Bertrand Russell discusses the philosophy of Karl Marx in chapter 27 of his A History of Western Philosophy (HWP).
He begins by telling us he is not going to deal with his economics or politics, just his philosophy and its influence on others. While Lenin saw Marx’s philosophy as developing from three sources— British economic theory, early French socialist thought, and classical German philosophy (Hegel) Russell sees only two sources. Marx’s philosophy is the “outcome” of “the Philosophical Radicals (mostly British) and French materialism. He credits Marx with a broad outlook, at least with respect to Western Europe where he shows “no national bias.” But, Russell says, it’s not the same regarding Eastern Europe because “he always despised the Slavs.”
A comment about this. This meme about the Slavs was widespread in anti-Marxist and anti-Soviet propaganda (and still is) in the time of the writing of the HWP. It has no basis in fact. Marx and Engels made highly critical, even derogatory, remarks about some groups of Slavs in the Austrian Empire who fought on the reactionary Austrian aide in putting down the progressive forces leading the 1848-49 pan-European anti-feudal revolution. But they were in full support of the Polish revolutionaries at that time, and later supported the progressive revolutionary forces that were developing in Russia.
After this maladroit observation, Russell continues in a more positive vein. He does mention economics, saying Marx’s economic philosophy is an outgrowth of classical British thought on this subject, in agreement with Lenin. There is a difference, however, the British economists wrote in defense of the up and coming industrialists and were opposed to the interests of the agriculturalists and the laboring classes. I should mention, though, that Adam Smith did have a lot to say in defense of the laboring classes and criticized their treatment by the up and coming industrialists. Marx, on the other hand, was completely on the side of the wage-earners. He never relied on emotional appeals when he laid out his theories and, Russell says, “he was always anxious to appeal to evidence, and never relied on any extra-scientific intuition.”
Russell next discusses Marx’s “materialism”. It’s not the mechanical materialism of the French enlightenment. In which external objects react on a passive human consciousness. Russell points out that under the influence of Hegel, Marx’s materialism is an interaction between the subject and object in which both are changed — it’s what’s meant by the term “dialectical.” Russell says this view is similar to what non-Marxists refer to as “instrumentalism”. This will not do. It is too subjective as instrumentalism, a form of pragmatism, judges the truth of a statement by its usefulness— true statements do not necessarily relate to some objective x in-itself but they are statements that are useful for our future actions and ability to understand or control reality as it appears to us.
Let’s deconstruct the following quote. “In Marx’s view, all sensation or perception is an interaction between subject and object; the bare object, apart from the activity of the percipient, is a mere raw material, which is transformed in the process of becoming known”. The problem with this is that it reeks of Kantianism. The raw material is the thing-in-itself which is transformed by perception into the thing-for-us. The mind is much too active here.
Marxists have used the analogy of a mirror in discussing the relation of subject and object— perception is a “reflection” of the external world. Perception doesn’t change the object. The mind is not totally passive as experience is the collection of all our perceptions and the mind has to order and evaluate them so as to understand the world it reflects. The world itself is in constant motion and change. The concept of “dialectics” is used to describe this aspect of reality, it doesn’t impose dialectics on the objects, it reflects the workings of the objectively existing dialectical motions exhibited in the external world. There is no spoon bending telekinesis going on.
Russell gives a long quote from Marx ending with “Philosophers have only interpreted the world but the real task is to alter it.” It’s a quote from his Theses on Feuerbach. It’s a famous quote, but it is beside the point regarding the transformation/reflection theories of perception as acting on our percepts to change aspects of external reality follows from either theory.
Russell next asserts that “It is essential to this theory [Marxism] to deny the reality of “sensation” as conceived by British empiricists.” This empiricist conception of ‘sensation” was a revolutionary new development, Russell says, introduced into philosophy by John Locke (1632-1704). The mind is originally a blank slate (tabula rasa) and all our ideas are based on sensations as input from the five senses (experience, perception) which are then put into order by an internal power of the mind or “reflection” (our thoughts, and ideas) called internal perception. There are no innate ideas.
Russell admits both empiricism and idealism have technical philosophical problems that are still today unresolved. This stems from a view that external objects have some kind of unchanging essence that the brain passively accepts and then fools around with by means of reflection. He says Marx has a more activist view of the interaction between the world and the brain, but he won’t discuss this further in this chapter but will deal with it in a later chapter. That turns out to be the chapter on Dewey and his view of “instrumentalism” mentioned above. Russell says that Marx didn’t spend a lot of time on these concerns and so he intends to move on to Marx’s views on “history.”
Russell tells us that Marx’s philosophy of history is a “blend” of Hegel plus classical British economy. He takes the dialectic from Hegel but interprets it materialistically not idealistically as Hegel does. He tells us that the “matter” in Marx’s version of materialism is “matter in the peculiar sense that we have been considering, not the wholly dehumanized matter of the atomists.”
It’s true that Russell was describing a “peculiar” kind of matter above when discussing perception as a “mutual” interaction between subject and object, but he is wrong in saying this was Marx’s view. Matter is the objectively existing material world that exists whether humans exist or not— it was here before humans evolved and will be here when humans are extinct. But while we are here, we have to understand it to survive and prosper and science is the best method we have found to do so. Philosophy prospers when it incorporates the findings of science, religion when it ignores or denies them.
Russell next takes up Marx’s “materialist conception of history”. Basically, the main features of the art, religion, and philosophy (and culture in general) of any epoch are “the outcome” of the economic mode of production and distribution by which society maintains and reproduces itself. I think Marxists would prefer “conditioned by” rather than Russell’s “the outcome of”. Russell only accepts some of the features of this view which he adopted in writing the HWP, but he rejects the thesis “as it stands.” He will illustrate what he means by considering Marx’s thesis as applied to the history of philosophy.
All philosophers think their philosophy is “true”. No one would bother to write philosophy if they thought it was just some time-conditioned ultimately irrational product of their particular environment and not objectively but just subjectively “true”. He says, “Marx, like the rest, believes in the truth of his own doctrines; he does not regard them as nothing but the expression of the feelings natural to a rebellious middle class German Jew who was born in the middle of the nineteenth century.” So, what can we make of this?
Well, Russell does think the ideas of an epoch do generally reflect the socio-political background— those of Aristotle and Plato were “appropriate” to city states, the Stoics to “cosmopolitan despotism,” medieval scholasticism to the Catholic Church, those of Descartes and Locke to “the commercial middle class” and Marxism and Fascism to the modern industrial State. Russell believes this to be important and true.
The above seems like a form of elementary Marxism that hasn’t really been thought out very well. Nevertheless it’s the part of Marx that Russell says he gets. He does, however, say there are two major objections he has to Marxism. First, Russell rejects economic determinism as he thinks “wealth” is less important than “power” as the motivating force of history. Since he has already written a book about this (Power, 1938) he refers us to it and will not deal with this topic here. Neither will I, as Marxism is not based on economic determinism which is trotted out by anti-Marxists in order to refute a misinterpretation of Marxism and think Marxism itself has been refuted.
Second, having disposed of “economic determinism”, Russell looks at other theories of “social causation” used to explain history; he doesn’t exactly mention any by name but wants to argue that personal reasons, temperament, emotional attachments, etc. make any general theory of social causation moot. He picks some very special technical issues in philosophy (the problem of universals, the ontological argument, the truth or not of materialism) and says, contra Marx, that he thinks that it’s a waste of time to look for economic reasons to explain the positions of the different philosophical opinions on these issues. Marx would agree.
Marx would agree because his sub/super structure distinction, that the laws, values, moral outlooks, art, religious views (the superstructure of ideas and institutions) are in general conditioned by the physical environment people inhabit which affects how they make their living— obtain food, social wealth, living arrangements, etc. (the substructure). People living in a Stone Age environment are not going to build the Empire State Building. A Gothic cathedral is not going to be built by animists. The superstructure also feeds back influences on the substructure so there is mutual interaction between them. Marx never advocated the simple one-way determinism or social causation which upsets Russell.
As far as “materialism” goes, the following comments should cover Russell’s views. 1) Russell says the word has many meanings, but he has shown above that Marx “altered” the traditional meaning. I already pointed out how Russell was in error about this. 2) The problem with using this word is that people have “avoided” defining what they mean by it. 3) Depending on the definition materialism can be a) proven to be false, b) may be true but “there is no positive reason to think so”, c) there are some reasons to believe it, but they are not conclusive. Since b and c are basically the same there are just two responses needed.
Response to 2. In Marxism the distinction between Materialism and Idealism boils down to the view about the existence of external objects— does the Universe depend upon the existence of the human brain and consciousness in order to exist or is it independent on the human consciousness and existed before there were any conscious beings or ideas at all— say at the time of the “Big Bang” and the millions and billions of years before any type of life at all emerged in the universe? If you believe the Universe and matter (the quarks, photons, etc.,) existed before humans then, for a Marxist, you are a materialist. If you believe there was some great big Consciousness before the Big Bang, and it caused the Big Bang (and waited around 13.5 billion years or so before deciding to make humans or whatever) you are not.
Response to 3. Russell says Big Bang Materialism may be true “but there is no positive reason to think so.” I think the modern results of the scientific view of the origin of the Universe are positive enough. It may be the case that the science of the future replaces the “Big Bang” with a different explanation, but I don’t think the replacement will claim that the Universe was dependent on humans.
There are two “different elements” referred to by the word “philosophy.” One involves scientific knowledge and technical expertise in which a great deal of mutual agreement is possible. The other is the social area where the ruling element is “passionate interest” and reason takes a backseat— here is where, Russell says, Marx’s insights are “largely true.”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism and Eurocommunism: A Critical Reading of Santiago Carrillo and Eurocommunist Revisionism.
As the Communist Party of the United States entered the fourth full year of the Great Depression in 1933, its leadership recognized that a major consolidation and refocus of Party effort was necessary to reach the vast potential of the moment. The communist movement had been established in the U.S. for 15 years by that point, and some advances had been made in rooting the Party in certain key sectors – but not in others.
The left and socialist organizations were all growing amidst the Depression conditions as the tempo of the class struggle increased daily. Turmoil among unemployed workers, small farmers, and veterans was beginning to approach a mass scale, and the battered trade unions had begun stirring in scattered and desperate strikes in opposition to wage cuts and employer assaults.
Rightists, fascists, and militarists of every stripe likewise emerged in the economic collapse, tapping ruling class and mass working class discontent alike. Carbon copies of this process were unfolding world-wide. Something big was in the works, but what? A shift to the left? Or the right? Was another world war coming? Where was the United States going? What was ahead for the left? Would it be able to play a serious role in the fast-changing political and economic situation?
The Extraordinary Conference
Faced with this situation of both extreme threats and opportunities, the Communist Party opted to self-critically examine the actual state of things in its organization and work. Following a directive by the Communist International to conduct this “taking of stock”, parties across the world made the difficult self-assessment. The process that unfolded here in the United States culminated in a national Extraordinary Conference of the Communist Party that convened in New York City in early July 1933.
Every facet of Party work, leadership, and membership was critically dissected to prepare for the Conference. What was the real size and composition of Party forces? What was the condition of their actual organizational and political activity? What was working, and what wasn’t working? Was there growth, or not? Why not? What did the membership really amount to, both geographically and industrially? How many were in the unions? In what areas of activity had the Party fallen short, or failed? What was the actual measure of the influence of the Party at that moment? How effective was the leadership? Were new priorities needed? Were previous leadership decisions being carried out, or not? Was new leadership needed?
A rapid yet expansive and comprehensive inventory and inspection was made to determine what was really happening on the ground, top to bottom, in real numbers. Fuzzy claims and guesswork were discarded in favor of clear fact-based assessments. ( (For those seeking background on the 1932 and 1933 period see Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 11, The Great Depression and William Z. Foster, The History of the Communist Party of the United States, both from International Publishers.
A Party Only on the Margins
The 350 delegates who eventually took part in the 1933 Extraordinary Conference travelled to New York City with their heads spinning. They had much to consider as such a process had never before been attempted on such a scale. There was no escaping the fact that while the Party had made progress, and membership had increased markedly in the early Depression, the rate of progress, and the depth of the progress was insufficient to take advantage of the tremendous openings presented under the new conditions. Mistakes, miscalculations, and failures were chronicled. Some success was noted, but not nearly enough.
Overwhelmingly the preparatory work and the Conference deliberations themselves revealed and concluded that the Party was still not growing and expanding in major ways. But why? Tremendous efforts were being made, some truly valiant and self-sacrificing. The answer to these questions became self-evident as a result of the work done to arrive at the Extraordinary Conference: insufficient effort, sometimes no effort had been conducted to root the organization in the working class, in the industries, in the workplaces, and in the unions.
While all manner of good works and activities were being carried out by Party members and leaders in many fields, the Conference zeroed-in on the undeniable fact that the focus of the vast majority of its activity was far, far, removed from the workplaces and the trade unions. Too much priority was being placed on struggles removed from the centrality of the workplace and the working class that comprised the natural constituency of a mass socialist party. The Communist Party existed largely in the margins of U.S. political life, with no roadmap into the mainstream.
Facing this fact meant confronting it, explaining the error, and redirecting the new and greatly unified Party work. This work was intended to bring not just membership growth in numbers, but in quality. Growth needed to occur in places likely to position the Party for potential mass growth among workers as the Depression continued to worsen. At its conclusion the Conference issued a broadside to the membership, an “Open Letter”, explaining that business as usual, the same routine, just putting one foot in front of the other, all these failed approaches had to be cast aside.
Foster Endorses the Renewed Direction
William Z. Foster recalled that the Extraordinary Conference “…addressed an Open Letter to the Party, outlining a program of militant struggle, stressing the need to concentrate upon building Party units and trade unions in the basic industries and to give all support to the growing mass strike movement. …(The Extraordinary Conference) …played a vital role in preparing the Party for the big mass struggles.”
While not long the “Open Letter” issued by the Conference was distributed in massive quantities to all corners of the Communist Party membership and among supporters and contacts. An open letter to all members of the Communist Party, The Daily Worker of July 12, 1933, featured a front-page headline and article regarding the Conference, blaring that “Communist Party Holds Extraordinary National Conference to Strengthen Work in the Factories and Trade Unions”. The next day the Daily Worker published the entire text of the Open Letter to inform the membership and trigger discussion. For many months after the Conference, Party publications and cadre repeated the drumbeat; “Into the factories, into the unions!” There was unity on a scale never before seen. It wasn’t unanimous, or monolithic, but large sections of a national organization were moving in the same general direction. For a change.
he effect of the Open Letter was immediate and electrifying. The preface of the letter explained that “This Extraordinary Conference and the Open Letter are designed to rouse all of our resources, all of the forces of the Party to change this situation, and to give us guarantees that the essential change in our work will be made.” Several basic tasks were mandated to move the organization forward, out of its isolation from the mass of the working class, to be in a better position to play a decisive role in the rapidly unfolding and spreading labor upsurge.
It was decided that the Party was to refocus its primary efforts on organizing the workplaces and unions, specifically in geographic areas where key industries were concentrated. Expanded work was directed in the left-led unions and labor movement generally. It called for greatly increased activity among the unemployed, for a complete overhaul of work to expand distribution of the Party press and therefore its message. It called for the Party to embark on a program to dramatically expand the ranks of Party leaders and cadre drawn primarily from the workshops and unions.
Other work of the Party was not abandoned, but all of it was rethought and relaunched to support and complement the new emphasis. The results were immediate. New members began to trickle in, then pour in. Work in the unions exploded on all fronts, placing the Communist Party in the leadership of more labor struggles than it could have imagined just the previous year. Party morale zoomed as nearly everyone sensed that the decisions of the Extraordinary Conference had been correct.
Can We Do Anything Today?
Could any process such as that recounted here with the Extraordinary Conference be replicated today? So far as the status today of the left-wing organizations and networks, they apparently continue to slowly grow and develop, albeit without any central strategy or concentration of activity. With only a few exceptions the left organizations remain small and scattered although virtually all have grown significantly in the past decade. Much of the new membership arrives spontaneously or anonymously via the Internet. Members lapse or drop and there are few explanations for why they did this. Actual programmatic recruitment seems sparse and is sometimes completely neglected. Organizational functioning seems haphazard, and in some cases is conducted solely by Internet. In-person meetings and work still lag on account of the pandemic’s residual effects and likewise because of the widely scattered membership. Tremendous energy is expended on support for left Democrats running for office – or governing – in some of the organizations. The jury seems out on whether this work builds the organization of the Democratic Party or of the socialist organization offering the free assistance.
Every left group or chapter announces its formation with a creative logo, a web site, and with an ample social media presence, just before deciding “what to do first?” Actual discussion of socialism or study of socialist history or philosophy seems to be underway here and there but is not promoted widely. Socialist oriented podcasts, videos, and on-line journals seem to be having no problem growing and expanding – and reaching a significant audience – but few put any emphasis on actually building the socialist movement in any concrete way. For the first time in many decades, it appears that the center of gravity for the left has migrated away from the college campuses and into the communities, although the colleges and universities continue to dominate the vast bulk of left leadership and writing. “Socialist” activism today is most certainly rooted and focused on activities mostly outside of the workplace, outside of the unions, with some noted exceptions. As was the situation facing the left organizations and the Communist Party of 1933 there were hopeful signs and good works being done, some progress, but not nearly enough of either.
As for the workplace and trade union work of the left organizations today, there is only spotty and relatively recent work in evidence. All is positive, but as yet in too small a supply to be decisive or even measurable in many places. Anecdote might also lead us to conclude that the majority of workplace and trade union work underway by the left is spontaneous and not deliberately organized, a result of no more than the need of everyone post-school to go to work and somehow earn a living. The development and reinforcement of left forces within the unions is fragmentary at best, and as the last retirements of the 1970’s generation proceed many unions find themselves without any substantial left-wing membership or activism. There are widespread numbers of dedicated socialist trade unionists and hopeful organizers and salts at work, but again scattered with apparently little coordination, strategy, or common mission.
Ignore Workers? Or Reach Out to the Working Class?
Critics and opponents of the Open Letter and its methodology will likely point out that the degree of organizational unity and action that the Communist Party was able to muster was the result of a Leninist, meaning “democratic centralist” party structure and functioning. They might offer that to expect today’s left-wing groups to function with this degree of cohesion and discipline is unrealistic, even impossible. But this instantaneous rejection of a refocused course of action is defeatist in the extreme, perhaps unintentionally so. Trade unions are periodically able to adopt a unifying common mission, then apply resources and leadership effort towards that goal. The decision by the socialist organizations to refocus on workplace and trade union organizing does not require a restructuring of the organization along Leninist lines. Such a direction would be beneficial but is not required for the concentration on the working class to be initiated.The left organizations have for the most part
avoided concentration on the workplace and the unions for decades, and their decisions to focus on the “community” aspects of work has proven to yield a poor return for the oceans of effort poured into it.
As William Z. Foster proved with both the meat packing campaign and the great steel organizing drive – and later the steel strike – otherwise small and scattered left forces can literally move mountains when there is a clear, defined, and achievable goal with realistic time frames offered for the duration of the struggle. The bulk of Foster’s early work and accomplishments were not the result of the work of disciplined Leninist cadre but were instead the result of a relative handful of single-minded militants leading significant numbers of members in the unions – and relentlessly pushing on the union leaderships to carry out a popular course of action.
Mass campaigns are feasible today that would sweep into action large numbers of militants and members with no required discipline other than common agreement. The existing left organizational leadership must be won over to this understanding, and to an admission that so long as the left organizations pursue a loose, unfocused, and scattered program of activity that the results will remain small. So long as the left organizations treat the workplace and unions as an afterthought, or as a sideline, the bottomless basket of left issues will forever take precedence over direct worker contact and organization. And unless the socialist movement is able somehow to root itself directly in working class struggles, history has shown repeatedly that it will ebb and flow and eventually dissipate as new issues du jour appear and disappear.
The Left Wing Must Do the Work
The legacy of the Extraordinary Conference and its Open Letter is sadly forgotten but should be revisited. Not only for the organizational lesson that it offers, but because it requires socialist leadership to accept responsibility for their work and performance. The resolve of the Communist Party leadership and membership that flowed forward from the Conference and its Open Letter set a tone and course for a focus on union organizing and contact with the working masses that contributed greatly to the 1930’s radicalization. The foundations of the CIO upsurge were laid in many quarters by the work of the trade union militants in or around the Communist Party, and by millions of ordinary workers swept up in the left-wing spirit of the times. Left organizations other than the Communist Party – small and not so small alike – for the most part all turned their focus towards working class organization and trade union struggles in that period. These factors all contributed to the largest socialist and trade union organizational growth in the past 100 years.
Several of the significant left organizations and networks now approach their respective conventions in the year to come. Is such a refocus on the centrality of the class struggle and the working class possible, even in part? Can it be placed on the agenda? Will forces emerge to promote something resembling a concentration on the workplaces and the unions? Or will the situation persist where all issues are treated as equals, with little emphasis, and little hope of significant growth and revival of the labor movement? Will the leadership of the left organizations be measured by their performance so far as building the organization and its real reach, or will they be swept again into office based on a renewed approach to methods already proven to be failed? I encourage all of the left militants, trade unionists, and workers toughing it out in the shops trying to organize to familiarize themselves with the Open Letter. It is perhaps a modern-day guide for action today.
-Chris Townsend was a member and staff member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) for a combined 38 years. He continues to work as a union organizer today. He may be reached at email@example.com
This article was republished from Marxism-Leninism Today.
Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed during an African leaders meeting in St. Petersburg that Russian forces had withdrawn from Kiev and other regions of Ukraine last year in compliance with a peace agreement reached in Turkey, as part of an African mediation mission to Russia.
However, during the meeting with the members of the African delegation, who were entrusted with presenting an initiative to resolve the Ukrainian conflict, Putin informed them that Kiev had declined to sign the pact following the voluntary departure of Russian troops.
The Russian head of state presented the document negotiated by both sides, entitled “The Treaty of Permanent Neutrality and Security Guarantees for Ukraine.”
He explained that Moscow and Kiev initially accepted a draft agreement in the spring of 2022 in Istanbul, in which China, Russia, the United States, France and Turkey acted as guarantors.
At the time, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a visit to Ukraine, various media outlets, including those in Russia, swiftly linked his trip to Volodymyr Zelensky’s refusal to endorse the agreement.
Media outlets such as Foreign Affairs attested to Johnson’s efforts to thwart the deal for two reasons he believed to be valid: First, it is not possible to negotiate with Putin, and second, the West is not prepared for an end to the war.
According to Responsible Statecraft, Saturday’s release of this document casts doubt on Ukrainian narratives regarding Russia’s defeat in the Battle of Kiev in the spring of last year and its withdrawal from the surrounding area.
In particular, it serves to underscore how Ukraine is being used as part of a calculated maneuver in the Western proxy war against Russia, further clarifying Ukraine’s sacrificial role.
The food crisis not caused by Russia
The Russian President also explained that the world food crisis was caused by the actions of Western countries, which started long before the armed conflict not by Russian military operations in Ukraine.
Putin expressed his country’s readiness to establish a constructive dialogue with those who want peace, and praised the balanced approach of the African delegation’s mediators to the conflict.
The African mission visiting Russia includes four presidents: South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Zambia’s Hakende Hichilema, and the Comoros’ Ghazali Osmani, also the rotating chairman of the African Union. There are also representatives from Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda, and Egypt.
Translation: Orinoco Tribune
This article was republished from Orinoco Tribune.
Imagine if you will, that we lived in a country in which TV and movie scripts were produced for merit and not edited and censored to ensure compliance with capitalist ideology.
Imagine that in this fictitious USA, it were possible to make movies celebrating heroic leaders of the struggles for working people, Black people, and immigrants.
Imagine that those films could be financed, promoted, and viewed as widely as the mindless tripe we are currently subjected to that encompasses all sorts of idiocy from vampire scripts, to “reality” TV, or films making heroes of CIA agents or as forces for good in an evil world.
In such a world, a movie maker would go to unimaginable lengths to obtain the rights to Working Class Giant, the Life of William Z. Foster, written by his former aide, Arthur Zipser. This 215-page offering from International Publishers screams to be made into an epic work on the life of a man for whom the term giant is no exaggeration.
Foster was born in 1881 in Taunton, Massachusetts but moved to a tough, ramshackle neighborhood in Philadelphia known as Skittereen when he was seven. His is truly a story of a man from humble beginnings achieving remarkable goals, all to further the interests of working men and women. He fought for racial equality. He opposed efforts to split up workers through ethnic division. He championed equal pay for women, international solidarity of workers and socialism.
His accomplishments are far too long to list here but some of his roles included teacher, organizer, author, strike leader, reporter, editor, theoretician, US Presidential candidate, worker, diplomat, and husband and father!
Foster was so feared by the capitalists that he was twice seized and kidnapped by them, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1919 and Denver, Colorado 1922 to keep him away from the striking steelworkers and railroad workers he was supporting. He was shot at, beaten, arrested numerous times, smeared, condemned from the floor of the House of Representatives. He served two prison terms and was indicted under the Smith Act.
Foster joined the Communist Party in 1921 and was a tremendous asset in a time of factional struggles and attempts to destroy the party from within. The young party resisted the efforts of the most powerful government on earth to crush it. He served in leadership and ran for US President three times on the party ticket receiving 102,991 votes in 1932.
He did all this and more, but most of all, he was revered by working people everywhere because he shared their pain and aspiration for a better life for themselves, their families, their neighbors. He was profoundly moved by their suffering describing the 1931 coal strike as, “one of the severest strikes I’ve ever went through. ………. it was heartbreaking to see starving miners being cut to pieces by the ruthless operators.”
in 1941 Theodore Dreiser on Foster’s 60th birthday declared “To me he is a saint-my first and only contact with one……..a leader among leaders who has always kept faith with the working man.”
Gus Hall wrote, ”He was the very best that the U.S. working class has produced.”
Foster’s sixtieth birthday party at Madison Square Garden attracted 18,000 people. Paul Robeson sang!
Despite being initially published in 1981, the now reprinted book is as timely as ever as the country begins to see an organizing and strike upsurge. Its historical accounts cannot be retold often enough. If you have not read it, do so now. If you have read it, relive the story of a titan.
The latest edition includes a very fine introduction by a passionate disciple of Foster, Chris Townsend, former Legislative Director for the United Electrical Workers and former Organizing Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Bob Bonner is former president of AFGE Local 2028 in Pittsburgh, PA where he represented US Veterans Administration workers.
This article was republished from Marxism-Leninism Today
Millions of people in the US ration medicine as Big Pharma fights to keep prices high By: Natalia MarquesRead Now
A new CDC study shows that 9 million people are trying to save money by rationing medication, as pharmaceutical giants rally against price checks
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published this month reveals that approximately 9.2 million people in the US try to save money by rationing their medication. Most adults between the ages of 18 and 64 take at least one prescription medication, but 8% of them—9.2 million people—ration medicine by skipping doses, taking less than instructed, or delaying a refill.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giants like Merck are fighting tooth and nail against President Biden’s limited checks on astronomical medication prices. Giving the government power to negotiate medicine prices with companies is “tantamount to extortion,” Merck argues in a recent lawsuit.
Based on data from 2021, the CDC found that the most marginalized of the working class are the ones who are most often forced to ration their medication. Almost a quarter of adults (23%) without insurance rationed their medication in order to save money, versus 7% of people with private insurance. 27 million people in the US have no health insurance at all. People with disabilities were three times more likely to ration medication than non-disabled people, as well as those with fair or poor health as compared to good health. Women were more likely to ration medicine than men.
A report published in November of 2022 found that one in six people with diabetes rationed their insulin. The number was one in four for Black people with diabetes. A third of uninsured adults rationed.
“The main takeaway is that 1.3 million people rationed insulin in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world,” Dr. Adam Gaffney, Harvard Medical School physician and lead author of the study, told CNN. “This is a lifesaving drug. Rationing insulin can have life-threatening consequences.”
“There are stories of many folks in the states who are living with type one diabetes, for instance, who will try to stretch doses, try to make it to the next month and a lot of those folks don’t make it,” said Justin Mendoza, executive director of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. “You can’t really survive without the proper dosage of insulin if you have Type 1 [diabetes].”
As working people are risking their lives to save money on costly medications, pharmaceutical giant Merck is suing the US government over a law that would empower the state to negotiate prices with companies for a limited amount of branded medicine. This reform in the Inflation Reduction Act of last year “is tantamount to extortion” Merck argues. AbbVie’s CEO claimed that the IRA’s negotiations amount to “price controls” (not that there would be anything wrong with this, many of the world’s largest countries have some system of price controls of medications). Biogen is predicted to follow Merck with their own suit against the IRA. Their CEO also agreed that the IRA is “extortion” and called the law “draconian,” and would prevent them from funding medical research on rare diseases.
But the battle for Medicare, the state-run health insurance program, to be able to negotiate medication, has been going on for a long time. “Medicare should have always had the ability to negotiate lower prices for its enrollees, because Medicare is the largest purchaser of prescription drugs in the US,” says Mendoza. In 2003, “when the law was passed to get [Medicare Part D] through, pharmaceutical companies lobbied and kicked up a couple of votes and got the restriction in place that barred Medicare from negotiating.”
Merck made over USD 14 billion in profits last year, AbbVie generated almost USD 12 billion, and Biogen USD 3 billion (a 95% increase from 2021). The companies seem unwilling to dip into their billions in profits to save the lives of poor and working people and fund necessary research.
“Pharmaceutical prices have been unchecked for far too long,” says Mendoza. “We’ve seen that consistently for more than a decade, that pharmaceutical companies, when they have a monopoly, will raise the price so they can show profits to their shareholders and keep their investors happy.”
“This is just yet another tactic used by large pharmaceutical manufacturers to try to hold on to profits without innovating anything new for patients.”
This article was republished from Peoples Dispatch.
De-dollarization is apparently here, “like it or not,” as a May 2023 video by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a peace-oriented think tank based in Washington, D.C., states. Quincy is not alone in discussing de-dollarization: political economists Radhika Desai and Michael Hudson outlined its mechanics across four shows between February and April 2023 in their fortnightly YouTube program, “Geopolitical Economy Hour.” Economist Richard Wolff provided a nine-minute explanation on this topic on the Democracy at Work channel. On the other side, media outlets like Business Insider have assured readers that dollar dominance isn’t going anywhere. Journalist Ben Norton reported on a two-hour, bipartisan Congressional hearing that took place on June 7—“Dollar Dominance: Preserving the U.S. Dollar’s Status as the Global Reserve Currency”—about defending the U.S. currency from de-dollarization. During the hearing, Congress members expressed both optimism and anxiety about the future of the dollar’s supreme role. But what has prompted this debate?
Until recently, the global economy accepted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the currency of international transactions. The central banks of Europe and Asia had an insatiable appetite for dollar-denominated U.S. Treasury securities, which in turn bestowed on Washington the ability to spend money and finance its debt at will. Should any country step out of line politically or militarily, Washington could sanction it, excluding it from the rest of the world’s dollar-denominated system of global trade.
But for how long? After a summit meeting in March between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping, Putin stated, “We are in favor of using the Chinese yuan for settlements between Russia and the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” Putting that statement in perspective, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, “The world’s second-largest economy and its largest energy exporter are together actively trying to dent the dollar’s dominance as the anchor of the international financial system.” Already, Zakaria noted, Russia and China are holding less of their central bank reserves in dollars and settling most of their trade in yuan, while other countries sanctioned by the United States are turning to “barter trade” to avoid dependence on the dollar.
A new global monetary system, or at least one in which there is no near-universal reserve currency, would amount to a reshuffling of political, economic, and military power: a geopolitical reordering not seen since the end of the Cold War or even World War II. But as a look at its origins and evolution makes clear, the notion of a standard global system of exchange is relatively recent and no hard-and-fast rules dictate how one is to be organized. Let’s take a brief tour through the tumultuous monetary history of global trade and then consider the factors that could trigger another stage in its evolution.
Imperial Commodity Money
Before the dollarization of the world economy took place, the international system had a gold standard anchored by the naval supremacy of the British Empire. But a currency system backed by gold, a mined commodity, had an inherent flaw: deflation. As long as metal mining could keep up with the pace of economic growth, the gold standard could work. But, as Karl Polanyi noted in his 1944 book, The Great Transformation, “the amount of gold available may [only] be increased by a few percent over a year… not by as many dozen within a few weeks, as might be required to carry a sudden expansion of transactions. In the absence of token money, business would have to be either curtailed or carried on at very much lower prices, thus inducing a slump and creating unemployment.”
This deflationary spiral, borne by everyone in the economy, was what former U.S. presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan described in his famous 1896 Democratic Party convention speech, in which he declared, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” For the truly wealthy, of course, the gold standard was a good thing, since it protected their assets from inflation.
The alternative to the “cross of gold” was for governments to ensure that sufficient currency circulated to keep business going. For this purpose, they could produce, instead of commodity money of gold or silver, token or “fiat” money: paper currency issued at will by the state treasury. The trouble with token money, however, was that it could not circulate on foreign soil. How, then, in a global economy, would it be possible to conduct foreign trade in commodity money and domestic business in token money?
The Spanish and Portuguese empires had one solution to keep the flow of metals going: to commit genocide against the civilizations of the Americas, steal their gold and silver, and force the Indigenous peoples to work themselves to death in the mines. The Dutch and then British empires got their hands on the same gold using a number of mechanisms, including the monopolization of the slave trade through the Assiento of 1713 and the theft of Indigenous lands in the United States and Canada. Stolen silver was used to purchase valuable trade goods in China. Britain stole that silver back from China after the Opium Wars, which China had to pay immense indemnities (in silver) for losing.
Once established as the global imperial manager, the British Empire insisted on the gold standard while putting India on a silver standard. In his 2022 PhD thesis, political economist Jayanth Jose Tharappel called this scheme “bimetallic apartheid”: Britain used the silver standard to acquire Indian commodities and the gold standard to trade with European countries. India was then used as a money pump for British control of the global economy, squeezed as needed: India ran a trade surplus with the rest of the world but was meanwhile in a trade deficit with Britain, which charged its colony “Home Charges” for the privilege of being looted. Britain also collected taxes and customs revenues in its colonies and semi-colonies, simply seizing commodity money and goods, which it resold at a profit, often to the point of famine and beyond—leading to tens of millions of deaths. The system of Council Bills was another clever scheme: paper money was sold by the British Crown to merchants for gold and silver. Those merchants used the Council Bills to purchase Indian goods for resale. The Indians who ended up with the Council Bills would cash them in and get rupees (their own tax revenues) back. The upshot of all this activity was that the Britain drained $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938, according to research by economist Utsa Patnaik.
From Gold to Gold-Backed Currency to the Floating Dollar
As the 19th century wore on, an indirect result of Britain’s highly profitable management of its colonies—and particularly its too-easy dumping of its exports into their markets—was that it fell behind in advanced manufacturing and technology to Germany and the United States: countries into which it had poured investment wealth drained from India and China. Germany’s superior industrial prowess and Russia’s departure from Britain’s side after the Bolshevik Revolution left the British facing a possible loss to Germany in World War I, despite Britain drawing more than 1 million people from the Indian subcontinent to serve (more than 2 million Indians would serve Britain in WWII) during the war. American financiers loaned Britain so much money that if it had lost WWI, U.S. banks would have realized an immense loss. When the war was over, to Britain’s surprise, the United States insisted on being paid back. Britain squeezed Germany for reparations to repay the U.S. loans, and the world financial system broke down into “competitive devaluations, tariff wars, and international autarchy,” as Michael Hudson relates in his 1972 book, Super imperialism, setting the stage for World War II.
After that war, Washington insisted on an end to the sterling zone; the United States would no longer allow Britain to use India as its own private money pump. But John Maynard Keynes, who had written Indian Currency and Finance (1913), The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), and the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), believed he had found a new and better way to supply the commodity money needed for foreign trade and the token money required for domestic business, without crucifying anyone on a cross of gold.
At the international economic conference in 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, Keynes proposed an international bank with a new reserve currency, the bancor, that would be used to settle trade imbalances between countries. If Mexico needed to sell oil and purchase automobiles from Germany, for instance, the two countries could carry out trade in bancors. If Mexico found itself owing more bancors than it held, or Germany had a growing surplus of them, an International Clearing Union would apply pressure to both sides: currency depreciation for debtors, but also currency appreciation and punitive interest payments for creditors. Meanwhile, the central banks of both debtor and creditor nations could follow Keynes’s domestic advice and use their powers of money creation to stimulate the domestic economy as needed, within the limits of domestically available resources and labor power.
Keynes made his proposal, but the United States had a different plan. Instead of the bancor, the dollar, backed by gold held at Fort Knox, would be the new reserve currency and the medium of world trade. Having emerged from the war with its economy intact and most of the world’s gold, the United States led the Western war on communism in all its forms using weapons ranging from coups and assassinations to development aid and finance. On the economic side, U.S. tools included reconstruction lending to Europe, development loans to the Global South, and balance of payments loans to countries in trouble (the infamous International Monetary Fund (IMF) “rescue packages”). Unlike Keynes’s proposed International Clearing Union, the IMF imposed all the penalties on the debtors and gave all the rewards to the creditors.
The dollar’s unique position gave the United States what a French minister of finance called an “exorbitant privilege.” While every other country needed to export something to obtain dollars to purchase imports, the United States could simply issue currency and proceed to go shopping for the world’s assets. Gold backing remained, but the cost of world domination became considerable even for Washington during the Vietnam War. Starting in 1965, France, followed by others, began to hold the United States at its word and exchanged U.S. dollars for U.S. gold, persisting until Washington canceled gold backing and the dollar began to float free in 1971.
The Floating Dollar and the Petrodollar
The cancellation of gold backing for the currency of international trade was possible because of the United States’ exceptional position in the world as the supreme military power: it possessed full spectrum dominance and had hundreds of military bases everywhere in the world. The U.S. was also a magnet for the world’s immigrants, a holder of the soft power of Hollywood and the American lifestyle, and the leader in technology, science, and manufacturing.
The dollar also had a more tangible backing, even after the gold tether was broken. The most important commodity on the planet was petroleum, and the United States controlled the spigot through its special relationship with the oil superpower, Saudi Arabia; a meeting in 1945 between King Abdulaziz Al Saud and then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on an American cruiser, the USS Quincy, on Great Bitter Lake in Egypt sealed the deal. When the oil-producing countries formed an effective cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and began raising the price of oil, the oil-deficient countries of the Global South suffered, while the oil exporters exchanged their resources for vast amounts of dollars (“petrodollars”).
The United States forbade these dollar holders from acquiring strategic U.S. assets or industries but allowed them to plow their dollars back into the United States by purchasing U.S. weapons or U.S. Treasury securities: simply holding dollars in another form. Economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler called this the “weapondollar-petrodollar” nexus in their 2002 book, The Global Political Economy of Israel. As documented in Michael Hudson’s 1977 book, Global Fracture (a sequel to Super Imperialism), the OPEC countries hoped to use their dollars to industrialize and catch up with the West, but U.S. coups and counterrevolutions maintained the global fracture and pushed the global economy into the era of neoliberalism.
The Saudi-U.S. relationship was the key to containing OPEC’s power as Saudi Arabia followed U.S. interests, increasing oil production at key moments to keep prices low. At least one author—James R. Norman, in his 2008 book, The Oil Card: Global Economic Warfare in the 21st Century—has argued that the relationship was key to other U.S. geopolitical priorities as well, including its effort to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. A 1983 U.S. Treasury study calculated that, since each $1 drop in the per barrel oil price would reduce Russia’s hard currency revenues by up to $1 billion, a drop of $20 per barrel would put it in crisis, according to Peter Schweizer’s book, Victory.
In 1985, Norman recounted in his book that Saudi Arabia “[opened] the floodgates, [slashed] its pricing, and [pumped] more oil into the market.” While other factors contributed to the collapse of the oil price as well, “Russian academic Yegor Gaidar, acting prime minister of Russia from 1991 to 1994 and a former minister of economy, has described [the drop in oil prices] as clearly the mortal blow that wrecked the teetering Soviet Union.”
From Petrodollar to De-Dollarization
When the USSR collapsed, the United States declared a new world order and launched a series of new wars, including against Iraq. The currency of the new world order was the petrodollar-weapondollar. An initial bombing and partial occupation of Iraq in 1990 was followed by more than a decade of applying a sadistic economic weapon to a much more devastating effect than it ever had on the USSR (or other targets like Cuba): comprehensive sanctions. Forget price manipulations; Iraq was not allowed to sell its oil at all, nor to purchase needed medicines or technology. Hundreds of thousands of children died as a result. Several authors, including India’s Research Unit for Political Economy in the 2003 book Behind the Invasion of Iraq and U.S. author William Clark in a 2005 book, Petrodollar Warfare, have argued that Saddam Hussein’s final overthrow was triggered by a threat to begin trading oil in euros instead of dollars. Iraq has been under U.S. occupation since.
It seems, however, that the petro-weapondollar era is now coming to an end, and at a “‘stunning’ pace.” After the Putin-Xi summit in March 2023, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria worried publicly about the status of the dollar in the face of China’s and Russia’s efforts to de-dollarize. The dollar’s problems have only grown since. All of the pillars upholding the petrodollar-weapondollar are unstable:
But what will replace the dollar?
“A globalized economy needs a single currency,” Zakaria said on CNN after the Xi-Putin summit. “The dollar is stable. You can buy and sell at any time and it’s governed largely by the market and not the whims of a government. That’s why China’s efforts to expand the yuan’s role internationally have not worked.” But the governance of the U.S. dollar by the “whims of a government”—namely, the United States—is precisely why countries are looking for alternatives.
Zakaria took comfort in the fact that the dollar’s replacement will not be the yuan. “Ironically, if Xi Jinping wanted to cause the greatest pain to America, he would liberalize his financial sector and make the yuan a true competitor to the dollar. But that would take him in the direction of markets and openness that is the opposite of his current domestic goals.” Zakaria is wrong. China need not liberalize to internationalize the yuan. When the dollar was supreme, the United States simply excluded foreign dollar-holders from purchasing U.S. companies or assets and restricted them to holding U.S. Treasury securities instead.
But as Chinese economist Yuanzheng Cao, former chief economist of the Bank of China, argued in his 2018 book, Strategies for Internationalizing the Renminbi (the official name of the currency whose unit is the yuan), Beijing can internationalize the yuan without attempting to replace the dollar and incurring the widespread resentment that would follow. It only needs to secure the yuan’s use strategically as one of several currencies and in a wider variety of transactions, such as currency swaps.
Elsewhere, Keynes’s postwar idea for a global reserve currency is being revived on a more limited basis. A regional version of the bancor, the sur, was proposed by Brazil’s President Luis Inácio (“Lula”) da Silva. Ecuadorian economist and former presidential candidate Andrés Arauz described the sur as follows in a February interview: “The idea is not to replace each country’s national, sovereign currency, but rather to have an additional currency, a complementary currency, a supranational currency for trade among countries in the region, starting with Brazil and Argentina, which are the sort of two powerhouses in the Southern Cone, and that could then amplify to the rest of the region.” Lula followed up the sur idea with an idea of a BRICS currency; Russian economist Sergey Glazyev proposes a kind of bancor backed by a basket of commodities.
Currency systems reflect power relations in the world: they don’t change them. The Anglo gold standard and the American dollar standard reflected imperial monopoly power for centuries. In a multipolar world, however, we should expect more diverse arrangements.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
Why Are Archaeologists Unable to Find Evidence for a Ruling Class of the Indus Civilization? By: Adam S. GreenRead Now
Little more than a century ago, British and Indian archaeologists began excavating the remains of what they soon realized was a previously unknown civilization in the Indus Valley. Straddling parts of Pakistan and India and reaching into Afghanistan, the culture these explorers unearthed had existed at the same time as those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and covered a much larger area. It was also astonishingly advanced: sophisticated and complex, boasting large, carefully laid out cities, a relatively affluent population, writing, plumbing and baths, wide trade connections, and even standardized weights and measures.
What kind of a society was the Indus Valley Civilization, as it came to be known? Who lived there and how did they organize themselves? Archaeologists and other experts ask these questions to this day, but the first explorers were already noticing some unique features.
In Mesopotamia and Egypt, “much money and thought were lavished on the building of magnificent temples for the gods and on palaces and tombs of kings,” observed Sir John Marshall, who supervised the excavation of two of the five main cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, “but the rest of the people seemingly had to content themselves with insignificant dwellings of mud.” In the Indus Valley, “the picture is reversed and the finest structures were those erected for the convenience of the citizens. Temples, palaces, and tombs there may of course have been, but if so, they are either still undiscovered or so like other edifices as not to be readily distinguishable from them.”
In its heyday, from about BC 2600 to BC 1900, the Indus Valley Civilization created what may have been the world’s most egalitarian early complex society, defying long-held presumptions about the relationship between urbanization and inequality in the past. Its large cities were expansive, planned, and boasted large-scale architecture, including roomy residential houses, and smaller settlements in the surrounding areas appeared to support a similar culture with a similar standard of living.
The most tantalizing feature of the ancient Indus Valley remains is what they appear to lack: any trace of a ruling class or managerial elite. This defies the longtime theoretical assumption that any complex society must have stratified social relations: that collective action, urbanization, and economic specialization only develop in a very unequal culture that takes direction from the top, and that all social trajectories evolve toward a common and universal outcome, the state. Yet, here was a stable, prosperous civilization that appeared to remain that way for centuries without a state, without priest-kings or merchant oligarchs, and without a rigid caste system or warrior class. How did they manage it?
Unfortunately, in the early decades of exploration and research, archaeologists tended to assume that lack of evidence of a top-down, hierarchical society in the Indus Valley remains meant only that they had not yet been found. Some have argued that lack of evidence of inequality only indicates that the region’s ruling class was very clever at disguising the boundaries between itself and other social strata. Pointing to the fact that Indus Valley burial sites contain no monumental tombs, some researchers suggest that the rulers may have been cremated or deposited in rivers, as was the practice in other imperial cultures. But cremation is not archaeologically invisible; the remains of other cultures often include evidence of it.
More recently, archaeologists have been willing to go back to the original explorers’ observations and use the evidence directly in front of them to develop theories about ancient life in the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeological data from South Asia has improved greatly: and there is much more of it. Numerous Indus sites are now known to archaeologists that decades ago were not, and the environmental contexts that enabled urbanization in the region—climate, natural resources—are now much clearer. Archaeologists have also honed a strong set of tools for identifying inequality and class divisions: from mortuary data, palace assemblages, aggrandizing monuments, written records, and soon, possibly, from household data. Yet, in a century of research, archaeologists have found no evidence of a ruling class in the Indus Valley that is comparable to those recovered in other early complex societies.
In the late 1990s, Indus archaeologists started to consider a new concept that seemed to better fit the facts. Heterarchy asserts that complex political organization, including cities, can emerge through the interaction of many different, unranked social groups, rather than from top-down decisions by an elite: that cooperation, not domination, can produce collective action. It’s now widely argued that multiple social groups contributed to the construction of Indus cities and the economic activities that took place in them, and that none seemed to dominate the others.
Bolstering this argument, no evidence exists that any group of Indus producers was excluded from the use of scarce materials that craftspeople had to obtain from long distances away, or that particular groups limited access to those materials to seize a higher position for themselves in Indus society. One of the most distinctive and technically dazzling products of the Indus culture are stamped seals engraved with imagery and text; over 2,500 have been found at Mohenjo-daro alone. But the seals were produced by many different groups of artisans in many locations, and there is no evidence that a ruling class controlled production. Technological styles tended to cross-cut different groups of artisans, indicating a great deal of openness and knowledge sharing.
Indus city-dwellers built large- and small-scale public buildings; the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro is a massive structure that contained a large paved bath assembled from tightly fitted baked bricks, waterproofed with bitumen and supplied with pipes and drains that would have allowed control over water flow and temperature. At Mohenjo-daro, nonresidential structures were built atop brick platforms that were as substantial as the structures erected on top of them, and would have required a great deal of coordinated action. It’s been calculated that just one of the foundation platforms would have required 4 million days of labor, or 10,000 builders working for more than a year.
Yet, at both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, these large nonresidential structures were relatively accessible, suggesting that they were “public,” as opposed to palaces or administrative centers restricted to a privileged class. Some of these may have served as specialized spaces for exchange, negotiation, and interaction between different groups clustered in neighborhoods or along important streets and roads. These spaces may have helped the city-dwellers maintain a high degree of consensus on planning and policy and ensured that no one group was able to accumulate wealth at the expense of the rest.
The Indus Valley remains have yet to yield all of their riches. The Indus script has yet to be deciphered, and we still don’t know why the civilization started to decline in the second millennium BC. One of the most positive recent developments has been a dramatic increase in data and interest in the civilization’s small-scale settlements, which may shed light on the question whether these settlements were qualitatively different from one another or from the cities—and how far Indus egalitarianism extended across its broader landscape.
What we have already found, however, suggests that egalitarianism may have been a boon to collective action: that distinct social groups may have been more willing to invest in collective action if the benefits were not restricted to a subset of elites. That suggests that heterarchy may act as a kind of brake on coercive power amongst social groups, and across society as a whole.
If this is the case, and after a century of research on the Indus civilization, archaeologists have not found evidence for a ruling class comparable what’s been recovered in other early complex societies, then it’s time to address the Indus Valley’s egalitarianism.
Urbanization, collective action, and technological innovation are not driven by the agendas of an exclusionary ruling class, the evidence suggests, and can occur in their total absence. The Indus Valley was egalitarian not because it lacked complexity, but rather because a ruling class is not a prerequisite for social complexity. It challenges us to rethink the fundamental connections between collective action and inequality.
The priest-king is dead: or, in this case, most likely never existed.
Adam S. Green is a lecturer in sustainability at the University of York. He is an archaeological anthropologist focused on South Asia, specializing in the comparative study of early states through the lenses of technology, the environment, and political economy. Follow him on Twitter.
This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The year 2020 marked parity between the total GDP of the G7 (the U.S. plus allies) and the total GDP of the BRICS group (China plus allies). Since then, the BRICS economies grew faster than the G7 economies. Now a third of total world output comes from the BRICS countries while the G7 accounts for below 30 percent. Beyond the obvious symbolism, this difference entails real political, cultural, and economic consequences. Bringing Ukraine’s Zelenskyy to Hiroshima to address the G7 recently failed to distract the G7’s attention from the huge global issue: what is growing in the world economy vs. what is declining.
The evident failure of the economic sanctions war against Russia offers yet more evidence of the relative strength of the BRICS alliance. That alliance now can and does offer nations alternatives to accommodating the demands and pressures of the once-hegemonic G7. The latter’s efforts to isolate Russia seem to have boomeranged and exposed instead the relative isolation of the G7. Even France’s Macron wondered out loud whether France might be betting on the wrong horse in that G7 vs. BRICS economic race just under the surface of the Ukraine war. Perhaps earlier, less-developed precursors of that race influenced failed U.S. land wars in Asia from Korea through Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
China increasingly competes openly with the United States and its international lending allies (the IMF and the World Bank) in development loans to the Global South. The G7 attack the Chinese, charging them with replicating the predatory lending for which G7 colonialism was and G7 neocolonialism is justly infamous. The attacks have had little effect given the needs for such borrowing that drive the welcome offered to China’s loan policies. Time will tell whether shifting economic collaboration from the G7 to China leaves centuries of predatory lending behind. Meanwhile, the political and cultural changes accompanying China’s global economic activities are already evident: for example, African nations’ neutrality toward the Ukraine-Russia war despite G7 pressures.
De-dollarization represents yet another dimension of the now rapid realignments in the world economy. Since 2000, the proportion of central banks’ currency reserves held in U.S. dollars has fallen by half. That decline continues. Every week brings news of countries cutting trade and investment payments in U.S. dollars in favor of payments in their own currencies or other currencies than the U.S. dollar. Saudi Arabia is closing down the petrodollar system that crucially supported the U.S. dollar as the pre-eminent global currency. Reduced global reliance on the U.S. dollar also reduces dollars available for loans to the U.S. government to finance its borrowings. The long-term effects of that, especially as the U.S. government runs immense budget deficits, will likely be significant.
China recently brokered the rapprochement between enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pretending that such peace-making is insignificant represents purely wishful thinking. China can and will likely continue to make peace for two key reasons. First, it has resources (loans, trade deals, investments) to commit to sweeten accommodations between adversaries. Second, China’s stunning growth over the last three decades was accomplished under and by means of a global regime mostly at peace. Wars then were mostly confined to specific, very poor Asian locations. Those wars minimally disrupted the world trade and capital flows that enriched China.
Neoliberal globalization benefited China disproportionally. So China and BRICS countries have replaced the United States as the champion of continuing a broadly defined global free trade and capital movements regime. Defusing conflicts, especially in the contentious Middle East, enables China to promote the peaceful world economy in which it prospered. In contrast, the economic nationalism (trade wars, tariff policies, targeted sanctions, etc.) pursued by Trump and Biden has struck China as a threat and a danger. In reaction, China has been able to mobilize many other nations to resist and oppose United States and G7 policies in various global forums.
The source of China’s remarkable economic growth—and the key to BRICS countries’ now successful challenge to the G7’s global economic dominance—has been its hybrid economic model. China broke from the Soviet model by not organizing industry as primarily state-owned-and-operated enterprises. It broke from the U.S. model by not organizing industries as privately owned and operated enterprises. Instead, it organized a hybrid combining both state and private enterprises under the political supervision and ultimate control of the Chinese Communist Party. This hybrid macroeconomic structure enabled China’s economic growth to outperform both the USSR and the United States. Both China’s private and state enterprises organize their workplaces—their production systems’ micro-level—into the employer-employee structures exemplified by both Soviet public and U.S. private enterprises. China did not break from those microeconomic structures.
If we define capitalism precisely as that particular microeconomic structure (employer-employee, wage labor, etc.), we can differentiate it from the master-slave or lord-serf microeconomic structures of slave and feudal workplaces. Following that definition, what China constructed is a hybrid state-plus-private capitalism run by a communist party. It is a rather original and particular class structure designated by the nation’s self-description as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That class structure proved its superiority to both the USSR and the G7 in terms of its achieved rates of economic growth and independent technological development. China has become the first systemic and global competitor that the United States has had to face in the last century.
Lenin once referred to the early USSR as a “state capitalism” challenged by the task of making a further transition to post-capitalist socialism. Xi Jinping could refer to China today as a hybrid state-plus-private capitalism similarly challenged by the task of navigating its way forward to a genuinely post-capitalist socialism. That would involve and require a transition from the employer-employee workplace structure to the democratic alternative microeconomic structure: a workplace cooperative community or a workers’ self-directed enterprise. The USSR never made that transition. Two key questions follow for China: Can it? And will it?
The United States also faces two key questions. First, how much longer will most U.S. leaders persist in denying its economic and global declines, acting as if the U.S. position had not changed since the 1970s and 1980s? Second, how can such leaders’ behavior be explained when large American majorities acknowledge those declines as ongoing long-term trends? A Pew Research Center random poll taken among Americans between March 27 and April 2, 2023, asked what they expected the situation of the United States to be in 2050 compared with today. Some 66 percent expect the U.S. economy will be weaker. Seventy-one percent expect the United States will be less important in the world. Seventy-seven percent expect the United States will be more politically divided. Eighty-one percent expect the gap between rich and poor will grow. The people clearly sense what their leaders desperately deny. That difference haunts U.S. politics.
Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
I will never forget the thick summer heat that filled the sanctuary of my rural Southern Baptist church when revival week came around. Once a year, we would host a traveling firebrand of a preacher to come and reignite the spark of our faith. The press of the bodies together in long wooden pews was in stark contrast to the normally cool, even austere atmosphere that usually occupied the space between the four walls we all held as holy. The world, even then, could often feel hopeless and cruel, but within that heat we felt transformed, energized, empowered by a truth we held together, by a faith in something greater than each of us that bound us together in a common cause.
These revivals spanned several days and by the last few days, the size of the crowds held within that small space swelled to the point of spilling out of the several doors that offered entry not only to a place, but also to a process of rebirth. New faces popped up in the crowd. When our passions reached a fever pitch, many were brought to their knees, weeping and reaching out to grab hold of others; for support, for comfort, for connection.
I couldn’t help but contrast these memories against my first union meeting with my UFCW local. It was held in a big hotel conference room in Irving, TX, difficult to reach with a car and impossible without one. I didn’t expect the same passion as those evening revivals; more like a healthy Sunday congregation. To my shock, I realized I was only one of three workers at our union meeting, as opposed to five times that number of staffers sitting in the back! The meeting was never formally called to order and the President spoke informally, attempting to answer the acute frustrations workers had trying to navigate the crushing bureaucracy of our health insurance program. I was told our local had no buttons, shirts, hats, masks, or anything else to provide us that we could wear at work to show our union pride.
But if a union meeting is closer to a routine Sunday at church, could that mean the upcoming national convention will be our revival? Delegates from across the country will converge in late April as the highest constitutional authority of UFCW. Will those delegates feel the same living heat that I felt so many years ago, each knowing deep in their hearts that the sum of each person bound together in a righteous cause is far greater than each individual part? It will be impossible for me to know; the leadership of my Local 1000 chose to reject the opportunity to send 14 delegates to the convention. Instead, they chose only to send two delegates, the President and the Secretary-Treasurer. Not one single rank and file worker will be in attendance in April. No one will return to the shop floor to testify to their convention experience. If there is any heat, apparently it is only for the officers to know. We must defer to our High Priest of Labor.
Perhaps I am simply naive. It is easy (and not without reason) to look back on these raucous summer revivals through those cynical eyes, to reduce them to nothing more than the orchestrations of self-serving demagogues preying on the emotions and insecurities of faithful country folks. Or to see ourselves in the crowd, tears streaming down our faces and our hands held towards heaven, as knowing but unadmitted participants in our own manipulation. Across all sectors of society - church, school, unions, government - the refrain has become: “Only suckers have hope. Only fools have faith. It is not God that is dead, but ourselves. Only those who believe in nothing know the truth. Embrace the liberation of low expectations and you will never know the crushing disappointment that has defined our last half century.”
I have long since left behind the revival days of my childhood church. I understand the cynicism; I even share it for the most part. We have all seen the stream of news reporting the corruption of many of our pastors and our union leaders. Are we to simply bury our heads in the sand, a nation of pollyannas who know better than to rock the boat? And even though such disappointments hold true, can we say they are the whole truth? It is just as true that in the holy place of my childhood sanctuary, we felt alive together, bound together, energized to fight together. The truth is that we shared a truth together and it gave us life, hot as fire and electric arcing across the hands stretching towards the ceiling.
I refuse to lose faith that such an ember exists within our labor movement; a burning truth that binds us together. I have a defiant faith that the world we deserve can only be built with working hands. Against the sea of despair we have been blessed with the duty to protect this ember and with our labor, we must wage a struggle to turn back that rising tide so the fire of revival can catch and spread across our nation.
The barn-burning sermons came to an end and the tear-streaked faces always left that sanctuary. We were convinced we were prepared to fight for our families, for our values, for our communities. Yet despite our deepest convictions, we watched our families broken and buried under financial stress and instability. Our values were warped in service to a real and dangerous demagoguery lurking behind the scenes, one that whipped our passions to set us against people we saw as different from us. Our schools were looted of resources and left to rot, transformed into sites of culture wars and shooting wars.
Those hot nights were not enough to save us and it broke my heart. I have only felt it a few times since then: pressed into a crowd of hundreds screaming through chain link fencing at the Klansmen arrayed across the lawn of our county courthouse or circling a picket line as summer heat beat down on smiling, chanting faces. Similar experiences have been few and far between.
For decades now, working people have been hammered by big money. It has destroyed many things, our wages and living standards, our lifespans, the safety of our communities, our hope for the future. But most devastatingly, it has destroyed our faith in ourselves and each other. It has destroyed any respect working people have for ourselves, pressing our heads beneath the biting waters of despair and self-loathing. Big money and its payroll of political goons have killed the spirits of working-class people all across this country, regardless of color, or faith, or sex, or sexuality, or anything else. It has been both indiscriminate and comprehensive in the spiritual violence it has inflicted upon every single person who works for a living.
It is against this backdrop of spiritual death that those summer nights have been calling to me. What can be the only response to such a comprehensive death but rebirth? How else can we answer death but with new life; with a revival?
This revival is not a dream; it is already unfolding all around us. It has caught the spirit of baristas, teachers, autoworkers, and those risking injuries across the countless warehouses that dot the country. It is the engine that drives reform within the UAW and the Teamsters today, and my union, UFCW, tomorrow.
Only a labor revival, across all faiths, all races, all working people, can we regain the fighting spirit that has been crushed out of us. Revival alone, bound together in the heat of a common purpose and guided by a common truth, can give force to the fight to save our families and our communities. Only a revival of the fighting working-class spirit can save our nation from the forces of financial greed.
This article was republished from Kroger-Workers' Voice.
The long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive has arrived. The Zelensky administration has spent months securing financial and military support for what could be Ukraine’s last chance to take back lost territory. In this war drive, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have obtained German Leopard tanks, American Bradleys, Polish Krabs, and various armored personnel carriers and artillery systems. NATO’s finest conventional weapons of war are now being employed daily by Ukrainian troops.
However, instead of repelling Russia and reclaiming lost territory, images shared widely online are showing the exact opposite: destroyed tanks, abandoned personnel carriers, and no serious breaches of the Russian defensive line - for now.
For months leading up to this long-awaited counteroffensive, the supply of NATO weaponry dominated Western headlines. The German Leopards were supposed to be a game changer. The American Bradleys were supposed to break the Russian line. The air defense systems were supposed to intercept any and all rocket and drone attacks.
Instead, reality has kicked in. No Russian defensive positions have been crushed yet, but the idea of NATO military supremacy surely has. In addition to last month’s destruction of the US-supplied Patriot air defense system, columns of NATO tanks lay in smoldering ruins, with perhaps even the Russians scratching their heads in confusion.
Until recently, NATO weapons had yet to truly be tested against an equal opponent. The history of NATO military involvement is limited to crushing movements for national sovereignty and genocidal bombing campaigns. It wasn’t until the outbreak of Russia’s Special Military Operation that NATO weaponry was forced to fight against military technology as up-to-date as its own. Russia’s military capabilities are still measured just short of the United States, but they are fighting the combined military technologies of NATO - which, in addition to the United States, includes the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, and 25 other member countries.
Ironically, NATO technology has proven to be tougher when it wasn’t on the battlefield. Until the Special Military Operation, names like “The Leopard” or “Patriot System” or “HIMARS” struck fear into anyone in NATO’s way. Now, they have been rendered vulnerable for the world to see.
It was the mythology of NATO weaponry that made it allegedly superior. The Russians have busted that myth.
Joining the Russians are the Iranians. The Iranian Shahed-136 drone has been deployed dozens of times by Russia. Col. Rodion Kulagin, a Ukrainian artillery commander, commented that the loitering suicide drone “blew the triple-seven in half,” referencing the M777 Howitzer artillery system. Since the initial deployment of these drones, Russia has doubled down, adding it to its usual portfolio of offensive weaponry - breaking even the Patriot system defense in Kiev multiple times.
One can argue that perhaps the Ukrainians are not trained to use NATO weaponry considering that they are not a member of NATO. However, that is far from the truth. Numerous Ukrainian officers are in NATO countries learning various weapons systems and bringing back those skills to the front. Not only that but it is confirmed NATO officers themselves are in Ukraine overseeing training and logistics.
Military technology is expensive. It takes up a significant chunk of every country’s budget. NATO countries, in particular, have an obligation to spend a percentage of their GDP on NATO initiatives - primarily weaponry and training. Giving away dozens of tanks and artillery systems is not an easy investment. For this very reason, it would be a necessity for NATO members to train Ukrainian forces on how to properly operate NATO weaponry. And they would be incentivized to do so as well - when will NATO, a bloc created specifically to counter the Soviet threat, have an opportunity again to test their weapons against a modern army?
On the flip side, Russia has much to gain from its offensive maneuvers against Ukraine as well. Each abandoned or knocked-out NATO piece of armor can be brought back to Russian military scientists and backward-engineered to understand capabilities and weak points. This information can then be shared with countries looking to bulk up their defense capabilities ahead of a NATO-involved operation.
It also allows Russia to showcase its own weaponry. If Russian weapons are capable of piercing NATO defensive weapons, other countries may want to buy from Russia instead of, for example, the United States. This has been proven especially true for Iran. Russia’s usage of the Shahed 136 proved to be quite advantageous for Iran - over 20 countries have requested to purchase the Shahed system.
The more NATO throws at the Russians, the more NATO has to lose in the long term.
Despite the Western media war drive, despite the billions of dollars invested into Ukrainian weaponry and logistics, NATO is coming up short - and the world is watching. The crumbling image of US unipolarity is being supplemented by the crumbling image of perhaps the most powerful military bloc to ever exist.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive may gain territory in the coming weeks - or it may not at all - but one thing is certain. The images of destroyed NATO tanks and artillery will serve as a hideous scar on the war hawks of the West. This will no doubt create a level of panic within the walls of companies like Boeing and Raytheon - who were once hailed as military science champions.
As many world leaders have stated, the best course of action is a diplomatic approach to the war. Ukraine has unfortunately become a testing ground for NATO weaponry with its imposed proxy war on Russia. The tests are failing, Ukrainian lives are being sacrificed, and NATO countries are scrambling to find any positive spin to continue the war effort. Perhaps it's best for them to count their losses and find common ground to avoid further carnage - and embarrassment.
Shabbir Rizvi Political analyst that specializes in US foreign and domestic policy, geopolitics, and military science; Anti-war organizer.
This article was republished from Almayadeen.
The customer is well-groomed. Black, or African-American, and she has done something lovely with her edge hairs. They’re curled into spirals and waxed to lay down flat along her crown. She has a French manicure, and she’s buying Midol, a box of tampons, and an individually-wrapped pickle. We don’t sell a lot of Midol. Mostly, people steal it. We don’t sell a lot of those pickles. I’ve often thought if we took them out of the refrigerator next to the yogurt and put them by the register, they would sell better. I’ve never eaten one of those pickles. The pickle costs ninety-seven cents. Do I want a pickle? Not really. What am I going to eat for lunch?
Anthony says, “I’m going to go ahead and take my lunch,” like he does every day around this time, which is absurd because he never actually takes a lunch. He clocks out, goes outside to smoke a cigarette, and then comes back in and keeps ringing the register once he’s off the clock. Kim does the same thing. When I clock out for my lunch, I don’t do shit. Most of the time, when I’m clocked in, I’m not doing shit. I am not trying to do shit.
I look at his hands. They are brown from whatever work he’s been doing. I recognize hands like that. Why is this man who obviously works for a living having to use an EBT card?
The customer is white, or Caucasian. He’s very dirty. OK, not very dirty. He’s mildly dirty from work. He’s buying three cans of Monster, a caffeinated “energy” drink. “EBT,” he says, which tells me he’s been on food stamps a long time because the PIN pad will take an EBT card the same as a debit card. You don’t have to declare your intent to use food stamps to the cashier at Dollar Mart, but sometimes, older customers do. The guy can’t get his card to swipe. First of all, the card is broken in half horizontally. You see this a lot. Once you get issued an EBT card in Ohio, you have to keep that same card forever. My caseworker said if I want a new one, it takes six weeks to replace, so everybody just keeps using their same old card that is older than kids who can drive a car.
The customer tries to swipe his half of an EBT card several times. It’s not going through. He’s got the card upside down. I look at his hands. They are brown from whatever work he’s been doing. I recognize hands like that. Why is this man who obviously works for a living having to use an EBT card? How little is he making at his job that he qualifies for food stamps? Maybe he has like six kids.
I lean over the COVID sneeze guard to show him how to swipe his card on the PIN pad, but he’s not getting it, so I just hit the red button for him to put his number in manually The next customer is Black, older. He’s extremely clean cut with a golf shirt and an ivory linen flat cap. I can smell his cologne. It’s nice. I recognize this guy as one of Anthony’s neighbors. He’s buying a bottle of laundry detergent. I notice that he’s wearing a heavy gold chain with a large crucifix that bounces on his solar plexus. I wonder if he’s Christian. He’s probably Christian. I’m Christian. I wonder what it’s like to purchase a necklace like that. Do you say to yourself, “Jesus would be into this?” What is this necklace trying to communicate? I think this necklace has some significance other than to do with Jesus, but I am not the intended recipient of the message, so to me, it’s unknowable.
Anthony and his neighbor stand in the doorway of the store and exchange information about the old lady’s house where the pit bull keeps getting off its chain. Anthony and his neighbor both have pit bulls. Anthony has two. Well, one’s his girlfriend’s, but she’s in rehab. I wonder if the problem is that they don’t want the old lady’s dog to impregnate their dogs or if it’s a situation where there could be a dog fight. Probably a dog fight. The door of the store is wide open to the parking lot. The air conditioning isn’t working so Anthony propped the door open. It’s not helping to regulate the temperature of the store, but psychologically, it’s better than nothing. It’s something we have control over. I’m ringing up the next customer, a K-Pop fan. She’s buying stickers. I knew she’s a K-pop fan because she’s a regular and she likes to talk about those guys. I don’t know any of their names. I think it’s nice that she has a hobby.
Kim says, “Julie, is it ok that I put a pizza on your car?” Now when Kim comes up to ask me something while I’m ringing the register, it’s usually like, “Can you go help Anthony with the rolltainers? Can you go recover soap and shower? Can you go do the bathrooms?” Something I’m not really trying to do. I scan the sentence: pizza, car. Doesn’t sound like I have to do anything about it. “Yeah, sure. Yes,” I say. This is Kim’s day off. What is she doing here anyways? “Where’s Anthony?” Where is Anthony? Pizza on my car doesn’t quite make any sense. I spray the checkout counter with Lysol. Customers keep knocking the Lysol off the top shelf and cracking the plastic lid so we can’t sell it. We have a shit-ton of Lysol behind the counter for store use, so I like to sanitize things. According the our work flow list that was probably printed in 2020, sanitizing is required on every shift because of COVID, but nobody gives a fuck about that now.
Anthony reappears with a bunch of helium balloons. They say, “Happy Mother’s Day” and “World’s Best Mom.” Kim relays her story:
“I was walking up to Ianazone’s to get the pizza for Trevor’s party. This guy drives past and waves, so I wave back without thinking. Because I am a normal person. This guy pulls up, stops his car, and turns around to follow me like a stalker. I have a stalker now. He followed me to Ianazone’s parking lot and was still waiting out there when I came out with the pizza, so I walked across the street to come over here and see if Julie could drive me home so I can get rid of this guy following me.“
I give Kim a ride home. The pizza smells wonderful. Anthony says they changed their sauce, but that is a lie because I’m smelling this pizza and it’s transporting me back to 1987 where I’m roller skating around in my driveway and my stepdad just brought home a pizza from Ianazone’s and everything is basically okay. It’s a good memory. When I get back from taking Kim home, Anthony is on the ladder trying to fuck with the thermostat. “I got all the balloons out of the air intake vent and now I’m trying to shut this fan off that’s blowing hot air down on us.”
“Don’t they control the heat from corporate now? From a computer. They can just control the heat in your store remotely,” the customer says. He’s a generic old white man with white hair, I see a Narcotics Anonymous chip in his hand when he pays exact change for his box enema. You have no idea how many of those we sell. My next customer is a regular, a white lady who usually comes in later at night. She’s buying three packs of licorice, Twizzlers, and a Coke. She’s one of the saddest people I’ve ever seen in my life. She lives in the High Rises. Kim told me that her daughter was murdered in the elevator. Her daughter was stabbed to death. There were no witnesses. Nobody knows why she was killed. But the mom still lives in the High Rises. She gives me eleven dollars in one dollar bills and says, “Keep the change.” Eleven dollars isn’t enough to pay for three packs of Twizzlers, but I didn’t ring her up for them anyways.
If we were truly on strike, I guess we would lock the doors and shut the store down, but we keep the store open. A sit down strike. I know it won’t last.
“It’s too hot in here to work,” Anthony says. “I mean it.” I cannot believe my ears. Anthony, Mr. I-WORK-WHEN-I-AM-NOT-EVEN-CLOCKED-IN is telling me that we’re going on strike. He is calling Kim on the phone. “Don’t expect any of the rolltainers to be done when you come in tomorrow morning. We’re not going to do any work in this heat. It’s dangerous to our health. We could get heat stroke. Especially Julie on her medication. We are not doing any work tonight.” To be completely honest, I wasn’t planning on doing any work anyways. But this is something novel. Something unexpected. Anthony just declared us on strike. As far as I know, none of the Dollar Marts in North America are unionized, but like me and Anthony are going to get together and exercise our Weingarten rights and shit. I pull lawn chairs out of the summer barbecue display and set them out on the sidewalk in front of the store where we can still see the register.
If we were truly on strike, I guess we would lock the doors and shut the store down, but we keep the store open. A sit down strike. I know it won’t last. Kim will come in tomorrow morning and do her work PLUS all the work we don’t do tonight, because Kim– she’s not ready to sign a union card. Not even close. They will probably make her management of her own store. She’s really into the whole Dollar Mart management agenda. This strike won’t last out the night, but I’m absolutely doing everything in my power to support this kind of behavior from Anthony. And by doing everything I can, I mean sitting in this lawn chair and looking at my phone.
The trees out back behind Ianazone’s pizza shop are in full green leaf. Tonight is special. We take turns sitting in the lawn chair and ringing the register while the sun takes its time setting.
I’m at the register when this customer comes through my line with hot dogs, buns, ketchup, and mustard, a white lady with blonde hair. She tries to pay with half an EBT card. We run it manually and it comes up INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. “Do you know how much you have on there? Do you know how to call the phone number and check?” I ask her. Bewildered, she puts the ketchup and mustard back. I try to ring up just the hot dogs and the buns, but it still comes up INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. “Try just the hot dogs,” she says. I look at her face while we’re waiting to see if it goes through. She has one of those Marilyn Monroe piercings with a little gem embedded in her cheek. I notice a tear forming in her one eye. She’s going to cry over the hot dogs, but I can’t believe it. When I tell her INSUFFICIENT FUNDS again, she runs out of the store.
I tell Anthony about it, and he’s like, “Why didn’t you just give her the hot dogs?” It’s a legitimate question. Examining my role in this theater of poverty, I have to confess that I didn’t consider that she actually really needed those hot dogs. Because why would you go through the checkout line and fuck around with an EBT card that has no money on it when you can simply TAKE the hot dogs. Just walk out the door. Everybody else does. This is the Dollar Mart. Take it. Whatever you need. Maxi pads, baby Tylenol, pregnancy test. Just take it. Nobody’s going to stop you. A lady came in here yesterday and took an entire shopping cart full of groceries. I know this because a customer, a white lady, told me she saw a woman loading up her car in the parking lot with stolen merchandise. I said, “I didn’t see anything.”
People from the High Rises start getting off work and coming into the store to get their late evening purchases. Me and Anthony have both registers open and there’s a line. Diapers, condoms, popcorn, blunt wraps.
A customer, Black lady, comes through my line with her daughter whose hair is in the loveliest braids with those big round plastic opaque beads I haven’t seen in years. They used to sell them at Phar-Mor, but we don’t sell beads at Dollar Mart. The customer is buying things for her daughter’s school lunches: Ziploc bags and boxes of Hi-C fruit punch. We sell a lot of these. Every kid in Youngstown has to be drinking Hi-C fruit punch the amount of it we sell. It reminds me of The Wire, where the kid who is a drug dealer gets juice boxes for all the little kids and helps them with their math homework. That’s just so American. Here’s your juice box, kid. Your poison Red No. 5 and your sugar water. Don’t drink out the actual water fountain at your school because the water has lead in it.
I think I’ll watch The Wire when I get home from work tonight. I have my sister’s HBOGo password. Or HBOMAX. Max. Whatever.
One of the regulars, the lady who works for the bail bondsman, comes and asks if we’re out of the one dollar aluminum foil. “We’re out,” I tell her. I’m annoyed. Why the fuck is she asking me for one dollar aluminum foil? There is only one reason you need that, and it’s to smoke crack. Why do I have to be involved? Take the six dollar aluminum foil. Just take it. Don’t come up and fucking ask me about it. I’m not trying to work tonight.
Two regulars in Anthony’s line are hooting and hollering. There are two fat white guys yelling at each other. The one keeps shouting, “I just came from my cousin’s funeral!” Allegedly, the one guy’s daughter is spreading rumors at school that the other guy’s daughter is a lesbian. The lesbian in question is pulling on her dad’s bicep, trying to coax him into leaving without a fight. “Come on, Dad,” she wheedles. She has freckles on her nose. I think I’ve seen her hanging out with the K-Pop girl. The fat guy who just came from his cousin’s funeral decks the fat dad. The fat dad loses his balances and knocks over the lesbian girl, who in turn knocks over a rack of gift cards.
I’m thinking about how little I care about this drama when I see the shot. There’s a flash in the corner of my eye. Off to the left, there is an older Black woman clutching her purse and a pistol. She looks scared. The lady who works for the bail bondsman runs out the store. I’m trying to process what the fuck just happened, and it occurs to me that I’m being robbed, so I open the cash register.
But something’s not adding up. Something about this whole situation does not make sense. The lesbian girl is crying. There is a smell. Did this lady just shoot me? What the fuck. I am pissed.
I would have just given her the money, but I didn’t even know we were being robbed. This is way more bullshit than anyone should have to deal with for $10.50 an hour. I am not paid enough to deal with this shit. And I turn around and see it. Anthony is lying on the floor and there is something wrong with his face. Anthony has been shot. Anthony is dead.
I walk out the door and I don’t look back. I head towards Ianazone’s. I keep walking. Into the woods.
This article was repulished from Class Unity.
Nicolás Maduro Makes Historic Trip to Brazil for South American Presidents’ Summit By: Global News ServiceRead Now
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro participated in a joint press conference on May 29 from the Planalto Palace in Brasília, highlighting the importance of resuming ties. The press conference was held following a bilateral meeting between the heads of state ahead of the South American Presidents’ Summit.
As Lula told media, “This is a historic moment. After eight years, President Nicolás Maduro is back to visiting Brazil and we have recovered our right to have a foreign policy with the seriousness we have always had, especially with the countries that border Brazil.”
Their meeting took place days after Lula and Maduro appointed ambassadors to each other’s countries on May 24, and formalized the reestablishment of relations.
According to statements from their governments, the meeting focused on reactivating trade between the two countries, cooperation on issues regarding the Amazon, advancing regional integration, and issues related to their 1,366-mile border. At the press conference, Lula highlighted that at its height, the flow of trade between the two nations had reached $6 billion and it had now dropped to $2 billion, which he argued “is bad for Venezuela and Brazil.” Lula also said that he is in favor of Venezuela joining BRICS.
Maduro commented on the challenges the country underwent when “Brazil closed all of the doors and windows, despite being neighboring countries, countries that love each other as people.” He recalled an attempt to invade the Venezuelan embassy in Brasília, which was defended by Brazilian social movements and solidarity groups. “Today, a new chapter of relations between our countries begins,” he said.
Global News Service
While Audre Lorde’s proclamation that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is so often borne out as sage—her thesis being woefully apropos to the milieus of contemporary American finance capital, electoral politics, and commercial artistry—there are myriad examples of creators and actors, acolytes to ideologies that are dead-left of the Overton window in their respective fields, weaponizing the means, methods, and terrestrial infrastructure of said field to levy a critique, be it broad form or surgically narrow (110). With the above as guiding credo, this essay will examine two instances of this kind of philosophical counterinsurgency in the film industry: Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir-thriller Out of the Past, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 lo-fi noir Detour. It is my opinion that these films—both conceived, actualized, and broadcast during the height of the Old Hollywood autocracy, in which money-minded studio executives and their political remora (think the Jesuit doctrinaire who authored the Hays Code, and the PCA bureaucrats who enforced it) held unassailable dominion—are not only pointed indictments of budding late-stage capitalism, assembly line-style popular culture, and the ambient anomie this cultural machine (in tandem with the embedded mode of postwar production) instills in the citizenry, but are encoded with condemnations of the commercial film industry; its fantasy-peddling and reactionary agitprop, in particular.
A note on methodology: it is my belief that both directors share a kindred, if well sublimated, political and metaphysical sensibility with certain members of the Frankfurt School, specifically Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. This shared sensibility stems not only from likeminded rearing—Tourneur and Ulmer, same as the listed members of the Frankfurt School, were born and bred in Europe—and the rangingly similar metrics of cultural discernment (what might be more aptly classified as ‘taste’) that said upbringing could engender, but a visceral distrust of the Hollywood model as a means of generating and disseminating culture to the masses. The reasons for this distrust varies widely among the names mentioned heretofore—for the directors, there is ad hominem-flavored personal grievance, while our scholarly émigrés phrase their disgust in terms much more academic—but a sense of spiritual malaise and dislocation is salient in the work of each. Therefore, I will frame my analysis around the postulations and diagnoses of the Frankfurt School. Historically, the Frankfurt School has often found itself at loggerheads with orthodox Marxism. Devotees of mainline Marxist-Leninist thought have convincingly argued that the FS proper was plagued by an aggressive strain of philosophical sophistry and anti-materialist charlatanism which lent itself to cooption by state-sanctioned forces of reaction and anti-communism (Rockhill). While the documentary record does support this assessment, I would still argue there is palpable ideological overlap between the two movements.
In particular, I believe the analytic exegeses of media and popular culture that were undertaken by several faction stalwarts constitutes the Frankfurt School’s most clear-eyed and salient discursive contribution, one which provides a useful corollary to classical Marxism’s understanding of the relationship between the cultural apparatus and the dominant mode of production. Thus, this analysis will utilize the critical framework and nomenclature of Horkheimer & Adorno’s monograph The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Procedurally, this will consist of a close reading of Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” and the application of the pronouncements/postulations outlined therein to Detour and Out of the Past. For breadth, this predominant thread of critique will be accented by selections from the writings of Herbert Marcuse, among other thinkers and texts associated with the wider discourse community of film criticism.
All that being said, the brand of critique—commonly known as Critical Theory—attributed most famously to the Frankfurt school is not just applicable to the two movies I have selected, but the genre of film noir as a whole. Coined in 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank to describe the style of moviemaking that was regnant in Hollywood at the time, a majority of critics now agree that the heyday of ‘classic film noir’ “fall[s] between 1941 and 1958, beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welle’s A Touch of Evil” (Conard 1). But while other genres can be demarcated by their tonal conceits (romance, comedy), topographical setting (Western), or plot machinations (action, horror), film noir is most convincingly taxonomized by its themes. Film scholar Mark T. Conard lists noir’s eminent philosophical concerns as such: “the inversion of traditional values and the corresponding moral ambivalence; […] the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and cynicism; the presence of crime and violence; and disorientation” (1-2). Honing in, a nigh-ubiquitous alienation from what Robert Porfirio calls “that native-bred optimism that seemed to define the American character,” appears on many academics’ lists of the defining thematic attributes of film noir (Porfirio X).
Among scholars, opinions on what accounts for said alienation are myriad and spectrum-spanning. In his monograph Dark Borders, Jonathan Auerbach says this “profound sense of dispossession” is an outcome of “the [nascent] Cold War’s redefinition of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” (Auerbach 2). Conversely, Dennis Broe identifies the engine behind this detachment as something plain and barely obfuscated: “In the period immediately following World War II, when the hopes and dreams of American working men and women seemed about to be realized, they were dashed […] by the forces of [corporate] reaction” (Broe xvi). Mark Osteen, in what could be termed a summation of these other viewpoints, finds the locus of this alienation in the “quintessentially American […] quest for fame” which is purportedly possible through dogged wiles and “individual striving,” but ends in either atomized failure or, for the microscopically small contingent that does ‘make it,’ a “self that is emptied of meaning” (Osteen 1).
There is a strain of Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique that corroborates these assertions, especially Broe’s. Steeped in materialist analysis and traditional Marxist dialectics, it is not heterodox to claim that they would agree with Broe’s classical anatomization of alienation: namely, that the industrial/capitalistic mode of production alienates workers from their own labor—i.e. by doing the physical work, the laborer creates surplus profits for a passive ‘owner,’ who in turn has complete dominion over said profits, while the worker is only remunerated a fraction of this surplus in the form of a wage—and this axiomatic alienation, which for most has to be endured and reckoned with on a daily basis, metastasizes, warping and destabilizing other aspects of the laborer’s psyche. Obviously, this identitarian discontinuity and sensory disorientation manifests negatively in the personality and conduct of the laborer. Thus, with such a fractured and neurotic populace, the forging of community becomes almost impossible (grimly emblematized by the world-weary and beleaguered truck driver who in a roadside diner tells Al Roberts, Detour’s protagonist, “I ain’t got nobody at all”) (Detour). Historically, this condition writ large has been the central exigence of Marxist thought and praxis.
Engaging with any part of Horkheimer and Adorno’s corpus, even at the most cursory or facile level, will reveal the above to be a foundational aspect of their methodology, but what makes them unique and exceptionally significant to this analysis is their emphasis on culture and how it augments, accents, and flat-out architects the heretofore mentioned alienation. Consonant with traditional Marxist historiography, Horkheimer and Adorno see the relationship between the economic base and the cultural superstructure as especially dynamic—symbiotic, even. In their critical conception, culture does more than just upkeep the status quo; to them, it is essentially as crucial in controlling and stratifying the public as the reigning mode of production, sustaining a level of “relative autonomy” far beyond that which some Second International-era vulgarians might have allowed for (Garrido). Furthermore, since culture in the age of infant late capitalism was largely authored by the same tectonic interests (or at their behest, at least) who most benefited from the current economic iteration, there is no authentic—i.e. created independent of, or outside the monetary incentive-structure of—culture to speak of. In its place, there is a lumbering and labyrinthian Culture Industry, which enshrines “the triumph of invested capital, whose title as absolute master is etched deep into the hearts of the dispossessed in the employment line” (Adorno 125).
The baneful impacts of the Culture Industry on the citizenry, particularly those in the most oppressed and put-upon classes, are myriad. As is noted by practitioners of black letter, by-the-book materialism, it does indeed serve to undergird and re-enunciate in the minds of workers their extant purposes: working and consuming. On this, Horkheimer and Adorno further align with the consensus—“Industry is interested in people merely as customers and employees, and has in fact reduced mankind as a whole and each of its elements to this all-embracing formula” (147). And though these two directives might appear to be dichotomized, they in all actuality manifest as an Ouroboros—the ancient serpent eating its own tale, ad nauseam—in the era of the Culture Industry, workers work so as to have the means to consume, and this consumption acts as a kind of triage, a balm or salve, that patches them up enough spiritually to continue laboring. Or, as Horkheimer and Adorno state it, “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again” (137).
In addition, the Culture Industry, through the brute amalgamation of both labor and leisure, also seeks to preserve the social and economic order. When consuming cultural products, “what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardized operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time” (137). The end result of this procedural blending of what working and consuming entails content-wise, this “aesthetic barbarity”—embodied by the vapid, rote, and deadening nature of the actual cultural products being consumed, a majority of which, be it music or movies, are concertedly plotted to be banal, low-stakes, and easily digestible—is just another buttress for the presiding economic order: “having ceased to be anything but style, it [the Culture Industry] reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (131).
Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, Adorno and Horkheimer pinpoint in the Culture Industry a mandate to inseminate false wants and needs in the masses. These wants exhibit themselves in two ways: one is an almost zombielike urge to be the “eternal consumer,” to continue intaking this bland cultural product, which has such low potency that it demands more and more product, more and more extreme degrees of consumption, to elicit even a baseline response (124). Theoretically, the Culture Industry is supposed to function as a metaphysical unguent for the bleak toil of wage labor, but, in Horkheimer and Adorno’s opinion, “The paradise offered by [it] is the same old drudgery. Both escape and elopement are predesigned to lead back to the starting point. Pleasure promotes the resignation which it ought to help forget” (142). The second stripe of want is most typically associated with the long-vaunted and squabbled over concept of the ‘American Dream,’ and the level of access to it that rank-and-file Americans have.
The film industry, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is especially guilty of instilling false dreams and quixotic aspirations, of propagating insatiable consumption as the one true avenue toward identity formation and genuine individuality. Said “Pseudo-individuality” is a result of the hoax air of possibility and meritocratic mythos emitted by an industry which “is represented as unceasingly in search of talent. Those discovered by talent scouts and then publicized on a vast scale by the studio are ideal types of the new dependent average. Of course, the starlet is meant to symbolize the typist in such a way that the evening dress seems meant for the actress as distinct from the real girl. The girls in the audience not only feel that they could be on the screen, but realize the great gulf separating them from it. […] [This success] might just as well have been hers, and somehow never is” (154, 145). This brand of mass gaslighting is what the British psychologist David Smail calls “magical voluntarism” (Smail 6). In layman’s terms, magical voluntarism is the notion that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they wish to be, and failing to do so is a sign of a particular person’s shiftlessness, not a shortcoming stitched into the societal fabric. This internalized policy, that of a structural problem being pathologized/reduced to the actionable purview of the individual, is one of the chief byproducts of the Culture Industry.
There is no more suitable synecdoche for these unattainable hopes and lofty hankerings, part and parcel to the Culture Industry’s unchecked proliferation, than the city of Los Angeles, including its outlying suburbs and exurbs; or, as it is metonymically known, Hollywood. Beyond its status as the creative womb and procedural birthing-place of film noir, where the lion’s share of these movies were filmed, it is also where the majority of noirs are set. The two films that this essay focalizes fall into the above category as well, albeit with a slight wrinkle. While not the initial setting, both Detour and Out of the Past claim Los Angeles as their physical and existential terminus. Hollywood, as an ontological aspiration and a destination, looms large in each. Detour begins—I am speaking of the linear plot (the film actually begins at the chronological ending, in media res, with Al hitchhiking to a diner in Reno, Nevada)—with Al Roberts, a lovelorn jazz pianist in New York City, trying to save up the necessary funds to join his girlfriend, a striving singer, in Los Angeles. As is wont for the genre, a lack of money hamstrings Al’s designs for his own life, and we find him from the nonce thoroughly enervated and embittered by the capitalistic scurry to accrue.
Though deeply skeptical and suspicious of the starry-eyed, rags-to-riches Hollywood narrative, Los Angeles does function for Al as a break from the tedium and monotonous familiarity of his life in New York, a chance to start anew. Because he has only his own labor to sell, i.e. he has no equity or capital to passively plump his coffers, Al is forced to work for proverbial peanuts at a cheap nightclub, squandering his talent and deferring any legitimate artistic yearnings (in-scene, this is represented by the riff-driven and mostly intuitive jazz we hear Al playing for pay, versus the classical music—Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, op.64, no. 2—he plays for pleasure) (Cantor 149). This is a fact that Al laments throughout the film, time and again bemoaning that decisions which should be his to make, should feasibly be within any continent adult’s sphere of agency and autonomy, are in all reality adjudicated by an ever-lurking scarcity: “Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it” (Detour).
Evident in the quote is an object definition of classical alienation, which accords with the orthodox Marxist perspectives outlined at length earlier in this essay. But also implicitly present—given what we know about Roberts’s stifled potential and stagnating ambitions as a pianist, which are a direct result of his need to make money—is an example of the effect that a society schematized around maximizing production and profit above all else does to what Herbert Marcuse calls the creative “Eros” of the worker. Because his status as an industrial cog is so inviolably codified, fiscal precarity his lifelong affliction, the worker is at every turn forced to repress his own wants, to forgo the “instinctual needs for peace and quiet,” for the sake of streamlined manufacturing and the hallowed GDP (Marcuse xiv). Indentured to this capitalistic cycle of “production and destruction,” the worker recedes into the unwitting thrall of Thanatos, or the death drive (xi). Rounding back to film noir, the above dynamic could account for the aberrant and dissociative actions of not only Al Roberts and Jeff Markham (Out of the Past’s antihero), but countless characters throughout the entire film noir catalogue who seem to be operating in a cognitive fog, barreling toward their own ruin. Embodying this, from the opening credits we find Al not exactly suicidal, but with a tacit wish for insentience that only intensifies as the film progresses.
We find Jeff Bailey, assumed name of Out of the Past’s Jeff Markham, in similar straits. Once a successful private eye, a romantic tryst gone bad—with the runaway woman he was hired to apprehend, no less—has Markham laying low, leading a banal life in the rural mountain town of Bridgeport, California. At the film’s commencement, he is the owner-operator of a piddling gas station. Rather than feeling rejuvenated by the ambling, gently-paced domesticity of his new life—it is pertinent to note here that some film historians, Jonathan Auerbach in particular, attribute the “intense anxiety, paranoia, and disorientation” that so often plagues noir protagonists to “an absence of domesticity, a lack of fixity”—Markham is at best blasé toward the simple, low-octane wage labor that now constitutes his daily existence (Auerbach 151). In fact, I would argue that—given the glimpses of lusty avariciousness and laconic criminality we as viewers glean from Markham in the first act’s expository reminiscence, and the second act’s resumption of detective work—it is his newfound epistemological conception of himself as merely a wage-worker (since he owns the service station, one could quibble that he is more a member of the petite bourgeois than proletariat, but this is largely nullified by the lack of passivity in his income; besides a mute boy, Markham appears to be the sole operator of his service station) that is by and large the mother of his discontent. From its opening repartee, a pitch-perfect case study in the witty, idiomatic to-and-fro that would come to be known as the ‘hardboiled’ mode of dialogue, Markham’s subtle sourness concerning this recent change of profession is discernible in his reunion with Whit Sterling, the pedigreed crook and gambling kingpin who originally hired him to find his girlfriend:
Sterling: I understand you’re operating a little gasoline station?
Clearly, Markham’s status as clock-punching-everyman does not harmonize with Sterling’s initial impression, nor can it be understood meta-textually as anything other than a radical departure from Markham’s previous understanding of himself as someone who transcended the accepted bounds of societal hierarchy, a dauntless maverick who continually eluded the prison of the humdrum and workaday. Thus, given yet another shift in his comportment and bearing in the film’s second act, the noumenal aura of Hollywood—which, though several key plot-developments occur in other California and Mexican cities, I would argue is the presiding turbine of delusion and phantasm in Out of the Past--functions for Markham not just as a return to the procedural life of a private eye, but as hinge point and hearthstone in his entire psychic architecture of selfhood. And, with this crucial vantage in mind, it is easier to parse the manifest Thanatos that eventually leads to his demise—afforded form and flesh in the character of Kathie Moffet, Markham’s obsession (and an obvious nod toward the ‘femme fatale’ trope so famously associated with the genre)—as both an act of keen defiance against the deeply-entrenched mode of postwar production, i.e. quiet desperation and faceless ‘wage-slavery,’ and a thematic/proverbial recoupment of Markham, who made it his mission statement to flout the worker/consumer dichotomy at every overture, by the ‘universe,’ a euphemism for the purposely mystified facets of corporate propagandization and the superstructure which superintend the public. The lattermost claim—that Markham’s death can be read as celestial punishment for defying the established order of things, for not abiding the business-friendly version of the American dream—is lent credence by Out of the Past’s closing scene, which depicts a mute boy, Markham’s lone employee, smiling and saluting his name on the filling station marquee.
Like Jeff Markham and Al Roberts, several members of the Frankfurt School also found themselves, by choice or bitter necessity, in Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in particular, spent a great deal of column-inches trying to shed clarity on the estrangement and exploitation that underwrote so much of the buoyant optimism that surrounded this city—their interim homeplace—that film theorist Tina Olsen Lint says “[was] perceived as being the last metropolitan manifestation of the westward movement and the promise of personal freedom and fresh starts inherent in that migration” (331). Given their scholarly preoccupations, and the caste-based, aristocratically-calcified continent they had just fled, it is no gargantuan wonder that Horkheimer and Adorno would find worrisome and altogether Kafkaesque a municipal center where “[the myth] of incessant mobility broke down the social control agencies of the established communities and gave rise to rootlessness, lawlessness, and an overall sense of unreality” (332).
With its cultural product as critical aperture—i.e. the movies and music concocted there—Adorno and Horkheimer come to similar conclusions about Hollywood and its namesake industries; chiefly, that it is a varnished nothing: a steamrolled simulacra of the American experience that seeks to—in addition to what has already been discussed in this essay—strictly define ‘normalcy,’ viciously ostracize those who venture outside these boundaries, reinforce the inalienable laws of working and consuming, and pacify the masses with its soporific product (neutering any possibility of popular backlash; or, as stated in The Culture Industry, “Culture has always played its part in taming revolutionary and barbaric instinct. Industrial culture adds its contribution) (152). Throughout his storied career in letters, Adorno specifically made his distaste for popular forms of ‘art,’ philistine consumption, and the Hollywood model felt: “Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before. Sociability itself is a participant in injustice, insofar as it pretends we can still talk with each other in a frozen world, and the flippant, chummy word [on screen] contributes to the perpetuation of silence” (Adorno Section 5). Castigating movie-going as a purely performative social activity that not only exacerbates the intellectual torpor of the working classes, but actually furnishes them a tangible excuse to communicate less with their peers, receding further and further into their own solitary orbits of disaffection. On the widespread dissemination of commercial music and talk-show chatter, a forthright result of the Hollywood apparatus, Adorno is equally acerbic: “The radio [has become] the universal mouthpiece of the Fuhrer; his voice rises from street loudspeakers to resemble the howling of sirens announcing panic—from which modern propaganda can scarcely be distinguished anyway. […]
The gigantic fact that [his] speech penetrates everywhere replaces its content, just as the benefaction of the Toscanini broadcast takes the place of the symphony. No listener can grasp its true meaning any longer, while the Fuhrer’s speech is lies anyway” (159). Interestingly enough, Adorno’s qualm with mass broadcasting—that its very omnipresence and infinite accessibility cheapens whatever scope or substance there was in the original piece—finds a vehement corollary in the form of Al Roberts’s dyspeptic reaction to the Jukebox that whines out in Detour’s opening scene (“Turn that off! Will you turn that thing off?!”). As is evident, neither Horkheimer nor Adorno had any romantic misconceptions about Los Angeles, and each would probably categorize both Roberts and Markham’s pilgrimages there as just plain old orthodoxy, a stab at fulfillment that is as futile and inevitable as the worker who tithes a percentage of his measly income to the Culture Industry in exchange for movie tickets, the newest and catchiest album.
In direct contrast to the boomtown hubris and parvenu brashness of Old Hollywood, as conceived and rendered onscreen by our directors, is the brute liminality of the rest of the country. Particularly in Detour, we see the space between New York and Los Angeles—in its sinisterly flat topography, all but irradiated flora, and abject dearth of municipal coherence—depicted as anarchic and barren. Paul A. Cantor, in an article on Detour, attributes this viscerally pessimistic representation of the American heartland to “Ulmer’s distinctively European vision of the United States,” which is underpinned by the belief that “there is nothing between New York and Los Angeles—just a vast wasteland” (Cantor 154-55). Cantor goes on to posit that Ulmer’s “dark vision of the rootlessness of America” is predicated on the total absence in this nation of the type of centralized order and ironclad hierarchies that many European’s associate with statecraft and standardized culture (152).
Furthermore, Cantor points out that many patently American pastimes and obsessions—automobiles and conspicuous automobile customization, simple and hearty diner food (usually prepared by blatant neophytes, and scarfed down more for ballast than pleasure), freedom of movement (made explicit by America’s synonymous nomenclature for its major roadways: the freeway and the interstate), ceaseless travel and provisional rooming houses—simply do not compute with the European outlook. Thus, when these aspects of American life are depicted in Detour, it is in a malevolent and dystopian light. And, indeed, Al Roberts’s cross-country hitchhiking trip is colored not only by the luckless bewilderment of the plot, but a physical and geographic dereliction that is seemingly inescapable. Far from exalting nominal freedom of movement and an intractably solitary populace as laudable facets of the American project, Detour shows how these sterile environs between the coastal megalopolises—interrupted only by featureless clusters of motels, sand-burnt filling stations, and roadside diners—function as a temporal totem of late-stage industrial loneliness, and mirror the blighted interiority of its characters.
Here, I believe, is another bit of connective sinew between Ulmer and the Frankfurt School. Theodor Adorno, specifically, is known for his hardly-cloaked loathing of what he saw as slipshod and makeshift in American culture. In fact, he inveighed amply against a number of the cultural mainstays listed in the previous paragraph. For instance, in Minima Moralia, he paints a scathing portrait of a country marred by innumerable highways and destinationless back roads:
[these roads] are always inserted directly in the landscape, and the more impressively smooth and broad they are they are, the more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears against its wild, overgrown surroundings. They are expressionless […] it is as if no one had ever passed their hand over the landscape’s hair. It is uncomforted and comfortless. And it is perceived in a corresponding way. For what the hurrying eye has seen merely from the car it cannot retain, and the vanishing landscape leaves no more traces behind than it bears upon itself (Adorno 48-49)
Acclimated to the surprisingly congested and closely situated countryside of Europe, it is no small wonder that Adorno found disconcerting their American equivalent. In addition, he was essentially repulsed by the ad-hoc attitude of the service industry in the United States. While moth-eaten motel clerks, disheveled bus station attendants, and the staffers at fluff periodicals (especially those churning out horoscopes and star charts) all invoke ire, Adorno seems especially off-put by the roadside diner, where “a juggler with fried eggs, crispy bacon, and ice-cubes proves himself [to be] the last solicitous host” (117). Time and again, Adorno attributed the shabbiness, one-size-fits-all logic, and anti-artisanal nature of American tourist culture to capitalism, and the unquenchable compulsion, among its proprietors, to magnify profit and minimize infrastructural investment.
Paralleling the unconquerable homogeneity and awing sparseness of Detour’s landscapes is the cartoonishly poor luck that hounds Al Roberts throughout the film. Far from an injection of levity or some slapstick device, this ill fate can be critically understood as denotative determinism. In all his interactions—whether it’s with the sleazy bookie Charles Haskill (who dies of a heart attack suddenly and in such a way that Al is falsely implicated, forcing him to conceal the body and assume Haskill’s identity), or Vera, who blackmails Roberts into participating in her harebrained impersonation scheme, then dies in a freak accident that leaves him even more precariously implicated—Roberts appears not only defeated, resigned to some cosmic sentence he cannot even comprehend enough to contest, but abjectly puppeteered by circumstance. With each unwitting capitulation—taking Haskill’s money and identity, picking up Vera, agreeing under duress to her intrigues—Roberts’s ostensible autonomy, his self-authorship, is winnowed (or, as he feebly offers in explanation for his malaise and existential impotence, “until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself”) (Detour).
At the beginning of his arc, Roberts appears to be a character driven to amend his situation and pursue his passions (artistic, romantic, and otherwise), obstacles be damned. But by film’s end, the viewer is left questioning whether he had any substantive agency to start with. The notion that Roberts is more acted-upon than action-igniting is echoed by John Tusk’s statement that, given any scrutiny or inspection, he can be read as “almost passive from the beginning: things happen to him and they are not things he caused” (Tusk 212). Elsewhere, Tusk argues that Roberts is just one of a surfeit of film noir protagonists who are, for all thematic intents and purposes, “hostages of fate” (42). In scene, this crippling passivity, this idea that we are all just scraping past at the whim of some malign energy, is summarized by a haggard and dejected Al Roberts’s, imagining his eventual arrest for two crimes he did not commit, closing soliloquy: “[addressing mankind as a whole] Someday a car will stop that you never thumbed. Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all” (Detour).
In his own steely and tight-lipped manner, Jeff Markham appears resigned to the blind caprices of fate, as well. Though his stylistic mien is the diametric opposite of Roberts’s head-scratching befuddlement, Markham’s attitude toward the things that happen to him—whether they be turns of event without pinpointable causality, or those occurrences that are the direct consequence of his decisions (the predominant mode)—is markedly similar. As a general rule, in a film like Out of the Past, where the protagonist and narratorial consciousness perishes, one must be careful not to retroactively interpret the unfolding plot through a fatalistic lens. But, by and large, Markham seems from the inaugural second to be destined for demise. In a variation on the inscrutable and externally catalyzed plight of the ever-puzzled Al Roberts, Jeff Markham’s dissolution is mostly self-inflicted, his hamartia manifesting as an irrepressible obsession with Kathie Moffat. Early in Out of the Past, we are given glimpse of the opportunity Jeff Markham, alias Jeff Bailey, is afforded to lead a normal, quotidian life. Courting Ann Miller (who is portrayed by Virginia Huston as the archetypically guileless and goodhearted small-town girl), helming a small filling station, Markham appears to have acquired all the requisite trappings, all the bureaucratic ephemera necessary to be considered a shareholder in the American Dream, LLC. But, far from sating him, this stint as a proverbial Joe Public renders Markham deadpan and passionless. According to John Tusk, Markham “is corrupted by desires which vitiate his ability to be a good husband and provider,” and his words and actions do seem to bear out this blatantly Calvinistic reading (212).
Staking out a crummy gin-joint, Markham muses, in a detached and out-of-body timbre, on the utter senselessness of endeavoring to find Kathie again—an undertaking which previously almost cost him his life, livelihood, and mental solvency: “I knew I’d go every night until she showed up. I knew she knew it. I sat there and drank bourbon and shut my eyes [.] […] I knew where I was and what I was doing…what a sucker I was. I even knew she wouldn’t come the first night. But I sat there, grinding it out” (Out of the Past). And, most explicitly, in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, when Kathie confesses her past misdoings in a deluge of contrition, Markham simply responds, “Baby, I don’t care” (Out of the Past). As is evident, Markham’s obsession with Kathie—avatar of reprobation and ruin, antithesis of the seemly and upright Ann Miller—and his subsequent death, is not just chanced upon, a nasty situation stumbled into a la Al Roberts, but actively marched toward. For Markham, the tumult and devastation that Kathie personifies is preferable to the chintzy anguish of his life in Bridgeport. And, most importantly, he is metacognitive of this value hierarchy from the film’s opening.
In his monograph Mythologies, Roland Barthes famously described “the principle of myth” as the transformation of “history into nature” (Barthes 129). I can think of no better aphorism than this for parsing and translating the staunch determinism that hangs like a pall over the plots of Out of the Past and Detour. By bedeviling their respective protagonists—barraging them with overawing tribulations and, ultimately, relegating them to dysphoric and grisly ends (all while claiming the begetter of these hardships is ‘fate,’ a force at once undeniably innate and conveniently apolitical)—these films allegorize, and meta-textually chide, the trend in Old Hollywood, and the motion picture industry in general, to show characters whose epistemological standpoint or psychosocial orientation exists in any way outside the sanctified binary of worker/consumer summarily punished.
This narrative machination is, of course, demanded by the larger Culture Industry. As mentioned earlier in this essay, popular media must portray anyone who even in the slightest spurns this binary as mutant and unnatural: a fatally-flawed outcast, ostracized by polite society, teetering always on the fringes of disaster and disrepair (as Horkheimer and Adorno observe: “anyone [in the world of film] who goes cold and hungry, even if his prospects were once good, is branded an outsider”); lest the viewing masses—themselves fleeing the boredom and ennui of their jobs—get the idea that it is possible to live some other way, or permissible to even ponder it (150). According to Horkheimer and Adorno, in a late-stage capitalist society, the transcendent purpose of all culture is to “hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life[.] […] Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment” (Adorno 138). Thus, in Old Hollywood filmmaking, ‘fate’ is just the mystified—I am using the term in its Marxist sense—political agenda of the studio/production executives, legislative censors, and corporate elites who concoct and fund the films in question.
With that truth in mind, cohering the treatment of Al Roberts and Jeff Markham is a much simpler task. When we hear Roberts, bewailing the wage-labor system that compels him to play for tips in a lowbrow jazz band, say something like “so when this drunk handed me a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it, I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted,” or see Markham gleefully abandon his Hallmark-esque existence in Bridgeport for a higher-voltage life of conspiracy and carnality with Kathie, we know that some kind of ‘celestial,’ i.e. corporal, penalty is coming (Detour). Because this fiercely polemical pressure determined narratalogical structures more so than any fidelity to artistic license or aesthetics, Horkheimer and Adorno view concepts like fate and destiny, in the era of late capitalism, as signifiers of false consciousness: “[Referring to verisimilitude in film] Life in all the aspects which ideology today sets out to duplicate shows up all the more gloriously, powerfully and magnificently, the more it is redolent of necessary suffering. It begins to resemble fate. Tragedy is reduced to the threat to destroy anyone who does not cooperate[.] […] Tragic fate becomes just punishment, which is what [the] bourgeois always tried to turn it into” (152).
In this way, the ‘tragedy’ of Al Roberts and Jeff Markham is both teleological and tautological; primarily, it is a didactic lesson for those watching: if you deviate from your state-prescribed vectors of identity (working/consuming), what awaits you is unequivocal downfall. But, since this message is packaged as ‘fate’—an example of what Kenneth Burke would call a “God-term”—then their downfall becomes a tautological necessity. By exerting their power and influence over mass culture, capitalists have indeed been able to make what was historically contingent (i.e. the largely one-sided relationship—glaringly so post Taft-Hartley act (1948)—between labor and ascendant capital in postwar America) seem fated and natural, hence the Barthes’ quote (Burke 355).
At this juncture, it seems pertinent to speak to the concertedness of Ulmer and Tourneur’s winking critique of the film industry. That is, how can we know that they intentionally weaponized, not simply parroted, the tropes and stylistic bromides of the Old Hollywood machine? And can these films in good faith be read as trenchant denunciations of American Culture, with the film industry functioning as a symbol of its alienation and bloodless excesses? The case for this, I hope, has been implicitly assembled throughout. But, beyond the prevailing critical estimation that these films “serve as counterweight to the typical product of the Hollywood dream factory,” there is further evidence that Tourneur and Ulmer, for reasons both personal and ideological, were disenchanted with commercial filmmaking and the postwar cultural climate (Cantor 141). Examining Tourneur’s oeuvre, there are numerous examples in the films he directed of moneyed interests, whether it be the landed gentry or urban, finance-based powerbrokers, using imagined culture grievances to misdirect the fear and anxieties of the masses, usually heaping them onto some equally oppressed ‘other,’ and preserve the economic order. In one of his better known films--Stars in My Crown, set in the Reconstruction-era South—an esteemed local businessmen fans the flames of racial tension and cultural embitterment to eliminate competition and expand his predatory mining empire. This mimics in miniature how the culture industry broadly functions in the real world: not only as a stifler of unrest and punisher of dissent, but gatekeeper for popular opinion and sentiment.
It also aligns with Horkheimer’s view of the teleological mandate of culture in our times: “The task [of culture] in late capitalism is to remodel the population into a collectivity ready for any civilian and military purpose, so that it functions in the hands of the newly restructured ruling class” (Horkheimer 120). Ulmer, as well, harbored a deep distrust for Hollywood. And, given the particulars of his career, this disdain is justifiable. According to Paul A. Cantor, Ulmer both lived and lost the Hollywood dream: after directing The Black Cat, a critical and commercial triumph, “Ulmer’s future seemed bright. But […] he had an affair with the wife of a nephew of Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal. The resulting divorce and Ulmer’s marriage to the woman he loved led to his being banished from the Universal lot […] [and] effectively exiled [from Hollywood] for over a decade, thus sending him off on his checkered career as a more or less independent filmmaker, or at least operating largely outside the major studio system” (143). With these distinct travails in mind, it is hard not to read Al Roberts as autobiographical; like his ever-dispirited fictional stand-in, Ulmer obviously knew what it meant to be a victim of the baffling caprices of fate and fortune, or the political and corporate potentates that masquerade as ‘fate’ in the era of late capitalism.
The lives and works of both directors, in fact, suggest overt ideological affinities with the Frankfurt school. That is why the critical espousings of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are such a useful heuristic for understanding Detour and Out of the Past. Not only do they make blatant certain thematic undercurrents and subtly implanted subtexts that might otherwise be glanced over, but they also outline how said films function as both mimetic analogs to the decade-specific (1940s) struggle between worker and owner, and enunciate how The Culture Industry’s infiltration of the working class psyche enkindled the ambivalence and apathy that would eventually allow the forces of capital to, through attrition, bridge the gap between what David Harvey calls the “embedded liberalism” of postwar America and the rampant, unleavened neoliberalism that was soon to follow (Harvey 11).
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2020.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Verso, 2016.
Auerbach, Jonathan. Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship. Duke UP, 2011.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Hill and Wang, 2013.
Broe, Dennis. Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood. Florida UP, 2009.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. California UP, 1969.
Cantor, Paul A. “America as Wasteland in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour.” The Philosophy of Film Noir, edited by Mark T. Conard, Kentucky UP, 2007, pp.139-161.
Conard, Mark T. “Introduction.” The Philosophy of Film Noir, edited by Mark T. Conard, Kentucky Up, 2007, pp. 1-4.
Detour. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Producers Releasing Corporation, 1945.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia. Rutgers UP, 2009.
Garrido, Carlos. “Critique of the Misunderstanding Concerning Marx’s Base-Superstructure Spatial Metaphor.” Hampton Institute, 27 June 2021, https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/critique-of-the-misunderstanding-concerning-marxs-base-superstructure-spatial-metaphor#_ednref2. Accessed 3 June 2023.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford UP, 2007.
Horkheimer, Max. “The Jews in Europe.” Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas MacKay Kellner, Routledge, 1989, pp. 77-94.
Lint, Tina Olsin. “The Dark Side of the Dream: The Image of Los Angeles in Film Noir.” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4, Winter 1987, pp. 329-348.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007.
Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Beacon Press, 1974.
Osteen, Mark. Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream. Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.
Out of the Past. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947.
Porfiro, Robert. “Foreward.” The Philosophy of Film Noir, edited by Mark T. Conard, Kentucky UP, 2007, pp. ix-xiii
Rockhill, Gabriel. “The CIA & the Frankfurt School’s Anti-Communism.” The Philosophical Salon, 27 June 2022, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-cia-the-frankfurt-schools-anti-communism/. Accessed 3 June 2023.
Smail, David. Power, Interest and Psychology: Elements of a Social Materialist Understanding of Distress. PCCS Books, 2005.
Tuska, John. Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective. Greenwood Press, 1984.
Ian Hall was born & reared in Eastern Kentucky. His scholarship is featured in Appalachian Journal and The Southeast Review, among others.
The Purity Fetish and Middle Class Radicalism: Review and Application of Garrido's The Purity Fetish. By: Paul SoRead Now
Carlos Garrido’s book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism is undoubtedly an essential reading for any revolutionary American Marxist who is serious about building socialism. It is an open secret, and an embarrassment, among leftists in the west that they are politically impotent. Despite the fact that an increasing number of millennials and generation z’s in the United States have a positive attitude towards socialism and Marxism, Marxists remain relatively impotent. Notwithstanding the rising popularity of Marxism, this popularity has not, as of yet anyway, transitioned into political action with significant impact on the world. Garrido, like any good Marxist, believes that one of the key contributing factors to the impotence of our socialist movement is due to our lack of understanding what Marxism really means.
So, what is Marxism?
Marxism is a worldview that seeks to understand all things in terms of their movement or change. Every movement, and every change, is made up of the ‘struggle’ between interpenetrating forces within a given thing. Capitalism is a historically specific mode of production, but it can’t be understood statically as a stationary object frozen in time. Rather, capitalism must be understood dialectically as a dynamic system in motion which consists of an internal contradiction between labor and capital. More specifically, its movement is accumulation of capital at the expense of labor. It is this very antagonism between capital and labor, in the form of accumulation, that turns into another species of movement: stagnation. But this species of movement creates conditions for a qualitatively new species of movement: revolution.
The above insight is just a summation, a gist if you will, of Marx’s dialectical materialism. Where the Western left seems to get hung up, however, is not in understanding abstract reasoning like this, but in its application to real-world issues. It’s one thing, after all, to grasp dialectical materialism on paper, but it’s quite another to apply dialectics in practice to understand the world that is in constant motion. Garrido argues that Western Marxists refuse to support successful socialist revolutions because of an inability to understand the objective revolutionary motion of socialist projects. Instead of the application of this dialectical materialist worldview, even when knowing the words written about it by Marx and Engels, they arrive at dogmatic conclusions about particular characteristics socialism must have in order to qualify as socialism, a pure socialism that exists only in the abstract realm of thought. And so, even when capitalist and feudal modes of production were qualitatively transformed into socialism against the background of imperialist encirclement, Western Marxists focus on the intrinsic attributes or lack thereof in socialist projects. Instead of looking at the objective motion, driven by both internal and external contradictions, of each successful socialist revolution, they focus on intrinsic “defects” of said revolutions and conclude that they aren’t real socialist revolutions. This is a very obvious failure to apply a materialist dialectic to societal motion, just as Carlos explains in the book. But why do they fail to apply dialectics? Carlos’s answer is the Purity Fetish.
Marxist scholars Domenico Losurdo and Jones Manoel critique Western Marxism in a similar way, explaining this rejection of socialism in the real world as desire for an ideal and pure socialist revolution without any blemish. Lusordo and Manoel contend that this desire for purity is influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition that values purity and innocence. All three thinkers agree that Western Marxism’s refusal to support successful revolutions stems from its fetishization of purity, but Carlos offers an alternative and more compelling explanation for the origin of this purity fetish. In particular, he argues that the purity fetish is ultimately rooted in the Eleatic school of thought.
What is characteristic of the Eleatic School’s outlook is Zeno of Elea’s conclusion that denies the existence of motion based on his affirmation that our entire reality is one homogenous, unchanging, and pure being. Zeno of Elea’s argument for his conclusion goes something like this: suppose an archer shoots an arrow at his target and when one pauses at a specific moment (the beginning) an arrow just barely leaves an archer’s bow. At this specific moment there is a measurable distance between an arrow and its target. Supposedly it takes an arrow a specific duration of time to reach its target. However, there are infinite divisions, and within each division there are infinite subdivisions, in between the beginning point (arrow just leaving an archer’s hand) and the end point (arrow hitting its target) that result in an infinity of infinitesimal intervals. An arrow must traverse each infinitesimal interval between its beginning point and end point, but precisely because there are infinite infinitesimal intervals an arrow can’t traverse all of them to reach its ultimate destination. Zeno concludes from this reasoning that motion is an illusion and what really exists is an infinite series of snapshots of an arrow at rest in different positions for each snapshot.
Zeno denies the existence of motion because it involves a contradiction. What’s the contradiction? It’s that there are infinite infinitesimal intervals between the arrow’s origin and its destination and at the same time the arrow traverses through all of them and reaches its target. Zeno assumes that both facts can’t be true. In the light of this contradiction, Zeno denies that the arrow traverses through all infinite infinitesimal intervals and subsequently concludes that motion is an illusion. In stark contrast to Zeno’s denial of motion, Heraclitus affirms the existence of motion because he understands it as a unity of two contrary forces. Heraclitus sees motion, a unity of contrary forces, as an intrinsic feature, not a bug, of reality. Unlike Zeno, Heraclitus holds that reality is not one homogenous, unchanging, and pure being, but a unified reality consisting of contrary forces pulling and pushing against one another.
Overall, Zeno denies motion precisely because he believes in a pure, unchanging, and homogenous reality that doesn’t contain any impurity, whereas Heraclitus believes in motion because he believes in an impure, changing, and heterogenous reality that consists of contrary forces in constant tension with one another. And so, this character of the Eleatic School does not simply deny motion, but fetishizes purity, as that which breaks purity must only be an illusion for it. This is the complete opposite of Marxism, a worldview which has its Heraclitian heritage, inherited from Hegel’s dialectics, manifested in its systematic analysis of motion as contradictions.
We see here, then, that these Western ‘Marxists’ arrive not from the roots of Marxism at all, but instead, from the Eleatic school of thought, which takes a far different path from Marxism to arrive at modern conclusions. And what conclusions. For example, the refusal to acknowledge China’s project of socialist construction because it does not conform to their ideal and abstract archetype of unadulterated socialism purged of impurities and contradictions. Specifically, according to Western Marxists, since China’s economic system is a market economy where class exploitation, private property, and mass commodity production exist, how can China legitimately claim to be a socialist country? It is not the idea of socialism held in their heads, after all. In contrast to Western Marxists, Carlos cites Chinese Marxists who argue that socialism is not an abstract universal without any impurities and contradictions, but rather it is a contradictory process of construction where the market functions like a scaffolder, arriving from the Marxist school to give us all a breath of fresh air and dialectics.
Chinese Marxists argue that Marx observed in Capital that markets exist in pre-capitalist modes of production such as ancient slave societies and feudal societies. Nobody concludes from such observation that such societies are capitalist. While markets are essential to capitalism, capitalism isn’t simply a market economy. A market in an ancient slave society exists as a groundwork for the commodification of human beings as slaves for exchange. A market in a feudal society exists for guilds and peasants to produce and sell their surplus of goods. Overall, a market plays a different function under different modes of production. Like anything else, a market can’t be analyzed in isolation, but rather it must be analyzed in relation to a mode of production that encompasses it.
A socialist market doesn’t exist ultimately for the accumulation of capital. Rather, the accumulation of capital is an extension of developing productive forces. Specifically, in the context of China, accumulation of capital translates into an accumulation of productive forces; this is the primary purpose of accumulation of capital for the Communist Party of China. Any surplus of wealth that is accumulated is invested into developing infrastructure, factories, machineries, and other forms of technology essential to developing China’s economy. Furthermore, the surplus of wealth is also invested back into its country to eliminate extreme poverty. Overall, while the accumulation of capital controlled by the dictatorship of the proletariat creates wealth inequality, it also develops the productive forces and eliminates extreme poverty because the worker state is able to control how the generated wealth is invested as part of its overall central plan for the economy. While “capitalists” exist, they are subordinated to the state that represents the interest of the working class.
If socialism is understood in the abstract as simply workers controlling the means of production, one might find the above account of China’s socialist market economy to be a mere rationalization. Afterall, China has capitalists. How can a socialist country have billionaires? However, one must keep in mind that Marx understood socialism as a process or movement towards a new form of society. In the case of China, it was Mao who pointed out that during this process there still exist classes, and therefore some level of exploitation. While the bourgeoisie went through a complete expropriation of political power, they haven’t yet experienced full economic expropriation. In other words, the bourgeoisie experiences political expropriation insofar as it no longer has significant control over the state apparatus to enforce and protect their collective class interest, but economic expropriation of their means of production is not yet fully completed. Marx suggests this when he wrote in the Communist Manifesto (Chapter 2):
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (My emphases)
In the above passage, when Marx speaks of the proletariat using its political supremacy, he’s assuming a scenario where the proletariat has already politically expropriated the bourgeoisie and thereby established its political supremacy by creating a new state apparatus for the working masses. However, Marx also adds that when the proletariat uses its political supremacy to expropriate capital from the bourgeoisie, it will have to do so by degree rather than all at once (and history has played out precisely in this manner - there has never been a revolution that simply eliminated all bourgeois right, all capital from their class, etc., at once - always, it has been by varying degrees based on the conditions prevailing within a given revolution and what challenges it faced). This implies that economic expropriation is not yet complete while political expropriation is already complete. In effect, classes, and therefore exploitation and private property, can and to some degree must exist during the process of socialist construction. Economic expropriation, then, is an ongoing process during the process of socialist construction, but it isn’t necessarily prioritized in the case of China because the development of productive forces takes primacy.
China’s case, with the knowledge of Marx’s theory, illustrates that how socialism is constructed in China will take on a particular form that is unique to China’s condition. In the Soviet Union economic expropriation took place rapidly after the Soviet Union’s NEP period, but China’s economic expropriation is an ongoing and unfinished process because it takes priority in developing its productive forces through its market. Why is this the case? Chinese Marxists since Mao theorized that China is in the preliminary stage of socialism (also known as the primary stage of socialism) where socialism is particularly underdeveloped because it inherited underdeveloped productive forces from China’s feudal agrarian and semi-colonial past. Even after a series of five year plans under Mao when China enjoyed substantial development, China was still far behind western capitalist countries whose productive forces were highly developed, due in large part to their four centuries of plunder, enslavement, colonization, and expropriation. How can China construct a highly developed and modern socialist economy given its relatively unique history of underdevelopment? It’s important to step back for a moment and recall one very important aspect of dialectics: the dialectical interpenetration between the universal and the particular.
For the Marxist worldview, Socialism is conceived as an abstract category or a universal. However, like all universals, socialism only becomes realized through its concretization in a particular form. A universal that remains detached from reality is merely something that happens in the realm of thought. When a universal takes on a particular form through historical development driven by contradictions, contrary forces, and based on its conditions, it exists in material reality because it exists through a particular. Just as there is no such thing as a pure and fixed universal “dog” without any diversity and particularity of dogs conditioned by the history of breeding and evolution, there is no such thing as a pure and fixed universal “socialism” without a variety of historically conditioned particulars of socialism.
The dialectical relationship between universal and particulars is key to understanding not only dialectical materialism, but also the Purity Fetish. Essential to the theory is the complete alienation of the universal from the particulars. The result of this alienation of a universal from particulars is a pure, abstract, and fixed universal, which means it is also a completely dead, hollow, and destitute universal - as opposed to an organic, rich, rooted, concretized or particularized universal embodied in a material world as an embodied particular in motion. A universal embodies a particular form with its own internal contradiction propelling it to develop and unfold itself in a complex and hostile material world. In other words, there is no such thing as a pure and ideal oak tree without an acorn. An oak tree must take on a particular form, but this form has its own particular ‘moments’ necessary for the development of the oak tree. The oak tree begins by taking the embryonic particular form of an acorn, so that the particular acorn can fully develop to realize its potential to become an oak tree. In this context, there is an interpenetration of opposites between a particular embryonic form (acorn) and a universal that constitutes its real content (oak tree).
A particular embryonic form is unintelligible without a universal in the same way one can’t understand an acorn without understanding its real content, an oak tree, ready to unfold in motion. In effect, both the universal and its embryonic particular belong to one another as one organic whole consisting of a unity of opposites. Thus, if an oak tree as a universal is alienated from its particular, the acorn, we simply have a dead and impoverished universal that merely exists as an abstract thought, the particular is nothing more than an empty carrier. It is this estrangement between a universal and a particular, a fissure that breaks apart an organic whole into two artificially separate things, that results in a dismembered corpse. What is a dismembered corpse to a dialectician is preserved perfection to a purity fetishist.
In essence, the Purity Fetish is an alienation of the universal from its particulars by reifying the universal as more real and perfect than particulars. To reify is to not only abstract the universal from its particulars like one would abstract the universal “dog” from a tapestry of particular or individual dogs (e.g., from a German Sheppard to a poodle), but also treating an abstraction or universal as independent from its concrete particulars and more real than its particulars. This is an error because the universal can’t exist without its particulars. Thus, purity fetishists commit this error of reifying universals by treating the universal as more real than its particulars.
So much more real, in fact, that the actually existing and therefore particular version of a universal couldn’t possibly embody it. The universal is treated as a transhistorical archetype that transcends the particulars as opposed to being embodied in them. Because the universal is treated as not only alien to the particulars, but also more dominant over them due to its alleged perfection, it is also fetishized as having independent authority or power over the particulars; the particulars must conform to the universal’s dictum rather than the universal adapting and living through the particulars. To fetishize something isn’t necessarily to sexualize it, but to treat it as possessing a supernatural or sacred quality, power, or authority when in fact it doesn’t really possess such features. Universals are fetishized by purity fetishists because they are treated as having a supernatural or sacred quality, power, or authority of commanding particulars to imitate them, but in reality they lack such features because they can only exist through a particular.
Socialism is reified and fetishized by Western Marxists as an independent and abstract universal possessing an innate authority over how particular socialist revolutions are supposed to proceed. They believe that particular socialist projects are supposed to imitate this pure and abstract universal which they call “socialism.” In this sense, the Western “Marxists” (Scare quotes necessary) resemble Platonists who believe the realm of particulars are supposed to imitate the realm of universals because of the latter’s perfection. It is Plato who believes in the fundamental divide between the universal and particulars; the universals were more real, perfect, and eternal than the particulars - and conversely, the particulars were imperfect and distorted imitations of the universals. The universals live in the celestial, transcendent, and incorruptible realm of ideas while the particulars dwell in the terrestrial, material, and corruptible realm where all things are fleeting. Western Marxists treat socialism in this way, as a perfect archetype that exists in the realm of ideas but hasn’t materialized in the realm of particulars. In reality, socialism is an organic and concrete whole, a unity of opposites between the universal and its particular socialist project. Treating socialism as only identical to the universal is to alienate the universal from its particular.
Overall, the Purity Fetish denies the objective motion of society – revolution – because it is made impure in its concretization, in the real world, which is necessarily impure and contradictory. Underneath this denial of motion is the unconscious attempt to alienate universals from particulars by reifying universals as more real and perfect than particulars and fetishizing universals as possessing an innate authority over particulars. Socialism as a universal is reified by Western Marxists as more real than particular socialist projects, holding it above reality, fetishizing it. The purity fetish of Western Marxists is essentially platonic because it segregates the universals and particulars into artificially separate realms: the perfect realm of suprasensible ideas and the imperfect realm of particulars - the only difference is that the Western Marxists do this on an ideological level, whereas Plato was quite conscious of his thought and reasoning. For the Western “left”, socialism only exists in the realm of ideas, only to be imitated by socialist projects. In effect, socialism as an alienated and estranged universal is therefore deprived and hollowed out of all its real content, as opposed to a universal that embodies a particular form in motion. Marxism is then turned from a worldview which strives to change the world to a platonic and idealist worldview that interprets what socialism is supposed to mean in the realm of ideas where no motion is taking place at all. This, in effect, is the absolute poverty of particulars - and the very essence of dogmatism.
On Middle Class Radicalism:
Gus Hall wrote a paper in 1970 developing an addition to Marxism Leninism for the American context - the theory of petty bourgeois radicalism, or what I call middle class radicalism. The middle class radicals, as I understand it, are essentially the same as Gus Hall’s petty bourgeois radicals in meaning, but I use the term “middle class radicals” to denote a stratum of the middle class, a class which developed during the Cold War Era in affluent capitalist countries such as the United States. Like the proletariat, the middle class consists of workers who don’t own the means of production and live on the sale of their labor power, but unlike the proletariat the middle class workers don’t have the same relationship to the reserve army of labor. The proletariat can only exchange his labor power for a wage that is equivalent to its means of subsistence and therefore it is incapable of accumulating above its means of subsistence. It is precisely because the proletariat can’t accumulate above his means of subsistence through the sale of his labor power that he lives in constant precarity and is at the razor thin edge of joining the reserve army of labor.
However, the middle class worker can exchange his labor power for a highly secure and well paid job from which he receives an income that is above his means of subsistence because his income affords him means of stability. A middle class worker’s means of stability is his house, car, retirement pension, and possibly a small amount of capital in the form of stocks or shares. It is the middle class’s accumulation of means of stability through the sale of their labor power among other things that protects them from the risk of joining the reserve army of labor. The accumulated means of stability creates and reproduces conditions that not only determine middle class social consciousness, but differentiates it from that of the proletariat whose precarious condition is living on means of subsistence acquired through wage labor. When this material basis for the middle class is under threat by crises of capitalism, the middle class is losing its means of stability and enters into the condition of precarity, giving rise to middle class radicalism.
In his Crisis of Petty Bourgeois Radicalism, Hall identifies two major characteristics, both of which, according to my analysis above, could be updated to include analysis of the purity fetish. First, middle class radicals develop concepts they take to be revolutionary, but in practice those concepts bounce off from reality because such concepts are based on unreal abstractions. Second, middle class radicals reject class struggle, including the proletariat, as the vehicle for revolution. The first characteristic is explained by the second – because middle class radicals reject class struggle as the vehicle for revolutionary change, their concepts are divorced from reality. What drives their rejection of the proletariat? The worldview of the purity fetish.
The proletariat in the United States was created by a historical process of contradictory forces that were behind the development of capitalism. Slavery, colonization, genocidal expropriation (settler-colonialism), conquest, exploitation of immigration, and so on created the foundations for the expansion of American capital. Such conditions created a variety of dispossessed peoples whose labor was ripe for exploitation by capital. Without these contradictory processes, the American working class wouldn't have existed today. The working class as a universal embodies an embryonic particular form of an American working class and develops through these contradictory processes of the so-called primitive accumulation of capital. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the American Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights political revolution (often wrongly reduced to a movement), and so on also contributed to the development of the working class. This contradictory motion, constituted by progressive push and reactionary pull, has created and developed the working class of today.
Middle class radicals reject that the working class in America is a revolutionary agent because of those impure and contradictory processes that created conditions for its production and reproduction. Without slavery, settler-colonialism, expansionism, and so on, the working class wouldn’t have existed today. So Middle class radicals reason that the working class benefited from the past that created their condition for reproduction as a class. After all, capitalism in the U.S. is built on stolen land and resources.
But capitalism can only exist when land and resources are transformed into constant capital owned by capitalists, and it is this very same transformation that constitutes dispossession and expropriation for the masses and their descendants. Capitalism takes on a particular form in the United States; it takes on an embryonic form of settler-colonialism which begins as genocidal expropriation of indigenous peoples, enslavement of Africans, and indentured servitude of poor Europeans in order to transform all land and resources into embryonic capital. Once settler-colonialism has created conditions hospitable for capitalism, it begins hatching its particular shell to emerge as industrial capitalism, feeding the textile mills of the British Empire with slave labor cotton. In this sense, in the context of America’s history of class struggle, settler-colonialism is embryonic capitalism. Settler-colonialism’s transformation into mature capitalism has created the proletariat much in the similar way that expropriation of the commons, which transformed them into capital, transformed peasants into proletarians. It is the inhumane and heterogeneous process of settler-colonialism with its slavery and genocidal expropriation that has created the proletariat of America. Once the proletariat was created it was never docile and servile, but rebellious from the beginning (and even beforehand, if we want to go back to the original abolition movements).
The Civil War (including the general strike of enslaved proletarians), Reconstruction (including the dictatorship of the proletariat that took place), Pullman strike, Haymarket affairs, the battle of Blair Mountain, and so on are all testament to the proletariat’s tendency to rebel. The transformation of settler-colonialism (embryonic capitalism) into capitalism in the US has created the proletariat, but just like all other forms this universal of ‘proletariat’ has taken on in other times and places, the US proletariat has had advanced sections that represent the future of the class, and those advanced sections led the charge in the contradiction between the proletariat and bourgeoisie in the American context, the same as other forms have in other contexts.
Despite this nuanced and contradictory history of American class struggle, middle class radicals of the US reject their proletariat. They point out the mass lynchings of the white proletariat against their black counterparts, but fail to recognize these black counter-parts as part of the same class, and at our most revolutionary moments, representing the vanguard of the entire class. They ignore that the American proletariat as a whole, like all things, has its own internal contradiction between various peoples of all colors. Nothing exists without any internal contradiction. This doesn’t excuse mass lynchings at all. The proletariat of now, which is far more advanced than it was a century ago, wouldn't have been the same without Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Revolution that created conditions for the proletariat’s further advancement. Instead of studying the American proletariat in motion, driven by its own internal contradiction between various proletarian peoples and the struggle against their exploiters, middle class radicals subconsciously imagine an alienated yet perfect archetype of the proletariat, the revolutionary agent, absent of any internal contradiction and thereby incapable of embodying an imperfect particular form.
Middle class radicals treat the revolutionary agent as a pure and abstract universal whose origin can’t contain a single pollutant. Perfection must come from perfection. But you can’t separate a thing produced by its condition from the condition that produced it. Detaching the proletariat from its impure condition to preserve its pure essence is to destroy it. The “proletariat-ness” of the American proletariat can’t be alienated from the historical process and conditions that created it. Settler-colonialism in America as embryonic capitalism, developing into a mature capitalism, has created the American proletariat, but one can’t claim that this proletariat can’t be the real proletariat just by extracting their class character and history away from them and treating this abstract class character as too pure for them to claim. Class character will always take on a historically particular form of real and concrete people embedded in and created by their material conditions.
In essence, middle class radicals alienate the universal revolutionary agent from its particular American form by reifying it as more perfect and real than the particular and concrete working class of America. Middle class radicals fetishize the universal revolutionary agent as having independent power and authority over the particular working class in America to imitate it. Since the particular working class of America fails to imitate this dead and impoverished universal that middle class radicals take to be more perfect and real, the real, living, and concrete working class is rejected, dismissed in a hundred different ways, according to whatever subject may give rise to the dismissal in a given form.
Middle class radicals develop concepts divorced from reality: they predicate their understanding on a view of the ideal and perfect revolutionary agent that doesn’t exist in reality, and precisely because their particular working class fails to imitate this dead universal, they reject their working class for the pure ideal. This is the form in which middle class radicals, governed by the purity fetish worldview, reject class struggle as a whole. Until we are able to address and overcome the purity fetish, this middle class radical section of society will continue to be a thorn in the side of revolutionary organization - a thorn we can scarcely afford in the current era. While this doesn't mean that the remnants of the middle classes can't be organized in revolutionary organs of worker power, it does mean that their middle class instinct and purity fetish consciousness must be abandoned for the dialectical materialist worldview - the historical outlook of the most advanced sections of the workers and communist movement.
 This analysis is inspired by Noah Khrachvik’s theoretical contribution in his work about re-proletarianization, which will be featured in his upcoming text, Re-proletarianization: The Life and Death of the American Middle Classes (Forthcoming 2023).
Paul So is a PhD student in philosophy at University of California Santa Barbara. He received his MA in Philosophy from Texas Tech University (2017) and later received his MA in Bioethics from New York University (2019). While his original research interest was on Philosophy of Mind, he developed his newfound passion in Marxism not only as his research interest, but also as his world outlook. His current research for his dissertation focuses on Karl Marx’s account of alienated labor, Labor Republicanism, and Structural Domination. Paul enjoys taking a long walk, lifting weights in the gym, and visiting art galleries and museums.
Book Launch Presentation: The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism. By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
This is a transcript from Carlos Garrido's presentation at the book launch of recent book, The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, which you may purchase HERE.
In an 1875 letter to Wilhelm Bracke, Marx would say that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” This is the living spirit of Marxist analysis – the emphasis is laid on real struggles, on the forms of social formation these struggles discover in their overturning, to a lesser or greater extent, of the current state of things. This is the essence of one of the most central ways in which Marx and Engels formulate what communism is – as they say in The German Ideology, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
The Purity Fetish outlook which permeates Western Marxism is fundamentally antagonistic to this living and open Marxist worldview (weltanschauung). It holds pure static ideas as sacred, and it consistently rejects reality when such reality desecrates its pure ideals. This is the essence of the purity fetish outlook – it is an incessant passing of judgement grounded on a superficial assessment of whether reality measures up to pure ideas or not.
Ideologically, it is deeply rooted in the traditions of Western philosophy, dating back at least to the Eleatic school 500 years before Christ. In this school, thinkers like Parmenides and Zeno would put forth the view that truth is unchanging, one, and indivisible. To accept change, contradiction, and a heterogenous understanding of totality would be to participate in the way of falsity and opinion.
With the exceptions of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Marxism, this form of thinking has dominated Western thought up to our day, and, in the Western Marxists, it takes various distinctive forms which, while sustaining the appearance of Marxist analysis, is devoid completely of its revolutionary substance. The diagnosis Engels gave reductive Marxists in an 1890 letter to Conrad Schmidt applies fittingly to Western Marxists – “what all these gentlemen lack is dialectics”.
When I first developed the concept of the purity fetish in October of 2021, there was primarily one form through which I observed the purity fetish manifesting itself in Western Marxism. If there is a common thread found in the Western Marxist tradition, it is its unwavering rejection of socialist experiments – especially those led by Communist Parties.
In the 1990s, following the overthrow of the Soviet Union, Michael Parenti had labelled them the adherents of “pure socialism,” because they imagine, as he argued, “what socialism would be like in a world far better than this one, where no strong state structure or security force is required, where none of the value produced by workers needs to be expropriated to rebuild society and defend it from invasion and internal sabotage.” Gabriel Rockhill called their brand of “critical theory” ABS theory, as in “Anything But Socialism” – their work, in direct and indirect forms, “ultimately leads to an acceptance of the capitalist order since socialism is judged to be far worse.”
The Western Marxists ignore the constant hybrid warfare, as Vijay Prashad labels it, under which the successful revolutionary projects have to construct socialism. They ignore the effects – especially for the experiments in the global South and East – that centuries of colonialism have had in keeping these areas poor and subjugated politically, economically, and culturally to the West. They ignore the colossal pressures, both historically inherited and contemporary, under which socialism is struggled for. And most importantly, they ignore how these pressures shape the parameters of embryonic socialist construction in these areas.
As I argue in the book,
Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ when, encountering the external and internal pressures of imperialism and a national bourgeois class, it is forced to take more so-called ‘authoritarian’ positions to protect the revolution. Socialism is not ‘betrayed’ or transformed into ‘state capitalism’ (in the derogatory, non-Leninist sense) when faced with a backwards economy it takes the risk of tarrying with its opposite and engages a process of opening up to foreign capital to develop its productive forces. The ‘authoritarian’ moment, or the moment of ‘opening up to foreign capital,’ are not an annihilating negation of socialism – as Western Marxists would have you believe – but the sublation of the idealistic conceptions of a ‘pure’ socialism, especially in its earliest stages.
The Western Marxists’ purity fetish makes them immune to seeing socialist construction as a process, one which will, undoubtedly, develop contradictions which will in time be likely overcome.
A paradox arises in the Western Marxists sacrosanct abstract ideals: namely, while real socialism is always too impure to obtain their support – these same “Marxists” won’t hesitate to endorse, directly or indirectly, capitalist-imperialism in its attempts to undermine both socialist experiments and non-socialist experiments that exists outside of US imperialism’s spheres of influence. As Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai write in their recent dossier calling for a global anti-imperialist left, "it no longer makes sense to describe [the current Western left] as ‘Left’," since they are, at their core, partisans of the Western imperialist states.
This form of so-called Marxism, grounded on the purity fetish outlook, has been for decades an indispensable component of bourgeois hegemony. Their theorist’s role as left-wing delegitimizers of socialist and anti-imperialist states has earned them the part of being tambourines enhancing the tune of mainstream media’s war drums. They are, as I’ve labeled them in the book, the agents of a controlled counter-hegemony – the radical recuperators, as Rockhill calls them, that absorb any and all dissenting attitudes in the masses into their compatible left, leaving capitalist-imperialism fundamentally unchallenged.
At its core the purity fetish Marxists express a form of that which Georg Lukacs called “indirect apologetics:” their superficial repudiation of capitalism – when conjoined with their rejection of real socialism – is one of the most effective ways of affirming the dominant capitalist mode of life. They accept, at least in practice, Churchill’s dictum about capitalism being the worst system except for all the other ones. For them bourgeois liberal democracy is, like the world Leibniz’s God has created, the best of all possible worlds. This makes it the ideal form of controlled opposition; an opposition that buys fully into Thatcher’s TINA (there is no alternative), and hence, will never substantially oppose the existing order, for it considers the alternative far worse. As Keti Chukhrov describes it, their key function is in the “radicalization of the impossibility of exit.”
As the general crises of capital are intensified by what John Bellamy Foster has called the “two forms of exterminism: [namely,] nuclear war and the planetary ecological emergency,” it becomes indispensable for Marxists to struggle against this purity fetish outlook. It is a worldview which not only obstructs the acquisition of truth, but vacillates from simply being revolutionary futile to being an indispensable material and ideological force for the conservation of the dominant order.
In the US the purity fetish takes an additional two forms which I would like to briefly bring up. In each case, again, it prevents the acquisition of truth and the development of a revolutionary movement.
There is a strong current on the left, both in social democrat and in communist spaces, that views the Trump voting part of the working class as constituting a ‘fascist’ threat. These workers are seen as a contaminated basket of deplorables, in the words of comrade Clinton, who are unfit to be organized.
As someone who has spent their whole organizing life in the Midwest, the area of the country most densely populated with pro-Trump workers, these sentiments are far from true. But even if they were, even if this was the most backward part of the working class, what is the point of communists if not precisely to lift the consciousness of workers – regardless of their ideological starting point? Would we not just be preaching to the choir if we expected the working class to already meet all the pure standards of our “enlightened” social consciousness? The task of communists is to organize along class lines, not ideological ones, and to raise the consciousness of workers – regardless of their ideological standing – to socialist class consciousness.
As Gramsci would put it, the task of the communist is to find the kernels in the masses’ incoherent worldview which could be rearticulated towards socialism. Patronizing attitudes towards the masses makes this task impossible. One must learn from the masses in order to guide them towards socialism. The educator, as Marx noted, must themselves be educated.
If the purity fetish leads one to reject organizing the 40 percent or so of workers which voted for Trump, this paralyzes the class struggle at a time when conditions couldn’t be riper for its development. If this is true of those on the ultra-left who ‘cancel’ the Trump part of the working class because it fails to meet their pure standards of what enlightened social consciousness workers must have before being organized, it couldn’t be more true of those fringe elements which see all non-indigenous workers as “settlers.”
The second unique form the purity fetish takes in the American Marxists can be found in their assessment of their national past. The dialectical worldview (both in Hegel and in Marxism) rejects the idea of an unchanging, pure, ahistorical universal, and instead urges that universals are necessarily tied to historically conditioned concrete particulars. Universals are always concrete – that is, they exist and take their form through the particular.
What does this tell us about socialism? Well, simply that there is no such thing as abstract socialism. Socialism is a universal which cannot exist unless concretized through the particular. In every country it has taken root in, socialism has had to adapt itself to the unique characteristics of the peoples that have waged and won the struggle for political power. In China this has taken the form of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics; in Cuba this has meant incorporating José Martí and the anti-colonial traditions into socialist construction; in Venezuela this has taken the form of Bolivarian socialism; in the Plurinational state of Bolivia this has taken the form of combining Marxism with the indigenous communist traditions which have been around for centuries; in the continent of Africa this has taken the form of Pan-African socialism, and so on. In each case the struggle has been, as Georgi Dimitrov had already noted in 1935, “national in form and socialist in content.”
In various parts of the U.S. left, the purity fetish outlook has obscured this historical lesson, and made rampant the phenomenon which Dimitrov called national nihilism. Our people’s history is reduced to slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, and all the evils of capital and the state. In doing so, they reject drawing from their national past to give form to socialist content. Far from the ‘progressivism’ they see in this, what this actually depicts is a liberal tinted American exceptionalism, which thinks that the struggle for socialism in the US will itself not have to follow this concrete universal tendency seen around the world, where socialism functions as the content which takes form (i.e., concretizes) according to the unique circumstances in which it is being developed.
This has prevented the U.S. left from genuinely learning from its progressive history and connecting with its people. It makes impossible the task of rearticulating the kernels of progressive thought in our people’s common sense towards socialism. It prevents the American Marxists from understanding their national past dialectically – as a social totality in constant movement propelled by its immanent objective contradictions. Because our national past is impure, the purity fetish Marxists make the task of learning from our progressive struggles – from Douglass to Du Bois and Winston – impossible; these figures and the movements they were attached to are held to be – in a form of Left-wing McCarthyism – anti-American.
The anti-communist myth we fought against last century has been accepted in this one, namely, that America and the American people are on one side and socialism on the other, with an unbridgeable gap in the middle. The acceptance of this McCarthyite nonsense has been thanks to the development of the purity fetish within a greatly debilitated communist movement that was left wandering in the dark after the overthrow of the Soviet Union.
But times have changed. And so can we.
Today, as the younger generations of Americans face – for the first time in history – living standards worse than their parents; as 60 thousand people continue to die a year because they do not have health insurance; as 60% of Americans are a lost paycheck away from joining the 600 thousand homeless wandering around in a country with 33 times as many empty homes as homeless people; as 34 million Americans, including one in eight children, experience hunger in a country which throws away 40% of its food supply; as stagnant wages and inflation have working class American struggling to make ends meet; as failed proxy wars and global dedollarization kicks in – demonstrating with undoubtable clarity the moribund character of US capitalist-imperialism; as, in short, it becomes clear that neither the people nor the ruling class can continue in the old way – signifying the objective revolutionary conditions of our historical moment – the purity fetish today stands as the primary barrier preventing the development of the subjective conditions for a revolutionary movement.
We must overcome the purity fetish outlook before it obliterates our ability to overthrow, in a timely manner, our demented ruling class that is pushing the world to the precipice of nuclear Armageddon in the name of sustaining their global hegemony. These enemies of humanity are wobbling, but, as Lenin said, they will never fall if not toppled over.
FULL BOOK LAUNCH HERE:
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy teacher at Southern Illinois University, editor at the Midwestern Marx Institute, and author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism and Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview.