- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Sunday, 15 December 2013 23:59
- Written by Joe Ramsey
The following is an except of an article that appears in the recently published, November 2013 issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, “Re-Imagining the Place and Time of Communism Today: Between Hardt's “New Love” and Jameson's “Citizen Army”, Socialism and Democracy, 27:3, 54-82.
A Pdf of the full article ,which includes a discussion of recent ideas put forth by Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, can be found online here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2013.832955
We are sharing this piece on Kasama because we feel that Michael Hardt’s speech, here criticized by J. Ramsey, concentrates a number of ideas and approaches that are quite pervasive on the left, in various registers, quite apart from whether or not these forces have read or been influenced by Hardt himself (with or without his critical partner, Antonio Negri).
The author welcomes direct replies at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Re-Imagining the Place and Time of Communism Today: Between Hardt’s “New Love” and Jameson’s “Citizen Army”
Joseph G. Ramsey
This year’s summer Institute on Culture and Society, the spirited annual gathering of the Marxist Literary Group (MLG), featured an intensive week of intellectual exchange and political engagement, bringing together radical scholars and critics, students, teachers, and activists, from across the United States, Canada, and beyond. Founded in 1969, the MLG is a member organization of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and is committed to supporting and expanding the reach of Marxist theory within the disciplines of literary and cultural studies, and in the humanities more generally. While not as overtly devoted to activism as the MLA’s Radical Caucus, the MLG maintains a lively and supportive email list, and since 1976 has hosted its summer gathering, sometimes affectionately described as “commie camp.”1 The MLG also produces the journal Mediations.2
Among the many fine features of the MLG’s summer Institute is that there are no concurrent panel sessions. This allows for a continuity of discussion that is rare at academic conferences, and facilitates the development of intellectual as well as personal connections between scholars of different disciplines, fields, and generations. Sociologists and geographers sit next to literary scholars who sit next to philosophers and historians; emeritus professors drink beers and debate openly with graduate students late into the night. Six to eight hours of panel sessions surround midday reading groups which delve into classic Marx texts as well as more contemporary theory and scholar- ship, from Communization Theory3 to Kevin Anderson’s recent book Marx at the Margins.
The wealth of insight and the energy of debate, not to mention the warm bonds of friendship and comradeship that characterized this year’s Institute (held at Ohio State University), extend well beyond what this article can hope to capture. I attempt here to engage just one small snapshot of the event: the last two evening lectures. These spoke, however, to core issues that many Marxists – academics and activists alike – are struggling with. The two hour-long talks came from high-profile American Marxist intellectuals, Michael Hardt (on Thursday night) and Fredric Jameson (on Friday night, to close the conference).4 Both are authors of many books and countless articles, and have exerted a significant influence on radical thought both within the academy and beyond it.5
Capping the week of lively panel presentations and ongoing discussions, each speaker offered something of a “big picture” proposal and provocation regarding a question that was on the minds of many: how to conceive communism, and/or revolutionary subjectivity for our times – how to link our understandings of where things are, with where we want them to go, with the question of who or what can take them there.6 Quite apart from the content of these closing presentations, which we shall turn to shortly, it seems to me a promising sign that issues of communism (and revolutionary subjectivity more broadly) are on the tongues of so many radical intellectuals in the US today, from so many different disciplines and regions – by which I mean not just the likes of Hardt and Jameson, but the eighty or so people who attended this year’s Institute, many of whom I am proud to call comrades.7
“The ABCs of Communism” with Michael Hardt
For those familiar with his work, Michael Hardt’s MLG talk did not appear to offer much that was new. Nonetheless, the clarity of his presentation makes the speech he gave a useful entry point into analyzing some of his main ideas, ideas which have had significant influence both within and beyond radical academic circles.8 Hardt entitled his talk “The ABCs of Communism” (an allusion to Bukharin’s handbook from the 1920s) and prefaced it as an attempt to explain what he means by the term communism. He positioned his paper against the current of increasingly widespread “talk about communism,” which often, he said, leaves the end goal itself only vaguely defined. In contrast, Hardt argued for understanding communism as an “economic, social, and political proposal” and proceeded to outline his particular conception as consisting of the abolition of four major interrelated institutions of modern life: the abolition of property, the abolition of work, the abolition of the state, and the abolition of the family. Apart from the content of his talk, it was for me a promising sign that a radical thinker such as Hardt was making an attempt to frame his core concepts in a more popular, digestible form. Listening to his lecture, I felt that his discourse was one that most people could grasp and engage, without the need for some specialized training. This cannot always – cannot often – be said of radical theory in the United States today.
Hardt framed his approach to these “4 Abolitions” by emphasizing two more general points of orientation. The first was that while it is all well and good to speak of communism and revolution as “beautiful,” such utopian talk can be one-sided. It is important, he insisted, not to ignore the ways communism may well appear quite “monstrous” to us, at least insofar as we have been formed by and through capitalist society. Communism, he insisted, will mean giving up some of what “we” hold most dear, what gives people today their sense of identity.9
Hardt’s second framing point was that, far from being impossible utopian proposals, each of his four calls for abolition is in fact feasible, in that the “basis” for it “is present already” in contemporary capitalist society. Hardt asserted – and has argued elsewhere, for years – that capitalism is immanently building the basis for communism in its very forms and fibers, creating the foundation for a new society, not just despite itself, but out of its own capitalist logic.
At the outset, it is interesting to compare what we might call Hardt’s “4 Abolitions” with what are sometimes called the “4 Alls” of Communism. According to the Dictionary of Revolutionary Marxism (maintained by Scott Harrison at http://www.massline. org/Dictionary/):
“FOUR ALLS” is the name given by the Chinese during the Mao era to the fol- lowing four points which concisely and powerfully sum up the essence and meaning of communist revolution:
1) The abolition of class distinctions generally.
2) The abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest.
3) The abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production.
4) The revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.10
It is worth noting the differences, as well as the overlap, between these two conceptions of what communism means and strives for.
For starters, the “4 Alls” makes the primary target of abolition – the one from which all the others follow – the abolition of “all class distinctions.” It’s a heady notion. Here we can intuit the need to abolish and/or radically transform quite a number of social relations (inside and outside of production): the capital–labor relation (including but not limited to the boss–worker relation), the landlord–peasant (or landlord–tenant) relation, as well as the inequities that are inherent in patriarchal relations and in the realm of imperialism, including national or racial oppression. It is at root a maxim of human equality, of broad applicability.
In contrast, Hardt’s primary target of abolition (from which his other targets follow) is defined as “property.” Not just private property, he emphasized, but property in general. The very notion of property, Hardt claimed, even for instance public property, carries the logic of private property within it: it still hinges on granting a monopoly of force that serves to lock people out and away from access to a particular substance or space. Thus, Hardt opposed what he called (following Marx) “crude communism” that would ‘merely’ shift control over property from private individuals to the state or some other collective “owning” body. Does Hardt’s placing the accent on property rather than, say, class matter, and how so? What is lost or gained in this reframing?
Hardt challenged listeners to consider the depths to which property logic has permeated our thinking and even experience of individuality and self-hood. He suggested that “Private property makes us stupid,” making us feel that “a thing isn’t ours unless we own it.” One of our challenges in creating communism, he argued, will be to take up theoretically and practically the question, “How can things be ours without our owning them?” Here Hardt usefully echoed the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, emphasizing the need for a total re-education of the senses in order to shed the stupidity and selfishness that private property has bred in human beings.11
Still, juxtaposing Hardt’s “4 Abolitions” with the Maoist “4 Alls” in this way immediately raises a number of questions:
On the one hand, is human equality (the abolition of class) incompatible with the continued existence of property as such?12 Or only incompatible with certain types of property, such as say, capital, or exclusive ownership of fertile land, i.e., property that gives one party power over another, allowing the former to exploit the latter in ways that will accentuate inequalities, empowering some at the expense of others?
On the other hand, is an abolition of property (and “its logic”) as such adequate to the abolition of class inequalities, understood in all their many manifestations?13 Or are social inequalities produced by capitalism-imperialism embedded in other forms that are related but not reducible to property relations? (To get a bit ahead of ourselves, would communizing or collectivizing property and economic decision-making within the existing structures and places where they now stand be adequate to creating communism, understood as the worldwide abolition of class distinctions? Or, over and above immanent communization, is there a need for a deliberate restructuring of global social relations (and reallocation of resources) in such a way as to fundamentally re-work the parts in relationship to the whole? How, for example, should the historic imbalances produced between global North and South be addressed by a truly communist movement?)
Hardt’s resistance to drawing a line between private property and property per se led one MLG questioner to ask about his shirt, and whether or not he would have an exclusive right to it under communism, as Hardt had described it. Would and should communism allow for (and offer defense of) personal property in the form of possessions, clothes, objects, even a home, etc?14 And how would such a right be maintained? Didn’t Marx himself make the point (albeit polemically, in the Manifesto, with Engels) that it was capitalism not communism that threatened to appropriate from the great majority of people what small bits of property they had acquired through their lifelong toil? Hardt appeared rather unclear on this point, perhaps because he is reluctant to admit, or uncertain of how to conceptualize, the body or authority that might enforce such exclusive rights, however “personal.” As we have noted, Hardt calls for the abolition of the state, understood as a coercive entity standing apart from and over society.
As the alternative to both state and market, both public and private property, Hardt proposes the “common,” as a mode of organizing social life that depends, for him, on two criteria: “open and equal access to all” and “democratic collective self-management.” He referred to recent developments in Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, as well as to the Occupy Wall Street movement, as expressions of an actually existing “aspiration to the common” that is resistant to both state and market forms, “anti-neoliberal, and yet not pro-state.” Admitting the weaknesses and frustrations (as well as the beauty) of experiments such as Occupy, Hardt emphasized their value as learning experiences aimed at discovering and developing the methods and forms by which people can exercise democratic self-management. In this view, those struggling to find the best methods of facilitating General Assemblies might be seen as a kind of vanguard of the movement for the commons. Fair enough.
But with Occupy still spinning in my head, the big question for me as Hardt spoke was: Can this notion of the commons be scaled up beyond the local? Don’t we need to attend to the roll-back and break-up of Occupy as well as its spectacular moment of growth?15 As someone who dove into this event, who brought clothes, food, and books down to Occupy Boston, and who sought to work with and through the General Assembly and in working-groups in all sorts of ways, I still must ask: Is it conceptually valid, let alone logistically feasible, to manage entire societies, up to the national and the international level, as commons in this immediate sense? Without the support and supplement of something like large state structures?16 Without delegating at least temporary authority to some sort of elected leadership? Without even a centrally coordinated transition (call it ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ ‘socialism,’ the ‘first stage of communism,’ or something else altogether)?17
Complicating the matter further is the fact that Hardt argues that political “representation” itself is a suspect, “property-based concept,” whereby the political will of one person is transferred to another (as if it were currency). Hardt didn’t quite call for the “abolition” of the idea of political representation, but he seemed to be leaning in that direction. It’s interesting to reflect on such commonplace notions, but it’s also risky to problematize them as such insofar as “representation” is a term that can stand for any number of ways and means of representing people, their decisions, their interests, preferences, desires, and ideas. For example, just looking at current and mainstream political practices, it is not only common for the transfer of group authority to be made temporary (from term limits on elected officials, to one convention only delegations), but it is also possible (and not uncommon) for elected “representatives” to be recalled by their constituents. Similarly, it is possible to subject representatives’ decisions to popular vetoes in the form of referenda, before they are implemented.18
Admittedly, Hardt does here point out a real cultural trend (and danger) of treating political will as an alienable property; such a notion of consent as transferrable currency certainly can be (and has been) exploited by leaders who are on their way to becoming a detached, bureaucratic elite. In our present ‘mainstream’ environment of cynical voter-resignation, in particular, we do need to insist that no amount of having voted for a politician or a party can deprive the people of their right to have a further say in their situation, even and especially when it means challenging those who officially ‘represent’ them; people cannot delegate away their political will. (Similarly, people ought not to feel bound to obey laws that are unjust and oppressive, just because they are formally legitimate.)
But valuable as it may be as a means of disrupting or delegitimizing the existing electoral-capitalist complacency, is this anti-representational principle fit to structure the realm of revolutionary politics? Does it apply to the realm of communism, where presumably the dictatorship of capital (or, as Hardt would put it, property) is overcome? One could raise a similar question regarding some of the autonomist modes of workers organizing against or without managers: Is the logic of resistance co-extensive with the necessities of revolutionary struggle? Or do these two form a more diagonal, at times contradictory mix, requiring serious mediation? (We will return to this below.) More immediately, how useful is such an anti-concept in this moment where radical forces are struggling to coalesce into a more substantial and effective political body? It seems to me that an outright hostility to the very concept of political representation (to even temporary and provisional delegations of collective political will) can become a debilitating bias indeed – unless it is replaced with another concept that does the work of representation in a new and better – more accountable, more organically mass-responsive – way.19
Those who experienced the General Assemblies (GA) of Occupy for an extended period likely got to see first-hand not just the prefigurative beauty of an aspiration for the common, but also what Jodi Dean (among others) has criticized as a reluctance or inability to confront and to work through its own internal political divisions.20 Interestingly, at least in Boston, Occupy’s horizontal processes appeared to function best in moments when there was a clear and present danger against which to unite: especially the imminent threat of police attack. Nonetheless, based on the Occupy experience, I believe that we should be skeptical of the notion that a revolutionary movement, or a new communist society, can do without some forms of representation and/or strategic delegation of authority, to facilitate decision-making in times of sudden and unforeseen crisis, to help the collective keep focus during lull phases, to push the group to work through its own internal contradictions in a non-antagonistic way, to facilitate coordination with other communes or occupations elsewhere, as well as to help work through the contradictions and challenges immanent to the movement and moment. To hypothesize bluntly: If every major Occupation had elected a team of (temporary! recallable!) delegates – say one month in, in October, 2011 – we very well might have been able to raise our movement to a higher level, for instance by organizing a representative national convergence that could have brought focus, visibility, and sustainability to the historic upsurge, coordinating actions across cities and regions, drawing new forces into the national movement, while also providing a clear platform for the open struggle between contending political views and approaches. This might have been a significant step forward for the Occupy movement, creating new opportunities, as well as – of course! – challenges, and yes, new dangers, too.
That this didn’t happen was not primarily because of police repression: anti-representational biases played a role in stymying the coalescence, concentration, and self-clarification and expansion, of the Occupy movement.21
Of course, it goes without saying – but still must be said – that to keep such representatives and leaders responsive, accountable, and connected to the needs and wants of the people needs to be an ongoing priority of any movement for radical change; similarly all such official representations remain subject to amendment and critique. Part of this task involves the cultivation of new leaders – quite apart from whether they hold officially “representative” positions or not – so that the movement does not become vulnerable (whether to distortion or to repression) in its over-reliance and dependence on particular individuals. Indeed, one of the best criteria for judging the effectiveness of revolutionary leadership – or of a mode of movement representation – should be the extent to which a particular representative (or representative mode) is able to cultivate and to raise up the consciousness and confidence of others. In a sense such leadership ought to strive to make itself obsolete, by spreading whatever skills and knowledge and methods it once had privileged access to, and by helping to cultivate the space and support for new and needed voices and views to come forward.
It is obvious that we need to be exploring and testing new forms of leadership and new ways of manifesting and concentrating the best ideas and practices of the people, on an ongoing basis. But does dispensing with “representation” as such (as Hardt suggested we might) help us to make progress on such problems, problems that are themselves, in part, matters of representation? How do we conceive of leadership (or popular will, or sovereignty) here if not in terms of representation? What can and what will be the mode of leadership and organization through which the rule of the common can be generalized beyond the local and the immediate? Perhaps what we need is a more dynamic, dialectical, and supple understanding of what it means to represent others politically in a communist way, rather than a hostility or resistance to the concept of representation as such.
Lacking answers here, it seems to me that Hardt’s anti-representationalism is symptomatic of a broader tendency (on the Left and perhaps elsewhere) to seek out a novel form of political organization or expression, as if said form could be somehow sealed off in advance from the danger of co-optation, corruption, elitist detachment, or bureaucratic abuse. As if the selection of form can get us around the need for an all-sided and ongoing struggle over content.22 As if even the commune too couldn’t make bad decisions, take wrong stances, pursue incorrect paths.
Communism with no place for the State. . .or Strategy
As for how the commoning of economic relations and the abolition of property (private or public) will be accomplished, Hardt tended to avoid the question of strategy. He did emphasize two points relevant to the question of communist transition. But both of these points were not just non- but anti-strategic, gravitating against the need for carving out a definitive revolutionary strategy, or even making the space for one.
First, Hardt argued that the transition to communism is already immanent within contemporary capitalism, which, he argued, is increasingly characterized by common and collective forms of production. “It is more efficient to give workers autonomy,” Hardt argued, and so capitalists’ own drive for profit is leading them to expand autonomy, creating the material basis for the common, and rendering capitalists more external to the actual process of production.
Second, he pointed out that his theory of communist transition is less a matter of “cataclysmic change” than of what he called “an accumulation of anomalies,” a gradual production of “beachheads” within capitalism that will aggregate until “quantitative change turns into qualitative change.” This more or less spontaneous communism by enclave, Hardt quickly added, need not be understood as ruling out the possibility of more “cataclysmic” events; indeed, the growing commons might even help provide support for such breakthroughs. And yet, despite this important qualification, Hardt’s approach tends to downplay and to put off the need for strategic thinking and organization – whether proactive or defensive. His presentation risked sounding like a call to tail the spontaneous emergence of the common as immanent to capital.23
Hardt did not, for instance, encourage us, as strategically oriented communists, to approach the accumulated anomalies and enclaves in light of the opportunity for – or even the political-logical necessity of – revolutionary “cataclysms,” or for that matter, of assault from counter-revolutionaries. He did not insist that we think strategically when creating or selecting which commons to expand or prioritize, depending on where the enemy is weak or strong. Though he never exactly said it (at least not in this talk), one could be forgiven for interpreting Hardt as suggesting that the logic of capitalism, and the flowering of democratic self-management in those common spaces that capital is itself creating, will take care of this transitional process on its own.
But from a strategic standpoint, wouldn’t it make sense to cluster one’s “beachheads” with an eye to where the enemy guns are? And to strategize how to defend and reconfigure the “anomalies” in light of the likelihood of counter-revolutionary attack? Whether or not we accept Hardt’s political economic assumptions, such a strategic approach to the revealed terrain would appear necessary for communists, no?24
It seems possible that Hardt’s focus on property rather than class as the primary target for abolition, may encourage this eliding of strategy. It was as if abolishing property, and going right to the commune form, would do away with the need to struggle with and among the people, consciously exposing and transforming the particular social relations and contradictions that have been built up in the world system by capitalist and imperialist domination, not to mention the need to actively defend communist enclaves from the repressive force of capital and the state. In a way, Hardt thus defers a whole host of tough questions to the democratic decision-making of the emergent and future common, rather than insisting on the need for communists to be preparing now to take on various manifestations of class inequalities, such as educational hierarchies, divisions between mental and manual labor, divisions between country and city within countries, as well parasitism and lopsidedness between countries resulting from centuries of colonialism and imperialism. The danger for Hardt’s property-based proposal is, like the danger of a certain brand of anarchism, that its very sweeping “radicalism” ignores the political particularities of transition and transformation that will be essential to any viable communist revolutionary project. In short, the entire problematic of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” of the need to lay the basis for higher forms of communism and to defeat and suppress the oppressors, does not appear.25
“What are the people doing?”. . .and “what is to be done?”
Neither communists, nor anyone else, of course, can conjure the resistant or revolutionary practice of the people into being through a sheer act of will (coupled with correct analysis + strategic utterances). Thus perhaps the single most useful point and phrase that I took away from Hardt’s “ABCs of Communism” talk was his insistence that rather than simply obsessing over “What is to be done?” communists need to take seriously the question “What are people doing?” As a provocation both for a certain Leninist left that tends to marginalize itself with its insistence on abstract and historically enervated notions of the “correct” way forward, and for an economistic Marxism that in its exploration of tectonic capital shifts tends to lose sight of the actually existing practices of actual people, Hardt’s emphasis on investigating the concrete doings of the people was valuable.
But despite the importance of taking seriously the changes in the work life and the social life of the people, Hardt’s maxim risked being one-sided in the other direction. He risked leaping from a dogmatism of the orthodox abstract to a tailism of the spontaneously emergent.
The challenge, it seems to me, is precisely to derive a strategy of what is to be done, in relationship to what people are doing (as well as to what is coming down the pike courtesy of contemporary capitalism and its various attendant internal and external conflicts). This needs to be understood not as a mechanical operation, where one aspect (“What is to be done” or “What people are doing”) is fully formed “in advance,” and then acts upon the other aspect, but as a process of mutual transformation of both poles of the opposition, of both revolutionaries and (the rest of) the people, whereby what people are doing is changed in relation to growing awareness about what is to be done, and where our sense of what is to be, can be, and must be done is revised and filled out by a deepening and concretized sense not just of what the people are doing, but of what they are willing and able and wanting to do (which may often be different from what they are at present doing). The latter itself needs to be understood as a dynamic, dialectically determined subjective will – for what people are willing and thus able do has a way of changing, sometimes drastically and radically, in relation to what they understand others to be doing, to be thinking, to be wanting and willing. (“From the masses, to the masses,” as the Maoist “mass line” would put it, needs to be understood as a mutually transformative process.) Investigation into the practices, conditions, and attitudes of the people is absolutely fundamental, but this is not a strictly sociological or positivist matter of “knowledge”: such investigation needs to be conducted, and then translated and tested through practice, in light of a broader view of the strategic situation, a view which includes subjective political factors, as well as overall tectonic alignments of capital that are beyond the people’s immediate control. Such a truly radical investigation changes the object as well as the subject.26
Our question thus shifts again: Not just What is to be done? or What is being done? But what can be done? And how can this collective sense of possibility itself be transformed?
Of New Love. . .and communist monstrosities
At the end of his talk on “The ABCs of Communism,” as if to replace the newly abolished Family, Michael Hardt referenced the need for a “New Love” or a “Love of the Common.” He did not provide much in the way of content to fill out this idea (perhaps due to time constraints), but it would seem that this notion must be read dialectically in response to what, in his account, communism threatens to strip from people. The “new love” then would be a kind of communal cultural production that is outside the logic of Property, Work, State, and Family but that can provide the sense of security and belonging that communism, as abolition of these realms, jeopardizes. (I was reminded of Jodi Dean’s notion of communism as “the collective desire for collectivity” or the “collective desire for collective desiring” which seems to be emphasizing a similar sort of need, a kind of libidinal drive to maintain – and expand – the very space of collective being and decision, though Hardt made no mention of Dean’s work in his talk.)
What would be the form, the contents, the methods of producing and reproducing this “new love of the common”? Is this too something that – like Hardt’s “beachheads” of the common – can be understood as immanent to capitalist production, or is it something that can only come into being through an act of collective will, a type of communist cultural revolution?
Certainly this communist need to create a sense of security and belonging is a real one. How will we hold together a society that can no longer depend on greed, fear, nationalism, or narrowly understood “self-interest” as its (toxic) glue? What will serve as the driver of social production and reproduction once the imperative of profit and the disciplinary mechanism of the world market are abolished? Often communists – along with other anti-capitalist radicals – focus primarily on exposing the criminal doings and structural underpinnings of the present system, on what needs to be criticized or even dismantled, rather than what can and will replace it. But how in fact would we, could we, should we operate the system that will come after this one? We can certainly do a lot worse than to call for the cultivation of a kind of communist love – the treatment of others as ends in themselves, a loving practical recognition that “the free development of each provides the condition for the free development of all,” etc.
And yet, listening to Hardt, I could not help but wonder: can “love” do the job without the benefit of some organized force? A force that can, when it is necessary, bring to bear violence or the threat of violence in order to defend or extend communist gains and to deal with the residual and emergent elements of class domination or exploitation, as well as other anti-social forces?35 Isn’t it conceivable that part of what can (or maybe even must) bond a new communist social subject is precisely the necessity of suppressing its former or would-be oppressors and exploiters? Dialectically speaking – and here I think of Sartre’s notion of “the Third,” the Other whose threaten- ing “look” forces two subjects who were formerly independent of (or even antagonistic to) one another to fuse into a Group – is it not in part the need to confront the common enemy that compels working- class people to recognizing themselves as a proletariat in the first place?
Indeed, in this talk about the “monstrosity” of communist revolution, I was struck by the lack of discussion of anything like the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”36 Asked to address this longstanding communist concept during the Q and A, Hardt responded by acknowledging a certain space for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” understood narrowly (as he said Lenin understood it) as the “teaching of new habits” to the people. This is certainly an interesting and useful way to think about – one aspect of – the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet it seems to remain again somewhat mired in the immediacy of micro-level interpersonal relations.
Again: What of the need for strategy? For restructuring the social totality in line with a rational and egalitarian plan? For dealing with antagonistic contradictions, between the communizing people and those determined to restore capitalist relations, whether they are associated with the displaced ruling class, or with new elements immanent to the post-revolutionary society who seek consciously to develop and consolidate new forms of class distinction, oppression, and/or exploitation? What to do with those who refuse to accept the “teachings” of communization, who insist on resisting by force or arms? Does Hardt’s “new love” include tough love, modeled on the parent who uses her authority to force a child to learn (and to enact) the difference between right and wrong? Though I would of course agree that communists ought to strive to win people to a love of the common through appeal to their best selves, through the experience of cooperation and common struggle, as well as through arguments (and cultural productions) aimed at expanding their sense of “self-interest” to incorporate the needs of others, it seems to me that there is no getting around the need for an organized force that is capable of generating not only love, but also, frankly, fear.
The complete article, which includes an extended discussion of Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the idea of a “Citizen’s Army,” as well as a fuller discussion of Hardt’s call to “abolish the Family,” can be found online at Socialism and Democracy, here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08854300.2013.832955
A brief history of the MLG can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxist_ Literary_Group
2. Mediations: a journal of the Marxist Literary Group is available at www. mediationsjournal.org .
For an introduction to Communization theory and its critics, see Communization and Its Discontents, edited by Benjamin Noys, which is available online.
See www.MLG2013.wordpress.com for the full program. There was also a lecture given by the perhaps lesser known, but increasingly prominent Bruno Bosteels, author of the insightful new book, The Actuality of Communism (London: Verso, 2012), which I highly recommend. I will be dealing with the work of Bosteels at some length in a later essay; however, as his MLG talk was more historical than theoretical (it dealt with the history of the commune form in Mexico), I will limit my present discussion to Hardt and Jameson.
Hardt recently finished (with Antonio Negri) a major trilogy, encompassing Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth. Among Fredric Jameson’s major works are: Marxism and Form, The Political Unconscious, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, A Singular Modernity, Valences of the Dialectic, and, most recently, Reading Capital.
At this year’s Institute, this perennial Marxist question was weighted by a week of reading, which, in the form of the recently translated German Wertkritik (or “Value Theory”), as well as what has become known as Communization Theory, delved into questions related to the organic composition of capital and the Falling Rate of Profit, as well as what Marx in Capital terms the “absolute general tendency of capitalist accumulation,” that is, capital’s tendency to produce an absolutely “surplus” population, characterized by permanent unemployment. In other words: how to conceive of a revolutionary social subject in an age of terminal crisis, characterized by mass unemployment and precarious underemployment.
This is the appropriate place to thank a number of MLG comrades for helpful comments on this essay and/or on the talks in question: Kanishka Chowdhury, Rich Daniels, Ariane Fischer, Kevin Floyd, George Snedeker, and Robert Tally.
These ideas have been elaborated in many other places, including “The Common in Communism,” Hardt’s contribution to the volume The Idea of Communism (London: Verso, 2010), as well as his above-cited co-authored trilogy, of which the Commonwealth volume is particularly important for our present purposes. I should add that my present discussion does not purport to be a full or adequate critical survey of Hardt’s (and Negri’s) ambitious critical project, though I do hope to raise here some questions about that project which can be engaged further elsewhere.
9. Of course, the “we” and the “us” here were not particularly clear: Was Hardt imagining his audience as a privileged class of tenured and soon-to-be-tenured professors? A class of property-owners whose identities are wrapped up in their possessions? A class of increasingly precarious academic workers struggling to achieve a living wage while drowning in six figures of debt?
10. As Harrison notes, though popularized during the Chinese revolutionary process, “These four points are taken verbatim from a passage in Marx’s pamphlet, The Class Struggles in France (1850), MECW 10:127.
See Hardt, “The Common in Communism” (note 8), as well as Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
Of course it could also be asked whether or not the abolition of class alone is adequate to the achievement of human equality. As indicated above, I here take class to encompass without cancelling other unequal and self-replicating power relations involving for instance gender, race, and national inequalities.
I should add here that, as a comrade recently reminded me, Hardt and Negri do call for the abolition of the class relationship within production in their broader work. For instance, they write, evocatively: “Revolutionary class politics must destroy the structures and institutions of worker subordination and thus abolish the identity of worker itself, setting in motion the production of subjectivity and a process of social and institutional innovation. A revolutionary class politics also does not aim at workers taking power as the new ruling class, and thereby continuing the long history of one social class replacing another in the seat of power. Nor can it aim at creating social equality by universalizing one of the existing class identities, making either everyone bourgeois or everyone proletarian. Each of these non-revo- lutionary projects leaves worker identity intact, whereas a revolutionary process must abolish it” (Hardt & Negri, Commonwealth, 333).
I am thankful to fellow S&D editor Suren Moodliar for pointing out that indeed one can imagine circumstances when one ought not to be entitled to an absolute prop- erty right over one’s own shirt: imagine a situation where one person is bleeding and needs another’s shirt for a tourniquet.
My own extended critical reflections on the strengths, weakness, and prospects of Occupy were laid out in “Revolution Underground: Critical Reflections on the Prospect of Renewing Occupation,” Socialism and Democracy 60 (vol. 26, no. 3, November 2012). See also Jan Rehman, “Occupy Wall Street and the Question of Hegemony: A Gramscian Analysis,” S&D 61 (vol. 27, no. 1, March 2013).
More workable (and dialectical) might be the formulations of David Harvey, who in his recent book, Rebel Cities, argues for a more inter-penetrative relationship between state structures of maintaining public spaces and rights, and grassroots structures committed to “communing.”
As noted above, a discussion of the work of MLG’s other guest speaker, Bruno Bosteels, is beyond the scope of this essay. (It is in production.) That said, I will note here in passing that one of the important features of Bosteels’s recent work, for instance in The Actuality of Communism, is his methodological and political insistence that we study the relationship between communist movement and socialist state with more rigor (and internationalism) than has become customary on the anti- statist/communist left.
We should add that each of these “checks and balances” on representatives’ authority can be and has been used for ill as well as for good; consider for instance various anti-gay or anti-immigrant referenda that have swept regions of the country in recent years. Greater limitation on authority does not always mean greater liberation for the people.
Here we might consider Hardt and Negri’s treatment of the concept of sovereignty, a concept which did not come up in this MLG talk.
See the last chapter of Dean’s book, The Communist Horizon; also, my article on and interview with Dean in Socialism and Democracy 62 (vol. 27, no. 2).
In Boston I saw first-hand how the suspicion of representation held up the process of expanding the movement. In the very first week of the Occupation at Dewey Square, I was involved with several others in crafting a formal “Declaration of Occupation.” Written by a small committee, but based on dozens if not hundreds of conversations with other occupiers, the Declaration was concise but comprehensive, and consisted of a compilation of principles and grievances, as well as a welcoming call for other people in the Greater Boston area to participate in the movement, in whatever ways they could. We were convinced that if we passed such a statement through the GA we would be able to get it picked up in the local papers, The Boston Globe, The Boston Metro, The Boston Herald, etc. We sought to strike while the iron was hot. The Declaration was stopped twice at General Assembly, not because of particular concerns with its contents – almost everyone appeared to agree with it and found it well written, and the small changes proposed could have been easily implemented. Rather it was blocked because some – very few – in the Assembly expressed concerns: (1) that the authors of the statement were not (demographically) representative of the people as a whole; (2) that we should not issue a statement that claimed to be representative (of the 99%) when we, the occupation, were still only a tiny fraction of that 99%. Thus, I would contend, tens perhaps hundreds of thousands of Bostonians who might have been able to get a clear and direct, concise, coherent, and perhaps even moving “official” statement from Occupy Boston did not get one, because a small minority of Occupiers were essentially hostile to the idea of anything akin to formal representation.
[Note added by author: 12/14/13: Over one month later, when faced with the prospect of immanent police eviction, a small group of activists would successfully push through the General Assembly of Occupy Boston a “Statement of Occupation,” one containing many of the features of the early proposed Draft statement. Again, it was the sense of urgency created by a threat of outside attack that compelled us to commit to formal representation, before we were dispersed and destroyed. By this point however, for reasons that deserve fuller treatment than this footnote can provide—and which I attempted to outline in my S&D piece, “Revolution Underground?”—the initiative and momentum of the Occupy movement had largely ebbed; Certainly there was no longer such widespread (or sympathetic) mass and media interest in the new movement as there had been early on. Thus this last ditch Statement, which did include some powerful language—especially the call to place the human needs of all ahead of the profits of a few—would not find much of an audience beyond the General Assembly at Dewey Square, though for many of us it remains a reference point to this day.]
22. See the substantive discussions on political representation and organizational form that have appeared on the Kasama Project website, e.g., Mike Ely’s writings, including “Unsettled Questions of Communist Organization,” http:// kasamaarchive.org/2012/01/25/unsettled-questions-of-communist-organization/
23. We should note also that the status, trajectory, or scope of such proto-autonomist labor commons within capital is far from being uncontroversial. Nor is the significance for political subjectivity of such developments clear. See for instance Jason Read’s discussion of the persistence and intensification of fetishism in relation to cooperation under capital: http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2011/03/ general-intellect-personified-more.html
It should be noted, however, that Hardt’s (and Negri’s) call to take the sudden emergence of such beachheads seriously, is to be much preferred to the approach of those who would dismiss such enclaves out of hand, as somehow out of step with classical or properly Marxist models of politics.
During the Q and A, Hardt did concede that there could be some role for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in his notion of communism, namely as the “instilling of new habits” among the people.
Of course, it is also possible to conceive of love and violence as non-exclusive entities: a kind of “tough love” for and of the common.
It’s worth noting that something like this notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat has been re-emergent in contemporary radical thought, from Zˇizˇek to Dean, to Hallward. . .
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Thursday, 10 October 2013 04:15
- Written by Revolutionary Communist Party, Canada
This is reposted for discussion from the Revolutionary Communist Party, Canada (no relation to the RCP USA). You can find the original posting here.
Marxist Students’ Association Re-launches Campaign to Bring Direct Democracy to the University of Ottawa!
The University of Ottawa Marxist Students’ Association recently re-launched its campaign to bring about General Assemblies as the highest decision making body for their local student union. The reform, which is set to be achieved by referendum, is hoped to be both a historical moment for Ontario universities as well as the beginning of a new culture of democracy and participation for the student body of the University of Ottawa.
The current decision making model employed by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa follows a tradition representational model found in most modern liberal institutions. As a result of this, most of the student body has proven to be alienated from all form of governance. The long-standing political elite in power has been able to keep itself there for years while relying on the absurdly low 10% voter turnout to maintain its legitimacy. These liberal and bureaucratic practices unfortunately plague most student unions in Canada and have slowed the nation wide student movement to a painful crawl.
Following the Quebecois Example!
The Maple Spring of 2012 showed us once again that the student movement of Quebec is a force which can shake the very foundations of the bourgeois state. In comparisons, their Ontario counterparts have been unable to produce a single important change in their decades of struggle. In Quebec, participation in student unions is at an all time high thanks to their democratic model: General Assemblies.
GAs are a massive forum where the entire student body comes together once a semester to decide, democratically, how to run their student union. All students can propose motions, they may all debate and they all get one vote. This democratic practice has developed a strong culture of politicization and participation among the Quebec student population, allowing them to be mobilized massively in times of strike or crisis.
In an attempt to revive the long dormant Ontario student movement, the campaign to bring General Assemblies to the University of Ottawa is hoping to develop such a democratic culture among the Ottawa U’s membership. The organizers are currently collecting 1,500 signatures, the number required to demand a referendum, and plan to present it before the SFUO’s governing body before the end of October.
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Saturday, 20 July 2013 16:33
- Written by Joe Ramsey
"To look to the communist horizon is always to be looking for others looking back. For, the ultimate communist horizon, what makes a cooperative and egalitarian social transformation possible as well as necessary, I would argue, is the intersection of four points: 1) that capitalism itself is a system based on increasingly (albeit increasingly disavowed) socialized labor, one that brings people together in new ways and that unleashes productive (and destructive) forces of unprecedented power (and danger); 2) that this system remains fundamentally incapable of satisfying the needs and wants of the vast majority of humanity; 3) that human beings are capable of thinking, desiring, wanting, and wishing in ways that point beyond this system’s limits; and 4) that among our needs is the need to satisfy the other’s need; that it is within our capacity, even perhaps integral to our nature, that we see in the other a being ultimately very much like ourselves, that we see ourselves reflected in the other."
This piece by J. Ramsey is excerpted from a longer article, which will appear in the July issue of the journal, Socialism and Democracy, available online at www.sdonline.org I
The eye-grabbing cover of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012) depicts what could be the dawn of a new day. A red sun, half in view, arcs across the volume’s bottom edge. From this solid red spot, dozens of thin but widening beams fan out; crossing the background, the sunlight splits the sky itself into stripes of red and white.
Though Dean had no direct hand in selecting this cover image,1 it speaks to one of her most consistent themes: the fundamental importance of division to her notion of communism. We are not presented here with a unified red star in the distance (suggesting a stable true referent to navigate or chart one’s march by), nor with a solid red flag (that might suggest this truth is presently embodied in a particular party or state). Here, the red spot splits the scene. The beams emanating from the red sun are not just red, but red and white, suggesting that this horizon does not turn all the world red—like some anti-capitalist Midas touch—but rather illuminates the divisions that exist. Here the red sun divides in two the world it stretches to meet; it does not eradicate particularity, but casts it in a new—dividing—light.
Surely it says something that of all the dozens of cover-images put out by Verso last season, the editors chose this one—red sun rising, red beams spreading—to go on the cover of its Fall 2012 catalog. It would appear that the idea of communism is making a kind of comeback, at least in some circles—academic as well as activist. Consider the story of the now famed March 2009 Birkbeck Institute conference on “The Idea of Communism.” Featuring critical communist theorists from Alain Badiou and Bruno Bosteels to Michael Hardt, Peter Hallward, and Slavoj Žižek, this gathering, expected to attract a mere 200 attendees, found itself overwhelmed with an interested crowd of 1200. Verso Press’s new “Pocket Communism” series is among the latest signs of the red shift. These hard-covers—they won’t fit in your pants, but will in a jacket—are built for easy transport to the post-demonstration discussion circle or to the seminar table.
The latest in this Verso series, Dean’s The Communist Horizon may be the most accessible and most explicitly engaged of the bunch, in the sense of being oriented towards recent political developments and pressing questions of political form.2 Though it is a book that certainly sheds light (and weighs in) on a number of debates within what might be called the New Communist Philosophy, The Communist Horizon deserves to be read and discussed beyond such circles, by anyone who believes that the present capitalist world order leaves much to be desired. One recent commentator has aptly described Dean’s book as “Theory for Everyone.”3
It’s a sweeping and forceful work, one that boldly and unapologetically attempts to recast the political field of contemporary capitalism (at least as it is experienced in the Euro-American sphere) while taking aim at a host of widely held beliefs – prevalent on both the Right and the Left – that stand in the way of building a serious emancipatory movement today.
When I first heard the phrase “communist horizon” – in Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011), where Dean herself found her title-trope4—I was excited. (Excited enough, in fact, over the following months, to push successfully for naming a local group I worked with Red Horizon.)
Why? What does communist horizon conjure, connote, or emphasize that communism alone might not? What does it mean to figure communism as our horizon?
Well, for starters: a horizon is equally available to all. It does not require specialized goggles, or a special Archimedean point from which to look out; in no way is it the property or the monopoly of any particular group or lineage; it belongs to everyone. What could be more common than the horizon? While someone may point it out to you, or help you to discern its signs, anyone with functioning eyes can see it (provided of course there are no large structures obstructing the view), so long as they are willing to look. It belongs to no country, but is in a fundamental sense global, planetary.
A horizon is always out ‘there,’ never quite ‘here.’ It can only be seen, never touched. No matter how one strides towards it, it remains distant, an aspiration. However focused one is on keeping a particular spot on the horizon in view, one can never be sure that one will arrive exactly ‘there.’ Certainty as regards a horizon must always remain more than a bit speculative. There is no room for arrogant pre-possession or for pretense, as if one could know for sure that one’s charted path is the “one true path,” as if we were the ‘true’ and only communists. A horizon is wide; it stands to reason that there may be many different paths for reaching it. It can be glimpsed, but not grasped. No single person, no single group can in fact control, nor possess it.
Yet, though unreachable, even in a sense unapproachable, a horizon can help to orient us where we are. We look to a horizon to see where we are headed, to determine the general direction in which we want to go.
Crucially, to orient toward a communist horizon is to be reminded of hopes and possibilities that may not seem apparent in the immediacy of the present. Keeping the horizon in mind, keeping one eye on the horizon, if you will, is to keep from losing our bearings, to keep from becoming totally consumed by, and mired in, our immediate surroundings, institutions, or struggles, as important and demanding as these often are. Even as we devote energies to the local terrain, we should never forget that what we’re about is trying to find our way towards a radically egalitarian and worldwide change, a global human flourishing, “where the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.” Communism can never be solely about the here and the now, but must seek to connect this here and now to the there and the then, with the spatially and temporally distant.
At the same time, we also may look to a horizon to see not just where we are heading (or where we want to go), but also to see what is coming our way: what is in the distance now (in spatial or temporal terms), but is coming nearer…whether it’s good or bad, or—as is often the case—both.
In our particular moment, to look toward this horizon (whether in spatial or in temporal terms) is to lay eyes on a number of intensifying capitalist crises—perhaps most acutely, the environmental crisis (which includes but is by no means limited to the toxic spiral of global warming and climate destabilization), but also interrelated crises involving spiraling global inequalities, the overproduction of surplus capital on the one hand and the production of “surplus” population, for whom the system appears to have little profitable use, on the other. Acting out what Marx termed the “absolute general tendency of capitalist production,” capitalism’s unrestrained ‘productivity’ promises to render huge swaths of humanity superfluous to value production altogether, except as global slums to be policed by private security, locked up in private prisons. To these fundamental crises, readers can easily add their own catalog of oncoming catastrophes.5
At the same time, though, to look into the distance today is also to take in the stirring of mass popular movements across the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, to the anti-austerity struggles growing in Europe, to the ongoing Maoist-led movements in India and Nepal. These uprisings suggest what Alain Badiou has called a “Rebirth of History,” reminding us of the potential for an aroused populace to challenge and even to overthrow dominant political regimes. Especially here in the US, where political horizons and immediately realizable possibilities often seem so radically impoverished—where the commercial media and corporate politics drag down political discourse and childlike imagination alike—keeping one eye on the horizon (temporal and spatial) may be crucial to sustaining hopes of radical social transformation.
Crucially, to speak of the horizon of the era as communist is to imply that the capitalist horizons, the proclamations about where the limits are for human social potential, about what is “natural” and what is “possible” or “realistic,” given the “new normal” of the existing system, are utterly artificial, arbitrary, themselves non-necessary. They are not limits, but artificial and socially constructed restrictions and restraints. To declare that the actual place where the earth and sky (where human materiality and human aspiration) meet is communism, is to call out the structures and the “laws” of the ruling system as no more “natural” or ultimately binding for us than fake skylines that might be painted onto flat canvas backdrops for a cheap Hollywood movie. We can—and should—point out their artifice at every opportunity, as one key step toward knocking them over and revealing the actual horizon beyond. To speak of the communist horizon is to implicitly call out the capitalist horizon as false. It is to defamiliarize the dominant “norms” of our world, by persisting in a belief in something beyond it, even when a self-identified mass communist movement—except in India, Nepal, Greece and perhaps a few other places—is not yet a clear and present player on the scene. It is to insist that other coordinates of political and social life are possible and desirable, however fleetingly discernible within the present.
The communist horizon offers us a figure for thinking unity and contingency together, universality and particularity. It is the aspiration that needs to be kept in view while we devote ourselves to more immediate projects, not knowing at this point which projects will turn out to have been the ‘correct communist path’ at some hypothetical point in the future. The horizon thus becomes a figure for uniting revolutionary utopianism with political pragmatism. As such, it is a figure that offers questions, more than answers—perhaps an appropriate image for us today. With the communist horizon in mind, the question becomes not where should we go (or who precisely we should go to) to do communist work, but rather how can we conduct our explorations – and the work that we are doing, wherever we are – in a communist way.
Finally, I would conclude my opening ‘riff’ on Dean’s titular trope by emphasizing that looking to the communist horizon is always to be looking for others looking back.6 For, the ultimate communist horizon, what makes a cooperative and egalitarian social transformation possible as well as necessary, I would argue, is the intersection of four points: 1) that capitalism itself is a system based on increasingly (albeit increasingly disavowed) socialized labor, one that brings people together in new ways and that unleashes productive (and destructive) forces of unprecedented power (and danger);7 2) that this system remains fundamentally incapable of satisfying the needs and wants of the vast majority of humanity; 3) that human beings are capable of thinking, desiring, wanting, and wishing in ways that point beyond this system’s limits; and 4) that among our needs is the need to satisfy the other’s need; that it is within our capacity, even perhaps integral to our nature, that we see in the other a being ultimately very much like ourselves, that we see ourselves reflected in the other.
These points, taken together, imply nothing less than the potential and necessity for a communist, cooperative organization of the world. Bearing them in mind, we must assume that, whatever the immediate political situation proclaims as “realistic,” there are billions of people out there who in some way are looking out for something systemically beyond it, even if the words ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ do not cross their lips. The challenge, the need, then, is to find a way to catch their eye, and to hold and to triangulate their gaze long enough to build something together out of our mutual recognition.
Building upon each of those four points, communism can then stand for the unending struggle to render increasingly visible and self-conscious: 1) the collective nature of social production under capitalism—or for that matter, under any “transitional” socialism; 2) the fatal flaws of capitalism with respect to the needs of humanity; 3) the capacity of human thought and reflection to transcend the reifying and fetishizing, fragmenting and isolating, marketizing and mental deadening that are so essential to capitalism, and remain as latent dangers under socialism; and 4) the reciprocal and self-reflexive nature of human need.8
To strive for communism is not only to strive for a particular set of social, political, and economic institutions and relationships, but to strive to cultivate (in oneself and in others) a consciousness of and sensibility to the way that we are all made of a common substance and inhabit a common planet, that we all, in a sense, face a common threat, and that, as human beings, our individual interests and flourishing are deeply interdependent. In short, no one can be fully human alone. When we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. We are at root social and collective beings.
The ultimate horizon of communism then might be conceived not as a state and not as a sun, or any other thing, but as the possibility of a collective humanity, looking back at itself—taking itself in, if you will—and then seeking to satisfy and to realize itself, in and through rational and non-coercive intercourse with others (and with the earth we share). It takes flight from the mutual recognition of our common class enemy, yes, but also of the ways in which we labor together each day to make and remake the world (albeit in ways that often do not accord with our will or desire, that are forced upon us by capital and its private dictatorship over our commonwealth, our social surplus too often stolen and used against us). It insists that we treat the myriad of human others not as instrumental means, but as human ends in themselves—as intersections of need and desire, as beings to whom we are connected.
Communism can thus be understood as beginning—as having already begun—not with the achievement of some utopian end-state (or with the toppling of the capitalist order, the seizing of factories, etc), but wherever there grows a conscious desire to bring about this dialectic of mutual human recognition and flourishing. Communism thus incarnates, as Jodi Dean keeps reminding us, as “the collective desire for collective desiring.”9 This desire stands opposed to the rule of capital, but is not reducible to that opposition. It aims to cast new coordinates for human species-being.
For Dean, the Communist Horizon represents “a fundamental division that we experience as impossible to reach, and that we can neither escape, nor cross…a dimension of experience that we can never lose,” she adds, “even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it” (1). “The horizon,” she writes, “shapes our setting,” whether we acknowledge it or not. Citing parenthetically the influential Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Dean likens the horizon to the “Real” which, for Lacan, was both impossible and actual. She likens it, in our recent dialogue (printed below), not to an end point, but to a condition, the only political condition under which an egalitarian politics is possible.
It is at once unreachable and yet constitutive, utopian not in the sense of an imaginary blueprint to be imposed on reality, but in the sense of a viewpoint that cracks open possibilities inherent in our immediate, present conditions, while at the same time providing coordinates—and inspiration—by which we can navigate these conditions, together. To grasp the horizon is to enact a shift of subjective perspective – albeit rooted in the study of objective actuality – that allows us to envision, and thus seek to actualize, a freedom beyond the formal limits of the present system. At the very least such a shift allows us to dissolve in thought some of the self-defeating ideas and practices that too often keep us from daring to actualize our potential.10
Dean roots her title in Bolivian Marxist García Linera’s contention that “The general horizon of the era is communist.” She notes early on that Linera does not feel that he must provide an argument for this contention; rather, he “assumes the communist horizon as an irreducible feature of the political setting,” “as if it were the most natural thing in the world” (3). “For Linera,” she adds, “communism conditions the actuality of politics.”
To speak of communism as a horizon is thus to suggest its natural and eternal, if not self-evident, aspect; it exists as a possibility to some extent independent of the state of the ‘productive forces’ or the particular historical moment. It is at once historical and eternal at the same time.11
As much a manifesto as a cutting-edge critical intervention, The Communist Horizon aims not just to sharpen our view of the present, but to stoke our desire for global human emancipation, to help us clear our throats of the taboos that choke them, for the study and the struggle that lie ahead. Dean seeks to incite in readers not just a righteous indignation in the face of capitalism’s many and widely documented abuses and injustices, and not just an understanding of how capitalism (‘necessarily’) produces these crimes, but a collective desire for communism. She understands communism not just as a goal – to abolish class divisions and satisfy basic needs – but as a transformative subjective process: the unfolding desire for collective desiring, a desire to bring into being a political Subject, a “We” which can put into practice the principle: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” As Dean puts it, rather eloquently, “This principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15).
Who among us would disagree? And yet, despite the eloquence of such Marxian poetry, who among us dares to proclaim proudly and publicly that s/he is a communist?
Dean’s book not only seeks to convince us of its truths, but tries to make it easier for us to speak these truths, publicly, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a text whose very polemical style performatively models the engagement for which it argues. At the level of style and of theoretical critique alike, it aims to challenge the “We” skepticism and the scholastic individualism that characterize academic circles (and so much else in contemporary capitalist society). Her manifesto makes its premise what many Marxists leave as their conclusion: that it is not enough to challenge or protest or reform the present order (nor is it enough to predict the precise vector of its demise, as if we were outside it); we need to collectively overthrow it, so we can outgrow it – even if in order to do so we must first outgrow it from within.
1 In a personal email, Dean indicated to me that while she had no input into the cover, she appreciated its Mao-era communist style. She further emphasized the subtle but important differences between this communist horizon and the “Rising Sun” of Imperial Japan; the latter would have many fewer and thicker sun beams compared to the former.
3 See Samuel Grove’s insightful piece, “Theory for Everyone,” in Review 31, available at http://review31.co.uk/article/view/95/theory-for-everyone.
4 To be clear, Bosteels takes the phrase from Álvaro García Linera, though he gives it his own theoretical bent.
5 I have tried to trace some of the dynamics of these interconnected capitalist crises in a special issue of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, entitled Culture and Crisis (www.eserver.clogic.org) as well as in print as issue #60/61 of Works and Days (www.worksanddays.net). I would also recommend the thought-provoking analyses associated with “Communization Theory.” See for instance the work of Endnotes, starting with “Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital” http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/1; also the critical volume, Communization and Its Discontents, ed. Benjamin Noys, available in full at http://libcom.org/library/communization-its-discontents-contestation-critique-contemporary-struggles.
6 Jodi Dean approaches this aspect of the horizon in her recurrent description of communism as a matter of “collective desire for collective desiring.”
7Every object or institution that we see, that we encounter, that we use, has been created by others—often many many others, no more fully satisfied by the current system than we are.
8 Here we get at one reason why I prefer to use the term communism when speaking of my own political orientation as well as of the ‘end goal’ or condition toward which we ought to aspire. We may support socialist economic or state structures, but it is important to continue to struggle for communism within and around such structures!
9 The early Marx spoke of it as the cultivation of species being, a term that takes on new and urgent resonance in this age of potentially apocalyptic capitalist ecocide.
10 Actually, Dean opens her book with quick references to not one but three types of “horizon,” each of which stands in resonant relation to her figure of the communist horizon. She invokes, all in her opening paragraph (and throughout her introduction): 1) the horizon as “the dividing line separating earth from sky;” 2) “the lost horizon” which suggests a more temporal dimension, connoting those “abandoned projects” and “prior hopes that have now passed away”; 3) “the event horizon.” Taken from astrophysics, this last signifies the space surrounding a black hole from which nothing can escape.
Dean at the outset emphasizes how the first and third horizon (the spatial and the event horizon) are “not much different” from one another. But is that the case? She writes: “Whether the effect of a singularity or the meeting of earth and sky, the horizon is, the fundamental division establishing where we are” (2). And this may be true. But certainly these two types of horizon establish our location, or allow us to establish our location in somewhat different ways. The earth-sky horizon is one that we can never reach, but which, if we study it, we can use to navigate our more immediate environment. The event horizon is rather a black-box, a black hole, an unknown. We might conceivably reach one, but once we did we could never return, nor would we be ‘there’ to register our having reached it. The event horizon represents the most extreme form of gravity, determinism on a cosmic scale, where epistemology and ontology collapse in on one another. Though we could certainly err in too closely parsing the metaphor(s) here, it might not be too much to suggest that while the earth-sky horizon represents the possibility of freedom within limits, the event horizon suggests the limits on that freedom. We might read the former as a figure for Theory, associated with communism, and the latter as a figure for History, linked to capitalism and its vortex-like laws. As human beings, we are creatures who, with the help of eyes and light, can see and navigate. But even the light, in the end, is bent, by gravity. How to go about bending social gravity!
11 Bruno Bosteels edges towards this tense relation of Eternity and History in his valuable The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011).
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Tuesday, 16 July 2013 06:58
- Written by Mike Ely
How should today's newly emerging communist movement prepare for future revolutionary opportunities? How do communists determine where to dig in? How do they identify those sections of the people to base themselves on? This pamphlet is an attempt to create a framework for answering those questions.
Special thanks to PN and Jed Brandt for their work in designing this pamphlet.
There is a difference between a structural and an evental view of revolutionary opportunity. If our opportunities are structural, then they might emerge wherever the interface exists between the oppressed and the oppressor, the rich and the poor. And so we can each disperse to our local site of that interface.
But if revolutionary opportunities are evental (i.e. conjunctural), then we could disperse ourselves all along that interface and nothing will happen (at least nothing
revolutionary). And we will be trying to make local issues and concerns into something they refuse to become. And we may find ourselves entrenched, pinned down and dispersed there along that interface when some major opening pops up in a concentrated and unexpected way.
I am a believer in the evental (conjunctural) view. The eruption is in sites that are not simply defned by the class structure of society or the structure of national-racial oppression. These sites (which are not merely locations geographically) are often unexpected, and even shocking in the forms the eruption adopts.
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Wednesday, 12 June 2013 06:29
- Written by ISH
Special thanks to Ish Daniels for assembling this collection of Kasama pieces on Occupy.
the occupy moment:
Within moments of its beginning, cynics declared the movement that came to be known simply as “Occupy” irrelevant, dead, or worse. Those of us around the Kasama Project thought otherwise, and many of us jumped right in. Others of us actually came to Kasama via Occupy. For us, Occupy was an incredibly important watershed moment that served as a reminder that resistance to capitalism is possible, and, more signifcantly, that resistance can, if only for a moment, capture the imagination of a broad segment of the population.
What the long-term legacy of Occupy will be is a story yet to be written. Now, long after the smashing of the Occupy encampments, and now that the movement has morphed into a broad milieu of activists without quite the same determination, excitement, or numbers of late 2011, a lot of Occupy veterans are fguring out what to make of what just happened, and trying to fgure out what to do next. This pamphlet is not the necessary last word and evaluation of the Occupy experience: that remains to be written. Instead, it’s a series of writings taken mostly from the Kasama Project’s website as Occupy was unfolding. Here is inspiration, context, intervention, reportage and critique from activists themselves. From communists looking to analyze and motivate. From revolutionary thinkers trying to understand and explain a sudden apparent rupture in capitalism. From dreamers daring to imagine a new world.
Upon their appearance on the Kasama Project website, many of these pieces were discussed and expanded upon by readers in the comments. We urge interested readers not only to engage these articles in new study and discussion, but to go back and read the original discussions they sparked. Keeping that discussion going is one of the ways
revolutionaries will be ready for the next rupture we know is coming.
This pamphlet is just the beginning of a necessary process of evaluating what happened and preparing for the future. The articles in this pamphlet just scratch the surface of topics and issues made relevant by the Occupy movement: there are many more subjects to be discussed, many more lessons to be drawn. The discussion needs to continue. What can activists, revolutionaries, communists, do to be ready? You can be a part of continuing and deepening that crucial discussion. — ISH Daniels
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Saturday, 11 May 2013 21:45
- Written by Bromma
The following piece was written as a response to a new piece called "A Commune in Chiapas?" It first appeared on Kersplebedeb. Without endorsing all of its verdicts, I want to point out that is is both a powerful indictment of Euro-chauvinist fantasies about the Zapatista story, and an introduction to the complex process of mutual transformation through which the Mayan people transformed the Zapatistas, and the Zapatistas in turn transformed the people. It is highly relevent to our own discussions of what new communist beginnings might look like.
-Intro by Eric Ribellarsi
Class, Colonialism and the Zapatistas
I started off wanting to like “A Commune In Chiapas?” (This major essay about the Zapatistas, written for the English “liberation communist” journal, Aufheben, is distributed as a pamphlet by Arm the Spirit/Solidarity, Canadian anti-imperialist publishers who represent u.s. political prisoners such as David Gilbert, Albert Nuh Washington and Jalil Muntaquin.) I appreciated its willingness to criticize radicals who “project their hopes onto this ‘exotic’ struggle.” I was ready to agree with its skepticism about the rhetoric of Subcommandante Marcos, about romantic views of indigenous life, about social democracy masquerading as “civil society.” I was glad to see that the pamphlet included some background history about Mexico and a chronology of the Zapatista uprising. Most of all, I looked forward to its attempt to analyze the events in Chiapas from a class perspective.
I shouldn’t have got my hopes up. “Commune” is actually a pretty conservative piece of writing. Conservative in its view of class. Conservative in its distaste for national liberation struggles and radical anti-colonialism. Above all, conservative—even predictable—in its Eurocentric assumptions about Indians. A narrow form of academic Marxism acts like parental web-screening software, preventing the authors from seeing even the basic outlines of the Zapatista struggle.
The January 1, 1994 uprising in Chiapas resulted from a fusion of indigenous peoples’ struggles for survival with a band of revolutionary Marxist guerrillas. This fusion produced an innovative movement which slammed a body blow into global capital. “Commune,” on the other hand, was written by theoreticians who lack respect for indigenous struggle and apparently have little use for real-life revolutionary Marxist guerrillas. Not surprisingly, their main message is that the Zapatistas have limited historical significance.
The pamphlet’s aim is not so much to learn lessons from the Zapatista struggle as to grind ideological axes. The authors claim to represent the voice of moderation, avoiding what they see as twin errors: wishful thinking about Chiapas (which they ascribe to autonomist Marxists, among others) as well as a dismissive attitude among self-styled “ultra-left” groups in Europe. But actually “Commune” is squarely in the dismissers’ camp. Like them, it disdains what it calls “anti-imperialist and Third Worldist ideology.” Like them, it applies a series of formulaic litmus tests to the events in Chiapas, and judges the Zapatista struggle as essentially backward.
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Monday, 29 April 2013 18:28
- Written by Chepe Martín
What we needed was a new communism, and what we are getting is a new Keynesianism.
This piece first appeared on the blog of Chepe Martín, The Outside Agitator. The following is a draft. Expect an expanded piece soon.
It had been unduly hard to discern where the emerging and sexier trends in Marxism have placed themselves, veiled as they are in ultra-left aesthetics and memes. Sure, plenty of cues are present, but those might’ve been incidental and only indicative of a desire to suggest a broad selection of socialist thought.
The need to investigate has ended. The Jacobin have staked themselves as pink, when what we need is a nice maroon. Bhaskar Sunkara has written a piece for In These Times that has planted his flag down for a revisionist stand for democratic socialism, a turf that seems to be populated by a lot of these groups and editorial boards, including as well The New Inquiry.
It isn’t that democratic socialism is altogether a sad derivation from Marxism. In fact, the energy these people are bringing to the table is welcome, and I, for one, hope their project of growing the democratic socialist left is successful, particularly if it finds a strong tendency toward feminism, ecology, and decolonizing politics. If anything, I would see their project stronger. The historicity of the contemporary moment in social programs that Sunkara lays out is finely laid out although severely incomplete, including its disregard for gender, questions of self-determination, and the significant impact of anarchism, and even more so autonomism, on today’s active radical left. He is right as well that progressive (re: liberal but social democratic) reform is a welcome alternative to the “things must get worse before they get better” strategic thinking that come out of the ultra-left and insurrectionary corners.
But what I will say is that Sunkara’s vision is not the best that Marxism can offer, and it is not the breath of fresh air I might’ve hoped to see. What we needed most was a Marxism that takes all of the lessons of the 20th Century, including decolonization and feminism and the recognition of the failures of the Soviet model, and what it appears we are getting is a retread of the revisionist politics that Lenin and Luxemburg were fighting against. It is a socialism that in the end didn’t challenge empire, held workers back from fighting for power, and devolved into what was termed economism- that is, the fight of socialists for immediate economic gains in lieu of a synthesis between economic struggle and the struggle for political and social power. It is a socialism that pulled back on the insurrections in 1919 in Europe or in France in 1968, rather than having faith in workers and students and oppressed groups to experiment with the seizure power for themselves. What we needed was a new communism, and what we are getting is a new Keynesianism.
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Thursday, 04 April 2013 04:19
- Written by Bağımsız Sinema Merkezi'ni
RED! is a new documentary film discussing revolutionary strategy in the era of the internet and the rise of revolutionary hackers around the world. It delves into the history of one hacker group pre-dating Anonymous, Red Hack, which has actively supported the revolutionary struggle taking place in Turkey, while supporting radical and revolutionary movements around the world.
Thanks to Zack for pointing this out.
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Wednesday, 13 March 2013 20:43
- Written by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman
This article by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman is part of an ongoing discussion about what type of theories and strategies can lead to the liberation of women as part of the all around struggle for communism and human liberation. It is a direct response to an earlier article by Nat Winn titled "Not for herself alone: beyond the limits of Marxist Feminism." The Mitchell/Zimmerman piece originally appeared on the Gathering Forces blog. Other parts of the discusion are here and here.
For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism
by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman
Recently, Nat Winn, a member of Fire Next Time and Kasama weighed in on a discussion of Marxist-Feminism begun on the FNT blog originally by Ba Jin and ZoRa B'Al Sk'a and with a response by Eve Mitchell of Unity and Struggle. We welcome the energetic engagement by all parties including those commenting on the Kasama blog on what remains one of the most critical questions of our time: the content and forms of women's liberation.
The scope of Eve's response did not go beyond clarifying the relationship between Federici and James, and discussing broadly the Marxist-Feminist methodology, including the Wages for Housework campaign. Nat has challenged the practical implications of Wages for Housework which is supposedly linked to the political failings of Marxist-Feminism.
What may at first sight appear in Nat's response as merely strategic difference (for instance, whether or not there should be an emphasis on intervention in struggles around reproductive freedom versus that over domestic and reproductive work), belying it is the crucial question of method that must be unpacked.
In Nat's comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of "reproduction" here which we'll expound further down). The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object. This is done through a dualistic reading of "economics" and "politics," or, to use the terms Marx employed in the "Preface" to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, "base" and "superstructure." But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories. The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.
We'd like to say a little bit about the importance of Marx's conception of labor and unity of subject-object. Only then will the political divergences with Nat come into relief.
Marx's conception of labor and the unity of the subject-object.
Marx's early philosophical texts directly fleshed out his conception of self-, or life-activity, which later in works like Capital, he discussed simply as "labor." In "Estranged Labour," Marx writes,
"For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man's species character. Life itself appears only as a means to life." (76)
Self-activity, or labor, is universal; meaning it exists in all modes of production. Further, it is defines our humanity. It is the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs. Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism to creating art and poetry to having sex and raising children.
But labor is not just what we do; it is our ability to choose, reflect upon, and change our labor process. Labor is our process of changing the external world and our internal selves. Later in "Estranged Labor," Marx writes,
"It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man's species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him." (77)
Here Marx's conception of the subject-object becomes clear. The external physical world is acted upon by humans, (labor is subjective), but the physical world is also an objectification of human labor, or self-activity (labor is objective).
Marx restated this concept in a polemic against the German "materialist" Ludwig Feuerbach. In the "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx argues that sensuousness is not something merely subjective, perceptive, and one-sided, as Feuerbach postulated. It is also objective and used toward the transformation of the external world. Human beings are both thinking subjects of the world but also objects of their own creation through labor. This is what Marx calls the metabolic relationship between man and nature.
While the subject-object dialectic is universal–meaning it exists in all modes of production–under capitalism, this process is interrupted. Our self-activity is no longer unified with our conscious will, and the subjectivity of our self-activity is turned against us. We do not produce for use, and do not have access to our multi-sided needs and corresponding activity; the world we have created is not our own but alien to us, or estranged from us. In contrast, communism is the movement toward uniting the subject and object, or the completely free state of conscious self-activity in which we produce for use; as Marx states in "Estranged Labour," we make our life-activity itself the object of our will and consciousness (76). A lot more can be said about this. For more elaboration, see the Unity and Struggle post, "The Communist Theory of Marx."
Politics and economics, a duality or a totality?
The base/superstructure concept adapted by orthodox Marxism has reified the subject-object split. It sees the "base," or economy, in a structuralist/sociological manner that exists independently of human initiative and which determines all activity and thinking. So capital, wages, and money are mere objects. On the other hand, "superstructure," or politics, is understood as subjective and confined to ideas or an abstract kind of activity that isn't metabolic with nature but divorced from it and determined by the base.
Marx never had a dualistic understanding of these categories and posited quite conversely that "economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production." (Poverty of Philosophy, MECW 6, 165) For Marx, capital, wages and money are the various phenomenological forms of alienated labor; they are subjective and objective social relations in disguise, not ahistoric things as political economy conceives. The economy and politics, or capital, wages and money can only be separated logically because concretely and in the real world they exist as a social and dialectical whole.
A dualistic conception of economy and politics ignores Marx's emphasis on living labor and fails to understand the unity of subject-object.
The splitting of the intrinsic unity of the subject-object and the dualistic reading of base/superstructure creates a dynamic where struggles around work are seen as narrow and economistic.
Struggles that emerge broadly around the wage, and which are not always simply about getting higher wages for a small group of workers, are not automatically economistic. And struggles that take place outside workplaces are not automatically political. For example, it was precisely the "economist" types who sought women's liberation through selling their labor-power during second wave feminism. Such a strategy was predicated on capital's fundamental social relations and confined gendered alienation to a question of receiving "equal wages for equal work."
This economism is typified precisely by a disconnect between the struggle to maintain access to abortion and the struggle against the gendered division of labor. This typically looks like mass protests that emerge to keep abortion legal without consideration not only for what sections of the class have access to sexual/reproductive healthcare but why there's a contradiction between many white women who are oftentimes coerced into keeping children and black women who face forced sterilization.
Economism refuses to challenge the racial and other important divisions within the class and which allow it to be recuperated by the movement's "official" leaders, by capital, the State, and the value-form. This also implicates various problematic forms to combat the encroaching hand of the State over women's bodies whether it be by petitioning, lobbying, symbolic protests, etc. Demands against the State are just as easily absorbed by the ruling class into new forms of rationality as demands for higher wages directed to employers, and many forms wind up acquiescing the fight before one actually begins.
When we enter the factory gate, or the domicile kitchen, we don't leave the political world behind us. Likewise, when we exit, we don't leave the realm of economics. There are manifold "political" dynamics that manifest at work, that implicate race and gender, from the wage scale, to the division of labor, to sexual harassment. Such factors not only undercut the specific, local, or sectoral interests of workers engaged in that workplace but become generalized features of class life institutionalized by the State. Similarly, outside of work, in the streets where women are fighting to maintain access to abortion have all kinds of economic implications.
Given this, the abstractions "economics" and "politics" cannot be separated. Our sense is that it is partly the job of communists to tease out the political implications of various spontaneous struggles that emerge, whether they take form at work or in the streets.
Marxist-Feminism, production and reproduction, labor and capital: finite or universal?
The methodology of orthodox Marxism, whereby the subject and object are split into a determining base (object) and a determined superstructure (subject), necessarily has consequences for how the content of women's liberation is to be understood. And this framework is exactly why reproductive labor and reproductive freedom are counterposed. For Nat,
"women's liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common."
"women's liberation [is]...far beyond a discussion about waged and unwaged labor and an economic struggle for wages for housework."
If, then, women's liberation goes beyond labor, what we are dealing with is a framework that is ahistorical. Patriarchy is not something that statically exists separate from the mode of production; under capitalism patriarchy takes the form of gendered alienation, the gendered division of labor, etc. We cannot understand patriarchy without a critique of political economy and vice-versa. Furthermore, the form of reproductive labor under capitalism, which is gendered, exists in a unity with controlling our bodies as a means of production, and determining what kind of labor-power capital needs. This coincides with a racial division of labor which we've discussed above.
There can be no "reproductive freedom" if reproductive workers aren't freed from the gendered division of labor, i.e. unless there is a coordinated attack against the multifarious forms of alienated labor. Under the capitalist gendered division of labor, women's uteri and women's bodies are both means of production of labor-power that they are radically separated from. This condition is reinforced by the State in many forms, from limiting women's access to abortion and forced sterilization, to austerity measures that force women to increasingly bear the burden of caring for young, elderly, and disabled members of the class.
In relegating the gendered division of labor into an objective "base," and similarly assigning reproductive freedom to subjective "superstructure," Nat sets up a false dichotomy that can have devastating practical consequences. According to Nat,
"There has been an aversion to [the fight over reproductive freedom] in Marxist Feminism, perhaps because it is not a strictly 'working class' struggle. But this to me is a rigid type of Marxism which narrows everything down to the relation between labor and capital. To me this is a mistake. A revolution isn't a narrow economic act, it is a complex struggle involving real world alignments, consciousness, and political struggles. When we ignore real politics we stay isolated."
Again, labor/self-activity/production is posed as either objective economics on the one hand or subjective politics on the other. Further, this rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx's conception of "labor." In contrast to this dualistic framework, we can return to Wages for Housework and the Marxist-Feminist methodology.
Wages for Housework emerged out of very real struggles of women in the post-war period and departed from the theory of the role of reproductive labor as a whole, struggles that find their historic origin in the split between productive and reproductive labor. The split of these two was necessary toward the development of the capitalist division of labor (which had a visible gendered content). In previous modes of production, reproductive labor was not so distinct, and individuals were not radically separated from the means of production and confined to a single sphere of work. This passage from Mariarosa Dalla Costa's and Selma James' "The Power Women and the Subversion of the Community" is not only illuminating but quite emphatic:
"In the same way as women are robbed of the possibility of developing their creative capacity, they are robbed of their sexual life which has been transformed into a function for reproducing labor power: the same observations which we made on the technological level of domestic services apply to birth control (and, by the way, to the whole field of gynaecology), research into which until recently has been continually neglected, while women have been forced to have children and were forbidden the right to have abortions when, as was to be expected, the most primitive techniques of birth control failed." (30)
Here, Dalla Costa and James confirm that labor and capital aren't narrow, they are universal categories. Certainly they've been narrowed in the orthodox Marxist tradition from Kautsky to Althusser, both in their theoretical scope and in their practical conclusions. But labor isn't just wage labor and capital isn't just factories. Labor and capital express the universal antagonistic movement between living labor and dead labor which is capital. This dynamic is one where things control us rather than us controlling things, between monotonous, one-sided work in the division of labor and the social relations between things we make. This is the picture Marx gives us from "Estranged Labour" to the "Critique of the Gotha Programme" and nowhere does he see labor and capital as reductive by any stretch.
Reproduction constitutes all those various labors that are essential to maintaining human beings and which are also historically developed; where the "nature" of humans change as they deepen their consciousness and many-sided labors, as opposed to a narrow naturalist and fixed conception of reproduction (babymaking).
We are told by Nat that "the discussion was suffocated in its scope because of its confinement within in a certain 'workerist' conception of how to look at women, sexuality, reproduction, and liberation." Nat counterposes and unnecessarily polarizes defending abortion versus struggles over reproductive labor and this is done precisely with the dualistic understanding of "base" and "superstructure" rooted, again, in the split of the subject-object. This also has bodily implications: where a woman' hands are concerned, it is economic, where it concerns her uterus, it is political.
Nat points out that Wages for Housework was not relevant in the 60s and 70s (and is still not relevant today) because it has never had popular currency with women engaged in struggle. Nat writes:
"Ultimately I think that women's liberation from a communist point of view has to do with unleashing the capacity for every woman to be able to reach her full human potential in a society where human knowledge and technology along with natural resources are shared in common.
To do that there needs to be a break away from the traditional role of women, namely traditional roles of giving birth to and raising children and other domestic roles.
Now due to the development of global capitalism since the 1970s, but also due to the fight of women at that time against traditional relations, there has been a break away from tradition.
The Wages for Housework tendency was correct in stating that a break from the home in and of itself would not liberate women or destroy capitalism. However, it was wrong politically to not unite with what was correct. We need to recognize the necessity of such a demand when placed within an overall communist vision of women's liberation."
We agree with Nat that women needed to break the isolation of the home in order to develop their communist potential, and that Wages for Housework never caught on. We also agree that revolutionaries should develop a strategy that both understands the current conditions and is informed by the self-activity of the class. But our approach is distinguished specifically by Marx's subject-object dialectic.
The Marxist Feminists understood the relationship between the objective conditions of society and the subjective self-activity of the class. They used this understanding to develop a programmatic strategy that would resolve contradictions within the class in favor of revolution (and abolition of gendered value relations):
This was a time in which capitalism was in crisis, and needed a strategy to overcome crisis (which later materialized in strategic shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism). Entering into the workforce and receiving higher wages there would only allow capital to subsume increased labor-power, which would solve the crisis in the interest of capital. Wages for Housework would have caused increased devastation to capital by forcing capital to concede profits for unwaged domestic labor. In other words, the Marxist-Feminists argued that equality politics would add labor to women's plates instead of forcing capital to relinquish profits for work already being done. On top of this, Wages for Housework would have broken the isolation of the home and the patriarchy of the wage. Again, this strategy is based on the subject-object dialectic.
In contrast, Nat's arguments against Wages for Housework (and for engaging in reproductive rights struggles) is based on the assumption that when a programmatic strategy is not popular, it is not relevant and should be abandoned: "In fact, the ideas of Marxist Feminism have never caught on among large sections of women outside activist circles."
Are things valid only to the extent that masses of people say they are? Is Marxist-Feminism invalid because it has not been a banner waived or slogan employed by millions of women? We don't think Nat is implying this, but in its logical extension are found a host of problems, including working within the various trade union bureaucracies or the Democratic Party, or that revolutionaries should fight for all sorts of things just because they are popular. In any case, it seems that here Nat is conflating the subject and object, arguing that the current activity of the class, whatever the form, is the objective conditions of capitalism. The practical implications of this methodology is to "meet the class where they are at...and leave them there," meaning the current activity of the class dictates the program, strategies and tactics, instead of dialectically informing them.
Marxist-Feminism, like Marxism itself, is the distillation of the experiences of working class women. Where else does theory come from but those experiences? What was Marxism if not the logical content of the working class movement considered in its totality?
Programmatic strategies for women's liberation today
As stated in "Marxist-Feminism vs. Subjectivism: A Response to Fire Next Time", there is no problem in asking if Wages for Housework is relevant today. However, this must be done through grappling with the subject-object dialectic.
On the one hand, we must look at the objective conditions of capitalism and how that manifests in a gendered way today. One side of this Nat explains, including recent legislative and right-wing attacks against women's access to abortion. In the comments to Nat's post, commenter Liam Wright adds to this to include street harassment, rape and gendered assault. To this we would add super-exploitation in feminized workplaces, from nonprofits and schools to street sex work/prostitution and maquiladoras. We have explained above how these issues are at once both economic and political.
We would also include unwaged reproductive labor in the home (the majority of housework is still done by women in the home). However, the character of labor in the home is different today than it was in the 60s and 70s. A contradictory result of second wave feminism was that many of the things that women traditionally did in the home have been broadened out and entered into the circulation of capital. For example, the introduction and expansion of the fast food industry has on the one hand offered some relief to women but on the other, established a new sector of highly exploitative workplaces. This is both a win and a loss for women and therefore the class. It is also relevant that many more women are in the workforce these days; according the the U.S. Census, in 1960, only 15% of women worked full time, and in 2010 this number was up to 43%. This is not to say that struggles around unwaged, reproductive labor are irrelevant, but that workplace issues are far more relevant for women today.
The other side of the subject-object dialectic includes looking at the subjective activity of the class. Nat points toward mobilizations to defend abortion/women's health clinics. While these struggles are absolutely worth paying attention to, they are simply not representative of a generalized activity of the class. A large majority of the class is not mobilized at this time.
These expressions in content are a small sector of the class engaging in liberal methods to stop anti-abortion bills and restore funding to nonprofits. This strategy does not illuminate the State's interest in capital and patriarchy. Instead, it relies on the State to be women's protector, and ensures women's exploitation and eroded communist potential through protecting women's "right" to sell labor-power in nonprofits.
In the comments, Liam Wright points to Slut Walk as another strata of women's self-activity. While Slut Walk was a bit more broad, it was a series of permitted marches that culminated in open mics where people shared stories about being raped, sexually assaulted, stalked etc. There was no confrontation with the State or capital. In some ways, Slut Walk sought to break down the public/private split (women's bodies and sexuality is reserved for the private reproductive sphere), yet it did so only to rebuild women and reaffirm their subjectivity. This is important work that is necessary in building up women's ability to stand up to patriarchy and in developing a social fabric woven from the objective conditions of gendered alienation. This consciousness-raising activity, a historical carryover from the strategies of the 60s and 70s, is a hugely important aspect of our work as organizers and revolutionaries. However, consciousness-raising does not substitute for direct confrontation with patriarchy, and therefore capital and the State.
To be clear, we are not arguing for political abstention from liberal or reformist struggles, or consciousness-raising circles, when they are expressions of the self-activity of the class. However, a principled intervention would not be to participate in legislative reform but to argue for a strategies that would seek to damage capital, break down gendered antagonisms within the class, and forefront the demands of women. This is precisely what the Marxist-Feminists did during second wave feminism.
This gets back to Nat's fundamental question: what forms of activity should we practically engage in today?
Based on the analysis above, we would argue that Wages for Housework does not seem like a relevant strategy today. Instead, here are some examples of concrete areas of struggle that speak to the objective experience of women in the U.S. today:
- Grassroots clinic defense takeovers and/or nonprofit worker committees/unions that build solidarity across worker-"client" lines. This model would build on the work of the Jane Collective, socializing the skills women need to control their own bodies while taking advantage of the de-skilled advances of capital (for example, in general everyone who works in an abortion clinic, right up to the front desk girl, knows how to perform a manual abortion and there are no specialized skills needed for a large majority of medical abortions). This model could be broadened out to things like hormone therapy, HIV and STI treatment, and health care in general for the class.
- Neighborhood groups engaged in tenant struggles with the capacity to deal directly with violence against women in the community.
- Parent, teacher, and student alliances that struggle against school closures/privatization and for transforming schools to more accurately reflect the needs of children and parents, for example on-site childcare, directly democratic classrooms and districts, smaller class sizes, etc.
- Sex worker collectives that protect women from abusive Johns and other community members, and build democratically women- and queer-run brothels with safe working conditions.
- Workplace organizations in feminized workplaces like nonprofits, the service industry, pink collar manufacturing, etc., or worker centers that specialize in feminized workplaces and take up issues and challenges specific to women.
Having said all of this, we want to stress again that any strategies we call for are premature, given the lack of generalized movement among working class women today. Of course, it is still important to struggle in ways that we see as best given the circumstances. However, it is impossible to know whether these activities are the best strategy for today without collective self-activity in opposition to gendered value relations. We raise this to say that it is actually possible that wages for housework is a relevant demand. Only the self-activity of the class will clarify this for us. It is not the task of communists, as Marx once famously said, to write recipes for the cookshops of the future.
- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Thursday, 14 February 2013 20:45
- Written by Doug Enaa
This new book may be of interest to our readers. Posting here is not an endorsement of its analysis.
From the website of Aaron Leonard:
The Heavy Radicals: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980
Book to be published in early 2014
[The RU's] Bill Biggin and the Free Press are even more dangerous than the Panthers
— Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Frank Rizzo, 1970.
The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party was the largest Maoist organization to arise in the United States in the tumultuous period of the late 1960s early 1970s. This is acknowledged not only by other Left political trends, but also by the Federal Government, which had it as subject of no less than four Congressional Hearings in its key years. Oddly though it largely stands outside established histories of the period; it is not taught in the academy, appears hardly at all in academic papers, and is passed over in the more popular books of SDS and sixties radicalism.
The reasons for this are manifold. The organization is victim of its own discipline that had little interest in promoting its history beyond whatever campaign or controversy it was involved in at the moment. Further those leaving the organization were circumspect in talking about their time there — either out of standing respect for the group’s discipline, a desire to move on with their lives, or the belief that a return to "the mainstream" necessarily involved disassociating themselves from their sixties revolutionary past, or some combination of each.
There was also a penchant for the established media and other institutions to promote more sensational trends. Groups such as the Weathermen — while more marginal, were ideologically more amenable as emblematic of the ‘madness’ of extremes or despair of fighting for lost causes. It is also the case that the dominant culture in the United States has no interest promoting the concept of domestic revolutionaries embracing Maoism and undertaking the long term work of preparing for insurrection in a highly developed capitalist country.
Yet the fact remains that a significant Maoist formation did come about. In contrast to many who became radicalized quickly and nearly as quickly were in decline by the early 1970s, the RU/ RCP was ascendant in the same period. Indeed it attempted, not entirely unsuccessfully, to penetrate layers of the mainstream of U.S. society, including sections of the working class, and imbue it with a new radicalism. This stands as a counter-narrative to the dominant one of the sixties; that of activists rushing pell-mell back to accommodation with that mainstream as soon as the Vietnam war was over.
The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the corresponding turn in China from a socialist to a market economy would bring all that to an end. From 1977 on the group would undergo first a major political schism, then a period of prolonged - but never final - disintegration. The reasons being not just the tectonic shifts in the global terrain, but the too often blind adherence to questionable (and worse) principles and methods the communist movement had brought forward historically.
Regardless, for a time this group cohered some of the most radical elements of the day. Indeed, to attempt to understand the upsurge of that period without understanding the role of the RU/RCP is to miss something important. For all its faults the RU / RCP was the most influential component of the New Communist Movement. Further, contained in the RU/RCP's story are hard garnered lessons and crucial experience essential to those who today dare to envision a radically better world. Whether one is curious, sympathetic, or detractor; this book will serve as a primer and surprising window into a heretofore overlooked critical player in a wild and insurrectionary time.