Don Hamerquist Reviews “The Communist Necessity”
Perhaps I shouldn’t find significance in the short subtitle for JMP’s Communist Necessity essay, “prolegomena to any future radical theory” – but I do. The simple meaning of ‘prolegomena’ is prefatory remarks, but there is a more specific reference that is closer to what JMP intends. Kant’s Prolegomena to the Critique of Pure Reason was presented as the necessary basis for any future metaphysics that could lay claim to being scientific. Similarly, JMP offers this essay as the necessary ‘scientific’ basis for “any future radical theory”. He may only claim to have provided some elements of this ‘scientific’ basis, although important ones, but even such a partial claim is a high bar to meet.
What might be needed to support such a substantial claim? I would think that a generally accurate summary of revolutionary history and its relationship to existing conditions, along with a clear outline of the major weaknesses in the left’s current understanding of this past should be included. Beyond this, JMP needs an outline of an approach to current and future political work that provides a clear alternative to the left tendencies that he rejects. Perhaps JMP thinks his essay meets these standards. Although I haven’t read it as carefully as I should, I don’t. It is a variant of Third Worldist Marxism that contains useful critical insights (see e.g., p. 78, p. 108-112, and parts of sections on electorialism and trade unionism). However, too frequently it substitutes an unhealthy generic polemicism against heavily caricatured opponents for a serious treatment of major issues. (This is not to deny that many of these opponents are quite vulnerable to caricature and more than a few provide their own voluntarily.)
Let me begin with the polemical tone and content, recognizing that these are always matters of secondary significance. JMP clumps together a range of theoretical and strategic positions with which he disagrees and terms this amalgam, “movementism”. His conception of movementism is unfortunately vague and somewhat a-historical, but what is clear is that it includes most of those current First World oppositional politics that don’t share his understandings of vanguard party organization and his assessments of current global political potentials. I question the usefulness of the category. Perhaps it relates to JMP’s specific experiences, but it does not illuminate other widely shared and complex political experiences: experiences with reformism and social democracy – in power and out; with actually existing socialism in prolonged spasmodic decay; with the incorporation of national liberation in structures of global capital. These experiences underlie a significant amount of the politics and perspectives that he dismisses (certainly including mine).
Abandoning Gramsci’s wise advice on the topic (e.g. PN, p. 344, p. 432), JMP selects out weak and confused advocates on their weaker points without acknowledging the underlying historical problems that they are attempting to address, and without clarifying how his alternative perspective might approach these problems – or even if he sees them as real problems. The asserted failures and weaknesses in their political answers are presumed to negate the questions that they address. This polemical style is an outgrowth of Third International ‘ideological struggle’. The positions of major opponents are characterized in ways that they would not accept and sometimes probably wouldn’t recognize. (In this vein I remember, not so fondly, being attacked by Gus Hall for allegedly holding what he called “Marcuse’s ‘stuffed goose’” conception of the metropolitan proletariat.) Then these positions are assigned sociological and cultural explanations. For JMP these explanations feature eurocentricism, class and imperial privilege, and entrapment in capitalist TINA narratives. This legitimates the substitution of an array of perjorative descriptors like ‘utopian’, ‘fad’, ‘banal’, ‘myopic’, ‘crude’, ‘almost neurotic’, ‘prattle’, ‘petty bourgeois intellectuals’, ‘grey eminences’ for substantive criticisms of a diverse range of theorists and political perspectives that frequently aren’t clearly identified and appropriately cited.
I’m generally familiar with the positions JMP criticizes, and at times ridicules as “dream communism” (P.19) and “moments of Platonic idealism” (p. 69). However, I doubt that all of his readers will be. Many of them will see this essay as an argument that these various political positions aren’t worth much attention and that, rather than being allowed to muddy up the serious work of revolution, might best be left as the province of a few properly oriented intellectuals…perhaps like him.
JMP emphasizes the sociological characteristics of the metropolitan left and its social base and treats them as structural limits on its collective capacity to move beyond capitalism to an understanding of the “Communist Necessity”, a concept that we will leave unexamined for the moment. For JMP, such an understanding is much more accessible to an array of revolutionary forces and potentials outside of the First World, since, “The permanent war’ capitalism wages upon entire populations is a war that is viscerally experienced by those that live at the global peripheries.” (p. 157). This implies a sociological reductionism and reinforces my impression that JMP sees essentially adequate answers to the party/state – party/class issues in a combination of a ‘correct’ understanding of revolutionary history combined with a proper appreciation of certain carefully selected current struggles in the “global peripheries”.
JMP is concerned – as am I – with the prevalent left conceptions of revolutionary history that reduce it to crimes and stupidities with no contemporary relevance and no useful lessons or applicable models of struggle. However, it does little good to try to distinguish the positive from the negative in this history, if this becomes a substitute for recognizing and confronting the questions of power and process that have resulted in a revitalized generalized capitalist domination of a demobilized and demoralized base of opposition that, at least on the surface, is more susceptible to reformism or warlordism and fascism than communism. These are the issues of “party/state” and of the “socialist stage”; of the potentials and limits of ‘representation’ in terms of class consciousness and class organization; of illegality and armed insurrection; of war – class war, “peoples war” and “protracted people’s war”. On these matters, JMP discovers scientifically established answers and approaches in past revolutionary history where I see ambiguity at best, along with many outstanding questions which should not be avoided or narrowed because of the surplus of liberal and obscurantist post-modern nonsense in the current left academic treatments of them.
Despite his protests to the contrary (see p. 108), I don’t think JMP’s approach to a revolutionary perspective take adequate account of the important changes in the global context from the two revolutionary periods where he finds the essential elements for a path forward. Current metropolitan arguments about globalization and financialization, neo-colonialism, extractivism and modernized primitive accumulation are more than intellectual dilletantism. At the root such arguments concern real processes and important changes. In my opinion, these changes, when combined with the failures of revolutionary initiatives that JMP certainly recognizes (see p. 108), require a reexamination of basic revolutionary categories and concepts, including some of those contained in JMP’s approach to ‘communist necessity’. Nevertheless he focuses on making explicit (and sometimes implicit) defenses of vanguard representation; traditional notions of class alliances and of nationalist-based struggles, etc., that, at best, are limited to circumstances that no longer prevail. I find it symptomatic of the weaknesses in this approach that JMP disregards the aspect of Negri’s analysis that raises the increasing blurring of the boundaries between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ (Empire, p.253), an important insight in an otherwise problematic perspective, and one that is akin to the framework employed in Bromma’s recent essay which JMP appears to regard highly and which he incorporates at some points. (see p. 118, Footnote 27).
To further illustrate what I see as problems with the essay, I want to focus on a few interrelated historical and theoretical questions that it raises. It’s not an easy task because JMP anticipates some objections and introduces a number of caveats and exceptions that don’t always fit well with his main themes and conclusions – at least in my opinion. He also makes repeated assertions of fact, particularly with respect to history, on matters where more clarification is required since the actual facts are strongly in dispute.
Let me begin with a historical/theoretical point that probably isn’t that central to JMP’s argument, but that illustrates some of the problems with his view of the path ahead. He spends a good deal of time on a narrative about the development of the (largely) U.S. left following the Sino-Soviet split (P. 115-122). This narrative prepares the ground for his arguments about “…the necessity of a revolutionary organization unified in and disciplined by a coherent theory…” (p.51); and the need for a “…new phase of anti-revisionism at the centers of capitalism…” (P. 122). The gaps in his historical presentation tend to obscure the obstacles to his extremely orthodox party/building party/centric perspective.
The explosive growth in size and radicalism of mass oppositions in the sixties, and their open challenges to an ‘old left’ that was correctly regarded as doctrinaire and conservative to the point of irrelevance is beyond question. This had very little to do with the Frankfurt School and Situationism that are given too much attention in JMP’s picture, but they had a lot to do with the growing popular identification with anti-imperialist mass movements for national liberation (particularly ones that were armed) and with the demands for autonomy and power (and in some cases sovereignty) from the more radical sections of the internal Black, Latin, and Native insurgencies. I doubt that JMP would disagree to this point.
However, he presents the ‘New Communist Movement’ in the U.S. as a positive, if restricted, attempt to introduce some established revolutionary principles – an “anti-revisionism” – into this complex disorganized arena of struggle. I have a different view, founded on a good deal of personal experience and involvement. I saw these ‘New Communist’ formations as questionably ‘communist’, and neither ‘new’ nor a ‘movement’ in any sense. Instead they were an index of the disintegration and implosion of larger social struggles, and a minor contributor to the process. For me, the brief passage where JMP lays out the limitations of this U.S. ‘New Communist Movement (p. 121) is an adequate general description of it – although a little more detail on the “cultish” (p.122) characteristics, specifically the attitude towards leadership and authority, would help.
One major historical problem is that JMP de-emphasizes the defining feature of these groupings – their opportunistic and generally unprincipled competition for the revolutionary franchise. Since the early 20s discussions over the nature and makeup of the Comintern, attaining the revolutionary franchise has been the grail for aspiring vanguards in the U.S. It also has been a major element in the corruption of revolutionary perspectives and an effective barrier to any continuation of the practical internationalism that was so evident, but so short-lived, immediately following the October Revolution.
The distinctiveness of the period that followed the Sino-Soviet split was that the international struggles over different political lines that had been administratively suppressed for generations became very open at the same time as massive social insurgencies emerged globally – mainly but not exclusively in the form of armed national liberation anti- imperialist struggle. On the one hand this led to a flowering of clearly competitive ‘revolutionary’ centers; and on the other hand to mass movements were raising the questions of power in substantial ways.
In this situation the upheaval of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the promotion of Protracted People’s War quickly changed the terms of left alignment in the U.S. The Chinese franchise slipped from PLP through some other remnants of C.P. dissident factions to the RU/RCP and, then, as the party and government situation in China resolved to the right, to the October League/CPML. A scattering of other groups followed similar paths with less success, sometimes ending with the less attractive franchises from N. Korea, Albania, Cuba, and more at the margins, even Libya and Cambodia. The access to various material resources – and significant resources were involved contrary to JMP (see p. 119) – and a reflected political charisma that could be recruited around, were more central to this process than any principles – revolutionary or not.
The overriding objective of these grouplets was to build their own proto-party, both as an end in itself and as part of an effort to solidify and justify their claims on the franchise. This ‘party building’ was understood in a manner quite similar in outline to JMP’s political priority on, “…establishing the kernel of a revolutionary party of a new type…” (p.128). In those cases this ‘kernel’ was defined by its identification with, and its organizational ties to specific struggles and organizational formations elsewhere in the world. It is quite clear that JMP is similarly oriented towards specific political phenomenon which he identifies quite clearly (see p. 147). This will certainly make his political efforts susceptible to some similar problems, if perhaps on a reduced scale.
Paralleling the ‘New Communists’, but with relatively minor interconnections, much of the rest of U.S. left also pursued identifications with (and claims to representations of) every international (and internal) movement and struggle that contained substantial elements of militance and confrontation with imperial (particularly U.S.) power. Armed struggles in Latin and Central America, the Phillipines, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Iran, Southern Africa, and most important, Vietnam, and certain armed and extra-legal initiatives in Black, Latin, and Native internal struggles were all important in this regard. As a participant in much of this, I still regard the emphasis on militant armed struggle as valuable and consequently I have some appreciation of JMP’s identification with the scattering of current armed movements that he notes and his aversion to the currently widespread pacifism and legalism. However, except in some minor, clearly opportunistic and self promotional, ways, the ‘new communist movement’ was outside of this during its decade of existence. Further and much more significant, none of these militant, domestic and international movements and their constellations of supporters – notwithstanding some important contributions – managed to avoid the problems and obstacles that capsize or corrupt such struggles. I don’t see any new answers to these problems in the scattering of contemporary armed movements where JMP identifies. There is a lot more to be said on these topics but I don’t want to do it here.
Let me get to some criticisms that are more strategic and theoretical – perhaps also more abstract. I’m left quite confused about what JMP means by his title, “The Communist Necessity”. He says that; “Necessity means only that communism is necessary to solve the problems produced by capitalism, not that its emergence is destined…” (p. 85). Although I question whether the insertion of ‘only’ in this claim properly represents JMP’s central views, I can generally agree with that proposition – but who wouldn’t agree with it? JMP clearly means something more than the literal meaning of these words, so let’s consider them a little further. If the first clause is almost axiomatic for revolutionaries, there are issues hidden behind the terms “emergence” and, particularly, “destined” in the second phrase; and I think that JMP is ambiguous to the point of error on these issues.
He relies on this passage from Engels which I will excise slightly:
“If the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution…must take place. On this tangible material fact which is impressing itself in a more or less clear form, but with insuperable necessity, on the minds of the exploited proletarians…is modern socialisms confidence in victory founded.” (p.24)
As with many of Engel’s formulations, there are problems. The first sentence is quite true and, as JMP notes (p.25) and repeats frequently, it is similar to Luxemburg’s seminal ‘socialism or barbarism’ slogan. It is also clearly related to the Manifesto’s reference to the potential for the ‘common ruin’ of the contending classes. But how should we understand the second sentence and its reference to “insuperable necessity”? What evidence or argument shows that the option between socialism and barbarism has been, or will ever be clarified to exploited proletarians… with “insuperable necessity”? Is this assertion really a basis for revolutionary confidence, or is it that call for faith in a destined future as a substitute for an understanding of real problems and possibilities that Gramsci described and criticized so effectively in his polemic against Bukharin and in the following passage:
“In its most widespread form as economistic superstition, the philosophy of praxis loses a great part of its capacity for cultural expansion among the top layer of intellectuals, however much it may gain among the popular masses and the second-rate intellectuals, who do not intend to overtax their brains but still wish to appear to know everything, etc.” (PN, p. 164)
Let me enter a different familiar passage…from the Manifesto’s description of the inherent tendencies of capitalist development;
“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”
In this passage the ‘insuperable necessity’ is presented as a compulsion. While JMP clearly and correctly argues that any materialization of this compulsion involves choices and options, and that it cannot be seen as a matter of destiny, I think that it is quite clear that Engels sees the compulsion of ‘insuperable necessity’ as following from a set of material circumstance whose “…emergence is destined…” by the socio-economic factor “in the last instance”. (Engels to Bloch, 1890)
I’m not sure exactly what JMP might say on these questions. I have a good deal of agreement with his arguments at some points in this section (p.83-86), but they avoid some important historical facts and some logical implications. When he says that the, “…unilinear concept of revolutionary progress was never a part of revolutionary science.” (p. 85), what ‘revolutionary science’ is he talking about? I know, and JMP must as well, that the dominant tendency in the historical revolutionary movement has always posited the inevitability, the necessary, character of its victory – and quite often its strategic irreversibility. This exact unilinear concept, closely related to the ‘theory of the productive forces’ was and is an essential characteristic of that ML orthodoxy that has traditionally defined itself as scientific. That’s why, in my opinion, the Maoism of a certain period is properly regarded as such an important break and why Gramsci is so valuable.
I think that JMP introduces some related confusions in his counterposition of contingency and necessity. Let’s begin from the basic materialist premise that JMP states as follows in his conditional exoneration of Badiou from the errors of ‘movementism’: “social being does determine social consciousness to a certain extent” (p. 83). What becomes important is the meaning of the final four words – “to a certain extent”. They are where the issue of ‘contingency’ enters, but as a complex of limitations through which the necessary becomes effective, and not, in my opinion, as an alternative to ‘necessity’.
I’ve argued above that the dominant tendency in the ML movement has maintained that the line of causal determination is heavily in one direction – from social being to social consciousness – and thus is heavily determinist and reductionist. That’s my interpretation of JMP’s Engel’s and my Manifesto selections; of the Engels letters to Bloch and Starkenburg; and of many passages in the 1859 Preface that I will get to below. This conception of social causality is also evident in many of the well-known assertions that capitalism necessarily produces its own gravediggers. It can be found in the positions of some of those current left communists and radical spontaneists which JMP thinks are essentially worthless, e.g. Anselm Jappe. It is to JMP’s credit that he questions the validity of the position, but he errs in dismissing it as unimportant and in his assertion that:
“No critical Marxist devoted to the concept of necessity has truly believed in the inevitability of communism; only anti-communists and those organizations that made the mistake of accepting this rhetorical discourse believed otherwise.” (P. 85)
I might agree with the first sentence if it were only meant as a partial definition of what a ‘critical Marxist’ should be, but clearly JMP is presenting it as an historical fact. The second sentence highlights J-his unfortunate tendency to assume that those he disagrees with are willing or duped collaborators with a ruling class anti-communist narrative (e.g., p. 98.) The fact remains that a deterministic religiously flavored interpretation of historical necessity has plagued the revolutionary movement from top to bottom and it still does. It is not a minor mistake based on, “throwaway lines regarding some vague notion of scientific destiny.” (p. 85) from temporarily distracted revolutionary leaders and theorists.
There is no doubt of the real need for discussion on these matters of contingency and necessity. I would begin from the base/superstructure issue as presented in the above mentioned 1859 Preface. To paraphrase, it argues that the processes in the socio-economic base of society can be understood with the ‘precision of natural science’. No, they cannot, because all of these material processes in the base of society are implemented through human actors with ranges of contradictory interests and differing potentials for collective organization and awareness. These cannot be reduced to matters of process and structure and they have real impacts on outcomes that render them indeterminate. This makes the base/superstructure metaphor quite inadequate, for example, for such matters as understanding how the relationship between ruling class consciousness and organization and the politics of diverse capitalist states and governments are reflected in distinctive policies of concession and/or repression (see Michael Heinrich).
Perhaps, following Althusser’s late recognition of an ‘aleatory’ aspect to materialism, this element of contingency in socio-economic process might be incorporated in an overall objectivist structuralism. However we are still left with the real problems of the relationship between the objective and the subjective elements. Gramsci has an exceptional treatment of these issues in his polemic against Bukharin (PN, p. 428-429, see also p. 337 and 366-367). I won’t bother to restate Gramsci’s position but it is clearly an argument that those subjective elements of social organization and collective will are not purely effects of objective structures and circumstances and that have a determining impact on historical development. I find it difficult to believe that JMP does not agree with this, however, it seems to me that it brings into question his dismissal of some arguments about the significance of ‘contingency’. I’m personally inclined towards Badiou’s conception that the essence of a political vanguard lies not in the usual list from post-Lenin orthodoxy, but in the development of the capacity to be ‘porous to the possibilities’ (Metapolitics). I doubt that is the case with JMP who, despite being properly unimpressed with Lenin’s ideas about electoral participation in Left Wing Communism (p.124), seems quite willing to accept the equally flawed treatment of the history and role of the party that runs through that entire pamphlet.
I like to end this with a response to points that JMP makes in a very casual and dismissive way on what I would term the communist invariant: “Just as one cannot project capitalism back into the ancient world, one can also not project communism into the pre-capitalist past.” (p. 105) I confess that I may not be familiar with some material on the subject, but to dismiss it all as ‘utopian’ or ‘Platonic idealism’ as JMP does at numerous points is certainly wrong. I would start by pointing out he is clearly at odds with Marx’s late writings, generally grouped as the Ethnographic Manuscripts, where Marx’s changing attitude towards the communist potentials in certain collective elements and aspects of pre-capitalist social formations is clearly evident (see, e.g., ‘Marx at the Margins’). It also doesn’t fit with what I see as particularly important and valuable elements of Maoism, notably the axiomatic recognition that ‘repression breeds resistance’ and that it is ‘right to rebel’. The Maoist positions clearly apply to all forms of class and other oppressions, not only those that are explicitly capitalist. The elements of popular solidarity and collective organization that are rooted in such experiences have been a major factor in all revolutionary upsurges and will continue to be in the future. While such issues as the ‘commons’ can certainly be incorporated in both utopian and reformist perspectives, the same is equally true of particular approaches to the collective experiences of social production under capitalism.
JMP tends to dismiss the range of experiences of class oppression and collective responses to it that are not explicitly capitalist in origin and character as an important foundation for a revolutionary response to explicitly capitalist oppression and exploitation. This makes it still more important that he clarifies what it is in the nature of capitalism that makes communism not only necessary, but possible. I’m afraid that the perspective he provides, one that is capsulized in the following passage, may point to some elements of what is necessary, but it is just not sufficient:
“Historical necessity teaches us that the kernel of a revolutionary organization, unified according to revolutionary theory, is the only thing capable of refounding a revolutionary movement. And this movement will grow by proving itself to the masses – and thus by organizing the masses according to their emancipatory demands – not by tailing them…” (p. 130)
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