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

 

There are two common ideas as to why revolutions happen. The first, more traditional one is that when people are driven to the wall, when they are on the brink of starvation, when they lose all hope, they revolt. The second theory popularized in the 1950s, and first formalized by James C. Davies in his J-curve hypothesis, was called “the revolution of rising expectations.” It refers to circumstances in which the rise in prosperity, opportunity and freedom gives people hope they can improve life for themselves, their families and their communities, and so they revolt. Two apparently opposing reasons why people start revolutions—classic hopeless immiseration, modern hopeful expectations—except that as far back as the 1800s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that bastions of the French Revolution were in regions where living standards had been improving.

De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, historian and political scientist who analyzed the 1776 American and 1789 French revolutions, but didn’t comment on the geographical dismemberment of Poland during the same period. Perpetrated by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the three territorial divisions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) ultimately resulted in Poland ceasing to exist as a sovereign state. Which is ironic because the Alexis de Tocqueville Center for Political and Legal Thought was founded in 2007 at the University of Łódź in Poland. The Polish people have had a fraught relationship with both hope and revolution. Not as fatalistic as their Russian slavic counterparts, the Poles are often quite politically pessimistic and yet incredibly rebellious, staging numerous protests and uprisings, from the country’s dismemberment to the present.* Since the Polish right turn under the Law and Justice party after 2016, Poles have taken to the streets against reactionary judicial reforms, restrictions on abortion, and for women’s rights. In turn, ultraconservative far-right elements have countered with protests against the restitution of Jewish property, immigration, and  COVID-19 business lockdowns.

You might say we Poles are simply revolting.

Jacek Malczewski, Vicious Circle, 1897

I’m proud of my rebellious Polish heritage. Yet I’m the first to acknowledge that Polish protests and revolts have frequently been tinged with a persistent antisemitism. Given my recent analysis centering utopianism as a key tool for Leftist reform and revolution, I’m specifically interested in formulating an argument for “revolution without hope.”

William Morris’s book News from Nowhere has been considered a utopia without utopianism, as was Leszek Kołakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left.” Karl Marx formulated the notion of communism as a classless, stateless, borderless global human community, yet he refused to indulge in elaborating the details of his communist utopia, unlike the utopian socialists before him who were all too eager to blueprint their utopian schemes. Two Leftist survivors of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, debated the need for an “existential revolution.” A concept of the power of the powerlessness that was not “merely philosophical, merely social, merely technological, or even merely political,” the idea of an existential revolution was meant to avoid the dictatorship of party politics and external proposals for change, but which instead had an “intrinsic locus” rooted in the particulars and totality of “human existence.” Thus it was utopian, and clearly doomed.

YIPpie turned communist Abbie Hoffman wrote a book called Revolution for the Hell of It! that was said to have earned him a 5-year prison term at the “Chicago 8” conspiracy trial. That sentence was subsequently overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but the flippant notion that we make revolution for the sheer hell of it, on a whim, is a degeneration of the idea that revolution is natural or a right. Or as Maoists opine: “It is right to rebel!” What I’m exploring instead is a realistic utopianism, a revolution without hope or despair and therefore without entitlement or expectations.

Hope and its twin, despair, are to be avoided. Both involve expectations of the future, either desire or distress, that run counter to the hear-and-now of the revolutionary moment. Of course, realizing a revolution involves tactics and strategy—planning in other words. But the revolutionary act is the ultimate zen moment when the catchphrase “be here now” reigns supreme. The lead-up to revolution invokes organization and Lenin, but the revolution itself summons spontaneity and Luxemburg. This also means not dwelling on the past—on past slights, injuries and grievances—nor seeking to avenge, revenge or retaliate for past wrongs. Misery and pleasure tend to be immediate feelings exacerbated by memories of the past and expectations for the future. Attempting to live in the here-and-now does not eliminate either misery or pleasure. So we are still faced with what exactly causes revolutions and on what to base a revolutionary response, whether misery or pleasure.

Chemnitz Karl Marx Monument

I tend to side with pleasure and the famous misquotation of Emma Goldman’s that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Goldman never said those words, but rather lived them. I also tend not to believe that deliberately maximizing popular immiseration, social chaos, capitalist oppression and state repression will hasten the coming of any revolution, which is accelerationism. I have some sympathy for the strategy of indirectly pushing the capitalist mode of production to its limits in order to bring about a revolution. Tangential accelerationism, if you will.

For Marx, an economic mode of production was comprised of interacting forces of production and relations of production. Forces of production encompass means of labor (tools, machinery, land, infrastructure, etc) and human labor power. Relations of production entail voluntary and involuntary social relationships formed during the process of production as well as the official and de facto power relationships that both undergird and are the result of the division of profits from society’s total labor. If either one outstrips the other, there is a heightened potential for revolution. Or as Marx argued: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” (“Preface to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859)

When aggressive working class struggles push for more free time and more money for less actual work, as with the old IWW campaign for an eight hour work day and forty hour work week or the modern demand for eight hours of pay for four hours of work, this forces the capitalist mode of production toward its limits. Class struggle heightens the contradictions in the relations of production which, in turn, speeds up the development of the forces of production. The working class has no control over what technologies or infrastructures are introduced by capitalism, but it does have some control over how organized and militant the labor movement is in fighting capitalism. Creating a combative labor movement and a revolutionary working class has the advantage of not only indirectly hastening development of the forces of production but of directly confronting and potentially overthrowing the capitalist ruling class.

A win-win.

The caveat? Fully developing the forces of production means eliminating economic scarcity. If workers achieve a successful revolution before this happens, what results is a generalized sharing out of scarcity. A socialism of scarcity instead of abundance.

Paul Klee, Angelus novus/Walter Benjamin

*(Polish unrest: 1789, 1806, 1830-31, 1846, 1848-49, 1863-64, 1905-07, 1918, 1923, 1937, 1944-47, 1956, 1968, 1970-71, 1976, 1980-81, 1982, 1988, 1998, 2015, 2016-17)

SOURCES:
Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville
News from Nowhere by William Morris
Collected Works of Karl Marx (50 volumes) International Publishers
The Arcades Project and Illuminations by Walter Benjamin
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
Revolution for the Hell of It! by Abbie Hoffman
When Men Revolt and Why – A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution edited by James C. Davies
Oxford University Press series on revolutions and rebellions
God’s Playground: A History of Poland (2 volumes) by Norman Davies

 

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Radicalism in the age of Neoliberalism: “What’s Left?” June 2011, MRR #337

They are valid questions.

If I’m such a rad, hardcore ultra-commie, why haven’t I spoken out in solidarity with workers’ struggles recently raging in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states? Why haven’t I voiced opposition to the US instigating yet another war with the bombing of Libya?

I guess I’m just tired with how much of an uphill battle progressive politics has become. I’m reminded of an article by Calvin Woodward and Sam Hananel on the Huffington Post about organized labor beyond Wisconsin entitled “Labor Movement Roars Again, But It’s A Wounded Sound,” that went on to detail exactly how it got that way. And it’s not like bombing the shit out of the third Muslim country within a decade has resulted in massive protests in America’s streets. It doesn’t help that leftist organizations like ANSWER openly laud madman Muammar Gaddafi as a premier anti-imperialist, or that Wisconsin’s labor leaders proclaimed their willingness to give away wages, safety standards, and health care and pension benefits, all to preserve the right for union bureaucrats to collectively bargain for their rank-and-file. The sad, uninspiring level of such struggles doesn’t make it easy to write about them, let alone participate in them.

But, hold on, haven’t most of the political struggles I’ve engaged in ever since the ‘60s been uphill, made more onerous by self-important, self-serving political organizations pretending to advance those struggles? At least in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it felt like I was on the winning side of history. These days, even overwhelmingly positive actions feel like mere holding actions against a rising tide of rightwing reaction. I’ve spent several past columns bemoaning that the various uprisings of the 1960s never managed to go further, seeking reasons why those movements petered out due to internal failings. There is another way to approach this subject. There seems to have been a decisive turn that occurred between 1975 and 1980, the emergence of some external factor which worked to defeat the ‘60s upsurge. Whether it’s Timothy Brennan (Wars of Position) who postulated that the rise of postmodernism in academia after 1975 disarmed the Hegelian Left and a generation of student activists, or Franco Berardi (The Soul at Work) who dates the rise of semiocapitalism’s digital panlogism and a willingly subservient cognitariat from 1977, or David Harvey (A Brief History of Neoliberalism) who sees in neoliberalism’s rise in the 1970s a reconsolidated ruling class force sufficient to defeat the strength of insurgent workers and rebellious peoples around the world, there is a consensus that something happened in the mid to late 1970s that tipped the scales decisively toward resurgent capital.

Personally, I place the blame on neoliberalism, but I don’t accept Harvey’s analysis that neoliberalism is merely a passing historical phase, soon to be superceded. Instead, I’m with the Aufheben folks who contend that, because of the close economic relationship between China and the US, neoliberalism is an expression of capitalism’s longterm, steady growth, and is bound to last for decades. As such, I don’t think we’re going to see a revitalized labor movement challenge the power of capital, or a revived antiwar movement take on the American empire, anytime soon. No matter how much I would wish otherwise.

But isn’t that when support and solidarity is most important, when such movements are at their most beleaguered? Shouldn’t I be willing to do political work and make personal sacrifices, given the level of assault working people and people around the world are under at the hands of the US government?

I’m no fan of the Leftist politics of discipline and sacrifice. Instead of boring you with a long explanation as to the why and wherefore of this however, consider this story as illustration. Abbie Hoffman, along with Jerry Ruben and Paul Krassner, founded the Youth International Party (YIPpie!) in 1967, which celebrated sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and an anarchic politics best summarized by the slogan “Revolution for the hell of it!” Amidst the rebellion of youth and students during the 1960s, Abbie participated in a number of creative political actions, like tossing money onto the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, which produced a mad scrabble of stockbrokers to possess it. He was a member of the Chicago Eight, a group of activists tried for conspiracy to foment riot during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. And he wrote perhaps the essential text for mischief, mayhem and anarchy within industrial capitalism, entitled Steal This Book.

Hoffman claimed to have been set up for a cocaine bust by the Feds because of his politics in 1973, at which time he went underground. He continued to be involved in political activism while on the run, and said that he became a communist as a result of his experiences. When he resurfaced in 1980 he immediately jumped back into politics, specifically, anti-CIA protests. But the political climate had changed considerably in the intervening years, leading Abbie to flip a 60s adage “never trust anybody under 30,” and to quip that American campuses had become “hotbeds of rest.” So depressed was Abbie Hoffman by the lack of rebellion and protest among students and youth during the 1980s that he swallowed 150 Phenobarbital pills in 1989, committing suicide at the age of 52.

I’m sad enough having to grow old in a hyper capitalist America without inviting suicidal depression by fighting for the Left’s numerous already lost causes.