Platypus Review 43 | February 2012
Last summer, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Clyde Young, a veteran member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The interview was broadcast on June 31, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. A shorter version of this interview ran in our broadsheet edition of Platypus Review 43.
Spencer Leonard: Everyone hears a lot about the 1960s, the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as the Students for a Democratic Society, the worldwide political upheavals of 1968, and the new social movements that gained strength in the late 1960s and 70s. But there is a sort of embarrassed silence when it comes to the question of the New Left’s turn towards Marxism in the 1970s, one example of which is your party, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Tell us about your experience of the 1970s and that of your party, and how you understand both today.
Clyde Young: I was a prisoner for most of the late 1960s. When I went in, I wasn’t political, much less a radical. I was convicted of robbery and was sentenced to 20 years. Prison at that time was hell, though today it is even worse. While in prison, I was provoked by what was going on in the world outside, by the demonstration against the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, by the murder of the students at Kent State and Jackson State, and the many other events of those times. By the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party (BPP) had emerged on the scene; the BPP put revolution on the map in a way that it hadn’t been before. They turned me on to the Red Book and Mao. It was around then that I began to read Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Revolution was surging throughout the third world, and the Cultural Revolution in China was having a profound impact across the globe. It was in this context that I became a revolutionary and a communist, while serving time in prison. I could not then closely follow the debates taking place in the early years of the anti-revisionist communist movement, but I knew they were happening. I knew of the effort to build a new communist party, sharing the view held by many that the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had ceased to be revolutionary, if in fact it ever was.
In the anti-revisionist communist movement we were setting out like peasants, going off to war, and forging weapons from the tools we had at hand. We picked up Marxism and tried to apply it to the conditions that we found ourselves in. This is what the Revolutionary Union (RU) did, like many other organizations at that time. But, certainly, the 1960s were themselves a very profound upsurge, one that Bob Avakian and our party has repeatedly gone back to, to try to analyze whether or not a revolutionary situation could have developed in the 1960s. The conclusion is that a revolutionary situation could have developed, and if certain things had come together, and if a party had been formed at that time, then it is possible that if a revolutionary situation had emerged, a revolution could have been made.
There was a very powerful movement at that time, driven forward by the national question. There were profound changes taking place in this country and throughout the world, with people in this country, black people, being uprooted from the South and going to the North, like my family and millions of others after World War II. This was a tremendous transformation. There was a push off of the land with the mechanization of agriculture and a strong pull into the cities. Of course, there was not a one-to-one relationship between those changes and what subsequently happened. But there did develop a revolutionary struggle in this country, the engine of which was the struggle of black people, and this was in unity with national liberation struggles throughout the world.
This is the context in which the RU and many others took up revolution and communism. At the time, millions of people were sympathetic to revolution. The RU, the predecessor of the RCP, did a tremendous amount of theoretical work. A lot of questions needed sorting out. There was a need for a deeper understanding of the reversal of the revolution in the Soviet Union. What was the path to liberation for black people, Puerto Ricans and other oppressed people in this country? These were not just academic issues.
SL: Addressing the revolutionary potential at the time of its formation, and how we think about that potential today, in the autumn of 1981, the chairman of the RCP, Bob Avakian, wrote in "Conquer the World": “One of the things about which there is a great deal of confusion and therefore is a cause of demoralization to many revolutionaries—more than is objectively necessary—is the question of why the '60s movement receded into an ebb in the '70s, speaking in broad terms, and why and how the upsurge that characterized the '60s generally in the world and particularly in the "Third World" turned into its opposite not just in particular countries, but in many aspects internationally.” Avakian then adds that it is important, indeed crucial, to make a “scientific summation of that [experience].” In this spirit, then, how does the RCP view the decade that gave it birth? How best to think about what now seems like the decline of political possibility in the 1970s, given the turn to Marxism, to the party question, and to more serious thinking, generally? What did it mean to organize and channel discontent in a revolutionary direction in such circumstances?
CY: It became very clear at a certain point that the movement was ebbing. When we talk about the 1960s, we are talking about the late 1960s into the early 1970s, when it reached its high point. As things moved further into the 1970s, particularly by 1973 or 1974, contradictions on a world level began to shift and change. What began to come to the fore was the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which in the 1980s took a very pronounced shape as things headed towards, as we analyzed, a third world war. This change began, as I have said, probably as early as 1973 and 1974. And there was a recognition on the part of the RU that if anything of importance was going to come out of that period, it was very important to form a vanguard organization, a vanguard party.
When I speak of a vanguard party, it is a matter of taking responsibility for the movement as a whole, it’s not an ego thing or anything of that sort. A hallmark of the RCP (and the RU before it) has been to always proceed from the question: “How do you make revolution in a country like this one as part of the world wide revolutionary struggle?” That has been our point of reference from the beginning. Seeking out ways and means, and looking for the openings in which a revolution could be made and, at the same time, another hallmark of our organization has been to approach every question scientifically. So, again, what was going on at the beginning of 1970s—and we made a lot of analysis of this in "Conquer the World" and in America in Decline—was that the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed nations was receding as the main factor in the world. And what was emerging in the mid-1970s was a world characterized by contention between the Soviet social-imperialists and the U.S.; this contradiction began to define the world situation much more than the contradiction between imperialism and oppressed nations.
SL: Tell me a bit about the significance of forming a party in those years. What motivated the constitution of a vanguard party at that time and what was hoped it might allow for? What kind of action, what kind of consciousness did it facilitate?
CY: The revolutionary forces emerging out of the 1960s had developed a deep understanding of Marxism. As I said earlier, in the beginning, we were like peasants marching off to war, taking up the tools that we had at hand. There were some things that could be drawn from the international communist movement, but the CPUSA had become a revisionist party; it had changed colors in essence from red to white. So there was a certain amount of re-learning to be done, a clarification of issues in terms of what was a revolutionary line and what was not. This was not an abstract process, but turned on vitally important questions, like the emancipation of black people. How do black people get free, what is the correct analysis of their condition. If there is to be a revolution, if you are serious about that, there needs to be a vanguard party. We learned that from Lenin and from Lenin’s What is to be Done? We knew that we needed not just a party of average workers, but a party of professional revolutionaries. And as the movement ebbed in the 1970s there was a recognition that if the party was not formed, a lot of what came out of the 1960s might be lost. I think this was the motivation behind the RU reaching out to various new communist forces, to try to pull them into a much more organized expression. In 1974, in particular, Bob Avakian and the RU led a nation-wide, party-building tour uniting Marxist-Leninist and Maoist forces into a single vanguard party.
SL: One of the buzz phrases that we have very much as a legacy of the 1960s is “the movement.” That word really does not convey any distinct form of organization, and certainly not a “party.” How does “party” as opposed to “movement” allow for the kind of activity you hoped for?
CY: Well, if I understand your question, you cannot just go about the business of forming a party cut off from everything else going on in the world, though some people attempted to do that. Some people simply cut themselves off from the movement to engage in reading and study, and then tried to form a party. But such things have to be done in close unity with one another. There were major things going on in the world at that time that could not be ignored. If you look at the RU as it was coming into being, there was work it was doing in relationship to the strike in Richmond, California; May Day; and International Women’s Day. And, of course, there was actually a movement where people were against the war, against the oppression of black people. Youth were in the streets. There was a movement of youth in the suburbs turning against their parents. Taken together this was a very combustible mix. Today, the party is building a movement for revolution and that movement must have leadership, the leadership of a vanguard party.
SL: By the 1970s radicals were getting more serious about what it meant to really transform society from within. That meant an orientation towards the people who are at the heart of the reproduction of this society, the working class. How did this reorientation to the working class manifest itself in the precursor to the RCP and then in the RCP in the 1970s? Did people in the RU and later in the RCP get factory jobs and join unions?
CY: Again, I think it is important to reassert what I said earlier: The focus was to make a revolution, and people felt that if you were going to make a revolution, then you had to have a base among the working class. And, in fact, what we had inherited from the international communist movement was that basically you needed to have a base in large industry, among industrialized, unionized workers. So, we went among that section of the people, in auto, steel, electronics, etc. But the problem is that when you get into that situation, do you maintain your revolutionary orientation? Do you maintain the orientation that what you are about is actually making revolution and taking revolution, socialism, and communism to the working class? Or is it about the shop floor issues that you deteriorate into? What becomes the central focus is an economist view of whatever is on the workers’ minds.
But, yes, there was a movement among most of the organizations in the anti-revisionist communist movement to go to the working class. When I came into the RCP, people were working in large scale industry, in steel and auto plants, and in other kinds of factories. We thought that, if you were going to make a revolution, you had to have a base among that section of the people as the backbone of the revolution. But, over time, there was a recognition of a couple of things. For one, large sections of the working class were bourgeoisified. We came to recognize, through returning to Lenin’s analysis, that, with the development of imperialism, one had to go lower and deeper down to the real proletariat. After the split in our party with what we called “the Mensheviks,” who were seeking to submerge it in the working class, cutting the revolutionary heart out of the Party, we recognized that the focus on the large scale industrial working class was not correct. Again, we had to go down lower and deeper to what Lenin referred to as “the real proletariat.”
SL: So these that you refer to as Mensheviks who split from the party were people who are high up in union bureaucracy today? These are people who were deeply engaged in trade union work?
CY: In 1977, after the reversal of the revolution in China, there emerged a struggle in the party which mainly centered on whether or not the revolution in China had indeed been reversed after Mao’s death in 1976. How to sum up what had happened in China was the central focus of a struggle that took place within our party. But a secondary aspect of that struggle was over trade unionism and workerism and, ultimately, what we referred to as “economism,” where you just sort of submerge yourself in the day-to-day needs and struggles of the working class. In 1976, Bob Avakian put out a piece called “Revolutionary Work in a Non-revolutionary Situation.” This was a speech to the central committee in which he expressed his recognition that the upsurge of the 1960s had ebbed and we would have to persevere in a situation in which a revolutionary situation was not on the horizon.
One cannot predict with certainty when a revolutionary situation will arise; this is why a party needs to be preparing actively for the emergence of a revolutionary situation. If a party does not prepare in this way, a revolutionary opportunity can be thrown away. This is a profound lesson that we learned from Lenin.
SL: The death of Mao and the jailing of the Gang of Four provoked widespread demoralization in the RCP and the wider New Communist Movement. This compounded the disorientation caused by events in Angola some years before. At the same time, the mid-1970s were a time of significant labor militancy, especially as compared to now. There existed then much higher rates of unionization, so that workers were in a stronger position to face the kind of assaults and austerity impositions that we are now all too familiar with. So how did the RCP’s early party building efforts develop in such a complex environment?
CY: That is a very big question, and I think you captured some things there, when you were saying how do you not throw away the lessons learned from the 1960s. Avakian led the party in recognizing that just basing itself among the large-scale industrial workers was not the way to make a revolution. We had to go lower and deeper. This is a party (and the RU before it) that participated in a lot of different struggles, including among the working class—the miners, struggles in the auto industry, etc. The party did not stand aloof from those struggles; it participated in those struggles and it tried to bring a revolutionary understanding to them. But, at a certain point, after the split with the “Mensheviks,” we set out to apply the understanding that our work needed to be focused on the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat. There was also a recognition, in returning to What is to be Done?, of the role and importance of a communist newspaper in preparing for revolution. The role of the newspaper is to train the masses in a communist understanding of all major events. Lenin put a tremendous stress the importance of the communist press in What is to be Done? We began publishing a national newspaper on a weekly basis in 1979 or 1980. And after the split with the Mensheviks, we launched major revolutionary initiatives: a national speaking tour of Bob Avakian in 1979 and May Day 1980, an effort to put May 1 back on the political landscape in a way that it had not been before. These were part of the initiatives that the party took as part of putting straight-up revolutionary politics on the map.
Since then, we have identified the two mainstays of our work as the newspaper and spreading the contributions and works of Bob Avakian, the qualitative contributions that he has made to communist theory, and spreading those contributions as a crucial part of bringing forward a new wave of communist revolution. Even when you are doing revolutionary work in a non-revolutionary situation, you are not just waiting; that would be a serious mistake, to just be waiting for the emergence of a revolutionary situation. You’re doing everything you can to hasten the development of a revolutionary situation, you’re raising the level of the resistance of the people, and you are engaging in other kinds of work that is actually heightening, as much as possible, the consciousness of the people and their fighting capacity, in anticipation of a revolutionary situation. The imperialist system itself, again and again, creates horrors, whether it is the killing of a 7-year old kid, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or whether it is the environment. There are all kinds of things that give rise to jolts and crises, but the question is what are you doing, during those crises, and all along the way—in an active way, not just waiting—to actually accelerate the process, to hasten, while awaiting the development of a revolutionary situation. A lot of this is discussed in a new book by Bob Avakian. There is a piece in that book called, “On the Strategy for Revolution,” and that piece discusses the strategy for making revolution in an advanced imperialist country like this one. This understanding did not exist in the 1960s; the development of this strategy by Avakian and the RCP is something that involved painstaking theoretical work, in order to arrive at a deepened understanding of how to make revolution in a country like this one. I would recommend that book; it’s called Basics: From the Writings and Quotations of Bob Avakian.
SL: In 2008, your party published a manifesto entitled Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, which states the following on the significance of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in the wake of the death of Chairman Mao: “We should not underestimate this defeat in China, and everything it has brought forth, everything the imperialists have done on that basis, and have built on that. China, and everything it represented for the international proletariat and the world proletarian revolution—to lose that after the Cultural Revolution [in China], after millions and millions of people went through that upheaval, and yes, a significant process of remolding their world outlook—this is something we’re still coming to terms with, both in objective reality and in our own thinking.” Explain the significance of the Chinese Revolution for the RCP and your party’s understanding of what transpired in the 1970s and how that shapes our situation today.
CY: In the 1960s and 1970s, China was a beacon of revolution. This was the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), a revolution within the revolution to prevent the restoration of capitalism and to further advance on the socialist road to communism. It was an unprecedented struggle that advanced revolution to the highest point yet in the whole history of the international communist movement. There had been the Paris Commune, and there had been the revolution in the Soviet Union. Learning from those experiences, through the GPCR, Mao led the revolution to the highest pinnacle that has been achieved.
And then in 1976, when Mao died, that revolution was reversed. There’s a lot that we can get into about that, and, in fact, I’d refer people to the document that you referenced, Communism: the Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the RCP. The loss of China was devastating! I came to political life because of the Black Panther Party, and what they did to spread Mao’s Red Book. I studied the Red Book and subsequently read many things by Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and I became a Maoist. And a lot of people in this country, and all over the world, became Maoists in the 1960s, not because somehow this was part of a Third World revolution (though some may have viewed it that way), but because this was a communist revolution in motion. This was a laboratory of communism, a socialist society in transition to communism. This was extraordinarily important. And the reversal of that revolution was a devastating blow.
And the question was, were you going to understand why that happened, or were you just going to turn away from it in one form or another? So it has had a big impact, it has had an impact in lowering sights, it has had an impact in lowering ambitions in terms of what’s possible. Is it possible anymore to make a revolution in the world or in a country like this one? Yes, it is! So the loss of China was devastating and continues to be devastating. And not only that, what has come behind it has been an attack on communism, thirty years of counter-revolution against communism. So this is the atmosphere in which we have been working. But what we are doing is far from being demoralized and defeated. These are some of the things that we fought out in the Cultural Revolution in our party, where some people were not only feeling the effects of the loss of China, but also feeling the ebbing of the movement of the 1960s, and they had given up on revolution, settling into an alternative life style. The Cultural Revolution was a struggle between two fundamentally antagonistic lines: the developing body of work, method, and approach of Bob Avakian in contrast to the “official” line of the party, published in documents and publications on the one hand, and a “revisionist package” on the other, as discussed in Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage.
SL: One of the things that struck me in "Conquer the World" was Avakian’s claim that both Mao’s later views, as well as Lin Biao’s influential 1965 work, “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War,” mistakenly view the prospects for revolution as existing in the Third World. Avakian charges both with underestimating the possibilities for revolution in advanced imperialist countries, and he points toward revisionist tendencies in the Chinese Revolution well before the death of Mao.
He also speaks there about what he takes to be the heightened possibilities for revolution in imperialist countries in the time he is writing, the early 1980s. It seems to me that the RCP has moved away from that view now, away from its earlier assessment of the revolutionary opportunities of the early 1980s, and has instead adopted the view that the 1970s were the end of an entire phase in the history of communism, so that now the first phase of communism is over. How might we think about that sense of opportunity that Avakian expressed in the early 1980s, versus now, where it seems like we have experienced simply a long transition of reaction? Is that something that the RCP views differently today than it did in 1981, the potentials at that time? Or are both true? Were there potentials there in the transition from the late 1970s and early 1980s that somehow passed unrealized, but whose presence we need to recognize to understand that history?
CY: Well, there’s a lot involved in that question. If I could take my time, I’d like to walk through some of it. We feel that revolution is necessary and possible. And not only do we think that revolution is both necessary and possible, but we are actually building a movement for revolution. We are not waiting until a revolutionary situation emerges. We are building a movement for revolution now, and there are different aspects of our work that are focused on hastening, while awaiting, the development of a revolutionary situation. There’s building resistance to the outrages of the system. We have an orientation: “Fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution.” If people don’t fight back against things that are going on right now, they won’t have the ability to fight when it’s time to fight. So they have to be standing up against the outrages that are coming down now. There is far too little of that now. At the same time, there is the question of a newspaper which reaches far beyond what it does now but can actually have the potential to be a scaffolding for the movement for revolution. These are the things we are doing. And we are looking at, and being poised for, a situation that is ripe for revolution. We are no less oriented that way today than we were in the 1980s. But things were actually sharper in a different way back then, in that what was before us was the possibility of an inter-imperialist war, a nuclear war. Our orientation was to make revolution in order to prevent a world war or to take advantage of world war in order to make revolution, which would have been very difficult. And today the situation is what it is, but it can be transformed, and we have the necessity to break out of thirty years of counter-revolution, speaking politically. But we are making every effort to be prepared should a revolutionary situation emerge. Building the party and accumulating forces that will be necessary when such a situation does arise is extremely important now. You need a core of thousands and tens of thousands in order to be able to lead millions. The hallmark of our organization, from the RU all the way up to now, has been that we are about the business of making revolution. We have not given up on that because the conditions changed from the 1960s to the 1970s to the 1980s to now. It is necessary and possible to do what we are setting out to do.
SL: The RCP is the only organization I know of actively grappling with the issue of the continuity and discontinuity in the tradition, going back to Marx and Engels, and beyond them, to the rise of the workers’ movement and the still earlier struggle for human emancipation of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is very difficult for many people to imagine revolutionary emancipation today. No doubt that is related to the incomprehensibility of history.
CY: That is a very good point. This is one of the things that we talk about in terms of the contributions that Avakian has made to communist theory, which need to be promoted right now. People need to know what he has been bringing forward as a source of hope on a scientific basis. His work is both a continuation, and a rupture with, communist theory up to now, with the continuation being the main aspect. If you look at "Conquer the World," Avakian himself has said that "Conquer the World" was an initial epistemological break with certain aspects of weaknesses in the international communist movement. In particular, the question, “Do you go for the truth or not?” Or do you just go for “political truth?” This is a rupture with what has been a tendency in terms of going for political truth and not dealing with the truth of things.
Just to speak to the Lin Biao issues: “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War” was a piece that was written by Lin Biao. There was a certain notion he had that revolution was only possible in “third world” countries. This was not Mao’s point of view.
On the Three Worlds Theory: There were certain tendencies toward that in Mao, but it never became a consolidated theory. There were some tendencies in Mao’s thinking that were connected to ruptures not having been made with some of the mistakes that Stalin had made in terms of forming a united front against fascism in WWII. This was a serious mistake. If you look at what Bob Avakian wrote in “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism”, he discusses this at great length, arguing that Mao did not rupture with some of those kinds of notions. In the 1970s, China was beginning to face threats from the Soviet Union—there were a million Soviet troops on the border, it was a real threat—but how was that handled? Some mistakes were made, for example, in terms of the opening to the West, as part of dealing with the threat from the Soviet Union.
SL: The RCP understands the 1970s as a moment of ebb in the revolution, but also, potentially, as a moment of summation of the first century of Marxist revolution. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries within the key Marxist parties of the Second International—the German and Russian Social Democratic parties—there occurred what is known as “the revisionist debate” in which revolutionary Marxists such as Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Lenin debated Bernstein and other reformists who emphasized the achievement possible within the prevailing social order. They argued for ongoing reform to accumulate gains for the working class, a view Bernstein summarized with the phrase, “the movement is everything, the goal [of socialism] is nothing.” Does Avakian have this precedent in mind when he talks about the prevailing revisionism on the Left today? What sort of battle does he think he is fighting after the end of “the first phase of communism”?
CY: That is a very important question. The theoretical battles that you mentioned did not occur in the abstract. They were life and death struggles, and that is why they were fought so fiercely.
I would again direct people’s attention to Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage – A Manifesto from the RCP, USA. There, the crossroads facing the communist movement at this point in history are bluntly posed: “vanguard of the future, or residue of the past?” These are the stakes in which people take up and grapple with Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism, which is the theoretical framework for the advance to a new stage of communist revolution. |P
Transcribed by Pac Pobric
. Raymond Lotta, America in Decline: An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide, in the 1980s (Chicago: Banner Press, 1984).
. Bob Avakian, Basics: From the Talks and Writings of Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications,2011), 103–112.
. Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage: A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2009).
. Continuing this statement, Avakian makes a very important point: “If you add to this the whole ‘death of communism’ phenomenon, and the constant barrage of anti-communism and abuse and slander heaped from all directions and in all forms on this GPCR (The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China), on the Chinese Revolution and socialism there, and in fact on all of the experience of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat; if you think about the effect of all that, and you are a materialist and you apply dialectics, it is very difficult to think that we are immune from the effects of all that and that it only influences people outside the Party. Even in our thinking and our souls, if you want to use that term, in our heart of hearts, don’t we have questions about whether we were wrong about all this: Why did we lose? If we were so right, and if what we’re for is so correct, why did it end up this way? I don’t think there are very many comrades who can say they haven’t had those questions agonizing within them, probably more than once. We have an answer to those things, but you have to dig for that answer and you have to keep on digging–and you have to be scientific. You have to go to materialism and dialectics.” (Emphasis added). Fulfilling a great need, this is precisely the kind of digging that Avakian did after the reversal of the revolution in China.
. “This new synthesis, in its many dimensions . . . has put revolution and communism on a more solid scientific foundation. As Avakian himself has emphasized: ‘[I]t is very important not to underestimate the significance and potential positive force of this new synthesis: criticizing and rupturing with significant errors and shortcomings while bringing forward and recasting what has been positive from the historical experience of the international communist movements and the socialist countries that have so far existed; in a real sense reviving—on a new, more advanced basis—the viability and, yes, the desirability of a whole new and radically different world, and placing this on an ever firmer foundation of materialism and dialectics. . . . So, we should not underestimate the potential of this as a source of hope and of daring on a solid scientific foundation’” (Communism: The Beginning of A New State, p.29).
. “’Class truth’ refers to the view, which has had considerable currency in the international communist movement, that truth—especially in the realm of the social sciences—is not objective, but rather specific and relative to different classes, i.e., the bourgeoisie has its truth and the proletariat has its truth. But what is true is objectively true: It either corresponds to, or does not correspond to, reality in this motion and development. ‘Class truth’ overlaps with the erroneous idea that people of proletarian background have a special purchase on the truth by virtue of their social position. But truth is truth no matter who articulates it; and getting at the truth, for proletarians, as well as for people of other social and class origins, requires the grasp and application of a scientific approach to society and the world.” Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya and K.J.A., “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World,” <www.demarcations-journal.org/issue01/demarcations_badiou.html#footnoteref1>.
. Bob Avakian, “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism,” <http://bobavakian.net/articles/dictatorship_democracy.html>.
An interview with Ervand Abrahamian
Platypus Review 14 | August 2009
On Thursday April 16 Platypus Review Editor-in-Chief Spencer A. Leonard interviewed the prominent historian and Columbia University professor Ervand Abrahamian on “Radical Minds” broadcast on UChicago WHPK-FM 88.5 on the subject of “30 years of Islamic Revolution in Iran.” Abrahamian kindly agreed to answer some further questions put to him by the Platypus Review to supplement that interview. Included below is an edited transcript of the original interview together with the answers Abrahamian gave to our supplemental questions.
Spencer Leonard (SL): 2009 is the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. When and how did the Iranian Revolution end? What sort of event was it? What served as the initial spark of the Iranian Revolution? What was its duration? What phases did it pass through? How can we best understand its inner dynamics and how is it best periodized? What were the main demands of the revolutionaries in the lead up to the departure of Shah Reza Pahlavi and how were those demands realized (or not)?
Ervand Abrahamian (EA): Well as for the demands, you would have to look at all the different sectors of society. Each class had its different grievances, but in 1978 they all came together in denouncing the Shah and the monarchy. I think if you look at the intelligentsia, their demands against the Shah go back all the way to the 1950s for having overthrown the Mossadegh government. There was a great deal of nationalistic resentment for the overthrow of the nationalist government of 1951–1953. But if you look at the traditional middle class, the Bazaaris [merchants], they had a lot of economic grievances against the Shah, because he was trying to stifle much of the bazaar economy and to create a large state economy. The oil boom of 1974 gave the Shah the means to stifle the traditional middle class. In the working class you had the typical grievances of bad working conditions, inflation, wages, high cost of rent. I would list those as economic. Trade union strikes, especially the oil strike of 1978, also targeted the oppressiveness of the Shah’s regime. Meanwhile, some clerics wanted to implement their own traditional interpretation of the sharia. In other words, the movement against the Shah was not monolithic.
It carried within it inherent contradictions that became apparent immediately after the revolution. This is why the bloodshed immediately after the revolution was far worse than that during the revolution itself.
SL: I want to get back to some of the underlying social dynamics. Could you lay out the brief compass of events of 1979? What was the trajectory, and how can we say that it came to some sort of end, or steady state?
EA: Where the Revolution started was in demonstrations, just as it ended with mass demonstrations that ended in February 1979 with the decision of the armed forces not to continue opposing pro-Khomeini demonstrators in the streets. The [first] demonstrations started in 1977, not 1978 as is conventionally said. These were student protests in the universities. They escalated when seminary students in Qom started imitating the university students. Then followed shootings, the killing of demonstrators, which sparked a cycle of 40-day mourning demonstrations. In Islam, there is an important 40-day commemoration of the dead; here this custom was used as a potent political tactic. Each of those 40-day demonstration cycles snowballed. They became bigger and bigger. The situation was further escalated by certain unforeseen events: There was the burning of a cinema in Abadan, in which many women and children were burned, and it was blamed on the secret police. (Actually, it was not done by the secret police, but at that time it was generally considered, even by American journalists, that the government had something to do with it.) Then there was a large shooting of demonstrators in September of 1978 in Tehran. This too increased the tempo. The size of the killings was vastly exaggerated (some 60 were killed), but it was generally said that something like 400 had been killed in the shootings. So, by the end of 1978, you were getting demonstrations of roughly 2 million people in Tehran alone. It has been said that the popular participation in the Iranian Revolution was greater than any other revolution in terms of the percentage of the total population participating in protests. Eventually the demonstrations got so big that the Shah and Army were not able to control it. That is what forced the Shah to leave the country. As soon as he left, Khomeini [who had previously been exiled in Iraq] returned. About 3 million people came to the streets to greet him in February of 1979. In two weeks, the whole regime just collapsed.
SL: Many journalists speak of Islamist political forces, as though they represented the authentic self-expression of the people in so-called Muslim countries. For instance, in the current crisis in Pakistan, it is often said that the Taliban are popular among segments of society untouched by Western influence, whereas lawyers and professionals represent and defend liberal western values. To what extent does such a view explain or distort the Iranian Revolution? Was the demand for an Islamic state, with Mullahs or religious clergymen in power, a grassroots popular demand opposed by a modernizing Western elite, or is the picture more complicated than that?
EA: It is much more complicated. The conventional view that the Shah was a modernizer and the public was traditional, meaning religiously conservative, and therefore opposed to the regime contains an element of truth. There were people in Iran you could call traditional conservatives. But in the past they had actually been apolitical or they had supported the regime. They had not before caused problems for the Shah’s regime. Putting aside the secular and socialist movements, that is, speaking only of those who espoused Islam, there are different branches of Islam involved, none of which can be described as conventionally traditional.
The rise of a radical Islam basically originates in the university students, and they interpret Islam in a much more socialist way. The main philosopher of this is Ali Shariati, who was very much influenced by Franz Fanon. What Shariati did was inject into Shi’ism radical notions of class struggle, equality, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-clericalism. There is a strong streak of anti-clericalism in Shariati. His ideas very much appealed to graduates, college students, and high school students, and these were the biggest groups of people who organized the demonstrations and were out in the streets from 1977 onwards.
SL: And these were people who see Shia Islam in particular as radical, egalitarian…
EA: Yes. The religious say the Islamic Revolution was “Islamic,” that “Islam is the explanation for the revolution.”
The trouble with this as an explanation, of course, is that Islam has been in Iran for a long time and yet Iran did not have an Islamic Revolution until 1977–1979, so something else is going on besides Islam per se. One crucial issue was the reinterpretation of Shi’ism from an apolitical, conservative ideology to a highly revolutionary one. This was done by a new young intelligentsia, the sons and daughters of the traditional middle class who were going to university.
SL: I want to get back to some of these questions because I think these are some of the least well-understood aspects of the Iranian Revolution, but first I would like to speak of the immediate historical background. In your recent book, The History of Modern Iran, with respect to the White Revolution, you say, “the White Revolution had been designed to pre-empt a red revolution, but instead it paved the way for an Islamic revolution.”
Specifically, could you speak about the background of later events going back to the early 1960s and the White Revolution? How was Iranian society changing in the decades immediately prior to the outbreak of the revolution? How ought we think about the modernization of Iranian society during those decades? And what tensions did these transformations produce? Which social classes, in other words, gained strength during the Shah’s rule and which were rendered vulnerable?
EA: From 1941-53, opposition to the Shah’s regime came, basically, from the Left, including both the communist movement and the secular nationalist movement, the national front. The threat the Shah always feared was from the Left. So, to forestall that and with the encouragement of the Kennedy administration, the Shah launched land reforms and with them what he called the “White Revolution.” The Western strategy to preempt red revolutions was to carry out land reform. The US did that in Japan and South Korea, Kennedy encouraged it in South America, and the Shah was doing the same in Iran. The trouble was that the White Revolution actually undercut the Shah’s power, because traditionally the monarchy in Iran had been supported by a landed class composed of tribal chiefs, big landowners, and clerics with large endowments. Land reform undercut that landed class, so the Shah, instead of strengthening Reviewhis position, in a way undercut his own social support. Rationally, you could say the peasants who received the redistributed land (and a certain sector did get land) should have been endeared to the monarchy. After all, the Shah had given them land. The trouble was that the support services with which the Shah was supposed to supplement agricultural reform—agricultural credits, irrigation works, and so on—did not materialize. So the peasantry was left only half satisfied. They got land but they did not get all the things they needed in support of that. The result was that the Shah did not really get the support from the countryside that he had hoped for. That does not mean the peasants were against the Shah. In fact, the peasantry mainly just sat out the revolution, neither supporting nor opposing it. The mass demonstrations were all urban based, not rural.
SL: I want to ask you now more specifically about the role of the Left in the Revolution. What were the most important miscalculations made by those who supported the revolution but ended up losing out in the end? And also to what extent did those among the international Left who supported the Iranian Revolution also suffer disappointment?
Has the Left in Iran, and internationally, learned from the experience of the Revolution? Or, in your view, have many of the lessons of the Iranian Revolution been ignored, even today?
EA: It is not so much learning lessons, but trying to fathom what happened. The general expectation on the Left was that once the Shah had been forced out and there was an opening, leftist ideologies and movement to the Left would come to the fore, because, before the dictatorship of the Shah, before 1953, the organizations that had the most mass support in the cities, as I said, were the Communist Party [Tudeh] and the National Front. But from 1953 to 1977 these secular organizations were dismantled by the regime, leaving no leftist or internationalist organization intact. While the regime was dismantling leftist organizations and secular organizations, they left undamaged the religious mosques and seminaries, i.e., the clerical establishment. So once the regime began to unravel, you had really two opposition groups: the amorphous students who were chiefly engaged in organizing demonstrations and university protests, on the one hand, and a network of organizations based in the mosques and seminaries, on the other. The latter were, of course, controlled by the clerics.
When the regime collapsed, there was a vacuum. The people who were much more capable of picking up power were the clerical organizations because they had an organization. To use a metaphor from the Bolshevik Revolution, as someone once said in 1917, power was lying in the gutter and the Bolsheviks were the only organization with the strength to bend down and pick it up. In the Iranian case, the people most capable of picking it up were in fact the clerical organizations.
SL: So the Left was already decimated, with the only politics on offer being the clerical elements and pop front, focus-on-main-enemy support? What exactly was the situation of the Left in 1977 and 1978?
EA: Leftist organizations could not function in the SAVAK [Sazeman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar, Iran’s National Intelligence and Security Organization] police state. Former members were imprisoned. You could not really organize anything—no trade unions, or underground organizations. In many ways the Shah’s regime was more effective than traditional police states. In addition, the repression had fragmented the Left into many groups, many of which saw each other as rivals. I could enumerate about 30 different leftist groups that existed in Iran by about 1977, but they were small cliques more than actual organizations.
SL: It is customary to regard the Iranian Revolution as a watershed moment in world history, as undoubtedly in many respects it was. But are there some lines of continuity between the regime of the Shah and the revolutionary Islamic regime that overthrew it? What are the most important lines of continuity stretching across the revolutionary divide, and what are the most important breaks between the Shah’s Iran and the Iran forged by the Revolution?
EA: Well, the present regime’s ideology is Islam, the Shah’s ideology was monarchism or Pahlavism. But if you put aside ideology, if you look at how the states behave in terms of its neighbors and what drives its state policies, I would say both share a very strong attachment to national prestige and national image. So the way the Islamic Republic has behaved is not so much about espousing or encouraging the spread of Islam. The Republic has much more acted in terms of national state interests. When there is a conflict between Islam and Iranian national security, the latter takes precedence.
For instance, in the Caucasus, after the fall of the Soviet Union there was bitter fighting between Christian Armenia and Muslim (Shia) Azerbaijan. Iran supported the Armenians. They sided with the Christian state over a fellow Muslim state. Why? Because of purely national self-interest. Azerbaijan had territorial claims on Iran, Armenia did not. Likewise in Chechnya, Iran supported Russia against the Chechen rebels. All along the line what motivates the Iranian state is national security.
Supplemental questions asked by email:
1). You mention Fanon as being especially influential on the generation of intellectuals that came of age in the fifties and sixties. Would it be correct to see the events leading up to 1979 as a product of the intellectual divide between the Old and New Left? As your work describes, after World War II the Iranian Left was dominated by a Stalinist popular front organization, the Tudeh, set up to support the Allies during the war. After the Tudeh failed to take power during the 1953 coup and was then brutally suppressed by SAVAK in the early 1960s, it seems as if most of those who emerged on the Left later took up a kind of anti-Stalinist Stalinism influenced by Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Che Guevara. How did this ideological rift (as opposed to just the Shah’s repression) cause confusion and help lay the seeds for the Iranian Left’s self-marginalization and ultimate demise?
EA: The landmark event that divided the younger intelligentsia from the older one was the shooting down of demonstrators in 1963. This bloodletting proved, at least to the younger generation, that street protests were no longer effective against the regime. Consequently, many younger members of the Tudeh and the National Front were drawn to the concept of “armed struggle” as articulated by either Mao, Ho-Chin Minh, Che, or Fanon. This became the dividing line in Iran between the Old and New Left. The fascination with the armed struggle lasted from 1963 until 1975 and in its hay day in 1972–74, scores of young guerrillas—both Marxists of various stripes as well as Muslims from the Mojahedin-e Khalq—died fighting the regime. The irony of the whole story, which is often forgotten, is that the guerrilla organizations had all been crushed by the time the revolution started, and their survivors were increasingly talking about taking their message to the factories and forming underground networks. Of course, the whole revolution of 1977–79 was accomplished not by armed struggle but by the traditional tactic of mass demonstrations.
2). In an article you wrote about the guerrilla movement you quote Mehdi Bazargan speaking on French television as saying that “the revolution would not forget the role played by the guerrillas and the Tudeh Party.” Was Bazargan right to point to the Left’s role or, given its total disorganization, was the Left just opportunistically tailing behind a movement that it could neither control nor shape? Is the traditional story of 1979 as one of revolution and counter-revolution misleading, or at least an overly simplistic framework through which to understand events?
EA: When Bazargan paid his dues to the Left it was to say that many of the martyrs that died fighting against the regime came from this guerrilla wing of the opposition.
In 1979, the clerics had few martyrs. Almost all those who had been killed fighting the regime came from the Left, both from the secular as well as the religious Left. Bazargan at that time referred to the Mojahedin as the children of his own organization. It is hard to talk of the Left as a monolithic bloc since there were so many rival groups. Some, especially Maoists but not all of them, saw the downfall of the Shah as the first step towards a total revolution in the style of China and Russia. Others, including the Tudeh and surprisingly some Trotskyists, argued that the 1979 revolution faced imminent threat from American imperialism and therefore needed to be supported to prevent a counter-revolution. That is how the various groups viewed reality; I would not use the term “opportunistic.”
3). Today, there are many comparisons being made between the protests after Iran’s election results were announced and the atmosphere just prior to the 1979 Revolution. In what ways do you think this analogy is correct? Do you see any sort of dissonance between the actions of the protests (the repeating of “Allah-u-Akbar” on rooftops for example) and the pragmatic reality of post-electoral Iran?
EA: There are many parallels between the present crisis and the 1977–79 Revolution: street protests, mass meetings cutting across class lines, mass rallies in exactly the same places, the regime resorting to the notion that the “hidden foreign hand,” especially the BBC, is behind the crisis, and many others. But behind these similarities lie fundamental differences. First, the new regime has the means of violence, the Revolutionary Guards, to crush the opposition. By contrast, the Shah knew by 1978 that he could not rely on his armed forces. Second, the new regime, even though it no longer has the mass support it had in the past, still has a social base—the evangelical believers who form some 20–25 percent of the public, as well as the sectors of the bazaars that are plugged into the state through contracts, benefits, and the clerical foundations.
4). If the 1979 Revolution was catastrophic from the point of view of the Left, then might not the 2009 election crisis have a similar legacy? How does the prevailing disorganization diminish leftists’ ability to act politically or to even understand the situation unfolding in contemporary Iran?
EA: The 1979 Revolution was necessarily a catastrophe. It achieved its main aim shared by the Left as well as other groups. It brought about the end of the ancient regime and national independence. The 1979 Revolution was for Iran what national independence was for many countries in the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s. The aims of the present movement—even if they do not succeed in the near future—have a great deal of relevance to the Left. They inevitably include the creation of a civil society in which independent unions, political parties, professional associations, women’s organizations, minority viewpoints, and individual rights are protected. It is for this reason that most Leftist groups in Iran, both inside and outside the country, support the reform movement and deeply distrust the “populism” of the Right. |P
. Ervand Abrahamian, “The Guerrilla Movement in Iran, 1963-1977” MERIP Reports 86 (Mar/Apr 1980): 13.
Platypus Review 10 | February 2009
The following interview was conducted as an email exchange between Andony Melathopoulos and Terry Glavin in December 2008. Terry Glavin is a Canadian journalist, an outspoken critic of the anti-war movement's call to withdrawal foreign troops from Afghanistan and a founder of the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee (afghanistan-canada-solidarity.org).
Andony Melathopoulos: You just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and have been busy writing about your experience in the Canadian news media and, most recently, in an online piece in Democratiya ("Afghanistan: A Choice of Comrades," Winter (15), 2008). What are the main points you are trying to convey in your writing?
Terry Glavin: If I'm trying to convey any position of my own about Afghanistan, specifically, it arises from the one firm conviction I have reached in my investigations over the years, which was confirmed over and over again in Afghanistan. And it's this: What we in the "West" say to ourselves about Afghanistan - the way we talk about Afghanistan - really matters. And the implications of the "troops out" position - the spectre that this position might actually succeed, has an enormously corrosive impact on Afghan society.
It's why I'm convinced that the worst threat Afghanistan faces is not the threat of "re-Talibanization" by the theocratic fascists who like to say to the West, "You have all the clocks, but we have all the time." It's from the clock-watching West, and the "international community," which should be saying, unequivocally: "We're staying as long as we're needed and wanted, period. We won't abandon Afghanistan again, ever."
AM: Like you, Fred Halliday and Christopher Hitchens have taken unpopular stands against the anti-war movement. This has been in response to their former comrades in the New Left Review and the Nation for crawling "in bed with the forces of reaction" (Hitchens). Is the Canadian "Left" bedding down with these same forces? Was forming the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee an attempt to provide a positive internationalist response to the anti-war movement?
TG: When the Solidarity Committee came together, we were all in agreement that rather than contribute to an already infantilized conversation, we wanted to try to change the public conversation, and we've seen real successes in doing that. We wanted to provide space for Afghan-Canadian voices, and to make the "progressive" case for engagement in Afghanistan. Our founders were mainly from the left, but we were more than happy to welcome Liberals and even Conservatives, especially of the old "Red Tory" kind. In that way, it's a pretty classic popular-front approach. Our founders included women's rights activists and several left-wing writers and academics, but also a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and two former federal Conservative cabinet ministers. What surprised me, quite frankly, was just how much support there was for the sort of position we were staking out, across the board.
Perhaps less like the U.S, but certainly much like the case in Britain, Canada's "anti-war" movement has indeed crawled into bed with the forces of reaction. I mean this not in some oblique or metaphorical way, but quite specifically. The main "anti-war" organizations in Canada have nurtured fraternal ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, with Hezbollah and Hamas. You can look it up for yourself. When the head of the Canadian Labour Congress refers to the Taliban as the Afghan "resistance" and the New Democratic Party (social democrats) fields "star" candidates who call the Taliban mere "dissidents," you know that something rather unusually toxic is at work.
As for Fred Halliday's analysis, let's remember what his invocation of Spain in the 1930s, in the Afghan context, is about. I don't cite the cause of the international brigades in Spain merely as a spirited call to arms, but rather in the light that Halliday casts on the current situation. Just as Spain served as a proving ground and a crucible of the horrors that were to follow, Afghanistan has provided a training ground and a crucible for a kind of fascism that has been unleashed throughout Central Asia, the Maghreb, and the Levant, to say nothing of the relatively minor horrors it unleashed on New York, Washington, Madrid, and London.
I am offering the observation that history has repeated itself, and is repeating itself, and there is no shortage of isolationist "pacifists" and Little Englanders on the left, and no shortage of Charles Lindberghs, animating the "anti-war" movement today.
AM: How did you first become interested in Afghanistan? Is there a defining moment or incident that drew your attention there?
TG: A few years ago, when I was still writing my column for the Georgia Straight - which claims to be North America's oldest "alternative newsweekly" - I found that the conventional left-wing polemics on the question of Afghanistan simply couldn't be sustained by resort to facts or argument from anything vaguely resembling a working-class, internationalist standpoint.
Most importantly, I started talking to Afghan emigres, and to women who had done progressive work in Afghanistan, and soon realized that the entire "Left" argument was, in a word, a fraud.
I dealt with this rather gingerly at first, writing only about the obvious challenges Afghanistan presented in a Canadian context, and relying on Afghan emigres to provide whatever opinions were necessarily asserted in whatever I wrote. But I quickly understood that even in this, I had transgressed into the heretical.
What I began to see quite clearly - and it was the Afghanistan debate that allowed me to see it, was that in the main, the "Left," on such an epochal question - and related as it was to the rising challenge of Islamist barbarism throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia - was simply not on the side of progress, was not on the side of emancipation, was not on the side of "peace", even. Not in the matter of Afghanistan, obviously and certainly. The "Left" had retreated into a sort of parochial isolationism, and there was no role for a journalist like me except to reassure the "Left" of its virtue, assist in the construction of comforting falsehoods, and otherwise engage in the regurgitation of platitudes and pieties.
AM: Clearly the anti-war movement is a different kind of Left than the one you have in mind. Can you tell me a little about where your politics come from? How did you come to the Left in the first place?
TG: When I was a kid I was quite intensely informed by the Irish republican politics in the community, and the Chile solidarity work after Allende was killed, and I was drawn to the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the League for Socialist Action and such Trotskyist groups. But when I got older I noticed it was the old Communist Party warhorses who were always doing the heavy lifting. Not the dizzy ideologues from the universities or the Soviet apologists, but the party's union men and women. You could count on them. For anything. The party was a disgrace, but the partisans were good people. It was like the church in that way. Nobody takes the Pope seriously but when you get in a jam it's the Knights of Columbus you'll be wanting, and they're always there for you. And that's what's really got working people to the point we'd reached by the time I came of age, with all the relative comforts that were available only to the wealthy just a century before.
One of the things you notice about the international volunteers in the Spanish war, for instance, perhaps especially in the enormous Canadian contingent, was a distaste bordering on outright hostility to ideological and party-line considerations, and a searing, gut-felt duty to one's comrades in struggle. The precipice where most people in the world stand today, in so many respects - natural-resource exhaustion, food scarcity and famine, failed states, the implosion of capital markets, entrenched tyranny, slavery, and so on - is no less all-devouring than the abyss the Spanish people faced. Where much of the "Left" appears to be encumbered by a sense of nostalgia or parent-envy, standing in the shadows of its predecessors, I tend to see the conditions humanity faces today as every bit as daunting and terrifying as the conditions faced by our parents' and grandparents' generations, and requiring a stiffness of resolve no less martial. I don't know why we would expect anything less of ourselves today than our predecessors gave of themselves in Spain all those years ago. But the "Left" today calls us to much less. The most charitable thing one can say of the so-called anti-imperialist "Left" is that it summons us to neutrality, to indifference, to the antisocial pathology of "minding our own business."
AM: I am uneasy with the idea that the problems of the "Left" can be solved by simply developing a stomach for getting our hands dirty. Maybe the problems with the "so-called anti-imperialist 'Left' " are not primarily that they lack duty or stomach, but rather, their theory is inadequate, or frozen in the past. Isn't the pragmatism that you deem to be a necessity only so because there is no workers' movement and because there is no theory to navigate even a nascent movement?
TG: I think I might be uneasy with it as well, because developing a stomach for dirty hands alone won't help the Left, and I don't say it will. I'm not in the least bit uneasy about placing a good degree of trust in the basic instincts of ordinary people when they are committed to coming to the aid of their fellow human beings.
I don't know that I simply assign "pragmatism" in the place that I would prefer to see, say, a robust proletarian internationalism, but neither am I certain that a revivified global consciousness needs to wait for a "new" or rearticulated theory, or that any of us need to wait for a revivified democratic-socialist internationalism in order to be able to think clearly or act as effectively as our means allow. At the same time, action without something at least approaching a theory by which to navigate is just as useless. The "anti-globalization" movement might be the most vivid example of such uselessness, although I'm not even sure that its global pow-wow circuit antic-making can be considered "action" except in the symbolic sense. So maybe that's not the best example. The World Social Forum, then. There you go. There was a kind of "theory" that animated its proceedings. Where did that get us?
So rather than simply retreating into theory, maybe the best use intellectuals of the "Left" can make of themselves on this aimless voyage is to strip away and jettison all the ideational-package flotsam from the anti-imperialist, anti-globalization, anti-war, and counterculture "Left", and see if anything remains.
AM: I am sympathetic with your characterisation of the theory of the "Left" as incoherent and its practice as powerless. You don't, however, seem prepared to "jettison" the example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Why does this hold a key to a revived internationalism for you? Doesn't the persistence of this historical imagination only prove that the "Left" has never really been able to overcome, or work through, the failed Popular Front tactics of the 1930s? Doesn't this just emphasize how the "Left" is both afraid of taking power and of working for common goals - and by common goals I mean creating a common ideology?
TG: I think I've dealt with the business of "ideology" as far as I'm comfortable in doing, but I am not prepared to simply "jettison" the instructive example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish War. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say it holds the "key" to a revived internationalism, but it certainly does set a standard, and a similar popular-front strategy is not doomed to failure at all. In the 1930s, Western armies were not arrayed against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Today, the US, NATO and ISAF is in the fight in Afghanistan, and with the exception of the Americans' disgraceful appeasements of the Pakistan military and intelligence complex, the armies of the West are, in fact, on the right side. I really think it's important to acknowledge that, to get over it. The Taliban are not the Vietcong. The Sixties are over. It actually is possible for the American military to be on the right side of a struggle, and as some wag said, "It would be lovely if the Nelson Mandela Appreciation Society had the means to take on the job, but until that happens, I'm afraid we're going to have to settle for the 101st Airborne Division."
AM: In your Democratiya piece you describe the forthcoming Obama presidency as articulating the words that Afghans want to hear most: "We will not leave you. We will not betray you. We will not abandon you". What is it about Obama's approach that makes you think that the U.S. will finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan?
TG: America's conduct has been far more callous and filthy and duplicitous and disgraceful and foolish than we have time or space to consider here, and yes, in a perfect world, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld would be brought before an American court, tried before an American judge, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an American prison. But we're living in the here and the now, in the real world, and all I have to go on as far as the new American president is concerned is his word. I have no cause to doubt what little he has actually said on the subject because it is in America's interests to proceed as Obama has given the world to believe he will proceed. I haven't heard him say America will "finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan," in such a direct way. And this is what we do have cause to worry about.
Afghans need to believe they will not be abandoned again. They have to be convinced it is true, otherwise they will have all the fight and the hope drained out of them, and they are already reeling from enough dashed hopes. Look at how it came to pass that America returned to Afghanistan in the autumn months of 2001 and you will see why so many Afghans rejoiced just as we did here in Canada, especially here on the west coast, in December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There was jubilation up and down the coast, and there were bonfires. We celebrated, but not because of the terrible thing that had happened to America, but because after two years allied with the British, fighting the Axis powers in Europe, Canadians knew that at long last, America was in the fight. It had become in American interests to join the fight.
You don't need to consult your Hegel to know that from contingency comes opportunity, and after September 11th, Americans were drawn back into the fight in Afghanistan, and anyone who imagines that this was a bad thing simply hasn't been paying attention, and anyone who would wonder why so many Afghans rejoiced has not been paying attention.
Here's what we have cause to be worried about. It is precisely that President-elect Obama will fulfill his promises to the American people efficiently and cost-effectively by striking some sordid arrangement with the three main chains of command within the Taliban in order to get at al Qaeda. 'Give us al Qaeda and we'll cut you loose,' an Obama White House might well propose. And where is the American Left that could prevent or forestall such a squalid betrayal, or mount even a minor protest rally about it? There is no such American Left. It doesn't exist.
With millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to Iran and Pakistan and Tajikistan, and all the schools shut down and the newspapers and radio stations shuttered and looted, the American "Left" would experience something of a frisson. Noam Chomsky would trace the consistent trajectory of American conduct in the region. Cindy Sheehan would mumble something about maybe not challenging Nancy Pelosi again four years down the road. Amy Goodman conduct some brain numbing interview with Tariq Ali, and in the pages of The Nation, Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein might write opposing essays. Klein could gloat over the front-row view we've all been given of American capitalism's true face revealing itself in Afghanistan. Hayden could take the contrary opinion: No, Obama is one of us, he's bringing the troops home, let's get high.
So, for now at least, we're left with all this "hope" and "change" stuff. For now, it will have to do.
AM: You make a distinction between the intervention in Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan. You only support the intervention in Afghanistan. Why?
TG: Because the distinctions and differences abound. To be painfully specific, the way I would prefer to put my answer to your question is that I wholeheartedly support "intervention" but not necessarily "the intervention" in Afghanistan, and I would have preferred to at least cautiously support an intervention in Iraq, but certainly not "the intervention" as it was conceived and prosecuted.
In the case of Iraq, I found myself on the "no war" side in a specifically Canadian context, or maybe I should say a not-American context, and for reasons that are different from the main anti-war justifications and arguments abroad in 2003. By this I mean two things.
Firstly, I wouldn't have opposed American intervention owing to any squeamishness at the prospect of Americans coming home in body bags from Fallujah, for instance. After all, why shouldn't they be the bodies of Americans? I know this sounds cold, but if any soldiers had to die in the "liberation" of the Iraqi people, it would be hard to argue, given the history of American complicity with the entrenchment of the Baathist regime, that it should not be American soldiers.
Secondly, in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the debates and arguments really counted, the nature of the decision facing Canadians was wholly different than the decision facing Americans. For Canadians, the questions were: Why should we sign up as a junior partner in a very risky, largely unilateral war, a war of such a massive scale? Why would we sign up with the Americans in the invasion and overthrow of a UN member state, without a clear UN mandate, with world opinion mainly against the idea? Why would we join in an Anglo-American war on evidence that was at best shaky, for purposes that were at best shadowy, and in the absence of any framework for multilateral consideration about which tyranny to invade in the world, and when, and under what agreed-upon grounds?
Afghanistan is almost a mirror-image opposite of the circumstances and trajectory that have prevailed in Iraq. To begin with, Afghanistan re-entered the public consciousness in 2001 as a thoroughly rogue state, with diplomatic recognition only from the Taliban's sponsor (Pakistan) and the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (the home states of the deranged oil millionaires who helped bankroll them). Afghanistan's seat at the UN was occupied by the Taliban's arch-enemies, the Northern Alliance. The country had been cleaved in half by war and savagery, and every year, the territory under Taliban control was churning out thousands of Chechen, Filipino, Kashmiri, Algerian and Moroccan jihadists to be dispatched to their assignments around the world from well-funded training camps. A quarter of the population was scattered to the ends of the earth as refugees. Almost a third of the unfortunates who remained in the country were on the verge of starvation. The Taliban were hated by the people, the entire, war-blasted place was a humanitarian disaster of the first order. Deposing the Taliban was going to be like a walk in the park. Intervention? What took you so long? What's not to like?
As I have persisted in noticing, for some years, what the Afghan people have been very clear about in respect of what they actually want, and what the "Left" has been arguing for in the rich countries of the world, are diametrically opposed. What the "Left" has been saying, among other absurd things, is troops out. In a baker's dozen's worth of polls I am aware of, the Afghan people consistently and overwhelmingly say they want democracy, peace, security, and jobs, and they want and need international forces to help them achieve these things. Troops in.
So I am forced to decide. And I've made my decision.
AM: This decision seems an accommodation to the fact that an international Left does not exist. Is the decision for one intervention over another any more a decision than the anti-war movement's "decision" to end either war; are not all these "decisions" ultimately determined by the realities of U.S. power? You suggest multilateral actors (e.g. 39-nation ISAF) and the U.N. are capable of overcoming this reality but this doesn't seem consistent with the example of Afghanistan, where the desired U.N. and multilateral attention occurred only after it was in the U.S.'s interest (i.e. following a direct attack). Moreover, I am unsure why you think that multilateral actors and the U.N. are a desirable counterweight to the U.S. Do you think they are agents of the Left? Do you think they are able to pose a challenge to the present system of global capital? Do you think they are a vehicle for developing a worker-based internationalism that can meaningfully challenge and overcome U.S. power?
TG: I don't think any of these things. But I do think that contingency produces opportunity, you work with the cards you're dealt, and sometimes, history will happen to deal you a decent hand. Helplessness and powerlessness are the worst kinds of illusions, and here's how Afghanistan is not like Spain: we don't need to arm civilian volunteers and get them there. Our soldiers are there already. They're well-trained, and fairly well-paid. In Afghanistan, teaching a single girl how to read her own name is a revolutionary act, and $1,500 in Yankee currency employs a teacher for an entire year. Is the "Left" so bankrupt that it can't even do this?
To more directly answer your question, I would go so far as to suggest that, with some "ifs" engaged, then yes, we could even be deciding which military interventions were necessary and useful to the cause of human progress, and which ones were not. It is quite easy to imagine circumstances like that as being well within the realm of possibility. But in order to wield that degree of influence in democratic societies, it would at least help somewhat if we rededicated ourselves to universal human progress, democratic egalitarianism, and freedom from slavery, misogyny, illiteracy and obscurantism. If these things are possible, then yes, "multilateral actors" and the UN could indeed be agents of the Left," and even US power could be harnessed in the cause of the historic mission of the Left, and the irrational occupation with overcoming "US power" might be seen for the irrelevant distraction that it usually is.
I will concede to you, and to Platypus, that in order to even imagine such things, it may first be necessary to give in to "the desire for a tabula rasa, for a start from scratch," as the Platypus statement of purpose puts it. I would further concede that this may well require that the living dead of the "Left" as we now know it should be put down, eliminated, rejected, and jettisoned.
Fine by me. Avante. Allons-y. Let's go. |P
Platypus Review 10 | February 2009
The occupation of the New School Graduate Faculty building on 65 5th Ave. began in the late evening on December 17, 2008 and lasted over thirty hours. In the build-up to the action, differences arose respecting the aims and potential effectiveness of an occupation.
Against both a negotiating committee and concrete demands, a group calling itself the "Autonomous Faction of Non-cooperation Against the Division of Labor," pushed to extend the occupation. On the other side, leaders of the Radical Student Union, such as Atlee McFellin, originally opposed the occupation on the basis that it was uncoordinated,ill-considered, and, therefore, likely to fail. Despite these reservations, in the end RSU members did participate in the occupation in conjuction with the Autonomous Faction and other student groups.
Although the media coverage of the New School occupation portrayed it as a victory for the students, most of the demands have yet to be met. Not only is McFellin's primary demand for the establishment of a "Socially Responsible Committee" yet to be approved, but many of the administration's concessions have not yet been implemented. The action's long-term significance, however, may be more in the influence it exerts over the direction of student politics. Both student groups and activist networks payed closed attention to the occupation and expressed admiration for it. In the coming months we are likely to see further ramifications of the New School occupation.
This interview which has been edited for publication was conducted on January 15, 2009. It is the first in a series of critical interrogations intending to clarify the politics that propel such activities as the New School occupation and the overall direction of the student movement today.
Pam Nogales: What is your relationship to the new Students for a Democratic Society?
Atlee McFellin: We are still part of SDS, but I don't know for how much longer. We call ourselves the Radical Student Union (RSU). We are also members of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), and the Student Environmental Action Coalition. There may be other groups that we are affiliated with, like the Responsible Endowments Coalition, but I do not think we are officially part of any others.
PN: Briefly walk me through the brainstorming stage of the New School occupation into the first night in the building.
AM: It started when the New School faculty gave both Robert Millard, treasurer of the board of trustees, and Bob Kerrey, president of the university, their vote of no-confidence. We organized a demonstration outside and inside of the same building as the board of trustees' meeting. After that, other students, mostly graduate students at the New School for Social Research, sent a few e-mails out through various departmental listservs asking for an open meeting to discuss the faculty vote.
There were two meetings before the occupation about how to respond. Apart from the occupation, we talked about the demands we wanted to make and the things we wanted to change in the university. A lot of the discussion was about constituting some type of organization, although most of the people there had no experience organizing, and didn't really want an "organization." They were of the opinion that somehow there was-to use those terrible buzzwords-an organic and egalitarian constitution-making process that was happening at these meetings. Now of course there wasn't. And it was not egalitarian, and not really democratic in any sense of the word, and certainly not an organization.
In the brainstorming stages of the occupation... well, that was one of the issues, oddly enough, there was no real brainstorming for the occupation. In the two meetings a good amount of contention emerged, and I was clearly on one side because I didn't favor the occupation. It seemed like nothing was planned, nothing was really thought out, and it simply consisted of a bunch of people wanting to get some steam out in a very unconstructive manner -I'm sure that some people are going to be extremely pissed off that I say this, but that is basically what it was.
There was a lot of speculation and skepticism about the effectiveness of any type of action, especially since the bulk of students were going into finals. There were even some of us that had a final during the second meeting. The question of the occupation was much more on the table in the second meeting; two people even premised the invitation to the meeting with "bring your sleeping bags." Nobody did. The plan, put forward by a couple of people, was to actually stay at 65 Fifth Ave. that night, but there were only about six to eight people who were actually willing to go through with it. So myself and a couple of other people talked them out of it, and said "If you are going to do it, at least wait one more day." It was clear that there was no support, there was no outreach done, there was really nothing besides a couple of people deciding that they wanted to do an occupation. It seemed like nothing had been done, and I was very skeptical. We weren't really sure if the occupation was going to happen, even by the end of that meeting.
By 8:00pm the following day, the occupation was on its way. When we all finally sat down in the cafeteria of the New School there was a heated debate about whether we were going to form a negotiating committee and use the demands that we drafted to argue for the changes we articulated at the meetings. Through a deliberating process we were able to compile the changes we wanted to achieve, we took those, typed them, printed them in the basement, and then four of us took them to the security guard and said "these are our demands." The look on his face was quite funny. When he heard us, he replied with something like, "Demands? What?"
Later on, the cafeteria workers, hired by an outside company, Chartwells, would soon have to enter the cafeteria. Were we going to stop the Chartwells workers from coming into work and earning their pay? If we had, we may have lost the justification for the action. Ultimately, it was decided that we would stay, and although we would allow the workers to come in, we wouldn’t allow people to buy things from the cafeteria. But then, I think it was Pat Korte and a professor from CUNY that suggested that we find out if Chartwells was unionized; it turned out they were. We got into contact with someone from their union, Unite Here, and we found out that the workers would be compensated and that it was part of their union contract that they couldn’t cross a picket line, and that this action constituted a picket line. Truthfully, we kind of lucked out in that regard. If it would have been the case that they weren’t unionized and that they were paid by the hour, I am not sure how well it would have gone—certainly media would have been different. Part of the problem the entire time was that even the people who were the most excited and eager hadn’t put any thought into how it was actually going down, in fact, they purposely didn’t put any forethought into it.
PN: What do you think were the most important of the demands to the administration?
AM: For us at the New School-and this is something the RSU has been working on for a year now- the aim is to force the university to divest from any company that profits from war. Obviously the university doesn't disclose their investments, and I should say that we didn't achieve this demand, oddly enough. The creation of the Socially Responsible Investment committee is the most important of all the demands won in the occupation. It was part of our campaign to bring attention to war profiteering, specifically L-3 Communications, and how we understand what L-3 and its history symbolize in terms of the power dynamics that exist within global capitalism today. We will be working with New York City UFPJ and a variety of other organizations in the "Yes We Can: Beyond War a New Economy is Possible" campaign, established in their national assembly, to help us build a national movement to divest from war profiteers, specifically around Iraq and Afghanistan. My hope is that we can also begin to weaken companies that foster ecological destruction and devastation and companies that sell arms to Israel.
PN: Let's delve into the demand for a Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) committee. The booklet written by the Radical Student Union describes this committee as an advisory body to the Board of Trustees that is supposed to prevent unethical New School investments. Could you say more about this advisory role?
AM: The usage of the word "advisory" implies that this body would help the trustees make these decisions, and was used simply to appear more inviting to the president of the university and the board of trustees. However, in the run-up to the creation of the SRI committee at the main trustee meeting in April, we are organizing faculty and staff support so that we can push for veto power over investment decisions. We can only achieve this is if we have the capacity to shut down the university until this demand is met. Now, as unlikely as that sounds, there is a really good chance for this in the spring. The faculty is still very much in support of getting rid of President Bob Kerrey and Vice President James Murtha, and we have been making better and stronger relationships with the faculty who have gotten involved.
Moreover, in the present economic crisis the New School is specifically hard pressed to come up with reasonable fiscal solutions, therefore it needs a significant change. For any other university it's different, but for the New School, strange as it sounds, the solution lies in becoming much more radical, for example, divesting from war profiteers and investing in renewable energy manufacturing.
We will be providing this advisory role while at the same time forming something that will allow for us to build a much stronger and forceful anti-war movement. I think that there is a great possibility that we will attain veto power by April. It is extremely important to be able to vote on who the president of the university will be when Kerrey is gone, but I think it is even more important for us to gain veto power over the investment decisions and contracts that the university makes with other corporations.
PN: The informational booklet printed by the Radical Student Union describes the necessity for the SRI committee in the following paragraph,
"SRI considers both the investor's financial needs and an investment's impact on society. SRI investors encourage corporations to improve their practices on environmental, social, and governmental issues... With SRI, investors can put their money to work to build a more sustainable world while earning competitive returns both today and over time."
This seems to me to say that what the SRI committee is aiming for is a more ethical form of capitalism.
AM: Yes, of course, it's very reformist in that regard. But if you look at the rest of the way we have been framing our campaign, it is much more radical. Keep in mind that in the spring we are going to be creating another group at the New School to appeal to people who aren't going to be responsive to us when we talk about revolution, and overthrowing capitalism, and instituting a much more direct and participatory economy and society. That's why we put that in there, we want to appeal to a variety of people, but our goals-from the beginning-are much more radical.
PN: Do you mean to say that the means toward winning more radical ends have to appeal to present thought, especially in the way that leftists formulate ideas of "progress" and "transformation"? That at the present juncture it is not possible to "sell" revolution to the majority of the population, and that a leftist politics has to take steps toward that goal?
AM: Yes. For some people it may not take these steps, but for most it will.
PN: How do you formulate the interconnectedness between present demands and future goals in your politics?
AM: Look at it this way: There are steps that can be taken if we want a much more revolutionary democratic society, and I don't just mean in the political sphere but an abolition of the distinction between the political and the economic like what Marx and Engels talked about. We are in a university that has an endowment of 200 million dollars, which is not a lot for a university. In this situation there are things that we can do in the short term that will help to create the foundation for a more revolutionary economy and society that is directly democratic-or however you want to describe it.
In light of Obama's economic recovery plan, with its emphasis on the environment, the RSU thinks that the New School should do two things. One, it should invest in renewable energy production; The university should take a portion of its endowment and invest it in democratic, and maybe even worker-owned, global energy production. The other suggestion is that it should invest in cooperative credit unions. This would be a real solution in that it gives people access to credit that would be much more accountable to them than the big three. We should fight for credit unions owned by the people who have their money in them, and which are conceived as part of a long term project of building a more democratic society. Even though it would be a small achievement, it would lay the groundwork for a future economy in the here and now that would challenge the interests determining today's economy.
PN: It seems to me that the link between universities and war profiteering is epiphenomenal of a more deeply entrenched and systemic problem, the perennial reconstitution of capitalism. Thus we are faced with the task of delving deeper into the problem. In the work I've done with SDS members, theorists such as Michael Albert and David Harvey have defined the parameters of this task. Yet, I think that their analysis are insufficient, and despite their influence on students' political activity, the content of leftist politics remains unclear. You proposed creating a society in which investment could be decided on the basis of democratic deliberation, but what that sounds like is making capitalism more tolerable, thus leaving the mechanism through which agency is mediated intact. How is the fight against capital and the ostensible "democratization" of the system differentiated? Are they?
AM: As far as I am concerned -and this of course gets back to David Harvey- is that you can't, at this point, have a democratic form of capitalism. Why? Well what does this crisis signify for the future of global capitalism? What is happening today is leading us into a period of war. I believe that this is the beginning of a much larger period when you will have an unraveling of US hegemony. I think that this period we are heading into is going to be characterized by environmental crisis, and to a lesser extent continual economic crisis, but ultimately it will lead into a political crisis in which the United States will have to deal with rising powers. War mongers, Democrat or Republican, are going to be favoring these developments. That is why part of what we've been doing at the New School is fostering the seed for a new type of economy in the short term while creating an analysis of the relationship between war profiteers and financial institutions.
PN: What should the student movement do to transform the limitations of political consciousness today in order to create a better ground for a revolutionary politics in the future?
AM: I think that the student movement can play a role beyond the transformation of the university while it makes arguments about education in society. I think that it is extremely important to connect with other movements, for example, groups fighting for housing rights and against foreclosures and evictions. Some of us are already involved in this kind of work. We could revolutionize student power by taking this power and working alongside working people, people in neighborhoods against gentrification, as a means to unite people in their struggle.
Some people at the New School are going to respond to responsible investment, but of course I want more. As far as we are concerned, what reasonable person doesn't want more? And that is why having a solid analysis is so key. If we have a solid analysis we can explain why we are trying to take power in the university and move from this question to bigger issues. Who in the short term are we going to take power from? We are trying to take power from the treasurer of the board of trustees. Why? Only because he is a board of trustees member and we don't like those power dynamics? No. That is important, but we are also doing it because he is both the only the non-executive chairman at L-3 Communications, and a former managing director of Lehman Brothers. We are confronting what these corporations represent in the global power dynamic and how they keep people oppressed and in the conditions they are in through debt and loans. The IMF and the World Bank get their money from companies like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, J.P Morgan, and Citigroup.
People have incipient knowledge of what these financial institutions represent. But do they understand the dynamics of global capital and its relationship to power? Well, it's not that detailed, and I think that this where we come in. Unfortunately, we are privileged, but we can use our privilege to the benefit of other people by connecting the dots, by explaining what foreclosures have to do with the war and suggesting how to challenge that. An occupation is only an occupation, that is, when it's not part of a project like creating a democratic university. This is how I understand what you mentioned earlier about the struggle for democracy and the fight against capitalism. We are not perfect, but I don't think we fall into a trap here. I guess you could say I am not cynical.
PN: How do you understand leadership within a movement? What is the role of political leadership?
AM: Leadership is unavoidable and necessary. It's necessary because everybody is going to have different strengths and weaknesses depending on levels of experience. Leaders are essential, as long as they don't hinder the development of a democratically based organizational structure, and as long as they don't impede in the process of others developing their own capacity to be leaders. If they do, then that is a problem. It's a problem because even though those leaders might be effective in the short run, they are going to be ineffectual in building a larger movement. Ultimately they are going to fail to foster leadership to continue the job.
In Eric Fromm's Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, he distinguishes between rational and irrational forms of authority. The example that he uses for the irrational form of authority is the bureaucrats within the democratic process who try to perpetuate their position, their authority, in what happens in the daily life of the organization. Whereas a rational form of leadership is one that, in its operation, seeks to eliminate the need for its authority. The best type of leader is one that does just that: develops leaders that eliminate the need for that initial person. Obviously, a good leader will encourage others to develop their capacities.
PN: How could the new student movement succeed where the old one did not?
AM: Well the old one did not have as well thought out of an analysis. A lot of students that I know of have a stronger analysis of capitalism and a stronger understanding of history than those that were provided in the 1960s. I think that the difference between the student movement of the 1960s and the movement of today is that the first was a generation of people waking up and realizing that the capitalism was something and that the United States was something. But today is different, those who have overcome their cynicism and are part of organizing a better society today are much more in agreement with anti-capitalist sentiment, anti-imperialist sentiment, and can articulate this in a much stronger way than students in the 1960s. An analysis alone is one thing, as part of our efforts it will lead to a much more conscious and revolutionary form of organizing. I think that this approach is potentially more effective, obviously, we have yet to see if it is or not. I think that as opposed to a lack understanding of the workings of capitalism, one of the biggest barriers today is cynicism: the feeling that very little is possible today.
PN Postscript: Student politics today prioritizes the need for the democratization of financial structures, the break from transnational corporations, and the creation of transparent decision-making processes. Even at its best- in the struggle for dual-power through local control of factories, credit unions, and institutions-the student movement's imagination is finched in by predetermined and unquestioned political boundaries. The challenging of these boundaries is often left out of the equation.
Students play a peculiar role in the recreation of social life. While they do not constitute a class in themselves, they are at a point in their development where a serious shift in thought and thus political education can take place. This raises the question: what role could students play in furthering the scope and depth of an anti-capitalist politics and how do we begin this kind of work today? |P
Platypus Review 8 | November 2008
A prefatory statement from Retort: Having talked over your questions at length, we find that they can be answered best by grouping together several of them and trying to spell out the key issues and assumptions we see underlying them. That way, we hope, the common ground between Retort and Platypus will be clear —as well as the nature of our disagreements.
Soren Whited: How would you describe the historical and conceptual relationship between the commodity form —first articulated by Marx and further elaborated by Lukacs as “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects”—and the concept of spectacle— first formulated by Guy Debord as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image”?
It is Platypus’ understanding that the commodity form should not merely be condemned, but rather —as the current form of social mediation— that it points beyond itself, that as the site of reification it is also the basis from which critical and progressive consciousness can be raised. What do you think of this statement? Do you think that spectacle points beyond itself in a similar way? Is spectacle a dialectical category?
Along the same lines, we in Platypus feel that the enormous social and productive forces of capitalism continually both undermine and reproduce the possibilities of human potential and transformation. Do you see a way in which these great forces —which, as alienated from their own historical agents have proven unfathomably destructive— can themselves be politically redirected toward their own conscious overcoming? Can these awesome forces be transformed and redeemed?
Retort: We too, with reservations to be explained later, take the commodity form to be central to an understanding of the last four hundred years. Marx’s analysis of the form, as we understand it, is an attempt to describe what happens to social relations when a previous age-old pattern of face-to-face (and sword-to-sword) social dealings, rooted in hands-on work and consumption, are more and more comprehensively mediated by a money economy. The picture Marx paints is familiar: a system takes shape in which almost all human activities and products, and more and more natural goods, are deemed to have value only (or predominantly) by dint of their participating, as abstractions or phantoms, in a generalized circuit of exchange.
Spectacle is a theory of the ongoing consequences of that economic ghost-dance for the day-to-day substance of human interactions and self-understanding. It is certainly an extrapolation from Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities, but it puts more stress than Marx did on the phenomenal form of that fetishism: the specific character of the phenomenal form, the intensification of the form’s phantasmagoric power over human actors, and the specific political problems and opportunities that follow from that intensification. To cast the basic proposal in Marxist terms: as use-value is supplanted by exchange-value, so materiality cedes to appearance. And the “as” and “so” here are not just logical operators: materiality —the continual production of representations of the world as substantial, resistant, “embodied,” “here and now,” having this specific otherness to human subjects’ wishes— is the necessary symbolic economy accompanying an economy of use-value, just as image (or virtuality, or image, or spectacle) is the necessary pseudo-sociality —the necessary shadow-form of a vanished encounter with things as bodies and bodies as totalities— for an economy of abstract equivalence.
SW: You have sharply criticized the radical de-politicization that the concept of spectacle has undergone at the hands of “approved postmodern discourse” in the four decades since Debord first published The Society of the Spectacle. To what do you attribute this trajectory? And how might the term regain its critical purchase?
Afflicted Powers points out that the realm of the spectacle “erodes the boundary between the imaged (the imaginary) and the real.” Is this boundary literally or apparently eroded? Retort: When we object to the de-politicization of the theory of spectacle, this is not (or not just) because we are a bunch of politicos. It is because the concept was originally generated as part of an argument with classical Marxism —the least glance at Debord’s book confirms this— and in particular took issue with that older Left’s view of the state and society. That remains its cutting edge. The theory says this: As appearances become the (pseudo-)substance of social relations, a specific problem of power emerges. Power becomes more and more a matter (alongside its primordial brute forms, which certainly do not go away) of management in the realm of appearances. Spectacle, as we read it, is primarily a theory of politics —of social control, of the grounds of a continuing struggle to re-center and consolidate the state-form and the last vestiges of charismatic authority and solidarity— in conditions of advanced capitalism. It is no doubt a theory that starts by trying to specify the characteristics of a new stage of capitalist development. Its object is “consumerism.” But only —or mainly— in order to point to the central paradox of commodification as it spreads wider and deeper into the texture of everyday life: as this dispersal and banalization, this general thinning of social oxygen, intensifies, there arises the political problem of re-consolidating social life around a new (or new-old) set of identities, loyalties, identifications, homeopathic doses of togetherness, “imagined communities.” No one who has lived through the era of Bush-and-the-evangelicals needs lessons on this politics’ effects.
We are thinking broadly, and of course schematically, about the history of the last two hundred years. Like Platypus, we think the commodity economy is a main key to understanding that history, but it is not the be-all and end-all of explanation. Insofar as the two centuries are susceptible at all to historical generalization, Commodity cannot be the constant dominant. Nature, Nation, and War are, alas, just as important. Malthus, Herder, and Clausewitz are modernity’s theorists alongside Marx. A grim trio —but so is their object of study. Sometimes, reading Marxist accounts of modernity, it seems as if it is being suggested that the permanent catastrophe of the twentieth century was nothing (“essentially”) but the unfolding —the disclosure— of an economic fate. It is as if one constant thread of Marx’s writing had not been the grating between the logic of capital and the politics of empire and nation-state. No doubt it is futile to blame Marx for not foreseeing the world-historical consequences of the application of the new “productive forces” to warfare, or the results that would follow from the global market becoming, most dynamically, a market for arms. But the results are there to see; and we do not doubt that Marx himself would have realized that they were more than noise on the message of capitalism’s future-directedness, alienation, and eventual redemption. (We understand the impulse behind your language of alienation and redemption. We too would like to go on believing in capitalism’s immanent “overcoming.” But sometimes a point is reached in historical analysis at which it has to be recognized that the “interference” of external factors has destroyed the integrity of the system and its dialectical unfolding. Such was the case with capitalism in relation to war and nation in the last century, we think; and now, with a vengeance again, in relation to scarcity of resources and the continual tip-over of “production” into destruction, depletion, and rape of the planet.)
Again, we have no intention of abandoning the category “commodity.” It remains a central theme of any Marxist analysis. The question (which we think Marx himself broached) is how to coordinate the category with others, historically, and how to recognize the shifting causal force of the factors in play. Spectacle, conceived as a theory of capitalist politics, is one such effort at coordination. One way of rephrasing its theses, now with the phenomena of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalisms in mind, would be as follows: Let us grant that one main thread of the history of the last two hundred years has been the spread and intensification of “imagined communities” world-wide, as a consequence of print capitalism. Benedict Anderson has taught us this much. But just as fundamental a consequence was the erosion of non-imagined communities – the shredding of the pattern of interactions, agreements, and solidarities (plus negatives of all three) that had made up previous civil society. Of course by “non-imagined” we are not pointing to an original state of pure presence-for-others. All communities are imaginary —if we mean by this that they are constituted in part by an apparatus of symbolic forms. But the “in part” is crucial. It is only twenty-first century intellectuals who believe that everything human is always already representation. If we could take them back to a stockyard or a guildhall or a Glasgow “steamy” —or indeed to a “market” before the Right eviscerated the notion— they would soon see that human beings have other ways of making each other meaningful besides branding and signing. And it is the interaction of these different ways —of these different materialities and intentionalities— that make up a human world.
Political modernity, then, is the collision of imagined and non-imagined community, and the overtaking of the latter by the former. The net result of the overtaking, which is constantly being resisted and eluded by human actors —only think of the crude body-politics of the “demonstration,” time and again rising from the spectacular dead— is what we call weak citizenship. Weak citizenship, by its very nature, is prone to spasms of increasingly counterfactual, and therefore toxic, imagined community. And this, says the theory of spectacle, produces a specific politics: more and more, in face of the deficit, the state is forced to take control of, and intensify, imagined community and make it equal the nation-state. Fascism was the crude pure form of this pathology, but only slightly less virulent strains are still everywhere. Controlling the imagined community means, in conditions of spectacle, controlling appearances above all. This makes for problems for the new powers that be. That was one main thing Afflicted Powers was about. The Left, so we argued, would do well to confront the vulnerabilities of the capitalist state at the level of its image-life. What we did not argue was that the attacks of September 11 somehow proved that the image-war had supplanted the bullet-and-bomb one, or that victory on the screen —the Towers crumbling— was separable from the historical circumstances informing it. “Perhaps we should say it explicitly: it may or may not be the case that a particular image-event can in itself alter the balance of world-political forces, surging out of the blue of international disorder and remaking the terms of statecraft. Logically this is possible. The notion of spectacle at least suggests a tendential development toward a situation in which, empirically, something like this might one day happen. But September 11 was not it. It was an image-defeat, yes; but it only produced the longterm or midterm effects that it did because, as an image, it resonated so ominously with the gross material realities of ‘failed states,’ the disintegrating world arms market, the threats to the state’s monopoly of the means of mass destruction, and the general neo-liberalization of war.”
SW: Why has Spectacle figured so prominently in your analysis of post 9/11 politics? Is the role and function of spectacle different now than it was when Debord first developed the category? Did it change as a result of 9/11?
Retort: Much more remains to be said about the new politics of appearance. In various ways, the image-events of the past four years point to forms of warfare beyond the Al-Qaida frame. The militants of September 11 aimed at producing a crisis in the consumption of appearances: they would ensure that for a while the wrong appearance —the anti-appearance— would flood the weak citizen’s sensorium.
But nowadays the generalized availability of the digital camera, the cell-phone, and the cell-phone video —in the streets and morgues of Lebanon, in Saddam’s execution chamber, in Chavez’s palace as the US stooges stage their “democratic” coup— begins to alter the terms of image-struggle. A crisis of consumption is followed by a crisis of production. As with war in the twentieth century, there is a strictly technological dimension to the blowback. The new gadgetry is spawned as part of —instrumentation of— the ongoing colonization of everyday life. “Consumers” must become producers, minute by minute, of their alienated image-life. There’s money in Facebook. But when strong citizens —most often hideously strong, with the strength of umma and jihad— wish to do battle with their oppressors, they have new weapons at their disposal. They can show on line, in “real” time, what their oppressors are up to. “Bombing” becomes bodies bursting into flame. The “birth-pangs of a new Middle East” turn out not to be family viewing. “Death to the Persians!” Lindie English mugs for the camera. A severed head explodes from the noose.
“Given the global media environment,” complained one commentator at the time of the Lebanon invasion, “the terrorists may have developed methods that make it nearly impossible for superior military forces to uproot them.” What a shame.
But only a fool would exult in all this. We are no admirers of Sheik Nasrallah. And what Retort thinks is happening is an image-production arms-race, not a wholesale leakage of image-power into the city of slums. Power is working frantically to outmaneuver the opposition. The Chinese Communist Party, we gather, installed 300,000 new CCTVs in Beijing for the Olympics. But do they work? Will they be serviced regularly? What are they for, once the fans have dispersed? Will they keep pace with the forms of resistance to come (which is certainly why the Party spent so much on them)? Or will there be 300,000 bloody sequences, after the event, of bureaucrats pleading for mercy? Spectacle, as a theory and (in Situationist hands) a guide to action, dwells precisely on this dialectic. Spectacle is commodification perfected: once upon a time (in Polanyi’s universe) it was only the ruling realities of land, labor, and money that stood to be de-realized and turned into fully fungible abstractions; now it is body, desire, identity, community, subjectivity, “difference” itself. Maybe the de-realization is irreversible. But perhaps there is a politique du pire even in the realm of unreality. Images are not in and of themselves “unreal.” What is unreal is their self-sufficiency, their being-together in a circuit in which they appear to be what they show. What is unreal is the one-way street of representation – the fact that images, in so many circumstances, are not open to recall, correction, parody, refutation. Without being in the least starry-eyed about the specific battlecries and combatants at present, we can say that the last few years have seen the one-way street begin to turn into a site of house-to-house warfare. The Left will continue an irrelevance —as it mostly is at present— if it fails to respond to this struggle for mastery over the means of symbolic production. Polanyi may still prove right. He believed, you will recall, that capitalism’s progressive dissolution and fragmentation of human sociality was bound to reach an end-point, in which the fictitiousness of the commodity world would prove self-defeating. Human sociality, he thought, simply could not sustain itself without a texture of practices that continually put men and women back in contact with nature, materiality, and each other. Spectacle, Polanyi would have felt, is simply a further stage in the destruction of those practices. And at a certain point the process will implode. For him, the present desperate —and most often frightening— efforts to wrest the image- machines from their owners’ hands, and turn them against modernity itself, would be only the first sign, the opening salvo, in a new battle to reconstitute the human. We hope he is right.
SW: In the book Afflicted Powers, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is categorically condemned, but it is credited with being the only “adequate” opposition to modernity. The final chapter of the book asks what such an opposition from the Left might look like. But why must Modernity itself be opposed? Or, to change the emphasis, why is it modernity that must be opposed?
The final chapter of Afflicted Powers introduces a variation of Nietzsche’s question, “What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?” Retort asks “What Does The Vanguard Ideal Mean?” In his own question Nietzsche, you point out, “is very far from dismissing” the ascetic ideal, rather, he is interested in its “purpose”, its “historical function”. You then advocate for the same approach to a critique of the vanguard ideal. But your own verdict on the phenomenon of the vanguard ideal is that it “was an understandable response to the reality… of history.” But does this not imply that such a response was merely mistaken, rendering your critique somewhat dismissive? Do you feel that vanguard revolutionary leadership has had and can have no historical function in the development of revolutionary consciousness, even if ultimately such forms of leadership must be worked through and overcome?
In that same chapter you imagine a militant’s pledge to not be Modern. To what degree is this possible, and how should we interpret such a sentiment today? If one can choose to not be modern, can one, conversely, choose to be modern? Should one? Does one have to?
Retort: Your basic intuition here is right: for us the questions of modernity and vanguardism are intertwined. The vanguard model of revolutionary action —the belief that history has a knowable path into the future, and that the key forces that go to make that future can and must be represented (in the two senses of the word) by a disciplined set of proprietors of historical truth— is one pure form of an historical consciousness that stands at the center of modernity as we understand it. We think this a poisonous heritage. The theory of history is wrong; the stress put on representation is wrong; and both errors lead on to something much worse than error: the theory and practice of the proprietorship of truth, about whose consequences for the Left, and its victims, in the last century the less said the better.
We make a distinction between vanguardism and political leadership. If the latter can be prized apart from the history/representation/proprietorship triad, a whole field of necessary —and difficult— questions opens up. Of course Left politics revolves in part around small groups of intellectuals with (occasionally) bright ideas. Of course resistance to the present order suffers often from being too local and single-issue, or from still seeing its particular struggle in “broader” terms borrowed from Lenin or Mao or Slavoj Zizek. Small groups with a sense of history —because we deny that history is knowable as a totality and a “direction,” does not mean we think it any the less important for particular refutable theses about its past and present shape to be made part of the Left’s practical armory— have a job to do. Resistance often needs to be focused. Small groups can sometimes be crucial in providing initiative, or even a “larger framework.” The very word “leadership” need not put us in a panic: the task is to align it with craftsmanship or seamanship or musicianship – that is, to tie it to competence in a particular set of tasks and skills. All of which amounts to saying that if “vanguard” or “militant” could be robbed of their metaphorics of history as Napoleonic campaign —with always the same but different Napoleon moving the masses on his map in the tent— then even these words might be reclaimable. But we doubt it.
It interests us that many of our best readers on the Left balk at our seeming hostility to the modern. (Several of our worst readers conflate our hostility with that of the Islamist vanguard. But such idiocies are par for the course.) Rather than try yet again to state that “modernity” is not a specifiable set of social and technical advances —from which, obviously, there is no turning back— but a specific symbolic economy, a picture of history and subjectivity… Rather than pointing to the fact that the effective present form of resistance to capitalism just is an attack on capitalism as the carrier of that symbolic economy, and that the Left will permanently sideline itself if it leaves the terms of critique in the hands of al- Zawahiri… Rather than asking if a critique of modernity has necessarily to end up as a primitivism… (Obviously we think not. And the fear of a new primitivism is at present mainly an alibi for the Left’s not thinking about the crisis of natural resources, and what might be involved in a politics of real deceleration of “development.” The deceleration will happen, we think, whether we like it or not. We are living through its beginnings. The problem for the Left, then, is how to prevent the process bringing on an atavism that will make Fascism itself look benign.) Rather than repeating ourselves, let us turn the tables. Why is modernity the sticking point for so much of the Left? Again the question of vanguardism looms. For if our argument has been that modernity is now in crisis, what we mainly mean by this —our critics have sensed as much —is that its very model of temporality is foundering: its assumption that history is future-directed, and therefore open to direction. And could there be a Left without such an assumption? What will the Left be like without futurity —without the notion of the vanguard as handmaid of history? Modernity is precious to its true believers —a present without modernity is unthinkable —above all because the modern is always about to deliver its “next stage,” its aufhebung. |P
Platypus Review 6 | September 2008
From July 24th until July 28th 2008, the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had its third annual national convention in College Park, Maryland. At the convention, national campaigns were presented and voted on by the attendees. A major campaign introduced at the convention was the Hundred Days campaign, which seeks to organize and engage newly politicized Americans in politics beyond the campaign season. During the first one hundred days of the next administration the campaign will organize two nationwide weeks of action to ensure that the people remain involved in politics after the election cycle. Laurie Rojas, member of Chicago SDS, collaborating author of the Hundred Days campaign and editor of The Platypus Review interviews Rachel Haut, labor researcher, member of the New York non-student SDS chapter, and collaborating author of the Hundred Days campaign.
Laurie Rojas: One of the most important decisions made during the 2008 SDS National Convention was the passing of the national structure. You were the author of one of the three main decision-making structure proposals, can you talk a little about the most essential characteristics of the structure proposal you submitted?
Rachel Haut: The structure proposal that I submitted and later combined with a structure submitted by two students from Florida SDS was the most minimalistic structure offered. I felt that because there were so few people participating in national SDS, we really didn’t have the capabilities to do anything else outside the convention at this time. So, the structure proposal that we wrote would make our annual conventions the decision making body. Working groups get to carry out the decisions made in the convention throughout the year, and make decisions through that mandate. There were a couple of more details of course, but that was the gist of it.
LR: Retrospectively, why do you think your structure proposal did not pass? Why didn’t it receive majority support?
RH: I felt like all the other proposals had a clear ideological line, and ours didn’t, and that’s why ours would work. A lot of people at the convention thought we were capable of having a national structure that could make decisions throughout the year. I don’t think that. A lot of times they posed the question of what would happen if an emergency situation came up. I don’t think that there are going to be a lot of situations that require a national organization to just jump in. So that wasn’t a concern of mine, but it was for others. I guess they wanted more structure and a mechanism that could facilitate building the national organization while still encompassing our values and principles. Which, at face value, the proposal that passed at the convention didn’t encompass, but with the amendments proposed during the convention, the structure was made more democratic.
LR: What do you think will be some of the challenges presented by the new structure we just passed, with the amendments included? I am afraid that the national working committee is going to spend three to four months just figuring out how they are going to make decisions internally, what decisions they should be making, etc.
RH: One of the big challenges is actually getting the structure to work. I guess we are just going to have to wait and see if people are going to step up and actually do what they committed to and create a decision-making process within the national working committee. I am not too concerned that they’re going to take too much power; I am more concerned that they are just not going to do anything that they said they would and we will come back to the convention next year and have nothing. I do believe that there are people who have been with SDS for a while and that do have an agenda. Most of the people with experience in the national working committee don’t have an agenda. However, there are a few people that might not even have enough experience to know how to hold these kinds of commitments.
LR: What do you mean having an agenda?
RH: They are members of FRSO, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a Maoist organization. FRSO had a split in 1999; there is a FRSO "soft" and a FRSO "hard." The FRSO hard has a couple of members in the national working committee. I believe that Maoism is in opposition to a democratic society, and thus their position or reason for being in SDS is opportunist. We are attempting to build a student movement not a Maoist movement.
LR: During the convention, people pointed out who the members of FRSO were, as well as who the “crazy” anarchists were. But I never had the opportunity to have an ideological discussion about what kind of differences existed in the organization. There were no conversations where I had a clear representation of differences; I don’t really know the politics or the ideological inclination of the different kinds of anarchists or Maoists in the SDS. I don’t have an image of what they stand for. Why do you think the ideological conversation is avoided? Because it is avoided, and people are really careful to make sure the conversation doesn’t go there. I want to know why we’re steering away from an ideological discussion when it might clearly affect decisions at the national level.
RH: One of the SDS facilitators at the convention told me that the ideological differences need to be discussed and she wanted to do something about it. I said that I didn’t know if this was the right time. She asked why. I said that the kind of conversation concerning building a democratic society has to happen, especially an ideological conversation-- because there are differences. However, I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization. Why should we be having these conversations with them, including them in the discussion, if their ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society? To say that the Maoists can be part of the ideological debate would mean to condone them being in this organization, which is something I don’t do. In the New York City SDS I have spoken numerous times with SDSers who are not Maoists about having the Maoists or certain kinds of anarchists in our organization, because both sides hurt us. If we want to build a democratic society, and we want to be relevant, both of these opposing forces are working against us. There are varying degrees of anarchism, definitely, as well as varying degrees of socialism. But, I think ideas that conflict with our vision and our goals need to be clearly defined and excluded before we can actually start talking about our ideological differences formally as a national organization.
LR: For me, it is important to somehow clearly define where certain types of politics stand and how they affect the organization. This concerns me because there is a lack of clarity about how these differences express themselves. Maybe if these distinctions or ideological differences were put on the table it would allow us to better understand what the organization stands for. Perhaps, we missed a moment to not only separate the politics or the ideology that doesn’t fit the organization, but to more clearly define the goals of the organization itself. Do you really think it would have been damaging to have the Maoists, the anarchists, and everybody else in the room be able to realize whether or not we share goals?
RH: Possibly, except we don’t have a mechanism to be able to say to somebody: “you are not interested in building a democratic society and you are not welcome in this organization.” To put that on that table, but to have no way of questioning it would be premature, or possibly dangerous. I have had lengthy discussions about the fact that SDS has a vision statement, which is very good, well worded, and defines who we are as an organization: we are not a vanguard. What could it mean to write, propose, vote, and implement campaigns that would incorporate our vision? It could possibly allow us to start dealing with these forces. The Student Power campaign and Hundred Days campaign are both working on making us relevant, and are following the vision statements. These campaigns will allow us to grow as an organization. These factional forces on either side are going to eventually drop out or be outnumbered.
LR: So the fear right now is an ideological confrontation could be a major conflict, and that it might precipitate a seriously divisive moment between people who want to handle the problem differently. So is there fear of a major split?
RH: I don’t think that there should be a split; I think that we should just start implementing our vision of strategic campaigns. And we should focus less on certain campaigns, like the proposal to protest McCain that was submitted by FRSO, which is a reactionary campaign that does not achieve a goal. We can be a less viable organization for these people if we are not achieving their goals. We can continue to organize, to build power without catering to any of those forces, we don’t need to have protests to actually get things done, just protests as tactics. This is probably the best first step we can take.
LR: Another significant moment of the convention happened around the campaign proposals. Chicago SDS and NYC SDS chapters submitted campaign proposals that seek to use the coming elections, especially the Obama rhetoric of “hope” and “change,” as a pivotal moment for SDS to coordinate actions, build alliances, organize nationally, and hence grow stronger. In hopes of making our campaign stronger we combined our proposals, and presented them at the national convention. How did the idea for the Hundred Days Campaign emerge in NY?
RH: I think it emerged after talking to some people from Chicago SDS at the Left Forum (March 14-16, NYC). We started the conversation there, went off in different directions, created two different proposals, and then we merged them again. Dave Shukla and I spoke on the SDS panel at the Left Forum about building a revolutionary student movement. Afterwards, some of the people from Chicago came up to us. We got pizza and started talking about organizing something around the elections and about how we’ve got to be relevant. Originally, the woman who initiated the discussion had the idea of doing something right after Election Day. She said we should protest, and we responded that we couldn’t protest the first black American president, but perhaps we could have teach-ins. I am not sure whether it was Dave or I who had the idea for the Hundred Days campaign. At the same time people from Chicago were starting to talk about doing student actions together, and even a week of action was mentioned in those early conversations. We finally came together because we had the same goals; they had just been written a little differently.
LR: I know perfectly well who those people were, Pam Nogales, Greg Gabrellas and Ben Shepard, I remember them coming back and telling us about the Left Forum conversation. Now, as you and I already know our proposal did not pass at the national convention, although we did have majority support. We are still working on getting full SDS support and trying to get it passed by the new national working committee. Why do you think this campaign should be a national SDS priority?
RH: In order to become a viable student organization and powerful force for social change we must be relevant to the elections. How many thousands of students are getting excited about the elections, voting for the first time and getting involved in politics for the first time? I worked on the Nader campaign in 2000, and I remember a couple of people with buttons and pins. But now on the subway in New York I see thousands of Obama pins everywhere. You do not see McCain pins everywhere. You never saw Bush pins or Kerry pins everywhere. It’s a social phenomenon that’s really coming from a grassroots base. I’ve seen bake sales for Obama. There is an incredible development of grassroots fundraising; about 90% of his donors are from small contributions, although about 55% of the money he is getting is from corporations. People hear a great message of hope and change. We also want change, we know that this society isn’t working and we want to propose to new people, and slowly integrate them into the process on the basis of their skills and interests. We need to bring people in through the discussions that politicized us. We need to meet students where they are at. Beyond working with students, it is absolutely essential to work with other organizations that build other social movements. We don’t have the ability to organize workers, but we need coalitions with organized labor and its base. SDS needs to develop into a force for change on the national scene, capable of keeping the Obama presidency accountable and responding when it fails. I think this campaign is a great beginning, because it provides the opportunity to build coalitions and fellowships with other groups with the long term goal in mind of gaining political power.
LR: After the Hundred Days, how will we be able to judge the success of this campaign?
RH: If we have developed working relationships with other organizations that would be a success. Also, being able to figure out what could have improved so that we can do better next time. Knowing that SDS can be part of something big, knowing that we don’t have to lead it, but that we can be a part of shifting this country to the left, that would also be a success.
LR: I want to pull away from the campaign, and look at the big picture in the form of a comparison with SDS in the 60’s and SDS now. What do you think are some of the most pressing unresolved problems that SDS faced in the 60’s that we still face in the present?
RH: Well, first, it’s still predominantly white. A couple of different things come to mind. There are a large amount of students in SDS now who are enamored with the 60’s, who fetishize it, specifically the Weather Underground, and all of their tactics. I believe that the conditions of capitalism have greatly changed since the 60’s movement. We’re in a kind of contradictory situation because the SDS in the 60’s has this great legacy that gives us energy and provides a lot of potential. But it is also a burden. People repeat the same mistakes just because the 60’s were cool. They do these tactics because SDS in the 60’s grew so big. But it failed. Now, under the different conditions of capitalism, we are still repeating the same tactics, and expecting different results-- being in a counterculture that’s into drugs and having orgies and trying to make SDS cool again. I don’t see people learning from the lessons of the past, realizing that although SDS grew a lot, it failed. Those tactics might work for a little while, but we need to have long term strategies. We need to build a movement for the long haul that can be about students getting involved in alternative politics.
LR: What is your vision of SDS in 5 years?
RH: I would like to see SDS become a recognized national organization building a democratic society. There has been a lot of emphasis on tearing things down, with the proposals presented at the national convention like “stop I-69”, or stopping the war, instead we need to start building something that can replace capitalism. Let’s build a democratic structure that can mirror the society we want to see developed. I want to see SDS building a movement that teaches people how to organize SDS on campuses across the nation, including in technical schools. We must be a cool, sexy organization that is at the same time efficient at involving new people, and getting them active in campaigns that can achieve immediate short term goals while building something bigger. SDS has to have a place for political discussions, but also has to have a place to be social, and talk about music. We need to be an organization that can train people to do grassroots organizing, and that can sustain itself while it grows and changes.
LR: Would you like to add a closing remark?
RH: I am really excited about the Hundred Days campaign, although we have a lot of work ahead of us. Whether national SDS endorses it, the chapters that partake in the campaign are going to become huge and develop the ability to work with other groups. Those chapters are going to be really powerful, and this campaign will potentially allow them to participate in social change in their areas. I know that’s where I am going to be putting all of my energy.
Postcript—LR After conducting this interview, I now realize that there are terms we on the Left commonly use and, more often than not, take their meaning for granted. For example, I have no doubt that Rachel Haut and I have different ideas of what terms like "ideology," "democracy," "radical," "anarchist" or "socialist" mean. The term "democratic" most clearly expresses this problem in SDS. The result is that both sides of a disagreement can claim to have democratic principles on their side. This represents a larger problem for the Left. We have inherited terminology like "alienation," "oppression," "Marxism," and "liberalism" without a sufficient understanding or agreement about what these terms may mean today. Worse, we have even lost the desire to clarify those terms for ourselves and for each other, often opting for neologisms and neglecting clarification. This clarification is necessary if we wish to advance the possibility of social transformation. The largest and most troubling term we face is "capitalism," because how we develop our anti-capitalist movement depends on our understanding of what we aim to overcome. If we don't clarify the full and complex meaning of these opaque terms for ourselves, it will mean that although we are working together we may not be working for the same goals. Then, all the Left is building is its own Tower of Babel. I ask my fellow SDSers, and those on the Left more broadly, to use the Platypus Review as a place to develop a clarification of these terms and, more importantly, our goals. |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
A paradox confronts American environmentalists, according to James Gustave Speth, the Dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “We now have a flourishing environmental movement, a proliferating number of organisations, more and more money going into this, decades now of environmental legislation and programs, at all levels of government, and the environment keeps going downhill.”
The contradiction, according to Speth, results from the U.S. environmental movement focusing too narrowly on working “within the system.” They lobby, litigate and educate the public to the neglect of an “equally powerful effort to change the system itself.” “We haven’t challenged corporate power and the domination of wealth in our political process, we haven’t… challenged the deep subsidisation of environmental destruction… we haven’t challenged growth itself, we certainly haven’t challenged our own hyperventilating lifestyles.”
The environmental movement, he continues, must move beyond the victories of the 1970s that led to technocratic environmental regulation. It needs to go from being “basically… an inside the Beltway business” towards an “environmental movement that is far more committed to building grassroots political power. We need a real movement and we need to get real political about it.”
A major task of this grassroots political movement is to exert the pressure necessary to transform capitalism towards an ecologically sustainable end. Capitalism, according to Speth, presently cannot reproduce itself without concurrently increasing the level of economic activity. This activity, he maintains, can be “less or more environmentally destructive,” but ultimately undermines sustainable development. “This is the core of the problem. We have a system that is very successful at creating economic growth and this economic growth is inherently destructive and is overwhelming our efforts at environmental clean-up and environmental management.”
The crushing current of capitalist production, however, is one that Speth suggests can be mitigated. Prices can be adjusted to be “environmentally honest” through market-oriented instruments such as emission cap and trade permits. Growth can be tempered by shifting the focus away from traditional statistics that exclusively measure growth, such as Gross Domestic Product, towards ones that measure progress towards sustainability, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. Finally, the legal structure of large trans-national firms can be recast to make them responsive to environmental and social imperatives. “The corporations should be governed with the participation of all of the stakeholders in the corporation and not just the people elected by… the shareholders… this would change the dynamics of the corporations fundamentally. It would make the corporation a lot more open to protecting local communities where they live and work, it would make them a lot more responsible and responsive to environmental concerns… it would not be a constant war to maximize profits.” He even briefly situates his programme within an earlier revolutionary tradition: “We must dramatically change the publicly traded, limited liability global corporation just as previous generations set out to eliminate or control the monarchy”.
Ironically it was the Nineteenth Century European revolutions to “eliminate or control the monarchy” that primarily enabled the age of industrial capitalism. These capitalist social relations were far more productive and dynamic than the feudal relations that were overthrown. This dynamism and productivity, however, is interwoven with contradictions. The current environmental crisis highlights this contradictory character. Capitalism is not only generative of the blind runaway development that causes the damage, but also of a science which can quantify the damage and model scenarios for its mitigation, cultural currents that redefine use-values to include environmental parameters and even price mechanisms that warn capitalists of ecological constraints on productivity. Ultimately, our ability to both cause and recognise the problem is a product of capital. Dr. Speth’s renewed call to “eliminate or control the monarchy” arises from a growing gap between “how things are” (worsening environmental conditions) and “how things ought to be” (awareness of the possibility of solutions). This gap not only results in crisis, it also provides the revolutionary germ for transcending capitalism and, as such, the possibility of directly dealing with environmental problems. Crises, however, have been historically averted not by revolution, but by policies of reform. The ultimate goal of these reformisms is not the overcoming of capitalism, but rather, to make the necessary changes for it to persist. Unwittingly, by not confronting the fundamental logic of capitalism, reformism provides the basis for renewed contradictions and crisis.
Dr. Speth’s programme, in this sense, is not revolutionary, but reformist. Instead of fundamentally trying to reshape society in an ecologically sustainable way, as he frames his goal at the beginning of the interview, he brackets this transformation within the confines of capitalist production. Like the reformers of the past, he searches for the steps necessary to renew capitalist accumulation in the face of this latest looming crisis.
There are already a number of mechanisms to renew profitability in the face of environmental degradation. Speth provides an example of such a mechanism in his interview. Previous to the 1970s acid emissions grew in-step with economic activity in industrialised countries. Using a combination of stringent regulations (1970s) and a sulphur dioxide cap and trade emission trading system (1990s) the ratio of sulphur dioxide/GDP fell among U.S. firms by an average rate of 9% per year (1970–2000). The environmental crisis of acid rain, consequently, had the effect of encouraging capitalists to adapt and determine new ways of accumulating capital. These new ways increased profitability in spite of mitigation costs. The reproduction of capitalism in this non-polluting form, consequently, acted to restore profitability.
Harriett Friedmann points out “Just as a “coalition of enlightened capitalists, middle-class reformers and militant labor movements brought us not socialism but welfare capitalism” so the coalition of environmental, consumer and fair-trade movements promised not a reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity, but green capitalism.” Speth’s reformed capitalism is still capitalism and, as such, it is subjected to the contradictions inherent in all historic forms of capitalism. These contradictions invariably sew the seeds for new and varied crises. A good illustration of the self-perpetuating nature of reformism, and one that is of pressing relevance to the environmental movement, is the string of crises that have plagued agricultural production from the outset of industrial capitalism.
The rapid urbanisation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution resulted in a disastrous rise in food prices. Instead of confronting capitalist production directly, British liberals resolved the crisis indirectly by eliminating agricultural tariffs. The European Diaspora in the Americas and Oceania responded to the opened market and increased their production of food. European capital tied these distant agricultural areas together in a network of railways and shipping fleets. By 1873 this network caused regional wheat prices to converge into a world market. This market expanded considerably and by 1929 its production had increased almost six-fold.
While the reforms of the first food crisis achieved the goal of reducing food costs in the urban industrialised core, it also created the basis for a renewed crisis. This new crisis had a different appearance. Perhaps the most devastating manifestation was the sudden drop in prices that resulted from overproduction coupled with intense international competition. Between 1925 and 1935 prices dropped steeply by two thirds and this undermined the profitability of most farmers.
The more well-known symbol of this crisis, however, was the ecological catastrophe of the “Dust Bowl”. Unlike the scientific focus on long-term soil fertility of the earlier English High Farming, the new era of Diasporic-Colonial farmers ploughed perennial grasslands down without an understanding of how to prevent chronic soil erosion. Within two generations, consequently, North American farms turned their highly productive soil into a wasteland.
The farm crisis of 1925–1935 was addressed in the U.S. by the New Deal reforms that supported beleaguered farmers through government purchases of surplus commodities. This form was replicated after the war by other advanced capitalist countries. Although this policy stabilised farm incomes it had the unintended consequence of subsidising the overproduction of food in advanced capitalist countries, which in turn, depressed production in developing countries. Furthermore, productivity was restored not by returning to High English Farming practices, but by a value maximizing assemblage of industrially-produced inputs, including machinery, agro-chemicals and genetically-improved seeds.
The continued failure to deal with the commodity nature of agricultural production resulted in a renewed food crisis in 1974, in the midst of a period of immense global economic turbulence. Falling profitability of U.S. manufacturers coupled with escalating national balance of payment deficits forced the U.S. to deal with its accumulated food surplus. A massive Soviet-American grain deal in 1972 and 1973 provided the U.S. an opportunity to sell off its massive surplus for needed hard currency. Consequently the reliably abundant U.S. food surplus was suddenly unavailable to developing countries and prices for grains and oilseeds tripled. Furthermore, the crisis precipitated the abandonment of the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, which essentially enabled the freer movement of international capital, and consequently, the expansion of trans-national corporations. Corporate dominance, therefore, has more to do with the failure of an earlier reformist policy to deal with the financial instability that plagued the 1930s than, as Dr. Speth asserts, an unfortunate corporate legal structure. From this perspective, the increasing influence of corporate actors in determining agricultural development, from genetically modified crops to monoculture, must ultimately be understood as a historic failure of an earlier reformism rather than a property inherent of corporations per se.
The solution to the food crisis of 1974 was to work towards an international agreement on agricultural trade. We are presently witnessing the failure of this solution, as international food prices again sore in 2008. High food prices were the genesis of the original reforms in 1846 and yet, after three major international food crises, reformist policies have only deepened the problem. The failure to arrive at an international agreement on agricultural trade at the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round has set the stage for the latest reformist attempt to deal with the food crisis. Private capitals have seized on the failure of multilateral agricultural negotiations to establish their own international food standards. These standards have enabled the development of two internationally differentiated food streams: one stream for affluent consumers providing high quality food grown with environmentally sustainable practices and fair-trade labor, while another stream supplies the remainder of humanity with the opposite.
Herein lays a deeper problem with reforming capitalism and one that drives at the heart of the paradox identified by Speth at the beginning of his interview: why in the face of a looming environmental crisis does a mass movement of “common concern” fail to act? The constant cycle of reformism and crisis suggests that an underlying dynamic is directing events rather than the actions of political movements. In the absence of an international politics of the Left, contemporary politics are unable to fully confront or resolve crises and are, thus, understandably disempowering. While the instruments of reform (eg. cap and trade emission trading system, redesigning corporate legal structures) have the capacity to avert crisis, they focus on these “means” at the expense of seriously considering the “ends,” or more specifically, the “reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity.” Speth’s “ends” are all mediated indirectly through capitalism. It is this indirect path, I believe, that has made environmental politics resemble more a “will-less football” than the necessary and engaged mass movement that it needs to be. |P
Platypus Review 3 | March 2008
Moishe Postone is Professor of History at the University of Chicago, and his seminal book Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory investigates Marx’s categories of commodity, labor, and capital, and the saliency of Marx’s critique of capital in the neoliberal context of the present. Rescuing Marx’s categories from intellectual and political obsolescence, Postone brings them to bear on the global transformations of the past three decades. In the following interview, Postone stresses the importance of an analysis of the history of capital for a progressive anti-capitalist Left today.
BB: We would like to begin by asking some questions about your early engagement with Marxism and the impetus for your contribution to it. Very basically, how did you come upon Marx?
MP: I went through various stages. My first encounter was, as is the case with many people, the Communist Manifesto, which I thought was… rousing, and not really relevant. For me, in the 1960s, I thought it was a kind of a feel-good manifesto, not that it had been that in its own time, but that it no longer was really very relevant. Also, hearing the remnants of the old Left that were still around campus— Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing with one another—I thought that most of it was pretty removed from people’s concerns. It had a museum quality to it. So, I considered myself, in some vague sense, critical, or Left, or then the word was ‘radical,’ but not particularly Marxist. I was very interested in issues of socialism, but that isn’t necessarily the same as Marxism.
Then I discovered, as did many in my generation, the 1844 Manuscripts. I thought they were fantastic… At that point, however, I still bought into the notion, very wide spread then, that the young Marx really had something to say and that then, alas, he became a Victorian and that his thought became petrified. A turning point for me was an article, “The Unknown Marx,” written by Martin Nicolaus while translating the Grundrisse in 1967. Its hints at the richness of the Grundrisse blew me away.
Another turning point in this direction was a sit-in in the University of Chicago in 1969. Within the sit-in there were intense political arguments, different factions were forming. Progressive Labor (PL) was one. It called itself a Maoist organization, but it was Maoist only in the sense that Mao disagreed with Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin, so it was really an unreconstructed Stalinist organization. The other was a group called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which tried to take cognizance of the major historical shifts of the late 1960s, and did so by focusing on youth and on race. It eventually split; one wing became the Weathermen. At first friends of mine and myself kind of allied with RYM, against PL—but that’s because PL was just very vulgar and essentially outside of historical time. But the differences I and some friends had on RYM were expressed tellingly after the sit-in. Two study groups emerged out of the sit-in, one was the RYM study group, called “Youth as a Class,” and the other I ran with a friend, called “Hegel and Marx.” We felt that social theory was essential to understanding the historical moment, and that RYM’s emphasis on surface immediacy was disastrous. We read [Georg] Lukács, who also was an eyeopener— the extent to which he took many of the themes of some conservative critics of capitalism—the critique of bureaucratization, of formalism, of the dominant model of science—and embedded them within Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. In a sense this made those conservative critics look a lot more superficial than they had looked beforehand, and deepened and broadened the notion of a Marxian critique. I found it really to be an impressive tour de force. In the meantime I was very unhappy with certain directions that the Left had taken.
BB: To begin with a basic but fundamental question, one that is very important for your work, why is the commodity form the necessary category of departure for Marx in Capital? In other words, why would a category that would appear to be, in certain guises, an economic category be the point of departure for a critique of social modernity capable of grasping social phenomena at an essential level?
MP: I think what Marx is trying to do is delineate a form of social relations that is fundamentally different from that in pre-capitalist societies. He maintains that the social relations that characterize capitalism, that drive capitalism, are historically unique, but don’t appear to be social. So that, for example, although the amazing intrinsic dynamic of capitalist society is historically specific, it is seen as merely a feature of human interaction with nature. I think one of the things that Marx is trying to argue is that what drives the dynamic of capitalist society are these peculiar social forms that become reified.
BB: In your work you emphasize Marx’s differentiation between labor as a socially mediating activity, i.e., in its abstract dimension, on the one hand, and on the other, as a way of producing specific and concrete use-values, i.e., participating in the production of particular goods. In your opinion, why is this, for Marx, an important distinction from pre-modern forms of social organization and how does it figure in his theory of Modern capitalist society?
MP: Well, this is one place where I differ from most people that write about Marx. I don’t think that abstract labor is simply an abstraction from labor, i.e., it’s not labor in general, it’s labor acting as a socially mediating activity. I think that is at the heart of Marx’s analysis: Labor is doing something in capitalism that it doesn’t do in other societies. So, it’s both, in Marx’s terms, concrete labor, which is to say, a specific activity that transforms material in a determinate way for a very particular object, as well as abstract labor, that is, a means of acquiring the goods of others. In this regard, it is doing something that labor doesn’t do in any other societies. Out of this very abstract insight, Marx develops the whole dynamic of capitalism. It seems to me that the central issue for Marx is not only that labor is being exploited—labor is exploited in all societies, other than maybe those of hunter-gatherers— but, rather, that the exploitation of labor is effected by structures that labor itself constitutes.
So, for example, if you get rid of aristocrats in a peasant-based society, it’s conceivable that the peasants could own their own plots of land and live off of them. However, if you get rid of the capitalists, you are not getting rid of capital. Social domination will continue to exist in that society until the structures that constitute capital are gotten rid of.
PN: How can we account for Marx’s statement that the proletariat is a revolutionary force without falling into a vulgar apprehension of its revolutionary character?
MP: It seems to me that the proletariat is a revolutionary force in several respects. First of all, the interaction of capital and proletariat is essential for the dynamic of the system. The proletariat is not outside of the system, the proletariat is integral to the system. The class opposition between capitalist and proletariat is not intended by Marx as a sociological picture of society, rather, it isolates that which is central to the dynamism of capitalism, which I think is at the heart of Marx’s concerns.
Second, through its actions, the proletariat—and not because it wants to—contributes to the temporal and spatial spread of capital. That is to say, the proletariat is one of the driving forces behind globalization. Nevertheless, one of the differences, for Marx, between the proletariat and other oppressed groups, is that if the proletariat becomes radically dissatisfied with its condition of life, it opens up the possibility of general human emancipation. So it seems to me that one can’t take the theory of the proletariat and just abstract it from the theory of capital, they are very much tied to one another.
BB: I would like to turn to the seminal thinker Georg Lukács, in particular his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” first let me ask a general question, what do you take to be the most important insight of this essay?
MP: Well, Lukács takes the commodity form and he shows that it is not simply an economic category but that it is the category that can best explain phenomena like those that Weber tried to grapple with through his notion of rationalization, i.e., the increasing bureaucratization and rationalization of all spheres of life. Lukács takes that notion and provides a historical explanation of the nature of that process by grounding it in the commodity. That opened up a whole universe for me.
Lukács also brilliantly shows that the forms that Marx works out in Capital are simultaneously forms of consciousness as well as forms of social being. In this way Lukács does away with the whole Marxist base-super structure way of thinking about reality and thought. To use slightly different language, a category like commodity is both a social and a cultural category, so that the categories are subjective and objective categories at the same time.
BB: Could you explain your critique of Lukács’s identification of the proletariat as the socio-historical subject?
MP: Lukács posits the proletariat as the Subject of history, and I think this is a mistake. A lot of people confuse subject and agency. When using the term “Subject,” Lukács is thinking of Hegel’s notion of the identical subject-object that, in a sense, generates the dynamic of history. Lukács takes the idea of the Geist and essentially says that Hegel was right, except that he presented his insight in an idealist fashion. The Subject does exist; however, it’s the proletariat. The proletariat becomes, in this sense, the representative of humanity as a whole. I found it very telling, however, that in Capital when Marx does use Hegel’s language referring to the Geist he doesn’t refer to the proletariat, he refers to the category of capital. This made a lot of sense to me, because the existence of an ongoing historical dynamic signifies that people aren’t real agents. If people were real agents, there wouldn’t be a dynamic. That you can plot an ongoing temporal pattern means that there are constraints on agency. It seems to me that by calling capital the Subject, Marx argues for the conditions of possibility that humans can become the subjects of their own history, but that’s with a small “s.” Then there wouldn’t be this ongoing dynamic, necessarily. Rather, change and development would be more the result, presumably, of political decision making. So right now humans make history, but, as it were, behind their own back, i.e., they make history by creating structures that compel them to act in certain ways.
For Lukács, the proletariat is the Subject, which implies that it should realize itself (he is very much a Hegelian) whereas if Marx says capital is the Subject, the goal would be to do away with the Subject, to free humanity from an ongoing dynamic that it constitutes, rather than to realize the Subject.
PN: It has been our experience that “reification” is commonly understood as the mechanization of human life, expressing the loss of the qualitative dimension of human experience. In other words, reification is understood solely as an expression of unfreedom in capitalist society. However, the passage below, from “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” suggests to us that, for Lukács, the reification of the driving societal principle is also the site for class consciousness, in other words, that transformations in the objective dimension of the working class can only be grasped in reified form.
The class meaning of these changes [i.e., the thoroughgoing capitalist rationalization of society as a whole] lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation. Whereas for the proletariat, the ‘same’ development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that the workers can become conscious of the social character of labor, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretised and overcome. . . . For the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search for the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action. 
The passage above seems to imply that for Lukács class consciousness is not imminent to the experiential dimension of labor, i.e., that a Leftist politics is not an immediate product of concrete labor, rather, class consciousness emerges out of the dissolution of this immediacy. From this, we take Lukács to mean that reification is double-sided, in that it is both the ground for a potential overcoming of the societal principle under capital, and an expression of unfreedom. It’s both.
BB: In other words, reification is not really a structure that has to be done away with so that outlets of freedom and action can emerge, but it’s actually the site, the location, from which action is possible in capitalist modernity.
PN: That said, in what way does a one-sided appropriation of Lukács’s category lose hold of its critical purchase?
MP: Well, this is a nice reading…I’m not sure it’s Lukács. But that may be beside the point. If you read that longer quote, “the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation,” for Lukács that’s reification. What you’ve done here is taken the notion of reification and you’ve come to something I actually would be very sympathetic to, which is the idea that capitalism is constitutive as well constraining. It opens possibilities as well as closes them. Capitalism itself is double-sided. I’m not sure whether Lukács really has that, but that’s neither here nor there.
Lukács emphasizes the abolition of the isolated individual, and this is important for me. There is a sense in Lukács that the proletariat doing proletarian labor could exist in a free society, and I don’t think this is the case for Marx. Marx’s idea of the social individual is a very different one than simply the opposition of the isolated individual and the collectivity. For Marx the social individual is a person who may be working individually, but their individual work depends on, and is an expression of, the wealth of society as a whole. This is opposed to, let’s say, proletarian labor, which increasingly, as it becomes deskilled, becomes a condition of the enormous wealth of society, but is in a sense, its opposite on the level of the work itself. “The richer the society, the poorer the worker.” Marx is trying to imagine a situation in which the wealth of the whole and the wealth of each—wealth in the sense of capacities and the ability to act on those capacities—are congruent with one another. I am not sure Lukács has that conception… I’m not sure.
BB: In some ways I think that the second quote does bring into the field certain issues with the projection of proletariat labor continuing… It depends on interpretation I suppose, because he says, “for the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate, ” which is enabled through a process of reification, “in search of the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action,” now, if “object” is solely taken to mean the material product of concrete labor, it would be against Lukács’s sense of the commodity, by which, as we’ve already established, he means both a category of subjectivity and objectivity, so the object of action is also the proletariat itself.
MP: Yes, but you’ll notice in the last third of Lukács’s essay, which is about revolutionary consciousness, there is no discussion at all of the development of capital. Everything is the subjective development of the proletariat as it comes to self-consciousness. That process is not presented as historical. What is changing in terms of capital—other than crises—is bracketed. There is a dialectic of identity whereby awareness that one is an object generates the possibility of becoming a subject. For me, in a funny way, in the third part of the reification essay history comes to a standstill, and history becomes the subjective history of the Spirit, i.e., the proletariat becoming aware of itself as a Subject, not just object. But there is very little—there’s nothing—on the conditions of possibility for the abolition of proletariat labor. None. There is no discussion of that at all. So, history freezes in the last third of the essay.
PN: Is it possible to struggle to overcome capitalism other than through necessary forms of misrecognition that this organization of social life generates? In other words: If consciousness in capitalist modernity is rooted in phenomenal forms that are the necessary expressions of a deep structure which they simultaneously mask, then how can mass-based Left-wing anti-capitalist politics be founded on anything other than progressive forms of misrecognition, i.e., as opposed to reactionary forms of misrecognition, ranging from populist critiques of finance capital, to chauvinist critiques of globalization, to localist or isolationist critiques of centralized political and economic power?
MP: That’s a good question. I don’t have an easy answer, so maybe I’ll start by being very modest. It seems to me that the first question isn’t, “what is correct consciousness?”, but, rather, “what is not adequate?” That in itself would help any anti-capitalist movement immeasurably. To the degree to which movements are blind to the larger context of which they are a part, they necessarily are going to generate consequences that are undesirable for them as well.
Let me give you an example from liberal politics. I was thinking of this recently. After 1968 when Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president, was basically given the throne, the progressive base of the Democratic Party—who where very much opposed to this kind of machine politics—attempted to institute a more democratic process of the selection of the candidate for the party. It was then that the primaries really came into their own—you had primaries before, but they weren’t nearly as important. The problem is that in a situation like the American one, where you do not have government financing of elections, primaries simply meant that only people who have a lot of money have any chance. The consequences of this push by the progressive base of the Democratic party were profoundly anti-democratic, in many respects machine politics were more democratic. So what you have now is a bunch of millionaires running in all the primaries, or people who spend all of their time getting money from millionaires. Now, there was nothing the matter with the idea of wanting, within the liberal framework, to have a more democratic process to choose candidates. The context was such however, that the reforms that they suggested rendered the process more susceptible to non-democratic influence. The gap between intention and consequence that results from a blindness to context could be extended to many parts of the Left, of course.
PN: You give specific attention to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union in your work with reference to the “temporal structuring and restructuring of capitalism in the 20th century.” Now, I understood “temporal structuring and restructuring” as an indication of how the political dimension mediates the temporal dynamic of capital, affecting the way that capitalism appears subsequently. In this sense, both forms of state-centrism, the Western Fordist-Keynesian synthesis and the Soviet Union, may in fact look the same because they were both, in one way or another, responding to a crisis in capital. Could you speak about the character of this political mediation?
MP: Yes, they were responses to a crisis. I think one of the reasons why the Soviet model appealed to many people outside of the West, was that the Soviet Union really developed a mode of creating national capital in a context of global capital very different from today. Developing national capital meant creating a proletariat. In a sense, Stalin did in fifteen years what the British did in several centuries. There was immense suffering, and that shouldn’t be ignored. That became the model for China, Vietnam, etc. (Eastern Europe is a slightly different case.) Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky—because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918—entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”
This model of national development ended in the 1970s, and, of course, not just in the Soviet Union. The present moment can be defined as a post-Cold War moment, and this allows the Left to remove an albatross that had been hanging around its neck for a long time. This does not mean that the road to the future is very clear, I think it’s extremely murky right now. I don’t think we are anywhere near a pre-revolutionary, even a pre-pre-revolutionary situation. I think it becomes incumbent on people to think about new forms of internationalism, and to try to tie together, intrinsically, things that were collections of particular interests.
BB: If one accepts the notion that left-wing anti-capitalist politics necessarily has as its aim the abolition of the proletariat—that is, the negation of the structure of alienated social labor bound up with the value form of wealth—what action should one take within the contemporary neoliberal phase of capitalism?
How could the Left reconcile opposition to the present offensive on the working class with the overarching goal of transcending proletarian labor?
MP: The present moment is very bleak, because as you note in this question, and it’s the $64,000 question, it is difficult to talk about the abolition of proletarian labor at a point where the meager achievements of the working class in the 20th century have been rolled back everywhere. I don’t have a simple answer to that. Because it does seem to me that part of what is on the agenda is actually something quite traditional, which is an international movement that is also an international workers’ movement, and I think we are very far away from that. Certainly, to the degree to which working classes are going to compete with one another, it will be their common ruin. We are facing a decline in the standard of living of working classes in the metropoles, there is no question about it, which is pretty bleak, on the one hand.
On the other hand, a great deal of the unemployment has been caused by technological innovations, and not simply by outsourcing. It’s not as if the same number of jobs were simply moved overseas. The problems that we face with the capitalist diminution of proletariat labor on a worldwide scale go hand in hand with the increase of gigantic slum cities, e.g., São Paolo, Mexico City, Lagos. Cities of twenty million people in which eighteen million are slum dwellers, that is, people who have no chance of being sucked up into a burgeoning industrial apparatus.
BB: Are we in danger then of missing a moment in which Marx’s critique of modernity would have a real significance for political action?
In other words, if the global condition sinks further into barbarism, the kind expressed by slum cities, might we—if we don’t seize this moment—end up in a worse situation twenty, thirty years down the line?
MP: I’m sure, but I don’t know what ‘seizing the moment’ at this moment means. I’m very modest at this point. I think that it would help if there was talk about issues that are real. Certain ways of interpreting the world such as, “the world would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for George Bush, or the United States,” are going to lead us nowhere, absolutely nowhere. We have to find our way to new forms of true international solidarity, which is different than anti-Americanism. We live in a moment in which the American state and the American government have become a fetish form. It’s similar to the reactionary anti-capitalists who were anti-British in the late 19th century—you don’t have to be pro-British to know that this was a reification of world capital. |P
Platypus Review 2 | February 2008
Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago.
In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?
I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.
Your work describes the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?
Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy- which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly lets suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand- this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarno?? in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gda?sk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing- through its particular body- the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect- the construction of the popular will- is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies- the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands- create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed.
Your work offers an attempt to theorize the possibility of a democratic system that can remain open to the constant flux of the social and the possible inclusion of political otherness. Do you see the creation of such a system as the main task of emancipatory politics. Does this participatory dimension ensure the progressive nature of a democratic system?
I think so. I think that the construction of a democratic system depends on two dimensions that are to some extent at odds with each other, and to some extent are complimentary. On the one hand- democracy involves the extension of the points of rupture through which the underdog expresses itself. This is the horizontal dimension, which is given by the horizontal expansion of demands: the chain of equivalences. On the other hand you have the vertical pole, which is the unification of this chain around some kind of a central signifier. Now these two tendencies are not brought together by some sort of square circle: there is a tension between the two, but the two are necessary in order to construct democratic politics. Let me give you an example: in Argentina in 2001, we had an economic crisis. As a result, many sectors that had been excluded from the public sphere started demonstrating and carried out actions that brought about their entrance into the public sphere: the piqueteros, the occupation of factories, the cutting of routs and so on. On the other hand, there was the political system as such- and at the beginning this horizontal pole negated the possibility of participation in the political system; their motto was, ‘que se vayan todos’ (‘out with all of them’), meaning the political class as a whole. This however could not be a lasting politics, because there was going to be one who remained in power, and if this one was elected by nobody it was not going to be particularly desirable. So we arrived to the election in 2003 without popular participation and the election resulted in the most classic partydocracy; but things turned out all right because the one who was elected was Kirchner, and Kirchner had a project of expansion of democracy. Between the vertical pole of politics and the horizontal expansion of popular demands there was some kind of a process of mutual re-alimentation. The political spectrum has moved far more to the left than it was in 2002.
I think one could also pose the question: to what extent were those demands that were more integrated into the system under the Kirchner administration actually met? I think this tension you describe is at the root of the debate about co-optation vs. participation- along with unification and institutionalization we often see the de-radicalization of many groups. How can one remain critical to the way in which these different social actors become integrated into the democratic process, given the fact that some of their demands are met, and some are not?
Well listen, Lenin used to say that politics means walking between precipices. You can go to one side of the precipice as opposed to the other side. Cooptation is one possible precipice. If you have some demands that are partially met, and you are integrated into the system, in that case there is cooptation and you have clearly a failure of the emancipatory project. If on the other hand you keep a purely sterile position of protest outside of the system, in the short or long term what is going to happen is that the movement disintegrates because it is reaching nothing: it is a moment of total political sterility. In between these two extremes you have to find a medium way, which is politically effective. In Argentina we cannot say whether this medium terrain has been reached or not. And I don’t know if actually when we speak about these types of processes a definite answer can ever be given. But there is not doubt that the political spectrum as result of the integration of these two dimensions has moved sharply to the left. It is a far more left wing public sphere than the one we had in 2003. Perhaps the second example that I was going to give you is even more telling: the example of the construction of the hegemony of the Italian communist party after the Second World War. After the Second World War there was a discussion about how to build up party politics in Italy and there were two positions; one position said: well we are the party of the working class; the working class is an enclave in the industrial north, so we have to be the party of the industrial north. The other position which was more Gramsician, and in the end imposed itself because Palmiro Togliatti, who was the general secretary of the party, supported it, said: no we are going to build up the hegemony of the party also in southern Italy, where the working class is very weak. So how should we do that? Well, simply we will transform the premises of the trade union and the party as the uniting point of a set of diverse social struggles. For example the struggle for the supply of water, the struggle against the mafia, the struggle for food cooperatives and so on. So that in the end many disperse demands came together in the same equivalential chain. So there you have the bad possibility that you proposed- these demands on the one hand acquire much more solidity by becoming unified to the communist party equivalential chain- they became more effective. But on the other hand they became subordinated to the communist party general ideology, so the possibility of their sterilization through a party controlling mechanism was there. But at the same time if they had remained disperse and so on they would have had no effect. And in fact in the 50’s and 60’s in Italy the communist party was a powerful mechanism for transforming Italy into a more democratic society, because through this mechanism many parties that were previously excluded from the public sphere became incorporated into the public sphere. Later on in the 1960’s they started having problems because a new set of demands that they could no longer control came to the fore. You had the feminist movement, which in Italy was not like in the Anglo-Saxon world, a movement of students and intellectuals, in Italy it was a popular movement; you had a demonstration of 10,000 women in the streets but they were proposing advocating things that could not enter into the communist project. They were for instance advocating copulation without penetration. And so it was difficult for them [the communist party] to observe that. And at the same time there were wildcat strikes that passed over the trade union organization while the communist party was trying to consolidate the trade union organization. And then there was the student movement in ’68, and so on. The communist party at that time lost the way a bit, and their decline as a hegemonic force in the left started from that period. But in the previous twenty years they had been a powerful force of democratization in Italy. And there you have these two dangers that we were mentioning were quite operative.
These political demands, when they start out at least, are isolated to specific social instances: to specific times and places. In each instance they respond to different power structures and social problems. We can see how a political demand could be created that would not be of very much use to emancipatory politics because it is very arbitrary or very specific to a particular problematic. In your vision of politics is there room for weighing the content of different demands and prioritizing them?
I don’t want to give the impression that I am saying that it was simply a subjective failure of the communist party, because the truth is that all of these new types of demands were responding to an objective change in capitalist development. At the beginning of the second post-world war period, you still had the inheritance of the old structure of the working class movement: capitalism was essentially industrial capitalism, the trade unions were essentially industrial trade unions, and around the big industrial cities in the west you had the so called red belts- which were constituted by the trade unions, the communist party and so on- which were the focus of a strong proletarian culture and identity. Now then comes the transition to post-Fordism, firstly the industrial workers start loosing centrality- there is a terciarization of the economy. And so if you wanted to have radical protest, they were not going to come, as in the past, from typical working class values, they were going to come from some kind of imaginary re-aggregation of things: the culture of the young, ethnicity and this set of things, which were totally different in nature. Now the big communist parties in the West, but also the Labor party in Britain, were constituted around the old industrial union identity. At the moment when this new proliferation of demands started they were quite unprepared to meet this historically changing climate. Today the red belts no longer exist, neither in France nor in Italy, not even in Britain; the trade unions have lost all their old centrality. This is where we come back to your first question: you have a dispersal of social demands, a new way in which they had to be put together, and no objective mechanism which ensures that the centrality of what we have called the empty signifier, is going to be linked to a class position. It is going to be linked to the ability of these elements to put together a much wider set of social demands.
Let me give an example: Marx, in Capital asserted that unemployment is simply a temporary phenomenon that had to be conceptualized in terms of the industrial reserve army. If two workers are unemployed, they are unemployed but they are still functional to capitalism because there is a demand for employment that is more than the request for workers. So the result is that these two unemployed workers are still functional- this is what Marx thought- for capitalism, because they push down the level of wages and increase the rate of profit. Marx thought that project had a limit, which was the subsistence level: if the wages went below the subsistence level, the workers rise and the system cannot work. Let’s suppose that you have two unemployed workers, and these unemployed workers are enough to push down wages to the subsistence level- so they are still functional. Now let’s suppose that instead of two unemployed workers, you have four unemployed workers- in that case these two more are no longer functional because they cannot push the level of wages below the subsistence level. And the more you have unemployed workers, the more you are going to have a marginal mass which is no longer functional in terms of capitalist rationality. Now the evolution of world capitalism has lead to a situation in which the marginal mass of the unemployed in third world countries- even through the disguised unemployment in advanced capitalist countries- is an increasingly considerable section of the population, so that the possibility of defining places of resistance in terms of precise positions in the relations of production is increasingly put into question. For instance in the 1930’s in the middle of the world economic crisis, Trotsky said that if unemployment continued the way in which it was at that moment in the capitalist world, one would have to rethink the whole Marxian theory of social classes, because the idea that it is through a precise position in the process of production that the contestation of the system takes place- is put into question, and as a result of this, the centrality of the working class as a homogeneous category was necessarily questioned. Now, everything that has happened since the 1930’s goes in that direction- that is to say you have more marginal sectors- in Africa, but also many kind of phenomena in the advanced capitalist countries and you will see that the relative role of the trade unions is constantly decreasing in representing the traditional working class, and that these other sectors are not represented by any kind of corporative organization, but are largely left to an articulation which has to be essentially political. We are living in a different world. I think one can think of globalized capitalism as a force that is marginalizing many people but not necessarily in terms of their position in the process of production. For instance globalized capitalism creates ecological problems, and you can have people resisting the installation of factories in some areas because of the polluting effects; you can have an imbalance between different sectors of the economy created by international finance. So you are in a society that is creating more and more dislocations through the process of globalization. The theory of Marxism finally is a theory of an increasing homogenization of social structure under capitalism. It said, as a result of capitalist development, the middle classes and the peasantry will disappear, and the end of the conflict of history will be a simple show down between a homogenized working class and the bourgeoisie. But this is not what has happened. What has happened is that there is an increasing heterogeneity in the social structure, but this heterogeneity has not brought about a diffusion of social conflicts. What has been generated is the proliferation of points of rupture in capitalism that as a result has brought to the fore the need for creating a unification through political means of what classical Marxism thought was going to be an automatic result of the development of economic forces. So if you look today at the anti-globalization movement or the alter-globalization movement- you see this proliferation of things. In the meetings in Porto Alegre, you see that there are all kinds of specialized workshops: women’s empowerment, homosexuals in California, anti-institutional groups and so on, each with their particular organization and separate issues. On the other hand, there is the attempt to create themes that circulate among all these different groups, creating some kind of global consciousness. Now this is very different in terms of internationalization than the classic internationals of the 19th or 20th century, which were based in the common identity of the worker through the trade union and the parties. Here you have a very heterogeneous social base, but however, some efforts at universalization.
Accepting the fact that we can no longer see an analysis of wage labor as revealing an inherent contradiction in social reality under capitalism that will lead to a necessary emancipatory movement in politics- would you none the less agree that Marx’s analysis of capital, as a reified form of expression of value continues to be useful in analyzing the organization of social life? To what extent do you see the problem of the universality of the commodity form in mediating productive activity, and the resultant subordination of other forms of social wealth, as an obstacle to progressive politics?
I think it is, to that extent I would accept your point, but I want to be precise about what this means. I think there is a logic of commodity production which Marx has clarified better than anybody else, much better than, for instance, classical political economists: Smith or Ricardo. On the other hand, we have to see exactly where the antagonism created by the commodity form lies. I would agree that the commodity form, and especially the commodity form as incorporated by capitalism, is the source of strong antagonistic potentials. But where does the moment of antagonism lie? There are two possibilities, which I have tired to analyze in my work. Firstly there is the possibility that the very form of commodity is the source of the antagonism, or there is the possibility that the form of commodity clashes with something which is external to it. Let me explain what I want to say: in some sense, the analysis of Marx leads to the idea that the contradiction between worker and capitalism is to be derived from the very logic of capital. If it is going to be derived from the very logic of capital, you have to reduce the social actors to that very logic. For instance, capitalism doesn’t count as a capitalist with a particular psychological structure etc., it has to count only as a buyer of labor power. And the worker has to be reduced to the category of seller of labor power- if the antagonism is inherent to the economic form: worker and proletariat. But the problem comes that if you reduce that relationship to the economic form, there is no antagonism at all. Why? Because you can say perhaps, well- there is an antagonism because the capitalists extract the surplus value from the workers. But that is not the description of an antagonism in the least; it is simply a technical way of organizing production. The antagonism only arises if the worker resists the extraction of surplus value by the capitalist. But you can analyze logically the category of seller of labor power as much as you want, and you will not see at any point that the notion of resistance is a logical consequence. So, the resistance comes if you introduce something external to the relations of production. For instance if you say, we don’t want wages going below a certain level because the worker cannot subsist life, cannot send his children to school, so on and so forth. But in that case the antagonism is not inherent in the relation buyer-seller of labor power, but between the relation of production and the way in which the worker is constituted outside the relations of production. In that case two consequences follow: firstly, that the resistance is not an automatic effect of the relations of production and in fact, in different circumstances and changes in the level of wages, workers react in very different ways. Secondly, and this is the most important point, if now we are dealing with the capitalist relations of production, with the capitalist logic and something which is outside it, as it is from the perspective of the worker- there is no reason to think that the only resistance to capitalism is going to come from the worker, because as we were saying before it [capitalism] can create ecological problems, it can create imbalances between economic spheres, center and periphery, and so on. And in that sense you are dealing with more heterogeneous antagonisms to capitalism that have to be created through political articulation, and the theory of hegemony is exactly about the logics of this creation.
In approaching politics, do you think we should understand capitalism as representing a historically specific, reified form of social relations that poses a challenge to the greater social control over production? In confronting the ubiquity of the commodity form in capitalist social relations, should we think of our politics in terms of a radical break with capitalism, or should we look toward other forms of social organization for the root of the problem, and possible solutions?
There are several questions there. Firstly, social control is control by whom? Because if it is an instance that one calls the state, the question is to what extent this state is a representative of the social will or to what extent this state is some kind of institutional excrescence which is separated from the social will, because the question is how to constitute a social will, and how to have this social will crystallized in an institution. The attempt to think that automatically the state represents the social will lead to the whole disaster of the Soviet experience. So if one thinks of a more democratic mediation of the social will, the problem is how particularity and universality can be combined in such a situation. I completely agree that savage capitalism, in which the mechanism of the market controls everything is a disaster as much as the bureaucratic state of the Soviet system. But the whole problem, which is the problem we have been discussing from the beginning, is how this social control is going to be constituted: through what kind of institutional mechanisms, how the will of the people will act, how you supercede the opposition between the particularism of the different wills and the different social elements. So we are in the center of a hegemonic project.
Secondly, lets go to a category like reification; I totally reject that category. But the reason is that that category is part of a whole scheme: the category of reification was invented by Lukács, actually, although it is some ways present in Marx in the analysis of commodity fetishism. But basically the problem of Lukács was that he saw that the workers were not directly advocating socialism: that in many cases, workers could be co-opted into the system. And he said they had reified consciousness, which he called false consciousness. There is, he said, a distinction between the materiality of the class in which this process of reification operates, and the consciousness of the proletariat, because it is not in the class as a materiality- empirical workers- it has to be crystallized in an instance different from the materiality of the workers, which is going to be the party. So the party plays the role of fulfilling the class-consciousness of the proletariat. The point is that in order to speak of reification, alienation, true consciousness, you have to have the notion of a contradiction which is at the level of the relations of production which is exactly what we were putting into question before by saying that there is a moment of heterogeneity, because to say alienation means that you had to have something as a true consciousness.
If you compare, for instance, Lukács and Gramsci, you immediately see the difference. For Lukács the agent of revolutionary change, or emancipatory change, not necessarily revolutionary, is the working class. For him the position of the worker in the relations of production is what destines the worker to be a revolutionary or emancipatory agent. Now the problem was that he saw that the workers as empirical agents did not live up to this emancipatory project, which their position destined them to. Now he said they are alienated because they have been reified by capitalism, and so between the place where the consciousness of the proletariat is constituted and the materiality of the proletariat as a class, there is going to be a gap. So this makes necessary the instance of the communist party, and the communist party had to be the true embodiment of the class-consciousness of the proletariat that the proletariat as a class cannot develop. Now the position of Gramsci is completely different: globalized capitalism creates a multiplicity of conflicts, and the task is to bring about this consciousness in something that would be a revolutionary, an emancipatory project, but this emancipatory project does not have a privileged point of anchoring as it does for Lukács, in the relations of production. So this hegemonic construction- the construction of working class hegemony, is a necessary process related to a class position within the relations of production. This construction means that you are bringing together a set of heterogeneous elements, through which capitalism creates different types of imbalances and dislocations, around a center. The argument works in a completely different way than in Lukács, and there is no place there for categories such as alienation or reification. |P