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You are here: Platypus /Archive for category Issue #20

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


On Thursday November 19, 2009, Platypus Review Editor-in-Chief Spencer A. Leonard discussed with author George Scialabba a new volume of essays entitled What are Intellectuals Good For? (Boston: Pressed Wafer Press, 2009). Their discussion was conducted live on “Radical Minds,” a radio show Leonard conducts weekly with co-host Greg Gabrellas on WHPK 88.5 FM in Chicago. Leonard and Scialabba’s discussion focused chiefly on a single theme of the book, the connections and disconnects between the intellectuals of the anti-Stalinist Old Left forged in America in the 1930s and the New Left that emerged decades later in the early 1960s. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.


Dwight Macdonald, editor of the Partisan Review during the years 1937 to 1943, speaking at the "Counter Commencement" of Columbia University in June 1968. Generally friendly to the Columbia student left, he spoke of them as "the best generation I have known in this country, the cleverest and the most serious and decent." At the Counter Commencement, Macdonald reversed himself, arguing that the students risked destroying the university, in which case "they would have nothing to replace it."

Spencer Leonard: Recently published by Pressed Wafer Press in 2009, George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a collection of book reviews that, taken together, constitutes an extensive tour through the ruinous history of modern American leftist intellectualism stretching back into the 1930s and beyond. Now regarding the book, I wanted to start off by asking your views on the New Left, who receive considerable treatment in this book, albeit in a largely oblique way. I say this because the views you express here on the New Left, and of your own generation’s political experience, are marked by a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, you celebrate its questioning, almost naïve character, as evidenced for you by the Port Huron Statement; on the other hand, you lament your generation’s failure to produce towering leftist intellectuals and, by implication, a strong Left capable of achieving a more just and emancipated future. You seem largely to agree with Russell Jacoby and others who claim that something has been deeply amiss on the Left for a long time now.For instance, on page 4 you say, “the New Left, for all its promise of vitality, originality, and engagement now seems safely integrated, largely insulated from public influence.”You note the evacuation of leftism from the New Left, yet it seems that to a large degree you exonerate the New Left from the charge of being inadequate to the tasks of its time. Instead, you attribute the eclipse of the Left politically and of leftist public intellectualism generally to external factors, such as the growth of empirical knowledge and the proliferation of mass media. But how far can this be defended? Can we really speak of the age of information as overwhelming intellectuals’ ability to speak critically in a way qualitatively distinct from the situation obtaining earlier in the century? 

George Scialabba: No one is adequate to her time, especially among 17–21 year-olds. I am, on the whole, an admirer of the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s. Among contemporary leftists, the New Left is less a living presence or project than it is a slightly awkward memory. It is widely thought that the New Left played a large part in preparing the way for Nixon’s victory and for the general backlash against liberalism, the New Deal, and the Great Society. I think that is overstated, but it is partially true. Certainly, there were a lot of loudmouths and rowdies and other obnoxious people in the New Left. There always are such people in every social movement, and they get more than their share of publicity.But the New Left did do something profoundly important: to invoke a slogan of the times, they questioned authority in a way more direct and unashamed than most of their predecessors in American intellectual and political history—they had a more direct and unashamed moral passion. They saw the promise of American life. The Port Huron statement is really in some ways a paean to the American republican tradition. They understood that civic virtue really was essential to a viable society and to the health of American democracy. They were not young Maoists or Leninists deluded and besotted by ideology. They simply wanted America to live up to its promise. They saw the massive injustice of racial inequality and the barbarity of the technological onslaught in Indochina, and they responded with a certain intellectual clarity and an unmistakable moral passion. They did not give their arguments the high finish that appeals to editorialists at the New York Times, but they accomplished something very important. They faded away ingloriously and left tangled memories behind, but on the whole, it was a very salutary response from which the contemporary Left can learn.

Leonard: I agree with the idea that there is much in the New Left in its formative period that vanishes without a trace. But both in your answer and in the book you refer to the retread of Stalinism that we saw with the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and many other prominent groups that arose from the mainstream of the New Left—so, I still wonder how to connect the kind of honesty, naïveté, directness, and plain speaking that you admire in the New Left with the inadequate organizational and ideological expressions that came out of it. It seems we would need a more complex account of the forces that gave rise to the New Left and the dynamics that operated within it to explain how it collapsed as a Left in the 1970s and 1980s.

Scialabba:  Well, the Weathermen grabbed the spotlight, explosively, so to speak, but they were a tiny splinter. SDS had to some extent already run out of steam, or had, at least temporarily, run out of energy by then. The Weatherman, under the evil guidance of the old Left groups such as the Progressive Labor Party, seized leadership positions on national and some influential local chapters, and pretty much ran the institution into the ground. Students started getting bizarre Leninist/Maoist communiqués from the central committee and just kind of dropped off.

Leonard: Did you participate in that personally? Did you have a role in the student Left in the 60s?

Scialabba: In 1969–70 I was at Columbia University where I saw this unfolding. Though I was not really very involved, I was close enough to see it happening more or less firsthand. I think the media was actually looking for this sort of thing to play up in order to discredit the student Left generally, and the student leadership certainly played into those designs. These are young people: of course they are irresponsible and failing to show the proper degree of intellectual deference. Again, I do not mean there was any conspiracy, but I do think there is a good deal of intellectual dishonesty and poverty of imagination on the part both of the mass media and of academia in interpreting this sorry history.

Leonard: I recognize that this discussion threatens to edge away from the leading themes of your book, so to bring it back a little I want to ask, to what extent do you think that the Old Left generation—the kind of figures that you are talking about in the book, coming from the Partisan Review, people who had really cut their teeth on the critique of Stalinism in the 1930s—to what extent did that intellectual cohort really prepare and, in a sense, educate the generation that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s? To what extent, indeed, can the disconnect between the Old Left and the New be understood as merely a breakdown of inter-generational communication?  And to what degree do you think that the innocence and naïveté of youth grew into a critical and theoretical failing of the New Left? Was their ill-preparedness for the political challenges that their generation faced a consequence of their inability to work through the problems they had inherited from the past?

Scialabba: I am not as versed in the specific history of the New Left and SDS as many others but my impression is that there was, and there always is with social movements, a smaller group, a few seed groupings, who were quite conscious of the American left-wing tradition, both of the native tradition of anarchists like Randolph Bourne, Paul Goodman, and Dwight Macdonald, and of the European leftist tradition, as with the Partisan Review group. To some extent, figures like Macdonald and C. Wright Mills bridged those traditions. I think those who were thus rooted in the American Left found a ready audience among their peers, especially given the rising consciousness of racial inequality and the rising tide of barbarism in Indochina. Students who were predisposed by whatever predisposes people to passionate political involvement responded to politically self-aware leaders. They in turn joined the movement, went out and demonstrated, talked to their families, their friends, and their neighbors—just the way social movements happen. And discouraging things happened, as the police became nasty, editorials became snooty, and professors became disapproving, theyquavered and then, as I say, the professional revolutionaries, the Weathermen, the Stalinists, moved in to seize control, as is typical of Leninist, professional revolutionary, vanguardists. With their ideological delusions they wrecked a slow-moving and erratic but nonetheless genuine social movement. I do think that among those early people, the seed groupings, there was an awareness of, and a real desire to learn from, the older leftists. Tom Hayden, for example, and the other authors of the Port Huron Statement were eager to meet Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and Paul Goodman, and they did meet them. My admiration for Harrington and Goodman is very great, but the fact is—and there is plenty of blame on both sides—but the fact is, although their specific criticisms of the youngsters were true enough, the results were an emotional disaster.

Leonard: This you discuss in the essay on Irving Howe.

Scialabba: Well, they made more than they needed to of the students’ insufficient emancipation from Marxist ideology and revolutionary rhetoric. They were quite right, but it is something they did not give the students time to learn for themselves. They could have been encouraging, usefully critical, but instead they chose to come down on them like a ton of bricks. Then again, 17–21 year-olds are not always able to be discriminating. They heard this, felt cast out and furious, and the relationship between the Old Left and the New Left went to hell.

Leonard: At the center of this book, even in the essays that do not directly address their writings, you come back time and again to a generation of writers that we would associate with the 1930s and 1940s, with the journal the Partisan Review, and with the city of New York. I want to ask about the reticence you have towards many of those writers’ Marxist commitments. A lot of them abandoned Communism for Trotskyism over the course of the 1930s. It seems to me that you tend to shy away from direct discussion of this. Indeed, your book really focuses only on those who broke their ties with Trotskyism, so that figures such as Max Shachtman, whose influence was surely considerable, fall out of the discussion. I wonder if your wariness of this kind of politics does not compromise our ability to understand not only what made that group of intellectuals great, but also what made them a group. After all, many of the “New York Intellectuals” shared a set of commitments and orientations, so that, for a lot of them, the turn to Trotskyism was a turn, not away from the Left, but towards it. They saw the Communist Party and others as more conservative than themselves and considered those organizations incapable of bringing about the kind of change that they wanted to see brought about. They recognized that, in a sense, the whole legacy of the European revolutionary tradition, from the French Revolution to the rise of the labor movement and of mass socialists parties, threatened to amount to nothing, or worse than nothing—a dread we can see expressed perhaps most clearly in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station. What do we say today of such political commitments, and how does that inform our sense of tragedy respecting that generation of intellectuals?

Scialabba: I have enormous respect for left-wing Marxism. I have studied Capital with the son of one of the great Marxist theorists of the 20th century, Paul Mattick, and I was affiliated for many years with one of the tiny libertarian Marxist groups that he founded in Cambridge. But, on the whole, I do not think Marxism historically has contributed much of anything useful to the American Left. I think the native tradition of Goodman, Edward Bellamy, Bourne, Macdonald, and others is more fruitful. One reason why I did not deal more with people like Shachtman and the Trotskyists you mentioned, is that the people I mostly wrote about were literary-political intellectuals; that is, they were people who drew much of their evidence for and standards in moral argument from the humanistic tradition. They may have started out as pretty rigorous orthodox Marxists, but they stopped arguing for the most part in Marxist terms and began mostly arguing as humanists. Again, Dwight MacDonald and the Partisan Review crowd in America, George Orwell in England, Albert Camus in France, and Nicola Chiaromonte in Italy—what they carried over from Marxism was something often lacking in American radicalism, a respect for European high culture and, of course, a sense of the importance of understanding capitalism as a system. But I do not know that the Marxist analyses of American capitalism ever proved to be very influential in the history of the American Left, nor am I sure that they deserved to be. I think that it is possible, and in fact likely, that an effective, stable, permanent, successful American Left can be built—if the world does not melt or blow up before then—largely from a basis of common morality, humanism, and simple democracy, as a fulfillment of American Western democratic ideals, and of the solidaristic, universalistic, moral imagination of Western radicalism from Tolstoy to William Morris and so on. I do not know that the Left needs or will get that much help from Marxist theory.

Leonard: One last question on that. I agree with the connection you make between the views of Michael Walzer and those of Richard Rorty, but I always had a problem with politics rooted in literary or moralist traditions, especially when these are conceived as national. Part of what I would take from Marxism is a vision of freedom that seeks more than justice, that is not straightforwardly ethical, and that looks to future, rather than tradition, for emancipatory potential. To me, Marxism seeks to do more than translate our morals into the political domain, but attempts to open the way to new forms of sociality that we lack a clear view of now. But you strike something like a tone of bemusement when you discuss Jacoby’s arguing for a world in which people work less and more fulfillingly and are capable of different and freer kinds of family, sexual, and intimate relations. If we lose touch with that critical tradition, which looks not to our national culture, but to global capitalist society and its potential, do we not risk losing the politics of emancipation?

Scialabba: I agree entirely. I must not have said it right in that piece on Jacoby, because I certainly endorse that kind of utopian visionary thinking. I was unhappy that he kept insisting that the social democratic reformists like Robert Kuttner or Michael Harrington, and journals like In These Times, The American Prospect, and Dissent, simply did not get it. This, to me, was not helping. As I said in that essay, I am a 20th century Utopian. I think we are going to get there, if we are to survive as a species.But it will be stepwise and, for the time being, I think the reformists he criticized are the people we should work with, rather than the negative utopians like Adorno. |P

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


DAVID BLACK’S VALUABLE COMMENTS and further historical exposition (in Platypus Review 18, December 2009) of my review of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (Platypus Review 15, September 2009) have at their core an issue with Korsch’s account of the different historical phases of the question of “philosophy” for Marx and Marxism. Black questions Korsch’s differentiation of Marx’s relationship to philosophy into three distinct periods: pre-1848, circa 1848, and post-1848. But attempting to defeat Korsch’s historical account of such changes in Marx’s approaches to relating theory and practice means avoiding Korsch’s principal point. It also means defending Marx on mistaken ground. Black considers that Korsch’s periodization—his recognition of changes—opens the door to criticizing Marx for inconsistency in his relation of theory to practice. But that is not so.


Police photo of Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, taken after his arrest in 1895 for participation in the St. Petersberg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class.

What makes Korsch’s essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) important, to Benjamin and Adorno’s work for instance, and what relates it intrinsically to Lukács’s contemporaneous treatment of the question of the “Hegelian” dimension of Marxism in History and Class Consciousness, is Korsch’s discovery of the historically changing relation of theory and practice, and the self-consciousness of this problem, in the history of Marxism. This meant that the matter was, from a Marxian perspective, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “not settled once and for all, but fluctuates historically.”[1] Indeed, as Adorno put it in a late essay,

If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake—except for the mature Marx.[2]

However one may wish to question the nuances of Korsch’s specific historiographic periodization of the problem of Marxism as that of the relation of theory and practice, both during Marx’s lifetime and after, this should not be with an eye to either disputing or defending Marx or a Marxian approach’s consistency on the matter. One may perhaps attempt a more fine-grained approach to the historical “fluctuations” of what Adorno called the “constitutive” and indeed “progressive” aspect of the “separation of theory and praxis.” Korsch’s point in the 1923 “Marxism and Philosophy,” followed by Benjamin and Adorno, was that we must attend to this “separation,” or, as Adorno put it, “non-identity,” if we are to have a properly Marxian self-consciousness of the problem of “Marxism” in theory and practice. For this problem of the separation of theory and practice is not to be deplored, but calls for critical awareness. Marx was consistent in his own awareness of the relation of theory and practice. This meant that at different times Marx found them related in different ways.

By contrast, what has waylaid the sectarian “Marxist Left” has been the freezing of the theory-practice problem, which then continued to elude a progressive-emancipatory solution at any given moment. Particular historical moments in the theory-practice problem have become dogmatized by various sects, thus dooming them to irrelevance. So generations of ostensibly revolutionary “Marxists” have failed to heed the nature of Rosa Luxemburg’s praise of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution:

All of us are subject to the laws of history....The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities....What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!” This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world....And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”[3]

The Bolshevik Revolution was not itself the achievement of socialism and the overcoming of capitalism, but it did nevertheless squarely address itself to the problem of grasping history so as to make possible revolutionary practice. The Bolsheviks recognized, in other words, that we are tasked, by the very nature of capital, in Marx’s sense, to struggle within and through the separation of theory and practice. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was the occasion and context for Korsch’s rumination on the theory and practice of Marxism in his seminal 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy.”

In the extended aftermath of the failed revolution of 1917–19, the crisis of the Stalinization of Third International Communism and the looming political victory of fascism, Horkheimer, in an aphorism titled “A Discussion About Revolution,” addressed himself to the same subject Luxemburg and Korsch had discussed, from the other side of historical experience:

[A] proletarian party cannot be made the object of contemplative criticism....Bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle is a logical impossibility....At times such as the present, revolutionary belief may not really be compatible with great clear-sightedness about the realities.[4]

This is because, for Horkheimer, from a Marxian “proletarian” perspective, as opposed to a (historically) “bourgeois” one (including that of pre- or non-Marxian “socialism”), the problem is not a matter of formulating a correct theory and then implementing it in practice. It is rather a question of what Lukács called “historical consciousness.” We should note well how Horkheimer posed the theory-practice problem here, as the contradiction between “revolutionary belief” and “clear-sightedness about the realities.”

Horkheimer elaborated further that proletarian revolutionary politics cannot be conceived on the model of capitalist enterprise, and not only for socioeconomic class-hierarchical reasons, but rather because of the differing relation of theory and practice in the two instances; it is the absence of any “historical consciousness” of the theory and practice problem that makes “bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle” a logical “impossibility.” As Lukács put it, in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), “a radical change in outlook is not feasible on the soil of bourgeois society.” Rather, one must radically deepen—render “dialectical”—the outlook of the present historical moment. The point is that a Marxian perspective can find—and indeed has often found—itself far removed from the practical politics and (entirely “bourgeois”) ideological consciousness of the working class. This has not invalidated Marxism, but rather called for a further Marxian critical reflection on its own condition.

In a letter of February 22, 1881 to the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Marx wrote,

It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Working Men’s Association has not yet arrived and for that reason I regard all workers’ congresses or socialist congresses, in so far as they are not directly related to the conditions existing in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but actually harmful. They will always ineffectually end in endlessly repeated general banalities.[5]

How much more is this criticism applicable to the “Left” today! But, more directly, what it points to is that Marx recognized no fixed relation of theory and practice that he pursued throughout his life. Instead, he very self-consciously exercised judgment respecting the changing relation of theory and practice, and considered this consciousness the hallmark of his politics. Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) excoriated “bourgeois” democratic politics, including that of contemporary socialists, for its inability to simultaneously learn from history and face the challenge of the new.[6] How else could one judge that a moment has “not yet arrived” while calling for something other than “endlessly repeated banalities?”

Marx had a critical theory of the relation of theory and practice—recognizing it as a historically specific and not merely “philosophical” problem, or, a problem that called for the critical theory of the philosophy of history—and a political practice of the relation of theory and practice. There is not simply a theoretical or practical problem, but also and more profoundly a problem of relating theory and practice.

We are neither going to think our way out ahead of time, nor somehow work our way through, in the process of acting. We do not need to dissolve the theory-practice distinction that seems to paralyze us, but rather achieve both good theory and good practice in the struggle to relate them properly. It is not a matter of finding either a correct theory or correct practice, but of trying to judge and affect their changing relation and recognizing this as a problem of history.

Marx overcame the political pitfalls and historical blindness of his “revolutionary” contemporaries, such as the pre-Marxian socialism of Proudhon et al. leading to 1848, anarchism in the First International, and the Lassallean trend of the German Social-Democratic Party. It is significant that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) critiqued the residual Lassallean politics of the Social Democrats for being to the Right of the liberals on international free trade, etc., thus exposing the problem of this first “Marxist” party from the outset.[7]

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, following Marx, recovered and struggled through the problem of theory and practice for their time, precipitating a crisis in Marxism, and thus advancing it. They overcame the “vulgar Marxist” ossification of theory and practice in the Second International, as Korsch and Lukács explained. It meant the Marxist critique of Marxism, or, an emancipatory critique of emancipatory politics—a Left critique of the Left. This is not a finished task. We need to attain this ability again, for our time. |P

[1]. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1983), 143.

[2]. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266. This essay, a “dialectical epilegomenon” to his book Negative Dialectics that Adorno said intended to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience” (Critical Models, 126), was one of the last writings he finished for publication before he died in 1969. It reflected his dispute with fellow Frankfurt School critical theorist Hebert Marcuse over the student protests of the Vietnam War (see Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” trans. Esther Leslie, New Left Review I/233, Jan.–Feb. 1999, 123–136). As Adorno put it in his May 5, 1969 letter to Marcuse, "[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow" (“Correspondence,” 127).

[3]. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 80.

[4]. Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 40–41.

[5]. Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, trans. Dona Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), 387, <>.

[6]. As Luxemburg put it in 1915 in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (aka The Junius Pamphlet, available online at <>),

Marx says [in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)]: “[T]he democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.” The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey—its emancipation depends on this—is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war [WWI] is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.

[7]. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 533–534, <>. Marx wrote, "In fact, the internationalism of the program stands even infinitely below that of the Free Trade party. The latter also asserts that the result of its efforts will be 'the international brotherhood of peoples.' But it also does something to make trade international...The international activity of the working classes does not in any way depend on the existence of the International Working Men’s Association."

Danny Postel, Kaveh Ehsani, Maziar Behrooz, and Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


Given the recent election crisis and continuing protests in Iran and in light of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, The Platypus Affiliated Society on November 5, 2009 hosted a panel discussion at the University of Chicago entitled 30 Years of the Islamic Revolution: The Tragedy of the Left. Panel participants included Danny Postel, journalist and author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism; Kaveh Ehsani, editor of The Middle East Report (MERIP); Maziar Behrooz, historian and author of Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran; and Chris Cutrone of Platypus. This supplement to issue #20 of the Platypus Review consists of an edited transcript of the discussion, beginning with the panelists’ prepared remarks, followed by their responses to each other, and ending with a series of questions and answers.

Opening remarks

Panelists' responses


Closing remarks

Opening remarks

Danny Postel: The central question, which I will approach indirectly, is whether the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a tragedy for the Left.

In the conventional narrative of the Iranian Left the answer to our question has long been, “Yes.” The 1979 Revolution was a failure insofar as it was hijacked by one faction of a broader coalition that included the Iranian revolutionary Left. The faction in question was the Islamist or Khomeinite faction, which, once it gained control, proceeded to decimate, destroy, murder, imprison, and drive into exile its erstwhile comrades. There is a lot of truth to this leftist narrative, but it is only part of the story. It is largely self-exculpatory and elides the role the Iranian Left played in its own immolation. An account of this self-defeat can be found in Maziar Behrooz’s book, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, a salutary and, indeed, definitive reconsideration of the history of the pre-revolutionary Iranian Left.

As Maziar explains, the Iranian Left, or at least certain key fractions of it, helped fashion the noose the Islamists ultimately hung them with. According to Behrooz, the Khomeinites were able to do this in large part because the Tudeh party, the Fadaiyan Majority, and many other Iranian Marxist parties, whatever their differences with the Islamists, shared with them a profound hostility toward liberalism. Like [Ruhollah al-Musavi] Khomeini’s followers, dominant trends on the Iranian Left viewed democratic rights, civil liberties, and women’s rights as no more than elements of what they described interchangeably as “western,” “colonial,” or “bourgeois” ideology.

On the basis of Behrooz’s analysis of the critical failings of the Iranian Left, I would say we must revise the Iranian Left’s usual answer to the question and answer it instead in the negative. No, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was not a tragedy for the Left, for tragedies befall innocence; they happen to people who have no idea of, and are not responsible for, the fate that awaits them.

This raises another question: Is it in fact a tragedy that the Stalinists and Maoists who made up the great majority of the left in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s did not take power? After all, virtually all Iranian leftists of the 1960s and 1970s were either Stalinist or Maoist. In light of this, I would argue that what followed in the wake of the 1979 Revolution was not so much a tragedy for the Iranian Marxist “Left” then in existence, as it was a tragedy for the project of the Left per se. For the genuinely leftist project of internationalism and human emancipation, the profoundly authoritarian, repressive, reactionary, and proto-fascist regime that emerged out of the Revolution and has ruled Iran ever since is certainly tragic but also, and more accurately, catastrophic. But what are the lessons to be learned?

There are both external and internal factors in the destruction of the Iranian Left. The external factors are obviously the brutality of the Islamists who took over and Iran’s strategic position in the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and USSR. These factors are certainly important, but Behrooz’s book rightly zeroes in on the internal factors. Of these, he considers the Left’s tunnel-vision anti-imperialism most essential. Khomeini’s gang may have disdained professedly secular, rational socialists, but on the Left the argument went that, because they were anti-American and anti-imperialist, the Khomeinites were “objectively progressive.”

We now know that the Left’s was a demented, disfigured, ultimately catastrophic argument, one that had lethal consequences for those who propounded it. There was nothing progressive about Khomeini’s anti-imperialism. It was authoritarian and regressive, as is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s anti-imperialism today. Whether Khomeini’s rhetoric was truly anti-imperialist is open to debate—but to the extent it was, it amounted to no more than an anti-imperialism of fools.

What were some of the consequences of the Iranian Marxist Left’s view that the anti-imperialist, anti-American rhetoric of the Khomeinites was “objectively progressive”? As mentioned earlier, it led to a rejection of the demands for human rights advanced by feminists, democratic liberals, and nationalists. Rather than sympathizing with and advancing their demands, many on the Left in Iran in 1979 regarded feminism as a bourgeois colonial ideology. Because of this many Iranian Marxists sided with extreme reactionary forces within the new Islamic government as they repressed feminism, beating women and suppressing their demands. Similarly, when newspapers were shut down, many Iranian Marxists defended not their right to publish their views, but the regime’s supposed responsibility to close them down! Here again the logic was the same: Liberal and nationalist newspapers were neo-colonial and bourgeois. Such actions, justified in the name of anti-imperialism, constituted a catastrophic turn down the dark ally of anti-liberalism. The Left mistakenly viewed liberalism as part of a toxic, global, colonial project rather than viewing it, as Marx himself did, as being necessary but insufficient—or, better, insufficient but bloody necessary—to the project of socialism and liberation.

The anti-liberal “radicalism” the Iranian Marxists shared with the Khomeinites was reactionary. But what can this teach us today, as we watch the protests in the streets of Tehran? After all, less than 24 hours ago, we witnessed the largest protests since the fall of the Shah. Clearly, we are again living in a historic moment, and so we should discuss some of the parallels and discontinuities between 1978–79 and today, the most obvious similarity being that, once again, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Iranians have taken to the streets to voice their demands.

Where there has been some affinity between Platypus’s perspective and my own is in our shared critique of the authoritarian Left, the myopic anti-imperialism of those like MRzine, the online organ of Monthly Review magazine, or an organization like international ANSWER, which held a demonstration in solidarity with the Islamic Republic of Iran in June here in Chicago, defending Hugo Chavez and his position that the demonstrations in Iran are tools for imperial intervention, that the elections were wholly legitimate, and that Ahmadinejad is a revolutionary comrade that deserves the Left’s support.

Where my perspective diverges from Platypus’s is in our respective angles on what is happening in Iran today, particularly with respect to the Green or democratic movement that has developed in response to the June election results. As Chris Cutrone made clear already in his article in the August 2009 issue of the Platypus Review, he dismisses the Green Movement in Iran as still too...something. Actually I do not think Chris developed any definite criticism, but made only rhetorical gestures. So, I hope to hear an argument about where he stands now on the Green Movement in Iran. But from what I have heard so far from him, he shares the tunnel-vision anti-imperialism of the Left that supports Ahmadinejad and rejects the Green Movement. No doubt, be has reasons of his own for rejecting the Green Movement, but what he shares with the defenders of Ahmadinejad is a hostility to the pluralistic, democratic liberalism already articulated by the Green Movement. Though it is true that this movement remains somewhat inchoate, a work-in-progress, and is even now still forming its platform or agenda, the broad ideological outlines are clear.

I think there is a real danger in failing to recognize the emancipatory potential—not the fully articulated emancipatory program, granted, but the clear emancipatory promise and potential—in the Green Movement. It is a mistake to blind oneself to this promise or to reject it simply because it is articulated within the logic and framework of the Islamic Republic, or because it does not speak the anti-capitalist language of the Western Left and lacks a developed critique of neoliberalism. This latter point, which I take to be Platypus’s position, represents a species of left imperialism. To decline to sign on and support the Green Movement because they do not speak the language of socialist revolution is to cram the complex and fluctuating on-the-ground reality in Iran today into the preconceived categories of the Western Left. Such an attempt to fit that movement into our agenda constitutes a disfigured left imperialism that fundamentally misunderstands Iran today.

Kaveh Ehsani: Another question we are here to debate is whether the creation of the Islamic Republic was revolutionary and, if so, what aspects of society were transformed, and how. The Iranian Revolution was the largest political event of the 20th century. After a mass strike lasting more than a year and a half, mass revolution suffused the fabric of Iranian society. A major regime in the region was brought down and another one put in its place. By any standard this was revolutionary, but the question we on the Left debated at the time was this: Is the Iranian Revolution merely a political, or was it a real social revolution? By Lenin’s standards a real revolution smashes the state, creates a new one, and transforms the relations of production. By these criteria, I think this revolution was a hybrid, as is the regime that derived from it.

This said, I do not think we gain much by adducing abstract criteria by which to judge historical reality. This was not the kind of revolution the Left and the secular forces expected or wanted, but it was a revolution. If we reexamine the slogans of the revolutionaries in 1978 to 1979—“Independence! Freedom! Islamic Republic!”—they evidently have little to do with anything we might consider “left.” But, beyond this, the question remains, What do these slogans actually mean?

Time and again Iran has been in the vanguard of major social transformations in that part of the world—the developing world, if you will—first in 1906, then in 1953, and again in 1979. As with the French tradition of public protest, challenging the authority of the state is now woven into the fabric of modern Iranian society. In a profound way, Iranian society is still fighting the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, still fighting to limit the power of the state and render it accountable to society.

Beyond those that came as a result of the 1979 Revolution or the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, there have been other important social transformations. Indeed, perhaps the biggest social transformation of Iran’s history was brought about by the White Revolution instituted in the 1960s by the monarchy with the support of the United States. A revolution from above, the White Revolution programs nevertheless profoundly transformed rural Iranian society. Through them, the state eliminated the rural landowner class, turned their tenants into small peasant proprietors, and transformed the old aristocracy and landlords into an urban bourgeoisie deeply beholden to the comprador state. This opened the road to 1979.

So we risk losing sight of the complexity of Iranian history if we insist upon simplistic questions such as “Was this a revolution or not?” and “Was it leftist or not?” Instead we ought to be asking, Was there an Islamic Left and, if so, where did it stand in 1979 and where does it stand today? For all practical purposes, in 1979 the Marxist Left was in competition not only with right-wing Islamism but with the Islamic Left. Both the Marxists and the Islamic Left believed in violence as a midwife of history, both sought to capture state power, and both sought to engineer society in accordance with abstract principles. Opposition candidate and leader of the Green Movement Mir-Hossein Mousavi is a product of the Islamic Left, as is Ahmadinejad.

As for the slogans of 1979, “Independence” was fairly straightforward. It meant independence from imperial powers that had long interfered in Iranian affairs. More particularly, it meant independence from the United States whose influence had grown steadily since the 1950s. But what did “Freedom” mean? Did it mean individual freedom, or something else? I think, more than anything, it meant freedom from censorship, freedom from the police state then controlling and stifling civic and public life. Of course, this is not the same thing as political freedom in the sense we mean today. In that sense, the Left was not being hypocritical by calling for freedom. Nor were the Islamists when they denied individual freedom, because that was never what they intended either.

Comparing Islamism in Iran and in Egypt, Asaf Bayat has recently shown how, in Iran, what one finds is really a revolution with an Islamic movement. In 1979, for the first time in Iran’s history, more then 50 percent of the population became urbanized, literate, and integrated into the market economy, that is, they became “modernized” in the Weberian sense of the word. But there was no Islamic movement to speak of. The Revolution resulted from a confluence of various forces, of which Khomeini’s uniquely charismatic leadership is only one. The Left participated in the movement together with nationalists, the urban working class, and provincial populations. This was not a particularly “Islamic” movement. In Egypt, by contrast, there has long been an Islamic movement with deep roots in society, yet no revolution ever came of it.

Prior to the Revolution, Iranian society was a typical case of uneven development, which was then subject to what Ervand Abrahamian has described as a kind of hyper-modernization. There was rapid capitalist development, but without the political freedoms accompanying it. Because the Shah choked off the political articulation of demands arising from society, politics gravitated toward violence. That is the reason for the guerrilla warfare that occurred during the lead-up to the Revolution.

The old Iranian Left was basically a spin-off of the old nationalists. But with so many of them in exile or underground, the younger generation took a new course in the 1960s, adopting Guevarist and Maoist tactics. This came back to haunt us in the post-revolutionary period, by which time violence was accepted as a way to obtain political goals.

A revolution is a bizarre process. You feel completely empowered and powerless at the same time. No doubt, few of you have had this experience, but some of us on this platform have. We have become exiles, our lives have been in danger, and we have felt very empowered by it. It is a unique experience and allows for a sense that history is being made. Michel Foucault was accurate about this aspect of what he saw going on in Iran. A profound transformation was taking place, history was changing, and nobody held the reins.

My analysis is that 1979 was a revolution of the periphery. It was a provincial revolution, not an Islamic Revolution, because if you look at the new elite, the new population that eventually captured and refashioned the state, these were people coming out of what had been the periphery of the society: provincial, uneducated migrants who had been left out of the uneven modernization that took place under the monarchy. This is not the social revolution that the Left might have wanted, but it was nonetheless a social revolution in that it socially integrated the majority of Iranians who, since the 1940s, had been on the receiving end of authoritarian social engineering. The 1979 Revolution gave them a voice, and that voice proved deafening. In the economic sphere, a vast amount of public land and public housing was privatized. People simply squatted, took over public land, and constructed their homes on it. After the Revolution, the stock of housing doubled from what it had been before. Millions captured some private property in the process. So, to revert to the old terms, underlying 1979 was a petit-bourgeois process, one that empowered a large swath of the population. That is why the regime has its own legitimacy, rooted in its own claim to social justice. It has been tremendously successful in bringing about certain social welfare and developmental changes.

So what is happening in Iran now? Since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, the leaders of the Islamic Republic have had to face an exhausted economy and population. The regime has not realized the revolutionary ideals of justice for all, equality, and the Islamic Republic as a godly community on Earth. The leaders had to improvise an alternative model. The one they came up with has two pillars: First, create a middle class that, being the product of the regime, will be loyal to it. Expand the university system, shape the curriculum, and create a professional class that will comprise our experts, run our economy, and allow us to rebuild. Second, allow the existing propertied class to accumulate wealth in the cities unmolested. This was the strategy pursued under [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani in the 1990s and by [Seyed Mohammad] Khatami and the reformers until 2005.

What we are seeing now is the byproduct of provincial people, rural people, sending their kids to school in the post-Revolution period; or, if they had a small house, suddenly gaining the right to break the zoning laws, build multiple stories, and, with the money they make, send the next generation to university. In other words, what we are witnessing is an emerging middle class demanding a voice in politics through the Green Movement. This is one of the reasons why the international Left criticizes it. But these people are not middle class in the American, global sense of the world. They come together to make a very different sort of animal. The result is very much more organic than, for instance, a movement of American university students would be.

Let me conclude by saying that if the Left wants to assemble any sort of project in Iran, if it wants to challenge the hegemony of the market and allow working class people a way to envision their future, it can do so only in a more democratic space. It cannot do so by monopolizing political power, because the society is too diverse and complex for that. Right now, there is a predominantly middle class popular movement. At some point soon, it will come to incorporate elements of the commercial and working classes as well. But to have a chance it needs greater freedom of movement. Without an expansion of democratic space, a space that is lacking under the existing police state, the movement cannot grow.

Maziar Behrooz: Before addressing the issue of the Left in Iran today, I would like to add just a bit to what Ehsani said about the 1979 Revolution.

The Revolution of 1979 was not a revolution in the sense that the ruling class was completely displaced. The ruling class moved to Los Angeles. It left the country and its property was confiscated. In that sense the Revolution witnessed a major displacement of the haute bourgeoisie. The highly educated accents of the pre-revolutionary period are gone. Nowadays there is not a single member of the Parliament of Iran who does not speak with some slight rural accent. This is because, as Ehsani pointed out, a movement of villagers from the countryside to the city accompanied the expulsion of the haute bourgeoisie. The population of Iran has doubled in the past 30 years, and the vast majority of this population growth has taken place in the cities. This brings me to another point that bears stressing: 1979 was definitely a cultural revolution. The Islamists, the leaders of the Revolution, more than anything else point to this aspect of the Revolution, because they were intent on preserving a culture they thought to be under assault from the Shah. So religion comes back; the ceremonies, get-togethers, associated values, and other aspects of cultural life closely linked with religion all make a major comeback after 1979.

Regarding the Iranian Left, in my assessment it was the largest in the Middle East. It had both the deepest roots and the widest appeal. Also, rather than being rooted mainly in the peasantry, in Iran the Left was composed primarily of workers, the urban poor, and the middle class. Taken together and compared to Communist movements in Arab countries or in neighboring Pakistan, the Iranian Left can only be described as enormous.

But this movement was effectively uprooted three times. First in 1920, then in the repression of the early 1950s, and then for a third time in the early 1980s. The first two times, the movement suffered very considerable and violent repression, yet it still managed to recover. But the last time it did not. So one question we must ask is, Why was the Left not able to recover a third time? But before I go into that, let me say a few words about the Left’s impact on the Iranian Revolution.

The Left in Iran had only a modest influence on the Revolution as it unfolded in 1978–1979. Of all the Marxist and revolutionary groups in Iran, only one can be said to have been effectively functioning at that time, and it had only a small number of guerrillas. These Fadaiyan were active, but their impact was modest. However, in the period between the collapse of the regime and 11 February 1979, the Left certainly grew.

The rest of the leftist groups in Iran, from the pro-Soviet Tudeh party to Maoist groups to Trotskyites, were really groups in exile, whether in Western or Eastern Europe. They made an impact by working against the Shah in news and propaganda, highlighting the dictatorship’s abuse of human rights. In fact, they were quite effective in doing this and thus formed a crucial voice for the Iranian opposition. But, as I say, inside Iran there was little in the way of real organization. Only the most hardcore, underground organizations were capable of evading the political police. The Fadaiyan were the only such group and they had been largely contained by 1979.

So the impact of the Left was not just in street battles, but also in maintaining steady pressure on the Shah from the outside. In that sense, it was very important. The Tudeh Party, or Iranian Communist Party, succeeded in mobilizing the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc resources against the Shah. Such propaganda helped to sustain the Iranian opposition’s morale. Resistance needs morale, and the Left kept it from flagging. When we were teenagers growing up, and the Shah claimed to be the all-powerful, benevolent ruler, guiding Iran to its civilizational destiny, we knew, “This is not the whole truth.” We also knew that the people resisting his rule were not what he said they were. They were not saboteurs, but were Robin Hood-type figures who gave up their lives and livelihood to struggle against the Shah.

The most famous of these figures was, of course, Khosrow Golesorkhi, who was put on trial on national television. Golesorkhi, alongside Karamat Daneshian, was defiant, and used the occasion to put the regime on trial, accusing it of torture and human rights violations. He said, “You animals, you have tortured me, I accuse you” of this and that. So, here was this character on live television. Seeing him when I was fourteen or fifteen years old shook me to my foundation. Before that time, I did not believe such a person could exist in Iran. I thought nobody could challenge the Shah. Thus, as I say, the Left kept up morale. At the same time, it set the terms of what would become the debate inside the Revolution. In crucial respects, it provided the vocabulary and set the agenda, though not the outcome, of that debate.

As Postel has noted, one discursive element the Left supplied was anti-liberalism: “These liberals need to be isolated, we cannot work with them. They are crooks. If they are democrats, they are at best bourgeois democrats.” Such rhetoric was invented by the Left and picked up by the Islamists. The same is true of women’s rights, the loss of which was the most palpable consequence of the Revolution. After 1979 the veil was increasingly mandated, before finally becoming law in 1982. Though, of course, the Left opposed the forced veiling of women, here again the issue was marginalized as being, at best, liberal and therefore secondary. The Left was unwilling to break with the Islamists over what they took to be merely a women’s issue.

So, what are some of the lasting social and political consequences of the 1979 Revolution for the Left today? As has been noted already, in the 1980s the Left paid a very steep price for its alliance with the Islamists, as thousands of comrades were killed or forced into exile. This crushing defeat of the Iranian Left was followed by another historical event, one that crucially shapes the future not just of an Iranian Left, but of the international Left as a whole. I mean, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union, marking the failure of the Bolshevik project. Once the Bolshevik Revolution failed, revolutions that saw themselves as rooted in that Revolution—the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions—collapsed like dominoes. Today, there is nothing of Marxism left in China—a lot of Leninism, but no Marxism. So by the end of the 1980s the whole thing collapses. The collapse of the Iranian Left and its failure to regroup are, therefore, rooted both in the repressive character of the Islamic Republic and in a much wider history.

To my mind, this raises the question of the definition of “Left” today. What are you talking about when you say “Left”? Are you talking about a Marxist Left or a Marxian Left? A Marxian Left takes Marx, applies it selectively, and tries to understand where it has utility. A Marxist Left makes out of Marx a totalizing ideology. Whatever else it was, the collapse of Bolshevism was the collapse of the Marxist Left, at least in the second sense.

Chris Cutrone: I would like to pose the question: What can the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran teach the Left?

The 30th anniversary of the toppling of the Shah of Iran witnesses the controversy over the election results in the Islamic Republic, in which the incumbent Ahmadinejad claimed victory over his opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and mass protests against this result were subject to brutal, violent repression.

These two historic moments, those of the birth and of the potentially fatal crisis of the Islamic Republic, communicate over time, and can tell us a great deal about the nature and trajectory of the contemporary world, and the role of the demise of the Left in it.

We in Platypus approach the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a specific story in the overall history of the death of the Left—its historical decline and disappearance. The self-destruction of the Left in Iran is a good entry into an investigation of the death of the Left internationally, over the course of at least the past generation.

It is instructive that, where once the Left in Iran was the most vital and potentially significant in the Middle East or Muslim world, today the Left has been completely eradicated in Iran. Whereas the Shah simultaneously sought to repress and co-opt the Left, the Islamic Republic has brought about its entire elimination in Iran (and has sought to do so elsewhere, for instance in the Lebanese civil war, through proxies like Hezbollah). It is in this sense that one can meaningfully talk about the reactionary, right-wing character of the Islamic Republic, relative to what came before it under the Pahlavi dynasty. There are fewer possibilities for Iranian society today than there were 30 years ago. This bitter fact is something most try to avoid confronting, but is where I want to focus attention in my presentation.

The Left is defined by potential and possibility, the right by its foreclosure. The Left expresses and reveals potential possibilities, while the right represses and obscures these.

For this reason, the role of the Iranian and international Left in repressing and obscuring the true character of social possibilities in Iran, during the period leading up to the Islamic Revolution, is crucial for grasping, not only how the Left destroyed itself, but also, and more importantly, how it destroyed itself as a Left, and thus contributed to the construction of a new right. Only justice for past crimes committed by the Left can recover old and open new possibilities in the present. Only by confronting its problematic historical legacy can the Left today be a Left at all. But this is something virtually no one wants to do.

Slavoj Žižek, in his recent book In Defense of Lost Causes, cites Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s embrace of the Islamic Revolution in Iran to demonstrate the importance and necessity of what Žižek calls “taking the right step in the wrong direction.” Žižek is eager, as he expressed in his writing on the recent election crisis in Iran, to find the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam.” He thinks that a more radical emancipatory potential was grasped, however uncertainly, by Foucault in 1979 (and by Heidegger in 1933!) I wish to argue the contrary, that Foucault’s—and the rest of the “Left’s”—embrace of Islamism was and continues to be a conservative move, thinly veiled by claims to more radical bona fides. They have lied.

This phenomenon of seeking the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam” can be traced all the way through the recent election crisis in Iran, if we examine the trajectory of supposedly “Left” Islamist discontents and opposition to the Shah’s regime leading up to the Islamic Revolution, and how this plays out for the continuers of such politics in the Islamic Republic in the present.

The New Left Islamist figure Ali Shariati is key to understanding the relation of the Left to Islamism, both around the 1979 toppling of the Shah and the political divisions in the Islamic Republic today. For instance, opposition presidential candidate Mousavi, and especially his wife Zahra Rahnavard, were students of Shariati who worked closely with him politically in the 1960s and 1970s. The largest political organization on the Left in the 1979 Revolution was the MEK (Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin of Iran), who found inspiration in Shariati’s approach to Islam.

The fact that Mousavi and Rahnavard eventually joined the Khomeini faction, and that there is a significant likelihood that Khomeini’s agents were responsible for Shariati’s untimely death in 1977 at age 44, should not obscure the New Left Islamist roots of the Khomeinite Islamic Republic, of which Mousavi was Prime Minister from 1981–89, under Khomeini’s “supreme” leadership. The present controversy in the Islamic Republic establishment is not to be understood in terms of new wine in old bottles, but rather the old in the new. The Islamist politics on both sides is a right-wing phenomenon, now as before. Mousavi as standard-bearer for discontents in the Islamic Republic is a phenomenon of political confusion, to which any Left must attend. There are significant problems to be addressed in the relation of ideology to social and political reality. The point is that Khomeini’s supremacy in the Islamic Revolution is not to be explained by his superior insight and grasp of realities, but rather his successful navigation of them, which is a different matter. The present dispute between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi amounts to this.

Khomeini did not lead a revolutionary transformation of Iranian society, but rather the reconsolidation of Iran after the crisis and fall of the Shah. The phenomenon of the so-called “Left,” for the most part, calling black white, does not change the fact that Khomeini represented a right-wing response to the discontents and crisis of Iranian society in the 1970s. The Left’s support of Khomeini expresses its disorientation and confusion theoretically, and its right-wing role practically. There is no mystery here: Telling women to cover themselves is not an emancipatory act!

The collapse of the Shah’s regime did not increase but ultimately decreased the possibilities for Iranian society. The Khomeinite Islamic Republic was not the expression but the repression of potential, in the context of diminished possibilities. To understand how this was so, it is useful to consider the historical trajectory of Iran in global context. The developmental states of the post-colonial world underwent a severe crisis starting with the global downturn of the 1970s. The 1970s were the period in which so-called “Third World debt” manifested itself as a serious problem for these states. This also manifested in the so-called “Second World,” as the IMF called in its loans to countries such as Poland and Yugoslavia, setting the ground for the long-term crisis and disintegration of these states.

Oil revenues could provide no remedy in the case of Iran, because what was encountered throughout the world in the 1970s was the crisis of the transformations that went on under the mantle of “modernization.” In Iran, this was carried out through the Shah’s White Revolution, in which he had been goaded, beginning in the early 1960s, by the U.S. Kennedy Administration, and continued to be by those subsequent. Khomeini’s rise as a politician originated in protest against the policies of modernization—and liberalization—implemented by the Shah, under pressure from the United States. Khomeini was always clear about this in ways the “Left” has not been. The Left abdicated from providing an emancipatory response to the changes in Iranian society. The Shah stood between right- and left-wing discontents, but the Left steadily liquidated its own concerns.

Indeed, despite the fact that discontents with the Shah were channeled into New Left “anti-imperialist” politics, the Shah indeed was bucking the “Great Satan” on his own accord. Not only was the Shah’s regime prompted to transform Iranian society through the White Revolution reforms of the 1960s–70s, exacerbating social and political discontents, but indeed responsibility for the ultimate demise of the Shah can also be laid at the door of U.S. policy, for President Carter refused to support the Shah against the tumult of protests that broke out in 1978. The U.S. not only supported the Shah’s regime but significantly undermined it as well. This was not a mistake on the part of the U.S., but expressed the differing interests of U.S. policy as against the Shah. A salient example of this was the U.S. attitude towards the Shah’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, which he pursued. The U.S. firmly opposed this—as it opposes the IR’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology today.

So much for “anti-imperialism.” So, what happened in Iran? Certainly, the close if not always happy relationship between the Shah’s regime and the U.S. became symbolic for discontents in Iran. But symbolic in what sense? The New Left conception of “imperialism” got in the way of a sober perception of the problems facing Iranian society in the 1970s. Iran was not suffering from U.S. imperial oppression. Rather, Iran faced a crossroads in its development in which an insurgent Islamist politics found purchase. The nature of this Islamist politics was obscured by the Left’s conceptions of the potential social-political divisions in Iranian society and in its greater global context.

Iran was the site for the most significant political Left in the Middle East and Muslim world. Many thousands of Iranian students with leftist inclinations studied abroad in Europe and North America. In their encounter with the metropolitan New Left, they were encouraged to embrace the supposed Muslim roots of Iranian society and find potential there for emancipatory politics. But emancipation from what, for whom?

The issue of Islamist politics looms. Already in 1965, the Communist Party of Indonesia was completely wiped out, with hundreds of thousands of its members and those associated with it (such as ethnic Chinese) butchered, by Islamist political groups in a popular movement. Communists were hacked to death by enraged masses, in numbers sufficient to clog rivers. In the 1970s, Pakistan under Bhutto charted a so-called socialist Islamism that paved the way for the U.S.-supported Islamist military dictatorship of Zia and Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan and cultivation of the Taliban to the present. What all of these phenomena have in common is the repression—the slaughter—of the Left. This is the political significance of Islamism, and nothing other than this.

The New Left Islamist Shariati considered himself a follower of Frantz Fanon. Others, including Khomeini, also found resonance with Fanon’s writings (on Algeria and Africa), on what they considered to be the problem of “cultural imperialism.” So, according to this view, Iran suffered, not from structural and political problems in modern historical context, so much as from cultural problems, of so-called “Westernization,” which was pathologized. The problems of modernization became the problem of Westernization, which thus needed to be eradicated. Islamist politics was the means by which the cure for this “disease” has been attempted, all the way to banning kite flying in Afghanistan.

To this day, the Islamic Republic is premised on a culturalist conception of politics. Ahmadinejad and others speak of Iran’s “political frontiers” as if they were just lines on a map. Their “Islamic Revolution” is civilizational and global in reach. It is not about Iran. Ahmadinejad wrote an “open letter” to President Bush chastising the failure of “liberal democracy” and urging the embrace of the principles of Islamist politics instead.

Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, whose legitimate mantle was in dispute between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad in the recent election, is premised on the idea that the entire Iranian population, suffering from the illness of “cultural imperialism” by the West, needed to be held as minority wards of the mullahs. This is why there is a Guardian Council and a Supreme Leader above all elected officials. When Ahmadinejad referred to the election protesters as “shit,” this was the social imagination behind it: he considered them to be religiously fallen, culturally corrupted, and hence evil, in a disqualifying, dehumanizing sense. The powers-that-be of the Islamic Republic, still pursuing the Islamic Revolution, have moral contempt for the people of Iran—as any right-wingers do for their subalterns.

This is why it is worse than tragic, indeed, I would argue, criminal, for the Left to continue to embrace today, in whatever form, the presuppositions of such right-wing politics of Islamism—as the Left did in the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. It was worse than a mistake then, and it continues to be so today. It is part of the deliberate obscuring of social realities behind bad ideology and worse politics. The history of the past 30 years proves that when European and North American political activists and professors on the so-called “Left” in the 1970s encouraged their Iranian students that Islamism was a way to address their discontents and ameliorate the problems of Iranian and indeed Muslim society, this was not only a lie, but a crime. It remains so today.

Panelists’ responses

Postel: I would like to address something Chris said about Foucault. What you are saying is that the Left itself, in embracing Islamism, was making an objectively right-wing move. That is what I want to take issue with. Foucault’s particular relation to Islamism and the Iranian Revolution was quite different from most contemporary leftists.

Most leftists supported the Iranian Revolution writ large, but not specifically the Islamic fraction. They made a variety of arguments about needing to support the regime once the Islamists solidified their hegemony, and there was a lot of pretzel logic on the Left about how to relate to the new Islamic Republic. But during the Revolution itself most international leftists did not specifically support the Islamists. They either supported the Marxists, or they simply held some vague notion of the Iranian Revolution as a blow to the American Empire. Foucault is distinctive in this respect. He not only supported the Islamists but he was hostile to the secular forces in the Iranian Revolution. When Foucault was writing about the Iranian Revolution he was writing against the secular Western Left. What he loved about the Iranian Revolution is that it was no mere national liberation movement cum Marxist-Leninist revolution, but that it had a religious dimension. In one of his more poetic flights of fancy, he wrote that what the Iranian Revolution promised was not a new regime or new set of constitutional arrangements but a “new regime of truth.” Precisely because the Western Left was so secular, according to Foucault, it was blind to the Iranian Revolution’s emancipatory potential.

Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson have dissected what was wrong with Foucault’s arguments. But it does bear repeating here that, in supporting the Islamist wing of the Revolution against the secular forces, Foucault was not in fact emblematic of the international Left, the Western Left. He got into all sorts of hissing matches with French Marxists like Simone de Beauvoir and Maxime Rodinson on account of his bizarre and problematic position. This is not to exculpate in any way the majority of the international Left, which did indeed get all sorts of things wrong about the Iranian Revolution, but not the way Foucault did. The international Left saw it purely through the prism of anti-imperialism and, for this reason, it failed to identify the Revolution’s reactionary, authoritarian elements, as expressed in its hostility to liberalism, feminism, human rights, and democratic values.

Chris, you still have not laid out an argument against the Green Movement in Iran today. You hint at it, but I would like us to get into this matter in greater detail. To the extent you make an argument, you shut Mousavi up into an ahistorical time warp as Khomeini’s Prime Minister and a reactionary Islamist in the 1980s. But we are now in 2009. Mousavi today is not the same Mousavi of the 1980s. This is not to say that I am an uncritical supporter of Mousavi, but I think we must also be clear as to what we are talking about. The Mousavi of 2009, particularly post-June 12, 2009, is a very different creature. Anyway, the Green Movement itself is not all about Mousavi. It may have been generated through his presidential campaign, but it has now transcended Mousavi the individual. In many ways Mousavi is following rather than leading the Green Movement.

Ehsani: Let me say, first, that I really welcome this unexpected gathering. For many of us on the Iranian Left, both inside and outside Iran—and for the past decade I have mostly worked in Iran—contact, interaction, and dialogue with the American and global Left has not been part of our experience. Nobody cares about Iran. Nobody pays any attention to the Left there, to the extent that there is a Left. The Left internationally has been uninterested, uninvolved in issues having to do with Iran. Conversely, the Iranian intellectual community inside and outside Iran has been uninterested in what is going on globally, except to the extent that it involves its own interest. So I welcome this important dialogue.

On the other hand, if we want to be serious and lay claim to being of the Left, we need to take our subject seriously. Iran is a complex place. My main criticism of the majority of the Iranian Left is they have no idea of Iranian society. They start from a set of metaphysical ideas and ideological-theoretical criteria, and then see if reality fits it or not. You mentioned Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson. They are good friends of mine, but only one of them has been there, has been to Iran, in the past 30 years, and I do not think they have an adequate grasp of the complexities of that society. Let me give you an example.

We keep speaking of it but never ask ourselves, what is Islamism? Islamism is not Stalinism. Stalinism was a totalitarian ideology with the machinery of the Party controlling the state and society, engineering it according to a set of teleological formulas. It left no room for debate. Soviet planning set out to shape and mold society. Eventually, it collapsed in the face of reality and realpolitik. But Islamism is different. In terms of economic, social, and cultural policies, the Iranian regime is a spectrum spanning from arch-left to arch-right. It has been constantly changing over time. Look at the issue of the hijab for women. It is rather more complex than what Cutrone said. When, in 1979, the arch-right faction of the coalition that had brought Khomeini to power wanted to ban women from public life, Khomeini himself said, “Look, they are already there.”

The entire population was in the streets in 1979. It was never a matter of Islamism simply imposing its will. Khomeini rode atop a very cacophonous, anarchic situation in Iran. The takeover of the American Embassy and, later, the Iran-Iraq War came to his rescue, but still Khomeini was never completely able to impose his own agenda, to take control over state and society. And things have stayed in flux ever since. If you look at the range of debate over and within Islam in Iran, you will find it is quite remarkable. One must see how far the Islamists have come, how they are changing.

Now to return to the issue of women: When I was doing my fieldwork, I lived in rural Iran in 1988 for two years in a war zone, right by the Iraqi border. It transformed me. Before that, I thought a little bit like Cutrone. But this village did not fit any of my criteria. It was a small village of 300 people, quite poor. All women were either working in the market or traveling to the city. They were completely present in public life. When they traveled to the city, where the black chador was obligatory, for them it was great, because they did not seem like bumpkins. As a uniform, it made them look like urban people so they did not stand out. They could go to school in an Islamic society, high school, and some to university. Women are second-class citizens, but they are very much present in public life. What does this mean for a Left project? I am not certain, but I am trying to say it is a complex society. We need to understand Iran’s sociology before judging its ideology.

Behrooz: I would like to mention that Iran’s nuclear program is not weaponized, and so there is no evidence that it is a nuclear weapons program. As far as we know, it is a civilian nuclear program, as was the Shah’s. When the Shah ruled, Iran was a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as it remains to this day. There is accusation but there is no proof.

Regarding Mousavi, I spent three months in Tehran last spring and did an interview on him for a major daily newspaper. I do not know where even to begin if the question is, Is the group around him leftist? What does that mean? These are people who are living in Iran who are confused. In what sense is it “Left?” Everything depends on what you mean by “Left.” I do not want to debate what “is” is, but you have to define “Left” in order to ask, “Is Mousavi leftist or not?”

What I told the interviewer in Tehran is this: In terms of his economic program, Mousavi has changed from a statist, state-capitalist, latter-day Nasserite in the 1980s to a kind of European-style social democrat today. Instead of the state owning the means of production, Mousavi would tax the owner to provide for society. That is the major change. Politically, he has actually turned away from being a Shariati type, a Shia-Bolshevik if you will, into somebody who believes that there is much greater scope for individual and artistic freedom within the framework of the Islamic Republic than what the people enjoy today. Of course, he does not speak of exceeding the confines of the Islamic Republic and it would be foolish for him to do so.

Because Mousavi stays within the context of the Islamic Republic, he cannot be considered a democrat per se, by any international definition of the word. Still, he is pulling that way. This guy is not a democrat such as one might find in Sweden, but he is much more of a democrat than the current president. So, being a democrat is relative.

Cutrone: I need to respond to Postel since he has addressed me directly twice now: I do not have an argument against the Green Movement. What I have is a critique of the perception that it is all right that the Green Movement is in flux and inchoate, that this is good because being inchoate is a kind of pluralism. I also emphasize the ideological impoverishment of having to pose discontents within the framework of the Islamic Republic, just as I would challenge how the issue has been framed by commentators outside Iran like Žižek. So, I am interested in highlighting the issue of confusion. I am sympathetic to the protests, but I am critical of what I take to be their ideological problems.

As regards to what Ehsani and Behrooz just put forth in terms of complexity and ideological criteria, it is not a matter of ideological criteria being imposed on a complex reality. Rather, I do not think anyone either in 1979 or in the present is thinking about the problems in Iranian society that a Left could articulate. If we are talking about democratization in the Islamic Republic, we are already breaking with Left politics to accept something much more impoverished. Finally, to say, “Mousavi has moved” and, at the same time, “Mousavi is not leading but following the movement,” is simply to restate the question. Mousavi will move the degree to which he is trying to take advantage of discontents and articulate them through the framework of the Islamic Republic. I am concerned that the discontents remain within the restraints of the Islamic Republic. I think that the Islamic Republic, especially in this crisis, needs to be seen as an obstacle, not as a framework.

Q & A

1) I’m affiliated with the Spartacist League. To say that the international Left uncritically supported those seeking to overthrow the Shah is not true. We said at the time, “Down with the Shah, and no support for the Mullahs!” and “No to the Veil! For Worker’s Revolution!” We understood that only the proletariat could break the chains of reactionary traditionalism in the Middle East. But the workers were led into the arms of the Ayatollah as the Left cheered. So today the Spartacist League defends Iran’s right to nuclear weapons, especially given the threats made by imperialist armies like the US and Israel. So, my question is, do you believe Iran should have nuclear weapons to defend itself?

2) My question is more a request for clarification. Professor Ehsani, you mentioned that you thought the events of this past June were in fact a repetition of the 1905–1906 flare up. Could you explain further what the issue was in 1905, and how you see 2009 as a continuation of that Revolution?

Ehsani: Yes. I meant the following: The 1906 Constitutional Revolution did not seek to overthrow the Qajar monarchy, but to subject it to the rule of law. It was a liberal-democratic revolution. Though initially defeated, it eventually succeeded in winning its aims. But these were again lost when the country collapsed around the time of World War I. A new autocratic dynasty, the Pahlavis, emerged to replace the Qajars in the 1920s.

What the Green Movement is demanding is an end to public space being colonized by the state. At present, it is very difficult to organize and mobilize. The movement’s success so far has been due to its fragmentary nature. It is a movement based on a rejection of the elections. Many people in the movement do not accept the legitimacy of this government, and some may even seek to go beyond the regime of the Islamic Republic itself. But, apparently, many in the movement do not want to go beyond this regime. Some are religious, and others are not. We have no way of knowing the precise anatomy of the movement because the numbers are not there. There is no way to determine who is in the majority, who is in the minority, or even to hold sustained democratic debate under present conditions. The only common denominator of the movement—and this has been its greatest strength and the most palpable sign of its tremendous political maturity—is that it is a minimalist movement. Despite all the differences of opinion, it coalesced around this issue of demanding that votes be counted.

The reason I compare this to the Constitutional Revolution is because it is a demand for rule of law. It says,
“Look, we have this Islamic Constitution that many of us reject. Still, we came out and voted under it and this is not being respected.” In this sense the Green Movement is constitutionalist.

Postel: I would also like to address this question. As Ehsani just mentioned, the Constitutional Revolution was principally liberal, democratic, constitutionalist, and therefore, in some Marxian sense, “bourgeois.”

But it also contained strong elements of feminism and social democracy. The aforementioned historian Janet Afary has written an entire book on this subject, entitled The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism. I think this connection between liberal democracy and feminism remains relevant today. And this gets to part of the problem I have with Cutrone’s analysis.

It is true that the Green Movement at present situates itself within the parameters of the Islamic Republic. This is all that what you are calling the Green Movement’s “ideological limitations” actually amount to. But the fact is simply that, as Ehsani mentioned, we do not know. We do not know exactly what the full-blown ideological spectrum within the Green Movement really is. What we do know is that one of the most recent slogans coming out of this movement is “Iranian republic, not Islamic Republic.” Now, how can you argue against a slogan like that? Is this constrained or trapped by the logic of the Islamic Republic? How can leftists around the world not see millions of Iranians taking to the streets—trade unionists, women’s rights activists, dissident intellectuals, and civil society actors, particularly the trade union movement, which is at the core of left internationalism and has been for over 150 years—how can we as leftists see trade unionists in the streets of Iran participating in the Green Movement and not support them?

1) I take issue with both the trivializing and romanticizing view of the chador, and also with the notion that liberalism can ever deliver the liberation of women. I think the greatest advancement of women’s liberation occurred during the Communist revolutions, particularly in China under Chairman Mao. How can you speak of the emancipation of women, in the past or the present, without talking about the history of these revolutions?

2) Might not the situation be like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, where a mass movement was exploited by pro-Western politicians to achieve a shuffle at the top, without very much actually changing? In Iran there are people who want to get rid of the more theocratic elements of the regime. But others are upset that Ahmadinejad subsidizes fuel and runs social programs in the countryside. So Mousavi might pull back.

3) How does one have a vibrant public sphere that, at the same time, does not respect individual autonomy of thought? The Islamists first demanded the expansion of debate within the public sphere, only to clamp down, in many respects even more brutally than the Shah, after they came into power.

Cutrone: First of all, I want to respond to Postel’s claim that the Green Movement is already stepping outside the framework of the Islamic Republic, or is somehow only superficially Islamist. I do not oppose the Green Movement. Rather, I’m pointing to the necessity for ideological clarification. The role of the Left should be provocation to clarification, to move the conversation forward and more fully politicize it.

The second question brings up the issue of different interests and how those might play out in the Movement. To state my concern polemically: There is every likelihood of a replay of the 1979 moment. While Foucault is an extreme example of the Western Left on the Iranian Revolution, he condensed the idea that what is happening is outside the framework of the Left, and that this, in itself, is good. What I have heard here is that, if the Left brings any criteria of judgment to bear or provokes any issue of clarification, then ideology is being imposed on a complex reality and we have a case of “left imperialism.” It is not true that, if you paint things in a negative light or raise issues, the movement will scatter to the winds. I take for granted that there are discontents in the Islamic Republic and that there is a movement that has broken out against the election result. The question for me is whether there is a need for ideological clarification, not from a set of prescriptive criteria, but rather are there issues the Left can raise in light of this movement?

Postel: As to female liberation, the on-the-ground reality is that the main expression of the struggle for gender equality in Iran is a campaign called the Million Signatures Campaign. If you want to be a Marxist feminist and say that this campaign is only presenting liberal demands, and is therefore insufficient, you can do so. But this vibrant, promising, and profoundly emancipatory movement is the only game in town right now. Although they do not describe themselves in this way, it is a liberal campaign, in that they want to reform the legal architecture of the Islamic Republic so as to allow for greater gender equality and women’s rights. Is this enough? Will it lead to full emancipation and the end of capitalist exploitation and alienation? No. But to oppose it is reactionary.

This gets back to the question of liberalism more generally. I do not believe that liberalism is sufficient. However, I do believe it is necessary, and that anti-liberalism is reactionary. We do not need to struggle against liberalism, but against oppression and exploitation. We need to struggle for liberal-democratic, “bourgeois” rights, and, at the same time, go beyond them. But going beyond them does not mean struggling against them. I am what would be called here in America a “democratic socialist.”

Ehsani: The Million Signatures Campaign is not the only game in town. There are Islamic feminists who are quite active and in some ways more effective. It is a very rich scene. Some 70 different feminist groups mobilized women’s votes during the election.

In terms of women’s rights more generally, I was not romanticizing anything, but am talking about an experienced reality. Many women in Iran view the matter with reference to this question: Is the imposition of the hijab on women by the state the best way for women to fully interact with the rest of society, or not? What I was trying to get across is that, in at least some rural areas, the Islamicization of the state actually opens up a public space for women outside of family and community. Indeed, in some cases the state actually stepped in and made universal education for women obligatory. So what do we say about this? After all, this is the same state that imposes the hijab. So we cannot approach this complex reality with simplistic formulae. Women are being oppressed by the state while, at the same time, they are being empowered in unexpected ways. We need to be flexible in our understanding, in order to grasp how both are possible.

I welcome the question raised about what, if any, are the grounds for emancipation in the Islamic Republic. So, regarding the possibility of a Left, and being someone of the Left working in Iran under conditions of oppression and censorship, I still think the possibilities for opening up the political imaginary in a country like Iran are far greater than in a place like Egypt. For example, one main argument of the reformists in Iran has been to privatize public assets, in response to the nationalization that occurred in the wake of the 1979 Revolution. The issue is how to privatize. The reformers think the only way is to accept the neoliberal prescription and reduce the power of the state. In Iran, we on the Left have had the opportunity to say, this is not the way to go. We had an opportunity to say, privatizing all public assets is not the way to diminish the power of the state. If you want a private sector, fine, but the public sector is public and should remain so. This argument, which is essentially putting forward a socialist project, is possible in Iran. It can become part of the political agenda because the process of neoliberalization is still in its early stages. Neoliberalism is not an accepted dogma in Iran at this point, but remains an open question. The fact that the Islamic Republic remains an unfinished political, economic, ideological project opens up possibilities for debating what its content should be.

1) It was interesting to hear that the Left was marginalized at the beginning of the 1979 Revolution, but then grew exponentially after it. This occurs often historically, I believe. But what I would like to hear more about is what the panelists think the role of leftists outside of Iran should be today. How must the Left outside Iran change? What should we be doing, in light of the situation in Iran?

2) You guys are leading the working class into a dead end once again. What you all agree is that you reject the political independence of the working class and the socialist revolution.

Behrooz: Regarding the socialist revolution, I am not for it. I am not a political activist, but an academic. The best I can do is attempt to understand what is going on from my point of view. I am content to leave the revolution to the revolutionaries. I am halfway through my life, so I am not sure I would do it much good anyway.

Regarding what the role of the Left outside of Iran should be, I think we must first understand what the Left outside of Iran is. It seems to me that the Iranian Left in exile is divided into two camps: There are the ones who stick to their guns, saying, “Not much has changed, there has been a bump in the road, but it can be overcome, the working class can do it.” We might call this the classical approach. This camp is strong in Europe and America. The other group is the Left that, kind of like the reformers in the Islamic Republic, have come to conclusions similar to some expressed here. This portion of the Iranian Left has come to realize that they must be looking for other ways, that the old ways are not working.

About the Green Movement, what Ehsani said is true: It formed around minimalist demands. What Chris said is also true: It has divergent interests. Which is to say the movement remains inchoate at this stage. There is a Green mishmash in front of us, which we are trying to understand. One of its salient features is that it is here and it has resilience. We do not know if it is a majority, but we do know that it is a determined, angry movement. Mousavi is trying to provide this movement with leadership, in order to prevent it from committing suicide, and to help it build structure, leadership, and a programme. Mousavi is planning for the long term.

So when the Movement, either spontaneously or deliberately, says, “We want an Iranian Republic,” this means they are asking, whether they know it or not, for the toppling of the Islamic Republic. But you cannot topple the Islamic Republic without organization, leadership, and structure. Otherwise you are simply committing suicide. The same is true of the fledgling labor unions.

In the face of oppression, one needs to rein in and give the movement some direction, because right now it can easily destroy itself. This has happened again and again. On the one hand, the resilience of the supporters of the Green Movement is certainly very impressive, as is the coordination among Mousavi, Khatami, Karroubi, and even Rafsanjani. Without going for a head-on confrontation, they are trying to open up space. This would allow for the development of leadership, which would in turn allow for structure, and structure would mean endurance to fight to another round. This is all about the next round. This round is pretty much finished.

Postel: In response to the man who thought that the Green Movement was selling short the working class, I would ask why are there thousands of Iranian trade unionists in the streets supporting the democratic movement? The Iranian working class does not quite fit the ossified fantasy world that so many Marxist-Leninists inhabit. The Iranian trade movement sees itself and its interests as being intricately intertwined with the interests of other democratic struggles in Iran. So, for example, Iranian Trade-Unionists have very much embraced the slogan, “Workers’ rights are human rights.” When Iranian Trade Unions are organizing and articulating their demands, they often frame them in the language of rights: the right to organize trade unions independent of state sponsorship or supervision; freedom of assembly; the right to publish independent magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.; the right not to be abducted in the middle of the night, tortured, and subjected to mock show trials. These are democratic rights, and it is no accident that the Iranian Labor Movement has found common cause with other democratic struggles in Iran.

Now I want to respond to something Cutrone said earlier. It is not because the Green Movement is inchoate that I support it, but because the Green Movement has mobilized millions of Iranians, including trade unions, feminists, democratic intellectuals and writers, and student activists. It has brought them into the streets in order to set the stage, as Behrooz suggested, for a new democratic, secular Iran that I, personally, would very much like to see. We do not know where it is leading, but I resist the notion that somehow my solidarity with the Green Movement is uncritical. As you know, Fred Halliday has this notion of critical solidarity, of engaging in a dialogue with struggles around the world, by which one sees the need to support and participate, but also to engage in a critical dialogue. So, for example, when the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji was in Chicago in 2006, one of the things I made a point of doing was to bring him to Loyola University to sit down for a three-and-a-half hour conversation with the Marxist political philosopher Prof. David Schweickart, who has written a series of books on the future of capitalism. The point of this dialogue was to get the Iranian dissident movement thinking about what kind of Iran might come next. Ehsani nailed it: If there is going to be socialism in Iran, it is going to have to come about as a result of democratic struggle in an open political space, which is the first step. Socialists in Iran have to be part of the democratic war of position that we see unfolding now. They have to argue for their positions in a democratic and pluralistic polity, and I hope they win: I would like to see a democratic socialist Iran. I think that is part of the role of the International Left, to engage in critical solidarity, not to accept the Green Movement as it is, nor to fetishize it, but to see the potential there and try to harness it.

1) Mousavi once said to the protesters, “The Basiji are your brothers.” This is not good. As long as that movement remains cast within, as Cutrone said, the framework of the Islamic Republic, it will only continue to come up against the same repression.

2) I would like the panelists to comment specifically on the diversity of the Green Movement, considering that it is led by three people: Khatami, Mousavi, and Karroubi. There are differences, ideologically, in terms of economic and social programs, among these three. We have people who come from more of a developmentalist wing, and others who represent more of a pro-privatization, neoliberal agenda. How are we to understand these differences?

Behrooz: If I understand Iran correctly, the country wants no more violence. Certainly, the Green Movement is not violent. Nor is it revolutionary. The young generation in Iran rarely talks about revolution. Vague as it may sound, their goal is to make the Islamic Republic more liberal by providing a breathing space for politics. This breathing space is necessary, because, although the supporters of Khomeini and Ahmadinejad are in the minority, and have been shown to be a minority consistently in elections, they are a consistently potent minority. They are 10–15 percent of the population, but they are armed, committed, and organized. They are willing to fight and die. The other side lacks all of these characteristics. If the Shah had 15 percent in 1979, we would not have had the Revolution, but by 1979 he barely had 15 people supporting him. The current regime has a small yet very powerful minority propping it up.

There are two ways to deal with this powerful minority. We could remove them through a massive civil war, a revolution. This would remove the tumor. But in order to treat surgically the cancer now afflicting Iranian society, you may also have to remove part of the liver, the heart, and the lung. If this occurs, the patient may not survive.

The other way to deal with the current regime is to open space so that there can be a dialogue among the 15 percent of the ruling regime, the 75 percent of the general public, and the 10 percent who simply do not care. This space could also include many Iranian exiles, people who are outside of Iran. These people all should talk to each other and do a lot of convincing. When Mousavi says that the Basiji are our brothers, he is addressing them, saying, “I am not your enemy, and you are not my enemy. I do not want to overthrow the Islamic Republic, but to make it more livable for us all.” Of course, he could say the Basiji are his enemy. Then he would be abducted and taken to prison, where they would beat him. Eventually, he would be forced to go on TV and say it was all part of a Stalinist or Zionist plot. I do not blame Mousavi for declining to adopt this course. The Green Movement is trying to be prudent, soberly navigating this hostile, mine-riddled terrain. The very attempt to do this, though it may not seem as radical as other political movements, is nonetheless a historic new stage in Iranian politics.

Ehsani: Is the Islamic Republic a theocracy? No—it is a theocracy and a republic. Moreover, it is a functioning republic, for political power is distributed among a political elite that has organic roots in the society, though this is only a small sector of the population. Power has been circulating among this elite for the last 30 years. These elites hold different political beliefs, and the way that power circulates among them depends on popular vote, which decides the presidency, the parliament, as well as local councils. Compare this to a country like Egypt, where you have a leader who is “President for Life,” and has been for the last 30 years. In Iran you have circulation of power among elites, a division of power that is generally determined by a rational voting process. This game has been undermined now by Khamenei and the military, who have stepped in and said, “Enough of this. We see where things are going. If we continue with this popular merry-go-round, this republican cycling of people through various positions of executive and legislative power, eventually a society that has been really empowered, that is becoming more diverse, and that has so far been putting up with this game, will start demanding more.” It is a matter of political survival. What has happened is that the theocratic element, which had been like a monarch standing above the fray of the political process, supposedly the neutral father of the nation, has now stepped overtly into the political process, saying, “I want all the power.” This has shattered his image. Part of what the Green Movement is about, then, is the demand that the Constitution, which is a very contradictory document, be implemented in full. Particularly, people want freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. There are both democratic and theocratic elements of the Constitution overlapping uneasily in many places. It is not a matter of people suddenly believing in the Constitution, but a question of along what lines and in what way does one support this Constitution?

The Green Movement is about mobilizing and changing the balance of actual political power. This is no more legalistic tussle, but a fight in the streets over rival interpretations of the Constitution. Ultimately, the movement aspires for the Supreme Leader, who happens to be a theocrat because of the system he heads, to cease holding executive power and instead become a figurehead, like the Queen of England or Sweden—someone irrelevant to politics.

Are these demands paltry? I do not think so. Iran was the place where political Islam won, bringing down a keystone regime in the Middle East and putting another in its place. It basically opened a chapter in history, which has, from Afghanistan to Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria, transformed the face of politics. What happens if, through a popular movement, that system shifts to a post-Islamist, democratic polity, which is what the population is increasingly demanding? I think this opens a range of possibilities, certainly in the realm of politics which, as I see it, is what Cutrone was asking for. Even 30 years ago, we did not have in Iran this range of discourse about equality for women and minorities—among leftists, among the religious, among anyone, really—the way we do now. In some ways, this discourse of equality is more advanced among the Islamists than among the secularists. This is because the secularists have been occupied with the fact that we were victims of history—and we were. But, on the other hand, these people have been engaged in this battle, and there are a lot of important debates and arguments about religion, God, politics, Islam, and what the future is going to be. Even in the recent past, this was not so. This is why the political situation is now open, not closed.

Cutrone: I wanted to say something about the issue of ideology and imposing ideological formulae. I do not think politics is a matter of formulae, or strict criteria, but a matter of judgment. Judging possibilities and pushing the envelope of possibilities is the work of the Left. There is a dangerous situation unfolding in the Islamic Republic that could escalate to the point of civil war. The Revolutionary Guards and Basiji are not simply the state power; they are not a group of people that can be neutralized by putting flowers in their rifle muzzles. Rather, they are an ideological-political movement, and have a vested interest in maintaining certain aspects of the status quo in the Islamic Republic. I am not sure it is possible to imagine a thoroughgoing crisis of the Islamic Republic that does not potentially lead to civil war. The question is, What is the role of Mousavi in terms of reining in the movement? I think what is necessary is precisely not to hold back the movement, but to prepare it and push it forward. This will necessarily entail risk, but the argument I have been hearing here tonight is that the risk is too great. Well, what if the risk is posed, regardless? What if the state loses legitimacy and unravels completely, anyway? The Left cannot be in a position arguing against any danger or risk that is posed. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have pushed the envelope too far in the other direction, what will result? The Basiji and Revolutionary Guards could get their way without the pretense of “parliamentary” mediation. We have to face that reality.

Postel: I think, of all the statements Chris has made tonight, those are the ones I most agree with. They are keen observations I find myself in broad sympathy with. The scenario you just conjured, of a very dark turn in which there is a theocratic structure without a republic, is a very real danger. But I think it would not last long in Iran, for reasons to do with the characteristics of Iranian civil society and history that Ehsani has invoked tonight regarding, for instance, the Constitutional Revolution in the early 1900s. Take the example of the Parliament. This institution predates the Islamic Republic. It was constituted more than one hundred years ago, precisely through the Constitutional Revolution, and it survived the Islamic Revolution, albeit in a tattered, besieged form. Iranian civil society always seems to find a way to reassert itself. On the Left, one argument that has been articulated against our position goes, “Why are you so worked up about the stolen elections in Iran, when there are so many places around the world, such as Egypt, where there are no elections to steal in the first place?” The difference is that with Iran, as Ehsani has pointed out, there is such a vibrant democratic history and civil society that millions of people took to the streets over the appearance of a fraudulent election.

Closing remarks

Postel: I appreciate the opportunity to explore these issues tonight; it has opened some fertile ground for further debate. Although there are some serious differences among us, we share an opposition to the hegemonic, majority position of the international Left, particularly in the anti-war movement. There are a lot of people on the international Left who openly sympathize with Ahmadinejad, and thus with the most reactionary, authoritarian elements of the Islamic Republic. This is what we are up against. Our differences and disagreements are important, but we should not allow this to occlude the fact that all of us here actually represent a minority on the international Left, in terms of looking at the dynamics in the Islamic Republic in the way we have done tonight.

Ehsani: We on the Iranian Left who have been engaged deeply with what has been going on in Iran face a serious challenge. We must explain a lot of things, but also listen to criticism and consider the legitimate questions that have been raised tonight. We have been doing much of our work in isolation. But you also have your work cut out for you, if you want to be interlocutors. We are all involved in a political struggle that we may lose. But given what I have seen, even in the past 10 or 12 years in Iran, what makes me hopeful is how engaged people have become in this movement right now. I think this bodes very well for the future of politics in Iran, and in the Middle East generally.

Behrooz: I am assuming that we are looking at the Iranian case to better understand issues of revolution and social change in a very important part of the world. This audience tonight, as intellectuals, students, and political activists, should have interest in Iran. Rather than talking about Iran, though, in closing I would like to talk more broadly about the Left. We who care about the concept of the Left—in terms of social justice, accessibility, better division of wealth, standing up for people who are otherwise in misery—we need to have a serious dialogue over the meaning of the Left after the Bolshevik experience. It does us no good to stick to our guns and say, “We were right,” or “Trotsky was right.” We need to open up discussion over what it mean to be “Left” today, especially in a mega-capitalist country like the United States. How do we relate to a country like Rwanda, Iran, or South Africa? Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, everything was set, to the point that even those who cursed the Soviet Union are now ambivalent about its collapse. For, in the presence of the Soviet Union, everything seemed clear in terms of who one liked and did not like. At least the lines were clearly drawn. Now all that is gone. The Titanic has gone down, and it is unclear what to like or dislike. The Left needs to be redefined, or else it is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Because of this I have been trying to urge the younger generation in Iran to look to the successful examples of the Left, to moments the Left made a positive difference in the lives of people. I urge them to build on that, rather than looking at the unsuccessful examples of the Left, and romanticizing its failures. This is a more general discussion that I would like to see take place.

Cutrone: Regarding the question of the successful history of the Left versus the romanticization of failure, it is true that either poses a danger. On the other hand, to go back to the question of the inchoate character of political events, there is the matter of street protests as a model for political action. As the election protests unfolded, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, but this may actually be a sign of weakness rather than strength. In the absence of the possibility of organization, you instead have this broad discontent being expressed in a way that is certainly impressive at the level of spectacle, but that may not have much political content or staying power. The year 1979 saw street protests and huge demonstrations, as did Europe in 1989, but they had in common a fundamentally inchoate political imagination, which opens itself up to opportunism, such that people like Khomeini come in and take advantage of the situation in order to cement themselves in a position of power. So my point is not to romanticize failure, but to consider the history of the Left in terms of when, in that history, there were moments of coherence—that is, a coherent view of social and political reality in a global context, a view that was not provincialized by geography or social sector. Speaking of the failure of the Left in 1979, the Tudeh Party in the 1950s was much better on the question of women’s emancipation than it was in the context of the Islamic Revolution. In the 1950s they had women’s organizations that posed politics very differently than in 1979. What does it mean that the political imagination of one moment may actually fall below that of a moment that came before? While we should not be deterred by failure, the history of the Left should be understood not in terms of “success,” but in terms of clarity of vision. |P

Transcribed by Watson Ladd and Nathan L. Smith

Joshua Howard

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


GEORG LUKÁCS INTRODUCED the notion of totality as a major theme for Western Marxism in his work History and Class Consciousness, where he wrote,

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts, is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science...Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science.[1]

I wish to take issue not only with the idea Lukács expresses here of totality as a standpoint or point of view from which both to critique the partiality of other viewpoints and to theoretically grasp capitalist society, but also with later Frankfurt School intellectuals, Western Marxists more generally, as well as leading trends in Continental Philosophy that question the very possibility of such a standpoint. For while these anti-totality positions lament the impossibility of such a total understanding while others celebrate it—extending their skepticism also to the practical questions concerning the revolutionary subjects that are supposed to embody or make possible the critique—neither offers any real break from the problems in the Western Marxist notion of totality. Indeed, their perspectives often assume the very concept of totality they critique and thus fall back into the orbit of these problems. Therefore, rather than taking sides in this debate, I wish instead to critique the assumptions common to both sides.

The debate, which has proven to be a circular and unproductive one, has actually served to hinder the development of Marxist theory. This is partly because holistic modes of thinking stand opposed to theoretical reason, in general, and to Marx’s theories, in particular. As a result, Marx’s ideas usually come burdened with philosophical assumptions that distort them, as well as the nature of theory itself and its role in social change. Instead of theories, Western Marxists have sought a method. This search for method coupled with holistic thinking has turned Marxism into a worldview that seems to require that its adherents undergo a religious conversion to arrive at faith, rather than a rational process of assessing a set of theories against reality and other theories. There is no method that will unlock the secrets of capitalist society or guarantee revolutionary results. Despite all the searches for method, there is nothing special about Marx’s theorizing process that separates it from other modes of theoretical reasoning.

In what follows I try to show in a preliminary way how the category of totality and the attendant sense of method have both served to hinder the understanding of Marx’s critique of capital and have had an enervating effect on the ability of Western Marxists to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But this applies well beyond Western Marxism, and a lot of what I say applies to the radical Left in general. This is because the main issue, I believe, concerns a certain way of thinking about capitalist society as a total system.

From Marx’s analysis of capital, as an integrated process of production, distribution, and exchange of value, Western Marxists tend to move, largely through unsubstantiated, analogical thinking, to a theory of capitalist society as a whole, as a completely integrated system that affects everything we think and do. This generates in turn the need for an external position from which to critique this society and a frustrated desire to live outside the system. From here it is but a short step to despairing of ever achieving such a position. But, as soon as one poses the problem in terms of being “inside” or “outside” capitalism, the game is over. This is not least because of the theoretical and practical consequences that flow from Lukács’s claim about the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts.”

By regarding capitalism as a total system, encompassing all of society, holistic views such as Lukács’s have also included as part of capitalist totality our very consciousness, so that our inner thoughts themselves are supposed to embody or enact this all-consuming total ideology, which appears to us perfectly commonplace, or “reified” as Lukács says. Radical critics trace all problems of modern society back to capitalism. Their radicalism itself is measured by how much they refuse this total ideology and reject the entire culture. Just as capitalism is seen to mediate everything we do and think, so revolution comes to be imagined as something that entails changing all of society, down to our consciousness.

One practical consequence of this view is that revolution comes to seem impossible, because, well, a scenario in which everything changes is impossible. Social change has never and will never happen this way. And so it is hard to convince rational people of the viability of a revolution against a Lukácsian totality. If a movement to change society requires people first to adopt an entire new worldview, then perhaps we should wonder whether such a vision of social change is not solely a construct of the intelligentsia built into a vision of the world with which they flatter themselves, rather than as a genuinely emancipatory vision opening a viable path towards real social change to benefit everyone.

A second theoretical consequence is that once the ontological priority of the whole over the parts is posited, including the dependence of thought on society, then one must also posit the impossibility of conceiving any alternative to this totality or a theory of how any change is possible. As products of the whole, everything that is thought reflects that whole and is bound by it.

Except, of course, when it comes to the intellectual equipped with the right method, who seems somehow not only able to conceive the whole predicament, but, having scaled the heights of Enlightenment, can direct the benighted masses towards the Promised Land. No matter how much it is denied, such intellectual vanguardism seems built into the very diagnosis of the problem as one of being inside or outside of a total social system. This logic is, of course, characteristic of the Kautskyian/Leninist theory of the vanguardist road to socialism and the Trotskyist/Maoist problem of leadership, but it is also very typical of other flawed critiques of modern society on the radical Left that pit a knowledgeable elite against the rest of society. This “solution” turns from simple top-down elitism to incoherence when capitalism is conceived as an all-pervasive totality. What then gives intellectuals access to this privileged viewpoint? I lack the space to unfold from their inner epistemological contradictions all the vicissitudes of this view over the past century. Rather than concluding that no one can have such access, no one can occupy such a perspective, the upshot seems to be that this is a bad (and unnecessary) way of posing the problem. Western Marxists, and leftists generally, erect this obstacle for themselves. Thinking everyone else is absorbed by the system, it is, in fact, a system of their very own creation that ultimately stems from their disappointment with the working class’s failure to act according to their expectations. In true dialectical form, the diagnosis of one-dimensionality is a symptom expressing its own one-dimensionality. And much of this has to do with the holistic thinking I wish to critique.

The Trap of Holism

I want to point to two essential aspects of this prevalent notion of totality, (1) holism about society, or “sociological holism,” and (2) holism about beliefs, or “ideological holism.”

Sociological holism holds that everything in society is part of an integrated whole, with the implication that everything within it is co-opted or absorbed by this whole. On such a view, each component part and every event become an instance of the total system. This process of incorporation is commonly expressed as a logic of colonization whereby contact with a vague, general cultural process—in this case, commodification—irrevocably homogenizes. Becoming commodified is the sign of being integrated into and trapped by the system; as everything has a price, so everything serves capital. Now that all is supposedly commodified, even that which was previously thought to be outside or untouched by capital, such as nature, is no longer. The list extends to include human nature, the unconscious, and ultimately subjectivity itself.

Where Marx specifically analyzed the reification of labor as value, as an objective aspect of the commodity, Lukács turned reification as such into a general organizing principle of capitalist society and its institutions. It is no accident that this widely used concept of commodification can be seamlessly substituted with sociological notions such as Max Weber’s rationalization or Georg Simmel’s objective culture, without losing its meaning. That is because of the divide that stretches between Marx and Lukács. Rather than any Marxist, Weber and Simmel had the largest influence on Lukács’s attempt to link Marx’s analysis of the commodity form to these sociological notions to give them a certain political, anti-capitalist twist, but failed to actually clarify or advance Marx’s theoretical project. Thus, rather than being based on Marx’s analysis of commodity production, reification has the character of a general malaise of modernity, similar to that diagnosed by Weber as an iron cage of capitalist rationalization or by Simmel as the tragedy of culture. Nowadays it is even fashionable to lament reification and commodification, so that it is possible to sound “Marxist” without understanding the specifics of Marx’s analysis of commodity production in Capital.

This holism with respect to society has also been referred to as the real subsumption of society by capital. But this concept is not Marx’s. Many people, most recently Hardt and Negri, with their marriage of Marx and Foucault, mistake Marx’s concept of the real subsumption of labor under capital to mean the real subsumption of the laborer or of society as a whole under capital, so that capitalist society becomes equivalent to capital. How do we escape from this totalizing predicament? Either Marxism (as a method, of course) is the totalizing perspective we need to counter a totalizing social process, or else we can have no such total perspective; there is no outside, so we can only occupy the cracks in the system. Just because Marx did not have such a theory does not mean such a theory is wrong. But Western Marxists have to confront the problems that arise from the logic of the argument.

Ideological holism, meanwhile, holds that the dominant ideology colors everything we believe or, rather, that what we believe stems from the social system itself. A corollary of ideological holism is that the meaning of every belief depends on the believer’s social location; it requires analysis in light of the totality to establish its meaning and significance in the light of history. On this view, every belief is connected to every other belief in a web of ideology, a symbolic system or worldview that perfectly locks into this form of life. Our beliefs are further determined by where we stand in this totality. Hence, you can have a “proletarian science” as opposed to a “bourgeois science.” A new society would naturally bring with it a new belief system for its individual parts, one that we cannot begin to imagine. In a post-capitalist society we would think differently, just as now we think differently from other cultures or historical periods. This would be akin to a conversion process from one worldview or paradigm to another. This holism of belief today has many names, but the logic is the same: Lukács’s reification of consciousness is a species of standpoint epistemology, as is Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge; misunderstandings of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, the appropriation in the humanities and social sciences of Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm, and Michel Foucault’s epistemes or disciplinary matrices, among others, are all perspectivist viewpoints.

Of course it is true that people do think different things based on the changing conditions of the reality that surrounds them. And, certainly, capitalism does significantly affect certain of these conditions, causing our beliefs and attitudes themselves to change. But these are empirical questions, not foregone conclusions. What I am challenging is the internal holism of this notion of a belief system and its necessary grounding in a form of society as a whole. People’s ideas are not as homogenous nor as limited a priori by the type of society they belong to, contrary to what critical theorists have tended to believe. People basically make rational decisions about their choices in life. Changing conditions would naturally bring about changes in certain beliefs or attitudes, and a socialist society would change social conditions for the better in certain ways. But these would not depend upon, nor produce, some new type of person who thinks in a wholly new and different way.

Totality versus Theory

Holistic thinking seeks a theory of society as a whole or of history as a whole. The reason that Marx provided no such comprehensive theory of society or a theory of capitalist society is because he did not think it was necessary for his purposes and probably thought it impossible. Such a “theory” would attempt to leave nothing out and thus strive to be a theory of everything, but this would no longer be a theory in any real sense. A theory must range over a definite domain of phenomena. It must look for causal regularities and discover the causal mechanisms that underlie those regularities. That is true of theories in general, and of Marx’s theories of capital as a mode of production (conceived narrowly) and of historical materialism, in particular. Marx did not have a theory of everything, nor did he mean for his theories to explain everything.

Holistic accounts of capitalist society, on the other hand, individuate modes of production, social formations, forms of life, worldviews, paradigms, and so on, as wholes, meaning their “parts” depend on their place in the whole, rather than the whole depending on the individual parts. Thus there can be no fundamental change that is not a total change, one in which all the parts, being so dependent, are fundamentally altered. This makes no sense because, if there were no independent parts, if the whole were the only thing with any real independent existence, then there could be no change, certainly not from within the totality. We need not invoke Popper’s critique of utopian social engineering in favor of piecemeal change in order to see that there is a theoretical inadequacy in such holistic thinking. It conceives capitalist society as an abstract, undifferentiated totality and the intellectual as somehow outside it. This can lead only to an abstract negation of society because it lacks any specificity with respect to capital as a totalizing process in anything more than its strict use by Marx in reference to capital’s subsumption of labor processes. Its ineffectiveness is due to its synthetic mode of cognition linking everything to everything else, largely eschewing the theorization of the actual causal mechanisms that run through this society. As a consequence, it is also a bad method from which to think of social change. Not only is there an effacement of how the different parts of this whole relate, no guidance can be derived as to how to get from this whole to the next. If every part is subsumed under the whole, if the parts are not seen as prior to the whole, then the whole must be changed from without. Some mysterious transitionary period is usually delegated to the task of doing the actual work of moving us from capitalism to socialism, but this seems to be a placeholder for ignorance.

Pace Lukács, we do not need a method, but a theory to help bring about a new society. Contra Lukács, we do not need the category of totality. Quite the opposite, we cannot make any progress by declaring the ontological priority of the whole over the parts. Theory entails breaking down the whole and specifying the parts that constitute it. Totality stands opposed to theory because invoking totality absolves the theoretician from having to say anything definite about capitalism, socialism, or a social-economic revolution.

Economics and Social Change

Holistic thinking lays yet another trap for liberatory thought, for it inevitably leads to a view that sees capitalism, socialism, and the move from one to the other as a matter of the primacy of politics. And this is where the totalistic conception of capitalism is most at odds with Marx’s theorization of capital and of its relation to the rest of society. It explains why Leninists and Western Marxists alike are so eager to ditch the historical materialist understanding of how the economic structure of society determines the contours of the legal and political superstructure, a view typically denigrated as “economism.” It also explains why there has been a consistent lack of concern with the need to theorize socialism and its possibility.

Rather than economism, “politicism” has been the more severe theoretical problem in the history of Marxism. The problem is one that Marx identified in Jacobinism, whether in its original form or in that of a Blanquist or Bakuninist conspiratorial elite. On this view, revolution comes to be conceived as a matter of consciousness, politics, and will. Failure is due to false consciousness, a lack of leadership, and a weakness of will. Marx’s analysis of Jacobinism as a political movement fundamentally divorced from the society that it seeks to change is apt here. The Jacobins treated economics as a side issue, believing that change comes externally, from a politics outside or above society. Marx critiqued such attempts to subsume economics under politics for ignoring the objective compulsions of the economy. Jacobinism is not only undesirable because it leads to authoritarianism, but it is impotent to change society. Since societies do not change in this manner, political decisions at odds with the underlying economic realities must ultimately be sustained by force—usually, by terror (terror being the political repression of unintended consequences). While such techniques may achieve their purposes in the short term they remain, ultimately, unsustainable.

I suggest we drop all use of the word “Revolution.” It sounds good, but without specification it lacks any definite content. It also has the almost invariant effect of giving people the impression that the change is political and can be sustained politically. We should ask instead what a revolution must accomplish so that it need not be sustained politically, by a political authority that controls or attempts to control economic and social life. Politics cannot fundamentally change the structure of the society without that new society being dependent upon the whims of some political authority.

For Marx, ultimately the change that is needed is not political, at least not primarily so. Nor can the exercise of political will, however democratic, sustain socioeconomic change. Socioeconomic change will sustain any future political changes. This economic structure would be a complex, dynamic system that would have to be self-regulating in some way. The place to begin to look for what Marx conceived of as a self-sustaining socialist society is his Critique of the Gotha Program. Here Marx, the theorist of socialism, emerges from Marx, the theorist of capitalism, in Capital. If he is correct about the inner workings of the capitalist economy, his theory of capital is a good start to figure out in what ways a socialist economy would have to differ. In his >Critique, socialism is conceived of as a new economic structure that would give rise to different patterns of daily life, new opportunities, and new patterns of making policy, such that individuals can better take control of their own lives—in other words, as Marx put it, the full and free development of each is the condition for the full and free development of all. And this free development depends not on political decisions but on new economic relations. |P

[1]. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consiousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 27.

Uli vom Hagen

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


THE ASSUMPTION THAT ROSA LUXEMBURG’S CORPSE has significance for the state of the German Left, though perhaps not her body, is tempting. Luxemburg was a Polish socialist involved in a European socialist movement during a time when there was no sovereign Polish state. She was successively a member of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany. As is well known, she also cofounded with Karl Liebknecht the Spartakusbund, and was briefly co-leader of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1918–19 the socialist revolution in Germany was betrayed by the SPD, which is responsible for Luxemburg’s murder. Her murder matters as the pure expression of precisely that revisionism that Luxemburg had so ably critiqued. However, Jerzy Sobotta, writing in Platypus Review 16 (October 2009), does not seem to be interested in this legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, the legacy of free thought and revolutionary Marxism.

There is much to say regarding Luxemburg’s legacy for the revolutionary Left of German Social Democracy, not least her criticism of the politics of Lenin and Trotsky. In his article, Sobotta neglects to discuss the summer and autumn of 1923, arguably the second most important period for the German Left after World War I due to its potential for the regeneration of a social revolution in Germany and Europe once the principles of the October Revolution had been narrowed by the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Karl Radek, close to Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky, as well as a leading figure in the Comintern, traveled from Russia to Germany in early 1923. There Radek and the KPD leadership recognized in the new leftwing SPD government in Saxony an opportunity to advance toward a second German revolution. This was the reason why Radek proposed at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) in June 1923 that the KPD enlarge the basis for the revolution by winning over patriotic workers and nationalist social revolutionaries in the Ruhr industry region. He thus embraced the “Schlageter Line,” which called for joining the workers’ resistance campaign against the French occupation and establishing thereby a “cross front,” or merger of national-revolutionary and revolutionary socialist forces. As Radek urged at the time,

The petty bourgeois masses and the intellectuals and technicians who will play a big role in the revolution are in a position of national antagonism to capitalism, which is declassing them...If we want to be a workers’ party that is able to undertake the struggle for power, we have to find a way that can bring us near to these masses, and we shall find it not in shirking our responsibilities, but in stating that the working class alone can save the nation.[1]

For Radek, taking party propaganda to the workers’ hunger and material needs alone was insufficient to win their hearts and minds. This was a break with Luxemburg, who had seen national determination only with reference to the needs of economic development. Radek, however, stood with Lenin in criticizing the inability of traditional German Marxist groups to grasp the workers’ desire for patriotic belonging. The proletariat’s nationalism was more than a cultural phenomenon; rather, it had a political dimension that was not opposed to communist internationalism. Indeed, it alone provided the necessary basis for international solidarity between the workers of different nations. Social revolutionary anti-capitalism of all sorts was vivid in 1920s Germany: the German National Bolshevik movement—very similar to Titoism in post-World War II Yugoslavia—was mainly formed by the experience of military communism in the trenches. It focused its anti-capitalism on young people from all classes rather than only on the proletariat, insisting that each nation find its own road to socialism. It had roots in the German Youth Movement, e.g. the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature movement emphasizing freedom, self-responsibility, the spirit of adventure, and older, culturally diverse traditions. This organization was anti-bourgeois and often Teutonic-pagan, composed mostly of middle class young people organizing themselves in autonomous cells called “Bunde” (bands). It generally allowed Jews into its ranks. Racism and anti-Semitism were not issues for National Bolsheviks who derived much of their unity from a romantic, heroic, communitarian ethos and an utter hatred of what would become the Nazi party.

While Radek continued to combine the “Schlageter Line” and a united front with the left-wing Social Democrats, the class struggle in Germany intensified in the summer of 1923. Together with Trotsky, he fought tirelessly against the fatalism and complacency existing in both the German and Russian Communist parties and for a strict timetable for insurrection. This was opposed most strongly by Stalin, who argued that the workers still believed in social democracy. Ultimately, the armed uprising was set for November 9, 1923. To this end, the KPD joined leftwing SPD governments in Saxony and Thuringia on October 10 and 16, 1923, respectively, calculating they would gain access to the police armories. Because the left-wing Social Democrats eventually disapproved of the insurrection, the KPD cancelled the plans for a general strike and concomitant uprising. The missed revolution of November 1923 would have dire consequences; that same month Adolf Hitler began his rise to power by staging a coup in Munich.

Almost a decade later, the infighting continued on the Left between German Social Democrats and Communists. This prevented the formation of an effective united front to fight Nazism. The last free parliamentary election of the Weimar Republic of November 6, 1932, saw a drop for Hitler’s NSDAP and increases for the KPD, although the Nazis remained the largest party. Moreover, legal power was handed to Hitler by bourgeois forces in January 1933, who even supported him in March 1933 by accepting the Enabling Act, a law that allowed Hitler to pass laws for four years without either parliamentary consent or control. Once the internationally prestigious event of the 1936 Olympic Games was over, the political climate became even worse. But the fascist regime was not internationally isolated. For example, in 1938, four months after the German annexation of Austria, the American industrialist Henry Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the Nazi regime’s highest honor for foreigners before the outbreak of World War II. On November 9, 1938—not 1939—the fascist attacks against the Jewish German population had become more systematic, violent, and widespread. The SPD had long ceased to exist by that time, while the KPD could only survive on a much diminished basis underground, as many of their leading organizers were in concentration camps. Still, the Communists did eventually manage to get in contact with the young “Socialist Counts”[2] who became the German military insurrectionists of July 20, 1944. In fact, some of those officers stood in the National Bolshevik tradition.

But Sobotta’s dismissal of the National Bolshevik tradition is not his only error. After the war, the West German Left may have been bourgeois, but I fail to see how “these revolutionary children” would have agreed with the Old Nazis on an issue such as anti-Semitism, as Sobotta claims when he writes, “And this [the presence of Jewish survivors] proved to be unbearable, not only for the old Nazis, but also for their revolutionary children.” Those leftists, the revolutionaries of the 1960s, never called the legitimacy of a peaceful Jewish settler state into question. Rather, they were left perplexed and speechless by the atrocities the Jewish settlers inflicted on the Palestinians. Small, violent anti-Zionist groups like the terrorist RAF (aka the Baader-Meinhof Group) should not be seen as representative for the entire generation of the 1960s. Rather, many of the issues, ideas, and lifestyle practices of the American and German hippies of the 1960s and 1970s, such as vegetarianism, natural medicine and healing, nudism, and bohemian clothing, derive from the early 20th century German youth movement. The generation of 1968, however, was unable to advance a coherent anti-capitalism. As a consequence, they found themselves unable to check reformism in a decisive manner before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

The new Left Party of Germany (Die Linke) has many currents: social democratic, anti-capitalist, libertarian socialist, syndicalist, reform communist, even Trotskyist. Consequently, it has many internal conflicts, but nevertheless represents a united front. Some in Die Linke, like Gregor Gysi, support Israel, while others support the Palestinians. But Sobotta accuses the whole party of being anti-Semitic and racist. There is certainly much wrong with Die Linke, but these charges are without foundation. Further, it is distasteful that Sobotta affirms the Antideutsch position that solidarity with Third World movements is solidarity with barbarism. Such arrogance reeks of much more than “unfreedom”; it derives from Western supremacism. Sobotta’s attempt to somehow tie Luxemburg’s murder to the collapse of the old German Left and to the mediocrity of Die Linke is unconvincing. In the place of a thoroughgoing analysis, he seems content to simply appropriate the memory of Luxemburg in the service of an apologia for Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank.

There is good reason to believe that Die Linke is becoming yet another social democratic party, stabilizing capitalist reforms without building a base for independent working class political action. Such a failure would truly dishonor the memory of Luxemburg and her humane, democratic vision of communism. But this has not yet come to pass, so that today the Left can still learn from Luxemburg’s words: “The circumstances which divide socialist politics from bourgeois politics is that the socialists are opponents of the entire existing order and must function in a bourgeois parliament fundamentally as an opposition.”­[3]

In Europe the Left’s dilemma is the transnational dimension of European Union politics while workers remain attached to a national understanding of politics. Luxemburg still has great significance to many European socialists, communists, and anti-capitalists—her legacy is a transnational one for a Europe with a new economic and political base that decentralizes power, allows for personal liberty, and extends wealth equally. Whether Die Linke and its European counterparts are truly ready to live up to Luxemburg’s legacy remains an open question. Her main contribution for a regeneration of the Left is her insistence on radical democracy within revolutionary Marxism. In the programmatic points of Die Linke there is much talk about “economic democracy,” which appears to hold great promise, though this concept has not yet been seriously expanded upon by the party’s leaders. Generally, socialism shall be redeveloped in a communal, creative, and participatory way. Some South and Central American societies are already working rigorously on this endeavor in promising ways that embrace the slogan, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” |P

[1]. Quoted in Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 726.

[2]. See John Wheeler-Bennett, Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics 1918 – 1945 (London: Macmillan, 1954), 624.

[3]Rosa Luxemburg, “The Socialist Crisis in France,” in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary Alice Waters (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 102.

Manan Ahmed

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


TO QUOTE ALDOUS HUXLEY and to paraphrase Atiya Khan in her Platypus Review article “The poverty of Pakistan’s politics,”[1] I represent “a sad symptom of the failure of the intellectual class in time of crisis.” In Khan’s telling, it is the intellectual Left which failed (in) Pakistan, and under its sad banner now congregate blind and mute liberals such as myself. It is a strong, and harshly delivered, criticism and I take it very seriously.


 Yasser Arafat, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and an unidentified man at the second meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference held in Lahore, Pakistan in 1974. After promulgating an explicitly Islamic Constitution in 1973, Bhutto hosted the conference to launch a new, Islam-oriented diplomacy for Pakistan.

Let me begin, however, by engaging Khan on her reading of Pakistan’s past. Khan posits that there was once a golden age of Left-labor politics in Pakistan, which gave the newly created state a “backbone” in the first five years of its existence. This was a time when trade unions “flourished” in industries across Pakistan, so much so, she argues, that some two hundred unions could claim over 400,000 workers as rank-and-file members by 1951. This golden age of labor curiously coincides, according to Khan, with the “failures of the Left after World War II.” Though the labor unions had the organizational skills and mass appeal to push for real reform, the Left allowed those advantages to dissipate on account of the theoretical confusion and imaginative limitations born of Stalinist notions of country-based socialism. However, in her determination to shoehorn Pakistani history into a Left-labor narrative, Khan seriously misrepresents or elides actualities.

In her telling, Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime collapses not because of an all-out military revolt and a concomitant withdrawal of U.S. support, but because of labor strikes. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto—Foreign Minister and heir-apparent of Ayub Khan and an elite landlord—becomes in Khan’s piece a populist leader by seducing the labor unions, and not by openly selling himself to the military brass as the only West Pakistani leader capable of holding back East Pakistani domination. Similarly, in Khan’s narrative Zia-ul-Haq is the original architect of Islamization, whereas in fact the policies and practices of Islamization began under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as early as 1973.[2] Khan stresses “Chinese opportunism” in the rise of the Afghan Taliban rather than highlighting the primary force of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and of joint U.S.–Pakistan efforts to train a local militia. She dismisses the Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto regimes of the late 1980s and 1990s as no more than the realization of the Taliban’s agenda “to find an ally across the Khyber Pass,” rather than seeing them as democratic governments (however flawed) elected by the people of Pakistan. This, of course, not only lends a far greater influence to the Afghan Taliban but also exaggerates the control those civilian governments exercised over the Pakistani military. Khan does not explain how the Taliban could set the agenda for Pakistan in the 1988 or 1993 elections when, until 1996, they were just one of a number of factions engaged in the brutal civil war then raging in Afghanistan. There are other strange lacunae buried in her narrative: She leaves unspecified who, or what, this confused and ineffective “Left” in Pakistan actually was. From what class was it drawn and in which cities? Or how did the failure to enact land reform, along with the internecine squabbling of leftist organizations and the succession of U.S.-backed military dictatorships, affect this history? The history of the Left and labor in Pakistan is certainly one of the important and largely unexamined factors in our collective efforts to understand the present. I am keen on seeing Khan make that case, but she will have to do so with far greater nuance, and with fewer liberties taken with the facts, than presented in her piece.

Yet even if Khan’s various readings of Pakistani history were defensible, her tacit embrace of U.S. imperial policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not. She dismisses as so much bellyaching my concern for the humanitarian crisis caused by the Pakistani military offensives in Swat, Waziristan, and Baluchistan, as well as the political crisis caused almost daily by unmanned drone attacks. For Khan, these concerns merely provide cover to the Taliban and act as a screen for their crypto-fascism. Consequently, U.S. military strategies ought to be supported, as they are the only means available for combating the Taliban. But it is hard for me to imagine that from the scorched houses and corpses of Swat and Waziristan anything resembling an international Left could possibly appear. More likely, these policies will radicalize ever larger segments of the population. More damagingly, the military-only strategies create new support networks for Islamist radicals and silence the voices of those who argue for a secular and progressive Pakistan. For Khan, pointing this out that makes me either a nationalist or a neoliberal.

I am interested neither in labels nor in identity politics. I consider myself a student of history. As is obvious, I am not providing apologia for the Taliban, but articulating a historically and politically precise context within which to understand the many groups uncritically labeled “Taliban.” Similar efforts seem to be enjoying widespread acceptance among NATO commanders in Afghanistan, but such attentiveness to cultural and historical specificity has yet to gain popularity among political analysts of Pakistan. Still, I submit that such effort towards precision and clarity alone leads towards an understanding of how the “Taliban” emerged in Pakistan, how they currently operate, and, therefore, how they might best be combated. These contexts are utterly invisible from the drone’s eye view.

A growing chorus of concerned voices now states that an uncritical embrace of U.S. military might, as it exerts itself without regards to any community, any civilian, or any local law, advance the purposes of the Taliban more than anyone else’s. Yet, there are no critical voices in the larger U.S. public speaking against America’s policies toward Pakistan. My op-ed for the Nation, to which Khan takes such exception, was just such an effort. It sought to contextualize the “Taliban are coming” hysteria, arguing that this deliberately hinders any attempt to historicize the Taliban and thus to effectively neutralize them. The Pakistani military, now being fêted with billions for fighting the Taliban, is the same Pakistani military that created the Taliban in the 1990s. The CIA that currently conducts drone missile attacks against al-Qaeda is the same CIA that in the 1980s provided the mujahideen with Stinger missiles and called them “freedom fighters.” More precisely: I have little faith in the healing power of U.S. bombs.

I remain deeply troubled by the violence unleashed by these “Taliban” organizations against Pakistan’s cities and inhabitants. If Khan had bothered to look beyond my short piece in the Nation, she would have found ample evidence on my blog that I have, for the past five years, consistently spoken and written against the religious extremists and for democracy and liberality in Pakistan. I have written consistently against the Pakistani military state and its corrosive politics and I have argued for a check on rank U.S. policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.[3] It is fair to argue that I lay too much stress on the “Taliban are coming” narrative at play in U.S. policies and media, and far less effort on denouncing every single Taliban atrocity. But it is simplistic to assume that I cannot hold the Taliban in utter contempt, and completely responsible for their terrorism, while maintaining that the U.S.-Pakistani understandings of the policies based on them are misguided.[4]

The gist of my Nation piece was this: the Pakistani Taliban lack mass appeal. There is no way in which they can overthrow the state of Pakistan. They are not a mortal threat. This is now empirically true since the Taliban were famously within 60 miles of Islamabad in March 2009 and, well, Islamabad still stands—however bloodied. We heard no more about the imminent demise of Pakistan once the Pakistani army mobilized and created a million internally displaced citizens. We heard little about the crisis of Pakistan once another front was opened up in northern Waziristan. The way I understand it, this heightening of paranoia about the Taliban was not concerned with the realities on the ground in Pakistan but rather with the ideological and political landscape in Washington D.C. and Islamabad. Absent from the discussion, and the policies, were the historical concerns of the people of the region. This, I submit, is not only shortsighted but also strategically self-defeating.

In the last year alone, 3,021 civilians were killed in Pakistan in terrorist attacks and nearly 8,000 were injured. Additionally, nearly a million were displaced due to military operations. Even for a nation of 170 million, these are devastating numbers representing real sacrifices by the citizenry. These are realities that deserve our understanding and our analysis just as much as our collective concern for the rising tide of the“Taliban.” I focus on the people of Pakistan because I continue to have hope in them. I have no opinion on whether the “Left” has failed Pakistan. I do know that a broad coalition—composed of clerical and other workers, lawyers, and community activists—came together and threw out the military dictator in 2008 after a nine-year stint in power. In the election that accomplished this, the Pakistani people also roundly rejected all religious parties, embarking instead on a daring journey towards electoral democracy. |P

[1]. Atiya Khan, “The Poverty of Pakistan’s Politics (PPP)” Platypus Review 18 (December 2009).

[2]. In fact, the constitution Bhutto pushed forward in 1973 represents the most concrete capitulation by the Pakistani state to the religious right, especially the Jama’at Islami. Zia-ul-Haq is properly considered the architect not of the Islamization, but of the “Sunnification” of Pakistan. Thus, Zia only perfected a process initiated by Bhutto.

[3]. See the archives at Chapati Mystery.

[4]. The groups now collectively labeled the “Taliban in Pakistan” are in fact an amalgamation of various groups—from states’ rights advocates in Swat to tribal warlords in Waziristan to trained militia (against India in Kashmir) in southern Punjab. More than a few are now allied with domestic anti-statist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the international ones like al-Qaeda, and some of the local warlords now have national aspirations. Collectively, they are responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in the cities of Pakistan. To effectively counter the threat they pose, we have to disaggregate them into their constituent parts, and deal with them accordingly. Some groups will respond to political dialogue, while others can only be eliminated by force or by the civil justice system. Since they claim various political goals—and it is absolutely crucial to understand that these are “political” goals though they often change from venue to venue and from spokesman to spokesman—we have to engage them within the political realm. This is where U.S. endorsement of the rigged Afghan election, and the longer history of maintaining Karzai’s puppet regime, leave us with a significant political handicap. This also means that political legitimacy must be stripped from these groups. The lingering issues of states’ rights for Swat and Baluchistan require political solutions. The Pakistani military must remain under civilian political leadership and military solutions cannot be allowed to escalate into open-ended civil warfare.

The politics of the groups lumped together under the “Taliban” label is religious in its markers, its symbols, and its public face. This means that any counter-strategy must also include a public effort to “reclaim” the religious front. These groups are heavily armed and supplied in consequence of public donations, the illicit trades in heroin and electronic media, and direct funding that still comes from sources both internal (whether the continued involvement by Pakistani intelligence agencies or other social and civil groups) and external (diaspora communities as well as Saudi Arabia). The state of Pakistan must criminalize weapons possession and revoke licenses in order to start an effort to clean out the cities and stop the influx of smuggled weaponry. The recruits are overwhelmingly young, male, and illiterate. As such, they are strongly against the existing status quo, women, and education. The reform of primary and secondary education (including madrasas) should also be a priority. The state needs to enshrine the right to education within the Constitution.