In October, the Platypus Review published it's fiftieth issue. In celebration of this landmark occasion, at the issue No. 50 release party held in New York City on November 15, 2012, an international video conference with the members of the current and past editorial staff of the Platypus Review was held, including speakers involved with the Platypus Review from New York City and Chicago, USA, London, UK, Thessaloniki, Greece, Maastricht, the Netherlands, Frankfurt, Germany, and Graz, Austria.
A panel discussion with audience Q & A on the problematic forms of "anticapitalism" today.
Held on Wednesday 13th June, 7pm at the University of London Union (ULU), Malet Street, London.
Clare Solomon (co-editor of Springtime: The New Student Rebellions (2011); President of the University Of London Union in 2010)
James Heartfield (active in extra-parliamentary Left for thirty years; author of The 'Death of the Subject" Explained (2002), and the forthcoming Unpatriotic History of the Second World War (2012)).
James Turley (member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) for five years, and a regular writer for the Weekly Worker; co-editor and contributer to Red Mist, a blog of Marxist cultural commentary)
Matt Cole (organizer, researcher, editor, writer, Rousseauist; Kingston University)
Laurie Rojas (founding member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, editor of the Platypus Review).
"[After the 1960s, the] underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency [. . .] in a historical situation of heightened helplessness [. . .] became a self-constitution as outsider, as other [. . .] focused on the bureaucratic stasis of the [Fordist/late 20th Century] world: it echoed the destruction of that world by the dynamics of capital [with the neo-liberal turn after 1973, and especially after 1989].
The idea of a fundamental transformation became bracketed and, instead, was replaced by the more ambiguous notion of âresistance.â The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted or of the politics of the resistance involved â that is, the character of determinate forms of critique, opposition, rebellion, and ârevolution.â The notion of 'resistance' frequently expresses a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency.
'Resistance' is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by [the] dynamic heteronomous order [of capital]. ['Resistance'] is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; that is, it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of which it is a part."
- Moishe Postone, "History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism"
(Public Culture 18:1, 2006)
1. Since the 1960s, and especially since the 1990s, struggles for social, economic and political emancipation have been conceived less in terms of structural reforms or revolutionary transformation and more in terms of "resistance." How do you define âresistanceâ and how do you understand its role in possibilities for social change?
2. One powerful way "resistance" has been conceived has been in terms of "culture" and practices of âeveryday life.â How do you understand the implicit (if not explicit) distinction thus made of politics directed at society as a whole, from the more apparently mundane concerns and stakes of quotidian existence?
3. What, in your understanding, are the reasons for and the consequences of this historical shift away from movements for reform or revolutionary politics, to tactics, strategies, and self-understandings in terms of "resistance?"
4. Where do the new forms of politics of âresistanceâ point, in your estimation, for social-emancipatory possibilities, today and in the future?
5. What kinds of change do you envision on the horizon of present social concerns? How do you imagine the potential manifestations of such change?
6. What can and should those on the Left and those interested in working towards social emancipation do, tactically and strategically, in view of such possibilities for change?
Posted below are two videos from the day-long symposium, What is Critique?, held on November 20th, 2010, at Parsons, the New School for Design, New York. The first video is from the afternoon panel,Â The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices. This panel consisted of Tom Butter, Simone Douglas, and James Elkins; it was moderated by Laurie Rojas. The second video is documentation of the evening panel, The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today. The panel consisted of J.M. Bernstein, Chris Cutrone, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz; it was moderated by Chris Mansour. Both videos can also be found at http://streamingculture.parsons.edu/the-art-critique-its-history-theories-and-practices/.
The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices
The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today
What is Critique? was a day-long symposium that consisted of two panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students and investigated the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day focused on the nature and function of art critiques as a form of criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day was a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and reception. More information can be found at http://newyork.platypus1917.org/critique/.
Platypus Review 27 | September 2010
The Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion on the Politics of the Contemporary Student Left at the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit on June 26, 2010. Moderated by Laurie Rojas, assistant editor for the Platypus Review, the panel consisted of Will Klatt, member of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Luis Brennan, a student organizer at University of Chicago and former member of the new SDS; Aaron Petcov, formerly of the new SDS and currently a member of the Organization for a Free Society (OFS); and Ashley Weger, an organizer for Platypus and a former organizer for UNITE HERE. A complete audio recording is available at the above link. What follows is an edited transcript of each panelist’s introductory remarks and the subsequent Q&A session.
Will Klatt: I don’t necessarily identify with being an anarchist or a Marxist-Leninist or anything like that; if anything, I’m a syndicalist, which means I believe in workers control. I think students are going to the be the catalysts to make revolution happen. We live in an exciting moment in the student left, after what happened in California and what is happening in Arizona and in Puerto Rico, where students went on a 43-day strike and won all of their demands. Momentum has built up, but we have to capitalize on the lessons students learned in the last two or three years, or it is just going to be a footnote in history. In terms of obstacles, I’d suggest that the Left glamorizes the proletariat, the working class, or even the lower classes, in ways that are not realistic. The proletariat obviously plays a significant role, but if you look historically at what creates the context for a revolutionary situation, from Oaxaca to Greece, it is clear that students play a significant role in creating a context in which revolution can become possible. The main challenge in the next year is going to be getting all the student groups to work together towards a common goal. It will come down to discussing what our values and our commonalities are, and then building a coalition that can move to collective action on a large scale.
Luis Brennan: I am a recent graduate from University of Chicago, an elite private university, which changes a lot of what students can do on campus. One of the core problems I deal with is understanding the difference between private and public universities and the differences between student organizing in those two. In either context, the main difficulty is figuring out how to organize towards an anti-capitalist vision. How can we actualize the strategic potential that is peculiar to organizing students, and connect this to the larger anti-capitalist struggle? We need to understand how that can be grounded in practice and understand the dynamic relationship between our intellectual work and our practical work.
One opportunity offered by private universities lies in their position in the larger economic framework, which makes a lot of strategies viable. A good example is the current campaign focusing on HEI Hotels and Resorts, where UNITE HERE! is trying to organize workers. These hotels get start-up capital almost entirely from university endowments. Thus, to stand in solidarity with workers and push for their demands, we students are in a strategic position for pressuring our universities to pressure companies. Of course, there is also the value of politicizing students in general, especially on campuses where many students have done service work.
There are also difficulties with regard to these points. First, what should the process of building student power on campuses look like, beyond achieving our immediate demands? Transforming how decisions get made on campuses and who controls university policy will entail getting organized and building bases and movements with rallies that go from five, to fifty, to five hundred people over the course of the campaign. In order to move the university in profound ways, to democratize the education process, or to make the university invest in worker cooperatives or community land trusts, we need a lot more than just five people yelling. We will need to build institutions that can go across these campaigns and go across these issues; we need to encourage a campus culture that allows us to move beyond individual and immediate issues.
Organizationally, a classic problem of the student left is the quick turnover: undergraduates come in and out on a four-year cycle. Graduate student organizing can help combat this, especially at private universities. Grad students stick around for several years, so they are better poised to create continuity and community. Hosting regular events near, but not on campus, also go long way toward maintaining a culture of politicizing people outside of specific issues, without collapsing people into one campaign or one group. At University of Chicago, for instance, there is the Woodlawn Collaborative, a sustainable space where community leaders and student groups host conversations about politics and history, which are hard to have inside a campaign.
Declaring solidarity with protesters in Greece, France, and Italy, students occupy a dining hall at The New School for roughly 30 hours in December of 2008.
Aaron Petcov: I am a leftist because the Left expresses the highest hopes for human potential. Though my politics had been radical for some time, being a leader in the new SDS forced me to develop a sense of revolutionary praxis, of how to put into practice the ideas I was bringing into my work in a coherent but dynamic way. The new SDS was also pivotal in teaching me to appreciate the lessons gained from the grassroots organizing experience in the U.S., from the early labor movement to civil rights to black power. Too often, the revolutionary Left neglects the lessons of these movements. At the same time, the importance of political vision and and revolutionary analysis is too often neglected by the social movement left. In a sense, the OFS is meant to serve as a hub of left organizers dedicated to synthesizing those two roles, the revolutionary left and the social movement left.
I do not identify with any single ideological paradigm on the Left. I see there is an emerging tendency among young organizers to remain open to learning from both the revolutionary left and social movement left, and who like the idea of “take the best and leave the rest.” Against the wall we throw a wide array of conceptual tools of the revolutionary left, along with our experience as activists and organizers, and we see what sticks. We look to this broad tradition of the Left, to the long history of struggle for classlessness and democracy, and seek to honor the rich traditions of the Left by appreciating the theoretical lessons we can take from anarchism, Marxism, feminism, and national liberation struggles—while also holding each of these traditions accountable for their historical outcomes, of course.
In terms of building the student left, or rebuilding the Left in general, I think a fixation on left history can actually become a problem, either by depending on our martyrs in history, whom we fall back on to stoke our self-righteousness, or else misapplying historical conditions, as in thinking that America in 2010 looks anything like Russia in 1917, or France during May of 1968, or even 1999. The Left needs to start discussing what it is that we want, what we are struggling for, and what the alternative to capitalism is. The immediate task is to start thinking seriously about what organizing means beyond just moving people to the Left or getting people involved in our movements. We must start thinking more about conceptualizing what it means to build power in this country. It is clearly not enough simply to pick out easy targets, administrators at universities, bosses and landlords and CEOs, and annoy them in the hope that we can pressure them to capitulate to our demands. It is a matter of building power quantitatively and qualitatively, developing strong leadership from the communities that we are organizing both in terms of their skill set and in terms of their consciousness, their political analysis. There is a very important strategic component to reform struggle, but not in the way that most of the social movement left is invested in. What we need is reform struggle in a revolutionary framework. Struggles for reform will legitimize the revolutionary movement, putting the movement and the people in a better position to gain further demands along the path towards revolution, which comes only when we get the power, as a movement, to fundamentally transform the defining social institutions of our society.
Ashley Weger: Platypus seems like an unlikely destination for someone like me, who became acquainted with the Left as an activist and organizer rather than from a more critical or intellectual perspective. It seemed suspicious at best, elitist at worst, for a group’s primary focus to be on history and theory rather than on people’s day-to-day experiences. It was not immediately apparent how studying history could possibly be undertaken as a political act. The group’s emphasis on a critique of the Left from within the Left seemed off when the right-wing appears to be gaining more steam domestically and internationally. Nonetheless I went to fora like this one and participated in the weekly reading group, which I would describe, for those of you who do not know about it, as an exploration of the adventures and misadventures of the Left—its highs and lows. But I did not grasp what the group was trying to do. As time passed, however, I began to critically approach the work I did as an activist and organizer and began to wonder what it was amounting to. Was I really building a movement by taking part in protests, or was this participation only some sort of pseudo-activity that disguised itself as contributing to something greater when, in truth, it was only satisfying a juvenile rebellious streak, and not affecting society at all?
Platypus’s insistence on a critique of the Left, particularly in terms of historical regression, suddenly seemed to make sense. Such a recognition could have depoliticized me; instead, I adopted the Gramscian notion that it is essential to have a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will. I would suggest that our goal as a group is a humble one: It consists in recognizing that the Left’s current incapacity to shape the world is hidden behind a mass of optimism that another world is possible and is near birth.
Most groups on the Left are susceptible to this kind of self-affirmation. Certainly, it was and is true for something like the revival of the SDS. While I was not involved in creating the Chicago chapter of the new SDS, I shared many of its worst characteristics in other coalition work: I fancied myself part of the resurrected 1960s, thinking that 1968 was the high point of politics—that is, until me. This profound hubris, I believe, is a symptom of the sort of uncritical political impulse that deters building the Left in mass. What resounds today is the overall failure, rather than the small gains, of the 1960s student left.
Because of my involvement with Platypus, I have become convinced over time that an emphasis on “synthesis” and “the intersectionality of political struggles” have become fixations that escape and betray the task at hand—human emancipation. For this we need a total theory—not a total understanding of everything in the world, but a theory that grasps fundamentally the unfreedom of capitalist society, rather than merely collects particular descriptions of the effects of unfreedom, or collates a series of bullet points aimed at this amorphous thing called “the Man,” American hegemony, the System, or Empire. This is not some naïve utopian desire for absolute truth, but rather a sober recognition of the necessity for a critical Left, a recognition that human emancipation cannot exist unless society at large is understood on the basis of how to push it there.
Marxism has a miserable history of authoritarianism and blind and infertile sectarianism. At the present moment, it has little to no apparent practical significance. But then, why am I interested in the Left? Essentially, it is this drive towards the utopian, understood not as a fixed idea of a perfect future, but as a “better unknown” that one strives for. Marxism was the only tradition of thought that made clear to me why I am a leftist, and raised serious questions about what this means in practice.
A critical perspective rooted in historical study and self-awareness does not mean one renounces all activism or organizing, but it does entail a deeply felt responsibility to be critical not only of the dangerously apolitical state of academia, but also of the depoliticizing potential of protest culture and other forms of participation that seem entirely political and serious. Ultimately, we must remember that the question at the heart of the student left is not about students’ real or imagined emancipation, but about what capacity students have in contributing to a politics of social emancipation, and what the difficulties of such a project would be.
Q & A
Internationally, the Left’s political power is at a historical low. How do you make sense of the decline of the Left? How should the student left, on the whole, or one’s own political practice begin to address this?
WK: I disagree that we’re in a moment of defeat. There are problems with the strikes and protests in Greece, but there are also a lot of interesting things going on. If communities of anarchists, communists, and socialists come together and agree on what needs to happen, we can profoundly transform not just our country, but the world. Simply because those sorts of wide-ranging transformations are not happening right here, at this moment, does not mean that we are in a moment of defeat. We are at a point in human history where any kind of revolutionary outbreak, once it gets off the ground somewhere, will spread through the global community.
LB: I do not know if the Left is at an absolute low, historically, but I certainly think we are at a relative low, compared to moments like May 1968 or 1917. The first step is building movements and building organizations. We need to create an atmosphere and culture that can instill a belief that things are changing and new possibilities are at hand. There are only 15,000 people here at the U.S. Social Forum; you do not have a revolutionary situation with only 15,000 people. We need people to grab hold of this new vision of society and to build it in their everyday lives. We get there by bringing those people into movements and politicizing them. Organizing on campuses is taking that step from building rallies that grow from five to fifty to five hundred. If we have 500 people at a rally at our campus, that means 500 people have taken, at least in some small way, a stand against the way the world is. However, developing student power alone does not politicize people. But we must build these movements, these communities of people taking a stand, for there even to be a a context for politicization in the first place. Certainly, we have not yet reached our destination, and everyone may not be going in a perfect direction, but we are still moving in exciting ways. Therefore I do not think the student left is hopeless right now.
AP: I agree that the Left is at a historic low in the United States, but internationally this is much less the case. There is a lot of potential in Latin America, in particular Venezuela, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Brazil, along with the Maoist revolution in Nepal and the Naxalites in India. Possibilities are emerging in Greece and other European countries, as well. This is a huge moment of opportunity, but precisely for this reason the questions we ask within the Left, about how we build the Left, take on even greater importance. The Left is broader and more inclusive now than it ever has been. It is no longer simply about liberating the working class—it is about GLBTQ liberation, and about liberating people of color, women, and the disabled. Our ideal role as students lies very much in what Luis was saying—it’s just a matter of getting out there and organizing, doing political work, and building rallies from five to fifty to five hundred people, and more. Many have a sense of anxiety about our moment. There is a popular sentiment that “something is going to happen.” But it is not going to happen unless we make it happen. At the same time, many people have a sense that things are only getting worse, that things are only moving to the right. We, as the revolutionary left, need to be a motor; we need to start pushing people’s ideas until they are able to develop on their own as organizers and revolutionaries.
The way we do that is not by asking, “Did we win yet? Did we achieve this demand?” Rather, we will be winning only when we have built a base that puts the people in power into a dilemma. Obviously, we should be judging ourselves based on whether we are recruiting people into our movements, and whether our rallies are getting bigger. But also we need to judge our political efforts with respect to revolutionary consciousness. Are we developing revolutionary organizers? Even if we don’t win our demands, which can be very difficult, the activity of organizing around those demands may still be a victory of a sort, to the extent these organizational efforts translate into developing revolutionary leadership and bases of revolutionary consciousness in our communities.
AW: At least implicitly, many leftists have this idea that everyone is anti-capitalist, but some of them do not know it yet. In practice, this leads to a conviction that if you just get a bunch of people to sign on to this or that coalition, it will immediately become an anti-capitalist movement, naturally and of its own accord. Frankly, this idea is misguided.
When organizing at DePaul, I basically took the “five to fifty to five hundred” approach that the other panelists mentioned, yet I am skeptical that this organizational work actually politicized anyone. We were able to sit down with the president and demand that our campus workers be paid a living wage. I built a committee that, I think, can win a living wage for DePaul workers in the next year. But I do not think I have politicized a single person through that. There are a lot of liberals that want to do the right thing because they see people on their campus suffering. I am not going to interfere with anyone trying to do right by his or her conscience, but I would not call that politics. The schism between the revolutionary left and the social movement left is very real, and deep. Whenever I have tried to bring even the most vaguely radical perspective to bear on my union work, usually in the form of comradely critique, it has been mocked by my union leads. This is a real problem that has been internalized in the labor movement, which thinks that it is going to emancipate society through contract negotiation alone. Critique does not mean dismissal; I am critical of the labor movement while respecting it and working for it for free. In fact, I work for the labor movement and strive to be critical of it for the same reason: I take the labor movement seriously.
In the new SDS, the fixation on being a broad-based, umbrella organization displaced attempts to clarify its own ideological thought, and thus to develop its members politically. Internal political differences were often addressed apolitically—through whisper campaigns, for instance—in ways that simply did not get at the heart of the issue. Has this become a tendency of the Left in general, meaning that young leftists are doing work for political organizations, without development and clarification of their political perspective? To what degree is this a problem, and how can organizations address it?
WK: I do not think ideology is nearly as important as some of the other panelists. At this point, it does not matter which program we are going to implement once the revolution happens. It is fine to talk about whether you are a Marxist or an anarchist, but such discussions are premature at best. They are ultimately irrelevant until we have real power. When I’m organizing students, the reason I do not talk about, for example, whether or not they have read Marx, is because it is not relevant to our lives. It will be relevant, and we should have those arguments, once we have overthrown capitalism. But we are not there yet.
AP: It is true that much of the discourse over ideological differences is frequently—and I’m putting it mildly here—counterproductive. But there are necessary conversations that can be productive. There’s not so much an aversion to ideology in general, but more of an aversion to dogmatic, counterproductive conversations. People want to have meaningful, rich political discourse, in which we clarify our differences, struggle with them, and move forward from them. Ideology is necessary and, in a sense, unavoidable. We all have an ideology because, if nothing else, we are socialized according to the conditions in which we are raised. Part of the goal of revolution is to combat those ideologies and introduce, as Gramsci put it, counterhegemony—a new set of values, a new set of narratives, and a new way to view the world. Precisely because ideology is unavoidable, it is necessary to discuss it; we should not be coy or unclear about this. We will not be able to create a revolutionary movement without a revolutionary ideology that opposes the ideology of capitalism, which serves to justify the oppression that exists in the current social order, and against which we are fighting. This comes back to the necessity of bridging this gap between the revolutionary left, characterized by organizations based on a high degree of political unity, and the social movement left, which is broader and more diverse in terms of its political approaches. Both are absolutely necessary for a powerful popular struggle.
At the G20 in Toronto, June 2010.
The new SDS showed that there are degrees of unity necessary for accomplishing different tasks. It started as a call for a broad student left to come out to a convention and build a national organization, where you had a bunch of people from different tendencies on the Left in the same room, talking. The hour of conversation became a three-year-long political struggle. Unfortunately, a growing tendency emerged in the new SDS, whereby discussion of superficial questions of the organizational structure took the place of ideological clarification. Genuine, productive political debate was absent. It was very evident to me in the new SDS that these political differences were framed and treated as “personal disagreements” or clashes of personality, rather than dealt with as ideology. From that experience, I think it is necessary to clarify political differences—not because it is good to have disputes about everything, but because people and organizations need to be clear about their agreements and disagreements in order to understand where there is potential for meaningful collaboration, and where there is not. We do not all need to work together, all of the time. Indeed, we are not going to have a movement at all if we do not start to clarify these differences.
LB: What we are talking about here is definitely a problem for the Left. We need to build infrastructure for processes that will politicize people as they organize, like having a reading group. If you are politically active on the Left, you should take a couple of hours out of your week and read political literature together with your friends or fellow travelers. If you are not doing that you are not really politicizing people, and whatever campaign you are working on is not really winning. I myself am retracting a bit from student organizing on a national level because I think, right now, there is more of a need for coherent mid-level, mid-scale organizing in Chicago. I mean, before we start trumpeting a national campaign or a national organization for this or that cause, I think there needs to be a serious political context in which that national work would happen. Moreover, on the scale of a city or maybe a state, maintaining a conversation about politics is much more feasible practically.
WK: Listening to you all, I have come to agree that it is important to talk about our ideology in the movement. At the SDS convention, you would see the Marxists in one corner planning their next move, and the anarchists planning theirs in the other corner. What I thought was interesting was that the discussion, particularly in the anarchist circles, was, “If we win, these people are going to try to kill us.” Many anarchists are skeptical of building coalitions with Marxist groups because of things like the history of Marxism and anarchism in Spain and other places, where taking power led to bloodshed internally. This could happen again, but I think, in the meantime, it makes sense for us to talk to each other. I do not think, however, is it is good to organize through these little subgroups and sects—we are not going to win a revolution by organizing anarchists and socialist clubs on our campuses, and I think this is where we really mess up. You may develop a decent community with an idea like that, but it does not build the bridges the movement needs in order to move forward. In the sphere of mass organizing, we cannot let ideology dominate the entire discussion, because it distracts from the fact that hardly anyone is even tenuously committed to a communist revolution in America in the first place.
AW: I’d like to revisit something Aaron mentioned, regarding the importance of having struggles for reform within a revolutionary framework. A lot of leftist groups tail onto various issues, from the Dream Act to health care. Most often they do this in the form of front groups or as cadres that infiltrate existing organizations. They imagine that they are pushing these groups, but are they actually leading them? No. At the same time, some on the sectarian left have an aversion to any sort of reform, which is simply absurd. Rosa Luxemburg had it right in Reform or Revolution. It is not a question of “choosing” one side or the other—the problem lies in separating the two in the first place, which ensures that both will fail, in practice. To Luxemburg, the victories and failures of the reform movements function as the school of revolution for the proletariat, the means by which the working class can be become, as Marx once put it, “a class for itself,” by developing a better understanding of the limitations of working within capitalism. Revolution cannot be achieved simply through reforms, but reforms are part of the revolutionary struggle. Something else we have talked about is the aversion to ideology, which is common on the Left today. A lot of people do not want to box themselves in—they want to “take the best and leave the rest.” I think this amounts, in effect, to feeling shame in being political, shame in talking to people about being a Marxist or talking to people about believing that capitalism is a systematic disaster that can never be reformed into working for people. It is a shame that, because my union leads were against my talking to people from a fervently Marxist and anti-capitalist perspective, I had to leave the union struggle on my campus to really engage people politically. These are all elements that play into why people do not simply become “politicized” by campaigns, even when these campaigns get people out marching on the streets.
One popular strain in radical politics has advocated “engaged withdrawal” from institutions and the creation of alternatives like worker-owned cooperatives, community gardens, tenants associations, and so forth. As a strategy, this approach has recently been programmatically adopted by the Organization for a Free Society, though they are hardly the only ones to do so. What are the results and prospects of this approach to politics?
AP: Being an organizer in Detroit, where there is so much emphasis on building alternative institutions, namely urban gardens and agriculture, has made me think about how important it is to have prefigurative struggle, which means building physical institutions that, to the highest degree possible, represent or resemble the world it is we are fighting for. Building workers’ cooperatives is one kind of prefigurative struggle, and as such it is useful and necessary, both as a laboratory for politics and as a mechanism by which we can win people over to revolutionary consciousness by expressing right now, in the real world, the values that we are trying to build. Of course, there are reasonable reservations about this approach to politics. Detached from larger political struggles against the powers-that-be, any forays into prefigurative politics will only yield isolated institutions and political experiences, which are then unlikely to amount to wider social change.
LB: I support the idea that building alternatives is central to our work, but building alternatives is not enough, because these alternatives are never wholly autonomous from capitalism. Community gardens are not spaces of non-capitalist social organization. The best example is New York City in the 1970s. Everyone was clamoring about the end of capitalism, because there were lots of community gardens and urban farming. Then finance capital came into New York and, all of a sudden, the property became far more valuable and the gardens were destroyed as the lots were bought and sold. We need to build around these struggles in order to defend and expand them. We need movements that are powerful enough to say, “No, you are not going to destroy this garden, this is the society we are building.” And we need to scale that up: Gardens are great, but we need to feed millions. We don’t just need a new way to feed the neighborhood. We need a way to feed an entire society.
AW: But if, as you said, these community gardens do not represent alternatives to capitalism, why should building them be “central” to any anti-capitalist politics? These sorts of projects do not create a more free society. Community gardens may have other values—certainly, they give pleasure and enjoyment to some people—but the Left does not primarily value them for this reason. Rather, much of the Left uncritically endorses a variety of projects for urban beautification because they see these as revolutionary tactics for social emancipation. There are no ready-made alternatives to capitalism immediately at hand within capitalism. The Soviet Union at no point represented an already completed alternative to capitalism. At best, in its early days immediately following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet project represented a form of highly realized capitalism, the contradictions of which were being pushed and clarified politically by the Bolsheviks.
Today, most of the supposed alternatives to capitalism that emerge from prefigurative struggles are nostalgic for an imagined, premodern Eden, complete with a fantasy of pseudo-feudal property relations, particularly in terms of land. So I have a hard time seeing these struggles as “laboratories for politics” and left-wing
“political experimentation.” If anything, they seem to prefigure a future that has regressed to something even worse than the form of capitalism we know today.
If a lot of left wing political discourse is, for the most part, unintelligible to most people, is that a problem with the discourse or is that a problem with contemporary reality?
AP: I would say, “both.” It is the case that most people on the street are not going to understand what I mean if I say Gramsci or talk about hegemony, prefigurative struggle, and so on. I think that we have to be able to relate to the average man on the street, to develop a way of popularizing and articulating our politics, our vision, our analysis, using common language in a way that people can relate to. Perhaps this means developing organic intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense: people who not only come from communities that understand revolutionary politics, but who can also communicate these ideas and develop leadership amongst the masses.
So, for example, on the question of whether or not the Left should call itself “socialist” or use the word “socialism,” I think there are good arguments on both sides. I don’t think that we need to have a straight line on that all the time. What does socialism really mean? It is a whole set of concepts about an economy that is equitable, democratic, etc. We can call “socialism” whatever we like, really, because it is the component ideas that are truly important. Broadly speaking, popularizing and spreading the component parts of that vision, such as democratic participation in the economy, is most important. There is a time and place for arguing about whether we call it socialism or something else, but at the moment that is a less pressing concern.
I do understand the argument for fighting against the right-wing demonization of socialism. Nevertheless, I wonder what, exactly, is the goal of fighting right-wing groups on campus. Young Americans for Freedom come to your campus with signs that say, “Sweatshops are Good.” It is twisted and pretty sick. But the way to win is by not letting them frame the debate. The best way to fight the right-wing is to build the Left and, in a sense, force them to catch up to us. Most people are not on that extreme polar setting of left versus right. Most people are in the middle—those are the people we need to focus on winning over.
AW: But is it really just a matter of getting the message to the people? Are we even sure we know what the message is, or should be? I needed to figure out for myself what revolution meant, what capitalism meant, what socialism meant, and I am not at all convinced everything has been figured out, by me or anyone else. Leftists want to be on the side of the people, but we also tend to think that we ourselves are not regular people. Leftists have to live and work under capitalism like everyone else. The Left exists under the objective conditions of capitalism; it does not struggle against an ideology that is separate from it. Indeed, the Left must struggle with capitalist ideology precisely because it is not separate from it. The Left is subject to capitalism and thus capable of reproducing it. Otherwise, fighting capitalism would be a much simpler matter. Leftists need to remember that they are most vulnerable the moment they think they are somehow immune.
I think a lot of what the Left is about, or should be about, has become unclear, obscure, vague. If this is the case, a pedagogical approach to politics is more appropriate to our political landscape today than winning people over by promising something you cannot deliver. This pedagogical approach would have to entail a specific kind of education, political and highly politicizing. I do not think that we should be posing alternatives by throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. After all, nearly anything would stick. People are desperate and confused, and are therefore liable to treat as a solution even the most tentative suggestions. Leftists are not somehow above and beyond this situation—if anything, we are wrapped up more deeply in it. The Left needs to pose an alternative, but if we accept that the ideological clarification we have discussed today has not been adequately realized, it follows that we are not in a position to pose a concrete “alternative” through a program, whether it comes in the form of a sectarian screed or a popularizing pamphlet aimed at a mass audience. Perhaps, at the moment, we can pose a legitimate alternative only through a series of questions. |P
Platypus Review 16 | October 2009
ON SEPTEMBER 24, 2009, approximately 900 Chicagoans rallied on the sidewalks in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel near the Magnificent Mile. At the height of rush hour, about 200 members and community allies of UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers’ union, arrived at the scene and blocked all four lanes of Chicago Avenue by sitting down in rows and linking their arms.
As the demonstrators chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” among various other long-familiar slogans, organizers passed out fliers that read, “We work in hotels, airports, casinos, schools, restaurants and cafeterias. We are union members and allies. We will continue to fight to improve our lives and will not let global corporations use the economy as an excuse to push us backward.” From this the fliers went on to single out the Civil Rights Movement as the inspiration for the day’s civil disobedience action: “Today, we follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. and others before us who have fought for a better future for themselves and their families.” The rally’s message, if not made clear by the flier, was written on the backs of the shirts of all those arrested. Under a long list of names of local employers, the shirts declared, “We are not afraid.”
UNITE HERE Local 1’s multi-year hotel contracts in Chicago had just expired on September 1. Representing more than 15,000 hotel, food service, and casino workers in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, including workers at the Congress Hotel Plaza in Chicago who have been on strike for years, the union is keenly aware that Chicago employers intend to use the recent economic crisis as an opportunity to cut their members’ wages and benefits. The September 24th civil disobedience was conceived as a pre-emptive action against Chicago hoteliers. As a tactic, it applies pressure without actually threatening to strike, which Local 1 views as a measure of last resort.
UNITE HERE planned the Park Hyatt action carefully. Their representatives and lawyers notified the Chicago Police Department well in advance, so that they were present even before most of the union members arrived. Those who sat in the street had been prescreened to ensure that no one had a prior record of arrest, which could make for more severe penal consequences. The drama was so well orchestrated, in fact, that the action felt somewhat anti-climactic. The cops had even cleared the streets before the arrestees arrived. They were taken away in buses and released by 8:00 PM with a citation for obstructing traffic. After the offenders were released, UNITE HERE ally Carrie Graham commented, “The cops said we were the nicest people they had ever arrested.” Graham added, “We just gave the tickets to the lawyers, I will probably never hear anything about it again.”
Everything went according to plan, thanks in large part to the UNITE HERE training sessions a week earlier, which consisted of exercises and drills meant to prepare those who pledged to get arrested. A flier titled “Civil Disobedience Dos and Don’ts” was circulated, its rules exhorting protestors to “be composed and serious,” “bring picture ID,” and “signal a marshal in an emergency,” while warning them not to “go limp,” “carry weapons or even [a] pocket-knife,” or “consume alcohol (or drugs) before the arrest.” The point of these sessions was to make sure that, in the media exposure following the event, the union appears organized and disciplined, so that the focus remained on the demands of the workers. Although the president of Local 1 told the demonstrators “anything can happen” and “we do not know what the Chicago Police will do,” the union took every reasonable measure to be as organized and prepared as possible.
Undoubtedly, the civil disobedience comes at a time when UNITE HERE needs to build up union morale. In 2004, UNITE, a union of garment workers in both manufacturing and laundry representing over 150,000 workers, merged with HERE, Hotel Entertainment and Restaurant Employees. The merger created a union with 440,000 members. It was a marriage of convenience, as UNITE’s growth had stagnated despite access to substantial funding via the Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank, whereas HERE’s membership was expanding but lacked financial backing. The merger maintained two leaders, with Bruce Raynor from UNITE as president while John Wilhelm from HERE assumed control of the hospitality division. Despite the difference in titles, both leaders were meant to share equally all executive and budgetary responsibilities. But, disagreements over strategy and the allocation of funds led to tensions and, eventually, lawsuits. The lack of integration extended to the locals, some of which identified primarily with UNITE while others were loyal to HERE. Tensions came to a head in March, 2009, when Raynor, along with delegates from 15 affiliates representing roughly 100,000 workers, disassociated from UNITE HERE to establish a new union, Workers United, which then affiliated with the rival Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation’s second largest union. Together with his following, Raynor took with him the Amalgamated Bank and $23 million of the strike fund, the legitimacy and legality of which is bitterly disputed. This, at a critical time for American labor. As Nic Mijares, a recent graduate from Columbia College, and now an organizer for UNITE HERE said during the training, “companies are using the economy to take benefits from us and it is not fair. We are fighting for the respect we deserve.” When asked about what could go wrong with the civil disobedience action, Mijares responded, “people not understanding the message.”
A week before the civil disobedience, the remainder of UNITE HERE announced its (re-)affiliation with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) during the closing ceremony of the 2009 AFL-CIO convention. Previously, UNITE HERE, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the SEIU, had broken with the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form a new federation, called Change to Win, which in the 2008 election mobilized thousands in support of presidential candidate Obama. Representing roughly 11 million members, the AFL-CIO will prove an important ally for UNITE HERE in its battle against SEIU and its president, Andy Stern. However, it is uncertain just how well UNITE HERE is poised to benefit from its affiliation with the AFL-CIO. Even more doubtful is whether the labor movement as a whole will emerge stronger from the recent strife.
Supposedly, this is labor’s moment. With Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress, hopes are high for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to protect and expand the right to organize. The entanglement of organized labor’s hopes with the Democratic Party is evident even in the slogans chanted at the rally, which included, in addition to the tired old ones mentioned above, the fresh, new, if desperate, “Si se puede! Yes we can!” Given this linkage to Obamania, it is unsurprising that most commentators on the current struggle within labor’s ranks view the rift with regret. For them, it threatens to weaken the labor movement at just the moment they have fought so long for. As John Nichols argues in the pages of The Nation, “The problem, and it is a big one, is that Change to Win and the AFL-CIO are both struggling to win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), health care reform and other labor agenda items.” This is a view widely shared by labor leaders and rank-and-file workers: The struggle between SEIU and UNITE HERE distracts American unions from fighting for the passage of the EFCA to help secure workers’ rights to unionize.
Yet it is not unlikely that the Obama administration’s support for EFCA has been vastly overestimated. The White House is asking Change to Win and the AFL-CIO to reunify into one federation, which may prove no more than a distraction from the setbacks to the passage of the EFCA. Certainly, the Democratic Party intends to use EFCA to bludgeon American organized labor into forming a single negotiating body that is more than ever beholden to them. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has hampered workers’ ability to fight for better wages. Waiting for legislation that may never come, organized labor around the country fails to resist management’s relentless speed-ups, cutbacks, and layoffs. As Chuck Hendricks, an organizer for UNITE HERE who was arrested during the civil disobedience, states with regards to organized labor in a previous issue of The Platypus Review, “The vision of what is possible is what is lacking.” After a training and rehearsal session for the civil disobedience in Chicago, Hendricks commented, “It is the first time I actually feel like I am part of a movement.” The question for organizers like Hendricks, then, is not so much unity for its own sake or for the sake of further subordination to the Democratic Party, but strategic fighting, and building rank-and-file leadership in the labor movement.
Richard Rubin of Platypus recently pointed out that, in the early 20th century, the working class faced the dilemma of whether to reform capitalism or to abolish it. Over the last four decades it has become clear the path that was taken. As Rubin argued, both cause and effect were “an internalization of defeat and even a fear of victory.” The last forty years have unquestionably been a period in which the last vestiges of the international Left withered and died. It is therefore unsurprising that during these same decades the strength of the American labor movement has waned considerably.
So the question to be posed in light of even the most well-coordinated labor activism is clear: To what extent does an action like that held in Chicago lead not only to the improvement of the conditions of workers in the U.S. and internationally, but to the constitution of a labor movement whose vision extends beyond the Obama administration and the Democratic Party? Was the September 24th civil disobedience an action in the struggle for socialism? Of course not. Yet, as Hendricks expressed, the action does potentially strengthen the union and build the confidence necessary to make more far-reaching demands. On the other hand, the wishes of organizers in unions like UNITE HERE to build a powerful labor movement from the ground up, may prove implausible in the present. As the recent UNITE HERE split and re-affiliation with the AFL-CIO might indicate, certain unions will find strategies of direct politicization and labor militancy insufficient. The fault, however, might not lie solely in unions, but on the overall impotence of the Left. Certainly, there is little reason to doubt workers and organizers when they proclaim in both word and deed to employers and union bosses alike, “We Are Not Afraid.” |P
. See Peter Dreir’s article “Divorce—Union Style,” in the August 12, 2009 issue of The Nation. Dreir expresses the consensus opinion of political analysts with regard to workers’ rights in the recession: “Ask any union official, labor organizer, rank-and-file leader or labor-oriented academic—they’ll all tell you the same thing: this is labor’s moment.”
Platypus Review 15 | September 2009
At the Left Forum hosted by New York’s Pace University in April of this year, a panel discussion was held on the subject of Politics of the Contemporary Student Left: Hopes and Failures. Organized by Alex Hanna of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the panel consisted of Pam Nogales of Platypus, Carlos J. Pereira Di Salvo of USAS, and Laurie Rojas of Platypus. What follows is a transcript of each panelist’s formal presentation and the subsequent Q&A session. Video of the panel discussion is available at the above link.
Laurie Rojas: What does it mean to be part of the radical student Left today? My political practice is informed by my participation in two very distinct organizations: the Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] and the Platypus Affiliated Society [Platypus]. Platypus began as a reading group at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May of 2006. Its primary aims are to develop an understanding of the reasons for the historical failure of the Left and to clarify its present and future necessity.
In 2008 I joined the new SDS, for which I organized discussion groups across Chicago campuses on immigration rights. I also helped to coordinate SDS’s participation in the May Day immigrant’s rights rally, so that for roughly nine months I worked for SDS on an almost daily basis. At first, I thought I was in Platypus to do theoretical work that my “out in the streets” practice in SDS would complement. I was hardly alone in misunderstanding the relationship between theory and practice in this way. In fact, the most significant obstacle I found in my experience with youth politics in SDS is the fact that we have all naturalized the idea that leftists are either intellectuals or activists. This division cripples revolutionary practice as well as revolutionary thinking.
In Chicago there is a protest or a rally everyday, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what these protests are for, or what effect they have. Of course, I would be the last to deny that there have been certain “successful” campaigns, rallies, and sit-ins, such as the recent action at the Chicago Window and Door Factory, in which more than 200 laid off workers refused to leave the factory until they received the two months of salary and benefits that were due to them. But how does this “success” weigh in comparison to the general situation of unions in the U.S.?
Among my friends, colleagues, and comrades who attend as many of these events as possible, there is a widespread and deeply rooted anti-intellectualism. It seems that the more protests each attends the more prone he or she is to tell me that Platypus does not do anything, to which I reply, “Since when did thinking become understood as inaction?” My experiences in SDS convinced me that this form of anti-intellectualism, which we have inherited from the past, has led to our generation’s depoliticization, whether in the form of activism or passivity.
The new SDS was founded in 2006 and is currently one of the largest political student organizations in the country. I was the master of ceremonies for the New SDS 2008 National Convention, which I have come to understand as a microcosm of the contemporary young Left: As a result of a series of interrelated problems, the convention was an organizational disaster. These problems include, first of all, SDS’s lack of formal leadership or any sort of official national structure. Directly related to this, vague but powerful sentiments of “anti-authoritarianism” undermine any attempts to organize. It is therefore common that the de facto leaders of SDS are met with resentment for their “tyrannical” willingness to take on responsibilities. An overwhelming obsession with proceduralism coupled with the constant fear of being “un-democratic” makes it nearly impossible to arrive at even the most basic practical decisions. At the same time, leading concepts of the group’s current foundational documents, not to mention its historical legacy—concepts such as “revolution” and “democracy”—are largely left at the level of empty abstractions. Their actual clarification has hardly any place within today’s SDS, so that whatever political conversations do occur often prove to be frustrating. One suspects this is the reason for a tacit agreement to avoid ideological conversations. The result is predictable enough—whisper campaigns against individuals who dare to speak openly about their ideological positions.
Although the convention concluded with the formation of an interim leadership and an organizational structure, I came to recognize that the organization as a whole had already proven incapable of achieving its own goals. I was especially disillusioned when I observed a widespread reluctance to address the unresolved problems of the original SDS of the 1960s. In particular, there was a lack of interest in—or perhaps a fear of beginning to address—the most basic question facing the organization: What is it that we are trying to change, anyway?
In place of any serious discussion of aims or strategy, SDS tends to proliferate innumerable “direct action” campaigns, which entail the planning of various interventions or the enacting of civil disobedience. In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, these campaigns amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for “agitation” and “resistance.” The new SDS has become nothing more than an umbrella organization for participating in activism and resistance without strategy or goals. The activism-for-its-own-sake in SDS indicates that it “refuses to reflect upon its own impotence,” as Adorno once said of the student activism in the 60s.
In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The point today would be to invert that phrase, to say that in order to change the world we need to understand it. Or, rather, to say that one cannot be attempted without the other.
Carlos Pereira Di Salvo: I would like to give a critical assessment of the anti-ideological perspective of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in which I argue that this “anti-ideology” actually conceals a profound, unquestioned commitment to identity politics. I conclude with the argument that this commitment is a crucial factor in USAS’s inability to develop a progressive and critical labor politics.
One of the central concepts USAS advocates is the idea that campaigns, not ideas, are what really matter. This position is stated explicitly in their “Principles of Unity,” in which members are informed, “We do not impose a single ideological position, practice, or approach; rather, we aim to support one another in a spirit of respect for difference, shared purpose and hope.” This is also a palpable feature of conferences, where any attempts to put forward issues of ideology or theory are routinely stonewalled. Consequently, USAS produces organizers who think that ideological debates are a waste of time, and that “organizing” is what really counts. This does not mean that USAS claims to have no principles at all. In fact, their “Principles of Unity” contain many political ideas. But these are stated so vaguely as to offer hardly any guidance; they amount to rhetorical Rorschach inkblots onto which people can project their own political positions.
The trouble with the non-ideological or anti-ideological position is its incoherence. As was stated when the group was founded and has been reaffirmed at conventions and meetings many times since, the organization exists to address a certain social problem. Like other social justice organizations, USAS presupposes a theoretical analysis in the very identification of the problems they set out to solve as well as in their proposals for how these problems can be solved. This presupposed analysis is necessarily informed by a social theory—that is, by a theory of how society works. Yet the analysis is always left implicit.
Since the anti-ideological perspective is not a position on which one can build an organization, what, then, is the specific perspective that actually informs USAS organizationally? Although largely a vague and loosely related set of pronouncements, the “Principles of Unity” nevertheless have a unifying theme: postmodern identity politics. Thus it reads, “We struggle against racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression within our society, within our organizations, and within ourselves.” This is a relatively definite expression of consensus activist ideology, though, as we shall see, there are other aspects of that consensus less clearly expressed.
So what? Why is postmodern identity politics problematic? To answer this, we have to look at the role this politics plays in the organization. This role could be characterized in a number of ways: as a perspective informing the analysis of the causes of the problem of sweatshop production, as a perspective on how to effectively organize ourselves to address the problem, or perhaps as some other thing entirely.
It is fairly clear that identity politics does not inform USAS’s analysis of the problem. Not even USAS believes that the problem of sweatshops is primarily a problem of discrimination on the basis of identity. It is, at the very least, a problem of inequality and exploitation, although I would argue it should be understood as a phenomenon of the present stage of global capitalism, one that cannot be eradicated without challenging the entire social structure. Sweatshop workers are not primarily victims of racism or sexism—even though most of them are in fact women of color—and they are certainly not victims of “classism,” whatever that is. They are victims of neoliberal capitalism’s drive to accumulate wealth by finding the cheapest possible supply of labor. In the apparel industry, the rise in sweatshop production in the Third World was a direct result of the phasing out of a protectionist system of quotas called the Multi Fiber Agreement, which was dismantled throughout the 1990s and early 2000s following the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations.
So if identity politics is not used by USAS to grasp the problem of sweatshops per se, then maybe its utility lies in helping students think about how to organize themselves in order to effectively address said problem. I think this has a little bit more traction. Integral to USAS’s structure and to the structure of its conferences are the so-called “anti-oppression training” and the “caucus system.” I will not describe these at length because they are staple elements of the Left today; suffice it to say that about half the conference time at national conventions is devoted to anti-oppression and caucuses. Moreover, the organizational structure includes representation of the Womyn/Gender Queer, Queer, People of Color, and Working Class caucuses.
The justification for this structure given in the “Principles of Unity” is that each individual, and particularly each American college student, harbors racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist attitudes, and is privileged by the unfair outcomes these attitudes create in society. These attitudes, it is further believed, plague our organizing efforts. By fighting the “-isms” in ourselves, we are said to become better able to fight them in society.
So what does this all have to do with sweatshop workers hundreds of miles away, whose primary problems are extremely low wages, extremely long working hours, physical and verbal abuse, and awful working conditions? After all, this is the specific problem USAS constituted itself to address. From the perspective of sweatshop workers, all that matters is that we act as effective “allies,” that we bend the arm of Nike by hitting them where it hurts (university licenses, market share, and public image) so that the workers’ efforts to organize are not undercut by capital flight. It is obvious that workers—and I have spoken with some personally about this—are looking to USAS to play this specific role.
The question, then, is this: Does anti-oppression training make us any better at being good allies? I would argue that it does not. The kinds of tactics USAS employs in order to pressure universities and corporations, like phone and letter campaigns, mock actions, non-violent direct action, and so on, are not more effective when they are executed by people with guilty consciences about their privilege, than when they are executed by people who give no thought to this. The consciousness raised by anti-oppression training simply does not enter into the strategizing for campaigns. Diverse groups such as my own at Purdue University, where the majority of members were in fact women and people of color, are not necessarily more effective allies than groups such as Indiana University’s, which was predominantly white and male during the period of my involvement.
If it is unclear whether anti-oppression makes us better allies to workers in the apparel industry, why is so much time spent on this stuff? Why has it not been rejected organizationally in light of challenges to it at recent national conferences? The reason, I would suggest, is anti-oppression training is used to convince students that workers, merely by virtue of being workers, are more progressive than themselves and their own organizations, and that therefore we ought to declare solidarity uncritically with their struggles. This attitude goes hand in hand with the idea that ideological debates are pointless, and that it is not our place to say, on the basis of some analysis or the other of this society, what the appropriate political responses ought to be in light of a certain situation or problem.
This is not to say that there is necessarily much to be criticized in the organizing efforts of Third World sweatshop workers. But there is one recent American case that particularly highlights the problems that derive from USAS’s uncritical relationship to the labor struggles it attempts to support.
Many of you may be aware of the unfolding fratricide between the UNITE! and HERE sides of UNITE! HERE, and of the ambition of SEIU [Service Employees International Union] to absorb either one or both of the sides once the dust settles. This is a case in which we might expect a student movement primarily concerned with labor issues to have an open discussion and maybe even formulate a position. Instead, a contact in USAS’s inner circle informs me that posts relating to these issues were deliberately deleted for over two weeks from the listservs of the organization, and that the top leadership are loath to take a side. In fact, only recently did an email with a few articles on the issue go out, the purpose of which seems to have been more to obfuscate than to educate. This is but a single instance of how USAS’s anti-ideological attitude constrains the organization’s ability to champion an independent and progressive labor politics. The organization’s anti-ideological stance serves to maintain internal organizational divisions according to ascriptive identities rather than political factionalization. This actively inhibits the political education of members and undermines the organization’s efficacy.
The recent period of flux in USAS provides a valuable opportunity for reflection regarding USAS’s potential as an organization. The significance of this question should not be underestimated: Consider that at least five former Purdue USAS organizers in the past six years are now with major unions. Hence, as a large recruitment ground for union organizers, USAS is a potential resource for a desperately needed renewal of the American labor movement. USAS’s current uncritical workerist stance will not produce the kind of organizers needed to meet this challenge.
If identity politics is abandoned, what is there to take its place? Well, prescribing is always harder than critiquing, of course, and I do not know that there is a politics ready-made at present that can take the place of identity politics. But I can at least say that part of the challenge will be for USAS to foment an organizational culture capable of producing such a politics by seriously engaging theoretical debates and formulating political positions. Central to this, in my view, will be the inclusion of discussions on the nature of capitalism, imperialism, and neoliberalism into its conference agenda.
Pam Nogales: I would venture to say that it is unclear whether or not the recent wave of occupations [at the New School in the spring of 2009] is a step forward for the student Left. Watching the video documentation of the April 13th emergency assembly held at the New School, I realized that much of what I had found compelling about student politics in New York is at risk of being absorbed into the murky waters of protest politics.
During the emergency assembly Pat Korte, a radical student member, delivered a partial critique of the students’ response to the recent turn of events. Korte noted that present political activities should not be limited to ousting the school’s President, Bob Kerry, but ought rather to challenge the corporate structure of the university. Student radicals, he felt, should not accept uncritically the overarching structure of the institutions in which they are enrolled. But as the meeting progressed, Korte’s comments quickly faded into the background. Reports and condemnations of police brutality added to the already festering outrage that dominated the question and answer session, and in a manner of minutes the critique of structural limitations, the context in which someone like Bob Kerry functions, became obscured by immediate concerns.
I wondered if this was an unconscious exclusion, a temporary amnesia in part caused by the blatant misconduct of the New School administration. I should say that I do not take police brutality lightly, and the fact that the New School administration has threatened the students with imprisonment for conducting a teach-in at a campus building is an action that should not be allowed to pass unnoticed and unchallenged. But it is precisely because I sympathize with the defense of those students’ rights to organize, and because I oppose police brutality and incompetent university administration, that I would like to see a coherent challenge that does not confuse the question of limitations of the current structure for the source of the structure’s unfreedom. This is a very important distinction for me.
After several students spoke up at the emergency meeting, an older man who introduced himself as a student protester at the 1969 University of Chicago sit-in gave his word of advice. He cautioned the students that they should veer away from the critique of capitalism, an inquiry that in the past, according to him, led to the Stalinist mumbo-jumbo that eventually fractured and destroyed the New Left. What we are fighting here, he said, is the malignancy of those in power, a malignancy that is still spreading. A loud applause followed. This incident points to a dominant trend in today’s student Left: A vague and ill-defined anti-authoritarianism that effectively inhibits student politics. It also highlights plainly the way this problem represents an uncritical repetition of the past.
The vague anti-authoritarianism so many leftist organizations share has led to ideological incoherence and to a student Left that exists as a tenuous unity quickly running up against its limitations. Without discussion and debate of the content and meaning of political activity, occupations and protests serve only as a means for coordinating more occupations, more protest, more agitation, which are, by the sheer fact of happening, supposed to galvanize a political consciousness in onlookers. The content of this politicization is rarely called into question; it is expected, rather, that the struggle itself takes care of ideological problems. Ideological debate soon dissolves into the question of whether or not one is willing to “fight the good fight.”
It would be unfair to cast the entire student Left in this light. There are those like Pat Korte who will say that the development of ideas is an integral component of developing a radical culture. And yet there is little room in the movement for this kind of activity. There is little follow-up on the kind of organizational work necessary to foster an examination of history, an analysis of political positions, and the development of theory.
Old political problems are still with us. They are the stuff that our perspectives are made out of, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is incumbent upon those of us who call ourselves leftist to inquire into the nature of our ideological inheritance and into the meaning of our political activity. Neglecting this necessary work of political practice means simply relegating our politics to our instinctual responses to current conditions, and ultimately tethering ourselves to the barbaric immediacy of our present. Historical consciousness was meant to tackle exactly this problem of the limitations of political shortsightedness. Although the idea of historical consciousness has prompted a great deal of confusion, there is no serious political alternative today.
The conscious struggle against the limitations of the present is shaped by three defining approaches to our reality: what is possible, what is necessary, and what is desirable. The radical features of our politics are defined and redefined by how we deal with these questions. That which is desirable can appear as an impossible goal, unrealizable under present conditions. That is why it is necessary for political practice to push the boundaries of what is possible, so that our politics do not become a slave to the present.
But how, in the absence of an international Left, can one fight for an emancipatory politics? How we approach this bleak reality is the first question we Leftists today should ask ourselves. We are the inheritors of a failed politics, and how we make sense of this failure necessarily shapes our political goals, our ideological perspectives. If we shy away from this task it will lead only to confusion. The principle of uncritical inclusivity that seems so important for student leftists today assumes that all ideological work is done in people’s private time. The political perspectives of individual members are pushed aside for the good of the organization as a whole, even while it remains unclear how this extremely fractured whole will move forward without an in-depth inquiry into the nature of its politics. “We must be realistic in our utopianism,” as C. Wright Mills put it. We must put forward a thorough understanding of what we are actually against. We must ask, What are the defining features of our present forms of unfreedom?
Platypus does not define itself in terms of organizing protest strikes or building coalitions. We have worked with groups that do this kind of work, and although that work is necessary, our project is different. Our work is geared toward the ideological clarification of the most striking political condition of our time: the absence of an international Left. We believe that this inquiry is the necessary groundwork for rebuilding an emancipatory politics in the present. This ideological work is carried out through public discussions, reading group meetings, film screenings, and interventions, activities that require an organizational structure adequate to long-term goals. What we would like to foster in the current student movement is a culture of debate and discussion. We would like to see students participate in the clarification of their political positions. And we would like this debate to affect the direction of the movement. The student movements, whether consciously or unconsciously, affect the conditions in which a radical politics develops. It is both the context and the force for its efficacy. Only if the student Left directs its activities towards conscious realization of this development will it advance the struggle for freedom.
After the panelists’ presentations, members of the audience were invited to ask questions.
What lies behind the mindless actions that characterize the student Left today and the false positivity that it entails?
Nogales: I think there is a belief that agitational activity will somehow bring in those who have been standing on the sidelines, who have thought about being political but have not gone all the way. There is a mistaken belief that growth in numbers alone will somehow create a better politics.
Pereira Di Salvo: There is a lot of Situationist thought in these circles that actually convinces people that the moments when you are holding the signs are the moments when capitalism is being ripped apart. This is very dangerous; if you think that those are the moments when you are really free, then nothing is ever going to change.
Do you think that a lot of this anti-authoritarian identity politics is really a mask for, in many ways, right wing impulses, and basically anti-Marxist impulses?
Rojas: Anti-authoritarianism is definitely bound up with anti-ideology. It is something we have inherited from the 1960s New Left, but even they dealt with it more directly and self-consciously than we do today. At the SDS convention there were people with serious political disagreements, but there was no space dedicated to addressing or clarifying those disagreements. Instead, participants carry away from these conventions altogether obscure notions of what traditions and concepts such as anarchism, Marxism, ideology, and democracy might actually mean.
I wanted to point out two things. First, anti-ideology is a form of ideology. Secondly, groups like the Black Panthers actually put revolution on the table, and this gave a lot of impetus to other political movements at the time. We need something like that now, an actual revolutionary movement.
Nogales: I agree that anti-ideology is itself a kind of ideology, but I am puzzled by your claims regarding the Black Panthers. It seems that what you are calling for is greater militance in the movement. But I would say that consideration of the substance of one’s own politics is a necessary step that should come before posing any political demands, militant or otherwise. Many people in the Radical Student Union at the New School do in fact look to the 1960s for the content of their politics, but they are unwilling to actually work through that past. So there is an unconscious inheritance that causes them to prioritize certain tactics and goals without first thinking about what those priorities actually entail and whether they are appropriate.
What is the state of student movements and radicalism globally? What kind of international student movement currently exists?
Pereira Di Salvo: I do not think that there really is any sort of international student movement or that students have much contact with one another on a global scale. I will speak to my own experience at Purdue University, where there was an interesting division of labor by which one organization took upon itself the task of having ideological debates, of taking ideas seriously and debating them earnestly. This organization debated the relevance of what USAS was doing, and every single person in this organization also belonged to the USAS group. We were very critical, we wanted to change things from within USAS, but I think we ultimately failed to articulate that well enough. Our critical positions did not make an impact. I am hoping that my future involvement with USAS will in some sense try to address these failures.
Rojas: There are definitely things going on with students internationally. There are student rallies and protests in Iran, there are anti-authoritarian groups in Germany, and there is a Facebook group for an international student Left. But what do these things amount to? I am a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which in my experience has a pervasive anti-activist and anti-political atmosphere. This makes it very hard to be “political,” to present oneself as a political person. What I might be calling for is a radicalization of intellectuals. That is what I would like to do on my campus: politicize these students who are very smart, who read the same things I read, but do so apolitically. On some campuses there is a widespread fear of politics. So there is the matter of dealing with anti-intellectualism within activist groups, but there is also dealing with anti-political impulses within intellectual circles.
When you are trying to build a movement in the United States or internationally, where the majority of the workingclass are people of color, immigrants, and gays and lesbians, is it not necessary to address the relationship between white skin privilege and these oppressed groups? The problem is that the reaction to the type of postmodern identity politics manifested in USAS turns into a reaction against all identity politics. Do you not need some form of identity politics to fight racial oppression, sexual oppression,and so on?
Pereira Di Salvo: I would hate it if people came away from here thinking that I think fighting racism and sexism is a waste of time. That is not at all the point I am trying to make. I am arguing that the primary problem that USAS constituted itself to solve was the problem of sweatshops. In that context, the primary problems that workers are dealing with relate to their situation as workers. They face cases of sexual discrimination. For instance, women who work in sweatshops are often forced to undergo pregnancy tests. These are obviously problems and I think USAS should denounce such practices, but denouncing the violations that female sweatshop workers face as women is not going to change the fact that they are working in sweatshops and that sweatshops exist. So we have to get down to what the problem really is about. This does not mean that we keep silent on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, it just means that we have to take seriously what our goal in USAS is and we have to work backwards from that.
In terms of theoretical investigation, when you speak of the “failure” of past revolutions, do you not risk starting from square one, and thereby overlooking the tremendously emancipatory dimensions and achievements of those earlier revolutions?
Rojas: When I say “failure,” I mean it in the sense that we still live under capitalism. The Left has not overcome capitalism, and until we have done so, we have ultimately failed.
Pereira Di Salvo: Yes, we need theoretical investigation, and yes, we are not starting from nowhere. I do not think that any of us has suggested otherwise. But as Laurie said, the project of the Left is, or ought to be, the overcoming of capitalism. We have failed in this task so far, and I think we have to take that failure very seriously. This involves looking at our history critically. |P
Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 12–14, 2009. (Audio recording.)
Audience Q & A
Question 1 (Laurie Rojas): Ian just spoke about membership, and I wanted to expand on that, but, mostly to Chris and Richard, who have given very different, less concrete, presentations, now that Ian has raised the issue of membership, how is the membership to understand what the two of you just presented?
Richard Rubin: I think that they are rather separate issues. There are a lot of different models we could have for membership, or organizational models. I don’t think that that’s particularly necessarily connected to our ideological project. We don’t really know clearly what Platypus is. We don’t think of Platypus as a political party, but it is some kind of an organization. We have a newspaper, which is in some ways an organ for our organization, but it is not intended to be a “party” newspaper. In fact, the biggest problem we’ve had, is that we want more “external” content, representing non-Platypus views, against which Platypus can rebound.
I think that the membership question is a separate practical, instrumental question, and I don’t have clear views on what should be done on that. On this I’m probably of a minority in the organization, but it’s unclear to me that membership, while it’s a practical necessity for Platypus, is so central to the project. Since we’re interested in creating a milieu, we don’t necessarily need a large membership. Members are really the people who do the work. And while that is obviously a very important practical necessity, what we really want is a broad milieu, of people who will listen to and think about these ideas. Not necessarily those who agree, but pay attention to the ideas.
Ian Morrison: I was looking back at certain historical contexts for some kind of precedent, organizationally. There is an interesting example that, at one point, the group around Shachtman wanted very much to orient towards youth, to help sap out Stalinism in America. That failed. But we’re in a similar situation. We want to sap out bad pedagogy on the Left, and we can only do that starting in the university culture.
Chris Cutrone: I’d like to elaborate on that, the phrase “bad pedagogy.” We don’t consider the sectarian Left to be truly political. In other words, we don’t consider groups like the Spartacists, or the ISO, or the RCP, et al., to be really political organizations. Rather, we consider them to be bad pedagogues. . . .
IM: The idea that they’re “political” is bad pedagogy!
CC: . . . Right! There are two elements to the pedagogy. One, that’s more direct, meaning, the vulgarization of ideas. The other, though, is more indirect, which, we would also like to participate in, although our politics in this respect would be “liberal.” Meaning, that we give, what we’re trying to offer, and not just to our members, or even through membership in the organization, but really, what we’re trying to do through things like the paper and the fora, our events, the conversation we’re trying to host, is give a pedagogy not only of ideas, but of political practice. We’re thrown back onto an Enlightenment model of “philosophical debate.” Meaning, we’re back to the realm of teaching people that ideas matter, and that, in a sense, the polity can be constituted at the level of ideas.
So in that sense the bad pedagogy is both ways. There’s the purveying of bad ideology, but there’s also the purveying of a bad model of politics.
IM: Sometimes I think we might get a bad rap, which is difficult, about, we have an attack on activist culture. One thing about “theory,” and the “what is to be done?” question, is that we very much want to hit the brakes, we want to stop people, before they act, to think. And that is damaging to activism, on one level. If you think of activism as not intimately bound with theory, if you take activism as an ideology of, that people only learn to understand the world in a way that is “born of struggle,” in a way that is not linked to reflecting on that struggle, that you can only struggle, and then reflect, or so forth, this idea is very problematic.
RR: I want to make two practical points. One is that the fact that Platypus Review exists is to some extent an accident. Because the original goal of Platypus, before it really became a group, was to set up some kind of an academic journal. So we never, paradoxically, were able to that, but we were able to produce a newspaper, of a certain kind of academic tone.
The other is that, the fact that Platypus focuses on certain things and not other things is not necessarily an indication of our goal. I mean, there are a lot more things that, if we had a broader membership, we could do. A lot of people have interest in certain areas that, if we were a bigger organization, we would focus on doing. There are people in Platypus who do things like labor organizing, and so forth. So it’s not that we’re opposed to any type of concrete political activity. And there were people, and it’s a very mixed and complex question, there were a lot of people in Platypus who were active in SDS.
CC: I want to put a finer point on Ian’s point about “activism.” I think that what’s being referred to there is protest culture, which is different. What Christian Parenti, Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone called “activistism,” or what Adorno called “actionism.” From the 1960s to the present, a lot of political “activism” is, actually, (a) not political, and (b) not really an “action,” not really actual action. Going to a protest, going to a demonstration, is not organizing workers. Those are two completely different actions. The fact that we can think of both of them as “actions” is itself a problem. So, it’s not that we are trying to interrupt “action,” it’s that we’re trying to interrupt “activistism,” which is a different kind of thing. We’re trying to interrupt the protest culture.
I think that part of the origins of Platypus comes from, both among the younger and older generation in the group, the feeling that, we would go to demonstrations, we would go to protests, we would go to anti-war protests, and we would feel like we were suspending disbelief while attending the demonstration. We wanted to be there, we wanted our feet on the ground, register our protest, our heart was in the right place. But we felt like we had to suspend our own thinking in order to participate. Because the slogans, because the conventionality of the event, what people seemed to tacitly agree upon, was something that we had, in a sense, to suspend disbelief about, because we found it inadequate. And what we found was that, and this was a strange phenomenon, probably most people at these demonstrations feel the same way. In which case, that begs the question.
So, in that respect, it should not be seen as theory as opposed to practice. Rather, we have our own theory-practice problem. And we relate that to the typical bad Left’s botching of the theory-practice problem. They have their way of dealing with the theory-practice problem, and we have our way of dealing with the theory-practice problem, and they’re not antithetically opposed. What they are is related. We’re trying to make up for a deficit. We don’t expect “activist-ism” to go away, but we do want to interrupt it. We do want to add something that’s a missing element at this point.
IM: Actually, our paper is very much inspired by the problem of protest culture. I’m sure everyone has had the experience who went to protests of getting a plethora of crazy newspapers that one couldn’t make any sense of, really, with all different variations on workerism, really. And that’s a very odd sort of experience, that young people have no way of even decoding, this kind of strange language that’s been passed down. That was at least my experience, during the Iraq war, going to protests, and taking all these different sorts of views, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of them, really. And I think that’s most people’s experience. What’s sad about that is that I think people are actually very interested in those ideas, but have no real access to where such positions come from, what the motivation is, because it is a position-taking that’s very incoherent in our time. That’s one of the reasons why we emphasize more, when we read the classical texts in Marxism, what is the general impetus behind these writers, and not these “classic” disputes, like the “Lenin-Luxemburg dispute” or so forth, that are sometimes very obscuring of what it is they actually agreed about.
So, in a way, anyone who’s interested in making a “decoder” for this world is a writer for our paper. It’s about reflecting on that kind of experience, that is very common for people in their university life, if they go to protests.
CC: There are two things about that that are important. One is that the sectarian Left is there, and there is this kind of museumified Marxism that gets trotted out. As well as there’s academic Leftism. Meaning, you read Foucault, and you’re supposed to understand what Foucault is in dialogue with. It’s just this tacit understanding that there’s this critique of Marxism going on here. But it’s all underspecified. What we’re trying to do is essentially reconstitute the debate that’s taken for granted, and that doesn’t occur. Meaning, you go to a protest and you get several different groups’ sectarian newspapers. You make sense of them yourself. And, really, these groups don’t speak to each other. The reason that they don’t speak to each other is that they really don’t “speak,” to begin with, right?
The point is that we are trying, in a sense, to make the “dead” speak, by putting them in dialogue with one another. And our own contribution to that is, simply, why we think that needs to happen. All of these groups basically pretend these other groups don’t exist, and wish the other groups would just go away. But in so doing they’ve abdicated on politics. They’ve abdicated on the actual controversies, in favor of some kind of brute sectarian schisms. I think that, again, our model is the something like, the kind of conversation on the Left that supposedly is always “going on,” but somehow never takes place. We’re actually trying to make that happen.
Q2 (Gabe Gaster): I could sort of formulate my response as a question. In response to what Ian was saying, about squashing the “bad pedagogy” at universities . . .
CC: “Draining the swamp.”
GG: . . . “Draining the swamp,” right. I would say that’s almost like ceding too much ground, maybe. Aren’t we challenging them to be better, to articulate, challenging them to speak to one another? That’s a point that you arrived at. But I would say that we are maybe ceding too much ground to this idea that we are just “squashing them.” The point is that we are challenging them to be better activists, to articulate their thoughts, so that one can make head or tail of their political context that they exist in. And, also, what happened to the “journal of letters?”
CC: I want to say something about the journal, because it was raised. The journal project is still in the offing. It’s not that the Platypus Review has replaced the journal project. Also, the journal project is not meant to be an academic journal. It’s meant to replace the New Left Review. And destroy that milieu. The whole apparatus. And related publications. There are other versions of this, such as Historical Materialism. Especially in the Anglophone world, where we aim to, in a sense, provide a different context. It would not be either an academic journal, nor would it be “Platypus.” But, rather, a place where existing Left intellectuals would be prompted to write, think, in ways that they are not now prompted to do. And that project continues. It just takes a while to start such a journal, and it also involves establishing relationships with people, which we are also doing, through our public fora, and whatnot. Inviting people to speak on panels, to engage these debates, to fertilize their thinking in such events, is a way of demonstrating that an audience for the kind of journal we want to start could exist. Because, right now, the existing intellectual Left essentially assumes that such an audience can’t exist, and that’s why you get the antics of a Zizek. There’s a notion that there’s no audience for this, anyway.
IM: Let me clarify something. The “draining the swamp” idea is different than “smashing” the dead Left, as if with a hammer. It’s more the idea that there are people trapped in this swamp, who are going to be fossilized very soon, as they’re falling down, waving to each other. We want to drain that morass, so that people could talk to each other. So that when we have our public events, we always invite, usually, someone from a “sectarian Left group,” if that’s the term to be used, a student who does some kind activism, one of us, and maybe a Left academic. That’s usually the format, every time. And our experience has been that in the context we create these people are able to be much better than they are in their books, or in the New Left Review, or so forth, by the very context of conversation we’re making, and that they very much feel is impossible. So that’s the idea. I think, it’s not about smashing other groups, or anything like that, at all. It’s about people who give each other the silent treatment. In What is to be done?, of course, there is a discussion about “freedom of criticism,” the way people will use the idea of “freedom of criticism” to stifle criticism, this kind of psychology. Because that book is all about opening up a conversation that Lenin didn’t think would happen in the 2nd International, basically. We want to make a conversation that, even though they carry on, don’t think is possible at all.
RR: I wanted to respond to two points. One is the point about people not talking, and pretending nobody else existed. The first thing that actually attracted me to the Spartacist League was not their manifest politics, some of which repelled me, initially, but rather the fact that they had all these esoteric polemics against bizarre other little groups. I found that very attractive, because it meant that they were the only group on the Left paying attention to other groups on the Left. And that was very interesting to me. The other thing that attracted me was that you get their bound back issues, all their bound issues, which I now own, though they are in storage, from the ’60s to the early ’90s. Reading them was a great education in the history of the sectarian Left. It gave you, despite whatever problems one might have with the specific criticisms or positions, there wasn’t anything comparable where one could get such information. It was very hard to get that type of information.
The other point I wanted to go to was this metaphor of “draining the swamp.” And here I’m going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate. The first thing that came up to mind with that image, was that there’s a place in the Galilee, Northern Israel, or Palestine, if you prefer, where there are the Hula Swamps. It was one of the early heroic stories of Zionist pioneers, that they drained these swamps. They were very successful in draining the swamps. But it ended up causing huge ecological disaster. So what is the point of this metaphor? Because they did drain the swamps and build agriculture, but it turned out the swamps were very important for the ecology of the region, and so forth. And they hadn’t realized that when they did that. So the point of this is that we actually have a parasitic relationship to both the sectarian Left and the academic Left. (IM And activism!) While I am constantly filled (I put that image of the Rapture in there, which is obviously not going to happen) with annoyance at the sectarian Left, the prospect of it literally disappearing is actually frightening to me. And I think it is questionable whether we in Platypus could actually carry on in a world where certain symptoms of the dead Left completely disappeared. I mean, that may seem like a contradictory message, but it’s something we have to think about. And I think that there’s a way in which the content of academic Leftism has itself deteriorated as external, sectarian Leftism has started to dry up. And that’s not a problem that in the long run we would be immune to.
IM: There’s also the idea of the “revolving door,” sort of a different image. My feeling, usually, is that a lot of people who get involved in the sorts of groups that we’re talking about, it’s very much a two- or three-year project for them. And their experience is, extremely, one of disillusionment.
I was talking to somebody at a party not that long ago about their experience in one of these front groups. And they were extremely fascinated by Marxism, and had read everything that they could get their hands on. But they were kind of shocked by the way that, they thought, that, because they were not addressed up-front, with all the theory of Marxism, when they got involved in this group, that they really had the sense that, even though the group was “Marxist” in some sense, that they didn’t believe that they could appeal to people with the content of their own ideas. And that was a very depressing way to come to Marxism and the Left. And so they’ll wander off, and do this or that activist thing, until it peters out, when there’s no war going on, and so forth.
Q3 (Troy Pasulka): I wanted to divide it into two parts. I think the first one is that, as Platypus is a “talking shop,” more than that, also, and it wants to be more than that. How to improve the “talking shop?” I just want to bring up two things on how to improve the “talking shop.” One, I think a focus on destroying the New Left Review and critiquing all these Left groups, as someone said on Friday, should be situated within a broader aim of transforming capitalism, socialism, learning from the history of the Left in order to fix the problems. Second, I think a better understanding of US imperialism should be fostered within this “talking shop.” It was said in the panel, “American imperialism is no longer fighting Leftists, it’s fighting reactionary Islam . . .”
TP: Okay, predominately, right. Certainly not solely. If you look at many places around the world, it’s certainly not fighting reactionary Islam. Even in the Arabic world, it’s not fighting solely reactionary Islam, it’s fighting Baathists, who are secular, it’s fighting Communists, it’s fighting the oil workers’ union, it’s fighting a lot of people. The second thing I wanted to say, in addition to the talking shop, what I think we need to change the world. I think we need to build a revolutionary organization that’s going to put into practice all of this theory. And what type? The type like the Spartacists, who focus on attacking other Left groups? I don’t think that’s the type. I think we need the type that’s going to the people who are open to propaganda, and getting involved in stuff. Ian, you were saying there’s no one open to propagandize to, and that’s simply not true. I talk to people all the time who are interested. Like you said, there’s all kinds of people who are into these ideas, very interested in moving forward, and not at all interested in focusing on the New Left Review, and how they suck, and how all these other Left groups suck. No, they want to progress. For example, I agree Obamaism isn’t great, but labeling everyone who is for Obama “reactionary,” no. There’s some progress, there’s some open people there. I agree, going to a protest is not all that’s political to do, but it’s not not organizing workers, because workers go to protests. You can go to a protest, and you can critique it, or you can go to a protest, and you can organize. And just one more clarification, I’m in the ISO (International Socialist Organization), so it’s wrong to say that nobody on the Left talks to anyone else. I’m here. I’ve been talking to a guy who is in the FRSO [Freedom Road Socialist Organization]. So I just wanted to point that out.
RR: I’ll respond briefly. The ISO and the Spartacist League. The Spartacist League publish all kinds of attacks and polemics against the ISO, which I would probably be largely in agreement with, but I’ve never read any polemics by the ISO against the Spartacist League in the paper. There is an asymmetry in the way the two organizations conceive of their roles as revolutionary Marxist parties. I think the Spartacist League is clearly the exception, and the ISO, in that respect, is the norm on the Left. That is not to necessarily make the Spartacist League a model, but it certainly makes them more interesting to me than the norm. We obviously are of a different sensibility.
With regard to American imperialism, really, the question isn’t understanding American imperialism, because that’s not the issue. The question is: what does it say about the world that the greatest challenge to American imperialism is not coming from Leftist insurgents? It’s coming from Islamist reactionaries. That says something about historical regression. To get to the fundamental issue, which is the absence of the Left in that constellation. You mentioned the Arab world — look at Palestine today, which is a case I know fairly well. If you look at Palestinian politics in the ‘70s, you would have seen a lot of Leftist nationalist groups, many claiming to be Marxist. Now, whatever one’s critique of them, clearly those groups have disappeared. The dominant political force in opposing Israel is Islamist, is Hamas. There is no way of getting around that. That’s true throughout the Middle East, that’s true throughout the world. Even in the cases where there are Leftist political movements, like in Latin America, they are tame versions compared to the ‘70s or ‘80s. Not that the ‘70s or ‘80s were any better, I’m not trying to foster that, but it’s obvious there’s been a massive transformation in the world, and it’s a transformation toward the Right. It’s the non-acknowledgement of that fact that is significant, not the “understanding of American imperialism.” It’s not American imperialism that has changed, it’s the Left, it is the collapse of an opposition to it from a Leftist direction. There are people who are opposing American imperialism for all sorts of reasons, but they are reactionary reasons. If you want to talk about American imperialism fostering reaction, one of the things few people on the Left would say is that if the Soviet Union had won in Afghanistan, 9/11 would not have happened. People on the Left won’t say it, people on the right won’t say it, and it’s clear. It’s clear that one of the ultimate causes of 9/11 was the policy of the United States government that directly funneled money to the Islamist reactionaries who were fighting the Red Army. That’s a context where the Left doesn’t acknowledge its own history. Overwhelmingly, the American Left, including the supposed far Left, were supporting the Mujahideen. I think the model of building the Left in the way you are talking about it already entails a concession to a bad history.
IM: I was recently at an event where a representative from the trade unions in Iraq was at, and they were talking about a conference they had in Arbil, and there were almost no Left groups there, for reasons one could explore. But something I found almost shocking was that their conference, which was an attempt to unite the various unions in their country, which do non-violent work, which are anti-religious, which are anti-sectarian, which have women’s rights groups and so forth, all sorts of interesting demands, their conference would not have happened without a group called U.S. Labor Against the War. Even though the labor movement is extremely small in America, the Left in other countries is dependent on. Lenin used the word tailism in supporting another group in this or that part of the world — you should be more conscious in the absence of a Left in America is extremely detrimental to Left groups abroad. It’s a burden we have, and I think the typical anti-imperialist rhetoric really confuses this burden that we have. And so it is a question of theory, it’s a question of a certain kind of conversation that would have to start for anyone to begin to think of the sort of complicated practical issues that would be involved, and that we might not have answers to.
CC: Let me say something about propagandism. The Spartacist League call themselves a “fighting propaganda group.” I’m not sure what the history of that term is, I think it might have a deeper history. The self understanding of a group like the ISO might be something like that: it’s not a political party, it’s a propaganda group, trying to get ideas out there, intersecting people in their political activities, at the level of ideas. That’s where we get back to the bad pedagogy. Getting back to “draining the swamp” and “the revolving door syndrome,” my experience now that I am faculty and not a student, and I spent a number of years tuning out the Left, although Richard kept me informed. The experience was that not only do you get a bad education of Marxism by groups like the ISO, the Spartacist League, the RCP idea that you brawl with the police and that’s how you make people revolutionary, and others, that’s depoliticizing in another way. In other words, not only do you get a bad education of what Marxism is about, you get a bad education of what politics is about. You spend a few years — young people who are idealistic in these organizations — and you quit. They quit and become politically cynical. They quit and hold their nose and vote for Democrats. That’s what happens, in 99% of cases. It’s only the true nutjobs that say in those groups. In other words, it self-selects for bad human material.
So then, what do you do? What happens to people when their initial experience with Marxism is one of crude ideas and futile activity? The reason we say we are not trying to do propaganda is precisely because the model of propaganda refers to a historical period in which people were more active politically, in which society was more politicized, in which the working class was more organized, in which the Left was more self-consciously and principally more organized. Ian talked about going to a protest and getting all sorts of newspapers. Well, that’s one thing. In the 1930s, people would have been literally yelling at each other. You would have gone to Greenwich Village or Washington Square Park, and people would have been literally haranguing each other, respectfully, maybe sometimes beating each other but not always. But there was a sense of politics through ideas in a way that is severely lacking now. So it’s not that propaganda is sort of a bad model, it’s misplaced right now in comparison to what it used to be. Our attitudes towards groups on the sectarian Left is that they are doing what they have always done outside of the context where that ever made sense. In other words, doing it in the ‘60s wasn’t also doing it in the ‘30s; doing it in the ‘30s didn’t work, first of all. Carrying it out in the ‘60s and continuing it today is a surreal, what we call “zombie” practice, no matter what it appears to be. So why don’t we do propaganda? Because the propaganda is bad, and because that model of activity is without a context. I would say in terms of “draining the swamp” and stopping the revolving door, we would like to prevent people in college from having their first experience with Marxist ideas to be with the sectarian Left or with the bad faith, ex-New Left academic Leftists. We desire to put a stop to that, absolutely. Now what Richard is saying is true too, meaning you can’t bring that to an absolute halt, but you can transform it. In other words, what Richard is saying is, okay, if they all disappeared in the rapture, it would be a terrible context. We’re for nudging things along, for clearing out the cobwebs, and for waking up the zombies, whatever metaphor you want to use. As Ian said earlier, about the house of cards character, meaning that one of the reasons groups don’t like to deal with us is that they detect if they engage in this kind of conversation, their whole thing might fall apart. And it will fall apart.
Q4 (Ashley Weger): I want to thank you for this panel. Chris, you kind of talked about, not in these terms, about relearning and redefining our relationship to the past, and I think that requires a certain amount of unlearning, particularly, I can say, from personal experience. This is at the core of my incapacity to answer a question posed to me by Richard about my relationship to history, because it is requiring so much unlearning on my part, to be able to engage in that kind of conversation. From a very practical level, how do you see Platypus facilitating this starting over process for folks, or when you are starting from scratch? Because to be quite honest, and I think this is an appropriate critique of Platypus, you seem esoteric to a lot of people, because they either A. haven’t had experience with your perspective on Marxist ideas, or B. they have been affiliated with folks from whom they need to do a lot of unlearning. So how do you see this being facilitated? Because, although I think the reading group is a good way to do that, if you are coming to Marxism late, that is a hard conversation to start having. How do you bring in a crowd of people like myself, who are maybe a bit politically immature, but craving this sort of conversation?
CC: Ian was talking about the importance of the reading group of people who are participants as members in the organization. But reading group is not the be all, end all of the group by any means. Really, the best initial exposure we can provide to people doesn’t come through reading groups or even something like this talk we are giving today, or the talk we gave Friday night. What we are really trying to do at the level of relearning, rethinking, changing the relationship to the past is what we are trying to do through the fora and the newspaper. That’s where the majority of voices will not be from this organization. In other words, on the forum panel, there will be four persons, and maybe one person from Platypus, but the person from Platypus will be there mostly to piss people off, to shake people out of their complacency. That has sort of been my role, and that’s what I have been doing. So the initial exposure is not to our ideas, but to the conversation, which is also meant to be productive for us — we have no theory. We are about remembering theory, we don’t have a theory, it’s not that kind of pedagogy. It’s more the pedagogy of the conversation, making that happen. That’s how we hope people will re-find a relationship to the past, not through what we have to say, but through what we try to get other people to say.
RR: My response to the question of us seeming esoteric — the problem is not that we seem esoteric, the problem is that we are more esoteric than we even seem. That’s the real problem. The problem of us seeming esoteric, I think, is more a problem of people’s anxieties about the parts that are not that esoteric. A lot of people avoid us not to the extent that they don’t understand us, but to the extent that they do. But the real problem is, we are much more esoteric than we seem, and that’s the problem at the deepest level.
CC: There’s a flip side to that though.
RR: Yes, there’s a flip side to that. With regard to the question of unlearning, which is a problem I have thought about a lot, because, as I said, I did not come to Platypus as some 18 year-old or 19 year-old in a class with Chris Cutrone. On the contrary, coming to Platypus essentially alongside Chris, was a process of massive unlearning, and is still a process of unlearning, and is something I have deep resistance to. There are many aspects of Platypus I inwardly resist, and I’m constantly challenging myself. I have gone through several stages in my political thinking which involved considerable unlearning. Before I went to college, I had sort of a New Left, Chomskyite perspective, unspecified, which had kind of grown organically out of the default liberalism of my family. Then I encountered the Spartacist League, adopted not literally, but essentially, the Spartacist perspective, which then in turn, was again, to a certain extent, unlearned to adopt a Platypus perspective. I’m not really sure, at the end, what that has left me with. I’m saying that, because it’s important to understand that’s what’s at the core of the project, particularly among the people who started the project. To the extent that some people may be able to start with Platypus and see the Left from Platypus’ lenses, I have much more difficulty understanding those people than the people who resist Platypus. I mean, I’m glad that they exist, but I find it difficult to see how anybody could see the world, or the Left, rather, starting out with Platypus. It’s kind of astonishing to me.
Q5: I was wondering if you could speak to how important it is for your project to have a viable, Marxist understanding of the present in general. To look at consciousness within the working class, and different trends and tendencies among workers. If you think that’s important, how would you propose reading that, or writing about that? Because obviously, groups on the Left might not represent that the best. So what milieus could people use?
IM: I’ll try to answer that question in a couple of different ways. One think I would point to is a certain ‘60s view of the world, of the idea of students as a class, is one thing I think we unconsciously keep. People who go to school for higher education is a much, much broader group of people than it was in the past. But also, we’ve done events with labor organizers. We’re very interested in exploring those sorts of politics, and the ways universities can recept them. It came up last night — students serve as cannon fodder for a lot of these labor groups, do a lot of organizing with them without thinking. The university and its kind of culture intersect a much wider purvey of society than I think people think. There really is something confusing about politics when people raise this abstract of the working class, and it’s a part of the ‘30s propaganda politics. I think our real disagreement is with not wanting to be a propaganda organization, because we want to foster a certain kind of conversation. I mean, obviously, anyone can come to our reading groups, anyone can come to our public events: they are open to the public, we publicize them in all sorts of places, they are not exclusive to any kind of group or person or so forth, so I guess I would just question the sort of stereotypes of this abstract working class that is often referred to.
CC: At the same time, I would modulate that a little bit. I think that, first of all, because we do do these events, we have established relationships with people, from our fields, from the sectarian Left, as well as further fields of the academic Left. And those relationships are vital. Meaning, the labor organizers we deal with and those milieus we intersect both inform our own thinking about things as well as provide different kind of audiences. The newspaper is not only distributed on campuses but also at union halls, where we have existing relationships with people. It’s a little bit of a shot in the dark to expose unionists and “regular” working class people to the kind of esoteric conversation going on on the Left. But frankly, it’s only a variation of the discourse you find in places like The Nation, which of course, working class people read those kinds of publications. It’s not extrinsic to it or foreign to it. It does matter to us, but I think we have accepted, more or less, that we can only have an indirect relationship to it.
IM: I think if we could have a stronger pedagogical relationship to a larger sect of society, we would. I think now we are interested practically in what the fetters are on such a practice, and don’t think the propaganda model (hanging outside the factory with your paper) is an especially effective one. Unions in the past — the Port Huron Statement, as an example, Port Huron is a sort of retreat for the UAW. They sponsored that conference. Now, unions are much smaller, so they use their budgets differently.
I think people get confused about the Left, because it’s so small today, that one group is supposed to be the Jack-of-all-Trades for this new Left we don’t have. There really is a division of labor. We’re not going to preach the tactics of union politics — that would be ridiculous of us. But if there was a real medium where one could make ideas more broadly accessible, we’d be interested in that.
Q6: I haven’t been thoroughly convinced that the Left is totally dead, but I think the argument has been established that if it isn’t dead, it’s pretty close to it. I’ve been around for a while. For whatever reason the Left has become what it is, it’s a fact. The other side of that is that bourgeois ideology is not only pervasive, but it’s corrosive. I think that’s part of the reason you see part of the Left moving right. My question is — I have been very pleasantly surprised by this convention — but how do you account, objectively and somewhat concisely, how you have resisted this extremely corrosive bourgeois ideology?
IM: Maybe. First off, our whole slogan “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” is not propaganda — it’s a provocation. When we go to protests and we have that slogan, it’s not like a declaration.
CC: It’s supposed to make people think.
IM: That’s the idea. It’s supposed to almost be Dada-esque: What is that? What do you mean? I don’t get it. It’s not supposed to be, like, “Oh, yeah! The Left is dead.”
RR: I am going to respond in two parts. One is that it’s not just that bourgeois ideology is so pervasive, because bourgeois ideology has always been so pervasive, the problem is that the bourgeois ideology is so crass. In a sense, the bourgeois ideology is corrosive to itself, corrosive on both sides. And, as you’ve said, that also effects the Left. As for the question of resisting bourgeois ideology, I wouldn’t put it that way. Chris and I come from radically different class backgrounds — Chris comes from a working class background, I come from a bourgeois background. I don’t think that obviously different personal background had much impact on our political development. The curious thing, and it’s something I have in common with Chris that I have never quite been able to explain, is that the most radicalizing moment for me politically is what is usually seen as a huge defeat, a catastrophe of the Left, namely the collapse of Stalinism, 1989–92. Its collapse in the sense of the capitalist restoration of Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The reason it was radicalizing, in the intellectual sense, was that it actually confirmed for me the validity of Trotsky’s basic analysis, which previously I had been strongly resistant to and doubted.
The irony is that a profoundly negative event in the analysis pushed me to a sense of its truth and value, which was a paradoxical relationship: to be pushed to the Left intellectually by an event that was pushing, fundamentally, the whole world to the right. It was partially that dual consciousness that made it impossible to quite literally accept Spartacism. I remember talking to an older comrade, who had been part of the original Trotskyist movement, who had been part of the Communist League of America, a founding member of the Socialist Worker’s Party, a member of that ‘30s generation, an organic, working-class intellectual, who remained faithful to those ideas until his death in the mid-90s. He was very puzzled by this — his radicalization was in the context of a massive working class movement, came from a Communist family background, it was the upsurge of the ‘30s. It is a paradoxical situation, and one that has left a not necessarily desirable intellectual mark on me. I remember thinking at the time, why is it that so few people made the intellectual connection that I have? Because I would have expected more people to be like me, but it turned out that people like me were few and far between. I don’t really know how to account for that — not completely unique, but rare.
CC: There is a metaphor that Richard and I have used in our prior conversation — that we are the mutants of 1989. Meaning in terms of Darwinian evolution, we’re the mutation rather than the predominate mode of life, but we find our niche nevertheless. Now I wouldn’t want to answer the question that way, though — I’d answer the question a little differently. What Richard’s raising is the idea of “via negativa” In other words, how can consciousness on the Left, born of defeat, can come negatively. In a sense, what Platypus shares is this kind of negative lesson, the negative lesson of the Left. The negative lesson of 1989, the negative lesson of the ‘90s Left, the negative lesson of the anti-war movement as ineffectual, with the Iraq War, this kind of “via negativa” has been important for us. And how we would explain resisting the degradation of consciousness that goes on on the Left, and effects all of society, because that’s what we think, the reason I think Richard wouldn’t say it’s about resisting bourgeois consciousness is that, in a sense, bourgeois consciousness is dialectical. Meaning, we conceive the Left to be a species of bourgeois consciousness. The difference is, that it is aware of itself in this way.
RR: Marxism is the highest form of bourgeois consciousness.
CC: Not in a class sense, but in a historical sense. That raises the issue of historical consciousness, of why we frame our own self-understanding for why a certain kind of conversation has to occur on the Left, why we find history to be indicting of the present or critical of the present. We think that consciousness and social reality can be out of sync with themselves. In other words, there can be a non-synchronous relationship between ideology and social reality, and that, therefore, we can say, how come when we started this project, the first thing we were immediately subjected to was the Lenin/Luxemburg debate. Not by people who had been alive in 1917, not by people who had been alive in the 1960s, but by young people! So these ideas obviously have some kind of strange purchase on people — the question is what do we do with that? Because in the present way these ideas have purchase on people, we might just wish them to go away. But they do have some kind of purchase for people — the question is, can that be a starting point?
In other words, people are still attracted to Marxism, young people still join the ISO. These little left sectarian groups still attract people, and the ‘60s generation in the academic Left continues to whip the dead horse of Marx. Every single class is, like, “This is why Marx is wrong,” and “Oh, by the way, this is why Marx is wrong.” Every class at University of Chicago has a “This is why Marx is wrong” moment in it, except, maybe, in the natural sciences. But any place else, “This is why Marx is wrong.” Although, even in the natural sciences, they might bring something up, like, “See? Darwin’s understanding of evolution is non-teleological! Therefore, Marx is wrong!” If that’s the case, if Marx has to be constantly exorcised, if Marxism has to be constantly exorcised, if Bolshevism is still this dirty word, what does that mean? Does that mean anything? What can we do with that? So ideology is a fairly complicated matter, and history has a place in its dynamic. That’s, in a sense, how we understand ourselves. That’s how we account for our ability to “resist,” even though it’s not really resistance at all, and Richard has already raised the danger that we might be just as symptomological as anything we take issue with. It’s a danger that we court, openly. In other words, we are weary of all the ways the Left usually denies that. Rather, we embrace that.
RR: There are weird symptoms in popular culture at a vulgar level that (extend to the quality of Marx). We see them in the economic crisis. There was a discussion on television and Paul Krugman was the Left voice. The question was something like, was capitalism finished? And he said something like, “I don’t think we have to become Red Guards.” It was this odd moment, because, of course, nobody was talking about capitalism being finished, that is so far from the agenda of the mainstream, but even raising the question, and raising the image of Marx entails it as central to dialogue. Because at the same time that the Left is dead, that doesn’t mean, oddly, that the image of Marx becomes dead. The image of Marx continues to haunt, whatever the actual Left or actual Marxists do. | P
Transcribed by Ashley Weger.
A panel discussion with:
Alexander L. Hanna (chair): former organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops
Atlee McFellin: Students for a Democratic Society, New School Radical Student Union
Pam Nogales: Platypus (New York)
C. J. Pereira Di Salvo: former organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops
Laurie Rojas: Platypus (Chicago), former member of Students for a Democratic Society
Young people’s heightened participation in politics in the run-up to the election of Barack Obama was crucial to his election and cannot be ignored. The burning post-election questions that the Left must answer are 1) what are the current politics of youth and student organizations and 2) how can the mobilization of youths and students be expanded and deepened? This panel aims to explore these questions by critically reflecting upon the politics of two of the largest and most successful Left student organizations of recent times: the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).
The panelists will engage these organizations by examining the various perspectives currently influencing them, and explore how these ideas affect their means and ends. This requires us to delve into their current politics, principles, and practice with relation to the history of Left student activism, as well as the history of the Left as a whole. We hope this panel will not only provide insight into the failures of the student Left, but also begin a serious discussion within these organizations and the Left at-large of what the revolutionary potential of such struggle can be.