André Moncourt: In Defence of Strawmen (seventy three questions for J. Moufawad-Paul, and then a brief statement)

The following is a review of J. Moufawad-Paul’s The Communist Necessity by André Moncourt:

The Communist Necessity – that’s a catchy title, I thought.  I too think that revolutionary change is absolutely essential, and I think the Marxist tradition provides a lot worthy of consideration if that is going to occur, but in the end, J. Moufawad-Paul’s essay left me with more questions than answers. “What the hell,” I thought, “I’ll just ask him.”  Below you will find a series of quotes from J. Moufawad-Paul’s book followed by my questions.

***

 

We returned to anarchism without reflecting on the anarchist limits of the Spanish Revolution. Incapable of understanding the precise meaning of the communist failure, we ended up repeating the past while imagining we were building something new.

  • Are you suggesting that the shortcomings of anarchism are the only issue one needs to consider here?  What about the purposely disruptive behaviour of the Third International?

 

This was movementism: the assumption that specific social movements, sometimes divided along lines of identity or interest, could reach a critical mass and together, without any of that Leninist nonsense, end capitalism.

  • Is it really fair to discount literally hundreds upon hundreds of distinct groups and movements without a more substantive critique?

 

Instead of the Sendero Luminoso we championed a particular narrative of the Zapatistas; instead of Nepal we focused on Venezuela; instead of the Naxalites we lauded the Arab Spring.

  • Given that Sendero Luminiso collapsed in the early 90s, how are they currently relevant?  What about Nepal?  What does the Naxalite insurgency mean to activists in the First World?  How does these three disparate and relatively weak movements provide a point of reference for people in the First World?

 

Until recently, we could escape by referring to ourselves as marxist instead of communist, but only so long as we did not hyphenate our marxism with any of those suspicious names such as Lenin or Mao, those people and movements responsible for applying marxism and, in this application, declaring the word communism.

  • Are you contending that to be a Marxist, one must be a proponent of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought?

 

Some would speak of communism as an idea or hypothesis that existed for thousands of years, nearly wrenching it from those generations who died in innumerable brave attempts to make it the watch-word of the oppressed in the 20th century.

When some theorists claim that communism is a notion that can be projected into the distant past as an idea or hypothesis that was always present, then the revolutionary articulation of this name that was first provided by Marx and Engels – and thus meant something different from the name that was used, if it was used, in prior epochs – is dismissed.

 (T)hey were not at all interested in using this word as it had been used in the past, regardless of the vague conceptual similarities the name evoked.

  • What about Marx and Engels’ observation regarding the value of studying “primitive communism”?

 

When some theorists claim that communism is a notion that can be projected into the distant past as an idea or hypothesis that was always present, then the revolutionary articulation of this name that was first provided by Marx and Engels – and thus meant something different from the name that was used, if it was used, in prior epochs – is dismissed.

Others would speak of communism as a far-off horizon, some distant point we could only glimpse, and thus more of an inborn desire for another and possible world.

Still others speak of the word as a name that must be reclaimed because it makes the ruling classes tremble.

  • Who are you referring to, and what is it they actually said?

 

Despite a return to the name communism there still appears to be a refusal to accept everything this name was supposed to mean – because we were told it meant mass murder, totalitarianism, and most importantly failure.

  • Are you denying the mass murder and/or totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union, China (even under Mao), North Korea, Albania (under Hoxha)…?

 

We must speak of a necessary communism grounded in the unfolding of history, a communism that is simultaneously in continuity with and in rupture from the past, a communism that is always a new return.

  • What do you mean by that?

 

If we are to learn from the past through the lens of the necessity of making revolution, then we need to do so with an honesty that treats the practice of making communism as an historical argument.

  • What does “that treats the practice of making communism as an historical argument” mean?

 

The Arab Spring, Occupy, the next uprising: why do we look to these examples as expressions of communism instead of looking to those movements, organized militantly under a communist ideology, that are making more coherent and revolutionary demands?

  • Who does that?

 

If anything, those first world intellectuals engaged in repopularizing communism tend to make movementist strategies and tactics their default practice. Placing their faith in disorganized rebellions, they argue either explicitly or implicitly that we must tail every unfocused mass protest that erupts in response to global capitalism.

  • Who are you referring to, and what did they actually say?

 

The petty-bourgeoisie may be able to ignore and go without this potential (the immense and superb capabilities of the revolutionary struggle) but the proletariat cannot. [PCR-RCP, How We Intend to Fight, 14].

  • Who are the “petty bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” in the First World in 2014?

 

And carrying out the interests of the movement as a whole, a demand produced by the intentionality of necessity…

  • What’s “the intentionality of necessity”?

 

Movementism has already produced a mythology of struggle that would lead us to believe otherwise, a moralism that runs counter to reality – wishful thinking that if we are all out in the streets, all spontaneously producing an insurrection, the state’s technological machines will refuse to initiate a blood bath.

  • Who believes that?

 

The puritan pilgrims who led the colonization of North America believed that they stood in opposition to the dogmatism of mainstream Christianity; they refused to recognize a similar dogmatism in their rigid morality…

If anything, the analogy of puritan Protestantism might be able to explain the self-righteous need to arrogantly cling to the movementist strategy in the face of historical evidence.

  • What is it that the PCR-RCP has to offer that is superior?

 

(T)he problem of differing class morality produces ethical confusion, where failure is more spectacular with each heightened level of struggle.

  • What do you mean by that?

 

But at the same time, just as we should reject the eurocentric fetishization of the Zapatistas, we should also reject the eurocentric rejection based on fidelity to some ortho-Trotskyist notion of class struggle.

  • Who are these “ortho-Trotskyists,” and how does their orthodoxy differ from the PCR-RCP’s orthodoxy?

 

(T)he reason (the anti-globalization anarchists) would choose to focus on the Zapatistas instead of the Senderistas was perhaps predictable.

  • Do you not think that it’s reasonable that people will refer to an existing organization, rather than one that has disappeared?

 

(W)e have a strange hybrid: a reclamation of communism as an abstraction that asserts itself in the midst of renewed movementism that is no different in practice from the movementism that dismissed communism as a dead-end.

Today’s grey eminences, in their desire to reestablish the name communism as simply an abstract notion, are trying to brand a series of disorganized and limited rebellions according to their own conceptual constellation.

  • Who are you referring to, and what rebellions are you referring to?

 

The ideologues of the past cycle of movementism were at least humble enough to recognize this element of disarticulation…

  • What do you mean by the “element of disarticulation”?

 

Their political praxis is little more than an act of religious self-righteousness where they imagine themselves to be the guardians of a pure Marxist theory that must be protected from historical contamination.

  • How does the PCR-RCP differ from “them”?

 

In this charge there is also a myth: that people or organizations united around particular revolutionary principles are responsible for the worst excesses of the left in the 20th century.

  • If we are discussing “the worst excesses of the left in the 20th century,” who other than “people or organizations united around particular revolutionary principles” could we be discussing?

 

An organization that is sectarian will not grow in any significant manner, and will remain doomed to political irrelevance, due to a rigid dogmatism that can only collect those adherents that every religious cult preys upon…

  • How does this observation not apply the PCR-RCP?

 

We must not forget that part of the communist necessity is to draw political lines of demarcation and to understand, in this moment of drawing, the forces of revolution and counter-revolution. And a further line must be drawn between those who would treat communism as a necessity – and in this treatment learn from the past world historical revolutions – and those who would treat it only as a hypothesis, a horizon, an ideal possibility.

  • Fair enough, but isn’t that process more complex than calling everyone you disagree antiquated names, and then claiming to hold the high ground?

 

(W)e must ask why the unfolding theory, hard-won through world historical revolution, is considered obtuse and alienating by the same people who never tire of inventing “new” and impenetrable concepts, whose writing seems intentionally opaque, and whose radicalism appears to be little more than an intellectual exercise.

  • Who are you referring to?

 

And though Debord might have had no significant impact on concrete struggle even in the context from which he emerged (it might even be accurate to claim that Situationism matters little to even most academic leftists these days) he is worth mentioning because so many of these “new” attempts at reclaiming communism often speak his name.

  • If you’re going to write Debord off as irrelevant, don’t you have to explain what Debord thought and why it’s irrelevant?

 

They were obviously content to accept the discourse that compared Stalin to Hitler, due to their obsession with an imaginary stalinism, just as they were happy to ban the name of Mao from acceptable discourse.

(M)any of these reclamations still refuse to speak those banned names since they remained convinced of their betrayal.

  • The comparison of Hitler and Stalin is of course superficial, but does that mean that neither Stalin nor Mao were guilty of what we would today call “crimes against humanity”?

 

Even before this collapse it was often the hallmark of supposedly “critical” marxism in the first world, perhaps due to the influence of trotskyism, to denounce every real world socialism as stalinist, authoritarian, totalitarian.

  • What are the examples of non-authoritarian, nontotalitarian real world socialism?

 

Occasionally it will seek a different past, skipping over the entire history of revolutionary communist experience, and pretend that utopian theories and movements – alienated, mystified, idealist – are the only worthwhile precedent for communism.

  • Who are you referring to?

 

This constant complaining about the so-called “dogmatic” fidelity to figures such as Mao or Lenin or even Stalin – this fear and trembling caused by those who even dare to uphold the failed people’s war in Peru – is a symptom of a falsely critical creativity.

  • Is it realistic to think that these marginalized groupuscules are causing anyone “fear and trembling”?

 

The post-modern currents in thought, that along with capitalism sought to banish communism to the netherworld of theory, cannot be simply dismissed as a petty-bourgeois phenomenon, though it most certainly amounts to petty-bourgeois ideology.

  • If postmodernism can’t “simply be dismissed as a petty-bourgeois phenomenon,” why do you simply dismiss it as a petty bourgeois phenomenon?

 

(W)e need to admit that it was a necessity to take these other concerns into account, to understand how they possibly determined social class, ratherthan dismissing them as entirely contingent.

  • How have you taken them into consideration in this book?

 

Sites of identity-based struggles could only produce a praxis incapable of solidarity.

  • Do you actually believe that “identity-based struggles” are incapable of expressing solidarity with other struggles?  What is this “movementism” you speak of, if not a common struggle of distinct “identity-based struggles”?  Do you consider feminism an “identity-based struggle,” and if so, how do you explain the solidarity that the women’s movement has expressed for other struggles – e.g., the LGBT movement, the disabled people’s movement?

 

Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome that is meant to replace a revolutionary ideology based on revolutionary unity. … Negri and Hart’s notion of the multitude, first theorized in Empire, is a further development of this concept.

  • If you’re going to dispense with Deleuze, Guattari, Negri, Hardt, et. al. out of hand, shouldn’t you clarify their thought and its weaknesses in more detail?

 

Decades later we have seen the result of these politics; the anti-globalization movement shattered against the unity of the state’s totality.

  • You clearly believe that this “shattering” was the result of the anti-globalization movement’s shortcomings – given that the socialist uprising of the 60s and 70s also “shattered against the unity of the state’s totality,” as did actually existing socialism, what is it that you think is superior about the latter two movements?

 

(C)ould it be that the broad brushstrokes of revolutionary theory that emerged with Marx, passed first through Lenin and then through Mao, provide a simpler and clearer explanation of theory and practice than any of these contemporary approaches that attempt to ignore this theoretical development by classifying it as orthodox and dogmatic?

  • What is this “simpler and clearer explanation of theory and practice”?

 

Perhaps the desire to rebrand communism with a new language and costume is an attempt to reconstruct its popularity amongst the anti-communist “middle-class” at the centres of capitalism – a communism that sounds different but that is secretly the same as the old communism that we once rejected.

  • Whose theory is tailored for the “anti-communist ‘middle-class’”?

 

Here it is important to note that even the “non-academic” theories reclaiming communism that have attained a certain level of popularity amongst the first world activist left (i.e. the Invisible Committee, Théorie Communiste, Endnotes, various autonomist marxisms, etc.) are accessible mainly to a privileged population that, even if it prides itself on having never gone to university, is still quite distant from the lived experience of the most oppressed and exploited.

  • How do these rarified groupuscules pose a threat to the development of a more grounded political theory?

 

(I)f these theoretical substitutions do not resonate with the lived conditions of the most exploited and oppressed, but only with those whose class outlook is somewhat elitist, then we must wonder at their revolutionary status.

(W)henever we encounter a new theory that speaks of overthrowing the existing social order, and claims to offer the conceptual tools for doing so, we should ask whether these tools are capable of providing a concrete analysis of concrete conditions and reflect the lived experience of the world’s most exploited and oppressed.

  • Who are the “most exploited and oppressed” in this formulation?

 

The most oppressed and exploited masses are reading neither Badiou nor Debord, neither Zizek nor the Invisible Committee; most of them are not even reading Marx or Lenin, Luxemburg or Mao. The difference between the former and latter categories of theory, however, is that the latter, emerging from concrete revolutionary history, does speak to the lived experience of the masses whereas the former does not. Theory alienated from practice that contrives to speak in the name of praxis should be treated with suspicion.

  • If you are going to denounce these four bodies of thought in one sentence, shouldn’t you at least provide a thumbnail sketch of the respective authors thinking and a clarification of its shortcomings?
  • Given that you’re familiar with these bodies of thought, are you here repeating Lenin’s problematic position:  “(O)ur very first and most pressing duty is to help to train working-class revolutionaries who will be on the same level in regard to Party activity as the revolutionaries from amongst the intellectuals (we emphasise the words ‘in regard to Party activity’, for, although necessary, it is neither so easy nor so pressingly necessary to bring the workers up to the level of intellectuals in other respects). Attention, therefore, must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries; it is not at all our task to descend to the level of the ‘working masses’…” [What Is to Be Done?, http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iv.htm]?

 

Our class has never led revolutionary movements and has most often ended up hampering these movements…

  • The petty bourgeoisie has certainly been well represented in the ranks of the revolutionary leadership throughout the world, how do you address that in your thesis?

 

(W)e will more than likely be sent down to the countryside, whatever this figurative “countryside” happens to be; we too will have to be reeducated. Most of us are terrified by this possibility, disgusted by the necessity of rectification, of being dragged down.

  • Are you seriously suggesting that a Maoist rectification program should be instituted in the First World left – or any left for that matter – and that there are actually leftists developing “bad” politics because they fear being sent to a labour camp?

 

We need to recognize, however, that being dragged down to the level of the masses is at the same time a dragging up of the masses to a level that, under the current state of affairs, only some are privileged enough to occupy.

  • What do you mean?

 

These anti-intellectual tendencies implicitly assume that the “dragging up” is elitist because it is secretly fearful of being dragged down.

  • Given that the adherents of these marginal fringe groups probably don’t amount to more than one or two thousand people in total in the First World, why can’t we simply ignore them?

 

We collaborated and still collaborate with every lie promoted about the late Soviet Union or the pre-Deng Communist China and their supposed crimes against humanity – falsely compared to fascism due to a discourse of “totalitarianism” that we have also, out of fear and ignorance, supported.

  • Are you suggesting that an awareness of the totalitarian, and at times genocidal, excesses of the Stalinist or Maoist regimes constitutes counter-revolutionary behaviour, or are you denying this history?

 

We collaborate when we refuse to recognize the ongoing communist people’s wars at the peripheries of global capitalism and refuse to transpose this experience into our own concrete circumstances.

  • What should be transposed and to what purpose?

 

Concepts are not transhistorical but are produced by humans living in real social and historical circumstances.

  • How is the argument you mount for a “communist necessity” not transhistorical – i.e., are you not arguing that we must learn from the purposely obfuscated past?

 

Is this not the rallying cry of every marginal trotskyist sect?

  • What’s the difference between the “rallying cry of every marginal trotskyist sect” and the “rallying cry” of the PCR-RCP?

 

There are no precise formulae but there are universal axioms.

  • What are these universal axioms?

 

(I)t is correct to argue that the solution is to unify the proletariat so as to overthrow capitalism, but this is a slogan that deals only with the last instance and, as Althusser never tired of reminding us, the last instance often never arrives.

  • In a First World context, who is this proletariat that we must unify?

(C)ould these marxist conservatives actually be opposing concrete class struggle by mystifying the debate according to an idealized definition of the proletariat and bourgeoisie?

  • What would the non-idealized definition of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie be?

 

(T)he terrain in which the theory of the New Communist Movement resonated – the terrain of concrete class struggle – is a space that has been largely cleansed, for various reasons, of the revolutionary theory of the past generation.

  • How does the transhistorical “revolutionary theory of the past generation” serve us in the present?

 

(A) new phase of anti-revisionism at the centres of capitalism is required, one that is already in the process of emergence. Such a phase must begin by aligning itself with those revolutionary movements that are producing people’s wars and, in these productive moments, also producing the germ of revolutionary theory.

  • How would this amount to anything more than a transhistorical return to the Third Worldism of the late 70s and early 80s?

 

(W)e should even wonder why there are still communist parties and marxist organizations that run in elections, attempt to enter bourgeois parties, and base their entire strategy on an a priori assumption that there can be a peaceful co-existence with capitalism.

  • Are you here rejecting any involvement in electoral politics, something which Marxists, including Lenin, have traditionally supported for tactical and propaganda reasons, and if so, what’s changed?

 

Anarchists have always been more militant in their rejection of state conventions, though not always for the right reasons…

  • What are the right and wrong reasons?

 

But what other options, our pragmatist might argue, do we have while waiting for the communist horizon and the next convergence of movement forces? The answers come quickly, perhaps too quickly, since they have been the answers for decades: rebuild a new left that is better than the old left, embed oneself within the struggles of trade-unions.

  • Are you arguing that trade unions remain the seedbed of revolution in the First World?

 

(R)efoundationalism asserts that the left’s “death” is precisely the death that was declared by capitalism and that, in order to live again, the left must be rebuilt from the ground up. The strategy is to gather all the elements of moribund left grouplets into one grouping and hope that something greater than the sum of its parts will emerge from this process of gathering.

  • What distinguishes the PCR-RCP from these “moridbund left grouplet(s)”?

 

The great revolutions of history teach us that we cannot produce an organization capable of fighting capitalism if we are building an organization that has little hope of producing a clear political line out of its confusion.

  • Is this not a transhistorical observation?

 

Most often this means that some version of “common sense” ideology will triumph in these spaces: in the absence of ideological coherence, we often fall back on the way we have been socialized to understand the world and thus reformism will trump revolution.

  • As you are paraphrasing Gramsci, shouldn’t you examine his thinking for the reader’s benefit?

 

Begin with a political line and demonstrate its efficacy in concrete class struggle…

  • Given that the Marxist definition of praxis is one of theory informed by practice and practice informed by theory in an ongoing dialectical process, should this not read “test its efficacy in concrete class struggle”?  Is the imposition of a line, as you appear to be suggesting, not just the continuation of the classic Stalinist and Maoist totalitarianism?

 

(T)he Quebec Student Strike was ultimately determined by the Parti Quebecois and, to a lesser extent, Quebec Solidaire.

  • How do you see the PQ having “determined” the Québec student strike?

 

Better to speak only of philosophy unmoored from the totalizing confines of science and thus plunge back into the philosophical socialism of the nineteenth century: utopianism.

  • Who do you perceive as plunging back into nineteenth century utopian socialism?

 

Although the utopian communists of today might claim that they know where the Leninist model of organization leads (to Stalin, to the gulags, to totalitarianism), they are often unreflective of the movementist model that has never succeeded in placing us on the road to revolutionary upheaval. The former model, regardless of its eventual failure, brought us closer to the supposed horizon of communism…

  • What of Stalin, the gulags and the totalitarianism?

 

(T)hose of us at the centres of capitalism are no longer the primary grave-diggers.

  • Are you proposing a return to late-70s-early-80s-style Third Worldism, and if so how does that work in a world largely devoid of left-wing national liberation struggles?  Are you proposing that the left in the First World orient itself around the handful of Third World armed movements you’ve mentioned in this text?

***

When I was a kid, my father would often tell me to do something or other.  Were I to ask “why,” his answer would invariably be “Because I told you to, and that’s all you need to know.”  If at that point, I foolishly failed to do what was bidden of me, I would likely get my ass rectified by my father’s foot.  I had occasion to think about dear old dad while I was reading this book.  J. Moufawad-Paul’s approach to revolutionary politics is much in that mould.  He tells me what I have to do, but not why, and he warns that if I fail to do so I will, in some vague but necessary future (over the horizon, essentially), get rectified Mao-style.  If I fail to take seriously his assertion of a fuzzy communist necessity built on Third Worldism and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, then I’m a liberal, a privileged academic, a reformist, a Draperist (whatever the hell that is), a Trotskyist (I was that for about three years some three and half decades ago), well some bad thing, anyway, but certainly not a revolutionary.

Back when I was a Trotskyist there was a probably apocryphal story one would hear about how during the October Revolution (or was it Oktoberfest – no, I’m pretty sure it was the Revolution) a worker was asked if he was a Bolshevik.  “What’s a Bolshevik?” he allegedly asked.  The principles of Bolshevism were explained, and the worker said, “If that’s what Bolshevism is, I’m a Bolshevik.”  I find myself at the other end of the spectrum from this worker.  J. Moufawad-Paul has told me what a revolutionary is (but hasn’t burdened me with the details about why this is the case), and I find I’m not one.

André Moncourt

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