Green and Red Rules for Radicals

Derek Wall’s new book Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals (2017, Pluto Press)

Of the main complaints made against ‘ecosocialist’ politics, attempts to combine Red and Green in a radical alliance to combat capitalism’s deadly environmental and existential threat to our planet, one of the most common is that revolutionary Marxists thereby get drawn into an unholy alliance with bourgeois environmental liberals. The complaint hinges around the very real fear that left politics will be ‘recuperated’, neutralised and absorbed by mainstream ecological discourse, and we will be tempted to abandon changing the world because we are too busy building broader alliances to save it.

This new book by Derek Wall, who is former Principal Speaker of the Green Party, turns this question around, to reclaim for the left the ideas of a liberal economist, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, who died in 2012, was the only woman so far to win a Nobel Prize for economics. She was best known for her 1990 book Governing the Commons, and put the ideas in that book to work in a series of community activist projects in the US, drawing on experiences around the world. Her key argument flowed from a liberal-humanist refusal of one of the most powerful ideological motifs in the social sciences, the assumption that there is something necessarily destructive about human beings that will lead them to competitively destroy what they hold in common.

Students in the social sciences will at some point in their classes learn about the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’, described by Garrett Hardin back in 1968. The ‘tragedy’ is that people will tend to exploit the good nature of everyone else who holds resources in common, and that this selfish approach will eventually disintegrate any well-meaning attempts to build human solidarity. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument overlooks the brutal process by which land was enclosed during the early development of capitalism, and the way that the ‘commons’ – common land and herding and agricultural resources – was threatened by those who wanted to shift from community to individual ownership. Ostrom showed that Hardin’s claim was, in practice, quite untrue.

For the left, seizing back our land and what we ourselves create, ‘common ownership’, is, of course, the basis of a real movement towards communism. Our starting point is that the expulsion of peasants from the land, and the forcing of people into factories so that they must earn the wherewithal to buy back on a temporary basis what had been taken from them, is one of the foundational crimes of capitalist political economy. But that view is a tough one to win, with all kinds of very drastic consequences for private ownership of the means of production. It is not actually a view that will be won in a simple ‘battle of ideas’, it will be won in practice as people come to realise that exploitation is grounded in the dispossession of us all from the commons.

Alongside that political practice that makes communist ideas into a reality, there is a necessary painstaking process through which the left works away at the contradictions in bourgeois ideology, showing that underlying assumptions about fairness and justice are antithetical to private ownership. This is what Wall does so well in this book, acknowledging that Ostrom was ‘not a leftist in a traditional sense’, but was a profound ecological thinker and someone who was drawn by the political logic of her argument about community action into some radical positions. Her take on political action could, Wall, argues, even be interpreted today as a kind of intersectional feminist approach. This is one of the many points in the book where Wall moves back and forth from the small-scale level of theory and practice to global contexts and larger political ideas.

A brief biographical sketch grounds Ostrom’s ideas in US-American communitarian context, a context in which radicals did eventually gather around her, and try to find ways of opening up the contradictions to engage in genuinely radical ecological projects. Wall traces through some links between Ostrom’s concern with democratic governance and recent attempts in Rojava in the north of Syria to develop ‘democratic confederalism’ as, in Abdullah Ocalan’s words ‘the cultural organisational blueprint of a democratic nation’. Wall is concerned with what in socialist feminist politics was once framed as the link between the personal and the political, and here his argument is that Ostrom can be viewed as a feminist precisely because she emphasised ‘the co-production of knowledge … rather than simply developing formal models to then tell people what to do.’

Wall also shifts back and forth between some of the pernicious ideas in sociology and economics – that the human being is a ‘rational maximiser’, for example, and will always calculate what is best for the individual as they engage in some kind of game to seize resources and thereby destroy the commons – to debates about the relationship between social structure and free will; for Wall, and this is one of the implications of Ostrom’s work which does connect with revolutionary Marxism, ‘we don’t have complete free will but if we learn more about the structures that shape our behaviour we can gain more freedom’. This is what ecosocialist struggle is about, enlarging the sphere of human freedom as we learn together to take back and manage the earth’s resources.

And the rules? These include some quite radical arguments in a neoliberal world, reframing and making accessible the ideas Marxists take as their touchstone for changing the world: the rules include things like ‘everything changes’, ‘self-government is possible’, ‘all institutions are constructed and so can be constructed differently’, ‘collective ownership can work’ and ‘human beings are part of nature too’. This looks simple, but this is deceptively simple book about an economist who had a canny ability to connect what could be accomplished in a capitalist economy with a vision of a quite different world. There are complex ideas buried in this book which are made accessible by an engagement with Elinor Ostrom so that we learn from her and can find a way of radicalising her work, making it ecosocialist. Derek Wall lays out one path through which this can be accomplished.


You can read and comment on this review here


Žižek vs Lenin, again

‘Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’ by VI Lenin and S Žižek (Verso, 2017)

This book brings together some articles, letters and speeches by Vladimir Lenin from 1922 and 1923, difficult years when the Russian Revolution was under threat, corroded from within and attacked by surrounding capitalist states intent on ensuring that October 1917 would end in failure. Lenin here is tackling two intertwined problems. One is the isolation of the revolution; having always been clear that the revolution needed to be spread internationally if it was to succeed, the prospect now with the defeat of working-class uprisings in other parts of Europe was that Russia would be encircled, that the revolutionary process would be fatally distorted, reduced to what Stalin was to trumpet as ‘socialism in one country’. The other is the increasing bureaucratisation in the face of depletion of Bolshevik forces as so many party activists die in the civil war, and in combatting the imperialist army invasions on so many fronts; having always been clear that the revolution required an expansion of democracy, the revolutionary process was being reduced to a relatively small isolated and incompetent apparatus, reduced eventually to small groups, individuals, leaders.

Lenin rails in these pieces against impending failure, and we can see him searching for new ways of combining revolutionary Marxist principles – defence of the gains of the revolution – with pragmatic attempts to make the best of things, to buy time, to build something from the wreckage of the war. There are attempts to deal with the hostile press, a context in which ‘freedom of the press’ as an abstract principle actually ends up allowing external imperialist states to support the White Russian counter-revolutionaries to flood the beleaguered workers state with overwhelming poisonous propaganda. And, crucially, there are attempts to reach out to the peasantry, to make connections between the isolated and weakened new state apparatus based on the ‘soviets’ – workers councils – and small businesses, family and single-person enterprises in the countryside who orient to the market rather than to centrally-directed organisations. Lenin proposes that a ‘Central Control Commission’ be set up to oversee party and state processes, independent bodies that would check the corruption and temptation for individuals to increase their own power in these harsh times.

These are outstandingly difficult conditions in which to build socialism, impossible in fact, and, worse, these conditions pose new problems that have never been faced by revolutionary Marxists. Lenin’s attempts to grapple with these novel conditions have a bearing on problems faced by socialists today, ranging from the isolation of the left in different national contexts to the influence of a hostile mass media. The globalisation of capitalism means that even more so today, a hundred years after October 1917, the fate of each socialist or even left social-democratic attempt to build a fairer more democratic society is bound up with what happens around it. And the media in private and big-business hands has power to turn collective politics into a matter of individual personalities, mercilessly attacking those who dare to voice opposition to the rule of capital. There is no level playing field for the left now, and neither was there when Lenin was writing.

Lenin’s little pieces are framed by rambling contradictory essays by Slavoj Žižek which systematically turn the problems faced by the October Revolution against itself, gutting this particular historical process of economic-political content, reducing the Bolshevik’s plight to an abstract philosophical conundrum. Despite the claims to be defending and ‘repeating’ Lenin, Žižek actually explicitly drums home the lesson that the revolution as such, and any revolution as such, is doomed from the start: ‘the project was genuinely tragic: an authentic emancipatory vision condemned to failure by its very victory’. Read that last bit again, condemned by its very victory. Worse, Žižek repeats the line much-beloved by anti-communist writers in the last hundred years that there was no real difference between Lenin and Stalin. This book includes letters by Lenin in which he warns against the party allowing Stalin to accumulate too much power, the Central Control Commission is clearly designed to limit the emergence of a bureaucracy organised around powerful individuals. Despite this, Žižek claims that Leninism is the authentic core of Stalinism, that there is a direct line between one and the other. This, for Žižek, is why this is a ‘tragic’ situation, Lenin’s warnings, his interventions in 1922 and 1923 were doomed to fail.

Žižek has some other good advice for the left today. In place of principled and pragmatic attempts to defend the welfare state, we should abandon that kind of politics because the failure of the welfare state will always anyway play into the hands of the right. And, in place of attempts to build participatory democratic forms of power – that’s what the soviets in Russia were trying to do – we should look to a strong leader. I kid you not, Žižek argues that ‘the reference to a Leader is necessary’. We need, he says, to make the ‘wrong mistakes’. Maybe he has in mind his endorsement of Trump in the run-up to the US Presidential elections, elections for a ‘Leader’ (which Žižek always capitalises to show how important it is) who was intent on destroying any semblance of a welfare state. ‘Our task today’, he argues, is ‘precisely to reinvent emancipatory terror’. Well, thanks, but no thanks, this is bankrupt anti-Leninist stuff.

The title of the book – a narcissistic title which enables Žižek not only to reinvent himself as a co-author with Lenin but also to claim authorship of an old classic psychoanalytic text – is drawn from a paper by Freud called ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’. Here Žižek is, to give him credit, remaining true to an old well-worked line of work that he has rehearsed in countless books, that it is possible to solve political problems with a dose of psychoanalysis. Lenin didn’t like psychoanalysis much but the October Revolution did open up space for a flourishing of interest in new therapeutic approaches, and there was much interest in Freud’s work. Trotsky, for example, was interested in psychoanalysis (and sent his daughter Zina to a leftist analyst in Berlin after his family had been expelled from the Soviet Union by Stalin). Psychoanalysis draws attention to historical materialist processes which go beyond the control of any particular conscious individual. What Žižek does well, as he has in many other of his writings, is show how a psychoanalytic conception of the role of the unconscious in political processes is very different from the appeal to the psychological individual as the ‘nerve centre of liberal ideology’. When you hear appeals to individual ‘choice’ you can be sure that bourgeois ideology is not far behind (as in the destruction of state welfare services warranted by ‘individual choice’, and as in the appeal to ‘freedom of the press’ resting on ‘individual choice’ of the reader to select among a number of corporate newspapers).

What Žižek does with psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is to turn it from being a clinical practice into some kind of weird worldview; then it seems possible to ‘apply’ it and correct the mistakes of Marxists. Psychoanalysis in Žižek’s hands turns specific political-economic problems such as those faced by Lenin into ‘genuinely tragic’ inevitable failures. This is why Žižek uses the term ‘Leader’ and ‘Master’ interchangeably. There is no way out and no way round the necessary role of a Leader – ‘a Master is needed’ he claims – and so, he claims, ‘the path to liberation’ is through ‘transference’. That is, the clinical phenomenon of transference in which the patient relieves their past loving and traumatic relationships with significant others is repeated, ‘transferred’ onto the figure of their analyst.

Žižek sets himself up as the analyst, the Master in this book, the Master who will be able even to out-Lenin Lenin, configuring himself as the super-Lenin who is actually remembering, repeating and working through not the revolutionary Lenin who is struggling with the question of how to defend the gains of October but a Lenin in line with bourgeois caricatures as if he was always already ‘the authentic core of Stalinism’. This is an abysmal reactionary book, a betrayal of what Lenin was up to which anticipates Stalinism’s eventual complete betrayal of October, a betrayal of Lenin.


You can read and comment on this review here

Marxist introductory reading

What to read as an introduction to Marxism and revolutionary politics if you are beginning to wake up to the world and want to know more? Here are some suggestions (the links are to help you track the details of the books to get hold of them yourself):

Why Marx was Right by Terry Eagleton does not exactly bring us up to date – we need some more attention to feminist and ecological arguments at least to do that – but it does underline the relevance of Marx for us today. Terry Eagleton is, in some ways, an ‘old Marxist’, but he writes well and this is a passionate argument for Marxism now. Sharp and sometimes funny, the book shows how, far from being out of date, Marxism is absolutely essential as a theoretical framework and political practice to understand capitalism and overthrow it.

Marx: A Graphic Guide by Rius is a classic comic format introduction to Marxist theory, originally published as Marx for Beginners. A little dated in its mistaken references to the Soviet Union as ‘socialist’, Rius shows his allegiance to some of the more traditional monolithic forms of Marxism. But it does go through basic political-economic concepts ranging from the difference between ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ to the difference between individual idealist accounts of the world and collective materialist practice, and you get a historical grounding in what Marx was writing and why.

A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals by Neil Faulkner is a magisterial review of the scope of world history, doing what it says on the tin. The book is published by Counterfire, a small Marxist group that Neil Faulkner has since left, and here, as always, he is an independent Marxist writer. This book gives the broadest possible sweep of historical analysis, situating the development of Marxist theory under capitalism in the context of the emergence of our current brutal political-economic global system against a backdrop of slavery and feudalism.

Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism by Cinzia Arruzza is a detailed and almost exhaustive account of the variety of connections that have been made between the struggle to end capitalist exploitation and women’s struggles for equality and freedom from oppression. Cinzia Arruzza wrote the book as a supporter of the Fourth International, and the book was translated for sections of the Fourth International, including into English for Socialist Resistance as the British section. The book ranges from the Paris Commune in the nineteenth century to the role of women in the Russian Revolution in 1917 to the emergence of socialist feminist and then ‘third wave’ feminisms.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein is a marvellous account of the way that capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis bringing death and destruction in its wake, and harvesting the benefits in the form of increased profits. Naomi Klein is not a heavy-handed ‘Marxist’ writer, but someone who is able to connect revolutionary disgust at what capitalism is doing to the world with an acute analysis of how all kinds of disasters are not external to this political-economic system but intrinsic to it.

Green Capitalism: Why it can’t work by Daniel Tanuro puts the case for an ‘ecosocialist’ transformation of Marxism. It brings to the fore the best of Marx’s own insights into the way that capitalism as a system which is driven by the search for increased profits must, of necessity, exploit human labour and the planet, driving us to barbarism unless we act now. Daniel Tanuro is a member of the Fourth International, a Marxist who is able to show that the ecological crisis and climate change is not merely an optional extra that we must factor into our understanding of capitalism, but that environmental disaster is fuelled by this system.

Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga is a clear account of why Rojava is so important to revolutionaries today. In incredibly difficult conditions, in the midst of attacks by the Syrian and Turkish regimes, something is being built here from a blend of Marxist and feminist politics. These writers are not explicitly writing as Marxists here, rather as journalist activists, and the translation from German is by Janet Biehl, partner of the anarchist Murray Bookchin. It shows that another world is possible, that if it can be begun here, it can surely be begun by all of us in solidarity with Rojava everywhere.

Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left by Ian Parker is also quite good, check it out.




Identity again

The old left and libertarian ex-left are looking for scapegoats for the rise of the alt-right, but we need to reclaim ‘identity’ as a new revolutionary keyword for the left today.

There are signs of hope, of a revival of the left and of new links between the left and other social movements. These are new feminist and anti-racist social movements such as LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter which employ innovative vocabularies for describing exploitation and oppression, vocabularies which challenge the left. This is a new left with a new constellation of revolutionary keywords grounding its work. But this ‘strange rebirth’ of radical politics is taking place against the background of a shift to the right in mainstream politics. It is taking place as a new ‘alt-right’ linked to explicitly fascist groups has seized centre-stage in the US, and, to an extent, in Europe. And so the old left and those who were once part of the left look for someone or something to blame; among the contenders is ‘identity’. It is not a strong contender, but a weak one, which makes it easier to set up and attack. That attack on identity from within the old left then becomes one of the anchor-points of the latest language game of the libertarians, a tendentious analysis of the alt-right which pins the blame for its success on the left, the identitarian left and feminists and other assorted troublemakers. This attempt to pin blame on identity is a diversion from the real problems we face.

The alt-right is rooted in new social media. This is the phenomenon we should be exploring, not the right of people to declare their identity in politics but the framing of so much political debate in terms of identity in new social media. In that sense, yes there is a problem, but it flows from the message that is drummed home by the kind of media many of us use to engage in politics. Here, the medium is the message. Political interventions are tied to, and framed by, promotion of oneself and ones likes and dislikes, by often inadvertent and pernicious advertisement for the self and our connections with others who post and comment in the same kind of way. Then, indeed, it looks like radical politics boils down to an accumulation and sharing of identities. This intensive personalisation of debate is not the same as the ‘identity politics’ that is obsessively worried away at by those seeking reasons for the failure of the left.

Where is the rampant ‘identity politics’ that is accused of being one of the root causes of the rise of the alt-right? Perhaps one place we might expect to find it would be in therapy, therapeutic discourse inside and outside the clinic. After all, one of the bugbears of the old left and the disenchanted ex-left is that identity politics involves touchy-feely therapeutic appeal to ‘safe spaces’ and so the closing down of robust debate. There is some truth in the claim that the personalisation of media today feeds a psychologisation of politics, including radical politics. But actually there has been a profound shift in psychoanalysis, one of the core psychotherapeutic approaches, away from shoring up identity to questioning it. In some cases psychoanalysts still aim to support ‘ego’ identity, and some old-style psychoanalysis grounds that identity in a strong stable family and corresponding suspicion of non-normative gender and sexuality. However, much psychoanalysis today deconstructs identity, enables people to question how they have become who they think they are, trapped inside a certain kind of self housed by a certain kind of body. This deconstructive shift in psychoanalytic work is part of a broader cultural shift. While there is undoubtedly pressure on people to speak of their identity, we actually hear people in the clinic and in new social movements loosening their ties with fixed identities.

In the field of Marxist politics too, a field from which much of the current moral panic about identity has emerged, there is actually increasing fluidity of identity, in the new social movements that many Marxists now participate in and in new feminisms and mobilisation around sexual politics. If we look at the way Stalinism crystallised Marxism as if it were a science and how it became a worldview of the Soviet bureaucracy and its acolytes in the West, then we do see a strong concern with identity. Stalinism was one early identitarian twist to Marxist politics, a politics that in the early years of the 1917 Russian Revolution was much more open and experimental. The first wave of feminism in the first flourishing of the revolution was also a revolution and transformation of the family, personal life and identity. The socialist feminist movements fifty years later in the 1960s and 1970s were as much concerned with transforming identity as asserting it, and a more recent ‘third-wave’ feminism explicitly distanced itself from essentialist identities which tie women to their assigned gender and sexuality. Queer theory and politics, for example, emphasises the ‘performative’ basis of what is usually referred to as identity. It was Stalinist reaction, and now reaction against this questioning of identity that are the problems, not identity as such.

Questioning of identity and the temporary tactical claiming of identity in order to be heard in politics, and to be heard in the left, is a popular motif in many contemporary feminist and anti-racist movements. It is questioning that is underwritten by an approach that is sometimes described as ‘strategic essentialism’. Take, for example, recent protests against the 1917 Balfour Declaration which laid the basis for the construction of the Israeli State and the dispossession of the Palestinians from their land. That Declaration was actively supported a century back by antisemites in Britain who were very keen on identity, keen to identify Jews who would be refused admission to Britain and would be encouraged to settle in Palestine. Again, identity linked to politics is not a new phenomenon. We chanted in the demonstrations ‘In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians’. This chant, which gathered together protesters that included Jewish supporters of Palestinians, was, you could say, a statement of identity, but this was identity formed for that moment, ‘performative’ we would say, strategic. The fixed identity politics that is subject of so much bitter complaint is a mirage. What happens on the ground is very different.

What happens on the ground, in the everyday struggles against exploitation and oppression that bring people with many different kinds of identity together is still very different from the personalised identity-based communication that makes up new social media. The problem is not identity, which is one of the keywords of a new revolutionary left as part of intersectional politics, but the very attachment to identity by those who attack it, those who seem intent on turning it from being a mirage into a virulent threat. In some ways it is a threat to strands of the old left. The subversive tactical claiming of identity was a threat to Stalinism, and it is a threat now to those on the left who hark back to their nostalgic image of good old days where the working class was the only progressive identity in town. Those good old days never existed except in the imagination and dogmatic political programmes of those who wanted to channel all of the diverse struggles into a single unitary proletarian struggle. Those who look back, those who are enraged by the multiplicity of identities that comprise the new social movements, are transfixed by their own fantasy of identity that they repeat and disavow. No wonder they are powerless in the face of the alt-right and desperately search for something to blame.

There is no one cause for our problems, and identity is the least of it. Along with Stalinism and an old left, there are those who have left the left altogether. The libertarian ex-left that was once so canny with an endless series of front organisations, adept at formatting themselves into multiple identities, have then viciously attacked their erstwhile comrades, part and parcel of their journey to the right. They attract a new generation that takes on good coin the framing of political events in the mainstream and new social media. These libertarian ex-leftists systematically disparage the left and feminists and new social movements, sometimes fixating on ‘identity’. And here is the poisonous problem. The alt-right builds on the failure of the left, as fascist movements have always done in the past, and it also surfs to power on the back of libertarian ex-left discourse. It is time for these ex-left libertarians to take some responsibility for this state of affairs, stop harnessing critiques of the alt-right to their own agenda, and cease their campaign against the left cloaked by disingenuous warnings about the dangers of ‘identity politics’.


If you liked this then you will like Revolutionary Keywords