September 13, 2021-What is ideology? An introduction to the Marxist theory of ideology. By: Derek Ford & "Liberation School"Read Now
" This article was originally published on Liberation School on September 07, 2021."
Marxist ideology is one of the most potent weapons the working and oppressed classes have, a weapon that our class can and has used to not only win reforms but to build revolutionary societies where the people, and not profits, are in control. As the PSL identified at our 3rd Party Congress in 2016, one of our primary tasks is to mend the “break in ideological continuity” that emerged after the overthrow of the Soviet Union by reestablishing “the theory of revolutionary Marxism and the entire vision of workers’ power” as a dominant guiding pole in people’s struggles .
To correct for the ideological break, it’s helpful to have a concrete understanding of ideology and the different forms it takes. Although the word ideology is used frequently, it’s commonly used in a pejorative sense to refer to something that’s not factual, that’s unscientific, or that’s devoid of substance. It’s also used by those hostile to socialism to present a distorted view of Marxism. What exactly is ideology? What is the difference between bourgeois and Marxist ideology? What significance does this have for organizing today?
To address these questions and help repair the break in the ideological continuity of revolutionary socialism in U.S. social movements, this article outlines Marx’s understanding of ideology. It traces his historical-materialist approach to investigating the relationship between ideas, material reality, and modes of production through several of his works. This allows us to take in the theory’s nuances about life and consciousness, as well as to draw out examples that are still relevant and applicable today. In particular, we focus on the theory of commodity fetishism and the function of the wage in producing the bourgeois ideological conception of the atomized individual.
Proposing a move from “true/false” to “correct/incorrect,” the end of the article returns to the importance of popularizing and promoting Marxist ideology to understand and transform the world today, as revolutionaries have done throughout the socialist struggle to break the chains of exploitation and oppression.
One of the widely used definitions of ideology sees it as a form of “false consciousness.” Here, ideology carries inherently negative connotations. Although Marx never used this term, Engels did in a July 1893 letter to Franz Mehring, a German communist. Yet it’s important for us to understand exactly what he meant by this. Addressing Mehring’s latest book, On Historical Materialism, Engels writes :
“Ideology is a process which is, it is true, carried out consciously by what we call a thinker, but with a consciousness that is spurious [mit einem falschen Bewußtsein, also translated as “false consciousness”]. The actual motives by which he is impelled remain hidden from him, for otherwise it would not be an ideological process. Hence the motives he supposes himself to have are either spurious or illusory” .
The process of developing ideology in this sense is one in which the thinker is fully conscious while simultaneously being unconscious of the forces actually driving their thought. These forces are external to thought itself and form the real basis of the material existence of the thinker. “False consciousness” thereby refers to the dialectic by which consciousness is conditioned by the material world while also under the illusion that it is not conditioned as such. In other words, it is the idealist assumption that the origin of one’s thoughts is purely conceptual. As Engels explains, the thinker ensnared within ideology of this sort,
“works solely with conceptual material which he automatically assumes to have been engendered by thought without inquiring whether it might not have some more remote origin unconnected therewith; indeed, he takes this for granted since, to him, all action is induced by thought, and therefore appears in the final analysis, to be motivated, by thought” .
The material relationship between classes is not based on a rational arrangement for all parties involved or an intellectual agreement between the ruling class and the working masses . It is a concrete relationship of exploitation that needs to be imposed and maintained, both physically and intellectually.
Georg Lukács developed this point in important ways. Reflecting on Engels’ words to Mehring, he notes that Engels is emphasizing that “the dialectical method does not permit us simply to proclaim the ‘falseness’ of this consciousness and to persist in an inflexible confrontation of true and false” . Put differently, another essential aspect of ideology as false consciousness is that it actually contains an important kernel of truth. Although it is false in the sense that individual subjects do not apprehend the material forces driving their ideas, it is “true” in the precise sense that—for historical materialists—it reveals something real about the operative forces behind ideology.
This dialectical understanding of false consciousness—which is thus never simply “false” but contains elements of truth—means that it does not simply amount to a set of haphazard ideas held by individuals that happen to be incorrect. On the contrary, false consciousness is a determined condition that is rooted in a particular mode of production. It is therefore anchored in a specific set of class interests within the overall organization of social production. Far from simply pointing out false ideas of individuals, Marxist practice requires a materialist analysis of class society and the ways in which it necessarily produces very specific sets of ideas and ways of thinking. This is what Marxist ideology reveals through the practice and theory of class struggle.
One example of the distinction between false consciousness and Marxist ideology is in the third volume of Capital, where Marx explains why the capitalist might not understand the source of their profits because they remain at the superficial level of the legal contract. They pay a certain sum of money to the worker for their labor, the landlord for their factory, the banker for their loan, their suppliers for their raw materials and means of production, and after the commodities produced by workers are sold, the capitalist ends up with more money than they had at the start of the process. The banker lends out money only to have more money returned to them. The entire cycle looks like money breeds more money.
For the capitalist, “capital appears as a relationship to itself” and that how surplus-value is created “is now mystified, and appears to derive from hidden qualities that are inherent in capital itself” . As workers, on the other hand, we not only see but experience and suffer the expansion of value and the source of profit as we literally expend our energy and life for the production of surplus value. However, this doesn’t happen organically and requires theoretical reflection and generalization, which can lead to Marxist ideology.
Ideology, consciousness, and historical materialism
Various trends and Marxist revolutionaries use different definitions and words for Marxist theory, with some preferring “science” to “ideology.” Lenin, in his foundational text on communist organization, wrote that,
“the only choice is: either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course” and “hence, to belittle socialist ideology in any way, to deviate from it in the slightest degree means strengthening bourgeois ideology” .
All ideology has a class basis, and Marxist ideology “can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production” . When we use ideology, we refer to a political framework and worldview of our class in order to understand and overthrow exploitation and oppression.
The origins of Marxist ideology can be found in The German Ideology, a series of manuscripts written between 1845-1846, where Marx and Engels formulated their break with the “Young Hegelians” with whom they were previously affiliated. As Engels later wrote, the manuscripts, which weren’t published until 1932, were written “to clear our own minds” of the idealism they previously endorsed . They represent a major breakthrough in Marxist theory. Most significantly, they construct the groundwork for the method of historical materialism.
One major line of attack is that the Young Hegelians considered “conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness, to which they attribute[d] an independent existence, as the real chains of men” . In other words, Hegelians believed that ideas prevent historical progress and that new ideas drive historical change. Yet they never questioned or examined the relationship between their own ideas and the material conditions of their lives in Germany because they assumed that the life of the mind is independent from the actual world. This is perfectly in line with Engels’ critique of “false consciousness” that we discussed above because it is a form of consciousness that ignores its own concrete conditions of existence.
Moreover, the Young Hegelians presumed that the struggle against incorrect ideas was only to be fought out on the terrain of ideas themselves, meaning that something like “true consciousness” was the antidote to “false consciousness.” Marx and Engels polemicized against this belief and the Young Hegelians’ assumption that we just need to change “present consciousness to human, critical… consciousness” . Such an approach reduces critique to fighting words with other words rather than “combating the real existing world” . It isn’t “criticism but revolution,” Marx and Engels insist, “[that] is the driving force of history” .
This elucidation of the Young Hegelians’ false consciousness—meaning their misrecognition of the material forces driving history and their own worldviews—is an opportunity to articulate the fundamentals of the historical materialist method. “The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination” .
The materialist method begins with how people “produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation” . This varies according to different modes of production. The “mode of production,” they write, “must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals” but “a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part” . In other words, the mode of production encompasses the productive forces and the relations of production, which are not confined to a “purely economic” realm but encompass all of society.
Determination, consciousness, and the class struggle
Marx and Engels state that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of life” . The first step, then, is directly opposed to Hegel and his followers who begin with ideas and proceed to the world. Marx and Engels, by contrast, explain that “[we] do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive… we set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process” . This is the paragraph in which the famous line appears: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
What do Marx and Engels mean when they declare that life determines consciousness? The terminology of “determination” figures frequently in Marxist analysis, and it’s an object of superficial criticism for those who want to discredit it. Some say it deprives people of agency because it’s deterministic or reductionist. Yet without understanding what determines what and why, no theory has any explanatory or transformative value whatsoever. “The root sense of ‘determine,’” as Raymond Williams points out, “is ‘setting bounds’ or ‘setting limits’” . It doesn’t mean that something mechanistically and unilaterally causes something else to happen. Determined limits also evolve and change based on the class struggle, which can push it in new directions and erect new limits.
For example, individual consumers have a range of choices under capitalism, but our ability to choose is determined by multiple factors, like our income. Capitalism determines what we can and can’t buy, which in turn sets limits on the quality of our lives. Relative to ideology, material conditions, the productive forces, the economic and social reality of our world pushes our thoughts in certain directions rather than others. It makes it easier to think and imagine in certain ways and much harder to do so in other ways. Fighting for concrete reforms is crucial to the socialist movement because if we win, we improve our material conditions and show that we have the power to determine new limits and exert our own pressures. As a result, it’s easier to imagine that we can ultimately determine our existence collectively and establish a socialist society.
If it was only a matter of changing material conditions, why would Marx and Engels develop a theory and fight tooth-and-nail against other competing theories in the workers’ movement? Ideas and material life are in a dialectical relationship in that the mode of production sets limits and exerts pressures on our ideas, beliefs, and even feelings, tending to direct them in certain ways. Yet working and oppressed people can, when we’re organized, push back against those limits and pressures.
Speaking of ideology in general, Marx and Engels write that it makes people “and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura,” which itself “arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process” . This metaphor is apt, as Jennifer Ponce De León and Gabriel Rockhill note, because “a camera obscura does not simply misrepresent the world outside” but rather “perfectly captures key features of it, and this is part of its pernicious power of sense-making” . Ideology frames the world in a particular way within a given social reality.
Representations are always partial, which doesn’t mean that all representations or ideologies are equal. Representations and ideologies are, rather, always partisan in that they guide our understanding of the world, allowing us to see certain things and not others. The difference between bourgeois and Marxist ideology turns on what and how much of the world we can see and understand. Bourgeois ideology remains at the level of appearances, while Marxist ideology expands our understanding to show us what makes things appear like they do, how they change over time, and how we can change these underlying structures. Marxist ideology could be called “scientific” in that it poses and answers the fundamental and structural questions that bourgeois ideology can’t.
Bourgeois vs. Marxist ideology
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” .
These ruling-class ideas are not independent of social production but are “the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” The class that dominates society “rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age” . Bourgeois ideology takes many forms, but they’re united by their basis in the capitalist world system as a natural system and, therefore, as the most superior one. The ideology of the ruling class is not only reflective of its interests but also, and as a result of that reflection, is severed from its material basis, so capitalism appears as independent and eternal. Another key point is that bourgeois ideology doesn’t come from outside the system, but—as we hinted with the earlier example of the capitalist—emanates from within the very inner logics and workings of the capitalist system.
A few examples might help illustrate both how bourgeois ideology is built into the structure of capitalism and how Marxist ideology shows us what the capitalist can’t see.
The first example is what Marx refers to as the “fetishism of the commodity.” In Capital, Marx notes that the “commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood” . We walk into the grocery store and see before us a host of commodities. We are not confused. Each has a price, a weight, a size, a package, a list of ingredients, a brand, a category, and so on. We think we have all of the information that we need about the products. Upon further inquiry, however, Marx finds that the commodity “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” . What is it that is so queer and metaphysical about a loaf of Wonder Bread? What the bread contains is human labor-power; commodities are literally the congealed form of a particular socially-necessary form of labor. Workers produce commodities, yet under commodity fetishism:
“the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour” .
Stated differently, commodity fetishism is the way in which relations between people take on the appearance of relations between things. At the grocery store we think we’re exchanging our money for a commodity, but in reality, we’re interacting with the relations that enable commodity production under capitalism—between workers and bosses, unions and CEOs, politicians negotiating trade deals, immigration and customs officials, and so on. There is no label on Wonder Bread stating that it was made by exploited labor, that the profits go to the ruling class, that its process of production relied on ecologically destructive bio-industries, that the technologies that produced it were developed through class struggle—to name just a few social relations that produce the particular commodity.
It’s the same with the money–or our wage–that we exchange for the bread. As Marxists, we know that there’s a difference between the value we’re paid and the value we produce for the capitalist . For whatever period of time we work, part of the time goes to reproducing our wage and part of it goes as surplus to the owner. Yet when we get a paycheck at the end of a shift, a gig, a week, or month, it looks like we’ve been paid for the entirety of our time.
We work for an hour, we get paid an hour. Where’s the exploitation in that? Bourgeois ideology is content to look at the contract between the worker and capitalist and declare an equality between the two. Marxist ideology reveals that the worker and capitalist are anything but equals, and that in reality the wages we’re paid come from our work and go to the capitalist, who then pays it back to us after siphoning off what Marx called surplus value.
This leads to a second example of the limits of bourgeois ideology and the revolutionary potential of Marxist ideology: the wage and the atomized individual. Through the form of the wage, bourgeois ideology mystifies exploitation while Marxist ideology explains how the form of the wage reinforces the idea that we’re all equal individuals being paid for the entirety of our working day .
Bourgeois ideology holds up the individual as the cornerstone of the world and as a form of the human that’s natural and timeless. Marx later wrote that, “Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual… appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure” . Humans have for most of history not thought of themselves as individuals, nor have we related to others as individuals. “Production by an isolated individual outside society… is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other” . Why is it that we think of ourselves as individuals or that we think of society as a group of individuals? Marx locates the individual with the rise of “civil society” in the 18th century and as the real basis for German ideology.
As the atomized and independent individual solidifies as the basis of civil society and capitalism, real humans become ever more interdependent as trade, commerce, and divisions of labor expand and intensify. One of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism is that it necessarily creates a collective and international working class, the class that can overthrow it. The ideology of the individual attempts to smooth this over while also dividing the global working class and pitting workers against one another as atomized competitors.
The bourgeois ideology of the individual works on different scales, from the mass media and public schooling to everyday interactions. We constantly have to prove that we’re “unique” individuals, such as every time we log into an account, verify our social security number, or answer a special security question.
Whereas bourgeois ideology describes what it sees, Marxist ideology probes beneath the surface to uncover the real mechanisms that create exploitation and oppression so we can act to change them. Marxist ideology is the generalization of the working-class struggle because only through the proletarian movement can we see the real operations of capitalism.
Revolutionary ideas can only come from a revolutionary class in its struggle for power, from the communists (which they define at one point in the The German Ideology as “the follower of a definite revolutionary party”) . The Party is the vehicle through which the working class produces socialist ideology, as the Party removes “all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals” . In the Party, as Lenin wrote, workers produce our class ideology “not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians” .
Popularizing and promoting Marxist ideology
One of the goals for any struggle is to build collective unity, to show how we’re not independent and atomized but deeply interdependent on others; how we’re not “Americans” but members of an international working class.
Communism overturns this relation of individuals, denaturalizes the ideas and relations of capitalist society, “and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals” by transforming “existing conditions into conditions of unity.” Communists take existing relations of production as “inorganic conditions” . Marx and Engels can understand and explain why bourgeois ideology is the way it is because historical materialism reveals that our current reality isn’t eternal or preordained, but one that is always changing—and that our class can overthrow.
Rather than what is true or false, however, it’s more helpful for Marxists to concern ourselves with what is correct and what is incorrect. Whereas “truth” denotes an objective or neutral “fact” or “state of affairs,” and has a sense of permanence, what is “correct” is always only correct from a partisan standpoint and from within a certain time and social situation.
An example of the distinction between the true and correct comes from David Backer’s analysis of the struggle over the length of the working day, where Marx stages a dialogue between the worker and Mr. Moneybags . The capitalist, as the buyer of labor-power, is within their rights to extend the working-day as much as they want, as they, like the purchaser of any commodity, are free to use it as they wish under the laws of capitalist exchange. Yet as workers, we’re within our rights to reduce the working-day, as the labor-power purchased is literally our bodies and lives. There is, as Marx says, “therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges” . The worker says “the working-day is eight hours!” as the boss says “the working-day is twelve hours!”
Both statements can be true but only one can be correct, and this will be determined by the class struggle, by which group is able to force their position to establish a new truth and, ultimately, a new mode of production.
We have to fight bourgeois ideology with Marxist ideology, a dynamic ideology that—because it’s rooted in social production and the perspective of the working and oppressed classes—explains the reasons why we’re poor and oppressed and provides a framework for overthrowing the structures that produce these conditions. Marxist ideology not only explains oppression and exploitation but provides weapons for transforming the social order to eliminate both. This transformation isn’t potential but actual: the oppressed have and continue to wield it in order to abolish exploitation and combat all forms of oppression. Bourgeois ideology has brought neither understanding nor progress. Marxist ideology has and continues to generate both.
While “material force must be overthrown by material force,” by developing, popularizing, and applying Marxist ideology to our organizing, we can help make “theory become a material force” .
 Becker, Brian. (2016). Theory and revolution: Addressing the break in ideological continuity.” Liberation School, September 28. Available here.
 Mehring, Franz. (1893/1975). On historical materialism (London: New Park Books).
 Engels, Friedrich. (1983/2010). “Engels to Franz Mehring in Berlin.” In Marx & Engels Collected Works (Vol. 50): Letters 1892-1895 (London: Lawrence & Wishart), 164.
 Ideology defined as false consciousness not only rests on the incorrect belief that ideas have an independent existence, but it also assumes that they are the primary terrain of struggle. The struggle against injustice would thus amount to a purely intellectual task of pointing out the incorrect thoughts of one’s adversaries, based on the assumption that the establishment of true ideas would correct things. Truth, in other words, would simply amount to a correct intellectual formulation. If this were the case, then we would simply have to form the best arguments in order to fight and win.
 Lukács, Georg. (1971). History and class consciousness: Studies in Marxist dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT Press), 50.
 Marx, Karl. (1894.1981). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 3): The process of capitalist production as a whole, trans. D. Fernbach (New York: Penguin Books), 139.
 Lenin, V.I. (1902/1987). “What is to be done?” in Essential works of Lenin, ed. H.M. Christman (New York: Dover Publications), 82.
 Marx, Karl. (1867/1967). Capital: A critique of political economy (vol. 1): The process of capitalist production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers), 25-26.
 Engels, Friedrich. (1888/1941). Ludwig Feuerbach and the outcome of classical German philosophy (New York: International Publishers), 7.
 Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. (1970). The German ideology: Part one, with selections from parts two and three and supplementary texts, trans. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers), 41.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 47.
 Williams, Raymond. (1977). Marxism and literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 84.
 Marx and Engels, The German ideology, 47. A camera obscura was a predecessor to the photographic camera. It consists of a dark room with a small hole that lets light in. The result is that an inversion of the outside is projected on the opposite wall.
 De León, Jennifer Ponce and Gabriel Rockhill. (2020). “Towards a compositional model of ideology: Materialism, aesthetics, and cultural revolution.” Philosophy Today 64, no. 1: 99.
 Marx and Engels, The German ideology, 64.
 Marx, Capital (vol. 1),76, emphasis added.
 Ibid., 77.
 See Ford, Derek and Mazda Majidi. (2021). “Surplus value is the class struggle: An introduction.” Liberation School, March 30. Available here.
 One exception is piece-wages, when we’re paid according to each individual service or product we produce. Here, it’s easier to tell the difference between what we’re paid for producing and what the capitalist sells it for. For a personal example, I used to work at a gym as a personal trainer, and I could see what my boss charged my clients and what he paid me for each session. There wasn’t any mystification there.
 Marx, Karl. (1939/1973). Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy (rough draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin), 83.
 Ibid., 84.
 Marx and Engels, The German ideology, 60.
 Lenin, What is to be done?, 137.
 Ibid., f1.
 Marx and Engels, The German ideology, 86.
 Backer, David I. (2016). “Toward an activist theory of language,” in Truth in the public sphere, ed. J. Hannon (Lanham: Lexington).
 Marx, Capital (vol. 1), 255.
 Marx, Karl. (1927/1977). Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of right,’ trans. J. O’Malley and A. Jolin (New York: Cambridge University Press), 137.
In 2005 the French celebrated the 100th birthday of their most famous 20th century thinker – Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). The National Library in Paris mounted a major exhibition dedicated to his life and works. You can still find online the New York Times article reporting the event ("To Honor Sartre, France Buffs A Pedestal the Writer Rejected" by Alan Riding). Although Sartre had a rocky relationship with the French Communist Party he considered himself a "Marxist" of sorts. I can’t say that Riding’s article is always informative. Take this observation, for example, regarding Sartre’s image as a "Left Bank intellectual." "Even for many French people, his embrace of Communist causes placed him on the wrong side of history." This was at a time when a fourth of the French were voting for Communists, so it's also true that many French people (and not only the French) think he was on the right side of history.
Those causes, by the way, were for world peace, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and freedom for the colonial peoples. Whatever may have happened to Communism – these were (and are) the right causes. As for "causes," we can learn something from Sartre when we reflect on his statement that "if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing." You can’t be on the wrong side of that.
Riding observed that Sartre’s reputation was approaching that of the great French pantheon of Voltaire, Hugo and Zola. But Riding showed his true colors when he stated that as "political visionaries," Raymond Aron ( 1905-1983) the conservative pro-US cold war intellectual, and Albert Camus (1913-1960) "stand taller because their view of freedom was untainted by association with Stalinism or Maoism." Guilt by association! While Camus couldn’t bring himself to back the right of the Algerians to throw the French out, Sartre risked his life (he survived a bomb plot) speaking out against French repression in Algeria. So much for standing tall!
Camus died young, while he was still developing, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about him. But Aron was a typical conservative. He supported the so-called "Free World." He is dead so I don’t know how he would think about the "freedom" we tried to bomb the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and others into having.
Riding asked "is Sartre remotely relevant today?" He seemed to think not. But this is a difficult question. He seemed to base his judgment on the fact that Sartre was no longer fashionable or as fashionable as he once had been. This is a different question from relevance. Sartre was both a popular writer and a philosopher. His big philosophical tomes (Being and Nothingness; The Critique of Dialectical Reasoning) were never best sellers. He articulated a philosophy of human freedom known as "existentialism" and tried to hook this up with Marxism. I think as long as there is a struggle to attain a more just and free world, and as long as society is dominated by class struggle and exploitation, serious people will find Sartre’s philosophy relevant even if they do not ultimately accept it.
Riding briefly outlined some of Sartre’s politics but his readers will get the wrong impression from his presentation. He wrote that Sartre played no political role until after the liberation of Paris and that he "cheerfully" produced his plays and books during the German occupation after having been a prisoner of war for "a few months." The implication was that Sartre did not do his duty. Riding failed to mention that Sartre did have a role in the Resistance during the occupation. He ended up with a minor role because the Resistance was practically run by the Communist Party and Sartre was unwilling to commit himself, as pointed out by Thomas Baldwin (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy) to the Party or to the followers of Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970). After the war no one thought Sartre derelict in his duty.
Riding next wished to put Sartre "in the dock." "Placed in the dock today," he wrote, Sartre would face two charges: between 1952 and 1956, he was a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, albeit breaking with it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956." The charges should be amended if Baldwin’ article is correct. Sartre was more than a "fellow traveler." According to Baldwin, Sartre was a member of the French Communist Party having joined during the Korean War. While he left the Party over the 1956 Hungary issue, his final break with it did not occur until 1968. [This does not appear to be accurate as most bios of Sartre (and the consensus of Sartre scholars) maintain he was never a member of the French Communist Party--tr]
What about this first charge. Only a typical right-wing anticommunist Know Nothing would want to put Sartre in the dock on this charge. Throughout France and Italy the Communists were extremely popular in the years before the invasion of Hungary. Europeans knew to whom their liberation from Hitler and his Nazi armies was due. We Americans like to say we saved the French, that we defeated the Nazis, etc., and carry on as if we should get most of, or even all the credit.
You would think it was the Battle of the Bulge that decided the war. But 80% of the German forces were in the East confronting the Soviets. That is where the war was won. D-Day was a mopping up operation in comparison. Throughout Europe everyone knew it was the Communists who were the main force in the resistance movements against the fascists. For Sartre, who had committed himself to anti-imperialism, to peace, and to the working class as the most progressive class in society, it was only natural that he should support the Party.
The second charge was that in the years 1970-1974 he "supported French Maoists." This is a bogus charge, and Riding should have known it. It was Voltaire, one of Sartre’s fellow pantheon members, who said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And Riding said Sartre’s "counsel" could claim "he was defending their right to exist more than their views."
Riding reported on four more of Sartre’s positions – on which "time favored him." Independent intellectuals can often mess up – even with good intentions – and Sartre was no exception. I say this because I think he made errors in two of the four positions mentioned by Riding. But first the positive. One, he was one of the first to support the right of Algeria to independence. This took a lot of courage as French fascists tried to assassinate him for being so outspoken, Two, he was an opponent to the US war against the Vietnamese people. Riding could have elaborated a bit here. Sartre co-chaired (with Bertrand Russell) the International War Crimes Tribunal that exposed the acts of war crimes in Asia by the US (still, as usual, going on throughout the world.)
Now the negative. Three, he went to Cairo in 1967 and made a speech on the right of Israel to exist. That was all well and good but he should have also called for the creation of a Palestinian state.* But this was before the 1967 war and the take over of the West Bank and the true nature of Zionism was not so clear to many European intellectuals. Finally he broke with Fidel and Cuba (1971) over the perennial question of "persecution" of dissidents. I can only say that Sartre was too shrill. He forgot that the full force of US imperialism was (and still is), as far as possible, being directed against Cuba and in order to survive it is only natural for the Cubans to take corrective action against those they perceive as helping the US against them internally. Sometimes Voltaire has to take a back seat until we can create the conditions to seat him front row center.
He had two other worthy actions according to Riding. He stood with the students in May 1968 and, near the end of his life, he supported the demand that Vietnamese boat people be given refuge in France. One should also note that he refused, in 1964, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Riding quotes him: "a writer should refuse to be allowed to be transformed into an institution."
With the collapse of the Soviet Union progressives around the world were forced to rethink the Marxist tradition. Sartre wrote, "I consider Marxism the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond and.… I hold the ideology of existence and its ‘comprehensive’ method to be an enclave inside Marxism, which simultaneously engenders it and rejects it." Whether Sartre is relevant or irrelevant will depend on how interested students of the future are in engaging with his thoughts on Marxism.
*This sentence reflects what was considered the 'progressive' position at the time by the global communist and socialist movement. Midwestern Marx accepts Israel is an apartheid racist state.
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.
Ever wonder how to domesticate an explosive theory while pretending you are refining it? McKenna’s The War Against Marxism elucidates such a ‘domestication-as-refining’ without falling into conspiracy theories. He carefully examines the texts of self-purported Marxists and shows in a razor-sharp analysis how the war against Marx’s methodology has been ragging in academia for almost a century now.
It is not a tautology to observe that apart from actual wars between classes and nations, there exists underneath a terrible war of ideas. Upon closer scrutiny, McKenna finds that self-professed neo-Marxists and post-Marxists have succeeded in disfiguring Marx’s ideas, rendering them both anachronistic and innocuous for the powers that be. The damage – for that is how it should be qualified according to the author – is carried out often by catapulting class struggle through several stylistic and thematic maneuvers, reifying the historical totality and rendering Marxism a purely theoretical abstraction divorced from reality.
McKenna starts with what he labels as the founding fathers of critical theory, often introduced in philosophy manuals not only as neo-Marxists but as the anti-fascist ‘luminaries’: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Underneath their rhetoric of updating Marx’s ideas for the realities of the early-to-mid twentieth century, McKenna tracks in their approach a Nietzschean disenchantment with ordinary people. Uncontrolled consumption on the part of the masses spells a false consciousness, a situation that explains how a ‘culture industry’ is behind the infuriating reproduction of generic individuals. Without focus on the predominant mode of production, these thinkers strike at the universalist drive and logic of the enlightenment. McKenna deems that critique of universalism abstract because it refracts the egalitarian propulsion of modernity and seeks to stifle it. With the three theorists, the author finds a nostalgia for a world order where the undeserving masses knew their place in the world and acted accordingly.
In a second theoretical move, McKenna finds the ‘celebrity’ post-Marxists such as Louis Althusser, Chantal Mouffe, Ernest Laclau and Slavoj Žižek practicing a philosophy that is pre-Hegelian despite their claims to the contrary. With each one’s endeavor there lies but a lip service to the concept of historical unfolding. Althusser claims to have resolved the base-superstructure problematic by leveling all contradictions: claiming on the one hand that ideology produces social beings, and on the other that ideology is but a discursive structure or system of myths and images, denuded of historical rationale or significance. Althusser invents a set of words such as ‘structure’, ‘field of discursivity’, ‘discourse’, while Mouffe and Laclau invent ‘horizon’ – all aiming to vaporize the subversive content of any given ideology. Žižek deploys Lacan’s pre-given, ahistorical and reified notion of the Real retroactively in order to mediate it (the Real) historically through haunting. But haunting remains a purposeless historicity active despite itself, self-reflexive, not self-reflective. If haunting serves anything at all, McKenna explains, it confirms the convoluted process of Žižekean method and its illusive claims of historicity.
The third theoretical move addresses the writings of celebrity scholars such as Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson. In as much as they both portend themselves as first-and-foremost literary theorists, where the floating of signifiers and war on causality are the currency for imminence, the two authors illustrate their two-faced stance vis-à-vis the Hegelian approach. If taste and aesthetic sensibility register a constant change whereby humanity can deem Shakespeare outmoded, Eagleton only expresses his oversight of the Hegelian concept of sublation. For sublation underlines how brutal changes and radical breaks are fantasies nursed by the deranged. As historical change manifests itself too slowly, it involves both preservation and negation. It is this rule that makes a binding totality. But Eagleton falls instead for ideology which, according to him, solely determines taste. With respect to Jameson, the stipulation of the Lacanian ‘Real’, as the absent cause for history, annuls any sensible sense for approaching reality. McKenna traces several contradictions like ‘history is not a text’, and ‘we encounter history only through a text’. The postmodernist stances where reality lacks a center, which the two stars both prize more than their alleged Marxist credentials, stifle their analysis and absolve revolutionary substance.
The fourth theoretical chapter addresses Moishe Postone’s critique of Lukács’ reification theory. McKenna pinpoints how Postone’s flawed reading of Marx spills over in how he mistakenly interprets Lukács. Instead of situating modernity as an acceleration from the mercantile mode of production, Postone mistakes bureaucracy and the work ethic embedded in Protestantism – both of which are essential corners of modernity – for the experience of reification. In seeking to update Marx by proposing that his subject matter is capital, not labor, Postone cannot register how the ‘total subject’ translates the self-realization of the proletariat into a revolution that will eventually cancel both classes and capital. McKenna follows with an elaborate contextualization of Lukács’ theory of reification, which for him, truly qualifies as an extension of Marx’s method. Zooming in on the proximity of Lukács’ ideas with the living experience of workers, and in each theoretical sortie, McKenna follows the logical implications from the contradictions in the exchange of labor. For the capitalists, the exchange of wage with labor can only be a fair exchange. The capitalists and even the reified workers genuinely fail to register that any industry or business cannot stay afloat without the expropriation of surplus value, that amount of wealth generated beyond the socially necessary labor. Only the worker in transcending the reificatory nature of the exchange notes the injustice not of the exchange as such but in the exchange of the amount of labor accomplished with the wage received. All the thinkers McKenna addresses in the book fail to either note this basic fact (the tension that organically emerges from the contrastive registering of the terms of the contract), or to follow fully on its socio-political implications. For the reduction of the worker’s wage into a cost (exactly like any other costs) in the production line is itself reification. In contrast, the conscious worker does not only seize on the meaning of reification but actively works to reverse it via a revolution in the mode of production and distribution.
These four chapters are interspersed with three others that are less heavy and more illustrative of the points addressed in the theoretical chapters. Chapter two reviews the film of Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and finds that through its two protagonists, the film showcases both extreme instances of reification as well as several ways for its subversion. For the benefit of the general reader, chapter four teases further the qualitative dimensions of reification as experienced in everyday life, the way it is elaborated by McKenna’s hero, Lukács. Chapter six elucidates the Hegelian idea of subject-object identity through the protagonist’s failure in a Stephen King’s novel.
Overall, the wording of the chapters’ titles strike the reader as particularly strong, candid and uncompromising; they raise an interesting discussion of polemic which McKenna also convincingly addresses in the final chapter. For him, academia should not practice willing blindness before convoluted publications: confused and confusing writing styles by celebrity academics such as the ones he carefully examines in War Against Marxism. He calls for, and rightly so, communicating in accessible language, never seeking to hide behind wordy formulations. McKenna is not totally flabbergasted at the ways in which such deleterious forms of writing escape detection by editors, reviewers and critics, and then connect that state of affairs with the war on Marxism, less as a conspiracy and more as an immanent subscription to a bourgeois worldview by so-called Marxist thinkers. This is a category of academics entertaining pronounced leftist sensitivities as they could be genuinely disgusted with the capitalist quagmire, but who still cannot take up the struggle for justice seriously or are willing to see that justice in their lifetimes.
McKenna’s argument is warm and does not shy away from being occasionally passionate. Not all scholars are open to elaborate on their peers’ writing styles, especially if such peers are well-known and well placed. But McKenna shows that convoluted writing – no matter who is behind it – serves a purpose. Not only does impoverished writing translate into a poor grasp of the Hegelian method, but is geared toward ridiculing Marx’s findings in respect to subject-object identity being the sine qua non for the revolution. Still, of all his alertness, McKenna does not recount that Althusser advises his readers to skip the first chapter of Capital altogether and start from the second. If one abandons the fourth section of chapter one, the structuralist take of Althusser becomes less questionable. Such gross methodological derailments could have been explained by noting the cult of the vanguard, or the narcissist trust in the gifted individual, which Hegel brilliantly addresses early on in Phenomenology of Spirit. McKenna could have explained that the force of the Greek logos lies in translating the selfless verbalization of practical knowledge (not wisdom) from the pre-Socratic times to the present. That capacity to speak la déchirure, or the rupture from the Mesolithic order which the Neolithic Revolution has ushered in, explains that force behind The Communist Manifesto. Indeed, Marx and Engels qualify their method as scientific not because it is selfless, but because it further accounts for that rupture manifested throughout time and space. The unfolding of historical totality has no patience for a pathological ego.
In closing, The War Against Marxism serves an important corrective for the way literary theory is pathetically introduced: take any theory you want, or accelerate two or even three against each other in the free markets of ideas, regardless of their often irreconcilable fundaments. Given such a liberal approach, theory has become a tool to keep universities busy, that is, forever enmeshed in what the French call la parlerie, that particularly empty exchange aiming to sell the illusion that something radical or truly subversive is being gestated but, in the meanwhile, the bourgeois idol remains untouched. In such circumstances, it is of little wonder that the humanities are constantly shelled. McKenna’s contribution specifies, however indirectly, that literary theory is the warehouse that ensures the breeding of future cultural critics, art historians, sociologists and political scientists, that is, those individuals who can either enforce the bourgeois model or reverse it. Indirectly, McKenna is saying that even when one thinks they can afford to dismiss Marx’s insights, one still cannot ignore the findings from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Accepting the unfolding of historical totality as an egoless instantiation disarms people’s resistance to class war, as it becomes self-evident that Marx merely situates Hegel’s historical method in its socio-political reality.
30 August 2021
Fouad Mami is a literature scholar from the department of English, University of Adrar (Algeria). He teaches African Literature and Literary Theory.
This article was produced by Marx & Philosophy.
In 2008, an anonymous paper was released through a cryptography mailing list entitled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.1 Under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, the unidentified author(s) fused together a myriad of known cryptography and consensus algorithms in novel fashion in order to create a decentralized electronic currency.
Since the inception of Bitcoin, there has been a steady climb of intrigue towards Bitcoin and blockchain, the name of the technology underlying bitcoin, from regulators, industry, and speculators. The key promise Bitcoin makes, and which makes it novel, is the notion of consensus.2 In other words, how do all parties using Bitcoin come to an agreement on the true state of things. In the context of paper banking, we have institutions that mediate and resolve these conflicts through banks and courts. But if we no longer have these centers of authority to look towards, how can we reach a conclusion as a collective?
The solution Bitcoin uses is a game-theoretic approach known as Proof of Work (PoW). In PoW, computers compete to be the first to solve an arbitrary computationally difficult problem. The first to solve this problem gets rewarded, and they become the ones to introduce the next block (a set of transaction data and metadata) onto the blockchain. The logic is that, since solving the problem expends a great deal of energy, and since there is no guaranteed reward for expending that energy (being the first to solve the problem is not necessarily deterministic, it is probabilistic in nature), then it deters malicious actors. Furthermore, if honest actors in the blockchain network disagree with the block that is added to the blockchain, they can ignore it, and the creator of that block will not be rewarded. Put simply, there are high costs and little incentive associated with putting false transaction data on the blockchain.
There are a handful of issues with this solution. Bitcoin has come under criticism due to the large amount of electricity it requires to sustain itself, even more electricity than some countries utilize.3 Larger companies have set up warehouses filled with specialized compute hardware in order to more effectively mine cryptocurrency, driving up the costs of Graphical Processing Units in particular (although many cryptocurrencies now require application-specific integrated processors in order to be profitable). The more compute hardware you have, the greater likelihood you have to be the one to create the next block and receive the next reward.
Ultimately, capital plays a major role in determining the “truth” of the blockchain. Those with more capital are able to buy more computing hardware, and thus they will have the greatest say in the state of the blockchain, and will also receive the greatest rewards. So in essence, there is little difference from a PoW blockchain and the current workings of capital. The main difference is that money itself becomes depoliticized. No longer are politicians and regulators determining the supply of money. It is now a deterministic, algorithmic approach presiding over the economy. This divide applies both domestically and abroad. The technical and infrastructural disparities between the global north and global south would be reflected in the distribution of cryptocurrency. The global north would use its capital to access greater computational resources and have more control over the global economy as their wealth increases.
Other solutions have been introduced to alleviate some of the issues of PoW, but they fall into similar traps. Proof of stake (PoS) is one popular approach. In PoS, tokens are “staked” to determine the next block on the blockchain. In other words, those maintaining the blockchain will bet their capital on the next block they think will be chosen, and the block that gets chosen is the one which more capital is bet on.4 So those with greater amounts of capital once again have a greater opportunity to control the notion of truth in financial transactions, simply by means of having more capital.
The Sublime Token of Cryptocurrency
In Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, he introduces the notion of the sublime object, with money as the leading example:
Here we have touched a problem unsolved by Marx, that of the material character of money: not of the empirical, material stuff money is made of, but of the sublime material, of that other ‘indestructible and immutable’ body which persists beyond the corruption of the body physical…5
We as subjects are able to recognize money as a sublime object. We also recognize the role that institutions play in the shaping of our economy. Thus, we still point to institutions when contradictions, failures, or catastrophes occur within the cracks of contemporary capitalism.
Instead of pointing to these institutions, or instead of pointing to natural substance such as gold, Bitcoin points to a digital void. What we are left with is an essentialist view of the market as a natural principle. In this sense, we further abstract the Marxian notion of (commodity) fetishism. Not only do we obscure social relations through the exchange of money for commodities, we now abstract the relation between our social relations and the conception of money in itself. Zizek identifies the “invisible” nature of digital currency prior to Bitcoin’s popularity:
When, in a decade or so, money will finally become a purely virtual point of reference, no longer materialized in a particular object, this dematerialization will render its fetishistic power absolute: its very invisibility will render it all-powerful and omnipresent.6
Here, Zizek’s analysis is correct, but still grounded in contemporary banking and financial systems. It could not predict and account for the disembodied nature of cryptocurrency, a notion even more powerful than simply the dematerialization of money — it can be seen, in a sense, as the dematerialization of institutions (banking, finance, contracts, etc.).
Cynicism and Conspiracy
A key concept from a Zizekian point of view is the use of cynical distancing, for the scientific modern subject to act out their fantasies and appear post-ideological:
… the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. […] Cynical distance is just one way — one of many ways — to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.7
The exchange of cryptocurrencies such as Dogecoin, a mock cryptocurrency, are drenched in layers of satire. Even so, many speculators are getting involved in trading these tokens due to their high volatility and high reward potential. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the worst offender of cynicism. In the crypto-sphere, NFTs are tokens provided as proof of ownership of some digital asset such as an image, and their authenticity is maintained by a blockchain. In 2021, NFT sales have topped over $2 billion dollars. Elon Musk has best exemplified this cynicism through a variety of self-aggrandizing acts, frequently promoting Dogecoin and NFTs.
Another silicon valley technocrat, Jack Dorsey, has been in the news for his support of Bitcoin and anarcho-capitalism. Recently, he has tweeted “#wtfhappenedin1971”9 — a reference to a website with anarcho-capitalist leanings that blames the issues of the US economy on Nixon’s decision to leave the gold standard. This seems to be fetishism at its most severe. Money, once it becomes fully digital and the “last traces of its materiality disappears,”10 it paradoxically becomes a virtually-material substance. A talk given at Bitcoin 2021 best summarizes this view:
“When you own bitcoin you own the thing, you have a claim to the thing. That is what cash was supposed to be to gold.”11
Is this not simply the search for greater meaning, and a failure to acknowledge the social role of money? To avoid identifying money as social, it becomes naturalized as a mystical thing, just as in commodity fetishism. The thing stands in as a representation of a hidden substance contained in an object, which Marx identified as human labor. Here it is clear that the libertarian view can not properly historicize the events following the Nixon shock, thus, there is a quick move to project this gap in their ideology to a positive object, in this case gold, to explain the crises of late-capitalism.
In Karl Marx and the Blockchain, Basu and Gabbay argue that Blockchain in its current state is a utopian pipe-dream, however, they recognize the potential of the technology to relieve some of the contradictions Marx pointed out:
There seems nowhere to turn, the system is wobbling, and the key component of trust in that system, is ebbing away.
If so, then this is an arc which Marx predicted. The endpoint of his prediction was a social collapse which may yet happen, and (so the fear) we may be trapped on this trajectory by an economic logic which we struggle to escape.
[…] Next to this, cryptocurrencies promise a way out which is not obviously any more crazy than anything else, and this is why Bitcoin has bounced back from one disaster after another and why research and investment continue to flow to blockchain tech, trying to make it work.12
Their analysis is fairly reasonable as they identify the need of democratization in order for cryptocurrency to succeed, pointing out that “this democratization and diffusion is likely to change the tech beyond recognition.”13 While there is potential in the original ideas proposed by Nakamoto, it will require great effort, research, and collaboration to change the form into one that can be used in a truly egalitarian way.
I can’t help but think of Jodi Dean’s notion of communicative capitalism, the contemporary form of neoliberal capitalism in which the internet has combined individuality, liberal democracy, and capitalism into a body which suppresses collective action and desire, particularly with an emphasis on the commodification in communication systems.14 There are parallels that can be made here as well. The decentralization of the economy may simply be a parallel to that of our forms of communication, in which every individual can broadcast their ideas to the internet. Though Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are often represented as a game-changer, they are ultimately just a shift in form as capital transmutes and finds new ways to sustain itself. As the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto points to a void, an empty signifier, a non-person — so too does Bitcoin point to a void, a depoliticized hierarchical currency, with no anchoring body. In order to truly break free from unnecessary hierarchy, we must continue to fight for radical egalitarianism, leveraging technological advances, while not being dependent on them as an easy solution.
1. Satoshi Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” 2008.
2. For more information regarding the problem of consensus, see Leslie Lamport, Robert E. Shostak, and Marshall C. Pease, "The Byzantine Generals Problem." ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems 4, no. 3 (1982): 382-401.
3. Cristina Criddle, “Bitcoin consumes ‘more electricity than Argentina.’” BBC. February 10, 2021. Accessed August 21, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/13/nft-sales-top-2-billion-in-first-quarter-with-interest-from-newcomers.html. Accessed August 21, 2021.
4. Vitalik Buterin, and Virgil Griffith, “Casper the Friendly Finality Gadget.” 2017.
5. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso Books, 2009), 9.
6. Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso Books, 2017), 35.
7. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 30.
8. Robert Frank, “NFT sales top $2 billion in first quarter, with twice as many buyers as sellrs.” CNBC, April 13, 2021.
9. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/jack/status/1426892980749848579?s=20. Accessed August 21, 2021.
10. Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 302.
11. This talk occurs at Bitcoin 2021, a conference promoted by Bitcoin Magazine. Video retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxX-90cz9aM. Accessed August 21, 2021.
12. Devraj Basu, and Murdock Gabbay, “Karl Marx and the Blockchain.” 2020, 10-11. Available online at https://arxiv.org/pdf/2007.13346.pdf.
14. See The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean.
Francis Hayes is an activist focusing on international relations, development, and technology. Francis has a Master's degree in Computer Science with a focus on social data mining.
Now that the Soviet Union has passed into history many people have written books and articles trying to explain what happened. Perhaps some books written before the event are more enlightening than many written after it.
One such book, I would like to suggest, is Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis. This book was originally published in 1958 and was roundly condemned both by pro-Soviet progressives and by the cold warriors of anticommunism.
Marcuse thought he must have gotten to the heart of things when both sides interpreted him as supporting the other. The truth, however, is that Marcuse was trying to be "objective"-- within the limits imposed by the political conditions of the 1950s.
This little review will only discuss Marcuse’s 1961 preface to the Viking paperback edition. Its point is to suggest that we can learn a great deal from a critical engagement with Marcuse, especially with respect to understanding the future prospects of a revitalization of the international working class movement. This is a hopeful article in the "it is always darkest before the dawn" tradition.
Marcuse wrote about the historical tendencies in the Soviet Union of Khrushchev. Now, over sixty years later, we are in a position to evaluate his understanding of these tendencies.
One of the first things he discusses is the dispute over "peaceful coexistence" between the Soviets and the Chinese. Both sides accepted the need for peaceful coexistence but their reasons were very different-- in fact they were dialectically opposite so we might have expected that they would get together (a synthesis). We know this didn’t happen. The Soviets, in fact, were simply negated.
The dispute centered on the nature of imperialism-- and if you get this wrong you lose.
The Soviets maintained that Lenin’s thesis on the inevitability of war was no longer valid in the post World War II era. Both sides agreed that the "essence" of imperialism had not changed. The Chinese also conceded that it was possible to avert war.
So what was the problem? The Soviets maintained that the growing strength of the world socialist movement had weakened the imperialists and they were now not likely to want to engage in warlike activity. They needed peace to consolidate their weakened position and could be best contained in a non-confrontational matter through diplomacy and compromise-- meanwhile the ever growing power of the socialist world, in conjunction with the national liberation struggle in the third world, would make the imperialists behave themselves. The Chinese wanted a more militant struggle. This was an argument over tactics. The Chinese agreed that the balance of forces were now (the 1950s) tipping against the imperialists, but they thought this would make them even more, not less, likely to engage in warlike activity-- out of desperation.
The Vietnam War seems to show that the Chinese were correct. And even though that war ended in a great victory for third world peoples and a major imperialist defeat, the world balance of forces did not end up tipping against the imperialists. It now looks like they are still trying to be in control but their inability to defeat the Taliban and the resurgence of China as world power, as well as Russia’s upsetting their applecart in Syria, does not bode well for them.
Also, what was the war in Iraq if not a desperate and foolish bid to try and dominate the middle east and its oil reserves by force? The imperialists are squabbling among themselves and ever more areas of the world are beginning to stand up to them-- the DPRK, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and China are not under their control, and countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa are moving out of their orbit (we might also add Iran). There are also anti-imperialist movements in Nepal, Columbia and Bolivia as well as other Central and South American countries which challenge the notion of imperialism’s unchecked dominance. So, while the Chinese no longer practice the militant foreign policy advocated in the 50s, they are still pursuing anti-imperialist policies with respect to US imperialism.
Now Marcuse makes a very interesting point. He says a society should try "to satisfy the vital material and intellectual needs of all its members with a minimum of imposed labor," and this "requires planning and control of the economy with a view to this end; it also requires re-education with a view to exchangeability of functions and a transvaluation of values, subverting a repressive work morality."
The real world is very far from this state of affairs, it is full of privation, misery and exploitation as well as alienation. Marcuse says realists might dismiss the above as utopian and unrealistic blathering. He uses the word "eschatological" to describe his depiction of a society based on material freedom. The interesting point is that contemporary western societies based on capitalism do not even aim at creating such a society. It is also the case that the Soviet Union did not itself reflect such a society on the ground, as it were.
Nevertheless, according to Marcuse, the Soviet Union is a qualitatively (I should say "was") different type of industrial society than capitalism because its eschatological vision was precisely to create the above described society of material freedom. It held out this goal as an attainable reality only hindered by the historical conditions of backwardness and capitalist encirclement.
In 1958, Marcuse saw the possibility that the Soviet Union might be able to further develop its technological base so that "it may militate against the further use of technology for perpetuating individually unnecessary labor" this could lead "to the elimination of scarcity and toil."
Although Marcuse realized that he would be charged with utopian fantasies, he also maintained that compared to the status quo (unacceptable human exploitation and alienation), the eschatological vision provided by the Soviet Union held out to humanity, and kept alive the notion that another world was possible.
Even though the Soviet Union was destroyed by counterrevolutionary forces engendered by both its internal contradictions and its situation in a hostile capitalist encirclement, the vision of a just and humane society remains. It is up to us to keep it alive for the future.
Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, New York, Vintage Books, 1961
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.
Recently, People’s World published an article in which the author, Andrew Wright, criticizes OnlyFans, a popular pornography platform, for banning some forms of sexual content. Wright forgoes a Marxist position of the sex trade, and instead, espouses a neoliberal line on the topic, claiming “sex work is work,” in defence of preserving the industry. In Wright’s worldview, the ruling class is pitted against those dependent upon the sex trade for survival, viewing them as social pariahs rather than an asset for mass capital accumulation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In this piece, I argue that the ruling class continues to profit off of a sex industry which needs to abolished and only uses regulation as an afterthought to cover their tracks.
The article begins by vagueley reporting on the recent developments of OnlyFans, an online platform where content creators sell private content, mostly pornography, to subscribers. In an update to the terms of service for content creators, OnlyFans officially banned some sexually explicit content on the platform in an attempt to shift the company’s brand to one similar to Patreon or other fan-based subscription services. While they are specifically banning image and video content which include masturbation, penetrative and oral sex, and prescence of bodily fluids, other forms of nudity and sexual content are still allowed. The reason for this, as cited by Wright, is “mounting pressure from banking partners.”
While it is true that financial institutions are applying pressure, they and digital pimps such as OnlyFans, view the issue of hosting sexually explicit content as more of a financial or legal liability, rather than a moral one. Wright conveniently omits the reason why financial insitutions are hesitant to continue ties with sex trade startups, corporations, and monopolies, such as OnlyFans, PornHub, and it’s parent enterprise, MindGeek. These companies openly and commonly host sexually explicit content of minors, revenge porn, filmed rape, and other forms of real world sex trafficking. Further, it is still impossible to get age or consent verifications on the more “tame” media. Getting caught profiting off of more explicit sexual exploitation creates legal and investing difficulties for the growing company. Their inability, or more frankly, unwillingness, to regulate content is a testament to their business model: perpetuating harm in exchange for short-term profit.
Fortunately, sustained pressure from organizers can sometimes force regulation. For example, in December of 2020, PornHub scrubbed all unverified content (millions of videos and 80% of PornHub’s total content) from the site only after lawsuits by dozens of victims, backed by campaigns such as #TraffickingHub, were filed. The ensuing bad publicity caused partnering companies Visa, Discover, and Mastercard to take cover and pull out.
Wright poses this contradiction as one of conservative vs. liberal moralism rather than one of capital accumulation. For example, the idea that social stigma is the main perpetrator of harm against participants of the sex trade implies that moral repositioning of society will improve their conditions. In reality, Western society, specifically directed by men, increasingly encourages women towards sexual liberalism. Yet in the process, the social objectification of women, mass rape culture, and commodification of sex worsen. No matter what moral position they claim to take, it is understandably easier to ban sexual content completely as an appeal to future investors than it is for them to do the impossible task of regulating digital content for age and consent verification.
The Sex Work Pyramid Scheme
OnlyFans accumulated over $2 billion dollars in sales in 2020 alone, raking in 20% of the income of all of their content creators---most of whom were women pushed into the sex trade during the global pandemic. Tim Stockely, son of a banker and owner of OnlyFans, stated that in May 2020, the site was onboarding 7,000-8,000 new content creators and 150,000 new users per day, expanding by 615% in one year. The company utilizes it’s top content creators to propagandize for the platform in the style of multi-level-marketing schemes, otherwise known as pyramid schemes. Those facing poverty are told that they can easily make a living by becoming a “sex worker”. For each new content creator onboarded, the referrer is awarded 5% of the new content creator’s revenue. Like in every pyramid scheme, only those at the apex are profitable. In a now over-saturated market of tens of thousands of women vying for survival, the average income of an OnlyFans content creator is only $180 per month.
“Sex work is work” is typically circulated as blind rhetoric in response to complicated contradictions and shared as a common sense truth among academic and reformist activist circles. It intentionally obscures the basis upon which the sex trade is perpetuated, primarily upon the backs of the most marginalized in society. As pointed out by revolutionary communist and sex trade survivor Esperanza Fonseca,
The question of whether sex work is work was framed to fuse the interests of the sex worker with the industry. The problem, of course, is that this fusion is entirely superficial because the prostitute’s interests are diametrically opposed to that of the pimp and the buyer. “Sex work is work” then becomes more about protecting the interests of the sex industry and less about protecting women forced and coerced into prostitution. (The problem with the phrase “sex work is work”, 2020)
She points out that the question we should instead be asking is, “what is the commodity bought and sold and what effect does this commodification have on women and LGBT people in our class?” Communists should, on principle, oppose all forms of exploitation and seek to transform society, rather than capitulating to capitalist industry. That so-called socialists seek to normalize and defend sex exploitation is a grave situation to be in. Blanket phrases such as “sex work is work” serve to obscure and flatten the exploitation inherent in the reification of bodies, sex, and relationships.
The Communist Tradition
Self-proclaimed pro-sex trade socialists like Andrew Wright refuse to acknowledge that the sex trade itself exists upon the nexus of capitalism and patriarchy, and should in no way be defended as an institution. They abandon the decades-long communist analysis against sex exploitation and financial coercion in favor of neoliberal feminist talking points, as correctly pointed out by comrades at Midwestern Marx. In recent decades, the Western left has increasingly sided with capitalists on the topic of the sex trade. Even the slightest critique of the sex industry is seen as an attack upon the workers themselves. In no way should the ruling class be viewed as sharing in our interests as workers, nor should they be considered our saviors.
Instead of aligning ourselves with corporate pimps such as OnlyFans and Pornhub, it is the duty of revolutionaries to assess the sex industry on a materialist basis. We know that the vast majority of those in the sex trade do not wish to remain there. Funding and providing exit programs and support systems for people to be able to exit the sex trade and stay exited should be prioritized. Legislative policies that decriminalize the exploited while not protecting their exploiters (pimps, johns, and capitalists) should also be a top priority. Pro-sex trade leftists rarely, if ever, acknowledge this necessity---even in a global pandemic.
Unlike under capitalism where women’s bodies are commodified, Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai explains:
Under communism all dependence of women upon men and all the elements of material calculation found in modern marriage will be absent. Sexual relationships will be based on a healthy instinct for reproduction prompted by the abandon of young love, or by fervent passion, or by a blaze of physical attraction or by a soft light of intellectual and emotional harmony. Such sexual relationships have nothing in common with prostitution [...]. Under communism, prostitution and the contemporary family will disappear. Healthy, joyful and free relationships between the sexes will develop. A new generation will come into being, independent and courageous and with a strong sense of the collective: a generation which places the good of the collective above all else. (Prostitution and ways of fighting it, 1921)
As socialists, we must view socialism as the pathway to the abolition of all forms of exploitation. I encourage all those who care about the lives of those in the sex trade to abandon their liberalism and adopt the communist line against the institutions of capitalism and patriarchy, and against sex exploitation of all forms.
Brigid Ó Coileáin is an NYC-based communist organizer, educator, and sex trade abolitionist. She is a founder and host of the Probably Cancelled podcast, a project that challenges mainstream liberal ideology and analyses feminism from a revolutionary Marxist perspective. In following the lineage of Alexandra Kollontai, Thomas Sankara, and Anuradha Ghandy, her work aims to unite the struggles of class and sex/gender-based oppression.
The Real Reason why Socrates is Killed and why Class Society Must Whitewash his Death. By: Carlos L. GarridoRead Now
The killing of Socrates left a stain on the fabric of Athenian society, a stain it nearly expanded 80 years later with similar threats of impiety towards an Aristotle determined not to let Athens “sin twice against philosophy.” This original sin against philosophy has been immortalized in philosophy classrooms for millenniums to come – turning for philosophy the figure of Socrates what for Christian theology is the figure of Jesus. A variety of interpretations concerning the reasons for his sentencing have since arose. The most dominant, though, is that Socrates was killed because of impiety. This interpretation asserts that Socrates was corrupting the youth by shifting them away from the God’s of the state and towards new divinities and spiritualities. This hegemonic reading of his death relies almost exclusively on a reading of Socrates as solely a challenger of the existing forms of religious mysticism in Athens. This essay argues that this interpretation is synechdochal – it takes the part at the top layer to constitute the whole (as if one could explain pizza merely by talking about the cheese). Instead, the death of Socrates is political – he is killed because he challenges the valuative system necessary for the smooth reproduction of the existing social relations in Athens. This challenge, of course, includes the religious dimension, but is not reducible to it. Instead, as Plato has Socrates’ character assert in the Apology, the religious accusation – spearheaded by Meletus – will not be what brings about his destruction.
Our access to the trial of Socrates (399 BCE) is limited to Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates to the Jury. Out of these two, Plato’s has remained the most read, in part because Xenophon was not in Athens the day of the trial (making his source secondary), and in part because of the immense prominence of Plato in the history of philosophy. To understand the death sentence, we must thus turn to Plato’s Apology.
The Apology is one of Plato’s early works and the second in the chronology of dialogues concerning Socrates’ final days: Euthyphro (pre-trial), Apology (trial), Crito (imprisonment), and Phaedo (pre-death). Out of the Apology arise some of the most prominent pronouncements in philosophy’s history; viz., “I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” and “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Philosophy must thank this dialogue for the plethora of masterful idioms it has given us, but this dialogue must condemn philosophy for its unphilosophical castration of the radical meaning behind Socrates’ death.
In the dialogue Socrates divides his accusers into two groups – the old and the new. He affirms from the start that the more dangerous are the former, for they have been around long enough to socialize people into dogmatically believing their resentful defamation of Socrates. These old accusers, who Socrates states have “took possession of your minds with their falsehoods,” center their accusations around the following:
Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.
Before Socrates explains what they specifically mean by this inversion of making the “worse appear the better,” he goes through the story of how he came to make so many enemies in Athens. To do this he tells us of his friend Chaerephon’s trip to Delphi where he asks the Pythian Prophetess’ whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates – to which they respond, “there was no man wiser.” The humble but inquisitive Socrates sought out to prove he could not have been the wisest. He spoke to politicians, poets, and artisans and found each time that his superior wisdom lied in his modesty – insofar as he knew he did not know, he knew more than those who claimed they knew, but who proved themselves ignorant after being questioned. Thus, he concluded that,
Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.
This continual questioning, which he considered his philosophical duty to the Gods, earned him the admiration of the youth who enjoyed watching his method at work and eventually took it upon themselves to do the same. But it also earned him the opposite of youthful admiration – the resentment of those socially-conceived-of wise men who were left in the puzzling states of aporia. His inquisitive quest, guided by an egalitarian pedagogy which freely (as opposed to the charging of the Sophists) taught everyone, “whether he be rich or poor,” earned him the admiration of many and the condemnation of those few who benefitted from having their unquestioned ‘knowledge’ remain unquestioned.
After explaining how his enemies arose, without yet addressing what the old accusations referred to by saying he made the “worse appear the better cause,” he addresses the accusation of Meletus, which spearheads the group of the new accusers. It is Meletus who condemns Socrates from the religious standpoint – first by claiming he shifts people away from the God’s of the state into “some other new divinities or spiritual agencies,” then, in contradiction with himself, by claiming that Socrates is a “complete atheist.” Caught in the web of the Socratic method, Socrates catches the “ingenious contradiction” behind Meletus’ accusations, noting that he might as well had shown up to the trial claiming that “Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods, and yet of believing in them,” for, after a simple process of questioning, this is ultimately what Meletus’ charges amount to. Socrates thus asserts with confidence that his destruction will not be because of Meletus, Anytus, or any of these new accusers focusing on his atheism. Those which will bring about his destruction, those which from the start he asserted to be more dangerous, are those leaders of Athenian society whose hegemonic conception of the good, just, and virtuous he questioned into trembling.
Having annulled the reason for his death being the atheism charges of Meletus and the new enemies, what insight does he give us into the charges of the old, who claim he made the “worse appear the better cause?” He says,
Why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?
This passage gets at the pith of his death sentence – he questions the values of accumulating money, power, and status which dominated an Athens whose ‘democracy’ had just recently been restored (403 BCE) after the previous year’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE). This ‘democracy,’ which was limited to adult male citizens, created splits between the citizens, women, children, foreigners, slaves, and semi-free laborers. Nonetheless, the citizen group was not homogenous – sharp class distinctions existed between the periokoi – small landowners who made up the overwhelming majority in the citizen group; the new wealthy business class which partook in “manufacturing, trade, and commerce” (basically an emerging bourgeois class); and the aristoi – a traditional aristocracy which owned most of the land and held most of the political offices.
The existing ruling ideas, determined by the interests and struggle of the aristocracy and emerging bourgeois class, considered the accumulation of money, power, and status to be morally good. These values, integral to the reproduction of the existing social relations of Athens, were being brought under question by Socrates. Socrates was conversing indiscriminately with all – demonstrating to rich, poor, citizen and non-citizen, that the life which pursues wealth, power, and status cannot bring about anything but a shallow ephemeral satisfaction. In contrast, Socrates would postulate that only a life dedicated to the improvement of the soul via the cultivation of virtue can bring about genuine meaning to human life. This is a complete transvaluation of values – the normative goodness in the prioritization of wealth, power, and status has been overturned by an anthropocentric conception of development, that is, a conception of growth centered around humans, not things.
Socrates, then, is not just killed because he questions religion – this is but one factor of many. Instead, Socrates is killed because he leaves nothing unexamined; because he questions the hegemonic values of Athenian society into demonstrating their shamefulness, and in-so-doing proposes a qualitatively new way of theoretically and practically approaching human life. He does not call for a revolutionary overthrow of the aristocracy and for the subsequent installation of a worker’s city-state in Athens, but he does question the root values which allow the Athenian aristocracy to sustain its position of power. Socrates was killed because, as Cornel West says of Jesus, he was “ running out the money changers.”
With this understanding of Socrates’ death sentence, we can also understand why it must be misunderstood. Socrates’ condemnation of Athenian society, if understood properly, would not limit itself to critiquing Athenian society. Instead, it would provide a general condemnation of the money-power driven social values that arise when human societies come into social forms of existence mediated by class antagonisms. Socrates is taught to have been killed for atheism because in a secularized world as ours doing so castrates his radical ethos. If we teach the real reason why Socrates died, we are giving people a profound moral argument, from one of the greatest minds in history, against a capitalist ethos which sustains intensified and modernized forms of the values Socrates condemns.
In modern bourgeois society we are socialized into conceiving of ourselves as monadic individuals separated from nature, community, and our own bodies. There is an ego trapped in our body destined to find its “authentic” self in bourgeois society via the holy trinity of accumulating wealth, brand name commodities, or social media followers. Society provides little to no avenues for an enduring meaningful life – for, human life itself is affirmed only in the inhuman, in inanimate objects. Only in the ownership of lifeless objects does today value arise in human life. The magazine and newspaper stands do not put on their front covers the thousands of preventable deaths that take place around the world because of how the relations of production in capitalism necessarily turn into vastly unequal forms of distributions. Instead, the deaths of the rich and famous are the ones on the covers. Those lives had money, and thus they had meaning, the others did not have the former, and thus neither the latter.
Today Socrates is perhaps even more relevant than in 399 BCE Athenian society. As humanity goes through its most profound crisis of meaning, a philosophical attitude centered on the prioritization of cultivating human virtue, on the movement away from the forms of life which treat life itself as a means, significant only in its relation to commodities (whether as producer, i.e., commodified labor power or as consumer), is of dire necessity. Today we must affirm this Socratic transvaluation of values and sustain his unbreakable principled commitment to doing what is right, even when it implies death. The death of Socrates must be resurrected, for it was a revolutionary death at the hands of a state challenged by the counter-hegemony a 70-year-old was creating. Today the Socratic spirit belongs to the revolutionaries, not to a petty-bourgeois academia which has participated in the generational castration of the meaning of a revolutionary martyr’s death.
 Louise Ropes Loomis, “Introduction,” In Aristotle: On Man in the Universe. (Classics Club, 1971)., p. X.
Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy graduate student and professor 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.
This short book [Bertrand Russell in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2001] of 92 pages is one of many (24 at the time it was published) in Strathern’s 90 Minutes series. If you know absolutely nothing about Russell, perhaps the greatest English speaking philosopher (bourgeois) of the 20th century, you could begin with this book – but you will need more than it provides to really understand Russell. Nevertheless, if Russell is a stranger this isn’t a bad first meeting.
Russell (1872-1970) was both a technical philosopher in the empiricist tradition (Locke, Hume, Mill) and a socially engaged activist – most famously in the “Ban the Bomb Movement”, co-founded with Einstein, of the 1950s and 1960s. He also co-chaired, with Jean Paul Sartre, the war crimes tribunal that exposed the Nazi like criminal behavior of the US in Vietnam, although Strathern doesn’t mention this. Russell got the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. His best known popular works are A History of Western Philosophy (1945), “Why I am Not A Christian” (1927), and The Problems of Philosophy (1912).
Strathern’s short introduction made me a little cautious since he refers to Wittgenstein as “the philosopher who succeeded to his mantle.” This is not an apt comment as Wittgenstein was the moving force behind a philosophical school not endorsed by Russell (ordinary language analysis). No one really succeeded to Russell’s mantle.
Strathern does point out the three great passions that Russell always said drove his life, “the longing for love, the quest for knowledge, and heart-rending pity for the suffering of humanity.” He also points out that Russell’s philosophy was rooted in a scientific world outlook. I think, however, he misrepresents Russell when he writes that he “sought to establish a demonstrably certain logical philosophy....”
Russell maintained that philosophy, like science, was always provisional and dealt with probabilities not “demonstrably certain” knowledge. I think Strathern confused Russell’s empirically based philosophy with his early attempt to deduce arithmetic from logic in Principia Mathematica (co-authored with A. N. Whitehead). Russell was one of the founders of modern mathematical logic. Actually, philosophy was the no man’s land between what we can reliably know (science) and bull shit (religion and related ways of thinking). Philosophy is the set of beliefs we hold until they end up in the former or are consigned to the latter two divisions.
The heart of this book is the 63 page essay “Russell’s Life and Works.” Strathern describes how Russell, who was educated at Cambridge, revolted against the prevailing neo-Hegelian idealism he found at the university and developed a philosophy based on logical analysis which he later called “logical atomism” because it stressed the discreteness of things rather than seeing them as all interrelated parts of the neo-Hegelian “Absolute.”
The best part of this book is Strathern’s explanation of Russell’s Paradox [consider the set of all sets that are not members of themselves; such a set appears to be a member of itself if and only if it is not a member of itself] and his Theory of Types [ to deal with this paradox]. He presents these technical topics that Russell dealt with in mathematical class theory in an easily understandable way so that lay readers can follow the arguments that took place in early 20th century philosophy of mathematics and logic.
Unfortunately, Strathern does not present Russell’s mature philosophy. After the excellent mathematical exposition he gives an overview of Russell’s thought based on works from which he later diverged. This is especially the case with the 1912 The Problems of Philosophy. Strathern should have consulted Russell’s 1959 My Philosophical Development where he gives his final views on many of the topics discussed in the 90 Minutes book. Russell may need more than ninety minutes! This later book is also a good intro Russell”s thought.
Strathern barely mentions Russell’s political views just noting The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, Russell’s diatribe against the Russian Revolution (which also, paradoxically, has great things to say about it) and he never points out Russell’s misreading of Hegel and Marx which mar his reputation as an historian of philosophy.
He also relies too much on Ray Monk’s biography of Russell – which he calls “superb, possibility definitive” without pointing out that many, if not most, Russell scholars react negatively to Monk’s work.
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.
Tony Benn: Democracy and Marxism
Tony Benn was one of the most distinctive political figures of the past 70 years.
His views on the economy, The EU and foreign wars put him at odds with the political establishment and many within Labour, his own party.
Tony Benn often gave us almost sage-like comments on society and the politics surrounding it, his speeches and talks reflected the deep richness of well thought out arguments delivered by a master orator.
Tony Benn was a remarkable man with great gifts that he put at the service of his country. But just as importantly, and he would have emphasised this, he was in a tradition of radical socialists. He wanted his epitaph to be ‘He encouraged us’. It is from his works and reproduced speeches and writings many socialists find a little light and understanding.
In his own words, Benn explains the dangers and repercussions of the Labour Party moving away from its core values and its Left-wing political doctoring’s. This resulted as we well know, in the collapse of the Labour Party under Blair, until it re-established its Left-wing credentials under Corbyn.
“I am an example of someone who moved to the left as I got older. I have known many people who were very left-wing when they were young who ended up as Conservatives. But the experience of government made me realise that Labour was not engaged, as it said it was, in changing society but to make people change to get used to the society we had.” -Tony Benn.
On the Blairites, a centrist political ideology that now forms the foundations of Sir Keir Starmer’s hollow ideology of Starmirisim, Tony Benn pointed out the collapse of public support for Blairism, and why:
“We are paying a heavy political price for 20 years in which, as a party, we have played down our criticism of capitalism and soft-pedalled our advocacy of socialism.”
He also said, as is today within the Labour party: “To be embarrassed by socialism was very much a characteristic of New Labour.”
The Labour Party is once more heading down the road to nowhere, led by the centrists liberal elite, who have no real values or understanding of the working class and their aim to disassociate from the Labour Parties Marxist traditions is underway, we thought now would be a timely reminder of the Labour Parties association with Marxism and a little understanding of the Labour Parties roots, after all its founder Keir Hardie was a Marxist.
While Sir Keir Starmer openly attacks the Left within the Labour Party and is busy digging those foundations up, an act that very much looks like his true intent is to bring the entire house down. We bring to your attention the words of Tony Benn in his address in 1982 ‘Marxism Today,’ a theoretical magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Benn was articulating a theory very different from anything said by a leading politician before. It was also, clearly subversive.
Article By Tony Benn May 1982 Marxism Today
Marxism has only had a limited influence in the British Labour movement: but it will play a crucial role in its future.
Though I was not introduced to socialism through a study of Marx, and would not describe myself as a Marxist, I regard it as a privilege and an honour to have been invited to deliver this Lecture in memory of Karl Marx. The intellectual contribution made by Marx to the development of socialism was and remains absolutely unique.
But Marx was much more than a philosopher. His influence in moving people all over the world to social action ranks him with the founders of the world’s greatest faiths. And, like the founders of other faiths, what Marx and others inspired has given millions of people hope, as well as the courage to face persecution and imprisonment.
Since 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power in the Soviet Union, we have had a great deal of experience of national power structures created in the name of Marxism, and of the achievements and failures of those systems. Some of the sternest critics of Soviet society also based themselves upon Marx, including Leon Trotsky, Mao Tse-Tung, Tito and a range of libertarian Marxist dissidents in Eastern Europe and Eurocommunists in the West.
This Lecture is concerned with only two aspects of Marxism.
First, the challenge which Marxism presents to liberal capitalist societies which have achieved a form of political democracy based upon universal adult suffrage: and second, the challenge to those societies, which have based themselves on Marxism by the demands for political democracy.
It is, I believe, through a study of this mutual challenge that we can get to the heart of many of the problems now confronting the communist and the non-communist countries, and illuminate the conflicts within and between different economic systems and between the developed and the developing world.
Before I begin, let me make my own convictions clear.
⦁I believe that no mature tradition of political democracy today can survive if it does not open itself to the influence of Marx and Marxism.
The evolution of British democracy
If an understanding of socialism begins — as it must — with a scientific study of our own experience, each country can best begin by examining its own history and the struggles of its people for social, economic and political progress.
British socialists can identify many sources from which our ideas have been drawn. The teachings of Jesus, calling upon us to ‘.Jove our neighbour as ourselves’ acquired a revolutionary character when preached as a guide to social action. For example, when, in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the Reverend John Ball, with his liberation theology, allied himself to a popular uprising, both he, the preacher, and Wat Tyler, the peasant leader, were killed and their followers scattered and crushed by the King.
John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants‘ Revolt in England.
The message of social justice, equality and democracy, is a very old one, and has been carried like a torch from generation to generation by a succession of popular and religious movements, by writers, philosophers, preachers, and poets, and has remained a focus of hope, that an alternative society could be constructed. The national political influences of these ideas was seen in 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and in the revolutions in England, America, France and Russia, each of which provided an important impetus to these hopes. But it was the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of modern trade unionism in the 19th century which provided a solid foundation of common interest upon which these Utopian dreams could be based, that gave the campaigns for political democracy and social advance their first real chance of success.
If British experience is unique — as it is — in the history of the working class movement, it lies in the fact that the Industrial Revolution began here, and gave birth to the three main economic philosophies which now dominate the thinking of the world.
The first was capitalism. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, developed the concept of modern capitalism as the best way to release the forces of technology from the dead hand of a declining and corrupted feudalism, substituting the invisible hand of the market and paving the way for industrial expansion and, later, imperialism.
The Manchester School of liberal economists and the liberal view of an extended franchise combined to create a power structure which still commands wide support among the establishment today.
The second was socialism. Robert Owen, the first man specifically identified as a socialist, also developed his ideas of socialism, cooperation and industrial trade unionism out of his experience of the workings of British capitalism. And the third was Marxism.
Marx and Engels also evolved many of their views of scientific socialism from a detailed examination of the nature of British capitalism and the conditions of the working class movement within it. Yet, despite the fact that capitalism, socialism and Marxism all first developed in this country, only one of these schools of thought is now accepted by the establishment as being legitimate. Capitalism, its mechanisms, values and institutions are now being preached with renewed vigour by the British establishment under the influence of Milton Friedman. Socialism is attacked as being, at best, romantic or, at worst, destructive. And Marxism is identified as the anti-Christ against which the full weight of official opinion is continually pitted in the propaganda war of ideas.
The distortion of Marxism
BBC implied subliminal Corbyn wearing a Russian hat with a backdrop of the Kremilin.
The term Marxist is used by the establishment to prevent it being understood. Even serious writers and broadcasters in the British media use the word Marxist as if it were synonymous with terrorism, violence, espionage, thought control, Russian imperialism and every act of bureaucracy attributable to the state machine in any country, including Britain, which has adopted even the mildest left of centre political or social reforms. The effect of this is to isolate Britain from having an understanding of, or a real influence in, the rest of the world, where Marxism is seriously discussed and not drowned by propaganda, as it is in our so-called free press. This ideological insularity harms us all.
This continuing barrage of abuse is maintained at such a high level of intensity that it has obliterated — as is intended — any serious public debate in the mainstream media on what Marxism is about. This negative propaganda is comparable to the treatment accorded to Christianity in non-Christian societies. Any sustained challenge to the existing order that cannot be answered on its merits is dismissed as coming from a Marxist, Communist, Trotskyite, or extremist.
All those suspected of Marxist views run the risk of being listed in police files, having their phones tapped and their career prospects stunted by blacklisting, just as those who advocate liberal ideas will be harassed in the USSR. Those who openly declare their adherence to Marxism are pilloried as self confessed Marxists, as if they had pleaded guilty to a serious crime and were held in custody awaiting trial.
Even the Labour Party, in which Marxist ideas have had a minority influence, is now described as a Marxist party, as if such a statement of itself put the party beyond the pale of civilised conduct, its arguments required no further answer, and its policies are entitled to no proper presentation to the public on the media. One aspect of this propaganda assault which merits notice is that it is mainly waged by those who have never studied Marx, and do not understand what he was saying, or why, yet still regard themselves as highly educated because they have passed all the stages necessary to acquire a university degree. For virtually the whole British establishment has been, at least until recently, educated without any real knowledge of Marxism, and is determined to see that these ideas do not reach the public. This constitutes a major weakness for the British people as a whole.
Six Reasons why Marxism is feared
The People’s Charter
Why then is Marxism so widely abused? In seeking the answer to that question we shall find the nature of the Marxist challenge in the capitalist democracies. The danger of Marxism is seen by the establishment to lie in the following characteristics.
First, Marxism is feared because it contains an analysis of an inherent, ineradicable conflict between capital and labour — the theory of the class struggle. Until this theory was first propounded the idea of social class was widely understood and openly discussed by the upper and middle classes, as in England until Victorian times and later.
But when Marx launched the idea of working class solidarity, as a key to the mobilisation of the forces of social change and the inevitability of victory that that would secure, the term ‘class’ was conveniently dropped in favour of the idea of national unity around which there existed a supposed common interest in economic and social advance within our system of society, whether that common interest is real or not. Anyone today who speaks of class in the context of politics runs the risk of excommunication and outlawry. In short, they themselves become casualties in the class war which those who have fired on them claim does not exist.
Second, Marxism is feared because Marx’s analysis of capitalism led him to a study of the role of state power as offering a supportive structure of administration, justice and law enforcement which, far from being objective and impartial in its dealings with the people, was, he argued, in fact, an expression of the interests of the established order and the means by which it sustains itself. One recent example of this was Lord Denning’s 1980 Dimbleby Lecture. It unintentionally confirmed that interpretation in respect of the judiciary and is interesting mainly because few 20th century judges have been foolish enough to let that cat out of the bag, where it has been quietly hiding for so many years.
Third, Marxism is feared because it provides the trade union and labour movement with an analysis of society that inevitably arouses political consciousness, taking it beyond wage militancy within capitalism. The impotence of much American trade unionism and the weakness of past non-political trade unionism in Britain have borne witness to the strength of the argument for a labour movement with a conscious political perspective that campaigns for the reshaping of society, and does not just compete with its own people for a larger part of a fixed share of money allocated as wages by those who own capital, and who continue to decide what that share will be.
Fourth, Marxism is feared because it is international in outlook, appeals widely to working people everywhere, and contains within its internationalism a potential that is strong enough to defeat imperialism, neo-colonialism and multinational business and finance, which have always organised internationally. But international capital has fended off the power of international labour by resorting to cynical appeals to nationalism by stirring up suspicion and hatred against outside enemies. This fear of Marxism has been intensified since 1917 by the claim that all international Marxism stems from the Kremlin, whose interests all Marxists are alleged to serve slavishly, thus making them, according to capitalist establishment propaganda, the witting or unwitting agents of the national interest of the USSR.
Fifth, Marxism is feared because it is seen as a threat to the older organised religions, as expressed through their hierarchies and temporal power structures, and their close alliance with other manifestations of state and economic power. The political establishments of the West, which for centuries have openly worshipped money and profit and ignored the fundamental teachings of Jesus do, in fact, sense in Marxism a moral challenge to their shallow and corrupted values and it makes them very uncomfortable. Ritualised and mystical religious teachings, which offer advice to the rich to be good, and the poor to be patient, each seeking personal salvation in this world and eternal life in the next, are also liable to be unsuccessful in the face of such a strong moral challenge as socialism makes.
There have, over the centuries, always been some Christians who, remembering the teachings of Jesus, have espoused these ideas and today there are many radical Christians who have joined hands with working people in their struggles. The liberation theology of Latin America proves this and thus deepens the anxieties of church and state in the West.
Sixth, Marxism is feared in Britain precisely because it is believed by many in the establishment to be capable of winning consent for radical change through its influence in the trade union movement, and then in the election of socialist candidates through the ballot box. It is indeed therefore because the establishment believes in the real possibility of an advance of Marxist ideas by fully democratic means that they have had to devote so much time and effort to the
Even serious writers and broadcasters in the British media use the word Marxist as if it were synonymous with terrorism
misrepresentation of Marxism as a philosophy of violence and destruction, to scare people away from listening to what Marxists have to say.
These six fears, which are both expressed and fanned by those who defend a particular social order, actually pinpoint the wide appeal of Marxism, its durability and its strength more accurately than many advocates of Marxism may appreciate.
Marxism and the Labour Party
If the Labour Party could be bullied or persuaded to denounce its Marxists, the media having tasted blood would demand next that it expelled all its socialists
The Communist Manifesto, and many other works of Marxist philosophy, have always profoundly influenced the British labour movement and the British Labour Party, and have strengthened our understanding and enriched our thinking.
It would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx as it would be to establish university faculties of astronomy, anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud, and still expect such faculties to be taken seriously.
There is also a practical reason for emphasising this point now. The attacks upon the so-called hard Left of the Labour Party by its opponents in the Conservative, Liberal and Social Democratic Parties and by the establishment, are not motivated by fear of the influence of Marxists alone. These attacks are really directed at all socialists and derive from the knowledge that democratic socialism in all its aspects does reflect the true interest of a majority of people in this country, and that what democratic socialists are saying is getting through to more and more people, despite the round-the-clock efforts of the media to fill the newspapers and the airwaves with a cacophony of distortion.
If the Labour Party could be bullied or persuaded to denounce its Marxists, the media having tasted blood would demand next that it expelled all its socialists and reunited the remaining Labour Party with the SDP to form a harmless alternative to the Conservatives, which could then be allowed to take office now and again when the Conservatives fell out of favour with the public. Thus, British capitalism, it is argued, would be made safe forever, and socialism would be squeezed off the national agenda. But if such a strategy were to succeed — which it will not — it would in fact profoundly endanger British society. For it would open up the danger of a swing to the far right, as we have seen in Europe over the last 50 years.
Weaknesses of the Marxist position
But having said all that about the importance of the Marxist critique, let me turn to the Marxist remedies for the ills that Marx so accurately diagnosed. There are many schools of thought within the Marxist tradition, and it would be as foolish to lump them all together as to bundle every Christian denomination into one and then seek to generalise about the faith. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of the central Marxist analysis which it is necessary to subject to special scrutiny if the relationship between Marxism and democracy is to be explored.
I have listed some of these aspects because of their relevance to this Lecture, and which explain in part why I would not think it correct to call myself a Marxist.
Marx seemed to identify all social and personal morality as being a product of economic forces, thus denying to that morality any objective existence over and above the interrelationship of social and economic forces at that moment in history. I cannot accept that analysis.
Of course, the laws, customs, administration, armed forces and received wisdom in any society will tend to reflect the interests and values of the dominant class, and if class relationships change by technology, evolution or revolution, this will be reflected in a change of the social and cultural superstructure. But to go beyond that and deny the inherent rights of men and women to live, to think, to act, to argue or to obey or resist in pursuit of some inner call of conscience — as pacifists do — or to codify their relationships with each other in terms of moral responsibility, seems to me to be throwing away the child of moral teaching with the dirty bathwater of feudalism, capitalism or clericalism.
In saying this I am consciously seeking to re-establish the relevance and legitimacy of the moral teachings of Jesus, whilst accepting that many manifestations of episcopal authority and ritualistic escapism have blanked out that essential message of human brotherhood and sisterhood. I say this for many reasons.
First, because without some concept of inherent human rights and moral values and obligations, derived by custom and practice out of the accumulated experience of our societies, I cannot see any valid reason why socialism should have any moral force behind it, or how socialism can relate directly to the human condition outside economic relationships; for example, as between women and men, black and white, or in the relationships within the home and in personal life.
Second, because I regard the moral pressures released by radical Christian teaching, and its humanistic offshoots as having played a major role in developing the ideas of solidarity, democracy, equality and peace, which have contributed to the development of socialist motivation.
Third, because without the acceptance of a strong moral code the ends always can be argued to justify the means, and this lies at the root of some of the oppression which has been practised in actually existing socialist societies.
Fourth, because the teachings of Marx, like the teachings of Jesus, can also become obscured, lost, and even reversed by civil power systems established in states that proclaim themselves to be Marxist, just as many Christian kings and governors destroyed, by their actions, the faith they asserted they were sworn to defend. And if Jesus is to be acquitted of any responsibility for the tortures and murders conducted by the Inquisition, so must Marx be exonerated from any charges arising from the imprisonment and executions that occurred in Stalin’s Russia.
Fifth, because without a real moral impulse and a warm human compassion, I cannot find any valid reason why Marx himself should have devoted so much of his time to works of scholarship and endless political activities, all of which were designed to achieve better conditions for his fellow creatures. That no doubt is why Marx is sometimes regarded as the last of the Old Testament prophets.
If I am asked where these moral imperatives come from it not from the interaction of economic forces, my answer would be that they spring from the wells of human genius interacting upon our experience of life, which were also the sources of inspiration for Marx in his work.
It is very important for many reasons that religion and politics should not be separated into watertight compartments, forever at war with each other. For centuries, the central social arguments and battles which we now see as political or economic, were conducted under the heading of religion. Many of the most important popular struggles were conceived by those who participated in them as being waged in pursuit of religious convictions. Similarly, some of the most oppressive political establishments exercised their power in the name of God.
Unless we are prepared to translate the religious vocabulary which context of politics runs the risk of excommunication and outlawry. served as a vehicle for political ideas for so many centuries into a modern vocabulary that recognises the validity of a scientific analysis both of nature, society, and its economic interests, we shall cut ourselves off from all those centuries of human struggle and experience and deny ourselves the richness of our own inheritance.
Marx and Marxist historians have, of course, consciously re-interpreted ancient history in the light of their own analysis, but no real dictionary can be restricted to a one-way translation based upon hindsight. We need a two-way translation to enable us to understand and utilise, if we wish to do so, the wisdom of earlier years to criticise contemporary society. It is in this context that I find some other aspects of Marxism unsatisfactory.
Marx made much of the difference between scientific socialism and Utopian socialism, which he believed suffered from its failure to root itself in a vigorous study of the economic and political relationships between the social classes. The painstaking scholarship which he and Engels brought to bear upon capitalism has left us with a formidable set of analytical tools without which socialists today would have a much poorer theoretical understanding of the tasks which they are undertaking.
But having recognised that priceless analytic legacy that we owe to Marx, in one sense Marx himself was a Utopian in that he appeared to believe that when capitalism had been replaced by socialism, and socialism by communism, a classless society, liberated by the final withering away of the state, would establish some sort of heaven on earth. Human experience does not, unfortunately, give us many grounds for sharing that optimism. For humanity cannot organise itself without some power structure of the state, and Marx seems to have underestimated the importance of Lord Acton’s warning that power ‘tends to corrupt’ mistakenly believing this danger would disappear under communism.
Morality, accountability and the British labour movement
Tony Blair proclaimed that God will judge whether he was right to send British troops to war, echoing statements from his ally George Bush But we think while he is on this mortal realm a simple Inquiry would do.
It is here that both the moral argument referred to above, and the issue of democratic accountability, which have both played so large a part in the pre-Marxist and non-Marxist traditions of the British labour movement, can be seen to have such relevance.
For allowing for the weaknesses of Labourism, economism and the anti-theoretical pragmatism which have characterised the British working class movement at its worst, two of the beliefs to which our movement has clung most doggedly were the idea that some actions were ‘right’ and others were ‘wrong’; and to the obstinate determination to force those exercising political or economic power over us to accept the ultimate discipline of accountability, up to now seen mainly through the regular use of the ballot box, through which all adults would have their say in a universal suffrage to elect or dismiss governments.
The British working class movement has over the years clung passionately to these twin ideas of morality and accountability in politics and they constitute the backbone of our faith. Some Marxists might argue that these objectives are too limited, are not specifically socialist, and constitute little more than a cover for collaborationist strategies which underpin bourgeois capitalist liberal democracy, complete with its soothing religious tranquillisers.
I readily admit that a humanitarian morality and accountability are not enough, in themselves, to establish socialism, but they are essential if socialism is to be established, and if socialism is to be worth having at all. A socialist economic transformation may be achieved by force, but if so, it then cannot be sustained by agreement, and socialism may degenerate into the imposition of a regime administered by those whose attempts to maintain it can actually undermine it rather than develop it.
The issue of parliamentary democracy
How then, on this analysis, should we approach the arguments between the Marxist and some non-Marxist socialists which have in the past centred around their different assessment of the importance that should be attached to the role of parliamentary democracy?
Before we can do that we have to examine, in some detail, what is meant by the phrase parliamentary democracy, for it lends itself to many definitions. Seen from the viewpoint of the establishment, Britain has enjoyed parliamentary government since 1295. All that has happened in the intervening period is that the Queen-in-Parliament has agreed to exercise the Crown’s powers constitutionally.
This means accepting legislation passed ‘by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled’ and accepting that an elected majority in the House of Commons is entitled to expect that its leader will be asked to form an administration by the Crown; and that that administration will be composed of Her Majesty’s ministers, who in their capacity as Crown advisers will be free to use the Royal prerogatives to administer and control the civil and military services of the Crown.
These democratic advances are circumscribed in four significant respects.
First, in practice by the actual problems confronting an elected Labour government in establishing democratic control over the highly secretive self-directing and hierarchical executive of state power.
Second, by the constitutional power of the Crown to dismiss a government and dissolve a parliament at any time.
Third, by the fact that a government so dismissed, and a parliament so dissolved, lose all legal rights over the state machine and all legislative powers.
Fourth, by the subordination of all United Kingdom legislation even when it has received the Royal Assent, to the superior authority of Common Market Law or Court judgements, which take precedence, under the European Communities Act, over domestic legislation, where the two conflict. It is worth noting that British accession to the EEC involved, in this sense, a major diminution of the powers of the Crown, in that Royal Assent to legislation rendered invalid by the EEC is itself invalid.
Set out baldly like that, it can be seen that in a formal sense Britain is far less democratic in its form of government than those countries whose peoples may elect a President, both Houses of their Legislature and have entrenched their rights in written constitutional safeguards. Why then does the British labour movement appear to be so satisfied with our democratic institutions?
In one sense, of course, it is not. The abolition of the House of Lords and the abrogation of British accession to the Treaty of Rome are amongst the items likely to feature high on the agenda for the next Labour manifesto.
Those who call themselves revolutionary socialists and denounce the rest of us as nothing more than left-talking reformists, are not, in my judgment, real revolutionaries at all.
I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield
The Labour Party just assumes that the Crown will always act with scrupulous care within the constitutional conventions that govern the use of the prerogative, and for that reason have never put this issue on its political agenda. Beyond that Labour believes that the reality of power precludes the possibility that our democratic rights might be overturned by an abnormal use of those formal powers which still reside in the non-elected elements of our constitution. In sharp contrast to the establishment view, Labour’s broad interpretation of the parliamentary democracy we have secured is that by a succession of extra-parliamentary struggles over the centuries the Crown was made accountable to parliament, the Lords were made subordinate to the Commons and the Commons were, through regular election, subordinated to the will of the electorate, made up first of men and later of women too, who have won, in fact, if not yet in constitutional theory, the sovereign rights which belong to the people — which is what democracy is all about.
It is manifestly true that such an achievement, formidable as it is, falls short of a constitutional entrenchment of the sovereignty of the people, and that it secures no more than the right to dismiss governments and MPs and substitute new MPs and new governments. It certainly does not offer, of itself, any control over the extra-parliamentary centres of financial or economic power, which remain whichever government has been elected, or even guarantee ministerial or parliamentary power over the apparatus of the state. To that extent, democracy in Britain is still partial and political but not economic or social.
But if, as I believe, the real strength of parliamentary democracy lies in the fact that the power to remove governments without violent revolution is now vested in the people, that is a very significant gain which should not be dismissed as being of little account, a fraud to be exposed, by-passed and replaced.
One of the reasons why the British Labour Party and the British people are so suspicious of certain supposedly revolutionary schools of Marxist thought is that they believe that insufficient attention is paid by them to the importance of our democratic institutions, thus defined; and fear that if they were to be dismantled we should lose what we struggled so hard and so long to achieve. We would then be set back, perhaps with no gains to show for it. Parliamentary democracy is an evolving system, not yet fully developed, which enjoys wide support for what it has achieved so far.
The myth of revolutionary activity in Britain
Unlike other civil wars in England, which focused on who should rule, this war was more concerned with the manner in which the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland were governed.
Given the fact that all our rights in parliament have been won by struggle, I must add that I have not observed any serious revolutionary movements pledged to destroy parliament anywhere across the whole spectrum of socialist parties of the Left in Britain today.
Those who call themselves revolutionary socialists and denounce the rest of us as nothing more than left-talking reformists, are not, in my judgment, real revolutionaries at all. They are nothing more than left-talking revolutionists, who, while pointing to the deficiencies in our parliamentary democracy, offer themselves as candidates for parliament, and none of them are planning an armed revolution or a general strike to secure power by a coup d’etat. If such people do exist I have not met them, heard of them, or become aware of any influence they have in any known political party or grouping of the Left.
Nor for that matter is there much hard evidence to suggest that there would be wide public support for a counter-revolution to topple an elected Labour government by force on the Chilean model.
I appreciate that in playing down some of the most cherished fears of both ultra-Left and ultra Right, I am laying myself open to a charge of naivete, and depriving the mass media of one of their favourite and most spine-chilling horror myths, which they use to undermine public support for socialism.
If there ever were to be a right wing coup in Britain it would not be carried out by paratroopers landing in central London, as it once seemed they would land in Paris just before de Gaulle came to power, but by an attempt to repeat what happened to Gough Whitlam when the Governor-General dismissed him as Prime Minister. And if the labour movement and the Left were ever to resort to force in Britain, it would not be to overthrow an elected government but to prevent the overthrow of an elected government, ie, in defence of, and not in defiance of, parliamentary democracy. It is, in this sense, and only in this sense, that the use of popular force would ever be contemplated by the labour and socialist movements.
Raising the banner Labour Heartlands
The role of extra-parliamentary activity.
Though these may seem to be highly theoretical matters, it is necessary, to complete the analysis, to refer briefly to the varying circumstances in which popular action is legitimate.
There is clearly an inherent right to take up arms against tyranny or dictatorship, to establish or uphold democracy, on exactly the same basis, and for the same reasons, that the nation will respond to a call to arms to defeat a foreign invasion, or repel those who have successfully occupied a part of our territory.
In a different context, we accept certain more limited rights to defy the law on grounds of conscience, or to resist laws that threaten basic and long established liberties, as for example if parliament were to prolong its life, and remove the electoral rights of its citizens. The defence of ancient and inherent rights, as for example the rights of women, or of trade unionists, or of minority communities, could legitimately lead to some limited civil disobedience, accompanied by an assertion that the responsibility for it rested upon those who had removed these rights in the first place. And, at the very opposite end of this scale of legitimate opposition, lies the undoubted right to act directly to bring public pressure, from outside parliament, to bear upon parliament to secure a redress of legitimate grievances. Such extra-parliamentary activity has played a long and honourable part in the endless struggle to win basic rights.
To assert that extra-parliamentary activity is synonymous with anti-parliamentary conspiracies is to blur a distinction that it is essential to draw with scientific precision if we are to understand what is happening and not to mistake a democratic demonstration for an undemocratic riot; a democratic protest for an undemocratic uprising; or a democratic reformer for an undemocratic revolutionary.
The labour movement in Britain, egged on by a hostile media, is now engaged in a microscopic examination of its own attitude to the role of extra-parliamentary activity. Such an examination can only help to advance socialism. Perhaps the simplest way to understand these issues is to examine the attitude of the Conservative Party to the same issues. The Tory Party and its historical predecessors have never wasted a moment’s valuable time upon such constitutional niceties. Throughout our whole history, the owners of land, the banks and our industries, have been well aware that their power lay almost entirely outside parliament, and their interest in parliament was confined to a determination to maintain a majority there to
Trotsky should be remembered as the first and most significant Soviet dissident, hunted and later murdered by Stalin.
Leon Trotsky in November 1920, when still a key member of Russia’s new Soviet regime. Photograph: PA
safeguard their interests by legislating to protect them. Extra-parlia- mentary activity has been a way of life for the ruling classes, from the Restoration, through to the overthrow of the 1931 Labour government, and the election in 1979 of Mrs Thatcher.
In power they use parliament to protect their class interests and reward their friends. In opposition they use the Lords, where they always have a majority, to frustrate the Labour majority in the Commons, and supplement this with a sustained campaign of extra-parliamentary activity to undermine the power of Labour governments by investment strikes, attacks upon the pound sterling, granting or withholding business confidence, all using, when necessary, the power of the IMF, the multinationals and the media.
Labour has real power outside parliament, and the people we represent can only look to an advance of their interests and of the prospects of socialism if Labour MPs harness themselves to the movement outside and develop a strong partnership which alone can infuse fresh life into parliament as an agent of democratic change.
These matters and the associated issues of party democracy have received a great deal of attention within the labour movement over the last few years and it is not hard to see why. We want the Labour Party to practise the accountability it preaches. Seen in that light, the adherence of the labour movement to parliamentary democracy, and our determination to expand it, becomes a great deal more than a romantic attachment to liberal capitalist bourgeois institutions. By contrast, it can be seen to have a crucial role to play in achieving greater equality and economic democracy.
The critiques of Leon Trotsky examined.
Those who dismiss the role of parliamentary democracy, thus defined, can be seen to be engaged in weakening, rather than strengthening, the prospects of establishing a durable, democratic socialist society. In this context there are some within the Labour movement who have underestimated the potentiality of the democratic foothold which has been established in parliament. This misjudgment of what can be achieved is, in particular, associated with the school of thought inspired by Leon Trotsky, who rejected the Soviet system as it evolved after the death of Lenin, when Stalin imposed a rigid, centralised and ruthless tyranny in the name of socialism.
Trotsky has had an immense influence on the world socialist movement, so much so that many different Trotskyite groups have been established. Trotsky should be remembered as the first and most significant Soviet dissident, hunted and later murdered by Stalin. His critiques of Stalinism merit respectful study and his contemptuous expose of the milk-and-water socialism of some Labour leaders in the 1920s in his book Whither Britain, entitles him to a place in our history. He was the first man to identify and warn against the betrayal of Ramsay Macdonald and to prophesy the birth of the SDP 55 years before it was formed. Moreover, he did urge the German Left to unite against the Nazis. But having said all that, Trotsky’s profound ambivalence about the nature of parliamentary democracy led him into error, both of judgment and of prescription.
As I have said earlier, I do not believe that those socialists in Britain who claim to represent the views of Trotsky, are in any sense serious revolutionaries. They constitute schools of socialist thought whose ideas need to be discussed and argued over. In my view, the weakness of their argument lies in their underestimate of what has been and can be achieved, and the confusion which they perpetuate between the absence of actual reform and the inevitability that reform, if pressed, is bound to fail.
The constraints on capital and the gains achieved by the trade union and labour movement over the years have been formidable. It is, I believe, a major error to argue that the advocacy of reform, rather than of revolution, is synonymous with betrayal and capitulation, for it undermines the very working class confidence which is central to the success of the movement, spreading pessimism about the prospects of victory — which is what the establishment has been trying to do for centuries. Some followers of Trotsky appear to substitute a ritualistic and dogmatic recitation of slogans which cannot connect with the life experience of those they are hoping to reach, thus minimising their public influence. Moreover, by suggesting that parliamentary democracy has only a limited role to play, and by speaking vaguely of direct action to bypass it, they seem to imply that socialism can be introduced by some industrial coup. They are also unacceptably vague about what would follow such an event if it ever occurred.
Without the acceptance of a strong moral code the end always can be argued to justify the means.
‘You talk about cancer? I feel very strongly about people whose entire life depends on the working class movement. Every office you held was because of Labour and then you left. Now that is a cancerous growth.’ Prescient words from Tony Benn on right-wing MPs Roy Jenkins and the SDP leaving Labour. This time they stayed and took over the Party
But we must never forget that a socialist government that came to power by the exercise of industrial muscle, rather than by election, would be compelled to retain itself in office by a similar exercise of industrial power. Even if such a government could retain its formal control of all the instruments of state power, attacks by the forces marshalled against it by capital would rapidly intensify. Such forces would also be able to claim that, in the circumstances, they were also the champions of democracy.
This combination of intense pressure from the dethroned domestic establishment, international capitalism and an angry electorate deprived of the traditional ballot box rights, would almost certainly overpower the new government and release counter-revolutionary forces on a massive scale, against which no effective democratic defence could be mounted, because all those who once believed in parliamentary democracy would have been demoralised by what had occurred.
Having said all that, I am profoundly opposed to any attempt to outlaw, expel or excommunicate the followers of Leon Trotsky from the Labour Party. Some of them may, as I believe, be too simplistic in their analysis of Britain but, if so, the correct response is to discuss the issues with them, and within the labour movement these discussions are taking place and are exercising a mutual influence on those who take part on both sides.
The main recruiting agents for Trotsky’s ideas in Britain have been those who have so cynically betrayed their faith in both socialism and democracy, while occupying high positions with the parliamentary Labour leadership, and then defected to the Social Democrats. These right-wing entryists used their positions as Labour MPs to obstruct the advance to socialism, and retain their seats in defiance of democracy.
But no comment on the role of revolution would be complete without adding that what applies in the context of Britain, does not necessarily apply in countries that have not won the rights we have.
The Russian people could never have won power through the Duma in Tsarist Russia, nor could the Zimbabwe Africans through Ian Smith’s rigged electoral system. The revolutionary route to democracy is almost certainly the only one open to the peoples of South Africa, Turkey, El Salvador and Chile, and many countries which the West so dishonestly classify as ‘our partners’ in the free world.
Here in Britain, we have acquired, by struggle, precious democratic rights which we must defend and extend. I believe that communist countries could best evolve their socialism by consent if they studied and applied our experience.
The problems that face a socialist government in Britain.
In saying that, we also know that a Labour electoral victory, with a working majority on a socialist programme, could unleash tremendous opposition, including serious extra-parliamentary pressures.
These will be formidable obstacles to overcome. Yet overcome them we must. Our best prospect of doing so lies, not in abandoning democracy, but in deepening it and widening it to win the public support upon which we shall have to rely. If we are to do that we must, above all, have confidence in the democratic process, and anyone who spreads doubts about its efficacy is abandoning the battle before it has even begun.
At least we can comfort ourselves with the certain knowledge that however inadequate parliamentary democracy may seem to be to some in the labour movement, the establishment think otherwise. Socialist rhetoric they can live with easily, and revolutionary opportunism plays straight into their hands. But they know a real challenge when they see one and believe that parliamentary democracy, buttressed and sustained by a free, democratic and politically committed labour and trade union movement outside, can and will be strong enough to effect radical socialist reforms.
Let me sum up this section on democracy and Marxism in Britain in this way.
First, that Marxism occupies an integral part in our socialist tradition, and without it we should fail to understand the system we are seeking to change.
Second, that the commitment of the British labour movement to parliamentary democracy, linked closely to the organisations of labour in the country, is not only right in principle but also offers the best way forward along the road to socialist transformation by consent. This is the process that the majority of the people of Britain have used, are using and must use to advance their interests.
The experience of Marxist societies.
I now want to turn to the experience of socialist societies founded by Marxist leaderships, and consider how they are responding to the pressure for democratic rights from their own people. It is an historical fact that such societies, almost without exception, emerged in countries which previously had no vehicle for peaceful transformation available.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 against the Tsar took place against a background of war in a country without an established parliamentary democracy. The same was true of Yugoslavia, where the partisans liberated the country from the Germans and established a socialist state. In China the Communists fought against the Japanese invaders and the forces of Chiang Kai Shek who was backed by the USA. In Cuba socialism also emerged out of civil war against the dictator Batista. The socialist regimes in Eastern Europe came into being as a result of the war and were imposed by the USSR as part of its security policy to protect itself from attack after three invasions from the West — 1914, 1920 and 1941 — which had cost the lives of well over 20 million people.
All that is a matter of historical record and those who took power by force could lay claim to the same legitimacy as was asserted by the American colonists in 1776, or the French revolutionaries in 1789. And this is the route followed by colony after colony as they won that freedom from undemocratic imperialist control.
But the Stalinist distortion of Marxism created a political system that followed revolution based upon the theory of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. This followed on from a period under Lenin when Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were actually both represented in the Soviets. Under Stalin’s doctrine, the overthrow of capitalism by the working class had been undertaken by the Communist Party as the self-styled leadership of that class.
However, this historical explanation of how the revolutions were planned and executed at the time does not end the matter. For socialism achieved by revolution lacks the explicit endorsement of the people, which is what democracy is about, and the Communist Parties which control such countries by limiting or denying basic rights of political expression, assembly, organisation and debate, and the right of the people to remove their governments, are open to the abuses of civil rights which occured under Stalin and continue today. Governments ruling by force — whether socialist or not — are also permanently vulnerable to violent upheaval and the task of liberalisation is difficult. And in a world of rapid communications, undemocratic regimes will find it increasingly hard to survive.
It is very important for many reasons that religion and politics should not be separated into watertight compartments, for ever at war with each other.
Picture: Fortepan/Pesti Srác licence: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Events in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, where Soviet troops were sent in to restore order after expressions of popular discontent, revealed this vulnerability, and undermined the claim of the Communist Parties there to enjoy majority support. Similarly, the imposition of martial law in Poland, though it may, in practice, have averted a Soviet invasion, has also confirmed the public unacceptability in Poland of the Communist regime as it was. The Western media make much of this, whilst ignoring the dictatorships which exist under the protection of the West.
But above all, in the USSR itself, 65 years after the revolution, the maintenance of a government by state power — even when three generations have been born under communism, and only the very oldest people remember pre-revolutionary days — suggests, to outsiders, that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union does not itself believe that its leadership would receive popular endorsement. Yet the very refreshment of socialism must require at least a genuine public choice between alternative views as to how it should develop.
Budapest Downtown with a Soviet Tank and the Head of the Previously Toppled Stalin Statue
Socialism as a system is greatly weakened, worldwide, if it is seen to rest anywhere upon state enforcement. The forces of capital in the West have concentrated their attack upon democratic socialism — to good effect — by suggesting, quite falsely, that what is being advocated in the West involves the imposition of a Soviet-style regime upon our society and that the first election won by socialists would also be the last. They know it is not true, and it is a sign of the strength of socialist ideas that they have to pretend that they believe it.
The British labour movement not only accepts the democratic process but claims, correctly, to have created it. We will never accept a socialism that is imposed.
Liberalisation and detente and the emergence of Eurocommunism.
The Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe — entrenched in the Brezhnev doctrine — is in fact based on security considerations for the USSR. If the pressure for political freedom is denied in these countries, and there are popular uprisings, then the Soviet Union may believe its security depends upon an intervention to suppress them, with the most serious international consequences up to, and including, the risk of nuclear war.
Therefore, for practical reasons, a framework for the liberalisation of Eastern Europe should be developed which does not carry with it any threat to Soviet security. It is for this reason that the campaigns for European nuclear disarmament, a new pan-European security system to replace NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and for more economic cooperation between East and West, are so important. Liberalisation can only occur in an atmosphere of detente.
The emergence of Eurocommunism in Western Europe offers us fresh hope here.
The Italian Communist Party, for example, which accepts the need for a pluralistic political system, that guarantees the right of the electorate to replace communist governments in free elections, brings Eurocommunists back towards the mainstream of democratic socialism, and provides a direct link with the libertarian Marxists in the communist world.
Here too, the British Communist Party and its programme The British Road to Socialism can be seen as pointing in a similar direction, and differentiates the party from its earlier and uncritical pro-Soviet stance which isolated it from the democractic traditions of the British labour movement.
Socialism, democracy and Marxism The need for dialogue.
In conclusion, may I make it clear that I believe a reconciliation of Marxism and political democracy is possible, necessary and urgent, if humanity is to solve the pressing problems which confront it and avoid the risk of war. But if we are to achieve that synthesis, there is much that needs to be done, and I suggest a draft agenda that we might use to guide us.
First, the acceptance in the West of the importance of the socialist analysis of society within which Marxism must be seen as playing a key role.
Second, the acceptance in the socialist societies of the principle of democratic accountability and full political rights as central to the practice of socialism.
Third, the beginning of a regular series of structured national and international dialogues between socialists, Eurocommunists and Marxists of all schools of thought, to explore the relationship between democracy and Marxism and the experience of actually existing socialist parties and socialist societies.
Fourth, the reunification of the world trade union movement, which was divided during the cold war when the ICFTU broke away from the WFTU, partly to permit a reunited world trade union movement to enter into the dialogue described above.
To attempt these tasks will meet with powerful opposition even though they represent a very modest start for a process that will need to continue over a long period.
For it is essential that an understanding of Marxism should become more widely available to strengthen the worldwide democratic movement, and that the practice of democracy be harnessed to protect the integrity of Marxism from the corruption of power which is inescapable under any system of government which seeks to impose itself without popular consent.
If the peoples of the world are to end exploitation, reduce the levels of violence, avoid nuclear war, and enter into their rightful inheritance at last, we must achieve a synthesis of socialism and freedom and work for it here and now.
The collapse of the Labour vote has been a direct result of the party failing its founding principles, and the support of its traditional supporters. The seeds of decline were sown following Tony Blair as leader under the banner of New Labour, from which time the party lost its moral compass, the result of which only the Tories and the right-wing have ever benefited.
The current bloodletting within the party is part of a blame game in which Jeremy Corbyn has become a scapegoat for the failure of the party membership, who have prioritised remaining in a neoliberal EU over principles and economic ideology. The insidious politics of the far right is able to exploit a vacuum of electoral participation by a confused electorate.
It is against this background the Labour Party membership will have to assert with some urgency the revising of the principles on which it was founded in creating the politics of economic and social equality. Failure to do so will compound continued decline in electoral support. But to do this Labour members must carry out their own internal revolution and reclaim the Party or stay wedded to an authoritarian oligarchy in perpetuity. -Paul Knaggs.
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 produced by Labour Heartlands.
One of the late 20th Century’s most influential thinkers was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) whose philosophy of "deconstruction" has influenced religion, psychotherapy, feminism, law, Marxism, literary criticism, architecture, art and cultural studies.
Derrida’s deconstructionist career began in the 1960s, peaked in the 1980s, and is now, it seems, in decline. Deconstruction may turn out to have been only a fad that was nurtured by bourgeois "radicals" who were looking for solutions to the problems generated by the economic and social contradictions of late capitalism but shied away from traditional Marxist analysis.
What was Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophy? He began with a critique of Structuralism which was a wide spread philosophy popular in French intellectual circles in the 1950s and 60s-- displacing Existentialism as the dominant mode of thinking. Hegelians and Marxists can relate easily to the major premises of Structuralism, namely that, as Franz Hugdahl writes, the "object under consideration is the system that is comprised of the reciprocal relations among a series of facts, as, opposed to the study of particular facts in isolation."
Structuralists believe that after a proper investigation of your subject matter (linguistics, anthropology or whatever) you can attain meaning and understanding by revealing the structural relationships of the concepts and ideas (and their real world counterparts) under consideration. This understanding is expressed in words with definite meanings put forth in speaking or writing.
This was challenged by Derrida who maintained that references associated with words are so numerous and even contradictory that any explanation, view or text can be "deconstructed" to show that whatever you might have thought the text was saying, you could find that it said something else as well and therefore there was no privileged interpretation, no canonical reading, to which you will be forced to adhere.
This way of thinking never caught on in philosophy, but was the rage, for a while, in English (and French) departments and in literary and cultural studies. The beginning of the end for "deconstruction" came in 1987. That year marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Derrida’s most important American proponent, Paul de Man, who had been a professor at Yale. De Man could take any text and argue (usually fallaciously by logic chopping, using puns and word play, taking words and phrases out of context, etc.)that it had more than one, and perhaps several, different (and even contradictory) interpretations none of which could be claimed to be the "correct" one.
De Man, four years after his death in 1983 was exposed in the New York Times as having been a Nazi sympathizer in his native Belgium during World War II. He wrote anti-semitic articles for a Nazi paper supporting the Nazi cause and proposed deportation as a "solution to the Jewish problem."
For Derrida and other deconstructionists this was a major embarrassment as they thought their new movement, poststructuralism, was radically progressive-- empowering marginalized elements of society by allowing them to read their own stories into the texts and traditions of Western civilization. As Jim Powell points out, "those given to deconstruction had always thought of themselves and their approach as revolutionary, iconoclastic and anti-totalitarian."
Derrida rose to the defense of de Man by publishing an article "deconstructing" the anti-semitic and pro-Nazi texts of De Man’s newspaper articles. Derrida claimed that while on the surface these texts looked Nazi, nevertheless, he could detect in them subtle anti-Nazi traces and meanings. This basically dishonest application of deconstruction (in an attempt to rehabilitate de Man not the Nazis) revealed that it was a useless method with which to try and discover "meaning" as it was only the subjective desires of its practitioners that were being projected onto the text and nothing revelatory was necessarily produced at all.
So what is left of "poststructuralism"? Not much I think. But neither should the foolishness of some of Derrida’s late productions ("Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War") obscure the importance of his early work. His 1967 "Of Grammatology'' remains a classic critique, for better or worse, of Structuralism, and, as Christopher Johnson points out, its lesson "is that one cannot simply step outside of a philosophical tradition and reason independently of it." Hegel’s view that a philosophical position must succumb to internal criticism was also developed by Marx in Das Kapital where capital’s failures are explained by the discovery of internal contradictions within its own premises not by attacking it from the outside. Derrida’s day has, nevertheless, passed.
In closing I would be remiss not to point out that Derrida had progressive tendencies as a person and that he was a supporter of the anti-Apartheid movement and of the rights of North Africans living in France.
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.
Distributed by Our Blue Collective – If you enjoyed this article, read the newly released book New Age Socialism by Casper Rove at https://ourbluecollective.org/shop/ols/products/new-age-socialism
Eco-localism advocates for a planned settlement based around a democratically controlled administration that engages in economic activity in order to reduce the costs of living for its members while prioritizing sustainable agriculture and green energy. Ownership of property and economic equipment by the people and for the people allows the community to hold onto its own wealth instead of sending it to landlords or far-away corporations. All profits go to the members of the community. Meanwhile, the democratic nature of the administration grants the ability for residents to overrule decisions usually made by the market – relying on fossil fuels or agricultural chemicals, as examples. Other than that, it would operate just like any other business.
The cooperative or collective would be headed by an administration that represents the community as a whole. The methods of democracy can differ based on what the community prefers, but the basic tenet is that a few individuals would be elected to run the cooperative with major decisions left to referendum. The administration is an empowered actor but respects the fact that every individual is a vested member.
The land requirements would be exceedingly low. It has potential in both economically wealthy areas, where carbon emissions are the highest, and in poorer areas with slightly altered versions . In wealthy regions, the surrounding economy would offer plenty of external employment opportunities for the population to support itself. Otherwise, an income industry could support the basic eco-localist infrastructure. This type of community represents a credible way for philanthropists or governments to sponsor self-perpetuating development in impoverished regions of the world.
Some of the potential infrastructure that could be installed by a collective include an agricultural production facility, grain storage, apartment buildings, thermal lines, an anaerobic digestion facility, a restaurant, and grocery store. The living spaces would be rental properties owned by the collective and rent would be charged without the substantial markup currently seen in rental markets.
There’s cooperative-owned land set aside for animals, orchard space, garden space, a greenhouse, and other economic activities. The center community building would be a facility with the combined capacity of a coffee shop, diner, and bakery. A grocery store and gas station would be attached as well. These are normal facets of life, but the difference is that the profits of these collective-owned operations would go towards reducing the costs of living for the individuals of the community.
There would be a decent amount of employment opportunities coming from the cooperative such as gardeners, farmers, and store clerks. A large number of these would be part-time like beekeeping or raising livestock guardian dogs, with individuals filling the rest of their income however they see fit. An important part of these intra-community jobs would be apprenticeships to share knowledge.
Many farm owners don’t actually do the farming themselves these days. They simply own the land and a working farmer pays them rent to grow crops on that land. If a collective operated similarly, the community would have a revenue stream or the fruits of mechanized farm labor. The collective would pay for a farmer to farm the land and receive the harvest as a result. The available farmland could be divided – with one growing low-impact grasses that would produce hay and grazing land for livestock. The other section would be a crop rotation containing wheat, oats and other row crops. Any bounty from mechanical harvest not used by the residents would just be sold on the market like any other farming operation – funding the collective. After the grasses and grain rotation are done with their cycle, the two fields would swap in a system designed to protect the long-term viability of the soil.
Many people interested in eco-localism would probably like to see subsistence agriculture take place. That might look like large gardens and orchards maintained by the collective, for the purpose of producing purchasable food. Egg-laying poultry could graze in a permaculture food plot field – stocked with productive perennials. Meat poultry can be given access to the orchards to clean up the ground and graze – breaking the pest cycle. The collective could raise a few pigs each year, taking advantage of local food scraps.
Irrigation systems are already mainstream, and they could be fitted to distribute fertilizer and other farming chemicals. This represents an initial investment but increases yields overall, protects from drastic yield failures in drought years, and replaces the process of manual tractor application of farming chemicals.
An income industry just refers to production capacity owned by the collective that is designed to produce goods to be sold for revenue. The income industry pays its employees a wage, but then the additional profits are used to reduce the community’s costs of living.
The acres of farming in the collective would produce a large amount of hay and this can be used to sustain wool sheep. The wool from these sheep can then be processed by the collective into wool rugs or blankets. Another potential income industry could be silk products. This would entail growing mulberry trees, dye plants, and raising silkworms. The silk produced could be turned into socks or robes with waste going to livestock. The income industry could be tractor repair, extending the life of the collective’s own equipment while earning income.
Other more advanced manufacturing options could be stainless steel cups, plastic mold suitcases, wooden spoons, wine, paperclips or anything else that could be sold externally to produce income.
Public thermal pipelines or “district heating” would be a way to maximize the efficiency of thermal needs. A cold line would operate by use of geothermal wells, which is an extremely efficient and cost-effective investment. A geothermal field would also serve as a giant thermal battery, sequestering heat or cold to be used when the season changes. For each residence, basic heat exchangers would use the thermal momentum of the cold line to condition residential air to proper temperature.
The hot line would be a heat reserve for hot water. An insulated pipeline of water would run to each residence at a temperature of >120 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot line could be heated by solar collectors and cooperative-produced biogas with the potential to use natural gas as a backup.
There are multiple benefits to these thermal lines. Since the temperature of the lines are greater than the goal temperatures, the residential heat exchangers could be extremely simplistic. This means the residential units would be longer lasting, cheaper, and need fewer repairs.
Thermal lines require just a few central pieces of equipment that are significantly more energy efficient and industrially robust. Like other utilities, the proportionally lower repair costs would be divided among users.
An anaerobic digester is a tank where organic matter is broken down by bacteria in an oxygen-free environment. This system would serve as a management system for animal, human, food, and other agricultural/organic wastes. It’s akin to the industrial version of composting and produces biogas and digestate. The biogas would be stored and used to heat the settlement’s hot water line. The digestate would be treated to kill any bacteria, tested, and modified until the composition and characteristics are correct as a liquid fertilizer. From there, it would be distributed to the farming acres through the irrigation systems. This replaces synthetic fertilizers which are usually a huge cost to agriculture and the environment.
These systems are already being utilized for farming and human applications – meaning there are already companies with installation capabilities. Any aspiring collective only has to partner with one of these companies instead of reinventing the wheel.
Apartments could be prioritized to qualified individuals who want to set up practices for things like dentistry, healthcare, cosmetology, electric work, plumbing, HVAC, carpet cleaning, etc. The purpose of this is to make these services available to the community. These practices would be privately owned, and the finances would belong to the owner(s). For a large portion of the population, they would commute to a nearby city for full-time employment opportunities.
The concentration of people in the collective can leverage better rates for medical and dental insurance. The collective could also administer an insurance fund for the copays, deductibles, and peripheral costs that insurance doesn’t cover. A tailored cooperative could be specifically set-up by and for families with lifelong high medical costs or special needs.
The settlement could potentially work on self-insuring its buildings. Monthly premiums would be set aside each month so the collective can serve as its own insurance company. Everyone in the collective saves on insurance costs because the fund would accrue interest and there aren’t any stockholders and CEO salaries to pay.
The community can implement any program – anything that is better off functioning as a group. The community could hold a few pickup trucks for short-term rent. Transporting students to the nearest school can be implemented because it makes more sense to do that communally. A large-scale grain mill can be used to bake locally sourced bread every day or the community can choose to prioritize renewable energy and mitigate their footprint on the environment. The opportunities for an eco-localist community to tailor itself to serve its residents are boundless.
As momentum builds, the technical planning for eco-localist cooperatives will grow as well. Demographers need to determine the correct sizing of the various operations and the actual contracts and documents need to be drafted – but they don’t have to be reinvented every time.
When it comes to financing, the options are twofold. The first option is dividing the initial infrastructure debt between the residents. The profits of the collective would then be distributed until those personal loans are repaid. Alternatively, the collective could hold the debt itself as an institution and leverage a sort of ‘property tax’ on each residence – not dissimilar from how landlords or homeowner associations operate today. The profits of the collective would be used to keep that tax as low as possible or even at zero. If the model proves successful, there will be an excess of community profits that go towards reducing the costs of living – whether it be rent, insurance, energy bills, or something else.
As long as the business structure of the collective allows for the investments into infrastructure to be returned and the residents to experience a superior financial situation, the viability of the eco-localist cooperatives as presented here speaks for itself.
Casper Rove is a blue collar worker from Omaha, Nebraska who coaches highschool debate part-time. His free time is best spent making headway in his endeavor for sustainable subsistence farming and looking for the most pragmatic way to convert socialist thought into socialist infrastructure.
Washington Beats the Drum of Regime Change, but Cuba Responds to Its Own Revolutionary Rhythm: The Twenty-Ninth Newsletter (2021). By: Vijay PrashadRead Now
Préfète Duffaut (Haiti), Le Générale Canson, 1950.
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
In 1963, the Trinidadian writer CLR James released a second edition of his classic 1938 study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. For the new edition, James wrote an appendix with the suggestive title ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’. In the opening page of the appendix, he located the twin Revolutions of Haiti (1804) and Cuba (1959) in the context of the West Indian islands: ‘The people who made them, the problems and the attempts to solve them, are peculiarly West Indian, the product of a peculiar origin and a peculiar history’. Thrice James uses the word ‘peculiar’, which emerges from the Latin peculiaris for ‘private property’ (pecu is the Latin word for ‘cattle’, the essence of ancient property).
Property is at the heart of the origin and history of the modern West Indies. By the end of the 17th century, the European conquistadors and colonialists had massacred the inhabitants of the West Indies. On St. Kitts in 1626, English and French colonialists massacred between two and four thousand Caribs – including Chief Tegremond – in the Kalinago genocide, which Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre wrote about in 1654. Having annihilated the island’s native people, the Europeans brought in African men and women who had been captured and enslaved. What unites the West Indian islands is not language and culture, but the wretchedness of slavery, rooted in an oppressive plantation economy. Both Haiti and Cuba are products of this ‘peculiarity’, the one being bold enough to break the shackles in 1804 and the other able to follow a century and a half later.
Osmond Watson (Jamaica), City Life, 1968.
Today, crisis is the hour in the Caribbean.
On 7 July, just outside of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince, gunmen broke into the home of President Jovenel Moïse, assassinated him in cold blood, and then fled. The country – already wracked by social upheaval sparked by the late president’s policies – has now plunged even deeper into crisis. Already, Moïse had forcefully extended his presidential mandate beyond his term as the country struggled with the burdens of being dependent on international agencies, trapped by a century-long economic crisis, and struck hard by the pandemic. Protests had become commonplace across Haiti as the prices of everything skyrocketed and as no effective government came to the aid of a population in despair. But Moïse was not killed because of this proximate crisis. More mysterious forces are at work: US-based Haitian religious leaders, narco-traffickers, and Colombian mercenaries. This is a saga that is best written as a fictional thriller.
Four days after Moïse’s assassination, Cuba experienced a set of protests from people expressing their frustration with shortages of goods and a recent spike of COVID-19 infections. Within hours of receiving the news that the protests had emerged, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel went to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, south of Havana, to march with the protestors. Díaz-Canel and his government reminded the eleven million Cubans that the country has suffered greatly from the six-decade-long illegal US blockade, that it is in the grip of Trump’s 243 additional ‘coercive measures’, and that it will fight off the twin problems of COVID-19 and a debt crisis with its characteristic resolve.
Nonetheless, a malicious social media campaign attempted to use these protests as a sign that the government of Díaz-Canel and the Cuban Revolution should be overthrown. It was clarified a few days later that this campaign was run from Miami, Florida, in the United States. From Washington, DC, the drums of regime change sounded loudly. But they have not found much of an echo in Cuba. Cuba has its own revolutionary rhythms.
Eduardo Abela (Cuba), Los Guajiros (1938).
In 1804, the Haitian Revolution – a rebellion of the plantation proletariat who struck against the agricultural factories that produced sugar and profit – sent up a flare of freedom across the colonised world. A century and a half later, the Cubans fired their own flare.
The response to each of these revolutions from the fossilised magnates of Paris and Washington was the same: suffocate the stirrings of freedom by indemnities and blockades. In 1825, the French demanded through force that the Haitians pay 150 million francs for the loss of property (namely human beings). Alone in the Caribbean, the Haitians felt that they had no choice but to pay up, which they did to France (until 1893) and then to the United States (until 1947). The total bill over the 122 years amounts to $21 billion. When Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide tried to recover those billions from France in 2003, he was removed from office by a coup d’état.
After the United States occupied Cuba in 1898, it ran the island like a gangster’s playground. Any attempt by the Cubans to exercise their sovereignty was squashed with terrible force, including invasions by US forces in 1906-1909, 1912, 1917-1922, and 1933. The United States backed General Fulgencio Batista (1940-1944 and 1952-1959) despite all the evidence of his brutality. After all, Batista protected US interests, and US firms owned two-thirds of the country’s sugar industry and almost its entire service sector.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 stands against this wretched history – a history of slavery and imperial domination. How did the US react? By imposing an economic blockade on the country from 19 October 1960 that lasts to this day, which has targeted everything from access to medical supplies, food, and financing to barring Cuban imports and coercing third-party countries to do the same. It is a vindictive attack against a people who – like the Haitians – are trying to exercise their sovereignty. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez reported that between April 2019 and December 2020, the government lost $9.1 billion due to the blockade ($436 million per month). ‘At current prices’, he said, ‘the accumulated damages in six decades amount to over $147.8 billion, and against the price of gold, it amounts to over $1.3 trillion’.
None of this information would be available without the presence of media outlets such as Peoples Dispatch, which celebrates its three-year anniversary this week. We send our warmest greetings to the team and hope that you will bookmark their page to visit it several times a day for world news rooted in people’s struggles.
Bernadette Persaud (Guyana), Gentlemen Under the Sky (Gulf War), 1991.
On 17 July, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to defend their Revolution and demand an end to the US blockade. President Díaz-Canel said that the Cuba of ‘love, peace, unity, [and] solidarity’ had asserted itself. In solidarity with this unwavering affirmation, we have launched a call for participation in the exhibition Let Cuba Live. The submission deadline is 24 July for the online exhibition launch on 26 July – the anniversary of the revolutionary movement that brought Cuba to Revolution in 1959 – but we encourage ongoing submissions. We are inviting international artists and militants to participate in this flash exhibition as we continue to amplify the campaign #LetCubaLive to end the blockade.
A few weeks before the most recent attack on Cuba and the assassination in Haiti, the United States armed forces conducted a major military exercise in Guyana called Tradewinds 2021 and another exercise in Panama called Panamax 2021. Under the authority of the United States, a set of European militaries (France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) – each with colonies in the region – joined Brazil and Canada to conduct Tradewinds with seven Caribbean countries (The Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago). In a show of force, the US demanded that Iran cancel the movement of its ships to Venezuela in June ahead of the US-sponsored military exercise.
The United States is eager to turn the Caribbean into its sea, subordinating the sovereignty of the islands. It was curious that Guyana’s Prime Minister Mark Phillips said that these US-led war games strengthen the ‘Caribbean regional security system’. What they do, as our recent dossier on US and French military bases in Africa shows, is to subordinate the Caribbean states to US interests. The US is using its increased military presence in Colombia and Guyana to increase pressure on Venezuela.
Elsa Gramcko (Venezuela), El ojo de la cerradura (‘The Keyhole’), 1964.
Sovereign regionalism is not alien to the Caribbean, which has made four attempts to build a platform: the West Indian Federation (1958-1962), Caribbean Free Trade Association (1965-1973), Caribbean Community (1973-1989), and CARICOM (1989 to the present). What began as an anti-imperialist union has now devolved into a trade association that attempts to better integrate the region into world trade. The politics of the Caribbean are increasingly being drawn into the orbit of the US. In 2010, the US created the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, whose agenda is shaped by Washington.
In 2011, our old friend Shridath Ramphal, Guyana’s foreign minister from 1972 to 1975, repeated the words of the great Grenadian radical T. A. Marryshow: ‘The West Indies must be West Indian’. In his article ‘Is the West Indies West Indian?’, he insisted that the conscious spelling of ‘The West Indies’ with a capitalised ‘T’ aims to signify the unity of the region. Without unity, the old imperialist pressures will prevail as they often do.
In 1975, the Cuban poet Nancy Morejón published a landmark poem called Mujer Negra (‘Black Woman’). The poem opens with the terrible trade of human beings by the European colonialists, touches on the
war of independence, and then settles on the remarkable Cuban Revolution of 1959:
I came down from the Sierra
to put an end to capital and usurer,
to generals and to the bourgeoisie.
Now I exist: only today do we own, do we create.
Nothing is alien to us.
The land is ours.
Ours are the sea and sky,
the magic and vision.
My fellow people, here I see you dance
around the tree we are planting for communism.
Its prodigal wood already resounds.
The land is ours. Sovereignty is ours too. Our destiny is not to live as the subordinate beings of others. That is the message of Morejón and of the Cuban people who are building their sovereign lives, and it is the message of the Haitian people who want to advance their great Revolution of 1804.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. 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 republished from The Tricontinental.
Beginning from May 2020, the unending violence of USA’s racial capitalism was brought to the fore as a Black-led movement flowed through the bloodstained paving stones of clamorous streets. The wretched masses of America united in their call for an end to police brutality and the existing apparatuses of exploitative rule. However, these protests - instead of culminating in a significant change in the dynamics of power - rewarded the revolting people with Joe Biden - a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeoisie politician who once opposed de-segregation, called on police to shoot Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the leg, rejected the smallest of concessions to the working class, vehemently supported imperialist wars and refused to commit to even the minimal reforms of the Green New Deal.
Biden’s victory in the presidential election was a direct expression of what Antonio Gramsci called a “time of monsters” - a moment in which we are fully aware of the future direction of societal forces but it is blocked at a particular point. In the American context, the corridors leading to historical metabolization were shut off on the level of formal politics, not on the stage of grassroots mobilization. In the streets, things were moving forward by leaps and bounds - a continuous subjective churning was taking place within the helical relations of domination. In spite of these explosive potentialities, Biden succeeded in initiating a process of ideological mutilation, which included the co-optation of demands from below, the forming of new political coalitions, paying lip service to the goals of leading figures of the underclass, all done while keeping intact the hegemony of the status quoist forces.
While many factors account for the defeat of the American rebellion, the strategic errors committed by the country’s Left stick out for their obdurateness toward the complex reality of oppression. Many sectors of the country’s socialist camp promoted class reductionism, remaining insensitive to the racial roots of the then ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Their exclusive emphasis on Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All reduced systemic racism to a merely economic issue. Electoral exigencies overrode the creation of robust bases of social resistance. The uncritical subsumption of racism under an ahistorical banner of class proved unsuccessful in carrying forward the militant momentum of an explicit mutiny against the structural cruelty of racist capitalism.
Frantz Fanon was a thinker who forcefully shed light on the aporias of class reductionism, arguing in favor a radical project of Black advancement. The moorings for this vibrant model of praxis were provided by G.W.F Hegel. In a famous passage of “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Hegel had written about the progression of human beings from merely self-conscious entities that are motivated by need to consume material goods into social beings who engage in recognition. The achievement of an independent self-consciousness is seen not only as an inter-subjective process, driven by a desire for recognition by the other, but also as a fundamentally conflictual one: each consciousness aspires to assert its self-certainty, initially, through the exclusion and elimination of all that is other; each thus seeks the death of the other, putting at the same time its own life at stake.
This struggle to the death can lead either to the obliteration of one consciousness (or both), whereby the process of mutual recognition will never be complete, or to one consciousness submitting to the other in the face of fear of imminent death, thus becoming the slave. The other becomes the master, the victor of the struggle. The master nevertheless depends on the slave - not only for the fulfillment of material needs, but also for his/her recognition as an independent being. His self-sufficiency is hence only apparent. The slave, by contrast, becomes aware of himself as an independent self-consciousness by means of the transformative, fear-driven labor in the natural and material world.
For Fanon, racialized colonial subjects are not in a position to sign up to the Hegelian vision of political struggle as a reciprocal structure of recognition and interdependency when colonization has denied their humanity. Race is a process in which the unity of the world and self becomes mediated by a racialized objectification of the subject. Therefore, according to Fanon, race is a form of alienation. For Hegel, the slave’s existence is an expression of the objective reality or power of the master. The master is recognized and the slave lives in a state of non-recognition. Similarly, for Fanon the alienated racial subject exists as an expression of the objective reality of whiteness. Racial existence, then, is a negation of the human character of racialized people; it is a profound state of derealization. The process of racial objectification, according to Fanon, turns people into things, identified by their skin, racial or ethnic features, as well as culture.
Hence, racialized people first need to overcome ontological denial and, in so doing, forge the basis for a positive political grouping. Thus, Fanon rejects the static Hegelian notion of the master-slave relationship - one forged among ontologically equal adversaries - and instead posits that the slave is always-already marked as less-than-being. The slave, according to Fanon, transcends that racial othering by vehemently rejecting it through what George-Ciccariello Maher - in his book “Decolonizing Dialectics” - calls “combative self-assertion” that enables the slave to reject “her self-alienation,” to “turn away from the master” and to force the master to “turn toward the slave”. The slave’s action re-starts dialectical motion and forces the master and the slave to contend with each other.
“For the racialized subject,” Maher writes, “self-consciousness as human requires counter-violence against ontological force. In a historical situation marked by the denial of reciprocity and condemnation to nonbeing, that reciprocity can only result from the combative self-assertion of identity”. In fact, it is precisely this violence that “operates toward the decolonization of being”. In this way, Fanon decolonized Hegel’s approach from the “sub-ontological realm to which the racialized are condemned,” gesturing toward the pre-dialectical and counter-ontological violence that dialectical opposition requires. Ontological self-assertion needed to identify with negritude, which, however imperfect and empirically imprecise, provided the necessary mythical mechanism through which the dialectic of subjectivity could operate. In the words of Fanon, “to make myself known” meant “to assert myself as a BLACK MAN”.
Fanon conceived of the black subject emerging in the active negation of the social relations of white supremacy. Since blackness is the objective condition of its existence in a white supremacist society, the black subject thereby establishes its own identity on this basis by inverting its objectification, effectively making the conditions of its existence subject to its own power. The existential substance of racialized people now becomes real and actual in the world by changing it to fit its own needs. In the struggle, the black subject establishes independent self-consciousness, and begins to exist as a being for itself with a liberatory aim. The self-determination of the black subject - through the forceful affirmation of black history - establishes, for the first time, the basis for mutual recognition. Blackness has now established itself, not as moral plea for admission into the liberal and idealistic world of equality, but as a material, immanent fact. Blackness remakes the world in its own image.
Here, it is important to note the two distinct but interrelated facets of Fanon’s perspective on black assertion. On the one hand, he frames the identitarian dimension of anti-colonial struggle as a social symptom of colonial alienation, on the very level of its problematic status from the perspective of more evolved forms of postcolonial consciousness. On the other hand, Fanon advances an absolute claim in favour of the black colonized subject’s right to the expression of his symptomatic alienation. In other words, Fanon wishes to underline the historical, psychological and political necessity of what he nevertheless viewed in unambiguous fashion as a defensive, repressive and narcissistic phase of anti-colonial consciousness during which the native subject constructs - out of nothing - the self-image that was simply impossible to develop in the racial context of the colonial administration.
The Fanon-Sartre Debate
The debate between Jean Paul Sartre and Fanon on the relations between class and race stand out for their continuing relevance. Sartre wrote one of the definitive commentaries on the Negritude movement for a French audience in the preface to Leopold Senghor’s important Negritude anthology, “Black Orpheus”. There Sartre argued that blackness is the “negative moment” in an overall “transition” of the non-white toward integration into the proletariat - a “weak stage of a dialogical progression,” passed over and left for dead as swiftly as it came to life. Fanon’s reply - in “Black Skin, White Masks” - was fiercely critical of Sartre:
“For once that born Hegelian had forgotten that consciousness has to lose itself in the night of the absolute, the only condition to attain to consciousness of self. In opposition to rationalism, he summoned up the negative side, but he forgot that this negativity draws its worth from an almost substantive absoluteness. A consciousness committed to experience is ignorant, has to be ignorant, of the essences and the determinations of its being”.
Fanon firmly upheld the view that racially based identity claims on the part of non-European subjects in colonized situations carried an irreducible, cathartic importance. Sartre fails to account for this dialectic of experience through the detached intellectualization of black consciousness. “[W]hen I tried,” Fanon writes, “on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me”. Sartre’s narrative of decolonization did not incorporate the properly experiential dimension of black subjectivity. With the European working class lying unconscious in the stupor of post-WWII capitalism, Sartre imagines revolutionary consciousness, in the manner of the Hegelian Spirit, manifesting itself in the anti-colonial resistance of Africa and the Caribbean. This new proletarian spirit descends from the heights of abstract dialectical theory to make use of the concrete culture of negritude as a vehicle for the reactivation of a universal anti-capitalist project.
Sartre’s dialectic of abstract universalism has a disheartening effect on the colonized subjects. By passively inserting black rebellion within a pre-determined dialectic, he robs it of all agency. As Fanon states:
“[I]t is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger’s misery, my bad nigger’s teeth, my bad nigger’s hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for that turn of history. In terms of consciousness, the black consciousness is held out as an absolute density, as filled with itself, a stage preceding any invasion, any abolition of the ego by desire. Jean-Paul Sartre, in this work, has destroyed black zeal… The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself. It shatters my unreflected position. Still in terms of consciousness, black consciousness is immanent in its own eyes. I am not a potentiality of something; I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal. No probability has any place inside me. My Negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is.”
“Black zeal” is a mythical self-discovery which by necessity refuses all explanation. After all, how precisely does one adopt an identity which is dismissed ahead of time as transitory? The Sartrean subject never gets “lost” in the negative. Sartrean consciousness remains in full possession of itself. And therefore, it can have no knowledge of itself - or the other. History, society, and corporeality recede from view and what remains is a timeless and abstract ontology. Contrary to this view, Hegel remarked: consciousness “wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself...nothing is known which does not fall within experience or (as it is also expressed) which is not felt to be true”. The truth that emerges from black consciousness is possible only via a phenomenological reassembly of the self. That is why Fanon continues to push forward: “I defined myself as an absolute intensity of beginning… My cry grew more violent: I am a Negro, I am a Negro, I am a Negro”.
Fanon does not quickly pass over human suffering in the pursuit of the universal, but attends to suffering, creating space for the communication of bodily and emotional pain. In Sartre’s hands, this dialectical negation explicitly lacks positive content and, consequently, any objectivity. The rupture with racism brings forward its own content - a re-woven fabric of daily existence and new ways of organizing social life - which challenges white supremacist society. Therefore, with Sartre, the negativity expressed by this rupture is a critique of existing reality, but does not generate new conditions - a new reality - based on its own self-active negation of white supremacist social relations. In his quest to brush aside the unmediated, affect-laden, passionate dimension of the native subject of colonialism’s sensuous, lived experience, Sartre short-circuits the dialectic through an intangible leap - ignoring the necessity of slow and patient labor.
He becomes a condescending adult speaking to a child: “You’ll change, my boy; I was like that too when I was young…you’ll see, it will all pass”. In effect, the non-white is subsumed into a pre-existing, white reality. Sartre, Fanon argues, is forced to conclude that the proletariat already exists universally. Yet, Fanon states that a universal proletariat does not exist. Instead, the proletariat is always racialized; the universal which Sartre emphasizes must be built upon the foundations of mutual recognition. However, establishing the conditions of mutual recognition depends upon the dislodgment of racial alienation and establishment of the claims of a non-white humanity. Sartre misses the point that such a process unfolds within the racial relation: black existence can only become the grounds of disalienation to the extent that the specifically black subject becomes conscious of itself and the white recognizes the absoluteness of those who exist as non-white.
To summarize, though Fanon does endorse Sartre’s notion of the overcoming of negritude, he still wants to underline the necessity of re-articulating the dialectic in terms of the experiential point of view of the Black subalterns. In more general terms, the path to the universal - a world of mutual recognitions - proceeds through the particular struggles of those battling racial discrimination. While race is undoubtedly a form of alienation which needs to be abolished, one can’t subsumes the concrete, for-itself activity of black existence into a universal proletariat. We always have to keep in mind the rich process of the self-abolition of race, which develops as a series of negations. The American Left needs to valorize black consciousness, to claim it as an integral part of the emancipatory experience of revolutionary socialism, but without overlooking its basic nature as a byproduct of racial capitalism.
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.
July 16, 2021-Vygotsky’s Revolutionary Educational Psychology. By: Curry Malott & "Liberation School"Read Now
" This article was originally published on Liberation School on March 9, 2019"
The name Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is commonplace in the field of education. Ask any teacher or professor of education about Vygotsky and chances are they will at least recall the name from their child development or educational psychology classes. His theories are still foundational to even mainstream education but, as is the case with so many revolutionaries, they have been stripped of their Marxist foundations. One result is that the revolutionary potential of Vygotsky’s theories have remained largely unknown not only inside schools and teacher education programs, but also inside social movements.
This article introduces Vygotsky’s theories on educational psychology and human development, contextualizes them within the transition from Czarist Russia to the Soviet Union, draws out the main elements of his work that have utility for revolutionary organizers, and provides concrete illustrations of their utility.
Conditions in Czarist Russia
Lev Semionovich Vygotsky was born in 1896 to a Jewish family in the town of Orsha, Belarus, which, at the time, was part of the Russian Empire. Coming from a Jewish family in Czarist Russia meant being subjected to a lifetime of discrimination. Jewish people lived in restricted territories, were subject to strict quotas for university entrance, and were excluded from certain occupations.
These restrictions nearly blocked Vygotsky’s admittance to university despite his youthful brilliance. His experiences with anti-Jewish bigotry would undoubtedly influence his later work reorienting psychology. Most clearly, these experiences would push Vygotsky to critique conceptions of the mind that treated the development of cognitive processes as purely internal, unaffected by the surrounding world. As we will see, Vygotsky demonstrated that as the child develops cognitive processes are increasingly mediated—both constrained and enabled—by cultural, social, and economic factors.
Vygotsky’s groundbreaking work was frequently and painfully interrupted—and eventually ended when he was 37-years-old—by tuberculosis. To his peers he was a child genius. By the time he was 15-years-old he was known as the “little professor.”
Vygotsky’s contributions to educational psychology stemmed not just from his own insights, but from the influences of such monumental figures as Lenin and the inspiration of his environment: Revolutionary Russia.
A communist theory of cognition
Replacing a stagist view of cognitive development with a dialectical orientation is part of Vygotsky’s indispensable legacy. That is, Vygotsky discredited the belief that child thought evolves through fixed, natural, separate, and unrelated stages.
Cognitive development is not simply a matter of biological predeterminations, but is mediated by social factors. Consequently, as society changes—quantitatively within a system or qualitatively between systems through revolution—cognitive development also changes. This is what it means to say that Vygotsky’s theory of development is historical. Because references to Marx and Lenin were purged from English translations of Vygotsky’s work, the fact that his approach is both dialectical and historical in its core is largely unknown, especially in the U.S.
Cognitive development is not necessarily about an individual’s inherent potential. Rather, cognitive development is about the general potential of specific classes, which is an expression of historical processes. To get more specific: it is an expression of a society’s particular technologies, discourses, signs, tools, and modes of production. Uncovering these processes points toward the historically determined and changing nature of cognitive processes.
These insights were deeply influenced and inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, which coincided with Vygotsky’s graduation from Moscow University in 1917. The Revolution transformed many disciplines and opened up new realms of inquiry and opportunities for young, formerly oppressed and marginalized scholars such as Vygotsky.
The Bolshevik leadership heavily emphasized education after the revolution, since the predominantly peasant feudalistic social formation promoted a conservative, reactionary ideology. Lenin (1919/2019) sums this up in his address to the First All-Russian Congress on Adult Education. He emphasizes the working class and peasantry’s thirst for knowledge, noting “how heavy the task of re-educating the masses was, the task of organization and instruction, spreading knowledge, combating that heritage of ignorance, primitiveness, barbarism and savagery that we took over” (p. 24).
As renowned Vygotskian scholar James Wertsch (1985) puts it, “Vygotsky and his followers devoted every hour of their lives to making certain that the new socialist state, the first grand experiment based on Marxist-Leninist principles, would succeed” (p. 10).
Vygotsky’s work is therefore an embodiment of one of the most intellectually and culturally stimulating settings of the 20th century. His project was dedicated to remaking psychology in Marxist terms in order to overcome the practical problems inherited from Czarist Russia, including illiteracy and the oppression of national and gender minorities.
Working in this exciting time of revolutionary transformation, which unleashed a radical desire for new knowledge, Vygotsky was taken by socialism’s elevation of the general potential of cognitive development.
Influences of Lenin
Some of Vygotsky’s (1986) most central conceptions of mind were based on Lenin’s philosophical notebooks. For example, Vygotsky draws on Lenin’s distinction between “primitive idealism” and Hegelian idealism. This distinction allowed Vygotsky to demonstrate that a particular society’s general level of development is not biologically determined or fixed, but rather historically determined and therefore capable of transformation. It brought revolutionary optimism, in other words, to the field of psychology. Whereas primitive idealism attempts to universalize a particular being, which Lenin calls “stupid” and “childish,” Hegelian idealism distinguishes an object from the idea of the object. Such insights were fundamental in challenging decontextualized, racialized conceptions of mind used to justify the oppression of national minorities.
Vygotsky developed a complex conception of the “mind in society” that explores the dialectical relationship between thought and imagination as unity and contradiction. For Vygotsky, thought emerges from an engagement with the concrete world. Imagination is a sort of sublated thought that begins to appear in young children when they cannot fulfill their immediate desires. When this occurs:
The preschool child enters an imaginary, illusory world in which the unrealizable desires can be realized, and this world is what we call play. Imagination is a new psychological process for the child; it is not present in the consciousness of the very young child…Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action…Imagination in adolescence and school children is play without action. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 93)
While the development of imagination seems to be a consistent aspect of human cognitive development, as sublated thought, it is the negation of the thought of “the very young child,” and is therefore contradictory.
However, like development more generally, the sublation of early childhood thought and the emergence of imagination is not immediate but develops quantitatively by degree, bit by bit. Vygotsky (1978) argues this is because “there is such intimate fusion between meaning and what is seen” (p. 97). For example, young children have difficulty repeating the phrase, “’Tanya is standing up’ when Tanya is sitting in front of” them (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 97).
The presence of imagination as a human quality is the basis of our ability to engage the world reflectively rather than instinctively. This powerful quality accounts for the wide variance in cultures and is the basis for history. It makes possible misinformation, bigotry, domination, as well as creativity and resistance.
This discussion on thought and imagination reflects how Vygotsky was taken by Lenin’s observation that the distinction between objects and the idea of them is vulnerable to being consumed by an always latent element of fantasy, as ideas can never mirror, with complete exactness, the objects they intend to represent. There is always a gap between reality and representation. For Vygotsky, attending to the gap between objects and the ideas they intend to represent is fundamentally connected to the process of navigating the gap between what is and what can be.
This is particularly significant for challenging decontextualized and racialized conceptions of mind because there is a tendency in capitalist schooling to attribute students’ actual level of development with innate or biological factors, thereby ignoring the ways unequal and highly segregated educational systems produce unequal outcomes. Challenging racist biological determinism, Vygotsky shows that what students can do on their own, their independent activity, does not necessarily correlate to what they can achieve with a teacher, peer, or other leader. This is where the zone of proximal development comes into play.
The Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky named the gap between what is and what can be the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and created a whole educational theory around it. Like social formations, individual children or learners have historically determined levels of development in particular subjects or domains that can be assessed through appropriate testing instruments. Based on their actual level, learners have an immediate developmental potential in each domain. The difference between actual and potential is the ZPD. According to Vygotsky (1986):
The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that can mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the “buds” or “flowers” of development rather than the “fruits” of development. (p. 86)
Vygotsky referred to potential developmental levels as “buds or flowers” rather than “fruits” because they are in the process of coming into being and therefore not yet fully ripe. Further, their process of coming into being isn’t predetermined. No one can know in advance what form the developed function will take.
The ZPD represents the gap between an existing level of development and what can be achieved with the help of more capable or differently situated peers. For example, two children may test at the same math level, so their actual level of development is identical. However, when they are pushed with examples, questions, and demonstrations, one may achieve a potential developmental level significantly different than the other. That is, even if their actual levels of development are the same, their zones of proximal development are not. The prompting by a teacher or peer will push them but from different places and in different directions. For Vygotsky, such scenarios point to the complex, non-linear nature of the relationship between instruction, development, and history.
Vygotskian researchers have long pointed out that things like arithmetic systems and their uses are not natural or universal but are specific to socio-historical contexts. The ZPD, consequently, can only be understood if the historically-specific context is accounted for. As contexts change, ZPDs also transform.
Taken together, these are key examples of how Vygotsky’s theories guard against ableist theories of development, in that it is all about unleashing the unique potential of all students during a particular historical moment.
It is important to stress that the content of this gap between ability and potential isn’t predetermined, which is what makes it a gap and not a lack or deficiency. This is particularly important as a challenge to capitalist schooling that tends to define that which deviates from some normative standard as a lack or deficiency. Rather than Spanish-speaking, for example, we are confronted with the discourse of the non-English-speaking or English as a second language. The emphasis, in capitalist normative discourse, is on what is not rather than on what is.
“Left-Wing” Communism as an example of ZPD
Lenin’s (1920/2016) pamphlet, “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is an indispensable illustration of Vygotsky’s ZPD, one that brings home the theory’s importance for communists.
By 1905, the suffering Russian masses had developed a revolutionary mood that coincided with a revolutionary crisis within Czarist Russia. The spontaneous movement of the masses pushed for the overthrow of the government. The crisis-ridden state was not only practically obsolete; it was politically obsolete because the masses held a revolutionary consciousness. The actual level of development was therefore revolutionary, rendering an actual revolution within the proximal zone of development. Since the masses actual level of development was revolutionary, a communist orientation or consciousness was within their proximal level of development. Lenin held a deep awareness of this situation and therefore understood the indispensable nature of education.
The defeat of the 1905 revolution and the government’s subsequent wave of repression worked together to temper the radical mood of the masses. The people increasingly looked to the provisional, bourgeois government to meet their needs. Yet the Bolsheviks continued calling for a boycott of the parliamentary elections for the next few years. Lenin writes that this was a mistake, one that became more serious each year. Parliamentarism might have been practically obsolete in that it couldn’t meet the needs of the masses, but it was no longer politically obsolete because the people had faith in it. The Bolsheviks thus incorrectly judged the ZPD.
Communists therefore had to learn from their mistakes and focus on doing political education work and mass outreach meeting the masses where they were at in terms of their consciousness. This entails promoting the vision, program, and desire for revolution while maintaining close contact with the working class. It is imperative that revolutionaries are in tune with the mood of the masses and their ZPD. Calling for revolution before the people are ready is equivalent to abandoning and alienating the people.
Even if the mood of the masses is revolutionary, without an irreconcilable crisis within the capitalist class, launching an insurrection will likely end in failure and unimaginable persecution. Closely following the development of the capitalist system and its ruling class, consequently, is extremely important for assessing the ZPD of capitalism itself. In other words, the ZPD has to take the totality into account.
While the ZPD of the masses can be transformed through intervention, the ZPD of capitalism itself is less open to direct intervention, and therefore must be monitored through daily assessment of concrete situations.
Advancing the struggle through challenging the discipline
While Lenin was conscious of the changing roles of revolutionaries at different stages in the dialectical process toward communism, Vygotsky too was attuned to the changing significance of multiple interacting factors in human cognitive processes. In laying the theoretical groundwork for his revolutionary approach to educational psychology Vygotsky took up the task of challenging the world’s leading educational psychologist of the day, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) of Switzerland.
Significantly, Vygotsky draws heavily on Lenin in his challenge to Piaget. For example, in Thought and Language, Vygotsky (1986) reproduces a long quote from Lenin where he argues that Hegel’s insistence that people’s thought produces their activity must be “inverted.” That is, Lenin argues that it is the endless repetition of people’s activity (i.e. the labor act) that produces consciousness.
Similarly, Vygotsky notes that, “it was Piaget himself who clearly demonstrated that the logic of action precedes the logic of thought, and yet he insists that thinking is separated from reality” (p. 53). Piaget demonstrated that action precedes thought by observing that children playing together understand each other despite how unclear their language is because it is accompanied by gesture and mimicry, the beginning of action. Consequently, Piaget questions weather children truly understand each other through speaking/language without acting, yet in theory he puts thought before action.
Sounding remarkably like Marx in his use of metaphor, Vygotsky summarizes the inadequacy of Piaget’s formulation: “…if the function of thinking is to reflect upon reality, this actionless thinking appears as a parade of phantoms and a chorus of shadows rather than the real thinking of a child” (p. 53). Having established the dynamic relationship between mind and society, Vygotsky took social formation as the ultimate determining factor influencing the dynamic development of human personalities and consciousness.
Producing his major works during the transition from an underdeveloped peasant-based economy to socialism, Vygotsky was deeply interested in the socialist alteration of humanity. It was the intellectually exciting and creative context of the Soviet Union that Vygotsky found himself in, combined with the work and example of Lenin, that offered the concrete context from which Piaget’s formulation unveiled itself to Vygotsky as incorrect.
Throughout Vygotsky’s body of work he insists that at “moments of revolutionary dislocation the nature of development changes” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19). This is key because it once more emphasizes that the gap between what is and what can be isn’t predetermined and is historically situated.
Vygotsky defined transition points in development in terms of changes in mediation. A fundamental feature of Vygotsky’s genetic analysis is that he did not assume one can account for all phases of development by using a “single set of explanatory principles” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19).
Rather, Vygotsky emphasized that
…at certain points in the emergence of a psychological process new forms of development and new explanatory principles enter the picture. At these points…there is a ‘change in the very type of development’ and so the principles which alone had previously been capable of explaining development can no longer do so. Rather, a new set of principles must be incorporated into the overall explanatory framework, resulting in its reorganization.” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19-20)
At certain points there is a fundamental reorganization of the forces of development. This occurs as language and social interactions become more and more prominent mediators in child development through the years. The character of social mediators impacting the development of human personalities also undergoes significant alteration with the transition from capitalism/feudalism to socialism.
Vygotsky’s revolutionary theory of development is therefore one that recognizes the many forms of capacity, intelligence, and potential in all beings.
From the perspective of Vygotsky’s ZPD we might argue that as proletarian consciousness moves back to the left, and as the political crisis continues to deepen within the capitalist class political establishment, more revolutionary-oriented approaches to education are once again coming closer to our contemporary ZPD.
– Lenin, V. I. (1919/2019). First All-Russia Congress on Adult Education: Speech of Greeting. In D.R. Ford and C. Malott (Eds.). Learning with Lenin: Selected Works on Education and Revolution (pp. 23-25). Charlotte, NC: IAP.
– Lenin, V.I. (1920/2016). “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: A Popular Essay in Marxist Strategy and Tactics. New York: International Publishers.
– Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
– Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Edited by Alex Kozulin. London: MIT Press.
– Wertsch, J. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
“Marcusian” and “Brownian” are odd words to put on display in modern political commentary. Some might even argue they are not political. Maybe they shouldn’t be. But then, why are we here? Here: as in somewhat interested in an article on Midwestern Marx for whatever reason, and here: as in living right now under certain specific conditions in a particular revolutionary moment dragging on endlessly with what feels like no end in sight. Initially, this question displays somewhat of a heavy sense of presence, yet it is destructively and even painstakingly fixated on a past movement either lacking guile or still not entirely realized; a movement concerning both time and human touch. It is our business to understand every moment as a relation, and the status of American political culture now is no exception. The American counterculture, the civil rights era, the Vietnam protests, those great acid dreams of Gonzo madness and degenerative jouissance still vibrate purposefully and very often in modern political discourse, radical or otherwise. At least, much more so than we would like to think. The fascination that we should have with what I am calling the Marcusian and Brownian split, derived from the great works of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, will be found in the heavy presence of this countercultural moment but actually begins with a more contemporary and slightly less gigantic, though no less important, theoretical figure, Mark Fisher. All will be made clear soon, as Jerry Garcia once said, “you just gotta poke around.”
Mark Fisher was a British cultural and critical theorist specializing in Frankfurt School critical theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the study of ideology. What is most important for us is the extensive work Fisher did on what he called capitalist realism [i], defined as, “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (MF, 2). We actually see examples of this all around us daily. Capital is notorious for its ability to co-opt any movement going against its systematic reach, eventually bringing counter-hegemonic movements under the umbrella of capital. Purchase a trendy t-shirt of Che Guevara on Amazon or watch a Netflix documentary like The Social Dilemma to see what I mean. Capital not only profits on the co-optation of movements aimed against it, but also weaponizes them for its own psychological and ideological purposes. This latter point is key for both myself and Fisher, as the inability to imagine an alternative to the current mold of the human condition is incredibly worrisome, and the evidence points to at least some validity to this conclusion. What’s more, the United States—the great agent of neoliberalism, according to Fisher—has effectively worked to eliminate any real alternatives to the capitalist system like democratic socialism or libertarian communism. Granted, there are also daily examples of individuals and groups fighting against these co-optations, like us! but the haunting spectre of capitalism continues to divide and weaken the potential for a unified form of consciousness among the working class, often leading to in-fighting amongst individuals in the same economic class and ideological posturing for red and blue parties that only represent destruction and status-quo symbolizations. It should be noted that Fisher himself did not accept this as a defeat for radical politics, only theorizing capitalist realism as a way to portray what we are really up against in the 21st century. As Slavoj Žižek writes, “An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality - that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself.” [ii] This is the danger Fisher attempts to illustrate.
The spectre of capitalist realism, or the seeming victory of capital ideologically and materially, has both historical and psychological foundations. Maybe even magic pillars, as we might come to discover. Fisher locates the historical victory of capitalism in the failures of Salvador Allende’s socialist regime in Chile in the early 1970s. Following dictator Augusto Pinochet’s ascension to power, the United States began using Chile as a breeding ground for developing global economic innovations such as financial deregulation, opening up the economy to foreign capital, and privatisation. Policies that were “maintained through the violent oppression of the majority and the brutal eradication of opposing political ideals in order to transform the country’s political profile and economic system.” [iii]. Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys made much of this possible, and I’m sure many are at least somewhat familiar with this history. What we are not given in Fisher’s work, however, is a coherent exploration of the psychological effects capitalism produces and where this origin might be discovered. Obviously, the scope of this project would be a massive undertaking, but my goal is to offer us somewhat of a starting point. If the historical and material victory of capitalism came in the early 1970s, then perhaps we can locate the psychological origins around the same time.
Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown represented the intellectual heights of the counterculture movement but also foreshadowed its eventual failures. Both rose to prominence in the late fifties and continued to develop important work throughout the sixties and seventies. Marcuse was a German Marxist philosopher, a psychoanalyst by trade and a core member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He, like his colleagues Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm, sought to ally the insights of Freud with the writings of Marx to understand why the great workers revolution had not happened, and to account for the horrors witnessed in their German homeland during WWII. Marcuse produced a stunning array of theoretical work, and there are two ideas in particular that I want us to focus on. First, a major theme of his work was that the continued development of capitalism also brought with it the continued development of its blatant contradictions; contradictions which could eventually be used against capital’s domination for the creation of a world beyond toil and exploitation. This was Marcuse’s gaya scienza, the incorporation of human beauty in the production of a new science, an outgrowth of capitalism’s technological advances and paralleled contradictions. [iv] Capital essentially created the tools necessary for its own destruction. Through inquiries into the structure of advanced capitalist society present in all forms of social phenomena, Marcuse aimed to show that the structure contained at its core “unrealized potentialities” capable of being redirected against the system itself. These unrealized potentials were exhibited in countless instances, any and all forms of social protest and social progress were minor illuminations of the possibility for overcoming capitalism’s destruction.
Second, Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensionality has remained perhaps his most well known and timeless contribution to Marxist thought. Capital produces constant states of “unfreedom” which appear as a set of free choices, all contributing to the near sterilization of the free subject and the elimination of aesthetic, intellectual, and physical freedoms. This is not the representation of reality as a “false consciousness,” but reality as such. Social connectivity and human relations become thus moderated by the exchange and commodification of objects in the material universe. The search for human community becomes exhaustive, never-ending, and incredibly destructive, aiding in the creation of neurotic, anxiety-ridden subjects who can no longer find connection through sensual ephemeralities of beauty, love, or thought. Both of these ideas work together in a number of ways. The cultivation of a new consciousness, which Marcuse called the new sensibility, [v] would lead to both a psychological awakening of the repressed, one-dimensional subject and a political movement capable of utilizing the tools for capital’s overcoming.
Given the status of Marcuse as a torchbearer of the New Left in the sixties, one may very well wonder why his project failed to achieve notable success as a political platform or set of political ideas. Certainly, there were elements of the hippie counterculture which undermined actual Marxist progress, often diluting radical politics with a liberal politic much like progressive movements today. Regardless of the disconnect between the actual revolutionaries of the time and their liberal, peace-loving counterparts, there existed a stark psychological break within the counterculture movement that both Marcuse and Brown adequately portray. In this split, Marcuse represents the political side of a psychological break containing at its base the erotic elements of human sensuality, pleasure, community, beauty, freedom, and love noted above. The gaya scienza and the one-dimensional thesis signify a psychological reinterpretation of the orthodox Marxian notion of the base-superstructure, this time flipped on its head. Instead of interpreting changes to the human psyche as a product of the material modes of production, something Marx in the German Ideology calls “the language of real life”, [vi] Marcuse used the cultural and psychological elements of the superstructure to interpret material change. This type of analysis allows for the freedom to develop a psychological theory explaining the effects of capitalist progress, while not straying too far from the original Marxist position of dialectical historical materialism.
Brown, on the other hand, developed his own dialectic in strict relation to the human body. Unlike Marcuse’s political aesthetic and growth as a leader of the Political New Left, Brown rose to prominence as the mystical poet of the growing radical scene in the fifties and sixties. Brown, for what it's worth, was a classicist by training. He and Marcuse were friends, and it was actually Marcuse who introduced him to the work of Freud, setting off a project for Brown that would lead to one of the most radical readings of Freud ever offered. In his most famous work, Life Against Death, Brown not only developed what he called “the psychoanalytic meaning of history,” but contributed greatly to psychoanalytic studies by giving Freud’s instinctually dualistic understanding of Life and Death (Eros and Thanatos) a necessary dialectical interpretation. The dialectic, Brown observed, returned to the origin of what he called, citing Anaximander and Heraclitus, “the undifferentiated unity.” [vii]
“We need,” Brown writes, “a metaphysic which recognizes the continuity between man and animals and also the discontinuity.” [viii] Like Marcuse, Brown noticed that the dualistic separation of the human from nature, and much more so the dualism of human life in seemingly endless conflict with the inevitable prospects of death, greatly hindered the possibility for any formulation of hope and human community beyond the repression of modern capitalist society. Unlike Marcuse, however, Brown spoke not of the technologies of advanced capitalist society or of its inherent contradictions pointed out by leading activists at the time, but offered an incredibly complex analysis of the human organism—the physical life of the human body and its near mystical instinctual counterpart—within history and the society this history has continuously reinforced. Freud presented the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, and the corresponding effect this has on the individual within human society (i.e. the Marcusian transformation from the pleasure principle to the reality principle) as a biological necessity. The dualistic interpretation of the conscious and the unconscious, which for Freud calcified the irreconcilable conflict between Eros – seeking to preserve and enrich life–and Thanatos–seeking to return life to the peace of death – seemed only to establish human history as a biological phenomenon undergirded by factors which prevent the possibility for full human transformation and freedom.
Brown developed his dialectic as a way to return creative powers back to humanity. What Freud and others had for so long considered inevitable or biologically necessary—the fear of death in the face of overabundant life—appeared for him to be the continuing production and reproduction of a history that maintained the human organism as a neurotic and repressed piece of a neurotic and repressed history. Brown wanted to destroy this history and discover eternity, something entirely within reach of a new humanity. He was fascinated by the aesthetic in a way radically different from Marcuse, he saw it as a way to integrate mystery back into human life, which for so long now has sought to eliminate mystery through democratized knowledge or positivistic research:
And so there comes a time—I believe we are in such a time—when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new. [ix]
Between Marcuse and Brown we see a marked distinction between political, Marxist aestheticization as a form of analysis in a social project, and a poetic, bodily mysticism devoid of a political project or goal. Marcusian politicization took seriously both the psychologically repressed capitalist subject and the importance of Marxist material dialecticism. Brownian mysticism was not explicitly political, but also succeeded in creating a poetic theorization of the body and psycho-social space-time which did not succumb to the now famous Young Hegelian tendency of “descending from Heaven to Earth.” [x]. Given Brown’s ability to not only formulate the instinctual dialectic, overcoming the dualism of life and death, but also his theorization of poetics as a new avenue for revolutionary dialectics, he was able to create a necessary psychoanalytic history to accompany historical materialism. Thus, the Marcusian-Brownian split: the separation of the political from the mystical in Marxist analysis, captures the core psychoanalytic rupture between two of the leading revolutionary intellectuals of the sixties. The significance of the split is that instead of developing together or at least with some potential for reunification, the monumental success of capitalist realism at the same time ensured their continued separation. There was no “commingling with new aesthetic forms,” as Fisher once playfully wrote. Not only this, but the ideological victory of the capitalist system also increased the perceived oasis between the political and the mystical in the human psyche. To quote Marcuse, the “elimination of the spectre of a world which could be free,” [xi] necessitated the loss of both. The political and the mystical were drastically reduced. Even Marcuse and Brown, quarrelling in a series of letters published in Commentary Magazine in 1967, failed to notice the insightful oneness of political and mystical, poetic consciousness as a potentially unifying project itself. Only a year later the events of May 1968 would engulf France. Streets would fill with student protesters, college dormitories would be consumed by the naked bodies of young lovers, protest art sprawled across the walls, lamp posts, subways, and restaurants of the French capital, while a president secretly fled to Germany. The “social revolution,” as it is called, was a success, but once again the political revolution did not come to fruition.
There is much to be learned from the disagreements between Marcuse and Brown, most important of which is that insightful and radical reevaluations of the body, language, and human history are a necessary accompaniment to structural Marxism and its many appendages. Capitalist ideology really “holds” us in place now because these two elements of human experience are often held in stark contrast to one another, especially amongst the new alleged torchbearers of the modern political and social moment. We might do well now to take seriously both Marcuse’s assertion that “at the highest stage of capitalism, the most necessary revolution appears as the most unlikely one,” [xii] and Brown’s notable tactic for this revolution, “(to put it simply) the simultaneous affirmation and rejection of what is; not in a system, as in Hegel, but in an instant, as in poetry.” [xiii].
I will have many more articles up soon. Thanks for checking out my first piece!
[i] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Washington: Zero Books Publishing, 2009), 2.
[ii] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso Books, 1989), 49.
[iii] Elizabeth Dicken, “An Assessment of the Pinochet Regime in Chile,” E-International Relations, 2015, https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/56089
[iv] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969).
[v] Ibid., 19.
[vi] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 154.
[vii] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Origins of History (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), 83.
[viii] Ibid., 83.
[ix] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 4.
[x] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
[xi] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation , (Routledge, 1987), p. 2
[xii] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press 2010)
[xiii] Norman O. Brown, “A Reply to Herbert Marcuse,” Commentary Magazine, March 1967. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/commentary-bk/a-reply-to-herbert-marcuse/
Hunter Hilinski is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. He received a dual BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Wilkes University and an MA in Political Science from Colorado State University. His current research interests are in the American counterculture of the 1960s and Latin American political movements at about the same time. His work is deeply indebted to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis. At UCI he is a labor union steward/organizer and member of the Housing and Anti-Policing committees.