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

Liberalism as The Realm of Lesser Evil: Jean-Claude Michéa

Besides his knack for exposing such errors in reflective judgment, Michéa displays impressive perspicacity in noticing the relationship of liberalism to the Marxist political project.  Deferring to the expertise of two towering figures in the history of political Marxism, he reminds his readers in a footnote that “Lenin did not hesitate to locate Marx in an intellectual continuity with Smith and Ricardo,” and that his onetime-ally Kautsky had before him “already made Marx the direct heir of ‘English economic science,’ i.e. of original liberalism.”[174]  As Michéa therefore argues,

beneath its radical appearance, [the] “materialist” [Marxist] fashion of viewing things represents no more than a rigorous systemization of the essential postulates of the modern imaginary (already partly effected, moreover, by Adam Smith).  And it was certainly not by chance that the different discourses that today celebrate capitalist globalization, held to be inevitable and eliminating all conceivable barriers to the sway of a unified world market, all rest on the idea that the future of humanity can only be read on the basis of the compulsions of economic growth, itself dependent on the ceaseless advance of “new technologies.”[175]

If Michéa is better than Losurdo at unpacking the historical interconnections between Marxism and liberalism, however, it is only because his politics are far worse.  It is not hard to infer from the tone of the passage just cited that Michéa is profoundly ambivalent to the path charted by liberal modernity.  Insofar as most of the socialist currents inspired by Marx have sought to overcome capitalist society on the basis of capitalism itself, he sees them as merely an extension of the outworn liberal logic of “progress.”[176]  To his credit, Michéa regards the initial impulse that lay behind this modern belief — i.e., that social conditions could be continuously improved over time — as expressing a legitimate “desire to escape at all costs…the hell of ideological civil war.”[177]  Nevertheless, to his mind, the obstinate adherence to this vision of limitless growth in the present is untenable (or “unsustainable,” to use the term currently in vogue).  Michéa therefore chastises Marx and Engels for failing to recognize “the ecological limits that any project of unlimited economic growth would inexorably come up against.”[178]

At this point, Michéa unfortunately lapses into a rather shallow form of moralism.  In this respect, he is not all that far removed from another Orwellian critic of “lesser evilist” politics: the late Christopher Hitchens.[179]  Whereas Hitchens culturally “broke left” in the aftermath of 9/11 — promoting atheism, secularism, and rationality — Michéa has turned to the right.  He heaps scorn upon anything and everything that he takes to be emblematic of the depravity and licentiousness of modern life, denouncing them as “contrary to good sense and common decency.”[180]  Sexual impropriety, obesity, veganism/vegetarianism, and recreational drug use are only a few of the many examples of “indecency” attracting the French philosopher’s ire.[181]  Lamenting the rapid disintegration of traditional “values” and “moral scruples” to capitalism’s unremitting forward march, Michéa announces that he intends “to undemonize the concepts of ‘tradition,’ ‘customs,’ [and] ‘roots.’”[182]  As anarchists go, he is fairly blasé about the personal autonomy and individual rights usually associated with the rise of the modern bourgeois social subject.  Michéa openly objects to “the capitalist lifestyle and its narcissistic individualism,”[183] which erode “preexisting moral and cultural possibilities.”[184]  In one of his most reactionary moments, he even expresses his regret at the breakup of the traditional family structure, and its replacement by the individual as the basic economic unit of society.  He complains of the reduction of conventional bonds of consanguinity to relationships of mere contract,[185] disdaining the way “[t]he bourgeoisie has torn the pathetic veil of sentiment from family relations and reduced them to purely monetary ones,” as Marx and Engels put it.[186]

Here Michéa drinks from the same trough of pro-family, anti-individualist tripe that reactionaries have been peddling for over two centuries now.  The counterrevolutionary Catholic author Louis de Bonald, reviewing Germaine de Staël’s Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, thus found her criticisms of republicanism wanting in this respect, feeling they did not cut deep enough.  While de Staël was fiercely opposed to Jacobinism and its terroristic excesses, she certainly did not pine for a return to the ancien régime, the prerevolutionary past so beloved by de Bonald.  She denounced “compulsory service, such as that of the corvée,and other relicts of feudal barbarism,” as she called them.  De Bonald also took the liberal De Staël to task for railing against “the threefold fetters of an intolerant church, a feudal nobility, and an unlimited monarchy.”[187]  In a xenophobic fit, he alleged that she made too many concessions to England and “her happy and liberal fatherland,” Genoa.[188]  As de Bonald saw it, liberal individualism had slowly (but undeniably) undermined the traditional authority of the family.  “Republics, particularly the English one, only count individuals,” the French royalist wrote in 1818.  “The French monarchy saw only families.  The result is that there is more movement and agitation in republics, and more stability and repose in our monarchy.”[189]

The mid-19th century critic and völkisch theorist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl expressed a similar feeling of disquiet when it came to the liberal argument favoring the primacy of the individual over the primacy of the family.  In his 1855 work on The Natural History of the German People, Riehl contended that constitutional liberalism gravely endangered the fundamental integrity of the family unit.  Whereas Hegel taught that the modern state represented the apotheosis of freedom and rationality, over and above the spheres of the family and civil society,[190] Riehl reversed this order: the family, and not the private realm of civil society or the public realm of the state, was the only site where the antinomies of modern existence could be resolved.  (The contrast between Riehl’s reversal and Marx’s reversal of the Hegelian schema in the Philosophy of Right is illuminating: Marx saw the only way to overcome the irrationality of capitalism as the creation of a classless society, in which institutions such as the family and the state could then be abolished).[191]  “Taken to its extreme, a constitutional state would have to lead to a loosening of marriage laws in theory and to the gradual disavowal of the home in practice,” Riehl warned.  “The state, as a mere legal agency, recognizes only individual persons — citizens.  It disregards the natural, historical factor of a collective folk personality, which manifests itself to us in those two mighty organisms, society and the family, that have been ennobled by the moral force of historic traditions.”[192]

Michéa stands on essentially the same ground as Riehl and de Bonald, however, when he looks to derive the practices of “sharing” and “reciprocity” from traditional structures, hoping to thereby offset the selfishness and “egoism” of liberal bourgeois society.  “It is [only by] moving upwards from the specific forms of local (or ‘territorialized’) life, and the one-on-one dealings that come with it (what Alain Caillé calls ‘primary sociality,’ of which family life is a major part) that the elementary structures of reciprocity [might] be put into place.”[193]  Indeed, against this Stirnerian egoism, Michéa is forced to invoke the intellectually flaccid Orwellian notion of “the common decency of ‘ordinary people.’”[194]  The utility of this notion, he claims, consists in its remaining a “deliberately vague and imprecise concept.”  Michéa hints from time to time, however, that this common decency “results from a continual work of humanity on itself in order to radicalize, internalize, and universalize these underlying human virtues expressed in the aptitudes to give, receive, and assist.”[195]  He later enlarges on this idea of “human virtues,” defining them as “psychological and cultural dispositions to generosity and fidelity.”[196]  Now and then Michéa tries to provide his refurbished, latter-day aretaic vision with an anthropological foundation, rooted in Marcel Mauss’ classic exposition of primitive gift economies.[197]  The traditional societies Mauss observed in his 1925 piece, he argued, were governed by the reciprocal logic of “give and take” rather than the selfish logic (or “icy waters”) of “egoistic calculation.”[198]  Given his anarchist sensibilities and the emphasis he places on the anthropological study of the gift, it might superficially appear that Michéa is close to another high-profile anarchist author and anthropologist, David Graeber.  Over the course of the last decade or so, Graeber has explored pre-monetary gift-giving practices in his anthropological work.[199]  This scholarly focus is loosely related to his involvement in the anti-/alter-globalization movement, rooted as it was in principles of direct action and the creation of prefigurative political models.  Conversely, Michéa was unimpressed by anti-/alter-globalization politics, and did nothing to support it.[200]  Moreover, unlike Graeber, Michéa withholds his endorsement of the direct action championed by these politics,[201] preferring “Chinese cultural traditions that privilege indirect action on the conditions of a political process rather than the methodical forcing of the process itself.”[202]

In the last instance, Michéa’s argument that liberal civilization was founded upon a pessimistic view of human nature, which subsequently gave way to arrogant optimism, is unconvincing.  The narrative arc he describes between liberalism’s initial self-consolation as “the realm of lesser evil” and its final self-congratulation as “the best of worlds” does not hold up under cross-examination.[203]  Riffing on Gramsci’s famous dictum, Michéa categorically maintains that “[o]riginal liberalism was…marked by a pessimism of the intellect”[204] — “a radical distrust of the moral capacities of human beings.”[205]  With such philosophers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Mandeville, Voltaire, Hume, and Helvétius, this statement may indeed be true.  The same cannot be said for authors like Cumberland, Locke, Hutcheson, Rousseau, or Condorcet, however.  Classical liberal discourse allowed for a diversity of viewpoints regarding human nature.  As it happens, the concept Michéa relies upon to ward off the pessimism he ascribes to liberal thought, “common decency,” is likewise an inheritance of Enlightenment liberalism.  In fact, the entire Scottish school of common sense philosophy — typified by Reid, Ferguson, Stewart, and Hamilton — followed their predecessors Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in their liberal optimism.  Reid, the progenitor of this school, even speculated that shortly after infancy an individual’s “reasoning and moral faculties…unfold themselves by degrees; so that it is inspired with the various principles of common sense.”[206]  The concept of a “common decency” basic to all mankind had already been a part of everyday parlance for several decades by then, antedating its philosophical formalization by Reid.  The periodical Common Sense: The Englishman’s Journal (1738) invoked the notion on a number of occasions.  Its French equivalent, civilité ordinaire, appeared often in the writings of the great liberal skeptic Pierre Bayle, including his groundbreaking 1695 Historical and Critical Journal.[207]

Continue to Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek

Revolution into reaction: June 1848 to August 1914

Classical liberalism, understood as the ideology of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, has for more than a century now been ossified and reactionary.  Just as Marx noticed circa 1830 that traditional bourgeois economics had begun a “transition from ‘disinterested research’ to ‘apologetics,’” becoming “vulgar economics” in the process, a similar transition was taking place within the sphere of bourgeois politics.[246]  Political liberalism only revealed its bankruptcy during the 1848 revolutions, however.  Events such as the Dutch Revolt of 1566, the Great Rebellion throughout the British Isles after 1640, its consolidation during the constitutional coup d’état of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, the Great French Revolution of 1789, all the way up to the July Monarchy of 1830 — in each of these moments, “[t]he bourgeoisie …played a highly revolutionary role.”[247]

The political disturbances that transpired in February 1848 seemed at first simply the continuation of this prior revolutionary pattern.  In June of that year, however, bourgeois-liberal politics faltered.  At this moment, liberal luminaries like François Guizot, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adolphe Thiers, and Odilon Barrot all threw in their lot with the Parti de l’Ordreagainst the proletarian insurrection in Paris.[248]  With Guizot and Thiers, who had become staunch defenders of the status quo ever since they received ministerial positions from Louis Philippe (the “citizen-king”) in 1832, this was perhaps to be expected.  Even then, Thiers — “that monstrous gnome,” as Marx later referred to him[249] — had been Guizot’s chief rival under the Orléanist regime.[250]  Guizot had already by that time come to be considered an extreme conservative in the estimation of most liberals.  Tocqueville despised both men.  So even within the liberal camp, it seems, there was a great deal of tension and variation.  Many of its leading political representatives were still at that time regarded as consistent, forward-thinking advocates of civic freedom, with unimpeachable records serving in public office.  So what became of liberalism’s project of emancipation after this point? Where did its historical commitment to the advancement of libertarian and egalitarian principles go, exactly?

These questions become that much more difficult to answer from the standpoint of the present.  Liberal-bourgeois ideology has been counterrevolutionary for so long now that many have started to wonder if was ever revolutionary at all.  Authors such as Isaac Deutscher,[251] and more recently Eric Hobsbawm and Neil Davidson, have done much to combat this “revisionist” tendency.[252]  All the same, the issue of explaining the transfer of the revolutionary mantle from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat — i.e., from liberalism to socialism — remains.  To adopt Losurdo’s terminology, the relationship of liberalism to radicalism must be determined.  In other words, did one emerge from the other? Or were the two tendencies wholly distinct, historically and conceptually unrelated? Losurdo rules emphatically in favor of the latter.  As he sees it, liberalism and radicalism came out of completely separate origins — arising sui generis (and “ne’er the twain shall meet,” as it were).  Losurdo finds in liberalism no internal dynamism, no motive force of its own.  He thus writes with confidence that “we…must bid farewell once and for all to the myth of the gradual, peaceful transition, on the basis of purely internal motivations and impulses, from liberalism to democracy, or from general enjoyment of negative liberty to an ever wider recognition of political rights.”  Instead, as Losurdo asserts, this wider recognition was only achieved through outside pressures.  “The process of emancipation,” he claims, “very often had a spur completely external to the liberal world.”[253]

By treating radicalism — a category that includes most forms of utopian socialism, anarchism, and Marxism — as utterly exogenous to liberalism, one misses the moment in which (in an almost Hegelian transformation of something into its opposite)[254] liberalism itself became illiberal.  This moment, as stated, is June 1848.  Here the liberal worldview as a project of emancipation finally stalled out, unable to attain to the precedent it had set in 1789.  Later radicals such as Marx, Lenin, and Trotskii never tired of reminding the liberal bourgeoisie of its own revolutionary past.  In the thick of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Lenin remarked that the prospect that most haunted the liberal bourgeois in his time was “the tremendous dangers of the ‘road’ of 1789! The bourgeois has no objection to the path taken by Germany in 1848, but he will exert ‘every effort’ to avoid the path taken by France.”  The difference between the paths traversed in 1789 and 1848, he felt, was instructive.  “What is the radical difference between the two roads?” the Bolshevik leader asked rhetorically.  He immediately continued: “It is that the bourgeois-democratic revolution carried out by France in 1789, and by Germany in 1848, was brought to its consummation in the first case, but not in the second.”[255]  In his own reflection on 1905, Results and Prospects, Trotskii — then Lenin’s political rival — raised a similar point.  He bitterly excoriated the counterrevolutionary senility of bourgeois liberals in his day, proudly proclaiming that, for all its criticisms of the Terror, it was the socialist proletariat that displayed greater fidelity to the revolutionary tradition of the liberal bourgeoisie:

Jacobinism is now a term of reproach on the lips of all liberal wiseacres.  Bourgeois hatred of revolution, its hatred towards the masses, hatred of the force and grandeur of the history that is made in the streets, is concentrated in one cry of indignation and fear — Jacobinism! We, the world army of Communism, have long ago made our historical reckoning with Jacobinism.  The whole of the present international proletarian movement was formed and grew strong in the struggle against the traditions of Jacobinism.  We subjected its theories to criticism, we exposed its historical limitations, its social contradictoriness, its utopianism…

But we defend Jacobinism against the attacks, the calumny, and the stupid vituperations of anemic, phlegmatic liberalism.  The bourgeoisie has shamefully betrayed all the traditions of its historical youth, and its present hirelings dishonor the graves of its ancestors and scoff at the ashes of their ideals.  The proletariat has taken the honor of the revolutionary past of the bourgeoisie under its protection.  The proletariat, however radically it may have, in practice, broken with the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless preserves them, as a sacred heritage of great passions, heroism, and initiative, and its heart beats in sympathy with the speeches and acts of the Jacobin Convention.[256]

The Left, born amidst the fire and tumult of 1789-1793, retained its status as the Parti du mouvement in 1848, committed to furthering social reforms and spreading revolution.  By contrast, the liberal establishment turned its back on the task of transforming society — a task that remains incomplete to this day.  In so doing, any truth it might once have held has passed into falsity.  Proletarian socialism, if Trotskii is to be believed, raised high the banner of revolution that bourgeois liberalism had let fall.  Betraying the revolutionary ideals it once held, the ensconced bourgeoisie have since then fought merely to preserve the state of affairs it already brought about.  Rather than allow for the fuller realization of human freedom, liberalism has stubbornly resisted attempts to bring the transformation it originally set in motion to its logical conclusion.  As Marx was able to witness firsthand, liberal bourgeois ideology arrived at a crossroads in 1848.  The path it took at this point is widely known.  Liberalism was turned on its head, and drifted from Left to Right.  It went from fostering revolution to sanctioning reaction.

Even then, not all liberals joined the camp of counterrevolution.  The famous Russian émigré Aleksandr Herzen, whom Lenin later commemorated, lived through this changing of the revolutionary guard, as it passed from the hands of bourgeois liberalism to those of proletarian socialism in June 1848.  Though Russian liberals hoped in 1912 to enlist his memory to their cause, celebrating the centenary of his birth, they fell silent on the crisis of faith he experienced in that year.[257]  This crisis arose out of his disbelief and dismay at the series of events that unfolded in the streets of Paris during those summer months.[258]  Though he could not have known the full breadth of the catastrophe, Herzen nevertheless intuitively felt that something had gone deeply, terribly wrong.  More than a month after the massacre, he was still desperately struggling to make sense of what had happened.  “Paris shot people without trial…What will be the outcome of this bloodshed?” wondered Herzen.  Unsure what was to come, he welcomed revolutionary violence in order to clear the path to the future: “[I]t is enough that in this fury of madness, of revenge, of conflict and retribution, the world which stands in the way of the new man, preventing him from living and establishing the future, will fall…So, long live chaos and destruction! Vive la mort! And let the future come!”[259]  Lenin, having the benefit of more than six decades of perspective, was thus able to recognize what Herzen could not: namely, that liberalism had here run aground of the basic antagonism of industrial society — the mortal struggle of capital against wage-labor.  “Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck, his deep skepticism and pessimism after 1848, was a shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism,” recorded Lenin.  “[His] spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionary character of the bourgeois democrats was already passing away, while the revolutionary character of the socialist proletariat had not yet matured.”[260]  Cutrone parses this twofold recognition as follows:

What made the 1848 Revolution so important to Marx and subsequent Marxism was the light that it shed on the history of the bourgeois revolution.  1848 was both the last of the classical bourgeois revolutions and the first of the socialist revolutions that have marked the modern, bourgeois era. Henceforth, the fates of liberalism and socialism have been indissolubly tied — even if their connection has been extremely fraught.  Liberalism could not do without socialism, nor socialism without liberalism.  Every democratic revolution since 1848 has faced this twofold task — and has, without exception, foundered on the shoals of its contradictions.  Marxism was the attempt to transcend the antinomy of individual and collective freedom…to realize both, by transcending both…The twin fates of liberalism and socialism after 1848 have shared in the failure of this Marxist vision for emancipation.[261]

Herzen, until then a convinced liberal, was dismayed by what was happening before him.  The proletarians were simply demanding what the liberals had hitherto promised to them, and yet now clearly liberalism found itself powerless to live up to the promises they had made.  The liberal response to this feeling of impotence, as Herzen witnessed firsthand, was to shoot down anyone who dared to raise his hand in protest.  “The liberals were satisfied, but the people were not and raised their voices: they repeated the words and promises of the liberals who now…began killing as soon as they saw that matters took a serious turn,” Herzen mordantly remarked.[262]  Tocqueville, who was terrified by the June insurgency, nevertheless saw it for what it was.  In a letter to his friend Paul Clamorgan, he maintained: “[This] is not a riot; it is the most terrible of all civil wars, the war of class against class, of those who have nothing against those who have.”[263]

Even many leftists who had initially supported the revolutionary events in February experienced similar shock and disillusionment following the June revolt.  The renowned anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an enthusiastic participant in the overthrow of Louis-Philippe that occurred earlier that year, prayed for a moratorium on any further violence after this point.  Proudhon could only stand idly by, however, as the “liberal” government issued the order for the proletarian insurrection to be violently suppressed.  What made matters even worse for Proudhon was the fact that he was a member of government.  Having been elected — along with the future emperor Louis-Napoleon and the novelist Victor Hugo — into the National Assembly that same month, Proudhon remained aloof of the struggle in the streets.[264]  He later came to regret his noncommittal attitude toward the entire affair.  In his aptly titled Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849), Proudhon thus addressed his accuser, Antoine Sénard.  “No, M. Sénard, I was not a coward in June, the insult you threw at me before the assembly,” he wrote, pleading ignorance.  “Like you and many others, I was an imbecile.  I was lacking in my duties as a representative due to a parliamentary stupor.  I was there to see, but I did not see.”[265]  By contrast, Marx’s own assessment of 1848 and its political afterlife was mercilessly critical.  He later famously quipped that the whole drama of 1848 had been nothing more than a farcical repeat of the original tragedy of 1789.[266]  Marx was generally unimpressed by the actual achievements of the 1848 revolutions.  Far more important than what they accomplished, however, was what they revealed.  As Marx recollected in an 1856 address,

[t]he so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents — small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society.  However, they denounced the abyss.  Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock.  Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the proletarian, i.e. the secret of the nineteenth century, and of the revolution of that century.  That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848.  Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbès, Raspail, and Blanqui…[But] European society before 1848 [had just barely] felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides.[267]

The abyss of which Marx spoke in this passage was the abyss of bourgeois society itself.  No sooner had the French “people” banded together against Louis Philippe than the fault-lines of class began to appear.  Lenin, in the context of 1905, would later describe how this opposition within society was manifested in Russia in the struggle against tsarism.  This opposition, he wrote, formed an unbridgeable “chasm” dividing society from itself.  “The revolution Russia is going through is a revolution of the entire people,” he happily conceded, with shades of liberal populism.  “However,” he added, “this society, which now seems a united whole…is itself irremediably split by the chasm between capital and labor.  The people that have risen against the autocracy are not a united people.”[268]  By highlighting this division, Lenin was only raising Marx’s basic insight regarding the class character of modern society.  This one foundational insight, which the bourgeois-liberal revolutionaries could not have possibly perceived, was that there is no “people” as such.  Civil society is comprised of mutually antagonistic forces — capital and labor foremost among them.  The contradictory nature of modern society was thus laid bare:

There is one great fact, characteristic of this, our nineteenth century, a fact which no party dares deny.  On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected.  On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.  In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary.  Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it.  The newfangled sources of wealth, by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want.  The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.  At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy.  Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance.

All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.  [T]his antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact — palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted.  Some parties may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts.  Or they may imagine that…progress in industry…signal[s] a regress in politics…We know that [in order for] the newfangled forces of society [to work well], they only want to be mastered by newfangled men — and such are the workingmen.  They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself…, the first-born sons of modern industry.  They will, then, certainly not be the last in aiding the social revolution produced by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world, which is as universal as capital and wage-slavery…History is the judge — its executioner, the proletarian.[269]

These antagonisms tear at the social fabric; bottomless depths are revealed.  This “abyss,” over which the whole of society is thinly stretched, has in fact been carried over from the many accounts that the bourgeoisie left unsettled in the balance sheet of world history.  “Marx understood the problem of his — and our — epoch as the unfinished bourgeois revolution,” Jeremy Cohan astutely notes, “whose gains would be meaningful only from the standpoint of redemption — what Lukács called the standpoint of the proletariat.”  Redemption here should be understood in its strictest etymological sense, as “payback,” a balancing of accounts, a settling of scores.  But this historical vantage point cannot for a moment be considered terra firma; in history, there can be no permanent or solid ground.  Already for Lukács, Cohan writes, this position had become severely attenuated: “The ‘orthodox’ Marx Lukács found in the politics of the radicals of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, stood at the edge of an historical abyss.”[270]

By the first decades of the twentieth century, humanity had been brought to the brink.  “[I]n August, 1914, the accumulated antagonisms…tore to pieces the ‘peaceful’ cloak of capitalism,” Trotskii reflected in 1919.  “From the heights of civilization mankind found itself hurled into an abyss of terrifying barbarism and bloodstained savagery.”[271]  Insofar as the attempt to foment a world revolution in 1917 failed to extricate humanity from this abyss, however, the question must be asked: Has humanity yet emerged?

Continue to Conclusion: The Truth of Liberalism