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Russian Revolution: when workers took power. Paul Vernadsky. Review: ‘1917 and problems of democracy’.

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1917 and problems of democracy.  Solidarity. 6th of September. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The historian of the French Revolution, François Furet, wrote in 1995 wrote that that after the fall of the USSR, the October Revolution had ended its journey. Unlike the first French Republic, Soviet power, and Lenin, “left no heritage”. Over 800 pages later the critic of the Jacobins concluded that while it was hard to “think” of another kind of society, democracy manufactured the need for a world beyond “Capital and the Bourgeoisie”. If the figure of the Bolshevik party had disappeared, the “idea of communism” could be reborn in new forms.1

Twenty-two years later, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, much debate on the left remains about how to assess the legacy of the Bolsheviks. Many reject Lenin’s party, arguing that movements for socialism or communism should seek novel constituencies, structures and objectives. In contrast to these judgements, Paul Vernadsky begins The Russian Revolution by asserting, “The Russian revolution of 1917 was the greatest event in political history so far. It was the first occasion that working class people took political power and held it for a significant period.”

He states, “In October 1917 the Russian working class, led by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP, Bolshevik party), took power through their mass, democratic soviets (councils).” The lessons of the revolution remain relevant to working class politics today.2 Vernadsky tells the story of 1917, from the slaughter of the First World War, initial protests and strikes, to the February Revolution and October.

The Bolshevik resurgence faced with a Kerensky-led government determined to continue the war, the July Days when the state was on the brink of a hard-right clampdown, to the dissolution of the elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and its replacement by Soviet Power. Celebrating the Carnival of the Oppressed, the “creative transformations” unleashed by the workers “ruling their own state”, he outlines the progressive decrees issued by the new Soviet government, beginning with the delivery of the slogan: “all land to the peasants”. “Without the RSDLP, the Russian Revolution would not have occurred.”3

The Russian Revolution is not just a history of events.

Vernadsky offers a valuable introduction to debates about this party, the Bolsheviks, much of which was stimulated by Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Other writers covered include Lenin enthusiast Paul le Blanc, and Tom Twiss’s measured account of Trotsky’s evolving, contradictory, views of the development of bureaucracy in the wake of revolution. There is a strong section on the Women’s Revolution, paying special attention to the “futuristic vision of Aleksandra Kollontai, as illuminated by studies of “Bolshevik feminists”.

Other areas in which members of Workers’ Liberty have contributed important debate figure in this context. Of particular interest are the critical sections on Lenin’s theory of imperialism in the chapter ‘War and the Myth of Defeatism’, inspired by Hal Draper’s studies. Unlike knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’ the author cites Trotsky: “working-class policy on war is not “automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only he opposite sign…”4 One imagines that same quarters will reject the passages on nationalities, including the Jewish Question. In his conclusion Vernadsky is clear that “Israeli Jews are a nation and they should have the right to self determination today like any other nation.”5

Lih argued that the Bolsheviks were a lot more than, as the party leader Zinoviev put it in his lectures in 1923, a “hierarchical, closely knit organisation”, run from the top-down to enlighten the workers. It was not a “party of a new type”, but in the mould of democratic Marxist based organisations of the Second International, above all the German Social Democrats (SPD). Although it had its own stamp by operating in autocratic conditions, Lenin was, in key works such as What is to be Done? “directly inspired” by the German “model”. In more detail Lenin’s strategy was designed to bring together the “purposive worker” and the social democratic worldview conveyed by practical-minded activists, by the “power of a genuinely sound explanation.”

The Bolsheviks, if this account stands, were very far from political outriders, a messianic party-sect, but part of the mainstream of European socialism.6 Lih saw this as the basis for “fighting for democracy to the end” as a precondition for workers’ power, and socialism. For Lih this “old Bolshevik” stand guided Lenin right up to October and the overthrow of the Provisional government, “to carry out a thorough-going democratic transformation”. Vernadsky enters into the — lengthy — debate on this claim. He states that Lenin’s assessment of the growth of the soviets and soldiers’ committees meant that his call for the overthrow of the Provisional government meant that Lenin took “steps towards permanent revolution”.

That is, an acceleration of revolutionary “stages” towards, he contentiously asserts, a position where the victories of the Bolsheviks, “deconstructed capitalist relations of production and put in place an economic system where the imperative was social need, not private profit.” It is undeniable that this prospect inspired millions inside and outside Russia, with the hope that socialism was on the agenda. For many of us that wish still burns.7 Yet, many unresolved issues remain to be discussed from this thought-provoking book.

Two could be signalled; questions about the body that “led” the Russian working class, and the direction it began to take them in the aftermath of October. If we accept the view that the Bolsheviks were a democratic party with open debate and a real base in the working class and popular masses, what kind of template had Lenin and his tendency adopted? A critical description of the pre-1914 SPD “oligarchy” by Robert Michels developed themes already circulating on the left in Germany itself, and internationally by “revolutionary syndicalists” like the French writer George Sorel. In light of the monstrous oligarchy of Stalinist bureaucracy these limits inside Lenin’s “model” apparatus might inspire further reflection.

Only Lenin’s most uncritical admirers would deny problems about the practices of “committee people”, however small in number they may have been initially, brought into the “smashed” state machine.8

The next is that even supporters do not argue that in power the Bolsheviks were always democratic. Many would also question as to how far they respected the workers’ democracy they contrasted to “formal” Parliamentary pluralism. The well-documented cases of human rights abuses, which began with October, and were accelerated by the creation of the Cheka, cannot be explained away by “external conditions”, the civil war, and the need for Red Terror to stave off the very real threat of a far-right regime that would have drowned the revolution in blood.

The need for independent law, in however difficult circumstances, respect for the people’s rights, was denied during the dictatorship of the proletariat. What kind of political instrument can introduce non-capitalist relations of production with these limits on democratic decision-making? Socialism was, and is, far from a self-evident thing. How can a transitional mode of production to communism be formed without free debate about what kind of economy, what kind of production, what social goals people are working towards?

Outlawing opposition papers, bourgeois, then all non-Bolshevik parties, ignoring the voices of “non-party” workers, stifled not just conflicting views but fostered the belief that those doing the outlawing knew better than anybody else. It was under Lenin that Soviet democracy was finished off. It was in the early 1920s that the acceptance of a military and political police entered into what would become the established doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat — the first, far from “temporary”, stage to socialism. This is a very negative lesson from the Russian revolution.9

Notes

1. Pages 8 and 809. Le passé d’une illusion. François Furet. Éditions Robert Laffont. 1995.

2. Pages 9 and 19. The Russian Revolution. When the workers took power. Paul Vernadsky.

3. Page 114. Paul Vernadsky Op cit.

4. Page 197. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

5. Page 346. Paul Vernadsky Op cit

6. Page 398. Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done in context. Brill. 2005.

7. On Lih Pages 163-9. Next quote, Page 19. Paul Vernadsky Op cit. Political Parties. Robert Michels. Transaction Publishers. 2009 (originally published, 1911.) Georges Sorel in 1902 had already written of the SPD’s “spirit of authoritarianism and bureaucracy in a New Church run like an huge civil service (“administration”) page 188. L’illusion du politique. Georges Sorel et le debate intellectuel 1900. Schlmo Sand. La Découverte, 1984.

8. “La démocratie soviétique a été définitivement étouffée au moment de l’interdiction des partis soviétiques, après la guerre civile, et non pas lorsque l’alternative était soit capituler devant les Blancs, soit défendre la révolution par tous les moyens. Elle fut donc étouffée après la victoire, alors qu’aucune armée blanche n’était plus présente sur le territoire de la Russie des soviets. Ernest Mandel. Octobre 1917 : Coup d’Etat ou révolution sociale ? La légitimité de la révolution russe. Cahiers d’Etudes et de Recherches, n°17/18, 1992.

9. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat from Marx to Lenin, Hal Draper. Monthly Review Press. 1987.

Extract from Paul Vernadsky’s book: The opening days of the Russian Revolution.

 

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Written by Andrew Coates

September 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

Miguel Abensour. 1939 – 2017. Radical Left ‘Insurgent Democracy”.

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Miguel Abensour. 1939 – 2017.

The radical left-wing political philosopher Miguel Abensour passed away on April the 22nd. From a Jewish family, and a childhood spent hidden from the Vichy regime in the countryside, Abensour began to teach political science in 1962. The young teacher, who had early discovered the division between “friends” and “enemies”, remained haunted not only by the experience of Nazism, but also by Stalinism. (1)

The Algerian war of independence and de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic saw the young university teacher’s involvement in the anti-bureaucratic and anti-capitalist left. Abensour’s ideas were influenced by Castoriadis and the review Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949 – 1967) During the sixties he was as founder of Utopie, whose other best known figure was Jean Baudrillard. The title of the journal could stand for a life-long interest in utopian thought, from Thomas More, William Morris, Walter Benjamin the anthropologist Pierre Clastres who speculated on societies without states, to Ernst Bloch and the Frankfurt School. He admired Hannah Arendt, her critique of totalitarianism, the destruction of pluralism, and her writing on the “hidden treasure” of the direct democracy of the workers’ councils. Unlike those, who in the wake of François Furet’s Penser la Révolution française (1978) saw in all radical revolutions the germs of totalitarian tyranny, he continued to defend a Marxist inflected “insurgent democracy”.

Tributes to Abensour have described his contributions to other journals, such as the 1970s anti-totalitarian Textures (to which Castoriadis and Claude Lefort contributed), and his publishing work in the collection, Critique de la politique.

La Démocratie contre l’État

Abensour’s La Démocratie contre l’État (2004) remains his most significant contribution to the independent critical left. Subtitled Marx et le moment machiavélien it is a reflection on Marx and Machiavelli. The work is informed by J.C.A Pocok’s account of how the Florentine’s idea of political Virtue might impose on Fortune and the form of the republic and Fortune, with sociology of liberty (The Machiavellian Moment. 1975). In the discussion of Marx Claude Lefort’s reading of Machiavelli come to the fore. For Lefort the description of the class divisions in Italian city-states, perennial conflicts, a refusal to be commanded or to be oppressed, were the foundation of liberty (Le Travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel. 1972/1986).

But Lefort, Abensour observed, had not stayed there. The former Socialisme ou Barbarie member’s defence of “démocratie sauvage”, heterogeneous movements for human rights, fights for legal rights in the sense also advanced by E.P.Thompson. After the 1970s vogue for ‘anti-totalitarianism’ in France Lefort had moved further into considering that “democratic revolution” could be focused around the “lieu vide” of power, the acceptance that there is a way of institutionalising contestation, pluralism, in a political place that remains “empty. That is, unoccupied by individuals, forces or ideas that impose a single social order. In other words, democratic societies are grounded on the acceptance of division. By contrast Abensour defended Marx. Against the charge that he wished to end this ambiguity in a society of total transparency and harmony. Marx did not imagine a return to ancient republicanism, a world of public lives under constant surveillance and ‘unity’. Insurgent democracy fuelled by such as sense of class conflict, closer to the spirit of anarchy, the “withering away of the state”, not only refuses totalitarianism, but also the structures of the state. Abensour thus rediscovered the possibility of radically new “espaces d’invention, d’évasion” – disorder that Lefort had turned away from. (2)

At a time when National Sovereignty is brandished by those who wish to occupy the space of democratic power, when the ‘federated’ People replaces for Class, and some would wish to claim the ‘independence’ of the Nation against the ‘Elites’ and ‘Oligarchs’, Abensour’s insurgent democracy stands as a rebuke to the narrow goals of populism, right or left. Yet perhaps there is some virtue in keeping the reins of power out of the hands of a single General Will. Those on the British left, now offering to fight to the last French person against Le Pen and Macron, might also reflect on those, like Michael Abensour, who have had more fecund dreams of a utopian future without domination and Sovereignty. He deserves to be as widely read as possible.

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(1) Les guerres d’Abensour.

(2) Page 184. La Démocratie contre l’État le Felin. 2004

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Written by Andrew Coates

April 28, 2017 at 11:45 am

Slavoj Žižek: Trump Presidency could result in a “big awakening” and begin “new political processes.”

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Slovenian Hipster Hegelian, Marxist Medialogue and Lacanian Lad Likes Trump.

In 1990, the well-known Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek was the Liberal Democracy of Slovinia candidate for the Presidency of Slovenia (an auxiliary body of the President of the Republic, abolished in 1992).  The party is a member of the LIberal International and Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe Party.

Slavoj Žižek is in the Presidential news again, this time it’s the US race.

He has courted predictable outrage with remarks appearing (‘dialectically’) to favour Trump.

Earlier this year the Slovenian Hipster Hegelian, Marxist Medialogue and Lacanian Lad, was in trouble for calling for the ““militarisation” of European responses to the refugee crisis in Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours (2016) This, it should always be recalled was  in the context of this ‘contradiction’, “my greatest problem with all this humanitarianism is that people are not aware of what is really happening in Europe – the massive anti-immigrant populist movement.”The following particularly aroused controversy.

The Slovenian savant  considered that there is a need to

Formulate a minimum set of rules that are obligatory for everyone, without feat that will appear ‘Eurocentric’ religious freedoms, the protection of individual freedom against group pressure, rights of woman, and so on; and second, within these limits, unconditionally insist on the tolerance of different ways of life.

Such should be a “positive emancipatory leitkultur..”

Many might consider that those who attacked Žižek as a ‘racist’  were themselves trying to impose their own “leitkultur” which involves accepting absolute “difference” and a right to impose reactionary mores inside “their” community.

To make himself clear Žižek  went on to say,

With regard to the refugees, our prop­er aim should be to try and recon­struct glob­al soci­ety on such a basis that des­per­ate refugees will no longer be forced to wander around. Uto­pi­an as it may appear, this large-scale solu­tion is the only real­ist one, and the dis­play of altru­ist­ic vir­tues ulti­mately pre­vents the car­ry­ing out of this aim. The more we treat refugees as objects of human­it­ari­an help, and allow the situ­ation which com­pelled them to leave their coun­tries to pre­vail, the more they come to Europe, until ten­sions reach boil­ing point, not only in the refugees’ coun­tries of ori­gin but here as well. So, con­fron­ted with this double black­mail, we are back at the great Len­in­ist ques­tion: what is to be done?

One would have to be soothsayer to imagine the details of what world order the author has in mind here – but the intentions are surely good…..

But let that pass.

As often is the case with Žižek, people pick and choose what they want to hear.

I like this (though it’s old hat chez Coatesy),

…yet another Left­ist taboo that needs to be aban­doned is that of pro­hib­it­ing any cri­tique of Islam as a case of ‘Islamo­pho­bia’. This taboo is a true mir­ror-image of the anti-immig­rant pop­u­list demon­isa­tion of Islam, so we should get rid of the patho­lo­gic­al fear of many West­ern lib­er­al Left­ists that they might be guilty of Islamo­pho­bia.

Yet, I didn’t like this, on Donald Trump,

“Read Trump closely – it is difficult to do, I know – and if you extract his total racist and sexist stupidities, you will see that here and there, where he makes a complete proposal, they’re usually not so bad,” “He said he will not totally dismantle universal healthcare, raise the minimum wage, and so on.”

“Trump is a paradox: he is really a centrist liberal, and maybe even in his economic policies closer to the Democrats, and he desperately tries to mask this. So the function of all of these dirty jokes and stupidities is to cover up that he is really a pretty ordinary, centrist politician.”

Less noticed is that at the conclusion of Against the Double Blackmail Žižek called for a kind of left-wing leap in the dark, an act of profound ontological will, against the course of history.

As he put it, in strangulated sub-Walter Benjamin sentences,

In contrast to classical Marxism, in which ‘history is on our side’ (the proletariat fulfills a predestined task of universal emancipation), in today’s constellation, the big Other is against us; left to itself, the inner thrust of our historical development leads to catastrophe. To apocalypse. Here, the only thing that can prevent catastrophe is pure voluntarism, i.e. our free decision to act against historical necessity.

The  latest Žižek news is now of just such a jump into catastrophe…..

The ‘alt-right’ site Breitbart reports,

Slovenian-born philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek said a Hillary Clinton presidency is a greater danger to the nation than a President Donald Trump.

Žižek explained that while he is “horrified” by Trump, he believes a Trump presidency could result in a “big awakening” that could set into motion the formation of “new political processes.”

By contrast, Žižek said he sees Clinton as “the true danger”–pointing specifically to her insincerity, her ties to the Wall Street banks, and her dedication to the “absolute inertia” of our established political system.

Zižek explained that Trump has been able to “disturb” the entrenched political system and argued that a Trump win could set into motion “new political processes”:

“In every society, there is a whole network of unwritten rules, how politics works, and how you build consensus. And Trump disturbed this. If Trump wins, both major parties–Republicans and Democrats–would have to return to basics, rethink themselves, and maybe some things can happen there. … It will be a kind of big awakening. New political processes will be set in motion, will be triggered.”

Žižek, who has been described as “the Elvis of cultural theory,” rejected the narrative that a Trump presidency would introduce fascism in America. “Look, America is still not a dictatorial state. He will not introduce fascism,” Žižek said.

While the rockstar Lacanian Marxist professor, who has been described as a “leftist rabble-rouser,” said he was concerned by Trump’s pledge to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, Žižek explained that, in his view, the threat of a conservative court pales in comparison to the danger posed by a Hillary Clinton presidency:

“Listen, Trump has openly said … he will nominate right-wingers [to the Supreme Court], so there are dangers [to a Trump presidency]. I’m just afraid that Hillary stands for this absolute inertia, the most dangerous one, because she’s a cold warrior, and so on, connected with banks pretending to be socially progressive.”

How far should we take any of this seriously?

In  Slavoj Žižek: A Radical Critique we noted (Weekly Worker No 855 Thursday March 03 2011)

Will Žižek go further in this mystical, millennialist direction? Critics have accused him of randomly lumping together ideas, of repetition, of contradiction and of opaque thoughts. It would be better to say that his ideas are often hidden behind great verbal radicalism and convoluted digressions, as shown by his current religious themes. Very few people who take the time to decipher his writings will find substantial tools to use for mundane politics. The pictures of class divisions (included/excluded), immaterial production (exploitation reduced to rent), privatisation of the ‘commons’, and the dictatorship of the proletariat – not to mention the residue of Badiou’s timeless metaphysics – are, we have argued, botched. Nobody is going to storm heaven – or the state – with copies of these writings in their haversack.

Nobody with this rag-bag of ideas is going to begin the revival of mass emancipatory politics. It is even less likely that Trump, if he is elected (which we sincerely hope not) will lead to a “new political processes.” of benefit to any form of left.

Whatsoever.

We suspect this has the ring of truth about it,

Slavoj Zizek is auditioning to be on a CNN roundtable.Alex Shephard

The last time we checked in on collection of bodily fluids Slavoj Zizek, he was saying on-brand things about the election. Specifically, he had a “provocative thesis” that Trump was a liberal centrist. (In a Trump-ian twist, Zizek also described Trump in a way that is loosely descriptive of himself—as “personally disgusting, bad racist jokes, vulgarities, and so on.”) With five days to go until the election, Zizek is back and he’s trying on a new stained black t-shirt—the stained black t-shirt of punditry.

 No sleepless nights worrying about the future of  Žižek, though a few at the possibility that Trump might win.

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Written by Andrew Coates

November 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Paul Mason Joins Momentum: “Labour can only win as an insurgency.”

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Paul Mason: “Momentum itself is at a crossroads.”

Labour List reports,

Corbyn cheerleader Paul Mason has joined Momentum, he disclosed today, as internal disputes continued with senior members rejecting claims they had attempted to thwart democracy through “Blairite” manoeuvres.

Former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Mason said his decision to sign up was in part to support efforts to implement online all-member ballots which will decide how the group is run.

The proposed democratic structure, which would see all of Momentum’s 20,000 members vote on strategic decisions, has proved controversial, with officers on the steering committee publicly criticising the changes.

Now supporters of the reforms, which are backed by the group’s chair Jon Lansman, have defended the decision robustly, following a weekend of accusations of “bureaucratic manipulation” and a “coup”. Much of the internal unrest has played out in public, with steering committee members Jill Mountford and Michael Chessum penning public statements about their unhappiness.

Paul Mason’s announcement that he has joined Momentum – at a time when the grass-roots organisation faces a serious crisis – prompts a number of reflections.

This Blog has commented before that Mason began his journey in an activist direction in Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere. The New Global Revolutions. Paul Mason. Review. Andrew Coates.

To Mason there are signs of the “emancipated human being” emerging “spontaneously from within the breakdown of the old order”. The illumination of the multitude can be seen in the “act of taking a space and forming a community” – from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. This showed “the deployment of digital communications at work, in social life, and now in the forms of protest.” But in the tradition Mason refers to, there are more sceptical strands. Capital and the state can colonise such “smooth spaces” (democratic and equal areas) and make them “striated” (integrated into established exploitation and power) is less obvious (A Thousand Plateaus. Gilles Deleuze. Félix Guattari. 2003)

Paul Mason’s book  PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future  (2015) is an important book brimming with ideas. It uses many Marxist concepts (echoing Ernest Mandel on Kondratiev waves as in Long waves of capitalist development: the Marxist interpretation. 1980). This is the idea that capitalist development and crises, innovation and stagnation, are long-term cycles (we are on the downward one at present). We will leave it to specialists to judge how well he has integrated this theory into PostCapitalism and whether the premise stands in the first place. But, that said, it is always refreshing to see – as will be seen below – somebody  on the left who writes about the world today  beyond the categories of 1917 ‘Leninism’.

The heart of PostCapitalism is a reflection that  develops the labour theory of value in modern conditions.  “As Marx speculated, many commodities, such as software, music, and designs for objects to be reproduced by machines, can now be reproduced at virtually no cost.  This leads to a conceptualisation of  “immaterial” labour, the basis of what he calls “post capitalism”. “

“The defeat of organised labour did not enable – as the neoliberals thought – a ‘new kind of capitalism’ but rather the extension of the fourth long wave on the basis of stagnant wage growth and atomisation. Instead of being forded to innovate their way out of the crisis using technology, as during the late stage of all three previous cycles, the 1 per cent simple imposed penury and atomisation on the working class.”(PostCapitalism  Page 93)

He draws on Marx’s Fragment on Machines (a favourite text of the writers such as Toni Negri  and Michael Hardt. (Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.) and Paolo Virno (A Grammar of the Multitude 2004). This is a form of social order and economics,  within capitalism itself, fostered by the (apparent)  central role of information in the economy, civil society, and the state.

As Mason says,

the Niches and hollows out the markets system “new forms are developing, new forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts” the “sharing economy”, “common” ‘peer production.” (PostCapitalism Page xxii)

 

Mason uses a number of  terms to describe the emergence of ‘post-capitalism’. The key conceptual divide is not class struggle but  “networks v hierarchies”. This is a belief that there is an inherent desire for a “beyond” capitalism in the search for human autonomy. The central lever of change in this direction is the “networked individual”.

At this point it would be better to look at PostCapitalism in terms of political agency. That is ““New opposition movements, “determined to avoid the power structures and abuses that hierarchies bring…” (PostCapitalism. Page xxii)

As David Tyfield notes (On Paul Mason’s ‘Post-Capitalism’ – An extended review. 2015)

Realizing the end of capitalism demands a social force actually to seize the reins of power. One may expect, given the Marxian resources used to this point, that the identity of this social agency would be obvious. Mason, however, makes a distinct and compelling break with his own orthodoxy at this point, arguing that post-capitalism will not be constructed by the ‘working class’. Indeed, going further, he argues that Left-wing movements seeking to expedite the emergence of a progressive information post-capitalism must do some profound rethinking of political shibboleths.

What is needed instead is the construction of a new global social movement, focused not on communal identities as exploited workers but on new and dynamic collective identities as enabled and emancipated and interconnected persons, enjoying the abundance and leisure of an equitable and socially just information society. On this point, then, Mason presents some speculations regarding how the political economy of this post-capitalist utopia could be organized, before finishing with an extended discussion of how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and what such a ‘transition’ could involve.

Although since he does refer to Cornelius Castoriadis or the contemporary current inspired by his ideas, this closely resembles the dynamic of ‘autonomy’  versus “heteronomy”. Humans, networking on their own initiative, face the ‘heteronomous’ (that is not just laws laid down by desire instead of reason but by ‘external’ forces, extra-social authorities ). Or simply, the world of capitalism constructed outside their control, and against their will. Creative, or “enabled”  individuals, need to seize control of the ‘imaginary construction of society”.  In Serge Latouche’s Cornelius Castoriadis ou l’autonomie radicale (2014) this goal is summarised as  “l’autonomie individuelle et la participation de tous aux décisions qui les concernent.” – individual autonomy (self-rule) and the participation of everybody in decisions which concern them. It will be the basis of “l’utopie concrète”.  The author, who also supports a ‘zero-growth’ (décroissance) version of Green politics, believes equally that everybody  except a tiny minority (crudely, those in control of the ‘heteronomous’ world, capitalists and politicians)  has an interest in this ‘project’.

Latouche makes clear the direction one can follow once ‘identities’ are reordered around terms like networks/hierarchies – or self-determined autonomy against external command. Mason believes we live in a “Post-scarcity” world, in which, referring to the radical theorist André Gorz (a figure that brings the two writers close), “Info-tech makes the abolition of work possible. All that prevents it is the social structure we know as capitalism.”(PostCapitalism Page 181)

Some of this is perhaps at odds with zero-growth theory (though both writer’s visions of the future are too vaguely defined to engage in a serious confrontation). But in other respects his vision of the future has parallels with Latouche:  eventually work will become voluntary, basic commodities and public services are free and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour.  That will be, we might conjecture, the best version of “post-capitalism”. In some respects we are ‘already there’ in that significant commodities in the digital economy are free and open-source (FOSS) and non-capitalist, such as Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia.

A transition is summarised as follows:

The road-map will involve harnessing zero-marginal-cost production, and seeking to avoid the failings of twentieth-century Communism and capitalism.  The section articulates ‘five principles of transition’, all envisaged operating through non-hierarchical social networks:

  1. To use massive amounts of real data to understand, model, and test ideas for social change so that they fit observable trends in human behaviour.
  2. Ecological sustainability.
  3. Ensuring that a transition to post-capitalism is not conceptualised simply in economic terms, but in wider human terms.
  4. To address problems with diverse approaches, rather than attempting monolithic solutions.
  5. Maximise the power of information.

Mason boldly announces that more widely, “Under a government that embraced postcapitalism, the state, the corporate sector and public corporation could be made to pursue radically different needs with relatively low-cost changes to regulation, underpinned by a radical programme to shrink debt.”(Post Capitalism Page 278)

I already have a problem with Mason’s reference to a foreshadowing for this transition to Alexander Bogdanov‘s novel Red Star: like all utopias, from Étienne Cabet‘s Voyage en Icarie (1844) onwards, it looks to me more like an order than a democracy.  

I digress….

In the current New Left Review Rob Lucas (The Free Machine) offers a significant critical account of Mason’s views.

After outlining the wider economics (briefly sketched above) he falls upon  the networked individual.

Mason’s ‘networked individual’ might be read more as a figure of the future, an incarnation of the ‘social individual’ that Marx meditated upon in the 1844 ‘Notes on James Mill’: developed yet suppressed by capitalist reality, an individual no longer separated from the social means of reproducing her own life, and able to appropriate finally—in a formulation from the Grundrisse—‘all the powers of science and of nature’ and of ‘social combination and social intercourse’ that it has hitherto been capital’s task to develop. For now those powers remain largely locked in opaque technical infrastructures that someone else owns, scholarly literature in gigantic silos accessible only to those with the requisite affiliations.

Rather than Latouche’s bald assertion of a universal interest in autonomy, founded ultimately on our existence as beings on an ecosystem called Earth, Mason talks of the potential contradictions of capitalism.

But, as Lucas notes,

The rise of information cannot just mean the emergence of a new mode of production which can sit harmoniously alongside an enduring capitalist one—as in Yochai Benkler’s visions—or a stable new regime of capitalist accumulation, as in some post-autonomist interpretations, since ‘an economy based on information’ cannot ‘be a capitalist economy’.

The finality of this judgement sits a little awkwardly with Mason’s insistence that the transition will have to be implemented by a specific subject. But who should this be? Mason surveys the history of the workers’ movement, from rebellion (1900s) and repression (1930s) to co-existence (1950s), arguing that its spontaneous ideology was one of work-place control, solidarity, self-education and ‘the creation of a parallel world’. This, rather than trade-union reformism or revolutionary communism, was what the shop stewards who emerged outside unions supporting the First World War to form factory committees and councils, were looking for. But after the mass-slaughter of workers through fascism and war, a settlement came about in which work seemed ‘absurd, ridiculous and boring’, and from the early 1960s workers could see that a dramatic increase in automation was ‘no longer science fiction’.

These difficulties aside, out of this changes that have taken place since automation and the information society,  emerges the “The figure of ‘the network’, ” the alternative to Bolshevism’s command and control.

A network is a set of connections, it may be a way of giving a broad picture of  a social force (a market, a cycle of production, a political movement, even a ‘state’). But Mason does not precisely define one – we are all networked, any more than the recent theories of ‘populism’ have succeeded in demarcating the ‘people’ from the elite.

Lucas, if one can simplify his argument,  could be said to state that in the absence of any defined social  ‘subject’ of historical change,   “The theory risks becoming a sort of signpost merely pointing at a technological sublime.” Furthermore, “It’s not clear at which point Mason’s postcapitalist transition would definitively issue into a stable new mode of production. “

Now however Mason appears to have found his subject-object of historical change: Momentum. 

Why I joined Momentum. Paul Mason. 

Momentum itself is at a crossroads.

It faces two alternative futures: one in which all the negative, hierarchical and factionalist tendencies of the 20th century left are allowed to resurface; another in which Momentum — and ultimately Labour itself — becomes a horizontal, consensus-based organization, directly accountable to its mass of members.

Ones hackles are raised by the very term “consensus based” – presumably that means no elections but something ‘superior’ to them.

Mason later elaborates on this,

As to its internal structures, Momentum should take major decisions by consensus, using electronic democracy to engage every dues-paying member.

As L.A. Kaufmann puts it (The Theology of Consensus).

Instead of voting a controversial plan up or down, groups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable. A primer on the NYC General Assembly website, the structural expression of the Occupy movement, explains, “Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.”

Now let’s just note for the moment (apart from the failures of this model in the Occupy movement, and more recently, this very year, in efforts to use the model, even partially, in the unsuccessful Nuit Debout movement in France) that Jeremy Corbyn was not elected by consensus. That one of the few issues this Blog agrees with Chantal Mouffe on is the need for dissensus – the free clash of opinions – for the functioning of democracy. That a challenge to the existing political set up creates stasis, in the sense used by Giorgio Agambem, an upsetting of order and agreement that has parallels to civil war. Which it is the business of democracy to resolve as peacefully as possible.

Now let’s look at the practice.

Kaufmann states,

Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt.

Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

Electronic democracy is another problem, though before looking at its difficulties we should note that some critics of the Momentum leadership were recently trumpeting this method for Labour members to elect the shadow cabinet.

That E-democracy is no panacea can be seen by its central importance in Beppe Grillo‘s Movimento 5 Stelle: a means by his clique to run the show and not a democratic tool  at all.

That said, in practice Mason’s world does not look to me like a consensual model of politics: “Faced with an unprecedented level of hostility and sabotage from the media, the business elite, Labour can only win as an insurgency.

How on earth one could contain this clash, or quarantine it off, from the island of Momentum consensus is hard to tell. Perhaps this small-groups can operate it. And remain small groups.

Now I agree with the fine intentions behind this next statement, ” We need to turn half a million-plus members into activists: people proud to be identified with Labour as the party of social justice; people equipped with the ideas and organizational skills to start making a difference…”

This is also in the realm of good intentions:

I am not worried about “entryism”. Anybody who is in a left wing group or party right now should be allowed to join Momentum, so long as they openly and irrevocably dissolve their organizations and pledge to support Labour in all future elections.

Under party rules it would take them two years to become members so I favour a rule change to shorten that to a few weeks. Ditto for anybody who wants to leave the Greens or SNP and join Labour.

And,

The problem is not “entryism”: it is a view of politics whereby it becomes the task of a small group to capture and direct a larger organization.

That’s what the Blairites did to Labour; we don’t want a left wing version of it. Above all we don’t want a scenario where die-hard Bolshevik re-enactment groups decide to take over Momentum, so that it can then take over Labour, and then Labour takes over the state.

 As is,

I think the most revolutionary thing we can achieve is to put a left Labour government in power: to switch off the neoliberal privatization machine, to end expeditionary warfare and the arming of dictators, to redistribute both wealth and power to the people.

And this is about as ‘new’ as the ‘New Left’ circa, er, 1961.

We also have to propagate a new way of doing politics — emulating the best of the grassroots and horizontal movements, embracing popular participation, people’s plans, people’s budgets and popular assemblies.

If Mason’s contribution for the simple reason that it talks of wider issues and might deflect attention away from rants against Momentum’s  leadership is welcome it is far from clear that is about to become a full political actor in the Labour Party let alone the new subject-object of the transition from capitalism to ‘post-capitalism’.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 1, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Dispatches and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: Once Again on Trotskyism.

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Responses to: The Battle for The Labour Party: Channel 4 Dispatches

CorporatePortal

The Mirror.

The programme said it had uncovered fresh evidence that Corbyn-backing grassroots group Momentum is being influenced by “hard left revolutionaries”.

It said one has advocated a “flood” of leftists into Labour while others back mandatory reselection of anti-Corbyn MPs.

Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum’s Steering Committee but has recently been expelled by Labour for links to hard-left group the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), was filmed at a Party meeting holding a copy of an AWL newspaper bearing the headline: “Flood the Labour Party .”

Footage shows her saying: “In 30 odd years of being politically active, I don’t think I can remember a time, apart from the miner’s strike, a time as exciting as this.

“If you haven’t already joined the Labour party, then you should join. If you haven’t already joined Momentum then you must join. We have to fight to shape the way the Momentum develops and the way the Labour party develops”

A Momentum spokesperson said: “Momentum membership is open to members, affiliates and supporters of the Labour Party and not open to members of other parties, those hostile to Labour or those that do not share Momentum’s objectives. All members must declare that they “support the aims and values of the Labour Party and (are) not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it.”

In a statement to Dispatches, Jill Mountford said: “We are open, honest socialists looking to discuss big ideas on how to create a better, fairer world for everyone.”

Momentum founder Jon Lansman said Ms Mountford was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Momentum.

Dispatches Momentum Documentary Prompts Torrent Of Criticism Led By Owen Jones

Zac Goldsmith says Dispatches’ ‘weak’ investigation of Momentum will only help Jeremy Corbyn.

Conservative MP calls media impartiality into question. Independent.

Apart from Momentum’s official statements we are confident that there are many others who will stand their corner. Already: Dispatches won’t stop Momentum inspiring young people – we’re here to stay.  Phil’s post which makes very accurate points, Momentum is Nothing Like Militant “an organisation that is totally transparent, easy to get involved with, and mirrors the properties of the network would do. There’s a reason why dull, plodding authoritarian outfits like the Socialist Party (despite its mini-Militant rebrand) and the SWP rape cult have been left out in the cold. As it stands, Momentum is a good way of consolidating these new members and turning them to campaigning activity, both with the party and in other labour movement campaigns.”

But what of the issue of Trotskyism and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty?

Much indeed has been made of ‘Trotskyism’ in recent weeks.

The AWL is, it says,  a Trotskyist group.

What does this mean?

To begin from their practice: the AWL has played a positive role, for some years now, in defending the cause of human rights: from its backing for the ‘two states’ position on Palestine and Israel, its refusal to follow the implicitly pro-Assad stand of some in the anti-war’ movement in Syria, its opposition to those who stand with Vladimir Putin on a range of issues, including Ukraine.

In short, in the tradition of ‘Third Camp‘ Trotskyism (neither imperialism nor Stalinism but socialism) the group has stood against the  ‘anti-imperialism of fools’ of those who automatically side with the opponents of the ‘West’, nationalist dictators, Islamists and  authoritarian of all stripes. Their stand indicates that the debate about theory indicated in more detail above can have relevance to the world today.

This has not won them universal admiration, particularly from those determined to blame everything on ‘imperialism’ in general and the USA in particular.

The AWL has also campaigned, over a long period (going back to the 1975 Referendum), for a Workers’ Europe.

This was their call in 2015:

We advocate the left forms a united campaign with the following aims:

• To defend migrants’ rights and oppose racism

• To vote against British withdrawal from the EU

• To fight for a workers’ Europe, based on working class solidarity.

Many people, trade union, political and campaign group activists, far beyond the AWL itself, supported this call.

Just before the Referendum in June they stated,

Vote remain! Workers’ unity can change Europe

Theory: for anybody genuinely interested in what the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty means by Trotskyism the place to start is there: The two Trotskyisms. Sean Matgamna followed by  Reviews and comments on The Two Trotskyisms. These debated a range of points about ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’ Trotskyism, and whether these had any meaning and relevance in left politics today.

The AWL published many of these contributions in its paper, Solidarity.

They included a long article (carried over 2 issues) critical of Trotskyism from a democratic Marxist stand, by somebody that modesty forbids us to name ( Raising Atlantis?)

It is clear that comrade Sacha is right to say, “We always argue for our ideas through open discussion and debate. People either reject what we say or are convinced by it, and that’s fine. Our members and supporters make no apologies for trying to influence policy. That is what democratic politics is about. On that last point, we are no different from members of Progress, the Fabian Society, Compass and other Labour Party groupings”.

Solidarity, is known in the movement for its serious articles on trade union issues, reliable reports on subjects such as Welfare and Women’s rights, and an approach to anti-racism that does not dismiss the problem of reactionary Islamism and the persistence of anti-Semitism.

To continue on Europe to illustrate the group’s activity: during the EU Referendum,  the AWL, like Momentum, (EU referendum: Momentum movement campaigners drafted in to rally support for Remain vote) actively backed the themes of Another Europe is Possible, the left ‘Remain’ campaign.

On this key issue, which defines present British politics, the group showed its commitment to backing Labour Party policy, campaigning not in order to ‘recruit’ for its group but to further the interests of the movement as a whole.

After the vote to Leave comrade Martin Thomas wrote,

What is to be done now is to conserve and extend workers’ unity, between workers in Britain of all origins and between British and European workers; to defend migrant rights and the worker rights which have entered British law under pressure from the EU; to fight to redirect the social anger expressed in Brexit votes towards social solidarity, taxing the rich, and social ownership of the banks and industry; and to stand up for socialism. None of that can be done if the left falls for the fantasy that the Brexit vote already took things our way.

A broad swathe of democratic socialists would agree with this.

This Blog, a left European democratic socialist site, has no hesitation in defending the AWL against the accusations of undemocratic practice made by Dispatches and others.

Full text of Sacha’s video talk here: Dispatches attacks Workers’ Liberty.

The Labour Party, Trotskyism and Pabloism.

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They Lost….

“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.

Pabloism. 

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)

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.

Entryism.

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.

New Left.

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.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CqjSS9FXEAAJxOm.jpg

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.

From KS.

 

Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics. Chris Knight. A Review.

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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)

Tatlin’s Tower.

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’.

Human Creativity.

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.

(5) Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests. BBC 2013.

(6)  Endangered Languages Project.

(7) See Knowledge, Morality and Hope: The Social Thought of Noam Chomsky. Joshua Cohen Joel Rogers. New Left Review. First Series. No 187. 1991.

(8) Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers. Werner Cohen. The response: The Faurisson Affair. Noam Chomsky writes to Lawrence K. Kolodney.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

August 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm