Book Review: Domenico Losurdo -Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet. Reviewed By: Rory JeffsRead Now
What is most remarkable about Nietzsche’s post-war ascendancy in the philosophico-cultural field is that it emerges out of a prior history of his philosophy’s use in legitimating the Nazi and fascist regimes of Europe in the 1930s. Unlike Heidegger, whose Nazism has certainly impacted his readership, Nietzsche’s reputation was able to attain an efficacious divorce from his Nazi appropriation. This was due in part to Walter Kaufman’s ‘rehabilitation’ of Nietzsche for Anglo-American readership after World War II, with his updated English translations and commentaries that cited Nietzsche’s correspondences that contained critical attitudes to anti-Semitism. It has now become nearly almost commonplace that Nietzsche is innocent not only of any association with Nazism, but that any view of him as conservative, reactionary or proto-fascist, because those interpretations were always based on a selectively biased or distorted reading of his work. This legacy is an effect of what Domenico Losurdo calls the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ – not simply propagated by theorists and commentators, but also editors and translators of the complete works and Nachlass. Losurdo’s epic historiography of Nietzsche’s philosophy extensively exposes the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ for failing to attend to the historical-social origins and wider context of Nietzsche’s thought. For this reason, Losurdo’s book is long overdue in the English scholarship where ‘innocent’ or trusting readings of Nietzsche have arguably prevailed and become ‘canonical’ (734), and where there is a need for a more ‘critical balance sheet’, especially amidst the rise of the far-right in recent decades that continue to feed on Nietzsche’s work.
What emerges from Losurdo’s reconstruction effort of ‘unifying’ Nietzsche’s thought in its various stages (e.g. ‘Young Nietzsche’, ‘Solitary Rebel’, ‘Enlightener’, ‘Mature Nietzsche’) is a core central argument that there exists from beginning to end in Nietzsche’s prolific output, a politics of ‘aristocratic radicalism’. That is, the seeds of a political ‘movement’ or ‘programme’ to counter ‘two millennia of history’ that has led to a crisis of civilisation in the West (862). The importance of this term ‘aristocratic radicalism’ – a term Nietzsche himself accepted as a legitimate description of his philosophy by friend Georg Brandes (355) – is that it helps Losurdo bridge Nietzsche’s wide-sweeping radical critique of metaphysics and modernity with a specific political project that animates or motivates it. Whereas the ‘aristocratic’ aspect of Nietzsche’s thinking has been noted before, it has often been so from an ‘apolitical’ or anarchistic context from Nietzsche’s assumed descriptive or amoralistic ‘genealogy’. In one sense, Losurdo recognises that Nietzsche is psychologically penetrating in his critique of bourgeois (liberal) society on the basis of a ‘tragic disposition’ and ‘crisis of culture’. And furthermore, that his critique of revolution – which Losurdo analyses in terms of Nietzsche ‘four stages’ – exposes a metaphysical faith in historical progress or objectivity. However, understood under the thread of aristocratic radicalism, Losurdo argues Nietzsche’s form of critique is a ‘metacritique’ that offers no progressive possibilities with modern civilisation. Whilst metacritique adopts and even mimics the ‘nonconformist flag’ of socialism, it does so for the sake of a ‘singular revolution’: the use of genealogical destruction of democratic-slave ideology underpinning modernity and revolution as a ‘precondition for aristocratic social engineering’ (355-56, 979). And it is on this point where Losurdo disturbs the assumed ‘postmodern’ narrative that Nietzsche’s genealogical method was the critique or deconstruction of power itself.
It is not until Part Three of the book that Losurdo elaborates in detail on how aristocratic radicalism equates to a praxis or political programme of ‘social engineering’. The first thing to note about Losurdo use of a ‘wide-context’ method for a reconstruction of Nietzsche’s thinking is that it subtly shows how Nietzsche formulated reactionary ideas without being under the influence of the German nationalism characterised by Bismarck’s term as Chancellor of the Second Reich (‘Germomania’, ‘national liberalism’) and its extension in anti-Semitism (Wagner-Förster-Dühring). For in comparison to these trends, Nietzsche self-consciously distances himself from historical influences, presenting himself as ‘European soul’ and ‘untimely’ or politically ineffectual figure watching events from above with the ‘pathos of distance’ (a la his protagonist Zarathustra). However, to glean from this distance that Nietzsche was a deeply ‘antipolitical’ philosopher because there was no timely political project fit for his vision, is for Losurdo simply perpetuating Nietzsche’s self-mythmaking. The nuances of Nietzsche’s political project for Losurdo can be identified by way of a closer study of how Nietzsche re-theorises a set of reactionary tropes in a radical modern mode rather than in terms of classic conservative counter-revolutionary mode of a ‘return’ to the past. The central tenets consistently crossing over Nietzsche’s stages that outline such a program concern the real meaning of the last stage of his planned but unfinished project of ‘the revaluation of all values’, which Losurdo reconfigures in terms of Nietzsche’s ‘alternative’ revolution (alluded to in The Gay Science) of aristocratic radicalism that becomes defined by the call for a ‘new slavery’, ‘new nobility’ and a ‘new party of life’ (352-57).
In terms of a new slavery, Losurdo compares Nietzsche’s thinking on the topic of slavery via the views of other groups, such as the Junker class in Germany, the American slave-owners and the Czarist monarchy in Russia. Core to all of them was their support of the institution of slavery and aristocratic values of otium et bellum (672-91) – which Losurdo underlines as a ‘watchword’ throughout Nietzsche’s writings. As Losurdo recounts, Nietzsche had formed in his early writings (e.g. ‘The Greek State ’), a view that ‘slavery was the essence of culture’ (678). This view becomes the basis for Nietzsche’s later use of otium et bellum, where war is represented as an aristocratic ‘virtue’ and leisure is characterised by activities exclusive to the aristocracy that also are the source of higher culture (art, music, literature). What the phrase consciously excludes, as Losurdo notes, is labour as the source of virtue or culture – yet paradoxically, Nietzsche acknowledges that otium et bellum will always depend upon the institution of exploited labour of slave-classes in freeing the higher classes from having to work themselves. Therefore, any recovery of aristocratic virtues in a new age of ‘free spirits’ would require a new slave-class rather than the further democratisation of societies. For Losurdo, these links help explain why the crisis of culture was intrinsically connected by Nietzsche to the expansion of otium to the workers that would reduce it to values of peace, pleasure and commodification (929-30).
The key for this project of recovery Losurdo claims is in finding a ‘new nobility’ or model of ‘rank-ordering’ for future societies. In his ‘mature’ period, Nietzsche himself reflected that the problem and aim of his philosophy had always been ‘rank-ordering’ (339, 966). Losurdo refers to Nietzsche’s sought-after model of social hierarchy as a form of ‘transversal racialisation’ (760-62, 780-85), where a social division is always marked between masters and servants and results from the expression of ‘noble’ (well-formed) and ‘base’ (malformed) natures or instincts that in turn determine the meaning of ‘race’. Losurdo distinguishes such a form of ‘rank-ordering’ from the fascist ‘horizontal racialisation’ of biological racism or white supremacy (783). This further explains the peculiarity of Nietzsche’s ‘anti-anti-Semitism’ that in effect even supports the idea of future society ruled by aristocrats and Jewish ‘Big Capital’ (543-45). However, how the noble natures or virtues are generated is an issue in the writings of the ‘mature’ Nietzsche as he refers to aristocratic societies (‘master moralities’) and caste orders of the past (‘Code of Manu’, cited at 793) – which all were ‘corrupted’ by Judaeo-Christianity. Here, Losurdo argues Nietzsche’s transversal racism adopts the caste distinction of ‘Aryans’ and ‘Chandalas’ because it can be applied within one nation or race and thus potentially undermine the modern egalitarian value-base of nation-states.
In seeking to establish a clearer outline of Nietzsche’s ‘political programme of aristocratic radicalism’ that would base it in the socio-political circumstances of his own times, Losurdo compares Nietzsche’s ideas within the horizon of eugenic discourse of the mid-to-late nineteenth century (582-600, 692-710). Here, the later or ‘mature Nietzsche’ (from the Gay Science  to 1889) is central to the comparative argument – given that his concepts of the will to power, eternal return and Ubermensch emerge in this period. Whilst there are some cited exceptions in the published texts of this period, ultimately, the posthumously published fragments of The Will to Power underline much of the source material used by Losurdo to discuss Nietzsche’s thoughts on a ‘new Party of Life’. This phrase affirmatively used by Nietzsche, as Losurdo cites, originates from the social Darwinist (and eugenicist) Frederic Galton (699). In Nietzsche’s hands, the ‘party’ will be of an intellectual vanguard of free Spirits and Übermenschen who will be unafraid to advocate (not necessarily employ) eugenic measures, for in Nietzsche’s own words, ‘the annihilation [vernichtung] of the millions of malformed’ (596-601). Despite the harshness of Nietzsche’s language in these kinds of passages, left-Nietzscheans such as Gianni Vattimo and Gilles Deleuze have attempted to allegorise or metaphorise these radical concepts on life and their relation to the will to power and the eternal return. Losurdo reveals the absurdity of such an approach that would discount any historical-social origins to the theory and ignore the brutality and danger with which Nietzsche seeks to shock his readers. Hence, the usual interpretation of Nietzsche as a ‘life-affirming’ philosopher is brought to bear on a darker political implication by Losurdo’s rendering here, knowing that where Nietzsche says life, he also states ‘the great majority of men have no right to existence’ (Nietzsche 1967: 464).
Bearing on these sections of the book that dare to go into the eugenic question, the issue of the Nazi ‘appropriation’ is also inevitably addressed by Losurdo. He argues that the rehabilitative work of Nietzsche’s postwar editors (namely, Kaufmann and Colli and Montinari) was successful largely due to their attribution to Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as the key instigator in rendering a Nazi-friendly Nietzsche in her assemblage and ‘forgery’ of the posthumous editions of The Will to Power (1901-06). However, Losurdo argues such defences of Nietzsche discount several important historical details. Firstly, he claims the official account of Elisabeth’s role in creating Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism is an ‘unsustainable conspiracy theory’ (711-15). Nietzsche’s defenders on this front never address Elisabeth’s own distancing of Nietzsche from anti-Semitism in her biography of him (Förster-Nietzsche 1895-1904). Furthermore, there is never any discussion of the fact that Nietzsche was attracting a right-wing audience of his published works before The Will to Power was released (566, 720-22). Whilst this does not necessarily resolve the issue of Nietzsche’s influence on Nazism, it does reveal something arbitrary about the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ when it comes to the distinctions it makes over the ideological precursors to the Third Reich.
With 1000+ pages critically re-examining the Nietzsche legacy, can Losurdo claim posthumously himself (having sadly passed in 2018) to have settled the ‘critical balance sheet’ on Nietzsche? Nothing of course written on Nietzsche has ever been settled, and Losurdo himself avows as much, following Gadamer’s own assessment (1001). Whilst Losurdo, of course, was never going to wait on deconstruction or hermeneutics to work out the questions of interpretation by way of their ‘speculative connections’, he makes a point that a gap steadily widens vis-à-vis Nietzsche between the defence of interpretation or theoretical licence and the historical research or record (726-27, 730-33). One of the risks of any unifying method, especially as politically applied, is what it leaves for future readers of Nietzsche. Throughout his account of Nietzsche’s intellectual history, Losurdo continues to remind us that to extract or ignore these unpalatable aspects of Nietzsche’s writings or his influence on the political right, would not actually ‘save’ Nietzsche, nor would it provide a more consistent method for understanding him. For Losurdo, a ‘theoretical surplus’ can only be recognised in Nietzsche’s work from seeing the whole of his philosophy as ‘totus politicus’ (827-28, 949). But it is this premise of unifying a thinker’s philosophy, via an ‘aristocratic’-political project, that would itself be contested by the hermeneuts of innocence. And as Losurdo notes, his contribution here exposes how deep a ‘conflict of the faculties’ exists, between history and philosophy departments who begin, at least in the case of Nietzsche, from different pages.
Rory Jeffs is a teaching fellow at University College, University of Tasmania.
This Book review was republished from Marx and Philosophy.
One of the more interesting establishment philosophers, MacIntyre has recently had two volumes of his essays and articles published: "The Tasks of Philosophy" and "Ethics and Politics." These observations are based on Constantine Sandis' review of these volumes ("Torn away from sureness") in the TLS of August 15, 2008. Some of MacIntyre's work has relevance to Marxist thought. He says for instance, as Sandis points out, that the concepts that are used to delineate an ideology (and this includes Marxism) cannot be understood free of their original contexts from which they derive their meaning. Treating them outside of this context makes them appear unwarranted or nonsensical. If we, for example, decide to adopt Marxism as a guiding light but lack the requisite background contextual knowledge regarding the origin of its concepts and doctrines, we run the risk of mixing up the ideological statements of Marxism with the ideological statements of other points of view (Liberalism,Buddhism, etc.)and we could end up with an incoherent mishmash of different points of views which will prevent us from having a proper understanding of reality.
It is the job of philosophy to prevent this from happening. We must, as Sandis says, engage "in socio-linguistic palaeontology aimed at unearthing previously hidden meanings and connections." We can then see how our concepts are related to our own tradition and to that of others. Marx, for instance, was influenced by Hegel and some of Hegel's concepts have come over into Marxism. The concept of "Reason", for example, reappears in Marxism as the concept of "Scientific Method." Lenin tends to rule out all theories that are not capable of scientific treatment (all religious explanations of reality, for instance). But, Sandis says, "MacIntyre rejects Hegel's faith in reason's ability to grasp absolute reality, substituting in its place a critical blend of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and W.V. Quine's more pragmatic approaches." This rejection of Hegel, as we will see, has led MacIntyre to abandon Marxism and convert to Roman Catholicism. This is always, to my way of thinking, an unhealthy sign. It does not however, negate, his contention that an ideology must be contextually understood.
Sandis reproduces a quote from the British philosopher Frank Ramsey: "it is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of the two disputed views but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, which we can only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by both disputants." This looks suspiciously like the Hegelian dialectic heuristically applied. Ramsey, along with the physicist Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all influenced MacIntyre. He. for instance, applies Ramsey's dictum to resolve conceptual problems between competing ideologies by rejecting some of the premises of both, and especially the idea that one is "right" and the other "wrong." His application of this method is not too bright.
He rejected voting in the 2004 election seeing the difference between Bush's policies (war and more war) and those of Kerry as insignificant. He said that "when offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives." MacIntyre is completely divorced from reality here. The choice between Bush and Kerry was not "false." Only propositions can be false. It was the historic choice that our history presented to us at that time. There were also other choices: Nader, the Greens, etc. To advocate simply sitting out an election that would determine the lives and deaths of thousands of people over a four year period may not be the most ethical behavior for a philosopher to engage in.
In the early 1980s MacIntyre converted to Roman Catholicism because, Sandis suggests, he no longer thought he could make philosophical progress within a Marxist framework.The reason for this was has adoption of a view called "confirmation holism." This view says that an ideology, say Marxism, can only be understood holistically. This means its doctrines have to accepted completely and made to harmonize with one another and cannot be taken more or less generally and supplemented with doctrines from other traditions or ideologies. Sandis says, "Rationality may consequently require us to readily abandon our commitment to any world-view that comes to face an overbearing obstacle." Sandis doesn't tell us what the "overbearing obstacle" was that mandated a switch from the Marxist world-view to that of Roman Catholicism. Non Marxists, I am sure, can think of many just as non Catholics can think of the "overbearing obstacles" that prevent the adoption of that world-view. This looks like relativism, but Sandis tells us MacIntyre is trying to forge an anti-relativist philosophy.
Here is what MacIntyre says about the language used to explain an ideology: "the languages-in-use of some social and cultural orders are more adequate than those of some others in this and that respect." He also says, "the existence of continuing disagreement, even between highly intelligent people, should not lead us to suppose that there are not adequate resources available for the rational resolution of such disagreement." This is supposed to escape from relativism. But a Marxist will judge Catholic positions from the point of view of Marxism, and vice versa. So I don't see how relativism is overcome.
Sandis says that the "holistic answer is simply that some practices are pragmatically far more attractive than others...." That "attraction", however, will be in the eye of the beholder. Sandis then quotes MacIntyre's "famous" definition of a "practice"-- viz., "any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended." Whew! And we must keep in mind that any given practice, say Nazism, can be replaced by one that is better. That's encouraging.
Since a better practice may always be available any particular practice I hold to must be justified probabilistically. If I think Marxism is "true" [since only propositions can be "true" this is not a good word to use]or rather the most useful theoretical system for describing social reality, then I must realize, as Sandis points out, "one must aim for truth by aiming for justification, and the latter is in principle always open to revision."
MacIntyre's ethical system is cast in a Kantian mould rather that a utilitarian one (i.e., a consequentialist one). He thinks there are some moral rules that we can never be justified in breaking. Against this view stand those who contend "the moral polarity of any act [is] (at least partly) determined by the circumstances in which it was performed." That is that there is no universal ban on any act but each must be judged either by its results and/or motives and the context surrounding it taken into consideration.
Marx in his day didn't think much of utilitarianism, nor did Lenin of Kantianism. How sould a Marxist react to this choice? Sandis indicates that MacIntyre's position is not ironclad and plausible exceptions to it have been suggested. Sandis suggests that morality may be a disposition. To paraphrase him, we might say that if "fragility" is a disposition to break at certain times and not to break at others, so morality is a disposition to act in a certain way in certain cases and not in others. He gives as an example that "an act of intentionally not telling the truth need not be vicious, for there might always be circumstances where one virtuous disposition (say that of kindness) can only be manifested if another (say that of honesty, or of justice) is not."
Marxists can learn something from MacIntyre. I think his views on holism are useful, as are his remarks on the coherence of our ideas and their need for justification as well as his attempt to avoid relativism. A Marxist proposition should be part of a system of coherent (non contradictory)co-propositions which can be justified by an appeal to practice and that serve the interests, broadly defined, of the working class in its efforts to abolish the capitalist system. The construction of this holistic system is the task of 21st century Marxists.
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.
This article was republished from Counter currents.
This is not a new post but a corrected transcript of a talk given by me, as one of the Worker’s Party of Scotland representatives to the Open Polemic Conference about 25 years ago. Open Polemic was a journal that was formed in the wake of the Soviet collapse by anti-revisionist communists in the UK. Its eventual outcome was the CPGB(ML).
I am reposting it now because it relates to the debate that has ensued on Facebook after I posted against the baneful influence of Hegelianism. It draws on concepts from the Marxist legal theorist Pashukanis which are also relevant to the postings here and here I made last year critiquing the Althusserian theory of the subject.
The text was lifted from the version online here including the images and captions which are not my own.
Original Text Begins Here
I am an engineer, so I was naturally pleased when the leading materialist philosopher of today, Daniel Dennet came out in defence of the significance of the engineering viewpoint to philosophy in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.
In what follows I will present some observations on the materialism of Marx, from an engineer’s viewpoint – the materialism of a Watt, Shannon and Turing.
Comrade Dennett continues the hirsute defence of materialism
The leitmotif of these observations is an antagonism to subjectivism and the idealist concept of the subject and of the will, both of which have, I believe, no place in the materialist world-view.
Those familiar with the current state of penetration of idealism into ‘Marxism’, will doubtless be able to identify the schools against whom I am arguing.
Is value the ‘subject’ of Capital?
In Capital, the idea of the circuits of money and of capital play an important roles. In both c-m-c and m-c-m’, value in a sense plays the role of subject. It is tempting to see the whole of the argument in Capital as an investigation into the self development of capital/subject. My grasp of Hegel is not sure enough for me to say if this view of things is actually Hegelian, but whether or not this is the case, it does suffer from drawbacks. One of them is philosophical, the other is historical.
If we see capital as a subject, then the real material subjects of the system of production are not adequately represented, or, if represented at all, appear just as instantiations of the ideal subject.
By the real material subjects I mean abstract legal personalities or subjects of right. Under capitalist systems of law, some of these legal subjects correspond to human bodies, others to bodies corporate. It is these juridical subjects that buy and sell commodities and reproduce themselves in the process. In this reproduction process they are reproduced both as proprietors, and as physical processes (human metabolisms, active oil refineries, … ).
From the standpoint of the self development of capital/subject, material subjects, firms, are thought of as ‘capitals’, instantiations of CAPITAL. This way of looking at things is an idealist inversion.
The second problem is that the notion of capital as a subject is tied up with the idea of capital as self expanding value. This is what the formula m-c-m’ is all about. Where gold is money, the formula is realistic. But even as it was written this was historically obsolete. Commercial transactions were not carried out using gold. Capitalist trade is a balancing of accounts, either, in Marx’s day, through the circulation of bills of exchange or through the clearance of cheques.
If commerce occurs through cheque clearance, then there is no longer a circuit of value through the forms m-c-m’. An account with a bank, unlike a hoard, has no value. It is instead a record of entitlement to value. I think, therefore, that the use of the circuit m-c-m’ by Marx must be seen as a paedagogic device, presenting what goes on in a simple to understand but nevertheless anachronistic form.
When one is steeped in an old literature, one’s mind become inhabited by dead social relations. Christians today think in categories like Christ the Lord, Christ the Redeemer, which are concepts of a slave society — and which arise, therefore, from practices such as the institution of manumission by a powerful aristocrat. Such practices are without direct equivalence to the modern world but the conceptual categories linger on. We Marxists have our thoughts about money shaped by a presentation, intuitive to workers in Victoria’s day, to whom money was gold, without correlates in a world of debit cards.
If we focus instead on material subjects and their conditions of reproduction, then money appears clearly in the form in which Smith presents it: the power to command the labour of others. A bank balance is power over labour. It is necessary to focus not on the self evolution of sums of value but on how juridical subjects, firms, reproduce their despotism over labour.
Is capital the ‘subject’ of Capital?
Is Marx’s Capital about the self development of the subject ‘capital’, or is it about capitalism? My immediate bias is to say it is about capitalism, since to say that capital was the object of investigation might imply a Hegelian presumption that from the concept of capital all the concrete features of capitalism could be deduced — something which I feel to be mistaken.
Then the issue arises of whether there is one or many laws of motion of modern society, which is clearly related to the above.
My first thought is that one requires several laws to have motion and dynamics — in mechanics one assumes several conservation laws plus the force laws. This would then reinforce the objection to a Hegelian deduction of the development of capitalism from a concept of capital. Then it struck me that work in cellular automata theory has demonstrated that one can derive highly complex laws of motion from a single evolution function of a cell and its neighbours. In fact as Margulis has shown, one can, given a universe of this type, set up a configuration that is Turing machine equivalent.
This indicates that it is not philosophically absurd that one law may be a sufficient foundation for the motion of a very complex system. But although this law may be a foundation for the motion of the whole system, there are other preconditions before you get something of Turing equivalent complexity: e.g. a set of boundary conditions. These initial configurations are guaranteed a certain stability by the underlying cellular evolution law, but in their turn impose other constraints on the future evolution of the system and these constraints become higher level laws.
Thus the simple law may allow a multiplicity of different configurations to evolve and some of these different configurations would have their own, higher level laws of motion — which would not necessarily all be equivalent.
Did Marx ever clearly state the economic law of motion of modern society?
I think that we have to say no, not as a single clearly defined law. Can we say, then, that the law of value is this foundational law? We have the problem that he never stated this explicitly as a law either, i.e. in the sense of Hooke’s law or the laws of thermodynamics. I think, however, one can reconstruct the concept of law that he had beneath the texts on value.
At the level of explanation in Volume 1 the law would state that ‘In the exchange of commodities, abstract socially necessary labour time is conserved.’
Although he does not state this explicitly, I think that it is clearly a logical presupposition of much of his argument. I agree that he does not establish the correctness of this law, but that does not mean that it may not both be a valid law empirically, and one whose assumption allows one to model or simulate the important features of capitalism. There is now a growing body of evidence that the law actually applies, but it would be true to say that we do not know why it applies.
But one could, using the same law of value, hypothesise other systems than capitalism. If we made the auxiliary hypothesis that there was a tendency for the value of labour power to be equal to the value created by labour, then you would not get capitalism but some other social system, perhaps a system of workers’ co-operatives.
The assumption that the value of labour power is systematically below the value creating power of labour is, it seems to me, a boundary condition that is specifically reproduced by capitalism. In this sense, although the law of value is the underlying law of motion of modern society, it is abstractly the law of motion of more than one possible sort of modern society. This incidentally raises the question of what we mean by abstraction.
Abstraction and abstract labour
Is it only in the process of exchange that labour become abstract? There is a confusion here between the role of abstraction in science and the partial way in which the abstract categories discovered by science become apparent to quotidian perception.
Science must always seek the general behind the concrete, the abstract behind the particular. Thus in the development of thermodynamics one has the formation of the abstract concept of heat, which is distinguished from the forms in which it becomes apparent as warmth, temperature or thermal radiation. To measure heat one needs to co-ordinate several distinct observations and data. If you want to measure the number of calories released by by burning 10 grams of sugar under a bombe calorimeter, one must know the starting temperature of the calorimeter, the volume of water it contains, the final temperature, the specific heat of water, etc.
Prior to the development of a coherent theory of heat, and data on the specific heat of water one might come up with regularities like ‘other things being equal, the rise in temperature was proportional to the sugar burnt’, but this is not a measure of abstract heat.
The similarity to exchange is clear, a capitalist can observe that, other things being equal, his turnover is roughly proportional to the number of workers in his employment, but this proportionality does not yet give him a measure of abstract necessary labour time. The fact that such proportionalities exist is an indication that there is an underlying material cause for them, just as the proportionality between temperature rise and fuel burned indicates a similar abstract cause.
A scientific measurement of abstract labour needs the analogue of adjustments for different specific heats and calorimeter volumes, the fact that in a given factory the techniques of production are worse than average, will indicate that the measure of actual expended labour has to be corrected to arrive at a measure of abstract labour.
The existence of objective material causes underlying the phenomenal forms to which they give rise is one of the basic postulates of philosophical materialism. That these causes not only exist but are discoverable and measurable is a further necessary postulate for scientific materialism. This, it seems to me is one of the fundamental distinctions between Marxism and Hayekism, and more generally between materialism and empiricism. For Hayek, the worth of things is in principle unknowable outside of market exchange. Thus the Marxist programme of a communist society in which economic calculation transcends the market, is hopelessly utopian, scientism, the engineering fallacy etc.
I think, therefore, that it is a fundamental philosophical error and one which, moreover can be exploited by our enemies, to say that it is only through market exchanges that abstract labour can be measured. This may be the only form in which it becomes apparent to the practical concerns of bourgeois society, but that does not exhaust the matter.
One must distinguish the scientific abstraction, abstract labour as the expression on a polymorphous human potential, from the empirical abstraction performed by the market.
An analogous polymorphous potential, one regularly used in industry is the computing machine cycle. One costs algorithms in terms of the number of machine cycles they cost. A computer is a universal machine, its computation power can be expressed in a vast variety of concrete forms, so there are different sequences of machine cycles with different concrete effects. But when one uses machine cycles as a metric of algorithmic costs, one abstracts from what these cycles are – adds, subtracts, moves etc, and reduces them to the abstract measure of an almost infinitely plastic potential. The abstraction over labour is analogous.
We cannot use wages to measure abstract labour, although for certain purposes they may be a useful statistical surrogate where other data are lacking. If we measure wages we are measuring the price of labour power not the amount of abstract labour time necessary to manufacture a use value.
To measure the latter, it has obviously to be done in natural units of time, which as such, already abstracts from the concrete form of the labour. As such its study starts with Babbage in his Economy of Machinery, proceeds with Taylor in the machine shop of the Midvale Steel Company and his successors like Charles Bedaux, whose unit of abstract labour the B was defined as ‘ A “B” is a fraction of a minuit of work plus a fraction of a minuit of rest, always aggregating to unity, but varying in proportion according to the nature of the strain’.
There is nothing impossible in principle about such measurement, indeed, the science of systematic exploitation had depended on it for years. But within the capitalist social order such computations are restricted to the factory, the comparative statistics necessary for a social calculus of labour time do not exist. But this is not to say that they could never be produced under some future social order.
James Watt, and the concept of Labour Power
At about the same time as one Adam Smith was professor of Moral Philosophy here, and was setting out a coherent formulation of the labour theory of value, Dr Black of the department of Natural Philosophy along with a technician, one James Watt, were laying the foundations for a proper understanding of heat and temperature. These two exercises have more in common than might be imagined. Reflection upon it, brings out how concepts from engineering science, from the practice of material production, parallel and become the foundation for materialist political economy.
One might, if one were a bourgeois economist, argue that values cannot be measured independently of market prices just as temperature can not be measured independently of the height of mercury on a thermometer. I think that this is basically a fair comparison. But if we rest our analysis at this level, whether in political economy or in natural philosophy, we have a pre-Smithian political economy and a pre-Watt understanding of heat.
What Smith did, drawing on others, was to show that behind relative prices there was an underlying objective cause — the labour required to produce things: ‘’The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil or trouble of acquiring it.” We will leave out for the moment that one can also measure the temperature of a body by analysing its black body radiation spectrum, and concentrate on the analogy between temperature and price. This was a great scientific advance since it related the immediately visible phenomenon — price measured in money — to something behind the scenes: labour time.
Both of the entities involved in the causal theory are independently observable and measurable. This contrasts with the notions of ‘utility’ in vulgar economics which are not objectively observable, but have to be deduced from the observed prices.
The parallel advance by Black and Watt, was the introduction of the notion of heat as something independent of temperature. A necessary component of this theory was the notions of specific and latent heats. Thus, by experiment, they were able to establish that the change in temperature of a body was proportional to the heat input divided by the specific heat of the substance concerned. This again related the observed measurement — temperature to something behind the scenes — heat.
Like labour, heat was independently measurable, for instance in terms of the amount of coal burned. Later, with Carnot, the equation between heat and work is made. Not only does this make the analogy with value and labour even closer in terms of the then existing conceptual framework, but it opens up the way for more accurate objective measures of heat energy. By use of a dissipative calorimeter, Carnot could show that the work of a given weight falling a known distance would produce a definite rise in temperature of water. This then gives a fixed and external measure of heat energy.
Let me construct table of analogy between terms in the two domains of Moral and Natural Philosophy, with a subject matter befiting the Scottish Enlightenment.
1. Price in gold guineas of whisky
2. Specific labour content of gold
3. Value of whisky
4. Labour required to distill whisky measured in hours
5. Ability to work or labouring power of distillery workers
1. Temperature on an alcohol thermometer of whisky
2. Specific heat of whisky
3. Heat content of the whisky
4. Thermal energy of hot whisky measured in foot pounds or horse-power seconds
5. Ability to work or horse-power of the distillery engine (raising barrels?)
Thus the two schools of philosophy reduce the phenomena they are concerned with to indirect manifestations of work done, Smith taking human labour as his standard, Watt taking the labour of horses.
However, in compiling this table I have shown 5 rows. Smith and Watt would probably only have recognised 3 (Smith 1,2,4) Watt (1,2,3). If, however, we take Smith enhanced by Marx and Watt by Carnot, we get the 5 rows. Now the interesting thing about rows 3, 4, and 5 is that in each case they are different ways of considering the same thing. One may measure heat in calories, but it is the same thing as energy in terms of joules, Watt, ergs, foot-pounds, horsepower hours etc. Similarly value is the same thing as labour time.
But value is not price, nor is heat temperature. To obtain a price from a value we need the intervention of gold with its own specific labour/value content per ounce. To obtain a temperature from the heat one needs the specific heat of the substance being heated.
The polemical status of Labour Power
I am using labour in the sense of labour hours, which, to use Watt’s terminology is Work Done (horse-power hours). I think that it is pretty clear that the concept of labour-power could not have been formulated until the genius of Watt had made the concept of horse-power or power in general part of the universal inheritance of the industrial age.
My chief concern is to defend the scientific superiority of the labour theory of value vis-à-vis bourgeois subjectivist ones. What makes the labour theory scientific and the others unscientific is that there is no way that one can determine whether prices do exchange in proportion to marginal utility, since utility has no independent measure.
Labour time, by contrast, is susceptible to measurement. Its measurement, just like that of temperature, presupposed a definite technology. Measurement of temperature depended on the invention of the thermometer, measurement of labour time depended upon the invention, with Galileo, of the pendulum escapement mechanism. In using a clock to determine the time taken to perform a task, one must of course average one’s measures over a large number of runs and a large number of individuals to obtain the average necessary time taken.
If labour-power is ability to perform work, then its dimension must be work-performable/per hour. Clearly if the working day is lengthened with the daily wage being the same, the wage rate per hour has declined. Whether the value of labour power has similarly declined or has remained the same is indeterminate, since we have no means of measuring the value of labour power other than the price paid for it.
I would thus argue that the concept ‘value of labour power’ has no scientific explanatory power and its presence in Capital must be understood as deriving from Marx’s intention to perform a critique of political economy using its own categories. He thus assumes the exchange of equivalents, and assumes that workers, like other sellers get a fair price for their commodity. This necessitates that a value be imputed to labour power.
Ironic answers to a Marxist idealist
I was recently asked, what objective force led me to write a particular polemic against subjectivism. Was it not an expression of my will and thus a living reproof to my anti-subjectivist world-view? That such questions could be raised, and raised by a Marxist, indicates a retreat towards idealism.
Force is an important concept. As a mechanical process, a depression of keys, my writing certainly involved forces exerted by muscle on bone. But the concept of force is quite limited, it relates to the ability to impart motion, to overcome mechanical inertia. Its compass does not extend to explaining the creation of a complex information structure like an article.
Here we need to explain how this particular sequence of characters was generated. This page is so astronomically improbable, its probability of arising by chance being of the order of 1 in 10 raised to the power of 4000, that its particularity demands explanation. Force, the mere overcoming of momentum, can not explain such order. So what is left?
“The will and its creativity”, suggests the humanist.
But is this really an explanation?
I would suggest that it is not an explanation but a place-holder, a linguistic token demanded by a set of possible sentences. This may seem a little obscure, but to illustrate the sort of thing that I am refering to, consider the sentences:
”It is raining.”
”Paul is writing.”
What is the it that rains? There is obviously no real it that does the raining, but English grammar demands a subject for the sentence, structurally equivalent to the Paul who writes. The it is a placeholder demanded by the sentence form. We gain no understanding of the weather pattern that led to the rain by using it, but it is impermissible for us to say simply ”Is raining”.
The question ”what led me to write”, demands an answer of the form ”x led me to write”, with some linguistic subject x. Grammar allows the substitution of a proper name for x, as in ”William led me to write”, or \my Will led me to write”. Instead the abstract noun ‘will’ can be used: ”my will led me to write”.
The word ‘will’ is then a placeholding subject, analogous to the it responsible for the bad weather this last week. The ‘will’ is philosophically more sophisticated, than ‘it’, being one of the conventional tokens that idealist philosophy uses to translate a non-terminal symbol of a grammar into a constituent category of reality. The ‘will’ is the symbolic grammatical subject in philosophical garb, the linguistic subject becomes The Subject.
An explanation of what is causing rain to fall, would go something along the lines of ”an updraft of warm moist air is causing condensation as pressure falls, and this precipitates as rain”. Here, instead of a placemarker, we have a description, albeit abstract, of a physical process. One can give a highly abstract description of my writing in terms of my brain being a probabalistic state machine that undergoes state transitions whose probability amplitudes are functions of it current state and its current input symbols, and whose output symbols are a lagged function of current state. For my article the relevant input symbol would have been the argument that I was replying to, and my current state would be the cartesian product of the states of my individual neurones.
It may be objected that this hopelessly abstract, as abstract almost, as talking about will. But there is an important difference. The approach of treating the brain as an automaton has engendered a productive research program. One can, as Chomsky did in the 1950s ask what class of automaton is required to recognise languages with different classes of grammars, and show that some features of natural language imply automata that are at least Turing equivalent. One can begin to look at how it is that things like visual perception can occur, as neurophysiology has done over the last 30 years, etc. In contrast, ‘will’ will take us nowhere. It closes of discussion.
This is an edited version of a talk given at an ‘Open Polemic’ conference back in the distant 1990s.
Paul Cockshott is an economist and computer scientist. His best known books on economics are Towards a New Socialism, and How The World Works. In computing he has worked on cellular automata machines, database machines, video encoding and 3D TV. In economics he works on Marxist value theory and the theory of socialist economy.
This article was first published by Paul Cockshott.
In a popular booklet by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (P&G), "Global Capitalism and American Empire," Lenin’ theory of imperialism comes in for some heavy criticism. Originally published in 2004 the theories propounded in this booklet (available on Amazon) are still popular with many on the left who feel that Lenin is too dated to be a useful guide to 21st century imperialist practices. The following is an attempt to show the continued relevance of Lenin’s “Imperialism,The Highest Stage of Capitalism."
The authors, in a section entitled "Rethinking Imperialism," caution against considering "globalization as inevitable and irreversible." They quote the “Communist Manifesto” as follows: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe." Curiously, they think Marx and Engels were exhibiting "prescience" when they wrote this – which they call a description "of a future that strongly matches our present."
But Marx and Engels were not prophesying the future. They were describing the historical reality of their own day – so manifest, already by 1848, was the imperial drive of capitalism. Incidentally, the fact that P&G can take an 1848 description of capitalism for a future prediction strongly matching the present explains one of the reasons why the classics of Marxism have not become outdated.
P&G look at history and discern three "great structural crises" in capitalism: 1) Post 1870s colonial rivalry leading to World War I; 2) the Great Depression, leading to World War II; 3) globalization rapidly advancing due to economic problems of the 1970s. Because the contours of these crises and the results produced by them could not be predicted in advance, P&G contend that globalization is "neither inevitable" re: classical Marxism, "nor impossible to sustain." Since Lenin’s theory of imperialism implies the opposite conclusions, the authors think his theory is mistaken.
Let’s take a closer look. Lenin’s theory, according to the authors, made the "fundamental mistake" of assuming "capitalist economic stages and crises." Lenin was "defective" in his "historical reading of imperialism" as well as his understanding of capital accumulation and, lastly, his view that "inter-imperialist rivalry" was "an immutable law of capitalist globalization."
After having asserted all this, P&G concluded, contrary to Lenin’s ideas, "A distinctive capitalist version of imperialism did not suddenly arrive with the so-called monopoly or finance-capital stage of capitalism...."
P&G accuse Lenin of "reductionism" in equating monopoly capitalism with imperialism. They maintain that "capitalism" and "imperialism" are independent of each other ("two distinct concepts"). History tells them that imperialism can be traced further back than the 1870s: that it goes at least as far back as mercantilism. This is just playing with words. The Romans were imperialists as far as that goes. Lenin was not discussing some universal ahistorical "imperialism" but the specific historical imperialism of his own epoch based on the domination of financial capital.
Lenin saw that after 1873 (as a result of crises) monopoly capitalism began to consolidate and replace so-called competitive capitalism: the imperialism of Lenin’s days was a direct outgrowth of this new type, a higher type in his words, of capitalism.
We can, without accusing Lenin of having a defective historical understanding, agree with P&G that it is false to maintain that "the nature of modern imperialism was once and for all determined in the kinds of rivalries attending the stage of industrial concentration and financialization associated with turn-of-the [19th]-century monopoly capital."
But of course they are correct. No Marxist, especially Lenin, would maintain history gets frozen at a particular stage of its development. Lenin says of his definition of imperialism that it is convenient to sum up the principle aspects of the phenomena he is describing but "nevertheless inadequate" because all definitions [and theories based on them] are "conditional and relative" because all historical social events and formations are in flux.
P&G would have a better grasp of Lenin’s theory if they understood it in its own terms and did not misrepresent it as a "once and for all" statement of the nature of imperialism. Their mistake is in thinking Lenin’s view of imperialism in terms of an evolution of economic stages and crises within capitalism was itself a mistake.
P&G also deny that imperialism is the "highest stage of capitalism." They do this because they are historically situated in the 21st century phase of "globalization" and Lenin’s theory, now over a century old, dealt with the capitalism of his era. Therefore they maintain that what he was observing was "a relatively early phase of capitalism." They could have saved themselves a lot of unnecessary Lenin criticism had they been more historical themselves. Capitalism is not going to go back to a previous stage of independent national capitalism. It will continue to internationalize itself through the process we call "globalization" and what Lenin was describing was a relatively early phase of the highest stage of capitalism. What we call "globalization" is just a euphemism for the domination of the world by a handful of powerful states dominated by financial and monopoly elites that continue to plunder the world in their own interests (as the crisis of 2008 showed). Lenin saw that this system was really a transitional system to an even higher form of economic development – namely socialism. This transitional nature of the "highest stage of capitalism" is presently obscured by the temporary world dominance of US monopoly capitalism.
We should be absolutely clear about this, Lenin meant by "highest stage" not that the historical features of capitalism in his epoch were fixed for all (capitalist) time, as P&G seem to imply, but only that capitalism had, as capitalism, no higher stage to evolve into that would renounce the need to export capital (finance capital especially) and find markets abroad. Globalization is just the latest stage of monopoly capitalism as it has transformed itself and developed since the days of Lenin, but it is still the logical outcome of the situation described by Marx and Engels in 1848.
It is also, I think, an error to hold, as do P&G, that Lenin and like minded theorists of the past did not recognize the role of the state in relation to the market: that they failed "to appreciate the crucial role of the state in making ‘free markets’ possible and then to make them work."
A strange accusation to make against someone who viewed the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie and thought that it functioned to further the interests of the capitalist class and its struggle to, among other things, build, acquire, and maintain markets both domestic and foreign.
It is true that Lenin could not foresee the specific historical development that has resulted in "neoliberal" globalization dominated by one "superpower." But it is also true that the theory laid out by Lenin in “Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism” remains the best starting point for any attempt to understand the contemporary world.
Critique of the Misunderstandings Concerning Marx's Base-Superstructure Spatial Metaphor. By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
Karl Marx’s 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy[i] represents one of the clearest reflections of the development of his and Engels’ thought. In what amounts to a short four and a half pages, Marx concisely exhibits the resulting conclusions of more than two decades worth of studies – from his first encounter with the economic question in 1842-3 via the polemic over landed property and forest theft, to the latest decade and a half painfully spent in the British Museum in London (except for the short interruption of the 48 revolutions) divided between the political writings for the New York Tribune and his economic studies for this text and for Capital, which this text is a dress rehearsal for. Although endless work can be done on these four and a half pages, I would like to limit myself to a clarification of the famed and famously misinterpreted spatial metaphor of the economic foundation and the political-legal superstructure.
The most common misunderstanding of this metaphor posits that the economic foundation absolutely determines the ideological superstructure. In this view, all legal, political, philosophical, and religious structures and forms of consciousness are reducible to a reflection of the present economic situation. This perspective, held primarily by various vulgar Marxists of the second international and by critics of Marx (esp. the Weberian conception of Marxism), has come to be labeled as economically reductive and subsequently critiqued by dozens of 20th century Marxist, e.g., Althusser, Gramsci, Lukács, Lenin.
On the other hand, as a reaction to this economic reductionism, some Marxists have rejected the conception that the economic foundation influences the superstructure any more than the superstructure influences the economic. This perspective holds that there is a mutual conditioning of the two spheres, a dialectical interpenetrative relation between the opposing poles of the economic foundation and the ideological superstructure, where, as Marcuse states, “ideology comes to be embodied in the process of production itself.”[ii] The various reactions to economic determinism may take different forms, generally, what they share is a refusal to describe the influence of the economic realm on the ideological as ‘determinist’ – unless couched within a framework that equalizes the determination of the superstructure on the economic in a dialectical fancy of interpenetrative determination.
Funny enough, Marx’s preface presents the relation between the economic and the superstructural with an ambiguity which seems to foreshadow both misinterpretations. First, he states that “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life,” then that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (KM, 20-21). These two sentences chronologically follow each other but refer to two different (albeit synonymous) concepts for describing the relationship between material life and the ideological superstructure, viz., conditions and determines.
Although synonymous, ‘conditions’ carries conceptually an openness for a less rigid affecting relationship. To say that something conditions can range from meaning that it influences to determines. Given the conceptual ambiguity, it would seem that the economic reductionist group would read conditions qua determines while the group which reacts to the reductionists would read conditions qua influences. Between this binary of blue and red pill, can we ask for another color?
I think Marx offers us blue and red for us to make purple, indubitably the most beautiful color keeping with Plato. In essence, both misunderstandings are partly correct – the economic foundation determines the superstructure, but the superstructure can also influence the economic foundation.
As Althusser noted,[iii] in a seemingly contradictory manner the superstructure is determined by the economic base while nonetheless sustaining a “relative autonomy” in relation to it, effectively allowing it to have “reciprocal action” upon it. It is important to note that this Althusserian formulation is actually a reconceptualization of how Engels dealt with the issue in a 1890 letter response to Conrad Schmidt. In this letter from an aged Engels, we find an elucidation for this often-misunderstood spatial metaphor, and consequently, a clarification of the scope of rigidity the concept of determination carries in his and Marx’s works.
This letter, along with the others with which it was jointly published as Engels on Historical Materialism, gives a fascinating insight into how determination ought to be read in the Marxist tradition. Before Engels deals with the question of the economic foundation’s determination of the superstructure, he examines production’s (as in the moment, the “point of departure,”[iv] not the whole) determinative relation to the moment of exchange, and the moment of exchange’s determinative relation to the newly separated money market. He says,
Production is in the last instance the decisive factor. However, as soon as the commercial exchange of commodities separates itself from actual production it follows a movement which, although as a whole still dominated by production, in turn obeys in its particular details and within the sphere of its general dependence, its own laws.
The same relational function of determination/conditioning is sustained with the economic foundation and the political superstructure (and afterwards with the legal, philosophical, and scientific aspects of the superstructure):
While the new independent power must, on the whole, submit to the movement of production, in turn it also reacts, by virtue of its immanent, i.e., its once transmitted but gradually developed relative independence, upon the conditions and course of production. There is a reciprocity between two unequal forces; on the one side, the economic movement; on the other, the new political power which strives for the greatest possible independence and which having once arisen is endowed with its own movement. The economic movement, upon the whole, asserts itself but it is affected by the reaction of the relatively independent political movement which it itself had set up. This political movement is on the one hand the state power, on the other, the opposition which comes to life at the same time with it.
These passages not only demonstrate with utmost clarity how a determinative relation can sustain within it a relative independence (what Althusser later calls ‘relative autonomy’) which allows the determined variable a capacity to react and influence that which determines it, but in demonstrating the translatability into various spheres of how this relationship functions, Engels is providing a general formulative understanding of the question on determination. In essence, the variable which determines (or conditions) sets the parameters for the determined variable, such that the determined variable presupposes the other’s boundaries for its activity. Concretely, the superstructure presupposes a specific economic foundation which has set a historical boundary on it. Within this determined space, the superstructure is relatively autonomous, enough so that it becomes capable of emergent qualities which can have a reactive or “counter-active influence” upon that which determines it.
Philosophically, the position can be labeled as compatibilist, i.e., there is a soft determination which allows for the conditioned autonomous expression of that which is determined. Therefore, although the determination of the economic foundation on the superstructure is not absolute (hard determinism), neither is it nonexistent. Engels critiques both positions: he argues it is “altogether pedantic to seek economic causes for all” things, asserting that in doing so Paul Barth is “contending against windmills,” while also criticizing the position which altogether either denies determination or places the primary source of determination on the wrong variable as participating in “ideological conceptions” whereby the real relationship is inverted and placed on its head, making one take the “effect for the cause.”
Why do these misunderstandings arise? As the conclusion in Engels’ letter states,
What all these gentlemen lack is dialectics. All they ever see is cause here, effect there. They do not at all see that this is a bare abstraction; that in the real world such metaphysical polar opposites exist only in crises; that the whole great process develops itself in the form of reciprocal action, to be sure of very unequal forces, in which the economic movement is far and away the strongest, most primary and decisive. They do not see that here nothing is absolute and everything relative. For them Hegel has never existed. Yours, etc
[i] All subsequent quotes from this text will be from this edition: Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. (International Publishers, 1999).
[ii] Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. (Beacon Press, 1966), p. 189.
[iii] In his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
[iv] In the appendix to the above edition of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a drafted introduction called ‘Production, Consumption, Distribution, Exchange (Circulation)’ provides an analysis of the relation each of the four moments has with the other. Here he calls production the “moment of departure.” This draft is included in the introduction of a series of manuscripts now known as Grundrisse.
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy graduate student and assistant at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His specialization is in Marxist philosophy and the history of American socialist thought (esp. early 19th century). He is an editorial board member and co-founder of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies.
We live in an age characterized by anxiety and anomie, on the one hand, and hatred and resentment on the other. While the former is a corollary of the hyper-individualizing tendencies inherent in our current economic regime, the latter is the result of right-wing politics. Firstly, neoliberal capitalism has deployed markets in two senses at once, simultaneously enforcing them as the sole rational basis for material distribution and expanding the reach of market-based valuation into non-market spheres as a cultural norm. This has severely eroded collective bases of solidarity, giving rise to social atomism.
Secondly, the contemporary Right has molded these insecurities into what Arjun Appadurai has called “aspirational hatred” . This refers to the redirection of aspirations away from better jobs, more economic security and greater social respectability towards a darker form of rising expectations, in which the new role models are the xenophobic leaders of populist movements. These leaders act as exemplars in the sublaterns’ life, allowing them to dwell in an imagery of empowerment through a discourse of ethno-national purity and cultural superiority. In other words, aspirations become tied to retributive actions against scapegoated identities.
The combination of neoliberal policies on the economic front and neo-fascist actions on the politico-cultural front has certainly signaled a period of defeat for socialist movements. However, there has been little critical introspection on the part of the Left of its strategies and tactics. We have only seen a clamorous call to resist the fascist onslaught against the working class. Behind these urgent claims lies the failure to extricate oneself from the immediacy of what is happening; uncritical immersion in the material reality forecloses any possibility of carefully considering the roots of the Right’s resurgence and transcending the electoral exigencies of parliamentary politics.
What the present-day moment demands is a sustained re-thinking of the ideological devices traditionally used by the Left. Rather than regarding the rise of the Right as an instance of mass irrationalism and peddling the unproductive narrative that the working class was “duped” by deceptive maneuvers, we need to locate the precise reasons which made the Left’s social constituency susceptible to (proto) fascist ideas. In particular, the Right’s use of emotion should not be seen as counterposed to the Left’s support for reason: emotions are part of our everyday reasoning, experience and relation to the world, because they are highly discerning commentaries about our concerns and commitments. Different emotions have different normative structures and analyzing these can tell us something about the situations in which they are produced.
The centrality of emotions and subjective experience is also indicated by the fact that injustices of recognition and redistribution often only reveal themselves in the lived reality of social relations. Ellen Meiksins Wood made precisely this point when she used E. P. Thompson’s notion of experience against Althusserian definitions of class as an abstract structural location: “since people are never actually ‘assembled’ in classes, the determining pressure exerted by a mode of production in the formation of classes cannot be easily expressed without reference to something like a common experience - a lived experience of…the conflicts and struggles inherent in relations of exploitation” . Further explorations into the political status of this subjective-emotional plane can help in the formation of new socialist ideas by delineating how the Right gained power through a molecular, bottom-up process of hegemony-formation.
In his book “The Moral Significance of Class”, Andrew Sayer writes about lay normativity i.e. people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. We are evaluative beings, continually monitoring and assessing our behavior and that of others, needing their approval and respect, but in contemporary society this takes place in the context of inequalities which affect both what we are able to do and how we are judged. Lay normativity is composed of moral judgments, treated not as a system of external, regulative norms/conventions but as based primarily on actors’ moral sentiments, which in turn are developed through social interaction. This feature derives from the fact that morality is serious, that is, about matters that affect people and their wellbeing deeply, whereas mere rules need not necessarily be serious (for example, ways of setting a table). Its seriousness derives from its significance for human well-being and is reflected in the expectation of some kind of justification for its codes.
According to Sayer :
[T]he [moral] rationales are to be found within available discourses, but they are more than mere internalized and memorized bits of social scripts. Discourses derive from and relate to a wider range of situations than those directly experienced by the individuals who use them, thereby allowing them vicarious access to the world beyond them. While they constrain thought in certain ways, they are also open to different interpretations and uses, and endless innovation and deformation, and they tend to contain inconsistencies and contradictions, making them open to challenge from within. Although they structure perception they do not necessarily prevent identification of false claims; for example, just because someone believes that the social world is organized on a meritocratic basis, it does not mean that no experience could ever lead them to have doubts about this.
In further developing the open-ended nature of lay normativity, Sayer critically engages with Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus - which refers to the set of dispositions that individuals acquire through socialization, and which orient them towards the social and physical world around them. In Bourdieu’s analysis, the dispositions characterizing a habitus are understood primarily as instrumental orientations to the requirements of occupying particular positions within a social field: by and large people acquire the necessary dispositions for them to function effectively within the social positions they occupy. This “emphasis on the adaptation of the habitus to actors’ circumstances,” Sayer argues, “exaggerates actors’ compliance with their position and makes resistance appear to be an anomalous form of behavior occasioned only by special circumstances” .
Sayer challenges this general “complicity between habitus and habitat” by arguing that human dispositions to act in various ways are not simply the result of structural conditioning but also of the “internal conversations” of “mundane reflexivity”, and these internal conversations help shape normative sensibilities . Unlike instrumental dispositions which are tightly integrated with our class location, moral dispositions tend to have a relatively universalizing quality to them, particularly as mundane reflexivity interacts with the realities of suffering and flourishing. In the words of Sayer, these universalizing tendencies derive “from the reciprocal character of social relations, from their responsiveness to our human as well as our more specifically cultural being, and partly from experiences of good and bad treatment which are not reducible to effects of class and gender or other social divisions but cross-cut them.”  The existence of these universalistic tendencies is most powerfully indicated by “shame”.  In capitalist societies, the “social bases of respect” in terms of access to valued ways of living are unequally distributed, and therefore shame is likely to be endemic to the experience of subaltern classes. If there were not some degree of cross-class agreement on the valuation of ways of life and behavior, there would be little reason for class-related shame, or concern about respectability.
The consequence is that moral dispositions can generate longings for a world at variance with the one we are living in. In a world marked by the relentless seduction of commodities, the glorification of educational advancement and economic success, the pressure to conform to gender norms and be popular, accompanied by economic insecurity, anomie, and loneliness, unfulfilled longings can be extremely powerful. These longings - while socially and culturally mediated by specific contexts - also have a more primitive basis than mere internalization of social influences. Humans are characterized not only by animal lack, as in hunger for food, but desire for recognition and self-respect, which they can only obtain through certain kinds of interactions with others. Taking into account the presence of longings, resistance, then, is not simply the result of exogenous and episodic dislocations of the social field but also of the inherent tensions between instrumental dispositions of the habitus and moral dispositions which are less socially localized in character.
Insofar that lay normativity and public morality are partially structured beyond the limits of social positions, the universalizable dimension of moral frames themselves structure social conditions necessary for different kinds of politics. The Right harnessed the lay normativity of the neoliberal era - torn apart by anxiety, incoherent insecurity, persistent shame and delimited desires for change - to inaugurate a social psychology devoted to the exploitation of the excess of subjective proliferation that sustains on the objective context but refuses to be tied down to it. While the Left was busy emphasizing the instrumental-interest based logic of the working class, the Right was tapping into popular imagination by using and shaping emotions and passions. Singular emphasis by leftists on bare materiality or economic aspects of the problems faced by subalterns fared poorly in comparison to visceral and raw communication with the deeply felt sentiments of fear, gut instincts, anxiety, anomie and alienation.
Again, the example of shame can be given to outline how the Right capitalized on the lay normativity of subalterns. We feel shame as a result of a failure to live up to norms, ideals, and standards that are primarily public. Because of this focus on a (dominant) group’s norms, minorities, lower classes, and marginalized groups are more vulnerable to experiencing shame and to being victims of shame practices. Shame has both a transformative and regressive potential. On the one hand, groups can be persistently stigmatized through shame within society. On the other, shame can be a powerful force in that it incites reactions against such shame practices. By turning the negative experience of shame into a positive feeling of uniting and coming into action, shame can provide groups with cultural and political agency. However, the Left’s insensitivity toward lived experience allowed neo-fascist politics to channelize shame in the direction of symbolically empowering actions against manufactured enemies.
RE-ENVISIONING LEFT POLITICS
As we have seen, lay normativity operates at the cutting edge of universalizing evaluative agreements. In fact, social positions are themselves, at times, made sense of through available moral frames that tend to hold more universal appeal. The Left was unable to engage with these subjective currents by almost exclusively focusing on and extrapolating from the habitus of sublaterns, thus in part essentializing working class identity. In the absence of a normatively convincing narrative about the future and sustained engagement with moral dispositions, the mere highlighting of proletarian grievances proved incapable of intensely politicizing the sublaterns. 
In contrast, right-wing politics played on subaltern longings, creatively mobilizing the latent energy of these subjective frictions. It created a discourse that Ajay Gudavarthy describes as “pro-corporate but anti-modernity”.  It helps push for high-end capitalist growth with all its attendant problems of fragmentation and urbanization while at the same time addressing the communal anxieties that capitalist modernity introduces. The legacy of a pure past - through the invocation of civilizational, cultural or religious ethos - can be enjoined with claims for a radically altered future. These interpenetrating ideological amalgams foreground the need for Left politics to be more imaginative in its fight for socialism. Without the incorporation of an experiential dimension in its mode of praxis, the Left will also be incapable of uniting the various identity-recognition struggles around the “concrete universal” of class.  Concrete universality, unlike the abstract universality of class reductionism, recognizes the lay normativity of identitarian experience yet goes beyond it. The need for such a political praxis can’t be emphasized enough.
Appadurai, Arjun. “A Syndrome of Aspirational Hatred Is Pervading India,” The Wire, 10 December, 2020. https://thewire.in/politics/unnao-citizenship-bill-violence-india.
Gudavarthy, Ajay. “Theorizing Populism: Lessons Learned from the Indian Example,” in The Politics of Authenticity and Populist Discourses: Media and Education in Brazil, India and Ukraine, eds. Christoph Kohl, Barbara Christophe, Heike Liebau and Achim Saupe (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan), 53-69.
Sayer, Andrew. The Moral Significance of Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
---. “Class, Moral Worth and Recognition,” Sociology, Vol. 39, Issue 5, 1 December, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0038038505058376.
Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (New York: Verso, 2002).
Iqbal, Yanis. “The Revolutionary Potential of Hope and Utopia,” Hampton Institute, 10 December, 2020. https://www.hamptonthink.org/read/the-revolutionary-potential-of-hope-and-utopia.
---. “The Rise of the Right in the Neoliberal Era,” Midwestern Marx, 10 May, 2021. https://www.midwesternmarx.com/articles/the-rise-of-the-right-in-the-neoliberal-era-by-yanis-iqbal
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
Introductory note: As China continues to develop into a superpower a knowledge of its form of Marxism becomes imperative for Western progressives. The progressive movement cannot allow itself to be misdirected in an anti-Chinese direction by reactionary forces in the West. In order to understand Chinese Marxism fully it is important to be familiar with traditional Chinese philosophy, many elements of which reappear in Marxist guise in today’s China. I have therefore constructed a series of dialogues based on the actual words of the most important Chinese thinkers. This dialogue is about the Daoist Zhuangzi:
“Well, Fred, are you ready to discuss Zhuangzi?”
“Yes. I have just finished reviewing the text of the “Zhuangzi” in Chan [“Source Book in Chinese Philosophy”] and reading Chan’s introductory remarks. Zhuang lived in the 4th Century BC and was a Daoist.”
“Fung [“A Short History of Chinese Philosophy”] says he might have been the greatest of the early Taoists! This would elevate him even over Laozi."
“And Chan might agree. He thinks that an advance was made by Zhuang over the views of Lao. His book seems to have been compiled after his death. It's an amalgam of his writings and those of his followers, so Chan has selected those passages considered most authentically Zhuang’s own. We will start with Chapter Two which Chan says ‘reveals his philosophy.’ Here is a short passage: Ziqi of Nan guo sat leaning on a low table. Looking up to heaven, he sighed and seemed to be at a loss as if his spirit had left him. Yan Cheng Ziyou, (his pupil), who was standing in attendance in front of him, said, “What is the matter? The body may be allowed to be like dry wood but should the mind be allowed to be like dead ashes? Surely the man leaning on the table now is not the same man leaning on the table before.' Chan says this expression of body as ‘dry wood’ and the mind as ‘dead ashes’ has become famous in Chinese philosophy and literature as metaphors regarding the question of the status of the human spirit or mind--’whether man is a spirit and whether the mind is alert’ - as he puts it.”
“Fred, it reminds me, the last part of the passage, of both Heraclitus the ancient Greek and Sartre the existentialist.”
“The part about not being the ‘same man’ seems to suggest we are always changing and being different from what we were before, This certainly suggests Sartre’s view that human beings have no fixed ‘essence’ but are always able to create themselves anew. Also, Heraclitus believed in an eternal ‘flux’ we are never the same from one moment to the next. Also dialectical materialism would agree with this. So there are elements of Daoism that seem in harmony with Western ways of seeing the world.”
“I see what you mean. I have always thought that the so-called big separation or difference between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ ways of thinking was a bit artificial. When we humans start to think about things we will create very similar philosophies despite whatever superficial cultural differences may indicate.”
“You know, Fred, there is a passage in Chan that I find ironic. Look at the top of page 179, about Zhuang’s influence.”
“...’ since the fifth century [AD] , his doctrines have never been propagated by any outstanding scholar’.”
“Yet his views, we will see, influence everyone right up to the present day so that is a way of ‘propagating’ doctrines. Chan himself said, as you mentioned before, that his comment about the body and mind and ‘dry wood’ and ‘ashes’ became a standard expression in literature and philosophy. But let’s go on and we will better see what I mean.”
“ OK. Ziqi likes Ziyou’s comment. He then speaks of the relations of humanity with nature and heaven i.e., all the similarities and mysteries thereof. He especially talks about the ‘mind’ which is far from being ‘dead ashes’ at least until the end of life. When he says, ‘it is old and exhausted. And finally it is near death and cannot be given life again. Pleasure and anger, sorrow and joy, anxiety and regret, fickleness and fear, impulsiveness and extravagance, indulgence and lewdness come to us like music from the hollows [the music of the wind] or like mushrooms from the damp.’ All this seems to indicate that the ‘self’ is responsible for these feelings. But then in a famous passage Zhuang goes on to say ‘Without them (the feelings mentioned above) there would not be I. And without me who will experience them? They are right nearby. But we don’t know who causes them. It seems there is a True Lord who does so, but there is no indication of his existence.’”
“The ‘problem of God’ I see. What is this ‘True Lord’. I thought we had established that only Mozi had ‘God ideas’.” [Cf. Mozi discussion]
“Don’t worry Karl. The ‘True Lord’ will turn out to be Spinoza’s ‘God’--that is, Nature.”
“What does Chan say?”
“Basically he has a comment to the effect that Chinese agnosticism has been reinforced by this attitude expressed by Zhuang. The rule of interpretation is that Zhuang, whenever he uses the term ‘creator’ is best understood as referring to ‘nature.’ “Any personal God or one that directs the movement of things is clearly out of harmony with Zhuangzi’s philosophy.’”
“It only makes sense, Fred, since the supreme principle is the DAO.”
“Indeed, and Zhuang says, ‘Dao is obscured by petty biases and speech is obscured by flowery expressions. Therefore there have arisen the controversies between the Confucianists and the Moists, each school regarding as right what the other considers as wrong, and regarding as wrong what the other considers as right.”
“That's a great observation Fred, and it goes to the heart of Zhuang’s dialectics as he maintains that opposites flow back and forth interchanging with one another.”
“Wait, Karl, there is more in this vein. He says,'to show what each regards as right is wrong or to show what each regards as wrong is right, there is no better way than to use the light (of Nature).’ He goes on: 'There is nothing that is not the “that” and there is nothing that is not the “this.” Things do not know that they are the “that” of other things; they only know what they themselves know. Therefore I say that the “that” is produced by the “this” and the “this” and the “this” is also caused by the “that.” This is the theory of mutual production.... Because of the right there is the wrong, and because of the wrong, there is the right. Therefore the sage does not proceed along these lines (of right and wrong, and so forth) but illuminates the matter with Nature.... When “this” and “that” have no opposites, there is the very axis of Dao. Only when the axis occupies the center of a circle can things in their infinite complexities be responded to. The right is an infinity. The wrong is also an infinity. Therefore I say that there is nothing better than to use the light (of Nature).’”
“if we, Fred, equate the ‘light (of Nature)’ with our ability to think and reason about the Dao of things, the ‘this’ and ‘that’ distinctions become intertwined. This reminds me of Hegel’s discussion of ‘sense-certainty’ in the beginning of his “Phenomenology of Spirit.”
Karl pulled down a volume from his book shelf and began to read: “A simple entity of this sort, which is by and through negation, which is neither this or that, which is a not-this and with equal indifference this as well as that [he is discussing the ‘Now’--is it night or day] --a thing of this kind we call a Universal.... the universal which the object has come to be, is no longer such as the object was to be for sense-certainty. The certainty is now found to lie in the opposite element, namely in knowledge....” “Here is another example of how Eastern and Western thought have points of convergence,” Karl said.
“This next passage is a little difficult, at least for me: ‘Only the intelligent knows how to identify all things as one. Therefore he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common [principle]. The common means the useful and the useful means identification. Identification means being at ease with oneself. When one is at ease with himself, one is near Dao. This is to let it (Nature) take its own course. He has arrived at this situation and does not know it. This is Dao.’”
“This is a little mystical. You know, Fred, you forgot to name this famous second chapter of the “Zhuangzi” that is, ‘The Equality of all things (Qi Wu Lun). From the limited individual point of view we look out upon a universe made up of millions of different and conflicting entities, ‘the one thousand things’, but the sage comes to understand that they are really one. An example from the life of our time. In the Middle East, as elsewhere in our world, unfortunately, different groups of humans, innocent of philosophy, are fighting and killing one another because they think they are so different from one another because they speak different languages or subscribe to different culturally imposed superstitions or have different eating habits or historical experiences. But they are really all just human beings cast into the world to live and die the same. Shylock’s speech in “The Merchant of Venice” catches this exactly for all of us. This is the equality of all humans, all evolved from the same primordial glop as everything else. We can extend this to the rest of life as well. All this is just the way it is, the way Nature is as the result of the Dao. The sage knows this and can be just as happy in Brooklyn as on the West Bank, the earth too is one--all things are, ultimately. So Zhuang tells us when we figure this out (identification) and it is second nature to us, as it were, so we don’t even have to think about it all the time (being at ease) then we are arrived at Dao without having to think it through each time we confront a worldly situation--the sage ‘knows’ and ‘does not know it’--i.e. have to think about it all the day long.”
“That is just so true Karl. All our social problems, at least, come from non recognition of this Dao. If only we could solve our problems as easily as the monkey keeper! ‘A monkey keeper once was giving out nuts and said, “Three in the morning and four in the evening.” All the monkeys became angry. He said, “If that is the case, there will be four in the morning and three in the evening.” All the monkeys were glad. Neither the name nor the actually has been reduced but the monkeys reacted in joy and anger [differently]. The keeper also let things take their own course. Therefore the sage harmonizes the right and the wrong and rests in natural equalization. This is called following two courses at the same time.’”
“As I remember it, this is a very important point in Chinese philosophy.”
“It sure is. Chan says that almost all Chinese schools of thought adopt it--the doctrine of following two courses at the same time. They even follow three courses. He says in his comment: ‘In the ‘Book of Changes' [the ‘YI Jing’, which we will get to], it is said that “in the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same.” The upshot is that most Chinese follow the three systems of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and usually take a multiple approach to things.’”
“And we can now add Marxism! If they are non-dogmatic they can follow four systems depending on the requirements of life. The so-called ‘Cultural’ Revolution was a big mistake by this way of thinking.”
“O.K. Karl, back to Zhuang. He says ‘When the distinction between right and wrong became prominent, Dao was thereby reduced, individual bias was formed.... Therefore the sage aims at removing the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Because of this he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common principle. This is what is meant by using the light (of Nature).’"
“Wittgenstein said doing philosophy was like showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle that is the same as removing confusions and doubts that dazzle people.”
“O.k. Karl, Zhuang now talks about what he calls the ‘eight characteristics’--left and right, discussions and theories, analyses and arguments, competitions and quarrels. And he says ‘What is beyond the world, the sage leaves it as it exists and does not discuss it. What is within the world, the sage discusses but does not pass judgment. About the chronicles of historical events and the records of ancient kings, the sage passes judgments but does not argue. Therefore there are things which analysis cannot analyze, and there are things which argument cannot argue. Why? The sage keeps it in his mind while men in general argue in order to brag before each other. Therefore it is said that argument arises from failure to se [the greatness of Dao].... Therefore he who knows to stop at what he does not know is perfect.’”
“This seems to be pretty good advice. It seems that with regard to religion and such other worldly stuff the philosopher won’t be wasting his or her time, that he or she will be nonjudgmental regarding what actually exists [this can be regarded as ‘quietism’ in the social realm and seems a departure from Laozi’s views] and as far as history goes it looks a little dogmatic, this making judgments but no arguments allowed. Plato tells us the philosopher has to be ready to argue his or her position and be willing to follow the argument wherever it leads. The problem is, of course, that if one understands the Dao one understands the inner necessity and whatness and whyness of all things--therefore argument is not necessary. But it would seem some type of argument and reasoning with people is necessary if you want to remove the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Maybe you can have ‘discussions’ and ‘theories’ because he thinks arguments are more for people who want to show off their (limited) knowledge.”
“You might be right Karl. Chan says that Zhuang exhibits a spirit of doubt that has influenced ‘China’s long tradition of skepticism.’ This is another reason he might consider ‘arguments’ as a waste of time as opposed to discussions with other people.”
“Indeed. You really can’t force people to believe things by arguments [except of course philosophers]. They have to come to see the truth of things themselves. The Daoist sage is one who comes to this position. I think the Confucian sage might use arguments a bit more often.”
“Look a little further in the text Fred. Zhuang, as I remember it, gives some reasons for not relying on arguments to find the truth.”
“Well, he does say this:’ Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong. If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Since between us neither you nor I know which is right, others are naturally in the dark. Whom shall we ask to arbitrate?’”
“What is needed is obviously a decision mechanism by which good arguments can be separated from the bad. There was no Aristotle in ancient China to develop the science of the syllogism and logic in general. Zhuang here exhibits an admirable open mindedness but the accumulation of knowledge by experience and science and the logical analysis of truth claims would be paralyzed by this attitude. Daoist mysticism may have some good points but you can clearly see the wisdom the Chinese show by using simultaneously different systems and taking what Chan called ‘a multiple approach to things’”
“Now Karl, we come to a famous passage which shows the Daoist attitude par excellence towards the unity of everything encompassed by the Dao. Zhuang Zhou is Zhuangzi’s given name. ‘Once I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamed that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Zhou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Zhou. I do not know whether it was Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.’”
“It is a great passage despite the fact that lacking the higher centers of the mammalian brain it doesn’t seem that it is possible for a butterfly to dream. The ‘transformation of all things’ is undoubtedly true. All the atoms that make up everything on earth had their origin in our Sun or at least they are the direct result of the so-called ‘Big Bang.’ Hence everything that we know that exists is just a recombination of the same elemental particles in different proportions and arrangements. The atoms that make up me will eventually be those of a butterfly or a rock and atoms from past butterflies and even dinosaurs make up people today. This is a Daoist understanding I think. It is not unique. Anaxagoras held that ‘All things were together’ and arranged themselves by ‘Mind’ [νουs] which is like Dao. The Greek Atomists would also agree.”
Now we move on to Chapter Six of the ‘Zhuangzi’, ‘The Great Teacher.’ Zhuang writes, ‘He who knows the activities of Nature (Tian, Heaven) and the activities of man is perfect. He who knows the activities of Nature lives according to Nature. He who knows the activities of man nourishes what he does not know with what he does know, thus completing his natural span of life and will not die prematurely half of the way .... However, there is some defect here.... How do we know that what I call Nature is not really man and what I call man is not really Nature? Furthermore, there must be the pure man [i.e., simple and in accord with the Dao] before there can be true knowledge.’”
“I see the problem. How can we be sure we are on the road to being a true sage? Maybe we will end as a fascist stooge as did Heidegger or betray humanity or human heartedness (ren) as did Nietzsche.”
“We are going to come to some difficult passages now, Karl. I’m not sure we can understand them outside of the entire context of ancient Chinese culture in which they are embedded.”
“Well, we will have to make the attempt. It may be that some of this philosophy just won’t be able to smoothly move over into our way of seeing things but we can at least try to understand what Zhuang means.”
“Chapter Six continues: ‘Therefore he who takes special delight in understanding things is not a sage. He who shows [special] affection [to anyone] is not a man of humanity (ren, love).... He who seeks fame and thus loses his own nature is not learned. And he who loses his own nature and thus misses the true way is not one who can have others do things for him.’”
“This seems to indicate that the sage should love all forms of learning equally. He also seems to be in agreement with Mozi in thinking that one should not be partial in showing affection [love]. If so it shows that some Daoists were close to Mohism and even distancing themselves farther from the Confucianists. It is obvious that the sage should not seek fame at the expenses of truth. I’m not sure the sage should want ‘others to do things for him.’ Others might be helpful, as say the followers of Socrates helped him out due to his single minded pursuit of philosophy and consequent neglect of practical affairs, but this should not be something the sage ‘wants’ or expects.”
“What about this: ‘To regard knowledge as a product of time means to respond to events as if they had to be. And to regard virtue as people’s observance means that it is comparable to the fact that anyone with two feet can climb a hill, but people think that a pure man makes a diligent effort to do so. Therefore what he liked was one and what he did not like was also one.... He who regards all things as one is a companion of Nature. He who does not regard all things as one is a companion of man. Neither Nature nor man should overcome the other. This is what is meant by a pure man.’ So tell me Karl that this is not confusing!”
“Confusing it is. But I think he means that we should be impartial and also accept Nature for what it is. Don’t make value judgments about Nature. For example, as a person I don’t like the Covid-19 virus and would like to eradicate it. But from the point of view of Nature the virus is simply a part of the totality of existence and is doing its thing just as everything else is that makes up the fabric of the interaction of all the elements of reality. As Hume said--from the point of view of Nature an oyster is the same as a human being. The sage knows this. But as a human being the sage also knows it's ok to be against the Covid-19 virus. These two views or attitudes are in balance in the ‘pure man’. As to the comment regarding knowledge as a product of time, it seems to suggest determinism. This seems to be in accordance with Dao and the sage should be in accordance with Dao.”
“This may also be reflected in the following Karl: ‘If our physical bodies went through ten thousand transformations without end, how incomparable would this joy be! Therefore the sage roams freely in the realm in which nothing can escape but all endures’”
“But the sage does not endure!”
“He goes on: ‘Dao has reality and evidence but no action or physical form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be obtained but cannot be seen. It is based in itself, rooted in itself. Before heaven and earth came into being, Dao existed by itself from all time.... It created heaven and earth.’”
“Dao is playing the role of Yahweh only without personality attributed to It. “
“Chan makes a good point here. Zhuang says the sage has to be impartial: ‘In dealing with things, he would not lead forward or backward to accommodate them.’ Chan says this phrase ‘has become a favorite dictum [“not to lean forward or backward”] among later Chinese thinkers, especially Neo-Confucianists. It does not mean moderation or indifference but absolute spontaneity and impartiality in dealing with things and complete naturalness in response to things.’”
“Chan’s observations are usually quite good.”
“What do you think of this. I think Zhuang would have been a Stoic had he lived in ancient Rome instead of China. This is a vignette about a very sick person, Zi-you, whose ‘internal organs were on top of his body’ so he was really in dire straits about to pass on but was very accepting of his condition because, as he told his friend Zi-suu: ‘When we come, it is because it was the occasion to be born. When we go, it is to follow the natural course of things. Those who are contented and at ease when the occasion comes and live in accord with the course of Nature cannot be affected by sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients called release from bondage. Those who cannot release themselves are so because they are bound by material things. That material things cannot overcome Nature, however, has been a fact from time immemorial. Why, then should I dislike it [the disease]?’”
“I see what you mean Fred.”
“Wait up Karl, there’s more.”
“Zi-li goes to visit the dying Zi-lai and says to the grieving family: ‘Go away.... Don’t disturb the transformation that is about to take place.... Great is the Creator [i.e., Nature]! What will he make of you now? Where will he take you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver? Will he make you into an insect's leg?’ Far from being upset by this intrusion, Zi-lai responds in kind: ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, whether east, west, south, or north, he has to obey. The yin and yang are like man’s parents. If they pressed me to die and I disobeyed, I would be obstinate. What fault is theirs? For the universe gave me the body so I may be carried, my life so I may toil, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest.
Therefore, to regard life as good is the way to regard death as good.’”
“Well, this is very Stoic, a very Greco-Roman attitude. This is the Stoic ἀπᾰ́θεια. To accept whatever comes along in life as just the working out of the λόγος or the law of the universe. Resistance is futile!”
“Here is a passage about Confucius!”
“Don’t be alarmed Fred. Zhuangzi never knew Confucius. The Daoists, who were great rivals of the Confucians and didn’t appreciate their philosophy at all, liked to pretend that in his old age Confucius was finally enlightened and converted to Daoism. As a result of this phantasy, Confucius crops up in Daoist works expressing very un-Confucian opinions. What is he doing here?”
“One of three friends has died, and Confucius has sent his rather orthodox pupil to the funeral to represent him. This pupil, Zi-gong [he was of the major disciples no less] was shocked to see the two surviving friends singing and playing the lute. This was a big no-no from Zi-gong’s viewpoint--a major violation of the li or ceremonial procedures required for a proper funeral. He hurries back to Confucius to complain about the unseemly behavior of the departed’s companions. But this Daoist Confucius remarks: ‘They travel in the transcendental world, and I travel in the mundane world. There is nothing in common between the two worlds, and I sent you there to mourn! How stupid!... How can they take the trouble to observe the rules of propriety of popular society in order to impress the multitude?’”
“Do you think the real Confucius would have said that Fred?”
“Maybe. I don’t say he would have, but he was a very open-minded person. IF he had known Zhuangzi, he might have been able to deal with this. After all, it was a private funeral with a few like minded friends.”
“We will never know.”
Chan thinks this passage is very important. Do you want me to read his commentary?”
“He says, “Zhuangzi distinguished traveling in the transcendental world, or fang-wai (literally, “outside the sphere” of human affairs), and traveling in the mundane world, or fang-nei (literally, “inside the sphere”). Later the former came to mean Buddhism and the latter Confucianism. The first distinction was made here. To consider life as a temporary existence of various elements is highly Buddhistic, for in Buddhism an entity is but a temporary grouping of five elements. But Daoism is free from the quietism of Buddhism and emphasizes non-action. As Guo-Xiang [died 312 AD] emphatically stated, however, taking no action does not mean doing nothing but simply doing nothing unnatural.’”
“Is that it for Zi-gong and Confucius?”
“No, there’s more bogus Confucius. ‘Confucius said,”Fishes attain their full life in water and men attain theirs in the Dao. Those fish which attain a full life in water will be well nourished if a pool is dug for them, and those men who attain a full life in the Dao will achieve calmness of nature through inaction. Therefore it is said, ‘Fishes forget each other (are happy and at ease with themselves) in rivers and lakes and men forget each other in the workings of Dao.’” “May I ask about those strange people?” said Zi-gong. Replied Confucius, “Those strange people are strange in the eyes of man but are equal to Nature. Therefore it is said, ‘The inferior man to Nature is a superior man to men, and the superior man to men is an inferior man to Nature.’”’”
“I seem to remember Yan Hui, Confucius’ favorite disciple, getting into the act.”
“You correctly remember Karl. Zhuangzi’s famous doctrine of ‘sitting down and forgetting everything’ [famous because of its later use by the Neo-Confucians] is put into the mouth of Yan Hui. Yan made the comment in the context of being asked by Confucius what progress he had made. ‘I cast aside my limbs,’ replied Yan Hui, ‘discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind, and become one with [the] Great Universal (Dao). This is called sitting down and forgetting everything.’”
“Excellent. This would no doubt drive an orthodox Confucian to distraction.”
“No doubt. That’s it for the two major philosophical chapters presented by Chan, but he has some interesting passages in his ‘Additional Selections.’”
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
“This is from ‘The Nature and Reality of Dao’. Which comes from chapter 12 of the ‘Zhuangzi’. It’s rather long.”
“Is it important?”
“Chan thinks so. He says it’s a pretty important statement of Daoist metaphysics.”
“By all means then, Fred, let’s hear it.”
“Here goes: ‘In the great beginning there was non-being. It had neither been nor name. The One originates from it: it has oneness but not yet physical form. When things obtain it and come into existence, that is called virtue (which gives them their individual character). That which is formless is divided [into yin and yang], and from the very beginning going on without interruption is called destiny (ming, fate). Through movement and rest it produces all things. When things are produced in accordance with the principle (li) of life, there is physical form. When the physical form embodies and preserves the spirit so that all activities follow their own specific principles, that is nature. By cultivating one’s nature one will return to virtue. When virtue is perfect, one will be one with the beginning. Being one with the beginning, one becomes vacuous (xu, receptive to all), and being vacuous, one becomes great. One will then be united with the sound and breath of things. When one is united with the sound and breath of things, one is united with the universe. This unity is intimate and seems to be stupid and foolish. This is called profound and secret virtue; this is complete harmony.’”
“This requires some thought.”
“What do you make of it?”
“I think it fits with what we today might agree to. Before the universe there was nothing (non-being) --if we can use the word ‘before’ in this context--there is then the ‘Big Bang’ (the One originates) and the rest of the universe evolves into what we have now by means of the laws of nature (ming, li or fate and principle). If we want to live intelligent and happy lives, we must understand the natural laws and conform to them (virtue). If we follow this Daoist outline of virtue, we will be in harmony both with ourselves and with Nature. But I must stress, Fred, that Zhuangzi is of course not privy to the type of modern scientific understanding of the universe that has developed over the last few centuries, nevertheless this passage of his is not contrary or out of step with modern notions. It is certainly nearer to contemporary scientific understanding than anything the spokesmen of the currently popular so-called ‘world’ religions are dishing out!”
“There is some strange evolutionary speculation that Chan includes about insects turning into horses and horses turning into men! This may not be a meant to be taken seriously but Chan says it shows the Zhuang saw everything in Flux (Heraclitus) and ‘conceived reality as ever changing and as developing from the simple to the complex.’”
“Don’t forget Zhuang is only a few hundred years away from the Pre-Socratics who also had strange, by our lights, views on evolution, especially Empedocles. Not so much Anaximander who thought we came from fish, since we in fact did."
“O.K., now it's time for supplement five ‘Tao as Transformation and One.’ Ready?”
“’Although the universe is vast, its transformation is uniform. Although the myriad things are many, their order is one. Although people are numerous, their ruler is the sovereign. The sovereign traces his origin to virtue (de, individual and essential character), and attains his perfection in Nature. Therefore, it is said in the cases of sovereigns of high antiquity no [unnatural] action (wu-wei) was undertaken, and the empire was in order.... When all things in general are seen through Dao, the response of things to each other becomes complete. Therefore, it is virtue that penetrates Heaven and Earth, and it is Dao that operates in all things. Government by the ruler means human affairs, and when ability is applied to creative activities, it means skill. Skill is commanded by Nature. Therefore, it is said that ancient rulers of empires had no [selfish] desires and the empire enjoyed sufficiency.’”
"Anything more in this section?”
“Yes-- the Ten Points that the great man or the sage must adhere to if he wants the world to listen to him. This is the Grand Master talking....”
“The 'Grand Master'?”
“It's really Confucius but Zhuang calls him the ‘Grand Master’. By the way, these may be Daoist points but from what we discussed about Confucius, I think he really would agree with all of them.”
“Let’s hear them!”
“’  To act without taking an [unnatural action] means Nature.  To speak without any action means virtue.  To love people and benefit all things means humanity (ren).  To identify with all without each losing his own identity means greatness.  To behave without purposely showing any superiority means broadness.  To possess an infinite variety means richness.  Therefore to adhere to virtue is called discipline.  To realize virtue means strength.  To be in accord with Dao means completeness.  And not to yield to material things is called perfection.’”
“I also think the real Confucius would go along with these, Fred. But I would add ‘unnatural’ before ‘action’ in number 2 as it doesn’t make that much sense to me without it.”
“Supplement Six: ‘Nature vs. Man’: This is the Spirit of the North Sea speaking to Uncle River--’An owl can catch fleas at night, and sees the tip of a hair, but in the daytime even with its eyes wide open it cannot see a mountain, which shows that different things have different natures. Therefore, it is said, “Why not let us follow the right instead of the wrong, and follow order instead of chaos?” This is to misunderstand the principle (li) of nature and the reality of things.’ This confuses Uncle River as to what he should be doing, so the Spirit of the North Sea adds, ‘Never stick to one’s own intention and thus handicap the operation of Dao.’”
“I see. This means, of course, that we must first understand the Dao and then not be bull headed and try to force the world to do what we want rather than to adjust ourselves to reality. This is reminiscent of Descartes’ third maxim in his ‘Discourse on Method’ where he says he will always try ‘to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world’ so he too seeks to be in tune with the Dao.”
“Uncle River next wants to know the value of Dao. He is told ‘One who knows Dao will surely penetrate the principle of things, and one who penetrates the principles of things will surely understand their application in various situations.’ I take it that was what Descartes was also interested in. The Spirit of the North Sea continues, ‘It means that he discriminates between safety and danger, remains calm whether he suffers calamity or enjoys blessing, and is careful about taking or not taking an action, so that none can harm him. Therefore, it is said that what is natural lies within and what is human lies without, and virtue abides in the natural.’ The Spirit then gives an example of just what he means by Nature. ‘A horse or a cow has four feet. That is Nature. Put a halter around the horse’s head and put a string through the cow’s nose, that is man. Therefore it is said, “Do not let man destroy Nature.”’
“Very good Fred, but must we not admit that man is also part of Nature, and it is not against the Nature of a horse to put a halter on it and to ride it, as it would say, to try to do that to a tiger. Men ride horses not tigers and that is also Nature and due to Dao.”
“Then the Spirit of the North Sea is giving bum answers to Uncle River?”
“Let us just say that the Spirit of the North Sea may have a point but there is no Chinese Wall between man and Nature. It is because of this that Confucianism is able to function as an enlightened philosophy and the true sage is not exclusively a Daoist nowadays.”
“In Supplement Seven, Zhuang further develops his ideas of objectivity. He says, ‘Exercise fully what you have received from Nature. In one word, be absolutely vacuous (xu) [having no selfish desires or bias--Chan]. The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not lean forward or backward in its response to things. It responds to things but conceals nothing of its own. Therefore, it is able to deal with things without injury to [its reality].’”
“I remember that Chan said the mirror symbolism was important. Why don’t you read his comment?”
“O.k.--he says it's an important symbol for the mind both in Zen Buddhism and in Neo-Confucianism. The difference is that with Buddhism, external reality is to be transcended, whereas with Zhuangzi and the Neo-Confucianists, external reality is to be responded to naturally and faithfully, like a mirror objectively reflecting all.’”
“This is like naive realism in Western epistemology and in some forms of Marxism. I remember Lenin’s opinion that the mind ‘reflects’ external reality. This seems to be a rejection of Kantian views.’”
“In Supplement 8 ‘Sageliness and Kingliness’ we find the following: ‘The evolution of the Dao of Nature goes on without obstruction. Therefore, all things are produced. The evolution of the Dao of the sovereign goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole empire comes to him. The evolution of the Dao of the sage goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole world pays him homage.’”
“I’m glad the term ‘evolution’ is used, Fred. We live in vastly different times here in the West as do many of the people of the East undergoing ‘modernization’. Zhuang’s views still can hold but they must be seen to have ‘evolved.’ The Dao of Nature is the same, but the Dao of the sovereign no longer can be seen in terms of the emperor system of pre-revolutionary China. The ‘sovereign’ of today is the mass of the people and in China this means the workers and peasants. If the Chinese Communist Party truly represents their interests--i.e., if it represents the sovereign--then we can interpret the phrase ‘the whole empire comes to him’ to mean that the party has the support of the people in its policies. In this way of speaking, I would say that updated Zhuang means as long as the Dao of the people’s interests is without obstruction the party will have the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ This analysis goes for any country--not just China--but you have to be clever enough to match Zhuang’s views with the objective reality you are confronting in each case. Finally, the sage should not care if the whole world gives him/her homage but if the sage correctly understands the Dao this may happen. Sages, however, are often out of tune with the times.”
“I agree with you Karl. I think Zhuang would too. Here is another quote: ‘Vacuity, tranquility, mellowness, quietness, and taking no [unnatural] action characterize the things of the universe at peace and represent the ultimate of Dao and virtue. Therefore, rulers and sages abide in them.’”
“Finally, Zhuang says, ‘One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with men. To be in harmony with men means human happiness, and to be in harmony with Nature means the happiness of Nature.’ What do you make of that Karl.?”
“In the first place ‘the happiness of Nature’ must be our happiness with Nature since Nature is neither happy nor unhappy, it just is what it is. In the second place, does the statement about the one who is in accord with the world being in accord with men mean (1) going along with what everyone thinks is being in accord with them and hence with the world [don’t rock the boat] or does it mean  if you correctly understand the nature of the world that means you will find yourself in accord with your fellow men [definitely counterfactual!]. If it means (1) it is trivial and unworthy of the Sage [so Zhuang doesn’t mean this] and if it is (2) then it must be false as οἱ πολλοί predominate and they do not see the world as the Sage does in most instances and so the Sage will be out of accord on many issues. Of course, it is happiness to be in harmony with men but only if the men in question are themselves in harmony with the Dao. For example, the German Nazi philosopher Heidegger found himself in ‘harmony’ with most of his fellow Germans believing that the Dao of Hitler was the Dao itself. But would we want to say he was ‘happy’--maybe for a short while. And if he was in accord with ‘men’, was he with Nature? You may reply that ‘men’ means ‘all men’ and so the Nazis lost because their Dao was a false Dao. As you can see, Fred, this is a very complicated issue.”
“So I see. Coming up is a famous vignette about the death of Zhuang’s wife.”
“Lets hear it!”
“This is Chan’s Ninth Supplement ‘The Equality of Life and Death’ I’m going to read all of it because it is so famous:
"Zhuangzi’s wife died and Huizi went to offer his condolences. He found Zhuangzi squatting on the ground and singing, beating on an earthen bowl. He said, “Someone has lived with you, raised children for you and now she has aged and died. Is it not enough that you should not shed any tears? But now you sing and beat the bowl. Is this not too much?”
“No,” replied Zhuangzi. “When she died, how could I help being affected? But as I think the matter over, I realize that originally, she had no life; and not only no life, but she also had no form; not only no form, she had no material force (qi).
"In the limbo of existence and non-existence, there was transformation, and the material force was evolved. The material force was transformed to be form, for was transformed to become life, and now birth has transformed to become death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. Now she lies asleep in the great house (the universe). For me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show my ignorance of destiny. Therefore, I desist.”’”
“That says it all, Fred. No Stoic, Epicurean or classical Skeptic, let alone any religious thinker, could have put it any better. Secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics would be hard pressed to top Zhuang here. But I think it takes a real sage -AKA philosopher-to find comfort in this view of life.”
“Maybe ‘comfort’ is not what this view offers.”
“True. Maybe ’resignation’ and ‘acceptance’ of the Dao is a better understanding than ‘comfort’.”
“One last vignette, Karl. Supplement Ten--’Subjectivity’—’Zhuangzi and Huizi were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of the fish.”
“You are not a fish.” said Huizi. “How do you know its happiness?”
You are not I,” said Zhuangzi. “How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?”
Huizi said, “Of course I do not know, since I am not you. But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of the fish.”
“Let us get to the bottom of the matter,” said Zhuangzi. “When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how. I knew it along the river.”’
“This is a cute story, Fred, but Zhuang’s logic can be used right back at him by Hui. I don’t suppose, though, that these vignettes are supposed to be taken as logical.”
“You are surely correct Karl. That ends our readings in the ‘Zhuangzi’.
“Well Fred, we should discuss Gongsun Longzi next.”
Yes, I know that’s not a name anyone would normally recognize unless they were Chinese, but for completeness sake we should have a brief discussion of his views. He was a founder of the School of Names and had no influence whatsoever, but this school was the closest the Ancient Chinese ever came to doing work on Logic. There was no Chinese Aristotle and perhaps we will understand why after we discuss what Chan has to say about the School of Names. It may be a big detour from the mainline of Chinese philosophy but it’s interesting and at least helps Westerners to understand why Logic as a separate subject did not develop.
OK, Karl, if you insist.
Next Up: “Gongsun Longzi and The School of Names: A Marxist Dialogue”
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.
To read the Confucius Dialogue click here.
To read the Mencius Dialogue click here.
To read the Xunzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Mozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Laozi Dialogue click here.
Marxian socialists have long been opponents of prostitution aiming to eliminate it once they came to power. Kollontai speaking well before the cant about sex work had been invented, and in an early socialist, rather than capitalist, economy understood very clearly why it exists in capitalist countries and why it was unproductive in a socialist economy.
The trade in women’s flesh is conducted quite openly, which is not surprising when you consider that the whole bourgeois way of life is based on buying and selling. There is an undeniable element of material and economic, considerations even the most legal of marriages. Prostitution is the way out for the woman who fails to find herself a permanent breadwinner. Prostitution, under capitalism provides men with the opportunity of having sexual relationships without having to take upon themselves the responsibility of caring materially for the women until the grave. …
Similarly after the Chinese revolution, one of the policies of the government was the suppression of prostitution and the control of venereal disease. The government claimed to have effectively eliminated it by 1955. More recently the reformist working class movement of Sweden has pioneered a policy of clamping down on prostitution by outlawing the buying of sex rather than the selling of sex. This policy, starting in Sweden with the support of the Social Democrats and feminists there, has been adopted in Norway, and to a lesser extent in Finland.
As against this socialist position stands the liberal one which defends prostititution on the grounds that:
Well although liberals regard private contract as sacrosanct socialists do not. Contracts that appear private and voluntary are in reality often the result of very unequal power relations. For what does consent amount too other than, in many cases, selecting the least bad of bad options. A slave girl who ‘consented’ to the sexual advances of her master, showed what apologists for prostitution celebrate as ‘agency’. She could have chosen to be whipped rather than bear her masters children, so in submitting she was exercising free will. But nobody now would suggest that she was really free to chose. It was the social institution of slavery that presented her with only these options. The ‘free’ choice of a heroin addict to sell her body on the streets is a similar effect of social power.
The father of economics, Adam Smith wrote that money was power, the power to command others. Capitalist society dispenses with the direct power of command over bodies that past ruling classes had. Instead of the whip, cash that selective lash. A woman with a million in shares is in a very different position from a self employed prostitute. Legally both are free, but who is really the free woman?
But for a large section of prostitutes even the fiction of legal freedom does not exist. Brothels arose with slavery, and trafficked women are still abused in them accross the world. Liberal appologists claim that legalisation of prostitution will reduce trafficking, but the evidence is against them. Cho et al, in a statistical study covering 150 countries, show that legalising prostitution is correlated with an increase in human trafficking. They get a 0.66 correlation between the legality of prosititution in a country and the level of human trafficking into the country. This is similar to the 0.67 correlation that they get between GDP and human trafficking. Nobody doubts that people are trafficked into countries with high GDP, it is only the commercial interests of brothel owners that prevents an equal recognition that legal prostitution produces the same effect.
What about the claim that prostitution is work?
There is no doubt that sex involves time and effort, but is it really work?
If sex is work, was the dancing a couple did before they got off with one another also work?
If a cohabiting couple fuck, is it only her working, or are both working when they are at it?
If both work, both emerging sweating from effort, the justification for calling prostitution ‘work’ vanishes. Are we to call the clients too, sex ‘workers’?
What liberal appologists mean by work, is not the effort of making things, but being paid for doing things. So when a woman cooks a meal for her children is that work?
It is, and even most economist would not deny this, but it does not figure as work in the UK National Accounts. To liberal economics, to count as work it must exchange for money. Were mothers able to sell meals to their kids, liberal economics would then treat it as adding to national income.
Anything that brings in money counts for them as productive activity. So we have the nonsensical situation where things like gambling and brothel keeping are called industries. There is no doubt that these are all are businesses, but not all business is industry, and not all business is productive.
Take gambling, a moment’s thought is enough to see that it merely redistributes existing wealth, and produces nothing new of value. It is as foolish to talk of a gambling industry or sex industry as it would be to call pickpocketing or bank robbing industries.
In the Kollontai quote there is a commonsense obviousness, under the changed social conditions of Soviet Russia, about why prostitution is unproductive. In a society where goods were allocated on ration, a prostitute was seen to be taking the rations of others and not contributing to national wealth and general welfare. When economic relations were no longer disguised by money but seen in physical terms, this was a commonsense practical observation, and if it was obviously true in an unveiled economy, it must already have been true, behind the money veil, in the previous capitalist economy. Gilded by money, unproductive activities in a commercial economy appear productive, intercourse becomes `sex work’.
In two senses of course, sex is work, and productive. Both parties involved expend metabolic energy in the act, and the productive issue causes the mother to expend far more energy in the gestation and birthing. The labour of birth is, in reality, the foundation of all other production. But this is not what apologists for brothels mean. To them, work is where money changes hands. Never mind that since Roman times the aim of commercial sex had been for men to avoid any responsibility for the children who result. These could expect neither inheritance nor sustenance from the fathers. Exposure, abandonment or the dubious mercy of the foundling hospital was often their fate. Langer reports:
The figures for this traffic, available for many cities, are truly shocking. In all of France fully 127,507 children were abandoned in the year 1833. Anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent of all children born were left to their fate. The figures for Paris suggest that in the years 18I7-1820 the “foundlings” comprised fully 36 per cent of all births. In some of the Italian hospitals the mortality (under one year of age) ran to 80 or 90 per cent. In, Paris, the Maison de la Couche reported that of 4,779 babies admitted in 1818, 2,370 died in the first three months and another 956 within the first year.
As an institution it was doubly destructive of labour power, not only did it condemn to an early death the prostitutes’ infants, the money that the patrons spent in the brothels was taken from the mouths of their `legitimate’ offspring.
What of the argument that prostitution has always existed and that any attempt to ban it will fail?
Well for a start, it has not always existed. It did not exist in pre-class societies. For it to emerge you needed several conditions:
If these, its social causes, are removed, then prostitution would tend to die out, just as all other forms of crime decline as society becomes more equal. But that does not mean that it is pointless to ban it in today’s society. No state has yet been able to abolish murder or rape, but noboby would argue that laws against these crimes are pointless. If a criminal activity is driven underground, that is a good thing. It means that the activity is being curtailed. If fear of the police makes murderers feel compelled to bury their victims under garden patios rather than just throwing the body out on the street for the bin men to collect, that is surely to be welcomed.
The great thing about the Scandinavian approach to prostitution is that it treats buying sex as another sex crime. Buyers of sex are categorised along with rapists and paedophiles. We acknowledge that Sweden has not completely stopped Swedish men from buying sex. But that is to set an unreasonably high bar, the evidence is that the law has reduced the incidence of Swedish men buying sex, whereas the evidence of countries which legalise both sides of prostitution is that the practice increases.
But the liberal will respond that we should listen to the voices of those currently engaged in the business of selling sex. It is only to be expected that a policy like the Swedish one, which succeeds in reducing the number of their customers, will be against the immediate commercial interests of brothel keepers and of a section of self employed prostitutes. But why should we take any particular notice of a commercial special interest group like that?
Why should we ‘listen to the sex workers’?
Measures to combat smoking and alcoholism are against the commercial interests of cigarette firms and brewers and distilleries. Though the Scottish Government minimum price law on drinks will hit the interest of the monks of Buckfast Abbey, even liberals would hesitate to say in response that we must hold back and ‘listen to the monks’. Why then, are we to be so solicitous of the commercial interests of brothel keepers and whores?
Liberal common sense has made inroads into the socialist movement, so you get ‘left’ men dressing the liberal arguments in socialist garb. Granted, they say, that prostitutes are exploited but so are all workers, so why make a special thing about sex. Surely this is just an outdated puritan attitude.
The simplest response is for socialists to say that we want to abolish all exploitation. We would like a law that prohibited the employment of wage labour, just as Soviet law prohibited it. Until we can have that, we support any and every step to crack down on exploitation. We will never line up with commercial interests that want to open up new fields of exploitation.
Alternatively we can respond by questioning some of the deeper assumptions of the liberal argument. Liberals say sex is nothing special and that treating fucking differently from bus driving or cooking burgers is just puritan prejudice.
Well, for a start, sex is special.
It is objectively special, and legally special. It is special because the action of sex organs produces people, whereas the labour of hand and brain produces things. Post-slave societies treat people as different from things. The law treats sex organs and hands very differently. It says that if you grab someone by the pussy or the balls you are guilty of sexual assault and liable to a custodial sentence of up to 10 years. But you can, when meeting, shake a stranger’s hand with impunity.
Next, why should socialists accept puritanism as a term of abuse. The Puritans carried out the only sucessful revolution in Britain. They cut of the King’s head and put the fear of God into the upper classes: no mean achievement. They acted with determination against a licentious, debauched and corrupt aristocracy – all to the good. When liberals use the word puritan as a slur they are betraying the actual origins of liberalism and adopting the language of the old Tory opponents of the Puritans.
Left liberals say whores are exploited, so are cooks, so why treat brothels andy differnt from Burger Kings. Here, they are resting their argument on what amounts to no more than a pun on the word exploitation. The word exploitation has two meanings. One refers to sexual exploitation, the other to economic exploitation. The two are quite different.
A person is economically exploited if they get back in income less money for an hour of work than the value added by an hour of work. In this economic sense, self employed whores are no more exploited than a self employed electrician or plumber. They do not sell their labour power to an employer who then uses it to produce a commodity. Instead, the self employed sell their services directly to customers and collect the full value themselves. This is one reason why a prostitute earns more per hour than a cook preparing Big Macs.
Sexual exploitation is something quite different.
The UN Draft Convention Against Sexual Exploitation defines sexual exploitation as follows:
Definition of Sexual Exploitation:
Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person (s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain, or advancement, through the abuse of a person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being.
Sexual exploitation takes the form of, but is not limited to:
Where brothel keeping is illegal the majority of prostitutes are independent and are sexually but not economically exploited. Where brothel keeping is legalised, capitalist businesses come to dominate the trade, meaning that an economic exploitation becomes combined with an intensified sexual exploitation.
 Alexandra Kollontai. Prostitution and ways of fighting it. In speech to the third all-Russian conference if the heads of regional women’s departments, ,1921. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/prostitution.htm
 Ma, Hai-Teh. With Mao Tse-Tungs thought as the compass for action in the control of venereal diseases in China. Chinas Medicine 1 (1966): 52-68.
 Cho, Seo-Young, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer. Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?. World Development 41 (2013): 67-82.
 William L Langer. Europe’s initial population explosion. The American HistoricalReview,69(1):1’17,1963, page 9.
 Kuosmanen, Jari. Attitudes and perceptions about legislation prohibiting the purchase of sexual services in Sweden. European Journal of Social Work 14.2 (2011): 247-263.
This article was first published by Paul Cockshott.
A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England 1649
In 1630, a 21 year old textile trader moved to London. He did well at first, but as a result of the abuse of power by both the King and Parliament and then the outbreak of the English Civil War which started twelve years later, he saw his business ruined and in 1643 he became bankrupt.
His father-in-law helped him move to Cobham in Surrey, where he initially worked as a cowherd.
However, by the time of the defeat of the Royalist side and King Charles execution in early 1649, he and a group of others in a similar situation had got together to represent the voice of the common people, and especially that of the propertyless poor.
The man’s name was Gerrard Winstanley.
He soon became the key spokesperson of the group which the people living at the time referred to as ‘THE DIGGERS’, they were also known as the ‘True Levellers’ as distinct from another group led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn known as ‘The Levellers’. A fundamental difference in the two came from The Levellers who while seeking equality before the law, and an extension of the right to vote for most men did not support the abolition of private property and common ownership of the land.
The Diggers also advocated absolute human equality including equality between men and women which in the 1600s was a very radical idea indeed.
The Diggers ‘nickname’ came from their belief that the land should be available to every person to dig and sow, so that everyone, rich or poor, could live, grow and eat by the sweat of their own brows, as according to them “The earth was made to be a common treasury for all.”
WHAT DID THE DIGGERS DO?
Instead of simply voicing their opinion through the books and other papers Gerrard Winstanley wrote, he and The Diggers, who consisted of mainly poor families that had no land of their own (as land was only owned by the rich) decided to take direct action by taking over common land that belonged to no one, and which was not in use, and started to farm it, so as to allow everyone who worked the land to eat.
At first this went well, but unsurprisingly the ideas of The Diggers were considered extremely dangerous by those with a vested interest in the preservation of privilege, property and power.
Gerrard Winstanley stands out from a century remarkable for its development in political thought as one of the most fecund and original of political writers. An acute and penetrating social critic with a passionate sense of justice, he worked out a collectivist theory which strikingly anticipates nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialism. He was the first modern European thinker to write in the vernacular advocating a communist society, and to call upon ordinary people to realize it. Winstanley published a number of pamphlets on the colony’s behalf, among them including a declaration from the poor oppressed people of England:
The Diggers were a small group who preached and attempted to practise a primitive communism, based on the claim that the land belonged to the whole people of England. This claim was supported by the interesting historical argument that William the Conqueror had “turned the English out of their birthrights; and compelled them for necessity to be servants to him and to his Norman soldiers”. The civil war was thus regarded as the reconquest of England by the English people. In the theological language of the time, Winstanley urged that this political reconquest needed a social revolution to complete it and that otherwise, the essential quality of monarchy remained. (Source ) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014)
In April 1649 some Diggers came to St George’s Hill, near Weybridge in Surrey, where they proceeded to dig and sow seed in the common land. One of them, William Everard, proclaimed that he had been commanded in a vision to dig and plough the land. They believed in a form of agrarian communism by which the English were exhorted finally to free themselves from “the Norman yoke” of landlords and owners of estates before “making the earth a common treasury for all”.
On the 1st of June 1649, Gerrard Winstanley published A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, that was signed by 44 people. It stated that while waiting for their first crop yields, they proposed to sell wood from the commons in order to buy food, ploughs, carts, and corn. No threat would be made to private property, but “the promises of reformation and liberation made from the solemn league and covenant through to the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords must be honoured”.
Instructions were given for the Diggers to be beaten up and for their houses, crops and tools to be destroyed. These tactics were successful and within a year all the Digger communities in England had been wiped out. A number of Diggers were indicted at the Surrey quarter sessions and five were imprisoned for just over a month in the White Lion prison in Southwark.
Despite the hostility, Winstanley’s experiment continued and in January 1650 “having put my arm as far as my strength will go to advance righteousness: I have writ, I have acted, I have peace: and now I must wait to see the spirit do his own work in the hearts of others, and whether England shall be the first land, or some other, wherein truth shall sit down in triumph.”
On 19th April 1650, a group of local landowners, including John Platt, Thomas Sutton, William Starr and William Davy, with several hired men, destroyed the Digger community in Cobham: “They set fire to six houses, and burned them down, and burned likewise some of the household stuff… not pitying the cries of many little children, and their frightened mothers…. they kicked a poor man’s wife so that she miscarried her child.” Winstanley returned to farming his own land.
Winstanley’s best-known work, The Law of Freedom, was published in February 1652 after twenty months of silence following the collapse of the digging experiments.
Marxist writers in the 19th century such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky have claimed that in this pamphlet Winstanley had provided a complete framework for a socialist order. John F. Harrison, the author of The Common People (1984) has pointed out: “Winstanley has an honoured place in the pantheon of the Left as a pioneer communist. In the history of the common people, he is also representative of that other minority tradition of popular religious radicalism, which, although it reached a crescendo during the Interregnum, had existed since the Middle Ages and was to continue into modern times. Totally opposed to the established church and also separate from (yet at times overlapping) orthodox puritanism, was a third culture which was lower-class and heretical. At its centre was a belief in the direct relationship between God and man, without the need of any institution or formal rites. Emphasis was on an inner spiritual experience and obedience to the voice of God within each man and woman.”
In about 1555 Winstanley became active in the Society of Friends (Quakers), a religious group established by George Fox. It was later claimed by Thomas Tenison, that Winstanley was the true originator of the principles of Quakerism.
Historically GERRARD WINSTANLEY and THE DIGGERS movement was, and is, one of the most important parts of the English ‘Revolution’ of 1649.
This is recognised globally with GERRARD WINSTANLEY amongst those listed on a monument dedicated to ‘The great Socialist thinkers’ in Moscow, Russia.
Digger pamphlet by Gerrard Winstanley
We whose narnes are subscribed, do in the name of all the poor oppressed people in England, declare unto you, that call your selves lords of Manors, and Lords of the Land, That in regard the King of Righteousness, our Maker, hath inlightened our hearts so far, as to see, That the earth was not made purposely for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants, and Beggers; but it was made to be a common Livelihood to all, without respect of persons: And that your buying and selling of Land, and the Fruits of it, one to another, is The cursed thing, and was brought in by War; which hath, and still does establish murder, and theft, In the hands of some branches of Mankinde over others, which is the greatest outward burden, and unrighteous power, that the Creation groans under: For the power of inclosing Land, and owning Propriety, was brought into the Creation by your Ancestors by the Sword; which first did murther their fellow Creatures, Men, and after plunder or steal away their Land, and left this Land successively to you, their Children. And therefore, though you did not kill or theeve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand, by the power of the Sword; and so you justifie the wicked deeds of your Fathers; and that sin of your Fathers, shall be visited upon the Head of you, and your Children, to the third and fourth Generation, and longer too, till your bloody and theeving power be rooted out of the Land.
And further, in regard the King of Righteousness hath made us sensible of our burthens, and the cryes and groanings of our hearts are come before him: We take it as a testimony of love from him, That our hearts begin to be freed from slavish fear of men, such as you are; and that we find Resolutions in us, grounded upon the inward law of Love, one towards another, To Dig and Plough up the Commons, and waste Lands through England; and that our conversation shall be so unblameable, That your Laws shall not reach to oppress us any longer, unless you by your Laws will shed the innocent blood that runs in our veins.
For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.
And to prevent your scrupulous Objections, know this, That we Must neither buy nor sell; Money must not any longer (after our work of the Earths community is advanced) be the great god, that hedges in some, and hedges out others; for Money is but part of the Earth: And surely, the Righteous Creator, who is King, did never ordain, That unless some of Mankinde, do bring that Mineral (Silver and Gold) in their hands, to others of their own kinde, that they should neither be fed, nor be clothed; no surely, For this was the project of Tyrant-flesh (which Land-lords are branches of) to set his Image upon Money. And they make this unrighteous Law, That none should buy or sell, eat, or be clothed, or have any comfortable Livelihood among men, unless they did bring his Image stamped upon Gold or Silver in their hands.
And whereas the Scriptures speak, That the mark of the Beast is 666, the number of a man; and that those that do not bring that mark in their hands, or in their foreheads, they should neither buy nor sell, Revel. 13.16. And seeing the numbering Letters round about the English money make 666, which is the number of that Kingly Power and Glory, (called a Man) And seeing the age of the Creation is now come to the Image of the Beast, or Half day. And seeing 666 is his mark, we expect this to be the last Tyrannical power that shall raign; and that people shall live freely in the enioyment of the Earth, without bringing the mark of the Beast in their hands, or in their promise; and that they shall buy Wine and Milk, without Money, or without price, as Isiah speaks.
For after our work of the Earthly community is advanced, we must make use of Gold and Silver, as we do of other metals, but not to buy and sell withal; for buying and selling is the great cheat, that robs and steals the Earth one from another: It is that which makes some Lords, others Beggers, some Rulers, others to be ruled; and makes great Murderers and Theeves to be imprisoners, and hangers of little ones, or of sincere-hearted men.
And while we are made to labor the Earth together, with one consent and willing minde; and while we are made free, that every one, friend and foe, shall enjoy the benefit of their Creation, that is, To have food and rayment from the Earth, their Mother; and every one subiect to give accompt of his thoughts, words, and actions to none, but to the one onely righteous Judg, and Prince of Peace; the Spirit of Righteousness that dwells, and that is now rising up to rule in every Creature, and in the whole Globe. We say, while we are made to hinder no man of his Priviledges given him in his Creation, equal to one, as to another; what Law then can you make, to take hold upon us, but Laws of Oppression and Tyranny, that shall enslave or spill the blood of the Innocent? And so your Selves, your Judges, Lawyers, and Justices, shall be found to be the greatest Transgressors, in, and over Mankinde.
But to draw neerer to declare our meaning, what we would have, and what we shall endevor to the uttermost to obtain, as moderate and righteous Reason directs us; seeing we are made to see our Privileages, given us in our Creation, which have hitherto been denied to us, and our Fathers, since the power of the Sword began to rule, And the secrets of the Creation have been locked up under the traditional, Parrat-like speaking, from the Universities, and Colledges for Scolars, And since the power of the murdering, and theeving Sword, formerly, as well as now of late yeers, hath set up a Govenment, and maintains that Government; for what are prisons, and putting others to death, but the power of the Sword to enforce people to that Government which was got by Conquest and Sword, and cannot stand of it self, but by the same murdering power? That Government that is got over people by the Sword and kept by the Sword, is not set up by the King of Righteousness to be his Law, but by Covetousness, the great god of the world; who hath been permitted to raign for a time, times, and dividing of time and his government draws to the period of the last term of his allotted time; and then the Nations shall see the glory of that Government that shall rule in Righteousness, without either Sword or Spear,
And seeing further, the power of Righteousness in our hearts, seeking the livelihood of others as well as our selves, hath drawn forth our bodies to begin to dig, and plough, in the Commons and waste Land, for the reasons already declared,
And seeing and finding ourselves poor, wanting Food to feed upon, while we labor the Earth to cast in seed, and to wait till the first crop comes up; and wanting Ploughs, Carts, Corn, and such materials to plant the Commons withal, we are willing to declare our condition to you, and to all, that have the Treasury of the Earth, locked up in your Bags, Chests, and Barns, and will offer up nothing to this publike Treasury; but will rather see your fellow Creatures starve for want of Bread, that have an equal right to it with your selves, by the Law of Creation: But this by the way we onely declare to you, and to all that follow the subtle art of buying and selling the Earth with her Fruits, meerly to get the Treasury thereof into their hands, to lock it up from them, to whom it belongs; that so, such covetous, proud, unrighteous, selfish flesh, may be left without excuse in the day of Judgment.
And therefore, the main thing we aym at, and for which we declare our Resolutions to go forth, and act, is this, To lay hold upon, and as we stand in need, to cut and fell, and make the best advantage we can of the Woods and Trees, that grow upon the Commons, To be a stock for our selves, and our poor Brethren, through the land of England, to plant the Commons withal; and to provide us bread to eat, till the Fruit of our labors in the Earth bring forth increase; and we shall meddle with none of your Proprieties (but what is called Commonage) till the Spirit in you, make you cast up your Lands and Goods, which were got, and still is kept in your hands by murder, and theft; and then we shall take it from the Spirit, that hath conquered you, and not from our Swords, which is an abominable, and unrighteous power, and a destroyer of the Creation: But the Son of man comes not to destroy, but to save.
And we are moved to send forth this Declaration abroad, to give notice to every one whom it concerns, in regard we hear and see, that some of you, that have been Lords of Manors, do cause the Trees and Woods that grow upon the Commons, which you pretend a Royalty unto, to be cut down and sold, for your own private use, Thereby the Common Land, which your own mouths doe say belongs to the poor, is impoverished, and the poor oppressed people robbed of their Rights, while you give them cheating words, by telling some of our poor oppressed Brethren, That those of us that have begun to Dig and Plough up the Commons, will hinder the poor; and so blinde their eyes, that they see not their Priviledge, while you, and the rich Free-holders make the most profit of the Commons, by your over-stocking of them with Sheep and Cattle; and the poor that have the name to own the Commons, have the least share therein; nay, they are checked by you, if they cut Wood, Heath, Turf, or Furseys, in places about the Common, where you disallow.
Therefore we are resolved to be cheated no longer, nor be held under the slavish fear of you no longer, seing the Earth was made for us, as well as for you. And if the Common Land belongs to us who are the poor oppressed, surely the woods that grow upon the Commons belong to us likewise: therefore we are resolved to try the uttermost in the light of reason, to know whether we shall be free men, or slaves. If we lie still, and let you steale away our Birthrights, we perish; and if we Petition we perish also, though we have paid taxes, given free quarter, and ventured our lives to preserve the Nations freedom as much as you, and therefore by the law of contract with you, freedom in the land is our portion as well as yours, equal with you: And if we strive for freedom, and your murdering, governing Laws destroy us, we can but perish.
Therefore we require, and we resolve to take both Common Land, and Common woods to be a livelihood for us, and look upon you as equal with us, not above us, knowing very well, that England the land of our Nativity, is to be a common Treasury of livelihood to all, without respect of persons.
So then, we declare unto you, that do intend to cut our Common Woods and Trees, that you shall not do it; unlesse it be for a stock for us, as aforesaid, and we to know of it, by a publick declaration abroad, that the poor oppressed, that live thereabouts, may take it, and employ it, for their publike use, therefore take notice we have demanded it in the name of the Commons of England, and of all the Nations of the world, it being the righteous freedom of the Creation.
Likewise we declare to you that have begun to cut down our Common Woods and Trees, and to fell and carry away the same for your private use, that you shall forbear, and go no farther, hoping, that none that are friends to the Commonwealth of England, will endeavour to buy any of those Common Trees and Woods of any of those Lords of Mannors, so called, who have, by the murdering and cheating law of the sword, stoln the Land from younger brothers, who have by the law of Creation, a standing portion in the Land, as well, and equall with others. Therefore we hope all Wood-mongers will disown all such private merchandise, as being a robbing of the poor oppressed, and take notice, that they have been told our resolution: But if any of you that are Wood-mongers, will buy it of the poor, and for their use, to stock the Commons, from such as may be appointed by us to sell it, you shall have it quietly, without diminution; but if you will slight us in this thing, blame us not, if we make stop of the Carts you send and convert the Woods to our own use, as need requires, it being our own, equal with him that calls himself the Lord of the Mannor, and not his peculiar right, shutting us out, but he shall share with us as a fellow-creature.
For we say our purpose is, to take those Common Woods to sell them, now at first, to be a stock for our selves, and our children after us, to plant and manure the Common land withall; for we shall endeavour by our righteous acting not to leave the earth any longer intangled unto our children, by self-seeking proprietors; But to leave it a free store-house, and common treasury to all, without respect of persons; And this we count is our dutie, to endeavour to the uttermost, every man in his place (according to the nationall Covenant which the Parliament set forth) a Reformation to preserve the peoples liberties, one as well as another: As well those as have paid taxes, and given free quarter, as those that have either born the sword, or taken our moneys to dispose of them for publike use: for if the Reformation must be according to the word of God, then every one is to have the benefit and freedom of his creation, without respect of persons; we count this our duty, we say, to endeavour to the uttermost, and so shall leave those that rise up to oppose us without excuse, in their day of Judgment; and our precious blood, we hope, shall not be dear to us, to be willingly laid down at the door of a prison, or foot of a gallows, to justifie this righteous cause; if those that have taken our money from us, and promised to give us freedom for it, should turn Tyrants against us: for we must not fight, but suffer.
And further we intend, that not one, two, or a few men of us shall sell or exchange the said woods, but it shall be known publikly in Print or writing to all, how much every such, and such parcell of wood is sold for, and how it is laid out, either in victualls, corn, ploughs, or other materials necessary.
And we hope we may not doubt (at least we expect) that they that are called the great Councel and powers of England, who so often have declared themselves, by promises and Covenants, and confirmed them by multitude of fasting daies, and devout Protestations, to make England a free people, upon condition they would pay moneys, and adventure their lives against the successor of the Norman Conqueror; under whose oppressing power England was enslaved; And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children, as every portion of the Land of Canaan was the Common livelihood of such and such a Tribe, and of every member in that Tribe, without exception, neither hedging in any, nor hedging out.
We say we hope we need not doubt of their sincerity to us herein, and that they will not gainsay our determinate course; howsoever, their actions will prove to the view of all, either their sinceritie, or hypocrisie: We know what we speak is our priviledge, and our cause is righteous, and if they doubt of it, let them but send a childe for us to come before them, and we shall make it manifest four wayes.
First, by the National Covenant, which yet stands in force to bind Parliament and people to be faithful and sincere, before the Lord God Almighty, wherein every one in his several place hath covenanted to preserve and seek the liberty each of other, without respect of persons.
Secondly, by the late Victory over King Charls, we do claime this our pnviledge, to be quietly given us, out of the hands of Tyrant-Government, as our bargain and contract with them; for the Parliament promised, if we would pay taxes, and give free quarter, and adventure our lives against Charls and his party, whom they called the Common enemy, they would make us a free people; These three being all done by us, as well as by themselves, we claim this our bargain, by the law of contract from them, to be a free people with them, and to have an equall priviledge of Common livelihood with them, they being chosen by us, but for a peculiar worke, and for an appointed time, from among us, not to be our oppressing Lords, but servants to succour us. But these two are our weakest proofs. And yet by them (in the light of reason and equity that dwells in mens hearts) we shall with ease cast down, all those former enslaving Norman reiterated laws, in every Kings raigne since the Conquest, which are as thornes in our eyes, and pricks in our sides, and which are called the Ancient Government of England.
Thirdly we shall prove that we have a free right to the land of England, being born therein as well as elder brothers, and that it is our equal right with them, and they with us, to have a comfortable livlihood in the earth, without owning any of our own kinde, to be either Lords, or Land-Lords over us: And this we shall prove by plain Text of Scripture, without exposition upon them, which the Scholars and great ones generally say, is their rule to walk by.
Fourthly, we shall prove it by the Righteous Law of our Creation, That mankinde in all his branches, is the Lord of the Earth and ought not to be in subjection to any of his own kinde without him, but to live in the light of the law of righteousness, and peace established in his heart.
And thus in love we have declared the purpose of our hearts plainly, without flatterie, expecting love, and the same sincerity from you, without grumbling or quarreling, being Creatures of your own Image and mould, intending no other matter herein, but to observe the Law of righteous action, endeavouring to shut out of the Creation, the cursed thing, called Particular Propriety, which is the cause of all wars, bloud-shed, theft, and enslaving Laws, that hold the people under miserie.
Signed for and in behalf of all the poor oppressed people of England, and the whole world.
Paul Knaggs is an Editor, founder, Labour Heartlands, Labour Party member and activist. Citizen journalist, Ex-British Army combat veteran. Drifting towards Revolutionary socialism. Fighting a constant struggle with dyslexia that's overcome with a burning desire to speak out against the corrupt political system and the social injustices it creates. Advocate for Free speech and open, accountable, democracy.
This article was first published by Labourheartlands.
Growing up I never felt there was much to be proud of about being an American. I grew up in the Jehovah’s Witness religion, so we never said the pledge of allegiance or anything. We were taught to be in the world, but no part of the world after Jesus’ direction. In the 1930s and 40s, German Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the time known as the International Society of Bible Students, were persecuted in the Holocaust for their stance of political neutrality and conscientious objection to war conscription. The Nazis made them wear purple triangles in the concentration camps to differentiate themselves from the gold stars, Jews; red triangles, communists; blue triangles, Romani etc. I eventually lost my faith in God and rejected a stance of political neutrality (as Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train), but Christian values are still deeply ingrained in me. It was through my Christian values I came to pacificism when I was a pre-teen, anarchism when I was a teenager and communism when I became an adult. Our Kingdom Hall was completely integrated and my first best friend was black. We were a new religious movement and that was controversial stuff for the small Western New York town of Holley. My favorite teacher was gay. My religion and almost all my peers told me this made him a bad person. I just could not believe it. He was just such a good guy, one of the best I had met in Holley. I hated that town growing up. I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States hoping to get a ray of hope out of American history. When I was 17, I snuck out of my parents’ house to see Zinn speak at the University of Rochester in 2001, shortly after 9/11. He talked about how the rights we enjoy today were due to working class movements, suffragists, abolitionists, militants, socialists, communists, anarchists that pushed the boundaries of what was possible. But when I read his book, all I saw were atrocities. American history, if we are honest about it, is horrifying.
It was not until I was well into adulthood that I discovered that Holley, my begrudging hometown, was named after Myron Holley, a founder of the Liberty Party, the first anti-slavery party in the USA. Holley was an early investor in the Erie Canal and made what for the time was a small fortune on the project. He decided to put much of his money into the cause he saw as most important at the time: abolition of enslavement of human beings. The Liberty Party eventually joined with the Free Soil Party and a few straggling Whigs to become the Republican Party, the anti-slavery third party that inspired the Civil War! I was shocked. How could this town that I hated growing up in so much actually have a radical origin? I decided to learn more about the history of the places around me after that. I found out that where I lived in Rochester was across the street from a utopian socialist who was active on the underground railroad. I was on the corner of Post and Anthony Street, in the historic 19th Ward neighborhood. Post refers to Amy and Isaac Post, radical Hicksite Quaker abolitionists who helped found the Western New York Anti Slavery Society (WNYASS) with Frederick Douglass and Huldah Anthony (Anthony as in Anthony street), Hicksite Quaker relatives of Susan B. Anthony, who lived for a time at the utopian socialist commune known as the Sodus Bay Phalanx. Right across the street there was a historical marker that said that a relative of Susan B. Anthony helped self-freed people escape to Canada from a house on that spot. It was Asa and Huldah Anthony’s house! They were socialists! When I started to explore these extant spaces and the stories of what happened there in the past, it made me feel as though my surroundings took on a new life. Everything seemed brighter and more inspiring. I would pine for that epiphanous EUREKA! moment when I would connect someone, some place or some event that I discovered to something else I was researching. It sent shivers down my spine as I thought to myself, “Oh! That’s what really happened!” This travel journal project is my attempt to share that feeling of pride and empowerment through knowledge that I have felt on my journeys. I hope that readers will take this work as a call for them to explore the sites of radical socialist history near them. You will be surprised, they are everywhere!
Communism is Americanism
I guess the trouble was that we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by the investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew—at least they claimed to be Communists—couldn't have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic.
During the depression and the New Deal era socialist sympathies had reached a historic peak in America and despite the United States’ strategic military alliance with the Soviet Union against fascism, the American capitalist grew afraid of what Marx called “the spectre of communism” haunting the young, entrepreneurial country. Ten days after president Harry S. Truman released the so-called “Truman doctrine” advocating international military intervention for the containment of the spread of communism abroad, he released executive order 9835, the Loyalty Order. The Associated Press said the order affected everyone in government “from the President to the janitor in a small town post office” and effectively made it illegal to be a communist and work for the government. This started a period of Cold War not only internationally, but also domestically. The government, corporations and society at large shunned, blacklisted and in many cases jailed communists and ruined their lives. The House of Unamerican Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts equated communism with the most vile evil and made it difficult for communists, socialists and anarchists to openly espouse their views in America for years to come.
Only recently has the word “socialism” lost the aversive quality it once had. A 2016 Harvard University poll found that 51% of young people, ages 18-29, do not support capitalism and that 33% say they support socialism. In the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary election self-described “democratic socialist” and independent Bernie Sanders earned 43% of the popular vote. The Party for Socialism and Liberation, an American communist party, issued the following statement:
Of major significance is that this massive outpouring of support is for a candidate who calls himself a socialist, in a country whose politics have been for so long dominated by virulent anti-communism and anti-socialism. Throughout the history of the United States, socialist presidential candidates have invariably been relegated to the margins. The fact that in 2015 a candidate who calls himself socialist is drawing huge crowds must be understood as a significant political development, regardless of the fact that his program is not revolutionary.
This is a significant political turning point in American political discourse. However, it is especially important to look to the examples of socialist movements from the American past to put the current status socialism enjoys in context.
The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), under the leadership of Eric Browder, began to use the slogan “Communism is 20th Century Americanism” in order to link communist activities with the venerated revolutionary traditions of Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln. In their 1939 election platform they wrote:
Reactionaries of all shades cry out against socialism. They say it is revolutionary. True, the change to socialism will be revolutionary; but since when is revolution un-American? On the contrary, revolution is one of the most powerful traditions of our people who are among the most revolutionary in the world.
Leader of the Russian Revolution Vladimir Illich Ulyanov Lenin wrote to American workers in 1918, appealing to the rich revolutionary American tradition. Lenin did not believe American workers were fooled by the rich bosses who opposed the Bolsheviks. Lenin wrote:
The history of modern, civilised America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilised” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world….
In January 1865, Marx, Engels and other representatives of the Central Council of the International Workingmen’s Movement wrote to president Abraham Lincoln:
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
Throughout American history the radical left has waged fights in favor of the most oppressed, most downtrodden members of society. Public programs like the Social Security Administration, the New Deal and public education are not socialism. America is not already socialist. However, socialists have indeed worked for these things and successful programs like them exist because socialists agitated for them. The revolutionary traditions of communism, socialism and anarchism have contributed to many rights and freedoms enjoyed by all Americans. Radical leftists continue to lead the charge against reactionism and in favor of progressive change; toward freedom, justice and equality.
Early American Socialists
From America’s founding, radicals who dreamed of a better world fought to shape the course of American politics. The first such radicals were the pre-Marxist utopian socialists who inspired and joined settlements in the “New World.” It may be difficult for post-Cold War readers to believe, but in the 1820s and 40s, many people throughout the country believed the communal spirit was elemental to the American creed.
Utopian socialist thinker Robert Owen was a wealthy industrialist who believed society should be shaped to design an individual’s character. He was a Scottish business man who witnessed the lower condition of his mill workers and determined that such inequality was immoral. Owen had already become a well-known socialist in the United Kingdom. He requested to speak before Congress shortly after arriving in the United States. Congress granted his request. To the elite audience’s bemusement, Owen wasted no time in advocating the overthrow of the economic system. Thomas Jefferson, the second president of the United States, was among the famous dignitaries present that day. Owen aped Jefferson’s own words. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The economic system elite Americans cherished, Owen argued, had become a despotic regime and it desperately needed overthrowing. The young nation could greatly increase liberty if the “national mind” rejected economic tyranny and embraced the “harmonious brotherhood” that his socialist system engendered. Most in his audience thought Owen insane. Owen, however, was determined to prove them wrong by embarking on a series of practical experiments in socialism. In 1824 he invested almost all of his money into a utopian project, New Harmony, that he joined in Indiana. This community espoused the moral, Christian virtues of equality, harmony between all people and freedom of religion. New Harmony became a beacon for those seeking remedies to the rapidly apparent problems of the market revolution. Throughout the 1820s and 30s Owenism swept through America. Radicals formed about a dozen Owenite communes in the middle states of New York and Pennsylvania and on the Western frontier of Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee.
Owen’s legacy stretches beyond even the communities that he started or inspired. Frederich Engels wrote in 1880, “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.” Owen helped push for the first law limiting working hours for women and children in British parliament in 1819. He was the leader of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which attempted to join all trade unions in England into a single federation from 1834 to 1835. He also first introduced the idea of worker owned cooperative businesses in England. Engels explained the significance of these achievements, “These have since that time, at least, given practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary.” Despite preaching harmony, Engels believed Owen made the contradictions between capital and labor even more clear. Owen’s son, Robert Dale, continued to contribute this same legacy to the political development of the United States.
Robert Dale Owen
Robert Dale Owen became a politician in Indiana. He was active with the Workingmen’s Party while living in New York City from 1829 to 1830. After moving back to New Harmony from New York in 1832, Owen served as a Democratic Party member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1835 to 38 and again from 1851 to 53. As a Representative, he introduced the bill that founded the Smithsonian Institution. In 1850, the people of Indiana elected him to Indiana’s Constitutional Convention. Thanks to Robert Dale Owen, the state constitution established the public schooling system in Indiana. Noyes wrote of him, “Robert Dale Owen undoubtedly has been and is the spiritual as well as natural successor of Robert Owen. Wiser and more moderate than his father, he has risen out of the wreck of New Harmony to high stations and great influence in this country.”
Education reform was a key issue to many of the antebellum socialists. Although American educators formed the first public schools in the mid-17th century in New England, colonial education of children primarily took place in the home. By the 1830s, the First International Workingmen’s Movement had reached North America. It was a reaction to the mass production and monopolization of capitalism, which the men and women of the Workingmen’s Movement saw as taking away their way of life. Robert Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, was an organizer with the Workingmen’s Movement in New York City at the time. They believed education would be a fortification for the workers against the growing inequality resulting from monopoly capitalism. In the fall of 1830, the Workingmen of New York City nominated candidates for public office demanding free, public education, arguing, “[U]nless this safeguard of liberty is secured, and by enlightening the mass, the axe of knowledge is laid at the root of aristocracy, there is effected, as it were, nothing. The best labours are lost, and success of the present is ever hazarded in the future.” The “monopoly of talent” was an affront to democratic values. Aristocratic education secured knowledge for the rich and ignorance for the poor. Robert Dale Owen and the Workingmen feared this would create permanent classes and a return to feudalism. By the 1840s, the egalitarian, democratic ideas of the Workingmen had infiltrated the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Responding to the call for economic intervention after the Panic of 1837, the Democrats made education reform a major plank of their 1839 platform.
Robert Owen Senior, too, was extremely interested in educational reform. According to historian Frank T. Carlton:
In the educational scheme exemplified in the New Harmony schools were incorporated a variety of principles and methods, which have finally found, or are finding, lodgment in our public-school system. Nearly a century ago Owen advocated free and universal education. Owen made the kindergarten and the industrial school integral parts of his school system. He urged that classical education, so called, should not be ‘thrust down the throats of all its unwilling victims.’ The ‘school city’ form of government was advocated.
The elder Owen left America in 1827. He had lost £40,000 on his utopian venture in New Harmony. He left a part of New Harmony to his sons. In addition to Robert Dale, Richard, David Dale and William Owen all lived and worked at New Harmony throughout the late 1820s and 30s. By June of 1828, Robert Owen had given up on the communitarian project. He sold and leased individual plots of land to individuals who still wanted to live there.
Josiah Warren left New Harmony in 1828, but by the 1840s had returned and set up a Time Store. Warren rejected the communitarianism of Owen in favor of his own philosophy of individualist anarchism. He denounced the Owenite projects as authoritarian. However, he still held true the notion that one’s character was formed for them, not by them, which had become an axiom of Owenism. Warren wrote:
Being subject to the influence of the circumstances around me, and being liable to be moulded by them, whether true or false, right or wrong, and having nothing to protect me from error and misery, but the knowledge which I may require of these circumstances, and the use I may make of this knowledge, I shall begin to analyze the circumstances around me and learn to distinguish the good from the evil; and as I have heretofore been misled by false instruction and by bad example, I shall claim the free exercise of my own judgment with regard to my own opinions and my own conduct.
Warren argued individual discernment, not social control, should be the basis of a harmonious society. He called the Time Store by that name because it accepted “labor notes” in exchange for items. The notes represented a certain number of labor hours. The price of an item represented the number of labor hours required to produce the item plus the clerk’s fee. The clerk calculated their fee by starting a large clock when the customer entered the establishment and stopping it when the customer was finished shopping. The clerk then translated the number of minutes they performed customer service into labor hours and added it to the customer’s total. Warren did not believe in community of property as Owen did. He based his Time Store on Adam Smith's labor theory of value. Warren believed merchants must base prices on the amount of labor it takes to make them, not market or commodity exchange value. He was an extreme individualist. Warren’s Time Store exemplified the modified form of capitalism that he advocated. The town was set up with the explicit intention of establishing fairness and equality in business and commerce. Although the project did not last long, it was exemplary of the open-minded, revolutionary spirit of the young nation.
1824 portrait of Frances Wright by Henry Inman
Nashoba was another Owen-inspired utopian community in Tennessee. Abolitionist Frances “Fanny” Wright founded the colony in 1825. Apparently, “Fanny Wright” became a pejorative term after Nashoba’s failure and the Skaneateles Community were targets of the invective phrase. Despite its eventual failure, Nashoba was remarkable for being the first American utopian experiment to tie abolitionism with socialism. According to utopian chronicler A. J. MacDonald, who visited Nashoba in the 1830s:
The objects were, to form a Community in which the negro slave should be educated and upraised to a level with the whites, and thus prepared for freedom; and to set an example, which, if carried out, would eventually abolish slavery in the Southern States; also to make a home for good and great men and women of all countries, who might there sympathize with each other in their love and labor for humanity.
Fanny Wright and her supporters purchased slaves at auctions and attempted to educate them in self-reliance and communal living to prepare them for life as free people. MacDonald visited the colony in 1825 and reported, “She invited congenial minds from every quarter of the globe to unite with her in the search for truth and the pursuit of rational happiness.” Wright attempted to draw on the popularity of social reform to make a practical difference in the struggle against slavery.
Religious communism inspired Wright's plan. She visited sectarian religious communes throughout the South, including those of the United Believers in Christ’s Second Coming or Shakers and the Harmony Society, known as Rappites after their founder Johann Georg Rapp. Both groups had practiced bible-based communism since the beginning of the 19th century. Eventually, Wright studied the projects of the non-religious, freethinking Owenites at New Harmony, Indiana. She concluded a socialist system similar to those practiced by the communities she visited was best suited to help blacks achieve their emancipation.
The community failed the same way most of the Owenite projects did. It fell into financial ruin because it could not generate profitable income. The response from the accounting trustees of Nashoba was to abandon the Owenite notion that a person's character was created for them, not by them. In 1828, the trustees of Nashoba published a declaration that undermined the abolitionist aspect of the project. Wright explains:
They [the trustees] show the impossibility of a co-operative Community succeeding without the members composing it are [sic] superior beings; ‘for,’ say they, ‘if there be introduced into such a society thoughts of evil and unkindness, feelings of intolerance and words of dissension, it can not prosper.’ That which produces in the world only common-place jealousies and every-day squabbles, is sufficient to destroy a Community.
She clarified, “superior beings” were those with “moral qualifications..., who may be admitted without regard to color,” who are able to pay $100 per year for board and could build their own house. This price would have been virtually impossible for enslaved people to raise. The decree effectively ended the Nashoba experiment’s practical abolitionism.
Another pre-Marxist socialist who inspired utopian communities throughout the young American nation was the French philosopher Charles Fournier. His ideas led to the formation of many utopian communities throughout the young United States, most notably Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the North American Phalanx in New Jersey. Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Weekly Tribune who would later run for president against Ulysses S. Grant was one of Fourier’s most enthusiastic disciples. Greeley was the son of a New Hampshire farmer. In the 1820s, his father hit “bad times” and creditors and police began to hound him. The Greeley family moved from place to place throughout the 1820s. Horace struggled to support himself until in 1826, at the age of fifteen, he took a printer’s apprenticeship in Poultney, Vermont. The apprenticeship made him a servant, beholden to a master. After his term of servitude ended, he went cautiously into the precarity of wage work. Luckily, he made his way to New York City, where he found success in the printing business. However, the struggles of his modest upbringing followed him. A rival newspaper editor wrote of him:
The editor of the Tribune is the son of a poor and humble farmer; came to New York a minor, without a friend within 200 miles, less than ten dollars in his pocket, and precious little besides; hes has never had a dollar from a relative, and has for years labored under a load of debt, (thrown on him by others’ misconduct and the revulsion of 1837) which he can now just see to the end of.
Greeley, although now a wealthy New York City socialite, still wore the scars of a son of the working class. His economic rivals never missed an opportunity to remind him of his humble beginnings. The Panic of 1837 destined Greeley to be on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed. He would dedicate himself to this cause for the rest of his life.
In 1839 Greeley wrote “a series of articles entitled ‘What shall be done for the laborer?’” He fatefully acquainted himself with Fourierist agitator Albert Brisbane the same year. Greeley continues, “I believe these [articles] attracted the attention of Mr. Albert Brisbane, a young man of liberal education and varied culture, a native of Batavia, N.Y., which he still regarded as his home, but who had traveled widely and observed thoughtfully; making the acquaintance in Paris of… Charles Fourier….” In 1842, Greeley allowed Brisbane to purchase a regular column in his widely read New York Weekly Tribune for $500.
Albert Brisbane was on the front lines of the economic and cultural changes taking place in Western New York from his birth. He was born in 1809 in Batavia, New York. Batavia, about 35 miles west of Rochester, was America’s frontier at the turn of the 19th century. Foreign speculation was responsible for its emergence. Joseph Ellicott, a surveyor for the Dutch investment group the Holland Land Company, founded the town in 1802. In his autobiography Brisbane remarks that the founders of Batavia were ex-Quakers and “men of liberal views.” Albert’s father, James Brisbane, came to Batavia with the Holland Land Company early on. He got a loan from the company to start a store. By 1821, he had made over a half a million dollars from investing in land. Young Albert enjoyed the freedom of frontier life. He owned three guns at the age of ten and his parents allowed him to wander the forests hunting and riding horses. At the age of fifteen he had a sudden “spontaneous intuition” while hunting. Brisbane recalled:
I remember standing on the bridge that crosses the little creek at Batavia one day, and musing as I threw pebbles into the water and observed the widening, rippling circles as they started from the center. New problems were forming themselves in my mind, though not yet brought clearly and definitely to the touchstone of consciousness. This solitary musing took possession of me. The intuitions of the mind were gradually molding their external expression, and it finally came in this shape: What is the work of man on this earth? What was he put here for, and what has he to do? I said to myself: If the individual man does not know what the work of the collective man is, he has no guide to his career. It seemed to me that I belonged to a vast army in which each individual had his place and function, and that those who left the rank to attend to individual concerns could not advance in the great achievement to which they were destined. The army was Humanity. I was a soldier in its ranks.
From that day on a sense of duty to the so-called army of humanity drove Brisbane to action. He studied in New York City and became interested in philosophy. In May 1828, his parents agreed to send him to France. During an intermission at the Paris Opera, Brisbane had a second revelation. He went out to get some ice cream and had an internal dialogue:
‘Who pays for this ice cream?
Brisbane thought about this for some time until he concluded, “a certain class in society live on the labor of the masses….” He realized that he was of that class that benefits from the work of others. These two revelations led Brisbane on a lifelong philosophical journey to find a form of society that elevated the whole of humanity and did away with contradictions between the classes. The journey first led him to Germany, in search of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Then, in 1830, he travelled to Turkey, Greece, Ireland and finally back to France. Brisbane studied the French utopian thinker Saint-Simon, but was not fully satisfied. Finally, after reading Charles Fourier’s A Treatise on Domestic and Agricultural Association, which a friend had sent him, Brisbane found his prophet. He wrote, “...I came to the following phrase printed in large type: ‘Attractive Industry.’ Those two words made on me an indescribable impression…. I sprang to my feet, threw down the book, and began pacing the floor in a tumult of emotions.” The idea that a planned economic system could organize work so that it was dignified and pleasant was a compelling revelation.
In May 1832, Brisbane finally met Fourier at the offices of the Fourierist publication La Réforme industrielle in Paris. He paid him for private lessons in his theory. Brisbane returned to the United States in 1834. He first began his Fourierist agitation in Western New York, convincing sarsaparilla seller and druggist C. C. Bristol to support eight editions of the first Phalanx newspaper. In 1839, he formed a Fourier society in New York City. In 1840, he published Social Destiny of Man; or, Association and Reorganization of Industry, the first complete survey of Fourier’s philosophy in English. In 1842, Greeley allowed Brisbane to purchase a regular column in his widely read New York Weekly Tribune for $500. Brisbane adapted Fourier’s theories to the sensibilities of an American audience, focusing mainly on his economic program and avoiding his libertine sexual ideas and other peculiar beliefs. He spoke to Americans about social problems that affected them, not about the symphonies of the cosmos and human tail evolution that preoccupied Fourier the Frenchman.
By 1841, Greeley completely converted to the gospel of Fourier as translated by Brisbane. He explained, “Association affirms that every child born into the world has a rightful claim upon the community around him for subsistence, until able to earn for himself an education, which shall enable him to ear efficiently, as well as rightly to improve and enjoy; and for the opportunity to earn at all times, by ones industry, steadily employed and justly remunerated.” Greeley believed Brisbane’s preoccupation was a natural solution to the problems presented by the crisis of 1837.
Albert Brisbane translated Charles Fourier into English and published his treatises in easily distributable pamphlets. He made French radicalism palatable to the Christian Yankees that opposed slavery, but were turned off by Fourier’s views on free love. Most importantly, Brisbane made Fourierism make sense to both the proletariat and petit bourgeois victims of the Panic of 1837. Brisbane believed associated industry offered to secure prosperity for all, regardless of class, educate the masses, drive innovation and enculture morality. If it could offer even a fraction of its promises, it was certainly worth attempting. Brisbane wrote in 1843:
If a Social Reform can be effected, which will dignify Industry and render it attractive, increase immensely production or real wealth - secure abundance to the Poor and permanent prosperity to the Rich - extend the refining and elevating influence of superior education to all - widen the sphere of intellectual existence and combine the pleasures of Art and Science and social Life with the pursuits of useful Industry, how desirable would be the result, and how worthy of the persevering efforts of men of pure motives and exalted ambition.
Larger than life philosophers like Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley did not sway everyone. The Nothingarians, so-called because they did not claim to follow any leader or ideology, of the Northampton Association followed a path led not by ideology, but by their own sense of business practicality. They saw individual entrepreneurship as inherently reckless and unstable. Large-scale industry required collective investment and cooperative labor in order to avoid unscrupulousness and over adventurous capitalism. Most of the Northampton Association’s founding members were industrialists or farmers who had lost money in the Panic of 1837. Several were silk manufacturers. During the Panic of 1837, many investors felt it was responsible to invest in the silk trade. A second economic bubble burst in 1839, decimating the silk industry. Farmers and silk manufacturers scrambled to figure out what to do. The Northampton Association bought what remained of the Northampton Silk Company in 1841, hoping to profit from the once lucrative industry while avoiding the instability of capital markets. They believed communal association would provide the security they sought. According to historian Chris Clark, “As former manufacturers and traders, they sought not to overthrow the existing economic system, but to organize it on more stable and equitable principles.” The Northampton Association was, as John Humphrey Noyes claims, a preparation for Fourierism. Fourierism sought to produce harmony and security in labor relations, not to exacerbate class struggle. The Northampton Association was Nothinarian, but their rational inquiry led them as close to the Fourierist system as they could be while still claiming to espouse “nothing.”
Many in the Northampton Association were Garrisonian abolitionists prior to their involvement in associated industry. Economic factors forced the abolitionist movement to undergo its own tactical and theoretical Panic of 1837. Massachusetts capitalist, evangelical Christian and abolitionist Arthur Tappan had been a valuable financier of the Massachusetts anti-slavery movement. Tappan made a great deal of money during the Market Revolution in the 1820s from his silk importing business in New York City. New Yorkers knew Tappan to connect business and religion. He demanded his employees live in Christian boarding houses and attend church every week. Like utopian socialist Robert Owen, who attempted to put his utopian ideals into practice at his textile factory in New Lanark, Scotland, Tappan attempted to blend business and his belief in the reorganization of society. By the early 1830s, Tappan became a financier of Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper the Liberator and the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). However, on May 1, 1837 the silk bubble burst and Tappan had to declare bankruptcy. The abolitionist movement in Massachusetts went into a panic. They lost their largest financial backer. Tappan led a walkout of evangelicals at the 1840 meeting of the American Antislavery Society protesting women’s involvement in the group. Garrison and other Massachusetts radicals who were in favor of women in antislavery leadership, loosed from Tappan’s patronage, saw an opportunity. They reevaluated their tactics. They began to reject as wholly corrupt everything they considered “worldly." This included governments and institutional churches.
William Lloyd Garrison
Garrison increasingly advocated nonresistance, a form of nonviolent civil disobedience, and anarchistic no-government ideas. In 1852, Garrison explained, “Non-Resistance is not a state of passivity, on the contrary, it is a state of activity, ever fighting the good fight of faith, ever foremost to assail unjust power, ever struggling for ‘liberty, equality, fraternity,’ in no national sense, but in a world-wide spirit. It is passive only in this sense — that it will not return evil for evil, nor give blow for blow, nor resort to murderous weapons for protection or defense.” Many interpreted Garrison’s plea for nonresistance not as a call to reject all institutions. Christopher Clark argues, “Though they attacked existing ‘human government,’ they sought to establish the ‘government of God’ and social institutions that could embody it.” Christian perfectionism influenced the nonresistance and no-government advocates to build better institutions that could respond to the challenges of the day. Clark concludes, “Nonresistance in this form led not to a rejection of institutions as such but to a search for new social organizations uncorrupted by existing evils.” At least twenty of the Northampton Association’s founders were non-resistance advocates. John A. Collins and John O. Wattles of the Skaneateles Community were also advocates of nonresistance and no-government principles.
The early utopian communities mostly ended abruptly, exposing weaknesses in this form of socialism. Frederick Engles wrote of Fournier and Owen in 1880:
Not one of them appears as a representative of the interests of that proletariat which historical development had... produced. Like the French philosophers, they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once. Like them, they wish to bring in the kingdom of reason and eternal justice, but this kingdom, as they see it, is as far as Heaven from Earth, from that of the French philosophers.
Oneida Community leader John Humphrey Noyes’ volume A History of American Socialisms is the most extensive history of the early American socialist movement. Noyes established the Oneida Community in 1848. He hoped to take the best parts of the religious and non-religious utopian societies and apply them to his own “bible communist” utopia. In order to fulfill this task, Noyes researched previously existing communities. In 1869, he wrote one of the most comprehensive histories of 19th century American socialism that exists to this day. Noyes compiled it only a few short years after the dissolution of many of the projects it describes. Noyes draws on extensive primary evidence including utopian chronicler A. J. MacDonald's unpublished eyewitness manuscript, socialist newspapers from the period, letters and phalanx documents.
Much of this evidence is still extant. Scholars have not explored much of it since historian Arthur Eugene Bestor Jr.’s research in the 1940s. Bestor wrote, “Of all the freedoms for which American stood, none was more significant for history than the freedom to experiment with new practices and new institutions.” Freedom of religion was codified into the first the United States Constitution in 1788, but religious groups fleeing persecution in Europe were making pilgrimages to the New World as early as the 1630s. While violent religious disputes made social experimentation heresy punishable by death and expulsion in Europe, settlers in the colonies enjoyed the freedom to organize society as they pleased. Bestor explained, “What remained mere speculation in the Old World had a way of becoming reality in the New.” The refugees of European intolerance created communities based on their utopian visions in America, a site uniquely situated to allow social experimentation. The young nation was susceptible to radical social experimentation from its founding.
Noyes, like Bestor, argued the utopian socialist movement in America was a continuation of the Second Great Awakening and the teachings of Charles Finney. While many of the socialists of the Owenite and Fourierist periods were atheists or freethinkers, the earlier and more institutional communist societies were religious. The Shakers, the Zoarites and the Amanas all lived communally in America before Robert Owen first visited in 1824. Noyes believed socialism should not be separate from religion. The revivalist religious tradition inspired individuals to reform their souls. For John Humphrey Noyes, only religion provides sufficient “afflatus” or collective motivation to carry out the work that socialism requires.
Marx and Engels wrote about the experimental communes throughout the United States (US) during the 1830s-1840s. They devoted a whole section of their influential Manifesto of the Communist Party to a critique of utopian socialism. In an 1844 letter, Engels wrote, “For communism, social existence and activity based on community of goods, is not only possible but has actually already been realised [sic] in many communities in America… with the greatest success….” Engels cheered the utopian movements in the United States. However, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, he critiqued this early kind of socialism as utopian and unscientific. He describes utopianisms as “pictures of ideal social conditions.” Almost all the utopian communes in the United States failed quickly and miserably. Lack of pragmatism, planning and accounting for the ruthlessness of the market belie the failures of the utopian socialist projects. Nevertheless, Engels pointed to another factor as the main reason for the failure of the utopians. The leaders were not representatives of the working class. They sought to uplift the condition of all classes and believed there was a chance to reconcile the contradictions between capital and labor. It is ironic that Engels would take such a position since he himself was the son of a factory owner. Engels, despite ruthlessly critiquing utopian socialist projects in the United States, acknowledged them as foundational to the later, more politically influential, Marxist conceptualization of communism.
Karl Marx found fellow travelers at Horace Greeley’s New York Weekly Tribune. Charles A. Dana was managing editor of the Tribune at the time. Dana had also been a Fourierist. He lived at the Fourierist commune at Brook Farm in Massachusetts from 1841 to 1846. By 1846, Dana became disillusioned with Fourierism and became interested in the work of Marx’s rival, French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In 1848, Dana met Marx in Cologne.
Charles A. Dana
Dana was enthusiastic about signing Marx up as a correspondent for the Tribune. The European Revolutions of 1848 had shook the Fourierist foundational belief in the possibility of harmony between capital and labor. Dana and others were eager to discover other strains of socialist thought. The Tribune ended up being the most lucrative employment Marx enjoyed in his entire life. Between October 1861 and March 1862, Marx wrote his last nine pieces for the Tribune. All nine dealt with the American Civil War.For Marx and Engels the struggle against slavery was essential to the progressive material and social development of the United States. Early American socialism had been a harmonious cooperation between the proletariat and the petit bourgeoisie. However, as the 19th century wore on, the issue of slavery would make class contradictions more clear and class struggle more militant. In 1864, Marx and Engels wrote to Abraham Lincoln:
While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.
Communists would play key roles in the struggles against slavery and racism. Joseph Weydemeyer, widely considered the first American Marxist, was a military officer in the Kingdom of Prussia prior to coming to the United States. In 1846 he came into contact with Marx’s works and discovered them to be in line with his own thinking. In 1851 Weydemeyer arrived in New York as a political exile and began to distribute Marx and Engels’ writings. In 1861 he moved to Missouri to join the effort to fight the Confederates and by 1864 had become a Colonel in the Union army. His leadership was key in the emancipation of St. Louis and the prevention of annexation of Missouri by the Confederates.
August Willich was another German-American communist who fought in the Civil War. Willich then led a “left wing” faction of “True Socialists” that, in 1850, split from the Communist League over disagreements with Marx. In 1853, Willich immigrated to the United States. Willich enlisted in the first call to arms of the American Civil War in 1861 with the first German regiment, which later became the ninth Ohio regiment. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, so impressed with Willich’s service, requested he take command as colonel of the 32nd Indiana Infantry Regiment. The 32nd saw action at Shiloh and repelled an attack by Texas Rangers on November 26, 1861. Confederates captured Willich at the battle of Stone River, December 31, 1862, but they paroled him in exchange for a Confederate prisoner of war in 1863. Willich met president Lincoln in May of that year. He remained active in many important Civil War battles and he rose quickly through the Union Army ranks. The army gave him the rank of major general on October 21, 1865. After the war, he became the auditor for Hamilton County, Ohio. Despite their disagreements, Marx felt moved to write about him, “In the Civil War in North America, Willich showed that he is more than a visionary.”
Marx was optimistic about the “American Antislavery War.” He argued the emancipation of black chattel slaves would lead to a new ascendancy for the working class. He even argued a nonviolent proletarian revolution was possible in America after the Civil War. According to Marx, if they were politically enfranchised, freed blacks could join with impoverished farmers to create a strong labor party that could take state power without a violent uprising. Marxist historian Robert Blackburn writes that according to Marx, “Defeating the slave power and freeing the slaves would not destroy capitalism, but it would create conditions far more favorable to organizing and elevating labor, whether white or black.” Although Marx’s dream of a non-violent proletarian revolution did not come to fruition, the Civil War did lead to new opportunities for the American working class. His predictions came partially true in 1866, a year after the official end of the fighting, when American workers formed the National Labor Union (NLU), the first national labor federation in America. The NLU opened new avenues of collective power for workers. However, the emergence of labor organizations was not the only sign of hope for a positive outcome for black and white workers after the American Civil War. Since the Southern bourgeoisie considered chattel slaves property, not humans, emancipation of blacks from Southern slavery would mean one of the greatest expropriations of private property from the bourgeoisie in human history. The Southern slave owners would have their wealth (slaves) seized and redistributed to the working class (emancipated blacks).
Unfortunately, the Compromise of 1877 would put an end to Marx’s prophesied anti-racist, social democratic South. Following the collapse of Reconstruction, the Southern racists instituted the “Jim Crow” system of segregation. White and black Communists militantly opposed segregation. One of the earliest struggles for civil rights in the Jim Crow south was what came to be known as the “Scottsboro boys” trial. The so-called “Scottsboro boys” were nine black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in 1931. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) intervened in the trial, considering it a travesty of justice and indicative of the racism of the Jim Crow south. According to James Goodman in Stories of Scottsboro the CPUSA was instrumental in bringing the injustice of this case to the public’s attention. He wrote:
Only after the [CPUSA] brought the truth about Alabama's legal lynching to the world's attention did the NAACP step in, and even then it could conceive of the case as nothing more than a rape case: the organization could set no goal greater than the 'legalistic illusion' of a fair trial. It could not see that there was 'no such thing as a "fair trial" of the Negro boy accused of rape in an Alabama court,' dominated as that court was by the southern ruling class. Nor could it see that 'behind the ghastly crime of the frame-up' was 'the whole question of the exploitation, persecution, disfranchisement, and constant murder of Negroes.’
In 1961 the late civil rights activist and scholar W. E. B. Dubois applied to become a member of the CPUSA. He wrote in a letter to Gus Hall, the Party’s chairperson at the time:
Today I have reached my conclusion:
Dubois’ conversion led civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to say, in his eulogy to Dubois, in 1968:
We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.
The Marxist-Leninist idea of a revolutionary vanguard would go on to inspire American black leaders to conclude that black power and community self defense were necessary to achieve liberation. Rob Williams, a leader in the NAACP, was one of the first black militants to advocate armed community self defense. In 1961, the same year Dubois joined the CPUSA, Williams fled to Cuba and then to China to avoid a trumped up kidnapping charge. Williams wrote of Socialist Cuba:
When I realized that I would not be safe in Canada, I remembered my two trips to Cuba. I could think of no other place in the Western Hemisphere where a Negro would be treated as a human being, where the race problem would be understood, and where people would not look upon me as a criminal but as a victim of a trumped-up charge - a charge designed to crush the militant leaders who were beginning to form a new movement, a new militant movement designed for the total liberation of the Afro-Americans.
Rob Williams was highly influential to one of the most prominent communist parties in American history: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). The BPP was founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. In addition to teaching classes on armed self defense and Maoism, the BPP had an extensive “survival” program. Services under this program included free breakfast for school children, free tuberculosis clinics, drug and alcohol addiction counseling and free grocery programs. Although the FBI’s brutal and violent Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was successful in destroying the BPP, many of their “survival program” services became institutions that still exist today.
The Black Panthers linked the oppression of black people in America to the exploitative system of capitalism. They were among the first black radicals to synthesize black nationalism and Marxism-Leninism and to tie the struggle of what BPP minister of information Eldridge Cleaver described as the “black colony” with the anti-colonial struggles in Cuba, China and Vietnam. Many in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement today are still inspired by this idea. Most exemplary are the BLM activists who say “Assata taught me,” referring to Black Panther activist Assata Shakur who is still living in exile in Cuba.
These are only a few examples of the tenacious, militant work done by Communists, the fruits of which were the abolition of slavery, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts and community defense against American Fascist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Communists and revolutionary socialists continue to be involved in and an inspiration to black liberation movements today including those opposing police brutality and mass incarceration, advocating affirmative action, educational desegregation and reparations for slavery.
There are many more examples of communist and socialist involvement in the early feminist, indigenous sovereignty, workers’ rights, New Deal, integration, LGBT rights and welfare rights movements. American socialists fought for and won many of the freedoms Americans enjoy today including the public educational system, unions, the New Deal, temporary cash assistance, Section 8 housing, SNAP, Medicaid, Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, OSHA, EPA, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, academic freedom, the 14th, 15th and 26th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The truth is, if you’re American, you have more reason to thank a communist for your freedom than you do a soldier. American communists stand on the shoulders of giants. We have a rich history of which we should be proud. Far from being ashamed of being Americans, we should proudly declare that we are the nation of Tekanawíta the Great Peacemaker, Robert Owen, Albert Brisbane, John Humphrey Noyes, Sojourner Truth, Joseph Weydemeyer, August Willich, Peter H. Clark, William Z. Foster, James W. Ford, Daniel DeLeon, Earl Browder, Eugene V. Debs, Joe Hill, John Reed, Harry Haywood, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Agnes Smedley and countless other American socialist heroes.
My travels have attempted to regain a sense of pride in my place of birth and to restore a sense of wonder and excitement to our late-capitalist American landscape. Revisiting the sites where some of the most revolutionary events of American history occurred reinvigorates the mundanity of the present with electrical echoes of the radical past. I hope this work will inspire you, the reader, to visit the sacred sites of militant American history near you, record your feeling of re-electrification and pride in the places where you are from and share it with the world.
 John Steinbeck, “A Primer on the 30’s,” Esquire, 1960, 21.
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Accessed 14 August 2017.
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International Journal of Socialist Review, http://links.org.au/node/3674 Accessed 14
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Mitchell K. Jones is a historian and activist from Rochester, NY. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in history from the College at Brockport, State University of New York. He has written on utopian socialism in the antebellum United States. His research interests include early America, communal societies, antebellum reform movements, religious sects, working class institutions, labor history, abolitionism and the American Civil War. His master’s thesis, entitled “Hunting for Harmony: The Skaneateles Community and Communitism in Upstate New York: 1825-1853” examines the radical abolitionist John Anderson Collins and his utopian project in Upstate New York. Jones is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
Lenin Went to Dance in the Snow to Celebrate the Paris Commune and the Soviet Republic: The Twenty-First Newsletter (2021). By: Vijay PrashadRead Now
Jorge Luis Rodríguez Aguilar (Cuba), Paris Commune 150, 2021.
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
On 28 May 1871, one hundred and fifty years ago, the Paris Commune collapsed after seventy-two days. The workers of Paris created the Commune on 18 March, building on the wave of revolutionary optimism that first lapped on the shores of France in 1789 and then again in 1830 and 1848. The immediate spur for the Commune was Prussia’s victory over France in a futile war. Two days after Emperor Napoleon III surrendered to Helmuth von Moltke, the rattled generals and politicians in Paris formed the Third Republic (1870-1940). But these men – such as General Louis-Jules Trochu (President of the Government of National Defence, 1870-1871) and Adolphe Thiers (President of France, 1871-1873) – could not control the tide of history. The people of Paris pushed them aside and formed a government of their own. They created, in other words, the legendary Paris Commune.
All eyes turned to Paris, although Paris was not the only site of such an uprising by workers and artisans. The cutlery workers of Thiers and silk workers of Lyon took control of their cities for a brief period (only hours in Thiers), but they nonetheless sensed that the failure of the bourgeois government had to be met by a government of the workers. Their agendas were varied, their capacity to get them implemented chequered, but what united the Paris Commune with these rebellions across France, and with many others around the world, was the claim that silk workers and cutlery workers, bakers and weavers, could govern society without the leadership of the bourgeoisie. For the working class of Paris, it was clear by 1870 that the bourgeois politicians and the generals had sent them to die in the battlefields of Sedan, had capitulated to Prussian demands, and had then made the working class pay the costs of the war. The wreck of France had to be taken in hand by the workers.
Junaina Muhammed (India), Paris Commune 150, 2021.
A few weeks after the defeat of the Paris Commune, Karl Marx wrote a brief pamphlet on its experiences for the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association. This text, Der Bürgerkrieg in Frankreich (‘The Civil War in France’), judged the uprising for what it was, namely a remarkable demonstration of the possibility of a socialist society and the importance for that society to create its own state structures. Marx, who understood fully well the zigs and zags of history, recognised that, despite the massacre conducted by the bourgeoisie when it retook Paris, the dynamic that began with the 1789 Revolution and that was carried forward by the Paris Commune in 1871 could not be stopped: the old hierarchies inherited from the past and the new hierarchies forged by capitalism were intolerable to the democratic spirit.
From the ashes of the Paris Commune would rise the next experiment with socialist democracy, which would likely fall, and then from that would arise the next experiment. Such experiments, promoted by the International, emerged out of the contradictions of modern society. ‘It cannot be stamped out by any amount of carnage’, Marx wrote. ‘To stamp it out, the Governments would have to stamp out the despotism of capital over labour – the conditions of their own parasitical existence’.
Philani E. Mhlungu (South Africa), Paris Commune 150, 2021.
The Paris Commune of 1871 remains vital to our political imagination, its lessons a necessary part of our processes today. That is why twenty-seven publishers – from Indonesia to Slovenia to Argentina – have gathered together to produce the commemorative book Paris Commune 150 (which will be available for download in eighteen languages from fifteen countries on 28 May). The book gathers together Marx’s essay, Vladimir Lenin’s discussion of that essay (from State and Revolution, 1918), and two explanatory essays on the context and culture of the Commune from myself and Tings Chak, lead designer and researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
In 1918, on the seventy-third day of the October Revolution and the Soviet Republic, Vladimir Lenin left his office in the Smolny Institute (Petrograd) and danced in the snow. He celebrated the fact that the Soviet experiment had outlasted that of the Paris Commune. Five days later, Lenin addressed the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets, where he said that their Commune had outlasted that of Paris 1871 because of the ‘more favourable circumstances’ in which the ‘Russian soldiers, workers, and peasants were able to create the Soviet Government’. They did not maintain the old Tsarist state with its oppressive habits; instead, they created a new ‘apparatus which informed the whole world of their methods of struggle’. These methods included drawing in the various key classes to the ‘long, more or less difficult transitional period’ that is required to forge a socialist society. Every defeat – of the Paris Commune in 1871 and, later, of the USSR – is a school for working people. Every attempt to build socialism teaches us lessons for our next experiment. This is why we bring you this book not on the first day of the Commune, but on the day of its defeat, a day of reflection on the Commune itself and on the lessons that emerged from it.
Paris Commune 150 is the most recent fruit of an informal group called the International Union of Left Publishers (IULP), which emerged out of a conversation in New Delhi amongst left publishers in India. We decided in early 2019 to confront the attacks on left writers and publishers by holding a day to celebrate the contributions of ‘red’ books. Joined by two publishers from South America (Brazil’s Expressão Popular and Argentina’s Batalla de Ideas), we called for public readings of the Communist Manifesto to be held on 21 February, the day of the publication of that book in 1848. Since 21 February also happens to be International Mother Language Day, we decided to ask people to read the Manifesto in their own languages. In 2020 and 2021, tens of thousands of people joined together in public and online to commemorate Red Books Day by reading the Manifesto and discussing this vibrant text. We hope that, like May Day, this day becomes part of the cultural calendar of people’s movements.
The experience of Red Books Day 2020 brought our publishing group into more projects, such as the joint publication of special books. The IULP has thus far released three of these joint books, in addition to Paris Commune 150:
Each of the publishing houses used the same cover for these books. For Paris Commune 150, the Art Department decided to hold a cover contest; forty-one artists from fifteen countries submitted work towards the cover. We are holding an online exhibition of the forty-one submissions, almost as many as the forty-seven artists who gathered inside the Commune to establish the Federation of Artists in 1871.
Two images struck us as the best for the book. The cover is by the Cuban artist Jorge Luis Rodríguez Aguilar, head of the Department of Graphic and Digital Art at the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts in Havana. The back cover is by Kerala’s Junaina Muhammed of the Students Federation of India and the Young Socialist Artists collective. It is fitting that the artists are from Cuba and from Kerala, two places where the experiment of the Commune sizzle.
Not long after the Paris Commune, uprisings occurred in the French colonies of Algeria and New Caledonia. In both places, the example of the Paris Commune was paramount. Mohammed el-Mokrani, who led the Arab and Kabyle uprising in March 1871, and Ataï, who led the Kanak uprising in New Caledonia in 1878, sang the songs of the communards only to fall to the guns of the French. Louise Michel, who was imprisoned in New Caledonia for her role in the Paris Commune, tore her red scarf into pieces and shared them with the Kanak rebels. Of the Kanak’s stories, she wrote:
The Kanak storyteller, if he is in high spirits, if he is not hungry, and if the night is beautiful, adds to a tale, and others add more after him, and the same legend passes through various mouths and various tribes, sometimes becoming something completely different from what it was at first.
We tell the story of the Paris Commune as the Kanak told their stories: the legend growing from the seventy-two days, expanding into the Soviets and the Guangzhou Commune of 1927, becoming something completely different, even more different, and even more beautiful.
The Commune sustains an electrical political charge in our time. In Venezuela, communes forged in the barrios (‘neighbourhoods’) have been central to the constitution of new ideas and material forces pushing society forward. In South Africa, the eKhenena (‘Canaan’) land occupation in Durban, which is facing sustained repression, is a commune where democratic self-management has provided social services, established agricultural projects, and built a political school used by activists across the country.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including "The Darker Nations" and "The Poorer Nations." His latest book is "Washington Bullets," with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.
This article was first published by The Tricontinental.
“The error of the Italian Communist Party lies mainly in the fact that it sees fascism only as a military-terrorist movement, not as a mass movement with deep social roots”, Clara Zetkin warned in 1923. She was referring to a passively materialist understanding of the political phenomenon in question: the abstract assimilation of fascism to a determinate stage of capitalism, springing from an over-evaluation of objective and infrastructural forces and a corresponding devaluation of subjective and superstructural factors - from an evolutionary, analytically predetermined as opposed to an authentically historical way of thinking.
Zetkin’s words are relevant even today. Instead of analyzing the rise of the Right as a mass movement, vast swathes of progressive forces have been content to facilely frame it as an aberration to liberal democracy or reductively recognize it as a mere tool for the ruling class. While the former does not acknowledge the fascistic character of the contemporary Right (using terms like “populism” or “authoritarianism”), the latter reduces the dynamics of the political sphere to an epiphenomenon of the economic base. We need to go beyond these knee-jerk and moralistic responses and comprehend how the fascist onslaught is both culturally rooted and economically anchored in the wider arena of socio-historic forces.
In every country, the bourgeoisie rules only so long as decisive sectors of the citizenry identify with their favored politico-economic system, are ready to work for them, to vote for them, to shoot others on their behalf, all in the conviction that their own interests demand the preservation of the capitalist order. When the ruling class fails to stitch this national-popular hegemonic will, a legitimacy crisis sets in. In the 20th century, this kind of crisis was resolved by jettisoning the architecture of liberalism and paving the way for fascism. This was due to four broad conditions: the experience of the First World War, the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of mass socialist parties, and the emergence of a repertoire of cultural themes exalting the values of race, community or nation over those of the individual and of reason.
As is evident, fascism is always an open possibility as long as capitalism exists. It is a modern form of the (preemptive) capitalist counter-revolution wearing a popular mask. Now, the question is: what lends popularity to fascism? By posing this question, we are already negating the mechanically materialist conception of fascism: fascism percolates away in the mass of the population long before it is institutionalized. The attitudes, the practices, the micro-fascisms, the molecules of fascism that eventually bond into a molar fascist dictatorship, pre-date its formal establishment.
The main reason behind fascism’s appeal lies in its emotional viscerality. In 1909, Trotsky wrote the following about the pogrom-mobilizations of October 1905 by the monarchist Black Hundreds: “Now this man without shoes has become king. An hour ago he was a trembling slave hounded by the police and by hunger. Now he feels like an absolute despot, he can do anything he likes, everything will pass, he is master of life and death. If he feels the urge to do so, he throws an old woman from the window of the third floor to the pavements below, he smashes the skull of a baby with a chair, he rapes a small girl in front of a crowd of people. He shrinks from none of the tortures which only a brain driven mad with liquor and frenzy could contrive. For he can do anything he likes, everything will pass. God bless the Tsar!” As members of fascist bands, the obscure subaltern is suddenly wrenched from being non-entity to becoming a powerful actor in whose hands lies the fate of his/her fellow human beings.
The labeling of the current conjuncture as “fascist” derives from a dynamic theorization of the term. Fascism is a non-programmatic style of politics. Liberalism, socialism and conservatism are in principle all based on cognitively assessable claims and universal truths about the present state of the world and its future possibilities. With them it is natural to speak of a relationship between means and ends, tactics or strategy and the goals at which these aim. Fascist ideology does not possess this structure.
It primarily relies upon emotional mobilization behind the charisma of its leaders, and the call to destiny of the race or nation. It tends to combine a certain number of democratic appeals - the people, the nation, participation, community, and the masses - with a species of aristocratic elitism, condensed in the decisive heroism of some mythical figures or groups. Thus, fascism merges the will of the people with charismatic authoritarianism.
The rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. It is rather an immanent form of political thinking, in which tactics - above all violence - act as enacted values, instead of intermediate steps within an overarching, normatively positive project. Fascism is not a philosophy that elaborately defines itself; it is a philosophy that vigorously acts itself, and therefore a philosophy that announces and affirms itself not with formulae, but with concrete action. Unlike any other ideological strand, fascism does not claim to convert objective historical possibilities into a political programme. It takes action itself as the immediate realization of its doctrine.
In sum, fascism is best understood not as a fixed set of institutions, but a fluid matrix of a distinct governmental rationality, rife with contradictions, in which stable patterns of interaction are very hard to discern. However, this does not imply that it is purely pragmatic. It includes a number of shifting ideals: the veneration of war, anti-intellectualism; dehumanization; a crude celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity; the suppression of freedom and dissent; a culture of lies; a politics of hierarchy, the spectacularization of emotion over reason; a discourse of decline, and state violence in heterogeneous forms.
From a brief discussion of fascism, it is evident that its present-day modes of appearance need to be seriously conceptualized. This entails a careful attention to the economic context as well the social muck from which the Right’s regressive ideas emerge. These analytical endeavors are ultimately tied to the urgency of defeating fascism. The drive for political autonomy and the space for exclusivist welfarism within historic fascism are unavailable today, and contemporary fascist variations are intensely superstructural - that is, they are overwhelmingly psychoanalytic rather than political or sociological phenomena. This means their toxicity - visible in the targeting of manufactured enemies - is extremely forceful. The need for a socialist struggle for the defeat of fascism cannot be overstated.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
Posing the Question
This year marks the 57th anniversary of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964). This text, although plagued with a pessimistic spirit, was a great source of inspiration for the development of the New Left and the May 68 uprisings. The question we must ask ourselves is whether a text that predates the last 50 years of neoliberalism has any pertinent take-aways for today’s revolutionary struggles. Before we examine this, let us first review the context and central observations in Marcuse’s famed work.
Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man[i] (ODM) describes a world in which human rationality is uncritically used to perpetuate the irrational conditions whereby human instrumental ingenuity stifles human freedom and development. In the height of the cold war and potential atomic devastation, Marcuse observes that humanity submitted to the “peaceful production of the means of destruction” (HM, ix). Society developed its productive forces and technology to a scale never before seen. In doing so, it has created the conditions for the possibility of emancipating humanity from all forms of necessity and meaningless toil. The problem is, this development has not served humanity, it has been humanity that has been forced to serve this development. The instruments humans once made to serve them, are now the masters of their creators. The means have kidnapped the ends in a forced swap, the man now serves the hammer, not the other way around.
The observation that our society has developed its productive forces and technologies in a manner that creates the conditions for more human freedom, while simultaneously using the development itself to serve the conditions for our un-freedom, is not a new one. The Marxist tradition has long emphasized this paradox in the development of capitalism. Marcuse’s ODM’s novel contribution is in the elucidation of the depth of this paradox’s submersion, as well as how this paradox has extended beyond capitalism into industrialized socialist societies as well. Let us now examine how Marcuse unfolds the effects of modern capitalist instrumental rationality’s closing of the political universe.
Whereas the capitalism Marx would deal with in the mid-19th century demonstrated that along with clearly antagonistic relations to production, the working and owning class also shared vastly different cultures, modern one-dimensional society homogenizes the cultural differences between classes. Marcuse observes that one of the novelties of one-dimensional society is in its capacity to ‘flatten out’ the “antagonisms between culture and social reality through the obliteration of the oppositional, alien, and transcendent elements in higher culture” (HM, 57). This process liquidates two-dimensional culture and creates the conditions for social cohesion through the commodification, repressive desublimation, and wholesale incorporation and reproduction of these cultural elements into society by mass communication. In essence, the cultural differences the working and owning class had have dissipated, both are integrated in the same cultural logic. This does not mean there is no cultural opposition, but that the cultural opposition is itself “reduced” and “absorbed” into the society. Today, this absorption of the opposition is more visible than ever. Companies that donate millions to police departments post #BLM on their social medias, repressive state apparatuses who assaulted homosexuals in the 60s lavender scares now wave the LGBTQ+ flag, billion-dollar companies like Netflix who take loopholes to not pay taxes make a show on ‘democratic socialist’ Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, etc. All throughout our one-dimensional culture we experience the absorption of an ‘opposition’ whom in being absorbed fails to substantially oppose. This could be reformulated as, ‘all throughout our one-dimensional culture we experience the absorptions of any attempts at a great refusal, whom in being absorbed fail to substantially refuse.’
How did this happen? Well, in a way that paradoxically provides the material confirmation of Marxism as a science (according at least to Popper’s falsifiability requirement), while disconfirming one of its central theses, modern capitalism seems to have mended one of its central grave digging contradictions, the antagonistic contradiction between the proletariat and the owning class. According to Marcuse, modern industrial society has been able to do this because it provided the working masses (and society in general) a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” (HM, 1). It superimposed on the working masses false needs which “perpetuate [their] toil, aggressiveness, misery,” and alienation for the sake of continuing the never-ending hamster wheel of consumption (HM, 5). In modern industrial society people are sold a false liberty which actively sustains them in a condition of enslavement. As Marcuse states,
Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear – that is, if they sustain alienation (HM, 8).
In essence, that which has unnecessarily sustained their working life long, exploitative, and alienating, has made their life at home more ‘comfortable.’ This consumerist, Brave New World-like hellish heaven has perpetuated the prevalent ‘happy consciousness’ present in modern industrial society, where your distraction, comfort, and self-identification with your newly bought gadgets has removed the rebellious tendencies that arise, in a Jeffersonian-like manner, when the accumulation of your degradation reaches a certain limit where revolution becomes your panacea. The phenomenon of happy consciousness, says Marcuse, even forces us to question the status of a worker’s alienation, for although at work alienation might continue, he reappropriates a relation to the products through his excessive identification with it when purchased as a consumer. In this manner, the ‘reappropriation’ of the worker’s alienation to the product manifests itself like Feuerbach’s man reappropriating his species-being now that it has passed through the medium (alienated objectification) of God – the commodity here serving the mediational role of God.
The working mass, as we previously mentioned, is not the only one affected by the effects of one-dimensional society. Marcuse shows that the theorists are themselves participatory and promotional agents of this epoch. Whether in sociology or in philosophy, the general theoretical trends in academia are the same; the dominance of positivist thinking, and the repression and exclusion of negative (or dialectical) thinking. This hegemonized positivist thought presents itself as objective and neutral, caring only for the investigation of facts and the ridding of ‘wrongful thought’ that deals with transcendental “obscurities, illusions, and oddities” (HM, 170). What these one-dimensional theorists do is look at ‘facts’ how they stand dismembered from any of the factors that allowed the fact to be. In doing so, while they present their task as ‘positive’ and against abstractions, they are forced to abstract and reify the fact to engage with it separated from its context. By doing this these theorists limit themselves to engaging with this false concreteness they have conjured up from their abstracting of the ‘fact’ away from its general spatial-temporal context. Doing this not only proves to be futile in understanding phenomena – for it would be like trying to judge a fight after only having seen the last round – but reinforces the status quo of descriptive thinking at the expense of critical and hypothetical thought. As Marcuse states,
This radical acceptance of the empirical violates the empirical, for in it speaks the mutilated, “abstract” individual who experiences (and expresses) only that which is given to him, who has only the facts and not the factors, whose behavior is one-dimensional and manipulated. By virtue of the factual repression, the experienced world is the result of a restricted experience, and the positivist cleaning of the mind brings the mind in line with restricted experience (HM, 182).
Given that “operationalism,” this positivist one-dimensional thought, which in “theory and practice, becomes the theory and practice of containment,” has penetrated the thought and language of all aspects of society, is there an escape to this seemingly closed universe (HM, 17)? As a modest dialectician, Marcuse denies while leaving a slight ‘chance’ for an affirmation. On one end, the text is haunted by a spirit of pessimistic entrapment – not only has the logic of instrumental rationality that sustains one-dimensional society infiltrated all levels of society and human interaction, but the resources are vast enough to quickly absorb or militarily “take care of emergency situations”, viz., when a threat to one-dimensional society arises.
On the other end, he says that “it is nothing but a chance,” but a chance nonetheless, that the conditions for a great refusal might arise (HM, 257). Although he argues dialectical thinking is important to challenge capitalist positivism, he recognizes dialectical thinking alone “cannot offer the remedy,” it knows on empirical and conceptual grounds “its own hopelessness,” i.e., it knows “contradictions do not explode by themselves,” that human agency through an “essentially new historical subject” is the only way out (HM, 253, 252). The contingency of this ‘chance’ is dependent on the contingency of the great encounter between the “most advanced consciousness of humanity” and the “most exploited force,” i.e., it is the ‘barbarians’ of the third world to whom this position of possible historical subjectivity is ascribed to (HM, 257). Nonetheless, Marcuse is doing a theoretical diagnosis, not giving us a prescriptive normative approach. The slight moment where a glimpse of prescriptive normativity is invoked, he encourages the continual struggle for the great refusal. This is how I read the final reference to Walter Benjamin, “[critical theory] wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal” (Ibid.). Even if we are hopeless, we must give our life to the great refusal. We must be committed, in Huey Newton’s terms, to “revolutionary suicide”, to foolishly struggling even when no glimpse of hope is to be found, for only in struggling when there is no hope, can the conditions for the possibility of hope arise.
There are very few observations in this text to which we can point to as relevant in our context. The central thesis of a comfortable ‘happy consciousness’ which commensurates all classes under a common consumerist culture is a hard sell in a world in which labor has seen its century long fought for gains drawn back over the last 50 years.[ii] Neoliberalism has effectively normalized what William L. Robinson calls the “Wal-Martization of labor,”[iii] i.e., conditions in which work is less unionized, less secure, lower paid, and given less benefits. These conditions, along with the growing polarization of wealth and income, render Marcuse’s analysis of the post-WW2 welfare state impertinent. I lament to say that the most valuable take-away of ODM for revolutionaries today is where it failed, for this failure continues to be quite prevalent amongst many self-proclaimed socialist in the west. This failure, I argue, consist of Marcuse’s equating of capitalist states with socialist experiments.
Marcuse’s ODM unites the socialist and capitalist parts of the world as two interdependent systems existing within the one-dimensional logic that prioritizes “the means over the end” (HM, 53). For Marcuse, the socialist part of the world has been unable to administer in praxis what it claims to be in theory; there is effectively a “contradiction between theory and facts” (HM, 189). Although this contradiction does not, according to him, “falsify the former,” it nonetheless creates the conditions for a socialism that is not qualitatively different to capitalism (Ibid.). The socialist camp, like capitalism, “exploits the productivity of labor and capital without structural resistance, while considerably reducing working hours and augmenting the comforts of life” (HM, 43). In essence, his argument boils down to 20th century socialism being unable to create a qualitatively new alternative to capitalism, and in this failure, it has replicated, sometimes in forms unique to it, the mechanisms of exploitation and opposition-absorption (through happy consciousness, false needs, military resistance, etc.), that are prevalent in the capitalist system.
There are a few fundamental problems in Marcuse’s equalization, which all stem, I will argue, from his inability to carry dialectical thinking onto his analysis of the socialist camp. In not doing so, Marcuse himself reproduces the positivistic forms of thought which dismember “facts” from the factors which brought them about. Because of this, even if the ‘facts’ in both camps appear the same, claiming that they are so ignores the contextual and historical relations that led to those ‘facts’ appearing similar.
For Marcuse to say that the socialist camp, like the capitalist, was able to recreate the distractingly comfortable forms of life that make for a smoother exploitation of workers, he must ignore the conditions, both present and historical, that allowed this fact to arise. Capitalism was able to achieve this ‘comfortable’ life for its working masses because it spent the last three centuries colonizing the world to ensure that the resources of foreign lands would be disposable to western capital. This process of western capitalist enrichment required the genocide of the native (for its lands), and the enslavement of the African (for its labor) and created the conditions for the 20th century struggle between western capital for dividing up the conquered lands and bodies of the third world. But even with this historical and contextual process of expropriation and exploitation, the fruits of this were not going to the working classes of the western nations because of the generosity of the owning class, regardless of how much they benefited from creating this ‘labor aristocracy.’ Rather, the only reason why this process slightly came to benefit the popular classes in the US was a result of century long labor struggles in the country, most frequently led by communists, socialists, and anarchist within labor unions.
The socialist camp, on the other hand, industrialized their backwards countries in a fraction of the time it took the west, without having to colonize lands, genocide natives, or enslave blacks. On the contrary, regardless of the mistakes that were made, and the unfortunate effects of these, the industrialization process in the socialist camp was inextricably linked to the empowering of the peripheral subjects, whether African, Asian, Middle-Eastern, or Indo-American, that had been under the boot of western colonialism and imperialism for centuries. The ‘third-world’ Marcuse leaves the potential role of historical subjectivity to, was only able to sustain autonomy because of the solidarity and aid – political, military, or economic in kind, it received from the socialist camp. Those who were unable, for various reasons, to establish relations with the socialist camp, replicated, in a neo-colonial fashion, the relations they had with their ‘previous’ metropoles. In fact, history showed that the ‘fall’ of this camp led the countries in the third world that sustained an autonomous position (thanks to the comradely relations they established with the socialist world), to be quickly overturned into subjected servitude to western capital.
By stating that the socialist camp was unable to affect a materialization in praxis of its theory, and as such, that it was not qualitatively different from capitalism (making the equating of the two possible), Marcuse effectively demonstrates his ignorance, willful or not, of the geopolitical situation of the time. Socialism in the 20th century could not create its ideal qualitatively new society while simultaneously defending its revolution from military, economic, and biowarfare attacks coming from the largest imperial powers in the history of humanity. Liberation cannot fully express itself under these conditions, for, the liberation of one is connected to the liberation of all. The communist ideal whereby human relations are based “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is only realizable under the global totalizing disappearance of all forms of exploitation and oppression. It is idealist and infantile to expect this reality to arise in a world where capitalism exists even at the farthest corner of the earth, even less in a world where the hegemonized form of global relations is capitalistic.
Nonetheless, even Marcuse is forced to admit that the socialist camp was able to create a comfortable life for its working masses. But, unlike Marcuse argues, this comfort in the socialist camp cannot be equated with comfort in the capitalist camp. Not only are the conditions that led to the comfort in each fundamentally different (as just previously examined), but the comfort itself, as a fact, was also radically different. In terms of job security, housing, healthcare, education, childcare, and other forms of government provided social securities, the comfort in the socialist camp was significantly higher than the comfort experienced by the working masses in the welfare social democracies in Europe, and tenfold that of the comfort experienced by the working masses in the US. When to this you add the ability for political participation through worker councils and the party, the prevalent spirit of solidarity that reigned, and the general absence of racism and crime, the foolishness of the equalization is further highlighted. Nonetheless, the comparison must not be made just between the capitalist and socialist camp, but between the conditions before and after the socialist camp achieved socialism. Doing so allows one to historically contextualize the achievements of the socialist camp in terms of creating dignified and freer lives for hundreds of millions of people. For these people, Marcuse’s comments are somewhere between laughable and symbolic of the usual disrespect of western intelligentsia.
Although Marcuse was unable to live long enough to see this, the fall of the socialist camp, and the subsequent ‘shock therapy’ that went with it, not only devastated the countries of the previous socialist camp – drastically rising the rates of poverty, crime, prostitution, inequality, while lowering the standard of living, life expectancy, and the opportunities for political participation – but also the countries of the third world and those of the capitalist camp themselves! With the threat of communism gone, the third world was up for grabs again, and the first world, no longer under the pressure of the alternative that a comfortable working mass in the socialist camp presented, was free to extend the wrath of capital back into its own national popular classes, eroding century long victories in the labor movement and creating the conditions for precarious, unregulated, and more exploitative work.
Works like One-Dimensional Man, which take upon the task of criticizing and equating ‘both sides,’ do the work of one side, i.e., of capitalism, in creating a ‘left’ campaign of de-legitimizing socialist experiments. This process of creating a ‘left’ de-legitimation campaign is central for the legitimation of capital. This text (ODM) is the quintessential example of one of the ways capitalism absorbs its opposition by placing it as a midpoint between it and the real threat of a truly socialist alternative. It is because the idealistic and non-dialectical logic of capital infiltrates these ‘left’ anti-communist theorists that they can condemn and equate socialist experiments with capitalism. If there is a central takeaway from Marcuse’s text, it is to guard ourselves against participating in this left-anticommunism theorizing that prostitutes itself for capital to create the conditions whereby the accidental ‘faults’ of pressured socialist experiments are equated with the systematic contradictions in capitalist countries. In a world racing towards a new cold war, it is the task of socialists in the heart of the empire to fiercely reject and deconstruct the state-department narratives of socialist and non-socialist experiments attempting to establish themselves autonomously outside of the dominion of US imperialism. Acknowledging how Marcuse failed to do this in ODM helps us prevent his mistake.
[i] Reference will be to the following edition: Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. (Beacon Press, 1966).
[ii] Perhaps even longer, for The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had already began these drawbacks. Nonetheless, 1964 is a bit too early to begin to see its effects, especially for an academic observing from outside the labor movement.
[iii] Robinson, L. William. Latin America and Global Capitalism. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)., p. 23.
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy graduate student and assistant at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His specialization is in Marxist philosophy and the history of American socialist thought (esp. early 19th century). He is an editorial board member and co-founder of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies.
Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s life-long friend and co-developer of what has become known as Marxism, scientific socialism, dialectical materialism, and in the twentieth century as a result of the Russian Revolution, Marxism-Leninism, was born two hundred years ago on November 28, 1820, in what is now Wuppertal, Germany (then Barman, Prussia). This article commemorates the bicentenary of Engels’ birth by pointing out some of his most important contributions to the development of Marxist theory.
Marx and Engels first met in 1842 in Cologne. Engels was 22 and had been active as a student in the democratic and progressive movements in Prussia and was on his way to England to join in the management of a factory partially owned by his father. His father, a conservative bourgeois, had taken Engels out of his university studies because he disapproved of his involvement in radical student movements opposed to the undemocratic Prussian monarchy. These movements were based based on the philosophical and political works of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), and the students were known as the “Young Hegelians.” Marx was the editor of a radical democratic newspaper (Rheinische Zeitung), and Engels wanted to meet him. Engels had already made a name for himself as a radical journalist while a student. After Marx hired him as a foreign correspondent, he continued on to Manchester where the factory was located. His father’s hope that he would settle down and become a respectable businessman was not going to be realized.
Engels spent two years in England, where he met with radical working-class leaders and wrote articles on current events and an important essay on political economy from a socialist point of view, as well as worked in his father’s factory. In 1844, on a trip back to Prussia, he stopped off in Paris to visit with Marx; the two had corresponded and wanted to meet up to compare their views on socialism. Marx was in Paris as a refugee, as the authorities in Cologne had expelled him for his political views. They spent ten days together and found out they had the same world outlook. They decided to collaborate and produce a joint work which put forth their views on socialism and philosophical materialism supporting the working class, as opposed to the Young Hegelians who based their views on philosophical idealism and were liberals opposed to communist and socialist views.
Engels continued on to Prussia. A year later, their collaboration resulted in the publication of the first of many works the two would produce in the creation of dialectical materialism—the philosophy of the working-class struggle for emancipation and the creation of socialism. The Holy Family; or, Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer and Company was not a full-fledged exposition of dialectical materialism, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
Engels stayed in Prussia from the fall of 1844 to the spring of 1845. While there he wrote his well-known The Condition of the Working Class in England. The book created quite a stir in Germany when it was published in 1845. Engels discussed the working-class movement in terms of materialism and the need for socialism. He also stressed the importance of workers’ organizations and especially unions and the use of strikes to win acceptance of their demands from the bourgeoisie. He was also active in the socialist movement, wrote articles for the socialist press, and, as might have been expected, became estranged from his conservative father.
Things were getting too hot in Prussia for Engels. With the authorities upset with his activities and the police spying on him, Engels worried about being arrested, so in the spring of 1845 he moved to Brussels. He chose Brussels because Marx was there, as he had to leave Paris for the same reasons. It was at this time that the pair worked out a full-fledged version of dialectical materialism. Engels had almost gotten there on his own, but Marx had worked out a more advanced view that Engels immediately recognized as such. Here they decided to collaborate on another book to iron out their ideas and solidify their new philosophy in contradistinction to both the objective idealism of Hegel and the materialism of Feuerbach (an influential student of Hegel whose materialist system inspired Marx and Engels but who was not dialectical in his thinking).
Their new book was finished by 1846 but never published in their lifetime. The German Ideology had been accepted for publication, but political and financial difficulties had arisen and the publication was shelved until after the Russian Revolution when it was published by the Soviets. It had served its purpose though; in writing it Marx and Engels had finally arrived at full agreement both politically and philosophically and were ready to devote their lives to the struggle for communism. They packed away the manuscript and, as Marx remarked, “left it to the gnawing criticism of the mice.”
Marx and Engels became involved in building socialist organizations in Brussels, and their writings were being spread in Germany and elsewhere through the socialist press. There were many different versions of “socialism” in the 1840s, but dialectical materialism began to slowly catch on to such an extent that in 1846 the Brussels followers of Marx and Engels sent Engels to Paris to make contact with the leading French groups and German exiles advocating socialism and democratic rights. So impressed were the leading French socialists that the editor of a major socialist paper, La reform, appointed Engels a correspondent. He also made contact with the leading group of German socialist exiles in Paris, The League of the Just.
In 1847 the League asked Marx and Engels to become members. The influence exerted by their ideas soon came to dominate the thinking of most League members, and in June Engels went to London to attend the League’s First Congress. By the end of the congress the League had renamed itself the Communist League, and a new slogan, “Workers of the World, Unite,” was adopted, superseding the bourgeois liberal (and male chauvinist, pace Schiller and Beethoven) “All Men Are Brothers.” Brussels became the center for the Communist League and its internationally circulated newspaper Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung, with Marx and Engels writing the articles on theory.
In the fall of 1847 Engels went to Paris to help the Communist League and prepare for its Second Congress. He reworked the draft program the League has drawn up, named it the “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” and sent it to Marx to look over. The Second Congress (December 1847) adopted dialectical materialism as its policy, and Marx and Engels collaborated on getting the Manifesto ready for the press. It was published in February 1848, and the international communist movement was launched.
The publication coincided with the 1848 February Revolution in France. Revolutions broke out all over Europe that year as the revolutionary bourgeoisie consolidated its political and economic power at the expense of the remnants of the old feudalist order. In France, Louis Philippe, the last of the French kings, was forced to abdicate, and the Second Republic was proclaimed. The revolution spread to Germany and southern and eastern Europe. Engels joined Marx in Cologne to work at the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the Germany daily newspaper published by Marx.
In 1849 Engels participated in revolutionary fighting in the Rhine Province, and when the revolutionaries were defeated he escaped to Switzerland. From there he made his way to London and helped reorganize the Communist League. In 1850 he wrote another of his important historical works, The Peasant War in Germany.
Without Engels, Marx would have been “unable to complete” Das Kapital.
The year 1850 also saw Engels’ return to Manchester and his father’s factory. Marx was now living in London, and the two were in constant communication. With the revolution having been defeated, they now engaged in research and the elaboration of their theories. Because Engels was running his father’s factory, he was able to help Marx financially; this allowed Marx the time he needed to write Das Kapital, one of two most important books published in the 19th century (it came out in 1867, the other was Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859). Lenin said that without Engels’ aid Marx would have been “unable to complete” Das Kapital. As it was, Marx only lived to complete volume 1, and Engels, with Marx’s drafts and notes, completed volumes 2 and 3 and saw them through to print.
Throughout the 1850s Marx, and especially Engels, concentrated on elaborating the practical aspects of dialectical materialism regarding the struggles of the working class to create unions and in the various national liberation movements that existed at that time, such as in Ireland, Poland, Hungary, the Balkans, and India, including the anti-slavery movement in the U.S.
In 1864 Marx and Engels were instrumental in the founding of the First International. Throughout its existence Engels was a major contributor to the International’s positions on war, colonization, the U.S. Civil War, and the fight against the anarchist movements, which opposed the views of Marx and Engels and the Communist League, under the influence of Mikhail Bakunin (whose views are kept alive and well in the 21st century by anarchists representing the views of the petty bourgeois radicals and not the working class).
In 1872 or 1873 Engels began another important book, Dialectics of Nature, which he worked on intermittently for ten years but never finished. After Engels’ death Edward Bernstein showed the manuscript to Albert Einstein, who thought it worth publishing even though the physics and mathematical parts were weak and out of date. It was published, finally, by the Soviet Union in 1925 (the Marx-Engels Institute). It has limited value, since the sciences have made qualitatively giant strides from the mid-19th century, but it shows how Engels used dialectical materialism to interpret scientific advances dialectically. It also has many interesting sections in which Engels put forth the rudiments of ideas that were later to become part of our contemporary scientific understanding of the world (especially in his discussion of human evolution and some aspects of modern physics, although in antiquated terms no longer in use).
One of the reasons his book on nature was never completed was that he was busy on other important projects in the 1870s, such as following the developments and advising the growing socialist parties in France, Germany, England, and other countries while also writing important theoretical works: The Housing Question, On Authority, and The Bakuninists at Work (all in 1873), as well as one of the most important works in all Marxist literature, Anti-Dühring (1878).
Anti-Dühring covered the whole gamut of dialectical materialism, and three chapters on the history of socialism were so popular that Engels was asked to issue them as a separate work. He reworked these chapters and in 1880 published them in the work we know as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
The great collaboration of Marx and Engels came to an end on March 14, 1883, when Marx died at age 65, leaving Engels alone as the de facto intellectual leader of the world socialist movement. Marx left behind a trove of unfinished works which it was left for Engels to edit and see published. Engels had, as well, two more major works of his own to complete in the eleven years left to him.
Lenin considered Engels’ Origin of the Family to be “one of the fundamental works of modern socialism.”
Engels managed to get volume 2 of Das Kapital properly arranged and edited, and it was published in 1885, followed by volume 3 in 1894. He put so much work into these volumes that Lenin said they should be seen as joint works of Marx and Engels. At the same time he was editing Marx’s manuscripts and turning pages of notes and hastily jotted-down ideas into readable texts, he managed to write two works of his own that have become Marxist classics. In 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State came out (“one of the fundamental works of modern socialism”—Lenin). His final major work, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, was published in 1886.
It was in this period that Engels advised the Marxist parties to avoid sectarianism and dogma and to work to develop mass working-class parties. He also gave the classical definition of “opportunism” (still a big problem)—“letting the great basic considerations be consigned to oblivion by transient daily interests,” in other words, “sacrificing the future of the movement to the present.”
This period also saw the founding of the Second International (1889) in Paris in which Engels played a leading role. The First International (International Workingmen’s Association) had been basically set up by Marx and Engels in 1864 and was dissolved in 1876 to prevent its being taken over by the anarchist followers of Bakunin (who died that year in Bern). This international, which excluded the anarchists, lasted to 1916 when it fell apart because most of its national units, pledged to resist war, ended up supporting their own nations in World War I. It was succeeded by the Third International (1919–1943).
Engels, who in these years maintained his position as the most influential leader of the world socialist movement, began to have health problems in the 1890s and died of laryngeal cancer on August 5, 1895. A short time before his death, a young Russian revolutionary, V. I. Ulyanov, made a trip to London, hoping to meet with Engels but was turned away because Engels was too ill to meet with anyone. After his death his daughter Eleanor Aveling and two close friends, Friedrich Lessner and Eduard Bernstein, carried out his last request to be cremated and his ashes scattered in the ocean off Beachy Head, near Eastbourne in East Sussex on the south coast of England.
Cover image: Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla, Creative Commons (public domain).
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.
This article was first published by CPUSA.
If you’re listening to the fiction audiobook series Ghosts of Plum Run here on Midwestern Marx, you’re learning the Union Army in the American Civil War had a lot of German immigrants in the regiments, especially in the First Minnesota. Company A of the First Minnesota crackled with spoken German constantly, German language newspapers delivered into camp, men writing letters in German. During their suicidal charge at sundown on July 2, 1863 on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, more than half of the First Minnesota’s Company A was German born, as were Company A’s killed in action during the 15 minute charge. More than half of Company A’s wounded to later die of their wounds from the charge were German born.
While many notable German regiments celebrated their revolutionary German heritage, such as August Willich’s 9th Ohio and 32nd Indiana, most German born immigrants in the Union Army had erased from their history the communist revolutions of 1848 in Europe, leaving it behind and all else of Europe’s endless, tiresome, oppressively complicated dramas that drove them across the sea. America transformed them into newborns, with no past, only a future, but still German. One revolutionary leftover was very visibly (rather, audibly) kept, especially when Willich’s men drilled while the regimental band played the song of the revolution, La Marseillaise. To any outsider, the song was the most observable evidence of the 1848 revolution in the Union Army. La Marseillaise had entered the dialectic, and remains there even today.
Composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle the night of April 25, 1792, La Marseillaise was first known as War Song for the Army of The Rhine. Rouget de Lisle attended a dinner that night hosted by the French mayor of largely German Strasbourg, Philippe Freidrich Dietrich, to honor officers of the French garrison in Strasbourg. Tension gripped Strasbourg, as Austrian and Prussian troops were about to invade to try and smother French revolutionary ideas in their cradle. Over drinks after dinner, Mayor Dietrich lamented to the gathered officers that revolutionary France had no national anthem to motivate armies in the face of the imminent invasion. So, Rouget de Lisle immediately hurried to his quarters to write just such an anthem, returning with sheet music for the mayor himself to sing for the first time in his living room, accompanied by his wife on piano in a late night, wine fueled flurry of music and revolution. Instantly infectious, the song stuck to France like glue.
Lyrically, nothing could explode more with viciously revolutionary power, warning of “tyranny’s bloody standard raised” by “bloodthirsty despots”, a “horde of slaves, of traitors and conspiring kings” coming to “cut the throats of your sons and women” and worse, “tear apart their mothers’ breasts.” Sacre bleu! A call to arms was never more direct, itself so bloodthirsty the chorus demands over and over to crescendo, “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March! March! Let an impure blood water our furrows!” It was first sung on the march mere weeks after its composition, in May, 1792, by volunteers from Marseille, whose entry into Paris that summer, singing the song, gave the anthem its permanent name, La Marseillaise. Translated rapidly into German in defense of the Alsace region against the Austrians and Prussians, La Marseillaise crossed national boundaries very early in its history.
Alas, like so many incredibly powerful French revolutionary moments that somehow, someway, crossed some imaginary dialectical line somewhere, La Marseillaise lost favor quite quickly. Seeming to anticipate the danger of what he had done, Rouget de Lisle never signed the sheet music. Mayor Dietrich lost his head at the guillotine only a year later during the Reign of Terror, to be rehabilitated from the grave as a hero of the revolution two years later, when the song was made the French national anthem for the first time in 1795. After Napoleon Bonaparte turned revolution into empire, himself a “despot and conspiring king”, he got rid of the anthem, the succession of hobbled French monarchies after his ignoring the song entirely, with good reason.
But the song would not die. It arose again in France’s 1830 revolution, and then most powerfully across the whole of Europe in 1848, sung by every nationality rising up against tottering monarchies across the continent. Revolutionaries who fought with La Marseillaise in their lungs then had to flee their homes as immigrants to America brought the anthem to German regiments in the Union Army in 1861. Back in Europe, Napoleon III threw up his hands in frustration in 1870, and encouraged the song’s return to help raise armies to fight the Franco Prussian War. This of course backfired, as the Paris Commune appropriated the song in 1871, changing the lyrics for communist effect. The commune crushed, buried the song was again until finally, in 1878, La Marseillaise stayed for good as France’s national anthem. The next century, Hollywood found it.
Today, the most known version of La Marseillaise appears in what many consider the greatest film ever made, Casablanca (1942), in a scene itself teeming with explosive dialectical irony shooting in every direction. Having commandeered Sam’s piano, uniformed Nazis in Rick’s Café bombastically sing their Nazi approved German anthem, annoying the crowd filled with refugees waiting for visas to flee Europe to America. Instantly, resistor Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid, himself a German refugee) marches to Rick’s house band and demands, “Play La Marseillaise! Play it!” The band leader looks for permission to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) across the room. Bogart nods approval, as if he is the dialectic itself, the barely perceptible nod a cosmic conduit from a boozy late night in 1792, to 1848, to 1861, to 1871, to 1942. The café explodes with La Marseillaise, drowning out the Nazis, who immediately begin a crackdown.
Only art possesses such timeless dialectical power, in this case music. One of cinema’s greatest icons Humphrey Bogart likely did not know, as he nodded, that at the Battle of Shiloh, the reddest of the red August Willich calmed his staggered Union troops by drilling them in the manual of arms, under Confederate fire, on his horse, his back to the enemy, their calming rhythm made permanent by previously drilling to the strains of La Marseillaise in camp, over and over again.
Tim Russo is author of Ghosts of Plum Run, an ongoing historical fiction series about the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Tim's career as an attorney and international relations professional took him to two years living in the former soviet republics, work in Eastern Europe, the West Bank & Gaza, and with the British Labour Party. Tim has had a role in nearly every election cycle in Ohio since 1988, including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Tim ran for local office in Cleveland twice, earned his 1993 JD from Case Western Reserve University, and a 2017 masters in international relations from Cleveland State University where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science in 1989. Currently interested in the intersection between Gramscian cultural hegemony and Gandhian nonviolence, Tim is a lifelong Clevelander.