A panel held at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The First International (1864 - 1876), or International Workingmen's Association, was founded in the long shadow of 1848, amidst Polish and Italian national liberation movements and the upheaval of the American Civil War. As an organization it pushed against the limitations of radical Republican politics (in both its European and American iterations). It was the first to present the need for an organized body of the international working class in order to develop the political forces capable of challenging industrial capitalism on the world's stage. The recognition of the global nature of capitalist society, coupled with a critique of radical democratic politics of the second half of nineteenth century -- both from an Anarchist and Marxist perspective -- make up the political content of the First International.
Any history of the First International in the present is necessarily informed -- consciously or unconsciously -- by the experience and assessment of the Marxist Internationals in the twentieth century. A critical history of the First International today would have to be part of a larger reflection on the origins of Marxism and the mid-nineteenth century shift in leftist political practice (the transformation of both its means and ends). In assessing this history, one discontinuity immediately presents itself: unlike the history of the Second, Third, and Fourth International, the First International was composed of largely heterogeneous political tendencies, including (but not limited to) British labor reformers (including Chartists), Polish radical republicans (in opposition to Russian Tzarism), Italian supporters of Mazzini (for national unification and the end of the papal state), German Lassallean radicals (followers of Ferdinand Lassalle), et. al; at the center of these ideological differences was the conflict between Marxism and Anarchism (with Marx and Bakunin in the foreground). While the First International is known as the moment of this infamous political split, it remains the task of leftists today to specify what this historical division on the Left might mean for the present. In this spirit, this panel asks: what is at stake in the history First International? And how might it help us advance an understanding of the tasks of the Left today?
The First International died "almost unnoticed" (as one historian has put it) four years after its transfer to New York. In 1924, when Karl Korsch raised the specter of the First International, it was to make sense of the shortcomings of the Second International. His mention of this brief organizational experiment provided the historical distance from which to reflect on both the theory and practice of Marxism. Today, the historical regression advanced in the twentieth century has left us with a diminished capacity to assess the historical tasks of the Left, thus limiting the imagination for a future emancipatory politics. In this impoverished present, the history of the First International, and its contribution to the problem of freedom in the Age of Capital, can help us deepen our understanding of the meaning and tasks of the Left today. Perhaps then we will finally be able to give the First International a proper burial.
1. What is the political climate at the birth of the First International? How was the organization's political horizon shaped by the revolutionary efforts in Europe 1830s onward? How did this climate inform the composition of the First International? What common vision of social revolutionary practice (if any) was shared by its members? Despite its ideological heterogeneity, what held the First International together?
2. A current trend on the Left today is a push for local engagement (sometimes presented as "think globally, act locally”, in light of such a development how do we understand the attempts by the First International to organize globally? How did this international scope help the First International advance a politics against capitalism? What if anything is left of this tradition? In what ways does it depart from its nineteenth-century iteration?
3. Does Anarchism in the nineteenth-century present us with a different set of problems than present-day anarchism? (If so, in what way?) How does the Marx-Bakunin split in the First International help us understand the content of Anarchist politics? What does it illuminate about the relationship between Marxism and Anarchism? What are the different perspectives of history and freedom held by Anarchists and Marxists (in what way are these meaningful)? Lastly, how were both Marx and Bakunin (and, we might add, Proudhon) critics of the radical democratic tradition in the nineteenth-century? And where do their critiques differ? How does this difference shape their political practice?
A panel event held on November 5th, 2013, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition-- such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky-- also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of the workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers' interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production [which rely on a surplus of available labor], thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.
Democratic Socialists of America/Chicago Political Economy Group
Justice Party/Network for Revolutionary Change
Professor of labor history, University of Illinois at Chicago
The first of an upcoming panel series, to subsequently be held internationally in Halifax, Chicago, London, and Toronto in Fall 2013.
A moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A with thinkers, activists and political figures focused on contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class. Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at Rethinking Marxism 2013.
Room 101, Campus Center, UMass Amherst
Stanley Aronowitz (Graduate Center of the City University of New York)
Robert Pollin (Political Economy Research Institute and University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency)
"Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment." - Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One
"...the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all." - Joan Robinson
"The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It's just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner...Today "communism" is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy." - Andre Gorz
It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition-- such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky-- also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers’ interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production (which rely on a surplus of available labor), thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of the contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.
1. How do you characterize work and employment as a political issue in contemporary society? What is wrong with unemployment? And/or what is wrong with work?
2. A distinction is often drawn between "work" as purposeful human activity (presumably existing before and after capitalism), on the one hand, and "work" in the sense of labor in capitalism, where the worker undertakes purposeful activity for money under threat of material scarcity (typically in the form of wage labor), on the other hand. Is this distinction politically relevant when thinking about work? In a free society, would work manifest in one or both senses?
3. If the widely observable phenomenon of overwork and unemployment is a necessary feature of capitalist society, why and how is this so? What kinds of social necessity, in the present organization of the world, do you take to be underlying this phenomenon? Then, given your understanding of the nature of this necessity, what would it mean to radically transform it?
4. In the history of the Left, what examples do you regard as informing your attitude towards the politics of work and unemployment today, and what is relevant about these touchpoints?
5. Historically, the left has sought to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, through various means: full employment; a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment; and/or shorter working hours for those employed. Which of these, if any, do you consider to be adequate responses, and how, if at all, should the Left pursue them?
6. If the abolition of wage labor should indeed be a goal of emancipatory politics, what forms of politics or concrete demands should be pursued to attain this goal? How do we get from "here" to "there"?
7. Given the breadth of issues and struggles pursued by the Left historically and today--race and racism, gender equality, environmental concerns, globalization, militarism, etc--what is the relationship between the politics of work and the broader project of social emancipation? Exactly how central or peripheral is the politics of work to social emancipation as such?
8. Where do you find the most promising attempts by the Left to address the issue of work and unemployment, today? What makes this contemporary work relevant and propitious?
9. What role, if any, do you assign to political organization, such as an actual or potential political party, in working to progressively transform contemporary relations of work and unemployment? What should be the relationship between any such organization and the working class?
10. A century ago, these questions were consciously taken up by a politically constituted workers movement in which socialists and Marxists participated. Today, discussions of this topic risk becoming utopian in the a-political sense. How, if at all, has the decline of workers movements and the death of the Left circumscribed our ability to engage the politics of work in the present?
A teach-in held on September 17th, 2013 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, led by Brian Schultz. An introductory teach-in on the development of human history from a Marxist perspective.
A teach-in held on September 5th, 2013 at Dalhousie University, led by Quentin Cyr.
In the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels observed, in the Communist Manifesto, that a "specter" was haunting Europe â the specter of Communism. A century and a half later, it is Marxism itself that continues to haunt the Left, while capitalism remains.
What does it mean that Marx and Marxism still appeal, while political movements for socialism are weak or non- existent? What were Marxism's original points of departure for considering radical possibilities for freedom that might still speak to the present?
How does Marxism still matter?
Please note: Due to technical difficulties, the first few seconds of the teach-in are cut off.