her agitprop effort as contemporary art. On the other hand, one should beware of the obvious answer, and I will take another look at this question at the end.

It will be useful to define the chief term under discussion, or at least give my definition, so that we can know if and when we are talking about the same thing. “Art,” since it evolved in Europe in the late 18th century, has been the name for a social practice of valuing—and of collecting, making, attending to, and displaying—objects and performances capable of signifying the discernment of those who appreciate them. In a smaller mouthful, art gives body to taste and so makes it visible. The exercise of taste for artworks, like the exercise of choice, attests to the chooser’s freedom from necessity, or at least to a willingness to disregard it. “Necessity,” in the commercial culture that came into existence with modern society, means above all a concern with money—making it and spending it. Art developed its enormous importance within capitalism, the first culture in history to be dominated by the use of money, because it provides a social space for demonstrating freedom from commercial necessity. Art, the opposite of wage labor and capitalist entrepreneurship alike, is work done for love, not money; its collection and enjoyment signify a spiritual set of interests, raising the art-lover above the material concerns of “everyday life.” It is this that makes art so valuable and expensive.

Thus, in the 19th century, art allowed the newly ascendant bourgeoisie to claim the mantle of social superiority formerly worn by the landed aristocracy for whom paintings, architecture, music, dance, etc. had been not art but part of the paraphernalia of daily life. In the 20th century, “modern” art spoke for the claims of bourgeois society to have established values of its own, with, for instance, the motorcar sometimes supplementing and sometimes re-embodying the classic grace of the Parthenon.

The ascendancy of the United States, a self-made country without a feudal past, after World War II produced a new twist in the modernist version of art. While a turn-of-the-century magnate like J.P. Morgan still looked to Europe for the artworks required to show that America had arrived, post-war art-lovers, and indeed the American government itself, found the highest stage of artistic development in the new American art. This bourgeoisie, an American one, lacked the bad conscience of its forebears; now the most avant-garde art—originally produced to mark the distance between the artist and the bourgeois—became the official art of business society.

At various points in this long trajectory, the idea has arisen that art could come to an end. In the early 1800s, famously, when art was just beginning, Hegel believed art would, like religion, cede its cultural significance to philosophy; alas, I speak from the perspective of a professional philosopher: Philosophy has turned out to be of negligible cultural significance compared to art. The radical upheavals following World War I gave rise to various forms of the idea that the revolutionary transformation of daily life might lead to the absorption of art, in the form of industrial design, into life. Such ideas were encouraged by the habit of looking at art as pursuing an autonomous, unified history, with one “school” succeeded another “school”: a history directed, following the Hegelian model, towards the realization of a goal can be imagined to reach some sort of end when the goal is attained.

The success of “advanced” art in the post-war period gave rise to the related idea of the “death of the avant-garde.” An idea with much truth to it, since after 1960 the avant-garde system, with critics and other cultural intermediaries alerting maverick collectors to the masterpieces of the future, did in fact break down. The critics almost uniformly hated Pop art, but collectors bought it anyway, and soon the critics had to like it. With avant-gardism’s demise, the pluralism of the art world gradually became unmistakable, though attempts were made to hold it at bay by defining new avant-gardes, especially by academic writers and art historians like the members of the October circle. But, whatever the success of this attempt in academia, the art world saw the death of the critic, as control over taste was exercised by curators, auctioneers, and collectors themselves.

This process cannot be fully understood without reference to the development of capitalism itself in the same period. The crisis of the mid-1970s announced the end of the great post-war economic boom. Henceforth capitalism’s dynamism shifted increasingly away from productive investment towards financial speculation. We all know the results: the globalization of capital, on the one hand, and growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, on the other. With a new international elite concentrating a hitherto unknown share of the world’s wealth in its hands. Art—museum and gallery art, at any rate (the situation is rather different for art music)—became basically a possession of the global one percent, albeit a luxury good whose value still requires general visibility and appreciation.

What might be said above all to have met its death as this state of affairs developed is the role of educated people, whom Pierre Bourdieu called “the dominated fraction of the dominating class,” as the arbiters of cultural value. This is part of a general devaluation of the thing once celebrated as “culture,” manifested in such phenomena as the decline of liberal arts education and growing un- and under-employment of the educated, now condemned by the new terms of a credit-enabled capitalism to lifelong debt peonage. This has had effects directly for artists, and one of the interesting things, which was mentioned in Aranda’s comments, is the material disappearance of bohemian life: cheap rent, affordable studios, and so forth.

Occupy was above all the protest of this social fraction: the devalued educated. As such it was, as a friend observed to me, a symptom of the same condition which has given rise to talk of the death of art: the end of art as a cultural possession of the educated middle class. This neither means that art is over, as the social practice that has been with us for the last three centuries, nor that people will stop making things and performances for a wide variety of purposes, inside and outside the art world proper. It does mean that the conditions of art making and appreciation have altered in important ways that it would be well worth taking some time to try to understand.

Yates Mckee: Since there's a tone of morbidity and death and loss in the air, I wanted to read from Tidal 4, a piece called “On Love, Loss, and Movement”:

We came to the park in mourning.
We had lost so much. We turned mourning
into militancy and felt awakened. We
discovered that all was not past, that there
was a present in which we might live. We
cracked history open, and time seemed full.
Everything was happening in the Now.

Then came the eviction, and we were
dispersed. In the aftermath of the park, we

mourn what was lost. We know that we can
never fully separate from it. It is inside us,
it haunts us, it speaks to us. We are bound
by it. But it does not tie us down to the past.
The beloved whispers: “you must learn to
live. Now.”

This means letting go of that perfect
future where all the wrongs will be right.
That future will always be postponed, not
yet open, unavailable--and thus an object
of melancholic sadness in advance. We do
not wait and lament.

The storms of Wall Street are unrelenting.
It is what they call progress. There is no
shelter, no park, where we can ride this
out. We have to learn to live in the open.
There comes a moment when we know
that we can’t go on. But we go on. It’s easy
to break up. To continue with love is hard.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t look back.[5]

I do think there is a crisis surrounding the death and definition of contemporary art and its identity. I am intrigued by this question of ends, deaths, and finalities, but it does seem to risk making that into a grand tradition—the negative dialectic of death and rebirth. On the one hand, we want to avoid any apocalyptic declarations, since we know that is naïve. On the other hand, it should still be possible to try to describe and account for a break. Recently in the U.S., Occupy opened up space to rethink the nature of cultural practice, of the relationship between art and politics, in ways that were anticipated by the most exciting currents in contemporary art. At the moment, some of the taken-for-granted protocols of contemporary art have fallen apart, but that doesn't mean there is no more art.

Here is a little dialectic image: “the people's library” at Zucotti Park in October of 2011. The librarian created an arts and culture section, where you could read a copy of October magazine devoted to “the contemporary” from 2010. On the right is a copy of the Occupy Wall St Journal that is being displayed on the wall at MoMA, with the special poster edition, with designs by Josh MacPhee, Paul Chan, and other contemporary artists. What does it mean for the history of the avant-garde to pop up in an avant-garde political practice, and vice versa, what does it mean for cultural products of that movement to end up back in MoMA—even after MoMA had been a site of struggle for Occupy with the struggle and lockout of the Sotheby’s workers.

Much of Occupy was anticipated, consciously and unconsciously, in a lot of the most interesting contemporary art of the past ten years: Thomas Hirschhorn, Sharon Hayes, and the whole field of social practices. It is not as if Occupy came about as a movement and then artists came along and got involved. In fact, artists were deeply involved from the very beginning of Occupy in August 2011, and their involvement has to do with opening a space of imagination, something absent from the Left in the US for a long time.

The magazine Tidal provided the impetus for post-May Day organization. A series of assemblies emerged that started discussing the possibility of making debt the focus of our political movement. Like Occupy, people having conversations in public space, with the crucial feature that people psychologically and emotionally were able to “come out” and to have a testimonial experience. This was a groundbreaking moment in getting “strike debt” in motion. Student debt was a key focus, but we also addressed the housing and mortgage crisis, which were central to the concerns of Occupy.

Tidal is also an example of a practice that artists started in which the visual, aesthetic, and graphic elements are really crucial. But it doesn't define itself in terms of art. It takes advantage of artistic platforms, cultivates an ongoing dialogue with the art world, and mobilizes its resources. It is not like art is dead, and now we have a new avant-garde with Occupy, but it is a spectrum. It was a tactical choice to engage with art, which can be very critical and productive, and breaks us out of a frame when it becomes one of the primary platforms for the intellectual discourse of the movement.

How do we visualize something as abstract as debt, as something that is embodied and very immediate? How do debtors respond to one another in an image, experience, assembly, slogan? How does that become a new kind of political identity? An important development in the iconography of strike debt was borrowing the red square from the Québec students. The red square was taken as an emblem of us all being in the “red,” that is, subjugated to debt. It was a uniform symbol that took the form of a wearable piece of felt, so that it was actually very bodily, intimate, tactile, but also irregular and unifying, as it links the bodies of the debtors to others.

We know we are not going to be able to pay off our debts; and we are scared and isolated. What does it mean to embrace that as a common condition, and turn it into a militant refusal of the debt system? The actual gesture of burning the debt symbol becomes a performative ritual on the part of the debtors. Over the summer there were debt burning rituals that were incorporated into the assembly at the one-year anniversary of Occupy.

All the aesthetic, artistic, and symbolic dimensions of strike debt are interwoven with analysis, publishing efforts, actions, and assemblies and that is what is qualitatively new, in terms of the contemporary artistic field. The elaboration of non-expert amateur props, these are aesthetic experiments, which, with the support of the institutional and formalized art world, such as the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Creative Time Summit, and artists like Martha Rosler, help secure resources and plug in more people. The point is that these are practices and ideas grounded in the experimental laboratory that is contemporary art.

Gregg Horowitz: It is unclear to me why the concept of the death of art even matters. Does anybody organize their practice, in light of this concept, any longer? Yates’s presentation affirmed that, for me, there is almost nothing going on there, you have a break, an end, but the idea of death has sort of vanished. If the death of art is not all that useful in the self-understanding of contemporary art practice, what about the “art” concept? Let’s just suppose, art is dead, and what that means is that we cannot understand our practices in light of that concept. Why is it so hard to give up a concept, the passing of which has been noted in various ways?

Giving up the concept turns out to be hard, and we do not give up the concept by holding on to another concept, which is that of the death of art. That is the way in which we hold on to the concept of art. Although I have written probably too much on the death of art, I find the concept increasingly inscrutable. I know what it means for a cultural practice to cease being meaningful, either because it falls out of the cultural repertoire, as is happening to the practice of striking film prints of movies, which will make a difference in how we experience movies, or because it becomes mere routine, like saying “Have a good day” at the end of a conversation.

If you listen to that set of words these days, they are at a state of involution. It is the sound of routinization of what was a meaningful cultural practice. But that can’t be the meaning of art being dead, since art has become practically inescapable in recent years and, while the interpretation and consumption of it can’t keep up with the flow of product, the increasing volume of interpretation and consumption indicates that the practice of art has not become merely one of routine.

The near ubiquity of art and its products in our everyday worlds must be what is behind the peculiar thought expressed in Paul Mason’s article that the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of Occupy somehow signal the death of contemporary art. Although the significance of Occupy has yet to play itself out enough for anyone to draw a conclusion about its consequences, one would think that, with its openly political ambitions, what it would represent the end of would be, say, the hegemony of neoliberalism. How one could come to care instead about the impact of Occupy on the gallery system is, on the face of it, risible. But art is not simply ubiquitous. It is like kudzu: where anything grows now, art grows, too, and faster. But this is a sign that art is not a dead practice but rather a fervidly, strappingly healthy one. Such was also the sentiment expressed by the Dadaists when they declared, for instance, “Die Kunst is tot! Es lebe die neue Maschinenkunst Tatlins!” The practice in the name of which art is declared dead, the practice liberated by the death of art, is machine-art. “Art is dead! Long live art!”

Art is unkillable.

But what I find most inscrutable about the sentiment is not the superficial thought that art is dead but the underlying thought that art ever was alive. Although Hegel never said that art had died, but rather that it was and remained on the side of its highest destiny a thing of the past, which is a much different thought, he nonetheless revealed that the myth of living works of art was an essential part of the way the practice of art lives on in its post-classical “after-life,” in the age, that is, of its self-awareness as a practice with its own, autonomous values and ambitions. It is a mythic fate that art throws on to its past. From this point of view, it becomes thinkable that the supposed life of art is a backward formation that enables art to die again and again, to remain, in other words, perpetually undead, so that post-artistic practices can remain vital in evading the same fate. The death of art is, we might say, a meme of contemporary artistic consciousness in which is distortedly expressed a discontent with the increasing artistic encrustation of the contemporary world. Better: not just as a meme, it is a zombie idea and, since the content of the idea is zombiehood itself, it is a meta-zombie idea whose importance lies not in its truth-value as such but in its special place in zombie self-reflection.

Because zombies have become ubiquitous in contemporary culture—nearly as ubiquitous as art, but not quite—there is something both cheap and meta-meta in my recruiting them into the project of making the death of art intelligible, of metabolizing it, and digesting it. But the contemporary zombie figure is actually a pretty good image for the undeadness of art. The zombie was a figure of Vodun magic, a dead person reanimated by witchcraft; scary, but really nothing more than an embodiment of Benjamin’s idea that we live in an age when not even the dead are safe. But the contemporary zombie is not just reanimated. It is back for blood. To the return of the dead we have added undying hunger.

Death is the radical outside of hegemonic systems that pretend to close off all alternatives. As radical outsideness, death offers the prospect of nothing but hope. But the figure of the zombie undermines even this source of hope, for where death is, there old needs gather and swarm. For us, not even death represents hope.

There is another way to understand the contemporary flesh-eating zombie precisely as a figure of hope. The zombie is embodied need when need’s fateful entry into the web of social norms is taken off the table.

There is a new zombie movie called Warm Bodies in which apparently zombies can fall in love. The zombie is the figure that embodies our horror at human need, that it may not be adequately mediated by social norms. But one might turn that right around and say that that’s precisely what’s hopeful about the figure of the zombie, for in it we imagine a moment of hunger utterly outside of social appropriation. The zombie, in this sense, represents the conjunction of social death and undying human need, the conjunction that, for the Marxist left, has been expressed in the thought that the proletariat is simultaneously the inside and outside of capitalism; the conjunction of social death and that dying need. The zombie will not lay down its need in exchange for a bag of food. It wants life, which is the one thing it cannot have. The zombie, in this light, is a figure which both embodies the limit of a social order and the imagination of its recommencement.

And so with art: the undeadness of art rests not on an earlier life, but rather on our need to imagine the outside of what we have now, to hope for it, in the form of what cannot die.

debt burning

 

Q&A

What about practices that reference past political movements—what the posters looked like in the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, or the aesthetic of the 1960s New Left? It seems like there are deliberate attempts to reference the past even though, as Yates put it, “we are not [invested in] looking back”, and called saw Occupy as a break, as something fundamentally new. But what is the importance in this refusal to look back, especially because we still live in capitalism, and there are no revolutionary politics to speak of right now.

YM: The importance of historical memory and intergenerational dialogue can be overstated and that is clear in Tidal and in Occupy. What my generation drew as lessons from the past came from movements like ACT-UP, the Black Panthers, and radical labor struggles. When I say that we must resist looking back, that is really about resisting melancholy, of recognizing where things are now: the occupation in the parks was a crack, a rupture, and created a new kind of space. But now we no longer have the park and it is not a moment that we can ever really recreate. We want to talk about it in terms of the principle of direct action, of living and caring for one another without the mediation of the state, without the mediation of capital, as something that really intervened in the taken-for-grantedness of capitalism, of people being alone and isolated, and generating an opening up of the imagination of about how to live differently. It is pre-figurative politics. People will say that Occupy changed the conversation, it changed the horizon of inequality, but it is not just about that. Occupy is also about practicing an alternative form of living relative to one another. That is were the resistance comes in. It is also about the actual practice: how you do it.

The point about not looking back is to not be nostalgic for the park, for that moment of everyone being physically present. But it is also about the Left’s melancholy for the whole Left. The whole Left is also attached to lost ideals. Its identity is often parasitically dependent on the fact that things don’t dramatically change. That’s something Occupy really disrupted. Not looking back does not mean, don’t be historical, don’t remember, but rather, don’t be dominated by the past, whether the past of Occupy, or the past of the Left, because the Left tends toward melancholy fixation.

GH: Then the question “If art will be possible in the absence of the Left?” becomes, I think, really pressing. Which itself seems to beg a sort of interesting question, which is not what we mean by art, by the death of art, but what do we mean by the Left? And I want to ask this in a non-melancholic spirit. If nostalgia for the park is already on the horizon—how long ago was this? The fact is that Occupy, which is admirable in all sorts of ways, is not yet a political movement. If a year is a space on which nostalgia can perch, then we don’t have a politics here. I want to make this point broadly: what it means to say that the Left is attached to melancholy. The problem is not that we lack revolutionary politics. We should be so lucky to lack that. What we lack is politics, period. It is that simple. And we don’t know how to make sense of the way in which the political spectrum has collapsed around us. This may be a break, this may be something new, naked capitalism, but it is capitalism without a political emphasis. But if there is no contradiction being given form, then the prospect of giving form, that I take many of us care about, is not even on the table. So we are going to get really great posters and banners, but that next development in which there is a kind of outer politics, that still seems to me un-approached. I hope Occupy becomes nostalgia. Let that nostalgia flower at this moment.

 

In regards to how what appears as new is actually old, how might we understand that dynamic, in light of the domination of capital in a society that repeatedly subsumes the appearance of the new as it flares up? How can we understand this dynamic of old and new in terms of the possibility of political organization or the actual new?

PM: This is the big problem of human history. To paraphrase Marx: the past hangs like a millstone around our necks. People made the French Revolution; they imagined that they were ancient Greeks and Romans. People try to act politically in the 21st century; they think about Lenin and the storming of the Winter Palace. This is the value in the disappearance of historical memory. In a way, the extinction of the Left of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century brings its own loss, because something can be learned from historical inheritance, but it also clears the way for people to think in new ways. One of the fabulous things about Occupy was the total irrelevance of the past left, of the history of the Left, from its discussions and actions. No one was trying to form a new revolutionary party or argue about reformism verses revolutionary activity.

GH: The issue of how to save Western culture is not about saving what is on the table anymore but about asking what is on the table that might be worth destroying. That is, whether there is any orientation we can derive from it, that will allow is to see our way through the present, to give our politics a structure, to give our politics some normative force, or something like that. There is something very odd about the state of aesthetic discourse right now. Everyone is scrambling for a normative orientation. But I think we should step back for a moment and at least entertain the possibility that we cannot discern that and ask what a normative orientation would mean right now. So, as you say, you can declare art dead right now. Go ahead, do it, I give you permission. The problem is you get nothing from it. The juice in declaring it over has dried up.

YM: Imagine this: suddenly people in Occupy say, “That is beautiful.” You see some shit and say, “That is a beautiful action and that is a beautiful banner.” It is like militant beauty, militant Left, and it is a new thing. I want to redefine the notion of beauty. I am not scared that the aesthetic is going to fuck up the politics, because the politics are happening, and there is a new space for aesthetics.

AV: Isn’t the aestheticization of politics fascism? How is your proposal not the same thing?

YM: Well that was the Benjaminian argument. It totally makes sense with something like Triumph of the Will. It is the fact that aesthetics and politics are inseparable. It is not a fascist Gesamtkunstwerk, but the fact that there are moments we experience and feel that appear in a modern mode deeply embedded in our project. Benjamin would be the dialectical counterpart. That is the danger, to fall into the aestheticization of politics, in the old sense. The new sense of aesthetics and politics is not fascist and awful, but actually, “Oh my god that is a beautiful demonstration.” Is it fascist to say that?

PM: What people miss about the death of art is that utopian moment: The idea of the merging of art in everyday life, not the fact that art is not with us as an aspect of the disappearance of the Left. It seems to me that the counterpart to that is the treatment of Occupy as an aesthetic event, as a piece of performance art. It is a very striking idea. But not an accurate one. The American version is more prone to branding and aestheticization. But if you put Occupy into the international context, it seems to be part of a much larger social movement, like in Greece, which is in fact too large and too political to be contained by these aesthetic categories. But the fact that it so quickly turned into an aestheticized object is a sign of the present day weakness of the politics. This seems to be a call to deepen the political aspects of it.

GH: We are in a moment when our political weakness is being tested all over. But so too is the strength therefore of a kind of quasi-autonomous aestheticizing mechanism. Stuff gets turned into spectacle; it is not a deliberate tactic on anybody’s part because they are not apparently depoliticized. It just becomes spectacular so immediately. Tom Finkelpearl, the director of the Queens Museum, who works with all sorts of social practice art, asked me a question I never thought of asking myself, “Why does everyone want to know, is it art? Why does that question matter?” But it does matter; it’s kind of a driving question. It brought to mind a perspective of one of the originators of social practice art, Gordon Matta-Clark, although he did not have the concept for it at the time. Now I hate going to galleries because I am afraid I am going to be fed the art. I feel I am in some bizarre version of degenerative politics: here is the stuff itself, eat it. And the concept oddly becomes so robust, that it is almost hard to think about social practice without thinking about art, or political practice. |P

Transcribed by Chris Mansour and Bret Schneider


[1]. Paul Mason. “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?” BBC News, 30 April 2012, available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17872666.

[2]. Hito Steyerl, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” available online at http://www.kracauer-lectures.de/en/sommer-2013/hito-steyerl/.

[3]. Mason, “Occupy.”[[3]]

[4]. Plato, Republic, trans. C.V.C Reeves (New York: Hackett, 2004), §398b.

[5]. Anonymous, Tidal Occupy Theory, February 2012, 15. The issue is available online at http://tidalmag.org/pdf/tidal4_block-by-block.pdf.

Roger Rashi, Sam Gindin, Stephen Eric Bronner, Aaron B, and Richard Rubin

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

 

This year’s Platypus International Convention concluded with the plenary “Program and Utopia,” held on June 6 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This closing plenary brought together Roger Rashi, founding member of Québec Solidaire; Aaron B., of the Endnotes collective; Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University, scholar of modernism and the history of socialism, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); Sam Gindin, author, and director of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly; and Richard Rubin, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that night. A full video of the plenary can be found online at the above link.

 

Roger Rashi: Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. I am honored to be on a panel with such distinguished guests. Can utopia and program be merged in a new, formal relation in the 21st century? It will not be easy, but I think we can follow the example of Marx, who, as the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, synthesized the utopian and the political trends within French Socialism and thereby politicized utopia. Marx hypothesized that, by seizing power, we could eventually, through a series of stages, arrive at a classless society. This synthesis was put to the test in the 20th century and has not come out unscathed. Can we undertake this synthesis again in the 21st century? I believe we can. However, it will be a difficult process that requires our involvement in mass struggles and in the anti-neoliberal movements, which are starting to merge into one.

Today, the Left is in crisis. But there remain many social movements. The first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of mass movements challenging neoliberalism. This has taken two major forms. In Latin America there is the “pink tide”—Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador—representing attempts to use state power to move gradually towards a form of socialism, although it is not socialism yet. Then, there is the new active struggle in the Middle East and southern Europe: the tremendous movement of the Arab Spring and the ongoing fight against austerity, respectively. Out of these movements, how can we craft a new political expression for the Left that will synthesize utopia—the goal of a classless society—and program, the practical movement towards formulating this kind of plan?

One approach is to come back to a vision of communism that Marx had in the middle of the 19th century. Here we should remember that Communism is not just a program or a utopia, but the actual movement attempting to abolish the existing state of affairs. It is the practical movement struggling against the status quo. From this perspective we can understand the emergent Left parties in different parts of the world, including Québec City, where I live. In the movement there, we have tried to develop from a united front against neoliberalism into a political party that can engage in elections as well as mass struggles—what we call combining the street and the ballot. We hope to move towards an understanding of what it means to overcome neoliberalism as well as the basis of neoliberalism: capitalism.

This difficult work cannot be done, today, the same way we organized in the 1960s or 1970s. We have to adopt new forms of organization and new ways of seeing the political party, not in terms of a “commandist” party, nor even necessarily a vanguardist party. One thing we need is a reformist structure akin to the classic social-liberal right party. The clearest struggle to establish that is SYRIZA in Greece, which is maturing from the anti-austerity struggle to formulating a practical program and at least posing the possibility of seizing state power. It is a question of gradually transforming the correlation of forces into something that would open up the door to a new society.

SYRIZA in Greece, along with the governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, are examples of the form that a reconstituted left-wing political party can take in the 21st century. But, practically, how can you develop from fighting neoliberalism into a politics that expresses the new vision of socialism? We are doing this in the organization I work with, Québec Solidaire, by allowing left-wing collectives in our party. In the past few weeks we have formed a network of the existing collectives in Québec Solidaire around the vision of eco-socialism. Partly, we have done this to relate to the recent mass struggles in Québec. On April 22, 2012, an Earth Day demonstration opposing the reactionary policy of the Canadian federal government linked up with the student mass struggle, culminating in a group of around 300,000 people in the streets of Montreal. This had grown into a generalized opposition to neoliberalism by mid-May, when the provincial government decided to outlaw demonstrations of more than 50 people. In response, roughly 300,000 undeterred activists engaged in an act of civil disobedience for a May 22nd demonstration. Police repression increased to an incredible degree. Close to 500 were arrested in 48 hours. We were coming to a crucial point. The police were about to shut down the movement.

What happened is an amazing development that has not yet been analyzed. All of a sudden, a call was put out on Facebook to start demonstrations around the working class neighborhoods of Montreal, in a practical rejection of neoliberalism. Tens of thousands of people spontaneously joined these demonstrations, over a period of two weeks, in the various working class neighborhoods of Montreal. This drove the police crazy. They could not repress several different demonstrations exploding at the same time in different areas, linking themselves up at different parts of the city without any pre-planned advice or announcements about where to go. The government could not repress the student movement, and thus was forced to call elections.

One crucial task is ensuring that this free radicalism enters labor. Students, soon after they have finished college, go on the labor market and get jobs. Some of them will decide, and some of them have already decided, to join community organizations or unions. Hopefully this new generation of activists, which have come out of this mass movement, will bring in this tradition of mass struggle and help to change the orientation of the labor movement. Will this bear fruit in the long term? It is hard to say. Right now it is hard to establish whether SYRIZA’s approach will succeed, for instance, or if a different course is necessary. In the meantime, I don’t think we can afford to neglect the social movements. We must struggle to bring the social movements into new forms of expression through parties like SYRIZA, Québec Solidaire, Left Front in France, the Red/Green alliance in Denmark, and the Left Bloc in Portugal.

Sam Gindin: What is it we do at this historical moment when the defeat of labor—the traditional base of the Left—and the defeat of the Left itself have been so profound? First, I want to clarify how profound the defeat has been. There are always examples of positive things that are happening, but they tend to be localized and sporadic. It is not clear whether they can be sustained. We have now lived through more than a generation of this defeat, without any of us being able to develop an effective response. When the crisis hit, it really brought home to a lot of people just how weak we are. Here was a crisis in which capital should have been delegitimized—not just finance, but capitalism itself—and yet it is the labor movement that is on the defensive again. We have to take this defeat seriously. Is the problem mainly a lack of vision on the Left, or a lack of program? One obstacle is the fatalism that has set in. They used to buy us off. They don’t even buy us off anymore—they just tell us that this is the way things are. People feel there is nothing to be done because most people haven’t experienced structures through which they can actually work to change the situation. They have survived individually.

A critical question for us at the moment is that of organization. The last time we had a crisis this deep was in the 1930s. The type of craft unionism widespread at the time proved completely inadequate, but workers figured out a form of organization that was much more inclusive in terms of industrial unionism. They didn’t do this alone. They accomplished this in the context of a wider movement composed of socialists and communists, among others, and this was crucial even for workers who themselves did not see much in communism.

Even as many different tactics are being tried, there is very little discussion about new forms of organization, especially in the labor movement. One thing that we need is an intermediate organization, lying between social movements and unions, that deals with specific issues or groups, but also involves itself in projects that are oriented toward transforming the state and society. At the moment, this kind of greater transformative politics is not open to us, in the sense that the movements and the unions do not match what we are up against. As it stands, they are not the answer. Since the defeat of the Left has been so great, we also lack a party that focuses on the state and transforming society. That is blocked, as well.

We have to develop something in between, something perhaps less ambitious, in some respects, yet exceedingly ambitious under current circumstances. Such an organization could help us form cells to do education within, but especially across workplaces. We have had, over the last 30 years, attempts to develop oppositional politics within unions, but these have missed the whole problem, which is the fact that unions are sectional organizations addressing the problems of a particular group of workers. We have to get workers fighting across unions. At some point this may mean taking on your own leadership, but we have to start somewhere. More generally, we have to take seriously the notion that class doesn’t just exist in the workplace. There are numerous dimensions of class. We have to take up organizing on a class basis in the community. This isn’t just about forming coalitions, but about having a politics that can recognize these other dimensions of our own lives. We have to get some notion of an alternative to the logic of capitalism back on the agenda again. Unfortunately, it matters far too little how democratic a society is, in other respects, so long as we remain under the constraint of supporting the accumulation of capital to keep our jobs.

In these intermediate organizations we need the kind of education that starts moving us toward developing socialist culture, and confident socialists along with it. This implies, of course, all sorts of debates around vision, utopia, strategy, and tactics. Again, this is not about coalitions. Those can work well to win a specific demand or press a certain issue, but everyone retains his or her identity and moves back to where they were before. We have to address the need for a new layer of politics in which people join as individuals, keeping up whatever work they do in their movements or unions, but also becoming involved in this other form of organization. This new layer of politics would be regionally based, with assemblies at the city level, based explicitly on class and an anti-capitalist politics. Part of what makes something like this necessary is the fact that activism without understanding is not activism. Real organizers are intellectuals and activists. This intermediate organization would not be transitional. I think this is something that has to exist even if there is a party because, among other things, you need an institutional check on a new party whenever it does develop. For that reason, an intermediate organization or assembly should be there permanently and independently.

We have tried something like this in Toronto through what we call the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. Facing the moribund U.S. labor movement, Bill Fletcher once argued that, if you wanted to organize workers, you had to go beyond the unions and begin organizing in the community, because even where unions existed, the labor bureaucracy generally prevailed. We thought we would try this in Toronto. Some variation has been tried in Halifax, too, and there are discussions about Philadelphia and upstate New York right now. At first we were very cautious because we weren’t a party, and we were well aware that we were bringing together many people who didn’t have a common line. Consequently, we were reluctant to get into sharp debates. That was a problem, since it meant that we could not actually develop and self-correct; as it turns out, those kinds of debates are necessary. I am becoming more convinced that we should have those debates sooner rather than later.

A deeper problem is that, at a moment when the labor moment is not in struggle, it is hard for us to actually do things directly engaging the labor movement. If they are fighting, we can find creative ways to support the struggle, but we cannot advance struggles if workers are not fighting. Finally, there are great difficulties simply in terms of organizational capacity. You have this 1960s generation of activists, and then there is a generation of young people. There has been almost nothing in between. It is kind of a mixed bag, though I’ve been finding that a lot of the people who have been politicized through Occupy and the anti-war movement are actually rethinking many things. There are some people on the Left who write off anarchists and Wobblies, for example, but my experience is that a lot of them are learning from prior mistakes and developing, and we desperately need them. We will not find these cores of activists generally in the trade union movement; developing them will have to depend on people inside and outside the labor movement and on those with experience in the movements as well.

Stephen Eric Bronner: First of all, thank you for having me. I certainly agree with much that my comrades have said. Usually I speak about institutional obstacles to revolutionary change, especially with regard to the Middle East. Today, I am going to take the opportunity to talk about utopia, as this has not yet been much discussed.

Every political attempt to define utopia is inherently impoverished. In short, utopia is not really a political category. Each civilization has its own notion of utopia; to think that any of us, in any movement, can actualize utopia is already, one could argue, ethnocentric, racist, or sexist. The older descriptions of utopia and some new ones have a pastoral quality, like the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. There is the idea of the land of milk and honey, or the garden for the rich in Metropolis. The point is that we begin with the idea of what we want. Each civilization has its own images and hopes, from which, given the creation of a cosmopolitan sensibility—which hasn’t really been discussed either—every other civilization should be able to learn something. Utopian traces, or what Ernst Bloch called “anticipatory longings,” exist in the most various forms of art, philosophy, and religion—in fact, in most forms of human creativity. They provide insight into what humanity might truly want, or not want, and thus give utopia substance.

Utopia is not about the conquest of scarcity, per se, nor any particular institutional form to bring this about. Utopia is a matter not only of discovering, but also of recovering; it presupposes that we engage in the boldest imagination of what can shape our activity in some very direct way, but while retaining knowledge of the cultural past and the heritage that goes with this. Utopia has always appealed to the wretched of the earth. They understand the liberating character of what Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, termed “The Right to be Lazy,” and the longing, not to go to endless meetings in some idiotic, anachronistic idea of workers’ control, but rather the longing for a beautiful life, marked by calm, health, joy, and play. That’s what happiness is about. Happiness is about not working, and so right away something jumps out that is evident in nearly every mass movement, stemming from the labor movement: the demand to shorten the workweek.

Idealism and naïveté are not commensurate with utopia. Utopia is an anthropological element—it goes back to the beginning of civilization. Utopia speaks to both reform and revolution. Why it must speak to revolution is fairly obvious, but why it speaks to reform is less so—and yet, perhaps, more important. Utopia always retains an element of reform because it is never finished. A society that views itself as finished, or even firmly on the path to utopia, is, in my opinion, dystopian by definition. But employed critically, utopia points to previously unacknowledged forms of oppression and the liberating responses to them. As Brecht put the manner, in his own utopian play Mahagonny, “there’s always something missing.” We have to begin with that assumption.

In the questions I was given, there was a quote from Leszek Kolakowski about a “total program.” A total program is nonsense. It never existed, even with respect to Mao or the Nazis, and it cannot exist, because, again, there’s always something missing. By the same token, in Ideology and Utopia, Karl Mannheim noted how every genuine mass movement has been fueled by utopian impulses—that’s true even of social democracy. The bestselling book at the end of 19th century in the United States, after the Bible, was Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy, which was a type of social-democratic utopia. Utopia can help mobilize the movement, if you want, but at the same time each utopian attempt to mobilize entangles the idea of utopia with particular interests. A partial view of utopia is inherently introduced by every political organization as a substitution for a vision constituted by multiplicity and complexity. Utopia, in the hands of a movement, and especially without institutional accountability, is doomed to become ideology.

History does not move in a linear fashion. The fact of the matter is that progress in one area of society can occur while regression takes place in another. From the 1950s to today, there’s obviously been an expansion in the cultural freedom of individuals in terms of interracial marriage and recognition of homosexuality. But even as this cultural progress developed, there has been complete regression in terms of class forms, with a staggering upward shifting of wealth as never before seen.

If we look at it that way, contradictions from one period are not necessarily resolved before a new period arises. Sexism, racism, and homophobia are all interconnected. They were pre-capitalist phenomena carried over into a capitalist period and given a new function. Ernst Bloch called these “non-synchronous contradictions.” To deal with them is a matter of crucial importance. In the 20th century the deeper utopian visions seem to have emerged, not in politics, but elsewhere—namely, in 20th century modernism, which was completely infused with the idea of “new man,” but gave real substance to this notion more so than politics. It projected new ways of hearing, in Schoenberg; new ways of seeing, in somebody like Picasso; and many new ways of portraying the world.

Utopia is a longing for something different—different ways of experiencing, feeling, and producing. What we find is that, over time, new forms of oppression become apparent and so do new prospects for freedom. What I mean by utopia is consonant with what my old teacher Henry Pachter said: “One cannot have socialism—one is a socialist.” If we start thinking that way, we cut through most of the metaphysics. Socialism is as much a process as freedom or utopia is. Anyone who claims to have the secret to utopia is involved in demagoguery.

There’s a kind of moralistic renunciation that is most often heard from those who have no responsibilities dealing with power. I had to shake the hand of Bashar al-Assad when I visited with him as a delegation sponsored by U.S. Academics for Peace. We managed to get some prisoners released, thanks in part to our visit. I think it’s appalling for anyone to suggest that these kinds of reforms don’t count, or that they are merely secondary to the greater revolution. Revolution is illegitimate, in my view, when particular grievances cannot be heard. Every serious movement from below—the Civil Rights Movement, various feminist struggles, and many more—used the courts and various existing institutional structures to help crystallize their mobilization. These struggles achieved certain reforms, but were not “merely” about those reforms.

I once gave a talk in New York—it was at the Socialist Forum—and when I finished a kid raised his hand from the back of the room, and said, “Professor Bronner, I liked your idea of socialism, but it is not radical enough.” This interested me, so I asked, “What is your idea of socialism?” He responded, “It is where everyone controls everything.” I said, “That sounds great, but you better be prepared to go to a hell of a lot of meetings.” Meetings are not fun—that’s not what utopia is about. The very idea of participatory democracy, in this sense, is anachronistic. It goes back to the beginnings of every revolution. We need a new category of participatory democracy. How many of you consistently go to meetings of your city council? — I rest my case. This drive for endless meetings is just a way of avoiding doing anything constructive. If you want to speak about the imagination and social transformation, I don’t think the issue is participatory democracy—it may not even be participation!

The whole discussion taking place in Verso, with someone like Žižek calling for the rehabilitation of lost causes—without figuring out why they were lost in the first place—or Alain Badiou talking about the “Communist Hypothesis”—what is all this about, really? Marx’s entire discussion of communism, across roughly forty volumes of writing, comes to about ten pages, if that. He never positively described it. Communism was minimally defined, as a condition in which people are able to take control of their lives, without being affected by economic interests from the outside: as Marx and Engels put it, in the Manifesto, communism is an association in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” In short, Marx and Engels’s vision is an enhanced individualism. What progressive politics is really about—and we rarely speak clearly about this—is an expansion of possibilities for all individuals. People don’t want to work—so let’s shorten the workweek. Is that utopian? No. But it is informed by utopian impulses. We want better health. Not better healthcare—better health. Better healthcare may help achieve better health. Is that utopian? No. But it expresses a utopian impulse. Abstract utopian images do not go anywhere. Who are you going to make the revolution with? For all of my friends who are in small parties—maybe you want to consider why it is that the party is so small. Maybe it is because you actually have nothing to tell people.

If you want a utopian vision, these are the closing words of Literature and Revolution, concerning the imaginary communist future, written while Trotsky was traveling Russia by train organizing the Red Army:

Man will become immeasurably wiser, stronger, and subtler; his body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above these heights, new peaks will rise.

That’s utopia.

Aaron B: We’ve heard the term “Left” used a lot. We in Endnotes think this is an ambiguous concept. It’s all too easy to fall into an idealist conception of the Left, which can simply become an eternal idea, or a spontaneous moral position. We want to put some historical flesh on this concept. There have been two broad ways in which the concept of the Left has been employed in the 20th century: a social-democratic versus a Leninist conception. They’re both ambiguous, and Platypus seems to use the term in both senses, making it doubly ambiguous. Like many formalisms, the contemporary idea of the Left can be traced back to the French Revolution. Yet, for most of the 19th century, the term was restricted in its usage. It referred to a political grouping within parliament.

The Platypus Affiliated Society seems to be saying, “There was a time when the Left mattered, but that time is no longer. The Left is a corpse. We need to breathe new life into it.” We in Endnotes want to say, “There was never a time when the Left really mattered. What mattered was something else—the workers’ movement.” The concept of the Left provided a way for Social Democrats and Leninists to solve ideationally what were in fact the real limits that the workers’ movement confronted. The concept of the Left allowed Social Democrats to expand their constituency beyond the working class, which became necessary because the workers never achieved the majority status in any country, with the exception of Belgium. Social Democrats were unable to take power as a party of workers, so instead they said, “We’re the party of solidarity—and of equality, progress, etc.—the party of workers plus.” It was a matter of diluting ideas in order to generate a parliamentary majority. For the Bolsheviks, that was precisely the Social Democrats’ opportunism—their betrayal of the class.

By contrast, the concept of the Left allowed Leninists to put forward a theory of betrayal and therefore to justify their specific practice, the attempt to form a disciplined party that will not betray the class. Instead of asking questions about the dynamics and limits of class struggle, the Leninists said that the class was ready, but the Left had betrayed it. The question of strategy moved to the center, displacing the problem of the absence of a working class majority in society. But here strategy came to refer less to the relationship between the party and the class, and more to a strategy of internal party organization in relation to the Left, either to ensure that it does not betray—as in a kind of Popular Front strategy—or precisely to provoke its betrayal in ways that others can recognize, as in the United Front strategy.

Given this brief summary, we present our intervention at the level of a therapeutic purging, or catharsis of sorts. We plead with you to let go of the bad object, the fantasy object, and instead grasp the real object, the forgotten object. The concept of the Left exists as a means of suppressing class analysis. That comes through very clearly, we think, in Platypus’s own self-conception. The Platypus Affiliated Society knows that a great distance separates us from the tradition of the Left, but it cannot answer its own question—posed implicitly as, “Why is the Left dead?”—because that question is posed at the wrong level. If the Left is dead, it is a logical consequence of this other thing, the key thing: the workers’ movement, as it presented itself in the 20th century, is over.

Why did this movement end? It cannot be explained, as Platypus seems to do, by transmuting that story into one about oscillations in the Left, between pro-organizational and anti-organizational moments, between good Bolshevism and bad anti-Bolshevism, and so on. The real story of the fall and rise of the worker’s movement is a story about industrialization. The industrial working class formed a historically new class, one that confronted the problem of acclimatizing itself to dangerous conditions of life and work in urban zones while also facing the hatred of their social betters, both the aristocracy and the upstart bourgeoisie, who meant to exclude them from the polity. In response to these twin problems the workers’ movement was formed—a movement that sought to acclimatize workers to their conditions via affirmation of their identity, their dignity as workers. This was expressed through the proliferation of a massive number of workers’ organizations, which were not only in the workplace but also involved all kinds of social clubs and activities.

The aggregation of workers in industrial cities gave socialists the sense that, one day, they would be the majority. It was this idea, more than any other, that framed the revolutionary horizon of the workers’ movement. The organizations that the workers built for their defense within capitalism were supposed to function as the basis of future societies, but in fact, it was always either too early or too late for the workers’ movement. The growth rate of the industrial working class tended to decelerate over time. A heavy remainder—peasants and shopkeepers, and even the petty-bourgeois capitalists—seemed to suggest that the time of the revolution had not yet arrived. When this remainder of historically moribund classes had a decisive impact in the second half of the 20th century, the industrial working class itself was already going into decline: First, relative to the labor force as a whole, and then, absolutely.

This is the key point for us. Deindustrialization spelled the end of the workers’ movement, first in high-income countries in the 1970s and then in the low-income countries in the 1980s. Workers’ movements that appeared in South Africa, South Korea, and Brazil, for example, in the 1970s, now present the same form: Social Democracy in retreat. As more factories came online and became ever more productive, a generalized commodity glut set in. Jobs became scarce even as goods became superabundant. Under these conditions, it became possible to attack workers’ material existence, and necessary to do so, since competition was intensifying everywhere. Thus under attack, nationally situated workers’ movements found themselves unable to score material gains. That workers no longer affirm their identity as workers is not only the result of stagnant wages and worsening working conditions, however; this change in the class relation has also been accompanied by a transformation in the composition of the class. Formerly, an industrial workforce was involved in building the modern world, in a very real sense. It could understand its work as having a purpose beyond the reproduction of capital. All of that now seems ridiculous to many people and for good reason—the industrial workforce is shrinking. The oil-automobile industrial complex is not building the world, but rather rapidly destroying it. Everywhere, the working class is less homogenous, more stratified and precarious.

What remains of the workers’ movement today, as far as I can tell, are unions that manage the slow bleed-out, social-democratic parties that implement austerity measures when conservative parties fail to do so, and tiny communist and anarchist sects that wait in the wings for their chance to rush the stage. Yet, the end of the workers’ movement is not the end of either capital or the working class. Even as more workers are rendered superfluous to the needs of capital today, the relation between these two terms continues to define social life, in terms of what is a life worth living.

Failing to see this real, material basis for the death of the Left, Platypus is helpless to describe the character of class struggle over the last decade and a half. Their perspective completely covers over the real gap that separates the present from the past. Workers are only able to find a common interest diluted through the extraversion of class belonging into some other weakened form of an affirmable share of existence, as citizens, or as “the 99 percent.” This is not merely a matter of ideologically weak leftism; it is an internal limit of class struggle that finds its basis in the changed material conditions of class due to deindustrialization, and the corresponding growth of what Marx called surplus capital along with surplus population.

If we are correct at all about the self-undermining nature of capitalist class relations, then we can expect something like the following: In spite of the weakness of class unity, exchange relations will continue to break down, and workers will find themselves at risk. They will be forced to fight, to organize creatively, and to struggle within those conditions, against those conditions. Establishing direct access to means of existence, outside of the wage and outside of the money-form, in a multiplicity of different ways, will be the only real solution to this problem. What that will look like is more or less impossible for us to imagine today, except in its nearest inklings, since it will depend on the particular forms of organization that the class creates and the particular impasses that the class confronts in the course of its struggle. That is not to say that world revolution is inevitable, but merely to point out what we might call the minimal conditions of its success. These conditions will emerge, not from internal development within the Left, but rather through the development of historically specific forms of class struggle. The limits to class struggle stem from the breakdown, in this era, of forms of class expression. These limits are not merely a matter of bad ideas.

Attempts to renew the Left, absent the intensification of class struggle, are bound to fail. All that such a project can achieve, it seems, is to attract students for a few years to do some reading groups and then move on with their lives. No intellectual milieu can survive in the absence of a real movement of the class. If Luxemburg said that, “After August 4th, 1914, Social Democracy is nothing but a nauseating corpse,” then in the years that followed she proved to be quite the necrophiliac. Instead of following in Luxemburg’s footsteps and trying to build a society of affiliated necrophiliacs, what is there to do? A lot of people in the audience are students or young workers. You don’t have the time or the luxury to prepare for the crisis. Austerity and rising youth unemployment affect you right now. There’s nothing for you to do but to fight now for whatever future you hope to save, to risk yourself in struggle as it really presents itself now, and thus to experience the limits that all such struggles confront in an attempt to coordinate disruptive activity across all sectors of the class. If this coordination merely depended on getting all ideas right, we’d all be doomed.

Richard Rubin: First, I don’t recognize the Platypus Affiliated Society in your descriptions, Aaron. I also do not think that it is simply a matter of the economics of deindustrialization. There are millions of industrial workers in the world and only a very small percentage of them are any type of radical, much less Marxist. So I don’t see the problem as being only objective. I do, however, have sympathy for old ideas, and I tend to believe that the problems of the Left are not going to be solved by endless appeals to new ideas.

Now the questions for this panel, as they were formulated, speak of a tension between program and utopia that I would not quite agree with. I don’t think the tension between program and utopia is the fundamental problem. To defend an old idea, I think the problem of humanity over the next generation or so—I don’t think there’s that much time—is to abolish capitalism on a world scale, or else befall a horrible fate. The basic ideas involved here are, again, old ones. But the political ideas of the early 20th century have become obscure and difficult for people to connect with.

As Stephen just pointed out, it is true that there are utopian ideas of some sort in all civilizations, but I think utopia is a modern idea. In that sense, the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia in the 16th century actually speaks to something different from simply the longing for a better world. More’s Utopia is different from Heaven; it is imagined still as a place on Earth. It is a secular imagination rather than a religious aspiration. Utopia was published in 1516, and the first circumnavigation of the planet was just a few years later. I think that speaks to a certain movement in modernity.

I have a feeling that when people talk about utopia, it often is part of a rather non-radical conception. Two thoughts come to mind; one of these leads to Palestine and the other to beer. One of the things I have noticed in recent years is how many people I have met who used to support a two-state approach to Palestine, but who now say they support one state. People say, “I no longer believe that a two state solution is possible.” But a one-state solution is, practically speaking, a far more daunting task. So what’s striking to me about this logic is that people are asking for something that they themselves consider impossible. This is something you see a lot of on the Left: People for whom utopian thinking becomes a substitute for frustrated reformism.

I felt this around Occupy, as well. On a panel in Philadelphia I remember saying that Occupy was bound to fail, so the question was, “What lessons do we learn from it?” People gave me looks and expressed skepticism about my prognosis—but, really, how do you expect a bunch of people standing in Zucotti Park to transform global capitalism? You don’t have to think very hard to see the problem there, and in fact Occupy disintegrated much faster than I had expected. The utopianism that was being defended around Occupy came precisely from a feeling that it was not even going to bring about limited reforms. There’s a weird emotional psychology around utopianism, and the role that it plays on the Left today, that seems to stem from a disappointed reformism. People find it difficult to imagine even minimal reforms, and therefore, say, “Well, let’s demand the impossible”—or, at least, what they consider impossible. The one state solution today, which is taken to be the radical position, is nevertheless almost always formulated totally in the rhetoric of liberalism. It is no longer formulated, as it had been at times in the past, in the rhetoric of a joint struggle for socialism.

My other thought is about this stupid sign I saw when I was in an airport the other day. It depicted this cheerful guy with a mug of beer, and the sign said, “I believe beer will change the world. I don’t know how, but it will change the world.” I often feel that way about the Left.

Looking at the long duration of the question of socialism, the problem has been that we have two negative examples of socialism: social democratic parties that have betrayed their socialist principles, on the one hand, and revolutions in backwards parts of the world that do manage to break with capitalism, but do not issue forth into a society that most of us would find genuinely emancipated. What is needed for humanity to survive, I would claim, is a world socialist revolution that takes power in advanced capitalist countries like the United States. But is that a possibility? Is that something one is going to put on the agenda? Most people say, “No, that’s not a realistic goal, and to struggle for it is hopeless.” What one ends up with, then, is some variety of social democracy.

 

Responses

Rashi: I have seen the sort of intermediate organization Sam talked about. I was engaged in it myself in the early 1970s as we were building a new communist movement, which was essentially “Marxidized Maoism.” A lot of us left the halls of academia at the time and went to work in factories. The initial form of organization was a kind of intermediate organization in which we’d try to interest workers in various issues, get them involved in a union, and begin to study socialism. This kind of organization, as I lived through it in the 1970s, was part and parcel of the rising wage struggle in the working class and labor movement. I’ve seen something similar emerge just last year in Québec. Radical professors, who wanted to support the student movement, decided not to do it through the trade union organization and instead set up a group called Professors that Support Free Tuition, and engaged in mass mobilization alongside students. What was funny about this particular form of organization was that those involved were practically all militant trade unionists and many of them were actually sympathizers with Québec Solidaire, but they felt that there was no way they could bring the trade union structure today to support this sort of mass movement. So the question that many activists are posing today is this: If the trade unions cannot be an arena of mobilization in support of a massive movement such as the student strike, then what is the use of trade unions today?

SG: I don’t see assemblies as a substitute for unions, but I do seem them as a space to do things that unions are not doing, to have the kind of discussions that are not happening in unions. Of course, some of that may then be brought back into union politics. This might help reform unions, but I do not think that is going to suddenly make them into revolutionary organizations. Unions are going to be about representing their members. However, I do think they might represent them more effectively if the unions were informed by a broader class analysis. More generally, though, what do you do when it appears that the possibility of being successful in terms of fighting for socialism is incredibly small? I guess it is a philosophical question. My only response is that I do not know what else to do. I do not tell people that socialism is inevitable. I simply act according to the hypothesis that it is possible. Some people will say, “If the chances are one-to-a-thousand, then it is not worth my effort.” Others may find that those odds are terrific.

SB: If I can respond for just a moment to Roger, the utopia–program link that Marx saw was, I think, predicated on a fundamental teleological outlook. I do not think that teleology holds anymore. If it does not hold, then I think Sam’s position is the only one you can take. What Sam just described is how I see utopia: as a regulative ideal. The great activist Wilhelm Liebknecht, father of Karl Liebknecht, who was martyred with Rosa Luxembourg, once justified his belief in socialism by saying, “I can see the future appearing as present.” I doubt anyone can earnestly make that claim anymore. And, if you cannot make that argument, then you wind up being a socialist because you think it is the right thing to do, not because you have the conviction that it is practically going to transpire anytime soon.

Whether you choose reform or revolution, there has to be some fundamental connection between means and ends. The ultra-left has always demanded an absolute connection between means and ends, such that you prefigure the future in the present. I do not think that works, though. As Marcuse once pointed out, the people who want to bring about a new sensibility must already have this sensibility before they bring it about. Instead of demanding the absolute connection between means and ends, which would require that you already be in utopia, we are driven back to demanding a plausible connection between means and ends. Brecht dedicated a beautiful set of poems to his teacher, Karl Korsch, who was a man of the ultra-left. To paraphrase, Brecht starts out the poems saying, “Yes, my old teacher was a wonderful man—a wise man—and he said to the world, ‘It is a choice between all or nothing.’ To which the world responded, ‘Well, if that is the choice, then better nothing.’ ” I think that is where we are today.

AB: Going off what Roger has said, the tactics in the Québec student movement spread quite rapidly, without a preexisting massive revolutionary organization. This gives rise to organizational questions of how, in our times, it might be possible to coordinate and extend that kind of disruptive activity. However, it seems to me very difficult to explain the specificity of those kinds of organizational problems without also keeping in mind the unfolding long-term decline in profit and growth rates across the capitalist world, with the exception of China. Stephen referred to Liebknecht’s idea of utopia as “to have utopia, we have to see the future here in the present.” I think there are a lot of ways in which that was possible earlier in the workers’ movement, but is not possible today. There’s nothing at all in present-day society that I think is affirmable as such, and this seems to be a key feature of our time. At the same time, it is very difficult to enact a program without identifying some kind of affirmable trend in society.

Rubin: I think that if you say, “You can only be a socialist, but can’t have socialism,” you are essentially writing off the whole Marxist tradition, which always had a utopian dimension. I mean, I don’t think the problem here about Marxist means of struggle is really some objective matter of economic transformation. The way people think about Leninism has everything to do with the way people think of Stalinism. How people think about it now is different than in the 1980s, because of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a large element of ideological autonomy. If humanity dies, or plunges into absolute barbarism, this is most likely to result from a lack of imagination amongst enough people of a better future. I do not think all the political obstacles can be explained in terms of declining rates of profit. Deindustrialization and austerity can, and have, resulted in many different kinds of political reactions. It could result in people becoming more radical. It could result in people becoming fascist. The way people respond to the same economic situation is determined by many factors.

Regarding the Liebknecht quote, I agree that I find it very difficult to imagine any socialist future. But I have met perfectly sane people of an earlier generation, who were radicals in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, who when you talked to them about their earlier political experience, you could tell that at least at that time they really could imagine a socialist future. It was very real to them. Meeting and talking with these people had a profound effect on me. I do not actually enjoy a lot of the practices that are considered radically political today. With respect to assemblies, for instance, I wonder, “Do most people really want to spend so much time in these sorts of activities?” It is a good idea if people really want it, but I think many people do not really want to involve themselves in politics. I would not be interested in participating in all the decisions of economic planning in a socialist society, for instance. Yet, it will require politics and struggle to get to a society in which politics would no longer exist, or at least would become a trivial matter.

 

Q&A

Trotsky remarked in the Transitional Program, “All talk to the effect that the historical conditions have not yet ripened for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception.” Looking back on the 1960s and 1970s, do you think the New Left succeeded in learning the lessons of the Old Left and the Second International radicals? If not, how can we even begin to use the term revolution today?

Rashi: The only way to use the term revolution is by looking at ongoing movements of the world. Revolution cannot be defined in an abstract way. Lenin’s answer to the question, “What is revolution?” was, “When the people above cannot do as they always did, and the people below do not want to live as they did before.” That is the simplest, materialist definition of the term revolution. In various forms, revolutions are going on in the world. Revolutionary perspectives come out of fighting alongside the social movements.

SB: I think E.P. Thompson put it well. He said that the New Left was the first movement that placed culture at the center of the enterprise. It is not so much that we in the 1960s learned from the Second International or Third International; rather, the 1960s provided for something different, something that was not acknowledged before, and that was part of its utopian element. I think this generation, now, has to do to the 1960s what the 1960s did to the 1930s. You have to develop your own idea of what revolution entails. You have to develop your own style. One of the things that struck me about Occupy Wall Street is that, you know, everyone was talking about imagining a different, new, and better world, yet I couldn’t help but notice that the People’s Park was exactly the same as Berkeley back in the 1960s. The look was the same, the music was the same, the slogans were the same. Everything was the same! If I can say so, there has been a great deal of pandering to the youth by leftists, who are always saying, “It is so great we have young people.” Well, young people—Do something! Figure out what it is that would make your movement real, and if you want a revolution, make it.

 

In terms of the working class movement, I think of the formulation by Lukács, who is really just repeating Marx, that moving from the class-in-itself toward a class-for-itself occurs through the vehicle of political and historical consciousness. You need the presence of a working class movement, but the direction of that force toward the goal of socialism is not “given”—it is something that must actually be achieved politically. What was the relationship between the Left and historical consciousness within the workers’ movement? What can we learn in the present—if anything at all—from that? How do we make sense of this relationship between the Left and the labor movement? 

AB: The Left in the 20th century—in the early 20th century especially—faced certain kinds of strategic questions that emerged from the way that capitalism and the workers’ movement developed in that period. Those strategic questions involved, first and foremost, this problem of adding up the class. It had to do with the persistence of the old regime and the limits of the growth of the industrial class. These things conditioned and limited the workers’ movement previously, but that is fundamentally not our situation today. In these conditions of fragmentation and the failure of trade unions, I would, to a greater degree than Sam or Roger, claim that the emergent struggles are very specific to the context in which they are unfolding. It is difficult for those outside of these struggles to make claims about what forms of organization will emerge. The fundamental point today is to participate in struggles as they emerge, or as they affect us, and see the possibilities of revolution emerging out of the limits of class struggle today. I think we talk too much about the past in Endnotes. This is because we live in a transitional period today, and the past weighs very heavily on us. But the point is to see our fundamental difference from the past and to engage in the struggle today as it presents itself.

Rashi: In Lukács’s formulation, the party is the key mediation, allowing the class to move from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself. So, in Lukács, you have a philosophical expression of Leninism’s fetishism of the party. Interestingly enough, Lukács was also influenced by Rosa Luxemburg, whose answer was, if you want to move from the class in-itself to for-itself, the way is through class struggle. Both of these views have some truth. For the class to become conscious, you have to participate in class struggle and create new political expressions and political parties, but there has to be a way of having institutional checks on the party. This is where I agree with Sam’s important contribution regarding workers’ assemblies. You cannot establish a party as the ideal form of organization, as the concretization of class consciousness, and therefore give it this incredible power to decide what is good or bad for the class, because we have seen how parties can betray the revolution. A new relationship between the movement and the party is needed, by which the movement can criticize and check the party, while the party also attempts to unite the various movements. An equal exchange rather than a hierarchical exchange is necessary. If you do not have that, I do not know how you can move towards transforming the system.

This relates to something you said, Aaron. You talk a lot about the decline of the working class. But if you look at the world today in terms of absolute numbers of workers who exist in the world, I would say you now have more working class people than at any time in history. Look at China and the industrialization that is going on there. China has 1.3 billion people, of which 52 percent —close to 700 million people—live in cities today. It is expected that in the next decade 200 million more people are going to move into the cities. This is the most massive urbanization in the history of mankind. These people moving into the city—what activities will they engage in? A huge number of them will be workers in industry, be it the service industry, factories, or what have you. Once new workers in China, in India, in the Philippines, in Indonesia—who are all undergoing an incredible wave of industrialization—begin to develop class consciousness and engage in massive social struggles, I think the question will be posed in a completely different way.

AB: Do you happen to know, Roger, how many industrial workers there are in China?

Rashi: Apparently, according to statistics I have heard, roughly 400 million, of which 250 million are illegal workers in the city and do not have permits to live in the city. This super-exploited, sub-proletarian stratum in China is one of the conditions allowing for the development of Chinese capitalism today.

SG: But that’s the wrong question, Aaron. You seem to be defining the working class in terms of manufacturing jobs. People who work in construction are workers. So are workers in retail, or in the service industry—and not only in China. The workforce is not disappearing. Your definition of the industrial work force declining in number is posed in a very particular way. I don’t think the question of revolution and worker activity depends specifically on the industrial workforce.

AB: My point is that it would be strange to say that the 20th century did not take the figure of the industrial worker and the progressive nature of industry as its key feature in terms of its own utopias and programs. That seems to me to be absolutely clear. We should pay attention to the transformation in the composition of the working class—i.e., where it works, the kinds of activities that workers are engaged in, and the way in which workers can or cannot see those activities as being part of building a new world.

SG: But you have to remember that in the 1920s somebody who worked in an auto plant was a precarious worker. Conditions were lousy and turnover was incredible—until they got unionized, then there was a reason to stay, and conditions improved. You are right that we cannot analyze what is going on without recognizing the changing composition of the workforce, but you seem to be registering this in a rather mechanical way, by simply equating the decline of industrial workers to the decline of revolutionary potential.

Rubin: There were more domestic servants in Victorian England than factory workers. I do not think the question of industrial workers is really relevant to the question of socialism. They are two separate issues. A socialist movement is not necessarily based on the industrial worker. The real question is, Why are so few workers, industrial or otherwise, socialists?

 

Aaron, I agree that many people are reduced to doing menial forms of work that are unnecessary for anything except the reproduction of this miserable, poorly organized society. But why wouldn’t that very fact lead to massive movements for the abolition of work, rather than leading, as seems to be the case, to the death of a powerful workers’ movement? Richard, I feel like you did somewhat avoid Aaron’s challenge, though. You said that there has been a “failure of the imagination of socialism,” but how and why did this failure occur? 

Rubin: Very briefly, I think that Marxism has encountered two problems in the 20th century, which one might call the “German problem” and the “Russian problem.” The German problem is the betrayal of August 1914, when the SPD voted for war credits, which showed that Social Democracy had by 1914 become incapable of overthrowing capitalism. The “Russian” problem refers to what happened to the Bolshevik revolution, which was in certain respects successful, but went on to become repellant to people who aspired to socialism. More generally, socialist parties failed to overthrow capitalism in the place where it was most developed and where most Marxists of the 19th and early 20th century thought revolution would break out first. The only places capitalism was overthrown were in relatively backward parts of the capitalist world, but these revolutions issued forth into a variety of dictatorships, albeit dictatorships that often had progressive aspects. This has profoundly undermined faith in the possibility of socialism. Then you have other factors in more recent decades, such as the collapse of the Stalinist regime and also a shift in the way the Left is thought of. “Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” are all fine, but in general, the legacy of the 1960s seems to become more problematic as time goes on. The victories of the 1960s are mostly in areas like liberal rights. I support those rights, but that leaves aside the whole issue of neoliberalism, which is not such a new phenomenon, but rather just seems to be the kind of capitalism you get when there is not a left to challenge it.

AB: The fact that people find they are not building the world but merely reproducing class relations is a fundamental condition that defines revolutionary possibility today. Our group Endnotes is associated with a larger collection of journals that form a milieu around the idea of revolution as communization. We are attempting to think through what the actual conditions and limits of revolution and class struggle are in the present. The idea that neoliberalism can be explained purely in terms of the absence of a Left is almost a circular argument. I identify in a lot of ways as a Marxist and it is strange to be on a panel of Marxists who do not think about the development of the crisis tendencies of capitalism, which is an absolutely essential feature of the present and one of the reasons why neoliberalism emerges out of a situation of generalized overproduction and declining rates of growth. The point is to think about the specificity of the present, the composition of the class at the moment, the unavailability of the utopias of the past within this moment, and what new concept of revolution might arise. We should be open to that emergence and not just think that the emergence of revolution in the present is about learning the lessons from the past, from an era whose fundamental conditions are different than ours in essential ways.

 

Richard brought up the slogan, “Be realistic; demand the impossible,” and how this contrasts to the situation now, in which even the realistic seems to be impossible. At the same time, the ongoing disintegration of society seems like it should be posing certain possibilities for the Left. I think all the panelists, in different ways, were addressing this problem, and one thing that has been suggested is that a major obstacle right now is a lack of political clarification. What would achieving such clarification entail? 

Rashi: We are living in a period in which neoliberalism is in a deep crisis. We see the capitalist class develop new strategies for the accumulation of capital and new forms of domination, oppression, and exploitation. At the same time, we see rising mass struggles and, therefore, the potential for formulating new strategies and new forms of organization of the subaltern, dominated, and laboring classes. The key to answering any political question involves looking at the developments and seeing what lessons we can learn from them. For three years in Québec, we prepared for the student movement. We were trying to craft a strategy that would get labor to launch a general strike. It became impossible to do that because there was no part of the labor movement that was willing to launch a general strike. A wider form of mobilization emerged from massive urban spontaneous demonstrations. No one predicted that. Mass movements have incredible creativity and what we have to do now is become involved in mass struggle.

SG: I agree with Rashi’s sentiments, but not with some of the analysis behind it. This gets back to an assumption I keep hearing, even though it is fundamentally wrong. Life is hell for many people, certainly, but capitalism is actually doing very well, despite this. Capitalists are rolling in dough. There is no profitability crisis. If you take a look at what has actually happened over the last 20 or 30 years, this has been one of the most dynamic periods for capitalism in its history. Compare it to the 1950s or 1960s, when a good part of the globe was outside of private capital accumulation. China is integrated now, as are the areas that formerly comprised the USSR. There are very few countries, if any, for which leaving capitalism might be on the agenda. Workers are dependent on the stock market, cheering when it goes up because it increases their pensions, even when the stock is on the rise only as a function of more restructuring and layoffs. Capitalism is not in decline, it is winning—that is the “historical specificity” of the present that we have to start with. How are we going to deal with this? Capitalism isn’t going to disappear in 25 years. If we think that the world is going to end in 25 years, unless we have gotten rid of capitalism, then we might as well give up. The question is, Do we want to build a long-term movement to change capitalism?

Rashi is obviously right about unexpected things happening, but we have to be clearer about the limits of these struggles. What is incredible about the Québec student movement is that they organized for about seven years. The real question is, What is going to happen to all those people who learned how to mobilize and organize? Where are they taking that experience—into the workforce? Into the academy? What will come of that?

Rubin: The problem talking about movements now is that most current struggles, particularly economic struggles, are defensive. They are fighting against austerity and wage cuts. Sometimes they win what I would call temporary victories, but if you are on the defense for decade after decade, the prognosis is not very good. This is why, when I hear phrases like “new forms of revolution,” I simply do not know what that means. It seems to me the fundamental historical problem now is the same as it was 100 years ago. We actually have not progressed beyond it.

 

Concluding remarks

Rashi: It is very difficult, within the confines of the U.S., to get a full understanding of the incredible variety of struggles around the world. If you engage with movements in the Middle East, in Southern Europe, in Latin America, in South Africa, you see that things are bubbling and changing. Class struggle and mass struggle is beginning to unearth solutions to many of the questions that we seem to be posing here in only an abstract way. I would encourage all of you—young activists, young socialists, young revolutionaries—to engage in that kind of practice, with that kind of militancy, because I don’t think you can find an answer without being involved in ongoing struggles.

SG: I was in a meeting about a month ago about what kind of organizing could take place amongst homecare workers, and I suggested that they start thinking about how they could raise some funds to cover costs. One of the organizers said I was full of shit—he said we had to start by getting the money from the people in the room. I thought this was nuts, but all the homecare workers were nodding their heads in agreement. They were making the minimum wage, and their hours had been cut. Nevertheless, they agreed that if they were going to begin to organize, they had to start by making an additional sacrifice themselves. That’s where the struggle is.

SB: I agree it is impossible to simply ignore the actual movements and struggles. The fact of the matter is that, in the U.S., the Left is not organized around unions or class. It is organized primarily by identity groups and interest groups. We certainly have to think about what forms of organization are suitable, but first we have to figure out, fundamentally, what we, as socialists or as Marxists, actually want. What’s the goal? Nobody in the 19th or 20th century had any question as to what the revolution meant. The revolution would bring about a republic. Changing the economic structure and abolishing classes was seen as the ultimate goal, part of a secular ideology, based in the Enlightenment, that would guide the new society. But today nobody is sure what a revolution would even mean.

AB: How can we say there is no capitalist crisis today? We live in a situation in which capitalist economies have been growing very slowly, the demand for labor has been very slack, and workers increasingly find themselves to be more or less superfluous to the production process, such that they can only take jobs by accepting increasing conditions of misery. Yes, it is true that austerity sucks and every time people fight they win temporary gains only to lose something else, but you cannot just sit things out. Under these conditions, people discover they have to fight, and they do fight. They find new tactics and new forms of organization. That is the period in which we live today. It is very important to pay attention to the kinds of affirmations that are possible under these conditions. Look at the recent history of struggle—the anti-globalization movement, Occupy, and plenty of others. They did not organize themselves around an affirmation of class identity. That is a very important feature of the present moment and it does not simply arise from bad ideas on the Left, but emerges from the real conditions in which people find themselves. I agree with Roger that the conditions for revolution emerge from struggle.

Rubin: It is true in a certain sense that the conditions for revolution emerge from struggle, but there are many different forms of struggle. People do not always come to the conclusion that they should struggle, and people often struggle in bad ways.

I want to end by pointing out that one fundamental idea that emerged from the Enlightenment, and which is deeply connected to the idea of utopia, is the conviction that people can consciously transform society. That idea was taken up by the socialist movement of the 19th century. At the heart of the Marxist project is the idea that humanity can liberate itself and restructure society in a conscious way. The fate of humanity and the fate of the Marxist project both depend upon the extent to which people—and not just a few people, but billions of people—can be convinced this is true. The problem is not strictly economic. People may struggle when there is austerity, but people can also struggle, and have done so, under conditions of greater job security. For the Left, it is ultimately a question of human freedom, and not only of social struggle. |P 

Transcribed by Danny Jacobs

Cedric Johnson and Mel Rothenberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

On May 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society  hosted a conversation on “Black Politics in the Age of Obama” at the University of Chicago. The speakers included Cedric Johnson, the author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (2007) and The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (2011); and Mel Rothenberg, a veteran of the Sojourner Truth Organization and coauthor of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR (1980). Michael Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, was unable to attend due to an emergency. The event was moderated on behalf of the Platypus Affiliated Society by Spencer A. Leonard. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Complete audio of the event can be found online by clicking the above link.


Cedric Johnson: I want to demystify the Obama phenomenon, which dates back much further than the 2004 DNC, as it has unfolded over the past decade. I also want to demystify the notion of “black politics” generally.

I am not disappointed with Obama, because being disappointed would mean I had expectations that had not been realized. I certainly disagree with Obama, but he has done just about everything I expected him to do with respect to domestic policy, questions of inequality, or geopolitics. He has been fairly consistent.

The problem with the Obama phenomenon is that too many people got caught in the rhetoric of “change.” As a political slogan it was perfect: No matter where you were, you could find something you could connect with. This operated on at least three different registers. On one level, it simply meant a change to another party’s leadership. For some, simply turning the page on the Bush years counted as change. At another level, there was what might be called the Jackie Robinson effect: There were those who wanted to see Obama break the barrier and become the first black president. Finally, and this was the most dangerous, many believed that Obama was going to deliver some substantive revitalization of liberalism within the United States. The idea was that he would be the second coming of FDR. People have made the same argument more recently. Michael Eric Dyson made this case last year on Democracy Now!, in fact, urging support for Obama’s reelection bid. One or another of these arguments proved convincing for many who ought to have known better—not just liberals, but people who consider themselves Marxists or radical leftists.

One reason Obama emerged as such a powerful figure during the 2008 election season has to do with the context of demobilization, particularly within black life. There was not a large and vibrant enough political movement on the ground, a movement that could connect to people’s realities in terms of their work lives, their everyday lives, and the character of life within neighborhoods. This created a void that was easily filled by a politics of recognition and the symbolism of the Obama campaign. But if we look closely at Obama’s politics, if we go back to that 2004 DNC address, when it comes to domestic politics he has always been clear: a minimized role for government. He wanted to do away with the benevolent role of the state that we had become accustomed to by way of the New Deal and Great Society. He even endorsed the Cosby tirade against the urban black poor. More than once before he announced his candidacy, and many times since—most recently in the address he delivered in February at the Hyde Park Academy—Obama has not emphasized the economy, but parental responsibility and behavior modification as a way of addressing the routinized violence in American cities. What Obama has done skillfully, particularly in his primary race against Clinton, is combine the liberal, public relation society of the new Democrats with neoliberal politics.

Most other black folk do not want to deal with these issues. For them, engaging in criticism of Obama is seen as airing dirty laundry, or as part of some insidious plot to sabotage him. So what we have also seen, in his rise to the presidency, is the wholesale decline of critical engagement within black publics. It is very difficult to find a spot where you can openly criticize Obama and have it heard—actually heard, understood, and appreciated in some meaningful way.

Part of the problem, of course, rests in how we think about black politics. I want to distinguish black political life—a broad category stretching back across multiple decades, even centuries, in reference to black people engaging in various forms of politics, whether slave rebellions or the push for desegregation of the South—from black ethnic politics as a peculiar phenomenon that develops during the 20th century, particularity after the 1960s. When we talk about black ethnic politics, we are talking about a form of politics that is, first of all, predicated on the notion of ethnic group incorporation. Too many people talk about African-American political life and African Americans as a group, as if they constitute a corporate political entity, as if there are clearly defined interests widely shared by all African Americans. The way political scientists do this is to engage in public research—you find some issue for which there is 70% support, and from there make the leap that this constitutes black interests. This is deeply problematic, in my estimation, as it says very little about what black interests look like within real time and space.

Another part of the problem is that we are still burdened in part by some of the arguments made during the 1960s, which were powerfully influential among black power radicals. The result is an epistemology from a racial standpoint, which assumes that because of the common experience of racism within the United States, African Americans attain consciousness of the society distinct from whites, and ultimately their common interests come out of that. Although false, many on the left continue implicitly or explicitly to perpetuate this notion.

Those who dare to criticize Obama openly, in public, are deemed race traitors—people like Glynn Ford, even Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, and certainly Adolph Reed, Jr., and others. Usually the discussion rolls back to the question, “How can we hold Obama more accountable? How do we come up with the black agenda everyone can agree on, bring it to Obama, and have him adopt at least some elements?” However, if we begin to think in a critical way about black political life, rather than being mired in black ethnic politics, I think we can end up with different ways of engaging these questions not only as academics, but also politically.

I want to conclude my opening remarks by referencing a comment made by Harold Cruse, a former Communist intellectual, in a seminal 1962 essay called “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American.” In it Cruse offered a criticism of Herbert Aptheker, arguing that one of his problems with Aptheker, and other white leftists, is that they can “only see Negroes at the barricades.” That is, they see blacks only as some sort of rebellious force in American society. For Cruse, such a view betrayed little understanding of the internal class politics among African Americans.[1] While Cruse points out the class difference, he ultimately carves out a privileged place for black elites. Whenever this criticism is made you always get the response that you shouldn’t put so much emphasis on these black elites and their participation in the local power bloc within black communities. You often hear that, if anything, they are junior partners. You might even hear people argue that black elites are dupes who simply don’t know better. But that is tacitly racist: Even when black people are in power, they can’t have power, and they can’t be held accountable for the things that they do. On the contrary, particularly right now in the period of neoliberal “roll-back and roll-out,” there is a unique role that black elites play in many cities. They play an important legitimating function—one that whites cannot play. Oftentimes they serve to deflect criticism from the very communities that might oppose these neoliberal policies as they’re being developed.

Mel Rothenberg: I am delighted to participate in this forum with Cedric. I also want to thank Platypus for organizing and inviting me. They do a real service on campus in organizing panels like this. I agree with Cedric’s analysis of Obama. I’m not sure I agree with him about black elites, and I expect he’ll disagree with me on some things. I don’t pretend to compete with Cedric as a scholar. I’m an activist, and my role here is to be the veteran leftist trying to extract from about 60 years of social activism some lessons that bear on the important issues at hand.

After superficial involvement in civil rights activity as a graduate student at Berkeley in the late 1950s, I got involved with the Chicago-area Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s. It was a racially mixed group, primarily of young activists but with a core of experienced leaders. Despite its rather clumsy name, Chicago SNCC became a major force in the blossoming Chicago Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, leading a massive public school walkout and strike that succeeded in removing a racist school superintendent. As a result an all-white administration and a highly segregated school system were opened to input from the African-American community. It was one of the more successful struggles of the period.

I had joined Chicago SNCC out of a liberal opposition to racism and racial discrimination, but my years in the organization became a defining experience for deepening my politics and future political activism. Through SNCC, which combined active organizing with many heated debates, I came to understand that the black struggle in the U.S., which went back over 300 years to colonial times, was very complex. It was a shifting struggle against caste, national, and class oppression. I never understood why we had to decide which of these it was: The black liberation movement was all of these things. The struggle against caste, the struggle against national oppression, and the struggle against class were interrelated. At different times different features became predominant, but there’s no one characterization adequate to a struggle this long and this complex.

I became convinced that the struggle for black emancipation was central to any progressive transformation of the U.S. social order. To paraphrase Marx, the emancipation of black labor was key to the emancipation of the American working class. I also became convinced of the converse: A black movement, to be successful, must be animated by a vision of human emancipation. A black movement that narrowed its sights exclusively to the interests of African Americans would be isolated and defeated.

Those are generalities. Now I want to look at a concrete historical moment in light of the themes I’ve raised. In 1964, at the height of Civil Rights Movement, Fanny Lou Hamer and other leading civil rights activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They sought to challenge the racist leadership of the Mississippi Democratic Party, which had excluded, both by law and through extra-legal violence, any participation, including voting, of Mississippi blacks in politics. Excluded from the official primary choice of delegates to the Democratic National Convention scheduled for the fall of 1964, MFDP organized its own primary process. They selected a delegation to the convention to challenge the seating of the lily-white racist delegates chosen by the official Mississippi Democratic Party.

MFDP-at-convention

Aaron Henry, leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, before the Credentials Committee of the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

This was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The massive 1963 March on Washington had driven home the 1963 federal civil rights bill, outlawing much legally enforced discrimination. The 1964 civil rights bill, then on the agenda, would prohibit the poll tax and other barriers to black voting. The whole Jim Crow system of legal enforcement of the caste system, which deprived blacks of the elementary political and social rights automatically enjoyed by whites, was crumbling. Within the next few years it would be wiped out. In this context, the black movement was turning to confront national and class oppression beyond discrimination against individuals. This raised issues of enfranchising of the community and the freeing of black workers who were universally relegated to the lower layers of the working class and to the reserve army of labor. At its sharpest this raised the issue of political power for the community, an empowerment that ultimately threatened the existing class and property relationships.

The challenge of the MFDP was then a move for community political power. It occasioned a crisis in the national Democratic Party. The party leadership was extremely concerned with the long-term implications, not just in the 1964 elections. Everyone knew that President Johnson would be nominated and, riding a wave of popular approval aided enormously by his success in passing civil rights legislation, would be reelected. What the Democratic leadership was concerned with was the impact the MFDP challenge would have on their electoral hegemony in the south, overseen by white racist party organizations. Lyndon Johnson was explicit about this.

The decision of the Democratic leadership was to try and juggle both balls. On the one hand, the Democratic Party would embrace—it really had no choice—the end of Jim Crow. On the other hand, it would keep the southern racist electoral apparatus in tact, making some mild cosmetic changes to accommodate the times. The decision was to prove disastrous for the Democrats, as well as for the black movement. The Democrats managed to lose political hegemony in the south, which they have never recovered to this day. At the same time, they set themselves in opposition to, and effectively frustrated, the development of a black movement that could have led the coalition to the next level of struggle.

Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers union (UAW)—probably the leading progressive trade union figure, and a major figure in the Democratic Party—was chosen by the Democratic Party leadership to negotiate with the MFDP’s demand that they be seated instead of the racists.

The UAW was the leading industrial union then. I myself had worked in the Wayne Mercury Auto plant in the 1950s, which was not an unusual assembly plant. Among the thousands of workers, about a third were black, dating from World War II; another third were white, including the majority of skilled workers and those who had been there the longest (mainly of Eastern European background); and the final third were the most recent workers, white southerners from rural and small-town backgrounds who tended to work part of the year, during the busy season, and returned to the south during the slow periods. Auto assembly tended to be seasonal at that time.

The politics in the plant were very complex, yet revealing. The ruling union caucus followed Reuther. This caucus was based on the older white workers, but with a significant following among black workers. The opposition caucus, which was strong and periodically controlled the elected plant union, was a mixed bag in which leftists dominated. Some of these were members of the Communist Party, but also included were a significant number of black workers. The newly arrived white southerners were less active overall, but some formed the basis of a small but visible Klan-affiliated racist white caucus.

The point I want to make is that there was then a significant mass of civil rights supporters among the union members, including in Reuther’s caucus. Reuther himself had been a visible civil rights advocate and the UAW had good relations with the mainline civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP. It was also supportive of the more militant sectors led by King and even provided discreet financial support to the most radical wing led by SNCC. This is why Reuther was chosen to negotiate with the MFDP. He had credibility with them.

What Reuther and the Democratic leadership ended up offering the MFDP was to add a couple of their leaders to the official delegation with the stipulation that the MFDP would abide by the majority decisions of the racist delegation on what issues to raise and what motions to support. This so-called compromise was obviously unacceptable. In the end the racist delegation walked out, offended that they were asked to mingle with MFDP people, but the MFDP delegation was not seated and organized a brief sit-in to protest. It also left the convention.

What were the consequences of this? The black movement learned that when it came to issues of community power and, more broadly, issues of national oppression, their white liberal allies, and in particular those involved in labor politics, would abandon them. This is the lesson they, and SNCC, which I was in at the time, drew from this. The betrayal by labor was particularly damaging because effectively raising class issues, fundamental to black emancipation, was only possible with the active participation of a substantial section of white workers. For this, the active involvement of at least a powerful section of the trade unions was required. The rejection of the MFDP at the 1964 Democratic Convention by even the most progressive section of labor convinced the most advanced elements of the black movement that this coalition would not consolidate.

Within the year, the slogan of “Black Power,” which previously had been raised by only the nationalist fringe of the black movement, had become the dominant battle cry of a much broader militant layer. Stokely Carmichael, who became head of SNCC in 1966, took this slogan up in 1965. He also wrote with Charles Hamilton the most influential argument for Black Power, bringing it into mass action in Birmingham and Watts as the Civil Rights Movement moved north.

One cannot really fault this turn by the militant black leadership. Given the black upsurge generated by the earlier period of the civil rights activism and the rejection of opposition to national oppression by their white liberal supporters, and in particular labor, they had nowhere else to go. If you have to fight the battle against national oppression by yourself, without significant white allies, you have to do it under a banner that can unite the vast majority of blacks. The tragedy, however, is that by narrowing the struggle in this way to being a minority nationality struggle, it became much more difficult to win. In fact, the struggle presumed that the ruling elite—the ruling white elite—despite the vast economic and military resources at their disposal, were too divided and weak, presumably due to international anti-imperialist movements, to sustain their system of white supremacy. The experience of the last 40 years has not born this out.

These issues consumed the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X, trying to negotiate the terrain between narrow nationalism and a broader anti-imperialist perspective, was murdered by hardcore nationalists. Martin Luther King, committed to a broad coalition, linked up with the developing anti-war movement. Attempting to maintain unity between the older liberal civil rights forces and an emerging youth-based and multi-racial anti-imperialist movement, in the late 1960s he turned to labor and class-based struggles. This was a promising development, cut short by his assassination by racists. The Civil Rights movement spawned many significant social movements in the decades that followed, but as a black-led broad political movement that presented a fundamental challenge to the existing social order, it was dead by 1970.

Of course, the Civil Rights Movement was not a total failure. In its first phase, up to 1964, when its focus was fighting caste oppression—the system of Jim Crow laws and discriminatory practices—it held together and was largely successful. Its major social impact was to promote the creation of a new black middle class integrated into the mainstream of U.S. economic and social life. The three-generation rise of Michelle Obama’s family is a striking example of this quite significant achievement. Still, though African Americans have benefited from the demise of Jim Crow, the fundamental national and class oppression that weighed on the majority of blacks 50 years ago has not disappeared. In certain basic respects—unemployment, incarceration, lack of community empowerment—it has arguably worsened.

The failures of the movement of the 1950s and ’60s had an equally profound impact on subsequent American history. There had been a white racist backlash since the Supreme Court banned legal school segregation in 1954, and this continued throughout the battles of the next few decades, up to and including the 1974 Boston school boycott organized against the busing of black students to white schools. This backlash was organized politically by George Wallace in his 1968 run for the White House, and then officially cultivated by the Republican Party in their “Southern strategy” first articulated by Nixon in 1968 and perfected by Ronald Reagan in his successful presidential campaign of 1980. They made Lyndon Johnson’s worst fears come true by creating a white multi-class racist political bloc that has guaranteed the national electoral hegemony of the Republican Party and has been a bulwark of reactionary politics for the last 40 years.

With the triumph of neoliberalism over this same period, the capacity of the trade unions to confront the wave of deindustrialization has disintegrated in recent years. The steady decline in the life conditions of workers, both black and white, and the consequent implosion of the trade unions unable to defend against this decline, is due in part to the failure of these unions to make common cause with the black movement of the 1960s. What was at stake was not only the future of black workers but also the soul of white workers. The defection of large sections of the white working class to Ronald Reagan and his right wing movement was not inevitable. It became so when labor leaders, claiming to represent working class interests, declared war on black militancy and its demands. If Walter Reuther had thrown in his forces behind the MFDP, King and his allies would have certainly had to follow. This would have split the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson, at the end of the day, might have had to go along with the anti-racist forces, we might have avoided the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement would have been reinvigorated as a coalition between blacks and labor, and U.S. history would have been altered. Of course none of this happened.

I will leave the conclusions about current black politics that one can draw from this to the discussion. I just want to add the following remark. Since 2007 we have entered a period of economic crisis across the entire capitalist world. The condition is analogous more to the situation of the 1930s than to the period of relative prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, which were at least prosperous for white people. For a large majority of blacks the conditions today are pretty close to the depression conditions of the 1930s, although things are not yet that dire for white folks. The new factor is millions of immigrant workers from Latin America, who suffer in conditions similar to blacks at the moment. If a coalition of working-class blacks and Latinos can be forged—and this is a big if—then the basis of a major explosion of labor politics will be established.

If a black leadership develops with the capacity to fuse the community aspirations of African Americans with the class demands of such a labor explosion, then there will be a basis for a black-led movement that can change America’s future.

 

Responses

CJ: Two things differ markedly about black politics during the 1950s and 1960s compared to now. The first is Jim Crow segregation in the south and beyond the south. The other circumstance was the de facto segregation in the north, in terms of the racial ghetto, which was different from what people mean by that term now. In the 1940s and ’50s, if you drove around Hyde Park and the surrounding area, you would find neighborhoods that were class diverse but racially homogeneous. That phenomenon gives way to major changes from the 1960s onwards, as we see black suburbs pop up in different parts of the country. That is significant. Indeed, it’s an accomplishment, as is the expansion of the black middle class. Yet, it is this very accomplishment that ultimately erodes the use of some of those older racial justice arguments in our contemporary period.

Consider Michelle Alexander’s recent book The New Jim Crow—which is all the rage right now, with even churches studying it in groups. Of course, I am glad people are concerned about the rise of the prison state. At the same time it’s not helpful, as I think even Alexander herself concedes at times, to talk about the rise of the prison state as a new form of Jim Crow. That is not what we are facing. We are not even facing mass incarceration as such. Rather, I agree more with Loïc Wacquant: This phenomenon is hyper-, not mass, incarceration. It is not the case that everybody in this room or even all black people will spend their lives or parts of their lives in prison. Rather, when we look at this up close, and this is where historical materialism can be helpful, we are talking about specific neighborhoods targeted by police and these areas are where the majority of prisoners at a penitentiary like Statesville hail from. This is not wholesale incarceration. That, for me, erodes the usefulness of a strict racial justice framework. I also don’t want to give the impression that we should focus solely on class, criticize black political elites, and toss out a discussion of race. Rather, we need to think about class politics and how they manifest themselves in a racial idiom.

MR: When you criticize black elites and say that some people don’t even hold them responsible when they have power, there are two notions of power that need to be borne in mind. One is the power of an individual having some influence and links to important people. The other is the power of a class or a community as a collective force behind you. My own sense is that these black elite leaders lack power in this second sense. People like Obama have a middle-class black constituency that is very much behind them, but a lot of these so-called movers and shakers in Chicago don’t have real community support behind them. They have connections, sources of money, and so on, but they don’t really have power in the sense being able to provide leadership. They can provide no real leadership because they’re basically lapdogs of more powerful people who are controlling them.

 

Q & A

Would you address the divergence on the Left between a nationalist approach and an integrationist approach? Traditionally these can be thought of in terms of organizationfor instance, the Black Panthers’ organizing separately from white activists in the early 1970s. But their difference can also be thought of in terms of the final goal, as with the black belt nation thesis, which sought some kind of national independence and autonomy for black people, as opposed to the revolutionary equality that was imagined by others on the Left. What are your touchstones with respect to this question? What are your touchstones from the history of Marxism?

CJ: This notion of nationalism versus integrationism is anachronistic. That way of talking about African-American political life is dated and no longer useful. If we want to come up with some categories for thinking about African-American political life that might be helpful I prefer Preston Smith’s use of “racial democracy” and “social democracy.” On the one hand, you have struggles that are pitched towards the protection of constitutional rights, particularly within this environment in which the gains of the 1960s have been under assault. That co-exists with racial-uplift and self-help politics—easily!

Some of the divisions that we saw historically have been reconciled. For instance, there was a recent symposium featuring Boyce Watkins and the Minister Louis Farrakhan, and I think the title was “Wealth, Education, Family, and Community.” So there you have it, right? The old Black Nationalist arguments and the liberal integrationists have been reconciled.

What is missing, and this is where we need much more public argument, has to do with social democracy. So if the racial democracy view holds that liberal democracy is great, but it is racist, and we need more black people to have access to it—that is the old liberal integrationist argument—that is not as radical as the view of social democracy, which says that whether it is public housing or support from the state in moments of economic downturns, those things should be guaranteed to all people regardless of color. That is a much more expansive argument, and it has been made over and over again throughout history and has been widely embraced by all sorts of folks within the African-American community.

The racial justice approach seems strong in the abstract, as, for instance, when we talk about the likelihood of a black man getting stopped by the cops or how tough it is for a black man to find a cab in New York. But such abstractions lose their luster when you get into concrete politics. Let me give you one quick example: Some of you all may have noticed, a couple weeks back, Ed Gardner was trying to make a pitch to Rahm Emmanuel for 50 percent, I think, of the contracts coming out of the school closures and demolitions, as well as the rehabs and new buildings.[2] That fits with racial democracy—blacks should have access to contracting just as anyone else, especially if we constitute a disproportionate number of folks within the schools. The problem, however, is that this approach suspends critical analysis: Why try to get a piece of the action instead of contesting this project that could disrupt the lives of thousands of kids within the Chicago Public Schools in ways that we can’t even predict? So I think those are two different kinds of politics operating among African Americans, the one that says “Cut us in. Give us a chance to participate in the same way,” and another approach which contests the contemporary arrangement and calls for something that is more expansive, redistributive, and democratic.

MR: Historically there has always been an element of national oppression involved in the oppression of black people in the United States. They have been oppressed as a nationality—as a people, not just individually or as a caste. The push back to that is to demand community power.

Unfortunately, sometimes the struggle against national oppression takes the perspective of a kind of utopian separatism. That is perhaps an inevitable sentiment, but it is ultimately a futile one. Because in a society this complicated and this integrated, economically and socially, separate communities in that sense are inconceivable. It would only make sense if society were actually falling apart. And this was, in fact, a lot of the analysis of the Black Nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s. Many among them assumed that white society was falling apart, it was collapsing, in any case, it was going to chaos, and African Americans have to save themselves by building their own society, building barriers against the craziness and the corruption and the rot outside. But that analysis was wrong. The white society, the dominant society, may be in a lot of trouble. There may be a lot of injustice. But it is not collapsing. It’s not going to disappear in the next period, and therefore, strict separatism doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, you have to understand that the notion of community power and community control is genuine and remains crucial to the black struggle.

Marxism is a framework, both my framework and Cedric’s framework. It’s not a view that leads to position, as such, since it is not a politics. Various politics can fit within that framework and there’s always a lot to dispute. In the political sense I am a pragmatist. If politics just doesn’t accomplish real goals then it might be fine in theory, but it’s useless, really. For me Marxism has always been a framework within which to analyze things. Of course, that framework leads me to think of the working class as a prime moving force in history and the prime force for social change under capitalism. I still believe that. There is no other force capable of transforming capitalism. But, beyond that, the particular politics of Marxism depend a great deal on the circumstances, the conjuncture, the country you are in, the circumstances you are in, and so on.

 

My question concerns community oppression and community politics or community empowerment and the connection to racial/ethnic politics. You both talked about the transformation of these politics with respect to the Democratic Party from the period leading up to the Civil Rights Movement and after. Has the Democratic Party operated as a vehicle for community politics in the United States in a way that the Republican Party has not?

MR: As to the Democratic Party, the politics is complicated by the fact that the Republican Party has organized a racist, white multi-class racial bloc that anchors its popular appeal and hegemony. Even though Clinton, Carter, and Obama were elected as Presidents in the last 40 years, the Republicans really have a national electoral hegemony. They control things and set the agenda even when the Democrats hold the presidency. They set the agenda because they have organized this bloc from which the Democrats are excluded by definition. The Democrats have their own political machine—we can see that in Chicago—their own combines, which operate very effectively at the city level and certain state levels. But if you want to oppose the white racial block you have to do it within the Democratic Party. The strategy of taking over or splitting the Democratic Party from the left, however, has no real basis in society. Still, as a way of fighting the most racist and right wing elements it does have some logic. What are black communities going to do, run as Republicans? I mean, if you are going to have any kind of representation whatsoever, in Congress or in the legislature, and if it is going to be at all progressive and anti-racist, it is going to be Democrat. That is the fact we are dealing with. The dilemma is that the Democratic Part is not a way for the Left or for the black movement to advance any deep agenda. But in the short run, as a defensive maneuver to fight the racists, it might very well be a tool, at least locally, that you have to use.

CJ: I want to introduce the question of talking about class politics in a racial idiom. This is something I take from Preston Smith’s work, Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis. It is really a straightforward proposition, as I see it, though it is an approach to black politics that has been lost, both popularly and in academia. If you go back and read Jim Crow-era social scientists—Abram Harris, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, even E. Franklin Frazier and Carter G. Woodson—all of them offer an analysis of black politics that looks at it in its full expanse. They address how class manifests itself among African-Americans.

One thing that happens within such discussions, particularly in our own time, is that we conflate race and class. There is a tendency to use race as the symbolic language of class. It used to drive me crazy when I taught at a small liberal arts college where many students automatically equated “black” with “poor.” They saw black people as being synonymous with poverty and they had no understanding of African-American life beyond that kind of image they got from pop culture. So, I tried to talk to them about Bronzeville, or about the fact that even in the small community that I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s in Louisiana, we had black banks, black doctors, and black lawyers. The idea that there is an integral aspect of African-American life was something new to them. The task for us, and this is what I was trying to lay out before, is to talk about those differences.

Race is not the same as class. When we talk about class we talk about particular roles that people play, their specific relationship to production in our society. Race has its origins in slavery and imperialist expansion. But, ultimately, when we look at contemporary African-American politics, we need to address how communities are organized and how particular kinds of politics and sets of interests emerge. This flows from what I said at the very beginning about the disappearance of critical public engagement among African-Americans: I grew up along the Interstate 10 corridor—most of my family was in either Louisiana, Houston, or Mobile. Most of the people whom I learned from as a kid had grown up under Jim Crow. The teachers I had as far as high school were largely people who had taught at the old Jim Crow high schools in the area. They talked about class. They didn’t talk about it in the ways that academics talk about it. They had their own vocabularies for the differences of opinion and interests among African-Americans. And the discussions were often quite candid. Some of that has since disappeared. You hear it every now and again in, for example, the use of the term ”Uncle Tom,” which was one that I heard constantly as a kid. I recall adult conversations in the other room: They were talking about local politics, they were talking about people they knew personally, and they weren’t afraid to call these people out when their politics were out of step with the broader community of mostly working class African Americans. That kind of internal criticism has evaporated by and large. So why do we no longer have those forms of public engagement, analysis of everyday forms? Why have they evaporated?

MR: The discussion of class has not only dried up in the African-American community, but in the white community as well, including among white workers. There is a notion that everybody is now middle class. If you have a decent job you’re now middle class, not working class. So an entire terminology has disappeared. Or, if it hasn’t disappeared, it has deteriorated because of the absence of a left in this country. One of the functions of the Left, according to Marx, is to raise these issues. We haven’t had an effective Left for some time, so that this kind of talk, these kinds of class discussions, have tended to disappear from public view and even from private conversations. I remember at the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s and of the League of Black Revolutionary Workers in Detroit in the 1970s, when there was a surge in working class militancy, especially amongst black workers but also amongst whites, this terminology of class did arise. It was the way people talked, even right-wingers. It became part of the conversation, the hegemonic vernacular, if you will. But it has tended to disappear in our society.

 

It would seem that politics thought of in terms of the “black community” and ”white community” points to earlier failures of what was termed the “revolutionary integrationist” project. It seems that the radicalism of that vision—that black people wouldn’t just be incorporated into a society that didn’t otherwise change, but that integration necessitate wider social transformation—has been lost. Similarly lost is the recognition of the crisis of liberalism that was expressed by Jim Crow, a crisis that was not itself overcome with the dismantling of Jim Crow. Is this language of black and white communities the best that we can think of now? Are we content to naturalize that there is a black community and that it has its own politics? Where does this leave the question of the political leadership of society? Doesn’t an exclusive preoccupation with the black community actually threaten to limit our political horizon?

Hasn’t the project of social democracy in the United States always had racism woven into it, from the New Deal to the Great Society? This seems to complicate Preston Smith’s contrast between racial democracy versus social democracy. The critique of racism attained some of its most radical forms in variants of revolutionary Black Nationalism. I am curious about that strain of black politics and its place on the Left, especially in light of the Obama administration’s designation of Assata Shakur, who was considered a central figure for part of the Black Liberation Army during the 1970s and 1980s, as the most wanted fugitive on the FBI’s list. Obviously, there are various political considerations involved in that decision, but in some ways it represents a symbolic culmination of COINTELPRO. Can we not say that the military defeat of revolutionary nationalist politics has opened up the space for, and legitimacy of, the more integrationist politics that Obama represents? Where do we understand the place of Black Nationalism, particularly that strain of it engaged with Marxism?

When I first read The Souls of Black Folk, I was impressed with the way Du Bois spoke with such high praise of the use of military force in the South, of Reconstruction as a military project imposed upon the South. If Reconstruction was the height of black politics in the history of the United States, if it was the most progressive time in the history of this country, what would it mean for us to actually have a politics that worked at that level, with elections forcing the key political issues of the day, as opposed to what we have now, where the president is just a symbolic figure? Mel has pointed out that he thinks the major task is the question of jobs, and it certainly was the major issue in the last election, if it isn’t the major issue in all elections. What is the significance of the fact that the black community is used as a surplus labor force alongside immigrant labor?

MR: Yes, community politics can be narrow and provincial. On the other hand, when you have oppressed communities who have no power, you are going to have resistance, you are going to have community-based politics. This just seems to be a natural social law. You cannot be dismissive towards those local political struggles just because they are local.

Generally, one aspect that must be understood is that the ideas of the revolutionary Black Nationalists influenced the white left tremendously in this country. They were very important in the New Communist Movement and in the white left. The New Communist Movement has vanished in a way that the debates of those times, which were occasioned by these revolutionary Black Nationalists’ ideas, has been forgotten and lost, and that is too bad, because it was a very important and fundamental debate. The African-American struggle is—at least one aspect of it is—national. Blacks are a nationally oppressed group, and revolutionary Black Nationalism emerges out of that aspect of the reality of the struggle, as an attempt to integrate responses to the national oppression and the class oppression. Some such integration, in terms of theory and praxis, is crucial if you’re interested in building any kind of revolutionary movement.

Du Bois’s book on Black Reconstruction is to me the high point of Marxist analysis of that period. But I am not sure the issue of violence is central. The issue there was of democratic self-rule, basically, where the planters had mobilized a force of violence to crush democratic self-rule and they fought back. The controversy is whether they could have made it or what allies they needed to sustain the Reconstruction project and avoid defeat. There is no doubt that if they were going to do that they would have to employ armed struggle, because they were under armed attack.

CJ: I actually try to refrain from using the categories black community/white community, partially because when we encounter them within political rhetoric, or even in earlier historical debates, what they refer to is a constituency that someone claims to represent. I try to avoid that as much as possible. Certainly there are black communities, black neighborhoods, but I think whenever we hear them talked about in that broad sense, I have a problem with it, because of its political implications.

Of course, the New Deal was limited and social security did not cover domestics and sharecroppers. I am clear on that; I don’t have a problem about thinking through that historically. The problem I have, though, is that this sometimes provides an exit, provides a way to say, “You know what, unlike Scandinavian societies, we’ve got to deal with race and therefore social democracy is not going to work here in the United States.” When we look at the broader history, despite the racism, there are all sorts of instances of popular struggles that are multiracial.

I don’t really know what to make of Obama and Assata Shakur. I suspect it has more to do with Cuba. I am always leery whenever someone mentions the Black Panther Party. I think that the Black Panthers, in it of itself, was limited. I am glad Mel brought up the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. There is a whole pantheon of radical organizations during that period that needs to be discussed and debated, but ultimately, we have to really think about what modes of organizing are appropriate in our own moment.

The question of jobs is the thread that connects a lot of what we have talked about, whether it is the rise of the right or the emergence of the new Democrats, because they have all helped to further this project of neoliberalism in different ways. Speaking broadly about the Left, I don’t think we’ve come up with effective ways of wrestling with neoliberalization. First of all, it is a complicated process; it is tough to summarize. You can certainly talk about the rejection of social democracy, the rejection of the planned state, but what it looks like on the ground sometimes is much more difficult for people to get a sense of.

I think too many of us have gotten caught up in the shadow theater of symbolic presidential candidacies and whether or not Obama is being offended by the Tea Party, and whether we should get upset about it, instead of tackling those kinds of issues that might be included under this notion of neoliberalism. Also, and this is where I disagree with Mel, I actually don’t think the answer is jobs. We are still stuck in a moment in which we want to focus on job creation even though there has been vast technological change that has made some jobs completely worthless and monotonous, work that nobody really wants to do. The biggest task is for us to rethink what kind of society we want instead of thinking in the short term about how to recreate jobs that once existed.

If you go back and take a look at James Boggs’s American Revolution, a book that came out in 1963, there is a key passage where he begins to talk about the kinds of problems that automation would create within society. He is writing about it as somebody who works in the Chrysler plant in Detroit, with respect to the changes that are happening within the plant—how it is intensifying racism as people become more and more insecure about their jobs in the factory, and how it is creating more of a conservative mood among the UAW folks who are now in a posture of negotiation under technological change. He describes in a few sentences the next 40 years of American history. What he basically says is that the changes produced by automation and technological change more generally are going to produce a society in which people are basically disposable and rely upon the state in order to survive. He talks about people being untouchables—essentially he is talking about those black men that he sees more and more often on the street corners of Detroit. They have no possibility of being incorporated into factory production. Boggs ultimately says that what we need to do is get beyond the focus on jobs and begin to talk about a society in which we are no longer organizing our daily lives around the dogma of work. Ultimately, I think that is where we need to go, from a question of how we patch up society by creating minimum wage jobs in the short term, to how we create a society in which there are no disposable people.

 

Reflecting on this conversation, I am reminded why Platypus on the one hand says, “The Left is dead,” and on the other hand is dedicated to facilitating the development of conditions for the revitalization of the Left. Part of the way I am thinking about this panel is, “black politics in the age of Obama,” but also, “black politics after Obama.” We are historically faced with the question of whether we live in a post-racial society. Answers in the affirmative are, on one level, a manifest lie, and yet they do seem to be descriptively accurate of a highly conservative overcoming of the question of race, in that the question of what kind of politics would be adequate to the question of race, in our epoch, has now simply become unclear.

Part of the reason we look to the American Civil War is because of its centrality to the history of the Left. The transformative moment of the 19th century is undoubtedly the rise of the Republican Party, the Union’s victory in Reconstruction, and the arming of black soldiers and the army as a whole to uproot slavery with blood and iron. Mel was talking about the way in which questions of race seemed in the moment of 1964 to promise a reconfiguration of American politics in the 20th century, a real opening up of democratic possibilities by provoking a crisis within the prevailing, depoliticizing Democratic-Republican dynamic of the post-WWII period. Cedric has talked about the bad legacy of the 1960s—the specters of the 1960s and 1970s. How are we to begin to push on the question of race on the Left, in order to overcome the rotten legacies that lead to our own present incapacity to reconstitute a force that can change society?

CJ: Let me tackle this question of post-racialism first. I think there is a tendency to equate it with the right-wing, colorblind, neoliberal posture, but I think there is some truth to claims of post-racialism. What some people mean by it is that we are post-Jim Crow segregation, that there has been some racial progress in the country. Yet, I think it is overstated to say that because we now have an African-American president, racism is somehow a thing of the past. There is a problem in the way people talk about progress in this country; it seems we have been unable to think through how it is that oppression and suffering continue even in the midst of progress. That some sort of progress has occurred is evident in the fact that we have now seen, as we said before, the expansion of the black middle class and the emergence of blacks within all areas of American life, to a meaningful extent, even if this has not occurred on terms that are always equal to whites. These facts, these aspects of sociological reality, are implied within the post-racial rhetoric. Of course, I reject all the right-wing politics that often goes along with those claims. I hope that what we have begun to do in this conversation­ is think through the meaning of these changes: the emergence of an expansive black middle class and, with it, the emergence of a black political elite which is part of the local corporate political bloc in any given city. Even nationally, I think we are living in and through a period in which black people are not just add-ons, but an important sector of a ruling class. That is something that has to be reconciled, or reckoned with, in any formidable and effective leftist politics.

We have talked about the decomposition of labor in this country, and with that we have to think seriously about what the working class looks like now in concrete terms, a concern that is easy to lose track of. There is a tendency to get caught up in metanarratives without looking at the specifics. We have to broaden the spectrum of what the American working class is, because there is still a tendency both within the popular discussion but also within certain corners of the Left to settle on an almost Archie Bunker-type notion of the working class—industrial, racist, and ass-backwards—when it actually looks very different in reality. We need to not only think about it in a different way but also to begin organizing accordingly.

We have to sharpen our understanding of who constitutes the working class and also jettison the focus on electoral politics, which has been an undercurrent in this conversation. While instrumental voting is necessary and we should all participate, especially where we think our participation makes some difference, the struggle that we want entails other kinds of organizing—and, it should be said, Occupy does not appear to have been adequate. To put it provocatively, I do not think we can really view Occupy as a movement. It was a series of demonstrations that were powerful and important in terms of galvanizing public attention to the question of inequality in society, but it was largely inadequate. The talk about the “ninety-nine percent” is a good slogan—much like “Change you can believe in.” But neither offers an analysis that clarifies what class actually looks like in this moment.

MR: Within all these changes we’ve talked about, some facts remain. When you talk about any kind of working class movement, you need to talk about women, Latinos, and blacks, who are going to compose the movement. Yet white workers, especially older, white, male workers who by-and-large have reactionary politics, are a problem for the Left and a problem for the working class movement because they dominate the trade unions, as well as the working class communities in which they live. They have a social force that goes beyond their numbers.

So we have to re-conceptualize the working class in a much broader way. But when you do that you have to understand the variety of the working class—why women workers and black male workers are not the same, how different groups of workers have their own interests, aside from their broad class interest, which are really important to them. It is in that context that the black movement is going to have to play a special role. Historically, it has been the most militant movement that has ever challenged the basis of American society. There is no reason to expect that is going to change. That does not mean that the black movement by itself is going to make a revolution. It is not. It is pretty clear now that the Black Nationalist initiatives, however well-motivated they were, did not succeed in liberating the black masses.

We need a black leadership that can mobilize and organize the black masses; until that happens, I am afraid there is not going to be a general progressive movement that is capable of changing much, and that is unfortunate. It is a pessimistic scenario. The objective possibilities are there, the history and the traditions are there, but other factors that were mentioned are mitigating against truly progressive social transformation—changes in work, and the fact that there is now a large black middle class, which does play a conservative role and has an impact on working class people. So, I am not all that optimistic, but I still believe that without a black movement based in the working class, the possibility of a real social change in the United States is foreclosed. |P

Transcribed by Erica Detemmerman, Joseph Estes, and Carlos Matul


[1]. Harold Cruse, “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American,” in Rebellion or Revolution? Edited by Cedric Johnson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 74–96.

[2]. Fran Spielman, “Ed Gardner: Black Contractors Should Get Half of CPS Schools Renovation Work,” Chicago Sun-Times 4/9/2013, available at <http://www.suntimes.com/news/cityhall/19380322-418/ed-gardner-black-contractors-should-get-half-of-the-cps-schools-renovation-work.html>.

Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, and Ben Blumberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On April 18th, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a conversation at New York University between Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ben Blumberg of Platypus, to discuss the differences and similarities between their organizations. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion. Complete audio and video of the event can be found online by clicking the above links.

Tri-Logos (1)
Bhaskar Sunkara
: It is impossible to deny that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Weekly Worker is an important publication. It is a publication that is right about many things, without a doubt more right than their peers on the British left, and their ideas deserve more engagement, so I am very pleased that Platypus has us together on this panel. There is no regular party publication on the American left that comes close to the Weekly Worker’s competence, especially considering the small size and resources of the CPGB. They have been consistently against the perversion of democratic centralism and lack of accountability by the leadership in groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I have been reading it for a couple of years and I think they have a really nuanced view of Trotskyism’s legacy. They also have a solid critique of Eurocommunism and other coalition politics. What I like most of all is their openness about their small size and their limited influence as an organization. For someone like me, who has been around the Left and its posturing, we at Jacobin think the Weekly Worker is far more refreshing and useful than organs that herald the coming of every new socialist movement as if it is going to resurrect the Left. Platypus’s approach is also sometimes useful on this point. Jacobin doesn’t share the same politics, but only because we are operating in different contexts. We aim to reach a different audience. Jacobin, as a political project, is a publication that cannot substitute for the role of a political organization or the role of a party. It also cannot have the uncompromising and coherent vision and perspective of a propaganda group. And it is subject to lots of different pressures and forces—such as the market and the petty-bourgeois culture of writing and publishing.

Our different orientations affect whom we are trying to reach. Jacobin was always two projects. It is something of an intra-left project: emphasizing a Marxist perspective towards organization building. But our main project has been an outwardly directed one: engaging with American liberalism. We have always been geared towards the general public. We are geared towards liberals articulating radical ideas and we do so in a way that is clear and accessible. If we have any measure of mainstream success, it is intentional. We have sought to be a terrain for deep theoretical debates. It has been said that we are visible reminders of a long-forgotten socialist tradition, which would define us politically somewhere in between Leninism and the Democratic Socialists of America. One result of this is that the level of politicization of Jacobin’s readership is not quite the same as the level of politicization of our editors, and you could probably say there is a lot more political parity between the readership and the editors of the Weekly Worker and the Platypus Review.

James Turley: The CPGB is not a party. It doesn’t exist; it is a name. The name comes from the older official communist party that has since wound up. The name represents an ideal that we look towards. The far left is divided into small propaganda circles and some of them deny that they do propaganda. The SWP would be a good example; the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is another. They think they are talking to the masses, but it is bad propaganda reaching a mass audience. The CPGB identifies openly as a propaganda group and so probably would the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) or the Spartacist League. So there is a very similar landscape out of which the CPGB of the 1920s was formed. The original CPGB was formed from one wing of the Socialist Labour Party, which was a kind of syndicalist sect, and the large majority of the British Socialist Party. At that time, it was a far-left Marxist sect rather than the mass party form that existed in continental Europe. Along with the South Wales committee, their forces together totaled about four to five thousand. If you add up the people in Britain today committed to some form of socialist revolution, you get a ballot figure of about five thousand. After 70–90 intervening years we are, in a sense, back where we started. That says something about the 20th century.

But in the 1920s there were sharp tactical polemics between leftists who were, nevertheless, able to come together and vote on issues like whether affiliations would be sold to the Labour Party. They were able to make such decisions without watering down their overall political orientation, and that is fundamentally what we seek today. We argue for the unity of Marxists around a Marxist program even though the result would be something small and socially insignificant. Nonetheless, we would be in a far better position to grow rapidly and to spread socialist and communist ideas throughout society.

There is also the matter of what we inherit from the 20th century. The old CPGB was effectively a left-Stalinist party under the influence of the Turkish Communist Party. So our heritage is a kind of hard Marxism-Leninism, but we take distance from the Soviet Union and the rest of the Stalinist bloc. In that sense, there was a certain formal similarity to the Spartacus League or Workers’ World Party (WWP), with the harder defenses of Trotskyism. Obviously, this is not our political orientation today; we have not become Trotskyists. We see that Trotskyism was a profoundly positive thing in that it rejected the notion of socialism in one country. It also rejected the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. Trotskyists of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s were broadly on the correct side of certain struggles. On the other hand, we see Trotsky’s Transitional Program as inadequate and economist. It creates two lines on the spontaneous development of consciousness, leading either to reformism or a kind of strange ultimate-ist, sect-like obsession with this text from the 1930s.

We are often categorized as Neo-Kautskyists. For us, Karl Kautsky was a highly important figure, effectively the chief historian of the Second International and also an intellectual hit man for August Bebel. He wrote the most sustained defenses of mainstream strategy of the Second International that we are trying to save from historical oblivion. Today’s self-identified Leninist groups have come to see a severe break between Lenin and the Second International. But the Leninist rejection of this whole tradition is misconceived. Lenin was a key figure in the mainstream faction of the Second International, the center faction led by Kautsky, and if there is anything distinctive about him and his faction of Bolsheviks, it is that they were the most politically muscular defenders of what was, quite simply, orthodoxy. Lars Lih characterizes Lenin as “aggressively unoriginal.” We are trying to recover that unoriginality, because it was part of an overall strategy of the emergence of genuinely mass parties committed to socialist revolution. I feel like we are winning that particular historical battle. It is hard to tell at this point because there are still relatively substantial revolutionary groups that are committed to bearing a kind of hard Leninism. But very few new groups are being formed, and when splits happen, they tend to produce further, ever smaller, Trotskyist combat organizations. That produces a tendency for an equal yet opposite misinterpretation of Lenin, which is that he built a broad organization that everyone could come into. We like to call that the “politics of the swamp”: everyone can come in and paddle their feet in the swamp. But this strategy runs into its own contradictions and the whole thing falls apart. In fact, the Bolsheviks, like the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), were programmatically defined in an extremely sharp way—in ways that were designed to cause divisions. The Erfurt Programme of the SPD, the Program of the Parti Ouvrier in France, and the Bolshevik plan were written in ways to exclude anarchists and cause splits.

On the Weekly Worker, our flagship: The original CPGB paper, the Daily Worker, was nicknamed the “Daily Miracle,” in the sense of the improbability of its publication. I tend to call our paper the “Weekly Miracle.” It is run on a shoestring budget by a small, dedicated volunteer staff. It carries forward the type of culture that we want: a culture of open polemics. There is a reason why we start off with two pages of letters. We do not want to present a show of everyone agreeing with us. That would be ridiculous. On the other hand, that doesn’t come at the cost of us having a clear editorial line. We will absolutely concede our political hardness in the way that Lenin and his comrades would have done. We are not afraid to ruffle a few feathers and bruise a few egos. I haven’t gone into a lot of the meat of the dispute between ourselves and Platypus, which focuses on rather more obscure questions like the relationship between philosophy and history. But we don’t have an official party philosophy or an official party philosopher and we don’t think there should be one. That doesn’t mean we are indifferent to such matters, but we are more focused on history as a kind of empirical record, or a record of projects that have attempted to transform society. It is safe to say that they have all failed eventually but, as Samuel Beckett may have put it, some failed better than others.

Ben Blumberg: What distinguishes Platypus is the question of history. This means something different for Platypus than it does for the CPGB, although in both cases, it is a question of historical consciousness. I am not including Jacobin, not because I think history is inessential for them, but because Jacobin is probably less likely to be accused of being an antiquarian society in the way that Platypus and the CPGB are.

The idea that history is an empirical record that serves as a balance sheet on the attempts by leftists of the past to overcome capitalism, displays a lack of awareness about the break in continuity between past and present. In some of the exchanges between Platypus and the IBT, a distinction was made between historical continuity projects, such as theirs, in contrast to Platypus’s idea of historical memory. Granted, once one begins to move from the former to the latter, we get into a terrain that is less concrete and more philosophical, or, as one of our recent detractors has described it, “obscurantist idealism.” But historical memory for Platypus has to do with the way our moment is conditioned by what was possible at an earlier time: namely, emancipation from capitalism. This once present possibility has today become interred under a century or more of historical failure.

There is a fundamental distinction between our notion of historical failure and the CPGB’s understanding of the same phenomenon. For us, the problem is not that past actors had the wrong politics, as the CPGB would argue. Instead, the problem is one of consciousness: What undergirds the attempts at emancipation? What is the consciousness that gives rise to the workers’ movement? This is why we emphasize the critique of Marxism. What has been most fundamental to the history of Marxism is the attempt at deepening the consciousness generated by the misfortunes and maladies of bourgeois society. For Marxists—and this is very clearly enunciated in the figures that we treat as foundational: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky—historical defeats are only damning for the movement if we do not learn from them. Luxemburg, for example, explicitly said that the collapse of the Second International in 1914 would only be a loss if no lessons were extracted from it.

To bring it around to the idea of historical discontinuity, Platypus contends that these lessons have not been learned. We want to hold at bay the Chomskyan approach to the history of Marxism, where it is simply a matter of telling people what they don’t know. Because we haven’t learned from our failures, historical conditions have changed, particularly in terms of the possibility for consciousness. Like the CPGB, we are not a political party, but for different reasons. James probably wouldn’t characterize our historical moment as “pre-political” in the way that we would.

So we characterize our project in this negative sense. It is not a matter of telling people that this is what historical consciousness looked like back then, and we need to aspire to its reproduction in the present. Rather, we teach Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky to make visible the contours of what is missing. And that is why we consider ourselves a “pre-political” project. We think that there needs to be recognition of what is absent in our historical moment. We are in a “pre-political moment” because of the absence of consciousness that once existed.

 

Responses

BS: My perspective is more empirical. History is fact, and I think useful history is grounded in social history. I would agree that the history of the Left is the history of failure, but I think that it is a combination of bad objective social and economic conditions with poor political responses to these conditions. One of the key differences is that I think there is room for actual politics today. I can somewhat understand Platypus’s objection to that. There is a lot of noise and “movementism,” and the Left is an echo chamber. But there are relevant, operative politics for us to engage in, even if the Left today is in a worse position than it has been in the past. Still: Trade union activity is politics. Anti-austerity work is politics. The anti-war movement is politics.

JT: I don’t think that the current moment is “pre-political.” That strikes me as difficult to reconcile with the fact that there is simply, in obvious ways, politics going on. In Britain, the trade union movement is at its absolute historical weakest. We are back to almost the beginning of mass trade unionism in terms of union density, but we still have mass demonstrations organized by the unions and the left of the unions. Sometimes, arguing with Platypus, it feels like this discontinuity stance is their dinosaur Marx, as if a comet landed and all the dinosaurs died or became birds, as if everybody was wiped out by an incomprehensible natural catastrophe. But what happened was a serious development. It seems like an impossible situation, like a chicken-and-egg scenario, in which we can’t have mass organizations because we don’t have the historical consciousness that mass organization brings into being. There is no other way to solve the problem than to work through the concrete history, through an intellectual frame that would be less abstractly philosophical. I wouldn’t conceive of the task in terms of critique, but rather in terms of science, which I would consider an objective, critical form of knowledge.

BB: The question of science, I think, is one of the main tripping points for the Left. Certainly Platypus, both externally and internally, finds itself embroiled in these questions about “scientific socialism” and Marx’s concepts in relation to the natural sciences. Is Marxism a science? Did Marx advance science itself, or is this category a lot of bunk? Platypus maintains that the question of science for Marx and Marxism is derived from a different meaning of the word than is used in the natural sciences. It is implied in the particular way in which historical research is conducted; what characterizes the “scientific” in Marxism is the self-conscious reflecting on the conditions of its own possibility.

On the notion of discontinuity: The possibility of praxis today is largely assumed, whereas we would put it in the form of a question. Is it really the case that an exploitative system that is raised by mendacious politics leads to social discontent, and that is just the natural way of politics? One of the reasons I think that idea can be rejected is that exploitation is not new to our historical epoch. Yet the question of emancipatory politics is historically specific to the era of the bourgeoisie. For Platypus, the question of discontinuity rests on the perplexity that one has to face when one begins to integrate the conditions of possibility and praxis today. We approach those conditions as something that can only be glimpsed when one delves into how they were understood historically. To paraphrase Trotsky, you can stand at the side of a river, but the water doesn’t stop flowing: The history of the objective conditions has changed. It is common to hear strange assertions and questions about the nature of the social order today, such as “is it really even mediated by the wage-laborer?” This points to just how opaque society has become.

I don’t think Platypus would exist if we just thought that politics was absolutely impossible. In fact, we do what we do precisely because we think it is possible. The question is: What is it going to take to get from here to there?

JT: The “scientificity” of Marxism would be scientific socialism based on the materialist conception of history, which, to me, is a kind of minimal point in itself: It is the idea that history is something that we can apprehend and thus actually transform. There is obviously an element of reflection on the conditions of existence, but the consciousness of the past is not inaccessible. In a sense, we have had the experience of 80 years of mulching it over and trying to work out what the hell happened. Now we can come to a better understanding. It is very clear there are differences between what we call the social sciences and the natural sciences. You could almost call history the laboratory of a mad scientist who doesn’t have a very coherent idea for organizing his or her experiments. We are just left with the results, which we have to mulch over. All that “science” amounts to, in this case, is the claim that we can have a cumulative project of understanding history.

I don’t think that it is true that emancipatory politics is a product of the bourgeois era. The pre-bourgeois era is littered with various strange, mostly religious, utopian sects attempting, in the Christian sense, to go back to the early church. What has changed with bourgeois society—and I would rather call it capitalism—is that the social basis is laid such that these attempts to change the world can actually amount to more than ephemeral communes.

Back in 1920, we had five thousand people committed, in some sense, to running around urging everybody to be a Marxist. Now we have five thousand people committed to running around and pretending that they are good, old-fashioned Labour social democrats. That is a serious change. Our project is a long-term one. We don’t think we are going to turn this around in five years or ten years. Just as if we wanted to institute bourgeois state regimes, as in the 17th century or the 18th century, we would have needed to deal with the disaster of the Italian city states in the 15th and 16th century. As an aside: A large part of Shakespeare’s work is propagandizing how terrible these societies were. That is what was going on in the Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Romeo and Juliet. Look at the terrible bloody warfare! Wouldn’t it be better if they had a proper king? And this is similar to 19th century British propaganda about the French Revolution.

As they say, if you kick a dog, it will probably bite you. The mistake is spontaneitist and anarchist trends, which expect that these reflexes will solve everything, which of course they don’t. But there will always be opportunities—little cracks that you can wedge politics into. This doesn’t mean going back to rethinking the basic terms of what emancipation could mean in a particular historical circumstance, but attempting to produce a politics that makes a difference, thinking about it not in terms of the possibilities in the next five years, but the next fifty years.

BS: I think there is an opportunity for a formation like the left party in Germany—which I am sure neither of you has much faith in—but which would present an opening for the radical left, which historically has been symbiotic or parasitic on broader, reformist workers’ movements. I think these developments can open up new political possibilities. In America, we’ve never developed to the point of having a Social-Democratic or workers’ movement. In Britain, where they have a bourgeois workers’party, their best achievement is social liberalism.

Even with American liberalism today, we can identify two different camps: We can see liberals committed to this New Deal coalition and we have liberals who are technocratic or deep into “third-way” politics. The technocratic liberals are, in a sense, more sophisticated, in that they actually saw the crisis of the American welfare state in the 1970s and saw the crisis of the broader center-left. They actually adapted their program to this crisis. This gap between these main factions of what used to be the American center-left presents political opportunities that might not even come close to emancipatory politics in our generation, but could still provide the terrain in which the Left can regroup, build itself institutionally, and become a leading element in a broader, center-left anti-austerity movement, thus opening up possibilities for politics in the future.

 

Q & A

This is a Western-focused audience, so when I keep hearing about “failure,” “addressing our history,” and looking for chances or ruptures, I wonder, in what contexts is this more negative position warranted? What about actually existing revolutions like the Bolivarian revolution?

 

BS: A Third World impulse has done the Left a great deal of harm. A lot of the problems of the New Left have to do with Third Worldism. As far as the Bolivarian revolution, I see positive aspects of it, but it is on the populist continuum. The best way forward for the American left is to help these other struggles by building an opposition movement in the U.S. I am not saying that there has to be revolution in the United States first, but if there were some weak link in European capitalism, it would greatly help the European struggle if there were a strong leftist party in the United States with 20,000–30,000 active members, who could immediately launch a propaganda war. I think, to some extent, that it is an unhealthy impulse on the Left to immediately look to relevant struggles overseas—whether in Cuba or the Maoists in Nepal. We can be in solidarity with these struggles, although, more often than not, we should be critical of a lot of them.

JT: The fundamental issue with Venezuela is that it is simply too historically specific. What lessons can we learn? That, in order to have a revolution, you need a charismatic leftist army officer in charge of a country with oil reserves? This is not a broad historical movement; it is a singularity. It would be false and patronizing to say that it is not a good thing to lift an enormous amount of people out of illiteracy and poverty on the basis of mobilization, but this is as vulnerable as the welfare state of the 1960s and 1970s.

 

The Left often ends up in a defensive position: it pushes to keep wages at their current state, or defends certain social rights like healthcare. Can we really call that politics, if the Left is wedged in a position where it is essentially defending the status quo?

BS: I agree that the response to austerity on the Left has been defensive, but I think it is tactically defensive. A defensive politics towards the welfare state, if it’s part of a broader program, can be useful. More political defeats now, in terms of greater austerity, will just put the Left and the working class in a tougher position to fight back in the future. So we can’t have offensive ends unless we win the defensive struggle now.

JT: I would argue something different. It is clear that anti-austerity politics ends up repeating old Keynesian debates. You get shock troops coming out saying “we want a million climate change jobs!” But they expect to be defeated so that they can be radicalized. I don’t think the problem is defensiveness. The emergence of a socialist workers movement is, as they used to put it in the Second International, the founding myth. The workers' movement preexisted what we call socialism. It took the form of mass trade unions in England; they were defensive organizations. You obviously have people saying that we need more than just trade union rights, but that is about as far as it goes. What about cooperatives? That used to be thought of as a foundation. I am not saying cooperatives are a road to socialism. They are an occasional waiting post on the way to socialism, but they are all fundamentally part of the working class’s defense against economic attacks.

BB: The issue is not best characterized by the defensiveness of the Left in anti-austerity politics. However, I would make a distinction between the early socialist movement and the workers’ movement. If you characterize the workers’ movement as simply defensive or founded upon the workers’ need to defend themselves against the intensive exploitation that came around with industrialization, you capture only part of what was going on. How we characterize the organized working class as a constituent element in the developmental trajectory of society is important, because it wasn’t simply founded on defense. It was constituted, meaning that people who lived outside of society, in the shantytowns around Manchester, were taken and made actual constituents of society. To use some Platypus jargon, they were made into bourgeois subjects. By allowing them to participate in the sale of their labor on equal terms, they were given the rights that the bourgeoisie had already given itself. That was the foundation of bourgeois citizenry.

I think the context in which a reformist struggle occurs is essential and this is exactly the argument Rosa Luxemburg puts forth. She is often characterized, in an obnoxious way, as a revolutionary counterposing herself to reformists. From the very first paragraph of Reform or Revolution, she says the opposite, that it is the reformists who separate reform from revolution. The point is that reforms achieved in the context of advancing the socialist workers’ movement are very different from reforms achieved in the context of the unchallenged dominance of the status quo. We have to account for that distinction, even if you don’t want to go as far as Platypus and recognize the historical discontinuity. |P

Transcribed by Daniel Jacobs

Evgeni V. Pavlov

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

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Introduction

Nikolai Bukharin opens his “Personal Confession,” written on June 2, 1937, with a list of his “general theoretical anti-Leninist views.”[1] The first item on the list is his “lack of understanding of dialectics and substitution of Marxist dialectics with the so-called theory of equilibrium.” To explain this lack of understanding, Bukharin continues: “[I] was under the influence of A. Bogdanov, whom I wished to interpret only in a materialist way, which unavoidably led to a peculiar eclecticism - simply put, theoretical confusion - where mechanical materialism united with empty schemas and abstractions.”[2] This formulation is revealing in many ways. Bukharin’s renunciation of Bogdanov must be understood in light of the connection between the two. That Bogdanov’s ideas and his very person were influential in Bukharin’s intellectual development is difficult, even impossible, to deny. However, the level of this influence, the amount of alleged “borrowings” and the independence of Bukharin’s own theorizations are up for debate. An additional difficulty arises out of the use that the persecutors of Bukharin made of this relationship in order to discredit his ideas and political positions.

The year of Bogdanov’s death – 1928 - was an eventful year in Bukharin’s political life. The fifteenth Party Congress finished its work in December 1927, and the discussions about industrialization and collectivization were heated and fraught with factional conflicts. The grain shortage and the failures in foreign policy greatly contributed to the combative nature of the discussions. On the domestic front, the infamous Shakhty “conspiracy” went from the initial preparatory stages, characterized by intense internal discussions in the Party leadership, to the frenzy of the media’s coverage of the disastrous show trial that took place between May 18 and July 6. In July Bukharin negotiated with Kamenev about a possible opposition against Stalinist hard-liners.[3] In September he penned “Notes of an Economist” for Pravda in which he denounced plans for accelerated industrialization, emphasizing the need to “balance” various aspects of a complex economic system.[4] The political maneuvers by Bukharin and his supporters, attempting to use the Moscow Party Committee in their struggle, ended in defeat with the Central Committee’s condemnation in October 1928. The next month, Bukharin’s views were attacked at the Plenum of the Central Committee, and again in December 1928 at the eighth Congress of Professional Unions. At the joint meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Central Control Committee in January 1929, Stalin delivered his infamous speech – “Bukharin’s Group and the Rightist Deviation in Our Party.”

Alexander Bogdanov died on April 7, 1928 as a result of a blood transfusion experiment that he conducted on himself at the Institute for Blood Transfusions he founded in 1926. “Lenin’s rival,” according to the title of the most comprehensive biography of Bogdanov by Dietrich Grille, Bogdanov was an early member of the Bolshevik faction and later the leader of various Bolshevik split groups. Bogdanov’s split with Lenin is well-documented and illustrated by the latter’s attacks on his alleged “Machism” in Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Prolific author and erudite, all-around, scholar, Bogdanov’s final contribution to science was his “universal organizational science” (or “Tektology”). The history of Bogdanov’s personal and professional interactions with Bukharin is not well-documented. Bogdanov and Bukharin were active in the Socialist (later Communist) Academy, of which they were both founding members. The latter, while privately defending “Tektology” from Lenin’s attacks in the 1920s, later joined the (already customary by then) attacks on Bogdanov’s Marxist credentials.[5] Such “excommunications from Marxism,” as Bogdanov called them in 1914, were a common occurrence in critical attacks on his ideas.

Although we cannot know for sure whether Bukharin, in the heat of his struggle against Stalin and his policies, could already foresee his own “excommunication,” it is not unlikely that he contemplated his fate if defeated. As a participant in the previous fights against the opposition of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, although before the former was expelled from the Soviet Union and the latter were put on trial, Bukharin knew what awaited him and his supporters if their appeals to the Party and their attempts to persuade the moderates failed. Bogdanov spent several weeks in GPU jail in 1923 on the suspicion of connection with an opposition group. He was released after he demanded and received a meeting with Dzerzhinsky. Because of his generally apolitical positions during the 1920s, he was able to write, teach and publish, and, despite his “heretical” theoretical status, constituted no real threat to those in power. Always sensitive to criticisms of his views as "idealist" or "anti-Marxist," Bogdanov often carefully dissociated himself from persons or causes he thought might be compromised by an open link to him and his ideas. The ultimate link between Bogdanov’s "anti-Leninist" views and Bukharin’s "anti-Party" views were “demonstrated” in the notorious 1937 squib by A. V. Shcheglov called “Lenin’s Struggle Against Bogdanov’s Revision of Marxism.”[6] The “direct link” between Bogdanov’s “revision of Marxism” and Bukharin’s “rightist deviation” is no longer hinted at or implied but is stated quite openly throughout the book.

We do not know when and where Bogdanov and Bukharin met for the last time, but we do have a report about the last meeting between Bogdanov and Lenin. They met at the apartment of Ekaterina Peshkova on October 19, 1920. The occasion of the gathering was the performance of the works of Beethoven, Grieg, Ravel, Mozart and Rachmaninov by the young pianist Isaiah Dobrovein.[7] Although we have no historical record of their conversation, the very fact of such a meeting indicates, as do many previous encounters, the incredible personal civility of the Old Guard. After the Stalinists consolidated their grip on power and thoroughly purged the Party, Bogdanov’s name joined that of many others, including Bukharin, on the list of “ideological enemies.” As is often the case with Trotsky, one wonders when contemplating Bogdanov’s trajectory: What was so incredibly threatening about his ideas that it required such an assault, both private (in “confessions”) and institutional (in “rebuttals”), on his life and work?

 

In Memory of A. A. Bogdanov

(Speech at the Civil Funeral Ceremony)

Nikolai Bukharin

Comrades!

A number of us who are present are old Bolsheviks. We came here directly from the Plenum of the Central Committee of our Party in order to say one last "farewell" to A. A. Bogdanov.

During the last years of his life Bogdanov was not a member of our Party. In many issues, too many issues, he was not in agreement with the Party.  It is well-known that our Party - a party “as stubborn as stone,” as it was ironically called by the liberal bourgeoisie - does not make compromises of principle and does not permit cowardly and rotten concessions in the sphere of ideology.  It is a Party of fighters, fighters of a harsh and beautiful time, and it does not acknowledge relaxation of will and sugary sentimentality.  But I did not come here to speak in order to gloss over our disagreements with the deceased, or, abandoning principles, to engage in some trade in ideas by eclectically connecting what is impossible to connect.

I came here, despite all of our disagreements, in order to say farewell to a man whose intellectual status cannot be measured by ordinary means.  Yes, he was not orthodox in his views. Yes, from our point of view, he was a “heretic.” But he was no apprentice of thought. He was its most significant artist. In the brave flights of his intellectual fantasy, in the stern and clear stubbornness of his extraordinarily consistent mind, in the unusual gracefulness and internal elegance of his theoretical constructions, Bogdanov was, despite the non-dialectical nature and abstract schematism of his thinking, undoubtedly one of the most powerful and most original thinkers of our time.   He fascinated and enchanted everyone with his passion for theoretical monism; his theoretical attempts to introduce a grand plan into the entire system of human knowledge; his intense search for the universal-scientific, and not the philosopher’s, stone; and his search for, if we can put it this way, theoretical collectivism.

In the person of Alexander Alexandrovich we have lost a man who in terms of his encyclopedic knowledge occupied a special place not only in the Soviet Union, but was one of the most significant minds of all countries.  This is one of the rarest qualities amongst revolutionaries.  Bogdanov felt equally at ease in the refined atmosphere of philosophical abstraction and in concrete formulations of the theory of crises.  The natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences: he was an expert in these fields, he could survive battles in all of these areas, and he felt “at home” in all of these spheres of human knowledge.  From the theory of fireball lightning to the analysis of blood to the broadest generalizations of "Tektology" - this was the true scope of Bogdanov's theoretical interests.  An economist, a sociologist, a biologist, a mathematician, a philosopher, a doctor, a revolutionary and, finally, an author of the beautiful “Red Star” - in all of these areas he was an absolutely exceptional figure in the history of our social thought.  Bogdanov’s errors are unlikely ever to be resurrected.  But history will undoubtedly search through and find that which is most valuable in Bogdanov’s thought; it will allocate to him a worthy place among the fighters for revolution, science and labor.  The exceptional strength of his mind, his nobility of spirit, his loyalty to ideas - all these qualities entitle him to the lowering of our banners at his grave.

Our Party cannot but be thankful to Bogdanov for all the years that he spent fighting, hand in hand, alongside Lenin - on the frontlines of the Bolshevik faction, this embryo of the great Party of Communism.  He experienced with this Party, and as one of its leaders, an entire historical period, the period of the first attacks of the proletariat; these first heroic bloody battles received artistic representation in the last pages of “Red Star,” pages that our revolutionary youth read with awe and excitement.  He greatly influenced an entire generation of Russian Social Democrats, and it was because of him that many comrades made their decision to become revolutionaries.

Bogdanov was one of those people who, owing to the special qualities of their character, fight heroically for a great idea.  Bogdanov had it in his blood; he was a collectivist in feeling and in mind simultaneously.  Even his ideas about the transfusion of blood were based on the necessity for a peculiar physiological collectivism in which separate individuals are connected into one physiological circuit thus increasing the life activity of both individuals and of the entire collective. When Alexander Alexandrovich was still a political fighter, his Bolshevik theory did not contradict his practice, and he was one of the most significant revolutionary organizers, underground operatives and leaders of the Party.  The events that shook the world drew a deep tragic line between him and the Party and condemned him to political passivity. Undoubtedly, the most significant deviation - more significant than the political differences of the “Vpered!” era - resided in the theoretical errors of Alexander Alexandrovich: one may compare his ideas about culture and the necessity of preliminary cultural maturation of the proletariat with his political attitude toward the October Revolution in order to understand the deep and intimate link between the two, and one may connect this line of thinking with the very origins of Bogdanov’s worldview, but this is not my task right now.  The fact remains: Bogdanov withdrew from the Party and ceased to exist as a politician.

But with the same passion and the same “physical strength of the mind” he fully immersed himself in scientific activity.  And even here he was fighting like a “fanatic” for his ideas.  The word – “fanatic” - is a frightening word only for the philistines.  For us, “fanatic” is anyone who tenaciously and seriously pursues the best and most beautiful goal that one sets for oneself.  Bogdanov died a genuinely beautiful death. He died in battle, fighting for the cause in which he believed and for which he worked.

The tragic and beautiful death of Alexander Alexandrovich may be used by his enemies in order to discredit his selfless experiments, to strangle and finish off the very idea of blood transfusion, to put a headstone on the cause for which this martyr of science died.  This must not be allowed! We cannot let some idiots of small caliber, some scientific petty bourgeois cowardly both in theory and in life, some folks of the old ways who would be incapable of inventing even a wheel, to use Bogdanov’s death in order to kill and annihilate the significance of his scientific sacrifice.  No important, really important and really new, task comes without risks for the pioneers and trailblazers. In the realm of class struggle, in the realm of labor, in the realm of science, people - the very best, the most selfless and bravest people whose ideas and passions burn with bright flame - often perish in order to achieve the desired goal of their lives, their own individual “task,” the task that is a part of the objective social force that pushes them forward and onward.  For philistines this is “madness.” But this “madness” is the highest peak of human hearts and minds. Bogdanov died while performing his duty.  And the very death of comrade Bogdanov is the beautiful sacrifice of the man who knowingly risked his individual life in order to give a mighty impetus to the development of the entire human collective.

From the group of comrades and from Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya I say here our final “farewell.” |P

Translated by Evgeni V. Pavlov


[1]. For the discussion of this confession and the full English translation, see Grover Furr and Vladimir Bobrov, “Nikolai Bukharin’s First Statement of Confession in the Lubianka,” Cultural Logic (2007), 1-37.

[2]. Ibid., 19.

[3]. Cf. Vadim Rogovin, Vlast i oppozitsii [Power and Oppositions] (Moskva, 1993), Chapter VI.

[4]. N.I. Bukharin, “Zametki ekonomista,” Pravda (30 September 1928), in Put’ k sotsializmu (Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1990), 336-66.

[5]. Cf. Nikolai Bukharin, "Kollektivisticheskoe Likvidatorstvo," Pravda, 13 December 1921.

[6]. A.V. Shcheglov, Bor’ba Lenina protiv bogdanovskoi revizii Marksizma (Moskva, 1937).

[7]. Lenin, Biograficheskaia khronika [Biographical Chronicle], Volume 9, 390.

Noah R. Gataveckas

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

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"Think of us like the psychoanalysts of the Left."

This was one of the descriptions that a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society offered after I had made some probing, perhaps doubtful, remarks about the intentions of their organization. As someone who identified with the radical Left and psychoanalysis, I found this statement to be rather instructive and, really, born out of a genuine insight into the current state of the Left.

It coalesced with the various self-descriptive materials which are made available on the project’s website. It might as well have read:

 Dr. Platypus is for the therapy, education, and, ultimately, the practical reconstitution of the subject. At present the subject appears as a historic ruin… Dr. Platypus contends that the ruin of the subject as she stands today is of a history whose collapse was largely self-inflicted, hence at present the subject is historical, and in such a grave state of delusion that she can no longer cope coherently with sociopolitical reality. In the face of her traumatic past and present, the first task for the reconstitution of the subject is to recognize the reasons for her historical collapse and to facilitate the recovery of the subject for the present and future. If the subject is to change the world, she must first cure herself![1]

The conceptual translation of this argument from the register of the political to the psychoanalytic could perhaps proceed indefinitely. It threatens to consume the entire project, producing what would amount to an epic case study of the subject as she gets conceived through the terminology of “Marx, Lukács, Benjamin, and Adorno.”[2] It could even provide an opening into the psyche of the analyst, who has come to doctorate himself not without a desire to do so, and not without a theory which, owing to the particular lineage of the aforementioned forefathers (which, no doubt, weighs on the conscience like a "nightmare"), results in the affirmation of an endless interpretation via the trap doors of negative dialectics.

But without digressing too far down this darkened path into the abyss, reminiscent of the secret passage found in Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterful work House of Leaves,[3] the translated quotation featured above should be enough to make the following point: what is relevant about Platypus today is exactly this observation -- that the subject is sick, that she needs help. While this is not insignificant in terms of waging revolutionary struggle, it remains to be seen whether articulating the grimness of the condition constitutes the most effective therapeutic procedure, that is, in terms of resolving her case and enabling the subject to make a breakthrough.

The Marxian Left, where it is not implicated by its conspicuous absence, appears as a spurious infinity of sects and hodge-podge syndicalists who, like ambassadors of Babel, enter the world to spread dissention and misunderstanding amongst the ranks. Each group claims their own personal expression of Marxism, oblivious to why Marx, chagrined by the mongers of "radical" phraseology who went forth to proselytize in his name, once affirmed: “ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.[4] Meanwhile legislatures are run rampant with corrupt former-Leftists who have sold out to serve the status quo, with pseudo-fascists waiting in the wings; neither no longer required to pledge allegiance to a revolutionary project which promises to emancipate the masses, a political development that we should not be surprised was already anticipated by Marx and Engels in their classic description of how exploitation under capitalism goes from being “veiled by political and religious illusions” to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.”[5]

Despite this, the various Ideological State Apparatuses, as identified by Althusser in his important essay on the subject (religion, school, family, union, media, etc.),[6] are still functional, more than ever.[7] But how can this be, if capitalism strips away at illusions? As one Lacanian put it, “in our allegedly ‘post-ideological’ era, ideology functions more and more in a fetishistic mode as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode.”[8] Hence the importance of understanding the dynamic of “fetishistic disavowal,”[9] which, aside from alluding to Marx’s scientific treatment of the phenomenon of money in Capital, clings to the simple formula of repeating some language as a fetish in and of itself: “I know very well, but still…”[10] This ellipsis, standing as it does for that X factor which cedes power to the bourgeoisie to maintain ideological hegemony over society (insofar as this factor can be isolated as independent from the physical and structural powers of politics and economy), is a riddle that has taunted every serious social critique of the advanced capitalist countries since the beginning of the postwar era.

Once one learns to see the fetishistic basis of ideology - how it operates on a pre-conscious level, how it reproduces itself as a material practice, already interwoven into social relations, despite what we tell ourselves about it - the mistakes made by past attempts to forge a totalizing critique of everything existing begin to glare. And it is understandable that mistakes have been made. It is no easy feat to mount a critique of both base and superstructure, that combines a Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie with Ideologiekritik, a task akin to climbing two mountains at once.

This is why it is difficult to have to blame the first-wave Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich for mystifying the scientific theory of “repression,”[11] since this allowed him to attribute the cause of Nazism to the ‘conformist’ character which capitalism forces on people through frustrating their sexualities, through repressing them (or, at least, getting them to repress themselves), and harnessing that energy for aggressive ends. These can range from Holocausts to what Reich called the "progressive character of fascism,"[12] a question which was already answered by Trotsky in an article from 1932 that concerned "the organic character of fascism as a mass movement."[13] In any case, the approach is the same: Reich thinks as if repression was a problem invented by capitalism, and no less the main one to turn masses into fascists. But anyone with a historical interest in the alleged “repressive" character supposedly inherent in the Nazi ideology should pay particular attention to the character of Weissmann from Thomas Pynchon’s sublime novel Gravity’s Rainbow.[14] Also, see Pasolini's Salò (1976) for more commentary on the obscene knot that ties together fascism with anarchist sympathies.

Whereas Freud stressed the structural necessity of repression as a constitutive feature of consciousness[15] and Kultur[16] (which later got pegged to the human condition of being in language),[17] Reich proved himself to be more like an anarchist than a Marxist in wanting to overthrow repression, as it were, all at once, instead of dissolving the problem over time by coming to displace the question: taking repression for granted as a constant of human consciousness, how does one establish or maintain a sinthomatic mediation in the world today, fraught as it is with so much squalor and dissatisfaction? I can assure you that the demand is older than Mick Jagger, which is not to say that Mick Jagger is not old but that he is remembered to have not quite asked, but demanded rather emphatically: “I can’t get no satisfaction!”[18] Surely he was right to suggest that cigarettes, cars, and even useless information plays just as much a part in this demand for erotic satiety as the attraction of men and women and other bodies.

It is also difficult to have to censure the second-wave Freudo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse, whose inconsistency as a theorist is symptomatic of the Frankfurt School as a whole. He is responsible for introducing the misleading category of “one-dimensionality” to account for the sorry state of the emerging postmodern subject circa 1968. It melded together the primordial tension between sex (individuals) and economy (groups) as both take place under a capitalist society with the clunker “repressive desublimation.”[19] This clumsy term is posed to stand for nothing but an entire field of topics and perspectives which accounts for the subject matter of the full career of one psychoanalyst in particular, whose name and teaching should be on all of ours lips. That is, for those of us who want and see the need to hold the line on what accounts for proper psychoanalytic procedure, a perspective which must take into account the niceties of both its theoretical component and the method of its practice.

If therapy is what we really want and need to apply to the subject of the ailing Left, to ameliorate the fact that her psyche is self-destructively trying to flee from the immanence of her contemporary predicament – environmental, economic, and cultural – by lapsing into the false but adequate dreamworld supplied by bourgeois ideology in its “postmodern” cynical (i.e. fetishized) form, then there is no reason to not get our psychoanalysis firsthand. Here we cannot settle; we must go straight to the source. One does not reconcile the ameliorative therapy of the subject and the progressive development of class consciousness through reading a Marxist and then another Marxist who, unlike the first Marxist, happens to talk about psychoanalysis as well. We reconcile these approaches through reading both Marxism and psychoanalysis. This simple point, so simple but for so many so hard, can be captured in the following reformulation:

Not: Marx, Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno.

But: Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan.[20]

Not Marx and then a Hegelian-Marxist, but Marx and Hegel as the dual poles of logical (i.e. dialectical) thinking. Not Benjamin, whose gnomic and intertextual writing style is like Lacan’s, and Adorno, who would often employ psychoanalytic terminology without crediting Freud, but Freud and Lacan as the sources of psychoanalytic thinking. Even Adorno, late in his career, in 1959, supported the substitution of Frankfurt School critical theory with the awesome power of Freudian psychoanalysis:

above all, we should think of psychoanalysis, which is still being repressed today as much as ever. Either it is altogether absent, or it is replaced by tendencies that, while boasting of overcoming the much-maligned nineteenth century, in truth fall back behind Freudian theory, even turning it into its very opposite. A precise and undiluted [!] knowledge of Freudian theory is more necessary and relevant today than ever.[21] (italics added)

The class nods their heads in agreement, yet few read Freud. So Lacan comes to stand for the “return to Freud,” as a principle. And the “meaning of the return to Freud is a return to Freud’s meaning.”[22] Only we must note that Lacan’s return to Freud’s meaning takes place in the postwar era of so-called “late capitalist ‘permissive’ society.”[23] This makes Lacan’s meaning much more relevant and closer to our own: that is, diachronically speaking, considering that we still inhabit the same (synchronic) ideological coordinates for the most part.

This makes Lacan no less essential than Freud, as he who points out that the notion of repression is itself repressed. This comes to mean that Freud is repressed, that what we are repressing is Freud, or more specifically the discovery of the one who, it so happens, is he who first spoke of repression. What Lacan really does, then, is show the doubling of repression, as a phenomenon that reflects into itself, acts as its own double-negation. This makes Lacan, as it were, the return of the repressed, insofar as he repeatedly recalls the Freudian teaching over the course of his works, in order to indicate that the repressed is here, it has returned to announce what amounts to a humiliation of the “entire humanist tradition”[24] which had hitherto presumed to own the rights to Rationality. We no longer can allow ourselves to mistakenly view Reason as a dumb static positivity, as A=A, both because this way of thinking affronts dialectics (Hegel/Marx) and it obscures the basic insight that there is no such thing as Reason, that is, at least not without its shadow, its unheimliche, or, at the very least, its discontents (Freud/Lacan).

Lacan teaches what Freud means for the second half of the 20th century, just as Lenin taught us what Marx meant for the first half. Lacan also allows himself to involve and encompass in his Freudian discourse practically everyone else under the sun who seems to have said anything ever. While preference is given to physicians, scientists, philosophers, litterateurs, artists, patients, and priests, Lacan stumbles past an amazing diversity of signposts over the course of his theoretical tour de force, all the while carrying Freud on his back in an attempt to redeem in the eyes of the reader the name of the father of psychoanalysis. And just as Freud was hawkish in outlining his theory of psychoanalysis to prevent it from getting smudged or misstated, not so much by his outright critics but his imitators (Jung, Adler, Horney, Klein, etc.), Lacan is for the closest and most precise reading of Freud. In pointing out the (Saussurean) structuralist principles which, inherent in Freud’s discourse,[25] raise him above the rest of the neo-Freudians in terms of systemic consistency and scientificity (not to mention materialism), Lacan makes the overly simple (yet still repressed!) point that there is no better Freudian to read on psychoanalysis than Freud himself.

At the same time, as Lacan would be sure to tell you, this does not make Freud the final word on the subject. Like the science of Historical Materialism, psychoanalysis transcends its originary formulation as first found in Freud’s writings so as to develop over time upon the project for a scientific psychology which he made it his life’s work to establish. Lacan not only inherits this project but also pushes it forward,[26] through making concrete contributions to the understanding of certain Freudian principles as well as revamping its delivery and elucidation for contemporary sensibilities. Like the relationship between Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and Marx’s Capital, Lacan builds on but also refines and ultimately recasts the basic problematic that is laid out by Freud in his writings, in order to be able to think it afresh in the contemporary moment.

Without allotting time and space to the most important texts of psychoanalysis, particularly those that pertain to the critique of ideology, a curriculum designed to educate students in the ways and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism will fall short of the task that it sets out for itself to accomplish. Not only do Marxists need to understand the nature of ideology for the sake of orienting their own messaging and communications operations, but in order to better diagnose and help the Left subject make a recovery from her current illness, to rehabilitate her to become more like the (class conscious, fighting) proletarian subject of yesteryear’s class struggle, whom it feels has not been seen in the advanced capitalist countries since the ’70s.

But this has all been written under the assumption that "therapy" and the "collapse of the subject" is the appropriate metaphor to use in describing the particular political task that we are faced with today. It has been taken for granted here that the standard Leftist political techniques of agitation, education, and organization are not working because the subject suffers from an ideological delusion of some sort, which is presumably due to the counter-stimuli of consumerist pacification, the “triumph of advertising,”[27] and direct political oppression coupled with self-perceived political impotence. What this character profile of “one-dimensional man” invites us to miss, however, is that no socioeconomic analysis is taken into account by adopting such an orientation to the problem.

As Marxists we cannot allow Freud to fall through the gaps in our understanding, or what would amount to the same thing, to become the catchall term that ‘explains’ all of the Left’s failures that have taken place since World War II. Here it should be noted how the Reagan era coincided with the speculative credit bubble that maintained the momentum of the postwar economic boom, a fact which also must be fully internalized to understand why the subject currently acts the way she does. This behavior persists even though it has become clear that the economic conditions which supported the development of an aloof "middle class" subjectivity in the advanced capitalist countries[28] will no longer hold for the emerging 21st century. Marxism entails that we should return to the primary task of orienting towards the critique of political economy, which would entail striving for a better understanding of the economic gravity of the post-WWII boom and its impending bust. This should help us to "explain" the seeming undue passivity of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries, better than any muddled appeal to ideological manipulation or repressed sexuality, since much like Althusser’s description of the superstructure as an effectivity which is “in some way dispersed into an infinity,”[29] this latter approach leads us to overcome the problem only by dissipating it into a cloud of half-finished answers.

Which is not to say that it is also not true, that the Left does not need to regroup and recalibrate its strategy. Here I second Dr. Platypus’ opinion that the Left needs therapy. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a mortifying effect on a generation of old guard Marxists who are now completely disoriented in their politics. Many of these former Marxists have abdicated leadership of the class struggle to a younger generation of activists and organizers who, inexperienced and unfamiliar with the methods and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism, repeat the mistakes of the 19th century over and over again for want of a historical education. Thus the present generation does not even resemble the French working class of 1848, described by Marx as being like “the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness.”[30] The “crisis of the revolutionary leadership” which Trotsky, writing in Mexico, was able to isolate as the chief feature of the present “world political situation as a whole”[31] means that we have not even a Moses to guide us in our current hour of need. Instead we are like the Jews before the plagues, waiting for the staff to fall to announce the coming of a new religion and, with it, a new age of strife. We must first usurp the Pharaoh and topple his pyramid before facing the wilderness, which we shall have to wander through in order to get to the Promised Land. If Marx and Lenin both described participating in the proletarian revolution as a task akin to climbing the tallest mountain,[32] then one can perhaps see why such imagery came to mind.

But we should not doubt whether the thresher of history – fuelled as it is currently by the capitalist drive for “creative destruction”[33] – is strong enough to tear apart even the most inertial ideologies that cling to all types of prejudices and cultural detritus, in order to forestall the development of consciousness amongst the working class. As Marx and Engels stated in the glorious lines of the Communist Manifesto, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify… man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”[34] That this process of “constantly revolutionizing… the relations of production” will not also dispatch the politically blasé and cynical subject of postmodern capitalism in the upcoming years is hard to believe, especially considering the current condition and implied trajectory of the world capitalist system for the foreseeable future.[35] Hence this is why some of us are not ashamed to admit of having hope, even optimism, about the future, so long as one keeps in mind that hope is what you have when you have nothing else about which to be optimistic, and what makes “interesting times” more interesting than times of class peace is exactly the lack of it.[36]

Let us reaffirm our commitment to Marxism by taking the time to fully absorb how he saw the dialectic of crisis and revolution, which is to say, as a dialectic: “A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, can be as sure to come as the other.”[37] It will be only through keeping this tenet of Historical Materialism in the backs of our minds that psychoanalysis will not get misrecognized as to how it can aid Marxism in the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing”:[38] the field of psychoanalytic experience has the power to complicate our predictions of when, not if, the capitalist crisis will come to a head. |P


[1]. See “Statement of Purpose,” /about/statement. Also, the feminization of the subject is intended to depict the reality and outlook of the proletarian subject, comprised of the workers and wretched of the world, as inherently feminist, that is, as opposed to the reactionary attitudes of male chauvinism.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Danielewski, Mark Z., House of Leaves, 2nd ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000).

[4]. Marx, Karl, and Guesde, Jules, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

[5]. Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.

[6]. Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation)” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

[7]. A case for this is made by Žižek, Living in the End Times  (2nd ed.) (London: Verso, 2011), p. 414.

[8]. Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), p. 65.

[9]. For an exposition on the Freudian origins of this concept, which gets used often by Žižek, see For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London: Verso, 2002), p. 174.

[10]. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 18.

[11]. For a basic critique of “Reich’s simplistic account” of psychoanalysis, see Stavrakakis, Yannis, The Lacanian Left (Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 27 – 28.

[12]. Reich, Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46).

[13]. Trotsky, Leon, "How Mussolini Triumphed," Fascism: What it Is and How to Fight It (Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books, 2002), p. 9.

[14]. Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 115.

[15]. Freud calls his theory of repression “the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” (“The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement,” Collected Papers: Volume IV (New York: Basic Books, 1959), p. 168).

[16]. As early as 1908, Freud claims that “Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts” (“‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness,” Collected Papers: Volume II (London: Hogarth Press, 1950), p. 82.

[17]. See Lacan, Jacques, “Science and Truth,” Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 737.

[18]. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones, 1965.

[19]. For an important analysis of the “pseudo-concept” of “repressive desublimation,” see chapter one of Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 2005), p. 22.

[20]. On the first draft of this essay, one editor commented, “You don’t discuss Hegel enough to warrant his inclusion on this list.” Fair enough. I had mistakenly assumed it was common knowledge that, as Jean Hyppolite once said, “one doesn’t go beyond Hegel” (Lacan, Jacques, Seminar II, ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 71). Furthermore, that Marx not only “openly avowed [him]self the pupil of that mighty thinker,” decrying those who dared to treat Hegel as “a dead dog,” but Lenin too supported a “propaganda of Hegelian dialectics,” demonstrates the givenness of Hegel’s inclusion in the tetrad as a precondition of Marx (Marx, Karl, Capital: Vol. I, 2nd ed. (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm; Lenin, V. I., “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” trans. David Skvirsky and George Hanna (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/12.htm). However, for a persuasive argument on the relevance of Hegel to Lacan’s thinking, see chapter 8 of Žižek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing (New York: Verso, 2012), pp. 507 – 556.

[21]. Adorno, Theodor, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Can One Live After Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Ralph Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 15.

[22]. This “return to Freud” is explicitly announced by Lacan in his paper “The Freudian Thing, or the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis,” Écrits, p. 337.

[23]. Žižek, “The ‘Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy,’” The Puppet and the Dwarf (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 69.

[24]. Lacan, paper “The Freudian Thing,” Écrits, p. 334.

[25]. The cornerstone of Lacan’s unique interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis is the observation that Freud “anticipated” the linguistic perspective of structuralism found in the Course in General Linguistics.  The question of how “could Freud have become aware of that structure when it was only later articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure” is directly posed in “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principle of its Power,” Écrits, p. 520.

[26]. The introduction of the “mirror stage” to the Freudian account of childhood development is considered to be a major addition to psychoanalytic theory which is not explicitly contained within Freud’s works. See Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Écrits, p. 75.

[27]. For a thorough analysis of what this notion entails, see Adorno, Theodor, and Horkheimer, Max, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 136.

[28]. This should be considered in relation to what Lenin says about imperialism and the production of “superprofits,” which is that “capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one, at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance… between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against other countries” (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” trans. M. S. Levin and Joe Feinberg (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.

[29]. Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Penguin Press, 1969), p. 118.

[30]. Marx, part three of The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch03.htm.

[31]. Trotsky, Leon, part one of The Transitional Program (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#op

[32]. See Marx, “Preface to the French Edition,” Capital: Vol. I (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p2.htm; see Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm.

[33]. This term, which stands for “the essential fact about capitalism,” is elaborated upon in chapter seven of Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 83.

[34]. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.

[35]. For an informed analysis of this trajectory and what we can expect in the future, see the various draft discussion documents shared by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) on “World capitalism 2012” at In Defence of Marxism: http://www.marxist.com/perspectives.

[36]. “In China, so they say, if you really hate someone, the curse to fling at them is: ‘May you live in interesting times!’ Historically, the ‘interesting times’ have been periods of unrest, war and struggles for power in which millions of innocents suffered the consequences. Today, we are clearly approaching a new epoch of interesting times” (Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 403).

[37]. Chapter four of Marx, The Class Struggles of France, 1848 to 1850 (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch04.htm

[38]. Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” (Platypus):  http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/marx_earlyphilosophicalcritique_mereader9-15.pdf