Grundrisse (I): What do we need to know?

The Creator has been wasting time reading a number of books printed on paper, sensuously fondling and sniffing at the pages. Most of these books have been in some way related to a Left of some kind; for instance, the Creator inadvertently took up a reactionary British history of the Third Reich and felt the need for cleansing, so took down Beevor’s Stalingrad (which is more of a social history than a military history, and gives a vivid impression of what it feels like to live under totalitarian discipline).

The Stalin regime required you to do exactly what you were told — not only that, but to do nothing else than what you were told. When the regime changed its mind about what you ought to do, you were punished for not having done this before. (Thus in 1939 swastika flags were handed out to all and sundry in celebration of the Nazi-Soviet pact; after June 22 1941, anyone caught in possession of a state-subsidised swastika was lucky to get away with twenty years in the Arctic lumber camps.) This was the epitome of the nightmare of collectivism.

And yet it worked. Not well, but it worked. People were dynamised, not only because they were afraid (or conversely because they were given Godlike powers over their underlings) but because they felt that here was a system which took no bullshit, which Got Things Done. Basically the same as the positive attraction of Nazism (and both systems, of course, had brilliant spin-doctors and obscenely excellent graphics designers). Could it have survived had it been sustained — had someone like Stalin taken over, instead of Krushchev? Impossible to say.

At the opposite pole from Stalinism is a book called Magical Marxism, which plays with the ideas of Hardt and Negri and a few others. In essence, this book and the broader thesis which it displays suggests that there is absolutely no need for, or indeed value in, compulsion or discipline regarding a revolutionary movement. One of the key moments celebrated in the book is the French dissident Marxist Lefebre’s action, as a French conscript in the 1920s, when he broke ranks on a route march in order to rescue a butterfly. Of course he was beaten by his sergeant and given detention by his captain (no word on what happened to the butterfly) but the book celebrates this for its heroic refusal to obey the system.

Indeed, the text suggests that the revolution is coming regardless. The work is built around Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and in non-fiction, around an anonymous work called The Coming Insurrection. The magical realism woven into the history of Macondo supposedly overwhelms the complete failure of Colonel Buendia’s successive civil uprisings and the ultimate triumph of Western imperialism and Latin American indigenous corruption, because magic triumphs over everything. (This is not precisely the author’s point, but it seems implicit in it.) The insurrection is coming, ready or not, and we know this because a few people have temporarily seized land in some city peripheries for communal use, or have set up little communes in rural areas. (No doubt the author is now a stalwart and bigoted supporter of the Occupy movement.) Spontaneity is the absolute essence of all this; to plan for a struggle is, almost by definition, a bad thing. The fact that we are many and they are few tells you all you need to know.

One of the bogeymen of that book is, interestingly, the New Left Review, whose editors (the author insists) are obsessed with analysis to the detriment of action, constantly looking backwards instead of towards the bright dawn of the world-to-be intoxicating us. Or, to be more fair, who are so concerned with coming to an understanding of what has happened, that they don’t fully realise what’s going on and are not able to take advantage of it, but instead live in a world of musty text. This is, no doubt, fair comment on some level, although it isn’t only restricted to quasi-Communist British lefties.

The Creator was over at Louis Proyect’s website (he of the uncritical support for NATO’s bombardment of Libya, which he wheels out periodically to show his difference from other lefties). There was a big posting by one of Proyect’s cronies about how Cliff had misrepresented Lenin in a book supposedly about Lenin’s ideas. (Cliff, of whom you’ve probably never heard, was a founder of the Socialist Workers’ Party, of which you’ve probably never heard.) The comments thread was enormous (by the standard of Proyect’s website), crammed with people either cheering for Cliff, cheering for Lenin, apologising for Cliff, denouncing Cliff, denouncing the Socialist Workers, denouncing the International Socialists — you name it, a position was there, sometimes several contradictory positions presented in the same comment.

OK, it does seem that there is such a thing as getting trapped in circumlocutory analysis of comparatively trivial historical events. Those who know nothing else but history are condemned to repeat it discursively instead of making it.

Setting things out like this suggests several serious problems with responding to crisis. (Magical Marxism, incidentally denies the existence of crisis, at least discursively, contending that looking for or waiting for a crisis is a waste of time.) What we want, of course, is an alternative to the present system. But that tells us nothing. Why don’t we like the present system? What is the present system that we don’t like? Who are we, anyway? And, if we know who we are and know what the problem is at present, what do we want to put in the place of that system? And how do we get there from here?

The “actually existing Socialism” which Lenin and Stalin established was, certainly, an alternative to the system which had existed in Russia before November 1917. In many ways, it was an improvement on that system, or contained elements within it which could have been an improvement. In broad structure, however, it closely resembled that system; an authoritarian autocracy governed by terror and propaganda. It’s hard to believe that the people who marched on the Winter Palace really wanted to end up there.

Yet the process of getting there was, in retrospect, almost inevitable. Whether or not Trotsky had decided to attend Lenin’s funeral, the result would have been authoritarian and autocratic, meaning that the leadership — however individually concerned for the public welfare — would have ruled by violence and lies, because that’s what a state does. And, probably, a lot of violence and a lot of lies, because it was a state under siege. Inevitably there was going to be a civil war and poverty, and inevitably the civil war would lead to the destruction of freedom and the empowerment of the centre, and it would have taken very different kinds of people from Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin to refuse to exploit that empowerment.

Well, urrah! Does that mean, as you will find written every week on every British and American right-wing website, that socialism leads inevitably to barbarism and therefore what we need is more capitalism? That’s a useful right-wing propaganda point, but it is worthless by way of analysis. More to the point, is it wrong to try to seize control of the state because it is necessarily going to lead to obsessions with power and control? Magical Marxism says that this is surely the case, and therefore retreats from attempts to seize control of the state. It is unnecessary to do this, because magic will save us, provided that we don’t try to organise anything.

Somehow, according to magic, resistance arises out of nowhere. This is a corollary to the Foucauldian thesis that power doesn’t exist at a centre, but in a kind of very filmy network which is everywhere, and therefore, not necessarily anywhere in particular, like cloud computing. It is comforting. It is also very similar to the 1960s foco theory, the theory that if you just start a little uprising in the right place, it will spread, like putting a match to cloth woven from nitrocellulose. That was the theory which killed Guevara and the Tupamaros. That doesn’t mean that a little uprising will never spread, but it might not spread enough — the French uprising of 1968 failed to change anything — or it might not spread at all — witness the Weather Underground of the United States, or the Black Panthers for that matter. It’s pretty obvious that the magic in magical Marxism is all in the author’s head; most probable that the magic arises out of the desire to wish away organisation, planning and social analysis because those things are boring, bureaucratised — and, as the author says quite rightly, tend to take the place of actual radical procedures.

But it’s also pretty obvious that the efforts of magical Marxism have not accomplished much. The author talks about Allen Ginsburg “levitating the Pentagon”, but in fact neither Ginsburg nor anybody else really wanted to do that; the object of the march chronicled in Mailer’s Armies of the Night was to protest against the Vietnam War, which had been going on for two years (officially) and was to go on for another six more. In other words, the Pentagon march and what followed it failed to make major changes in the policies of the US government. Likewise, the Seattle demonstrations failed to undermine or even slow down the process of globalised financialisation. The World Social Forum failed to accomplish anything (a trait which it shares with the structure it was modelled on, the World Economic Forum) and, as Magical Marxism testifies, has become ossified and cut off from its socio-political roots. As for the Occupy movement, it is dissipating in a fog of teargas, a manic drum-solo of baton-blows and a cacophony of stun-grenades and plastic bullets.

If there’s going to be a revolution, whether peaceful or not, it will have to be tightly organised. In order to avoid that organisation becoming ossified or tyrannical, the organisation will have to be extremely cleverly structured. Such an organisation will have to pursue policies and practices which intrinsically appeal to a large section of the public — that is, a substantial fraction of the populace will, when hearing “Let’s beat up on those awful smelly hippies/vicious Commies/ignorant tree-huggers!”, immediately say “But wait, those people are on my side, and I don’t want to beat them up — in fact, given the chance I’d probably join them”. Remember that this was the original response to the Occupy movement; it took time, and the disconnect between Occupy and the general public, for this to be reversed so that force could be used against it. (Note, incidentally, that this has not needed to be massive force; nobody has had to call out the National Guard.) Such an organisation also has to be prepared to mobilise a large section of the public, in the way that the ANC, over a few months, turned from a tiny elitist vanguard party into a mass party. Of course the ground had been laid by the UDF in that instance, but still, it’s an example worth considering.

In order to accomplish this, it’s not enough to clap one’s hands and try to summon up the political equivalent of Paul Krugman’s favourite trope, the “confidence fairy”. You do need to understand what is going on in society. Otherwise you run off after fantasies of power which you will never take hold of. Therefore, you need analysis; also, you need to base your planning on that analysis, and to do so dialectically, so that your analysis and your planning interact with each other in order that you never allow yourself to become trapped in a wrong analysis or a dysfunctional plan. And all that needs, of course, to be informed by your actions, which you must never stop producing. Blogs like this are a psychological substitute for action — they mean less than nothing in reality even if anybody read them.

The place to start, however, is with an understanding of who the enemy is, and who we are.


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