Archive for the ‘Marxism’ Category
“Trotskyism is being studied as never before” The Brent Soviet.
“But we want to speak frankly to you, comrade Trotsky, about the sectarian methods which we have observed around us and which have contributed to the setbacks and enfeebling of the vanguard. I refer to those methods which consist in violating and brutalising the revolutionary intelligence of those militants – numerous in France – who are accustomed to making up their own minds and who put themselves loyally to the school of hard facts. These are the methods which consist in interpreting with no indulgence whatever the inevitable fumblings in the search for revolutionary truth. Finally, these are the methods which attempt, by a colonisation directed from without, to dictate to the labour movement attitudes, tactics or responses which do not come from the depths of its collective intelligence. It is in large part because of this that the French section of the Fourth International has shown itself absolutely incapable not merely of reaching the masses but indeed even of forming tried and serious cadres.”
Marceau Pivert to Trotsky. 1939 (Where is the PSOP Going? A correspondence between Marceau Pivert, Daniel Guerin and Leon Trotsky)
With Trotskyists about to take over the Labour Party there is interest in the ideology and politics of this current on the left.
One figure we have yet to hear mention is Michael Pablo one, of many but by far the best known, party names of a revolutionary usually called Michel Raptis. The most reviled Trotskyist of the post-war period, he has been accused of being the father of lies, liquidationism, and revisionism of all stripes and spots. In fact his ideas and career are important to anybody concerned with Trotskyism: an illustration of its worst faults and some of its better features.
It will come as no surprise that Tendance Coatesy, as with many other leftists, owes a political and ideological debt to this outstanding individual. That his principal orthodox Trotskyist enemies were Gerry Healy, Pierre Lambert and James Cannon – all po-faced right-wing authoritarians – one cannot but help but like Pablo.
This should be borne in mind even if we accept that the fundamental premises with which he, and all Trotskyists, worked, that the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and China, not to mention countries like Cuba, had, by revolution or by bureaucratic imposition, become ‘non-capitalist’ social formations, part of a fundamentally new stage in history has been proved false. And that it’s hard to avoid acknowledging the erosion of the related belief, that ‘building revolutionary parties’ on the models laid down by Lenin and Trotsky was a realistic strategy to help create socialist societies in the capitalist world, and overthrow the Stalinist bureaucratic ‘deformations’ in these non-capitalist countries.
The term Pabloism was first used during the splintering of Trotskyism in the 1950s. It referred to a set of positions advanced by Michael Rapitis during debates within the Fourth International, principality Pablo’s view that the “objective” growth of Stalinist-led ‘workers’ states’ ‘degenerated’ and deformed) meant that they had to have a strategy towards the mass Communist parties that could capture their base. He was accused of ‘liquidating’ the Trotskyist ‘programme’ as an independent point of reference outside of these parties.
Since many of his opponents had their own strategic alliances inside social democratic parties that disguised their true ‘programme’ (Gerry Healy’s pre-Socialist Labour League group in Labour ‘The Club‘, the original home of most UK ‘Trotksyist’ organisations and groupuscules) , not to mention collaboration with right-wing anti-Communist elements backed by American funds (in France, in the union federation Force Ouvrière) this accusation looks bad faith. More serious criticisms stem from the claim that Stalinist forms of Communism were a kind of ‘leap’ into a better form of society which Trotskyists should back (from the outside) and influence (from the inside).
The noise and fury (cited above) around such disagreements can only be understood by referring to earlier disputes which set the pattern for Trotskyist polemics that has endured to this day.
This process of raucous fractures and splits which can be traced back to the 1930s, notably in France. Despite the widespread impression that American Trotskyism, above all the US Socialist Workers’ party, was the lodestar of the movement, French Trotskyism was the centre of the Fourth International and many of the original parties – a country with (in the 1912 foundation, larger than the Socialist SFIO), and form 1936 ownwards a significant political player) a large Communist party to boot, and a deep-rooted socialist and communist tradition that sets it off from America. Before looking at what ‘Pabloism’ is we have to begin there.
One of the first Trotskyist groups in that country was the la Ligue communiste founded in 1930. By the latter half of the decade there were already three main Trotskyist tendencies in the Hexagone (French Trotskyism) .
They were all organised around strong personalities: long embedded leadership is an enduring feature of Trotskyism (French Trotskyism)
- Raymond Molinier et Pierre Frank of the GAR (groupes d’action révolutionnaire who published the et La Commune which became in 1936 Parti communiste internationaliste (PCI).
- Pierre Naville ,who following Trotsky’s instructions had booted out Molinier early on. Their paper La Vérité and La Lutte de classes which became Lutte ouvrière (no real link to modern group of the same name), the organ of the Parti ouvrier internationaliste (POI, créé en 1935 which (follow this closely) the official section of the Quatrième Internationale. U A part of this group became involved in the Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan (PSOP) of Marceau Pivert, until unceremoniously booted out for Trotskyist factionalism.
- Yvan Craipeau, Fred Zeller (a leader of the Jeunesses socialistes who had created a Trotskyist faction in the Socialist Party, (the SFIO) until also booted out for factionalism, and Jean Rous créent les Jeunesses socialistes révolutionnaires around the paper Révolution.
Zeller’s Témoin du siècle (2000) outlines some of their disagreements. Perhaps it is most revealing on how the Trotskyists behaved after the ‘french turn’ which saw them joining the French Socialists, the SFIO.
Zeller describes their activists lecturing people on the First Congresses of the Third International and Trotsky’s line on the Chinese Revolution. Not surprisingly not everybody was impressed with these no doubt kindly meant lectures. They were kicked out of the party of Léon Blum after, amongst other things, a sustained campaign to build workers’ militias. For Trotsky the “La révolution française a commencé” with the wave of strikes that accompanied the election in 1936 of the Front Populaire you understand (Trotsky, Ou Va La France 1934 – 8, particularly the section on the ” milice ouvrière ” in Socialisme et lutte armée.)
In his Mémoire d’un dinosaure trotskiste (1999) Yvan Craipeau describes the various positions Trotsky took on French politics,, from ‘entryism’ in the SFIO as the bolchevik-léniniste tendency, to efforts to influence Marceau Pivert’s “Gauche révolutionnaire” both while it remained in the Socialist party, and later (see above) when it was the independent Parti socialiste ouvrier et paysan (PSOP). founded in 1938. Pivert memorably replied to Trotsky about their efforts at hectoring instruction, that his party members “are accustomed to making up their own minds ” and that they “put themselves loyally to the school of hard facts” – not Trotsky’s international prognostics.
Trotsky replied by, behind his back, describing Pivert (as described by Zeller) as a false revolutionary in the mould of a provincial school teacher.
The entire history is of bitterness and great complexity (one I am familiar with in case anybody wants a Trainspotter lesson…). People wishing the investigate further should begin with these two books and look at this Wikipedia entries: Trotskisme en France. French Trotskyists.
But all this ill-will was a mere foreshadowing of the later splits in the Trotskyist movement.
To jump from those years: the key issues in the 1954 split included entryism (which Pablo advocated inside the mass Communist parties and well as social democracy) and this,
Pablo’s elevation of the “objective process” to “the sole determining factor” reducing the subjective factor (the consciousness and organization of the vanguard party) to irrelevance, the discussion of “several centuries” of “transition” (later characterized by Pablo’s opponents as “centuries of deformed workers states”) and the suggestion that revolutionary leadership might be provided by the Stalinist parties rather than the Fourth International—the whole analytic structure of Pabloist revisionism emerged. The Genesis of Pabloism.
Pablo indeed took seriously the prospect of a Third World war. In these conditions he backed, and enforce, this entryist strategy known as ” entrism sui generis ” inside (where possible) Stalinist Communist parties, and just about everything that moved on the social democratic left. This meant not just concealing membership of the Trotskyist movement, even to the point of point-bank denial of any link. Famously as the text above states he considered that it might take decades of such underground work for their efforts to bear fruit.
Apart from its inherent implausibility the prospect of ‘centuries’ of clandestine burrowing away seemed to consign the Trotskyists to the fate of the Marranos, ‘converted’ Jews who ostensibly submitted to Catholicism but practised their faith in secret.
The strategy had little impact in the Communist parties – in contrast to long-term and independently initiated entryism in the British Labour Party by Trotskyists (the secretive and bureaucratic ‘Militant’ group) who were distant from his Fourth International.
After winning support for these policies, and even a degree of power over the International, helped by the departure of Healey, Lambert and Canon (cited above) Rapitis by the end of the same decade plunged into a new cause: anti-colonialism and the ‘Arab Revolution’. He lost control of the Fourth International to Ernest Mandel and Pierre Frank. He retired from it in the mid-sixties.
Romance about epochs of hidden revolutionary labour aside, the idea of working within the French Parti communiste français (PCF) was, even at the time, in view of the party’s top-down structure and intolerant culture, ill-thought out and profoundly misjudged. It was equally parasitic on the success of the party being ‘entered’ (as indeed the experience of the Labour Party indicates).
Nevertheless French Trotskyism emerged more openly on the 60s political scene when a group of young Communist students, led by Alain Krivine, founded the independent Jeunesse communiste révolutionnaire in 1966. (1) Pablo did however put heart and soul in supporting the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria (a fight in which Krivine was also engaged) and was imprisoned for gun running to the independence fighters. He had a brief period of influence in the post-independence (5th of July 1962) Front de Libération Nationale, (FLN) notably on the leader Ben Bella (1916 – 2012) promoting the ideas of self-management. The Houari Boumédiènne, 1965 military coup put paid to that. (2)
The later politics of Pablo’s the Tendance marxiste-révolutionnaire internationale (TMRI), and its French affiliate, the Alliance marxiste révolutionnaire (AMR) centred around the primacy of self-management. They embraced the project of a ‘self-managed’ republic, took up themes such as feminism (in the mid-sixties), supported anti-colonial revolutions (without neglecting as their consequences unravelled, the necessary critique of ‘anti-imperialist’ national bourgeoisies), and defended democratic politics against Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism. Pablo’s writings translated into English include a collection of his articles (Michel Raptis, Socialism, Democracy & Self-Management: Political Essays 1980 and his first-hand studies of workers’ control during the Allende government in Chile (Revolution and Counter Revolution in Chile by Michael Raptis. 1975) – another experience cut short by a bloody military coup.
In the 1970s its members joined the Parti Socialiste Unifié, a French New Left party with over 30,000 members, hundreds of councillors during the late 60s and early 1970s and 4 MPs in 1967. Later the AMR was involved in other left alliances, all within the traditions of workers’ self-management and New Left causes, participative democracy feminism, gay rights, green issues. By the 1980s the TNR, operated on a collegiate rather than a ‘Leader’ basis (and numbered outstanding figures such as Maurice Najman). It helped keep alive the ideas of workers’ control during the political triumph of neoliberalism. I was close to them in the 1980s (and attended one of their World Congress, the 8th) as a member of the Fédération pour une gauche alternative where we worked with the PSU in its final years.
Movements, that place ecological issues within the context of popular control, talk of new forms of democracy, owe something to those in the PSU and other New Left groups of the sixties and seventies across Europe. The TMRI was part of these currents, less and less concerned with building a revolutionary ‘party’ than with the interests of the movements themselves. (3) It could be said to have been a practical answer to the critique of Trotskyism offered by Claude Lefort of the group, Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1950s. Lefort once asked, why, without the kind of material basis of a Stalinist state or even a trade union administration, did all Trotskyist groups reproduce the bureaucratic forms of these apparatuses?One response is, yes, “liquidationism”, being part of the wider movement and not a self-styled ‘vanguard’.
Pabloism’s legacy continues. It is one of many influences inside the French ‘alternatifs’, left social- republicanism, and the (left-wing of) the Front de Gauche (Ensemble) and more widely in the European and Latin American left.
Although a small number of ‘Pabloites’ re-joined the ‘Mandelite’ Fourth International (already moving away from Trotskyist ‘orthodoxy) in the 1990s most evolved away from ‘Trotskyism’ towards broader forms of democratic socialism and New Left radicalism. Some even became part of the French Greens (at the time known as Les Verts), while most, as indicated, merged into the broader left.
As the political landscape has radically changed since the fall of Official Communism and the entrenchment of neo-liberal economists and social policies in most of the world those associated with this current have been involved in a variety of left parties and campaigns. Pablo’s anti-colonialism hardly meets the challenges we face today. But the democratic strand of workers’ self-management remains perhaps, a strand which retains its relevance in the emerging ideas and policies of the left, including within the Labour Party..
Unlike ‘entryism’ and dogmatic Trotskyism….
(1)One of the best accounts of this and Krivine’s background is in Hervé Hamon, Patrick Rotman, Génération, les années de rêve, Paris, Seuil, 1987. For 68 itself: Patrick Rotman et Hervé Hamon, Génération, T.2 Les années de poudre, Paris, Le Seuil, 1988,
(2)The best biographical introduction to Michel Raptis: on the Lubitz Trotskyanet – here
(3) A reliable sketch of the French affiliate of the TMRI, the AMR, is available here: Bref aperçu de l’histoire du courant “pabliste” ses suites et sespériphéries en France 1965-1996. A journal from this tradition is Utopie Critique.
Back to the Beginning…..
We were always too incompetent and self-obsessed to do damage. The real threat comes from the Gramscian legions of the dull
“My main aim as a university revolutionary at York was (I now confess) to do down the rival International Marxist Group…The difference was emphasised by the names of our newspapers — ours was Socialist Worker, theirs was Red Mole. Our contest once led us both to seek recruits at the Kit Kat factory, where they distributed (I am not making this up) a special publication called The Chocolate Mole. “
Hitchens sternly warns,
And so the real revolution in the Labour party, which most of Fleet Street has never understood, was inflicted not by Trotskyists, but by the legions of the dull — Eurocommunists who realised Bolshevism was obsolete, quietly captured think tanks and policy committees, and used the apolitical figure of Tony Blair as the front for a Gramscian cultural, constitutional, educational and sexual revolution, whose greatest triumph was to capture the Tory party as well as the Labour party.
Hitchens may be right. Hhis brand of illiberalism (and sovereigntism, a trait he shared with many an erstwhile leftist, here across the Continent), “embracing equality and diversity, the unmarried family, globalism and open borders,” may risk disturbing “thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, (who) chew the cud and are silent.”
.Whether there was a Gramscian struggle for hegemony that resulted in the defeat of his traditionalists remains to be seen.
One recent event may indicate that these forces have not won…er Europe…..er…Referendum.
One would have thought Hitchens would have embraced the anti-European Leave campaign, and, perhaps in an ecumenical spirit, found himself glad to be on the same side as the his former comrades in the SWP, not to mention the Militant – Socialist Party in England and Wales, rallying, like UKIP and the Tory Right to defend “our” land against the Globe. He should surely be bathing in the joys of victory.
Review: Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics. Chris Knight. Yale University Press. 2016.
“..we are nowhere near being able to understand what is ‘said’ in the brain. We have no idea how any specific concept, label, grammatical rule, colour impression, orientations strategy, or gender association is actually coded.”
Guy Deutscher. 2010. (1)
Chris Knight (Wikipedia) prefaces Decoding Chomsky with a literary alienation effect. “When I first came across Chomsky’s scientific work, my initial reactions resembled those of an anthropologist attempting to fathom the beliefs of a previously unknown tribe.” This will immediately echo with many who have endured seminars on Transformational Grammar, complete with charts. More persistent than the average person Knight is resolved to grapple with the mysteries at work. “The doctrines encountered may seem absurd, but there are always compelling reasons why those particular doctrines are the ones people adhere to.” (Page ix)
Knight’s intentions in this study, he announces, are to “serve justice on Chomsky without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.” (Page xii) Before plunging into this forensic critique of the career and concepts of one of the world’s most celebrated critics of US foreign policy, it should be made clear that author is a long-standing activist on the radical left. Chris is a founder of the leftwing socialist monthly Labour Briefing, the Radical Anthropology Group, and a contributor to the Weekly Worker, recently on humanity’s ‘communist’ pre-history (palaeoanthropology). His academic career has included studies of this aspect of ant, and has won him recognition far beyond these circles.
Decoding Chomsky challenges some of the fundamental assumptions of Chomsky’s ‘Linguistic Revolution’, the belief that linguistics is a “natural science” concerned with the underlying basis of all the world’s tongues. From a background in the sixties’ inspired radical movements that challenged academic authority, Knight remains sensitive to the inflated “scientism” of social ‘science’. Chomsky and his supporters’ claim that their linguistic “cognitive paradigm” has reached the status of a “natural science”, would appear, in this respect, to have gone beyond a claim to university power, to a degree of scientific Majesty that places it above studies of society.
This, not unexpectedly, has failed to impress Knight. As one of the very few people still promoting sixties radicalism against the Academy, his Decoding Chomsky challenges these claims. The voice of Authority, of the kind that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “authorised language”, “ the kind you need when performing speech acts, such as declaring war, consecrating a church, naming a ship and so forth. “ (Page 164). Chomsky’s authority is a central target of the book’s critique. Knight traces it to a kind of evocation of ancestral power. In this respect one Bourdieu is an excellent frame of reference, from his analysis of symbolic power in the “discours d’importance”, “le discours magistral” founded on the “l’autorité universitaire et l’autorité politique” (2)
Questioning the ‘neutrality’ of ‘science’ remains an important radical objective. Recognising that he has no training in theoretical linguistics Knight considers that he is perfectly capable of studying “the Pentagon-funded war science community clustered around Chomsky in the formative period of his career” (Page ix) We might equally say that as language users, we are all qualified to offer some comment about one of the most fundamental aspects of our nature and existence.
A Political Critique from the Left.
The book brings together a numbers of these threads, in which Chomsky’s linguistic theories, and their critics play a significant part. But it would not be unfair to say that it is principally a political critique. Knight offers a sustained argument against the view that Chomsky’s work as a linguistic scientist can be separated (compartmentalised) from the military and state ties of the institution in which he worked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was not only competition for academic authority but also the political objectives of the latter that moulded, Knight argues, the way that Chomsky’s ‘linguistic revolution’ took on its most egregious ‘scientific’ aura.
Chomsky claims to separate rigorously his ‘scientific’ work from any political engagement. Knight puts this in the starkest terms. The campaigner against Imperial abuse built “a firewall between his science and his politics, keeping each compartment of his life autonomous with respect to the other. Being free to say what he liked meant ridding his linguistics of any evident social content or meaning, and by the same token purging his politics of any obvious connection with his science.” (Page 73)
Decoding Chomsky is not a critique of ‘scientific’ ‘Western’ rationality’ or science’s ‘grand narrative’ of the type we have become accustomed to since the days when postmodernism was popular. Knight, still echoing the earlier ‘radical’ critique of scientific neutrality popular in the English speaking world in the sixties and early seventies, is not concerned with the undermining the universalist pretensions of the episteme at work here, or uncovering how ‘power’ shaped the formal ‘rationality’ of Transformational Grammar.
Decoding Chomsky is about the institutional environment that Chomsky worked within. ”. It is impossible for one to say, “Science in one compartment, politics and life in another” when, we are informed bluntly, that, “Chomsky was working in a weapons research laboratory.” (Page 11)
Knight suggests that Chomsky the scientist, who cracked the basis of how languages work, were deeply implicated in the life of that experimental workroom, and conformed to the objectives the arms developers, the American war machine, set themselves. Generative Grammar (rules that predict, ‘generate’, an infinite number of sentences in a language and specify their structure) owed a debt to American information theorist and “scientific bureaucrat” Warren Weaver and his 1950s project, the construction of a Universal Language Machine.
This is a hard proposition to prove. Despite the fact that the linguist had no direct interest in the idea of ‘machine translation’ in which Weaver was involved in, Knight announces,
Chomsky’s Universal Grammar was a sophisticated refinement of the central idea behind Warren Weaver’s ‘New Tower of Babel’ project, which was designed to secure US state supremacy over ‘communism’ in the post-war world. (Page 104)
Decoding Chomsky offers a memorable parallel to this dream in the early Soviet visions of universal humanity, symbolised in the projected monument to the Third International, the Tatlin Tower. This, never built, construction, was to symbolise the unity of humankind. In an ambitious claim Knight links this to another, utopian, dream of linguistic unity, “restoring that pre-Babel language was a project not only permitted, but explicitly blessed by God. This idea exercised a profound influence on Russian shamanistic and mystical poetry – one that remained very much alive when, beginning with Russian and other Slavic tongues, the mystic Khlebnikov made it his mission to restore to all humanity its pre-Babel lost alphabet of sounds, unleashing enough mutual understanding to launch a revolution and establish heaven on Earth.”(Page 106)
There was a direct connection,
The suggestion that Khlebnikov was behind the startlingly beautiful Tatlin’s Tower seems likely on various grounds. Khlebnikov imagined himself ‘besieging’ immense ‘towers’, central among them the ‘tower of time’ Apart from the fact that Khlebnikov’s Moon–Earth–Sun motif was explicitly built into the ambitious project, we know that he himself was an intimate friend of the monument’s designer, the former sailor, Vladimir Tatlin. (Ibid)
For Knight, we takes an optimistic, not to say, romanticised view of the early years of the Russian Revolution, “Tatlin’s Tower, then, pointed to a future in which all had at last come together, science now inseparable from art, poetry from mathematics, music from engineering..” (Page 109)
Christ Knight remains enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution, a “seismic events”. But one might say that the awe such a vision inspires, a feeling of wonder at unlimited vistas, the “immensity” of the concept was never separate from the terror that went with this version of the revolutionary sublime.
Decoding Chomsky discovers ‘echoes’ from the Bolshevik Revolution, ‘sparks’ that lit the research programme that became Transformational Grammar. One linguist, who had direct connection to this period, and the ‘Formalists’ who studied the structures of “literariness”, and – thus (?), Futurist projects like the Tatlin Tower, was Roman Jakobson. Jakobson soon left the USSR, and eventually made his way to the United States just before the Second World War during which he was engaged in the fight against the Nazis. Jakobson, Knight observes, inspired Chomsky with his view that language was indeed a universal human property, but also logical and mathematical. But the artistic side of this heritage was submerged in more rigorously ‘scientific’ assumptions. Language was part of the human ‘digital machine’ – that is an object – or rather a rule generating apparatus – that could be studied with the methods of pure science. The Revolution was betrayed. The Chomyskan “Cartesian Paradigm” reflected a quite different agenda. Sponsored by the US military, it was one more top-down project to combat egalitarianism and communism, wrenching the mind from the body, divorcing heaven from Earth, and preventing that tower of Tatlin’s from ever reaching the sky. “(Page 209)
Knight even speculates that Chomsky was consciously promoted in the Cold War. Chomsky’s writings, from Syntactic Structures (1957) onwards, were part of a wider ideological campaign as the Cold War replaced the struggle against fascism. The military “supported” Chomsky’s campaign (Page 18). Chomsky was moblised against Marxism, against its unity of theory and practice,
“To destroy Marxism, therefore, it was necessary to strike at this point, shattering the all-important junction between theory and practice. Chomsky’s intellectual status, perceived moral integrity and impeccable left-wing credentials made him the perfect candidate for this job. “(Page 193) Science and life are distinct. ‘The search for theoretical understanding pursues its own paths, leading to a completely different picture of the world, which neither vindicates nor eliminates our ordinary ways of talking and thinking.” (Page 194)
Science and Language.
The picture in Decoding Chomsky of the Cold War genesis of Chomskyan linguistics, not to mention its role in efforts to destroy Marxism, is bound to be a controversial. Does Chomsky behave as he does, stridently defending the autonomy of ‘science’, because of his own past, and reluctance to confront the ties his professional work brought him? The claim will certainly be challenged. Less disputable is that Chomsky has separated ‘science’ from his directly political pronouncements.
Yet as vociferous as his claim to scientific rigour has been there is little sign of widespread acceptance of the principles he has developed. Chomsky’s ‘innate hypothesis’ of a mutation in human pre-history which gave us the “language organ”, equipped to generate meaningful speech is often seen as a leap of faith. We might doubt that even within its restricted field (ignoring that the implications of the theory strays into philosophy not to say, the ground of social theory), that a stable paradigm has ever been established. Knight early announces that Chomsky’s continuous revisions of Transformational Grammar, up to the Revised Extended standard theory, indicate deep-seated difficulties.
These ‘auxiliary hypothesis”, as the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called them, do not, critics allege, contain more empirical content, or predict novel facts. They make up an ever-expanding protective belt around an original set of assumptions. Above all Knight observes, “Chomsky’s interventions have immersed linguistics in tunnels of theoretical complexity, impenetrability and corresponding exasperation and interpersonal rancour without parallel in any other scientific field.” (Page 11) The new versions of the theory “have produced no sign of consensus or agreement, but instead unending controversy, uproar and incredulity at the implausibility of it all.”(Page 180) This, he argues, is hardly the sign of real “science”.
Those with an interest in recent literature for the wider public might think at this point might recall Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass. (2010) As cited in the epigraph to this review, the language machine, which Chomsky and his followers describe, remains a “Black Box”. As far as grasping how the brain works with language we can scan the mind, but the evidence is like seeing a big corporation from the windows of its headquarters.
“The sole evidence you had to go on would be in which rooms the lights went on at different times of the day.” We can see increased blood flow, and infer that neural activity is taking place. “But we are nowhere near being able to understand” what is happening. (3)
Language as a social relation.
At the heart of Decoding Chomsky are some alternative ideas. Knight uses his resources as an anthropologist to attack Chomsky’s view that language stems from a “limited repertoire of mental atoms (lexical concepts) in an infinite variety of possible ways.” In this respect it is a defence of the view that experience, social conditions, co-operation between people, is generative of meaning.) Language is bound up with social relations; it is a social product, with its own causal weight as a link between people.
An important aspect is that “Grammatical structures arise out of metaphor, grammatical markers being in fact metaphorical expressions which have been conventionalized and abbreviated through historical processes which are now well understood.” (Page 225) In other words grammar has a history. Those familiar with, say the story of Indo-European languages, know that change in declensions and conjugations, and other grammatical items (not to mention the emergence and extinction of whole grammatical forms) is aware that alterations cannot be explained as the result of universal principles: but, at present, can only be described. Nobody has offered a transformational grammar that explains and predicts the development over time of such basic phonetic and semantic units.
Knight offers his own special belief, that palaeoanthropology can inform the debate about how (pre-human) signals evolve from nature into language. In a talk reproduced in the Weekly Worker, he suggested that the basics might lie in the way these evolved into singing,
Turning now to human evolution, the articulatory apparatus for speech hardly needs to be explained. For millions of years, the basics were already in place among our ancestors, for the simple reason that possession of a flexible tongue, lips and so forth had long been essential for eating. Much more difficult was to establish something new – full volitional breath control and control over the larynx. The challenge was to develop the uniquely human ability to take a deep breath and make continuous vocal sounds, while breathing out and articulating at the same time. An intriguing theory now being widely debated is that our ancestors refined and developed these capacities by regularly resorting to choral singing. (4)
More broadly in the present work he notes, “the transition from a highly competitive, often despotic ape social system to a cooperative and egalitarian human one might have occurred. The establishment of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism was more than an evolutionary step – it was a revolutionary one that established a genuine kind of communism.”(Page 212) In other words the underlying idea is that symbolic culture emerged during a ‘major transition’ or ‘revolution’ (often termed the human revolution). We may leave it to the reader to judge the plausibility of these claims.
Three points may be added. Firstly, that it may be, on the evidence of skeletal remains and those of symbolic activity, that the non-human Neanderthals were capable of speech. So the issue of the ‘language mutation’s single origin remains open. (5) Next, the structures of language as a social product are also formal. The trace of speech in writing has a life of its own. This is sometimes very visible, as grammatical forms in a number of languages only really exist on the page, as in the French passé subjonctif, not to mention the special ‘literary’ forms in written traditions. Finally, one of the possible side-effects of a too Universalist conception of language leads one adrift faced with demands for language rights. This is a key political issue in many countries today, and underlies concerns about the death of speech communities, particularly in ‘tribal’ societies. (6) If we take an extreme Chomskyan view, this hardly matters: all languages are basically the ‘same’.
Chomsky’s protests against the Vietnam War, to opposition to powerful states and secret bureaucracies, and his laborious efforts to unravel the “manufacture of consent” to imperial and domestic pro-business policies, have one ‘scientific’ mooring. (7) Chris Knight suggests that a belief in a feature of human nature, a “creative urge” underpins his politics. But it remains bound within the “modular” programming of the innate linguistic facility that shunts to one side the role of social interaction.
If he believes that “force and fraud” constrain the free development of the inherent liberty of the human spirit, he puts his faith in this bedrock trait this as a natural limit on “authoritarian control” (Pages 114 – 115) His libertarian ‘anarchism’ notoriously extended to his ill-considered defence of the Vieille Taupe a publisher/bookshop originally on the French ultra-left that became a promoter of Holocaust deniers, such as Paul Rassinier. (8) Chomsky also defended the internationally better-known Robert Faurisson. But if Chris Knight is to be believed, in this thought-provoking and lucidly written critique, alongside an “instinct for freedom” there is a gaping hole where the social and individual conditions for meaningful co-operation should lie.
(1) Page 238. Through the Language Glass. Guy Deutscher. William Heinemann. 2010.
(2) Ce que parler veut dire. L’économie des échanges linguistics. Pierre Bourdieu 1982
(3) Guy Deutscher. Ibid.
(4) Origin of language lies in Song. Chris Knight. Weekly Worker 28.01.2016.
(7) See Knowledge, Morality and Hope: The Social Thought of Noam Chomsky. Joshua Cohen Joel Rogers. New Left Review. First Series. No 187. 1991.
Owen: Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster.
In Praise of Owen Jones.
“The story recounted in this book suggests that the route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party”
The End of Parliamentary Socialism. Leo Panitch & Colin Leys. 1997.
“The period of New Labour may be seen in the future as a short deviation from the historical flow of Labour Party as a developing socialist party or it may be identified as the period in which Labour as an aspiring party of radical socialist advance was destroyed.”
John McDonnell. Introduction. 100 Years of Labour. Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher. 2006.
Until Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year most socialists in Britain would have concluded that the second of John McDonnell’s options had come true. Labour was not in any sense a vehicle of “radical socialist advance”. Others who believed that Labour was never a radical socialist party as such but contained currents that promoted democratic socialist policies that could see the light of day, saw their hopes of influence blocked. Labour, was, in short, not a party the left had any hope in.
Blair and Brown, the Third Way, or social liberalism, Blue Labour, a variety of distinctly non-socialist approaches dominated not just its Parliamentary representatives, but local government, intellectuals of any practical influence and the network of civil society associations that sustain the party. For a period modernisers, promoting ‘social partnership’, dominated even the trade unionism, although this began to unravel in the first years of the new century. Left groups and journals, such Labour Briefing and Chartist (both of which I am associated with), were marginalised. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) set up in 2004 and chaired by John McDonnell had little impact. While union leaders like UNITE’s Len McCluskey appeared to exert left influence, and the centre-left Grassroots Alliance maintained its presence on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) nobody expected the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.
Much of the socialist left, from the late 90s on, in diminishing numbers and with decreasing success, put their energies into trying to create new left parties and electoral alliances that stood independently of Labour. Many of these attempts ended not just in failure at the ballot box but also in demonstrated the difficulties of ploughing new political ground. Above all the experience of the Socialist Alliance (essentially from 1999 to 2003) demonstrated fundamental incompatibilities between democratic socialists and small ‘Leninist’ parties like the Socialist Workers Party, the bureaucratic ‘Trotskyist’ Socialist Party, and whatever label currently fits the personal vehicle for George Galloway, Respect.
If Corbyn’s 2015 victory was unexpected the groundswell in his favour this year has also been unprecedented. Left-wing individuals, including many from the democratic group, Left Unity (which stood out from the above organisations) had joined Labour to vote for him. At present the campaigning and protesting of unions, left groups, and individuals that has, most recently, been channelled into the alliance known as the People’s Assembly, has been overshadowed by rallies in support for Corbyn’s re-election. The campaign for the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn has shifted attention away from the kind of political negotiating that marks the Labour left. A body of opinion has emerged that believes Labour is, or can be, transformed into a “social movement” in its own right. That the vast majority of those now rallying to Corbyn are not part of any organised group has made it hard to funnel them into traditional directions, and the all-embracing nature of the terms “social” and “movement” can be interpreted in many ways.
Paul Mason expresses the view that Labour will come to office because neo-liberalism is “busted” and puts Labour as a social movement at the forefront of building an alternative.
In Labour: The Way Ahead he stated a couple of days ago,
“Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power.”
Above all, victory is possible under Corbyn because Labour can become a social movement. Corbyn himself called for this at his leadership launch rally. The problem is that the Labour tradition has very little experience of social movements — especially the networked, anti-hierarchical forms of organisation associated with them since the late 1990s.
To call for Labour to become a social movement when it had 130,000 members and a bunch of moribund local committees would have sounded futile. With 600,000+ members, the majority pro-Corbyn and amid a summer of street rallies and overflowing mass meetings, it sounds highly possible.
Mason’s proposals for economic stimulus, the moblisation of the social movement aorund issues such the defence of mirgant workers, offering hope against the despair of UKIP, are attractive.
But is this part of a viable strategy?
If Corbyn wins on 24 September then, at the substantive and sovereign party conference that begins the next day, Labour MPs should be asked to register publicly their confidence in the new leader.
The party should also ask all MPs to sign a statement recognising that the leader elected on 24 September is the lawful leader of the legal entity known as “The Labour Party” and that he is legally entitled to run the two limited companies that own its assets (Labour Party Nominees Limited and Labour Party Properties Limited).
Those MPs who refuse to register their confidence in Corbyn, or to recognise his legal right to run The Labour Party, should be marked down for de-selection.
Mason clearly indicates that he considers a large section of the existing Parliamentary Labour Party a waste of space. No doubt he, and others, would wish to extend such a loyalty test to councillors and all officers of the Party. Or are local representatives allowed greater freedom to dissent?
One of Mason’s principal models, the Spanish party, Podemos, is a very different phenomenon. It grew from the Indignados, known as the 15-M Movement , protests at the staggering corruption of the country’s political life that involved several million people. Mason claims that the American Occupy movement was inspired by Stephane Hessel’s Indignez Vous! (Time for Outrage) but in fact it had its deepest impact in these Iberian protests. Podemos, while sometimes claiming to be “beyond” left and right, involves at least one left Marxist-Green current, the Izquierda anticapitalista.
From 9,8% of the vote in the European Podemos reached 21% in the December 2015. But, refusing any compromise with the Spanish Socialist Party PSOE) triggered fresh elections. This time, allied with the so-called ‘old left’ of the Izquierda Unida, and hopes of becoming the leading left force in the country it only reached 21,10% to the PSOE 22,66% . New elections may well be held, but even if its score improves Podemos can never hope to score a majority of the vote and can only govern in coalition – a prospect that Labour, with an electoral system that makes even this kind of representation difficult – would not relish.
Mason’s hostility to anybody disloyal to Corbyn is not at all helpful. The antagonism between the Corbyn side and those against him has ratcheted up in the fall out after the Brexit referendum vote. There are plenty of MPs who are willing to take the most extreme measures to destroy the existing Labour leadership. From a constant drip-by-drip of stories undermining the leader of the Opposition and its allies in the Shadow Cabinet we are now faced with the prospect of an alternative parliamentary group, and even – in some people’s view – a split in the party.
How does Mason’s alternative (not to mention those of others equally virulent against the Party’s centre and right-wing) offer a serious way forward? A social movement that moves in “waves and swarms and ” “a street movement” seeking “new forms of representation” a serious way of grappling with the problem of a Parliamentary party split in two and the mounting Tory lead in opinion polls. It would be pleasant indeed to believe that this might win labour elections, but we have only faith, belief in things unseen, to back the claim up.
Frenzied attacks on Corbyn backers, charged with wishing the Gulag for their opponents, have been met by screams of Blairite, and worse. It is as if both sides wish to conduct their disputes after the template of the pro-Nazi 20th century political philosopher Carl Schmitt: dividing the world into “friend and enemy” with a “fighting collectivity of people” confronting a similar collectivity. (1)
In this vein John Landsman asserts “the current leadership contest is like the Miners’ Strike – there are two clear sides, and while one might disagree with the way a political battle is being conducted, you still rally behind your side, because defeat and capitulation to the other side is still much worse.” “This is the battle being played out in the party right now, those are the stakes, those are the ‘sides’ that we are forced to pick.” (Picking sides’ – A short reply to Owen Jones). A victory of the Corbyn opponents, he argues, would lead to disaster. That;’s as may be. But to regard those who do not “pick sides” as part of the enemy camp is but a step from the original assertion.l This is not a way to conduct democratic politics inside the same party. It is a recipe for a split.
Some of the strongest supporters of this approach appear to be recent members of the Labour Party, and those, from the far-left outside, trying to bathe in the glory of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election. It grates to hear people long-standing Labour people, many of whom have decided their lives to it and public office, from the centre, a variety of groups or none, as well as the genuine Labour right group, Progress. It is equally deeply offensive for opponents of Corbyn to scream that his backers are totalitarians, anti-Semites, and abusive thugs.
In the middle of this pandemonium Owen Jones has stood out as a rational voice. Owen first made his name with the book Chavs (2012), followed by the Establishment (2014). His columns, originally in the Independent and now in the Guardian, have great influence. Having worked in John McDonnell’s office he is more than familiar with the way the Left works and the people involved in the present Corbyn team. Owen had trudged around the country speaking to hundreds of left meetings. Above all he is a dedicated democratic socialist who has earned great respect on the left and amongst the wider public.
Owen’s approach in recent weeks gives expression to the deep concerns many of us have not just with those constantly undermining Corbyn but more deeply with the real problems that Labour faces – summed up in disastrous opinion polls – and what he feels are policy failures and difficulties with addressing the wider electorate. He also challenges an over-optimistic ‘social movement’ stand that many appear to be taking.
This is his latest contribution:
Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster. There, I said it. I’ll explain why. But first, it has become increasingly common in politics to reduce disagreements to bad faith. Rather than accepting somebody has a different perspective because, well, that’s what they think, you look for an ulterior motive instead. Everything from self-aggrandisement to careerism to financial corruption to the circles in which the other person moves: any explanation but an honest disagreement. It becomes a convenient means of avoiding talking about substance, of course. Because of this poisonous political atmosphere, the first chunk of this blog will be what many will consider rather self-indulgent (lots of ‘I’ and ‘me’, feel free to mock), but hopefully an explanation nonetheless of where I’m coming from. However long it is, it will be insufficient: I can guarantee the same charges will be levelled
The core of the article revolves around these point:
- How can the disastrous polling be turned around? “Labour’s current polling is calamitous. No party has ever won an election with such disastrous polling, or even come close. Historically any party with such terrible polling goes on to suffer a bad defeat.”
- Where is the clear vision? “What’s Labour’s current vision succinctly summed up? Is it “anti-austerity”? That’s an abstraction for most people. During the leaders’ debates at the last general election, the most googled phrase in Britain was ‘what is austerity?’ — after five years of it. ‘Anti-austerity’ just defines you by what you are against. What’s the positive vision, that can be understood clearly on a doorstep, that will resonate with people who aren’t particularly political?
- How are the policies significantly different from the last general election? “It’s less than a year in to Corbyn’s already embattled leadership: there hasn’t been the time to develop clear new policies. Fine: but surely there needs to be a clear idea of what sort of policies will be offered, not least given what is at stake?”
- What’s the media strategy? “..there doesn’t seem to be any clear media strategy. John McDonnell has actually made regular appearances at critical moments, and proved a solid performer. But Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments: Theresa May becoming the new Prime Minister, the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, the collapse of the Government’s economic strategy, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, soaring hate crimes after Brexit, and so on. Where have been the key media interventions here?”
- What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?
- What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?
- How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?
- How can Labour’s mass membership be mobilised? “a movement will only win over people by being inclusive, optimistic, cheerful even, love-bombing the rest of the population. A belief that even differences of opinion on the left can’t be tolerated — well, that cannot bode well. So how can the enthusiasm of the mass membership be mobilised, to reach the tens of millions of people who don’t turn up to political rallies? What kind of optimistic, inclusive message can it have to win over the majority?”
Comrade Owen ends by stating this,
Labour faces an existential crisis. There will be those who prefer me to just to say: all the problems that exist are the fault of the mainstream media and the Parliamentary Labour Party, and to be whipped up with the passions generated by mass rallies across the country. But these are the facts as I see them, and the questions that have to be answered. There are some who seem to believe seeking power is somehow ‘Blairite’. It is Blairite to seek power to introduce Blairite policies. It is socialist to seek power to introduce socialist policies. As things stand, all the evidence suggests that Labour — and the left as a whole — is on the cusp of a total disaster.
Guess what at least some of the responses to these carefully thought out questions has been?
Those attacking Owen are attacking the democratic socialists who back Corbyn, but with exactly the kind of independence of thought he represents.
We back Corbyn, we back McDonnell – a view strengthened in the last few days by the strong stand in favour of restoring Trade Union rights.
But these are indeed the questions which need to be looked at.
(1) The Concept of the Political. Carl Schmidt. University of Chicago. 2007.
Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste accuses of ‘left’ Presidential candidate Mélenchon of using far-right rhetoric.
Accused of being nationalist, chauvinist, racist, germanophobe and a great friend of Putin.
Reports the Huffington Post French edition.
Leading Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste figure, Olivier Besancenot, said this: one gaff too many?
The NPA has published a virulent – to say the very least – attack on ‘populist’ Mélenchon who standing as a candidate in next year’s French Presidential election and is the leader of a small group, the Parti de gauche (left party), essentially a political club around his own personality.
At present his campaign « La France insoumise, le peuple souverain. » (internet JLM2017) has become ‘populist’ and aims to be mobilise the ‘people’ against the ‘elites’. (1) He has declared that unless the European Union changes France should follow the UK and leave (Brexit: «L’UE, on la change ou on la quitte», affirme Jean-Luc Mélenchon)
He is neck and neck in the opinion polls with the Parti Socialiste François Hollande and present President – which is not saying much since at 15% each not a single poll gives either any chance of winning.
More on this article here: « Travailleurs détachés » : Le NPA accuse Mélenchon de reprendre « la rhétorique de l’extrême droite » ,
Jean-Luc Mélenchon made a speech in which he accused workers employed in France, but still formally under the pay andconditions of their home countries (posted employees), of stealing the bread out of the mouths of local workers.
This is his expression: the “travailleurs détachés” qui “vole(nt leur) pain” aux travailleurs locaux.”
Travailleurs détachés : les curieux propos de Mélenchon
Je crois que l’Europe qui a été construite, c’est une Europe de la violence sociale, comme nous le voyons dans chaque pays chaque fois qu’arrive un travailleur détaché, qui vole son pain aux travailleurs qui se trouvent sur place. »
I consider that the Europe that has been built is a Europe based on social violence, as we seen in every country when a posted worker comes and steals the bread out of the mouths of the workers who are already there.
As the article title suggests, the original reads just as oddly as the translation which I have rendered into colloquial English.
Many on the French left are now criticising the former leading figure of the Front de gauche, who launched on his own initiative a Presidential bid, addressing ‘The People’, of being “nationaliste, chauvin, raciste, germanophobe et poutinophile” – nationalist, chauvinist, racist, germanophobe and a great friend of Putin.
The polemic continues.
After the Summer of Love the Summer of Labour as Counter-Power.
Corbyn: the summer of hierarchical things Paul Mason.
Labour can become the counter-power.
My first experience of the labour movement was going to the Leigh Miners’ Gala, in the 1960s, aged about six or seven. I remember, amid the tight throng of people, one striking image: a boxing ring, in which a local slugger was taking on all comers.
The flesh of the fighters was red and bruised. One man had blood on his face, another a stupid smile: the challengers were mainly drunk. They slammed their gloves into each other’s ribs with such force I can hear it now.
And then my father’s hand slid up to my forehead and covered my eyes. “Don’t look,” he said.
That’s what the working class gained by forming a movement of its own. Something that could co-exist with the brutality of everyday life and at the same time shield us from it. Something that allowed you to live inside the system and at the same time nurture the ideal of something different.
Years later I discovered there was a word to describe this: “counter-power”. A set of ideas, traditions and actions that lets you both survive within capitalism and fight against it.
After 2008, the counter-power was reborn. No longer centred on the old working class, it was simply “us” — the crapped-upon masses. The barista, the courier, the lawyer, the shipping clerk. Those were the people I met occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. Anarchists in black balaclavas yes — but also pissed-off guy with gym membership and a Besiktas season ticket.
The 2011–13 uprisings — Tahrir, Occupy, the Spanish indignados, Taksim, Brasil — were mass phenomena that, even when suppressed and defeated, left a residue: ideas, patterns of organisation, networks, as Manuel Castells put it, of “outrage and hope”.
Finally came the Brexit referendum: the ultimate act of miscalculation, in which Project Fear 2.0 misfired and the UK kickstarted the breakup of globalisation.
You can take the state, said Gramsci: but capital has line after line of trenches and fortifications beyond it.
Corbyn’s victory in 2015, Brexit in 2016 and the near victory of the Scottish yes campaign in 2014 all held out the possibility of a effortless exit from a dying and unpopular neo-liberal structure.
A kind of “free revolution”, handed to you by a hapless elite, where all you had to do was tick a box.
But revolutions are never effortless. The revolution that’s put Podemos on 20% in Spain, and Syriza into power in Greece, involved masses of people on the streets, resisting the elite’s attacks, and creating a new kind of power in communities and on the streets and in universities and schools.
This is the modern counter-power, and Corbyn’s election was only ever a reflection of it.
Detailed comment would be superfluous on such momentous thoughts.
We can only suggest that people read the full version.
Brief Notes for further reflection on Cde Mason’s theses.
- The break-up of globalisation begun by Brexit. Really?
- Near victory of pro-business nationalists in Scotland as a near triumph for opponents of neo-liberalism….sure….
- Podemos, who recently failed to get anywhere near power (despite predictions that they would win) in recent election as example of ‘counter-power’. (Spain’s Conservative PP wins rerun election, Podemos upset by surprisingly low results: 2016 election results PP 33.02%; PSOE 22.68%; UNIDOS PODEMOS 21.11%; Abstentions 30.16% #ELPAIS26J #26J #Spain)
- The latest version of the Indignados, Nuit Debout, in France, already disintegrating in abstraction and futility.
- Ah yes Syriza, Greece. Well.
I never liked Boxing me.
Or the film Fight Club.