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Democracy and the Left


Jon Bekken, Warren Breckman, Adolph Reed, Jr., Erin Hagood

Platypus Review 117 | June 2019

The following is an edited transcript of a panel hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the University of Pennsylvania on March 21st, 2019. The panelists were Jon Bekken, editor of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, Warren Breckman, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, and Erin Hagood, member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. The panel discussion was moderated by Austin Carder, member of the Platypus Affiliated Society.

Opening remarks:

Jon Bekken: I come out of a tradition that has a very different approach to politics than Platypus. When we launched our magazine in 1986, we were deliberately making a connection between the younger generation of radicals and people from the WWI era, who had been part of a continuation of the anarcho-syndicalist movement rooted in ethnic and working class communities. While I’m not saying this tradition has all the answers — that’s clearly not true because capitalism is still with us — nonetheless, I believe the tradition has a great deal to offer. Many of the efforts to rethink the traditional ideas on the radical Left — either anarchist or socialist — have in fact been steps backward from things that you can find, for example, in the early Bakunin before he became a revolutionary or in the pre-Marxian socialists. We see a great deal of backward-looking developments in the guise of adjusting to new realities. I consider our tradition in these terms.

We launched Anarcho-Syndicalist Review because we felt, on the one hand, there was a need for more theoretical reflection because a lot of the writing at the time was more activist-oriented, and on the other hand, there was a need in particular to grapple with some of the challenges of economics and how a self-managed economic theory could respond to changes in the economy since Marx wrote his work a century ago about that form of labor in a concrete sense. I don’t think these changes undermine the fundamental analysis in any way, but they certainly present very different tools and challenges. 

The fundamental goal of anarcho-syndicalism has always been to bring an end to the exploitative, oppressive conditions under which we presently toil and live, and instead to bring about a society founded on democratic principles — a society where the people rule, that is, true democracy.

Democracy is a much-abused term. Brutal dictatorships proclaim themselves democratic people’s republics. Pro-capitalist politicians proclaim themselves Democrats. Union-busters and exploiters of child labor characterize their crusade to strip workers of their last vestigial workplace rights as an effort to “restore freedom and democracy.” Everyone, it seems, is for democracy, but too many wish to confine it to the narrowest of cages — a brief moment in a voting booth, choosing between pre-determined options that represent, at best, different factions among those who would rule over us.

Genuine democracy is a process, an activity, through which people have unfettered access to information pertaining to all aspects of our lives, free discussion in which all viewpoints have an equal right to be heard, a dialogic process through which we evaluate the options and agree on a course of action that best serves our needs, and of course the organized power to carry out our decisions.

I should be clear that this is not a unitary process. Democracy needs to suffuse all aspects of society. Decisions should be considered and taken by those who they most directly affect. Some decisions will be taken at the workplace level, others in the neighborhoods, still others in the self-organized groups we will create to meet our full range of needs and desires. Where decisions implicate the rights of others, there will need to be coordination and mutual agreement. Our commitments to decentralization and federalism are not supplemental; they are fundamental to the realization of genuine democracy.

Most of those who discuss democracy would confine it to only a portion of our lives. Some to the process of selecting “representatives” who will rule in our name, claiming to represent our interests through some variant of Rousseau’s universal will. Some might allow fuller participation in the political process, perhaps permitting us to criticize our rulers or march in the streets when our rights are violated but would deny us the access to information and the right to communicate that are so essential to democratic discourse. These “democrats,” having reduced democracy to the merest facade, see no contradiction in subjecting us to the most brutal dictatorship in our economic lives — in our work, our relations with landlords and banks, our access to the necessities of life. Such a conception of democracy is not only impoverished, it is one that leaves its subjects — and there can be no mistaking the fact that those who are reduced to the status of serfdom in their economic lives are subjects, in practice excluded from meaningful participation in democracy in any sphere of their existence — as powerless in the political domain as in every other.

To speak of genuine democracy is necessarily to propose a vision of an alternate society. This includes workplace councils in socialized industries, popular assemblies in neighborhoods, and a host of self-managed voluntary associations. Everyone participates. Decisions are made through face-to-face direct democracy. Councils and assemblies are associated through networks and federations. Collective decisions have to be made. If not by democratic procedures, then how? People’s participation in the decision-making is an essential part of their freedom. Collective decision-making by free and equal people is the essence of democracy.

Democratic life is the striving of people to mobilize and organize themselves to satisfy their needs and desires — to live their lives as they want. But such self-activity inevitably clashes with the “democratic state.” Really a form of “oligarchic government,” the state uses representative democratic forms to co-opt and/or repress the population into passivity and acceptance of its rule. 

The conflict is not only “between governors and governed,” but also between exploiters and exploited. It is not enough to attack society’s political decision-making methods. It is also necessary to end the wage system, the market, and private property in production. It is necessary to expropriate the capitalists and abolish capitalism, along with all supporting forms of oppression (racism, patriarchy, imperialism, etc.), as well as the state. The state (neither the existing one nor a new one) cannot be used for such fundamental change. A new society must be prefigured by a movement of the working class and all oppressed people — a movement which is as radically democratic as possible. 

Charter of the Industrial Workers of the World. "Labor is entitled to all it produces."

Adolph Reed, Jr.: I’ll start by positing something: there is no Left in the U.S. at this point, insofar as what it means to have a Left is to have an organic movement that is capable of influencing the terms of political debate. I don’t mean seizing power — just capable of influencing the terms of political debate.

2016 showed us that there is no Left. One data point that underscores that fact is that between 6.5 and 9 million people who voted for Obama at least once and Sanders in the primary then voted for Trump. What that says is: Yes, Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate — there’s no question about that — but also that the Democratic party hadn’t had for years anything to offer the mass of people who work for a living. In that broad category I would include what is stereotypically considered the working class, the industrial workers, non-college-educated white males. It’s still basically the image of the working class that was concocted in the Cold War: beefy white guy with a hard hat and plaid flannel shirt.

Between 30-40% — and I think that’s probably a conservative estimate — of people who are considered middle class are basically working class people. An economist, Michael Zweig, in his recent book, Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (2011), found that the impulse of most people was to identify as middle class, but when a working class component was added to the options, about 55-65% of respondents identified as working class. That matches up with his empirical breakdown of the labor force. That also matches up with the percentage of working people who exercise minimal supervisory authority at their jobs.

Why am I going on about this? Because I think another one of the lessons to take from 2016 is that, given the way neoliberal Left politics has evolved since Clinton, we’ve moved farther and farther away from the stakes of politics, stakes that are rooted in class and political economy. We’ve moved to a politics that is rooted in disparities of recognition according to ascriptive characteristics. For instance, this morning I saw an editorial in Forbes that proclaimed that the pursuit of reparations for black Americans is the way forward to make society pure or clean. That has clearly been the dominant trend in the left wing of the Democratic party since probably Clinton, even though he had to play to the opposite direction — but certainly since Obama. And we saw how that played out in 2016. There are a couple of points to make about this before I get to the crescendo.

We tend to look for quick-fixes or magical solutions. Some cataclysmic event is going to knock the blinders off people’s eyes, they’ll see clearly, and a movement will emerge. That’s what the Obama moment was all about. Having been at the birthing room at the outset of his political career, in the state senate district where he first ran, I can tell you Obama was never anything more than an ordinary Clintonite neoliberal Democrat. But the way that the racial narrative works, and his call for us to see him as the embodiment of all of our hopes and aspirations — I don’t want to say snookered — but it snookered a lot of people who should have known better. It played to the dreams of people who ought to have known better. Then once he’s elected, the charge for us all is to defend him. It’s understandable considering the way he was being attacked. But the same thing happened when he was reelected.

So, after two terms of Obama, we came to a point at which the understanding of progress in American politics narrowed increasingly to the pursuit of “firsts.” First woman, first black, first Latino, first gay, first lesbian, first trans person, all within a framework that completely accommodates neoliberalism. Bernie Sanders in his 2016 campaign — and hopefully he’ll do it again this time — posed a challenge to the neoliberal Left in the U.S. that was a call to get back to political economy and focus on inequality.

During Obama’s second term, the #Occupy movement followed on the heels of the so-called Arab Spring and made for a popular groundswell of progressive activism of young people in particular. I was talking about this with a friend who’s an historian. He said #Occupy’s impact was to get people talking about inequality. My question was: Who’s talking about inequality now that wasn’t talking about it before? Maybe your friends were. I know my friends and I were. The answer was The New York Times. My response to that was that four months ago The New York Times was talking about Kim Kardashian’s marriage and divorce from the basketball player.

I think the #Occupy experience gave us a foretaste of the more recent phenomenon of the massive explosion in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Now you hear people saying the line: “Socialism is no longer a dirty word.” That is being taken as “progress.” But there’s a problem with that.

Over twenty years ago, I made a presentation to an anthropology class at Chabot College about the idea of a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee everyone a job and living wage. Some of the students were incensed by it. One of them said that her mother was a small-business owner and if she had to pay people $10 an hour in 1995, she wouldn’t be able to realize her dream. But another guy said to me: “I appreciate this thing you’re talking about, but it feels to me that you’re being disingenuous to not call it socialism. If you were to call it socialism, I might even support it.”

At this point, what socialism means is very much up for grabs in American society. You certainly saw people talk about socialism after the 2008 election. But the point comes down to two separate propositions: whether everyone looking for work should have a right to a job and everyone who works for a living should have a right to earn a living. I mention that because where we are at this point in American politics is that we don’t have a Left, and we need a Left. We need to have a functioning Left as quickly as possible. But you can’t wave a magic wand and make it happen. And you’re not going to convince people to sign on to an abstract commitment to an abstract socialism. In fact, the DSA can’t even agree on what socialism is supposed to entail at this point.

It seems to me that the most reasonable path forward for trying to build an institutionally-rooted Left — and it’s not going to happen by 2024 or even 2040 — is to mobilize and build support around campaigns for what some call “practical utopian agendas,” like Medicare for All. That’s the kind of approach that will get us through the wilderness. The trade union movement is not only vital for material resources, but trade union members have connections out among those 6.5 to 9 million people who should have been ours — not the Democrats’. Those people who voted for Trump have a case of mistaken identity. This is the kind of approach that people who understand themselves to be on the Left have been avoiding for at least the past 30 years. The idea is that we don’t have time to build a Left because the fascists are banging at the door. But the reality is that we’re in this position because we don’t have that kind of movement. Our main task is to figure out how to try and build it.

I’ll conclude with this final reflection. For most of us, for working people of all sorts — and I’m not talking about the identity politics stuff — most of us got more from Richard Nixon’s presidency than we got from any of the three Democratic presidents since. It certainly wasn’t because he liked us; he hated us. Clinton liked us, and Obama liked us, and Carter liked us in his weird Baptist way. But the difference was that the social forces that our movements were associated with were stronger at that time. They had enough social power that Nixon had to respond to them. He did OSHA, the EPA, and affirmative action for god’s sake.

Warren Breckman: My comments will be a little a more general. I am not a political scientist; I am an historian. I have done a lot of work on Marx, the Marxist tradition, as well as post-Marxism. First I want to express some distance from the term “working class” and the term “Left.” I agree with Adolph that there is no Left in America, and I am not sure that is a bad thing in certain ways. Of course, we do have a history, almost a two-century long history, of the attempt to create a homogenous Left. That history has put people like you, Jon, on the margins of that movement. The anarchists were excluded already from the First International. When I think about the Left, I think about — at most — a kind of plurality of sometimes cooperative, sometimes contestatory movements that are finding common ground not in some sort of ontological source of unity but rather through a kind of process of argumentation. To use the language of the political theorists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, it would be a unity achieved through an articulation of equivalence, where you are able to link struggles to each other and find common ground. When we talk about the Left, I think we have to be very guarded, because in fact we have a history of the attempt to construct that unified Left. It has never been very successful. That is a very evident in the American context. One wonders if it has created as many problems as it has solved. So, I find myself at most arguing for a kind of proliferation or plurality of movements, which would have to attempt to articulate commonalities and sources of common interests as well as possibilities of common action.

As far as the working class, there’s the old mantra from Karl Marx: “Social being precedes social consciousness.” The idea is that somehow you can ascribe a working class identity and in some ways even the proper consciousness based on the person’s place in the social order. That again is something that I find myself very skeptical of. It is a way of essentially robbing people of their own agency and not asking them to articulate their own interests. It also in some ways blindsides us to some of the real problems that we face when people seem to vote against their interests. It’s a cheap way out to say: “They are voting against their interests,” because in fact their interests are not really handed to them through their position in the social order. We have to argue. We have to articulate that set of interests.

I want to say something briefly about utopia. The panel description that we were given mentions a series of right-wing populist movements. Of course, we face a moment in global history — especially in Western European and North American history — when a crucial dimension of democracy rises up and confronts us in its pathological form. Namely, I think we would be making a mistake if we think this populist moment is by definition anti-democratic. I would argue that some kind of populist dimension belongs to what democracy is. It’s only because liberal democracy succeeded in monopolizing the definition of democracy that we are now confronted with populism as if it were somehow the opposite of democracy. So, we have this pathological form that we have to confront, but we have to confront it not by simply insisting on that thinnest definition of democracy, but by articulating a critique of elites, of oligarchies, of those various ways in which democracy has been captured, monopolized, and distorted by the elites.

What these right-wing populist movements of today really lack is a conception of utopia. You don’t need to study very deeply to find that the early right-wing movements of the 20th century were utopian movements. Again, these were pathological utopias — utopias of a pure people, a racially pure people. It’s a pathology, but it is a utopia. It is a politics which is grounded in a future of racial purity. Utopia is absent from the right-wing populism of the present moment. Of course, the problem with the Left’s response to this is that the Left is also grounded in an extremely presentist sense of history. Utopia has lost its pull. We are in a situation where both the Left and Right are flattened out into this presentist perspective. No real conception of a future really holds our attention, captivates us, or prompts one to take action.

One very powerful response to this on the Left — and again, we are forced to use these kinds of categories, even though I don’t believe there is a Left in any self-evident sense — has been melancholy, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. To take up the literal, Freudian definition of melancholy, it’s a form of grieving that never can overcome the experience of loss, cannot work through a different way of accommodating the lost object. In some ways, I think we still grieve in a melancholic framework.

I was listening to NPR on the way here, and they had an interview with the Danish thinker Rutger Bregman. It led me to a brief foray into his book, which I definitely want to read and is called Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World. He too shares this basic diagnosis of the present, which is that it is too presentist, that our time horizon has become flattened, and that the real crisis we are facing is our inability to generate a utopian vision. He makes a distinction that I think is worth sharing. It’s a distinction that many of us have made in the realm of post-Marxism. He talks about utopia as a blueprint and a kind of vague outline. A blueprint is exactly the kind of utopianism I think we should not want. Again, when we create monolithic impositions of imputed unities and harmonies, it can only lead to a certain kind of violence or a simply paralyzing defeatism. A vague outline sounds a little more promising. I think partially that’s because it’s less directed and less commanding. It doesn’t force us into a situation of trying to invent the future whole cloth or trying to impose that invention on historical reality, which is always more complex than anything we can imagine.

Bregman also speaks about his own generation as a 27-year-old. He points to something that I think is really important, which is that he is a post-war creature. I happened to be living in Berlin at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I went to the wall and struck my hammer against it. I actually probably have real shards of the Berlin wall, unlike all of those religious relics of it around the world. It was pretty hard in the Cold War period to escape the binaries of a geopolitically polarized world in which communism and capitalism seemed like two ends of slippery slopes in both directions. We are in a situation now where we don’t have to be imprisoned by those kinds of logics. Socialism doesn’t need to pass a litmus test. It can also be linked up with pragmatic solutions. I think that a lot of what presents itself as socialism is in many ways the most pragmatic solution to a social problem.

Taking a pickax to the Berlin Wall, 1989.

Where I find myself really sympathizing with this idea of utopia as a vague outline, is that in the end — and it goes back to my insistence on thinking of the Left as at most a kind of proliferation of a plurality of movements — we have to abandon thoroughly and finally the deep-rooted conviction, which certainly precedes Lenin but finds its classic articulation in Lenin, that theory is the vanguard of action. Action is innovation. Action is creativity. That doesn’t mean that we become purely spontaneists, leaping into action and figuring out what happened afterwards. I think that theorists have really stepped back from political movements and let these movements kind of discover their own creativity. At most then, theorists can try to come in and help figure out how these movements connect with each other and articulate those connections between different expressions of political contestation.

Another element of Bregman’s notion of utopia as a vague outline led me to go back to something that I found very powerful in the way that David Graeber talked about the #Occupy movement, and that is the idea of prefigurative politics. It’s the idea that one acts as if one is already free, that one prefigures the type of community that one hopes to achieve so that freedom is not out there in an impossibly receding future, but rather is something that we can actually enact now. What that suggests is — insofar as this panel poses the question of Marx and the Left — we have to hold on to the idea that the various forms of resistance and democratic activism don’t necessarily add up. They produce islands and pockets that can be articulated together and can discover equivalencies but are not first and foremost adding up to any singular demand.

I will add one final point, that though I sympathize with the anarchists, I’m not prepared to go fully down the path that Jon is suggesting. That’s because democracy is not one single thing. Liberal democracy is the absolute thinnest construction of democracy. It’s largely an ideological cover, and one has to recognize that as such. In the panel description, there was a question about Brexit. For instance, there’s a long history, especially among British Eurosceptics, of a criticism of what is called the democratic deficit in the European Union. The assumption there is that their own national democracies are not suffering from this deficit. The problem with liberal democracy is that it is a democratic deficit. But that doesn’t mean that representative democracy is an illegitimate form. I would say that I cannot imagine a modern society that does not have a state of some sort. I think that some kind of organization of our collective lives, our interests, and our pursuits, calls for a form of representation. The problem would be to A) allow that liberal-democratic ideological structure to capture the definition of representative democracy and then B) — and here, Jon, I would 100% agree with you — we have to recognize democracy is also forms of direct democracy. I think that the relationship between a robust conception of representation — and maybe this is a contradiction in terms for you — can sit beside forms of direct democracy. We can have these two things working together and hopefully enriching the ways in which we make decisions at the various levels of our society.

Erin Hagood: In my remarks, I will explain the unique approach Marx and Marxism took towards democracy and how it differs from conventional analyses of democracy today. A formative experience for Marx, and perhaps a moment of origin for Marxism, was the failed revolution of 1848 in France and throughout Europe, referred to in textbooks as the “Spring of the Nations.” 1848 will be our guide to the Marxist approach to the democratic revolution. As we will see, democracy is not an end in itself for Marx, nor is democracy a stable virtue that can be corrupted by inefficient or unjust governance. No, for Marx, democracy is a means by which society has revolutionized and continues to revolutionize itself. And furthermore, the character of the democratic revolution is subject to historical changes. Namely, the changed historical circumstances of the industrial revolution — capitalism.

The democratic revolution clearly predates 1848. We can name the Dutch Revolts, the English Revolution, the American Revolution and the French Revolution of 1789 among its ranks. So, what is special about 1848? The above-named democratic revolutions all used democratic demands, the rule of the people, the third estate to supplant the rule of the feudal monarchy. The extent to which they failed to meet their aims, it was tragic. For example, the tragedy of the power of slavery in the Southern colonies that would not be reckoned with until the American Civil War was nevertheless a phase in a trend of general progress of freedom and democracy. Not only was the 1848 revolution a failure, but the nature of that failure was different from the democratic revolutions prior. The bourgeoisie leading the democratic revolution did not tragically face defeat at the hands of repressive feudal interests. Rather, the bourgeois leaders of the democratic revolution were themselves forced to abandon their principles. To paraphrase Engels: the bourgeoisie could no longer lead, and the proletariat was not ready to lead.

Some historical background is required to illuminate this point. The revolution of 1848 was carried out against the reign of the July Monarchy under Louis Philippe. Marx argues that the July Monarchy was a bourgeois monarchy but had been able to represent only a narrow scope of bourgeois interest. In the course of the 1848 revolution, the monarchy was supplanted by a bourgeois republic, which was able to represent the full scope of bourgeois interests, and which ruled in the name of the people. In order, however, to rule in the name of the people, the “utopian” demands of the proletariat had to be put to a stop, despite the worsening economic condition of France, growing unemployment, and inability of the reforms (for example, the National Workshops) to deal with this mounting crisis.

The proletariat in Paris, which had formerly supported the bourgeois republic, responded with the June Insurrection, in which it was crushed by the republic with the aid of every other part of society from the aristocracy of finance to the rural population. Following the victory of the republic, 3000 of the captured insurgents were massacred and 15,000 more exiled abroad.

There is a question: why couldn’t the bourgeois republic handle the democratic discontents of the proletariat and their political struggle for socialism? Was this a gruesome mistake that would be redeemed by the flourishing of democracy and freedom for the French people?

A later Marxist, Leon Trotsky, in his Results and Prospects would describe the problem thus:

Revolution can be achieved either by a nation gathering itself together like a lion preparing to spring, or by a nation in the process of struggle becoming conclusively divided in order to free the best part of itself for the execution of those tasks which the nation as a whole is unable to carry out. These are two opposite sets of historical conditions, which in their pure form are, of course, possible only in logical contraposition.

A middle course in this, as in so many cases, is worst of all, but it was this middle course that developed in 1848...

In 1848, the struggle for the democratic revolution had conclusively divided the interests of “the people” into those represented by the bourgeoisie in the struggle for the democratic republic and those represented by the proletariat in the struggle for socialism. Both had arisen through the same democratic demand, and yet both were not capable of seeing that demand through together. The general interest of society had itself become frayed, and that part of society capable of seeing through the democratic revolution, the proletariat, was called upon to lead. When it was unable to lead, the middle course was taken.

As the life of the republic drew on, it was faced by the global crisis of which the 1848 revolution was always a part. It was forced by measure to adopt allies and methods from the old world, against bourgeois society, in the name of preserving order and saving that very same bourgeois society.

As Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Bourgeois fanatics for order are shot down on their balconies by mobs of drunken soldiers, their domestic sanctuaries profaned, their houses bombarded for amusement — in the name of property, of family, of religion and of order. Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms the holy phalanx of order and the hero Crapulinsky [Louis Bonaparte] installs himself in the Tuileries as the ‘savior of society.’

Wearing the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis Bonaparte emerged as the demagogue capable of saving society and restoring order to the republic. As the nephew of Napoleon I, he was able to garner massive support from the peasants and was celebrated as a socialist when he was elected as the first president of the republic. When his term was up and he could not be reelected, he made himself emperor for life through a coup d’état. However, it is important to note that this coup d’état was ratified by popular referendum — it had democratic support.

Ratapoil (1850-51), meaning "rat skin," by Honoré Daumier satirized the shady political agents that helped Louis Napoleon rise to power and become the Emperor of France.

Under Louis Bonaparte, the bureaucracy and the state (the special bodies of armed men) expanded and took on the role of repressing the disorder in society. The state seemed to make itself completely independent from society. This phenomenon Marx termed Bonapartism. The democratic revolution first revealed the divided and antagonistic interest of society. Then, in the absence of proletarian leadership of the revolution, it gave way to the authoritarian measures required to mediate that crisis. 

Of course, Marx agrees with the anarchists that the goal of socialism would be eventually to abolish democracy. Democracy is, after all, a form of a state, as Engels put it, and is therefore unfree. Marxists and anarchists disagree on the method of obtaining this end. For Marxists, it can only be accomplished in and through radical democratic revolution in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This, which Marx described in an 1856 letter to his friend Weydemeyer as his only original theoretical contribution, was the lesson Marx drew from 1848 and the coup of Louis Bonaparte. The Marxist party for socialism that developed in the following half century was a response to the failure of the 1848 revolution. If the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the conclusion drawn from the inability of the bourgeoisie to lead, then the party is the remedy for the failure of the proletariat to lead.

For Marx, this is the continued impasse of society under capitalism. The general character of the democratic revolution is Bonapartist under capitalism. Democratic discontents revolutionize society and renew capital through force, oppression and demagoguery. Not because these are inherent characteristics of democracy, not because the wrong, immoral, undemocratic people are in government, but because the ability of democracy to represent the general interest of society is in crisis. Once, democracy served as a means of revolutionizing society so that the general will could emerge from under the feudal yoke. The third estate — people who work — were nothing in the ancien régime and through the bourgeois democratic revolution they were to become everything.[1] Today, in the continued crisis of the industrial revolution, which points beyond our relations of labor that currently constitute society as such, the democratic revolution can only be renewed through the struggle for socialism. The crisis of democracy, simply put, cannot be solved with increased democracy, which as in 1848 will only serve to deepen and intensify that crisis of democracy. Only socialism, unsubordinated to bourgeois democratic demands, is able to see that crisis through.

Already in 1848, the struggle for socialism was necessary to strive for the most basic democratic demand. As Marx wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire, “Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an “attempt on society” and stigmatized as ‘socialism.’” The demand merely for democracy was only enough to democratically elect Louis Bonaparte in the name of saving society from what was stigmatized as socialism, namely the “most ordinary liberalism… the most insipid democracy.”

Today, the Left cries for democracy and social justice, the call of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and calls itself variously “democratic,” “Marxist,” “post-Marxist,” etc. Still, these “democratic revolutions” from #Occupy to the Arab Spring to the #resistance end in demagoguery. The Left emerges confused. Did the Right foil us yet again? Are the people too racist? Were we not democratic enough? The Marxists of the 2nd International and the revolutions of the early 20th century thought they were not doing something completely new, but rather returning to the problem outlined by Marx in 1848. Perhaps we today are not so beyond the questions of Marxism as we might think.

Responses:

JB: I have two points and an insult. Several of your comments had to do with, on the one hand, institutions of the Left or working class or movements, and on the other, utopian visions. It seems to me, since I’ve done a lot of work on the history of the labor press, which is rooted in civil society institutions and working class communities, that those institutions are really important. They owned facilities where people could meet. They ran mutual aid societies. They had choirs. They sustained resistance cultures. In the face of oppression, you could retreat into a mutual aid society or cultural society. You could sustain a relationship that was not dependent on capitalist relations, a relationship that circulated within a dedicated unity. You could draw upon resources of the movement for mutual aid to help sustain workers who were blacklisted. You could do that with institutional jobs, but you could also take collections for particular cases.

It has to happen organically. We can’t just sit here and say: “We should build institutions!” But building institutions is vital. They’re not just sources of strength and resources. They also develop our capacity to structure, to be democratic, to make decisions, to administer our lives, and to come to a realization of what we really can do if we set our minds to it. I think institutions are central. But the character of those institutions is important: how we hold them accountable, how we counteract the inevitable trend toward bureaucratization and ossification. We have to struggle against that always.

We have to remember the sort of society that we have in mind. We have to think about the fact that maybe we won’t all agree. I don’t think we have to all agree. Those union struggles can take the form of a demand for shorter hours. I see no reason why we should still be working 10 to 12 hours a day. I don’t think we should even be working 6 hours a day frankly. We could use that time to actually do things, to live our lives — the sort of lives we would like to live. We could have the time to do democratic work.

I have a review of Bregman’s book in our newest issue. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I like this notion of struggles that will take us where we’d like to go, like struggles for shorter hours or a living wage. He talks about the environment. It would be nice if my child could grow up to breath the air and not have to retreat to the mountains. These are, on the one hand, practical, and on the other hand, utopian under existing conditions. These are necessary struggles, even if we don’t win them. Like you said with Nixon, the establishment can be forced to do something.

I do think we need to keep in mind Carter, for example, who is the most admirable ex-president in my lifetime. He actually goes out and tries to do productive things in society. As president he ran on a program of abolishing Taft-Hartley and empowering labor, and not a damn thing was done towards any of those. I can’t get excited about platforms. My issue is what people do. How they carry forward the struggle.

And I’m not interested in revolutionary alchemy. This notion that we can accomplish a free society, that we can establish dictatorship through a party, through top-down centralized rule, this is alchemy. It’s not science. It’s not social movements. It’s not building our capacity to be free.

WB: I was waiting for the insult, but that was it, right? And I would agree with that. First off, I don’t believe that a revolution is possible. And secondly, I don’t believe that one is desirable, even if it weren’t impossible. I want to amplify Jon’s point about institutions like mutual aid societies. It’s highly indicative of the way labor historians informed by Marxist theory wrote about the “rank and file” as a passive mass. Labor history could be written as this series of statements that would just kind of filter down into this passive receptive thing called the “rank and file.” In my field of historiography, there was this discovery about 20 or 30 years ago of the robustness of those 19th century so-called “rank and file” movements. In fact, this was a very insurrectionary attitude, where people were living a life. To invoke David Graeber’s idea, they were living prefiguratively as if they were already free. That’s a very different conception than that of apocalyptic revolution. This is a kind of gradual transformation.

Marx also refers to “the mole of history.” Marx, in some of his best moments, recognized the complexity of what social and historical transformation would mean. It’s indicative of the distance travelled in Marx that in obscure texts, such as his initial critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843, he says we have to have what he calls “true democracy.” True democracy is a kind of uncontained, unpredictable, democratic power, which is not simply a demiurgic power of a “People,” but of people. It can happen in all sorts of different ways, and the state is part of that equation. But his conception of true democracy is always in excess. It’s institutional, but it’s always in excess of institutions. And I do think that Marx in some ways succumbs to a flatter conception of social reality when he embraces a more robust conception of revolution. And with regards to the voting for Louis Napoleon — the plebiscite that authorizes his status as emperor — I feel like it would be wrong to say that there was a bourgeois democracy that then, in a sense, handed over its power. It was a state of total crisis and total instability. I would find it insupportable to think that bourgeois democracy’s telos is Louis Napoleon, because liberal democracy did not establish itself in 1848. I think there was an effort to do that, and the National Workshops expressed part of it. I don’t think we had a real liberal democracy which then succumbs to plebiscitary dictatorship. Although, I would say that of all of Marx’s writings we could read in the age of Trump, theEighteenth Brumaire is probably the most valuable.

AR: I’d like to respond to a number of the points raised. Number one is the collapse of the utopian ideal. That’s a huge problem. I’d also like to speak to the distinction made between the blueprint and the vague outline. I think we can invoke that for our programs. Russell Jacoby did a book about 20 years ago called The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in the Age of Apathy (1999). He makes this argument that what had happened was, in the absence of a radical Left, what passes for the Left becomes liberal, takes its cues from liberals, and loses its utopian telos. And this change seems to describe what has happened with young people over the last 20 years, which has a lot to do with the NGO-ization of the actual political movements. It’s a retreat from not only theory but also from any consideration of political agendas that, in principle, would take longer than a couple of election cycles to be realized, even though the ostensibly pragmatic actions they embraced wouldn’t be realized in a couple of election cycles anyway. There’s disdain for a transformative vision. That has been coincident with the emergence of a strata of technicians and activists, who you see moving from congressional staff, to public interest groups, to trade union staff. That’s a definite problem across the board for our conception of political vision.

One thing I want to say about the working class notion is, yes, I agree with Warren. I don’t see the working class as a given entity, but what I do see is people who work for a living. They don’t necessarily have a single consciousness. Insofar as activism or the labor movement can be something like a political school for working people, it’s a place to strive and accentuate the best tendencies and battle against the worst tendencies. That’s another reason that I think a deep dive into the movement building process is what has been missing from our discussion.

EH: I have a couple of things to respond to. I’ll start with what you mentioned, Warren. I agree that Marx doesn’t think the telos of democracy as democracy is necessarily Louis Napoleon. That’s actually his argument. If you were to ask Marx, “Why do you seem to adopt this more robust vision of revolution as opposed to this idea you had in your earlier writings about democracy?” I think he would say that it’s actually an historical change. What has happened is not that democracy itself necessarily comes to some sort of demagogy. I don’t think he’d say that at all. I think he’d say that perhaps we don’t know, but after the industrial revolution, there is an historical crisis. Marx would argue that the industrial revolution has created a crisis in our ability to mediate social relations politically, because of the introduction of industrial forces of production, the general state of technology, all of these sorts of things. To put it in simpler terms, this means that somebody working doesn’t have a full sense of what’s going on. That person doesn’t seem to be subjectively a part of the process of the reproduction of society. This has ramifications politically, for democracy.

For Marx in 1848, his question is, why does it seem necessary all of the sudden for these bourgeois democratic republicans to ally themselves first with the Junkers and then with Louis Napoleon? Why was that the case? Why couldn’t it have worked? Why couldn’t the revolution of the people — which of course not this one thing, but is comprised of many competing interests that, through their antagonisms, create the people — why couldn’t that be successful? And why was it unsuccessful in a very particular way? Why was its lack of success the appearance of what seemed to be two classes of society? Not just that some people are workers, and that means they’re the proletariat, but rather why were there two different tendencies within our social production that were objectified by the political struggle for socialism on the one hand and the political struggle for bourgeois democracy and bourgeois equality on the other?

This gets me to the other thing I want to address — since we’ve already been talking about it — which is utopia and the relationship indicated by this question of what is to what ought to be. I’m not so certain about the definition of utopia as either a blueprint or even a vague idea. I would point to another definition, given by a leftist thinker of the New Left named Kołakowski, which is that utopia is a tool. Because of course, any sort of utopian blueprint is the product of what is; it’s the product of capitalism. It’s attempting to understand what ought to be, what could and should be, but of course it’s non-identical with that. And as it’s able to transform society, it also changes the ought; it changes what that utopia would look like. So, the question is how to have a better or worse tool for transforming society. I think theory is very important to that.

Precisely this crisis of the democratic revolution that Marx is registering is that we cannot, through our individual activity mediated by labor in society, actually subjectively drive our own history. We can’t subjectively make our society. Actually, we’re not living in freedom; we’re living in unfreedom. And so, the question is: how does one get from unfreedom to freedom? It’s not that freedom grows within the society that we have. Actually, the Marxists would argue against that. Every single reform that we think takes us closer to freedom actually makes the problem more acute. This is what Marx saw in the democratic demands such as the National Workshops. Even if it made people’s lives better in a straightforward way, it made the necessity of a different way of continuing the democratic revolution appear.

Lastly, I wanted to mention that I thought it was interesting that the vibrant civil society life of the 19th century was brought up, because of course the 19th century was the century of the mass political parties for socialism, but also party politics as such. Jon, you talked about needing to build institutions, and I was wondering what that would entail. In a way, the socialist parties actually were institutions. For example, the Socialist Party in the United States would run night schools and take care of your kids. There were lots of things that these parties would do. It was about developing the revolution, developing consciousness of the necessity — not necessarily just the desirability — of revolution. It was an effort to make conscious the revolution that happens to us behind our backs. They though that you might need a party for that. That’s the argument.

Q&A:

From its conception, Marx’s theory was inherently anti-nationalist. However, it’s undeniable that both Marxism and nationalism develop in the same era — the era of Romanticism. They have a very complex relationship. A common argument that is often posed in historical analysis, is that while nationalism as a concept was developed completely benevolently by Herder, it was very quickly turned into a tool to hinder the development of class consciousness. My question to you is: do you think that the strengthening of one of these concepts — whether Marxism, radical Leftism, or Anarchism — causes nationalism to get stronger? Or do you think it’s more a set of tipping scales, that the proliferation of one concept will lead to the lessening or eradication of the other one?

WB: Clearly there is a vexed history between Marxism and nationalism. Of course, in the Communist Manifesto we find the “workers of the world unite,” and “the workers have no fatherland,” and so on. The market is an international market in the interests of both the proletariat and the capitalists. These are not only national interests, even though Marx recognizes that national governments — states — have a role to play in ensuring the continuation of capitalism. One sees in that conflict between Marxism and nationalism the extent to which Marx is really an Enlightenment thinker. Marx has certain “Romantic” tendencies. Indeed, I’ve got a piece coming out in German on precisely this question. I see him as a figure of the Enlightenment. His conception of the human being and his conception of what a free society should be is one of freely liberated people. In that sense, I don’t know what a Marxist future would look like without some conception of democracy insofar as self-determination belongs to the achievement of our freedom.

For that reason, there’s also a deep conflict with nationalism. Nationalism is an ascribed identity. It’s an affective order that we come into. Benedict Anderson calls it a “fatality.” He also talks about it as an “imagined community.” It’s like our belonging to a certain family. We don’t choose the nation we’re born into. It’s an ascribed identity; it’s an ascribed affect. It’s not part of our self-determination. The community comes up with reasons for that conflict.

I would say historically — and I’m thinking most specifically about the German Left and the party orientation of the German Left — I think it has been a tragic fact of the history of the German Left that at crucial moments they were blind to the force of nationalism.  They let the Right own nationalism, and that’s the story of the later 19th century. At two crucial moments, they couldn’t fight on the terrain of nationalism. That was in the immediate lead-up to the first World War and what happens when the Social Democrats deny, deny, deny that their sphere of action is the German nation-state. And in one blinding moment of self-immolation, they vote to support the German national war effort. Then of course in the 1920s and into the 1930s, as the fight against fascism is escalating, German communism prides itself on not following the lead of Moscow. It again cedes the ground of nationalism to the Right, underestimating its power and overestimating its capacity to fight from the vantage point of an international movement.

JB: Nationalism I think is an easy question, on the one hand. It’s an attempt to construct barriers, to define others, and to exclude. I don’t see how it’s consistent with any sort of utopian vision that we should be divided into these warring camps. On the other hand, it has captured the Left for many years, but it can be challenged. I think that’s Warren’s point. For example, in Chicago in the 1880s and 1890s, the main fundraising activity that the German anarchists conducted every year was a Paris Commune celebration. They brought together Germans, Czechs, and other immigrant radicals to celebrate the Commune. That takes on this question of nationalism in a very direct way. We can’t ignore that. But we also do have to be careful not to go down that road, because it is a road that leads to building walls at the border, and chain-link fences, and putting children in cages. It’s not a world that I want to live in.

WB: I wanted to add as an example of how the 1920s and 30s could have gone differently. One of my good friends is a Swedish historian, who has written a comparative history of the Volk — the people — in Germany and Sweden. There’s very similar language coming out of the 19th century. In Sweden, that gets captured by the Left. It then lends itself to other kinds of consonant nouns, like the Volksheim. The Volksheim is the welfare state. I come from Canada, where the most progressive welfare state provincially is Québec. It’s driven largely by the conjunction of social democracy and nationalism. I don’t think of Sweden as a utopian endpoint, but if you think about the outcomes of two types of Volkisch politics in the 1930s, they are very different.

AR: I want to add something that further complicates this story. The impetus for transcending and breaking down borders at this point rests with capital. Insofar as Left governments, however one may feel about them, have been able to carve out any space, it has been within the context of the nation-state. That’s the case for Chile in the 1970s, Cuba — though that’s a more complicated case for some people — but also Brazil and Venezuela. And you have Greece. Even though Greece is a particular situation, it’s comparable. I think that there’s really no space for an historically transcendent principled stance about whose property nationalism is. There are only instances of its deployment.

EH: I want to try to relate this question to the broader topic of democracy and the Left. If you look at historical approaches to nationalism, it was in the form of democratic demands against the internationalism of the aristocracy and the church. So, the French nation was useful because it undercut the church, which owned land all over Europe, and the aristocracy, which existed as a national grouping but was active as one body. The nation was a particular form through which bourgeois society was able to emerge and the democratic revolution was actually able to push forward. And so, the question is: why does that persist, when it becomes clear that socially and economically in terms of capitalism, the framework is international? We live in a global society. In one way, I think it’s because the nation is what we have recourse to politically. Capitalism is also a political hell. It doesn’t seem that getting your demands heard by the nation has that much of an effect on your life. Nevertheless, the nation would be the means which a political party would naturally use to try and achieve political ends.

For example, I think it was interesting that when we talked about the nation and its character as either Left or the Right, the welfare state was brought up. In a lot of ways, the welfare state could be conceived of as a national racket. The prime example is the Soviet Union which, of course, had a massive welfare state. The protection of “socialism” and the “revolution” was deemed theoretically necessary by the party because they needed, one: to protect the interests of the working class within the Soviet Union, and two: Stalin collapsed that into the interest of the revolution. I wonder, then, if it is so useful to say that the use of nationalism to establish the welfare state in Sweden actually gets us any closer to socialism. Was the American welfare state closer to socialism than America was in the 1890s? Was the Soviet Union closer to socialism than Russia was under the tsar? I think those are open questions.

WB: That depends on if you think socialism is a point to be measured on a continuum. It also raises questions like: where do idealism and realism sit together? But I’m an historian, and I know what happened in the 1930s and 40s. I would prefer to live in Sweden, even if by all measures of full human emancipation, Sweden then and now remains a capitalist country with a social market economy. I don’t even know what it means to set up a kind of normative place or a kind of figurative or imaginary space at which we can arrive, and short of that arrival, everything can be denounced as actually contributing to the problem.

EH: Maybe then I would bring back into the discussion what you talked about with the German party. This is in fact exactly what the German party thought.

WB: Which party?

EH: The SPD — the German Social Democratic Party before World War I. Their rationale for voting for war credits was: We actually established all of these institutions that are making people’s lives better, and we can’t wreck that by perhaps allowing these other countries to destroy us in the war, even if we are committed to some idea of international revolution. So, there’s the exact argument for entering the war, at which point they’ve blown it, as you said. It was the argument that, of course, it’s better to live in Germany now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Why? Because we built all these institutions, we passed all of these reforms, and we would be idiots to blow that.

If we have some sort of normative definition of socialism, then one could say we are getting closer via this or that reform. The whole point is actually that we don’t. All we have is a problem — a problem that creates tasks for us that we may or may not fulfill. Either way, capital is going to be revolutionized, as we saw in World War I. Whether the German Social Democratic party decided to make the revolution or not, still massive amounts of the forces of production were going to be destroyed, millions and millions of people were going to die, and of course later there would be dramatic economic downturn, people would starve, whole sections of industry would go out of business, and we would revolutionize capital anew into the 20th century. Electrification and, later on, nuclear energy happened anyway. It appeared as something to which we would say: “Oh, these guys totally blew it. They let this revolution happen from the Right.”

JB: I think we could think about reform in a somewhat more creative way. That is to say reforms don't have to be administered by the state or reinforce its power. In theory, one could seek reform measures that instead strengthened workers to act on their own behalf. For example, one could address unsafe working conditions by calling in government inspectors, and sometimes one has to do that in order to stay alive. But with organization, workers could create their own health and safety committees and enforce safer conditions through their own action.

If you could build practical utopias, if you could build these institutions like mutual aid societies, I think that enables us on some level to sidestep the question of nationalism. It becomes possible then to build direct alliances such as United Electrical Workers and some of the unions in Mexico to deal with the problem of competition. It also builds our capacity and makes it more difficult to take things away if they’re rooted in our communities and ourselves. Not that there won’t be attacks. There will be, as there have been against the social welfare state in Sweden. I used to go to Sweden a lot in the 1990s and do talks about the horrors of the American system and how they were trying to impose this on Swedish workers. They don’t need me anymore because now they have that horror.

You talked about movements outside the state to force change, but how would you respond to movements today that seem to do that but are easily accommodated by the current economic reality? You have the movements for gay pride or cultural movements of that sort that are assimilated into the workings of capital and don’t seek anything beyond being equally involved in capitalism. You have Starbucks encouraging #BlackLivesMatter, things of that nature.

AR: It’s an interesting question. One way into it is to ask what counts as a social movement. There are pressure groups or interest groups. There are what I would consider frankly Potemkin movements that assume that the way to assert a political voice is by capturing the attention of the corporate media and claiming to speak on behalf of a constituency without having any direct lines of accountability. I’m hesitating because I’m trying to make a clear distinction in my head between the character of broader identity-based movements, movements that rest upon claims about a shared ascriptive classification, and movements that are frankly actionable fights and conflicts within Left forces and ground positions. It’s certainly possible to identify a movement for instance against mass incarceration, or for gay rights, or for abortion rights. It’s not clear to me that there is anything organic that lives under the label of #BlackLivesMatter. This is a loose — “multitudinous” maybe, I don’t know — assembly or concatenation of activists who believe something very strongly and want to assert that set of beliefs they have. These don’t necessarily connect to public policy, for instance.

The reparations debate is a good illustration of that. I think it’s suggestive at least, that since 2016 there does seem to be a more or less institutionalized alliance taking shape between identitarian interests and the corporate wing within the Democratic party, and now even Forbes and Goldman Sachs. This is in contradistinction to material concerns, by which I mean the set of issues that have to do with stuff like jobs, unemployment, healthcare, education — class issues. These are shared very broadly within society, compared to the other issues which can certainly cut across but aren’t necessarily the same.

Frankly, I think the reality is — and I hate to be so myopically focused — that the number one political objective needs to be trying to turn the tide that began actually before Trump was elected. The best way for us to do that is to target the issues that appeal most broadly, among the largest segment of the society, who share concerns about the pursuit of a more egalitarian public policy. And this is the reason I think that the class vs. identity debate is frankly bullshit. The way that you build the solidarity that you need to make the change that has to happen is starting out from what we all have in common, not from first establishing how we’re all different.

In November or December of 2018, Bernie Sanders’s approval ratings were higher among black Americans than they were among any other constituency. That’s not what you get from the talking heads on MSNBC or the professional race relations administrators.

If Sanders were to win the 2020 presidential election, what would that mean for the Democratic party?

AR: I don’t have many people I think of as heroes. One is Sergeant Yakov Pavlov. In the battle of Stalingrad, his strategy was focus on holding whatever building you're in and ignore everything else. Often during the [2016 Democratic primary] campaign, the exuberance would get really high when something happened in Iowa or Wisconsin. I would just tell them, “You’ve got to think like Sergeant Pavlov. Your job is to hold this ground.” Someone asked about the vision in question. Sanders’s hands would be tied no matter what he tried to do. Frankly, I wish that after 2016, he had taken a step back so we could concentrate on building a movement around issues like Medicare for All. It’s a testament to how progressive forces have been limiting activity to the election cycle. After 2016 not much happened except preparing for the 2018 elections, and now 2020. But, given that reality — and I don’t know when electoralism took over the Left — part of the objective is to keep Bernie in contention for the nomination. That will be a means to simultaneously build support for Medicare for All that will last past 2020, regardless of the outcome. I don’t think we’re going to elect ourselves into a better world. But, given how weak and unconnected progressive forces are in broader society, I think it’s important to look at the Sanders campaign as an opportunity to try and get some roots out there in the general population.

Image of Sgt. Yakov Pavlov alongside the building he and his 25 men held during the battle of Stalingrad.

JB: Obviously, as an anarchist, I’m not going to be campaigning. Although, I did promise one of Bernie’s people that if he got the nomination, I would register and vote for him.

EH: Adolph’s answer to the question of what happens if Bernie wins was that the Left’s hands will be tied, or Bernie’s hands will be tied, and we should focus on Medicare for All and movement building. In a certain way, this breaks against some of the more interesting things that have been said during this conversation, that there’s a lack of utopian vision. It seems like what you’re saying is look, you guys just have to buckle down, and your utopia is Medicare for All. The 60s generation got to think about weed parties and socialism, the 19th century got to launch a revolution, and what you guys should ask for is Medicare for All, and if Bernie can’t do it, it’s not really his fault, because whoever is in Congress will probably stop him. That's exactly the lowering of the utopian horizon that you guys are talking about.

AR: The element that’s missing is what something like Medicare for All does. I don’t mean in terms of ending for-profit healthcare. What it can do is if people start talking about it, thinking about it, and believing that it’s something we can win, then that can open up the political imagination more broadly. Think about other things: free public higher education, massive infrastructure, or non-commodified housing. But making the transition from the theoretical possibility to the social movement that can actually change the terms of political debate has got to start someplace. And it has to start with mobilization around practical stuff that people can understand as potentially having a significant impact on their lives.

EH: So, is there a role for a critical Left, or is that something that would just be in the way of this process?

JB: I think we have to try and think about this in terms of demands and aims that seek to improve people’s lives. It’s not just because I’m an anarchist, but also because of what you’re saying about the day after the election. I think we have to do this not by funneling people in to the political electoral system. We do this by building independent movements and targeting institutions. At the end of the day, let’s say Bernie is elected. Let’s say — and it’s not going to happen — that the Democrats take the Senate.

AR: I don’t think Bernie’s going to get elected. I think they’d kill him before letting that happen.

JB: Let’s say these things happen, the fact remains that the capitalists will fight to maintain things the way they are. Although Medicare for All would be better than our current healthcare system, which is an abomination, this would not actually make us free or make society democratic. We need much, much more. We have to use issues that are related to material struggles in people’s lives. Sometimes that might be in a neighborhood where they’re trying to do a redevelopment, kicking out low-income housing and trying to gentrify. We have to find struggles where people can mobilize, fight these battles, and build a sense of possibility in people. We already have a sense of that possibility from our tradition. If we do that, we can make something more of these reforms. If we don’t do that, it does not matter.

WB: I’m from Canada, and we’ve had a universal health system for decades. And contrary to a lot of the propaganda in America, survey after survey asking Canadians what they’re most proud of, says that it is the healthcare system. It’s actually viewed as a big success. Yet, it’s clear that we only have to go to our Northern neighbors to see that it’s not the tip of a socialist wedge. It sits happily with the Canadian model of capitalism. There are certain things in Canadian society that we do better than America, guns for example. But this hasn’t created a free society that you’re describing. I would take the healthcare system, but I wouldn’t assume too much beyond that.

AR: This speaks to Erin’s question about the role of a critical Left, precisely around the topic of gentrification. These fights are all over the place, and it seems like every place I like has a problem with gentrification. The problem is that gentrification is another conceptual formation, like so many others in contemporary American society, that obscures what’s actually going on. Gentrification carries an aura of displacement of aboriginal populations. First of all, there are no aboriginal populations — that’s one thing. But that’s not what’s happening. What actually flies under the flag of gentrification is publicly-supported private redevelopment or rent intensification. There’s probably a German word for it. It’s more of a mouthful than “gentrification.” What happens with the gentrification trope, is that it racializes what is ultimately a political-economic dynamic. It both obscures what’s going on and undercuts our capacity to fight against it, not least because members of the aboriginal populations — or people who can represent themselves as members of the aboriginal population — easily convert the demand for justice into a demand for incorporation and representation in the process. A deeper political theory helps us inform a political strategy.

Are there any baseball fans in the room? My favorite baseball team is whoever is playing against the Boston Red Sox. The 1986 World Series taught us a lesson. One thing it showed was once you put the ball in play, who knows what the fuck could happen. At this point, we don’t have the capacity to put the ball in play. From that perspective, I think that is the number one objective. This really comes before any questions of what the ultimate goal would look like, what our vision of socialism would look like, or what the transition would look like. You have to put the ball in play with at least the one objective to unite the many to defeat the few. At this point, there’s not a roadmap. It’s like tossing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

WB: I don’t know the German word for rent intensification. But perhaps the most famous comment in German sports history came from a soccer coach in the 1950s who was asked to comment in an interview about the World Cup game. His comment was: “The ball is round, and the game is 90 minutes.”

EH: I have a final question for Jon. You said the goal for the anarchists is radical democracy. I was under the impression that anarchists actually wanted to overcome democracy on some level. I got this from reading Bakunin’s critique of Lasalle.

And Adolph, if we’re throwing spaghetti against the wall, why not a party? The Left has been doing movements for 50 years.

AR: I’m not opposed to a party, but a party ought to emerge out of a process and organically out of struggle. Capital is not sleeping. The bourgeoisie is organized, and we have to be organized. Communist parties have had their problems, and Social Democratic problems have had their problems obviously, not least because they thought they could manage capitalism’s contradictions more effectively than the bourgeois parties. Formations like the Workers’ Party in Brazil had the objective of organizing the trade union movement that had a very broad base. They came together under the commitment to a transformative program. That can serve as an ideal for the development of a party. Unfortunately, we’re not in that situation. As somebody who spent the better part of 15 years trying to build a party that was anchored in the trade union movement, I can say that now is not the time. But I certainly can see that as an objective down the road — or some other formation — it doesn’t necessarily have to be a party. Right now, like I said, it’s Sergeant Pavlov.

JB: For us, and I don’t want to say all anarchists think exactly alike, because that wouldn’t be true. We’re a diverse group. As I read Bakunin’s critique of Lasalle, it’s not about democracy per se. It’s about a particular notion of the political process, the electoral process, capturing the state and trying to legislate. Bakunin believed in organizing at the level of the commune and the workplace. His notion was always fundamentally democratic. His later work, less so. When he talked about, for example, the “invisible dictatorship,” that was people arguing for their ideas in their local communes. They could talk among each other internationally to shape their actions. It’s in some sense a party, but it’s not a party that’s trying to establish administrative control. It’s trying to win a contest of ideas. As I read Bakunin, he is for democracy, but democracy of a different character. It’s bottom-up and based on a mobilization. He’s more persuasive when he speaks of a “democratic capture” than he is when arguing that one would want to elect a workers’ department, and they would cease to be workers and become bourgeois because they become accustomed to giving orders and administering.

I think the argument made no sense to socialists. I think some socialists who ran for government conceded that, in practice, Bakunin was actually right. It turned out the way Bakunin said it would turn out. We can’t just use the state as it exists. We have to build democratic accountability instead of structures of control.

AR: I want to say one more thing about the electoral question, because I don’t know if I was clear before. There’s a movie from the late 70s by Paul Schrader called Hardcore. George C. Scott plays an upper midwestern Calvinist whose teenage daughter gets kidnapped and swept up in the sex trade. He goes out to try to find her and meets up with the stereotypical young sex worker with a heart of gold. At one point, she offers this really uptight guy oral gratification to calm him down, and he’s appalled by this. She says to him: “You know, we really aren’t all that different about sex.” And he thinks she’s crazy for saying this. And she says: “Yeah, I care so little about it that I would do it with anybody, and you care so little about it that you won’t do it at all.” And I think that same thing has happened in the Left about electoral politics. I wrote an essay about back in 2016 — people yelled at me about it — basically saying: “Shut up and vote for Clinton!”[2] One of the points to make there is that your vote is not your chastity. It’s the most limited form of political participation. You can use it promiscuously. It’s not saying anything about who you are or what your principles are. I think voting is a purely pragmatic question. People on the Left are giving it way more importance both positively and negatively than I think it warrants. | P

Transcribed by Austin Carder and Ben Kosko


[1] See What is the Third Estate? by the Abbé Sieyès

[2] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important,” Common Dreams. <https://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/08/18/vote-lying-neoliberal-warmonger-its-important>


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