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I finished John Gray’s latest book, The Immortalization Commission, in a cover to cover reading lasting about four hours. Take this as a compliment if you like. Indeed, by way of getting necessary flattery out of the way, there is no denying that Gray’s impressively free-wheeling prose can with ease keep you turning the pages. His is a digestible literary form, intricately spinning together biographical vignettes in order to build up thematic momentum seemingly on the sly. As one might expect, and as with all of Gray’s post-Hayek-disillusionment works, the guiding motif is of the dangerous deceptions cast by ideas of progress or utopian schemes to bring about change for the better. And to his credit, if only the book ended at the close of part one on page 104, he would have succeeded in presenting his case with the kind of light touch pessimism and sense of wistful tragedy befitting of a card carrying cynic. Yet inevitably, as if unable to resist the force of his even more deeply rooted conservative convictions, in part two the Procrustean labour of forcing the history of the Soviet Union into his cynical worldview throws into question whether Gray is really a man without a faith of his own.

* * *

Gray’s book concerns the ill-fated quest to conquer death.  Its broader theme, however, is that of the responses to nihilistic materialism enjoined by the discomforting revelations of Darwinian evolutionary science – humankind as a purposeless accident – and astrophysics – knowledge of the inevitable extinction of the species. Gray approaches the matter by focusing on a milieu of esoteric thinkers spanning from the late 19th to early 20th century. The first section looks at the donnish British figures connected with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization established for the purpose of scientifically investigating the paranormal. The second section, more loosely, with the Soviet project to remake humanity and conquer death.

For obvious reasons, Gray is at his best in the first section when discussing the gentle lives of Oxbridge alumni and co-founders of the SPR like Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, blending an evident sympathy for his protagonists’ personal lives with a taste of the spiritual angst and esoterica of the Victorian era. Here, the book skillfully intertwines his characters to build up a sense of the motivations for the Society’s investigations into the afterlife, so that what could have been an easy set of targets for abject mockery, or simply ciphers for the delusions of an era, are instead taken as characters whose responses to the revelations of 19th century science whilst wrongheaded at least demonstrate a sensitivity to the shocks of scientific-materialistic disenchantment unacknowledged by the anachronistic persistence of Christian moral certainties amongst their peers.

In part two of book, on the other hand, Gray loses his way. Without the closely knit intellectual scene which provides a fulcrum for part one, the very terms in which Gray announces his thesis – the success of part one is in some measure because there is no thesis – poses a challenge that his book could not possibly live up to. In Gray’s narrative, Bolshevik ideology was driven by the desire to remake humanity and conquer death, a predictably doomed enterprise “that required killing tens of millions of people.” (p.5) Now, whilst there is certainly an interesting history of cosmism and futurism within Russia, influencing the ideology of the Soviet Union, and contributing the weight it attached to space exploration (see the BBC Storyville documentary ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’), to claim that these ideas assumed an integral part of communist thought, and moreover were responsible for the failings of the Soviet Union in some overarching manner, announces a major project of ideologiekritik which common sense suspects could not be advanced within the sixty or so pages Gray devotes to the subject. These suspicions would be correct. For in fact, there is no real argument advanced in these pages. Rather, the section rapidly degenerates into an anti-communist screed only distinguishable from run of the mill revisionist historiography by its more feckless attitude towards standards of argument and evidence, and its reliance upon tenuous allusions uphold his conclusions.

On Stalin’s White Sea Canal, for example, Gray says: “Like much else in the Soviet Union, this was authentically Marxian. For Marx the natural world had no intrinsic worth. Only by being imprinted with human meaning could the earth acquire value. The White Sea Canal embodied this philosophy. A useless monument was erected (the Canal would in fact be hardly used) while the scarred and poisoned land was filled with the bodies of prisoners. A human meaning was imprinted on the earth!” (p. 148)

One hardly knows where to start with this. A vague allusion to Marx’s Labour Theory of Value (an analytic for understanding the source of capitalist profit) is offered as the driving concept behind Stalin’s ideocratic canal project, with needless deaths labelled as authentically Marxist. This is a type of argument that is difficult to refute precisely because there is no argument; and this is only one example of a persistent tactic Gray employs. On Lenin, particularly, neither quote nor reference is deemed necessary, when conclusions can simply be stated on force of conviction. In terms of his connection with the ‘God-builders’ – Anatoly Lunacharsky, et al. – “He too [Lenin] aimed to realize a myth – the earthly paradise in early Christianity – using the power of science.” (p. 168) A quote? A reference? Not necessary. Assertion is apparently enough to line up the dots of Gray central argument of Bolshevik ideology being in thrall to esoteric philosophy. The claim is repeated on page 181: “from its beginnings Bolshevism was a variant of Gnosticism, a modern rebirth of one of the mystery religions of the ancient world.” A reference this time, surely? Again, no. The entire case for Bolshevik ideology being under the preeminent sway of the immortalist ‘God builders’ comes down to a few letters by Gorky – hardly a pivotal Bolshevik figure – and beyond that solely unsubstantiated assertion on Gray’s part that Lenin was guided by their principles.

What of the more damning charge that it was the Bolsheviks’ Promethean futurism which accounts for the bloodletting in the Soviet Union? After spending many pages relishing in the details of the horrors of the Russian Civil War, in order that these not be considered exigencies of the conflict, Gray remarks, “Actually the Bolsheviks welcomed the Civil War, since it gave them the chance to finish with the old order.” (p. 185) As fragile as the connection with Russian futurism might be, given this represents the lynchpin of his entire argument, here at last we will find the quotes and references to indict the unholy alliance between Russian cosmism and Bolshevism with a criminal hunger for terror. . .right? Unfortunately not. Once more, at what is a critical moment for Gray’s argument, he declines to make the case. We must apparently take his world for it that the Bolshevik’s were itching for a devastating civil war to wipe the slate clean in Pol Pot year zero fashion.

This takes us to the central problem of Gray’s book, and of his mature oeuvre of writing as a whole. For a sceptic and cynic who claims to believe in nothing, as The Immortalization Commission demonstrates Gray clearly does believe in something: that a unique evil was unleashed on our godless earth by the Soviet Union. Gray may not believe in heaven, but like a medieval fire and brimstone preacher, he dangles the threat of communist hell to frighten his readers away from ever diverging from his conservative amalgam of nihilism and reformism.

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Excerpt from the final section of a chapter on Lenin in my forthcoming PhD thesis

Any critical examination of Bolshevik policies after October 1917 has the problematic effect of opening up a Pandora’s Box of recriminations which, needless to say, this final sub-section could not possibly adjudicate upon to an adequate depth. Let me therefore immediately refute some possible misunderstandings. I want to stress that my intention here is not to take sides with either the anarchists, or left or right communists on debates regarding Bolshevik economic policy in the years immediately following the revolution, concerning disputes over workers’ self management vs. nationalisation, incentives vs. coercion, and ‘war communism’ vs. the New Economic Policy. There is certainly a danger here, I recognize, in using a broad philosophical critique on the level of quite abstract ideas to affirm common prejudices regarding, say,  how the programme of nationalisation, grain requisition and coerced labour during the ‘war communism’ years of the Civil War led to Stalinism. This would then inscribe Stalinism in its protean form into dominant Bolshevik ideas before and after the revolution, effacing the disputes regarding policies in the early years and also the unique historical situation these policies were forged in response to.[1] Leninist readers will also undoubtedly point to the decimation wrought by the Russian Civil War, the failure of communist revolution in Western Europe, imperialist encirclement of the embryonic workers’ state, and the unfortunate, but ultimately contingent, rise of Stalin to power, as all more important considerations than the ontology underlying Lenin’s political thought. And they would not be wrong to argue that no comprehensive appraisal of the fortunes of revolutionary Russia could adequately appraise its subject matter without taking all these events into account. But my aim is rather more modest. I wish to simply demonstrate the conceptual insufficiency of quantity-quality transformations to plan the institution of a disjunctive break into political and socioeconomic forms. My hypothesis operates on two levels, connecting the lack of a properly disjunctive break in the quantity-quality transformation with the problem of the use of Hegelian dialectics to think future oriented novelty. These two hypotheses will not be tied together until the next chapter, so for the time being the task is to simply present examples indicating the intersection between the conceptual shortcomings of the quantity-quality transformation and actual Bolshevik policies. To this end, we first examine the case where Lenin adopted a truly disjunctive policy, that is, when he called for all sovereign power to be transferred to the Soviets. I will indicate how his use of the Hegelian quantity-quality transformation to describe the change makes only limited sense. Second, we turn to his thoughts on economics, which remained beholden to the historical materialist ‘evolutionism’ of the pre-war era. Whilst Lenin’s idea of taking over large scale capitalist businesses and further expanding and socialising them is congruent with a simple base-superstructure conceptual matrix of the transformation, it nonetheless, especially with hindsight, appears a deficient conceptualisation of how to seed a lasting novelty into the system capable of enabling transition to communism. These textual ‘case studies’ precede the final reflections of this chapter on the problematic ontology of Hegelian ‘leaps’.

To reiterate the basics provided in this chapter’s introduction, in State and Revolution Lenin’s aim was to establish the necessity of violent revolution to supplant the bourgeois state with a proletarian state. There was to be continuity of some of the state’s functions, but crucially these would be governed in an entirely novel way. Power over the state would not simply change hands from the bourgeoisie to the proletarians; what remained of the state form would be scarcely recognizable. Lenin emphasized against Kautsky and Plekhanov that “the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).”[2] Influenced by Marx and Engels’ revision of The Communist Manifesto in light of the experience of the Paris Commune, this point concerned the correct interpretation (and exposing of distortions thereof) of the new line introduced into the 1872 edition that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”[3] Lenin aimed to fully undermine “the current vulgar “interpretation” of Marx’s famous utterance” which placed “gradual development in contradistinction to the seizure of power and so on.”[4] The new state, the new democracy and the new dictatorship called for as the starting point for transition to communism is nevertheless posed as an unknown. Faithful to the late Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Programme Lenin observes “There is no trace of an attempt on Marx’s part to conjure up a utopia, to make idle guesses about what cannot be known.” This extends to details about the transitionary phase after revolution: “we leave the question of the length of time, or the concrete forms of the withering away, quite open, because no material is available to us to answer these questions.”[5] Yet this is not entirely accurate. Lenin did make some attempt on the broadest conceptual level to schematize how the Bolsheviks intended to smash the state and institute a dictatorship of the proletariat: all power was to be transferred to the Soviets – and the difference between the Soviet state form and the bourgeois state form[6] was explained by reference to “quantity becoming transformed into quality”.[7]

The problem here is that Lenin’s endorsement of Soviet democracy does not exactly fit the model of the Paris Commune, which despite its many innovations such as the possibility of recalling representatives at any time was still just an expansion of the demos’ prerogatives through the representative form. Soviet democracy on the other hand, if it is to be a genuinely new form of democracy, is precisely new insofar as it is not just an expansion of democracy along normal representative lines. It cannot be considered to undergo a qualitative ‘leap’ as a result of quantitative expansion in the sense of the example provided by Hegel of water freezing into ice. The same problem applies with Lenin’s use of quantity-quality transformations to think future oriented change in a number of other examples.  Because in the same way that water freezes into ice in a moment of rapid transformation – yet regardless of the ‘leap’ between liquid and solid is ultimately the same substance – in Lenin’s differentiation between the bourgeois state and the proletarian state, between bureaucratic-reactionary and revolutionary-democratic measures, and between state capitalism under bourgeois rule and state capitalism for socialist ends,[8] the change is one of form and not of substance.[9] What is posited as new is merely an exemplification of what already exists; a change in the form opening up the continuity of the content. The following either/or thus appears unavoidable. Either we accept Lenin’s stress on more democracy provoking a transformation from quantity to quality, meaning that the transformation can be viewed through the dialectic, but only at the expense of a degree of novelty – i.e., there would be a continuity of content or substance passing through the transformation, rather than the unveiling of a spark of political ex nihilo. Or from another perspective, if we take Lenin to be proposing not simply an expansion to universal suffrage but instead a completely new form of Soviet democracy, it would seem to be stretching the dialectic beyond its purview.

Equivocation over the role for the Constituent Assembly, representing the first institution of universal suffrage in Russia along conventional lines (the Bolsheviks first campaigned in its elections and then dissolved it in January 1918), provides some evidence for this theoretical confusion in the moment of practice. Despite the platform of State And Revolution, Marcel Liebman writes than Lenin,

did not cease to be, in many respects, a man of Russian and international Social-Democracy for whom the conquests of the revolution formed part of the classic programme of demands of the labour movement – which included the securing of the constitutional regime … and of universal suffrage … Had Lenin, wholly absorbed in day-to-day revolutionary activity not noticed what, today, with the hindsight of history, seems so obvious—that the very notion of entrusting power, all power, to the soviets, popular institutions which did not provide for the representing of all classes, ruled out all notion of making a Constituent Assembly elected by the population as a whole the sovereign organ of state power in Russia?[10]

The incompatibility which Lenin overlooked in the heat of moment could be seen to reflect the problem of applying the quantity-quality transition when thinking novelty. The Constituent Assembly can aptly be considered such an expansion, and possibly as effecting a quantity-quality leap, whereas according all power to the Soviets cannot – their quantitative ‘representative’ faculty (if they can even be considered in such terms) was in fact less than the Constituent Assembly. The two conflicting institutions also conceptually conflict if thought through the quantitative-qualitative prism.

In economic terms the problem with applying the quantity-quality transformation is even more pronounced. Given Lenin’s overwhelmingly political focus throughout his life, looking at his economic ideas might be considered somewhat unfair when acknowledging that abstract economic thought was not his specialism. Although his most famous texts are all heavily referenced with statistics to prove his point (hence economic in a sense), there are no examples of him engaging with economics on the abstract level beyond the remit of using economic data to make an immediate political point. Indeed, there is even evidence to suggest that Lenin avoided economic questions at times. Lih comments that despite the plan to write a series of economics articles for Iskra only the first of these ever materialised.[11]  Furthermore, the most striking thing about the fifth chapter of State and Revolution, titled ‘The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State’, is the paucity of economic reflections on what is to be done, and, conversely, the continued predominance of discussion of politics and the state.  More tangible finds in terms of economic policy can be located in his 1917 articles on the immediate tasks of revolutionary government. In these Lenin laid out the position that empowering the proletariat to gradually take organizational command of the economy and phasing out small scale proprietorship and commodity production was adequate for introducing the first stage of lower communism.[12] Building upon some of his positive reflections upon the virtues of monopoly capitalism in Imperialism, the massification of production – its concentration and quantitative expansion– was held to be the key to transforming production under socialism. Liebman, a not unsympathetic reader of Lenin, makes a pointed assessment of Lenin’s economic thought worth citing.

Lenin’s ideas about the organization of labour revealed a rigour that was more in line with managerial orthodoxy than with revolutionary enthusiasm… Here, in the last analysis, besides a specific response to functional exigencies, was the expression of  a philosophy which, while not ruling out appeals to the idealistic elements in human nature, was rooted in a materialist view of the world, derived from a positivist interpretation of Marxism.[13]

Andrew Kliman draws the same conclusion: “there is no evidence he [Lenin] understood that something was wrong with workplace relations under capitalism.”[14] And this position was by no means uncommon within Second International and later Bolshevik thought. Socialism imagined as the complete centralisation of production in a well-oiled, rationalised bureaucracy along Taylorist lines was common to Bolshevik thought in this era, finding its most eloquent expression in Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism.[15] As such, the economic break proposed by Lenin, focusing on implementing disciplined control of the economy in distinction to capitalist chaos, arguably does not depart from the ‘evolutionary’ schemas of the Second International to anything like the extent that his political thought proposed.[16] His plans involved the expansion of large industrial entities (under communist rule) in order to transform them into a socialist mode of production. From the contemporary standpoint we might be astounded to read statements such as the following from 1917 where the quantity-quality transition is used to affirm that the large capitalist banks are readymade institutions for achieving socialism, only in need of quantitative expansion under proletarian management to alter their qualitative nature.

The big banks are the ‘state apparatus’ which we need to bring about socialism, and which we take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. Quantity will be transformed into quality. A single state bank, the biggest of the big, with branches in every rural district, in every factory, will constitute as much as nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus.[17]

Such ideas still predominate with Leninism today. But as Kliman observes “A state run bank is still a bank. It still has to obtain funds before it can lend them out, and has to do so, it must provide a decent return to those who supply it with funds. (This is true of a worker-run bank too.)”[18] Notwithstanding the extraordinary circumstances of attempting to implement socialist change in a country ravaged first by imperialist war and second by a devastating civil war,[19] Kliman’s claim is that Lenin’s programme neglects the need for transformation in the underlying mode of production away from capitalist value creation. As he writes on the limits of politics thought on the level of who is in control to effect a change in the economic laws of a dominant mode of production: “Putting different people in “control” does not undo the inner laws of capital …  This simply was not understood by the Marxist of the Second International, including Lenin.”[21] In another article Kliman seeks to lay the blame on an Lenin’s failure to conceptualise a sudden enough change in the underlying mode of production – and contends that really existing socialism’s failure to enact this qualitative shift lies behind its other failures, including the growth of the autarchic state. This he attributes to a misreading of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme:

This [mis]reading of the CGP goes back to Lenin, who conflated the transformation and transition in The State and Revolution, writing that “the transition from capitalist society … to communist society is impossible without a ‘political transition period’ ….” I have come to suspect that the very idea of “transitional society” is incoherent, and seems to stand in the way of thinking things through clearly.  Hegel’s critique of the idea of gradualness in his book [the] Science of Logic seems relevant here.[22]

Pace Kliman, however, who locates the problem in Lenin’s persistent conflation of ‘transition’ and ‘transformation’ and recommends a critique by insisting on the lack of gradualness in Hegel’s quantity-quality transformation, I argue that the problem, at least in some small measure, lies with the deployment of this limited metaphysics taken in either sense. If I am correct in taking Kliman’s critique as fundamentally oriented around the charge that Lenin took too ‘evolutionary’ a view of the necessary changes, then I’m not sure this temporal critique tells us all that much. I claim the limitation rather lies in trying to apply the quantity-quality transformation to the future. As we have seen, by utilizing a conceptual matrix that fills in the categories of ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ with a complex set of determinations, the quantity-quality transformation can make some sense as an abstract representation of change. But given Marxist aversion towards thinking through complex categorical matrices for planning post-revolutionary processes what seems to have happened is a category confusion. When analysing the processes leading to revolution, Lenin fed a complex set of determinations into the quantity-quality relation; whereas when thinking future oriented change, the quantity-quality transformation was mistaken as directly sufficient for conceptualising change. Whereas leading up to the revolution, quantity and quality were just impressionistic placeholders for a dialectical transformation taking place at the level at the level of the concrete determinations contained within the conceptual matrix, when thinking post-revolutionary change the abstract concept was taken to directly describe real processes. Now, the obvious response might be that we cannot know the future and the real processes that will sculpt it, so any conceptual matrix of concrete determinations would be equally speculative, if not fanciful. Yet that did not stop the Lenin from directly relating the abstract concept of quantity-quality transformations for directly positing the massfication of industry as transformation to socialist relations of production. If we were to agree for a moment (and it is not at all this author’s opinion that this is necessarily true) that it is impossible to utilize a complex conceptual matrix for thinking future oriented change, then it must be admitted that there is a problem with concept itself here. If one is to apply the quantity-quality transformation to the future on the condition of prohibiting a complex conceptual matrix, then of necessity one would have to apply the concept as crudely as Lenin did. There is simply no other option. Hence the paradox of how Lenin stresses that Marxists do not idly speculate on future processes, but then almost immediately goes on to describe the expected changes as a quantity to quality transformation, and then further to contradict the first statement by laying out concrete policies for the quantitative expansion of industrial production units as a route to the qualitative transformation to socialism. There are thus only two possibilities here. The first would be to question whether you really cannot devise a flexible enough conceptual matrix to plan post-capitalist transition, which would allow you to retain the abstract and impressionistic slogan of quantity-quality transformations. Or the second would be the properly ontological route of questioning the applicability of these transformations to think future oriented change on the conceptual level. I will follow the second line of enquiry.

Yet if there is a conceptual problem with the Hegelian ontology then we will need to commit more time and theoretical effort than can be provided in this chapter on isolating where exactly that problem lies. We need to know whether the Hegelian ontology of qualitative-quantitative leaps, and the larger system these are embedded in, are adequate as a concept for thinking disjunctive, future oriented change – and if not, why not? This chapter has primarily focused on Lenin’s political thought, with little critical reflection on Hegel’s ontology beyond the political and ideological purposes to which it was instrumentally deployed. The task of the next chapter is to pursue the critical, philosophical line of argumentation in more depth by examining Hegel’s Logic. The focus will rest upon Hegel’s ‘philosophy of mathematics’ in the section on Quantum – crucial to understanding the ‘leaps’ contained in following section on Essence. We will seek to ascertain if Hegel’s ‘leap’ through the qualitative and quantitative double-relation is sustainable, and whether it can genuinely yield a conceptual thought adequate to a notion of a transformative event.Too frequently Marxist fidelity to the Hegel-Marx-Lenin heritage has hindered a more critical appraisal (the Althusserian and Della Volpe lineages excepted) as to whether Hegelian ontology is sufficient for concepts needed to plan post-revolutionary change.


[1] For a good discussion of the illegitimacy of this approach see Lars. T. Lih, “War Communism and Bolshevik Ideals”, The National Council for Soviet and East European Research: Title VIII Program (25 January 1994).

[2] Lenin, “State and Revolution”, 295.

[3] Marx and Engels cited in Ibid., 297.

[4] Ibid., 297.

[5] Ibid., 344.

[6] Lenin’s 1917 writings pursue a consistent theme of grounding abstract principles in concrete evaluations and proposals for action. Part of this process involved advocating some policies that at first glance might appear closer to the status quo than the radical sloganeering of rival groups – e.g. his criticism of the slogan ‘all power to the Soviets’ after July, advocating the use of existing economic control measures from under Tsardom, ensuring that the rich could not circumvent rationing, etc.  – but if actually put into practice, he argues, would mark a break between bureaucratic-reactionary and revolutionary-democratic government. See V.I. Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London and New York: Verso, 2002), particularly “On Slogans” and “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”, 62-105.

[7] Lenin, “State and Revolution”, 301, 347.

[8] In the following text Lenin aims to show how state capitalism under workers control is quite different to under bourgeois control V.I. Lenin, “Report on the Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government to the Session of the All-Russia C.E.C. April 29, 1918” In: On State Capitalism during the Transition to Socialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), 23-35.

[9] Although written with unsympathetic anti-Marxist intentions, H.B. Acton isolates just this problem in his critique of how dialectical materialism thinks novelty through the transformation. In the case of water freezing to ice and other such natural transformations, these are frequent and repetitive processes in nature that only exemplify chemical properties. The case of a rearrangement of molecules to produce a new compound appears more promising. He stretches too far when he argues that even this would not qualify as genuine novelty since it could be predicated in advance, but nonetheless the critique of the kind of quantity-quality transformation analogous with water turning into ice seems valid. The form changes but the essential content stays stable. See  H.B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed [1955]. Available online at The Online Library of Liberty:  http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=877&chapter=76759&layout=html&Itemid=27 [Accessed 8 February 2012]

[10] See Leninism under Lenin, trans. Brian Pearce (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 237.

[11] Lih, Lenin Rediscovered, 197.

[12] See Lenin, “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it”.

[13] Leninism under Lenin, 338.

[14] Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 205.

[15] Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism, trans. Mathias Bismo (London: Penguin Books, 1969), see particularly chapters XII to XVI.

[16] Lars. T. Lih cites Kautsky in 1917 making the same distinction as Lenin by reference to quantity-quality transition between whether nationalisation, progressive taxation and so forth, can be considered bourgeois reform or a workers programme: “One might call this a bourgeois programme of reform and not a workers’ programme of revolution. Whether it is one or the other depends on quantity. Here too, when quantity is increased accordingly, it must transform into a new quality. It is in the nature of things that the proletariat will strive to use its revolutionary power in the direction I have outlined here as soon as it feels solid ground under its feet, and that in so doing it will meet the resistance of the capitalists and the large landowners. How much it will achieve depends on its relative power.” See “Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the ‘April theses’”.

[17] Citation from Lih, “Supplement: Kautsky, Lenin and the ‘April theses’”. Original document available from the following source: V.I. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” In: Lenin’s Collected Works Vol. 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 87-136.

[18] Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 195.

[19] Some sobering statistics give a picture of the extent of the collapse following the First World War, the Civil War and the loss of productive regions of the Russian Empire after the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Soviet Russia controlled only 8% of pre-war coal reserves. Extraction of iron-ore had dropped to 1.6% of pre-war levels. The accumulated effect of famine and war meant that industrial workers in Russia dropped from approximately 2.5 million in 1918 to 1.2 million by 1922. See Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 347.

[21] Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production, 196-205.

[22] Andrew Kliman, The Transformation of Capitalism into Communism in the TCritique of the Gotha Program”, Marxist-Humanist Initiative, Available at: http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/what-must-be-changed-in-order-to-transcend-capitalism.html (Accessed 15 December 2010)

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There is a crisis haunting anti-capitalism, a crisis of aimlessness.

 

At a time when there is an apparent resurgence in anti-capitalist activism across the world it might seem overly obviously, perhaps annoyingly churlish, to ask what precisely anti-capitalism is objecting to? A likely response might go something like this: ‘It’s obvious is it not? One only needs to casually glance at the figures to see the mess we are in: inequality between rich and poor growing year on year, high levels corruption and profiteering in the financial sector, growing unemployment, worsening real average wages, the disappearance of the middle class, governments marching in step to the corporate drum, the increasing militarization of the police, the privatization of public institutions, representative democracy reduced to management for capital, ecological catastrophe looming, the retreat of the commons. . .the list goes on and on. One does not need to have studied all those thousands of pages of Theories of Surplus Value to understand that the system is rotten head to toe. Even if we disagree on the precise nature of this monster called capitalism, we all know what’s wrong with it and what needs to change.’

But do we?

Today there are a plethora of nominations for the object of anti-capitalism, from the insipid Smithian critique of its monopolistic tendencies (not long ago invoked by Business Minister, Vince Cable), to generalised anti-corporatism, to environmentalist anti-growth advocacy. Added into the mix are voguish theoretical reformulations from the continental school, whose anti-capitalism insists upon the way capitalism constrains ‘lines of flights’, suppresses difference, encourages the techno-scientific domination of nature, and so and so on. This ideological stew of negativity against capitalism tends to assume that given the totality of capitalism in the 21st century that there is little point in specifying what the critique of capitalism is – and this pluralistic common sense also warns against insisting upon any one objection against other conceptions. Whether or not this is a legitimate position, though, is open to question. For many of the above concerns could well be contradictory; or worse, certain rejections of capitalism could be merely transitive with more encompassing critiques such as the expansion of disciplinary technologies of governance, modernity, or even science itself. If we cannot agree on what the object of our critique is – what is the specificity of this thing we call ‘capitalism’? – how can there be any certainty that our critiques are targeting the same thing? Moreover, how do we know that the systems we wish to supersede this nebulous object are proximal enough so that given the rise of a new regime of post-capitalism (however construed) it would not be less preferable according to some conceptions than the regime we presently inhabit today?

Of course, one way around this problem would seem to be to return to Marx himself, as it is clearly Marx’s critique of capitalism, no matter whether advocated or derided, that comprises the reference horizon for all alternative anti-capitalisms to this day. Yet, here, to our surprise, things get no clearer, for there seems to be even in Marx’s writings  rather diverse potential bases for anti-capitalism.

Is it the old thesis from The Communist Manifesto that a communist regime would liberate the forces of production once the socialisation of labour is held back from the inhibitions of private property? This conception would imply that anti-capitalism is ultimately tied to the efficiency of production and the cause of eliminating material scarcity. How credible a basis for anti-capitalism this is today in light of the obvious successes of capitalism in ramping up efficiency, agricultural production, and commodity manufacture is not clear. There are certainly areas of the economy where private ownership has inhibited development to eliminate scarcity – one thinks of the UK’s housing crisis – but it does not seem generalizable enough to warrant an overthrow of the entire economic regime. Further, predominant environmentalist critiques might suggest that it is in fact the over-production and wastefullness of contemporary capitalism which is  the problem with it, not the inverse. It appears a dead end is reached this way.

So could it be instead that Marx’s proof from Capital, wherein it is shown that all profit derives from the exploitation of labour, which gives us a more solid, contemporary ground for anti-capitalism? This route would definitely go some way to explaining how vast inequalities develop under free market capitalism. Alone, however, it does not appear enough. Why? Because when Marx was writing the absolute deprivation of the working classes was such that exploitation was synonymous with extremely poor material conditions for workers. At least in most Western countries a combination of welfare statism and the rise in the overall levels of production has shifted the objective referent somewhat. Exploitation and inequality lose some of their material bases for stimulating and necessitating a comprehensive overthrow of the system and they then, in contemporary conditions, need to be supplemented by moral appeals to justice. Yet history tends to show that as long as people see overall standards of living going up they will tolerate exploitation and inequality. If, following the present crisis, this no longer remains the case then perhaps this critique will regain some of its potential, and people will want a post-capitalist world that eliminates exploitation and reduces inequality. But that remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bank on it.

Is anti-capitalism just a call for 'real' democarcy?

Could it be the more political argument then? This would focus on the working classes taking power and instituting a properly democratic regime like the Paris Commune. The point here would be avowedly political: the bastards at the top do not represent us, we want real, direct democratic participation of the working classes (or 99% – why not?) in government. Yet is an argument for more democracy a necessarily anti-capitalist one? In a context which presumes that the real enfranchisement of the masses would be of necessity anti-capitalist like in the 19th century it makes sense, but today? Is it not just more likely that a political anti-capitalism based on true democracy would just result in a fairer, more distributive capitalism, but at the end of the day still capitalism nonetheless? For me this is the shallowest interpretation of Marxist anti-capitalism.

The final candidate for Marxist anti-capitalism would work from Vol. III of Capital, and is probably the most unpopular one today. With Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, the corollary prediction is that this leads to economic crisis, and furthermore that the only possible resolution to these crises is the destruction of capital allowing the accumulation process to begin afresh – either that or long term economic stagnation. Because the decline of the rate of profit is also premised on an increasing percentage of capitalist investment going into technological means of production (i.e. automation) this would imply growing unemployment too. So anti-capitalism, thus conceived, would be based on doing away with crisis, unemployment, and finding a new motor for development other than the profit motive. It is an appealing thesis, but one that hinges on its central prediction being true. If it is true, the options are stark: its stagnation, crisis and decline or a new system. The problem is short memories. Capitalism can recover after the crises, and what’s to say people won’t just accept these awful periods as necessary evils for the least worst economic system on offer?

So it appears that even Marx under contemporary conditions cannot give us an unequivocal basis for anti-capitalism. Hence the recent appeal amongst the left for invoking the objective possibility for ecological catastrophe. Here, at last, we seem to have in our hands an undeniable, scientifically proven imperative for instituting a new socio-economic regime. Capitalism is premised on growth and unrelenting expansion, ergo if we want to solve the ecological crisis we need to be anti-capitalists. What’s wrong with this argument? It’s flawed because it works by proxy. Sure, given the current supremacy of capitalism there is no doubt there is some responsibility, but capitalism is not carbon emissions. Carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels because they are easiest way to extract energy from the earth and this energy is necessary for the development of material well being. It seems likely that any technologically advanced civilization would have had to go through a period of fossil burning to raise general living standards as a first source of energy extraction. Therefore, there is an implicit transitivity of this critique a critique of science and development per se.

To compound the woes of ecological anti-capitalism, what does the communist future look like that says to people, ‘capitalism can’t do it, only we can make the tough choices to keep your material standards of living the same or worse?’ Probably a communist future that never comes to be. Or alternatively, a communist future that ends up the exact opposite of the optimistic vision Marx originally laid out in The Communist Manifesto. It seems incredibly unlikely that people would commit to major economic and social change for the purpose of institution of ecological austerity, even if complemented with eliminating exploitation and reducing inequality.

So where am I going with all of this? I want to argue that, quite the opposite, what post-capitalism needs is an imaginary that intersects the above justifications with a positive vision of the future that capitalism has failed to deliver. And part of this means rescuing the most lasting merits of the Soviet experiment. For while everyone can agree that the USSR had many failings, it remains the case that the artistic, architectural and technological development it stood for was in many cases a widely recognized concrete achievement. No one can deny the quality of their space programme. Even recently in London there has been two major exhibitions showcasing some of futurist ambitions of Soviet communism: Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Red Skies season of Soviet science fiction at the British Film institute.  There is an element of aesthetics here as well as actual ambitions. The primitivist image of the far left today is more and more beginning to mirror the world of ecological austerity they argue only they can institute. Tents, dogs on a string, soup kitchens – it is not always clear whether the squat aesthetic of activist left is not just a necessary consequence of direct action, or an ambition for the future itself. The point is, how on earth will communist groupings ever hope to attract enough people committed to radical change without some sort of vision for the future which feeds peoples’ desires for something different than capitalism nowadays delivers? And one thing that capitalism today seems particularly poor at is large scale, technological projects. Whilst we clearly have the money and technology – even as a fraction of the social surplus – to develop moon bases and plan a trip to Mars there simply is no will to do so at present because of the absence of a Cold War space race or any profit motive. Whereas small scale gadgetry has developed at an incredible pace with capitalist profit incentives, this has not been matched by commensurable progress with large scale technological developments.

In sum, in order to recapture the imaginary of people, to allow them to associate communism not simply with just, if miserable conditions of equality and ecological austerity, we need to return to the point where the average person on the street would look at the below image and say ‘Beautiful. But it’s just a dream; we would need communism before we ever see that come true.’

Only communism can make the future come true

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We all know the police are bastards, but why has the left seemingly settled on fighting police brutality as the final horizon of activism in a time of economic depression? What about fighting for new economic ideas?

A recent post by LSE based International Relations scholar, Nick Srnicek, asked ‘Has the Left given up on economics?‘, arguing that in spite of living through one the greatest economic depressions in history the left has notably failed to incorporate economic analysis or alternatives into its program for change. What we have, instead, is the usual focus on racism, police brutality, defending the welfare state, and such like issues – a repetition of the kind of lowest common denominator politics of resistance little different to what the left focused on during the boom time. Of course, the reasons for this state of affairs are just as much political as to do with the collective psychological state of the left. A counter post here makes a few important points on the institutional reasons for the weakness; the most important of which I consider to be the lack of support by union structures for developing and disseminating alternative economic analysis. As a supplement to this, I would also add that the current predominance of (neo) anarchist ideas in activist communities – with the valorisation of sponteneism, horizontal (non) organization, and a focus on means rather than ends (so called prefigurative politics) – serves to reinforce the irrelevance of expert, technical analysis of economics. Ultimately, the end game of this kind of extreme democratic politics cannot tolerate analysis that would privilege the scientific knowledge of a minority. But in any case, the above political argument is not the focus of my present commentary, so I will leave that aside for another day.

Here, I want to present what I believe to be one possible reason for the seemingly minimal influence of economics on left wing politics: the fact that the Marxian economic project has stalled on a number of levels. As a Marxist myself, I feel at liberty to place at least some of the blame for this at Marx’s feet, even if, of course, contemporary Marxists should shoulder most of the weight of responsibility for the state of affairs. In brief, there are two levels at which I think Marxian economics has stalled:

  1. Failing to work through the categories elaborated in Capital to more adequately conceptualise transitionary structures to post-capitalism.
  2. Not bringing Capital up to date in terms of economic model theory, hence leaving it as a limited ‘fundamental structural model’ of the economy, unable to incorporate enough variables and economic objects into its analysis.

1. Capital and post-capitalism

There is a persistent tendency within Marxism to reduce the economic to the political, as if none of the economic laws under one system carry across even during a period of transition to another system. This is reflected in the somewhat endless debates regarding to what extent Capital represents simply a critique of capitalism or a work of positive economics? One could certainly make arguments both ways. My personal view on this matter is that by the time on reaches Vol. III it becomes indisputable that Marx had, whether intentionally or not, created a work of positive economics with tendential predictions unique to the Marxian economic paradigm. That is, the exploitation labour theory of value leads to a theory of tendencies within the profit rates not found elsewhere in other economic theories, dependent upon historically variant relative composition of capitals, and also leading to a theory of tendencies in employment levels.

Now, none of this fits very neatly with Marx’s political philosophy, which is all about the real, historical political movement. One of the mysteries during my research into Marx as part of my PhD thesis is why, if Marx felt his own analysis mostly useless for thinking a post-capitalist society, did he seemingly invest so much time in it? And why, at the end of 20 years study, did he abandon his economic studies to learn Russian and focus almost exclusively on events there, even to the point of ditching the thesis that communism would preserve the best of capitalism to endorsing the populist idea that peasant communes could act as a direct launch pad for communism?

My feeling is that Marx never really resolved these issues intellectually. You see the same thing in his mathematical writings, where he never really reconciled himself with abstract mathematical entities, trying to shoehorn the whole of calculus into the study of variable magnitudes. So the legacy of this Marxian reduction of abstract logics to the real is the presumption – common across most of the left in fact – that a revolutionary political upheavel would be sufficient to create a new historical dynamic to reconfigure the economic. What follows from this presumption is the idea that left wing economics may be able to analyze capitalism and critique it, but – and this ‘but’ is what I want to contest – the categories it uses to do so are no use to us in thinking what an alternative, transitionary structure might look like. Lenin repeated much the same line in State and Revolution where, despite a chapter nominally devoted to economic transition, the focus is unrelentingly political. For two reasons I believe that today such a position is untenable.

Firstly, because after the experience of 20th century communism, post or anti capitalism has been fully associated with the command economy. It may be the case that workers’ self-management is held out as a potential model that never received a proper test, but the fact that this never materialized seems to suggest that it would not, alone, hold out promise for transcending capitalism. Secondly, and surely as a result of the first point, today the left seems to lack any positive economic vision; and this lack of ideas is now part and parcel of the problem the left has drawing people in under a program for radical change. Most of the unpoliticised general population are not willing to put their faith in political upheavel necessarily leading to a better economic state of affairs, and they associate, in the absence of any countervailing evidence, the leftwing economy with simply a return to the state run, command economy. So ideas for post-capitalist changes are needed. Even simple, single policies that would begin a transitionary process would be welcome.

2. Capital out of date?

Marx’s Capital has recieved a rough ride ever since its publication. Even in the late 19th century it must have been percieved as antiquated, relying upon an unfashionable Hegelian mode of exposition and a radicalised Ricardian labour theory of value that would soon be superseded by the marginalist neoclassical thinkers. Things got no better once the critiques of inconsistency rolled in; critiques that only recently seem to have been laid to rest with the TSSI interpretation pioneered by Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, and others. So only today, almost over 150 years after Capital Vol. I was published, do we have a workable Marxian paradigm shared by a community of scholars, and used to conduct econometric work – generally focusing on the long term tendency for a declining rate of profit in explaining crisis.

Why do I believe TSSI Marxism is not enough? The most glaring problem seems to be because there is no clear epistemological reasoning as to why this consistent economic set of laws represents reality most accurately. This allows critics to accuse it of being out of date, and solely reflecting a mode of accumulation associated with Victorian era industrial production, of no relevance to IT, finance, the service sector, and immaterial labour in general.  In this context reliance on Hegelian reflection theory as a grounding epistemology is obviously completely inadequate.

Moreover, its dialectical construction seems to leave just too many holes, or residual, undelineated categories. The entire financial edifice, for one thing, is simply lumped into an undifferentiated sphere of exchange. Marxian economics does not seem to extend much further than looking at underlying profit tendencies and capital compositions within a limited, fixed number of categories. The problem thus appears to be how to expand it from simply a posited set of fundamental structural laws to become a complete model able to incorporate more variables and levels of analysis. The impedimenta to this progress appears to be Capital‘s generally dialectical structure (and I write this with a few caveats – for example, I do not believe it is an irrevisably dialectical theory) which makes it very hard to add more variables and levels of analysis. For Capital to become a more serviceable model of the economy it needs to rest on a foundation that would allow it to add more levels of analysis that would ultimately be able to be fed into an econometric model – not, that is, circumscribed to only intuiting very long run tendencies simmering beneath the surface of economic phenomena.

In order to achieve this, I believe a model of Capital needs to focus on its strongest aspects. This would ditch some of the philosophical baggage around commodity fetishism and any unworkable categories, and focus on where it does best – namely on the hypothesis of long term profit tendencies being responsible for more short run economic phenomena such as crisis and financial movements. The model would need to be explicitly a temporal model of how various structures in the economy interact. We also want this model to be revisable to the introduction of new variables and structures. It has to be an open model able to incorporate all relevant structures and phenomena. The axioms of geometry provide a good example here. Euclid’s axioms are consistent, but when placed in an ‘inner model’ on the surface of a sphere they break down, leading to proofs of the independence of some of the axioms and the need for revision. We need to be able to do the same thing for economic theory – we need to be able to test our fundamental structural model to make sure it does not rely on dogmatic assertions.

What I have sketched above is no small task. Indeed, from my initial research into economic models there appears to be very little out there to begin with – there is no off the peg model structure into which Capital‘s categories could simply be dropped. At present it thus feels like something of a tabula rasa effort, and to be successful it will no doubt need to be a collective project conducted amongst colleagues, some of which will have to be more technically and mathematically proficient than I.

The ultimate point of this endeavour is based on the wager that there is a structural truth to the economic crisis to be discovered (in the realist sense), and that a correct diagnosis will help the project to conceive a determinate economic project on the left, and give us tangible ideas to fight for.

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Slavoj Zizek: Just an entertaining 'shock jock', or a sophisticated and engaged philosopher?

Slavoj Žižek has always been a controversial figure, attracting devotion and revile in equal measure. But it is only recently that I have noticed something of a popular front forming against him—with a combination of far left bloggers and everyday cynics rejecting him in synch. Of the former category, Louis Proyect, for one, accuses Žižek of being a ‘shock jock’ and has taken issue with his misrepresentation of Lenin merely to outrage liberals. Richard Seymour portrays him as a racist, cheering on pogroms against the Roma—a charge converging with those of rightwing critics such as Adam Kirsch writing in the New Republic regarding Žižek’s alleged anti-semitism. Why do I feel both these characterisations are unfair? And what do I feel is motivating this anti-Žižek front? This blog post attempts to answer both these questions by rebutting both Proyect and Seymour’s charges.

Proyect’s ‘Lone wolf’ Žižek

In his post Proyect makes a good point about the fact that Marxist theory needs to be a collective discussion rather than just pursued by a ‘lone wolf’ like Žižek theorising for maximum impact to secure their academic niche. Or, it would be a good argument if I believed that was all Žižek was up to; because whilst he does have the tendency to drift off into mere provocation at times, I would say that for those who follow his work he has a clear political project in confronting the tepid sentiment of our time and the numerous discourses of liberal anxiety. So insofar as Proyect’s charge is correct it is valid, but also insofar as one can intuit a necessity to Žižek’s provocations then the ‘lone wolf’ charge does not stick. After all, given the shrunken and introverted nature of the Marxist left, if to be a ‘lone wolf’ means to pursue your debates beyond its confines and not necessarily just in discussion with other Marxists in pursuit of doctrinal purity, then I don’t see that as such a bad thing. I came to Marx and Lenin very much mediated though Žižek’s work, and I imagine he has pulled many others in too to what would otherwise look like a fairly stale field of regurgitated orthodoxy. Similarly, for all our gripes about how he deploys and conceives ‘the idea of communism’ (included his flat out claim regarding the absolute, unmitigated disaster that were all communist regimes in the 20th century) he has nonetheless been instrumental in putting the word back on the semantic horizon of the left, creating the attenuated possibilities for an articulation of a more radical politics.

These good points to Žižek’s political project have to be balanced against the less appetising tendency of his critics to seize upon almost anything (from either a left or rightwing perspective) in order to hammer home their crusade against him. In the process it is little recognized how the motivations of these criticisms point to entirely opposite commitments. On the one hand, there are those critcisms of Žižek from a liberal-lefty, postmodernist academic perspective, which see him a regressive turn to an outdated politics of universalism, Marxism and revolution. For these critics it is Žižek’s unwillingness to concede to the new politics of difference that riles them. Into the mix is thrown a certain amount of jealousy regarding his academic stardom and ressentiment about his marriage to an Argentinian model. Needless to say, inasmuch as we conceive the left’s project as related to class struggle and the overthrowing of capitalism, few of these critics would be said to have anything but the vaguest sympathies to the cause of the left. On the other hand, for critics like Proyect and others I have run across online, it is precisely the lack of purity for which Zizek must be held accountable. Every reading of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin he provides is pored across for inconsistencies, to draw up the charge sheet for the prosecution. The problem is that by not recognising Žižek as at least on the same side of the emancipatory, Marxist cause, critics like Proyect loose sight of the fact that at least they can have a debate with someone like Žižek. Given that most of Žižek’s critics come from a political and philosophical perspective that would consider the likes of Proyect as retrograde to the point of complete irrelevance, one should probably recognize the theoretical ally in Žižek rather than expending copious energies to slaughter his deviations from within the Marxist debating chamber. That is not to say don’t criticize: just to say, have some perspective on things.

Seymour’s racist Žižek

Richard Seymour of the blog Lenin’s Tomb (also author of The Liberal Defence of Murder & The Meaning of David Cameron, and all round rising theoretical star of the British Socialist Workers Party) has also been grinding an axe against Žižek for some time. Initially Seymour was enamoured by Žižek — despite outrage at some of his opinions — but around 2006 that started to change. Seymour confessed:

Perhaps it’s transference, but I used to think that Zizek had all the answers. Even when he was wrong, I assumed he knew it and was being contrarian, using the cunning of reason to provoke thought and all that rubbish. Even now when he’s writing absolute pig shit like this, (apparently a re-mix of this and this), I feel the urge to say “well, he didn’t meanthat“. But he did, and does. To clarify, practically everything in Zizek’s latest is a regurgitation of increasingly common Eurocentric – well, actually, Christian supremacist – platitudes about Islam and secularism.

From this post Seymour’s gripes becomes apparent: his charge is that scrape beneath the seductive theoretical exterior and you will simply find a warmed up liberal with Eurocentric and racist tendencies. “The seductive Lacanian packaging positions the “ire” at the Muhammad cartoons (which Žižek still doesn’t acknowledge as racist, only blasphemous, only disrespectful within the confines of religion) as a reaction to the West as perceived through a distorting phantasmatic screen, “a complex cobweb of symbols, images and attitudes”: this would be more impressive if Žižek did not reveal his own “complex cobweb” in the process.” From here on Seymour’s criticisms of Žižek have effectively operated via a single strategy: take Žižek’s reflections on a subject, from whatever angle they might be, and simply shout them down with charges of racism: a kind of rhetorical ‘nuclear option’. No one likes racism — a single Cartesian point across the political spectrum, aside from the far right — so repeatedly charging your opponent with it operates as vicious tool of deligitimation, and allows one to not even enter debate. In fact, to even debate the alleged racist’s position would be to enter into the same racist discourse. The example above acts as a case in point. Here, Seymour simply asserts that cartoons lampooning Muhammed are racist, ergo any attempt to think the reaction to them as anything more than justified rage against an obviously evil act of injustice is also racist.

This type of tautological rhetoric is repeated in his most recent post regarding Žižek’s commentary on an attack on a Roma community. For balance I will reproduce the quote isolated by Seymour and what I think is Seymour’s most substantial commentary on it.

Žižek wrote:

There was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

Seymour commented:

This was actually a response to a pogrom which observers compared to Kristallnacht. If the police hadn’t driven the gypsies out, the racist mob would have done so with fire and blades. But Zizek has no hesitation about regurgitating the classic anti-gypsy propaganda (they’re anti-social, they cause trouble, they basically bring it on themselves), championing of the racist mob and its ‘legitimate concerns’, counterposing the decent locals to snooty metropolitan elites, channelling the resentment of the ‘little man’ while slandering the little man’s victims. Richard Littlejohn wishes he could get away with this level of barbarism.

Seymour refuses to countenance the idea that there are any legitimate antagonisms, even only in addition to the pure racist frenzy driving the mob. Žižek’s stab at metropolitan, liberal condescension is taken simply as a ruse to allow his own racist instincts some veneer of criticality. But really, is it so incredulous that there were genuine frictions over safety and property in this instance? And does to even consider that possibility make one a racist? It seems to me that there is a hysterical, liberal view of racism — in a purely voluntaristic, moralistic register — at work in Seymour’s denunciations of Žižek. Rather than thinking through structurally how racism is intertwined with class, economics, culture and mechanisms that perpetuate real racial divides and concrete problems with race vectors (those structurally constructed and emergent upon racism), Seymour’s absolute scepticism tends towards the liberal position Žižek is criticising, so it is no wonder that he is so upset by Žižek’s repeated criticisms of liberal anti-racists.

What is the deeper explanation for all this? We enter the realm of conjecture now, but I don’t think Seymour’s running battle with Žižek can be disassociated from the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. For a great deal of investment has been made by the party in the last ten years in defending the victimised Muslim, combating Islamophobia, anti-fascist campaigns and anti-racism music festivals, and so on. Indeed, the stock and trade of the SWP has increasingly come to be a variant of liberal anti-racism, with the establishment of permanent united fronts with Tories, rightwing Muslim groups, and so on.  So there is a lot at stake for the party in whether or not liberal anti-racism is the correct paradigm. Žižek has thus become a target for party-political reasons.

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How much of the left's energy and finances is invested into producing newspapers and is it for the right reasons?

In the wake of the student movement’s success in stirring up some of the most rowdy street protests and wave of activism witnessed for decades in the UK, the inevitable internecine battles have begun. The division within the ranks has distilled into a war of words between young journalist, Laurie Penny (known for her well written and incisive street reports on the protests), and Alex Callinicos (central committee stalwart and key political theorist of the Socialist Workers Party) — a debate played out primarily on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, along with a meta-debate unfolding across numerous Facebook walls .

Penny’s offending words were an undeniably derogatory comparison between Socialist Worker sellers and cockroaches: “It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.” Consequently, the debate has for the most part centred on whether you need an organized movement in order to effect change, and, as a corollary, whether the print version of a political party’s newspaper is of any relevance for those involved in a networked movement of online blogs, Facebook events and Twitter feeds. In such fashion the question of technology is bundled in with the question of horizontal movement contra vertical, hierarchical direction.

Do online networks constitute a new form of mediating and constructing ideas, impossible for the centrally determined sectarian ideologies of the "old left"?

Furthermore, Penny’s more important point, for which the  anachronistic image of the dogged SW seller is merely a graphic representation of a much deeper jab at the Party—indeed, all Party structures—is that the ideological battles associated with Partys peddling their own, exclusive, ideologically orientated papers is defunct for contemporary political practice. One could even go a step further and read between the lines of what Penny is really trying to say: the only reason they are their pushing their particular paper, that they have specifically published in a print medium, is in order for them to distribute a controlled message in conformity with the specific ideological prejudices of their own Party. Thus, the SW paper comes to stand for a more sinister attempt to collapse the multitudinous particularity of the student movement—what has provided it with such forward movement and positivity—back into the quagmire of the sectarian politics of the “old left”.

Callinicos’ response was to negate Penny’s tabula rasa presentation of the student movement as an absolute break from the impasses and problematics of “old left” politics, and conversely to highlight the continuities suppressed by fixating on the technological medium used to organize – thereby delinking the question of technology with that of organization to highlight historical continuity. He writes:  “The student protests have in many ways been highly traditional forms of collective action. True, the internet and in particular Facebook and other social media have emerged as very powerful means of communication and mobilisation. But what they have helped to deliver were demonstrations that have confronted both the forces and the symbols of the British state, not in cyberspace, but on the streets.” Subtlety, Callinicos bypasses Penny’s central contention regarding the mediation, or outright vacation, of ideological difference, to focus on the historical continuity of the problem of jointly organizing workers and students to marshal sufficient economic and political clout; and how this still overdetermines any attempt to think ‘outside the box’ or in ‘day zero’ fashion.

On his own re-figured ground Callinicos is certainly right: the problems facing the radical left have not been undone via Twitter; the political continuities rendered invisible in the enthusiasm of youthful narcissism are stickier than anyone may want to believe. However, in another way, Callinicos’ answer serves merely to deflect from a greater underlying issue. It is not necessarily just a Twitter high induced, ahistorical mirage that gives the sense that ideological difference has been pushed aside. If technology is considered to operate in the communicative exchange of the superstructural realm, then it is apparent that it does not fundamentally refigure the structural basis upon which so many of the sectarian ideological struggles emerged. What Penny perceives as the irrelevance of ideological differences is therefore just a de facto repetition of what was previously consciously theorised and centrally determined as a moment requiring a ‘united front’: where said differences are put aside for a temporary defensive measure against a common enemy.

Rage Against the Machine Xmas Number 1: people power in defence of the status quo

This points to a more basic issue, not touched upon by either Penny or Callinicos — that the character of the movement, and its resulting organizational forms, are a product of its strategic aims. And this requires a recognition that at present the student movement aims for little more than maintenance of the status quo (or in its most radical fringes, abolition of tuition fees introduced in 1998).  This is by no means a bad thing given that the novel alternative is so obviously worse. But without a positive vision for reordering education, the economy, society, and so on, it is obviously that ideological differences are unlikely to divide the protest assemblage. Yet the very thing that provides the de facto unity of the movement is at the same time its most problematic limitation. It is increasingly easy to rally people in defence of the status quo, but it remains as difficult as ever—perhaps even more difficult—to win people over to a cause to implement change. For example, the campaign to get Rage Against the Machine to Number 1 was in one sense an  expression of people power, but at the same time represented the regurgitation of the familiar and the commonly agreed upon in place of a new musical breakthrough. In ‘Capitalist Realism’ Mark Fisher posits kitsch as the hallmark of the exhaustion emblematic of late capitalism; and could it be that much the same problem — the problems of real abstraction — have subsumed even the internal resistance to the capitalization process.

More than blogs versus newspapers, networks versus Partys, all those concerned with these issues may do well to consider, instead, the conclusion of Nic Bueret writing in The Commune: “Eventually the inspiration of the initial fight and victory will fade, and the content of the revolt will have to stand on its own. If the content of that struggle is only to restore that machine, to defend the freedom to be unequal, failure is all we can hope for.”

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Academia: An Epicurean plentitude of good food and conversation?

Graham Harman has responded to my earlier piece on Academic Nihilism. Unsurprisingly, for those who have followed his career advice strand of commentary on his blog, he doesn’t suffer from academic nihilism.

In the piece he sees a certain self flagellating, masocistic tendency representative of ‘killjoy puritanical’ moralism amongst leftists around the continental philosophy scene. He also objects to the argument’s assertion that academics have it pretty good on the whole in terms of salary and working conditions.

This isn’t really a debate that will run and run—since the starting premises and overall worldviews are probably incommensurable. But I do take objection to the killjoy charge. Although there is certainly a tendency around parts of the left to engage in a kind of relentless miserabilism, that is certainly not underwriting this post I hope. If anything, the present author objects to the academic day job (although still desperately hopes that the post PhD world will deliver one) precisely because it is not ‘enriched by good food, conversations with friends, excellent reading, and the teaching of students.’

The Epicurean plenitude of simple pleasures Harman lists here have been somewhat absent in my experience of academia so far. The PhD world seems to be (with, thankfully, a few exceptions) full of weirdly antisocial types whose catchphrases when faced with the prospect of good food, drinks, or conversation seems to be ‘I have to run’ or ‘Have to shoot off’.

To where? Why? Who knows. One would like to think it is because they have work commitments, baby sitters waiting at home, or at least something similar. But that is far from the case in many instances. So why the precocious drift into late middle age?

Similarly, one can’t help but notice that most academics seem a little depressed. Its hard to put your finger on it exactly. Its like a world weary burden that drags them down. However, Harman is right that given the right circumstances teaching can be a joy. Indeed, the life in the undergraduate body is one of the few things that kept me from sinking to the lower depths of academic nihilism in the past year or so.

So I think the killjoy charge is a bit of a red herring.

He probably gets is right, though, that those of us on the left who see things just getting worse and worse ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ do feel pretty barracked up in our monastic academic communities.

But I think the argument—and this is probably my fault for ordering of the piece—goes deeper than just pertaining to political commitments. More fundamentally, it is about the every increasing research and knowledge production that is getting diced ever thinner and thinner to the point where at some point we have to wonder what the point of it all is? As Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting (or something similar at least): ‘If you build a house that’s a house that a family gets to live in; building is an honest profession.’

And is he not right in some way? Could not the weariness that afflicts a lot of academics, the endless gripes about teaching, and the endemic cynicism, actually stem from the realisation of the futility and irrelevance of the majority of intellectual labour? The fact that is merely sinks into an ever widening void; the academic sink hole of proliferating journals and conferences.

I intend to write a further blog post  emphasizing more this political economy aspect of academia. It seems to me that academia nihilism is almost certainly connected to the expansion of university education, and a field of intellectual discourse that has not expanded at similar rate. Hopefully from this angle killjoy charges won’t stick so easily!

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