Category Archives: History
“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanisation has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardised operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time.” -Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception
Thanksgiving is today in the United States, a holiday that I enjoyed due to the family time and the relative peace. I forgot until this afternoon that it was Thanksgiving when I was talking to my depressed girlfriend who was spending her first Thanksgiving in Korea. The rhythm of my life had moved so completely away from the holiday that while it was one of my favorites in its celebration (but not what it celebrates) that I literally forgot about it. But my fondness for it is simple: beyond the family time, it is Americans only major mostly secular holiday that is actually celebrated by most people in the US, yet the mythology around Thanksgiving is hardly worth recounting as it is up there with Columbus Day in misleading and highly problematic celebrations. In fact, I have a hard time squaring the actual history with my enjoyment of an otherwise secular and fairly decent family holiday. For example, Mike Ely’s writings on Thanksgiving at Kasama:
In 1641 the Dutch governor Kieft of Manhattan offered the first “scalp bounty”–his government paid money for the scalp of each Indian brought to them. A couple years later, Kieft ordered the massacre of the Wappingers, a friendly tribe. Eighty were killed and their severed heads were kicked like soccer balls down the streets of Manhattan. One captive was castrated, skinned alive and forced to eat his own flesh while the Dutch governor watched and laughed. Then Kieft hired the notorious Underhill who had commanded in the Pequot war to carry out a similar massacre near Stamford, Connecticut. The village was set fire, and 500 Indian residents were put to the sword.
A day of thanksgiving was proclaimed in the churches of Manhattan. As we will see, the European colonists declared Thanksgiving Days to celebrate mass murder more often than they did for harvest and friendship.
Or this bit of information from the Speed of Dreams:
he pilgrims are glorified and mythologized because the circumstances of the first English-speaking colony in Jamestown were frankly too ugly (for example, they turned to cannibalism to survive) to hold up as an effective national myth. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus “discovered” anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land. The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians’ winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here. And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.
The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.
About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in “New England” were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression. We are treated either as quaint relics from the past, or are, to most people, virtually invisible.
The end of the day there seems to be more myths than not:
Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.
Fact: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. (8)
In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” (9)
Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.
Fact: It is known that when Massasoit showed up with 90 men and saw there was a party going on, they then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. Though the details of this event have become clouded in secular mythology, judging by the inability of the settlers to provide for themselves at this time and Edward Winslow’s letter of 1622 (10), it is most likely that Massasoit and his people provided most of the food for this “historic” meal. (11)
Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
Fact: Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump—dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion—cooked, mashed pumpkin. Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season. It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep. There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop. Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to New England until the 18th century, nor did sweet corn. Cranberries would have been too tart to eat without sugar to sweeten them, and that’s probably why they wouldn’t have had pumpkin pie, either. Since the corn of the time could not be successfully popped, there was no popcorn. (12)
Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians. (13)
Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.
Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.
So there is nothing much to celebrate in the reality of the situation. You may ask, “Skepoet, so if we dropped the mythology, we refocused on the natives and perhaps reparations, and kept our turkey and dressing and family holiday, would so think it was salvageable?”
The short answer is related to the Adorno and Horkheimer quote above is that the time demarcation around the holiday makes it seem draining and artificial as it is just a reminder of the work as alienated time. Now this is no where near as serious as the signs of colonialism hidden in the holiday, but it is very much a part of our experience of the holiday. It is almost a reminder of the destruction of the traditional family not by emancipatory choice but by the literalized alienation of factory life, then service sector economies and the transience imposed on our daily life. So Thanksgiving ends in a orgy of consumption which increasingly supports a large chuck of the bloated retail sector, so the holiday becomes a prelude not for a reminder of family, but an orgiastic web of spending for another deracinated and secularized religious holiday. The spectre of that alienation also reminds us of much.
In my heart though as a man born in the lower-middle class with working class parents, I do actually enjoy the simple family meal at the heart of this otherwise shameful celebration. However, through the critical eye, one sees all the problems in our rendering of the holiday. So I will have a nice meal with my girlfriend and write a letter to my family, but I will go on my normal daily life. The possibility and joy of giving thanks is worth having another day for, but this is hardly what Thanksgiving is actually about.
Well, apparently, they still exist but they are aging and ghosts of their former selves. Given how much disillusionment there is in the Israeli youth, you’d think they would have more influence and more youthful numbers. Yet there is a necrophile quality to the whole question: the seem to be living with the ghosts of past. So what happened to the Bund?
Well, it is crucial to look at some of the key writings on the topic:
Lenin’s are interesting, if hard to completely understand outside of the context of 1917: Concerning the Statement of the Bund, Speech on the Place of the Bund in the R.S.D.L.P., and The Position of the Bund in the Party, the later has this bit of crucial detail:
That is precisely what the Jewish problem amounts to: assimilation or isolation?—and the idea of a Jewish “nationality” is definitely reactionary not only when expounded by its consistent advocates (the Zionists), but likewise on the lips of those who try to combine it with the ideas of Social-Democracy (the Bundists). The idea of a Jewish nationality runs counter to the interests of the Jewish proletariat, for it fosters among them, directly or indirectly, a spirit hostile to assimilation, the spirit of the “ghetto”. “When the National Assembly of 1791 decreed the emamcipation of the Jews,” writes Renan, “it was very little concerned with the question of race…. It is the business of the nineteenth century to abolish all ’ghettos’, and I cannot compliment those who seek to restore them. The Jewish race has rendered the world the greatest services. Assimilated with the various nations, harmoniously blended with the various national units, it will render no lesser services in the future than in the past.” And Karl Kautsky, in particular reference to the Russian Jews, expresses him self even more vigorously. Hostility towards non-native sections of the population can only be eliminated “when the non-native sections of the population cease to be alien and blend with the general mass of the population. That is the only possible solution of the Jewish problem, and we should support everything that makes for the ending of Jewish isolation.” Yet the Bund is resisting this only possible solution, for it is helping, not to end but to increase and legitimise Jewish isolation, by propagating the idea of a Jewish “nation” and a plan of federating Jewish and non- Jewish proletarians. That is the basic mistake of “Bundism”, which consistent Jewish Social-Democrats must and will correct. This mistake drives the Bundists to actions unheard-of in the international Social-Democratic movement, such as stirring up distrust among Jewish towards non-Jewish proletarians, fostering suspicion of the latter and disseminating falsehoods about them. Here is proof, taken from this same pamphlet: “Such an absurdity (as that the organisation of the proletariat of a whole nationality should be denied representation on the central Party bodies I could be openly advocated only [mark that! I in regard to the Jewish proletariat, which, owing to the peculiar historical fortunes of the Jewish people, still has to fight for equality I!!] in the world family of the proletariat.” We recently came across just such a trick in a Zionist leaflet, whose authors raved and fumed against Iskra, purporting to detect in its struggle with the Bund a refusal to recognise the “equality” of Jew and non-Jew. And now we find the Bundists repeating the tricks of the Zionists! This is disseminating an outright falsehood, ·for we have “advocated” “denying representation” not “only” to the Jews, but also to the Armenians, the Georgians and so on, and in the case of the Poles, too, we called for the closest union and fusion of the entire proletariat fighting against the tsarist autocracy. It was not for nothing that the P.S.P. (Polish Socialist Party) raged and fulminated against us! To call a fight for the Zionist idea of a Jewish nation, for the federal principle of Party organisation, a “fight for the equality of the Jews in the world family of the proletariat” is to degrade the struggle from the plane of ideas and principles to that of suspicion, incitement and fanning of historically-evolved prejudices. It glaringly reveals a lack of real ideas and principles as weapons of struggle.
* * *
We thus arrive at the conclusion that neither the logical, nor the historical, nor yet the nationalist arguments of the Bund will stand criticism. The period of disunity, which aggravated waverings among the Russian Social-Democrats and the isolation of the various organisations, had the same effect, to an even more marked degree, in the case of the Bundists. Instead of proclaiming war on this historically evolved isolation (further increased by the general disunity), they elevated it to a principle, seizing for this purpose on the sophistry that autonomy is inherently contradictory, and on the Zionist idea of a Jewish nation. Only if it frankly and resolutely admits its mistake and sets out to move towards fusion can the Bund turn away from the false path it has taken. And we are convinced that the finest adherents of Social-Democratic ideas among the Jewish proletariat will sooner or later compel the l3und to turn from the path of isolation to that of fusion.
As Naji Alloush points out:
[In 1922 International Press Correspondence, the official organ of the Third International, the Comintern, published a decision that had been taken by the International on the request presented by a Zionist Communist Party from Eastern Europe to join the Comintern. The Comintern leadership rejected the request on the grounds that the party was based on the supposed right of the Jews to establish a state and such a state could not be created except at the expense of some other nationality. On that basis the Comintern rejected the request and accused the party of being a petty-bourgeois party and not really Communist. The Comintern called on the militants in the Zionist party to join the ranks of the proletariat in their countries in order to struggle for socialist revolution.*]
Lenin’s views on assimilation, on the one hand, and national liberation, on the other, are clear. Despite this clarity, steps were taken in his time toward separating the Jews from the Soviet societies of which they were integral parts or to establish forms of autonomy for them under Soviet rule, which were not in conformity with Lenin’s philosophy. Lenin was clear: he was for assimilation when peoples are intermingling. He was for liberation when a people was being enslaved by another. Inasmuch as the Jews in Russia after the Revolution were not a people or a nationality, inasmuch as they did not have a defined political or social identity, it was necessary that the Leninist principle of assimilation be implemented with respect to them. This is what some Communists of Jewish origin sought to circumvent, as we shall see. Yet they failed, for reasons related to the Jews on the one hand, and for other reasons related to the Soviet system on the other.
But what happened with regard to the Jews after the October Revolution and during the Lenin period (1917-1924) can be explained on the basis of two factors.
First. The assimilation that Lenin spoke of was basically voluntary assimilation, i.e., not assimilation imposed by force. It would not, therefore, have been in keeping with Leninist principles to impose the amalgamation of the Jews or any other group into the rest of society by force.
Second. After October, Bolshevik rule resorted to developing the nationalities that had been subject to the Russian Empire politically and culturally. In this climate, efforts were made to resurrect nearly extinct nationalities and to create republics and governments for different eastern peoples like the Tatars, Bashkirs, and Kirgiz. Stalin declared at the tenth congress of the party in 1921, “the Marxist party that believes in ‘the deep-rootedness of nations and national languages’ ‘completely rejects the policy of national assimilation and merging of peoples, considering that to be a policy opposed to the people and opposed to the revolution’.”(48) The Jews were among those groups to whom the new state tried to give an opportunity for national growth within the socialist state.
But were the Jews a nation?
Lenin had answered this question in the negative. Stalin too [had earlier] answered it in the negative. Nevertheless, an attempt was made to consider the Jews a nation and to give them the right that was given to other nations: the right to national existence within some borders of their own based on their disbursal into various different areas.
Now, it is important to remember that Leninist thought from the separates the idea of Nation from that of state, at least early Leninist thought does. It is also important to remember that Naji Alloush is on the Marxist-wing of the FATAH movement in the PLO. So take everything in context.
So what did Trotsky think on this, it is a little harder to say. According to Mario Kessler, Trotsky:
All socialist critics of Zionism interpreted the fundamental differences within the Zionist movement around 1903 as the decisive crisis in Zionism. At that time, the sixth Zionist congress in Basle was characterised by sharp contradictions between the majority of participants who saw Palestine as the only territory where the Jewish question could be resolved, and the minority who saw alternatives in British East Africa or in Argentina. Like the Bundists,3 Trotsky prophesied the end and ultimate defeat of Zionism. On 1 January 1904 he wrote in the party organ Iskra (The Spark) that the Zionist shibboleth of a fatherland had been exposed for what it was: the reactionary dream of a “shameless adventurer” (Herzl).4 “Herzl promised Palestine – but he did not deliver it [to the Zionists – MK].” The effect of the proposal at the Zionist congress was, indeed, to plunge the movement into a crisis from which it could not recover. “It is impossible”, Trotsky pointed out, “to keep Zionism alive by this kind of trickery. Zionism has exhausted its miserable contents…. Tens of intriguers and hundreds of simpletons may yet continue to support Herzl’s adventures, but Zionism as a movement is already doomed to losing all rights to existence in the future.” This was for Trotsky “as clear as midday”.
But a Zionist left, Trotsky predicted, would inevitably find its way into the ranks of the revolutionary movement; for the rest, the Bund would become their political home. This organisation, although anti-Zionist, would become more and more similar to the Zionists in stressing all-Jewish matters. It would be quite possible that the Bund would inherit Zionist ideas.
Almost ninety years later, we know how false this prediction was. The Bund remained an ardent critic of Zionism. Trotsky could not foresee the fact that a future Zionist left (the Poale Zion in particular) would foster the Bundist position of anti-Zionism and “diaspora-nationalism”. The question whether under different conditions the Bund should have made some concessions to Zionism in order to absorb some dissatisfied Zionists remains unanswered. But it was at that time nearly unthinkable.
So one is left with what? There are lipstick traces: The International Bund continued to meet until mid-2000s in New York, it sided with the One-state solution to the Palestinian problem, yet it did see an increase in Zionist ideas and Jewish separatism until the 1960s. In the Russian revolutions, the Bund sided first with the Mensheviks and then the Bolsheviks, and then at Gomel in 1920 split into the Social Democratic Bund and the Communist Bund, which soon dissolved itself and joined the Soviet Communist Party. Many of the former communist Bund leaders were purged in the Stalin era. The Polish Bund which had split prior to Gomel do Poland’s Germany’s 1917 occupation survived the relationship to communist party and lived on in New York and Israel, but never acquired any new life.
The question is what is to be learnt from this?
1. Lenin was not really a Marxist at all, deriving all of his thought and political perceptions from Chernyshevsky. This position has been argued by Nikolai Valentinov, who was at one time sympathetic but then broke with Lenin (Valentinov 1969 ; 1968 : 64-76) and in part by Agursky in a curious study (Agursky 1987: 71-80). The latter stretches the material well out of shape to suggest that used Marxism as a cover for Russian (revolutionary) nationalism, while Valentinov attempts to stress Lenin’s ignorance of Marx and that all of Lenin’s ideas came from Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Chernyshevsky 1989 ). This novel, written in prison, tells the story of a small group of men and women who attempt to create new forms of communal living and work in the midst of tsarist Russia, with all the trails and limits posed by that situation. That this novel was massively influential for the Russian Left is well known, that Lenin read it avidly when he was a young man is also clear, but that he borrowed all of his ideas from it is far-fetched indeed.
2. A more common position is that Lenin was primarily a practical operator, shunning theory, either leaving it to others (Plekhanov) or happy to remain thoroughly unoriginal. Yet he was full of political instinct, able to pinpoint crucial political moments (Wilson 1972: 390; Donald 1993; Zinoviev 1973 : 44-5; Plamenatz 1975 : 221, 248)? The problem with this position is that it makes little sense of the repeated insistence by Lenin on the importance of theory (throughout his works (all 45 volumes!)).
3. So we find the obverse position: Lenin was thoroughly impractical, unable to read a situation properly. Instead, he was theoretical and abstract. Although not a common view, put forward by the unaffiliated socialist Sukhanov (Sukhanov 1955 : 290-2), it has a nice twist: for Lenin was brilliant, persuasive and ended up being invariably correct.
4. A fourth position has been held by a consistent minority from Lenin’s wife, Nadhezda Krupskaya, to the recent work of Lars Lih (Krupskaya 1960 ; Tucker 1987: 39; Lih 2011). This position argues that Lenin was thoroughly consistent and faithful to Marx throughout his life, operating with a grand socialist narrative that moved from the merger of the working class with intellectuals, to the revolution and then to the glorious construction of communism. The problem with this position is not only that it must end with a narrative of disappointment, for Lenin found after the revolution that events did not turn out as expected, but also that it must smooth over the many times Lenin took an unexpected direction.
5. So we find a fifth and very common position, namely, that Lenin was an unprincipled opportunist, a politician of compromise, confused even and throwing aside his convictions whenever needed and moving far from Marxism. In short, he was a politician but no philosopher (Service 1985-95, 2000; Lichtheim 1961: 325-51; Pearson 1975; Plamenatz 1947: 85; Lincoln 1986: 426-53; Agursky 1987: 71-80)? Although the proponents of this position do recognise the many shifts in Lenin’s political-intellectual biography, they are usually very unsympathetic to Lenin, arguing that he merely used Marxism as a convenient tool to achieve power, as an abstract means to legitimate all manner of inconsistent political positions, and was perfectly willing to discard it when needed or alter it beyond recognition. This position may be traced back to Menshevik opposition to Lenin in the early 1900s, which was taken up by Luxemburg and Kautsky (without actually reading much Lenin). From there it made its way into Western scholarship.
6. In light of all these possibilities, as well as a thorough reading of all Lenin’s works, the best approach is that Lenin was a principled and theoretically motivated opportunist. This position recognises the many shifts in Lenin’s political and intellectual development, while also identifying a consistent theoretical core. In this light, Lenin constantly reworked his (dialectical) Marxist heritage, burrowing ever deeper into its theoretical nature, in order to make sense of and intervene in ever-changing conjunctures. Those who have taken this position include Neil Harding in his Lenin’s Political Thought, Georg Lukács’s brief but excellent Lenin, Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power, a brilliant study by Kouvelakis and even by the first Commissar for Enlightenment after the revolution, Anatoly Lunacharsky (Harding 1996: 5-6; Rabinowitch 2004 : 168-78; Lukács 1970 ; Lunacharsky 1967; Kouvelakis 2007; Michael-Matsas 2007; Anderson 1995, 2007).
Lenin has been put back into the lime light recently as has Trotsky, who I will be exploring in some serious detail. One of my more hopeful if not hyperbolic friends took the Occupy Oakland General Assembly as something akin to Soviet. I tend to agree that option six was likely, but that there are moments when deviations do seem like five may be a possibility. Either way, it proves that Marxian thought must move on the ground instead of relying of overly orthodox concepts that sound like theoretical debate. Furthermore, it is unclear if vanguardism doesn’t have the problems that category six easily turn into category five either in the same person or in the lines of power a problem. There is a reason for Marx’s suspicion of the state yet his unwillingness to abandon all of its lines of power in transition. A transition that, so far, have never actually been emerged from.
Yet this brings me to this quote: “In general, if signs of sectarianism do appear in a Socialist Party, these are only the products of the absence of a broad Labour movement in the country.” – Karl Radek
Debating over the ghosts of Lenin comes from the fact we still don’t seem to have our own because until recently we didn’t really have a big enough call against currently existing capitalism to make such a move. Let me add a few other part thoughts on Lenin, one from Zizek and the other from Badiou:
The problem with those few remaining orthodox “Leninists” who behave as if one can simply recycle the old Leninism, continuing to speak on themes like class struggle and the betrayal by the corrupted leaders of the working masses’ revolutionary impulses, is that it is not quite clear from which subjective position of enunciation they speak. They either engage themselves in passionate discussions about the past (demonstrating with admirable erudition how and where the anticommunist “Leninologists” falsify Lenin, and so forth), in which case they avoid the question of why (apart from a purely historical interest) this matters at all today, or, the closer they get to contemporary politics, the closer they are to adopting some purely jargonistic pose that threatens no one. Their symptomatic point emerges apropos of every new social upheaval (the disintegration of real socialism ten years ago, the fall of Milosevic); in each of these cases, they identify some working class movement (say, the striking miners in Serbia) that allegedly displayed a true revolutionary or, at least, Socialist potential, but was first exploited and then betrayed by the procapitalist and/or nationalist forces. This way, one can continue to dream that revolution is round the corner; all we need is the authentic leadership that would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potential. If one is to believe them, Solidarnosc was originally a workers’ democratic-socialist movement, later “betrayed” by the corruption of its leadership by the Church and the CIA. And if we add to this position four further ones, we get a pretty full picture of the sad predicament of today’s Left: the acceptance of the cultural wars (feminist, gay, antiracist, multiculturalist struggles) as the dominant terrain of emancipatory politics; the purely defensive protection of the achievements of the welfare state; the naive belief in cybercommunism (the idea that the new media are directly creating conditions for a new, authentic community); and, finally, the Third Way, capitulation itself. The reference to Lenin should serve as the signifier of the effort to break the vicious circle of these false options.
Consequently, to repeat Lenin does not mean a return to Lenin. To repeat Lenin is to accept that Lenin is dead, that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving. To repeat Lenin means that one has to distinguish between what Lenin actually did and the field of possibilities that he opened up, the tension in Lenin between what he effectively did and another dimension one might call what was “in Lenin more than Lenin himself.” There are parts of Lenin that should simply be abandoned today. It may appear attractive to reassert the lesson of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-criticism apropos of today’s New Age reading of quantum physics, where, also, matter is supposed to “disappear,” to dissolve in the immaterial waves of energy fields. It is also true (as Lucio Colletti emphasized) that Lenin’s distinction between the philosophical and scientific notion of matter undermines the very notion of dialectics in or of nature; because the philosophical notion of matter holds that reality exists independently of mind, any intervention of philosophy into the sciences is precluded. However… this “however” concerns the fact that, in Materialism and Empiricocriticism, there is no place for dialectics, for Hegel. What are Lenin’s basic theses? He rejects the reduction of knowledge to phenomenalist or pragmatic instrumentalism (namely, the assertion that, in scientific knowledge, we get to know the way things exist independently of our mindsthe infamous “theory of reflection”) and insists on the precarious nature of our knowledge (which is always limited, relative, and “reflects” external reality only in the infinite process of approximation). Does this not sound familiar? Is this, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of analytical philosophy, not the basic position of Karl Popper, the archetypal anti-Hegelian? In his short article “Lenin and Popper,” Colletti recalls how, in a private letter from 1970, first published in Die Zeit, Popper wrote: “Lenin’s book on empirico-criticism is, in my opinion, truly excellent”.
To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities. Today, Lenin appears as a figure from a different era: it’s not that his notions such as a centralized party seem to pose a totalitarian threat; it’s rather that they seem to belong to a different epoch to which we can no longer properly relate. However, instead of reading this fact as proof that Lenin is outdated, one should, perhaps, risk the opposite conjecture. What if this impenetrability of Lenin is a sign that there is something wrong with our epoch, that a certain historical dimension is disappearing from it.
-Zizek, A Plea for Leninist Intolerance.
So the century, between 1917 and the end of the seventies, is in no way as today’s liberals claim the century of ideology, of the imaginary or of utopia. Its subjective determination is a Leninist one. It is the passion for the real, for what is immediately practicable, here and now.
What does the century have to say about itself? In any case, that it is not the century of promise, but that of realisation. It is the century of the act, of the effective, of the absolute present, and not the century of portent, of the to-come. The century experiences itself as the century of victories, after millennia of attempts and failures. The cult of the vain and sublime attempt, bearer of ideological enslavement, is assigned by the actors of the 20th century to the one preceding, to the unhappy Romanticism of the 19th century. The 20th century declares: no more failures, the time of victories has come! This victorious subjectivity outlasts all apparent defeats, because it is not empirical, but constitutive. Victory is the transcendental theme that commands failure itself. ‘Revolution’ is one of the names of this theme. The October Revolution of 1917, and then the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, as well as the victories of the Algerians and the Vietnamese in their wars of national liberation, all of this counts as empirical proof of the theme, and amounts to the defeat of defeats, redressing the massacres of June ’48 or of the Paris Commune.
For Lenin, the means of victory is theoretical and practical lucidity with respect to a decisive confrontation, to a total and final war. Only a total war will lead to a victory that is truly victorious. In this regard the century is the century of war. But this statement intertwines several ideas, all of which turn around the question of the Two, or of antagonistic scission. The century declared that its law was the Two, antagonism; in this sense, the end of the cold war (American imperialism against socialist camp), the last total figure of the Two, also signals the end of the century. Nevertheless, the Two can take on three different guises:
1. There is a central antagonism, two subjectivities organised on a global scale in mortal combat. The century is the stage of this combat.
2. There is an equally violent antagonism between two ways of considering and thinking antagonism. This is the very essence of the confrontation between communism and fascism. For the communists, the planetary confrontation is in the last instance that of classes. For the radical fascisms it is that of nations and races. Here, the Two divides in two. We witness the entanglement of an antagonistic thesis, on the one hand, and of antagonistic theses on antagonism, on the other. This second division is essential, perhaps more than the first. All in all, there were more anti-fascists than communists, and it is characteristic that the second world war was fought in accordance with this derivative split, and not on the basis of a unified conception of antagonism, which only gave rise to a cold war, save on the periphery (Korean and Vietnam wars).
3. The century is summoned as the century of the production, through war, of a definitive unity. Antagonism is to be overcome by the victory of one camp over the other. Thus one can also say that, in this sense, the century of the Two is animated by the radical desire of the One. What names the articulation of antagonism with the violence of the One is victory, as attestation of the real.
Let us note that we are not dealing with a dialectical scheme. Nothing allows one to foresee a synthesis, an internal overcoming of contradiction. On the contrary, everything points to the suppression of one of the terms. The century is a figure of the non-dialectical juxtaposition of the Two and the One. The question here is to know what is the century’s assessment of dialectical thought. In the victorious result, is the motor antagonism itself or the desire of the One? This is one of the main philosophical questions of Leninism. It revolves around what one must understand in dialectical thought by the unity of opposites. Without doubt, it is the question that Mao and the Chinese communists worked on most assiduously.
– Badiou, ONE DIVIDES INTO TWO
I hate to be parroting other sites, but I can’t be everywhere. One of the interesting bits of cognitive dissonance on the left is how comfortable that an individual is with types of collective interest. One can see this in post about Occupy Amsterdam
I think people should take this Occupy Together movement quite seriously. It is very viral: just watch the Facebook page of anyone involved in the movement. And it is even growing against the odds. During two days of severe rain, the camp in Amsterdam actually managed to become larger: I can only explain this by pointing towards the devotion and intoxication of the people involved. It is something that does aim to truly affect the world. It wants to change the world and is serious about this. Some media have compared the occupations to the cosy atmosphere found at music festivals, and described the occupations as ‘just a bunch of young people having fun’, but in doing so, they bypass the devotion and seriousness of the people involved completely. It’s definitely not a joke, nor just another pastime of a generation of hipsters with an iPhone, and neither is it a normal protest action. Although this is what is emphasized to the outside, it does not even really seem to be about the world of banking and finances at all. It may be something akin to spontaneous anarchism in practice. But there may also be unclear or vague power structures that are not obviously present for the observer—exactly the type of thing the Occupy movement claims to avoid. I still do not truly know what the Occupy movement is. It is something very strange indeed.
If I should ever notice that this movement really starts to exclude, or somehow (even non-forcingly) brainwash people or rob them of their individuality, I’m out. I know where my allegiances are, and they are not with any movement. Instead, they are with radical honesty, with nonviolence (both of which I’m still a beginner at), with fairness, community, nature, a healthy sense of distrust towards authoritarianism, and, last but certainly not least, with individuality, individual expression and individual diversity. I was hoping to find outlets for these aspects of my life view in the Occupy movement. But, to be honest, I am not sure anymore if Occupy Amsterdam is something for me, or that it is able to offer these things at a cost that is not too high. But still… the last week was hectic, strange, and at times amazing, and I suspect that I gained some worthwhile insights and new friends during the period. And it is still intriguing to see whether this global movement somehow is able to effect changes in the world and the system we are now a part of. For one, I think that the global Occupy Together movement should not be underestimated. So far, the movement is still elusive and difficult to pinpoint, and often very much misunderstood in especially mainstream media.
There also seems to be a confusion between collective action and mob-mentality. The two are related, but one does not subsume oneself to the will of the group, but advocates one’s will in aggregate because an atomized individual is essentially powerless–violent or not. This tension, however, seems to come out of the narrative of the post-structuralist leftist and some variants of de-politicized liberalism. The idea of the post-political seems at play and in that fear is the really a masked fear of the mob. One that may be somewhat justified.
Speaking on collective action, let’s notice a letter from Ken Knabb which I will repost in entirety:
Dear Bay Area Friends,
As most of you probably know, the police raid and destruction of the Occupy Oakland encampments last Tuesday, followed by the notorious police violence against protesters later the same day, provoked such an immense expression of outrage from thousands of people in the Bay Area and around the world that the Oakland city government was thrown completely on the defensive. The next day police were scarcely to be seen. The fence surrounding Frank Ogawa Plaza was still in place, but the occupiers calmly took it down and began reoccupying the same spot. That evening, by a vote of 1484 to 46 (with 77 abstentions), the general assembly decided to call for a General Strike in Oakland on Wednesday, November 2. You can see their declaration, a press conference, and other information at www.occupyoakland.org.
The fact that they reoccupied the encampment less than 48 hours after it had been demolished is astonishing enough. But that they immediately shifted to the offensive with such a marvelously audacious venture leaves me almost speechless with admiration. I hope that their appeal meets with correspondingly large-minded and supportive responses by people in Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay Area. Occupiers in many other cities have already been venturing outside their encampments for various types of demonstrations (e.g. the marches to banks and CEO residences in New York City), but this general-strike appeal is upping the ante and moving toward a new level of active engagement with people in the whole community. Occupy Oakland people have been fanning out into the city, speaking with workers and small businesses, with teachers and students, with religious groups and all sorts of other community organizations, in order to enlist support for the strike. At this point I don’t think anyone really knows what the response will actually be, but there are a number of promising indications. In addition to support from nurses’ and teachers’ associations and a number of other unions (see www.occupyoakland.org/strike/), the Longshoremen’s Union is collaborating with Occupy Oakland to bring about a shutdown of the Port of Oakland in solidarity with striking workers elsewhere on the West Coast.
In any case, even if a relatively small number of people actually strike, the mere act of putting such a notion on the agenda is already awakening people to new possibilities. The general strike is not intended to be a mere work stoppage, but a day for positive, creative public dialogue. Leading up to it, there are open meetings every day at 5:00 p.m. at Occupy Oakland where people are discussing what they are doing, or what they propose to do, to prepare for the strike (publicity, outreach, coordination). You are welcome to observe any of those meetings, and to participate if you feel so inclined. During the day of the strike, there will be large gatherings at the same location (Frank Ogawa Plaza at 14th & Broadway) at 9:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, and 5:00 p.m. (the latter gathering segueing into a march to the Port of Oakland), as well as the daily general assembly at 7:00 p.m. But there will be countless other public discussions, large and small, planned and spontaneous, in workplaces and on street corners, some of them initiated by people such as yourself. You don’t have to wait for Occupy Oakland or anyone else to take your own initiatives.
A delightfully mischievous example of such an independent initiative is the fake Mayor’s Apology perpetrated by a good friend of mine. Using the situationist tactic of détournement, he has taken a currently potent image in the spectacle and turned its fetish-power against itself in order to break through what is seen as “possible” or “realistic” and encourage a more imaginative and uninhibited collective brainstorming. (He explains his motives here.)
If you decide to strike, note that Occupy Oakland has declared: “If an employer fires or disciplines a worker for taking the day off, we will picket that business.” However, the Occupy Oakland people realize that many people may not be able or willing strike, especially on such short notice and when many people are still under misimpressions they have derived from the mainstream media. They welcome every form of engagement, suggesting that, if nothing else, you take this opportunity to talk about these issues with your friends and neighbors and fellow workers, as well as to visit Occupy Oakland and get a little sense of what’s going on, whether at the scheduled gatherings at 9:00, 12:00 and 5:00, or at other times simply to roam around the encampment, meet people and get a little feel of the ambience.
For those of you who may be worried about “children missing school”: Children will learn more about community and society and democracy and history in this one day than they will in a month of ordinary schooling. Reports are that practically every Oakland teacher supports the aims of the strike, but that they are not sure whether to actually go on strike, or if so, in what manner. My suggestion is that teachers engage in an active, “teach-in” strike, not just staying home, but going to their classes and opening the entire day up to discussion of these issues: “What have you heard about the Occupy movement, children? Why do you think people are doing it? Do you know what a strike is? Did you know that many of the things we take for granted were achieved because people in your parents’ or you grandparents’ generation engaged in strikes? Did you know that the last general strike in America took place right here in Oakland in 1946?” Perhaps followed by a field trip to visit Occupy Oakland. Whether or not the teachers do this, I am sure that many conscientious parents will make a special point of taking their children to some of the gatherings and events, and that this will be one of the most rich and memorable days in their lives.
For those who may worry about the risk to themselves: Relax. The people taking the risks are the people who occupy public spaces and refuse to leave, knowing that they may be arrested, or who intentionally remain in the streets when told to disperse. As long as you don’t do either of those things, about the only risk you run in visiting an occupation or attending one of the mass gatherings is that you might find yourself questioning your previous priorities in life.
I also encourage you to stop being distracted by the never-ending string of silly objections, most of which are not true and most of which would not be any big deal even if they were true (an occupation failed to get a permit, or it is violating some city sanitary code, or some participant used hostile language against the police, etc.). This is an all-embracing movement and, among other challenges, it’s bringing together people of all walks of life, including homeless people and others who have suffered far more than you and I and who may bear some psychological scars from their sufferings. In such circumstances there will naturally be some problems to work out; and they are being worked out as the occupiers find that they need to deal with them. The people doing the on-the-ground occupying and who are being beaten and arrested by the thousands in cities all over the country are true heroes and they deserve the same kind of support as the civil rights workers did fifty years ago. (For just one example of the sick brutality the Occupy Oakland arrestees have been enduring, see this account by a 43-year-old disabled woman.) Yet they, and all of us who are with them in our hearts, are also filled with a joy that most people in this society are missing, because after a long period of social idiocy and despair we are finally waking up together, and we can see that the momentum of history is on our side. This is not just a protest, or even a series of protests, it’s an international social movement. It’s not about passing this or that new law, much less about electing this or that politician; it’s about people coming together all over the world to reassess the entire social order and to figure out how best to change it.
Whether we ultimately win or not, this movement is not going away any time soon. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to take part during the coming months and coming years. Nevertheless, in the future, when your children or grandchildren ask you what you were doing when these historic events were just beginning, right in your own cities, don’t you think you’ll feel a little funny having to say that you didn’t even bother to go take a look?
As a final note, I would like to remind you that, while the current focus is on Occupy Oakland, there are also occupations in San Francisco and Berkeley and over a dozen other Bay Area cities, as well as in hundreds of other locations all over the country. Each of them is independent; some are large, some are small; they have various modes of organization and various styles, ranging from mild to militant. But they all deserve your support and input. Check out the ones near you. Even if you don’t wish to join the actual occupation, you are welcome to take part in their general assemblies, and there are many other ways to support them. Above all, if your local politicians and police are harassing them, tell them in no uncertain terms to stop doing so.
Speaking of police issues, we have massive crack down in Denver:
: Twenty people were arrested during what has been Occupy Denver’s most violent day in weeks. All evidence of the Thunderdome and the front desk has been removed, and officers offered protesters the chance to claim their belongings one at a time as the area was cleared. Several protesters have made trips to the hospital for injuries, and one man, Phillip Becerra, was shot in the face with pepper bullets.
It, also, it seems like there is a much going on in OWS when NYPD is adopting a more indirect strategy in dealing with the situation:
But while officers may be in a no-win situation, at the mercy of orders carried on shifting political winds and locked into conflict with a so-far almost entirely non-violent protest movement eager to frame the force as a symbol of the oppressive system they’re fighting, the NYPD seems to have crossed a line in recent days, as the park has taken on a darker tone with unsteady and unstable types suddenly seeming to emerge from the woodwork. Two different drunks I spoke with last week told me they’d been encouraged to “take it to Zuccotti” by officers who’d found them drinking in other parks, and members of the community affairs working group related several similar stories they’d heard while talking with intoxicated or aggressive new arrivals.
So I will end with a quote from Adorno and a quote from Badiou that are obliquely relevant:
The word “democracy” is today the main organizer of consensus. What the word is assumed to embrace is the downfall of Eastern Socialists States, the supposed well being of our countries as well as Western humanitarian crusades.
Actually the word “democracy” is inferred from what I term “authoritarian opinion.” It is somehow prohibited not to be a democrat. Accordingly, it furthers that the human kind longs for democracy, and all subjectivity suspected of not being democratic is deemed pathological. At its best it infers a forbearing reeducation, at its worst the right of meddling democratic marines and paratroopers.
Democracy thus inscribing itself in polls and consensus necessarily arouses the philosopher’s critical suspicions. For philosophy, since Plato, means breaking with opinion polls. Philosophy is supposed to scrutinize everything that is spontaneously considered as “normal.” If democracy designates a normal state of collective organization, or political will, then the philosopher will ask for the norm of this normality to be examined. He will not allow for the word to function within the frame of an authoritarian opinion. For the philosopher everything consensual becomes suspicious.
To confront the visibility of the democratic idea with the singularity of a particular politics, especially revolutionary politics, is an old practice. It was already employed against Bolsheviks well before the October Revolution. In fact, the critique addressed to Lenin – his political postulate viewed as nondemocratic – is original. However it’s still interesting today to peruse his riposte.
Lenin’s counter-argument is twofold. On the one hand he distinguishes, according to the logic of class analysis, between two types of democracy: proletarian democracy and bourgeois democracy. He then asserts the supremacy, in extension and intensity, of the former over the latter.
Yet his second structure of response seems to me more appropriate to the present state of affairs. Lenin insists in this that with “democracy,” verily, you should always read “a form of State.” Form means a particular configuration of the separate character of the State and the formal exercise of sovereignty. Positing democracy as a form of State, Lenin subscribes to the classical political thinking filiation, including Greek philosophy, which contends that “democracy” must ultimately be conceived as a sovereignty or power trope. Power of the “demos” or people, the capability of “demos” to exert coercion by itself.
If democracy is a form of State, what preordained philosophical use proper can this category have? With Lenin the aim – or idea – of politics is the withering of any form of State, democracy included. And this could be termed generic Communism as basically expressed by Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Generic Communism designates a free associative egalitarian society where the activity of polymorph workers is not governed by regulations and technical or social articulations but is managed by the collective power of needs. In such a society, the State is dissolved as a separate instance from public coercion. Politics – much as it voices the interests of social groups and covets at the conquest of power – is de facto dissolved. – Alain Badiou, Highly Speculative Reasoning on the Concept of Democracy
The strongest point that you make is the idea that the situation could
be so terrible that one would have to attempt to break out of it, even if
one recognizes the objective impossibility. I take that argument
seriously. But I think that it is mistaken. We withstood in our time,
you no less than me, a much more dreadful situation—that of the
murder of the Jews, without proceeding to praxis; simply because it
was blocked for us. I think that clarity about the streak of coldness in
one’s self is a matter for self-contemplation. To put it bluntly: I think
that you are deluding yourself in being unable to go on without
participating in the student stunts, because of what is occurring in
Vietnam or Biafra. If that really is your reaction, then you should not
only protest against the horror of napalm bombs but also against the
unspeakable Chinese-style tortures that the Vietcong carry out
permanently. If you do not take that on board too, then the protest
against the Americans takes on an ideological character. Max lay great 128
weight, and with justification, on just that point. I of all people,
being, after all, the one who left the US in the end, should be entitled
to my opinion.
You object to Jürgen’s expression ‘left fascism’, calling it a contradictio in
adjecto. But you are a dialectician, aren’t you? As if such contradictions
did not exist—might not a movement, by the force of its immanent
antinomies, transform itself into its opposite? I do not doubt for a
moment that the student movement in its current form is heading
towards that technocratization of the university that it claims it wants to
prevent, indeed quite directly. And it also seems to me just as un-
questionable that modes of behaviour such as those that I had to witness,
and whose description I will spare both you and me, really display
something of that thoughtless violence that once belonged to fascism
- Theodor Adorno, Letter to Herbert Murcuse on The SDS.
This is a picture from Tehran that sums up the possibility of this movement, a possibility that is MUCH larger than simple left-liberal or even left American interests:
Yours from Seoul,