Why not Trump?

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #89 | September 2016

Distributed as a flyer [PDF] along with “The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party” (June 22, 2016) [PDF].

If one blows all the smoke away, one is left with the obvious question: Why not Trump?[1]

Trump’s claim to the Presidency is two-fold: that he’s a successful billionaire businessman; and that he’s a political outsider. His political opponents must dispute both these claims. But Trump is as much a billionaire and as much a successful businessman and as much a political outsider as anyone else.

Trump says he’s fighting against a “rigged system.” No one can deny that the system is rigged.

Trump is opposed by virtually the entire mainstream political establishment, Republican and Democrat, and by the entire mainstream news media, conservative and liberal alike. And yet he could win. That says something. It says that there is something there.

Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts.

It is especially remarkable that such vociferous opposition is mounted against such a moderate political figure as Trump, who until not long ago was a Centrist moderate-conservative Democrat, and is now a Centrist moderate-conservative Republican — running against a moderate-conservative Democrat.

Trump claims that he is the “last chance” for change. This may be true.

Indeed, it is useful to treat all of Trump’s claims as true — and all of those by his adversaries as false. For when Trump lies, still, his lies tell the truth. When Trump’s opponents tell the truth they still lie.

When Trump appears ignorant of the ways of the world, he expresses a wisdom about the status quo. The apparent “wisdom” of the status quo by contrast is the most pernicious form of ignorance.

For example, Trump says that the official current unemployment rate of 5% is a lie: there are more than 20% out of work, most of whom have stopped seeking employment altogether. It is a permanent and not fluctuating condition. Trump points out that this is unacceptable. Mainstream economists say that Trump’s comments about this are not false but “unhelpful” because nothing can be done about it.

The neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with post-1960s identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo means allowing greater profits — necessitated by lower capitalist growth overall since the 1970s — while including more minorities and women in the workforce and management. Trump is attacking this not out of “racism” or “misogyny” but against the lowered expectations of the “new normal.”

When Trump says that he will provide jobs for “all Americans” this is not a lie but bourgeois ideology, which is different.

The mendacity of the status quo is the deeper problem.[2]

For instance, his catch-phrase, “Make America Great Again!” has the virtue of straightforward meaning. It is the opposite of Obama’s “Change You Can Believe In” or Hillary’s “Stronger Together.”

These have the quality of the old McDonald’s slogan, “What you want is what you get” — which meant that you will like it just as they give it to you — replaced by today’s simpler “I’m loving it!” But what if we’re not loving it? What if we don’t accept what Hillary says against Trump, “America is great already”?

When Trump says “I’m with you!” this is in opposition to Hillary’s “We’re with her!” — Hillary is better for that gendered pronoun?

Trump promises to govern “for everyone” and proudly claims that he will be “boring” as President. There is no reason not to believe him.

Everything Trump calls for exists already. There is already surveillance and increased scrutiny of Muslim immigrants in the “War on Terror.” There is already a war against ISIS. There is already a wall on the border with Mexico; there are already mass deportations of “illegal” immigrants. There are already proposals that will be implemented anyway for a super-exploited guest-worker immigration program. International trade is heavily regulated with many protections favoring U.S. companies already in place. Hillary will not change any of this. Given the current crisis of global capitalism, international trade is bound to be reconfigured anyway.

One change unlikely under Hillary that Trump advocates, shifting from supporting Saudi Arabia to détente with Russia, for instance in Syria — would this be a bad thing?[3]

But everything is open to compromise: Trump says only that he thinks he can get a “better deal for America.” He campaigns to be “not a dictator” but the “negotiator-in-chief.” To do essentially what’s already being done, but “smarter” and more effectively. This is shocking the system?

When he’s called a “narcissist who cares only for himself” — for instance by “Pocahontas” Senator Elizabeth Warren — this is by those who are part of an elaborate political machine for maintaining the status quo who are evidently resentful that he doesn’t need to play by their rules.

This includes the ostensible “Left,” which has a vested interest in continuing to do things as they have been done for a very long time already. The “Left” is thus nothing of the sort. They don’t believe change is possible. Or they find any potential change undesirable: too challenging. If change is difficult and messy, that doesn’t make it evil. But what one fears tends to be regarded as evil.

Their scare-mongering is self-serving — self-interested. It is they who care only for themselves, their way of doing things, their positions. But, as true narcissists, they confuse this as caring for others. These others are only extensions of themselves.

Trump says that he “doesn’t need this” and that he’s running to “serve the country.” This is true.

Trump’s appeal is not at all extreme — but it is indeed extreme to claim that anyone who listens to him is beyond the boundaries of acceptable politics. The election results in November whatever their outcome will show just how many people are counted out by the political status quo. The silent majority will speak. The only question is how resoundingly they do so. Will they be discouraged?

Many who voted for Obama will now vote for Trump. Enough so he could win.

This leads to the inescapable conclusion: Anti-Trump-ism is the problem and obstacle, not Trump.

The status quo thinks that change is only incremental and gradual. Anything else is either impossible or undesirable. But really the only changes they are willing to accept prove to be no changes at all.

This recalls the character in Voltaire’s novel Candide, Professor Pangloss, who said that we live in “The best of all possible worlds.” No one on the avowed “Left” should think such a thing — and yet they evidently do.

Illustration of Professor Pangloss instructing Candide, by Adrien Moreau (1893).

Illustration of Professor Pangloss instructing Candide, by Adrien Moreau (1893).

There is significant ambivalence on the “far Left” about opposing Trump and supporting Hillary. A more or less secret wish for Trump that is either kept quiet or else psychologically denied to oneself functions here. There is a desire to punish the Democrats for nominating such an openly conservative candidate, for instance, voting for the Greens’ Jill Stein, which would help Trump win.

The recent Brexit vote shows that when people are given the opportunity they reject the status quo. The status-quo response has been that they should not have been given the opportunity.

Finding Trump acceptable is not outrageous. But the outrageous anti-Trump-ism — the relentless spinning and lying of the status quo defending itself — is actually not acceptable. Not if any political change whatsoever is desired.

In all the nervous hyperventilation of the complacent status quo under threat, there is the obvious question that is avoided but must be asked by anyone not too frightened to think — by anyone trying to think seriously about politics, especially possibilities for change:

Why not Trump?

For which the only answer is: To preserve the status quo.

Not against “worse” — that might be beyond any U.S. President’s control anyway — but simply for things as they already are.

We should not accept that.

So: Why not Trump? | P


Notes

[1] See my June 22, 2016 “P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis in the Republican Party,” amendment to my “The Sandernistas: Postscript on the March 15 primaries,” Platypus Review 85 (April 2016), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2016/03/30/the-sandernistas/#pps>.

[2] See Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” Crises of the Republic (New York, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1969): “A characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new. . . . In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed. . . . Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves . . . and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. . . . [T]he deliberate denial of factual truth — the ability to lie — and the capacity to change facts — the ability to act — are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.”

[3] See Robert Parry, “The Danger of Excessive Trump Bashing,” in CommonDreams.org August 4, 2016, available on-line at: <http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/08/04/danger-excessive-trump-bashing>.

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

Chris Cutrone, June 22, 2016

Further amendment to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (Platypus Review 82, December 2015 – January 2016) and “Postscript on the March 15 primaries” (Platypus Review 85, April 2016), after the end of the primary elections.

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,”1 but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Trump challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar moderate Centrist positions on the U.S. political spectrum, whatever their various differences on policy. Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different in this election season: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts. Established Republicans recoil at undoing the Reagan Coalition they have mobilized since the 1980s. Marco Rubio as well as Ted Cruz — both of whom were adolescents in the 1980s — denounced Trump not only for his “New York values” but also and indicatively as a “socialist.” Glenn Beck said that Trump meant that the America of “statism” of the Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won over the America of “freedom” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Of course that is ideological and leaves aside the problem of capitalism, which Trump seeks to reform. Sanders could have potentially bested Trump as a candidate for reform, perhaps, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats, whose nostalgia for the New Deal, Great Society and New Left does not provide the necessary resources.

Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change. Sanders has collapsed into the Democratic Party. To succeed, Sanders would have needed to run against the Democrats the way Trump has run against the Republicans. This would have meant challenging the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo. The results of Trump’s contesting of Reaganite and Clintonian and Obama-era neoliberalism remain to be seen. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. Trump will win if he mobilizes more of them than Clinton. Clinton is the conservative in this election; Trump is the candidate for change. The Republicans have been in crisis in ways the Democrats are not, and this is the political opportunity expressed by Trump. He is seeking to lead the yahoos to the Center as well as meeting their genuine discontents in neoliberalism. Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump. | §


Note

  1. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at <http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. []

What is socialism? International social democracy

Presented on a panel with Bernard Sampson (Communist Party USA), Karl Belin (Pittsburgh Socialist Organizing Committee) and Jack Ross (author of The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History) at the eighth annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention April 1, 2016 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Published in Weekly Worker 1114 (July 7, 2016). [PDF]


Full panel discussion audio recording:


Communism, socialism, social democracy

Chris Cutrone

I would like to begin by addressing some key terms for our discussion.

Communism is an ancient concept of the community sharing everything in common. It has its roots in religious communes.

Socialism by contrast is a modern concept that focuses on the issue of “society,” which is itself a bourgeois concept. Marx sought to relate the two concepts of communism and socialism to capitalism.

Social democracy is a concept that emerged around the 1848 Revolutions which posed what was at the time called the “social question,” namely the crisis of society evident in the phenomenon of the modern industrial working class’s conditions. Social democracy aimed for the democratic republic with adequate social content.

Marxism has in various periods of its history used all three concepts — communism, socialism and social democracy — not exactly equivalently interchangeably but rather to refer to and emphasize different aspects of the same political struggle. For instance, Marx and Engels distinguished what they called “proletarian socialism” from other varieties of socialism such as Christian socialism and Utopian socialism. What distinguished proletarian socialism was two-fold: the specific problem of modern industrial capitalism to be overcome; and the industrial working class as a potential political agent of change.

Moreover, there were differences in the immediate focus for politics, depending on the phase of the struggle. “Social democracy” was understood as a means for achieving socialism; and socialism was understood as the first stage of overcoming capitalism on the way to achieving communism. Small propaganda groups such as Marx and Engels’s original Communist League, for which they wrote the Manifesto, used the term “communism” to emphasize their ultimate goal. Later, the name Socialist Workers Party was used by Marx and Engels’s followers in Germany to more precisely focus their political project specifically as the working class struggling to achieve socialism.

So where did the term “social democracy” originate, and how was it used by Marxists — by Marx and Engels themselves as well as their immediate disciples?

The concept of the “social republic” originates in the Revolution of 1848 in France, specifically with the socialist Louis Blanc, who coined the expression “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” to describe the goals of the society to be governed by the democratic republic. Marx considered this to be the form of state in which the class struggle between the workers and capitalists would be fought out to conclusion.

The essential lesson Marx and Engels learned from their experience of the Revolutions of 1848 in France and Germany, as well as more broadly in Austria and Italy, was what Marx, in his 1852 letter to his colleague and publisher Joseph Weydemeyer, called his only “original discovery,” namely the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” or, as he had put it in his summing up report on the Revolutions of 1848 in his address to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850, the need for “the revolution in permanence,” which he thought could only be achieved by the working class taking independent political action in the leadership of the democratic revolution.

This was a revision of Marx and Engels’s position in the earlier Communist Manifesto on the eve of 1848, which was to identify the working class’s struggle for communism with the democratic revolution. They claimed that “communists do not form a party of their own, but work within the already existing [small-d!] democratic party.” Now, after the experience of the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, Marx asserted the opposite, the necessary separation of the working class from other democratic political currents.

What had happened to effect this profound change in political perspective by Marx and Engels?

Marx had come to characterize the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 in terms of the treacherous and conservative-reactionary role of what he called the “petit bourgeois democrats,” whom he found to be constitutionally incapable of learning from their political failures and the social reasons for this.

The historical horizon for the petit bourgeois democratic discontents in the social crisis of capitalism was too low to allow the contradiction of capital to come within political range of mere democracy, no matter how radically popular in character. The problem of capitalism was too intractable to the ideology of petit bourgeois democracy. The problem of capitalism exceeded the horizon of the French Revolutionary tradition, even in its most radical exponents such as Gracchus Babeuf’s Jacobin “conspiracy of equals.” Such democracy could only try to put back together, in essentially liberal-democratic terms, what had been broken apart and irreparably disintegrated in industrial capitalism.

This was not merely a matter of limitation in so-called “class interest or position,” but rather the way the problem of capitalism presented itself. It looked like irresponsible government, political hierarchy and economic corruption, rather than what Marx thought it was, the necessary crisis of society and politics in capitalism, the necessary and not accidental divergence of the interests of capital and wage labor in which society was caught. Capital outstripped the capacity for wage labor to appropriate its social value. This was not merely a problem of economics but politically went to the heart of the modern democratic republic itself.

The petit bourgeois attempt to control and make socially responsible the capitalists and to temper the demands of the workers in achieving democratic political unity was hopeless and doomed to fail. But it still appealed nonetheless. And its appeal was not limited to the socioeconomic middle classes, but also and perhaps especially appealed to the working class as well as to “enlightened progressive” capitalists.

The egalitarian sense of justice and fraternal solidarity of the working class was rooted in the bourgeois social relations of labor, the exchange of labor as a commodity. But industrial capital went beyond the social mediation of labor and the bourgeois common sense of cooperation. Furthermore, the problem of capital was not reducible to the issue of exploitation, against which the bourgeois spirit rebelled. It also went beyond the social discipline of labor — the sense of duty to work.

For instance, the ideal of worker-owned and operated production is a petit bourgeois democratic fantasy. It neglects that, as Marx observed, the conditions for industrial production are not essentially the workers’ own labor but rather more socially general: production has become the actual property of society. The only question is how this is realized. It can be mediated through the market as well as through the state — the legal terms in which both exchange and production are adjudicated, that is, what counts as individual and collective property: issues of eminent domain, community costs and benefits, etc. Moreover, this is global in character. I expect the foreign government of which I am not a citizen to nonetheless respect my property rights. Bourgeois society already has a global citizenry, but it is through the civil rights of commerce not the political rights of government. But capitalism presents a problem and crisis of such global liberal democracy.

Industrial capital’s value in production cannot be socially appropriated through the market, and indeed cannot at all any longer be appropriated through the exchange-value of labor. The demand for universal suffrage democracy arose in the industrial era out of the alternative of social appropriation through the political action of the citizenry via the state. But Marx regarded this state action no less than the market as a hopeless attempt to master the social dynamics of capital.

At best, the desired petit bourgeois political unity of society could be achieved on a temporary national basis, as was effected by the cunning of Louis Bonaparte, as the first elected President of Second Republic France in 1848, promising to bring the country together against and above the competing interests of its various social classes and political factions. Later, in 1851 Louis Bonaparte overthrew the Republic and established the Second Empire, avowedly to preserve universal (male) suffrage democracy and thus to safeguard “the revolution.” He received overwhelming majority assent to his coup d’état in the plebiscite referenda he held both at the time of his coup and 10 years later to extend the mandate of the Empire.

Marx and Engels recognized that to succeed in the task of overcoming capitalism in the struggle for proletarian socialism it was necessary for the working class to politically lead the petite bourgeoisie in the democratic revolution. This was the basis of their appropriation of the term “social democracy” to describe their politics in the wake of 1848: the task of achieving what had failed in mere democracy.

The mass political parties of the Second, Socialist International described themselves variously as “socialist” and “social democratic.” “International social democracy” was the term used to encompass the common politics and shared goal of these parties.

They understood themselves as parties of not merely an international but indeed a cosmopolitan politics. The Second International regarded itself as the beginnings of world government. This is because they regarded capitalism as already exhibiting a form of world government in democracy, what Kant had described in the 18th century, around the time of the American and French Revolutions, as the political task of humanity to achieve a “world state or system of states” in a “league of nations” — the term later adopted for the political system of Pax Americana that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson tried to achieve in the aftermath of World War I. As the liberal chronicler of Napoleon, Benjamin Constant had observed a hundred years before Wilson, in the wake of the French Revolution and its ramifications throughout Europe, the differences between nations were “more apparent than real” in the global society of commerce that had emerged in the modern era. But capitalism had wrecked the aspirations of Kant and Constant for global bourgeois society.

The International offered the alternative “Workers of the world, unite!” to the international strife of capitalist crisis that led to the modern horrors of late colonialism in the 19th century and finally world war in the 20th.

The political controversy that attended the first attempt at world proletarian socialist revolution in the aftermath of the First World War divided the workers’ movement for socialism into reformist Social Democracy and revolutionary Communism and a new Third International. It made social democracy an enemy.

This changed the meaning of social democracy into a gradual evolution of capitalism into socialism, as opposed to the revolutionary political struggle for communism. But what was of greater significance than “revolution” sacrificed in this redefinition was the cosmopolitanism of the socialist workers who had up until then assumed that they had no particular country to which they owed allegiance.

The unfolding traumas of fascism and the Second World War redefined social democracy yet again, lowering it still further to mean the mere welfare state, modelled after the dominant U.S.’s New Deal and the “Four Freedoms” the anti-fascist Allies adopted as their avowed principles in the war. It made the working class into a partner in production, and thus avoided what Marx considered the inevitable contradiction and crisis of production in capitalism. It turned socialism into a mere matter of distribution.

For the last generation, since the 1960s, this has been further degraded to a defensive posture in the face of neoliberalism which, since the global crisis and downturn of the 1970s, has reasserted the rights of capital.

What has been forgotten today is the essential lesson for Marxism in the failure of the 1848 Revolutions, why petit bourgeois democracy is not only inadequate, but is actually blind to, and indeed an obstacle for, the political task of overcoming capitalism.

In its heyday, Marxism assumed that social democracy had as its active political constituent a working class struggling for socialism. Today, social democracy treats the working class not as a subject as much as an object of government policy and civic philanthropy. Through social democracy as it exists today, the working class merely begs for good politicians and good capitalists. But it does not seek to take responsibility for society into its own hands. Without the struggle for socialism, the immediate goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the working class merely becomes a partner in production at best, and an economic interest group at worst. This is what the liquidation into petit bourgeois democracy means: naturalizing the framework of capital.

International social democracy once meant the means for achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without this as its goal, it has come to mean something entirely different. The working class has deferred to those it once sought to lead.

The “specter of communism” that Marx and Engels had thought haunted Europe in the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of capitalism in the 1840s continues to haunt the entire world today, after several repetitions of the cycle of bourgeois society come to grief, but not as a desired dream misconstrued as a feared nightmare, but rather as the evil spirit the doesn’t fail to drive politics no matter how democratic into the abyss. And, as in Marx’s time, the alternating “ethical indignation” and “enraptured proclamations of the democrats” continue to “rebound” in “all the reactionary attempts to hold back” the ceaseless crisis of capitalism in which “all that is solid melts into air.”

We still need social democracy, but not as those who preceded Marxism thought, to mitigate capitalism, as was attempted again, after the failure of Marxism to achieve global proletarian socialism in the 20th century, but rather to make the necessity for communism that Marx recognized over 150 years ago a practical political reality. We need to make good on the “revolution in permanence” of capitalism that constantly shakes the bourgeois idyll, and finally leverage the crisis of its self-destruction beyond itself. | §

10 years after the Iraq War

The inevitability of failure — and of success

Chris Cutrone

LEADING PUBLIC MEMBER of the Socialist Workers Party of the United Kingdom, Richard Seymour, who made a name for himself with the book The Liberal Defense of Murder (2008), polemicizing against campaigns of “humanitarian” military intervention such as the Iraq War, recently released his book on the late Christopher Hitchens, Unhitched, demonstrating that Hitchens remains an enduring and indeed indispensable phenomenon in the present system of thinking on the “Left.”

Hitchens became a flashpoint in his support for the U.S. and allied invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why was Hitchens’s position so significant? After all, arguably many millions of people around the world supported the war and its aims. Hitchens, of course, was a former member of the “Marxist Left,” and even continued to avow his adherence to this, accusing the “Left” rather of deserting him, at least as much as it could be claimed that he had deserted it. Not many accepted Hitchens’s position. It’s unclear that Hitchens fully accepted it himself.

So, Hitchens was and continues to be denounced as a “renegade.” But a renegade from what? The “Left,” which is supposed to express potential and possibility.

As a politics, the Left, like any other, must express the “art of the possible.” The exercise of the faculty of political judgment has been sorely tested in recent decades, and not only on the ostensible “Left.” It is an endemic problem. Such judgment over the course of events, and what if any actions are to be taken therein, must risk the gamble of engaging reality with the aim of changing it. In so doing, accommodation to reality or of changing it only in worse ways, inadvertently reinforcing current trends, may defeat any attempted political action and threaten its goals. The degree to which anyone can claim to be a political actor at all, one must argue for action that does not simply sanctify existing tendencies, but can actually claim responsibility for its effects. Politics cannot succeed dishonestly. At least not for the Left.

To give political cover for what’s going to happen anyway is mere opportunism, the worst sin in politics. For this renders politics, that is, deliberate action attempting to take responsibility for the course of events, superfluous. It degrades agency, and evades rather than actually taking responsibility. Politics properly aims to be more than merely the mask or the performative rehearsal of the status quo. Politics aims at agency, and agency of change. Maintenance of the status quo doesn’t require politics, but only reproductive technique. At issue in politics is the direction of change: What ought to happen that isn’t already happening? How do we rally people for such a cause? What is to be done? And where do we want such action to take us? There is always much to dispute in this. Contention is the essence of politics. The only question is, what can be possibly and desirably contested?

In the case of the Iraq War, there were many avowed goals on the part of the U.S. and its allies. But perhaps the most compelling ideological aim was the “democratization” of Iraq (beyond the merely technocratic aim of removing “weapons of mass destruction” from Iraq, legalistically enforcing a prior United Nations mandate), freeing it from Baathist tyranny. This was the aim of the neo-conservatives, for example. And this aim was attacked by many, including traditional conservatives such as reelected President Obama’s current nominee for U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. A conservative Republican, Hagel earned the ire of many in his party for his dissent from the Iraq War, based on his opposition to the military adventurism motivated by the neo-conservative ideologues. In this sense, Hagel’s opposition to the neo-cons was from the Right, that is, conservative with respect to action: better to not do something than to do something wrong(ly).

But the opposition to the war from the avowed “Left” was supposed to be different from this: neither merely technical (as in favoring economic sanctions over military action) nor conservative.

Hitchens debated Tariq Ali on the Iraq War, and they argued over the relation between their shared opposition to the Vietnam War, previously, and their disagreement over the Iraq War, now.

One memorable exchange went as follows:

[Hitchens:] I think that the United States and coalition forces are not militarily defeatable in Iraq. . . . I think it’s important to know first what can’t happen. . . . Unless the United States chooses to be defeated in Iraq, it cannot be. Therefore, the insurgency, so-called, will be defeated. And all logical and moral conclusions you want to draw from that, should be drawn.

[Ali:] Well, I think Christopher is right on this, that militarily, it is virtually impossible to defeat the United States. After all, they were not defeated militarily in Vietnam, either. . . . The question is this: The United States army cannot be defeated militarily; they’re incredibly powerful, but can the Iraqi people be defeated? Can Iraq be anything else but a lame colony, a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation? . . . And so one has to move to a situation of U.S. withdrawal, and the emergence of an elected Iraqi government, which will determine its own future, including control of its own oil. There’s no other way out.

http://www.democracynow.org/2004/10/12/tariq_ali_v_christopher_hitchens_a

What is remarkable about this exchange is how both Ali and Hitchens appear to have been correct in their estimations, however drawing opposite political conclusions. The U.S. was not defeated militarily by the insurgency; and there has been the emergence of an elected Iraqi government exercising independent sovereignty. And, as a result of both these eventualities, as the only possible outcome, the U.S. and allies have militarily withdrawn from Iraq.

While Hitchens may have been wrong with respect to the success of the military invasion and occupation, Ali was also quite wrong that the result of the war would be to render Iraq a “mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation.” Also, what Ali described as the only “way out” was achieved not by military resistance to the U.S. and allied occupation but rather its forcible subdual.

At the same time, what Hitchens warned about the “theocracy” threatened in Iraq, while perhaps not quite as virulent as Hitchens may have feared, has indeed triumphed, and precisely as a result of the occupation.

This renders the Iraq War a curious non-event. All that happened was great bloodshed, and at enormous financial and other social costs. The only question remaining, then, is: Was it necessary? Was it worth it? Was the war avoidable? Was the atrocity avertable?

What has the history of the Iraq War shown to be possible and desirable, moving forward? No one wants a repeat of what happened. Does that mean that the war was a mistake? What was the alternative?

The unspoken point of Ali in his debate with Hitchens was that not only, as Hitchens put it, was the U.S. and allied military defeat not possible but “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, but that what the U.S. and allies (at least the neo-cons) aimed to do, democratize and otherwise liberate Iraq, was also impossible, and that “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, too.

The “democracy” aimed at by the neo-cons and others in invading and occupying Iraq was only ever going to be a neoliberal farce: only the neoliberal version of “democracy.” If the U.S. and allies aimed at democratizing Iraq, this raised the question of the agency for doing so: How democratic, really, were the U.S. and its allies, as political agents, themselves? How democratic was the war? How democratic could it be, anyway? And: Could the ends of democracy be achieved by non-democratic means?

War in the modern era is only ever regrettable necessity. But it is also opportunity. Not only Hitchens sought to make it so, and perhaps none did so with less venality. Did the Bush administration seek to make use of Hitchens or did Hitchens try to make use of the Bush administration? There is a certain tragedy in that, however masked by Hitchens’s false bravado, easily rendered pathetic.

So that leaves the war itself. Was it inevitable? The sanctions regime, including “no-fly” zones over vast regions of northern and southern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime faced opposition among the Kurds and Shia, respectively, had come into crisis. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Iran, or Turkey would have accepted a return to a pre-sanctions status quo. Neither would have Kurdish and Shia opposition groups. At the very least, a civil war in Iraq was inevitable. Indeed, it was already ongoing. Of course such an ethnicized and culturalized civil war would have (for it already did) involve mass conflict, displacements and killings. Some advocated the war (Kurdish opposition groups); others took advantage of it (Shia opposition groups). Yet others resisted it (former Baathists and Sunni leaders) or at least tried to alter the course of its effects to their advantage. This was all more or less opportunism, however, not policy.

False necessities abounded, and were deployed opportunistically by both sides, such that further, growing threats could supposedly only be averted by military means: that it was preferable, for example, to face U.S. and allied military attack than to open Iraq to transparent arms inspections by the U.N., or that the political power of Baathist tyranny could be broken with desirable outcome only by military intervention. The two essential actors in the war were the Iraqi and U.S. regimes. And their conflicting politics were masked by crisis. (Internationally, the sanctions regime, the embargo that allowed only “oil for food,” was unraveling, whereas domestically, the Baathist regime was more tenuous, subsisting on an ever narrower basis.)

Not so Ali and Hitchens, neither of whom were in politically responsible positions or otherwise faced exigencies of necessity, but both of whom could only comment from the sidelines. They both advocated freedom for Iraq, but had radically different visions, not only of how to achieve this, but what it meant.

Hitchens’s pro-U.S. and allies position and Ali’s “anti-imperialism” both contained a kernel of truth: Hitchens that the Iraqi “resistance”/insurgency against occupation could only further the bloodshed and not advance the sovereignty of the Iraqi people and Ali that the invasion and occupation could only make things worse, undermining the very goals Hitchens and the neo-cons avowed, the liberation of Iraq.

Iraq is arguably more “democratic” and more politically dynamic today, involving more people and more diversely, as a result of the ouster of Saddam, than had been possible under the latter’s Baathism. But this has had nothing to do with genuine self-determination for the people of Iraq: no democracy. Nor has the debacle of the U.S. and allied military effort (the farce of a neoliberal, privatized/”outsourced” military policy) yielded a salutary political effect for people outside Iraq. The anti-war movement was as spectacular a failure as the war itself—and as spectacular a success. All around, common sense prevails. The political controversy died a quiet death, settled apolitically. Of the war, what opportunity could be made, was made. And we are all in great measure curiously in the same place as before. — All, that is, but the dead, who are not in a different place, but simply ended.

In certain respects, the Iraq War has not ended—will never end.

Victory is no victory; triumph is no triumph. Rather, misery prevails.

Failure has become success, and success has become failure. Ideologues were replaced by technocrats and technocrats by ideologues. Baathist state torture poses in retrospect as the only alternative to communitarian violence and civil war; and communitarianism as the only alternative to state repression. Obama was the only alternative to Bush; but only after Bush’s Presidency ended, guaranteeing Obama’s victory as the only “change” that could be “believed in.” “Sensible” political opposition to what the Obama campaign called “tactical success within strategic failure” triumphed; but still without undoing either the failure or the success of the war. McCain lost because no one wanted to face the war any longer. The only clear victims are the dead—and not all of them, for some must be counted among the war’s “victors,” having fallen willingly in pursuit and at least to some achievement of their goals. They, and politics.

And the victors? They have buried themselves in lies and crimes of opportunity.

The costs remain, but any sort of balance sheet is lacking. All political gain must deny itself, shamefaced. A solemn if not entirely satisfied silence rules that is no less opportune than the opportunism of the war itself.

Both sides—that is, both George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., and former Baathists, as well as both pro- and anti-war politicians and commentators such as Ali and Hitchens—can continue to claim to having been in the right: to have wanted the right things and pursued them in the only ways possible. And both remain wrong.

The only question is, where has this left us, now? | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 53 (February 2013). Re-published in The North Star.

To the shores of Tripoli

Tsunamis and world history

Chris Cutrone

United States Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and his men from USS Enterprise attacking the Barbary pirate ketch Mistico on December 23, 1803. Painting by Dennis Malone Carter (1827–81).

“AFTER ME, THE DELUGE,” the saying attributed to Louis XV (1710–74), would have been better said by his son and heir Louis XVI, who was soon thereafter overthrown by the French Revolution that began in 1789.[1] Muammar Qaddafi has said something similar, that if he is overthrown Libya will be condemned to chaos. Qaddafi even claims to be fighting off “al-Qaeda.” Perhaps he is.

On the one hand, this is all clearly self-serving on Qaddafi’s part. On the other hand, the kernel of truth in such a statement, specifically with regard to Libya, might bear scrutiny.

The U.S. administration that attacked Libya before Obama was that of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s foreign policy advisor and United Nations ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, famously distinguished between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” dictatorships, and thought that the U.S. should support the former and oppose the latter because of the relative ease with which the former could transition to democracy as opposed to the latter, whose pathology ran deeper, and so the effects would prove more lasting obstacles to freedom.

The comparison of Libya to its neighbor Egypt in the recent uprising against Mubarak seems to prove Kirkpatrick’s point. Egypt seems poised on a relatively painless transition to democracy, while Libya portends a much darker future, with or without Qaddafi. One might also, for good measure, point out the more intractably “totalitarian” tyranny of the political regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose potential democratic replacement is also highly uncertain, not least because its Islamic Revolution in 1979 was “democratic” in ways that the origins of the Egyptian or Libyan regimes were not.

Back in the 1980s, another famous dictator who was toppled, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, warned that if his “New Society” was overthrown it would mean only the return of the traditional oligarchy of wealthy families, to the detriment of the people. While the Philippines today is certainly more politically democratic, and in this sense “free,” than under Marcos, his prediction has come spectacularly true. The Philippines today is ruled by its traditional wealthy families, unimpeded, rather than by the upstart cronies cultivated under Marcos, himself a parvenu intolerable to the old Filipino elite. Furthermore, the rate of growth and development in the Philippines has stagnated, and is today much lower than it had been under Marcos. The wealth gap is much greater and poverty levels much worse at the bottom, and more endemically pervasive in the Philippines today than before. The Philippines remains, and will remain, just as swamped, in some ways worse than it was under Marcos.

Many of the former republics of the USSR after the collapse of Stalinism are as well.

But what is the point of saying so?

The potential further development of Libya after the passing of Qaddafi suggests something darker than what happened after “People’s Power” in the Philippines, in terms of violence and other forms of overt brutality — as opposed to the “softer” brutality that continues to prevail in the Philippines, as elsewhere. Libya may become more like Somalia. Or Yemen. Or Afghanistan or Iraq. Who knows?

If Qaddafi thought that the tsunami that hit Japan would distract the U.S. from attacking his regime and allow suppression of the rebellion in Libya, he was mistaken. Rather, Qaddafi underestimated the global deluge of capital, at whose leading edge the U.S., for better or worse, operates. The flood was not to spare Qaddafi. It always stands poised to crash, cresting menacingly somewhere off shore. The rebels in Libya may have wished it to rain down on Qaddafi like a Biblical plague on the Pharaoh, tearing down the pride of his sinful glory. It will. But it may not spare them, either. There is little if any justice to history. Especially to a place like Libya, history happens.

Protest against the U.S./NATO/UN bombing of Libya is no less hopeless than Qaddafi is.

Interior of the ancient Berber city of Ghadames, Libya.

Qaddafi’s regime was, like Marcos’s in the Philippines — and the “totalitarian” regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, etc. that Kirkpatrick and Reagan opposed — a “modernizing” project. Horrifically so. Perhaps this is what Kirkpatrick actually had in mind in her distinction between “authoritarian,” meaning more traditional, and “totalitarian” dictatorships — and why the former would end up being more benign than the latter. Perhaps.

The tsunami hits Japan, March 11, 2011.

Qaddafi moved the Berbers out of their traditional community in Ghadames into new apartment buildings. The ancient city — hallucinatory in its cavernous complexes — was left intact and preserved as a cultural museum. It still stands, alluring next to the decrepit hovels the modern high-rises have become. Perhaps the Berbers will return to their ancient city, evacuated by Qaddafi. But really it is no longer there, even if it remains in Libya. The deluge has not spared it. Nor will it. The only difference is how hard the wave might hit. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 34 (April 2011).


[1]. See my “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” Platypus Review 33 (March 2011).

Left Forum NYC 2010: Iraq

The Left and prospects for democracy in the Middle East: Iraq

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Issam Shukri (Worker-communist Party of Iraq) and Ashley Smith (International Socialist Organization) at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, March 21, 2010.

American political activist Danny Postel interviewed the British Left historian of the Middle East Fred Halliday in Chicago in 2005. They published the interview under the title “Who is responsible?” This is the question faced by purported “Leftists” internationally. What would it mean to practice a responsible politics on the Left in the face of phenomena like the Iraq war?

But we can turn this problem around slightly, in the issue of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, now winding up. The question is, “Who was responsible?” for the war. While the Spartacist socialist radical Karl Liebknecht may have said of Germany in the first World War, “The main enemy is at home!,” he certainly did not think that the German ruling class was the only enemy or the main enemy of everyone, but rather the main enemy for the German Left, especially in the context of the war in which the German working class was held hostage. So the kind of inverted nationalism one sees in today’s so-called “anti-imperialism” is completely foreign to the perspectives of historic revolutionary Marxist politics. While U.S. policy is certainly responsible, it is not exclusively so. And while the U.S. ruling class and its government may be the “main” or principal enemy for American Leftists, it is not the only one – and, perhaps more importantly, it is certainly not the main or only enemy for Iraqi Leftists. Most have avoided this fundamental truth. But this is a measure of the unseriousness of their “politics.”

Baathism was responsible at least as much as U.S. Republicans and neoconservatives for the Iraq war. This can be demonstrated conclusively to the degree that Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime made two disastrous miscalculations: 1.) in feigning possession of WMDs; and 2.) thinking that it was possible to split Europe from U.S. hegemony and balance one against the other, preserving some breathing room for Baathist Iraq. That Iraqis had absolutely no ability to resist these catastrophic political miscalculations by the Baathist regime is the most fundamental fact conditioning the war. The truth is that the Baathist regime is what made the war possible — perhaps even inevitable — to begin with. The regime was willing to drag the rest of Iraq down with it.

On the Baathists’ political calculus, would it have been better if Iraq had indeed had WMDs, or if Europe had actively opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq? Were the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council in any way progressive or emancipatory in character? Who had the best interest of the Iraqis, let alone their potential emancipation, in consideration in this decisive context? Weren’t the Europeans, Russians (and before them, the Soviets) and Chinese, and not only the U.S., responsible for not only the toleration but the very existence and continued subsistence of the Baathist regime in Iraq?

So the geopolitics of the Iraq war needs to be evaluated in light of Iraq and the greater Middle East, not exclusively and perhaps not even primarily in terms of U.S. hegemony — to which there is no actual alternative anyway. The U.S. was going to remain the cop of the world whether or not it invaded Iraq. That the U.S. risked and did not necessarily enhance its role as global cop/hegemon in invading and occupying Iraq should point this basic fact out clearly enough.

The truth is that all of the neighboring countries were hostile to Baathist Iraq. (This is also true, relatedly, for Iran today, so this is a historical lesson that needs to be learned!) Not only Europe but also Russia and China were no reliable friends of the Iraqis, to say the least. They have long been and remain perhaps worse enemies of the Iraqis than the U.S. has been, as seen in their erstwhile support for Saddam’s Baathist Iraq.

In this situation that the Worker-communist Party has described evocatively as the “dark scenario” for Iraq, we must face the deeper history that has made this possible today. Only in this way can we face squarely the tasks of the present — the potential possibilities internationally for a truly social-emancipatory politics. All else remains vain posturing or merely hand-wringing. In the U.S. itself, it is merely high-strung rhetoric covering, in the case of Iraq, a desire to have the Republicans voted out in favor of the Democrats. Now that this has happened, there is embarrassed silence about Iraq on the “Left.” But Obama did exactly what he promised. And the Democrats more generally never offered anything of a progressive-emancipatory alternative to the Republican policy. — This can be seen in Biden’s proposal to divide Iraq into three separate countries, punishing the Sunnis for their resistance by robbing them of access to Iraq’s oil wealth (which is concentrated in the Shiite South and Kurdish North). Leaving Baathist Iraq alone would have hardly been better for the Iraqis in the long term, if history is any kind of indication.

Why did the Iraq war happen? Because Saddam’s Baathist regime had turned Iraq into a pariah state internationally, and a grotesque house of horrors for its own inhabitants. The Baathist regime was becoming worse not better for the Iraqis as time went on. Saddam was willing to wager the Iraqi people, seemingly without limit, for the continuation of his regime. Did he really think he could outlast the hostility he had generated, not only with the U.S., but also with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others? What was the actual future for Baathist Iraq, if not implosion and civil war, barring (also) foreign intervention of one form or other (if not invasion and occupation)? — Has Lebanon really been any better?

On the other hand, what about Iraq today, after the invasion and occupation? It is arguably true that, apart from Israel, Iraq is today the most politically “democratic” state (if only in political dynamism) in the Middle East. The U.S. achieved its aims of removing Baathism and making Iraq a state more responsible not only to the international community but also to its own inhabitants. The only question is whether the cost for achieving this has been too great. If so, then one needs to ask, who actually made it so costly? Was the so-called “resistance” worth it? Was it even directed at the U.S. occupiers, or really at its sectarian opponents (on both sides)? Was it only or even primarily the U.S. that was responsible for the destruction, or were there other actors involved, and, if so, how do we hold them accountable — and how may any purported “Left” challenge and oppose them, moving forward? Isn’t this the question we especially face today, when the U.S. is vacating the scene? Or will the “Left” simply forget about Iraq, end of story? — Weren’t Iraq and the Iraqis always in fact forgotten in the estimations of the so-called “Left?”

Who was responsible? | §

Left Forum NYC 2010: Iran

The Green Movement and the Left: prospects for democracy in Iran

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Siyaves Azeri (Worker-communist Party of Iran) and Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University) at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, March 21, 2010. A previous version of this presentation was given at the Platypus Affiliated Society public forum on “30 years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: the tragedy of the Left,” with panelists Maziar Behrooz (San Francisco State University), Kaveh Ehsani (DePaul University, Chicago) and Danny Postel, University of Chicago, November 5, 2009, whose transcript was published as a special supplement to Platypus Review #20 (February 2010), and presented as an individual lecture at Loyola University, Chicago, December 3, 2009, and at the University of Chicago, October 29, 2009.

I would like to pose the question: What can the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran teach the Left?

The 30th anniversary of the toppling of the Shah of Iran witnessed the controversy over the election results in the Islamic Republic, in which the incumbent (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad claimed victory over his opponent (Mir-Hossein) Mousavi, and mass protests against this result were subject to brutal, violent repression.

These two historic moments, those of the birth and crisis of the Islamic Republic of Iran, communicate over time, and can tell us a great deal about the nature and trajectory of the contemporary world, and the role of the demise of the Left in it.

We in Platypus approach the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a specific story in the overall history of the death of the Left — its historical decline and disappearance.  The self-destruction of the Left in Iran is a good entry into investigation of the death of the Left internationally, over the course of at least the past generation.

It is instructive that, where once the Left in Iran was the most vital and potentially significant in the Middle East or Muslim world, today the Left has been completely eradicated in Iran.

Whereas the Shah simultaneously sought to repress and co-opt the Left, the Islamic Republic has brought about its entire elimination in Iran (and has sought to do so elsewhere, for instance in the Lebanese civil war, through its proxies Hezbollah).  It is in this sense that one can meaningfully talk about the reactionary, Right-wing character of the Islamic Republic, relative to what came before it under the Pahlavi dynasty.  There are fewer possibilities for Iranian society today than there were 30 years ago.  This bitter fact is something most try to avoid confronting, but is where I want to focus attention in my presentation.

The Left is defined by potential and possibility, the Right by its foreclosure.  The Left expresses and reveals potential possibilities, while the Right represses and obscures these.

For this reason, the role of the Iranian and international Left in repressing and obscuring the true character of social possibilities in Iran, during the period leading up to Islamic Revolution, is crucial for grasping, not only how the Left destroyed itself, but also, and more importantly, how it destroyed itself as a Left, and thus contributed to the construction of a new Right.  Only justice for past crimes committed by the Left can recover old, and open new possibilities in the present.  Only by confronting its problematic historical legacy can the Left today be a Left at all.  But this is something virtually no-one wants to do.

Slavoj Zizek, in his recent book In Defense of Lost Causes, cites Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s embrace of the Islamic Revolution in Iran to demonstrate the importance and necessity of what Zizek calls “taking the right step in the wrong direction.”  Zizek is eager, as he expressed in his writing on the recent election crisis in Iran, to find the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam.”  He thinks that a more radical emancipatory potential was grasped, however uncertainly, by Foucault in 1979 (and by Heidegger in 1933!).  I wish to argue the contrary, that Foucault’s — and the rest of the “Left’s” — embrace of Islamism was and continues to be a conservative move, thinly veiled by claims to more radical bona fides.

This phenomenon of seeking the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam” can be traced all the way through the recent election crisis in Iran.  We need to examine the trajectory of the supposedly “Left” Islamist discontents and opposition to the Shah’s regime leading up to the Islamic Revolution, and how this plays out for continuers of such politics such as Mousavi in the Islamic Republic in the present.

The New Left Islamist figure Ali Shariati is key to understanding the relation of the Left to Islamism, both around the 1979 toppling of the Shah and the political divisions in the Islamic Republic of Iran today.  For instance, opposition presidential candidate Mousavi, and especially his wife Zahra Rahnavard, were students of Shariati who worked closely with him politically in the 1960s and ’70s.  The largest political organization on the Left in the 1979 revolution were the MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or People’s Mojahedin of Iran), who helped organize the street protests that toppled the Shah and participated in the taking of the U.S. embassy, and found inspiration in Shariati’s approach to Islam.

The fact that Mousavi and Rahnavard eventually joined the Khomeini faction, and that there is a significant likelihood that Khomeini’s agents were responsible for Shariati’s untimely death in exile in 1977 at age 44, should not obscure the New Left Islamist roots of the Khomeiniite Islamic Republic, of which Mousavi was Prime Minister from 1981–89, under Khomeini’s “supreme” leadership, approving the slaughter of the Left.  The present controversy in the Islamic Republic establishment is not to be understood in terms of new wine in old bottles but rather the old in the new.  The Islamist politics on both sides is a Right-wing phenomenon, now as before.  Mousavi as standard bearer for discontents in the Islamic Republic is a phenomenon of political confusion, to which any Left must attend.  There are significant problems to be addressed in the relation of ideology to social and political reality.  The point is that Khomeini’s supremacy in the Islamic Revolution was not to be explained by his superior insight and grasp of realities, but rather his successful navigation of them, which is a different matter.  The present dispute between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi amounts to this.

Khomeini did not lead a revolutionary transformation of Iranian society but rather the reconsolidation of Iran after the crisis and fall of the Shah.  The phenomenon of the so-called “Left” (for the most part) calling black white, does not change the fact that Khomeini represented a Right-wing response to the discontents and crisis of Iranian society in the 1970s.  The Left’s support of Khomeini expresses its disorientation and confusion theoretically, and its Right-wing role practically.  There is no mystery here: telling women to cover themselves was not an emancipatory act!

The collapse of the Shah’s regime did not increase but ultimately decreased the possibilities for Iranian society.  The Khomeiniite Islamic Republic was not the expression but the repression of potential, in the context of diminished possibilities.  To understand how this was so, it is useful to consider the historical trajectory of Iran in global context.  The developmental states of the post-colonial world underwent a severe crisis starting with the global downturn of the 1970s.  The 1970s were the period in which, for example, so-called “Third World debt” manifested itself as a serious problem for these states.

Oil revenues could not provide remedy in the case of Iran, because what was encountered, throughout the world in the 1970s, was the crisis of the mid-20th century transformations that went on under the rubric of “modernization.”  In Iran, this was carried out through the Shah’s White Revolution, in which he had been goaded, beginning in the early 1960s, by the U.S. Kennedy Administration, and continued to be by those subsequent.  Khomeini’s rise as a politician originated in protest against the policies of modernization — and social liberalization — implemented by the Shah, under pressure from the U.S.  Khomeini was always clear about this in ways the “Left” has not been.  The Left abdicated from providing an emancipatory response to the changes in Iranian society.  The Shah stood between Right- and Left-wing discontents, but the Left steadily liquidated its own concerns.

Indeed, despite that discontents with the Shah were channeled into New Left “anti-imperialist” politics, the Shah indeed was bucking the “Great Satan” on his own accord.  Not only was the Shah’s regime prompted to transform Iranian society, through the White Revolution reforms of the 1960s–70s, exacerbating social and political discontents, but indeed responsibility for the ultimate demise of the Shah can be laid at the door of U.S. policy, for President Carter refused to support the Shah against the tumult of protests that broke out in 1978.  The U.S. not only supported the Shah’s regime but significantly undermined it as well.  This was not a mistake on the part of the U.S., but expressed the differing interests of U.S. policy as against the Shah.

So much for supposed “anti-imperialism.” — So, what happened in Iran?  Certainly the close if not always happy relationship between the Shah’s regime and the U.S. became symbolic for discontents in Iran.  But symbolic in what sense?  The New Left conception of “imperialism” got in the way of a sober perception of the problems facing Iranian society in the 1970s.  Iran was not suffering from U.S. imperial oppression.  Rather, Iran faced a crossroads in its development in which an insurgent Islamist politics found purchase.  The nature of this Islamist politics was obscured by the Left’s conceptions of the potential social-political divisions in Iranian society and in its greater global context.

Iran was the site for the most significant political Left in the Middle East and Muslim world.  Many thousands of Iranian students with Leftist inclinations studied abroad in Europe and North America.  In their encounter with the metropolitan New Left, they were encouraged to embrace the supposed Muslim roots of Iranian society and find potential there for emancipatory politics.  But emancipation from what, and for whom?

The issue of Islamist politics looms.  The New Left Islamist Shariati considered himself a follower of Frantz Fanon.  Others, including Khomeini, also found resonance with Fanon’s writings (on Algeria and Africa), on what they considered to be the problem of “cultural imperialism.”  So, according to this view, Iran suffered, not from structural and political problems in modern historical context, so much as from cultural problems, of so-called “Westernization,” which was pathologized.  The problems of modernization became the problem of Westernization, which thus needed to be eradicated.  Islamist politics was the means by which the cure for this “disease” has been attempted.

To this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran is premised on a culturalist conception of politics.  Ahmadinejad and others speak of Iran’s “political frontiers” as if they were just lines on a map.  Their “Islamic Revolution” is civilizational and global in reach.  It is not about Iran.  Ahmadinejad wrote an “open letter” to President Bush chastising the failure of “liberal democracy” and urging the principles of Islamist politics instead.

Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, whose legitimate mantle was in dispute between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad in the recent election, is premised on the idea that the entire Iranian population, suffering from the illness of “cultural imperialism” by the West, needed to be held as minority wards of the mullahs.  This is why there is a Guardian Council and a Supreme Leader above all elected officials.  When Ahmadinejad referred to the election protesters as “shit,” this was the social imagination behind it: he considered them to be religiously fallen, culturally corrupted, and hence evil, in a disqualifying, dehumanizing sense.  The powers-that-be of the Islamic Republic, still pursuing the Islamic Revolution, including Mousavi, have moral contempt for the people of Iran — as any Right-wingers do for their subalterns.

This is why it is worse than tragic, indeed, I would argue, criminal, for the Left to continue to embrace today, in whatever form, the presuppositions of such Right-wing politics of Islamism — as the Left did in the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago.  It was worse than a mistake then, and it continues to be so today.  The degree to which the Green Movement espouses or merely accepts the framework of the Islamic Republic, it remains in the thrall of Islamist politics. It is part of the deliberate obscuring of social realities behind bad ideology and worse politics.  The history of the past 30 years proves that Islamism was no way to address the discontents and ameliorate the problems of Iranian or indeed Muslim society. This is not only a lie, but a crime.

Any purported “Left” must treat Islamist politics, not as some kind of framework, but as a deadly obstacle, necessary to overcome. | §

The failure of the Islamic Revolution

The nature of the present crisis in Iran

Chris Cutrone

THE ELECTION CRISIS THAT UNFOLDED after June 12 has exposed the vulnerability of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), a vulnerability that has been driving its ongoing confrontation with the U.S. and Europe, for instance on the question of acquiring nuclear technology and its weapons applications.

While the prior U.S. administration under Bush had called for “regime change” in Iran, President Obama has been more conciliatory, offering direct negotiations with Tehran. This opening met with ambivalence from the Islamic Republic establishment; some favored while others opposed accepting this olive branch offered by the newly elected American president. Like the recent coup in Honduras, the dispute in Iran has been conditioned, on both sides, by the “regime change” that has taken place in the United States. A certain testing of possibilities in the post-Bush II world order is being mounted by allies and opponents alike. One dangerous aspect of the mounting crisis in Iran has been the uncertainty over how the Obama administration might address it.

The U.S. Republican Party and neoconservatives, now in the opposition, and recently elected Israeli right-wing politicians have demanded that the U.S. keep up the pressure on the IRI and have expressed skepticism regarding Iranian “reform” candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. European statesmen on both Right and Left have, for their part, made strident appeals for “democracy” in Iran. But Obama has tried to avoid the pitfalls of either exacerbating the confrontation with the IRI or undermining whatever hopes might be found with the Iranian dissidents, whether of the dominant institutions of the Islamic Republic such as Mousavi or of the more politically indeterminate mass protests. Obama is seeking to keep his options open, however events end up resolving in Iran. While to some this appears as an equivocation or even a betrayal of Iranian democratic aspirations, it is simply typical Obama realpolitik. A curious result of the Obama administration’s relatively taciturn response has been the IRI’s reciprocal reticence about any U.S. role in the present crisis, preferring instead, bizarrely, to demonize the British as somehow instigating the massive street protests.

The good faith or wisdom of the new realpolitik is not to be doubted, however, especially given that Obama wants neither retrenchment nor the unraveling of the Islamic Republic in Iran. As chief executive of what Marx called the “central committee” of the American and indeed global ruling class, Obama might not have much reasonable choice for alternative action. The truth is that the U.S. and European states can deal quite well with the IRI so long as it does not engage in particularly undesirable behaviors. Their problem is not with the IRI as such — but the Left’s ought to be.

The reigning confusion around the crisis in Iran has been expressed, on the one hand, in statements defending Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim to electoral victory by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and by individual writers in the supposedly leftist Monthly Review and its MRZine web publication (which also has republished without comment official Iranian statements on the crisis), and on the other hand by supporters of Iranian dissidents and election protesters such as Danny Postel, Fred Halliday, and the various Marxist-Humanist publications in the U.S.[1]

Slavoj Žižek has weighed in on the question with an interesting and sophisticated take of his own, questioning prevailing understandings of the nature of the Iranian regime and its Islamist character.[2] Meanwhile, the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens has pursued his idiosyncratic brand of a quasi-neoconservative “anti-fascist” denunciation of the Islamic Republic, pointing out how the Islamic Republic itself is predicated on Khomeini’s “theological” finding of Velayat-e Faqui, that the entire Iranian population, as victims of Western “cultural imperialism,” needed to be treated as minority wards of the mullahs.[3]

Halliday addresses the current protests as if they are the result of a “return of the repressed” of the supposedly more revolutionary aspirations of the 1978–79 toppling of the Shah, characterizing the Islamic Republic as the result of a “counter-revolution.” In a recent interview published in the Platypus Review #14 (August 2009), historian of the Iranian Left Ervand Abrahamian characterizes the present crisis in terms of demands for greater freedoms that necessarily supersede the accomplished tasks of the 1979 revolution, which, according to Abrahamian, overthrew the tyranny of the Pahlavi ancien régime and established Iranian “independence” (from the U.S. and U.K.).

All told, this constellation of responses to the crisis has recapitulated problems on the Left in understanding the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran from 1978–83, and the character and trajectory of the Islamic Republic of Iran since then. All share in the fallacy of attributing to Iran an autonomous historical rhythm or logic of its own. Iran is treated more or less as an entity, rather than as it might be, as a symptomatic effect of a greater history.[4] Of all, Žižek has come closest to addressing this issue of greater context, but even he has failed to address the history of the Left.

Two issues bedevil the Left’s approach to the Islamic Republic and the present crisis in Iran: the general character of the recent historical phenomenon of Islamist politics, and the larger question of “revolution.” Among the responses to the present crisis one finds longstanding analytic and conceptual problems that are condensed in ways useful for critical consideration. It is precisely in its lack of potential emancipatory or even beneficial outcome that the present electoral crisis in Iran proves most instructive. So, what are the actual possibilities for the current crisis in Iran?

Perhaps perversely, it is helpful to begin with the well-reported statements of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, who warned of the danger of a “velvet revolution” akin to those that toppled the Communist Party-dominated Democratic Republics of Eastern Europe in 1989. The Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sought to reform but only ended up undoing the Soviet Union. So it is not merely a matter of the intentions of the street protesters or establishment institutional dissidents such as Mousavi that will determine outcomes — as the Right, from Obama to the grim beards of the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji, do not hesitate to point out. By comparison with such eminently realistic practical perspectives of the powers-that-be, the Left reveals itself to be comprised of daydreams and wishful thinking. The Revolutionary Guards might be correct that the present crisis of protests against the election results can only end badly.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad and those behind him, along with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, will prevail, and the protests against the election outcome will dissipate and those involved be punished, repressed, or eliminated. Or, perhaps, the protests will escalate, precipitating the demise of the Islamic Republic. But, were that to happen, maybe all that will be destroyed is the “republic” and not its Islamist politics, resulting in a rule of the mullahs without the accoutrements of “democracy.” Perhaps the protests will provoke a dictatorship by the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji militias. Or perhaps even these forces will weaken and dissolve under the pressure of the protesters. Perhaps a civil war will issue from the deepened splitting of the extant forces in Iran. In that case, it is difficult to imagine that the present backers of the protests among the Islamic Republic establishment would press to undermine the state or precipitate a civil war or a coup (one way or the other). Perhaps the present crisis will pressure a reconsolidated regime under Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to continue the confrontation with the U.S. and Europe, only more hysterically, in order to try to bolster their support in Iran. If so, this could easily result in military conflict. These are the potential practical stakes of the present crisis.

Žižek has balanced the merits of the protests against the drive to neo-liberalize Iran, in which not only American neoconservatives but also Ahmadinejad himself as well as the “reformers” such as Mousavi and his patron, the “pistachio king” and former president of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, have all taken part. In so doing, however, Žižek rehearses illusions on the Left respecting the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as, for instance, when he points to the traditional Shia slogans of the protesters, “Death to the tyrant!” and “God is great!,” as evidence of the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam,” as an alternative to the apparent inevitability of neoliberalism. But this concession to Islamist politics is gratuitous to the extent that it does not recognize the ideological limitations and practical constraints of the protest movement and its potential trajectory, especially in global context. The protests are treated as nothing more than an “event.”

But if the protests were to succeed, what would this mean? It could mean calling a new election in which Mousavi would win and begin reforming the IRI, curtailing the power of the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji, and perhaps even that of the clerical establishment. Or, if a more radical transformation were possible, perhaps a revolution would take place in which the IRI would be overthrown in favor of a newly constituted Iranian state. The most likely political outcome of such a scenario can be seen in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, a “soft” Islamist state more “open” to the rest of the world, i.e., more directly in-sync with the neoliberal norms prevailing in global capital, without the Revolutionary Guards, Inc., taking its cut (like the military in neighboring Pakistan, through its extensive holdings, the Revolutionary Guards comprise perhaps the largest capitalist entity in Iran). But how much better would such an outcome really be, from the perspective of the Left — for instance, in terms of individual and collective freedoms, such as women’s and sexual liberties, labor union organizing, etc.? Not much, if at all. Hence, even a less virulent or differently directed political Islamism needs to be seen as a core part of the problem confronted by people in Iran, rather than as an aspect of any potential solution.

Žižek has at least recognized that Islamism is not incompatible with, but rather shares in the essential historical moment of neoliberal capital. More than simply being two sides of the same coin, as Afghanistan and Iraq show, there is no discontinuity between neoliberalism and Islamism, despite what apologists for either may think.

Beyond Žižek, others on the Left have sought to capture for the election protests the historical mantle of the 1979 Revolution, as well as the precedents of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and the “Left”-nationalist politics of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, overthrown in a U.S.- and British-supported coup in 1953. For instance, the Tudeh (“Masses”) Party (Iranian Communist Party), the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK, “People’s Mujahedin of Iran”) and its associated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCORI), and the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WPI, sister organization of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, the organizers of the largest labor union federation in post-U.S. invasion and occupation Iraq) have all issued statements claiming and thus simplifying, in national-celebratory terms, this complex and paradoxical historical legacy for the current protests. But some true democratic character of Iranian tradition should not be so demagogically posed.

The MEK, who were the greatest organizational participants on the Left in the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 (helping to organize the massive street protests that brought down the Shah, and participating in the U.S. embassy takeover), were originally inspired by New Left Islamist Ali Shariati and developed a particular Islamo-Marxist approach that became more avowedly and self-consciously “Marxist” as they slipped into opposition with the rise to supremacy of Khomeini.[5] Shariati considered himself a follower of Frantz Fanon; Jean-Paul Sartre once said, famously, “I have no religion, but if I were to choose one, it would be that of Shariati.” The 44-year-old Shariati died under mysterious circumstances in 1977 while in exile in London, perhaps murdered by Khomeini’s agents. Opposition presidential candidate Mousavi, and especially his wife Zahra Rahnavard, despite eventually having joined the Khomeini faction by 1979, were students of Shariati who worked closely with him politically in the 1960s–70s.

A Mujahidin-i-khalq demonstration in Tehran during the Revolution. To the left, the figure of Dr. Ali Shariati; to the right, Khomeini.

A Mujahidin-i-khalq demonstration in Tehran during the Revolution. To the left, the figure of Dr. Ali Shariati; to the right, Khomeini.

However disoriented and hence limited the MEK’s inspiration, Shariati’s critique of modern capitalism, from the supposed perspective of Islam, was, it had the virtue of questioning capitalist modernity’s fundamental assumptions more deeply than is typically attempted today, for instance by Žižek, whose take on the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam” is limited to the rather narrow question of “democracy.” So the question of how adequate let alone well-advised the “democratic” demands such as those of the present Iranian election protesters cannot even be posed, let alone properly addressed. 2009 is not a reprise of 1979, having much less radical potential, and this is both for good and ill.

On the Left, the MEK has been among the more noisy opposition groups against the Islamic Republic, for instance using its deep-cover operatives within Iran to expose the regime’s nuclear weapons program. Most on the Left have shunned the MEK, however. For instance, Postel calls it a “Stalinist death cult.” But the MEK’s New Left Third Worldist and cultural-nationalist (Islamist) perspective, however colored by Marxism, and no matter how subsequently modified, remains incoherent, as does the ostensibly more orthodox Marxism of the Tudeh and WCPI, for instance in their politics of “anti-imperialism,” and thus also remains blind to how their political outlook, from the 1970s to today, is bound to (and hence responsible for) the regressive dynamic of the “revolution” — really, just the collapse of the Shah’s regime — that resulted in the present theocracy. All these groups on the Iranian Left are but faint shadows of their former selves.

Despite their otherwise vociferous opposition to the present Islamist regime, the position of the Left in the present crisis, for instance hanging on every utterance by this or that “progressive” mullah in Iran, reminds one of the unbecoming position of Maoists throughout the world enthralled by the purge of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death in the late 1970s. Except, of course, for those who seek to legitimize Ahmadinejad, everyone is eager if not desperate to find in the present crisis an “opening” to a potential “progressive” outcome. The present search for an “emancipatory” Islamist politics is a sad repetition of the Left’s take on the 1979 Revolution. This position of contemplative spectatorship avoids the tasks of what any purported Left can, should, and indeed must do. From opportunist wishful thinking and tailing after forces it accepts ahead of time as beyond its control, the so-called Left resembles the Monday quarterbacking that rationalizes a course of events for which it abdicates any true responsibility. The Left thus participates in and contributes to affirming the confused muddle from which phenomena such as the Iranian election protests suffer — and hence inevitably becomes part of the Right.

This is the irony. Since those such as Žižek, Halliday, Postel, the Marxist-Humanists, liberals, and others on the Left seem anxious to prove that the U.S. neoconservatives and others are wrong in their hawkish attitude towards the Islamic Republic, to prove that any U.S. intervention will only backfire and prevent the possibility of a progressive outcome, especially to the present crisis, they tacitly support the Obama approach, no matter how supposedly differently and less cynically motivated theirs is compared to official U.S. policy.

Like the Obama administration, the Left seems more afraid to queer the play of the election protesters than it is eager to weigh in against the Islamic Republic. This craven anxiety at all-too-evident powerlessness over events considers itself to be balancing the need to oppose the greater power and danger, “U.S. imperialism,” producing a strange emphasis in all this discourse. Only Hitchens, in the mania of his “anti-fascism,” has freed himself from this obsequious attitude of those on the Left that sounds so awkward in the context of the present unraveling of what former U.S. National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once, rightly, called a “loathsome regime” — a sentiment about the Islamic Republic that any purported Left should share, and more loudly and proudly than any U.S. official could.

Indeed, the supporters of the election protesters have trumpeted the rejection of any and all help that might be impugned as showing the nefarious hand of the U.S. government and its agencies.[6] Instead, they focus on a supposed endemic dynamic for progressive-emancipatory change in Iranian history, eschewing how the present crisis of the Islamic Republic is related to greater global historical dynamics in which Iran is no less caught up than any other place. They thus repeat the mistake familiar from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the reactionary dynamics of which were obscured behind supposed “anti-imperialism.” The problems facing the Left in Iran are the very same ones faced anywhere else. “Their” problems are precisely ours.

With the present crisis in Iran and its grim outlook we pay the price for the historical failures — really, the crimes — of the Left, going back at least to the period of the 1960s–70s New Left of which the Islamic Revolution was a product. The prospects for any positive, let alone progressive, outcome to the present crisis are quite dim. This is why it should be shocking that the Left so unthinkingly repeats today, if in a much attenuated form, precisely those mistakes that brought us to this point. The inescapable lesson of several generations of history is that only an entirely theoretically reformulated and practically reconstituted Left in places such as the U.S. and Europe would have any hope of giving even remotely adequate, let alone effective, form to the discontents that erupt from time to time anywhere in the world. Far from being able to take encouragement from phenomena such as the present election crisis and protests in Iran, the disturbing realization needs to be had, and at the deepest levels of conscious reflection, about just how much “they” need us.

A reformulated Left for the present and future must do better than the Left has done up to now in addressing — and opposing — problems such as political Islamism. The present manifest failure and unraveling of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is a good occasion for thinking through what it might mean to settle this more than thirty year old score of the betrayed and betraying Left. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #14 (August 2009). A slightly revised version was published in The International Journal of Žižek Studies 3.4 (2009).


1. In particular, see Danny Postel’s Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, 2006; Fred Halliday’s “Iran’s Tide of History: Counterrevolution and After,” OpenDemocracy.net, July 17; and the Marxist-Humanist periodical News & Letters, as well as the web sites of the U.S. Marxist-Humanists and the Marxist-Humanist Initiative.

2. See Žižek’s “Will the Cat above the Precipice Fall Down?,” June 24 (available at http://supportiran.blogspot.com), based on a June 18 lecture at Birkbeck College, London, on “Populism and Democracy,” and followed by the more extended treatment in “Berlusconi in Tehran,” London Review of Books, July 23.

3. See Hitchens, “Don’t Call What Happened in Iran Last Week an Election,” Slate, June 14.

4. For excellent historical treatments of the Islamic Revolution and its local and global context, please see: Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (1982) and The Iranian Mojahedin (1992); Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (2000); Fred Halliday, “The Iranian Revolution: Uneven Development and Religious Populism” (Journal of International Affairs 36.2 Fall/Winter 1982/83); and David Greason, “Embracing Death: The Western Left and the Iranian Revolution, 1979–83” (Economy and Society 34.1, February 2005). The critically important insights of these works have been largely neglected, including subsequently by their own authors.

5. The MEK have been widely described as “cult-like,” but perhaps this is because, as former participants in the Islamic Revolution, in their state of betrayal they focus so much animus on the cult-like character of the Islamic Republic itself; the official term used by the Khomeiniite state for the MEK is “Hypocrites” (Monafeqin), expressing their shared Islamist roots in the 1979 Revolution. But the success of the MEK over Khomeini would have hardly been better, and might have indeed been much worse. Khomeini’s opportunism and practical cynicism in consolidating the Islamic Revolution might have not only produced but also prevented abominable excesses of “revolutionary” Islamism.

Of all the organized tendencies in the Iranian Revolution, the MEK perhaps most instantiated Michel Foucault’s vision of its more radical “non-Western” character (see Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, 2005). But just as Foucault’s enthusiasm for the Islamic Revolution in Iran ought to be a disturbing reminder of the inherent limitations and right-wing character of the Foucauldian critique of modernity, so should the MEK’s historical Shariati-inspired Islamism stand as a warning against all similar post-New Left valorizations of “culture.”

More recently, the MEK has found advocates among the far-Right politicians of the U.S. government such as Representative Tom Tancredo, Senators Sam Brownback and Kit Bond and former Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft — precisely those who are most enchanted by the ideological cult of “America.” The MEK’s former patron, the Baathist Saddam Hussein, had unleashed the MEK on Iran in a final battle at the close of the Iran-Iraq war 1980–88, after which Khomeini ordered the slaughter of all remaining leftist political prisoners in Iran, as many as 30,000, mostly affiliated with the MEK and Tudeh, in what Abrahamian called “an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history — unprecedented in form, content, and intensity” (Tortured Confessions, 1999, 210). After the 2003 invasion and occupation, the U.S. disarmed but protected the MEK in Iraq. However, since the U.S. military’s recent redeployment in the “status of forces” agreement with the al-Maliki government signed by Bush but implemented by Obama, the MEK has been subjected to brutal, murderous repression, as its refugee camp was raided by Iraqi forces on July 28–29, seemingly at the behest of the Iranian government, of which the dominant, ruling Shia constituency parties in Iraq have been longstanding beneficiaries.

The grotesque and ongoing tragedy of the MEK forms a shadow history of the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath, eclipsed by the Khomeiniite Islamic Republic, but is essential for grasping its dynamics and trajectory.

6. See, for instance, Sean Penn, Ross Mirkarimi and Reese Erlich, “Support Iranians, not U.S. Intervention,” CommonDreams.org, July 21.

The Platypus Synthesis: History, theory

The Platypus Synthesis: History, theory, and practice

Presented at the Platypus Affiliated Society 1st annual international convention, Chicago, June 14, 2009. (Audio recording.)

History, theory

Chris Cutrone

I WANT TO BEGIN, straightaway, with something Richard raised, on which I would like to try to elaborate, by way of properly motivating the more “positive” aspect of Platypus’s theory. Not how we are misrecognized, as either neoconservatives, crypto-Spartacists or academic Left-liberals, and what this says “negatively” about our project, as if in a photonegative, as Richard has discussed, but rather how we positively think about the intellectual content of our project.

Let me begin with a thought experiment: What if the Spartacist critique of the 1960s New Left and Moishe Postone’s critique of the New Left, as disparate and antithetical as they might appear, were both correct? In other words, what if, paradoxically, the problem of the 1960s New Left was that it was simultaneously “too traditional” and “not traditional enough” in its Marxism?

What if the Spartacists were right that Stalinism and Trotskyism (and Bolshevism more generally) were not to be conflated, as they were in both Stalinophilic New Leftism, of Maoism and Che Guevarism, etc., and Stalinophobic neo-anarchism, Situationism, etc.? And what if Postone was correct, that Trotskyism, as part of “traditional Marxism,” was unable to deal with the problem of mid-20th century capitalism’s differences from earlier forms, and not able to address why revolutionary proletarian class consciousness, as it had previously manifested, did not continue, but seemed to become either irrelevant or, worse, affirmative of the status quo of the “administered society” of “organized” capitalism in the mid-20th century?

What both the Spartacists and Postone are unable to address, however, is why neither of their perspectives, which purported to grasp the problem of capital more deeply and in broader historical context than others in the post-1960s New Left, found virtually no adherents. If we in Platypus say that both the Spartacists and Postone are correct, but both fail to adequately account for their own forms of consciousness, this raises an interesting paradox that points back to issues of historical interpretation for the Spartacists and Postone’s points of departure, namely, Bolshevism as revolutionary Marxism, and Marx’s own Marxism.

We could say that the problem of the Spartacists and Postone point to two different aspects of temporality in the history of the Left, that the Spartacists act as if no historical time intervenes between themselves and 1917, and Postone acts as if the progression of historical transformation leaves the Marxist tradition permanently superseded.

Both the Spartacists and Postone acknowledge, in however a limited fashion, the problem of regression; in the case of the Spartacists, the regression is post-1917, and for Postone it is post-1968, but both consider regression in only a linear and static manner, as if the emancipatory moments of 1917 and 1968 wait to be resumed at some time in a future that never comes. — And, behind both of these, lies 1848, which also continues to haunt our world, as taken up by the Situationists, “Left-” and “council” or “libertarian” communists and “anarchists.” What if all three are correct, that we are indeed haunted by 1848, 1917 and 1968, that these moments actually circumscribe present possibilities? Then the question would be: How so?

The point would be, contra both the Spartacists and Postone, to grasp how and why the pertinence of history changes and fluctuates, over time, and as a function of the present. The point would be to be able to grasp a non-linear conception of historical progression — and regression. If, according to the Spartacists, the moment of the Bolshevik Revolution remains permanently relevant, and, for Postone, Marx remains permanently relevant, this side of overcoming capital, then we ought to be able to explain how this is so, and in ways the Spartacists and Postone themselves have been unable to do. This is precisely what Platypus sets out to do.

Please let me begin again, with 4 quotations, to be considered in constellation. The first is from Walter Benjamin’s 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History:”

Karl Kraus said that “Origin is the goal.” History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.

In attempting to read the history of the accelerated demise and self-liquidation of the Left after the 1960s, reading it, as Benjamin put it, “against the grain,” we in Platypus face a problem discussed by Nietzsche in his 1873 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life:”

A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. [Nietzsche translation by Ian Johnston at: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/history.htm]

However, as Karl Korsch wrote, in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy:”

[Marx wrote (in his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) that] “[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence.” [But] this dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch. [Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy (NLB: New York and London, 1970), 58]

As Adorno wrote, in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics:

The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations. [T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143–144]

We in Platypus consider ourselves, quite self-consciously, to be a function of such a return, under changed circumstances, to what was “cast aside but not absorbed theoretically.” We think that such an approach as ours is only possible by virtue of the ways history, in failing to be transcended, continues to “fester,” “yielding its truth content,” but “only later.” Our approach is informed by prior models for such an endeavor, namely, Trotsky and Adorno, and those who succeeded them, namely, the Spartacists and Moishe Postone.

We think that figures of historical thought and action such as Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno have an apparently fluctuating pertinence, but we consider them to remain in constellation with the present, however distantly, precisely because these historical figures “remain painful [because they were] thwarted,” and because “history rolled over [their] positions” without their having been actually transcended and superseded, but only mistakenly “dismissed as obsolete.” As Adorno put it, in one of his last essays, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” or “Is Marx Obsolete?,” if Marx has become obsolete, this obsolescence will only be capable of being overcome on the basis of Marx’s own thought and model of historical action. We in Platypus think the same goes for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, and Adorno himself.

If these historical figures are obsolete but still remain capable of holding our attention and imagination, then we are tasked with explaining any continued pertinence they have by reference to their own models of historical thought and action, and thus, in a sense, “transcending” them, but only through “remembering” them, and on the basis that they themselves provide for our understanding them. We want to transform the ways these figures haunt us in the present into a matter of actual gratitude as opposed to guilt (as Horkheimer and Adorno put it, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, following Freudian psychoanalysis, about “The Theory of Ghosts”).

We recognize that Marx and the best Marxists, such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, will be transcended only by being fulfilled. We want to actually make them obsolete, whereas we find their (pseudo-)“obsolescence” declared by the “Left” today to be a function of trying to repress or ward them off instead. We begin with the discomfort of their memory, as an important symptom of history in the present.

But this involves a rather complicated historical approach, one that goes on in Platypus under the rubrics of “regression” and “critical” history, or history “against the grain” of events, which I would like to explicate now.

Nietzsche described what he called “critical history,” or an approach to history that is critical of that history from the standpoint of the needs of the present. Let me cite further from the passage of Nietzsche’s “Use and Abuse of History for Life” I’ve already quoted to illustrate this point.

Nietzsche said that,

Here it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-desiring force.

So the question becomes, how, if at all, does memory of historical Marxism serve the needs of the present? We in Platypus recognize both the obscurity of the heritage of revolutionary Marxism and the ways the alternative, non-revolutionary lineage of the “Left” in its decline has been naturalized and so is no longer recognized as such. Our point of departure is the hypothesis that the history of the Left, however obscure, is the actual history of the present, or, more accurately, in Hegelian terms, how the history of the Left is the history of the present in its “actuality,” in its potential for change and transformation, and in its constraint of such potential. We are bound by the history of the Left, whether we recognize this or not.

For example, we follow Trotsky’s caveat about the danger of being Stalinist in “method” if not in avowed “politics,” and judge the “Left” today to be beholden to Stalinism in importantly unacknowledged ways. Ian wrote an article in the May issue of The Platypus Review (#12), on “Resurrecting the ’30s,” in which he cited C. Wright Mills on how the “nationalization” of the Left in the 1930s–40s was “catastrophic.” We recognize this “nationalization,” the narrowing of horizons for Leftist politics that has been taken for granted by the Left, especially after WWII, to be the very essence of Stalinism and its historical legacy in the present. More importantly, we recognize that such “nationalization” of Left politics was utterly foreign to the perspectives of Marx and the 2nd International radical Marxists, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. Hence, we find in their example a potential critical vantage-point regarding the subsequent historical trajectory of the Left.

Furthermore, Nietzsche described the danger of

[the] attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first.

Richard, in his comments at our panel on “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century” Friday night, spoke of how Trotsky and Benjamin provide the “hidden” or esoteric history of the 20th century, by contrast with its “real” history, exemplified by FDR and Hitler. Our present world is more obviously descended from the history of Hitler and FDR, who in this sense made the world what it is today, as the effect of their actions. But how might we (come to) be descended also from Benjamin and Trotsky? Can we claim their history as ours, or are we condemned to being only the products of the history of Hitler, FDR and Stalin (and those who followed them)?

Does the historical possibility represented by Trotsky and Benjamin have any meaning to us today? Clearly their historical legacy of opposition is weaker than the other, dominant and victorious one. But was Trotsky and Benjamin’s opposition to Stalin, FDR and Hitler so fruitless that we cannot make use of them in fighting against the continued effects of, and perhaps one day overcoming entirely, the legacy of the latter? It is in this sense that we can discuss the critique of the present available in history.

Benjamin contrasted such “critical history,” of the “vanquished,” which is related to but the converse of Nietzsche’s, a critique of the present from the standpoint of history, as opposed to Nietzsche’s critique of history from the standpoint of the present, to the affirmative history of the “victors,” the affirmation of history as it happened. — But, first, we need to be very clear about what Benjamin meant by the “vanquished,” who were not merely history’s victims, but the defeated, those who actually struggled and lost: Benjamin’s example was Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League in the German Revolution and Civil War of 1918–19. It was on behalf of such historically “vanquished” that Benjamin wrote that history needed to be read “against the grain” of the victories of the status quo that comprise the present. It is in memory of their sacrifices, the “anger and hatred” that emanates from the image of “enslaved ancestors,” that Benjamin thought the struggle for emancipation in the present could be motivated by history, that history could serve the present, contrary to the way it otherwise oppresses it, in its affirmation of the status quo.

It is in this sense that we in Platypus do not claim so much that Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, et al. were right, but rather we seek to make them right, retroactively. We do not claim their relevance, but seek to make them relevant. For they did not seek merely to find the crisis of capital, but to bring it about. Our critique of the present, initially, is what is available historically: how the present can be critiqued from the vantage-point of history.

The founder of the Spartacist League, James Robertson, once put it very well, in 1973 — in the aftermath of the ’60s — that,

The truth is historically conditioned; that is, the outlook of the Communist movement of the first four congresses of the Communist International rested upon a historic and successful upheaval of the revolutionary proletariat [in 1917]. A comparable theoretical breakthrough and generalization accompanied this massive revolutionary achievement. . . . It is as though the theoretical outlook of the proletarian vanguard in the period 1919–23 in the International stood atop a mountain. But since that time, from the period of the Trotskyist Left Opposition until his death and afterward, the proletariat has mainly witnessed defeats and the revolutionary vanguard has either been shrunken or its continuity in many countries broken. One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International.

Robertson pointed out how deeply mistaken, and indeed “arrogant,” it was for us to assume that we know better than revolutionaries historically did. Our point is not to idolize the past but rather to instill an appropriate sense of humility towards it. Furthermore, the point is to be able to think in light of the past, how the past might help us think in the present. For, not only might we not know their past moments better than they did, but we might not know our present moment better than they might be able to prompt us to think about it. As Adorno wrote, in 1963,

The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around.

But repetition is regression. The second time around may not be better, but it might yet be productive in certain ways.

For it is not a matter of how these historical thinkers and actors we find important can be emulated in the present, practically, so much as it is a question of how far their perspective might see into the present. Not what would they do in the present, but what might they say to our present and its historical trajectory? So, initially, it is a matter of theory more than practice. Engaging the historical thought and action of our revolutionary Marxist forebears is not a matter of applying a ready-made theory, but rather tasks our own interpretative abilities. It demands that we think — not a simple matter. As Trotsky wrote to his followers in the 1930s, we must “learn to think,” again. This is what distinguishes us from other supposedly “Marxist” organizations. And this is what informs our practice, what we actually make happen in the world, as Ian will discuss.

Approaching history this way allows us to pose certain questions. It does not provide answers. The positive content of historical ideas is in their ambiguity: this is what makes them live for us today, by contrast with the dead positivity of the pseudo-ideas — really, the suppression of thinking — that we find on the fake “Left” today. For there is not merely the question of what we think about the past; but, also, and, perhaps most importantly, in our regressive moment today, the reciprocal one: what the past might think of us.

As Benjamin put it, history needs to be approached from the standpoint of its potential redemption. We think that the historical thought and action of Marxism demands to be redeemed, and that our world, dominated by capital, will continue to suffer so long as this task remains undone. We think that the constitutive horizon of our world was already charted, however preliminarily, by the revolutionary politics of historical Marxism, but that this horizon has become only blurred and forgotten since then. We in Platypus set ourselves the task of initiating thought about this problem, from deep within the fog of our present. We look back and see the revolutionary Marxists looking towards us from that faraway mountaintop. In their fleeting gaze we find an unfulfilled hope — and a haunting accusation. | §

Symptomology

Historical transformations in social-political context

Chris Cutrone

Marx ridiculed the idea of having to “prove” the labor theory of value. If Marxian theory proved to be the means whereby the real relations of bourgeois society could be demonstrated in their movement, where they came from, what they were, and where they were going, that was the proof of the theory. Neither Hegel nor Marx understood any other “scientific” proof.

The more concrete the negation of the need, the more abstract, empty and flamboyant becomes the subjective mediation.

— C. L. R. James, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity” (1947)

THE PRESENT CRISIS has prompted numerous calls for a reconsideration of “socialism” and even for a return to Marx.[1] It seems to augur fundamental changes, changes met with no less fear than desire.

We in Platypus have anticipated, since our inception in 2006, the possibility of a “return to Marx,” and have sought to inform the terms in which this might take place. We have sought the re-opening of historical issues on the Left with the intention of their fundamental recon­sideration, taking nothing for granted, so that we could definitively close the books on stale “debates” in which the “Left” has remained stuck for more than a genera­tion, since at least the 1960s. Given the confusion reign­ing on the “Left” today, the urgency for this is evident.

The difficulty in addressing the present crisis of capi­talism is that almost all commentaries on it, not least those emerging from the Left, begin with a fundamen­tal misrecognition. We are not so much living through the crisis of capitalism as capitalism itself is the crisis. Capitalism is the — permanent — crisis of modern society. Only conjuncturally does capitalism become appreciably worse. But the history of capitalism is, whether in a fine-grained or a broad-gauged way, the history of going from one crisis to the next. It is in this sense that present circumstances and future prospects for capitalism must be addressed.

The election of President Obama is being regarded as an ambivalent phenomenon in this respect: On the one hand, Obama is saddled with responsibility of resolv­ing the crisis merely in order to restore some status quo ante, whether this is conceived as the 1990s heyday of Clintonism, before George W. Bush messed things up, or the post-WWII welfare state of the Roosevelt to Nixon years. On the other hand, Obama’s election is taken to express or indicate the possibility for more radical change, towards which his administration might be pushed. But perhaps neither response to Obama is appropriate. Such prognostication ignores the history of transformations in capitalism, of which the present crisis might be only the latest occasion.

Whatever changes may or may not be brought about by Obama (or despite him) in response to the present crisis, his administration cannot solve the problems of capitalism but only transform them. The changes that take place will matter to the extent that they lay the groundwork for the next period of history under capital, structuring the conditions under which any future struggle against capitalism must take place — just as contemporary social forms are the accumulated effects of prior attempts to master the dynamic of capital in modern history.

To grasp the stakes of the present, we need to antici­pate potential changes, rather than simply getting swept up in them. We need, paradoxically, to try to remain “ahead of the curve,” precisely because, like everyone else, we are conditioned by and subject to forces beyond our control.[2] For what is missing is any agency adequate to intervening against capital (or, more accurately, to intervening from within its unfolding process) with more democratic results.

The historical forces currently at work are beyond anyone’s, including Obama’s, control. However, the danger that the crisis presents is worse than this, which is, after all, the persistent characteristic of capital. The danger lies rather in the illusion that because of the economic crisis the workings of capital, which before had remained hidden, have now somehow revealed themselves to plain view. To grasp such workings requires more than experience. It requires us to attend to the vicissitudes in the history of theory, to distinguish affirmations and apologetics from critical recognitions.

The fate of Michel Foucault’s critique of modern soci­ety in the mid-20th century, during its last third and the first decade of the 21st century, can tell us a great deal about both the historical changes since the 1960s–70s “New Left” and the high 20th century social-political forms against which Foucault’s critique was directed.

Foucault’s work of the 1960s–70s retains great cur­rency in our time because it expresses discontent in a form that can find affirmation in the transformed society that came after its initial formulation and publication.[3] Foucault’s work was susceptible to being transformed from critique into affirmation and even common sense. This fact alone tells us a great deal about the historical changes with which Foucault’s work is bound up.

If Foucault’s work was expressive of forms of discon­tent that helped give rise to post-Fordist, neo-liberal capitalism since the 1970s, if the re-found “anarchism” with which his work has such great affinity has become the predominant form of radical social-political discon­tent on the supposed “Left,” this is because Foucault’s critique inadequately grasped its object, the Fordist capitalism of the mid-20th century. Consequently, when we read Foucault now, his work tells us — and affirms us in — what we already know. Only rarely, and, so to speak, despite itself, does it task us in the present. Only rarely does it help us to separate the critical from the affirma­tive, so that the one is not smuggled in under cover of the other. Hence, the question necessarily arises: Does Foucault’s work actually challenge us? Or does it merely entertain?

Film still, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Film still, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

The “New Left” in the 1960s–70s thought it was rebel­ling against capitalism, and thought it was doing so more profoundly than the preceding “Old” Left was able to do. But now it is difficult to deny that it was responding to one particular form of capitalism, one already in the pro­cess of dissolution. The New Left did not reach deeply enough to affect much of the subsequent transforma­tion of capitalism in the 1980s–90s, but it did serve to legitimize the replacement of what had grown obsolete. We read and accept, e.g., Foucault’s work, though we no longer have Fordist capitalism to critique. What we have instead is post-Fordism, of which Foucault’s work and other New Left thinking has become apologetic. If we find affirmation in Foucault, it is because we have long since flown the cuckoo’s nest of Fordist capital and are no longer in the care of Nurse Ratched.

By contrast with theories such as Foucault’s, Marx’s critical theory of capital has come up for repeated reconsideration since its origins in the mid-19th century, and will continue to do so, so long as capitalism as Marx understood it continues to exist. The other social thinkers whose work remain subject to such reconsid­eration — whose thought continues to haunt us in the present — are those bound up in the historical trajectory from which Marx’s thought emerged, those that predate, are roughly contemporaneous with, or are immediately successive to Marx, such as Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Freud. Beyond these, the thinkers after Marx who primarily claim our interest are those who most rigorously pursue the Marxian prob­lematic, such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Benjamin and Adorno. This is because, like Marx, the best 20th century Marxists were able to perceive and grasp both the most fundamental, perennial historical problems of life in capital as well as the problems of the struggle to overcome them. The recurrent “return to Marx” is thus a feature of our objective social life and will remain so. There is a reason why Marx does not fade as other thinkers do.

In his important 1989 work The Condition of Post­modernity, David Harvey provided an excellent account of how transformations of capitalism do not leave old forms entirely behind, but rather reconstitute them. For instance, Harvey argues convincingly that the form of capitalism that emerges after 1973 ought to be under­stood as post-Fordist, as the transformation of Fordism rather than its overcoming, just as 20th century Fordism was a transformation of the preceding, 19th century “liberal” form of capital.[4]

So the present crisis of post-Fordist/”neo-liberal” capitalism points not to the end of neo-liberalism, but rather to its transformed continuation. We will be mov­ing into a period in which are accumulated and recon­figured the historical legacies of all previous periods of capitalism: the liberal one of the mid- to late 19th century; the era of monopoly capitalism and imperial­ism of the late 19th to the early 20th century; the Fordist era of the high/middle 20th century; and the neo-liberal era of the late 20th century. The question is whether this compounding of the problems of capitalism since Marx’s time makes it more politically and theoretically intractable.

Preceding forms of discontent with capitalism histori­cally found their expression (however uncertainly) on the Left, and these were transformed along with capitalism itself. The history of the Left is thus closely bound up with changes in the problem it has sought to overcome since the mid-19th century. The exhaustion and underly­ing despair of the “Left” today can be traced to its be­coming lost in a tangle of seemingly insoluble problems that have accumulated since Marx’s time. None of the problems raised in the history of preceding generations of the Left have been successfully worked through. All continue to haunt us.

What makes the present transformation of capital­ism very different from preceding ones, however, is the absence of a Left, an absence that points to a problem of consciousness. If we are haunted by the past, this is largely in a repressed way. By treating the past as “an­cient history” we proclaim it to be no longer relevant. For this very reason, it is unclear whether and to what extent the problems of contemporary capitalism have been brought to conscious recognition.

While every historical crisis in capitalism has been met with (premature) announcements of its demise (whether welcomed or regretted), a history of the Left’s conception of capitalism can help us understand the changes that capitalism has undergone. Specifically, such a history would tell us how acutely (or not) the problem of capitalism and its potential overcoming have been grasped on the Left historically, and this, in turn, would help to reveal lingering theoretical problems. By helping us to better grasp the problem of capitalism, we could better understand how it has survived up to now.

The disadvantage with which we approach the present crisis is conditioned by the absence of a Left that could be meaningfully critiqued and practically challenged, as Marx and the best Marxists did in prior periods. There is no Left to push forward. This severely constricts our ability to actually get a handle on the present.

Whereas prior periods provided the Left with a rich symptomology that could be critically interrogated and thereby advanced, the pathologies we must work through today threaten to be entirely phantasmal. We might be left in coming years wondering why anyone ever made such a great fuss about “credit default swaps” and the like. The sufferings of the present might strike future considerations of them as having been quaint.

To better understand the world we need to try to change it. But the paralyzed consciousness on the “Left” prevents any attempt from whose failure we might learn. Still, a critical encounter with the enigmas of past attempts to change the world might help motivate our thinking and action in the present. The restive dead will continue to haunt us, though they might be made to speak. They are the only meaningfully acute symptoms available in the present. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #12 (May 2009).


1. For instance, see: Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, “We Are All Socialists Now” in Newsweek February 16, 2009; and the on-going forum on “Reimagining socialism” in The Nation, with contributions by Michael Albert, Tariq Ali, Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., Doug Henwood, Christian Parenti, Robert Pollin, Rebecca Solnit, Immanuel Wallerstein, et al., beginning in the March 23, 2009 edition with Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s article “Rising to the Occasion.” See also my letter in response, published in the April 20, 2009 edition, on the relation of Marx­ism to reality, utopia and the necessity for revolution.

2. See, for instance, recent Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krugman’s “loyal opposition” — supposedly from the “Left” — to the Obama administration’s policies, signaled by a New York Times op-ed column on how the policies were slipping “Behind the Curve” (March 8, 2009), followed by another column, “Conscience of a Liberal” (March 21, 2009) and the Newsweek cover story on Krugman by Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Nobel Headache” (March 28, 2009).

3. See, for instance, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1971) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).

4. Harvey’s more recent work, beginning at least with The New Imperialism (2003), up to and including his recent essay published in the Platypus Review 11 (March 2009), “Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail,” has become more ambigu­ous if not incoherent, politically. He has therefore fallen below the threshold of the insight of his earlier work, which recognized the pitfalls of the nostalgia for Fordist capitalism that his more recent work evinces. This nostalgia is apparent in Harvey’s call, like others on the “Left” in the grip of the memory of the 1930s–40s, for a “new New Deal.” On the other hand, Harvey repeats standard post-1960s warnings about supposed imperial “decline” that have proven unwarranted through the several cri­ses the U.S. has weathered successfully since the Vietnam War debacle and the collapse of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system under Nixon.