Public forum of the Platypus Affiliated Society
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 9TH 6:00 PM
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
INTERNATIONAL HOUSE ASSEMBLY HALL
1414 EAST 59TH STREET
Spencer A. Leonard
The memory of the 1960s, which has long kindled contestation and debate on the means and ends of freedom politics, is rapidly fading into the political unconscious. The election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the anti-war movement mark the end of a period that has now come full circle. After a half-century of rebellion, many old New Left-ists now call for a â€œnew New Dealâ€ to return to welfare-statist and authoritarian society against which the New Left rebelled. History threatens to repeat itself, this time in an even more dimly recognized and ferocious form.
â€œIn the United States today there is no Left,â€ C. Wright Mills declaimed in the waning months of the 1950s, making him one of the most beloved intellectuals of his generation, â€œpolitical activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities -- though formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial -- or merely private.â€ If Mills continues to speak to us, it is as a reminder of tasks long deferred, memories long repressed.
This panel attempts to address the current moment, in which many who participated in the moment of the New Leftâ€™s beginnings have survived a full cycle of history. Rather than a rehash of old debates or yet another nostalgia- ridden recap of the era, interventions which have ceased to offer critical perspective on the present, this panel seeks to ask the simple but fundamental question: What, if any, is significant for us today in the thwarted attempt by 1960s radicals to re-found emancipatory politics?
The Global Voices Lecture Program of International House, with the support of the University of Chicago Student Activities Fund
Juliet Mitchell: "I don't think anti-psychiatrists such as Laing and Cooper saw the schizophrenic as the madman telling the truth. What we had were two sets of rigidity, we had the pathological dimension of psychosis in paranoia, schizophrenia: delusions -- which are delusions, let's face it. But then we had the normative delusions of an acceptable psychotic status quo, which is what our political world very often is. For me, the question is whether the person who is suffering from the extreme pathological dimension of psychosis can find sufficient freedom to not need that refuge, whether he or she is able to come with a critique of the normative psychosis of the political social world."
There is never a psychopathology without the social context
An interview with Juliet Mitchell
British feminist and psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell talks to Cogito about her role in the British New Left in the 1960s. Mitchell was at the centre of the movement: as editorial board member of the New Left Review, as participant in Third World and anti-psychiatry movements, and as co-organizer of grassroots initiatives, including the "Anti-University", founded on the steps of Shoreditch Church in East London. Here, Mitchell outlines her intellectual trajectory from her early Marxism, to feminism of the mid-1960s, and to psychoanalysis in the 1970s.
E. Efe Ã‡akmak: As one of the most influential figures of second-wave feminism and contemporary psychoanalytic theory, you have emphasized that your reading of Freud was "initially triggered by the hostility of American feminism to Freud". I also remember that you once spoke about your childhood memories of Wilhelm Reich, which went back to the 1940s. I am curious to hear what you feel about the origins of your thought today. How do you feel about Reich, for example?
Juliet Mitchell: I go back and situate myself in the 1960s, even in the childhood of the 1940s before that, immediately after the Second World War. I was in a communal school where my mother taught -- a very progressive, radical school called Summerhill in England. I was born in New Zealand, really by accident of the war. My parents were in Canada; my mother went on to take a research science job in New Zealand when war broke out. She didn't want to go; she wanted to stay in Canada. But the person she exchanged in the fellowship research programme was already on the high seas. So she went on and I was born there. Everybody thought the war would be short, but it wasn't. She felt very isolated. We lived in a German Jewish refugee community in Christchurch, which, I think, remained terribly important to me. The Jewish community in Christchurch, as I understand it now, was very interesting. Karl Popper had been there, for example, and he kept all the other Jewish refugees out of everything. I think it was a sort of European enclave. My mother didn't like being isolated; we came back to England in nine weeks in a boat in 1944, not knowing which way we were going. The Japanese were still at war, and we were a convoy on our way. The ship behind us was blown up, our ship was blown up on its way back. Three and a half, I had to do the lifeboat drill, getting my panic suit, turning on my red light, and climbing into lifeboats. Such are my early memories.
Anyway, we made it back to England, and the only thing my mother found out returning to England was evacuation of small children from the centres of cities. She wanted to make sure that I would not be sent away. So she became a schoolteacher, which meant she kept me with her. It was a school in North London, which was dominated by left-wing anarchists. Reich was just part of the air we breathed.
EEC: Reich was in the United States then, wasn't he?
JM: Yes, Reich was there by then. Norway forbade him, and then he went there. He was still seen as a political figure. He was quite an important person for left-wing anarchists after the war; but I don't remember thinking about that in the 1950s, which was a very different era. He came up again in the 1960s, with the student movement in Germany. A lot of his early works were reprinted by the SDS in Germany. And when I came to think about psychoanalysis, it was in the 1960s. I came in an environment where nobody would be interested in psychoanalysis, because that would have been bourgeois.
Going back to the 1940s, I had a job when I was eleven years old, looking after three children under the age of three -- twins and a girl of eighteen months. Their mother was trained to be a psychoanalyst. I was very interested in what she was doing. Her husband was the discoverer of interferon, which was a major scientific breakthrough. I was rather impressed by them when I was eleven years old. Maybe they had an influence.
The 1950s was such an enclosed sort of time. It is hard to express how freeing anything felt in the 1960s, and how the 1940s felt retrospectively. In the 1950s most teenagers were incredibly restricted by conventional narrow gender definitions. It began to break out with Teddy Boys and rockers in the late 1950s. Until then it really did feel like a straightjacket sort of existence. I remember my first years as a student, we were camping in Scotland. By then we were interested in the existentialism of Sartre and de Beauvoir. I wanted to buy The Second Sex, de Beauvoir's book, and went to the closest bookshop. I was asked to leave the bookshop, because it was regarded as pornography. The 1950s were like that. People now ask me about the 1960s, if there was a real sexual revolution. My answer is that certain things had changed and certain things were dramatically different from the past, particularly everyday instances.
Anyway, my first degree was in English literature, I loved English literature. But I didn't finish my PhD because when I was twenty-one I found a job lecturing in English literature at Leeds University in Northern England.
EEC: I am not sure whether it is popular among your readers today, but I remember reading an early article of yours on William Golding!
JM: William Golding? Published in New Left Review in about 1962, I think. That's when we were scraping the barrel, I was part of the team for New Left Review. We were really writing the journal ourselves, we had taken it over from the earlier group, which involved Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel, Dennis Bart, and before them, E. P. Thompson. Perry Anderson and I were married around that period, too. I was working in Leeds and we were living in London. This is about a five-hour train ride. Leeds was the stronghold of the on-the-ground political work, of the old Left embedded in the English working class and the Workers Education Movement. I knew the older generation of people, and I was some sort of bridge between Leeds and the "New Left" of London. The younger group had been seen by the older as totally continental. We were indeed very influenced by existentialism. E. P. Thompson told us off for "tree-top Marxism", for not having our feet on the ground. What we were trying to bring in was theory. We of course we had respect for the wonderful British historians and thinkers such as Raymond Williams, but they were ultimately suffering from British empiricism. We wanted to bring in continental theory, basically. That was the splitting point. I felt rather in two worlds, namely the pragmatism of the north of England and the theory of London and Paris.
And women came in that context. I remember I wrote on Doris Lessing as well as William Golding. I suppose psychoanalysis did come through Frantz Fanon, and Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre's attacks, which were very informed attacks, not just antagonisms. They knew why they didn't support psychoanalysis, why they didn't agree with it.
And we were extremely interested in the Third World. Many people went to work in Ghana. This would look like the hope of the future, independence in Algeria, and independence struggles in the world in general.
And then, because we were writing the magazine ourselves at this point, people started to write articles for it on special topics of our choice. There was a meeting point, for example Raphael Samuel wrote a wonderful piece about housing in Scotland. Thompson, Mann, and Anderson all had debates. People were getting embedded in Third World struggles. People went out and spent time researching what was happening and its political meaning, the major activists who were struggling in countries like Ghana, Algeria, and so on. People actually went to live there for a year or more and wrote very substantial articles. I joined Perry to write an article on Brazil, on Portuguese colonialism and the Portuguese empire. This was the sort of interest. We were discussing issues that didn't obviously fit into conventional terms of orthodox Marxism. We were influenced by Althusser, and that got us onto Lacan. We published Althusser's Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan in the mid-1960s, I think, quite early, this introduced Lacan into English culture. At that point, I decided not to work on the Third World any more, because the Third World here on our doorstep was women. Women who had not really been accounted for within Marxist theory.
It is interesting that it was Sartre who suggested de Beauvoir look at women. She hadn't thought about the subject before. They weren't coming from Marxism. If you think that Sartre wrote on Jews, Fanon on blacks, you could have introduced women's issues as well.
Existentialism is very open towards topics which were not class-based subjects such as Jews, blacks, or women. Marxism was not. A lot of us then gradually began to move out of the leftwing groups, and to see ourselves as Marxists who wanted to join up with feminism, the term we once absolutely denounced as "bourgeois deviation". We were calling this liberation, not emancipation, which was again a bourgeois concept. That was beginning to meet up with the liberationist movement, which was rising around situationists.
People like myself, coming from a Marxist background, found that orthodox class analysis wouldn't work for women. We were trying to look elsewhere. We were, of course, looking at existentialism through teenage years, early adulthood. It was Simone de Beauvoir's good theory, and it was probably one of the best single theories we have on woman or gender, when we have women on our agenda.
That was beginning to be met by the student movement, emerging at the same time. We were all involved in it. I was one of the founding members of the Anti-University of London in the late 1960s. Then I was working with anti-psychiatry people, Laing, Cooper, and so on. New Left Review published the first Laing. Then we published his series of articles on the critique of the family. It was a coming together of radical directions. The anti-psychiatrists were using existentialism; they translated Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason. With the anti-psychiatry people, we started the Anti-University on the steps of Shoreditch church in the east end of London. That's where I organized seminars with women, one of the first of the women's groups as a political group in the late 1960s. That was a very interesting group we had. We had a journalist from Sweden, some housewives with young children from South London, a couple of liberationist people and a couple of students. One of the people in this class inherited two thousand pounds, and she was going to put it towards a refuge for women, because violence against women was quite a topic. I persuaded her to put the money into a bookshop instead, so she opened a very good bookshop in Camden Town called Compendium Books, which became a very important alternative political bookshop. I certainly felt guilty afterwards, but other people raised money for refuges, anyway. I wanted a good bookshop. There were no good political bookshops around.
Political for us in the 1960s was such an inclusive concept, it meant radical, critical change, whether in the psychological field, the governmental field, the world field, and so on. It could be Red Brigades, it could be situationists. There was a lot of sectarian infighting. But sectarian infighting is a mark of tolerance in a funny way. It means you actually know that everybody is there. It was unlike the political field of the 1950s, which really did feel like being in a straightjacket.
I had my first article in New Left Review in 1966. My first book, Woman's Estate, which used that article, was published by Penguin Books in 1972. I had to get Penguin to withdraw the first couple of thousand from the bookshops, because they put one of our demonstrations on the cover -- but they hadn't realized that there was a banner of the Women's Liberation Front, the ultra sectarian Maoist women's group. And I was absolutely one of their most outspoken opponents. And a lot of the time we thought positively about the Cultural Revolution in China. We learned our lesson: don't think of popular revolutions unless you know them very well.
When it comes to sectarianism, people not on the Left never understood that argument is actually the lifeblood of politics. The problem is when people stop arguing.
By the time I'd written "Women: the Longest Revolution", in response to the Third World within one's own country, my question was, what were women, not being a class or race, doing here? "Oppression" was the word we used instead of "exploitation", because exploitation has a specific Marxist meaning as taking the surplus. And oppression was a catchy term used for Third World struggles and women as well.
"Women: the Longest Revolution" surveyed what was on Babel and Engels, also using Althusser as a framework. Because what was important to Althusser about women was in the last instance the economic: getting an independence from ideological state apparatuses, so women obviously get both into ideology and into economics. Althusser was rearranging the Marxist map, which was very helpful.
The book wasn't Althusserian in the political sense as much as in using the structures that he set up. Althusserian journals were coming out by friends of mine such as Ben Brewster. They were very specific in Althusserian politics. I was using the Althusserian argument rather than a platform.
After I finished "Women: the Longest Revolution", I noticed there was something missing from it. What it does is look at forestructures in which women are inserted. You can't find out anything about women. You couldn't, for example, find out how girls did in exams. A woman on a census was either her father's daughter or her husband's wife. Women were hidden from history. Where you could find women was within the family.
In the meantime, sociology was on the rise. There were big educational changes in England, including the introduction by the Wilson government of comprehensive education, expansion of universities. The article argues that "In all this literature, you can only find women as embedded in a family. Let's dismantle that and find out what women are doing in a family." Women are producing children. Caring for children. Providing a sexual relationship. And those three structures are surrounded by economy.
After I finished it I very much felt that I wanted to ask for another identifier, which was ideology. Woman is so much a part of it: there is no woman outside the ideology of woman. I had to think about that. When I thought about ideology, I started to look at psychology. That's how I moved. At the same time, one of the radical groups was anti-psychiatry. It used Freud quite critically, but not as much as the existentialists did.
I remember by then I moved from teaching English literature in Leeds University to be nearer to London where Perry and I were living, I moved to Reading University, where Perry also published some of his books. There I remember the wife of a young colleague, a very political young guy. We were part of the young teachers at universities; we were actually part of the student movement as well.
I remember the wife. She had an absolutely catastrophic delusion of breakdown at its maximum. She was working in Manchester. The head of my department was a very interesting man. He was very fond of her husband. She would just be put into a psychiatric hospital and drugged. Instead, he paid for her to come in a private car, absolutely mad, screaming, delusional, crazy. So a car went to fetch her to bring her down to Reading, where there was a sympathetic young practitioner, who first injected her, because she was trying to jump out of the window. He sedated her. Then her husband and I took her down to London to people working in anti-psychiatry. They found her a room in one of their hostels. There was somebody around for her all the time. She never had any drugs. They just let her sit quietly in a room, doing what she wanted to. She was calm, actually. She came out the other end fine. She did go through something. She was facing paranoid schizophrenia, she would have died, without a doubt. She would have been heavily medicated, probably given some CT. There was something in it. People may want to go back at some point and look at anti-psychiatry literature.
EEC: And your reading of Freud, that was "initially triggered by the hostility of American feminism to Freud"?
JM: So my own analysis of woman, which was taken up by Betty Friedan's book on feminism, published in 1964. In the States, the women's movement was beginning. I went to the States in 1964. I went to the foundation of Betty Friedan's movement, National Organization of Woman, which was the first organized women's movement. I met with groups of people who did very similar things to what we were doing in London. Marxist groups about women, Marxist-feminist groups... There were incredible prohibitions on woman's sexuality. Women weren't supposed to have any sexual enjoyment; vaginal orgasm seemed the only thing you should have. There was a big vote against that. And the beginning of very strong lesbian part of the women's movement in the US.
Freud was always at the nub of the attacks. From the freeing sexuality part, it moved to seeing Freud as this arch-patriarch. There were feminist calendars and diaries with Freud's head on a dartboard with a dart through his eye. That was Freud the arch-patriarch.
I started thinking that there must be something in it. I suppose we have a habit of thinking the opposite. It sounds pretentious to say "dialectically", but what I always found valuable about any aspect of Marxism was dialectic materialism. I would still defend dialectic materialism in some sense. It makes a lot of sense to me still. I'm probably absolutely off the planet saying that, but anyway.
So, as a habit of mind, if people are making a noise about somebody being absolutely the intellectual opposition, the thing that we must all attack, you begin to think there must be something in that for them to be bothering.
Visiting the US, I was still teaching. So, during the summer vacation, I went into the library, which I had used since I was 17 and adored. We had a network of people who used to work in that library. It was a very important intellectual centre, closed down. I went there just to read what Freud had had to say about women. I went there in June and came back in September, having read all his twenty three volumes of work. I just got completely fascinated.
I thought, this is where you could add a social analysis of sexuality to a wider social analysis of economy, social actions, classes, etc. Through psychology, you could get to ideology. Psychology and ideology are extremely close. How we think of what we are, how we think ourselves in the world is an ideological question. This is also what psychology is, how we think ourselves, particularly unconsciously. We don't wake up every morning and think, "Uh, God, I'm a man, uh God, I'm a woman." We know it without thinking about it, at a pre-conscious, but also deeply unconscious level. But how? This question takes us to the unconscious knowledge of gender.
So, I wrote Woman's Estate, it was an adaptation of the "Women: the Longest Revolution" article. At the end, it was saying we must think about using psychoanalysis for ideology. After that, I left the university and went freelance, got some money in advance from the publisher, money for me to live a couple of years so I could write a book. In the synopsis I said the book would be a "social history of the feminine"; that is how I got his money. A friend of mine had said, "double your needs, because you will get half," and I did. Then I wrote Psychoanalysis and Feminism -- so it had been commissioned as a book on the feminine, it was meant to be a sort of history of sociology of the feminine, the publisher got a different book than he bought. But he was extremely generous and nice, didn't mind at all. Donkey's years later I found the original synopsis, the commissioned book was really completely different.
There have been all sorts of ways in cultural studies where psychoanalysis has been used wonderfully. Something in me wanted to know the material from which it derived. I was always interested in the critical views of psychoanalysis. You know, I have been accused of defending Freud. It was not completely true. My project has always been within the critical views of psychoanalysis, nowhere else. But you have to criticize something in relation with the material you are using. And I wanted to use it in relation to the material from which psychoanalysis arose: men or women; people's psyche: the unconscious itself, in people.
BÃ¼lent Somay: And from the late 1970s onwards, you wore two hats at the same time; one being psychoanalyst and the other feminist. But how can these two positions, one a member of the social movement for emancipation and/or social change, and the other of a healer working in an extremely intimate environment, be reconciled?
JM: I went into psychoanalysis from feminism, from the sexual side and the political side. My questions for psychoanalysis were from politics, such as whether psychoanalysis could help understand the position of women. I've written articles and published other things on psychoanalysis for feminist newspapers in England.
It was only after that I wanted to take my research further; I needed to have a material base that the theory has derived from. Then I trained as a psychoanalyst, coming from the political spectrum.
I never really saw these two divided in the way you are presenting in your question. The project has always been defined in the other way. After all, Freud was quite explicit that there is no distinction between the individual as individual and the individual as social being. We are always and nothing but social. The unconscious, the field of psychoanalysis, is absolutely and necessarily social. So you may look at the social through some individual context. But because what you see is the social, we can use that material gathered from the individual to take further questions or further interpretations of the social. And the other way around, if you are going to look at the individual who has got a clinical problem, there is always a social context. There is never a psychopathology without the social context.
Practically speaking, they are of course different enterprises. It's private, working with an individual in a clinical context, because it has to be absolutely confidential. So the practice is obviously different, while the material theory combines very well, using the individual to understand the social and the social to understand the individual. That's what the whole notion of the unconscious is. It's not Jung's elective unconscious, it's Freud's social unconscious, that the mind is the body, the mind is somatic in everybody. Though you will have different individual histories, what we are looking at is in fact what holds us together, the dynamic, what we have in common.
I think what leads us to senses of two different worlds in the sense of individual is actually the nature of the society we live in. We take it for granted that the social is versus individual and vice versa. The individualism of capitalist society is such that we always tend to think of the individual as "not social". Therefore, we always tend to see the person with problems as an individual with individual psychopathology, and disregard the social problem. But in fact it's impossible. It has to be one and the same thing.
BS: As a feminist, your call to your fellow women is "Do not submit, subvert, change, change the world". But as a psychoanalyst, working with an individual, suffering comes because of the inability to cope with the existing order. You try to facilitate the social harmony, and eventually, submission. Is there a way to avoid this seemingly contradictory situation?
JM: I think it's seemingly rather than deeply contradictory. There is no way that I would be interested in helping somebody to cope with an impossible or difficult situation. What they might want to do is to find a way to change the situation by having some changes within themselves. But I wouldn't want them to change themselves to fit the situation in any sense. Supposing someone is not dysfunctional, ie they can work, they can have sexual relationships, friendships, love relations, and so on.
What I would be hoping for is an openness to find out what the person knows about himself, and what he or she doesn't know. When they know it, when they find out what it is, then, in a sense, he or she can choose how to use what he or she found: to choose, not to adapt. This is not a word that features in Freudian psychology. But to see how one can change oneself as well as how he or she can change the world is the problem. I think in both fields, what one is looking towards is "change", not "adaptation". Change of the individual is interpreted as adaptation to status quo -- but no, we should be changing both.
BS: Do you think psychosis as a complete or significantly partial refusal to submit to the symbolic order is psychoanalyzeable? Can there be a middle way, between the psychotic's way of refusing to submit and our trying to subvert the symbolic order?
JM: My present work is very much on the area of normalization of psychotic processes. In that normalization, what you have often got is actually the very rigid social order as well as rigid personality. So, it's not a question whether psychoanalysis can work with it or not. I think it can, but I think we haven't got a full understanding of psychosis yet. I think we understood its pathological dimension, not the normative dimension. We can ask whether psychopathology of the psychotic is really a subversion of the symbolic order or embattled rigid position from which the person cannot move either to subvert the symbolic order or to conform to it.
I don't think anti-psychiatrists such as Laing and Cooper saw the schizophrenic as the madman telling the truth. What we had were two sets of rigidity, we had the pathological dimension of psychosis in paranoia, schizophrenia: delusions -- which are delusions, let's face it. But then we had the normative delusions of an acceptable psychotic status quo, which is what our political world very often is. For me, the question is whether the person who is suffering from the extreme pathological dimension of psychosis can find sufficient freedom to not need that refuge, whether he or she is able to come with a critique of the normative psychosis of the political social world.
The Platypus Affiliated Society in New York organized a moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A to critically evaluate the widespread assumption that the election of Barack Obama presents an opportunity for today's Leftists. Asking how opportunity can be distinguished from opportunism, Platypus invited several intellectuals and activists to publicly think through the foreseeable pitfalls and potentials posed by the passing of the Bush-era into the age of Obama.
Chris Cutrone (Platypus)
Stephen Duncombe (author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy)
Pat Korte (New School SDS)
Charles Post (Solidarity)
Paul Street (author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, 2008)
New York University, 100 Washington Square East, Silver Center, room 405
Platypus questions for panelists
- Many people across the political spectrumâ€”including those who claim to be on the Leftâ€”assume that the election of Obama represents a symbolic vindication of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. But is the implied conception of the Civil Rights movement really adequate to this history? Pivotal Civil Rights intellectuals and leaders, including Bayard Rustin and even Martin Luther King Jr., advocated the use of political force against the economically structured social inequality of American race relations. As Rustin put it: â€œNegro povertyâ€¦will not be eliminated without a total war on poverty.â€ This vision clearly lost outâ€”indeed, Rustin saw even purportedly radical declarations of â€œBlack powerâ€ as both a conservative naturalization of the racial difference the movement had tried to eliminate and a rationalization of powerlessness. Today, changing the racial composition of the powers-that-be, celebrating diversity, and pursuing sanctioned reform and institutionally-given power are seen as the limits of what the Civil Rights Movement imagined or pushed to achieve.
- What are the roots of this historical forgetfulness? What critique can we offer to the reduction of the Civil Rights movement to symbolism and status-quo powers? And how might such a critique help foster popular political energy against the structural inequalities that remain intact in American Society?
- Organized labor was a major constituency of the Obama campaign, and put much effort into working for an Obama victory. For instance, the â€œChange to Win Coalitionâ€ mobilized the political power of six million workers represented by seven unions, it organized teams to knock on doors, make phones calls, distribute information, to rally for an Obama victory. However, even during the campaign Obama made statements, specifically about teachersâ€™ unions, which revealed that he didnâ€™t consider himself as squarely in the camp of organized labor. More recently he has said that he intends to bring all parties to the table, including labor and the interests of Capital, to seek solutions to the financial crisis. With this in mind, to what extent should organized labor see in Obama a â€œpartnerâ€ in the struggles of the working class to secure improvements in their bargaining position? Furthermore, how can the working class take advantage of the limited opportunities presented by the Obama presidency without losing the degree of independence needed to push beyond what seems possible under the administration. What can be done beginning under Obamaâ€™s presidency to reverse the assault on organized labor which has characterized the past several decades and to put the working class into an active and not passive or defensive position? What is the agenda of labor regardless of the president?
- The vacuous phrase â€œWall street vs. Main Streetâ€ was effectively used by the Obama campaign to portray the class divisions made perceivably more acute by the current economic crisis. How should this opportunistic rhetoric be addressed? And how should criticism of capitalist class-society and its crises be promoted without simply condemning the â€œgreedâ€ of Capitalists and heralding the altruism of the â€œworking peopleâ€? What can be done to deepen a public understanding of class dynamics and to counter the ideological confusion produced by the crisis and its management.
- The politics of Anti-Iraq-War dissent, coupled with Anti-Bush-Administration disapproval, has driven Leftist organizing for most of the past decade. These politics have cemented a bond between political bedfellows who seem to share little more than the deep-set reliance on the quantification of â€œoppositionâ€ through mass-demonstrations and disapproval polling, and the cynical belief that practically anybody is better than Bush and the Republicans. Indeed, it often seems like the only thing that has held together groups with deeply conflicting principles and social visions has been a general â€œantiâ€ stance towards the current regime. However, Obamaâ€™s administration threatens to dissolve this arrangement by meeting, at least in part, many of the rallying demands of the â€œmovementâ€â€”for instance, by closing Guantanamo Bay, settling on a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq, curtailing some of the gross war-profiteering, and becoming less hostile to the U.N. and more careful with â€œglobal opinion.â€ If Obamaâ€™s presidency does diminish the efficacy of Bush-era â€œantiâ€ politics, can you foresee a new arrangement of principles and criticisms which could create a more successful oppositional force? What could this Left stand for? How might it be capable of fighting against the causes of war across presidential terms, specific military campaigns, and nationally bound politics?
- Rather than hysterically celebrating Obamaâ€™s election as the â€œbeginning of a new ageâ€ or cynically dismissing it as a meaningless display of â€œcelebrity politicsâ€, how do we determine what is really new versus what is left wholly unchanged in the present political moment? What are the actual and significant new developments the Obama presidency representsâ€”or may representâ€”for the Left? This seems to be deeply affected by how we understand the election in light of the continuing weakness and obsolescence of the Left as a social force. How is Obamaâ€™s election part of a more general historical trajectory, characterized by the loss of political possibilities and the decline of a Leftist politics? And what might be done today to buck against that trend?
- To what extent is Obama or anyone in his administration free to transform socio-economic conditions in the United States? To what extent are theyâ€”granting them even the best of intentionsâ€”bound to preserve and reproduce these conditions? How should a Left begin to clarify and aim to overcome this present limitation? And how might it address this problem of constraint so that the task to overcome the limitations of social agency is made clear and may point toward effective political action? In other words, what would the Left need to become to end capitalism in 10 years?
Platypus Review 9 | December 2008
To change the world, we need a movement. This movement must be made up of millions of people and thousands of organizations. These organizations must build and push the movement forward. How do we get to this point? We have to start with leadership.
From 12 to 155
As a union organizer, I train workers to lead their shop floor and industry wide struggles. In the case of my union, we call the leaders in the shops “committee members.” These folks organize for fights with bosses, deal with issues on the shop floor, and negotiate contracts.
Every June for the last five years there has been a major citywide rally on behalf of all of the members of my union. For my part, I was responsible for organizing workers at one of the major food service companies in Chicago. All the workers of this company are part of the union. For the big citywide action on Michigan Avenue in 2007, only 12 out of 650 workers showed up. Not even half of the committee came.
The union committee did the day-to-day work of running the union. There were no qualifications for membership in the committee. Everyone who wanted to be on the committee was welcome; no one was ever turned away. If you joined the committee, you were not given any clear expectations. The committee was comprised of twentyfive volunteers who were neither the most respected nor trusted workers in the shop. And they were the ones expected to move the union forward?! The organization of the union was catch as catch can. It was a weak union, and that’s definitely not what we needed.
Twenty-five individuals that did not have the ability to mobilize their co-workers, did not have any responsibility, and did not have the skills or the knowledge to win issues on the shop floor, produced a weak union.
One year later, the same march takes place, and workers from the same shop come out to Michigan Avenue. This time, 155 workers came.
This was made possible by a strong and fighting union. This union has a committee that pushes co-workers to fight; a committee that both carries out the daily functions of the union and believes in a long-term class-based political program; a committee with members trained to become better leaders, who can target and recruit new committee people. The union needed committee members who would constantly challenge each other to be stronger and better organizers. In other words, leadership was needed.
We can build a successful movement by developing leadership skills and leaders who can be held accountable.
The worker-led organizing committee shrunk to twenty, with some workers from the first committee, and some were new members. The philosophy and expectations of the committee members changed. Committee members agreed to a minimum set of requirements: they had to have the respect of the group, and the desire to lead their co-workers. Each committee member agreed to take responsibility for organizing a group, to attend meetings, to recruit more leaders, to get training, and to do the work of building a movement. Those that did not agree and those that did not live up to the responsibility got off the committee. The committee was changing from a hodgepodge group of volunteers to a body ready for leadership.
I recently sat on a panel at the “Platypus Readers and Writers Forum.” The discussion was supposed to focus on how the Platypus Review could become a better newspaper. But, the panelists and the audience were interest in having a different conversation. The forum moved in the direction of the age-old debate between “theory” and “practice,” or between “thought” and “action.” After three hours we all agreed that both were necessary in a radical movement for social change.
Everyone on the left has heard and said it before. We are all wrong. The problem today is not about theory, the “right line,” or militant action. The problem is one of leadership. The question should be: how do we get more people to accept our theories and to take part in our actions, so we can build enough momentum to be able to actually accomplish the goals of our movement?
It is impossible to build real organization, to direct our actions, thoughts, and goals into a single vision, in a Left when “leader” and “leadership” are treated as dirty words. Those in leadership roles (official or unofficial)— even in large organizations—are treated with disdain, disgust, even as enemies.
On the Left today, the concept of leadership is synonymous with authoritarianism, dictatorship, oppression, and control. This antipathy towards leadership has stalled our efforts: we waste time working to limit the power of our own organizations, instead of figuring out how to use the power of our organizations against the current system. As a result, constant infighting and petty personality disputes destroy our ability to achieve our actual goals.
This negative vision of leadership has produced broad acceptance of “diversity of tactics,” “anti-authoritarianism,” “consensus decision making.” These and a host of other leftist ideas were a rejection of the centralized leadership and bureaucratic structures of the left before the 1960s.
Students for a Democratic Society, founded with exactly these concepts in mind, once had 100,000 members nationwide. In 1969, it gave way to the Weatherman Faction, which in turn became the Weather Underground. The potential for a strong organization was lost; the radicals that could have led SDS ended as a few dozen people isolated from any broader movement. This story has become far too common throughout the history of the left.
Today, the movement has no structure and no power. Because of the ever-shrinking and splintered organizations, it’s impossible to think beyond our own small circle of friends or “affinity groups.” Some Chicagoans who participated in the 2008 Republican National Convention reported that during the planning for blocking traffic, certain affinity groups couldn’t even commit to the rest of the organization to hold certain intersections, in case they “felt like going somewhere else.” This has become the norm, the views of every small group is of equal importance, and every person within that group is allowed to opt in or out at anytime.
Activists no longer view their roles as leaders of a movement, nor consider themselves responsible to organizations. Individuals are not expected to, nor desire to, recruit others into organizations or activities. Recruitment and training are not priorities. Discipline and planning are limited to one-off actions, not long-term organizational plans. Individualism has run amok, and the outcome is libertinism, not political power for the masses of humanity.
This sentiment is not just anti-leadership, it is anti-organization, and ultimately it is anti-power. This is not due to a political theory, either; it is merely the product of our own internal fear. In the face of constant defeat, the vast majority of the left, regardless of label, has adopted this anti-power ideology. We have complacently accepted our own situation, resigned ourselves to symbolic protest and resistance, and accepted our minority status. We are being held back by our own fear of being right, of being wrong, of winning, of losing, of anything. We are afraid of looking over the edge, seeing the abyss before us, and having to leap. We are more afraid still of leading others off that cliff into creating a new world. We are terrified of the responsibilities and burdens of that leadership.
This must change. We must learn to be leaders.
This is not the leadership of unaccountable government leaders, top-down and based on patronage or the power of the law. Nor is it the self-appointed ideological leadership of communist parties. The position of leaders in a real emancipatory movement must come solely from one factor: the ability of the leaders to lead those involved in the organization into a struggle for liberation and power. Taking responsibility and leadership is the ultimate act of believing in your politics. It is the ultimate act of believing in yourself. You must create the new or it will never come. And we are more afraid of the new than what we know.
Timothy’s path to leadership
I will never forget meeting Timothy, one of the first members of the new committee in my union. He was on the prior committee and had worked there for seven years. Like so many of us, Timothy felt his life was out of his hands, and just wanted to talk about his problems. His wife was robbed, his daughter had asthma and frequently ended up in the hospital, and he’d been in and out of prison.
Timothy wanted to be safe. He wanted to have control over his life. But Timothy had only fought for himself; he had never been challenged to act like a leader and challenge his friends/co-workers to stand up.
It would have been easier for me to just accept the history of this shop, and just say this is what “the workers” wanted. Instead, I chose to challenge him and to push others to do the same. I made him reconsider the role he and his co-workers could play. Along with workers’ strength, we talked about his life and what kind of man and father he wanted to be.
Timothy wanted his union to fight, although he wasn’t sure what that meant. He did know, however, that only a handful of people in the shop floor would talk about the problems, that nothing ever got fixed, and everyone felt weak for way too long. Timothy agreed to get trained and to challenge his co-workers to organize toward their common goals.
At a certain point, Timothy decided he was going to lead and organize a new area of the site because the company was cutting people’s hours and giving more work to certain “favorite” workers. He got four more committee members to start a petition; they convinced the whole department to sign it and deliver it as a group. The night before the delivery, the committee leaders called their coworker followers to make sure that they would be there.
They trusted the leadership’s decisions, and, despite their fears, 76 of them gathered to present the petition as a group. Timothy and four other committee members confronted the General Manager with the petition. Within twenty minutes, the Manager agreed to pay them thousands of dollars for the time the company had cut.
Leadership and the future of the Left
Finding and developing new leaders at the shop was not easy, but it proved that a strong organization, and a strong movement, is only possible through the development of leadership. Developing leadership for the movement requires creating long term plans for the growth of an organization, recruiting new members, training a new generation of leadership, and planning and carrying out campaigns for short-term victories.
A leader’s priority is to widen the base of support, train people to carry out necessary tasks, and immediately give newly recruited people responsibilities. Without training, and short-term goals, the membership will slowly decline and leadership will inevitably fall off. By planning and accomplishing things together members both old and new will learn to trust each other and the power of the leadership. As members go through the ups and downs of campaigns, wins and losses, they will learn the effectiveness of their own organizations and learn to trust in the leadership of those that are taking the bold step of leading people into difficult struggles. Larger goals become attainable, and more people will have been through difficult struggles and will have learned how to fight and win.
Timothy did just that, he became a man that was respected and built an organization that was feared. As he moves forward he will be able to change dozens—and will ultimately lead hundreds—of working class people. This has also allowed Timothy to build a better relationship with his wife and daughter. It taught him restraint, planning, patience and respect. When working class people learn to feel respect in their own lives, and feel power in the places of work and the community, we have advanced the possibility of real transformation.
We must not fail to recruit people into our organizations. We cannot be afraid to directly ask a person to recognize that they have a stake in changing the world, and share our vision of struggle with them. Many people on the left are just waiting for the revolution to come. We cannot just assume that someday the workers of the world are going to flock to our ideas. The revolution will never come by itself. A revolution will only be possible by the organized actions of the Left.
I lead people. I’m proud of leading people. I think leading people is the most important thing I can do in my life. I do not lead everyone. I don’t lead people in every area of their lives. I don’t lead people to do things against their self-interest. I am not unique in my leadership ability. But I can and will lead people in a social movement.
Each one of you gets to make the same choice I made, the same choice Timothy made. Who do I want to be? What is the better me? As you answer those questions, believe that it is our duty as revolutionaries to make sure other people can answer them as well, and can realize their visions. Everyone wants a better world, but it is up to us to get the world there.
Two dominant ideas on the left today are used to treat leadership negatively and not as a necessity: “we are all leaders” or “we have no leaders.”
The left is wrong and will continue to lose until it recognizes that fact. It is imperative that we learn to take leadership seriously and work to develop it. There is only one thing that should be avoided on the left, and that is losing. It is time to do something different. It is time to lead. |P
Platypus Review 9 | December 2008
For the “Left” that is critical of him, the most common comparison made of Obama is to Bill Clinton.
This critique of Obama, as of Clinton, denounces his “Centrism,” the trajectory he appears to continue from the “new” Democratic Party of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) expressed by Clinton and Gore’s election in 1992. Clinton’s election was seen as part of the triumph of “Third Way” politics that contemporaneously found expression in Tony Blair’s “New” Labour Party in Britain.
The idea of such “Third Way” politics is that, compared to the prior political polarizations that developed around the Reagan and Thatcher neoliberal assault on the Keynesian-Fordist state and the resistance against this trend by traditional “social-democratic” politics, the “radical Center” expressed the possibility of a deeper and more effective political transformation. — What if the “Third Way” politicians were correct?
While the “Left” attacks Obama for being too Centrist or Right-wing, a neoliberal in blackface, the Right attacks Obama for being a closet “socialist” (or “Marxist”!). But both attacks neglect the fundamental transformation of politics that has taken place over the course of the past generation, since the “Reagan Revolution”: the Right cynically because they wish to demagogically drive their conservative-reactionary politics ever further; and the “Left” more despairingly because they have never made proper sense of the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state, and so have thought that the neoliberal Right’s efforts can be simply reversed with a “progressive” outcome — that Keynesian Fordism had been progressive and not regressive in terms of social emancipation.
Behind this lies a deeper confusion that informed the problematic politics of the 1960s “New” Left, and behind that, the reformism of the Left of the 1930s. The “Old” Left had jumped on the bandwagon of FDR’s New Deal reforms — and the remaking of Europe and Japan as well as the postcolonial “developing” states in a Keynesian-Fordist “social-democratic” image after WWII. The “New” Left responded to this conservatization ambivalently, however, attacking the authoritarian liberalism of JFK and LBJ in the 1960s, but then attempting to stave off its collapse in the 1970s-80s. In this the post-’60s “Left” has been as mistaken in its defense as it had been previously in its attack.
The “social democratic” politics of the mid-20th Century involved tying the workers’ movement to state policies, depoliticizing labor struggles and eviscerating the remnants of the socialist movement of the early 20th Century. The collapse of such Keynesian-Fordist reformist politics began in the 1970s and has carried through the ’80s and ’90s to the present. The displacement of the reformism associated with the Democratic Party (and Labour in the U.K.) by a “new” Right starting in the 1970s was facilitated by the demobilization of the working class as a social force with its roots in the 1930s, the period of the Stalinization of Marxism — the transformation of Marxism into a reformist ideology.
The alliance of such “Marxism” with liberalism and social democracy in the Popular Front against fascism in Europe and with FDR’s Democratic Party in the 1930s and during WWII, despite the Cold War against the USSR and its allies that followed, collectively remade the world in its image of politics. What was most important about the politics of the mid-20th Century was not the struggles, however epic, it contained and expressed, but rather how such politics repressed possibilities for social emancipation.
The challenge “Third Way” politics has offered to the terms of both the Old and New Left, emerging from the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state in the latter part of the 20th Century, has not been met. The changes this politics has augured are askew of the mainstream conceptions of “Left” and “Right” as they were established in the mid-20th Century, after the collapse of the Left into a conservative phenomenon in and through the Popular Front of the 1930s, and the subsequent failure to renew emancipatory politics in the 1960s. Indeed, the “Left” since the 1960s has been trapped in an essentially conservative pose, trying to hold back the tide of neoliberal changes. The problems inherent in this can be summarized by the divisions the “Left” accepts between “personal” and “government” responsibility, or between libertarian and authoritarian politics — the opposition of individual to collective freedom.
To take one prominent example, Adolph Reed, in a variety of writings and statements in other media prior to the election, has excoriated Obama for his rhetoric of “personal responsibility” regarding the problems facing black Americans. For Reed (as for Jeremiah Wright, and Jesse Jackson, Sr., who in off-air comments expressed a desire to “cut his nuts off” after Obama made a Fathers’ Day commentary about black “dead-beat dads”), Obama’s rhetoric of personal responsibility falls in with the neoliberal politics of disclaiming public (governmental) responsibility for social ills and “privatizes” them instead.
Of course Reed is right to criticize such rhetoric by Obama. But the question remains whether today we ought to proceed as if the main enemy was the rhetoric of the 1965 Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: the case for national action,” which infamously identified a supposed “culture of poverty” pathology beyond the possibility of state amelioration, and sought to disenchant the 1960s Great Society expansions of the 1930s New Deal. While Reed and others in the 1960s rightly pointed to the essential affinity between the roots of neoconservatism of Moynihan et al. and the paternalism of liberal reformism, they failed to properly clarify the relation between the reformist politics of labor organizations and the state policies and agencies into which these groups were integrated (such as the National Labor Relations Board) in the mid-20th Century.
The question is whether the terms of such political battles of the 1960s era are still pertinent — whether we ought to place our hopes in reversing policy changes that have occurred from Reagan through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush — or do we need instead to interrogate the terms of this (apparently) perennial struggle so as to be able to adopt an entirely different and potentially more effective framework for emancipatory politics. For the most significant change from the 1960s to the present has been the decimation of the — reformist, non-class struggle — workers movement.
An authentic Marxian Left would not oppose the politics of the governmental responsibility — of the capitalist state — to that of individual persons. A Marxian approach would neither devolve social responsibility onto individual persons nor would it invest collective responsibility in the form of the capitalist nation-state. Nor would it disclaim personal responsibility but would pose it very differently than liberals do — whether they be liberals of the moralizing “conservative” kind or of the supposedly more radical lifestyle-choice variety.
A Marxian approach would argue that the working class has, at the levels of both individual-personal and collective responsibility, to struggle for socialism — and that Leftist intellectuals have a responsibility to help facilitate this struggle.
Rather than the illusions in Obama — either positive or negative — that associate him simply with the vicissitudes of movement along a spectrum of “Left” and “Right” informed fundamentally by Keynesian-Fordist state policies or their undermining by neoliberalism, a response to the “Third Way” politics Obama represents needs to be formulated that recognizes a historical trajectory that is not reassimilable back into the social politics of the mid-20th Century. For such politics had been settled by the time of Clinton’s election in 1992, after the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution” and the destruction of the Soviet Union. There is a line of continuity between Clinton and Obama, but not one of betrayal of the Left but of historical changes for which the “Left” has been ill-prepared.
The triumph of neoliberalism, as well as of “Third Way” politics of the “radical Center” at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries cannot be understood properly as a move to the Right that can be reversed by undoing it or by repolarizing politics according to an earlier mode of government policies. They must be seen as part of a deep-rooted historical trajectory that can only be defeated through a new politicization of the working class for socialism, a politics that has been neglected since the early 20th Century.
We must learn the lessons of the 20th Century not learned by those who came before us, and not accept the terms by which they rationalized their failures. Obama, as the latest sign of “change” in this on-going trajectory, underscores this necessity.
Like the “Third Way” we should not accept the opposition of individual and collective social responsibility in conceiving our politics. Unlike the “Third Way,” we should not affirm the forms of state and civil society in which these different dimensions of social responsibility are mediated in today’s late, “post-revolutionary” capitalism. We should rise to the challenge of the necessary double-sided critique that can meet the conservative politics of the “Third Way” in terms of its — and our — own historical moment, and not in the obsolete and, even in their time, mistaken and ineffective terms of a moribund “Left.”
Since his election, Obama has made it clear that he wishes to steer clear of outdated polarizations — as well he should, if he wants to be an effective politician. We should not treat this merely as “political” equivocation or obfuscation, but rather as clearing the way to a potential better recognition of social reality. For a long time now, the “Left” has been adept at skirting the issues and accepting, however tacitly, the terms of social politics set by others. For it is as true that “government [of the capitalist nation-state] is not the answer” as it is that neoliberal “free market” reforms have been a farcical debacle — with tremendous costs to humanity. But the historical failure of the Left is what brought us to this impasse of the 20th Century, the 21st Century opportunity of the “Third Way” and its politics of the “radical Center.” The vacuum of historical politics has been filled, and we need to address this present effective space for politics and not remain self-marginalized, in disdain of it.
We cannot continue the preceding “Left’s” follies in accepting the terms and attempting to re-fight the battles of the 1960s and the 1930s (and their aftermath), in an endless “rear-guard action,” without denying our social reality in its most fundamental respects. Obama has not been a transformative figure in the sense of bringing about a change. Rather, Obama’s victory expresses a change that has been already long under way — and about which the “Left” has remained confused and in denial for far too long, as a result of its abandonment of Marxism.
For a Marxian approach should seek to occupy the vital, radical center of political life, if social emancipation beyond capital is ever to be achieved. Not the intellectual cynicism of “postmodernism” or the despairing utopian politics of an “anarchist” withdrawal from mainstream political life, but an open assault on the on-going conservatizing strategies of depoliticization and the consolidation of power that takes form in ever more socially opaque and inaccessible ways.
Reversing this can only happen in the context of a reinvigorated workers’ movement that would seek to centrally reorganize social life, at a global scale. Today, this must begin with the integrated North American working class, who, occupying the beating heart of the world of capital, has a unique historic responsibility and potentially emancipatory role to play, for whose abdication all of humanity will continue to pay a terrible and escalating price. Addressing the ideological clarification necessary for overcoming this deficit of working class politics will be possible only through Marxian critical theory, carried on by intellectuals trained and dedicated to do this.
As Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), the great revolutionary Marxist politician of the early 20th Century stated it, during the disintegration of the international Marxist workers’ movement in the First World War,
Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of humankind . . . to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history. (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, AKA the Junius pamphlet, 1915)
We need to resume this fight. |P
On October 16, 2008, a panel discussion titled What is a Movement? A Discussion on the Meaning and Direction of Left Political “Movements” Historically and Today was held in Chicago. The panelists were Luis Brennan of the new Students for a Democratic Society, Elena Davis of Pomegranate Health Collective, Chuck Hendricks of UNITE/HERE, Jorge Mujica of Movimiento 10 de Marzo, and Richard Rubin of Platypus.
"The desire for revolution cannot be born only when the situation is ripe, because among the conditions for this ripeness are the revolutionary demands made of an unripe reality."
-- Leszek Kolakowski
"But it is absurd to think of a purely 'objective' foresight. The person who has foresight in reality has a 'programme' that he wants to see triumph, and foresight is precisely an element of this triumph."
-- Antonio Gramsci
"The socialist order of society is not prevented by world history; it is historically possible. But it will not be realized by a logic that is immanent to history but by men trained in theory and determined to make things better. Otherwise, it will not be realized at all."
-- Max Horkheimer
". . . every shortcoming in historical duty increases the necessary disorder and prepares more serious catastrophes."
-- Antonio Gramsci
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
An interview with SDS member Rachel Haut published in the September issue of this publication provoked widespread comment in radical circles. We welcome the discussion but worry that it remains ensconced within the sterile jargon and petty antinomies of the actually-existing- Left. More fundamental questions exist than, say, the position of sectarian groups within the SDS -- questions that unsettle the comfortable assumptions of radical politics. There’s a temptation to think such of questioning as an irrelevant, academic obstruction to real action. Indeed, most contemporary radical theory confuses more than clarifies. But confused political thinking leads to confused politics and confused politics mean failed politics. Here are five questions that point towards the roots of confusion. We don’t have firm answers to any of them. They trouble us, and occupy our thoughts and conversations.
1. What is Capitalism, and how can it be overcome? The SDS aims to “change a society which depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival: racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism, among others.” These systems, with a single exception, are simple forms of domination. A ruling stratum (whites, men) oppresses a given subaltern. Capitalism seems much more complicated; impossible to reduce to the direct and violent oppression of one class by another. How ought the student movement understand the characteristic form of capitalist domination? And what forms of politics are adequate to overcome it?
2. SDS is against imperialism; what is it for?Many anti-imperialists insist that ending American global domination would open the opportunity for revolutionary forces across the world. But such an argument does not specify the possible agents of social transformation. Worse, the position ignores the possibility of reactionary domestic politics. If the United States withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, more reactionary forces -- Muslim theocracy, corrupt nationalism -- could easily take its place. In the absence of a real international progressive movement, the choice will always between bad and worse. How, then, can the (American) student movement help cultivate emancipatory politics around the globe?
3. How does racism matter? The Civil Rights movement eliminated de jure discrimination, and rendered public bigotry unacceptable. But racial inequalities still exist. African Americans have, for instance, a disproportionately high rate of incarceration. Radicals cite such discrepancies as evidence of the continued force of racism. But stressing race risks glossing over the structural, class-bound constitution of poverty. If contemporary American society is, in fact, racist, what is the specific form of this racism? How does this racism relate to the broader social structure of the United States? What political and social changes would render racism, and the very concepts of race that it depends upon, irrelevant?
4. What kind of questions can students ask? Members of SDS often disavow their distinctive identity as students, feeling it an unwarranted and embarrassing privilege. But student life presents unique opportunities -- to read, to discuss, to examine and critique different traditions of politics. But SDS does not, as a whole, take up the opportunity. Fear of sectarian controversy precludes sustained ideological discussion, so the orientation and form of the organization remains unquestioned and uncertain. Serious, honest reflection and conversation can clarify these uncertainties. So, what sort of fundamental questions ought the SDS ask itself and the broader Left? How can it ask them?
5. Why, and how, could the New SDS succeed where the old did not? The Port Huron statement sought to “replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity...” The first SDS failed to meet its own task. Possession, privilege and circumstance still determine social power. So why did the Old SDS fail? And how can the new one succeed? The problem is broader, though. With the passing of the 60s moment, whatever (slim) possibility of international revolutionary change there was has evaporated. No organized political force offers the practical possibility of a qualitatively better future for all humanity. How ought we understand the loss of political possibility? What would make international revolutionary politics possible again? What role might SDS, as a movement in the U.S., at the heart of global capitalism, play in such a process? |P
. See: Freedom Road Socialist Organization (www.frso.org), Kasama blog (mikeely.wordpress.com), The Daily Radical blog (www.dailyradical.org), Louis Proyect blog (louisproyect.wordpress.com), Revolutionary Left blog (www.revleft.com), Marxist-Leninist blog (marxistleninist.wordpress.com), and Left Spot blog (http://leftspot.com/blog).
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
I decided not to participate in any illegal protests at the RNC.
There’s a simple, material reason: Had I been arrested I would have been accountable for bail money (or unhappily relying on legal defense funds that I truly feel have more value elsewhere) and possibly a day’s worth of income. I have been and continue to be a member of the working class. I grew up with a single mother who worked two low-paying jobs, and for the past five years, living on my own, I have survived well below the poverty line. I am also currently uninsured and without health care. Culturallyspeaking, the working class community might not see me so equitably; I am, after all, college educated and on my path towards the ivory tower. But still, getting arrested was not financially feasible for me. I have rent to pay.
The other reason is a little more complicated. I was afraid that I wouldn’t agree with the whole agenda. I was proved right. I support: blockading the GOP buses, blocking intersections, radical dance parties in public space. I don’t support: smashing windows/cars, violent hate rhetoric (“What do we want? Bush Dead!”), and, most importantly, making abstractions out of human beings.
It is not surprising or necessarily regrettable that not everyone has the same version of anarchism. And so I am not angry that there are those who choose to interpret and perform it differently, but I am angry when that performance goes so blatantly against some of the fundamental elements of this “new world in our hearts” that so many radical/anarchist/progressives claim to want. And I am angry when—even if people aren’t moral pacifists—that a “movement” that claims to want the revolution can’t even see the relevance in strategic pacifism. To use the most obvious and simple example: the protesters during the Civil Rights movement did not fight back, the media captured it all, and they gained the vast majority of support from our nation. I’m not trying to say that the fight against capitalism is the same as the fight against racist legislation, but I am certainly not above borrowing tactics that actually worked.
True, I was a Peace Studies minor and am chock full of stories of peaceful victories. But I am no longer a blind pacifist. Given tangible goals, sometimes destruction makes sense. The Autonomen, the original Black Bloc, protected their squats through aggressive confrontation. This is a real, concrete goal. Fighting to end ‘Republican’ ideology is not. Breaking a Department store window will not end American conservativism.
The violence at the RNC seems to me completely goal-less. Worse, it stands in opposition to the solidarity we claim to embody. Macy’s windows and those smashed up cop cars are going to be fixed by working class men and women, probably pissed that they have to spend extra time replacing what was in perfectly good condition a day ago. Similarly, when anarchist groups participate in illegal action at Immigrant’s Rights marches, they do so with complete disregard for their “comrades” who would be deported were they to be nearby someone who was instigating the police. How’s that for solidarity?
When polarization occurs within the “movement” itself, we become weaker, more divided and further and further away from the revolution. I don’t think the solution is utopia- group-think. Cultural identity can motivate individuals towards greater and greater participation. But there needs to be an idea big enough for everyone to agree on, an idea that takes precedence over the fun of diverse tactics.
Imagine for a moment that the RNC Welcoming Committee decided to declare a complete commitment to non-violence. More Americans will participate in nonviolent actions that have less potential for getting them arrested than violent action that will, imagine that instead of figuring out how to hide hammers in their pants, the RNC Welcoming Committee went out and organized every single group that attended the mainstream march. Imagine now that those 50,000 people sitting in the intersection, blocking the GOP buses. The cops wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. The world would watch, and the radical left would gain sympathy and support.
A comrade noted that she thought we were supposed to be protesting the violence and hate perpetrated by the Bush/McCain regime, not re-enacting it. How can we, as revolutionaries dedicated to a just and peaceful world, create that through violence and hate? I believe in the power of temporary autonomous zones present in the spirit of political action in the streets, the creation of our new world in the ephemeral but blissful moments of united rebellion... but my new world has no smashed glass. My new world has no fear of attack. My new world has dance parties and kisses and laughter and music and vegan food and chants that make you feel so warm n’ fuzzy that you become physically incapable of causing harm to another!
My new world is not “us” taking over “them.” When the oppressed seek to overcome opression by becoming themselves oppressors, absolutely no one wins. When one attacks another human being who seems inhuman[e], the attacker too becomes inhuman[e] in that act. It is impossible to be fully present and human[e] in violence. As Paulo Friere wrote: “How can the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, participate in the pedagogy of their liberation? As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible…. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.” A childbirth, he writes, because it will be new and unlike anything we’ve seen before. We’ve seen violence before, we’ve seen things smashed and people hurt. But we haven’t yet seen our liberation.... |P