“Last illusions”: The Labour Party and the Left

Efraim Car­le­bach
Platy­pus Re­view
№ 97
, June 2017
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In every era the at­tempt must be made anew to wrest tra­di­tion away from a con­form­ism that is about to over­power it… even the dead will not be safe from the en­emy if he wins. And this en­emy has not ceased to be vic­tori­ous.

— Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory

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Since Jeremy Corbyn took lead­er­ship of the La­bour Party in 2015, he and his party have been the North Star for many on the Left. This re­ori­ent­a­tion has raised old ques­tions about the Left’s re­la­tion­ship to the La­bour Party. At the Ox­ford Rad­ic­al For­um in March the de­scrip­tion for a pan­el on “Corbyn, La­bour, and the Rad­ic­al Left” put for­ward a num­ber of symp­to­mat­ic pro­pos­i­tions. It re­gistered the fact that “sev­er­al so­cial­ist tend­en­cies which had pre­vi­ously cam­paigned against the party now com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing it un­der Corbyn’s lead­er­ship” and that Corbyn’s elec­tion to lead­er “was largely viewed as a mo­ment of tri­umph for the far left.” But what is the Left? And what would mean for it to tri­umph? It sug­ges­ted that the Left has “a great­er de­gree of in­flu­ence in party polit­ics than it has for dec­ades.” But what is a polit­ic­al party for the Left? The de­scrip­tion wor­ries about what will hap­pen if Corbyn loses in a gen­er­al elec­tion. The hopes for trans­form­ing the La­bour Party seem in danger. Ral­ph Miliband is un­con­sciously in­voked: Should the left “pur­sue so­cial­ism” by “par­lia­ment­ary” or “non-par­lia­ment­ary” means? Solace is taken in the thought that the La­bour Party is “clearly more so­cial­ist than any since 1983 — and per­haps even earli­er.”1 But what is so­cial­ism?

As the Left, in vari­ous ways, rushes to em­brace La­bour, the his­tory of the La­bour Party rises up be­hind it. This art­icle relates that his­tory to the his­tory of Marx­ism from 1848 to WWI, par­tic­u­larly the “re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute.” On the ru­ins of that his­tory ap­pears the ap­par­ent pleth­ora of “Left” ori­ent­a­tions to La­bour today.

Bona­partism and re­form­ism

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In their re­spect­ive cri­ti­cisms of re­vi­sion­ism in the re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute with­in the Second In­ter­na­tion­al, Lux­em­burg and Len­in ar­gued that the re­vi­sion­ists had re­gressed to pre-Marxi­an so­cial­ism, to lib­er­al­ism and petit-bour­geois demo­cracy, li­quid­at­ing the need for so­cial­ist lead­er­ship. Len­in and Lux­em­burg sought to ad­vance bey­ond the im­passe by re­turn­ing to the high point of con­scious­ness in Marx’s re­cog­ni­tion of the les­sons of the failed re­volu­tions of 1848. Un­like the re­vi­sion­ists they did not have a lin­ear-pro­gress­ive view of his­tory. The 1848 re­volu­tions failed to de­liv­er the “so­cial re­pub­lic.” As Marx wrote, the bour­geois­ie were no longer able to rule and the pro­let­ari­at not yet ready.2 The state had to in­ter­vene to man­age the self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety, that is, cap­it­al­ism. Louis Bona­parte filled this va­cu­um of power by ap­peal­ing for sup­port to the dis­con­tents of all classes in so­ci­ety and ex­pand­ing state in­sti­tu­tions of wel­fare and po­lice as tools for con­trolling con­tra­dic­tions in so­ci­ety. So Bona­partism led the dis­con­tents of the masses to polit­ic­ally re­con­sti­t­ute cap­it­al through the state. This was an in­ter­na­tion­al phe­nomen­on, af­fect­ing all the ma­jor cap­it­al­ist coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United King­dom. For Marx, the les­son of 1848 was the ne­ces­sity of the polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence of the work­ing class from petit-bour­geois demo­cracy, or the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at. In the ab­sence of this in­de­pend­ent polit­ic­al lead­er­ship, the masses would be led by the right, as they were by Louis Bona­parte.

In Re­form or Re­volu­tion, Lux­em­burg ar­gues that so­cial re­forms do not so­cial­ize pro­duc­tion, lead­ing piece­meal to so­cial­ism, but so­cial­ize the crisis of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion. The work­ers’ bour­geois de­mands for work and justice needed a pro­let­ari­an party for so­cial­ism to “achieve the con­scious­ness of the need to over­come la­bour as a com­mod­ity, to make the ‘ob­ject­ive’ eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tion, a ‘sub­ject­ive’ phe­nomen­on of polit­ics3 — “to take its his­tory in­to its own hands.”4 In Len­in’s terms, the re­vi­sion­ists’ “tail­ing” of trade uni­on con­scious­ness dis­solved the goal in­to the move­ment, li­quid­ated the need for the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism.

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Remembering revisionism: The reform vs. revolution debate in Second International Marxism

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The so-called “revisionism” debate represented the greatest trial of Second International Marxism prior to its crisis in August 1914 and subsequent collapse. Its result was probably the most important theoretical outcome of the period, whatever practical disagreements remained hidden beneath the unified doctrine of Marxian orthodoxy (only to be exposed later on). Eduard Bernstein, the executor of Engels’ estate and a longtime exponent of the theories of Marx, had come to have doubts about the revolutionary predictions made by his recently departed mentors from the 1840s up through the 1860s. From about the middle of the 1890s to the turn of the century, Bernstein would wage a fierce polemic against those aspects of Marxist theory he considered falsified or outdated. Namely, the idea of a violent revolution leading to the seizure of state power, which he felt was founded on the residual idealism inherited by Marx and Engels via the Hegelian dialectic.

Several texts are helpful in understanding the origins, development, and consequences of the revisionist controversy. A great deal of it centered on the famous question: “Reform or revolution?” (I’ve already expressed my opinion of this dichotomy, along with a third term of “resistance,” in the past). But other issues were necessarily drawn into it as well, such as the notion of the progressive immiseration or pauperization of the masses culminating in a breakdown or collapse [Zusammenbruch], as well as problems of Marxist methodology mentioned above. The most comprehensive survey of this struggle within the party, by far, is the collection edited by H. and J.M. Tudor. Preconditions of Socialism by Bernstein, which condensed and systematized his arguments over the two preceding years, is also a crucial work. Last but not least, when it comes to primary documents, there is Rosa Luxemburg’s outstanding Reform or Revolution? (1898). What is to be Done?, Lenin’s well-known diatribe against the economists, can be seen — and indeed was seen by Lenin himself — as an echo of the revisionism debate in the Russian context.

You can download these three primary sources, translated into English, by clicking below:

Secondary sources are always helpful, too, so here are some that might aid readers in their effort to understand the significance of this dispute. Here are some good ones:

Below you will find a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti on “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International.” Frankly, it surprised me, given Colletti’s reputation as a staunch anti-Hegelian. Readers of this blog will know that I am above all sympathetic to the Hegelian Marxist reading that emerged around Lenin right before the war and continued by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch after the war. In this essay, Colletti is deeply critical of his former master Galvano Della Volpe, and finds himself in agreement with many things Lukács wrote during the 1920s and Korsch wrote during the 1930s (I find Korsch had already declined by this point, but he still had the occasional insight). Colletti also makes use of an Hegelian metaphor in explaining the way labor-time “congeals” in Marx’s account of the commodity. He discusses, moreover, the writings of Luxemburg and Preobrazhenskii — left-wingers within the Second and Third Internationals, respectively. Moishe Postone even considers Colletti’s insights in this essay quite valuable: “Like Isaak Rubin, Colletti maintains that what has rarely been understood is that Marx’s theory of value is identical to his theory of the fetish. What must be explained is why the product of labor assumes the form of the commodity and why, therefore, human labor appears as a value of things…Colletti’s argument parallels some aspects of that developed in this work, [although] his critique remains one of the mode of distribution.” The argument Colletti builds on the basis of abstract labor and its relation to fetishism and the value-form helps to explain the revisionism debate very well.

A couple words about the aftermath of the revisionism debate, specifically with regard to the way many matters were left unsettled. Karl Korsch explained admirably in Marxism and Philosophy how its apparent resolution in favor of revolutionism masked deeper divisions which persisted up to World War I:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the long period of purely evolutionary development of capitalism came to an end, and a new epoch of revolutionary struggle began. Because of this change in the practical conditions of class struggle, there were increasing signs that Marxist theory had entered a critical phase. It became obvious that the extraordinarily banal and rudimentary vulgar Marxism of the epigones had an extremely inadequate awareness of even the totality of its own problems, let alone any definite positions on a whole range of questions outside them. The crisis of Marxist theory showed itself most clearly in the problem of the attitude of social revolution towards the State. This major issue had never been seriously posed in practice since the defeat of the first proletarian revolutionary movement in 1848, and the repression of the revolt of the Commune of 1871. It was put concretely on the agenda once again by the World War, the first and second Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918. It now became clear that there was no unanimity whatever within the camp of Marxism on such major issues of transition and goal as the “seizure of State power by the proletariat,” the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the final “withering away of the State” in communist society. On the contrary, no sooner were all these questions posed in a concrete and unavoidable manner, than there emerged at least three different theoretical positions on them, all of which claimed to be Marxist. Yet in the prewar period, the most prominent representatives of these three tendencies — respectively Renner, Kautsky, and Lenin — had not only been regarded as Marxists but as orthodox Marxists. For some decades there had been an apparent crisis in the camp of the Social Democrat parties and trade unions of the Second International; this took the shape of a conflict between orthodox Marxism and revisionism. But with the emergence of different socialist tendencies over these new questions, it became clear that this apparent crisis was only a provisional and illusory version of a much deeper rift that ran through the orthodox Marxist front itself. On one side of this rift, there appeared Marxist neo-reformism which soon more or less amalgamated with the earlier revisionism. On the other side, the theoretical representatives of a new revolutionary proletarian party unleashed a struggle against both the old reformism of the revisionists and the new reformism of the “center,” under the battle-cry of restoring pure or revolutionary Marxism. This crisis erupted within the Marxist camp at the outbreak of the World War.

Of course, there had been developments in the meantime — especially after 1909 — that should have been recognized internationally and acted upon (at the very least) nationally. Lukács explained in an article I posted previously the rapprochement between Kautsky and Bernstein around 1910. Even Lenin was unaware of the depths to which the German party had sunk. Trotsky recalled: “Rosa Luxemburg did not pose the question of the struggle against centrism with the requisite completeness. Lenin’s position was entirely superior in this respect. But between October 1916, when Lenin wrote about the Junius pamphlet, and 1903, when Bolshevism had its inception, there is a lapse of thirteen years; in the course of the major part of this period Rosa  was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formalistic, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core ‘radicalism’ of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character. Up until 1914, Lenin did not participate in this fight and did not support Luxemburg. Passionately absorbed in Russian affairs, he preserved extreme caution in international matters. In Lenin’s eyes Bebel and Kautsky stood immeasurably higher as revolutionists than in the eyes of Luxemburg, who observed them at closer range, in action, and who was much more directly subjected to the atmosphere of German politics.”

Nevertheless, despite the inadequacies of the revisionism controversy in this connection, its official revolutionary policy remains an important legacy. Of course, in the absence of a mass movement, the existence of which Luxemburg, Kautsky, and Bernstein took more or less for granted, the question “reform or revolution?” is purely hypothetical today. Reform is unlikely to come about without at least the plausible threat of revolutionary upheaval. Bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the US can barely tolerate a soft Social Democrat like Sanders running in its primary. My earnest hope is that these questions will become less abstract given time, with the increase of an independent proletarian movement in the core capitalist countries.

Erinnerungskarte mit den Mitgliedern der sozialdemokratischen Reichstagsfraktion, 1890

Bernstein and the Marxism
of the Second International

Lucio Colletti
Ideology and
Society
(1969)
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Engels’ “political testament”
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In the introduction he wrote for the first reprinting of The Class Struggles in France, in March 1895 — only a few months before his death — Engels observes that the chief error made by Marx and himself at the time of the 1848 revolution was that they had treated the European situation as ripe for socialist transformation:

History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a long way ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution, which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent… and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank.1

According to Engels, this error of judgment concerning the real level of capitalist development in 1848 was to a considerable extent matched by a mistaken political conception that he and Marx had derived from preceding revolutionary experience, and particularly that of France: the idea of revolution as the action of a minority. “It was… natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and course of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly colored by memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830.” While “all revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another,” “all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people”; hence, “the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so — whether wittingly or not — only in the service of the minority; but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.”

The undue extension of this character of preceding revolutions to “the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation” had now been sharply contradicted by history. History “has done even more: it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.”

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Reflections on resistance, reform, and revolution

The problematic forms of
contemporary anticapitalism

Untitled.
Image: Cover to Rosa Luxemburg’s
Sozialreform oder Revolution? (1899)

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The following are the prepared remarks to a Platypus panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance” with 1960s activist Todd Gitlin and WIL organizer Tom Trottier, held last March at NYU. A considerably expanded and improved version of this essay has been published by Upping the Anti (which I encourage everyone interested to buy):

Almost five years have passed since Platypus hosted its first panel on “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance.” At the time, many of us were trying to come to terms with the profound sense of disorientation we’d felt during our involvement in the antiwar movement, which was then in a process of rapid disintegration. We hoped to explore the relationship between these three categories, both to each other and to the greater project of human freedom, in order to determine whether an emancipatory politics was still even possible. How can the respective political modes of resistance, reform, and revolution be deployed to advance social and individual freedom? How might they reinforce each other on a reciprocal basis? Today, with the recent upsurge in global activism, we stand on the precipice of what promises to herald the rebirth of such a politics. These questions have acquired a renewed sense of urgency in this light. Now more than ever, they demand our attention if we are to forge a way forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Reform, revolution, and resistance — each of these concepts exercises a certain hold over the popular imagination of the Left. While they need not be conceived as mutually exclusive, the three have often sat in uneasy tension with one another over the course of the last century, however. The Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg famously counterposed the first two in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution?, written over a hundred years ago. In her view, this ultimately turned out to be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, Luxemburg was addressing a real dilemma that had emerged along with the formation of the Second International and the development of mass working-class politics in the late nineteenth century. Even if she was able to conclude that reforms could still be pursued within the framework of a revolutionary program — that is, without falling into reformism — this was by no means an obvious position to take.

Still less should we consider the matter done and settled with respect to our current context, simply because a great figure like Luxemburg dealt with it in her own day. We do not have the luxury of resting on the accomplishments or insights of past thinkers. It is unclear whether the solution at which she arrived then holds true any longer. History can help us understand the momentum of the present carried over from the past, as well as possible futures toward which it may be tending. But it offers no prefabricated formulae for interpreting the present, no readymade guides to action. Continue reading

Three models of “resistance” — Introduction

Introduction

Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance

A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative.[1] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[2] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.

Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological.[3] The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes. Continue reading

A critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?”

Toussaint Louverture

The following is a brief critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s co-written article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?” The authors present a forceful argument, but in the final analysis I must take issue with many of their conclusions — not least of which is the relationship of “socialism” to “communism.”  Though it may seem superfluous, or even slightly disingenuous, to praise the authors I am about to criticize, I will preface my remarks by saying that I greatly enjoy many of the things they’ve published for their own publication, Viewpoint Magazine.  Especially excellent is Ben Lear’s review of Berardi’s After the Future, which appeared recently on their blog.  I thought the exchange on Lenin they hosted a few months back was also clarifying.  Salar’s historical analysis, “On the Black Bloc,” is also excellent.

All these gestures at diplomacy aside, however, I must take issue with the following historical characterization:

The Erfurt synthesis, which made some sense [questionable] in non-revolutionary situations like the one which gave birth to it, quickly proved ineffective when a new cycle of struggle took shape in the decade before the First World War. The party, failing to register this changed situation, stuck to the old line — it misunderstood the growing militancy of the rank and file because its institutional structure had so dangerously exacerbated the distance between an increasingly bureaucratized party apparatus and the everyday lives of workers. A socialist subculture had been the foundation of class solidarity, based on grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations (also known as “potato clubs”) to horseplay on the shop floor. But the SPD leadership increasingly tried to measure up to respectable bourgeois standards, with patriarchal families, ‘high culture,’ and patriotism, which immediately set them against the militancy of migrant workers in the Ruhr mines, and the wildcat strikes of female textile workers. “Women don’t want to know about politics and organization,” said one male socialist. “They appreciate a May Day festival, with singing and speeches and dancing…but they don’t appreciate political and trade union meetings.”

Dovetailing on Pham Binh’s quite correct remarks regarding the problem of legality vs. illegality, I would like to reiterate that the problem with the German Social Democrats was not that they had “lost touch” with the party’s working-class membership and constituency. Contrary to widespread belief, there is nothing inherently revolutionary about the working class. Marx’s entire argument regarding the proletariat was that it is the only potentially revolutionary class in modern society. This is because of its status as the only actually “universal” class in modern society (an inversion from of Hegel’s argument about the bureaucracy being the only “universal” class). The proletariat, at a sociological and empirical level, is “universal” insofar as it is both constitutive of and constituted by capital through the wage-relationship. It is unclear to me, however, whether it is all forms of universalism that the authors reject, or only the selective universalism of colonial rule. Universal suffrage is, of course, a form of universalism. Presumably this kind of universalism would meet with their approval.

Of course, when Marx was writing Capital, proletarian labor — defined as participating in the production and circulation of commodities, as well as through sale of its own labor as a commodity — was still mostly unique to the most advanced capitalist countries of the West. Since that time, the relationship of wage-labor has only become further generalized, resulting in nearly global proletarianization, at least at an objective level. That is to say, at the level of individuals’ objective relationship to the means of production.  Perhaps the most important lesson of the twentieth century is that the political tendencies of a given social stratum are by no means guaranteed.  Haider and Mohandesi gesture at this in their rejection of inevitabilism, but this does not itself go beyond the inevitabilism they ascribe to the Bernsteinians and Kautskyites.  For whether or not a person is objectively (i.e., sociologically) a member of the working class, it cannot be assumed that subjectively (i.e., politically) the person has attained proletarian class-consciousness. “The proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing,” Marx wrote in 1871. His statement should be read as follows: until the proletariat is revolutionary, it remains nothing.  It just remains unrealized potential.

Moreover, the various practices of working-class self-organization (“grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations…to horseplay on the shop floor”) were not at all more militant than the party’s actual line. It wasn’t as if the cooperative networks signaled a great radicalism on the workers’ behalf. In fact, one of the greatest advocates of workers’ cooperatives was the archrevisionist Eduard Bernstein, (see his Preconditions of Socialism) while one of their greatest detractors was of the cooperatives was the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (see her classic Reform or Revolution). The idea that the everyday practices operated to radicalize the workers in the factories perhaps have some incidental truth, but in general this kind of assertion (when made categorically) belongs only to the most boring kinds of “history from below,” a dreary form of Alltagsgeschichte. The failure of the SPD was not that it had become too elitist or “bourgeois.” What happened was a flagrant betrayal of what had before been agreed upon and passed as a guiding principle for the world war that everyone saw was on the horizon: namely, the 1907 Lenin-Luxemburg amendment, in which it was agreed that in the event of widespread international conflict, International Social Democracy would come out in firm opposition, and try to exploit the situation to foment world revolution.

Likewise, in decade or so after World War I, there was a general rightward lurch within the German proletariat. This is difficult to explain if one maintains that the working class or the “oppressed” in general are innately revolutionary. As Wilhelm Reich asked in 1933, while still a Marxist working in Austria as a volunteer psychoanalyst, providing services to working class families,

What produced the mass-psychological soil on which an imperialistic ideology could grow and could be put into practice, in strict contradiction to the peace-loving mentality of a German population uninterested in foreign politics? The “betrayal of the leaders of the Second International” is no satisfactory answer. Why, one must ask, did millions of workers, with a liberal and anti-imperialistic attitude, let themselves be betrayed? Fear of the consequences of refusal to take up arms could be the motive [18] only in a small minority. If one had witnessed the mobilization of 1914, one knew that the working population showed diverse attitudes. There was a conscious rejection on the part of a minority; a peculiar submission to fate or an indolence; and violent enthusiasm not only in the middle classes but also in masses of industrial workers.

Reich insightfully observed that the political orientation of the working class is ambivalent: “The discovery of the fact that the working individual is neither unequivocally reactionary nor unequivocally revolutionary but in a conflict between reactionary and revolutionary tendencies, must of necessity lead to a practical program which opposes the reactionary psychological forces with revolutionary forces.” As he goes on the point out, the erroneous belief that workers are somehow inherently more militant and revolutionary seemed to be materially disproven by the widespread support of the German working class for Nazism.

The authors also issue a harsh indictment of the Enlightenment and of bourgeois revolutions in general:

Those who equate political liberation with the flowering of the bourgeois individual often say that the French Revolution represented the Enlightenment’s point of culmination. What they leave out is that it was also its point of explosion. The slaves of Haiti — who watched their newly enlightened French masters continue to lop off their limbs, bury them to the neck, and burn their families alive — quickly learned that there was little difference between a master who read Rousseau and one who didn’t. The Enlightenment was just slavery under another name. So on August 21, 1791, while the noble revolutionaries in Paris tried to find the most effective way to keep the slaves tied down to the plantations of their most profitable colony, the Haitian slaves forced their own counter-Enlightenment by emancipating themselves through revolution. Inspired by their Caribbean comrades, almost exactly one year later, the same Parisian masses who seized the Bastille and held the king hostage stormed the Tuileries Palace, declared a Republic, and exploded the continuum of history, imposing an entirely new calendar to mark the birth of a new world.

Likewise, I fail to see how you can claim that Enlightenment was just “slavery under a different name,” or your implication that the thought of figures like Rousseau made no difference in the colonial world. Wasn’t Toussaint the same man whose revolutionary spirit was nurtured on the writings of Rousseau, Raynal, and Diderot? CLR James himself wrote that “Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness” (The Black Jacobins, pg. 288). Wasn’t Robespierre a disciple of Rousseau himself? Furthermore, it is difficult to characterize the Haitian Revolution as anything other than a bourgeois-liberal revolution. There was no attempt to overcome capital as the dominant form of social existence, as the oppressive character of capital had still not yet obviated itself in history. The Haitian Revolution was animated by ideas of liberty and equality, by republican ideals, and fought for the rights of individuals. In other terms, the Haitians fought against the slaveholders and foreign powers that surrounded them in order to establish an autonomous Rechtsstaat, which was still at that time by far the most revolutionary form of governance.  (This despite Toussaint’s occasional overtures toward royalism, a sad blemish on an otherwise consummately revolutionary, and for the most part staunchly republican, career).

This is why we’re pleased to enter into an exchange with Jacobin, whose logo recalls that we live in the world made by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. The reverberations of their confrontation with the colonialist universalism of the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” would be felt throughout the 19th century — just as, in 1848, the Jacobinism of Blanqui would be challenged by the growth of working-class neighborhood clubs.

Here I think it would be appropriate to invert the authors’ use of scare quotes in the second sentence.  It is telling that today we hear talked of the “so-called” bourgeois revolutions, as if they were neither revolutionary nor bourgeois.  This is something that I elaborate upon in a forthcoming essay on the relation of liberalism to socialism, so I’ll leave this as more of an aside for now.

In the interview that Pam Nogales and I conducted with the Italian Marxist theorist Domenico Losurdo, we touched on the question of Toussaint, Haiti, and bourgeois revolution, if anyone’s interested.