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On October 28th, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Bill Ayers, former member of Students for a Democratic Society

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013


On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.


Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask, Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings—stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations—we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy.

Sunit Singh: When Marx confronted the possibility that a university career might be closed (once Friedrich Wilhelm IV initiated a rightward, anti-Hegelian shift in Prussia around 1840) Marx turned to work as a journalist and editor. You describe Marx the crusading young newspaperman as follows:

Marx blasted [the] enemies [of the freedom of the press], linking their arguments to an archaic society of orders, to an authoritarian Prussian state trying to prop up this society, and to intellectual trends defending it…. [He also set about] praising freedom of the press as part of a broader encomium of freedom, articulated in opposition to the nature of the Prussian monarchy… [and] the debates on freedom of the press in the recently concluded Rhenish Provincial Diet…. Marx brought together liberal aspirations for an effective legislature, and for a constitution guaranteeing basic rights, such as freedom of the press, and liberal hostility to the society of orders…. [Marx argued] in Hegelian fashion, [for] a free press as the objectification of the people’s spirit and not an objectification alienated from its spirit, but one that knew itself as such (83-87).

As editor of the Rhineland News, Marx adopted a “liberal, anti-protectionist, and even anti-communist stance” that the “bourgeois liberals who were financing the newspaper” could rally around. Moreover, this commitment to free trade or even his criticisms of communism were, on your account, not the ideas of a liberal youth that Marx would later discard. So what were Marx’s formative political experiences and how does a Nineteenth Century Life reframe our understanding of them?

JS: I’ll mention four places where I show Marx’s formative political experiences. One was his relationship with the Prussian monarchy. Marx was born in Trier, a city that had been annexed by Prussia by the time of the Congress of Vienna. Its inhabitants were deeply hostile to Prussia. Marx himself was profoundly ambivalent towards Prussia. Nevertheless, as a Young Hegelian, he looked to it as a source of liberalism, reform, and enlightened ideas. However, he would ultimately become a strong enemy of Prussia. This break with liberal illusions about Prussia was formative for Marx. It led to him becoming a radical, who saw the resolution of political confrontations in violent revolution. Then, there are the ideas of Hegel, which shaped Marx’s views of historical process, and social and political struggle. Third, was Marx’s confrontation with the ideas of classical political economy in the form of figures like Adam Smith, and Smith’s most important disciples, such as David Ricardo, and James and John Stuart Mill. We see this in a very early form in Marx’s advocacy of free trade, which was something he maintained throughout his life. Although Marx, of course, broke with nineteenth century pro-free-market and pro-private property liberalism, becoming a communist, he did so while retaining the basic tenets of classical political economy. Marx always criticized socialist thinkers like Proudhon, who tried to prove Ricardo wrong. (This was one of the central points of Marx’s critique of Proudhon in his polemic, The Poverty of Philosophy.) Finally, there is Marx’s confrontation with the French Revolution, the dominant political event of the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The revolutions that Marx the radical advocated were modeled on those occurring in France in 1789 and 1793. These were Marx’s formative political experiences. His developed theory was an attempt to combine all four into a cohesive view of the past development and future trends of European history. This developed theory reminds me a little of what happens when you put a cat into a box. Cats like boxes, and they often climb into them even if they aren’t big enough. No matter how much they contort their bodies, there’s always some part sticking out. Marx’s effort to combine all of these influences into one theory strikes me as very much like this.

SL: While editing the Rhineland News in Cologne, Marx criticized many of his fellow Young Hegelians for their foppish “lifestyle-based radicalism.” How did this critique of bohemianism develop into more politically pointed criticisms of fellow socialists in Paris and Brussels?

JS: What Marx disliked about the Young Hegelians was the way their interests revolved around carrying on an atheist lifestyle, making fun of established religion and gender relations. When Marx became a newspaper editor, and began to hang around with businessmen and politicians who were actually trying to change things, he began to see the Young Hegelians as a frivolous lot and their efforts as non-serious, as leading to no changes in state and society. This attitude was expanded and developed in his various critiques of fellow socialists in the 1840s, such as Proudhon and Karl Grün. Marx criticized them for trying to smuggle communism into existing capitalist society by making it a lifestyle choice (e.g., by joining workers' cooperatives or Fourierist phalansteries) instead of seeing it as a political issue involving revolutionary social struggle. So Marx developed this critique of the lifestyle-based politics of the Young Hegelians into one of communists skeptical of political struggle. They saw the implementation of communism as a matter of changing people’s opinions and social habits, rather than of overthrowing the government.

SL: They thought if people’s ideas changed, political change would follow?

JS: Yes, but in that case political change would become unnecessary. If people’s ideas changed, then there would be no problem. Marx was well aware that people’s ideas must be changed, but he saw such change as being effected through political struggles.

SS: You argue that Marx’s developing worldview in the mid-1840s is perhaps best captured by his articles, “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” and the review of Bruno Bauer's “On the Jewish Question,” both written for the Franco-German Yearbooks. The two articles represent his attempt to digest Hegel’s theory of modern society after the collapse of the society of orders and, despite this collapse, the apparent antagonism between the state and civil society. While the rhetoric of, especially, “On the Jewish Question” has forced “Marx’s defenders [to] tiptoe around the essay in embarrassed fashion” (127), you take Marx’s engagement with Bruno Bauer over Jewish emancipation to mark a crucial stage in his development as, so to speak, a late Hegelian. How did Marx’s position in these pieces mark a real crystallization of his thought?

JS: As far as Marx’s review of “On the Jewish Question,” in the second part in particular, Marx really lets loose on Jews, accusing them of being greedy, selfish, and capitalistic. He claimed that in a communist society, Judaism would no longer exist, and Jews would no longer be an identifiable group. Seen from the point of view of the 20th century, with the Nazi and Stalinist persecutions of the Jews, this is very embarrassing. Indeed, many have denounced Marx as an anti-Semite and a proto-Nazi. One of the things I argue in the book is that this is a false perspective on the essay. What we actually see here is Marx making a very interesting distinction between what he calls “political emancipation” and “human emancipation.” He argues that the emancipation of the Jews would involve granting them equal rights with Christians and the creation of a society like in the United States with a separation between church and state, which marked a crucial step in the completion of the program of the French Revolution.

Now if Marx had stopped there, no one could have accused him of being an anti-Semite. But Marx believed that the completion of the program of the French Revolution (the creation of a democratic republic, a society in which people were equal under the law, an end to discrimination on the basis of religion or race), while a historic step forward from the old regime society of orders, itself created a society marked by alienation and capitalist exploitation. So, in the second part of the essay "On the Jewish Question," the part which tends to offend people, he went on to argue that true human emancipation requires an end to this capitalist society of alienation, exploitation, and the separation of state and society. This is the beginning of his Hegelian argument for the creation of a communist regime. It seems in some ways an odd argument. Marx was saying that Jews needed to be emancipated in order to act freely as members of civil society, but that when they do that, the moneyed among them will simply end up as capitalist exploiters. So the question becomes: Why would you bother doing this in the first place? What was Marx talking about? And this becomes a central element of his political aspirations, a dilemma he would wrestle with for the subsequent 40 years: How would it be possible to do both, to complete the tasks of the French Revolution by overthrowing monarchies and creating democratic republics and societies of equal citizens, but also go beyond that by creating a communist society in which alienation was abolished, and society, the state, and individuals were harmonized. Trying to carry out these two revolutionary acts at once turned out to be impossible. Marx never found a way to resolve this issue.

SL: One major theme of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is that, as you have indicated already, Marx understood himself as heir to the French Revolution. Specifically, Marx expected and, indeed, in perhaps the most famous passages of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, described 19th century revolution as a repetition of the 18th century French Revolution, particularly in its 1789–1794 phase. Thus, Marx simultaneously longs for the revolutionary poetry of the future, even as he argues that the past necessarily recurs. You describe Marx’s thinking at the time of the Revolution of 1848–49 as follows:

Using his influential position within the newly reorganized Communist League… Marx took scant time to join the revolutionary fray. For a little over a year, from the spring of 1848 through the spring of 1849, Marx was, for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary: editing in brash, subversive style the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organize the working class in Cologne and across Germany; and repeatedly encouraging and fomenting revolution. In all of these activities, Marx persistently promoted the revolutionary strategy he had first envisioned in his essay on the Jewish Question, and would present in scintillating language in the Communist Manifesto. He pressed for a democratic revolution to destroy the authoritarian Prussian monarchy. At the same time he aspired to organize the working class to carry out a communist uprising against a capitalist regime he expected such a democratic revolution to establish. In effect, Marx was proposing a double recurrence of the French Revolution: A repetition of its 1789–1794 phase in mid-nineteenth century Prussia, and also a workers’ seizure of power… (195)

And, again, when you come to address the Manifesto itself, you note the magnetic influence of the French Revolution upon its programmatic aspect. “The ten-point program in the Manifesto,” you write, “was designed for a revolutionary government, one modeled on the radical, Jacobin phase of the French Revolution in 1789” (210). How and why does Marx, who is after all, the great theorist of modernity’s historical dynamism, also view history as subject to this sort of repetition such that he expects the French Revolutionary past to return under changed conditions?

JS: Maybe we need to revise our notions about Marx’s attitude toward modernity’s historical dynamism. Marx’s political thought—like most of his contemporaries’—was centered on the French Revolution. This was just a reality that dominated the first two-thirds of 19th century Europe. When people thought about politics, they thought about it in terms of the French Revolution. Marx was no exception in that respect. What’s interesting about Marx is this idea of what I like to call the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution. On the one hand, the French Revolution would literally recur in Central and Eastern Europe, with an uprising against the Prussian and Austrian monarchies and their replacement by a revolutionary German Republic. This would probably include a revolutionary war against the Tsar—a literal rerun of 1793 in mid-19th-century Germany. But there would also be a recurrence by analogy. That is, Marx saw the bourgeoisie as seizing power, bringing the feudal society of orders to an end, and replacing it with a capitalist economy. By analogy, the workers would do the same thing: They would overthrow capitalism and create a communist society. Marx wants to do both at once in 1848, but he finds it very difficult. He discovers, in trying to overthrow the Prussian monarchy, that you can’t get the workers riled up against the bourgeoisie, because the bourgeoisie then won’t support you in overthrowing the monarchy. In his speech to the Cologne Democratic Society in August 1848, he ends up describing the class struggle as nonsense. The problem was that organizing the workers against the capitalists did not necessarily mean opposing the Prussian state.

SL: What I meant by Marx as a thinker of historical dynamism is the way that Marx thinks about industrialization as producing constant historical change. It is in this respect that the 19th century looks different from the 18th century, the century of the French Revolution. In this sense Marx is quite conscious of holding on to the French Revolutionary conception of politics under vastly changed circumstances.

JS: I really think that Marx here is a primarily backwards-looking figure, who is reading capitalism’s future out of its past. He sees the future political crisis of capitalism being resolved by a movement along the lines of the French Revolution. His whole economic vision of the future of capitalism (e.g., the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit) is based upon the ideas of David Ricardo, who wrote in the early 19th century, the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw these conditions, which by the mid-1800s were capitalism’s past, as being capitalism’s future. All of Marx’s invocations of dynamism and constant change—we all know the famous (and actually mistranslated) section of the Communist Manifesto proclaiming that “all that is solid melts into air”—tend to end up parsed in terms of Marx’s past.

SS: Could you provide your translation of “all that is solid melts into air”?

JS: The German original is “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft.” “Stehende” and “Ständische” both come from the verb “to stand,” and is used here as sort of a pun—it refers to both “that which exists” and the society of orders, the old regime world that still existed in Prussia and Austria. “Verdampft” means to “evaporate,” to “go up in smoke.” What Marx was suggesting here is that the power of capitalism—capitalist steam engines (“Dampf” means “steam” in German)—would “evaporate” the society of orders. This would also bring to an end the intellectual world that went along with it: Romanticism, the glorification of the Middle Ages, and religion. Marx’s comment at the end about “man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life” is about an age of realism, e.g., literary realism. One of Marx’s friends when he was in exile in Paris was Heinrich Heine, the great early German realist.

Mine is a very different take on the passage. The way it has been interpreted in the 20th century is that capitalism produces many new consumer demands; we have a world which is constantly changing in communications, artistic trends, etc. That’s a 20th century reinterpretation of Marx’s ideas.

SS: One of “Marx’s least successful predictions” from the Communist Manifesto, you note, is that of the imminent end of nations and nationalism: “National distinctiveness and conflicts between nations disappear more and more with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the relations of life corresponding to them.” As you note, the resurgence of nationalism in pre-1914 Europe belies any straightforward affirmation of what Marx wrote. But as you also note, Marx’s view nevertheless contained an element of truth rooted in Marx’s own experience. Marx had participated with the London Fraternal Democrats and the Brussels Democratic Association, both of which “were based on the cooperation of radicals of different nationalities” (207) and, of course, Marx, whose own perspective was resolutely internationalist, went on to participate in other organizations dedicated to international cooperation. Given this, might we not take Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto as indicating, if not straightforward dissolution of nationalism, then its substantial, if subtle, transformation from British patriotism or, later French revolutionary nationalism of the 18th century? In the history of European nationalism, how does the revolution of 1848 serve as a watershed moment? How did Marx and Engels relate to post-1848 nationalisms—particularly Polish and Irish (we’ll get to Marx’s brand of German nationalism later)—and how did this shape their political outlook?

JS: The early advocates of nationalism in the first half of the 19th century tended to envisage antagonisms and military conflicts between different countries as the result of the lusts of monarchs for conquest, glory, and expansion of their domains. They imagined that when states were ruled by nations, by peoples, all of this would come to an end, and nations would spontaneously cooperate with each other. These were the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini, the leading democrat in 1830s and ’40s Europe, whose organizations Young Italy and Young Europe were designed to be an alliance of different nationalist groups against the existing monarchical order. The Brussels Democratic Association had an absolutely fabulous name: The Democratic Association Having as its Goal the Union and Fraternity of all Peoples. This expresses exactly what nationalists thought. But in 1848, the old regimes are swept away, bringing nationalist governments in power and the first thing that happens as a result is that all these different nationalisms go to war with each other. This is especially the case in the Austrian Empire, with the Germans, the Slavs, the Hungarians, and the Italians all at war with each other. This also happens to some extent in Prussia with the Germans and the Poles, and in the far north of Germany between Germans and Danes. That is, it then became clear that nationalist movements were profoundly antagonistic to one another and that nationalism was a militaristic, bellicose ideology. This was a great disappointment and left many nationalists frustrated.

Marx and Engels developed an instrumental relationship to nationalism. For instance, Marx was a fan of Polish nationalism because it was violently anti-Russian, and he saw the destruction of the Tsarist Empire as a central revolutionary step. Marx’s daughter Jenny, who followed in her father’s political footsteps and became a left-wing journalist in her own right, wrote mostly about her support for Irish nationalism, not communism or the labor movement. Marx and Engels ended up supporting Irish nationalism, because they thought it might ultimately destroy the position of the landowning Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and this, they thought, would be a blow to English capitalism and capitalism worldwide. There were lots of other nationalisms that they didn’t like, like that of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe—which tended to be anti-German and pro-Russian. Engels states in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, which is a sort of post-mortem of the revolutions of 1848, that if we have a revolution in Germany and the Czechs are opposed to it, we’ll just kill all of them—frankly genocidal rhetoric. We see here the way that that these disillusioned nationalities will not in fact spontaneously fraternize, and so it is necessary to view nationalism through its usefulness for revolutionary goals.

The final issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

SL: Marx’s stint as an active revolutionary was spent editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. Reminiscing about the paper in later years, Engels asserted that “war with Russia and the creation of a united German republic were its two main themes” (226).[1] Explain the logic of this and, more generally, the strategic orientation of the paper vis-à-vis other socialists, such as Andreas Gottschalk, whom you described as a “True Socialist, [and] a friend, pupil, and close confidant of [the Young Hegelian philosopher] Moses Hess” (220). What was Marx’s political aim in the revolution of 1848? How did Marx’s political development over the previous half decade or so prepare him for the role he played as editor-in-chief of the New Rhineland News? How did his position evolve over the course of the 1848–49 revolution?

JS: You will remember this idea of the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution, the literal and analogous. Marx had a “double-track” political strategy in 1848 of achieving both of these revolutionary goals at once. His work in Cologne on the New Rhineland News represented the literal, “Jacobin” wing of this strategy that would call for a united German republic, the overthrow of the Prussian monarchy, and revolutionary war with Russia. Marx spent a lot of his time really socking it to the Prussians: making fun of the monarch, the royal family, government officials, tax collectors, and army officers. He stirred up the population against them all. The Prussian officials got angry because Marx was quite good at it. And in the western provinces, the Prussians were widely despised.

The other thing that Marx wanted to do was to organize the workers and to form a nationwide German workers’ association that would prepare for a new revolutionary struggle against the capitalists once this democratic republic was achieved. The first “Jacobin” part worked pretty well, but the workers’ association did not. Marx’s working-class, communist followers were disappointing. They spent a lot of time drinking in the cafes and playing dominoes, rather than trying to organize their fellow workers. In Cologne itself, Gottschalk headed a very large workers’ association—something like every one in three adult males in the city belonged to it—but to be honest it would be fair to describe him and his mentor Moses Hess in contemporary terminology as “airheads”—fabulists who believed that everybody was in favor of communism, and all you had to do was wait a little while in order for communism to emerge on its own. Gottschalk was notorious for refusing to take part in political campaigns. He sabotaged the elections to the German National Assembly by calling the democrats bourgeois frauds and calling on workers not to vote, thereby allowing the Cologne conservatives to dominate the election. He refused to join the republican and anti-Prussian campaigns. He was really screwing everything up, and all the democrats in Cologne were hostile to Gottschalk—Marx was no exception in this respect. When Gottschalk was arrested by the Prussian government in June 1848, Marx and his followers took control of his organization and attempted to use it to support the democrats. But instead the organization itself collapsed, so that Marx found himself, in 1848, pursuing only the Jacobin/democratic half of his political agenda.

In the fall of 1848, a period of revolutionary crises, Marx was busy stirring up efforts to overthrow the Prussian government, and in November these came very close to succeeding. He continued in this vein until the very end of the revolution, until in the spring of 1849 he suddenly changed his mind and began trying to organize the workers again. He broke with the democrats and the movement for German National Unity, and stood aside in the last revolutionary crisis of May 1849. There’s this odd back-and-forth pattern, which would be the same with the International Workingmen’s Association, within which we see the difficulty Marx had in getting both prongs of his “double recurrence” to work simultaneously.

SS: As the U.S. Civil War reached a revolutionary pitch and Polish nationalists rose in revolt against the czar, Marx came to help form the International Workingmen’s Association. Respecting Marx’s involvement in the association and its original aims, you write,

Marx’s plans for the association appeared in his agenda for the First Congress of the IWMA... The items for action included the advocacy of social reform—a shorter workday, limitations on women and children’s labor, the replacement of indirect with direct taxation, an international inquiry into workplace conditions, and the endorsement of producers’ cooperatives and trade unions. There were just two expressly political points, both taken from the arsenal of nineteenth century radicalism: the replacement of standing armies with militias; and “the necessity of annihilating the Muscovite influence in Europe... [via] the reconstitution of Poland on a social and democratic basis.” (358, ellipsis in original)

Starting from this basis, how did the IWMA politically evolve? What developments did it face and what were the central tensions within it? What were the primary aims Marx sought to advance in his struggles over the direction of the First International? How did these evolve into a struggle with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and what was at stake there?

JS: As you can see in the quote, one might think of Marx’s objectives in the IMWA as not involving any specifically revolutionary goals. He saw the IMWA primarily in terms of trade union and workplace-related reform movements. Marx believed that these would ultimately be revolutionary in nature because of his theory of surplus value, according to which capitalists gain their profits by taking part of the product that workers have produced. Marx saw unions as trying to seize some of that surplus value back from the capitalists. He hoped that, if the unions continued this effort with the support of the IMWA, it would tend to reduce capitalist profits and lead to a revolutionary crisis. This was a long-term strategy that would take a while to work out. Marx was supported in these ideas by the English trade unionists that formed the backbone of the IWMA and provided it with most of its meager finances.

The opponents of Marx were revolutionary adherents of secret societies, who saw the IWMA as a means by which to overthrow the existing order in Europe. They were interested above all in this idea of a secret society organization. At first, this was less the case for Bakunin than for the followers of the French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, who spent the 1830s–1870s plotting revolutions, trying them out, going to jail, being released, and plotting new ones.

There were two things that created tensions in the IWMA. One was its spread, from Northern and Western Europe (where it began), to countries in Southern Europe, where there weren’t really any trade unions, but where the tradition of secret societies was still very active. The second was the Franco–Prussian war of 1870, which disrupted politics all across the European continent. Marx was actually not at first hostile to Bakunin. The two became friends when they met in exile in France in the late 1840s, and Marx was always very impressed with him. When they met again some 15 years later, Marx wrote to Engels saying that Bakunin was one of the few people who had moved forward in the interval rather than backwards. Bakunin was an enormous fan of secret societies, and became involved with some very dubious ones like that of Sergey Nechayev, who was famously depicted in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. He therefore found himself increasingly in opposition to Marx. This eventually led to a break between the two, and a struggle for control of the IWMA. As part of this struggle, Marx decided that the IWMA had to endorse the idea of workers’ political parties. At the time, very few workers’ political parties existed. There were two competing ones in Germany at the time, but Marx trusted neither entirely. This led to a ferocious struggle between Marx and his followers, and frankly every other element in the IWMA. In the 1872 Hague conference, Marx’s followers were victorious and they expelled Bakunin. They then moved the headquarters of the IWMA to New York, basically with the intention of destroying the organization; Marx realized that plans for revolution probably had to be shelved after the repression of the Paris Commune. Just as Marx took control of the organization, he chose to bring it to an end.

SL: Why was Marx concerned to maintain the IWMA as an open, democratic political activity? A quarter century before, Marx and Engels had fought to publicize the activities of the Communist League, though it is true that, after the reverses of 1849, the Communist League took on a secret, underground form. Still, is it fair to say that the struggles in the IWMA repeat his struggles in 1847 for an open form of politics and publication?

JS: I think so. The Communist League did adopt a clandestine form after 1849, but that’s because open political activity was essentially impossible in an age of revolutionary repression. Marx was always a proponent of open politics. He was a newspaper editor—this was always one of his chief forms of political activism. Marx was suspicious of secret societies and believed wholeheartedly in open politics. One of the ironies of his struggles against Bakunin was that Marx was convinced Bakunin was trying to undermine the IWMA by smuggling in his followers in order to form a secret society within the IWMA itself. This was actually not the case, and it was ironically one of Marx’s allies who was proposing this idea, the veteran German revolutionary Johann Philipp Becker. Marx flew off the handle at Becker’s suggestions, and thought he was being manipulated by Bakunin.

SS: Two of Marx and Engels’s key associates in the German workers movement were Ferdinand Lassalle and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Eventually, it was Liebknecht, who opposed Lassalle’s coziness with Bismarck, who came to enjoy Marx and Engels’s support. One crucial division between the two, and what eventually divided Lassalle from Marx as well, was again the question of nationalism. As veterans of 1848, they all supported in some sense the cause of Germany, but Marx articulated this as an anti-Prussian demand for a German republic. Yet, in the face of eventual German unification enforced by Prussia, Marx and Liebknecht were forced to make something of it. This meant coming to some sort of terms with the followers of Lassalle. What were the fundamental underlying tensions expressed by Liebknecht’s opposition to the Lassalleans and to what extent were these overcome?

JS: There were three issues here. One was the question of the nature of a united German nation-state. Would it be a Grossdeutsch one that included the ethnic Germans of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or would it be a Kleindeutsch one, without those Germans, and so exclusively dominated by Prussia? Marx was always a Grossdeutscher and, certainly, Liebknecht was a follower of Marx on this point, while Lassalle was strongly opposed. But the issue was ultimately decided by war: The Prussians trounced the Austrians in 1866, therefore Bismarck’s state would be a Prussian–dominated Kleindeutsch state. Marx was unhappy with this, but he understood that he had to come to terms with it.

The second issue was whether the German nation-state would be a democratic republic or not. Liebknecht, as a veteran of the revolution of 1848, was a strong adherent of the idea of a democratic republic. Lassalle was too, though he flirted with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and had conspiratorial meetings with Bismarck. This tension too was decided by history. The united German nation‑state persecuted both the followers of Liebknecht and Lassalle equally, and the followers of Lassalle increasingly became opponents of the existing monarchical order.

The third issue, and this was the really tricky one, was the question of relations between the labor movement and liberal–progressive parties in the German government. Lassalle and his followers clearly despised the liberals and made deals with the conservatives, while Liebknecht and his followers were willing to make deals with at least those democrats that shunned the conservatives. This was an issue that, even after the two wings of the labor movement united at the Gotha Congress of 1875, remained alive in the German socialist party. There were some who felt that opposing liberalism was their primary aim, even if it meant collaborating with conservative authorities. Others felt that opposing the conservative authorities should be the primary aim, even if that meant collaborating with the liberals. |P

Transcribed by Tom Willis

[1]. See Friedrich Engels, “Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49)” available at <ahref=""> In that 1884 piece, Engels observes, “The political program of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung consisted of two main points: A single, indivisible, democratic German republic and war with Russia, including the restoration of Poland.”

Spencer A. Leonard with Edward Remus

Platypus Review 51 | November 2012


On November 3, 2012, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed 2012 Green Party candidate Jill Stein. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Spencer Leonard: You have written that, “It is time for the Left to be realistic about how it is going to build the power we need to make the changes we want.”[1] In what ways has the Left been unrealistic in the past? How is your candidacy intended to break with that, in howsoever modest a way? Given that there is small likelihood of your winning the election, What do you intend to achieve by running for president this year?

Jill Stein: Given the incredible concentration of economic power in the hands of very few, given the way that concentrated economic power translates into concentrated political power, and given that the forces of the economic and political elite are so vastly entrenched in our communication, political, and economic systems, we have quite a row to hoe. When people say, “What do you realistically hope to achieve?”, it’s important to point out what we are “achieving” right now under this system. We are accelerating backwards in whatever aspect of our society you look at: in our economy we see the continuing concentration of wealth and vast economic disparity, the continuing offshoring of our jobs, the continuing undermining of wages with these expanding free trade agreements; also, the skyrocketing of student debt and continued homeowner debt and foreclosure crisis; the expansion of the war and of the attack on our civil liberties; and the incredible acceleration of the climate crisis. To my mind, these are all of a piece.

There are solutions to all of these problems and it is important that these solutions have a political voice. That is my intention and the intention of the Green Party. And we also intend to translate politically this powerful social movement that we see across this world and across this country—from the democratic revolutions in the Middle East to the Occupy movement and the student protests here in this country. There is no potential political force like a generation of indentured students. Think if the word got out and went viral that thirty six million students who are in debt could go to the polls on November 6 and actually decide vote to end debt, to make public higher education free, and to create jobs. The Chicago teachers’ strike broke with the tradition of organized labor in this country. They had the courage to fight back against a Democratic administration and against the very person who was Barack Obama’s right-hand man in the city where the administration’s oppressive education policies originated.

There is a powerful movement for democracy and justice right now in this country. We need a political voice because, looking back, what really transformed history was the combination of social movements and independent political party or parties. Look at the labor movement: When did the labor movement make progress? When there was a real movement out in the streets, in the early 1900s, alongside independent political parties—the Debsian socialists, the LaFollette progressives, the Farmer-Labor Party, etc.—that could put the labor movement’s demands into the political discourse and drive it forwards. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” The effort to silence independent politics—ever since the Bush-Nader-Gore election there has been a campaign that tells us that we have to be quiet—is a smear campaign being waged against the very idea of independent third parties. It is political repression, an effort to silence political opposition. So, the purpose of this campaign is to revive our political voice and our political courage and to keep our demands in the political discourse. That is how we begin to make progress. While I am not holding my breath that we are going to win the office, I do not rule it out either! I certainly do not rule out twenty percent or five percent or two percent of the vote. That said, we cannot worry too much about the vote count in this rigged system; the system is rigged from head to tail in all kinds of ways. At the same time, electoral democracy is a part of how we come together, how we unify, so that we are not a set of separate movements that are easily divided and conquered. Elections are how we come together around a shared agenda for people, peace, and the planet, to use the power that we actually have. As Alice Walker says, “The biggest way people give up power is by not knowing they have it to start with.” Every one of our objectives in the agenda of this campaign is actually supported by a majority of the public in poll after poll. If democracy had anything to do with this election, we would be winning. In my view, it is a win for us to simply revive our political voice and our political courage. That is the key to actually turning around and changing direction—from accelerating backwards to finally beginning to move forwards, towards the just, peaceful, secure, and green future that is actually within our reach.

SL: What are the issues central to the Green Party platform and how do your positions differ from those of the other parties?

JS: The key focus of our campaign is what we call a Green New Deal. This is an emergency program to solve two crises. First, the jobs crisis: We have been stuck in an unemployment crisis for the past five years. There is no recovery: If you are a CEO or a large corporation, then things are going great for you, but for everyday people, there is no recovery. The jobs that are returning are largely low-wage and insecure jobs with poor benefits, including the jobs at General Motors that Barack Obama keeps pointing to as the example of the recovery that he hopes will spread. That is not a recovery for working people.

We have another emergency: the climate emergency. We saw this hit our shores with unprecedented force in the form of Superstorm Sandy, which has left hundreds of thousands of people without food, water, electricity, toilets to flush, or gasoline for transport of food and supplies. There is now a state of emergency, and it is what the future looks like. Subway systems have been flooded out. There is an incredible crisis that we are now just beginning to see. Superstorm Sandy is only a hint of what could come. This storm comes on the tail of the hottest twelve months on record and the most rapid meltdown of the arctic imaginable, far beyond what any science has predicted. We are seeing drought affect sixty percent of the United States on account of which food prices are rising substantially. This at a time when people are already hard-pressed to put food on their table and tens of millions of Americans require food assistance. The climate crisis is not just a question for the trees and the polar bears. This is above all about people. We are the most endangered species of all, because we have a very complex civilization and things like extreme weather are devastating, as we are seeing now.

Though Obama supposedly acknowledges that climate change is a human-created problem, what he has done, essentially, is to embrace the policies of “Drill, baby, drill!” Yes, Obama has some good policies around the margins, but this president has also built more pipelines than anyone else. We have all heard him brag about it. We all have heard him and Mitt Romney compete with each other over who would be a better servant of the coal industry, who would do more fracking, who would drill more oil. The use of our fossil fuels and our emissions are skyrocketing under Barack Obama, and he has promised more of the same.

The Green New Deal is an emergency solution that would work. What we need is not rocket science. We know how to create jobs and we know how to stop the climate crisis. We are calling for 25 million jobs to end unemployment and to jump-start the green economy of the future. That means jobs in clean, renewable energy. We could put millions of people to work overnight weatherizing our homes, our businesses, and our schools, dramatically reducing our carbon footprint at the same time that we get people back to work. The workers we need do not need a PhD. We can put the PhDs to work as well, doing research on solar, wind, and geothermal energy generation and on upgrading our grid. We can put everyone to work, but the ones who most need it are the ones who do not have a high school degree, let alone a college degree, but who could do the kind of work that needs to be done, such as weatherization and the installation of utility devices and solar cells. There is just a bonanza of jobs that we desperately need that could put people to work right now. In addition, we need to do the right thing for an energy-efficient, re-localized, secure, and sustainable food system is not only good for the planet; it’s also good for our health and creates the jobs we need. And, finally, we are prioritizing jobs in public transportation because we need light rail, inner-city trains, electric cars, and so on—and we need them quickly. The kinds of jobs that we will prioritize are very different from the jobs that the president and Mitt Romney talk about. They’re talking about low-wage manufacturing jobs even as they are creating the incentives to keep sending those jobs overseas. It is not at all clear how doing the same thing will lead to something different from the crisis we have now.

SL: I want to come back to this issue of jobs. But first, some say that one has to vote for the lesser of two evils, that one should support the Democrats from the Left or somehow try to push them to the left. Lay out the case against re-electing president Obama and for voting for the Green Party. Why does President Obama deserve to be defeated?

JS: To me, the question is whether this game plan is working. If you look at the last several decades, we have seen increasing concentrations of wealth in the hands of one percent. Under George Bush, sixty five percent of all economic gains went to the top one percent. Under Barack Obama, it became ninety two percent of all economic gains going to the top one percent! There is no sign that either political party has a clue that this is wrong much less a clue about how to change it. As Louis Brandeis said, “We can have either a democracy or vast concentrations of wealth.” We currently have had a vast concentration of wealth, and this trend has continued to accelerate under both Democrats and Republicans. Neither party offers any exit strategy for ending the crisis we are facing. There may be small differences around the margins between what Obama and what Romney is talking about. But these are very small compared to what they actually do—which is the same.

To look at what Obama has done, it is important to separate the talk from the walk. We have been here before. Four years ago, we heard all kinds of promises about what an equitable and just presidency this would be, but that is not what we got. What we got is this: Obama embraced most of the key policies of Bush and then went far beyond them. Even when he had two Democratic houses of Congress, and even when he had an unmistakable public mandate to be the peace president, he did not use that mandate. The first thing he did was to bring back Larry Summers—the engineer of the Wall Street crash—and Timothy Geithner, who looked the other way at the New York Federal Reserve while there was waste, fraud, and abuse. Everyday people were ripped off of forty percent of homeowner wealth and savings and retirement. There has been an incredible, devastating transfer of wealth from working and low-income people—and the poor, who have gotten much poorer—up to the hands of the very wealthy few. They are still getting away with it and nothing is being done.

Obama vastly increased the Wall Street bailout even as he failed to substantially reform Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank Bill is toothless. The banks are bigger than ever—too big to fail and too big to jail. Barack Obama has also continued to expand the so-called free-trade agreements: they’re free if you’re a corporation, but they’re deathly expensive if you’re a human being, either in this country or in the third world. These agreements offshore our jobs and undermine our wages. Obama is also negotiating a secret trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the mother of all free trade agreements that will continue to make this loss of jobs and downward spiral of wages far worse. He brought in Jeffrey Immelt to head the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. This speaks volumes about Obama’s priorities. Immelt is the head of General Electric. As such, he has singlehandedly closed more factories, put more people out of work, and offshored more jobs than any single person in this country. This is the person who is running Obama’s jobs council and advising him on how to resurrect the economy? The same goes for the war. On day three of his administration, the President began to bomb the heck out of Pakistan and to expand these horrific drone wars, which are actually mobilizing people against us. They are extremely counter-productive in addition to being a terrible abuse of human rights, because there are such high civilian casualties. But Obama expanded those drone wars into Yemen and Somalia. He is now talking about expanding them into North Africa. This is no peace president. He was forced to withdraw from Iraq by the date George Bush had set for a withdrawal. He tried hard for months to extend that date of withdrawal so that he could keep the troops there for longer, but he was unable, and he then called himself the peace president and brought the troops home.

Perhaps most troubling is the attack on our civil liberties. The president now exercises the rights of assassination, even to kill American citizens and their children, without ever accusing them of a crime or charging them of the crime or of bringing them before a court. He has thus undermined our rights and liberty. And the list goes on and on. Obama’s immigration policies are deplorable. And I have to mention the ballooning student debt: We have thirty-six million students who are effectively indentured servants. They have been given loans specially customized for students and stripped of all decent consumer protections. Students are the only ones to have earned this devastating form of loan. So they are carrying these draconian loans at the same time that they are facing fifty percent unemployment and underemployment. What has the Obama administration been doing? The Federal Reserve is actually bailing out Wall Street again to the tune of forty billion dollars. The Green Party is calling for a bailout of the students, not the banks. The banks created this problem, let them own it. We need to bail out the students and let the banks fail. Let them break up. It will be good for our economy to get out of this trap that we are in right now with banks that are too big to fail and too big to jail. They need to be broken up. We should be bailing out the students and making public higher education free, because it pays for itself. For every dollar that we invested as taxpayers in the GI Bill seven dollars was returned to the economy in economic benefit.

We are witnesses to the extending wars, the knockdown of the climate, the continued decline of wages, the offshoring of our jobs and closure of our factories, the attack on our civil liberties, the skyrocketing student debt, the continued homeowner foreclosure crisis, etc. So what has a track record of success? Standing up with the politics of courage, fighting for what we need and what we deserve, standing up in the street like the Chicago Teachers Union which won, unlike so many of the other unions getting down on their knees. American labor buckles again and again because they have been muzzled by the politics of fear and by the predatory Democratic party which is out to silence them. It is the politics of courage that drives us forward, that always has. This is how we get back to the things that we need. Whether we win the election or simply win the day, we are getting these issues back on the agenda and driving them forward. Every vote for my campaign is a vote for the solutions we need, for the revival of the people’s political voice, and for political courage that cannot be stopped once it is out in the open once again.

SL: You’ve mentioned that the immediate demands of the Green Party are not controversial. That is, you claim that polls show that Americans favor Medicare for all, public jobs for the unemployed, ending the wars, clean energy for climate stabilization, debt relief for homeowners and students, tuition free public higher education, public campaign financing, proportional representation, the restoration of Constitutional rights, ending the drug war and mass incarceration, and taxing the rich. You also point out that none of these are even discussed by the candidates of either mainstream party. So, how do you explain the fact that millions of people will vote for one of these parties on Election Day?

JS: One out of every two eligible voters does not vote because they do not see their priorities reflected in the agendas of the Democratic and Republican parties. So, people are voting with their feet by saying “no” to both of them. In addition, the system is well armed to keep people uninformed and disempowered. That is its whole purpose. In this country we do not outlaw political parties, we simply bury them by making it impossible for them to be heard. This is why the Green Party is kept out of the debates. This is why we are kept off the ballot. We spent about 80-90% of our campaign resources just to get on the ballot. This meant we only had about four weeks to campaign after struggling to get on the ballot.

I expected this would be a difficult and bitter campaign, but actually it has been the opposite. Running on this platform is like passing out candy. People are excited, encouraged, and uplifted to hear they actually have a voice in this election. We do not have the big money. We are a politics of and by the people, we are not part of the corporate serving political system. We do not have the money the political system is based on. That is how they keep true dissidents, true alternatives off the television. So, our goal is to get the word out and to develop alternative modes of communication. I encourage you to check out my campaign site at where you can get linked into not only my campaign but into Green Party local and congressional races as well. Our aim is to do an end-run around the prevailing divisive and oppressive political culture so that we can harness the power that is out there.

We are getting the word out, and we are in this for the long haul, to turn the White House into a greenhouse. America will be a better place for it and so will the whole world. We will achieve our aim some day, because the sold-out political system does not have a clue or an iota of interest in fixing this. What is the missing link here? It is is the missing link of changing an oppressive political system into a truly democratic political system. We are the means of doing that. They won’t do it for us. If you think that things are going in the right direction, keep voting for Obama. Because that ius what your vote means. Even if its a reluctant, lesser evil vote, it is interpreted as a mandate for more of the same. Do not let them talk you into using your vote as a weapon against yourself. You use your vote to actually transform the future. Every vote for my campaign, every Green vote is a vote for the solutions that we need and deserve now. With that we can reclaim our political voice and our political courage and transform the breaking point we face right now into a tipping point to take back our democracy and make a green future.

SL: Why does two-party politics not work? Why doesn’t a vote for the Republicans adequately register people’s discontent with the Obama administration?

JS: The problem with the two-party system is that it is a sitting-duck. There is a lot of money out there. As I said before, we have got vast concentrations of wealth in this country, and that inevitably translates into political power. If you only have two parties, it is very easy for the economic elite to buy out both. So, it’s really simple: The economic elite controls both parties and the differences between them are around the margins. What was the debate about healthcare? It was about whether the Affordable Care Act ought to be implemented at the state level as Romneycare or at the national level as Obamacare. They have both agreed not to discuss Medicare for all, not to discuss a single-payer system which is the only way we can get to affordable and comprehensive health care. I lived with Romneycare for five years in Massachusetts. It doesn’t work. It’s a zero-sum game. It helps the very poor at the expense of the near-poor. The real winners are the pharmaceutical and insurance companies who wrote the bill. So this is the deal: The big financial players—the fossil fuel industry, the health insurance industry, and the big banks—they will allow the small differences in social policy that exist between the parties, but that’s it. So, you may think you are registering your discontent by throwing the current bum out of office, but your discontent is registered as an affirmation of the other corporate spokesperson. Voting for either corporate spokesperson gives corporate America and Wall Street the mandate it needs to keep driving us over the cliff, which is where we’re going. Two party politics has a very clear track record now. The politics of fear has a track record.

The politics of courage also has a track record and it is one of success. Once the labor movement was absorbed by the Democratic Party in the later 1930s, there were no more achievements for labor and in fact the unraveling of labor’s achievements began at that point. Soon after came Taft-Hartley. Not only did later Democratic politicians refuse to repeal those attacks on the achievements of labor, they participated in them. In the same way Barack Obama is now saying that, within the first year of his reelection, he will come to a deal to cut Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Social Security was an achievement of the labor movement. So, the history of the labor movement is very good evidence of how getting absorbed into a sold-out corporate political party is exactly the wrong thing to do.

SL: Let me ask you one more question about long-term left strategy. You have written that “We need a big tent party on the Left where we can discuss the important questions of ideology and analysis while we unite to fight for the immediate reforms we all want. We need a broad party of progressives, not competing sects.”[2] What is the greatest obstacle to the Left’s assuming its role of politically leading the majority towards a new society? How does democracy itself point the way out of the present democratic impasse?

JS: I think as proponents of people, peace, and the planet, we are forever taking the blame on ourselves for not overcoming the vast corporate power arrayed against us. The fact is that we are a whole bunch of Davids fighting Goliath. And you do not have to look too far to figure out why we are not succeeding. It is not only that the public is propagandized 24/7. The public is told why corporate solutions will work, while the left is forever being denigrated, attacked, and vilified. There are real fear and smear campaigns against independent party politics. There are all kinds of forces arrayed against it. Yet, we saw what happened in Tunisia and Egypt recently: The forces of democracy developed new tools of communication for working together and for doing an end run around these purposefully expensive systems of coordinating and cooperating. It was people who did that, mainly young people who did that.

Fear is an enormous obstacle, and we have a very difficult challenge ahead. But political challenges we face are not nearly as difficult as what our future looks like if we allow it to continue to slide toward permanent war, empire, and the police state that we are very clearly accelerating toward. There’s a big wake-up movement going on right now. Things are moving in the right direction: The Socialist Alternative has endorsed our campaign and we are beginning to explore how we can begin to work together more. I think the goal is not one left political party but a number of them. We need multi-partisan democracy. But in order to get that we need to work together to break this chain of political repression that silences us all right now. It is not as though we all need to come to the same agenda all of a sudden. But there is a lot that we can all agree upon in order to revive our democracy. After we achieve those immediate aims, we can then have a much longer conversation about the differences between us. But the really critical thing is that we break through this political repression and politics of fear right now. Together we can do that, as soon as we decide to do it. Who would have believed that the people in Tahrir Square would topple in two weeks an Egyptian government that had been in power for decades. We have the capacity to so something on that scale right now. |P

[1]. Jill Stein, “Independent Politics for a Green New Deal” posted May 4, 2012 at New Politics, available at </a>&gt;.
[2]. Ibid.

Watson Ladd and Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 51 | November 2012


Last May, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation on the campus of the University of Chicago between Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and Cornel West, a veteran member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the co-author of The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (2012), and Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Watson Ladd and Spencer A. Leonard circled back to that conversation on their radio show Radical Minds on WHPK (88.5 FM) with an eye on the upcoming U.S. elections. What follows is an edited transcript of their interview with West on October 23, 2012.

Watson Ladd: What are the failings of Barack Obama’s presidency that prompted you to publicly criticize and distance yourself from the administration and the Democrats last year? As you pointed out last year, in an interview by Roland Martin, looking at the country today what we see is mass incarceration, mass unemployment and underemployment, and poor quality public education. Does Obama deserve to lose the election for betraying his campaign promises? If not, how can he be held accountable?

Cornel West: I appreciate that question. I always like to begin with an analysis of the system under which we live. It is a system that allows for vast wealth inequality: 1 percent of the population owns 42 percent of the wealth and the top 400 individuals have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. It is a system that was in place, of course, before Obama came on the scene. It has been in place for a long time. It has been tilting toward Wall Street. It has been tilting toward the powerful and the wealthy, whereas workers have been engaged in tremendous sacrifice, wrestling with stagnating or declining wages. And then, of course, we have the poverty tied to the prison industrial complex and new Jim Crow.

I should say that I am using the criteria Martin Luther King Jr. talked about at the end of his life: Keep track of the poverty tied to the wealth inequality; keep track of xenophobia, not just anti-black racism but anti-brown, anti-yellow, anti-red, anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Arab hatred, and, of course, also homophobia and sexism, and keep track of militarism. King would have us ask, How is any candidate, of whatever color, doing in terms of militarism? King’s last criterion was materialism, which has to do with the quality of life and with the obsession with material possessions and commodities. On those four criteria the Obama administration deserves to be seriously called into question. Granted, Mitt Romney would be much, much worse. So, we really have a choice between the catastrophe that Mitt Romney would bring about, and the disaster that we have now with Barack Obama. I think disaster is better than catastrophe. So, if it is a question of the two lesser evils, Obama is certainly better than Romney. But the important point here is how do we create honest, serious analysis of the system under which we live and try to create some social movements to attack those problems.

WL: You often describe your politics as most concerned with poor and working people. Will Obama do more for this segment of society than Romney? If Obama would do more, then why should we not vote for him? If there is no difference, what is the way forward for democracy?

CW: In terms of actual lives lost and marginalized if not wasted, in terms of those numbers Obama would do better than Romney. Romney’s policies would make things even worse than the disaster that we are wrestling with now with the Obama administration. So there is a difference, just not a major difference. Both parties are tied to big money—big banks and big corporations—so that neither is talking about poverty or the new prison industrial complex and new Jim Crow. Neither candidate is talking about critique of the drones dropping bombs on innocent people, which is an integral part of our foreign policy now. So again, my critique is of the system. If we have to choose, then Obama is better. But in the end we are going to need a fundamental social change of the system under which we live.

Spencer A. Leonard: I was recently listening to your interview with Revolutionary Communist Party Chairman Bob Avakian on your syndicated radio show Smiley & West. You have been keen to bring voices from the far Left forward on your show. How do you understand the marginalization of socialist and Marxian politics in the present? Relatedly, you are a long time member of the Democratic Socialists of America: In what way does the DSA point the way forward? And does the DSA or indeed anyone on the Left, including your Maoist interlocutors in the RCP think about taking power and assuming responsibility for the direction of society? If not today then in the next few decades, sometime in the lifetime of those of us who are alive and capable of thinking about these matters? What in your estimation is necessary to make the events of 2011—Occupy and the Arab Spring—a turning point for the Left in which it regains the historical initiative out of the accumulated decades of social and political regression?

CW: As a deep democrat and revolutionary Christian I believe that it has to be a democratic process. At the moment we are a long way from that. Now we are just trying to keep alive the critique of capitalism, the critique of imperialism, and the critique of white supremacy. We have such a dumbed down public discussion that nowadays people hardly even engage in a serious critique of the system, in any guise. We have got a long way to go to create a social movement for the kind of fundamental transformation that I would like to see, the kind that Martin King, Michael Harrington, and others on the democratic left were talking about.


Carl Dix and Cornel West at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, May 7, 2012. Photo by Julia Reinitz

As to the other half of your question: It is impossible not to bring in communists, anarchists, and others critical of capitalism, critical of imperialism, critical of white supremacy, critical of anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim hatred, and so forth. We have to have a robust, uninhibited dialogue, conversation, and context where we come together, fight together, and struggle together. As you know brother Carl Dix and I have been to jail many times. He is a revolutionary communist, I am a revolutionary Christian. We are very honest about our disagreements as well as about our work together.

When it comes to seizing power, that is a whole different conversation. It is much further down the road, and I am on the democratic side of that no matter what.

SL: Whether poor or working people are or are not “better off” today than they were four years ago is very much an open question. What seems less uncertain is that millions of poor and working people, especially black people, will vote for Obama in the election. What does it tell us about the nature and limitations of anti-racism today and the nature and limitations of our political system?

CW: A large number of my black brothers and sisters have such a protective disposition toward President Obama that when they see white supremacist attacks on him, when they see certain reactionary elements within the Republican Party assaulting him, they come to his rescue. They want to support him and to ensure that he is in no way touched. But there has been a shameful silence in black America about the loss of wealth of the black middle class, the 40% of the black children who are struggling every day, and the declining wages of black workers. There is hardly serious talk of those kinds of issues, hardly any serious talk about the new Jim Crow among black leaders. They all rally around the President. I have been very critical of that silence. I support the President against white supremacist attacks against him or his precious family. But I return to Martin Luther King Jr.’s criteria—poverty, militarism, xenophobia, and materialism. I try to build on them and therefore I have ended up being a strong critic of the system the President heads.

: To take up some of the themes of your discussion with Carl Dix on this campus: Millions of Americans languish in jail as we speak and when they get out, few will rejoin society. Public education is poor, and even a high school diploma or college degree is not leading people to good jobs. The military seems the last refuge of the American welfare state. How are endemic joblessness, mass incarceration, militarism, and the education crisis linked? What does it mean politically that Americans trust one or the other party of Wall Street to lead them out of this crisis?

CW: We have got to be able to begin to see the interconnection between Wall Street, the military industrial complex, the corporate media multiplex which turns its back on poor people by downplaying the plight of working people, which talks about the “middle class” as if that is the only sector of the population worth talking about, and which refuses to engage the tremendous power and wealth of oligarchs and plutocrats both on Wall Street as well as in corporate America. Making these connections is very difficult, connections between the hyper-incarceration, Depression-like unemployment and underemployment rates, low quality housing, low quality schools, etc. And we end up with fellow citizens who are suffering, in deep pain, but not exposed to any alternative analysis or alternative views of the world so that they often times fall back into their sleepwalking despite their wounds, their bruises, and their scars. But right now they are awakening. What brother Carl Dix and I were talking about is a fundamental awakening around the issues of poverty, mass incarceration, and unemployment.

WL: How do you understand the relation between racism and capitalism in America?

CW: You have to tell a historical story of how it came to be that capitalism was generating such tremendous wealth in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries based in the New World very much on black and slave labor. For the first 300 years, five Africans came to the New World for every one European. Those five Africans were there primarily to be used as commodities to make the wealth in the cotton fields, sugar fields, and rice fields of the plantations. So, at the very beginning, you have slavery as a fundamental pillar, if not the fundamental pillar, of capitalism taking off in the New World. White supremacy became, of course, the major justification, rationalization, or ideology to justify that kind of dehumanized treatment of Africans. Indigenous peoples were already here and we know the original sin of the European explorers was their interaction with indigenous people that lead to genocidal attacks and assaults, spreading diseases, and so on. But the American Indians did not become the basis of the economy. It was primarily the African slaves who served as the basis of the economy. So we are dealing with this legacy, and the history becomes very important. That is why Carl Dix and I always talk about how you have got to look backward to get a sense of where you have been before you look forward. We have to allow the best of the past to stand at our back in our fight back against injustice to make the world a better place and the future different than the present.

SL: With the struggle of the abolitionists against slavery ultimately culminating in the Civil War in the 19th century and then again in 1920s and 1930s with the campaigns of the Communist Party, the history of the American left and the struggle to overcome racism are intimately bound together. The same can be said of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century. How do you think that that is changing? I don’t want to affirm the idea that racism has come to an end in the United States, but surely it has changed. Also, in some ways that legacy has become an obstacle inasmuch as people lack a vocabulary for talking about injustice except as racism. Is racism a category we know how to use adequately anymore?

CW: Absolutely. During slavery, of course, the language of racism was primarily one of white supremacist enslavement of black people. Then you break the back of slavery, and here comes slavery by another name, it’s called Jim Crow and Jane Crow, American terrorism. That was the case up until the 1960s. We broke the back of Jim Crow, but since then a new Jim Crow has begun to emerge in a very intense way. The prison industrial complex is tied to poverty, the transformation of neighborhoods into ghettos and “hoods” from which the middle class has escaped. And yet we continue to use the language of racism as if it were still tied to the old Jim Crow, which was a matter of citizens’ rights and of the vote, a matter of gaining access to public space with dignity. But now it is a question of dealing with race as tied to issues of economic injustice and class, and dealing with gender in the plight of women and children. If we use the language of the old Jim Crow, we are primarily talking about voting, if we’re talking about the new Jim Crow we’re talking about prisons and this must lead to discussing structures and institutions in our economy, in our community, and in the mass media. The media today does not even allow us to raise the issue of all the suffering tied to prisons and police brutality. Why? Because we are citizens. Of course one can raise the question: But those who go through the new Jim Crow, are they citizens? Can felons vote? In most cases, no. Can felons get access to jobs and housing? In many states, no. So we need a new language of talking about racism that is not tied to the old Jim Crow. Martin Luther King Jr., Freddy Hampton, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan, they broke the back of the old Jim Crow. That was progress. But here comes a new Jim Crow in the same way the old Jim Crow came right after slavery.

WL: In your interview on Big Think, you spoke of the 1970s and 1980s as a time when the majority of intellectuals embraced neoliberalism while you, Michael Harrington, and Stanley Aronowitz were still reading Lukács. Lukács and the Marxist tradition more generally are absent from intellectual life today. What has happened on the Left to occasion the intellectual bankruptcy of the present? What blocks the intellectual recovery of the history and legacy of the Left? In this context, how do you understand your role in publicly debating Carl Dix on U.S. campuses and in inviting Bob Avakian of the RCP on to a nationally syndicated radio show?

CW: The marginalizing of dissenting voices has gotten worse. When I was coming along in the 1960s and 1970s, we had Noam Chomsky, William Appleman Williams, Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, and we could go on and on and on. We have a number of voices these days, but there is not a lot of exposure to the traditions of critique, be they socialist, communist, anarchist, or whatever. Even G.K. Chesterton’s distributism, which is very critical of capitalism as a system, is hardly heard these days. Yet it is something very needed because we are at such a level of crisis. I do not actually believe that any school of thought has a monopoly on truth. When I say I am a deep democrat and revolutionary Christian that means that I try not to be rigid and dogmatic when it comes to analysis. I like to be flexible and fluid. I am looking for all different kinds of intellectual, moral, and spiritual weaponry in order to fight for justice.

It is necessary that we get a variety of voices including those who have direct systemic critiques of capitalism. And of course Lukács in History and Class Consciousness already talked about everything for sale, everybody for sale, ubiquitous commodification, which meant that it is all about the market, all human value reduced to the market price. In 1923 he is talking about this. Almost 100 years later we see what he was talking about in very concrete terms before our very eyes. In a society in which everybody is for sale it is very difficult to sustain our integrity and our concern for the truth, especially the truth about injustice. So you end up with intellectuals and academicians who are basically up for sale. They will sell out in a minute. They will sell out to the right: It could be the Heritage Foundation or any other institution. They will sell out to the center, or, say the neoliberal MSNBC.

It is a matter of simply trying to be honest and saying, “You know what, if we are going to tell the truth about suffering in our society and in our world, then we are going to have to have a systemic critique of capitalism and imperialism that does not turn away from drones dropped down on innocent people, that does not turn away from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, or the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara.” It is a matter of being honest, bold, and fearless. When the market is so pervasive and people are selling out to the highest bidder then the issues of integrity, truth, boldness, and fearlessness collapse. This is what we have seen in the academy among so many intellectuals.

SL: In your generation there was an intellectual left that came to occupy the American university system. How is the landscape being reshaped for the new generation of would-be leftist intellectuals?

CW: It is hard to say. I just spent some wonderful time the other night with Black Agenda Report. They had a big fundraiser at the Riverside Church. These are important intellectuals with courageous visions and voices, none of whom or very few of whom are in the academy. Still, when I think of new spaces, what will be the lines of socialization for new thinkers and intellectuals, I think it’s going to be so complicated in the next five to fifteen years. It may come through film, may come through hip-hop. There might be a hip-hop renaissance around Lupe Fiasco, Brother Ali, and others that brings new voices in by exposing them to alternative analyses and alternative visions, and the quest for alternatives to this nightmarish world in which we find ourselves. But it is very hard to project, it really is, just like it’s hard to project what the catalyst for the next social movement will be.

SL: In 2010 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the White House and we are now swiftly approaching the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Americans when polled still rank Lincoln as the greatest president in the country’s history. What does it say about American democracy that Americans view as their greatest elected official a man whose election was most inextricably bound up with the country’s descent into civil war? While of course no one wants violent social conflict, what sort of democratic conflict is needed in America today? What are some of the divisions in this society that political leadership needs to pry open today?

CW: Lincoln emerged at a moment of intense political polarization. The very fact that most Americans view him as the greatest president gives you some sense of the degree to which the issues of both race, capitalism, and class still sit at the center of American life. Lincoln was dealing with levels of poverty, dealing with levels of racial domination, and dealing with a highly polarized public life. As we know, he could not hold it together, and it collapsed into a violent insurrection to overthrow the U.S. called for by the Confederacy. You saw some courageous things on Lincoln’s part in terms of trying to listen to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass and to respond to the abolitionist social movement. Lincoln was not himself an abolitionist, but he responded to them. On the night side, of course, there was the suspending of habeus corpus and a lot of other things during Lincoln’s administration. But I think it is understandable that Lincoln looms large. What is fascinating to me is that 150 years later we have not generated a leader that most Americans would in any way compare with Lincoln.

WL: This October, Fischer v. University of Texas came before the Supreme Court, a case about affirmative action. The statistics for black educational attainment and black poverty in Texas are appalling both in themselves and in comparison with the rest of the nation, and yet we have entered into a world in which attempts to remedy this fact play out entirely in terms of diversity, rather than, say, economic justice. How did we get into this place? Is it desirable? How do you see our way out if it isn’t?

CW: I think you hit the nail on the head. You can see how far we have moved to the right—by right I mean relative indifference to the injustice visited on poor people, especially poor people of color—now that diversity has become the justification for any serious affirmative action policy in our colleges and universities rather than justice. Diversity, of course, is very fragile. It is the last straw, the last reed, right? Now that the Supreme Court has taken up this case, there is a good chance that that last straw and that last reed will be destroyed, and we will lose affirmative action and find ourselves going backward. We saw this in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s in the Jim Crow response to Reconstruction. Here we see it again. It shows the degree to which our ruling classes at the top, our oligarchs and our plutocrats are so organized and so mobile. They are much more concerned about their own interests than they are about the public interest. They cannot project a long term vision of access to quality education for everyone including poor people in order to strengthen our democracy. Once we lose that we are in even more dire straits.

SL: You were quite active in the Occupy movement and spoke at a number of different occupations. What was your sense of the Occupy movement when it began? I mean, everyone was waiting for a response to the crisis, but how did you view the political form it took? How do you think the election year, the coming election, played into the demobilization of Occupy? And is there any legacy of it, or did Occupy fail to produce any lasting effect?

CW: It was a magnificent emergence. We saw different voices and different groups emerge and put their bodies on the line. Hundreds, even thousands of us went to jail. It was a wake up call accenting corporate greed and wealth inequality. Certainly, it had impact on the public conversation. But it was the emergence not so much of a movement—because that requires something very organizationally grounded and sophisticated—but of a social motion and momentum. There was a variety of different voices and people in that motion and momentum: anarchists, liberals, progressives, Marxists, anti-poverty activists, feminist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist activists, and so forth. Of course, this never took an organizational form or infrastructural form that was highly visible. I think a lot of it now is just on the down low. It is underground, but it can re-emerge in other forms very quickly and may very well emerge again. Who knows?

But most importantly Occupy did force the mainstream to acknowledge that the Tea Party was not the major form of social motion. The Tea Party had big money from big oligarchs and plutocrats, so they had tremendous impact on the Republican Party, which is the conservative version of oligarchic rule. The Obama White House was certainly very ambivalent, it made certain symbolic gestures, but it never wanted to come too close. The Democratic Party is the neoliberal version of oligarchic rule. They did not know what to do for a while. They did not want to be tarred with those feathers in a campaign that was geared toward white moderates and white independents. So, with white moderates and white independents in Ohio and Florida and a few other states tipping the balance, as it were, Occupy became more and more obsessed with the election. It became very difficult to sustain the discussion on corporate greed and wealth inequality that we really need to have.|P

Transcribed by Tom Carey

Spencer A. Leonard and Edward Remus

Platypus Review 51 | November 2012


On September 11, 2012 the radio program Radical Minds on WHPK (88.5 FM) broadcast an interview with Luis J. Rodriguez. The interview was conducted by Edward Remus and Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Rodriguez has forty years of experience as an organizer among diverse communities and is the author of 15 books. He co-founded the Network for Revolutionary Change in October of 2011, and in July of 2012 he joined the Justice Party’s 2012 presidential campaign as Rocky Anderson’s running mate. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Edward Remus: What led to you to become the vice presidential candidate of the Justice Party? What do you intend to achieve by running for President this year, given that it is virtually impossible for you to win?

Luis J. Rodriguez: To me it was clear that someone had to speak on the issues that neither the Republicans nor Democrats are willing to talk about. It’s a rigged game: It takes many millions of dollars for someone to run on the two-party ticket. Plenty of people who have experience in politics and something to say cannot become involved. We want to speak about why the game is rigged, who’s behind it, and what we—the whole American populace—can do to make this a more democratic process. As things stand, it is all about money and not about the issues.

ER: What issues are central to the Justice Party’s platform? How would you contrast the Justice Party with the Republicans, Democrats, and Greens?

LR: One of the things that attracted me to the Justice Party was a desire for economic justice, real jobs, the end of poverty, no more tax cuts to the wealthy, compassionate and rational immigration for immigrants, free education for everyone—that kind of thing. Then there’s environmental justice: How can we cut back on the various toxic things we do to the environment? Finally, there is social and civic justice, which would entail Medicare for everyone, rather than a convoluted healthcare plan; marriage equality; and no more discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. That also includes the ending of patriarchy, which is undemocratic, and needs to be challenged everywhere. But I don’t think any of this is about competing with the Green Party or any other third party. There are close to 200 presidential candidates around the country. Most of them won’t be on the ballot. There are so many people who just want to be heard. I support any such efforts. When Rocky Anderson invited me to join the Justice Party as his vice-presidential candidate, I accepted it—not thinking of myself as a politician, not thinking that I want to win, but from the viewpoint that we all need stronger, clearer ways to raise awareness of what’s going on in this country and where we need to go.

ER: You are running on the principle that President Obama is worth defeating in November, but the only candidate who has a prospect of defeating Obama is Republican nominee Mitt Romney. What would be the effects of a Romney victory? Do you think it would at least have the virtue of registering the President’s grave shortcomings?

LR: It is not really about Obama as a person, but much more fundamentally about our two-party system, which means you just have two ends of the same stick, and most Americans’ voices are excluded. Democrats and Republicans try to pin responsibility for the economy on each other, but we all know they both are getting big corporate money. It does not matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in office when the big banks and corporations have all the power.

ER: But how, if at all, would a Romney victory change the Justice Party strategy for 2014 and 2016?

LR: Basically, no matter what, we need to keep organizing. If Romney wins, we keep organizing; if Obama wins, we keep organizing. I think the key question is the political maturity of activists and revolutionaries. We have to start thinking about how every one of these battles can be a living, teaching engagement for all Americans. The task now concerns the political maturity of individuals, raising awareness about the real issues and asking, Who is equipped to resolve them?

ER: You co-founded the Network for Revolutionary Change (NRC) in the fall of last year. On the NRC website, there is an article by Lenny Brody which says, “It is becoming clear that the mass movement and the struggles in the electoral arena are growing increasingly intertwined.”[1] Have you adopted an orientation toward the Occupy movement? If so, have you been successful in channeling and redirecting the impulse behind Occupy into Justice Party electoral efforts?

LR: When the Occupy movement started in Zuccotti Park, I actually went there, and I felt that Occupy reflects the same struggles that motivate the Justice Party: The economy is completely derailed. The two mainstream parties aren’t working. The political process is completely closed off. I look at all of these movements as expressions of the same impulses: How are we going to achieve a truly democratic, free, and less impoverished world? I see Occupy as another new wave of ideas about what we can do to involve more people politically. One of the key things to ask with respect to something like Occupy is, What new forms of struggle and organizing are emerging? It is not going to follow the old forms.

ER: To take another statement from the NRC that, “revolutionaries always fight for immediate demands that can improve the conditions of the working class,” adding that these struggles “are waged within the context of a larger revolutionary process.”[2] However, as Occupy showed, many activists are reluctant to formulate demands. Why do you think the Occupy movement was reluctant to formulate specific demands, and what obstacles does this reluctance present for the Justice Party?

LR: I see this as a reaction to what has happened in the past. Almost every movement eventually gets co-opted. The peace movement eventually became the other side of the coin, the war movement, and they were both being used by the same people. The same goes for almost every major struggle. If you make it hard for people to articulate your demands for you, then it is hard for the Democratic Party or any other organization to come in and say, “We’re the ones that are going to make it happen.” At the same time, some very clear, concise, strategic direction has to come of this. A lot of it is already formulated in what the economy and the politics of the world are giving us. Where do we go from here? Where is society pushing us? The future destination is clearer; now it is a matter of how we tie the threads from the future into what’s happening now.

Spencer A. Leonard: The Republicans are primarily running on the issue of the economy. President Obama, for his part, claims that his economic programs are a “difficult path” that is nonetheless capable of generating long-term economic recovery. How would the Justice Party be different? That is, does the Justice Party have a program or at least an approach that could genuinely affect the economic conditions people face today, both in terms of the immediate crisis as well as the background conditions that everyone now seems to take for granted—namely, endemic unemployment and underemployment, stagnant wages, etc.?

LR: Right now, the Justice Party is first and foremost addressing the issue of getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics. Part of what we can do is to have more voices involved in the answer. How do we resolve welfare reform? Get the welfare recipients right into the debate. What about the high rates of incarceration? Bring in the prisoners, the gang members, the mothers, and the families directly involved. That way, whatever solutions emerge will have more voices, more energy, and more experiences behind them, which you don’t get when a few bureaucrats try to figure everything out. In the short term we want to open up the political process and call for justice in all parts of it. In the long term, I think we have to build a bigger and broader movement, which would involve Democrats and Republicans along with Green Party people and others, in order to really open up democracy in the economy and in politics.

SL: But what do you mean in terms of democratizing the economy? What is politically possible right now to address the fact that so many people have no prospects for work?

LR: We have to change the structure of the economy and politics in order to involve as many people as possible. There are lots of skills and much talent and imagination not being used. Even college kids struggle to get jobs. Meanwhile rich people’s income has reached astronomical levels. Meeting the needs of the very poorest areas of the inner cities and the rural communities is going to require involving those communities in the political process.

ER: The NRC says that, for revolutionaries, the goal is for the working class to take political power. What do you envision with respect to politicizing the economy and the working class taking political power?

LR: For one thing, I am thinking about the large working class community I am managing in Los Santos, which is the second largest Mexican and Central American community in the whole country. It used to have a General Motors plant and a big foundry, but by the 1980s and ’90s, all these jobs disappeared. My approach to this problem is bottom-up: Go to these communities and ask, How would you re-imagine your space? How would you redistribute the goods of the community? Even the Justice Party should not think of itself as the agent that makes things better directly; rather, it is a vehicle to open up the political process. We have to put power in the hands of the very people who have been pushed out of the economy. There is no immediate way in their community for them to be brought back in, because now everything moves to whatever area has the best infrastructure for advanced technology. The question is, How do we align this technology to the needs and capacities of the people?

ER: The NRC also argues that the first step in the fight is to break the Democratic Party, but also claims that the fight for a third party might be a prelude to the formation of a working class party. How would such a working class party hope to address these issues of job flight and unemployment? Beyond bottom-up participation from various communities, what would become politically possible if the Justice Party, or a working class party that emerges from it, were actually in a position to implement policy?

LR: I don’t want to romanticize about a bunch of men and women who have oil and sweat on their brow, but nonetheless the working class is really the fulcrum of the whole society. They are the class that can make a difference. Rich people are becoming richer and more powerful, demanding ever more totalitarian control. The middle class, being composed of people on their way up or down, is fluid; it is not a permanent, stable class. The one class that makes sense as a basis for politics, the only class that can move things forward, is the class of people who can survive only by selling their labor. Yet, many in this class are no longer able even to do that, because out on the streets there is no potential for jobs. How does that class get the knowledge, experience, and politicization necessary to help move things forward? If we don’t confront that question, we leave things in the hands of rich people who maintain their power, year to year, and who really control this country regardless of who is President or which party has a majority in Congress.

SL: Many people who consider themselves leftists either vote for the Democrats or simply refuse to vote. What do you say to these people? Why are these two responses to American electoral democracy on the Left inadequate in 2012, specifically? Why the Justice Party, and why now?

LR: There has been a big shift in collective consciousness. I speak all over the country, and I often hear people saying really surprising stuff. They’re talking about class, about their interests, about how the economy is not going to get fixed and how they don’t feel involved in the Democratic or Republican parties. So you are seeing lots of fissures forming in the GOP and the Democrats, which is, I suppose, the first stages of things falling apart for them. Then you have the third parties. Some of them are more right-wing than left- wing, and vice versa. Really, the NRC is trying to bring together, as much as possible, those progressive revolutionary thinkers, activists, and leaders to start thinking about something that’s never been done in this country: How do we go from here to there? How do we bring in all of this energy that’s being generated around issues of the economy and focus it? Because right now, it’s scattered, it’s fragmented, sometimes it’s at cross-purposes. We need to be involved at all levels of society, which means engaging with different parties, churches, labor unions, non-labor unions.

ER: If revolutionaries, such as those involved in the NRC, successfully come together in the way you are describing, what do you expect to happen?

LR: In general, I think revolutionaries of all stripes would become more imaginative. And that means that many of these various organizations would seem to lose momentum, only to come alive again: The way the organization used to be would begin to look like a corpse that we were dragging along, and it would become clear that we need a new vision and new ways of thinking. Part of the challenge for revolutionaries is to know how to let go of certain formations and ideas that moments ago might have been necessary, but now hold us down.

SL: There have been attempts to form a left-wing party at the level of electoral politics in America: the Labor Party in the 1990s, various attempts in the 1970s, the Wallace campaign in 1948, the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs, arguably even the Republican Party in 1860. How do you see the problem presented by the electoral system in the United States in light of this history? What lessons, if any, should we draw from these past attempts to influence politics at that level?

LR: To my mind, this is where the Left is at right now: It either stays small or goes big. I’m approaching 60 years old, and I don’t have time to stay in a small group of like-minded people who aren’t part of anything bigger. I’m calling for the Left and for revolutionary people—anybody out there—to be part of something big. Let’s look at real strategies and, whether they involve new parties or old parties, ask, Where is it going? How can we orient them? How can we take them where they need to go? That, to me, is the essence of why the system is so hard to change: It keeps the people out of the process.

We can learn from the struggles to form a viable Labor Party in America. I think those past efforts were heroic, important, and meaningful. That they ultimately didn’t lead to very much poses the question, What did we learn? I’m not sure if those lessons have been properly studied and absorbed. I can’t tell you where the Justice Party’s going to end up in a few years, but I can say that it is really working to build a movement more than an organization. That’s what I’m interested in: A broader movement, involving more people, but without losing its revolutionary edge. More people are being pushed out, they are looking for answers, and we need to be there to fill that vacuum, putting forth real revolutionary thinking and ideals. You brought up the Green Party. I know Cheri Honkala very well, and I know Jill Stein’s work. I support what they are trying to do. This is not competitive; it is about how we begin to address the scattered, fragmented ways that people organize now. How do we pull together the Occupy movement as well as all these third party movements? Where is it going to finally gel?

SL: On the one hand, we’re in an environment where it has been over 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China is essentially a capitalist country. The language of the Left is largely absent from culture or incomprehensible; today it is met with a kind of bemusement or even with open hostility. Occupy seemed interested in re-engagement with the question of democracy as such. How do you understand this re-engagement? Do you think this focus on democratic forms could facilitate a renewed involvement in the history of the Left, including a confrontation with the obstacles that the Left has struggled with in the past?

LR: In the past, many people saw the Soviet system and China as the beginnings of a new world. Now, almost all traces of that are simply gone or transformed completely. Their economies were based in the industrial system. Capitalism was the system best suited for that kind of world. When you look at technology today, it is putting forward the potential for something else: not industry, but the possibility of being connected in a way you never were before, of being creative in ways that didn’t exist before. There is the possibility that everyone could be their own source of labor and the site of great, inventive ideas. I think that’s what is causing everything to change. Technology—the productive forces—are driving everything to be questioned, including the relations of production. How do we change our language to align with the real content of our times? This is a challenge for everybody. When you say certain things, people’s eyes glaze over, because what you’ve said is expressive of an old way of thinking. But there are new seeds being planted for revolution. It’s already in the ground. How do we nurture it? The Justice Party and the NRC alike are tools. They are vehicles that can help push things forward, by bringing in revolutionaries from all walks of life together to make a difference in this country.

ER: You co-founded the NRC in Chicago in October of 2011. Many of its founding members more or less split from the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA), a tendency led by Nelson Peery that was forged during the late 1960s and became part of the New Communist Movement. Given your apparent sympathy with the LRNA’s theoretical emphasis on the epochal significance of industrial automation, what made, what made this group of veterans, including yourself, decide to leave the LRNA?

LR: I think the LRNA has a very important role to play. I’m not opposing, and I wouldn’t oppose, the NRC against any other Left formation, including the LRNA. The NRC, for its part, is trying to do something that nobody else is doing: pulling together real, objective, organized revolutionary activists and leaders, locally and across the country. I don’t have any hostility toward the League, nor toward most Left or revolutionary thinking in general. I’d like to see people get more engaged, to have them see how both teaching and action are necessary for the struggle. I do not want to splinter people but actually get them moving as one, because we have to deal with capitalism at a systematic level.

ER: But discussions over strategy and tactics tend to come to a head within any leftist organization. What were some of the arguments and deliberations within the LRNA over the past two years with respect to the Justice Party and third-party electoral involvement?

LR: I don’t think there was anything particular to the Justice Party; the LRNA was involved in the Labor Party and other third party formations, including the Green Party. Those weren’t the issues. For me, it was about not being schizophrenic about revolution. I think everyone has fractured around either becoming activists or becoming teachers. I don’t think we need to be divided that way. I’ve seen the Left isolate itself while right-wing groups—organized through churches and whatnot—begin to gather strength. The Left is becoming more fragmented, turning against itself. I say, let’s not be schizophrenic, let’s not break ourselves up. That’s where the NRC can play a specific role. How do we bring the leaders around to a whole new orientation that we haven’t had in this country, which has been rigged, politically, from the very beginning—from the anti-slavery battles to the labor battles? At the same time, people look at this country as having led some of the major labor struggles, from May Day to Civil Rights. Now we have to do it again. Where can we get together and become fully aligned, moving together, to make that happen?

SL: What do you see as the tasks of the 21st century, given that so many people look back nostalgically to the 20th century and, in particular, given that so many working and poor people, rightly or wrongly, look back to the welfare state as a model? You call for unity in the face of our present tasks, but is it really so clear what the political tasks of the present actually are, especially when the labor movement seems to be so politically weak? How do you address a context in which people are actively looking back to the past and how do you see the Justice Party candidacy, and your work, in terms of trying to turn a corner politically in this country?

LR: We’re at the end of something and everybody feels it. As you come to the end of a certain period, everything frays. Things become fragmented and confused. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of a certain epoch, but also the beginning of something new. For as long as human beings have been (as it is called) “civilized” there has always been one class, one group of people, with power over another. We’re getting to a point where the imagination of “no more exploiters, no more oppressors” is becoming part of the consciousness of most people. There’s something already happening in reality that’s pushing us in that direction. To address that, we have to start looking at new ways of doing things, new organizations, and a new language even. I don’t think it is about returning to Marx and Engels any more than it is about creating the new Engels and the new Marx for our time. Without turning away from what they gave us, we need to figure out how to become real, engaged, meaningful revolutionaries for this time. Imagination is key. Imagination is not fantasy; it is dictated by what happens in reality, and reality is showing us the possibilities of a world in which we don’t need a new formation of the capitalist class, we don’t need another group of wealthy people and politicians controlling what we do, we don’t need people sitting in offices deciding the fate of the people on welfare. We have to put political power back into the hands of the people who work and the people who have lost their jobs. You have to align with the future. The things being done by the Republicans and Democrats are old, and they aren’t going to work. They speak in terms of the period that’s drawing to a close. They aren’t going anywhere. We’re stuck on this treadmill but there’s a whole new track opening up. How do we get on that new track instead of running in the same place, over and over again? |P

Transcribed with the assistance of Miguel Rodriguez

[1]. Lenny Brody, “Strategy and Tactics for Revolutionaries,” Revolutionary Network: Official Newsletter of the Network for Revolutionary Change 2 (June–July 2012): 8. Available online at <>.
[2]. Ibid.

Douglas La Rocca and Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 50 | October 2012


On August 22, 2012, Douglas La Rocca and Spencer A. Leonard of Platypus interviewed Dick Howard, professor emeritus at Stony Brook University and the author of The Specter of Democracy: What Marx and Marxists Haven’t Understood and Why, among other books. What follows is an edited transcript of their interview.

Spencer A. Leonard: In The Development of the Marxian Dialectic (1972), you countered Louis Althusser on the question of Marx’s relationship to the Young Hegelians and, through them, to German Idealism as a whole. And you specifically instanced Lukács as a crucial forbearer in arguing that

[T]he dialectic is the key to Marx’s position—his theory and his practice… dialectical philosophy is the only kind that can break the monotony of word games and historical or philological research [typical of philosophy departments at the time], and the only one whose method does not, by its very nature, condemn it to be a defense of the established order.[1]

What at that time demanded the sort of return to Marx’s dialectic that you undertook? How do you see your work as fitting in with the larger New Left “return to Marx”?

Dick Howard: First of all, there was really no “Marx” to return to in America. There was only a Communism that had become completely irrelevant. That explains the subtitle of The Development of the Marxian Dialectic: “from philosophy to political economy.” What I wanted to figure out was how Marx started as a critical philosopher but ended up doing political economy. To see why I asked this question you have to remember the climate of the time. The 1844 Manuscripts were not translated into English until 1959 by Martin Milligan and, then, more influentially in 1963 by Tom Bottomore. These writings brought out things that were new, particularly with regard to the canonical Marx. Then, there is the concern with political economy: When I arrived in Europe as a graduate student, I discovered Althusser, as you mentioned. My first impression of Althusser, particularly of his For Marx, was astonishment. His idea that Marx discovers through his critique of political economy a “new continent” could not help but fascinate. I actually made an appointment to see Althusser at the École Normale because I wanted to attend his seminars. It was one of the strangest conversations I've ever had—I talked, he listened, he said nothing. I talked some more, he listened, yet still he said nothing. Finally I stumbled out of there, and he said, “Well, of course, you can come to my seminar.” When I arrived on the first day, there was a sign on the door saying “Monsieur Althusser est souffrant.” He was having one of his nervous breakdowns. But, to return to the point, “how do we get from philosophy to political economy?” Althusser was a help there, but more important, as you mention, was Lukács. His 1923 collection of essays, History and Class Consciousness, was fundamental… and too hot to handle, even—it turned out—for its author. One has to remember Lukács’s background. He grew out of the fin-de-siècle Austro-Hungarian milieu, wrote on culture, wrote on literature, and then discovered Marx and Marxism, and became an active revolutionary who actually took part in the 1919 Hungarian revolution. (The same year also saw the publication of Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy.) Both were condemned by the Communist International, but Lukács went to Canossa, accepted the condemnation, and took his book out of circulation. Why the condemnation? Here we come to the dialectic. Lukács developed his major thesis simply by reading Capital as a critical Hegelian. Thus he did anticipate many of the insights we find in the 1844 manuscripts, of which he was not aware. After he renounced the book, it disappeared. A few people knew it, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who read it early and who, in his Adventures of the Dialectic, makes Lukács, along with Weber, into the foundation stone of what he calls “Western,” i.e. non-Soviet, Marxism. Of course, Lukács had been a participant in Weber’s Heidelberg circle, along with another figure who would also become a heretical Marxist, Ernst Bloch. When I knew Bloch, when he was in his 80s or 90s, he would talk about some of the Heidelberg salons, evoking dinners at which he would wax on with a sort of mystical Marxism to which people responded, “What's he saying?” Lukács would then clearly and precisely explain the dialectical core of Bloch's mystical élan, if you will.

I also then edited The Unknown Dimension (1972), and you can see from the title that what we were looking for was something like that 1844 insight: the rediscovery of the dialectic. The subtitle of that book was “European Marxism since Lenin”: We were trying to discover a non-Leninist Marxism. When Karl Klare and I put that volume together, we clearly had the New Left in mind as the audience. We wanted to combat Leninism, the orthodoxy that was always there as a temptation. Of course the paradox was that we wanted to discover heterodox orthodoxy.

There was to be a last chapter in The Unknown Dimension that did not appear in the book. The book was to conclude on an article on the French journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. At the time I was involved in some clandestine work as a result of which I met Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Through Naquet I met Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis and they in many ways turned out to be the most important people in my development. So that was the chapter that was supposed to be written, but Lefort was busy finishing his Machiavelli book, and so on.

SL: When you returned to Marx thirty years later in 2002 in Specters of Democracy what had changed and what had not? How have the intervening decades changed Marx’s significance? What makes Marx necessary after the collapse of Marxism and the socialist workers’ movement?

DH: Let me explain using the examples of Lefort and Castoriadis. Both began as Trotskyists and formed a dissenting group within the French branch of the Fourth International around 1946-1947. Two insights became fundamental for them: first, the danger of bureaucracy or bureaucratization, including that of the most orthodox of dissenting movements, Trotskyism. To become a Trotskyist is to join a secret order. (When I was a student in Paris I went to some Trotskyist meetings, and one of the things that was drolly funny was that you had to sign in to go to these meetings, but you had to do it under a pseudonym!) But what's the basis of Trotsky's theory? We know his idea of the Stalinist deformation of the true revolution and what have you. But the basis of his picture, from a more philosophical perspective, is a vision of history. History is going to go on, the contradictions are going to ripen, and the revolution will come. The poor working classes have been deceived by Stalinism, but we Trotskyists maintain the pure faith, so that when the revolution breaks out, when the working class is suddenly struck by the “lightning of thought” as Marx says, the working class will have us there to guide them so they won’t go astray. In other words, Trotsky is what he claims to be, the true heir of Lenin. So that is Lefort and Castoriadis’s insight into bureaucratization.

Their other insight is the constant working-through of Marxism. If you follow Castoriadis' evolution, what he does is constantly turn Marx against himself. He reads Marx dialectically and, in the end, he recognizes that, well, Marx bet on history and he lost. Or, more precisely, Marx bet the future of the revolution on history. Because history did not do what it was supposed to Castoriadis decided, “If I want to remain a revolutionary, I have to give up Marxism. And for ‘Marxist’ reasons.” He abandons Marx as a Marxist.

Of the two, Lefort was more interested in the problem of bureaucratization. He and Castoriadis split around many things, but two in particular stand out, both hinging on the question of bureaucracy. Lefort's argument was that in effect, if a revolutionary party is consistent with itself, it is going to become bureaucratized. There are going to be those who know and those who are subordinate to and depend upon those who know. Eventually, there will develop a structure that is the opposite of what we might call revolutionary spontaneity. So, on the other hand, Lefort's relation to Marx is much more consistent and long-term. He wants to read Marx not as having a unique theory of history and a vision of the absolute, but rather Marx as a thinker and analyst. In this respect, think of that long chapter on the working day in Capital: It does not fit into a grand theory—certainly not into Althusser’s—precisely because it is a kind of a phenomenology of the working class. More than that, it is a dialectical phenomenology in the sense that even as the working class makes gains it becomes still more oppressed. So Lefort would constantly return to Marx. He writes one of his last essays on Marx, on the Manifesto. There he asks “Why did Marx call it the Communist Manifesto?” What is a “manifesto”? A manifesto is a making-manifest. So what's Marx saying? He's saying, “All I'm doing is let history express itself. I'm bringing it to its “rightness,” its fruition.” But in that sense, Marx has to deny his own revolutionary contribution, his indeterminacy, his vision of human freedom to make history. Lefort's saying, on the one hand there's that element of Marx, but on the other hand, because Marx is such a rigorous thinker, he's constantly doubling back on himself, reflecting on himself.

Douglas La Rocca: Would you say Marx positions himself as the Hegelian self-consciousness of the workers' movement?

DH: I would not say “Hegelian,” at least not for Lefort. I would say rather phenomenological. Marx analyzes the worker, the proletariat, and shows that they are constantly challenged by what they in fact do. In another essay that is part of a polemic between him and Sartre, Lefort writes a phenomenology of the working class. Quite literally, it raises the question of “What do you do when you work? What happens, how does consciousness find itself, lose itself, and so on?” He published it Les Temps Moderne when Merleau-Ponty, who was Lefort’s teacher, was still part of the journal. Sartre, who was in one of his Stalinist phases, wrote a reply in which he claims, “What Lefort didn't understand is that the working class can never become fully self-conscious, it needs the Party.” Lefort polemicizes back and I won't go further into the exchange; but what it shows is that the dialectic is not simply thesis-antithesis-synthesis - it keeps on going. To that degree, phenomenology, and particularly as it develops with Merleau-Ponty and Lefort, is more adequate than what could be called the “simple” dialectic. In this sense, phenomenology is an example of what Marx calls immanent critique. In his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx has a phrase that translates roughly like this: “We must make these petrified, reified relations dance by chanting before them their own melody.”[2] Note their own melody, not ours. Of course, Marx could be making a claim to know what the melody of the stones is, that the stones do not know their own melody except through the theorist. On the other hand, he could be saying as a phenomenologist, we need to look at them to see what they are saying. Not what we bring them to say, but what they are trying to say. If we think we know what they are trying to say, then we think we know better. It is like when a professor says to a student, “What you're trying to say is …” But the professor does not actually know what the student wanted to say.

DL: In Luxemburg, too, you traced a tension between a theory of and a theory for the proletariat.

DH: Luxemburg is in a sense why I turned to this series of questions. There is the volume of essays I edited of hers, in the introduction to which I made her into much more of a Trotskyist than she actually is. When I re-read it a year or two later, in preparation for writing the paper in The Marxian Legacy, I said basically that Luxemburg did not have the answers. The first part of the paper is on Luxemburg as a spontaneist - all the things about her that make her so appealing, so attractive, so alert to what's happening in the world. But then, in the second part, I asked why in her refutation of Bernstein's revisionism, her critiques of Kautsky's orthodoxy and so on, each time, in order to clinch her point, she quotes Marx as if it were sacred text. And so I asked, how could she be, at the same time, the most spontaneist and the most orthodox of Marxists? I just tried to pose this problem. Before publishing, I delivered it at a conference of Luxemburgists, where criticizing orthodoxy was verboten. On the third day of the conference, incidentally, the coup d'état in Chile against Allende took place.

SL: In preface to the The Unknown Dimension, you nod to the formative role played by the Civil Rights Movement in the formation of the New Left, mentioning specifically the Montgomery Bus Boycott and SNCC’s agitations in the South. This is before you go on to mention May 1968, “the indomitable people of Vietnam,” and the women’s movement. Elsewhere in your work, when speaking of your experience and travels in Europe in the late 1960s, you relate your feeling upon returning to the U.S. that the New Left here was or had become “parochial.” What was the significance of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to the New Left internationally and what were the limitations in how Americans (and Europeans) recognized and practiced internationalism in the early 1960s? How did the centrality of opposition to the Vietnam War figure? Does the current preoccupation with “cosmopolitanism” and human rights represent a legacy of or a falling off from New Left internationalism?

DH: As for the “indomitable people of Vietnam,” there are lots of things I have written that appear to play to the prejudices of my intended audience, the Left. There are lots of naïve assertions. One might call them utopian, but they show little real understanding of the world.

One of the first articles I published was in 1966 in the SDS journal, New Left Notes. The title was “The Reactionary Radicals.” I was asking about some of our dogmas. Without claiming that I somehow anticipated something, there was always a certain suspicion, a certain fear, of what you call here “parochialism.” “Reactionary radicals” were, if you really want to take that phrase seriously, fascists. I wasn't saying that SDS was fascist, but, perhaps, “parochial” fits here.

When I came back from Paris to the states, SDS was in its death throes. I was in Austin at the convention where the break-up began to take place. The Progressive Labor Party was spouting its slogans, Maoism was emerging, and the like. There was this idea that we students had to become workers. We were to deny our own spontaneity, our own judgment. We wanted truth, rather than judgment. So we as students had to somehow assimilate to the working class, especially since “we” had been thrown out of SNCC. I was at the Champaign-Urbana convention when SNCC said, “No white people.” Out of this comes Maoism and, in the end, the break-up of the New Left. Not immediately: It was still ongoing until at least 1976. There was still a quest, at least on campuses, to think. When I was a young professor at Stony Brook, we would meet with groups of students, both graduates and undergraduates. We were searching for something different, something new. Was that “parochial”? No, I think it is better understood as groping around. But there was always that desire to be part of history, to become part of something bigger, broader. That explains, in part, the break-up.

The first half of the ’70s is dominated by a kind of guilt. This is why one became a leftist in America in the 1970s and 1980s: guilt for being part of this wealthy, imperialist nation. Remember Lenin's Theses on Imperialism. Why is there no revolution in America or in England? Because imperialism draws in surplus profits that are used to buy off the working class, etc., etc.,etc. So there's this idea that we're guilty, that we must do something, sacrifice ourselves to redeem our debt to the exploited. And remember, this is the time of the Vietnam war. Intellectually, what is happening is that a couple of journals are thrashing around. The three I knew were Radical America, which I took part in, Telos, and New German Critique. If you look at the back issues of Telos we had the fortune and the misfortune of conducting our education in public. Numbers six and seven contained studies of Lukács, who was not yet translated. And there was Korsch. We didn't have teachers. On the one hand, this was good. But it also meant we made lots of errors. When I see students' books today on these figures, they are much more sophisticated. They see all sorts of things we didn't see. This brings me back to the title of that early book, The Marxian Legacy. We were confronting the question of what it meant to bear a legacy: Is it a burden? Sartre says somewhere, “When I give my child a name I'm determining that child's future essentially.” Similarly, when I get a legacy, I'm also determined. On the other hand, without a legacy, what am I?

DL: You took up this question in an essay on Merleau-Ponty, where you pointed to how both Marxism and philosophy share a concern with their own self-becoming. As you then said, “Each is what it is only as having become, and each is continually reinterpreting the sense of the distance it has traveled. More: each lives the paradox that the distance is only a return to the source, for the task and the goal remain constant.”[3] At that time, then, you sought to undertake a critique of the New Left on the basis of its failure to move beyond “the critique of everyday life” to what you termed “the historical.” What distinguished you and your comrades within the New Left from others in the movement such that you felt a need to work through and re-appropriate the Marxian legacy? What blocked the New Left from thinking itself historically?

DH: We knew languages and we knew history, which other people didn't know, and we were not content with what we had. There was always something more, something further to be discovered. For example, I wrote a 30- or 40-page introduction for The Unknown Dimension which was a sort of history of the period after the Russian Revolution. I had to cobble that together. There was no non-dogmatic leftist historical analysis of that period. I haven't re-read that introduction since. In some ways, I do not dare to since I am sure it has many shortcomings. But I was also helped by Karl Klare, who, like many in the New Left, was a red-diaper baby. He knew the classical history of the working class. His dad was a Teamsters’ organizer. You have probably read his brother Michael Klare in The Nation. Karl knew a lot of this stuff, particularly about the Eastern Europeans because his dad, I believe, had been a member of the party. I never asked, but he probably left in 1956 with the Hungarian revolution. I, on the other hand, am the son of a school teacher from Ohio and a traveling salesman who dropped out of college after a semester. I had no background in this stuff whatsoever.

SL: Keeping with the ’70s, in a recent volume honoring the work of your lifelong friend Andrew Arato, you describe when you first met in 1970 as follows:

[At that time] the New Left knew that it had to be more than a counter-cultural movement, and that it could not simply mobilize the resentment of those who might be drafted into the vain and vainglorious anti-communist crusade in Vietnam. “From Resistance to Revolution” was the vague slogan of those who began to call themselves “comrades” as they abandoned what they called their bourgeois liberalism for one or another variant of Marxism (a few Stalinists, more Trotskyists, still more Maoists and of course the Castroist- Guevarist).[4]

You then go on to remark that, “For all their differences, these groups shared an orthodoxy built around the legacy of Lenin.” You describe your collaboration with Arato as an attempt to retrieve the legacy of a post-1917 Western Marxist tradition. Even in your book on Luxemburg, you seem to want to distinguish her strongly from Lenin and the Bolsheviks. How and why did Lenin make a comeback in the 1970s? Why did you split with many of your fellow new leftists over this? How, if at all, do the relevant questions seem different to you today than they did more than forty years ago?

DH: The crux was the idea of substitutionism, the notion that the Party that knows has to replace that anarchic mass. In The Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre talks about what he calls seriality, so e.g. a line of people waiting on a bus. They are a group in some sense, if, say, you look at them from above. But they have no relation among themselves. The proletariat is also in serial relation. What has to happen is what Sartre calls a “group in-fusion.” They have to fuse together to become an active historical force rather than remaining alienated individuals. But how is this to be accomplished? In Sartre's vision, and here he takes a position that's quite orthodox Leninist (indeed, I call it Stalinist in one essay), you need the party. How do we catalyze the proletariat? Or, better, when we catalyze it, it will become fused as a group, but this takes place from without. But if it is unified from outside, it is extremely fragile, potentially massified or reified. Leninism is a tempting position and it fits with Marxism insofar as Marx offers a theory of history, of inevitable history.

SL: How do we square the varying legacies respecting democracy of liberalism and Marx? For instance, Immanuel Kant and his French disciple Benjamin Constant conceive of politics as deeply bound up with civil society, so much so that both Kant with his notion of “public reason” and Constant with that of “representation” uphold the possibility of liberal politics even in the face of Prussian absolutism or the Restoration in France. Both seem to extend Locke’s vision of the socialization of the state, its subordination to society, treating the completion of that process as, so to speak, necessary and inevitable. Marx, by contrast, views the question of the democratic state as standing somehow over and against society, a situation he describes variously as Bonapartist or imperialist. Marx, of course, calls for the Bonapartist state’s revolutionary overthrow and “smashing.” Given your attempt to recover Marx as a democratic thinker, what do you make of Marx’s own self-conception as a critic of democracy?

DH: Kant doesn't talk about civil society. It is really Hegel who is the crucial figure there. In any case, when you read the young Marx, you can see him assimilating Hegel. In a sense Marx is trying to materialize Hegel: to take Hegel’s spirit and anchor it in material reality. And he gets very good at it. For instance, one of the interesting things that you notice when you read the Grundrisse is that when Marx writes spontaneously, he uses Hegelian categories. He is really a Hegelian. Marx’s theory of history, insofar as it’s a theory of historical necessity, has a Hegelian structure, a Hegelian inevitability. You say that Marx views the state as somehow over and against society, which leads to the idea of the “smashing” or the revolutionary overthrow of the state. That does not work. For there to be a clash, the state and society would have to be of the same element. The separation between the state and society is at the same time a mutual implication: that the one can't live without the other. In that sense, Hegel's theory of civil society has civil society standing between, as the common element shared by, morality/family as particular and the state as universal. That's where civil society becomes the place where individual or personal desires become political. Now we go back to the SDS, if you will. The slogan “The personal is political” is at one and the same time extremely rich and awfully dangerous. You might know enough about the history of the New Left to know that some people destroyed themselves by trying to be political in all aspects of their lives.

DL: That still happens.

DH: I'm sure it does. In some ways, it is an abiding temptation. What is political correctness, after all? So this is where civil society becomes at one and the same time the source of problems and a place where fruitful clashes can occur. This is where the question of judgment returns. One of the claims of From Marx to Kant is that Kant, or more precisely the Kant of the Third Critique, gives us the tools to understand and perhaps to do what Marx sought to understand and to do.

Kant distinguishes between two kinds of judgment. There's determinate judgment, where I start with a theory, e.g. what a physicist does, and I encounter some new facts. I have both a theory and new facts. Or say I'm an orthodox Marxist, a Leninist: History is moving towards some overcoming of contradictions; I'm confronted with a fact—say, the Burmese government has let up on censorship, meanwhile China is about to go to war with Japan. I confront these things, and as a Leninist, I immediately have the answer because I fit the facts into a theory of history. There's a quote from Harold Rosenberg that Lefort often emphasizes: “The communist militant is an intellectual who does not think.” He does not judge. You've met Leninists—they're often absolutely brilliant, they read everything, they know exactly what's happening in Burma, say, what is it about Thai development that has led the Burmese to open up, and so on. They are intellectuals in some sense. But they don't ask questions. They know the answer which lies in universal history. They just ascertain where we are at this moment.

This leads me to Kant's other kind of judgment, what he calls reflexive judgment in which one has to move from the particular to some universal claim. If we take art for example, and I say to you, “That painting is beautiful,” you might ask “Why?” and wait to hear a theory about how beauty is structured. But that does not work. What I have to do is start with the particular and show you why what I see as beautiful is not only beautiful in my eyes, but that you ought to see it as beautiful as well. Now translate that into politics: I look at the 99 percent versus the 1 percent or I see how the election is being financed and I think, Jesus Christ, we can't live like that. But now I've got to convince people, and there's no absolute rule. So, in the move from Marx to Kant the problem of judgment emerges. But this is not a concern that a Leninist or an orthodox Marxist would have. Because, if I use my reflexive judgment, I have to also accord to other people the right to be wrong . In other words, I can't seize power and force all the Romneyites to accept my vision of beauty, and I am certainly anxious that the Romneyites may try to impose their idea about what's good for society. This is where we come to the theme of democracy in Specter of Democracy: What is it Marx thinks he is making manifest? The inevitable future. But I want to say in fact what he is also showing us is that society is no longer structured by fixed hierarchies, and that would imply that there can longer be that permanence, that inevitability anymore. Capitalism, precisely because it is constantly changing, is doing what we said a moment ago Marxism does, putting itself into question. And, if that is the case, then capitalism is not simply a form of economics, but is a form of political relations among people. For example, in capitalism, under the kind of relations Marx describes in the Manifesto—relations in which “all that is holy is profaned”—a kind of alienated civilization is in dialectical self-contradiction. This is what Marx tries to illuminate.

DL: Two figures that do battle in your work are the modern revolutionary and the modern republican. Broadly speaking, the revolutionary is anti-political, yet another scribe of world spirit, while the republican could be thought of as a revolutionary “cured” of the pathological desire to overcome or transcend modernity. You contrast the republican's “Freudian” way of coming to terms with the indeterminacy of modernity to the revolutionary's desire to overcome it altogether. However, when we look at these two today, while the revolutionary appears to be increasingly lost or insane, the republican appears unable to hold open the political in the face of the overwhelming dominance of capital. How has the “dialectic” of these two changed throughout your experience on the Left?

DH: There is a passage somewhere where Freud asks, “Does psychoanalysis cure?” To which he replies, “No, all psychoanalysis can do is replace extraordinary unhappiness by ordinary misery.” It's a nice phrase. The idea that we can somehow leap over our shadow to create a new world overnight makes no sense. On the other hand, it makes no sense to live with extraordinary suffering. So what we would want to do is find an institutional structure that would ameliorate those conditions.

SL: In your recent book The Primacy of the Political you trace the history of political thought from its origins before entering into a discussion of modern political thinking in the Renaissance and Reformation. You imply that in the earlier history of mankind politics is, in some ways, bound up with other forms of thought and sentiment such as religion and virtue, such that political life does not come into its own as democracy until the modern world. What if anything distinguishes modern politics from the politics of earlier times? To the extent that your work is historical or even an attempt at a renewal of the philosophy of history, what is the salience of a sense of the modernity of politics? How is it bound up with social domination?

DH: The argument of The Primacy of the Political is that there is a structure inherent in human sociality, if you will. This structure can be called “dialectical,” so long as one grasps that a synthesis overcoming the antitheses is impossible. Instead of reconciliation, there is a constant movement between the political and the anti-political. The political is that framework, the institutional structure, which gives meaning to all aspects of life. It can be thrown into question insofar as its fragility emerges, because it must uphold a total meaning. It can be thrown into question by events. Such moments of crisis are reflected on in turn by philosophers. When the political order is thrown into question, what happens is curious: It is challenged by what I call the anti-political. The anti-political is in its own way a new kind of political meaning. A peasant jacquerie could have been an affirmation of a new form, one that overcomes the church-bound, tradition-bound, and so on. At the same time, if it is successful and becomes the new form of the political, it no longer poses a political challenge but passes over into anti-politics. Or, to return to the example of the 1970s, the slogan “the personal is political.” That claim is anti-politics insofar as it challenges the bourgeois-liberal vision of politics: it says that politics has to have this form of intimacy, this form of sociability, and so on. But if that set of values becomes dominant, then in effect, we have a new form of the political, but it's an anti-political form of the political: It closes rather than opens social self-questioning. This is the paradox here. What I want to suggest is that anti-politics is a “politics” insofar as it rejects or challenges the reigning vision of politics. But it is a politics that wants to put an end to the political.

DL: In the history of political thought, and in these categories, how do you read the difference between, for example, 1789 and 1848?

DH: Let's take the passage between 1789 and 1794, which is simpler. What you get, in effect, is an overcoming of the ancien regime, the emergence of new possibilities, indeterminate possibilities, in a situation that is of course overdetermined. What happens is that Robespierre and the Jacobins then come in with a new totalizing anti-politics. The genius of Robespierre—he's really the ancestor of Leninism, in this sense—is that he never talks in his own name. Rather, he speaks in the name of the Revolution (although not yet in that of World History). And you can't beat him. If you claim that he and the Committee of Public Safety are somehow oppressive or wrong, you are accused of particularism. So if you look at the history between 1789 and 1794 each time you get an opening or an emergence of a break it's immediately accused of particularism, what Leninists call “bourgeois self-interest”! And it is accused of endangering the revolution. Bonaparte, on his way to the empire, creates the Napoleonic code, the first (and still valid) legal code. It is built around the sacred, holy rights of property, individual rights, etc. It's very much a reworking of Roman law. Interestingly, as Napoleon is defeated, this continues, though challenged, at a formal level. The reality puts it into question, so you have in 1830 a kind of bourgeois revolution and then in 1848 the February days and then the bloody uprising in June.

DL: Marx has the idea of 1789 as moving in an “ascending line” compared to the “descending”, “retrogressive motion” of the Revolution of 1848 and the rise of Bonapartism.

DH: But 1848 does not immediately lead to Bonapartism. By Bonapartism Marx means a return of plebiscitary, pseudo-democratic centralized state structure overriding and overarching the society. That does not come with the election of Napoleon III in 1848, but later with the coup d'etat in 1851. So that is a different story.

There is an absolutely brilliant essay by Harold Rosenberg on the Communist Manifesto. It's an interesting story: When Merleau-Ponty in 1948 decided to publish an anthology, sort of like The Unknown Dimension, but on the whole history of philosophy, he asked different people to write a chapter. For the chapter on Marx to pick a Frenchman would have been difficult because you are obviously showing your colors. So, instead, he asked Rosenberg to write the chapter. He begins the essay: “Nowhere in history have there been more ghost-inspectors, more unexpected returns, than in Shakespeare and in Marx.”[5] In other words, he brings out a kind of Shakespearean dimension which, to my mind, and, again, because Rosenberg was a critic and because his entire critical structure builds around the idea of judgment and of action, fits very nicely and in a way rounds out our discussion. Just to conclude with America: the two great critics of the American breakthrough in painting—abstract expressionism—were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Greenberg was a Trotskyist, and if you read his theory, he has a vision whereby painting is going to go through a series of stages where it is going to more and more free itself from representation and become absolute. So this abstract expressionism, which has no claim to represent anything—it's simply the painting itself, the surface shines, and so on. Rosenberg, however, comes from a more (dare I say) anarchist perspective. He develops the idea of action painting. For him, recall those pictures of Jackson Pollock throwing the paint on the floor, it is the action, the brush that counts.

DL: The critique of political economy and the question of capitalism, both time-honored on the Left, seem in some ways to have been displaced in your work. For instance, Marx, as you present him, was wrong to theorize the crisis of modern society in 1848 as the crisis of capital. This led you to propose a re-reading of Marx after 1989, one that would re-join the Marxian legacy to the historical project of democracy. Do you view things differently now, as we enter ever more deeply into the post-2008 “new normal” of stagnant wages and joblessness?

DH: I don’t think that the “critique of political economy” is identical to the “question of capitalism.” Rereading Marx after 1989 means returning to the former to get a broader perspective; it means revivifying the political, which cannot be reduced to what you call the “new normal.” People don’t take their fate into their hands because of “stagnant wages and joblessness”—as if there existed a sort of revolutionary “tipping point” after which the revolutionary reflex would take hold. When are wages high enough, and what kind of full employment make for a fulfilled human society? In May ’68, our slogan was “l’imaginaire au pouvoir”; that was just an updated version of the young Marx’s claim that “to be radical is to go to the root; and for man, the root is man himself.”

SL: The now seemingly spent #Occupy movement arose as a belated response to the massive economic crisis that began in 2008. The situation seems not unlike the exhaustion of the Seattle “anti-globalization” movement during the election year that followed. Both of these movements arguably looked more to 1968 than to any other historical reference point. And, of course, between 1999 and 2011 came the anti-war movement, which was perhaps the last (and final?) time when the ghost of Marxism came unmistakably back to the fore in the form of anti-imperialism. None of these seem to have escaped the sort of repetition compulsion operative on the left for some decades now. There even seems to be something of a recognition of this in the form of widespread depoliticization. What stretches before an increasingly demoralized younger generation is the prospect of the total exhaustion of the post-1989 left (such as it was) with little prospect of anything taking its place. What possibility do you see in the present for at least bringing to a close a left imagination that seems increasingly to run on auto-pilot? Does politics today generate any prospect for actually being able to set aside the “200 years of error” that you speak of in your work?

DH: One can't predict the imagination! All one can do, I think, is to learn to avoid the anti-political temptation. And one aspect of this temptation is what I'm about to accuse you of!

Your question supposes that there could be something and that someone could know it. All I can do is to judge what is going on as it takes place and try to contribute to some understanding of the need to do more than just “everyday politics.” From this perspective, one of the things I do is write about day-to-day politics. Today, for example, on my weekly commentary for Radio Canada, I talked about what's going on with the Republican convention: I thought it was wonderful that this jerk from Missouri—Todd Akin and the “legitimate rape” controversy—is probably going to cost the Republicans the presidential election. It may also cost them the Senate. I do not expect Obama to transform the world: Many of us had wonderful hopes in 2008, but it was naïve to think that one person could do it; after all, charismatic leaders are doomed to routinize their charisma in order to preserve their power. But old Civil Rights Movement people like me certainly were amazed at his election, wishing/hoping/imagining it was a sign that society had been transformed. What one could have hoped was that he would have kept alive this movement of which we thought/hoped/imagined that he was the representative. I say “movement” despite its being a potentially antipolitical term: It suggests, as did the “proletariat” for Marx and the Marxists, the idea that society can somehow crystallize or “fuse” into a frictionless unity. Although I’ve suggested reasons why that Platonic-Marxist, antipolitical, dream will never be realized, I don’t want to say that those who participate in movements are somehow “wrong.” After all, I would not be who I am had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement. Movements are indeed “right” precisely because they restart the wheel of the dialectic that “makes those petrified stones dance because it sings before them their own melody.” |P

[1]. Dick Howard, The Development of the Marxist Dialectic (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), viii.

[2]. Karl Marx, A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, available online at The standard English translation reads as follows: “Every sphere of German society must be shown as the partie honteuse of German society: these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune to them!

[3]. Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 190.

[4]. Dick Howard, “Politics and Antipolitics,” in Critical Theory and Democracy: Civil Society, Dictatorship, and Constitutionalism in Andrew Arato’s Democratic Theory, ed. Enrique Peruzzoppi and Martin Plot, (New York: Routledge, Forthcoming).

[5]. Harold Rosenberg, “Marx,” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ed., Les philosophes célèbres (Paris: L. Mazenod, 1956).

An interview with Mary Gabriel on Love and Capital

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012


On February 28, 2012, the radio program Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago broadcast an interview with Mary Gabriel, the author of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011). The interview was conducted by Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Spencer A. Leonard: Love and Capital is a biography not only of Marx but of his family and intimate circle, above all Friedrich Engels. Why write this biography today? And why write biographically about great revolutionary intellectuals about whom so much is written interpretively?

Mary Gabriel: Up until 1989, it was difficult to talk about Marx, to examine his life, and not have it be part of a political debate. (Things have since calmed down, though I must say I am shocked by some of the responses to this book, and how rabidly some people still oppose any discussion of Marx.) Before the fall of Soviet communism, many books about Marx were used as Cold War propaganda: Communists made him out to be a hero he might not have been; opponents made him out to be the demon responsible for mass repression and bloody wars from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Lost in all this hyperbole was the real Marx. I thought it was time, given the increasing relevance of his ideas, to calmly and dispassionately find him, and I decided the best place to do that would be among his family and closest friends. There I hoped to discover Karl Marx, the 19th century economist, social scientist, philosopher, revolutionary, and family man whose ideas changed the world.

Of all the libraries of books about Marx, I did not find any that covered his life among his family in detail, despite the fact that they lived and breathed social revolution alongside him. Thus, I began my hunt for Marx by examining stacks of previously neglected material, in particular the correspondence between the women in Marx’s life: his wife Jenny, the three daughters who survived to adulthood, their husbands or partners, and the intimate circle around him. I was pleased to find these letters also contained a rich and powerful picture of the “Marx party’s” common political and intellectual pursuits. There is a huge amount of material in the Russian State archives in Moscow and the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. With the help of some friends and scholars, I was able to discover or rediscover a genuinely wonderful correspondence within the Marx circle, which allowed me to look at events—even a single day—from many different perspectives. Those divergent viewpoints help us see Marx’s life clearly and honestly, devoid of political manipulation.

SL: As you say, Marx is a figure people still have a great deal of difficulty with. One way your reviewers have dealt with your book is to write as if Marx and his family were simply quintessential 19th century bohemian, cosmopolitan intellectuals. But it seems that, in some ways, Marx and his family really are not the most representative of that type. Also, while Marx is arguably the most important intellectual of his age, any attempt to specify that claim and thus Marx’s legacy today is highly fraught. So if the Marxes are an atypical case, if they are very bourgeois in their bohemianism and if Marx’s legacy is difficult to specify, how does your book negotiate these problems.

MG: I tried to delve as deeply as possible into the Marx family story, using their own voices in direct quotes as often as I could, in order to let the reader hear and see them as they were—unadorned, unedited, unscripted. With that information the reader could then decide for themselves whether the family was bohemian or bourgeois, whether their intentions were to rule the worker or to help him. I also tried to anchor the story firmly in the times in which the Marxes lived in order to help the reader understand the importance of Marx’s work compared with other activists of the era, and the impact he had on younger generations.

I found the focus of some reviews to be odd. To me this book is primarily the story of what a group of people, faced with the realization that the existing political and social system no longer worked, did to change it. It is a book about revolution—not just a revolutionary, or a family of revolutionaries, but revolution itself. It’s about the social revolution that began in 18th century France, spread in the 19th century as it was shepherded by the growing democratic, socialist, and labor movements, and finally took hold throughout the West in the second half of the 20th century until the counter-revolution led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began. It is the story of where we, today, come from. The liberal freedoms that we take for granted—mass education, the vote, freedom of speech and the press, labor and women’s rights—are rooted in the tale this book tells. Marx and his family waged a life-long battle for those rights, which regrettably are now at risk.

SL: Taking the old slogan “the personal is political” literally, is the biographical aspect of your book about the politics of private lives? For instance, at a couple of points you describe revolutionary activity as the Marx "family business." As you point out, the fact that the children were Karl Marx’s daughters shaped them fundamentally. But, was the manner in which Marx, Engels, and Jenny and their daughters sought to realize themselves—as husband, friend, wife, and children—political? Is something lost in thus conflating ethics with politics? Hegel somewhere says, and I paraphrase, that world history is no place for happiness. Would not Marx think of himself as an individual—a friend, a husband, and a father—in a way that had little to do with himself as a historical actor?

MG: I did not look at the Marx family with the 1960s–70s notion of “the personal is political” in mind. That said, Love and Capital does describe the role of women through the experiences of Marx’s wife and daughters, as well as the expectations and traditions of 19th century European society. I did, however, stress throughout the book the inseparability of the personal and the political in the Marx household. Politics shaped their lives on every level.

The Marxes were a family like any other, fully engaged in the concerns of daily life, but even their most banal events were overshadowed by politics. That is because Marx, as a 19th century husband and father, dominated the house. His decision to live outside society, to commit himself to social reform, to oppose the class he was born into, indeed to work toward its demise, meant that his family experienced the consequences of that difficult path. The result for Marx’s wife and daughters was, on the one hand, poverty, ill health, depression, and, for most of their lives, a lack of all but the most basic material comforts. On the other hand, they enjoyed rich intellectual lives, self-respect, and the belief that their sacrifices on behalf of Marx’s work would benefit all mankind. They had the satisfaction of knowing theirs was not the frivolous existence of their Victorian peers. The fact that the family home was political through and through did not mean it was joyless, or that Marx was always “in character.” He did think of himself as a husband, father, and friend. He famously said the “microscopic” world of the family was more interesting than the “macroscopic” world of politics. For me, part of the joy of this project was to get to know Marx as his family knew him, to witness him at his most vulnerable and at his most triumphant, to watch him experience the small joys and sorrows we all do: In short to see him, as one young associate feared he would be revealed to be, a man, a mere man.

SL: What was the significance of Marx’s relationship to his father, his future father-in-law (the Baron von Westphalen), and of his early university training? How was his wife-to-be, Jenny von Westphalen, central to his early formation as a revolutionary intellectual?

MG: Marx and his wife were both from Trier, a town in Prussia’s westernmost province, the Rhineland. After the French Revolution, and from about 1806–1813, that region was dominated by France under Napoleon. So people there had been introduced to Enlightenment philosophy and French Revolutionary ideas of freedom of assembly, speech, religion, fair taxation, etc. That was the milieu that Jenny’s and Marx’s parents were raised in. After 1813, the French were driven out and all the old repressive measures reinstated. But Karl and Jenny’s fathers had both been exposed to the vast potential a man had if he exercised the rights that the French Revolution enshrined. Jenny’s father, Ludwig von Westphalen, openly served the Prussian crown as the highest-ranking government official in Trier, but intellectually he was not only reading French Enlightenment thinkers, but French socialists such as Fourier and Saint-Simon. Theirs was a new philosophy that responded to still-nascent industrial conditions. Baron von Westphalen began teaching teenaged Jenny and Marx about the socialists who believed that men had a responsibility toward one another, especially for those less fortunate.

In 1830, there had been another revolt in France, in which the monarch was overthrown and replaced by Louis-Philippe, the so-called “citizen king.” The events shook Prussia’s king and his aristocratic supporters because it was a revolt by a new class of people who did not inherit their money as they had, but earned it. This new breed pressed government to institute freedoms and abolish tariffs between territories, which they said inhibited trade. They also thought that, in order to compete in the new industrial world, they needed a voice in government. Louis-Philippe, who actually enjoyed business and who saw the scale of the wealth it could generate, came increasingly to favor the moneyed class, the grand bourgeoisie.

The Prussian aristocracy was unprepared for the kind of change taking place in France and the king instituted quite repressive measures. Around the time that Marx was to graduate from high school, his father was accused of giving a subversive speech to his club in Trier. Around the same time, a teacher in Marx’s school was sidelined for being too radical and a student was arrested for writing “political poetry.” So Marx felt in Trier the restrictive power emanating from Berlin. He understood that the freedoms he had been taught by Jenny’s father were meaningless as long as someone as powerful as a king who claimed to be God’s emissary on earth was in place. It was the beginning of Marx’s political education.

He eventually went to Bonn and then on to the University of Berlin. It was while he was studying in Berlin that he and Jenny became engaged. They were young lovers, but there is no doubt Jenny also found her political goals fulfilled in her union with Marx. He could be what she, as a 19th century woman, could not: a political player who might help change society for the better. All she could do was provide emotional and material support for him. And that was the path she chose. Through the years, her role developed into one of real intellectual partnership.

SL: Historians sometimes speak of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution as though they were finished by the 1830s and 1840s. But, the genie was out of the bottle in a way that no restoration could reverse. In that sense, the Revolution and the Enlightenment could be said to have done their work. On the other hand, the French Revolution was defeated, both from within and without, and Britain emerged as the dominant partner in a conservative alliance then dominating Europe. In this sense, both the Enlightenment and the Revolution remained burning questions.

MG: That’s right. Marx began with the ideas of the French Revolution. One man’s new idea is based on another man’s old idea, and it is no different in Marx’s case. Somewhere at the bottom of his thought were the ideas of the French Revolution that he had imbibed in his youth. As for Britain, he saw in its industrial society a laboratory in which to study modern society as a whole—its needs, how it might be reshaped to benefit those who were doing the work, and the political significance of a mass industrial army that had scarce anything in the way of wealth or rights.

SL: What about Engels? One of the strengths of the book is the way in which it treats “Marx” as the project of an entire family, or even a body of associates. In this sense, to fully understand Marx one must recognize how distinct he is from other thinkers in this crucial respect. Above all, the intellectual collaboration with Engels stands out as historically unique. How did Engels and Marx first meet, and what were the key phases through which their friendship passed?

MG: It is hard to imagine either of those two men having the historical impact that they had without the other. At various points, people would accuse Marx of having ruined Engels, or Engels having ruined Marx. Marx’s family would try to wrest Marx from Engels’s malign influence, and vice versa with Engels’s family. But in fact they were truly of one mind.

Engels’s father owned a factory in Prussia and was a partner in a Manchester textile firm with a pair of English brothers named Ermen. Engels’s father sent Friedrich there to learn the business. Engels, who already had a reputation as a radical writer (under a pseudonym) describing the industrial ills in the Rhineland, was eager to see Manchester, the industrial heart of Europe. He spent nearly two years there, beginning in 1842. On his way back to Prussia, in August 1844, he stopped off in Paris where Marx was working as a newspaper editor. He and Marx met at a bar on the Right Bank of the Seine and that is when they hit it off. The story is they talked for ten days and ten nights straight.

What they found was that each in his different way had come to the same conclusions concerning society, industrialization, the working class, and the needs of humanity. Marx had learned about it through books and his contact with clandestine socialist organizations in Paris. Engels had learned about it on the factory floor. Their partnership would become so close that Marx would call Engels his alter ego.

In 1845, at the age of 24, Engels became Marx and Jenny’s devoted friend. He demonstrated the extent of his loyalty and willingness to sacrifice on Marx’s behalf about five years later, in 1850. They were all in London, all the refugees who had escaped the 1848 revolt and the counter-revolution in 1849. The British ruling elite felt their system so sound that it would not be threatened by a shabby bunch of foreign revolutionaries waiting anxiously for the next big revolt. Perhaps not surprisingly, few of these refugees could find work in London—including Marx and Engels. So Engels fell on his sword, so to speak. He quit the capital, leaving the business of revolution and theory to Marx, and went back to Manchester to work at his father’s factory, where he stayed for the next 20 years, supplying the Marx family with the money and support they needed to survive. Undoubtedly, Engels would have written much more had he stayed on in London, but he became a factory owner, and from that time until the end of his life in 1895—even beyond—he supported the Marxes. He was the family’s primary breadwinner and gave Marx the means to write his masterwork, Capital.


 Jenny von Westphalen (1814–1881) in 1840.

Incidentally, Engels had one more function in Marx’s life: ghostwriter. When Marx first moved to England, he got a job working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, but he couldn’t write in English, so Engels—a master of languages—penned his articles. There are many instances of Engels writing in Marx’s name, so much so that after Marx’s death, there was a lot of confusion as to who was the author of what.

SL: Oftentimes, Engels and Marx worked together in such a way that it is truly impossible to trace the provenance of ideas to one or the other. The Communist Manifesto is the ultimate example of that.

MG: Engels wrote several first drafts of that in a catechism form. Eventually, Marx wrote the final draft in Brussels after Engels had suggested a changed format and left Marx to complete it. (Engels returned to Paris from Brussels to try to organize French socialists.) When the Manifesto was published, though originally it bore neither of their names, they claimed authorship jointly. Engels would say that it was actually Marx’s work, but that was a bit of modesty on his part.

That was their first important joint work, but I think the more important work done by both men was their virtual collaboration on Capital. In 1870 Engels moved back to London. By that time Marx had published Capital Volume I in Germany, but to little or no acclaim. Soon it was translated in Russia, where it did better. Marx was beginning to slow down by this time, partly because of political demands that took him away from his writing.

The Paris Commune had erupted and Marx was the head of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which was accused (and Marx also, directly) of orchestrating the Commune. So there was not only a lot of correspondence with newspapers needed to shoot down rumors and accusations, but also work with refugees escaping the Commune, and mounds of correspondence. Engels had arrived in London just in time. The two men could now split the work evenly: they were both politicians, both theoreticians. Above all, they were both revolutionaries. This was also the period in which Marx’s daughters began to take a very active role in the family business.

Marx died in 1883. Before his death he had promised to have three volumes of Capital ready for his publisher. There was also a notion of a fourth volume. No one knew how far along Marx was on these volumes until Engels found, in sifting through Marx’s papers, several versions of volumes two and three, in various stages of completion. He also found a hopelessly rough volume four. Once again, Engels put aside his own work in order to make sure that Marx’s last two volumes of Capital were published. He also set about translating and editing dozens of earlier pieces, because after Marx’s death socialism had become more a part of the political mainstream in Western Europe, and there was a growing demand for Marx’s writing. Engels ensured that volumes two and three of Marx’s masterwork were edited with the care and attention they demanded—a project he began in 1883 and did not complete until 1894. Those volumes are very much a Marx-Engels work.

SL: Marx and Engels took little part in the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, but they did engage the Parisian left prior to the revolution. Give us some more of a sense of this time in Marx’s life in Paris, with his young bride, and his budding relationship with Engels and also with the poet Heinrich Heine. What sort of initiation into socialist politics did Marx receive in these years? How did Marx and Engels experience 1848 and what did it mean to them later on?

MG: Marx was not involved in the Paris revolt of February 1848 because he had been tossed out of France three years earlier for subversive writing. He had, however, never lost touch with the Parisian radicals, particularly the socialists and communists, whom he counted as his closest friends while living in Paris from 1843 to 1845. It was through these men (at this point they were all men) that Marx initially learned about communism, and it was the combination of their influence and the books he studied during his time in Paris that really provided the foundation for Marx’s life work.

Marx and his new bride, Jenny, had arrived in Paris in 1843. He had been the editor of a “democratic” newspaper in Cologne. This meant that the paper was funded by businessmen, and had been giving voice to the notion that in order for business to grow, people had to have greater freedom, and that monarchs had to allow for constitutions and parliaments with actual power. But, of course, Marx’s ideas evolved and came to exceed this narrow compass. A fellow intellectual who was then editing a paper in Dresden, Arnold Ruge, had the idea of opening an opposition newspaper in Paris featuring German and French radicals. This short-lived publication was called the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.

In Paris at the time, there was relative free speech, as long as one didn’t directly threaten the government of Louis Philippe. The city was wild and vibrant with ideas: nationalism, socialism, democracy. Paris at that time was the city of the revolution. It was the seat of political philosophy and revolutionary politics and, unlike Prussia, one could say virtually anything and do whatever one liked. The city was filled with radical workers exiled from Germany and other places throughout Europe. There were a lot of underground organizations building on French Revolutionary ideas, as well as elaborating new ideas about communism, which was basically seen as socialism paired with the demand for the elimination of private property. Marx attended the radical workers’ meetings and he also attended salons with writers such as Victor Hugo and George Sand, and the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Marx began by working for the Jahrbücher, but it went under after only one issue. The opinions it advanced were so radical that in Prussia charges of treason were brought against Marx and several others. Marx used his jobless status to immerse himself in opposition politics, meeting and working with many of the figures we still recognize as critical to the nineteenth century social revolution—most significantly Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had made the leap to anarchism. Marx also formed a critical personal relationship with the poet Heinrich Heine. At the same time, Marx initiated his study of the great economists. 1844 is the year that Marx’s economic ideas were first formed. They were honed over the years, but that was the year that marked their basic crystallization.

A year later Marx was thrown out of Paris for supposedly advocating the regicide of the King of Prussia in another publication Marx had joined. So he and Jenny went to Brussels where a circle began to form around Marx that became known as the “Marx party.” This was the nucleus of his international organization, a combination of intellectuals and proletarians, mostly artisans of German background.

He was still in Brussels when Europe exploded in 1848. These revolts were (and still are) the only Europe-wide revolts by the people against their governments. They were not unlike the Arab Spring. People hitherto thought powerless rose up against kings who not only denied them political freedom, but also denied them a political future. The monarchs and aristocrats of Europe could not, of course, see that the world was changing around them. Europe was suffering famine at the very time industrialization was revving up and political corruption spreading. The people who were getting jobs were the women and children who could work for very little. Displaced peasants did not necessarily find jobs in industry. A social safety net that existed in village life was gone. People who moved to the city were desperate. They had no food, no hope, no future.

In 1848, intellectuals like Marx, skilled artisans, students, and even businessmen who thought that the old monarchical system was not meeting the needs of society, joined forces with millions of disgruntled workers to confront the relics of the ancien régime. Throughout Europe, there was a seemingly spontaneous eruption, but its epicenter was Paris where the European political opposition was strongest and most organized.

After the Parisian “street” had risen up and forced the French king to abdicate, a republic was declared in France. Within days, Marx was given 24 hours to leave Belgium, where the king feared he would stir a Parisian-style revolt. He and his family quickly went to Paris, and then on to Prussia where Marx hoped the revolution might deepen. Once in Cologne, he resumed his work as a newspaper editor. At this time he was more of a propagandist than a revolutionary, because he felt it was the quickest and easiest way to reach the greatest number of people. Sometimes I wonder what Marx would do in our day with the Internet. The written word was always his most powerful weapon, and also a great source of frustration because he could not distribute his writing quickly or widely enough. He would have been thrilled to have had today’s technology at his fingertips.

Though the old order had been initially thrown off guard by the revolts, it quickly recovered and the counter-revolutionary backlash that ensued was swift and brutal. Kings were able to enlist the support of the industrialists and capitalists who were terrified that the lower class was demanding its rights. Marx watched this revolution unfold, and it was during this year, 1848–1849, that his political ideas took definite shape. He recognized then that working men could only achieve their goals when they did it themselves. They could not rely on liberals or beneficent industrialists, but had to organize as a class.

SL: Comment on Marx’s inner life of the period from 1871 to 1875 and, in particular, on the Paris Commune and the struggles within the IWA. How had socialist revolutionary politics changed in the decades after 1848 and what is the significance of Marx’s leadership in this later period?

MG: It was not until 1871 that the name Karl Marx became widely associated with revolution. Prior to that year, Marx had been watched with suspicion by the German government, against which he had been writing and agitating for 25 years. He was also recognized by opposition and labor circles from Russia to America. And while that territory was vast, the number of people engaged in opposition activity, and thus aware of Marx, was not. The Paris Commune of 1871, however, changed all that. Through the Parisian revolt against the French bourgeoisie, Marx (much to his delight) became internationally infamous.

What drew the world’s attention to Marx was a pamphlet he wrote called The Civil War in France. In it Marx heartily praised the bravery of the communards and linked their struggle to the capitalist West’s growing labor movement—that army of workers who had finally recognized the extent of their exploitation and were demanding (sometimes violently) their rights. Translations of Marx’s pamphlet flew off printing presses around the world. Documenting the Paris slaughter that killed at least 25,000 people and the fighting that left the city in ruins, The Civil War in France became Marx’s most widely read work to date. The pamphlet appeared at the very moment when the French, indeed when western leaders and their financial backers, were trying to find someone to blame for the Commune uprising. They did not want desperate workers and citizens in their countries to be inspired by the French workers’ attempts to win basic freedoms. They needed to change the narrative, and demonizing Marx gave them just such an opening. Marx was portrayed not as a chronicler and champion of the revolt, but as its nefarious Prussian mastermind. In this scenario the French working-class was said to have been manipulated and deceived by a German outsider living in London whose goal was to extend control over workers and gain support for his IWA. Alarming stories in London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York described the future carnage being plotted by Marx and the IWA: No city was safe, they said. Everyone among the lower ranks of society was susceptible to his malign influence.

The propaganda succeeded in heightening social tensions, which always swells the ranks of reactionaries who fear nothing so much as instability. But it did not dissuade workers from joining the IWA. Quite the contrary: After the Commune, the organization sprouted branches wherever industrialization had created disgruntled workers. The anti-Marx, anti-IWA propaganda showed how much labor solidarity terrified governments and capitalists. So workers recognized it for what it was, a powerful tool, and they flocked to join.

Ironically, just when the group was seen as a real force by the outside world, internally it was dangerously divided. Since its inception in London in 1864, Marx had held IWA together by sheer force of his personality. He had tricked, cajoled, threatened, and seduced its multi-national leadership into cooperation. But, by 1872 he was exhausted, and the Commune had produced further disputes within the organization. Some moderates vehemently disagreed with Marx over his embrace of the communards. Others, mostly anarchists aligned with Mikhail Bakunin, wanted to turn the IWA, which had so far only supported workers’ struggles and negotiated on their behalf, into a workers’ army. Marx recognized that the path to reform was different in each country. In some cases, change could be achieved through the ballot box, protests, or strikes. But in other cases, only violent revolution would win the greatest number of people their rights. Everywhere he thought the struggle essentially political, not military. He formally left the IWA in 1872 to return to writing and theory, fully convinced that the immediate fight would continue on its own course without his leadership. He thought it much more important that he get his ideas into print for future generations.

SL: At Marx’s funeral in 1883 where Engels delivered his famous eulogy of his lifelong friend there were only 11 people in attendance. Most of Marx’s books were out of print and obscure. Yet, on the anniversary of his death the following year some 6,000 workers marched to his grave to honor his memory. For, by the early 1880s the workers’ movement had begun to assume a decidedly new character, as evidenced by the emergence in this period of the New Unionism in Britain, the Socialist Labor Party in the United States, the French Workers Party, and, of course, the Social Democratic Party in Germany. In Russia the Emancipation of Labor Group formed just months after Marx’s death. Working class demonstrations and strike actions also grew to an unprecedented extent in this period. Thus, while Marxism obviously and with reason bears Marx’s name, it was Engels who really lived to see and direct the international socialism that came together on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution to form the Second Socialist International in Paris in 1889. Describe Engels’s role in this process and, more generally, the activities that characterized the last decades of his life. What were key services Engels performed to perpetuate Marx’s legacy in this critical seedtime of modern, party political socialism?

MG: Immediately after Marx’s death, Engels, Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, and the family helper Helene Demuth began the arduous task of sorting through Marx’s papers. As discussed earlier, it fell to Engels to organize Marx’s unfinished works and get them into shape for publication, and translate his many published pieces for audiences throughout Europe. That job would have been enough to keep a small library of scholars busy. Engels, Helene, Eleanor Marx and their wider circle made certain that Marx’s Capital manuscripts were edited and his published works reprinted. That was crucial.

Engels also inherited Marx’s role as elder statesman of the European socialist movement. Young radicals from throughout Europe made pilgrimages to his London home seeking advice, shelter, and direction. When French socialists decided to inaugurate a Second International to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Engels was charged with settling disputes among the various national parties so that all would be in agreement when they arrived in Paris. Against all odds, they were. This was partly because of Engels’s leadership, but also because the working class and socialists of the late 19th century were much more mature politically than those involved in the First International. They had seen the strengths and weaknesses of that earlier organization and, significantly, during the intervening years many of the socialists and labor groups had become political organizations in their own right. They had produced strong leaders from within their ranks. It was these young leaders—men and women—whom Engels was able to guide and advise from his unique position of having lived the struggle from its inception. Critics often blame Engels for much 20th century misinterpretation of Marx’s work, or misdirection of the movement, but I believe this is both inaccurate and unfair. Without Engels, Marx’s literary legacy would have been a single volume of Capital, and a handful of earlier publications largely written in German. Engels had protected Marx in life and preserved his work for future generations in death. There would have been a Friedrich Engels without Karl Marx but I often wonder if there would have been a Karl Marx without Engels.


Jenny, Laura, Eleanor, and Karl Marx, with Friedrich Engels, in 1864.

SL: In many ways, Marx’s relationship to Eleanor, as to his two elder daughters, was similar to his relationship to his wife and to his close friend Engels in that, in addition to being deeply loving, it was deeply intellectual. All three daughters assisted him with his work and all become hopelessly radicalized themselves at a very young age. Could you describe their trajectories, particularly that of Eleanor?

MG: You’re right about the intellectual dimension of the family’s life. Of course, the daughters received the education of any other middle class British girl. They learned languages, music, painting, etc. But they also had an incredible education at home from one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. Marx raised them as he would have raised sons—as revolutionaries. He discussed everything with them. All three were committed to Marx’s work and were employed by him at various points as his “secretaries,” transcribing and translating his words, corresponding with labor and social agitators around the world on his behalf. But each of the three also had their own role in his revolution.

Marx was proud of their collaboration, but also worried. He wanted them to have a married life outside of revolution, because he felt his wife’s life had been wrecked by his chosen path. He had watched her suffer as they buried four of their seven children. He didn’t want to see his daughters suffer that same fate, and yet there could have been no other possibility, because that was the world they inherited. They wouldn’t have been satisfied with a bourgeois existence.

Often in describing Marx’s relationship with his daughters, critics focus on the material sacrifices the women made because Marx had decided to dedicate himself to a greater good at the expense of his family. It is true they lived extremely difficult lives by normal middle class standards. But I was struck throughout the project not by their poverty, but by their wealth. From the time of their birth the Marx daughters lived lives of high drama in a world of ideas, among some of the most important thinkers of their time. They experienced the thrill of being at the epicenter of a brewing social, political, and economic revolution. And they did so with relish.

Marx’s eldest daughter, Jenny, was a journalist. She worked with three Irish prisoners who were being held for political crimes in British jail. Her articles resulted in a parliamentary inquiry, and the prisoners’ eventual release. Her work ended when she married a French socialist journalist and former communard, who abandoned her and their brood of boys to agitate in Paris.

Laura was the most traditional. She married a Cuban-born doctor and future Marxist who was of French descent. He was a wonderful character because he was very high-spirited and very melodramatic, but he never did anything well. So she suffered the fate that her mother did, only worse, because while Marx was at least brilliant and shared his life with his wife, Paul Lafargue was not a brilliant man and a chauvinist. So this woman, who had been trained as a radical, who knew the ins and outs of every economic theory, who could talk about any political situation in Europe, was left at the sidelines to raise children who then died within two years while she and her husband were on the run after the Commune. She spent much of her later life translating her father’s and Engels’s works.

The third daughter, Eleanor, is as you say the most important historically. From the time she was eight years old, she was writing to people about French Revolutionaries and the Polish rebellion. I came across a notebook she kept as a girl, where she had written the phrase “tutti-frutti” on the cover, and inside long articles about sewage systems and industrialization in France. Even as a child she was immersed in the world of the workers’ movement, and became infinitely more so as a woman.


Eleanor Marx (1855–1898) in 1870.

In the larger social and political evolution of the nineteenth century, a change had occurred after about 1860. Working men no longer needed intellectuals to lead their movement. They were organized enough to defend themselves. So the battle Eleanor became involved in was a trade union fight. She was a committed and passionate advocate. She even traveled to the United States to introduce Marx’s ideas to an American audience. Unfortunately for her, she became involved with a very disreputable man who was a socialist and an aspiring playwright, but also an absolute scoundrel, Edward Aveling.

Indeed, the three younger Marx women’s endeavors were all disrupted, if not destroyed, by unions with men they believed would be like their father but who all proved to be lesser in every way. Their personal lives were bitter disappointments. Eleanor committed suicide. Laura and Lafargue died in a suicide pact. (Lenin gave a eulogy at their funeral.) Jenny died of cancer, but it was nothing short of suicide. She had known she was ill but did not seek treatment until it was too late. None of them lived to see the recognition Marx would receive or his theories become political reality.

SL: Allow me to return to the question of biography. The political context in which these actors lived, and their ability to participate in the ongoing modern revolution, seem to us quite distant now. There is no international political project of any significance that directly builds on the gargantuan sacrifices and formidable efforts of Marx and Engels. Given these circumstances, how have you sought to deploy the genre of biography?

MG: One of the reasons I wrote the book chronologically, which is an old-fashioned method, was because I wanted to give the reader a sense of living the lives of Marx, Engels, and Jenny. I actually came away from this book very deeply respecting Marx and Engels and Jenny and the sacrifices they made for people they didn’t even know. They could have had a very comfortable existence. Marx was born into the middle class in Western Prussia; his father was a lawyer. Jenny’s father was a baron and a Prussian official. But early on, both Marx and Jenny gave up the trappings of the bourgeoisie—or, in her case, the aristocracy—and committed themselves to the most difficult path, working against a system that had been entrenched for centuries. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get someone out of political office. They were working against absolute monarchs claiming to be God’s ambassadors on earth. After looking at their daily lives over the course of 80 years, I could only come away with a great deal of respect for them.

The American journalist I. F. Stone used to actually go to congressional hearings to hear what was being said instead of reading the summaries or press releases produced by congressional aides afterwards. He said the difference between actually experiencing something—or reading an original letter—and hearing an interpretation, is enormous. And that is the case with Marx, too. If anyone has any questions about Marx, they should go to the source and read his writings. I offer this book as a biography of Marx so that when you read Capital or the Communist Manifesto, you can understand what he was experiencing at the time, who he was, and the milieu in which he lived. That’s the difference. That’s the approach to biography that I took. Marx’s revolutionary context is obscure to us now. That’s the reason why I thought it was important to write a biography of Marx.

If it is claimed that theirs were particular times, that Jenny and Marx were involved in a revolution we could never fight, I think, on the contrary, that we’re at that same moment again, the same crucial juncture. We are entering the third industrial revolution, where everything is changing, and must change, but the entrenched interests in government and business, like the absolute monarchs and the aristocrats of Marx’s day, don’t yet see it. And if they do see it, they are too frightened at the prospect of their own loss of power and wealth to allow for the change that is not only necessary but inevitable. There are people like Marx and Jenny out there today who are working to chart this change, and provide alternatives to the systems that no longer serve the needs of society. But these things take a long time, and that’s something that Marx understood. Revolution is not something that happens in a day or a week. It takes decades. And when you’re in the middle of those decades, sometimes it is difficult to recognize. It requires something Marx cherished but did not himself possess: patience. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012


Last winter, on their radio show Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago, Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd interviewed Ben Lewis, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and co-author and translator, together with Lars T. Lih, of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011). The interview originally was broadcast on December 6, 2011. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Spencer Leonard: Please give a brief overview of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle.


 Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011)

Ben Lewis: The book makes available in English a remarkable moment in the history of the European socialist movement—the debate at the October 1920 Halle Congress of the German Independent Social Democrats (USPD). The USPD had then around 700,000 members. It was bitterly divided over the new Soviet government, the Communist International, and the nature of the German revolution and the tasks it then faced.The split that resulted at this congress, as part of the drive to form parties affiliated to the Third International, created the new, United Communist Party (VKPD). It was a pivotal moment.

When I first came across the material, it struck me how apposite some of the discussions and debates were to mass revolutionary unity in today’s world – seeking to overcome crippling divisions and fragmentation through uncompromising political struggle. My collaborator in this project Lars Lih and I have contextualized and translated the speeches of the Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev, who spoke for around four hours, and his Menshevik opponent Julius Martov. This Congress provides an almost unparalleled insight into the self-understanding both of the Bolsheviks and the “left” Mensheviks, as well as their supporters in the German workers’ movement. The main purpose of the book, then, is to make available a debate that has been largely overlooked or forgotten. Grasping the shades and nuances of opinion at the congress, as well as the strengths and limitations of the strategic outlines advanced on both sides, is intended as a modest contribution to the sort of debates that we on the left urgently need today.

SL: What were some of the circumstances that led to the altered landscape of the German Left in the aftermath of World War I, and in particular from 1917-1921? How had the outbreak of war itself precipitated a crisis in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and, indeed, international socialism? In the introduction to the book you write, “The war and the passing of political power into the hands of the military command can be partly understood as the ruling class’s challenge to the worker’s movement. The tragedy is that the SPD was unable to rise to that challenge” (11). How did the SPD’s 1914 vote to support the Kaiser’s war ramify through the war years? How and to what extent did the working class come to recognize the consequences of that vote, of that ongoing support, and of the leadership for responsible for them? How did it lead to the crack-up of some of the most important party leaders in Germany?

BL:  In spite of its strategic disorientation and fractious nature, the German workers’ movement was enormously powerful, and its importance can be traced back to the successes of SPD in the period between the 1880s and 1914. His criticisms of its programme and its lack of republicanism notwithstanding, Marx’s friend and political legatee, Friedrich Engels, could barely contain his delight at the organization’s seemingly inexorable rise. In contrast to the “parties”on today’s far Left, this party had genuine mass influence and roots. It was not so much a political party as it was another way of life devoted to the political, cultural, and social development and empowerment of the working class. It ran women’s groups, cycling clubs, party universities and schools, churned out hundreds of newspapers, weekly theoretical journals, “special interest” magazines discussing cycling, the role of socialist academics, and even gymnastics! By 1912 the SPD had become the biggest party in Germany, with 110 Reichstag seats and 28 percent of the popular vote.

But as the party grew, so too did the gulf between its revolutionary theory and the daily practice of putting out newspapers, organizing in trade unions, and winning elections. The goal of socialism was increasingly relegated to Sunday speeches, party congresses, annual festivals, and educational events. Many party trade union leaders and functionaries, increasingly cut off from the control of the party membership, saw no further than higher wages and better conditions. Reichstag deputies aimed for minor reforms and parliamentary deals. In other words, the labor bureaucracy was gaining ground, and it found theoretical expression in the writings of the revisionist Eduard Bernstein. His writings of the late 1890s challenged the self-understanding of Marxism, as it derived from Marx and Engels, who in their lifetimes had thought him their star pupil.

Seen in that light, we can begin to understand the enormous shock felt by those who, while aware of the dangers of revisionism, had placed great hope in this movement when, on August 4, 1914, the SPD voted for war credits. Reading his copy of the Times, Lenin threw it on the floor and refused to believe the news. He could not fathom that a party of such promise had thus capitulated to the Kaiser state, though this is effectively what happened.


L: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; R: Paul Levi

However, it is worth noting as well that, right from the outset, many went along with this on the assumption that it was just some kind of aberration. The idea was that the party had temporarily lost its way. Karl Liebknecht, for example, who is held up quite rightly as a hero of internationalism, voted with the leadership on that fateful day. He voted for the war credits with the view that the party could be won over again to a principled opposition to imperialist war, in opposition, that is, to the interests of one’s own national state. After all, he thought, precisely such an opposition had been codified in many resolutions of the Second International. But the direct consequence of the Burgfrieden [Civil Peace] that the SPD had concluded with the military high command was an enormous clampdown on opposition to the war inside the SPD itself. The resulting political repression took different forms, ranging from a clampdown on party democracy to the SPD daily, Vorwärts, printing declarations from the German High Command threatening to shut down the publication if it broached the sensitive issue of class struggle. Indeed, Vorwärts was censored on several occasions for making the mildest of criticisms about bread distribution and other things during the war.

After the 1914 crisis, opposition emerged slowly. The party leadership and the state clamped down on the radical internationalist wing that upheld the resolutions and politics of the International. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were those most obviously involved in that activity. Yet they and their supporters were marginal. The most significant movement of opposition came from those parliamentary deputies who, like Liebknecht, had expressed doubts in private, but had at the time of the August 4th voted to put the unity of the party first. They gradually consolidated themselves into a vociferous and well known opposition, exploiting their position in parliament to speak out against the territorial annexations as the war dragged on. They exposed the horrific reality of the war as it became more and more fully manifest. This activity gave rise eventually to the USPD, which crystallized around the leadership of people like Hugo Haase. Interestingly, this new grouping accused the SPD of having abandoned its 1891 Erfurt programme. But the opposition went beyond the parliamentary delegation and the politics of its leading members to include figures such as Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Right from the start, people moved to distance themselves from the official SPD position, which had effectively become one of open collusion with the Kaiser state. Overcoming this huge shock and defeat for the workers’ movement internationally, and rebuilding that movement anew, became for them the order of the day.

SL: So one faction of the SPD supported the war outright while the rest staked out different positions over the course of the war years? Give us a sense of the timeline and the trajectory of the far Left, and of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, in particular.

BL: The birth of the USPD was not the decision to split. It was rather a decision by the party leadership to expel 33 parliamentary deputies who, in 1916, voted against further war credits. After being thus expelled from parliament, they were kicked out of the party in early 1917. The sharp increase in opposition to the war began in Germany in 1917-1918, as, of course, the war effort faltered unmistakably.

The founding congress of the USPD took place against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Hugo Haase referred to it at that time as the “light from the east.” The whole of this process, from 1917 through to Halle in October of 1920, must be seen as deriving from the impulse given by the Russian Revolution. The great events in Russia and the transformation of the Eastern front hammered home and exacerbated contradictions already latent within the German workers’ movement.

SL: Originally, the war had been sold to the German workers as a war against Russian barbarism, correct?

BL: Exactly! There is a quote from Kautsky, in which he says, “nowhere is the cause of socialism so advanced as in the land of the illiterates,” meaning Russia. When people in Germany began to recognize the truth of this, made manifest in the Russian Revolution, it had enormous ramifications. There was a burgeoning opposition to the war and, of course, at the same time conditions in Germany were deteriorating rapidly. Increasingly, the popularity of Soviets and the idea that we need to form worker’s councils grew. More and more, advanced workers wanted to “do what the Russians did.” That led to further strains on the USPD. People like Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein had joined only with the greatest of reluctance, expecting the project to fail because of the involvement of Spartacus Group, the “ultra Leftists” Luxemburg and Liebknecht. They went along with it to secure peace, with the idea that they would deal with the ultra Left later.

The most principled opposition, the Spartacus Group, was also the most marginal. Their struggle was a principled attempt to turn the imperialist war into civil war, i.e., to convert the war into an opportunity for the working class to seize power. In the run up to the fall of the Kaiser and the defeat of Germany, such questions had been posed. It was no longer just a question of solidarity with Russia, but of what to do given the collapse of the state. Given the confusion that still prevails in some quarters on this, it is worth once again stressing that the Spartacist approach was rooted in official policy of the Second International. For example, following an amendment by Luxemburg and Lenin, the 1907 Stuttgart International Congress had pledged to “utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”

SL: The SPD under the pre-war theoretical leadership of Karl Kautsky upheld the unity of working class forces. Their watchword was one class, one party. As you have stressed, in the pre-war years this party was quite impressive in its press, its instructional and recreational institutions, its electoral capacity, and its organizational strength generally. Yet, after the war we see the SPD splintering in multiple directions. And from the Communist perspective the purpose of the Halle conference was to affect the split of the USPD. So, let’s address the question of unity and splitting. What were some of the problems with unity going into the war? How did the SPD turn out to be something very different from what some had imagined it to be? How did a belated—or premature, depending on how you look at it—splinter lead to the isolation of the Spartacists and the defeat of the 1919 uprising, events that form the immediate background to the Halle Congress?

BL: The Halle Congress is about splitting, but it is equally about unity. It revolves around the rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of advanced German workers into a single organization. Still, the question is pertinent. At the time they did have to confront the issue of what was the SPD and how did it operate?

There are a number of reasons why the Spartacus opposition was marginal. Some of these relate to what I said about what the nature of the opposition to the war. Writing in Die Kommunistische Internationale, Karl Radek made the point that many workers were reluctant to oppose the war by way mass demonstrations and strikes because of the way that the state, given the politics of “civil peace,” dealt with the most radical demonstrations, i.e., those who disrupted peace at home were conscripted. Opposing the war was risky. The USPD bore the scars of this, which is why it took mainly a parliamentary form.

Before the war, Luxemburg, of course, was known as a radical, but she lacked a unique voice and public faction in the party.The Kautsky center, by contrast, had a lot of the press and commanded significant, visible support. This becomes particularly salient after the 1910 breach between Kautsky and Luxemburg. Kautsky’s tendency—with all its problems, particularly on the question of the state and the refusal to openly struggle against the trade union bureaucracy—became dominant.

The relative marginalization of the Spartacus Group also led it into some dubious tactical and strategic judgements. For example, the decision to split from the USPD to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in December 1918 was premised on the idea that if they stayed in the same organization with those who had just taken part in the provisional government that had cracked down on popular demonstrations, this would constitute “disloyalty” to the revolution. So, the Spartacus Group and KPD were isolated in 1918-19. The USPD, by contrast, had by 1920 grown into a real force. At one point it attracted 200,000 new members within a single three month period. And this growth was at the SPD’s expense. Because the KPD wanted to split, they were isolated. So, on the question of splitting and unity, it was a tactical consideration in terms of timing and on what basis. As the insightful German Communist leader, Paul Levi, made clear at the Second Congress of the Third International, there was a sense in which the KPD was both too late and also too early. Certainly, they had had little impact on the ranks of the USPD and the worker’s movement more generally. Only with Halle in 1920 is there a real mass split towards Communist party-ism.


A cartoon commenting on the Halle Congress, "Whether you look to the right or left, you see an Independent cleft."

SL: The post-war German government was formed by the rightists of the SPD, the representatives of the trade union bureaucracy. Eventually they helped to put down the revolution. Explain how the crisis of the Left in this period eventually resulted in this situation whereby one fraction of the working class engaged in open civil war against another.

BL: It is difficult to get our heads around exactly what happened. Certainly, the SPD came into power and crushed the revolution both at home and abroad. And, given the organization they come from, this is difficult to fathom. The problem comes (and this is clearly evident in 1914) when the majority of a Marxist political organization commits both programmatically and strategically to the preservation of the imperial state and the existing constitution.

To understand the dynamics that led to this, we have to remember that, at least initially, the SPD-USPD provisional government was able to bring about real reforms in the post-Kaiser state. They had brought peace, of a sort. There was an eight-hour day, suffrage was extended to women and anyone over 20, etc. There was a “republic,” although certainly not the kind of republic envisioned by Marxist republicanism, even by the Kautsky of 1905 in his 1905 classic Republic and Social Democracy in France![1] These reforms may appear insignificant to us, but they were extremely important in the context of post-war dissolution and decay. So it was not simply that the new regime were murderous bastards, though, of course, they were that. But they were murderous bastards who brought about real reforms and counterpose their gradualist “sensible” approach to that of “Bolshevik putschism” and the risk of German living standards declining to those of the young Soviet state.

The 1918 provisional government essentially reflected the SPD’s understanding of socialism. This “socialism” was envisioned as arriving within the framework of the old constitutional order. It was based on the old pillars of the state bureaucracy and the military high command. So, for example, even though they formed a new “socialist” government, none of the commissars actually held ministerial posts. Most of the old ministries continued under the old appointees. One of the more ridiculous examples of this is when, the SPD sent the once great Marxist theoretician, Karl Kautsky, to watch over the affairs of the German Foreign Ministry, which was led by hated reactionary Wilhelm Solf. At the time, the Ministry was not only positioning troops to hold back the revolution at home, but also keeping troops in Eastern Europe where they did deals with the entente to hold back the Russian Revolution. Kautsky was, of course, meant to supervise (and, presumably, reverse) this. But, instead, Solf packed him off to the Ministry’s archives to investigate the causes of World War I! This, of course, was worthwhile in its way, and Kautsky wrote interesting things on the subject. But it exemplifies how the core pillars of the state apparatus remained intact. They were not, as Marx and Engels spoke of, smashed, but were allowed to continue.

The SPD understood itself as a caretaker government, gaining some concessions for the working class until such time as “order” was restored. In this period, a number of deals were signed between leading German industrialists and the trade unions. Politically, the SPD held the view that socialism could be introduced through the existing constitution. This is quite clearly nonsense, but anyone who challenged this view was subject to repression, as with the attack of General Lequis on the People’s Naval Division in Berlin in December of 1918. (Lequis was infamous for his implementation of Germany imperialist policy in South-West Africa, not least the suppression of the Herero uprising of 1904.)

Watson Ladd: The debate over the possibility of introducing socialism through the existing order goes back to the revisionist dispute in which Kautsky and Luxemburg together sided against Bernstein. How, in the decade or so after the revisionist debate, did the shift occur whereby many in the SPD, who had considered themselves followers of the “revolutionary” Kautsky, came to adopt the very position they once opposed?

BL: It is difficult to locate. Because so many have dismissed the writings of Kautsky not only after his renegacy, but also from the earlier period when, as Lenin remarked, Kautsky “wrote as a Marxist”; our understanding of this pivotal figure remains inadequate. We have to trace the development of Kautsky’s understanding of working class rule. If you go back to the polemics he and Luxemburg led against the revisionists, they both followed Marx and Engels in arguing that you could not just take over the existing state structure, but that these had to be smashed and subordinated to the will of the masses, and that a state must be made along the lines of the Paris Commune.[2] I have mentioned Kautsky’s 1905 Republic and Social Democracy in France, which is excellent. Still, it mainly focuses on the negative critique of French millenarianism and the illusions it bred in the bourgeois Third Republic.

My CPGB comrade Mike Macnair has convincingly argued that Kautsky’s conception of working class rule had always been problematic, even when his texts were the gold standard of international Social Democracy.[3] Macnair argues that Kautsky held the existence of a state bureaucracy and the bourgeois “rule of law” to be necessary in any modern state, whether bourgeois or proletarian. But the main problem with Kautsky stems from his commitment to the unity at all costs of the party with the trade union bureaucracy.[4]

This said, there are discontinuities between Kautsky the orthodox revolutionary Marxist and Kautsky the renegade. It is thus interesting to compare a text like Republic and Social Democracy in France with his later texts like Guidelines for a Socialist Action Program, which he penned in January 1919, just days before Luxemburg was murdered.[5]

After 1914, Kautsky plays quite a rascally game, if you will, with many of the concepts he once defended, such as the democratic republic. He applies them dishonestly, gutting them of the revolutionary content they had in Marx, Engels, and his own earlier writings. In 1918-19 he uses the concept of the democratic republic to justify the SPD/USPD government. At this time, he is a member of the USPD, though looking for some sort of rapprochement with the SPD. This, perhaps, helps to explain his agenda, to some extent. But tracing exactly where it came from is more problematic. It’s something I have committed myself to studying for at least a couple more years. Certainly, the Kautsky of 1919 is a watery image of the Kautsky of 1904-05.

SL: The fundamental issue at Halle was affiliation to the Third International and fusion with the KPD. How did both the Bolshevik Revolution and the failed Spartacist uprising of 1918-19 bear upon the debate?

BL: In the aftermath of the Second Congress of the Third International, the USPD after the Halle Congress essentially placed itself in the tradition of mass, openly Communist parties that no longer called themselves social democratic. The party modeled itself on Russian Bolshevism and attempted to apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution to Germany. This struggle for Communist organization was a protracted one, and went far beyond the disputes at Halle. As Lenin and Paul Levi recognized, the way to form a mass organization was to unite the vanguard of the class. This meant taking seriously the existing organizations such as the trade unions in general (dominated by Social Democrats) and the USPD membership in particular.

There were splits to the left in the young KPD, composed of people who did not want anything to do with the USPD rank and file. They thought the USPD was radically compromised after the experience of the SPD/USPD government, for example. There were also splits to the right. It wasn’t just Kautsky who was looking for rapprochement with the SPD. In February 1919 Bernstein established a center for socialist unification, which lasted for about a month. He also tried for a time to hold dual membership in the SPD and USPD. When that didn’t work out, he rejoined the SPD. So, the whole period between the opening of the German Revolution and the unity created in October 1920 is marked by the discussions that informed the original splits: What is the attitude towards war and towards the entente? Should we rebuild the Second International on a reformed basis? Do we split altogether to form a Third International?

It is worth noting the (understandable) mistrust that divided the USPD and the KPD. They had a fractious history and both sides were skeptical of each other. Nonetheless, following the formation of the Third International in March 1919, there emerged a growing, increasingly influential left wing in the USPD that looked to Moscow and thus came into increasing contact with the KPD leadership. The Russian Revolution itself was the impulse for unity, as it was in many other countries.


Title page of Lenin's 'Der „Radikalismus“ die Kinderkrankheit des Kommunismus', known in English as '"Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder,' 1920.

SL: You have referred to the Second Congress of the Third international. There, of course, Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was distributed to the delegates. Against the background of Lenin’s attempt to reorient the Left after the tumultuous years of 1917-19, what was the burden of Gregory Zinoviev’s intervention at Halle? What had he come to Germany to say?

BL: Halle is the first congress where the Third International’s “Twenty-One Conditions” are debated by a mass socialist organization in Europe. These were the conditions for admittance into the International. The reasoning behind them was that, unlike in the First Congress where there were only a handful of people (some who came at great cost), the Second Congress received support and interest from mass socialist parties worldwide. There were many requests for affiliation. Zinoviev was adamant that such organizations were not simply to be absorbed into Comintern as they were. This was the role of the conditions.

Of course, not engaging the USPD as a way of winning over to Comintern 800,000 workers, “badly led as they are,” would be the worst sort of posturing. “Under no circumstances … would this congress permit intellectual dishonesty, nor will it make the slightest concessions on principle,” Zinoviev remarked. Organizing in the same party with forces who wavered on the cardinal questions addressed in the Twenty-one Conditions would risk another collapse from within like in Germany or Hungary. Moreover, given the extremity of the situation, there was no time for patient political debate. Soviet Russia was suffering under blockade. Delegates at the Second Congress were following the course of the Soviet-Polish war on a map. Miklós Horthy’s troops ran wild in Hungary, massacring working class activists of all political affiliations. The Finnish counter-revolution had, with the complicity of the German SPD, butchered a substantial amount of the Finnish working class. The British government was funding anybody and everybody set on occupying Moscow and Petrograd. In such circumstances, centrist forces only paying lip service to the cause had to be broken with. Kautsky is called out. Zinoviev was saying, “You must break with these people. Given the tasks we face, we cannot be in the same organization with them. We need clarity.” The Twenty-one Conditions were not some kind of communist baptism. Zinoviev understood that it was possible to accept 5,000 conditions and still remain a Kautskyite!

Zinoviev and the Comintern represented a clear commitment to continuing the revolution across Europe. When he arrived at Halle in 1920, he was a highly respected Bolshevik leader. He was held up as a model in that sense, and rightly so. The USPD right got Julius Martov to speak for them. He was likewise extremely well known and nopolitical lightweight.

This is Zinoviev from his four hour speech:

Menshevism or reformism is an international phenomenon. You see it in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, in America, everywhere. Comrades, it was said here, “Well, would it not be better to join together in one front against the bourgeoisie?” Certainly that would be very good and desirable. Yet unfortunately that is still impossible. The situation is the following: The working class is already strong enough that, if we are tightly united and openly fight for communism, we can bring the bourgeoisie to its knees. If the workers are still slaves, then this is because we have still not stripped off the legacy of rotten ideology from our ranks. When the working class becomes intellectually emancipated, then there is no force in the world which would dare to fight against it. (119)

The point Zinoviev is making is for the broad unity of the working class, but only on the basis of a shared commitment to the working class taking power. That was the role of the Twenty-one Conditions that Zinoviev defended in Halle. He illustrates the point saying, “If you have an army of 800 people, 200 of whom are useless and lazy, it’s better to have a disciplined army of only 600.” Perhaps this is problematic in the context of today’s left, but, certainly, it made sense at the time.

SL: What came out of the Halle Congress? To what extent did Zinoviev, the Bolsheviks, and their comrades in Germany, achieve what they set out to do?

BL: The work that Zinoviev and the left USPD put in paid off. Zinoviev does express some reservation at the end of his speech. He says that a split has been achieved, that a rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of workers has been realized within a United Communist Party (VKPD), but there is still a long way to go to win the majority of the working class.

If we want to talk of ghosts that haunt the German workers’ movement, right from 1918 onwards, it is that fundamental lesson: Revolution can only be made on the basis of a conscious majority. Despite the wonderful achievement of Halle, with some 375,000-400,000 people united around the VKPD, following the “March Action” of 1921, the party was almost in ruins. The action was an application of Comintern’s new “theory of the offensive” developed by, among others, Béla Kun and Zinoviev himself. The KPD called a general strike and, following a small local uprising led by the anarchist-influenced Max Hölz, called on the whole of the German working class to arm itself in support of this uprising. They misjudged the mood of the masses and the uprising remained confined to a minority movement in a single part of Germany. When the masses failed to heed the call, the party even used artificial means to incite mass sentiment. When workers refused to strike in the Krupp works for example, unemployed workers sympathetic to the KPD were sent in to physically drive them out. Several hundred workers were killed in the ensuing repression and the KPD lost about half of its membership. Whatever good intentions and hopes lay behind the March Action, it was one of the main factors behind the marginalization of the Communists and the failure of the German working class movement more generally. Some of Zinoviev’s rhetoric at Halle about “going on the offensive” can certainly be seen as foreshadowing such actions.

There is a kind of paradox here. On the one hand, the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, and the Third International brought together revolutionary forces into a single organization, instigating and cementing its unity. But given the overriding needs of the Russian Resolution to expand in the face of its enormous problems, an unnecessary attempt to seize power was pushed through. It was not challenged by the German leadership and this led to disaster. Zinoviev must bear some responsibility for this. The positive and enduring lesson to be drawn from Halle, what must be separated from the experience of March 1921 (because they are distinct), is the coming into being of a mass communist force as part of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the October Revolution.

SL: You make some provocative comments in the book concerning the current state of the study of history as well as the current state of intellectualism, more broadly. Why is it important for us on the Left to be concerned with our history? Why can’t we simply let the dead bury the dead? Why can’t we just set aside these endless and inevitably controversial discussions about the past? Why is the Left driven back to a reconsideration of its past over and over again? What role does research play?

BL: One thing Bertell Ollman said about the book, is that while the subject may seem esoteric, the arguments on both sides have proved relevant to every debate on the Left since. Of course, many of the problems discussed at Halle had already been discussed before, under different conditions.

We do have a very rich tradition, not just in terms of the workers’ movement, but in history more generally, which we can draw upon, learn from, and, hopefully, build on. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true that those who do not study the errors of history are condemned to repeat them. That is the first thing to be said.

Marxism’s strength is that it is profoundly historical. It does not allow itself to be exhausted by the existing parameters of society. But, for Marxism, the content and dynamics of history are both susceptible to human knowledge and subject to human practice. As such Marxism attempts to locate our position within human history more generally. So hindsight is extremely important. But—that said—history, for all its treasures and riches, is also open to manifold interpretation. This is a real problem. I think some of the ways in which the Left understands its own history at the moment, given the defeats it has been through, is quite problematic.

To this day Marxist historical research is tainted by Stalinism and what I call the “Cold Warrior consensus.” There was a certain overlap between historians funded by the Kremlin and those funded by the Hoover Institute. This is seen rather clearly in the recent Lenin debate.[6] It is no exaggeration to say that my friend and co-author Lars T.Lih is breaking up the terms of this consensus.

One of the problems we have is that so many documents, records, and articles remain either untranslated, or have been subjected to Soviet doctoring. So while we can all read Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, and Stalin in English, we often cannot read who they are arguing against and why. We do not get the whole picture.

The result, fully in line with the “cult of Lenin,” is one that sees Bolshevism as the product of “big men” who concoct and deliver the revolutionary message from on high. But this obscures Bolshevism as a mass political phenomenon that trained inspiring leaders because it has an inspiring project and a robust, healthy democratic culture. Read, for example, the recent Historical Materialism anthology on permanent revolution to see just what made those like Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc., “great”—the high level of debate and polemic that unfolded in the International.[7]

That is the importance of publishing Martov alongside Zinoviev. We want to let the arguments speak for themselves. For me, simply saying “I’m with Lenin against Kautsky” or “I’m with Luxemburg against whomever,” is insufficient historically. It does not allow us to appropriate the riches of history. In many ways it is a trap.

SL: In some ways, it is history that divides the Left more than anything else. The landscape of current groups and sectarian organizations is the product of an endlessly contentious history. At one point in your introduction, you say that you hope the book will “stimulate discussion in reviews and left meetings, on internet forums, etc.” (32). Can you talk about the kinds of discussions that need to take place on the Left today? Can you reflect on working through the history of the Left today and the relationship of research to that problem?

BL: There are now several reviews of the book available to read,[8] and several more are planned. That is excellent, and at some point I hope to write a response to some of the points that have been raised.

On history, I agree that it is divisive. History should not unite the Left. This is where we reach the limits of history. Unfortunately, a lot of Left groups today are not based primarily on any agreement about today, but on certain historical positions, such as the nature of the Soviet Union, the continuing relevance of Trotsky’s Transitional Program, etc. These to me are dead ends in terms of political unity. Nonetheless, history can inform and enrich our understanding of the world today. That is what its role must be.

Political unity must be based on political ideas and a political program for the here and now. That does not mean that we forget and ignore or even downplay real historical divisions and different interpretations of key events. We live in history, and to move forward we have to look back.

The Left is divided because it is based on a very narrow view of all the bad things of the Third International, like the banning of factions, as opposed to the good lessons to be drawn, like the need for open discussion, the need for democracy, the need for ideas to unite around. At Halle, Zinoviev spoke for four and a half hours, Rudolf Hilferding for three, and Martov for an least an hour. The unity achieved was not just thrown together. It was the product of rigorous discussion and polemics around the fundamentals of Marxist political strategy. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

[1]. I have translated the first three parts of this seven part series. The whole series will soon be published in a book. The three parts can be accessed online at: <>; <> and <>

[2]. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “1872 Preface to the Communist Manifesto,” available at <>

[3]. Mike Macnair, “Representation, not Referendums,” available online at: <>

[4]. For an excellent discussion of the tension between the unions and the SPD, see Daniel F. Gaido, “Archive Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy,” Historical Materialism 16.3: 115-136. It is also worth noting that the understanding of the democratic republic as the “form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” did not actually find expression in the party’s Erfurt programme. This was the main point raised in Friedrich Engels’s 1891 “Critique of the Erfurt Programme.”

[5]. My translation and introduction to this text can be read at <> and <> respectively.

[6]. A collection of links in the recent debate on Phan Binh’s critique of Tony Cliff on Lenin, can be found here: <>. An expanded version of a talk delivered by Ben Lewis on this debate is available at: <>. A transcript of the complete discussion of this debate in which Lewis participated at the 2012 Platypus International Convention is forthcoming in the Platypus Review.

[7]. Daniel F.Gaido and Richard B. Day, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

[8]. E.Haberkern, Solidarity, <>; Socialist Standard  <>; and Francis King, Twentieth Century Communism, <>.

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 44 | March 2012


Last summer, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Kevin Anderson, author of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism (1995) and Marx at the Margins (2010). The interview was broadcast on August 2, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: Broadly describe your aims and ambitions in writing Marx at the Margins.

Kevin Anderson: One aim was that, in the past couple of decades - really the past three decades since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, there have been a number of critiques of Marx that centered on charges of Eurocentrism, ethnocentricsm, and so forth. I wanted to respond to those, but also to look at Marx anew in light of them. Moreover, while there are various works on Marx and European nationalisms, on India and China, and the late writings on Russia, no one had covered the whole of these, including Marx’s writing on the Civil War in the United States, which deal directly with ethnicity. So my second aim as to address them together in a single study with the other, more well-known writings. This also required taking account of newly surfaced writings of Marx slated to appear in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe.

SL: Regarding the Eurocentrism charge, it is raised not only to criticize Marx, but also to reject the Enlightenment tradition in which all critical theory finds its roots. Yet, rather than dismissing the charge as an expression of third world nationalism, your book takes it seriously—arguing that indeed Marx and Engels are not wholly immune from criticism on these grounds. You point to the “unilinearity” of their early writings, above all the Communist Manifesto and the New York Tribune writings of the early 1850s. But is the category of “the West” really relevant for Marx or for the radical Enlightenment out of which he emerges?

KA: Certainly there are places where that is the case. In some of the 1853 writings on India, for instance, Marx speaks of England as a superior civilization, which by virtue of its higher economic form is going to revolutionize India. Also, as late as the preface to Capital, Marx says that more developed countries show the less developed the image of their own future. These examples suggest almost, if one wanted to think of it in terms of a railroad train, that the Western European countries and North America are kind of in the front couple cars of the train and that Asia and the so-called “third world” are in the rear being pulled forward into modernity.

SL: So that all countries would in a sense recapitulate the historical trajectory of those at the head of the train.

KA: Right! Of course, stated so simplisticly, no one supports such a view. No one would say that India is going to become an exact copy of England. But of the extent that one would say that a country like Britain represents the future of humanity, one is adopting a Eurocentric model. Of course, there are also problems with the critique of Eurocentrism, which is often very critical of the social structures and social institutions of modern Western societies and far less so of the social structures and institutions of the non-West. Marx in examining “non-Western” societies is always critical. And as his thought matures, these criticisms cease to rely upon a Eurocentric unilinearity and move toward a more multilinear perspective. However, Marx is no primitivist anarchist interested in returning to a clan-based, low-tech society. Nor does he idealize the social formations in places like India, with their caste and other hierarchies, their subordination of women, etc. He does not sugar-coat any of that. Nonetheless, towards the end of his life, there is evidence that he entertains more of a possibility of societies evolving and revolutionizing themselves more on the basis of indigenous institutions. This is never entirely so, but he gives more consideration to the internally generated institutions of these societies.

SL: It seems to me that when Marx says England represents a higher civilization, he is not really talking about the "Englishness" of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in a way that the past can only be said to be by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the beating down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.

KA: Well of course there is some truth in that, but as I also say in the book, the language sometimes verges on what today we would consider ethnocentric—the descriptions of India as an unchanging, unresisting society that has no history except that which is imposed on it by its foreign conquerors, and so on. There are some problems there. Another example would be an early text in which Engels applauds the U.S. war with Mexico, the conquest of California, and the incorporation into the United States of the Southwest, referring to “the lazy Mexicans” who were unable to develop the region in the way the North Americans are going to do. That kind of language reverses by the 1860s and 1870s. You can see a real turn there. Also in writings by Engels, but also on occasion by Marx, there is the claim that the Czech and the Serb peoples (to name only a few) are barbaric, so it is good that in some areas they are dominated by the Germans, who represent a higher civilization. These nations are destined to disappear, and this is a good thing. Again, there are exceptions to this even in the early writings. And whenever they are actually in contact with real historical movements of resistance that are at all progressive, they change their tune fairly quickly. The clearest example of this is Ireland. Nothing in their writings suggests any sympathy for any “progress” that Britain is bringing to Ireland. Engels especially was intimately involved with Ireland as early as his 1845 work The Conditions of the Working Class in England. There Engels devotes a lot of attention to the Irish sub-proletariat in Manchester and to its special oppression. Marx too supports the Irish national movement, though at first his support is not for independence but for greater rights within the empire.

SL: Marx and Engels seem to me to inherit a situation from an earlier period that is utterly unfamiliar to us. They lived in a time before the whole world was bourgeois, and it seems to me that part of the struggle of not just Marx and Engels but also of Hegel, Kant, Adam Smith, and Rousseau, is a struggle to critically apprehend the specificity of modernity, one that can be apprehended both temporally and ethno-geographically. This to me is what lies at the core of the early modern debate between the ancients and the moderns—major European intellectuals of freedom and emancipation are confronted with the fact that their society is expanding and that no other society seems genuinely capable of resisting it. Hegel thus says that the North American Indians fall at the mere breath of Europe, echoing Rousseau’s comments about the confrontation of civilization with the natural man. Similarly, Adam Smith was duly impressed by the fact that a small number of Englishmen in the East India Company could in his lifetime conquer significant territories in the ancient and fabled land of India. In this sense, then, there’s the question of the Eurocentrism of their experience. They had to address a question we don’t. That question is: What if the highest potentials of modern society are brought forward before globalization has done its work? What if there is a successful socialist revolution in Europe and North America before capitalism has spread to the rest of the world?

KA: One of Marx and Engels's great worries is this - What if radical communism or radical democracy, as they sometimes call it, should overtake this small sliver of the modernized, capitalist world only to be smothered very quickly by the rest of the world? He is particularly worried about the power of Russia. We look back and we see England as the predominant power in Marx’s time. But in political terms, Russia was the second most important power in Europe. Do not forget that the 1848 revolutions were defeated in substantial part because Russia was able to send 400,000 troops into the Austro-Hungarian Empire to aid the old regime. So Marx and Engels certainly are concerned with the fact that the modern workers’ movement has emerged only in a small corner of the world. What if it should remain isolated? So on the one hand, they are happy about the spread of modernity, capitalism, and even to a certain extent colonialism, throughout the world, at least in their early writings. On the other hand, as they develop, as Marx moves in the 1850s towards the completion of the Grundrisse and Capital, the critique of capitalism becomes more intense, sharper, deeper, more unremitting. In the Communist Manifesto, we have those lines about the progressivism of capitalism. That language persists only in very muted form in the Grundrisse and Capital. Over the trajectory of Marx’s writing there is less enthusiasm about progress emerging out of capitalist modernity. And remember that Marx had not lived in England yet when he penned the Communist Manifesto. He hadn’t experienced directly a high development of capitalist modernity. Perhaps from the outside he even idealized it. It’s very strange to say this about Marx, but he becomes more critical of capitalism. I have argued that there is a gradual shift, never toward an uncritical third worldism, never toward a primitivist anarchism, but toward harsher critiques of capitalist modernity and a greater appreciation of some of the achievements and contributions of societies at the margins.

SL: Regarding this waning of Marx’s belief in capitalism’s progressive effects the question arises, In what sense did Marx ever think capitalism progressive, in the first place? For instance, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that with the coming of capitalism, “all fixed fast-frozen social relations with their venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away. All that is solid melts into air and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind” Here he seems to be celebrating the fact of capitalism’s having swept the past away and given rise to the possibility of its own self-overcoming, the possibility of mankind’s confrontation with our circumstances with, as he puts it, sober senses. Capitalism in this sense only makes possible the conclusion of pre-history through deliberate action to achieve a post-capitalist society. In this sense, when Marx terms capitalism “civilization,” it can be viewed as having a doubled charge as both the overcoming and the perfection of the past. Do you think that Marx’s attitude about that ever changes?

KA: Even in the Communist Manifesto, where his praise is at the highest, in those paragraphs you were quoting, there is the phrase, “the icy waters of individual calculation,” which I don’t think he means as a compliment to capitalism and its culture.

SL: No? Don’t we sometimes splash cold water on our faces in order to wake ourselves up?

KA: The point I am trying to make is that even in that language about progressivism, it’s always dialectical. Part of the way the Manifesto is set up is that the first few pages set out this model that the subsequent pages undermine by talking about all the contradictions and oppressions brought about by capital, such as making the worker a mere instrument or machine, the recessions and depressions that capitalism creates, that fact that the capitalist class is unfit to rule because it can’t guarantee to the subordinate population, the proletariat, even the minimal level of existence, etc. As you were saying, there is the very clear implication that you have to go through this process. But in the later writings, that is less clear. The most dramatic example is the late writings on Russia, where the Russian villages are still overwhelmingly rural but are starting to be encroached upon by capitalist property relations and capitalist banking. You can see on the horizon the glimmers of what was to become the beginning of the industrialization of Russia in the 1890s, which Marx did not live to see. Still Marx does suggest that if the villages resist the encroachment of capitalism, this might be a good thing. He talks about the communal structure of the Russian villages and the collectivist social forms they take, even more so than in the medieval European village, let alone modern capitalist social relations. He sees in this a possible building block for a modern communism. And there was a revolutionary movement there at the time trying to do exactly that. In dialogue with that Russian revolutionary movement, Marx is wondering whether it might not be able to link up with the proletarian revolutions of the West he is anticipating. So not everyone has to necessarily go through this painful, uprooting process of the old social relations as happens with the industrial revolution. This has wider implications. And there are other examples one can point to in the later writings, the writings from 1881 and 1882 just before his death.

SL: In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel says,

Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simply truthful combination of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities and the finest examples of private virtue forms a picture of the most fearful aspect and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counterbalanced by no consolatory result. We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defense or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise, that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us into the more agreeable environment of our private individual life- the present formed by our aims and interests. In short, we retreat into selfishness that stands on the quiet shore and thus enjoys the safety of the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.” But even regarding history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of people, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized, the question involuntarily arises: To what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered? From this point, the investigation [of History] proceeds...[1]

It seems to me that Marx inherits this very profoundly, for instance, in the statement,“that all hitherto existing history has been the history of class struggle.” But it also seems to me that Marx’s theory of capital reconfigures that concern somewhat. In particular, it raises not only the question of the suffering of all of world history, which, for some at least, in one corner of the world, involved the suffering industrial capitalism's emergence, but also what Hegel says—that, in some unconsoling and inconsolable way, this is just a historical fact, albeit a deeply melancholy one. In the face of which Marx asks, What about when this suffering is no longer necessary? What about the post-1848 world? That is, in some ways it is the failure of the Revolution of 1848, the failure of the working class and indeed humanity to rise to the historical tasks of industrial society that is the most deeply melancholy fact (and the most fundamental object of critique) for Marx. It might be in that light that we’d look at his descriptions of the barbarities committed in India, China or elsewhere—i.e., that these are unnecessary. They are not History, in Hegel’s sense.

KA: Marx is a child of Hegel in that respect. On the language about fatality, I would say that Hegel is also the philosopher of the human subject. He is interested in the quest for freedom, for self-determination. This operates within a larger framework that adds up to a historical progression, as Hegel sees it. But, of course, even with Hegel progress is never one sided. He has room for retrogression within his concept of historical development. For example, he regards the entire European medieval period as one of retrogression. So neither Hegel nor Marx are the uncritical progressivists they are often portrayed as being.

But there are some differences with Hegel. Some of Marx’s descriptions of the Indian village and Indian civilization as backward, unchanging, unresisting, and passive, as not really having a history, are practically copied from Hegel’s Philosophy of History. But what I think held Marx back from being fully Hegelian, although that is certainly his major intellectual influence, is, as everyone points out, that Marx is a more empirical thinker. Marx is interested in looking at historical and social phenomena more closely than Hegel, although Hegel did do quite a bit of that too. Also, Marx is a humanist. That is the big difference. There is an implicit humanism in some of Hegel’s writings on the human subject, but in Marx’s 1844 critique of Hegel, he zeroes in on the abstraction of Hegel’s philosophizing where the real breathing human being, the corporeal, bodily being, is not really present or is insufficiently present in Hegel’s thinking. Marx is more reluctant than Hegel to think in terms of fatal laws of history, especially by the end of his life. In a response to Nikolai Mikhailovsky, a Russian who was trying to defend Marx by saying that he had a general theory of history, Marx replied that he did not have a concept of historical development that is inevitably or fatally imposed on all peoples. He is a little less global, as a thinker, in that sense, than Hegel, a little less totalizing, although it is a real caricature to paint Hegel as a thinker of totality without room for particularity. Because Hegel spent a lot of time attacking what he called the “abstract universal.”

SL: It seems to me that Marx is deeply beholden to Hegel on the question of the project of the self-conscious constitution of history. Of course, that project is radically reconfigured by Marx through his understanding of commodity fetishism and what consciousness means in the struggle to realize and overcome civil society in the age of capital. Like Hegel, the question is one of humanity’s becoming self-conscious. It is not just a question of fatality, but of reason’s cunning. In the modern world, as Hegel says, “everyone is free.” There is the question of the free constitution of history that Marx inherits. What you’re calling Marx’s pessimism or his increasingly harsh and unremitting critique of capital for me turns on the question of struggling with a social form whose potential for emancipation is bound up with its seeming recalcitrance to that project. Of course, post-1848 Marx thinks that the new tasks of the revolution have been announced yet humanity is not taking them up. The way I read the writings on the barbarity of British suppression of the Indian Mutiny is that Marx is arguing that, to the extent that modern society falls below the threshold of its own possibility, it renounces its title to supersede feudalism. It is not really a question of support for the Indian Mutiny, but of the melancholy recognition of a kind of civilized barbarism. But, once again, there are strong echoes here of Adam Smith’s earlier critique of the East India Company, to name only the most obvious instance.

KA: There is a lot packed into your comment. In the famous letter to Engels of 1858 where Marx talks about having reread Hegel’s Logic as he is reconstructing some of the categories that were to become the Gundrisse and later Capital, he says that the Logic was a great help to him in working through the economic categories. That’s the same letter where he says that the Indians are now “our best allies.” So, I do take that as support for the Indian Sepoy Uprising of 1857. The question is, What does support mean? It does not mean that he is supporting the political aims of the uprising, which, to the extent that they were coordinated, called for the restoration of the Mogul Empire. Certainly he doesn’t support that. My take on it is that it is very different.


Scene from the Indian Mutiny of 1857, depicted in a steel engraving from the 1860s. Marx addressed the Mutiny in a series of articles for the New York Daily Tribune.

In regard to Ireland, for instance, Marx always supports the Irish national movement, but the degree to which he is critical of it has to do with the social content of the movement and its leadership. In the 1840s, it was led by pro-landlord groups close to the Catholic Church. Marx and Engels are scathing of these tendencies. By the 1860s, there is the Fenian movement, which is more peasant based, less tied to the Church, and against property holdings not only of the British but also of the so-called Irish landowner classes. Similarly, the Indian movement did not have a socially progressive agenda in the Revolt of 1857. So Marx supports it, but not with the fulsomeness with which he supports the movement in Ireland later on. Marx is a supporter of national self-determination, but not as an abstract universal. The most glaring example of how he doesn’t support all claims to national self-determination is the southern U.S. Confederacy. He does not support their right to national self-determination because the political and social basis on which that was constructed was the defense of slavery.

SL: Let me ask you about the discussion in the book about Marx’s idea of modes of production. You specify what you mean by the “unilinear” model which Marx is breaking with by noting that this took the form of a purportedly universal philosophy of history, one that “focused on Western development from early stateless clan societies to the ancient Greco-Roman class societies based on slave labor to the feudalism of the Middle Ages and on to bourgeois society and its successor, socialism."[2] As you point out, all pre-capitalist societies, for all of their empirical variety share, for Marx, the crucial theoretical aspect of being pre-capitalist. As you put it at one point, “the purpose of their labor was ‘not the creation of value.’”[3] So, it seems there is a tension between making a claim about all of human history and making a claim about the specificity of capital. We would not want to let go of that tension, would we?

KA: I am not sure to the extent to which Marx saw the Asiatic mode of production as a core concept grounding his discussions of India, China, etc. I have not really thought that through, but certainly the Asiatic mode of production is not something on which he expended a lot of intellectual effort. There is the long section in the Grundrisse on pre-capitalist modes of production that talks about the Greco-Roman mode of production and the ancient Asiatic mode of production. There he is really talking about India, as far as I can tell. But beyond that, Marx wrote a lot journalistically about India, and the phrase “Asiatic mode of production” does not, to my knowledge, occur in those writings. I also used to think that there must have been a long essay somewhere by Marx describing the feudal mode of production. But there isn’t. It’s just a few scattered comments here and there, as far as I can tell. Marx is not Max Weber. Weber was a scholar who spent perhaps most of his intellectual effort on trying to figure out the uniqueness of modern Western capitalism vis-à-vis earlier social forms. He wrote voluminously on China, India, ancient Judaism, ancient Greece and Rome, and the European Middle Ages. With Marx, the concerns are very different. He does look at these kinds of issues sometimes, but he always does so with contemporary concerns in mind, not only about the structure of capitalism, but also to figure out the problems of resistance to and revolution against capital. Thus, Marx’s interest at the end of his life in the Russian and Indian villages develops because he thinks that these were possible sites of resistance to capital that could become allies of the Western proletariat. To the extent that he is concerned with the non-West or the non-core capitalist countries like Ireland in his own time, it is because of their relationship to the problematic of capital and labor inside the core countries. Sometimes he thinks these relationships can reverse themselves. Accordingly, in the late 1860s, Marx feels that an Irish revolution could become the lever that might spark proletarian uprising inside Britain. Similarly, he argues that the Russian communal village could be the starting point for a global communist development if it could link up with the proletariat in the West. These are not isolated questions for Marx. Certainly he never addresses Ireland, India, Russia or anyplace else for the sake of elaborating a philosophy of history. There may be a very interesting philosophy of history there, but that would have to be teased out.

SL: To return to a point I made earlier, my mistrust of the preoccupation with Eurocentrism is that it occludes the fact that revolution was, according to Marx, possible in his own time. This raised the question of how the transition to post-capitalist society would take place globally. For many who throw around the category of “Eurocentrism,” revolution to them was no more possible then than it is now, and they’re not interested in either case.

KA: For most academic thinking, even left-wing academic thinking, revolution is probably not possible. Even a school of thinking for which I have great respect, the Frankfurt School, devoted most of its energy to figuring out why the German working class, and later on the modern American working class in America, were not even really oppositional. In Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man this is a major theme. This goes with the territory of academic radicalism. But Marx was not an academic, and Capital was not written for an academic audience. |P

[1]. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History. The quoted passage appears in part III, “Philosophic History,” section 24. The text is available online at: <>

[2]. Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 155–156.

[3]. Grundrisse quoted in Ibid., 156.

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 43 | February 2012


Last summer, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Clyde Young, a veteran member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The interview was broadcast on June 31, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. A shorter version of this interview ran in our broadsheet edition of Platypus Review 43.

Spencer Leonard: Everyone hears a lot about the 1960s, the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as the Students for a Democratic Society, the worldwide political upheavals of 1968, and the new social movements that gained strength in the late 1960s and 70s. But there is a sort of embarrassed silence when it comes to the question of the New Left’s turn towards Marxism in the 1970s, one example of which is your party, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Tell us about your experience of the 1970s and that of your party, and how you understand both today.

Clyde Young: I was a prisoner for most of the late 1960s. When I went in, I wasn’t political, much less a radical. I was convicted of robbery and was sentenced to 20 years. Prison at that time was hell, though today it is even worse. While in prison, I was provoked by what was going on in the world outside, by the demonstration against the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, by the murder of the students at Kent State and Jackson State, and the many other events of those times. By the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party (BPP) had emerged on the scene; the BPP put revolution on the map in a way that it hadn’t been before. They turned me on to the Red Book and Mao. It was around then that I began to read Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Revolution was surging throughout the third world, and the Cultural Revolution in China was having a profound impact across the globe. It was in this context that I became a revolutionary and a communist, while serving time in prison. I could not then closely follow the debates taking place in the early years of the anti-revisionist communist movement, but I knew they were happening. I knew of the effort to build a new communist party, sharing the view held by many that the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had ceased to be revolutionary, if in fact it ever was.

In the anti-revisionist communist movement we were setting out like peasants, going off to war, and forging weapons from the tools we had at hand. We picked up Marxism and tried to apply it to the conditions that we found ourselves in. This is what the Revolutionary Union (RU) did, like many other organizations at that time. But, certainly, the 1960s were themselves a very profound upsurge, one that Bob Avakian and our party has repeatedly gone back to, to try to analyze whether or not a revolutionary situation could have developed in the 1960s. The conclusion is that a revolutionary situation could have developed, and if certain things had come together, and if a party had been formed at that time, then it is possible that if a revolutionary situation had emerged, a revolution could have been made.

There was a very powerful movement at that time, driven forward by the national question. There were profound changes taking place in this country and throughout the world, with people in this country, black people, being uprooted from the South and going to the North, like my family and millions of others after World War II. This was a tremendous transformation. There was a push off of the land with the mechanization of agriculture and a strong pull into the cities. Of course, there was not a one-to-one relationship between those changes and what subsequently happened. But there did develop a revolutionary struggle in this country, the engine of which was the struggle of black people, and this was in unity with national liberation struggles throughout the world.

This is the context in which the RU and many others took up revolution and communism. At the time, millions of people were sympathetic to revolution. The RU, the predecessor of the RCP, did a tremendous amount of theoretical work. A lot of questions needed sorting out. There was a need for a deeper understanding of the reversal of the revolution in the Soviet Union. What was the path to liberation for black people, Puerto Ricans and other oppressed people in this country? These were not just academic issues.

SL: Addressing the revolutionary potential at the time of its formation, and how we think about that potential today, in the autumn of 1981, the chairman of the RCP, Bob Avakian, wrote in "Conquer the World": “One of the things about which there is a great deal of confusion and therefore is a cause of demoralization to many revolutionaries—more than is objectively necessary—is the question of why the '60s movement receded into an ebb in the '70s, speaking in broad terms, and why and how the upsurge that characterized the '60s generally in the world and particularly in the "Third World" turned into its opposite not just in particular countries, but in many aspects internationally.”[1] Avakian then adds that it is important, indeed crucial, to make a “scientific summation of that [experience].” In this spirit, then, how does the RCP view the decade that gave it birth? How best to think about what now seems like the decline of political possibility in the 1970s, given the turn to Marxism, to the party question, and to more serious thinking, generally? What did it mean to organize and channel discontent in a revolutionary direction in such circumstances?

CY: It became very clear at a certain point that the movement was  ebbing. When we talk about the 1960s, we are talking about the late 1960s into the early 1970s, when it reached its high point. As things moved further into the 1970s, particularly by 1973 or 1974, contradictions on a world level began to shift and change. What began to come to the fore was the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which in the 1980s took a very pronounced shape as things headed towards, as we analyzed, a third world war. This change began, as I have said, probably as early as 1973 and 1974. And there was a recognition on the part of the RU that if anything of importance was going to come out of that period, it was very important to form a vanguard organization, a vanguard party.

When I speak of a vanguard party, it is a matter of taking responsibility for the movement as a whole, it’s not an ego thing or anything of that sort. A hallmark of the RCP (and the RU before it) has been to always proceed from the question: “How do you make revolution in a country like this one as part of the world wide revolutionary struggle?” That has been our point of reference from the beginning. Seeking out ways and means, and looking for the openings in which a revolution could be made and, at the same time, another hallmark of our organization has been to approach every question scientifically. So, again, what was going on at the beginning of 1970s—and we made a lot of analysis of this in "Conquer the World" and in America in Decline[2]—was that the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed nations was receding as the main factor in the world. And what was emerging in the mid-1970s was a world characterized by contention between the Soviet social-imperialists and the U.S.; this contradiction began to define the world situation much more than the contradiction between imperialism and oppressed nations.

SL: Tell me a bit about the significance of forming a party in those years. What motivated the constitution of a vanguard party at that time and what was hoped it might allow for? What kind of action, what kind of consciousness did it facilitate?

CY: The revolutionary forces emerging out of the 1960s had developed a deep understanding of Marxism. As I said earlier, in the beginning, we were like peasants marching off to war, taking up the tools that we had at hand. There were some things that could be drawn from the international communist movement, but the CPUSA had become a revisionist party; it had changed colors in essence from red to white. So there was a certain amount of re-learning to be done, a clarification of issues in terms of what was a revolutionary line and what was not. This was not an abstract process, but turned on vitally important questions, like the emancipation of black people. How do black people get free, what is the correct analysis of their condition. If there is to be a revolution, if you are serious about that, there needs to be a vanguard party. We learned that from Lenin and from Lenin’s  What is to be Done? We knew that we needed not just a party of average workers, but a party of professional revolutionaries. And as the movement ebbed in the 1970s there was a recognition that if the party was not formed, a lot of what came out of the 1960s might be lost. I think this was the motivation behind the RU reaching out to various new communist forces, to try to pull them into a much more organized expression. In 1974, in particular, Bob Avakian and the RU led a  nation-wide, party-building tour uniting Marxist-Leninist and Maoist forces into a single vanguard party.

SL: One of the buzz phrases that we have very much as a legacy of the 1960s is “the movement.” That word really does not convey any distinct form of organization, and certainly not a “party.” How does “party” as opposed to “movement” allow for the kind of activity you hoped for?

CY: Well, if I understand your question, you cannot just go about the business of forming a party cut off from everything else going on in the world, though some people attempted to do that. Some people simply cut themselves off from the movement to engage in reading and study, and then tried to form a party. But such things have to be done in close unity with one another. There were major things going on in the world at that time that could not be ignored. If you look at the RU as it was coming into being, there was work it was doing in relationship to the strike in Richmond, California; May Day; and International Women’s Day. And, of course, there was actually a movement where people were against the war, against the oppression of black people. Youth were in the streets. There was a movement of youth in the suburbs turning against their parents. Taken together this was a very combustible mix. Today, the party is building a movement for revolution and that movement must have leadership, the leadership of a vanguard party.

SL: By the 1970s radicals were getting more serious about what it meant to really transform society from within. That meant an orientation towards the people who are at the heart of the reproduction of this society, the working class. How did this reorientation to the working class manifest itself in the precursor to the RCP and then in the RCP in the 1970s? Did people in the RU and later in the RCP get factory jobs and join unions?

CY: Again, I think it is important to reassert what I said earlier: The focus was to make a revolution, and people felt that if you were going to make a revolution, then you had to have a base among the working class. And, in fact, what we had inherited from the international communist movement was that basically you needed to have a base in large industry, among industrialized, unionized workers. So, we went among that section of the people, in auto, steel, electronics, etc. But the problem is that when you get into that situation, do you maintain your revolutionary orientation?  Do you maintain the orientation that what you are about is actually making revolution and taking revolution, socialism, and communism to the working class? Or is it about the shop floor issues that you deteriorate into? What becomes the central focus is an economist view of whatever is on the workers’ minds.

But, yes, there was a movement among most of the organizations in the anti-revisionist communist movement to go to the working class. When I came into the RCP, people were working in large scale industry, in steel and auto plants, and in other kinds of factories. We thought that, if you were going to make a revolution, you had to have a base among that section of the people as the backbone of the revolution. But, over time, there was a recognition of a couple of things. For one, large sections of the working class were bourgeoisified. We came to recognize, through returning to Lenin’s analysis, that, with the development of imperialism, one had to go lower and deeper down to the real proletariat. After the split in our party with what we called “the Mensheviks,” who were seeking to submerge it in the working class, cutting the revolutionary heart out of the Party, we recognized that the focus on the large scale industrial working class was not correct. Again, we had to go down lower and deeper to what Lenin referred to as “the real proletariat.”

SL: So these that you refer to as Mensheviks who split from the party were people who are high up in union bureaucracy today? These are people who were deeply engaged in trade union work?

CY:  In 1977, after the reversal of the revolution in China, there emerged a struggle in the party which mainly centered on whether or not the revolution in China had indeed been reversed after Mao’s death in 1976. How to sum up what had happened in China was the central focus of a struggle that took place within our party. But a secondary aspect of that struggle was over trade unionism and workerism and, ultimately, what we referred to as “economism,” where you just sort of submerge yourself in the day-to-day needs and struggles of the working class. In 1976, Bob Avakian put out a piece called “Revolutionary Work in a Non-revolutionary Situation.” This was a speech to the central committee in which he expressed his recognition that the upsurge of the 1960s had ebbed and we would have to persevere in a situation in which a revolutionary situation was not on the horizon.

One cannot predict with certainty when a revolutionary situation will arise; this is why a party needs to be preparing actively for the emergence of a revolutionary situation. If a party does not prepare in this way, a revolutionary opportunity can be thrown away. This is a profound lesson that we learned from Lenin.

SL: The death of Mao and the jailing of the Gang of Four provoked widespread demoralization in the RCP and the wider New Communist Movement. This compounded the disorientation caused by events in Angola some years before. At the same time, the mid-1970s were a time of significant labor militancy, especially as compared to now. There existed then much higher rates of unionization, so that workers were in a stronger position to face the kind of assaults and austerity impositions that we are now all too familiar with. So how did the RCP’s early party building efforts develop in such a complex environment?

CY: That is a very big question, and I think you captured some things there, when you were saying how do you not throw away the lessons learned from the 1960s. Avakian led the party in recognizing that just basing itself among the large-scale industrial workers was not the way to make a revolution. We had to go lower and deeper. This is a party (and the RU before it) that participated in a lot of different struggles, including among the working class—the miners, struggles in the auto industry, etc. The party did not stand aloof from those struggles; it participated in those struggles and it tried to bring a revolutionary understanding to them. But, at a certain point, after the split with the “Mensheviks,” we set out to apply the understanding that our work needed to be focused on the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat. There was also a recognition, in returning to What is to be Done?, of the role and importance of a communist newspaper in preparing for revolution. The role of the newspaper is to train the masses in a communist understanding of all major events. Lenin put a tremendous stress the importance of the communist press in What is to be Done? We began publishing a national newspaper on a weekly basis in 1979 or 1980. And after the split with the Mensheviks, we launched major revolutionary initiatives: a national speaking tour of Bob Avakian in 1979 and May Day 1980, an effort to put May 1 back on the political landscape in a way that it had not been before. These were part of the initiatives that the party took as part of putting straight-up revolutionary politics on the map.

Since then, we have identified the two mainstays of our work as the newspaper and spreading the contributions and works of Bob Avakian, the qualitative contributions that he has made to communist theory, and spreading those contributions as a crucial part of bringing forward a new wave of communist revolution. Even when you are doing revolutionary work in a non-revolutionary situation, you are not just waiting; that would be a serious mistake, to just be waiting for the emergence of a revolutionary situation. You’re doing everything you can to hasten the development of a revolutionary situation, you’re raising the level of the resistance of the people, and you are engaging in other kinds of work that is actually heightening, as much as possible, the consciousness of the people and their fighting capacity, in anticipation of a revolutionary situation. The imperialist system itself, again and again, creates horrors, whether it is the killing of a 7-year old kid, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, or whether it is the environment. There are all kinds of things that give rise to jolts and crises, but the question is what are you doing, during those crises, and all along the way—in an active way, not just waiting—to actually accelerate the process, to hasten, while awaiting the development of a revolutionary situation. A lot of this is discussed in a new book by Bob Avakian. There is a piece in that book called, “On the Strategy for Revolution,” and that piece discusses the strategy for making revolution in an advanced imperialist country like this one. This understanding did not exist in the 1960s; the development of this strategy by Avakian and the RCP is something that involved painstaking theoretical work, in order to arrive at a deepened understanding of how to make revolution in a country like this one.  I would recommend that book; it’s called Basics: From the Writings and Quotations of Bob Avakian.[3]

SL: In 2008, your party published a manifesto entitled Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage,[4] which states the following on the significance of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in the wake of the death of Chairman Mao: “We should not underestimate this defeat in China, and everything it has brought forth, everything the imperialists have done on that basis, and have built on that. China, and everything it represented for the international proletariat and the world proletarian revolution—to lose that after the Cultural Revolution [in China], after millions and millions of people went through that upheaval, and yes, a significant process of remolding their world outlook—this is something we’re still coming to terms with, both in objective reality and in our own thinking.”[5] Explain the significance of the Chinese Revolution for the RCP and your party’s understanding of what transpired in the 1970s and how that shapes our situation today.

CY: In the 1960s and 1970s, China was a beacon of revolution. This was the period of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), a revolution within the revolution to prevent the restoration of capitalism and to further advance on the socialist road to communism. It was an unprecedented struggle that advanced revolution to the highest point yet in the whole history of the international communist movement. There had been the Paris Commune, and there had been the revolution in the Soviet Union. Learning from those experiences, through the GPCR, Mao led the revolution to the highest pinnacle that has been achieved.

And then in 1976, when Mao died, that revolution was reversed. There’s a lot that we can get into about that, and, in fact, I’d refer people to the document that you referenced, Communism: the Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the RCP. The loss of China was devastating! I came to political life because of the Black Panther Party, and what they did to spread Mao’s Red Book. I studied the Red Book and subsequently read many things by Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and I became a Maoist. And a lot of people in this country, and all over the world, became Maoists in the 1960s, not because somehow this was part of a Third World revolution (though some may have viewed it that way), but because this was a communist revolution in motion. This was a laboratory of communism, a socialist society in transition to communism. This was extraordinarily important. And the reversal of that revolution was a devastating blow.

And the question was, were you going to understand why that happened, or were you just going to turn away from it in one form or another? So it has had a big impact, it has had an impact in lowering sights, it has had an impact in lowering ambitions in terms of what’s possible. Is it possible anymore to make a revolution in the world or in a country like this one? Yes, it is! So the loss of China was devastating and continues to be devastating. And not only that, what has come behind it has been an attack on communism, thirty years of counter-revolution against communism. So this is the atmosphere in which we have been working. But what we are doing is far from being demoralized and defeated. These are some of the things that we fought out in the Cultural Revolution in our party, where some people were not only feeling the effects of the loss of China, but also feeling the ebbing of the movement of the 1960s, and they had given up on revolution, settling into an alternative life style. The Cultural Revolution was a struggle between two fundamentally antagonistic lines: the developing body of work, method, and approach of Bob Avakian in contrast to the “official” line of the party, published in documents and publications on the one hand, and a “revisionist package” on the other, as discussed in Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage.

SL: One of the things that struck me in "Conquer the World" was Avakian’s claim that both Mao’s later views, as well as Lin Biao’s influential 1965 work, “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War,” mistakenly view the prospects for revolution as existing in the Third World. Avakian charges both with underestimating the possibilities for revolution in advanced imperialist countries, and he points toward revisionist tendencies in the Chinese Revolution well before the death of Mao.

He also speaks there about what he takes to be the heightened possibilities for revolution in imperialist countries in the time he is writing, the early 1980s. It seems to me that the RCP has moved away from that view now, away from its earlier assessment of the revolutionary opportunities of the early 1980s, and has instead adopted the view that the 1970s were the end of an entire phase in the history of communism, so that now the first phase of communism is over. How might we think about that sense of opportunity that Avakian expressed in the early 1980s, versus now, where it seems like we have experienced simply a long transition of reaction? Is that something that the RCP views differently today than it did in 1981, the potentials at that time? Or are both true? Were there potentials there in the transition from the late 1970s and early 1980s that somehow passed unrealized, but whose presence we need to recognize to understand that history?

CY: Well, there’s a lot involved in that question. If I could take my time, I’d like to walk through some of it. We feel that revolution is necessary and possible. And not only do we think that revolution is both necessary and possible, but we are actually building a movement for revolution. We are not waiting until a revolutionary situation emerges. We are building a movement for revolution now, and there are different aspects of our work that are focused on hastening, while awaiting, the development of a revolutionary situation. There’s building resistance to the outrages of the system. We have an orientation: “Fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution.” If people don’t fight back against things that are going on right now, they won’t have the ability to fight when it’s time to fight. So they have to be standing up against the outrages that are coming down now. There is far too little of that now. At the same time, there is the question of a newspaper which reaches far beyond what it does now but can actually have the potential to be a scaffolding for the movement for revolution. These are the things we are doing. And we are looking at, and being poised for, a situation that is ripe for revolution. We are no less oriented that way today than we were in the 1980s. But things were actually sharper in a different way back then, in that what was before us was the possibility of an inter-imperialist war, a nuclear war. Our orientation was to make revolution in order to prevent a world war or to take advantage of world war in order to make revolution, which would have been very difficult. And today the situation is what it is, but it can be transformed, and we have the necessity to break out of thirty years of counter-revolution, speaking politically. But we are making every effort to be prepared should a revolutionary situation emerge. Building the party and accumulating forces that will be necessary when such a situation does arise is extremely important now. You need a core of thousands and tens of thousands in order to be able to lead millions. The hallmark of our organization, from the RU all the way up to now, has been that we are about the business of making revolution. We have not given up on that because the conditions changed from the 1960s to the 1970s to the 1980s to now. It is necessary and possible to do what we are setting out to do.

SL: The RCP is the only organization I know of actively grappling with the issue of the continuity and discontinuity in the tradition, going back to Marx and Engels, and beyond them, to the rise of the workers’ movement and the still earlier struggle for human emancipation of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is very difficult for many people to imagine revolutionary emancipation today. No doubt that is related to the incomprehensibility of history.

CY: That is a very good point. This is one of the things that we talk about in terms of the contributions that Avakian has made to communist theory, which need to be promoted right now. People need to know what he has been bringing forward as a source of hope on a scientific basis.[6] His work is both a continuation, and a rupture with, communist theory up to now, with the continuation being the main aspect. If you look at "Conquer the World," Avakian himself has said that "Conquer the World" was an initial epistemological break with certain aspects of weaknesses in the international communist movement. In particular, the question, “Do you go for the truth or not?” Or do you just go for “political truth?” This is a rupture with what has been a tendency in terms of going for political truth and not dealing with the truth of things.[7]

Just to speak to the Lin Biao issues: “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War” was a piece that was written by Lin Biao. There was a certain notion he had that revolution was only possible in “third world” countries. This was not Mao’s point of view.

On the Three Worlds Theory: There were certain tendencies toward that in Mao, but it never became a consolidated theory. There were some tendencies in Mao’s thinking that were connected to ruptures not having been made with some of the mistakes that Stalin had made in terms of forming a united front against fascism in WWII. This was a serious mistake. If you look at what Bob Avakian wrote in “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism”[8], he discusses this at great length, arguing that Mao did not rupture with some of those kinds of notions. In the 1970s, China was beginning to face threats from the Soviet Union—there were a million Soviet troops on the border, it was a real threat—but how was that handled? Some mistakes were made, for example, in terms of the opening to the West, as part of dealing with the threat from the Soviet Union.

SL: The RCP understands the 1970s as a moment of ebb in the revolution, but also, potentially, as a moment of summation of the first century of Marxist revolution. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries within the key Marxist parties of the Second International—the German and Russian Social Democratic parties—there occurred what is known as “the revisionist debate” in which revolutionary Marxists such as Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Lenin debated Bernstein and other reformists who emphasized the achievement possible within the prevailing social order. They argued for ongoing reform to accumulate gains for the working class, a view Bernstein summarized with the phrase, “the movement is everything, the goal [of socialism] is nothing.” Does Avakian have this precedent in mind when he talks about the prevailing revisionism on the Left today? What sort of battle does he think he is fighting after the end of “the first phase of communism”?

CY: That is a very important question. The theoretical battles that you mentioned did not occur in the abstract. They were life and death struggles, and that is why they were fought so fiercely.

I would again direct people’s attention to Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage – A Manifesto from the RCP, USA.  There, the crossroads facing the communist movement at this point in history are bluntly posed: “vanguard of the future, or residue of the past?” These are the stakes in which people take up and grapple with Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism, which is the theoretical framework for the advance to a new stage of communist revolution. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

[1]. Bob Avakian, “Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will,” <>.

[2]. Raymond Lotta, America in Decline: An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide, in the 1980s (Chicago: Banner Press, 1984).

[3]. Bob Avakian, Basics: From the Talks and Writings of Bob Avakian (Chicago: RCP Publications,2011), 103–112.

[4]. Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage: A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (Chicago: RCP Publications, 2009).

[5]. Continuing this statement, Avakian makes a very important point: “If you add to this the whole ‘death of communism’ phenomenon, and the constant barrage of anti-communism and abuse and slander heaped from all directions and in all forms on this GPCR (The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China), on the Chinese Revolution and socialism there, and in fact on all of the experience of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat; if you think about the effect of all that, and you are a materialist and you apply dialectics, it is very difficult to think that we are immune from the effects of all that and that it only influences people outside the Party. Even in our thinking and our souls, if you want to use that term, in our heart of hearts, don’t we have questions about whether we were wrong about all this: Why did we lose? If we were so right, and if what we’re for is so correct, why did it end up this way? I don’t think there are very many comrades who can say they haven’t had those questions agonizing within them, probably more than once. We have an answer to those things, but you have to dig for that answer and you have to keep on digging–and you have to be scientific. You have to go to materialism and dialectics.” (Emphasis added). Fulfilling a great need, this is precisely the kind of digging that Avakian did after the reversal of the revolution in China.

[6]. “This new synthesis, in its many dimensions . . . has put revolution and communism on a more solid scientific foundation. As Avakian himself has emphasized: ‘[I]t is very important not to underestimate the significance and potential positive force of this new synthesis: criticizing and rupturing with significant errors and shortcomings while bringing forward and recasting what has been positive from the historical experience of the international communist movements and the socialist countries that have so far existed; in a real sense reviving—on a new, more advanced basis—the viability and, yes, the desirability of a whole new and radically different world, and placing this on an ever firmer foundation of materialism and dialectics. . . . So, we should not underestimate the potential of this as a source of hope and of daring on a solid scientific foundation’” (Communism: The Beginning of A New State, p.29).

[7]. “’Class truth’ refers to the view, which has had considerable currency in the international communist movement, that truth—especially in the realm of the social sciences—is not objective, but rather specific and relative to different classes, i.e., the bourgeoisie has its truth and the proletariat has its truth. But what is true is objectively true: It either corresponds to, or does not correspond to, reality in this motion and development. ‘Class truth’ overlaps with the erroneous idea that people of proletarian background have a special purchase on the truth by virtue of their social position. But truth is truth no matter who articulates it; and getting at the truth, for proletarians, as well as for people of other social and class origins, requires the grasp and application of a scientific approach to society and the world.” Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya and K.J.A., “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World,” <>.

[8]. Bob Avakian, “Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism,” <>.