Half-time team talk: Mayday (UK) response on anarchism and Marxism
Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008
For issue #2 (February 2008), Chris Cutrone wrote, in “On anarchism and Marxism: a response to Mayday magazine (UK),” on behalf of Platypus, that the principal difference between anarchism and Marxism lies in the way “history” figures in any present estimations of ideology, conscious political program and organization, at the levels both of the historical specificity of struggles for emancipation beyond the modern society of capital, and in the history of capital itself, of which a Marxian approach considers the history of the Left as an essential and not extrinsic part.
Platypus focuses on redeeming the problematic history of the Marxist Left, “against the grain” (Benjamin) of its more or less contingent or necessary outcomes, in order to discover and provoke conscious recognition of the historically obscured necessities for social-emancipatory political struggle in the present. Political organizations and parties and their programs need to be understood both as forms of action and as forms of memory.
The Platypus critique of anarchism is in its inability to grasp and act upon the specificities of the present as a moment in the history of capital—and what it would take to move beyond and not continue to repeat this history.
Addendum: Platypus recognizes anarchism both historically and at present as symptomatic of the failures of Marxism, as the bad conscience of the history of the Marxist Left, to be overcome only by working through and redeeming this history.
In the following, Trevor Bark writes in further response to Platypus for Mayday.
Platypus is a new group in Chicago that is rethinking the Marxist tradition, and they were quoted in Mayday issue #1. Chris Cutrone, for Platypus, has written a response to the Mayday issue #1 “Introduction: Open letter” in their February 2008 newsletter [The Platypus Review issue #2], raising many important questions, some of which will be addressed now.
Trying to force clear red water between an anarchist and a Marxist approach, Cutrone describes that a “key distinction is the relation of political organisation and historical consciousness.” This historical consciousness is primary for Platypus, and we hope Mayday addressed enough concerns with political practice and memory to be useful. For Mayday experience is a crucial factor, with a concentration on struggles. This is planned to result in praxis, which includes dynamic consciousness, which is grounded in the conditions of our time rather than the past, and has lessons for political organisation. In short, Mayday’s aims are similar to those of Platypus.
We entirely agree that revolutionary organisations should be able to justify themselves, but they are overwhelmingly arrogant and uncritical in the UK. There is little serious discussion of politics, no regular forums, and so on. The serious questions about how political action enables transformative action, “how does political organisation enable transformative, emancipatory, and not foreclosing action? How can the Left ‘live’ and take form not deadly to itself?,” are serious ones for us, even if the UK Left and anarchists ignore them. Specifically the danger of Left organising as a cult is a huge problem in the UK.
A recurring problem is the distinction and the differences between anarchism and the Left; for Mayday, we have dissolved the distinction as an impediment to theoretical and practical endeavours. For us the historical baggage either does not matter or is an impediment to greater unity and better politics; those who insist on hard lines effectively have created a sealed little bubble for themselves. Despite this argument new and interesting articles from both sides continue to appear on 1917 and after. But largely it is a debate for purists and not those looking to develop politics for now and tomorrow. The practices and methodology of Platypus however, are entirely correct for rethinking the Marxist tradition; we wish you well with your project.
We have some toes in the anarchist pool and some in the Labour movement. We are also conscious that a third pool needs to be built, and that is the area of autonomy, but that is already a few decades underway as the New Left already (in the UK at least) has inspired and contributed to the theory of existing autonomists (e.g. Harry Cleaver, University of Texas). Already autonomist practice and theory is very relevant to these discussions, and it is this hybrid, with others perhaps, which Mayday hopes may result in new liberation politics for our time.
One starting point for us has been the ultra voluntarism of anarchism, which demands anarchic responses to virtually all issues, but which is unsustainable because of the resulting arrest rates. That is not to say that confrontation and direct action have been relegated to unimportance for us. They have not; struggles are still our focal concern. This is similar to Platypus and their criticism (vis à vis Nicholas Spencer) of the anarchist tradition.
Platypus’s highlighting of the writing of history as being urgent for emancipatory politics is very worthwhile, and there are others before us who have thought this. In the UK the Communist Party Historians Group — Andrew Morton, Donna Torr, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson et al already stated this in 1956—the year so many people left the Communist Party because of repression in Hungary; we “must become historians of the present too.” These British Marxist Historians are important forerunners of the traditions we would like to emulate, and we wholeheartedly concur with understanding “what changes while remaining the same?” The British Left/Labour movement problem however is at an advanced stage; our Left, the oldest in the world perhaps, has unique characteristics of its advanced fossilization.
Our practice already is with the best parts of this tradition, though we are not in a position to overcome it, yet. We also draw wisdom from Antonio Negri, that “organisation is spontaneity that reflects upon itself,” which is a good description of where we are at. Mayday personnel currently derive from different experiences, gatekeepers of at least three important cycles of struggles, were all participants, and we view the next struggles to be as important as the older ones. We want to have an informed basis for the new struggles to come. They will not be totally new, there will always be some connections with the past, but we do aim, with Lukács, to be “those who can see the furthest.”
Platypus further raises an important issue of “when” was the Left, not only “where” it was or where it is. Indeed, this is an interesting historical note, and theirs is a great point; we cannot better it: “We do not live in some timeless and perpetual present of oppression and struggle against it, but in… ‘the time of now’ (Jetztzeit), a time of particular and fleeting possibilities and the ambiguously obscure history that brought them—us—into existence.” |P