Posts Tagged ‘Hungarian Revolution’

Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution

July 25, 2016

Mao Stalin 2

Elliott Liu, Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction (PM Press, 2016).

Originally published on the Los Angeles section of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation website

This work, the sixth volume in PM Press’ “Revolutionary Pocketbooks” series, provides a compelling review of the philosophy and historical practices of Maoism before, during, and after the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Liu, an organizer with Take Back the Bronx in New York, shows Maoism to be essentially totalitarian—an “internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism.” In parallel to Loren Goldner’s argument in “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” (2012), Liu accuses Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of imposing state-capitalism onto the Chinese masses and, indeed, of preparing the way for the liberalizing reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death—this, precisely by means of the CCP’s repeated suppression of the revolutionary self-organization of peasants and workers, in keeping with the Lenino-Stalinist tradition. Though Liu focuses more on developments within China than international relations, any investigation of Mao’s foreign policies—supporting the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, opening negotiations with Nixon, being among the first countries to recognize Pinochet’s coup in Chile, backing UNITA over the MPLA in Angola—shows the clear error of holding Maoism to be a liberatory philosophy. In this text, Liu analyzes the Chinese Revolution using a libertarian-communist or anarchist perspective.

The origins of Maoism as an insurrectional-peasant ideology owe much to the power of the Stalinist Communist International (Comintern), which, in an effort to protect the Soviet Union by destabilizing imperialism, disastrously ordered the Chinese Communists to ally with the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Upon taking power with the CCP’s aid in 1927, Chiang murderously suppressed the Shanghai and Canton workers’ communes, leading Mao to undertake the Long March to Yanan and a reorientation toward the Chinese peasantry as a potential mass-base. Although the CCP vastly expanded its presence in rural China by mandating land reforms that largely deposed the landlord class, in turn swelling the ranks of the Red Army, Mao’s cadres in certain cases protected the property of gentry who supported the war against the occupying Japanese power, or who were allied to the KMT, as during the case of the United Front strategy again mandated by Moscow to oppose Japan. In playing this conservative role, the CCP foreshadowed the moment it would replace the bourgeois-feudalist ruling class by capturing the State in the Chinese Revolution (1949). Even at this point, the height of victory, Liu notes that the CCP was unwilling to countenance mass-land seizures by peasants or proletarian self-management in the cities.

Instead, Mao largely followed the Stalinist model of nationalization and expansion of heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture, as outlined and directed by the Party in Five-Year Plans designed in the interests of securing “primitive socialist [i.e., state-capitalist] accumulation,” as previously theorized by the Soviet economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky. In response to the widening class inequalities induced by such developments, Mao in 1956 called for “a hundred flowers to bloom” and manifest popular discontent—or “criticism”—but when “ultra-left” critiques surfaced and mass-strikes broke out in Shanghai, he dismissed such “deviations,” associating them with the “deceived” Hungarian revolutionaries put down by the USSR. The prominent student leader Lin Hsiling expressly identified the CCP as a bureaucracy ruling over the working classes without democracy, and she gained a following for this reason. In response, Mao commenced the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” to purge such critical-intellectual elements together with more conservative forces. Then, the Great Leap Forward (1956-1958), which was launched principally for the purpose of the accumulation of capital, burgeoned China’s industrial and agricultural output as the State extracted evermore from the peasants, tens of millions of whom succumbed to famine conditions.[1] As Liu writes, the hyper-exploitation of the country’s laboring classes implemented by Mao and the CCP caused not only state-capital but also corpses to accumulate. Hence, it is little surprise that, in assessing the revelations made by Nikita Khrushchev about Stalinist atrocities at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956) that would ultimately lead to the Sino-Soviet Split, Mao declared Stalin to have been “30 percent wrong and 70 percent right.”

Initiated by Mao to putatively oust bureaucratic rivals and stave off the threat of “capitalist restoration,” the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) brought about a similar dynamic to that induced by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, whereby the CCP summoned revolt from below, only to crush it once it came to threaten Party domination. Whereas the Red Guards called up to defend the Revolution engaged in varying critique of their “black” opponents—the progeny of the deposed feudal-bourgeois class—and CCP cadres proper, workers in Shanghai were inspired to dismiss the local Party leadership and found a “People’s Commune” altogether, leading to the January Revolution of 1967 that spread to several provinces. Though the Commune was defeated through the efforts of Mao and his loyalists, Liu identifies that these developments yielded a distinct “ultra-left” tendency advocating for proletarian organization outside the CCP, “a revolutionary split in the army, and a new revolution in China.” According to Liu, the most prominent crystallization of the ultra-left in the Cultural Revolution found expression in Shengwulian, or the Hunan Provisional Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose member Yang Xiguang wrote the highly influential Whither China?, advocating the establishment of a “People’s Commune of China” and recommending that the working classes organize autonomously against the “‘Red’ capitalist class.” Nevertheless, the CCP redeployed the forces of repression to break up Shengwulian in 1968 and thereafter utilized the State to maintain the domination of labor domestically and support enemies of the Soviet Union—UNITA in Angola, Pinochet in Chile—internationally, all the while moving to normalize relations with the US. Lastly, prior to Mao’s death in 1976, the Shanghai Textbook was published, containing a summary of the Communist leader’s views on the supposed transition to socialism—though in reality, as Liu observes, the text is more concerned with the “proper management of state capitalism.”

In essence, then, we see the arc of the CCP’s developments in history over time, from active collaboration with the bourgeois-nationalists of the KMT to the subsequent replacement of feudalist-capitalist relations of production with state-capitalist ones. While Mao and the CCP may have sought to avoid some of the excesses of Stalinism by introducing more participatory elements such as the mass-line, criticism, and self-criticism into the world of politics, in truth they worked systemically to coopt and repress any possibility of a more radical revolution that would institute self-management and autonomy among the Chinese workers and peasantry—in yet another parallel to the Bolsheviks, against whom arose the Third Revolution championed by insurrectional peasants and workers, from the Kronstadt Commune and the Makhnovshchina to other devastating rural rebellions, as developed in the Tambov region in response to famine caused by the Red State’s grain-requisition schemes. As Liu summarizes: “Mao subjectively aimed to prevent capitalist restoration [during the Cultural Revolution] but objectively strengthened its hold, preventing the emergence of any force capable of challenging it.” It is not an exaggeration, then, to assert that, just as Khrushchev continued to propagate Stalinist politics after having denounced his predecessor in the “Secret Speech,” Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms do not constitute a total contradiction to Mao’s established approach, either.

Philosophically, Maoism does not go far beyond Stalinist reductionism, as it cannot. On Liu’s account, Mao’s conception of dialectics rationalizes Party substitutionism in place of autonomous proletarian struggle, and claims that the class politics of a given State should be analyzed with reference to the ideology of its leadership, not the actual class makeup of said leadership. It is due to such facile reasoning that Mao’s CCP could so readily judge Khrushchev’s regime as “bourgeois,” as against Stalin’s supposed revolutionism previously. With the progression of the Chinese Revolution, the CCP came to increasingly slander—much like the Bolsheviks—all oppositional forces as reactionary-bourgeois, even and especially if movements like Shengwulian and the Shanghai Commune were far more revolutionary than it was. As Liu notes, the labels “revolutionary” and “reactionary” in Maoist China were usually decided with reference to one’s relationship to the Party, rather than to the actual nature of one’s politics. Finally, one could likely say that Maoist gender politics are preferable to feudalist-capitalist ones, but these cannot easily be separated from the overall imperatives of Maoist state-capitalism—such that autonomist feminism holds greater promise for collective liberation.

In light of these considerations, Liu’s conclusion is quite right: “[f]or revolutionaries who aim at a free anarchist and communist society, Maoism as a whole must be rejected.” As an alternative to Maoism and all other strains of authoritarian socialism which irremediably substitute Party and State in the place of radical proletarian self-activity, today’s revolutionaries should struggle for “forms of mass, federated, armed and directly democratic social organization” at the regional and global levels, working to “maintain and expand rebel territories that allow for revolutionary activity” as much as possible.

[1] See Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

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Dialectical Communitarian Anarchism as the Negation of Domination: A Review of The Impossible Community

December 8, 2013

imposs community

John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

First published on Truthout on 30 November 2013 (copyright, Truthout.org, reprinted with permission)

 

Professor John P. Clark’s The Impossible Community is a masterful work, one which seeks radically to invert the destruction of nature and oppression of humanity as prosecuted by capitalism, the State, and patriarchy by encouraging the intervention of a mass-confluence of anarcho-communist—or communitarian anarchist—socio-political movements. This project is only “impossible” because its realization is heterotopic—inherently contradictory—to the prevailing system of domination, such that it demands the very abolition of hegemony in favor of a different, liberated world: that of the “third great epoch of history,” in Clark’s vision, when “humanity finally frees itself and the earth from the yoke of dominion.” Taking equally from Buddhism as from dialectical philosophy, Clark stresses the importance of enlightenment, mindfulness, and awakening as preconditions of revolutionary political praxis, and though he implicitly seems to agree with the overall thesis of the (anti)catastrophist line developed by Sasha Lilley and company, he also affirms the productivity of a commitment to truth which squarely confronts the profoundly shocking, traumatic, and even convulsive nature of such truth: the very first page of his preface acknowledges the sixth mass extinction in which terrestrial life is at present entrapped and notes the “horror” of a capitalist world in which billions go without the basic necessities of a good life. Advancing the philosophy and practice of communitarian anarchism as an exit from the depraved present, Clark dedicates much of his text to examining the anti-authoritarian and cooperative spirit of humanity, as embodied in many of the customs of pre-modern or “traditional” societies, as in the history of Western revolutionary movements. In this sense, Clark does well to distance himself from the Eurocentrism advanced by many Western radical thinkers, including the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, whose imprint on The Impossible Community is otherwise nearly palpable.

Much of Clark’s introductory commentary focuses on the problem of individual and collective human enlightenment: the question is how to induce what Paulo Freire termed “conscientization” (conscientização), a catalyst for a societal awakening which would take into account normally overlooked social and ecological problems toward the end of engaging with and ultimately resolving them. How might a shattering intervention break the mass of humanity from much of its observed complacency and complicity with the capitalist everyday, which, “if we are to speak honestly, must be called a culture of extinction, a culture of extermination, and ecocidal culture”? In response, Clark presents a revival of classical anarchism, as developed in the thought of Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Gustav Landauer, and Murray Bookchin, and he works to integrate the perspectives of such theorists together with the life-affirming aspects of various traditional cultures of the world to advance his communitarian anarchist vision. Practically, Clark argues that the notion of communitarian anarchism (or anarcho-communism) should be understood as referring to activity which renders the life-world common, as against its largely privatized nature now. In Clark’s vision, a multitude of strong international communitarian anarchist movements would work together to overturn the historical trend toward popular disenfranchisement, as promulgated by the expanding hegemony of State and capital seen in modernity, in favor of decentralized participatory democracy. Philosophically resisting much of the dominant dogmatism, nihilism, cynicism, and relativism which he sees as evinced by many contemporary anarchists, Clark defends a dialectical theoretical vision, whereby the world comes to be seen as a “site of constant change and transformation that takes place through processes of mutual interaction, negation, and contradiction.” Clark declares that one of the main goals of his Impossible Community is “to be fully and consistently dialectical,” such that the given social reality comes under challenge and “new possibilities for radical social transformation” are opened up. I should note that it is within this vein strange that, next to declaring Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Sarvodaya (“common welfare”) movement the “largest anarchist-inspired movement to appear between the Spanish Revoluton and the present moment,” Clark favorably cites the “radical kibbutzim” of Palestine/Israel on two occasions in the first two chapters of the work without noting a word about the imperialist dispossession processes directed against indigenous Palestinians with which such kibbutzim were complicit. The recognition that the kibbutz might function as a “tool of colonialism and oppression” is made only in a footnote during its third and last mention in the book’s sixth chapter. One wonders how this lapse jibes with Clark’s stated desire to preserve the positive communalist customs of non-Western cultures and overcome the strong tendencies toward Eurocentrism within much of anarchist thought.

Within his discussion of the philosophy of communitarian anarchism, Clark notes the mainstream’s puzzling perpetuation of mechanisms of denial, even amidst the depths of the various interlinking crisis of corporate capital. Against such uninspiring trends, Clark argues for a “Phantom of Possibility,” one that presently haunts left-wing and ordinary consciousness alike: it is “the chance that revolutionary, liberatory social transformation is still possible.” Evaluating the prospect for the embodied realization of such rebellious specters, Clark here expresses pessimism for the “mass of humanity” which continues to fail to act autonomously and radically to resolve the threats which imperil its future existence, particularly through looming eco-apocalypse: in observing this alarming violation of collective human self-responsibility, Clark would seem to agree with Karl Marx, whom he cites as declaring that history “progresses by its bad side.” Gloomily, though perhaps rationally, the author declares a “spectrum of possible ecofascisms” to be the most likely future outgrowth of society’s present structure, though his focus clearly is on making visible the chance of a “turning”—as in the etymology of the word revolution, a “turning around.” Bracketing his recognition of the frightening power of reactionary grassroots movements in the U.S., Clark considers Occupy, cooperative labor, the possibility of economic decommodification, and the solidarity and marginalization of immigrant communities as important popular counter-trends which point the way forward. At both the individual and social levels, Clark calls for a total revolt of the organism, one reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s Great Refusal, whereby individuals associate and develop autonomous alternatives that promote an institutional framework, social ethos, and social imaginary different from those on offer from the dominant death-culture. Equating the ecological crisis with the “ultimate intrusion of the traumatic real” into human life—a veritable “death sentence for humanity and much of life” on Earth—Clark raises the question of why there still is nothing approximating an anarchist Masdar City, in reference to the project currently financed by the Emir of Abu Dhabi in conjunction with private capital to create a waste-free, carbon-neutral settlement for 50,000 people in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. Given the very real existence of strong left-wing movements—for example as seen in the solidarity volunteerism engaged in by many youth in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—Clark recognizes that the struggle continues, but, like Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach,” he leaves open the practical question of how to change the world at this point in the text.

One of Clark’s major contributions to anti-authoritarian struggle comes with his conceptualization of the “third concept of liberty,” a Hegelian-anarchist supplement to the two concepts of liberty identified famously by Isaiah Berlin: negative liberty, or freedom from arbitrary interference and coercion, and positive liberty, or the freedom to flourish as a human and experience happiness through self-realization. To these two—with the former historically more associated with right-wing propertarian and liberal thought, and the latter related more to German idealism, materialism, and socialism—Clark adds a third, which he takes largely from the youthful and critical Hegel: freedom as self-determination. In fact, such a positive concept of freedom echoes Immanuel Kant as well, given the importance this German idealist placed on enlightenment as autonomous reason. Hegel took this concept seriously, and in his early works the element of Freigabe—the “renunciation of attempts to dominate and control the other” while simultaneously “allowing the other to be […] as she determines herself to be”—is central to his thought. Clark points to the interest Hegel expresses in his early religious studies (the Theological Manuscripts) for the Christian anarchist Joachimite tradition which calls for a “third age” in which human society would be organized along the principles of love and solidarity. Clark integrates Hegel’s youthful rejection of all “coercion, force, and violence” into his concept of the free community, one which is to be comprised of “self-realizing beings who are agents in their own development.” Alongside Hegel, Clark here also calls on the romatic German anarchist Gustav Landauer in theorizing his third concept: Landauer, unlike Hegel, acknowledges the value of traditional communal culture and, breaking importantly with progressivism, recognizes the tremendous destruction which history can caused—in contradistinction to Hegel’s mature apologism for the various genocides and slave-regimes of history, given his view that such brutality is a necessary prologue to the realization of reason. Thus, Landauer takes the World Geist (Spirit) to mean solidarity, and he calls on humanity to work practically for liberation:

“The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by pepole relating to one another differently […]. We, who have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions.”1

Clark sees Landauer’s advocacy of a new, liberated society based on human creativity and mutual respect as advanced in contemporary times by his comrade Joel Kovel, who in History and Spirit (1991) envisions political transformations aiming at a Hegelian reconciliation of society and individual, or universal and particular. Here, Clark importantly mentions Kovel’s relationship with the emerging ecosocialist movements, particularly given the theorist’s co-authoring of the 2001 “Ecosocialist Manifesto” and the 2007 “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration.” Clark affirms the necessity of such a melding of ecological and anti-capitalist thought, given the self-evidently profound nature of the environmental crisis, and he soberly declares the most likely means of addressing this world-historical problem to be some future form of eco-fascism, if a libertarian ecosocialism does not develop and intervene.

I will for the most part skip consideration of Clark’s fourth chapter, “Against Principalities and Powers,” which amounts to an elucidation of well-known anarchist critiques of liberalism, an ideology which bases itself in respect for the negative liberty mentioned above. Yet I will note two important points he makes in this intervention: one, that liberalist philosophy fails to acknowledge social domination in the present as deriving from an overarching system of domination manifested principally in the hegemony of patriarchy, capital, and State; and two, that liberalism fatally ignores the domination of nature, which as Clark rightly notes corresponds to “the most fateful form of domination presently existing.” In an intriguing amalgam of biocentric and anthropocentric thought, Clark here argues that interference with and destruction of the “self-activity of beings (organisms, populations, species, ecosystems, etc.) within the biosphere” and the concomitant prevention of “their flourishing, self-realization, and attainment of the good” must become realities with which social anarchists should concern themselves centrally today, toward the end of resisting such life-negating trends.

Clark provides a number of compelling reflections in “Anarchy and the Dialectic of Utopia,” where he distinguishes among different manifestations of utopianism: utopia as domination, utopia as escapism, and utopia as critique or (subversive) desire. With regard to the “dominant utopia,” Clark identifies some of the salient fantasies it advances, particularly its capture of the imagination via consumer spectacle on the one hand and the capitalist everyday labor routine on the other. As in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the “good life” advanced by the dominant imaginary is held out as available to “all who buy the right commodities, and know how to perpetually refashion their very selves into the right kinds of commodities.” Clark is clear to state that this false type of utopianism leads inexorably to the “destruction of all diversity and complexity—of ecosystems, cultures, personalities, and imaginations,” and indeed ultimately tends toward the very “reduction of the world” to a “condition of nowhere,” as through the threats hegemony poses to the future of life on Earth. As an alternative to this type of utopianism, Clark considers the escapist utopian forms which he finds notoriously to be subscribed to by academics and “leftist sectarians” like Leninists and libertarian municipalists; utopia for them becomes an idealist means of transcending their political frustrations with the state of society, or even “compensation for being denied real power or having real efficacy.” Clark criticizes such escapist utopians for their contempt for the people, given their belief that revolution will come “only [once] the masses finally learn how to pay attention and fall in line with the intended course of history.”

More positively, Clark comes to consider the concept of utopia as critique and desire. Against the deadening tendencies of late capitalism, Clark quotes a statement made by Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim: “[W]ith the relinquishment of utopias, man [sic] would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.”2 Naturally, this quote nicely mirrors the quip famously made by Oscar Wilde on the geography of utopia, that “[a] map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” In terms of geographical utopianism, Clark presents a fascinating discussion contrasting the repressive rationalism expressed by Kant with the sensual romanticism of Denis Diderot and Paul Gauguin in terms of these Europeans’ views of Polynesian society: the former was horrified by the prospect of social relations like those he saw as being practiced by the “inhabitants of the South Sea Islands”—“idleness, indulgence, and propagation”—while the latter two held such non-Western social environments to demonstrate the historical possibility of reconciling “pleasure, beauty, freedom, and harmony.” It is clear which of the two approaches Clark favors. Within this discussion, he approvingly cites the thought of Charles Fourier, William Blake, William Morris, and Gary Snyder as well, and declares forthrightly that “[t]he most liberatory utopianism affirms this existence of the eternal, the sublime, the marvellous, as a present reality and an object of present experience.” As concrete illustrations of this point, Clark considers the beauty of the lotus flower and the wondrous world experienced by many in childhood. He moreover mentions Reclus’ Man and the Earth, an encyclopedic examination of radical freedom movements which have represented undercurrents to the hegemonic course of world history, such as

“cooperative and egalitarian tribal traditions, anarchistic millenarian movements, dissident spiritualities, antiauthoritarian experiments in radical grassroots democracy and communalism, movements for the liberation of women, and the radically libertarian moments of many of the world’s revolutions and revolutionary movements.”

Practically, Clark notes some of the various impressive anarchist examples of modernity—from the sections of the French Revolution to the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and proletarian self-management in Spain and Hungary—and gives special consideration to the revolutionary anarchist culture developed in Spain for a half-century before Francisco Franco’s attempted coup in 1936: such cultural anarchism included movements for “libertarian schools, cooperatives, ‘free love’ advocacy, feminism, vegetarianism, nudism, rationalism and ‘free thought,’ mysticism, and early ecological and pro-nature tendencies.”

In “The Microecology of Community,” Clark considers social organization theory and applies it to the current situation in the U.S. Negatively, he claims grassroots organization today to be “overwhelmingly in the hands of the reactionaries,” given the well-funded right-wing coordination of fundamentalist churches and irrationalist media networks. The Left has largely failed to present any comparable base social movement since the end of the 1960s, argues Clark, when many former activists seem to have opted instead for reformism and a “long march through the institutions.” The question today then becomes whether there will develop a convergence of mass-radical social movements based on the principles of solidarity and liberation in time to save off looming socio-ecological catastrophe. Clark expresses hope in the catalyst model of small affinity groups which aim to secure “very joyful, fulfilling lives” for their participants and, it is to be hoped, society at large, as through an emanating radical cascade. As Clark notes, it is critical in this sense to ask whether such a small-scale model of transformation will be able to expand in scope and help along the struggle for a “new just, ecological society” and a “free life in common.” Clark seems to have an optimistic answer, for he endorses the evolutionary view that both biophilia and sociophilia are deeply rooted within us as humans, holding out promise for the eventual intervention of a “strong and hopeful movement for the liberation of humanity and nature.”

As he moves to close The Impossible Community, Clark provides an extended case study of the dialectical theories he has been examining throughout the text by considering the impacts—both negative and positive—Hurricane Katrina has had on his hometown of New Orleans. As he explains, his reflections on Katrina are written “a bit in the spirit of a jazz funeral,” for they “mourn” the “collective tragedy” yet “speak out also for our collective hope.” Incidentally, part of his chapter on Katrina had been written as a paper for an international conference in Milan on the thought of Reclus which was to take place just weeks after the hurricane struck, such that Reclus appears here as a sort of stand-in for Dante’s Virgil as we descend into an exploration of the hell of environmental destruction on the one hand and the affirmation of anarchist resurgence on the other. Situating the impacts of the storm systemically, Clark argues that the oil industry’s systematic destruction of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands—2000 square miles lost over the past half-century, as corporations extracted 20 billion barrels of oil from offshore sources—certainly worsened the impacts Katrina had on the population of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers, the State, and the Red Cross similarly come under fire here—quite rightly, given their well-documented ineptitude. Clark also discusses the “disaster fascism” on hand in post-Katrina New Orleans, given “de facto ethnic cleansing” of African Americans, the “mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers,” as well as “widespread police brutality, denial of prisoners’ rights, collapse of the courts and legal system, […] and [the] gutting of the health care system.” Grimly, Clark also acknowledges the “troubling” thought that, however devastating Katrina proved, New Orleans stands to face even more intense and frequent tropical storms due to the ever-accelerating processes of global climate change; one can think similarly of the plight of the Philippines and many other climatically vulnerable regions of the world—the tropics—in this sense.

Against the twin “disaster capitalism” and “disaster fascism” seen before, during, and after Katrina, Clark nonetheless gives space to the “disaster anarchism” which flourished in the hurricane’s aftermath, as in the founding of the Common Ground collective and the radical volunteer work engaged in by thousands of anti-authoritarian youths in the months which followed. In these efforts Clark sees the embodiment of Reclus’ view of mutual aid, “the principal agent of human progress.” Indeed, as he writes dialectically, despite the great “suffering and tragedy” inflicted by the storm, the weeks after the hurricane “have undoubtedly been one of the most gratifying periods in [his] life,” for they demonstrated very clearly to him “a sense of the goodness of people, […] their ability to show love and compassion for one another, and […] their capacity to create spontaneous community.” Clark speaks to the critical opening provided by the Katrina disaster, given the very clear “break with conventional reality” this event signified: like John Holloway, author of Crack Capitalism, Clark identifies Katrina very clearly to have represented a “system crack” that provided for the possibility of different future realities. Clark cites the commonly shared view of many post-Katrina volunteers who held that the catastrophe provided an unprecedented possibility to experience “the beauty, the wonder, and the sacredness of the place, and of the people of the place.” The catastrophist shock-value of such experiences forms a critical basis for the mass-expression of a transformative disaster anarchism, argues Clark; in breaking radically with prevailing state of affairs, disaster anarchism provides for the chance of “a qualitatively different way of life,” one based in “love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation.”

As another important case study of communitarian anarchism, Clark next examines the Gandhian Sarvodaya (“common good”) movement in India and the radical movement it inspired in neighboring Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya Shramadana. Clark here illuminates the general political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, largely ignored despite his world-famous advocacy of nonviolence: that of an “Indian version of anarchism,” one commensurate with the communitarian anarchism Clark is advancing in The Impossible Community. Citing previous anarchist studies of Gandhi’s thought, Clark claims Gandhi to have desired an India freed from State rule, private property, organized religion, and police and military forces, and he sees several commonalities between Gandhianism and much of Western anarchism, particularly given the former’s support for decentralization, local control, and popular direct action, yet he notes important differences between the two, including the Gandhian stress on spirituality, asceticism, nonviolence, and gradualism. Moreover, clearly, Gandhi’s philosophy emerges from a different social and geographical context than that of Western Europe; it focuses more on the radicalization of traditional indigenous institutions and customs than on the insurrectional break desired by many Western anarchist theorists. Importantly, Gandhi’s concept of swaraj or “self-rule” depended in large part on the devolution of power from the State to the gram sabha, or village assembly, and the panchayat, the village committee elected by the gram sabha. Thus did Gandhi favor the council system, or a radical participatory democracy. Moreover, besides nonviolence, Gandhi’s philosophy emphasized the following anti-authoritarian values, as Clark recounts: truthfulness, vegetarianism, celibacy, nontheft, nonpossession, fearlesslessness, rejection of untouchability, and the promotion of the equality of women.

In practical terms, the Sarvodaya movement continued to work in Gandhi’s spirit after his assassination in 1948, promoting economic transformation in India through the application of the ideas of bhoodan and gramdan (“gift of the land” and “gift of the village”), such that millions of acres of land have been voluntarily redistributed as collective property to be managed by landless peasants and villages themselves. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, Gandhi’s philosophy has inspired the impressive rise of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, which, like the neo-Zapatistas of Chiapas, has promoted a “community-based, participatory, and ecologically conscious development movement” involving millions of people. Finding its basis more in Buddhism than in Gandhi’s Hinduism, Sarvodaya Shramadana stresses four basic virtue: upekkha, or mental balance; metta, or goodwill toward all beings; karuna, or compassion for the suffering of all beings; and mudita, or sympathetic joy for all those liberated from suffering. As with Gandhi, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana, is described as moving away from hegemonic technocratic and State-oriented development models in favor of the embrace of the “spiritual and ethical traditions” of Sri Lanka, particularly the self-help and mutual aid practiced at the local level. The movement also seeks to transform Sri Lanka into a commonwealth of village or community republics; concretely, it aids communities in bringing self-determined development projects to fruition. Additionally, Sarvodaya Shramadana has organized massive peace meditations, People’s Peace Dialogues, and Youth Peace Camps amidst the devastation of the nearly three-decade long civil war which raged in the country until 2009. Clark closes this section by noting the vast gap in wealth of community and self-management between places like Sri Lanka and the United States. He looks forward to the day when the villages of Sri Lanka will “send teams of advisors to the West to help it come to terms with its communitarian underdevelopment, and begin to discover a way out of its political poverty.” Finally, he calls on Western radicals to “make more serious attempts to learn from societies in which a long history of communal practice and a deeply rooted sense of social solidarity make possible exemplary experiments in social cooperation.”

Before turning to consideration of Clark’s final chapter, I would here like to note some problematic aspects of his discussion of Gandhianism and the Sarvodaya movement in India. Clark deals with Gandhi’s pacifism in only a handful of paragraphs in “The Common Good,” and he gives the Mahatma the benefit of the doubt when counterposing the non-violence of satyagraha (“truth-force”) with the horrible violence faced in recent years by indigenous adivasi communities at the hands of paramilitaries acting in the interests of mining companies and the Indian State, as Arundhati Roy has observed. On this, Clark merely says that “a case can be made that Gandhi himself would have rejected a rigid adherence to [strict pacifism] in situations such as this one,” and then drops the question entirely. There is no mention made in Clark’s chapter of the armed resistance undertaken by the Naxalites in central India for the past several decades, nor is the example of left-wing militant Bhagat Singh or the Telangana insurrection of 1946-1951 against the indigenous landowning aristocracy discussed at all. These lapses I find troubling, if not somewhat disingenuous. Moreover within this vein, Clark’s presentation of Gandhi’s advocacy of voluntary land redistribution is not terribly critical. Though Clark does acknowledge that Gandhi’s strategy is flawed, in that the goodwill of the wealthy will not likely result in the abolition of exploitation, there is little sense in his account that contemplation of such a deluded approach—which so radically contradicts the Western anarchist emphasis on the outright expropriation of capitalists and feudalists by revolutionary workers, whether urban or rural—should lead us precisely to call into question the putatively anarchist nature of Gandhi’s political philosophy. Lastly in these terms, Clark fails to discuss or even mention the fact that Gandhi’s views on the caste system evolved over time, such that in the 1920’s before meeting the Dalit radical intellectual Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Mahatma held the caste system in an uncritical light, declaring it to be the “natural order” of Hindu society. In 1921, indeed, Gandhi declared that he was “opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.3

Clark’s closing chapter, “Beyond the Limits of the City,” is comprised of rather severe criticisms of the mature political philosophy of his former friend and mentor Murray Bookchin, an approach the latter termed libertarian municipalism. For all the critique to which Clark subjects Bookchin’s late philosophy—granted, some of it certainly justified—it is important to note here the profound political commonalities between the two thinkers. It is unfortunate—and once again disingenuous—that Clark fails to acknowledge the great influence Bookchin has had on the development of his own perspectives, and indeed on many of the principal points set forth in The Impossible Community! To take but one example of this dynamic, the very list of “revolutions within revolutions” which Clark cites favorably in his chapter on utopia—the “impressive historical examples” which “continu[e] to inspire the radical imagination,” from the section assemblies of the French Revolution, self-management in the Paris Commune, the soviets of the Russian Revolution, and the embodied anarchism of the Spanish and Hungarian Revolutions—is literally the same one Bookchin repeatedly pointed to in his writings as hopeful historical developments which validated his dialectical social-anarchist approach. Yet Clark fails to mention Bookchin at all in this discussion. It would seem that Clark has allowed his issues with Bookchin’s late views to paper over the great deal the two have in common: near the outset of this last chapter, Clark defines Bookchin’s ultimate political goal as being “the creation of a free, ecological society in which human beings pursue self-realization through participation in a nondominating human community, and further planetary self-realization by playing a cooperative, nondominating role within the larger ecological community.” Rather obviously, these lines also describe the author’s political tasks in The Impossible Community rather well, but Clark refuses explicitly to make this evident.

As I have suggested, some of the criticisms Clark makes of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism are justified. Bookchin was rather infamous for his sectarianism, and Clark illuminates this tendency well in his discussion of the rejection Bookchin and his partner Janet Biehl made of the 1991 Draft Program of the Left Green Network, which called for a 95% reduction in the Pentagon budget, a universal $10 minimum wage, a workers’ superfund, and a thirty-hour work-week, among other things. Bookchin and Biehl refused to support the proposal, for it did not mandate the elimination of the remaining 5% of the military budget. Clark argues that the main reason they rejected the Program, though, was that the Left Greens did not adopt libertarian municipalism as their specific socio-political approach—in this he likely has a point. Moreover, Clark makes the legitimate point that the mere devolution of decision-making power to “the People” may very well not result in the anti-authoritarian, rational outcomes Bookchin expects from an application en masse of his libertarian municipalist approach. Indeed, with regard to the U.S., Clark worries that a libertarian municipalist politics could well have “extremely reactionary consequences” within certain geographical contexts, considering the likelihood of a popular extension of anti-immigrant and anti-poor legislation, capital punishment, and religious impositions, to name a few examples. In the last few pages of the text, Clark ultimately leaves the question open as to whether people’s power is an appropriate strategy to pursue at present, but he does not suggest any alternatives here for realizing the admittedly “admirable goals” of libertarian municipalism. It is highly unlikely that he is implying support for some sort of enlightened Leninist vanguard here, but if the way forward is not through the people—then what?

In closing, I will say that Clark raises some good points against Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, particularly in challenging his former mentor’s questionable assumption that popular empowerment has an “almost miraculous” ability to nullify the negating socio-cultural values that have been ingrained so long by capitalist hegemony. Yet I am unconvinced that this consideration is reason enough to reject an approach to politics summarized well in the famous slogan of the Black Panthers: “All Power to the People!” Rationality and humanity will not arrive spontaneously through the machinations of State, capital, and patriarchy, as Clark makes clear throughout his text. Despite my problems with aspects of his final two chapters in The Impossible Community, Clark’s intervention with this book represents a crucial contribution to the struggle against domination and for liberation—with neither side of this struggle lacking evident justification in our day.

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1Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, ed. and trans. Gabriel Kuhn (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 214.

2Karl Mannheim, Ideology and History (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1936), 263.

3Bhimrao Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches (12 vols., Bombay 1979-93), ix, 275f.

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

October 7, 2013

poles-on-santo-domingo-by-suchodolski

First published on Truthout (copyright, Truthout.org, 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.

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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 http://ecology.iww.org/.

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