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Interview with Mathijis Krul at the North Star

My interview with Mathijis Krul has been published at the North Star.  Here is a sample:

.Derick Varn: Do you think value theory is an area of Marxism that is particularly under-explored in relationship to class relations? I am thinking of the development of the so-called “Third World” and how understanding “abstract value” can lead one to make predictions about geo-political relationships in the global South?

Matthijs Krul: Value theory is of course not under-explored in Marxism as a whole. Since the 1980s or so there has been a great revival in Marxist economic theory, especially in exploring the nature and implications of Marx’s value theory. But in relation to class, other than purely in the abstract, is another issue. One important problem with much analysis of class in the modern world is that it is taken for granted, as if class relations are the starting point of the analysis, rather than a subject of analysis themselves from the point of view of Marxist economic theory. There is much ado about the precariat, changes from industrial to service work, and things of that kind, but there is not much interest in the history of the development of classes in the 20th century as tests of Marxist economic theory in themselves, least of all value theory. Here is where so-called Third Worldism comes into its own. In the work of e.g. Emmanuel and Amin, but more so in the work of people like Zak Cope, we find a systematic attempt to understand global economic relations as class relations as well as understanding these class relations as being the working out, in concrete empirical history, of more general and abstract Marxist economic theory. In most radical analysis you have either the former — as in William I. Robinson’s theory of the transnational capitalist class — or the latter, as in for example the debates about the bourgeois revolution or the nature of the USSR. But rarely do you have both.

I am not sure I would speak here of predictions, however — it’s more a matter of explanatory value. Keep in mind economic theory is always more general than the reality analyzed, and so we’re dealing with different levels of empirical application. It’s not pure, abstract modeling as in neoclassical economics, but I would not dare say I can predict how the global class struggle will develop. I think there is an ongoing struggle between the divergent tendencies identified by the ‘Third Worldist’ labor aristocracy thesis on the one hand, and convergent tendencies resulting from shifts in global production and the decline of the Western social-democratic consensus on the other hand. Value theory is an indispensable tool to understanding both of these. Without it we’re stuck either in chauvinist assumptions about the significance of white workers, or in purely distributional arguments for global equality of the kind common in Green and ‘alternate globalization’ movements. But value theory is not much more capable of prediction than any other economic theory.

C.D.V.: Are you familiar with Andrew Kliman’s explanation of the current crisis? If you are, what are the implications for the Global South?

M.K.:  Yes, I have followed Kliman’s work quite closely. I gave a very favorable review of his defense of the so-called temporal single-system interpretation (TSSI) in refuting the inconsistency attributed to Marx’s theory of value, and I have been very intrigued by the way in which he consistently opposes ‘fixing’ Marx by applying amalgams of Keynesian and other theories to his work, like is fashionable today. His emphasis on the importance of temporality in making sense of capitalism as a dynamic system, and thereby of value theory itself, is really valuable I think.

For our purposes, I think the most important work is his book The Failure of Capitalist Production. As I understand him, his argument is essentially that neoliberalism has not seen a decrease in workers’ total compensation in favor of corporate profits, as is often alleged (although it has flatlined), and that financialization is not the result of a ballooning profitability. On the contrary, he sees the capitalist system as suffering a secular decline in the rate of profit since the early 1970s, and financialization, speculation and debt, as well as the austerity drives we see today, are attempts at overcoming that inherent barrier to the accumulation of capital. But such methods cannot succeed, because contrary to the ‘left’ Keynesian interpretations, Marx’s value theory indicates that the only way out of a capitalist crisis is by restoring the rate of profit, i.e. by destroying large amounts of (fictitious) value, not, as is done by all Western governments today, by means of bailouts and liquidity drives. Those only kick the can down the road, and make the problem for capitalism worse in the long run, by piling up more debt, generating more unproductive speculation, and thereby pushing the rate of profit down further.

One major consequence of Kliman’s consistent application of Marxist economics is the emphasis on opposing purely distributional responses — all these Marxo-Keynesian attempts to ‘stimulate’ by redistributing wealth, or restoring the welfare state, or calling for nationalizations and public investment works. Instead, as Kliman shows, the contradiction of capital means you have to choose between one of two evils: either ameliorate the crisis now by emergency measures of that kind, and suffer a worse one soon, or ride out the storm, with all the attendant unemployment, immiseration, and unfreedom we have seen in the Great Depression and the Victorian age. Neither option is desirable: that’s exactly why capitalism itself is the problem, and must be overthrown.

In terms of the Global South, this does have some implications. Kliman’s work on the origins of the crisis is statistically limited to the US, although very likely to apply (mutatis mutandis) to the West generally. Worldwide, we have seen a decline in capitalist growth systematically since the 1970s, even despite the new capitalist drives in China, Brazil, and so forth. The poor conditions for investment in the West have driven shifts in production to the Global South, but the longer run effect of this will simply be to equalize this already low rate of profit, and eventually to drive it down even further. This is the inherent tendency of capitalism to do through its expansion of capital and technology, and a ‘Luxemburgian’ solution in the Global South cannot be sustained.

This means, to my mind, that the longer run trend is quite possibly more one of convergence than of divergence. Firstly because the capitalist class is more and more losing their incentive for maintaining the social-democratic ‘historical agreement’ with the labor aristocracy in the West, and is thereby actively destroying the legacy of social-democracy and its basis in sharing the loot of unequal exchange. Secondly because the operation of a global law of value, with a longer run global decline in the rate of profit, will generate similar crisis phenomena in the Global South as it has in the Global North, and in that sense, in a very slow but real way the dissimilarities in social position between the Southern working class and the Northern are being overcome. Keep in mind that for the first time in world history, the majority of the global population is now actually urban workers. If we actively oppose the easy, nostalgic social-democratic and Keynesian answers in the West, and focus on attacking capitalist relations of production themselves and not just questions of the 99% and so forth, we may actually have a better basis for internationalism between the North and South in the long run than it seems at first sight. But that social-democratic nostalgia, whether in its left or its ‘social fascist’ form, is of course popular with Western workers in the shorter run. Kliman gives us powerful economic materials for opposing it, even if that’s not his political intent.

Originally posted on Michael Roberts Blog:

Just before Easter, the US stock market hit an all-time record high.   The world index remains below its 2000 and 2007 peaks. Is this a signal that the US economy at least is now in full recovery and heading for better times, with the rest of the capitalist world not far behind?


Well, stock markets are not good guides of  the short to medium term future, especially right now.  The price of shares tends to lag the performance of the underlying process of capitalist accumulation, as measured in profitability.  And when we look at the US economic growth since the depth of the Great Recession, it is nothing to get excited about.  Although better than in Europe or Japan, US real GDP growth is still well below trend at about 2% in 2012 and a huge gap remains between where trend growth (red line below) would have taken the US…

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Minerals of the world unite!

Or: Reification? I’ll give you reification…

One of the disadvantages to being a blogger is that you can use your website as a scrapbook, and here I will do no differently. Not so recently, I finished a book of Gary Snyder essays entitled, The Practice of the Wild. I won’t bore you with a review, but I will only say that, at the end of this book, I wanted to read more. Instead, I present a couple of quotes from this book and my brief thoughts concerning them.

A worldwide purification of mind is called for: the exercise of seeing the surface of the planet for what it is—by nature. With this kind of consciousness people turn up at hearings and in front of trucks and bulldozers to defend the
land or trees. Showing solidarity with a region! What an odd idea at first. Bioregionalism is the entry of place into the dialectic of history. Also we might say that there are’ ‘classes” which have so far been overlooked—the animals, rivers, rocks, and grasses — now entering history.

Rewind to the late 1990’s. As stated previously, I was at Berkeley doing all sorts of educational and labor activism in my late teens. As a young Mexican-American from the barrio, I had nothing but disdain for lifestyle anarchists, radical environmentalists, animal rights activists, New Agers, neo-hippies, etc. I was all about the Marx and the Trotsky, baby! Revolution all the way. Why waste your time with endangered oaks, when there are young teenagers clamoring and fighting for an education? All of this stuff was sectoralist background noise to me.

One idea that has resonated with me recently, one that is echoed in Snyder’s book, but also in Ched Myers and other primitivist voices, is the idea that we, as modern people, really don’t live anywhere. Right now, I am writing for a bunch of people who I will probably never meet, while I barely remember my next door neighbor’s name, in spite of the fact that he has been nothing but nice to me. I have no emotional relationship with this particular state in the United States, or to this country for that matter, other than a highly idealized one. And the things that most determine and surround me, my bank account, my desk at work, the person who drove the truck full of gas that I filled my car with, are people and things that I would rather not think about. Of course, I am describing the whole process of alienation, but that is just it. I don’t live here, and where I live doesn’t really exist. It is virtual, a series of imagined communities that play no part in my daily life. How do you make a revolution in that mess?
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Interview with Al Filreis on modernist poetry and the cold war

Al Filreis is Kelly Professor, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, Co-Director of PennSound, and Publisher of Jacket2 – all at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his books are Secretaries of the Moon, Wallace Stevens & the Actual World, Modernism from Left to Right, and Counter- Revolution of the Word. He has taught a massive open online course, “ModPo,” to 36,000 students.

al coover day podium 2 feb09

C. Derick Varn: In your book, The Counter Revolution of the Word, you discuss the way some poetry editors and literary critics turned on modernism in the 1950s in order to fight communism.  While the red scare is no longer with us, do you see any of these attitudes towards modernism and post-modernism in the writings of any modern critics and poets such as Dana Gioia?

Al Filreis:  Anticommunist antimodernism is not quite possible in the post-Cold War era. But motives for antimodernism certainly do persist, and they range from right to left. Conservative antimodernism continues and appeals to those who claim they can’t understand the dislocation, post-subjective non-narratives in much contemporary verse, for the conservative complaint often refers back to a supposed golden age of the coherent, stable “I” of a writer who has straightforwardly true things to express. But, to be sure, many of contemporary poetry’s detractors today are otherwise politically liberal. The Red Scare was a particularly good moment – a long moment, though – for bringing together the disparate elements of traditionalism. By the way, a moment ago I said that detractors’ motives range from right to left, and I hasten to point out that anticommunism in general ranged similarly: let’s not forget that liberal anticommunism was a major force in the 1950s.

C.D.V.: Why do you think that conservative or even hard right politics of some the modernists, such as T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, did not give modernism more of a pass from anti-communists aesthetic writing in the 1950s?

A.F.: Logic suggests that it would.  But as I point out in the book, Eliot and Pound and Gertrude Stein, all conservatives, were deemed by anticommunist antimodernists in the 1950s as having contributed to the sort of fragmentation in art that was leading to the demise of traditional core American values.


C.D.V.: How much effect has anti-modernist, anti-communism affected the long term reputations of poets like Kenneth Patchen and Louis Zukofsky outside of academia?

A.F.: Reputational factors are difficult to disentangle. But the research I did for Counter-Revolution of the Word make it clear to me that both Patchen and Zukofsky suffered from the phenomenon I describe as “the fifties’ thirties,” which is to say – the reading of the poetry of the 1930s in the 1950s. Their poetry was attacked individually, and they were frequently lumped together roughly with many other poets out of favor. Then again, Zukofsky has always been seen as a “difficult” poet, and (because of the scope and complexity of his major poem “A”) he is difficult to teach in classrooms. And the main embrace of Patchen has always been outside academia anyway.

C.D.V.:  Are there any strict or concerted ideological litmus tests consistently applied to avant-garde poets today?

A.F.: By those from outside experimental poetry? – e.g. traditionalists and other detractors of experimental poetry?

C.D.V.: Yes.

A.F.: I see no “strict” ideological “litmus tests” being applied, or, if so, rarely. This is not 1950 or 1952, when almost every cultural argument was waged from within the anticommunist mindset.  It was an issue – but also a mode of thinking – that was pervasive. Nothing pervades today so much.  To be sure, some of the complaints made against contemporary poetry featuring discontinuity, parataxis, the shifting or incoherent subject or speaker, non-narrativity, etc., are motivated by cultural conservatism. But because there’s little in the way of successful widespread explicit psycho-social enforcement among citizen readers – as there was during the anxious apex of Cold War – there are also detractors of experimental writing today who could not by any stretch be said to affiliate otherwise with social or political conservatism. In the 1950s, an alliance formed against modernism using anticommunism as a strong bond; for its intensity, that was an unusual moment in the history of our art.

C.D.V.: Do you think poetry is more or less seen as safe today regardless of its political or aesthetic commitments because of the perceived marginality of its influence?

A.F.: Generally – yes, alas.


C.D.V.: To shift the topic a bit and to move from the pessimistic topic of poetic marginality: You have been running a fairly massive and from what I understand free online lecture series on modern poetry.   Have you been surprised at any of the kinds of engagement with “difficult” poetry could have been getting from students who may not have that much of a prior history with avant-garde poetry?

A.F.: 36,000 people took the course on modern and contemporary American poetry. My sense is that most of the “ModPo” people were unfamiliar with the poets and the poems we discussed. Some told us of their experience with Dickinson and Whitman forty years earlier. Others had encountered Frost through the family or high school. A few “knew enough” to be wary of Gertrude Stein. What delighted me was how open they were to reading and discussing, and being challenged by, “difficult” poems – poems that were better read in a group (a large group!) than alone. The ModPo discussion forums were lively and full of terrific insights. The whole experience was completely remarkable for me. Extraordinary outreach!

C.D.V.: Do you think these kinds of actions will increase the interest in poetry?

A.F.:  I can only guess that ModPo has increased interest in modern and contemporary poetry, yes.  The response has been completely positive. Many participants in the first running of the course have organized friends and family to sign up for the fall 2013 course. Between the fall ’12 and fall ’13 instances of ModPo, we might have reached 100,000 people, most of whom were new to poetry when they began. Given the millions of potential readers, that’s not a lot. But it’s not nothing either.

C.D.V.: We live in a time of contradiction: there may have never been more poets and more outlets for poetry, and yet it seems harder and harder to get readers for said poems.  Or least, we are told that often. Do you think ModPo gives a model that can be scaled for more interactive mass readings?

A.F.: I think I don’t agree with the premise here. I think there is a huge readership of poetry. The problem is that it’s not coherent, no longer trackable (through book sales, etc.), and doesn’t fit existing categories. My sense is that despite cliches to the contrary, poetry is very much alive and well. The usual hyperbolic lament – that there are more poets than readers – only undescores how the writer/reader relationship is now complex and merged.

C.D.V.: I was hoping you would object to the premise actually.  I find the issue is more “marketability” than readership.   I think ModPo, however, does help give people access to the vocabulary and processes that help people engage with modern and post-modern poetry.  In that spirit, I’d like to thank you for your time, and give you a chance to have a final word on anything you’d like to expand on in the interview?

A.F.: This was fun. Thanks.

(Images from Jacket2 and Pennsound).

Ideology and the Individual In Cinema, II

By David A.


First, before I begin, the following is not intended to make a conclusion on whether or not the modern incarnation of film represents “good” or “bad” art; I am not Slavoj Zizek, nor do I intend to be. Instead, this is a matter of examining ideologically functionality. It is intended to glance at what the majority of films, especially films derived from Hollywood, are implemented for with regards to bourgeois cultural hegemony.

We left off roughly at the conclusion that the modern manifestation of the cinematic hero is (consciously or unconsciously) a specific form of interpellation. This edition, however, seeks to understand, at least on an abstract level, the way in which the hero, the protagonist, inevitably serves a different function than it did in pre-Capitalist times given that art then was produced under different ideological circumstances, given the different mode of production which existed at the time. While what I put forth here may, indeed, apply to both the aesthetic form and with literature, I have chosen to dedicate this serial to the subject of film because it is among the chief examples (as well as the most popular) of a form of art which has developed entirely in the context of Capitalist cultural domination, and with regards to Hollywood, is entirely inseparable from the circulation of Capital (as the existence of many a studio film depends entirely on whether or not this is a possibility). This is, of course, not to say that other forms of media have not also been incorporated into the overall bourgeois superstructure; however, having existed throughout the ethos of humankind’s cultural expression, across different modes of production, such an analysis would have to be reserved for another time.

Literature and art of the past has offered us a myriad of heroes, of sagas, which romanticizes the experience of the struggle, something all organisms endure, which, in turn, formulates the narrative itself. Very often, however, the art produced existed in the realm of cultural self-expression wherein, as I previously pointed out, the characters that were produced by the narrative were entirely subject to the objective material conditions which were depicted within the narrative (wherein, also, the line betwixt fiction and non-fiction, myth and fact, was mystified). Let us examine the case of Cao Cao, as so famously depicted in the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was not Cao Cao, or any of the other romanticized warlords (Lu Bu, Liu Bei, etc.) who forged the narrative – they were the catalyst for the story of China’s upheavals, rather it was inversed. The troubles of that period were the catalyst for their manifestation, both in reality and, somewhat more importantly, in their immortalized depiction across the annals of history, starting from the aforementioned novel. The epistemological rupture betwixt Cao Cao or Achilles and, to use a crude example, a Rambo archetype, is that the latter exerts his determination very often isolated from or hostile to the objective material circumstances of a given situation, i.e. the masses or the environment (very often both). Only occasionally do modern heroes require the help from characters that are, of course, supporting them in their endeavor of personal conquest. In short, Cao Cao and the like are subject to the narrative at hand, whilst on the other side, modern cinematic heroes are very often masters of that very narrative.

Here I must pause, and for a moment explain that since this is being viewed through the prism of historical materialism, I must point out that I do not think that the protagonist, the hero, while nearly ubiquitous in art throughout human history, retains a transhistorical function. On the contrary, the effort must be put forth to thoroughly investigate the modern origins of the individualist archetype, immortalized time after time in the modern cinematic experience. Here, through Nietzschean self-determination and will, the protagonist is never subject to the objective conditions, but the very catastrophe of it’s being, manifested in explosions and gunfights, forms the modern narrative, seeping down into all manners of artwork from the golden screen above. Wherein did the protagonists’ function depart from an agent of cultural self-expression, in which they are secondary to overall drama of the narrative itself, to functioning as an agent of self-assertion whose very existence is the narrative? When did the protagonist become reified into the narrative itself, and when did narrative no longer from the soil from which various characters spring up? Without the Trojan war, without the siege of Troy, the objective conditions of the time, could Homer have had an avenue through which all those heroes could have been highlighted? Fictional or not, the objective events of that time shaped the stories, formed the narrative, from which characters sprang – and to those conditions were they vulnerable. Without the mistake made by Asano Naganori in assaulting Kira Yoshinaka, and without all the developments which transpired afterwards, again the objective conditions from which characters spring, what would have become of the Japan’s national legend, The 47 Ronin?

It should be noted that while looking fondly on storytelling of the past, this piece in no way suggests that the ethos of art return to the way it was in a previous mode of production, as such a thing would be the act of a philistine at best, and the crime of a reactionary at the worst. Springing back to the present, we can see that the narrative, the objective conditions, does not proceed the protagonists, but rather it is composed by the interpersonal affairs of the protagonist itself; the narrative is subject to them, and as such, cannot form independently. How often does the vigilant movie-watcher spot something attributable to the protagonist which forms a plot hole, and upon pointing that out, is met with the usual,

“Well then, there’d be no movie!”

Behold, post-modern fascism.

The most recent example would be the film Django Unchained, which while personally artistically satisfying, exemplifies this motif. It is a fascistic masterpiece insofar as the entire plot arch revolves around the existence and self-determination of a lone individual, in this case Django, and could not even materialize without him. There are rare exceptions, but generally in the modern ethos of film, this is the formula which is employed to tell a story. Perhaps it can be said that the objective conditions forming the subjective experiences exist, but that the subjective experiences are the foreground, while the masses, the landscape, all exist in the background and would not at all be explored save for the existence of the protagonist. A necessary investigation, which should be saved for another time, would be examining the rupture points wherein the modes of expression changed function, even use-value, and responded to the shifts in the modes of production.

Antiquity clearly employed one distinct form of function in artistic expression from modernity; where we are lost is the in-between, where the function ceased one form and manifested into another.
If we work alongside the notion of material progression, then we are of course bound to incorporate the status of artistic mediums into that overall equation. The key is watching for new artistic mediums as well as the movements which start in their wake, which have a tendency to react to external stimuli, mostly springing from the masses. Clutching to the events and upheavals of a given time, the points demonstrated earlier that art directly corresponds to the ideological mood of the time, and most of it is in turn completely overtaken by the cultural hegemon.

The presence of the gaze, which is something acknowledged throughout production of a film, is itself a direct result of the current mode of production, forms a key function of the shift in artistic, especially cinematic, function, The gaze, often contained within the span of two or so hours, fixates you upon a particularity, who’s aesthetic appeal has a limited span of time, and cannot enjoy the sort of permanence that a book, painting, sculpture, etc. enjoys. Meanwhile, a particular scene can be enjoyed multiple times, but against, within a specific time/framework, while consciously being subjected to the gaze of the viewer. Add the subjective perception of the viewer into this framework, whom is aware of the conditions in which the illusion of film takes places (ignoring it via the suspension of disbelief), here we already have a relationship with a disposition towards atomization. Here, the time to espouse an artistic point is not measured in lifetimes (such as the cultural importance of a particular painting or piece of literature), at most it is measured in generations with the case of film, and certain hastiness must take place. A scene, a filmed narrative, must work to have all the necessary details ready at once, while producing the agents of narrative whose composition is entirely sweeping enough to at least appeal to a majority of the viewership, at least the intended viewership (again, this is a matter of Capital circulation). Here the intention is established; that insofar as it will circulate capital, the development of a narrative which does not relate to a culture-at-large, but rather individual dispensers of cash, i.e. the viewership, films will continuously produce narratives composed by irrational individual heroes.

Knowing this, it cannot be emphasized enough to remember that film is rarely produced for the sake of artistic satisfaction, but instead serves an economic use-value (entertainment) and has proven to a be an extremely viable method of capital accumulation and circulation. We have only faint glimpses of what cinema looks like divorced from bourgeois cultural hegemony, and most of said material has been produced in the past from consciously revolutionary movements which sought to do this very thing, existing only in brief spats of time. Inversing the narrative and protagonist, or clearing distinctions between the two, demonstrates the ideology of rash individualism in society-at-large; through this, even in the most crowded theater or in the thickest of a party, atomization (cinema being on aspect of interpellating this point) has ensured that we shall all continuously be alone together.

In the modern narrative form, which is embodied in most cinema, adapting to all new forms of media, it enforces the notion (consciously or unconsciously) that the mostly socially-constructed notion of the individual exists in its most terrifying form, in completely isolation from one another, and the heroics of modern cinema only serve to reinforce this idea that you and you alone are the master of objective material circumstance. It serves to inject the idea into the masses that the individual exists in the foreground of all matters, severed from the backdrop.

Another crude example is the Batman; Bruce Wayne is the avenue through which we come to explore and understand the city of Gotham, which is the crux of the narrative even though it is quite obvious that because of that environment itself is he initially. Even long before the narratives of Batman, when cowboys were still in style, we see that, no, it is not the chaotic, beautiful (already inhabited) lands of the American West, with all its towering heights, that forms the prerequisite from which the fascistic heroic cowboy emerges; rather, because of that hero and the endeavors which he undertakes do we understand the latter.

Again, partly because of time, because of the gaze, the subject may not be presented with the totality from which our gun-toting ranger first bolts out of upon his trusted steed. Setterlism, in all it’s grotesque romanticism, must be at once personified into a Clint Eastwood, whom above all else is both in the narrative but at the same, because he has the ability to intervene in affairs, is above it. There are, again, always exceptions; however, the ontology of cinema, especially in the United States, can be characterized in this way, albeit very roughly at this stage in the analysis. Art, like many things in bourgeois society, requires remnants of past times to be incorporated into the mold of the superstructure when the use-value of a particular cultural ethos is favorable to bourgeois cultural hegemony. In the case of film, the ethos of the hero, which of course, has thus far manifested throughout history, has been entangled in the affairs of cinematic interpellation, a reactionary left-over from times bygone, yet still retaining the ability to captivate an audience. Although in this way, it shifts in function, and the hero itself transformed into something extreme, into something irrational. Boundless, the narrative must now surrender to the modern individual protagonist, whom now, more than ever, it owes its existence to. Now, more than ever, the narrative is not producing agents of storytelling, but as we have said, it is borne from an agent. Serving numerous functions, chief among them capital accumulation via entertainment value (the economics/chrematistics of the matter of the material base), the precise character of the modern hero fits neatly into the manifolds of bourgeois cultural hegemony, in both the productivist sense as well as feeding the ideological necessity of irrational individualism.

Interview with Pham Binh on Leninism and its discontents

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.

The Changing Face of Ulan Bator

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.

Eliminationism and Education:

Douglas Lain recently did a Diet Soap podcast with David Blacker on Eliminationism in education. I will suggest that for a Marxian understanding of current pedagogy.   I have been noticing that the eliminationist motives aren’t just aimed at students and teaching assistants, but also at Professors themselves. The online classes will cut into the professor pole in the extreme and “streamline” education into less and less useful models, and they will still probably be based on the exploitation of students to maintain the grading.  I think this actually proves that the institution of higher education as we know it, and probably k-12 education will not be a matter of reform, either of the liberal or Michelle Rhee’s neo-liberalization.

It will probably be one of slow collapse as the efficiency of this kind of education cannot be maintained.  While the online classes will probably start to accelerate the decline of university research functions and decrease educational standards, but this has already come out of a need where the costs to producing these educational institutions are not maintainable.  We who are teachers are going to have to much more honest at what we are looking at: We aren’t looking at something that is likely to be reformed. In fact, the constitution of reform of education pushes obfuscates all the material conditions which makes such education unlikely.

The challenge will be what we can do to set up alternative institutions fill in the gap.

Rant on the Papal election

I predict that conservative Catholics will become experts in modern Argentine history in 3, 2, 1…. As we speak, intellectual cronies in right-wing think tanks are looking up what Peronism is, as well as names like Videla, Angelelli, Aramburu, Galtieri, etc.

Which might not be a bad thing, because that stuff is interesting. However, before people start bringing up leftist assassinations by the Montoneros, kidnappings of government officials, liberation theology priests running around with guns, etc. etc. let’s not get caught up in counterfactuals. The military junta won because it was backed by capital and the CIA: any leftist violence has to then be appropriately contextualized. Just because someone gives the bully a bloody nose, this doesn’t entitle the bully to kill that person, rape his sister, and burn his house down. Nor does it entitle that same person to cover up his crimes after the fact, and give himself immunity from prosecution in perpetuity. That is what happened in Argentina, and the Church was for the most part on the wrong side. Those who were on the right side got exiled, tortured, and murdered. There is no amount of window dressing that can cover up that fact.
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The theology of death

With the election of an Argentine pope, one with very suspicious ties to the bloody dictatorship that ruled in that country in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, I thought it a good idea to re-publish here my translation from Página 12 of an article by Rubén Dri, who was a progressive priest during the time of the “Dirty War” and now one of the foremost left theorists in Argentina working on theorizing concerning popular movements.

On December 23rd, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo concluded their ethical trial of the Church’s complicity in the crimes of the military dictatorship. It was emphasized that the trial was not against the whole Church, nor against faith or Christianity itself. The only thing on trial was the part of the Church that collaborated with the military dictatorship. It was stated again that there was a progressive Church as well whose activists were persecuted, kidnapped, jailed, tortured, and “disappeared”, as was the case with many activists. In the trial, various concepts of a true Theology of Evil were exposed that have not been noticed until now, but were subjects of my book, Theology and Domination. Many expressed to me surprise and horror at such concepts. Therefore, I believe it necessary to reproduce here some of these ideas, along with some perspective from the point of view of the present moment. This will shine some light on the monstrous deeds that are coming back into the public eye thanks to the trials of those who are most responsible for this genocide.
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Greg Sharzer interviews me: On politics and (recent) History in South Korea

Recently, Greg Sharzer interviewed me on South Korea, North Korea, and the rapidly changing nation of left and right in country.  I am not an Koreanist, and I only educated myself on this in the course of research to live here and do some literary research on Korean American poets, but also began to engage with politics in general. This is a very brief summation of a lot I have come across here.
Here’s a teaser for the first part:

Q: You’ve had a long-standing interest in South Korea and been here a few years. In that time, what have you found most interesting about its political economy – or its politics – and how did that change your previous perceptions of the country?

A: That’s a complicated question: my interest in South Korea was personal and scholarly originally. I am not a Korean and my proficiency with the language is basic, but my aunt was Korean so I exposed to the culture briefly as a child. In graduate school, I became obsessed with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her novel/prose poem Dictee. While there is a lot going on in that book, one must have the context of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the French Catholic missionary history as well.   When an accident of employment landed me here, I started doing historical research to further my literary research on Theresa Cha.  I began to notice that, when looking for the origins of several crucial Korean ideas, such as 민족 (pronounced minjok. It means “race-nation”), that the traditions were modern and projected back on the past.  Not only that, but often the origin of the ideology was either Japanese or Western. However, it had been obscured by some of the progressive nationalists’ attempts to construct a modern identity for Korean in the end of the Joseon period and the dissolution of the “Great” Han Empire.  Even though you will hear the word 민족 in Korean historical dramas, portraying early Joseon or the Goryeo dynasties.

So there’s a strange history here: the Korean independence activist and historian Shin Chae-ho coined the word.  Shin Chae-ho was linked to many anarchist publications and is revered in both North and South Korea today.  He was, however, getting his idea of race-nation from the Japanese themselves, as a means to get a modern identity (and the Japanese had only come up with a similar concept in the late 1800s after exposure to German and Northern European racial notions.)  It wasn’t hard for Chae-ho to adopt the concept: the Japanese themselves had used the idea that the Koreans and the Manchus were primitive versions of their own race. They had some sound linguistic evidence for this (Korean and Manchu are clearly linguistically related to Japanese) and cast their imperialism as a liberation attempt from the West.  There is a good book on Japanese attitudes about this in English by E. Taylor Atkins called Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze.  Still one finds that a lot of the ancient traditional image of Korea would be, if we were using European time frames, “early modern.”  Hobsbawm’s invented traditions are all over the place in this in a strange way: a lot of the local ideas about ancient Korea, quite like the rebuilt palaces in Seoul which were burnt by the Japanese, are very modern.

If you want to learn more about my understanding of Korean politics, please read Greg’s blog for the rest.


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