Posts Tagged ‘George Katsiaficas’

Rebellion and Prefiguration against Refeudalization and Saktiná

December 22, 2015

Marcuse_74_ParisPublished on Heathwood Press, 21 December 2015

In Salisbury, Maryland, from Thursday 12 November 2015 to Saturday the 14th, the sixth biennual International Herbert Marcuse Society conference took place: “Praxis and Critique: Liberation, Pedagogy, and the University.” Held at Salisbury University (SU), the conference was hosted by Professor Sarah Surak. It was comprised of approximately 23 panels, together with a few workshops—notably including a collective art-making effort to “Express Your Fantasies,” inspired in part by reflecting on the above image of Marcuse speaking in Paris. The convergence brought together a number of radical philosophers and activists who spoke on historical and contemporary struggles and their relationship to Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School theorists—particularly Herbert Marcuse, of course—Marxism, and anarchism.

At the panel on “Critical Theory in the Twenty-First Century” held on Friday afternoon, speakers reflected on the meaning of Critical Theory today: the question of its relevance for the present world, and its relationship to the project of liberatory social transformation. Professor Arnold Farr, host of the 2013 Marcuse Society conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, spoke to the multiple sites of oppression in capitalist society—race, gender, and sexuality, alongside class—that constitute the various contradictions through which capitalist society is “shot through.” In parallel, Farr identified the cycle whereby critique opens the possibility of change, while the possibility of change helps critique along in turn. Co-panelist Lauren Langman then observed that Critical Theory and its theorists should be primarily concerned with three matters: critiquing society, promoting open-mindedness, and having a vision. He optimistically observed that the strength of the transnational capitalist class is “based on a bowl of jello,” and that humanity “will get a better society” eventually. Stefan Gandler, author of Critical Marxism in Mexico, discussed autonomous Mexican movements, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), other armed left-wing guerrilla forces, and the mass-popular resistance evinced throughout the country in response to the State’s forcible disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, as well as the popular mobilizations that undermined the heavy-handed response the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) initially had launched against the EZLN during the latter’s insurrection of January 1994. In terms of militarism and non-cooperation, Gandler mentioned that several Mexican Army units refused to follow orders mandating suppression of the Zapatista rebellion, thus greatly limiting the amount of blood shed during the twelve days of war. Andrew Lamas, host of the 2011 “Critical Refusals” conference at the University of Pennsylvania, affirmed the continued relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis, emphasizing that capitalism can only be overcome in unison with the abolition of white supremacy.

Simultaneously, on the “Rationalizing Environments” panel, SU undergraduate student Jake O’Neil examined environmental and “green” discourse, posing the question, “Is Going Green Enough?” Applying a Marcusean analysis of one-dimensionality, instrumental reason, and the performance principle to the ever-failing project of attempting to “solve” the ecological crisis within the strictures of capital and the State, O’Neil provided a genealogy of the rise of “green consumerism” and the “green economy” over the past generation, contrasting the colonization of the concept from its original association with anti-capitalist politics. Once one becomes enthralled to green consumerism, one’s commitment to a better future is individualized and commodified, thus serving the end of recuperation—that is to say, falsely to integrate the contradictions of capitalism, in turn shoring up that very same system. O’Neil’s clearly Marcusean alternative is to “open up” the realm of environmental discourse, subject hegemonic approaches to critique, and hence allow for “the possibility of liberating, radical change”: namely, a global transformation propelled by the flowering of a Marcusean “new sensibility” among the general populace that would valorize the importance of all terrestrial and marine life, in place of the prevailing valorization of capital and destruction.

Meanwhile, at the panel “Popular Culture and Prefigurative Politics—on which the Brazilian Marcuse scholar Imaculada Kangussu addressed the question of how art can help to advance the new sensibility and provoke “inner revolutions”—John-Patrick Schultz intervened on “Walter Benjamin and Prefigurative Politics: The Utopian Hermeneutic of Space.” Schultz opened immediately by juxtaposing the Benjaminian concept of the “dialectical image”—whereby “capitalist materiality converges with radically democratic possibility” through direct action and decolonization—with the 30 November 1999 (“N30”) actions taken by the ACME collective, the anarchist Black Bloc, and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) as a whole against the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle—otherwise known as the “Battle of Seattle.” The speaker stressed how the GJM instituted prefigurative politics in its actions, seeking not a utopian futural break with capital but instead the immediate founding of “an alternative social order” based on direct or horizontal democracy—these being demands and orientations that “reject[ed] the idea that there can be no other future and provid[ed] a concrete illustration of that alternative.” In Benjaminian terms, Schultz detects in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and in the recent “movement of squares” of 2011 to the present a “surviving historical desire for democratic social control.” Through their prefiguration of a “novel future,” Schultz emphasized, such movements disprove David Harvey’s questionable claim in Rebel Cities (2013) that autonomous, decentralized models of opposition are incapable of presenting a serious challenge to capitalism and the State. Instead, as Schultz writes, their “utopian hermeneutic […] entails a highly antagonistic demand for collective, egalitarian enjoyment [that is] wholly at odds with neoliberalism” and the capitalist system.

On the evening of Friday the 13th, a number of conference-goers attended a reception at an art gallery in downtown Salisbury, featuring a number of beautiful surrealistic paintings by Antje Wichtrey that appear in the volume Versprechen, dass e sanders sein kann (“Promises that it can be different”), edited by Peter Erwin-Jansen. Besides this, the gallery exhibited works that had been created by graduate students attending the “Express Your Fantasies” workshop on Thursday. Apparently, the discrepancy seen between the original Marcuse photograph discovered in the Paris lectures that served as the conference’s main image and the edited version reproduced by the university administration on campus—one lacking the graffiti depicting female breasts, as above—inspired many of the students to express artistic fantasies involving breasts. In addition, those assembled at the gallery celebrated the birthday of Herbert’s son Peter that night—in the presence of Peter himself and his wife—but negatively, it was while we were indulging in art and enjoying the gathering that we first learned about the attacks in Paris. One of the participants made an announcement about the scores of lives taken, and he invited conference-goers to share in a collective discussion about the events and their likely impacts on war, international relations, and the fate of refugees at lunch-time the next day.

At our Saturday morning panel on “Post-Soviet Marxism: Marcuse in the Developing World,” George Katsiaficas began with a presentation on “Eurocentric Views of Civil Society.” Katsiaficas argued that the established power of Western capitalism has often led to the repression of consideration of alternative views of the meaning of civil society, especially in non-bourgeois and non-Western terms. He offered the politeness and fairness of Confucian social norms on hand in Korea and the enlightening thought of Islamic thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-1198 CE) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as promotive of different forms of individuality. Furthermore, he mentioned the early republican governance structure of Lugash under Gudea in classical Mesopotamia (ca. 2144-2124 BCE) as well as the assembly-based republics that arose along the Ganges River from approximately 600 to 300 BCE, together with the parallel birth of Buddhism and Jainism as more egalitarian off-shoots of Hinduism. Moreover, the investigator declared forthrightly that the “theory of Oriental despotism” which permeates much of Western political sociology vastly underplays the very real Western despotism imposed on the non-Western world through imperialism—as starkly illustrated in the estimated 10 million Asians who were murdered by the U.S. military during the twentieth century. Katsiaficas remarked that civil society played an enormously important role in the Gwanju Commune (1980), adding that it still has a great task to accomplish today, in light of the propulsion of domination—the “gangsters running society” and “freedom of war and private property”—intensifying reification and what Jürgen Habermas has called outright “refeudalization” of the globe. I then followed, examining Marcuse’s views on authority and the transition away from capitalism—the question of whether the critical theorist is more in keeping with anarchism and libertarian socialism or Jacobinism and authoritarian socialism. Though the answer is not entirely clear, given the ambiguity Marcuse expressed at times about the need for an “intellectual” or “education” dictatorship to lead humanity and history out of the capitalist impasse, my view is that Marcuse’s political philosophy is more consistently libertarian than authoritarian—it is more concerned with decentralization and autonomy than temporary or “transitional” dictatorship. This is clear from “Protosocialism and Late Capitalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis Based on Bahro’s Method” (1979), Marcuse’s last essay. Still, like the EZLN, which has a political system governed by assemblies and a parallel military command-structure, Marcuse may have felt that there was some degree of a need for both: a “Committee for Public Safety” alongside mass-popular intervention and the creation of the commune. Next, comrade Nick Zeller spoke on the fascinating case of Marxism in Thailand, a cause advanced by one Jit Phumisak, who originally and dialectically had been contracted by the CIA to translate Capital into Thai in an attempt to pressure the Chakri monarchy to take evermore authoritarian-repressive measures against the regional specter of agrarian and proletarian revolution. While translating and thus confronting Marx’s work on political economy, Phumisak himself became a communist militant. He went on to write The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and was for this reason imprisoned. After being released, Phumisak joined Thai communist guerrillas—this being a commitment that would lead to his martyrdom in battle against the State. Zeller shared the radical theorist’s analysis of the joint exploitation of the Thai masses, as prosecuted by imperialism and feudalism (saktiná); discussed the similarities and differences between this analysis and that of Marx’s views on non-Western societies like India and Russia; and related the stress Phumisak placed on an alliance between the peasantry and the small but expanding industrial proletariat of Thailand and Southeast Asia in overthrowing the “Western saktiná stage” of world-history. Zeller even mentioned the possibility of engaging in historiography from the vantage point of “saktiná history”—that is, of analyzing history as domination and the struggle against it. Such could be a dialectical counterpart to the “dharma history” or “Bodhisattva history” Kim Stanley Robinson envisions in his alternate-history book, The Years of Rice and Salt: namely, “any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world [… or] which suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward […]” (Stanley Robinson, 2002, p. 733).

At the panel “Biopolitical Spaces of Resistance and Domination,” Jennifer Lawrence presented on critical artworks developed in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the emancipatory potential for aesthetic eco-resistance as a means of speaking to truth to power and its propaganda in a talk called “In Order Not to Die from the Truth: Disaster, Art, Resistance.” Lawrence’s co-panelist James Stanescu then expounded on stupidity, rationality, and animality. He noted that we humans cannot suppress our similarity with the other animals with whom we have co-evolved: that children cannot but recognize themselves in apes and vice versa, and that the interest we take in clowns, metaphysics, and the aesthetic dimension reflects our prehistorical, primordial animality. The “idiot,” in the sense of an intellectually challenged person, slows everything down, and asks the questions which need answering. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, it is a question of becoming-minor, or “becoming-animal.” Stanescu cited Marcuse’s observation in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that materialism demands the overcoming of the ill-treatment of non-human animals in the historical process, and that our profound commonality with the other animals should lead us to conceive of our own selves as potential “meat,” and thus to reject speciesism on the one hand while practically adopting veganism or vegetarianism on the other. Alexander Stoner spoke next on “Human-Ecological Transformation and Contemporary Ecological Subjectivity,” addressing the dynamics of capitalism and discontents revolving around catastrophic climate change and the environmental crisis writ large. Taking an historical view, Stoner examined the challenges presented by environmentalism during the third quarter of the twentieth century (1950-1975), as more people came to question the superfluousness of work and the utter irrationality of environmental destructiveness, but he noted how the realm of necessity re-asserted itself in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation,” much as the Empire strikes back. Stoner spoke to the seeming paradox of increased environmental attention and concern amidst accelerating planetary degradation, and asked whether, as eco-crisis becomes increasingly apparent, the causes of this crisis are becoming increasingly illusory. Stoner took Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) to task in this sense, for Klein identifies the problem as neoliberal capitalism—a surface phenomenon—rather than the capitalist system as such. The speaker expressed concern that radical environmentalists who fail to advance the understanding that it is capitalism which is the problem—as expressed, for example, in Allan Schnaiberg’s formulation of the “treadmill of production”—we will in fact run the risk of enabling capital. Stoner nonetheless conceded that Klein’s examination of the alternative represented by “Blockadia” has value, though he clearly indicated the superiority of anti-capitalist analyses that concern themselves with the productive apparatus, as compared with primarily redistributional approaches like social democracy or Keynesianism.

During the final session Saturday afternoon, SU Professor Michael O’Loughlin gave a presentation on “Dispelling Ideology: Marx, Marcuse, and Chomsky.” During this talk, O’Loughlin principally counterposed the philosophies of Marcuse and Chomsky, stressing that the former—that is to say, the Marcuse of One-Dimensional Man—is far more pessimistic than Chomsky, who believes that the various problematics of capitalism and domination can be resolved through progressive activism and anarcho-syndicalism. Whereas Marx believed the subject in struggle to be the proletariat, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man more or less expresses the thought that false consciousness is all-consuming, that class-consciousness is marginal, and that there is “No Exit” from the capitalist hell. Yet O’Loughlin conceded in passing that, by the time Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) had been published, numerous radical movements had arisen across the globe to challenge regnant one-dimensionality. The professor argued that Chomsky, throughout his sustained and productive career as radical public intellectual, has sought to undermine ruling mystifications through empirical “takedowns” which activate public reason and the instinct for freedom he, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believes humans innately to possess, as well as by promoting alternative modes of social organization rooted in equality, justice, and democracy. Chomsky’s intellectual and political activism was portrayed as following from the dissident’s faith in ordinary’s people capacity for reason and his belief that intellectuals must be with “the people,” and that the revolution will be made by everyday people themselves. Though O’Loughlin did not explicitly proclaim the inverse of such comments—that is, that Marcuse was an aloof elitist and authoritarian who despaired of the people’s incapacity for critical thought and revolutionary social transformation—it was to a degree implied, however great a distortion of Marcuse’s life and work such an interpretation would be! It is quite unjust to limit “Marcuse” to his most pessimistic book, One-Dimensional Man, and to suggest that he, like Vladimir Lenin or the Jacobins, did not believe that the common people proper were capable of changing the world. One need only consult Marcuse’s 1978 conversation with Habermas and company, “Theory and Politics,” to be freed of such an illusion, for in this intervention, the critical theorist declares faithfully that “everyone knows what is necessary,” and that the truth of a revolutionary general will and “the possibilities for its realization” are demonstrable to all (Marcuse et al. 1978/1979, pp. 136-138).

O’Loughlin concluded his presentation by considering three future scenarios for the U.S. in January 2016: the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, thus confirming the deepest pessimism of One-Dimensional Man; the alternate presidential inauguration of Bernie Sanders, an eventuality which O’Loughlin believed would be consonant with the spirit of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation; and the inauguration of Hillary Rodham Clinton, signifying a compromise between these two options, and a “partial” victory for social movements, in O’Loughlin’s analysis. Whatever the outcome of the elections, though, it ultimately remains puzzling to associate Marcuse with electoral politics at all, given his well-established emphasis on extra-parliamentary opposition as the primary means of historical progress.



Marcuse, H, Habermas, J, Lubasz, H, & Spengler, T. (1978/1979). “Theory and Politics,” Telos 38.

Stanley Robinson, K. (2002). The Years of Rice and Salt. New York: Bantam.


Dialectical Light, Nature, Negation: Modern Minima Moralia Project

December 3, 2015


Published on Heathwood Press, 30 November 2015


Nature-History Walk. To take a walking tour within a natural-history museum located in New York City amidst the sixth mass-extinction of life on Earth is to experience the contradictions of reveling in the profundity of natural beauty while consciously or subconsciously bearing witness to capital’s ceaseless war on existence and evolution. It is true that, in contradistinction to most other museum exhibits on display in the heart of empire—by nature affirmative—the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York at least provides some critical perspectives on the profundity of the present environmental crisis: the curators have recognized that we “may” be in the throes of this sixth mass-extinction event. Within the museum’s Hall of Biodiversity is emblazoned a warning made by the politically authoritarian biologist Paul R. Ehrlich: that, in “pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” The AMNH has also promoted Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 investigative volume into this most distressing of realities, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[1] Yet the spirit of absolute negativity to which the sixth extinction attests hardly can be said to permeate the exhibits within the museum that examine the relationship between nature and humanity: quite naturally, these presentations in no way explicitly recognize the responsibility that capitalism and domination bear for the current ecocidal and suicidal natural-historical trajectory. To a degree, then, the clear link that exists between the social relations imperant in the world outside the museum—as well, indeed, as inside it—and the unmitigated destruction of life on Earth’s continents and oceans can thus only be made intuitively. The unity of all living things—and hence the vast disunity which ecocide implies—can indeed be perceived in the contemplation of the great similarities between the human visitor and the numerous other species on display in the Great Hall of Biodiversity, as in the compelling hall on oceanography, the exhibits on African, Asian, and North American mammals, the Hall of Primates, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

As the museum’s displays are directed primarily toward children, and considering the multitudes of minors who visit the museum with their families and on school-trips, it is to be hoped that these children, as well as their adult counterparts, grasp the more subversive meanings that the encounter with life and evolution can yield, activating Eros, biophilia, and—yes—revolutionary sadness in a counter-move to hegemonic brutality and unreason. However, childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child. For our part, we adults have overwhelmingly abdicated. The coral reefs are in the process of practically all being boiled off, the Arctic is melting, and Amazonia is choked by drought, while every successive year brings record-breaking global temperature rises together with record-breaking aggregate carbon emissions. In the destruction of the life-world has the nightmare of childhood come true.


Denial of Affirmation. Theodor W. Adorno writes that “[t]he will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live.”[2] Whether the philosopher meant with this to comment on evolutionary processes as a whole or human social organization more narrowly, it is certainly well-said as a description of existence in late capitalism. The seeming contemporary universality of Android and iPhones in U.S. society, for instance, presupposes the super-exploitation of Chinese proletarians who produce the devices directly, as well as slavery and genocidal wars in central Africa related to control over the extraction of the various minerals necessary for such cellular technologies. The libidinal attachment many of us users have to our smartphones, the means with which we connect, rests precisely on the suicide, suffering, and death of our fellow laborers elsewhere—just as the casual use of air travel for work (or “business”), study, vacations, weddings, funerals, political meetings, and even revolutionary summits implies the destruction of the lives of those imperiled by the droughts, famines, and superstorms brought on by anthropogenic climate disruption, to say nothing of our poor future human generations, or the millions of other species devastated by the cancerous capitalist growth economy. In psychological terms, it would seem that people who are complicit in these systems of oppression regularly repress their participation in them in a parallel manner to the way the thought of death is continuously warded off: that is, to avoid inducing terror and Angst. The solipsism of such interpersonal brutality is reflected as well in the thoughtless and entirely unnecessary consumption of non-human animals and their products for sustenance, as in the utilization of animals for medical ‘research’—whether it is a matter of “testing out” the latest pharmaceutical absurdity, or developing drugs that are actually needed for human welfare. Even if one were to be a strict vegan for whom no medication involving vivisection would be indicated, the vegetables, fruits, and legumes one consumes to maintain one’s constitution are almost invariably cultivated by migrant workers who labor and survive in neo-feudal conditions. Practically the same is true for any new article of clothing one may purchase at present. What is more, those who can regularly afford organic food in the U.S. are usually more economically privileged—while a mass-turn to popular urban agriculture as a progressive-collective movement may not be advisable in many U.S. cities, due to the very accumulated and ongoing pollution spewed by the workplaces, cars, and trucks that underpin the monopolist-capitalist everyday.[3] No individual or individualist solution is possible for such negative realities; clearly, it is capitalism and the domination of nature that are the primary problems. Yet amidst the negative context, one cannot reproach others for adopting positions of personal resistance: for non-cooperation embodies the “Great Refusal” that is radically opposed to consumerism and getting along, with all the vast suffering, exploitation, and destruction these imply. As negations of what exist, the ideas and practices of voluntary simplicity and anarchism, together with the militant minority that strives quixotically to be faithful to these ideals, prefigure the possibility of an entirely different and potentially reconciled world-order, one that humanity in concert is capable of bringing into being. Yet the observed conformist attachment to the dominant values and badly misnamed “goods” handed down by the capitalist system, for example, in mainstream U.S. society, presents a great challenge to this potentially hopeful prospect for transformation—does it not?


Historical Climates, Dialectical Light. Disconcerting is the experience of visiting familiar places—cities, states, and regions—and observing how their climates have changed so drastically over the course of just the past ten to fifteen years. Summers in southern California reach much higher temperatures now as compared to the average experienced during my adolescence, while the falls retain the vernal warmth too long in the Pacific Northwest and mid-Atlantic U.S. East Coast. Moreover, there is so little rain, such that wildfires have raged, burning up at least 11 million acres in 2015.[4]

Diagnostic impression: the planet is running a fever that may prove fatal. Featuring a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), 2015 is the hottest year on record, with seven of the first nine months of this year having been the hottest recorded since 1880.[5] The Indonesian peat-bog fires of 2015 can be clearly observed from a satellite a million miles from Earth, and half the myriad tree species of the Amazon are threatened with immediate extinction.[6] The ongoing destruction of life on Earth thus illustrates the world “radiant with triumphant calamity” identified by Max Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)—together with the “allied […] melancholy hope” Adorno feels “for other stars,” as he expresses in reflections on Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, for “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised” (1971).[7] Since the time during which such words were written, monopoly capitalism’s “Great Acceleration” has expanded calamity and irrationality to unbounded dimensions, and the fate of human and non-human life is at stake. In this way, the negative hegemonic light which falsely illuminates the world constitutes the inversion of the “Luz” (“Light”) which guided the Mexican anarchist movement as part of the anti-authoritarian syndicalist wing of the International—together with the “Lucha” (“Struggle”) that its constituents recognized as the dialectical means by which to counterpose the emancipatory spectrum of colors: that is, through rationalist education and anarcho-syndicalist federations, inter alia.[8] It is negative-dialectical thought and spirit that seeks the total overturning of atrocity and authority, as both mobilize to ensure the inertial reproduction of the social-property relations impelling self-destruction.


Medical-Industrial Waste. Is it not a contradiction for one to work to promote health while acting to degrade human-environmental health—to affirm wanton wastefulness in the provision of healthcare? One thinks of mobile vans that open access to medical services within particularly oppressed communities, but that continuously emit noxious, nauseating, and cancerous gases during their hours of operation. In parallel, the present “best practice” in several U.S. cities seemingly is to run ambulances incessantly on diesel, a known carcinogen.[9] A not dissimilar dynamic governs the driving of personal cars to any work-site, though the contradiction seems most evident in terms of labor, for example, at community clinics—the pollution emitted by workers’ and providers’ commute rains down from the highways onto the very communities whose individuals, particularly children, present to such clinics for treatment of various ailments, many of them indeed related to the normalization of environmental racism and class apartheid within capitalist society. “[A]t no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as [the present], where children go hungry and the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs,” writes Horkheimer.[10] Just where do doctors and nurses think all the waste produced by mainstream medical practice goes? To be fair, this problem is in no way limited to the fields of medicine and nursing. Few of us wish to think of the ever-burgeoning landfills filled with plastic and the vast chemical pollution born through production and consumption patterns in the West, the medical-industrial complex, and global capitalism taken as a whole. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is the dynamic of bourgeois society externalizing its problems to the detriment of the commons—reflected in turn in the frequent compulsion to “just focus on the details,” not the larger picture or world, and never to “get distracted.” According to their own maxims, practitioners of medicine and nursing must firstly do no harm, and it is for this reason that they should resist the “business-as-usual” imperatives of mass-wastefulness together with the rackets trading internationally in wastes, in effect dumping hazardous wastes—medical-industrial and nuclear—on impoverished societies like Haiti, Somalia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.[11] Perhaps the increased adoption of the practice of sterilizing medical equipment, as in autoclaves, and the use of vegetable oil-powered mobile vans and ambulances could represent but two facets of elements of a rational transition toward a health-care model instituting a holistic, Hegelian-anarchist perspective, integrating concern for the means to the desired end of collective, social, and terrestrial well-being: an overcoming of the bad present that, in seeking to attend to the wounds and other ailments caused by prevailing power, as by historical circumstances, greatly avoids the generation of new ones in the overall healing process.


Locomotive Ride. Global class society, as Walter Benjamin knew, resembles a train headed to disaster.[12] On this ride the passengers are governed by necessity, coercion, distraction, and integration. Intuitively they sense the falsity and danger of the established course, and though they sympathize with the erotic cry of life—the beauty in the lands passed by, as well as nature’s marked recent deadening—their immediate concerns are with particulars, like family, work, and entertainment. By design, some of the cars lack windows with which to even regard the outside world, while in others—particularly the work-sites of the laboring classes—they are shuttered, and external reality ignored. The laborers exhaust, injure, sicken, and kill themselves to keep the engine running, while the members of the upper classes dine in the luxury sleepers. Ubiquitous police, surveillance, and security measures ensure that the system continues on lock. As the train accelerates, those on board increasingly sense the abyss toward which the conductors are driving them. Over the intercom system they are not informed of the train’s route, whether precisely or generally speaking, other than to be told that all is well, that they should soon expect some minor alleviation in their conditions in recognition of their hard work, and not to worry about matters that are the exclusive concern of the administration anyway.

Amidst the directional negativity of this train, dissident groups in the working-class cars regard the given course as increasingly alarming, and they seek to distribute their findings and organize alternatives among the multitude. Even among the privileged there is a minority that concurs with the analysis for general alarm, and these renegade aristocrats surreptitiously share the knowledge to which they are privy with the workers, emphasizing the need to coordinate rebellion. Yet the train evermore accelerates, and a palpable sense of powerlessness and atomization dominates the passengers as a whole. Numerically speaking, most people on board this train would not be expected to favor the course taken by the administration, in light of the terminal consequences that are becoming increasingly evident. But what is to be done practically? Rational-collective choices self-evidently will not assert themselves ex nihilo under the reign of the Iron Cage. In light of the strict established security measures on board the class-divided train, it may well be that the workers cannot at this time storm the engine room to pull the emergency brake directly, as necessary as such a move might be—yet they could refuse their labor and disrupt the train’s route that careens to oblivion. Clearly, such a radical syndicalist approach would not be entirely without its losses, considering the injuries and deaths that would be outrightly inflicted by the police in reprisal to strikes, as well as the question of how non-cooperation would affect the well-being of workers’ children, and the possibility indeed that the rebellion would be crushed altogether. If it did not come at the right time, when would hope for social revolution return?

In the first place, the trajectory of the current course is clear enough. Beyond this, and to the question of the success or failure of the revolution, human history repeatedly demonstrates the anti-systemic activation of Eros under conditions of mass-rebellion.[13] It follows that the sacrifices of the rebels and martyrs of today and tomorrow disrupting the normal functioning of the system in an attempt to avert the destruction of self and Other would pale in comparison to the alternatives—if Eros cannot assert itself.


Images of Protest. I will say that the strongest protest-action in which I have participated was the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland on 2 November 2011. Though the strike in fact proved to be far from general, hundreds of thousands took part in rebellion and refusal that day. The climax of the day—which for many protestors likely also represented something of a peak life-experience—came in the late afternoon, as the mass-multitude converged on Oakland’s ports from the east, where the day of action had been based: Oscar Grant Plaza, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police could not stop the multitude as it took over the ramps and highways normally dedicated to the movement of capital and goods, pouring into the shipping terminals like alluvial fans. Once the port was taken over, protestors climbed on top of trucks, danced, cheered. Anarchist flags were waved, and one comrade knowingly expressed with a banner that said, “The People are Strong.” The port shut-down was truly a prefiguration of the radical change that could and can be accomplished through the collective organization of those from below—the reordering of the productive apparatus, its occupation and disarticulation. In this sense it was an action that has to my knowledge not been surpassed in scope in the U.S. since—to the detriment of the struggle, clearly, as capital markedly intensifies its destructiveness. Another recent mass-protest effort was made with the People’s Climate March (PCM) of September 2014, but as the organizers of this action in no way wanted to replicate the experience of Occupy, let alone the riots against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle (1999), the march was channeled into a non-threatening route, had no practical target, and made no demands, much less substantive ones.[14] Still, to recognize problems with the PCM’s organization is not to discount the authentic concern evinced by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the actions that day, including a number of explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-systemic contingents. The PCM’s approach was one that bears little in common with radical actions like the Oakland port shut-down and eco-socialist concepts of “Climate Satyagraha.”[15] The “Flood Wall Street” protest that followed the day after the PCM was more clearly in the militant spirit of Oakland, as it aimed to shut down New York’s financial district—though realistically, all we flooders accomplished was to blockade road access to the trading floor, and not to interrupt the normal functioning of capital inside.

Alongside the Oakland port shut-down, two other rebel-experiences I will share include the 2 October 2010 protests in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, and the anti-COP protests in Cancún in December 2010. 2 October, of course, marks the day on which the Mexican military murdered and forcibly disappeared hundreds of students and protestors assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics being hosted in the same city. For this reason this date is commemorated every year in Mexico—and indeed, it was to join the protest-action for the observance of the anniversary in Mexico City in 2014 that the 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared in Iguala by the State. In the highland city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, university students and other youth led the protest in 2010, occupying the main streets, disrupting the existing order, and distributing flyers to inform the public of their actions, in addition to engaging in direct action against symbolic and actual centers of reified power, such as the local headquarters of the National Action Party (PAN) and the transnationally owned OXXO convenience stores. In Cancún three months later, La Via Campesina organized a counter-summit to the official UN summit, COP-16, at which the member-states were supposedly meeting to discuss how to address the problem of climate change—a meeting which Obama did not deign to grace with his presence—and from this alternative summit in downtown Cancún some of the largest counter-mobilizations were organized. The Anti-C@P, a grouping of autonomous youth who proclaimed their opposition both to the COP process and to capitalism, engaged in a number of unpermitted actions in the streets, and had even planned to disrupt official celebrations being held at the luxury hotels on the city’s eastern peninsula, including one featuring the Mexican president, the head of the World Bank, and the owner of Walmart. However, the ubiquitous police check-points erected near the tourist zone dissuaded anti-C@P from following through on these plans. As with the general strike in Oakland proclaimed nearly a year later, and following the mass-action against the Copenhagen COP the year prior, the culmination of rebellion against COP-16 came during a mass-march from downtown Cancún to the Moon Palace several kilometers to the south, where the negotiations were in fact being held. By the end of the several hours-long counter-mobilization, which had been monitored closely by several military helicopters, most protestors were really quite tired. As we finally approached the Moon Palace, the official organizers of the march stopped and organized a rally, while the bolder among us pressed on. Though we did approximate the Moon Palace, eventually we came face-to-face with a police cordon several lines deep. Then suddenly, scores of more riot police appeared from the inauspiciously small building in which they had been hidden, awaiting us. None of us was prepared to resist such a show of force directly, so we retreated back to the rally, hopeful that our spirit of rebellion temporarily beyond the limits of the accepted and given was meaningful.

I can recall a far more desperate spirit during the counter-inauguration demos in Washington, D.C., in January 2005, as those assembled expressed displeasure with the legal continuation of the Bush regime. Access to the parade route was entirely blocked off by fences; police presence was heavy; and snipers could be readily perceived, perched atop several buildings. The presidential limo sped quickly past the section containing the protest block—no doubt just another “focus group” to Bush—what a despotic fool, reminiscent of the tsars. A similarly absurd and negating atmosphere surrounded Israel’s massacres in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009. I can never forget the expressions of rage and pain I encountered on the faces of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem during one of the first few days of the airstrikes and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. I had entered the Old City and the Occupied Palestinian Territories after having restfully visited Jordan’s Wadi Rum for Christmas. While being driven north from Jerusalem to Nablus, I saw that rocks were strewn on several roads, evidence of direct action taken by Palestinians against the reified, hated power of occupation and destruction. In Nablus itself, a protest camp was established in the dewar, or downtown circle, with the participation of several children (‘otfal), that involved art-making activities, speeches, denunciations, providence of news, publication of the faces of all those martyred. This solidarity arose despite the clear overall tensions between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian multitude participating in the commemorations and protests evinced a collectivist-humanist concern for the fate of their sisters and brothers suffering under the Israeli bombs in the other major Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than any adherence to divisive political ideologies. The same however cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority forces, who repressed numerous public expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, particularly in Ramallah.[16] I recall that on the New Year’s Friday demonstrations in Bi’lin—where the local Palestinian population has been cut off from its agrarian lands due to the erection of the Apartheid Wall—the Israeli forces were especially brutal, opening fire straightaway on the adolescent and youth sections of the weekly communal mobilization to resist colonization, rather than beginning by launching tear-gas grenades first. Among the Palestinians a great rage and outrage could thus readily be gleaned. “How dare they try to take our lives away from us, how dare they treat us like that?”[17] As a negative mirror-image of human rebellion, the cruelty of the occupying force was obvious for all to see.

The seemingly eternal return of negative historical developments in Palestine would re-assert itself most acutely in summer 2014, when the Israeli military once again engaged in a massively murderous campaign in Gaza. In New York, Direct Action for Palestine (DA4P) organized several emergency protest mobilizations in midtown Manhattan directed against the Israeli consulate; a number of banks financing Zionist crimes, including expropriation of land and settlement of the West Bank; and the Diamond District, comprised of numerous jewelry shops owned by Zionist Jews. In this last locale, we protestors encountered the fury of a number of Zionist chauvinists, thoughtlessly and incessantly chanting “Israel!” as we defied them, all the while the State they championed extinguished hundreds and thousands of Palestinian lives. Had it not been for the police cordon accompanying the march, ironically, several of us Palestinian sympathizers would likely have been attacked and injured by this proto-fascist mob. In such a strongly pro-Israeli city, we represented the militant minority opposing itself to authority, authoritarianism, settler-colonialism, and militarism, revindicating the right to rebel against despotism, injustice, domination, and absurdity. Retrospectively, though, in parallel to the counter-protests against COP and Wall Street, one can question whether DA4P concretely helped to stay Israel’s iron fist in any way. As Subcomandate Marcos—now Galeano—movingly observed during the winter 2008-2009 assault: “Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”[18] Yet, as Marcos/Galeano remarks, and as the resistance of Palestinians and their comrades demonstrates, it becomes necessary forthrightly to express one’s repudiation of events once these come to surpass basic principles of humanity so brazenly. “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people” (Adorno).[19]


Theses on Repressive Tolerance

1. I am in full agreement with Herbert Marcuse: there can be no right to advocate imperial war, exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, or genocide.[20] The numerous victims of capital, colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy—prisoners; the institutionalized; racial minorities in the West; women and children; LGBTQ individuals; workers; anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the millions of non-human animal species; and the biosphere as a whole—demand the overthrow of these systems of domination. Rather than any sense of expediency or conformism, concern for the fate of nature and history brutalized by hegemony must become central to radical ethics and politics today.

2. The concept of tolerance must return to its original sense of being a “weapon for humanity,” moving into the future victorious against the counterparts of the clerical-absolutist regimes of yesteryear.[21] This implies an active counter-movement from below incorporating direct action and dual-power to take down capitalism, militarism, and all other forms of oppression. Marcuse is right to stress that the revolt of the oppressed against the system historically has served to pause the continuum of domination—if only momentarily. One thinks of numerous historical examples illuminating the path: the French Revolution; Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals; the Paris Commune; the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and the Mexican Revolution; the February Revolution, deposing tsarism; the Spanish Revolution of 1936; Rubén Jaramillo, Genaro Vázquez, and Lucio Cabañas, Mexican guerrilleros; the global uprising of 1968; the Gwanju Commune; the Tahrir Commune; the Palestinian Intifada; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), among many others. As Marcuse observes rightly:

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions […] only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities […]—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.[22]

[1]     Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2]     Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (p. 229, E. F. N. Jephcott, trans.) London: Verso, 1974.

[3]     Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2014). Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan..

[4]     Agence France-Press. (2015, 14 October). “2015 becomes worst US wildfire year on record,” Retrieved 22 October 2015 from

[5]     Associated Press. (2015, 21 October). “Warmest September ever points to 2015 being world’s hottest year on record,” Guardian.

[6]     Plait, P. (2015, 27 October). “Indonesia Fires Seen From a Million Miles Away,” Slate. Retrieved 22 November from; Carrington, D. (2015, 20 November).“Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists,” Guardian.

[7]     Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002/1947/1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (p. 1E. Jephcott trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; Adorno, T. W. (1993). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (p. 154, E. Jephcott, trans.). Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

[8]     Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class (pp. 111-120). Austin: University of Texas Press This affirmation of Luz/Lucha in no way seeks to overlook its metamorphosis into the House of the Global Worker (COM), which during the Mexican Revolution unfortunately played the reactionary role of serving in the counter-insurgent war waged by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón against the Zapatistas (ibid, pp. 126-135).

[9]     Gani, A. and Nicholson, B. (2015, 28 October). “The 116 things that can give you cancer—the full list,” Guardian.

[10]   Horkheimer, M. (1993). Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings (p. 35, G. F. Hunter. trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[11]   Clapp, J. (2000). “Africa and the International Toxic Waste Trade” (pp. 103-124). In The Environment and Development in Africa (M. K. Tesi, ed). Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[12]   Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften I/3 (p. 1232). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag..

[13]   Katsiaficas, G. (2012-2013). Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: Volumes 1 and 2. Oakland, California: PM Press.

[14]   Gupta, A. (2014, 19 September). “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,” Counterpunch Retrieved 22 November 2015 from “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,”; Saul, Q (2014, 16 September). “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” Truthout. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from

[15]   Saul, Q. and Sethness Castro, J. (2015, 10 April). “On Climate Satyagraha,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from

[16]   Juma’, J. (2012, 3 July). “PA repression feeds flames of Palestinian discontent,” Electronic Intifada. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from

[17]   Holloway, J. (2010). “Of Despair and Hope,” Interventionistische Linke. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from

[18]   Subcomandante Marcos (2009, 1 February). “Gaza Will Survive,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from

[19]   Adorno, op. cit. (1974), p. 233.

[20]   Marcuse, H. (2014). Marxism, Revolution, Utopia: Collected Papers, Volume Six (pp. 293-297D. Kellner and C. Pierce, eds.). London: Routledge, 2014.

[21]   Ibid, pp. 218-221.

[22]   Marcuse, H. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance.” In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (p, 123, R. P. Wolff and B. Moore, Jr., eds.). Boston: Beacon Press.

New Prologue to Imperiled Life: 2015 Update

May 5, 2015
@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

@Santi Mazatl (Justseeds)

This is the translation of the new prologue written for the Spanish translation of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe (IAS/AK Press, 2012), entitled Clima, Ecocidio y Revolución, which has just been published by Bloque Libertario/Revuelta Epistémica in Mexico City.

Published originally on the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) website, 5 May 2015

“The revolution is for the sake of life, not death.”1
– Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension

I am very glad that this translation is being published in Spanish. It is important that critical writings be shared. Given that Imperiled Life came out nearly three years ago, I see it as necessary here to provide a brief update of some of the most important events that have taken place in these years, particularly with regard to environmental questions—as well as to reflect on the present status of anti-systemic social movements and to make some recommendations for eco-anarchist strategy and praxis.

It is clear that the magnitude of climate change has not diminished, let alone stopped, in the past three years. Instead, it has accelerated at an alarming rate. Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year for planet Earth since official records began at the end of the eighteenth century.2 In terms of average global temperatures, the months of May, June, and August 2014 broke all the previous records.3 In point of fact, the climatologist Don Wuebbles says that last year could have been the hottest year of the last five millennia, while a study published in Science in March 2013 shows us that average global temperatures are at present higher than 90% of those experienced during the entirety of the Holocene geological er. The Holocene began 12,000 years ago, when temperatures stabilized so as to allow for the development of agriculture and the misnomer “civilization.”4 Welcome, then, to the Anthropocene.

Given such an insane context, it should come as little surprise to consider that during the very warm winter of 2014, an entirely unprecedented amount of melting was experienced in Alaska—the result of a temperature spike of between 15 and 20°C (27-36°F) higher than the averages observed for this time of the year at the end of the twentieth century. Similarly, it should be noted that, at the beginning of 2013, the Australian Meteorological Institute saw it necessary to add a new color to its heat-index so as to depict the new temperature extremes raging at that time in the interior of the continent, which reached 54°C (129°F).5 What is more, the Amazon region is currently suffering its worst drought in the past century, the fatal result of global warming in combination with the mass-deforestation of the tropical rainforest.6 At the end of 2013, the Philippines was confronted with the strongest typhoon observed in history, leading to the death of 1,200 people.7 Beyond this, the latest biological data show a decline of a full half of terrestrial animal populations since 1970, and further that 41% of amphibians, 26% of mammals, 13% of birds, and one-fourth of marine species are at immediate risk of extinction.8 As Elizabeth Kolbert details in her eponymous 2014 work, we find ourselves fully immersed within the Sixth Mass Extinction.9

Increasingly more scientists are communicating to us openly about the profound gravity of the environmental crisis. During the forum on “Environment and Alternatives” that took place at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in June 2014, several experts from this institution concluded in unison that the ongoing destruction of the biosphere puts at risk the very existence of humanity, whereas two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January 2015 warned that the present rate of environmental degradation imperils complex life on the planet.10  In this sense, the British economist Nicholas Stern, the famous author of the 2006 Stern Report, declared at the start of 2013 that he should have been more direct about the risks that humanity and nature run due to climate catastrophe.11 For its own part, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows in its July 2014 report on the supposed “mitigation” of the climate crisis that the rate of emissions of carbon dioxide has burgeoned in recent decades: while said emissions expanded by 1.3% annually from 1970 to 2000, they increased by 2.2% each year during the first decade of the new millennium, leading to a disturbing annual increase of 3% in the most recent data, for 2010 and 2011.12 What is more, in early 2015, after having evaluated the twin threats of nuclear war and environmental crisis as it does every year, the association of atomic scientists which has run the “Doomsday Clock” since 1947 reported that it believed humanity to have only three minutes left before midnight: that is to say, before annihilation. This new symbolic revision of the time indicates that, in the analysis of these scientists, the present moment is the gravest moment since 1983, when there existed a serious risk that Ronald Reagan would initiate a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.13

t should thus be very clear that capital and authority have no solution for the climate or environmental crises, nor for the multidimensional crisis that is comprised of the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, beyond the ecological. The Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has since 2012 demonstrated its clear nature: to dawdle and babble on aimlessly amidst such an absolutely severe situation. In 2012 itself, the member-nations met in Doha for COP18, being for this reason the guests of the emir of Qatar. It is emblematic of the farcical nature of the COP that the Qatari emir, together with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the USA, has supported Islamist rebels in Syria that later would form the very basis of the Wahhabi forces of Islamic State (ISIS), and that thousands of migrant workers have lost their lives in recent years in this Gulf kingdom, where gargantuan buildings are constructed, as is evident in the case of the Qatar Foundation Stadium, which is to house the 2022 World Cup.14 As was seen in the experience of this COP in Doha, as well as during COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), all the recent UN conferences have left us with utter unreason: in Qatar, the member-nations effectively allowed the Kyoto Protocol to expire, while in terms of COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, nearly 30% of the world’s governments failed to even send ministerial representations.15 The most recent conference in Lima, Peru—COP20—appears to have been little more than preparation for the next meeting, to be held in Paris at the end of this year, where it is to be imagined that international conflicts will surge between the European Union and many Southern countries against the United States, which under the Obama administration has systematically ignored international law in favor of neoliberal deregulation and the false alternative of a “voluntary” climatic regime on the global level.16 In parallel terms, true authoritarianism was seen emanating from the “Citizens’ Revolution” of Rafael Correa during COP20, when several members of the Climate Caravan through Latin America were arrested for having expressed their opposition to the State’s plan to open the Yasuní National Park to oil drilling by Chinese capital.17 With regard to the bilateral accord signed between China and the U.S. at the end of 2014, it is clear that this agreement certainly would not limit the average-global temperature increase to 2°C higher than the average global temperatures which prevailed during preindustrial human history—with this being the level that is said to the “upper limit” before the triggering of a truly global suicide, though even this assessment might be overly optimistic—even if such minimal changes were observed in reality.18  Given the present trajectory of economic expansion that is foreseen for both the People’s Republic of China and the U.S., the chance that such demands would be observed is rather slim.

In light of the gravity of the present situation, we must not resign ourselves to the facts at hand—for, if there is no global social revolution in the near term, there would seem to be no future for the life of humanity and the rest of nature. There exist several historical and contemporary examples of how to mobilize so as to promote and carry out profound changes in society. I agree with Peter Stanchev in holding the neo-Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the anarchistic experiment of the Kurds in Rojava to be stars that illuminate our path toward the possible anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecological future.19  In reflecting on the proposals set forth by the Mexican anarchists Ricardo Flores Magón and Práxedis G. Guerrero a century ago, it is elemental to affirm the place of direct action as a means of achieving social equality and climate justice.20 I would like to call special attention to the proposal made by the Environmental Union Caucus of the International Workers of the World (IWW EUC) for an ecological general strike, which shares many commonalities with the concept of climate Satyagraha that has been advanced by Ecosocialist Horizons.21 In both cases, the idea is that the masses of associated people express their “truth-force” by intervening and interrupting the functioning of the global machine of production and death while they also develop an inclusive, participatory, and liberatory counter-power—a global confederation of humanity instituting ecological self-management.

The question for the moment, then, is how to contribute to the flowering of this global people’s uprising toward happiness, liberation, and Eros, in the words of George Katsiaficas.22 I will leave the final word for the slogan thought up by B. R. Ambedkar, the twentieth-century Dalit social critic: “Educate! Agitate! Organize!”

1 Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 56.

2 Suzanne Goldenberg, “2014 officially the hottest year on record,” The Guardian, 16 January 2015.

3 John Vidal, “August was hottest on record worldwide, says Nasa,” The Guardian, 16 September 2014.

4 Goldenberg; Shaun A. Marcott et al., “A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperatures for the Past 11,300 Years,” Science, 8 March 2013. Available online:

5 Robert Scribbler, “Arctic Heat Wave Sets off Hottest Ever Winter-Time Temperatures, Major Melt, Disasters for Coastal and Interior Alaska,” 28 January 2014. Available online: Jon Queally, “Burning ‘Deep Purple’: Australia So Hot New Color Added to Index,” Common Dreams, 8 January 2013.

6 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

7 Jonathan Watts, “Brazil’s worst drought in history prompts protests and blackouts,” The Guardian, 23 January 2015; Manuel Mogato, “Typhoon kills at least 1,200 in Philippines: Red Cross,” Reuters, 9 November 2013.

8 Damian Carrington, “Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian, 29 September 2014; Robin McKie, “Earth faces ‘sixth extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo,” The Guardian, 13 December 2014; Tom Bawden, “A quarter of the world’s marine species in danger of extinction,” The Independent, 30 January 2015.

9 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

10 Emir Olivares Alonso, “El planeta ante un crisis que pone en riesgo la humanidad,” La Jornada, 4 June 2014; Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.

11 Heather Stewart, “Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change,’” The Guardian, 26 January 2013.

12 Suzanne Goldenberg, “UN: rate of emissions growth nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century,” The Guardian, 11 April 2014.

13 Tom Bawden, “Doomsday clock: We are closer to doom than at any time since the Cold War, say scientists,” The Independent, 22 January 2015.

14 Josh Rogin, “America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS,” The Daily Beast, 14 June 2014; Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson, “Death toll among Qatar’s 2022 World Cup workers revealed,” The Guardian, 23 December 2014.

15 Sophie Yeo, “Warsaw climate talks: nearly 3 in 10 countries not sending ministers,” The Guardian, 13 November 2013.

16 John Vidal, “Is the Lima deal a travesty of global climate justice?” The Guardian, 15 December 2014.

17 Red Contra la Represión, “Libertad a Cristian Rosendahl Guerrero y contra las agresiones a la Caravana Climatica,” Enlace Zapatista, 14 December 2014; David Hill, “Ecuador pursued China oil deal while pledging to protect Yasuni, papers show,” The Guardian, 19 February 2014.

18 Ibid.

19 Peter Stanchev, “From Chiapas to Rojava—more than just coincidences,” Kurdish Question, 6 February 2015.

20 Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (New York: Zone Books, 2014); Práxedis G. Guerrero, Artículos literarios y de combate: pensamientos; crónicas revolucionarias, etc. Placer Armado Ediciones, 2012 (1924), 28.

21 Elliott Hughes and Steve Ongerth, “Towards an Ecological General Strike: the Earth Day to May Day Assembly and Days of Direct Action,” IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, 30 March 2014. Available online: “Call for Climate Satyagraha!” Ecosocialist Horizons, 3 November 2014. Available online:

22 George Katsiaficas, “Toward a Global People’s Uprising” (2009). Available online:

Herbert Marcuse and Absolute Struggle in 2013

December 16, 2013


First published on Counterpunch16 December 2013

One can delineate the domain of philosophy however one likes, but in its search for truth, philosophy is always concerned with human existence. Authentic philosophizing refuses to remain at the stage of knowledge […]. Care for human existence and its truth makes philosophy a ‘practical science’ in the deepest sense, and it also leads philosophy—and this is the crucial point—into the concrete distress of human existence.” 

Herbert Marcuse, “On Concrete Philosophy” (1929)

From Thursday 7 to Saturday 9 November 2013, the fifth biannual conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society took place at the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington. With the theme this year being “Emancipation, New Sensibility, and the Challenge of a New Era: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy,” the conference opened space for 25 panels, three plenaries, and two keynote addresses dedicated to examining the thought of Marcuse’s Hegelian-Marxist critical theory and the myriad ways by which it might be applied to the difficulties of the present. The conference itself was co-sponsored by several UK departments, including philosophy, sociology, political science, international studies, and others, and UK philosophy professor Arnold Farr served as the conference’s host and master of ceremonies of sorts. As it was would have been difficult to attend all—let alone one-third—of the panels on offer at the conference over the course of its three days, this report-back will concentrate only on those I saw and found most stimulating. In the very first panel of the conference early on Thursday morning—some of which I missed, including Professor Robespierre de Oliviera’s intervention which had to do with the 2013 revolts in Brazil—Prof. Lauren Langman spoke to the “Interesting Times” in which we live. Reflecting on Marcuse’s 1963 lecture on the “Obsolescence of Freudian Man [Humanity]” 50 years later, he made the claim that the vast majority of people in the U.S. should now be considered as no longer having a Freudian character—that is to say, one whose ego and superego are formed through the primary conflict with the father-figure—but he stressed that Freudian analyses still retain importance in U.S. society, particularly as means of analyzing the Tea Party and emerging neo-fascist movements. Those individuals who make up these movements are conformists who resist change; as they are worried about losing their privileges, Langman claimed them to be beset by the “anal character” postulated by Freud. The professor contrasted these reactionary contemporary developments with the “Great Refusal” theorized by Marcuse a half-century ago, by which the human organism in its entirety is to rebel against organized destruction and alienation, in addition to the “SexPol” of fellow German social critic Wilhelm Reich, whereby the prospect of social liberation was to be improved by approaches which encouraged open and pleasurable sexual expression among adolescents. It should be noted here, as Langman did, that for such unorthodox views Reich was expelled from both the German Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytical Association—just as Marcuse was fired from Brandeis University in 1965 for his radical refusal to separate philosophy from its practical, revolutionary implications: the radical struggle (Radikalkampf) against domination. Returning to his analysis of the prevailing situation, Langman was happy to cite the December 2011 Pew Research Center polls indicating that about 50% of U.S. youth consider socialism preferable over capitalism. Acknowledging the very real risk of “planetary catastrophe” in this century because of the entrenched dominance of the capitalist mode of production, Langman closed his intervention by noting that the twenty-first century would like the twentieth face the choice of a liberatory socialism or a Mad Max sort of barbarism. After Langman’s talk came Andrés Ortiz Lemos’s intervention on “The Fata Morgana of Technology” within the “Citizen Revolution in Ecuador.” Presenting his paper on the subject, Ortiz Lemos sought to apply Marcuse’s critical analysis of instrumental rationality—or what Marcuse at times also terms technical rationality—to President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. The process by which utilization of capitalist scientific methods leads inevitably to the reification of consciousness should not be considered as limited only to “advanced industrial” settings, argued Ortiz Lemos, for, in his argument, Correa has clearly employed science and technology as a means of silencing critics of his “Citizen Revolution.” As a prime example of this dynamic, Ortiz Lemos discussed Correa’s grandiose plan to build Yachay, or the “City of Knowledge” (Ciudad del Conocimiento) as a South American equivalent of sorts to Silicon Valley. The idea of Yachay, which has received the blessing of such scientific celebrities as Stephen Hawking, is to supplement Ecuador’s export of primary resources through extractivism with an ever-increasing export of advanced techno-knowledge. Naturally, as Ortiz Lemos discussed, Yachay is to be a highly exclusive institution, not one accessible to ordinary Ecuadoreans. Indeed, the speaker likened Correa’s plan for Yachay to Argentinian President Juan Perón’s fantastical scheme to green-light a plan hatched in 1950 by ex-Nazi scientists by which they would attempt to develop fusion power at a remote site in the Andes—as with Correa and Yachay, Perón employed the “technical rationality” represented by such a work toward the end of demobilizing his opponents. In closing, Ortiz Lemos contrasted the Correa government’s stipulated commitment to the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay, or “good-living,” given Correa’s increasingly techno-bureaucratic politics, and he noted in hopeful terms the strength of indigenous social movements in the country. Following the initial panel discussion on Marcuse and recent social movements came the panel “Ecology, Biopolitics, and Aesthetics,” which began with Brazilian doctoral student Silvio Ricardo Gomes Carneiro speaking to the aesthetic specters found in Marcuse’s work, from his very first scholarly work on The German Artist-Novel (1922), which examined the conflicts between the alienated artist and the surrounding capitalist society, to Eros and Civilization (1955), Marcuse’s famous synthesis of Marx and Freud, and beyond. For Gomes Carneiro, art in Marcuse’s conception constitutes a sort of guerrilla warfare against one-dimensional society and the administered life; at its best, aesthetics can help break the reification of consciousness. Professor Imaculada Kangussu followed by reflecting on Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation (1969) with her talk on “The Aesthetic Ethos of Real Life.” Beginning dialectically by citing Augustine of Hippo’s saying that “Where the danger grows is also found what can save us,” Kangussu brought up Marcuse’s observation that radical political alternatives which are dismissed as “utopian” are considered so only because they are blocked from being realized by established power relations. According to Marcuse (and Kangussu), the struggle to bring to life the “utopian” possibilities of the present is one that takes place even and especially at the level of the individual organism, such that the individual’s progression beyond conformity to and complicity with the brutality and aggressiveness required under relations of domination serves as a forerunner prefiguring the overturning of such domination. In Marcuse’s view, as he famously develops it in the Essay on Liberation, morality is an inherent “’disposition’ of the organism,” one which works to counteract the grip of death (Thanatos) on the individual and societal levels.1 A sensitization to aesthetics can aid the organism to overcome established domination, as Kangussu argued (following Marcuse), for art is indelibly linked with the human imagination, which turns its focus onto “things that are not and things that should be.” In aiding in the development of a new human sensibility, aesthetics can assist emancipatory movements to realize liberation. Kangussu quotes Marcuse:

“This would be the sensibility of men and women who do not have to be ashamed of themselves anymore because they have overcome their sense of guilt: they have learned not to identify with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and and forgotten the Auschwitzs and Vietnams of history, the torture chambers of all the secular and ecclesiastical inquisitions and interrogations, the ghettos and the monumental temples of corporations, and who have worshiped the higher culture of this reality. If and when men and women act and think free from this identification, they will have broken the chain which linked the fathers and sons from generation to generation. They will not have redeemed the crimes against humanity, but they will have become free to stop them and to prevent their recommencement.”2

Transitioning to questions of ecology, Brandon Huson presented on agroecology as a form of “Food Production that Liberates.” He noted agroecological practices to be superior to dominant chemical-industrial ones, given their potential to be freed from market strictures and based on local knowledges. Additionally, he argued that observing agroecology could help considerably to reconstitute soils depleted by previous agricultural practices and pragmatically to improve crisis resilience for local communities in light of negating future eventualities such as oil-price shocks. I then presented my paper on “Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse,” which I introduced by noting the “continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day” and the “critical-dialectical perspectives” provided by these three theorists, which I believe “hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together.” I began by considering Karl Marx’s views on imperialism, which are to a degree marred by the deterministic view that all non-capitalist societies of the world would have first to be subjected to the torturous path of capitalist industrialization as a precondition of later attaining communism—though he famously broke with this view late in life, particularly after studying ethnology and anthropology in depth. Marx ultimately came to conclude that the agricultural collectivism evinced for example in the Russian mir system presented an alternative that could allow for a direct path to communism, if those participating within the mir would be helped along by revolutionary proletarians in the West. Marx definitely presented some problematic views on the British Raj in India during his 1853-1858 journalistic work with the New York Tribune—views that would lead Edward W. Said to denounce him in Orientalism—yet he also precociously called for Indian independence from Britain long before any Indian nationalist had done so, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny against the Raj. In Capital volume 1, moreover, Marx defines his theory of primitive accumulation in the following anti-imperialist fashion:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”3

Though greatly influenced by Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, on the other hand, did not share Marx’s impassioned humanism with regard to non-European peoples: it would seem that his social critique revolved principally around contemplation of the Shoah, such that the genocidal social exclusion imposed by fascism became primary within his thought, to the detriment of other important considerations. Adorno was unfortunately an unreflective Zionist, and he and his colleague Max Horkheimer called Gamel Abdel Nasser a “fascist chieftain” in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis.4 However, more than a decade later, Adorno rightly spoke of the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and he clearly locates the U.S. war against that country as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz. Though his anti-militarist position is far more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who rather bizarrely supported the U.S. war effort, Adorno did not engage in any sort of concrete activism to resist the war drive during his last years of life in Germany, unlike Marcuse, who received several death-threats from right-wing groups in the U.S. due precisely to his opposition to the war and his agitating for radical social change more broadly. Marcuse himself considered national-liberation struggles as the most revolutionary developments on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and he welcomed the coming of the Cuban and Chinese Revolutions. Marcuse also visited historical Palestine in 1971, and rather than parrot Zionist narratives at this time, his perspective as communicated in his Jerusalem Post article “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede” clearly acknowledges the vast injustices done to the native Palestinian population in the founding and maintenance of the Jewish State, and though he endorses Israel’s right to exist, he calls for Palestinian self-determination and just settlement of the refugees; he sees these “interim solutions” as stopgap measures which might lead one day to a Middle Eastern “socialist federation” in which Arabs and Jews would coexist as “equal partners.”5 During the visit he and his wife Inge made to Nablus in 1971, indeed, Marcuse expressed highly unorthodox views for a supporter of Israel, noting that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”6 In terms of ecology, I sought to express my opposition to recent interpretations of Marx’s thought which have stressed his supposed contributions as an ecologist, as most notably advanced in the writings of John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology, The Ecological Revolution, and The Ecological Rift, among other titles. I am very far from convinced that contemplation of Marx’s passing references to the depletion of soils resulting from the introduction of capitalist agricultural practices should lead us to embrace him as a trailblazing environmentalist. Instead, in my view, Marx was far more concerned with communist humanism than ecology; he was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—uncritical—view of industrialism, and I am sympathetic to Adorno’s declaration that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”7 It is important not to confuse Marx’s industrialism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller. Adorno himself, on the other hand, expressed much concern for the destructive effects capitalism and industry have had on non-human nature, and he would often champion animal rights and vegetarianism. Indeed, the question of the domination of nature is central to the entirety of his social philosophy, from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Aesthetic Theory (published posthumously in 1970). In the latter work, Adorno observes that experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination,” and he argues that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants.”8 Similarly, in his 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of this concept, whereby it is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which renders it capable of “becom[ing] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[ging] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”9 Lastly in this sense, environmentalism and concern for nature are rather evident in much of Marcuse’s mature works—his early, uncritical lapse on the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) notwithstanding. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse integrates Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable, and in both One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse argues for the importance of vastly reducing the suffering humanity imposes on non-human animals, though he stops short of endorsing vegetarianism in the latter work. Identifying nature as an “ally” in the struggle against capitalism in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse takes issue with the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature”: though this is clearly preferable to capitalism’s utter destruction of the biosphere, Marcuse criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled, and he reiterates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature in this sense.10 Following this panel, the next major event at the conference was Professor Richard Wolin’s keynote address on “Marcuse and the New Left: Emancipatory Violence as a Problem of Political Philosophy.” Wolin, author of Heidegger’s Children and co-editor of a collection of Marcuse’s writings from his period of study with Martin Heidegger, Heideggerian Marxism, used his comments to discuss a brief period in the 1960’s when Marcuse is said to have flirted with the concepts of revolutionary violence and of a transitional dictatorship away from capitalism (1964-1968). He opened by arguing that Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which famously theorizes the Marcusean pessimism which claimed the working classes of the advanced-industrial West to have been hopelessly integrated into the capitalist system, may well have over-exaggerated the claim that the established system enjoyed control over its subjects. Wolin noted that the negating fate of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 left Marcuse with a permanent distrust of liberalism, given that it was the reformist Social Democrats who ordered the insurgent proletarian and soldier movements at the end of World War I to be smashed; Wolin said that this experience indelibly left a gap in thought between Marcuse and the New Left in the U.S., even if Marcuse came to be known as the “guru” or even “father” of the New Left (terms he reportedly disliked); Wolin noted that the U.S. New Left was not so intransigently opposed to liberalist reformism. Marcuse’s view, then, that U.S. social institutions were politically unserviceable led him to hold out the need for an extra-systemic intervention; like Frantz Fanon, Marcuse saw this development—the veritable embodiment of the Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic—in the anti-colonial insurrections of the 1950’s and 1960’s: principally in Castro and Che as well as the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. war. Meanwhile in Germany, student radical Rudi Dutschke applied Marcuse’s theories by holding the attainment of revolutionary progress to be a matter of will, given that the material conditions were already ripe for the jettisoning of capitalism; the idea, which influenced groups like the Weather Undeground and the Red Army Faaction (the Baader-Meinhof group), was that the national-liberation struggles must have parallel groupings in the metropole. It is doubtful that those attracted to Dutschke’s advocacy of direct action or “actionism” paid much heed in this sense to Jürgen Habermas’s much-reviled denunciation of a tendency he saw as leading toward “Left fascism” at this time. Within this tumultuous confluence of events and thought, argued Wolin, Marcuse came closer and closer to endorsing authoritarian methods of “forcing the people to be free”: from the lamentation over the pervasiveness of false consciousness and the identification of “totalitarian democracies” in the West as expressed in One-Dimensional Man, it was not so great of a leap to advocate revolutionary dictatorship as a temporary corrective of sorts. According to Wolin, Marcuse must have felt the risks of such a dictatorship to be less than those associated with liberal or Stalinist regimes; the speaker even cited Marcuse’s declaration in Eros and Civilization that, “From Plato to Rousseau, the only honest answer is the idea of an educational dictatorship, exercised by those who are supposed to have acquired knowledge of the real Good.” Curiously, though, Wolin failed to include Marcuse’s next sentence in his comments refuting the idea: “The answer has since become obsolete: knowledge of the available means for creating a humane existence for all is no longer confined to a privileged elite.”11 Wolin instead pressed on attempting to trace the influence of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt on Marcuse’s thought during this period, as supposedly seen for example in Marcuse’s 1967 defense of the minoritarian insurrectional tactics of Gracchus Babeuf, who attempted to organize a “conspiracy” to forcibly overthrow the reactionary Directory in the final stages of the French Revolution (1796). Marcuse sides with Babeuf’s romantic project due to the belief the two share in the objective superiority of natural law over that of established law, coupled with their common view that “the people” can be ideologically misled, adopting conservativism, as many of the weary denizens of France arguably had by 1795. Wolin claims such considerations to form the basis of Marcuse’s justification of a revolutionary dictatorship—though, again, he failed here to mention the 1968 postscript to Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” (1965), where the critical theorist clearly states that the “alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy.” It would seem, then, that Wolin proved disingenuous in at least some of his claims in this address, perhaps for controversy’s sake. He concluded by contrasting Marcuse’s supposed position on dictatorship in this period with the thought of Hannah Arendt, who theorizes the concept of power as people’s collective action in concert and considers violence the very antithesis of power—it is employed by states, for example, only when their control over their populations falters. Wolin also noted the “poor endings” of various radical currents within national-liberation or post-colonial movements, including the Naxalites, the Tamil Tigers, and Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and he favorably cited Gene Sharp’s work on active nonviolence as an alternative. Wolin made no mention of Sharp’s established ties with the CIA and the Pentagon.12Apropos, during the discussion period, Professor Harold Marcuse (Herbert’s grandson) brought up the advocacy of violent tactics made late in life by Günther Anders (1987), who was Arendt’s husband for a time and himself marginally associated with the Frankfurt School; Anders felt popular, revolutionary violence to have been a necessity amidst the early growth of the Nazi movement within Weimar Germany, and he similarly held it to be legitimate as a means of attempting to resolve the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, given the marked irresponsibility of the world’s states on this matter. One wonders what Anders would have to say about catastrophic climate change. This stimulus from Prof. Marcuse led Wolin lucidly to mention the “honorable tradition of tyrannicide”, a tradition that can be seen to have been exercised for example in Russia against Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Prime Minister Pëtr Stolypin in 1911. The final event for the first day of the conference—its first plenary—involved the playing of a fascinating audio recording of an interview between Professors Jeremy and Richard Popkin regarding the latter’s recollections of Marcuse during the time he taught in the philosophy department at UC San Diego (1965-1976, with emeritus status from 1976 until his death in 1979). The elder Popkin, who founded UCSD’s Philosophy Department in 1963, first encountered Marcuse during a symposium he and his colleagues hosted in 1964 regarding the contemporary relevance of Marx’s thought. This was a time which coincided with the publication of One-Dimensional Man and the heightening tensions between the mature radical intellectual and the administration overseeing him at Brandeis, which ultimately obliged Marcuse to “retire” following his open and public welcoming of the Cuban Revolution and his organizing of a class on campus to analyze the “Welfare-Warfare State.” At Popkin’s invitation after the 1964 Marx symposium—which itself generated a fair amount of controversy among the UC regents—Marcuse left Massachusetts to join the philosophy faculty at UCSD, settling in the rather unlikely locale of La Jolla, California, the grossly affluent neighborhood which served then (and still?) as a retirement destination for many ex-military officers, in addition to counting with the strong presence of the American Legion and plenty of other reactionary groups and individuals. As an illustration of the depth of the town’s conservatism, Popkin explained that over four-fifths of La Jolla’s residents voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Accompanying Marcuse in his move from the Northeast U.S. were several of his Brandeis graduate students, including Angela Y. Davis, who would receive her M.A. at UCSD in 1969, a year before Jonathan Jackson would take over a Marin County courtroom to demand the release of his imprisoned brother George Jackson, a confrontation that would lead to police killing him and imprisoning Davis for having bought the weapons Jackson used in the operation. During her studies in San Diego, though, Davis would assist with efforts to have a branch of the school renamed for anti-imperialist martyrs Patrice Lumumba and Emiliano Zapata. At UCSD, Marcuse taught both introductory and advanced philosophy courses, including the Social Philosophy course of 1967-1968 which Jeremy Popkin took as a student; according to the elder Popkin, students definitely liked the emigre German philosopher, and his classes were always well-attended. Rather inevitably, though, relations with local right-wing groups soon came to a head, with conservatives becoming initially alarmed upon learning of Prof. Marcuse’s brief departure to attend an international conference on Hegel in Czechoslovakia—that is, behind the Iron Curtain. At first, the American Legion pressured the UC administration to let Marcuse go, and when this tactic failed, the group boldly offered to buy Marcuse’s contract for $20,000. More grimly, in summer 1968 came the “Night of the Long Guns,” when, amidst a context beset by an increasing number of death-threats directed at Marcuse (including one from the KKK), the telephone line to the Marcuse household was mysteriously cut. This led to the mounting of a rapid response among Marcuse’s supporters and friends in La Jolla, with the somewhat amusing result that intrepid philosophy students armed themselves with shotguns and formed a protection detail to stay up through the night and watch over Herbert and Inge’s home. Fortunately, as Popkin recalls, the whole scare was a false alarm, and he speculated that the problem of the telephone line perhaps had to do with Inge’s failure to pay the utilities company on time. Besides his trip to the Hegel conference in Czechoslovakia, Marcuse traveled internationally quite a bit in his time at UCSD, visiting Germany to speak at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967 and observing the evénéments of May-June 1968 in Paris firsthand. Indeed, Jeremy Popkin recalls that, the very night Marcuse returned from revolutionary Paris, he gave students a two-hour presentation stressing the critical importance of the upsurge, yet urging them to recognize the great differences between French and U.S. societies at that time—such that their next move should not have been, for example, to storm LBJ’s White House! Popkin also shed light on Marcuse’s developing relationship with Israel, noting tensions on this question between him and Inge, who he claims to have been “very anti-Zionist” as well as effectively Maoist. One such controversy had to do with the Israeli ambassador’s personal request that Marcuse speak out publicly in favor of Jews facing repression in the Soviet Union, while another revolved around a call for notable public intellectuals to sign a statement declaring the Jewish State to desire peace in the Middle East, this less than a week before it attacked Egypt and so opened the Six Day War. Within this tumultuous national and international context, moreover, the newly elected governor of California, Ronald Reagan (1967-1975), was determined to remove Marcuse from the public eye. In no small part due to Reagan’s aggressive machinations, the UC at this time imposed the arbitrary rule that all professors older than 70 could not be promised contract renewals—with this being a threshold which Marcuse surpassed in 1969. Popkin observed that thinkers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Karl Popper wrote letters of recommendation in support of Marcuse’s bid to continue teaching in his last decade of life. Incidentally, these new regulations also affected another anti-war academic activist, the chemist Linus Pauling, who left UCSD for Stanford in 1969. Apparently, despite his well-known advocacy of social revolution, Marcuse insisted continuously during his time at UCSD that students not act in any way which might threaten the relative autonomy of the university, for he considered such to be their “safe space” in society. Both Popkins recall that Herbert was wont not to get overtly involved in political situations which might lead him to be arrested and so result in aggravated tensions with the Right and/or a jeopardization of his teaching position, but they did discuss one instance when Marcuse entered a UC space that had been occupied by protesting students, defended the occupation publicly, and offered to pay the trespassing fine the students had incurred for their action. The second day of the conference began with a plenary panel session on Crisis and Commonwealth: Marx, Marcuse, McClaren, a 2013 book edited by Marcuse scholar Charles Reitz which features original hitherto unpublished manuscripts by Marcuse together with interventions from various contemporary theorists who are, according to the book’s description, “deeply engaged with the foundational theories of Marcuse and Marx with regard to a future of freedom, equality, and justice.” Besides consideration of Marcuse and Marx, the title also includes a manifesto for radical educators written by the illustrious Peter McLaren. In his reflections on the volume, editor Reitz discussed the critical utopianism of Marcuse, as expressed well in the closing line on his dissertation on the German Artist-Novel: “We are in search of a new community.” Bringing Marcuse’s continued hopefulness to the present—in his essay “On Hedonism,” written in exile from Hitler, Marcuse writes of a “new, true community, against the established one”—Reitz held out the prospect for a rehumanized future that is within our grasp. Herbert’s son Peter then discussed a 1960s occupation of the institution where he currently teaches urban planning—Columbia University—taken by black revolutionaries together with more privileged radicals belonging to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Peter Marcuse explained that the former group sought practically to improve the material conditions of proletarian and oppressed communities in U.S. society, while SDS members wanted not “more” but rather something “other,” or different. Like his father, Marcuse suggested that both streams should be combined, so as to create alternative relationships among people. In terms of praxis, Marcuse for the present suggested an expansion of worker ownership as a means of securing better material conditions for workers and of developing relations of cooperation rather than competition generally within society, toward the end of giving rise to the commonwealth Reitz identifies in the title of his volume. Also on this panel, Professor Farr argued that there is currently no general commonwealth—no wealth held in common. Noting capitalism to be the crisis of history, Farr raised Kant’s argument against lying and recommended that theorists and activists reflect on the ways in which we lie to ourselves. During this morning, moreover, Prof. Farr playfully paraphrased the title of a 1968 panel discussion Marcuse participated in, saying that, while democracy doesn’t have a present, it could perhaps have a future. Besides a couple of presentations by Douglas Kellner and Peter-Erwin Jansen on recent publications of works researching Marcuse as well as on the forthcoming sixth volume of his collected Papers—attractively entitled Marxism, Revolution and Utopia—the rest of the following morning consisted of Prof. Andy Lamas discussing the concept of the “long march through the institutions” raised by Rudi Dutschke as an alternative to the “revolutionary terror” of the RAF. Stating his basic premise, Lamas argued that critical theory must be “anti-capitalist, democratic, participatory, and liberatory”; in his comments, he advanced the notion that the “long march” was a reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, part of the war of position against the capitalist class. Citing Angela Davis’s elucidation of Marcuse’s avowed support for the “long march” later in life, as in Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Lamas spoke to Marcuse’s late views on social change, whereby groups might take the “mining” or “undermining” approach by which to work against established institutions from the inside. With a nod to Peter Marcuse’s intervention, Lamas also pointed to the recent rise of interest in consumer and worker cooperatives as well as the commons generally understood as an encouraging sign in this sense. During the subsequent discussion period, militant writer George Katsiaficas raised the point that Dutschke’s call for integrating into given institutions was a controversial point among leftists, then as now—especially for anarchists. Another participant pointed out that the question might not be one of working through established institutions but rather of building counter-institutions, and he mentioned the origins of the term of the “long march”: that is, the Long March taken by Mao and the Communists as a tactical retreat from the Guomindang so as to regroup and ultimately defeat Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces. Harold Marcuse ironically observed that right-wing social critics in the U.S. feel Marcuse’s “long march” has in fact been successful, given their delusions regarding the reportedly progressive nature of much of academia, the mass media, and Hollywood. During the afternoon of the conference’s second day, I attended a panel on “Marcuse, Marx, and Marxisms,” which began with the intervention of Fred Mecklenburg, who spoke to the influence of Hegel on Marx’s thought. Mecklenburg noted the critic Hegel as holding freedom to be the driving force of history, and the Absolute the struggle of humans to realize such freedom. While Marx would integrate such revolutionary notions into his conception of communism, he also famously criticized Hegel’s mature acquiescence to the bourgeois society of post-Napoleonic Europe; Marx the pupil does not accept the world dominated by commodity, indelibly linked with slavery and genocide. Mecklenburg observed that Marx was aware of and concerned with the course of the U.S. Civil War in his lifetime, though he seemed to be unfamiliar with the Lakota people’s resistance to the expanding U.S. settler-colonial state. Focusing his concluding comments on the present situation, the speaker claimed the specter of catastrophic colimate change to illuminate the continued relevance of “Absolute struggle.” Next, David Peña-Guzman addressed the “Marxism-Heideggerianism Tension” by noting Marcuse to have considered Martin Heidegger’s 1927 magnum opus Being and Time as having the philosophical potential of displacing hegemonic positivism within a historical context in which the proletariat had yet to “fulfill its historical role”; Marcuse felt Heidegger’s stress on authenticity could be used as a supplement to the Marxist notion of class consciousness. Of course, when Heidegger publicly welcomed the coming of the Nazi regime in 1933, he forever forsook the possibility of remaining a great philosopher, and he expressly failed to clarify his relationship with National Socialism after its military defeat 12 years later, as Peña-Guzman discussed. In the speaker’s opinion, there are no clear politics or ethics to be discerned in Being and Time—a position similar to that of Marcuse, who in a 1977 interview re-evaluated his youthful admiration of the work, noting it to advance a “highly repressive” and “highly oppressive” view of human life, one that is “joyless” and “overshadowed by death and anxiety.”13 Karla Encalada Falconi followed with an intervention on Marx and Lacan on the “Comparison of the Impossible,” but I did not follow this well enough to be able to summarize her argument, other than to note her observation that Lacan considers separation a form of liberation, while for the young Marx separation is fundamental to his development of the concept of alienation. Lastly on this panel, Russell Rockwell, co-editor of the recently published Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence, 1954-1978(2013), presented on the trajectories and intersections of the Marxisms advanced by Marcuse and critical psychoanalyst Erich Fromm respectively. Against established trends which would largely suppress consideration of Fromm’s significant contributions to the nascent Institute for Social Research, Rockwell explained how Fromm felt psychoanalysis could productively serve as a complement to Marxian economism, and he mentioned Fromm’s 1929 lecture to the Institute of Psychoanalysis which cited Marx favorably. He also brought up Fromm’s 1929 psychological study of workers in Weimar Germany, which was rejected for publication with the Institute for Social Research for practical political considerations—it held that some three-quarters of the German working population would not resist Hitler if he seized power, while only an estimated 15 percent had personality structures which Fromm felt would lead them to actively resist him. Indeed, the work did not see the light of day for over five decades. Rockwell stressed that both Fromm and Marcuse shared an interest in the humanism of the young Marx, unlike most of the rest of the theorists associated with the Frankfurt School. Lastly on the conference’s second day, Professor Cynthia Willett presented a keynote address on “Interspecies Ethics: Cosmopolitanism Across Species.” Reading from her forthcoming book of the same name, Willett sought to extend concern for the outcast from humans to non-human animals and to highlight some of the various ways animals resist the imposition of domination from their human exploiters—as in laughter, for example, which she claimed to be exhibited by many animals, including the macaw. Mentioning Franz de Waal’s (oppressive) observation of primates in confinement at Emory University, Willett dedicated part of her address to consideration of the bonobo, the “hippie” or “Marcusean” ape, which in its genetic closeness to humanity suggests the possibility for humans to behave in ways other than those demanded by capital. Speculatively, Willett assigned a hitherto unrecognized importance to the “gut brain” of humans—the enteric nervous system—which, as Donna Haraway argues, may produce indigestion in response to indulging in practices it considers disgusting, such as eating animal flesh or performing experimental testing on animals. (I will say here that her claim here was highly inauthentic in Marcusean and Heideggerian terms, given that she admitted to eating a beef hamburger before her address.) Willett argued for the criticality of disgust as a means of repudiating some of the ethically problematic practices imposed onto animals within late capitalism, such as the intensive factory farming. She also raised the case of a caged bonobo clearly expressing interspecies empathy, as seen in the gentle care it expressed for a bird that had fallen into its zoo habitat: the bonobo ultimately climbed to the top of the highest tree in the habitat and from there released the bird back into its own environment, beyond the confines of captivity. In closing, I will summarize the only panel I attended on the third and last day of the conference which I feel to be worth mentioning: one examining the Eros effect, as theorized by Marcuse’s student George Katsiaficas. First, Jason del Gandio defined the Eros effect as being the political expression of the life instinct (Eros) on the collective political level. Melding Marcuse’s insights with post-structuralism, he hypothesized the human body as having three defining characteristics relevant to radical inquiry: it is a sentient creature, a producer of reality, and one which emanates. Essentially, he argued that human bodies desire the resistance of inherited oppression by moving spontaneously, or of their own accord (emanations) . After del Gandio, AK Thompson, author of Black Bloc, White Riot, provided a highly original interpretation of the Eros effect, noting its activation in such moments as the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Euro-American upsurge which followed in time to be based in a lack, rather than be an affirming reflection of Eros itself. He also interestingly commented on his view of the closeness between Marxism and nihilism, given that the former philosophy would have the proletariat abolish its own self in the process of overcoming capitalism. George Katsiaficas himself then intervened, associating his take on the Eros effect with the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious; he proudly declared the Eros effect to be a concrete expression of the idea that the human spirit is indomitable, and—disagreeing implicitly with Thompson—that it speaks to humanity’s biological need for socialism and freedom. Bringing up the example of the 1980 Gwanju uprising in Korea, which can be likened to another Paris Commune, Katsiaficas asserted that the people’s love for each other becomes even more important than life itself in moments of an activated Eros, and he hypothesized the Eros effect might be taken to represent one explanation for the emergence of the radical wave of People’s Power in East Asia (1986-1992). After Katsiaficas spoke Kellner, who asked to what extent the embodied strength of Thanatos—as in the world’s military and police apparatuses—poses challenges to an erotic politics; he also sought to connect Eros to the development of a different relationship between humans and nature. I will leave the final word for Imaculada Kangussu, who from the audience remarked on the similarity between Katsiaficas’s account of the Eros effect and Kant’s idea of enthusiasm, or the sublime fusion of affect, idea, and imagination, which is capable of inspiring events that overturn the course of world history. —————————————————————————————————————-

1Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 10.
2Ibid, 24-5. Emphasis added.
3Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, chapter 31, online at
4Quoted in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 413.
5Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 2005), 54-6.
6Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.
7Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.
8Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.
9Ibid, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.
10Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 59, 61, 69.
11Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 225.
12George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings volume 2 (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013), 416-7.
13Herbert Marcuse, Heideggerian Marxism, eds. Richard Wolin and John Abromeit (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005), 169-170.

Intervention as Radical Struggle: On Arendt, Negativity, and Resistance

October 7, 2013


First published on Truthout (copyright,, reprinted with permission)

NB: This essay is a modified version of the author’s submission for the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize

“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition1

Doubtless, there exists much reason to study disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge,” as Gaston Bachelard claims in his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire. I would argue that Albert Camus is right to claim rebellion—which, as he says, can only ever be a social project infused by notions of solidarity, rather than individualism—intimately to be related to the defense of human existence—survival, in the first place—as well as to the political task of advancing human flourishing.2 Alarmingly, both such struggles today confront especially severe threat: as Noam Chomsky describes it plainly, the prospect of decent human survival is presently imperiled by the twin specters of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe.3 Given the totally inadequate approaches that constituted power have presented vis-à-vis these world-historical problems—radical denial on the one hand, and conscious exacerbation on the other—the question becomes whether we can hope for revolutionary interventions from below, emanating from that which Giorgio Agamben terms “the non-State, which is humanity,” to address these pressing dangers in rational and humane fashion.4 As we have seen in recent years with the shattering entrance onto the public stage of oppressed humanity seeking to manage its affairs autonomously from and antagonistically against the State and capital, such hope does not seem entirely without merit.

In this sense, Arendt is correct to note, as she did in reflecting on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, that the tide of history can shift radically and rapidly, once established hierarchies are disrupted by the broad-based delegitimization of prevailing power relations.5 Indeed, such a perspective seems to be one of the major, optimistic conclusions to be gleaned from George Katsiaficas’ sweeping study of People’s Power movements throughout much of Asia—that despotism is doomed once the demos struggles together to overthrow it, and that the militaristic repression perennially visited on dissident movements reflects the oppressors’ very fears of the power of the people.6 Hence, I completely reject the nihilistic notion that intervention constitutes little more than a “decoy or distraction in the face of futility” or a “cover or compensation for hopeless battles and set-ups.” Consider for a moment the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794: one would be at a loss to think of a similarly shattering event in human history, one that abolished monarchy and feudalism at a stroke—not to mention recognizing the end to formal slavery in Saint Domingue/Haiti, following the radical struggle of the slaves there themselves to destroy the system oppressing them. I claim that G.W.F. Hegel was right to celebrate this intervention as “a glorious mental dawn,” one that led “[a]ll thinking beings” to experience “jubilation.”Similarly, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just justifiably declared the Revolution as promoting the concept of happiness, which heretofore had been denied by existing social arrangements; it was for this reason “a new idea in Europe,” and a new reality.8

So while fatalism, defeatism, and any sense of Schopenhauerian pessimism should be considered misguided—as well, indeed, as reactionary, given the effective legitimization such orientations afford the powers that be—it would also seem questionable to claim, as Bachelard does in his Fragments, that human progress “amounts to a series of Promethean acts.” Granted, my concern here may have more to do with my conception of Prometheus and the common use of the adjective Promethean: Prometheus is rightly celebrated as a rebel who opposes divine authority in order to make critical scientific knowledge readily available to humanity. Yet the charge of prometheanism is often made, I think rightly, against certain interpretations of Marxism—arguably following from Marx’s own works—and other ideologies which base their social projects on the unquestioning domination of nature and the “development of the productive forces.” In light of the undeniably pressing contemporary ecological problems which have resulted from the uncritical productivism advanced systemically by capital—species loss, ocean acidification, the progressive melting of the polar ice caps, a greater incidence of drought and famine—any sense of Prometheus as the founder of an unbounded quest for scientific and technological development should not be welcomed today: consider Mary Shelley’s subtitle to Frankenstein (“The Modern Prometheus”), or J. Robert Oppenheimer. Against Prometheus, Herbert Marcuse likely is more justified to present Orpheus the lyre-player as an alternative mythological figure from which to draw inspiration: tranquility, aestheticism, and eroticism (particularly queer varieties) seem more germane to the depth of the current crisis.9

Turning, then, to the questions of how intervention might become “powerful and compelling” within the current juncture, and what role thought should have in this process, I would strongly agree with the major figures of the Frankfurt School in their emphasis on the centrality of negativity within conceptualization and interpretation. Their “critical negativism,” as identified by C. Fred Alford, is particularly relevant today: thought cannot assent to any social arrangement which perpetuates deprivation, suffering, and alienation as radically as does capital—as T.W. Adorno writes, “So long as there is still a single beggar, […] there is still myth.”10 Put plainly, thought should today ceaselessly be pointing out the utter barbarism of the hegemony of capital, patriarchy, and the State. Philosophy, in sum, should serve the end of agitation, indignation, and education, toward the end of organization, to paraphrase B.R. Ambedkar. This final concern—that of praxis—would to my mind be the principal goal toward which thought should strive today; basing itself in the prospects for dialectical affirmation against capitalist barbarism, philosophy would do well to counterpose the range of possibilities which we know are readily at hand, from our own personal desires for alternative societal arrangements, as from the compelling history of revolutionary social movements across the globe. Waxing, then, between an Adornian disgust at the machinations of hegemony and a Blochian emphasis on the principle of hope, philosophy could come to serve radical struggle—that is, intervention.

Passing from idealist critique to material intervention, it would seem that the world-Geist [Spirit] should take on the form of revolutionary, anti-systemic mass-movements. Engaging in direct action—with the examples of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and other black blocs in mind—this mass-movement would prioritize participatory democracy via popular control of all social institutions, from the means of production to cultural production and beyond. In this sense, I envision a mass-dual power strategy, whereby Agamben’s “non-State,” or humanity, both prefigures the emancipated future it desires and works actively to bring such into being—by doing- and being-other, as theorized inter alia by John Holloway.11 Concretely, this praxis would involve the physical blockade of capital, as seen recently in protests against the tar sands infrastructure or the planned Koondankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state, as well as in the “mass disturbances” seen in China over ecological devastation, in addition to the disruption of its operations throughout the life-world, particularly through sustained general strikes. Indeed, the Industrial Workers of the World’s recent introduction of the concept of the ecological general strike, whereby laborers refuse their participation in capitalism’s ecocidal projects toward the end of developing participatory models that would allow for ecological balance, is an especially inspiring model for current and future intervention.12

In sum, it seems clear that radical struggle is the order of the day. Intervention, if it is to have concrete meaning or be relevant at all, seeks human happiness, tranquility, liberation—like art that is worth its name, in Marcuse’s formulation.13 Undoubtedly, the threats which are today aligned against the realization of these ends are considerable; Hegel was largely correct to identify history as a slaughterbench which sacrifices the happiness of humanity to hegemony. We can clearly see such analysis confirmed throughout the calamitous world today: think of the recent Tazreen and Rana Square disasters in Bangladesh, or the 2011 Somali famine.

However, it is also clear that humanity is capable of far more affirming projects than those which hold power today. Dialectical thought, and the praxis which may follow from it, can serve to overturn negation.


1>Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 5.

2Albert Camus, The Rebel (trans. Anthony Bower, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1956).

3Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories, 2013).

4Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 65.

5Hannah Arendt, On Violence (San Diego: Harcourt, 1969), 48.

6George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013); for the author’s review of Volume 2, please see “A Review of ‘Asia’s Unknown Uprisings,” The White Rose Reader, 21 July 2013.

7G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Colonial, 1899), 447.

8Quoted in Sophie Wahnich, In Defense of the Terror (trans. David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2012), 69.

9Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1966).

10C. Fred Alford, Science and the Revenge of Nature (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1985), 15-16; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 1974 [1951]), 199.

11John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto, 2010).

12For the IWW’s Environmental Union Caucus, see

13Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (Boston: Beacon, 1978).

People’s Power, Military Repression, and the Uncertainties of Erotic Struggle: A Review of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2

July 22, 2013

George Katsifiacas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia, 1947-2009 (Oakland: PM Press, 2013)

First published with the White Rose Reader (21 July 2013)

GK cover 2

“Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished.”  – Immanuel Kant

“Till the people have risen / There’ll be no decision.”  – The Coup

Ideally, George Katsiaficas’s work in favor of peoples’s autonomy and liberation should need no introduction.  A Fulbright fellow, former student of Herbert Marcuse, and author of The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (1987) and The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (2006), Katsiaficas has over the past decade dedicated much of his energy to researching and writing the first two volumes of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, with the first volume (2012) focusing on recent Korean history—in particular the 1980 Gwanju uprising, which Katsiaficas likens to the 1871 Paris Commune—and his most recent publication, Volume 2, examining People’s Power movements in nine other Asian countries: the Philippines, Tibet, Burma, China, Nepal, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.  I saw Katsiaficas present Volume 2 at the 2013 Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair—incidentally, the event which PM Press successfully sought to have the volume published in time for—and so am gladdened to now review the work.  Volume 2 of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings examines a series of explosive social movements in East and Southeast Asia of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that are largely neglected in Western circles, even among radicals—hence, “unknown” (though presumably not to the millions who participated in them).  One recurring principal theme of the work, as in Katsiaficas’s previous writings, is the concept of the “eros effect,” which he takes in part from his mentor Marcuse: that is, the sudden eruption among participants in revolutionary movements of spontaneous, popular decision-making processes, genuine solidarity and cooperation, and the suspension of previously regnant social hierarchies.

Katsiaficas’s positive affect—seen clearly in his presentation at the Anarchist Bookfair, the bloody repression to which nearly every movement he studies was subjected notwithstanding—is well-reflected in the beginning of the introductory chapter of the text, “A World of Uprisings.”  He there opens by making the obvious yet crucial claim that, in historical terms, the “terrible, beautiful events” known as “uprisings occur with astonishing regularity.”  Their spontaneous nature speaks to the revocability of instituted, oppressive social relations—the number of dictatorships which were toppled in Asia through the 1980s and 1990s (particularly in the period 1986-1992) demonstrates the concrete basis for believing in the prospect of revolutionary processes.  Waxing philosophical à la Marx, Katsiaficas claims revolutionary behavior to be a “form of species-constitutive behavior” for humans, happily noting that we are at present “rapidly becoming self-conscious as a species.”  The various examples he examines in Volume 2 provide important opportunities for contemplating the possibilities of inverting the brutal and grim future promised by capital, using mass-direct action to transform society: Thai students’ heroic occupation of Thammasat University in 1973 to defy military rule reportedly inspired Greek students to rise against the Papadopoulos dictatorship by taking over the Athens Polytechnic, just as Eastern European movements to precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union consciously took after the example provided by Chinese workers and students in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.  Though the hegemonic direction in which many ‘post-dictatorial’ regimes have taken proves a more depressing story—as in post-Soviet Russia, the collapse of many of the “crony capitalist” dictatorial regimes in Asia have given way to neo-liberal domination by the international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) that many of these dictators’ successors would come to welcome with open arms—Katsiaficas maintains that these various social insurgencies were overwhelmingly of a popular, mass-democratic nature, and so belong within the history of the New Left, a current that famously in contradistinction to Leninism and Stalinism expressed confidence in the “wisdom and intelligence” of ordinary people, and the importance of their spontaneity in terms of advancing social change.

In general terms, the experiences of the East and Southeast Asian democratization movements have served as embodiments of popular self-management.  The millions who in the nine countries Katsiaficas investigates have struggled together radically for justice “can be regarded,” notes the author, “as proof of another dynamic: [that] ordinary people, acting together in the best interests of society, embody a reasonability and intelligence far greater than that of elites which rules nation-states and giant corporations.”  Katsiaficas claims glowingly that the popular revolutionary struggle is ever-increasingly radicalized by its historical course—the people’s wisdom continually expands through each iteration of insurgency, as they “refuse to tolerate previously accepted forms of domination.”

People’s Power in the Philippines


“People’s Power” on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, Manila (photo credit: Joey D. Vera)

In keeping with this positive affect—and presenting a prime example of the radical power of the subordinated—Katsiaficas opens his series of case studies with consideration of the various explosive manifestations of “People’s Power” movement in the the Philippines, which via mass-popular intervention first helped depose the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, and would return in two other major waves over the course of the following twenty-five years.  The original People’s Power movement of 1986—also known for the main roadway that was popularly occupied at the movement’s height, effectively blocking the movement of Marcos’s tanks, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA)—was comprised of a multi-class nature, with businesspeople and ordinary citizens alike uniting to remove Marcos from power, following his arrogance in dismissing the results of the snap election he was forced to concede in early 1986, one that he lost to fellow oligarch Corey Aquino.  EDSA 1, which brought millions out to the streets to demonstrate against this final insult of Marcos’s—for an estimated 90 percent of eligible voters participated in the election—was largely organized on the common popularity of Catholicism as the people’s identity, with the Church hierarchy involving itself explicitly in the struggle against Marcos.  Crucially, the victory of EDSA 1 arguably came only because of the considerable extent to which both rank-and-file soldiers and military commanders defected against Marcos’s repressive orders to brutally put down the people, and specifically due to the efforts of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), the nucleus of military rebels who first broke from Marcos, thus catalyzing his downfall.  In this sense, indeed, People’s Power 1 was not entirely a non-violent event: RAM did use force to incapacitate the air-power of units loyal to Marcos, and to take control of the TV station from which Marcos had his new inauguration—i.e., his fall—transmitted.  Katsiaficas hails the February 1986 power transition as a seminal illustration of the power of those from below to remake society, and he notes its importance as an inspiration for similar developments which followed in due course in South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia.  However, he does note a number of limitations to the transition of power:  most centrally, People’s Power I effectively served pro-Western interests in having Marcos replaced with opposition candidate Aquino, who was herself an embodiment of the Filipin@ ruling class, a group whose interests she represented well while in power.  What is more, RAM units were in constant contact with the CIA and U.S. government throughout the tumultuous times which ended in Marcos’s departure: the CIA helped the rebels coordinate their movements, in line with the US’s desire to see the crony capitalism of Marcos give way to transnational liberalization.  Katsifiacas muses that perhaps the events could have taken a different course, had the country’s once-powerful Communist movement not initially denounced the February election as a sham, and had it not previously been crippled by a 1985 thousand-person purge executed by the New People’s Army (NPA).

Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—Marcos’s ouster proved not to be a social revolution, but rather a shuffling of power within the pro-Western Filipin@ oligarchy; in this sense, the Communists were entirely and presciently correct.  Under Corey Aquino, the country’s “economic and social structures” changed hardly at all: while she was forced to allow land reform over some six million hectares in the country, she exempted an additional two million from redistribution, as these belonged in part to her family, as to those who effectively own the Philippines.  Aquino was also responsible for the Mendiola massacre, in which scores of landless peasants were shot down for protesting her inadequate reforms, in addition to mass-displacement resulting from the military operations she ordered, numerous cases of torture, and outright repression of organized labor, with the overall number of strikes falling after the frenetic activity taken to resist Marcos dropping precipitously.  None of this is to mention her facilitation of the genesis of large-scale free-trade and export-processing zones (FTZ and EPZ) in the country.

More positively, though, these years saw the shuttering of two U.S. military bases on the archipelago, following a popular referendum demanding this of the Aquino government.  “People’s Power” returned in 2001, when crowds reportedly made up of largely professional, bourgeois individuals—polls indicated at least two-thirds of those gathering in Manila to have hailed “from the upper 10 percent of the class structure”—gathered at EDSA to denounce the Senate’s decision to acquit then-president Ramos Estrada of corruption charges, leading ultimately to a military coup in favor of Estrada’s vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  Just days later, a larger agglomeration comprised overwhelmingly of urban squatters—who in total by some estimates then made up a full third of Manila’s population, amounting to some 2.5 million people—organized to protect Estrada from arrest and, following his voluntary surrender to the police, to keep vigil.  This ESDA 3, known as “Poor People Power,” met fierce repression as ordered by Arroyo, and did not enjoy the support of the Church, capitalists, NGOs, or political parties, as in 1986.  For this reason, Poor People Power was smashed, allowing Arroyo to go on to embezzle money on orders of magnitude greater than Estrada had, to employ death squads against various social activists, and obediently to further enrich transnational capital and the established domestic oligarchy, while exacerbating the poverty of the Filipin@ masses.  The average number of strikes during Arroyo’s rule dwindled to 39 per year, down from 308 in the 1986-1991 period, and seven of ten farmers were found during her tenure to be landless.  The estimated percentage of underweight and stunted Filipin@ children remained largely unchanged at the turn of the century, relative to the years following Marcos’s fall.

In essence, despite the three examples of People’s Power seen in the Philippines in the past decades, “the Filipino people have failed to change significantly their social system,” writes Katsiaficas.  Though greatly revered, the 1986 uprising did little more than to essentially transfer “power from one section of the pro-U.S. elite to another.”  Nonetheless, it would be questionable to hold the Filipin@ masses generally responsible for the negating course of events since February 1986; moreover, one cannot deny the very real demonstrative effect the legacy of People’s Power has had in the region and world.

Extensive Military Repression in Tibet and Burma

After investigating the recent history of People’s Power in the Philippines, Katsiaficas turns to consideration of developments in Burma and occupied Tibet (People’s Republic of China).  In both cases, autonomous, popular movements aiming at self-determination and social justice have met with far more violent suppression than has been the case in the Philippines.  According to Katsiaficas’ statistics, Tibet and Burma are the two countries in which the most people have been killed in uprisings, out of the nine he considers in Volume 2.

In keeping with these data, the case of Tibet as recounted by Katsiaficas is a decidedly negating one.  The Tibetan people, who for centuries have practiced Buddhism and lived in conditions denounced by the Chinese State as “feudal,” have suffered immeasurably during the sixty-plus year occupation which began with invasion by Maoist forces after the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949.  An estimated one-fifth of the overall Tibetan population, or one million people, have died as a result of the ongoing PRC occupation of Tibet, which accounts for one-fourth of China’s landmass and supplies nearly fall of its mineral wealth, in addition to containing uranium deposits as well potentially as untapped oil.  The first major uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet started on 10 March 1959, when after hearing of threats to the life of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, tens of thousands of Tibetans rallied to protect him in his summer palace, the Norbulingka, near Lhasa.  Besides physically blocking the Chinese from access to the Dalai Lama, the crowds demanded independence from the Maoist invaders, a position which would officially be taken up by the formal leadership in the following days.  During the tense standoff, Tenzin Gyatso famously and surreptitiously escaped from the palace, fleeing to exile in India.


Thousands of Tibetans, including many females, mobilized to defend the Dalai Lama upon hearing of a planned attempt on his life by Chinese occupation forces, 10 March 1959 (photo credit: Associated Newspapers Ltd.)

Just days after the Dalai Lama’s flight, the Chinese military employed artillery and armed-personnel carriers against the crowd assembled at the Norbulingka, immediately killing between 5,000 and 10,000 people, and imprisoning ten thousand others, a full one-fourth of Lhasa’s populace.  Repression in that year was fierce, with the Chinese military itself estimating it killed 87,000 Tibetans in the highland’s central region between 1959 and 1960.  The occupation forces notoriously and systematically destroyed a great number of the Tibetans’ religious spaces, with PRC data on Tibetan monasteries showing there to have existed 2,700 before 1959, 550 seven years later, and merely 8 by the early 1980s.  With the Sino-Soviet split, moreover, Tibet’s lands were mandated to cultivate grains, leading multitudes to starve as crops failed due in no small part to lack of local familiarity with the foreign crop; what is more, clandestine CIA support for Tibet was ended with the normalization of U.S.-China relations after Nixon’s 1969 meeting with Mao.  The years 1987 to 1989 saw a number of mobilizations led by Tibetan monks which met with fierce repression by Chinese authorities, who as always claimed “reaction” and “imperialism” to motivate such mobilizations, despite the fact that monks imprisoned during these actions themselves famously released a manifesto on the “Precious Democratic Constitution of Tibet” which stipulated that the Tibetan people did not for their future desire a return to “our former condition,” with a “restoration of serfdom or […] the so-called ‘old system’ of rule by a succession of feudal masters or monastic estates.”  Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it was Hu Jintao who imposed martial law in Tibet in 1989, a move that would “restore order” by means of various massacres, mass-arrests, and razings of temples; in this sense he was prepared well for his 2002 ascension to CCP Chairman.  Hunger strikes among Tibetans would continue through the 1990s, while in 2008 the brutal suppression of Tibetan monks’ observation of National Uprising Day (10 March) demanding release of imprisoned colleagues resulted, as is well-known, in large-scale attacks on Han Chinese properties and persons in the occupied territories, leading in turn to more mass-arrests and beatings of ordinary Tibetans.  As Katsiaficas notes, the region of Tibet today has more Han Chinese (7.5 million) than indigenous Tibetans (6 million); sadly for this reason, writes Katsiaficas, “Tibetans’ claims to special rights over their lands are rapidly becoming similar to those of Native Americans inside the United States.”  While their modern experience with Chinese settler-colonialism has undoubtedly proven highly destructive, the indigenous Tibetans’ egalitarian and non-materialist ethos, in Katsiaficas’ view, could perhaps contribute well to the ongoing struggle “to create a world free of weapons of mass destruction, a world where all forms of life are respected.”  It is not for nothing, claims the author, that the Tiananmen Square movement in China followed so soon after the Tibetans’ mobilizations in the late 1980s.

Similarly brutal in breadth and scope to the occupation of Tibet has been the Burmese military’s prolonged strategy of crushing autonomous social developments in the territory it calls Myanmar.  The country’s early post-independence history, made possible through the armed struggle coordinated by Aung San to defeat Japanese and British colonizers, saw parliamentary rule on the one hand as well as the continuation of armed struggle by the various ethnic minorities of Burma, who comprise a third of the population, on the other.  Formal military rule began in the country in 1962 with Ne Win’s suspension of parliament, a move that met thereafter with various student and worker resistance actions.  Ne Win eventually resigned following an intense wave of popular demonstrations in March 1988, ranging from university occupations to insurrectional destruction of State property and street battles against the police and military.  Most spectacular was the coordinated general strike of 8 August 1988 (8/8/88), a day that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Burmese year 1300 (1938), when nationalist forces revolted against the British: to protest the effective continuation of Ne Win’s administration following his form deposition, the day began at precisely 8:08am, when dockworkers suspended their labor, soon to be joined by millions of others in a carnival-esque atmosphere that overtook Rangoon.


8/8/8 in Rangoon (photo credit: Tom Lubin)

The celebratory power of the people made evident on that day ended with negation, as the military applied what may be termed the “Tlatelolco solution”[1] in finally opening fire indiscriminately and en masse against the people, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.  A war then broke out between people and State which raged for four days, during which the Army “routinely turned automatic weapons on any public gathering”—even those of assembled nurses, demanding the suspension of shoot-to-kill orders.  Nonetheless, Ne Win’s successor followed his boss’s example by resigning three days into the revolts, and with the suspension of martial law soon thereafter, the people were left in many cases to temporarily manage society for themselves through strike committees, assemblies, and popular security bodies while waiting for the promised multiparty elections to be held.  However, the military stifled the transition to liberal democracy by once again seizing control, this time via the badly named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which systematically worked to dismember the autonomous processes which had begun to develop in Burmese society: thousands were murdered and thousands more imprisoned in this “Iron Fist” or “Thermidorean” phase of the struggle.  Besides overt brute force, the State reportedly and infamously distributed heroin to shatter the opposition after 1988, much as the authorities had resorted to “liberating” violent criminals from prison in 1988, in order to besiege the acephalous popular resistance.  Mirroring the situation in Mexico with the development of the Fuerzas de Liberacion Nacional (FLN) and similar groups after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, many Burmese student radicals took to the mountains to train for guerrilla warfare against the regime following their experiences with its brutal violence in 1988.

Strict repression followed the SPDC’s consolidation of power in 1988, with the results of the overwhelming electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 1990 elections[2] entirely dismissed by the ruling junta.  The “predatory State” overseen by the SPDC has greatly enriched itself in this period (1988-present), selling off its natural resources and developing lucrative ties with China and Thailand, while maintaining the vast majority of the populace in highly impoverished conditions.  Instead of serving as a “developmental State”—as in South Korea, for example—the SPDC has followed it own desires to maintain and aggrandize power, cutting deals with certain ethnic minorities while subjecting others—like the Karen—to brutal campaigns of subjugation.  One estimate cited by Katsiaficas claims 3000 villages destroyed and a million people displaced during these ethnic-cleansing operations.  The 2008 “Saffron Revolution,” largely led by monks, is framed with some skepticism by Katsiaficas, who mentions the reported ties between the National Endowment for Democracy and these mobilizations.  The author also takes issue with Burmese chauvinism and Suu Kyi’s strict pacifism in particular, which condemn the militant tactics of the Karen and others, who have had to use violence to survive various military onslaughts by the State since formal independence; oddly enough, he does not discuss the Rohingya Muslims, whose recent plight at the hands of the Burmese Buddhist majority Suu Kyi certainly has not prioritized.  With thousands of political prisoners still incarcerated, Katsiaficas suggests that the Burmese movements’ inability to do away with military control may well have to do with their general hesitancy to resort to more forceful methods.

Proletarian and Student Counter-Power in China: Tiananmen Square and After

           “But history’s final accounting has yet to be completed.”

                   – Autonomous workers’ wall poster, 1989

In introducing the world-historical 1989 revolt in China, Katsiaficas emphasizes that the movements which comprised it emanated entirely from outside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): first, proletarians, then students, and finally “nearly the entire population” of Beijing became involved in the rebellion, particularly after 20 May 1989, when the army deployed to suppress the uprising.  The two main constituent forces of the protests, workers and students, were directed by no centralized leadership but instead organized through large autonomous agglomerations—a structure that mirrored the geographical parameters of the 1989 revolt, which beyond Beijing expanded to an estimated 341 of the 434 large cities of China.  Though protestors expressed a diversity of views on the country’s political future, few if any of them held positive views of capitalism.  Indeed, especially from proletarian angles, the 1989 mobilizations embodied a resounding condemnation of Deng Xiaoping’s pro-capitalist reforms, and the brutal social inequality which followed in tandem.  The popular esteem in which the “Hundred Million Heroes” of 1989 are held is well-deserved: Katsiaficas frames the shattering interventions of that year as continuing from the Chinese people’s popular involvement in politics after the 1949 defeat of the KMT (as before): the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, a “mobilization of civil society against the state bureaucracy,” on Katsiaficas’s account expressed the masses’ dissatisfaction with dominant anti-egalitarian practices, as had peasants’ insurrections previously—the White Lotus rebellion (1796-1801), or the Taiping revolt of the 1860s.  Moreover, among the Han Chinese, says Katsiaficas, there is a general sense that “the Emperor ruled through a mandate of heaven (which could be retracted if power was wielded in unjust ways), that the people have the right to petition for redress of grievances and officials a concomitant responsibility to respond intelligently, and that everyone has the right to rebel against unjust dictates.”

In economic terms, it would seem that the exceedingly high inflation rates seen in China in 1988-1989 contributed to popular dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, as did the passage of a series of laws favoring management over labor in previous years.  The 1989 events themselves began on 15 April 1989, when workers initiated protest in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, former CCP General Secretary.  Indeed, Katsiaficas notes that while the Tiananmen Square events are generally thought of in the main (or, at least in Western circles) as having been led  students, in fact students comprised a small minority (2 million) of the total population of workers (105 million) who spearheaded many of the mobilizations seen in April to June 1989.  In particular, the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation (BAWF) was born from public challenges directed by workers against the corruption practiced among the Party elite and the numerous adverse effects of Xiaoping’s liberalization policies.  Alongside the BAWF and other radical workers, the Autonomous Student Union of Beijing Universities (ASU) was founded during this time, requesting permission from the State to publish independent newspapers, and demanding that the CCP open itself to transparency and questioning on charges of corruption.  In this way, the BAWF and ASU explicitly challenged the CCP’s hegemony on dictation of social policy—and gained the hatred of hardline Party insiders.  In response to these autonomous developments, on 26 April the China People’s Daily condemned “anti-state turmoil and chaos” associated with a “conspiracy by a handful of unlawful elements”; that same day, the CCP banned public protests.  Nonetheless, the very next day some 150,000 people defied the ban by occupying Tiananamen Square.

This ongoing show of power led certain groups within the CCP to open negotiations with officially sanctioned sectors of protestors; meanwhile, worker and student activists consulted popularly with each other, and with their predecessors from previous generations, leading “a hundred flowers of ideas” to bloom.  A small subgroup of students decided in mid-May to engage in hunger strike while occupying Tiananmen Square, thus preventing the official visit planned by Mikhail Gorbachev to the Square, during what was to be the first international meeting in decades between representatives of the two members of the ex-Sino-Soviet alliance.  Katsiaficas observes here that the hunger-striking students gained a great deal of public sympathy for their radical tactics, yet he condemns them for anti-democratic arrogance and egotism in their rejection of compromise—a “huge strategic error” that he questionably holds responsible for provoking the violent repression of the State just weeks later.  During the month of May, on the other hand, the BAWF expanded and developed its public presence, calling for a “higher form of socialism” in which the bureaucratic CCP would be abolished, replaced by collective proletarian and popular association.  At the other pole, psychology graduate student and hunger striker Chai Ling declared herself “Commander-in-Chief of the Headquarters for Defending Tiananmen Square,” leading to palpable tensions between students and workers, as the former isolated themselves from the latter, even refusing their participation and collaboration in the Square’s occupation.  It is no surprise, then, that many proletarians came to perceive many of the same “corrupt practices of the elite, such as secrecy, exclusivity, factionalism, struggles for power, and special privileges” as holding sway among many students.  Beyond consideration of effective class struggle within the oppositional movements, the two groups diverged moreover on political philosophy, with students generally calling for reform of the CCP and offering few critiques of the ongoing opening to capitalism as facilitated by the bureaucracy, while workers “wanted revolution.”  Unfortunately, neither movement found much support from the Chinese countryside, where agricultural workers had not yet felt the deleterious impacts of nascent neoliberalism.

Less than a week after the beginning of the hunger strike, in which over three thousand people came to be involved, Deng Xiaoping declared martial law, and the Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who had previously expressed sympathy for the protests, was deposed by internal coup, with Li Peng taking over to impose the martial-law order.  However, the BAWF called for a general strike on 20 May to blockade the mass-entrance of troops into Beijing, and, as in the Philippines, the people’s peaceful occupation of the streets prevented the army’s expeditious dismantling of the Tiananmen Square occupation.  Troops themselves initially refused to use force against the people, as hundreds of cities throughout the PRC erupted in protest.  Numerous autonomous worker, intellectual, and student groups arose in the tempest, encouraged on by the BAWF, which on 26 May openly advocated the “storm[ing of] this twentieth-century Bastille, this last stronghold of Stalinism!”  However, the Tiananmen Square occupation soon began to dissipate with the prolongation of martial law, until the full military invasion of central Beijing during the night of 3 June, which was met with substantial resistance from the people, who erected barricades and threw stones and Molotovs to stave off the incursion.  Following the military takeover of Tiananmen Square in the early morning of 4 June, the people of Beijing revolted radically, surrounding and blockading troop deployments and beating soldiers, recuperating arms for self-defense, and destroying hundreds of police and military vehicles.  Reportedly, a significant proportion of commanders and lower-ranking soldiers refused to implement the CCP’s demands for suppression, instead fighting pro-State units engaged in the repression of the people.  Nonetheless, these military rebels were a minority, and the army overall remained “firmly under the control of the government,” which besides mandating severe repression in the proletarian districts of Beijing, also had thousands of activists imprisoned.  Official reports spoke of 300 soldiers and citizens killed in the repression operation, with 7,000 injured.


Intense street fighting between citizenry and State followed the PLA invasion of Beijing on 3 June 1989

Similarly to many other observers, Katsiaficas situates the brutal suppression of 1989 within the CCP’s conscious strides towards an increasingly authoritarian-capitalist model for Chinese society, which has greatly enriched Party insiders themselves.  From 1980 to 1996, real economic growth rates in China averaged nearly 10 percent, while from 1997 to 2006 they ranged between 7.8 and 11.1 percent.  Within this process, the CCP has availed itself of the industrial exploitation of the massive “pool of semiskilled rural emigrants” once residing outside the country’s megalopolises—now encouraged en masse to perform effective slave labor in the cities—as well as of the “imperial exploitation of Xinjiang and Tibet’s vast mineral and oil deposits and their people’s labor.”  While unfortunate developments such as the seemingly ceaseless usurpation of territory for capitalist megaprojects and the overwhelming support granted by most Han to repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang mar China’s present, still the peoples’ degree of “resistance to unjust authority remains a significant feature of the political landscape,” as well as a promise of alternative, more humane futures: the estimated number of “incidents of social unrest” experienced in China in 2008 reached 100,000, up from 40,000 at the turn of the millennium.

Radical Struggles Within Monarchies: Nepal and Thailand

Besides consideration of the Philippines, PRC (and Tibet), and Burma, Katsiaficas importantly includes examinations of mass-revolutionary struggle within the monarchical regimes of Thailand and Nepal.  Such mobilizations have arguably had greater successes in Nepal, where the monarchy has been abolished and Maoists assert a considerable voice in governance, than in the thoroughly neo-liberal Thailand, which still retains King Bhumibol.

Nepal experienced a parliamentary period beginning with the fall of Rana dynastic rule in 1951 and ending with the imposition of direct royal rule in 1960.  For Katsiaficas, the first most significant popular movement against monarchical absolutism came in the form of the jana andolan (“People’s Uprising” or “Movement”) of 1990, a seven-week struggle between February and April that was initiated by political parties in favor of the restoration of parliament and in turn carried in far more radical directions by the Nepali masses themselves.  In Patan, across the river from Kathmandu, the people in arms expelled the police, declaring the city a “Free State” and “Zone of Democracy.”  As in Korea and China previously, it was the urban poor (lumpenproletariat) and workers who helped sustain the jana andolan amidst repression meted out by the king’s security forces, though the movement in its inception was largely impelled by more middle-class elements.  With nearly a half million participating in an April 6 bandh (general strike) in Kathmandu—amounting to a third of the city’s population—the jana andolan experienced a dramatic intensification in the face of indiscriminate police gunfire, leading two days later to the king conceding a restoration of parliament, and a transition to prajatantra (formal democracy).  This transition was unsurprisingly negotiated in an exclusive manner, with no measures stipulated for the release of the thousands of political prisoners or justice for those shot dead by the royal forces—an estimated thousand individuals, overwhelmingly youth.

Though the beginning of prajatantra in Nepal could not be said to have brought about social transformation, this “new opening” gave succor to the hopes of the considerable numbers of “the less privileged” in the country, claims  Katsiaficas.  He notes with enthusiasm the the resounding activation-effect the popular struggle of 1990 struggle had on the multiplicities of peoples comprising Nepali civil society, from workers to Dalits and females mobilizing in defense of their rights.  He explains that diverse groups of subjugated ethnicities collaborated in efforts to attain a secular society, overturn the caste system, and abolish the Hindu monarchy after the first jana andolan—these goals being formulated either despite or because of the November 1990 Nepali constitution, which upheld monarchical rule and mandated elections that would come to be dominated by the Congress Party, largely comprised of Brahmins, with the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) gaining a plurality.

Katsiaficas examines another famous Nepali resistance movement in the guerrilla tactics of the country’s armed Maoists (CPNM), seeing their growing popularity as coinciding with the overwhelming disappointment experienced by the most oppressed of Nepal following the coming of bourgeois parliamentarism.  The Maoist insurgency began in February 1996; within a decade, it would retake control from the monarchy of a whole half of Nepal’s countryside.  As in India, the site of the original 1967 Naxalbari movement and the ongoing Naxalite resistance to neoliberal terror, the Nepali Maoists have gained great support from many of the rural poor, who welcome the insurgents’ redistribution of occupied lands and suspension of peasant debt and bonded labor.  As in several other geographical examples—for example, Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia—the Maoists have met with brutality at the hands of the U.S.-supported Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), with thousands murdered, disappeared, and imprisoned.  Indeed, the putative “Maoist threat” was the pretext for King Gyanendra’s 2005 declaration of martial law (following from his 2002 suspension of parliament), a repressive move that itself catalyzed the second jana andolan (April 2006), the loktantra andolan (“true people’s democracy”).  This movement, which brought more than half of the total population of Kathmandu (1 million) and four million others elsewhere in the country (total population 25 million) into the streets on a sustained bandh, coordinated well with the Maoist armed struggle, which blockaded Kathmandu and made considerable gains against the RNA.  The people’s tenacity in desiring the fall of the regime sustained the 19-day struggle, met as it was with indiscriminate police violence until Gyanendra’s capitulation to reinstate parliament, and the parliament’s subsequent formal abolition of monarchical rule and its declaration of Nepal as a secular republic (May 2006).


Maoist victory rally in Kathmandu, 2 June 2006 (photo credit: Narendra Shrestha)

For Katsiaficas, Nepal’s two jana andolan serve as a strong example of “the incredible heroism of ordinary people”: amidst police and State violence, they united en masse to topple oppressive power. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether the participants of the loktantra andolan as a whole desired the outright abolition of monarchical rule rather than the resignation of Gyanendra, as Katsiaficas suggests that many of the people of Nepal in fact now advocate the restoration of monarchy—just not in Gyanendra’s person.  The author concludes by favorably discussing the progressive social changes instituted by Maoist insurgency in Nepal’s recent history, implicitly questioning to what degree a return to parliamentary rule—even with the Maoist majority represented in 2008—will prove efficacious in overturning inequality and mass impoverishment.

In Thailand, another long-living monarchy has enjoyed widespread popular support even through two bloody uprisings of the late twentieth century (1973 and 1992); Katsiaficas describes the country in this sense as an outlier, with the “king hold[ing] the status of demigod,” and the Thai people’s “allegiance to the royal family [being] one of their most defining cultural characteristics.”  Bhumibol, the grandson of Chulalongkorn who has ruled since 1947, is widely regarded as the world’s wealthiest monarch; his estimated worth of $35 billion clearly outstrips the accumulated fortunes of Saudi King Abdullah and Sheikh Khaifa of the UAE.  In part, the monarchy owes at least some of its vast wealth to its collaboration in the mid-1960s with U.S. forces prosecuting genocide in neighboring Vietnam, through its renting out of airstrips and servicing of bases.  Growing alongside Bhumibol’s hegemony has been the Thai military, which like the monarchy has taken every opportunity to enrich itself, and so perpetuate the gross social inequality seen in Thailand.

On Katsiaficas’ account, the first major challenge to the feudal-military establishment came with students’ mobilizations in October 1973.  Influenced in no small part by contemporary global upsurges and the propagation of New Left critiques of existing society, members of the National Student Center of Thailand (NSCT) coordinated participatory meetings to shutter Bangkok universities and plan the “Day of Joy” (13 October 1973), the largest single protest in Thai history (with the participation of an estimated half-million), which would at once demonstrate the protestors’ allegiance to “Nation, Religion, King, and Constitution” as well as call for the reversal of the military’s 1971 takeover via elections.  Protests continued on early the morning of October 14, when police fired on crowds gathered near the royal palace who had refused to disperse; next came the direct intervention of the military, using tanks to suppress the popular rising.  Protestors then came to split between pacifists and direct actionists, with the latter taking on the task of destroying specific targets such as police stations, the Revenue Department, and the Anti-Corruption Center.  By continuing to mobilize en masse even after the beginning of open repression, the urban dissident movement forced the hand of Bhumibol, who demanded the resignation and exile of the junta’s top leaders.  Just three years later, though, he called them back to the country, inviting the military yet again to take power and crush the developing confidence of the youth and workers once and for all—thus intensifying the violence Bhumibol had unleashed against them through paramilitary groups in the intervening three-year period.  The same day the armed forces brutally attacked Bangkok’s Thammasat University to repress student counter-power (6 October 1976), they officially retook power in a coup.  With the military back in the seat, Thai labor militancy dropped off sharply, and the foreign capitalists who just before the students’ massacre had refused to invest, out of fear losing money due to the prominence of ongoing autonomous social developments in the country, happily suspended their strike.  In parallel terms, the option of Maoist armed struggle in the Thai countryside gained traction among many, particularly students.


In 1973, the Thai military forcibly attempted to disperse pro-democracy protestors

The return of military rule in Thailand greatly facilitated the State’s embrace of neoliberalism, with consistently high economic growth rates, an expanding middle class, and super-exploited working classes (the workplace injury rate in Thailand for 1995 was three times greater than that calculated for South Korea).  A major pro-democracy uprising in May 1992 resulted in the fall of General Suchinda, then Prime Minister, despite the scores shot dead and arrested in the suppression of the rural and urban mobilizations as ordered by the general—an act for which he was pardoned by the king.  As in several other case studies he examines, Katsiaficas notes again that the workers and poor comprised the main force sustaining the popular mobilizations and civil defense once the Thai army began overt repression—with the more privileged elements of protestors often quickly making themselves scarce under such conditions.  The 1992 transition brought parliamentary elections, greater foreign direct investment, and a new constitution (1997) which provided limited formal protections for women, while unsurprisingly leaving the overhanging structure of capitalist exploitation untouched.  Out of the democratic opening came visible organizing by queers and the birth of the Assembly of the Poor (AOP), affiliated with La Via Campesina.  Katsiaficas seems to find more promise in the AOP and related groups than in either of the factions which have have dominated the country’s politics through conflict in these past years: the Yellow Shirts, who emphasize Buddhist principles and monarchical supremacy in government, and the Red Shirts, or supporters of the populist-neoliberal billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a coup in 2006 after being popularly elected twice (2001 and 2005).  Despite his wealth, Thaksin seemingly enjoys the sympathies of many Thai proletarians, whose April-May 2010 occupation of central Bangkok, including the city’s financial center—a protest in support of their beleaguered leader—met with great violence at the hands of the military.

Other Authoritarian, Pro-Western Regimes: Taiwan, Indonesia, Bangladesh

Katsiaficas also discusses three more countries shaken by uprisings: Taiwan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.  Due to space considerations, I will here only briefly explore these case studies: in Taiwan, awarded by the Allies to the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) government of China after Japan’s defeat in August 1945, indigenous residents of the island called for independence in 1947, mobilizing armed struggle toward this end and assembling themselves politically in councils, only to meet the fascist repression of the KMT in that year and then especially following its defeat by the CCP in 1949, when the KMT leadership fled to Taiwan, there to found the world’s longest-running regime based on martial law.  Up to 30,000 indigenous Taiwanese were murdered by the KMT in its assertion of dominance.  Formal democratization began in 1987 with the KMT’s suspension of martial law, following from widespread protests from workers, environmentalists, and upper middle-class liberals, and accelerated with the coming of elections in 1991.  Despite parliamentary rule, Taiwan retains strong military ties with the U.S., an alliance that arguably diverts great resources from the peoples of Taiwan to needless waste.

In Indonesia, longstanding “sultanist” President Mohammed Suharto was compelled to resign in 1998 amidst popular mobilization against the conditions stipulated by an IMF bailout aiming at stabilizing the country’s economy following the 1997 financial crisis.  Suharto initially rejected the IMF’s conditions, and subsequently dawdled on implementing them after finally caving, out of fear of public reaction—particularly in terms of the mandated cuts to food subsidies, with the rapid increase in poverty rates coming in the wake of the 1997 crisis.  After Suharto’s resignation, catalyzed as it was by student occupations of parliament, youth and workers continued to mobilize by the thousands to protest the military’s central role in Indonesian politics, with elections coming the following year.  Dialectically, while East Timorese gained independence from the new government through a referendum, Suharto’s authoritarian legacy lived on, even given this break: paramilitary groups supported by the Indonesian army engaged in widespread massacres of Timorese during and after the 1999 declaration of independence.  Unlike East Timor, though, Aceh and West Papua have so far not been allowed either independence or autonomy.

The struggle in Bangladesh against the pro-U.S. dictatorship of General H.M. Ershad (1982-1990) saw intervention by students and government workers on hartal (strike), in addition to sympathetic elements of the military, cooperating to bring about parliamentary rule, which instituted the rule of law, freedom of expression, and legalization of trade unions.  However, and unsurprisingly, the representatives of the new parliament in large part hailed from the business and middle classes, with dozens of owners of garment factories and slave-traffickers winning office.  Mobilizations by women, especially female sex workers, against patriarchal Islamist mores have become important features of the post-dictatorial landscape in Bangladesh, as has the class struggles of garment workers, who have suffered enormously from unsafe working conditions on the one hand—recall the April 2013 Rana Square disaster, or the November 2012 Tazreen fire—and the British-trained anti-unionist Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) paramilitary group on the other.  It is strange that Katsifiacias makes no mention of the devastation wrought on Bangladesh and its peoples by the ever-worsening cyclones and rising sea levels exacerbated by capitalism’s warming of the atmosphere, a development that has led many coastal Bangladeshi communities to effectively lose access to safe drinking water, as the ocean’s salt penetrates the aquifers on which they could once rely.

Concluding Comments

“By their very nature, humans are destined to be free.”  – G.W.F. Hegel

Following the end of his explorations of the history of uprisings in these nine Asian societies, Katsiaficas dedicates the remainder of his volume to reflections on these events.  He enthusiastically welcomes them all as reminders that “human beings remain capable of changing the planetary structures that condemn millions of people to living hell at the periphery of the world system—and involve us all in continual wars and destruction of the planet.”  Though he recognizes that the exercise of People’s Power over the past three decades has more often than not ended up facilitating increased super-exploitation by transnational capital, he declares it as amounting to “a protracted people’s uprising against capitalism and war,” one developed autonomously from overarching centralizing forces.  In this way, the popular spontaneity evinced in the nine countries he studies should definitively disprove the Leninist thesis of the need to insert externally imposed, vanguardist discipline onto the putatively reformist masses.  The “ultimate goal” of People’s Power, says Katsifiacas, has been “the institutionalization of popular forms of decision-making—taking power from elites and reconstituting it into grassroots forms.”  He declares that in the numerous cases in which the “eros effect” has gripped popular mobilizations, “humans’ love for and solidarity with each other suddenly replace previously dominant values and norms,” recalling the “primitive communism” of prehistorical humanity.  As in the examples of the Paris and Gwanju Communes, the historical example of People’s Power “contradict[s] the widely propagated myth that human beings are essentially evil and therefore require strong governments to maintain order and justice.  Rather, the behavior of the citizens during these moments of liberation [have] revealed an innate capacity for self-government and cooperation.”  Turning to consideration of what it is that might be done today, Katsifiacias urges people in general to act to “negate their existing daily routines and break free of ingrained patterns” so as to realize a globalized eros effect, which, if “continually activated,” would finally afford humanity the chance to “determine for [ourselves] the type of society in which [we] wish to live.”

Katsiaficas concludes his massive study with the chapter “The System is the Problem,” wherein he identifies eight negating structural imperatives of the present capitalist-military system: wars and weapons, bubbles and busts, billionaires and beggars, and profits and pollution.  He clearly notes that this system, which he claims to bear a “great deal of continuity” with those of the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, owes its existence to imposition “by the power of the strongest, by the dead weight of the past, and decidedly not [to] the life forces of the present.”  Against the present “abysmal reality,” Katsifiacias invokes “global revolutionary change” as a “prescriptive remedy [which is] needed in large doses to cure the diseases of militarized nation-states, power-hungry politicians, and wealth-grabbing billionares”; in positive terms, he suggests a “fundamental restructuring of the world system to decentralize and bring under self-management the vast social wealth of humanity,” as continuing in the heroic examples examined in Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Volume 2.  Optimistically, he promises that “[t]he next generations of protests—drawn from the trajectory of Chiapas, Caracas, Gwanju, Berlin, Seattle, February 15, 2003, and the Arab Spring [sic]—will surpass these other waves in a cascading global resonance.”

There can be no doubt of the imperative nature of Katsiaficas’s argumentation as presented in this book; I can easily say it is one of the most stimulating books I have read in years, or perhaps in life.  I would merely end by interrogating Katsiaficas’s triumphant optimism, which reminds me of that of Ernst Bloch, author of the Principle of Hope (3 volumes).  For example, Katsiaficas at no point in Volume 2 discusses the capitalist system’s clearly established suicidal (omnicidal) proclivities, represented most graphically in the ever-accelerating climate crisis, and hence ignores the utter need for sustained interventions like those examined in the text on these groundswith the difference that the present and future uprisings serve as the midwives of post-capitalist social relations, rather than of liberal capitalism (or capitalist parliamentarism) in opposition to direct military rule.  This is not a point of major disagreement between Katsifiacias and me, for he clearly interprets the present crisis as one of “greatest urgency,” and calls for “[g]lobally synchronized struggles by hundreds of millions”—if not billions—of people to displace capitalism from the stage of history.  The only point I would stress is that the timeline for such mass-radical action is necessarily short, in keeping with current climatological findings, and that the dénouement of the crises of capitalism may not necessarily yield a liberated, humanist future—though it still might, as the promise of People’s Power holds.

[1]    A reference to the 2 October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre committed by the Mexican Army and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) against students and non-students as they held a rally at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, just over two weeks before the beginning of the Olympics in the city.  An estimated 300 people lost their lives in the balacero (sustained shooting), though other estimates suggest far more.  Countless student activists were imprisoned at the site of the massacre as well, many of them forcibly disappeared.  See La Noche de Tlatelolco by Elena Poniatowska.

[2]    To clarify: these 1990 elections had been mandated by the Burmese parliament, which met briefly in 1988 following the fall of Sein Lwin, successor to Ne Win.  The SPDC military in fact did observe this parliamentary legal demand, however little attention it paid to the result of the event it called for.