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You are here: Platypus /Archive for category Issue #58

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed by Tom Willis

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

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

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording] 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art is unkillable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

debt burning



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed by Chris Mansour and Bret Schneider

[1]. Paul Mason. “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?” BBC News, 30 April 2012, available online at

[2]. Hito Steyerl, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” available online at

[3]. Mason, “Occupy.”[[3]]

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

[5]. Anonymous, Tidal Occupy Theory, February 2012, 15. The issue is available online at

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

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s utopia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed by Danny Jacobs