As academics began to debate Nicholas Kristof’s recent attack on their profession, I was interviewing a few of the literally thousands of American radicals who left the university for the factory in the 1970s.
In 1880, La Revue socialiste asked an aging Karl Marx to draft a questionnaire to be circulated among the French working class. Called “A Workers’ Inquiry,” it was a list of exactly 101 detailed questions, inquiring about everything from meal times to wages to lodging.
In his programmatic piece in Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara describes the shape of contemporary Left Unity: “the convergence of American socialists committed to non-sectarian organization under the auspices of an overarching democratic structure.” It would be glib to just dismiss this out of hand – alongside increased exposure of the Left in the mainstream media, such a structure could be a good sign. But the way this strategy is being pursued leaves many fundamental questions unanswered.
When Perry Anderson wrote in 1976 that “Western Marxism” could be considered a “product of defeat,” he was referring to the catastrophes and betrayals that framed the period from 1924 to 1968. In retrospect, this seems like foreshadowing. The intervening decades have seen not simply a defeat for the workers’ movement but its total dissolution – the collapse of the institutions that once made it an undeniable social force, and the rollback of the reforms it had won from the state. In our situation it has become difficult to say what “Marxism” really is, what distinguishes it as a theory, and why it matters. But this is by no means a new question. And of all the definitions and redefinitions of Marxism, Louis Althusser’s were perhaps the most controversial. In 1982, just before François Mitterrand’s turn to austerity, Althusser began to draft a “theoretical balance sheet.” He wrote “Definitive” on the manuscript, and never published it.
Though my article “The Actuality of the Revolution” centered on Lenin and 1917, it was really about the present. I think this became clearer as the debate on the article progressed, encompassing questions within the Occupy movement. For this reason, I’ve decided not to quibble over details, but rather to review the history in a way that more clearly shows how this debate, and the role the Bolsheviks played in 1917, speaks to our current historical conjuncture. Since the pressing question, the one that tied all these articles together, was actually the question of the party, I will try to clarify and elaborate my analysis of the function of the party form, responding to the three critiques of my original argument.
This is a slightly edited version of a talk delivered at the Left Forum on March 18, for a panel called “State and Revolution: Is Lenin Still Relevant?” In the coming weeks, we will be posting a few more articles debating this history and its implications for the present.
The “internecine ultra-left argument of the moment,” says the Wall Street Journal, is the debate over the “black bloc.” And if this debate has led the WSJ to talk about “ultra-leftism,” it’s clearly a debate we have to address.
The emergency session of the Occupy Philly General Assembly this past Thursday decided, at around 10PM, to immediately move from Dilworth Plaza, where Occupy Philly is currently grounded, to Thomas Paine Plaza. When the proposal passed, everyone broke into smaller groups, rushed to grab whatever was around, and began moving to the other side of the street. Soon after, the police arrived, confusion descended, and, not having decided on any plan ahead of time, we spontaneously broke into three groups: the first regrouped back at Dilworth, the second was left at Thomas Paine, and the third decided to storm City Hall. At the end of it all, we were forced to abandon our objective, withdraw back to the original encampment, and rethink the whole affair.
Philadelphia has a large population of black, disaffected youth. It also has a black mayor. But when some of these young people began to spontaneously protest the obscene level of urban segregation and systematic poverty of the city with “flash mobs,” it was Mayor Michael Nutter who launched the counter-attack, imposing the disciplinary measure of an earlier curfew in wealthy white areas. Curfews, as George Ciccariello-Maher points out, “have historically served as a racist weapon for the containment of Black bodies” – but Nutter himself made the point by accompanying this measure with an ideological assault on black Philadelphians in general.
All eyes are on Oakland. And rightfully so. Oakland has shown the other occupations how the movement can be successfully escalated. By transforming the occupation of a park into a general strike, Oakland has indisputably emerged as the most militant section of the national occupation movement. All the other occupations across the county are asking themselves how they can follow in its footsteps. But, as strange as it may sound, the best way to reproduce the level of militancy that has erupted in Oakland may actually be to not follow in that city’s footsteps.