Politics of affirmation or politics of negation?

Joseph Kay

Nov. 2008

Below you can read Joseph Kay’s excellent 2008 post on affirmation, negation, and identity. Many of the themes I touched on in my last post are covered here as well, but couched in less philosophical language. I have taken the liberty of editing it lightly, Americanizing the spelling and fixing some minor grammar mistakes. While I might take issue with a couple of its claims, for the most part I agree entirely.


Political debate often tends to quickly polarize into simple binaries. This is perhaps even more so online. Mainstream politics has its liberals versus conservatives and left versus right. Radical politics has its Marxists versus anarchists and reform versus revolution. Almost invariably these dichotomies are false ones, obscuring the subtleties of the debate and leading to endless circular slanging matches with the protagonists becoming ever more entrenched.

However, there is one pairing I’ve often found useful: that which distinguishes between leftist politics and communist politics. This is not to use “leftist” as a slur, although many (generally North American) post-leftists and primitivists are wont to do just this. (As indeed are Trots, with “ultra-left”). Rather, it is deployed here as a political term in order to distinguish between the politics which characterize “the left of capital” — sectarian groups, union bureaucrats, NGOs — and the communist movement.

To this end, I tend to use the following definitions: Communist demands are those which stress the concrete material needs of the class (wage demands, universal healthcare, the length of the working day, through to the rejection of wage labor altogether). Leftist demands are those which stress how capital should be managed to accommodate the struggles to impose those needs (tax this! nationalize that!).

While this definition is fine to distinguish communist politics from those of your average Trots in many situations — as they push union candidates to manage the struggle “better” on the workers’ behalf, demand nationalization of the banks, or call for higher taxes on the rich, etc. — it doesn’t adequately address a host of other political positions that cluster around leftism. These include support for national liberation movements and identity politics, particularly with regard to gender, race, and sexuality (though in light of the SWP’s recent love affair with Islam, now ethno-cultural identity too).

For example, consider the argument of the prominent platformist Wayne Price. “Central to anarchism is a belief in self-organization and self-determination of the people,” writes Price. “But there are topics on which many anarchists reject the pro-freedom position, particularly involving free speech and national self-determination.”

Here, he clearly envisages particular groups as subjugated, as needing to affirm themselves by practicing “self-determination.” Implicitly, Price means workers, women, and/or ethnic minorities. Explicitly, but perhaps more controversially, he means “oppressed nations.” As Price goes on to state, “revolutionary anarchists must be the champions of every democratic freedom, every struggle against oppression, whatever its immediate relation to the class struggle as such” [my emphasis]. The oppressed need to assert themselves. (The fact there are ample precedents for this position within the anarchist tradition is not at issue here.)

I would like to juxtapose this leftist approach to one of my favorite political quotes, from Gilles Dauvé. For me, this is emblematic of a communist politics:

If one identifies proletarian with factory worker, or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition… The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction… Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being “cut off,” alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.

I will for the time being ignore that Dauvé is talking only of the proletariat and not other possible subject-positions. (I do hope to return to the important differences — not hierarchies — between class politics and politics of race, gender, as well as sexuality in a future blog). The important thing here is that Dauvé is outlining a politics of the dispossessed, a negative politics which must destroy both its adversary along with itself in the course of its liberation. That is to say, a politics of negation.

This is in contrast to the position above, of which Wayne Price is just a convenient example: a positive politics of self-determination for the oppressed, a politics of affirmation. Let’s consider another case. Anti-racist Action wrote:

We have much less of a problem with “Black pride” or “Black power” than we do with “white pride” or “white power.” The reason is that if you’re Black and you’ve grown up in a world where being Black = being treated like and looked upon as shit, then to say “fuck you, I’m PROUD to be Black!” challenges the racism you’ve lived under and the racist assumptions that some people have about Black people. So when people of color turn the tables on racists and claim their “second-class citizen” status as a point of pride, we see that as an effective anti-racist strategy.

This is a much more glaring example of the politics of affirmation than the one cited above. It is also an example of what Friedrich Nietzsche called “slave morality.” For Nietzsche, master morality determines what is good — be it wealth, power, beauty — and lives by it. By contrast slave morality looks at the values of the powerful, and inverts them. For Nietzsche, the case in point of this was the Christian churches praise of poverty and humility… in “this life,” at least. The problem with slave morality is that it exists as a permanent reaction to some master, and makes this subordinate position inseparable from any politics based on it. It lends itself to a politics of perpetual victimhood, with lefties feigning surprise at police batons and lapping up fresh martyrs. The point is not to heroically suffer, but to win.

However, ever the individualist, Nietzsche also targeted socialists and anarchists as typifying a “herd mentality” characterized by envy of wealth and power — the desperate cry of weak victims. So here we must set Nietzsche on his head, so to speak. It is easy to see how the politics of the oppressed discussed above mesh with this slave morality: anti-consumerism (buying stuff bad! dumpster diving good!), anti-imperialism (oppression bad! resistance good!), Class War Federation (toffs bad! workin’ clarse caricatures good!), black pride (white good? black good!), gay pride (straight good? queer good!), as well as much anarchafeminist health (patriarchal medicine bad! DIY herbalism good!). Even heavyweight theorists like Toni Negri, Harry Cleaver, and other autonomist Marxists have a tendency to portray the working class as an autonomous force external to and in conflict with capital, which must simply affirm itself (capitalist valorization bad! self-valorization good!). See also Aufheben’s discussion along similar lines. None of this intends to suggest that individuals and groups fall neatly into one category or the other, only that the difference between communist politics and leftist ones appears one of kind rather than one of degree.

But Nietzsche is usually seen as a philosopher of affirmation who would see negation as the rallying cry of the weak and envious herd [this is not entirely true, as Nietzsche wrote often of “the eternal joy in negating” — RW]. How does the politics of negation sketched above avoid the trap of resentful slave morality? Simply by asserting our concrete material needs without reference to the values of capital at all. We determine for ourselves what it is we want, not as “the oppressed,” but as human beings cut off from control over our lives. That is to say, as proletarians. Such needs may or may not coincide with those capital determines as good. Neither knee-jerk asceticism nor fetishization of the working class as is, but an assertion of our very concrete material needs. Our subversive potential comes not from being oppressed, but from us being alienated, separated from the potential our activity creates. By contrast the politics of the oppressed sees self-determination as the reassertion of the repressed identity or subject position, an assertion of national independence or black pride. It is a politics of affirmation, the affirmation of oppressed subject-positions.

Communist politics is not about affirming ourselves as workers (or as women, ethnic minorities, nations), but about destroying these categories together with the capitalist nexus to which they have come to belong. Being a woman or having a certain complexion, sexual preference, country of origin should carry no more weight in determining a person’s social role than their eye or hair color or height or blood type for the most part does today. They should not be seen as sources of pride, much less revolutionary subjectivity. Similarly, for communists the working class is not something to be celebrated, but the class against work and classes.

This blog has dwelt on a somewhat theoretical delineation. But my hope is the implications for concrete communist politics are more easily drawn now that this delineation has been made.

2 thoughts on “Politics of affirmation or politics of negation?

  1. Two thoughts:

    1. Trotskyism seems designed entirely to avoid culpability in Stalinism while maintaining a relationship to Communism. It seems though that in real differences Trotskyism and Stalinism ultimately meshed up on all the important issues and Stalin’s biggest excesses were late arrivals to positions Trotsky had already taken (eg Stalin championing NEP long after Trotsky campaigned to abolish it, or the so-called split over worldwide revolution v. country revolution where both understood that Russia was in a unique position, and where even Stalin did not cease fomenting revolution in the West even when it undercut the regime’s interests). In this sense it’s fairly disingenuous from the get-go and Trotsky really lucked out that Stalin was able to out maneuver + exile him before 1928.

    2. ‘Power’ in all circumstances seems very dangerous and we saw in Rwanda how quickly the downtrodden can become oppressors themselves (vis-a-vis Hutu Power). We might suggest that in the US the black position is so utterly marginalized that there is no concern of reverse oppression whereas Rwanda was a more fragile state. Still, if a movement can resolve as genocidal we should probably not encourage it even in an embryonic state.

  2. Pingback: We are not “anti” | The Charnel-House

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