Reflections on the passing of the summer
Platypus Review 134 | March 2021
This article was originally published in Class Unity, and is reprinted with permission here.
Those heroes, who seek to disprove their demonstrated incapacity by mutually offering each other their sympathy and getting together in a crowd.Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)
More than six months have now passed since the 2020 arrival of street protests over the police murder of George Floyd. Late May and June saw demonstrations of moderate size spread to a huge number of American cities. Now, with the election of Joe Biden, it seems that activity has been subdued, or at least channeled in different directions. The time is always ripe for critical reflection, but perhaps the distance granted to us by the end of summer offers a moment when clarity could be achieved.
At the time of the initial protests, I argued1 that they did not present any sort of major opportunity for the left. There were two reasons for this, one being that the socialist movement is small, weak, and has lost the ability to critically assess society and its development. This, I argued, leads to something that Theodor Adorno termed “actionism”: a state in which political practice comes to subordinate thought, as its practitioners insist that the circumstances of the moment render such reflection suspect and counterproductive. Instead of being critical, the pseudo-theorizing of actionists exists solely to justify and facilitate action.
The second point was that the protests were not a political phenomenon that possessed the kind of structure that carried the germ of a mass movement, one for socialism or otherwise. This point has unfortunately been proven by time to be correct.
My critical intervention prompted a response2 from a faction in DSA known as Red Caucus. This group insisted that their support of the protests –underspecified though the nature of that support may have been – was the only correct position to take, and argued that I had misapplied the category of actionism. Interestingly enough, they chose to use the term “intellectuals” as a term of abuse, an ironic and telling echo of a phenomenon that Adorno himself had noted in his 1969 correspondence with Herbert Marcuse on the German New Left: “Here in Frankfurt, and certainly in Berlin as well, the word ‘professor’ is used condescendingly to dismiss people, or as they so nicely put it ‘to put them down.’”3 These same students of course often entered academia themselves, and today we have a reversed situation: the uncritical acceptance of whatever activist currents are on the ground comes from within the university itself. Similar sentiments were present in the early 2000s4, and indeed have been a continuous presence on the Left since they were first identified in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Red Caucus is unconsciously participating in a history that is being repeated. Not twice, as may have been the case for Hegel, but over and over again–forever. They also unconsciously subordinate thinking to action when they claim that “developing the kinds of coherent strategy and tactics required to wage such a struggle” requires “theoretically thoughtful organization.” This is a remarkable thing to say after taking issue with my use of a term introduced in an essay that begins by noting that:
pragmatism has been criticized–with good reason–for consecrating the existing conditions by making the practical applicability of knowledge its criterion for knowledge; supposedly nowhere else could the practical effectiveness of knowledge be tested. If in the end theory, which bears upon the totality if it does not want to be futile, is tied down to its effectiveness here and now, then the same thing befalls it despite its belief that it escapes the immanence of the system. Theory steals itself back from the system’s immanence only where it shirks its pragmatic fetters, no matter how modified they may be.5
The problem with Red Caucus’ theory is that it is not self-consciously critical. In an attempt to affirm developments that they are not responsible for, they lose the ability to really interrogate moments that present themselves as crises and opportunities in their own minds, but are actually manifestations of discontent that can and have been addressed at the level of capitalist politics. Willfully ignoring that the demands and form of the protests failed to point beyond capitalism, they defer to the “spontaneous action of the masses” as the agent of revolution–which they simply assume will be socialist, or at least tending in that direction.
Irony and a lack of historical awareness are not the only issues with Red Caucus’ accusation that I misuse the critique of actionism. They have also simply failed to grasp the meaning of the term and its use by Adorno. Red Caucus dismisses the use of the category as “crude”, and insists that not only have I misunderstood Adorno, but that the term “refers to the notion that any revolutionary movement can exclusively rely on spontaneous revolts in an unorganized and unthinking way”. After establishing this reading of Adorno’s language, they then insist that a wide array of other Marxists have made a similar set of observations: “Lenin, Fanon, Luxemburg, CLR James, Angela Davis, and Paulo Freire, etc”. Unfortunately, they do not actually cite any of the instances where these authors argue against actionism, but we can piece together the outline of what they are trying to get at when they list off names in an attempt to handwave their way into authority. The idea that they refer to as actionism can probably be most approximately compared to Mikhail Bakunin, who wrote in Marxism, Freedom, and the State that the masses will “organize themselves and will federate spontaneously, freely, from below upwards, by their own movement and conformably, to their real interests, but never after a plan traced in advance and imposed on the ‘ignorant masses’ by some superior intellects.”6 He contraposes his faith in spontaneous action with a caricature of Marx, who thought that the working class should be “united by combination and led by knowledge,”7 or, in other terms organized and self-consciously critical. Bakunin’s belief that the spontaneity of the masses holds an exclusive claim to the power to bring about socialism was passed down through history, though it is not always attributed to him. The idea has provided material for many Marxists to argue against, which we are left to assume is what the long list of Marxists that they raised were doing.
And therein lies the problem: spontaneity isn’t the same thing as actionism, which is why Adorno created a new category to analyze the specific behavior of the New Left activists that appeared before him rather than simply picking up the old analysis and carrying it forward. When Adorno used the phrase, he was referring to a phenomenon that was at the time a relatively novel problem. Let’s examine an illustrative passage:
What since then has been called the problem of praxis and today culminates in the question of the relation between theory and praxis coincides with the loss of experience caused by the rationality of the eternally same. Where experience is blocked or altogether absent, praxis is damaged and therefore longed for, distorted, and desperately overvalued. Thus what is called the problem of praxis is interwoven with the problem of knowledge.8
A specific critique of actionism was necessary because of the fact that the situation had evolved substantially since the failed revolutions of the early 20th century, and the New Left’s lack of historical experience had important consequences for its development. It would be difficult for revolutionaries in the time of Marx or Lenin to have been behaving in the same way; they lived in times when the memory of actual revolutionary activity was present. Instead of being a problem of immature or insufficient theory, we have a more fundamental “problem of knowledge.” This problem identified in the 1960s has only gotten worse since, as successive generations of left activists are educated according to the diminished horizons of their direct predecessors, all without acknowledgement of these compounding failures.
What can be done to stop this self-reinforcing regression? The first step towards reversing the Left’s political impotence is an honest reckoning with the consequences of its historical failures. We must start therefore with an assessment of contemporary events to see how self-delusion is expressed and hardened in the rhetorical flourishes of most socialists. It is through these maneuvers that what passes for thought is subordinated completely to increasingly futile action.
The Red Caucus statement9 contains many instructive examples. The statement’s first sin of historical amnesia comes in its use of the term “mass movement,” used repeatedly to describe this summer’s street actions. By hearkening back to the actual, organized, and massive movements of the past, these self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxists elide the problem of unprecedented political demobilization that characterizes our age. Sporadic protests not backed by mass organizations are a symptom of this demobilization rather than a potential cure. Whereas at one point it may have been possible to speak of a single “Civil Rights Movement,” today we have only scattered and atomized individuals and micro-groups that are able to come together only when the demands are at their most abstract (“justice!”), and can only coalesce around a tactic (i.e. street protest) that asks nothing of any of them in terms of thought or concessions regarding their ideas about strategy. As soon as the great mass of demobilized participants falls away, all that is left is for the groups to split up and pursue their individual strategies, whether that be pressure campaigns, running for or holding political office, or increasingly ludicrous small-scale confrontations with the police and Trump supporters.
Hal Draper remarked in 1973 that the term “‘[m]ovement’ is often used to describe something that does not exist in organized form… as an abbreviation for scattered… elements that often do not ‘move’ at all.”10 The problem in 1973 was the same as the problem today: socialists’ abuse of the term allows them to cast whatever political ideas they want onto an undifferentiated mass. If someone at a protest is saying something “radical”–ignoring for a moment whether the source of their “radicalism” is political or psychological in nature–then that must mean that the “movement” (other people in close proximity to them at a given point in time) must hold radical potential too. What is this radical potential? There is no democracy or authority to be found, so it can be whatever one wants it to be. According to Red Caucus, “people are seeing” the “systemic nature” of police violence, and are thus “more open to political ideas that seek to change the system.” The problem with this kind of formulation is that it avoids the question of the type of political ideas that are seen as providing “systemic change.” This is an issue because “[t]he established reality… precludes neither criticism nor change; on the contrary, insistence on the dynamic character of the status quo, on its constant ‘revolutions,’ is one of the strongest props [of said status quo].”11 One does not really need to return to Marcuse for this insight; indeed it was on display in the last Democratic party primary, where notable capitalist politicians made “structural change” their watchword.
Aside from abusing the term “movement” and eliding the question of the goals and aims of an amorphous set of protests, the Red Caucus statement entertains another idea with a long pattern of failure on the Left. This is faith in progress, the notion that the ferment of radical energy among a few and their subsequent activation within the realm of radical politics unproblematically accumulates with each successive upsurge. They insist that “many people are clearly radicalized by these events.” First, this ignores what these people are being radicalized towards. Red Caucus may try to construct an explanation why this movement “objectively” points towards the Left, but in reality it points towards the Democrats. Second, in drawing attention to these people, they crucially ignore all of the others that are potentially deradicalized by the same historical process. Perhaps it is easier to see those who are showing up than it is to see those who are leaving, but they should at least consider the fact that for every person who is activated by the intoxicating air of “revolutionary” energy, there is another (or perhaps are others) that recognize in these moments the reality that today’s Left is either frozen or declining, mired in the same tactics and dogmas that have characterized it for several generations. No accomplishment of the Left in the post-60s era has been as monumental as the number of ex-leftists that it has created. If we cast our minds back just in reference to the singular issue of police brutality, we would see something that Red Caucus either ignores or lives in ignorance of: protests like these have been happening sporadically since at least the 1960s. In the face of these historical realities, Red Caucus–blinded by its own misplaced optimism–insists to the contrary that this time, the “protests mark a beginning, not an end.” In fact they mark neither. They are but a continuation in a long process that has never achieved a qualitative change in the direction of revolutionary activity. The insistence that it is otherwise is not mere ignorance–it is theology. It is a blind belief that a pinprick of light represents progress while ignoring the dense fog of regression that surrounds us on all sides.
Since June the numbers of protesters has declined dramatically. In most cities, they have been reduced to tiny bands of well-meaning people standing on street corners and soliciting friendly honks. In Portland, they have been superseded by the phenomenon of small scale riots carried out by people utilizing black bloc tactics. It is at best unclear whether these people represent the left or the right, but they certainly do not represent a revolutionary or mass movement, nor do they represent the beginnings of one. But these scattered elements are the manifestations of the despair and nihilism mentioned in my last essay. They do not constitute any sort of core of the popular energy that was to be found in May and June.
No, the popular energy was absorbed by the Democratic party, and to great effect, with the protests–according to the boastful representatives of that party–constituting one giant Democrat voter registration drive.12 Joe Biden is going to be president; the “fascist” menace has been exorcised. Where once the demand to “defund the police” stood among many, there came to stand but one demand to subordinate all others: “vote!” Prior to that, demands to “buy black”, examine one’s “privilege” and “fragility”, be a good “ally” or “accomplice”, and issue emotional excoriations of “white supremacy” have all been fully assimilated into the administrative logic of contemporary society13. These ideas in fact never represented anything foreign to the Democrats’ ethnic group constituency electoral organizing model. Now, though, they have been completely absorbed, institutionalized, and put to use by the same people that revolutionary Marxists–like those that can be found in Red Caucus–hope to wield said ideas against. In this way, Red Caucus and aligned socialist elements set themselves up as the permanent good conscience of the ruling class, telling it to do better, and how. Red Caucus was aware of this from the start, but in the ecstasy of the street theater one can forget such troubling facts and revel in the momentary popular front.
How are we to change the world if we only lie to ourselves about its nature, over and over again? It seems impossible now, but by keeping the flame of critical inquiry alive against those who would snuff it out, perhaps we can one day think and act again, instead of mimetically approximating what our degrading imaginations assume real thinking and action would look like, forever. |P
4. Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, “‘Action Will Be Taken’: Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents,” Left Business Observer, n.d., https://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Action.html.
5. Henry Pickford, trans., “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, by Theodor W. Adorno, European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 259–60.