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.]


Real existing socialism: “What’s Left?” April 2010, MRR #323

Real existing socialism.

This phrase, popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a bit of a misnomer. It was employed primarily by Marxist-Leninists and their fellow travelers to refer to those regimes that called themselves “people’s republics” or “people’s democracies,” two more horrible misnomers. For these true believers in, sycophants of, and apologists for what was once called the Communist Bloc, the term “real existing socialism” was a sly, propagandistic way of simultaneously asserting that this collection of totalitarian, state socialist countries was truly socialist while defending them from the often scathing criticisms of traditional socialists, ultraleftists and idealistic progressives.

“Our critics on the Left can argue endlessly about what socialism should be like; this is real, actual socialism in practice.”

The patent absurdity of this argument was illustrated well by the many conflicts within “real existing socialism” as to who was really, truly socialist—ranging from Yugoslavian Titoism versus Soviet-style socialism to Soviet revision opposing Chinese radicalism. This game of more-socialist-than-thou peaked when Enver Hoxha denounced the rest of the Communist world as revisionist and declared Albania’s Marxism-Leninism-Hoxhaism to be the only true, authentic form of socialism. A long list of incidents in which one type of socialism militarily suppressed another type of socialism in the name of “true socialism” also comes to mind. It begins with Lenin and Trotsky crushing Ukrainian anarchism and the Kronstadt sailors, and culminates with Soviet tanks smashing Hungarian workers councils and Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face.” The Chinese PLA’s demolition of the Shanghai Commune is the bloody postscript. And need I point out that the number of real existing socialist regimes of this type has drastically declined since 1989?

Instead of arguing that Marxist-Leninist systems aren’t really, truly socialist however, let’s see what happens when we try to be more inclusive. What happens when we consider staunch social democratic countries like Sweden to be authentically socialist? What happens when even the sometimes extensive networks of producer and service collectives and cooperatives within capitalist societies are classified as valid forms of real existing socialism (from here on out referred to as RES)?

This expanded definition of RES does not cover all forms of socialist organization, and leaves out most political groups and parties, social/cultural associations, and militant unions. The somewhat fuzzy boundary crops up where union workers actually run their enterprises, political organizations provide services such as workers schools, and social/cultural groups delve into things like mutual aid societies. Still, this more inclusive notion of RES does have one particularly important ramification.

Marxism-Leninism, social democracy, and utopian socialism are all well represented in this larger RES. The representation of anarchism and left communism is practically nil. Of course, there is the occasional workers cooperative, collective or commune based explicitly on anti-state, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian politics, but as viable movements and social orders, anarchism and left communism are non-existent within RES.

As a former anarchist who retains some identification with left communism, I wish this weren’t so. But it is. Anarchism and left communism both champion a number of historically brief revolutionary moments (Russia 1905 & 1917, Germany 1918-21, Spain 1936-39, Hungary 1956, France 1968, etc.) that, while exemplary, were fleeting, and failed to produce lasting, libertarian socialist societies. For anarchists and left communists, RES is not true socialism when compared to these ephemeral revolutionary examples. Yet no anti-state, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian RES exists as an alternative.

The reasons why anarchism and left communism have failed to produce lasting revolutionary options are myriad, and vary from the historically specific to rather universal problems. The important fact here is that, without exception, they have failed. At this point, we have three choices available to deal with this fact. We can go along with a seemingly eternal anti-authoritarian optimism to proclaim that, despite this dismal record, the next revolutionary uprising will somehow overcome all odds and be victorious. Second, we can argue that, with a little tinkering and some key changes, we can increase anarchism and left communism’s probabilities for future success. Or finally, we can declare anarchists and left communists perennial “beautiful losers” and pronounce their politics bankrupt.

The first is not so much an option as it is a description of insanity, of doing the same damned thing over and over while expecting radically different results. The second choice appears to be more tempered and realistic. Yet it is largely ineffectual due to what I call the Baskin-Robbins syndrome. Hang on, this is going to require an extended frozen desserts metaphor.

After the second World War, when geopolitics polarized between East and West, between the Communist Bloc and the Free World, there were several attempts to create a neo-anarchist/left communist politics that could function as a tertium quid. Paris in the 1960s produced a French ice cream called Situationism that became all the rage for decades to come. With its mixture of left Marxist analysis and anarchist spirit, along with a heavy dollop of subjectivism, Situationism was more than just one of thirty-one flavors, more like a basic, ubiquitous vanilla. To boldly mix my metaphors, a friend once described the Situationists as a motley theatre troupe that managed one mediocre performance in Paris 1968, and hasn’t done much since. They were no Cirque du Soleil, to be sure.

Returning to ice cream as politics, tastes changed and by the mid-to-late 1970s, Italian autonomist gelato became popular, followed in the late 1980s/early 1990s by the spumoni of Italian anarchism and “action without mediation.” Various flavors of anti-globalization dominated the late 1990s/early 2000s, and most recently we’ve seen a revival of French crème glacée. The Invisible Committee’s blend of insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism in “The Call” and “The Coming Insurrection” is covered with nihilist hot fudge, and topped with Theorie Communiste sprinkles, Michel Foucault jimmies and Giorgio Agamben crumbles. Study groups of youthful radicals can’t seem to get enough of this riotous confection.

[The post-left, anti-politics, anarchy crowd is all over this like flies on shit. Hell, even Diamond Dave Whitaker is doing a TCI study group. Talk about April fools! What more do you need to know that this stuff is doomed?!]

Invariably, these neo-anarchist/left communist concoctions are tried and found wanting. But that’s not why I predict that the current French mélange will soon fall out of favor. There’s a fickle Baskin-Robbins “flavor of the month” attitude to all of this that belies serious politics. Young revolutionaries flit from one faddish political fashion to another as they might flick between MP3s on their iPods. Needless to say, this is no way to make revolution. Further, it’s a guarantee that anarchism and left communism will find no place in RES.

At the risk of coming off as a naïve American pragmatist, I insist that a central criterion of any politics must be that they work. It does little good that insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism are now trendy, if they do nothing to advance successful revolution. It means even less if those who advocate such politics are willing to change them at the drop of a hat, just to be au courant, whether or not those politics can overthrow state and capital, let alone create and sustain a socialist society.

Which leaves us with our third choice, the bankruptcy of anti-authoritarian politics. I’m loath to consider this option, even as reality backs me into this corner. Maurice Merleau-Ponty contended, in Humanism and Terror, that all of Stalin’s crimes—his terror and purges, his forced collectivization and calculated famines, his show trials and gulags—could be forgiven if only the Soviet Union had achieved a truly liberated, humanistic socialism. Flipping this, can the emancipatory ideas of anarchism and left communism be countenanced in light of their shoddy, lackluster performance in the real world? I doubt it, given the paucity of a real existing anti-authoritarian socialism.

What we are left with are beautiful dreams that fail to become anything more than reverie, and dreamers who continually romanticize their own failures. That’s not enough.

Corporatist realities and conservative fantasies: “What’s Left?” February 2009, MRR #309

The debate on the Left, in the days when the Soviet Union still existed, frequently boiled down to those who championed socialism in the abstract versus those who defended “real existing socialism.” Abstract socialism refers to any type of socialism that, with brief revolutionary exceptions, hasn’t actually been tried out in the real world. Anarchism, left communism, syndicalism, council communism, De Leonism, autonomism, democratic socialism, utopian socialism, communalism, libertarian socialism—plus the scores of variations within each category—comprise the broad, inchoate field of socialism in the abstract. Real existing socialism is much simpler, consisting of a few shopworn social democratic and a half dozen Leninist regimes, some of which continue to function to this day.

A similar distinction can be drawn between political systems in the abstract and real existing political systems. Political science, as it is taught in most universities, is an example of politics in the abstract, and academe is the perfect setting within which to discuss democracy, libertarianism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, anarchism; all sorts of abstract political systems that have rarely, if ever, existed. In reality, all present-day political systems are but variations on a single theme, that theme being the corporate state.

This is an incidental insight that can be gleaned from a reading of The Contours of American History by William Appleman Williams. An inspiration for the New Left in the 1960s, Williams was a “hard revisionist” who argued that expansion and empire were essential to the American economy, and that the US was primarily responsible for the Cold War. He wasn’t so much a Marxist as he was an anti-imperialist populist, along the lines of Mark Twain, who found common cause with old school, isolationist conservatives like Herbert Hoover, and who valued American regionalism and small community.

In Contours, Williams contended that the worldwide crisis that began with the first world war, and culminated in the second, gave rise to a near universal form of governance that can be called the corporate state. Strictly speaking, the corporate state is a creature of Italian fascism, of Ugo Spirito, Sergio Panunzio and Giovanni Gentile, who posited that an authoritarian ruling party could use the state to mediate between various powerful social interests, most notably the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, by incorporating them into social governance. The triumph of Bolshevism in Russia after 1917 produced a corporate state skewed to the left, with the working class allied with, and disciplined by a totalitarian Soviet state. Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 established a corporate state tilted to the right, with the capitalist class allied with, and disciplined by an authoritarian Fascist state.

Bolshevism and fascism vied for influence in the United States after 1929, when social conditions during the Great Depression proved ripe for radical organizing. The labor movement in general, and the Communist Party in particular, were gaining strength and social revolution, not to mention socialism, was a distinct possibility. Roosevelt’s response, in the form of the New Deal, created a corporate state in which a democratic state regulated capital, the full partner, and labor, the junior partner, in what amounted to a tripartite governance of American society. Very little effort is required to fit most countries today into one or another corporatist model.

The clear relevance of the corporate state idea in explaining much of current nationalist politics comes at a time when theories of corporatism have lost favor among academics. The multiplication of powers and interests in a society that makes it unmanageable by any corporate state; the explosion of racial, ethnic, even regional forms of tribalism; the spread of neo-liberal, free trade economics around the world through rampant globalization; the weakening of the nation-state as a viable unit in the world capitalist economy; these have all been cited to mitigate the importance of the corporate state as a way to understand how much of the world is run on the level of nation-states. The political realities of the corporate state, however, have not evaporated simply because political science professors are no longer interested in talking about them.

Take the 11/27/08 column, “Socialist Republic,” by paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan. After noting that both George Bush and Barack Obama have learned the same interventionist lessons from studying the Great Depression, Buchanan sarcastically comments that “We are all Keynesians now.”

Consider what we are about to do. Bush in 2008 spent 21 percent of GDP. States, counties and cities spent another 12 percent. Thus, one third of GDP is spent by government at all levels. Obama and Co. propose to raise that by another 10 percent of GDP. We may soon be north of 40 percent of gross domestic product controlled and spent by government.

That is Eurosocialism.

Actually, it’s good, old American corporatism.

Another paleoconservative, Paul Edward Gottfried, points out in his book, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, that American conservatives have failed to tackle, let alone defeat the behemoth of the modern administrative state. That’s because conservative Republicans, no less than their liberal Democratic counterparts, accept as given the corporatist fundamentals of the New Deal (Social Security, unemployment insurance, government intervention in the economy) as well as certain additions made to it by Johnson’s Great Society (Medicare, food stamps, civil rights legislation). Not even the doyen of small-government conservative Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, managed to dent America’s administrative state. Indeed, the Federal government and the deficits accrued by it grew precipitously during the Reagan years.

The corporate state is real existing politics, whereas paleoconservatism is politics in the abstract. We’re likely to witness intense internecine conflict on the Right in the next few years as conservatives try to figure out “what went wrong” in 2008. Few will defend the real existing big government conservatism of George Bush as they fight over the mantle of small-government Goldwater/Reagan conservatism in the abstract. Yet, much as anarchism went down to defeat time and again against Leninist communism in the real world, I suspect that, in practice, small government paleoconservatism will be routed by big government conservatism every time. Well, perhaps not in the platform of the Republican party, but certainly in actual governance.

The administrative state, the corporate state, is inescapable. Nor would the capitalist class wish to get rid of it, even if they could. I once joked that, if the Libertarian party’s dream was realized tomorrow, and the state was abolished in order to achieve a pure laissez-faire capitalism, the corporations would purchase and install a new government the day after. Capitalists realize the need for a strong, regulatory state, if for no other reason than to bail them out when they fuck up. Then there’s the military, handy for enforcing capital’s interests overseas, and the police, equally useful in quelling riot, rebellion and revolution at home. Labor’s participation in the corporate state, as well as the social programs engendered by that participation, might be up for question or attack. America’s corporate state is not.


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