Rethinking the New Left
Osha Neumann, Mark Rudd, Tim Wohlforth, Alan Spector
Platypus Review 30 | December 2010
On November 9, 2010, Platypus hosted the public forum, “Rethinking the New Left,” moderated by Spencer A. Leonard. The panel consisted of Osha Neumann, a former member of the New York anarchist group in the 1960s, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers; Mark Rudd, former member and national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later a member of the Weather Underground; Tim Wohlforth, founder and national secretary of the Young Socialist Alliance in 1959; and Alan Spector, a full-time organizer for SDS for more than five years in the 1960s.
Osha Neumann: First, I wanted to say something about the structure of this event, because I think form gives meaning as much as content. I wrote the organizers of the panel when I found out the lineup: “Goodness gracious, this feels like a blast from the past! No women, no people of color—What could come out of a panel like this?” They wrote me back saying,
We are primarily interested in reflecting on political experience, more than on identity, so we did not make those concerns determinative. As it happens, a black activist and some women were invited to participate, and some will likely participate in the sister panel to this one, on the radical turn in the 1970s. But none could make it for this panel.
This is a very old problem. It makes it easy to universalize our experience, to make a white experience into a universal experience. I know this gets at the contentious issue of identity politics, but I have always felt that you cannot get to the universal if you bypass the particular. You cannot get to a unified movement by doing an end-run around identity.
Now, about the general form of these panels at universities. To hear a bunch of guys talking on, fanning their peacock tails of intellect—in the old days I would have thought this lacked the urgency and connection to action that I found absolutely crucial. My impulse would have been to get up from my seat and shout at this panel, “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” I’m not going to do that now, but I still remain frustrated with theory that has nothing to do with practice. It is a lot safer just to talk things over than it is to go out on the streets and do something. However, I do think that our fixation on the propaganda of the deed also became a problem for the movement.
In the 1960s, we had a movement but not a crisis of capitalism, and now we have a crisis of capitalism, but no movement. Certainly we have no movement adequate to our situation now, a movement capable of turning the current crisis into an opportunity. I believe this is what lies behind the thinking of this panel. It is presented rather neutrally, but I have a feeling that our actions back then are somehow being blamed for the lack of a movement now. It is claimed that it was our fault—our expressive, narcissistic, thrill-seeking, confrontational politics never targeted capitalism, never did the hard work of organizing, and so on. I have this feeling because one of the questions for this panel spoke of the liquidation of the Left, worldwide, during and after the 1960s. At this point, I must rescind my earlier reluctance, stand up, and shout: “That’s bullshit, and you know it!”
First of all, it is wrong to say that we liquidated a pre-existing left. In the 1950s, the Left was moribund. There was nothing to be liquidated. The Old Left had already self-liquidated, or else was liquidated by McCarthyism. Secondly, how can one say that the Left has been liquidated, worldwide? Just look at what is happening in France, in Greece, in Latin America. In some ways the Left is stronger than ever in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Chile, where it has gained power. Even in the U.S. I would not say that the Left has been liquidated, only that it has been dispersed. It has burst open like a seedpod, spreading many different movements. Anyway, the movement was never that unified, even back then.
However, this does not mean that I am opposed to analyzing the shortcomings of the movement in the 1960s. Indeed, I have made my own list of some of the failures back then. We failed to reign in the loosened id when it led us to ignore the warning signs that we were in danger of self-destruction. We failed to marry reason with imagination, and leaven imagination with reason. We assumed a vocabulary and practice derived from other peoples’ struggles, and assumed it would work in our situation. We relied too much on action and organizing. We idolized those who took up the gun and had contempt for any who hesitated or compromised. We swept away the distinction between the personal and the political, without questioning the degree to which we thereby limited our appeal to those who still had to actually live within roles, and who thus valued their privacy. Finally, we failed to find a way to expand and deepen our base while retaining our militancy.
But our mistakes were linked to our strengths, and both were rooted in the fact that we were a movement of outsiders to the system. We did not consist of the working class, those embedded in the system and whose lives were shaped by the necessity of being a part of it. There was no possibility of a general strike, as the workforce continued largely to be satisfied—it functioned and was rewarded. Because it came from the outside, the movement could be total. It rejected all aspects of the self-regimentation and regulation required to be a good worker, citizen, and family member. But this meant that participation was restricted to those who could make a complete break. The problem was that our revolt against reason then took the shape of this preference for action over theory, the demand for immediate gratification, and the thrill of direct action. We were unable, at the same time, to shout “freedom now,” and “freedom not quite yet.”
We thought we were incandescent. It was thrilling to be alive, to feel ourselves as part of a movement of liberation, to dedicate our lives to that movement, to be caught up in the urgency of transformation of ourselves and lives and planet, to take risks, to transgress, to feel a new love, and to feel a new rage. I do not want to romanticize this period, but there was a great deal within the movement that was and remains profound, moving, and true. I do not believe that, had we done it right, somehow everything would have been different. There were historical limitations. The system was too strong. It delivered the goods. The conditions were not ripe for revolution.
As for how things stand now, the most novel aspect of the current situation is the crisis of nature. Human beings are now becoming a problem for the planet. We now fear our species could become endangered. Reflecting on this, I want to end with a quote from Evo Morales, the Bolivian President. He says, “For Bolivians and for indigenous peoples, the idea is to live well… Capitalism to live better pillages resources in an unbridled manner, exploits the children of mother earth…. [It] destroys nature…. [and] causes so much damage to humanity.” He goes on:
We have two paths: either Pachamama, or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives, or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity, and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to capitalism!
When Morales speaks of the need to live well, rather than to live better, I feel the vivifying presence of that utopian dream of a liberated and emancipated reality that, for me, was the best part of the 1960s. Would that there could be a movement that captured that, again.
Mark Rudd: In the 1960s we thought world revolution was imminent. We thought that military defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam and elsewhere could lead to the overthrow of imperialism, and we didn’t just want to stand on the sidelines cheering it on. We wanted to get involved. At Columbia University I learned from the red diaper babies about organizing, and it paid off after three years: We had this big rebellion. But we took that experience and we perverted it. The lesson we mistakenly drew was that audacity and militancy will gain you support. This was, in essence, an application of Che’s foco theory. It is not as though we were just these dumb kids who were impatient. We had a theory, and it was Che’s.
So we went from good organizing to bad organizing, in somthing called Weatherman, which was my faction of SDS. As the last national secretary of SDS, I was involved in the decision to destroy the largest radical student organization, with about 100,000 members, right at the height of the war. Basically, I did the work of the FBI for them, because I mistakenly thought I had a better idea—namely, guerilla warfare.
If there was anything good in the 1960s, it was the development and experience of mass movements, in particular the anti-war movement, and its predecessor, the Civil Rights Movement. What we really need today is for young people to commit to organizing, to growing the movement. The best way to learn how to organize is to study SNCC, in the South. SDS learned from them and used the technique of organizing that was developed by Ella Jo Baker. She organized for the Civil Rights Movement, and she taught the young people in SNCC how to organize. Her method for organizing is rooted in an organizing tradition. Its techniques were passed down from women who had organized rural black churches.
My goal is Social Democracy. I think we need to have a society with a little more compassion and a lot less militarism. We must strive to narrow the gaps and take off the worst edges of capitalism. The best I can think of in the real world is European Social Democracy. That’s our goal. We need to turn the Democratic Party into a party of the people, to make it a party representing the opposite pole from capitalism. We can do this through community organizing. We can build a base among the wretched of this country, the half of the population who do not vote. They are the disenfranchised, the people like those in the Mississippi Delta who had been completely cut off from politics. They are out of it and they have given up hope. We need community organizing to build this movement, to force a realignment of the Democratic Party by developing a mass-based movement within the Democratic Party, as was happening in the lead up to the 2008 elections, with the movement around Obama.
Tim Wohlforth: I entered socialist politics in the 1950s, which gives me a somewhat different way of looking at things. It was a dark world, and there were not many of us young socialists. I was searching for a way out of the polarized world of the Cold War. I felt the U.S. stifled civil liberties at home and supported reactionary governments abroad, like Franco’s Spain. Yet I also rejected the oppressive totalitarian regimes of the so-called “socialist” states.
For this reason I joined the Young Socialists League, led by Mike Harrington and affiliated with Max Shachtman. I went on to become national secretary of the Young Socialists Alliance, affiliated with James Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party. I was a Trotskyist—part of the Old Left to be sure, but a dissident part—and I was young. I could sum up my convictions in three notions, which I now see, retrospectively, as the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I will start with the good. We Trotskyists held that so-called “actually existing socialism” was in fact ruled by a bureaucratic elite, with a poorly functioning command economy, an undemocratic one-party political system, and an all-pervasive secret police. We suspected that these features were characteristic not only of the USSR, but also of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam. We have been proven right in this assessment. However, our vision of the future was based on the past. We projected onto the future our idealized vision of the course history might have taken in the 1930s. Once a new economic crisis developed, we were sure the working class would become radicalized, opening up fresh revolutionary opportunities. There was nothing evil about this vision—it was just wrong. Not only did the apocalypse not take place on schedule, but today, as we suffer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, we find the Left paralyzed and in retreat, while the anger of the people is captured by the extreme right, as seen in something like the Tea Party. That is the bad. As for the ugly: We saw ourselves as a chosen few, professional revolutionaries organized in a disciplined combat party whose program held the key to the victory of the working class. In this sense we remained communists. Since then, this vanguardist notion has led to the splintering of both Trotskyist and Maoist sects and, in many cases, the transformation of political organizations into cults.
The 1960s exploded on the scene in a way none of us could have predicted. The heart of this explosion was the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War. The student movement went on its own chaotic, fitful radical way, with the SDS at its center. Our Trotskyist dicta fell on deaf ears. But while the New Left rejected the Old Left, it did not negate it. They were simply uninterested in theoretically understanding the states of the Second World, as it was called, which in those days covered a third of the world’s surface.
SDS had ideas of its own. Perhaps the most important of these was the notion of participatory democracy, a form of self-government and decentralized organization based on consensus. This worked quite well on the local level, fitting the mood of students, and providing just the modicum of organization needed for local protest. But it never worked on a national level.
By 1968, the SDS national leadership faced the invasion of the Progressive Labor Party body-snatchers. I remember a young woman getting up at one conference and reciting in singsong fashion,“We must ally with the workers, and not the liberals. I have been working in this factory for the last three weeks, and all the workers agree we must break with the liberals and fight for socialism.” That was the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). In reaction to their invasion of SDS, the non-PLP forces broke into warring Maoist factions: Revolutionary Youth Movement-I [RYM-I] (the Weathermen), RYM-II (Michael Klonsky and Bob Avakian), and later, Marlene Dixon’s Democratic Workers Party, along with several other groups. They rejected what was good in Trotskyism—the critique of “actually existing socialism”—and thus tended to be more Stalinist than mainstream communism. We all shared a common vision of a socialist future, and we knew students alone were incapable of bringing this future into fruition. The key problem lay, and still lies, in the question of how.
During all of this, I was off in my own sect, with our particular interpretation of the Marxist seven seals. Of course, we were there at all the marches, the civil rights demonstrations, and the conferences. Our growth came in the aftermath of the breakup of SDS. We recruited our share of those who felt deserted by SDS. With these new forces we tried something different. We won over some minority students from community colleges. For a while it worked, but the promised labor upsurge never took place. Our recruits dropped out one by one.
Regarding the Civil Rights struggle, neither the Old nor the New Left had much to do with this movement, which emerged from the black masses themselves. I agree with Mark on the importance of SNCC’s work in the south. But one of the reasons SNCC worked is that it came out of a movement. It did not try to create a movement out of nothing. When SDS went into the white neighborhoods and tried to organize the white poor through what it called the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP), when there was not yet a white poor movement, it failed. For all its work, SNCC also failed to produce a lasting organization. Stokely Carmichael turned to black power. Black nationalism rendered itself prey to sectarianism and isolation. This, in turn, led to political collapse. Of course, the black political struggle survived in other, more traditional forms: first, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and, now, Obama.
The 1960s were a bubble in history. Everything was possible in the moment. Miraculous events took place. At the time many of us projected this magic into an indefinite future. But the normal always follows the abnormal. We had the opportunity to build a relatively large and sustainable socialist political party in the early 1970s. It might have been more reformist than revolutionary and, certainly, it would have been messy, a diverse party connected to, yet separate from, the Democratic Party. But we flubbed it—all of us.
Alan Spector: Students, from the 1960s up through today, tend to think that social change would come from students. How convenient! In the 1960s we thought the working class itself was disappearing, or that it was weak and helpless. But it did not disappear. Everything continues to be built by workers somewhere. The difference now is that, because of globalization and imperialism, in major parts of the world the working class consists of 15-year-old girls making the shirts that you are wearing, or 18-year-old girls making the computers on which intellectuals write papers about the disappearance of the working class.
Working class struggle never disappeared. What has been mainly discussed here is the white campus Left. This was an important movement, but only one movement. It would take volumes to talk about the black liberation movement, the struggle against racism, and everything else happening in the 1960s.
I do not want to disappoint, but I have not changed at all. I renounce nothing I ever did. I am critical about some aspects of the past, but even then I don’t renounce any of it. And I’m not tired.
I was a student at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating, I worked as a full-time chapter organizer for SDS in Boston. What I saw in SDS at that time was a great deal of confusion. I remember one SDS convention in 1968 when the anarchist group Osha was involved in, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, stood up and denounced the PLP as Stalinist. Some SDS national officers seemed to approve of this. But then they got up, quoted Stalin, and said that the PLP had betrayed his true message. At this the supposedly anti-Stalinist anarchists applauded wildly. At that point I said to myself, “There’s something really unprincipled going on here.”
The revolutionary Left today is in much worse shape than people realize. I place no hope in reformism. Capitalism leads to fascism and to rivers of blood. I wish reforms might forestall this, but they cannot. And you cannot cross that river of blood without getting bloody yourself. The world left movement probably began its decline in the 1950s. There was a burst of optimism in the 1960s, but now we see Vietnam and China welcoming Wal-Mart. As a world movement the Left is weak. There are scattered movements here and there, but I’m not particularly optimistic about Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez.
The white campus movement reached its limit by 1968–69. It had to reach out to the working class. This meant more than simply telling white workers, “We want to get you more money.” It meant reaching out to the community as a whole, which was black and Latino, by the way. The failure to do that, the failure to fight racism and the corresponding capitulation to separatism, was a key factor in the decline of the Left.
Beyond this, there were the drugs. Woodstock hurt the movement. The Beatles tailed the movement, they didn’t build it, and the bosses found ways to get on with the counterculture. There were also the elections and the illusory feeling that the defeat of Nixon would set things right. Finally, the devastating impact of the Weather Underground on the movement cannot be overestimated. It was difficult to go to steelworkers in Pittsburgh and press them to oppose the war the day after some Weatherwoman took her blouse off and ran through a high school shouting, “Free yourselves! Free yourselves!” Thank God that nail bomb the Weathermen put at Fort Dix did not go off. If it had and the newspapers ran photos of police dragging the bodies out of the rubble, police oppression against us would be the least of our worries: The masses themselves would have beat the crap out of us.
As for today, you don’t have to choose between running and hiding or putting yourself out there as a martyr. There’s a lot going on today. The revolution will not happen tomorrow, but we cannot fool ourselves: This system has to come down, and it is not going to come down through elections, countercultural institutions, or terrorism. There’s no easy way out. There is only the long struggle.
TW: The central lesson of the 1960s was that devoting your political activity to the idea of creating a revolution that is not on the agenda, and which is not going to be on the agenda in this country for the foreseeable future, is tantamount to taking talented, thoughtful people and steering them into a blind alley. Change occurs, but generally not through spectacular revolution. Rather, change has been primarily incremental. I used to attack the American Communist Party constantly, but at its best the Party recognized that there is no contradiction between favoring an alternative to capitalism and acting in the actual political processes of the working class. No workers would have ever turned to socialism if socialists had not actually fought for immediate changes in their real life.
ON: About organizing, I wonder if the SNCC model is what’s needed today. There’s a less heroic story of organizing in Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father. It is about organizing right here in Chicago and it has a decidedly downbeat tone, involving lots of door-to-door soliciting that doesn’t really pay off. This balance between “freedom now” and “freedom not quite yet” is still something we have not mastered. Yes, we have to be in it for the long haul. But there are breaks, moments of enlightenment, unexpected breakthroughs of utopian vision, and I am not prepared to discard that aspect of the revolution. As a public interest lawyer, I supervise what we call a neighborhood justice clinic for low and no-income people. People suffering from this crisis are constantly streaming into our office and every one of them has got a tale to tell. They all feel isolated but I cannot, for the life of me, direct them to any political project. Next door to us is something actually called The Long Haul—an anarchist infoshop started by Al Haber. The anarchists are these young guys that drop by sometimes and I love them all. They go out to demonstrations, put fliers out, and so on. They plant community gardens. But there’s no connection between them and the people I see at my clinic. Somehow there has to be that. There has to be something to offer, but I have got no damn idea what that is.
AS: I don’t want anybody to assume I was taking a pessimistic tack. The person who brings you bad news, the doctor or nurse who says that you are about to go through some horrible pain, but we think you can make it, that’s the optimist. The person who says, “Let’s have a Christmas party for you,” even though it’s July, is saying that he doubts you will live to see December. Having an imagination means having the ability to understand that the world can be a whole lot worse than you ever thought. Just look at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and the 300,000 people that died there in five short minutes. If you took those bodies and laid them end-to-end, it would stretch from Chicago to Milwaukee and back. The other side of it, though, is that things can be much better than you could ever imagine. The most powerful weapon the oppressors have is their ability to convince people that what exists is natural: Whiteness is natural, America is natural, the peacefulness of America is natural. But one-fourth of all the world’s prisoners are in the United States. That’s part of the river of blood. Sub-Saharan Africa is today’s Auschwitz—that too is part of the river of blood. Then there are the more slowly moving rivers of blood. For instance, many of your generation will contract diabetes in your 40s or early 50s as a result of not being able to cope with alienation, with one’s sense of powerlessness. If you look at history, it is clear that the U.S. is in decline. Either it will go the way of England, through steady, gradual violence, or it will go the way of Nazi Germany, throwing bombs this way and that. I am not happy to say this, but I think it is more likely the U.S. will go the second way. But we might yet have some impact on that. We cannot stop a third world war, but we can make a difference as to whether that war kills 60 million or 600 million. To live your life the right way and keep the struggle going means surrounding yourself with others of the same temperament. And this doesn't mean avoiding involvement in reform struggles.* Those struggles can be ways for people to learn what the system is made of and how to organize against it, but only for that. We do have to meet people where they are, but we can’t simply sit down with them, and leave it at that. It is no good just to stand outside and shout at people and pass out fliers.[* Erratum: This sentence was originally, erroneously, mistranscribed in the print edition as "This means avoiding...." It is corrected here. — Eds.]
Q & A
Mark, you mentioned that you support Obama, and that your goal is to make capitalism gentler through a version of Social Democracy parallel to Europe. Why do you think it is unimportant to overcome capitalism? Why do you favor a stronger welfare state? Isn’t welfare state capitalism something your generation rebelled against?
MR: People basically tend to be lazy and apolitical. They do not like to sit in meetings, and socialism means a lot of meetings. Capitalism in one form or another is going to be around for a while, so my attitude is, why not try to control it as best we can through the government, understood as an instrument of the collective will of the people? We cannot ignore the fact that every country except Cuba, which still calls itself communist, has gone for capitalism. China is another example. I would like to overthrow the whole thing. I hate it all. I think capitalism is terrible and private property is absurd. But it isn’t going to happen, because people don’t want to sit in meetings! They just want to be left alone! So I think we should only strive to control things a little better.
ON: As suggested in the Evo Morales quotation I read, I would question the idea that capitalism and nature are compatible, or even that capitalism can be reformed in such a way as to make it compatible. One of the slogans we had back then was, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” I still believe in this slogan. In a way, the only realistic perspective now may be that capitalism is incompatible with nature and that it cannot be reformed. Certainly, it is incompatible with democracy. If there is not that drive to question the whole thing, I don’t believe the movement can have the energy it needs.
These sorts of discussions tend to get hung up on ideology, when we should be focusing on what we have to do next. We are decentralized now. No one is reporting to a central party—we are just doing the next right thing in front of our group. It seems we are missing a prime opportunity when 40 or 50 thousand are recapturing the streets in Germany, Spain, Greece, Iceland, and so on. Where are we? In February 2003 we had 15 million in the streets around the world. How could we recapture that?
TW: To put that into perspective, we have to look at politics, society, and history in terms of class struggle. But this does not mean that the class struggle will necessarily and inevitably result in utopia. So we have to struggle inside the Democratic Party, and we have to struggle outside the Democratic Party. We have to be a part of the struggle between private and public, between the interest of the masses and the interest of the few.
ON: I think you are right to say that there is a lot happening right now, and that rather than relying on one organization, it is decentralized, which means that it cannot all get screwed up at a stroke in the way that SDS did. In the 1950s, I never would have expected the sudden burst we experienced in the 1960s, so the impossible does happen, and happens suddenly. It is not going to come from where we expect it. So, we talk about the long haul, and the work we do now in different ways is the seedbed, so that when that spark happens I think it is going to be greater than the 1960s. The result of the movement of our time is that we put Obama into office. This shows that there is a progressive majority in the U.S. Now, of course, that movement has been utterly and horribly betrayed, but the fact that there was that movement is important. What we need now is a movement that is not betrayed, that is not top-down.[Questioner interjects:] Just to add on to that, talking about “the spark” that would be needed: If Obama gets assassinated, cities will burn. If the draft were reinstated, we would see a lot more people out for events such as this.
MR: Absolutely—they should reinstate the draft. I mean, I will not be drafted, but my grandchildren might be, and I would still say that the draft should be reinstated if it provides that spark.
The New Left, and the new New Left, seems to be inherently marginal in its politics. It seems people are saying that if we work completely outside the system, that’s a big red flag to working class groups. But how do we negotiate the fact that working within the system restricts the tactics available to us?
AS: It is a question of leadership. First, if we say that there should be no leadership, or only weak leadership, so as to avoid becoming bureaucratized, this will only allow rotten leadership to dominate. The struggle is to develop leadership that is beholden to the people they represent. This was a critical aspect of the Cultural Revolution in China, which no one has spoken about here, even though it was one of the most inspiring things to occur the 1960s. The reason to get involved in these reform struggles is to learn, teach, and to try to build collectives and movements that will last. Optimism is key, but one must not become isolated from the real struggle, from authentic rank-and-file people. Otherwise, one gets cynical. Such despair and cynicism are a middle class luxury, a luxury of intellectuals. People in the Congo do not have the luxury of being cynical. They must fight for their lives every minute of every day.
Regarding the organizations you worked for in the 1960s, do you think their failures were necessary, or in some way unavoidable? Why? What were the failures, exactly?
AS: I do not like the words “necessary” or “inevitable.” All truths are probabilistic. We should remember that the Left itself, worldwide, was in retreat at the time. The revolutionary upsurge in 1968 was more like a death rattle. The underlying processes that led to the collapse of communism in China and Russia were already in place. But I don’t know that it was completely defeated. I’m still here. The people on this panel are still trying to do something. Hundreds of thousands of people became schoolteachers, social workers, and community organizers. Many have attempted to spread at least some aspects of Marx’s ideas, whether self-consciously or not. There are ebbs and flows. The question is whether you can nurture that small part of it that is more advanced, so that when these moments that Osha talked about do come, we have a base among common people and are in a position to take advantage of them. About the 1960s, I would argue that it was a failure of the campus movement to reach out to the community. That was only the internal weakness, though. As to as why it shrunk, that was bound happen with the world situation the way it was.
TW: There’s always a tension in Marx between his determinism, on the one hand, and his dialectic of the struggle, on the other. So you can look at capitalism and say, “They control everything. The ruling class runs everything. We can’t fight it. There’s nothing we can do.” But Marx is also saying that the system itself, by its very nature, promotes and even requires rebellion. There is a struggle, essentially a class struggle, and each individual decides how he or she wants to be part of it.
ON: Necessity is only retrospective. At the time we did not know what was possible, and there is a freedom in the moment that disappears retrospectively. Obviously what happened can be traced to some set of causes, but there is also a realm of freedom. How large it is, one does not know until one tries to realize it. At the time, we tried to pursue it, without knowing entirely what it was.
With the Obama movement, and with other movements as well, the discourse centers on the purported values of America’s “middle class.” I was wondering whether what Marx wrote, and in particular the categories he developed in his critique of society, are relevant today with respect to political practice, and to forms of organizing that seek to oppose capitalism?
TW: The concepts of Marx have survived surprisingly well. But terminology itself does not matter so much and, frankly, there is no reason to impose Marx’s 19th century language on the present. However, the concepts of class struggle, the idea that the money has gotten into the hands of a tiny elite at the expense of the many, that the economic system is bound for collapse—obviously, that is what we need to be talking about.
ON: I always tended to think of things in terms of “the system,” which, though it does not sound like it, is Marxist to the degree it underscores how the commodity form of capitalism penetrates all aspects of our lives, and needs to be challenged from within all of these aspects. The shorthand for me has always been that the analysis is Marxist but the practice is anarchist. I try to understand economics, but I cannot—the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit—I just don’t know. What matters to me about Marxism is that it seems to get at how capitalism is going to have problems of overproduction and commodification. But we don’t just have Marx’s categories to worry about, because we are also trying to find a language that speaks to the people I mentioned before, the people who come in to my neighborhood justice clinic. I have to ask myself, How am I going to talk to them? I can have all this shit in my head, but am I going to talk to them about it? We need a language that reaches people, a practice that reaches people. This is a lot more important than whether that practice leans more toward Marxism or anarchism.
AS: Marx’s ideas are important and valuable. It may be fine to use different words, or a different set of terminology, but when we use those different words we risk diluting the concepts. And I think the concepts and categories of Marx hold up to this day.
MR: As I said before, my goal, which I hope others will join, is Social Democracy. Its struggle has always been the struggle of capital and labor. We are so far from Social Democracy in this country right now because capitalism has triumphed to such a great extent and organized labor is powerless, or has given in. It has to be capital versus labor, but what words we use for it, I don’t know. Right now, we have a crisis of capitalism. The only thing that has ever successfully fought capitalism is labor. But, you know, we can call it whatever we want. I don’t know.
I have to say, talking about all of this here with these guys tonight, it reminds me of an old joke: A man covered only in plastic wrap walks in to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist takes one look at him and says, “I can clearly see you’re nuts.” |P
Transcribed by Jacob Cayia and Carl Hess