“A starting point in envisaging the future function of the class-in-itself would surely be the imposing work of Erik Olin Wright, the greatest authority on class today.”
—G.M. Tamás, “Telling the Truth About Class”
The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.
—Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)
There is widespread agreement among contemporary academic marxists that the term ‘surplus population’ is much preferable to ‘lumpenproletariat’. This had led many to think the two terms are interchangeable; perhaps that the former is just a “politically correct” neologism for the latter. For the sake of clarity, let us refute the previous sentence in the common sense, setting aside idiosyncratic attempts to improve the concept of ‘lumpenproletariat’.
For the following reasons, ‘surplus population’ is a distinct and superior concept to ‘lumpenproletariat’:
- While ‘lumpenproletariat’ denotes people who lack property in the same way that same way that proletarians do, it was used by early-mid Marx and the classical marxists as an opposed class to the proper proletariat, with class interests parasitic on the wages earned by proper proles;
- As with the concept of exploitation, the description of parasitic class interests embeds a moral claim—in this case, an unacceptably stigmatizing and naively sweeping generalization of the largest and fastest-growing section of the proletariat.
- What might be thought of as the classical “PC” response was the illegalist anarchist, anti-colonial, and post-maoist inversion of anti-lumpen moralism: valorizing ‘the lumpen’ into a revolutionary class by virtue of their exclusion and criminality—c.f. Mikhail Bakunin, Frantz Fanon, Huey Newton;
- These responses tend to lose the specific contours of the original class category, generalizing from ‘lumpenproletariat’ to ‘the lumpen’, but still maintain it as a discrete class with specific interests. So while more sophisticated variants were able to identify ‘lumpen petty bourgeoisie’, and this in some sense was an improvement on the classical usage, they still disguised the conflicting economic interests between ‘lumpen proles’ and ‘lumpen PB’;
- ‘Surplus population’ is an attempt to diffuse the moralism of classical marxism but also to avoid the “PC” valorization of ‘lumpen’;
- Most importantly, ‘surplus population’ is not conceptualizing a discrete class with its own interests; rather it overlaps with more general class categories and modifies their interest profiles. While one can still identify ‘surplus proles’ and ‘surplus PB’, their class interests can still be seen to conflict.
Antifa—the strategy of direct physical and verbal confrontation with extreme right groups, in person and online—understands itself and its tactics as radical, in opposition to the liberalism of the mainstream. Adherents of antifa believe that the mainstream, with its embrace of such liberal values as freedom of speech, has too soft a response to the existential threat presented by the far right. Liberals don’t understand the zero-tolerance approach that is required to defeat neo-Nazi and other fascist or “alt right” groups. In fact, the criticism one will most often hear the antifa adherent leverage is, quite simply: “Liberal!”
That is why it is ironic that antifa, in its current manifestation, is liberalism. “Liberalism” is that political outlook which sees society as a collection of individuals. Its original proponents, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, argued that society is not something organic, not some kind of fundamental relationship of interdependence, but is made up of the individual behaviors of individual people.
Liberalism thus stands in contrast to an approach that looks at how society is structured, and to whose benefit. Such an approach would take stock of societal institutions and their functioning, to examine how this deploys relationships of power between different social groups….
Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones. Contrary to antifa’s self-understanding, it is not distinct from liberalism but another form of it, one that has merely taken on a more radical veneer.
—Marianne Garneau, “Antifa is Liberalism”
None of You are Free from Liberalism
By far the most common condemnation of the left against itself is the charge of liberalism. And very frequently, there is little consideration that our entire political context from Locke to Trump has essentially been a contest between factions of a liberal milieu.
When we talk about conditions where ‘liberalism’ can be hurled as an insult, the issue is easily is that overripe capitalist development feels regressed, rotted, and decayed, tending to turn on itself in hopes of ending its stagnation. You can call almost anything liberal in America and Western Europe and, despite the appearance and reality of conflict and opposition, be correct that it is liberal. Everyone is a liberal, and thus the sting of liberalism sticks to all and no one.
Let us look at one example of this trend and extrapolate a few general points through critique. Ritual Magazine has returned with Marianne Garneau’s attack on Antifa. Surely, in our age of clickbait, this one will be most effective. After all, liberalism is the leftist slur du jour. Antifa, in our current accelerated spectacle, was at once nearly universally praised on both the liberal and radical lefts, and almost immediately condemned for both its liberal and illiberal tendencies. Garneau makes many sound points about the over-focus on individual and not systemic action, and yet we find her framework problematic.
The way this liberal / non-liberal binary operates, to use the old Marxist canard, is undialectical. Her typology ignores the established tendency, at least since the late 1960s, for liberalism to appeal to structural factors and diminish the importance of individual behavior. Liberalism in the 2010s certainly considers structural determinism to be a starting gun in the wokeness marathon. The turn back towards individual agency in anglophone political philosophy represented by John Rawls is an exception to the recent rule, even if more in line with some classical sources.
Liberal aims were not enough for liberatory society or even to suppress “fascistic” urges, but Garneau’s states that “society is not something organic but is made of the individual behaviors of individual people”. She also strongly implies that a radical perspective does look at the structures as they emerge organically. While Locke’s notions of property do tend to treat the individual as sui generis and the individual role in that is primary, Hobbes does take this a step further. For Garneau to collapse them together does damage not just to liberal thought, but also to socialist thought.
Hobbes does start with the individual, but not for the same reasons or in the same way as most liberals. We at emancipation disagree over whether Hobbes is a liberal: he is either a reactionary liberal or not a liberal at all. Some of us would say that Hobbes starts with liberal assertions for profoundly illiberal ends. In any case, conflating Hobbes and Locke on agency and structure demonstrates how misleading Garneau’s charge of ‘liberalism’ is. This passage of Leviathan could not be written by someone who ignores the way emergent social dynamics determine individual choice:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes, like Marx and unlike Locke, thinks history only begins beyond the individual, but his answer is that it has been manifested in an individual or entity—a sovereign. Even if this is a reactionary solution, this negative example moves us to the fundamental truth: systems are composed of social relationships. To counterpose this against some radical holist notion of an organically emergent system forgets that people are not just made by the system, but also make it:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
The only added element is historical, it is not “organic interdependence.” Even in Marx, history is the aggregate of individuals who can manifest interests as classes, not some kind of unified and organic whole. One’s interests as an individual are limited by the material relations hidden in the structures of society; to say that individual movements within these structures do not matter is to reify the structural abstractions as more real than the relationships that undergird (and undermine) them.
Yet Garmeu seems to realize the limits of this kind of critique, which is maybe why she does not condemn Antifa. As she says,
none of this is meant to argue that no one should ever punch or doxx a Nazi, or that counter-demonstrations against alt right groups should not take place. It is merely an argument that those tactics, as well as the analysis that undergirds them, are liberal.
To this, one can only respond: so what? What is your alternative to liberalism?
Finally, many proponents of Antifa will read this piece and agree with the limitations of the tactics mentioned but declare their embrace of a “both-and” approach: we should build organs of working-class power (unions, block associations, tenant groups), while also confronting individual fascists and fascist groups. Such a “both-and” approach is not necessarily objectionable. Let us just be clear which aspects of that combined approach are the liberal ones.
While the concessions Garneau makes at the end of her essay might be thought of as a cop-out from her provocative thesis, we find them refreshingly honest: Antifa is liberalism and I’m not necessarily opposed to liberalism. Even these concessions don’t adequately confront the apparent obsolescence of traditional left strategies to build prole class power. The author should have anticipated this critique since the antifascists in her organization (the Industrial Workers of the World) must have thrown it in her face repeatedly when making their case.
Reducing radical thought to structuralism papers over the classed nature of individual interest. Focusing on the systemic alone not only makes the individual locus of struggle a problem, it makes all intermediate stages, whether workplace organizing or organizing at a level of national or even transnational polities insufficient to fight a system. Reducing radical thought to structuralism papers over the classed nature of individual interests. Look at any locus of struggle within capitalist modernity and the logic can be applied. Let’s start with this chestnut:
Antifa is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses racism in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the racist (say, the neo-Nazi), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.
One merely has to change a few words:
[Labor organizing] is liberalism insofar as its adherents, through both their criticisms and their tactics, want to draw our attention away from systemic problems and towards individual behavior. It primarily addresses [capitalism] in terms of the virulent thoughts or attitudes in the mind of the [capitalist] (say, the [boss]), and their aberrant behavior, rather than systemic forms of race- and class-based domination and exploitation.
This is explicitly not what Garneau intends, but the structure of the argument is recognizable to anyone familiar with anti-union marxism, from the most vulgar Socialist Equality Party tract to the most erudite communizer dissertation. At least Lenin’s accusations of “tred–iunionizm” (usually translated as “trade-union consciousness”) didn’t condemn individual action in context because it doesn’t fully supplant the totality of capital. This substitution shows how this kind of thinking can cut against Garneau’s politics, and yet comes from the same sectors of Left Communism that also have historically critiqued Antifascism on the same grounds Garneau has supposed. We will return to implications of some of these parallels later.
From here, we see ‘liberalism’ in Garneau’s hands become an analytical panacea, as she seems to have collapsed the dialectical tension within liberalism itself into a simple, exclusive binary of individual vs. systemic. That even a reactionary early modern thinker like Hobbes could have seen the relationship says enough. From social contract theory to the return of a materialist conception of politics, this is by no means an alien insight to liberal thinking itself. Garneau’s conflations get more totalizing when trying to offer a systemic answer to this problem, she asserts,
[Antifa] identifies the harm of racism with an odious individual prick spewing genocidal ideas, rather than the systemic impoverishment and arbitrary criminalization of people of color—which are, it bears repeating, not the brainchild policies of individual racists but built into the very infrastructure of capitalism and American democracy.
The problem with this statement is that infrastructure of capitalism is equated as the same as American democracy and that she treats them as emergent beyond any individual. This conflation is not just rendering the totality of the capitalist system as an adjunct or, at a minimum, on parity to its particular development in the US, but it also seems to pretend that totalities were not actual policy and developmental choices made by actual individuals for both individual and class interests. In short, the move to systemic analysis serves to evade guilt but also doesn’t discuss the granular micro-development of how oppressive totalities emerged.
This World We Can’t Leave
Liberalism—the school of thought which seeks to establish or justify individualistsocial and economic orders, concerned with a separation secular and religious spheres, and largely concerned with free labor and free trade which emerge out of the European Enlightenment—births Marxism, most anarchism, Enlightened despotism, Bourgeois Democracy’s various ideologies, and French absolutism alike. The various schools of liberal and post-liberal thought historically emerge as contrary trends within Enlightenment thinking and, if one is not careful, can trip into pure anti-modernity.
One only needs to look at the example of former Bordigist turned into a scion of primitivism, Jacques Camatte. In “Against Domestication”, Camatte asserts that:
human beings have, strictly speaking, been outstripped by the movement of capital which they are no longer able to control. This explains why some people think that the only solution is flight into the past, as with the fashionable preoccupation with mysticism, zen, yoga and tantraism in the U.S. Others would rather take refuge in the old myths which reject the total and all-pervading tyranny of science and technology. (Often this is all combined with the use of some drug which gives the illusion of the rapid arrival of a world different from the horror we are now living through.) On the other hand, there are people who say that only science and technology can be relied upon to provide the answers — which would explain why certain women in the feminist movement are able to envisage their emancipation through parthenogenesis or by the production of babies in incubators. [quelle horreur!]
There are others who believe they can fight against violence by putting forward remedies against aggressiveness, and so on. These people all subscribe, in a general way, to the proposition that each problem presupposes its own particular scientific solution. They are therefore essentially passive, since they take the view that the human being is a simple object to be manipulated. They are also completely unequipped to create new interhuman relationships (which is something they have in common with the adversaries of science); they are unable to see that a scientific solution is a capitalist solution, because it eliminates humans and lays open the prospect of a totally controlled society.
For Camatte, accelerating Horkheimer and Adorno’s conclusions in Dialectic of Enlightenment, there is no out to the systems of capital and individualism. Human liberation has inverted into a society of total control.
Since any modular fight against an element of capital is destined to be subsumed into its systemic logics, there is no way to battle capitalism because nothing can enact the necessary “radical break.” It is all liberal or delusional; all is vanity. There is no way through, but only out: an individual out. Thus Camatte takes the systemic critique to a reductio ad absurdum: individual anti-modernism—what isometric far-right tendencies call “riding the tiger”—becomes the only out. Thus this anti-liberalism leads to an even more regressed individualism than anything liberal concerns produce.
Furthermore, if one is to look at Camatte’s development of Bordigist thought, this totalizing tendency to collapse a priori distinctions matters. In a 1988 “Dialogue with Bordiga”, while he defending his development of Bordigism into proto-primitivism as consistent with Bordiga’s skepticism of democracy, Camatte states:
…we do not reject the contributions of [Holocaust deniers] Rassinier, Faurisson or Guillaume. For us, as we have said thousands of times, questioning the ideology that justified the Second World War, and therefore denouncing the propaganda of the Allies concerning the Jewish “holocaust”, basically goes without saying and cannot be a subject of dispute. The main thing—which is not found in the works of the authors cited above—is to try to understand why we have witnessed such a powerful resurgence of this nauseating ideology with its timid questioning and, certainly, to the degree that the West really integrates its recent history, to that same degree will it use the existential myth that replaces the various founding representations absorbed by capital.
Camatte equates discussions of the Holocaust as liberal propaganda. We understand that the legacy of the Holocaust can be abused, as has been a theme of radical liberal scholars such as Norman Finkelstein, but Camatte’s citations cannot honestly be read as ending there. Denying the Holocaust is said to be radical because the reality of Auschwitz supports liberalism and therefore capitalism. In search of the radical break with capitalist modernity, the post-Bordigist circle around Invariance compounds their namesake’s “Italian disease” with the anti-anti-fascism of Vichy contrarians.
This is not to equate Bordigism, ultra-leftism, or most specifically Garneau’s thought with Camatte, but to grease the slippery slope of anti-liberalism and consider where collapsing all analysis into this categorical imperative may take us. While Garneau is right about problems of Antifa’s tactics and ways of thinking, she makes an enormous error of omission: contemporary Antifa does not limit itself to liberal justifications against incitement to shut down free speech and association but has made a show of attacking the principles themselves as inherently oppressive. What is the value of framing this as a critique of liberalism, other than the irony of Antifa also being derived from the same totalizing political sphere?
Antifa is liberal, so what? This will get clicks on social media surely, but it leads to other problems if one really works through the logic with any consistency. That isn’t really the crux of the problem. If everyone is liberal in some sense, it hardly matters. More importantly, these critiques will be ignored by the actors involved. Antifa will claim victory for the Alt-Right’s overall incompetence and will not combat their liberalism. How one gets beyond it becomes far more crucial question, and cannot be reduced to the taint of liberalism or even bad tactics.
The problem isn’t that Antifa is liberal. Almost everything is liberal in modern capitalist society including almost all leftism, and Antifa is arguably the loudest anti-liberal voice on the left despite its essentially liberal assumptions. The real problem with Antifa is their seeming unawareness of the way their assumptions conflict with their goals: something they share with Garneau.
Recently, a piece was published by our collective attempting to ‘debunk’ the ‘anti-political’ perspective. We who adopt this outlook don’t believe that piece represented a critique of our views as they actually exist. Rather, attempts to ‘systemize’ emerging beliefs for us have, under the guise of empiricism, been a search for means of quickly resolving discomfort. Why else does it grant special attention and a need to be debunked, but that it actually explains the moment? Let’s break down a few points.
Tellingly, the Anti-Political people don’t use terms like ‘proletariat’ or ‘worker’ very often.
This is untrue: the hollowing out of workers’ parties and the relative shallowness of proletarian political participation generally is core to empirical evidence of antipolitics. The proletariat is also key to understanding what activity has social content.
The “Social Sphere”/Civil Society is cast as the base, and the entirety of the State/Politics is shoehorned into the superstructure.
This is an assertion that we have not read or personally stated anywhere. Can it be cited? We do think Tietze should do more to to dig into late Marx’s investigations of civil-society (and its own strictures, falsities and requirements, including the very existence of the political state: perhaps his upcoming book will go into it), but we have seen no indication he has revised base-superstructure (and he has poked fun at the SWP for doing so, i.e. they now put the state as part of the base).
But all this interpretation of Marx did for the anti-political faction of emancipation was to avoid the harsh reality of an extremely weak workers’ movement and rotting social institutions. It would seem there’s nothing wrong with the way things are right now in the “Social Sphere”—only issues with the political sphere and in particular The Left™. ‘The schools may be underfunded and falling apart, public spaces that were once the heart of communities may be in ruins, union membership may be extremely low, and birth rates may be low, but that’s all in your head. You are just projecting your doomy gloomy leftist worldview on the social sphere because you couldn’t possibly deal with the idea that society would be better off without you political types.’ When faced with the material foundations of social impotence, the most that Tietze & Humphrys and their followers will admit is that the institutions that tied society to politics have fallen apart.
The problem with striking the anvil of social decrepitude this hard is the incipient conservatism in it: not only because the proletariat is not going in the way the left wants it to (and there’s no acknowledgement as to why that may be reasonable), but because it fetishizes civil-social forms of the past despite the problems that presents. Eventually you get Robert Putnam denouncing “mass immigration” as “corrosive to social cohesion”. Or an odd assertion about birth rates (could read as a vulgarized Laschianism). The emphasis on trying to debunk the ‘unalienating’ aspects of social life betrays a misunderstanding of what makes social emancipation a priority and an advantageous strategy. Our point is not to fetishize.
Figuring out why social activity is weak and civil-social institutions are in long-term decline is an important question, but this analysis dodges asking why aside from acknowledging world economic shifts. It completely denies the role institutions themselves had in shoring up the failures of 20th century politics and thus the crisis of politics altogether. There’s no mention of the roles of labor unions in Stalinism and social democracy (the last two are mentioned only in their contemporary, decomposed forms). There’s also no considering that political crisis or hollowing out, and the social bases it relies on, predated neoliberalism (whether 1914 itself, Bolshevization, Stalinism, fascism, the “postwar settlement” tack of politics increasingly falling back on the state rather than on social bases, the collapse of the New Deal Coalition). Oddly, in this trying to defend politics and civil-social institutions that have historically acted as nexus points for politics, it implicitly defends historical Stalinism, even if it clearly was a corrosive force on the workers’ movements of the time, and loses many of the reasons to avoid working with contemporary ones as some of the worst dregs of the left. The 20th century has not been honestly grappled with.
We would argue civil-social organizations, by acting as a nexus point for politics, discredited themselves. It would certainly explain, in the US, the decline of public trust in labor unions starting from the 1950s onward¹, or Mai ’68, or the wildcat strikes of that era. Embryonic social activity is prone to being politically honeycombed, which explains most of what was witnessed in this sense in the 2010s in the United States (and not just by Democrats, but also the radical left and political entrepreneurs). Think Occupy, BLM/Ferguson/Baltimore, or the Wisconsin and Chicago public sector labor fights. Or outside of the United States, 15M/Podemos in Spain. This has not been properly accounted for. And what these are not are conspiracies: these are products of the limits the international workers’ movement hit a century ago, the material nature of politics, and how civil-society (and its institutions) requires a political state and tries to smooth out the cracks in it.
So rather than try to circuit back to politics (or ‘antiantipolitics’, which is supposed to posit…what?), or pretend that political representation is ever truly representative (it’s not, not even for the bourgeoisie as implied in the article, as the state is not simply their “tool” but, paraphrasing Marx, a collective insurance against their individual selves as much as the other classes: the realization of political representation as a falsehood is why we’re in an antipolitical epoch, that it is not simply the “tool of the bourgeoisie” is seen in the political class horror directed at vulgar bourgeois political takeovers), it’s time to think of what social organization looks like with buffers from political honeycombing. In this sense, antipolitics doesn’t just point to the social reality but at what is actually necessary at this point.
One last thing we will say about the lizards (which we haven’t used much as of late, really) is it actually needles at the waning social authority of politicos and their waxing incoherence and dysfunction — an inversion which actually flies in the face of Icke-ism or structural antisemitism generally. The Democrats have often been called the “graveyard of social movements”, but the point of political class co-optation once was to have a social base that could be sanded of its “rough” edges and commanded-and-controlled. This once had extraordinary power, even for institutions that had already peaked in power: the AFL-CIO going into DEFCOM mode in 1968 pulled Hubert Humphrey from potential third-place disaster to a near-win. Whereas today, there’s a clear and almost immediate negative relationship to political opportunism coming in command of activity, and social participation in it (one can see the trajectory in the social / class composition of Ferguson and Baltimore to BLM activity that isn’t tailing a localized outrage). Most importantly, this is not limited to Democrats, as seen clearly in fringe / sect / kook feeding frenzies at Occupy. While political opportunism still has the power to honeycomb social activity, it is from politics so weak and discredited they cannot even meaningfully mobilize and benefit from it, they can only rely on the core of their remaining rusted-on political base (one can look at the average participant in March For Our Lives²: rather than a teenager, they were almost 50 years old and almost certainly a Hillary Clinton voter). To the extent that a political class will always exist in civil-society, their problems are readily visible: the aim is to decipher how their ability to govern can be further impeded.
Marx is the only major writer in the history of theory whose reputation rests substantially on what he chose not to publish.
— Sheldon S. Wolin, “On Reading Marx Politically” (1983)
We at emancipation are split on the nominal “antipolitical” current in contemporary post-left thought. The feelings that motivate this subcluster of the group represented here share in the disappointment and frustration with the left and politics as whole, and it has therapeutic value to take a rhetorical distance. However, in engaging with our antipolitical wing, it becomes clear that they are no more free from the obvious shortcomings that define the left in the current moment, from theory cultism to hostility towards dissenting opinions. Antipoliticos are leftists in the strongest sense.
One can always ask the key question before proceeding to this debate: why would anyone waste their time arguing about some online micro-tendency that barely exists outside of a couple of blogs and leftbook? Don’t we have better things to do? The vivisection of another left-wing groupscule seems hardly necessary. Two reasons come to mind: one, we all know what it’s like to watch intelligent people slowly slip into the dim and numbing incoherence of internet crankdom. Their good faith engagement gives way to continuous definition shifting and goalpost moving, no matter how politely you push at the limits of their framework. Two, antipolitics highlights a problem endemic to the left beyond the such micro-sectarian concerns: structural antisemitism.
What is Anti-Politics?
This is the million-dollar question. Given the osscalition between a broad and narrow conception of the term, I’m going to divide anti-political theory into two distinct definitions:
- Anti-politics is a description of the relationship between depoliticization(decreasing voter participation, etc.) and the rising tide of populism.
- An interpretation of Marx’s work that reads a primitive version of the base- superstructure divide into Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The “Social Sphere”/Civil Society is cast as the base, and the entirety of the State/Politics is shoehorned into the superstructure. Among others, this interpretation owes a significant debt to Antonio Gramsci.
The first definition is the most interesting of the two, since it is tackling an obvious sociological reality. The modern resurgence of populism is fueled by a deep frustration with conventional politics on behalf of almost the entire voting population, who act and believe as if their interests have no chance at being represented. Most people in the western world do not like thinking about politics, and when they do, it’s usually pretty hostile towards the people who are in charge. Though this hostility is not particularly coherent, it takes on a populist logic, gravitating towards politicians that seem like outsiders with respect to “business as usual”. This is what most commentators mean by “anti-politics” outside of communist theory.
However, this is problematic to the various Marxian antipolitics cadres that have developed, since they would rather not have something like the election of Trump or the rise of Bernie Sanders associated with The Real Movement. We know what The Real Movement means in terms of Marxology: the workers’ movement against all that exists. Tellingly, the Anti-Political people don’t use terms like ‘proletariat’ or ‘worker’ very often. They talk about “the social sphere” or “civil society”.
But what do they mean by the social sphere? Tad Tietze, the most visible theoretician of Marxian antipolitics¹, will tell you that the social sphere is connected to civil society (think schools, churches, families, communities, etc.) According to him and co-theorist Elizabeth Humphrys at the Left Flank blog, these parts of society are incubators for emancipatory desire, and in that they are in irreconcilable conflict with the “Political Sphere”: the state and anyone who is even vaguely positively disposed towards it.
This is all drawn, supposedly, from Marx’s work. The young Marx’s critique of Hegel is admittedly very interesting work, but in context with Marx’s overall body of thought, we find that it was blip on the map. Something that could be dismissed as Marx just starting to form his worldview, laying into Hegel before developing his conception of proletarian class struggle. In later works, Marx focuses on the proletariat and the inner workings of capitalism rather than the distinction between civil society and the state, although he planned on getting back to state theory after completing Capital. Famously, he didn’t even complete Capital. Marx was the kind of thinker that wrote “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” while writing several programs.
Whether or not Tietze’s reading is reflective of where Marx ended up is besides the point. If this reading leads to a more accurate description of the material conditions that define our current moment, than the marxology of it would be a secondary concern. If historical materialism means anything, it’s describing social relations as they actually exist and speculating upon said conditions to pursue human emancipation. If this were to mean admitting that Marx was either blind to or wrong in certain areas, then we should not deter to do so, as we are not prophets interpreting the word of God. This should go without saying, but it bears repeating when among true believers.
But all this interpretation of Marx did for the anti-political faction of emancipation was to avoid the harsh reality of an extremely weak workers’ movement and rotting social institutions. It would seem there’s nothing wrong with the way things are right now in the “Social Sphere”—only issues with the political sphere and in particular The Left™.
The schools may be underfunded and falling apart² ³ ⁴, public spaces that were once the heart of communities may be in ruins⁵, union membership may be extremely low⁶ ⁷, and birth rates may be low⁸, but that’s all in your head. You are just projecting your doomy gloomy leftist worldview on the social sphere because you couldn’t possibly deal with the idea that society would be better off without you political types.
[re: “low birth rates”, the main author wishes to highlight a breakdown in social cohesion, not to promote patriarchal natal-reproductivist ideology —ed. ]
When faced with the material foundations of social impotence, the most that Tietze & Humphrys and their followers will admit is that the institutions that tied society to politics have fallen apart.
While the main thinkers of antipolitics take a more Gramscian view of civil society against the seductions of the “integral state”, their followers have taken to extrapolating the young Marx’s notion of civil society as the other term of an inherently bourgeois antagonism: more of a friend to the state and politics, more of an enemy of the general social sphere. Many of the institutions that compose nominal civil society are literally part of the state—like public schools—or are directly linked to political institutions—like unions and churches.
But once this distinction is made, little coherent social power remains outside of civil society. All this talk of the “social sphere” conceals a precious pro-social optimism that cannot withstand the withering conditions of its existence. We find ourselves in the same prayer for spontaneity that ultimately negated communization, but without the sobriety and self-consciousness of its better wing. While everyone involved with emancipation feels jilted from our awful romance with leftoid sects, some of us still remember the social incoherence that led us to that cliff.
The Band-Aid of Structural Anti-Semitism
Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society, and as such appears in pure form as soon as civil society has fully given birth to the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. … The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism.
—a young Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” (1843)⁹
Why would a group of intelligent people slowly drift off into this Lovecraftian madness, the theoretical equivalent of non-Euclidean architecture? How does an analysis drawing from a younger, more Hegelian Marx prevent itself from backsliding into Althusser’s suffocating vision of that “integral state” incorporating everything in capitalist society? Surely it would if it was more realistic, for many of the same reasons that left communists felt compelled to migrate “beyond the ultraleft”¹⁰.
We find “structural antisemitism” a convincing diagnosis. Marxian antipoliticos want to shift focus from the weakness of the workers’ movement towards the Left and the state. It was not the Left or the state that fatally weakened the working classes at the point of production, nor was it merely a Mont Pelerin cabal of neoliberals. Marxist analysis roots the strategies of political actors in economic conditions. Anti-Political people, like the rest of the Left, forget that the capitalism is not a conspiracy of capitalists but a system that is self reinforcing, limiting the agency of not only of individuals, but collectives. While this does not mean we are completely ensnared in this horrible web, it does mean that explanations that overestimate the agency of a small elite are misguided at best, and actively harmful at worst.
The (sadly, recently deceased) German marxist Moishe Postone describes this sort of thinking as “structural anti-Semitism”, drawing on the role of Jews as the historical scapegoat for the cold and faceless entity of capital…
[Antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews¹¹.
In an attempt to avoid the nihilistic conclusions implied by their premises, politicos begin to seem less like “character masks” of capital than capital incarnate. Antipoliticos within emancipation adopted the meme of “lizard people” to refer to political agents and their attendant “lizard brain” ideological thought-worlds, referencing David Icke’s infamous conspiracy theory about the world being run by extraterrestrial reptilians. The Jewish members of (e) have mixed feelings about this usage: it’s too much a gesture towards its antisemitic origins, but an amusing abstraction from them. But what remains clear is that it reproduces the fetishism of the actor that conspiracy theorists level at Jews.
We do not wish to collapse into hyperstructuralism that makes “betrayal” impossible. History is a contingent process with absurd consequences. Stalinists and Social Democrats alike exhibit a distracting hypocrisy that seems to attract lost little lambs and world-weary wolves. Even so, proletarians are as structurally deprived of politics as they are justifiably disinterested in them. Functional representation of interests can only take in the walled-gardens of the salaried company town, whereas any public space in proletarian life fills up with dysfunctional misery.
The big paradox for antipolitics is how the lizards continue to keep their social position amongst the meltdown if they are so weak, and why the spectacular inroads of the social into the political sphere always seems to fizzle. The reemergence of wildcat labor tactics in West Virginia is a glimpse of what a twenty-first century class struggle could look like. If we grant that this is not merely an echo of the past, what would still be needed is a negation of the antipolitical moment in a qualitatively different way than what the political sphere could ever muster: an anti-antipolitics, in that questionably vague Hegelian sense that all marxism relies on for hope. The loss of momentum in “red lizard” circles indicates that the extant left is not likely to play a significant role in its formation, but without its emergence we have no cause for social optimism.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism.
—Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919)
“There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
—Marx, Preface to the French Edition of Capital, Vol. 1 (1872)
What other body of thought could say that their every conclusion can be dead wrong without implicating how they got there? “Nevermind that our most cherished claims are in ruins,” our collective marxist self-assuredly smirks.
“We’ve got a system.”
Why is it that academics come to such fragmentary, deflationary conclusions about the Marxian canon? The mathematically literate and innumerate alike regard Marx’s value theory and crisis theory incomplete at best, mathematically bunk at worst, and—in any case—locked into an archaic bourgeois logic. The specter of the “transformation problem” haunts any attempt to use Marx’s theory as written, should one attempt such a fetishistic folly. There are many answers to the ghost of transformation, but they are mutually exclusive.
Historians, sociologists and anthropologists cannot systematize a Marxian theory of history or class without collapsing into whether Marx projects what he intends to critique—capitalist categories—onto the european past and inappropriately onto the non-european world. Every attempt to extend Marx’s insights appears to recreate the problem of making contemporary relations out to be eternal, even if Marx himself is frequently spared from this criticism.
What we can say about history seems to dig us even deeper. The historical context for socialism and its momentum have dissipated. The workers’ movement Marx identified as the proletariat’s vehicle for liberation has all but disappeared—even though the scope of the proletariat within worldwide capitalism has expanded. When the labor movement existed as an historical actor, it was compelled by structure and circumstance to execute counter-revolution as often as revolution. Every attempt at a proletarian transitional state towards a classless society ended in atrocity, disaster, and expropriation that almost always prefigures capitalism—even North Korea has a donju road unfolding before it.
While marxists throughout the twentieth century busied themselves with apologizing for or brushing off these developments, the wide-eyed utopians we once could count on to draw up our blueprints and quixotically model the possibility of communal life have abandoned us for more subsumed libertarian horizons.
This might be mitigated if marxists could discuss the severity of this situation with one another. Yet no honest interrogation of our tradition appears to be in the cards. Marxists—a scene composed chiefly of teachers and grad students—insist on talking past each other to rehash elaborate schemas from sacred commentary. Cooperating on a systematic attempt to make these theories understandable, scrutable, or compatible seems out of reach.
For an illustration of the problem: can you argue against the claims made in the first paragraph? Are you literate in economic theory, linear algebra, cultural anthropology, comparative political science, German philology, and the plethora of other disciplines that have become necessary to engage in the defense or the attack for these debates within—and without—marxism? How would you be able to judge if any of this was true—or useful? Textual exegesis and empirical data have their place, as do the analytical and dialectical methodological traditions. That is, when they are not reduced to hand-waving motions in desperate reverie to avert communication.
The panicked insistence that marxism is “a science” is straightforwardly bankrupt, and its claim to having a unique methodology appears now more than ever as special pleading at best and turning marxism into an instrument of mystifying class domination at the worst. Nominal marxism is many methodologies, and while some are internally consistent, almost none are consistent with one another. Such competing methodologies and historiographies cannot be said to be scientific in any unified sense. Nothing remains of marxism’s claim to critique at the root of things—”radically”—other than sophistry toward contradictory extremes on any manner of subject.
Even this “ruthless critique” has been sufficiently abstracted from a communist context, where the methodological specificity of critical theory can be leveraged as a seemingly radical critique in any field whatsoever and without any pretense of offering a glimpse beyond capitalism. What is out of the question is the possibility that marxist thought might be coherent enough to be true regarding any subject on which Marx wrote.
“It was thenceforth no longer a question whether this or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, in accordance with police regulations or contrary to them. In place of disinterested inquirers there stepped hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics.”
—Marx, Postface to the Second Edition, Capital, Vol. 1 (1872)
Anyone who lays claim to this burdensome tradition must have approached it by process of elimination, and—it must be assumed—a normative commitment to classless society. Positivistic claims with political implications are always suspect, but none more especially as those that read our further atomization and domestication as prefiguring communism. Most importantly of all, marxists have annihilated both the scientific standing and the moral high ground of communism by conflating ethics and science.
Yet marxism is nothing if not an emancipatory philosophy of science: a rational interrogation of the supposed necessity of class society, capitalism, wage-labor, the state and its borders. Even if we admit ethical commitments towards remaking the entire world that resemble nothing so embarrassing as justice, as ineliminable from marxism is its insistence that a belief in how the world should be will never be enough. We have to argue to the best of our abilities that communism is not only desirable but possible.
In order to do so, we must set aside the neurotic cornucopia of debilitating leftist skepticisms: the common sense that There Is No Alternative, the shoddy scholarship of one million hardened Party Men and undisciplined wishful thinkers, an unending fishbowl of ideology from which no grasp of the truth is possible, a dialectic of enlightenment where instrumental reason is destined to consume its siblings, an epistemic jail where all relevant problems are intractable, the suspicion that all thought is domination-in-waiting, and so on.
Yet we must hang onto two of our suspicions as guiding principles: that our communist commitments may allow us to entertain hopeful absurdities in a religious fashion, and that both opponents and exponents of marxism are heavily incentivized to pass off weak or distorted interpretations of texts and theories. In that spirit, we cannot pretend to grasp the full philosophical truth of things, but instead we must find ways to prove the importance and truth of a new scientific socialism on normal epistemic grounds. Only on the level of reintegrating marxism with libertarian and democratic impulses must we engage in myth-healing, to begin to wash the blood of innocents from the hammer and sickle and scrape away the rust. Otherwise, our task is primarily heuristic and not hermeneutic: more problem-solving than grand interpretation.
In that spirit, the ineliminable role of textual interpretation in reviving the marxist research program should take on a pluralistic tone. Which interpretations of texts are consistent and plausible? How do these interpretations cohere with available data? Theories of value, crisis, history, imperialism, social change, human behavior, and explanation should be lovingly extracted, compared, and reconstructed from Marx and marxists in whatever academic or autonomous settings we can get our hands on. From this angle, even attempts to recover “the rational kernel within [Hegel’s] mystical shell” in what Marx called his own “dialectical method” should be articulated and evaluated—just not with the traditional kids’ gloves and wizard hats.
The incentives of the academy are unlikely to line up with communist priorities, so our emphasis in the ivory tower should rest in deepening our commitment to understanding the normal practice and the strongest critiques of scientific norms in a given discipline. We are unlikely to master more than one as individuals; we must seek each other out, find ways to collaborate, and share our hard-won expertise with the world in rigorous and accessible ways.
Whether we valorize every Marxian thesis is neither here nor there. Can we sustain any form of communist commitment by rational means whatsoever? That is our research question.
“I think everybody would agree that the Russian Revolution–the revolution of October/November 1917–was the most important political-economic event certainly of the century, and possibly of the previous five hundred or a thousand years if not more… The fact that capitalism was overthrown for the first time–that it could be overthrown–was an epoch making event.”
A century ago, the world witnessed a surge toward human freedom by the Russian proletariat in the October Revolution of 1917. In 2017, we live still with the daily inhumanity of a world divided by the very class system they sought to eradicate: capitalism. In this world, all sorts of marxisms and anarchisms positing themselves against our unfreedom place at the center of last century’s revolutionary drama one V.I. Lenin: Lenin the emancipator, Lenin the traitor, Lenin neither and both. At any angle from which we approach the monumental rise and fall of our lost emancipation, Lenin remains unburied.
It’s unclear if an ideology has already made claim to the term “post-Leninist” but it resonates–especially when one thinks to the centrality of writing “after Lenin.” There is special contemporary relevance to the antipolitical challenge at the heart of Lenin’s famous declaration in The State & Revolution that “every cook can govern.” By putting this forward, and in illustrative contrast with the degeneration of Bolshevism into game of thrones & the subsequent specialist-governed nature of the Soviet Union, Lenin pointed to a fundamental problem of political power & transition that’s clearly with us today when we look to the petty aspirational administrators and “just do it” activists making up the left. In a society mediated by specialized bureaucracy, where the logic of bureaucrats finds a home in even those who call to “smash the state,” how does a cook take power?
Reflecting on the USSR’s rule of the specialist, you can propose a formal solution, such as a variety of republicanism. And you can point to genuine historical conditions like the failure of the German revolution to save Russia from isolation. Both are valid answers, with some truth to them. The proletariat certainly needs some kind of radically democratic leash around the necks of its political leadership, & European communism could have taken a very different path with the addition of German workers and their party: not having to deal with a peasant majority and the ability to organize above-ground points towards more democratic measures–an option closed, although pursued, by the Bolsheviks.
Both of these answers to the specialist problem–the red bureaucracy–neglect the fundamental reason for the break from party politics being generally in step with, to generally disconnected from, Russian proletarian interests. They don’t tell us why even democratically-oriented German communists went along with a World War characterized in large part by social disconnect. In the abstract a republican structure could have tethered the Bolsheviks to proletarian social reality, at least enough to force a social democratic state that would have sullied the name of communism less, but why didn’t the Bolsheviks adopt a republican structure along with the rhetoric of the “workers’ republic”? It can’t be the issue of the peasantry alone, unless you buy into the bourgeois myth of the October Revolution as an inherently anti-democratic coup. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in fact, took power with popular support. Some argue that without some curtailing of democracy during the Russian Civil War, a far bloodier White Terror was inevitable. But for all the revolutionary inertia lost, the Bolsheviks emerged from the war politically dominant and theoretically capable of reform. What compelled the left, in a change we see manifest in our own iteration of it, to go from an imperfect political conduit for prole social interest to an impediment to prole revolutionary self-activity?
As demonstrated by the USSR’s bloody path to modernity, a party can’t abolish the state or even effectively wrest its historical agency from the all-consuming logic of the state as manager-of-class-society when it must perpetually reproduce politics, the alien civil sphere of the aloof philosopher-king, to remain in power. While the possibility of classless society had already declined dramatically by 1918, War Communism’s shutting out of the proletariat from governance remained in place after the civil war not because of material necessity, but because the party began to operate on a political internal logic during history’s veering from revolutionary possibility. The turn of Russian leadership from deriving their politics from a social basis in the real interests of Russian proles to red bonapartism rose from a division present in our daily lives: the divide between worker and representative, left-revolutionary subject and left-intellectual, social and political. It is right in the language necessary to describe “The Bolsheviks and the Russian proletariat.” It may seem a truism, but we must recognize that these were two separate entities. They began as promising partners in revolution, but went their separate ways.
Marx and Lenin both rightly saw the proletarian semi-state–the dictatorship of the proletariat–as a temporary measure to be transcended. The proletariat must struggle with its own government. Communism abolishes politics. The Party itself is a proving ground where the proletariat must learn to fight impulses toward substitutionism that lie ahead. The leadership will always be an obstacle for the proletariat to overcome. Red politicians in power–be they as brilliant as Lenin or not–can’t simply bend history to their will. Without historical opportunity and a party-structural tether to a surging proletariat, the apparent options will be to hand power to the reactionaries, or cling to it by deepening the divide upon which class reconstitutes itself: between political management and a social mass inevitably alienated by the realities of day to day governance oriented toward survival rather than transcendence of the state. There lies the Leninist error, perhaps an error of necessity, of identifying the party with the class.
Before I tackle this article itself, I would like to make an appeal to civility among fellow Marxists. The point of writing this short response to “The Dead-End of Racial Identity Politics” is not to attack the author or his organization (Workers’ Offense) but rather to open up a dialogue between Workers’ Offensive and the media collective that I am part of (Emancipation) on issues of race and class. In this dialogue I do hope to critique the article’s flaws and the ideological underpinnings that have lead to said flaws. Generally the disputes between individual Marxists, let alone different organizations on the left, tend not to be very productive due to an overly hostile polemical tone that is taken in the discourse—a tone that I’ll be explicitly avoiding.
The Labor Movement (or Lack Thereof)
The weakness of this article and of many attempts at critiquing identity politics from the left is that they all seem to provide the same alternative to “IDpol.” Whether they be social democrats like Adolph Reed and Amber A’Lee Frost or left communists like Workers’ Offensive’s E.S., they all point to a revival of the traditional labor movement as an answer to the lackluster neoliberal identity politics dominating discourse on the left. Something these critics of identity politics seem not to grasp is that the traditional labor movement cannot be revived in the ways that they suggest. For example, E.S argues that wildcat strikes and riots will revive the forces of labor. This is wrong in two crucial ways.
First, two relatively recent wildcat strikes do not reverse the “decomposition” of the working class that has taken place over the past 40 years or so. The total number of manufacturing workers globally has decreased in the past two decades and what is called “deindustrialization” has turned parts of the United States that were once dedicated to manufacturing into the desolate wastelands known as “the rust belt”. As one can imagine such a decomposition of the working class coupled with the neoliberal assaults on unions leaves the traditional labor movement utterly devastated, with nothing but class-denying neoliberal identity politics to fill the void. Second, E.S fails to confront that many involved with riots that have happened over white supremacist violence are either not actually the workers or are not the workers of the old labor movement, because the temporary nature of their jobs makes them incredibly hard to organize. He comes dangerously close to acknowledging this fact when he writes:
“Instead, the majority of black workers live in a chronic state of unemployment or under-employment and have been affected more than any other subsection of the US working class by the tendency towards the casualization of employment that has flourished under neoliberalism.”
E.S. makes use of conventional Marxist language about the proletariat, using “worker” interchangeably with “proletarian”. While this is part of the Marxist attempt to maintain the dignity of not just the proletariat but the exploited classes of history, we suggest that this traditional language obscures our contemporary problem. Unemployed proletarians are generally not doing socially recognized “work”, and often encounter workers’ identity as an external attack on the dignity of their existence. Now he could possibly describe unemployed people as a part of the labor reserve army and therefore part of the proletariat but this would require making a distinction between the structural position of proletariat and workers at the point of production specifically. Even members of Endnotes, who thought the implied employment prospects for a labor reserve army were too optimistic and applied Mike Davis’ concept of surplus population to the proletariat, have often taken to “worker” language.
Moreover, he fails to acknowledge that underemployed black workers are in a relatively different position than their peers because the majority of them are not considered “overqualified” for their work. So since the white supremacist educational system has failed them to the point that they could not possibly get a college degree even if they worked themselves to death, they will be permanently stuck in part-time minimum-wage jobs with high turnover rates, making them incredibly hard to organize by virtue of how easily they can be replaced even during wildcat strikes. This leaves us as communists in a rather dire situation since we have always relied upon a more sustainable labor movement as a means of facilitating struggle. We can not simply point to labor as a solution to neoliberal identity politics in the face of the challenges that made labor falter and neoliberalism ascend to start with. While it is not impossible to organize a new proletarian movement, the nature of it must be radically different from the traditional labor movement of the 20th century, one capable of organizing what James Boggs called “the outsiders”.
On Addressing Race
One of the most damning aspects of E.S.’ article is the way it talks about race. The way E.S handles the issue of race in relation to class struggle is flippantly disregarding of those involved with the issue; he haphazardly dismisses attempts at dealing with the question of race beyond colorblind workerism, like the Black Lives Matter movement, as identity politics. There’s much to be critically of when it comes to movements like Black Lives Matter given it is not a singular organization but a heterogeneous grouping of different activists. There are bound to be major flaws within, and as E.S. points out, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, usually associated with the Democratic Party) were heavily involved in the movement. Liberals were able to take advantage of the disorganized nature inherent to movements like BLM just like they did with Occupy before it. However E.S goes beyond making these reasonable observations about BLM into criticism that is just plain wrong:
“Black Lives Matter are modern-day Garveyites, only they have traded in the overt homophobia and misogyny of the latter for hollow social justice rhetoric that throws a veneer of radicalism over their essentially capitalist politics.”
How could you describe a movement as multifaceted as Black Lives Matter as such a specific tendency of Black Politics? There are no major elements within BLM advocating for black separatism or any kind of return to Africa as the Garveyites did. This assertion doesn’t even make sense if you follow E.S.’ own logic, since a position of black separatism would be out of place for a Democratic Party-NGO complex that is still made up of mostly white people top down. Odd assertions like this about racial politics seem to be prevalent within tendencies of the ultraleft, from the International Communist Current’s bizarre line on “Anti-White Racism” to common colorblind arguments for internationalism which fail to provide a compelling alternative to national liberation for oppressed peoples. This lack of nuance does not mean that we should simply accept the left nationalisms that are popular on the rest of the left simply to avoid the whiteness of the ultra left, for left nationalism has its own pitfalls, but we must recognize that the standard ultraleft appeals to internationalism have failed to reckon with the needs of those proposing national liberation due to a broader tendency-wide inclination towards colorblind workerism.
I sincerely hope that the criticism leveled here is not taken as an assertion that our comrades are racists or as misrepresentative of E.S.’ “The Dead-End Of Racial Identity Politics”. I want to have a genuine dialogue on the import of race within class that furthers the Marxist perspective on labor in a positive direction, and I look forward to engagement with this criticism.