Reap the whirlwind

But muh rain­bow co­ali­tion of mar­gin­al­ized iden­tit­ies will smash the kyri­archy as we sprinkle ma­gic di­versity pix­ie dust over every­one and cre­ate a shiny lib­er­al Star­bucks uto­pia. Yes­ter­day was 18 Bru­maire CCXXV ac­cord­ing to the French Re­pub­lic­an cal­en­dar, by the way. Just a happy co­in­cid­ence, I’m sure.

Left-lib­er­al “pro­gress­ives” did this to them­selves. This is ex­actly what re­treat­ing in­to cul­tur­al (i.e., iden­tity) polit­ics, while abandon­ing class as the basis for a so­cially trans­form­at­ive co­ali­tion, gets you. If you make no at­tempt to ap­peal to work­ers qua work­ers, the Right will in­ev­it­ably make in­roads with­in that group. As they in­deed have. So I don’t pity any­one who is ser­i­ously dis­traught by these res­ults. Blame for Trump can­not be laid solely at the door­step of “crack­ers” and hicks; he did sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter among blacks and Lati­nos than Rom­ney, his Re­pub­lic­an pre­de­cessor.

Most anti-af­firm­at­ive ac­tion shit is totally right-wing, so I will be­gin by say­ing that I in no way share the polit­ics of most people who look to cri­ti­cize it. But it’s ul­ti­mately a cos­met­ic meas­ure, which cre­ates a black and minor­ity bour­geois­ie and polit­ic­al elite (“black faces in high places,” etc.). When coupled with gen­er­al eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and wage de­pres­sion, grow­ing in­come in­equal­ity and job loss, it’s a re­cipe for re­vanchist ma­jor­it­ari­an back­lash. Edu­cated lib­er­al elites ex­pressed noth­ing but con­tempt for the work­ing poor in fly­over coun­try, whom they vil­i­fied as “one re­ac­tion­ary mass” — i.e., a “bas­ket of de­plor­ables” — of ig­nor­ant ra­cists.

In such an at­mo­sphere, even the slight­est over­ture to the work­ing class was bound to res­on­ate enorm­ously. Here, of course, the ap­peal was made us­ing xeno­phobic and hate­ful rhet­or­ic, ex­ploit­ing long­stand­ing ra­cial di­vi­sions and cap­it­al­iz­ing on deeply-felt anxi­et­ies. Plus, the lack of any ap­peal to the work­ing class by the Demo­crats also meant that poor minor­it­ies were not en­er­gized to vote for them. Smug, latte-sip­ping lib­er­als just res­ted on their laurels, se­cure in their be­lief that vic­tory was as­sured by simple demo­graph­ic shifts. All this while of­fer­ing noth­ing to work­ing blacks or Lati­nos, and prom­ising con­tin­ued war on those parts of the globe from which the refugee crisis first arose. Continue reading

Class, segmentation, racialization: Reading notes

Théorie Communiste
Lucha No Feik Club
(October 26, 2016)

Editorial note

Ori­gin­ally pub­lished by Théorie Com­mun­iste as «Classe/seg­men­ta­tion/raci­sa­tion. Notes». Trans­lated from the French by LNFC, with sub­stan­tial re­vi­sions by Ross Wolfe. I can’t take cred­it for the ma­jor­ity of this trans­la­tion, as I worked from the one pos­ted by the Lucha No Feik Club. Nev­er­the­less, I found this trans­la­tion al­most un­read­able, and so de­cided to go over it again with my (ad­mit­tedly quite poor) French and make some modi­fic­a­tions. Right now it’s prob­ably still un­read­able, but hope­fully a little less so. Just to point out some of my own ed­its, and give a sense of my reas­ons for mak­ing them, a few words might be ad­ded here. For ex­ample, I changed cho­si­fiée from “thingi­fied” to “re­ified.” Un­doubtedly the former is used from time to time, but it comes across here as clunky and in­el­eg­ant. Also, I rendered face à face as “faceoff,” rather than the dread­fully lit­er­al “face-to-face.” Vari­ous oth­er minor cor­rec­tions were made, some of them slight over­sights. Part of the prob­lem is in the ori­gin­al text, however, as there are a couple places where there are word-for-word re­pe­ti­tions of en­tire sen­tences. These were no doubt un­in­ten­tion­al, and have been ex­cised from the present ver­sion.

As re­gards the con­tent, I am quite in­ter­ested in see­ing how Théorie Com­mun­iste relates the phe­nomen­on of “ra­cial­iz­a­tion” [raci­sa­tion] to the struc­tur­al lo­gic of cap­it­al and its his­tor­ic un­fold­ing. Clearly, the art­icle takes race to be a more ar­bit­rary con­struc­tion than gender. Gender is rooted in the sexu­al di­vi­sion of labor with­in the oikos, wherein the fam­ily is the fun­da­ment­al eco­nom­ic unit. There are more bio­lo­gic­al de­term­in­ants for gender, at least ini­tially. Some of this is sketched out in an­oth­er short art­icle pub­lished by Théorie Com­mun­iste, “Uter­us vs. Melan­in,” which as yet re­mains un­trans­lated. However, while race is more re­cent and based on ac­ci­dent­al fea­tures, it is no less real than gender. Théorie Com­mun­iste loc­ates ra­cial­iz­a­tion with­in the seg­ment­a­tion of the work­force, where su­per­fi­cial dis­tinc­tions such as skin col­or and dif­fi­culties of com­mu­nic­a­tion (mul­tiple lan­guages, etc.) be­come mark­ers of dif­fer­ence. Deni­al of these dif­fer­ences, in the name of some norm­at­ive ideal of what class should be, is sharply cri­ti­cized for ig­nor­ing the seg­men­ted real­ity of so­cial­ized labor. Loren Gold­ner put this quite nicely a while back, when he wrote that “the ‘col­orblind’ Marx­ism of many left com­mun­ist cur­rents — a pro­let­ari­an is a pro­let­ari­an is a pro­let­ari­an — is simply… blind Marx­ism.”

Of course, race does not op­er­ate every­where uni­formly. It doesn’t al­ways fall along a col­or spec­trum run­ning from “white” to “black.” To be sure, the leg­acy of ra­cial­ized slavery in the United States over­shad­ows most oth­er his­tor­ic­al de­term­in­a­tions of race. But xeno­pho­bia to­ward vari­ous poor im­mig­rant groups — the Ir­ish in the 1850s, the Chinese in the early 1900s, Itali­ans in the 1920s-1930s, Lati­nos today — also plays a ma­jor role. Para­noia about Is­lam also in­forms a great deal of the hate­ful rhet­or­ic we’ve seen spouted against refugees since 2001. An­ti­semit­ism is less pro­nounced in the United States than in con­tin­ent­al Europe, cer­tainly, but it’s not al­to­geth­er un­known. Ra­cial dy­nam­ics work them­selves out a bit dif­fer­ently in France, with its his­tory of co­lo­ni­al­ism. However, I’m heartened to read that Théorie Com­mun­iste has no pa­tience for the re­ac­tion­ary polit­ics of race peddled by groups like the Parti des indigènes de la République and its lead­er, Houria Bouteldja. Roughly two years ago I cri­ti­cized the cul­tur­al re­lativ­ism of this par­tic­u­lar group, which per­vades de­co­lo­ni­al dis­course in gen­er­al, its “tac­tic­al ho­mo­pho­bia” and “lat­ent an­ti­semit­ism” (as the fol­low­ing art­icle puts it). Later I re­pos­ted an ex­cel­lent piece writ­ten by Ma­lika Amaouche, Yas­mine Kateb, and Léa Nic­olas-Te­boul.. «Classe/seg­men­ta­tion/raci­sa­tion» lam­bastes the PIR, who Théorie Com­mun­iste calls the “en­tre­pren­eurs of ra­cial­iz­a­tion.” I don’t blame Bouteldja et al. for pur­su­ing this en­ter­prise, though; someone had to tap the mar­ket left un­touched by Bloc Iden­titaire.

There has al­ways been seg­ment­a­tion with­in labor power. We must take it, then, as an ob­ject­ive de­term­in­a­tion of labor power un­der cap­it­al that nat­ur­ally leads to a di­vi­sion of labor. Here we have noth­ing more than a di­vide between a ho­mo­gen­eous ma­ter­i­al and a simple quant­it­at­ive grad­a­tion of the value of labor power. (Both simple and com­plex work un­der­go a kind of os­mos­is with­in the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, from the gen­er­al­ized con­straint of sur­plus labor to spe­cial­ized labor un­der co­oper­at­ive man­age­ment, etc.). However, this seg­ment­a­tion would not be so if it were not but a qual­it­at­ive di­vide with­in an oth­er­wise ho­mo­gen­eous ma­ter­i­al. Two pro­cesses in­ter­vene as they weave to­geth­er: On the one hand the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is glob­al, cap­able of ap­pro­pri­at­ing and des­troy­ing all oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion while con­serving for it­self the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of those it has re­defined. On the oth­er hand the value of labor power rep­res­ents a mor­al, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­ic­al com­pon­ent. Since cap­it­al­ist ex­ploit­a­tion is uni­ver­sal — i.e., be­cause cap­it­al can take over oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion or make them co­ex­ist along­side it, ex­ploit labor power to­geth­er with those oth­er modes or de­tach them from their former ex­ist­en­tial con­di­tions — cap­it­al­ism is thus an his­tor­ic­al con­struc­tion that brings about the co­ex­ist­ence of all the dif­fer­ent strata of his­tory in a single mo­ment. Seg­ment­a­tion is not merely “ma­nip­u­la­tion.” It ex­ists as the vol­un­tary activ­ity of the cap­it­al­ist class and its pro­fes­sion­al ideo­logues, which forms and an­im­ates an ob­ject­ive pro­cess, a struc­tur­al de­term­in­a­tion of the mode of pro­duc­tion.

If the work­ing class has al­ways been seg­men­ted, it is still ne­ces­sary to con­tex­tu­al­ize this seg­ment­a­tion. That is to say, it must be situ­ated in the gen­er­al form of the con­tra­dic­tion between pro­let­ari­at and cap­it­al with­in a giv­en cycle of struggles. Without this, the op­pos­i­tion to iden­tit­ies — iden­tit­ies wrongly as­so­ci­ated with com­munit­ies — would be solely norm­at­ive. Even if we were to con­fer great cir­cum­stan­tial im­port­ance on this seg­ment­a­tion, its be­ing lies else­where, with­in a pur­ity that is either ac­cess­ible or not. We do not es­cape the mutually ex­clus­ive op­pos­i­tion to iden­tit­ies simply by pit­ting what is against what should be.

Re­gard­ing the re­la­tion between seg­ment­a­tion and ra­cial­iz­a­tion [raci­sa­tion], there ex­ist two uni­lat­er­al stances fa­cing one an­oth­er. Ac­cord­ing to the first, ma­ter­i­al­ism boils down to re­du­cing iden­tity to its found­a­tion — without tak­ing its ef­fect­ive­ness or its lo­gic in­to ac­count. The second, equally ma­ter­i­al­ist stance but­tresses it­self on a re­fus­al to con­sider the facts. It says that if ra­cial­ identity is reduced in toto to its found­a­tion, it’s noth­ing but an arbitrary [volon­taire] and det­ri­ment­al con­struct. Hence, those who turn it in­to an ob­ject merely di­vide the class and pro­mote bar­bar­ism. (I’m hardly dis­tort­ing their po­s­i­tion). What always es­capes both of these stances is the ques­tion of ideo­logy, which is not a re­flec­tion [of the base] but an en­semble of prac­tic­al and be­liev­able re­sponses. Beneath these operate cer­tain prac­tices. Iden­tity comes in­to be­ing wherever there is a sep­ar­a­tion and auto­nom­iz­a­tion of a proper sphere of activ­ity. Each identity or ideo­logy — in the sense of the term em­ployed here — has its own his­tory and mod­us op­erandi, which can be ascertained with reference to the prac­tices op­er­at­ing be­neath the ideo­logy in ques­tion. Iden­tity is therefore an es­sen­tial­iz­a­tion which defines an in­di­vidu­al as a sub­ject.

A norm­at­ive deni­al of ra­cial­ized seg­ment­a­tion does not seek con­tra­dic­tions with­in that which ex­ists, but is rather content to po­s­ition it­self in con­tra­dic­tion to that which ex­ists: class against its seg­ment­a­tion, without con­sid­er­ing that class only ex­ists with­in this seg­ment­a­tion (i.e., with­in the con­tra­dic­tion of pro­let­ari­at and cap­it­al that provides for its re­pro­duc­tion). Norm­at­ive op­pos­i­tion to the real seg­ment­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at leads to an ideo­lo­gic­al ec­lipse of this real­ity — something the Parti des indigènes de la République [PIR] does in­versely, in its own way. Continue reading

Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930” — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930” not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.” Continue reading

No scabs

In the history of modern class struggle, those who cross picket lines to fill jobs temporarily vacated by workers on strike are known as “scabs.” Scabs are thus low-cost replacement workers, whose willingness to work for less allows employers to starve out the more organized regular workforce. They are therefore looked down upon, understandably, and treated with disdain. Not all strikebreakers are scabs, however. Company muscle, whether made up of mafiosos or Pinkerton men, are typically deployed in order to clear pickets and escort scabs into work.

Many today on the Left, either unaccustomed to labor disputes or unschooled in their past, are confused by the term “scab.” For example, Sebastian Budgen — an editor for Verso, New Left Review, and Historical Materialism, formerly a member of the SWP in Britain — has written frothy diatribes against anyone who illegally downloads books published by his company (er, I mean “counterhegemonic apparatus”). He bravely denounced the “petit-bourgeois individualist swine” and “loudmouthed freeloading scum” who dared to download “pirate scab versions.”

Thank fuck his series co-editor Peter Thomas stepped in at this point, though apparently for the umpteenth time, to remind him that “scabs” refer exclusively to workers who cross picket lines during a strike. I thought it pretty sad that a publisher of leftist literature would be so terminologically ignorant. Anyway, a more detailed etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary can be read here. Jack London’s famous excoriation of scab workers, from 1915, follows below.

Ode to a scab

Jack London
Circa 1915

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.

A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.


No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared with a scab. For betraying his master, he had character enough to hang himself. A scab has not.

Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation.

Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a strikebreaker is a traitor to his God, his country, his wife, his family and his class.

Rassenkampf or Klassenkampf?

I hate to say it, but what strikes me more than anything in rereading Houria Bouteldja’s article is just how painfully French her entire mode of thought is. Far from being fundamentally “alien” and indecipherable to white leftists in the West, her arguments are Western through and through. She recycles the worst of Frog poststructuralist brainrot, precisely when she insists upon her «altérité radicale».

The really astounding thing about this is the way that so many self-declared Marxists, predominantly white Anglophone males, are rallying to the side of a thinker who can only talk about “class struggle” in scare quotes. Perhaps Marx and Engels were wrong, after all: the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of Rassenkampf, not Klassenkampf.

Bouteldja’s polemics against Enlightenment universalism actually has some precedent in (reactionary) French political thought, moreover. Marx has a bit on this in his 1863 Theories of Surplus Value, hardly a piece of a juvenilia. Sub out “Linguet” for “Bouteldja” and switch around the pronouns, maybe get rid of specifics like “contemporaries” and “that was then beginning,” the statement might well stand today:

Linguet…is not a socialist. His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie that was then beginning, are given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance. He defends Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.

Of course, most of the romantic anti-capitalist motifs Bouteldja relies upon can be traced back to some reactionary European precursor. Her rants against “gay universalism” are clearly underwritten by notions of Kultur and Gemeinschaft as somehow organic and distinct that go at least as far back as Herder. You can almost smell the Spengler, however, in the accounts of decline and cultural pollution by the homosexual bacillus.

At the end of the day, though, it is the “white left” that uncritically embraces this anti-Marxist nonsense that bears most of the blame for its opportunistic pandering.

Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.

Opening remarks

Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

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German socialists assail U-Boat war

New York Times
August 21, 1916

In view of the revival of activity of German submarines and reports of the renewal of agitation in German for the unlimited use of the submarine, regardless of the attitude of the United States and other neutral countries, interest attaches to the arrival in New York via Switzerland of copies of an anti-submarine and anti-government leaflet that has been secretly circulated by thousands throughout the German Empire.

This pamphlet was put out by a minority group of the Social Democratic Party of Germany [SPD] that has consistently opposed the war from the very beginning, and which is labeled the “International Group.” In this group are Dr. Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Dr. Ernst Meyer, editor of the Berliner Vorwärts; Clara Zetkin, editor of Die Gleichheit; Franz Mehring, and Berta Thalheimer. At present Dr. Liebknecht is under sentence of thirty months in prison, and Rosa Luxemburg and Dr. Meyer are both under arrest.

Antiwar German socialists.

The leaflet, which is entitled “Submarine Warfare, ‘International Law,’ and International Murder,” and which started circulating some time ago — when the German press and parliament were clamoring for vengeance upon the British for the alleged murder of the members of a German submarine crew (known as the Baialong case) — reads as follows:


Submarine warfare, “international law,” and international murder

The German government has incurred a sharp rebuff and has humbled itself before the United States. But the provocatory agitation continues, and it is necessary that we clearly understand what may still happen.

Submarine warfare was intended to force England to come whimpering and begging for mercy, and thus bring the war to an end with a glorious victory for German imperialism. Because the German people were hungry, the politicians “holding out” persuaded the nation that the people of England should be forced to be still hungrier.

German U-Boats, 1913-1918.

War started by imperialists

Crazy imperialist agitators in the government and the ruling classes had stupidly provoked the world war, in spite of the fact that this would lead the German masses to run the risk of being starved out. To the crime of international murder they added that of stupidity, for they knew — they must have known — that nowadays a war against France and Russia might last for years, and that if at the same time the neutrality of England were not assured all exports all exports to Germany would be cut off.

And when it really came to that, they began to shout bloody murder and assert that this constituted a violation of international law; that it was a crime against international law to expose a nation of 70,000,000 people to famine.

To this we may say: “In the first place the German government has forfeited every right of appeal to international law.” If [international law] is to be effective, then above all international treaties so solemnly entered upon must be binding. Such treaties guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. Despite this, Germany attacked Belgium and thus gave British imperialism the excuse to incite the British people to war against Germany. In the second place, the blockade carried on by England, the cutting off of all exports to Germany, is not contrary to the law of nations. On the contrary, the halting of exports to an enemy in order to make the struggle harder, or quite impossible, is a method of warfare that has always been recognized.

The sinking and raising of U-Boat 110.

How submarines failed

In the spring of 1915 our braggarts were cracking jokes. England would not starve us out, but we should starve her out. That was to be done by the submarines. Such talk was foolishness then, and it remains so now. In order to cut off exports to England it would be necessary to watch all the coasts of all her islands, and to do that would require a hundred submarines for every dozen that Germany is able to build. And even then the outcome would be in doubt, for there are means of defense and protection against these boats, too. Continue reading

Spartakiade: A Bolshevik alternative to the Olympics

With opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics a couple nights ago in Sochi, Russia — and all the pomp, pageantry, and slapstick that went with it — it’s perhaps appropriate to reflect on the oft-forgotten Soviet alternative to the Olympics: the proletarian Spartakiade, set up in 1924 as a challenge to the hegemony of the bourgeois Olympiad. It’s important to remember that the modern Olympic games were a fairly recent phenomenon. The idea of holding an international sporting event along these lines was only revived in 1894, and the inaugural Games held just two years later. “Physical culture,” Fiskultur in German and Физкультура in Russian, was an ideology embraced across the political spectrum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, part of a popular cult of the body that emphasized fitness as part of a well-rounded education (along with literacy and basic math skills). From mainstream European Social-Democracy during the 1890s to North American “muscular Christianity” around the same time, the idea enjoyed a great deal of support.

After conflicts broke out between the major European powers in 1914, the early days of what would eventually become known as the Great War, the Olympic games were put on hold. Though the Second International (founded 1889) capitulated to the spirit of patriotic belligerence that same year, upheaval in Russia resulted in the collapse of tsarism in February 1917 and the revolutionary seizure of power by the Bolsheviks a few months later. Its leaders thereupon declared the foundation of a Third, Communist International — the Comintern. One might view the stance taken by the Comintern during the early 1920s toward international sporting competitions like the Olympics as paralleling its own relationship to international bourgeois legal and political institutions around the same time. By establishing the Spartakiade as a rival to the Olympiad, the Bolsheviks hoped to set up a proletarian alternative to bourgeois internationalism.

Similarly, the Comintern itself would be viewed as a proletarian version of the bourgeois League of Nations, from which the USSR had been excluded, though here the socialists had a head start over their capitalist competitors (the First International Workingmen’s Association was organized in 1863, while the League of Nations would only take shape in June 1919). The Spartakiade existed as an international sporting event from 1924-1937, ending around the same time as the as the Comintern became defunct. Again, this mirrored the Soviets’ shifting attitude toward internationalism in general. Under Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country” [социализм в одной стране], Spartakiads were instead repurposed as national events between the various semi-autonomous Soviet Republics. Likewise, just as the Soviet Union was made a participant in the United Nations after 1947, Soviet sportsmen began participating in the Olympics in 1952. This marked the effective integration of the USSR in the postwar status quo, less of an imminent threat to the bourgeois social order than its cynical cooperant.

Below is reproduced the Comintern’s November 1924 Manifesto of the Red Sport International. You can read the original May 1925 English translation of the document in Young Worker. Also included are some outstanding posters, photos, and promotional art for the games, which can be enlarged by clicking on the thumbnails.


Manifesto of the Red Sport International
Executive Committee, Comintern
November 21, 1924

To the Working-class Sportsmen of all Countries!

To all Working Men and Working Women In Town and Countryside!

The Third World Congress of the Red Sports International addresses this manifesto on behalf of the delegates who represent twenty-one countries at the Congress, to all workers belonging to gymnastics and sports organizations, and invites them to join the international association of proletarian and peasant gymnastics and sports organizations — the Red Sports International.

The bourgeoisie does its utmost to keep the oppressed classes under its domination. In the hands of the bourgeoisie, gymnastics and sports organizations are converted into tools of bourgeois militarism and fascism, and thereby into fighting cadets of the reactionaries against the proletariat of the home country, as well as the proletariat of foreign countries.

The bourgeoisie is fully aware of the important role of gymnastic and-sport organizations and it is using them as a means to corrupt the proletariat and to permeate it with bourgeois ideology, providing thereby active defenders of bourgeois capitalist interests in the everyday economic struggles (factory sports, clubs under capitalist control, strikebreaking, technical aid, etc.), as well as in the present and future political struggles (Chauvinist national organizations, military training of the young, national militia, etc.).

From being a means of the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, proletarian gymnastic and sports organizations must become an important factor — for the proletariat — in the world struggle of the workers and poor peasants for the establishment of a proletarian social order.

In the atmosphere of class struggle there can be no “neutrality” and no “non-political attitude” for the workers also with respect to gymnastics and sports. Collaboration or class truce with and within bourgeois organizations, especially with the bourgeoisie, is tantamount to a betrayal of proletarian interests. Continue reading

Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions

Contra the “Leninists”

Image: Jacques Louis-David,
The Tennis Court Oath (1793)

Introduction: Against leftist senility

I am posting this here because of the widespread incredulity witnessed recently on the part of self-declared “Marxists” toward the historical legacy of the bourgeois revolutions. This is, I contend, the flipside to the tendency of leftists to claim all manner of backwater populists like
Chavez or Allende — their tendency to disclaim truly revolutionary figures who come out of the bourgeois tradition, Jacobins like Jefferson or Danton and radical Republicans like Lincoln. Since they’ve had so few notable political leaders and organizers in recent decades, leftists have lionized sheepish socialists and reformists of all sorts while denigrating the accomplishments of bourgeois revolutionaries. Engels, addressing a crowd gathered in 1845 to mark the “festival of nations,” commemorated the protagonists of the great bourgeois revolutions, adding that “[i]f that mighty epoch, these iron characters, did not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”

Needless to say, this goes double in a time such as ours. Despite the admirable efforts of historians like Neil Davidson, whose recent book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? takes explicit aim at such blatant revisionism, neo-Stalinist academics like Domenico Losurdo insist that the category of “bourgeois revolution”

is at once too narrow and too broad. As regards the first aspect, it is difficult to subsume under the category of bourgeois revolution the Glorious Revolution and the parliamentary revolt that preceded the upheavals that began in France in 1789, not to mention the struggles against monarchical absolutism, explicitly led by the liberal nobility, which developed in Switzerland and other countries. On the other hand, the category of bourgeois revolution is too broad: it subsumes both the American Revolution that sealed the advent of a racial state and the French Revolution and the San Domingo Revolution, which involved complete emancipation of black slaves. (Liberalism: A Counter-History, pg. 321)

In an interview I conducted with him over a year ago, the Italian theorist expanded on this point with reference to bourgeois revolutions, faulting Marx himself. “I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation,” he told me. “I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery…We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided.” (Losurdo conveniently forgets it was Engels — the “late” Engels of Anti-Dühring, no less, not a piece juvenilia penned by a supposedly “young” Marx — who maintained: “What the American Revolution had begun the French Revolution completed”). Continue reading