Victor Serge, chronicler of revolution

A week ago, the centenary of the October Revolution came and went. For this week’s post, I thought I’d share the works of one of its most important witnesses and participants. Victor Serge was a Belgian-Russian anarchist who repatriated to Russia shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, joining Lenin and Trotsky in their historic effort to overthrow capitalism. You can download PDFs of Serge’s major works by clicking on the following links:

  1. Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908-1938
  2. Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921
  3. Witness to the German Revolution: Writings from Germany, 1923
  4. “Is a Proletarian Literature Possible?” (1925)
  5. Men in Prison (1929)
  6. Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
  7. Conquered City (1930-1931)
  8. Birth of Our Power (1931)
  9. Midnight in the Century (1936-1938)
  10. From Lenin to Stalin (1937)
  11. Russia Twenty Years After and Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution (1937, 1947)
  12. The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1940-1942)
  13. Mexican Notebooks, 1940-1947
  14. Unforgiving Years (1946)
  15. Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (with Natalia Sedova, 1946)
  16. Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1947)
  17. A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems

Most of the secondary literature on Serge is comprised of rather short essays, articles, and reviews. The only book-length studies in English are Suzi Weissman’s Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (2001) and Paul Gordon’s Vagabond Witness: Victor Serge and the Politics of Hope (2013). Hopefully a more Bolshevik book on Serge will appear at some point. Back in 1994, the Trotskyist scholarly journal Revolutionary History dedicated an issue to Serge under the title Century of the Unexpected, which is probably worth checking out.

One of Susan Sontag’s last works, “Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge,” is roughly thirty pages long and appears as the foreword to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, above. Andras Gyorgy’s “But Who, After All, was Victor Serge?” (2008) offers a nice corrective to the aforementioned writings of Sontag and Weissman, both of whom are far more liberal in their politics than Serge ever was. Something similar could be said of Richard Greeman, to be honest, though his translations of Serge redeem him somewhat.

Doug Enaa Greene, an incel Trot historian who hates my guts for some reason, wrote a piece for Red Wedge “Victor Serge: On the Borders of Victory and Defeat” in 2015. Rather pedestrian, on the whole, but nevertheless a serviceable introduction to Serge’s work. Finally, my former teacher Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a nice review of Serge’s memoirs for The Guardian a few years back. Weissman and others exchanged some critical remarks on Serge in the US socialist magazine Against the Current, which were subsequently compiled and published over at Links.

Philippe Bourrinet’s 2002 essay on Serge, which traces the evolution of his thought vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and relates it concurrent left communist views, is reproduced below. A couple words on this piece: Bourrinet seems to be unfamiliar with Evgenii Preobrazhensky’s concept of “socialist primitive accumulation,” doubtless the source of Serge’s own conception. Obviously, criticisms can and should be made of this notion, but it is not as if it was an original coinage by Serge or an insight into the bloodiness of forced collectivization.

I’ve recently been reading Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book on The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1991), which compellingly argues that only the juridical existence of capital was suspended in the USSR while its economic existence remained intact. Serge recognized this fact, Bourrinet alleges, in writing that “where there are wage workers, there is capital.” While I plan to reread the works of Hillel Ticktin to finally determine where I come down on the whole “state capitalism” debate, I must confess I’m more open to this category than previously.

Victor Serge:
Totalitarianism and state capitalism

Philippe Bourrinet
Collective Action
January 1, 2002
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Night heralds the advent of a morning so radiant and so full of promise we cannot even conceive of it.

Let us not be discouraged.

— Victor Serge

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Russia’s transition towards a relative democratization, based on a private capitalist sector, poses three questions: how did so-called “Soviet totalitarianism” take power and endure for such a long time, only to finally collapse; how was it that the transition from state capitalism, which some have called “collectivist planned economy,” to a private capitalist sector was so easily accomplished; and also how can a socialist alternative for the twenty-first century1 be realized that responds to the needs of a new autonomous social movement whose goal is to free man from his economic and political chains.

Victor Serge’s testimony is of unique value for the new social movement for the purpose of addressing these crucial questions in the wake of the disappearance of Stalinism. Victor Serge has bequeathed a valuable legacy to succeeding generations. His works, both political and literary, and his talents, constitute a rich mine for understanding the origin of totalitarianism in Russia as well as how its economic infrastructure functioned for almost seventy years.

Defining totalitarianism and state capitalism

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Beginning in the 1930s, Serge would make frequent use of the term “totalitarian” in his writings.

The term originated among the Italian antifascists, although the fascists also used it. In 1925 Mussolini proclaimed the “fierce totalitarian will” of his regime. Totalitarianism was above all the total absorption of civil society by the state, which, of course, the fascists defined as no longer capitalist. According to Mussolini himself, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”2 Hitler’s accession to power, which installed a racist totalitarianism where the state was the embodiment of the will of the Leader (Führer) lastingly impressed the notion of totalitarianism on antifascist literature. Continue reading

Solidarity after Charlottesville

Like everyone else watching the Charlottesville protests, I was appalled by the violence and hateful rhetoric displayed by white nationalists over the weekend. I cannot, however, say I was surprised. Chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as a group of fascists surrounded to defend a Confederate monument wielding Tikki torches (okay, I laughed a little at that) put the lie to the quaint notion that antisemitism is dead and gone in this country. Just like in the past, it seems to reemerge whenever there are economic anxieties and racial unrest, linked closely with anti-black racism as well as anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

Emma Green made this point three days ago in an article which ran in The Atlantic: “Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the Anti-Defamation League, which fights against bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death.” Similarly, Eric Ward’s Political Research essay “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” forcefully argues that “antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within white nationalist thought.” (It’s worth reading also for its insights into the early LA punk scene).

Regarding various “antis” like anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, readers of this blog will know I am influenced by the Bordigist critique of anti-fascism and the councilist critique of anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that fascism and imperialism are not to be opposed. If these political orientations are to be salvageable for Marxists at all, it is important to acknowledge most forms of actually-existing anti-fascism and anti-imperialism are awful. The best anti-fascists and anti-imperialists out there already admit this, of course, and know that in doing so they are not denigrating the lives that have been lost or the sacrifices that have been made.

Marx understood this well enough himself, writing in 1850: “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies. And in maintaining this as our position, we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” Internationalist Perspective put out a good response a little while ago entitled “Antifa? No Thanks,” in which they claimed: “By framing the conflict as one between fascism and democracy, the partisans of antifa are making the first choice seem logical and necessary, and are thereby, despite their combativeness, acting as water carriers for capitalism.”

Horkheimer’s old adage from 1939 still rings true: “Whoever is not willing to speak of capitalism should keep quiet about fascism as well.” Gilles Dauvé’s debate with the British group Aufheben is worth revisiting in this context, in order:

  1. Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé], Fascism/Antifascism (1982)
  2. Aufheben, “Review of Barrot’s Fascism/Antifascism (1992)
  3. Gilles Dauvé, “Reply to Aufheben” (1998)

Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. The chorus of tweets from Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Nancy Pelosi, and other reactionaries condemning the white nationalists lend credence to Bordiga’s infamous quip that “the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism.” Politically, perhaps, it can be. Although I’d say that the human toll, the dead and brutalized bodies scarred by fascist goons, is fascism’s worst product in absolute terms. Going to the rally at Union Square on Sunday, there were a fair number of signs from the woke Democratic Party “resistance,” showing that class collaborationism indeed remains a real danger.

Continue reading

Protest politics in the age of Trump

So who else is mad as hell about the sym­bol­ic trans­fer of power between rival fac­tions of the bour­geois­ie? Remem­ber all the demon­stra­tions that spon­tan­eously broke out eight years ago, when Barack Obama was first in­aug­ur­ated? And then the acute sense of out­rage we sus­tained throughout his two terms in of­fice, hold­ing reg­u­lar protests as the gov­ern­ment he over­saw de­por­ted a re­cord num­ber of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants?

Oh wait…

None of that ever happened. In fact, the first is­sue of In­ter­na­tion­al So­cial­ist Re­view re­leased dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency fea­tured one of his 2008 cam­paign slo­gans: “Yes we can!” Des­pite the fact his for­eign policy plat­form was vir­tu­ally identic­al to that of his pre­de­cessor (save some stuff about shift­ing fo­cus away from the Middle East, to­ward East Asia), and al­though do­mest­ic­ally he merely fol­lowed through on Bush’s bail­out of the banks, most self-de­scribed Marx­ists sat back and cheered to them­selves as Obama was sworn in. The lead ed­it­or­i­al an­nounced that

the elec­tion of Barack Hus­sein Obama as forty-fourth pres­id­ent of the United States is a wa­ter­shed event. In a coun­try where Afric­ans were brought in chains, were slaves un­til 1865, where leg­al (or de facto) se­greg­a­tion was the rule, and where the ma­jor­ity of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans were not giv­en the right to vote un­til 1965, Obama’s elec­tion is his­tor­ic… En­gage­ment is the or­der of the day.

By con­trast, this same pub­lic­a­tion frowns upon any sort of en­gage­ment with the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Res­ist­ance” is the or­der of the day: “Let the res­ist­ance be­gin. The churn­ing fear and re­vul­sion swirl­ing in­side us as we watch Don­ald J. Trump take the oath to be­come the 45th pres­id­ent of the United States will be at least some­what bal­anced by the sat­is­fac­tion of watch­ing in­spir­ing and un­pre­ced­en­ted levels of protest rising up to greet an in­com­ing pres­id­ent…” Con­jur­ing up the ghost of fas­cism, any­one who en­ter­tains the idea of en­ga­ging with the new pres­id­ent is branded a col­lab­or­at­or.

What’s so dif­fer­ent, though? You’d think that a Marxoid sect that traces its lin­eage to Len­in would re­mem­ber his fam­ous para­phrase of The Civil War in France (1871) in State and Re­volu­tion (1917): “Marx grasped this es­sence of cap­it­al­ist demo­cracy splen­didly when, in ana­lyz­ing the ex­per­i­ence of the [Par­is] Com­mune, he said that the op­pressed are al­lowed once every few years to de­cide which par­tic­u­lar rep­res­ent­at­ives of the op­press­ing class shall rep­res­ent and repress them in par­lia­ment!” Ob­vi­ously it would be folly to ar­gue that both ma­jor Amer­ic­an parties are identic­al. Yet neither rep­res­ents the in­terests of the work­ing class, so why en­gage with either? Continue reading

Decolonial communization?

Race, religion, and class:
Problems and pitfalls of
a theoretical synthesis
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Overview of the problem

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For whatever reason, at least from the outside, there seems some sort of slow convergence unfolding between communization theory and decolonial critique. Whether this attests to any inner necessity in the logic of either field, or from accidental affinities common to enthusiasts of both, is difficult to tell. My bet is that it’s the latter. Geographical proximity often compresses unlike milieux, with only vaguely related groups suddenly shoved into a single space, made to live side by side. People are able to pass through any number of circles, carrying with them a cumulus of curiosities and concerns. Sometimes this leads to interesting intellectual cross-pollination or collaboration. Berlin in the decades following Hegel’s death. Vienna around the fin de siècle. Oakland has given us Endnotes, which by itself is enough to forgive it many minor sins. Usually these scenes just result in ill-conceived eclecticism, though, fruitless exchanges and shambling conceptual absurdities. Academic conferences offer a suitably fetid ecosystem in which such bogstandard theories can thrive. Russell Jacoby observed this phenomenon some forty years ago in Dialectic of Defeat:

Literature about Marxism threatens to drown both the theory and its students. To the cynical it confirms the obsolescence of Marxism: It has fled the streets and factories for the halls and offices of the university. The struggle to publish replaces the class struggle. Academics jet to conferences to hawk competing brands of Marxism; a consumer’s guide is practically required to stay abreast of all the offerings and recalls: structural Marxism, semiotic Marxism, feminist Marxism, hermeneutic Marxism, phenomenological Marxism, critical Marxism, and so on.

Not a lot has been done as yet to bring these two discourses into conversation in the Anglophone world. George Ciccariello-Maher is, in all probability, the person who would be best situated to broker a meeting. He’s already intervened in a roundtable on “Dual Power and the Dialectic of Communization,” as well as presented a paper on “Communization, Venezuela Style,” though it’s not clear he has all that much in common with the communisateurs beyond shared verbiage and a few mutual friends on Facebook. Ciccariello-Maher broadly understands his own critical outlook as “decolonial.” LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism dabbles in communization, and it has mentioned “contemporary decolonial subjecthood” in the past. But there’s been no sustained effort to synthesize communization theories and decolonial critiques, which might ultimately be for the best. Of the two, I find communization to be a far more promising theoretical field. Even if I disagree with its prognostications about the sun having set on programmatism, it poses serious questions to the present and seeks to take stock of emerging struggles and shifting realities. Decolonial criticism is, by contrast, in my opinion a complete waste of time. Reading Ramón Grosfoguel has actually made me dumber. (I know that’s hard to believe). Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, etc. don’t say anything all that earth-shattering or insightful. Achille Mbembe is occasionally great, but I do not think he is even remotely similar to the other figures just named.

Since there haven’t really been any works in English to combine or negotiate these perspectives, this post deals with a French author who has devoted quite a bit of time to precisely this: Patlotch. My reading comprehension of French isn’t great, but he is a lively and entertaining writer with extensive knowledge of communization as well as decoloniality. Also, he has the virtue of having “conducted his philosophical education in public,” as Hegel wrote of Schelling, so we can actually see his thought process as he tries to work out some of these issues. His comments about Jews are pretty fucked up, to say nothing of his race-baiting of Yves Coleman. To be sure, other syntheses of communization theory with decolonial critique may be possible — his work doesn’t exhaust all possibility — but this at provides a place to start.

Introducing Patlotch

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Patlotch
is an enigmatic character. Claude Guillon explains that his handle is an (unimpressive) anagram derived from the Situationist journal Potlatch, with just two letters switched. An erstwhile fellow traveler [compagnon de route], from roughly 2005 to 2010, of the communization current in France, Patlotch had initially approached Guillon after reading a short piece from in 2013 critiquing Léon de Mattis and the international communist review Sic. Communization was an “unthinkable project” [l’impensable projet], as Guillon put it at the time, an appraisal that resonated with the young Patlotch. Eventually, the impetuous lad turned on kindly old Guillon, cursing him as a “cadaver” with a wink at André Breton before slinging his body into a ditch alongside Yves Coleman and his ilk. The offense? Well, to have written “And ‘God’ Created Islamophobia,” of course. Frankly, I don’t hold this apprehension against him, when it comes to this term’s possible censorious use. Guillon knows what it’s like to be censored firsthand. Suicide: A How-to Guide [Suicide, mode d’emploi], a survey of the various methods and techniques people have used to kill themselves, was written with Yves le Bonniec in 1982 and released that same year. Just five years later, however, it was banned by the French government and promptly withdrawn from circulation. But Patlotch, enfant terrible of the online ultraleft circuit, grants no such leniency to poor Guillon.

Young Patlotch has many scores to settle and axes to grind, as will be shown in the course of this post. Anselm Jappe, Clément Homs, Bernard Lyon, and Jacques Wajnsztejn are all summoned to stand trial next to Coleman and Guillon, charged as crypto-Zionists, race traitors, and Eurocentric chauvinists… or worse. Continue reading

Anatomy of a controversy

Race, religion, and ideology
in contemporary debates on
the French communist Left
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How to moralize with a sledgehammer

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On the night of April 21, 2016, the windows of an anarchist library and bookshop in Paris were smashed with a sledgehammer. Above the broken glass, next to hollowed-out frames, one word had been spraypainted: RACIST. This was the third such attack to take place at the location in under a year. La Discordia opened its doors back in May 2015 to provide a space for discussion, theory, and debate. “Discord is profound disagreement,” reads La Discordia’s founding charter, “violent dissent which sets people against each other.” So it would seem to be living up to its stated mission, if repeated acts of vandalism are any indication. What’s odd about these incidents, though, is that La Discordia wasn’t targeted by right-wing thugs or fascists — the usual suspects whenever anarchists receive threats of this sort — but rather by other anarchists. It wasn’t the work of national-anarchists, either, but those professing a decolonial brand of anarchism. Yves Coleman, who serves as correspondent for the left communist periodical Insurgent Notes in France, characterized the hoodlums as “left identitarians [identitaires de gauche], social chauvinists, and assorted Third Worldists.” Magazin Redaktion, the German-language Turkish collective, wrote that “La Discordia and the friendly associated website non fides have lately been exposed to a certain hostility and multiple threats; among other things, the store was recently defaced… by fractions of the ‘antiauthoritarian’ scene [die Teilen der ‚antiautoritären’ Szene] with slogans calling it ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’.”

How does anybody know who carried out this act of petty property destruction? Clearly, the volunteers who run La Discordia suspect it was a crude attempt at intimidation. Nevertheless, protests and street demonstrations have occurred on an almost nightly basis in Paris, and throughout the country, since roughly the beginning of April. Up All Night [Nuit debout] debuted on March 31, to drum up public opposition to the hated loi du travail, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the library might have suffered incidental damage in the confusion. “Why is this happening right now, while we are all concentrated on what is going on in the streets?” asked the Discordians in their official statement on the matter. “Evidently because, for those who hold race and religion sacrosanct, it’s more important to defend these things than to combat capital and state. Again, no other sign of attack was to be seen in the neighborhood that night, neither banks nor churches nor the premises of political parties. Just an anarchist library.” Back in February, right after the initial attack, Dialectical Delinquents published a letter of solidarity with La Discordia:

Several months in the planning, a debate on “Islamophobia: A Conceptual and Political Racket” was finally held January 26. La Discordia wanted to confront a topic at the heart of the current struggles, conflating condemnation of racism with a defense of religion. Our joint conversations were interesting. More than sixty comrades came to the event — we promise to rent a larger venue next time, and with more chairs! — demonstrating that many feel the need for a revolutionary critique of religion. Every religion, including Islam, which others would like to palm off as the “religion of the oppressed”…

Upon arriving Tuesday afternoon, we saw that the storefront had been tagged during the night. Poorly-written, ill-thought-out epithets (“fascists,” “racists,” etc.) appeared next to circled As (thank you!) in black spray paint, along with a leaflet of demands. We were allegedly acting as a vehicle for “Islamophobic and racist theories” and “ideologies of power,” etc. A thought for the atheist “fascists,” the unbelievers who from Tehran to Saint-Denis are now treated as “Islamophobic” as much by fearsome powers as by this arriviste of the French academic petit bourgeois who knows only the racism of his own class, whose only practice over a decade is to leave illegible tags on anarchist libraries and organize conferences with religious authorities.

Dialectical Delinquents’ declaration of support was succeeded by a similarly sympathetic note from the editors of the anarchist street paper Paris Sous Tension, posted on Indymedia Nantes right after the first attack and updated in March after the second. “In striving to make sense of this gesture, committed by purported anarchists (as they claimed to be in the message they left), …we see that its only purpose is to empty anarchism of any anti-religious content,” they wrote. “The revolt against religious dogma… has always been a part of revolutionary criticism, here in Europe and the rest of the world, where a great many atheists, blasphemers, revolutionaries, ‘freethinkers,’ and simple nonconformists face ferocious repression on the part of divine spokespersons… We’d like to publicly express our support for the comrades at La Discordia against this imbecilic and gross manifestation of the… ‘convergence’ between politicians of the extreme left and reactionary Islamists.” Barely an hour had passed before angry commenters were accusing La Discordia and its sympathizers of “justifying and rationalizing Islamophobia.” Not long after, another threatened: “Come the revolution the monks of atheism [les religieux de l’atheisme] will be gunned down.” Yet the coup de grâce was delivered by somebody named “Patlotch,” who accused an old left communist internationalist [vieux sympathisant de la gauche communiste internationaliste] of Eurocentrism. About this Patlotch, we’ll hear more later. La Discordia vowed to continue cursing “the confused pseudo-radicals and theo-compatibles” [les pseudo-radicaux confus et théo-compatibles], reciting some of the lines to La père Duschesne, an anonymous ode to Hébert that the anarchist Ravachol sang on his way to the guillotine in 1892: “Cut the priests in two, bloody hell / Tear the churches to the ground, blood of God / And good Lord in the shit, bloody hell!” [«Coupe les curés en deux, Nom de Dieu / Fout les églises par terre, Sang Dieu / Et l’bon dieu dans la merde, Nom de Dieu!»]

Each of these two letters of solidarity echoes the event description for «Islamophobie: du racket conceptuel au racket politique», from the talk in January. “Numerous so-called ‘revolutionaries’ seek to reappropriate the concept [of Islamophobia], and thereby develop a blindness to the authoritarian and pacifying role played by every religion,” the promotional post states. “Islam is wrongly defended as the religion of the oppressed (as Irish Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism were before it). Behind this lurks the idea that relations of domination become emancipatory when borne by those who are supposedly oppressed. Religion remains a major obstacle to those looking to radically transform the world, however, and so criticism is necessary now more than ever. For there are no ‘religions of the oppressed,’ only religions that oppress.” Who would actually try to claim Islam is anywhere the “religion of the oppressed,” much less on a global scale? At first this sounds like a straw-man. Mahmoud Senadji of the Parti des Indigènes de la République wrote an essay in 2009 on Iran and Foucault in which he asserted Islam alone had the capacity to serve as a medium for revolution, “Islam being the religion of the oppressed” [l’islam étant la religion des opprimés]. (The Indigènes are big fans of Kevin Anderson’s book Marx at the Margins, which is admittedly quite good, but the reason they like it is that it seems to validate their own preexisting views. Or rather, it presents a reading of Marx more amenable to their politics. How surprised they’d be if they ever took a look at the study Anderson wrote along with Janet Afary in 2005, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seduction of Islamism). Continue reading

Politics of affirmation or politics of negation?

Joseph Kay
Libcom.org

Nov. 2008
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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.

Enjoy.
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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. Continue reading

Structural antisemitism

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From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

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Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in singling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis, distinguishing it from other forms of racism:

It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.

He goes on to explain that “[antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).

Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.

Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you. Continue reading

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

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IMAGE: Cover to Jodi Dean’s
The Communist Horizon (2012)

Platypus Review № 54 | 2013

Ross Wolfe

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On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Ross Wolfe:
 Your new book, The Communist Horizon, builds upon a body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of this renewed emphasis on communism?

Jodi Dean: The shift towards communism puts leftist thought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer a sort of touchy-feely, identity issue-based, and fragmented emphasis on each person’s unique specificity. It is no longer a generic, attitudinal lifestyle, preoccupation with “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentary reduction of politics to the minuteness of the everyday. Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionary possibilities — to projects of political power. And that change is absolutely, crucially enormous, even if forty years out of date. Continue reading

The truth of liberalism

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The legacy of political and economic liberalism in modern society has been on trial since at least 1848, if not before.1 But whether or not one chooses to locate the crisis of modernity at a prior date, this was the point at which liberal ideology first came into open contradiction with itself. After the bloody “pacification” of the proletarian uprising in Paris — the violent suppression of the June insurgents by military forces loyal to the National Assembly — the classical liberal ideal of a harmonious, self-governing societas unmolested by state intervention had to be dispensed with once and for all. For here the bourgeoisie could no longer console itself with the reassuring thought that its hand had been forced from without. Unlike the Jacobin Terror of 1793, the nation’s recourse to authoritarianism in June 1848 could not simply be attributed to the pressures exerted on it from abroad, by the looming threat of hostile nations surrounding France on all sides. All of Europe was in the throes of political upheaval; this time there was no Holy Alliance to defend the crumbling edifice of traditional authority. Nor could it be claimed that the revolution had somehow been usurped by reactionary agents working from within, by the imperial ambitions and political machinations of Napoleon. That would come only two years later, with his nephew’s coup d’état.2 Here, at the dawn of the summer months in 1848, the mutual antagonisms underlying civil society finally burst into the open and thus were raised to the level of consciousness. June 22nd, observed one commentator, marked “the tremendous insurrection in which the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society. It was a fight for the preservation or annihilation of the bourgeois order.”3 Liberalism had at last run up against its own internal limitations, finding itself unequal to the revolutionary tasks it had first set out to achieve.

Since that time, the historical significance of liberalism has been reckoned in a number of different ways. Various parties have sought to either take up its fallen mantle or forsake it altogether. Among those choosing the former course, many have done so in the name of fulfilling those great promises originally opened up by liberalism — liberté, egalité, fraternité — through the overcoming of bourgeois society as such. Liberal bourgeois democracy, though revolutionary in its day, has outlived its emancipatory potential, and now is felt to only stand in the way of these principles’ higher realization. Others have looked to freeze social relations in their present state, declaring liberal ideology to still be adequate to our moment. In so doing, of course, they are forced to deny or suppress the conflicts that continue to seethe beneath the peaceful veneer of society. More recently, however, some have called into question the emancipatory character of liberalism itself. Its universalism, these critics maintain, is a sham: it is only the elevation of a quite particular (white, male, European) standpoint to the dominant or “hegemonic” position of universality, which then claims a normative status over and above rival, marginalized, and “subaltern” particularities. This is, broadly speaking, the postmodern critique. Still others, looking to fend off this critique, have maintained that liberalism, along with the modern Enlightenment philosophy from which it arose, remains an “incomplete project,” whose results must yet be further generalized.4

Part I: A problematic legacy — The historical genesis of modern liberalism

Losurdo’s Liberalism:
A Counter-History

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Into this fraught discursive field enters Domenico Losurdo’s 2006 treatise Liberalism: A Counter-History, translated from the Italian last year by Gregory Elliott for Verso Books. Losurdo, who teaches at the University of Urbino, identifies himself as a philosopher in the Hegelian-Marxist vein of thinkers like Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, and Antonio Gramsci. As its title suggests, his latest book aims to read the history of liberalism against the grain, so as to subvert the triumphalist account provided by its most passionate celebrants and ideologues down through the ages. Adopting the maxims laid down by de Tocqueville at the outset of his 1856 history of The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, Losurdo sets about in good dialectical fashion the work of carrying out an immanent critique of liberal thought through an examination of the writings of its core protagonists, as well as the historical realities in which they lived. Quoting the French political theorist at length, Losurdo similarly vows to render the concepts so often invoked with respect to liberalism deliberately unfamiliar:

We think we know [liberalism] quite well because we are familiar with its glittering surface and, in minute detail, with the lives of its most famous personages, and because we have read clever and eloquent critiques of the works of its great writers. But as for the way in which public business was conducted, how institutions actually worked, how the various classes truly related to one another, the condition and feelings of those segments of the population that still could be neither seen nor heard, and the true basis of opinions and customs, we have only ideas that are at best confused and often misleading.5

It would appear that Losurdo, in following de Tocqueville, is here looking to deploy the classic literary device of defamiliarization, later described by formalist literary critics like Viktor Shklovskii.6 Indeed, one of Losurdo’s primary objectives in this work is to challenge the received wisdom of what liberalism even is in the first place. More than once in the course of delivering his interpretation, he repeats the foundational question: “What is liberalism?”7 Against some of the more commonplace answers typically offered up in response, Losurdo points out several ambiguities that problematize any attempt to supply a clear-cut, univocal definition to the term. Was John C. Calhoun, for example, a liberal? He at once sang hymns to the freedom of the individual from state interference, all while ratifying the constitutional unfreedom of black slaves under the law. What about Locke, that Ur-theorist (and indeed the “father”) of liberalism? Here again, Losurdo finds the evidence unclear. On the one hand, Locke denounced in his renowned Second Treatise on Government the political servitude of the citizen to the institutions of Church and State, the alternating tyrannies of the pulpit and the throne. In the space of only a few pages in that same tract, however, Locke can be seen defending the master’s “arbitrary power of life and death” over his legal human property, the slave. John Stuart Mill? An abolitionist, to be sure, but at the same time an apologist for British colonialism.8] Continue reading