Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984

Audre Lorde’s famous quote about the master’s tools is this column’s starting point. First, are we talking about tools in general or the master’s tools?

Humans are sometimes defined as tool-making animals. There are a number of creatures that use tools but only a select few (bees, crows, apes) that actually fabricate tools from component parts. When we go from picking up a rock to bash someone over the head (tool using) to chipping that same rock into a cutting edge to knife someone (tool making) we move from the natural to the artificial. Natural objects are neutral while artificial, human-made objects are not neutral. The use and development of basic tools is the simplest form of technology which, by definition, is also not neutral. Not only are tools and technology enmeshed with the basic values of the social system in which they are embedded, they reflect the basic needs and desires of the human organism that fashioned them. But they are not inherently good or bad, and the knife the murderer uses to kill is the same tool a surgeon uses to save lives. Primitivists, in arguing that tools and technologies are inherently bad, are actually arguing they are separable from human society and biology, an ahistorical argument in the extreme.

I won’t go down primitivism’s infinite regress rabbit-hole of what was humanity’s technological “original sin”—whether industrialization, the invention of agriculture or the development of language and rational thought. Suffice it to say that if tools and technologies are not inherently good or evil, then it’s possible to create liberating, non-exploitive technologies as well as corresponding emancipatory societies. This becomes a discussion of means versus ends—of the use of liberating, non-exploitive means in order to achieve liberating, non-exploitive ends. Pacifists immediately latched onto this turn of logic to contend that in order to create a nonviolent society that values human life we need to use nonviolent means that respect human life. In the process, they equate the violence of uprising, insurrection and revolution by the oppressed with the violence of corporate exploitation, police states and death squads by the oppressor. But I’m not a pacifist. Violence may not be a neutral tool, but it isn’t inherently evil. It is not automatically part of the master’s tools.

So finally, we arrive at the distinction between the master’s tools and the tools owned by the master. We cannot use the whip, slavery and social hierarchy (clearly the master’s tools) to create a free, cooperative, egalitarian world. But certainly we can expropriate the tools owned and used by the master—the hammers and plows of social cooperation and solidarity—to create our emancipatory world. The question about the tools and technologies we employ becomes: do they actually demolish the house, or do they just change who lives there?

So we return to the subject of reform versus revolution of last month’s column, with my introduction of André Gorz’s concept of “non-reformist reformism” as a way to bridge the two strategies. Right off, I was leery of that bridge strategy because I see capitalism as almost infinitely malleable, capable of coopting nearly anything thrown up against it. Only occasionally does capitalism have to resort to outright repression and terror to maintain itself. It was once argued that a universal basic minimum income (UBI) was such a radical proposal that capitalism would no longer remain capitalism if it were adopted. That UBI was intended to be a structural reform so thoroughgoing that capitalism would be utterly transformed by it. But now even some conservatives argue for UBI because the idea would allow the welfare state to eliminate virtually all social welfare programs, pare down the functions of government to a bare minimum and force the poor to go it alone. Rutger Bregman, in “Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” (Jacobin, 5/5/16) regarding the criticism of the British Speenhamland plan in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation, describes Polanyi’s take on basic income schemes as “‘the pauperization of the masses,’ who ‘almost lost their human shape.’ Basic income did not introduce a floor, he contended, but a ceiling.”

“There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform,” writes Robin Hahnel in Economic Justice and Democracy. “[A]ny reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.”

Whether the tools of reform, non-reformist reform, or revolution can constitute an effective technology for radical social change to transform capitalism into socialism, the solution might not be in relying on tools and technologies so much as on changing what we expect from them. Consider the early work of Polish neo-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Before Kołakowski “outgrew” his Marxism to become a historian of ideas increasingly preoccupied with religion, he wrote the provocative essay “The Concept of the Left” which contended that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.” Using an extended analogy to the notion that every human product is necessarily “a compromise between the material and the tool,” he contended:
Utopia always remains a phenomenon of the world of thought; even when backed by the power of a social movement and, more importantly, even when it enters its consciousness, it is inadequate, going far beyond the movement’s potentials. It is, in a way, “pathological” (in a loose sense of the word, for Utopian consciousness is in fact a natural social phenomenon). It is a warped attempt to impose upon a historically realistic movement goals that are beyond history.
However […] the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law. Utopia is the striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity. 

Reform and non-reformist reform, no less than revolution, are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. This doesn’t mean foolishly believing that a socialist utopia is just around the corner when even incremental reforms are attempted and achieved. Rather, it means the Left needs to maintain the vision of socialism even when pursuing minor social reforms. Perspective is crucial throughout.

Reform, non-reformist reform, and revolution are all tools in technologies of radical social change. And, leaving aside the issue of effectiveness, tools and technologies are always a compromise between our dismal historical reality and a socialist utopia, much as are their results on the ground. When we talk about the EZLN in Chiapas or the YPG/J in Rojava, we’re talking about Third World social movements employing technologies of radical social change that are each comprised of crafted, interacting clusters of tools—indigenismo, “mandar obedeciendo,” and women’s liberation in the case of the former and democratic confederalism, “direct democracy without a state,” and women’s liberation in the case of the latter. What keeps these bundles of tools unified and on track—and their ongoing regional social experiments liberating, non-exploitive and humane—is in part their commitment to a socialist utopia.

Any concept in this discussion can be a tool working on historical reality at one moment, and then the compromise between a different tool and historical reality at another moment. Sorry if this is confusing, but we’re talking dialectics here. To solely debate the tools and technologies of social change is to be in danger of instrumentalism. To just focus on the promise of some future socialism is to be in danger of utopianism. Only by combining the two can we create an effective, viable Left capable of advancing a radical social movement. But can that be done in the North American First World? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.This concludes my examination of reform versus revolution.

SOURCES:
The Story of Utopias by Lewis Mumford
Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” by Rutger Bregman
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi
Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation by Robin Hahnel
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski

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Neither Anarchistan nor Anarchyland: “What’s Left?” June 2015, MRR #385

In 35 years in leftist politics, I have met many ex-Stalinists and Maoists who became Trotskyists and council communists; I have never met anyone who went in the opposite direction. Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.

Loren Goldner, “Didn’t See The Same Movie”

Hooligan Rule #3: The purer the anarchism in theory, the less effective in practice.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I tend to regularly take the piss out of anarchism when I write about it. I spent one column making fun of anarchist goofiness in being simultaneously uncritically inclusive and hypercritically sectarian. Then, after taking on and failing at the Sisyphean task of defining the locus of historical agency, I concluded by proclaiming anarchism a historical failure utterly lacking in agency. And just last column, I made snide comments about the anarcho/ultra milieu’s tendency to push purity over pragmatism with regard to current events in Greece and Kurdistan. Far as I’m concerned, most anarchists are still playing tiddlywinks.

It’s too easy to make fun of anarchism. And while I’m not about to stop, I do want to develop a useful metric for the effectiveness of anarchism. Hence, the above rule of thumb. Here, it’s worth requoting the relevant passages by Max Boot from his book 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?”)

To the utter defeat of anarchism in Ukraine (1918-21) and Spain (1936-39) must be added the failure of anarchism in the Mexican revolution (1910-20). Of these three major revolutions explicitly inspired by anarchism, or having substantial anarchist participation, none went beyond the stage of anarchist revolution into creating a long term anarchist society. All three were defeated militarily during the civil wars that followed the start of each revolution, with Ukraine’s Makhnovshchina liquidated by the Bolsheviks, Spanish anarchism undermined by Leninists, socialists and liberals before being eliminated by Franco’s fascists, and Mexico’s original Zapatistas crushed by the socialist/corporatist precursors to the PRI. That’s 0 for 3, out of the three most heavyweight revolutions of the twentieth century. But we’re not keeping sports scores here. We’re talking about history and tens of thousands of lives lost and societies dramatically altered. Again, it’s absurd to prevaricate by contending that anarchism is only a failure to date. That anarchism’s time is still to come. If anarchism cannot manage to establish itself despite having the solid majority of the working classes as well as a popular revolutionary upsurge behind it, it’s time to admit the most severe conclusion of my rule of thumb. Anarchism in its purest, most historically pertinent form has been a complete washout.

Which is too bad because the daily practice, organizational forms, and valiant struggles displayed in explicit anarchist revolutions have been truly inspiring. What’s more, most of the pivotal revolutionary moments in history have been, at the very least, implicitly anarchist and, together with their explicit siblings, constitute the category of social revolution. Such revolutionary uprisings are broad based, popular, spontaneous, organized from the bottom up, intent on overthrowing existing class and power relations, but invariably short-lived. Social revolutions have been myriad, some flash-in-the-pan and others persistent, but only an abbreviated list can be provided here. (The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02; etc.) Let’s spend a bit more time further delineating types of revolutions.

The initial February 1917 revolution was nothing less than a spontaneous mass uprising of the majority of workers and peasants across the Russian empire which overthrew the Czarist ancien regime. Inspired by Western European liberalism, the February revolution was not of any single political persuasion. Popular self-activity and self-organization from the base up characterized Russian revolutionary society at that time. This was not just a matter of dual power—where the formal liberal Kerensky government paralleled an antagonistic, informal socialist government of the soviets—but one of a multi-valent revolutionary situation where power resided on numerous levels—like the factory committees—and eventually in various regions—like the Makhnovist controlled Ukraine and the SR-dominated Tambov region. When the Bolshevik organized Red Guard overthrew Kerensky’s government and disbanded the multi-party Constituent Assembly in what has been termed the October Revolution, Russia’s social revolution waned and the civil war began in earnest.

Many considered this vanguard political revolution a Bolshevik coup de etat. The Bolsheviks called it a socialist revolution. And make no mistake, socialist revolutions leading to Leninist states have been rather successful as revolutions go, far more successful than social revolutions. Explicitly anarchist social revolutions have never succeeded, as I keep repeating. Implicitly anarchist social revolutions have enjoyed a little more success as they are several degrees removed from libertarian purity. The German 1918-19 revolution and civil war brought about the liberal democratic Weimar Republic by default. France May-June 1968 changed an entire generation, especially in Europe, leading to political defeat but cultural victory. And the social unrest in Poland from 1980 through 1989 spearheaded by the Solidarity trade union movement arguably helped bring down the Warsaw Pact and paved the way for Western-style liberal democracy in Communist Poland, even as Solidarity itself was sidelined.

Now consider a couple of variations on my Hooligan rule.

What about a practice that tends toward the anarchistic, promulgated from a decidedly Marxist-Leninist theory? Last column I discussed the situation of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan now, and of Chiapas in Mexico for the past twenty years. In the former, the stridently Leninist PKK/HPG-PYG/YPG have adopted anarchistic communalism and democratic confederalism around which to organize Kurdistan society in liberated territories. In the latter, the post-Maoist EZLN has translated Mayan democratic traditions into “mandar obedeciendo,” the notion of commanding by obeying, which conflates nicely with Mao’s own dictum to “go to the people, learn from the people.” The EZLN further praises Mayan communalism and mutual aid, yet it also fetishizes indigenismo while ignoring capitalist property and social relations and remaining a full-blown, hierarchically organized army. Despite such profound contradictions the EZLN was touted as anti-authoritarian and libertarian by anarchists and left communists the world over when they first emerged from the jungles of Chiapas in 1994. Rojava received a far more critical reception from the left of the Left when it emerged out of the Syrian civil war in 2014. That’s because of the PKK et al’s tortuous authoritarian history and orthodox Leninist party/military structure, which puts the accent on nationalism in national liberation struggles and in no way challenges capitalism, even as it pays lip service to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism and calls for the decentralized cantonization of any future Kurdistan. Further, the EZLN’s Chiapas is far more media savvy and social democratic, even liberal, as compared to the PKK’s Rojava. Rather than a variation on my rule then, this is the case of a strict Leninist core practice and rigorous hierarchical political/military command structures allowing for some libertarian wiggle room in the greater society in question.

But what about the idea that aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies, if not tacitly anarchist, were plainly anarchic? “According to this myth, prior to the advent of civilization no one ever had to work, people just plucked their food from the trees and popped it into their mouths and spent the rest of their time playing ring-around-the-rosie with the flower children. Men and women were equal, there was no disease, no competition, no racism, sexism or homophobia, people lived in harmony with the animals and all was love, sharing and cooperation.” So writes the so-called unibomber Ted Kaczynski in his essay “The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism.” Kaczynski then cogently demolishes this myth point by point using anarcho-primitivist and classical anthropological sources. Primitive societies were not examples of anarchism so much as they were of anarchy. The radical decentralization and technological simplicity of aboriginal societies allowed the evils of hierarchy, warfare, competition—if and when they arose—to be contained by scaling them down until they did minimal damage. A primitive tribe might very well be peaceful, communal, and egalitarian, but if not, the fact that a warlike, competitive, hierarchical aboriginal tribe was relatively small and confined to a compact territory meant that any harm done by them would be severely limited. The anarchy of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies was not conscious anarchism by any stretch of the imagination. As such, something as simple as the proliferation of agriculture which ushered in the neolithic age rapidly subverted paleolithic anarchy by allowing agricultural surpluses to accumulate, upon which state structures and class societies were then eventually organized.

Now, a note on left communism. Left communism can be viewed as political accretion based on a progressive sloughing off from the Leninist Left. First there was the contentious political relationship between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, followed by the disaffection of Trotsky and Bukharin on the left in the Bolshevik party. Various Left fractions in the Bolshevik party attempted reform from within, most significantly Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, Kollontai’s Workers Opposition, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. Finally, leftist tendencies congealed against the Bolsheviks in the Third International, on the one hand the council communism of the Dutch and German Left as represented by Pannekoek, Ruhle, and Gorter and on the other hand Bordiga’s ultra-party communism on the Italian Left. Social revolutions are sine qua non for left communists, which laud them in principle while often being highly critical of specific instances. The need to shorten, if not entirely eliminate the transition to true communism, is the objective of much of left communism.

Between the first and second World Wars, mass movements of workers and peasants were dominated primarily by Marxism and Leninism, and secondarily by various types of anarchism. Left communism ran a distant third, without much of a mass base to speak of. Yet anarchists and left communists frequently found themselves allied against social democrats and Leninists, and for unfettered social revolution. The POUM’s alliance on the barricades with the CNT/FAI during the 1937 Barcelona May Days during the Spanish civil war, as well as the anarchist/left communist blend exemplified by the Friends of Durruti, clearly made them political bedfellows. This affiliation continued with the roller coaster fall-and-rise of anarchist and left communist political fortunes from 1945 on, and today I talk about the anarcho/ultra anti-authoritarian milieu as an overarching category. Of course, there are differences. We’ll leave a discussion of that for a future column.

As for Hooligan Rules #1 and #2? Those too require more space than I have at the moment. Did you hear the one about the anarchist, the Marxist, and the rabbi who walk into a bar? The bartender says: “What is this, a joke?”

Long live war?: “What’s Left?” November 2009, MRR #318

I have a section in my library consisting of books like The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller, War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley, and the Reinvention of Primitive Society by Adam Kuper. I used to think of it as my anti-primitivist section, works by reputable anthropologists and archeologists rebutting John Zerzan’s wet dream that our Paleolithic ancestors were ecological, peaceful, goddess-worshipping hunter-gatherers uncorrupted by civilization and science; a simplistic reprise of Romantic era fantasies of the primitive paradise and the noble savage. Then, I realized that these books also refute at least one important tenet of Marxism.

Refute is perhaps too strong a word. These works don’t contradict Marx’s own assertion that Paleolithic humans existed in a state of “primitive communism,” a relatively classless, communalist social order. Nor do they negate the thesis propounded by Marshall Sahlins that such a social order was the original affluent society, in which people worked as little as ten to twenty hours a week in order to survive. However, this academic research does call into question the Marxist idea that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that it is shaped by the mode of economic production of any given society.

Marx himself believed in a basic human nature, which he called species being, and which was predicated upon humans being social animals. Yet his contention that economic forces molded much of the rest of human nature engendered the notion in the old, Soviet-dominated socialist bloc that it was possible to create, in the words of Che Guevara, a “new socialist man.” This collectivist human being would be motivated by altruism and cooperation, in contrast to the individualistic, selfish and competitive person common to capitalist society.

That such a creature failed to emerge en masse in the “real existing socialist societies” of the day did not discourage these regimes from applying, to an absurd degree, the axiom that environmental forces predominated over biological forces. In a phrase, nurture superceded nature. Both the Soviet Union, and Maoist China, fell hook, line and sinker for the faux Lamarckianism of that scientific quack Trofim Lysenko who argued that characteristics acquired by exposure to environmental conditions could then be inherited. A wheat crop that unexpectedly produced record yields in the face of harsh climatic conditions was then expected to pass on this capacity through its seed. Such a delusion resulted in wholesale famine at different times in the Soviet Union and China, when many millions starved.

Human nature appears to be more fundamental, complex and immutable than Marxists and anarchists would presume.

I started out as a pacifist when I became political in 1968. At the time, I was Vietnam War draft bait, and bucking for CO status. But I also fervently believed that war in particular, and violence in general, were not innate to human nature. I was fond of citing societies, from the Hopi to the Mennonites, which were socially structured around nonviolent principles. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve had over forty years to experience the world, and to read up on humanity’s sordid history. It seems that, past and present, nonviolent societies have been the exception rather than the rule. And, when Germaine Greer opined that human males had a predilection for rapine and slaughter, she was only incorrect in confining this tendency to one gender. This penchant for homicide, while evident in both sexes, is by no means equal between the sexes.

From the Spartan mother’s exhortation to her son to come home “with his shield, or on it,” to the prominence of women as guerrillas in various socialist struggles for national liberation, there is no lack of female complicity in human blood lust. Recent news reports have claimed that women are now in top leadership positions of both the Basque terrorist organization ETA and the Sicilian Mafia. Whether it is enthusiastic participation in sundry right wing and fascist movements (as documented in Right Wing Women; ed. Bacchetta and Power), or as willing suicide bombers in Islamic jihadist organizations, women are still playing catch up in an arena dominated by men. The girls got a way to go.

A recent, influential addition to my library has been Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger’s precisely rendered experiences as a German soldier during the first World War intimated that war is among humanity’s noblest endeavors, a crucible that brings out the best and worst in people, and a forge for individual struggle and overcoming. Then, we have James Palmer’s depiction in The Bloody White Baron of the mad, murderous Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a “white general” during the Russian civil war, as “a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter.” These days, this describes the great preponderance of armed resistance movements in the region from Rabat to Jakarta.

I’ve already mentioned Keeley’s War Before Civilization, which is one of a spate of books (The Origins of War by Guilaine and Zammit, How War Began by Otterbein, Constant Battles by Le Blanc and Register, etc.), that document the human propensity for collective homicide long before said humans could write history. Forgive me then if I’ve come to the conclusion that the predilection for one individual to bash another individual over the head with murderous intent is something more than personal passion or social conditioning.

War is as intrinsic to the human experience as is music, intoxication, pornography and transcendence.

Yet, I’m reluctant to attribute homicide and war to that ultimate black box and deus ex machina, human nature, precisely because of the Hopi and the Mennonites. There have been whole human societies, modestly successful and around to this day, organized to minimize human violence. This actually says a lot about the relationship between human society and human biology, complicating the concept of human nature significantly. Gene Sharp’s comprehensive three-volume reference The Politics of Nonviolent Action, covering a theory of power, a history of nonviolence, an exhaustive list of nonviolent methods, and a sagacious discussion of nonviolent strategy, continues to have an important place in my library.

I’ll conclude this selective survey of my book collection with a story that’s somewhat apropos of this column’s subject. Between 1989 and 1991, when I lived in San Diego, I was involved in setting up a chapter of Anti-Racist Action. Among many things, we did punk rock benefit shows to raise money for local progressive organizations. One such show, held at the Peace Resource Center, featured a banner hung along the building in the backyard, painted with the MDC lyric NO WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA! Among those attending the show were San Diego’s own Boot Boys. At the time, this skinhead crew claimed to be antiracist, and indeed, I detected a couple of Latino and at least one Asian Boot Boy skin. At some point during the evening, the Boot Boys vandalized the banner by tearing off the first NO. It subsequently read WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!