I find that contemporary activist Leftism, particularly of the anarchist variety, is disturbingly susceptible to the criticisms Kołakowski aimed at the (Stalinist, post-Stalinist) orthodoxy of his day. In light of the sophisms now once again being dusted-off and offered in defense of “Black Bloc” egotism, here is a passage from the essay “Responsibility and History,” from the 1968 American edition of Toward a Marxist Humanism:

The problem of the single alternative is one of the most important of our time. It most adequately expresses the experience of the Stalinist era and the main tendency of the political Left resulting from that experience. The whole complex of recent political and intellectual attempts at the ideological renaissance of the revolutionary Left […] may be characterized generally as an attempt to break through the traditional Stalinist blackmail of a single alternative in political life. The permanent Stalinist line was, in fact, to try to create situations where every criticism of Stalinism would amount, objectively, to an automatic adherence to the reactionary camp, to an automatic declaration of solidarity with capitalist imperialism. Stalinism forestalled all social criticism by labeling it counterrevolutionary. (pp. 96-97)

All the anarchist rhetoric about so-called “diversity of tactics” is in my view an exercise in this “blackmail of the single alternative.” Since that principle is placed above any discussion or disagreement as a dividing line between anarchists and liberals (who are the witting or unwitting agents of the state, etc.), rejecting it or the acts it sanctions puts one “in solidarity with capitalist imperialism.” This example could be multiplied.

What does it mean?

A reminder: Radical Archives recalls Adbusters‘ 2004 antisemitic list of “Jewish neocons.”

A good-ish article on the right-wing response to and attempts at gaining influence over the Occupy movement: OWS: Yes, we are anti-capitalist!. In my view it suffers from the misplaced certainty that its ideas are somehow the true heart of Occupy, rather than a minority position that needs to be defended, explained, and promoted. Not to mention the optimistic idea that the right-wingers are somehow interlopers or manipulators; I would rather emphasize Occupy! and TeaParty, etc, as linked aspects of the same phenomenon. That is, I think that the links between “right” and “left” are something other than what the relatively mild term “crossover” (not used in this article) might suggest.

And then on 11/9, we remember what happens when right-wing populist anti-capitalism, scapegoating, and antisemitism get in power and out of control: Persecution, prelude to murder.

(thanks to Contested Terrain)

“The Bolshevik coup is a colossal crime and cannot be otherwise.” (Pavel Axelrod)

There was a Russian Revolution in February; there was no Revolution in October, only the coup d’état of a party, already germinally totalitarian in its structure and in its spirit, that seized power, set everything in motion in order to dominate and to domesticate the popular movement, and quickly succeeded in doing so (the final act taking place at Kronstadt in 1921). (Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Revolution before the Theologians,” in World in Fragments, p. 79)

Voline: The Unknown Revolution

“Masaryk is my most serious ideological antagonist in Europe.” (attributed to Lenin)

My socialism is simply a matter of loving your neighbor, of humanity. I don’t want there to be poverty, I want everyone to live decently, in and by his own labor, and to have enough elbowroom, as the Americans say. Loving your neighbor is not old-style philanthropy; philanthropy only helps here and there. A real love of humanity seeks to amend conditions by law and deed. If that is socialism, I am for it.
I do not believe in equality, absolute equality, that is. There is no equality in the stars or in man. There always have been and always will be individuals who by their own gifts and a combination of circumstances not of their own making can and do achieve more than others; there will always be a hierarchy among people. But hierarchy means order, organization, discipline, knowledge, and obedience, not the exploitation of man by man. That is why I do not accept Communism. No sooner did Lenin take power than he called for leaders. The longer I live, the more I realize the role played by the individual in the evolution of humanity, but I repeat: more talent and more of what is known as luck do not justify the exploitation of the less gifted and less fortunate. I do not believe that all private ownership can be done away with. The personal relationship — the pretium affectionis — that binds an owner to his property is good in that it promotes economic progress. Communism is possible, but only among brothers, that is, in the family or in a religious community or close circle of friends; it can be maintained only by true love. I do not accept the principle of class war. There are social estates and social classes, there are degrees of difference among people. But that does not mean war; it means the organization of natural inequality and of inequality resulting from historical circumstance, it means leveling, growth, and development. I am not so blind and simple-minded as to fail to see injustice and oppression, and I know that individuals, estates, and classes must protect their own interests, but it does not follow that homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man, as was said long ago.
As for Marxism, it is an economic theory and philosophy, a philosophy of history in particular. Economic theory, like every science, is a matter for investigation, revision, and improvement, and Marxism, like any philosophy, must be open to criticism and free deliberation. That is why revisionism arose and will continue to do so. Every revision of a creed or program is painful, but without the pain there can be no progress. I have no ready-made social doctrine in my pocket. As I’ve said elsewhere, I am always for the workman and working people in general, often for socialism, and rarely for Marxism. My views of socialism derive from my concept of democracy. A revolution or a dictatorship can occasionally abolish bad things, but it never creates anything good and lasting. Impatience is fatal in politics. When I consider that all recorded human history goes back only some ten thousand years and that we are still on the threshold of civilization, how can I believe that a fanatic, despot, or revolutionary will complete our development at one stroke? Serfdom and slavery were done away with less than two hundred years ago, forced labor even more recently, and it is only for the past hundred, no, even fifty years that we have worked consciously and systematically on the social problems of working people and the lower classes in general. We have hundreds of thousands, millions of years ahead of us. Must we really do everything at once? In any case, you can’t feed the hungry on the future. Faith in development and progress does not free us from tending to the needs of today. (T. G. Masaryk, in Karel Čapek, Talks with T. G. Masaryk. Catbird Press, 1995. Pp 161-164)

“No,” answered Pilate. “I believe, I believe most passionately that truth exists and that man recognizes it. It would be madness to think that truth is only there for man not to know it. He knows it, yes; but who? I or you, or everyone perhaps? I believe that each of us has a share of it; the man who says yes and the man who says no. If these two united and understood each other, that would give the whole of truth. Of course, yes and no cannot unite, but people always can; there is more truth in people than in words. I have more understanding of people than of their truths; but there is faith even in that, Joseph of Arimathea, and it is possible to keep it alive with enthusiasm and rapture. I believe. I believe absolutely and without doubt. But what is truth?” (Karel Čapek, “Pilate’s Creed”)

The “We are the 99%” slogan. I don’t see how this can be justified, or redeemed. It is, first of all, false. It can mean two things coming from the mouths of “Occupy ____”: either “we have been delegated by the 99% to speak for them,” or “we are representative of the 99%.” Now, both these are false: no one has delegated these protestors, and clearly this isn’t a sample, but a core made of members of a political subculture, and then a larger number of some others. If I’m right, then it means we have to treat it less as identifying the protestors and more as announcing their analysis. Which, from this slogan, must be as follows. Society is divided into two groups: an overwhelming majority who are powerless or nearly so, and a tiny minority who oppress and exploit the majority. 1% of 300 million is 3 million: so the United States is (mis)ruled by a tiny clique which, since it’s unthinkable that such a small group could exploit the vast majority by normal mechanisms, must rule through deceit, conspiracy, subversion or misuse of normal institutions, etc. And this indeed is the mental world that most Leftists I know inhabit, with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication. The most important point is the personalization of politics: WE are the immense exploited majority; THEY are the tiny parasitical minority.
This kind of language has a long history, on the left and on the right. I see no reason to believe that it presents an accurate picture of American society. I see lots of reasons to believe that it will encourage the climate of scapegoating and conspiracy-theory that the right is already doing its best to create.
It’s possible, of course, that (some kinds of) power really is concentrated in the hands of a very tiny group. The mistake, I think, is to think that this is a sufficient explanation for the state of the world.
The demands for demands, or for leaders. In this case I am entirely on the side of the protestors. Liberals will lament, I suspect, that all this energy will go to waste unless it is channeled into influencing the proper institutions or winning elections. This requires concrete demands, and responsible leaders who can control the movement and push it in that direction. And I think they’re right. The question to ask, then, is whether there might not be some other result, other than a) the kind of change mainstream liberals counsel, and b) the protests fizzling out. Said another way: what significance could “Occupy Wall Street!” and its sister-protests have for more radical politics?
In a recent post, Norman Geras suggests (I paraphrase) that unless protestors who are questioning the legitimacy of the institutions of liberal-oligarchic “democracy” can either a) win elections or b) explain why they don’t have to, then “then their claim to represent an alternative democractic legitimacy is spurious.” Now, to the extent that anyone involved in the occupations is thinking in terms of undermining the legitimacy of representative institutions and replacing them, I think they should take up the challenge Geras offers here. If the liberal “within-the-system” solution is exhausted, if Bolshevik imposition upon the population is either impossible or undesirable, and if there is no majority who will join you in overturning existing institutions, then what is the 99% to do? A recipe from the old anarchist cookbook: use these protests as an opportunity to very visibly develop counter-institutions. I see some sign of this in the use of “general assemblies” and the like. There is a space, I will suggest, between pie-in-the-sky commune-type utopianism, and networking that is indistinguishable from any other bureaucratic institution save for its content. What exactly this will look like, I don’t know.
One step in this direction: a recognition that you are not the 99%, and that that which you find unacceptable comes from far deeper springs than the wickedness of bankers. A sober acceptance that those who cogently advocate a sane and decent society are a small minority will, if nothing else, help seal off the movement against tea-party populism, which, disastrously, some people seem to want to encourage.
What I fear is that there is no one to take up this kind of project, and that the composition of “Occupy Wall Street” is really a small clique of vanguardists-by-any-other-name steeped in High Theory and nihilism, and a much larger mass of well-meaning people who, but for a set of cultural or generational reference-points, might as well be going to Tea Party events. The ease with which the incoherent “99%” slogan was taken up, as well as the odd prominence of the term “occupation” (a buzzword of the academicized ultra-left), makes me wonder.

The position of the observer

I wrote up my very impressionistic impressions of two protests I saw in Chicago recently, and it had me thinking about the position of the observer. It strikes me that in one important way at least, the sympathetic outside observer, the armchair revolutionary, has much more in common with “99%” than the protestors themselves: we are outside, looking in. Slogans and even its firing up of imaginations everywhere aside, the “Occupy” movements remain the province of a small subculture. Like the workers or oppressed or the masses, I’m not a part of this subculture. Unlike them, I’m quite interested in it and its history. So perhaps my observations—which I wouldn’t offer if I wasn’t interested—can give the Occupiers or others an insight into how (at least some of) the uninvolved might see their activities.
On the other hand, say I came with the desire to do more than observe? Do I wade in despite my misgivings (a product, probably, of my background that produced my interest in the first place?) Do I appoint myself gadfly and walk down to offer my unsolicited intellectual objections? Do I stay silent, but put these objections online? I would hope that these movements are ready to listen to their critics, but I think this is not very likely. This connects also, I think, to the issue of “support” (“critical support,” “political support,” etc.), which I intend to address in another post.

My impressions, below the cut:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.