Monthly Archives: March 2012
Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Conversation between Douglas Lain and I about Hegel and Negativity of the Dialectic
Douglas Lain is an author, blogger, and podcaster, whose two much recent books are “Wave of Mutilation” and “Pick Your Battle,” his memoir on Marxism and urban foraging. You can find Doug’s blog yourself and listen to his podcast. This conversation took place over a few days, and partly inspired this episode of Doug’s podcast and this post on my blog. This conservation is partly inspired by Doug’s recent philosophy workshop. See his podcast for details on how to participate.
Skepoet: You have been going through Phenomenology of Spirit in a workshop form? What have you seen in Hegel that has surprised you?
Douglas Lain: What’s surprising about reading Hegel is how familiar his ideas are. For instance, I’m currently rereading the beginning of Lefebvre’s Production of Space in order to put together a podcast on that subject, and I’m finding Lefebvre is echoing Hegel even as he is trying to perhaps distinguish himself from Hegel. Hegel appears to me now as the central figure of contemporary thought. I see him everywhere. He’s my new tootsie roll.
S.:Do you think Hegel was the first philosopher to really articulate what was emerging at the end of the Enlightenment in a positive sense?
D.L.: I can’t answer that because I don’t know all the philosophers well enough, nor do I quite know what you are pointing at when you talk about something emerging from the Enlightenment.
S.: Fair enough: It seems like Hegel is really the beginning of the divide in philosophy: both the divide between systemic and anti-systemic thinkers in continental philosophy and the divide between continental and analytic philosophy itself. But I see Hegel as beginning to really apply dialectical thought to movements of history. So do you think that Hegel can be an introduction to thinking about the way system’s develop over time?
D.L.: Yes. However, what is tricky for me to remember is that thinking systemically is not merely a case of trying to account of all the different causes but also to recognize how the whole context determines or is necessary for the particular set of causes to arise.
But, I’m currently reading the Philosophy of Mind, and so what I find most interesting about Hegel is his approach to consciousness and self-consciousness, and how for him the process of developing self-consciousness is an objective and historical process.
S.: Why do you think self-consciousness is viewed so highly individually now?
D.L: Margaret Thatcher convinced the entire Western World that there is no such thing as a We?
S.: I was thinking that exactly. What about Ayn Rand? Or blaming Hegel for fascism? Do you think these are kinds of avoidance Mechanisms?
D.L: For me the obviousness of our collective identity, the inherently social nature of my sense of myself, rules out Rand. As for blaming Hegel for Fascism, that’s a stickier widget maybe. If I understand you correctly the problem with Hegel is that he pushes reality into the open or points to how it is visible as appearance. This seems to indicate that the mere fact of a given social order’s existence is enough to verify it as true or justified. However, the opposite is also true with Hegel. That is, this missing Cogito, this empty spot, is also required. My take is that right wing Hegelians reject both the social nature of reality and the emptiness of their own position. I tend to side with Faust. Which is to say, I tend to believe that we can face the abyss and come to some sort of interesting arrangement with it.
Also, I am beginning to wonder if you pose as right-wing with these rightist just as you pose as left-wing with us. And, I’d point out that Zizek’s description of the difference between right and left, that the left admits that the split is built into social life from the beginning while the right believes there was once a whole, is my personal favorite definition.
S.: It is interesting to turn the interrogation onto the interviewer. So let’s deconstruct the question and the implied assumptions. So asking that if I “pose” as left-wing as I also “pose” as right-wing would imply that I hold a position other than either, which I suppose would be merely calling me a liberal. It also implies that I think being ”right-wing” would be coherent enough for me to adopt a false posture to accomodate to what going on, but actually I don’t think that. I think the left is more or less currently in a zombie state, but has a coherence in the sense that being mostly a moral position removes it from any historical consciousness. The right would be mostly based on a myth of alienation from an organic whole, but then so would most of the left. They share similar assumptions from the position of modernity as a whole. They are part of the same contradictions within the same totality. I prefer to see those contradictions either sublated or accelerated so a new, if temporary, cohension can emerge.
So what do you think Zizek’s injection of Lacan into Hegel does for your thinking?
D.L: Well, as far as it goes I suppose we’re all practicing liberals in the US and even when transplanted.
As to Zizek’s injection of Lacan into Hegel, I think the opposite is what has happened. That is, Lacan learned of Hegel through Kojeve. But, all of this is just variations on name dropping.
S.: What do you see as the violence in Hegel? The necessary of a rupture? Do you think such violence is there?
D.L.: Your question sent me back to Hegel and to thinking. The violence in Hegel is the force or work of dialectical dissolution, and I see why this is a problem for those of us who want to emancipate humanity. My next podcast for Diet Soap will explore this violence and on it I defend the movie Fight Club on Hegelian grounds. It turns out that self-destruction is the ultimate act of self consciousness. We have to shoot ourselves in the face in order to free. This flies in the face of Orwell’s conception of freedom as the freedom to say that 2+2=4. Instead, freedom is to follow the bouncing ball from the universal to the particular until you find that you are the nothingness, the all seeing, all dancing crap of the world. So I see how dissolution and dialectics risks violence. Anything goes if nothing is real, yeah? Of course, Zizek and Lacan can refute that…partially.
S.: You seem to be critical of Zizek’s conception of violence here, or am I misreading you?
D.L.: I am critical of it as a means to understand it. Also, I actually don’t think Zizek is perfect (although I often pretend to think so on Facebook) and so I actually bet that he may be missing a piece of the puzzle. Zizek is not, as far as I know, a Marxist in the vein of Marxist Humanists like Kliman and Freeman, but I think he probably ought to be.
Do you see how reading (or charitably misreading) Hegel can lead to an Orwellian situation? Frankly, I take it as a kind of progress that I’m beginning to see Big Brother’s side of the argument, however, I don’t want to sit here on his side for very long.
S.: Why do you this perspective shift is important as highly comfortable?
D.L.: I think it’s important to move through these oppositions and to see how one position implies the other. For instance, the idea of a natural or sacred social order is often thought of as antithetical to the idea that people are radically free, on the other hand radical freedom is itself a burden and a force.
S.: Wouldn’t this be just classical dialectics?
D.L.: ”Just” as in fair and right or “just” as in common and debased?
S.: Just as in pure and simple, actually. Such as “it’s just water” (not cyanide).
D.L.: What is the opposite of this pure dialectic I wonder. Can you really get water without cyanide in it? Seems like there is always a trace amount of poison.
S.: There’s the Zizek’s sneaking back in: I suppose you can have your dialectics without the negation of negation.
D.L.: Which is what happens in the movie the Game I think. Did you get a chance to listen to my podcast on this yet? You are mentioned.
S.: I did listen to it. I was wondering if you thought Fight Club is sort vulgar of “Negative Dialectic” a la Adorno–but ending withthe break down of negation into infinitude which leads on to nihilism and a destruction of the self. In seems like both the right-wing Hegel and the absolute left Hegel lead back to Big Brother. Is there a dialectical passage way through these kinds of dialectics?
D.L.: Could you outline Adorno’s take on Hegel a bit more thoroughly? How is the bread down of negation different from the negation of the negation?
S.: Negative dialectics does not assume a subject therefore it is agnostic on if sublation is possible–the subject is seen as not devouring its object, but actually devouring itself. Politically it means that one cannot identity a working class subject anymore nor assume it, but in practice it would mean devouring identity as a sort ur-form of ideology. Does this sound like what you were describing with Fight Club?
D.L. Let’s return to Orwell for a moment. Here’s an excerpt:
” There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past “, he said. ” Repeat it, if you please. “
” Who controls the past controls the future : who controls the present controls the past “, repeated Winston obediently.
” Who controls the present controls the past “, said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. ” Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence ? “
Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial. He not only did not know whether ” yes ” or ” no ” was the answer that would save him from pain ; he did not even
know which answer he believed to be the true one.
O’Brien smiled faintly. ” You are no metaphysician, Winston “, he said. ” Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space ? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening ? “
” Then where does the past exist, if at all ? “
” In records. It is written down.”
” In records. And – ?
” In the mind. In human memories. “
” In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not ? “
” But how can you stop people remembering things ? ” cried Winston again momentarily forgetting the dial. ” It is involuntary. It is outside oneself. How can you control memory ? You have not controlled
mine ! “
O’Brien’s manner grew stern again. He laid his hand on the dial.
” On the contrary “, he said, ” you have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission
which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one.
Now, if Winston had read Hegel how would he have answered O’Brien? Would he agree that the subject can control the present? Wouldn’t he instead point out that the present is a universal concept that is always slipping away? On what basis does O’Brien claim the authority to set Winston’s memory right? Certainly not a positive basis, but only based on his sure knowledge that force or power is its own justification, but how does this force or power act and move?
Forgive me for not following this line all the way out, but I suspect that a Winston Smith who’d read Hegel might be able to turn the tables on O’Brien, and show him how Big Brother stands in the way of self-consciousness, in the way of the absolute, precisely in so much as he must be taken to be real and substantial in order to function. I believe Big Brother needs Winston Smith.
S.: Well, that’s the thing about an un-sublated dialectic, it’s like a co-dependent relationship based on contradictions with a totality. I suppose it’s almost like a form of bad relationship: the parties involved mirror each other in the worse way. The question is the way out. I mean, let’s not assume that way out is totally un-alienatedor without its own contradictions. Let’s not assume we can reach an absolute, but in a specific context: consciousness would be like seeing a way to move a relationship out a repetition compulsion. What do you think about this, Doug?
D.L.: Which of the two of us is smarter? And don’t say you don’t know.
S.: Well, you’re slightly older and have come to a conclusion like Adorno’s on your own. So I didn’t do that. However, I asked the question that got you to think about it. As a positive intelligence, probably you. As a negative intelligence, probably me.
D.L.: Hmmm… I quite like that answer because, while it is a cop out (you’ve said that we’re both smarter) it is also completely logical and right in this context. I look forward to tackling the master and slave portion of the Phenomenology.
Listen though, I’ve had a run in with an Adorno fan who suggested that we should look to the brain damaged for help because they’re closer to the body and nondualist thinking. What do you see as the limits to Adorno’s critique?
S.: Well, for one thing, I don’t know that absolute totality, the totality without contradiction, is actually understandable in anyway except as complete annihilation. Adorno seems to think that too, but he’s easy to misread if one isn’t being careful. Totality can’t make for a politics and, like I said, I don’t think that is what Adorno means or intends. But it is easy to misread, or perhaps over-read, him in that way. Your thoughts?
D.L.: My main thought is that I want to read Adorno after I’m done reading Hegel’s Phenomenology. I’ve reiterated Adorno without knowing does that mean that my confusion about the Absolute, my hesitation to make a definite claim about where Hegel might lead, is also Adorno’s confusion?
S.: I think so. It’s clarifying confusion.
D.L.: Maybe we’ve reached the end of this round of questions and answers?
S.: I believe we have. We’ll probably chat again soon.
Now, I want to make it clear as day, I am not a white nationalist. I do not think such an idea is coherent as the contradictions within a “white” nation is too large. A nation is more than a biological category, and even if one accepts race as a coherent biological category, that does not a nation make. Furthermore, I think the conflation done by many on in the alternative right between “Frankfurt school,” “cultural Marxism,” and “Liberalism” is intellectually irresponsible. The vagueness on where or not that coalition would be hyper-capitalists, third-positionist, or anarchist is a bit on the worrying side as well.
I want a right-opposition that is clear, coherent, and strong instead of decadence one sees in the GOP and the the center-right parties of Europe, but I am not on the right. I am not a racialist. And, in a battle of all against all, I know damn well which side I would fight on.
So while I support Balkanization, dialogue with left-nationalists and post-left anarchists, and would not mind seeing an anti-capitalist right to fight against: make no mistake what my opinion is. I come from a Marxist tradition. My favorite philosophers are Plato, Diogenes, Nagarjuna, Vico, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Badiou, I don’t believe in democracy but I also don’t want a dictatorship allowed to rule on its whim. I am not a egalitarian in the strict sense, but aristocratic virtues are not virtues that are coherent now. I have no tolerance for lifestyle politics, including that of white men complaining about how the US is not their country anymore. Blood and soil politics doesn’t make sense in a former colony, mates.
As long as you accept that: you’re welcome to keep reading. I have an open door policy: I’ll debate tea-partiers and fascists if they are honest in what they say. But if you think you found a white-nationalist who will support Limbaugh and Romney because they are more pro-white, you’re foolish. I think the history of the third-positions and left fascists are tragic, not only for their opponents, but also because in every single fascist regime the revolutionary elements, third positionist elements, and whatnot were betrayed to capitalist corporate and clerical power. What is admirable about them is not enough to make up for their foolishness.
We clear? Good.
“Labour should have won a landslide victory, so voters are not looking for the austerity-lite policies of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.” – Galloway
I am on the left. Make no mistakes about this, yet I find myself ruthlessly critiquing left-liberals. In normal times, I leave third party left alone, particularly when I think the motivations for a win in a parliament of a country in which I am not a citizen shows some positive signs: the labour party in the UK is corrupt. Opposing the labour party in its current guise is what any good leftist SHOULD do. Furthermore, a free Palestine and a settlement as well as an end to American wars in the middle east would be a net-good thing. However, the enthuaism that a see among many Marxists, who should damn well know that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend if they learned ANYTHING from the 20th century, are having for Galloway and the collumnalist victory.
Yet, I don’t see signs of hope here: I see desperation. I, it should be known, have followed Galloway’s career since I was involved in the anti-war movement after 9-11. After 7-7, I agreed with him when he stated: ”We argued, as did the security services in this country, that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain. Tragically Londoners have now paid the price of the Government ignoring such warnings.”
Furthermore, I found Hitchen’s hyperbole about him somewhat telling, and again that led me to sympathy. His statements on 7/7 were remarkably clear-headed. Furthermore, on the issue of Viva Palestina convey, I was impressed by Galloway’s involvement. Yet, I will make no bones about it: I detest this man’s politics. One, instead of principled opposition to NATO action in Libya without endorsing the Qaddafi regime, Galloway gave money directly to the regime. When Mehdi Kazemi was seeking Iranian asylum, Galloway denied that Iran executed homosexuals and said the Kazemi’s lover must have been executed for other sex-crimes.
I have noticed a few SWP Trotskyist friends that seem to think this sort of behavior is acceptable as long as it expresses the general will against labor and against the war. Funny, this sort of larger contradiction logic was the logic used by Stalin first to make common cause with fascists against the bourgeoisie and then to make cause with nationalists bourgeoisie against the fascists in World War 2. You would expect that Trotskyists would listen to Lenin’s advice. Lenin defended Muslim freedom of worship:
Muslims of Russia…all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the tsars and oppressors of Russia: your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution.
Which we should all do, but that’s not where the issue ends. Now, as you know I am both sympathetic to left nationalism and weary of the label Marxist myself, but I found Lenin’s statements here to be clear and crystal:
“Imperialism is as much our ‘mortal’ enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will notsupport a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.
Consequently, once the author admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (‘actively resisting’ suppression means supporting the uprising), [Kievskii] also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, isprogressive.”
Furthermore in 1920:
“With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:
first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;
second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.”
The managerial classes of the first world have made sure the third world could not have its own bourgeois-democratic revolutions: in every fairly progressive Muslim nation, reactionary regimes have been favored by liberal states against emerging liberal movements: Afghanistan prior to the Reagan supported bleeding of the Soviets, Indonesia prior to the dictatorship, Iran pre-to the reestablishment of the Shah, etc. It makes no sense to explicitly side with the regimes who are the product of such reactionary measures because the west opposes them now. Furthermore, particularly, when these regimes oppress the left in their own countries, yet this is exactly Galloway’s logic. One supposes there is some truth when Hitchens said of him when Soviet Union failed, Galloway would find Islam. Indeed, there is something admirable in that and yet also seemingly exploitative.
Perhaps, though, there is a positive sign in this pathology: I condemn Galloway’s opportunism while supporting the anti-war politics he represents. I suppose I can notice that his victory against labor is something positive, but if he is the best the left can produce in Great Britain to oppose both the pathetically corrupt Lib Dems and Labour’s rotting edifice. It’s a sign the public instincts of Bradford West are in the right place in that regard, but that the best they can attach to is George Galloway is damning.
Parliamentary Social Democracy doesn’t look better than American liberal democracy in producing consistent answers these days. Pathology everywhere, but few doctors with anything like the medicine to fix it at the moment.
This is an idea that I may turn into a paper after I finish five thousand other things I am doing; however, this is something that occurs to me a lot. As a Hegelian Socialist, dialectical thinking allows one to see movements through the tension within systems. To hope for sublation, but realize that there is a point of decision related to any event and that event plays out in processes through history. This is not hard science, but it rhymes so to speak. When Marx said, “the point is not to understand the world, but to change it,” Marx understood this in a Hegelian conception of history. The reason why the world could be changed is that we now how an advanced enough historical framework to really leap through it.
Yet this is where I think analytics and dialectics, as methodologies of logic, are necessary but not sufficient. To understand the rational order of human history, we must also understand the rationality of human irrationality. So understanding instrumentally various limits to our “natural” way of thinking is crucial to moving foward. To make the world not what it is, one must actually know what the world is. This is why ruthless SELF critique is necessary.
THis brings me to the left actually incorporating psychological baises into our own methodology explicitly: to use the instrumental reasoning against itself. This is not just a tactic, but also a theoretical proposition.
For example, dialectics alsos one to move forward: it is both empirical and rational–it deals with ideas as structured in the world. I have said before that scientific methodology since the 20th century is in many ways a meta-dialectic between empirical (inductive, abductic lopic), and rational (deductive) logic. A dialectic that took account of innate tendencies but not assume they were eternal is another positive move.
For example, the idea that present bias will always be with us is, itself, a statement of present bias. One must acknowledge that such a thing exists, but also acknowledege that there is always a tension between is and ought, between want and should. It is not a simple opposition but a spiral: to see how things can be manifested rationally, the first step to admit that things are not rational for most people. It that itself is this irrationality, as a economist I don’t agree with stated, is actually rational at a higher level. We must try to understand the meta-rationality of systems if these are to be undone.
Human structures, by their very nature, as complex emerges: they involve rules of interactions between people in several spheres of influence, and this systems emerge and fall. Now, when I am analyzing this in philosophical terms, I do it dialectically and analytically, but I want my readers to remember, this is not only way to tackle a question that has philosophical implications.
Recently I was talking about how “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” and a friend called it racist apologetics for capitalism. I pointed out that it’s point about meta-structures in economies based on resource extraction seemed true and explained things about events in Africa and Latin America after wars of national liberation that couldn’t be explained on Marxist or Liberal (neo-classical or Keynesian) terms. I, however, did wonder how they came to the conclusion that the American way–inclusive neoliberalism– was ALWAYS better and that China was somehow outdoomed.
That is because within a complex system–within a dialectical emerges in philosophical terms–you are always blinded to its own internal weight. Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, which a friend had be look over the other day, actually makes it pretty clear. The problems with North Korea are obvious in hindsight, but the history is actually quite telling.
Let’s look at a chart:
Prior to 1970, it would have appeared that North Korea would out perform either South Korea or China. Daniel W. Drezner explains this:
My point here is not to defend Kim Il Sung or suggest that the DPRK’s economic institutions are underrated. Rather, my point is that as data analysts, we’re all prisoners of time. Had Acemoglu and Robinson written Why Nations Fail in the mid-1970s, it would have either made a different argument or it would have had a much tougher case to make about the merits of inclusive vs. extractive institutions (during the 1970s, commodity extracting states were looking pretty good).
Keep these charts in mind whenever anyone confidently asserts the obvious superiority of a particular model of political economy. Because, I assure you, there was a point in time when such superiority was far from obvious. And there might be another such point in the future
Now, Marx could explain that, declining rates of profits are more obvious in economies with natural resource depletion. It’s called the upper-limit to the primitive accumulation of capital. Furthermore, Drenzer is right to point out that China’s obvious superiority can be seen as highly problematic in this model. But so then can is Acemoglu and Robinson’s assessment of liberal democratic capitalism, isn’t it?
Psychologists have a word this effect: The illusion of asymmetric insight. Any revolutionary thinker or actor who fails to see this in him or herself will likely end up just confirming the biases of their particular moment in history. History, however, hasn’t looked so kindly on such claims.
“Let us consider the case of a country composed of several national groups, e.g. Poles, Lithuanians and Jews. Each national group would create a separate movement. All citizens belonging to a given national group would join a special organisation that would hold cultural assemblies in each region and a general cultural assembly for the whole country. The assemblies would be given financial powers of their own: either each national group would be entitled to raise taxes on its members, or the state would allocate a proportion of its overall budget to each of them. Every citizen of the state would belong to one of the national groups, but the question of which national movement to join would be a matter of personal choice and no authority would have any control over his decision. The national movements would be subject to the general legislation of the state, but in their own areas of responsibility they would be autonomous and none of them would have the right to interfere in the affairs of the others”. – Vladimir Medem, Social democracy and the national question, 1904.
The question of nations is about the locus of conflict and the basis of community. The nation, which was always an imagined community, was rooted in something very real, almost organic: kinship, family, language, and history. Indeed, nation had the appeal of both the mythic and biologic: it was the perfect subject for an ideology. I still see strong evidence that some form of social homogeneity is necessary as the experiences of Korea, Japan, and the Northern European social democracies as well as the research of Robert Putnam on many matters, but I have a hard time calling the kind of socialism I advocate a “national” socialism. In fact, it is kind of Hegelian communitarianism in a communist form. I, unlike many libertarian communists, refuse to condemn left nationalism outright as inherently “class collaboration” but I admit that it has had a strong historical linkage to fascism. Indeed, Ze’ev Sternhall is the clearest on this: the nationalist impulses of fascism are rooted in left nationalism as much as right anti-Enlightenment thought, although that is definitely present. In almost every case, the left fascists, national syndicalists, and national anarchists are marginalized and the nations are cop-oped in the name of the state. Indeed, in our contemporary parlance, the idea of nation (which is now typically called ethnicity) is utterly mixed up with the nation-state, which now should more probably just be called the state as single nation states within “capitalism” do exist exist in relatively small and remote places mostly in South and East Asia.
But it’s important to remember why the locus of nationalism as a site of resistence was important, and its locus was within the sovereign nation state. As Benedict Anderson says in Imagined Communities:
[T]he concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism [direct relationship] between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state. (pp. 6-7)
Yet, as Anderson points out, even the nation is not a family or a tribe, and its history is not entirely biologic. Nations are imagined communities:
“is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”
What one sees in Medem’s notions in light of the Bund sound very close to those articulated by Troy Southgate on the right, New Resistance in the far “middle,” but also dreams of intentional communities of the left and syndicates of the Republican Spanish revolution. Internationalism was the idea that within a totality, in classical Marxism still involving the state after the the fall of Paris Commune, nations would be respected. Like the Soviets and the pluralities within Lenin’s early political development. This came out of two reasons: one) It became obvious that no nation could stand up to zeitgeist produced by a capitalist mode of production and from a liberal hegemony on culture, and two) productions modes required for the populations of nations already required resources beyond the scope of most national groups.
Now in the advanced states of this current zeitgeist in both in cultural and social industries, which have merged the “economicism” of the old left analysis and the “culturalism” in a new left analysis, because even culture has become a consumer product. Perhaps, THE consumer product as it is no longer limited by a commodity fetish, but just a substitute for the intentional community.Nationalism seems like a necessary and understandable response, but not enough of one. What one needs is something more total in scope and closer to Dunbar’s number in practice. Nothing the “new” left produced, or tried to go back to be it the Paris Commune, has been able to handle that dialectic. Nor have a seen nationalists really posit answers to that other that: Collapse!
Collapse happens in complex systems, so it’s not something to completely rule out. But like the Immerisation thesis attributed to Marx by the early social Democrats, there is nothing automatic about any of it. Yet, there is a logic, as Tainter indicated in his Collapse of Complex societies, which can be paraphrased as such: complex societies break down when increasing complexity results in negative marginal returns. The zeitgeist has its limits. Then again, one must be honest: nationalism is itself a product of the zeitgeist and has its own mythic qualities just like the teleology of Stalinist determinism or the obvious myth of the divine right of Kings. So even this may not be an out.
As Adorno has said: Identity is the Ur-form of ideology. Yet, we have found no entirely unmitigated and unideological means of being. In fact, it is ideological relationships, and symbolic orders that can give on the social stability hoped for in the nation. But nations themselves grow more complex, and their contradictions become obvious. Take the historical example of the Jewish people: we now know that the genetics and archaeology give us no evidence that the Jews were anything other than Canaanites. The same as the ancients of Palestinians. Furthermore, tensions within Temple Jewish society led both to the creation of Pharisaic Judaism and the creation of Gnostic forms and Apocalyptic forms of Judaism which became Christianity, which had its internal contradictions. Hegel’s idealism allows us to see this as a pattern. Badiou picks up on that pattern. We can see it through out time.
We all fear the Endstaat that we hope for, but the contradictions can give rise to a freedom and a less alienated way of being. Liberal modernity producing lack of the confidence in the elected official of most nation states or empires more properly understood, producing irrationalism that mirror rationalism not the traditionalism before, etc all make it look like if liberal modernity is the Endstaat, it is a grime one indeed.
To fight out way out of this dialectic will lead us to a new one, but totalities can implode from their own weight. Productions can exhaust themselves, and instead of sublating into in a new form, the structures of social organization (and that of the thoughts produced in them) can shatter.
Nationalism, honestly, doesn’t answer this. It’s neither a small enough nor a large enough dream NOW, in our history, and in our time. This is the point where Hegel and Nietzsche may indeed look into the other’s monster and see themselves.
So I don’t condemn left nationalism anymore than I would condemn any movement in history against the regressive and destructive nature of the current, but I must say honestly, I don’t think it is the answer.
Jacob Cayia is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and studies literature and the history of philosophy in Chicago. This interview took place from November 2011 through March 2012. Jacob and I have slightly different takes on many things within purview of Platypus project.
Skepoet: You and I both have some affiliation with the Platypus Affiliated Society, although you are a full member in the project [Editor's note: I am now a full member of the project.] How do you interpret the slogan “The Left is Dead, Long Live the Left”?
Jacob Cayia: I understand the slogan, “The Left is Dead, Long Live the Left!” to be operating in two different valences. On the one hand, it brings to mind Rosa Luxemburg’s famous condemnation of the party she was once apart of. In 1914, she called German Social-Democracy a “stinking corpse.” She was not afraid to declare, “The Left is Dead!” — in fact she felt she needed to. Keep in mind that this was the party she had devoted her life’s work to building. The flip-side to this, the aspect of, “Long Live the Left!” consists in her founding the Spartakusbund. In other words, Rosa Luxemburg had to split from “Marxism” in order to remain a Marxist. Besides Luxemburg, the other major figures in this critical tradition include Lenin and Trotsky. The three together are what is known as the “Second International radicals.” They came of age during the heady years of the early 20th century, all looking up to the “German model” and its leadership in Karl Kautsky. But when Kautsky and the “German model” betrayed the very workers they claimed to stand for, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky had no qualm with splitting from the very model and leadership they once looked up to. In other words, international Marxism had come into crisis in 1914, a crisis in which you had to say both “The Left is Dead!” and ”Long Live the Left!”
So, that is one valence, the historical one. The other one involves where we stand in our contemporary moment, but this is not as easy to parse out for a number of reasons. On the one hand, to state that the Left is dead is merely to state an empirical observation. There is no longer an international Left capable of changing society in the way, historically speaking, there once was. Why is this? I don’t know, but I think the first place to start is in asking the question. There are some people, what I might call the “post-political Left” that wants to naturalize this fact. They think that the absence today of an organized, powerful Left is a good thing. The logic goes something like this: now that there are no longer party ideologues and hierarchical, authoritarian political organizations always trying to intervene in the movement, maybe now we will finally be able to make the revolution since there is no institutional Left to spoil it for us. But even in the traditional, institutional Left you find a similar naturalization of its own death, in the sense that they do not reflect on what has really happened to the Left to cause its downfall. These organizations conceive of themselves as “carrying on the struggle” in a manner so that they only perpetuate and self-justify their own activities. But I don’t think the Left can carry on like this. Where an organization had a daily paper 20 years ago, a weekly paper 10 years ago, now-a-days it only has a monthly, photocopied newsletter. And you can’t blame this on the “digital age.” So there is that aspect, the empirical one that you can measure in things like membership numbers and print-runs. There is another aspect, in which what counts as the “Left” today has in fact become right-wing at the level of its ideas. But this is much bigger issue, and one I hesitate to go into.
So, why declare, “The Left is Dead! Long Live the Left!”? To provoke the recognition of this problem so that we might start overcoming it. I think this begins with looking at the history of the Left and asking the kinds of questions that tell you how we got from there to here. This relies on a “Left-centric” view of history, which would then imply that not only did the Left die, but it committed suicide. But there is positive aspect to this too. If the Left killed itself, it can also bring itself back to life. What precisely this would look like is unclear, but what is clear is that the Left must transform itself before it can transform the world.
S.: Do you think that the contemporary left, in so much as there is one, has moved too far away from the philosophy of Hegel and Kant as they are manifested in Marx? If so, why do you think this has happened?
J.C.: This is an extremely complex question. The story with Kant is a little trickier, but nearly every Marxist will tell you that Marx himself, for better or worse, is greatly indebted to Hegel. But people aren’t quite sure what this indebtedness entails. If you press them on it, they will likely tell you that Marx extracted out of Hegel’s dialectic the rational kernel underneath its mystical shell, that he stood dialectics on its feet. What this means to most people is that Marx is a “materialist” with his feet on the ground and that Hegel is an “idealist” with his head in the clouds — but it is this formulation I want to challenge. One cannot think of this idealism/materialism dichotomy in the traditional sense as an ancient philosophical problem. Marx, for instance, couldn’t care less about “matter.” What he cares about, instead, are ideas — and that is why he wrote all those books and was such a vehement critic of the Left. So, I would argue that Marx is an idealist, not a materialist. But to get this, one needs to understand the significance of modern, or German, idealism, which finds its earliest expression in Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy. In this metaphysical “revolution” the emphasis is put on thinking about the world as a product of our own activity. In other words, Kant does not begin by searching for a world “out there,” rather he wants to think about the world that we ourselves constitute. This is what Kant means by “idealism.” For Kant, we ourselves are the spontaneous source of the phenomenal world that confronts us in experience — so the question is, what would it mean to think through, and become conscious of, those categories by which we give unity to nature? Hegel is following upon this problem.
So, in what sense is Marx different from this idealist tradition of Kant and Hegel? He differs in the sense that he is profoundly more idealist than either Kant or Hegel could have ever hoped to be. What I mean by this is that Marx, throughout his life, was engaged in a bitter struggle for consciousness. Marx thought ideas could change the world, and that one could only change the world by knowing it, or what is the same thing, that one could only know the world by changing it. One key historical difference between Marx and Hegel (or Kant), is that Marx had a socialist workers movement to intersect, and it was at this that his ideas and polemics were aimed. In this sense, Marx was vying for leadership of the movement and the rationality of his ideas in developing it. For example, in Capital Marx is not developing his own independent theory of economics. Rather, he is engaged in a bitter critique of the Left. His book is a critique of the various Left-Ricardians whose ideas were in vogue in the workers movement at the time, people like Pierre Joseph Proudhon and Thomas Hodgskin. So, you could say, Marx had the “material” by which he could animate with his ideas in a way that previous thinkers never did. If you look at the history of Hegel’s political interventions, it is far more limited. One thing in particular comes to mind. Hegel thought that the German Wars of Liberation against Napoleonic France could be progressive. He thought they could allow for the unification of Germany, which at the time was a loose collection of small states and princedoms, each of which had their own laws, customs, tariffs, regulation, religion, etc. Hegel thought that the Wars of Liberation could unify the country and develop it politically into a modern, liberal state, instead of the back-wards, semi-feudal mess it was at the time. So, you could say that Hegel was something of an “anti-imperialist” who supported the national “self-determination” of Germany, which at the time was a country that existed only in idea, not in reality. One intervention Hegel tried to make was in vying for influence over the Burschenschaften, or what we now call fraternities, but which emerged as revolutionary student organizations during the Wars of Liberation. Hegel’s competitor in this struggle for consciousness was Friedrich Jacobi, an irrationalist philosopher who emphasized the significance of “revelation” as opposed to “reason.” Unfortunately, Jacobi won and Hegel lost, meaning that the Burschenschaften became conservative and reactionary institutions, not the liberal and progressive institutions that Hegel hoped they could be. In the early 1840s the Burschenschaften would hold midnight, candle-lit masses outside the home of their beloved professor, Friedrich Schelling, who was, like Jacobi, both anti-Hegelian and irrationalist. Engels, who was auditing philosophy courses at the University of Berlin at the time, thought this was the epitome of stupidity. I have to agree with that characterization. Nowadays the Burschenschaften do god-knows-what, but I’m sure American fraternities look pretty tame in comparison.
The point I’m trying to make here is that I measure “idealism” by its understanding that ideas can transform the world, that the struggle for consciousness is paramount. In this sense, there is nothing more radically idealist that Marxism. This is actually a pretty common-sensical point for your typical Marxist — it tends to be the theorists and intellectuals who don’t get it.
S.: While post-modernism is out of vogue in philosophy: it seems to have a lingering appeal in anthropology. Do you think that so many
leftist have moved away from philosophy and to anthropology to keep this line of thinking?
J.C.: I’m very suspect of any attempt to give a political dimension to anthropology, which is something that has come into vogue recently with the Occupy movement and some of its figure-heads like the “anarchist” anthropologist David Graeber. One way I understand this trend is that it is searching for better and more democratic ways in which humans might organize themselves socially. So they look to the history of human civilization and evaluate the different models of sociality that humans have given themselves and they pick and choose which ones they think might be best to emulate today. So, for example, feudal Europe might be hierarchical, patriarchal, economically stratified, and anti-democratic. But some jungle-tribe in South East Asia might be state-less, egalitarian, democratic, gift-driven, so on and so on. So, the political import of Anthropology is that we should modify our existing practices in order to emulate the egalitarian and democratic jungle-tribe. It is a form of pre-figurative politics. Even the “spokes-council” model at the Occupy Wall Street takes its inspiration from pre-modern culture.
This has my sympathy in some sense. The history of human civilization is but the catalog of the various and diverse ways in which humans have organized themselves socially. So yes, it is true, the way we life today in modern capitalism is not the way in which we necessarily are destined to live. There are other ways, but for me, the question is how to get from *here* to *there*. I do not think pre-figurative politics are the solution, and in many instances pre-figurative politics takes a conservative, anti-liberal form. Only in modern society does something such as “anthropology” exist as a field of study. Only in modern society do humans begin to look back at their entire history and start thinking about their human nature. Rousseau looked back at the entirety of human history and concluded that the essence of man is his “perfectibility,” or, in other words, that what human nature is is humankind’s infinite potential for becoming-other. Nonetheless, Rousseau did not think we could merely choose to live in a different way in what amounts to a kind of pre-figurative politics. To quote Rousseau, we must search for the remedy to the ill in the ill itself. Capitalism poses certain challenges with respect to changing transforming the world. We cannot ignore this. It is something new.
S.: What do you think of the contemporary Maoist hostility to Liberalism? Do you see this as why Maoist may have a tendency to forgive third world dictatorships but have absolutely no sympathy for Social Democrats in Northern Europe?
J.C.: To begin with, I don’t know if I have much sympathy for contemporary social democratic states in Europe either, though for different reasons than Maoists may have. Given the general historical trend, it looks like the social democratic state is on the way out. In Europe, I would probably point to England as a country that is at the forefront of dismantling what has been a relatively robust welfare state. The less-important countries of Northern Europe, I imagine will follow suit soon enough. A liberal model of welfare, that you find in Hegel, involves the notion that the responsibility of the state is to protect the rights and claims of its citizens against the anarchic chaos of civil society and the market. One of these rights that the state ought to protect is the right to participate in society, the right to sell your labor for a wage and provide for your own subsistence. Hegel recognized that civil society was engendering internal contradictions that were preventing its freer development. Thus the state had to transcend and stand over-and-above civil society in order to reconcile and mediate its contradictions. For example, Hegel’s liberal welfare state has an obligation to make employment possible for all those who are able to work. But what would this look like today in which we have massive, systemic unemployment?
Anti-liberalism on the Left today tends to fall into one of two categories, of which Maoism is of the more old-school variety. Maoism has a complicated history, which can be traced back to the impact of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution for the Left in Europe and America. Many young leftists in the sixties saw new hope in China. It was continuing the revolution, whereas the revolution in the Soviet Union was stalling. But I don’t think this kind of politics ever got beyond the level of “hope,” although the object of this hope continually changes based on wherever the latest space of “resistance” is at the time. For example, for some people today this new hope is emanating from Nepal, but when that revolution stalls, where will they turn to next? Not all Maoism is third-worldist in the way that I am laying it out, but I think there is a common thread here.
What makes this kind of politics anti-liberal is its focus on “resistance.” In other words, it mistakes resistance for politics. This kind of anti-liberalism is hardly unique to Maoism, since it extends to forms of anti-Leninist, anarchist politics too. What’s emphasized in this kind of politics is resistance to capitalism, and it is from this resistance that the political struggle is constructed upon. I think this is a fundamentally wrong way to look at politics and society. The categories of resistance are not adequate to overcoming capital. What I find so profound about Marxism, is that it emphasizes that social transformation can only come about in and through that society itself. We do not “build a new world” so much as we become conscious of the world we already live in, which is the only world accessible to us. For Marx this means working through immanently the necessary forms of appearance. In the words of Marx himself in the Civil War in France, the working-class’ task is nothing other than to set free the elements of the new society with which bourgeois society is already pregnant. This is the context in which I understand Marx’s critique of liberalism. Liberalism, for Marx, is not wrong in-itself, but because of transformations in society, liberalism is no longer an adequate way to think about capitalism. This does not mean that we throw it out whole-sale, it means that the categories of the classical liberal thinkers have become self-contradictory and destructive. Hence, for Marx it takes a dictatorship of the proletariat to save bourgeois society from itself. Bourgeois right can only fully attain to its concept in socialism. Thus, capitalism by truly realizing its essence, turns into its opposite — socialism. What is often called the “negation of the negation.” That’s what it means for Marx to have a dialectical relationship to liberalism.
S.: Do you think this is related to a move away from dialectical reasoning or a regression in liberal society?
J.C.: Well, both. A regression in society corresponds to a regression in the thinking of that society. The revolutionary aspirations of the bourgeois project was able to find its philosophical articulation in individuals like Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. The society we live in today no longer provokes such philosophical comprehension in thought. Marx might have been the last great intellectual, or Lenin, but if you say this you get yourself into a series of problems and have to account for the transformed nature of the “bourgeois intellectual” in post-1848 society. So a regression in dialectical reasoning is related to a regression of liberalism in society, but this has two different historical valences. On the one hand there is the death of the Left that we find ourselves in in the present, that is, the complete absence of an emancipatory political project in the world, for at least 40 years now, if not much longer. So there is that, that the freedom project inaugurated in the bourgeois revolution and carried through in socialist workers’ politics, has fallen apart. The present is conditioned by this historical truth, which thus places an impasse to the possibility of free thought.
But the other historical reference that needs to be made is to 1848, which is perhaps the most significant date in the history of Marxism, despite the fact that “Marxism” hadn’t really come into existence just yet. But the important point about 1848 is with respect to the lessons learned, or not learned, by the socialist workers movement. In Marx’s 18th Brumaire Marx tasks himself with understanding the changed nature of the state in post-1848 society and the relation of mass politics to that state, what Marx classes under the heading: “Bonapartism.” But Bonapartism for Marx was already an historical problem. Napoleon III in the guise of Napoleon I. The 1848-51 revolution in the guise of 1789 French Revolution. Whereas the Great French Revolution, in Marx’s account, moved along in an *ascending* line, the 1848 revolution moved along in a *descending* line. In other words, it was symptomatic of historical regression. The the question is then, how does this recognition of thought in crisis affect how we think about political possibility, and the lack thereof. So, even over 150 years ago you could say that both dialectical thinking and liberalism in society were in regress, and perhaps necessarily so. This is framed in various ways, often with reference to Marx’s notion of “vulgarity.” So, after Hegel you only have “vulgar” philosophy, after Smith you only have “vulgar” political economy, and so on. Vulgarity refers to the use of concepts that are not adequate to their purported objects. So vulgarity has a series of related terms as well including “identity-thinking” and “undialectical.” Marxism, or more specifically what Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness calls “Orthodox Marxism,” is the attempt to scientifically and dialectical grasp the concepts we use to understand our relation to the world, and the expression of this relation in politics in the post-1848 world. But if we don’t even live with this problem anymore, if history no longer poses it to us in the form of necessity, then we can hardly claim to be “scientific” or “dialectical” in our understanding. If this is the problem, its not clear where to begin solving it, but I think recognizing how little we understand the world, whether or not we have a “Marxist analysis” of it, is a good place to start.
S.: So where is the socialist project to emerge in light of this failure?
J.C.: If it is to emerge at all, it is to be out of the comprehension of its failure. I am not going to point to any already-existing movement and say, there, that’s the path open to us now, that’s the future of the socialist movement. I don’t say that because I don’t think that’s the task of somebody who wants to hold themselves in a critical relation vis-à-vis the Left, and one holds them self in this critical relation because they want to see something like socialism actually succeed. Marx famously writes in the 18th Brumaire that what distinguishes the nature of the proletarian revolution is that it constantly criticizes itself. In other words, it progresses by way of understanding and comprehending the history of its failures. There’s a great deal that needs unpacking here. If the *end* to which socialist political practice is a *means* to is none other than international socialist revolution (i.e. the totalizing, conscious transformation of society), then the entire history of socialist politics is the history of its failure to actualize its goal. So, to begin with, we ought not to call our defeats, victories. This is a common impulse on the Left, especially, although not exclusively, on the activist left. Take, for instance, protest politics, where the organizing of a protest itself is considered a success or victory. Okay, yes, a protest is a “success” in the sense that it actually occurs, that the efforts of organizers were made manifest in a concrete demonstration. But we ought not to confuse a practical success for a political one. A protest is a means to another end, not an end in-itself. Now, there is a common, anarchist critique of protest politics that wants to substitute what’s known as “direct action” for common, milquetoast protest politics. The idea is something like this: political action needs to have immediate consequences, that empower the individuals taking those actions, and by which to measure the action’s efficacy, and that this political action must be “direct” in the sense that it is not mediated through establishment or representative politics. But once again, the political “success” of an action is looked at on the micro-level. So, for example, a group of people blocking a road to a port is viewed as a successful shutting-down of the port. The end (i.e. shutting down the port) is immediately measurable as the result of the means (i.e. blocking the entrance). I don’t think this is a very productive way to understand politics in a society that is totalizing. Politics is not really about “empowering” individuals, there are self-help books for that. Politics is about the administration and mediation of society on a universal level. You can try to wish your way out of this, by asserting things like “the personal is the political,” but I don’t think that really gets you anywhere. I once heard an Occupy Oakland organizer say that the occupation was avoiding the mediation of the state by, to give one example, not cooperating with police or asking for permits to hold their marches. He was making a virtue of this fact. But when people are getting arrested or beat-up for demonstrating — how is that not a “mediation” of the state and police? So, there still exists a “mediation” so to speak, of the most brutal and coercive kind. I think one needs to instead think through the categories of politics, the state, society, etc. in their immanence as opposed to attempting to falsely transcend them altogether by wishing up a new politics in the safety of your individual mind. For Marxism, concrete political problems are always to be viewed and understood in relation to the totality of society and its necessity for international proletarian revolution. So, to give an example, for Lenin the state was to be made an instrument of class struggle, to a means for the end of its own withering-away.
This may have seemed somewhat tangential to your question, of where the socialist project is to emerge, but the difficulty of this question I think necessitates such an oblique response because, to be frank, I’m not really sure where (spatially speaking or not) a new socialist politics is to emerge. We live in a particularly dire moment and we shouldn’t confuse an appearing renaissance of the left for its success and continuing viability
S.: What do you think are the consequences for continued failure to reflect on failure?
J.C.: The consequences may include the possibility that the world is no longer mediated in any significant way by our consciousness of it. This then, would cast all of previous history in a new light — human history would no longer be the story of freedom’s development, but of humanity’s unqualified, conscious-less alienation from itself. Thinking would no longer count as thinking. All politics would be reduced to pseudo-action. One worry I have is that this may have already occurred.\
S.: So we would be In a Hegelian endstaat then?
J.C.: Well, not exactly, unless you have an especially perverse and pessimistic understanding of Hegel in which his ideal state is one devoid of reason and freedom. I don’t think that the late Hegel is a conservative Hegel. World spirit was never supposed to be the irrational necessity of blind fate, though this is what it might turn out to be.
S.: I don’t have that strict of a pessimistic view, but my personal view is that Hegel actually was in dialectical opposition to himself on the nature of the world-spirit. I can’t know this, but I suspect that’s why Hegel produced a right and a left and Kant didn’t really. (Or didn’t so directly). I honestly think the temptation is there to slip into pessimism because so many of the brightest leftists do it (Horkheimer, Debord, etc). I, however, also think this may be just leftist meloncholia speaking.
J.C.: Kant has a much more ambiguous legacy than does Hegel. Hegel splits people down the middle, whereas everyone can generally appreciate Kant. People don’t always think that the stakes are very high with Kant, but they are wrong about that. Hegel provokes a little more controversy. But of course noting this hardly helps you begin to understand the history of dialectical thought. The categories of “Left” and “Right” Hegelians is tricky because to be an Hegelian is claim to have an historical comprehension of the present. Liberal, revolutionary ideas were pretty much the par for Hegel’s students, but the question is what to make of these liberal, revolutionary impulses at the moment the modern world begins to reveal itself in its most glaring contradiction, as evinced in the revolutions in 1848 in, but not exclusive to, France. Hegelianism was less and less able to keep itself together as a coherent system of thinking. The novels of Ivan Turgenev, who himself was a student of philosophy at the University of Berlin in the late ’30s/early ’40s, bear witness to the growing sophistry and philistinism of Hegelianism, mixed as it was with the influence of Proudhon and other socialist ideas. It was becoming less negative, more conservative, even in its radical guise — affirming, but only in the worst way, what Adorno speculatively judged Hegel himself to be, an identity-thinker — what was once radical thought had become an unlikely bedfellow with society’s own self-domination.
Kant is probably more difficult to grasp than Hegel, and I think Adorno’s own “negative dialectic” is something of a Kantian critique of Hegel, reminding us that the antinomical moment must continue if only as a remnant if freedom is thought to still to be necessary, despite the forces of identity at work reducing individual thought to the mold fit for it in the administered society, foreclosing any possibility for cognition of the whole.
S.: What do you make of the historical Marxist hostility to Kant from the 20th century forward? What do you think this was rooted in?
J.C.: Well, the twentieth-century and onwards incorporates a massive amount of history. In the early twentieth-century you have revisionist Marxism finding bedfellows with neo-Kantianism. So in this era you get books like Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism, and others. Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness is also largely engaged with a political critique of this kind of neo-Kantianism. One way these kind of disputes play out is with the assertion of the necessity to go beyond Kant, to Hegel. So with this kind of judgment often comes the mistaken notion that only Hegel is the really dialectical thinker, the idea that Hegel invented dialectics. Pre-Hegelian philosophers are dismissed is inadequate. But you are really closing yourself off if you do this. Engel’s has a line in the Anti-Dühring where he remarks that even though Rousseau had yet to be bitten by the “Hegelian pestilence,” by virtue of his birth, of course, he was nonetheless a dialectical thinker through-and-through. Between Rousseau and Hegel, it goes without saying, lies Kant, who also belongs to this tradition of dialectical philosophy. Dialectics isn’t some kind of perverted thinking invented by Hegel. Rather, dialectical thinking is natural in its essence — thinking the object becomes reflection on the subject. There is a long intellectual tradition of this in the history of modern philosophy. So, on this level, I just don’t think a lot of Marxists bother to give Kant the time and patience they might give to Hegel, but they are really missing out. There is another, somewhat related, reason I want to bring up — that of a stagist conception of philosophy. So, the typical story goes: Hegel transcends Kant, Marx transcends Hegel. Hegel is perhaps the most guilty in indulging in this kind of stagist account of the history of philosophy, especially with respect to the history of German Idealism. Since Hegel “transcended” Kant, we can assume that Hegel is “dialectical” whereas Kant belongs to an outmoded tradition. This is an easy-out, it gives you an cookie-cutter way to categorize history, to claim to “understand” it, but you are really missing out on something essential when you do this, particularly with respect to those individuals in history we might call philosophers of freedom. Depending on how you look at it, we are either living with a problem that is very new or one that is very old. If Rousseau were still alive today, this upcoming summer would mark his 300th birthday, and we’ve still yet to prove untrue his claim that civilization was a massive mistake in humankind’s development. The problem of freedom in society, as Rousseau diagnosed it, remains with us today, and to the extent it does one not ought to write off anyone.
S.: Anything you would like to say in closing?
J.C.: In closing I’d only like to note that there are real pitfalls one encounters when trying to politically think society. Some of the categories we use to think about the world, such as bourgeois, proletarian, capitalism, liberal, reactionary, right, freedom, etc., can themselves perpetuate the society one expects the theory to negate. Thought, instead of becoming emancipating, all too often in the present affirms the existence of its own irrelevance. Marxism, which is little more than critically understanding the historical experience of society, is not about keeping up-to-date the analysis of capitalism, and nor is it about ratcheting up the sigh of the oppressed. Saying this in the abstract is easy, but trying to get an actually existing Marxist to recognize this in themselves in a way that changes their practice, is difficult. While their continue to exist many individual, self-described Marxists, indeed even entire organizations full of them, what continues to go un-recognized is the total absence of Marxism as a force in the world. So confronting this fact, the utter irrelevancy of Marxism as a way of politics in the present, may be the only way today to continue to think the essence of Marxism. The success of Marxism, culminating in the Bolshevik seizure of state power that lasted over 7 decades, is generally recognized for its world-historical impact. But the flip-side to this, the complete failure of Marxism, resulting in its total obsolescence in the present, has not yet been fully understood. Marxism was always about understanding its own historical failures, but we seem to forgotten about that aspect.
Conservatives and liberals at their games (CON edition): The character assassination of a dead 17-year old boy
Now I have had more than a few things to say about the hypocrisy of a lot of people, such as Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia and columnist Leonard Pitts denying that there was any implication to Zimmerman’s racial double-consciousness. But the recent move to discredit Trayvon Martin has been disturbing. Although I suppose I should completely expect this some of thing as liberals and conservatives, or more specifically, Republicans and Democrats, like to play games with facts to score superficial political points regardless of the situation.
So, here’s the disturbing move: The attempt to place the focus on Trayvon Martin. Now, let put this way, in both versions of the story, it is clear that Zimmerman stalked Martin thinking he was suspicious, that there was some kind of conflict, and that end, Trayvon Martin was dead. Even at my most charitable reading of the events to Zimmerman, Zimmerman appears to singled out Martin, stalked him, been comforted perhaps violently, and this ended with Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s life ruined. That’s the most charitable reading. The rest of the circulation about Martin’s character, honestly, is irrelevant. Some of things linking around from news sources into blogs are, well, patently false. I don’t care for Alternet much and Thinkprogress even less, but they do a good job of documenting things here.
So it appears that most of things are political games aimed at discrediting a dead kid which won’t benefit Martin either and ignores the structural problems of Florida laws and Florida communities. I’ll quote the rather even-handed think progress piece:
Ultimately, whether Martin was a perfect person is irrelevant to whether Zimmerman’s conduct that night was justified. Clearly, there are two different versions of the events that transpired on February 26, the night Trayvon was killed. There are conflicting statements by witnesses and conflicting evidence as to who was the aggressor. Zimmerman has the right to tell his side of the story. But his opportunity to do this will come in a court of law after he is charged and arrested. In the meantime, Zimmerman’s supporters should stop trying to smearthe reputation of a dead, 17-year-old boy.
If you have a real point to make, make it. Don’t smear a dead boy. I would try to shame those of you doing this, but we all know this isn’t about morality, or what happened to Trayvon. This is about cultural power in a way in which honesty is largely irrelevant. I won’t say anything more about this case. It’s a distraction, but a tragic one. One where people seem to be learning that moral outrage and character smears is a way to avoid looking a deep-seated cultural problems. It doesn’t undo the situation, and it is unlikely to bring justice to anyone.
This commentary is rated MA for mature audiences. It contains analytic discussion of liberal talking points that will point out the flaws in so-called progressive thinking from a position further left than speaker. It will rigorously apply ian analytical nternal consistency to a certain liberal celebrity who considers himself as an anti-racist radical.
Let me introduce you a very specific rhetorical trick employed by Tim Wise. Apparently, as a white man, Tim Wise has taken it as his agenda to point out how demanding a progressive vision is de facto racist when that criticism is aimed at Barak Obama. For a long time, I was impressed with Wise. His clear statements of the problems of so-called post-racial America. Furthermore, conservatives and explicit racists hated him and attacked him with the most transparent arguments so that I couldn’t help by like him. I mean having WorldNutDaily call you anti-white genocidial fiend is almost the best kind of advertisement since the hyperbole means they care. Yet, something felt very strange about one man making his career off of pointing out white “privileged” (power). It seemed like a form of said power. Then I noticed something else, the hedging and really weak arguments given by Wise against liberals
criticizing Obama. I will give you an example.
Wise posits an alternative candidate:
“Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an immediate end to our current and ongoing wars abroad.
Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an end to predator drone attacks by the United States military, which kill innocent civilians and foment growing hatred of America. He believes that the so-called “war on terror” as we’ve engaged it has undermined American freedoms at home and contributed to greater tensions and anti-American sentiment abroad.
Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an entirely revamped Middle East policy, in which the U.S. will no longer subsidize the oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel.
Unlike Barack Obama, he supports either abolishing or fundamentally reforming the Federal Reserve system, and he opposed bailing out the banks with public funds.
Unlike Barack Obama, this individual opposes government spying and believes in absolute freedom of speech and the press, and as he puts it, “reduced government intrusion into our lives.”
Clearly, with such a progressive vision, no one of the left would want to pass up the opportunity to support a candidate such as this for president! Surely it would be a vast improvement over Barack Obama, that Wall Street- friendly, imperialistic, war-monger, who promised to close Guantanamo but didn’t, among other unforgivable crimes.
So by all means, let’s get behind someone who will close down the national security state, stand up for civil liberties, and stop
handing out money to bankers.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the left, I give you your perfect candidate for 2012:
Now, is Wise making a point about how David Duke is more anti-war than many anti-war liberals and thus making a point about the incoherence of Democratic politics and it’s tribalism? That’s a powerful contradiction to point out. That a white supremists wants to stop killing brown people and end expansions into the middle East and central Africa while a “black” President does not. Black Agenda Report has been utterly consistent on this point: Going so far as to point out as far as the supremism of a certain class (which is mostly white) and as cover for the objective standards of living for black people, Barak Obama is not the “lesser” evil, he’s the more effective one. Furthermore, economic well-being for African Americans has declined under Obama’s tenure disproportionately. As Glen Ford points out:
Traditional Black progressive and movement politics has been replaced by fear and sycophantism, as Blacks once again circle the wagons around Obama and contort the events of the last three years to justify their unrequited loyalty to the Banker’s President. Fear of Republicans is deployed as an excuse for failure to defend the community from its worst domestic crisis in many generations, and for Black America’s collective failure to intervene in Obama’s assaults on peace, in general, and Africa, in particular. But something more insidious is at work, here: a kind of Black group “patriotism” that values vicarious African American association with imperial power. When a Black man is virtual king of the world, African Americans must be more than simply the bottom rung of the domestic social ladder – no matter what the statistics say. African Americans may account for one out of eight prison inmates on the planet, but one of their own is also the most powerful person on Earth.
Thus, the proud legacy of Black American progressivism and activism is trumped by the narrowest, self-defeating nationalism. A Black misleadership class that cannot raise a finger in defense of its own people manages to move their lips all day long urging Blacks to rally around Obama – a man held in such high esteem among the enemies of Black people, on Wall Street, he will undoubtedly be the biggest recipient of corporate campaign funding in 2012, repeating his 2008 performance.
This seems like a symbolic tribalism that is actually bad for the national cause of African American politics. It’s purely about a cultural elite within an ethnic group as Glen Ford, himself a left-wing black nationalist, is pointing out.
No, this is not the focus of Wise’s outrage. Wise is pointing out that many liberals impressed by Ron Paul would be impressed by David Duke on the same grounds.
Yessir, legal weed and an end to the TSA: enough to make some supposed leftists ignore everything else Ron Paul has ever said, and ignore the fundamental incompatibility of Ayn Randian thinking with anything remotely resembling a progressive or even humane worldview. And this is so, even though he wouldn’t actually have the authority to end the TSA as president, a slight glitch that is conveniently ignored by those who are desperate to once again be able to take large bottles of shaving gel onto airplanes in the name of “liberty.”
I want those of you who are seriously singing Paul’s praises, while calling yourself progressive or left to ask what it signifies — not about Ron Paul, but about you — that you can look the rest of us in the eye, your political colleagues and allies, and say, in effect, “Well, he might be a little racist, but…”
Let’s paraphrase: Paul is a paleo-conservative libertarian. You see what how these privileged liberal white boys like in him is only because he’s pro-pot and ending wars. Lifestyle stuff. Never mind the horribleness of his economic policy.
Now, I would agree with him if this strawman of these “white liberals” (which Wise himself is definitely one and would admit) didn’t obfuscate a larger point. Why is that Paul seems more consistent than Obama? Paul’s lack of a progressive agenda shows how shallow so many progressives are in terms of world politics. The progressive liberal still accepts expliotation as long
as the moral optics within the country are acceptable. Paul exposes the contradictions in liberal position(both the left-liberal and libertarian position): you can’t have a “progressive” social democratic movement within only ONE country or just a few rich countries and ignore the plight of all those whose labor must be exploited to maintain it as long as they are outside that system.
Now, I am not a Maoist and definitely not a third-worldist, but it’s not hard to see their point on this. Paul is not cynically manipulating the public for a capitalists dystopia as Wise is suggesting.. Paul’s believes in the promise of classical liberalism’s liberation and that it is in line with traditional Protestant values. People are responding to that just as much as they are responding to their own freedom. Paul is a symptom of these contradictions and an embodyment of them.. Wise, however, can’t acknowledge this because: You see, this is only about white privilege and not trying hard enough.
I’ll let Wise speak for himself:
How do you think that sounds to black people, without whom no remotely progressive candidate stands a chance of winning shit in this country at a national level? How does it sound to them — a group that has been more loyal to progressive and left politics than any group in this country — when you praise a man who opposes probably the single most important piece of legislation ever passed in this country…
Wise has a point here, again, but the point seems to fly over his own head. Why is that a man who opposed to the civil rights platform wants to stop the indiscriminate killing of brown people for the benefit of a few. Notice the moral language. But is this really a moral appeal?
No, it’s real politique while completely dressed in moral language and public relations. Wait, huh, Wise is chastising white liberals on moral grounds and then makes a cynical appeal based on the need for black progressives in a progressive political base? Now, that actually sounds exploitative to me.
You see, if it was a moral critique then we could ask some serious questions to Wise. Questions like:
How do you think shilling for a President that increases drone attacks on brown people sounds to said brown people when ignored to score some points with the African American political base? How cynical is it to hollow out the struggle for African American nationalism for symbolic pride?
Since, however, this is not really a moral argument, we don’t have to ask those. According to Wise, however, the white liberals didn’t think about how bad that sounds because “they don’t have to” implicitly due to privilege:
It’s the same reason you don’t have to really sweat the fact that he would love to cut important social programs for poor people. And you don’t have to worry about how it sounds to them that you would claim to be progressive, while encouraging support for a guy who would pull what minimal safety net still exists from under them, and leave it to private charities to fill the gap. And we all know why you don’t have to worry about it. Because you aren’t them. You aren’t the ones who would be affected. You’llnever be them. I doubt you even know anyone like that. People who are that poor don’t follow you on Twitter.
But what about Wise’s class and geographic privilege–and that which every American shares regardless of their (or lack of)? Wise doesn’t have to think about that any more than the white liberals he castigates has to think gender or race issues within those set of privileges. This just becomes a set of concerns over life style issues in which the actual fate of those people are ignored.
Now if Obama was remotely consistent on these issues would said white liberals be running to “illiberal” (read: conservative liberal and libertarian) candidates like Paul?
I think you know what the answer to that probably is. Now, the meta-posturing that Wise does here is amazing: “You, white liberal, can never know what it is like to be black, and you wouldn’t be affected by Paul’s policies.”
Well, actually, almost all of those silly liberals who line up for Paul would be affected by those choices. Dramatically and drastically, even ones affecting woman’s reproductive health. It just doesn’t occur to them. But the self-righteous of this posture coming from a person to whom the critique applies is actually staggering. Yes like the death of Afghanistanis or the structural need for cheap labor for the warfare-welfare state to be maintained in a neo-liberal context doesn’t occur to Wise either. (Or if it does, he doesn’t mention it. But I am more charitable in my strawmen than Wise is). Yet, it would be logically fallacious to invalidate Wise’s argument just on the tu quo que fallacy.
But let’s look at Wise’s next substantive claim:
When you support or give credence to a candidate, you indirectly empower that candidate’s worldview and others who hold fast to it.
Given what Glen Ford has pointed out about the material conditions under Barrack Obama, what does this mean for Mr. Wise? Especially given that this is the same false binary that former President Shrub employed right after 9-11, which I am sure Wise objected to. Wise talks about the importance of subtle judgments when it comes to Barrack Obama:
See, believe it or not, judgment matters. If a man believes there is a straight line of unbroken tyranny betwixt the torture and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists on the one hand, and anti-discrimination laws that seek to extend to all persons equal opportunity, on the other, that man is a lunatic
So there is a libertarian logic here is insane. But the then Wise does the slippery slope move himself:
And please, Glenn Greenwald, spare me the tired shtick about how Paul “raises important issues” that no one on the left is raising, and so even though you’re not endorsing him, it is still helpful to a progressive narrative that his voice be heard. Bullshit. The stronger Paul gets the stronger Paul gets, period.
Logically and structurally the two sentiments are identical: Wise’s argument against Greenwald is the identical to the insane libertarian argument in everything but degree. You, according to Wise, pointing out that Paul raises important issues is the same as supporting EVERYTHING he says out. See how that works? Wise is in direct contradiction to himself. In fact, Wise takes it a step-further:
I mean, seriously, if “raising important issues” is all it takes to get some kind words from liberal authors, bloggers and activists, and maybe even votes from some progressives, just so as to “shake things up,” then why not support David Duke?
See, Wise, anyone who believes that these are the same is a lunatic.
So whose fault is this situation:
Meanwhile, at what point do you stop being so concerned about whether a presidential candidate is pushing the issues Paul raises (so many of which do need raising and attention), and realize what every actual leftist in history has realized, but which apparently some liberals and progressives don’t: namely, that the real battles are in the streets, and in the neighborhoods, and in movement activism?
Now, I have a question for Tim Wise here: In the past, in a electoral Republic, how is battles in the streets of New York and in the neighborhoods of the suburbs going to end wars in Afghanistan? Oh, yeah, according to liberal and progressive politics, by putting pressure on politicians.
Now, how is it if there are no candidates running the Democratic primary and there are no third parties that are viable is movement politics supposed to work, Tim?
Because, if anyone does run, they are going to look like a spoiler who allowed Mitt Romney, who only substantive difference from Barrack Obama policy from a “progressive” perspective would be appointment of supreme courts judges, or Rick Santorum,, whose basic competence I doubt, win. Furthermore, given that Mr. Wise knows the hawkish element of the Republican party will not allow Paul win and Ron Paul remains in the GOP, that all he is doing is attracting people to these issues anyway.
Now I am not defending Ron Paul: I am a socialist, not a libertarian. I think Paul’s economic policies would accelerate degeneration of late capitalism. But, you see, by pointing out how sad these things are for Obama, I am forgetting that pressure is in the streets. Where real politics is. If real politics is taken to the streets in a real way, I doubt Mr. Wise would like the results. When electoral politics is no longer an option, and people take to the streets for while: You are as likely to have Syria as Tunisia.
But I’ll let Wise speak:
In short, if you’re still disappointed in Barack Obama, it’s only because you never understood whose job it was to produce change in the first place.
Last time I checked, Tim, victim blaming is not something good liberals do.
“You elected him, but now from your privilege you are pointing out that Paul is better on foreign policy than him. Therefore you should put do your activism in the streets.” (Implication: TO put pressure on Obama to do the right thing). Oh, never mind that you have no electoral choices and to even point out how much of a problem this is because you are privileged, so support Barrack Obama so he’ll do the right thing. The logic isn’t even circular.
You see, this is what passes for anti-racism these days. Apologetics for Democrats while adopting moral postures to actually point out real politique in a logically incoherent way. People wonder why I distrust liberals as much as conservatives. So what a leftist, even who believes in some of the promises of Enlightenment liberalism, must do is combat liberalism. To fight for livelihood of black people, you have to go beyond symbolic politics within the Democratic party. If you to be willing to be honest about how flaccid so much of what passes for good liberal punditry is not even consistent on its own terms within the same advocacy piece, you have to turn up your nose at pieces like Wise.
To be change the world, you have to be honest about what the world as it currently exists is, which few liberal Democrats can still do.
Charley Earp is a non-Marxist socialist who writes his own blog, Radical Progress, and also writes for the trans-socialist blog I write for as well. Charley describes himself as a Pentecostal preacher’s kid who lived with a commune for 9 years, which led to his political radicalization. A 3-time college drop-out with a day job in the travel biz, he is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. No longer a Christian, but still actively involved with the progressive wing of Quakerism both locally, with the national Conference, and ecumenical and interfaith work. Born in 1963, married for 29 years, with two adult children.
Skepoet: So you have been in-dialogue with a bunch of anarchist and marxists, but you try your politics from a different set of traditions than Marxism. What about historical Marxist theory do you find problematic?
Charley Earp: The problematic parts of Marxist theory question is pretty broad. I don’t know if my background details clarifies things, but I came into left politics by way of Christian pacifism (with an anti-capitalist component). So, initially atheism was an issue.
Also the legacy of Stalinism still seems very much to have tainted the entire tradition, even the anti-Stalinist parts of it. One of my Maoist friends jumped in on a Facebook thread on my wall when someone dissed Stalin with the assertion “Hating Stalin is like hating Abraham Lincoln.” He meant that the US Civil War was just as bloody and devestating to the US as the Stalin period for the USSR.
I’ve written a blog post on Marxism, which says that I do think certain parts of Marx are essential to left revolutionary politics. Class struggle, commodity fetishism, etc. However, as I stated there, to call revolutionary politics “Marxism” is like calling evolutionary theory “Darwinism.” We’ve gone a long way past Darwin, and I would argue, Marx. We don’t call General Relativity “Einsteinism.”
Beyond theoretical naming conventions, I do think Marx was Eurocentric to a fault. His later ethnographic notebooks do apparently correct this, but they are generally accessible only to academics. His main theory is really written for Europe, not even so much the US. This raises the “American Exceptionalism” problem.
Today, I am closer to atheism, so that’s now moot for me, but still very live for the religious majority of the US. It’s occurred to me that I still think about politics in terms of mass movement, not professional revolutionaries. This means I want a politically unifying vision that can be embraced by lots of people, including that religious majority. That’s why Christian Socialism and Liberation Theology still seem importantly relevant, even though the 80s are long gone.
S.: Can you expand on what you see as the Euro-centric limits of Marxist theory? Would this apply to Maoism?
C.E.: You’ve asked the question in a way that goes beyond where I am confident. I have limited knowledge of Maoism, though I have some elementary hypotheses.
My concern with Eurocentrism is mostly bound up with African peoples, first of all African-Americans. As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, we learned to view Black Pentecostals as in some sense even more spiritual than us white folks. Their churches were more emotional, which is a good thing for Pentecostals. As I got older, this combined with my admiration for Dr. King, who I still view as the most important figure of the 1960s. He was able to set forward a radical (Christian) Americanism that still operates in many parts of our left movements.
Where this gets to the Eurocentrism of Marxist traditions is that both in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the US, people of African descent are more religious and, much more so than Asians, have embraced the European Christian traditions. This means, I think, that we cannot have an American left radicalism without it being led by a coalition of Black and White Christians. This is why Liberation Theology, which first emerged in Latin America, is so critical for North American radicalism. The Black version of Liberation Theology was first articulated by James Cone of Harvard. This work had a direct effect on Chicago’s Trinity UCC pastor Jeremiah Wright, and therefore Barack Obama.
In a funny sort of way, the form of Eurocentrism in Marxism is actually weaker than the Eurocentrism of American Christianity. It’s just occurring to me now that my reservations about Marxism may be less about Eurocentrism, than about atheism. With respect to Maoism, some Marxists have charged that Mao borrowed themes from Chinese traditional religion in order to advance the acceptance of his ideology. Similarly, Stalinism restored some power to the Orthodox Church after it had been outlawed by Lenin.
My own take on religion is what I call “religious naturalism” which maintains that religion arises from something pervasive, perhaps even hard-wired into human beings. Even Dawkins can see the truth of this when he theorizes that religion is the extension of a child’s unquestioning obedience of its parents, a necessary survival mechanism. I know that my own shift to naturalism from supernaturalism was accompanied by psychotherapy that worked most directly on my abusive relationship to my father. I wouldn’t universalize that abusive relationship, since I have met many religious people who actually had healthy parents. Religion does seem to me to express a projection of familial relations and human agency on to the natural world.
If Maoism is a sort of amalgam of Marxism and Traditional Chinese religion, then it makes sense that it appeals to the peasantry in places like China, Vietnam, and Korea. In North Korean Juche, we see the most obvious form of personality cult and religious nationalism combined with Maoism. Black Nationalism in the US took hold most powerfully among Black Muslims, though there are some Christian churches like Trinity UCC that have adopted some form of Black Power, though it is often called Afri-centrism by them. I remember listening to one of Wright’s protege’s a few years back at a conference on urban ministry talk about Africentrism.
It is interesting that Maoism in the US has been more committed to anti-racism than, say, Trotskyism. The argument in part seems to be about the question of “stagism,” that is, do non-European nations have to pass through a capitalist phase, or can the struggle for communism be waged directly? Maoism says yes to a direct struggle for communism. In Africa, I think only Ethiopia has had a Communist government, and that has been replaced by a Democratic Socialist coalition. In a real sense, Africa does reflect a more Eurocentric orientation than Asia.
Back to Marx’s Eurocentrism. In Marx’s time, it was easy to believe that religion was dying out, because it actually was in Europe. It wasn’t in any other part of the world. In fact, with Arabic and North African immigration into Europe, the European populace is becoming more religious, that is Islamic, but the racial barriers in Europe have kept the electorate as mostly white secularists. The untenability of that situation was reflected in the riots in France among North African youth a few years ago. Banning the Burqa antagonizes this same populace.
S.: I would disagree with you characterization of Juche as it doesn’t have much relationship to Maoism but to Soviet Stalinism plus Japanese racial ideology with some lingering confucianism, and I may also disagree with you on Trotskyism there. After all, C.L.R. James was a Trotskyist. That said, there is a general critique here that is interesting.
What do you think the limitations of Maoism has been in the US?
C.E.: First off, a bit of self-criticism. My ignorant conflating Juche to Maoism was no doubt premised on my own Eurocentrism, even perhaps racism. Just because Korea and China are Asian nations, for me to jump to the conclusion that Maoism and Juche were related was racist. I am out of my depth on Asia and Maoism.
Having my full confession of guilt and ignorance in hand, now, I am terrified of tackling US Maoism! I’ll retreat to story-telling. My most extended interaction with Maoism involves Bill Martin, a philosophy professor at Depaul U. Chicago. I had barely studied Marx when I met him in 1990, but was already on the path that would lead me from Christian Anarcho-Pacifism to more secular revolutionary politics. Bill was at the time a fan of Jacques Derrida, but also a “fellow-traveler” of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Bill later co-authored a book with RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, a series of dialogues about philosophy and politics. Avakian later declared himself the greatest Marxist since Mao, penned the “New Synthesis,” and began expelling intellectuals from RCP. From those expulsions we now have the Kasama Project, which under Bill Martin’s influence has turned to an engagement with Alain Badiou, also a former Maoist.
Oddly enough, long after I met Bill Martin, I learned that one of the first student left groups I ever got involved with was actually a covert Maoist group, called “Progressive Students.” I never knew they were Maoist and the meetings and demos I attended with them were all typical peace and justice stuff, anti-Apartheid, reproductive freedom, anti-homophobia, etc. Those student activists became part of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. The Chicago group I’d come to know, later led a split in FRSO and to this day they are “anti-revisionist” FRSO associated with “Fightback!” newspaper. In fact, Joe Iosbaker, one of the activists arrested in the FBI sweeps of anti-war activists was one of the Progressive Students leaders and I’m still on friendly terms with him.
One other Maoist group with whom I had some interactions, though they are perhaps anomalous, is the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. Both LRNA and RCP’rs have approached me in the context of my advocacy for a religious Left. RCP’ers were involved with the Chicago protests against housing project demolitions. Since RCP seems to seek out the “most oppressed” sectors, housing project residents probably qualify in some sense. LRNA was interesting because in contrast to RCP, they were more non-White. Nelson Peery is a black Maoist from California with a long history on the left. The Chicago group when I knew them also had several Christians, mostly in the black church.
So between FRSO/Fightback!, RCP, LRNA, and Kasama, I’ve gleaned a sense of Maoism as sort of the “most radical” activists on the block. They talk about Mao, call themselves communists, revolution, reject any electoral work, and are strongly aligned with the third world revolutions, China, Naxalites, etc. They also highlight racism, what in Leninism is called the “national question.”
What are the limitations? Remembering that I am largely non-expert on Maoism, they seem to be the most alienated from the mainstream of the US, left or otherwise. They don’t attract large crowds to their demos, but do attend most of the ones I have and probably a lot more. I can’t imagine any of my religious left friends having any interest in them. Since I believe that the Christian Left is the only sizable left constituency in the US, that’s a big weakness. Why wouldn’t Christian Leftists be interested? Because Maoism and Stalinism is so hostile to Christianity. LRNA seems to me to be the exception to that rule.
Of course, and here I’m going away from the question of specifically Maoism back to religion, race, and the Left, the US left isn’t largely revolutionary. There is an un-articulated anti-capitalism, but as we’d both agree, that can actually be regressive. I’ve become concerned lately that so many of my Christian pacifist friends are now talking about anarcho-primitivism. I’m seriously thinking about creating a critique of anarcho-primitivism on Christian grounds. If people are curious about Christian anarchism, one of the best sites iswww.jesusradicals.com
On racism, the black churches do have a leftwing element, of which Jeremiah Wright is typical. Cornel West is also very important. I’ve probably learned more about racism from West than anyone else. Say what you will about his DSA affiliation, his undisciplined pragmatism, or showy dramatics, he does develop a very solid alterntive to Black Power in his writing on racism.
I’m actually becoming involved with a local Black church here to immerse myself in that milieu. I’m seriously thinking about going to the UU seminary here in a few years and doing field work with this church. The pastor is a spectacular guy. He’s an ex-Pentecostal like myself, an Oral Roberts protege, a former megachurch leader, who took a strange turn into universalism and “New Thought” and was summarily ostracized by the mainstream churches. He’s also a vegan now and a gay rights advocate. These sorts of “mutations” within Christianity fascinate me and convince me that left-wing Christianity has an important future.
S.: You have argued in a few posts that anarchism is the most consistent logically of the various left-wing positions, but seems practically complicated historically. Would you like to go into that line of thought?
C.E.: Anarchism is ultimately consistent, as I think even Marx would acknowledge, since Marx stated that in communist society the state would wither away. In other words, it’s correct about the complete abolition of hierarchies and classes. Marx would add, dialectically, that historic social contradictions make anarchism idealistic and thus doomed to political failure.
In relation to anarchism, I would want to pose the claim that ecology is the most comprehensive of sciences and therefore of a scientific theory of social relations and revolution. This claim comes from combining two of my influences, one of which is Murray Bookchin’s anarchist/communalist social ecology. The other important influence is Scottish Christian Socialist John Macmurray (1891-1976) who figures in more basically to my ecological perspective. Macmurray was very concerned that religion be viewed as a natural feature of human existence and that it be modernized to accept scientific objectivity as the standard for knowledge, including its theological claims. He constructed a grand theory of science as a comprehensive reduction of phenomnena to general laws, a la Kant. In this comprehensive framework, he sees physics as the most elemental level, then chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology (including political economy). (He also critiques Kant’s dualism as untenable ultimately, so he is something of neo-Kantian. Even earlier in his career, he argued for Christian Communism as the dialectical fulfillment of both religion and communism.)
I would encompass all of those sciences within ecology. I went back and forth on this over the years, since I was also attracted to Marxism’s arguments regarding economics as the base of all social relations. If one uses economics as the grand paradigm, then ecological phenomena and systems are actually natural economies. And, politics is a human economy of power structures, and so on. I decided that this was really too reductive, so I now conceptualize ecology as the over-arching paradigm. Political economy is a subset of ecological systems.
Macmurray would have rejected my ecological view as much as he rejected economic reductionism, since his overarching paradigm was personalistic, and insistent on not reducing humans to animals or organisms or mechanical objects. In Macmurray’s view, psychology had failed in his time to develop the sort of objective character that had been achieved in physics or biology. He held that this was due to the intrinsic difficulties of self-criticism and self-understanding. He might have even accepted the view that class, gender, and sexuality distorts attempts to understand human psychology objectively. Despite his socialism, Macmurray wasn’t very strong on class struggle.
For Macmurray, psychology is the science that is most resistant to scientific reduction, and human experience forms the doorway to religious transcendance, ie God. I don’t go all the way with Macmurray there, since I consider supernaturalism itself a sort of dualism, a non-physical extra level that works out in social practice to repress human embodiment and freedom. However, Macmurray’s concern that we not have a reductionist psychology, e.g. Freud’s libidinal two-drive model, stands as a challenge that I think needs to be taken on board left politics.
To complete the argument, ecology is the scientific horizon within which all human life is objectively understandable. However, human psychology resists being reduced to either physical or biological science. This is substantially because the struggle among humans for freedom is incomplete. Capitalism, industrialism, and science have collaborated in modernity to enable a nearly global mastery of the world via economic systems, which comes close to truly mastering humanity and nature itself, but it fails – and resorts to violence – because of the divisions within humanity along political, gender, class, and racial divides. Also, the natural world is ecological, not reducible without remainder to economics, so ecology is the final frontier in politics and science. I will resist the question of space travel and colonizing the solar system, but yeah, I also have a transhumanist streak!
Psychology, economics, and sociology are also incomplete because humans cannot be reduced to economic actors. Each of these knowledges need to be developed in terms of human freedom and equality in political terms and struggles.
Murray Bookchin’s anarchist social ecology is among the best attempts to embrace all of this complexity and I still think he is the anarchist thinker with which the left needs to engage. I have come to believe, however, that his anti-statism ends up being a barrier to political struggle. If we can’t directly contest the power of the state at the national and international level – which Bookchin rejects in fsvor of municipalism as a building block to confederalism – then we don’t have the tools to actually overthrow the existing states or systems. In other words, I’ve accepted the social democratic and Marxist argument that a successful anti-capitalist (and anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc.) revolution will have to apropriate some of the powers of the State.
My original alternative to Bookchin’s anti-statism was to support the Green Party as a combination of prefigurative and reformist politics with a revolutionary potential. Within the party organization, participatory democratic, anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist practices would shape a new collective ecological revolutionary subject that could contest for political power. Not exactly building the new society “within the shell of the old,” the ecological party would interconnect the alternative social forces that would be able to challenge and overthrow the old orders.
I am now rethinking this reliance on the Green Party, as they aren’t explicitly taking on board an anti-capitalist perspective. I might even have to vote for Obama, since the religious right is becoming so damn frightening in the US. While I still think there’s some point to creating a “counter-society” on the left via parties, organizations, unions, communes, cooperatives, progressive churches and mosques, etc., the Democratic and Republican parties are the powers that be which must be overthrown. I can’t see that happening within the Greens at this point. I’ve been loathe to join something like “Progressives for Obama” but in 2012, there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell for an existing third party, despite “Occupy Wall Street.”
Anarchism is some sense still the final state towards which revolutionary politics aspires, but the way forward is obscured by social divisions within the present. As much as I give credence to a socialist view of the State, it may be that we have passed the moment in history when the State can be used to further emancipation. Neoliberalism seems to have decisively rejected social democracy, universal healthcare, etc, which are being dismantled in Europe, which was once the alternative to the Communist road. It reminds of the Matthew Arnold poem, “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”
S.: What would be distinctly Christian or post-Christian in your conception of Socialism?
C.E.: My view is ex-Christian, pluralistic, and post-secular. No one can purge decades of religious engagement, especially if that engagement goes back to the very beginning of one’s life. I remained a Christian significantly longer than most ex-Christians I know, until the age of 34. I was a passionate Christian who went to extraordinary lengths to fulfill my commitment to Jesus. At the age of 23, I moved my wife and daughter to a Christian commune and lived there for over 9 years, as a church member and resident, though not financially invested in the commune. I was also a pacifist and studied advanced theology constantly.
I suppose that my personal history has compelled me to conceive the relation of religion to creating a revolutionary post-capitalist society (whether we call it socialism or something else is an open question for me at this point) within a post-secular framework. “Post-secular” was a term I first learned from my post-Maoist friend Bill Martin. In fact, it was the first topic I ever heard him present at a local left philosophy forum.
If we divide all of humanity into religious and non-religious, the non-religious are out-numbered by nearly 6 to 1. If the left is to have a realistic chance of winning a majority of humanity to a post-capitalist revolution, it will have to convince a significant number of religious people that this revolution will advance the aspirations of their religions. The situation is pluralistic, we don’t just need a Christian vision of revolution, but also Muslim, Hindu, and more. We not only need these religious visions of revolution, but also to advance mutual respect and pluralism between religions as well as across the religious-secular divide. Christians, Muslims, secularists, and others need to develop a framework for mutual recognition within a revolutionary politics.
As a Quaker, I am actually involved with ecumenical (dialogue between different denominations of Christians) and interfaith (dialogue between different religions) work on behalf of my denomination. As a nontheist within a generally theistic tradition, I have begun to develop a general perspective on the character of religion and its relation to revolution that explicitly goes beyond the abstract public/private split of liberal politics. Liberal secularism reduces religion to matters of private assent to unverifiable propositions. This has never been religion’s own understanding of itself. The real shift for religion in modernity is that it can no longer command public assent to a specific aspect of its formulation.
That aspect is specifically “supernaturalism.” Religion and supernaturalism are not identical and it is possible to be a supernaturalist without being religious, as in a believer in superstition or astrology. However, for religion one needs an intersubjective structure, not merely beliefs, but membership, ritual, governance, morality, and an actual community of persons. In this sense, atheism could be a religion, though outside of groups like the American Ethical Union most atheists do not participate in a governed community with membership norms.
On the other hand, it is also possible to be religious without supernaturalism. That is essentially my position, similar to AEU. In the case of my chosen membership in Quakerism, it has a fairly modern history, with a substantial archive of events, practice, and belief, including significant involvement in abolishing slavery, opposing war, and founding feminism. It is also an offshoot of Christianity and in a real sense depends on that tradition. As a nontheist Quaker, I have to read that tradition critically, without supernaturalism, but also affirmatively, appreciating its real world potential for inspiring progressive activism.
To my way of thinking, the left has two choices, either continue to battle religion as forms of supernaturalism that leads to social regression, or to support religious revolutionaries in redefining their traditions in progressive directions. Some significant examples of such redefinition are Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Christian Feminism, and Liberation Theology. The first path of battling religion serves to alienate huge numbers of people from revolutionary ideas. The second path isn’t a guaranteed success, but it seems obvious to me that it has a better chance than the militantly atheist approach.
S.: What do you make of the claim made is made that any irrationalization of Marxist theory undercuts it and leads to fascism? This may sound extreme, but several scholars of fascism, including Ze’ev Sternhall, have argued that fascism of an irrationalization of Marxist doctrine.
C.E.: That’s not a lot to go on, since I am unfamiliar with theories of fascism. On the surface it does seem extreme. To make such a claim one would have to argue that all three of the major fascist states, WW2 Japan, Italy, and Germany each were lead by irrational Marxists. How many such people need to be in leadership to be able to dictate fascist policy? That’s the sort of questions I ask of such theories. From both Marxism and pragmatism, I take a focus on practice that subordinates theory. In other words, it seems incredible to hold that fascists are working with an irrational theory of Marxism in their heads that leads them to the policies they enact. If anything, I’d say fascists are working with a theory of anti-Marxism in their heads. Joel Kovel’s book on anti-Communism comes to mind.
I am not that fond of the rational actor view of humanity, I think we are largely driven by complex mixtures of fear and affection. Even our rational moments have an underlying emotionality at their base. Irrationality occurs, in my view, when we reject sound logic due to warped emotional development that amplifies the fear of others. Our society is so pathological that most people are at least neurotic, if not psychotic. To place the blame for fascism on irrationalized Marxism seems to presume that every leader or subordinate who is not such an irrational Marxist isn’t contributing their own pathological bent to the determination of social policy.
S.: What do you see as the way forward for the left?
C.E.: It’s strange what draws one’s focus. This week, I’ve been somewhat fixated on the question of whether there is a middle ground between state socialisms, like social democracy or Leninism, and anti-state socialism like the various anarchisms. Samuel Konkin III coined the term “minarchism” as something of a disparagement of the libertarian right. He argued for a more thoroughly anarchist non-capitalist market economy. Alain Badiou and Simon Crithcley talk about politics “at a distance from the State.” Certainly for Badiou, there’s an entanglement of the French Left with the bourgeois state that is problematic in ways that we don’t face here in the US.
What we do face in the US is the complete canalizing of the politics of the State within the major parties and an inability to mobilize any kind of effective third party challenge. I submit that it is precisely the existence of more proportional electoral systems in Europe, Australia, and Canada that made possible things like universal healthcare. If FDR and the New Deal hadn’t eviscerated the Socialist and Progressive Parties, the US might have had its own universal healthcare.
So, as I perceive the blockages to social democracy and proletarian revolution in the US, the anarchist strategy becomes more salient. Occupy Wall Street and its satellites makes it plain that this election year will be one in which the politics of local uprisings may be the most potent appearance of the left. OWS is informally connected to other sites like Oakland, but a formal network may yet emerge.
Oddly enough, trying to once again figure out what to do with what I see as the necessity of engagement with the State, but also it’s near futility, I happened across Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike” in which she argues that the Russian Revolution of 1905 showed the Marxists that it was time to embrace the mass strike as a socialist tool. Maybe this year, socialists will embrace the local assembly. Certainly Pham Binh’s quarrel with organized Trotskyists takes on that flavor. Platypus and Kasama are also having to engage with the politics of Anarchism. Perhaps a new synthesis of Marxism and Anarchism is in the offing, a Minarcho-Socialism? Adorno’s ghost may be reincarnated as the Spirit of the Future.
S.: I think we will talk again soon Charley. Anything you’d like to say in closing for this first interview?
C.E.: I’m torn over whether the “Adorno’s ghost” quip is pretentious or actually clever. But, let it stand. While I tend to be an “ordinary language” kind of philosopher, it’s hard to really adhere to that when we’re talking about the nearly inconceivable possibilities of human emancipation. Yeah, probably pretentious, after all.