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In the 1840s Karl Marx wrote that social revolution would involve "carrying out the thoughts of the past," in which "humanity begins no new work but consciously completes the old work". The role of revolutionary thought for Marx, in other words, involved drawing attention to how past revolutionary tasks were failing to be worked through in present political practice; of understanding the reasons why theory and practice had changed and, in turn, how this understanding could be advanced towards the (present) completion of the (old) revolution.

I am writing with some notes and suggestions on Lenin's What is to be done? (1902).

I'd like to start with a quotation from Lenin's first footnote, in the chapter "Dogmatism and Freedom of Criticism:"

"At the present time (as is now evident), the English Fabians, the French Ministerialists, the German Bernsteinians, and the Russian Critics all belong to the same family, all extol each other, learn from each other, and together take up arms against "dogmatic" Marxism. In this first really international battle with socialist opportunism, international revolutionary Social-Democracy will perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe? -- Lenin"

What's remarkable about this footnote is that Lenin thinks that winning the dispute against Marxist revisionism and social democratic reformism will signal the beginning of "putting an end to political reaction" more generally! -- In other words, that the fight against the Right begins with the bad "Left!" This can only be so through a prioritization of consciousness.

Clearly there is affinity here of Lenin with our project in Platypus. Lenin was not the "actionist" and did not simply prioritize practice over theory, of which he might be accused -- nor was he simply the "pragmatist" for which he might be embraced!

This points to the true character of the overall issue of "tailism" that is at the heart of Lenin's pamphlet. This should be approached as a matter of theory and practice.

The historical distinction, not to be downplayed, between Lenin's moment and ours, is that his critique of tailism is in the context of a period of political radicalization of the workers' movement of Russia, which had gone through rapid growth after a period of intensive industrialization in the last years of the 19th Century.

Lenin's concern is the same as that expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that the (revolutionary Marxist) Social Democrats be able to "lead and shape" events rather than following behind ("tailing after") them impotently, which will prevent effective political action.

This is the central concern of Lenin's focus on organization. How does "social democratic" (revolutionary Marxist) consciousness anticipate, through a long historical view, and therefore could take a leading role in the spontaneity of either economic or liberal social-political struggles under capital, and transform these into the struggle to overcome capital?

At the level of consciousness and ideology, this is related to Luxemburg's discussion in Reform or Revolution? of how challenges to Marxism must take the guise of Marxism -- and discussion by Korsch in "Marxism and Philosophy" that developments in Marxism must take the form of a "return to Marx." In Lenin's case, there was the phenomenon of the Russian intelligentsia being swept up in a fashion for Marxism. So Lenin is concerned first and foremost in attacking this liberalism in the guise of "Marxism," as Luxemburg was doing in attacking the revisionist "Marxists" in Reform or Revolution?

Lenin's pamphlet was an attempt to draw organizational consequences in the Russian social democratic party from the international revisionist debate. -- But there is a serious question about whether it is possible to find an organizational solution to the problem of opportunism, which is what the substance was of Luxemburg's critique of Lenin in her essay on "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" (republished later in English under the scurrilous title added by an American Cold War editor, "Leninism or Marxism?").

Retaining the focus on "tailism," the passive expectancy and contemplative comportment of the pseudo-"Left" has long been a danger, but one especially so since the 1960s "New Left." (It is a deeply ingrained problem that I tried to highlight in my previous notes on Korsch.)

For example the critical Marxist intellectuals from whom we might take inspiration from the '60s generation, Postone, Reed, Halliday, Mitchell, et al., all exhibit this problem, of shearing theoretical analysis from political ideology, so that the problem of adequate consciousness, let alone political action, becomes a paralyzed paradox. The real stakes of intellectual action become impossible to reckon, and so theory and practice remain separated in a freewheeling manner: it never becomes a question, as it was for Lenin -- and Luxemburg -- of "what is to be done?"

Instead, it becomes a self-flagellation of the intellectuals, for whom Adorno's introductory remarks in Negative Dialectics have an additional meaning, different from their original context, for there is expressed in another form the "defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried." -- To avoid or fail to task oneself in one's own thinking and action with the question of "what is to be done?" is to defeat one's reason.

For the point is not to try to "recognize" the emancipatory potential of various social-political phenomena, but the attempt to transform these endemic discontents in an emancipatory direction. More specifically, Marx had already recognized the emancipatory potential of the constitutive contradiction of the struggles of the working class (as such) under capital. The point for Lenin and Luxemburg was how to push the envelope of these in a (self-)transformative direction, how to follow Marx's prognosis that the class struggle of the proletariat pointed beyond itself.

The point of Lenin was not, for example, to "recognize" the "national struggles" (struggles against "national" oppression), but to find how the proletariat could use these to broaden its leadership in the struggle to transform (global) society.

Lenin and Luxemburg took a great deal for granted, and were concerned first and foremost with the danger of what in their time was a rather advanced state of the class struggle of the proletariat from being blunted and hemmed in by the horizons of bourgeois society, or "opportunism" (what Moishe Postone calls "proletarian/capital-constitutive consciousness/politics").

But by the 1960s (and certainly also today!) the problem is quite different: it was not the matter of maintaining the advanced progress and rooting out the inherent dangers of relapse to "bourgeois" terms in the proletarian-socialist class struggle of the workers (what Lukacs called "reification," by which he meant the "advanced socialist" consciousness of the WWI-era Marxist revisionists like Kautsky, and not merely the primordial everyday consciousness of the workers under capitalism), but the constitution of the working class as a social (let alone political) force of any kind.

This is why our project is not so much one of the "proletariat" but more basically of the "Left." Our task is to clarify what it means to be progressive-emancipatory and then to situate the concrete realities of contemporary capitalism within this long historical view.

In this our task is similar to Lenin's, but coarser and less rigorously specified -- as it had been so by Lenin's greater context of the developed 2nd International Marxist socialist workers' movement.

Leaving aside Lenin and Luxemburg, today we are in a worse position than Marx, who characterized his project as bringing to consciousness what people were already struggling for and thus pushing their struggle further, beyond itself.

In the face of the spiraling degenerate barbarism of the present, we might be tempted to say that even in their most obtuse conservative-reactionary forms people are yet still struggling for emancipation from capitalism and not towards its further deepening barbarism. (This was what Terry Eagleton implied in his recent talk at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- Eagleton gave yet another expression of how "the Left is the Right!")

The choice of what to "tail" behind today is much worse than in Lenin or Marx's time. It is not a matter of the danger of our abdicating leadership of and thus betraying (potentially) progressive-emancipatory social-political forces, but of resisting the temptation to dress up as progressive (or even human) what is manifestly not.

This is why it is most important for us in Platypus to emphasize that the last thing the historical revolutionary Marxist Left wanted to do was be the most sophisticated chroniclers or apologists for what was already happening. They wanted to change the world, which for them began, first and foremost, with transforming the best social struggles of their time in a deeper and further emancipatory direction.

We want to do the same, but, to avoid the opportunism/tailism Luxemburg and Lenin sought to specify in a more acute manner, we start with a much more obtuse and recalcitrant object, not an advanced workers' movement but freewheeling capitalism and various despairing conservative-reactionary responses to it. We have much less at our disposal to "transform," so we must begin instead with discrimination, sorting and separating out, through "ruthless criticism of everything existing." Starting out, we need to not assume but to see if there's anything there for us to work with at all.

We wish we could share Lenin's impatience with reformist formulations like "giving the economic struggle itself a political character," when today there is not even what Lenin or Luxemburg would have recognized as the merely "economic" struggles by the working class.

* * *

Lenin's What is to be done? is a truly rich text. What I appreciate most about it is the spirit with which it's imbued, from the very subtitle, "Burning questions of our movement," to its discussions of theoretical struggle, workerist economism as the flip side of romantic revolutionary terrorism of the intelligentsia, and the fetishism of "democracy" as epitome of "primitiveness" among both workers and students.

So many of the problems any possible Left would face and has faced is confronted with amazing single-minded clarity by Lenin.

One of my favorite sections is 5.1/A "Who was offended by [Lenin's previous article] 'Where to begin?'."

Lenin's describing in detail the ambivalent vacillations of his opponents in the Russian Social Democratic Party in both their rhetoric and actions reminds me of the kind of pathological response Platypus has provoked among both "friends" and enemies.

I appreciate the humor with which Lenin responded to the apparent "monstrosity" of his proposals in his intervention in the controversies on the Left of his day.

The picture Lenin portrays of the Russian "Left" of his time ought to ring too true for us in the present. But what Lenin attributed to the "primitiveness" of "Russian conditions" (i.e., the immaturity of the *workers movement* there) we need to generalize much more broadly. (As will be shown in the Spartacist pamphlet on Lenin and the Vanguard Party we're reading next week, as was also shown in Nettl's article, Lenin's attitude towards problems of theory and organized practice would have benefited the entire 2nd Intl. in this period and not only the Russian party.)

When we provoke offense, we need to pay close attention and analyze this, because the truth of our situation is thus revealed, from which both we and others need to learn. Thus there's some point to a certain reflexivity permeating all our work. We need others (externally) to be constantly asking themselves bemusedly "What is Platypus?" while we go about deliberately (internally) asking this of ourselves.

As Spencer put it last Fall in what should become one of our most important catchphrases of recent experience, Platypus aims to "provoke and organize the pathology of the 'Left'."

This is modeled on the procedure of Freudian psychoanalysis -- Richard has described Platypus as "psychoanalysis for the Left." (Amanda Armstrong's article in the PR #2 Feb. '08 on Freud and Castoriadis is good for pointing out how the constitutive limits of psychoanalysis are homologous to -- and exist for the same reasons as -- those of politics -- and of pedagogy!)

Our principal problem in Platypus comes when we have been denied/denied ourselves opportunities for occasioning, following through on and sustaining the kind of provocative pedagogical exercises that are our raison d'etre.

We need to extend the range and depth of our provocations (for us as well as others) to recognize that the "Left is dead!" / "the Left is the Right!" There are a myriad of concrete occasions for this that remain to be explored, and some we have already done that need (constant, if modulated) repeating -- the essence of pedagogy.

* * *

"Neo-coms" vs. "neo-cons?" -- Platypus's "neo-Leninism"

At an early point in our development of the Platypus project, there was some consideration of characterizing Platypus as a "neo-com" project, that is, neo-communism -- against and complementary to the neo-cons of neo-conservatism, for instance. -- The idea was that, just as the decay, disintegration and decomposition of the Left had spawned such hybrid phenomena as neoconservatism, perhaps we were not so much the reconnection with and continuation of an earlier revolutionary Marxist tradition but its transformation, under the guise, however, of such historical memory (as Korsch pointed out in "Marxism and Philosophy" that we read last week, about Luxemburg and Lenin's ostensible "return to Marx" -- see my previous post on this).

So we might say that Platypus is neo-"Leninist" -- but in a completely different way than the "Leninism" of the sectarian (including academic) "Left."

For instance, there was a conference in 2001 that issued an edited anthology of essays published as Lenin Reloaded (Duke, 2007), with contributions by Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Kevin Anderson, Lars Lih, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos, Daniel Bensaid, Etienne Balibar, et al. -- most of which is rehash of stale banalities when not just hand-wringing over how pathetic the "Left" has become since "Leninism" was unceremoniously ditched by the 1960s "New Left" over the course of 1968-89.

So, in what way would Platypus be neo-Leninist differently from the ultimately shallow provocations of a Zizek, for instance?

Unlike most on the (ex-)sectarian "Left," and (academic) readers of Lenin, we don't find him to be particularly original regarding "organization" (as Luxemburg biographer J. P. Nettl pointed out in his 1965 article on "The German SPD 1889-1914 as political model" that we read a few weeks ago, all Lenin did was address the issue in a way other 2nd International Marxists had not), and we do not regard him differently than, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg. -- And we, following Lukacs and Korsch (and Benjamin and Adorno) find Luxemburg and Lenin to share a focus on the importance of *consciousness*. It is not so much that Lenin was what Lukacs called him eulogistically in 1924, a "theoretician of practice," but rather that Lenin, like Luxemburg (in her 1900 pamphlet on Reform of Revolution? that we read a couple of weeks ago), tried to address the (problematic) relation of theory to practice.

As Nettl pointed out in the article we read, unlike Kautsky, who simply provided "Marxist" theoretical rationalizations for whatever the German SPD (or 2nd Intl. Marxism more generally) did tactically and organizationally, Luxemburg and Lenin took seriously the matter of how Marx's critique of capital ought to affect practice. It was Bernstein (along with Kautsky) who prioritized "practice" with his formulation that the "movement is everything and the goal nothing," whereas Luxemburg and Lenin essentially replied to this that the movement without the goal -- of revolutionary socialism -- was "nothing." -- As it in fact came to be, historically, with the obscuring and dropping of the goal, the lowering and liquidation of the horizon of possibility that came with the degradation of Marxism, first through its vulgarization in the 2nd Intl. and its Stalinization in the trajectory of the 3rd Intl. after the failure of the revolution that had opened in 1917-19 (which affected even the ostensible opponents of Stalinism in Trotskyism, etc.). Lenin, as much as Luxemburg, was about the memory and recovery of that original critical Marxian horizon of the possibility of effective historical thought and action that could lead beyond capital.

A key aspect of the present putrescence of the "Left" is the terror with which it meets the question of effective consciousness (let alone organized politics), which expresses the degradation and degeneration and ultimate loss of the insights into the problem of theory and practice that had been manifested by Lukacs, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno -- in the wake of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky.

Nevertheless, there remains a sense that there was something to these thinkers' work, and hence something to the possibility of political action that provoked such theoretical reflection and recognition.

Platypus seeks to (pre)serve this sense, and to free it from what Adorno called (in Negative Dialectics, 1966), "dogmatization and thought taboos," allowing it to find renewed expression and elaboration for the possibility of a future Left worthy of the name.

Lenin remains as essential to this as he was originally, in both theory and practice.

I am writing with some notes and suggestions on Lenin's What is to be done? (1902).

I'd like to start with a quotation from Lenin's first footnote, in the chapter "Dogmatism and Freedom of Criticism:"

"At the present time (as is now evident), the English Fabians, the French Ministerialists, the German Bernsteinians, and the Russian Critics all belong to the same family, all extol each other, learn from each other, and together take up arms against "dogmatic" Marxism. In this first really international battle with socialist opportunism, international revolutionary Social-Democracy will perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe? -- Lenin"

What's remarkable about this footnote is that Lenin thinks that winning the dispute against Marxist revisionism and social democratic reformism will signal the beginning of "putting an end to political reaction" more generally! -- In other words, that the fight against the Right begins with the bad "Left!" This can only be so through a prioritization of consciousness.

Clearly there is affinity here of Lenin with our project in Platypus. Lenin was not the "actionist" and did not simply prioritize practice over theory, of which he might be accused -- nor was he simply the "pragmatist" for which he might be embraced!

This points to the true character of the overall issue of "tailism" that is at the heart of Lenin's pamphlet. This should be approached as a matter of theory and practice.

The historical distinction, not to be downplayed, between Lenin's moment and ours, is that his critique of tailism is in the context of a period of political radicalization of the workers' movement of Russia, which had gone through rapid growth after a period of intensive industrialization in the last years of the 19th Century.

Lenin's concern is the same as that expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that the (revolutionary Marxist) Social Democrats be able to "lead and shape" events rather than following behind ("tailing after") them impotently, which will prevent effective political action.

This is the central concern of Lenin's focus on organization. How does "social democratic" (revolutionary Marxist) consciousness anticipate, through a long historical view, and therefore could take a leading role in the spontaneity of either economic or liberal social-political struggles under capital, and transform these into the struggle to overcome capital?

At the level of consciousness and ideology, this is related to Luxemburg's discussion in Reform or Revolution? of how challenges to Marxism must take the guise of Marxism -- and discussion by Korsch in "Marxism and Philosophy" that developments in Marxism must take the form of a "return to Marx." In Lenin's case, there was the phenomenon of the Russian intelligentsia being swept up in a fashion for Marxism. So Lenin is concerned first and foremost in attacking this liberalism in the guise of "Marxism," as Luxemburg was doing in attacking the revisionist "Marxists" in Reform or Revolution?

Lenin's pamphlet was an attempt to draw organizational consequences in the Russian social democratic party from the international revisionist debate. -- But there is a serious question about whether it is possible to find an organizational solution to the problem of opportunism, which is what the substance was of Luxemburg's critique of Lenin in her essay on "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" (republished later in English under the scurrilous title added by an American Cold War editor, "Leninism or Marxism?").

Retaining the focus on "tailism," the passive expectancy and contemplative comportment of the pseudo-"Left" has long been a danger, but one especially so since the 1960s "New Left." (It is a deeply ingrained problem that I tried to highlight in my previous notes on Korsch.)

For example the critical Marxist intellectuals from whom we might take inspiration from the '60s generation, Postone, Reed, Halliday, Mitchell, et al., all exhibit this problem, of shearing theoretical analysis from political ideology, so that the problem of adequate consciousness, let alone political action, becomes a paralyzed paradox. The real stakes of intellectual action become impossible to reckon, and so theory and practice remain separated in a freewheeling manner: it never becomes a question, as it was for Lenin -- and Luxemburg -- of "what is to be done?"

Instead, it becomes a self-flagellation of the intellectuals, for whom Adorno's introductory remarks in Negative Dialectics have an additional meaning, different from their original context, for there is expressed in another form the "defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried." -- To avoid or fail to task oneself in one's own thinking and action with the question of "what is to be done?" is to defeat one's reason.

For the point is not to try to "recognize" the emancipatory potential of various social-political phenomena, but the attempt to transform these endemic discontents in an emancipatory direction. More specifically, Marx had already recognized the emancipatory potential of the constitutive contradiction of the struggles of the working class (as such) under capital. The point for Lenin and Luxemburg was how to push the envelope of these in a (self-)transformative direction, how to follow Marx's prognosis that the class struggle of the proletariat pointed beyond itself.

The point of Lenin was not, for example, to "recognize" the "national struggles" (struggles against "national" oppression), but to find how the proletariat could use these to broaden its leadership in the struggle to transform (global) society.

Lenin and Luxemburg took a great deal for granted, and were concerned first and foremost with the danger of what in their time was a rather advanced state of the class struggle of the proletariat from being blunted and hemmed in by the horizons of bourgeois society, or "opportunism" (what Moishe Postone calls "proletarian/capital-constitutive consciousness/politics").

But by the 1960s (and certainly also today!) the problem is quite different: it was not the matter of maintaining the advanced progress and rooting out the inherent dangers of relapse to "bourgeois" terms in the proletarian-socialist class struggle of the workers (what Lukacs called "reification," by which he meant the "advanced socialist" consciousness of the WWI-era Marxist revisionists like Kautsky, and not merely the primordial everyday consciousness of the workers under capitalism), but the constitution of the working class as a social (let alone political) force of any kind.

This is why our project is not so much one of the "proletariat" but more basically of the "Left." Our task is to clarify what it means to be progressive-emancipatory and then to situate the concrete realities of contemporary capitalism within this long historical view.

In this our task is similar to Lenin's, but coarser and less rigorously specified -- as it had been so by Lenin's greater context of the developed 2nd International Marxist socialist workers' movement.

Leaving aside Lenin and Luxemburg, today we are in a worse position than Marx, who characterized his project as bringing to consciousness what people were already struggling for and thus pushing their struggle further, beyond itself.

In the face of the spiraling degenerate barbarism of the present, we might be tempted to say that even in their most obtuse conservative-reactionary forms people are yet still struggling for emancipation from capitalism and not towards its further deepening barbarism. (This was what Terry Eagleton implied in his recent talk at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- Eagleton gave yet another expression of how "the Left is the Right!")

The choice of what to "tail" behind today is much worse than in Lenin or Marx's time. It is not a matter of the danger of our abdicating leadership of and thus betraying (potentially) progressive-emancipatory social-political forces, but of resisting the temptation to dress up as progressive (or even human) what is manifestly not.

This is why it is most important for us in Platypus to emphasize that the last thing the historical revolutionary Marxist Left wanted to do was be the most sophisticated chroniclers or apologists for what was already happening. They wanted to change the world, which for them began, first and foremost, with transforming the best social struggles of their time in a deeper and further emancipatory direction.

We want to do the same, but, to avoid the opportunism/tailism Luxemburg and Lenin sought to specify in a more acute manner, we start with a much more obtuse and recalcitrant object, not an advanced workers' movement but freewheeling capitalism and various despairing conservative-reactionary responses to it. We have much less at our disposal to "transform," so we must begin instead with discrimination, sorting and separating out, through "ruthless criticism of everything existing." Starting out, we need to not assume but to see if there's anything there for us to work with at all.

We wish we could share Lenin's impatience with reformist formulations like "giving the economic struggle itself a political character," when today there is not even what Lenin or Luxemburg would have recognized as the merely "economic" struggles by the working class.

* * *

Lenin's What is to be done? is a truly rich text. What I appreciate most about it is the spirit with which it's imbued, from the very subtitle, "Burning questions of our movement," to its discussions of theoretical struggle, workerist economism as the flip side of romantic revolutionary terrorism of the intelligentsia, and the fetishism of "democracy" as epitome of "primitiveness" among both workers and students.

So many of the problems any possible Left would face and has faced is confronted with amazing single-minded clarity by Lenin.

One of my favorite sections is 5.1/A "Who was offended by [Lenin's previous article] 'Where to begin?'."

Lenin's describing in detail the ambivalent vacillations of his opponents in the Russian Social Democratic Party in both their rhetoric and actions reminds me of the kind of pathological response Platypus has provoked among both "friends" and enemies.

I appreciate the humor with which Lenin responded to the apparent "monstrosity" of his proposals in his intervention in the controversies on the Left of his day.

The picture Lenin portrays of the Russian "Left" of his time ought to ring too true for us in the present. But what Lenin attributed to the "primitiveness" of "Russian conditions" (i.e., the immaturity of the *workers movement* there) we need to generalize much more broadly. (As will be shown in the Spartacist pamphlet on Lenin and the Vanguard Party we're reading next week, as was also shown in Nettl's article, Lenin's attitude towards problems of theory and organized practice would have benefited the entire 2nd Intl. in this period and not only the Russian party.)

When we provoke offense, we need to pay close attention and analyze this, because the truth of our situation is thus revealed, from which both we and others need to learn. Thus there's some point to a certain reflexivity permeating all our work. We need others (externally) to be constantly asking themselves bemusedly "What is Platypus?" while we go about deliberately (internally) asking this of ourselves.

As Spencer put it last Fall in what should become one of our most important catchphrases of recent experience, Platypus aims to "provoke and organize the pathology of the 'Left'."

This is modeled on the procedure of Freudian psychoanalysis -- Richard has described Platypus as "psychoanalysis for the Left." (Amanda Armstrong's article in the PR #2 Feb. '08 on Freud and Castoriadis is good for pointing out how the constitutive limits of psychoanalysis are homologous to -- and exist for the same reasons as -- those of politics -- and of pedagogy!)

Our principal problem in Platypus comes when we have been denied/denied ourselves opportunities for occasioning, following through on and sustaining the kind of provocative pedagogical exercises that are our raison d'etre.

We need to extend the range and depth of our provocations (for us as well as others) to recognize that the "Left is dead!" / "the Left is the Right!" There are a myriad of concrete occasions for this that remain to be explored, and some we have already done that need (constant, if modulated) repeating -- the essence of pedagogy.

* * *

"Neo-coms" vs. "neo-cons?" -- Platypus's "neo-Leninism"

At an early point in our development of the Platypus project, there was some consideration of characterizing Platypus as a "neo-com" project, that is, neo-communism -- against and complementary to the neo-cons of neo-conservatism, for instance. -- The idea was that, just as the decay, disintegration and decomposition of the Left had spawned such hybrid phenomena as neoconservatism, perhaps we were not so much the reconnection with and continuation of an earlier revolutionary Marxist tradition but its transformation, under the guise, however, of such historical memory (as Korsch pointed out in "Marxism and Philosophy" that we read last week, about Luxemburg and Lenin's ostensible "return to Marx" -- see my previous post on this).

So we might say that Platypus is neo-"Leninist" -- but in a completely different way than the "Leninism" of the sectarian (including academic) "Left."

For instance, there was a conference in 2001 that issued an edited anthology of essays published as Lenin Reloaded (Duke, 2007), with contributions by Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Kevin Anderson, Lars Lih, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos, Daniel Bensaid, Etienne Balibar, et al. -- most of which is rehash of stale banalities when not just hand-wringing over how pathetic the "Left" has become since "Leninism" was unceremoniously ditched by the 1960s "New Left" over the course of 1968-89.

So, in what way would Platypus be neo-Leninist differently from the ultimately shallow provocations of a Zizek, for instance?

Unlike most on the (ex-)sectarian "Left," and (academic) readers of Lenin, we don't find him to be particularly original regarding "organization" (as Luxemburg biographer J. P. Nettl pointed out in his 1965 article on "The German SPD 1889-1914 as political model" that we read a few weeks ago, all Lenin did was address the issue in a way other 2nd International Marxists had not), and we do not regard him differently than, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg. -- And we, following Lukacs and Korsch (and Benjamin and Adorno) find Luxemburg and Lenin to share a focus on the importance of *consciousness*. It is not so much that Lenin was what Lukacs called him eulogistically in 1924, a "theoretician of practice," but rather that Lenin, like Luxemburg (in her 1900 pamphlet on Reform of Revolution? that we read a couple of weeks ago), tried to address the (problematic) relation of theory to practice.

As Nettl pointed out in the article we read, unlike Kautsky, who simply provided "Marxist" theoretical rationalizations for whatever the German SPD (or 2nd Intl. Marxism more generally) did tactically and organizationally, Luxemburg and Lenin took seriously the matter of how Marx's critique of capital ought to affect practice. It was Bernstein (along with Kautsky) who prioritized "practice" with his formulation that the "movement is everything and the goal nothing," whereas Luxemburg and Lenin essentially replied to this that the movement without the goal -- of revolutionary socialism -- was "nothing." -- As it in fact came to be, historically, with the obscuring and dropping of the goal, the lowering and liquidation of the horizon of possibility that came with the degradation of Marxism, first through its vulgarization in the 2nd Intl. and its Stalinization in the trajectory of the 3rd Intl. after the failure of the revolution that had opened in 1917-19 (which affected even the ostensible opponents of Stalinism in Trotskyism, etc.). Lenin, as much as Luxemburg, was about the memory and recovery of that original critical Marxian horizon of the possibility of effective historical thought and action that could lead beyond capital.

A key aspect of the present putrescence of the "Left" is the terror with which it meets the question of effective consciousness (let alone organized politics), which expresses the degradation and degeneration and ultimate loss of the insights into the problem of theory and practice that had been manifested by Lukacs, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno -- in the wake of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky.

Nevertheless, there remains a sense that there was something to these thinkers' work, and hence something to the possibility of political action that provoked such theoretical reflection and recognition.

Platypus seeks to (pre)serve this sense, and to free it from what Adorno called (in Negative Dialectics, 1966), "dogmatization and thought taboos," allowing it to find renewed expression and elaboration for the possibility of a future Left worthy of the name.

Lenin remains as essential to this as he was originally, in both theory and practice.

After the recent discussion of Luxemburg's pamphlet on Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), there might be some confusion regarding the relationship between Luxemburg's formulations and the raison d'etre of Platypus as an organized project today. -- What is the point of reading Luxemburg today?

Whereas Luxemburg was critiquing Eduard Bernstein and other "revisionists'" arguments that the development of capitalism had made proletarian social revolution superfluous or even harmful, Luxemburg was arguing that such historical "development" must be seen as symptomatic of the growing and deepening crisis of capitalism, and that the organized Marxist social-democratic labor and political movement must be seen as part of that history, part of that crisis.

Rather than diminishing the importance of the Marxist political point of departure, as Bernstein had hypothesized, for Luxemburg, the development of the proletarian socialist movement, as part and parcel of and inextricably bound up with the development of capitalism, had only gained in saliency, had only grown in political importance.

Luxemburg understood Bernstein's "revisionism" in a two-fold sense: theoretically and psychologically. But in both senses as a matter of ideology. Theoretically, the bankruptcy of bourgeois thought had caused it to collapse into Marxism. Psychologically, the apparent convergence of liberalism and ("Marxist") socialism meant the attempt to avoid, as a matter of political practice, the growing crisis of capitalism. Hence, Bernstein's assumption of the gradual "evolution" of capitalism into socialism, whereas Luxemburg emphasizes the crucial crossroads at which modern society had arrived: in the language of her later Junius pamphlet (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, 1915), borrowed from Engels, "socialism or barbarism!"

It was precisely this crossroads of socialism or barbarism that the "revisionists" denied, and that Luxemburg had to reestablish in order to grasp the crucial role that Marxism as an organized political tendency could and indeed needed to play for the emancipation of humanity beyond capital.

But Luxemburg was writing in a very different time from ours. Where Luxemburg attributed "revisionism" -- the impulse to liquidate Marxist socialism back into liberalism -- to the fear that the dawning crisis and depth of the tasks revealed by the development of the international socialist workers' movement engendered among what she called the "petit bourgeois" intellectuals adhering to the workers' movement, she confidently characterized this as a passing malady.

More fundamentally, however, Luxemburg pointed to the deeper conflict within the working class itself, between apprehending its interests in a "petit bourgeois" vs. "proletarian" way.

This is the essence of Luxemburg's accusation that Bernstein et al. had collapsed back into liberalism, but under the guise (and as a tendency) of avowed, self-conscious "Marxism."

For a workers' movement without a Marxian revolutionary politics is just liberalism, despite whatever "Marxist" verbiage or consciousness with which it might clothe itself.

So Luxemburg was calling attention to and theoretically elucidating the danger that the workers' movement (however avowedly "socialist" or even "Marxist" it thought itself) would relapse back into liberalism, precisely as the political tasks it faced were revealed in all their breadth and depth. What later thinkers in the Frankfurt School critical theoretical tradition would characterize as the "fear of freedom" underlies this perpetual danger of opportunism (as opposed to inadequate explanations like "selling out," etc.).

Today, by contrast, we face not a world in which the depth and breadth of the task of a social politics that could point beyond capitalism has been revealed, but in which it is deeply obscured and hidden.

We lack the developed workers' movement of Luxemburg's time (i.e., 2nd International Marxist socialism) that could simultaneously reveal the task of anticapitalist politics, as well as provide the means for succumbing to the danger of abdicating this task (through labor reformism etc., co-optation to the capitalist state, etc.).

And we lack the consciousness that such a politics is desirable, let alone possible or necessary. "Marxism" has consumed itself in the abdication of the task it historically set for itself, and it has buried the truth of the modern of society of capital in the sepulcher of its own demise.

Nevertheless, read properly, the history of Marxist socialism offers some clues into such necessities, possibilities, and desirabilities of a Marxian politics, a politics derived from Marx's recognition of the problem of capital.

We cannot, as Luxemburg could, point to the class polarization of society as an underlying reality with which a Marxian politics could grasp actual possibilities -- and to which such a politics contributed the emergence and development.

Rather, we are left with a more obscure task, revealing that there was ever a point to the Marxian characterization of modern society as capitalist. We are back to square one in this sense, not at Luxemburg's moment of culminating crisis in thought and potential action, but deeply lost in the accumulated barbarism that has necessarily resulted from the failure of historical revolutionary Marxism.

Sectarian "Marxists" read Luxemburg merely as an eloquent defense of "revolution" against "reformism," but as Luxemburg herself pointed out, it is only the reformists who separate and oppose the struggle for fundamental transformation from reforms. The apparent contradiction between reform and revolution is itself a product of the degeneration of effective practical political agency and consciousness.

Whereas Luxemburg had a movement to critique and goad on, we only have a history that haunts us, and one that becomes dimmer over time, demanding fundamental recognition and potential elaboration of an available, if rendered temporarily obscure, framework for asking in our present what is necessary, possible, and desirable for transforming our world.

Rather than waiting for some "objective" crisis of capitalism that, according to the senile "Left" will supposedly do our work for us, while it continues to never ever come, we are tasked by Luxemburg and her fellow historical revolutionary Marxists to explore what we can actually do to advance the crisis of modern society, to make it take the form of a political crisis over its direction and potential resolution.

Platypus, initially, has taken up this task as a matter of conscious recognition of the problem that needs to be addressed, of basic orientation towards the true horizon of potential possibility to be explored.

While it might appear that Luxemburg's practical revolutionary Marxist politics was proven wrong and hopeless by history, it's not as if her debating opponents, e.g., Bernstein, fared any better, in theory or practice.

Whereas Bernstein et al. offered nothing that could address the history that followed, which did not lead to socialism, Luxemburg's clear warning about the threat of regression has been actualized, and for precisely the reasons she had recognized.

This doesn't mean following Luxemburg's (et al.) script, but rather her spirit. It is why we, and not the ostensible "Marxists" who supposedly follow her more strictly, are answering her (and her historical Marxist cohort's) call, and hopefully not too late.

A Film by Margarethe von Trotta
A political biography of one of the leading figures in the history of the Left
Friday, January 30th, 2009
6:30pm
295 Lafayette st. 4th FL New York, NY 10012

Yesterday, with everyone all back in Boston for the first time since December (Laura literally got in from India an hour before the start of the meeting), we spent a good deal of our time doing organizational planning for the spring session. We were able, however, to spend some time with the Slaughter reading.

Our discussion covered several aspects of the piece, but focused mainly on the relationship of politics and organization. We addressed the interdependence of the two, acknowledging that any revolutionary organization cannot grow in size or strength without an increasingly rigorous and refined politics, and that the formation of sophisticated revolutionary politics cannot come to pass without a corresponding development of effective organization. To emphasize the necessary bond between the two, one could say that organizing *is* political and that politics *is* the practice of organization. But this fact must be recognized--must be brought to consciousness (and rigorously maintained there)--in order for the dialectical relationship to bear revolutionary fruit; unrecognized it will lead to degeneration.

The question was then posed: if Platypus considers itself a "pre-political" project, what is the nature of its relation to and engagement with organizational practices? This is a complex question, but I would venture to start out by saying that the role of Platypus, through its pedagogical mandate, is to cultivate a situation in which politics and organization, like theory and practice, can be made to develop into a mutually generative relationship. And this means loosening it from the catch-22 paralysis in which it remains stuck. The interdependent nature of the relationship between political consciousness and revolutionary organization can lead either to their total stagnation, in which they become mutually exclusive, or to their mutual propulsion, in which each relies on and makes possible the other. It is for the latter that we must lay the groundwork.

A final note: though Platypus seeks to politicize, we are not a body of political leadership. It is our mission to bring to bear a situation in which revolutionary political leadership is needed, and when that happens Platypus as it now stands will have fulfilled its task, and can be closed as a chapter. Our task, then, is to render our particular project no longer necessary.

-Soren W. (Boston)

Yesterday, with everyone all back in Boston for the first time since December (Laura literally got in from India an hour before the start of the meeting), we spent a good deal of our time doing organizational planning for the spring session. We were able, however, to spend some time with the Slaughter reading.

Our discussion covered several aspects of the piece, but focused mainly on the relationship of politics and organization. We addressed the interdependence of the two, acknowledging that any revolutionary organization cannot grow in size or strength without an increasingly rigorous and refined politics, and that the formation of sophisticated revolutionary politics cannot come to pass without a corresponding development of effective organization. To emphasize the necessary bond between the two, one could say that organizing *is* political and that politics *is* the practice of organization. But this fact must be recognized--must be brought to consciousness (and rigorously maintained there)--in order for the dialectical relationship to bear revolutionary fruit; unrecognized it will lead to degeneration.

The question was then posed: if Platypus considers itself a "pre-political" project, what is the nature of its relation to and engagement with organizational practices? This is a complex question, but I would venture to start out by saying that the role of Platypus, through its pedagogical mandate, is to cultivate a situation in which politics and organization, like theory and practice, can be made to develop into a mutually generative relationship. And this means loosening it from the catch-22 paralysis in which it remains stuck. The interdependent nature of the relationship between political consciousness and revolutionary organization can lead either to their total stagnation, in which they become mutually exclusive, or to their mutual propulsion, in which each relies on and makes possible the other. It is for the latter that we must lay the groundwork.

A final note: though Platypus seeks to politicize, we are not a body of political leadership. It is our mission to bring to bear a situation in which revolutionary political leadership is needed, and when that happens Platypus as it now stands will have fulfilled its task, and can be closed as a chapter. Our task, then, is to render our particular project no longer necessary.

-Soren W. (Boston)

Keep track of reading group meetings, screenings, public fora, and other Platypus events in the NYC area.

Richard Kidd

Platypus Review 9 | December 2008

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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.

Why 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

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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