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.]

Advertisements

Israel and Palestine, confict without end: “What’s Left?” October 2014, MRR #377

The middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.

Jim Hightower

I’m a middle-of-the-road moderate.

This feels like a stand up AA confession. Me, “Lefty” Hooligan, a moderate. But I’m middle-of-the-road when it comes to the whole Israel/Palestine conflict.

I grudgingly agree that Israel has the right to exist, but I vehemently oppose Israel’s military overkill, its collective punishment and massacre of Palestinians in pursuit of eradicating Hamas terrorism. I grudgingly agree that Palestinians should constitute their own nation, but I adamantly oppose Hamas terrorism, its indiscriminate targeting of Israelis and threats to wipe out the Jewish people. I think that Israel’s overwhelming military and economic superiority over the Palestinians, this massive day-to-day power imbalance, virtually guarantees the abuse of that power in the form of discrimination and slaughter, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.*

I wasn’t always such a reluctant moderate with respect to the bloody Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know the subject deeply, but narrowly, and from one side only. As an undergraduate at UCSC, I studied Jewish history in general and Zionist history in particular, with a six month stay on an Israeli kibbutz (commune) in the Jezreel Valley with my Jewish girlfriend in the summer and fall of 1974. My grasp of the Arab side of things is glancing at best. Yet, like a shard of hologram properly illuminated, a slice of history properly studied will reveal the whole. What got in the way of my extremist sentiments, and what made me a moderate was what Israelis like to call “the facts on the ground.”

I was and remain a communist. I was intrigued by Zionist socialism and I had an affinity for kibbutz-style communism, but I soon discovered how intrinsically rightwing they were. Zionist colonial society was dominated from 1920 on by the Histadrut labor federation—part trade union, part capitalist owner and employer, and part de facto state. The Histadrut ran close to 75% of the Zionist economy in pre-1948 Palestine until the newborn Israeli state nationalized half of that, and the labor federation’s social power has been on the decline ever since. The national syndicalism professed by the Histadrut and key to Labor Zionism shunned class struggle for Jewish national unity. It was a non-Marxist, even anti-Marxist socialism rooted in Romantic notions of organic nationalism and ethnic purity.

That’s where the supposed radical communism of the kibbutzim came from. Labor Zionism, often used synonymously with Zionist socialism, was first cousin to Stalin’s “socialism in one country” in promoting a “socialism for one people,” the Jewish people. And Zionist socialism transcended its nationalist socialist roots into true proletarian internationalism only in communist fractions evident within the halutzim (pioneers) of the third aliyah (settler wave). These communist fractions were tangential to the kibbutz movement led by the Hashomer Hatzair and then by the old MAPAM political party. They were central to the Gdud Ha’avoda (Labor Brigades) founded by members of the Crimean Commune who followed Joseph Trumpeldor, which were then deliberately destroyed by the Histadrut. As such, this international working class communism, which attempted to make common cause with the Arab workers in Palestine, was a minority of a minority within the Zionist colonial project. It was doomed to failure. Probably why I identify with it to this day. Ze’ev Sternhell’s book The Founding Myths of Israel makes these arguments most cogently. Israeli society has since moved inexorably ever rightward.

Then as now, I’m an anti-statist. I don’t like to see the building and proliferating of nation-states. I don’t like people aspiring to create them, and I certainly don’t like people butchering each other with them. Arthur Waskow once spun out a lovely libertarian utopia for the area of Israel/Palestine that entailed decentralized federations of autonomous Jewish and Arab cantons residing side by side in a fully binational society. Sure, and if the cat laid eggs, so goes a yiddish saying, it would be a chicken. I don’t think I was ever that naive to imagine anarchism taking root in the area anytime in the foreseeable future. I was disabused of such fantasies by having experienced reality in Israel. Part of that reality is the current demographics of the region. There are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 Arabs living in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

These facts beg for a creative reconsideration of the “one state solution” put forward by the old pre-Oslo Palestine Liberation Organization for a democratic, secular nation-state in the region of Palestine. Not quite as elegant was the call for a binational state in Israel/Palestine by Zionist socialism’s left wing, the aforementioned Hashomer Hatzair and MAPAM, that evaporated with the formation of Israel’s Labor Party in 1968. The chances for either a democratic secular state or a binational state in Israel/Palestine however are slim to none, not without a lot of violence and social disruption. Far more blood and chaos will accompany the least favorable but far more likely solution, the “two state solution” that creates a Palestinian nation-state in the Occupied Territories alongside a mostly intact state of Israel. Not only is the two-state solution the highly probable outcome of decades of suffering and war, but it is likely to reproduce the same power imbalance, a militarily and economically hegemonic Israel running roughshod over a string of poverty-stricken Palestinian Bantustans.

Which is a tragedy considering that, at least on the Jewish side of things, there have been imaginative ways for a people to live and thrive without the need for a nation-state. At the beginning of the 20th century, as youthful European Jews took to socialist ideas and movements of various stripes, Zionist socialism predominated in a nationalist Zionist movement that promoted the colonization of Palestine under the patently false slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Diametrically opposed to all forms of Zionism were the Jews who committed themselves to Marxist social democracy, specifically to the internationalist socialism embodied by the Bolsheviks and their Third International, which called for world proletarian revolution to bring about a classless stateless society. The Jewish Labor Bund positioned itself between these two poles to develop a hybrid socialism unique to the social situation of the Jewish people.

The Bund operated in eastern Europe, in the territorial ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement to which the Jewish people were confined and in which the Jews often comprised a sizable minority of the population. The socialism advocated by the Bund aligned with the international working class movement while defending the national characteristics of the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement. The Jews of the Pale lived separately (in urban ghettos and Jewish villages called shtetls), had their own language (yiddish), religion, customs and culture, and shared various autonomous social institutions (schools, community councils, and mutual aid societies). From these facts the Bund derived a form of Jewish nationalism that downplayed any united sovereign Jewish territory for one based on Jewish community control of local schools, police and government. As such, the Jewish Labor Bund’s program prefigured the program of the Black Panther Party in the United States.

The Third Reich’s “Final Solution” put an end to the aspirations of the Jewish Labor Bund by liquidating the Jewish people in eastern Europe. I got to know some Bundists who had immigrated to New York City after the second World War. When they didn’t entirely assimilate, they became either ardent Communists or soft Zionists. Few remained affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund, which like yiddish has recently experienced a revival in interest.

The spectrum of Zionist socialism/ Jewish Labor Bund socialism/ international socialism parallels a broader spectrum within the Jewish people at large, generated by the question over the nature of the Jewish people. There are those who would argue that the Jews aren’t a people at all, among them outspoken jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, and academic Shlomo Sand whose book The Invention of the Jewish People summarizes this position clearly. Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum like the Jewish Defense League who believe that the Jewish people are a nation, even a race, chosen by God and given the land of Israel as their inalienable birth right. Most who weigh in on the subject, including most Jews, hold a middle position, that the Jewish people are some amalgam of race, nation, ethnicity, tribe, culture or religion which cannot be clearly fixed. The point is moot however, given that Jews consider themselves Jews, and define themselves as Jews no matter the argument or the circumstance.

The Jews have existed as a self-identified, dispersed people at least since the Babylonian destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Thus, the Jewish people have survived partly or entirely without a nation-state for over 2,500 years. The Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 CE forced the Jews to adapt with the development of the synagogue as a temple in absentia. Yet whether this Jewish dispersal is termed exile or diaspora, it took more than the institution of the synagogue to hold it together. Vibrant centers of Jewish culture and learning overlapped concentrations of Jewish population first in ancient Babylonia, then in Moorish Spain, and finally in Medieval Poland.

These dynamic social/cultural/religious centers provided guidance and cohesion to the Jewish people as a whole, throughout the eastern hemisphere and eventually the world, and were crucial to Jewish survival. It can be argued that this core/periphery structure of Jewish existence was in crisis by 1850, with the rise of the modern nation-state. But what can’t be substantiated is the Zionist assertion that without a Jewish nation-state, the Jewish people will always be threatened by discrimination, harassment, murder, pogrom and holocaust. One of the most dangerous places in the world for a Jew to reside today is in Israel. All it would take is for Israel to lose just one war in order to raise the very real specter of Jewish genocide once again.

Between the wholly inadequate two-state solution and Waskow’s anarchist idyll, there are a number of quite possible, favorable resolutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’ve highlighted as viable examples leftwing Zionist socialism’s binational state, the one-state solution of the PLO’s secular democratic Palestinian state, the Jewish Labor Bund’s socialist program for Jewish territorial autonomy, and the non-state core/periphery structure so critical to Jewish survival as a people over the millennia. This middle ground is quite broad, providing a wide political middle-of-the-road from which true moderation can arise. And a moderate, just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would be wonderful. In this instance, I would dearly love to refute Barry Goldwater when he said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

*I rely on Max Boot’s exhaustive study Invisible Armies for the distinction between formal military action and terrorism.

  • MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL

  • "Lefty" Hooligan-"What's Left?"
    My monthly column for Maximum Rocknroll.

  • MY BOOKS FOR SALE:

  • Free excerpts from 1% FREE

  • 1% FREE on sale now


    Copies of 1% FREE can be purchased from Barnes & Noble POD, and the ebook can be had at Barnes & Noble ebook. The physical book is $18.95 and the ebook is $4.99.

  • END TIME reprinted


    Downloads of END TIME can be purchased from SMASHWORDS.
  • CALENDAR

    October 2018
    M T W T F S S
    « Sep    
    1234567
    891011121314
    15161718192021
    22232425262728
    293031  
  • META