A discussion with Richard Wolin, distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, on his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, held on May 7th, 2012, at New York University.
Platypus Review 43 | February 2012
Last summer, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Clyde Young, a veteran member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The interview was broadcast on June 31, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. A shorter version of this interview ran in our broadsheet edition of Platypus Review 43.
Spencer Leonard: Everyone hears a lot about the 1960s, the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as the Students for a Democratic Society, the worldwide political upheavals of 1968, and the new social movements that gained strength in the late 1960s and 70s. But there is a sort of embarrassed silence when it comes to the question of the New Left’s turn towards Marxism in the 1970s, one example of which is your party, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Tell us about your experience of the 1970s and that of your party, and how you understand both today.
Clyde Young: I was a prisoner for most of the late 1960s. When I went in, I wasn’t political, much less a radical. I was convicted of robbery and was sentenced to 20 years. Prison at that time was hell, though today it is even worse. While in prison, I was provoked by what was going on in the world outside, by the demonstration against the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, by the murder of the students at Kent State and Jackson State, and the many other events of those times. By the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party (BPP) had emerged on the scene; the BPP put revolution on the map in a way that it hadn’t been before. They turned me on to the Red Book and Mao. It was around then that I began to read Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Revolution was surging throughout the third world, and the Cultural Revolution in China was having a profound impact across the globe. It was in this context that I became a revolutionary and a communist, while serving time in prison. I could not then closely follow the debates taking place in the early years of the anti-revisionist communist movement, but I knew they were happening. I knew of the effort to build a new communist party, sharing the view held by many that the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had ceased to be revolutionary, if in fact it ever was.
In the anti-revisionist communist movement we were setting out like peasants, going off to war, and forging weapons from the tools we had at hand. We picked up Marxism and tried to apply it to the conditions that we found ourselves in. This is what the Revolutionary Union (RU) did, like many other organizations at that time. But, certainly, the 1960s were themselves a very profound upsurge, one that Bob Avakian and our party has repeatedly gone back to, to try to analyze whether or not a revolutionary situation could have developed in the 1960s. The conclusion is that a revolutionary situation could have developed, and if certain things had come together, and if a party had been formed at that time, then it is possible that if a revolutionary situation had emerged, a revolution could have been made.
There was a very powerful movement at that time, driven forward by the national question. There were profound changes taking place in this country and throughout the world, with people in this country, black people, being uprooted from the South and going to the North, like my family and millions of others after World War II. This was a tremendous transformation. There was a push off of the land with the mechanization of agriculture and a strong pull into the cities. Of course, there was not a one-to-one relationship between those changes and what subsequently happened. But there did develop a revolutionary struggle in this country, the engine of which was the struggle of black people, and this was in unity with national liberation struggles throughout the world.
This is the context in which the RU and many others took up revolution and communism. At the time, millions of people were sympathetic to revolution. The RU, the predecessor of the RCP, did a tremendous amount of theoretical work. A lot of questions needed sorting out. There was a need for a deeper understanding of the reversal of the revolution in the Soviet Union. What was the path to liberation for black people, Puerto Ricans and other oppressed people in this country? These were not just academic issues.
SL: Addressing the revolutionary potential at the time of its formation, and how we think about that potential today, in the autumn of 1981, the chairman of the RCP, Bob Avakian, wrote in "Conquer the World": “One of the things about which there is a great deal of confusion and therefore is a cause of demoralization to many revolutionaries—more than is objectively necessary—is the question of why the '60s movement receded into an ebb in the '70s, speaking in broad terms, and why and how the upsurge that characterized the '60s generally in the world and particularly in the "Third World" turned into its opposite not just in particular countries, but in many aspects internationally.” Avakian then adds that it is important, indeed crucial, to make a “scientific summation of that [experience].” In this spirit, then, how does the RCP view the decade that gave it birth? How best to think about what now seems like the decline of political possibility in the 1970s, given the turn to Marxism, to the party question, and to more serious thinking, generally? What did it mean to organize and channel discontent in a revolutionary direction in such circumstances?
CY: It became very clear at a certain point that the movement was ebbing. When we talk about the 1960s, we are talking about the late 1960s into the early 1970s, when it reached its high point. As things moved further into the 1970s, particularly by 1973 or 1974, contradictions on a world level began to shift and change. What began to come to the fore was the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which in the 1980s took a very pronounced shape as things headed towards, as we analyzed, a third world war. This change began, as I have said, probably as early as 1973 and 1974. And there was a recognition on the part of the RU that if anything of importance was going to come out of that period, it was very important to form a vanguard organization, a vanguard party.
When I speak of a vanguard party, it is a matter of taking responsibility for the movement as a whole, it’s not an ego thing or anything of that sort. A hallmark of the RCP (and the RU before it) has been to always proceed from the question: “How do you make revolution in a country like this one as part of the world wide revolutionary struggle?” That has been our point of reference from the beginning. Seeking out ways and means, and looking for the openings in which a revolution could be made and, at the same time, another hallmark of our organization has been to approach every question scientifically. So, again, what was going on at the beginning of 1970s—and we made a lot of analysis of this in "Conquer the World" and in America in Decline—was that the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed nations was receding as the main factor in the world. And what was emerging in the mid-1970s was a world characterized by contention between the Soviet social-imperialists and the U.S.; this contradiction began to define the world situation much more than the contradiction between imperialism and oppressed nations.
SL: Tell me a bit about the significance of forming a party in those years. What motivated the constitution of a vanguard party at that time and what was hoped it might allow for? What kind of action, what kind of consciousness did it facilitate?
CY: The revolutionary forces emerging out of the 1960s had developed a deep understanding of Marxism. As I said earlier, in the beginning, we were like peasants marching off to war, taking up the tools that we had at hand. There were some things that could be drawn from the international communist movement, but the CPUSA had become a revisionist party; it had changed colors in essence from red to white. So there was a certain amount of re-learning to be done, a clarification of issues in terms of what was a revolutionary line and what was not. This was not an abstract process, but turned on vitally important questions, like the emancipation of black people. How do black people get free, what is the correct analysis of their condition. If there is to be a revolution, if you are serious about that, there needs to be a vanguard party. We learned that from Lenin and from Lenin’s What is to be Done? We knew that we needed not just a party of average workers, but a party of professional revolutionaries. And as the movement ebbed in the 1970s there was a recognition that if the party was not formed, a lot of what came out of the 1960s might be lost. I think this was the motivation behind the RU reaching out to various new communist forces, to try to pull them into a much more organized expression. In 1974, in particular, Bob Avakian and the RU led a nation-wide, party-building tour uniting Marxist-Leninist and Maoist forces into a single vanguard party.
SL: One of the buzz phrases that we have very much as a legacy of the 1960s is “the movement.” That word really does not convey any distinct form of organization, and certainly not a “party.” How does “party” as opposed to “movement” allow for the kind of activity you hoped for?
CY: Well, if I understand your question, you cannot just go about the business of forming a party cut off from everything else going on in the world, though some people attempted to do that. Some people simply cut themselves off from the movement to engage in reading and study, and then tried to form a party. But such things have to be done in close unity with one another. There were major things going on in the world at that time that could not be ignored. If you look at the RU as it was coming into being, there was work it was doing in relationship to the strike in Richmond, California; May Day; and International Women’s Day. And, of course, there was actually a movement where people were against the war, against the oppression of black people. Youth were in the streets. There was a movement of youth in the suburbs turning against their parents. Taken together this was a very combustible mix. Today, the party is building a movement for revolution and that movement must have leadership, the leadership of a vanguard party.
SL: By the 1970s radicals were getting more serious about what it meant to really transform society from within. That meant an orientation towards the people who are at the heart of the reproduction of this society, the working class. How did this reorientation to the working class manifest itself in the precursor to the RCP and then in the RCP in the 1970s? Did people in the RU and later in the RCP get factory jobs and join unions?
CY: Again, I think it is important to reassert what I said earlier: The focus was to make a revolution, and people felt that if you were going to make a revolution, then you had to have a base among the working class. And, in fact, what we had inherited from the international communist movement was that basically you needed to have a base in large industry, among industrialized, unionized workers. So, we went among that section of the people, in auto, steel, electronics, etc. But the problem is that when you get into that situation, do you maintain your revolutionary orientation? Do you maintain the orientation that what you are about is actually making revolution and taking revolution, socialism, and communism to the working class? Or is it about the shop floor issues that you deteriorate into? What becomes the central focus is an economist view of whatever is on the workers’ minds.
But, yes, there was a movement among most of the organizations in the anti-revisionist communist movement to go to the working class. When I came into the RCP, people were working in large scale industry, in steel and auto plants, and in other kinds of factories. We thought that, if you were going to make a revolution, you had to have a base among that section of the people as the backbone of the revolution. But, over time, there was a recognition of a couple of things. For one, large sections of the working class were bourgeoisified. We came to recognize, through returning to Lenin’s analysis, that, with the development of imperialism, one had to go lower and deeper down to the real proletariat. After the split in our party with what we called “the Mensheviks,” who were seeking to submerge it in the working class, cutting the revolutionary heart out of the Party, we recognized that the focus on the large scale industrial working class was not correct. Again, we had to go down lower and deeper to what Lenin referred to as “the real proletariat.”
SL: So these that you refer to as Mensheviks who split from the party were people who are high up in union bureaucracy today? These are people who were deeply engaged in trade union work?
CY: In 1977, after the reversal of the revolution in China, there emerged a struggle in the party which mainly centered on whether or not the revolution in China had indeed been reversed after Mao’s death in 1976. How to sum up what had happened in China was the central focus of a struggle that took place within our party. But a secondary aspect of that struggle was over trade unionism and workerism and, ultimately, what we referred to as “economism,” where you just sort of submerge yourself in the day-to-day needs and struggles of the working class. In 1976, Bob Avakian put out a piece called “Revolutionary Work in a Non-revolutionary Situation.” This was a speech to the central committee in which he expressed his recognition that the upsurge of the 1960s had ebbed and we would have to persevere in a situation in which a revolutionary situation was not on the horizon.
One cannot predict with certainty when a revolutionary situation will arise; this is why a party needs to be preparing actively for the emergence of a revolutionary situation. If a party does not prepare in this way, a revolutionary opportunity can be thrown away. This is a profound lesson that we learned from Lenin.
SL: The death of Mao and the jailing of the Gang of Four provoked widespread demoralization in the RCP and the wider New Communist Movement. This compounded the disorientation caused by events in Angola some years before. At the same time, the mid-1970s were a time of significant labor militancy, especially as compared to now. There existed then much higher rates of unionization, so that workers were in a stronger position to face the kind of assaults and austerity impositions that we are now all too familiar with. So how did the RCP’s early party building efforts develop in such a complex environment?
CY: That is a very big question, and I think you captured some things there, when you were saying how do you not throw away the lessons learned from the 1960s. Avakian led the party in recognizing that just basing itself among the large-scale industrial workers was not the way to make a revolution. We had to go lower and deeper. This is a party (and the RU before it) that participated in a lot of different struggles, including among the working class—the miners, struggles in the auto industry, etc. The party did not stand aloof from those struggles; it participated in those struggles and it tried to bring a revolutionary understanding to them. But, at a certain point, after the split with the “Mensheviks,” we set out to apply the understanding that our work needed to be focused on the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat. There was also a recognition, in returning to What is to be Done?, of the role and importance of a communist newspaper in preparing for revolution. The role of the newspaper is to train the masses in a communist understanding of all major events. Lenin put a tremendous stress the importance of the communist press in What is to be Done? We began publishing a national newspaper on a weekly basis in 1979 or 1980. And after the split with the Mensheviks, we launched major revolutionary initiatives: a national speaking tour of Bob Avakian in 1979 and May Day 1980, an effort to put May 1 back on the political landscape in a way that it had not been before. These were part of the initiatives that the party took as part of putting straight-up revolutionary politics on the map.
Since then, we have identified the two mainstays of our work as the newspaper and spreading the contributions and works of Bob Avakian, the qualitative contributions that he has made to communist theory, and spreading those contributions as a crucial part of bringing forward a new wave of communist revolution. Even when you are doing revolutionary work in a non-revolutionary situation, you are not just waiting; that would be a serious mistake, to just be waiting for the emergence of a revolutionary situation. You’re doing everything you can to hasten the development of a revolutionary situation, you’re raising the level of the resistance of the people, and you are engaging in other kinds of work that is actually heightening, as much as possible, the consciousness of the people and their fighting capacity, in anticipation of a revolutionary situation. The imperialist system itself, again and again, creates horrors, whether it is the killing of a 7-year old kid, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or whether it is the environment. There are all kinds of things that give rise to jolts and crises, but the question is what are you doing, during those crises, and all along the way—in an active way, not just waiting—to actually accelerate the process, to hasten, while awaiting the development of a revolutionary situation. A lot of this is discussed in a new book by Bob Avakian. There is a piece in that book called, “On the Strategy for Revolution,” and that piece discusses the strategy for making revolution in an advanced imperialist country like this one. This understanding did not exist in the 1960s; the development of this strategy by Avakian and the RCP is something that involved painstaking theoretical work, in order to arrive at a deepened understanding of how to make revolution in a country like this one. I would recommend that book; it’s called Basics: From the Writings and Quotations of Bob Avakian.
SL: In 2008, your party published a manifesto entitled Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, which states the following on the significance of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in the wake of the death of Chairman Mao: “We should not underestimate this defeat in China, and everything it has brought forth, everything the imperialists have done on that basis, and have built on that. China, and everything it represented for the international proletariat and the world proletarian revolution—to lose that after the Cultural Revolution [in China], after millions and millions of people went through that upheaval, and yes, a significant process of remolding their world outlook—this is something we’re still coming to terms with, both in objective reality and in our own thinking.” Explain the significance of the Chinese Revolution for the RCP and your party’s understanding of what transpired in the 1970s and how that shapes our situation today.
CY: In the 1960s and 1970s, China was a beacon of revolution. This was the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), a revolution within the revolution to prevent the restoration of capitalism and to further advance on the socialist road to communism. It was an unprecedented struggle that advanced revolution to the highest point yet in the whole history of the international communist movement. There had been the Paris Commune, and there had been the revolution in the Soviet Union. Learning from those experiences, through the GPCR, Mao led the revolution to the highest pinnacle that has been achieved.
And then in 1976, when Mao died, that revolution was reversed. There’s a lot that we can get into about that, and, in fact, I’d refer people to the document that you referenced, Communism: the Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the RCP. The loss of China was devastating! I came to political life because of the Black Panther Party, and what they did to spread Mao’s Red Book. I studied the Red Book and subsequently read many things by Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and I became a Maoist. And a lot of people in this country, and all over the world, became Maoists in the 1960s, not because somehow this was part of a Third World revolution (though some may have viewed it that way), but because this was a communist revolution in motion. This was a laboratory of communism, a socialist society in transition to communism. This was extraordinarily important. And the reversal of that revolution was a devastating blow.
And the question was, were you going to understand why that happened, or were you just going to turn away from it in one form or another? So it has had a big impact, it has had an impact in lowering sights, it has had an impact in lowering ambitions in terms of what’s possible. Is it possible anymore to make a revolution in the world or in a country like this one? Yes, it is! So the loss of China was devastating and continues to be devastating. And not only that, what has come behind it has been an attack on communism, thirty years of counter-revolution against communism. So this is the atmosphere in which we have been working. But what we are doing is far from being demoralized and defeated. These are some of the things that we fought out in the Cultural Revolution in our party, where some people were not only feeling the effects of the loss of China, but also feeling the ebbing of the movement of the 1960s, and they had given up on revolution, settling into an alternative life style. The Cultural Revolution was a struggle between two fundamentally antagonistic lines: the developing body of work, method, and approach of Bob Avakian in contrast to the “official” line of the party, published in documents and publications on the one hand, and a “revisionist package” on the other, as discussed in Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage.
SL: One of the things that struck me in "Conquer the World" was Avakian’s claim that both Mao’s later views, as well as Lin Biao’s influential 1965 work, “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War,” mistakenly view the prospects for revolution as existing in the Third World. Avakian charges both with underestimating the possibilities for revolution in advanced imperialist countries, and he points toward revisionist tendencies in the Chinese Revolution well before the death of Mao.
He also speaks there about what he takes to be the heightened possibilities for revolution in imperialist countries in the time he is writing, the early 1980s. It seems to me that the RCP has moved away from that view now, away from its earlier assessment of the revolutionary opportunities of the early 1980s, and has instead adopted the view that the 1970s were the end of an entire phase in the history of communism, so that now the first phase of communism is over. How might we think about that sense of opportunity that Avakian expressed in the early 1980s, versus now, where it seems like we have experienced simply a long transition of reaction? Is that something that the RCP views differently today than it did in 1981, the potentials at that time? Or are both true? Were there potentials there in the transition from the late 1970s and early 1980s that somehow passed unrealized, but whose presence we need to recognize to understand that history?
CY: Well, there’s a lot involved in that question. If I could take my time, I’d like to walk through some of it. We feel that revolution is necessary and possible. And not only do we think that revolution is both necessary and possible, but we are actually building a movement for revolution. We are not waiting until a revolutionary situation emerges. We are building a movement for revolution now, and there are different aspects of our work that are focused on hastening, while awaiting, the development of a revolutionary situation. There’s building resistance to the outrages of the system. We have an orientation: “Fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution.” If people don’t fight back against things that are going on right now, they won’t have the ability to fight when it’s time to fight. So they have to be standing up against the outrages that are coming down now. There is far too little of that now. At the same time, there is the question of a newspaper which reaches far beyond what it does now but can actually have the potential to be a scaffolding for the movement for revolution. These are the things we are doing. And we are looking at, and being poised for, a situation that is ripe for revolution. We are no less oriented that way today than we were in the 1980s. But things were actually sharper in a different way back then, in that what was before us was the possibility of an inter-imperialist war, a nuclear war. Our orientation was to make revolution in order to prevent a world war or to take advantage of world war in order to make revolution, which would have been very difficult. And today the situation is what it is, but it can be transformed, and we have the necessity to break out of thirty years of counter-revolution, speaking politically. But we are making every effort to be prepared should a revolutionary situation emerge. Building the party and accumulating forces that will be necessary when such a situation does arise is extremely important now. You need a core of thousands and tens of thousands in order to be able to lead millions. The hallmark of our organization, from the RU all the way up to now, has been that we are about the business of making revolution. We have not given up on that because the conditions changed from the 1960s to the 1970s to the 1980s to now. It is necessary and possible to do what we are setting out to do.
SL: The RCP is the only organization I know of actively grappling with the issue of the continuity and discontinuity in the tradition, going back to Marx and Engels, and beyond them, to the rise of the workers’ movement and the still earlier struggle for human emancipation of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is very difficult for many people to imagine revolutionary emancipation today. No doubt that is related to the incomprehensibility of history.
CY: That is a very good point. This is one of the things that we talk about in terms of the contributions that Avakian has made to communist theory, which need to be promoted right now. People need to know what he has been bringing forward as a source of hope on a scientific basis. His work is both a continuation, and a rupture with, communist theory up to now, with the continuation being the main aspect. If you look at "Conquer the World," Avakian himself has said that "Conquer the World" was an initial epistemological break with certain aspects of weaknesses in the international communist movement. In particular, the question, “Do you go for the truth or not?” Or do you just go for “political truth?” This is a rupture with what has been a tendency in terms of going for political truth and not dealing with the truth of things.
Just to speak to the Lin Biao issues: “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War” was a piece that was written by Lin Biao. There was a certain notion he had that revolution was only possible in “third world” countries. This was not Mao’s point of view.
On the Three Worlds Theory: There were certain tendencies toward that in Mao, but it never became a consolidated theory. There were some tendencies in Mao’s thinking that were connected to ruptures not having been made with some of the mistakes that Stalin had made in terms of forming a united front against fascism in WWII. This was a serious mistake. If you look at what Bob Avakian wrote in “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism”, he discusses this at great length, arguing that Mao did not rupture with some of those kinds of notions. In the 1970s, China was beginning to face threats from the Soviet Union—there were a million Soviet troops on the border, it was a real threat—but how was that handled? Some mistakes were made, for example, in terms of the opening to the West, as part of dealing with the threat from the Soviet Union.
SL: The RCP understands the 1970s as a moment of ebb in the revolution, but also, potentially, as a moment of summation of the first century of Marxist revolution. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries within the key Marxist parties of the Second International—the German and Russian Social Democratic parties—there occurred what is known as “the revisionist debate” in which revolutionary Marxists such as Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Lenin debated Bernstein and other reformists who emphasized the achievement possible within the prevailing social order. They argued for ongoing reform to accumulate gains for the working class, a view Bernstein summarized with the phrase, “the movement is everything, the goal [of socialism] is nothing.” Does Avakian have this precedent in mind when he talks about the prevailing revisionism on the Left today? What sort of battle does he think he is fighting after the end of “the first phase of communism”?
CY: That is a very important question. The theoretical battles that you mentioned did not occur in the abstract. They were life and death struggles, and that is why they were fought so fiercely.
I would again direct people’s attention to Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage – A Manifesto from the RCP, USA. There, the crossroads facing the communist movement at this point in history are bluntly posed: “vanguard of the future, or residue of the past?” These are the stakes in which people take up and grapple with Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism, which is the theoretical framework for the advance to a new stage of communist revolution. |P
Transcribed by Pac Pobric
. Raymond Lotta, America in Decline: An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide, in the 1980s (Chicago: Banner Press, 1984).
. Bob Avakian, Basics: From the Talks and Writings of Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications,2011), 103–112.
. Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage: A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2009).
. Continuing this statement, Avakian makes a very important point: “If you add to this the whole ‘death of communism’ phenomenon, and the constant barrage of anti-communism and abuse and slander heaped from all directions and in all forms on this GPCR (The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China), on the Chinese Revolution and socialism there, and in fact on all of the experience of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat; if you think about the effect of all that, and you are a materialist and you apply dialectics, it is very difficult to think that we are immune from the effects of all that and that it only influences people outside the Party. Even in our thinking and our souls, if you want to use that term, in our heart of hearts, don’t we have questions about whether we were wrong about all this: Why did we lose? If we were so right, and if what we’re for is so correct, why did it end up this way? I don’t think there are very many comrades who can say they haven’t had those questions agonizing within them, probably more than once. We have an answer to those things, but you have to dig for that answer and you have to keep on digging–and you have to be scientific. You have to go to materialism and dialectics.” (Emphasis added). Fulfilling a great need, this is precisely the kind of digging that Avakian did after the reversal of the revolution in China.
. “This new synthesis, in its many dimensions . . . has put revolution and communism on a more solid scientific foundation. As Avakian himself has emphasized: ‘[I]t is very important not to underestimate the significance and potential positive force of this new synthesis: criticizing and rupturing with significant errors and shortcomings while bringing forward and recasting what has been positive from the historical experience of the international communist movements and the socialist countries that have so far existed; in a real sense reviving—on a new, more advanced basis—the viability and, yes, the desirability of a whole new and radically different world, and placing this on an ever firmer foundation of materialism and dialectics. . . . So, we should not underestimate the potential of this as a source of hope and of daring on a solid scientific foundation’” (Communism: The Beginning of A New State, p.29).
. “’Class truth’ refers to the view, which has had considerable currency in the international communist movement, that truth—especially in the realm of the social sciences—is not objective, but rather specific and relative to different classes, i.e., the bourgeoisie has its truth and the proletariat has its truth. But what is true is objectively true: It either corresponds to, or does not correspond to, reality in this motion and development. ‘Class truth’ overlaps with the erroneous idea that people of proletarian background have a special purchase on the truth by virtue of their social position. But truth is truth no matter who articulates it; and getting at the truth, for proletarians, as well as for people of other social and class origins, requires the grasp and application of a scientific approach to society and the world.” Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya and K.J.A., “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World,” <www.demarcations-journal.org/issue01/demarcations_badiou.html#footnoteref1>.
. Bob Avakian, “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism,” <http://bobavakian.net/articles/dictatorship_democracy.html>.
Platypus Review 42 | December 2011 – January 2012
On November 5, 2011, using questions formulated together with Chris Cutrone, Haseeb Ahmed interviewed Slavoj Žižek at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Haseeb Ahmed: Are we currently—after Tahrir Square and the eruption of the Occupy movement—living through a renaissance of the Left? If so, what is the historical legacy that stands in need of reconsideration?
Slavoj Žižek: I would say my answer is very cautious. Conditionally: Yes. That is to say, the way I read all these events, totally spontaneous as they are, is that, although people try, for example, to read the Tahrir Square events as the simple demand for democracy, nonetheless there is a deeper systemic dissatisfaction. What I see as a hopeful sign is that these are no longer simple, one-issue protests against this or that. There is some vague awareness that there is another fault in the system as such. By this I mean precisely the capitalist system. And, point two, that the standard representative multi-party political democracy is not a form through which we can deal with the problems. The problem today is that we have a lot of “anti-capitalism,” indeed an overload of anti-capitalism, but it is an ethical anti-capitalism. In the media, everywhere one finds stories about how this company is exploiting people someplace and ruining the environment, or this bank is ruining hardworking people’s funds. All of these are moralistic critiques of distortions. This is not enough. The anti-capitalism of the popular media remains at the level of something to be resolved within the established structure: through investigative journalism, democratic reforms, and the like. But I see in all of this the vague instinct that something more is at stake. The battle now, as for the capitalists themselves, is over who will appropriate it.
Events happen, and then you have the crucial battle to decide what an event means. I think that precisely these events, like Occupy Wall Street, are crucial because, on the one hand, they demonstrate that the problem is capitalism as such. This was the big issue in the 20th century, but somehow disappeared in the last decades from the traditional left, where the focus became specific issues such as racism and sexism. But this problem is still here. At the same time, I claim that nonetheless old answers no longer work. This is why, what critics and sympathizers notice, there is a lack of concrete proposals, what to do. Apart from abstract things, like with Spain’s Indignados, against people serving money instead of money serving people. But every fascist would subscribe to this.
What it reminds us is the fact that, as my friend Alain Badiou puts it, the 20th century is over. Not only state socialism and the social-democratic welfare state, but also, I would add, the deepest hope of the utopian left, “horizontal organization,” local communities, direct democracy, self-organization—all this, I don’t think it works. So, again, it is a big challenge. The old problem is back, but it is clearer than ever that the old answers are not up to the challenge. It is a great challenge. If you look at predominant ways the modest liberal left is conceptualizing problems, for instance, in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, you can see that all this doesn’t work to recuperate this negative energy.
What surprises me is that there is so much energy. I thought that maybe it would stop. But look at how it is exploding all around the United States. Even Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans join them. This is the big news. There is an incredibly serious, great degree of rage and dissatisfaction that clearly doesn’t fit the established channels to resolve problems within the traditional scope of economic protests. It’s a wonderful, crucial moment. It’s a negative gesture. My slogan is, “No dialogue!” at this point. Let’s not get caught into this dialectic of dialogue with the enemy. No. It is too early. Not in the sense of, “We won’t talk, we’ll just kill you.” But, rather, if we talk now, we have to use some language, but this will be the language of the enemy. We need time to construct our own new language, time to formulate.
Protesters in Tahrir Square.
HA: Still the language of the Left?
SŽ: Either orthodox left or the American language of the pragmatic left: Is it “trade unions,” is it “pressure groups,” etc.? All of this is not enough. I think the strength is what the hegemonic bourgeois press identifies as the weakness of the protests. “Isn’t this a hysterical protest? What do these guys really want?” That’s what is great about it. It doesn’t fit. You can’t simply say, “Let’s do democratic protest,” whatever. There is the approach of, “Tell us, what do you want?” “Translate it into concrete demands.” But also—and I know it’s marginal—there are the elements of this old hippie carnival logic. Someone told me there was this guy in San Francisco who said, “What program? We’re here to have a good time!” These are all traps. But, nonetheless, it is nice that something new happens which doesn’t yet have form. You have to begin like this. In contrast to people who say that before you protest you must know what you want. No. If you put it in this way, “You are just hysterical,” you are in the logic of the way a master addresses a man. It is as a master asking a hysterical woman, “Tell me what you want!” No, this is the worst form of oppression. This means, “Speak my language or shut up!” That’s why: “No debate!” I don’t see this as a criticism. On the contrary. These protests are hysterical.
But as all good Freudians know, hysteria is the authentic thing. One of the big mistakes in 1968 was to partially accept in the mass ideology the presupposition that hysterics just complain, but perverts are the real radicals: Hysterics don’t know what they want. Even Freud says somewhere that perverts do what hysterics only dream about doing. But Foucault was right: Every power regime needs its own form of perversion; perversion fits power relations. Hysteria is the true question: when you problematize the master, but without clear answers. You yourself do not know, “What do you want?”
HA: What about the role the sectarian left would have in the Occupy movement? These are perceived precisely as “the masters”: the ISO, the RCP, et al., the leftovers from the sectarian left.
SŽ: I know of the group of Bob Avakian, the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. But are they authentically Maoists? I’ve argued with them. I almost become a bourgeois liberal with them. I even wrote a short introduction to one of Avakian’s books. But, for all their talk of the “new synthesis,” there is no theoretical substance: It doesn’t do the work. They always have the answers: no questions, only answers. They have a manifesto for exactly what they will do when they take power. But when you press them with the questions of, will there be a mass working class movement that you will coordinate, will you win elections, what? For them, somehow they take power, and then they have a problem. They are precisely the “perverts,” I would say. Lacan has a good formulation: The pervert is the instrument of the other’s desire. A pervert is the one who knows better than you what you really want. They always have the answers: never the questions, only the answers. They are not a danger but an annoyance. They pretend to have the answers, but totally without anything substantial. Also, more in detail, they’ve disputed with me concrete historical, dramatic events in China, not only the Cultural Revolution, but also, in the late 1950s: the Great Leap Forward. Their answer is that these are merely the portrayals of “bourgeois propaganda.” Now, some archives are opened, and they do demonstrate that it was a mega-tragedy, the Great Leap Forward, what happened there. But, crucially, for the Left, we need to deal with our heritage. I don’t like the Left that has the attitude that, “Yes, Stalinism was bad. But look at the horrors of colonialism!” Yes, I agree there are the problems of neo-colonialism, post-colonialism, etc. But the problem with the Stalinist 20th century, even now, with all the liberal and conservative critiques, is that we don’t have a good account of what really happened. What we get is quick generalizations. You look for philosophical origins. You say, “Rousseau. This is a direct consequence of such an approach.”
Here I am very critical of Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. They are an extreme example. They address fascism. Look, I’ve done my homework. But you will notice that the Frankfurt School almost totally ignores Stalinism—despite Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism. But there is no true theory of Stalinism. They think that the totalitarian potentials that exploded in the 20th century started already with the most primitive logic of manipulation of matter, the philosophy of identity, etc. I don’t think that this really works, the philosophical approach to establishing some transcendental matrix that explains the possibility for 20th century events. The task is still ahead. With all the horrors of the 20th century, the liberals’ account is insufficient. It remains for the Left to explain this.
HA: But it is a dialectic of Enlightenment! What gives rise to totalitarianism is also what gives rise to possibilities for freedom.
SŽ: I know that they say that the problem of Enlightenment demands more enlightenment. They are very clear about this. I don’t agree with Habermas’s critique of Horkheimer and Adorno [in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity]. But maybe he has a minor point. The emancipatory aspect of Enlightenment is much less explicated by Adorno and Horkheimer. You get some mystical formulations, about the “wholly other.” In the recently published small book by Verso, the dialogues between Horkheimer and Adorno from the late 1950s, what strikes me, to be blunt, is how empty this was.
I appreciate [Moishe] Postone claiming that what we need to rehabilitate today, at all levels, is the critique of political economy. Not only as an economic theory, but also, with Marx, it is much more. I am tempted to say that it is rather a historical transcendental a priori. The categories that Marx uses in his deployment of the critique of political economy are not just categories to analyze a certain sphere of society. They are stronger categories. They organize the totality of social life. This is what needs to be rehabilitated today. But where I don’t agree with Postone is that, sometimes, he sounds as if the class division somehow becomes secondary and gets lost. No. As if commodity fetishism is a kind of general structure more fundamental than class struggle. I think he sometimes goes too quickly in this direction of reducing class struggle just to a certain empirical historical occurrence. Here, I appreciate much more the young Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, who is very clear about this non-empirical, historical a priori for the critique of political economy, but at the same time speaks totally to class struggle.
Even if we no longer have the old working class—I agree here. In the sense of what I was improvising here [at the Jan van Eyck Academie] today, that we need to conceptualize the emancipatory subject, even if we cannot ground it in the old Marxist working class. You must include the so-called “rogue states,” outside the capitalist dynamic. You must include unemployment, which is becoming a much stronger category. This is the task: how to truly render things, apparently. Postone approaches this. If we cut the bullshit, can we speak of, and in what sense, Marx’s labor theory of value? For instance, I like to provoke my friends, who think I am attacking Chavez and defending the United States. But you cannot mechanically apply Marx’s so-called labor theory of value. Because you have to conclude, for instance, today, that Venezuela is exploiting the United States through oil profits. But Marx tries to demonstrate in Capital that natural resources are not a source of value. So this means that we need to rethink the category of exploitation.
Another point that I make is that when Marx, in the famous passage of the Grundrisse, speaks about the “general intellect,” in the sense of general, common knowledge, this is Marx at his best, but also, at the same time, his worst. Because Marx thought that when knowledge becomes the center of agency, of generating social wealth, then the capitalist logic of exploiting labor, following the labor theory of value, becomes meaningless, because it no longer works. But Marx here sounds like some kind of a technological determinist, when he says that capitalism becomes meaningless, because the time of labor is no longer the source of value. What Marx doesn’t see is that you can have this “general intellect,” which, as a general intellect, is then, in a perverse way, privatized. So you can’t just return to Marx. In view of today’s global capitalism, we must ask the question of how to rethink the critique of political economy. This is a great task: I don’t see any answers.
HA: A lot of what you say is very close to what Platypus has to say. Platypus’s main slogan is “The Left is dead!—Long live the Left!”
SŽ: This is great! This is the only way to truly resuscitate the Left. Because it refers to all varieties of the Left. 1968 is a model for how the movement recuperated and gave an incredible new boost to capitalism. All the post-1968 phenomena show this.
HA: Platypus emerged in the context of the anti-war movement. So, it emerged in response to the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and thus the support for far-right Islamist Iraqi insurgent groups out of anti-Bush-ism.
SŽ: I know we must avoid Islamophobia. But I reject totally the idea of Islamic fundamentalism’s emancipatory potential. The question is why the contrast between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is totally immanent to the system. Liberalism generates such fundamentalism, which is not restricted to Islamism, but also Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., for instance. While it is not serious theory, Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? speaks to this. Kansas was once, traditionally, the most radical state—John Brown was from there. This bastion of radical social demands became the center of Christian fundamentalism. I don’t buy claims about Islam’s “sense of justice,” etc. Some people go so far as to claim that if you critique theology then you are imperialist, practically, and in the camp of the enemy. I don’t buy this.
HA: But much of the Left buys into this logic.
SŽ: I got into a shouting match with the big anti-colonialist theorist Samir Amin over this. He shouted at me when I said that there is a historical legacy that every leftist should be thankful for in Bush, the second President. I pointed out, ironically, that, let’s cut the crap, the biggest result of the Bush presidency is that the U.S. is becoming merely a local superpower. They are effectively gradually losing true hegemony. They were close to becoming a universal policeman. But, ironically, or cynically speaking, perhaps this development is not good. Take the Congo: Let the U.S. intervene there. What I am saying is that Bush’s stupidity accelerated so-called multi-centricity. We should not merely point out how bad the U.S. is. But we should apply the same standards, for example, to China—let’s forget about Tibet, a complex problem—with what they are doing in Myanmar or Africa: neocolonialist exploitation collaborating with tyrants, etc. This is where Amin exploded. Whenever there is a crisis, we should be critical of the U.S., but my God, they are not always the enemy. Look at India and what they’re doing in Kashmir, for example. The main resistance group in Kashmir formally renounced violence and said, “We will do the political struggle,” but the Indian establishment still treats them as terrorists. That’s all I’m saying. I also don’t like—another horror I will tell you—the kind of Marxism that has an automatic Pavlovian response, when one speaks of “universal human rights”: “Oh, you’re speaking the language of the enemy! You’re apologizing for imperialism.” Most of the time, yes, but not all of the time. I know this whole Marxist game, “You say ‘universal,’ but you really mean white, male,” etc.
But let’s not forget that universality is nonetheless maybe the most important tool of emancipation we have. I am deeply suspicious of postmodern models. And, here, we should be at the same level with Postone and the Frankfurt School and some others, against postmodernism’s mantra that every universality is potentially “identitarian” and totalitarian. I am very suspicious of “resistance to global capitalism” along the lines of multiple particularities resisting globalization, etc. I think it is important to speak to universality. At the same time, I wrote previously, years ago—which brought me many enemies—of “multiculturalism, the logic of global capitalism.” I don’t agree with those neo-colonialists like Homi Bhabha, who said, at some point, that capitalism is universalizing and wanting to erase difference. No. Capitalism is infinitely multiculturalist and culturally pluralist. Why? This is what American right-wing populism is, not “correct” about, but is a response to a real problem. They’ve got the lower classes manipulated with their basically correct insight that, in today’s global capitalism, as my friend David Harvey also points out, there is no longer the metropolis screwing the Third World countries. Rather, for higher profits, one turns one’s own country into a colony. What this means is that, through outsourcing, etc., today’s American capital is willing to sacrifice American workers. Capitalism is really universal today. American capital cannot be considered that of the U.S. I don’t agree with my Latin American friends who say that capitalism is inherently “Anglo-Saxon,” etc. Alain Badiou emphasizes this. Capitalism is truly universal. It is not rooted in any culture. It is not Eurocentric. The effect of the ongoing crisis will be the definitive end of any such “Eurocentrism.” This is not simply a good process. For instance, there is “capitalism with Asian values”—that is, capitalism more productive than liberalism and without democracy.
HA: We in Platypus would agree with this. For example, Platypus held a reading group last summer, for the second time, on “radical bourgeois philosophy,” including Rousseau, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, and others, on the emergence of the modern notion of freedom.
SŽ: Yes. I don’t agree with Claude Lefort, for example, that bourgeois freedom is only formal freedom. No, it’s not true. Radical bourgeois freedom fighters were well aware that freedom comes only insofar as it is truly social freedom. They were well aware of the social dimension, and upheld the right to organize collectively, etc. On the other hand, this critique of formal democracy as bourgeois democracy is deeply anti-Marxist. As Marx was deeply aware, form is never simply form. To begin a break, one must have first a “formal” break. For instance, when Marx wrote of the development of capitalism, first there was “formal subsumption” of production under capitalism. This means that the production was the same as before, for instance knitting at home, only, then there was the merchant who was buying from them for money. Following this formal subsumption, however, they were drawn into the factories. We should totally drop this prejudice that form follows content, that, first, something new develops, and then it acquires a form. No.
HA: Just a few years ago, during the Iraq anti-war movement, the salient comparison for the Left was the Vietnam anti-war movement. But how has the situation today and opportunities for the Left changed (for the better) from the 1960s?
SŽ: Here I agree with Postone, very much. For example, with all these Iraq anti-war protests, there was never any attempt to link with the Left in Iraq. It was purely, “We should prevent this from happening,” etc. For example, in the first government after the U.S. occupation, the Iraqi Communist Party took part. This was for me the clear limitation of the anti-war Iraq protests. They totally neglected contact with the Iraqi left. The standard narrative was that the Iraqi people should liberate themselves, without the U.S. occupation. But they had the same problem, and got into a deadlock. With attacks on the Green Zone: which side should you take, there? I was not ready to do what some did, to claim that, since they opposed the American occupation, they should side with the resistance. I don’t think these radical Islamists should ever be supported.
This is where I see the historical significance of the Tahrir Square protests. The racist Western left’s view was that the only way you can mobilize the stupid Arabs was through anti-Semitism, religious fundamentalism, or nationalism. But here we had secular democratic protest that was not anti-Semitic, not Islamic fundamentalist, or even nationalist. No one was duped into an anti-Semitic line of thought. Their line was always that this has nothing to do with Israel, this is our problem, for the freedom of us all. The Mubarak regime was always saying that Zionism and the Jews were our enemy. No, this is the true enemy, the Egyptian military. This is the historical significance.
For the Western powers, in supporting the movement, will contribute to something very dangerous. Slowly, there is a schism developing between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Let’s not forget that the army is the old Mubarak army, with its privileges and corruption, etc. But in the Egyptian economy now there is a serious drop in the standard of living. So, the army will retain its privileges but the Muslim Brotherhood will hold ideological hegemony. This will be the crucial battle. In this, the Muslim fundamentalists can gain power. At the same time, I was shocked to see some Israeli commentary that this shows that Arabs can’t achieve democracy. As long as there are totalitarian regimes in Arab countries, there will be anti-Semitism. The only chance is secular democracy. There’s this joke, in China, allegedly, if you really hate someone, tell them, “May you live in interesting times.” But when I was in China, I asked them, and they said they knew nothing of this saying, only that in the West they say it is a Chinese expression!
HA: What about capitalism? In your recent book, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010), you invoke Moishe Postone's reading of Marx to raise the question of the commodity form and subjectivity in new ways. Where does such reconsideration of Marx fit into the present developing situation? What would overcoming the commodity form of labor entail, politically?
SŽ: This is what they call, on TV quiz shows, the one million dollar question. I don’t have an answer; I’m very modest. But, if you look at critical issues such as ecology it is clear that this will not be able to be addressed according to what we call the Fukuyama thesis of liberal democratic capitalism as the end of history. But I don’t believe in some local self-organized community utopia. We—in the bombastic sense, humanity—will need the massive large-scale power of corporations, to move millions of people.
HA: How does this point to the commodity form of labor?
SŽ: All I’m saying is that some large-scale authority will need to be established. It is the only solution in today’s complex world. The problem, of course, is how to do it. Beyond a certain quantitative scope, democracy in the traditional sense no longer works. It’s meaningless to say, “Let’s have universal elections.” Five billion people vote? It will be like Star Wars and the Galactic Republic.
You know, Ayn Rand was right: Money is the strongest means or instrument for freedom. She means this: We exchange only if both parties want it. At least formally, both sides of the exchange get something. Without money, direct means of domination will need to be restored. Of course, I don’t accept her premise: either the rule of money, or direct domination. Nonetheless, isn’t there a correct point? One can criticize money as an alienated form. But how can we actually organize complex social interaction outside money without direct domination? In other words, isn’t the tragedy of 20th century Stalinism that precisely they tried to suspend, not money, but the market, and what was the result? The re-assertion of brutal direct domination.
I’m not an optimist. I think where we are now is extremely dangerous. I think we are moving towards a much more authoritarian global apartheid society. Traditionally, for Marx, the ideal form of exploitation was through formal legal freedom. In ideal capitalist conditions there is equal, free exchange. But, more and more, capitalism can no longer sustain this. It can no longer afford freedom and equality. In the Giorgio Agamben way, some will become homo sacer. New forms of apartheid are appearing. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, while really naïve, has the idea that we are controlled, but there are larger and larger populations outside the control of the state: according to Davis, over one billion people already live in slums. I don’t mean only poverty. The state authority already treats these as internal zones that are left wild, wild spaces. Politically, it is as if wide spaces remain really murky. I see a tremendous problem here. What is my idea of the future? Can this go on? Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is half-comedy, shows this: it is half-totalitarianism, but also hedonism. A totalitarian regime, but with private pleasure. Berlusconi comes close to this: Groucho Marx in power. Also, in China, at the level of private life, no one cares about your private perversions, but just don’t mess with politics. It is no longer the typical fascist mobilization.
Anti-immigration, for instance, is not fascism. Fascism is not returning. No. This isn’t thinking in concepts but rather vague associations. This is post-ideology. Traditional fascism was ultra-ideology. Today’s predominant ideology is a Western Buddhist capitalism of, “Realize who you are.” It is permissive private hedonism with political totalitarianism.
HA: What is the relevance of the history of Marxism today? What can we learn from historical figures such as, for example, Lenin, about changing the world? Didn't Marxism fail? How do we avoid repeating that failure? Or, as you've put it previously [in “How to Begin from the Beginning,” New Left Review 57 (May-June 2009)], linking Lenin to Beckett, is the point, after all, to “fail again” and to “fail better?” What is your prognosis for “success,” then, in this regard?
SŽ: I totally agree with you. I have become self-critical of this Beckett line, “Fail again, but fail better.” It would be nice to have some victories! I am getting tired of, “We are all in this together,” but then things go back to normal. What interests me is what comes after. How is our daily life affected? The true revolution for me is there. The hard work and pleasures of daily life, how are they affected?
I am not a Leninist in the sense of, “Let’s return to Lenin.” What I like in Lenin is that he was totally unorthodox and was willing to rethink the situation. He didn’t stick to some dogma. At the same time, he wasn’t afraid to act. I claim that quite many leftists secretly enjoy their role of opposition and are afraid to intervene. I disagree with Badiou and some others about how “politics is made at some distance from the state.” Still, we have the state as a regulatory form in society.
Take Greece. The state is almost falling apart. So the Left will remain outside state politics, not in the sense of making a revolution, but rather selectively putting pressure on and supporting existing parties. What this means is that we are not ready.
For me, the greatest failure of the Soviet Union in Lenin’s time was right after the Civil War. When things returned to normal, it was a beautiful time. The Bolsheviks were challenged to reform everyday life. There, they failed. So, we have these enthusiastic victories, but afterwards failure. The greatest Marxists are those who write books on the analysis of failure.
The big task today is to avoid this, what Lacan called, with a beautiful term, the “narcissism of the lost cause.”  You know, “We lost, but how beautifully we lost.” You fall in love with your own defeat, and, even worse, make of defeat a sign of authenticity. “We lost because life is cruel, but look at how beautiful it was,” etc. No. The same holds for ’68: We should find a way for Marxism or communist revolution to be something other than a detour between one and another stage of capitalism. This is the lesson of the 20th century. The lessons are only negative: We learn what not to do. This is very important. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see positive lessons. I am an honest pessimist.
But, if we do nothing, it will be even a greater radical catastrophe. The true utopia is that things can go on indefinitely as they are. The crisis of 2008 made it seem like it was merely a lack of regulation and corrupted individuals. No, the crisis is different. Today we are approaching dangerous times. We cannot rely on any tradition. Left tradition has a tendency, when it takes power, to turn into brutal domination. How to break this deadlock between two sides that are, as Stalin would have put it, “both worse.”
Mandela was great, but he was seduced by the IMF. I agree, but with the great proviso: What was the choice? End up in a Zimbabwe fiasco? This is the real deadlock, here. Mandela was not a traitor. Even with Venezuela, I am a pessimist: Chavez is losing steam. It is a real tragedy. Because of playing these populist games, he neglected physical infrastructure. The machinery of oil extraction is falling apart, and they are compelled to pump less and less. Chavez started well to politicize and mobilize the excluded, but then he fell into the traditional populist trap. Oil money is a curse for Chavez, because it opened maneuvering space to not confront problems. But now he must confront them. He had enough money to patch things up without solving problems. For instance, Venezuela has a great brain drain to Colombia: in the long term, a catastrophe. I am distrustful of all these traditions, “Bolivarianism,” etc.—all bullshit.
HA: I am interested in what you said about the opportunity to reformulate the whole of life. With Lenin, when was this?
SŽ: Around the time of the New Economic Policy. It’s interesting what happened. The most pessimistic reading is that the Stalinist state emerged then. The logic was that we will withdraw from the economy but, in order not to lose power, we will strengthen the state. It was in the NEP years that there was an explosion of the state bureaucracy, the apparatus. In 1923 already, Stalin nominated 100,000 mid-level cadre. Trotsky was stupid, playing arrogant games, and didn’t notice this. He thought that he had created the Red Army and had popular appeal. But, in the diaries of Dmitrov, Stalin said that Trotsky was much more popular in the early 1920s, but Stalin controlled the cadre and so won out. If Trotsky had won, who knows what would have happened? It would have been something different, but who knows what? What I like about Trotsky was that, like Lenin, he was a brutal realist. Perhaps the best that could be done was in terms of the bourgeois revolution. Lenin was totally honest about the end of the Civil War, the madness of the situation, there being no organized working class after being slaughtered in the Civil War. |P
. Bob Avakian and Bill Martin, Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, Politics(Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing, 2005).
. See “Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” available online at <http://libcom.org/library/multiculturism-or-the-cultural-logic-of-multinational-capitalism-zizek>.
. See, however, Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008).
Platypus Review 34 | April 2011
On January 31, 2011, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Mel Rothenberg, author of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR to discuss the theoretical underpinnings of American Maoism in the 1970s. The interview was aired on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago, on February 1. What follows is a revised and edited transcript of the interview.
Spencer Leonard: Last December the Platypus Review published an interview I conducted with a former comrade of yours, Max Elbaum. There I discussed the emergence, by the late 1960s, of the widespread impulse within the New Left towards reconstituting the Communist movement in the United States. Being older than Elbaum and having participated in the New Left as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] in Chicago from 1961 onwards, you have a different perspective than him on the motivations behind the New Communist Movement [NCM]. What determined your joining a Marxist organization in the 1960s and how representative do you think your experience was? What do you take to be the continuities, both ideological and organizational, between the New Left and the NCM?
Mel Rothenberg: To answer that I have to say a bit about my background. It’s important because it’s shared with many others.
Like many of us in the New Left, I was a “red diaper baby.” We were the children of socialist activists, working class by and large, mostly in the two great movements of the “united front” of the late thirties and forties: the labor movement and the anti-fascist coalition. Those informed the experience of our parents. And as we learned at our parents’ knee, this fostered in us certain political perspectives, viewpoints, and orientations; one was to the labor movement and the working class, the other towards the threat to the working class movement posed by fascism.
Also I came of age in the McCarthy period. This wasn’t purely a question of oppression—our parents were often harassed and oppressed, we were not because we were young. Still, the period of McCarthyism marked a great disillusionment among a broad layer of the Left with Stalin and the bureaucratic and the police-state aspects of the Soviet Union. My father had been a labor organizer and a mid level CP cadre who had become disillusioned with the CP prior to Khrushchev’s revelations but had never totally broken his connection with his comrades. He greatly influenced my views. I don’t recall being totally shocked by Khrushchev’s speech. Mainly it confirmed in me my father’s doubts.
In consequence, throughout the early fifties many of us were politically passive. We were trapped in an ideological bind between Marxism and disillusionment with the Soviet Union. What brought us out of this were the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. These drew us back into political activism and created the New Left. The New Left reflected well our politics at the time, which were radical, social-democratic and interested in popular mobilization while eschewing hard Marxist ideology.
Two experiences of that era stand out. The first was in the summer of 1964 when the radical wing of the Civil Rights movement, having undertaken a massive mobilization of black voters, was rebuffed by the Democratic National Convention. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were blocked from expelling that state’s racist delegation. The second key moment was the break in that year of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] from the Democratic Party on the issue of the war. Many in the movement, even Martin Luther King, were moving in a similar direction, but SDS broke from “part of the way with LBJ” to an anti-Democratic Party position. This was painful because Johnson had been a progressive Democrat, responsive to the demands of the Civil Rights movement.
Two new perspectives emerged in this period. One was a strong identification with the revolutionary nationalism emerging within the militant wing of the African-American movement—Black Power impacted us very much. This also was painful because it involved the withdrawal of us white radicals from the center of SNCC and other leading militant civil rights groups. The other was anti-imperialism occasioned by the anti-war movement. These drew us beyond social-democratic, reformist politics. We sought a more radical, deeper break with the dominant system. This was the bridge between the New Left and the NCM.
SL: Turning towards Maoism by the late 1960s, you joined the Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization [STO] in which you were active for some years before eventually splitting with its leadership in the mid-70s. What about the STO appealed to you at that time? Why did the New Left’s turn toward Marxism manifest to such a large degree in a turn toward Maoism? What sort of reports did you have of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and how did they affect your way of thinking?
"All peoples of the world come together in solidarity to smash American imperialism, Soviet revisionism, and all adversaries of the Revolution!" Image printed in China, 1971, by the People's Fine Art Publishing House.
MR: Maoism combined the trends that had become dominant among the American New Left. They identified with revolutionary nationalism. This was also true of Vietnam, Cuba, etc., but China was the leading force. Moreover, they combined anti-imperialism with this. China became a leading voice of anti-imperialism in this country. Finally, there was a kind of left populism attached to this, anti-bureaucratism, a kind of Marxist participatory democracy or spontaneism. These corresponded to our disenchantment with the Soviet Union.
As for the Cultural Revolution, we understood it as both a necessity to avoid the restoration of capitalism in China as had happened in the Soviet Union, and as a means to lift the level of mass consciousness and to ensure thereby that revolutionary Marxism remained in command. By combining the Marxist tradition with these other elements I have mentioned, Maoism was a way back to Marxism for those of us who had drifted away from it in the fifties.
SL: How was it that you and others came to form a faction against the leadership of the STO and were eventually expelled? Did you already at that time harbor misgivings towards Maoism?
MR: The STO was, broadly, a Maoist organization, but it had its peculiarities. It didn’t look to China very much. It was the two central doctrines that defined it as an organization that both made it appealing and ultimately caused it to fail. The first was the “white skin privilege” doctrine that argued that the major task of American communist revolutionaries who wanted to mobilize the working class lay in getting white workers to repudiate the privileges derived from their skin color in order to forge unity between white and black workers. White workers therefore had to be made to understand that they were privileged because of racism and they had to abandon those privileges. Black workers, from this perspective, were the true revolutionary vanguard because they had the least to lose in the revolution.
The second defining STO doctrine was that trade unions had become bureaucratic and reactionary. They were organs of capitalism. What was needed was independent worker organization. This idea was taken from Gramsci, who developed it in his initial period of activism in Turin before the First World War. The leaders of STO argued that we were in a similar position to the Turin’s workers movement when it was moving beyond social-democratic reformism and class collaboration to a period of intense class struggle that would challenge the very foundations of bourgeois rule. For us to make a similar transition we had to transcend trade union hegemony over the working class.
Those two doctrines distinguished the STO on the Left. And as an organization they were serious, not least when it came to working class organizing. They were never a large organization but almost all their cadres worked in industry. I was one of the few that was not actually a factory worker and I was only allowed to join because I knew Mike Goldfield, who was already in and was working in a factory. They made an exception for me, but I was always somewhat marginal for that reason.
By the mid-1970s a number of us began to see the limitations of the organization’s positions. For instance, “white skin privilege” was not, unsurprisingly, a position around which it was easy to organize white workers. After all, workers are uninterested in giving up what little they have because they supposedly haven’t earned it. It also led to fights with unions that were not healthy. We opposed the union leadership not on broad democratic grounds by demanding more honest and effective unions, but simply the on the grounds that unions were by their nature compromised organizations. This too did not sit well with politically conscious workers.
SL: Your criticisms of both of these two STO lines were given added salience at the time by an upsurge of union activity?
MR: The seventies were indeed a period of working class militancy. There was the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit (DRUM) led by black workers with whom we had some connection. African-American workers had begun to form caucuses in unions and in certain plants. Also among the miners, steelworkers, and others there were oppositional caucuses critical of the union leaderships.
As for the STO’s Maoism, it was reflected in a kind of syndicalism, pushing for spontaneous workers’ uprisings. Our image of the Cultural Revolution as a series of actions where the workers took over the factory and met to discuss at great length topics such as bourgeois degeneration fit with our own syndicalist spirit. Still, our ties with Maoism were relatively superficial as opposed to other groups.
SL: When you finally broke with Maoism it took the rather dramatic form of a book-length refutation of the Maoist line that defined the Three Worlds Theory that appealed to so many. This was the claim that capitalism had been restored in the USSR, that it was engaged in a kind of imperialism. You have since referred to the book you wrote refuting this position, The Myth of Capitalism Reborn, co-written with Michael Goldfield, as a “settling [of] accounts with [my] Maoist past.” Explain the capitalist restoration thesis and the attraction it exerted on your generation.
"Throw Out the Wang-Zhang-Jiang-Yao Anti-Party Clique!" Anti-Gang of Four poster from the late 1970s.
MR: The Chinese position was that a new bourgeoisie had developed in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. They had gained control over the Communist Party (CPSU) to restore capitalism in a kind of bloodless coup. When China broke with the USSR and entered into a tacit alliance with the West it declared the Soviet Union the main enemy. They needed a theoretical reason why they would side with a capitalist power against a socialist power. Their initial assertion was that the USSR, through great power chauvinism, had adopted social-imperialism. This was followed by the deeper claim that the USSR had degenerated to a fully capitalist state. The order of this supposed development was important and shrewdly articulated because the initial claim played into the growing anti-imperialist sentiment around the world, and in particular to the growing Maoist movement in the U.S. The emphasis on social-imperialism initiated the sharp break with the traditional communist movement at the hottest flashpoint of conflict. Finally, the declaration that capitalism had been fully restored in the USSR made the break total and irreversible.
The theoretical basis of their analysis was very opportunistic and superficial. It followed a split that, in hindsight, was driven by nationalism and geo-political power conflict. The Chinese had a legitimate fear that the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism was designed to isolate them internationally. They also had legitimate concerns about how well the Soviet industrialization strategy would work in their conditions. Instead of developing a line to confront these real problems they tried to develop a position that would thrust China into the leadership of what they saw as a growing international communist movement critical of the Soviet Union, while at the same time justifying the cynical anti-Soviet alliance with the U.S. There was absolutely no chance of realizing these two contradictory aims. The smarter Chinese leaders must have known this. But, of course, the western Maoist movement lapped this stuff up, embracing this thesis with more enthusiasm than the Chinese ever did.
SL: Is this related to the narrative you gave before about the long experience of the New Left?
MR: We were trying to settle accounts with the Communist Party and the Old Left. By 1968, the developments in France in May, and the role the Communist Party played in them, not to mention the invasion of Czechoslovakia, gave added impetus to people already prepared to embrace this position. As a line, it was simple and direct, and many simply accepted it. It allowed them to silence their doubts as to why the New Left and the working class weren’t hand in hand everywhere in the world. What eventually prompted some of us to break with it in the mid-seventies were mainly the actions of the Chinese themselves, particularly in Angola. There, after the collapse of the fascist regime in Portugal and their abandonment of their erstwhile colonies, the Chinese opposed the left government to support Jonas Savimbi and UNITA, whereas the Soviets supported the opposition through their Cuban allies. The Chinese also supported the Shah of Iran, refusing to endorse the movement against him, in consequence of which a broad layer of Maoists began to question Chinese leadership. But Mike [Goldfield] and I explored the actual theoretical basis of the capitalist restoration thesis. Our initial substantive theoretical criticism was that the Chinese position implied that, though they couldn’t point to an actual capitalist class, there was a collective capitalism in the Soviet Union, that the bureaucracy constituted a capitalist collective leading the country back to capitalism. We felt this was incompatible with a Marxist conception of capitalism, which intrinsically involves competition among capitalists. You couldn’t have capitalism without capitalist competition, which was part of the essence of capitalism. This insight initiated our thoroughgoing critique of the thesis of the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.
In this country a single Maoist theoretician was most influential. This was Martin Nicolaus, the translator of the Grundrisse. Nicolaus was a theoretically sophisticated Marxist who joined the October League, which in turn eventually entered the CP(M-L), one of two major Maoist groups in this country along with the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). He elaborated the capitalist restoration line in a number of articles in the 1970s, in which he tried to remain a kind of classical Marxist, but our own belief was that to do so required significant distortions of Soviet reality. For instance, on Nicolaus’s view, Khrushchev had imposed nothing short of a “regime of economic terrorism” on the working class through privatizations, semi-privatizations, and the development of a kind of wholesale market. Economic planning had been covertly undermined and enterprise managers had emerged as effective owners of the means of production. Thus they constituted a new, if legally unacknowledged, capitalist class. On the basis of isolated instances and sketchy data, he also argued that unemployment existed on a large scale in the USSR on account of the re-commodification of labor. Because Nicolaus argued that capitalism’s restoration was an ongoing economic process, he was compelled to exaggerate the social upheaval it occasioned in the form of unemployment, slowdowns and strikes, firings, and the imposition of stricter labor discipline.
SL: So, Nicolaus was addressing and perhaps rationalizing the exigencies of the situation. Because China had been aligned with Stalin until his death, the USSR must have been a revolutionary socialist society till then. Accordingly, even though workers in the Soviet Union were actually enjoying by the 1960s substantially increased levels of consumption, more amenities, social security, education, benefits, etc., Nicolaus nevertheless had to describe that situation in terms of the restoration of capitalism. Was that the tension you pressed Nicolaus on?
MR: Yes. Nicolaus identified as a sign of capitalist restoration any leisure or consumer goods the workers enjoyed, as well as any social differentiation, which, of course, also existed under Stalin. To do this he had to distort the facts.
SL: You also argued in the book that Charles Bettelheim had to change the idea of what capitalism is in order to advance the capitalist restoration thesis. For Bettelheim, not only was capitalism compatible with “state ownership of the means of production, of central planning, and of other economic features commonly thought to be socialist,” but, rather than one of the necessary preconditions for the achievement of socialism, the suspension or abolition of private property and the market in the USSR served somehow only to obscure the perpetuation of capitalism. The Soviet Union therefore represented a post-bourgeois form of capitalism. While defenders of the USSR argued, “look, there are no capitalists making money in this market, so it is not capitalism,” Bettelheim replied, “but capitalism does not require that.” What was Bettelheim trying to get at with this counter-intuitive mode of arguing and what was the critical issue at stake in your criticism of him?
MR: As the head of the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association, Charles Bettelheim was the leading French Maoist thinker of the time. He didn’t resort to distorting the facts. Unlike Nicolaus, he was a real expert on the Soviet Union. But arguing the restoration thesis demanded that he fundamentally alter Marxist theory.
Bettelheim accepted the position Mao enunciated in his left turn, when he was promoting the Cultural Revolution, that the key to building socialism turned on the line the party espoused. If it espoused a proletarian line, the revolution was advancing toward socialism. If it espoused a bourgeois line, no matter what the reality, the society was moving back to capitalism. For this reason, he did not view the restoration of capitalism in the USSR as a gradual process in the manner of Nicolaus. Whereas Nicolaus saw it as beginning with Stalin’s death in 1953 and culminating in Kosygin’s economic reforms of 1965, for Bettelheim, it was Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Party Conference in 1956 that was decisive. The leadership’s plan, line, and practice determined the political nature of society in the transition to socialism. The argument was not so much that capitalism had been restored but that the process of its overcoming had been halted by the leadership. Even the theoretical question of whether or not labor is a commodity was a matter of the prevailing political line. If the workers are working to advance socialism, it is not a commodity; if they are not, it is. The crucial issue was why the workers are working. Bettelheim did not look for the immediate abolition of wages. He did expect, however, that socialist workers’ primary motivation was to “build the society,” which he thought was happening in China. Bourgeois right and the value form were thus to be overcome politically. The claim, bolstered by a certain romantic conception of the Cultural Revolution, was that Chinese workers were engaged in ongoing struggles to increase their control over the instruments of production. By comparison, mundane considerations such as workers’ material consumption, labor conditions, or the overall economic level were secondary. This is a species of voluntarism still runs through a lot of the Left, not only Maoism.
SL: This goes back to the picture you gave before of Chinese factory workers holding political discussions late into the night during the Cultural Revolution. The essence of Marxism for Maoists hinged, it seems, on constant re-politicization, enthusiasm, and mobilization. Rather than raising the question of how you can build socialism in a peasant country, it really became about political process. Emancipation in this context looks like one long university sit-in.
MR: Exactly! That was in fact what many Maoists believed. Facts did not really matter. One could not argue against Maoism on a purely factual basis. We took aim at that. We also proposed a theory of transition, one not so different from that of the leading Trotskyist thinker Ernest Mandel. In fact, Mandel wrote us a letter saying that he admired our book. At any rate, the main importance of the book was our argument against Bettelheim.
Drawing on the Grundrisse, Bettelheim centered his argument on the value form, arguing that under communism labor time will no longer be the measure of wealth. In that state, the economy will be so developed and automated that the production of all the material needs of life will take only a small percentage of collective human time and energy. From this perspective, commodity production, and thus the reproduction of capitalism, could not simply be equated with private production for profit. As long as labor remained the measure of value and was appropriated as surplus value by a ruling elite, capitalism continued to dominate. Thus, in the USSR, capitalism took a non-market, non-private-property-based form. State ownership of the means of production, central planning, and other economic features of the USSR normally associated with socialism, actually masked the existence of capitalism. Though there was nothing resembling a labor market, labor was subordinated to the production of value, and value operated socially as the measure of wealth. Obviously, such arguments were intended to relativize the significance of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of state power and of the economic changes wrought by the October Revolution. But it is difficult to understand how, on the ground of what Marx calls “bourgeois right” (which Marx acknowledges will continue to prevail during the transition to socialism), the value form, as its fundamental expression, would not also persist, particularly given the stalling of the world revolution. Overcoming the value form and harnessing the full liberating capacity of science and automation to achieve a society of genuinely human wealth is a goal that no Marxist would dispute. What Bettelheim demanded was that this be achieved, or almost achieved, early in the transition to socialism. Otherwise, the society inevitably collapses back into capitalism.
Beyond these theoretical issues, the basic political question is whether or not we have something necessary to learn from understanding the Soviet experience and its ultimate failure to reach its goals. The approaches of Nicolaus and Bettelheim are ultimately dead ends in this respect. I would contend that the Left cannot advance out of its current impasse until this question is addressed more squarely and with greater honesty than many seem inclined to do today. The sort of unspoken consensus on the Left that it is better to forget and bury the Soviet experience, and move on to a more emancipatory vision of socialism, won’t work. To overcome the past, you must face it.
SL: In an article in the January 2011 issue of Science & Society, you argue against a certain conception of “worker control of the means of production,” which, as you point out, can mean a number of things. There you argue that many who demand workers’ control of the means of production are actually demanding that “workers in each enterprise collectively determine what is produced, how much is produced, and how it is produced,” and that this is not Marxist. How does this represent an attempt to short-circuit the specifically political aspect of overcoming bourgeois right, and thus a kind of repeat of the Bettelheimian Maoism you criticized in your book?
MR: There are two aspects to this. One is Maoism’s influence on Bettelheim, and the other is a certain Trotskyist tradition visible today in groups like Solidarity, who have a kind of syndicalist approach and see democracy in the plant as the key site of struggle. That tradition goes back to anarchism and syndicalism of various sorts. It is a very attractive view because it allows one to entertain the prospect of socialism in one factory. It makes the achieving of socialism more manageable. There is some of this in Argentine syndicalism. You achieve workers’ control factory by factory. Once you do it in every factory, you have socialism. It attempts to address problems of alienation, autonomy, and democracy at the level of the individual factory. This is very tempting in a period when the Left lacks political organization, or even substantial political influence. It also has a certain demagogical appeal, in that organizing at the point of production makes it easier to talk to workers about socialism. It is easy to talk about how stupid the boss is and say, “We can run this place much better and fairer. We could get more production. We wouldn’t have to deal with these foremen and bosses who are just parasites.” This kind of thing is, of course, popular among workers, especially when they are angry. It is easy to agitate around. It’s a very deep tradition on the Left, one the Maoist legacy plays into. Labor Notes and Solidarity are two groups coming out of this tradition that do serious work organizing in factories. I don't agree with it, but it is not a settled issue among Marxists.
SL: Trotskyism is obviously the tradition that insisted upon understanding the fraught political significance of the Soviet Union in terms of its historical character. In rejecting the Maoist line of capitalist restoration in the USSR, and describing the Soviet Union instead in terms of “process” and “protracted transition,” you arguably came close to a Trotskyist position, as Mandel’s approving letter seems to imply. How conscious were you and Goldfield, in the mid-1970s, of this? Were you actively reading Trotskyist works? If so, why did you never contemplate joining a Trotskyist organization, whether in the 1960s or later?
MR: My perspective is a little different from Goldfield’s. Both of us read a lot of Mandel’s works. Clearly we were influenced by his analysis, which goes back to Trotsky. But my problem with Trotskyism was twofold. First, the Trotskyist groups I knew to be doing serious work in plants and factories, groups like Solidarity, had what I have called a syndicalist orientation. I respected what they were doing, in terms of organizing workers. But the syndicalism was, nonetheless, always a problem for me. They had in fact adopted a more nuanced version of the position STO adopted toward trade unions. They were active in trade unions, but they would always form an oppositional bloc, refusing to work with the existing leadership. They would never work with them, as a matter of principle, considering them to be irredeemably corrupt and compromised. I felt that this was an ineffective way to organize workers.
SL: A Marxist position, in your view, entails intersecting workers in their own organizations that serve as their schools of politics?
MR: Right. The Marxist position requires working with trade unions. There may be corrupt or even tyrannical leaders, whom one would oppose, but in a way that respects that there is a structure and a leadership. The workers can choose a better leadership, but that involves a complex struggle. One cannot simply dismiss the existing leadership on the grounds that they are a bunch of corrupt opportunists and we have to do something totally different. This was an important political point against at least a certain wing of Trotskyism.
My problem with the other wing of Trotskyism, represented by groups like the ISO, is that they do not believe in the United Front. For me, the way to build a movement for socialism is to build a multi-class historic bloc. This does not mean that every class has the same role, or the same leadership, but it will include the middle class intelligentsia and many skilled professionals, the sort of people required to manage a modern industrial society. This is a protracted process. Trotskyists do not really believe in this and have a purely proletarian position. Their view is that you go in and you try to rile up the working class. It is like the old Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) line, “a single match can start a prairie fire.” Excite the working class to rebellion and then parachute in as a vanguard. Take over the leadership once the working class has attained a certain level of combativeness, then lead it toward revolution. That strategy has never worked.
SL: In your recent Science & Society article you write, “One of the great and sad lessons of the Soviet experience is that after 70 years of uninterrupted communist rule, the Soviet Union rather easily and quickly reverted back to a deformed but thoroughly capitalist society. The roots of the socialist order turned out to be weak and shallow.” How does this relate to your understanding of the wider collapse of the Left? After all, haven’t the roots of the socialist project proved weak and shallow worldwide? Does the Soviet experience not raise the question of the self-defeat of the Left?
MR: This is the key question. We are not going to get a serious Left until we confront the collapse of the Soviet Union. Broadly speaking, three explanations are usually offered. The first is basically the capitalist view, which is that any kind of socialism is incompatible with modern industrial society. It can't work, and didn't. The second position, which is the position of much of the old Communist Party Left, is that the conditions were just too harsh. The Soviet regime was born in the midst of crisis; there was a civil war, then there was famine; there were attacks from the outside; there was a second world war. We faced the continual hostility of the capitalist world and the working class of Russia was too backward to rise the to occasion. So, we had the right approach, but ran into a series of insuperable obstacles. There is a certain amount of truth to this, but I don't think it an adequate explanation. For one thing, the conditions in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when they held power, were much harsher than in the 1980s when they lost power. So the collapse was not directly rooted in the harsh conditions of people, or the hostility of the capitalist world.
My explanation would say that they went about it the wrong way. Building a socialist society cannot occur primarily through a party state, which is what they did in the Soviet Union. The motive force was the party apparatus, and the entire project of building socialism was concentrated in it. The masses of people were told to shut up and work, and leave the socialism question to the party. That was the dominant position and practice in the Soviet Union. But socialism cannot be built by a political apparatus, which inevitably stagnates, has its own parochial interests, preoccupies itself with its own retention of power, and cannot in itself lead this kind of project. You need to have, as Gramsci put it, a historic social bloc committed to the socialist project that is much broader then a party-state apparatus. There are of course difficult questions of class relations, the hegemony of the working class, governance of the state, the structure and nature of a political party representing a broad social bloc, involvement in electoral and more revolutionary forms of struggle, etc., all of which can only be resolved over a long period of practice and struggle. In the Soviet experiment they tried to short-circuit these issues through the dictatorship of the party-state apparatus. It ultimately precipitated their failure. |P
Transcribed by Alex Gonopolskiy and Ryan Hardy
Platypus Review 32 | February 2011
THE BLOODSHED IN KASHMIR beginning in June 2010 gave rise to a heated debate in India concerning the causes of and possible solutions to the conflict. A meeting on 21 October in Delhi organized by the pro-Maoist Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners was entitled “Azadi (Freedom)—the Only Way.” Interpreting “azadi” as shorthand for “the right to self-determination,” the keynote speakers—writer-activist Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat—argued that the only solution to the dispute in Kashmir was freedom for Jammu and Kashmir from India. Others at the conference, such as Varavara Rao, speaking for the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its sympathizers, concurred. But Kashmiri members of the Hindu Right invaded the conference, staging a protest and later bringing charges of sedition against the speakers. At around the same time, a parliamentary delegation was sent to Kashmir, followed by the appointment of three civil society “interlocutors” by the Indian government to speak to and obtain the opinions of all sections of the population in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
Is “Azadi” indeed the only way to resolve the dispute over Kashmir? It is imperative that socialists should have a clear position on this issue, challenging all the various contending nationalisms with politics that offer the most scope for a socialist movement to develop.
Panelists at "Azadi (Freedom): The Only Way," including Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Geelani, held in Delhi in October, 2010.
Lenin and Luxemburg on the right to self-determination
The debate between Lenin and Luxemburg on the right to self-determination erupted in the first decade of the twentieth century, with Luxemburg questioning the inclusion of point #9 in the program of the Social Democratic Labor Party of Russia, which granted all nationalities the right of self-determination, including secession. While approving of point #7, which granted full legal equality to all citizens without distinction of sex, religion, race, or nationality, and point #8, which granted the various ethnic groups the right to schools conducted in their own languages at state expense and the right to use their languages at assemblies and in all state and public functions, she insisted that the attitude of socialists to nationality questions should depend on the concrete circumstances of each case, which would also change with time. She pointed out that all ancient civilizations were extremely mixed with respect to nationalities, and quoted Kautsky to the effect that the great Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim cultures were not national but international; therefore, stating that all “nationalities” had the right to form their own states was impractical. Most important, she pointed out that, “In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights’… There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner,” and in cases where the interests of the proletariat were directly opposed to those of the "nation" (for example, Jewish workers versus Zionist nationalists), the formula could result in imposing on workers the will of the ruling class. However, she conceded that socialists were duty-bound to oppose all forms of oppression, including that of one nation by another.
In 1914, Lenin responded by claiming that, “Carried away by the struggle against nationalism in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg has forgotten the nationalism of the Great Russians, although it is this nationalism that is the most formidable at the present time. It is a nationalism that is more feudal than bourgeois, and is the principal obstacle to democracy and to the proletarian struggle.” He continued, “Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle ‘guesses,’ we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state.” Yet at the same time he conceded to Luxemburg that, “the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. For the bourgeoisie it is important to hamper this development by pushing the aims of its ‘own’ nation before those of the proletariat. That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation."  In other words, the proletariat recognizes the right of every nation to self-determination, but does not guarantee to support the exercise of that right in any particular case, especially if it happens to be at the expense of another nation. Surely Luxemburg’s formulation, that the attitude of socialists to nationality questions should depend on the concrete circumstances of each case, is clearer and more sensible!
Lenin’s confused (and confusing) formulation was made worse by his implicit acceptance of Stalin’s later monocultural definition of a “nation”: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”  Such a formulation suggests that socialists should support the right of any group with a common language, territory, economic life, and culture to secede and form a separate state. This is the confusion that led many socialists, including Trotskyists, to support the right of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to form a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, regardless of the fact that it led to massacres, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Sinhalese, the murder of socialists, and tore apart workers who had successfully put up a united resistance to a predatory state in 1953.  It is also what prevented Indian Communists from mounting a principled campaign against Partition, as we shall see.
In Lenin’s more mature formulation of 1916, he linked the right of self-determination to the struggle for democracy and against colonialism and national oppression. He explained,
[J]ust as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy…. The proletariat of the oppressing nations… must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that “its own” nation oppresses…. The Socialists of the oppressed nations, on the other hand, must particularly fight for and maintain complete, absolute unity (also organizational) between the workers of the oppressed nation and the workers of the oppressing nation…. [And in the case of ] the semi-colonial countries, like China, Persia, Turkey, and all the colonies… the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun, or are far from having been completed. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation—and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing more nor less than the recognition of the right to self-determination—but must render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their rebellion—and if need be, their revolutionary war—against the imperialist powers that oppress them.
Luxemburg did not realize the importance of supporting bourgeois-democratic revolutions in the colonies, but she did agree it was necessary to oppose the oppression of one nation by another. Lenin, initially preoccupied only with counteracting nationalism in oppressing countries, eventually took on board Luxemburg’s fear of the danger of supporting reactionary, anti-socialist, and anti-democratic forces in oppressed countries, and conceded that unity between workers of the oppressed and oppressor nations must be maintained.
Is this debate at all relevant today, in a largely decolonized world? There are still countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine where socialists must demand immediate and unconditional liberation, but even in these countries, support should be given only to the “more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movement for national liberation.” As for secession from a bourgeois-democratic state, one might speculate that where a community is being persecuted in such a state, the preferred option for socialists would be to wage a united struggle against the political forces perpetrating that persecution, supported by socialists internationally; only where such a struggle is impossible might it be necessary to support the right to secede, and even then, support should be given only to a group that stands for democracy. Both Luxemburg and Lenin would have been aghast at the thought of socialists supporting the nationalism of a fascist group like the LTTE. Let us not forget that both were opposed to all forms of nationalism, which posit a false unity of interest between workers and capitalists, while inducing workers to kill and die fighting workers of other nations in the interests of their own ruling class. Nationalism that is linked to a particular ethnic, linguistic, or religious group is even more reactionary, because it destroys solidarity between workers within a country as well. Its forcible homogenization of those within the group and “othering” of those who are different make it a fertile breeding-ground for fascism.
The most important conclusion is that interpreting “the right to self-determination” as the right to form a separate nation-state, and then converting support for it into a timeless imperative, valid for all time and in all circumstances, is completely un-Marxist. At a certain point in history, around a hundred years ago, it was proclaimed—and challenged—as a way of combating nationalism among the workers of oppressor nations. The common ground shared by Lenin and Luxemburg, which socialists can still stand on today, comprises opposition to nationalism and oppression, and support for all those struggling for democracy and workers’ solidarity.
Independence and partition
The Kashmir issue cannot be adequately addressed without grappling with the Left’s own history, since at critical junctures key fractions of it more or less actively supported the demand for partition of British India into two states, India and Pakistan (later divided into Pakistan and Bangladesh), and it is from this that the question today derives. A detailed analysis of the causes of Partition is beyond the scope of this article, but some observations can be made. Initially, leaders of the dominant anti-imperialist organization, the Indian National Congress, allowed dual membership with the Hindu Mahasabha or Muslim League. Only in December 1938 did it reverse itself and characterize these organizations as “communal.” Both the Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League believed that Hindus and Muslims constitute separate nations, and eventually both helped organize the bloodbath that preceded Partition. While Congress ideology was secular, it neither recognized the danger nor did enough to combat it. Indeed, Gandhi’s ambiguous attitude towards mixing religion and politics might have contributed to it. Using images like “Ram rajya” (the mythical golden age during the reign of the Hindu god/king Ram) to rouse the Hindu masses, and support for Khilafat (a movement led by reactionary clerics for restoration of the Sultan of Turkey as Caliph following Turkey’s defeat in World War I) to rouse Muslims, he might have reinforced the fascistic forces that still plague India and Pakistan to this day. Such politics conspired with the British attempts at encouraging communal divisions.
What about the Communist Party of India? It rejected the reactionary “two-nation” ideology, but got fatally confused by the “right to self-determination.” In the resolution passed by its Central Committee in September 1942, it declared that:
Every section of the Indian people which has a contiguous territory as its homeland, common historical tradition, common language, culture, psychological makeup and common economic life would be recognized as a distinct nationality with the right to exist as an autonomous state within the free Indian union or federation and will have the right to secede from it if it may so desire…. Thus, free India would be a federation or union of autonomous states of the various nationalities such as the Pathans, Western Punjabis (dominantly Muslims), Sikhs, Sindhis, Hindustanis, Rajasthanis, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Assamese, Biharis, Oriyas, Andhras, Tamils, Karnatakis, Maharashtrians, Malayalees, etc….
Such a declaration of rights in as much as it concedes to every nationality as defined above, and therefore, to nationalities having Muslim faith, the right of autonomous state existence and of secession, can form the basis for unity between the National Congress and the League. For this would give to the Muslims wherever they are in an overwhelming majority in a contiguous territory which is their homeland, the right to form their autonomous states and even to separate if they so desire. In the case of the Bengali Muslims of the Eastern and Northern districts of Bengal where they form an overwhelming majority, they may form themselves into an autonomous region in the state of Bengal or may form a separate state. Such a declaration therefore concedes the just essence of the Pakistan demand and has nothing in common with the separatist theory of dividing India into two nations on the basis of religion.
Thus a dogmatic application of Lenin’s confused formulation regarding the right to self-determination combined with Stalin’s definition of a nation led the CPI to praise the “just essence of the Pakistan demand” instead of resolutely opposing the formation of a nation on the basis of religion.
The Kashmir dispute
At Independence, there were hundreds of Princely States that were given the option of joining either India or Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir, which was contiguous with both, was one of them. Soon after the formal declaration of independence on August 14–15, 1947, tribesmen invaded and started looting and killing non-Muslims. Since the majority of its population was Muslim, it was expected to join Pakistan, but its Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed an instrument of accession to India. This allowed the Indian army to enter the state to chase out the invaders. In 1948, the UN called for an immediate ceasefire and a plebiscite under its own auspices to allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be part of India or Pakistan. The plebiscite never took place, at first because Pakistani forces did not withdraw, later—and repeatedly—because India refused to cooperate. So hostile military forces of the two countries remained facing each other across the Line of Control [LoC], and the state of Jammu and Kashmir has remained occupied and divided, with blatant violations of the democratic rights of its people by both occupying powers. From the late 1980s, the security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir have had a shameful record of rape, torture, and murder. The impunity imparted by laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Disturbed Areas Act has encouraged such criminality by making it all but impossible to prosecute security force personnel who commit these crimes, while the high density of these forces on the ground also increases the likelihood of human rights violations.
The front page of the Hindustan Times from 28 October, 1947.
One response by Kashmiris has been to fight for a separate state, independent from both India and Pakistan; for example, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front was formed in 1977, with the agenda of creating a secular, democratic, federal, independent state of Jammu and Kashmir. But this movement in general, and the JKLF in particular, are badly divided, with allegations that its leaders are flirting with or even controlled by the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and India.
Indian nationalists, most vociferously represented by the Sangh Parivar but also present among sections who claim to be more liberal, are undoubtedly a major part of the problem. Their assertion that Kashmir is an integral part of India—as though India’s national boundaries are god-given and any questioning of them is blasphemy—serves to mask from view the horrific atrocities committed against Kashmiris by the Indian security forces. Their allegation of sedition against speakers at the Azadi meeting for questioning this dogma, and their hysterical outburst against the government-appointed interlocutors for suggesting that any solution to the problem requires the involvement of the government of Pakistan, make it clear that they are not open to argument. Pretending that Kashmir is not disputed territory and simply breathing fire and brimstone at anyone who acknowledges the conflict is a manifest, if semi-conscious, strategy of those who seek to perpetuate that conflict.
The Pakistani nationalist stance mirrors the Indian nationalist one. Thus Kashmiri separatists of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir “were kept away from the process of elections by a stipulation of Act 74, which states: ‘No one can contest elections of any kind in AK without taking oath of allegiance to Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan’… Because of this clause nationalists of Azad Kashmir were kept away from the elections and Pakistan has built a strong pro Pakistan structure which aims to minimize the influence of nationalists in all walks of life.” As in the case of the Indian nationalists, there appears to be little concern for the democratic rights of Kashmiris.
Kashmir and the Indian Left
The Left itself in India has no unified position on Kashmir. This became clear in the course of the debate that followed the meeting on “Azadi.” The keynote speaker invited to represent the Kashmiri people at this meeting was Syed Ali Shah Geelani, whose politics has all the elements of ethno-religious nationalism. As Yoginder Sikand points out in a recent article on Geelani's book, Kashmir: Nava-e Hurriyat, for Geelani "Muslims are a community/nation (qaum) wholly separate from the Hindus." Sikand continues,
[Geelani] equates India with Hindus, overlooking the fact that India’s Muslim population outnumbers that of Pakistan. He projects Muslims (as he does Hindus) as a monolithic, homogeneous community, defined by a singular interpretation of religion, and bereft of cultural, ethnic and other divisions. He depicts Muslims as radically different from Hindus, and as allegedly having nothing at all in common with them.
This is an extreme right-wing ideology, which, as Geelani himself recognizes, shares the "two-nation" theory with Hindutva.
This reactionary authoritarianism is underlined by the activities of another member of this tendency, Asiya Andrabi, and her organization Dukhteran-e-Millat, members of which have thrown acid and paint in the faces of women to force them to wear the veil. Andrabi warned separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone of dire consequences for asking foreign Islamist militants to stay out of Kashmir, and urged militants to take action against him. When Lone was murdered by Pakistan-backed militants, it is not surprising that his son Sajjad blamed the ISI and Geelani was chased away from his house. Other Kashmiri separatist leaders were terrorized into silence. Only very recently has this silence been broken, with open admissions that separatist leaders who were earlier claimed to have been killed by the Indian state were actually murdered by militants.
How could anyone on the Left provide a platform to someone with such a reactionary agenda as Geelani’s (a mirror image of Hindutva), or even share a platform with him as Arundhati Roy has done? Why should he be considered a leader of the Kashmiri independence struggle at all when he colludes with one of the states (Pakistan) occupying Kashmir, given that just across the LoC, the main enemy of Kashmiri nationalists is the Pakistani state? Indeed, in the statements of the pro-Maoist section of the Indian Left, there is not even an acknowledgement of the Kashmiris on the other side of the LoC fighting for freedom from Pakistan, nor is any attempt made to extend solidarity to them or to Pakistani socialists fighting against Islamism. This is what allows them to associate the slogan of “Azadi” with someone like Geelani, who, from the standpoint of Kashmiris across the LoC, stands for their continued enslavement. Roy, questioned about sharing a platform with someone implicated in killings of other separatists, justified it with the bizarre argument that even Nelson Mandela, who was serving a 27-year jail sentence imposed by the Apartheid state when in 1977 that same state murdered Steve Biko, was somehow responsible for the latter’s death! It did not occur to her that silencing by murder and terror those whose views are different is the hallmark of authoritarian politics. Nor does this writer recognize the Orwellian aspect of killing leaders protesting against foreign interference in the name of “freedom” and “self-determination.”
The premise of the section of the Stalinist Left that associates itself with Geelani is unconditional support for all parties fighting for the right of nations to self-determination in the sense of secession, regardless of their politics, and acceptance of Stalin’s definition of a nation: “The root of the Kashmir conflict is not oppression but identity. Kashmiris don’t see themselves as Indian.” Thus “nation” is defined in terms of “identity,” presumably encompassing a common language, territory, economy, culture, and history, as in Stalin’s definition. According to this view, the people of Kashmir constitute a nation, and are therefore entitled to self-determination, defined as the right to form their own nation-state. The desire and right to fight for a separate nation-state are given in their feeling that they are different from Indians, and this would be so even if they were not oppressed by the Indian state and enjoyed all democratic rights (which, of course, is not the case at present).
However, even in terms of a dogmatic application of Lenin’s formula, there is a problem here. Minority communities in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, who constitute around one third of its population, wish to remain with India, and some of these, like the Ladakhis, would themselves constitute “nations” according to Stalin’s definition. So Kashmiri “self-determination” would come at the expense of another “nation” or entail further partitions on ethnic lines. It is revealing that supporters of a Kashmiri state do not even ask themselves why Ladakhis—who belong to an ethnic and religious (Buddhist) minority, and cannot therefore be accused of Hindu majoritarianism—so emphatically reject “freedom” from India. This suggests that these communities feel safer in secular India than they would in a separate Kashmir that they fear would be Islamist. Surely this calls into question the monolithic Kashmiri “identity,” as a result of which “Kashmiris don’t see themselves as Indian”?
Left supporters of Kashmiri Azadi reply that Geelani would probably shift over to support for an independent Kashmir under popular pressure, and this is conceivable. What is not conceivable, however, is that he would abandon his Islamist vision for Kashmir, which is shared by many others, as the slogans chanted in demonstrations suggest. But he is only one current out of many, the answer goes: “Let a Constituent assembly decide what the people want!” This is dangerously naïve, not least because theocrats do not believe in constituent assemblies. When the Left in Iran (the largest in the Middle East) jumped on Khomeini’s bandwagon, they no doubt had the same illusion. But Khomeini used a broad-based popular movement against the Shah to come to power, and then proceeded to decimate the Left. As Maziar Behrooz, the author of Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, points out, the loss of women’s rights was the most palpable consequence of the Islamic Revolution. A similar outcome in Kashmir cannot be ruled out if a section of the Left in India insists on jumping on the Islamist bandwagon by inviting Geelani to be the spokesperson of “Azadi” and describing him as “the tallest, most respected leader of the Kashmiri independence struggle." If this is true, what does it say about the Azadi movement?
Another position on the Left rejects identity as a basis for secession and sees democracy as the only justification for it. By contrast with the first tendency, which provides unconditional support to any group claiming to fight for the right to national self-determination, the second group provides support that is highly conditional and selective. Conditional on the premise that a separate state is demanded by the vast majority of the population in the territory claimed, and on the promise that it will result in less oppression and bloodshed, and in greater freedom, equality, and democracy. Selective in the sense that even where the vast majority want to be free of foreign occupation, as in Afghanistan, reactionary, authoritarian groups like the Taliban would not be supported. “Self-determination” should mean the right of people to determine their own lives, and the Taliban most emphatically does not stand for that. There are groups in Afghanistan like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which have chosen the courageous option of fighting against both the U.S./NATO occupation and the Taliban, and it is such groups that should receive support. Tamil democracy activists decided they had to oppose both the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE: a difficult and dangerous option, but the only one that allowed them to fight for democracy and workers’ solidarity.
The requirement that socialists of the oppressed country maintain complete unity between organizations of the proletariat in the oppressed and oppressing “nations” has been complied with by hundreds of thousands of workers in the Jammu and Kashmir Trade Union Centre, which is affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative, an independent Left trade union federation with its headquarters in India. The NTUI, in turn, supports the demands of Kashmiri workers.
While Indian socialists are under no obligation whatsoever to support Kashmiri “self-determination” based on appeals to “identity,” there is a more elementary meaning of “azadi” expressed in numerous fact-finding reports and the better newspaper reports from Kashmir—namely, freedom from oppression by the Indian state—and they are duty-bound to support this demand. One atrocity after another without any justice in sight is a recipe for barbarism. The heart-rending appeal to the people of India by the father of one of the boys killed by Indian security forces recently—“Please feel our pain”—should lead to a broad-based campaign demanding the repeal of legislation that allows the security forces to commit human rights abuses with impunity. The Left should spearhead the campaign in India for the punishment of security force personnel who have committed such crimes, including those with command responsibility. Such a campaign must also press for a drastic reduction of the presence of security forces, the release of political prisoners, and freedom of movement and trade across the LoC.
The campaign should include the demand for the demilitarization of Kashmir on both sides of the LoC. Demanding demilitarization on the Indian side alone is neither realistic nor even desirable, if it facilitates the activities of foreign militants like those who killed Lone. Such a campaign would require working with socialists in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Pakistan itself as demanded by the principle of internationalism. If it is successful, and the military and militants on both sides of the LoC back off, the people of Jammu and Kashmir would have the space and opportunity to discuss, debate, and negotiate among themselves to see if they can agree on a vision of Kashmir that is accepted by the overwhelming majority.
To sum up: The section of the Indian Left demanding unconditional support for the right of the Kashmiri “nation” to self-determination, in the sense of secession from India, remains narrowly India-centric (although anti-India, not pro), and fails even to acknowledge that Kashmir will not be “free” if India withdraws because it is also occupied by Pakistan. Moreover, such unconditional support requires that Islamist elements also be seen as worthy of support, ignoring their extreme right-wing character, or the fact that they stand for a Kashmir as oppressive as the present dispensation.
By contrast, a more internationalist section of the Left sees that the imbroglio in Kashmir is part of the tragic legacy of Partition, and cannot be resolved unless that whole legacy is addressed. It rejects “identity” as the basis for state-formation, and insists that a viable Kashmiri state must convince its minorities in advance that they will enjoy security, equality, and democratic rights; sacrificing democracy to "self-determination" is surely a contradiction in terms. Undoing the damage done by Partition would involve a sustained drive to eradicate Hindutva, Islamism, and communalism in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir; it would include the difficult and dangerous struggle to establish a secular, democratic state in Pakistan. In addition it would require a critique of nationalism and militarism throughout the subcontinent. A South Asian Union with open borders, based on equality and democracy both within and between its constituent states, would create a context more conducive to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute than the current situation, and this is a goal that socialists throughout the region can work towards. |P
. "Minutes of the seminar on Azadi: The Only Way." Kafila (27 October 2010). <http://kafila.org/2010/10/27/minutes-of-the-seminar-on-azadi-the-only-way/>.
. Rosa Luxemburg, "The National Question," in The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Horace B. Davis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976). Originally published in 1909. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htm>.
. V. I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972) vol. 20. Originally published in 1914. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch01.htm>.
. J. V. Stalin, "Marxism and the National Question," in Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954) 2: 303. Available online at <http://www.marx2mao.com/Stalin/MNQ12.html#c1>.
. I have taken up this issue at greater length in my article "The Role of Socialists in the Civil War in Sri Lanka," Platypus Review 13 (July 2009). </2009/07/01/the-role-of-socialists-in-the-civil-war-in-sri-lanka/>.
. V.I. Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination," in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974) vol. 22. Originally published in 1916. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jan/x01.htm>.
. Sucheta Mahajan, Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000), 207. "Communal" is used here in the Indian sense of using religion as the primary marker of identity, with varying degrees of hostility to people of other religions.
. A transcript of this resolution is available online at <http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=46661742857&topic=12204>.
. See <http://www.jklfworld.org/jklf%20history.html>.
. See, for example, Shabir Choudhry, "Why I said Good Bye to JKLF?," (24 July 2008). <http://k4kashmir.com/?p=281>.
. The "family" of right-wing organizations around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which includes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is known as the "Sangh Parivar." I shall also use the term "Hindutva" for the right-wing political ideology espoused by these organizations and "Islamism" for the political ideology of similar organizations in Pakistan, in order to distinguish these ideologies from Hinduism and Islam.
. "BJP slams Kashmir interlocutors for Pakistan remark," <http://headlinesindia.mapsofindia.com/burning-issues-news/kashmir/bjp-slams-kashmir-interlocutors-for-pakistan-remark-66389.html>.
. Shabir Choudhry, "Jammu and Kashmir National Democratic Alliance – a step in right direction," (15 November 2010). <http://drshabirchoudhry.blogspot.com/2010/11/jammu-and-kashmir-national-democratic.html>.
. Yoginder Sikand, "Jihad, Islam and Kashmir: Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Political Project," Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 40 (2 October 2010): 125-134. <http://beta.epw.in/static_media/PDF/archives_pdf/2010/10/SA100210_Jihad,_Islam_Yoginder_Sikand.pdf>.
. Kavita Suri, "Painted Veil," The Statesman (17 July 2002). <http://www.jammu-kashmir.com/archives/archives2002/kashmir20020717d.html >.
. Rasheeda Bhagat, "Abdul Ghani Lone: A moderate, rational voice silenced," The Hindu Business Line (23 May 2002). <http://www.hinduonnet.com/businessline/2002/05/23/stories/2002052300080900.htm>.
. Prem Shankar Jha, "With Us, Or Not At All," Outlook (3 June 2002). <http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?215873>.
. D. Suba Chandran, "Assassination Of Abdul Ghani Lone What Lies Beneath" (29 May 2002). <http://www.ipcs.org/article/terrorism-in-jammu-kashmir/assassination-of-abdul-ghani-lone-what-lies-beneath-760.html>.
. “Militants, not govt. forces, killed top separatist leaders, admits ex-Hurriyat chief," Daily News and Analysis (3 January 2011). <http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_top-separatist-leaders-killed-by-our-own-people-admits-former-hurriyat-chief_1489980>.
. Shabir Choudhry, "'I have faced Pakistani oppression and intimidation': Shafqat Inquilabi" (27 November 2010) <http://drshabirchoudhry.blogspot.com/2010/11/i-have-faced-pakistani-oppression-and.html>.
. Shoma Choudhary and Arundhati Roy, "An independent Kashmiri nation may be a flawed entity, but is independent India perfect?," Tehelka 7, no. 44 (3 November 2010). <http://www.tehelka.com/story_main47.asp?filename=Ne061110CoverstoryII.asp>.
. Shivam Vij, "Dilemmas of 'Right of Nations to Military Occupation': A Response to Rohini Hensman," Kafila (17 November 2010). <http://kafila.org/2010/11/17/dilemmas-of-right-of-nations-to-military-occupation-response-to-rohini-hensman/#more-5572>.
. Sikand, "Jihad, Islam and Kashmir," 131.
. See, for example, Arundhati Roy’s article "Azadi: It’s the only thing the Kashmiri wants. Denial is delusion," Outlook (1 September 2008). <http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?238272>. Here she at least has the honesty to admit that some of slogans disturbed her.
. Vij, "Dilemmas."
. "30 Years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran," Platypus Review, Supplement to Issue 20 (February 2010). </2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/#_open>.
. Vij, "Dilemmas."
. See, for example, the report in the NTUI’s journal Union Power (November 2009): 2. <http://ntui.org.in/files/newsletters/Union_Power_November_issue_.pdf>.
. See, for example, Bela Bhatia, Vrinda Grover, Sukumar Murlidharan and Ravi Hemadri, "Report No.1: Attack and killing on Pattan hospital premises," Kafila (15 November 2010). <http://kafila.org/2010/11/15/report-1-pattan-hospital-attack-kashmir/>.
. Nirupama Subramanian, "Feel our pain, say Kashmiris," The Hindu (24 November 2010). <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article907795.ece>.
. There has been a movement—variously called People’s SAARC, South Asian People’s Summit, and, most recently, the South Asian People’s Assembly—committed to creating a South Asian People’s Union free of all forms of discrimination, exclusion and domination both within and between countries, opposed to militarism and with freedom of movement within the region. Such a development would help to create a context in which the Kashmir dispute could be resolved, and would also facilitate cross-border workers’ organizing in the South Asian region. See "Special Report on Assembly Toward Union of South Asia," Union Power (April 2010) <http://ntui.org.in/union-power/april-2010/>.
An interview with Jairus Banaji
Platypus Review 26 | August 2010
Given the considerable international interest in the progress of Naxalism on the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the wake of the 2008 Maoist revolution in Nepal, we are pleased to publish the following interview with Marxist and historian Jairus Banaji conducted on June 28, 2010.
Spencer Leonard: The immediate occasion for our interview on the Naxalites or Indian Maoists is Arundhati Roy’s widely read and controversial essay, “Walking With the Comrades,” published in the Indian magazine Outlook. There Roy speaks of “the deadly war unfolding in the jungles of central India between the Naxalite guerillas and the Government of India,” one that she expects “will have serious consequences for us all.” Is Roy’s depiction of the current situation accurate? If so, how have events reached such a critical state? How, more generally, does Roy frame today’s Naxalite struggle and do you agree with this framing? Does the “main contradiction,” as a Maoist might say, consist in the struggle between the Naxalite aborigines on the one side, and, on the other, what Roy refers to as the combination of “Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism”?
Jairus Banaji: There certainly is a Maoist insurgency raging in the tribal heartlands of central and eastern India, much of which is densely forested terrain. The tribal heartlands straddle different states in the country, so at least three or four major states are implicated in the insurgency, above all Chhattisgarh, which was hived off from Madhya Pradesh in 2000. To the extent that there has been a drive to open up the vast mineral resources of states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa to domestic and international capital, there is the connection Roy points to. As a definition of the “conjuncture” that has dominated the conflict since the late 1990s, she is clearly right.
A Naxalite guerilla army in central India
But the Naxal presence in these parts of India has little to do with the factors she talks about. Naxalism, or Indian Maoism, goes back to the late 1960s. What distinguishes it as a political current from other communists in India is the commitment to armed struggle and the violent overthrow of the state. It is not as if the perspectives of Naxalism flow from the circumstances one finds in the forested parts of India. The question is why, after its virtual extinction in the early 1970s, the movement was able to reassemble itself and reemerge as a less fragmented and more powerful force in the course of the 1990s. To account for that we have to look to different factors than those Roy identifies.
The Naxalites have always seen the so-called “principal contradiction” as that between the peasantry or the “broad mass of the people” on one side and “feudalism” or “semi-feudalism” on the other. They have never abandoned this position since it was evolved in the late 1960s. The revolution has always been seen by them as primarily agrarian, except that now “agrarian” has come to mean “tribal,” since their base is on the whole confined to the tribal or adivasi communities.
Sunit Singh: Please explain the confluence that led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004, which united the Naxalite splinters, the People’s War Group, and the Maoist Communist Center? What explains the dramatic revivification of Naxalism after its decimation in the early 1970s and how do we understand the CPI (Maoist) as a political force today? To what extent has today’s Naxalism changed from its predecessor, the original CPI (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI (M–L))?
JB: The key fact about the Naxals in the late 1990s and 2000s is that they began to reverse decades of fragmentation through a series of successful mergers. The most important of these was the merger in 2004 between People’s War, itself the result of the People’s War Group fusing with Party Unity in 1998, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). That 2004 merger, which resulted in the formation of the CPI (Maoist), reflected a confluence of two major streams of Maoism in India, since People’s War was largely Andhra-based and the MCCI had its base almost entirely in Jharkhand—the southern part of Bihar which also became an independent state in 2000. To explain the successful reemergence of Naxal politics in the 1990s, we have to see the People’s War Group (PWG) as the decisive element of continuity between the rapturous Maoism of the 1960s–70s, dominated by the charismatic figure of Charu Mazumdar, and the movement we see today. The PWG was formally established in 1980 after some crucial years of preparation that involved a unique emphasis on mass work, the launching of mass organizations like the Ryotu Coolie Sangham, which was like a union of agricultural workers, and a “Go to the villages” campaign that sent middle-class youth into the Telangana countryside. Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, its founder, was able to attract the younger elements because he was seen as more militant because, among other things, he refused to have anything to do with elections. Following a dramatic escalation of conflict in Andhra Pradesh from 1985, PWG was able to build a substantial military capability and a network of safe havens for its armed squads (dalams) across state borders, in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, directly north of the A.P. border, and in the undivided region of Bastar or southern Chhattisgarh to the north and east. Regis Debray in his Critique of Arms points out that no guerrilla movement can survive without rearguard bases, by which he means a swathe of territory which it can fall back on with relative security in times of intensified repression. This is exactly what happened with the squads that had been trained and built up in Andhra, or more precisely in Telangana, the northern part of the state, in the 1970s and 1980s. The recent flare up of conflict in Chhattisgarh is largely bound up with the intensified repression of 2005 that drove even more fighters into the Bastar region.
SL: In “Walking with the Comrades,” Roy sidesteps the question of Naxalite politics in favor of siding with a marginalized group, in this case “the tribals.” Thus she states that “[some] believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists… [they] forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.” But she also wants to have it the other way around. For instance, this is what she says of the Naxalite leader and theoretician who first founded the CPI (M-L): “Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” What do you make of this curious political ambivalence respecting the actual Maoism (and the Marxism) of the Maoists? How do you understand Roy’s anti-Marxist, tribal revolutionary romance?
JB: The idea that the tribals and the CPI (Maoist) share the same objective is ludicrous! What the tribals have been fighting against is decades of oppression by moneylenders, traders, contractors, and officials of the forest department—in short, a long history of dispossession that has reduced them to a subhuman existence and exposed them to repeated violence. A large part of the blame for this lies with the unmitigated Malthusianism of the Indian state. By this I mean that the adivasis have been consigned to a slow death agony through decades of neglect and oppression that have left them vulnerable to political predators across the spectrum, including the Hindu Right. As Edward Duyker argued in Tribal Guerrillas, the Santals whom the Naxal groups drew into their ranks in the late 1960s “fought for specific concessions from the established rulers, while the CPI (Marxist–Leninist) fought for a new structure of rule altogether.” There is a big difference between those perspectives! The tribal aim is not to overthrow the Indian state but to succeed in securing unhindered access to resources that belong to them, but which the state has been denying them. The tribal struggle is for the right to life, to livelihood and dignity, including freedom from violence and from the racism that much of India exudes towards them. The massive alienation of tribal land that has gone on even after Independence was something the government could have stopped if it had the will to do so. Today the huge mineral resources of the tribal areas are up for grabs as state governments compete to attract investment from mining and steel giants. But whatever the CPI (Maoist) might think, the vast majority of the tribals in India have no conception of “capturing state power,” since the state itself is such an abstraction except in terms of harassment by forest officials, neglect by state governments, and violence from the police and paramilitary.
SL: In online comments on Roy’s article posted on kafila.org, you responded to the preoccupation with tribals and Naxalites with a series of rhetorical questions:
Where does the rest of India fit in? What categories do we have for them? Or are we seriously supposed to believe that the extraordinary tide of insurrection will wash over the messy landscapes of urban India and over the millions of disorganized workers in our countryside without the emergence of a powerful social agency… that it can contest the stranglehold of capitalism… without mass organizations, battles for democracy, struggles for the radicalization of culture, etc.?
To this you add, “in [Roy’s] vision of politics, there is no history of the Left that diverges from the romantic hagiographies of Naxalbari and its legacies.” Thus you contend that Roy’s thinking is impeded by a kind of amnesia. How precisely does Roy’s lack of awareness of and confrontation with the history of the Left compromise her ability to think through what it would mean to stage an emancipatory politics today? How does awareness of the history of the Left in the sense you intend differ from simply knowing the Left’s past? What are the consequences we face because of the Left’s widespread failure to work through its own history, a failure of which Roy is but a recent and prominent instance?
JB: Roy lacks any grasp of the history of the Maoist movement in India, which is why she can make that silly statement about Charu Mazumdar being visionary, when the bulk of his own party leadership denounced his “annihilation” line as pure adventurism and a whole series of splits fragmented the movement within a year or two. Mazumdar also played a disastrous role in splitting the movement in Andhra through a purely factional intervention. Roy’s background is clearly not the Left or any part of it, including the Maoists. What she does reflect is the disquiet generated, beginning in the 1990s, by the opening up of India to the world economy and the drive to create a globally competitive capitalism regardless of the costs this would inflict on workers and the mass of the population.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the campaign to halt the project to build a hydro-electric dam on the river Narmada, was the best example of the kind of “new social movements” that emerged in India in response to issues that the party left simply failed to take up. It was not led by any party, was related to a major single issue, and had roots very different from those of the organized left. It involved large-scale mobilization of the communities uprooted by the dam, but the NBA of course was eventually defeated in the sense that it failed to stop the dam from being built despite massive resistance. The defeat of the NBA generated a profound disillusionment with the state of Indian democracy, which is strongly reflected in Roy’s work—a kind of “democratic pessimism.” The most extreme expression of this is the idea that India has a “fake democracy,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
But, let’s get back to Roy’s bizarre reference to Charu Mazumdar as a “visionary” who “kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” The fact is that the “annihilation” line had led to such disastrous results by the end of 1971 that the majority of his own Central Committee denounced him as a “Trotskyite” and expelled him from the party! Indeed, the majority of a twenty-one member Central Committee had withdrawn support from him by November 1970, and Satya Narayan Singh, who was elected the new general secretary, described his line as “individual terrorism.” Even when the AICCCR (All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries) transformed itself into a party in April 1969, leading figures of the early Maoist movement in India were unhappy with the decision and many stayed out.
SS: Elaborate, if you will, on the exact form of struggle that Charu Mazumdar is associated with. What was the “annihilation line,” exactly?
JB: Like all Maoists, Mazumdar believed that the key social force in the revolutionary movement in India would be the peasantry. He adhered to the strategy mapped out in the deliberations between the CPI leadership and Stalin at the end of 1950, one product of which was a document known as the Tactical Line, which spoke of a two-stage revolution starting with a People’s Democratic State that would be ushered in by an armed revolution. Of course, by then Liu Shao-ch’i was already recommending the Chinese revolution as a model for all colonial and “semi-colonial” countries in their fight for national independence and people’s democracy. This would have to be an armed revolution based on the peasantry and “led by” the working class. The reference to the working class was purely rhetorical, since the leading class force in the revolution was the peasantry and the leadership of the working class existed in the more metaphysical shape of the party. The distinctiveness of Mazumdar’s politics was that he seriously believed it would be possible to arouse revolutionary fervor among the “masses” by annihilating “class enemies” such as the jotedars or larger landowners of Bengal, by forming small underground squads that would selectively target landlords, state officials, and other representatives of the exploiting class and state apparatus. Such shock attacks, he felt, would create a decisive breach and unleash a mass response. Mazumdar believed that the revolution in India could be completed in this manner by 1975! The idea was that the masses were simply bursting with revolutionary zeal and only needed a catalyst. As I said, the line generated considerable dissent, not least because it abandoned any notion of mass work.
Charu Mazumdar (1918–1972), first General Secretary of the CPI (M-L)
SS: So, when the Mazumdar faction constituted itself as the CPI (M–L) in April of 1969, what followed? Were other factions loyal to Peking folded into the new party? What happened to Mazumdar’s Maoist critics, those who argued that their M–L comrades had substituted terrorism for mass organizations such as trade unions and kisan sabhas?
JB: The Chinese Communist Party backed away from the Naxals pretty early when they realized that they were talking about different things. There was a distinct loss of enthusiasm from Peking, and Mazumdar faced increasing criticism. Parimal Dasgupta, a prominent union leader, advocated the building of mass organizations among workers, and criticized the neglect of urban work by Mazumdar’s followers. He disapproved of the idea of a clandestine party organization because it would mean abandoning any effort to build broader class-based organizations. Another leading figure, Asit Sen, split on similar grounds. T. Nagi Reddy, the leading communist in Andhra Pradesh, disagreed with squad actions that were isolated from any mass struggle and simply substituted for it. He wanted a period of preparation and mass work before the armed struggle, but the group around him was disaffiliated from the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR), the body that transformed itself into the CPI (M–L) in April 1969. Even people who were otherwise close to Mazumdar like Kanu Sanyal and [Vempatapu] Satyam, a leader of the Srikakulam Movement, disapproved of individual assassinations based on conspiratorial methods by small underground squads. As Manoranjan Mohanty shows in his book Revolutionary Violence (1976), a unified M–L was already in decline by the middle of 1970, roughly a year after the party was proclaimed.
SS: How should we view the embrace of revolutionary violence as a tactic by the Naxalites, both in its moment of inception in the late 1960s and in the present day by groups such as the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army? Does this zealousness signal radicalism, or helplessness? Can it be seen as the outcome of the defeat of the Left in previous decades, the consequence of the abandonment of a politics seeking to abolish alienated labor or, indeed, the abandonment of any explicitly labor-based politics?
JB: When the CPI (M–L) was formed in 1969, its key function was seen as “rousing” the peasant masses to wage guerrilla war. Mazumdar believed that the killing of landlords would “awaken” the exploited masses. This, classically, was what Debray calls a “politics of fervor,” a politics in which revolutionary enthusiasm substitutes for ideas rooted in mass struggle and for the class forces that conduct those struggles. But there were tendencies in Andhra that rejected this line and even went so far as to argue that, if the armed struggle were waged as a vanguard war, the people would become passive spectators. One writer quotes Nagi Reddy as saying, “Their [the people’s] consciousness will never rise. Their self-confidence will suffer.”
Today we can see that this is a vanguard war trapped in an expanding culture of counterinsurgency, and the most the CPI (Maoist) can do is flee across state boundaries and regroup in adjacent districts. What they have not been able to do and cannot do, given the nature of their politics, is consolidate enduring mass support in their traditional strongholds. In Andhra, where the fight against the Naxals has been most successful, from the state’s point of view, the backlash has been ferocious and beyond all legal bounds. The state there has institutionalized “encounter” killings, India’s term for extra-judicial executions, on a very large scale, and trained special counterinsurgency forces to hunt down the Maoists. In Chhattisgarh the state has sponsored (armed and funded) a private lynch mob called the Salwa Judum, or “Purification Hunt” in Gondi, the local language, that has emptied hundreds of villages by forcing inhabitants into IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where they can be easily controlled. In Chhattisgarh both sides have recruited minors. Both states have seen staggering levels of violence, with a pall of fear hanging over entire villages in Telangana, and the atomization of whole communities in Dantewada. We should remember that it was successive waves of repression in Andhra Pradesh that drove the PWG squads into regions like Bastar and southern Orissa in the first place.
One consequence of the massive escalation of conflict from the late 1980s was a substantial weapons upgrade, a major increase in lethality. The Naxals have used land mines on an extensive scale, using the wire-control method, and inflicted heavy losses on the paramilitary. The crucial result of this conflict dynamic is a wholesale militarization of the movement, a major break with the pattern of the late 1970s when they built a considerable base through mass organizations, in Telangana especially. The civil liberties activist K. Balagopal, who saw the movement at close quarters, became progressively more disillusioned as the military perspective took over and reshaped the nature of the People’s War Group. In 2006, a few years before he died, he described the CPI (Maoist) as a “hit and run movement,” underlining precisely these features.
SS: What kinds of affinities do the Naxalites share with other militant New Left groups?
JB: I would hardly call them “New Left.” I think the best comparison for the CPI (Maoist) is Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Abimael Guzmán’s idea that the countryside would have to be thrown into chaos, churned up, to create a power vacuum, is a mirror image of the CPI (Maoist) strategy. Guzmán called it Batir el campo—“hammer the countryside.” The idea was to generate terror among the population and demonstrate the inability of the state to guarantee the safety of its citizens. That is how Nelson Manrique has described the strategy. In the end it meant the assassination of village heads and increasing violence against the peasantry (from the Senderistas) that brought about their rapid downfall. A key element of the Batir el campo strategy was the systematic destruction of infrastructure with the aim of isolating whole areas of countryside from the reach of the state. The idea was that, effectively, these would become “liberated zones.”
The CPI (Maoist) have been pursuing a very similar strategy. The role they played in sabotaging the movement in Lalgarh bears a striking resemblance to the Sendero’s interdictions against all forms of autonomous peasant organization. The drive of the CPI (Maoist) to isolate the areas under their control from the rest of the country, to impose an enforced isolation on the tribal communities, is similar to the way the Senderistas worked in Peru. This is the deeper meaning of forced election boycotts. During elections the threat of violence is palpable. Sabotaging high-tension wires, goods trains, railway stations, roads, and bridges is simply the physical analogue of the election boycott. Interlinked with this is the continual execution of “informers,” a kind of exemplary punishment that is clearly designed to bolster a culture of fear in the CPI (Maoist) “base,” which breeds the kind of resentment that creates more informers. Balagopal was a powerful critic of these practices that, I suspect, were largely a product of the new leadership that took over the PWG in the early 1990s, when Kondapalli Seetharamaiah was driven out of the party.
A movement like this will obviously tolerate no dissent. There have been repeated instances of the different armed struggle groups murdering each other’s cadre, sometimes over the course of years and on quite a large scale. Indeed, at least one reason for the merger between the PWG and the MCCI was the turf war between them in the years before 2004, when on one estimate they killed literally hundreds of each other’s supporters. Left parties like the CPI (Marxist) have also seen their party activists being murdered, as if this is what the People’s Democratic Revolution needs and calls for! I should add that the CPI (Marxist) is hardly blameless, either, since they have their own vigilante groups or terror squads called the “harmads.”
SS: It seems to me that the perspectives of the Maoists do not arise from the circumstances of those they claim to represent, but are rather static in and of themselves. Party documents and Maoist “theorists” seem capable of little more than the recycling of desiccated fragments of ideology.
JB: Maoist theory has a timeless quality about it. It deals with abstractions, not with any living, changing reality. The abstractions stem from the debates and party documents of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the agrarian line emerged as an orthodoxy for the Left in countries like India. The Chinese Revolution was an incorrigible template and everything about India had to be fitted to that. Within India itself this generated what were called the “Andhra Theses.” As I said, the deliberations with Stalin generated a series of documents that all factions of the undivided Communist party accepted to one degree or another. The Tactical Line mapped out the outlines of a strategy that flowed straight into the Naxalism of the late 1960s. Some of the terminology was changed, such that “People’s Democracy” became “New Democracy,” but these shifts in rhetoric marked no crucial differences. So there is a sense whereby the Naxalite split from the CPI (Marxist) did not represent a total break with orthodoxy within the Indian movement. It was the CPI (Marxist) that was poised ambiguously between the USSR and China.
SL: Embedded in this refusal of reality, this insistence upon rehashing empty abstractions, there seems an unmistakable retreat from the very project of Marxism. Am I wrong to see an elective affinity between Roy’s insistence that the tribal people’s impetus to resist comes from outside of capitalism, on the one hand, and on the other, the rhetoric popularized by Charu Mazumdar, which identifies the peasantry as the primary revolutionary class? Roy and Mazumdar seem to share the idea that the old anti-feudal struggle was and remains viable. Both exhibit a lack of interest in the question, What dynamics within capitalism point beyond themselves? While I agree that Arundhati Roy lacks any grounding in the history of the Left, there does seem to be common ground between the Naxals’ nihilism and her romantic anti-capitalism.
In earlier comments you argued that Roy’s “democratic pessimism,” as you referred to it, has led her to argue that the ongoing Naxalite insurgency “is the best you can hope for.” Similarly, with respect to Maoists, you have suggested that, at bottom, they view those whom they claim to represent as “cannon fodder,” so that “it is not hope but false promises that will lie at the end of the revolutionary road, aside from the corpses of thousands.” To begin to understand what has brought together these two political streams—the new social movements and late Stalinism—is it fair to say that both, as expressions of political defeat and despair, are equidistant from what you have called “the vision of the Communist Manifesto,” in which Marx argues that the task of the Communists is, as you put it, “not to prevent the expansion of capitalism but to fight it from the standpoint of a more advanced mode of production, one grounded in the ability of masses of workers to recover control of their lives and shape the nature and meaning of production”?
Adivasis and Naxalites
JB: There are different strands here. One is Roy’s tendency to see Maoism as the passive reflection of a tribal separatism that is rooted in decades if not centuries of oppression of the adivasis. The trouble with this is that it makes the Maoists purely epiphenomenal. It is a reading that has little to do with politics in any sense. More to the point, Maoism simply is not a continuation or extension of tribal separatism. It is a political tendency committed to the armed overthrow of a state that is both independent (not “semi-colonial”) and democratic in more than a formal sense. Millions of ordinary people in the country have immense faith in democracy, despite the devastation that capitalism has inflicted on their lives—and when I say capitalism here I include the state as an integral part of it. The other strand relates to the way the Left has reacted to “globalization” and the isolationist stances that have flowed from that. This is not peculiar to the M-L groups—it is the soft nationalism of the whole Left and stems from the inability to imagine a politics that is both anti-capitalist and internationalist in more than purely rhetorical ways. The rhetoric of anti-globalization, which opposes the reintegration of India back into the world economy, forms the lowest common denominator of the entire Left in this country. The Indian Left today cannot conceive revolutionary politics apart from national isolationism. Everything is reduced to defending national sovereignty against the forces of international capitalism. But modern capitalism is not an aggregation of national economies, however much the working class is divided by country and in numerous other ways. It is hard to see how the movement in any one country, even one as big as India, can overthrow capitalism as long as it survives in the rest of the world. Paradoxically, it is the smallest countries, like Cuba and probably Nepal after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) takeover, that survive best in these conditions!
SS: In its 1970 program, the CPI (M-L) claimed that “India is a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country…. the Indian state is the state of the big landlords and comprador-bureaucrat capitalists…. and its government is a lackey of US imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism.” What are the limitations of such a vision of anti-imperialism and of what might be referred to as the “semi-feudal” thesis of capitalist development in India?
JB: The Naxalites haven’t substantially modified their positions except to the extent that they realize that the forces they are up against today have more to do with capitalism than feudalism. So, if you read any of the interviews that they give to various publications like Economic and Political Weekly, there are more references to capitalism than there used to be back in the 1970s. Back then it mattered much more whether you defined the social formation as mainly “capitalist” or mainly “feudal.” Today it doesn’t seem to matter as much, since it is obvious to everyone that India is capitalist. Perhaps this wasn’t so obvious forty years ago.
Most Naxalite groups still accept the four-class bloc, and the “national bourgeoisie” is part of that alliance. This position derives from the “semi-colonialism” line, and its only practical function today is that it can help the Naxalites justify a whole nexus of relationships necessary for the party to fund itself, largely by means of the tax imposed on traders and contractors. For example, in Jharkhand it is said that the Naxalites demand (and are paid) 5 percent of all large, government-funded projects in the rural areas. If “national bourgeoisie” is supposed to refer to the smaller layers of capital, those are of course among the worst exploiters of labor, as the appalling conditions in small-scale industry and so much of the caste violence in the countryside show. As for “semi-feudalism,” the irony is that the Naxalites’ survival in the late 1970s and 1980s depended precisely on creating a base of sorts among the dalits and adivasis, the vast majority of whom have always been wage laborers. Indeed, the bulk of the population in India comprises the wage laboring and salaried classes, and a political culture that does not start from there—that does not start from the right to livelihood, the right to organize, and the aspiration to control resources and production collectively—is not going to make the least bit of difference. To keep referring to the land-poor and landless as a “peasantry” shows how much one’s political thinking is defined by dogma as opposed to reason.
SL: Earlier you spoke of how the Naxals, like the Sendero Luminoso, created a kind of ghetto around themselves. Is this the endgame of the politics launched in the 1960s and 1970s, which itself represented an inadequate response to what had become an increasingly bureaucratic and opportunistic Stalinism in India? How can the left politics that now trails this long legacy of failures reconstitute itself? But what about the larger question of intersecting the Naxalites, since many of these groups have been attracting some of the brightest young minds in India and, in this respect as in others, they represent a major impediment to the reemergence of the Indian Left? How do we break the appeal of political nihilism?
JB: As I said, the vast mass of India’s population are wage laborers. They work in very different sorts of conditions from each other. So it’s not as though we are dealing with a homogenous or unified class. One way forward as far as I can see is through the unions. Unions have been a stable feature of Indian capitalism and always survived despite repeated attacks. As a small but significant example of the kind of left politics we should be concentrating on, the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), which was formed around 2005, is an attempt to organize a national federation of all independent unions in the country, regardless of which sector they belong to. This started as an initiative of the unions themselves and it has seen slow but steady expansion all over the country and includes, for example, the National Federation of Forest Workers and Forest Peoples. There is also a great deal of rethinking on the Left, both against the background of the public relations disasters of the CPI (Marxist) in Singur and Nandigram and of course the violent internecine conflicts within the party left. There is a whole layer of the Left in India that can be called “non-party,” which is for that reason both more dispersed and less visible perhaps. It includes numerous organizations active in areas like caste discrimination and atrocities, communal violence, civil liberties, women’s liberation, child labor, homophobia, tribal rights (e.g., the Campaign for Survival and Dignity), the Right to Food Campaign, campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and many others. Dozens of Right to Information activists have been murdered, and there are numerous movements against displacement throughout the country. All of this reflects a different political culture from that of the left parties, more specialized and professional, also more autonomous, and the true agents of the churning of democracy that India is currently witnessing.
SL: How do you imagine the potential political expression of that? Does this take a party political form? How does it intersect parliamentary politics?
JB: If India could establish a workers’ party on the Latin American model, then much of this non-party left would gravitate to that as its national political expression. But the culture of such a workers’ party would have to be radically different from the sterile orthodoxies of the old left parties. It would have to be a massive catalyst of democratization both within the Left itself and in society at large, encouraging cultures of debate, dissent, and self-activity, and contesting capitalism in ways that make the struggle accessible to the vast mass of the population. The fact is that the bulk of the labor force still remains unorganized into unions and a workers’ party could only emerge in some organic relation to the organization of those workers.
SL: What you are arguing then is that the Naxalites constitute a major impediment to the reinvention of the Left?
JB: Absolutely! That would be an understatement. The militarized Maoism of the last two decades is a politics rooted in violence and fear. Those in positions of leadership refuse to do any “hard thinking” in Mao’s sense. You cannot build a radical democracy, a new culture of the Left, on such foundations. The recent beheading of a CPI (Marxist) trade-union leader who refused to heed the bandh (strike) call of the CPI (Maoist) is a spectacular example of how profoundly authoritarian the Naxal movement has become under the pressure of its overwhelming militarism. When actions like that damage their credibility, they are explained away as “mistakes.” But these continual “mistakes” fall into a disturbing pattern. As a friend of mine wrote in Economic & Political Weekly, “the CPI (Maoist) is as little concerned about the lives of non-combatants as is the state.” |P
. Arundhati Roy, “Walking With The Comrades,” Outlook, March 29, 2010, <www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738>.
. Regis Debray, Critique of Arms: Revolution on Trial, Two Volumes, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Penguin Books, 1977-78).
. Edward Duyker, Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
. Manoranjan Mohanty, Revolutionary Violence: A Study of the Maoist Movement in India (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1977).
. Debray, Critique of Arms.
. K. Balagopal, “Public Intellectuals in the Chair 7: ‘All the News we get is Killing and Getting Killed,’” interview by Vijay Simtha, Tehelka, January 21, 2006, <www.tehelka.com/story_main16.asp?filename=hub012106inthechair_7.asp>.
. Nelson Manrique, “The War for the Central Sierra,” in Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995, ed. Steve J. Stern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 193–223.
. Nivedita Menon, “Radical Resistance and Political Violence Today,” Economic & Political Weekly 44, no. 50 (December 12, 2009), 16-20.
Review of Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, a Manifesto from the RCP, USA; and Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World” Demarcations 1 (Summer–Fall 2009).
Platypus Review 26 | August 2010
DAVID BHOLAT ADOPTED, as epigraph for his essay “Beyond Equality,” the following passage from Joseph Schumpeter’s classic 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:
First and foremost, socialism means a new cultural world…. But second—what cultural world?… Some socialists are ready enough with folded hands and the smile of the blessed on their lips, to chant the canticle of justice, equality, freedom in general and freedom from “the exploitation of man by man” in particular, of peace and love, of fetters broken and cultural energies unchained, of new horizons opened, of new dignities revealed. But that is Rousseau adulterated with some Bentham.
Bholat’s essay follows Schumpeter in seeking to demonstrate the inadequacy and problematic character of the call for social “equality,” for which he finds warrant in Marx’s critique of capital. This is most notable in Marx’s statement, echoing the French socialist Louis Blanc, that an emancipated society beyond capital would be governed by the principle of providing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) argued, in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, that society alone produced “inequality,” since in nature there are only “differences.” Marx sought to fulfill Rousseau’s demand for a society freed from the necessity of commensurability, of making alike what is unlike, in the commodity form of labor—a society freed from the exigencies of the exchange of labor.
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the founder of Utilitarian philosophy at the end of the 18thcentury, famously called for society to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Marx considered his project to fulfill this aspiration as well.
The modern society of capital has indeed sought to achieve these various desiderata, of the individual diversity of incommensurable difference, as well as increased wellbeing of all its members, but has consistently failed to do so. A Marxian approach can be regarded as the immanent critique of capital, the critique of capital on its own ground, as expressed by the classical “bourgeois” liberal thinkers such as Rousseau and Bentham at the dawn of modern capitalist society, in that capital fails to fulfill its promise, but it would be desirable to accomplish this.
Schumpeter, writing in the mid-20thcentury, thought that modern society was moving inexorably toward “socialism,” and that this was due to the unique and potentially crucial role that modern society allowed “intellectuals” to play. The far greater access to education that modern capitalist society made possible entailed the emergence of a stratum of people who could articulate problems for which they were not directly responsible on behalf of social groups to which they did not belong. This meant the possibility of a more radical critique and the fostering and mobilizing of broader social discontents than had been possible in pre-capitalist society. This role for intellectuals, combined with the inherent structural social problems of capital and the rise of “democratic” politics, created a potentially revolutionary situation in which “socialism,” or the curtailment of capitalist entrepreneurship, was the likely outcome.
Bholat concluded his essay “Beyond Equality” by citing favorably Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Derrida’s critiques, respectively, of “Marx’s tolerance for the defects of first-phase communism,” and of the principle of “equality before the law.”
The possibility of a “dialectical” transformation, the simultaneous negation and fulfillment of capital, its Aufhebung through a “proletarian socialist” politics, as capital’s simultaneous historical realization and overcoming—as Marx conceived it, following Hegel—has proven elusive, but continues to task theoretical accounts inspired by Marxism.
The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), USA published in 2008 the manifesto, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage. This was followed, in short order, by the launching of a new theoretical journal, Demarcations, whose inaugural issue included a lengthy critique of Alain Badiou by RCP members* Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., titled “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World.” Taken together, these and other recent writings of the RCP amount to a significant departure and change in orientation for their tendency of American Maoism. This is noteworthy as they are one of the most prominent Marxist Left organizations in the U.S., helping to organize, for instance, the major anti-war group The World Can’t Wait. The RCP’s spokesperson Sunsara Taylor is regularly invited to represent the radical Left on Fox News and elsewhere. Recently, the RCP has conducted a campaign of interventions featuring Lotta and Taylor as speakers at college and university campuses, including the top elite schools throughout the U.S., on the topic of communism today, in light of the history of the 20thcentury revolutions in Russia and China and their defeats. In this, the RCP demonstrates a reorientation towards intellectuals as potential cadres for revolutionary politics.
The RCP’s critique of the latter-day and post-Maoist “communist” Alain Badiou’s conception of “radical, anarchic equality” is a part of their program of demonstrating “How Communism Goes Beyond Equality and Why it Must.” It strongly resembles David Bholat’s critique of the traditional Marxist Left in “Beyond Equality.” For, as Bholat wrote, “in light of the world-historical failure of Marxism,” the “one-sided emphasis of historical left movements on equity… might be reevaluated today,” for such discontents remained “vulnerable to fascist elements motivated by ressentiment and revenge” that “represented a reactionary desire… to return to a romanticized, precapitalist moment.”
So, some clarification—and radicalization—of discontents has appeared necessary. For what is offered by such apparently disparate perspectives as Bholat and the RCP is what might be called a “post-postmodernist” politics, in which the radical reconsideration of the experience of 20thcentury Marxism seems in order. This links to Badiou and Žižek’s attempts to advance what they call the “communist hypothesis.” Žižek has spoken of “the Badiou event” as opening new horizons for both communism and philosophy. Badiou and Žižek share a background in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent post-New Left thinkers—and former students of Louis Althusser—such as Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency. Althusser took great inspiration from Mao in China and Lenin in Russia for advancing the possibility of emancipation against a passive expectancy of automatic evolution in the historical process of capital. Michel Foucault took Althusser as license to go for an entire historiography of contingency. For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology. There is a common background for such postmodernist politics, also, in Sartre’s “existentialist” Marxism, the anti-Cartesian phenomenology of Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the “Spinozist” materialism of Georges Bataille. The coincidence of vintage 1960s Maoist New Left Marxism with contemporaneous French thought—Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida—has resulted in a veritable chinoiserie prominent in reconsiderations of Marxism today. But what does the—distinctively French—image of China say about the potential for a reformulated Leftist politics?
The mid-18thcentury Enlightenment philosophe Rousseau stands as the central figure at the critical crossroads for any consideration of the historical emergence of the Left. Rousseau has haunted the self-understanding of Marxism, and indeed of revolutionary politics more generally, if only for the problematic influence he exercised on the pre-Marxian Left, most infamously in the ideas of the radical Jacobins such as Robespierre in the Great French Revolution. Lenin famously described himself as a “Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organization of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests.” Modern conservatism was in an important sense founded by Edmund Burke’s (1729–97) anti-Jacobin critique of Rousseau.
In his critique of Bruno Bauer’s The Jewish Question (1843), the young Marx cited the following from Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762):
Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.
Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,
Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait painted by Maurice-Quentin La Tour (1754).
The RCP’s Lotta, Duniya and K.J.A., under the chapter heading “Why Alain Badiou is a Rousseauist, and Why We should not be,” point out that Rousseau’s perspective is that of “bourgeois society:”
The forms and content of equality in bourgeois society correspond to a certain mode of production: capitalism, based on commodity production and the interactions it engenders: private ownership, production for profit not need, and exploitation of wage-labor. Commodity production is governed by the exchange of equivalents, the measure of the labor time socially necessary to produce these commodities; that is, by an equal standard.
Like Bholat following Derrida in “Beyond Equality,” Lotta, Duniya, and K.J.A. attack “the standard of ‘equality before the law’ of bourgeois jurisprudence [as] a standard that serves the equal treatment of the capitalist property holders in a society governed by capitalist market relations,” adding that, “for the dispossessed, formal equality masks the condition of fundamental powerlessness.” What Lotta et al. dismiss as “formal equality” is not the liberal conception formulated by Rousseau that Marx cited favorably, precisely in its recognition of the “alienation” of the “changing” of “human nature” in society. Rather, the RCP writers let slip back in the one-sided conception of “politics” that Marx criticized and sought to overcome. For them, the opposition between the social and political that Marx diagnosed as symptomatic of modern capitalist society becomes instead the rigged game between exploiters and exploited. Note the need that Marx identified for the “individual” to “[recognize] and [organize] his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power,” something quite different from simply removing the “mask” of false “equality” from the condition of the “dispossessed” in “bourgeois democracy.” Where does the RCP’s perspective of revolutionary politics originate? This is made apparent in the central section of their critique of Badiou over the interpretation of the Shanghai Commune, an event in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China.
The GPCR is dear to both Badiou and the RCP. This was the greatest event in the history of Marxism to take place in the era of the 1960s–70s New Left, and it exerted a profound attraction and influence over many at the time. The RCP is a direct product of its broad international impact. It seemed to justify Mao’s claim to be the leading international (and not merely Chinese) opponent of “revisionism,” i.e. of the abdication of proletarian socialist revolution in favor of reformism. Apart from factual questions about what really happened during the Cultural Revolution and the substance of Mao’s own politics, both in China and internationally (thoughtful Maoists do not deny the distortion of Mao’s politics by nationalism, but they tend to gloss over the intra-bureaucratic aspects of the GPCR), the issue of what the Cultural Revolution and Maoism more generally might mean to people, both then and now, is of more pressing concern. After all, the two most forthright arguments in favor of “communism” today are made by Maoists, Badiou and the RCP. It is also significant that both favor the appellation of “communist” over “Marxist,” which both do on the grounds of their understanding of the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution is the basis for regarding Mao as making a unique and indispensable contribution to communism. What the Cultural Revolution means to Maoists is fundamentally informed by their conception of capitalism. So, rather than taking sides in or analyzing the social and political phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution per se, it is necessary to examine what has been taken to be its significance. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is perhaps the most significant recent “Jacobin” moment in the history of Marxism, raising again, in the latter part of the 20thcentury, long-standing questions about the relation between socialism and democracy—the issue of “communism,” in the strict sense.
The significance of the Shanghai Commune of 1967 is contested by Badiou and the RCP. For Badiou it was a model akin to the 1792–94 radical Jacobin period of the French Revolution. In the Shanghai Commune radicalized students (“Red Guards”) overthrew the local Communist Party apparatus, spreading into a workers’ revolt. While initially enthusiastic about this spontaneous “anti-revisionist” upsurge against conservative elements in the CP, Mao and his followers ultimately rejected the Shanghai Commune as a model. They advocated instead the “revolutionary committee” in which the Maoist Communist Party cadres’ paramount leading political character could be preserved. Badiou criticizes this straitjacketing of communism in the “party-state,” whereas the RCP defends Mao’s politics of rejuvenating the Party and purging it of “capitalist roaders” as the necessary and sole revolutionary path.
Badiou, by contrast, sees Mao’s eventual rejection of the Shanghai Commune as a betrayal of “egalitarianism.” For him, the “party-state” is a brake on the radical “democratic” egalitarianism that characterizes “communism” as a historically recurrent political phenomenon. The RCP critiques this conception of “equality” and “direct democracy” as “concealing class interests” and thus being unable to “rise above particular interests.” For instance, according to the RCP, as long as there remains a distinction between “intellectual and manual labor,” intellectuals can come to dominate the social process, even under socialism, thus reproducing a dynamic constantly giving rise to the possible return to capitalism, which is understood primarily as a matter of social and political hierarchy. To the RCP, Badiou is thus prematurely egalitarian.
Badiou conceives of the relation between freedom and equality as an ontological one, in the mathematical terms of set theory, transhistoricizing it. The RCP, while recognizing the historically specific nature of capitalist class struggle, conceives of the role of the revolutionary proletarian party as the political means for suppressing tendencies towards social inequality. In either case, neither Badiou nor the RCP conceives of the transformation of the capitalist mode of production that would allow for overcoming the socially pernicious aspects of specifically capitalist forms of inequality, the dangers of which are understood by Badiou and the RCP rather atavistically. Marx, by contrast, looked forward to the potential for overcoming the conditions of possibility for the reproduction of capitalist class dynamics in the mode of production itself: capital’s overcoming of the need to accumulate the value of surplus labor-time. Marx saw the historical potential to overcome this socially mediating aspect of labor in automated machine production. However, Marx also foresaw that, short of socialism, the drive to accumulate surplus-value results in producing a surplus population, an “industrial reserve army” of potential “workers” who thus remain vulnerable to exploitation. A politics based only in their “democratic” discontents can result, not in the overcoming of the social need for labor, but in the (capitalist) demand for more labor. Or, as Max Horkheimer, director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, put it, machines "have made not work but the workers superfluous."
For the RCP, Mao in the Cultural Revolution addressed in new and effective ways problems of the “transition to socialism” never attempted under Stalin. The RCP criticizes Stalin for his failed “methods” in advancing the transition to socialism, a failure Mao overcame in the Cultural Revolution in China 1966–76. The RCP celebrates the egalitarian-emancipatory impulse of the Cultural Revolution while also praising Mao’s guidance and political leadership of the process by which the “capitalist” road to China’s development was politically overcome and avoided. This struggle ended, according to the RCP, with Mao’s death and the subsequent purging of his followers, known as the “Gang of Four,” in 1976, embarking China upon its capitalist development up to the present.
Badiou explicitly attacks the limitations of Marxism in general, and not merely the “party-state” form of political rule (for which he holds Marxism responsible), for failing to recognize how the emancipatory striving of “equality” goes “beyond class.” This is why he favors the designation “communism” to “Marxism.” The RCP (rightly) smells a rat in this attempt by Badiou to take communism “beyond” anti-capitalist class-struggle politics. But in so doing they do not pause to reflect on the subordinate position of class struggle in Marx’s own conception of the possibility of overcoming capital.
For Marx, the political-economic struggle of the specifically modern classes of capitalists and workers is a projection of the contradiction of capital. The RCP, by contrast, regards the class struggle as constituting the social contradiction in capital. This flows from their understanding of the contradiction of capital as existing between the socialized forces of production and the privatized and hence capitalist relations of production. Privileged empowerment, whether in the form of capitalist private property or in more developed intellectual capacities, is the source rather than the result of the contradiction of capital in the RCP’s traditional “Marxist” view. For the RCP, Badiou’s perspective of radical democratic “equality” does not address such inherent social advantage that intellectuals would enjoy even under socialism, presenting the constant threat of defeating the struggle for socialism.
But the RCP does not stop at upholding Mao in the Cultural Revolution as a model for revolutionary politics. Rather, they attempt a “new synthesis” in which the relation of Marx, Lenin and Mao as historical figures is reformulated to provide for a 21st century socialist politics that could still learn from but overcome the limitations of the 20thcentury experience of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions.
The “new synthesis”
According to a traditional Maoist view, the RCP considers the historical trajectory from Marx through Lenin to Mao as a progress in the theory and practice of the struggle for socialism. But they also detect distinct limitations among all three historical figures and so regard them as importantly complementary rather than successive. For the RCP’s “new synthesis,” Marx and Lenin can still address the shortcomings of Mao, rather than the latter simply building upon the former. How so?
It is important first to consider the significance of this change in the RCP’s thinking from traditional Maoism. The RCP’s “new synthesis” was the cause of a split in the RCP, with some, including Mike Ely, going on to form the Kasama Project. The RCP replies to criticism of their current articulations of the limitations of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions with reference to earlier criticism of the RCP, over the course of the past three decades, for reducing Communism to a “tattered flag” in their reconsideration of this history. But the RCP should be commended for taking this risk.
The RCP struggles in explaining and relating the limitations of the three principal thinkers in the tradition they look towards for “communism.” With Marx, there is the limitation of relatively lacking historical experience of socialist revolution. Only the Paris Commune figures for this history. With Lenin, the limitations of the Bolshevik Revolution are displaced in the RCP’s evaluation of, not Lenin, but Stalin’s attempt to build “socialism” in the 1920s–30s. Like the disastrous Great Leap Forward in China (1958–61), the first Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union (1928–33), a period of “revolutionary” militancy in the history of Stalin’s rule, is glossed over by the RCP in evaluating the Russian and Chinese 20thcentury experiences of attempts to “build socialism.”
For the RCP, Mao represents a breakthrough. Through his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the limitations of the experience of Stalinism in the Soviet Union were overcome, in the Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s–70s. But none of these are examples of success—socialism, let alone communism, has not yet been achieved—and they do not exactly add up, but rather require a “synthesis.”
Mao provides a salutary contribution only the degree to which the Cultural Revolution overcame the problem of Stalinist “methods,” which are considered bureaucratic and authoritarian in the sense of stifling revolutionary initiative: Stalin did the right things but in the wrong ways. Not secretly manipulated purge “trials,” but people’s justice would have been the better way to stave off the threat of the “capitalist road” in the USSR of the 1930s. Most telling about the RCP’s “new synthesis” is how they conceive its first two figures. For the RCP, a combination of Marx and Lenin taken without Mao becomes a perspective of “Eurocentric world revolution.” This is because, in the RCP’s estimation, there is a significant difference between Lenin and “Leninism,” the degree to which the former, according to the RCP, “did not always live up” to the latter, and the latter is assimilated to what are really phenomena of Stalinism and Maoism, building “socialism in one country,” in which Mao’s own practice, especially in the Cultural Revolution, takes priority. But this begs the question of the Marxist perspective on “world revolution”—and the need for revolution in the U.S., which Marx and Lenin themselves thought was key. Instead, the problem of socialism in China dominates the RCP’s historical imagination of revolution.
Kant, in his theses in “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” (1784), addressed Rousseau as follows. Kant warned of the danger that,
[T]he vitality of mankind may fall asleep…. Until this last step to a union of states is taken, which is the halfway mark in the development of mankind, human nature must suffer the cruelest hardships under the guise of external well-being; and Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained…. [Mere civilization,] however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery. In such a condition the human species will no doubt remain until… it works its way out of the chaotic conditions of its international relations.
Marx considered his political project to be a continuation of Kant’s, no less than Rousseau’s or Bentham’s, albeit under the changed historical conditions of post-Industrial Revolution capitalism, in which “international relations” expressed not merely an unenlightened state, but the social contradictions of the civilization of global capital. Writing on the Paris Commune of 1870–71, Marx addressed the antithetical forms of cosmopolitanism in capital:
If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men's government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labor, emphatically international. Within sight of that Prussian army, that had annexed to Germany two French provinces, the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world…. The [preceding] Second Empire [by contrast] had been the jubilee of cosmopolitan blackleggism, the rakes of all countries rushing in at its call for a share in its orgies and in the plunder of the French people.
The RCP remains hampered by the Stalinist perspective of building “socialism in one country,” at the expense of a direct politics of world revolution that characterized the Marxism of Marx’s own time, in the First International. And so the RCP fails to recognize the degree to which Marx’s own politics was “emphatically international” in nature. As Marx scholar Moishe Postone put it,
Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky—because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918—entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”
Bob Avakian, the leader of the RCP, writing about “Leninism as the bridge,” put the matter of the relation between Marx, Lenin and Mao this way: “Marxism without Leninism is Eurocentric social-chauvinism and social democracy. Maoism without Leninism is nationalism (and also, in certain contexts, social-chauvinism) and bourgeois democracy.” But Avakian and the RCP have a fundamental ambivalence about Lenin. In the same article, Avakian wrote that, “as stressed before there is Leninism and there is Lenin, and if Lenin didn’t always live up to Leninism, that doesn’t make Leninism any less than what it is.” This is because, for the RCP, “Leninism” is in fact Stalinism, to which they recognize Lenin’s actual politics cannot be assimilated. It is therefore a standing question of what remains of Marx and Lenin when they are unhitched from the Stalinist-Maoist train of 20thcentury “communism,” the eventual course of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions to which the RCP points for inspiration and guidance. But the RCP’s imagination has always been fired more by the Chinese than the Russian experience. If “Leninism” was a historical “bridge,” it led to Mao’s China.
The image of China
China has provided a Rococo mirror reflecting global realities, whether in the 18thor the 20thand 21st centuries. The Middle Kingdom has stood, spectacular and confounding, for attempts to comprehend in social imagination both civilization and barbarism, now as then. The ancien régime at Versailles awaiting its historical fate would have liked to close itself up in a Forbidden City; the fervid imaginations of the 18thcentury philosophes such as Rousseau would have liked to breach the walls of its decadent customs. Both projected their world through the prism of China, which seemed to condense and refract at once all the splendors and horrors—Kant’s “glittering misery”—of society. This has also been true of the Left from the latter part of the 20thcentury to the present. The very existence of China has seemed to suggest some obscure potential for the future of humanity, both thrilling and terrifying. What if China were indeed the center of the world, as many on the Left have wished, ever since the 1960s?
If today China strikes the imagination as a peculiar authoritarian “communist” capitalist powerhouse that may end up leading the world in the 21st century, in the 1960s the Cultural Revolution symbolized China. Immediately prior to the student and worker upheaval in France of May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard directed his film La Chinoise (1967) about young revolutionaries in Paris. At around the same time, Horkheimer worried about the appearance of “Chinese on the Rhine,” as students began reading and quoting from Mao’s Little Red Book. If in the 18thcentury the Jacobin revolutionaries wanted France not to be China, in the 1960s would-be French revolutionaries wanted China to be the revolutionary France of the late 20thcentury.
Student revolutionaries brandish The Little Red Book in Jean-Luc Godard's film, La Chinoise.
In his critique of Jacobinism, Burke wrote that,
[T]he age of chivalry is gone: that of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded…. The unbought grace of life… is gone!… All the pleasing illusions… which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order…. On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings… laws are to be supported only by their terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests.
Still, the Jacobin terror continues. Today in Communist China, a bribery case in producing chemically adulterated pharmaceuticals, baby milk formula, and pet food results in a death sentence, to prevent any decrease in demand from the United States. Chinese authorities dismiss the criticism made on human rights grounds, pointing to the need to be vigilant against a constant threat of “corruption.” No doubt American consumers wonder what such swift “justice” could do to improve corporate behavior in the U.S.
The connection between revolutionary France and China in the bourgeois epoch, from the 18thcentury through the 20thcentury to the present, is summed up well in an apocryphal quip supposedly made by the Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai, in response to a question about the historical significance of the French Revolution: Zhou said it was still “too soon to tell.” Because of its Revolution in the 20thcentury, China came to have cast upon it the long shadow of Jacobinism and Rousseau’s 18thcentury critique of social inequality. But, as Marx discovered long ago, inequality is not the cause but the effect of capital. Such confusion has contributed to the perspective of “Third World” revolution that had its heyday in the post-WWII Left—after the 1949 Chinese Revolution—and that still stalks the imagination of emancipatory politics today. Not only post-postmodernist neo-communists such as Badiou, but also Maoists in the more rigorous 1960s–70s tradition such as the RCP, remain beholden to the specter of inequality in the modern world.
China, as a result of its 20thcentury revolutionary transformation, has gone from being like the India of the 18thcentury, its traditional ways of life breaking down and swamped in pre-capitalist obscurity, confronted with the dynamics of global capitalism, to becoming something like a potential Britain of the 18thcentury—the manufacturing “workshop of the world”—albeit in the profoundly changed circumstances of the 21st century. As Marx, in a 1858 letter to Engels, pointed out about his own time,
There is no denying that bourgeois society has for the second time experienced its 16thcentury, a 16thcentury which, I hope, will sound its death knell just as the first ushered it into the world. The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market…. For us, the difficult question is this: [in Europe] revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant over a far greater area?
What the 16thcentury meant to Marx was the “primitive accumulation of capital,” the process by which society was transformed, through the liquidation of the peasantry, in the emergence of the modern working class and the bourgeois social relations of its existence. If this process continued in the 19thcentury, beyond Britain, through the rest of Europe and the United States and Japan, in the 20thcentury it proceeded in Asia—through the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. The reconstitution of capital in the 19thcentury, unleashing a brutal process of late colonial expansion, was, to Marx’s mind, not only unnecessary and hence tragic, but also regressive and potentially counterrevolutionary. Marx’s warning should have resounded loudly through the “revolutionary” history of Marxism in the 20thcentury, but was instead repressed and forgotten.
For Marx and Engels, it was not a matter of China and other countries, newly swept into the maelstrom of capitalist development by the mid-19thcentury, “catching up” with Britain and other more “advanced” areas, but rather the possibility of the social and political turbulence in such “colonial” zones having any progressive-emancipatory impact on global capital at its core. As Marx wrote, in The Class Struggles in France, 1848–50, about the relation of England to other countries,
Just as the period of crisis began later [elsewhere] than in England, so also did prosperity. The process originated in England, which is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. [Elsewhere] the various phases of the cycle repeatedly experienced by bourgeois society assume a secondary and tertiary form…. Violent outbreaks naturally erupt sooner at the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, because in the latter the possibilities of accommodation are greater than in the former. On the other hand, the degree to which revolutions [elsewhere] affect England is at the same time the [barometer] that indicates to what extent these revolutions really put into question bourgeois life conditions, and to what extent they touch only their political formations.
On this all the reactionary attempts to hold back bourgeois development will rebound just as much as will all the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.
This means that the “democratic” politics that engenders “ethical indignation” at the rank inequality in global capital remains woefully inadequate to the task of overcoming the “bourgeois world” within which the RCP accuses Badiou et al. of remaining “locked.” For subsequent history has clearly shown that the Chinese Revolution under Mao remained trapped in global capital, despite the “socialist” ferment of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that gripped the imagination of the international Left of the time, “Maoist” and otherwise. Without revolutionary socialist consequences in the “heart” of the bourgeois world, revolutions in countries such as China cannot, according to Marx, “really put into question bourgeois life conditions” but “touch only their political formations.” As Engels put it, in a 1882 letter to the leading German Social Democratic Party Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky,
[T]he countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated… must be taken over for the time being by the [world] proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say… [Such places] will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution… and [this] would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganized [in socialism], and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilized countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organization, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses.
“Locked within the confines of the bourgeois world”
Despite the RCP’s critique of the post-1960s New Left neo-communism of Badiou, and its partial recognition that Marx and the best of Marxism sought to go beyond “bourgeois” discontents and demands for equality in capital, the RCP perspective on Marxism remains compromised by its focus on capitalist inequality. This leads to an ambivalent and confused conception of the potential role of “intellectuals” in revolutionary politics—a role highlighted in the mid-20thcentury by even such unreservedly “bourgeois” perspectives such as that of Joseph Schumpeter, and also by figures influential for the 1960s New Left such as C. Wright Mills. The RCP, along with other tendencies of post-New Left politics preoccupied by problems of inequality and hierarchy, such as neo-anarchism, suspects intellectuals of containing the germ for reproducing capitalism through inequality. Likewise, the RCP remains confused about the supposed problem of a “Euro-” or “Western”-centric perspective on “world revolution.” In this sense, the RCP remains trapped by the preoccupations of 1960s-era New Left Maoism in which they originated, despite their attempts to recover the critical purchase of the earlier revolutionary politics of Marx and Lenin. Despite their intended critical approach to this history, they fail to consider how Maoism may have represented a retreat rather than an advance from such revolutionary Marxism. For, as Lenin recognized, the best of Marxist revolutionary politics was not opposed to but rather necessarily stood within the tradition of Rousseau and the radical bourgeois intellectual “Jacobin” legacy of the 18thcentury, while attempting to transcend it. Like it or not, and either for ill or for good, we remain “locked in the bourgeois world,” within whose conditions we must try to make any possible revolution. |P
* Correction: It should not be assumed that writers for Demarcations are members of the RCP.
. David Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” Rethinking Marxism vol. 22 no. 2 (April 2010), 272–284.
. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 2nd ed., 1978), 531.
. Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” 282.
. See “An Open Letter from Raymond Lotta to Tony Judt and the NYU Community on the Responsibility of Intellectuals to the Truth, Including and Especially the Truth about Communism,” in Revolution 180 (October 25, 2009), available online here, in which Lotta states that,
Yes, revolutionary power must be held on to: a new state power and the overall leadership of a vanguard party are indispensable. But leadership must be exercised in ways that are, in certain important and crucial respects, different from how this was understood and practiced in the past. This [RCP’s] new synthesis recognizes the indispensable role of intellectual ferment and dissent in socialist society.
. Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” 282.
. See Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962), New Left Review I/41 (January–February 1967), 15–35. Also in For Marx (1965), trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1977), 87–116.
. See, for instance, Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1971), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. D. F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 139–164, available online here, in which Foucault ignored that Nietzsche’s famous On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) was “a polemic” against any such “genealogy,” and so turned Nietzsche, in keeping with Foucault’s own intent, from a philosopher of freedom into freedom’s “deconstructionist”:
In this sense, genealogy returns to the… history that Nietzsche recognized in [his 1874 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”]…. [But] the critique of the injustices of the past by a truth held by men in the present becomes the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge. (164)
. See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2007).
. See the interview with Badiou by Filippo del Luchesse and Jason Smith, conducted in Los Angeles February 7, 2007, “ ‘We Need a Popular Discipline’: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 4 (Summer 2008), 645–659.
. See Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
. See Peter Hallward’s essay on Badiou’s Logiques des Mondes (Logics of Worlds), “Order and Event,” New Left Review 53 (September–October 2008).
. As James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault (2000), put it in his 1992 introduction to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992),
The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility”… suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless…. Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared…. As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.” (xv)
. Quoted by Rosa Luxemburg in Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (1904), available in English translation as Leninism or Marxism? in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), available online here. Luxemburg’s pamphlet was a critique of Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Crisis in our Party (1904), available online here.
. Marx, “On The Jewish Question,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 46. This essay was written by Marx in 1843 as a response to Bruno Bauer’s work The Jewish Question, of the same year.
. Max Horkheimer, "The Authoritarian State," in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds. (New York: Continuum, 2005), 95.
. There is an important affinity here with the anarchism of Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, who consider Marxism to be an ideology of the aspirations to social domination by the “coordinator class” of intellectuals, which is how they understand the results of, e.g., the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. In this view, Marxism is the means by which the intellectuals harness the class struggle of the workers for other, non-emancipatory ends. Their understanding of the “party-state” is the regime of the coordinator class.
. The first Five-Year Plan in the USSR saw the accelerated collectivization of agriculture, in which the Communists unleashed “class struggle” in the countryside, with great popular participation. This coincided with the Communist International’s policy of refusing any political alliances with reformists, whom they dubbed “social fascists,” during this period, which they considered the advent of revolution, following the Great Crash. Such extremism caused, not only mass starvation and brutalization of life in the USSR—whose failures to “build socialism” were blamed on “Trotskyite wreckers,” leading to the Purge Trials in the mid- to late 1930s—but also the eventual victory of the Nazis in Germany. Just as the Purge Trials in the USSR were in response to failures of the Five-Year Plans, the Cultural Revolution in China was a response to the failure of the Great Leap Forward.
. Immanuel Kant, “The Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11–25. Also available online here.
As a part of [the process of Stalinization], certain theoretical distortions of Marxism play an important part. Above all, Marxism is twisted into an economic determinism. The dialectic is abstracted from history and reimposed on social development as a series of fixed stages. Instead of the rich variety and conflict of human history we have the natural series of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism through which all societies pass…. An apparent touch of flexibility is given to this schematic picture by the doctrine that different countries will find their “own” roads to Socialism, learning from the USSR but adapting to their particular national characteristics. This is of course a mechanical caricature of historical materialism. The connection between the struggles of the working class for Socialism in, say, Britain, Russia and Vietnam, is not at all in the greater or lesser degree of similarity of social structure of those countries, but in the organic interdependence of their struggles. Capitalism is an international phenomenon, and the working class is an international force.
. See “Europocentric World Revolution,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 676. The selection in Tucker, which omits the first sentence, is from a letter from Marx to Engels of October 8, 1858, available online here.
. For instance, even many avowed “Trotskyists” were fascinated and inspired by the GPCR. See, for example, Gerry Healy and David North’s International Committee of the Fourth International’s British journal Newsline of January 21, 1967, where an article by Michael Banda stated that “the best elements led by Mao and Lin Piao have been forced to go outside the framework of the Party and call on the youth and the working class to intervene [in this] anti-bureaucratic [fight].” See David North, The Heritage We Defend: A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1988), 424. North, who became critical of Banda’s positive perspective on Mao in the Cultural Revolution, is currently the leader of the international tendency of which the Socialist Equality Party is the U.S. section.
. See C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review I/5 (September–October 1960), 18–23.
. Georg Lukács addressed such transcendence in his eulogy, “Lenin—Theoretician of Practice” (1924), available online here. It is also included as part of the “Postcript 1967,” in Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, trans. Nicholas Jacobs (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), in which Lukács described Lenin as follows:
In the chain of democratic revolutions in modern times two types of leaders, poles apart, made their appearance, embodied by men such as Danton and Robespierre, in both reality and literature…. Lenin is the first representative of an entirely new type, a tertium datur, as opposed to the two extremes. (93)
But Marx was also a representative of this new type of revolutionary intellectual.
Platypus Review 9 | December 2008
To the editors of the Platypus Review:
I am not now, nor have I ever been, either a Maoist or sympathetic to Maoism. I am also not a member of SDS. I was outraged however, by the blatant red-baiting of Rachel Haut in a recent Platypus Review Interview and disturbed that it seems to have gone unchallenged by PR. Rachel Haut was quoted as saying: “To say that the Maoists can be part of the ideological debate would mean to condone them being in this organization, which is something I don’t do. In the New York City SDS I have spoken numerous times with SDSers who are not Maoists about having the Maoists or certain kinds of anarchists in our organization, because both sides hurt us. If we want to build a democratic society, and we want to be relevant, both of these opposing forces are working against us. There are varying degrees of anarchism, definitely, as well as varying degrees of socialism. But, I think ideas that conflict with our vision and our goals need to be clearly defined and excluded before we can actually start talking about our ideological differences formally as a national organization.”
Essentially, what Rachel Haut is saying that first one needs to exclude people whom one disagrees with, so that after the organization has been ideologically purified, one can “actually start talking about ideological differences” when there aren’t any anymore. This is an attitude worthy of a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution!
Aside from general considerations of democratic principle, such an attitude is extremely dangerous to those who consider themselves leftists. I am reminded of a famous old radical cartoon I once saw. A cop is beating up a striking worker, who protests “But I am an anti-Communist”, to which the cop replies “Anti-communist, shmanti-communist. I don’t care what kind of communist you are.”
—Richard Rubin, October 2008
. . .
Laurie Rojas responds:
Rachel Haut’s comments during the interview printed in September 2008 Issue of the Platypus Review did not express my views, or those of the editors of the Platypus Review. I should have made this explicit at the time. Haut’s red-baiting went unchallenged during the interview, and that should not have been the case.
I disagreed with Haut when she said, “I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization.” As the interviewer, however, I (wrongly) thought it indecorous to challenge her position at that point.
Beyond this, I continued the conversation because it made manifest a profound and worrisome behavior I had encountered in SDS during my participation in the 2008 National Convention: the promulgation of whisper campaigns against individuals that appear to have defined ideological positions, coupled with an unspoken agreement to avoid ideological conversations. The first two days of the convention were plagued by disputes about the decision-making process that had clearly ideological undertones, but were never expressed as such; instead, there were numerous interruptions that chastised the decision-making process as “undemocratic” — a vague blanket term that anybody, no matter what side of the argument they were on, used to legitimize their discontent.
Furthermore, I did not directly challenge Haut’s redbaiting because at the time I considered it an anachronistic, ill-informed gesture used simply to avoid a political conversation about the long-term goals of SDS. Haut’s red-baiting had no concrete grounding, and was fully devoid of actual relevance to political practice in the present; it was mostly justified by the historical reputation of Maoists. It was never made clear why Maoists would pose such a grave threat to SDS. What is then, the real “danger” posed by a Maoist, or any “red,” today? The only explanation given was: “[Maoist] ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society.” “Democracy,” although vaguely understood, is the only goal all SDSers can agree on. Yet it is also the main weapon some use to show contempt for other members of the group.
I hoped the interview would be treated as symptomatic of tendencies in the Left today whose public manifestation would help clarify our situation. In other words, I let Haut’s opinions stand because they were in some way representative of problems and dangers facing the young Left today, especially in the new SDS. As an “umbrella organization,” SDS has attracted members with a wide spectrum of opinions. But because ideological conversations about the political goals of the organization have not been a central part of SDS — mostly due to the fear of splits — its members end up grouping themselves into social cliques. Fragmentation occurs under the auspices of petty interpersonal disagreements instead of political disputes with practical and political consequences.
The larger problem, however, is that the majority of people in SDS can only organize actions in frustrated reaction to the deplorable situations in which they find themselves. They can only protest their helplessness, and have no clear idea of how their actions relate to long-term goals of gaining political power to effect real social transformation.
The absence of concrete political aims produces a politics of “acting out,” an unreflective and compulsive desire for “agitation.” With this orientation, the new SDS does not stray far from its predecessor, the original SDS. Activism- for-its-own-sake is an indication that the organization “refuses to reflect on its own impotence,” as Adorno once said of the student activism in the 60’s. The concepts of “revolution” and “democracy” are abstract ideas in SDS whose emptiness leaves them useful only as bludgeons for crushing dissent.
The counterposing of thought and action, the kneejerk anti-intellectualism, the taboos behind political ideas, and the impulse to resist indiscriminately hierarchy and leadership, has left SDS powerless. But worse than that, because of this deep political dilemma, many members are insecure and quick to accuse others for not being “with the movement.” The perverse tendency to “purge” is a result of fear, a dearth of ideas, and the unwillingness to discuss the meaning and direction of the group. When things are not going well—blame the “foreign elements.”
The bitter truth about Wright’s cartoon is that all kinds of Marxists are still cast under the same blinding light. It would do us well to remember: everybody has an ideology. Being anti-ideology is one of the oldest ideologies in the book. The question is why should those who are believed to have defined ideological positions invoke a desire to squelch, to expel, to purge?
This anti-ideology sentiment, an anachronistic residue of the anti-Stalinism of the 60’s, is more pervasive — if less explicit — today, without any “anti-anti-communism” clause to block its path. The irony is that in a post-USSR world, the Stalinophobes unknowingly become practicing Stalinists. If one considers the pathologies created by political powerlessness and the unwillingness to engage with ideas, red-baiting can be understood as a naturalized form of ideological purging; real authoritarianism masked as “the defense of democracy.” |P
Platypus Review 6 | September 2008
From July 24th until July 28th 2008, the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had its third annual national convention in College Park, Maryland. At the convention, national campaigns were presented and voted on by the attendees. A major campaign introduced at the convention was the Hundred Days campaign, which seeks to organize and engage newly politicized Americans in politics beyond the campaign season. During the first one hundred days of the next administration the campaign will organize two nationwide weeks of action to ensure that the people remain involved in politics after the election cycle. Laurie Rojas, member of Chicago SDS, collaborating author of the Hundred Days campaign and editor of The Platypus Review interviews Rachel Haut, labor researcher, member of the New York non-student SDS chapter, and collaborating author of the Hundred Days campaign.
Laurie Rojas: One of the most important decisions made during the 2008 SDS National Convention was the passing of the national structure. You were the author of one of the three main decision-making structure proposals, can you talk a little about the most essential characteristics of the structure proposal you submitted?
Rachel Haut: The structure proposal that I submitted and later combined with a structure submitted by two students from Florida SDS was the most minimalistic structure offered. I felt that because there were so few people participating in national SDS, we really didn’t have the capabilities to do anything else outside the convention at this time. So, the structure proposal that we wrote would make our annual conventions the decision making body. Working groups get to carry out the decisions made in the convention throughout the year, and make decisions through that mandate. There were a couple of more details of course, but that was the gist of it.
LR: Retrospectively, why do you think your structure proposal did not pass? Why didn’t it receive majority support?
RH: I felt like all the other proposals had a clear ideological line, and ours didn’t, and that’s why ours would work. A lot of people at the convention thought we were capable of having a national structure that could make decisions throughout the year. I don’t think that. A lot of times they posed the question of what would happen if an emergency situation came up. I don’t think that there are going to be a lot of situations that require a national organization to just jump in. So that wasn’t a concern of mine, but it was for others. I guess they wanted more structure and a mechanism that could facilitate building the national organization while still encompassing our values and principles. Which, at face value, the proposal that passed at the convention didn’t encompass, but with the amendments proposed during the convention, the structure was made more democratic.
LR: What do you think will be some of the challenges presented by the new structure we just passed, with the amendments included? I am afraid that the national working committee is going to spend three to four months just figuring out how they are going to make decisions internally, what decisions they should be making, etc.
RH: One of the big challenges is actually getting the structure to work. I guess we are just going to have to wait and see if people are going to step up and actually do what they committed to and create a decision-making process within the national working committee. I am not too concerned that they’re going to take too much power; I am more concerned that they are just not going to do anything that they said they would and we will come back to the convention next year and have nothing. I do believe that there are people who have been with SDS for a while and that do have an agenda. Most of the people with experience in the national working committee don’t have an agenda. However, there are a few people that might not even have enough experience to know how to hold these kinds of commitments.
LR: What do you mean having an agenda?
RH: They are members of FRSO, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a Maoist organization. FRSO had a split in 1999; there is a FRSO "soft" and a FRSO "hard." The FRSO hard has a couple of members in the national working committee. I believe that Maoism is in opposition to a democratic society, and thus their position or reason for being in SDS is opportunist. We are attempting to build a student movement not a Maoist movement.
LR: During the convention, people pointed out who the members of FRSO were, as well as who the “crazy” anarchists were. But I never had the opportunity to have an ideological discussion about what kind of differences existed in the organization. There were no conversations where I had a clear representation of differences; I don’t really know the politics or the ideological inclination of the different kinds of anarchists or Maoists in the SDS. I don’t have an image of what they stand for. Why do you think the ideological conversation is avoided? Because it is avoided, and people are really careful to make sure the conversation doesn’t go there. I want to know why we’re steering away from an ideological discussion when it might clearly affect decisions at the national level.
RH: One of the SDS facilitators at the convention told me that the ideological differences need to be discussed and she wanted to do something about it. I said that I didn’t know if this was the right time. She asked why. I said that the kind of conversation concerning building a democratic society has to happen, especially an ideological conversation-- because there are differences. However, I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization. Why should we be having these conversations with them, including them in the discussion, if their ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society? To say that the Maoists can be part of the ideological debate would mean to condone them being in this organization, which is something I don’t do. In the New York City SDS I have spoken numerous times with SDSers who are not Maoists about having the Maoists or certain kinds of anarchists in our organization, because both sides hurt us. If we want to build a democratic society, and we want to be relevant, both of these opposing forces are working against us. There are varying degrees of anarchism, definitely, as well as varying degrees of socialism. But, I think ideas that conflict with our vision and our goals need to be clearly defined and excluded before we can actually start talking about our ideological differences formally as a national organization.
LR: For me, it is important to somehow clearly define where certain types of politics stand and how they affect the organization. This concerns me because there is a lack of clarity about how these differences express themselves. Maybe if these distinctions or ideological differences were put on the table it would allow us to better understand what the organization stands for. Perhaps, we missed a moment to not only separate the politics or the ideology that doesn’t fit the organization, but to more clearly define the goals of the organization itself. Do you really think it would have been damaging to have the Maoists, the anarchists, and everybody else in the room be able to realize whether or not we share goals?
RH: Possibly, except we don’t have a mechanism to be able to say to somebody: “you are not interested in building a democratic society and you are not welcome in this organization.” To put that on that table, but to have no way of questioning it would be premature, or possibly dangerous. I have had lengthy discussions about the fact that SDS has a vision statement, which is very good, well worded, and defines who we are as an organization: we are not a vanguard. What could it mean to write, propose, vote, and implement campaigns that would incorporate our vision? It could possibly allow us to start dealing with these forces. The Student Power campaign and Hundred Days campaign are both working on making us relevant, and are following the vision statements. These campaigns will allow us to grow as an organization. These factional forces on either side are going to eventually drop out or be outnumbered.
LR: So the fear right now is an ideological confrontation could be a major conflict, and that it might precipitate a seriously divisive moment between people who want to handle the problem differently. So is there fear of a major split?
RH: I don’t think that there should be a split; I think that we should just start implementing our vision of strategic campaigns. And we should focus less on certain campaigns, like the proposal to protest McCain that was submitted by FRSO, which is a reactionary campaign that does not achieve a goal. We can be a less viable organization for these people if we are not achieving their goals. We can continue to organize, to build power without catering to any of those forces, we don’t need to have protests to actually get things done, just protests as tactics. This is probably the best first step we can take.
LR: Another significant moment of the convention happened around the campaign proposals. Chicago SDS and NYC SDS chapters submitted campaign proposals that seek to use the coming elections, especially the Obama rhetoric of “hope” and “change,” as a pivotal moment for SDS to coordinate actions, build alliances, organize nationally, and hence grow stronger. In hopes of making our campaign stronger we combined our proposals, and presented them at the national convention. How did the idea for the Hundred Days Campaign emerge in NY?
RH: I think it emerged after talking to some people from Chicago SDS at the Left Forum (March 14-16, NYC). We started the conversation there, went off in different directions, created two different proposals, and then we merged them again. Dave Shukla and I spoke on the SDS panel at the Left Forum about building a revolutionary student movement. Afterwards, some of the people from Chicago came up to us. We got pizza and started talking about organizing something around the elections and about how we’ve got to be relevant. Originally, the woman who initiated the discussion had the idea of doing something right after Election Day. She said we should protest, and we responded that we couldn’t protest the first black American president, but perhaps we could have teach-ins. I am not sure whether it was Dave or I who had the idea for the Hundred Days campaign. At the same time people from Chicago were starting to talk about doing student actions together, and even a week of action was mentioned in those early conversations. We finally came together because we had the same goals; they had just been written a little differently.
LR: I know perfectly well who those people were, Pam Nogales, Greg Gabrellas and Ben Shepard, I remember them coming back and telling us about the Left Forum conversation. Now, as you and I already know our proposal did not pass at the national convention, although we did have majority support. We are still working on getting full SDS support and trying to get it passed by the new national working committee. Why do you think this campaign should be a national SDS priority?
RH: In order to become a viable student organization and powerful force for social change we must be relevant to the elections. How many thousands of students are getting excited about the elections, voting for the first time and getting involved in politics for the first time? I worked on the Nader campaign in 2000, and I remember a couple of people with buttons and pins. But now on the subway in New York I see thousands of Obama pins everywhere. You do not see McCain pins everywhere. You never saw Bush pins or Kerry pins everywhere. It’s a social phenomenon that’s really coming from a grassroots base. I’ve seen bake sales for Obama. There is an incredible development of grassroots fundraising; about 90% of his donors are from small contributions, although about 55% of the money he is getting is from corporations. People hear a great message of hope and change. We also want change, we know that this society isn’t working and we want to propose to new people, and slowly integrate them into the process on the basis of their skills and interests. We need to bring people in through the discussions that politicized us. We need to meet students where they are at. Beyond working with students, it is absolutely essential to work with other organizations that build other social movements. We don’t have the ability to organize workers, but we need coalitions with organized labor and its base. SDS needs to develop into a force for change on the national scene, capable of keeping the Obama presidency accountable and responding when it fails. I think this campaign is a great beginning, because it provides the opportunity to build coalitions and fellowships with other groups with the long term goal in mind of gaining political power.
LR: After the Hundred Days, how will we be able to judge the success of this campaign?
RH: If we have developed working relationships with other organizations that would be a success. Also, being able to figure out what could have improved so that we can do better next time. Knowing that SDS can be part of something big, knowing that we don’t have to lead it, but that we can be a part of shifting this country to the left, that would also be a success.
LR: I want to pull away from the campaign, and look at the big picture in the form of a comparison with SDS in the 60’s and SDS now. What do you think are some of the most pressing unresolved problems that SDS faced in the 60’s that we still face in the present?
RH: Well, first, it’s still predominantly white. A couple of different things come to mind. There are a large amount of students in SDS now who are enamored with the 60’s, who fetishize it, specifically the Weather Underground, and all of their tactics. I believe that the conditions of capitalism have greatly changed since the 60’s movement. We’re in a kind of contradictory situation because the SDS in the 60’s has this great legacy that gives us energy and provides a lot of potential. But it is also a burden. People repeat the same mistakes just because the 60’s were cool. They do these tactics because SDS in the 60’s grew so big. But it failed. Now, under the different conditions of capitalism, we are still repeating the same tactics, and expecting different results-- being in a counterculture that’s into drugs and having orgies and trying to make SDS cool again. I don’t see people learning from the lessons of the past, realizing that although SDS grew a lot, it failed. Those tactics might work for a little while, but we need to have long term strategies. We need to build a movement for the long haul that can be about students getting involved in alternative politics.
LR: What is your vision of SDS in 5 years?
RH: I would like to see SDS become a recognized national organization building a democratic society. There has been a lot of emphasis on tearing things down, with the proposals presented at the national convention like “stop I-69”, or stopping the war, instead we need to start building something that can replace capitalism. Let’s build a democratic structure that can mirror the society we want to see developed. I want to see SDS building a movement that teaches people how to organize SDS on campuses across the nation, including in technical schools. We must be a cool, sexy organization that is at the same time efficient at involving new people, and getting them active in campaigns that can achieve immediate short term goals while building something bigger. SDS has to have a place for political discussions, but also has to have a place to be social, and talk about music. We need to be an organization that can train people to do grassroots organizing, and that can sustain itself while it grows and changes.
LR: Would you like to add a closing remark?
RH: I am really excited about the Hundred Days campaign, although we have a lot of work ahead of us. Whether national SDS endorses it, the chapters that partake in the campaign are going to become huge and develop the ability to work with other groups. Those chapters are going to be really powerful, and this campaign will potentially allow them to participate in social change in their areas. I know that’s where I am going to be putting all of my energy.
Postcript—LR After conducting this interview, I now realize that there are terms we on the Left commonly use and, more often than not, take their meaning for granted. For example, I have no doubt that Rachel Haut and I have different ideas of what terms like "ideology," "democracy," "radical," "anarchist" or "socialist" mean. The term "democratic" most clearly expresses this problem in SDS. The result is that both sides of a disagreement can claim to have democratic principles on their side. This represents a larger problem for the Left. We have inherited terminology like "alienation," "oppression," "Marxism," and "liberalism" without a sufficient understanding or agreement about what these terms may mean today. Worse, we have even lost the desire to clarify those terms for ourselves and for each other, often opting for neologisms and neglecting clarification. This clarification is necessary if we wish to advance the possibility of social transformation. The largest and most troubling term we face is "capitalism," because how we develop our anti-capitalist movement depends on our understanding of what we aim to overcome. If we don't clarify the full and complex meaning of these opaque terms for ourselves, it will mean that although we are working together we may not be working for the same goals. Then, all the Left is building is its own Tower of Babel. I ask my fellow SDSers, and those on the Left more broadly, to use the Platypus Review as a place to develop a clarification of these terms and, more importantly, our goals. |P