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.

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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Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution


I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

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