Roger Rashi, Sam Gindin, Richard Rubin,
Aaron Benanav, and Stephen Eric Bronner
This year’s Platypus International Convention concluded with the plenary “Program and Utopia,” held on June 6 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This closing plenary brought together Roger Rashi, founding member of Québec Solidaire; Aaron Benanav, of the Endnotes collective; Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University, scholar of modernism and the history of socialism, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); Sam Gindin, author, and director of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly; and Richard Rubin, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that night. A full video of the plenary can be found online.
Roger Rashi: Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. I am honored to be on a panel with such distinguished guests. Can utopia and program be merged in a new, formal relation in the 21st century? It will not be easy, but I think we can follow the example of Marx, who, as the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, synthesized the utopian and the political trends within French Socialism and thereby politicized utopia. Marx hypothesized that, by seizing power, we could eventually, through a series of stages, arrive at a classless society. This synthesis was put to the test in the 20th century and has not come out unscathed. Can we undertake this synthesis again in the 21st century? I believe we can. However, it will be a difficult process that requires our involvement in mass struggles and in the anti-neoliberal movements, which are starting to merge into one.
Today, the Left is in crisis. But there remain many social movements. The first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of mass movements challenging neoliberalism. This has taken two major forms. In Latin America there is the “pink tide” — Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador — representing attempts to use state power to move gradually towards a form of socialism, although it is not socialism yet. Then, there is the new active struggle in the Middle East and southern Europe: the tremendous movement of the Arab Spring and the ongoing fight against austerity, respectively. Out of these movements, how can we craft a new political expression for the Left that will synthesize utopia — the goal of a classless society — and program, the practical movement towards formulating this kind of plan?
One approach is to come back to a vision of communism that Marx had in the middle of the 19th century. Here we should remember that Communism is not just a program or a utopia, but the actual movement attempting to abolish the existing state of affairs. It is the practical movement struggling against the status quo. From this perspective we can understand the emergent Left parties in different parts of the world, including Québec City, where I live. In the movement there, we have tried to develop from a united front against neoliberalism into a political party that can engage in elections as well as mass struggles — what we call combining the street and the ballot. We hope to move towards an understanding of what it means to overcome neoliberalism as well as the basis of neoliberalism: capitalism.
This difficult work cannot be done, today, the same way we organized in the 1960s or 1970s. We have to adopt new forms of organization and new ways of seeing the political party, not in terms of a “commandist” party, nor even necessarily a vanguardist party. One thing we need is a reformist structure akin to the classic social-liberal right party. The clearest struggle to establish that is SYRIZA in Greece, which is maturing from the anti-austerity struggle to formulating a practical program and at least posing the possibility of seizing state power. It is a question of gradually transforming the correlation of forces into something that would open up the door to a new society.
SYRIZA in Greece, along with the governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, are examples of the form that a reconstituted left-wing political party can take in the 21st century. But, practically, how can you develop from fighting neoliberalism into a politics that expresses the new vision of socialism? We are doing this in the organization I work with, Québec Solidaire, by allowing left-wing collectives in our party. In the past few weeks we have formed a network of the existing collectives in Québec Solidaire around the vision of eco-socialism. Partly, we have done this to relate to the recent mass struggles in Québec. On April 22, 2012, an Earth Day demonstration opposing the reactionary policy of the Canadian federal government linked up with the student mass struggle, culminating in a group of around 300,000 people in the streets of Montreal. This had grown into a generalized opposition to neoliberalism by mid-May, when the provincial government decided to outlaw demonstrations of more than 50 people. In response, roughly 300,000 undeterred activists engaged in an act of civil disobedience for a May 22nd demonstration. Police repression increased to an incredible degree. Close to 500 were arrested in 48 hours. We were coming to a crucial point. The police were about to shut down the movement.
What happened is an amazing development that has not yet been analyzed. All of a sudden, a call was put out on Facebook to start demonstrations around the working class neighborhoods of Montreal, in a practical rejection of neoliberalism. Tens of thousands of people spontaneously joined these demonstrations, over a period of two weeks, in the various working class neighborhoods of Montreal. This drove the police crazy. They could not repress several different demonstrations exploding at the same time in different areas, linking themselves up at different parts of the city without any pre-planned advice or announcements about where to go. The government could not repress the student movement, and thus was forced to call elections.
One crucial task is ensuring that this free radicalism enters labor. Students, soon after they have finished college, go on the labor market and get jobs. Some of them will decide, and some of them have already decided, to join community organizations or unions. Hopefully this new generation of activists, which have come out of this mass movement, will bring in this tradition of mass struggle and help to change the orientation of the labor movement. Will this bear fruit in the long term? It is hard to say. Right now it is hard to establish whether SYRIZA’s approach will succeed, for instance, or if a different course is necessary. In the meantime, I don’t think we can afford to neglect the social movements. We must struggle to bring the social movements into new forms of expression through parties like SYRIZA, Québec Solidaire, Left Front in France, the Red/Green alliance in Denmark, and the Left Bloc in Portugal.
Sam Gindin: What is it we do at this historical moment when the defeat of labor — the traditional base of the Left — and the defeat of the Left itself have been so profound? First, I want to clarify how profound the defeat has been. There are always examples of positive things that are happening, but they tend to be localized and sporadic. It is not clear whether they can be sustained. We have now lived through more than a generation of this defeat, without any of us being able to develop an effective response. When the crisis hit, it really brought home to a lot of people just how weak we are. Here was a crisis in which capital should have been delegitimized — not just finance, but capitalism itself — and yet it is the labor movement that is on the defensive again. We have to take this defeat seriously. Is the problem mainly a lack of vision on the Left, or a lack of program? One obstacle is the fatalism that has set in. They used to buy us off. They don’t even buy us off anymore — they just tell us that this is the way things are. People feel there is nothing to be done because most people haven’t experienced structures through which they can actually work to change the situation. They have survived individually.
A critical question for us at the moment is that of organization. The last time we had a crisis this deep was in the 1930s. The type of craft unionism widespread at the time proved completely inadequate, but workers figured out a form of organization that was much more inclusive in terms of industrial unionism. They didn’t do this alone. They accomplished this in the context of a wider movement composed of socialists and communists, among others, and this was crucial even for workers who themselves did not see much in communism.
Even as many different tactics are being tried, there is very little discussion about new forms of organization, especially in the labor movement. One thing that we need is an intermediate organization, lying between social movements and unions, that deals with specific issues or groups, but also involves itself in projects that are oriented toward transforming the state and society. At the moment, this kind of greater transformative politics is not open to us, in the sense that the movements and the unions do not match what we are up against. As it stands, they are not the answer. Since the defeat of the Left has been so great, we also lack a party that focuses on the state and transforming society. That is blocked, as well.
We have to develop something in between, something perhaps less ambitious, in some respects, yet exceedingly ambitious under current circumstances. Such an organization could help us form cells to do education within, but especially across workplaces. We have had, over the last 30 years, attempts to develop oppositional politics within unions, but these have missed the whole problem, which is the fact that unions are sectional organizations addressing the problems of a particular group of workers. We have to get workers fighting across unions. At some point this may mean taking on your own leadership, but we have to start somewhere. More generally, we have to take seriously the notion that class doesn’t just exist in the workplace. There are numerous dimensions of class. We have to take up organizing on a class basis in the community. This isn’t just about forming coalitions, but about having a politics that can recognize these other dimensions of our own lives. We have to get some notion of an alternative to the logic of capitalism back on the agenda again. Unfortunately, it matters far too little how democratic a society is, in other respects, so long as we remain under the constraint of supporting the accumulation of capital to keep our jobs.
In these intermediate organizations we need the kind of education that starts moving us toward developing socialist culture, and confident socialists along with it. This implies, of course, all sorts of debates around vision, utopia, strategy, and tactics. Again, this is not about coalitions. Those can work well to win a specific demand or press a certain issue, but everyone retains his or her identity and moves back to where they were before. We have to address the need for a new layer of politics in which people join as individuals, keeping up whatever work they do in their movements or unions, but also becoming involved in this other form of organization. This new layer of politics would be regionally based, with assemblies at the city level, based explicitly on class and an anti-capitalist politics. Part of what makes something like this necessary is the fact that activism without understanding is not activism. Real organizers are intellectuals and activists. This intermediate organization would not be transitional. I think this is something that has to exist even if there is a party because, among other things, you need an institutional check on a new party whenever it does develop. For that reason, an intermediate organization or assembly should be there permanently and independently.
We have tried something like this in Toronto through what we call the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. Facing the moribund U.S. labor movement, Bill Fletcher once argued that, if you wanted to organize workers, you had to go beyond the unions and begin organizing in the community, because even where unions existed, the labor bureaucracy generally prevailed. We thought we would try this in Toronto. Some variation has been tried in Halifax, too, and there are discussions about Philadelphia and upstate New York right now. At first we were very cautious because we weren’t a party, and we were well aware that we were bringing together many people who didn’t have a common line. Consequently, we were reluctant to get into sharp debates. That was a problem, since it meant that we could not actually develop and self-correct; as it turns out, those kinds of debates are necessary. I am becoming more convinced that we should have those debates sooner rather than later.
A deeper problem is that, at a moment when the labor moment is not in struggle, it is hard for us to actually do things directly engaging the labor movement. If they are fighting, we can find creative ways to support the struggle, but we cannot advance struggles if workers are not fighting. Finally, there are great difficulties simply in terms of organizational capacity. You have this 1960s generation of activists, and then there is a generation of young people. There has been almost nothing in between. It is kind of a mixed bag, though I’ve been finding that a lot of the people who have been politicized through Occupy and the anti-war movement are actually rethinking many things. There are some people on the Left who write off anarchists and Wobblies, for example, but my experience is that a lot of them are learning from prior mistakes and developing, and we desperately need them. We will not find these cores of activists generally in the trade union movement; developing them will have to depend on people inside and outside the labor movement and on those with experience in the movements as well.
Stephen Eric Bronner: First of all, thank you for having me. I certainly agree with much that my comrades have said. Usually I speak about institutional obstacles to revolutionary change, especially with regard to the Middle East. Today, I am going to take the opportunity to talk about utopia, as this has not yet been much discussed.
Every political attempt to define utopia is inherently impoverished. In short, utopia is not really a political category. Each civilization has its own notion of utopia; to think that any of us, in any movement, can actualize utopia is already, one could argue, ethnocentric, racist, or sexist. The older descriptions of utopia and some new ones have a pastoral quality, like the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. There is the idea of the land of milk and honey, or the garden for the rich in [Fritz Lang’s] Metropolis. The point is that we begin with the idea of what we want. Each civilization has its own images and hopes, from which, given the creation of a cosmopolitan sensibility — which hasn’t really been discussed either — every other civilization should be able to learn something. Utopian traces, or what Ernst Bloch called “anticipatory longings,” exist in the most various forms of art, philosophy, and religion — in fact, in most forms of human creativity. They provide insight into what humanity might truly want, or not want, and thus give utopia substance.
Utopia is not about the conquest of scarcity, per se, nor any particular institutional form to bring this about. Utopia is a matter not only of discovering, but also of recovering; it presupposes that we engage in the boldest imagination of what can shape our activity in some very direct way, but while retaining knowledge of the cultural past and the heritage that goes with this. Utopia has always appealed to the wretched of the earth. They understand the liberating character of what Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, termed “The Right to be Lazy,” and the longing, not to go to endless meetings in some idiotic, anachronistic idea of workers’ control, but rather the longing for a beautiful life, marked by calm, health, joy, and play. That’s what happiness is about. Happiness is about not working, and so right away something jumps out that is evident in nearly every mass movement, stemming from the labor movement: the demand to shorten the workweek.
Idealism and naïveté are not commensurate with utopia. Utopia is an anthropological element — it goes back to the beginning of civilization. Utopia speaks to both reform and revolution. Why it must speak to revolution is fairly obvious, but why it speaks to reform is less so — and yet, perhaps, more important. Utopia always retains an element of reform because it is never finished. A society that views itself as finished, or even firmly on the path to utopia, is, in my opinion, dystopian by definition. But employed critically, utopia points to previously unacknowledged forms of oppression and the liberating responses to them. As Brecht put the manner, in his own utopian play Mahagonny, “there’s always something missing.” We have to begin with that assumption.
In the questions I was given, there was a quote from Leszek Kolakowski about a “total program.” A total program is nonsense. It never existed, even with respect to Mao or the Nazis, and it cannot exist, because, again, there’s always something missing. By the same token, in Ideology and Utopia, Karl Mannheim noted how every genuine mass movement has been fueled by utopian impulses — that’s true even of social democracy. The bestselling book at the end of 19th century in the United States, after the Bible, was Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy, which was a type of social-democratic utopia. Utopia can help mobilize the movement, if you want, but at the same time each utopian attempt to mobilize entangles the idea of utopia with particular interests. A partial view of utopia is inherently introduced by every political organization as a substitution for a vision constituted by multiplicity and complexity. Utopia, in the hands of a movement, and especially without institutional accountability, is doomed to become ideology.
History does not move in a linear fashion. The fact of the matter is that progress in one area of society can occur while regression takes place in another. From the 1950s to today, there’s obviously been an expansion in the cultural freedom of individuals in terms of interracial marriage and recognition of homosexuality. But even as this cultural progress developed, there has been complete regression in terms of class forms, with a staggering upward shifting of wealth as never before seen.
If we look at it that way, contradictions from one period are not necessarily resolved before a new period arises. Sexism, racism, and homophobia are all interconnected. They were pre-capitalist phenomena carried over into a capitalist period and given a new function. Ernst Bloch called these “non-synchronous contradictions.” To deal with them is a matter of crucial importance. In the 20th century the deeper utopian visions seem to have emerged, not in politics, but elsewhere — namely, in 20th century modernism, which was completely infused with the idea of “new man,” but gave real substance to this notion more so than politics. It projected new ways of hearing, in Schoenberg; new ways of seeing, in somebody like Picasso; and many new ways of portraying the world.
Utopia is a longing for something different — different ways of experiencing, feeling, and producing. What we find is that, over time, new forms of oppression become apparent and so do new prospects for freedom. What I mean by utopia is consonant with what my old teacher Henry Pachter said: “One cannot have socialism — one is a socialist.” If we start thinking that way, we cut through most of the metaphysics. Socialism is as much a process as freedom or utopia is. Anyone who claims to have the secret to utopia is involved in demagoguery.
There’s a kind of moralistic renunciation that is most often heard from those who have no responsibilities dealing with power. I had to shake the hand of Bashar al-Assad when I visited with him as a delegation sponsored by U.S. Academics for Peace. We managed to get some prisoners released, thanks in part to our visit. I think it’s appalling for anyone to suggest that these kinds of reforms don’t count, or that they are merely secondary to the greater revolution. Revolution is illegitimate, in my view, when particular grievances cannot be heard. Every serious movement from below — the Civil Rights Movement, various feminist struggles, and many more — used the courts and various existing institutional structures to help crystallize their mobilization. These struggles achieved certain reforms, but were not “merely” about those reforms.
I once gave a talk in New York — it was at the Socialist Forum — and when I finished a kid raised his hand from the back of the room, and said, “Professor Bronner, I liked your idea of socialism, but it is not radical enough.” This interested me, so I asked, “What is your idea of socialism?” He responded, “It is where everyone controls everything.” I said, “That sounds great, but you better be prepared to go to a hell of a lot of meetings.” Meetings are not fun — that’s not what utopia is about. The very idea of participatory democracy, in this sense, is anachronistic. It goes back to the beginnings of every revolution. We need a new category of participatory democracy. How many of you consistently go to meetings of your city council? — I rest my case. This drive for endless meetings is just a way of avoiding doing anything constructive. If you want to speak about the imagination and social transformation, I don’t think the issue is participatory democracy — it may not even be participation!
The whole discussion taking place in Verso, with someone like Žižek calling for the rehabilitation of lost causes — without figuring out why they were lost in the first place — or Alain Badiou talking about The Communist Hypothesis — what is all this about, really? Marx’s entire discussion of communism, across roughly forty volumes of writing, comes to about ten pages, if that. He never positively described it. Communism was minimally defined, as a condition in which people are able to take control of their lives, without being affected by economic interests from the outside: as Marx and Engels put it, in the Manifesto, communism is an association in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” In short, Marx and Engels’s vision is an enhanced individualism. What progressive politics is really about — and we rarely speak clearly about this — is an expansion of possibilities for all individuals. People don’t want to work — so let’s shorten the workweek. Is that utopian? No. But it is informed by utopian impulses. We want better health. Not better healthcare — better health. Better healthcare may help achieve better health. Is that utopian? No. But it expresses a utopian impulse. Abstract utopian images do not go anywhere. Who are you going to make the revolution with? For all of my friends who are in small parties — maybe you want to consider why it is that the party is so small. Maybe it is because you actually have nothing to tell people.
If you want a utopian vision, these are the closing words of Literature and Revolution, concerning the imaginary communist future, written while Trotsky was traveling Russia by train organizing the Red Army:
Man will become immeasurably wiser, stronger, and subtler; his body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above these heights, new peaks will rise.
Aaron Benanav: We’ve heard the term “Left” used a lot. We in Endnotes think this is an ambiguous concept. It’s all too easy to fall into an idealist conception of the Left, which can simply become an eternal idea, or a spontaneous moral position. We want to put some historical flesh on this concept. There have been two broad ways in which the concept of the Left has been employed in the 20th century: a social-democratic versus a Leninist conception. They’re both ambiguous, and Platypus seems to use the term in both senses, making it doubly ambiguous. Like many formalisms, the contemporary idea of the Left can be traced back to the French Revolution. Yet, for most of the 19th century, the term was restricted in its usage. It referred to a political grouping within parliament.
The Platypus Affiliated Society seems to be saying, “There was a time when the Left mattered, but that time is no longer. The Left is a corpse. We need to breathe new life into it.” We in Endnotes want to say, “There was nevera time when the Left really mattered. What mattered was something else — the workers’ movement.” The concept of the Left provided a way for Social Democrats and Leninists to solve ideationally what were in fact the real limits that the workers’ movement confronted. The concept of the Left allowed Social Democrats to expand their constituency beyond the working class, which became necessary because the workers never achieved the majority status in any country, with the exception of Belgium. Social Democrats were unable to take power as a party of workers, so instead they said, “We’re the party of solidarity — and of equality, progress, etc. — the party of workers plus.” It was a matter of diluting ideas in order to generate a parliamentary majority. For the Bolsheviks, that was precisely the Social Democrats’ opportunism — their betrayal of the class.
By contrast, the concept of the Left allowed Leninists to put forward a theory of betrayal and therefore to justify their specific practice, the attempt to form a disciplined party that will not betray the class. Instead of asking questions about the dynamics and limits of class struggle, the Leninists said that the class was ready, but the Left had betrayed it. The question of strategy moved to the center, displacing the problem of the absence of a working class majority in society. But here strategy came to refer less to the relationship between the party and the class, and more to a strategy of internal party organization in relation to the Left, either to ensure that it does not betray — as in a kind of Popular Front strategy — or precisely to provoke its betrayal in ways that others can recognize, as in the United Front strategy.
Given this brief summary, we present our intervention at the level of a therapeutic purging, or catharsis of sorts. We plead with you to let go of the bad object, the fantasy object, and instead grasp the real object, the forgotten object. The concept of the Left exists as a means of suppressing class analysis. That comes through very clearly, we think, in Platypus’s own self-conception. The Platypus Affiliated Society knows that a great distance separates us from the tradition of the Left, but it cannot answer its own question — posed implicitly as, “Why is the Left dead?” — because that question is posed at the wrong level. If the Left is dead, it is a logical consequence of this other thing, the key thing: the workers’ movement, as it presented itself in the 20th century, is over.
Why did this movement end? It cannot be explained, as Platypus seems to do, by transmuting that story into one about oscillations in the Left, between pro-organizational and anti-organizational moments, between good Bolshevism and bad anti-Bolshevism, and so on. The real story of the fall and rise of the worker’s movement is a story about industrialization. The industrial working class formed a historically new class, one that confronted the problem of acclimatizing itself to dangerous conditions of life and work in urban zones while also facing the hatred of their social betters, both the aristocracy and the upstart bourgeoisie, who meant to exclude them from the polity. In response to these twin problems the workers’ movement was formed — a movement that sought to acclimatize workers to their conditions via affirmation of their identity, their dignity as workers. This was expressed through the proliferation of a massive number of workers’ organizations, which were not only in the workplace but also involved all kinds of social clubs and activities.
The aggregation of workers in industrial cities gave socialists the sense that, one day, they would be the majority. It was this idea, more than any other, that framed the revolutionary horizon of the workers’ movement. The organizations that the workers built for their defense within capitalism were supposed to function as the basis of future societies, but in fact, it was always either too early or too late for the workers’ movement. The growth rate of the industrial working class tended to decelerate over time. A heavy remainder — peasants and shopkeepers, and even the petty-bourgeois capitalists — seemed to suggest that the time of the revolution had not yet arrived. When this remainder of historically moribund classes had a decisive impact in the second half of the 20th century, the industrial working class itself was already going into decline: First, relative to the labor force as a whole, and then, absolutely.
This is the key point for us. Deindustrialization spelled the end of the workers’ movement, first in high-income countries in the 1970s and then in the low-income countries in the 1980s. Workers’ movements that appeared in South Africa, South Korea, and Brazil, for example, in the 1970s, now present the same form: Social Democracy in retreat. As more factories came online and became ever more productive, a generalized commodity glut set in. Jobs became scarce even as goods became superabundant. Under these conditions, it became possible to attack workers’ material existence, and necessary to do so, since competition was intensifying everywhere. Thus under attack, nationally situated workers’ movements found themselves unable to score material gains. That workers no longer affirm their identity as workers is not only the result of stagnant wages and worsening working conditions, however; this change in the class relation has also been accompanied by a transformation in the composition of the class. Formerly, an industrial workforce was involved in building the modern world, in a very real sense. It could understand its work as having a purpose beyond the reproduction of capital. All of that now seems ridiculous to many people and for good reason — the industrial workforce is shrinking. The oil-automobile industrial complex is not building the world, but rather rapidly destroying it. Everywhere, the working class is less homogenous, more stratified and precarious.
What remains of the workers’ movement today, as far as I can tell, are unions that manage the slow bleed-out, social-democratic parties that implement austerity measures when conservative parties fail to do so, and tiny communist and anarchist sects that wait in the wings for their chance to rush the stage. Yet, the end of the workers’ movement is not the end of either capital or the working class. Even as more workers are rendered superfluous to the needs of capital today, the relation between these two terms continues to define social life, in terms of what is a life worth living.
Failing to see this real, material basis for the death of the Left, Platypus is helpless to describe the character of class struggle over the last decade and a half. Their perspective completely covers over the real gap that separates the present from the past. Workers are only able to find a common interest diluted through the extraversion of class belonging into some other weakened form of an affirmable share of existence, as citizens, or as “the 99 percent.” This is not merely a matter of ideologically weak leftism; it is an internal limit of class struggle that finds its basis in the changed material conditions of class due to deindustrialization, and the corresponding growth of what Marx called surplus capital along with surplus population.
If we are correct at all about the self-undermining nature of capitalist class relations, then we can expect something like the following: In spite of the weakness of class unity, exchange relations will continue to break down, and workers will find themselves at risk. They will be forced to fight, to organize creatively, and to struggle within those conditions, against those conditions. Establishing direct access to means of existence, outside of the wage and outside of the money-form, in a multiplicity of different ways, will be the only real solution to this problem. What that will look like is more or less impossible for us to imagine today, except in its nearest inklings, since it will depend on the particular forms of organization that the class creates and the particular impasses that the class confronts in the course of its struggle. That is not to say that world revolution is inevitable, but merely to point out what we might call the minimal conditions of its success. These conditions will emerge, not from internal development within the Left, but rather through the development of historically specific forms of class struggle. The limits to class struggle stem from the breakdown, in this era, of forms of class expression. These limits are not merely a matter of bad ideas.
Attempts to renew the Left, absent the intensification of class struggle, are bound to fail. All that such a project can achieve, it seems, is to attract students for a few years to do some reading groups and then move on with their lives. No intellectual milieu can survive in the absence of a real movement of the class. If Luxemburg said that, “After August 4th, 1914, Social Democracy is nothing but a nauseating corpse,” then in the years that followed she proved to be quite the necrophiliac. Instead of following in Luxemburg’s footsteps and trying to build a society of affiliated necrophiliacs, what is there to do? A lot of people in the audience are students or young workers. You don’t have the time or the luxury to prepare for the crisis. Austerity and rising youth unemployment affect you right now. There’s nothing for you to do but to fight now for whatever future you hope to save, to risk yourself in struggle as it really presents itself now, and thus to experience the limits that all such struggles confront in an attempt to coordinate disruptive activity across all sectors of the class. If this coordination merely depended on getting all ideas right, we’d all be doomed.
Richard Rubin: First, I don’t recognize the Platypus Affiliated Society in your descriptions, Aaron. I also do not think that it is simply a matter of the economics of deindustrialization. There are millions of industrial workers in the world and only a very small percentage of them are any type of radical, much less Marxist. So I don’t see the problem as being only objective. I do, however, have sympathy for old ideas, and I tend to believe that the problems of the Left are not going to be solved by endless appeals to new ideas.
Now the questions for this panel, as they were formulated, speak of a tension between program and utopia that I would not quite agree with. I don’t think the tension between program and utopia is the fundamental problem. To defend an old idea, I think the problem of humanity over the next generation or so — I don’t think there’s that much time — is to abolish capitalism on a world scale, or else befall a horrible fate. The basic ideas involved here are, again, old ones. But the political ideas of the early 20th century have become obscure and difficult for people to connect with.
As Stephen just pointed out, it is true that there are utopian ideas of some sort in all civilizations, but I think utopia is a modern idea. In that sense, the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia in the 16th century actually speaks to something different from simply the longing for a better world. More’s Utopia is different from Heaven; it is imagined still as a place on Earth. It is a secular imagination rather than a religious aspiration. Utopia was published in 1516, and the first circumnavigation of the planet was just a few years later. I think that speaks to a certain movement in modernity.
I have a feeling that when people talk about utopia, it often is part of a rather non-radical conception. Two thoughts come to mind; one of these leads to Palestine and the other to beer. One of the things I have noticed in recent years is how many people I have met who used to support a two-state approach to Palestine, but who now say they support one state. People say, “I no longer believe that a two state solution is possible.” But a one-state solution is, practically speaking, a far more daunting task. So what’s striking to me about this logic is that people are asking for something that they themselves consider impossible. This is something you see a lot of on the Left: People for whom utopian thinking becomes a substitute for frustrated reformism.
I felt this around Occupy, as well. On a panel in Philadelphia I remember saying that Occupy was bound to fail, so the question was, “What lessons do we learn from it?” People gave me looks and expressed skepticism about my prognosis — but, really, how do you expect a bunch of people standing in Zucotti Park to transform global capitalism? You don’t have to think very hard to see the problem there, and in fact Occupy disintegrated much faster than I had expected. The utopianism that was being defended around Occupy came precisely from a feeling that it was not even going to bring about limited reforms. There’s a weird emotional psychology around utopianism, and the role that it plays on the Left today, that seems to stem from a disappointed reformism. People find it difficult to imagine even minimal reforms, and therefore, say, “Well, let’s demand the impossible” — or, at least, what they consider impossible. The one state solution today, which is taken to be the radical position, is nevertheless almost always formulated totally in the rhetoric of liberalism. It is no longer formulated, as it had been at times in the past, in the rhetoric of a joint struggle for socialism.
My other thought is about this stupid sign I saw when I was in an airport the other day. It depicted this cheerful guy with a mug of beer, and the sign said, “I believe beer will change the world. I don’t know how, but it will change the world.” I often feel that way about the Left.
Looking at the long duration of the question of socialism, the problem has been that we have two negative examples of socialism: social democratic parties that have betrayed their socialist principles, on the one hand, and revolutions in backwards parts of the world that do manage to break with capitalism, but do not issue forth into a society that most of us would find genuinely emancipated. What is needed for humanity to survive, I would claim, is a world socialist revolution that takes power in advanced capitalist countries like the United States.
But is that a possibility? Is that something one is going to put on the agenda? Most people say, “No, that’s not a realistic goal, and to struggle for it is hopeless.” What one ends up with, then, is some variety of social democracy.
Rashi: I have seen the sort of intermediate organization Sam talked about. I was engaged in it myself in the early 1970s as we were building a new communist movement, which was essentially “Marxidized Maoism.” A lot of us left the halls of academia at the time and went to work in factories. The initial form of organization was a kind of intermediate organization in which we’d try to interest workers in various issues, get them involved in a union, and begin to study socialism. This kind of organization, as I lived through it in the 1970s, was part and parcel of the rising wage struggle in the working class and labor movement. I’ve seen something similar emerge just last year in Québec. Radical professors, who wanted to support the student movement, decided not to do it through the trade union organization and instead set up a group called Professors that Support Free Tuition, and engaged in mass mobilization alongside students. What was funny about this particular form of organization was that those involved were practically all militant trade unionists and many of them were actually sympathizers with Québec Solidaire, but they felt that there was no way they could bring the trade union structure today to support this sort of mass movement. So the question that many activists are posing today is this: If the trade unions cannot be an arena of mobilization in support of a massive movement such as the student strike, then what is the use of trade unions today?
SG: I don’t see assemblies as a substitute for unions, but I do seem them as a space to do things that unions are not doing, to have the kind of discussions that are not happening in unions. Of course, some of that may then be brought back into union politics. This might help reform unions, but I do not think that is going to suddenly make them into revolutionary organizations. Unions are going to be about representing their members. However, I do think they might represent them more effectively if the unions were informed by a broader class analysis. More generally, though, what do you do when it appears that the possibility of being successful in terms of fighting for socialism is incredibly small? I guess it is a philosophical question. My only response is that I do not know what else to do. I do not tell people that socialism is inevitable. I simply act according to the hypothesis that it is possible. Some people will say, “If the chances are one-to-a-thousand, then it is not worth my effort.” Others may find that those odds are terrific.
SB: If I can respond for just a moment to Roger, the utopia–program link that Marx saw was, I think, predicated on a fundamental teleological outlook. I do not think that teleology holds anymore. If it does not hold, then I think Sam’s position is the only one you can take. What Sam just described is how I see utopia: as a regulative ideal. The great activist Wilhelm Liebknecht, father of Karl Liebknecht, who was martyred with Rosa Luxembourg, once justified his belief in socialism by saying, “I can see the future appearing as present.” I doubt anyone can earnestly make that claim anymore. And, if you cannot make that argument, then you wind up being a socialist because you think it is the right thing to do, not because you have the conviction that it is practically going to transpire anytime soon.
Whether you choose reform or revolution, there has to be some fundamental connection between means and ends. The ultra-left has always demanded an absolute connection between means and ends, such that you prefigure the future in the present. I do not think that works, though. As Marcuse once pointed out, the people who want to bring about a new sensibility must already have this sensibility before they bring it about. Instead of demanding the absolute connection between means and ends, which would require that you already be in utopia, we are driven back to demanding a plausible connection between means and ends. Brecht dedicated a beautiful set of poems to his teacher, Karl Korsch, who was a man of the ultra-left. To paraphrase, Brecht starts out the poems saying, “Yes, my old teacher was a wonderful man — a wise man — and he said to the world, ‘It is a choice between all or nothing.’ To which the world responded, ‘Well, if that is the choice, then better nothing.’ ” I think that is where we are today.
AB: Going off what Roger has said, the tactics in the Québec student movement spread quite rapidly, without a preexisting massive revolutionary organization. This gives rise to organizational questions of how, in our times, it might be possible to coordinate and extend that kind of disruptive activity. However, it seems to me very difficult to explain the specificity of those kinds of organizational problems without also keeping in mind the unfolding long-term decline in profit and growth rates across the capitalist world, with the exception of China. Stephen referred to Liebknecht’s idea of utopia as “to have utopia, we have to see the future here in the present.” I think there are a lot of ways in which that was possible earlier in the workers’ movement, but is not possible today. There’s nothing at all in present-day society that I think is affirmable as such, and this seems to be a key feature of our time. At the same time, it is very difficult to enact a program without identifying some kind of affirmable trend in society.
Rubin: I think that if you say, “You can only be a socialist, but can’t have socialism,” you are essentially writing off the whole Marxist tradition, which always had a utopian dimension. I mean, I don’t think the problem here about Marxist means of struggle is really some objective matter of economic transformation. The way people think about Leninism has everything to do with the way people think of Stalinism. How people think about it now is different than in the 1980s, because of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a large element of ideological autonomy. If humanity dies, or plunges into absolute barbarism, this is most likely to result from a lack of imagination amongst enough people of a better future. I do not think all the political obstacles can be explained in terms of declining rates of profit. Deindustrialization and austerity can, and have, resulted in many different kinds of political reactions. It could result in people becoming more radical. It could result in people becoming fascist. The way people respond to the same economic situation is determined by many factors.
Regarding the Liebknecht quote, I agree that I find it very difficult to imagine any socialist future. But I have met perfectly sane people of an earlier generation, who were radicals in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, who when you talked to them about their earlier political experience, you could tell that at least at that time they really could imagine a socialist future. It was very real to them. Meeting and talking with these people had a profound effect on me.
I do not actually enjoy a lot of the practices that are considered radically political today. With respect to assemblies, for instance, I wonder, “Do most people really want to spend so much time in these sorts of activities?” It is a good idea if people really want it, but I think many people do not really want to involve themselves in politics. I would not be interested in participating in all the decisions of economic planning in a socialist society, for instance. Yet, it will require politics and struggle to get to a society in which politics would no longer exist, or at least would become a trivial matter.
Trotsky remarked in the Transitional Program, “All talk to the effect that the historical conditions have not yet ripened for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception.” Looking back on the 1960s and 1970s, do you think the New Left succeeded in learning the lessons of the Old Left and the Second International radicals? If not, how can we even begin to use the term revolution today?
Rashi: The only way to use the term revolution is by looking at ongoing movements of the world. Revolution cannot be defined in an abstract way. Lenin’s answer to the question, “What is revolution?” was, “When the people above cannot do as they always did, and the people below do not want to live as they did before.” That is the simplest, materialist definition of the term revolution. In various forms, revolutions are going on in the world. Revolutionary perspectives come out of fighting alongside the social movements.
SB: I think E.P. Thompson put it well. He said that the New Left was the first movement that placed culture at the center of the enterprise. It is not so much that we in the 1960s learned from the Second International or Third International; rather, the 1960s provided for something different, something that was not acknowledged before, and that was part of its utopian element. I think this generation, now, has to do to the 1960s what the 1960s did to the 1930s. You have to develop your own idea of what revolution entails. You have to develop your own style. One of the things that struck me about Occupy Wall Street is that, you know, everyone was talking about imagining a different, new, and better world, yet I couldn’t help but notice that the People’s Park was exactly the same as Berkeley back in the 1960s. The look was the same, the music was the same, the slogans were the same. Everything was the same! If I can say so, there has been a great deal of pandering to the youth by leftists, who are always saying, “It is so great we have young people.” Well, young people — Do something! Figure out what it is that would make your movement real, and if you want a revolution, make it.
In terms of the working class movement, I think of the formulation by Lukács, who is really just repeating Marx, that moving from the class-in-itself toward a class-for-itself occurs through the vehicle of political and historical consciousness. You need the presence of a working class movement, but the direction of that force toward the goal of socialism is not “given” — it is something that must actually be achieved politically. What was the relationship between the Left and historical consciousness within the workers’ movement? What can we learn in the present — if anything at all — from that? How do we make sense of this relationship between the Left and the labor movement?
AB: The Left in the 20th century — in the early 20th century especially — faced certain kinds of strategic questions that emerged from the way that capitalism and the workers’ movement developed in that period. Those strategic questions involved, first and foremost, this problem of adding up the class. It had to do with the persistence of the old regime and the limits of the growth of the industrial class. These things conditioned and limited the workers’ movement previously, but that is fundamentally not our situation today. In these conditions of fragmentation and the failure of trade unions, I would, to a greater degree than Sam or Roger, claim that the emergent struggles are very specific to the context in which they are unfolding. It is difficult for those outside of these struggles to make claims about what forms of organization will emerge. The fundamental point today is to participate in struggles as they emerge, or as they affect us, and see the possibilities of revolution emerging out of the limits of class struggle today. I think we talk too much about the past in Endnotes. This is because we live in a transitional period today, and the past weighs very heavily on us. But the point is to see our fundamental difference from the past and to engage in the struggle today as it presents itself.
Rashi: In Lukács’s formulation, the party is the key mediation, allowing the class to move from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself. So, in Lukács, you have a philosophical expression of Leninism’s fetishism of the party. Interestingly enough, Lukács was also influenced by Rosa Luxemburg, whose answer was, if you want to move from the class in-itself to for-itself, the way is through class struggle. Both of these views have some truth. For the class to become conscious, you have to participate in class struggle and create new political expressions and political parties, but there has to be a way of having institutional checks on the party. This is where I agree with Sam’s important contribution regarding workers’ assemblies. You cannot establish a party as the ideal form of organization, as the concretization of class consciousness, and therefore give it this incredible power to decide what is good or bad for the class, because we have seen how parties can betray the revolution. A new relationship between the movement and the party is needed, by which the movement can criticize and check the party, while the party also attempts to unite the various movements. An equal exchange rather than a hierarchical exchange is necessary. If you do not have that, I do not know how you can move towards transforming the system.
This relates to something you said, Aaron. You talk a lot about the decline of the working class. But if you look at the world today in terms of absolute numbers of workers who exist in the world, I would say you now have more working class people than at any time in history. Look at China and the industrialization that is going on there. China has 1.3 billion people, of which 52 percent — close to 700 million people — live in cities today. It is expected that in the next decade 200 million more people are going to move into the cities. This is the most massive urbanization in the history of mankind. These people moving into the city — what activities will they engage in? A huge number of them will be workers in industry, be it the service industry, factories, or what have you. Once new workers in China, in India, in the Philippines, in Indonesia — who are all undergoing an incredible wave of industrialization — begin to develop class consciousness and engage in massive social struggles, I think the question will be posed in a completely different way.
AB: Do you happen to know, Roger, how many industrial workers there are in China?
Rashi: Apparently, according to statistics I have heard, roughly 400 million, of which 250 million are illegal workers in the city and do not have permits to live in the city. This super-exploited, sub-proletarian stratum in China is one of the conditions allowing for the development of Chinese capitalism today.
SG: But that’s the wrong question, Aaron. You seem to be defining the working class in terms of manufacturing jobs. People who work in construction are workers. So are workers in retail, or in the service industry — and not only in China. The workforce is not disappearing. Your definition of the industrial work force declining in number is posed in a very particular way. I don’t think the question of revolution and worker activity depends specifically on the industrial workforce.
AB: My point is that it would be strange to say that the 20th century did not take the figure of the industrial worker and the progressive nature of industry as its key feature in terms of its own utopias and programs. That seems to me to be absolutely clear. We should pay attention to the transformation in the composition of the working class — i.e., where it works, the kinds of activities that workers are engaged in, and the way in which workers can or cannot see those activities as being part of building a new world.
SG: But you have to remember that in the 1920s somebody who worked in an auto plant was a precarious worker. Conditions were lousy and turnover was incredible — until they got unionized, then there was a reason to stay, and conditions improved. You are right that we cannot analyze what is going on without recognizing the changing composition of the workforce, but you seem to be registering this in a rather mechanical way, by simply equating the decline of industrial workers to the decline of revolutionary potential.
Rubin: There were more domestic servants in Victorian England than factory workers. I do not think the question of industrial workers is really relevant to the question of socialism. They are two separate issues. A socialist movement is not necessarily based on the industrial worker. The real question is: Why are so few workers, industrial or otherwise, socialists?
Aaron, I agree that many people are reduced to doing menial forms of work that are unnecessary for anything except the reproduction of this miserable, poorly organized society. But why wouldn’t that very fact lead to massive movements for the abolition of work, rather than leading, as seems to be the case, to the death of a powerful workers’ movement? Richard, I feel like you did somewhat avoid Aaron’s challenge, though. You said that there has been a “failure of the imagination of socialism,” but how and why did this failure occur?
Rubin: Very briefly, I think that Marxism has encountered two problems in the 20th century, which one might call the “German problem” and the “Russian problem.” The German problem is the betrayal of August 1914, when the SPD voted for war credits, which showed that Social Democracy had by 1914 become incapable of overthrowing capitalism. The “Russian” problem refers to what happened to the Bolshevik revolution, which was in certain respects successful, but went on to become repellant to people who aspired to socialism. More generally, socialist parties failed to overthrow capitalism in the place where it was most developed and where most Marxists of the 19th and early 20th century thought revolution would break out first. The only places capitalism was overthrown were in relatively backward parts of the capitalist world, but these revolutions issued forth into a variety of dictatorships, albeit dictatorships that often had progressive aspects. This has profoundly undermined faith in the possibility of socialism. Then you have other factors in more recent decades, such as the collapse of the Stalinist regime and also a shift in the way the Left is thought of. “Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” are all fine, but in general, the legacy of the 1960s seems to become more problematic as time goes on. The victories of the 1960s are mostly in areas like liberal rights. I support those rights, but that leaves aside the whole issue of neoliberalism, which is not such a new phenomenon, but rather just seems to be the kind of capitalism you get when there is not a left to challenge it.
AB: The fact that people find they are not building the world but merely reproducing class relations is a fundamental condition that defines revolutionary possibility today. Our group Endnotes is associated with a larger collection of journals that form a milieu around the idea of revolution as communization. We are attempting to think through what the actual conditions and limits of revolution and class struggle are in the present. The idea that neoliberalism can be explained purely in terms of the absence of a Left is almost a circular argument. I identify in a lot of ways as a Marxist and it is strange to be on a panel of Marxists who do not think about the development of the crisis tendencies of capitalism, which is an absolutely essential feature of the present and one of the reasons why neoliberalism emerges out of a situation of generalized overproduction and declining rates of growth. The point is to think about the specificity of the present, the composition of the class at the moment, the unavailability of the utopias of the past within this moment, and what new concept of revolution might arise. We should be open to that emergence and not just think that the emergence of revolution in the present is about learning the lessons from the past, from an era whose fundamental conditions are different than ours in essential ways.
Richard brought up the slogan, “Be realistic; demand the impossible,” and how this contrasts to the situation now, in which even the realistic seems to be impossible. At the same time, the ongoing disintegration of society seems like it should be posing certain possibilities for the Left. I think all the panelists, in different ways, were addressing this problem, and one thing that has been suggested is that a major obstacle right now is a lack of political clarification. What would achieving such clarification entail?
Rashi: We are living in a period in which neoliberalism is in a deep crisis. We see the capitalist class develop new strategies for the accumulation of capital and new forms of domination, oppression, and exploitation. At the same time, we see rising mass struggles and, therefore, the potential for formulating new strategies and new forms of organization of the subaltern, dominated, and laboring classes. The key to answering any political question involves looking at the developments and seeing what lessons we can learn from them. For three years in Québec, we prepared for the student movement. We were trying to craft a strategy that would get labor to launch a general strike. It became impossible to do that because there was no part of the labor movement that was willing to launch a general strike. A wider form of mobilization emerged from massive urban spontaneous demonstrations. No one predicted that. Mass movements have incredible creativity and what we have to do now is become involved in mass struggle.
SG: I agree with Rashi’s sentiments, but not with some of the analysis behind it. This gets back to an assumption I keep hearing, even though it is fundamentally wrong. Life is hell for many people, certainly, but capitalism is actually doing very well, despite this. Capitalists are rolling in dough. There is no profitability crisis. If you take a look at what has actually happened over the last 20 or 30 years, this has been one of the most dynamic periods for capitalism in its history. Compare it to the 1950s or 1960s, when a good part of the globe was outside of private capital accumulation. China is integrated now, as are the areas that formerly comprised the USSR. There are very few countries, if any, for which leaving capitalism might be on the agenda. Workers are dependent on the stock market, cheering when it goes up because it increases their pensions, even when the stock is on the rise only as a function of more restructuring and layoffs. Capitalism is not in decline, it is winning — that is the “historical specificity” of the present that we have to start with. How are we going to deal with this? Capitalism isn’t going to disappear in 25 years. If we think that the world is going to end in 25 years, unless we have gotten rid of capitalism, then we might as well give up. The question is, Do we want to build a long-term movement to change capitalism?
Rashi is obviously right about unexpected things happening, but we have to be clearer about the limits of these struggles. What is incredible about the Québec student movement is that they organized for about seven years. The real question is, What is going to happen to all those people who learned how to mobilize and organize? Where are they taking that experience — into the workforce? Into the academy? What will come of that?
Rubin: The problem talking about movements now is that most current struggles, particularly economic struggles, are defensive. They are fighting against austerity and wage cuts. Sometimes they win what I would call temporary victories, but if you are on the defense for decade after decade, the prognosis is not very good. This is why, when I hear phrases like “new forms of revolution,” I simply do not know what that means. It seems to me the fundamental historical problem now is the same as it was 100 years ago. We actually have not progressed beyond it.
Rashi: It is very difficult, within the confines of the U.S., to get a full understanding of the incredible variety of struggles around the world. If you engage with movements in the Middle East, in Southern Europe, in Latin America, in South Africa, you see that things are bubbling and changing. Class struggle and mass struggle is beginning to unearth solutions to many of the questions that we seem to be posing here in only an abstract way. I would encourage all of you — young activists, young socialists, young revolutionaries — to engage in that kind of practice, with that kind of militancy, because I don’t think you can find an answer without being involved in ongoing struggles.
SG: I was in a meeting about a month ago about what kind of organizing could take place amongst homecare workers, and I suggested that they start thinking about how they could raise some funds to cover costs. One of the organizers said I was full of shit — he said we had to start by getting the money from the people in the room. I thought this was nuts, but all the homecare workers were nodding their heads in agreement. They were making the minimum wage, and their hours had been cut. Nevertheless, they agreed that if they were going to begin to organize, they had to start by making an additional sacrifice themselves. That’s where the struggle is.
SB: I agree it is impossible to simply ignore the actual movements and struggles. The fact of the matter is that, in the U.S., the Left is not organized around unions or class. It is organized primarily by identity groups and interest groups. We certainly have to think about what forms of organization are suitable, but first we have to figure out, fundamentally, what we, as socialists or as Marxists, actually want. What’s the goal? Nobody in the 19th or 20th-century had any question as to what the revolution meant. The revolution would bring about a republic. Changing the economic structure and abolishing classes was seen as the ultimate goal, part of a secular ideology, based in the Enlightenment, that would guide the new society. But today nobody is sure what a revolution would even mean.
AB: How can we say there is no capitalist crisis today? We live in a situation in which capitalist economies have been growing very slowly, the demand for labor has been very slack, and workers increasingly find themselves to be more or less superfluous to the production process, such that they can only take jobs by accepting increasing conditions of misery. Yes, it is true that austerity sucks and every time people fight they win temporary gains only to lose something else, but you cannot just sit things out. Under these conditions, people discover they have to fight, and they do fight. They find new tactics and new forms of organization. That is the period in which we live today. It is very important to pay attention to the kinds of affirmations that are possible under these conditions. Look at the recent history of struggle — the anti-globalization movement, Occupy, and plenty of others. They did not organize themselves around an affirmation of class identity. That is a very important feature of the present moment and it does not simply arise from bad ideas on the Left, but emerges from the real conditions in which people find themselves. I agree with Roger that the conditions for revolution emerge from struggle.
Rubin: It is true in a certain sense that the conditions for revolution emerge from struggle, but there are many different forms of struggle. People do not always come to the conclusion that they should struggle, and people often struggle in bad ways.
I want to end by pointing out that one fundamental idea that emerged from the Enlightenment, and which is deeply connected to the idea of utopia, is the conviction that people can consciously transform society. That idea was taken up by the socialist movement of the 19th century. At the heart of the Marxist project is the idea that humanity can liberate itself and restructure society in a conscious way. The fate of humanity and the fate of the Marxist project both depend upon the extent to which people — and not just a few people, but billions of people — can be convinced this is true. The problem is not strictly economic. People may struggle when there is austerity, but people can also struggle, and have done so, under conditions of greater job security. For the Left, it is ultimately a question of human freedom, and not only of social struggle. |P
Transcribed by Danny Jacobs