pt. 2: Third World Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” October 2019 (MRR #437)

I had a favorite t-shirt in the 1980s, one I owned several of and wore frequently. It was red with a stylized black silkscreened image of Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara printed above his popular quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” Korda’s image of Che with military beret and solemn expression was taken during a Cuban state funeral; handsome, heroic, and seemingly immortal. I wore the t-shirt around the UC San Diego campus without incident or even much notice, but I liked pushing the envelope by wearing it all around the very conservative city of San Diego.

While wearing the shirt and eating my customary grease-, carb- and meat-heavy breakfast washed down with several bottles of Negra Modelo beer outside Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla circa 1985, I noticed a young man glaring at me. Harry’s was a local favorite, so I assumed he was a surfer because of his shaggy haircut, Quiksilver Hawaiian shirt, colorful boardshorts, and leather huarache sandals. He frowned at me over a decimated plate of food next to which rested a russet guampa, a hollow calabash gourd lipped with silver from which a silver bombilla straw protruded. A waitress poured more hot water into his maté gourd before bussing his dishes and leaving the check. Continue reading

A critique of Fourth Worldism

No more Negative Ned. Instead of critiquing Leftist practice and politics as I often do, I’m writing about something positive and hopeful this essay. To develop some PMA. I wrote a stupider version of this critique many years ago, from which I split off my July 17, 2017, piece called “San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy.” And like that essay, this commentary is not an official MRR column. It’s not Hooligan canon, but apocrypha.


Lenin formulated his theory of imperialism in 1900 which differentiates the world capitalist economy into the capitalist national centers of European empire and their exploited colonial periphery. In a Marxist anti-imperialist context, French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term Third World in 1952 as an analog to the Third Estate of the French Revolution. Also jumping off from Leninist anti-imperialism, Mao propounded his Three Worlds Theory by 1974 in which the First World is the developed capitalist nations, the Second World is the socialist nations posing as an international alternative, and the Third World is the orthodox category of undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing  nations. Starting in 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein charted the differentiation of the present world capitalist economy via the consolidation of nation-states and national economies into the fully developed core region, an undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing exploited periphery, and a semi-peripheral region in between. These tripartite schemas imply a fourth geographic tier, a Fourth World in Maoism and an outer periphery in the case of Wallerstein encompassing the marginal territories and peoples incapable of consolidating viable nation-states and national economies. Continue reading

The Problem of Agency: “What’s Left?” February 2015, MRR #381

I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding,
The effort it takes just to keep on dreaming

Of better days, and better ways

Of living.

Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
“Fairytale,” The Wilderness: The Nomad Series

“A new world is possible” was the slogan that emerged from the era of anti-globalization protests, which in turn evolved into an endless series of social forums that continue to this day. Airy and tentative compared to the insurrectionist communizing nihilism that followed, this sentiment is the lite version of a prefiguring politics that goes back at least as far as the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World constitution which called for “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Indeed, it can be argued that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” So wrote the young, still Marxist Leszek Kolakowski in his essay “The Concept of the Left.” Thus, I intend to define who and what is trying to make a new world possible, and how successful such efforts have been to date.

I’ve always considered myself on the side of those who would create a new and better world. And I have more than a passing interest in the claimed existence of The Historical Agent (THA—also called the revolutionary agent/subject, or the social agent/subject), the radical social grouping with the human agency to affect revolutionary social change not just in the past but in our lifetime. Walter Benjamin proposed a similar messianic understanding of history, a sense of messianic time or a weak messianic power he associated with Marxist historical materialism and couched in cryptic, poetic terms in “The Concept of History” which ends with the statement that “[f]or every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.” Unfortunately the four broad terms usually synonymous or often conflated with THA—The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement—each tries yet fails to be sufficiently all inclusive.*

The modern workers movement which congealed out of Medieval artisan and peasant strata can be said to have its origins in the practice of English Chartism at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Marx’s theoretical efforts to define such workers as a social class based on their relationship to the means of production. The economic labor unions and political workers parties of this emerging working class, not to mention the labor syndicates and workers councils that combined economic and political power, spread widely well into the 20th century, extending working class culture and consciousness internationally. Efforts to make The Workers Movement either less Marxist (by describing workers as simply “everyone who works for a living”) or more Marxist (through Leninist notions of the “industrial proletariat” or Maoist concepts of “proletarian consciousness”) must now give way to discussions of post industrial workers, marginal or precarious workers, or the abolition of the working class altogether.

Socialism refers to political theory and practice, as well as organizations, movements and regimes based upon social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of economy and society. Socialism as such goes back to the 18th, if not the 17th centuries, centered primarily in Europe. With roots in millenarian and utopian traditions, socialism diversified through the 19th and 20th centuries, though it can be generally categorized as either working class or non-working class based. In a 21st century rife with capitalist triumphalism, socialism has become a curse.

Born from an accident of seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly after the 1789 French Revolution, The Left means the politics and activity that arose from 1848 onward. Centered in Europe, it comprised Marxism (and eventually Leninism), anarchism, syndicalism, unaffiliated socialisms, even types of political democracy and liberalism. The Left’s configuration dramatically changed after 1945. First, there was massive proliferation as Leninism of Stalinism, Maoism and Third Worldism. Second, there was the consolidation and attenuation of Marxist social democracy. Third, there was the virtual extinction of anarchism/ultraleftism before its youthful resurgence. Fourth, there was the purposeful non-alignment of other forms of socialism. And fifth, there was the rise and fall of democratic liberalism. With the exception of anarchism/ultraleftism, these political forms experienced a contraction and retrenchment on or before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Finally, The Movement covers Leftist politics and practice, as well as organizations and movements within the United States from the mid-1960s on. This was when the Marxist-Leninist old Left was superseded by a New Left rapidly differentiating into New Communist Movement and other kinds of Third World politics, an evanescent anarchism/ultraleftism also quickly diversifying, proliferating forms of non-affiliated socialism and liberalism, and a plethora of social movements such as Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black (brown/red/yellow) Liberation, etc. In turn, the “crisis of socialism” that has riven The Movement since 1991 has produced a near universal turn toward identity politics and postmodern Leftism.

It’s not enough to consider whether THA is an adequate analytical category, a viable classification comprised of the intersection between The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” Walter Benjamin said, “he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.” Four overlapping Venn Diagram shapes cannot magically yield a clearly defined collective human entity with historical agency within the convergence of these four nebulous social movements. There is still no precise historical delineation of who or what is responsible for the meager successes and overwhelming failures that I identify with as a socialist, a Leftist, a member of the working class, or a part of The Movement.

Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, history was one of three painful steps forward and two excruciating steps back. The period of world wide social upheaval bracketed by the first and second World Wars produced a sudden revolutionary surge from 1945 through 1985. “Real existing Socialism” (Soviet and Chinese style Communism, the so-called Second World) dominated a fifth of the earth’s land surface and a third of the world’s human population. Social democracy and social movements contested ground in the First World. And socialist struggles for national liberation and socialist national non-alignment proliferated in the Third World.

There were indications that all was not well however, especially in the West. I have argued for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the 1968 Generation’s impact (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) in a previous column. In covering much the same ground (“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08), John Lichfield reposted the overly simplistic formulation that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” Timothy Brennan spends many an essay in his book Wars of Position contending that the poststructural, postmodern Left, especially in Western universities, had embarked by 1975 on a “war against left Hegelian thought” that successfully buried Marxism, its “dialectical thinking and the political energies—including the anti-colonial energies—that grew out of it” by the mid ‘80s.

These setbacks were minor however compared to the watershed collapse of “real existing Socialism” between 1989 and 1991. Kenan Malik summarized the consequences that followed this turning point in his 1998 essay “Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference”:
The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation.
The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the power of the organized working class dramatically declined, all fronts from anti-colonial to social justice struggles experienced profound retreat, labor and social democratic parties and regimes were neoliberalized. Any one of these historical events is immensely complicated and deserving of deep historical analysis. Yet, collectively, they have been naively hailed by Establishment pundits as the results of the world wide triumph of capitalism, an end to the bipolar world order under neoliberalism’s Pax Americana, even “the end of history.”

I don’t have the space to disabuse my readers of this jejune myth of capitalism’s unequivocal victory and socialism’s undeniable defeat. But I do have the time to shatter the delusion, promulgated principally by anarchists, that with the near universal decline and defeat of the “authoritarian Left” their time has come, and that the future is anti-authoritarian. Clearly, forms of anarchism, neo-anarchism, libertarian Marxism and even leaderless Leninism are some of the fastest growing political tendencies on the Left over the last two or so decades. Yet those who wish to understand how things change, historically and socially, need to heed the conclusions arrived at by Max Boot in his comprehensive historical overview of guerrilla warfare entitled Invisible Armies:
Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

It should be obvious with the end of the Cold War that matters are far more complicated than a superficial battle between, and facile triumph of, good over evil. Equally obvious is that the concept of THA remains a slippery one, resonant with messianic intent, and hence one not easily pinned down by its successes or failures. Finally, I hope I’ve made it obvious that anarchism’s history is one of unmitigated defeat, and that anarchism by itself lacks the historical agency to do jack shit.

*[A discussion of agency is a consideration of human subjectivity. In contrast, emphasizing the objective to the point of denying the subject has a long tradition in Marxism, beginning with vulgar Marxism which contended that inevitable economic crises caused by predetermined historical circumstances would bring about the certain downfall of capitalism, whether or not humans had anything to do with it. Louis Althusser formulated a Marxist Structuralism in which ideological and material structures define the human subject out of existence. Thus, history becomes “a process without a subject” according to Althusser. Finally, the current Marxist school broadly subsumed under the rubric Krisis, or the Critique of Value, argues that capitalism is a single interconnected system of capital and labor components bound together by the valorization of capital, which transforms into the valorization of value and which will inevitably collapse due to crisis. Labor has no historical agency, but is merely an abstract historical category. History might harbor many revolutionary subjects, but the working class as a class cannot be one. Workers cannot constitute a revolutionary social class.]

Summing up: OWS in context: “What’s Left?” December 2013, MRR #367

Hooligan Header
Forgive me if I repeat myself.

I’ve had the above column header for a while now, a kind of homage to the anti-globalization movement. A response to the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal agenda that included an aggressive economic and political globalism, the anti-globalization movement rapidly expanded through a series of international protests targeting the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various annual global summits. These protests climaxed with the massive Battle of Seattle on November 30, 1999 that temporarily shut down that city and the World Trade Organization. A half dozen ever more violent mass confrontations followed, in Gothenburg, Sweden and Genoa, Italy in 2001 alone. But the worldwide clampdown that followed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, under the United States and its allies, forced the movement to evolve between 2001 and 2003, from roving international protests into international social forums. The affinity groups and non-governmental organizations of the “First World” based anti-globalization movement can be counterposed to much more significant “Third World” insurgencies. In Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) instigated a guerrilla-lead communal uprising in January, 1994, that continues to this day. And the Argentinian economic debt crisis of December, 2001, resulted in political turmoil, financial collapse, street riots, and workers’ self-managed cooperatives taking over much of Argentina’s economy.

I am definitely inspired by the anti-globalization movement and, even more so, by the parallel Third World insurrections of the day. My first book, End Time, which was published in January of 1994, anticipated both. Now, let’s take stock of the last five years as far as international protest and insurgency goes. The landmark here is the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown initiated by the financial crack-up of Wall Street.

There was an uptick in labor unrest in this country, starting with the Republic Windows occupation in Chicago, Illinois, in late 2008 following the economic collapse and subsequent calls for economic austerity. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker successfully divested public employee unions of their right to collectively bargain in early 2011, Madison became the center for demonstrations by unions and their supporters. These protests eventually culminated in the unsuccessful attempt to recall Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature. First World American labor unrest has grown diverse since then, from dock workers’ agitation on the west coast through attempts to unionize and pay fast food workers a minimum wage to a BART workers strike against management.

The worldwide 2008 economic meltdown buffeted the European Union with a severe recession and calls for austerity that hit the weakest economies of the Union hardest. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland became subject to more extreme neoliberal measures. Cutbacks in government spending and services, financial reorganization on the backs of working people and the poor, economic privatization, and the scaling back of an already anemic welfare sector followed. Comprised of generally prosperous First World western nations, the EU was politically committed to liberal democracy, economically hellbent on financializing to supersede their industrial sectors, and socially aging to where only 20% to 30% of the population is aged 24 or under. Yet when austerity was imposed on the feeblest members of the EU, political protest and social violence quickly broke out and rapidly spread. Initiated by the youth of Greece (2010-12), Italy (2011-12), Spain (2011-12), and Portugal (2011-12), these social insurgencies were true mass movements. They were largely leaderless due to their size, with mixed economic/political/social demands, a social composition crossing social classes, and activity not solely economically based. These mass movements allied with the working class of their respective countries, with trade unions calling limited, one-day general strikes in solidarity with popular anti-austerity actions.

The main aspects of this First World social opposition are magnified when we consider countries in the Third World, Brazil and Turkey being the most prominent. These nations are often only tentatively devoted to democracy, still heavily steeped in industrial economies, and defined by profoundly youthful societies with populations of 40% to 45% aged 24 or under. The world economic crisis hit most Third World nations hard, but Brazil and Turkey actually were less affected by the post-2008 financial collapse and effectively resisted the austerity efforts of the World Bank and IMF. Leaderless due to their magnitude, the youth-based, cross-class mass movements that exploded in these countries were intensified by conditions specific to the Third World. The mass movements were much larger, the political protests were more radical, and the social violence was more extreme. Finally, the allied working-class solidarity, the trade union general strikes were more potent. The Brazilians demanded an end to public transport fare increases, government corruption, the economic dislocations produced by the upcoming Olympics, and state repression of demonstrators. The Turks quickly moved from a sit-in against urban development plans for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park to demands for freedom of press, expression, and assembly, further democratization of the Turkish state, and increased secularization of Turkish society. It was the EU protests, times ten.

The fraudulent 2009 presidential election of Ahmadinejad in Iran provoked a widespread uprising in the streets called the Green Movement, so massive that it threatened to topple the government. State repression quickly followed, forcing the movement underground. After protests over the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor at the end of 2010, a youthful insurgency rapidly spread to twenty-odd other countries across the Middle East, where 54% of population is under the age of 25. Accompanied by popular support and working class solidarity strikes, these actions—collectively called the Arab Spring—were leaderless because of the scope and breadth of the movement as a whole. The Arab Spring swept a region of the Third World where the countries were politically inimical to democracy, often economically dependent upon simple resource extraction, and geographically carved up by historical imperialism. Four governments were overthrown, as exemplified by the 2011 Egyptian Revolution focused on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The processes of the Arab Spring that some hoped would be ongoing in countries of the region, instead are experiencing dissolution altogether in multiple national civil wars, or in region-wide disintegration involving intercommunal and sectarian violence and warfare. The reverberations are intense and immense, ranging from Sunni/Shi’ite conflagration across the Middle East to the potential wholesale destruction of Egypt, one of the oldest national societies in the area.

In contrast to these world-spanning protests and violence, China experienced a less substantial economic slowdown after 2008 which produced an increase in industrial strike activity. While not as dramatic as those actions detailed above, this strike wave nevertheless amounted to significant opposition to Communist Party rule. Depending on the study cited, 345 industrial incidents occurred from 1990 to 2008 (18 years), 355 incidents from 1997 to 2007 (10 years), and 553 incidents from 200 to 2010 (10 years). By comparison, from 2008 to 2012, just 3.3 years, 435 industrial incidents occurred. Protests based on environmental issues alone increased by an average of 29% every year since 1996, while in 2011 the number of major environmental actions rose 120%. The number of protests, termed “mass incidents” in general, doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to 180,000; uprisings that were responses to myriad issues, primarily official corruption, government land grabs, Tibetan autonomy, and environmental problems. And these are merely the tip of the iceberg, as it is notoriously difficult to ferret out information, facts and statistics from China’s state-controlled society. A putative socialist “Second World” country during the Cold War, China is a top tier Third World nation, comparable to Turkey or Brazil described above.

Then, there was Occupy Wall Street.

I tried to remain critical yet positive, analytical yet constructive, in particular with respect to Occupy Oakland. I attempted to use this column to detail the ups and downs of the OO encampment, the victories and defeats of OO’s black bloc anarchos, and the “close but no cigar” General Strike that wasn’t. Returning to the source—OWS—the contrasts with much of the post-2008 protest history described above cannot be more obvious, nor more troubling. OWS was self-conscious in so many ways, starting with being self-consciously NOT a cross-class mass movement. Rather, it was a movement of activists, and mostly of young activists at that. It self-consciously avoided “hitching its wagon to” (read “making alliances with”) any social sector or interest group, like organized labor or the Democratic Party or anti-capitalist movements or people of color, just as it self-consciously remained leaderless or self-consciously refused to formulate specific demands. Through this, OWS wanted to prevent being coopted and, as a movement, prevent being recuperated by state and capital. Only thing is, OWS was so busy paying inordinate attention to itself as a movement, it failed to take seriously the issue of power.

OWS garnered an extraordinary amount of national and international media attention, often excruciatingly self-aware, yet it accomplished almost nothing in the close to the year of its existence. It was a resounding failure, a flash in the pan, a nine days’ wonder. Much like those anarchists who proclaimed that the black bloc was not a group but a tactic, and became so preoccupied with their tactic that they failed to devise any more formidable strategy, those in OWS who proclaimed that their movement was leaderless, without demands, and not in need of a mass base, and became self-absorbed by their movement, had already relegated themselves to a minuscule historical footnote. Those leaderless, youth-inspired, cross-class mass movements of protest and violence in the EU, Brazil and Turkey, and the countries of the Arab Spring that have issued demands and contested power accomplished many significant things, despite being short-lived. By contrast, OWS in First World America was a sad little joke. The United States shared the political/economic/social configuration of much of the EU, yet with a much more youthful demographic due to ongoing immigration. OWS only gained the potential to become a mass movement when it relinquished its affected, self-conscious character, when it started to work with labor, both organized and unorganized, community occupations, squatting and anti-foreclosure efforts, anti-corporate/bank campaigns, efforts to help threatened schools and libraries, debt forgiveness, campaigns to monitor police abuse, even work in communities of color. By then, Occupy Wall Street was dead.

When Naomi Klein compared the Anti-Globalization Movement with Occupy Wall Street (NYT, 10-10-11), she realized that the former’s protest tourism targeting world summits was unsustainable in the wake of 9/11. Yet her praise for the latter was patently idiotic. Klein’s delight “that this movement doesn’t have a list of soundbite-ready demands and media-ready spokespeople” was extremely simple minded. And OWS’s choice of a “fixed target,” with “no end date on their presence” was a dead end. Occupy Wall Street has been relegated to the dustbin of history. I have no plans to change my column header to an Occupy theme anytime soon.