Monday, November 23, 2009

Left-Wing Communism: The Latency Stage

(We intend that this be used as an accessible guide for activists navigating among the ‘ultra lefts’ of today’s movements)

We’ll admit it: figuring out an approach to this article proved more difficult than anticipated. While the short-lived autonomist movement has been better dealt with in numerous Marxist journals—from its workerist origins to the postmodernist swamp—this new breed of self-indentified ultra-lefts have chosen to resurrect the ghosts of 68 after their dilettantism in anarchism and postmodernism led them nowhere. These autonomists would think of themselves as being strictly principled, but their principles are strictly autonomous from each other. Therefore, they can at once insist on playing their roles as the dutiful contrarians in the emerging California budget cuts struggle by calling for “occupation, not democracy,” while simultaneously criticizing the 10/24 conference as “undemocratic.” Their selected literature is a maze of abstractions—a clever way of disguising their lack of ideas (“Demands are meaningless” “You can never destroy utopias”). These comrades would have been more useful as poets than as radical theorists.

Nevertheless, we do have a clutter of disparate philosophies to deal with that can only be approached separately, hence the organization of this essay. However, what appears to be a reoccurring feature of the so-called “new Marxism” is a retreat to old ideas. The Italian workerist/autonomist tradition was a theoretical step backward in its justified reaction to Stalinism. It looked to the “left communists” of the Third International who never had anything to offer the socialist movement but crude and naïve doctrinarism. In its adoption of postmodern idealism, the autonomists deracinated materialist conceptions inherently central to Marxism such as class and power. Here we’ll look at some trends today’s ultra-lefts pluck from.


“Workerism” is a political perspective that applies to swaths of revolutionary theories. It shares a very crude understanding of the class struggle and a deep antipathy to politics. Lenin’s original theoretical break from the Russian Social Democratic party was over the matter of ‘economism.’ Economists argued the task for revolutionaries was to assist and inevitably tail the economic demands of the working class, leaving the political struggle to the bourgeoisie. It believed class-consciousness would develop gradually based on the accumulation of economic struggles alone. The much maligned emphasis on the need for revolutionaries to bring politics “from without,” translates to without or outside the factory. To truly be revolutionary, one must understand and respond to all forms of oppression. Economism stemmed from an unapologetic reformist outlook, but at least in rhetoric, workerism was not always reformist (though one can argue the denial of state power offers in practice, nothing but reformism). Syndicalism too, argued against participation in the political struggle, though their revolutionary credentials have never been questioned. Their abstentionism was an anarchist impulse that saw any activity within the State as political quicksand—the more you struggle, the deeper you sink. Syndicalism in practice will be dealt with later in the article.

Today’s ultra-lefts can be traced to those traditions. Sharing a rejection of Lenin’s formulation of politics and the party, workerists would rather flatter the proletariat than take it seriously. Content to cheerlead instead of challenge, the “anti-authoritarian” left is in fact the most elitist. Dense theory for them, and platitudes and praise for the workers.

Currently in fashion is the Italian workerists, or Operaismo. Italy’s 1969 “Hot Autumn” is known for delivering the exclamation point on what was the last significant international upsurge. Operaismo developed as a challenge to the Stalinist PCI, returning to the fundamental tenant of revolutionary socialism—that the “self-emancipation of the working class would be the act of the working class itself.” At best, the Italian workerists restated a concept long lost to Stalinism, but as for something new its theorists offered nothing but academic flash based on imaginative interpretations of Marx’s Capital and Grundrisse. They argued that the struggles of the working class trigger a restructuring of capitalism, where it adapts and strengthens itself. At bottom, it was essentially a fancy denunciation of any type of reform. It began as a reaction to the particular conditions of Italy’s class struggle, where there was a tradition of elevating “professionalism” (skilled workers) over the non-skilled. Rather than seeing it as an ideological obstacle to overcome, Operaismo expanded a historically specific trend to the entire capitalist system. The large scale introduction of Taylorism signaled a new era of capitalist restructuring. On one hand they were right, this was the beginning of neoliberailsm. On the other hand it was meaningless—the restructuring of capitalism has always led to dramatic shifts in working class composition, but never the dissolution of the working class or its centrality.

Workerism without the workers

All this theorizing would inevitably put itself into the camp of the “post Marxist” Frankfurt School and Louis Althusser. Thoroughly demoralized by Stalinism, left academics began their retreat. To break with historical materialism, they first had to falsify it. Claiming Marx had an insufficient take on the role of ideology, they turned him into a mechanical Pavlovian figure, and then wouldn’t stop theorizing. While Marxism saw itself in the arc of modernism— a trend of social progress aided by scientific and technological advance, the “post Marxists” led the way for postmodernism. Postmodernism is actually the absence of a system of thought. It rejected any theory that attempted to explain events with certainty. It questioned the validity of history, of science, because of their strange suspicion of words. Uncomfortable with how “subjective” the written word could be might explain why their texts read like ridiculous ciphers.

This school of “thought” deeply shaped the evolution of Operaismo’s central theorists. You saw the germ in their thinking when the “mass worker” (deskilled) was replaced by the “social worker” which included everyone. Key themes which ran through Operaismo was the idea that factory organization had spread to every sphere of working class life and that workers’ struggles, not the need to accumulate, compelled capitalism to innovate. Therefore, revolution would take place, not in the point of production, but anywhere outside of it (home, neighborhood, “community”).

Today’s ultra-lefts get into serious discussions on “communization theory.” Essentially applying the “social factory” concept to deduce a not-so-novel idea that workers must fight outside of their relationship to capital—rejecting the fundamental antagonism Marx identified. For there is no space in this “critical theory” for “privileging” the working class in a postmodern, ‘postindustrial’ world. Instead, students, housewives, the unemployed, dogs, cats, must organize to take over their communities and create autonomous spaces that will eventually outmaneuver the State. Paul D’Amato exposes this empty concept:

No doubt it would be far more pleasant not to have to “deal with capital on capital’s own terms,” but sadly, this is impossible. In the end, the capitalist system must be reckoned with by the working class collectively and as a whole, not by piecemeal experiments–in short, in a revolutionary “event”…utopian experiments–such as “autonomous zones” or worker-owned cooperatives–are forced to “engage with capital on capital’s own terms,” that is, are forced to reckon with the pressures of the market or disappear in failure. Capitalism is not in the least threatened by them.

‘Ultra Leftism’

Not a term to take pride in, yet ultra-lefts wear it like a badge of stupidity. The term was popularized by a debate between Lenin and the “left communists” of the Third International. The ‘left communists’ opposed working within unions or political parties, and rejected the United Front tactic. The United Front is where socialists seek tactical agreements with reformists for a definite and specific defensive goal. Stalin, during what is known as the “Third Period,” also took an ultra left stance to the United Front in regard to the rise of Nazism. While Trotsky was in exile, pleading to the German communists that, “should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a tank,” Stalin was of the opinion that the liberal reformists were no better. They were “social fascists.” Such a principled stance worked wonders for the German communist party. After Hitler came to power, the social democrats (reformists) and the communists finally united, as Tariq Ali aptly put it, it was “unity in the graveyard.”

Misunderstanding the role of trade unions and abstention from politics doesn’t win more “leftism points”, but it disarms workers against the forces of capitalism. We will cite here an ultra-left argument against trade unions by Aufheben (UK):

While leftists generally support trade unions as at the very least defensive working class organizations (while criticising their bureaucracy), ultra-leftists typically reject unions for incorporating the working class into capital and instead emphasize the workers’ need to break from them and act independently.

We can point out two problems with the ultra-left position. First, they are arguing against the organization of workers on a level that protects them from the immediate assault of the capitalist class (ie, attacks on workers’ wages, working hours and conditions). Trade union struggles are inherently limited to negotiating the terms of exploitation, not abolishing them. The ultra-lefts confuse the character of the unions and act surprised when its bureaucracy collaborates with the bosses. To see how this argument played out in practice, we reference the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century. The idea of building dual unions meant that rather than retaining some of the best militant workers for waging a struggle within the AFL, the abstentionism of the IWW left America’s largest federation of unions under the opportunism of Samuel Gompers. Secondly, we would like to point out that when Aufheben (UK) states “ultra-leftists typically reject unions for incorporating the working class into capital” they are revealing to us that they do not understand the fact that the working class gets its power within capitalism precisely because it is incorporated with capital. That is fundamental dialectics, comrades.

We will continue with Aufheben’s argument:

while leftism generally calls for participation in parliamentary elections in the form of ‘critical support’ for reformist working class parties or perhaps to support a strategy of so called ‘revolutionary parliamentarianism’, ultra-leftism rejects such methods as a promotion of illusions.

At most times, bourgeois elections ideologically ensnare the majority of the working class. And at these times, ultra-lefts show themselves as impotent sectarians. The class must be emancipated from such ideology; to ignore it is to gift-wrap unchallenged political power to the bourgeoisie. Here again, we will cite another historical reference that hits home for these autonomists. Following the 2001 economic crash in Argentina, thousands of workers took over their workplaces rather than allow their bosses to throw them out and threw the ruling class into a political crisis. Yet, the 2003 presidential election of Nestor Kirchner—which had designed itself around peronista populism—allowed the ruling class to defuse further rebellion. There are still self-managed factories in operation which are winning legal recognition from the Argentine government, proving that as long as the state remains unchallenged, it can tolerate autonomous collectives which must incorporate themselves with the colossus of the international capitalist economy. The most important historical lesson is, however, that had there been a political challenge from the working class, the bourgeoisie would not have had a free hand to utilize one of its strongest weapons, ideology.


The current student rebellion is a significant development and it makes perfect sense why activists are looking to the last intelligible gasp of the student movement, but it’s important to remember that anti-Stalinism is not anti-Marxism. Marxism continues to provide the necessary tools for reinvigorating that one great “lost cause.” We agree that the failure of the student movements in the late 60s was a tragedy, but we don’t want to make today’s a farce.

Friday, September 25, 2009

An anti-fascist response

Fighting Words won’t eschew from addressing actual points.

We expected a defense of Joe Allen’s review of Inglourious Basterds from Socialist Worker. Elizabeth Schulte valiantly took up this mantle with an article that exceeded twice the length of our own. However, we still await the response she said we deserved.

If Tarantino lacks anything “new or useful’ to offer to the “tedious” genre, Schulte adds even less to Joe Allen’s initial review. We called Joe out for his strange insistence that terrorizing Nazis could be equated with Nazis murdering everyone else. And in her article, she promises to reveal how socialists really view “torture, war crimes, and the Second World War.” But she does none of it. Other than offering up articles to reference, we’ll do the reader one better and quote a well-known socialist, Leon Trotsky, on the same issue, “nothing increases the insolence of the fascists more than ‘flabby pacifism.’ “

Okay so Trotsky was talking about forming workers militias, and not so much about a band of Jewish Americans and German defectors dispatched by the United States. But this gets to the other troubling aspect about Schulte’s response. She insists, "there are a number of war films that depict violence with the horror that it deserves.”

Demanding that art “should have done this” or “should have been about that” misses the point. The basis of legitimate art criticism starts by taking it at its own merit and revealing its place in the particular moment. Sure, the film could’ve been about a Red partisan or the “Red Orchestra,” but it wasn’t. Art, especially pop art, owes nothing to Marxism. Quoting Trotsky again, “Art must find its own road. The methods of Marxism are not its methods.” What we provide is an appraisal of what’s unconscious in the work and give interpretations a historical footing.

But Schulte is more concerned with the film’s violence. She particularly recoils at the sight of swastikas carved into the foreheads of Nazis. But imagine if Col. Hans Landa (the Jew Hunter) was able to make his deal with the United States and live a life of anonymity. In reality, many Nazis did and all they had to do was take off their uniforms.

Films can be celebrated in particular historical moments. What we’ve seen are far-right political parties and right-wing militia activists seeking to legitimize themselves and their history. Just as “Red Dawn” gave ammunition to anticommunism in the 1980s, the success of this film can intimidate fascist sympathies. When a white supremacist shoots up a Holocaust Museum, or militiamen march on Washington, taunting Obama with, “We come unarmed…this time,” a film like “Inglourious Basterds,” a film that revels in fascist intolerance, should only be embraced. 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On veganism (a polemic)

 I’m sure you’ve come across some variant of “with the amount of grain used to fatten animals for human consumption, we could, if we all became vegetarian, eliminate world hunger.” The “case” for veganism suffers from the same limitations particular to consumer politics. In that it fails to understand capitalist production, the “air tight” arguments are shown to be nothing but non-sequiturs. 

First, world hunger has nothing to do with scarcity. We continue to produce enough grain and other foodstuffs for human consumption to feed double the human population. Economists who speak of a “grain glut” mean that literally tons of grain is wasted and unused, not because people aren’t in need of it, but because they can’t afford it. Second, it speaks to incredible naiveté to assume that world agribusiness would give away any excess grain left over if the meat industry suddenly collapsed. When I say political veganism doesn’t understand capitalism, this is what I mean.

While there’s nothing wrong with seeing it as simply a moral issue, there is something incredibly obnoxious and self-aggrandizing about puffing out your chest, believing your diet will change the world. While the number of vegetarians and vegans has grown into sizeable minority, you would think that meat consumption would’ve shown a slight decline. But the opposite is true. Total meat consumption has increased. With food costs rising, meat has become more practical (in terms of calorie intake) and affordable. There is absolutely no substance to the claim that going vegan saves any animals. Capitalism does not plan production based on a one to one correspondence of a supply demand. In fact, its key feature is overproduction. A general lowering of demand will then likely mean two things: 1) animals not consumed will just be wasted 2) the price of meat becomes cheaper, increasing total consumption.

There is also no precedent for a boycott strategy that has shut down an entire industry the way it’s being described (and it would require a boycott of all supermarkets and restaurants). That’s because the consumer has very little power. One can “choose” to drive a fuel-efficient car, but can’t choose why cities lack efficient public transportation. One can choose to buy energy efficient light bulbs, but has no say about planned product obsolescence. No one can dispute that the factory farm model creates tremendous amounts of waste, contributing to environmental catastrophe. It does so because capitalism forces every industry to accumulate and capture as much of the market as it can, in the most cost effective way. It functions to maximize profit, not to meet needs or work rationally. So every industry is structured unsustainably. 

But what if for the sake of argument, veganism got what it wanted? The world adopts a vegan diet, the meat industry collapses, then what? This is where their militant rhetoric unravels. The system can shed whatever it needs to, or create a small niche (which it has), but the drive toward exploitation, war, and environmental destruction will always be essential. "Animal Liberation" may sound radical, but instead of challenging the free market, it politically affirms it. Having said that, I find the term “Animal Liberation” to be as meaningless as the politics behind it.  That’s not to say that a being’s capacity to suffer is not worth ethical consideration, but that the term literally means and amounts to nothing. 

The inevitable charge of “anthropocentrism” or “speciesism” revels in anthropomorphism. This in no way is a claim to superiority, but to accuracy and intellectual seriousness. Human liberation is not abstract. Our species distinguishes itself by organizing into social and productive relations. Liberation is historically conditioned and defined by which social and productive relations are being overturned. The factory farm is part of those productive relations and can be dramatically altered, but animal liberation? Claims to the contrary are nothing but ahistorical nonsense. Rather than pointing to the rise of class society, some AR activists argue the root of human oppression (slavery, sexism, etc) can be traced to the domestication of animals. In Vasu Murti's "Politics of Vegetarianism" he even goes so far as to say that people commit "crime" not because of inequality, but because they never owned a pet. As Murti explains, “none of them had this opportunity to learn respect and care for another creature’s life and to feel valuable in so doing.”

These ideas in no way offer anything useful to the liberation of anyone.

a socialist reponse to Joe Allen's review of "Inglourious Basterds"

In his review of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Joe Allen presumes we have asked ourselves who the heroes are in this movie. He’s wrong. It’s pretty clear to us, Joe. The heroes are the ones killing the Nazis.

The Basterds exist to terrorize and undermine the morale of a genocidal fascist army occupying France. By recounting their exploits as “war crimes,” Joe displays shameful moral equivalence. We unapologetically defend the violence committed against fascists in Spain, during the Jewish resistance, and we should celebrate it on screen.

Far from a “bedtime story” reaffirming the U.S. as the “benevolent defender of freedom,” Tarantino’s film makes a point of setting U.S. racism next to Nazi fascism. In the middle of a drinking game, a Gestapo officer easily confuses the capture of King Kong with the story of American slavery. The King Kong reference, a film notorious for its racial undertones, is Tarantino’s challenge for film history to acknowledge itself. Similar to Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, a response to the racism in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers.

Like so much else, this point was lost on Joe.

But what we can’t lose sight of is that liberal pacifism is no response to fascist barbarity.

“Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed.”