At New Socialist, one of the things we offer subscribers is a weekly email from the editors with some recommended reads, & short contextualising texts. I’ve decided to periodically repost some of the things I’ve written for that here on my blog. If you want to get these as they’re written, along with excellent contributions from the other editors, you can subscribe to NS! But otherwise, I’ll add them here as and when I remember, and once long enough has passed that my re-publishing them doesn’t constitute a thorough razzing-off of subscribers.
In January, I wrote about prefiguration, discourse, and why the revolution will be long & relational. Enjoy!
Karl Marx, Kritik des Gothaer Programms
Emma Goldman, Afterword to My Further Disillusionment with Russia
Raymond Williams, ‘Futures of Marxism’, in New Left Review 114, Nov/Dec 2018, pp.53-65
Walter Benjamin, ‘Conversations With Brecht’, in Adorno et. al, Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), pp.86-99
Luce Irigaray, To Speak is Never Neutral (London: Continuum, 2002)
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of prefiguration. What does it mean to, as the IWW have urged, “build the new world in the shell of the old”? How do these two ‘worlds’ diverge? How do they relate? What do they have in common? And what are we going to do about it?
I started, as one does, with Marx. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he writes:
Womit wir es hier zu tun haben, ist eine kommunistische Gesellschaft, nicht wie sie sich auf ihrer eignen Grundlage entwickelt hat, sondern umgekehrt, wie sie eben aus der kapitalistischen Gesellschaft hervorgeht, also in jeder Beziehung, ökonomisch, sittlich, geistig, noch behaftet ist mit den Muttermalen der alten Gesellschaft…
(What we are dealing with is a [hypothetical] communist society which has not developed on its own terms, but which, rather, emerges from capitalist society, and thus bears in every respect—economic, ethical, intellectual—the birthmarks of the old society…)
How often, when dreaming revolutionary futures, do I forget this? More than I’d like to admit. It’s the trick of radicalism: to be radical is to grasp at the root, and so we imagine that capitalism is itself graspable; that (like a c.2003 Carol Vorderman advertising dodgy debt management plans) we can consolidate it into one simple, easy-to-manage metaphor: the plant that can be uprooted. But plants (if we accept this horticultural metaphor on its own terms) are not atomised, are not unconnected individuals. They reproduce themselves through seed and air and bird, through pollen scattered, and the industry of bees. Capitalism is, in this way, both multiple and total, and its seeds are embedded within the very soil in which we grow. Frantz Fanon describes this process beautifully, in relation to imperialism, in Les Damnés de la Terre (aka The Wretched of the Earth—though English translations often mess up the seed/soil metaphor). We cannot, as I have written elsewhere, cleanse ourselves of capital overnight. There is no ‘pure’ revolution. And, as I mention in the piece I’ve just linked, the seedlings of capital often take their most pervasive, tenacious form in our relationships and interactions. As I mention in my book-in-progress, capital works on and through the self in a double movement: it divests us from one another and, consequently and simultaneously, invests us in systems of oppression. Capitalism creates individuals, and those individuals must then depend on capital to satisfy their needs. There are few revolutions, thus far, that have managed to address capital on this insidious level. And understandably so! Revolutionary contexts tend to be urgent, freighted, conflictual. Choices have to be made rapidly; priorities shift and re-form as circumstances unfold. Who has the time to engage in therapeutic processes? This, I want to say, is where the concept of long revolution comes in. We can begin now, where we are: we can slowly build the conditions for revolutionary relationships, so that when the moment comes (and it will come), we will be ready. If capital is multiple and total, then the revolution must respond in kind—and, as I’m going to argue, in kindness.
Writing in 1924, the revolutionary anarcha-feminist and all-round hero Emma Goldman said this:
No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against [human] inhumanity to [humans]… It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. It is the herald of NEW VALUES, ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of [human] to [human], and of [human] to society. It is not a mere reformer, patching up some social evils; not a mere changer of forms and institutions; not only a re-distributor of social well-being. It is all that, yet more, much more. It is, first and foremost, the TRANSVALUATOR, the bearer of new values. It is the great TEACHER of the NEW ETHICS, inspiring man with a new concept of life and its manifestations in social relationships. It is the mental and spiritual regenerator.
All the capslock in the above is her own; one imagines she would have been Extremely Online had she lived 100 years later—but Extremely Online in a good way, encouraging us to lift ourselves out of the discursive mire, out of the reactionary responses that pit each of us against one another as enemies, that demand that we read one another through a hermeneutic of suspicion. I recognised so much of contemporary discourse (which, as Tom G. pointed out to me today, is itself inflected by taking place on Twitter etc. rather than in publications, which require editing, and care, and thus limit the reactive impulse) in a piece by Raymond Williams, published in NLR 114. Written in 1961, ‘Futures of Marxism’ is alarmingly relevant to the present day.
There are two dimensions of politics. There is the dimension in which, because of living pressures, [people] try to understand their world and improve it. This dimension is persistently human. But besides it, always, is that parading robot of polemic, which resembles human thinking in everything but its capacity for experience [and which] stinks of pride, destruction, malice and exhaustion. [People] need a good society and they need food… But the slip into the robot world, so easy to make, is against these needs even when it claims to satisfy them. As I look, now, at the greater part of our political campaigns and periodicals, I recognise, reluctantly, the cancer of violence in them, which is our actual danger. And it is no use, after that, turning away. We have to fight to recover the dimension in which people actually live, because it is only there that any good outcome is possible.
The first characteristic of the robots is that the world exists in terms of their own fixed points. Are you a Marxist, a revisionist, a bourgeois reformist? Are you a Communist, a Left radical, a fellow traveller? What answer can [one] make to that kind of robot questioning? ‘Go away’, I suppose.
Yes; “go away.” This is what one wants to say to these people whom, as Bertolt Brecht once remarked to Walter Benjamin, are “enemies of production.” Brecht continues:
Production makes them uncomfortable. You never know where you are with production; production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out. And they themselves don’t want to produce. They want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people. Every one of their criticisms contains a threat.
By ‘production’ here, I think Brecht means something close to what I would call the generative: that curiosity and openness to whatever a revolutionary praxis might bring, regardless of whether it fits my established theoretical framework: the endless, excitable co-creation of new concepts that is, I think, Gilles Deleuze’s great contribution to left thought. If, as revolutionaries, we are not open, generative, willing to be wrong—to allow our heroes to be wrong!—what are we? We’re conservatives, reactionaries; a lot of the time, we’re just plain horrible.
The world I want to see does not involve endless backbiting, bickering, insistence on narrow frameworks and pre-fabricated, off-the-shelf responses to things. It does not involve a close commitment to being personally and individually right, which is as far as I can see the hallmark trait of the British bourgeoisie. My responsibility, then, is to be responsive; to open up worlds, to refuse what Williams calls the “airless pseudo-political dimension” of the “robots”. As Luce Irigaray reminds us, in To Speak is Never Neutral, “A discourse can poison, surround, close off, and imprison, or it can liberate, cure, nourish and fecundate. It is rarely neutral. Even if certain practices strive for neutrality in language, it is always just a goal, or a tangent, and never reached; it is always to be constructed.” In other words, we need to approach our ways of speaking carefully, thoughtfully, and always with the intention of building that fabled new world, that revolutionary future, together: with and for others. We must start, to borrow from Brecht, not with the “good old things”—that misty-eyed nostalgia for the revolution that never quite was, the spirit of 1917, the sublimation of all our desires through an uncritical, outdated Leninism (Lenin 2k19 would likely not be satisfied with his century-old pamphlets)—but with the “bad new things”. Those means of (not) relating that have arisen, post-Thatcher, and that drive a wedge between us; that ensure that the revolution is always ‘still to come’, and never, ever here. But it is, it is! “Everything depends,” says Williams, “on the search for understanding, between various traditions and peoples. The robots do not want it. But [people] want it.”
Revolution begins here, begins now, begins between us. I’m taking this energy into 2019.