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Archive for August, 2010

Was Plato an archetypal communist intellectual, not for his theory of the Republic, but for his embrace of metaphysics and abstraction?

In 1965 Louis Althusser opened his famous paean For Marx with a withering reflection on French theoretical culture at the time. He bemoaned the fact that ‘we have spent the best part of our time in agitation when we would have been better employed in the defence of our right and duty to know’.[i] The result of which was ‘the stubborn, profound absence of any theoretical culture’; whereas, he claimed, ‘Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of fundamental investigation’.[ii] For this task Althusser saw as indispensable the role of intellectuals committed to necessary theoretical work.

Of course, nowadays an opposite problem appears to present itself: the apparent aloofness of ‘ivory tower’ Marxist intellectuals, cosseted by a conference circuit of stimulating debate allaying the, in any case long lost, angst about the severing of theory from practice. It is in this context that an either/or situation appears to logically follow: either resign oneself to scholasticism; or, engage in the rush of unreflective activism, valorising every flight to the barricades. But in reality the two choices operate symbiotically. The studious academic can patronise the spirit of the hyperactive activist, whilst drawing back from engaged criticism (lest he or she be dragged into actual politics, or possibly dent the heroic will of those ‘daring to act’). Conversely, the activist declines to criticise the academic, seeing them as part of the theoretical/ideological wing of the struggle, happy with the current status quo of mutual non-interference.

The inadequacy of this cold peace between theoreticians and activists is both exemplified and problematised by the question of abstraction, which is not merely a register of theoretical depth, but moreover an intrinsically political question itself. Alberto Toscano’s recent book, Fanaticism, convincingly links the embrace of abstraction—and fear thereof—to the difference between universal, emancipatory politics and liberal-conservative politics. Toscano traces the connection back to the Edmund Burke, who in his denunciations of the French revolution condemned the ‘tyranny of the politics of theory’, and ‘the ‘monstrous fiction’ that they could be handled like mathematical theorems or geometrical objects.’[iii] Thereafter, the conservative criticism of Republican, and later Marxist politics, became obsessed by uncovering the will to power of scheming, abstraction obsessed intellectuals attempting to guide the masses’ spontaneous subjectivity to their own, pretentiously altruistic, ends.

Where abstraction links into the present debate is in regard to the foregoing discussion of the autonomy of Marxist intellectual work. Andrew Kliman’s recent talk in London on ‘What has to be done to transcend capitalism’—co-sponsored by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative and The Commune—was greeted with a degree of mixed opinion regarding precisely the abstraction of the theoretical project he was proposing. Without claiming to do justice to Kliman’s talk, the discussion centred on his claim that Marxist politics has been too focused on the political transition to communism, where, on the contrary, not enough thought has been given to the underlying economic basis of value production under capitalism. Most provocatively, he demarked the difference between the political and economic via reference to the distinction between the quantitative and qualitative in Hegel’s Science of Logic. So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production. The upshot is that since the political is emergent upon the economic, attempts to politically force transition to communism, in lieu of fundamentally refiguring the economic base away from value production, explains the growth, rather than the withering away of, the state in 20th century socialist countries.

During the talk Kliman refused to be drawn away from this emphasis on theorising the shift away from value production by discussion of imperialism, the need for a ‘green economy’, and suchlike diversions, giving the whiff of a faintly Platonic air to his project. Some attendants recoiled at the suggestion of the need for abstract, theoretical work, subtracted from really existing struggles. Yet, in Kliman’s defence, one needs to understand his grand career project of rescuing Marx’s labour theory of value to put his call in context.

In Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital” Kliman shows how Marx’s labour theory of value has been undermined by successive generations of economists as internally inconsistent. Whilst delving into the arcane debates underwriting the question of Capital’s inconsistency is beyond our scope here, the significant point is that like the conservative critique of political abstraction, many of the critics of the labour theory of value have rested on condemning its ‘metaphysical’ concept. Even Marxian thinkers in attempting to rescue the theory have implicitly acknowledged the critique by refiguring it in physicalist terms. The resistance to the abstract concept at the core I think operates on a number of levels. It is not just that the labour theory of value implies, somewhat horrifically, in a precise, scientific sense, that the entire capitalist system is based on exploitation; but, moreover, the sheer absence of intuitiveness to its concepts of ‘abstract labour’, ‘totality’, and ‘socially necessary labour time’ indicates an irreducibly intellectual compartment for understanding the economic base. In contrast to the ‘folk political’ demand to see actual exploitation, actual oppression, or to see the real accounting of profit and production[iv]—to see, touch, and hear their object of study—Marxist ‘economism’ seems to demand a level of abstract thinking, which suggests the separation of the intellectual and the masses.

By implication, accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It undermines a Marxist political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a least, in its most totalising sense). The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in the abstract, intellectual work as their responsibility in engaging with the real movement. Like Slavoj Žižek’s call for us to repeat Lenin’s pre-revolutionary gesture of studying Hegel’s Science of Logic, Kliman’s project, much as Althusser’s earlier remarks, treat speculation as the highest calling. Whether many are willing to stomach the political consequences of this division of labour is another question.


[i] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Verso, 2005, p. 23

[ii] Ibid., p. 26

[iii] Alberto Toscano, Fanaticism, Verso, 2010, p. xiii

[iv] See Nitzan and Bichler, Capital as Power: A study of Order and Creorder, Routledge, 2009

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Photo from the only Modern Movement demo, with Plane Stupid infiltrator in the background!

The following post is composed of reflections and recollections based on my experience inside the short lived campaigning group, Modern Movement, now defunct since 2009. I try to avoid drawing on the immense ammunition my involvement in this group has provided for possible character assassination or ridicule and try to stay at the level of observations fit for the purpose of what it tells us, more generally, about the way the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and its continuity institutions work—an anatomy, that is, of a group straddling the fine line between a committed cadre and a middle class cult.

But first, before these insights, a few good words about my former colleagues. Something which can be said of the new generation of recruits clustered around the Institute of Ideas is that they are on the whole more personable and open minded than the old RCP stalwarts. Indeed, the clique that originally banded together to form the majority of Modern Movement’s members were drawn to do so on the basis of their dissatisfaction with the present line of the continuity RCP’s leading lights—Frank Furedi, Claire Fox, etc.—and a desire for a space to stake out their own unique positions on the new issues thrown up by the 2008/09 financial crisis. From the start they  evinced a solid work ethic and seriousness, which is not to be underestimated. Meetings were kept on time, minutes taken, and names and slogans brainstormed efficiently.

Amongst the leaders of Modern Movement (henceforth MM) there was an unshakeable sense that our initial mission to support the construction of a third runway at Heathrow airport was an important and timely intervention that needed to be made. I might add that I also, and continue to support the general aim of MM to defend cheap flights. Yet for all the formal agreement on ends, the justifications of why we were supporting these aims were exposed to very little theoretical reflection. My sense was that it was supposed that we were all meant to know that flights meant progress, and that was justification enough for the endeavour. Ultimately this lack of theoretical consolidation, alongside the more banal procedural disputes and personality conflicts, led to the group’s eventual dissolution.

It all moved very quickly, and despite the fact that the group was supposed to be autonomous from the Institute of Ideas—it was never merely a front group—those members closest to the IoI quickly assumed leadership positions. These positions were never put to any form of democratic deliberation; moreover, democracy was always considered something of an embarrassing liberal formality, in contrast to the vague ‘Leninism’ the self appointed leaders espoused.

There were numerous examples of this ethos at work. From the highly formalistic meeting at Rob Killick’s workplace, to the insistence that only the ‘leadership’ speak to the media at the public demonstration, to even weirder secret invites to Capital reading groups. Those closest to the IoI seemed to be actively attempting to replicate the attitudes and approach of the RCP as closely as possible. There was a simmering sense of hostility and unease that permeated every meeting; a sense that screws were being turned and covert factions formed—and this before the ideological divisions surfaced. A pre-demonstration meeting came very close to a punch up, as one active group member insisted on a democratic decision as to whether to bring a loudspeaker, whereas the leadership clique seemed to consider the idea that a democratic decision should be made as entirely inappropriate. James Heartfield, who was standing nearby at the time, found this all very amusing, quipping that it ‘only takes two Trots to form a faction’!

Uncomradely behaviour is one thing; ideological infighting is another. One member of the group submitted a comment piece to the Guardian timed to be published on the same day as the demonstration. The text was passed through the leadership clique and to the surprise of the left leaning member all references to MM’s support for airline workers were systematically stripped away, leaving only something that read like a carte blanche endorsement of the likes of RyanAir. Thus, the schisms began to seriously open up.

In the short space of a month or two a left and a right faction of MM started to appear. Broadly speaking the rightwing leadership clique were closest to the IoI, most reverent for the traditions of the RCP, dismissive of democracy, and pro-capitalist. Conversely, the leftwing faction were more insistent on marking a break from the old formulas of the RCP, operating in a democratic fashion and taking an openly anti-capitalist line. These differences came to ahead in the build up to the G20.

MM planned to make two interventions timed to coincide with the G20. Firstly, by having a physical presence during the protests; and secondly, by organising a series of meetings to flyer at the events. In the planning process for the meetings, I came into my first contact with personality cultism. It is a curious phenomenon; one that leaves you feeling both bewildered and slightly pitiful for those under its spell. Things exploded when one member of the left was charged with organizing a meeting and Claire Fox was suggested as a speaker. The member rejected the suggestion and wanting to bring in someone from the ‘outside’. All hell broke loose. Within seconds there was shouting, screaming and almost tears. The idea that someone would not want to bring in Fox or Furedi was deemed to be highly political suspect and almost an insult to the rightwing members in itself.

The bust up probably marked the beginning of the end for this short-lived organization. On the email lists, relations between the left and the right further deteriorated. Members of the right started to flake away, leaving the rightist leadership clique increasingly isolated. And then, suddenly, they just quit. With the scales having tilted decidedly in favour of the left the democratic decision to take an anti-capitalist message to the G20 was too much for the leadership to stomach. They had made it clear from the start that only ‘loons’ go around calling themselves Marxists or anti-capitalists nowadays. In private one had admitted to being a secret, ‘right wing Marxist’ and described the chapter on the working day in Marx’s Capital as the worst thing Marx ever wrote.

In these dying debates it transpired that members of the leadership clique had been circulating our communications to Claire Fox. It was likely to be also on her advice that once MM moved to the left, and thus outside the parameters of IoI discourse, it would no longer benefit the future careers of those people to remain in the organization.

And so in a microcosm there you have a demonstration of the kind of shenanigans favoured by the post RCP. Secrecy, an aggressive ‘Leninism’ based on no respect for democracy, a tight control over ‘the message’, often at odds with the real aims. It could be added that the IoI itself reflects all these tendencies. Essentially a fringe political party in all but name, but lacking even the faintest trace of internal democracy, debate over fundamental principles or tolerance of dissent from Frank Furedi’s ideology. Evasiveness over core ideology is even promoted amongst new recruits; and as such, for all the endless show debates put on by the organization, there is next to no theoretical exposition or discussion of their central beliefs. The ‘line’ spread both inside and outside is that there is ‘no line’ and, as O’Brien tells Winston in Orwell’s 1984, 2 + 2 does equal 5.

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