Category Archives: Philosophy and Politics
Progress, Socialism, Capitalism and Ideological Pathologies
Ronald Wright, of all the anthropological critics of “civilization” (a word which I find so horribly vague that I am hesitant to use it), seems to be the most cogent and the most damning. His work indicates that paleolithic hunter-gatherers, often the focal points for primitivists, were just as subject to resource over-efficiency as anyone else.
Again, in a conversation with Tom, I spoke to him about the problems of Keynesianism, which does seem to stimulate an economy but only for a short time. Indeed, for the mainstream liberal Keynesians, if there economics does stimulate growth by stimulating consumption the problem is immediately apparent: it actually accelerates both development as well as resource depletion.
How is it relevant to the Ronald Wright and the documentary I have linked above? It is simple: Wright puts down the idea that progress always trumps limits in development. Most societies in human history have declined and failed, and this is largely tied to various forms of resource exhaustion. This, ironically, does seem to be a form of what capitalists call “creative destruction” as the poverty induced by failure often predicates the development of a new social form somewhere nearby with deals with some, but not all the hard limits. This is not always the case though as isolated or closed social systems or physically isolated systems because of ecological reasons (deserts, islands, etc) often just go through protracted decline.
While both classical and neo-classical economics accept these limits as given in the first instance, hence all the theories of scarcity, they tend to fall into a trap of what Wright calls “ideological pathology” and if the actions of China and the Soviet Union are an example so did these two societies. China varied, however, by increasing land and resource exploitation while the Soviet Union expanded largely by debt to fund wars to liberate parts of the world. During most of the period of accumulation of territory the Soviet Union did not over accumulate, with the notable and highly tragic exception of the Ukraine until the debt cycles of the 1970s, and ironically the very military required to maintain these accumulation was exhausting the resources. Even after the Soviet collapse, Russia has paid a demographic price and this has only be off-set by resource price spikes. Commodities in the neo-classical definition of the term (which is markedly different than the use of the term in classical economics and in Marxian analysis). Yet, even the Economist, is beginning to agree, commodities in this limited neo-classical definition, are subject to price declines and peaks of the access:
What can primary producers do about this? In a recent conference at the IMF in Washington, one of the authors, Kaddour Hadri, suggested that commodity-dependent economies should take advantage of short periods of price spikes to invest in alternative industries. But many commodity-dependent economies fail to do this. William Sawyer, of Texas Christian University, argues that South America has failed to take advantage of high commodity prices over the past decade. As a result, their economies are not well-equipped to deal with the current price declines.
But according to Javier Blas, a journalist for the Financial Times who spoke at the IMF conference, commodity producers have been fighting against the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis for the last century. Many have shifted production away from commodities which do relatively badly against manufactured goods. The development of the soybean market, as well as shifts towards farming of chicken and pork, are some examples of this. None of these commodities appears in the IMF paper, so it does not tell a complete story. Still, and oddly enough, the IMF seems to have turned up some evidence support a bit of Marxist economic theory.
This does not look good for either capitalist or socialist economies which are almost entirely dependent on resource extraction for their largess. That does not only include Russia, but Venezuela, Canada, and, this is unclear to me exactly, perhaps Brazil. This also does not look good for the consumptive and production hubs needing those resources: China, the US, and the EU. (Despite the US trade deficit, it is still the second most productive economy on earth, but that itself should be horrifying when you realize that despite that its import-consumption is so large. IT is just that the labor force in increasingly not as employed in that sector of the economy: this is partially to traditional exploitation and partly do increased technological efficiency(which makes the former more efficient).
I say to point out that these real resource limits are largely ignored in Marxian circles as well as Keynesian ones despite ideological buzzwords like sustainability. Marx did clearly realize that capitalism exhausted the environment and also say that wealth–although not abstract value (this distinction is not accepted in most other schools of “conventional” economics)–was from the earth not from labor. He says this most explicitly in the Critique of the Gotha Program. Labor produce value, but not the material wealth of the world. That Soviet Union literally ignored this with Stalin codifying the a strange form of the law of value which mandated increased exploitation so that socialization of the surplus could continue. It was industrial output gone mad. Focusing on value and conflating it with wealth at the expense of resources is not just something explicit capitalists do.
None of these equations gives one a lot of room for hope for a socialist society slowing growth with impoverishing the society itself, which is really what such a society MUST end up doing. I, unlike my Luddite friends, do not see technology as the prime offender here: Wright is useful at this too, the technology that allowed the hunter-gathers were not a more efficient spear, it was figuring out how to chase herds of pack animals over a cliff.
Two Roads Half-Not-Taken
Very few traditional Marxist have begun to look at this problem. I would venture to say that automnists and communizers have a bit, but perhaps not completely without either eschatology or fatalism.
One, while given to the typical left declaring the left dead, this Automnia article is really quite good on the constraints we are witnessing:
We are approaching true dystopia. As the last remnants of the welfare state burn to warm the bourgeoisie, people freeze to death on streets of empty houses. Work is given for free, education for a fee and tax breaks for a kitchen supper. And should the people take to the streets? Well the ambush is well set. The batons that beat them down will be the same ones their taxes provided, the poison pens that libel them the same they paid with the morning paper. In fact, the ambush has already been sprung. They won’t let you find a place to work or a place to sleep. They will shake the trust you put in those you organise with, live with, love. You are no longer a subversive, you are a domestic extremist.
The condemnation of the left myopia and contradiction being dead-on:
The left today is splintered, yet resistant to disunity. The idea that those who apologise rape for the SWP, torture for the WRP or statism for the SP are part of the same movement which unceasingly criticises them is deluded. The party form upon which the SWP, WRP, SP and all of the other muddles of sovietised letters depends is based on an oxymoron. “Democratic centralism” is a contradiction dressed up an ideology, an impossibility arrogant enough to wear its dissonance as a name.  The idea that a narrow party can blossom into a mass movement, then bear fruit as a government for the masses is pure fantasy. The structures of the bureaucratised tyrant lie sleeping within the smallest cadre.
But the answer to this is, frankly, underdeveloped
To progress in the pursuit of the total emancipation of humanity, the left must liberate itself from itself. It is time to free ourselves from the tyranny of obscurity and go forth either unlabelled or more truthfully described. Before the 1780s, “the left” did not exist, yet the world was not one of unquestioning obedience to authority and unchallenged oppression. The old forms which typify the established left will not help us, the war for the future will must be fought against hierarchies, not from within them. We must atomise to unionise, divide to multiply, break apart to discover form with true potential. Friends, let us smash the left, from its rubble we can build barricades
The answer that the left main problem is its own obsession with its past is problematic. Yes, this is an ideological pathology that turns left-wing grouplets into stale newspaper sellers wondering why we can not get along. Plus the call for decentralization so that new ideas can flourish is good, but none of this is all that material. The creative destruction of the left may be necessary, but really this is still placing “the left” at a hinge in history it does not necessarily deserve even if it did have dominance of a 1/3 of the planet for about one generation. In a sense automnia is completely right, and in another sense, none of it brings the dinosaurs dead corpses which we have lived on back to the current economy.
Communization theorists, by and large, have a far more material view of what is wrong with the left. Let us look at two essays. One recent one from SIC, in which the analysis is provided as follows:
It is always hazardous to speak of the future, but the risks are smaller when we are discussing the near future. Let us therefore sketch out the following scenario: the crisis has deepened and enormous quantities of capital have been lost. The capitalist class desperately has to increase exploitation in order to restart accumulation anew. The proletariat is resisting and after a while the situation arises, somewhere, where none of the classes can yield, which leads to enormous disturbances in society. The wage loss due to strikes and unemployment along with a currency crisis then creates an acute need for all sorts of provisions at the same time as one can no longer pay for these. The movement thus enters a new phase, when the proletarians stop paying the rent, electricity, water, and start to break into warehouses, occupy farm lands and so on, in short when they take what they need. Now, these encroachments on property rights are not the appropriation of the means of production and of existence; these do not pass over to the workers to become their property. Instead they cease to be property—they become communised. In the struggle against capital, the proletarians are strengthened and united by making themselves independent of working for money; class unity appears thus in the process of the dissolution of classes—in communisation. To concretely abolish themselves as proletarians is going to be the most difficult thing in the world, but is at the same time the ultimate weapon in the class struggle. With its communising measures the proletariat combats efficiently the class enemy by destroying all the conditions which constantly recreate the proletariat as a class. In the end, the proletariat can only fend off capital by negating itself as a value-creating class and at the same time—in one and the same process—producing completely new lives that are incompatible with the reproduction of capital.
One cannot die the materiality of the analysis, and yet it has the slight smell of eschatology. The class dissolution from extreme crisis will produce the conditions that will allow for communism. This may just accept Wright and others critique, progress will begin only after current progress has failed and exhausted itself. Yet this is similar to primitivism in that it expects the crisis to clear the landscape in a particular way in which there are no other contingent factors. At least, that is how it reads.
Triploin has a view communization that is not quite as mechanistic:
The idea is fairly simple, but simplicity is often one of the most difficult goals to achieve. It means that a revolution is only communist if it changes all social relationships into communist relationships, and this can only be done if the process starts in the very early days of the revolutionary upheaval. Money, wage-labour, the enterprise as a separate unit and a value-accumulating pole, work-time as cut off from the rest of our life, production for value, private property, State agencies as mediators of social life and conflicts, the separation between learning and doing, the quest for maximum and fastest circulation of everything, all of these have to be done away with, and not just be run by collectives or turned over to public ownership: they have to be replaced by communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life. The process will take time to be completed, but it will start at the beginning of the revolution, which will not create the preconditions of communism: it will create communism.
This does not seem to be nearly as mechanistic as the above quote from SIC. Some of the same concerns, however, are there:
Communism is an anthropological revolution in the sense that it deals with what Marcel Mauss analysed in The Gift (1923): a renewed ability to give, receive and reciprocate. It means no longer treating our next-door neighbour as a stranger, but also no longer regarding the tree down the road as a piece of scenery taken care of by council workers. Communisation is the production of a different relation to others and with oneself, where solidarity is not born out of a moral duty exterior to us, rather out of practical acts and interrelations.
Among other things, communisation will be the withering away of systematic distinction between learning and doing. We are not saying that ignorance is bliss, or that a few weeks of thorough (self-)teaching are enough for anyone to be able to translate Arabic into English or to play the harpsichord. Though learning can be fun, it often involves long hard work. What communism will do away with is the locking up of youth in classrooms for years (now 15 to 20 years in so-called advanced societies). Actually, modern school is fully aware of the shortcomings of such an absurdity, and tries to bridge the gap by multiplying out-of-school activities and work experience schemes. These remedies have little effect: the rift between school and the rest of society depends on another separation, which goes deeper and is structural to capitalism: the separation between work (i.e. paid and productive labour), and what happens outside the work-place and is treated as non-work (housework, bringing up children, leisure, etc., which are unpaid). Only superseding work as a separate time-space will transform the whole learning process.
Here again, and in contrast to most utopias as well as to modern totalitarian regimes, communisation does not pretend to promote a “brave new world” full of new (wo)men, each equal in talents and in achievements to his or her fellow beings, able to master all fields of knowledge from Renaissance paintings to astrophysics, and whose own desires would always finally merge in harmonious concord with the desires of other equally amiable fellow beings.
And Triploin also admits that some of the past bonds dissolved by capitalism and its consumption are preferable and that progress may be problematic:
In the past and still in many aspects of the present, quite a few things and activities were owned by no-one and enjoyed by many. Community-defined rules imposed bounds on private property. Plough-sharing, unfenced fields and common pasture land used to be frequent in rural life. Village public meetings and collective decisions were not unusual, mostly on minor topics, sometimes on important matters.
While they provide us with valuable insights into what a possible future world would look like, and indeed often contribute to its coming, these habits and practices are unable to achieve this coming by themselves. A century ago, the Russian mir had neither the strength nor the intention of revolutionising society : rural cooperation depended on a social system and a political order that was beyond the grasp of the village autonomy. Nowadays, millions of co-ops meet their match when they attempt to play multinationals – unless they turn into big business themselves.
Our critique of progressivism does not mean supporting tradition against modernity. Societal customs have many oppressive features (particularly but not only regarding women) that are just as anti-communist as the domination of money and wage-labour. Communisation will succeed by being critical of both modernity and tradition. To mention just two recent examples, the protracted rebellion in Kabylia and the insurgency in Oaxaca have proved how collective links and assemblies can be reborn and strengthen popular resistance. Communisation will include the revitalization of old community forms, when by resurrecting them people get more than what they used to get from these forms in the past. Reviving former collective customs will help the communisation process by transforming these customs.
So what is not the like? The analysis of Gilles Duave and his collective is all very good, but it is vague in the specifics with only hints at how to redress ecological limits. Like Das Kapital itself was in the regards to the future, and very specific in regards to the present. This is fine, but such negative ideological critiques do not seem to have been the building blocks of past societies which have failed, and we do have real practical limits which must be dealt with in the now. Still this line of thought is at least serious about the problems at hand.
Eschatology and Apocalypse is not an answer
My critique of Primitivism has always been two fold: it is not entirely honest about the life of hunter-gathers and its obsession with post-industrial technology eliminates the fact that all the things that led to technology and overreach are not only before agricultural civilization but we see signs of it in other animals species which can predate themselves out of a food source. The idea that ecologies are somehow geared towards equilibrium and self-regulation can be seen in what a termite or a swarm of locusts can do to an otherwise balanced ecosystem.
The idea that a industrial collapse that would lead to a 99.5% population die-off which itself would depopulate the world enough for surviving wildlife to be unharmed by hunter-gathering is not particularly realistic as all sorts of technological fall-out could still render such a lifestyle mostly impossible.
Destruction of capital has reset capitalism before, so those crises would not automatically reset society to a socialist one and only a socialist society not predicated on growth would deal with the ecological limitations anyway. Neither of the two more realistic theories I listed above completely deal with this. I, however, give them credit for looking at the problems seriously.
Finally, while extinction is possible, the course of human indicates that the likely outcome is not distinction: it is painful, horrible, and violent decline until a new social form emerges. The Marxist society of the history of social forms has always had an implicit faith that such limits could be worked out. It placing social developments in history, it avoided the transhistorical optimism of a lot of capitalist talk or assuming that all prior societies function merely as prototypes for the current development of liberal modernity. In this, I agree with Marx, but I increasingly wonder if there are some limits–existing outside of the human sphere of influence like ecological systems–which effectively bring a transhistorical limit back into the picture? What development? What argument? What dialectic sublimates that?
I do not know.
What I do know is this: delusion is not grounds for social change. In many ways, the biggest enemy of social change is the soft idiocy of blind optimism. How can you change a world in which you are not willing to admit what the problems are? Any society emerging after capitalism either runs it courses or is removed must deal with these problems, or face the dustbin of history.
Talking to Tom, the host of the From Alpha to Omega podcast, I have recently come to a conclusion about why I increasingly gravitate towards councilism, as its confederated structure is more likely to deal with the only serious critique of centralized communism that I think stands: the knowledge problem. Marginal utility, the collective man, and all these things are red herrings that cannot be ascribed to Marx proper, but in thinking a totality can replace another totality, Marxists have often been in hubris bout the limits of any centralized planning. For example, Jacobin has written, accurately, that during the depression the Soviet system was more productive. That is absolutely true, but what is missed is that if you look at the work of Getty and Fitzgerald on Stalinism, you’ll see that from USSR’s own stats, caloric consumption from the average worker was BELOW what it was during the sources of the Russian Civil war. I want that to sink in for a second, to keep that level of production up, a whole massive society had to starve itself, and also become conspiratorial to explain all the industrial collapses that were happening in order push that much productive capacity that fast. Add to that this ruined the countryside of a lot of central Asia. When a lack of knowledge of a ecological limit hits, society can become quite violent and need a scapegoat.
Furthermore, completely decentralized societies also go through similar shortages and inability to deal with changes in the weather and of blow back from ecological developments or even political ones. Councils work in concert with each other, and can do limited planing in a matter similar to a corporation–although it is hard to say exactly what this would look like after capitalist development seizes since it would not look like entirely pre-modern councils due to the knowledge of certain types of technology, nor would be look like city councils in capitalist worlds or corporate boards whose primary function is value production, but we can assume that a worldwide council would not be logistically possible without multiple levels of federation. While centralization does increase efficiency as many liberals and socialists will tell you, they miss that in all complex systems there is a point of diminishing returns which acts in conjunction with recourse limits as a hard limit to any possible project, capitalism decentralized totality has been far more adaptive to that than the centralizing and teleological development chosen by the Soviet Union. That was not the only path.
Furthermore, I increasingly see this in China, the cultural revolution with all its advances and human tragedy was aimed a centralized apparatus that could not meet demands placed on it by the population. The forms of de-centralization were barred, the one that emerged in the second Shanghai commune and the market liberal one that Deng actually choose. By deciding to crush the development of the former for fear of dissolving China, it seems like the latter became the only option under Deng to get a very particular developmental plateau.
Now, the form of a governing system cannot explain all failures, but it does explain some. The irony that fear of decentralization leading to dissolution of “the revolution” often leads to the dissolution by other means. The refusal to learn this lesson and continue to pretend that any socialist society could be a mass society mirroring capitalism in some ways is, frankly, probably one of the key ideological reasons why these states have actually empowered nationalist and capitalist development in either the dissolution or reform. The knowledge problem is real particularly as you scale up and the entropic causes of failure increase dramatically. That is a law of physics as much as a law of history. It cannot be ignored, but it is false to think all communitarian societies are given to it: since most of our history will lived in small communities with limited or no private property in terms of land and means of production, it seems like something is turned to complexity of the system also ties to being unable, to use Marxian language, to transcend the value form. Commitment to any ideal may be necessary in that case, but it is not sufficient.
Lastly, I am not naivete to think councilism removes knowledge limits from our lives: capitalism does not either, actually, and we can see that with ecological degeneration and the shortness of scale of politics in mixed economic republics. What such council confederation does is limited the damage done in a system from a collapse in any point. Tragedy is part of human of life and that often stems from lack of knowledge, but systems that are centralized and massive in scale have highly fragile collapses with much higher costs. That is true would be true in a socialist world as well as a capitalist one.
Or, why, once again, we can’t have nice things.
All bad precedents begin as justifiable measures. — Julius Caesar
There is hope. But not for us. – Franz Kafka
“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man” – Nietzsche
So I have the definitive unluck to encounter this in my daily facebook news feed: A eulogy about the pure and joyful polemic hate of Alexander Cockburn publishes of Counterpunch. (Note I am not linking to Counterpunch because it does not need my traffic.) Jacobin’s Managing Editor, Connor Kilpatrick, waxed-and-waned poetic on Cockburn’s polemics. Now, Kilpatrick, accurately, points out some of the snobbery aimed at the Tea-party which led Cockburn to defend it:
When liberals and lefties dismissed the Tea Party, calling it an inauthentic “astro-turf” operation, Alex was quick to call them on their smugness: “You think the socialist left across America can boast of 647 groups, or of any single group consisting of more than a handful of people?”
Marine Le Pen is a nationalist politician, no anti-Semite, quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France amid the imposition of the bankers’ austerity programs.
She has gone to the heart of the matter, asserting that monetary union cannot be fudged, that it is incompatible with the French nation-state.
She has won 18 percent of the vote by campaigning to pull France out of the euro and smash the whole project. A recent poll shows only 3 percent of French voters consider immigration the main issue. So logically, Le Pen cannot owe her 18 percent to that issue. The No. 1 issue is employment.
It’s true; things could get ugly. Europe’s politics are being refashioned before our eyes. Greece has 21 percent unemployment, and the Socialist Pasok Party could face near-extinction in the upcoming elections. In Spain, 1 in 4 persons are out of work, and the right-wing prime minister insists on maintaining austerity. As Evans-Pritchard points out, “We forget now, but Germany was heavily indebted to foreigners in 1930, like Spain today. It was the refusal of the creditor powers (U.S. and France) to reliquify the system and slow monetary contraction that pushed Germany over a cliff. The parallels are haunting.”
But there’s another aspect to this habit of flinging the charge of fascism at Europe, and that’s the simple matter of national hypocrisy. The mobs that flooded into the streets to revel in the execution of Osama bin Laden were not exulting in America, land of the free and of constitutional propriety. They were lauding brute, lawless, lethal force. In this year of political conventions we’ll be hearing a lot of tub-thumping about American freedoms, but if there’s any nation in the world that is well on the way to meriting the admittedly vague label of “fascist,” surely it’s the United States.
You will notice that this is the exact same tone and rational as the defense of the tea-party, but with a twist, the people whom Cockburn was defending in the Tea Party are now implied to be fascists.
You will now that Cockburn published Israel Shamir and defended him:
We’ve run a few pieces by Israel Shamir down the years and each time a couple of emails promptly drop into our editorial inbox from dedicated Shamir-haters who seemingly have nothing better to do than surf the internet for Shamir-sightings, then rush forward with routine obloquies. They never vary. To believe them, the man is a blend of all that’s vile, a hospice for prejudice and hate, starting with anti-Semitism and moving forward into complicity with the darkest forces in Russia. I reply to them that co-editor Cockburn has in the course of his long career been falsely accused of innumerable crimes against conscience and enlightenment and so I’m instinctively averse to black-balling a writer on the basis of some charges sloshing around on the internet. What we print – most recently two very useful pieces on Julian Assange – bear no sign of the vile prejudices ascribed to Shamir and have been reports well worth presenting to our readers.
Even though Sharmir published this:
The philosemites of Aaronovitch’s ilk brought incredible calamities to mankind and Jews. They excluded a priori the possible guilt of Captain Dreyfus or Beyliss. Instead of standing aside and allowing justice to take its due course, they created mass hysteria in France and Russia, thus obtaining acquittals but also undermining popular belief in the judicial system. After Dreyfus and Beyliss trials, Jews rose above the law. This caused the backlash of the 1930s, the back-backlash of our days, and will probably cause a back-back-backlash tomorrow.
In a better world, Dreyfusards and Beylissists would be sentenced for contempt of court; for their unspoken axiom was “a Gentile may not judge a Jew.” One should not believe or disbelieve ritual murders. [...]
Jews of our day rarely know they are supposed to eat matzo on Passover, let alone afikoman. They are blissfully unaware of the troublesome legacy of mediaeval Jewry.
Kilpatrick does not even gloss these incidents, merely alluding to Cockburn’s defense of the Tea party, and ends on this:
And it’s in this sense that Alex played what I think was his most valuable role for the left, though as a staunch anti-militarist, he’d probably hate the metaphor: he was like our drill sergeant. He hurled abuse at us — but beautifully stated and almost alway hilarious abuse — from every possible direction. “Oh, maybe if Hillary — SLAP!” “Oh, maybe if I buy organi — SLAP!” “Oh, if only the Democrats — SLAP!” “The Kennedys were the last true — SLAP!” But why was he doing it? Because he was mean? No. Because he wanted us to survive. He wanted us to win.
And honestly, we needed it.
And yet no where in this: “Oh, maybe if we teamed up with the anti-liberal right — SLAP!”
This, my dear readers, is why I have given up hope on the “idea of the left.” For when it condemns one thing one political or moral principle, it excuses a similar ideological offense elsewhere. Both errors, however, remain offenses. If one cannot expect consistency on these matters–to at least mention the contradictions and caveats on these positions–what could one see emerging beyond that.
But then again, what I am to expect from these paper Jacobins, so willing to talk about both the guillotine and social democracy. At the end of the day, the problem is not in a Marxian analysis of economics or ideological situations, or even a Christian one. Alasdair MacIntyre, in a way far more consistent that Cockburn and his eulogists and defenders, pointed out the mutual problems that Marxism and traditional Christianity shared against liberal modernity. If that was what this was based in, I would be more sympathetic, but it is clearly not. If I am being charitable, this is opportunism of the basest form, but if I am not charitable, it is far more dark. On Jacobin, I am sure it is the former, and on Cockburn I do not know.
Marx’s critique of capital does not stand or fall on the hypocrisies of left-wing polemicist and cadres, any more than any religious or ethical or economic claim depends on the actions of its adherents. Truth claims must be dealt with separately, but if I were a religious man I would take these “contradictions” as a sign of the fallen nature of humanity. If I am religious, I am not that kind of religious though and cannot take consolidation in such things: the dark impulses and the human contradictions are not so easily just written off as inevitable. Julius Caesar, in perhaps one of the most self-ironic statements in history, said, Omnia mala exempla ex rebus bonis orta sunt.
Kilpatrick mentions this, but perhaps it should be used against its subject: “There is hope, but none for us.”
With both Kafka and Caesar, truer words are rarely said, or embodied.
Ryan Haecker is a scholar on the Christian theology of German Idealism, analytic theology, and Catholic History. He and I set down to discuss how Hegel’s Christian context is oft not understood by many Hegelian thinkers.
C. Derick Varn: Why do you think Hegel’s relevance as a specifically Christian thinker has been downplayed over time?
Ryan Haecker: There is a long-standing reticence to acknowledge Hegel as a Christian theologian. Controversy surrounding the Christian and orthodox content of the philosophy of Hegel has swelled since before Hegel passed from the world in 1831: Hegel had already in his lifetime been accused of denying a personal God, logizing the Holy Trinity, theologizing history, eleaticizing Spinozism, Pantheism, materialism, idealism, reactionary conservatism, radical republicanism, Prussian nationalism, liberal cosmopolitanism and Bonapartist imperialism. Some of these allegations may be more warranted than others, but even a cursory glance through the diversity of allegations and appropriations which have been made of the philosophy of Hegel during and after his life testifies to the bewilderment, excitement, and animosity stirred up by Hegel’s philosophy. There are, to my mind, three primary reasons for this medley of bamboozlement and controversy: First, like no philosopher since Airstotle in the age of Alexander the Great, Hegel claimed, in the age of Napoleon, the imperial crown of sovereign philosophy by negating the conclusions of all hitherto existing philosophical systems, as well as asserting the superiority of his own doctrine – which simultaneously incorporated and appropriated the philosophies which he asserted himself to have superseded in thought. Second, Hegel announced the messianic and world-historical importance of his very own philosophy, which he held to have completed – as far as was possible in his own historical moment – the truth of religion and reason, that was only signified for imagination in the Christian Gospel. Ordinarily such claims would result in either confinement to a lunatic asylum or – as with Friederich Nietzsche – a struggle with immovable reality to the contrary that might well precipitate a mental collapse, but Hegel’s extraordinary claims were plausibly, as with those of Jesus Christ’s, fulfilled by extraordinary results. Third, there is the unmistakable circuitousness, complexity, and gothic intricacy of Hegel’s writings, which belabor scholars for years just as they baffle and frustrate casual readers. The consequence is a general unwillingness of most – even scholarly readers – to devote the considerable labor of thought required to grasp the central ideas of Hegelian philosophy. The grandness of Hegel’s self-estimation combined with the difficulty of his texts contributes to the suspicion and hostility towards the philosophy of Hegel among most thinkers, but especially among Christians for whom Hegel represents both the potential for the dialectical advancement, negation, and nullification of the central tenets of the Christian religion.
C.D.V.: What do you think is the key theological truth of Hegel?
R.H.: There is nothing in Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Idealism which is not implicitly related to the Absolute, to theology, and to God. God is present from the first moment of sense-certainty, as the “richest and poorest truth,” to the complete realization, in thought, of the Absolute Idea. In the introduction to the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences Hegel wrote: “The objects of philosophy, it is true, are upon the whole the same as those of religion. In both the object is Truth, in that supreme sense in which God and God only is the Truth. Both in like manner go on to treat of the finite worlds of Nature and the human Mind, with their relation to each other and to their truth in God.” All thought from the barest manifold of intuition to the most majestic apprehension of the entire cosmos is ideal participation in the divine life of God. For Hegel as with Paul of Tarsus, God is Hen Kai Pan - All in All -in whom we all ”live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In this regard, Hegel follows the ancient idealist tradition of Parmenides, Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus; as well as the medieval mystics from Augustine and John Scotus of Eriugena to Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart and Joseph Boehme; and finally the modern idealists of Spinoza, Kant and Schelling.
Since the 13th century nominalists had overturned the great medieval synthesis of the Angelic Doctor Thomas Aquinas, theology had suffered from an ever-widening chasm between saecula (the sacred) and seculorum (the profane), Deus (God) and mundi (the World), Caelo (Heaven) andTerra (Earth). This is Lessing’s Chasm which characterizes the dualisms of modern philosophy. In the theology of Thomas Aquinas this chasm results from the transcendence of God’s simple unity over the composite created world; in the theology of John Duns Scotus this chasm was the consequence of the division between God’s necessary and accidental attributes, or between those things which are rationally necessary by divine reason and those things which are merely possible according to divine will; in the philosophy of Descartes this is the dualism of the perfect infinite incorporal God and the mechanistic corporal universe; in the philosophy of Leibniz this is the dualism of the Monad of Monads and the necessary cooperation of the infinite multiplicity of subordinate monads; in the philosophy of Spinoza, this is the dualism of thought and extension; and finally in the philosophy of Kant, this is the dualism of reason and intuition, concepts and percepts, and of the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. In every case, infinite Eleatic-Platonic simple transcendent One is opposed to finite multiple composite Milesian-Democritean atoms of material Nature. The ambition of the identity philosophy of Schelling and Hegel was conceived to be a purgative corrective to modernity’s infinite repetition of the antitheses of the infinite non-Ego with the finite self-positing of the Ego. Schelling writes:
“The genuinely speculative question remains: how may the absolutely One, the absolutely simple and eternal Will from which all things flow, expand into multiplicity and be reborn as a unity, i.e. into the moral world… The question would be an indispensable and unavoidable problem if this philosophy [of Fichte] actually made what is for it the Absolute into a principle as well – but it rather carefully guards against this and lets the whole of finitude be given to it, very conveniently along with the… common dogmatism that the Absolute is a result and something that needs a justification… What is the characteristic of this philosophy [of Fichte] is just that it has given new form to the age-old dichotomy between the infinite and the finite; but such forms may be legion – none lasts, and each carries impermanence within itself. It cannot found anything permanent. An enthusiasm that fancies itself to be great if it sets its own Ego up in its thoughts against the wild storms of elements, the thousand thousand suns and the ruins of the whole world, makes this philosophy popular; and also makes it dumb and hollow otherwise – a fruit of the age whose spirit has for a time exalted this empty form, until the age sinks back as its own ebb sets in, and the fruit along with it. What abides is only what supersedes all dichotomy; for only that is in truth One and unchangeably the same… Only what proceeds from the absolute unity of the infinite and finite is immediately and essentially capable of symbolic presentation; capable of true philosophy; of becoming religion, or an objective and eternal source of new intuition; a universal model of everything in which human action endeavors to portray the harmony of the universe.” - F. W. J. Schelling, On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to the Philosophy in General, Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, I, no. 3, 1802
The philosophy of Spirit of G.W.F. Hegel can be conceived of as a dialectical reconciliation of the finite world of our ordinary experience with the infinite ideal life of the Absolute, which is God’s infinite being. The success of this reconciliation is meant to fulfill the promise, in thought, of the Christian religion and restore the august throne of speculative philosophy, or metaphysics, as the sovereign science: “The germ of Christianity was the feeling of separation of the world from God; its aim was the reconciliation with God -not through a raising of finitude to the infinite, but through the infinite’s becoming finite, or through God’s becoming man… All the symbols of Christianity exhibit the characteristic that they represent the identity of God with the world in images” (ibid.). The genuinely gnostic ambition of German Idealism is salvation, neither through faith or works alone, but through both together in the theoretical and fideistic praxis of philosophy, which is both devotion to God and love of holy wisdom – Hagia Sophia. Hegel considered himself a religious reformer. Yet unlike Luther, Hegel did not endeavor to widen but to reconcile the opposition of faith and reason; church and state; and man with God. He brought the sword of negativity down upon only those philosophies which maintained themselves in self-certain fixidity, refused to “tarry with the negative,” and thereby “blasphemed against the Holy Ghost.” Like Kant, Hegel’s purpose was irenic: to pacify the endemic strife of thought that tossed into ceaseless tumult the Republic of Letters - “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt. 5:9)
The key contributions of Hegelian philosophy to Christian theology corresponds in a threefold way, to the persons of the Holy Trinity: First, the philosophy of Mind, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, is Christocentric as it aims at nothing less than the approach of the subject consciousness with the eternal reason of God: this culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the final moment of religious consciousness; the dark night of the soul; the speculative Good Friday in which God is dead, that concludes the logical sequence of historical religions; dissolves all nature, objectivity, and natural religion into the subjective stages of consciousness; and reconstructs each and all according to the Spirit of Pentecost, the apostolic Church, and the Gospel of speculative philosophy. Second, the philosophy of logic, in the Science of Logic, is theocentric as it deduces the three persons of the Holy Trinity from logical generation of the heavenly Father into the three moments of Being, Essence and Concept; which come to be manifested in the encyclopedic divisions of Logic, Nature and Spirit; and which are altogether united in the ceaseless eternal self-loving - immanent and economic - logical procession of the Holy Trinity. Third, the philosophy of history, in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History, is pnuematocentric as it illustrates the efflorescence and vital activity of the Holy Spirit as logic directs the sequence of events in history through the temporal realization of the eternal providence of God. The triadic division of Hegelian philosophy; into Father (Logic), Son (Mind) and Holy Spirit (History); is altogether integrally united in the Science of Logic, in which Hegel intends to demonstrate nothing less than the Trinitarian logic and essence of the Triune God. The result must, if correct, be at once the culmination and resolution of centuries of antitheses in theology, science and philosophy, and of no little interest to all speculative thinkers of some spiritual depth.
C.D.V.: Do you think reading Hegel without this Christian background has led to a profound misunderstanding of his work? If so, what are the key misunderstandings?
R.H.: There is both an interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel in which his “Christian background” is denied, as well as an interpretation in which his “Christian background” is acknowledged and yet considered inessential to his philosophy. In every case, the genuine question must be, not whether Hegel is acknowledged to have believed in Christianity or to have lived in a largely Christian nation, but rather whether his philosophy is essentially Christian. Hegel did not understood philosophy to be Christian because he himself was a Christian, any more than he held philosophy to be German because he was himself a German (although he once remarked that he would teach philosophy to speak German). Rather Hegel held religion to be essentially reasonable, and reason to be essentially religion, just as Christianity is essentially philosophical, and philosophy is essentially Christian. The opposite categories are altogether united in the speculative identity of the Absolute Idea. Hegel writes in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:
“The human spirit, in its innermost nature is not something so divided up that two contradictory elements might subsist together in it. If discord has arisen between intellectual insight and religion, and is not overcome in knowledge, it leads to despair. This despair is reconciliation carried out in a one-sided manner. The one side is cast away, and the other left alone held fast; but man cannot win true peace in this way. The one alternative is, for divided spirit to reject the demands of the intellect and try to return to simple religious feeling. To this, however, the spirit can only attain by doing violence to itself, for the independence of consciousness demands satisfaction and to renounce independent thought is not within the power of a healthy mind. Religious feeling becomes yearning hypocrisy, and retains the moment of non-satisfaction. The other alternative is a one-sided attitude of indifference toward religion, which is either left unquestioned, or ultimately attacked and opposed. That is the course followed by shallow spirits.”
Thus, it is a misunderstanding to suppose that Christianity is somehow capriciously attached to the philosophy of Hegel, as an afterthought brought in through the window. Schelling and Hegel wrote:
”We do not even recognize as philosophy any view which is not already religion in its principle, [and] we reject any cognition of the Absolute which emerges merely as a result – we reject any view which thinks of God in himself in some empirical connection; precisely because the spirit of ethical life, and of philosophy, is for us one and the same; we reject any doctrine according to which the object of the intellect must, like nature, be just a means to the ethical life, and must on that account be deprived, in itself stripped of the inner substance of that life.” (Kritisches Journal der Philosophie, 1804)
In his celebrated three critiques of reason, Immanuel Kant believed himself to disclose the essence, potential and limits of reason itself. Following the Late-Medieval nominalist opposition between faith and reason, Kant held faith (glauben) to consist in beliefs that were wholly unsupported by reason (wissen). Hence, the limits of reason fenced in rational understanding just as much as they fenced out irrational belief, so that true religion, like true philosophy, must remain within the secure battlements of self-critical reason – the limits of reason alone. Kant defined the limits of reason to be the antinomies, or paralogisms of reason, which he held to necessarily arise from the uncritical speculation of ‘metaphysics’ beyond the sure lighthouses of analytic deduction and the safe harbors of sensory intuition: inferences of synthetic apriori concepts that, qua synthetic, contain the content of sensory intuition and yet purport to describe objects which are properly supersensible (e.g. the soul, the cosmos and God) cannot be reliably trusted: for every dogmatic supersensible inference, any equally valid yet contradictory inference may be affirmed; and the possibility of affirming valid contradictions results in antinomies, or a contradictions in the valid exercise of the laws of logic; such that reasoning which trespasses beyond self-critical boundaries ineluctably obliterates itself in self-contradictory paralogisms. In this way, Kant anticipated the Verification Principle of A.J. Ayer and the Analytic Positivists in holding that consistent, i.e. non-contradictory, synthetic a priori truths of reason must be either analytically self-evident or empirically observable. This Kantian prohibition rendered knowledge of supersensible a priori concepts (e.g. the soul, the cosmos and God) totally inadmissible as theoretical knowledge, even while they were necessary for practical reason of ethics, politics and religion.
The consequence of the Kantian prohibition on supersensible a priori concepts was a series of dualisms, between reason and intuition, concepts and percepts, theory and practice, a priori and a posteriori truths, and the noumenal and phenomenal realms. Kant struggled to reconcile these dualisms in the Critique of Judgment, in which the faculty of aesthetic judgment was intended to mediate between reason and intuition, yet only succeeded in producing many more speculative paradoxes. The task of Kant’s immediate successors; e.g. Reinhold, Jacobi, Niebuhr, and Fichte; was to systematize the prolific yet disconnected medley of concepts expounded in Kant’s critical philosophy. This required a single axiom, or ur-form, to carry the weight as a cornerstone for the whole edifice of Kantian philosophy. Imagination, faith, practical reason, consciousness and the transcendental Ego were all proclaimed as sovereign axioms in a furious succession which culminated in the 1796 Wissenschaftslehre of J.G. Fichte. F.W.J. Schelling’s decisive contribution was to oppose the self-positing Ego of Fichte with the Absolute non-Ego of Spinoza’s Nature – Deus sive Natura - and unite both together in the speculative identity of the Absolute Ego, the idea of God. Thus did post-Kantian idealism return to St. Anselm of Canterbury’s “highest idea… than which nothing greater can be conceived.” (the Proslogion, 1078)
After Schelling’s departure from Jena in 1804, G.W.F. Hegel carried his erstwhile mentor’s Identitie-Philosophie even further in his drafted speculative systems. This formative activity culminated in the 1807 publication of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which departed from Schelling in two important respects: the Absolute Idea was placed at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning, of the speculative system; and the deduction of the concepts was dialectical and paraconsistent rather than analytic and consistent. The Kantian antinomies of reason compelled post-Kantian philosophers to choose between reason that was limited to empiricism and analyticity, or somehow embrace the self-contradictoriness of the antinomies. Hegel departed from Fichte and Schelling; for whom the resolution of the antinomies was either simply self-posited or an ineffable aesthetic intuition; and boldly affirmed that all speculative reasoning must be self-contradictory, paraconsistent and dialectical. The operative principle of dialectic is contrary propositions (i.e. contra-diction). In the philosophy of Hegel, however, ‘contradiction’ does not simply refer to the affirmation and denial of the same proposition; for there can be no ‘fixed propositions’ at all; but rather to the contrary opposition of the conflicting properties of concepts which results in their mutual negation; and this negativity imparts dynamic self-movement to concepts. Just as Plato conceived the cosmos as a world-soul in the likeness of an animal organism in the Timaeus, so does Hegel conceive of concepts as ideal organisms in the full negativity of dynamic self-motion. The Absolute Idea is consequently, like Plato’s world-soul and Schelling’s Weltgeist, the self-contradictory concept of concepts – Forma Formarum - which absolutely envelops and supercedes all possible concepts, all thought and being, as that Reason (nous) which rules the world.
Reading Hegel without consideration of his ‘Christian context’ results in a profound misunderstanding because such readings neglect, dismiss, or diminish the essential role of Christianity in Hegel’s mature philosophical system. This essential role can be illustrated by describing how the Christian religion uniquely anticipated the particular philosophical contributions of Hegel in post-Kantian idealism and the history of philosophy in general. In the mature writings (1807-1831) of Hegel, Christianity is explicitly dealt with in three places: the final part of C.C. Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the third part (184.108.40.206.) of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, and the third part of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: of these, the lectures on the philosophy of religion constitute a more detailed exposition of the Encyclopedia; the Phenomenology of Spirit presents Christianity in from the standpoint of the self-development of human consciousness in history as the culmination of a dialectical sequence of absolute picture-thinking, or religion; and the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences presents religion as the concept which mediates between the concepts of art and the philosophy, and Christianity as the absolute religion which subsumes natural and finite religions within itself. The place of the concept of the Christian religion in the Phenomenology and Encyclopedia systems of Hegelian philosophy signifies its relations to other concepts, both as they are subordinated, superordinated, and sublated. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, the Hegelian christology of the hypostatic union lies at the very pinnacle of the system as the completion of the dialectic of religion; which guarantees, through revelation from the Absolute to itself in mankind, the completion of the preceding dialectical movements, and the ultimate possibility of knowledge of the Absolute. In the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, the Christian religion is the ‘absolute religion’ through which aesthetic imagination becomes philosophy of the truth. The differing places of Christianity in the Phenomenology and Encyclopedia systems can be explained according to the differing systematic roles of the two works: while the Phenomenology of Spirit presents the successive dialectical movements of naive consciousness in relation to the Absolute, the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences outlines the relation of the Absolute to itself in the successive dialectical movements of its own self-development. Thus, Christianity makes knowledge of the Absolute (C.DD. Absolute Knowledge) possible for-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, while Christianity mediates between art and philosophy, intuitions and concepts, in the absolute self-becoming of concepts in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.
Hegel distinguishes Christianity from all dialectically prior revealed religions (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam etc.) according to the uniqueness of the incarnation and the ‘death of God’ on the cross. The incarnation of Christ is not merely an act of divine intervention but a world-historical event that, when believed to be true, radically transforms our collective self-understanding; for we then acknowledge our self-same absolute freedom, sacrality, and divinity through the image of the God-man. The deeper meaning of Ecce Homo, “behold the man”, is precisely this; that man sees his own absoluteness in the person of Christ, in which the Absolute Idea of God is uniquely and substantially united with the essence of mankind. Through this revelation, the nature of man comes to be acknowledged as potentially absolute, and hence potentially sharing in the freedom, sacrality and divinity of God. For this reason, the gospels of Christ, through which the Absolute is imagistically revealed, is also an anthropology of man. Hegel held this Christian theological-anthropology to have world-historical importance for the development of reason itself, which is the spirit of the world – der Weltgeist. Faith in the hypostatic union of the dual natures of God and man in the person of Christ is the crucial presupposition that enables the reason to develop with complete confidence in knowing the objective world of the non-Ego and the Absolute. So long as subjective consciousness was opposed to an alien objective non-Ego, there could be no condition for the identity and synthesis of knowledge of things for-us and the things-in-themselves, and scientific knowledge of the cosmos could, with the ancient Skeptics, be assumed to be ultimately unknowable.
This problem is represented by Plato in the sixth and greatest difficulty (133a–134e) of the dialogue the Parmenides: Parmenides argues against Socrates that, according to the Platonic epistemology, forms may only be related to other forms just as sensible things may only be related to other sensible things; humans cannot know forms just as the gods cannot know human affairs; so that there can never be knowledge of forms or relations of the gods to men. The problem of the greatest difficulty is the problem of mediating the dualist cosmology – the divided line - of Plato’s Middle-Period dialogues (e.g. Phaedo, Republic, Symposium) and resolving opposite ontic categories of form and matter into a consistent unity. This problem of dualism is represented in religious consciousness in the Messianism of the Jews after the Babylonian Exile (582-538 BC). Bereft of the anointed monarchy of the House of David and the Ark of the First Temple, the Jews groaned in agony and expectation for their salvation from invasion, contamination and occupation by foreign peoples (e.g. the Greeks and Romans). The unnamable God – the tetragrammaton ‘YHWH’ – beyond the world was expected to directly intervene as a champion Messiah to shepherd Lord’s people Israel to true freedom and everlasting majesty. The 71st Psalm petitions:
“Give to the king thy judgment, O God, and to the king’s son they justice… He shall judge the poor of the people, and he shall save the children of the poor, and he shall humble the oppressor, and he shall continue with the Sun and before the Moon, throughout all generations… In his day shall justice spring up, and abundance of peace, till the Moon be taken away. And he shall rule from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the Earth… And all kings of the Earth shall adore him; all nations shall serve him.”
Thus, both Jews and Gentiles – Jerusalem and Athens – awaited the absolute mediation of God with man at the conclusion of the political development of the antique world, in which the universal Roman Empire united all nations, and:
”All the conditions for its production [were] present… These forms [of personality, legal right, of Stoicism and Skepticism] compose, the periphery of the forms, which attend round the birthplace of Spirit as it becomes self-consciousness. Their center is the yearning agony of the unhappy despairing self-consciousness, a pain which permeates all of them and is the common birth-pain of its production — the simplicity of the pure notion, which contains those forms as its moments… The incarnation of the Divine Being, its having essentially and directly the shape of self-consciousness, is the simple content of Absolute Religion. Here the Divine Being is known as Spirit; this religion is the Divine Being’s consciousness concerning itself that it is Spirit… Spirit is known as self-consciousness, and to this self-consciousness it is directly revealed, for it is this self-consciousness itself. The divine nature is the same as the human, and it is this unity which is intuitively apprehended.” - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Phenomenology of Spirit, C.CC. Religion C. Revealed Religion, par. 754-759
The Incarnation of Christ reveals the identity of consciousness and the Absolute through the hypostatic union of divine and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ: “I and my Father are one.” (Jn. 10:30) This revealed identity speculatively reconciles and mediates, for religious consciousness, between the dualities of reason; e.g. Ego and non-Ego, subject and object, sensible and supersensible, Man and God. Through the incarnation, Christianity affirms an indissoluble identity between the reason of man and the reason of God so that we may potentially come to know all things just as God knows himself. Jesus told his disciples: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also: and from henceforth you know him, and have seen him.” (Jn. 14:7); “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither anything hid, that shall not be known and come to light.” (Lk. 8:17); and “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:32). Hegel writes, in the Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “In the Christian Religion God has revealed God – that is, God has given us to understand what God is; so that God is no longer a concealed or secret existence. And this possibility of knowing God, thus afforded us, renders such knowledge a duty…” The speculative centrality of Christianity in the essential development of reason and the history of world-spirit is this speculative identity of God and Man in Christ; of all thought and being in the “Absolute Middle” that unites absolutely opposed categories of the subjective Ego and the objective non-Ego; and makes a philosophical science of absolute knowledge possible.
It is sometimes objected that Christianity cannot be the ‘absolute religion’ for this reason because the incarnation of God is not an element that is unique to Christianity: incarnations are also present, for example, in the ten Dashavatara, or avatars of Vishnu, such as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. While other religious traditions affirm that God has been incarnated, only Christianity describes the passion, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ. Hegel describes the ‘death of God’ in both Faith and Knowledge and the Phenomenology of Spirit from the standpoint of religious consciousness. Religious consciousness views God the Father and Christ the Son as indivisibly united in Jesus of Nazareth. The death of Jesus is thus viewed as the ‘death of God’ for both are united in the self-same appearance known through the logical sequence of these appearances. Hegel writes at the conclusion of section C.CC.III. Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit:
”This [religious] self-consciousness does not therefore really die, as the particular person [of Jesus] is pictorially imagined to have really died; its particularity expires in its universality, i.e. in its knowledge, which is essential Being reconciling itself with itself. That immediately preceding element of figurative thinking is thus here affirmed as transcended, has, in other words, returned into the self, into its notion. What was in the former merely an (objective) existent has come to assume the form of Subject… When the death of the mediator is grasped by the self, this means the sublation of his factuality, of his particular independent existence: this particular self-existence has become universal self-consciousness…. The death of this pictorial idea implies at the same time the death of the abstraction of Divine Being, which is not yet affirmed as a self. ‘That death is the bitterness of feeling of the “unhappy consciousness”, when it feels that God Himself is dead. This harsh utterance is the expression of inmost self knowledge which has simply self for its content; it is the return of consciousness into the depth of darkness where Ego is nothing but bare identity with Ego, a darkness distinguishing and knowing nothing more outside it. This feeling thus means, in point of fact, the loss of the Substance and of its objective existence over against consciousness… This knowledge is thus spiritualization, whereby Substance becomes Subject, by which its abstraction and lifelessness have expired, and Substance therefore has become real, simple, and universal self-consciousness.” (PhG §785)
With the death of the God-man for religious consciousness, the concept of the universal essence of the “objective existence over against consciousness” (PhG §162) is lost and shattered even as “bare identity” of the Fichtean self-positing Ego continues in lonesome cognition. Hegel suggests that the ‘death of God’ phenomenologically reveals, for religious consciousness, the immediate self-certainty, self-subsistence and infinite freedom of the Ego in a way that had formerly been obscured by “the objective existence”, “abstraction and lifelessness” of the non-Ego “over against consciousness.” The positive result of the ‘death of God’ is the absolute dynamism and spiritualization of all thought. Thus the concept of the absolute Spinozist substance is baptized as the divine subject. Hegel first describes this in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
“The living substance is that being which is truly subject, or, what is the same thing, is truly realized and actual (wirklich) solely in the process of positing itself, or in mediating with its own self its transitions from one state or position to the opposite. As subject it is pure and simple negativity… True reality is merely this process of reinstating self-identity, of reflecting into its own self in and from its other, and is not an original and primal unity as such, not an immediate unity as such. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle which presupposes its end as its purpose, and has its end for its beginning; it becomes concrete and actual only by being carried out, and by the end it involves.” (PhG §18)
For religious consciousness, revealed Christian theology is revealed anthropology. The new conception of the God-man Jesus Christ constitutes a new Christian conception of man: human nature is affirmed to participate in divine reason and divine grace. The final end and highest good of human life is, no longer as with Aristotle magnanimity within a merely human political community (Zoon Politikon), but rather participation in the divine life of the Absolute being through the superabundant grace and beatitude of the Kingdom of Heaven. This echoes St. Paul of Tarsus’s description, in the Epistle to the Romans, of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: just as Hegel affirms that Ego becomes certain of itself through the ‘death of God’, so St. Paul affirms that we die, are buried, and are resurrected with Jesus Christ, to establish a hitherto unknown relationship between man and God:
”we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 6:4-11)
The ‘death of God’ in Hegel, like the death of Christ in St. Paul, signifies the self-negation of the Absolute. For the Christian religious consciousness, the self-negating loss of “objective existence” is just as much the death of our objective bodily existence as “we are crucified with [Christ]” so that we might “liveth unto God.” Christianity is thus distinguished from other incarnational religions by, not merely the absolute reconciliation of opposite categories through the incarnation, but also by the absolute self-negation of objective being through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ is the self-negation of all concepts in the Absolute idea:
”Infinity is the pure nullification of the antithesis or of finitude; but it is at the same time also the spring of eternal movement, the spring of that finitude which is infinite, because it eternally nullifies itself. Out of this nothing and pure night of infinity, as out of the secret abyss that is its birthplace, the truth lifts itself upward… the pure concept or infinity as the abyss of nothingness in which all being is engulfed, must signify the infinite grief [of the finite] purely as a moment of the supreme Idea, and no more than a moment… Thereby it must re-establish for philosophy the Idea of absolute freedom and along with it the absolute Passion, the speculative Good Friday in place of the historic Good Friday. Good Friday must be speculatively re-established in the whole truth and harshness of its God-forsakenness… the highest totality can and must achieve its resurrection solely from this harsh consciousness of loss, encompassing everything, and ascending in all its earnestness and out of its deepest ground to the most serene freedom of its shape.” (Faith and Knowledge, 1802)
The “absolute freedom” of the “pure concept” results from the absolute self-negation signified of the ‘death of God’ in religious consciousness. The drama of the Christian religion and the history of reason are united in the “absolute passion” of the ‘speculative Good Friday’, through which the totality of concepts are altogether negated in “infinite grief” and posited anew – resurrected from Hell and “ascending in all earnestness and out of its deepest ground” – of the Absolute Idea.
Hegel’s trinitarian theology confers the crown of absoluteness upon the Christian religion. Hegel describes at the conclusion of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (§575 – 577), how the dialectical moments may be read in three different sequences, with three different subjects, and from three different beginnings: (i) Logic – Nature – Spirit; (ii) Nature – Spirit – Logic; and (iii) Spirit – Logic – Nature. The divine persons of the Holy Trinity within the triune God are mutually and recursively related, just as the conceptual moments of God are mutually and recursively related: Logic corresponds to God the Father, Nature to God the Son, and Spirit to the Holy Spirit. The major divisions and subdivisions of Hegel’s work must correspond to the persons of the Holy Trinity because Hegel’s dialectical logic is essentially trinitarian, and Hegel’s conception of the Holy Trinity is essentially logical: the simplest seminal first moment (i.e. thesis) is the Father, the second self-alienated opposed moment (i.e. antithesis) is the Son, and the third reconciling dynamic moment (i.e. synthesis) is the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is an absolute self-contradiction: ‘God is one’ and ‘God is three’. Hegel absolutizes contradiction in his Logic by affirming that the Holy Trinity is the absolute contradiction of three divine persons in one God and the eternal universal and living essence of all logic, consistency and contrareity: the contrariness of the Trinity is also Hegel’s dialectical principle of identity in difference, through which he holds contrary opposite concepts to be resolved into the self-identical unity of a master concept [i.e. (A = A∗)&(A ≠ A∗)]. Subsumption (Aufhebung) is this process of resolution, which is simultaneous supercession, negation and preservation of differing and opposed concepts within a fuller and richer conceptual unity. The triadic relations of the concepts that pervade and dynamize the philosophy of Hegel instantiate these trinitarian logical relations. The conceptual moments of God may relate to one another, as that which is sublated and that which sublates, in as many ways as there are relations between the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, Hegel’s Christian trinitarian conception of logic and contrareity informed his philosophical contributions to post-Kantian idealism. Hegel’s elliptical axiom “Alles was vernünftig ist ist wirklich, und alles was wirklich ist ist vernünftig” (“All that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational”), can just as well be logicized as the axiom ‘All logic is theological, and all theology is logical.’ The revelation, intelligibility, and divination of universal reason in Christ the Logos was long ago acknowledged by Christian Neo-Platonists such as Clement and Origin of Alexandrian. The Thirteenth Century Dominican mystic Meister Ekhart describes this in the sermon on the Self Communication of God:
“The Father is a revelation of the Godhead, the Son is an image and countenance of the Father, and the Holy Ghost is an effulgence of that countenance, and a mutual love between Them, and these properties They have always possessed in Themselves.”
Dynamic movement is the result of the negative activity of potentiality in actuality, or of some recurring absence within the fullness of substance. Thus negation begets dynamic movement within a self-moving substance. For Hegel and Schelling, the substances of concepts are dynamic when self-negated by contrary opposite concepts: “The Concept is what is alive, is what mediates itself with itself. One of its determinations is also Being… This is the Concept as such, the Concept of God, the Absolute Concept; this is just what God is. As Spirit or as Love, God is this Self-particularizing.” (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion p. 436) Christianity is the most dynamic concept of religion because, for religious consciousness, the ‘death of God’ is the total negation the concept of the objectified Absolute. St. Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men… humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8) The absolute self-negation of Christianity in the ‘death of God’ is also the most extreme self-alienation and opposition of concepts in the sacred history of God’s children Israel. The dark night of the soul of Good Friday, in which Christ calls out “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (Mt. 27:46), historically recalls the grief of the 22nd Psalm over the ostensible abandonment of God’s covenant with Israel during the sack of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity; but also speculatively anticipates the apocalyptic opposition of all concepts, in the moment of our most heart-rending despair, when the essential coherency and self-identity of absolutely everything seems lost: when “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (William Butler Yeats, the Second Coming).
The dynamism of Christianity propels Christian religious consciousness into an expectation of future reconciliation – the Second Coming of Christ – in which the covenantal promise of sacred history is expected to be fully realized. The absolute antithesis of the crucifixion demands an absolute resolution and finale. Any opposed pair of contrary concepts logically demands some third concept to mediate and reconcile each into a coherent self-identity. As (C.CC.) Religion completes (C.) Reason for-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, so does the teleological end of religion superordain and determine the end of the (C.BB.) Spirit of history. The hopes of the City of Man are informed by the City of God, and the absolute expectations of Christian sacred history inform the expectations of secular philosophies of history, or theories of historicism. The future horizon of sacred history is the theological origin, in revealed religion, of all subsequent progressivist historicism. The ancient pagan Greeks and Roman acknowledged no absolute progress in history. The epics of Homer and the theogony of Hesiod depict a lengthy historical regress from the resplendent reign of the immortal gods to the pygmy age of mortal men. Likewise did the Jews count themselves to be lesser men than their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christian’s affirmed history to be progressive because Christians trust in the promised atonement of their savior, Jesus Christ, by whose death and resurrection God is believed to have conquered sin and death, and restored the pilgrim Church in the progress of faith towards the highest good of eternal beatitude: this hope for the restoration of the world in the eternal goodness of God is signified in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come/ thy will be done/ on Earth as it is in Heaven.” In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History Hegel described the logical and theological origin of this eschatological orientation that is common to all progressivist historicism:
“The truth, then, that a Providence of God presides over the events of the World – consorts with the proposition in question; for Divine Providence is Wisdom, endowed with an infinite Power which realizes its aim in the absolute rational-design of the World… the world is not abandoned to chance and external contingent causes, but that a Providence controls it… The insight to which Philosophy is to lead us is that the real world is at it ought to be; that the truly Good – the Universal Divine Reason – is not a mere abstraction, but a vital principle capable of realizing itself. This Good, this Reason, in its most concrete form, is God… The World Spirit corresponds to the Divine Spirit, which is the Absolute Spirit.”
History is providential simply because God is universal reason, all that is real is rational (“alles was wirklich ist ist vernünftig”), and reality is obedient to God. Hegel’s progressivist historicism is the direct consequence of his trinitarian dialectical logic, in which thesis begets its opposite and opposites are reconciled into a richer unity, and the Absolute is placed at the end as the product rather than the axiom of philosophy. The Lectures on the Philosophy of History should be read as an illustration of historicism determined by the eternal forms of reason described in the Science of Logic. As Karl Rahner would later elaborate, this picture of the self-development of Spirit in history is essentially the dynamic efflorescence of God’s grace, a “universal pnuematology”, and a “salvation history” (Geist in Welt,1939, and Hörer des Wortes, 1944). In the drama of sacred history, the proto-evangelium of the Old Testament is the first act, the Gospels of the New Testament are the second act, and the Acts of the Apostles begin the third and final act, which is prophesied to be completed by the Apocalypse of St. John. The order of the Mass re-presents this trinitarian drama of sacred history as well in the three parts; the Service of Prayer, Service of Instruction, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice; in which the priest assumes the sacramental role as the person of Christ to reenact the sacrifice of the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. The celebration of the Mass can thus be understood as a ritual re-presentation of the Hegelian themes of progressivist historicism, reason in history, and our eternal and eschatological salvation through our liturgical and sacramental participation in the self-giving Logos of Jesus Christ.
Interpretations of Hegel vary widely, not merely because of the gothic-intricacy of Hegel’s prose, but more especially because readers of Hegel’s texts ineluctably interpret his speculative glosses as re-affirming their own preconceptions. One of literary master-strokes of Hegel was, like Plato, to favorably present opposed theses while neighter affirming nor denying any definite conclusions. By this artifice, Hegel retained for himself a veil of vagaries that elicited from his students a perpetual self-reciprocating dialectic of opposed questions and answers. Consequently, an interpretation of Hegel which purports to show that God is can with no less plausibility be opposed by an interpretation that God is not; just as the interpretation that the philosophy of Hegel is Christian can be opposed by the interpretation that Hegel is not a Christian, but perhaps a crypto-Feuerbachian. The opposed interpretations of the philosophy of Hegel; which were first publicly manifested in the conflict between the so-called old ‘Right Hegelians’ and the young ‘Left Hegelians’; has continued to this day in Christian transcendentist and Marxian immanentist interpretations. It is plausible that my own Christian and ‘Right Hegelian’ interpretation of Hegel has been pervasively conditioned by the preconceived categories of Christian religious consciousness, just as the interpretations of those who may disagree have been conditioned by some rejection of religious consciousness. The formal relation of the concepts in Hegel’s system may frame, but not resolve, the dispute over the importance of the content of religion. The key misunderstanding is then to simply entirely reject the importance of religion in philosophy. As philosophy, like religion, purports to describe the truth, a true reading of true philosophy may only be judged according to the self-legislated norms of reason itself. In this way, confessional conflicts of religious faith are reintroduced into philosophical hermeneutics. The genuine question of whether the philosophy of Hegel is essentially Christian must therefore remain disputed so long there remain doubts about Christianity.
C.D.V.: What do you make of philosophers like Zizek trying to deal with Christianity of Hegel without just dismissing it as incidental while also trying to reconcile it with the materialism of Marx?
R.H.: The most Hegelian approach to the procession of ideas in history is the synthesis of all differentia and opposites within the Absolute Idea. There is, for this reason, nothing contrary to the spirit of Hegel in working to speculatively reconcile ostensibly opposed concepts such as Christianity with Marxism, or religion with historical materialism: this speculative enterprise can, perhaps, be understood more generally as the synthesis of transcendent supersensible forms revealed in religious consciousness with the natural operations of the material world observe through sensation; as a return to the Platonic project of reconciling the purely actual Being of Parmenides with the ever-changing conflux of Heraclitus; or as the return to the Kantian project of reconciling the immutable windowless monads of Leibniz with the extended and self-developing substance of Spinoza. In every case, speculative philosophy endeavors to unify the dualistic opposition of pure thought and intuition in an absolute concept that envelops and subsumes the true concepts of all reality. The project of reconciling Christian transcendence with socialist justice has in the past been undertaken from the standpoint of Christian theology; for example in the Franciscan Fraticelli, the Christian Socialism of Dorothy Day, and the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez; and from the standpoint of Marxist theory; as in the writings of Ernst Bloch who wrote in The Principle of Hope “Where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem” and “the Bolshevist fulfillment of Communism is part of the age-old fight for God.”
For either Christian theology or Marxist theory to be fully explanatory of the world, it would seem that each must offer some account of the pervasive appeal of the other: Christian theology must account for the Socialist contests against the social iniquities of modern capitalist economies, just as Marxist theory must account for the spiritual conditions of Christian religious consciousness: Marxists must explain the persisting desire for self-transcending faith and devotion, for which “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”, just as Christians must explain how they are to bring justice to the present material conditions of society, for which they are commanded to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hegel is the key to open each concept for the other. Hegel is not only a seminal thinker for Marxist theory, but also a great modern Christian theologian. In Hegelian terms, both Christian theology and Marxist theory must endeavor to speculatively sublate, negate, and preserve the other, so as to unlock, open, and take possession of all of the riches of Pharaoh from the land of Egypt.
Although I have some suspicions about Prof. Žižek’s interpretations of Hegel, it would be irresponsible for me to comment on an author’s whose publications I am largely ignorant of. Some interpreters of Hegel are tempted by their preconceptions to deny Hegel’s exuberant Christian confessions as little more than pious nods to the Restoration-era faith of the Kingdom of Prussia. For example, Prof. Robert Solomon interprets Hegel as “essentially an atheist” (In the Spirit of Hegel, 1983, p.582). Such esoteric interpretations, which maintain that Hegel was a writer who deliberately deceived his readers regarding his Christian faith, are (while not indubitably false) demanding of a much more conniving interpretation of Hegel than his fiercely independent and outspoken tone would seem to suggest. In his book review, Prof. Michael Rosen called Prof. Solomon’s interpretation “extremely disappointing” and “bizarre” (The Philosophical Review, pp.115-117, 1986). Thus, leaving aside these interpretations, there appear to be three major ways in which Marxist theoreticians may seek to “deal with the Christianity of Hegel” by de-Christianizing the philosophy of Hegel to be more amenable to an ostensibly irreligious Marxist theory: by re-conceiving of (i) the formal relations of the system, (ii) the metaphysics, and (iii) the sociology of Hegel.
(i) Christian interpreters of Hegel have earnestly and decisively emphasized the systematic place and function of the concept of Christian revealed religion in the system of Hegel (e.g. James Sterling, Emil Fakenheim, William Wallace etc.). Christianity is not only acclaimed as the ‘absolute religion’ which subsumes all prior religions in religious consciousness, but furthermore as the concept that superordinately determines the essence of the subordinate concepts: in the Phenomenology of Spirit, for instance, the concept of (C.CC.III) Christian revealed religion is the apex of the concept of (C.CC) Religion which subordinates and subsumes, in (C) Reason, the concepts of (C.AA) Free Concrete Mind and (C.BB) Spirit; which in turn subsumes (A) Consciousness and (B) Self-Consciousness. Thus, the crowning concept of Christian subsumes all other concepts within itself. Although Christianity is enthroned at the zenith of the system of the Phenomenology of Spirit, it is not itself (C.DD) Absolute Knowing but merely the handmaid of the philosophical-theology of Absolute Idealism. The Phenomenology of Spirit is merely a prolegomena, for historically alienated consciousness, of the system of philosophy which Hegel begins in the Science of Logic and outlines in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences.
As the Phenomenology of Spirit stands in the relation of the Absolute to consciousness as a mediating prelude to Hegel’s mature philosophical science, it may be mystically envisaged to assume the filial role of Christ the Son in relation to the seminal role of God the Father in the Science of Logic, and the dynamic efflorescence of the Holy Spirit in the Berlin Lectures on the History of Philosophy and the Philosophy of History. Consequently, the sovereign concept of (C.CC.III) Christian Revealed Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit must be understood, like Jesus Christ, to be the mediating concept between human consciousness and the Absolute Idea of God, just as (3.3.2) Religion appears again in the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences as the mediating concept between (3.3.1) Art and (3.3.3) Philosophy (e.g. S-M-P or Father-Son-Holy Spirit). Religion mediates between art and philosophy in the Absolute Idea because Hegel, with Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, held all formal concepts to require the content of intuition: the universal philosophical concept is constructed from the content of aesthetic intuition related to the absolute truth of religion and yet formally purified of the content any particular intuition. The majestic tradition of Christian art, from the earliest hymns to the cantatas of Mozart, is for Hegel the spiritual flowering of the concerted imaginations of the children of God to manifest the Absolute Idea through the variegated forms aesthetic intuition. In the oldest systematic fragment on German Idealism describes the centrality of art to philosophy:
“the idea which unites all, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher platonic sense. I am convinced that the highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty – the philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history – without aesthetic sense.”
Interpreters who wish to de-Christianize Hegelian philosophy may allege that the subordinate and mediating role of religion in the system of Hegel means that the Christian religion is suppressed by the superior concept of (C.DD) Absolute Knowing and (3.3.3) Philosophy: just as the universal concept purifies philosophy of the particular content of intuition, so does it seem to exorcise philosophical reason of religion. However, this interpretation confuses the Hegelian principle of subsumption (Aufhebung), which preserves the subordinate concepts, with bad skepticism, which suppresses and rejects the subordinate concepts. Hegel describes the difference between subsumption and skepticism in the Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
“For this view is skepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result… The skepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is — in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself.” (PhG §79)
Lest we fall into the most abysmal skepticism which cannot advance a step further, thinking must incorporate the determinate negations of all concepts to “progress through the complete succession of forms”: rather than being cast into the void, the Christian religion is denied merely as absolute knowledge just as it is preserved as a concept that is essential to this knowledge, viz. the negation of negation or the determinate negation (determinatio est negatio): the concept of Christianity is negated as containing the fullness of purely conceptual truth even while it is affirmed, viz. this negation, to be altogether necessary for the emergence of philosophical truth. In the (3.3) Absolute Idea of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, (3.3.2) Religion objectifies the varied aesthetic imaginings into a sacred drama of the self-revelation of the Absolute to consciousness.
The Christian religion is essential as the most synthetic and dynamic form of religion which, through divine revelation, uniquely allows consciousness to imagine and know philosophical science. If religious consciousness were, on the contrary, consigned to the abysmal void of unthought, then there could be no warranted claim to scientific knowledge. This problem of the doxastic foundations of science in religious belief continues to resurface in anti-realist and anti-foundationalist critiques of natural science and scientific naturalism, such as Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (1975), Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism (1993), and Thomas Nagel’s recent book Mind and Cosmos (2012). The necessity of the mediating concept of Religion in the philosophy of Hegel thus inverts the common understanding of the relation of faith and reason: faith is not the ghostly shadow of reason the necessary precondition of reason itself. So Hegel may affirm, with St. Anselm, that we must have faith seeking understanding (Credo ut Intellegam), and with the proverbs that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Pr. 9:10)
(ii) Hegel’s fundamental metaphysical commitments can perhaps be radically reconceived as materialist and anthropocentric rather than absolute idealist and theocentric. This approach was first pursued by the disenfranchised students of Hegelian philosophy who wished to weaponize the Hegelian dialectic against the alliance of altar and throne in the Kingdom of Prussia and the Holy Alliance (c.1815-1848).These radical critics of the established order of the world were called by David Strauss the ‘Young Hegelians’, in contrast to the doctrinaire former students of Hegel, or the ‘Old Hegelians’. They counted among themselves such future luminaries as Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Max Stirner, Bruno Bauer, Friederich Engels and Karl Marx. Feuerbach interpreted Hegel’s Absolute Idea to be no more Platonic and real than an idea in the human mind. The idea of God and the Absolute should, on this account, become the absolute knowledge and power of mankind. Marx and Engels followed Feuerbach in juxtaposing critical, realist, and empirical dialectical materialism to Hegel’s purportedly spiritualist, speculative and phantasmagoric absolute idealism. In each case, the Young Hegelians sought to unravel the unity of the systemic tapestry of the philosophy of Hegel, and then to re-conceive its formal relations and basic constituents in a way more suitable to the achievement of their social and political ambitions. Yet, as their aims differed as wildly as their re-conceptions, the Young Hegelians could produce no consistent school or system of philosophy. Each and all stand in relation to the speculative empire of Hegel as, what Marx once memorably described as, the successor generals (diadochi) of the spirit tearing and rending the corpse of their world-conquering great-king Alexander.
Feuerbach denied the subjectivity of the Absolute to be anything other than the subjectivity of man, and consequently re-centered the Absolute Idea into the mind of man rather than the mind of God. Feuerbach’s anthropocentrism rejected the Schellingian identity between the knowledge of the finite human Ego and the absolute divine Ego, the Berkeleyan subsistence of the universe in the perception of God, and the whole Platonic inheritance of preternatural transcendent forms. The consequence was not only the rejection of the priority of the pure forms of logic to the extended matter of nature but the implicit denial of the very possibility of a science of true philosophy: absolute knowledge requires an absolute knower as the subject which knows the object of truth, just as the truth of the particulars is the universal in which they are altogether united. The rejection of God, Platonic universals, and Logic from the metaphysics of Hegel, viz. the anthropocentric reduction, consequently makes true, universal and scientific knowledge impossible. The Absolute is the truth. To deny that there is truth is just as much to deny that this denial of truth is itself true, which is to affirm, viz. the Law of Excluded Middle, that this denial is false. Thus any denial of the truth self-contradictory. This is the problem of any anthropocentric reduction of absolute truth that relativizes truth to the human mind. Therefore, according to classical logic, Feuerbach cannot affirm an anthropocentrism or naturalism that excludes the Absolute, universals, and logic, without also contradicting himself.
Marx and Engels re-conceived of Hegel’s Absolute as the immanent dynamic self-development of nature which they called dialectical materialism, in opposition to the transcendent spiritualist idealism which they attributed to Hegel. This materalists-idealist juxtaposition reiterates Aristotle’s abstract opposition of form and matter in concrete substance, Spinoza’s two attributes of thought and extension in divine nature (Deus sive Natura), Kant’s division of concepts and intuition in the apperceptive unity of thought, and Schelling’s realism and idealism in the self-identity of the Absolute; for in each case the materialist-idealist juxtaposition seeks to subordinate form to matter, the thought to extension, the concept to the intuition, and the ideal to the real, so as to affirm, against the purportedly mystical spiritualism of Hegel, that dialectical materialism stands upright on the firm metaphysical ground matter. The motivation is to ground an ontologically and epistemological foundation in sensible material reality. Kantian criticism quickly exposes the untenability of this one-sided opposition of foundational matter to epiphenomenal form. What is the essence of matter? How is the essence of matter deduced without dogmatic presuppositions? Where is matter to be sensibly intuited? How is matter without form dialectical? Can the ground of materialism be turtles all the way down? These embarrassing questions soon reveal that dialectical materialism simply subordinates one side of each conceptual dichotomy to the other, to suppress and banish the turtle from the shell, and affirm nature as the armored panoply of certain knowledge. Not only does the promised foundation of material nature prove to be no foundation at all, but materialism poisons philosophy with its essential finitude, closure, and finality. The essence of matter is simply the self-limited and self-subsisting atomic particles of Democritus. No whole can arise from the agglomeration of many merely self-related parts. Neither can any set of formal relations join together totally self-enclosed particles. The consequence of materialism is, then, either a tower of material bricks which reaches to the heavens but crumbles like the Tower of Babel under the weight of its own antinomies, or a spiritualized matter that is indistinguishable from Fichte’s intellective being within Schelling’s identity-philosophy. Fichte’s ideal being for-consciousness that is identical to the reality of the Absolute in-itself is simply the phenomenological movement of what Hegel calls Spirit: where materialism affirms a pre-critical mechanistic relation of static material particles, the Hegelian spirit of properly critical dialectical materialism affirms a dynamic self-particularizing totality of all thought and being in Logic, Nature and Spirit. With the rejection of the mechanistic materialism, viz. the disjunctive inference, Hegelian Spirit is must be affirmed as the very substance becoming subject of the Absolute.
(iii) The (i) systematic and the (ii) metaphysical re-conceptions of the philosophy of Hegel are together united in the (iii) interpretation of Hegelianism as sociology. In this way, the negative re-conceptions of Hegel constitute a sort of negative dialectical triad, in which the dialectical reconciliation of opposites produces a more false and discordant rather than a more true and harmonious concept, in a way reminiscent of the negative dialectic of modern philosophy of subjectivity in Glauben und Wissen (Faith and Knowledge, 1802). The sociological re-conception affirms that the philosophy of Hegel can only be interpreted as the historical development of the self-understanding of society, and denies that any ‘metaphysical’, idealist, or platonizing interpretation is possible. Prof. Terry Pinkard summarizes this interpretative approach in the Successor to Metaphysics: Absolute Idea and Absolute Spirit (Monist, July 1991, Vol. 74, Issue 3). Prof. Pinkard conflates Kant’s term ‘metaphysics’ with the term ‘dogmatism’ and simplistically presumes that all metaphysical reasoning is dogmatic and rejected by post-Kantian idealists. Thus, Pinkard’s non-metaphysical interpretation simply purports to be critical philosophy without dogmatic assumptions about the reality or structure of being. The conflation of metaphysics with dogmatism leads Pinkard to reject all of the reality of all supra-physical and supersensible entities of theology and logic as the relics of a pre-critical metaphysics of substance. This is the occamist razor which shaves Logic from Pinkard’s sociology of Spirit.
With Feuerbach, Pinkard interprets the philosophy of Hegel from the anthropocentric perspective of a historical human community, and rejects the pure Platonic forms of preternatural and pre-human logic which are posited by God’s seminal reason (rationes seminales, or logoi spermatikoi) rather than man. With Marx and Engels, Pinkard must assume a naturalistic cosmology reminiscent of dialectical materialism. This becomes even clearer when the presuppositions of sociology are investigated: sociology is the logic of human society, which is inter-subjectively constituted by social human actors, who are each themselves either the formal apperceptive unity of transcendental self-consciousness or the empirical composite of material nature; sociology thus methodologically assumes Kantian empiricism; rejects the self-subsistence of the transcendental self-conscious and affirms only empirical and material composition; therefore, sociology reduces to materialism which reduces to absurdity. In this way, the (iii) sociological interpretation inherits the errors of the (i) systematic and the (ii) metaphysical re-conceptions of the philosophy of Hegel: the sociological interpretation dogmatically assumes that (i) society may subsist by itself or through the activity of social actors without any further mediation of society, and (ii) assumes the self-subsistence of society and persons to be supported by the real ground of material nature. However, the (i) unmediated self-subsistent society is merely assumed as a concept of (3) Spirit that floats alone as a postulate of thought wholly indifferent to any mediating conceptual relation to the (1) Logic and (2) Nature, which are the very necessary conditions of its conceptual possibility. Philosophy is for Hegel an absolute and all-encompassing science which cannot tolerate dogmatic postulates of wholly unmediated concepts, any more than the human body can tolerate gangrene infection. The (ii) materialist self-subsistence of society thus equally succumbs to materialist poison of finitude, closure, and finality, which threatens to collapse upon itself as soon as it is erected. The whole edifice is either unsupported and simply postulated, or closed in upon itself like a windowless castle of so many finite material bricks.
In suppressing the pure forms of theology and logic, these interpretations (i, ii & iii) construct a locked and irreformable system. All of the concepts of nature and society are enclosed in finite vessels from which none can interact and none can escape. The castle that was intended to reach to the heavens becomes a god-forsaken dungeon in which, with the messianic yearning of the Jews in exile, mankind ceaselessly awaits an unforeseeable eschatological emancipation. No freedom of the spirit is possible for such an interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel according to the letter of the fixed proposition, in which propositions are understood simply by-themselves as the predicate of a subject and are (i) not mediated within and through the self-particularizing Absolute; (ii) exclude or suppress the pure forms of Logic; and assume an (i) unmediated and (ii) materially subsisting (iii) merely postulated society. Every de-Christianizing interpretation, that intends to unravel the system of Hegel, either returns safely to the harbor of the speculative Absolute Idea or crashes upon the rocks of its own dogmatic presuppositions. The stumbling-block for all of these impious interpretations is what Slavoj Žižek has called the monstrosity of Christ: it is putatively absurd to believe that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; was crucified; died; and was resurrected. Thus Tertulian confessed “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”). Christianity seems to be the most absurd religion of all because it absolutely negates itself through the self-negation of the Absolute. However this absolute self-negation is, in the philosophy of Hegel, the very unsurpassed dynamism and spiritual vitality of Christianity. There could be no greater self-negation, and no greater dynamism, than the visible self-annihilation of the God-man in the ‘death of God’ for “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13)
Tom O’Brien is the host of the From Alpha to Omega. This interview was completed just before the Cyprus banking crisis and thus was not mentioned.
C. Derick Varn: Your podcast topics seem to vacillate between sort of “left” Keynesianism and more traditional Marxism, what in your experience of the Irish economic crisis led you to see the two as more complimentary than it may seem from a distance?
Tom O’Brien: The current crisis from an Irish point of view seemed to have been caused by a massive buildup of private debt, aided and abetted by the usual neo-liberal deregulation and regulatory capture.After the crisis erupted, we also found out about the flaws in the monetary architecture of the Euro – how it operated like a gold-standard and prevented national central banks from funding their government expenditures. My reading on the topics of debt and monetary matters led quickly to the current work of radical Post-Keynesians, who predicted this monetary crisis as early as 1992 – the famous British economist Wynne Godley laid it all out in an article for the London Review of Books. The work of Steve Keen, on the acceleration of the growth in private debt as an accurate predictor of crisis was also particularly important in understanding the Irish situation. The Post-Keynesian view of why such debt bubbles occur, is the Hyman Minsky view that stability is itself destabilizing. That seemed a little convenient and not as convincing an argument as Marx’s ‘Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit’, which gives a more direct causal explanation as to why there was such a shift from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and outright speculative behaviour in the western developed economies. This, I think is probably closer to the real root of the problem, and works well as explaining the current neo-liberal experiment, which can be seen as a massive drive to basically increase the rate of profit. The work of the radical post-Keynesian school seem to have developed important insights into the nature of money, that might have very important implications for Marxist economics,and indeed for those seeking to understand how to alleviate the current Eurozone crisis.
C.D.V.: Do you think that Keynesian or Post-Keynesian insights are limited to circulation problems?
T.O’B.: As a non-economist, I would have to say that what I see as the main Keynesian / Post-Keynesian insights are the stabilizing effects of government deficit spending, the role debt plays in the boom-bust speculative cycle, and the ‘Chartalist’ or ‘Modern Money Theory (MMT)’ school which tries to describe the workings of our modern floating fiat currencies. The standard Keynesian deficit spending insight, when allied to the MMT school of thought, lead us to radical conclusions as to what we can achieve in capitalist economy. They shine us to a path where government deficits don’t matter, where the economy can be managed to grow in a reasonably smooth fashion. It could also lead, I am tentative to state, to a scenario where the falling rate of profit can be endlessly jacked up in nominal terms, and thus help to avoid that Marxist crisis of capitalism. Convincing these individual, isolated, ideologically hide-bound capitalists of the merits of these policies for the system as a whole, has been something pretty difficult to achieve for these Post-Keynesians, as their policies play more into the hands of the workers and the industrial capitalists than the financial capitalists currently in charge of the system. However, even if all the Post-Keynesian insights were put into play, all they would in reality likely achieve would be the stabilizing and speeding up of the existing capitalist system, enabling it to chew through all our dwindling natural resources at a quicker pace than ever. Their insights say little about the alienation of workers, the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of capitalist production, or the inherent exploitation of the capitalist mode of production.
C.D.V.: What role do you see social democracy as having in the current EU crisis?
T.O’B.: That’s a very difficult question. It seems most of the social democrat type parties across Europe have been in bed with the financiers for years now. In the UK Tony Blair and Gordon Brown let the city run riot, so they could fund their health and social spending increases. In Greece we see how the Socialists have imploded over their support for Austerity and inability to stand up to the ECB and the Germans. In Ireland we have seen the perennial party of power, Fianna Fail, lose 75% of their seats. The neoliberal mindset seems to be as deeply rooted in the social democratic parties as in those of the conservative/right parties of Europe. With the parties of both the left and the right in Europe essentially offering the same unwanted medicine to the people, we are likely to see major radical political changes in the make-up of our politics in the coming years. It seems pretty doubtful that Social Democrats can survive as power political parties in their current form unless they break from their bank-friendly policies. The policies of the ECB/IMF/EU troika are a huge destabilizing force in Europe, and the likelihood is for years more of depression-like economic performance. But if South America is any guide, it may take decades until we have the formation of new dominant left political movements capable of taking power.
C.D.V.: Have your opinions on this fiscal matters changed since you began your podcast?
T.O’B.: Not since I started the podcast, no. But over the last 3-4 years I have read a great deal about monetary matters, the design of currencies, and the role of money creation in societies. I have been interviewing a lot of the best people on these matters about their work on the show. I must say, however, that the Modern Monetary Theory people do have a reluctance to talk about the risks of endless stimulus. They say that deficits don’t harm us once there is the raw materials and human labor to absorb all the issued debt/currency, but talk little about what are the limits to these very raw materials. Most of the good scientific research I see, like the Limits To Growth studies, which show major problems in the coming decades and probable economic collapse, point towards the likelihood of catastrophic resource constraints in the near future. I often find myself wondering: ‘What Marx would have made of the likely coming material conditions?’
C.D.V.: Do you think there is an ideological blinder on that part of MMT?
T.O’B.:I do think there is an ideological blinder in MMT on this issue. But it is far from just MMT economists who ignore the likely upcoming resource crunch. The net energy we receive from our oil, gas, and coal production after getting the stuff out of the ground and into our cars and homes is dropping steadily. More and more of our oil and gas is coming from difficult to reach places, and we have to put more and more energy in, to get our new energy out. This should be a very stark warning to us that our economic system is about to undergo tremendous strain. It should be noted, that the Soviet system’s oil production peaked in the 1980′s, which is likely to have played a very important role in the collapse of Soviet Union. Indeed, Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996 and became an oil importer in 2007, so I think we can expect many more of the Middle Eastern power structures to fray as the energy surplus from oil and gas production begins to drop.
We must realize that just because when we ran out of trees for firewood we could use coal, does not mean we can easily find ourselves a new energy resource. In fact it means just the opposite – that we have one less energy source left to exploit. Economists are acting like the beer-drinker who thinks there will always be more beer in the fridge, because for the last 6 times he went to get a beer there was always one there. Just like the beer-drinker, they won’t be too happy when they find out all we had was a six pack. None of the existing replacement renewable energies look like they have the ability to scale up to meet this challenge. Economists assume that technology will rescue us, but this is a pretty big assumption.
It’s fairly easy to see that the dominant schools of economic thought largely reflect the interests of those in power, so we can’t expect the high-priests of capitalism to preach too loudly about the contradictions at the core of their belief system.
C.D.V.: Well, many green thinkers also accuse most Marxists as being blind to the resource depletion issue. There are some strong exceptions, I think, including Marx himself, but in general, this has been the case for reasons that don’t have anything to do with capitalism. What do you see as a valid answer to resource problems?
T.O’B.: One of the core insights Marx gave us into capitalist economies is that capital always seeks to grow through productivity increases. Growth is the eternal mantra of economist from both the right and the left. Now with our resource constraints in clear sight, the options left to us are pretty stark. We either have to drastically cut our consumption levels, or our population, or maybe both. The distribution of how those resources are spent are extremely inequitable as well. But such a vast reduction in consumption levels would create absolute havoc for those who own the means of production, so it’s unlikely they will voluntarily give up control. They still might get lucky, some new energy source could materialize or the science could be flawed. So, I expect we will see those in charge of the current system just plough along merrily with their fingers crossed until we get to such a stage as the conditions get so bad and they are overthrown, or the whole global system of production kind of peters out. But the problem with any such new system that comes into power, is that it will have to be based on a new kind of production not based on growth, and most likely not based on value production. There is quite large scope for theoretical work on how such a system would work. Many of the left-movements today speak of a ‘Green New Deal’, which doesn’t deal with the core expansionary drive of capitalist production in the slightest. Robin Hahnel has an interesting new book, Of the people, By the people – The Case for a Participatory Economy, describing how such a participatory economy could work, which is well worth the read and does a fine job of talking of how such a system could work. It offers little though, in how we should work to get there. When it comes to the demographic problem, the only country I know of with a vastly reduced population today compared to 1840 is Ireland, and that only happened through that oh so benign a mix of imperialism, famine, and mass emigration. It doesn’t bode well.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
T.O’B: I would like to point to some of the tentative positive political ideas that are starting to take shape around the world at the moment. The emergence of the Occupy movement globally, the Indignados, and the 5-Star Movement in Italy all in their own way are pointing to failure of our liberal representative democracies to work for their citizens. It’s starting to become more and more obvious to more and more people that the corporations and the banks control their politicians and stand in the way of the radical change that is needed. I think there is a great desire for a sustainable society where wealth and power is equitably distributed. Hopefully these movements are the sparks that will fire the neurons of those involved to come up with new theoretical works that can help us to lay the foundations of the new societies that we seek.
C.D.V.: I find the last bit interesting, if you would forgive a one last follow-up: What exactly do you see as the promise of the 5-Star movement?
T.O’B: Over the last 150 years we have seen many nationalist revolutions succeed. Some of these new governments may even have enacted fairly radical policies, like the welfare state or land reform. But over the years, as the original revolutionaries grew old and left the political stage they gradually became replaced by a managerial class of politicians, lacking the political spine of their predecessors. Countries like Ireland, for example, experienced a new wave of career politicians, of varying levels of corruption and a willingness to suck up to the capitalist class to gain power. The citizens of these countries have learned that the problem wasn’t just that they didn’t have self-determination as a colony, but that the structure of society and it’s political superstructure also plays a critical role. In the words of The Who – ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.
The 5-Star movement, is essentially expressing what a hell of a lot of people in the capitalist west think of politicians – they are a bunch of lying, power hungry, money grabbing, turn-coats. And they are sick to death of it. This is a real blast against the political superstructure, if not, perhaps, the base-structure of production. I see in this the germs of a possibly revolutionary change in how we govern ourselves. Noam Chomsky always talks of how power is terrified of real true direct democracy, because those in power can’t let people actually vote as they wish. Even redneck republican voters in the US. when polled on individual issues are basically social democratic in nature. I don’t think that the 5-Star movement is perfect in its structure, or that I agree with it’s policies – I don’t know enough about it to have a definitive opinion, but I think it does shows us exactly where the political pulse is right now - decentralized structures of power devoid of politicians and their games. It seems to be a return to the libertarian socialist tendencies of the past. It is also a rejection, I believe, of the old vanguard party model of the radical left parties, and left-theorists out there should be taking note.
Pham Binh has been a revolutionary socialist since he was 16. He’s from from Rochester, NY, and has been active against the death penalty, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many other issues. He is currently an editor of the North Star. He has served on the editorial board of Traveling Soldier, an anti-war newsletter aimed at helping active-duty troops organize, and his writings have been published in the International Socialist Review, Asia Times Online,Counterpunch, Znet, and Dissident Voice.
C. Derick Varn: You have written a good bit over at the North Star on Leninism and the implications in of the SWP fallout. Why do you think the question of “Leninism” doesn’t go away?
Pham Binh: “Leninism” refuses to die because it must be superseded in practice by forms of organizing that are bigger, better, more effective, and more durable. That is a much harder task than exposing its internal contradictions by closely examining the historical practices and methods of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party from 1903-1917 as I have done repeatedly since summer of 2011 and as Lars Lih has done since 2008. It remains an attractive form of organizing for many revolutionaries because it is timeless, applicable everywhere in almost any context; it is the easiest answer to the hardest question — what is to be done, right now, today and tomorrow? No matter what, when, where, why, or how, for “Leninists” the main and decisive task is always to build such a party.
The failure of a given struggle to lead to our goal of working-class rule, whether that struggle is the destruction of apartheid in South Africa or the end of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, is easily and falsely attributed to the lack of a revolutionary “Leninist” party in every overturn.
In some respects, this problem is nothing new. The sect form existed long before “Leninism.” The Communist League that Marx and Engels helped found had its roots in a sect called the League of the Just which merged or regrouped with the Communist Correspondence Committee. The rise of the Second International (and, on the anarchist side, the CNT in Spain and the IWW in the U.S.) did a lot to emasculate the sect form as the dominant method of organizing on the revolutionary left. Unfortunately, a lot of what was built over decades through the blood, sweat, and tears of literally millions of working and oppressed peoples all over the world no longer exists, so we are, to a large extent, starting over from scratch. This is especially true in the United States where the unionization rate is almost in the single digits and where there has not been a mass radical workers’ party in a very long time but less true in places like Greece where the class war is more two-sided than one-sided and there are multiple workers’ parties of varying degrees of radicalism.
C.D.V.: Do you think that the crisis of the SWP will open up a way of talking about organization that goes beyond the vanguard party structure?
P.B.: No. Comrades who reject “Leninism” for the right reasons like Laurie Penny correctly view the SWP’s self-destruction as a vindication of their position on the organization question while comrades who accept “Leninism” like Richard Seymour, China Miéville, and the SWP opposition are reduced to arguing that the SWP is doing it wrong rather than stepping back to re-examine their fundamental and erroneous assumptions regarding vanguard parties and how they develop. In other words, the SWP’s self-destruction is not opening up new discussions or a realignment of forces on the British left. The only new people that I am aware who are thinking “beyond the vanguard party structure” thanks to this crisis are former SWP members Tom Walker and Kevin Crane. The SWP opposition’s political bankruptcy on the organization question will eventually reveal itself, most likely after they are voted down yet again by the membership and are forced to either 1) split to save what is left of their honor or 2) remain a defeated minority in an organization that will forever be associated with rape and has been stuck in terminal decline since the death of its founder Tony Cliff.
C.D.V.: Do you agree with Lars Lih that Leninism itself seems to be an insult to the pluralism of Lenin, and thus is misunderstanding and rigidification of Lenin’s organizational flexibility? Or do you think that Lenin himself is the root of the problem?
P.B.: That is probably not an accurate statement of what Lars Lih thinks about “Leninism.” He has studious and wisely chosen to stay out of left debates over the political and organizational implications of his work as a historian. “Leninism,” as practiced by self-styled “Leninist” groups, certainly is an insult to and a denigration of Lenin and his life’s work as a revolutionary social democrat. He had very little to do with the creation of sects that operate in his name and was far more interested in creating mass-based, class-based parties. In line with this orientation, the Communist International (Comintern) insisted that various national revolutionary groupings fuse and merge into single, united parties if they desired to be affiliated with the Comintern. Historically, the creation of “Leninist” sects is Trotsky’s doing, not Lenin’s.
C.D.V.: I should said seems as his book Lenin Reconsidered does have certain implications for political praxis even if those implications only come from a close reading of primary text and the historical record. To change to a related topic: What do you see as a way to organize labor as the Union movement declines?
P.B.: Before that question can be tackled, we have to step back and diagnose the reason for the union movement’s seemingly unending decline.
Today’s AFL-CIO apparatus (or what is left of it) is very much a product of the 1950s context in which it was born (the federation came together in 1955), that is, hemmed in by Taft-Hartley which outlawed secondary strikes and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules and bureaucracy that constantly interferes with organizing efforts. The creation of these hurdles occurred during a period of unprecedented prosperity and capitalist economic expansion. Back then, the capitalist class felt that peace on the shopfloor was worth paying for and as a result, workers enjoyed good contracts and generally rising living standards from 1945-1970 without a tremendous amount of struggle. If you told Big Bill Haywood before he died in 1928 that, in two decades, American mass production workers would be able afford to send their children through college to get white collar or managerial positions, he’d probably slap you for spouting pie-in-the-sky pro-capitalist propaganda. It’s hard to overstate the change in capital-labor relations in the pre- and post-World War Two eras. Successive generations of workers and union leaders grew accustomed to getting good contracts without much of a fight; when strikes did break out, they tended to be short, non-violent, fairly tame affairs. Eventually management backed down or union leaders would come back to the bargaining table, and an agreement amenable to both sides was reached.
Those days are over and they have been over for a long time. However, the union movement and the working class as a whole has not really caught up to or adjusted to this change. The tactics and traditions inherited from an era of “class peace” weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. As a result, unions in the private sector have almost been wiped out (the percentage is in the single digits), so public sector unions have become disproportionately important to the AFL-CIO by default. The problem is that, in addition to Taft-Hartley and NLRB, there are state laws that outlaw strikes by these public sector workers. Advocates of a labor party used to argue that unions without a party of their own meant that labor was fighting with “one hand behind its back,” meaning the labor movement needed to fight not only on the economic side but on the political-legislative side as well. Today, we are in a situation where labor is fighting with both hands tied behind its back since strike action is almost illegal in practice and we have no workers’ party to combat new anti-union measures that are passing in state legislatures.
So we are in big trouble, to put it mildly.
Now, it’s easy to blame the conservatism of union bureaucrats and bureaucracies for the labor movement’s fate, which is what the far left (“Leninist” and otherwise) does. But the blame is not solely theirs; we should not pretend that we can put labor’s house back in order by electing better, more radical/militant/Marxist labor leaders. Labor’s problems are much bigger, or more deeply ingrained, than this or that treacherous, cowardly leader or even whole layers of treacherous, cowardly leaders. The other side of the union movement’s bureaucratization is the relatively passive, quiescent rank and file who bear the brunt of the attacks and have the most to gain from effective resistance.
In the final analysis, the union movement is only as strong as its rank and file is class conscious, militant, and organized and will only win what it is prepared to fight for, which apparently is not much. Until that changes, until a do-it-yourself ethos becomes a lot more common than it is now among unionized or unionizing workers, efforts to revive the existing labor movement like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s latest initiative will go nowhere fast because they will quickly run up against Taft-Hartley, NLRB, a whole series of anti-union laws, and the absence of a labor party, which is what happened with the exciting Our Walmart initiative. (I’m not saying Our Walmart is dead, a failure, or anything like that; I’m using that experience to point out the difficulties for unions to succeed at doing anything beyond merely surviving in the political and legal context of present-day America.)
There is no “magic bullet” solution or organizational form to the union movement’s problems and I do not pretend to have all or even most of the answers, especially on this question. I have never been in a union although my parents have, and I think my lack of experience in the trenches of the union movement is unfortunately nearly universal for working people of my generation. The existing alternative models to the AFL-CIO like the Industrial Workers of the World have not fared too well either; they are, of course, under-funded, often isolated from the broader union movement, and their efforts to organize at small businesses and large employers alike have not met with great success despite a lot of courageous effort and militant, unorthodox tactics. It was the combination of these tactics (or Occupy-esque militancy and flexibility) and AFL-CIO resources that led Our Walmart to have its initial success.
As a general rule, I don’t think the union movement is going to get anywhere unless and until it begins to defy or find ways of circumventing bourgeois legality. People, including working people, tend to take the path of least resistance, and when you have a family that depends on you for food, clothes, and shelter, risking arrest is not something that is undertaken lightly; this is especially true for working single mothers who struggle just to find babysitters and child care week to week as they slave away for corporate behemoths like Wal Mart, McDonald’s, or Starbucks. At the same time, if every effective tactic is outlawed or ruled illegal by a court injunction, every union is going to face a stark choice between bowing to legality and losing or risk losing everything for an illegal win as the Transit Workers Union Local 100 did when it went on strike here in New York City in 2006. They struck and the union was crippled when a judge took away automatic dues payment as punishment for breaking the state’s anti-strike law.
The convergence of Occupy with union struggles provided a brief glimpse of what or how this problem might be surmounted in practice, but Occupy proved to be too inflexible to adapt and survive without its encampments and so this brief convergence did not have time to take hold and develop into something meaningful. Occupy Homes is a campaign that I think also gets at the question of bourgeois legality, although it is a struggle centered not on the point of production and therefore the unions play a subordinate role (if they play a role at all). What Our Walmart decides to do during and after the NLRB-imposed cooling off period will be pretty important to determining what, if any, future unions have in this country.
C.D.V: What to you make of the general Union reliance on Democrats despite the fact state-level Democrats have been arguibly more successful at slow dismantling since labor is less skillful at framing opposition to the party he Unions channel a lot of money to?
P.B.: Unions will never break from the Democratic Party (DP) unless and until there is a reasonably realistic alternative to switch their allegiance to. How awful the DP is for labor on any issue or policy is irrelevant so long as the Democrats do not change the D to an R.
Breaking the strategic attraction of the lesser-evil strategy means breaking the two-party state at the local, state, and eventually national levels. We’ll need Greens or reds in office before we can expect to see unions re-think their political options and strategies.
We are unfortunately a very long way from that.
Things weren’t always this bad. This tradition of unions backing Democratic politicians come hell or high water has its origins in the Communist Party’s (CP) policies in the union movement of the 1930s during the Popular Front period. Prior to that, there were efforts to create labor and farmer-labor parties and unions sometimes ran their own candidates in local elections. The Debs-era Socialist Party polled 20%-30% of the delegates at the American Federation of Labor convention in the early 20th century. The CP put an end to all that. It played a pivotal role in the rise of the CIO and used its immense power and influence in the unions to kill any and all effort aimed at creating a Labor Party that could threaten the Democratic Party. Since then the unions have been the DP’s most loyal organized constituency.
C.D.V.: You still see this in the somewhat bipolar seeming rhetoric of the CPUSA: Do you see this entryism as being not only habitual but pathological?
P.B.: The problem is not one of entryism; the unions, NGOs, and left-liberal organizations are not “entering” the DP because the party as such does not really have formal structures these groups can enter into or take over in any meaningful sense. Rather, they refuse to organize a jail break, an escape out of the confines of the DP mainly because doing so would leave them with even less power and influence than they have now. Until they have another ship to jump to, they won’t jump ship, even if the ship is sinking, or on fire. That’s why I tire of hearing the socialist left propagandistically and pathologically calling on unions and everyone else to “break with the Democratic Party.” We even hear that rhetoric from Socialist Alternative candidates running in local races in Seattle and Minneapolis for non-partisan(!) offices. Instead, I think we need to discuss and think through how to break the Democratic Party, how to split its voting base from its funding base, how to disrupt it, undermine it, and eventually make it a marginal force in American politics. Actually accomplishing that might require some entryism or other unorthodox tactics by radicals. Another pathological problem I see is acting as if the DP is a moral taint or a poison that, once you touch it, will turn you to stone; it’s a very moralistic approach, one that precludes any real struggle dealing with the DP and exploiting its contradictions.
C.D.V.: What ideas do you have on how to concretely start to fracture the Democractic party?
P.B.: The first thing we have to do is look at local, city, and state politics to find where there are openings and weaknesses we can take advantage of. I learned a lot by reading the chapter on Bernie Sanders’ rise in Burlington, VT in the book Radicals In Power by Eric Leif Davin which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you had to choose between buying and reading Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and Radicals in Power, I would say skip Lih.
Sanders managed to oust the Democratic mayor, and then he faced an extremely hostile Democratic and Republican city council that effectively sabotaged the first year of his administration. So Sanders and his allies campaigned to oust them too and they won. The remaining (surviving) Democratic and Republican council members then began to compromise and work with rather than against Sanders. Out of Sanders’ campaign came the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), which I have only begun to study. Their strategy, unlike the Green Party, has been to focus on races for local and state offices exclusively and they endorse Democrats on a case-by-case basis. The latter part of the strategy is generally anathema to the revolutionary left, but it’s hard to argue with results: they’ve managed to build up the country’s most powerful state-based third party and have worked with the Democrats to weaken the Republicans. This extreme tactical flexibility vis-à-vis the Democrats has allowed VPP to avoid the spoiler problem that is built into America’s winner-take-all electoral system which has been the main objective barrier to a robust Green Party. Sometimes you have to compromise with the enemy to fight the enemy, and that is how I view the VPP. Teaming up with Democrats to weaken and undermine the Republicans on a state-wide level is smart because it erodes the spoiler factor that gives the DP so much power overs it voting base. Once you remove the fear factor of a G.O.P. victory from the equation, you empower unions, people of color, women, LGBTQs to make a free choice, a choice of conscience and genuine political preference, which is pretty threatening to the DP since they could never win elections on their neoliberal, G.O.P-lite, free-trade loving, anti-union, and pro-imperialist policies. In many Vermont local races the Republicans don’t even appear to be a factor, so it’s a straight fight between VPP and the DP.
None of the above could have or would have happened without Bernie Sanders running successfully as an independent against the Democratic mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.
C.D.V.: What do you want to see in a broad, multiple tendency and faction left movement emerging?
P.B.: The socialist movement in the U.S. is weaker, more fragmented, and more marginal today than it has ever been. In 1898, there were 6,000 organized socialists in this country. Today, the combined memberships of all the three- and two-letter groups put together might equal that figure on a good day, although now there are 300 million people living in this country, 100 million or so of whom are wage workers.
So we are starting almost from scratch in terms of creating a mass-based socialist movement that is relevant to American politics, one that can throw punches that actually mean something in terms of the class struggle. We’re so far behind every other country in this regard that we haven’t even produced a George Galloway of our own. That’s sad.
Each fragment or sliver has something it can offer and bring to the table, even the Sparticists. There is a time and a place for vitriolic polemics, a time and a place to call out fellow reds for mistakes, opportunism, and so on; the problem is that is all that the Sparticists do. The International Socialist Organization’s publishing house, Haymarket books, is a tremendous asset, and their nonprofit brings in over $1 million a year. They have plenty of talented people, some of whom are union members, and the same goes Solidarity, Workers World Party, and the rest of them.
The smart, strategic thing to do would be for all of these groups to begin cooperating with each other at the local and branch levels, start having joint meetings, panels, discussions, moderated debates, agreements to fight together for strictly local campaigns for desperately needed measures like rent control, police reform and accountability, lower public transit fares, stuff that working class people care about and that would make a difference to their daily lives. Instead, each group sticks to its own mini-campaigns and initiatives, sees their comrades as competitors, tries to recruit like mad to make up for the number of people dropping out or becoming inactive, and won’t enter into campaign mode for a given initiative unless it is controlled by their group and/or not controlled by one of its rivals. It’s the theory and practice of petty proprietorship, not proletarian socialism.
There’s no good, strategic reason not to form a common radical organization that is anti-capitalist on the theoretical side and dedicated to fighting austerity on the practical side. Disagreements on Syria, Greece, Russia 1989 or 1917 are just an excuse not to unite into something bigger, better, and more effective. Everyone wants to be Lenin in 1914 and accuse everyone else of being Kautsky or Plekhanov, as if the three of them were not still part of the same International at that time. No trend within socialism in the U.S. has anything approaching a mass following and never will if the status quo on the socialist left prevails. Imagine what Greek politics would look like if the Maoists, Trotskyists, and eurocommunist forces that constitute SYRIZA today did not start cooperating almost a decade ago in the manner I described above. PASOK’s support would have collapsed, and Golden Dawn would not be counterbalanced by any left force. In the U.S., similar disaffection with the ruling parties leads to the Tea Party on the right and Occupy/anarchism on the left because the socialist left is essentially a vacuum, a non-entity.
A big tent radical organization could unite the independents (who outnumber the group members), fuse the splinters into a single bat, and probably attract a lot of the revolutionary-minded, non-dogmatic class-struggle anarchist-ish types as well who want nothing to do with central committees, paper sales, and recruiting the uninitiated through intensive individual conversion. A serious 3-5 year plan with some sketched out stages/phases of development and benchmarks or metrics to create such an organization undertaken by a few of the existing groups could easily have 10,000 active members at the end of that process provided no group’s control-freakery or ingrained sectarianism shipwrecked the thing before it could get off the ground.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
P.B.: Thanks for taking the time to interview me. You asked a lot of tough, challenging questions and I hope to see some debate, discussion, and progress towards at least some of the goals we all share.
Brian Hioe is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and an undergraduate at New York University.
C. Derick Varn: Recently, you spent time in Japan and did some detailed research on the history of Marxism in Japan and its current incarnations. Briefly, what did you discover about the types of Marxism that have developed there?
Brian Hioe: It’s hard to sum up, of course, but if we are to speak of Marxism as it existed in the pre or post World War II periods, to broadly generalize, I would say that in the earlier broader sense that these forms of Marxism are more generally bound up with the problem of Asian modernity and Marxism in a non-European context. This is largely the question of how to accomplish the aims of Marxist revolution in a country that does not fit the classical category of an advanced industrial nation as one sees with early Marxists before World War II in the Meiji and Taisho periods. As might be expected, this is more generally inflective of broader issues of concern with Western-imported thought and its applicability to an Asian context, which was, of course, by no means a phenomenon unique to Japan, but a particularly prominent issue during these periods.
Following World War II and the period of Japanese militarism in which Marxism became outlawed and was forced to operate underground, the problems of Japanese Marxism becomes the question of the Soviet Union and the differing responses to it, even as this is in itself remains bound up with previous questions of Asian modernity. For example, the dividing line between the splits in Marxist groups in Japan was often the question of whether Japan has accomplished a bourgeois revolution or whether this remained to be done. Although to be sure, there was much doctrinaire infighting on such grounds, the political implications were such that the (Stalinist) Japanese Communist Party held Japan to have not accomplished a bourgeois revolution, presumably so as to provide justification for Popular Front-ism and the like. Contrastingly, the later anti-Stalinist groups such as the Zengakuren, which rose to international fame in the 1960s, generally originated in but broke from the Japanese Communist Party, were often conflicted upon this issue, and this served as a dividing line among the Zengakuren groups.
On the other hand, if we are to consider the contemporary state of Marxism as it currently exists in contemporary Japan, I would say that the specter of postwar Marxism has not yet been exorcised—its influences still remain in some sense. So far as I spent a great deal of my time on the Japanese Left, the groups I encountered came out of this history as either groups surviving from this period, newer groups whose political imagination is such that efforts are made to reenact postwar, 1960s-style Marxism as a viable model to be emulated, or, alternatively, the attempt to break with this history altogether in a manner so as to precisely avoid this type of Marxism. These seem to me to represent differing, somewhat schismatic responses to the history of postwar Japanese Marxism.
C.D.V.: Does Japanese Marxism break down on non-Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist lines like in the US or are there differently delinated groups in response to local concerns?
B.H.: Yes, much as with the US and elsewhere, Japanese Marxism breaks down upon non-Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist lines, though the history is at variance. The most historically prominent group up until the postwar period is likely the Japanese Communist Party, which adhered to the Soviet Union and in that way can be said to be Stalinist, although it begins to distance itself from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, took no sides in the Sino-Soviet split. Its relationship with its prior antecedents became unclear in this way. So I am not sure where to categorize such a group, since it is clearly not Trotskyist or Maoist group, and at least today would by no means refer to itself as a Stalinist group. What I don’t know is if Lenin is still upheld, if the group can be called non-Leninist, nor the exact points any shift in this discourse occurs. My own suspicion is that the relationship of the JCP to its prior history is made opaque by its statements disavowing the brutality of the Soviet Union but also criticizing Eastern European states for rejecting socialism and embracing capitalism and, in this way, any engagement with this history that works through it in its messiness is glossed over. For all its touting as the world’s largest Communist party, it is, in fact, a group you rarely ever see today on the Japanese “Left” and it is rarely included, as such.
To raise the Zengakuren again, as the most prominent group of the postwar period, of the groups that were known under the name Zengakuren, some originated in splitting from the Japanese Communist Party. Trotskyism appears in the group in the form of groups as the Kakumaru-ha faction, which originates in a split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League National Committee, which was affiliated with the Fourth International, and in some fashion thereby claimed for itself the mantle of being the first Japanese Trotskyist group. By the time the Kakumaru-ha formed in 1959 as a further split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League and became one of the groups known under the mantle of the Zengakuren, it was known as a Trotskyist group. However, other Zengakuren were alternatively Maoist, and some anti-revolutionary Marxists, the latter of which naturally tended towards the critique of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, et al. The Zengakuren is often thought of as Japan’s “New Left,” equivalent in some fashion to the American SDS, but although it was also a student group, it originates over a decade earlier, and was never one discrete organization but a conglomeration of groups and groupuscules. Furthermore, if the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League was in fact the first Japanese Trotskyist group, that dates the origin of Japanese Trotskyism to 1957. So, then, while the presence of Maoist or non-Leninist groups in the Zengakuren is not a surprise for a group which grows to prominence in the 1968 period, the presence of the Kakumaru-ha in the Zengakuren as a Trotskyist organization would point to the difficulty of establishing any“Old Left” or “New Left” distinction as we use these terms in the United States, so far as the New Left can be characterized by suspicion of Old Left Trotskyist groups. Yet the categorical divisions do remain much the same, I think, even if the history is different.
To speak of Marxist groups in present day Japan, however, I encountered non-Leninist and Trotskyist (or formerly Trotskyist) groups, but rarely ever any Maoist groups. I suspect the reason for the lack of Maoist groups might be anti-Chinese sentiment in regards to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which does not provide much space for Maoist groups to breathe, but this may be casting aspersions a bit too far. A number of the groups that composed the Zengakuren are still around and remain active and so can be termed today’s Trotskyists; for example, there have been a number of English language translations in the last decade of the publications of Kakumaru-ha’s theoretician-leader, Kuroda Kan’ichi that appear to come from what it is that remains of the Kakumaru-ha. Other Zengakuren groups, too, are active that continue to organize demonstrations, especially in relation to the anti-nuclear movement. Likewise, there remain a number of Trotskyist labor unions, even if between some of them there seems to have been some distance between them and Trotsky and more of an attempt to return to Lenin. Otherwise, there are non-Leninist groups that embrace“democratic socialism”, some of which are also splits from the Japanese Communist Party, such as the Zenko group at whose conference in I spoke at in Osaka in August 2012, or the closely aligned Movement for Democratic Socialism (MDS).
C.D.V.: How have Japanese Marxists dealt with the periodic resurgence of local Nationalism?
B.H.: It’s a tough question. While I was in Japan, navigating among different Left groups, I did not encounter any mobilizations specifically addressing nationalism, except as more broadly a phenomenon stemming from and intimately bound up with the Japanese Right. The predominant political issue on the Left is or was, after all, the anti-nuclear movement, although, rather interestingly, the anti-nuclear movement raised questions of nationalism given that far Right groups were also participants alongside Left Marxist and anarchist groups and were sometimes among the most militant and dramatic of participating groups at protests.
To the extent that I saw nationalism addressed as specifically nationalism by the Japanese Marxist Left, it was in regards to figures as the far Right mayors of Tokyo and Osaka, Ishihara and Hashimoto, respectively, but these are figures so large as to cut across multiple domains—in addressing these ultra-nationalist figures, it was on issues such as their support for nuclear energy, their abuse of labor, militarist provocations, or their censorship policies rather than specifically on the issue of nationalism, although it probably need not be said that such policies are intimately bound up with nationalism. I was not in Japan during the time that Ishihara formed his Sunrise Party and Hashimoto his Japan Restoration Party, or when the two parties merged, so I can’t speak for the response, except to report a general wave of despair and resignation expressed at that time among my acquaintances in Japan. The Japan Restoration Party aimed at organizing as a “third force” in relation to the two major parties of the“center-right” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and “center-left” Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), although it must be noted that it is the former which gave rise to the Japan Restoration Party. Again, I don’t know of any mobilizations around that might have occurred, given my lack of proximity, nor what along what lines such mobilizations might have organized. For example, there are sectors of the Japanese Left modeled upon the European anti-fa, but these are primarily anarchist, rather than Marxist in nature, and I never saw any anti-nationalist demonstrations or organizational by them—of course, it could be that I just failed to notice. I also suspect that nationalism and the national question may be an issue that is left opaque, whether cynically or unconsciously, by aspects of the Japanese Marxist Left more reformist in nature in operating within the status quo of the electoral system, even when they lay claim to an putative internationalisms. This may be I myself being cynical in this case; however, like I raised earlier, the specters of North Korea and China does provoke strong national sentiment even among certain individuals who self-identify as being on the “Left”.
Nevertheless, so far as the rise of the Japan Restoration Party is coterminous with the return to power of the LDP that had dominated Japanese politics since World War II through one-party rule until the emergence of the DPJ in 1998, some left-liberal commentators speak of the permanent decline of the DPJ and, accordingly, the failure of Japan’s experiment with genuine democracy. So while it may be simplifying the contours of the Japanese political situation to say so, likely, in the changed political landscape, nationalism will become a issue that the Japanese Left will be required to address in a more definitive way if it is to be able to respond in any effective manner.
C.D.V.: How exactly do you think anti-Chinese tendencies have complicated things in Japan?
B.H.: For the Left, that’s actually somewhat unclear to me. I suppose it has to do with the relation of the Left to the rest of society. The specter of China is one that can evoke the fears related to Japan’s territorial sovereignty, not to mention Japan’s military capacities, and in this way the issue is very frequently a rallying call for the far Right who, after all, would like to see a renewed Japanese militarism in order to maintain Japan’s territorial sovereignty or perhaps reclaim Japan’s territorial boundaries of old. The specter of China, too, is bound up with specter of North Korea because of China’s being North Korea’s ally; in fact, sometimes the calling out of North Korea is really a cipher for China. Yet while this is very frequently an issue of concern for the Japanese Right and far Right, China can be an issue that evokes strong feelings among liberals, as well, and can serve to sometimes draw out sentiments of nationalism.
Hence the tricky position of the Left. This may be somewhat speculative, as I never saw any much in the way of direct addressing of the issue, but with the sections of the Japanese far Left that work in or through Japanese liberalism, sometimes bleeding into reformist politics, probably China proves an issue to be worked around rather than directly addressed. For example, one of the various Japanese Occupy groups I encountered while in Japan had a Twitter account that was spewing out tweets inflecting a somewhat nationalistic anti-Chinese sentiment. I think this example is illustrative of some of the antinomies that the Left needs to navigate in Japan. So far as Occupy in its global incarnations encompassed perspectives not strictly “Left”or “far Left” but very often left-liberal, such a group (or whoever running the Twitter account) would claim the internationalism of the Occupy mantle of the“99% versus the 1%” in addressing global economic inequality, but simultaneously express nationalist sentiment in relation to China.
In other words, the China issue is one which brings out the difficulty of the Japanese Left in working in a political milieu in which the China issue can bring out nationalist sentiment even among liberal and left-liberals—even, of course, if the Left itself is not invulnerable to falling prey to nationalism either. And, indeed, I think part of it may also be the difficulties of calling one’s self “socialist,” “Communist,” or “Marxist” in Japan with the examples of “actually existing socialism” of China and North Korea all too close for comfort. But that seems to be a problem generally for Marxists in East Asia.
C.D.V.: And are there more attempts at fusion of Marxist and Hegelian concepts with local developments in the Japanese left than has been discussed?
B.H.: There are some examples, but not many that I know of, and many of these belong to an early era. Part of it is, I think, the relative prominence of Marxism in the Japanese social sciences following World War II, but that Japan does not experience a Marx renaissance. Rather, after the turbulent 1960s, Marxism goes into a decline in Japanese academia. I’ll go into what I do know.
For example, the school of Japanese “Hegelian Marxism” I know about is the “Uno School,” an economic school which follows from the thought of Japanese Marxian economist Uno Kozo (1897-1977). Uno’s two most prominent students are Thomas T. Sekine (Sekine Tomohiko) and Makoto Itoh (Itoh Makoto), of which I interviewed the former (forthcoming in the Platypus Review). The Uno School is very often touted as a “Hegelian Marxism” in western circles so far as Sekine is the primary English-language advocate for the Uno School and his interpretation of the Uno School has a Hegelian spin, which has led to the criticism that he, in fact, over-Hegelianizes the Uno School. In any case, Sekine’s contention is that the dialectical account of the development of Geist provides a means of understanding of capital, in regards to the movements of capital being dialectical—Hegel’s mistake, so to say, being that he mistook what is historically specific to capital for the developmental tendencies of the human spirit. So, then, does Sekine provide a reading of Capital which overlays Hegel’s Logic onto it, in order to serve the enterprise of an economics that is held to be objective knowledge. It is entirely not clear to me how much of this Hegelian Marxian thought is present in the work of Uno Kozo himself.
Likewise, I already mentioned Kuroda Kan’ichi (1927-2006) in relation to the Zengakuren, as the theoretician-leader of the Kakumaru-ha. Kuroda was one of Uno Kozo’s interlocutors in his day, during the heyday of the Japanese Marxist groups, and in his Methodology of Social Science: A Critique of Uno Kozo’s Theory of Economics, he critiques the understanding of capital produced by the Uno School as fundamentally bourgeois in nature, because Uno Kozo’s interpretation of Capital rearranges the work so as to begin with “circulation.” His contention is that Marx wrote Capital to be understood by members of the proletariat which is why the work begins with “production,” in relation to the proletariat’s being directly embedded in the processes of production. He poses a reading of Capitalthat, instead, reads the Phenomenology of Spirit onto Capital, as the bildungsroman coming-to-self-consciousness of the proletarian, Karl Marx. It is not entirely clear to me how much of Kuroda further elaborates on his forays into Hegelian Marxian, because his books are rather hard to obtain, although they were actually translated into English by the present day Kakumaru-ha in the 90s and 2000s, and I know his thought coheres into some sort of body.
There are also later academic readings of Hegel and Marx, such as Uchida Hiroshi’s reading of Hegel’s Logic onto the Grundrisse (Marx’s Grundrisse and Hegel’s Logic 1988) but I know much less about this, and I’m not aware of any schools of thought that emerge from these attempts. Again, I would think this is attendant with the decline of Marxism in the Japanese academy. Obviously, there is more than I mention here. I should also add by way of caveat that I’m limited to reading English language texts, my Japanese being too poor at present to read theoretical texts, so there is likely much I am not aware of, but such is my perception.
C.D.V.: Does the experience of left-wing tramas like that United Red Army’s impolsion and the Japanese Red Army’s Lod Airport massacre have effect on the current Japanese left?
B.H.: Yes, I would say so, though I wouldn’t necessarily tie it down to any single event as to the general history of 60s violence. For example, in the anti-nuclear movement, even as a number of Left groups hoped to use the issue as a radicalizing issue for the public, the organizers of the weekly protests on the Japanese capitol in Tokyo (which, at times, numbered in the tens if not hundreds of thousands), sought to avoid the expression of explicit political views. It eventually became clear that the organizers were, in some fashion, coordinating with the police that was otherwise restricting the protests’ actions, when it became noticeable that the organizers’ signs directing people were the same signs the police had. In other words, what was feared was that the protests would rupture the norms of civil society in a way that would be alienating. To make the Occupy connection again, I was reminded of Occupy, in which the question of radical views quite possibly alienating public from the protest of broader issues versus the use of broader issues as a way of radicalizing the public was also an issue.
In Japan, as with most places, the employment of violence carries societal stigma, but I think in the Japanese context it’s especially haunting of the far Left in relation to the history of the 1960s. The last thing you’d see at a protest would be any form of black bloc. After events as the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks, which were, of course, acts of violence carried out by a religious cult, and which was profoundly disruptive of society, Left groups tend to get lumped into the category of being violent cults themselves because of their history. Or Left groups are perceived as being much the same as violent right-wing groups; certainly, sometimes hyperbolic discourse about revolution can sound not dissimilar.
I might mention here the widespread police surveillance of Left-wing groups that takes place in Japan. Of course, very often on the Left, groups which are not at all any threat to the state want to feel as though they were important enough to be observed by the state and so claim to see police surveillance everywhere. But I’ve attended meetings in Japan with an attendance of only a dozen people, advertising of which was conducted almost entirely through the Internet, in which undercover police were present. Undercover police have a habit of standing en masse outside of meetings of radical labor union organizations with notepads, as though they were monitoring individuals, even when a lot of this might just be psychological intimidation. Furthermore, protests in Japan are usually accompanied by disproportionately large numbers of police—a protest consisting of only about fifty people might be accompanied by an escort of fifty or more policemen. Given that the regulation of the police is overwhelming, a public that very often just wants to avoid trouble is deterred from the far Left by way of societal stigmas reinforced in this way.
This degree of police surveillance is certainly a response to the history of 60s violence and, in that way, restricting of the Left’s activity. Yet the effect of 60s violence that I would point to on the Left is the schismatic response of the Japanese Left to this. Again, in the example of the anti-nuclear movement, in order to maintain civil respectability and mass appeal, sections of the Left sometimes attempt to curb their radicalism in order to avoid alienation. As is not surprising, this proves problematic for anything that provides for more than reformist politics. Contrastingly, other sections of the Japanese Left react by embracing the iconography of Japanese sixties radicalism in order to play up their militancy—for example, the iconic Zengakuren helmets and the distinctive aesthetic of sixties protest banners. As is also not surprising, this is, in fact, alienating to the general public. So far as I observe, in this way, the response on the Left tends to be divergent in these opposing directions, both problematic in their own way, both responses to the legacy of the 1960s.
C.D.V.: What do see happening in he Japanese left after the brief flicker that was Occupy in Asia?
B.H.: Occupy was never very big in Japan—it was more of a one-day protest action in 2011. However, many groups adopted the Occupy name and the slogan of the “99% versus the 1%” afterwards, and I encountered a number of groups calling themselves Occupy or using Occupy-based slogans. I was intimately involved in particular with a group that called itself Occupy Tokyo Action. There were other groups, but they weren’t very large. By no means on the scale of the Occupy movement in the US.
Other times, established organizations adapted the Occupy name but, in that way, it actually became quite rhetorical. Sometimes groups would just add the slogans of Occupy the rhetoric of the 99% and the 1% to all the preexisting slogans and self-identified labels, and it would just became another protest chant or declarative statement of self-assertion: “We are the ninety-nine percent!”
So far as I was coming off of Occupy to Japan because I was living there in the spring and summer of 2012, sometimes it was clear to me what exactly Occupy was was actually not entirely understood—for example, that impetus behind the original concept of Occupy was the occupation of a public space. So people were calling themselves Occupy but not entirely knowing that means, I think, and people were claiming the mantle of the 99% but not necessarily in a manner where it was meaningful. I was invited to speak about Occupy several times by individuals or organizations, but while I sought to adopt a critical stance and offer something else than what was purely salutary, I think people often thought what I had to say was unexpected or counterintuitive.
For example, something I tried to do when invited by leftists or leftist groups to talk on Occupy was to frame Occupy in the context of the Left—which was sometimes surprising to people, who didn’t see Occupy as a leftist movement. Well, to be sure, it was too heterogeneous to call it that, so I agreed, but why else should there be this interest in Occupy, then, on the Japanese Left? That was something I found myself wondering very often. And I’m not sure what people were hoping to get out learning from someone who had been observant of and involved in Occupy—in my talks, I very often tried to point out or gesture towards my own perceived imperfections of Occupy, which wasn’t always what people wanted to hear. This may just be me being overcritical of everything, which is generally the tendency on my part. Still, it also did make me quite hopeful that there was this interest in global events relevant to the Left.
What was larger, of course, but also interrelated was the anti-nuclear movement. The original anti-nuclear movement post-3/11 had tapered off, but when I was in Japan, the Japanese government’s plan to restart the nuclear reactors in Fukui and Oi sparked a resurgence of the anti-nuclear movement. As I mentioned, at one point, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people were marching every Friday on the Japanese capitol in Kasumigaseki, which is a district of Tokyo. This came out of the blue, so far as the anti-nuclear marches on the capitol had continued weekly and there was even a sort of Occupy-esque tent, Tento Hiroba, in Kasumigaseki. But although Tento Hiroba had managed to resist all attempts to evict it for over a year, when I first arrived in Japan, these marches consisted of only about several hundred people, though they resembled the casseroles marches. Yet that these marches had gone on for over a year since 3/11, even with the loss of momentum, provided the site for the reinvigoration of the anti-nuclear movement in regards to providing for weekly protest actions of thousands. Very quickly, it became clear that these were the largest demonstrations since the 1960s though, as I said, perhaps the emphasis upon social and civil respectability in these demonstrations was because of the lingering stigma of the sixties.
I mentioned being reminded of Occupy in the Japanese Left—it was through the anti-nuclear movement that I was. Some aspects of the anti-nuclear movement saw themselves as in the spirit of Occupy, including those who I was involved with. But my own perception was that the anti-nuclear movement was, in some sense, the actual Japanese Occupy. While, of course, it actually outnumbered Occupy in New York by several orders of magnitude, and the cause wasn’t the same, what I felt was that it had many of the same problems as Occupy. The question of radical views versus an appeal to populism, also the issue of how to make one issue into an entry point into a broader panoply of political issues. Likewise, the question of leadership between groups, the relation of the movement to police actions, and the issue of attempting to make a movement grow, but towards what purpose? Such were the questions at hand.
Still, if we’re to tie these issues together, Occupy and the anti-nuclear movement, in relation to the current state of the Japanese Left, I honestly don’t know. The anti-nuclear movement wasn’t growing significantly larger, and after the high point of a mass demonstration in Yoyogi Park, near Harajuku, in late July, eventually at some point the protests saw a decline. I think there’s been somewhat of a vacuum since, and a sense of confusion on the Japanese Left of what is to come next—especially since the issue was never resolved in any decisive way, but just became somewhat obfuscated and, in that way, buried. We shall see. Is there potential for a third resurgence? I don’t know, although protests continue, and the two year mark has arrived. But what concerns me is that I don’t see people asking this question of themselves.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
B.H.: Just that, fundamentally, I think the issues of the Japanese Left are the same issues that the Left faces the world over. Much of what the Japanese Left faces, I think, are the issues that the international Left across the world faces, except that such issues are configured differently in regards to the specifics of Japanese history. I’ve mentioned the Occupy parallel many times, also the shared problems faced by the Left in East Asia where it proves difficult to call one’s self a Marxist because of the specter of “actually existing socialism.” What this points at is the need for an international politics that operates at more than merely expressing solidarity for various national politics or various issue-based politics from afar, but intimate political involvements on every level. Good feelings, even feelings of shared struggle, only go so far, after all. At worst, expressions of global solidarity can even be quite performative in nature, in claiming to situate national struggles within the context of a global Left, but really in the interests of just drawing a number of new protest slogans from abroad and the projection of one’s hopes and desires onto some place other than home so as to avoid confronting the reality which looms ever-present before you. I certainly saw that sometimes on the Japanese Left, for example, in relation to me as someone who came from America immediately following a period of involvement in Occupy, but also in relation to the Japanese Left as understood from the American perspective, by way of the perception of Japanese radicalism my American radicals. And what I don’t see from either perspective is the sort of radical self-questioning necessary to actually make shared international struggles meaningful in any visceral, politically-charged level.
Perhaps, then, what the state of the Japanese Left points at is this need for a new internationalism in which worldwide struggles can be made meaningful on the visceral polticially-charged level with an actual effect on reality—and also its absence in the present. I would say so about the Japanese Left so far as these are maladies faced by the global Left, and so far as the Japanese Left is an expression of the global Left. Indeed, I can only speak for myself and my own perceptions so much as far as I went into Japan, began researching the history of the Japanese Left, and sought to absorb myself into the contemporary Japanese Left—even if, of course, it ends up that I can’t help but subsume the Japanese Left to my preexistent political conceptions. That is, I think, inevitable to some degree. Yet this is what I would conclude, in my knowledge that I don’t know everything, that my knowledge of the Japanese Left is necessarily incomplete, and that neither do I have any answers.
Daniel Spaulding is a graduate student in the Department of the History of Art, Yale University. He works on postwar and contemporary art in Western Europe. With Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus he coauthored a response to a questionnaire on Occupy Wall Street for a special issue of the journal October in the fall of 2012. (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/OCTO_a_00122)
Daniel Spaulding: It’s senseless to answer this question except with reference to concrete instances of relations between the two. I’m not interested in defining the role of art in bourgeois society as such in the manner of, say, Peter Bürger. At the same time real instances of the interface between art and politics are unquestionably determined by the general forms of capitalist society – the commodity, the wage, exchange, and so on. From this basis one can indeed claim to deduce the category of art from the determinations of the value-form or more broadly from the whole complex of relations that make up the capitalist mode of production. The role of a Marxist art history as opposed to a Marxist aesthetic theory, however, must be to mediate between form-determination and form itself, between category and material artifact.
In that spirit I’m also going to be a bit unsatisfying and refuse to give a programmatic answer to your question. I will venture to say that the standard modes of “critical” post-60s art won’t cut it. This seems widely acknowledged even in the bastions of that very model: see for instance recent meditations on the “postcritical” impulse and the failure of the “anti-aesthetic” in journals like October and Texte zur Kunst. I’m afraid lot of this is just chewing the cud of “left” art history’s academicization. The impasse is real, however.
The vital question is how to articulate the totalizing impulse of critique – which I’d argue is still as important as ever, in the face of capitalism’s own totalizing force – with a poiesis necessarily fixated on the smallest point of ingress to the materiality of everyday life, or to put it differently, the smallest unit of affect or event in its difference from a reified situation. Art small-a. I’d be willing to bet that a materialist lyric mode is the closest thing to an avant-garde we currently possess. It’s no longer very interesting to say: “Look, I’ve divested myself of my subjectivity, I’ve laid bare the mechanism through critical mimesis, I’ve taught the petrified social forms to dance by singing them their own song.” Better for artists to ask: “How can I make something that speaks to my experience in all its fucked-upness and seeming inevitability; how can I produce anything at all without immediately reproducing capital; what representational or anti-representational claims can I make with regard to my own place in the violent hierarchy of class society?” But this is a kind of lyric that opens onto epic to the extent it necessarily folds totalization back into subjectivity, or history into experience.
Art is able to do this in ways that exceed the resources of critique alone. By doing so artistic practices conceived on this model also help get us beyond the antinomy of committed versus autonomous art. Art’s autonomy instead consists in its asymptotic approach to an autonomy of the social, that is, to communism. Whether this means a sublation of art into life or something quite different is not the most interesting question at this moment in history.
C.D.V.: You have written on the aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization in Occupy: do you see part of Occupy’s appeal as aesthetic?
D.S.: I think its appeal may have been aesthetic in the older and broader sense of the term. Occupy had a visceral sensory impact on the ground and even in its circulation through the image-world. Occupiers sometimes talk nostalgically about the distinctive smell at the camps. There’s obviously a danger of romanticizing this, but I think it’s right to say that Occupy among other things offered a glimpse of a different sensorium, that is, of a world in which matter and form are ordered not by the logic of capital but rather in the immediate reproduction of communal life. Of course Occupy’s world was precarious and frequently miserable, but in that, too, I think it was probably an accurate preview of what a break with capital will really entail.
This is a slightly different matter than the “aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization,” whatever such might be. (I’d like to keep the two terms separate, by the way. You can certainly have insurrection without communization, but whether you can have communization without insurrection is another question.) In the October piece I wrote with Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus we made a rather coded swipe at what we called the “aestheticizers of autonomy.” By this we meant, for example, artists or artist-collectives who take insurrection as a “theme” or even a procedure but at any rate as something to be injected into the gallery system, and thus into all its attendant circuits of valorization and exploitation. I don’t know if this is much different from the wave of awful “political” art that came out of the heyday of identity politics. At any rate Baudelairean neo-spleen is not much better than the same product that’s in all the other galleries.
One of the functions of art in capitalism is to poach and domesticate radical energies from elsewhere in society. Art historians ought to be frank about this. A critique of art history, or a meta-art history, might be used to disqualify the circulation of vaguely “political” signifiers as the common currency of the art world. We can say: No, this isn’t political, this is the same shit as always, please stop fucking around. And this might be a way to redirect the desire for a better life that is currently railroaded into the art world back to the world itself.
Anyway, moving on. I would avoid saying that there is a specific aesthetic of communization or insurrection, unless there’s an aesthetic of communism itself. Undoubtedly there would be such but we can’t say in advance what it is. It isn’t Emory Douglas or Claire Fontaine, however much we might be interested in their work. On the other hand there’s certainly a visual imaginary of insurrectionism. It’s interesting that The Coming Insurrection ends on a narrative scene, really a sort of creative writing exercise: “visualize total collapse” as opposed to “visualize world peace.” I find that useful as far as it goes. We do need to view the current order from the standpoint of its anticipated collapse. This is the basic historical materialist insight, and it’s also the point of departure for the Marxist tradition’s thorny pairing of utopia with catastrophe. When the image of insurrection substitutes for its actuality, though, we’re back into mere ideology. I don’t mean this as an attack on any particular milieu and its styling. We simply need to be very careful to specify that revolutionary dynamics are at least as likely to be marked by their non-visibility as by a production of images, by their withdrawal from the aesthetic as much as their conquest of a public profile. Politics happens where genre fails.
On this note, Occupy was fascinating because there was a basic tension between an (exhausted) image-politics – “the media isn’t covering this!” or “let’s make this trend on Twitter!” – and a mostly subterranean challenge to the rule of property, to the police state, ultimately to what has to be described as the whole of capitalist society. Capital’s overwhelming command over the boundaries of the sayable and the unsayable predictably meant that the more profound challenge often came to the surface only in variously mediated or symptomatic shapes. The Marxist interpretation of culture has some work to do here because one of the areas in which it historically gained purchase was of course the method of symptomatic reading – scouring the surface of culture for traces of contradiction. What gave itself to appearance in Occupy demands the same attention. But in present conditions, art history, in particular, may paradoxically best do this by shrinking back from “the aesthetic,” if this is understood as identical with the historical institution of art. There are other kinds of practice that challenge the very coherence of the term.
For example, one of the great slogans that came out of Occupy was “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” This struck a chord with a lot of us because it hit on the predicament of trying to speak politically today: we are reduced to practical incoherence by the sheer wrongness of the world and of our lives, on what I’m tempted to call an existential level. Art has also sometimes been able to speak this inability to speak. The most recent Whitney Biennial was pitched to a very definite affective register, what David Joselit called “melancholy camp.” I think this might have been overplayed in the exhibition to the point of mannerism, but it does get at a very real sense of how we live now (with the caveat that “we” is of course parceled out by class, race, gender, and sexuality): now, we are very often in some way “camping,” improvising in the ruins of an order that can no longer promise a future, can no longer promise coherent structures of experience, in the end, can no longer promise its own reproduction and simple endurance. But did the Biennial register this situation in the most effective way, or the slogan? The latter, I suspect.
Art historians should recognize that art is not necessarily good at what it’s trying to do. Art as a practice may sometimes give us models of how to relate to the material world and to each other in ways that don’t succumb to the imperatives of value production. So do things like occupations and reading groups and riots, though, and it’s not obvious to me that art is currently doing a better job.
C.D.V.: What do you make the commercialization of some the aesthetic sensibilities around Occupy?
D.S.: To be honest I’m not entirely sure what you mean. There was an aspect of Occupy’s aesthetic presence that was always-already commercialized, so to speak, in that it aimed to propagate a political brand through existing channels of circulation. Meme politics and the like. I don’t have an objection to this per se. I like memes. But the limitations are clear and so is the tension between that strategy and the more intractable problems of subsistence, survival, and open class conflict that also surfaced in Occupy. I sometimes think of this tension metonymically as New York versus Oakland. That’s not very fair to either city, though. In fact all of the camps reproduced a gendered and racialized division between a self-appointed “99%,” who claimed the privilege of speaking for others, and the mass of the more profoundly dispossessed who continued to face state and economic violence on a daily basis and who often found themselves expropriated again in the discourse (and practice) of Occupy. This division was already recuperation from within. Unfortunately it was probably insurmountable in a context structured by white and male supremacy.
Beyond this my impression is that instances of specifically aesthetic co-optation have been minor. Occupy never really generated a new vocabulary of forms, in either politics or aesthetics, and so there ultimately wasn’t much to appropriate. This is in marked contrast to the revolts of the sixties, to take an obvious example. Aside from “We are the 99%” even the slogans barely percolated into mass culture. Occupy’s impact was probably more effectively distributed in heavily mediated and more insidiously ideological manifestations, like the most recent Batman movie (which I didn’t actually see, but then, the noise in the vicinity of these media events is often more interesting than the thing itself). Of course there was also a tremendous amount of liberal normalization especially over the past year, reaching a peak of absurdity with the election. But to me this was just so much slime returning to the swamp from whence it came.
Again the issue pivots around what does and doesn’t take coherent form at the present moment. Occupy never made itself into Leviathan. There was no figure of sovereignty to gather it together, nor so much as a credible placeholder/analyst akin to the historical prerevolutionary Party. Contra the back-to-Lenin crowd I don’t necessarily see this as a failing. Contra the horizontalist tendency I also don’t see it as a strength. It’s simply the place we are at. This is also an aesthetic fact since the distribution of aesthetic as much as political forms depends on establishing oppositions of figure to ground, on the emergence of a gestalt. The coalescence of organized and representational anti-capitalist politics seems to be what is barred. This undoubtedly has its effects in the visual field. The crisis of capitalism today is far more severe than in the sixties, but in the present cycle neither crisis nor opposition lend themselves readily to images, except of the most disposable sort (memes again); the masses don’t meld into an image of unity, and the forces of reaction have had only limited success in appealing to the image of the nation or other more or less fascistic rallying points. (I don’t intend to minimize the threat of fascism, in Greece for instance, but rather to say that the threat is unlikely to play out quite like its twentieth-century predecessors.) This complicates the familiar cycle of revolt-representation-recuperation that’s often presumed to be the modus operandi of spectacle. If representation never truly takes place, it’s hard to know how co-optation can proceed – except perhaps by colonization at an exponentially molecular level. Which is perhaps what I mean by the “internal” recuperation I’ve already described.
That’s a dark thought and I don’t want to give it too much weight. The commercialization of oppositional culture obviously continues apace – there’s a riot video game in development, I’m told – but it seems unlikely that this will succeed in containing what it represents. To be clear: it’s not as if there’s something external to the commodity’s rule, in either art or politics, that then becomes vitiated through recuperation, but rather that events like Occupy point to immanent breaks in the reproduction of capitalist relations – including their image-structures – even if on a certain level they are undoubtedly already “captured.” Capital and the state then seek to plug the leaks any way they can. Clearly it’s worth paying attention to such strategies. But it’s also important to remain true to the point of rupture – to continue asking, with the late Chris Marker, “Pourquoi quelquefois les images se mettent-elles à trembler?”
If the question is about art, however, I can only repeat what I’ve already said. There exists bad art about Occupy. The phenomenon seems minor enough that it may still be conscientiously ignored.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Oakland Occupy narrative is so often contrasted with the New York narrative despite the fact that Oakland occupy itself was criticized for being racially problematic by minority leaders within the community?
D.S.: The point is not that one version of Occupy or another was better at dealing with race but rather that Oakland was undeniably marked by a higher degree of militancy. All of the occupations were fundamentally inadequate in their attempts to confront racism. The dynamic was very different in different places, however. Occupy Oakland would not have been what it was without the uprisings following the Oscar Grant murder, to say nothing of many decades of radical black militancy. The name “Occupy Oakland” itself ramified into “Decolonize Oakland” and the “Oakland Commune,” both of which indicate quite divergent self-conceptions. It’s thus better to understand the 2011-12 events as autonomous developments out of the city’s own radical tradition rather than as imports from New York. There was of course conflict around tactics that were perceived to be alienating. But it’s demonstrably untrue and deeply reactionary to claim that people of color universally disapproved of militant escalation.
I want to avoid misunderstanding: I’m not trying to valorize Oakland over New York or anywhere else. I do believe Oakland showed us possibilities and limitations that were never so apparent elsewhere in the United States. It’s an important case study as we try to anticipate future developments. A similar mix of alliance and friction between insurrectionary currents, organized labor, and established community leaders (who too often act as managers of racial and class domination) – to name only three among many actors – will undoubtedly play out with any number of local variations over the coming years. These tensions surfaced in New York as well but were more effectively subsumed under the figure of a downwardly mobile “middle class.”
Now I’m beginning to sound like an authority, though, which I’m certainly not. These are my impressions from knowing people involved and from following events at a distance. I’m just an art historian.
C.D.V. : Some context over what I trying to get at. I don’t think anyone has said that Occupy Oakland was universally condemned by people of color, but I do think it is very clear that leaders within Oakland’s African American and Asian American community did start to become hostile to it after two or three event dafter the “general strike”. The tensions were not over black bloc tactics as a whole, but the community writings in the Oakland local turned after the strong local support after Scott Grant attack. The support was lost because of a few threats to shut down airports and other things that the Oakland Commune honestly did not have the capacity to do, as well as the targeting of some local businesses seen as not related to corporate or government problems within the community. Support in the community for the General Strike was very, very high particularly because of the Oscar Grant killing, the protests over BART police, and the particularly high rate of homelessness there. The black bloc tactics themselves weren’t condemned in local papers at first, just some the aimlessness of some of the choices of targets until that meme became much more used in the liberal press.
I think, however, it should be dealt with that this disapproval was seized upon by large portions of liberals within the media to be able to distance themselves from Occupy Oakland/The Oakland Commune and to try to paint it as a San Francisco kids coming to Oakland with bringing within the “black bloc.” This stuff is all over the editorial pages of local Oakland papers. To make it more problematic, this idea as then pressed in almost every liberal net-newspaper outlet: Mother Jones, HuffPo, the Nation, and Truth Out.
The debates over the black bloc were interesting though, and this brings me to my next question: Why do you think the aesthetics of the black bloc has been so successfully used within left-liberal circles as a distancing point? I have been involved in discussions and debates about these things since my teens, and the Black Bloc was used to protect squatters from police and some local gangs in Atlanta prior to the WTO Protests* in 1998 in Seattle. After the WTO protests, there was a small storm in the left media about the Black Bloc tactics used there, but this largely disappeared during the Bush years as a debate after the G-8 Protests were minimal at Sea Island for the same movement. Only after the Oakland commune incidents did it come back into play, but the objections seemed largely about Public Relations and aesthetics (direct property violence versus indirect property violence is not really a moral choice, as their effects are equal. None of the left-liberal publications had strong problems with the General Strike shutting down the Port of Oakland, but they did have problems with smashed windows).
D.S.: Thanks, I see where you’re coming from now. My understanding of what happened in Oakland is broadly the same. All of this of course came to a head with Move-In Day on January 28 last year, followed shortly thereafter by Chris Hedges’ despicable “Cancer in Occupy” article. But already interventions by the “peace police” indicated that there was never unity of action between left-liberals and radicals – as of course was only to be expected. Incidentally I don’t think it’s the case that there were no strong objections to the port shutdown. Certainly the second action in December got a lot of negative attention. Even on the radical left there was skepticism about Occupy’s relation to ILWU, the longshoremen’s union. Cal Winslow, who is a member of the group Retort, had a piece in Counterpunch criticizing the port shutdown due to lack of support from union leadership, for instance. At exactly the same moment the communization-oriented website Bay of Rage posted an article urging the necessity of circumventing the union apparatus entirely. This is just to point out that the moment of unity was very brief if it can be said to have happened at all. But then, this is not what you were asking about.
I have to say I’m not eager to jump into another discussion of the Black Bloc. By now the debate is so ossified that I wonder if much remains to be said. I take a longer perspective on the matter because in my own work I happen to study art and politics in post-‘68 West Germany. That’s where the Black Bloc was first developed, taking cues from the Dutch Provos and other street-fighting contingents of the New Left. It arose as a combat tactic at a time when you could still reasonably expect to fight the cops in pitched battle and win, as indeed happened on a number of occasions. Thanks to the Autonome scene and a massive squatting movement there were sizeable chunks of Berlin and Hamburg where the state effectively had no authority. In those circumstances the tactic made a lot of sense and indeed marked an important innovation after the decline of both late-60s mass mobilizations and of the armed struggle groups following the “German Autumn” of 1977. Absent these conditions the Black Bloc is something else entirely. I could say much on the subject but I would likely only duplicate arguments from elsewhere without making any particular contribution of my own. At any rate it’s an odd moment for us to be considering the question, given that we’re now in a comparatively dormant phase (with the unanticipated exception of the emergence of an Egyptian Black Bloc in February, about which other parties are surely far more knowledgeable than I).
The role of the Black Bloc in the liberal imaginary and in the media, especially “left” media, is a different matter. It does bear repeating that from the point of view of capital the loss millions of dollars in a blockade is far more serious than the loss a few thousand as a result of direct property damage. Nobody actually cares about bank windows. So clearly the Black Bloc induces hysteria because it’s taken as a threat to social stability and property rights far in excess of its immediate impact. For any right-thinking anti-capitalist this would presumably be a plus. But huge segments of the “left” are afraid to make capitalists afraid. Granting the existence of internal problems within anarchist and other milieux, I therefore think it’s correct to say that the ideological distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” protest – a distinction that itself unavoidably produces complicity with state violence – can be laid primarily at the feet of “left” commentators who bow to the supposed necessity of positive media messaging. This is a catch-22: capitalist media will never grant positive coverage to anything that seriously threatens class rule. The problem is real of course but it’s worse than misguided to believe we can solve it through better behavior at protests. The Black Bloc is a convenient bête noire on which to pin censure of any desire for radical negation whatsoever. If it wasn’t ready to hand something would have to be conjured up to take its place – either that, or visible anti-capitalist contestation would cease to exist. So the reason the Black Bloc is an effective way to split movements… is because it’s an effective way to split movements. Left-liberals distance themselves from the Black Bloc because it’s a convenient pretext to distance themselves from radical opposition to capitalism.
Rather than fulminate at greater length I’d prefer to move on, though. The “aesthetics” at issue here are extremely interesting in their own right, whatever reformists make of them. What I’m about to say stinks of recuperation, but I do think the Black Bloc is a worthy object of study for art historians. It’s another moment – neither necessary nor privileged, but significant – in the long retreat from representational politics and its privileged image-structures in post-60s capitalism, a theme I’ve gestured towards already. The Black Bloc is nothing if not an embodied (anti-)politics of (anti-)visibility. Is it an image or an anti-image? Well, that’s a good question for art historians. And I believe its implications extend to any number of artistic practices as well.
C.D.V.: What do you make the long slow death of the middle brow represented by things like the neo-liberalization of NPR?
D.S.:I wish it were a little less slow.
A bit more seriously: I think in the case of something like NPR (which I never listen to, anyway) the decline can probably be attributed to an increasing divergence between the experience of its mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly petty-bourgeois audience, and the station’s attempts to reflect that audience’s consciousness back to itself. The postwar era in the United States could be defined in terms of the apparent cultural hegemony of the “middle class”; in fact, of course, the petty bourgeoisie in no way held true political or economic power, but the culture mirrored back to them their own sense of autonomy. Middlebrow organs like NPR or the New Yorker attempt to continue that function for a smaller class fraction, one that perhaps until recently felt itself immune to economic precarity. With the catastrophic rise of student debt and narrowing horizons for college graduates this self-image has become increasingly threadbare. So instead middlebrow culture now more and more has the immediate task of shoring up neoliberalism “with a human face,” so to speak.
C.D.V.: Do you see the so-called hipster aesthetic as a different manifestation of the same tendency?
D.S.: I guess I do, although there are different layers here. I also have no patience with hipster-bashing. A lot of what’s identified as hipster culture is an improvisational response to the contradictions of petty-bourgeois precarity. It’s self-styling for those who for the most part don’t work very much or don’t have much security at the jobs they do have – not much of a future – but who are nonetheless forced to maintain an ability and readiness to work at any moment: a kind of unmoored professionalism. The insufferableness and tragedy of hip life is a function of its scramble for cultural autonomy within the most abject dependency on the attenuated wage-relation. As opposed to earlier counter- or subcultures (punk, say), the moment of negation is perpetually deferred. Needless to say I’m not talking about the stereotypical trust-fund hipster here but rather the mass of mostly post-collegiate individuals in the global North who have been socialized as middle-class workers but who now find this way of life inaccessible, whether temporarily or permanently.
C.D.V.: Do you see hipster bashing as a form of distinction in Bordieu’s sense of the term?
D.S.: I suppose it must be, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over the question.
C.D.V.: Let’s completely shift gears: Why do you think communization theory has been subject to complete misrepresented in a long of left-wing critiques?
D.S.: As a fairly recent convert myself I can say that even with the benefit of a passable background in Marxism my initial encounters with communization theory were characterized by misrecognition and missed connections. I became aware of this body of literature in a major way with the protests and occupations at the University of California in 2009-10. If you weren’t paying attention it was possible to misinterpret what was happening as undifferentiated radical escalation and hence to miss what was so distinctive about the texts coming out from Endnotes or Research and Destroy, to name two important collectives involved in the resurgence of communization theory. So I can understand the tendency in others, as well. And indeed too much of the discourse is stuffed with needlessly convoluted Hegelianisms, even if it ultimately does, as a rule, make sense. The work of Théorie Communiste for example is perhaps the most profound analysis of capitalism today, often delivered in truly unfortunate prose.
After a certain point the misinterpretations seem to become willful, however. I believe the problem is not that the basic insights of communization theory are especially difficult to grasp but rather that they fluster the left’s basic assumptions in ways that can’t readily be parried by creaky arguments against anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you. Incidentally this is not in any way annexable to a Platypus-style thesis on the deadness of the Left. Communization theory as I understand it reaches its conclusions not by way of the political superstructure but instead in a thoroughly materialist interpretation of changes in the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. (This is for the moment to put aside debates within the communization current over invariance, subsumption, and all the other words that give people like me a reputation for opacity.) Communization theory at its best is in fact an extremely rigorous engagement with the basic problems of Marxism; it pursues this engagement with a ruthless focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of the present moment, and hence derives findings that are deeply uncongenial to any form of political nostalgia. The usual defense mechanism is then to reduce communization theory to something it’s not, namely anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you.
This isn’t, by the way, to say that “communization theory” is a single thing or even a thing at all. The term has oddly come to designate an extremely varied set of perspectives unified by perhaps little more than a common origin in the European (mostly French) post-’68 ultraleft, with its forebears in the Situationist International, left communism, council communism, certain strands of anarchism, etc. The differences between, say, Tiqqun and Léon de Mattis and Jacques Camatte are vast enough to destabilize the label altogether. Most recently there’s been some confusion about the relation of communization to value-form theory, which has quite different roots in the late Frankfurt School and the German “New Reading of Marx.” Confusion of this sort might not be such a bad thing; certainly it’s good that “communization” does not exist as an endlessly disputed point of doctrine in the manner of “Leninism.” It would be a huge error to reify one theory or another as the only true essence of communization. That said, my own views are most in line with the perspectives articulated in the second issue of the journal Endnotes, in case you were curious.
C.D.V.: What do Theorie Communiste understands that a lot of other Marxists don’t? And why does it lead to awful prose?
D.S.: Why it leads to awful prose I don’t know. It may simply lead to hasty translation, though to be fair the original texts seem gnarled as well. One could probably attribute this to having worked for decades in near-total obscurity. In these circumstances the development of the collective’s own terminology and self-understanding undoubtedly often took precedence over making themselves clear to others. There’s also the more problematic fact that Théorie Communiste have little interest in building a mass political project of any sort and hence don’t feel the need to explain themselves. Their writing is diagnosis and critique in a rather classical sense of the latter word: it aims to root out the conditions of possibility for thinking communism at all in the present day, but offers no strategy by which to achieve it in a given conjuncture. I find this frustrating myself. Understanding their intentions nonetheless helps to pre-empt the inevitable “Yes, but what do you do?” question. You can only say: in any given situation, whenever it’s feasible, you communize. How that’s supposed to happen can only ever be specific and improvisational; it might involve seizing public squares, or it might simply be turning to existing forms of sociality as a new basis for survival in the absence of capital. Between the logic of theory and the praxis of communism lie whole ranges of hybrid forms of organization that are neither condoned nor excluded a priori by the analysis. In our own lives dealing with these forms will necessarily be paramount. Contrary to the usual accusation, then, communization theory is not inflexibly anti-organizational; rather, it tends to indicate why certain ways of organizing are unlikely to work now and is in that sense immediately practical. But I don’t deny that there’s a hermeticism to some of the writing.
Théorie Communiste are useful to me because they ground the reproduction of class and capital in cycles of struggle that are understood to fundamentally alter the class relation itself. In the most abstract sense they argue that the era in which the proletariat’s revolutionary struggles tended towards the affirmation of the class within capitalist social relations – either in social democracy, or in production under state socialism – comes to an end when the proletariat’s entire being as a class is subsumed under capital: when institutions like the Party or the Union or the Council have been wholly defeated or assimilated to self-exploitation; when capital’s own offensive reestablishes control but at the cost of destroying its very condition of realization, that is to say, the continued reproduction of labor. Class identity then no longer appears as the basis from which to pursue an affirmative politics of autonomy but as an obstacle to be overcome. It’s only by failing to grasp the dialectic here that such a claim can be attacked for supposedly upholding capital as the only subject of history. From a Marxist perspective it should be obvious that the proletariat is a class of capital just as capital only valorizes itself in labor: capital and labor reproduce each other mutually, but capital’s drive towards ever-greater subsumption (through the colonization of everyday life, increased mechanization, neoliberal revanchism, and a host of other devices) progressively eliminates the reserves from which a positive identity for the proletariat might be elaborated and affirmed. Crisis is therefore defined as a breakdown of reproduction that forces workers to encounter their class identity as something external, something to be negated; the revolutionary class is then understood to be the class that negates itself and capitalist society not by its universalization under a dictatorship of the proletariat but rather in its immediate self-abolition, the destruction of the value-form, and a move towards other means of subsistence – communization. The point here is not necessarily that this process has happened or will happen in the conceptual purity of the above presentation but rather that this structure constitutes an explicable tendency that may be expressed in all sorts of chaotic or contingent events.
Théorie Communiste are not the only authors to have made these points, and in many local instances I have strong disagreements with their conclusions. But I do believe they’ve zeroed in on the predicament of our moment with greater force and consistency than perhaps anyone else. Their version of communization theory allows us to recognize the present as an impasse and yet historicize that impasse; it helps to explain the collapse of the left without melancholy for lost powers, lost representations, without despair in the face of a supposedly inalterable totality, and without need for an “idea” to provide direction; it also points towards a practice by which we can move forward even without a grand project or a vaguely theological guarantee of success. Their work has also proved generative for thinking in other directions. Its recent intersection with the concept of social reproduction in materialist feminism is particularly exciting to me.
To return for a moment to your previous question, though, I’d like to say something about another possible source of confusion. Recently I have become more aware that communization theory moves in a very odd temporality. The emphasis on immediacy, the lack of an anticipated transitional phase, “communization in the present tense” – communism as something to do rather than a program to enact – can easily lead to the impression that communization theory conceives of revolution as necessarily both imminent and punctual. In fact I see no reason why this should be the case. Communization theory instead elucidates a spatiotemporal logic within any revolutionary process conceivable on the basis of the present form of the contradiction between labor and capital. It doesn’t provide a timeline, and it doesn’t claim that no other processes may take place concurrently. All real politics are contradictory and unevenly developed. I can imagine communization as taking place over the course of a century, at many levels, at many speeds.
*Originally, read “G-8 protests” due to the confusion of the interviewer and has since been corrected.