Green and Red Rules for Radicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You can read and comment on this review here

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Žižek vs Lenin, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You can read and comment on this review here

Marxist introductory reading

What to read as an introduction to Marxism and revolutionary politics if you are beginning to wake up to the world and want to know more? Here are some suggestions (the links are to the UK Amazon site, but you will at least be able to track the details of the books to get hold of them yourself):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There is also a further reading list from Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left here

Identity again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

If you liked this then you will like Revolutionary Keywords

 

 

 

 

 

Women’s Seminar of the Fourth International

Alison Treacher reports back from her attendance at the women’s seminar of the Fourth International in Amsterdam where representatives from 28 countries discussed the current global capitalist crisis, ecological destruction, continued imperialism and new tensions within geopolitics.

We concentrated on the impacts on women, their lives and the resistance required in this new context. I will focus on women and migration and rise of the far right in national discourse and conclude with an account of the international, intersectional movement which saw 50 countries mobilise against violence against women, demanding environmental justice and workers rights.

Women and migration

The number of international migrants reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, a 41 per cent increase compared to 2000, according to UN reports. This figure includes almost 20 million refugees. Women migrate for many different reasons; fleeing war and persecution, as climate change refugees, or for economic reasons, seeking better working conditions for themselves and their families as their country of origin cannot provide decent employment.

These women face many challenges including dangerous journeys across borders and seas. We have seen the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean sea of migrant women and children fleeing violence from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Another example is from Mexico where women face dangerous journeys seeking employment in the US. In Mexico and countries where organised crime and cartels are strong, women face the risks of sexual violence and abduction resulting in forced prostitution and slavery. At the seminar we heard heart breaking accounts from women from Mexico and Brazil speaking of disappearances, sex trafficking, organ trafficking and the desperate search of mothers for their loved ones.

In other countries, such as the Philippines, migration is economically driven, in which poverty, inequality and lack of opportunities force people to migrate for better opportunities. In the Philippines more than 10 million people work outside the country, the majority of these are women, working as in the UAE, for example, as domestic workers. The social impact of this level of migration is devastating with families separated and children being raised without their mothers. In the UK throughout the Brexit campaign we have witnessed how xenophobic campaigns are being used politically, to dehumanise migrants and present them as enemies, this was replicated Trump’s campaign in the US.

These challenges do not end when these women reach their destination country. According to a UN report, 2 out of 3 migrants’ destination is either Europe or South Asia. In countries such as Denmark and Italy, xenophobic campaigns have taken on the form of ‘feminationalist’ rhetoric which claims that migration is undermining the rights and freedoms of the women in the destination countries. The discourse of ‘feminationalism’ is closely related to homonationalism in which the xenophobic right is claiming that migration is a threat to the rights of the LBGT community.

It is important that we recognise these narratives and ensure we unpick them to reveal their xenophobic intent, and ultimately reject them from our feminism. In Italy in 2015 there were mass protests after a woman was raped on a beach in Rimini. The narrative quickly turned to the perpetrators nationality opposed to male violence against women. One activist from Non Una Di Meno stated that ‘We don’t want our bodies used for racist and xenophobic campaigns: rape is rape, regardless of the nationality of the rapist. We reject the culture of possession that triggers male violence and we do not accept the blackmail of fear … The streets of our cities are not savannas infested with predators from which we can defend only by renouncing the freedom to move … the majority of rapes occur among the domestic walls. The rapist is often a husband, a partner, a father, a cousin.’

A feminist perspective on immigration and migration is important so we are able to recognise these narratives and are prepared to call them out and reject them from our politics.

Women and the far right

As a consequence of the instability of global capitalism, the world has witnessed the resurgence of a more organised, influential far right. In Greece there is Golden Dawn, in France the Front Nationale and in the UK, UKIP. Their economic positions vary, however they have in common a fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric and islamophobic racism. In this new context we are also seeing new forms of fundamentalism increase, movements which cross state borders such as the Taliban and ISIS. The women’s seminar discussed how ‘theofascism’ is a useful term to describe these evolving groups. Religious fundamentalism is a core tenet of their ideology and this reaffirmed the necessity of the old demand for separation between church and state. Women in Ireland, Italy, Poland and Mexico have continued struggles over the rights of reproduction.

Nazila Kivi succinctly expressed the threat of this rise in the nationalism to women in her address to the Women’s march in Copenhagen. She states: ‘we know that people gendered as women are the first to suffer when nationalist and racist agendas win, because ‘woman’ as a concept becomes a metaphor for the nation. Our bodies, our right to self determination and our sexual and emotional desires are too contentious to be left in our own hands. That’s why, too often, our bodies constitute battlefields, war zones and objects to be conquered, literally and symbolically. The examples are plenty. It’s women who are raped in wars, it is women’s reproduction that is regulated in order to control or reduce populations.’

International mobilisations and the feminisation of protest

In this new context we have seen an increase in women’s resistance, arguably the feminisation of protest, and the birth of an international, intersectional women’s movement. This is a process seeing both increased participation and visibility of women and women’s issues being addressed in national discourse. In 2015 we saw in Argentina the Ni Una Menos, huge mobilizations against femicide and violence against women. In Italy and Poland we witnessed huge protests and strikes challenging religious and far right reaction which threatens their rights over their own bodies. In the UK we have witnessed women leading the way in many areas of resistance including housing, the E15 Mums and in the environmental movement with the Lancashire the Anti Fracking Nanas.

On the 21st of January, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, there were mass mobilisations across the globe. In the US the marches outstripped the mobilisations of the 2003 Anti War movement. These marches were initiated and led by predominately by women fearing Trump’s attacks on both women’s and migrant’s rights. Although Trump was the catalyst to these demonstrations the level of international response illustrates shared international narratives and anxieties which women face – including attacks on their rights over their bodies, freedoms and the way they wish to live their lives.

On the 8th of March we then saw the International Women’s Strike with mobilisations in over 50 countries; with the largest marches seen in Poland, the US, Argentina, Italy, Ireland and Spain. The marches called for the end to violence against women, the rights of migrant, disabled and LGBTQIA sisters, demanding both environmental justice and equal pay. The marches were a move away from institutionalised channels of resistance for example NGO’s, charities and individual forms of protest.

Cinzia Arruzza stated in her interview with Penny Duggan on the International Viewpoint site that ‘these mobilizations are showing a new increasing awareness of the necessity to rebuild solidarity and collective action as the only ways we can defend ourselves from the continuous attacks against our bodies, freedom, and self-determination as well as against imperialist and neoliberal policies. Moreover, they are acting as an antidote to the liberal declination of feminist discourse and practice.’

It is essential, moving forward, that the feminist movement doesn’t turn in on itself, and there remain many contradictions and contentions within the movement. It must recognise its diversity and our increased understanding of the social condition of cis and trans women, and layers of oppression which different women face, as a weapon as opposed to something which divides us. It is essential therefore that women who face multiple forms of oppression are ensured visibility and voice, within the movement.

Arruzza continues: ‘the only way to give birth to a truly universalistic politics is not by making abstraction from differences, but by combining them together in a more encompassing critique of capitalist and hetero-patriarchal social relations. Each political subjectivation based on a specific oppression can provide us with new insights on the various ways in which capitalism, racism and sexism affect our lives.’ Hence a Marxist Feminist perspective is vital for cohesion and coherence moving forward.

There has been much discussion about the use of the word ‘strike’ in these mobilisations and the emphasis on women’s seen and unseen labour. In France, two trade unions, the CGT and the SUD called a general strike at 3.40pm on the 8th an action highlighting the extra social reproductive labour women undertake, which, according to an ILO report, remains 2½ times more than that of men. In the US, the key slogan for the strike was ‘Feminism for 99%’ in reaction to ‘lean in’ politics which imply our only remaining challenge is to have more women in boardrooms. In Argentina the Ni Una Menos movement ignited around femicide but also highlighted the slowly inflicted violence of the capitalist system.

The movement and resistance in the UK was not as radical in demands as many of the marches across the globe. Our movement in the UK has unresolved tensions and contradictions, with trans activists and radical feminists sometimes not working together. This was a shared experience and other women reported there were intergenerational tensions with ‘old guard’ of feminist refusing to engage contemporary ideas.

Marxists can not just be observers in this movement. We need to push past the confines of individual intersections and finding a wider narrative which unites as all. It is only through a Marxist feminist critique of the current global crisis will we realise a universalistic politics which will cross borders and provide the international response required to challenge both gender oppression and capitalism.

 

You can read and comment on a version of this report that was published here

Subaltern Labour

Many revolutionary socialists are joining the Labour Party in Britain to support and take forward what has been called the ‘Corbyn Revolution’, the upswing of activity and hope that has accompanied the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party and then his success in taking the party close to victory in the 2017 general election. This is not at all to say that there are many revolutionary socialists, just that members of many different tiny left groups that remained outside the Labour Party and quite a few ex-members of those groups have decided that now is the moment, that now something significant is happening to change the political coordinates of British politics. It took the massive influx of new members, and returning members, those who stayed away for so many years, those sickened by the betrayals of the Blair leadership – neoliberal privatisation and imperialist war – to change the minds of those on the left, of those left of Labour.

Many of the revolutionaries hesitated, and this is understandable, partly because the Labour Party did indeed seem to be a rotting corpse, a bureaucratic apparatus feeding the careers of the dwindling number in the Parliamentary Labour Party willing to risk staying in the game of political musical chairs, and partly because there were alternatives. There were serious attempts to build a ‘left of Labour’ force, not so much as an electoral force but as a campaigning pole of attraction which would link the revolutionaries with the rest of the left. The most significant of these forces in recent years was Left Unity, formed after a call by Ken Loach to defend the NHS, and for many of those involved it was worth staying the course even when Corbyn was elected leader the first time around. The argument was, and it is an argument that we should still respect, that there are many left activists who have a history inside the Labour Party who find the routine of ward and constituency party meetings simply intolerable, and there are new generations of activists who are suspicious of party politics as such, for very good reasons. There needs to be a broad struggle against austerity and in solidarity with the oppressed in Europe, and beyond, and this movement needs to include and mobilise with those who want to keep their distance from the Labour Party.

This time of hesitation was, for some involved in Left Unity also an agonising lingering death of their hope of constructing something that really did ‘do politics differently’, as the tagline of their new party promised, while precisely at that time something new was being born. It took a while to realise that the left of Labour party was being born not outside the party boundaries, but inside them. It was unavoidable, necessary, part of a process of clarification for individuals and small groups as they learnt to work with the new activists inside the Labour Party and, particularly during the 2017 general election, and realised that canvassing for a Jeremy Corbyn government could actually be part of revitalising the left. The task during that period was to argue for a ‘liminal’ approach, for working at the boundaries of the party, working with those who had chosen to join and those who, for various reasons, would not join or rejoin. That approach is still valid, though we now also need to work at the boundaries in a more consistent way that grapples with pressing tasks that relate to internal structures of the Labour Party. To be liminal now means, for most revolutionaries, to take seriously what is happening inside the Labour Party while still doing our level best to keep links with campaigns and individuals that remain outside.

Liminal work now means a political shift to what could be called ‘Subaltern Labour’. We take our cue here from the debates in postcolonial activism and theory. To be clear, the term ‘postcolonial’ does not mean that we are beyond colonialism, that we can forget it. Precisely the reverse, it means understanding and mobilising against the way that colonial logic not only structures the relationship between the British state and its old colonies but also structures the internal politics of Britain now. We see that postcolonial double-edged replication of ideology and oppression in, for example, the ‘confidence and supply agreement’ that the British Conservative and Unionist Party has made with the Democratic Unionist Party in the north of Ireland. This is an agreement that is not merely a coalition with the political wing of the Old Testament, but an incorporation of what was shunned as ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ in the old colonies into the metropolitan centre. We also see it in the Grenfell Tower fire, a fire made possible by the profit-driven and racist logic which placed migrant families in a housing block with fancy cladding that would look nicer to the wealthy residences around it. The prettification of poverty and its intersection with ‘race’ is exactly what postcolonial theory homes in on. Colonialism continues today in new forms, and it is necessary to speak about it.

It is necessary to keep speaking about the colonialism that is so central to the British state, but it is difficult to do so. It is difficult because the dominant political discourse – the mainstream way of describing what politics is about – buries the voices of those who protest, either by making them seem irrational or, in a new twist that elements of the libertarian right are keen on turning, making it seem as if being anti-racist is equivalent to being anti-white. It may even be, some postcolonial activists argue, that those subject to colonialism are silenced to such a point that they feel that every complaint, every description of their exploitation and oppression, is distorted and misheard. From this argument comes the question as to whether the postcolonial subject can speak at all, whether the subaltern can speak.

Why subaltern? Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial activist question ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ picks up from the prison writings of the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci who was incarcerated by Mussolini. Those prison writings by Gramsci, intended for his comrades still working outside in the factories and in the countryside, Italian workers and peasants, had to be coded. One of the codes was to speak of ideological struggle against capitalism in terms of a ‘battle for hegemony’, and now it is code that is misread, read too literally by some of Gramsci’s present-day readers as if our main concern is simply to win a battle of ideas and as if that battle rages across society. For Gramsci, the battle for hegemony was a battle inside the workers movement, a necessary battle over the best way forward to overthrow the capitalist state. Gramsci was a revolutionary. Another of the code-words in Gramsci’s prison writings was to refer to ‘subalterns’ instead of peasants or the proletariat. Subalterns are the working class activists and those who are in solidarity with the working class, and a key part of revolutionary activity is to find ways of articulating what the real interests are of the working class, to enable it to ‘speak’.

For the subaltern to speak, then, is to voice the interests of the revolutionary working class. For postcolonial activists, and this is why they are so important to our struggle today; it is also to link working-class struggle with the struggle of the oppressed against racism, sexism and the manifold dimensions around which people are divided from each other in order that our rulers are able to continue ruling. To speak is to produce not just a better more accurate description of the world but to begin to produce a different world. Striking, occupying, overthrowing the state includes speaking, arguing, and so it is a form of labour, the assertion of what is most creative about human labour. When we find a voice for the oppressed, struggle to make it heard, struggle to make that mean something in terms of political action, we are engaged in ‘subaltern labour’.

But there is another aspect of this which is equally important, which is that we are all in some sense ‘subalterns’ on a political terrain that is hostile to us. That is the case for those who remain outside the Labour Party, in Left Unity, for example. There is a real danger that revolutionaries who remain outside the party will be cut off from those who have gone in to support Corbyn, and then the danger is that their isolation spirals into a series of sectarian complaints about what Corbyn and the Corbynistas are doing wrong, carping at every false step as they seek to differentiate themselves and justify their own separate existence. Their voices, their genuine critical analysis of the limitations of the Labour Party will then not be heard. We need to ensure, as part of our political activity inside the boundaries of the party, in the liminal space we defend as crucial to our revolutionary politics, that these voices from our comrades outside are heard. We should be arguing, for example, that Left Unity be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party, that it be welcomed as an ally of the left in the party. The point is not whether or not this will be accepted by the Labour Party; the point is to keep that existence of a left outside on the agenda. This is part of the struggle now inside Labour, to keep those voices as part of the radical Corbyn movement.

And the problem of operating on a hostile political terrain is also the case for those of us who join the Labour Party. The problem here is not only to do with the nature of machine-politics – a problem that is evident in the activities of Momentum and the way it replicates the very undemocratic practices it pretends to organise against – but also to do with how we speak. This aspect of the problem, how we speak inside the apparatus, is intensified by the existence of the ‘many revolutionaries’ who have now joined the party or, to be more specific, of the ‘many tiny groups’ who have joined. The task that confronts us is how to speak in such a way that enables us to continue functioning as revolutionaries – if we cannot do that, then it was never worth joining up – and that task itself has to deal with three audiences, three groupings inside the Labour Party that will be watching us. The first two groupings are two obstacles.

First, there is the party apparatus – Labour Party central office and the Parliamentary Labour Party and the right wing of the party which is not a negligible force – that will be keen to seize on us, make us illegitimate, silence us, treat as subalterns who should not speak, perhaps generously accept our help in canvassing on condition we remain silent, keep to our place as subaltern labour. Second, there are the entrist sects who have come into the Labour Party to recruit, to feed off the new Corbyn movement rather than build it, who even have the perspective of splitting away a part of the party into something they can remake in their own image. They will be willing, when it suits their interests, to finger us, and at the same time to accuse us of being reformist stooges. We need to clearly differentiate ourselves from the Labour Party apparatus and from the sectarians who will damage Corbyn and sabotage the growth of a left of Labour movement that might even take power in Britain.

The third audience, those who will be watching us, and they are those who, we must be honest about this, we want to watch us, to listen to us, are the Corbynistas. If we really want to locate ourselves in the Labour Party as mainstream pro-Corbyn people, and we should want to do that, then we need to be able to take the ethos of ‘doing politics differently’ that some of us have learnt from our time in Left Unity into this new context. Revolutionaries in Left Unity learnt that we could not build Left Unity by fixing a line that we wanted to be adopted in advance, caucusing to ensure that we were organised in meetings. We could not do that because we knew that those we were working with, a new generation of activists suspicious of party-organisational forms, would see this as dishonest. We needed to be open about what our allegiances were without imposing them.

Now inside the Labour Party we need to be able to work with a range of different left political viewpoints – the Corbynistas have various strategies, and some of them are committed to the long haul of parliamentary reform with or without Corbyn – in order to win even parts of the apparatus over to the left. There are, it is true, long-standing Labour Party members, even some councillors and, who knows, even some MPs, who are, with the success of Corbyn, remembering that they are social democrats, not merely opportunist or careerists. But there are many who are loyal to the apparatus, dangerous hardened reformists. So, when we work as revolutionaries with the Corbynistas we will need to, indeed, mobilize together in a process of subaltern labour with them in which we are covert at some points and know how to strike when the time is right. And at the same time, we need to be clear that we do have some disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn and particularly with some of the political forces that have surrounded and ‘advised’ him.

One of the fields of battle, our battle for hegemony, will be over delegates and election publicity, and the ongoing canvassing as Corbyn tries to keep the party on permanent campaign footing will be testing for us as we try also to mobilise for demonstrations. Connected with this, and even more important in the long term will be around political education. In some parts of the country the Corbynistas have made it clear that they are open to include in their political education discussions those who are still outside the party. Political education here must include the role of revolutionaries historically in the Labour Party, ranging from dual membership once permitted to the Communist Party to the affiliated Independent Labour Party. It will include critical discussion of ‘entrism’ and what the difference is between secretive sect politics and our role as mainstream pro-Corbyn activists.

In this, our own distinctive propaganda will be essential, and the profile of our revolutionary allegiance to international dimensions of political activity and identity should be a top priority. At every moment, then, we will be faced with the pressure to hide who we are, to be subalterns, or to speak only in the language that our enemies understand, but we need to engage in serious engagement with the Corbynistas, to build an explicitly revolutionary current inside the party that also draws energy from outside, subaltern labour.

 

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CLR James film feast

The film Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of C.L.R. James was released in April last year, and has been doing the rounds in meetings organised by different front organisations of the Spiked-online network, an ex-Trotskyist group led by the sociologist Frank Furedi and ubiquitous media pundit Claire Fox. It turned up in Manchester at the beginning of September at an event hosted by the Salon, and leaflets for the audience from ‘Worldbytes’ and ‘Citizen TV’ included the usual tell-tale Spiked lines on things like ‘economic growth and serious development for all’. No mention of socialism here, but the film itself is actually quite fantastic. The audience at the Manchester showing consisted, on my rough count, of members of at least six different activist groups. We were stunned at the unfolding story of CLR James, the revolutionary Marxist from Trinidad who joined the Trotskyist movement in the early 1930s and died in Brixton south London as an unrepentant activist in 1989.

The film traces a narrative arc from James’ love of cricket in Trinidad to his time in London and then, crucially, his experience of working class militancy in the Lancashire mill-town of Nelson. James lodged with the cricketer Learie Constantine and became active in the Independent Labour Party as a Trotskyist. We learn how it was the practice of class struggle and solidarity in the community that led James to revolutionary and so then to Trotskyist politics, and we are then taken through his experience of becoming a member of the Fourth International, which was formed in 1938, and then writing his classic text Black Jacobins and his play about the Haitian slave rebel Toussaint L’Ouverture which starred Paul Robeson in the leading role. The struggle against the US American and European ruling class and against Stalinism through the Second World War eventually leads us back to cricket as site of class struggle in James’ book Beyond a Boundary. We are then taken through interviews with his nephew Darcus Howe and interventions by Selma James, his partner and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign, to the end of his life.

The film doesn’t pull its punches, clearly locating James as a Marxist and revolutionary humanist in the best tradition of the Western Enlightenment, and it succeeds in opening up questions for activists today about our history and the place of colonialism and imperialism in contemporary capitalism. There is not time in just over two hours of a film that includes much unseen footage of James to cover all the aspects of his life.

There are two aspects that could have been stretched a little further. One is James’ continuing relationship with the Fourth International after the 1930s. The film notes that he visited Trotsky in 1939 and was still a revolutionary when he was deported from the US in 1953. What is not made clear is that James was part of an intense struggle inside the Fourth International as half of the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ (James was Johnson and the Hegelian Marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya was Forest) which anticipated some early debates about the nature of the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ and provided a platform for James’ argument that revolutionaries should support autonomous black self-organisation. He did not leave the Fourth International until 1949, and the FI can be proud to claim him as part of its history, a history of black struggle from which it has learnt much in recent years.

The other aspect concerns the way that James articulated the question of autonomous black struggle with standpoint and ‘identity’. It is clear that resistance to racism is necessarily bound up with the assertion of the common identity of the oppressed (as, for that matter, is working class struggle against capitalism). It is this concern with identity politics that the complex network of organisations around Spiked has spent so much time rubbishing in recent years, part and parcel of its hostility to the ‘nanny state’. It is intriguing and puzzling that James would be subject of a film documentary made by this group.

There are, it should be said, some very traditional and problematic aspects of the documentary format that the film follows. So, we have mainly young black women interviewing mainly white men who tell us how to understand James as a historical figure. Spiked community stalwarts like James Heartfield and Alan Hudson are dominant voices. There is a bizarre scene shot near Nelson where Alan Hudson and the young women are arrayed along one side of a picnic table. The jars of olives and other foodstuffs are turned so that the brand labels are hidden, while Hudson as the main figure in this last supper scenario is speaking into a microphone with a large Worldbytes sign stuck on it. Nevertheless, for all that, for all of the constraints of the format (and perhaps of the background guidance by Spiked in the writing, editing and format of the film), both Heartfield and Hudson speak as Marxists about a Marxist. This is a marvellous film, and you don’t have to be a supporter of ‘Citizen TV’ to love it.

 

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