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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Shoshana Zuboff. A Socialist Review.

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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Human Future at the Frontier of Power. Shoshana Zuboff. Profile Books. 2019.

In 1985, under the name of Jean-François Lyotard, an exhibition, Les Immatériaux was held at Beaubourg, Paris. In what is claimed was a labyrinth, one was led to discover the latest version of communication theory’s ideas of “message”. In this postmodern world, the human cortex is ‘read’ just like an electronic field; through the neurovegetative system humanity affectivity is ‘acted’ on like a complex chemical organisation” Far from celebrating the accelerated potential for the libido of “cyberculture capitalism” Lyotard wrote, after discussing George Orwell, of the threat of the “techno-sciences travaillant avec et sur le langage” (1)

Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism suggests that such a “machine confluence” has come into existence. In the latest mode of capitalist accumulation, the “new reality business,” technology has worked through language right up to human nature. In this brave new world, “all aspects of human experience are claimed as raw-material supplies and targeted for rendering into behaviour data.”(Page 19)

Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future (2019) warns of the dangers of the “Thinking Machine” and “Deep Mind” eroding humanity’s free will in free-market economies that are “invading our bodily existence with control, commercialising our lives.”

Zuboff talks of “human nature that is scraped torn and taken for a new commodity invention.”(Page 94) She goes further and sees “digital dispossession” leading to the fashioning of the soul. This “instrumentarian power” is leading to a “‘sixth extinction’. This affects not “nature but of what we hold most precious in human nature, the sanctity of the individual, the ties of intimacy, the sociality that binds us together in promises, and the trust they breed.”(Page 516) Worse, it will mean a collectivist power dominated by surveillance capitalists.

This is how Zuboff summarises the prospect,

An information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism and its new instrumentarian power will thrive at the expense of human nature, especially the hard-won capacities associated with self-determination and moral autonomy that are essential to the very possibility of a democratic society. (2)

Surveillance Capitalism is long. It is also often a rewarding read, if you can skim over the Business School style.  Zuboff reaches this conclusion by an often-convincing account of how companies like Facebook and Google operate. They are placed within the wider framework that sketches changes in the capitalist mode of accumulation, regulation and the (post) “industrial paradigm”. The Harvard Professor draws on Hannah Arendt’s reading of Rosa Luxemburg’s description of the militarist “destruction of non capitalist strata” across the world. Primitive accumulation was not just a one-off event, a ripping up of traditional roots and mass enrolment in the market. . By the end of the twentieth century, this has turned David Harvey argued, into the domestic neoliberal strategy of “accumulation by dispossession” of public assets. In its present form, “Surveillance capitalism originates in this act of digital dispossession brought to life by the impatience of over-accumulated investment and two entrepreneurs who wanted to join the system,”(Page 99) (3)

Virgin Wood.

The key moment in the present accumulation is the virgin wood felled by these “entrepreneurs” and their cohort. “Human experience is Google’s Virgin Wood, “human experience is subjected to surveillance capitalism’s market mechanisms and reborn as ‘behaviour”(Page 100) Yet many reviewers will have noticed that this “behavioural surplus” is first and foremost used to influence and manipulate people in the concealed ways described by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957) to convince us to spend money. Packard, decades before Zuboff, described the use of psychology in the process. A second aim, which ventures into our physiological depths, is brought to its conclusion in the outline of Chinese digital strategies. Zuboff contrasts this “hive” with the experience of totalitarianism. Today changing the way we act is the goal, by the soft power of the Big Other This is when such “means of production” are used to introduce wholesale “behavioural modification”, or closer to home, to influence voting.

Whether this adds up to new industrial paradigm and a mode of accumulation is far from clear. Whilst people use Facebook and Google every day they do not work for them. If consumption does not determine production, neither does being on either of them put them at the mercy of a new monopoly of knowledge and power. Downloading books from Yale University Library is not a sign of “information corruption”. The ‘networked individual’, celebrated by Paul Mason, can be free to do, as she or he wants, including organising radical movements against cyber-monopolists. Socialists have much to look forward to by using these tools, not just for politics but potentially for wider social organisation. FIghting for a human future does not just involve changing the mode of regulation of this form of capitalism, it means transforming from within and without to serve people’s needs. 

Surveillance in the Workplace.

Surveillance Capitalism nevertheless asks serious questions about the enhanced digital potential of behaviourist techniques. The market’s ‘invisible hand” has never existed in the labour process. Discipline, from manufacturing to industrial production, from Taylorism and Fordism, to managerial ‘human relations”, has always been tight. Industrial sociologists and psychologists, point to the effects of digital surveillance in recruitment and the workplace, and increased threats to the “sovereignty over one’s own life and authorship of one’s own experience.”(Page 521)

Managerial visions of compulsory self-responsibility in the service of the firm sometimes look like a dystopia to rival Walden Two. In Britain, Universal Credit has extended these methods to the low paid, those in ‘flexible’ precious employment, and the unemployed with unprecedented control and the menace of ‘sanctions’. This, a paradigm from education to work, involves monitoring of the population’s behaviour. It is now digitised – indeed it is impossible  to claim benefits without being “online”. Perhaps Zuboff was just looking in the wrong place.


  1. Jean-François Lyotard Cited Page 193. Les Immatériaux and the postmodern sublime. Paul Crowther. In Judging Lyotard. Edited Andrew Benjamin. Routledge. 1992. Une ligne de resistance. Jean-Francois Lyotard Page 62 a companion issue to the exhibition, Politique fin du siècle. Traverses 33.34. It contains various critiques of the “liberation claimed by the “cybernetic revolution” and foreshadows the debate about ‘accelerationism” machine culture in the writings of authors such as Sadie Plant. Having been at the exhibition I cannot say these portentous claims struck me deeply at the time.
  2. Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action. Shoshana Zuboff. This short text is recommended for those unwilling to plough through the 600 or so pages of Surveillance Capitalism.
  3. Arendt’s debt to Luxembourg is given in Hannah Arendt. Politics, History and Citizenship. Phillip Hansen. Polity Press. 1992. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. David Harvey. Oxford University Press. 2005. Zuboff also draws on Karl Polanyi’s ideas on the shredding of traditional embedded societies by markets.

Written by Andrew Coates

October 13, 2019 at 12:11 pm

Clear, Bright Future. A Radical Defence of the Human Being. Paul Mason. Left Promethean politics?

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Review: Clear, Bright Future. A Radical Defence of the Human Being. Paul Mason. Allen Lane 2019.

“Will you accept the machine control of human beings, or resist it?” asks Paul Mason at the beginning of Clear Bright Future .” He continues, “And if the answer is resist, on what basis will you defend the rights of humans against the logic of machines?”(P xi) Like Shoshana Zuboff in Surveillance Capitalism (2019), the journalist and popular socialist internationalist has written a book on its logic of accumulation, an “anti democratic juggernaut” a “market driven coup from above”. Mason has more explicit political targets, the “acheofuturists” who go backwards to national populism, and forwards by using the latest technology,

“As we approach the 2020s, an alliance of ethnic nationalists, woman-haters, and authoritarian political leaders are tearing the world order to shreds. What unites them is their disdain for universal human rights and their fear of freedom. They love the idea of machine control and, if we let the, they will deploy it aggressively to keep themselves rich, powerful and unaccountable. “(P xii – xiii) (1)

Paul Mason outlines the development of what he has described as “cognitive capitalism” towards new projects, including the development of artificial intelligence (Postcapitalism. 2015.). At times this reminds us of Samuel Butler’s animate or quasi-animate machinery, with a “kind of consciousness”, leading to the war between machinists and anti-machinists (Erewhon 1872) Mason refers to Donna Haraway’s political myth of a “Cyborg” fusion of animal and machine, ending the search for revolutionary subjects. Writings on the transhuman are no longer fantasies as we face the “challenge of machines that can emulate us.” (Page 144)

These interesting speculations are rooted in an outline of the development of neoliberalism. Mason is one of the clearest writers to grapple with the novelty of the post-Trump right. What was seen as an unstoppable movement of history towards a state in which everybody would be forced to be an entrepreneur of the self ran aground in the crises of 2008. One reaction is summed up by Trump’s election. That is to “abandon the neoliberal model, or reshape it in a form whereby every state is fighting for a piece of a smaller pie, an option I’ve labelled ‘national neoliberalism.”(Page 71)

This is a template with wider implications, “for the outright fascists the main grievances were economic, while for the right-wing populists their grievances were cultural, driven by a perceived loss of status among existing working-class communities faced with migration.” (Page 96)  There are many who see in the left-behind, the “périphérique”,a constituency with which to resurrect the sovereignty of nations, have become the focus of the new right wing identity politics that bolsters national neoliberalism.

Universal Human Rights.

This alliance of the top of society and the mob in the Brexit crisis in the UK sees Old Etonians incite nationalist hatred against the rootless cosmopolitans. Mason is clear that against the shock troops of national populism, fed by “..the rejection of our universal humanity” we need to unite “differences in skin colour, face shape, religion and culture” This is the ultimate defence against, “the slide towards both right-wing authoritarians and full-blown fascism. One again, the defence of the concept of the human being, with universal rights, is the key to resisting the slide to chaos.”(P 100)

Those who support internationalism and membership of the EU with the goal of a transformed open-looking Europe will know that Mason has played a public part in our movement. Behind this is a common belief in the democratic revolution grounded in developing movements for human rights. Clear Bright Future offers an overarching strategy against national populism, in which liberals (in the political sense of those who defend liberty) and the left work together, to “develop the strategies that prevent the convergence of conservatism, fascism and the state bureaucracy into a common authoritarian project.”(P 260) Whether this should involve a “popular front” , including Centre parties like the SNP and Liberal Democrats, to defeat Brexit, remains a matter of debate. The howls of the Brexit Bolsheviks against Mason’s contributions to the anti-Brexit camp suggest that he may well be onto something.

Mason tries to place, “digital information inside the physical, world…”(P 131) Against this domination he offers, Marx’s “Free, conscious activity is man’s species-character”. (Page 141) Perhaps less obviously contentiously Mason draws on the humanist Marxism of Raya Dunayevskaya which originated in a small 1940s heterodox ‘state capitalist’ tendency of Trotskyism, the Johnson-Forest group. In this view for Marx, “free will is something humanity can achieve only by changing its social circumstances.”(P 219) Dunayevskaya rejected all forms of vanguard party. She talked of a “vast store of creative energy” that could be unleashed, in a communist society, “the development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom” (2).

Postmodernism and anti-Humanism.

This vision is set against a variety of targets. Postmodernism, he decides without much ado, is an “anti-theory about human beings: their selves are shattered, their agency is gone, their scientific thought is really ideology.”(P 177) Michael Foucault, whose dystopian Panopticon surveillance is not distant from his own images, and whose ‘anti-fascist’ ethics, devised during the last gasps of French ‘Mao-spontex” agitation represented a political retreat, is berated for removing the ‘human dynamic” from history.

A major target is Louis Althusser. In the 1960s the Marxist philosopher rejected ‘humanism’ in the sense of talking about an invariable ‘essence’ and – his principal political target – the new found humanism of the French Communist Party’s official thinkers such as former hard-line Stalinist Roger Garaudy. He was, in this sense, a critics of the bogus ‘humanism’ of parties which remained wedded to the post-Kruschev Soviet Union. More  widely, not many people who’ve read Althusser’s 1970s calls for “class struggle in theory” would agree that he neglected the importance of human willpower in history.

The “existential reason to resist” finds its home in, as with his earlier books, the “networked individual”. This he describes in terms of the cultural logic of postmodernism, “Today the multiple self, the leaky self, the branded self and the disembodied self are all ‘states; recognisable to those habitually immersed in networked.”(P 195) In a sensitive account of value in itself, Mason notes that, millennial identity politics are a small personal space, a “source of strength” of resistance, “to begin from the self, and defend the self, gives their resistance a hard, granular, irreducible quality.”(P 205)

Human rights do not need, and are burdened by, a particular ‘ground’ in one theory of human nature. Dunayevskaya relied on Hegelian dialectics, perhaps not as great a chain as official dialectical materialism, but one that many would disagree with. Human rights are defined by people themselves, often coming from outside existing ideas about what they are, as the first declarations of the rights of women and the rights of those enslaved by colonialism, during the French Revolution demonstrated. It is not up to democrats to define them. For Marxists, for class struggle internationalists, they are part of the fight against national neoliberalism, for our capacity to express solidarity outside of the carcass of “entrepreneurs of the self”.

Left Promethean politics

Paul Mason is sometimes linked to the “accelerationist” left. This arose from a critique of those who would wish – as the Brexit left imagine –to recreate the entrenched trade union and political structures of the 1970s. Against the socialism in one country model “Accelerationism seeks to side with the emancipatory dynamic that broke the chains of feudalism and ushered in the constantly ramifying range of practical possibilities characteristic of modernity.” Clear Bright Future can be seen as a left Promethean politics” that seeks to “accelerate automation” to “unlock the economic power of the new information technologies,  in the same line as much lesser figures promoting ‘total luxury automated communism’. Yet, as Mason says, the threat of climate change is, at present, an absolute limit on future development. (3)

One can discuss the proposals in Clear Bright Future to bring these mechanisms under human control, and to combine Universal Basic Income and Universal basic services. Whether post-capitalism will come or not, is far from clear. The influence of the 1970s left and those hankering after Brexit inside the Labour Party indicates obstacles in Britain alone One thing is certain: Paul Mason is a great comrade whose voice deserves to be listened to as widely as possible. (3)


  1. Page 513. Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for the Future and the New Frontier of Power. Shoshana Zuboff. Profile Books. 2019
  2. Raya Dunayevskaya Archive See also the News and Letters Committees. “News & Letters is a Marxist-Humanist newspaper which was created so that the voices of revolt from below could be heard unseparated from the articulation of a philosophy of liberation. Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-1983) was Chairwoman of the National Editorial Board from its founding in 1955 until her death in 1987. Charles Denby (1907–1983), a Black production worker, was its Editor from 1955 until 1983.”
  3. The Accelerationist Reader  Robin Mackay,  Armen Avanessian 2014.

CWI Split: New Root and Branch Criticisms of the Socialist Party Published.

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The present crisis within the CWI comes as no surprise to us. The only surprise is that it did not come sooner. With sufficient material resources, a rotten regime can last quite some time, as we saw with the Healyites. But in the end, it fell to pieces. This will be the fate of the CWI” (In Defence of Marxism).

The fallout from the CWI split continues.

Socialist Appeal, the ‘Grantite’ wing of the old Militant, has got round to producing their commentary.

This has just been published:

The recent convulsive faction fight and split in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), driven by Peter Taaffe, the General Secretary of SPEW, the Socialist Party of England and Wales, is now plastered all over social media for the world to see. Despite the stream of allegations coming from the Taaffe faction, and the rebuttals from the other side, the dispute in reality centres around prestige politics, a highly pernicious tendency that is invariably fatal in a revolutionary organisation.

It occurs when somebody places his or her personal prestige above all other considerations.

As the title of their piece indicates they intend to give their point of view, as loudly as possible, about their own break with what is now the Socialist Party.

The CWI split of 1991-1992: setting the record straight

The article continues in the same vein,

Prestige politics is closely connected with personal ambition, self-promotion and delusions of grandeur. These things have characterised Peter Taaffe from the very beginning. At first they generally passed unnoticed. Most members of the Militants were unaware of them. But to those, like myself, that worked closely with Taaffe on a daily basis for some years, they soon became quite evident.

Unlike Ted Grant, who was a Marxist theoretician of considerable stature, Peter was a very superficial thinker with no ideas of his own. Insofar as he expressed any, they were all filched from Ted. But Taaffe felt no gratitude to Ted, of whom he was intensely envious. On the contrary, he spent most of his time systematically undermining Ted behind his back, whispering in corners to his group of adepts that Ted was “impossible” to work with.

What Taaffe wanted was an organisation of yes-men and women – unconditional supporters who would never contradict him. Lenin once warned Bukharin: “If you want obedience, you will get obedient fools.” That reads like the epitaph on the grave of the CWI. Over a period, the yes-men and women in the Militant – raw, young careerists, politically ignorant, but greedy for personal advancement, crystallised into a clique, which, behind the backs of the elected bodies, was deciding everything.

That was the real basis of the 1991-1992 split. The rest is pure fable. After nearly 30 years, it is about time we put the record straight.

The following, by contrast,  are long, serious, documents and should be read through.

Just to signal their importance here are some passages.

A matter of prestige

A case study in bureaucratic centralism, prestige politics and rule or ruin sectarianism.

The struggle within the Committee for a Workers International.


The recent split in the forty year old Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) followed the declaration of a Faction by Peter Taaffe and his supporters on the International Secretariat (IS) after they lost a vote at the International Executive Committee (IEC), which is the organisation’s leading body, other than the World Congress itself. The Faction claimed major “political differences” with their opponents on the IEC who represented a considerable majority of national sections and members of the CWI. The Majority were accused of abandoning work in the trade unions and, in a calculated provocation, of capitulating to Identity Politics and “petit-bourgeois Mandelism” i.e., to a reliance on social forces other than the working class. The United States of America and the Irish sections were specifically targeted as culprits.

In affecting to “call things by their proper name”, the Faction described the Majority as a “Non-Faction Faction”. This opportunist and unintentionally comical characterisation did not honestly reflect the nature of the CWI Majority either politically or organisationally. There was no fully formed and homogeneous “Non Faction Faction” but a non-factional opposition with a number of different trends representing some quite diverse trains of thinking. A healthy regime, based on the principles of democratic centralism, would have viewed the emergence of “political differences” as a prelude to a patient extended debate in an attempt to identify and resolve them, not a precipitous rush to a split in order to prevent what the Faction themselves described as “regime change”. Whatever “political differences” that may or may not exist they could never justify the crude organisational methods employed by the Faction to split the International before every last avenue had been explored in an effort to resolve the areas of contention. In splitting the CWI they were responsible for an act of political nihilism in which nothing mattered except their own status and political self-interest.

McInally continues,

The Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP),of which Taaffe has been general secretary since the mid-1960’s, held a conference in late July of this year that was quickly followed by an “international conference” consisting almost exclusively of English and Welsh members, at which a newly “reconstituted CWI” was announced. Those in England and Wales, who support the CWI Majority, were told at the SP conference they had “placed themselves outside the party” i.e., subjected to administrative expulsions without the right of appeal. At the “international” conference, a World Congress of the “re-constituted CWI” was announced which meant the inevitable expulsion of the rest of the Majority internationally. The SP leadership took administrative action against leading supporters of the Majority in England and Wales, including removing them from positions and withholding their wages. In pursuing such tactics the Faction demonstrated its over-arching imperative was the maintenance of power and to secure for themselves the resources of the International including its considerable finances and the CWI “brand” itself. These actions constituted a “coup” by the IS and SP leadership group, the same people in reality, against the overwhelming majority of the CWI.

In making the maintenance of status, power and position their key imperatives the Faction employed a “rule or ruin” methodology, which constituted the worst type of sectarianism and which in this instance meant they calculated splitting the International was a price worth paying to retain their leadership position and, not a secondary consideration, the money. In the process of splitting the CWI they have also split the SP in England and Wales tooin which they have lost some of their best activists, including amongst its more youthful elements.



These events mark a critical juncture in the affairs of the SP which under its current leadership is marked for a process of inevitable descent into irrelevance and isolation. If the leaders of the new International that is emerging from the CWI Majority are to place themselves on a principled, non-sectarian basis, they must do more than denounce the false methods that led to this splitThey must examine and re-examine the whole history of the CWI over the past thirty or more years in particular, including the crisis of 1991-1992, to trace just how this bureaucratic degeneration developed. Only on that basis will they make the contribution they are capable of in the coming period.

This is also interesting from a US perspective – Oakland Socialist.

Another crisis in socialist movement: The split in the CWI

Particularly this:

Taaffe compounded these mistaken perspectives with a blunder of massive proportions: He and the Socialist Party supported Britain leaving the European Union – known as “Brexit”. Oakland socialist has had many articles explaining this issue, and the Socialist Party is not alone in this blunder. Much of the socialist left in the United States supported Brexit, just as many of them either overtly or covertly support the most bloody dictator of this century, Bashar Assad. Taaffe & Co. argue that the vote for Brexit was a working class rebellion against the European Union-imposed austerity. To the degree that workers supported Brexit (and that degree is questionable), it was a “revolt” in the same way as how some workers voted for Trump out of anger at what happened during the Obama years. All reactionary movements of any size have a working class element within them. That doesn’t change their nature. Brexit may have had some working class support, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was based on the idea that British workers and British capitalists have more in common than do British workers and their fellow workers throughout the European Union. It doesn’t change the fact that it was an anti-immigrant vote. (Not all workers who voted for Brexit are xenophobes, but that doesn’t change matters either.)

In any case, the ultimate responsibility for austerity lies with global capitalism, not with the European Union, which is merely recognizing this accomplished fact. It is more obvious now than ever as Britain edges closer to a trade deal with the United States if and when it leaves the EU. Such a deal will mean austerity and destruction of the British health care system on a scale many times worse than anything the EU imposed. Not only that, but as the departure from the EU looms, British politics is turning to the right. The looming Brexit has brought the British version of Donald Trump to power in the person of Boris Johnson. It has also strengthened the divisions within the Labour Party and weakened Jeremy Corbyn.

Another recent articles

The Split in the CWI: Lessons for Trotskyists

The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) has split in two. Is one side adapting to identity politics and abandoning the working class? Is the other losing touch with new mass movements against oppression?

Update: Comment.

While many of the criticisms of the CWI/Socialist Party seem organisational and party focused (comrades remark)  it is interesting that the US Oakland Socialist has begun to listen to the internationalist left on the issue of Brexit, which, for obvious reasons, plays a big part in British politics.

It is worth noting that the SP promoted this chap’s organisation, (which received funding from the far-right Arron Banks), Trade Unionists Against the EU,  during the Brexit referendum.


Written by Andrew Coates

August 14, 2019 at 12:56 pm

Maoism. A Global History. Julia Lovell. A Socialist Review.

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Maoism. A Global History. Julia Lovell. Bodley Head. 2019.

Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are “poor and blank”. This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for changes the desire for action and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.

Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong.

“Introducing a Co-operative” (April 15, 1958).

One of the “most significant and complicated political forces of the modern world” for Julia Lovell, Maoism is “A potent mix of party-building discipline, anti-colonial rebellion and ‘continuous revolution”, grafted onto the secular religion of Soviet Marxism”. The legacy of Mao-Zedong “unlocks the contemporary history of China”. It is equally a “key influence on global insurgency, insubordination and intolerance across the last eighty years.” (Page 7) At the conclusion of this wide-ranging synthesis, covering the history of 20th century China, and the “significant afterlife” of Maoist inspired uprisings and groupuscules, “case studies in radicalisation” across the globe, the author asks of the Chairman’s homeland, “How will the PRC weather the contrast between the CCP’s Maoist heritage and the hybrid, globalised nature of contemporary China?” (Page 465)

What is Maoism? A Global History paints a portrait of Mao, of rural origin, who placed his faith in the peasantry and produced the 1927 Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan. Marx, Lovell asserts, had dismissed the mid-19th century French peasants as a “sack of potatoes”, a reference to their wretched conditions in isolated smallholdings. Marx believed that attachment to their post-Revolution property was one of the social bases for Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire. Mao recognised a revolutionary social force in Chinese rural associations. It might be suggestive that this Emperor began his career by creating a “religion that represents and fights for the toiling farmers” put into practice through “a brief reign of terror in every rural area” (Page 34) (1)

Maoism a system of ideas and practices was, Lovell considers, born out of the brutal repression by the 1927 nationalists of their Communist allies. A hitherto loose organisation, inspired by the Russian Revolution, founded in 1921, it had entered a military based alliance with the Guomindang, on instructions from the Moscow run Third International. The violence unleashed by Chiang Kai-Shek was dramatised in André Malraux’s outstanding la Condition Humaine (1933). The French novelist underlined, like the present pages, the Soviet influence on making the disastrous alliance, and imposing the Leninist line that the peasantry would follow the urban workers (“le paysan suit toujours” dit Vologuine “Ou l‘ouvrier, ou le bourgeois. Mais il suit.”).

In the Countryside. 

In 1927 the nationalists and gangsters tried to exterminate the Communists, beginning by massacring communists and union members in their newly won Shanghai stronghold. The result was not only recriminations against Moscow, but the rise of “men like Mao from outside the first generation of elite intellectual leaders” who began “to assert the primacy of the military and of violence.” (Page 30) A strategy of the countryside following the city was replaced by a struggle in the rural areas. Regrouped the armed party began the Long March to escape the military campaign. Entrenched in remote districts the Chinese Communists (who became the CCP) expanded their territory until they led the national liberation struggle against the Japanese occupation.

In the early 1930s Mao had started his own purges, preceding Stalin’s Great Terror. “The most merciless torture” was ordered to “expose ‘Anti-Bolshevik conspirators”. Tens of thousands were murdered. The “radical sacrifice” (Terry Eagleton) by the Communists themselves was melded into extreme violence against others, including suspect Party members. This is an enduring pattern. A Global History resounds with memorable accounts of the brutality of Maoist uprising and the policies of the CPC, in war, at home and by their allies in North Korea and Kampuchea. They are not diminished by the American interventions in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and vicious efforts of states to exterminate Mao inspired insurgencies.

Many readers will be most affected by some of the opening chapters. Edgar Snow’s 1937 glowing portrait of the Communist North West in Red Star over China made an enduring impression across the world. Yan’an was no only a centre of heroic resistance; it “projected a reverence for culture”. In 1942 – 3 the less celebrated repression of the ‘Rectification Campaign’ indicated how Mao reacted to anybody bringing up the “dark side” of life in the base areas. Known as the Yan’an Literary Opposition (Gregor Benton)  they cast doubt on Communist pretensions to egalitarianism and popular participation. Amongst these dissident voices Lovell focuses on Wang Shiwei, who had studied in Moscow and was a talented translator and writer. In Wild Lily Shiwei launched heartfelt criticisms of Communist dogmatism, lack of human warmth and kindness. Above all he focused on the hierarchy and privileges that marked out life in the redoubt. The Communists allocated, by rank, three classes of clothing and five grades of food. Why was this not allocated “on the basis of need and reason”. Why should healthy “big shots” get more than the sick of lower rank? Subordinates “look upon them as a race apart”. (2)

Mao did not tolerate this. Wang was hauled up to a Show Trial. His fellow critics were humiliated into public self-criticism during “struggle sessions”. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were locked up in the caves. Charged and condemned Wang survived for a while, working in a matchbox factory. He was exhibited to journalists to say, “I am a Trotskyist. I attacked Mao. So I deserve to be executed.” Yet, “Mao is so magnanimous” and that he was “grateful for his mercy.” The Party leader’s forgiveness was short lived. The Communist dissident was hacked to death in 1947, it is said, on Mao’s orders. (3)

The Stalinist Terror Foundation.

This was founding moment in defining Maoism. These “Stalinist terror tactics” meant those under suspicion as “unreliable”, whether educated in the critical spirit of the “cosmopolitan Enlightenment” (Wang had translated Trotsky and Engels), or just grumblers, suffered imprisonment. Many were killed when it was convenient. From the Hundred Flowers Campaign in the 1950s, when criticism was invited, to the Cultural Revolution, when it was called for again, those who opened their hearts and spoke out found themselves subject to “thought reform” in vast gaols, and death.

There was another side to the Maoist template. Those who focus on the CCP’s achievements might draw some comfort in the description of the “co-operative movement” launched at the same time. Land reform and “social levelling” in their territory coincided with the Rectification campaign.

This two-pronged strategy, suppression of dissidents and material improvement, and suppression of exploiting classes, for the masses, was the “process through which Mao created a disciplined party and bureaucracy”. For Lovell it served as a template for ‘high Maoism’ – combining extreme violence against a variety of enemies with servitude to the ‘mass line’. Rebellion co-existed with the cult of Mao and Mao Zedong Thought.

A Global History draws on Frank Dikötter’s landmark studies to trace out the history of the People’s Republic. From the great enthusiasm that followed liberation, accompanied with repression to the mass famines of the Great Leap Forward, a break-neck industrialisation and collectivisation campaign, which in rural areas resembled the tragedy of the Holodomor, right up the Cultural Revolution, one can feel the CCP leadership’s disregard for human life. In the same year, 1958, Mao was prepared to add nuclear war to the human costs of his social gestures. “Maybe we can get the United States to drop an atom bomb on Fijian.” Mao spoke to his doctor, “Maybe ten or twenty million people will be killed.” (Page 133) Mao’s solipsism and egotism extended to his personal life. His ‘feminism’ did not prevent him from amassing  a female seralogio, imposing his personal quirks on others,  and boorish behaviour.  (4)

Cultural Revolutions.

1966 saw the launching of the Cultural Revolution, broadcast worldwide with hopes of global revolution. “Chinese propaganda portrayed Mao as the genius saviour of the world revolution: battling Western imperialists, treacherous Soviet revisionists and capitalist scabs in his own party.”(P 125) Mao had broken with Khrushchev over de-Stalinism and peaceful coexistence with the West. Apart from the formal allegiance of Albania to China’s line, the first small stirrings of a pro-Chinese current in the international Communist movement had begun before the Cultural Revolution. In Australia, and elsewhere, for example, in France, pro-Chinese activists took the label “Marxist-Leninist”. For these and similar groups across the world, Lovell notes, Chinese support was largely an affair of sending glossy magazines, small publication subsidies, and invitations to bathe in the glow of the Mao cult in China itself. (5)

In portraying the ‘Mao mood’ that took hold in small circles of the non-Chinese left Lovell does not distinguish between these early, ‘first wave’ dogmatic and Stalin nostalgic M-L groups from the much more heteroclite surge of ‘soft Maoist’ groupuscules who flourished in the wake of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This proliferation of different factions was possible because, amongst other reasons, there was no centralised Maoist ‘International’ on Comintern lines. 

“Maoist fever”, fashion caught hold in many countries. I was on display in 1967 in Mao-jacket mannequin photo shots in Lui and the pages of the avant-garde literary journal Tel Quel in France, a centre of the craze. May 68 brought this to the fore, with the Gauche Prolétarienne attempting to create a ‘Mao-spontex’ synthesis based on the spontaneity of the masses, in its wake. Bizarrely, as Simon Leys pointed out in his 1970s writings, the Cultural Revolution was pictured as “anti-authoritarian” and its leaders internationalists. In reality the factions battling it out in China constantly used authoritative police and ‘mass’ measures to repress dissent and – in the Party – its supporters were dyed in the wool xenophobes (Les habits neufs du président Mao: chronique de la ” Révolution culturelle . 1971. (5).

A Global History coasts over these movements, such as the German K groups, and the Italian Red Brigades. While alighting on the Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Action Movement, she does not include much on the groups that have been called part of the New Communist Movement, of importance on the US left, which endured till the 1970s. Terrorist violence, associated with but independent of Maoism failed – Action Directe in 1980s France was perhaps the only case of a group with full-blown Maoist origins. Above all, “Dogmatic loyalty to the theory of the Cultural Revolution and to the twists and turns of Chinese domestic foreign policy” took their toll. Mao’s death in 1976 and the fall of the Gang broke whatever remained of the Cultural Revolution. From that wreckage Bob Avikin’s initiative, the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement created in 1984, represents a low point. A more lasting influence can be seen in the ‘post-Maoist’ parties, the Belgium Parti du travail / Partij van de Arbeid van België, and the Dutch Socialist Party, Socialistische Partij, which have dropped the Marxist-Leninist heritage and have won Parliamentary and local representation in their countries.

Much of the Post-68 New Left, Trotskyist, anarchist and radical socialist, often strongly influenced by Simon Leys, either made fun of the hard-core Maoists or treated them with contempt. Our humour was misplaced, as Lovell describes, when in 2013 ‘Comrade Bala”, Aravindan Balakrishnan, was found to have kept female members of his cult, the Brixton based Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought was found to have kept women in sexual slavery kept in line by physical assault.

Maoism Across the World.

A Global History spends more time on the weightier political impact of Maoism, in Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Peru, India, African countries and Nepal. Lovell offers serious insights into the way Maoist intolerant tactics, that is violence, inflected deeply rooted fights for national liberation and social justice. It is hard not to keep in mind the example of Cambodia, “The go-it-alone nationalism of Mao’s revolution combined with the Khmer Rouge’s innate jingoism to produce the murderous self confidence of Pol Pot’s regime, a state unanswerable o any external authority.” (Page 257), Or the impact of China’s backing for the genocidal attack by the Pakistani army and Islamist collaborators against the Bangladeshi national liberation struggle in 1971.

In contrast to the largely for show support given to pro-Chinese groups, military and other aid in many of these cases was real. She offers reservations not just on the intoxicated cult of the Shining Path, which emerged fiercely critical of post-Mao China, but on the strategies carried out in the People’s War, the lead up to the genocidal crushing of Indonesian Communism, contemporary India, and the Nepalese Maoists, now in government. They too have practiced cultural revolutionary purges. Yet, Even passionate critics of the Maoists– of whom there are many in Kathmandu, across the political spectrum – concede that the Maoists accelerated, and placed centre stage, a more inclusive identity politics that sought to given political representation to the people of Nepal in all their diversity’ (Page 410)

Today the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) remains indebted to Mao Zedong and has called for a vote for the Brexit Party. Naxalite guerrillas in the Indian jungle pursue their insurgency, the President of China, Xi Jinping, is said to be reviving Mao’s ‘mass line’. Yet those who would say that Mao had written beautiful characters on the revolutionary history of the 20th century are few in number. In Maoism. A Global History Julia Lovell has accomplished a harder task: writing out in clear deeply thought-through pages one of the most important balance-sheets of Mao’s sombre legacy to have been published in the new millennium. Its measured criticisms of Maoist revolutionary cruelty make it essential reading for all democratic socialists and supporters of human rights.

In August 2018, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be being detained in the western Xinjiang region, where they’re said to be undergoing “re-education” programmes.

The claims were made by rights groups, but China denies the allegations. At the same time, there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in Xinjiang.




  1. The idea that Karl Marx dismissed the peasantry rests on a partial reading of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1869) Marx wrote of the majority of smallholding peasants formed “by the simple addition of isomorphous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.” But he also asserted that Bonapartism, as the representation of those who wish to “consolidate the condition of his social existence, the small holding. It does not represent the country people who want to overthrow the old order by their own energies, in alliance with the town.” Page 240. Surveys from Exile. Karl Marx. Editor David Fernbach. 1973.
  2. “From the amount of grain, sugar, cooking oil, meat and fruit to the quality of healthcare and access to information, one’s position in the party hierarchy determined everything. Even the quality of tobacco and writing paper varied according to rank.” Page 174. Mao’s Great Famine Frank Dikötter. Bloomsbury 2010. Link.
  3. Link. Lovell says, “Wang was denounced as a Trotskyist (he had translated Engels and Trotsky). His supporters were “investigated in a witch-hunt for spies and undercover agents, they were interrogated in front of large crowds shouting slogans, made to confess in endless indoctrination meetings and forced to denounces each other in a bid to save themselves. Some were locked in caves, others taken to mock executions. For month after month, life in Yan’an was nothing but a relentless succession of interrogations and rallies feeding fear, suspicion and betrayal. “(P 175) Some broke down, lost their minds or committed  suicide. “Mao demanded absolute loyalty from intellectuals, who had to reform themselves ideologically by constantly studying and discussing essays by him, Stalin and others.”(Ibid) The Rectification Campaign was ended in 1945 he apologised for maltreatment and blamed his underlings. Wang Shiwei was killed in 1947, reportedly chopped to pieces and thrown down a well. Translations are contained in the excellent, highly recommended, dossier on Lib Com: Yenan Literary Opposition.
  4. “The one-party state under Mao did not concentrate all its resources on the extermination of specific groups of people – with the exception, of course of counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs, spies and other ‘enemies of the people’, political categories vague enough potentially to include anybody and everybody. But Mao did throw the country in the great leap forward, extended the military structure of the party to all society. ‘Everyone a soldier’, Mao had proclaimed at the height of the campaign, brushing aside such bourgeois niceties as a salary, a day off each week or a prescribed limit on the amount of labour a worker should carry out. A giant people’s army in the command economy would respond to every beck and all of its generals. Every aspect of society was organised on military lines with canteens, boarding kindergartens, collective dormitories, shock troops and villages construed to be foot soldiers. –In a continuous revolution. “(P 298 – 299) Frank Dikötter op cit.

  5. See: Chapters one and Two.  Les maoïstes. La folle histoire des gardes rouges français. Christophe Bourseiller. 2nd Edition. Plon. 2008 This is particularly informative: PEKING REVIEW AND GLOBAL ANTI-IMPERIALIST NETWORKS IN THE 1960S Hatful of History.

  6. See also Chinese Shadows  Simon Leys, 1977. 

Written by Andrew Coates

August 13, 2019 at 12:23 pm

Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School. Stuart Jeffries. A Review, Grand Theory.

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“Terrific” Book.

From the latest – July/August – Chartist Magazine (For Democratic Socialism).

“The Frankfurt School combined Marxist thought with psychoanalytical theory as believed people were socially and economically as well as sexually repressed. Religion, the family, marriage, heterosexuality and gender hierarchies, were all viewed as part of the problem,” explains the Stop RSE campaign. Supporters of the vociferous  protests against “compulsory sex education” promoting ‘gay’ issues in Birmingham primary schools are far from the only ones to seize on the writings of Jürgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer. Stuart Jeffries writes “..a conspiracy theory” alleges that the Frankfurt school “developed something that overturned traditional values”, by promoting “multiculturalism, political correctness, homosexuality and collectivist economic ideas.”

“It would be Marxist,” its first director Carl Grünberg announced, “in that it adhered to Marxism as a scientific methodology”. The Swiss architect Sascha Roessler called the building in an “austere cube” that housed the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) that opened in 1924 ” a “symbolism of retreat”.

The believer in the ‘actuality of the Revolution’, György Lukács, remarked that in the Grand Hotel Abysses, you looked at the world wrapped up in comfort. They were Mandarins. Even an admirer, Gillian Rose would say “instead of politicising academia, it academised politics.” After Stalinism and the Nazi regime, the Frankfurt theorists would come, for writers like Perry Anderson, to embody the pessimism born out of Western Marxism’s divorce between theory and political practice.

The Frankfurt thinkers did not become famous for Grünberg’s programme of investigation into the history of socialism and economic theory. A growing scepticism was not just affected by the defeat of the post Great War German Revolution. They questioned Marxist ideas about humans defining and liberating themselves through work. Modern capitalism took labour in its grip. It equally took over leisure through the ‘culture industry’. Walter Benjamin saw the Paris arcades, as spaces in which a ‘new social world’, ‘temples of capitalism’ took shape. This picture of a few – now out of the way – enclosed shopping passages, has inspired many later writers. Benjamin aimed to “recast Marxisms for a new consumerist era in which we were in thrall to commodities.” As Jeffries points out, the Frankfurters are remembered largely for the importance they gave to analysing culture as an ‘instruments of capitalism’.

Grand Theory.

If you want Grand Theory the Frankfurt School offered it in plenty. The Grand Hotel Abyss deftly weaves through Benjamin’s celebrated efforts to undermine Marxist, more properly Second International, and belief in its leading role in the inevitable progress of History. This could be said to extend Georges Sorel’s attack on the bourgeois Illusions of Progress (les illusions du progrès. 1908). ‘Negative thinking’ in the writings of Adorno and Marcuse was not just a break with the optimistic positivism that the French writer attacked. It was a reaction to the failures of socialism; the Nazi victories and the Soviet show trials and gulags. What is, “the forces that were to bring about the transformation are suppressed and appear to be defeated?”

Jeffries does not stand back from probing this aspect of the Frankfurt school. That reason has turned out to be a new form of domination, when they tried to demolish it “with its own tools.” The Grand Hotel steps into the murky waters of the Hegelian inspired dialectics employed to demolish the claims of ‘the Enlightenment’. A famous episode, when Adorno confronted Karl Popper, saw their pretensions challenged. The defender of the Open Society, who for all his faults as a political thinker had a deep knowledge of scientific method, maths and formal logic, which was not the case for the Marxist Hegelian, ended up talking across each other. The writer whose work was an attack on positivism was charged with…positivism.


The Frankfurt School are often described as terrific snobs who regretted the loss of traditional high art and intellectual modernism and scorned mass culture. Jeffries calls some of their writings on this “incredibly patronising”. Marcuse also talked in Freudian terms of the manipulation of sexuality and need: Eros was controlled and subordinated. His search for a new revolutionary subject to replace the working class in the “one dimensional society” saw his books being taken up by New Left movements which, if often transient, were at the forefront of calls for sexual and social liberation. More detached Adorno and Horkheimer reacted with hostility to the protests of the 1960s, and attacked student activists who disrupted the, their, universities.

The Grand Hotel Abyss is full of memorable detail. One is a meeting between Sartre and Marcuse. The existentialist turned New Leftist managed to give the author of One Dimensional Man the impression he had read his works in depth, without ever having opened a page. This was just as well. Marcuse managed to cite favourably in that book, at length, Roland Barthes’ Le Degré zero de l’écriture without twigging that, amongst many other topics, Barthes was attacking Sartre’s idea of ‘committed’ writing.

Jeffries achieves that hard task of making abstract ideas accessible. It interweaves biographical material on the thinkers’ Jewish background, their fraught relationship with Marxism and the socialist movement, and the shadows of Nazism and Stalinism. Jeffries suggests that, after a period of neglect in their writings, a revival of interest in the potentially emancipatory side is underway. That may well be true. In the meantime this is a terrific book to get them going.

Andrew Coates.

Written by Andrew Coates

July 4, 2019 at 4:23 pm

A Critical Account of Laclau and Mouffe on Populism. Part One.

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A Socialist Critique of Laclau and Mouffe, from Discourse to Populism.

“Enfants, enfants, je vous le dis: montez sur une montagne, pourvu qu’elle soit assez haute, regardez aux quatre vents, vous ne verrez qu’enemies.”

Children, children, I say this to you, climb a mountain, providing that it’s high enough, look in all directions, and you will see but enemies.”

Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846. (1)

Ernesto Laclau (1935 – 2014) was a political theorist, perhaps best known as a ‘post-Marxist’. The former Professor Political Theory at Essex University, he is attributed the founder of the Essex School of Discourse Analysis, and is best known today for his book on a topic which has recently come to dominate politics, On Populist Reason (2005). The Belgium born Chantal Mouffe, his partner, has, like Laclau, passed the major part of her career in British higher education. Their joint book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1986) made a splash, as a critique of class based Marxism that tried to deal with ‘new social movements’. Readers of Marxism Today during the period would have been familiar with the two names, as well as the often virulent critiques of their turn. Norman Geras began with an attack on  “a procession of erstwhile Marxists” (Post Marxism? 1987) But since that time Mouffe, like Laclau, seemed consigned to the decent obscurity of the University.

To the surprise of many in the new century Laclau and Mouffe spread their wings much further than academia. Posthumously Laclau has joined the select group of radical thinkers who have passed from youthful left activism, to being considered, not least by some players on the European left, a real influence on practising politicians. Pablo Iglesias, and Íñigo Errejón, have cited the Argentine born academic as an inspiration for the strategy of their political party, the Spanish Podemos founded in 2014. For those of an historical spirit they may indicate that the tie between radical left-wing Theory and Practice, apparently broken by the decades of Stalinism and the Cold War, and rendered even more marginal by the collapse of Official Communism, has been re-forged.

Mouffe was, and remains, very visible, at least in that select part of the political world that reads the Guardian, the New Statesman, El País, le Monde, and other European heavyweight dailies and magazines. Perhaps the high-water moment of her political influence was seen in her dialogue with leading Podemos figure, Íñigo Errejón in 2016, Podemos In the Name of the People. Mouffe has had the ear of the undisputed leader of the largest French left party now represented in the Assemblée Nationale, La France insoumise (LFI), created in 2016 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mouffe and Laclau and Mouffe’s influence on Mélenchon and his advisers, particularly during the 2017 Presidential Election, has drawn the attention of the francophone media. The interest, originating in his personal formation in the Argentinian left,  of Laclau in Latin American populism, and relation to the Bolivarian Revolution – a key theme of the chief of LFI – in countries such as Venezuela drew attention and criticism. (2)

Left Populism.

A degree of scepticism about Laclau and Mouffe’s impact is nevertheless needed. The dispute between Errejón and Iglesias indicates that they are thinkers, and above all politicians in their own right. There are even greater doubts about whether anybody outside his inner circle marked Mélenchon’s left populist L’ère du peuple, Mouffe is clearly heard. Whether her recent suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is also “left populist” will lead a British audience to follow the “clues” for successful radicalism Owen Jones saw in the 2016 book remains less probable. Left populism has not been able to construct a ruling political bloc through on electoral victory. Efforts to go beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the traditional sense have not been crowned with success. Podemos lost seats in the Spanish General Election, and Mélenchon’s La France insoumise has descended to below 10% in the poll. The Bolivarian Revolution has not turned out well, to say the least. (3)

It remains an attractive speculation that Laclau and Mouffe have created a Mirror for the Modern Left Populist Prince. The issue of Populism, which they have covered for many years, is important at the present. This is only one example of how their works might be mined for insights: “As Laclau foresaw” writes Jade Azim, “the success of populist movements depends on a symbolic signifier that can unite varied demands under a single umbrella.” For Nigel Farage, “The Brexit party’s empty signifier is Brexit, uniting a variety of voters under its banner; Farage loyalists, grassroots Conservatives, George Galloway, and the Communist Party. Its genius lies in its simplicity: an ideologically empty home for those angry at what they perceive as a Brexit betrayal by corrupt elites.” One awaits the response of Corbyn’s inner circle to her proposal that the party counter attacks with, “a unifier akin to “Get On With it”, in the context of winning security for businesses and workers alike..”  Apart from the fact that even the Communist Party of Britain has yet to endorse Farage, what kind emotional affect would tie a voter to this “unifier” – which says essentially, I’m not interested. (4)

In the revival of interest in Laclau. though with more detail about his views on populism, Phil writes,

Does Laclau offer any insights? Widening the possibility for the co-option of demands is one. Indeed, what we’re likely to see before the next general election is the wholesale adoption of hard Brexit by the Tories, at least for the cameras and papers anyway. But ultimately, getting down and dirty in the guts of populism is what’s necessary. We know the logic, but the logic isn’t free-floating. It is fed. Elaborating the programme for older voters, who tend to power right populism more than any other demographic, looking at the myriad of unsaid demands and grievances the Brexit chain of equivalence scoops up, challenges us to think about ways of co-opting them and neutralising them. It’s a task easier said than done, and one much harder than Laclau’s book, but done it must be if we are to detoxify politics and banish the hard right from political efficacy permanently.

Laclau on Populism

Phil observes that vagueness and a rhetoric that reveals the “materiality of words” lies at the heart of a wide spectrum of populism.  This is to ignore, in Most recent writings, the importance of emotional ‘affects’. It’s is hard to believe that “re-copting” the nationalist rhetoric of, say, the Brexit Party, its cries of Betrayal, its loathing of Europe,  into an alternative ‘left populism’ based on the ‘People’ can avoid giving credence to the super-charged right-wing ideas used.  Indeed this has been a main charge against La France insoumise, which has sought, endlessly, to make its own chain of equivalence work.  Left politics are based on new demands that break from established ideas, not to mention prejudices, and the xenophobia and racism that have fed the Brexit movement. FInally, language is not ‘out there’, the populists produced them within material party apparatuses, amply funded by sections of the hard-right bourgeoisie. They are “popular” only in the sense that a movement like 19th century French Boulangism was, a plebeian movement funded by fractions of capital that supported French monarchism, and anti-Semites engaged in a struggle with ‘Jewish’ capital. (5)

Perry Anderson on Laclau Today.

This is far from the end of the story. Works, from their joint Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) and final writings on ‘rhetoric’, have much wider implications. Mouffe’s essays on political theory, up to Agonistics (2013) the discussion with Errejón, and For a Left Populism (2018) have an enormous range of references, from Gramcsi to Frédéric Lordon.  Are the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe, to cite only a few, on the “empty” and “floating” signifier in the discursive forms that construct the People Against a Them – an Other which Mouffe was to frame in terms adapted from Carl Schmitt as the “Enemy” – guides for radical let alone socialist politics? Perry Anderson, with commendable generosity, has said that Laclau and Mouffe writings of of thirty years ago, which argued for a break with Marxist “economism” and for a “new pluralism” based on radical democracy, and for a “politically constructed collective will” were “augers of the reaction against neo-liberalism”. They anticipated the conditions for the rise of Populism, the present, “when deindustrialisation had shrunk and divided the working class leaving a much more fragmented social landscape and a multiplication of movements, of right and left contesting the established order in the name of the people” – populism, a “bug bear of elites. (6)

The New Leftist remarked critically, if, one may gives him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he still considers himself  committed to some socialist ideas,  that in Laclau’s On Populist Reason “reference to socialism fades altogether, and populism take over hegemony as the more pointed and powerful signifier of the inherently contingent unification of democratic demands – which in isolation would equally well be woven into an anti-democratic discourse – into a collective will. Bound together by a common set of symbols and affective ties to a leader, and insurgent people can then confront the regnant powers of their society, across the dividing-line of dichotomous antagonism between the two.” Everything becomes an affair of “articulation” joining voices together an attempt to construct a progressive populism embedded in the “national popular” to fight this battle for a “populist rupture”. As Anderson indicated, the People against the Elite, the Oligarchy, comes also in a National Populist guise, the Nations against more enemies than even Jules Michelet could have dreamt up. How these could be articulated into a left movement, other than a ‘red-brown’ or, at best, a ‘Blue Labour’ one that sympathises with them, is never explained. (7)

There are deeper problems with the views of Laclau and Mouffe. Their exaggerated interest in constructing “popular hegemony” (federating the people as Mélenchon’s supporters call it) and blindness towards what Perry Anderson called the “normal forms of hegemony” that of the dominant classes. But assessing Laclau and Mouffe is not easy. The response leads us from theoretical abstractions that would make an E.P.Thompson belch in his tomb, to some of the thorniest issues confronting the present day left. To begin, but not end, they include the nature of the discourse theory that replaced ideology in their work, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘articulation’ in politics, Mouffe’s sketch of ‘agonistic democracy’ right up to the overlaying of class politics by ‘populism’, national identity and sovereignty. As Mouffe put it, “Introducing her latest book the political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes that post-democracy “signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalisation.” (8)

This complex of theory, often described as abstract, if not rebarbative, is beyond doubt influential, if hardly accessible to a popular audience.  (9)

It is also profoundly wrong implying a shift and opening to Sovereigntist ideas, and has potentially damaging effects in destroying the historic class and ideological basis of the left.

Next section…..from Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory,  Slavoj Žižek. to On Populist Reason….


  1. Page 41 Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846
  2. There are hundreds of articles on this see :Les dangereux affects de Chantal Mouffe. Laurent Joffrin. 2018 Chantal Mouffe, la philosophe préférée de Mélenchon, Corbyn, Iglesias…  Chantal Mouffe, gurú del Podemos de España y del Frente Amplio: “Hay que votar por Guillier”
  3. La influencia de Laclau y Mouffe en Podemos.  Miguel Sanz Alcántara. One of the founders of Podemos cited in their piece, Juan Carlos Monedero, has stated that the impact of Laclau-Mouffe “populist hypothesis” on the party has been framed a posteriori. See for example  Las debilidades de la hipótesis populista y la construcción de un pueblo en marcha. Mélenchon pays homage a number of times to Laclau and Mouffe in Le Choix de l’insoumission (2016). But it is far from rare for a French politician to garnish her or his intellectual authority with weighty sounding influences.
  4. What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party. New Statesman. 15th of May 2019.
  5.  See “Boulanger’s appeal as a nationalist was added appeal in the face of disillusionment with the Republic installed on 4 September 1870 and gradually solidified during the 1870s, the Third Republic (1870–1940). To most republicans, especially since 1848, the Republic had meant “the social and democratic Republic,” but the Republic now in power seemed to foster big business and industry. The severe recession of 1882, which hit farmers and increased unemployment, particularly in construction and textiles, increased resentment against the Republic among workers, artisans, and small-businesspeople. This resentment was further increased by a corruption scandal that broke in October 1887. President Jules Grèvy’s son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, who lived in the presidential residence, was selling his influence on the president: payment to Wilson was a sure way to get the Legion of Honor. The president was forced to resign at the end of 1887.” “The affair led directly to a new right. Until Boulangism, nationalism had been linked to the Revolutionary tradition of the levée en masse (the nation at arms) and royalists had disdained it. Now nationalists began to envisage authoritarian methods. In the mid-1880s, under a journalist named Paul Déroulède (1846–1914), La ligue des patriotes (the Patriots’ League) developed a new vision: the way to rebuild the nation was to inculcate obedience among the people and authority among their leaders. Monarchists and other conservatives who had initially disdained Boulanger soon saw the value of this kind of nationalism through Boulanger’s ability to draw popular support. If they could not restore the monarchy, they could use this nationalism to aim at an authoritarian regime based on values of nationalism, deference, and hierarchy. And conservatives learned about mass politics. The Dreyfus affair would further hasten their learning process.”
  6. Gramsci’s Heirs. Perry Anderson. New Left Review No 100. 2016. Socialist Strategy Where Next ? January 1981 Marxism Today. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Verso. 1985.
  7. Page 80. Gramsci’s Heirs
  8.  For a Left Populism. Chantal Mouffe 2018. Verso.
  9. For an overview see the review of Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique. David Howarth. by Will Horner.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm

A World to Win. The Life and Works of Karl Marx. Sven-Eric Liedman. A Marxist Review.

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A World to Win. The Life and Works of Karl Marx. Sven-Eric Liedman. Verso. 2018. Translated by Jeffrey N. Skinner. (This appears in the latest Chartist magazine).

“I have attempted to explain not only who Marx was in his time” announces Sven-Eric Liedman, “but why he remains a vital source of inspiration today.” This major biography, published in Swedish in 2015, aims to offer a “portrait of Marx unobscured by what happened after his death.”

The book is also, the Preface to this English edition explains, a counterweight to Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion, which appeared (2016) after the present work’s original publication. Jones, he asserts, tends to overshadow Marx’s own writings through his detailed portraits of the inspiration of his thought, and the early socialist and workers’ movement. Jones saw Marx’s crowning achievement in the years when the International Working Men’s Association, the First International, began to flourish, from 1864 to 1869. In that study this was the period when the author of Capital deployed “a language with which politically aware working men at the time could identify”.

Stedman Jones is known for an interest in the way language forms class. But he also stated that Marx was buoyed up by the belief that, “the process of a transition from the capitalist mode of production towards the society of associated producers had already begun.” It was this that propelled him to reach out to the activists in trade unions and the co-operative movement, associations that could change the course of history. It is from these origins that ‘Marxism’ took political shape.

Liedman, by contrast, is inspired by the approach of the largely German New Marx Reading (neue Marx-Lektüre) of figures such as Hans Georg Backhaus. This aims to show Marx’s ideas, not the Marxism that developed inside these movements. A large part of A World to Win is taken up with the conceptual analysis of Marx’s categories, from the method announced in the 1859 Introduction to the Grundrisse, that work itself, and the “unfinished Masterpiece” of Capital.

Marx nevertheless stood out as more politically active “than any other political thinker in the nineteenth century”. “In his own time”, Liedman states, “Marx was almost exclusively known as a politician.” He was “allied with the working class” acting for their liberation, the pivot of “the liberation of all humanity.” Liedman’s account of Marx’s involvement in radical German ‘young Hegelian politics’ is largely philosophical. But he soon brings the issue of industrialisation, the Industrial Revolution to the fore. The account of the 1848 Revolutions, above all in France, lacking Jones’ familiarity with  (largely French)  utopian socialism and communism, Christian social thinking, and early social democratic politics, portrays the bond between social and political revolution.

The International.

In the late 1860s Marx made a significant contribution to the International. While advancing his views on the “abolition of the wages system”, this involved “compromising” with a variety of socialist, anarchist and trade union forces. Spreading the word of “solidarity” between workers’ struggles (the body’s prime aim), to the “duty of the working classes to conquer political power” allowed for leeway between opposing viewpoints. But the months of the Paris Commune in 1871 saw Marx convinced again that “bloody conflicts as part of social development that would be hard to avoid.”

Liedman is less informative than Stedman Jones on why many of the British trade unionists recoiled from the Commune. It was not just that they considered it “rash” and “hopeless”. Their lack of sympathy extended to its plans for federal self-government faced with what was already the foundation, under initial Orléanist, constitutional Monarchist, and constitutional republican leadership, of the French Third Republic. Marx’s social democratic and republican rival, Louis Blanc, the veteran of the 2nd Republic, who would go on to serve in that Republic’s National Assembly, enjoyed great influence over the British radical movement. (2)

A World to Win gives substance to the ideas that Marx developed. This ranges from a discussion of Method, from the 1959 Introduction to the Grundrisse, the traps of the ‘metaphors’ of base and superstructure, the category of the “totality”, dialectics, form and content. There is a more accessible account of Marx’s studies of technology, machinery, and the industrial revolution, its downside for the working classes, and, Liedman’s forte, science. In this the book deploys with a welcome freshness greater textual resources than other recent biographies.

Was Marx, in this context, a pioneering thinker of globalisation? Liedman’s claims (he is far from the first)  about his “prophetic” insights are not wholly convincing. Joseph Addison talked in the Essay on the Royal Exchange (1711, Spectator No 69) of merchants who “knit mankind together in mutual intercourse”, and Ricardo, of free commerce creating a “universal society of nations”. Marx highlighted the planet-wide development, and, while not thinking it through, did not regard colonisation as a straightforward boon. In this respect, an observation that deserves underlining for critics of globalisation is Marx’s view, which he cites,  that, “free trade expedited the classless society”.

Benefits of the Doubt.

A World to Win, as a biography must, traces out a life. Liedman gives Marx the benefit of some weighty doubts on his behaviour towards his servant Helene “Lenchen” Demuth, his personal feuds (notably with Bakunin), and the abusive, often racist, vocabulary of his correspondence with Engels, described as “roguishly nonchalant”.

A World to Win often cites one of Marx’s favourite authors, Honoré de Balzac. For Liedman one tale, Melmoth Reconciled (1835), is a “picture of capitalism” in which the capitalists “live their lives at the Stock Exchange in a pact with the Devil.” (Page 462) Others recall that the hero Castanier got for his soul an eye into “men’s thought’s. I see the future, and I know the past. I am here, and I can be elsewhere also.” After peeling away Marxism from Marx, to reveal Marx’s original picture of the “mechanism and the scheme of the world.” Liedman has many pages on the thoughts of theorists who have attempted to do the same. Little of this is accessible to those not already familiar with the terrain. Despite the great strengths of the biography, many may come away feeling, like Balzac’s Cashier in the short story, that such painstaking knowledge of thinker’s insights into the whole of creation is too much to absorb.


  1. Pages 465 – 466. Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. Allen Lane 2016.
  2. Page 510. Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. Allen Lane 2016.

Written by Andrew Coates

May 8, 2019 at 9:31 am