Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trayvon Martin and Racist Intent

The mainstream media is awash in speculation about the individual motives of Martin's murderer, George Zimmerman. Headlines like the following are ubiquitous: "Who is George Zimmerman, and why did he kill Trayvon Martin?". Predictably, the angle that these articles take is one of individual psychologizing, probing Zimmerman's personal life and "character" for evidence of intentional, overt racist inclinations. Some articles, such as the CSM piece linked above, explore his personal life ("Zimmerman tutored a young black student") and survey character-defenses from family and neighbors ("George was a 'good dude' who simply wanted his neighborhood to be safe").

This is to be expected. In an era of colorblindness, an extremely high burden of proof is placed on anyone who dares to suggest that racial oppression has something to do with patterns of police violence, incarceration rates, housing, etc. Colorblind skepticism about the relevance of race demands a "smoking gun" in the form of an explicit, intentional racist statement. When such demands are not met, attempts to criticize contemporary racism are summarily dismissed as groundless and illegitimate.

The basic assumption here is that racism is simply "in the heart", a merely personal evil or "prejudice". The idea is that racism is merely ill-will harbored by an individual whointentionally and deliberatelyhates other people because of their race.

But this is a highly implausible picture of what reality is like.

First of all, racism has never been a matter of mere individual whim or "personal prejudice". It has always been a social phenomenon--an interlocking set of ideas woven through institutions, practices, norms, laws, and so on. People are not born raciststhey acquire racist beliefs, practices and habits in the course of living in a racist society (set aside for the moment how racist societies come about in the first place). This is rarely a conscious, deliberate process. We don't come out of the womb as fully-formed consumers of ideas who then go to the ideas mall to acquire only the ones we choose. Instead, we are thrown into a web of meanings, ideas, norms, etc. that are there before us, which we did not choose. The key is to criticize these dominant sets of ideas that are the "air we breathe". However, to be in a position to rationally criticize received ideas is always a kind of achievement, not our default starting position.

The upshot is this: by psychoanalyzing George Zimmerman, we turn our attention away from the real problem. The more we are asked to focus on his psychology the more we obscure the underlying issue.

After all, people are not protesting by the tens of thousands merely because they are morally outraged at the conscious actions of George Zimmerman the man. There is, to be sure, plenty of legitimate moral outrage because what has happened was, quite obviously, a moral catastrophe. Last I checked, Zimmerman had been neither arrested nor indicted. His gun hasn't even been confiscated. That is absolutely outrageous.

But, outrageous though this is on a moral level, the slaying of Trayvon Martin is not simply a matter of morality. It's bigger than Trayvon; it's also about Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Stephon Watts, Ramarley Graham and so many others. This is about a deep-seated injustice that afflicts our whole society.

The mass marches reflect the fact that this is a social problem that reflects a widespread pattern of violence against people of color that is rooted in social oppression. Rather than taking each incident of racist police violence, decontextualizing it, and analyzing it in abstraction from every other incident, we need to see these incidents as part of a recurring pattern of racist violence. Given the extremely high incidence (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, etc. etc.) of unarmed black men shot to death by police officers, colorblind skepticism about the racicalized dimension is nothing short of racist obfuscation pure and simple.

Conscious intent, then, is a serious red-herring. More often than not, people are unaware of the racist ideas that they've internalized through the mass media, TV, film, music, and all the rest. Our society teaches that young black men are deviant, dangerous, hardcore criminals. It should hardly be surprising to learn that the main teachings of our society--conveyed through media, culture, the criminal injustice system, etc.--produce large numbers of people with racist beliefs. Critical consciousness is not impossible under such conditions--but it always brushes against the grain of the main narratives handed down from above. As Marx and Engels put it, "the dominant ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class." Political philosopher Tommie Shelby explains the point in more detail:

"Rather than focus on the mental states of individuals without regard to their socio-historical context, which can often lead us astray, I would suggest that we view racism as fundamentally a type of ideology. Put briefly and somewhat crudely, “ideologies” are widely accepted illusory systems of belief that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression. We should also note that these social illusions, like the belief that blacks are an inferior “race,” are often, even typically, accepted because of the unacknowledged desires or fears of those who embrace them (e.g., some white workers have embraced racist beliefs and attitudes when they were anxious about the entrance of lower-paid blacks into a tight labor market.) Racial ideologies emerged with the African slave trade and European imperialist domination of “darker” peoples. These peoples were “racialized” in an effort to legitimize their subjugation and exploitation: the idea of biological “race,” the linchpin of the ideology, was used to impute an inherent and unchangeable set of physically based characteristics to the subordinate Other, an “essential nature” which supposedly set them apart from and explained why they were appropriately exploited by the dominant group. This ideology served (and still serves) to legitimize the subordination and economic exploitation of non-white people. Even after slavery was abolished and decolonization was well under way, the ideology continued to have an impact on social relations, as it functioned to legitimize segregation, uneven socioeconomic development, a racially segmented labor market, and the social neglect of the urban poor."
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander examines some rather disturbing studies that explain the extent of this phenomenon:
"A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: "Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?" The startling results were published by the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. 95 percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today...

...Racially charged political rhetoric and media imagery have...for nearly three decades... disproportionately featured African American offenders. One study suggests that the standard crime news "script" is sol prevalent and so thoroughly racialized that viewers imagine a black perpetrator even when none exists. In that study, 60 percent of viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American...

...studies indicate that people become increasingly harsh when an alleged criminal is darker and more "stereotypically black"; they are more lenient when the accused is lighter and appears more stereotypically white. This is true of jurors as well as law enforcement officers."
Despite the fact that the majority of drug dealers and users are white, people are persistently led to conclude that the opposite is true. Despite the fact that white youth are more likely than their black counterparts to use and sell drugs, common "wisdom" suggests the opposite. This is instructive.

Readers of this blog will no doubt have read or heard of Geraldo Rivera's racist comments to the effect that black men in hoodies get what they deserve when they dress like "gangsters". Richard Seymour's take on Rivera's comments seem to me spot on:
Geraldo Rivera thinks the murder happened because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, and thus sending out a signal that he was a gangster. However morally cretinous this suggestion is, give Rivera credit for having some intuition about the politics of racial symbolism. He means that the murder victim is partly to blame for his death, because this symbolic action, wearing a hoodie, identifies one as someone who should be killed. He cannot help partially sharing the point of view of the killer, understanding the anxiety and horror that such sassing, such brazen boldness, such reckless wearing, walking and looking, provokes. He partially shares the point of view of the killer and that's why gets it: hey, if you don't want to get shot, don't go out looking like a punk. If you don't want to get shot, don't loiter, stand up straight, dress properly, show some manners.
Rivera deserves every bit of the scorn he's receiving for having made these remarks. But in a perverse way his comments should be welcome for those seeking to uproot and overthrow racial oppression in the US. Rather than taking the obfuscatory psychologizing route, Rivera is merely saying out loud what we're taught in this society about young black men. He is stating a commonplace "truth" about black men that is operative in all spheres of social life, from the criminal "justice" system, police squad cars, schools, workplaces, culture, media, etc.

Groping around for conscious intent is a worthless activity. This isn't about George Zimmerman the man. This is about the basic structure our society. Until we radically change it, the young black bodies will continue to pile up.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Two Imperialist Tactics

Reading through an article on Iraq in the most recent New Left Review I was reminded of the subtlety of imperialist tactics. Imperialism,of course, is not simply a matter of overt military conflict and violent intervention. It's a much more complex process, capable of taking a number of different forms. I want to look at two examples drawn from the excellent article mentioned above.

The first is probably the oldest and most infamous imperialist tactic of the them all: divide and conquer. There are numerous examples of how this tactic has played out in the course of Washington's occupation of Iraq, but I'm only going to look at one. When US "advisors" oversaw the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, it was deliberately designed in such a way that "the specific division of powers between national and regional authorities--a central function of any constitution--was left undefined, thus inviting the struggle vigorously on display at present."

What's more, "a further article pledged both federal and regional governments to 'formulate the necessary strategic policies' to develop Iraq's oil and gas wealth, 'using the most advanced techniques of the market principles and encouraging investment'. Numerous international advisors were on and to elucidate what these were."

By asking both federal and regional governments to formulate "necessary strategic policies" regarding Iraq's oil and gas wealth, the Constitution invites conflicts between them. This intra-national conflict is great for imperialism. First, it forestalls the sort of national unity that would enable the government to have a relatively strong bargaining position vis-a-vis multinational oil corporations (or, worse yet, to nationalize oil fields entirely). Second, struggles between federal and regional governments enable Washington or oil majors (to the extent that there is a clear line of demarcation) to step in and "play the role of helpful catalyst" between them. Exxon-Mobil, who has a "commanding position" in Iraq's newly opened oil/gas sectors, is doing just this:

"In October 2011 Exxon became the first oil major to sign deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), winning six oil blocks in the Kurdish region despite vocal opposition from Baghdad... Exxon has emerged as the pivotal actor, with a crucial hold over Iraq's future oil output and the means to play Baghdad and Arbil off against each other."
As I say, this is but one example of divide and conquer in the context of Washington's imperialist venture in Iraq. There are numerous others.

The other tactic I wanted to examine concerns arms sales and the political relations of dependence that they entail. The Maliki government is currently buying military equipment from the US, especially F-16 fighter planes. As the authors of the article make clear, this "isn't just a matter of the White House exploiting their position to ensure the sales of American defense contractors... It also serves to bind Iraq more tightly into the American system of dominance in the region."

Kenneth Pollack, National Security Council director under Clinton, is as excellent a proponent of the imperialist point of view here as we'll find:
"one of the most important lessons from the Arab Spring and Mubarak's fall bas been the tremendous utility American arms sales can have in the Middle East... the modern military history of the Arab states makes clear that Arab allies of the US become dependent on the US and lose the capacity to project power without American support (and therefore approval). Today, Jordan, Egypt and all of the GCC states coordinate all of their major, external military activities with the US."
This is insidious but refreshingly honest. It nicely illustrates how dynamic imperialism can be.

Predictably, Obama will want to portray the shift of December 2011 in Iraq as a "victory" for his Administration that he can use in the election to tout his competence as commander-in-chief. But, in reality, December 2011 was nothing more than a re-configuration (or re-positioning) of US forces in the region, not a retreat. The basic fact is this: "Iraq lies along the major faultline of Middle Eastern security, a crucial geostrategic arena for the world's most powerful firms and states. As long as the world turns on oil, the US will never leave the region."


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some Reflections on the Concept of Privilege

For many activists committed to ending all forms of social oppression, the concept of privilege (see here for a recent example) is as familiar as it is commonplace. But what is the political import of using this concept rather than others? What, politically speaking, are its drawbacks and advantages? What does it make clear and what does it obscure?

Political concepts are a key part of radical political projects. We can't understand the world (or effectively intervene and act within it) without them. Social struggles are often compelled to expand on certain concepts they've inherited or negate others, synthesizing and forging new ground along the way. Marx's way of thinking about exploitation did not arise ex nihilo; but it clearly gave new life to a set of grievances that had been expressed throughout the history of the working class movement for a long time. It was a conceptual innovation which drew on existing struggles while, at the same time, giving them new ways of understanding the world the better to change it. There are numerous other examples of conceptual innovations, rooted in concrete struggles, which subsequently advanced our understanding of oppression (the better to destroy it).

But not every political concept is as effective or illuminating as every other. Some concepts obscure things and distort our practices, others are practically ineffective or lack explanatory power. Some are contradictory and merely reflect existing social conflicts rather than pointing to a way of overcoming them. The only way to know which political concepts are worth their salt is to see what works and what doesn't in the course of social struggle, i.e. to aim to achieve a kind of equilibrium between political practice and critical reflection. Concepts which don't advance our understanding or capacity to fight back must be revised or rejected.


With this in mind, what should we say about the language of privilege?

In order to focus our discussion, let's stick with a specific example: the concept of white privilege. Before we look closely at the concept, it is worth reviewing one kind of controversy that the concept provokes, centered around questions like: are white people in fact privileged? We can imagine, for example, a white person with ruffled features responding, in a defensive and slightly aggravated spirit, that they aren't, in fact, privileged, that they simply worked hard for what they have, and so on and so forth. In these kinds of debates, it is rather obvious that the denial of the existence of white privilege is tantamount to denying, in effect, that non-white people endure racial oppression.

This denial comes in many forms, but it is frequently bound up with the racist ideology of colorblindness. According to this set of ideas, race is not important, so we should do our best not to notice it. Racism has mostly been overcome and race is no longer a significant political concern. Moreover, because race no longer matters, it follows the only racists that exist today are those who continue to talk about race or think that it's significant. Thus, rather than talking about race, we should only "see only the individual" and ignore race entirely. The mere mention of race is therefore illegitimate, "divisive" and tantamount to "playing the race card." The only sensible thing is to cease to speak about race entirely.

This whole set of ideas, of course, is little more than a silencing maneuver meant to prevent discussion of the contemporary realities of racial oppression. It has the effect of consolidating the claim that we live in a "post-racial society", thereby putting anyone who challenges the racist status quo on the defensive.

Of course, it hardly needs to be said that these ideas are toxic and distort reality. They destroy movements. This sort of denial of white privilege is just racist, and that's all there is to it.

But there are other ways to take issue with the language of privilege that don't involve giving an answer to the question "are white people privileged or not?". Rather than answering the question as it stands, another approach would be to step back and ask a different question: how does the concept of privilege help us understand what racial oppression is and how to fight it? Or to put it in a slightly different way: politically speaking, how does the language of privilege advance the struggle against racial oppression?

In what follows I want to reflect a little on the concept of privilege by attempting to answer some of the question posed above. My reflections will, on the whole, be critical of the concept of privilege. But I shall not try to say whether the concept is wholly inadequate or not--I mean to leave it an open question whether there are particular contexts in which the concept is both useful and clarificatory. All I shall offer are particular reflection on what I take to be relatively discrete drawbacks of talk of privilege.

Of course, whatever we say, however, criticisms of privilege hardly leave us in the position of needing to invents an entire alternative to the language of privilege out of whole cloth. We have only to glance at the history of struggle against anti-black racism in the US, for example, to gather gather together a rich vocabulary, including (but not limited to) concepts like: oppression, domination, power, colonization, imperialism, exploitation, marginalization, subordination, dehumanization, cultural imperialism, and so on. The concept of privilege is one among a large field of political concepts at our disposal and it is by no means obvious that it is the most illuminating.


One drawback of the language of privilege is that it can often carry with it individualistic components that are problematic when imported into social and political contexts. Given the way that the language is sometimes used, it almost sounds as if members of dominant groups (e.g. men vis-a-vis women, hetero people vis-a-vis lgbt people, etc.) simply need to accept responsibility and offer verbal repentance as individuals in order to do their part in changing the status quo. That is, the language of privilege can sometimes make it sound as if the only obligation of, say, white people in a racist society is to individually acknowledge their privilege and apologize for it.

But individual-level concepts such as apology, guilt, acknowledgement, repentance, responsibility and so on fail to capture the historical, social, political and structural features of racial oppression. Racial oppression is not a set of ideas or attitudes individuals have (although ideas and attitudes play a role in reproducing and justifying it). Oppression refers to asymmetrical social relations among groups of persons involving power, domination, exploitation and so on.

Social relations are never isolated, particularistic or self-standing. They are always embedded in some kind of social system, i.e. in a set of material social institutions (whether they are legal, economic, political, cultural, informal, otherwise). A materialist approach to oppression here is crucial.

Oppression does not come to be as the result of uncoordinated individual attitudes. Oppression is an ongoing social process whereby certain groups are systematically criminalized, brutalized, marginalized, exploited, or denied access to the necessities of life. So our task isn't merely to strike up this or that individual attitude toward this state of affairs; our task is to talk about how this social process works so that we can build social movements to decisively smash it once and for all.


Let us illustrate this last point by way of example. Take the specific problem of racist police brutality (set aside all of the other awful things that the police as an institution do--from sexually assaulting women to breaking strikes).

As a white person, I do not expect to be harassed or brutalized by racist police in the same way that black and brown people of my age and gender do. It is an understatement to say that police racism directly affects my sisters and brothers of color in a way that it doesn't directly affect me. That is a fact in a racist society where the cops are a key part of a prison-industrial complex that reproduces and exacerbates racial inequalities.

Now, some would say that we should understand this fact in terms of privilege. We could say, for example, that I am privileged and, once I acknowledge this privilege and recognize that others have it much worse than I do, that there's nothing more to say or do.

But this would be politically inadequate and misleading. At its root, the basic problem isn't that I'm "privileged" by not having to directly endure the effects of racist police violence. The problem is the racist police violence itself (and the social system that both creates and sustains it).

Now, to be sure, it's of immense importance--especially for white working people--to be unequivocal about the fact that racist police violence occurs every day. It also needs to be clearly stated that, because it is racist police violence, that it specifically targets racially oppressed groups. In an era of colorblindness, it's absolutely crucial to fight against the racist denial of these very real social facts. And it's even more important that everyone--again, especially working white folks--to see racist police brutality as an injustice that they themselves have an interest in struggling to defeat. Anti-racist activists should never pander to the sensibilities of racist whites, or dilute their demands to appease those under the sway of racist ideas. Racism must be taken head-on in an uncompromising way. But the question remains: are these goals well-served by the language of privilege? I don't see that they are.

Compared to other frameworks--e.g. thinking in terms of socially structured forms of oppression rooted in certain material conditions--talk of privilege can make it sound like the job of whites is done once they acknowledge that they aren't directly subject to racist police violence.

But by zooming in and staying at the individual level, we don't bring the big picture into focus. We miss the forest for the trees. We also fail to make clear that white working people have an interest in being a part of the collective struggle to completely dismantle racial oppression--in all of its material and institutional dimensions. In many registers, it seems to me that the language of privilege papers over this crucial fact. At worst, it threatens to make it possible to take existing structures of oppression for granted while recommending various sorts of individual attitudes toward it. At best, it merely offers one way of accommodating it that is, to be sure, better than the racist denial that racial oppression exists, but nonetheless inadequate for those who want to change the world.


Another potential drawback of the concept of white privilege is that it can encourage us to make the mistake of thinking of white people as an internally undifferentiated mass with identical interests. But whites are internally divided as a group: along lines of gender, sexuality, and, especially, along class lines. It's not the case that white working-class single mothers have the same interests as the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

As Michelle Alexander argues at length in her excellent (and must-read) book The New Jim Crow, it has often been the case throughout US history that racist forms of social control have been used by dominant groups to divide and conquer black people and poor whites. She discusses, for instance, Bacon's Rebellion and Populism, but there are numerous other examples where elites used racism to prevent a movement from below that could challenge their power. Of course, even though it grew out of a need to legitimate chattel slavery and colonial domination, racial oppression has long since taken on a life of its own and it has infected social life in many ways--not all of which stem from the conscious interventions of a ruling class intent on dividing and conquering. But we fail to understand the history of racial oppression in the US--and the movements which have sought to fight back against it--if we completely ignore the way in which the ruling class at different periods has benefited enormously from racial oppression and racist ideology. The language of privilege, it seems to me, can lead us to do just that.

After all, as Marxists have long argued, the efficacy of divide and conquer is neither inevitable nor natural. Whether "racist bribes" will be effective for ruling groups always depends upon on the political consciousness and level of struggle on the ground. To say that racism in the contemporary white working class is a barrier to solidarity is not to say that solidarity is impossible--it is merely to draw our attention to the current challenges we face in building a mass movement against both racial oppression and class exploitation. The potential for such a movement is great, especially today. We would be cynical and defeatist if we give up the fight for it. Barriers to genuine solidarity are subject to change through consciousness raising, political argument, and social struggle--radicals have to be part of all three.

The language of privilege does not provide us with any help in thinking practically about how to build such struggles. It leaves a lot out. For example, as Richard Seymour points out:

"I seem to recall from somewhere that it was Angela Davis who urged readers to imagine the capitalist system as a pyramid, with heterosexual white male capitalists at the top, and black, gay women prisoners at the bottom. Each struggle by those at the bottom would also lift those further up, such that the more subaltern one’s situation, the more potentially universal one’s interests are. The marxist understanding of the working class as the ‘universal class’ hinges partially on this strategic insight."
But this strategic insight--that the more subaltern one's situation, the more potentially universal one's interests--is not visible if we have only the language of privilege at our disposal to make sense of a social field shot through with various forms of oppression.


Another difficulty I see with the language of privilege is that can easily devolve into what Marxist-influenced radical theorist Iris Marion Young calls the "distributive paradigm". According to this paradigm, racial disparities are nothing more than a pattern of distribution of certain goods or advantages. To be privileged, then, is to possess some thing that others lack. Accordingly the solution to the problem is to make sure to allow others to get their hands on what privileged groups have. As Young puts it,
"The distributive paradigm implicitly assumes that [what matters is] what individual persons have, how much they have, and how that amount compares with what other persons have.This focus on possession tends to preclude thinking about what people are doing according to what institutionalized rules, how their doings and havings are structured by institutionalized relations that constitute their positions, and how the combined effect of their doings has recursive effects on their lives."
Now, it's not that distributive issues don't matter. Racism affects the distribution of advantages, privileges and material benefits. So fighting racism means fighting to change those distributions. The fight for reparations is clearly an instance of such a fight for distribution (although it also contains elements of the demand for recognition of historical injustices and all the harms and injuries--material as well as symbolic--that accompany them). Nonetheless, unequal distribution is not the root of racial oppression, it is merely one of its effects. As Marx argues in the Critique of the Gotha Program, any pattern of distribution always presupposes some organized system of production, a division of labor, power relations, institutional structure, and so forth. Understanding racial oppression means examining how all of these material factors in all their empirical richness. But if all we talk about is how privileges are distributed, how some possess or lack privileges, we fail to critically engage with the oppressive social relations that produce such unequal distributions in the first place.

Take the example of slavery in the US. Of course, slavery meant that masters enjoyed all sorts of material advantages and privileges (e.g. education, better housing, leisure, medical care, lavish meals, etc.) that slaves were denied. But we won't have gotten very far if we only critique the way that these privileges are unequally distributed between master and slaves. The root of the problem, after all, wasn't one of distribution. Rather, it was the oppressive and exploitative character of the master/slave relationship itself. This power relationship does not change when masters give slaves certain privileges or benefits that they previously lacked. A kind slave master is nothing but a kind oppressor. As Fredrick Douglass put it:
"My feelings [toward slave masters] were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received; they sprung from the consideration of my being a slave at all. It was slavery—not its mere incidents—that I hated."
Talk of privilege doesn't capture Douglass's point, which is fundamentally about an oppressive social relationship. This problem comes out even more clearly when we examine the word "under-privileged". It suggests that a person is only suffering from a lack of "privileges" that others enjoy. This language fits neatly with individualistic talk of "social mobility" as the answer to social injustice. It makes it sound as though we only need to make it possible for some fraction of the "under-privileged" to be able to fight their way into the camp of the "privileged". But this perspective obscures the way that racial oppression is constituted by materially structured social relations of domination. Instead, it focuses our attention only on things that people possess or lack.

But even if some groups were given more than they have now, this wouldn't necessarily change the basic relations of power in our society. It would be worth fighting for nonetheless, because it would improve the well-being and political confidence of the oppressed. But it remains true that "if they can give it you, they can take it away". Distributive struggles are crucial--but they are not the whole story. The root of the problem has to do with certain asymmetrical relations of power. Instead of "underprivileged individuals" or "under-served communities" we need to talk about racially oppressed groups who stand in need of full liberation and full social equality, not merely a bundle of goods and privileges that they presently lack.


The language of privilege is hardly the worst framework out there for making sense of oppression. Compared to the racist prison-house of colorblindness, it is a clear improvement because it attempts to bring questions involving (but not limited to) race and gender to the fore. This is important. We live in an era of colorblindness--in which myths are entertained on the left as well as the right that we live in a "post racial" society.

But it is radically false to say that the concept of privilege is the only way that we, today, have to make sense of racial oppression. The history of anti-racist struggle equips us with a far richer set of possibilities. It should be an open, practical question which concepts best advance understanding and political struggle. But, given the drawbacks and limitations discussed above, the concept of privilege is more trouble than its worth.

To get to the root of problem, we need to understand oppression in terms of oppressive social relationships that are built into the basic structure of society. The focus on the basic structure of society--where various forms of oppression intersect and reinforce one another--suggests a way out of the antimonies of the framework of privilege.

At the end of the day, talk of privilege does not suggest a way of understanding or overthrowing the prison/industrial complex (i.e. the "New Jim Crow"). It does not suggest a way of coming together to fight back against austerity--which is crushing people of color more than anyone else. It does not point to a way of stopping foreclosures, evictions, mass-layoffs or police violence. It does not suggest a way of fighting for an end to a system that ruthlessly exploits human beings for profit, which thrives on imperialism, neo-colonialism, racism, sexism, and suppression of all kinds. We need a way of thinking about these problems that generalizes the experience of particular struggles and links them together to build the kind of bonds of solidarity that can challenge the system itself.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

MacIntyre on Revolutionary Organization

From his excellent 1961 essay "Freedom and Revolution":

We cannot achieve freedom by merely wishing for it. And to see what is wrong with capitalism and what is right with socialism is still not to see how to pass from one to the other. About this I want to make simply two last points. The first is that because our society is unfree in certain specific ways, the working class will not and cannot find the road to freedom spontaneously. And, since the participation of every worker in the decision-making which governs his life is a condition of freedom as I have discussed it, it follows that, until the working class finds this way, no one else can find it for them. So the free society cannot be a goal for the politically conscious individual, except by way of moving with the working class into conscious political action. Thus the path to freedom must be by means of some organization which is dedicated not to building freedom but to moving the working class to build it. The necessity for this is the necessity for the revolutionary party. Moreover, such a party will have to fi nd some form of existence which will enable its members to withstand all the pressures of other classes and to act effectively against the ruling class. To escape these pressures two other things will be necessary.

First, it will have to keep alive in its members a continual awareness of the kind of society in which they live and of the need to change it and of the way to change it. It will have to be a party of continuous education. And, in being this, it will have to vindicate freedom in yet another way. Bourgeois democrats and Stalinists have often argued as to whether art or science ought to be controlled by state authority or not. The point which this discussion misses is that such control is impossible, logically impossible. You can stop people creating works of art, or elaborating and testing scientific theories; you can force them instead to do propaganda for the state. But you cannot make them do art as you bid them or science as you bid them; for art and science move by their own laws of development. They cannot be themselves and be unfree. To rescue and maintain genuinely free inquiry is in a class society itself a partisan activity. But a revolutionary party has nothing to lose by the truth, everything to gain from intellectual freedom.

Secondly, one can only preserve oneself from alien class pressures in a revolutionary party by maintaining discipline. Those who do not act closely together, who have no overall strategy for changing society, will have neither need for nor understanding of discipline. Party discipline is essentially not something negative, but something positive. It frees party members for activity by ensuring that they have specific tasks, duties and rights. This is why all the constitutional apparatus is necessary. Nonetheless there are many socialists who feel that any form of party discipline is an alien and constraining force which they ought to resist in the name of freedom. The error here arises from the illusion that one can as an isolated individual escape from the moulding and the subtle enslavements of the status quo. Behind this there lies the illusion that one can be an isolated individual. Whether we like it or not every one of us inescapably plays a social role, and a social role which is determined for us by the workings of bourgeois society. Or rather this is inescapable so long as we remain unaware of what is happening to us. As our awareness and understanding increase we become able to change the part we play. But here yet another trap awaits us. The saying that freedom is the knowledge of necessity does not mean that a merely passive and theoretical knowledge can liberate us. The knowledge which liberates us is that which enables us to change our social relations. And this knowledge, knowledge which Marxism puts at our disposal, is not a private possession, something which the individual can get out of books and then keep for himself; it is rather a continually growing consciousness, which can only be the work of a group bound together by a common political and educational discipline. So the individual who tries most of live as an individual, to have a mind entirely his own, will in fact make himself more and more likely to become in his thinking a passive rejection of the socially dominant ideas; while the individual who recognizes his dependence on others has taken a path which can lead to an authentic independence of mind. (In neither direction is there anything automatic or inevitable about the process).

Someone will object here that what I have posed as the two necessities for a party of revolutionary freedom are incompatible. How can intellectual freedom and party discipline be combined? The answer to this is not just the obvious one that a certain stock of shared intellectual conviction is necessary for a person to be in a Marxist party at all. But more than this that where there is sharp disagreement it is necessary that discipline provides for this by allowing minority views to have their say inside the party on all appropriate occasions. If this is provided for, then disagreements can remain on the level of intellectual principle without on the one hand hindering action or on the other hand degenerating into mock battles between "the individual" and "the collective".

The thread of arguments leads on to the conclusion that, not only are socialism and substantial democracy inseparable, but that the road to socialism and democratic centralism are equally inseparable. Those among socialists who have written most about freedom have tended most often to reject democratic centralism. But, if I am right on the main points of this argument, this rejection must necessarily injure our understanding of freedom itself.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Roundup: "Kony 2012" and "Humanitarian" Imperialism

I don't really have anything new to add to the (growing) camp of left-wing criticisms of the completely ridiculous, politically insidious "Kony 2012" campaign. The people behind it are total douche-bags. The campaign itself uses moralism to cloak its imperialist "humanitarian intervention" politics. Here are a handful of pieces that I've found especially helpful on this question (feel free to suggest more in the comments):

Richard Seymour, whose excellent book The Liberal Defense of Murder is well worth reading to get a deeper understanding of "humanitarian intervention", has an excellent blog post here and a great article in ABC Australia here.

A comrade over at Needs Moar Class War has a detailed piece here that is well worth reading as well. printed an article that nicely skewers the racist, colonial attitudes implicit in the "Kony 2012" campaign.

American Leftist has some thoughtful remarks and a link to a few interesting videos by Ugandans here.

Mahmood Mamdani, who's usually quite good on African politics (esp. on Sudan and Zimbabwe), has a short piece here on the controversy.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Red Chicago: Multi-Racial Political Organization in the 1930s

I read Randi Storch's excellent book Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots 1928-35 (see here for a review) a couple of months back and have been meaning to post on it ever since. There's a lot to say about this rich, well-researched and engaging social history of the Communist Party (CP) in Chicago during the "Third Period". But I only want to focus here on one particular theme running through the history here: the viability of multi-racial Left political organizations in a fundamentally racist society.

There is a lot that radicals can learn from the successes and failures of the CP in Chicago in the 1930s. By way of summarizing some of Storch's findings, I hope to try to shed some light on the challenges and prospects for building a fighting, multi-racial Left organization dedicated to fully uprooting racial oppression.


Before I say anything about Storch's book, it's worth reviewing what seems to have become the "standard view" about racism, working class politics and the possibility of multi-racial solidarity in the fight against oppression. The received wisdom is that the white working class has always been the most forceful defender of racial oppression throughout American history (whereas, allegedly, middle and ruling-class whites have been more "tolerant" and open to criticizing racism). According to this story, white workers have, without exception, been gripped by anti-Black racism throughout American history. Working-class racism has, in other words, been an unchanging feature of U.S. political life.

It follows, then, that Black/white unity is highly unlikely at best, or downright reactionary at worst. Highly unlikely because of the aforementioned historical narrative about unrelenting racism on the part of white workers. Reactionary because black/white solidarity under such conditions could only mean forcing black workers to compromise with the racism of white workers. But this would be tantamount to tolerating a fundamental injustice while, at the same time, diluting the forces of those committed to anti-racism and black liberation.

Now, the standard view rightly acknowledges that genuine multi-racial solidarity is indeed incompatible with white racism. And, it is of course quite true that there is a long history of racism in the working class movement, and even in the socialist movement in the US. The conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) was explicitly racist and excluded black and other non-white workers from its ranks. The Utopian Socialists like Owen and Forrier were racists, and the right-wing forces in the Second International supported colonialism. In the US, the early socialist movement varied from being, on the one hand, class reductionist/colorblind to explicitly racist on the other.

Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labor Party (SLP), for example, stood up against racism and fought for equality, but, at the same time, believed that racism was nothing more than a class question. As Ahmed Shawki describes it, De Leon argued that "Black workers were like white workers, and their problems were those of all workers. Racial oppression was simply a manifestation of class oppression. Therefore ...agitation around non-economic questions--segregation, lynching, or race riots--could only distract from the real struggle." The right-wing of the Socialist Party (SP), unlike the class-reductionism of the SLP, was explicitly racist. For example, Victor Berger, the first SP candidate elected to office in the US in 1902, openly scapegoated immigrants and described non-white people as "inherently inferior".

So that history of racism within the working-class movement is certainly there. But if this racism disfigures much of the history of the movement in the US, it could hardly be described as a monotone, static property of white working-class consciousness. Even the social/political status of being designated as "white" is dynamic and changing--indeed some previously "non-white" groups (
e.g. Jews, Italians, Greeks, Irish) actually became white as social/economic/political configurations shifted.

In truth, the history of the working class in the US is far more complex than the standard view acknowledges. Despite the racism described above, there is
also a long tradition of multi-racial struggle among black and white workers in the United States where anti-racist and class struggles overlapped and complimented each other. Contrary to the standard view, history itself refutes the cynical hypothesis that white/black unity on the basis of anti-racist, class struggle from below is impossible. Thus, the overall history of working class whites in the US would be better described as shifting, fractured, mixed and internally conflicted on questions of racism. Storch's book is useful in large part because it excavates an important piece of this largely hidden and little-discussed history of black and white workers uniting to fight for a shared project of ending oppression and exploitation.


"On a January evening in 1934, approximately six thousand Chicagoans gathered in the city's large Coliseum Hall to celebrate and remember Lenin... The audience included a contingent of five hundred children in addition to the thousands of grown women and men, half of whom were African American and the other half of whom were a mixture of native-born whites and first- or second-generation immigrants from various ethnic communities. They represented a number of occupations, including skilled and unskilled industrial workers, artists, intellectuals, and students."
This is a convenient introduction to the history that Storch's book uncovers. In the 1930s the Chicago district of the CP was--despite all of its problems and contradictions--a vibrant, multi-racial organization with thousands of members (and a much larger periphery) that actively fought against racism, fomented mass organizations dedicated to stopping evictions, and put together a movement of Unemployed Councils that collected popular discontent and channeled it into a large-scale fight-back.

In the early 1930's, black people made up 7% of Chicago's population, but constituted roughly 25% of the more than 3,300 Chicagoan members of the CP. In a city as thoroughly saturated with anti-Black racism as Chicago, this is a striking statistic.

Harry Haywood
Black militants in the CP joined for a variety of reasons. When Harry Haywood joined the CP in the late 20s, he did so on the basis of his judgment that:
"it comprised the best and most sincerely revolutionary and internationally minded elements among white radicals and therefore formed the basis for the revolutionary unity of Blacks and was part of a world revolutionary movement uniting Chinese, Africans and Latin Americans with Europeans and North Americans through the Third International."
Haywood's remarks suggest that he was (in part) drawn to the CP because it was part of a global anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movement fighting to throw off the exploitation and oppression faced by (especially non-European) peoples across the globe. This fact, combined with an ambitious program to fight racism in the US at a time when anti-racist struggle was generally low, no doubt contributed in large part to the CP's successes in the 1930s as a multi-racial radical organization.


In the 20s and 30s, there was a vibrant political scene in the black community in Chicago. There were, for example, annual rallies and marches celebrating the Nat Turner rebellion as well as a radicalized layer of activists in or around Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). There were also a host of politically active community institutions such as the NAACP, the Urban League, churches, and the Chicago Defender.

In the early 30s, there were frequently open-air political debates in Washington Park between Garveyites and Communists. "By 1932, Communists were speaking daily at the park to crowds that sometimes reached between two and five thousand." UNIA was a mass movement with millions of members in the early 20s, but by the late 20s (following Garvey's deportation and a slew of scandals) the organization was in sharp decline. Still, Garvey's movement had a lasting effect on political consciousness in the black community that manifested itself in the open-air soapboxing and debates in Washington Park. These vibrant public political discussions drew in a layer of radical (and radicalizing) black Chicagoans, among them, David Pointdexter.

Poindexter had moved to Chicago from Nashville, TN where he had witnessed lynchings first-hand. As Storch describes it,

"Pointdexter first gravitated toward the Garveyites, but, listening to the debates in Washington Park, he eventually found Communists more convincing. William Patterson, an African American party leader, later recalled that the party's belief that blacks and whites needed to work together ultimately caused Pointdexter to leave the Garveyite movement."
Pointdexter developed a reputation as a fiery orator, "when he got through preachin' everybody'd be ready to go into the lake with him. That's how much power he had over people." Claude Lightfoot was another black militant drawn into CP at this time. 

Lightfoot cut his teeth as an activist within the Democratic Party in Chicago, but eventually he found his way to the CP, partly,
"for idealistic reasons, to help the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed people all over the world." But if these reasons were important motivations for his decision to join, he also admitted that he joined "after having gotten up on the soap box... cursing out the police and then marching away triumphantly with the workers."
Unlike the racist Democratic Party in Chicago, the CP's candidates for a variety of city, state and federal offices included a large number of black members. One candidate for state representative, Dora Huckleberry, was described in a pamphlet as a "militant Negro woman. Arrested many times for her participation in struggles against discrimination and unemployment. A fighter for Negro rights." 

Candidates with this political profile were an important part of the CP in the 30s, even though contemporary liberal "wisdom" would have us believe that the Democratic Party has, for most of the 20th century, been the leading political force in the US for anti-racism. It's fair to say that the CP did more anti-racist organizing in the 30s alone than the Democratic Party has done in all of its existence.

Leadership roles with the Chicago district were not confined to white cadre. Key leadership positions were occupied by black members who took an active role in shaping the organization's approach to black politics in the city. The flood of black members into the organization in the early 30s permeated the group from top to bottom.

Even conservative newspapers, such as The Whip, acknowledged the inroads the CP had made in the black community in Chicago:

"The Communists have framed a program of social remedies which cannot fail to appeal to the hungering, jobless millions, who live in barren want, while everywhere about them is evidence of restricted plenty in the greedy hands of the few."
As Storch sees it, these sympathetic attitudes toward the CP
"...made their way to the grassroots... it was not unusual, when parents feared an eviction, for them to tell their children to "run quick and find the Reds!"... James Yates, an African American members of the Unemployed Councils on the South Side, expressed the party's significance to him: "I was a part of their hopes, their dreams, and they were a part of mine. And we were a part of an even larger world of marching poor people. By now I understand that the Depression was worldwide and that the unemployed and poor were demonstrating and agitating for jobs and food all over the globe. We were millions. We couldn't lose."

The CP's emphasis on interracial political organization also
"brought blacks and whites together... often for the first time. Lowell Washington, an African American member of the Unemployed Councils, remembered, "I never really ever talked to a white man before, and I certainly hadn't said more than two words to a white lady, and here I was being treated with respect and speaking my mind and not having to worry about saying something that might rile 'em up...Let me tell you it changed the way I thought about things."
That this was exceptional speaks to the deep-seated racism--indeed, apartheid conditions--in Chicago in the 1930s. Nonetheless, despite all of its flaws, it is incredible that the CP was able to carve out a space--however small and tenuous--for social interactions approaching equality and solidarity among white and black radicals.

Unsurprisingly, these "frequent, unprecedented displays of interracial solidarity on Chicago's streets sparked the city's administration into action." As has often been the case throughout American history, city officials and business elites were deeply troubled by the emergence of a multi-racial political movement capable of upsetting the balance of power in the city by mobilizing groups of workers often pitted against one another.

In 1932, the City of Chicago, backed by police violence, ordered an end to the growing anti-eviction actions organized by the CP to keep working people in their homes in the midst of the Great Depression. At one point, police stormed a large crowd of anti-eviction organizers and murdered several activists, among them Abe Grey, "one of the best Negro organizers in the Party". Several days later, one of Grey's friends was found murdered, his body mutilated. CP members were virtually certain that this was the work of the Chicago Police. The CP organized mass marches and speak-outs to protest this spate of police brutality, drawing together white and black activists by the thousands into the struggle.

The fact that the CP was able to pull this off in Chicago in the 30s---where black people were regularly met with terrorism, bombings, and brutal violence when they merely attempted to move out of "designated" areas of the city---demonstrates at least two things. First, it shows that dogged, consistent organizing work on the basis of anti-racist, socialist politics has the potential to forge political formations that can tear asunder existing racist ideologies. Second, it shows that a multi-racial front--built on solidarity and genuine equality--against racist and capitalist domination is both possible and worth fighting for.

The politics of multi-racial radical political organization is complex and liable to run aground in a number of different ways. The biggest danger is that an abstract, colorblind goal of "unity" encourages accommodation with the racist order by designating certain issues "divisive" or "distractions" from the "main goals". "Unity" of this sort is nothing but a compromise with oppression. It is not an emancipatory goal. But genuine solidarity---which requires, as a precondition, that white workers reject racial oppression and enlist themselves in the fight against it---is both inspiring as an ideal in its own right, and necessary if the working class as a whole is to emancipate itself. For all its faults and mistakes---organizational, political and personal---radicals today can learn a lot from the CP's anti-racist work in Chicago in the early 1930s.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some Thoughts on Lih's intervention in the "Cliff/Lenin Debate"

(Note: I wrote this post a couple of weeks back and didn't have the chance to "revise" it until recently (although, by "revise" I should not like to imply that the following post is anything more than a sketchy jumble of half-formed thoughts). I see now that Lih's polemic has since drawn return fire from Le Blanc among others. I thought I would go ahead and post this anyway, even if it is less interesting now than it might have been earlier this month).

Many readers may have noticed a debate, instigated by a polemic by Pham Binh against Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin, which has subsequently generated several replies and rejoinders from Lars T. Lih, Paul Le Blanc, and Paul D'Amato. In what follows, I'd like to discuss some of what I take to be shortcomings of the intervention made by Lih in particular, although I'd like to say something about the debate in general as well.

Of course, I am not a scholar on Lenin, I do not speak Russian, and I have not examined closely may of the relevant primary sources here. I do not aim to make a move within the terms of the debate such as they've been defined thus far, though it is interesting in many ways. Instead, I want to take a step back and ask a broad question about the political character of the debate itself (with an eye to make sense of Lih's contribution in particular).

That question is the following: what exactly is the political significance of discussing certain aspects of the history of the Russian workers movement in general, and of Lenin's role within that movement in particular? This question is unavoidable and everyone in the debate has a position—whether it is explicitly stated or merely implicit. In evaluating Lih's contribution we shall have to get clear on what his answer to this question is.

Now, I'd like to preface my remarks by saying that, in general, I find great value in Lih's work on Lenin. It is refreshing, rigorous and urgently needed in times such as these. In blowing apart the "textbook" interpretation of Lenin (e.g. that he was, from the beginning, an authoritarian monster always plotting to expand his own personal power, etc.) through careful scholarship, Lih has done the Left a great service. His short book on Lenin, which summarizes many of the conclusions he reaches in his 800 page tome, Lenin Rediscovered, is extremely useful and carefully argued.

But Lih—far more than the other players in the debate—avoids the political question above and tries to distance himself from judgments about political conviction, value and significance. In order to position himself as a mere scholar—rather than activist—Lih repeatedly invokes his expertise and specific role as a "historian" (as well as his command of Russian and the primary sources) which leads him to verge on being pedantic at moments. There are, to be sure, academic spheres in which this non-political posture is important and, indeed, itself politically useful. Getting people to actually look at what Lenin said, even in an ostensibly "neutral" way, is a huge improvement over dismissing it out of hand as "totalitarian".

Still, although there is instrumental value in casting one's arguments in certain ways in certain contexts, one cannot avoid judgments about political significance. So far as I can tell, Lih, however, explicitly avoids making such judgments in favor of an ideal of scholarly neutrality. Intervening in this debate, Lih argues that the main question seems to be whether or not we get the right answer to specific points of detail relating to matters such as the 3rd Congress in 1905 and the Prague Conference in 1912. Lih even concedes that his main motivation for entering the debate is to get it right on these two specific points of detail.

But the question remains: why is this significant? What, politically speaking, is at stake here?

There is no such thing as a purely academic, purely neutral assessment of the historical facts. Why not? I don't mean to suggest that there's no such thing as "getting it right" in the arena of historical research. Contra the totalizing suspicion toward truth among some postmodern theoreticians, there is such a thing as getting the facts right (or wrong). Rather, what I mean to say is that when doing historical work there is no way to avoid substantive value judgments—which are ultimately political in nature—that guide our assessment of what is significant and what is insignificant within the set of all historical facts. We can't study everything, and nor would we want to. We study, debate, and discuss some historical ongoings because they have practical significance for us. And we ignore others because they lack significance.

To illustrate: There is a fact of the matter about what Lenin ate for breakfast on June 13th of 1904, but nobody gives a damn. One could be "substantively right" (or wrong) about whether the number of times Lenin used a past-tense verb in his corpus is even or odd, but nobody gives a damn. There is a fact of the matter about how many leaves fell on the ground in the fall of Petrograd in 1903. Again, nobody gives a damn.

So, when doing historical work, there is no neutral way to proceed. We can't avoid making some judgment about what's important—and worth studying and writing about—and what's not. And importance isn't some fuzzy personal matter that bottoms out in claims about individual "preference" or taste. Importance or significance is a social, political and public matter that people can (and do) argue about with one another. Significance is always significance for us, right here, right now. We have to justify, then, why we read Lenin right here, right now, rather than, say, phone books. Our answer, inevitably, will something to do with our practical political commitments, goals and self-understanding.

The only unbiased, purely neutral way to proceed would be to say that everything is significant—how many leaves fell on the ground in 1903 (and every year before and after), whether Lenin consumed an even or odd number of meals in his lifetime, the exact volume in liters of ink used by Lenin in 1917, and so on and so forth. But of course, such a neutral posture is completely absurd—and useless.

So, while Lih—and Pham Binh to to the extent that he instigated the debate—focus the attention of large swaths of the Left on various points of detail in the Russian socialist movement, we have to ask: why are we debating this right now? How does this advance the struggle? How does this help us to clarify our assessment of the present conjuncture? And, in particular: how does it help us get clearer on what kind socialist organization we need today?

Since the whole exchange was instigated by Pham Binh's piece, he bears a greater burden of explanation here than other participants. But the biggest drawback of his polemic against Cliff's Building the Party, in my estimation, is that he does not clearly and explicitly answer these political questions. As I say above, considerations about significance and politics necessarily motivated Pham to write the piece in the first place. But these are neither explicitly stated nor defended adequately with argument. What does come through clearly, however, is the sense that Pham thinks Cliff's book is of zero value and should be thrown in the dustbin of history. He makes it sound as if the most important debate right now is, in some sweeping sense: "Tony Cliff: Yay or Nay?" But I'm not convinced that that is so and, from the looks of it, neither is Paul Le Blanc or Paul D'Amato. As both of them point out in their contributions, this debate ought to be about the relevance of Lenin thought and practice to contemporary political struggle. Pace Lih
—and perhaps Pham as well—I don't think that defending some of the substance and practical import of Cliff's book commits one to being a "Cliffite" or agreeing with everything Cliff said.

Scholarship and historical accuracy aside, Cliff's book was self-consciously written with an eye to draw practical conclusions about organizing a socialist organization in the here and now. Whether or not his book is a success on this score is one question. But the narrow, merely "academic" question of pure scholarship, while undoubtedly related, is ultimately another matter.

The real question, in my estimation, is this: how does the debate about Lenin's thought and practice speak to where the socialist movement is and where it ought to be heading? On this question, Lih's intervention and Pham's polemic are basically silent.

There is, of course, Pham's virtually unexplained dedication to his piece which reads “to anyone and everyone who has sacrificed in the name of ‘building the revolutionary party’”. But a substantive political claim like this should defended in the body of the article, not added as garnish by way of dedication. It also conflates a series of historical claims Cliff makes with the practical points he offers activists as to how one should build a revolutionary group. The litany of quibbling complaints about this or that error made by Cliff does nothing in the way of substantiating or elucidating the claim that "building the revolutionary party" is a bankrupt political goal.

If there is one relatively clear political implication of Pham's intervention, it seems to be that Lenin was "an orthodox Kautsykist" and that the distinction between Second International reformism (associated with Kautsky and the SPD) and early Third International revolutionary politics (associated with Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin) is historically inaccurate. But I have a hard time seeing how any good comes from blurring the line between the trajectory of the late Second International and the trajectory of the revolutionary energy running through the development of figures such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci. Was Lenin an avid "Kautskyist" in some sense at one point in his development? Sure. So was Rosa Luxemburg, who initially moved to Germany with the aim of building Kautsky's SPD. But what matters for socialists today is when, where, and why he (and, for that matter, Trotsky, Luxemburg and others) broke with Kautsky, and why they thought it necessary to build an entirely new international. What matters today is how events like the 1917 October Revolution were organized and what we can learn from them. (The errors and ultimate defeat of the German Revolution are similarly important to study and understand here). I don't see how this goal is advanced by muddying the waters so much that Lenin and Kautsky appear to us today as pals.

Lih also offers little insight into the questions that really matter here. The self-understanding of his intervention seems to be more academic than political. He seems more interested in setting the record straight about his scholarship than he is in advancing our understanding of the contemporary conjuncture and struggles within it. That's fine, as far as it goes. But insofar as we're to take what he says seriously and accord it practical significance, we need answers to the questions raised above. Yet he doesn't deliver in his intervention into the discussion. Even his claim that Lenin's polemical interventions should be taken at face value (rather than critically examined as potentially strategic maneuvers within a contested field of debate) lacks political umph.

Now, I'm not saying that history doesn't matter for the Left today. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some historical debates and arguments on the Left are extremely important. But others matter less and still others shouldn't really matter at all. We need to be clear about which is which.
Everything depends on what our tasks are and what shows up as significant for us given what we're up against right now.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why history matters for radicals today

When new social struggles erupt, there is always a tinge of novelty that is completely unlike anything that came before. Part of that has to do with the nature of struggles from below, which tend to open up a kind of self-emancipatory maneuvering space previously foreclosed by the structures of the dominant order. And, of course, for those most radical of all struggles—revolutionary social transformations—we witness, as Trotsky puts it, "the forcible entrance of the masses into rulership of their own destiny." There is a thus sense in which the "direct interference of the masses in historic events" can never proceed according to a preordained script laid down ex ante. Stronger still, in order to even be a genuine social revolution, events must, to some extent, involve certain spontaneous energies that emerge in the course of collective self-activity for which there is no exact precedent.

Now, it would be easy to conclude from the above that contemporary radicals have no need of history. In periods of increasing social struggle, it's easy to think: "who the hell cares what happened in Paris in 1871 or Russia in 1917? The future won't ever follow the course of past struggles." As far as it goes, this is (in some ways) the right perspective. Contrasted with a fetishistic or dogmatic approach to history (which I'll explain in a moment), this anti-historical political approach has certain virtues. But if this approach succeeds in throwing off certain yokes, it is remains shackled by many others.

To fetishize history is to say that knowledge of it has some kind of intrinsic political value. It is to say that history is, as such, just politically important to know and that's all there is to it. "Serious" radicals simply have to know every detail or else they are politically deficient in the here and now. Accordingly, those who know every obscure historical detail must, on account of their political wisdom, be deferred to by those who don't.

It's not difficult to see that this position is flawed. Historical knowledge does not (and should not) translate into direct authority to command others about what to do in the present. And, as I argued above, genuine social revolutions from below, as self-emancipatory upsurges of a special sort, just aren't the sorts of things that be expected to follow an exact, pre-ordained script handed down from above.

The view that "history just matters and that's all there is to it" is, on reflection, untenable. After all, how much of history matters? Does the number of leaves that fell on the ground in the fall of 1917 in Petrograd matter? Does the evenness or oddness of the exact number of fish in the Baltic Sea in 1905 matter? Of course not. Neither are important for revolutionaries today. So it remains to be explained why some features of history are relevant for us in the here and now whereas others aren't. But explaining what's relevant for us requires that we refer to our own political context and our own practical goals in the here and now. Any simple "look, history just matters" style explanation won't tell us why certain historical facts are significant for us right now whereas other aren't. So the view that history—all history—is simply something revolutionaries have to know (for its own sake) is untenable.

This insight is easily misunderstood.

It would be easy, for example, to conclude that the implausibility of the fetishistic historical perspective means that history just isn't important whatsoever, no matter one's reasoning. If we assume that there are merely two alternatives here: one of fetishizing all of history, on the one hand, and one of abstractly rejecting all of it, on the other, then the rejection of fetishism seems to imply that we should accept the wholesale rejection of history.

But, of course, these aren't are only two options. History is of immense importance for contemporary radicals, but not because it bears some mystical intrinsic value.
The key, is to connect our present predicament to the questions of the relevance and importance of history. Ultimately, what we should say is that history matters for political reasons.

So, the trouble with the a general attitude of impatience toward history is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater here. In (correctly) rejecting the fetishistic/dogmatic approach to history, it (wrongly) concludes that history as such is basically a political waste of time. But dismissing the history of struggle as irrelevant to the present is a grave political mistake.

It is a mistake for many reasons, but at least one of them is that such a posture is performatively self-contradictory. All social struggles—whether or not all of the participants explicitly say so—involve historical consciousness of some kind or other. One doesn't invent the idea of a mass march or a demonstration or an occupation out of whole cloth in the 21st century. To some extent, every demonstration or march inescapably draws on the experience of past marches and demonstration. And it's a good thing too, because it would be a terrible state of affairs if radicals had to re-invent the wheel every single time they engaged in struggle. Fortunately we don't—as politicized people we find ourselves in the position of having already learned from the history and experience of past movements of people fighting back against oppression and exploitation. This is how words like "sit-in", "factory occupation", "strike", "mass march" show up for us as meaningful phrases in the first place. If we know about such tactics at all we know about them from some form of historical consciousness.

But if we already rely on some kind of tacit historical consciousness, it seems obvious that the more reflective we are about it and the more we can deepen it, the better. The fact is that the experience of past social struggles provides contemporary radicals with an extremely rich source of insights about what worked and what didn't, what pushed struggles forward and what caused them to derail and crash. It is also detailed source of tactics, strategies, slogans, ideas, concepts, organizational forms, etc. that we would be foolish not to consult today. Learning about past struggles can expand our own political horizons and unsettle conservative assumptions about what's possible in the here and now. As Jean-Paul Sartre said about the events of May 1968 in Paris, "if it took place, then it can happen again." That is powerful stuff, and it unsettles the assumption that something like that could never happen here. When we think of the fact that most everyone judged May 68 to be unthinkable before it happened, its even more incredible. It's much easier to move contemporary struggles forward with the self-confidence that comes from knowing what past struggles were able to accomplish.

I'd like to share example that illustrates my point here. When struggle exploded in Wisconsin last year, I went there to be part of the collective fightback. I'd never seen anything like it: hundreds of thousands of people flooding onto the streets of the capital in defense of basic union rights. Growing up in a period of relatively low levels of struggle, I had no experience to draw on in figuring out which way forward. Now, I had some experience to draw on—innumerable betrayals by the Democratic Party, for example, convinced me that they were a fundamentally conservative constraint on the movement (this proved to be correct). But I had no experience, and little detailed knowledge of what it takes to put together a successful string of strikes—and I certainly I had virtually no experience with the idea of a general strike. The idea of a general strike was actually in the air in Madison—even the president of the Firefighters union said he'd endorse one—but objective conditions ultimately militated against it. Of course, as of last winter it had been more than 70 years since there was a general strike in the United States, so many of my friends didn't even know what a general strike was. I assume that this must have been true for many of the people active in the movement. For any serious radical the conclusion to draw here is obvious: the knowledge of past struggles—especially general strikes!—is a potent weapon that contemporary movements must lay hold of.

After the struggle in Madison was defeated, I tried to learn as much about general strikes as I could. Of course, this meant plunging into the history of the working class movement in the United States. It meant learning about the Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934 and the role that radicals played in leading it. It meant reading about Toledo and San Fransisco in 1934, the sit-downs in 1937, the 1946 Oakland General Strike, and many other struggles.

Looking back at these struggles wasn't just an opportunity to gleam tactical and organizational insights. It was also a source of inspiration, because it made clear that people can fight back and win. We aren't alone. We're part of a long tradition of emancipatory struggle from below and that should give us self-confidence. It was also liberating to go back to the history of struggle because it made clear that we don't have to start from scratch. We don't have to re-invent the wheel. And the status quo isn't unassailable, natural or inevitable. People have successfully challenged previously "unassailable" regimes of power in the past and succeeded in shattering them into pieces. We have to learn from their successes and failures if we're to avoid stumbling through their mistakes and ignoring their strengths. There's a good reason, after all, why we're not taught about this stuff in school.

Whether and how history matters depends on what one is trying to do. If one is merely trying to elect some schmuck to misrepresent us for 4 years, the history of the Black Panthers in the US is probably not that relevant. But once one arrives at the conclusion that genuine social transformation is needed, the following question arises: what does it take to make that happen? The only place to look here is to history. No amount of abstract reflection on the nature of the concept of revolution will settle the matter. Only the trial and error of mass movements and radical organizations from the past gives us any direction here.

Occupy is, to be sure, a movement that has no exact equivalent in history. But neither is it 100% unprecedented—it clearly draws on the experience of other movements and is rooted in an international tradition of struggle. We contemporary occupiers have everything to gain (and nothing to lose) from, for example, learning about the events in Paris in May 1968. A look at May 68 will hardly give us all the answers to what we should do next. But it gives us a rich array of political ideas and energies that can only sharpen our analysis of the present. The same is true of the experience of radical social movements in the US throughout history.

What the experience of Occupy has made clear for me thus far is that oppressive social conditions breed resistance. When you shit on people long enough, eventually they rise up and fight back. Capitalism produces social struggle. But if it is inevitable that people will fight back, it is not inevitable that they'll win. History is strewn with more defeats and setbacks than it is with victories for our side. In order to make sure that spontaneous upsurges of resistance are not squandered by avoidable failures, we must return to the historical experience of our sisters and brothers who've fought back before us.

That means, in particular, returning to the periods of history when social struggle reaches a fever pitch. Those periods of white-hot social struggle are the episodes we can learn the most from. That's why its worth paying attention to how the Russian Revolution was won (and how it was lost). That's why its worth looking back and figuring out why the German revolution ultimately failed. That's why its worth examining the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 or learning about the successes (and failures) of the Black Panther Party.

It's not unthinking fetishism. It's simply a recognition that history can be a weapon. We'd be crazy not to use it.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Occupy Forces Cancellation of Chicago G8 Summit

You may have already heard the news, but in case you haven't, The White House recently announced that the Chicago G8 Summit will be canceled on account of the Occupy Movement's incredible work organizing and planning resistance and demonstrations. Obama and company are moving the Global 1% summit to a remote location where masses of ordinary Americans won't be expected to show up and protest. The planners of the G8 are "cutting and running", so to speak, and changing their plans because of the resistance they expect to face if they "stay the course".

This should be seen as a victory for Occupy and the growing Left in the United States. And inasmuch as that is true, it should be seen as a serious defeat for Mayor 1% here in Chicago.

Rahm worked all of his Washington connections to bring NATO and the G8 to Chicago this Spring. At some point or other, it's likely that he used his leverage as former White House Chief of Staff to make a pitch to Obama something like the following: "Hey, trust me... bring the G8 to Chicago and I promise there won't be any fucking protests. And I'll find a way to raid the public purse to buy a bunch of riot cops and all the rest. Maybe I'll have to close a couple of libraries, schools and health clinics, along the way, but fuck 'em. So, what do you say?"

Obama, of course, said yes. And ever since Rahm public announced his plan to bring the G8 to town, he's been hammering away at anyone who's dared to question his decision. Of course, he never
asked any actual Chicagoans whether they actually wanted to shell it out to throw a big party for the global 1%. But anyone who knows the Democrat Machine in Chicago knows that the Boss (whether its Daley or Rahm) simply does what the Boss wants around here. Asking the population what they need or prefer is not what the city government does in Chicago.

So, this time, Boss Emanuel decided that he wanted to throw a big party for the G8 on our dime. And he dug in his heels and used his command over the obedient City Council to force through anti-protest ordinances as well as measures that give him carte blanche to spend as much as he likes.

What's more, I think it would be fair to say that Rahm was excited about the whole thing. How could he not be? He and his minions planned and enthusiastically plugged it for months. He alone probably invested countless hours schmoozing with elites, chatting with millionaires, etc. to bring the representatives of the global 1% to town.
Rahm recently said that "from city perspective, this will be an opportunity to showcase what is great about the greatest city in the greatest country." He was pumped.

But he didn't get his way. He lost. The G8 will not be coming to Chicago. Rahm's got to be pissed.

Of course, the ruling class politicians who organize these sorts of summits have an interest in concealing the nature of their decision to move the Summit. But try as they might, they can't fully conceal their intentions since circumstances make it so obvious that they're trying to avoid facing any public resistance to their agenda. Take, for example, the following statement from the White House:

"To facilitate a free-flowing discussion with our close G-8 partners, the President is inviting his fellow G-8 leaders to Camp David on May 18-19 for the G-8 Summit, which will address a broad range of economic, political and security issues," the White House announced this afternoon.
Yes, they moved it to facilitate a "free-flowing discussion". Translation: they realized that if they held the protest in the second largest city in the US, a city with a growing Occupy movement, that there would be massive public protests decrying the presence of a small clique of elites making decisions behind closed doors that will have grave consequences for the global 99%. This kind of mass showing of grass-roots resistance to the domination of the 1% in global affairs would, of course, disrupt their capacity to have a smooth, "free-flowing discussion." Better, then, to have it out in the middle of nowhere (see below).

That way there will far less public resistance to what is, quite obviously, a democratically illegitimate global organization.

But there's another dimension here is unlikely to be publicly addressed by Obama's White House. Let's not forget that it's an election year. Obama and the Democrats will be doing their best to try to rhetorically lull those sympathetic to the Occupy movement into voting for them. They will try to pose as the "party of the people", as the party that stands for taxing the rich and fighting for the 99%. But it's rather hard to do this effectively if there are massive protests underway in the President's hometown, especially since the very people on the streets will be the target of Democrat campaigning. A massive grass-roots confrontation has the potential to look rather bad for the man who desperately wants to position himself as the "President of the people" despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

So, once it became clear that the organizing efforts underway meant massive, large protests against the G8, Obama decided to renege on his decision.

Whatever he says publicly, we know that Rahm can't be pleased with this decision. Even the Boss of the Chicago Machine can be forced to relent when enough pressure is generated from below. We can take him on and win. He's not invincible. When we stand together and threaten to build mass movements that draw the majority of the population into active resistance, our leaders cannot fail to take notice.

This should be a lesson to everyone in Chicago fighting back against injustice and domination from above. We can stand together and defeat Rahm. We can challenge him and force him to back down. Because when the 99% stands together, it has a social power like no other. We--the 99%--do the work, we make this society run. When we are mobilized and organized, we have the ability knock our leaders off their thrones and force them to take notice.

Of course, in the midst of our victory celebrations, we have to be well aware of the challenges ahead. NATO, for the time being at least, is still scheduled to come to town. And, for all intents and purposes, NATO represents the exact same interests as the G8 (even the interests of French capitalists are served by NATO and they would be generally hard pressed to say otherwise). Still, we have a lot of work to do, probably no more or less than we had before us when both the G8 and NATO were slated to come.

But this victory has the potential to be a galvanizing factor as we move closer to May. It shows that we can win, it shows that what we do matters. Activists far and wide should seize upon the recent news to build the self-confidence of the movement and push participants to be even more ambitious in their demands. If we can win on this issue and force the President to relent, we can win on many others. We're just getting started.