Fifty years of 1968
Abdul Alkalimat, Joseph Estes, Johnny Mercer, and Mitchel Cohen
Platypus Review 108 | July-August 2018
On April 6, 2018, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion, Fifty Years of 1968, as the opening plenary of its 10th International Convention, 1918–2018: A Century of Counterrevolution, held in Chicago. Speaking at the event were Abdul Alkalimat, professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champagne, and author of numerous books, including Malcolm X for Beginners; Joseph Estes, a member of Platypus and of the Campaign for a Socialist Party; Johnny Mercer, a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and an artist working in Chicago; and Mitchel Cohen, pamphleteer, poet, and founder of the Red Balloon Collective at SUNY Stony Brook in 1969. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
For half a century, 1968 has represented a high-water mark of social and political transformation, a year of social upheaval that spanned the entire globe. Ushered in by a New Left that sought to distinguish itself from the Old Left that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the monumental events of 1968 set the tone for everything from protest politics to academic leftism.
Today, with the U.S. entangled in a seemingly endless war in Asia and people calling for the impeachment of an unpopular president, with activists fighting in the streets and calling for liberation along the lines of race, gender, and sexuality, the Left’s every attempt to discover new methods and new ideas seems to invoke a memory of the political horizons of 1968. We can perhaps more than ever feel the urgency of the question: What lessons are to be drawn from the New Left as another generation undertakes the project of building a Left for the 21st century?
Abdul Alkalimat: It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to share my views for this important topic. As a veteran of the 1960s, my responsibility is to combine self-criticism with a challenge from those times, for these times. Two critical moments for black people’s struggle set the framework for understanding the dialectics we need to learn from the time of 1968. The first was conceptually moving the freedom movement into the framework of a civil rights movement. This was a strategic rethinking of revolution into reform. But the next moment was moving from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Liberation movement—and that was moving back from reform to revolution. What is key here is that these are not polar opposites. They are not divorced from each other. Dialectics are the key. Both are necessary—reform and revolution. The dialectics are how they are interconnected, how the tactics of reform can serve the strategic goal of revolution. The way to understand the revolution is to chronicle the reforms necessary to carry out revolutionary transformation. A big event of the 1960s was the cry for black power in 1966. This emerged out of mass mobilization, the development of revolutionary cadre, and the building of vanguard organizations, even after the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965, Che Guevara in 1967, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.
My argument is that the black struggle was an autonomous force expressing both the response to class exploitation and the particularity of racist oppression as an essential aspect of any revolutionary expression of the masses of poor and working people in the United States. There are several key examples from the 1960s. For the unemployed and inner city black youth, there was the Black Panther Party of 1966. For industrial workers, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, 1969. For students, the Student Organization of Black Unity, 1969. For the middle strata, the Congress of African People, 1970. The basic logic is that, out of the mass mobilization of spontaneous movements, cadre emerged to form revolutionary organizations. The crisis is how the link between reform and revolution was broken, mainly by the repressive response of the state, but also by the idealist dogma that led us to believe that revolution was possible with or without the masses. This was the fundamental crisis in the revolutionary vanguard and it is a challenge that faces us today.
This happened in the 1960s in the context of party building. The principal aspect of the reform–revolution contradiction was clearly reform in the mass movements, but for the cadre moving into revolutionary forms of organization, this was reversed, so that revolution became their principle aspect. This led to some vanguard forces moving into forms of action that delinked them from the mass struggle and set things up for ruling class oppression. Extreme examples of this are the Weatherman and the Black Liberation Army. Also, recruiting cadre from the mass battlefronts into party formations pulled people out of their mass work. Many believed that an autonomous black movement was antithetical to the mass struggle, rather than seeing it for what it has always been, an expression of the class struggle, arising out of the particularity of racist national oppression. Within this context, different class forces will contend for power, for leadership. This is no different than the trade union movement or any mass movement. The diverse particularity of oppression will always give rise to movements, mainly expressing the class reality of the masses of people who are impacted, but also being targeted by middle class forces out of their self-serving opportunism, aided by the willingness of the ruling class to support such a form of co-optation.
Fast-forwarding to the present, we can see a similar pattern. Today there is a moment of mass mobilization of spontaneous movements. This has been building from the mass response to the police killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more, from the Katrina mass mobilizations to Occupy and the #MeToo women’s movement, to the Fight for 15 and now the movement of high school youth and public school teachers. This includes the Moral Monday movement coming out of North Carolina and now the Poor People's Campaign of 40 Days of Resistance, planned for this spring. But this time the ruling class has a plan in place. The NGO foundation money is intervening as part of an aggressive plan for co-opting the cadre development process, using the material incentives of paid positions and a network of subsidized activities. Further, the lure of electoral politics in the form of a long march to transform the Democratic Party is set up to provide a career path for the youngsters of the March for Our Lives leadership.
What we can learn from the 1960s is the need for cadre to keep digging deep into the mass struggles of the most exploited and oppressed, and anchoring cadre development there. We must base the theory we need on the summation of practice, on the actual motion of historical forces. The philosophical truth is that the universal can only be found in the particular. One is an abstraction. The other is material reality. So the revolutionary road leads through each of the battlefronts and unity can be realized when it becomes a practical necessity out of the struggle.
Revolutionary cadre cannot make it happen, but they are a necessary force to facilitate when it can happen. After all, politics, whether reformist or revolutionary, is the art of the possible. If it is the art of the impossible, this is only when the impossible is possible. The 1960s did not fail. The experience of this period can show us the way forward and affirm that both reform and revolution are possible, but only when we understand their dialectical relationship. So, my final piece of advice is from a jazz vocalist Shirley Horne. In “Here’s to Life,” she sings, “No complaints / And no regrets / I still believe in chasing dreams / And placing bets / But I have learned that all you give / Is all you get / So give it all you've got.”
Joseph Estes: I am a member of Platypus. I first encountered the organization in 2010, joined in 2011, and I remain an active member. But I’m not here to speak as a Platypus member. Rather, my remarks tonight stem directly from my experiences organizing on the Left over the last four years: first, as a witness to the Chicago Socialist Campaign, which began as an attempt by Socialist Alternative and other sectarian organizations to reproduce the Kshama Sawant phenomenon in Chicago by drafting Carlos Rosa to run for alderman as a socialist; then, as a member of the Campaign for a Socialist Party, a small propaganda group founded in Chicago soon after Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump announced their candidacies, with cohorts in Chicago, New York, New Hampshire, and California, but attracting attention in a number of other localities across the United States and even in Europe; and finally, my experiences over the last year and a half as a member of the Socialist Party, USA, of which I am not currently a member, as well as my intermittent interactions with other leftist organizations, in particular the Democratic Socialists of America and Chicago Against Police Brutality.
The Millennial radicals that emerged in the early aughts for the most part seemed securely tethered to the New Left—to its established organizations and its practices, repeating not only its choice of slogans in the streets, but even establishing the New Students for a Democratic Society, as though to tempt fate of its most cataclysmic American episode. The Left of recent memory, that of the Berniecrats and the Antifa, is often labeled Millennial, but I would contend that it was from the doldrums of the earlier anti-war Millennial Left that a separate, post-Occupy Left sprung, fully dis-formed. Whereas those of us who were students in that earlier period first encountered the Left on campus via anarchists hocking zines or Trotskyists pushing weeklies, or were first invited to take part in the revolutionary transformation of society at a regular meeting of social democrats or a Maoist reading group, today many young, self-identified anti-capitalists are organized, if you can call it that, in Facebook groups, sub-Reddits, and Tumblr pages. They get their education reading eclectically from Wikipedia and leftist blogs, or from the equally ecumenical vacillations of Jacobin. Their idea of activism is often confined to one-off protests and the propagation of memes or hashtags. The worst of these elements do their best to haunt the Internet with various authoritarian routines, like doxxing, or condemning leftists who don’t fall in line, posturing according to whims of momentary political hysterics.
There are, of course, plenty of people who avoid this declension: young Leftists with an admirable commitment to the work of actually changing people’s lives. Unfortunately, most of these activists are drifting rapidly into the Democratic Party, or working for large NGOs that amount to the same, a path too often characterized by such a strict, hygienic avoidance of any conflict, of any contemplation of strategy or political consciousness, that they are reduced to the mechanics of tailing after chimerical movements. Both these types—the pseudo-sectarians who fantasize about street battles and FBI repression as they descend into the echo-chamber of an algorithmic social-media feed, and the latter-day social democrats who in the name of “socialism” busy themselves with ill-fated campaigns that will indenture them to grunt work for so-called progressive candidates in the midterm elections—are extreme characterizations of a very real tendency.
I’m not a neo-Luddite who is going to saddle the Internet with responsibility for this abortive state of affairs, nor am I going to say that the solution lies merely in reading better books or joining an older organization. Rather, I’m asking you to entertain the notion that the Left’s retreat into the barbarism of the blogosphere and the actionism of the Democratic Party are symptoms and byproducts of a historical rupture in which the mistakes of previous generations, instead of being actively rejected, have merely been forgotten. Rather than becoming more radical, or at least beginning anew, the Left has repressed its failures, and must reckon with this fact if it is not to repeat them.
Chris Marker’s 1977 essay film, Le fond de l'air est rouge (also known as Grin Without a Cat), begins with a montage, cutting 1960s documentary footage of violent confrontations between protesters and police with scenes from another film, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Marker’s intention, as the narration hints at later in the film, was to contrast Battleship Potemkin, which was a dramatization of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 made only after the success of 1917, with his own film. Marker’s point was that unlike 1905, which Lenin referred to as a “dress rehearsal” for the Bolshevik revolution, the dress rehearsal of 1968 never materialized a consequential victory.
I appreciate Marker’s recognition of the failure of 1968, of its ethereal impetuosity, principally for its rarity—most people talk as though 1968 were the apotheosis of revolution—but his flat equation of the New Left with that generation of youth whose mobilization frothed over in the late 1960s remains as commonplace as it is unfortunate. The New Left’s origins lie with the gradual delegitimization of the post-World War II order in the 1940s and ’50s, especially after Khrushchev's Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary. The end of ideology, the discontent with the culture of grey flannel suits, with “the system,” is only a surface phenomenon of a deeper depoliticization. The leaders of this first generation of the New Left, especially in the United States, developed in a vacuum that the Communist Party left as it disintegrated. Whether they were Social Democrats, Liberals, or Third Camp Trotskyists, the early leaders of the peace and civil rights movements, those ever-capable proponents of that whole assemblage of forces that nearly provoked a crisis of the Democratic Party at its 1964 convention, were determined—in their best moments—to bring about a revolution as far reaching as any that preceded it. The events of 1968 represent not a culmination of the New Left’s radicalization but the full flowering of its crisis, a final expression of a decisive dissolution. The splintering of SDS often gets touted by its veterans as a tragedy of the highest order, but it might more appropriately be understood as a farcical replay of Port Huron in 1962, where the sectarian reflexes of Michael Harrington and other YSPL members butted heads with the authoritarian liberalism of Tom Hayden and the SDS, severing what little hope there was for a relationship between the student movement and the New Left. Nor was the “black power turn” a step in the direction of revolution; on the contrary, it was at once a betrayal of the Civil Rights Movement and a manifestation of the early New Left’s failure to sound the depth of the problem of Marxism.
The dissipating identitarian struggles of the entire period that followed 1968 are but symptoms of that original sin of identity politics: the reification of the consciousness of the proletariat. This backsliding of the organized working class into a mere sociological cluster—to become one among many in the long ranks of gangs and rackets—was once the impetus to a search for a new revolutionary subject and a frenzied exploration of new political horizons. Today its remains are so desiccated that it inspires only a crude psychological obstinacy that masks itself as a politics of resistance, evidence that the long arm of the New Left bends toward Stalinism. Occupy, in the end, may only represent what Bayard Rustin called “a cry of protest before accommodation.” Its only hope was to experiment in building the Left anew, and in doing so, to recognize the degree to which its problems are bound up in the shuddering echoes of a deep historical wound having less to do with 1968 than with 1848. (Or, perhaps, our only hope is a post-neoliberal left, still looming out beyond the next election.)
More to point, and to plug the Campaign of which I am a part, the Left needs to build a mass socialist party. Some say that the failure of SDS to build such a party was their greatest mistake, or rather, that it may have been the one thing that could have redeemed them. As implausible as this may seem, the point has to be taken. The most ambitions elements of the early New Left dedicated themselves strategically to the realignment strategy. This attempt to push the Democratic Party to the Left faltered in 1964. It detonated in ’68. By ’72 it was a joke. This attempt, as valiant as it may have been, is definitely not a model for what lies ahead. It was an intervention aimed at the Keynesian-Fordist state. Whatever opportunity might have been there is gone. If there were a model for building a mass socialist party in the United States—which there isn’t—it would look to the original Socialist Party of America and the Republican Party of the mid-19th century. These earlier phenomena also represent obstacles that need to be addressed if their fates are not to be repeated. The difference is that their practices are forgotten, while the New Left, though having little to do with what the Left does today, is a monolith before which every aspiring radical bows.
Johnny Mercer: I am here as a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) and a practicing artist. I wouldn’t be making the kind of art that I am if it weren’t for the Situationists. I have a lot of sympathy for the Situationists’ ideas as an artist—though not so much as a member of the SPGB. I'm basically going to take a slightly different format than the other speakers and provide a timeline of events. I am going to start off introducing the SPGB, then I am going to go into the birth of the Situationist International, and then go to May 1968 in France.
In 1904, the Socialist Party of Great Britain is founded as a split from the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF), in order to oppose the reformers of the time, and breaking with the self-appointed leader of the SDF, H. M. Hyndman. One basic feature of the SPGB is that it is a leaderless organization. We believe, like Marx, that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. Secondly, that socialism is a worldwide moneyless, stateless society based on production for human need. Thirdly, that the working class should use whatever political power is available to them to conquer the state and take state power away from the bourgeoisie. In other words, although we are a leaderless organization, we are not an anarchist organization. Some people have jokingly referred to us as the political wing of anarchism, which is not an entirely unfair assessment.
Now, I’ll move ahead to the birth of the Situationist International and the lead-up to May 1968 in France. In 1950, during Easter mass in Notre Dame, a group calling themselves the Letterists walk into the cathedral disguised as monks to announce “Dieu est mort”—“God is dead.” Their sermon lasts about five minutes before they are almost lynched by the congregation. They save themselves by giving themselves up to class traitors, that is, the French police of the time. So, the Letterists were the first group to understand the power of graffiti, and they come up with slogans like “free the passions,” “never work,” and others, many of which would resurface in May 1968.
Hungary is invaded by Soviet forces in 1956, a military action that Sartre and others denounce. Many intellectuals in both Britain and France break from mainstream Stalinist parties over this incident. In the summer of 1958 a slightly weird, glossy magazine named Situationist International appears in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Its first issue declared, “a mental illness has swept the planet. Penalization. Everyone is hypnotized by work and by comfort, by the garbage disposal unit, by the Left, by the bathroom, by the washing machine…. [A] rebellion against the harshness of nature has far overshot its goal[;] the liberation of man from material cares [has] become a life-destroying obsession.” In the same issue, Guy Debord writes, “Art need no longer be an account of past sensations. It can become the direct organization of more highly evolved sensations. It is a question of producing ourselves, not things that enslave us.” So, as Marxists, we might want to ask what the class makeup of this group was. A guy called Christopher Gray wrote something in 1974, not long after the 1968 uprisings, that described the Situationists in this way: “Most were in their late 20s and were living off the usual expedience of what was still a bohemian lifestyle. Grants, small pockets of bourgeois money, petty crime, hustling, and occasional labor in culture or elsewhere.”
By 1961, three years later, the Situationist International (SI) is an international organization. They are giving a talk at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art to a mixed audience of students, intellectuals, and some ordinary working class people. When they finish their ranting, this guy asks a very reasonable question, “What is Situationism?” The SI co-founder, Guy Debord, replies, “We're not here to answer cuntish questions,” at which point all the Situationists walk out in disgust. Around the same time, they come into contact with the group around Socialisme ou Barbarie. The working class becomes less of an abstraction for them and comes to be seen as a viable means to achieve their revolutionary artistic goals. At this point they could be placed, broadly speaking, in the Council Communist tradition. They see themselves in the tradition of the 1921 Kronstadt uprising, Catalonia in 1936, and so on, in opposition both to Stalinism and capitalism.
That’s the Situationist International. So let’s move on to France, 1968. On Monday, May 6th, following a wave of student protests against issues like class discrimination, sexual repression, and university bureaucracy, there is a complete ban on demonstrations and the closure of large sections of central Paris. This announcement brings over 20,000 angry students onto the streets. The crowd begins to create barricades. According to one eyewitness, literally thousands helped—women, workers, even some people in their pajamas. Human chains carry rocks, wood, and iron. The police respond with tear gas and charge the crowd. Hundreds are arrested.
The next day, 50,000 march against police brutality, sparking a daylong battle. The police fire tear gas. Protestors responded with Molotov cocktails. Protestors at this point are chanting, “Long live the Paris commune.” By Saturday, May 11th, Situationist / Letterist slogans were being sprayed on walls. “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” “beneath the paving stones, the beach,” “all power to the imagination,” and “the most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop's head.” The French Communist Party and the major union federations, both of which had previously condemned the actions, finally called for a one-day general strike and demonstration for Monday, 13th of May.
On that day, more than a million people march through Paris. Prime Minister George Pompidou personally announced the release of prisoners and the reopening of the Sorbonne, which is immediately re-occupied by students who declare it the people’s university. On Tuesday, May 14th, workers lock management in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. All over France, more workers begin occupying factories and striking.
On May 17th, members of the Situationist International found the Council for the Maintenance of the Occupations (CMDO), which is a fairly successful exercise in direct democracy—at least, for two weeks. The CMDO is organized into the printing committee, which is for writing and printing their publications, using presses that have been occupied by the workers; the Liaison committee, which somehow obtained a number of cars to maintain contact with the factories where workers were on strike; and the requisitions committee, which made sure that things like toilet paper, petrol, food, money, cigarettes, and wine were never lacking.
By May 20th, 10 million workers were on strike—roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. The Communist Party is back to its old tricks, urging their members to try to stop the revolt. The union tries to channel this into a struggle for higher wages. The workers demand the ousting of the government and an end to President de Gaulle’s continued attempts to run their factories. The unions negotiate a package of economic reforms. The workers reject this, refuse to go back to work, and jeer at their union leaders.
On May 24th, the Paris stock exchange is set on fire by protesters. Army generals are ready with 20,000 troops to take hold of Paris by force. The Communist Party officials start to manipulate the strikers into returning to work. On Wednesday, 30th of May, roughly half a million people march through Paris.
On the 31st of May, even as the government appeared to close to collapse, de Gaulle remains firm. He gets assurances from the military that they are still loyal to him. Because the TV workers were on strike, he has to go on the radio to announce the dissolution of the National Assembly, with elections to follow on the 23rd of June. He institutes a state of national emergency and orders a return to work. Most workers are gradually returning to work or are ousted from their plants by the police. The national student union called off street demonstrations. The government bans a number of leftist organizations. On the 6th of June the police re-took the Sorbonne. De Gaulle triumphed in the legislative elections held later in June, securing election with an even bigger majority than he held previously. The crisis comes to an end.
What can we take from this series of events? Most importantly, it took the working class, not the unions, not the French Communist Party, to realize any semblance of Marx’s demand for the abolition of the wages system, instead of the conservative motto, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
As an organization, the SPGB has a lot in common with the Situationists and the ideals of 1968. We have an equal hatred of Stalinists. We are critical of pseudo-socialism and state capitalist regimes like the USSR. We take seriously Marx’s statement that the emancipation of the workers has to be the work of the working class itself; we therefore reject Leninist ideas of a vanguard. However, one of the fundamental distinctions between the Situationists and the SPGB is over the proper ordering of practice and theory, of action and organization. The Situationists really emphasized this kind of sporadic, “get out on the streets and just do stuff” mentality, which is all well and good, but always seems to end in defeat. The SPGB also believes that state power cannot be left in the hands of capitalist class.
This was summed up quite well by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an important character in the Paris uprisings, in an interview he did with Sartre. To paraphrase their interview, Sartre says that many people cannot understand why the ’68ers have not tried to work out a program or to give the movement a structure; people criticize the uprising for trying to smash everything, without clarifying what should be abolished and what should be put in its place. Cohn-Bendit answers that the movement’s strength is based precisely on its uncontrollable spontaneity, which gives it an impetus without using the actions it had unleashed to its own profit. I agree with that, on one level, but I think there is more to be said.
I am also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), by the way, so I am quite sympathetic to these ideas, even if I am kind of like a schizophrenic, between being an IWW member and a SPGB member. I look forward to a discussion of this, because I think it is an important topic: Do ideas precede revolution, or does revolution give birth to ideas? And, of course, the answer is dialectical.
Mitchel Cohen: Speaking of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, I saw him in Paris, in 1999 I believe, at this meeting of the European Parliament with the Greens. I gave Cohn-Bendit, who was about to do TV shows everywhere, one of those very famous “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” buttons. I said, “Please wear it, for the TV.” He replied, “Oh, thank you very much”—and he put it in his pocket.
For me, 1968 is, as Rudi Dutschke said, the long march through all the institutions of society. That’s what we have been doing. We started then, and we have continued to do that all the way through to the present. I very much agree with Abdul. I don’t think 1968 was a failure.
I had a conversation with the driver who brought me to the event tonight, a young woman in her 30s, originally from Mexico. I told her I hadn’t been to Chicago in a long time, but this is where we were tear-gassed in 1968, right here on Michigan Avenue. Then the cops beat the living hell out of us. She had no idea what I was talking about. I’m not blaming her in any way for that—if she doesn’t know that history, and therefore is not able to draw conclusions from integrating that history into her own life, then that is on us. We have the problem of figuring out how society becomes cognizant of all of these different issues and discusses them. We talked about socialism earlier today. Well, how do the mass movements develop socialism? Is it a lightening bolt that just happens? If we lecture people hard enough about it, saying, “You should be a socialist,” do they become a socialist?
I always like to start with Steve Biko’s great quote that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Steve Biko was a South African revolutionary who talked about the black liberation movement and the strategic stages of struggle it needed to go through, so that black and white people inside South Africa would be able to fight on equal terms, on the same side. He was eventually murdered in prison. That, too, is on us. It was on us to stop that. It is not that we did it ourselves, but we did fail to stop it, and we need to be cognizant of our own government and its actions all over the world. That’s part of what the New Left was about in the 1960s. It put the issue of imperialism back on the agenda, which, as we saw it, the Old Left had failed to do. It was immoral, what the U.S. was doing, just like what it is doing today in Sudan and in Syria.
So what is our responsibility—and our opportunity? I don’t want this to sound like a guilt trip. We have this amazing opportunity to save the world, in a way. Will we rise up to that challenge? That’s part of the legacy of the New Left that we need to carry forward.
I want to say something that might be a little controversial: I do not believe that people are poor. People are made poor. There is an active force that’s making the situation the way it is, that’s taking power away from people, that’s impoverishing them, and that’s destroying the environment. There’s people behind it, but not just people. There are organized forces that are doing these things. We have the responsibility and the opportunity to stop them. But how? — That’s the question before us.
Many parties, Maoist or otherwise, came out of the New Left. There were a lot of good ideas in there, but also a lot of bad ones—many bad ways of organizing, based in Stalinism, for example. Something Che Guevara talked about is the need to build the new human being in the course of struggling for the revolution. As we go about trying to transform the world, we also have to transform ourselves, our social relations, and the way we relate to everyone around us. My own view is that there has to be direct action communities of resistance around the world. I’ll give you an example: black power. The Black Panther Party set up programs for free breakfast for children. People can be dismissive of these kinds of programs, saying, “That’s really not socialist.” But we have to begin organizing ourselves to meet people’s needs to the extent that we can, through the actual institutions that we create, and those that the mass movements create. In Long Island, I worked with the Black Panther Party in building the program that provided free breakfast for children. In the end we also built up a medical clinic and a number of other projects that were very real for people and for ourselves, because we too were part of the desperate people who needed the medical care.
The state came in and said that they would try to shut it down. So we organized the community to defend the clinic and the breakfast program. Thousands of people got involved in this movement. The state said, “Well, you only have one sink, and the law says you need three sinks.” That was one excuse they gave. So we brought in another sink, and then they found another reason, and another, because they wanted to shut it down. They didn’t want children being fed in the morning so they could go to school, learn, and develop into leaders. We did that in Long Island and the whole community got involved. In the course of that struggle all of us—and certainly the core group of people who considered themselves revolutionary—talked about socialism all the time. I can’t remember a moment we didn’t. But it wasn’t in the abstract. We talked about socialism through the institutions that we built together. So there’s the dialectic, as Abdul was saying.
Let’s suppose everybody in the world wants socialism, everybody in our movements—then what? How does socialism come about? Will it happen magically? Are Rockefeller and the Koch brothers, and all these capitalist rulers, going to allow it to happen? Will it happen in the way that a lot of us in the New Left back in the 1960s thought, through armed insurrection? Will it happen in a different way? That question was left out of the Old Left, it seemed to me. What is the process by which a socialist revolution will come about?
Just one more thing. People have read Marcuse, who was very influential in the New Left in the 1960s. One of his most famous books that we were reading in our collective at Stony Brook University at the time was One-Dimensional Man. Aside from being a very poorly written book, it was one of the most depressing things you ever read. He said, and many of us agreed with him, that it is hopeless—the working class and its leadership was so bought off by capitalism that it’s hopeless, our brains are being taken over, and we can’t even think anymore. And Platypus can serve a real function to get people, including ourselves, to think. Anyway, some of us tied Marcuse’s book to bricks and threw them through windows, because we thought it was a nice irony to use the most depressing book possible to make a revolution—or what we thought was a step toward revolution.
AA: I have a couple of quick points. First, I think that making judgments about history on the basis of the imagined goal, of what we think history is heading towards, is a fundamentally idealist position. A materialist position looks at the actual historical forces that developed. Maybe what happened is what we actually ought to study—not what we think ought to have happened. So, for example, if you look at the 1960s and you look at what happened out of SDS, was that a failure? The October League and the Revolutionary Union, were they failures? Or were they developments of Marxism at the end of the industrial period? The League of Revolutionary Black Workers develops out of black power, not as a failure, but as a development of revolutionary politics on the factory floor for the first time since the 1930s. This was objectively true. It didn’t happen in any other way. Now, this happened during the period that was, in effect, the end of the factory system. We were operating out of the Third International perspective: Make every factory a fortress. That’s over. The technological revolution has ended the big factories as the basis for organizing resistance to capital. When we talk about things, we have to put it in a materialist sense, in the context of history. We have to watch out for people making judgments about history without analyzing what actually happened. What actually happens might be in the realm of the possible. So to be a leftist, to be a Marxist, you cannot think about what you imagine to be true; you have to analyze the historical forces, as Marx did, as Lenin did, as Mao did, in the context of those revolutions.
So, for example, take this notion of identity politics and black people. How convenient it is for white people to dismiss the reality of America. For those of you who are not from the United States, this country is like South Africa. Look around; you don’t see any black people sitting here. But if you look at the PEW survey, the most committed people to socialism, over half, are black people. No other demographic group has the level of anti-capitalist, pro-socialist views as the African-American community, which comes out of the particularity of racism and the class struggle that has taken place. So rather than what we imagine to be true, let’s deal with the facts of the actual struggle that is happening in this society. If we are going to have a revolutionary movement, we’re going to have to deal with the reality of the working class. Not the way we imagine them to be, and not the way small groups want to imagine the revolution. It is the working class and poor people who are going to make the revolution.
JE: First of all, in direct response to that, I don’t feel that I’m projecting. I look at all the different aspects of the New Left and try to understand where each of them was coming from. With respect to the black power movement, I do think that Bayard Rustin had a point that needed to be considered. I also don’t blame proponents of the black power movement for what they pursued. It’s not like I thought they were just doing it wrong or something. Rather, I try to understand what was happening and why it was happening, and what could have been considered in a particular historical moment, in order to change the course of history. Of course that is a matter of judgment, which is something we all have to exercise. I understand that the black power movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s were faced with a liability—the fact that they were essentially kept out of the Left for so long and didn’t have an actual place in the Democratic party after that realignment strategy took place. They tried to turn that liability into an asset, by trying to make something of the discontent people had with that situation. That said, ultimately the whole thing seems like a tragedy, and I don’t think there was much of an opportunity in it, unfortunately. Could it take that route in the future? Perhaps. I certainly don’t think that any socialist organization, or a mass socialist party, would be able to be successful in the U.S. without actually dealing with the problem of racism.
Now, Mitchel, you said that the New Left is still transforming the institutions—
MC: No, the mass movements are.
JE: The mass movements. Is the goal still revolution? If so, how do you see that playing out? What is actually revolutionary about the mass movements, and how does that compare to the organization of revolutions in the past—how does one actually deal with the problem of the “Old Left” vs. the “New Left”? The organizing that Abdul talked about is different from “the long march through the institutions.”
There is also the question of building cadre and building the party. Let me know if you disagree, Mitchel, but it seems as though, in attempting to transform the institutions, the New Left ended up liquidating itself. What about building our own institutions? The Socialist Party that I mentioned attempted to build institutions in civil society on the model of the old SPD—is that a viable option? As I said in my opening remarks, in the context of the Keynesian-Fordist state it might have seemed necessary to enter the institutions, but ultimately that came into crisis with neoliberalism and ceased to be viable. So I don’t know how that problem, the fact that these institutions are themselves being destroyed, changes that argument.
Johnny, I was hoping you could say more about that problem of the IWW and its relationship to other political formations. Already in the U.S. there was a split in the workers’ movement that, perhaps as a consequence of being divorced from the Socialist Party, caused the movement to gravitate toward a kind of anarchism. Do you disagree with that? Or how do you understand that problem?
JM: Sure, I’ll try to get to that. I’m talking now as an IWW member, a member of the Socialist Party GB, and as a Situationist. Let’s see how this works— or if I just end up exploding.
One distinction that I’d like to make in response to all of the speakers is between two different types of reformism. When we talk about reformism, let’s try to narrow this down. There are two distinct types of what can be called reformism. The first is the direct action of the working class, and this would include things like unions, the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs, and a lot of what was going on in May of 1968 in Paris—the kind of grass-roots, self-organization of the working class to meet basic needs and demands when living under capitalism. These initiatives are not fully-fledged, “we-want-to-abolish-money” socialist, but they do represent workers’ responses to their circumstances. Then there is reformism in the second sense, which to me is placing political and economic power in a bourgeois political party. That is to say, whatever its pretenses of being a labor party or a revolutionary party, a bourgeois political party seeks to control and administer the wage system; that is, it seeks to use state power in order to control and administer the exploitation of the working class. That strikes me as a very important distinction to be made if we are going to talk about reformism as just a general term for any kind of thing, short of full-blown revolution, that takes place within capitalism. The SPGB, and I myself, are incredibly sympathetic to the former and, as stated in our declaration of principles, which I have with me, we have a full hatred of the latter. We are hostile to all bourgeois political parties, whether allegedly labor or allegedly capitalist.
The reason I make this distinction, the reason I think this distinction is really important, is because bourgeois reformism infantilizes the working class. If we imagine the working class as teenagers—if they are coming of age, trying to make their own mistakes—then that’s the first kind of reformism, the kind that I like. But this second kind of party reformism—it infantilizes the working class: It is daddy Corbyn, or daddy Sanders, saying, “Hey, put your faith in me and I can make everything OK. Sure, the wage system is screwed, but put me in charge and everything will work out.” We’ve seen that time and time again. The working class ought not to fall for it, and I’d sooner have headless chickens in the working class, people chucking things through windows, than I would have them voting for these imposters.
MC: When we concoct demands, when we are involved in being a part of groups or movements that make demands, we trap ourselves in the state: making demands of the state, then getting co-opted. We rarely think of what that means in terms of direct action, though, by which I do not just mean being militant in the streets, but also creating demands, institutions, and ways of thinking that we put into effect ourselves, even if we are also demanding it of the system and of the state—knowing full well that the system is not going to do most of it. Food Not Bombs is a really good example. Obviously, Food Not Bombs is not going to be able to feed all the people that need to be fed, or even a substantial fraction of those people. But what we can do is begin the operation of feeding people good—and where I was involved in California, organic—food. It was obtained via dumpster diving, but still organic. We feed ourselves, other people, and our movement, but at the same time we demand that the system provide this. We fight for the demand, but we start implementing it now, so that the communities rally around it. It then becomes a transitional mechanism, but not an abstract Trotskyist “transitional demand”; we are actually building it, in the concrete, so that it becomes something we can fight for. Same thing with the Black Panther Party programs.
I think that we need to practice this kind of politics, because we are not trained to think about how we can begin implementing for ourselves what we are demanding. Even though we know we are not going to be able to do it fully in this society, we can try to get closer to the point of achieving it, and building a movement that fights for something in the concrete, rather than an abstract demand. So that’s my response, perhaps coming at it a bit sideways, to what Joseph was saying. At the same time, it is really good to have fun with transforming the world around us: Revolution is fun. Even if a lot of us are going to die, it’s still fun. It is fun fighting for freedom.
Q & A
Going off what Mitchel just said, I think there is a lot of sense to the model of a transitional demand. When you and others set out on that long march through the institutions, though, why was that done largely in and through the existing capitalist Democratic Party? In other words, why not do it on the basis of a new and different political party? Because it seems like what actually happened ended up empowering the Democratic Party.
MC: I agree with you totally. I’m not saying work within the Democratic Party—not in the slightest. We set up our own media, our own health clinics. We set up whatever we can—that’s the whole point. People, regardless of whom they vote for, can take part in the building of those projects within their communities. In doing so, we can help them and help ourselves transform our ideas of socialism, so that it doesn’t remain so abstract.
Just to follow up, when it comes to the state intervening to support those programs, what happens when there is not an independent political party with which you are aligned?
MC: Well, I think we will burn that bridge when we come to it. If the state does that, it means we are winning, because we are a powerful enough force to make that happen.
AA: There’s another aspect. When I said that politics is the art of the possible, the question is, what is the state of the working class? With respect to this question, the third parties have been co-opted in the expansion of democracy. Let’s take Chicago politics as an example. When Harold Washington was elected, a lot of people on the Left stood on the side and condemned the election, because it was the election of a Democrat, as opposed to understanding how it was expanding democracy, which is the basis on which a lot of radical consciousness happened among the masses of people. It was not happening in the small groups on the Left that were condemning it; rather, the working class was learning about the political system and coming up against the Daley machine. Now, of course, Harold died and the Democratic Party machine reasserted itself. But now we have, for example, many Latinos who are emerging and critiquing the political system. So the question I raise is, Why would we take ourselves outside of the historical motion of the working class? How could we leave the opportunity to teach the working class in the context of what they think is possible, in order for their consciousness to make the leap to actually challenge the system?
In Germany, as I understand it, the 1968 generation went into the school system, out of which came the Green Party. The question for all the young people here is, What are you going to do? Most of you will get jobs and go to work somewhere, as opposed to becoming full-time cadre in the revolutionary movement. That’s really what people were talking about with the long march through the institutions: You have a job, you spend some time trying to organize people around revolutionary ideas, but most of it is the politics of everyday life. That’s where the working class is—the politics of everyday life. In other words, your kids are being educated in the public schools. You are involved in the healthcare system. You are in Streets and Sanitation. That’s where the actual struggles take place. Bread, peace, and land. That’s what the Soviets were talking about. It was the real experience of the working class. If you make the revolution an abstraction and you think that is where you are going to live, you’re gonna become religious about it and sit in groups like you are in church. You won’t be in the real movement of the working class.
We are here at the University of Chicago, which acts as a racist landlord with exclusionary contracts, all of which we have fought against. That was a real struggle. We were also dealing with Milton Friedman and the economics department here, as well as Ed Levy and Jules Levy, the two brothers that were running the city and the university. We were struggling against them in the concrete. When you go back home—What are you gonna do? What is the concrete struggle you’re going to be involved in? The working class is going to make a revolution. We are not going to make a revolution. You are not going to make a revolution. The working class and poor people are, and you have to serve them. That’s the real point. Summing up the experience of the working class, and giving their experience back to them—that’s what Marx did. It seems to me that’s what we have to do, as well. If we don’t do that, we’re actually thinking we are the revolutionaries, the ones who are going to make the revolution. And I’m here to tell you, we’ve been in this a while, we haven’t made a revolution, and it hasn’t been because we haven’t tried. You guys are gonna try. But it will only work if you unite with the working class. That’s the point. Their consciousness is what defines history. Their activity is what defines history. I wish it were different. I wish that it was magical. But it’s not. Anyone can be condemned for “identity politics.” Biko could be condemned for identity politics. The people who organized the women’s movement could be condemned for identity politics. These are revolutionary impulses.
JE: The year 1968 was the fiftieth anniversary of the German revolution and its failure. In the lead up to the German revolution, there was an argument within the German socialist party, the SPD, about the nature of the problem that many had commented on, that the party had tendencies toward reformism. Pannekoek was perhaps one of the more eloquent on the matter, and talked about how this problem also existed in other socialist parties: The party comes to represent an element of the working class that was more petty bourgeois, such as the skilled workers, and the intellectuals, rather than the industrial workers who were actually suffering. This argument, on the other end of the revolution, when you have Zinoviev bringing it up, descends into a mere sociological problem. It’s like, what we need is a party of the poorest of the poor workers. Rather than understanding it the way Pannekoek did—the way Luxemburg and Lenin did, too—that of course the party is going to have all these petty bourgeois elements, and in some cases they are going to be the most revolutionary, but that problem was not due merely to the sociological composition of the party, but rather the politics that allowed the party to align itself with bourgeois parties in 1905. It’s not merely a matter of the poorest of the poor versus the more bourgeosified; rather, it is a matter of the people who work and the people who do not. But more to the point, it is a matter of the politics of that.
JM: One sees this in the history of the SPD, but also in the social democrats all across Europe, as well as the Labour Party. These parties want to be revolutionary and reformist, but the reason they tend to end up reformist is because, as soon as they get elected, they have to deal with the running of capitalism. They just become a capitalist party. Capitalism can only be run in the interest of the capitalist class, on the basis of the accumulation of capital. I mean, look at Britain in 1945. Clement Attlee, the great hero of Corbyn and many on the Left, uses the army eighteen times in six years to crush the working class. That’s 3 times a year—this is the reality of trying to be a reformist party and a revolutionary party at the same time.
On the other hand, we can look at it the other way around, through the lens of these sporadic direct actions, even if they are not fully class conscious. You can look at it in terms of the growth of class consciousness in a political party. That’s where you see reforms being granted. Reforms are being granted by the state regardless of what party is in power. When there is a growing revolutionary working class, reforms are chucked towards the workers. So if you want reforms, you should go for the most revolutionary party possible. If you want reforms, then you should take a direct action approach of demanding those reforms—and you might also get revolution out of it. So, revolutionary organizations get reforms, but reformist organizations do not get revolutions. That’s important to remember.
My comments are directed just to Joseph and to the comrade from the SPGB. It’s striking to me that you are the two people on the panel who are representing some entity with the words “socialist party” in its name, but both of you seem to give a somewhat schizophrenic presentation, not only about the idea of a party, but also about politics in general. So, on the one hand, the comrade from the SPGB seems to be interested in street theater, where people go disrupt French people celebrating mass. I don’t really see how that has much political content, or what that has to do with building socialism. Then you praise the quasi-spontaneous movement of the French masses, even as you admit that this proved to be a failure. Obviously, May 1968 did not overthrow the French state and, presumably, the only way it could have overthrown the French state would have been through an organized political party in which those workers were united—in other words, precisely through a party that was, at least broadly speaking, within the Leninist tradition that you seem to reject.
In Joseph’s case, of the four people on the panel, you are the one who is most pessimistic about 1968. You are basically negative on the whole legacy of the New Left, and you speak about the problems going back further, all the way to 1848, but then end with this sort of optimistic appeal to this Campaign, saying that what we need now is a mass socialist party. So there’s this discrepancy between a profoundly pessimistic narrative of a century and three quarters of defeat and then saying, “Well, now we should go out and try to build a mass socialist party to organize the working class.” I’m wondering how you go from one step to another in the narrative.
JM: Firstly, on the 1950s and the disruption of mass, I completely agree. I was just tracking the history of the Situationists; by the 1960s, the Situationists are moving toward becoming council communists, and they are moving away from just doing “street theater,” as you call it. I consider that a very good development. There are good criticisms to be made of the Situationists even as late as 1968, and after, but by that point they have definitely moved away from doing stuff like the Easter mass disruption. As to your second point, I don’t see what the conflict is between street-fighting anarchism and being in a political party that seeks state power in a completely anti-reformist way. Maybe there is a problem there—but not for me.
For example, you spoke about the ultimate goal being the abolition of money. First, you’d have to abolish capitalism, and then you’d have to develop some other economic system. Even in the Bolshevik revolution, money was not abolished, and it seems to me the abolition of money would be the last stage, and essentially a technical stage, of a profound political and economic transformation of society. How would that happen without a revolutionary state? It seems to me that you are pushing for a kind of anarchism, which then makes me kind of wonder, where does the party fit in? If you are an anarchist, why become a member of something called the Socialist Party?
JM: Because the Socialist Party of Great Britain believes in using the democratic powers available to us to disband and take state power away from the capitalist class. That is the failure of Spain in 1936, for example. The anarchists there were not prepared; they were content to leave too much state power in the hands of Stalinists and then, ultimately, fascists, who just massacred the whole lot of them. That was a suicidal kind of anarchism.
I would say that I try to take a two-sided approach. You build up workers councils and industrial unionism so that you have a new body of power ready and available, out of the shell of the old. That’s like the IWW’s approach. At the same time, you use the democratic power available to take away whatever you can from the capitalist class. That’s how I understand it—I’m not speaking for the SPGB, here. I think these are all good questions, by the way, and I wouldn’t pretend to have complete answers to all of them.
JE: My short answer is that I don’t think the New Left was sufficiently Marxist. The real question of the origins of the New Left is, How can one be a Marxist during the Cold War? That’s perhaps where the Shachtmanite vision has some purchase in the 1930s, ’40s, and maybe even in the ’50s, in spite of its insufficiencies. Third Campism was an attempt to deal with the Cold War. I don’t think it worked. There are certainly problems with it, about which I could talk for a long time. In any case, what I’m trying to provide here is a critique of the New Left from the perspective of Marx and Lenin. As to the schizophrenic nature—I’m trying to be fully cognizant of just how much of a barrier our current situation is, and how to deal with that, without simply putting the blinders on and doing activism without thinking. Even so, to some extent I’m going to have to do that, and I have to do that on a regular basis, as an activist—but I demand the right to be able to reflect.
AA: I’m not sure what you mean by the New Left. When does that end?
JE: Essentially I think the New Left is everything from the Cold War on—the new movements that emerged from the Cold War, and everything that emerges in the process of de-Stalinization and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
AA: So there was something called the New Communist Movement. You consider that part of the New Left?
JE: I see that as part of the New Left, yes.
AA: So the rebirth of Marxism—
JE: That’s exactly it, yes. The rebirth of Marxism was, itself, inadequately Marxist.
AA: On what basis do you make that judgment?
JE: The fallout of SDS is unfortunate, precisely because it splinters into these groups that ultimately end up trying to reproduce their form of sectarianism, whether they are Maoist, Stalinist, or Trotskyist. Ultimately none of them escape the gravity of Stalinism and the problem of the failure of the Russian revolution.
AA: What happened in SDS is that, first, there was this polarity between people who believed that progressive leaders should support the struggles in the national liberation organizations—to support the Vietnamese struggles, and so on. The others were rediscovering Marxism, most notably the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM II). That wing then developed into these different formations, which hooked up with people who had been purged from the Communist Party and were part of the provisional organizing committee, who held to a more revolutionary Marxist position, in opposition to Browderism. What was rediscovered at the same time was the emergence of Marxism coming from the Third World, in particular from China. So the republication of Marxist texts came from foreign language presses out of China and other places, such as India. Suddenly we had access to the texts. And we were reading the texts and rethinking Marxist theory in relation to reality.
With regard to the question of racism in the United States, we rediscovered the national question. We read what the Soviets wrote about it, we read what the Chinese wrote about it, and we took the Comintern position seriously. But we tried to understand the history of black people in this country. I think that’s fundamental. We sought to develop Marxism as a viable body of thought in the United States for the first time since the 1930s. In other words, we had the Fascist 1950s. We didn’t have the social democracy of Europe; we had the legacy of the New Deal, but we didn’t have those profound social democratic tendencies. But the main point I am trying to make here is that the SDS or the New Left cannot be talked about as one thing. There were historical developments, and we stand on that. In fact, Platypus stands on that, whether you all realize it or not. You stand on history as it actually happened—that’s my point. The Port Huron statement that led to the SDS was not irrelevant; it was a fundamental awakening of the youth.
I like many of the points made about reformism, but the fundamental distinction is between reform and revolution. History is made by reforms. Do you have children? Do they go to school? Are you concerned about what they learn in school? How about healthcare? Anybody here got insurance? Anybody been sick lately? How about your mama? — All these concerns are about reforms. If you make a revolution, what do you think the next day is about? Reforms. And reforms are only going to be possible to the extent that the working class will implement them. Take Cuba. What is Cuba about today? They have difficulty feeding themselves. You think a revolution can be made without people being fed? Reforms are changes in how society is structured. It is a step-by-step process. Analyzing what the Soviets did, you are looking at reforms. How do you change the factory system, how do you change distribution, how do you change the decision-making? You can call that revolution all you want. But in the real world you are talking about changes, and those changes are, in fact, reforms.
MC: I want to shift it a little bit and address this question in an oblique way. What does our goal have to do with taking over the nation-state? Is that what our goal is? Is that what the goal of revolutionary movements are, or should be? I think that is the question. There was a point made earlier that the 1968 uprising in France failed because it did not defeat De Gaulle and become a state power. But is that what people were aspiring to do? Is that what they said they wanted to do? I think part of why it failed is that people moved right on past the Bank of France and left all the gold sitting there, saying, “We don’t need their stinking gold,” when they had it within reach. That could have been a pressure point to fight around, but they let it go. That’s when the revolution failed. The Zapatistas have been organizing and mobilizing for more than twenty years around the idea of making changes in civil society, and fighting for those changes, so that other things can be allowed to blossom. They have done all of that without supporting any political parties, although they are now running their own candidate for national office, for the first time. There are so many different forms that these things take, and we should build on them, and not try to homogenize it into one thing.
With respect to the working class, I would just make the point that we are part of the working class. When workers go on strike against Greyhound or against the train system or against that, our role is not only to support that strike but also to talk to people, through whatever means we have, about how we could reconstruct the transit system so that it stops in all people’s neighborhoods. How would you make it free for people to ride? In New York City we opened the gates at one point and the transit workers supported us, and everybody rode for free for a couple days. It was only one moment, but that moment allowed people to see that there was another way of thinking, of functioning, of being in this society. Just to quote one more person, Fredy Perlman, an important theorist of the New Left—he talked about how, when people are oppressed, there are always ways of rebelling that people engage in, even if we do not see it. Our job, perhaps as conscious Marxists, or perhaps just as political people, is to find those different ways of rebelling, and do something with them, articulate them, and put them out to people so that they become more visible.
For those of us who are senior citizens, I think our fear is that you are running out of time. The problems that you are facing are literally catastrophic. And you don’t have a real education. Or you have been given an education by the power elite—so you are still uneducated. Your actual stupidity, your lack of knowledge, is astonishing. I went to University of Wisconsin and I took a course in revolution. We studied revolutions from country to country. What do you know about the Venezuelan revolution?
What happened with the Civil Rights Movement is that the northern whites went down and learned from the blacks down south, interacted with them, and were with them. Do you know about every revolution—have you studied them? Do you know what you have to do, and how much time you have to do it in? Because every indication is that time is running out—literally. I am happy I am not your age.
First, in terms of the lessons of 1968 regarding organization, my question is, by the time the black power movement took off, was the idea of a revolutionary integrationist organization no longer on the table? Or what happened there? Because the Civil Rights Movement an integrationist movement. I’m just wondering about this in terms of lessons to take forward, and in terms of the kinds of organization we need.
More broadly, there is the point about Marxism in 1968 and the rather obscure character of that. We’ve seen attempts to address the Marxism of ’68. Was there any? Or was 1968 anti-Marxist? With respect to the SPGB, in my view if you really are an anarchist, then you are not for Marxism. So what does political revolution mean for you? I’ve met some of the SPGB in Britain and there is a difficulty in terms of accessing the history. The SPGB is esoteric in itself within the broader history of socialist parties, and the older members were all politicized around 1968. That was their reason for joining the Socialist Party of Great Britain, so that’s why it is kind of obscure. On the other hand, the way in which it appeals is the extent to which it is anti-Leninist. How do you see the question of the party and the revolution? More generally, how do we render concrete what Marxism was in 1968, and is that a thing we can take forward?
JM: Good, so we have to make a serious distinction between Marxism and Leninism. Marx believed that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class. Lenin believed in a vanguard political party of professionals, of intellectuals, of revolutionaries, leading the working class, and he believed this because he did not think the working class could achieve, by itself, anything more than trade union consciousness. This is also the point that a lot of people seem to make with the distinction between being a socialist and the working class. I do not make any such distinction. I am a member of the working class and I am a socialist. It is to my fellow workers that I address the socialist case. And one of the fundamental questions that I ask myself, as a socialist, is, How did I become a socialist? I became a socialist through a combination of my experiences under capitalism—working and trying to organize workers in kitchens—and coming into contact with the ideas of the SPGB. So, again, I don’t really see any distinction, any kind of antagonism, between socialist propaganda—where the SPGB says we stand for a moneyless and stateless society—and the class struggle, trade union activity, and so on. There’s never really been any antagonism there for me.
Abdul has this idea of analyzing concrete material conditions, which is a very good thing to do. So let’s look at Lenin—but then let’s look at the material conditions of Russia, and China. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of judging a man only by what he thinks of himself. Look at Russia in 1917: Something like 80% of the population is peasantry. There is a tiny minority, about 10%, who are revolutionary factory workers. The whole history of the Bolshevik revolution is the suppression of that tiny section of revolutionary, class-conscious workers. Look at Kronstadt—the massacre of those workers. The socialist revolution wasn’t possible in Russia at that time, and I can argue for this on purely Marxist grounds: It was a feudal society that had to go through a capitalist stage of development. It was basically dragged into a kind of state capitalism, and everything that followed with Stalin was about dragging Russia out from being a backward feudal country into a modern, industrial, capitalist society.
I suppose you can look at Lenin and go, “You say you are a socialist, you say you want all power to the soviets, and it doesn’t matter that two years after declaring, ‘All power to the soviets,’ you murder a shitload of workers and their soviets.” You can do that, but that’s not judging material conditions by the actual things on the ground, historically. Russia was not ready for socialism. If you want any chance of achieving socialism in Russia, the number one thing you do not do is murder that tiny fraction of the working class that is taking control of their factories and organizing as class-conscious workers.
AA: Well, in this country, industrialization took place on the basis of slavery. So, when we look at the world, we can imagine a different course of history, but we inherit what actually happened. We have to get at what happened in order to obtain the knowledge we need. That is a fundamental aspect of being scientific. Your point is very interesting about revolutionary integrationism. The problem is that what the Civil Rights Movement accomplished was opening society up in ways that enabled the black middle class to develop more fully. This resulted in a polarity, as there were masses of poor black people being excluded. We all know the Brown decision of 1954, which is sort of the symbolic state decision to integrate society, which, despite the phrase with “all deliberate speed,” never really happened. So we never had integration. But we did have an opening to some extent, so that a middle class developed more fully.
Black power had developed by 1966, after much suppression took place, symbolically marked by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. It really is a class aspect of self-determination, which has two aspects to it. First, there is the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was actually a movement in which white people acted as if they could still run it, just as the NAACP was run by white people, historically. I mean we would have meetings in this room, in this very room, and white people would assume that if you are talking about black people, it was white people who are gonna run the meeting. And so we went through a phase of putting white people out of the meeting. Just like women went through a phase of putting men out of the meeting. Black power became what Malcolm X called the organization of the bottom to form their own basis of power to fight against the state, to fight against the structures of racism, which are, after all, primarily the responsibility of white people. Objectively, white people are the beneficiaries of racism, including all the radicals, including all of you all—you are the beneficiaries of racism, just like people in Europe are the beneficiaries of the legacy of colonialism.
Historically, black power represents possibility in this country, because it is when black people have moved, that it wakes up and shakes up sections of the white working class and white people generally. That’s been the history. So, black power is a class demand that fundamentally confronts structural racism. Today, in this country, what is happening to this superfluous labor as a result of the technological revolution and the decline of the demand for labor in the workplace? They are murdering working class people in the street, and the first victims are black people. In the high schools in the black community, they have had guns for years, and metal detectors that you have to walk through, but when white middle class people are impacted by gun violence, we have the March 24th demonstration. The ruling class is very aware that white people are waking up to the crisis, and, therefore, millions are being poured into this movement. The Guardian lets the high school editors take over the newspaper and talk, they are on TV, and so on. These middle class white people will get recruited to places like the University of Chicago, and they are going to be in all these elite schools, and they are going to have careers—but the reality for social change is whether or not those students connect with the inner city, the silenced ones, who bear the brunt of the fascist attack. Unspeakable things are happening to sections of the working class. That’s really the challenge that we face. Right now, if Platypus has another international convention, and there aren’t more oppressed people in this room, you all have to seriously ask yourselves, What the hell is going on, here? That’s what you have to do, if you really want to make a conversation that has revolutionary implications, and not just take part in an academic exercise.
I wanted to bring up something that was raised, but not really addressed, with respect to the 1960s: breaking with Browderism and the old CP. If there was a break with a certain kind of reformism from an earlier time, of the “Old Left,” then what was the actual character of the opportunity of the 1960s? The party question was also raised, but it was mostly directed to the two speakers who identify as members of a socialist party. But I would like to hear from Abdul and Mitchel on that point. If not the opportunity to build a party, then what sort of political opportunity did the 1960s represent? Since you both have also said that the 1960s did not fail, then how does that political opportunity of the 1960s persist today?
MC: To start with the party question. Choosing between the two parties in the United States is like choosing between syphilis and gonorrhea—it is a false choice. It doesn’t represent any alternative. I fully agree with those who want to form a different way of doing things. I myself am a part of that; I was one of the founders in Brooklyn of the NY Green Party, though I am now very critical of the Greens, too, for falling into the same way of doing things. They messed up by getting involved in elections in the United States, which is different than in other countries, where you can actually make some impact. They absorbed the energy of all these younger Green Party members, who were doing all these different sorts of projects, and just pushed it into the electoral arena, in which you waste all your time and money supporting a candidate here and there, and even if the candidate says good things, I think it ends up pulling the movement apart. It doesn’t have to, but the Green Party people, the rank and file, have not effectively talked with each other and talked about all this, outside of electoral politics, in recent years. So I don’t know whether that represents any alternative, either. I don’t think it does. In the electoral arena, it certainly does not.
Here’s a short anecdote: The 1909 Moore–Aveling translation of Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, which was the first translation in English, was published out of Chicago. Franklin Rosemont and Penelope Rosemont took charge of the publishing house, Charles H. Kerr & Company. I was a friend of Franklin and Penelope, and they were so proud of the fact that they were using the proceeds they still received from this translation of Marx’s Capital in order to fund movements. It’s just a story, but it highlights a nice continuity from the past into the present.
The fight for reproductive rights is a class issue. The fight for almost anything we can imagine is a class issue. When we allow people to separate and say, “Oh, that’s just identity politics,” as if that’s a negative—I mean, it’s our responsibility to bring out the class dimension, with respect to all of these issues, and to mobilize our class around them.
Finally, I would like to say that eight years ago, on my radio show called Steal This Radio, I interviewed two people from Platypus, when it was first starting out. We had some debates, a discussion, and some friendly argument. It is still available online. I’m really glad to see that Platypus has taken off. I think you should be proud of yourselves. But the thing that we really need to think about is, How do we make that wider? How do people learn about socialism? Does it happen by hammering people with an idea—or do people go through a process by which they slowly become open to various ideas, including ideas of socialism? How do we support that process, so that we can begin meeting each other’s ideas and desires in a revolutionary way?
AA: One of the really powerful lessons of the SDS is that it spread. SDS was everywhere, including high schools. I want to second what you said about Platypus and other such organizations: getting people to study revolutionary ideas in the context of the struggle, including around issues like television—such as the great discussion about Roseanne—and comic books. The Left has not really paid a lot of attention, consistently, to this. Intervening in popular culture is one aspect of educating the masses of people. Another is the discussion around new developments, in the current motion of capital, toward diminishing the demand for labor. Historically, when we talk about the working class, the workplace created a discipline that was the basis on which political organizations emerged that expressed that discipline. If we increasingly have the delinking of large sections of the working class, leading to massive waves of migration, then we are now contending with how that results in fascist developments as a reaction to this. And we must also contend with the confusion of progressive parties with regard to these policies. We have to have an analysis of the new conditions. In this country, with regard to the role of the social media giants, privacy, and control—what is the relationship between the state and Google, YouTube, and Amazon? What’s going on? What is the nature of capital in the world today? Who are the gravediggers of capital, today?
These are fundamentally new questions for us. We can quote the past. We have to anchor our analysis in the question, What is the nature of capitalism? That question is linked to another one: Is capitalism viable in the future? If the capitalists are not exploiting labor, then how are they reproducing themselves? And if we have a society that produces enough, then how do we distribute it so that all people can eat? Increasingly, with respect to the environmental question, migration is going to be fundamental. If we are embracing the Marxist tradition, it seems to me we have to deal with what is coming in the next few decades. In other words, when Marx was writing, the full-blown factory system that ultimately developed did not yet exist—but he was able to capture the dynamic. What is the dynamic today? That is the new question for us. The brain-power in this room can make a great contribution to that.
The masses of people are ready for revolutionary ideas, but we are not fanning out. It seems to me that this is the time. When I referred to that PEW survey about who believes in socialism—well, that’s our market share! The Tea Party are fascists in Congress. But we are not in Congress. I am not talking about being Democrats or about being servile. I am talking about being out there, representing our ideas, forcing them to put the police on us, forcing them to put us out, and polarizing things on the basis of something real. But you have to be there—that’s the whole point. Engage in the politics of the society in which we live.
JE: I think there was an opportunity sometime in the early 1960s that unfortunately, from the perspective of history, appears to have been doomed, the more I look into it. There’s an opening at the beginning of the student movement in the late 1950s, where there is an opportunity for the recruitment of the people in the Civil Rights Movement and the student movement into a massive force. That could have brought about a crisis. There is a different sort of missed opportunity in the 1970s on the basis of the New Leftists of ’68 who later went “back to Marx.” This period plays into the development of neoliberalism in various ways.
In closing, I am reminded of this passage from Trotsky’s article, “Stalinism and Bolshevism”:
There are others, less consistent but more numerous, who say on the contrary: “We must return Bolshevism to Marxism.” How? To what Marxism? Before Marxism became “bankrupt” in the form of Bolshevism it had already broken down in the form of social democracy. Does the slogan “Back to Marxism” then mean a leap over the periods of the Second and Third Internationals... to the First International? But it too broke down in its time. Thus in the last analysis it is a question of returning to the collected works of Marx and Engels. One can accomplish this historic leap without leaving one’s study and even without taking off one’s slippers. But how are we going to go from our classics (Marx died in 1883, Engels in 1895) to the tasks of a new epoch, omitting several decades of theoretical and political struggles, among them Bolshevism and the October revolution? None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course. So the question is reduced to the simple advice to study Capital. We can hardly object. But the Bolsheviks, too, studied Capital, and not badly either. This did not however prevent the degeneration of the Soviet state and the staging of the Moscow trials. So what is to be done?
When I read about the sixties, I try to put myself in that place, and I don’t have an answer. When I think about the present, I feel that I am in an even darker place. At least Trotsky had a mass working class movement to try to move toward something. In the U.S. in the 1960s, I’m not sure what a Marxist revolution would have looked like. I don’t think Harrington, Rustin, or any of the young members of the New Left were about to lead any sort of revolution. Certainly, the revolution was not going to be led by the people running around saying, “Don’t trust anybody over 30,” or, “If you want to make a revolution, you have to be willing to kill your parents.” I think by ’68, if not before, the right basically has the upper hand in leading the transformation of capitalism. It has been like that ever since.
JM: I’d like to start by thanking Platypus. I didn’t know what Platypus was, really, until about a week ago, when they contacted me. I had sort of vaguely heard of them. It is cool that Platypus has these sorts of discussions; so much of the Left today is about shutting everyone down and retreating into their little comfort zones, so it’s great to have us all together, thrashing it out. When I asked my lefty friends about Platypus, they said, “Platypus—not a good organization. They want to destroy the Left.” Whoa! But then I thought, you know what, I’m a member of an organization that has wanted to destroy the Left since 1904. So I’m among my people, here.
I really like animals, and there is a place in Capital where Marx talks about the worst of architects and the best of bees. He says that what distinguishes the two is that even the worst of architects conceives of something before they produce it. For Marx, this is a fundamental human condition. The laborer looks at stuff and says, “Ok, let’s make it into something.” The worker conceptualizes. I think this is also what revolutionary consciousness is about—imagining the future. People today say, “Don’t think about the future, that’s idealism”—but that’s not idealism. That’s us working class people reflecting on our material conditions and thinking beyond them, having the imagination to think beyond the material conditions of capitalism. This ability to think beyond comes fundamentally from recognition of the fact that this society is reproduced by our own labor-power. One of the good things about Sartre is that he puts this back into Marx—this idea that capitalism doesn’t just happen to us, but is tied up with Marx’s idea of alienation and ideology.
Everything we see around us, everything that fucks us over, that makes us want to kill ourselves, that makes me carry a hip-flask in my pocket—all of it is realized by us. We’ve got no one to blame. First and foremost, you can’t really blame the capitalist class. That’s a great place to start. It also means you cant drift off into anti-Semitism. You can’t blame the Jews. You’ve got to blame your fucking self, as a worker. We’re the ones who reproduce this social system. That’s fundamentally important to understand. People ask, “Will the working class grasp socialism?” I am a member of the working class. I grasp socialism. If you are a member of the working class, and you are a socialist, and you worry about the working class being able to “grasp socialism,” then you have to think one of two things: You have to think you are morally superior to the working class, or intellectually superior. I do not think I am intellectually or morally superior to my fellow workers. In fact, I am probably stupider and more corrupt morally than most workers. The working class can think of this stuff, just as we do. We are not detached from the rest of the class.
Finally, I come out of the IWW, but I know it is not all about strikes. There are other things you can do. Someone talked about opening up the ticket gates on the subway. It reminded me of this post-Situationist film from the 1980s that I watched in art college. In the scene, there are a punk and a granny in the subway. The granny jumps over the ticket barrier. The punk takes his chain out, whips the ticket barrier—and then he gets his ticket out and uses the ticket to walk through the barrier. The rebel on the one hand, the revolutionary on the other. For me, one of the things wrong about the 1960s was this: It was a lot of rebels. It was not enough revolutionaries. | P
Transcribed by Clint Montgomery and Brian Worley
- Gilles Ivain, “Formula for a New City,” Situationiste International no. 1, Paris, June 1958.
- Situationiste International no. 1, Paris, June 1958. Title variously translated as “Formulary for a New Urbanism.”
- Christopher Gray, “‘Everyone Will Live in His Own Cathedral’: The Situationists, 1958–1964,” in Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International (1974).
- Originally published May 20, 1968, in Le Nouvel Observateur, Sartre’s interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit is available online at <https://medium.com/@AM_HC/jean-paul-sartre-interviews-daniel-cohn-bendit-5cd9ef932514>.
- Trotsky, “Stalinism and Bolshevism,” originally published in September 1937 in Socialist Appeal. Available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/08/stalinism.htm>.