A critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?”

Toussaint Louverture

The following is a brief critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s co-written article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?” The authors present a forceful argument, but in the final analysis I must take issue with many of their conclusions — not least of which is the relationship of “socialism” to “communism.”  Though it may seem superfluous, or even slightly disingenuous, to praise the authors I am about to criticize, I will preface my remarks by saying that I greatly enjoy many of the things they’ve published for their own publication, Viewpoint Magazine.  Especially excellent is Ben Lear’s review of Berardi’s After the Future, which appeared recently on their blog.  I thought the exchange on Lenin they hosted a few months back was also clarifying.  Salar’s historical analysis, “On the Black Bloc,” is also excellent.

All these gestures at diplomacy aside, however, I must take issue with the following historical characterization:

The Erfurt synthesis, which made some sense [questionable] in non-revolutionary situations like the one which gave birth to it, quickly proved ineffective when a new cycle of struggle took shape in the decade before the First World War. The party, failing to register this changed situation, stuck to the old line — it misunderstood the growing militancy of the rank and file because its institutional structure had so dangerously exacerbated the distance between an increasingly bureaucratized party apparatus and the everyday lives of workers. A socialist subculture had been the foundation of class solidarity, based on grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations (also known as “potato clubs”) to horseplay on the shop floor. But the SPD leadership increasingly tried to measure up to respectable bourgeois standards, with patriarchal families, ‘high culture,’ and patriotism, which immediately set them against the militancy of migrant workers in the Ruhr mines, and the wildcat strikes of female textile workers. “Women don’t want to know about politics and organization,” said one male socialist. “They appreciate a May Day festival, with singing and speeches and dancing…but they don’t appreciate political and trade union meetings.”

Dovetailing on Pham Binh’s quite correct remarks regarding the problem of legality vs. illegality, I would like to reiterate that the problem with the German Social Democrats was not that they had “lost touch” with the party’s working-class membership and constituency. Contrary to widespread belief, there is nothing inherently revolutionary about the working class. Marx’s entire argument regarding the proletariat was that it is the only potentially revolutionary class in modern society. This is because of its status as the only actually “universal” class in modern society (an inversion from of Hegel’s argument about the bureaucracy being the only “universal” class). The proletariat, at a sociological and empirical level, is “universal” insofar as it is both constitutive of and constituted by capital through the wage-relationship. It is unclear to me, however, whether it is all forms of universalism that the authors reject, or only the selective universalism of colonial rule. Universal suffrage is, of course, a form of universalism. Presumably this kind of universalism would meet with their approval.

Of course, when Marx was writing Capital, proletarian labor — defined as participating in the production and circulation of commodities, as well as through sale of its own labor as a commodity — was still mostly unique to the most advanced capitalist countries of the West. Since that time, the relationship of wage-labor has only become further generalized, resulting in nearly global proletarianization, at least at an objective level. That is to say, at the level of individuals’ objective relationship to the means of production.  Perhaps the most important lesson of the twentieth century is that the political tendencies of a given social stratum are by no means guaranteed.  Haider and Mohandesi gesture at this in their rejection of inevitabilism, but this does not itself go beyond the inevitabilism they ascribe to the Bernsteinians and Kautskyites.  For whether or not a person is objectively (i.e., sociologically) a member of the working class, it cannot be assumed that subjectively (i.e., politically) the person has attained proletarian class-consciousness. “The proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing,” Marx wrote in 1871. His statement should be read as follows: until the proletariat is revolutionary, it remains nothing.  It just remains unrealized potential.

Moreover, the various practices of working-class self-organization (“grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations…to horseplay on the shop floor”) were not at all more militant than the party’s actual line. It wasn’t as if the cooperative networks signaled a great radicalism on the workers’ behalf. In fact, one of the greatest advocates of workers’ cooperatives was the archrevisionist Eduard Bernstein, (see his Preconditions of Socialism) while one of their greatest detractors was of the cooperatives was the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (see her classic Reform or Revolution). The idea that the everyday practices operated to radicalize the workers in the factories perhaps have some incidental truth, but in general this kind of assertion (when made categorically) belongs only to the most boring kinds of “history from below,” a dreary form of Alltagsgeschichte. The failure of the SPD was not that it had become too elitist or “bourgeois.” What happened was a flagrant betrayal of what had before been agreed upon and passed as a guiding principle for the world war that everyone saw was on the horizon: namely, the 1907 Lenin-Luxemburg amendment, in which it was agreed that in the event of widespread international conflict, International Social Democracy would come out in firm opposition, and try to exploit the situation to foment world revolution.

Likewise, in decade or so after World War I, there was a general rightward lurch within the German proletariat. This is difficult to explain if one maintains that the working class or the “oppressed” in general are innately revolutionary. As Wilhelm Reich asked in 1933, while still a Marxist working in Austria as a volunteer psychoanalyst, providing services to working class families,

What produced the mass-psychological soil on which an imperialistic ideology could grow and could be put into practice, in strict contradiction to the peace-loving mentality of a German population uninterested in foreign politics? The “betrayal of the leaders of the Second International” is no satisfactory answer. Why, one must ask, did millions of workers, with a liberal and anti-imperialistic attitude, let themselves be betrayed? Fear of the consequences of refusal to take up arms could be the motive [18] only in a small minority. If one had witnessed the mobilization of 1914, one knew that the working population showed diverse attitudes. There was a conscious rejection on the part of a minority; a peculiar submission to fate or an indolence; and violent enthusiasm not only in the middle classes but also in masses of industrial workers.

Reich insightfully observed that the political orientation of the working class is ambivalent: “The discovery of the fact that the working individual is neither unequivocally reactionary nor unequivocally revolutionary but in a conflict between reactionary and revolutionary tendencies, must of necessity lead to a practical program which opposes the reactionary psychological forces with revolutionary forces.” As he goes on the point out, the erroneous belief that workers are somehow inherently more militant and revolutionary seemed to be materially disproven by the widespread support of the German working class for Nazism.

The authors also issue a harsh indictment of the Enlightenment and of bourgeois revolutions in general:

Those who equate political liberation with the flowering of the bourgeois individual often say that the French Revolution represented the Enlightenment’s point of culmination. What they leave out is that it was also its point of explosion. The slaves of Haiti — who watched their newly enlightened French masters continue to lop off their limbs, bury them to the neck, and burn their families alive — quickly learned that there was little difference between a master who read Rousseau and one who didn’t. The Enlightenment was just slavery under another name. So on August 21, 1791, while the noble revolutionaries in Paris tried to find the most effective way to keep the slaves tied down to the plantations of their most profitable colony, the Haitian slaves forced their own counter-Enlightenment by emancipating themselves through revolution. Inspired by their Caribbean comrades, almost exactly one year later, the same Parisian masses who seized the Bastille and held the king hostage stormed the Tuileries Palace, declared a Republic, and exploded the continuum of history, imposing an entirely new calendar to mark the birth of a new world.

Likewise, I fail to see how you can claim that Enlightenment was just “slavery under a different name,” or your implication that the thought of figures like Rousseau made no difference in the colonial world. Wasn’t Toussaint the same man whose revolutionary spirit was nurtured on the writings of Rousseau, Raynal, and Diderot? CLR James himself wrote that “Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness” (The Black Jacobins, pg. 288). Wasn’t Robespierre a disciple of Rousseau himself? Furthermore, it is difficult to characterize the Haitian Revolution as anything other than a bourgeois-liberal revolution. There was no attempt to overcome capital as the dominant form of social existence, as the oppressive character of capital had still not yet obviated itself in history. The Haitian Revolution was animated by ideas of liberty and equality, by republican ideals, and fought for the rights of individuals. In other terms, the Haitians fought against the slaveholders and foreign powers that surrounded them in order to establish an autonomous Rechtsstaat, which was still at that time by far the most revolutionary form of governance.  (This despite Toussaint’s occasional overtures toward royalism, a sad blemish on an otherwise consummately revolutionary, and for the most part staunchly republican, career).

This is why we’re pleased to enter into an exchange with Jacobin, whose logo recalls that we live in the world made by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. The reverberations of their confrontation with the colonialist universalism of the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” would be felt throughout the 19th century — just as, in 1848, the Jacobinism of Blanqui would be challenged by the growth of working-class neighborhood clubs.

Here I think it would be appropriate to invert the authors’ use of scare quotes in the second sentence.  It is telling that today we hear talked of the “so-called” bourgeois revolutions, as if they were neither revolutionary nor bourgeois.  This is something that I elaborate upon in a forthcoming essay on the relation of liberalism to socialism, so I’ll leave this as more of an aside for now.

In the interview that Pam Nogales and I conducted with the Italian Marxist theorist Domenico Losurdo, we touched on the question of Toussaint, Haiti, and bourgeois revolution, if anyone’s interested.

3 thoughts on “A critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?”

  1. Pingback: Memories of the Future | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Memories of the Future | NOTES

  3. Pingback: Memories of the future | Philosophers for Change

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