Logic: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, September 2022

I was on a college track in high school getting mostly A’s and B’s. There wasn’t quite the feeding frenzy in 1970 to stack my academic CV and get into the very best institution of higher education I could. Besides, my parents were barely middle class and we’d agreed that, to save money I’d attend the local community college for two years before transferring to UC Santa Cruz.

One of my English teachers my senior year was Lynn Bjorkman who instructed us on how to write a proper nonfiction essay and academic paper in preparation for our college careers. His specialty was the “science of logic,” both the formal logic of propositions, proofs and inferences and the informal logic of natural language argumentation and logical fallacies. He was a singularly unappealing individual who gave milquetoast a bad name. In the days when Star Trek’s Mr. Spock was the fascinating poster boy for logic, we would pass around notes depicting Bjorkman as an addled cube-headed robot spewing logical nonsense.

I was into pro-Summerhill/Skool Abolition/student liberation politics, so I decided to write an academic-style term paper using Marshall McLuhan’s famous catchphrase “the medium is the message.” In education that meant the message (content) of freedom and democracy was being taught in educational institutions (forms) that were profoundly authoritarian and hierarchical. So I argued that the form/medium invariably prevailed over the content/message, using plenty of quotes, footnotes and a respectable bibliography that included AS Neill’s Summerhill, Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Jerry Farber’s The Student as Nigger. I got a C- on the paper. Bjorkman commented that my writing was bright and sparkling on the surface but deeply flawed logically. He also remarked that I was actually dangerous and unfortunately would make a persuasive propagandist. But aside from noting an occasional logical fallacy in the margins, he never engaged with my argument’s logic point-by-point nor did he try to refute my conclusions.

OK, the C- on that paper upset me. I’d thought about challenging the grade using the system of academic redress offered by the school but I was already considered an angry Leftist radical whom the principal had threatened to suspend because I was publishing an underground newspaper. Besides, I was due to graduate at the end of the year. So I stewed over my low grade but ultimately I let it slide.

As for logic being a science, it may be a rigorous system of rules for conducting an investigation into the internal consistency of an idea, a statement, or a body of thought. But it isn’t a science because it doesn’t rely on evidence for facts. Nor is it a philosophical inquiry because it is not really interested in truth. Logic is solely concerned with the consistency of any given thought process. And as Emerson once wrote “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Medieval scholastics spent a lot of time logically debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin by the grace of an almighty god. They devised absolutely logical arguments based on thoroughly false assumptions reaching thoroughly false conclusions because angels and god don’t exist. Far from being a dispassionate, objective methodology, logic is frequently used by people with agendas and by the powers-that-be as a tool to justify their prejudices and crimes. In turn, ideologies and social systems may each have a unique logic with its own set of rules and processes.

Capitalism has an internal economic logic that involves commodities, private property, market relations, profit maximization, individualism, etc., and which seeks to organize all of society—its social institutions and human relationships—in its image. Yet amoral capitalist logic is fraught with instabilities and contradictions like the boom-and-bust business cycle, war, and the falling rate of profit.

Marxism developed a dialectical logic that started with defining the working class by its relation to the means of production, expanded upon how workers might move from a “class against capital” to a “class for itself,” and concluded with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a final stage in self-emancipation before the proletariat abolished itself as a class. I consider myself a Marxist, but I’m well aware of the twists and turns in Marxist logic that produced the crimes of Lenin and Stalin.

Fascism is a far less coherent and much more syncretic ideology and social system that often invokes “might makes right” to bolster social darwinist conclusions. Right off, transitioning from individual contests of strength to societies stratified into superior-versus-inferior castes, classes and races is a logically fraught exercise. Similar logical inconsistencies can be found in attempting to equate biological evolution with social development under the misnomer “survival of the fittest.” Fascism has often been accused of reveling in unreason which may account for its profound logical irreconcilabilities. What then accounts for the dubious yet populist attempts at red-brown crossover politics that attempt to combine socialism and fascism?

Fascism was actually the original Third Positionism that promised to go beyond Left and Right.[1]  Reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s comprehensive yet enervating biography Gabriele d’Annunzio reinforces the analysis that Fascism arose in the early 1900’s as an attempt to be more nationalistic than conservative nationalism and more revolutionary than revolutionary socialism. D’Annunzio himself combined an extreme avant-garde cultural presence with a rabid ultra-nationalist Italian irredentism. His 1920 grab bag Charter of Carnaro after the Fiume coup d’état combined elements of ancient Athenian democracy, the medieval Italian commune, the Venetian Republic, anarcho-syndicalism and vague social corporatism into a willy-nilly hodgepodge that promised radical equality and universal suffrage. “But the charter never made the transition from words to action” under his indecisive personal dictatorship.[2]

In the case of red-brown NazBol Third Positionism, the lynchpin is extreme nationalism. I’ve talked extensively about this type of “neither Left nor Right” Third Positionism. I’ve also explored a much less well known libertarian Third Positionism between left and right anarchism through Karl Hess where anti-statism is the key.

The original two-axis Meltzer-Christie political compass—individualism vs totalitarianism/capitalism vs collectivism—evolved into today’s ubiquitous four-square meme with the top left square as authoritarian left, the top right square as authoritarian right, the bottom left square as libertarian left and the bottom right square as libertarian right. The durability of certain positions and the various political thinkers, leaders, organizations, parties and political systems represented by this schema is based in part on cumulative history and on the internal logic of the positions themselves. They are not “set in stone.” The easy mutability of the authoritarian and libertarian ends of that axis is well-documented, with viable combinations of centralized and decentralized social structures functioning everywhere. But the political and economic Left and Right are presumed to be cast in concrete until the examples of Gabriele d’Annunzio with Fascism and Karl Hess with libertarianism are brought up. It is theoretically possible to break from orthodox Left versus Right logic to engage in Left-Right crossover politics anywhere on the political compass.

Although I’m loath to contemplate this, it might actually be necessary to explain why it isn’t crossover politics all the time.[3]

I was a big fan of neo-Marxist Leszek Kołakowski in the early 1970s. I read and reread his collection of anti-Stalinist essays Toward a Marxist Humanism, and enshrined his optimistic “The Concept of the Left” for its deft dialectic regarding utopianism and the Left. He was expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party in 1966 and exiled from Poland in 1968 for his “revisionist” Marxism. He would eventually reject Marxism altogether in writing his three volume Main Currents of Marxism which was published in 1976 and which nevertheless endorsed György Lukács’s interpretation of Karl Marx. Despite his brilliant writing, Kołakowski’s magnum opus was by no means comprehensive. The Main Currents of Marxism suffered from stunning errors and omissions, uneven comparisons and critiques of major Marxist individuals and schools, and by then a general hostility toward Marxism.

Kołakowski moved away from dialectical materialism and Marxism toward orthodox philosophy and the history of ideas as he became increasingly focused on religious questions and the meaning of life. In the process he became more conservative and pessimistic. One of his final works, the 1990 collection of essays, Modernity on Endless Trial, is quite gloomy. A piece from this book, entitled “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” has Kołakowski proposing three beliefs each rooted in conservatism, liberalism and socialism respectively which when alloyed: “[s]o far as I can see, this set of regulative ideas is not self-contradictory. And therefore it is possible to be a conservative-liberal-socialist. This is equivalent to saying that those three particular designations are no longer mutually exclusive options.”

That essay is available online. Like Kołakowski I’ve become more conservative and pessimistic as I grow older. But I’m not interested in endorsing a middle-of-the-road logic, a centrist Third Positionist politics as I fight the daily logic of capitalism.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Summerhill by AS Neill (1960)
Compulsory Miseducation by Paul Goodman (1964)
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere (1968)
Toward a Marxist Humanism (1968), Main Currents of Marxism (1976), Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) by Leszek Kołakowski
The Student as Nigger by Jerry Farber (1969)
Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (1970)
The Floodgates of Anarchy by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer (1970)
“Fascist Ideology” by Zeev Sternhell, Fascism, A Reader’s Guide: Analyses, Interpretations, Bibliography ed. by Walter Laqueur (1976); “Crisis in Fin-de-siècle Thought” by Zeev Sternhell, International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus ed. by Roger Griffin (1998)
T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Peter Lamborn Wilson (1991)
Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International by Kevin Coogan (1999)
“The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology” by Roger Griffin, Che cos’è il fascismo? Interpretazioni e prospettive di ricerca ed. by A. Campi (2003)
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin (2004)
Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2013)
Fighting the Last War: Confusion, Partisanship, and Alarmism in the Literature on the Radical Right by Jeffrey M. Bale and Tamir Bar-on (2022)

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Zeev Sternhell argued that nationalism + socialism = fascism whereas Jeffrey Bale revises this formulation to illiberal nationalism + non-Marxist socialism = fascism. I would add what Roger Griffin called the palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology to define a Fascist Minimum. [Fascism is] a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anti conservative nationalism. As such it is an ideology deeply bound up with modernization and modernity, one which has assumed a considerable variety of external forms to adapt itself to the particular historical and national context in which it appears, and has drawn a wide range of cultural and intellectual currents, both left and right, anti-modern and pro-modern, to articulate itself as a body of ideas, slogans, and doctrine. In the inter-war period it manifested itself primarily in the form of an elite-led “armed party” which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome a threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence.
Roger Griffin, “The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology”

[2] Alceste de Ambris, a revolutionary syndicalist, wrote the first draft of the Charter of Carnaro, and Fiume certainly attracted all types, including anarchists. But D’Annunzio was a proto-fascist who seized power in Fiume with the help of elite special forces of the Royal Italian Army, the infamous Arditi shock troops. That certainly puts the lie to Peter Lamborn Wilson’s claim that D’Annunzio was an anarchist and that Fiume was a free-for-all Temporary Autonomous Zone.

[3] In Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International Kevin Coogan wrote: “Today both communism and fascism, ideologies that the French fascist Robert Brasillach once called ‘the two poetries’ of the 20th century, seem exhausted given the triumph of multinational capitalism. Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right.’ […] What is especially worrisome is that much of the left has today so deteriorated that it may well lack the capacity for understanding, much less fighting, new forms of fascism that incorporate ‘leftist’ rhetoric and ideas.” But the near simultaneous development of Fascism and Leninism at the beginning of the 20th century (with Lenin praising D’Annunzio as “the only real revolutionary in Europe”) raises questions about the very notion of “ideological decay” as a viable analytic category.

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Hope is the mother of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2020

Train Tracks

Hope is the mother of fools.
—Polish proverb

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.
—Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen Continue reading

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 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.]