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Pam C. Nogales C. and Ross Wolfe

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full audio and video recordings of the interview can be found by clicking the above links.

Ross Wolfe: How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another—paid and unpaid labor—isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either.

RW: You compile some disturbing passages from Locke, Mandeville, and Smith in which they liken workers to horses and other beasts of burden. You also offer a selection from one of Abbé Sieyès’s private notebooks in which he refers to wage-laborers as “work machines.” Hobbes claimed that there was a sensate understanding “common to Man and Beast,” and La Mettrie famously wrote of the “machine-man.” Might this language reflect these thinkers’ encounter with British and French materialism just as easily as it might indicate deliberate dehumanization?

DL: With the dehumanization of the working class in the liberal tradition, I don’t believe that this has to do with the materialistic vision of the world. These liberal theorists, on the one hand, dehumanized the working-man, while, on the other hand, they celebrated the great humanity of the superior classes. I quote in my book a text by Sieyès, a French liberal who played a considerable role in the French Revolution, in which Sieyès dreams of the possibility of sexual relations between black men and apes in order to create a new race of slave. That is not a materialistic vision. On the contrary, it is a futuristic, idealistic, and eugenicist vision to create a new race of workers who can increase productivity but who would be forever obedient to their masters.

Pam C. Nogales C.: In the seventeenth century, at least in England, doesn’t private property become the grounds on which certain demands of liberty can be made against the order of the king? Was it merely a historical necessity that demands of liberty could only be made through this particular form of private property? Or was this already a reactionary position to take, even in the seventeenth century?

DL: I would continue to stress this entanglement of emancipation and de-emancipation. The statement according to which men have the right to think freely and convey their opinions is of course an expression of an emancipatory process. But we must add that this class of property-owners, once free of the control of the government, could impose a new regime of control over their servants and slaves. In the first phase of the bourgeois-liberal revolution, the servants were without even liberal liberty, as well. I have quoted, for instance, that the inhabitants of the workhouses were deprived of every form of liberty. The [indentured] servants who were transferred to America, they were more like slaves. They were not modern wage-laborers. For instance, Mandeville writes that the worker must attend religious services. That is, they were not free in any sense of the word. On the workhouses, I quote Bentham at length, who claimed to be a great reformer, but was truthfully a great advocate of these workhouses. He envisioned the formation of an “indigenous class” of workers born within these workhouses, who would therefore be more obedient to their masters. This has nothing to do with modern wage-workers.


Marx, arrested: Brussels, 1848. Sketch by N. Khukov, 1930s.

PN: This gets back to the question of whether or not capitalism offers new forms of freedom while simultaneously posing new problems of unfreedom. On the one hand, we live in a most unfree moment. One could highlight the historically unprecedented living conditions for the worker in the crowded tenement houses of Manchester, or point out that his employer is only interested in gaining profit and not in granting him any form of freedom. But is the formation of a working class not at the same time a historical transformation of the conception of a subject in society that has implications beyond its manifestation in its present moment? After all, the worker is not identical with his social activity. He, as a bourgeois subject, has the right to work. Does bourgeois right point beyond itself and is thus not reducible to how it immediately appears?

DL: Of course I agree with you that some theorists from the ruling class end up inspiring other classes that were not foreseen as participants in liberal right. Consider Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the slave revolution in Santo Domingo, which later became Haiti. How can we explain this great revolution? We see in France the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the original version of this document, the Rights of Man did not include colonial peoples or the blacks. But we see Toussaint Louverture who read this proclamation and claimed these rights for the blacks, as well. And we have this great revolution as a result. This is not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, however. On the contrary, Toussaint Louverture was obliged to struggle against the French liberals of the time, who admired the conditions that obtained in the southern United States of America and strove to continue the oppression of the black slaves. In Santo Domingo, the slaveholders were at first positively impressed by the French Revolution. They thought this meant freedom from the control of the king, such that they could now freely enjoy slavery, and their property, the slaves. Toussaint Louverture drew the opposite conclusion, and thus became the organizer of one of the greatest revolutions in history.

PN: Concerning the radical inspiration for the framework you set up between Toussaint and the French Revolution, the striking thing about the Haitian Revolution is that it caused a division within France. It was not simply Toussaint versus the French liberals; the Haitian Revolution actually caused the French liberals to split and led to disarray. It raised another problem: Insofar as France could militarily continue to defend itself from counterrevolutionary forces in Europe, at this particular moment, it still depended on colonial production. It therefore seems to me that the Haitian Revolution posed the problem of the radicalism of liberalism straightforwardly and there were a number of responses. Is it possible to call Toussaint a liberal because he believed in the promises of liberalism?

DL: No! Toussaint was a Jacobin. Between the Jacobins and the liberals there was a great deal of struggle. If we read all the authors who are generally classified as liberal—for instance Constant, de Tocqueville, and so on—they spoke very strongly against Jacobinism. For these liberal authors, Jacobinism was something horrible. I don’t agree, therefore, with your claim that there was a “split” within the liberal parties of France. Jacobinism is in my interpretation a form of radicalism, because they appealed not only to the liberation of the slaves “from above,” but struggled together with the slaves in order to overthrow slavery. After the fall of the Jacobins in France, the new government began to immediately work for the restoration of slavery. The French slave-owners had acclaimed the first stage of the French Revolution, since they thought they could then freely exercise control over their slaves. After the advent of Jacobinism and the radicalization of the Revolution, the liberals went to the United States and expressed their admiration.

RW: Could you elaborate on the historical and conceptual distinction you draw between liberalism on the one hand, and radicalism on the other?

DL: Even if we conceive of radicalism as the continuation of liberalism, we should not forget that, for instance in the United States, even the formal abolition of slavery was the consequence of a terrible conflict, a war of secession. We don’t see a direct continuity between liberalism and the abolition of slavery, because this liberation was only made possible by a protracted Civil War. But Lincoln, too, was not a representative of radicalism because he never appealed to the slaves to emancipate themselves. Only in the final stage of the war of secession, in order to add more soldiers in the struggle against the South, did Lincoln agree to let some black soldiers fight.

It is another fact that in the history of liberalism, Robespierre is not considered a liberal, but a strong enemy of liberalism. In the French Revolution, it was Robespierre who abolished slavery, but only after the great revolution in Haiti. He was then compelled to recognize that slavery was over.

The author who makes the best impression on the issue of slavery is Adam Smith. Smith was for a despotic government that would forcibly abolish slavery. But Smith never thought of the slaves as catalysts of their own liberation. So on the one hand, Adam Smith condemns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we asked him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.

If we look at the history of the American continents, we can ask: Which was the most liberal country? I believe it was the U.S. But now, if we ask the question: Which was the country that had the greatest difficulty in the emancipation of the slaves? Again, it was the United States.

But if we consider the succession of emancipation in the American continents, we see Haiti first, followed by the countries of Latin America (Venezuela, Mexico, and so on), and only later the United States of America. If we read the development of the world between the United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States—after defeating Mexico, after annexing Texas—reintroduced slavery into these territories where it had already been abolished. This, in my eyes, demonstrates that we cannot consider the abolition of slavery as a consequence of liberalism.

RW: How would you account for the admiration of Marx for a figure like Lincoln, who created the conditions (through war) for the emancipation of the slaves?

DL: Of course Marx was right in his admiration for Lincoln. Lincoln was a great personality, and Marx had the merit to understand that the abolition of slavery would bring about great progress. Why do I say this? Because in utopian socialism, there were those who constructed this argument: “Yes, capitalism is slavery. Black slavery is only another form of slavery. Why should we choose between the Union and the Confederacy? We see in North and South only two different forms of slavery.” Lassalle, for instance, was of this opinion. Marx understood very well that these two different forms of slavery—wage-slavery and slavery in its most direct form—were not equivalent. The South was for the expansion of slavery.


 Marx in 1848

PN: For Marx, what was really at stake in the Civil War were the historical gains made by the bourgeois revolutions, on which any proletarian revolution would have to depend. And insofar as liberalism in its post-1848 moment had begun to undermine the promises of the bourgeois revolutions, it was no longer revolutionary. Do you think that with the relationship between Marx and the American Civil War, there was a certain promise that, insofar as slavery could be abolished, bourgeois right could potentially be radicalized?

DL: I am critical of some ideas of Marx, but not the enthusiasm with which he greeted the struggle of Lincoln or the Northern Union. In this case Marx was correct. But Marx spoke of the bourgeois revolutions as providing political emancipation. Perhaps he didn’t see the aspect of de-emancipation. We can make a comparison with the middle of the nineteenth century: the U.S. and Mexico. In Mexico, no bourgeois revolution took place. In the U.S. we must say that the American Revolution was a form of bourgeois revolution. Comparing these two countries, we see that in Mexico, slavery was abolished. In the U.S. slavery remained very strong. Why should we say that in the U.S. the political emancipation was greater than in Mexico? I don’t see why.

RW: In explaining the manifold “exclusion clauses” that restricted the application of bourgeois rights to certain privileged groups or individuals, you use the old dichotomy of the “sacred” and “profane.” According to this model, those fortunate enough to live inside the boundaries of this “sacred space” at any given moment can be said to inhabit the “community of the free,” while those who fall outside of its domain are meanwhile relegated to the “profane space” of unfreedom. Why do you associate freedom with sanctity, and unfreedom with profanity?

DL: In this religious analogy, the “sacred space” is, of course, the space that is more highly valued than any other. With liberal ideology, we see a religious attitude. But that isn’t the most important point, because even in normal language, “sacred” has a more positive meaning. Regardless of whether one is religious, when people speak of something that is “sacred,” what this means is that this thing has a particular importance.

RW: How do you account for the rise of nationalism, the role it played in carving out the “sacred space” of the “community of the free”? Nationalism goes virtually unmentioned in your account. Lost, then, is the patriotic particularity that emerged opposite Enlightenment universality at the outset of the eighteenth century. In your work on Heidegger, you draw on the sociologist Tönnies’s distinction between “society” [Gesellschaft] and “community” [Gemeinschaft] to explain the exclusivist connotations of the ideology of the national or folk community (the Volksgemeinschaft promoted by the Nazis).[1] Insofar as it displaced the spiritual energies traditionally invested in religion to that of the nation, might this be the root of the “sacred space” that you associate with the (national) “community of the free”?

DL: Regarding “sacred space” and “profane space”: I make a comparison with religion because religion proceeds in this way. Profane derives from a Latin word. Fanum was the temple or church. Profanum was what was outside the church. That is the distinction that we find already in the first phase of religious consciousness. Liberalism proceeds in the same way—we have the fanum, or temple, which is the space of the community of the free. Profanum is for the others, those outside of this space.

Why do I use this formulation for the community of the free? I don’t believe that the category of “individualism” is adequate to the description of liberal society. “Liberalism” and “individualism” are self-congratulatory categories. Why? If we consider individualism, for example, as the theory according to which every individual man or woman has the right to liberty, emancipation, and self-expression—that is not what we see in liberal society. We have spoken of the different forms of exclusion, of colonial peoples, of workingmen, and women. Therefore, this category is not correct.

RW: But is it liberal society or the national community that is free? In your study on Heidegger, you distinguish between the more universal category of “society,” the socius or Gesellschaft, and the more particular category of “community,” the communitas or Gemeinschaft. Isn’t this distinction useful here?

DL: If we consider the history of liberalism, we see on the one hand a “community of the free” that tends to be transnational. But on the other hand, we already see nationalism in this liberal society. For instance, Burke speaks of “the English people,” a people in whose “blood” there is a love of liberty. There is a celebration of the English people. The ideology of nationalism was already present in liberalism. England—though not only England—claimed to be a special nation, a nation involved in a project of liberty. Of course in the twentieth century we have a new situation, where Heidegger celebrates the German nation.

PN: Isn’t the transformation of concepts like nationalism symptomatic of a deeper problem in liberalism itself? Doesn’t the shift that takes place in 1848 indicate the conservative (and thus reactionary) transformation of the liberal tradition, because a latent conflict within bourgeois society was only now being historically manifested? Since you raised the criticism of how Marx conceived of bourgeois revolutions, I would like to talk about the relationship of liberalism to Marxism, specifically in the moment of the mid-nineteenth century. To what extent would you say that the success of a radical or Marxist conception of revolution be the negation of liberal society, and to what extent would you say that it would be the fulfillment of liberal society?

Un-rue-de-Paris-en-1871-Luce (2)

Maximilien Luce, Une rue à Paris en Mai 1871 ou La commune, oil on canvas, 222.5 cm x 151 cm, 1903–1905 (Musée d’Orsay). 

DL: One can find a new definition of liberalism and say that the October Revolution of 1917 was a liberal revolution—why not? But in normal language, the October Revolution is not considered a liberal revolution. All the liberal nations of the world opposed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marx does not speak at any great length about liberalism. He speaks about capitalism and bourgeois societies, which claimed to be liberal. I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation. Marx makes a distinction between political emancipation and social emancipation. Social or human emancipation will be, in Marx’s eyes, the result of proletarian revolution. On the other hand, Marx says the political emancipation that is the result of bourgeois revolution represents progress.

Again, I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery. In my book I quote several contemporary U.S. historians who claim that the American Revolution was, in reality, a “counter-revolution.” Why do I quote these historians? They write that if we consider the case of the natives or the blacks, their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course the condition of the white community became much better. But I repeat: We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided. Perhaps he knew little about the conditions in America during the American Revolution. He knew the War of Secession well, but perhaps the young Marx was not familiar with the earlier history of the U.S.

Another example of the one-sidedness of the young Marx can be found in On The Jewish Question. He speaks in this text of the U.S. as a country of “accomplished political emancipation.” In this case, his counter-example is France. In France, he claimed there was discrimination based on wealth and opportunity. This discrimination was disappearing, and was now almost non-existent, in the U.S. But there was slavery in the U.S. at this time. Why should we say that the U.S. during the time of slavery had “accomplished political emancipation”?

RW: “Radicalism,” as you have been defining it, would be liberalism without exclusion. If one were to get rid of the division between the “sacred space” and “profane space,” it would just be liberalism for all. Insofar as radicalism purports to remove any distinction between those who are inside and those outside the realm of freedom, and thereby bring everyone into the “sacred space” of freedom, wouldn’t radicalism to some extent just be universal liberalism?

DL: It is impossible to universalize in this way. For instance, colonial wars were for the universalization of the condition of the white slave-owners. That was the universality proclaimed by colonialism. The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism. These forces were, however, in some cases inspired by certain declarations, for instance of the Rights of Men.

In speaking of the enduring legacy of liberalism, I have never said that we have nothing to learn from liberalism. There two primary components of the legacy of liberalism. First, and perhaps the most important point: Liberalism has made the distinction between “sacred space” and “profane space” that I have spoken about. But liberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score, I counterpose liberalism to Marxism, and rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism in comparison to Marxism.

Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such—not the limitation of power, but its disappearance—the withering of the state and so on. This vision is a messianic vision, which has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel the obligation to limit power. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.

RW: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State—as Lenin, following Engels, put it—was misguided?

DL: Totally misguided!

RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the state? Must the state always exist?

DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the state would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of state domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty—this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.

Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the state into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated state intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.

RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.” In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern state as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a state, if the state is only there to express class domination.

DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the state is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the state. They write that the state functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the state would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.

Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the state. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the state as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the state in terms of today’s political form.

RW: And the other great legacy of liberalism?

DL: The other great legacy of liberalism exists in its understanding of the benefits of competition. And here I am thinking of the market, too, about which I speak positively in my book. We must distinguish different forms of the market. For a long time, the market implied a form of slavery. The slaves were merchandise in the market. The market can assume very different forms. Not that the market is the most important fact. We cannot develop a post-capitalist society, at least for a long time to come, without some form of competition. And this is another great legacy that we can learn from liberalism. |P

Transcribed by Ross Wolfe

[1].Domenico Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (Humanity Press, Amherst NY, 2001).

Platypus presents: Lessons from the history of Marxism

@ Left Forum
March 18-20, 2011

Pace University
next to City Hall, New York City
online registration page:

Please join us for the following panel discussions:

The Bourgeois Revolution: from Marx’s point of view

//Saturday, March 19 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review

James Vaughn - University of Texas at Austin, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Spencer Leonard - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jeremy Cohan (chair) - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Lenin’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m. | room W607

Chris Cutrone - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Paul Le Blanc - LaRoche College
Lars T. Lih - Independent researcher
Ian Morrison (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

//Saturday, March 19 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m. | room W606

Greg Gabrellas - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Stephen Eric Bronner - Rutgers University
Ben Shepard (chair) - The Platypus Affiliated Society

Lukács’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m. | room W607

Jeremy Cohan - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Marco Torres - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Timothy Bewes - Brown University
Timothy Hall - University of East London, U.K.
Chris Cutrone (chair) - School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Aesthetics in Protests

//Saturday, March 19 | 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m. | room E330

Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
Jamie Keesling (chair) - 491, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Debating Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation”

//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m | room W615
Sponsored by the Demarcations

Bruno Bosteels - Cornell University
Chris Cutrone - The Platypus Affiliated Society, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Nayi Duniya - Demarcations journal
Saul Thomas (chair) - University of Chicago

Trotsky’s Marxism

//Saturday, March 19 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m | room W607

Ian Morrison - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Jason Wright - International Bolshevik Tendency
Susan Williams - Freedom Socialist Party
Spencer Leonard (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

Marx and Engels’s Marxism

//Sunday, March 20 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m. | room W603A
Sponsored by the Platypus Review

Benjamin Blumberg - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Nathan Smith - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Pam Nogales - New York University, The Platypus Affiliated Society
Richard Rubin - The Platypus Affiliated Society
Tana Forrester (chair) - University of Chicago, The Platypus Affiliated Society

The Platypus Affiliated Society presents
30 Years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: The Tragedy of the Left
6:00pm Sunday, September 13, 2009
at The Brecht Forum 451 West St New York, NY

Left Forum 2009 "Turning Points"
April 17-19, 2009
Dialectics of Defeat: Towards a Theory of Historical Regression and
Politics of the Contemporary Student Left: Hopes and Failures

TOUT VA B!EN (1972)
A Film by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin
Running Time: 96 minutes (In French w/ English Subtitles)
Thursday, April 16th, 2009
8:00 p.m.
435 Grand Ave # 2F
Brooklyn, NY

Pam C. Nogales C.

Platypus Review 10 | February 2009


The occupation of the New School Graduate Faculty building on 65 5th Ave. began in the late evening on December 17, 2008 and lasted over thirty hours. In the build-up to the action, differences arose respecting the aims and potential effectiveness of an occupation.

Against both a negotiating committee and concrete demands, a group calling itself the "Autonomous Faction of Non-cooperation Against the Division of Labor," pushed to extend the occupation. On the other side, leaders of the Radical Student Union, such as Atlee McFellin, originally opposed the occupation on the basis that it was uncoordinated,ill-considered, and, therefore, likely to fail. Despite these reservations, in the end RSU members did participate in the occupation in conjuction with the Autonomous Faction and other student groups.

Although the media coverage of the New School occupation portrayed it as a victory for the students, most of the demands have yet to be met. Not only is McFellin's primary demand for the establishment of a "Socially Responsible Committee" yet to be approved, but many of the administration's concessions have not yet been implemented. The action's long-term significance, however, may be more in the influence it exerts over the direction of student politics. Both student groups and activist networks payed closed attention to the occupation and expressed admiration for it. In the coming months we are likely to see further ramifications of the New School occupation.


This interview which has been edited for publication was conducted on January 15, 2009. It is the first in a series of critical interrogations intending to clarify the politics that propel such activities as the New School occupation and the overall direction of the student movement today.

Pam Nogales: What is your relationship to the new Students for a Democratic Society?

Atlee McFellin: We are still part of SDS, but I don't know for how much longer. We call ourselves the Radical Student Union (RSU). We are also members of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), and the Student Environmental Action Coalition. There may be other groups that we are affiliated with, like the Responsible Endowments Coalition, but I do not think we are officially part of any others.

PN: Briefly walk me through the brainstorming stage of the New School occupation into the first night in the building.

AM: It started when the New School faculty gave both Robert Millard, treasurer of the board of trustees, and Bob Kerrey, president of the university, their vote of no-confidence. We organized a demonstration outside and inside of the same building as the board of trustees' meeting. After that, other students, mostly graduate students at the New School for Social Research, sent a few e-mails out through various departmental listservs asking for an open meeting to discuss the faculty vote.

There were two meetings before the occupation about how to respond. Apart from the occupation, we talked about the demands we wanted to make and the things we wanted to change in the university. A lot of the discussion was about constituting some type of organization, although most of the people there had no experience organizing, and didn't really want an "organization." They were of the opinion that somehow there was-to use those terrible buzzwords-an organic and egalitarian constitution-making process that was happening at these meetings. Now of course there wasn't. And it was not egalitarian, and not really democratic in any sense of the word, and certainly not an organization.

In the brainstorming stages of the occupation... well, that was one of the issues, oddly enough, there was no real brainstorming for the occupation. In the two meetings a good amount of contention emerged, and I was clearly on one side because I didn't favor the occupation. It seemed like nothing was planned, nothing was really thought out, and it simply consisted of a bunch of people wanting to get some steam out in a very unconstructive manner -I'm sure that some people are going to be extremely pissed off that I say this, but that is basically what it was.

There was a lot of speculation and skepticism about the effectiveness of any type of action, especially since the bulk of students were going into finals. There were even some of us that had a final during the second meeting. The question of the occupation was much more on the table in the second meeting; two people even premised the invitation to the meeting with "bring your sleeping bags." Nobody did. The plan, put forward by a couple of people, was to actually stay at 65 Fifth Ave. that night, but there were only about six to eight people who were actually willing to go through with it. So myself and a couple of other people talked them out of it, and said "If you are going to do it, at least wait one more day." It was clear that there was no support, there was no outreach done, there was really nothing besides a couple of people deciding that they wanted to do an occupation. It seemed like nothing had been done, and I was very skeptical. We weren't really sure if the occupation was going to happen, even by the end of that meeting.

By 8:00pm the following day, the occupation was on its way. When we all finally sat down in the cafeteria of the New School there was a heated debate about whether we were going to form a negotiating committee and use the demands that we drafted to argue for the changes we articulated at the meetings. Through a deliberating process we were able to compile the changes we wanted to achieve, we took those, typed them, printed them in the basement, and then four of us took them to the security guard and said "these are our demands." The look on his face was quite funny. When he heard us, he replied with something like, "Demands? What?"

Later on, the cafeteria workers, hired by an outside company, Chartwells, would soon have to enter the cafeteria. Were we going to stop the Chartwells workers from coming into work and earning their pay? If we had, we may have lost the justification for the action. Ultimately, it was decided that we would stay, and although we would allow the workers to come in, we wouldn’t allow people to buy things from the cafeteria. But then, I think it was Pat Korte and a professor from CUNY that suggested that we find out if Chartwells was unionized; it turned out they were. We got into contact with someone from their union, Unite Here, and we found out that the workers would be compensated and that it was part of their union contract that they couldn’t cross a picket line, and that this action constituted a picket line. Truthfully, we kind of lucked out in that regard. If it would have been the case that they weren’t unionized and that they were paid by the hour, I am not sure how well it would have gone—certainly media would have been different. Part of the problem the entire time was that even the people who were the most excited and eager hadn’t put any thought into how it was actually going down, in fact, they purposely didn’t put any forethought into it.

PN: What do you think were the most important of the demands to the administration?

AM: For us at the New School-and this is something the RSU has been working on for a year now- the aim is to force the university to divest from any company that profits from war. Obviously the university doesn't disclose their investments, and I should say that we didn't achieve this demand, oddly enough. The creation of the Socially Responsible Investment committee is the most important of all the demands won in the occupation. It was part of our campaign to bring attention to war profiteering, specifically L-3 Communications, and how we understand what L-3 and its history symbolize in terms of the power dynamics that exist within global capitalism today. We will be working with New York City UFPJ and a variety of other organizations in the "Yes We Can: Beyond War a New Economy is Possible" campaign, established in their national assembly, to help us build a national movement to divest from war profiteers, specifically around Iraq and Afghanistan. My hope is that we can also begin to weaken companies that foster ecological destruction and devastation and companies that sell arms to Israel.

PN: Let's delve into the demand for a Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) committee. The booklet written by the Radical Student Union describes this committee as an advisory body to the Board of Trustees that is supposed to prevent unethical New School investments. Could you say more about this advisory role?

AM: The usage of the word "advisory" implies that this body would help the trustees make these decisions, and was used simply to appear more inviting to the president of the university and the board of trustees. However, in the run-up to the creation of the SRI committee at the main trustee meeting in April, we are organizing faculty and staff support so that we can push for veto power over investment decisions. We can only achieve this is if we have the capacity to shut down the university until this demand is met. Now, as unlikely as that sounds, there is a really good chance for this in the spring. The faculty is still very much in support of getting rid of President Bob Kerrey and Vice President James Murtha, and we have been making better and stronger relationships with the faculty who have gotten involved.

Moreover, in the present economic crisis the New School is specifically hard pressed to come up with reasonable fiscal solutions, therefore it needs a significant change. For any other university it's different, but for the New School, strange as it sounds, the solution lies in becoming much more radical, for example, divesting from war profiteers and investing in renewable energy manufacturing.

We will be providing this advisory role while at the same time forming something that will allow for us to build a much stronger and forceful anti-war movement. I think that there is a great possibility that we will attain veto power by April. It is extremely important to be able to vote on who the president of the university will be when Kerrey is gone, but I think it is even more important for us to gain veto power over the investment decisions and contracts that the university makes with other corporations.

PN: The informational booklet printed by the Radical Student Union describes the necessity for the SRI committee in the following paragraph,

"SRI considers both the investor's financial needs and an investment's impact on society. SRI investors encourage corporations to improve their practices on environmental, social, and governmental issues... With SRI, investors can put their money to work to build a more sustainable world while earning competitive returns both today and over time."

This seems to me to say that what the SRI committee is aiming for is a more ethical form of capitalism.

AM: Yes, of course, it's very reformist in that regard. But if you look at the rest of the way we have been framing our campaign, it is much more radical. Keep in mind that in the spring we are going to be creating another group at the New School to appeal to people who aren't going to be responsive to us when we talk about revolution, and overthrowing capitalism, and instituting a much more direct and participatory economy and society. That's why we put that in there, we want to appeal to a variety of people, but our goals-from the beginning-are much more radical.

PN: Do you mean to say that the means toward winning more radical ends have to appeal to present thought, especially in the way that leftists formulate ideas of "progress" and "transformation"? That at the present juncture it is not possible to "sell" revolution to the majority of the population, and that a leftist politics has to take steps toward that goal?

AM: Yes. For some people it may not take these steps, but for most it will.

PN: How do you formulate the interconnectedness between present demands and future goals in your politics?

AM: Look at it this way: There are steps that can be taken if we want a much more revolutionary democratic society, and I don't just mean in the political sphere but an abolition of the distinction between the political and the economic like what Marx and Engels talked about. We are in a university that has an endowment of 200 million dollars, which is not a lot for a university. In this situation there are things that we can do in the short term that will help to create the foundation for a more revolutionary economy and society that is directly democratic-or however you want to describe it.

In light of Obama's economic recovery plan, with its emphasis on the environment, the RSU thinks that the New School should do two things. One, it should invest in renewable energy production; The university should take a portion of its endowment and invest it in democratic, and maybe even worker-owned, global energy production. The other suggestion is that it should invest in cooperative credit unions. This would be a real solution in that it gives people access to credit that would be much more accountable to them than the big three. We should fight for credit unions owned by the people who have their money in them, and which are conceived as part of a long term project of building a more democratic society. Even though it would be a small achievement, it would lay the groundwork for a future economy in the here and now that would challenge the interests determining today's economy.

PN: It seems to me that the link between universities and war profiteering is epiphenomenal of a more deeply entrenched and systemic problem, the perennial reconstitution of capitalism. Thus we are faced with the task of delving deeper into the problem. In the work I've done with SDS members, theorists such as Michael Albert and David Harvey have defined the parameters of this task. Yet, I think that their analysis are insufficient, and despite their influence on students' political activity, the content of leftist politics remains unclear. You proposed creating a society in which investment could be decided on the basis of democratic deliberation, but what that sounds like is making capitalism more tolerable, thus leaving the mechanism through which agency is mediated intact. How is the fight against capital and the ostensible "democratization" of the system differentiated? Are they?

AM: As far as I am concerned -and this of course gets back to David Harvey- is that you can't, at this point, have a democratic form of capitalism. Why? Well what does this crisis signify for the future of global capitalism? What is happening today is leading us into a period of war. I believe that this is the beginning of a much larger period when you will have an unraveling of US hegemony. I think that this period we are heading into is going to be characterized by environmental crisis, and to a lesser extent continual economic crisis, but ultimately it will lead into a political crisis in which the United States will have to deal with rising powers. War mongers, Democrat or Republican, are going to be favoring these developments. That is why part of what we've been doing at the New School is fostering the seed for a new type of economy in the short term while creating an analysis of the relationship between war profiteers and financial institutions.

PN: What should the student movement do to transform the limitations of political consciousness today in order to create a better ground for a revolutionary politics in the future?

AM: I think that the student movement can play a role beyond the transformation of the university while it makes arguments about education in society. I think that it is extremely important to connect with other movements, for example, groups fighting for housing rights and against foreclosures and evictions. Some of us are already involved in this kind of work. We could revolutionize student power by taking this power and working alongside working people, people in neighborhoods against gentrification, as a means to unite people in their struggle.

Some people at the New School are going to respond to responsible investment, but of course I want more. As far as we are concerned, what reasonable person doesn't want more? And that is why having a solid analysis is so key. If we have a solid analysis we can explain why we are trying to take power in the university and move from this question to bigger issues. Who in the short term are we going to take power from? We are trying to take power from the treasurer of the board of trustees. Why? Only because he is a board of trustees member and we don't like those power dynamics? No. That is important, but we are also doing it because he is both the only the non-executive chairman at L-3 Communications, and a former managing director of Lehman Brothers. We are confronting what these corporations represent in the global power dynamic and how they keep people oppressed and in the conditions they are in through debt and loans. The IMF and the World Bank get their money from companies like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, J.P Morgan, and Citigroup.

People have incipient knowledge of what these financial institutions represent. But do they understand the dynamics of global capital and its relationship to power? Well, it's not that detailed, and I think that this where we come in. Unfortunately, we are privileged, but we can use our privilege to the benefit of other people by connecting the dots, by explaining what foreclosures have to do with the war and suggesting how to challenge that. An occupation is only an occupation, that is, when it's not part of a project like creating a democratic university. This is how I understand what you mentioned earlier about the struggle for democracy and the fight against capitalism. We are not perfect, but I don't think we fall into a trap here. I guess you could say I am not cynical.

PN: How do you understand leadership within a movement? What is the role of political leadership?

AM: Leadership is unavoidable and necessary. It's necessary because everybody is going to have different strengths and weaknesses depending on levels of experience. Leaders are essential, as long as they don't hinder the development of a democratically based organizational structure, and as long as they don't impede in the process of others developing their own capacity to be leaders. If they do, then that is a problem. It's a problem because even though those leaders might be effective in the short run, they are going to be ineffectual in building a larger movement. Ultimately they are going to fail to foster leadership to continue the job.

In Eric Fromm's Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, he distinguishes between rational and irrational forms of authority. The example that he uses for the irrational form of authority is the bureaucrats within the democratic process who try to perpetuate their position, their authority, in what happens in the daily life of the organization. Whereas a rational form of leadership is one that, in its operation, seeks to eliminate the need for its authority. The best type of leader is one that does just that: develops leaders that eliminate the need for that initial person. Obviously, a good leader will encourage others to develop their capacities.

PN: How could the new student movement succeed where the old one did not?

AM: Well the old one did not have as well thought out of an analysis. A lot of students that I know of have a stronger analysis of capitalism and a stronger understanding of history than those that were provided in the 1960s. I think that the difference between the student movement of the 1960s and the movement of today is that the first was a generation of people waking up and realizing that the capitalism was something and that the United States was something. But today is different, those who have overcome their cynicism and are part of organizing a better society today are much more in agreement with anti-capitalist sentiment, anti-imperialist sentiment, and can articulate this in a much stronger way than students in the 1960s. An analysis alone is one thing, as part of our efforts it will lead to a much more conscious and revolutionary form of organizing. I think that this approach is potentially more effective, obviously, we have yet to see if it is or not. I think that as opposed to a lack understanding of the workings of capitalism, one of the biggest barriers today is cynicism: the feeling that very little is possible today.

PN Postscript: Student politics today prioritizes the need for the democratization of financial structures, the break from transnational corporations, and the creation of transparent decision-making processes. Even at its best- in the struggle for dual-power through local control of factories, credit unions, and institutions-the student movement's imagination is finched in by predetermined and unquestioned political boundaries. The challenging of these boundaries is often left out of the equation.

Students play a peculiar role in the recreation of social life. While they do not constitute a class in themselves, they are at a point in their development where a serious shift in thought and thus political education can take place. This raises the question: what role could students play in furthering the scope and depth of an anti-capitalist politics and how do we begin this kind of work today? |P

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
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New York University Sociology Department
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Friday, January 23rd, 2009
New York University Sociology Department
Puck Building
295 Lafayette st. 4th FL
New York, NY 10012

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