Fourth International in Manchester Group

The 2013 science fiction thriller Gravity raises a question as to who is in charge of the plot of a film; the main characters – in this case Lieutenant Matt Kowalski and Dr Ryan Stone – or the actors who play them, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, or, perhaps more likely still, the director, here Alfonso Cuarón for a film he co-wrote with his son Jonás. Cuarón has good radical form, directing the best of the crop of little boy wizard films with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, and then, two years later, a film he also wrote, Children of Men (a film that twisted to the left a 1992 novel by Tory Peer P. D. James). In other words, Cuarón is really the main man here, taking bad material and making good of it.

It is then too easy to be misled by the antics of Clooney and Bullock. They look like the stars, up among the stars on the NASA Explorer Space Shuttle to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. But, when they are hit by debris resulting from a Russian missile attack on one of its old pieces of equipment, it looks like Clooney and Bullock will both soon be dead meat. It is Clooney who pegs out first, reappearing in one of Bullock’s later hallucinations as she works her way into an abandoned Russian Soyuz craft and then onto a Chinese Shenzou vehicle, just in time to zoom in and break through the upper atmosphere and arrive safe back on earth.

We are up in space circling the planet for most of the film, getting more than a bird’s eye view of home, more than enough, too much to work out what is really going on down below. Instead, in a hyper-real internationalist perspective on the world, we navigate in this film the vain attempts by nation states to project themselves into space, into territory they do not yet control. Just as in Children of Men Cuarón was able to make us see something about our reality that we could not already see, to see more of it, so in Gravity, he was able to show us how little we are, little bit players in our national struggles; we have to step beyond the nation state, beyond earth itself, to get a better perspective on what is really going on.

The Fourth International in Manchester Group (FIIMG) is, let’s be honest, one of the smaller, if not the smallest of revolutionary organisations. If it were really led by George Clooney (which is a plausible supposition) then his partner Sandra Bullock would be rolling her eyes wondering what an earth he is doing most of the time tangled up with those old macho leftists who are tangled up in turn with the tangled lines of old clapped out group leaders. She’s the one who will survive this. But it’s not even down to George, this thing.

Cruciverbalists will detect in the initials FIIMG ‘Fourth International’, of course, and then ‘IMG’ which will remind old Trotskyists in Britain of the International Marxist Group, some of whose ex-members are accumulating a valuable public archive of material; that’s an invaluable accompaniment to the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project. The current incarnation of the IMG as British Section of the Fourth International is Socialist Resistance, SR, which might lead you to expect FIIMG to praise SR and the FI and attack the rest as pretenders. Not so, because the Fourth International has always comprised a weird mix of old-line Trotskyists, surrealists and libertarians, and all the more so today when it includes members around the world from very different revolutionary traditions; it is a space for action and critical reflection.

Ok, take a deep breath and admit it, there is now more than one ‘fourth international’, in the sense that there are actually many groupings of revolutionaries who link politics around the globe; you need but two Trotskyists to found a party, three to build an international, and four to produce a split. Maybe that is one reason why we, FIIMG, are actually less than one. We need to acknowledge the others racing around the globe in hyperspace because we are hit by their debris every now and again.

Next down in size after the Fourth International with credible continuity with the organisation founded by Trotsky and his followers in 1938 are, number two, the very nice on the whole comrades of the International Marxist Tendency, whose British section inside the Labour Party is named for its newspaper Socialist Appeal. Next down on the list, number three and four in the international hit parade, are two internationals with so few members here as to make them inconsequential to the British scene (unlike the other local groups, LOL), the Fourth International La Vérité, followers of Pierre Lambert (of which the British Section is ‘FI Britain’), and the International Workers League, whose British Section is confined pretty much to the Old Swan district of Liverpool (where it is called the International Socialist League). The British SWP runs its own outfit called the International Socialist Tendency, a fifth contender on the world stage. Sixth, there is a one half of the Committee for a Workers International (with a very small group in Britain called Socialist Alternative), though internationally the ‘majority’ and renamed in early 2020 the International Socialist Alternative; and, in seventh place, the other half of the Committee for a Workers International, the ‘minority’, still staggering on under its original name after a disastrous split in 2019 that was very much to do with London-centric control-freakery by one of its few remaining live groups, the Socialist Party. There are still tinier ‘internationals’, some of which still claim the title ‘Fourth International’ (fragment fall-outs from the sexual abuse scandals that spawned the current thankfully much-reduced version of the Workers Revolutionary Party and Socialist Equality Party, and some going where no one has gone before, or will do, to the ‘Fifth International’ of Workers’ Power.

It all looks very different from space, no doubt, but we didn’t need Alfonso Cuarón to tell us that in space no one can hear you scream. Comrades have given their lives to the tin-pot dictators that run some of these groups, and that’s why internal revolutionary democracy is the absolutely indispensable key to building anything that is worth the time and the energy we have left before the world itself heats up and capitalism kills us all. It is small consolation that people are able to escape every now and again and find a revolutionary space to work together instead of against each other.

You can fill out Gravity with any old ideological content, even with advertising, recuperate it, and turn it against the left. And you can do the same with each and every group on the left, drag it back into the orbit of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. In fact, that’s what many of the so-called revolutionary groups already offer themselves up to, set themselves up for, and then it is all the worse when they try and build their own ‘internationals’ in their own image, as simple projections onto a global scale of the way they see things on their home ground. FIIMG escapes that, circling around the British groups, liminal to them, whatever their size, and the various ‘internationals’ that pretend they are the one.

FIIMG cannot, of course, break free from the Fourth International which was actually founded by Leon Trotsky and fellow anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, not only because the FI can be traced back to the historical origins of revolutionary socialist struggle against both capitalism and Stalinism, but also because this Fourth International is the most honest and open about the need to connect with other revolutionary traditions. This Fourth International does its level best to build something from the fragments, to make another world possible, just as FIIMG shows you where those fragments colliding with each other in Britain come from, all the more effectively for you to make your own commitment to take them some place better.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

Workers’ Power

The Wrong Trousers directed by Nick Park in 1993 was one of three very successful stop-motion animation films starring Wallace and Gromit, a toothy eccentric inventor voiced by Peter Sallis, and his dog. The film was made and released between A Grand Day Out (1989) and A Close Shave (1995), but should be seen as the third culminating episode in the career of this loveable clay-fiction master and his loyal though often exasperated best friend.

A Grand Day Out takes Wallace and Gromit to the moon, the logical place to go when they have run out of cheese. The rocket that takes them there is one of many weird contraptions dreamt up by our wacky inventor hero and off they go, where Wallace discovers that the moon tastes like Wensleydale – good – but that a local cooker-creature doesn’t want them to take it. Their love of Wensleydale, by the way, boosted British exports of this crumbly rather second-rate creamy stuff when Wallace and Gromit films became popular. Then, in A Close Shave, new characters come onto the scene – Wendolene, her dog Preston, and Shaun the sheep – and it takes a few twists and turns of the plot for Wallace and Gromit, separated in the shenanigans that ensue, to get back together again. No plot spoilers here, that would be too cruel. But our hearts are in our mouths as we watch strange possible new alliances form that might expand the Wallace and Gromit household. Sadly, those fruitful alliances seem, after the event, to have been doomed to failure.

In The Wrong Trousers, Wallace gives Gromit a pair of techno-trousers for his birthday, but ends up being trapped by them himself when the penguin he had taken in as a lodger gets hold of the control mechanism, and takes sleeping Wallace off to the museum to steal a valuable diamond. It takes a while for poor Gromit, who has been sidelined by the penguin after winning Wallace’s affection, to work out what has been going on, and longer for Gromit to find a way of warning Wallace and exposing the penguin’s wicked scheme.

Workers’ Power’s Grand Day Out was in 1974, when dissident members of the International Socialists (now SWP) puked up another internal group into the outside world that had been organising as the Left Faction. They had run out of ideas in the SWP, so it was time to go and find some new ones outside. Luckily, or not, for the Trotskyists, this new group gravitated over the next five years or so away from the idea that Russia was ‘state capitalist’ (the calling card analysis of IS/SWP) toward the more standard position that it was a degenerate workers state. It clarified this position, as if it was a completely new home-grown invention, and in the process did battle with other unfortunate left groups which it merged with and then split from. The journey out into the left universe refreshed it and by 1980 it was back home and ready to go it alone again. New theoretical contraptions had to be mocked up in order to mark itself out from what was then a fairly crowded field back on earth.

We pick up the trajectory of Workers’ Power, mainly led by Richard Brenner (who will be voiced by Peter Sallis when he goes into the dark again) in 2013, the year of the SWP rape crisis, something that was to have disastrous consequences for women who were still with the state capitalists, but which also reenergised the young left activists who were beginning to remake connections between socialism and feminism. The question is, of course, Whose close shave? Well, first, it was Left Unity who were unlucky enough to have Workers’ Power join them to piss off new members seeking a way out of the sectarian swamp.

Then it was a real possibility of romance that Workers’ Power muscled in on and helped mess up; the possible ‘regroupment’ taking place between different fragments burnt by old-left command and control politics. The key player here was the International Socialist Network which consisted mainly of ex-members of the SWP who had made the first break with their abusive home organisation in 2013, and who were now working closely with the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI). This is when new avatars of Wendolene, Preston and Shaun come onto the scene, and part of the problem is knowing who is who, who you can trust to be engaging in the discussions in good faith, and who you can’t.

Leading members of the ACI had broken from Workers’ Power the year before, taking out most of its ‘Revolution’ youth organisation, but when the ACI and ISN were avidly courted by Socialist Resistance to build a new joint organisation – and it would have been a big step bringing in some of the best of the new activists together – lingering affections for their old comrades led some involved to ask if Workers’ Power could tag along; a big mistake, for it meant the end of the regroupment project (something that was not helped by the Socialist Resistance leadership becoming hopelessly enamoured with the newly emerging RS21 during the process).

There was a danger, of course, that Workers’ Power could haemorrhage more members to a new joint organisation in the process, and so Richard Brenner rushed around the country to keep the comrades in line. When Workers’ Power were asked if they would continue organising as a separate party inside a future fused organisation, they would robotically repeat that they would wait and see. They had their own escape vehicle almost ready, not completely built, but with the first panels and nuts and bolts stuck together in the form of an unstable rickety ship it called The League for the Fifth International. It was a close shave indeed for the British far left, for a lash up that incorporated them would have ended in the destruction of every other group involved. Those new alliances to expand the Workers’ Power household came to naught.

And so we come to The Wrong Trousers, in which Richard Brenner was completely trapped inside his Wallace persona, dragging along the rest of the comrades, who, by turns, rolled their eyes at new schemes to build Workers’ Power and the Fifth International, and at others lie doggo until Richard pushed them into action. That was until they spoke up for trans-rights, and anatomically-correct Richard left the group. The ‘wrong trousers’ in this case is actually a bigger machine, the Labour Party, into which Workers’ Power stuck itself after saying goodbye to Left Unity. In it goes, and though they claim to have shut up shop in 2015, click on the Britain tab of the Fifth International site and you will be taken quick as a flash to Red Flag, and there they are proclaiming they are the ‘British Section’. They have trimmed down their programme now, keeping in their pockets their trademark call for resistance against Ukraine, which is depicted as a fascist state. You can still work out who is in Workers’ Power when they either try to stitch in a tendentious reference to Ukraine in joint platform proposals or react badly if you refer to the Maidan movement as in any way positive or even contradictory; it’s the opposite of ‘say cheese’ to these Wallace and Gromits, don’t say ‘Ukraine’.

Like most every other group, Workers’ Power has its own particular programmatic fetish-points to justify its own separate existence. As we know from The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave and A Grand Day Out, however, it is not actually Wallace and his new wheezes, who is the brightest item in the group. The Revolution youth group showed the way, turned from being Gromit into something really alive, something that did give hope to the left. The rest of the Gromits need to follow them, leaving behind the old men of clay.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

People’s Republic of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949 following a protracted liberation struggle headed by the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong, who was chairman of the party until his death in 1976. This liberation struggle had five key elements which are intertwined, but which we need to conceptually disaggregate if we are to make sense of what happened over the next seventy years, if we are to make sense of the nature of the Chinese state now.

The struggle was, first, an explicitly modernising enterprise involving educational projects, battles against semi-feudal superstition, foot-binding and so forth, and continuing in the tracks of the bourgeois-democratic developments in the early years of the twentieth century. These cultural-political developments saw, for example, the emergence of a women’s suffrage movement way in advance of many other countries. There was the implantation of ideas from the Western Enlightenment tradition which include those of Hegel and, of course Marx.

It was, second, a national liberation struggle, reasserting the independence and pride of the Chinese people against invading forces, most notably, of course, the Japanese, who had carried out horrific massacres, at Nanjing to note only one of the most well-known examples. The negotiations, and failed attempts to form ‘National Revolution United Fronts’ with the Kuomintang, entailed bloody failures. The Kuomintang, the ‘Chinese Nationalist Party’ under Chiang Kai-Shek, butchered communists while negotiating with the imperial powers. It was the Communist Party that emerged as the dominant nationalist force.

The third element, which needs to be untangled from basic national liberation in China in 1949, is that it was an anti-imperialist struggle. The revolution entailed the beating back of the imperialist Japanese invasion forces, and the driving out of the Kuomintang into Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-Shek ruled until 1975; he died a year before Mao. The Kuomintang was ejected from the island of Hainan in the south in 1950, the year that Tibet was formally incorporated into the People’s Republic. The British, a powerful colonial presence that allied with the Kuomintang against the Communist Party, was confined to Hong Kong, and the Portuguese confined to Macau.

With the fourth element we arrive at one of the main political contradictions, which was then to provide one of the hallmarks of Mao’s rule and of so-called ‘Maoism’. This is the rural, peasant-based element of the struggle. There was a contradiction between Western Marxist emphasis on urban industrial development as the context and motor for communist politics, on the one hand, and the Long March that Mao and his comrades engaged in through the mid-1930s, a long march through the countryside which led them to strategise the struggle as involving the encirclement of the cities. A hallmark of Maoism was to become its praise of peasant struggle.

Finally, fifth, there is a national and international element of what we could call ‘rebel Stalinism’; this term to attempt to capture the way that, on the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party was indebted to the apparatus of the Third International directed from Moscow, and, on the other hand, had to break from Stalin’s advice. The advice was that the disastrous National Liberation United Front be maintained with the Kuomintang in order to bring about a bourgeois-democratic revolution instead of a socialist one, which, in line with Stalinist ‘stage’ versions of historical development, would have been premature.

So, the political organisation of the Communist Party was still Stalinist, with top-down military discipline that had been necessary to liberate the country, but Maoism was to emerge as an international force on the world stage with the victory of the revolution there. The 1949 seizure of power was a world-changing event. But the world has also changed in the seventy years since that revolution. There is a contradictory process of resistance and adaptation to the international context that needs to be grasped if we are to understand China now and the prospects for Marxism there.

‘Marxism’ and Marxist Analysis

Leap forward seventy years; where is Marxism in China now? In a peculiar way, the fate of Marxism as a crucial practical-theoretical resource for Mao and his comrades, mirrors the fate of Marxism in the advanced capitalist countries, in this respect; while there are myriad leftist groups, including different competing remnants of the Third International here in the West, much Marxism as such has been transformed into an academic speciality. It is kept alive in the universities, and that’s not only a bad thing, but it is too often enclosed there, and so turned into a scholarly abstract theoretical enterprise instead of a practical one geared to link understanding with political struggle. And so it is in China, where there is occasional lip-service to Marx in public arenas, but few statues of Marx or Engels, or even, today, of Mao. You can buy tourist kitsch images of Mao and hammer and sickle souvenirs in the cities, but the one place where you can be sure to find ‘Marxism’ is in the Schools and Colleges of Marxism inside the universities.

And that’s what I know of it. I’ve visited China a number of times over the past fifteen years. I remember the year of the first visit, 2004, because that was the year Jacques Derrida died, something that was cause of some shock and upset among the academics in the conference in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province in the south of the country. I mention it because that conference on linguistics and critical discourse theory saw figures like that, deconstructionist philosophers, as more important than Marx or Marxists.

My most recent visit, in December 2019, was to a more explicitly Marxist context. I was paid by Guangxi University for Nationalities, for travel and accommodation, to speak at ‘The 46th Discipline Forum of the National College of Marxist Theory Discipline’ (maybe it loses something in translation), the subtitle for which was ‘International Academic Symposium on’, and this next bit was in scare quotes, ‘New Development of Socialism in the 21st Century and Progress of Human Civilization’. That’s what I will mainly talk about here, and I’ll use it as a peg on which to hang other reflections on what I’ve made of China in different visits.

You need a political frame to make sense of what you are told, and it’s this political frame that underpinned my paper at the conference on ‘Socialism in the next century’, which is probably why it got a polite quiet reception. It is a political frame that includes three moments of analysis from within the tradition of the Fourth International, which was founded in war-torn Europe in 1938, just over ten years before Mao came to power. This dissident revolutionary Marxist tradition, and an organisation that explicitly broke from Stalinism, is my implicit, and sometimes explicit, point of reference for the debates occurring in China before, during and after the revolution. It gives us three key texts, books that have been influential on me, at least.

The first text is a book by Wang Fanxi, who ended his life in Leeds at the end of 2002. The book published in Hong Kong in Chinese and then in English in the mid-1990s, is called Wang Fan-hsi: Chinese Revolutionary, Memoirs 1919-1949. Wang Fanxi was born in 1907, and compiled these memoirs in the 1950s while in exile in Macau. The memoirs trace his political journey from being a member of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s, a supporter of CCP co-founder Chen Tu-hsiu who resisted Moscow’s orders to take distance from the Kuomintang and who was then displaced by Mao, who was a more obedient Stalinist apparatchik. Wang describes encountering Trotskyism during his time in Moscow in the Communist University for the Toilers of the East, and then his return to China in 1929, the formation of the Chinese Left Opposition, imprisonment during the 1930s and then expulsion to Macau in 1949.

The Trotskyists in China were isolated, caught between the Kuomintang and the Stalinised Communist Party. Along with Peng Shuzhi, who was once on the Political Bureau of the Communist Party (who became a Trotskyist, was imprisoned by the Kuomintang, fled to Saigon after 1949, and then ended up in exile in the United States), Wang was an important figure in the Fourth International, keeping the revolutionary Marxist tradition alive, reflecting critically on Maoism, and paying the price. We can see in Wang’s memoirs and in the debates with Peng Shuzhi, questions raised about what Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution meant in Chinese context, and whether they had themselves been mistaken in putting their energy only into urban proletarian movements. In some important respects, Mao was right.

The second text, and it reflects a second moment in the Fourth International’s engagement with Maoism is the Italian scholar and activist Livio Maitan’s book published in English in 1976 as Party, Army and Masses in China: A Marxist Interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and Its Aftermath. Here in his book there is a history of the revolution, and a balance sheet of the Cultural Revolution which lasted for about ten years, from 1966 until Mao’s death, and then the final defeat by the party apparatus of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ led by ‘Madame Mao’, his fourth wife Jiang Qing.

That Cultural Revolution, especially in its first phase, seemed to chime with and inspired some of the ‘New Left’ movements around the world, reenergising Maoism as a political current. On the one hand, it raised again the question of the peasantry as a revolutionary force, and was an important player on the far-left, along with Trotskyism, particularly in radical versions of ‘Third Worldist’ politics that struck a distance from the capitalist West and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the Cultural Revolution raised questions about the anti-bureaucratic potential of the mobilisation of the young Red Guards; the extent to which they were being used by one wing of the bureaucracy, that of Mao and then the Gang of Four, and the extent to which there was a dynamic to that movement that posed a threat to the bureaucracy as such, something that revolutionaries should be participating in.

The third text brings us almost up to date, a book by Au Loong Yu, China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility. Au describes the fundamental shift in class relations in China since 1949 with rapid industrialisation and the appearance of an urban working class. That working class is divided between those working in the state sector, those working in the service sector, which is rapidly expanding with the production of consumer goods, entertainment industries and new social media, and the role of migrant rural workers who provide cheaper labour living in vast barrack complexes run by large corporations.

Since the 1990s the Chinese Communist Party oversaw two waves of privatisation. Small and medium-sized State Owned Enterprises were privatised first, while the larger enterprises were aggregated into joint stock companies. Then urban and suburban land was privatised, something which put more pressure on rural migrant workers who were unable to afford accommodation, even when restrictions enforced by the ‘Hukou’ household registration system were relaxed. There are thus, Au Loong Yu argues, two forms of capital accumulated and managed and then invested in China now: There is capital which is individually owned by the bureaucrats, figures like Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba online retail and ecommerce group who is a multimillionaire and member of the Central Committee of the party; and there is collective capital owned and organised according to the needs of the different government departments and regions. There is an increasing flow of capital from one realm to the other, with corruption scandals symptomatic of the too-fast access of collective capital by individuals and an attempt to rein in competitors who threaten social cohesion. Recently, the inflow of capital from émigrés in Hong Kong and Taiwan has been at least matched by an outflow of capital into the West.

One of the most interesting aspects of Au Loong Yu’s book, and his day-to-day work – he is an activist based in Hong Kong, and so vulnerable to the recent proposals to enable extradition of evildoers to the mainland – is the fracturing of social cohesion, not only through individual millionaire bureaucrats fleecing the system, but through the many thousands of acts of resistance documented by China Labour Bulletin, including mass strikes, by rural and urban workers each year. With the recent slowdown of economic growth these have been fewer, and focused on resistance to closures. This has led to two quite different ‘critical’ responses inside the Chinese Communist Party, with a group of neoliberals advocating full-scale privatisation, protection of private property and ‘globalisation’ of the economy on the one hand, and, on the other, a left-nationalist current that calls for a more intense crackdown on dissidents and securitisation of the state apparatus.

There has been much debate about ‘social credit’ as a gathering of data about consumer trustworthiness, but these debates inside the party apparatus could spin the emphasis either on to economic-focused free-market grounds or on to direct political control, of who can access what services and who can travel where. At the moment it is both, which leads Au Loong Yu to suggest that the most accurate characterisation of the system now is as a form of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’.

Marxism as a belief system

So what do ‘Marxists’ in the university Schools and Colleges of Marxism make of this, and how do they attempt to justify what is going on?

Well, first of all, Marxism in China is not a political praxis, an analysis that is dialectically and intimately linked to changing the world. On the contrary, Marxism operates as a kind of social glue. In this way, I suppose you could say that it still functions as a political praxis, but one concerned with order rather than change.

A sidestep for an example of this: In 2009 I was at an academic psychology conference in Nanjing where we were treated to the most reactionary mixture of US-American laboratory-experimental psychology – rats in mazes, human beings turned into cognitive-behavioural mechanisms, that kind if thing – and so-called ‘indigenous’ Chinese psychology, which was basically Confucianism. The Confucius Institutes around the world funded by the Chinese state are a manifestation of this reclaiming of a philosophical system that emphasises the importance of people knowing their place and showing obedient willing submission to their elders and betters, and, as far as Confucius was concerned, of women to men.

One paper in that Nanjing conference traced out similarities between Confucius and the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Both, we were told, focused on duties and obligations, and on the way that power relations operated in a micro-managerial ‘capillary’ manner, linking surveillance with the inculcation of a sense that we needed to speak to those accorded power in a way that maintained power relations. It was an interesting talk, but with one thing missing, which I pointed out; Confucius endorsed and aimed to strengthen these power relations, while Foucault’s historical analysis was critical of them, emphasising, in his famous phrase, that ‘where there is power there is resistance’. The speaker looked at me dumbfounded, as if that had never occurred to him, and he avoided me afterwards.

During this last visit in 2019 I agreed to teach a session in the School of Marxism at Guangxi University of the Nationalities the day after the conference, because I wanted to see what the students made of it. Students from different disciplines, whether from the social sciences or natural sciences, are required to take classes in Marxism alongside their main topic. This is the case in every Chinese university, and this is what the Schools and Colleges of Marxism are up to.

Last year at a College of Marxism in one of the universities in Beijing I asked students who were based in the College, taking Marxism as their main topic, what they would do when they finished the course. They laughed and said, ‘teach Marxism’. I asked one of the lecturers, an economist, whether they thought China was capitalist, and they said ‘yes, of course it is’. In this class in Guangxi University, I was co-teaching with another comrade academic, Alpesh Maisuria, a Marxist who had also been invited to speak at the main conference. The Dean of the School of Marxism sat in on the class, and after we spoke about praxis and class struggle, the Dean intervened and said ‘we need to learn about Marxism because it is our belief system’. When we tried to set up the session as a discussion of what they knew about Marxism, the Dean advised against this, saying ‘they want to be told’. This had pretty well set the frame for what the agenda was in the main conference, which was to promote, we were told, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

There is an aspect of surveillance and control that makes any attempt to get behind the screen of state ideology extremely difficult, surveillance and control in China that is expressed in forms of management of a visitor’s experience of the country. Sometimes that surveillance and control is well-meaning and benevolent rather than deliberate and sinister. The visa application process, now outsourced to a private company, is more of the latter, laborious and intrusive, asking for detailed information not only about where you intend to go, but where exactly you went last time you visited China. The former, friendlier micromanagement of your time in academic settings, is more common.

At a 2011 conference on contemporary capitalism in Hangzhou, for example, I was told that we would all be taken down to the West Lake for an early evening meal in one of the restaurants. I said that I had stayed in Hangzhou before and would like to follow one of the canal-side paths to the lake myself, and I would meet them there. We had been relayed to the conference site, some hours away, from the hotel on coaches early in the morning, and I’d had enough of that kind of mass transport. Our coach driver who had brought us down from Nanjing had a hard time navigating the traffic, and some chaotic cross-cutting of road-lanes, shouting at one point that ‘these people drive cars as if they are bicycles’. We had a back and forth argument in which my assigned student guides insisted that this solo walk that I was insisting on was impossible, and that I would get lost, it would be dangerous, and so on. I said I really want to walk to the lake on my own, and eventually the penny dropped; they said ‘Oh, you need private time’, I agreed, and that did the trick. I walked to the lake, went to the wrong restaurant, and arrived at the meal two hours late, causing great panic meantime.

The West Lake was much changed since my previous visit seven years before, this is a feeble excuse for my mistake, I know, with private coffee shops, including Costa Coffee, sprung up around the edge, and incredible obvious commercialisation of it as a tourist site. There has, in short, been amazingly fast modernisation of previously quasi-rural parts of the country; skyscraper-strewn cities like Shanghai are now the rule instead of being the hyper-developed exception. And so it was in Nanning, site of the 2019 ‘New Development of Socialism in the 21st Century and Progress of Human Civilization’ conference.

Nanning is the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the far south of the country, a ‘second tier’ city, and so relatively small compared with first tier cities like Shanghai and Beijing; it is about six million, a sprawling smoggy metropolis that is known, I was told, as a ‘green city’. The campus was quite leafy. A philosophy student who was sent to meet me at the airport, he liked Heidegger, told me that in China there was ‘too much development, too many people’. Another student who took over to show me round the Guangxi University for Nationalities campus was more positive, praising the development and modernisation that Marxism had made possible. As an ‘autonomous region’, Guangxi, which is about the size of the UK, contains a significant minority population, the Zhuang and other groups, whose cultural artefacts are on display in the museum on the riverside, but the name of this academic institution, ‘University for Nationalities’, has another meaning too.

Nanning is the nearest urban metropolis to the border with Vietnam, and the university operates as staging post for academic contacts with Indochina, with visiting students from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And here is one crucial link between modernisation, nationalism and a peculiar twist on the anti-imperialist heritage of the Chinese revolution. I will come to that, and the way it manifests itself in debates about ‘Marxism’ in a moment, so let’s turn to the conference.

In the Progress of Human Civilization conference…

There were introductions to the theme of the conference by local worthies, party members, and School of Marxism faculty heads, before ‘photo time’; visiting guests – that’s us outside China along with Marxism College visitors from other parts of China – sat on chairs at the front and other local speakers stood on the steps at the back. The introductions emphasised what they called ‘the integration of Marxism and traditional culture’ and links with ‘south east Asia’ culture, arguing that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ shifts the balance of power between capitalism and socialism globally. We were reminded that this is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and advised that ‘during the event our university will provide quality services for you’. One visiting apparatchik from outside Nanning said that they felt ‘very excited about the event’, telling us that it ‘will be recorded in the history of Marxist theory discipline’. What is socialism? ‘Socialism is the product of the contradictions of human development’, culminating in ‘Xi Jinping thought’, which provides ‘a new viewpoint for world socialism’; General Secretary Xi Xinping shows us that ‘we need to provide a Chinese solution to world problems’.

A keynote address before photo time by Professor Song Jin was designed to set the tone for the day, and was on, this is the title displayed on the screen, ‘The Cognitive Logic for the International Dissemination of Achievements in Localization of Marxism in China’. There was a quick run through the history of the Opium Wars, that is, nineteenth-century British imperial import trading of opium against Chinese resistance – the Brits don’t come out of this well, to say the least. It was a potent telling reminder that anti-imperialist struggle has a long background history to what eventually happened in 1949. This brought us to the ‘contemporary history of China’, sideswipes at the Kuomintang and present-day Taiwan, with the lesson that ‘promotion or propaganda must run alongside military power’. This ‘revitalisation of China’ must involve, ‘the promotion of development theory’, and ‘telling good stories about China internationally’.

What is to be done? Professor Song Jin said ‘we need to win over foreign media’, and promote Marxism and socialism, and aspects of that struggle include showcasing ‘good research in China’. We build on the observations of Deng Xiaoping, Party Chair from 1982 to 1987, he said, the first of which is the importance of ‘development’, and the second here is that ‘It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice’. This brings us, as the conclusion of the talk, to the ‘three philosophical questions addressed by Xi Jingping, which are ‘Who am I, where do I come from, and where am I going?’

After photo time I gave my talk, after which there was no time for discussion, and then there was an extra lengthy intervention by an elderly comrade wearing a grey cap who rambled around a number of different issues before he was told by the chair to wind up; these included reference to the ‘failures that can be seen in the Soviet Union’, Deng Xiaoping’s shift to ‘peaceful development’, the founding of over 500 Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture, ‘Chinese soft power’ and ‘Chinese traditional medicine’. This guy spoke about his visit to Vietnam; ‘they made the mistake of privatising land’, whereas China has ‘succeeded in managing urbanisation’. This was one of the few points in the day when interventions shifted gear from rather abstract distanced commentary on how good Marxist theory was to directly political comments.

A talk from a Russian academic on ‘The Post-Soviet School of Critical Marxism’, which was helpfully printed in the conference book we were handed at the beginning of the day in Russian, spoke of ‘the tradition of socialism preserved by the great power, China’, and then went on to mention some more interesting stuff and theoretical reference points, including Bertell Ollman, István Mészáros, Lucien Sève and David Harvey, though it was unclear how exactly they were being put to work. The ‘Post-Soviet School’ which has developed over the past 25 years, with Alexander Buzgalin as a key figure, includes focus on the development of global ‘late capitalism’, ‘qualitative changes in the nature of the economy’, ‘corporate manipulation’, the role of ‘simulacra’ and limits of capitalism. There wasn’t time either for the speaker, Olga Barashkova, to elaborate on this, or to do much more than praise Marxist theory in China, invite people to visit her institute in Moscow and look forward to future research links.

At least here we were talking about Marxism, as such, but in a way that was ‘about Marxism’, and how important that was as a belief system, rather than actually being Marxist as such. Indicative of this distanced relationship to what was supposed to be the central theoretical framework for the conference was a paper included in the conference book by Meng Liangqui from the Nanning School of Marxism on ‘Mapping Knowledge Domains Analysis on Marxism in 21st Century’ which was using CiteSpace, a software package for mapping dominant trends in research. ‘Journal Co-citation analysis’ identified key texts in ‘Marxism studies’, though it is not clear what criteria defined the field, but it included as top ‘research fronts’ the following top ten keywords: ‘Marxism, capitalism, state, politics, history, socialism, globalization, revolution, power, and Marx’.

This kind of list is perhaps what drives the jargon-generator style conference and publication titles produced by the Colleges and Schools of Marxism. The top five text resources from the ‘co-citation analysis’ were New Left Review, Capital, Antipode, Historical Materialism and Theory and Society. Top author citation counts ranked in the top five, Marx, Marx (so he got the top two slots), David Harvey, someone only identified as ‘anonymous’ and Antonio Gramsci. As regards top documents from the citation analysis, these are Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Marx’s Capital, Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

This is interesting not so much for what the analyses throw up, but for what the point of the analysis is and the role it plays within ‘Marxism Studies’ in China. We know that Chinese academics have, over the past years been noticing what the key debates are in Marxism and have been translating key texts into Chinese. Until recently these texts have only been available to the party cadre, but the work of the Schools and Colleges of Marxism in each university indicate that the texts have now been so successfully enclosed within academic space that they no longer pose a threat.

Our participation, we Marxists from the West flown in to an academic conference, is obviously part of this phenomenon. What could we possibly say in this context that could be a threat; we were being used, and we knew it. In any case, the dominant language of higher education being English has further insulated the population from possibly dangerous subversive ideas. We know that some young scholars in these university-based institutes have been punished and, in some cases, been arrested and disappeared after putting the ideas they have been reading about into practice. Demonstrations by Marxist academics in support of the Jasic Technology strikers, for example, have been violently suppressed.

It was now becoming clear that there was to be no time for discussion after the papers, and what little wriggle-time there was would be plugged up with unscheduled speakers, now Professor Xinping Xia who followed up on the Russian talk by speaking about the way the Russian School was borrowing from Chinese Marxism, and then, a weird move, about the functions of the Chinese Army in protecting the development of socialism. There were aspects of these extra interventions, where the speakers spoke without notes, that felt, especially through the simultaneous head-set translation, like slow rap; the ideological preoccupations of the moment were coming into the head of the speaker and blurted out into the conference. This particular speaker went on to describe the publication in Russian of an ‘Encyclopaedia of Chinese Spiritual Culture’, and the importance of Confucius as ‘an organic part of socialism with Chinese characteristics’, of ‘traditional culture’. It was good, he said, that ‘the Soviet Academy’ was more open than the West to the rational nature of China’s success rather than simply treating it as an inexplicable ‘miracle’.

The other British speaker, Alpesh Maisuria, was more successful than me in keying into some of these preoccupations and to the theoretical level of the conference, speaking about the importance of alleviating poverty and the way that neoliberal capitalism relies on mystification, making it seem that communism is no longer feasible. Then we were quickly brought back, in another unscheduled intervention by a visitor from Hainan Normal University, to a brief review of and praise for the Russian Post-Soviet Critical School, warning that ‘critiques of the Soviet Union that focus on Stalin have some Western themes’.

This brings us to the significant strategic location of Nanning and the Guangxi University for Nationalities; context for a talk from a Vietnamese academic, and another from Bangladesh. These talks were also sandwiched between extra interventions, which again squeezed out any time for questions and discussion. Pham Thi Chauhong began by tracing the origins of democracy to ancient Greece, its development in the thought of Marx and Lenin, and then the role of the Vietnamese Communist Party, VCP, in promoting ‘socialist democracy’ which blossomed in 1986 with the ‘collective ownership for the labouring classes’. After 1986, she said, the VCP has protected ‘peoples rights and interests’; ‘we improved inner-party democracy’ and ‘leadership efficiency’, rectifying, for example, the ‘balance of power between prosecutors and courts’ and acknowledging the role of competition and entrepreneurship which are ‘popular issues among youth’, moving to a ‘market-oriented economic system with socialist characteristics’ which includes attention to ‘cyber-information security and development of e-governance’.

The talk by the Bangladeshi speaker was more interesting and indicative still. The speaker, Mostak Ahamed Galib, was actually not living in Bangladesh but working in the School of Marxism in Wuhan University of Technology. The son of a diplomat in Beijing, he had remained in China. His paper was on ‘The peaceful rise of China through “Belt and Road” initiative with a special focus on people to people partnership’. The Belt and Road Initiative, also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’, comprises road and rail and sea-route trade routes through six ‘economic corridors’ which link China to the world, and which link developing countries directly to China through infrastructure development loans, the infrastructure for which is designed to increase trade.

We were told that the Belt and Road Initiative now involves, six years after it was announced by Xi Jinping in 2013, 138 countries as a ‘cooperation platform’ and as a ‘welfare centric initiative’. You get the picture so far that there was not to be a whisper of criticism of this, and in fact the intervention at the conference was focused on rebutting criticisms of it. The main criticism is that it draws other countries, including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but also way beyond, into a ‘debt trap’, with strategically important countries provided loans which then mean that they are in debt to China. We do see this around the world, including in Latin America.

No, this is far from the case, we were told, and the guy was shouting into the microphone now, because what the Belt and Road Initiative does is lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty, and the loans are taken out as a free and open contract. This is, he said, ‘a win-win cooperative project’. Again, no questions or discussion, but afterwards when I pressed him on this, he admitted that there had been problems with some of the loans so far, but that was because Chinese entrepreneurs who didn’t understand local contexts had made some ‘bad deals’. This was, he said, very different from what Xi Jinping intended, and rules were now being tightened up, with more training for state-owned and private enterprises. This contract model of the Belt and Road Initiative driven by ‘development’ and profit imperatives illustrates well how China, from being resistant to imperialism, is now up to its ears in it, part of imperialist penetration of capital and commodification into every corner of the world.

This was all of a piece with the message that came through in the other papers after lunch; that development was bound up with China being able, as one speaker put it, to ‘stand up’, ‘enrich the people’ and ‘make the country stronger’. Another speaker, Professor Chen Yuan, asked the telling question, whether it is possible to avoid capitalism, and argued that ‘Chinese socialism’ has not escaped capitalism, but that we need to think again about the historical order between capitalism and socialism if we want to find ‘a new direction for human civilization progress’.

Another speaker gave his paper very quickly in the afternoon, apologising that he had to leave early to travel back to his own university because he had a ‘performance review meeting’ the next day. I felt for him, only late on managing to resist pressure from the conference organisers to take a long flights with multiple stops to arrive on Saturday in time for the Sunday conference and leave China to go home on Monday. I have the sense from talking to Chinese academics, that the pressures on them there make the complaints from Western academics about their own workload pale into insignificance. The world of an academic is more of a piece with that of hard-pressed, suicidal party apparatus bureaucrats.

There were now brief talks, these in Chinese, eight minutes each, about ‘global governance’ and the ‘ecological sense of being as part of Xi Jinping thought’; ‘ecologically’, we were told, ‘we need to improve the environment’. There were complaints that China was being blamed for CO2 emissions when actually the problem was the result of 400 years of development in the capitalist countries, and so the burden should be shouldered by the capitalist countries. This would be a ‘crisis transfer’ way of dealing with the problem. Confucius and ‘traditional Chinese culture’ was evoked again a number of times, as was the importance of ‘coordinating Chinese language with the world’; ‘we should tell good Chinese stories’. Is Confucius socialism, one speaker asked? No, says Xi Jinping, and so we need to clarify what traditional Chinese culture is, and regard it as ‘socialist Chinese culture’. If we want to break through ‘traditional thinking’, someone else said, we need to ‘criticise ourselves’, combat ‘wrong ideas’. Yes, one speaker said, there was corruption, but that could be changed by changing the mindset of the leadership and ‘old and backward practices’, replacing these with ‘evaluation criteria for inputs and outputs’.

There was to be no time for debate, everything seemed stitched up. Alpesh Maisuria and I complained bitterly about this at lunchtime, and convinced the organisers to open up a space toward the end of the afternoon session for what they called a ‘Q & A’ which would replace the coffee break. (The morning coffee break included biscuits and cakes and bananas and mandarin oranges and fresh lychees, product of this sub-tropical region of the country.) This is where a surprising eruption of politics into academic debate occurred. There was a good deal of heat in the discussion around one of the short papers that had been given late in the afternoon which had the title ‘Revalorization of the Chinese Nation and Tranquility’.

Basically the argument of the paper went as follows. The historical suffering and liberation of the Jewish people could have lessons for China, raising a question as to whether they, the Jewish people, could be liberated as ‘Jews’ or as ‘human beings’. The Jewish people were isolated, and isolated themselves, and their liberation was through asserting ‘Jewish ideology’ by establishing the state of Israel. We could learn from this, for ‘it threw light on Chinese people and revitalization of the nation’. In the additional Q & A session, there were many objections to this narrative, but mainly on the basis that the history of the Chinese people was entirely different, and their national identity forged through anti-imperialist struggle could not be reduced to that of another different people. There was some discussion of the problem of Zionism as itself an ideology that could be oppressive to the local population, Palestinians, something I pointed out, but this was quickly skirted over, and we moved into the closing talk on, you will be amazed to hear, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

…and out in the city

Translators always have something interesting to say about meetings they are brought in to work at, and this was no exception. Alpesh and I posed for photos with the translators when the conference was over. They said they were a bit anxious about the quality of their translation into English, which was actually really very good, and they apologised that they had not had sight of the papers in advance, only being brought in very late on, arriving that morning and expected to launch into action. They had to work freelance, had background academic study in politics and languages, and now they were forced to compete not only with the state enterprises but with a proliferation of private companies that employed people and offered translation services at impossibly low rates to organisations. Academic organisations like the School of Marxism in Nanning were expected to outsource its work. This was privatised precarious zero-hours work.

Alpesh commented that during our visit to the city centre the previous day we had not encountered any homeless people. The translators smiled and said that this was probably down to what they called ‘urban management’. There are gated communities in Nanning, as there are in Beijing. Travelling out to the edges of the very efficient clean new metro system on the south, north and west of the city, I could see different kinds of community. In some cases, those near the university, they were more typically middle-class, while at the edges and in the south of the river centre away from the shopping malls these were enclosed poorer spaces with checkpoints. At the farther south edge of the city were timber yards and shacks where workers and their families lived with farm animals.

Shopping malls in Nanning were, as in Beijing and Shanghai, glitzy consumer heavens, with KFC and Starbucks. Around the local mall area close to the university there were cheaper open-air restaurants in the car-parks, and in one of these there were pictures of Mao on the wall, a rare sight, and a reminder not only that such imagery is not common now, but also that to display such pictures must indicate some decided political choice on the part of the owner, a reminder that there are still such decided political choices, one of those permitted by the regime.

Closed-circuit cameras are everywhere, and we know that there is sophisticated face-recognition technology that enables the authorities to track the movements of the population. Social credit surveillance, for example, is actually already present in Western capitalist countries. It is a function of capitalism, and an indication of how far and fast China is travelling, and in what direction. Regime-friendly justifications for social credit include that Chinese citizens positioned as consumers are happy to buy into it. However, there are still spaces in China where this kind of surveillance is not necessary. When I was able to get out to the edges of the city on the metro, I walked in near-countryside. As evening draws in, the flash of the cameras is more evident, more intrusive, a reminder that everyone is watched, or is reminded that they may be watched; surveillance culture in action. The time for pedestrians on the zebra crossings, by the way, was just a little less than necessary; the car is becoming king.

China is a successful capitalist country, success built through a revolutionary break with its history of dependence on imperialism, and on a reassertion of its national independence through the unifying force of a party apparatus that was itself built with the help of a foreign power. Marxism itself is part of that heritage of Western Enlightenment developmental modernisation, but now absorbed and harnessed to the needs of the state, as have been the rural forces that made the revolution, absorbed and harnessed to a rapidly urbanising country.

In the process, the contradictions of which Marxism speaks, class struggles, are displaced onto the notion of ‘development’ as such, an ideological process which conceals, seals over, the real contradictions that are still present, and which are actually intensifying as a gap increases between the super-rich at the head of the party apparatus and the rest of the population.

Every radical social movement, ranging from those that make claims for their own national identity against the Chinese state, as in Xinxiang, to the #metoo and LGBT movements, and including a nascent trade union movement, are present in China now. That will put pressure on the ‘Marxists’ confined to the universities to make a connection with the real world, a process that Marxists around the world should play some part in, in debate and in solidarity.

Ian Parker, January 2020

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

Socialism in the next century

Ten aspects of Marxism are highlighted in this paper by Ian Parker on what we could or should expect socialism to look like.

Socialism in the next century

What can we hope for and strive for in a world in which globalised capitalism is rampant and is driving us all to destruction? We have a responsibility to link theory and practice in order to put an end to capitalism once and for all. The century of revolutions, from 1917 to 2017, has provided progressive political narratives and conceptual tools which deepen and extend revolutionary Marxism, and we need to draw on those conceptual tools to bring the Marxist tradition to life again, acting alongside other progressive forces. Now, in this century, Marxism is a theory and practice of emancipatory politics, providing a revolutionary praxis for liberation movements, and our task is to make socialism visible as an alternative, in our forms of struggle and in our vision of another world beyond capital. We can begin to imagine what a future socialist society might look like, albeit with a status of little more than fiction for us now. We need to start here, with where we are and with what we have as existing conditions of life and resources for struggle. I focus on ten aspects of Marxism, showing what it pits itself against and suggesting what kind of world it makes possible for us.

1.

Marxism is historically constituted, invented in the nineteenth century in order to address and solve a particular problem, the historically-specific and limited nature of capitalism. Marxism is not a worldview, but a weapon in the hands of working people to overthrow a particular economic system predicated on exploitation and oppression. Just as it came into being at a certain point in history, so Marxism will disappear when its work is done, unnecessary and anachronistic in a genuinely socialist society. This means that ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ – the blueprint for which Marx refused to draw up – cannot correspond to the forms of life we endure or imagine today, and it should not be modelled on those restricted forms of life. To begin to lay the foundations of communism is to leap into the unknown, with historically-unparalleled freedom being the prerequisite, and a flourishing of diverse hitherto-unimagined competing worldviews fruitful for new forms of progress in a kaleidoscopically contradictory future civilization.

2.

Marxism is reflexive, which means that it not only transforms its object of study, capitalism, challenging it and facilitating the overthrow of the political-economic system it analyses, but that it also transforms itself, accumulating in the body of its work the historical memory of past failures to end capitalism. Marxism is not a neutral ‘objective’ system of knowledge modelled on bourgeois science, but it contributes to scientific inquiry while questioning the academic distanced character of ultimately destructive technological reason. Science does provide a worldview, for that is necessary and progressive to interpret the world, but Marxism connects with and speaks for forms of subjectivity that break from the ideological role of science under capitalism enabling us to change the world, and us as well in that process. Marxism that is self-critical, as it should be, opens space for other humanistic and quasi-spiritual domains of existence, for a socialist future as a constellation of standpoints that examine and unravel power.

3.

Marxism is unfinished, an incomplete and partial partisan project begun by the first pioneer activist researchers over a century and a half ago. They lay the groundwork for an analysis of capitalist production and the extraction of surplus value and, crucially, elaborated a method of analysis through which an accumulating self-correcting tradition of work could be debated and tested. This work began when capitalism as a global system was in its infancy, and that system has repeatedly adapted itself and mutated to suppress political rebellion against it, posing new questions for Marxism itself. Marxism is not a static theoretical system, susceptible to proof or disproof of separate discrete hypotheses, but it is a flexible multivalent tradition of political resistance to capitalism, speaking for the exploited and oppressed. Communism will not, therefore, entail the final totalisation of Marxism as testament to its success, but will entail the eventual failure and fragmentation of the different elements of Marxism when that political-theoretical framework has succeeded in rendering itself unnecessary.

4.

Marxism is plural, continually encountering traditions of work that are other to it, while learning that these other traditions are often no less Marxist for that. It is not and never can be unitary. An attention to the historical context for the development of socialist theory and practice, and examples of self-organisation that anticipate communist forms of life outside or beyond capitalism, is thus complemented by cultural context through which anti-colonial and postcolonial interventions emerge dialectically against and alongside forms of Marxism developed within the imperial centres of power. This dialectical movement is not susceptible to ‘synthesis’, except at a local tactical level in order to grasp specific political formations, and combat them. Provisional specific syntheses of theory and practice are each grounded in material reality, and so they are neither completely relativist nor omnipotently correct. Neither does Marxism aim to construct a final synthetic picture of the world, envisaging instead a future socialist society in which hitherto marginalised indigenous interpretations of political-economic organisation are valued. The power relations between centre and periphery, and between dominant and subaltern, are thus dialectically reversed in the process of struggle in order that they could be abolished.

5.

Marxism is intersectional, something it has learned from other liberation movements with which it has necessarily allied itself in order to grasp the interlinking of exploitation and oppression. The incomplete attempts to grasp the interrelationship between dimensions of class, culture, ‘race’, sex and sexuality, as well as other axes of power and resistance, have provided different ways for Marxism to decouple itself from dominant White Western and stereotypically masculine ways of understanding and governing the world. Marxism thus actively configures itself as the standpoint of all of the exploited and oppressed, with no interest other than the combined and various interests of those who labour, whether that is in the factory, in the fields or in the home. Marxism thus prepares itself, as form of ‘prefigurative politics’ – that is, politics in which the forms of organisation developed to combat capitalism also thereby anticipate the forms of organisation that we want to replace it – Marxism prepares itself for its own eventual dissolution. This intersectional prefigurative politics is designed to end capitalist class rule and to transform Marxist method under socialism into one of a number of different competing analyses and drivers for the self-reflexive transformation of social relationships.

6.

Marxism is relational, its analytic categories deployed not to name independently-existing entities which must then be crystallised into forms of permanent identity, but in order to grasp the particular nature of political-economic class formations; principally capitalism as an exploitative class relation in which surplus value is extracted during the labour process. This pits Marxism against ‘essentialist’ accounts which fail to grasp how a system of exchange values – the circulation of commodities under capitalism – then constitute an apparently hidden and so idealised realm of ‘use values’ of products which people are then induced to yearn for and imagine they can return to. A directly political expression of this relational aspect of Marxism is realised in its refusal of conspiracy-theoretic explanations of society, explanations that are therefore viewed as toxic ideological phenomena. The task of a socialist society is thus to create non-exploitative and non-oppressive forms of relationship, not to simply give expression to hitherto latent ones.

7.

Marxism is international, which is why its political-organisational forms – the ‘Internationals’ – have always, from the earliest days, represented an authentic universal response to the destructive globalising impulse of colonialism, capitalism and then imperialism. Marxism speaks for the singularity of experience, of local and indigenous responses to globalisation, at the same time as it refuses and transcends the particularity of ethno-nationalist reaction. It is particularly critical of centralised great power chauvinism, valuing the right to self-determination, viewing such autonomous self-organisation as itself an expression of what is genuinely universal, self-consciously struggling for progressive global politics in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. There can be no socialism in one country, and defence of any existing partial gains for revolutionary forces requires a dialectical interplay of respect and critique, always enabling the internationalist aspect of liberation to be present so that it may eventually prevail. Our internationalism will be rooted in the local realities of disparate communal life-worlds.

8.

Marxism is democratic, challenging and exposing the false claims made by regimes intent on protecting grotesquely unequal property rights in order to then supposedly ‘represent’ the interests both of those who labour and those who live on the labour of the mass of the population. That ostensible balancing of the interests of different classes configures the bourgeois state as an institutional apparatus for managing and maintaining in their place those who produce surplus value, workers. It is by way of this state apparatus that the ruling ideas express those of the ruling class. In this way the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is cloaked in ideology, that of the lie of meritocracy and the myth of wealth trickling down to benefit everyone, ideology condensed at times of crisis in nationalist reaction designed to strengthen the state, to divide and rule. What is potentially true about the promise of bourgeois democratic rights – including the right to assembly, collective self-organisation, access to media and transparent legal due process – must be made real inside the internal structures of workers’ and other liberation movement organisations and through open debate between different such organisations.

9.

Marxism is liberatory, connecting the organisational and collective realm of the political with the realm of personal experience, connecting the personal and the political in the multi-faceted aspects of the revolutionary process. It is in the course of this process that so-called ‘false consciousness’ under capitalism, the kind of consciousness that is necessary for the many existing ideological justifications for exploitation to thrive, is thereby unravelled and transcended. Socialism as the combined free associations of the producers of wealth functioning at a local, regional, national and international level, with free and unconditional provision of health and welfare for all, is thus given experiential depth as alienation is also dissolved in practice. Socialism lays the ground for the unending reflexive dissolving of the four key facets of alienation under capitalism identified by Marx; enabling new connections to be forged between individuals no longer positioned as competitors, between creative labour and collective decision-making, between conscious awareness of this creative labour process and the bodies of those who labour, and between culture and nature as such.

10.

Marxism is ecological, pitting itself against a ruinous political-economic system that ties ostensibly linear technological ‘development’ to the drive for profit. Capitalism turns nature, our ecological species being, into an ‘environment’ separate from us, from which we are thereby alienated, and it turns nature into a mere resource to be plundered and commodified. Marxist politics entails a revolutionary ecosocialist break from ‘environmental’ state politics that uses the rhetoric of ‘sustainability’ to sustain capital accumulation. The extraction of surplus value is, viewed ecologically, extraction of value from nature, from our nature as productive labouring beings. Something is thereby added during the production process by virtue of human labour power so that this creative labour, turned into commodities, can be bought and sold. Under capitalism something is also taken from nature, used up, destroyed, and so we are driven by the profit motive to destroy the planet. Socialism entails the socialising of the means of production in such a way as to also socialise nature or, better put, and as the dialectical complement of such socialisation, to render human political organisation as authentically ecological.

These ten aspects of Marxism – viewing it as historically constituted, reflexive, unfinished, plural, intersectional, relational, international, democratic, liberatory and ecological – retrieve from the past century of struggle the hopes and promise for a socialist future. In some respects they are not new, and not, as institutionalised bureaucratic ‘orthodox’ Marxists might claim, ‘revisions’; rather, they return us to Marxism as such, bringing it alive for our times. I have had to be brief here, sometimes cryptic. I have drawn on anti-colonial and anti-racist feminist politics in this account that are embodied in keywords for struggle, among which I have mentioned ‘intersectionality’, ‘prefiguration’ and ‘standpoint’; these are concepts that enrich Marxism, and which enable us to grasp the nature of so-called ‘immaterial’ labour in new virtual worlds created by us and harnessed to the needs of capital. These are the dry bare bones of the argument which we now need together to flesh out with examples of revolutionary Marxist praxis.

Marxism shows us in its analysis of capitalism how we live under this wretched political-economic system, and how we die. We for sure will all die as a result of the catastrophic drive to profit that is burning up the planet if we do not act fast, taking from Marxism lessons as to how to struggle and as to how we may live better. The name we give to that future world is ‘socialism’, a progressive leap into a civilization beyond the ravages of capital, with an ideal that pulls us being ‘communism’, the possibility that we may construct a communist society in which real limits on human freedom are realistically and collectively appreciated rather than brutally and cynically imposed upon us. It is only then that those limits can be reconfigured by and for us as the truth of what it is to be in the world rather than as a contradictory system of lies, poisonous ideological nostrums that function to preserve the privileges of the corrupt few who govern us today. This truth of what it is to be in the world has to be reinvented by us in forms of political narrative and creative fiction if we are to build socialism in the next century.

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Wall, D. (2018) Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary for Life. London: Resistance Books.

 

Psychoanalysis: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements

This is a work in progress, preliminary to joint work for a forthcoming book by Ian Parker and David Pavón Cuéllar. We invite critical and constructive comments via fiimgemail@gmail.com

 

This manifesto is for movements of liberation for a better world, about the interrelationship between the miserable exploitative oppressive reality of life today and our ‘internal’ lives, our psychology. Psychoanalysis grasps that intimate interconnection between this reality and what feels deep within each of us. We must understand the nature of that interconnection to build a practical alternative to capitalism, sexism and racism. Our task is to reconstruct psychoanalysis as an authentic form of ‘critical psychology’. We address the role of the unconscious, repetition, drive and transference in clinical and political analysis in order to address questions of subjective transformation.

 

  1. Introduction: Misery, dialectics and liberation

Everyone under pressure, workers in the factory, the fields, the streets or the home, needs practical and emotional support, and all the more so activists struggling to change the world. Psychoanalysis, a theory and practice of our internal mental lives, has often been allied with power, but it actually provides a clinical and political critique of misery. It is not something to be afraid of. On the contrary, it can be a weapon against power. It shows how our own psychology is colonised by reality, and how we can speak and act against that as we engage in own liberation.

Psychoanalysis – a critical psychological approach to distress and a radical treatment at the beginning of the twentieth century – was once explicitly allied to the left. Most psychoanalysts were members or supporters of the communist or socialist movements before their own organisations were destroyed by fascism in Europe and they fled to different parts of the world. Under hostile conditions in their new host countries they adapted to their new reality, and they adapted psychoanalysis, turning psychoanalysis itself into an adaptive treatment. Now we need to take that radical authentic historical core of psychoanalysis and bring it to life again.

Just as the conditions of exploitation and oppression we face are historically constructed, and so can be put to an end by us, so our peculiar alienated forms of psychology can be changed. This is despite the claims of most psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists to be working on universal unchanging essential properties of mental life. Psychoanalysis, like Marxism and other theories of power and liberation, came into being at a specific historical period in order to solve a historically-constituted series of problems. The names for our distress were invented, and psychoanalysis was invented to rebel against them, to transform them.

One key problem we face now is the historical construction of individual isolated experience, psychology separated from the collective shared nature of our lives as human beings. This psychology, and the academic professional discipline devoted to its maintenance, was formed at the same time as capitalism itself, and it has spread, with capitalism, around the world. Closely linked with a psychiatric medical model of distress, this psychology has now developed as a psychotherapeutic tool to adapt people to reality instead of enabling them to change it.

This spread of psychology around the world and into our everyday lives is bringing about a reduction of experience, the way we talk and feel about ourselves. However, we need to demarcate psychoanalysis from this process, and show how psychoanalysis can enable us to resist it. Psychoanalysis itself, because of the history of adaptation it has been subject to, has become implicated with ideology, but it rebels. It is as if psychoanalysis is a symptom of oppression that now can be made to speak, and in the process of speaking well of psychoanalysis we may liberate it and liberate ourselves.

Over the course of its history all kinds of reactionary ideological content were injected into the radical form of psychoanalysis. That ideological content, which includes poisonous ideas about the essential underlying difference between men and women and their sexuality and their gendered relation to each other, is trapped in the body of psychoanalysis as a form of practice, a practice of speech. Psychoanalysis is a ‘talking cure’ that shows us how what we say is interconnected with what we do. We can purge psychoanalysis of that ideological poison now, enabling it to speak for us instead of against us.

In order to do this we need to grasp the dialectical relationship between the clinical work of psychoanalysis and its ever-changing historical context. The historical conditions which saw the birth of psychoanalysis, of alienation under capitalism and the oppressive nature of the Western European nuclear family, were precisely the conditions that psychoanalysis aimed to understand and combat. But those conditions, and the ideological forces at work, entered into psychoanalysis, distorting it. There is no ‘pure’ non-ideological psychoanalysis, but the complex dialectical relationship between its clinical form and ideological aspects of the theory can be clarified and transcended in practice.

Four key concepts of psychoanalysis operate as radical formal elements of the theory that resist the deeply ideological process of psychologisation. We focus on the dialectical tension between the clinic as a private space of transformational work and historical context. Psychoanalytic notions of the unconscious, repetition, drive and transference need to be reconstructed in order to make them thoroughly historical; this, to avoid the trap of ‘applying’ them to liberation movements. As we bring an end to the world that creates such misery we also anticipate the end of psychoanalysis, functioning as a tool and result of that historical process.

 

  1. Unconscious: Alienation, rationality and otherness

Our struggle, wherever it is, is international in scope, and every liberation struggle progressively expands its horizons to understand how we are divided and ruled. In the process we come to understand how particular others, of different nations, cultures, genders have been rendered ‘other’ to us, and how that ‘otherness’ has worked its way inwards in forms of embedded racism and sexism. We are made ‘other’, even to ourselves in this sad world, and otherness then runs through our experience, our subjectivity, so deep that nature itself is experienced as threatening. This is what psychoanalysis names as ‘unconscious’.

Our nature as human beings is thereby betrayed, our underlying nature in which we are nothing without others. As our intimate relation to others is betrayed, loving relations of solidarity with the pain of others is replaced with hatred and suspicion, and so we are trapped. We are trapped in the temptation of individual competitive solutions to the misery pervasive in this world now as one governed by the drive to accumulate goods and make profit from others. Individual mastery, the isolated ‘ego’, is pitted against the unconscious, but the unconscious speaks and can then connect us with collective action.

There is a dialectical twist to this connection, which is that while the individual ‘ego’ is not the core of the human being, neither is the unconscious. The unconscious, which we assume to be so deep and hidden inside us is, itself, something that speaks of otherness, of the nature of the language we share with others. This unconscious is itself structured by the particular languages we learn and so it functions as an ‘other’ discourse, always present if not always noticed. It is simultaneously, dialectically, inside us precisely because it was, and still is, also outside us.

We are not the centre of our little worlds of meaning, as if each individual could control the meaning of every word they speak. The illusion that we are the centre, with the ego as the master in the house, is an ideological illusion as powerful as the story that human beings are the centre of the world, set against the other sentient beings instead of living at one with them. Psychoanalysis, in its critique of the ego, poses each of us with a choice, as to whether we will continue to attempt to dominate ourselves and others and nature.

Psychoanalysis speaks of alienation endemic in a world that reduces human beings to the status of things to be bought and sold. We are pitted against others as we compete to sell our labour power, our creative labour is then turned against us as something controlled and sold by our masters and, crucial to psychoanalysis, our relation to our own bodies is perverted. Centred in the ego we aim to master our own bodies, our body treated as a machine that must labour for others. We are then, as a personal and ecological question, pitted against nature itself.

The ego, in which we are all the more alienated at the very moment that we imagine that we are escaping the world and protecting ourselves, is thus, among other things, the crystallisation of bourgeois and colonial ideological commonsense. Its ‘rationality’ is profoundly irrational, and the kind of rationality it perpetuates is that of instrumental science that aims to predict and control the nature it aims to subjugate, an enterprise which drives the discipline of medical psychiatry and psychology. It is at one with a peculiar destructive stereotypical masculine rationality, a mental illness of man under capitalism and colonial rule.

A dominant ideological reading of the clinical aim of psychoanalysis is that ‘where it was, there ego shall be’, as if the destructive illusory centre of bourgeois man must be fortified against the otherness that lies in and around him, around us. Against that reading, we return to the ethical grounding of radical psychoanalysis as a critical psychology in which we aim to be where ‘it’ was, finding the broader compass of our subjectivity there. This, just as the colonial master must learn something about their place in the world and their history if they are to redeem themselves.

We cannot say whether any particular aspect of our psychology is timelessly and universally true, including the unconscious. Psychoanalysis needs to remain mindful of its own historically-specific character as diagnosis and treatment of present-day ills. However, there is something in the nature of language, of our nature as speaking beings, which divides us, for we cannot say everything. We learn that we must bend to a symbolic system we cannot completely master when we speak, and so we become divided subjects filled with something unconscious to us. What is important is how we make sense of that division.

What we do know, and what psychoanalysis works with, is that the sense we make of our subjective division is filled with ideological content, as is the unconscious itself. That division in which the unconscious functions as a place that speaks of our distress reflects and exacerbates the alienating division of the subject that is a characteristic of life under capitalism. Of capitalism and its accompanying forms of rule, of patriarchy as the rule of man over woman and of colonialism as the racist division between apparently rational civilisation and the pathologising of so-called ‘barbarians’ who dare to resist it.

We cannot say if this division can ever be healed, perhaps not, but the pain of that division can be alleviated. We need psychoanalysis that addresses this subjective division which creates and perpetuates the unconscious as if it is something inside us and threatening to us, psychoanalysis allied with and informed by collective struggle. Alongside the clinical task is a political task of mobilising unconscious forces while analysing which forces speak of ideology and which speak of freedom. We analyse and speak and act so that we make history instead of simply repeating it.

 

  1. Repetition: History, compulsion and freedom

In an alienated world marked by exploitation and oppression, a world in which we are also consequently alienated from ourselves, we live with alienation as something unconscious to us, as if this comprises forces out of our control. We are subject to the repetitive nature of language, of familial and cultural and ideological words and phrases and narratives that keep telling the same stories about who we are and what it is impossible for us to achieve. And we are symbolically and bodily subject to the repetition of contradictory failed solutions to socially-structured material problems.

We suffer our personal and political history, often as if it was out of our control and incomprehensible. This is a function of familial dynamics structured by patriarchal power, and class dynamics structured by state power. In both cases, and in cases of racism and other forms of oppression, a combination of secrecy and ideological mystification results in an incomplete resolution of each of the problems that are thrown up, and thrown in front of us as obstacles. Those forms of contradiction that are not solved are repeated, and as we live them we are thereby subject to repetition ourselves.

Whether we like it or not and whether we like psychoanalysis or not, history itself is a repetitive process of attempts and failures to overthrow the existing order of things. We do not make history in conditions of our own choosing, and the different patterns of oppression that lock the exploitative alienating conditions of production and consumption into place are organised around one function; to provoke and block the attempt at collective self-organisation. In this way, racism and sexism and other discriminatory ideological practices must repeat their function of enabling the accumulation of material resources, of the realisation of profit.

There is thus a two-fold repetitive process in life under contemporary capitalism. The first aspect is usually understood as operating in the domain of politics, though psychoanalysis has something valuable to say about this because material political-economic forces also drag individuals into self-destructive patterns of behaviour. These forces hook and reward individuals for behaviour that reproduces material structures of domination, of class and geopolitical power, as well as of the family and the distribution of power between the sexes. The contradictions that emerge when there is resistance to this aspect of the process are symptomatic, repetition that speaks of oppression.

The second aspect of this repetitive process operates ideologically, intimately bound up with the political-economic material structural domain but also intimately connected with the personal life-worlds of those subject to power. As they speak of their experience of this process, subjects are prevented from speaking, their own standpoint is delegitimized and their accounts are systematically distorted. The contradictions that emerge here are also symptomatic, repetition of complaint and failure that speaks of oppression. The psychoanalytic clinical task is thus to enable subjects to speak, and here, of course, the clinic becomes political; the personal is, as socialist-feminism proclaimed, political.

Tying together the material and the ideological, the structural and the symbolic aspects of rule and resistance, is the underlying and overarching problem we face today – the nature of global capitalism – and incomplete and distorted solutions available to us in the left and liberation organisations. On the one side, on the side of power, is the compulsive drive to accumulate and protect capital, fruit of exploitation, which takes on an obsessional and repetitive character. On the other side are the organisations of the left that are too-often repetitively stuck in their own failed history, making the same mistakes.

The history of class struggle and the broader more fundamental process of liberation from different forms of oppression is one of repetition and failure, and also, remember, sometimes fortunate and often tragic chance events that are completely out of our control. This is the interminable almost unendurable repetitive context which is then replicated inside the lives of individuals. Individuals are encouraged to imagine that they are free and independent of this double material and ideological historical process so they feel this failure all the more deeply. Inside each life there is repetition; iron-law and chance, which psychoanalysis works upon.

In psychoanalysis, individuals speak, attempt to ‘free associate’ – to say everything – and fail. As they fail they hear themselves repeat the same stories they have been told about themselves, stories they have repeated in their own lives. Such is how they try to make sense of the way that material and ideological conditions of life are embedded in the unconscious and in their unconsciously-driven responses to events around them. As the blockages in their speech reappear again and again, they also repeat and experience those relationships of obedience that prevented them speaking out. Here there is limited and potential freedom.

Repetition is not the simple repetition of the same words and phrases, of the sound images that make up our speech and writing we conceptualise as ‘signifiers’, nor of exactly the same action. Signifiers take on different meaning according on their place in the contradictory ever-mutating language that surrounds us, and our action is situated in ever-changing contradictory cultural and historical contexts. Our history, whether collective-political or personal-political, is not a grid but is always open, depending on our struggle to make sense of who we are and the world we want to make. Contradiction gives space for freedom.

The repetition of the same is perpetuated by ideological lines of force and political-economic structure, force and structure that we resist because they place limits on our speech and action. Psychoanalysis gives space for the subject to experience how they repeat what they say about themselves, and repeat what they do to perpetuate self-destructive patterns of behaviour. In place of the repetition of the same, the clinic opens the space for something different to emerge; the absolute difference that makes a signifier, and a very different absolutely singular sense of their own subjectivity. We are driven to make a difference.

 

  1. Drive: Body, culture and desire

Something compels us to rebel. When we are impelled to act, more so when we make a difference, it is as if we are a force of nature. Such an act is intermeshed with speech, with an accounting for what we are doing and so also with who we are. This act can be accounted for in our speech, and such speech can itself be effective. This is one reason psychoanalysis was called, by one of the first analysands, a ‘talking cure’. We speak the truth, and in the personal-political realm, we speak truth to power. It involves others.

This is life, this drive to speak and act; it is constructive and collective. Everything that is of the human subject, we psychoanalysts say, goes through ‘the Other’, through the otherness that is the mark of human subjectivity. But something of this drive which takes us beyond ourselves, which is beyond our conscious control, can also take on a mechanistic quality in which we feel driven, when what drives us turns into something deadly, destructive, self-destructive; every drive is a ‘death drive’. Those are the times we unconsciously repeat the same actions and signifiers, then we are subject to repetition.

Here we need historically-attuned psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis conceptualised as constituted historically, to grasp the two-fold nature of drive. Drive is constructive, life, what it is within us enabling us to build links with others, to build culture and forms of political organisation, and to speak of other possible worlds. And drive is destructive and repetitive, death, that which is turned against our-selves and against those social links. Our body can be at one with us when we act, but then our nature can be turned into a machine; then our alienated body is a machine turned against us.

We need to be clear that this drive is not biologically wired-in ‘instinct’, nor that there are separate biologically wired-in life and death instincts. There are indeed instinctual processes concerning food and sex and other biological needs that are a function of our deeper evolutionary history as an animal species, of our animal nature, but these are always interpreted by us, consciously or unconsciously. The drive is on the border of the physiological and the psychical. We maintain that fundamental premise of psychoanalysis against the ideological reframing of drive as something of unchanging human nature. Human nature transforms drive.

Drive is real; it operates as an implacable force, outside the signifiers we use to make sense of what is happening to us. It takes form in our lives, as life, when it is elaborated in language, in the signifiers that structure our speech and action. This real aspect of drive is what makes it appear in the body as if it were an instinctual force, need for food or for sex, and it also enables it to appear in our speech, in the repetition of signifiers. Then we are subject to senseless ideological repetition, of ideology as a machine.

In drive our biological needs, for sex among other things, are reconfigured as social needs. As a function of the structure of the family, private property and the state, social needs are both expressed and repressed. When reproduction, a biological instinctual evolutionary process, underpins and is then informed by human sexuality at the level of drive, sex itself is transformed into one of the symptomatic points of society, as relay and rebellion against power. This is why sex is central to psychoanalysis; it operates as the historically-constituted symptomatic kernel of social relationships in class society. It becomes real as drive.

Human beings are social beings, and drive is already transformed in our distinctive forms of subjectivity into desire. As speaking beings we make use of a symbolic realm, shared collective medium of communication, a realm in which we become human. Here our desire for others is reflexively transformed into forms of desire which, though experienced as lying deep within us, are also conditioned by others. But that symbolic realm, as something independent of us, can so easily and often turn into a machine-like force which is exacerbated by ideological repetition of alienating images of ourselves.

Thus, the distortion of sexual need as if it were an implacable drive is intimately bound up with ideological distortion, perversion of sexuality, bound up with images of sexuality and gender that are structured symbolically. Life is turned into death, and communication is turned into commodification, the turning of human beings, human creative labour and human objects of desire into things. Alienated needs become the driving force of commodification under capitalism, and gender becomes the poisonous site of forms of commodification, such as pornography under patriarchy, with women turned into objects to be bought and sold.

The ideological reduction of desire to drive and then the equally ideological reduction of drive to instinct turn our creative human activity, our symbolically-mediated relation to others, into things. In this way our bodies, and parts of our bodies, are turned into alienated sites of biological processes which we fetishise or fear. This ideological reduction is imaginary, as if communication of images of nature and the self could be relayed independently of symbolically-structured historically-constituted social relations; imaginary, as if what we experience as an aspect of commonsense directly reflects what is real.

This reduction and commodification is characteristic of capitalism, and the production of commodified images of gender is a function of patriarchy. This is why feminism is a threat to current arrangements of power. Feminism threatens the personal-political ideological social bonds that structure the bourgeois nuclear family, insisting that these bonds are imaginary representations of real human needs and reflection of symbolically-sanctioned oppression. This is why feminism, and the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and associated struggles, is an indispensable ally of psychoanalysis in the service of liberation movements.

 

  1. Transference: Power, resistance and analysis

Transference, the ‘transfer’ of structural phenomena concerning desire and power from one realm into another, has a technical meaning in psychoanalysis. The reduced technical meaning of the term transference, in which the transferred structural phenomena concern early love relations repeated in relation to the psychoanalyst, is then also susceptible to an ideological reduction. Psychoanalysts are tempted to ‘apply’ their own particular understanding of transference in the clinic back out into other realms of social and political power relationships. Those relationships require particular analysis and action, analysis and action which then help us better understand the nature of psychoanalytic treatment itself.

The mistaken attempt to ‘apply’ psychoanalysis to realms outside the clinic occurs when treatment is turned into a professional disciplinary speciality competing with, and adopting the language of, rival ‘psy’ approaches such as psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis is not a worldview, but many practitioners are understandably lured into imagining that it should function as such by their own precarious claim to expertise. Psychoanalysts who imagine that their approach should operate as a worldview forget a fundamental principle of the treatment which is that it is the analysand who analyses.

Desire for power operates as drive among those who accumulate capital and among those who willingly, if unconsciously, turn themselves into commodities. Desire for power operates among racists who desire domination over others, and among those who willingly, if unconsciously, turn themselves into victims. And, in the liberation movements, desire for power operates among those seeking escape from exploitation and oppression in the bureaucratic apparatuses that then represent and speak for others instead of enabling people to speak for themselves. In the clinic such symbolically-structured desire and power is questioned and challenged by the analysand.

This is why transference in the clinic is crucial to the treatment. What is ‘transferred’ into the clinic and made experientially-visible to the analysand is the peculiar knotting of desire and power that have made them who they are inside the social structures into which they were born. Among the most potent of these symbolically-warranted social structures is the family, condensed into a mechanism with clearly distributed gender-stereotypical functions in the nuclear family. These familial relationships then become the emotionally-invested model for other political-economic structures, each of which are then ‘worked through’ though never left behind in the clinic.

The clinic is an experiential resonating container in which the psychoanalyst constructs the conditions for the treatment in such a way that the analysand is not only speaking directly to them but also to what they represent, what they represent for the analysand. What they represent for the analysand is then inside the transference, conditions for speech which are intimately connected with an intimately close bodily relationship. Desire is thus spoken rather than simply enacted, it is contained and questioned. In this way the analysand hears and speaks the truth, of the relation they have forged between desire and power.

The encounter with desire and power in transference in the clinic as the replication of and reflection upon personal-political symbolic structures enables the analysand to encounter their unconscious and unwitting interpretation of these structures at the level of fantasy. In this way the analysand comes face to face with power and speaks truth to power, and the analyst has an ethical responsibility to handle desire, to direct the treatment, not to direct the analysand. The analyst configures themselves as object of desire, knowing that to allow desire to be enacted instead of elaborated in speech would be abuse of power.

The repetition of forms of power and desire takes on an uncanny dimension through transference in the clinic. It is uncanny precisely because it combines two contradictory aspects of subjectivity, and makes manifest the contraction between consciousness and the unconscious. Transference makes manifest elements of personal-political relations in the analysand’s past, usually in the family, that have been repeated and can be consciously described to the psychoanalyst. It also brings to life unconscious elements that have been shut out of consciousness, repression that bears upon what is so heavily-invested with meaning under patriarchy and exploited by capitalism, sexual desire.

The ‘clinic’ operates not only inside the material architecture of the consulting room, but has a symbolic dimension of existence outside it by virtue of the spread of psychoanalytic discourse in contemporary society. This gives a peculiar prestige to psychoanalysis among those who can pay for treatment, and it evokes suspicion among those who cannot. There is then a structured discursive-practical frame to the ‘clinic’ as a form of social relationship that can be constituted and reproduced alongside other movements for liberation. Transference can be a way of intensifying the privatisation of distress or of connecting treatment with political resistance.

It is tempting to wish away the repetition of symbolic structure that the phenomenon of transference in psychoanalysis names and works with. It is more tempting among those with power threatened by those who undermine it when they speak of desire. Those subject to power are the subjects who notice its operations. Here ‘standpoint’ in feminist politics gives voice to what we speak of in psychoanalysis, enabling us better to counter the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, the illusion that there is pure unmediated ‘communication’, imaginary ideological evasion of political contradiction. There is always structure, in the clinic and in politics.

Transference is thus one way, in the particular limited domain of the psychoanalytic clinic, of condensing, harnessing and working through the repetition of signifiers in the life of an individual and the repetition of behavioural patterns, structures of action. Working through the transference in the clinic conceptualised as a peculiar singular knotting together of power and desire opens the space for limited freedom of speech and freedom of movement. But the potential for this freedom opened up by the clinic can only be realised outside the clinic in personal-political activity, when what is private becomes public, collective, and transformative.

 

  1. Subjective transformation: Time for understanding and moment of concluding

We live in a world that has given rise to forms of psychoanalytic theory and practice which are themselves commodified, turned into private treatment available to a limited few. This is not surprising, for every theory and practice of liberation has, at one moment or another, been turned into an academic commodity, distorted and turned against the social movements. It is necessary, then, to grasp what is true about psychoanalysis, not to let those with power rob us of its liberating potential as critical psychology. We live in a world where psychoanalysis is necessary but impossible.

Psychoanalysis is made ‘impossible’ for many people, particularly by those in liberation movements, by the fetish for payment elaborated as self-justification for the exercise of professional expertise, symbolic status and power. We must include in our psychoanalytic work sustained focus on the repressed historical memory of our practice, of the radical history of the free psychoanalytic clinics in continental Western Europe. We must enable transference to operate again as something authentically psychoanalytic rather than as a manifestation of dependence induced by payment to one who pretends to know what we think or what lies inside the unconscious.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis is replicated in the medical psychiatric reframing of treatment in which aspects of our distress are separated into discrete elements specified as different kinds of pathology. We are made ill by this political-economic system, by capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. We need to treat this illness as a symptom of the lives we lead, not as indications of personal pathology. We need to turn illness into a weapon, to speak of it as a weapon against power, to work through it as we speak of our desire for another world and act collectively on that desire.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis in these conditions of pervasive racism, heterosexism and repetitive demeaning of those excluded from power is intensified by the reduction of distress to the level of individual. Here forms of psychology, including forms of psychoanalytic psychology, operate alongside medical psychiatric psychoanalysis. Psychology pretends to replace psychiatry as a replicator of pre-capitalist relations of professional mastery and servitude in which those who suffer are treated as ‘patients’. But this psychology, which then arrogates to itself psychoanalytic theory the better to inform quick adaptive cognitive-behavioural treatments, thereby replicates capitalism as such.

This is impossibility that psychotherapy then pretends to salve, a problem it pretends to solve. It is an instance of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, promising a cure for distress in a world that is structurally-organised around alienation. Psychotherapy systematically evades the question of power, or, if it addresses power, pretends to dissolve it in imaginary communicative relationships it constructs in its own form of clinic. Just as psychoanalysis is a critique rather than a form of psychiatry and psychology, psychoanalysis is also, or should be, the diametric opposite of psychotherapy, including psychoanalytic psychotherapy which recuperates, neutralises and absorbs psychoanalytic notions.

These three elements of the ‘psy complex’, the dense network of theories and practices about the human subject that warrants and reinforces power under capitalism and patriarchy, are now woven together in the contemporary global ideological phenomenon of ‘psychologisation’. Psychologisation in its different competing contradictory aspects reduces social phenomena to psychological processes, as if the distress endemic in this world is the responsibility of each of us as individuals to solve. Neither should we pretend that psychoanalysis has not also played a role complicit with this psychologisation of everyday life, including the psychologisation of political resistance.

The fundamental technical rule of ‘free association’ in psychoanalysis is designed to make evident to the analysand what they cannot speak of rather than produce the illusion that they could ever be free to say everything. This rule of ‘free association’ we are invited to follow inside the clinic also speaks of political desire. We speak about desire in the clinic so that we may speak about it outside, not so that we continue to carry the clinic around with us in everyday life, evangelising about it, but so that we can transcend it, move beyond the clinic, into politics.

This makes use of psychoanalysis in order to achieve the dialectical ‘sublation’ of it; with it in order to transcend it. The aim is not to keep psychoanalysis in place, but to abolish the social conditions that have made it operate, to transform forms of subjectivity that call for psychoanalytic treatment. The ethical-political impulse is that another world is possible, a world in which we freely associate with each other and in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. We aim to build a world in which psychoanalysis is possible but unnecessary.

 

Bibliography

Here is an incomplete bibliography, simply listing indicative texts, among which are not included key founding texts by psychoanalysts.

 

Adorno, T. W. and Horkheimer, M. (1944/1979) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso.

Bruno, P. (2020) Lacan and Marx: The Invention of the Symptom. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Danto, E. A. (2005) Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972/1977) Anti‑Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Viking.

Dunker, C. (2010) The Structure and Constitution of the Psychoanalytic Clinic: Negativity and Conflict in Contemporary Practice. London: Karnac.

Foucault, M. (1976/1981) The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction. Harmondsworth: Pelican.

Freeman, J. (1970) ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/structurelessness.htm

Frosh, S. (1987) The Politics of Psychoanalysis: An Introduction to Freudian and Post‑Freudian Theory. London: Macmillan.

Gellner, E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement, or The Coming of Unreason. London: Paladin.

Harding, S. (ed) (2003) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. London: Routledge.

Millet, K. (1977) Sexual Politics. London: Virago.

Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

O’Connor, N. and Ryan, J. (1993) Wild Desires and Mistaken Identities: Lesbianism and Psychoanalysis. London: Virago.

Parker, I. and Pavón-Cuéllar, D. (eds) (2017) Marxismo, psicología y psicoanálisis. Morelia, Mexico: Paradiso editors, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo.

Pavón Cuéllar, D. (2017) Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or Against Psychology? London and New York: Routledge.

Stavrakakis, Y (2007) The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Tomšič, S. (2015) The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. London: Verso.

Wolfenstein, E. V. (1993) Psychoanalytic‑Marxism: Groundwork. London: Free Association Books.

Žižek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

 

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

 

 

 

Free Associations in Psychoanalysis, one of its Red Threads

Ian Parker reflects on aspects of context that led him to write his recent book on his own experience of psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis was a radical modern project, at one with the development of capitalism and, for many of its early practitioners, at one with the emergence of an alternative to capitalism. Psychoanalysis, Clinic and Context: Subjectivity, History and Autobiography traces one autobiographical journey into this radical tradition of work on subjectivity, and aims to bring alive the broader history and debates. We see in that history – personal and political history – how the red threads of psychoanalysis become tangled in the wretched immiserating economic system that so many analysts set themselves against. To understand what is so radical about psychoanalysis, we need to also understand how it often also operates as a reactionary force, understand that better to retrieve what is progressive about it and make it work for the left instead of against it.

In the English-speaking world, among non-analysts, particularly among academics, the ‘radical spirit’ of psychoanalysis has tended to be linked to the work of Jacques Lacan and his followers – this, partly because of the chic image of French theory among the left, and partly because of the very real links between Lacan and Marxists (and, to a limited extent, among feminists) in France. The trajectory of the book is grounded in that tradition, written by someone who practices clinically as a ‘Lacanian’, but makes it clear that there are many political problems with the Lacanian tradition – it painfully untangles some of those issues along the way – and there is a vibrant left and feminist engagement with psychoanalysis in the so-called ‘British tradition’ (wherever that is, whether that is actually in Britain or as a globalising force under the auspices of the International Psychoanalytic Association, IPA, with its headquarters in London). That tradition, in its broadest frame, includes ‘Group Analysis’, for which the social theorist was Norbert Elias who presented a wide-ranging account of the development of civilisation that in some ways parallels the work of Michel Foucault.

One of the starting points, and not incidentally, for the account of radical engagement with psychoanalysis in the book (after a first review of the reasons why one should avoid this stuff if one is on the left or in any way sensitive to questions of gender politics), is a discussion of the 1980’s Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere conferences in east London and the founding of the Free Associations journal by Bob Young, a libertarian Marxist. That project was founded on the premise that psychoanalysis in Britain in and around the British Psychoanalytical Society and its training wing the Institute of Psychoanalysis (mainstays of the IPA in Britain) was centre-left or to the left and that it would be possible to intervene and draw it further to the left. That would mean engaging with the psychoanalysts working with theorists like Melanie Klein (a major influence in Britain) and Wilfred Bion and Donald Winnicott. Some outliers, outside the IPA, in Group Analysis and, less so, in Jungian analysis, were sometimes included. Occasionally one or two Lacanians would be allowed in, but that was rare.

We need to get a handle on why this matters to the left, and to the feminists who were an important force in the first Psychoanalysis and Public Sphere conferences, why it is that a practice that focuses so much of the time on individual misery must be taken seriously by political traditions that are concerned mainly with collective processes, with collective action. This is where one of the red threads of psychoanalysis as a conceptual framework (or, rather, a multiplicity of contrasting theoretical frameworks) is important; here we see a restatement, inside and outside the clinic, of the socialist-feminist argument that ‘the personal is political’; the conceptual-practical battle is over  how to weave together those two realms without reducing one to the other (reducing the personal realm to politics, or reducing politics to the level of individual suffering – something of a temptation for clinicians).

That battle, the book makes clear, is to be fought out as much in the historical praxis of the psychoanalytic movement as a self-consciously internationalist movement as it is in ‘theory’. It means bringing alive again the political project of many psychoanalysts, remembering that most practising psychoanalysts around Freud in continental Europe were socialists, ranging from social democrat to active communists. That is our history, the history of the left, as much as it is the history of psychoanalysis, a history that was suppressed with the rise of fascism; many analysts fled for their lives and many who continued practising adapted their practice in their new host countries – a process that has been called ‘the repression of psychoanalysis’.

That battle for the soul of psychoanalysis – a battle on many fronts, which the book explores, including in relation to ‘queer theory’ and Islam, for example – must also be situated in the context of ‘adaptation’ of the individual to society and the way that psychoanalysis now tends to operate as a private practice (that which analysts, often in bad faith, prefer to describe as ‘independent practice’). We need to remember that Freud himself spoke in favour of psychoanalysis being freely available as part of collective health provision in Budapest, and that ‘free clinics’ were founded and funded by psychoanalysts in the IPA in the 1920s and 1930s in Budapest, Berlin and Vienna.

The red threads that run through psychoanalysis are still very much present, even when analysts in charge of the main training organisations guard their own professional expertise and buy into the idea that the patients must pay for their treatment, one by one. The red threads were there, for example, in the Free Associations conference at the Freud Museum in September this year, 2019, the journal Free Associations still survives online, now following the death of Bob Young a few months before the re-launch conference. This is the local ‘British tradition’ context for the reforging of links between psychoanalysis and the left. But, as we can see in Psychoanalysis, Clinic and Context, this is just one of many contexts for theoretical and practical attempts to take personal subjectivity seriously as part of political struggle against capitalism and patriarchy.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Why I wrote Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

I was trained to be an academic, and spent much of my working life in academic institutions. That kind of life encourages people who work there to frame questions in certain kinds of ways. Some people bury themselves in that enclosed world, cut off from the outside, developing theoretical systems that have little to do with the lives of people in the real world. They speak a language that doesn’t connect with external reality. Much of what passes for social and political and economic ‘science’ operates in that detached way, as does much philosophy. Other academics, those with some consciousness about their privileged role, try to reach out, sometimes romanticising the real world, and still often unable to overcome that gap that separates their particular way of describing things from what is actually going on out there.

One way I tried to tackle this problem of the separation of academic description from everyday life was to study ‘discourse’, to engage in different kinds of ‘discourse analysis’. In fact, ‘discourse’ was one of the first keywords that I wrote about, and, as I explain in the book, ‘discourse’ became a useful way of describing the work of ideology and the way that people become hooked into certain ways of speaking, and then certain ways of thinking about the world and about who they are. Some of us shifted the focus of our research, from looking at the ‘facts’ about society and individuals that are supposedly discovered by the social sciences or puzzled over by philosophers, to the descriptions that are given of those facts, the discourse that is used to frame the facts, and frame us. This turn to discourse is one way of treating academic theory as ideology.

Discourse is anchored, held in place, by specific words or phrases. When you are able to use those words in the language game of a community or an institution or a group, use them competently, you are acknowledging yourself as a member and you are usually acknowledged to be a member by others who use that language game, who use that discourse. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way that discourse operates in the academic world and in political movements. The keywords that anchor discourse can signal whether you are an outsider or an insider, whether you really know what you are talking about, whether you are really signed up to a particular way of looking at the world or not. The best way of defining discourse analysis is as sensitivity to language, and new social movements are for sure sensitive about the language we use to describe things. In fact, the left has always been sensitive to this; maybe what has changed now is that there is more reflexive deliberate attention to language as such.

You could say that what you have here in this book is the ongoing preliminary result, a work in progress of a research project that is a kind of applied discourse analysis. What makes it different from most academic discourse analysis is twofold. First, we turn the gaze around, so that instead of looking at what people do in the outside world, framing them within an academic discourse, we look at what the academic researchers are doing. Actually, in this case we look at how political theorists and political activists inside and outside different groups frame things when they use old and new keywords to anchor their descriptions of the world. Second, we aren’t simply describing the world, or describing keywords that are used to describe the world, we are actively intervening. This is sometimes called ‘action research’, but it’s basically taking seriously the point that Marx makes, that philosophers have hitherto simply interpreted the world, whereas the point is to change it.

This kind of analysis has actually been going on from before the development of discourse analysis, for well over fifty years. The most well-known attempt to define and map keywords in contemporary culture was made by the cultural materialist Marxist Raymond Williams, an attempt that was eventually published as his book ‘Keywords’. What Raymond Williams does there is to trace the historical emergence of terms that hold culture in place, and to show that the meanings of those terms operate as a set of shared cultural resources. Those cultural resources, those constellations of keywords mark out the terrain on which the left argues and mobilises against bourgeois ideology. ‘Bourgeois’ is one example of a keyword that Williams discusses, shifting meaning from referring to the ‘middle class’ to describing those who own the means of production under capitalism, effectively operating as a synonym for the ruling class.

What Williams ends up with is a kind of cultural-political map, and you can see two things, at least two things, that are really interesting. The first is that if we look, as Williams does, at the historical origins of some of the terms, we can see how original meanings of the keywords have been obscured, covered over so that we become embedded in a taken-for-granted image of the world. For example, the term ‘consciousness’ is usually used today to speak about awareness an individual has of themselves, but early meanings of the term were concerned mainly with the relationship of things to each other. The second thing that Williams makes clear is that these keywords mark out a field of meanings, a field of debate in which there are many different vantage points, constellations of different political positions. So, he is coming at this question from the left, mapping keywords from a left vantage point, and it is clear that he is concerned with the broader cultural matrix. This means, for example, that ‘consciousness-raising’ will always be from a specific standpoint. It doesn’t lead to one overall complete objective account. We have to situate ourselves.

This is why I do two things in this book. There are, if you like, two parts of the book. The first part, the bulk of the book, comprises fifty different keywords, with short essays about each of them. I don’t actually trace the etymology and historical twists and turns of meaning of each keyword in such detail as Raymond Williams does of his. I’m concerned more with the way they function at the moment in revolutionary politics. I’ll say a bit about those actual keywords in a moment. The second part of my book is a much longer essay which takes up the question of the way we map the relationship between keywords, and that’s where I pick up from Williams’ own ‘keywords’ project. The key here is the way that the map itself has changed over time, so what we’re faced with here is not only the emergence of revolutionary keywords that are new to us, that disturb our way of thinking and working with the left, but also the transformation of the way they work together. I’m interested in the long essay at the end of the book in the map itself.

So the issue here is not only to do with the spatial map, the layout of keywords at a particular time, but with a temporal process, that is, how the maps change over the course of history. And I want ground that historical change in an account of the material conditions that make certain kinds of relationships between the keywords possible. When we look at ‘discourse’ as one of the keywords, for example, or at the flow of discourse around that keyword, what we say about it and how we use discourse, we also need to look at the ‘conditions of possibility’ for that discourse to appear and make sense to us. That focus on ‘conditions of possibility’ was the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s way of working with some kind of Marxist approach. History consists of many things, including transformations in ways of speaking and writing and thinking, and the discourses that keywords are embedded in are bound up with material processes, real historical events. This is a historical materialist account.

Let us turn to look at our history. History has been punctuated by a series of key events over the last hundred years that recur in the way that those involved in left and liberation movements speak and think about themselves. We have to be careful here though. We have to be careful not to reduce a historical materialist account to a caricature of Marxism in which it is only brute economics, only economic events that count. We have to bear in mind that the events I refer to here are charged with significance in the life of the left, not of the whole population but of the Left, and these are positive events, openings. There are plenty of disasters in history, which are framed by the left as failures, failures of revolution. The events I am concerned with are, in some sense, revolutions or rebellions with a revolutionary edge. They energised the discourse of the left, and the map of keywords changes. We also have to notice that these events are of paramount importance to the European left, and a left oriented to European history.

The first key event is the Russian Revolution a century ago. Whatever stand you take on the role of the Bolsheviks, and the Kronstadt rebellion, say, this revolution then has massive consequences for many years, and it shapes the way that the left, and many other radical movements, think about what revolutionary change is. The second key event – really a sequence of linked events which are given meaning as they are reinterpreted – is the revival of the left and feminist and national liberation movements in 1967. This has repercussions lasting through 1968, which some on the left see as culminating in the student demonstrations and workers strikes in and around May 1968 in Paris. Paris, London, Rome, Berlin each become a focus with rebellions in the heart of Europe, rebellions that include the Prague 1968 revolt against Stalinism, become linked with social movements inside the United States and solidarity with struggles against imperialism, most significantly in Vietnam.

Over the fifty years following the Russian Revolution, from 1917 to 1967, something really interesting happens to the map of keywords. From being a quite diffuse field of concepts that define political discourse, ranging from questions of consciousness to the nature of bourgeois society, our left discourse between 1917 and 1967 starts to crystallise into some kind of grid where it is much clearer how different keywords of the left are arranged on a spectrum. We become clearer during this time about what is reactionary and what is progressive, and even those two notions begin to operate as keywords, to the extent that we refer to ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’. You could say that while Raymond Williams was describing the keywords that comprise progressive bourgeois culture, the culture that holds democratic capitalist society in place, what 1917 eventually does is begin to lock keywords into place in a representation of how we need to talk, act politically, and think about the world in order to defend the Soviet Union as a workers state, or at least to define ourselves in relation to what happened there. This is either as a triumph or as a betrayal of revolution.

Then what happens after the series of rebellions through the late 1960s, rebellions that bring an autonomous women’s movement onto the stage and national liberation movements pressing the Western left to develop solidarity campaigns, is that new keywords begin to flourish, and, this is crucial, they disturb the map of keywords. This is the accumulating set of keywords that I track in the book, keywords that have appeared in the last fifty years. But instead of being arranged in some kind of grid in which reactionary is linked explicitly to bourgeois society and capitalism and imperialism, defining where all the other movements must fit in order to be progressive, and progressive is linked explicitly to communism, socialism and national liberation, now there are cross-cutting alliances and groupings of keywords that define radical struggles around gender and sexuality and identity, even ‘identity’ as a keyword, for example.

If we turn to the new revolutionary keywords themselves, we can see that some of them actually reflect and reflect upon that changing map of radical political discourse from 1967 up to the present day, to where we are fifty years later, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution. Take the keyword ‘intersectionality’ for example. Intersectionality is a way of settling accounts with a kind of Marxism that is often locked into a rather bureaucratic kind of politics that either prioritises defence of the Soviet Union or one of the other workers states or the kind of critique that is still made from within left opposition groups that operate as a kind of weird mirror image of the Stalinism they set themselves against. For intersectional politics, struggles of women and black activists, for example, are neither subordinated to the working class or an idealised image of the working class, nor do they replace working class struggle, nor are they simply added in to it.

This brings us back to the question of the role of the academic in relation to revolutionary struggle, whether that is left or feminist or anti-racist or queer struggle. One of the peculiar things about much left politics between 1917 and 1967 is that it begins to be absorbed and neutralised by academic institutions. That is, it is ‘recuperated’, drawn in and smothered. The first keyword in the book, by chance because it begins with ‘a’, but quite conveniently, is ‘academicisation’. Yes, there are left academics that support the left movements, and fellow travellers of the communist parties who supported the Soviet Union, and even then some who supported Mao, but one of the effects of this recuperation of the left by academic institutions is that left discourse and the set of radical keywords between 1917 and 1967 become organised in a grid that looks very ‘academic’ itself. What happens after 1967, in the last fifty years of our revolutionary century, is that the new keywords disturb that relation with academia.

For example, the keyword ‘performative’ disturbs the usual academic research goal of describing the world and predicting what might happen next. For queer theorists who emphasise performativity, whether they are inside or outside the university, the issue is not what we ‘predict’ as if we play no part in the phenomenon we are describing, but what we ‘perform’, what we make happen in our descriptions; we are not merely interpreting but changing the world. ‘Queer’, which is one of the revolutionary keywords that has appeared in the last fifty years, is another example of a word that changes shape when it is embedded in a political movement that reclaims identity and, at the same time, questions identity, questions identity as such. Queer politics disturbs identity by refusing to treat ‘identity’ as a description of something but as a ‘performative’ operation which repeats and reinforces identity. You can see how the links between the keywords are as important as the particular keywords themselves.

Many of these keywords have developed in a kind of ‘liminal’ space, that is, not entirely inside the academic institutions and not completely outside them either. The term ‘liminal’ describes what lies at the limits of something, of an institution or a concept, working at the limits and drawing attention to how those limits work to separate, divide us. Actually, ‘liminal’ as a keyword is not in the book, partly because I noticed it after I had put the book to bed, and partly because I had a too-neat compartmentalisation in the book so that there would be a discussion of what happened in two different fifty-year stretches of time, and I wanted to explore fifty revolutionary keywords. I noticed the revolutionary keywords partly because I was still spending some time in academic institutions, surrounded by academic discourse. I was moving across different academic disciplines, mixing with people in psychology, education, literary theory and management who were trying to do ‘interdisciplinary’ research, defying some of the intellectual boundaries in the university, and I was working with people who were trying to break across the boundaries between theory and practice.

I have also been working outside, and well aware of how academic framing is a problem, not only for those working in and at the edges of universities, but also for those in different political groups that do themselves operate like academic institutions. I do mean this in its very worst sense. Academic institutions work as power hierarchies, structured by dimensions of class, race and gender as well as the exclusion of those labelled as disabled, those they continue to disable. Many left political groups operate in the same way, and the separation between intellectual and manual labour is reproduced, with those who write the documents defining the direction of the organisation, and other members effectively excluded from decision-making. The feminist revolt in the SWP over the Comrade Delta rape case in 2013 was an indication not only that revolutionary keywords were necessary, but also that they were dangerous to what I call the ‘old left’. It is not that they are necessarily old, or that the old traditions of left politics were all bad, but that they were fixated on ways of doing politics that were hierarchical and locked in the bureaucratic 1917-1967 academic grid.

I’ve been lucky in being involved with a left group that is bit more forward-looking than many of the others. Not all of the time, and over the years I would notice that quite basic concepts that were being used in the black and feminist movements, for example, would be repeated and puzzled over. My comrades clearly wanted to know what these new terms meant, and one thing I wanted to do in this book is to explain how these terms functioned in practice. That’s why in quite a few cases I take a keyword and put it to work outside its own domain. The keywords were accumulated over the last two years, written as little pieces as direct interventions into live political debates, and published on the FIIMG, Fourth International in Manchester blog page. I posted the links in different places, in different emailing lists, and got feedback from comrades, sometimes detailed feedback from comrades in Socialist Resistance.

Those who are subject to power notice its operations, and are able to most accurately define and challenge what is happening. This is one of the key points of a ‘standpoint’ approach, one of the keywords I discuss in the book. Working at the edge is another way of noticing how boundaries close thinking and practice down, limit and define it. This book doesn’t speak from within any particular group or political movement, but operates at the edges. Who knows if we are at the edge of significant time period, whether the fifty year stretch from 1967 to 2017 might really mark something new. We need to act as if it might, and the revolutionary keywords need to be built on, made more than fifty if we are to succeed in changing left discourse and changing the world.

Ian Parker

More about the Keywords project here