Reform and revolution: I’ve got questions; you’ve got answers! (?)
From Truth and Revolution, which I’ve mentioned here before:
‘Working class self-activity is working-class autonomy — autonomy from capitalism,’ argues [Lee] Holstein. Her problem with advocates of trade-union reform efforts, such as Moody, is that they ‘mush together the reform and revolutionary aspects of resistance and insurgency, treating forms of resistance and insurgency which are confined within the framework of capitalism in the same way as those which break out of that framework.’ For Holstein, by contrast, ‘self-activity is not just resisting and attacking, but resisting and attacking in a way that undermines capitalist power, destabilizes its institutional framework, and foreshadows and demonstrates, in the form and content of the current struggles, the potential of the workers to be rulers.’ (284–85)
Two questions for today, and then I promise I’ll get back to grad school work. ;)
1) On “trade-union reform efforts” — well, first of all, right now I’m part of a team working to try to “democratize” a chapter of a major union. This is a group of rank-and-file workers with support from a revolutionary team (that’s my role; an outsider). Many of the workers want to change the union because they feel it represents them badly: reps are lazy about grievances; there’s no transparency or attempt to involve rank-and-file in decisions; there’s no leverage in bargaining so they keep coming back with worse and worse contracts, health care getting cut etcetera. So to “democratize” the union, on one level, could be seen as a reformist effort to bring more accountability and effectiveness, while otherwise keeping the union the same, and certainly leaving capitalist frameworks untouched.
But on another level, we view the process as planting a seed of what could become revolutionary self-activity. As workers feel more and more entitled to control over the conditions of their workplace, and become organized enough to actually command the very useful bargaining tool of an honest-to-goodness strike (and this is a LONG way off at this point), the questions of power and democratic self-rule could become starker and starker.
So, at what point can we say for sure whether an initiative is reformist or revolutionary? In embryonic phase, can it have potential for both?
2) “[T]he potential for the workers to be rulers.” I’ve been studying Marx for a minute, but I still have trouble wrapping my head around this one! Does it tend to reinforce ableist conceptions of who deserves to rule?
I know the dictatorship of the proletariat is in important stage of socialist revolution, according to the traditional theories. It’s not a dictatorship for its own sake, but for the purpose of putting a decisive end to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that has plagued the planet for the last 500 years. But, like, is there a different way we could conceive of this? Maybe just an extra dose of “from each according to ability; to each according to need,” in the same breath? Or discussing the potential for the workers to help lead the transformation of work as we know it, to acknowledge the value of beings whose bodies — especially when they deviate from productivity — are tossed out like so much garbage under capitalism?
Workers may be a key strategic class in the fight to end capitalism, but they’re not the be-all-end-all of humanity. I understand that calling workers ‘productive’ is partly in contrast to the ruling class, the so-called parasitic class. But the ethos of productivity is so heavily ingrained, especially in Western societies, that I get spooked when we designate the so-called ‘useful’ and ‘productive’ segment as the new rulers. Haven’t we had enough of rule?
I wish this were merely a question of semantics. But I think the Stalinist tendencies of socialist / communist revolutionaries, the more subtle forms of hierarchy and oppression within revolutionary groups, and the ongoing debates and experiments around the true meaning of
Christmas democratic centralism indicate that we still have a lot of shit to work out when it comes to envisioning and modeling healthy democratic processes, and the form and function of leadership in those processes.
That’s all for now. Thoughts welcome. And up top is a picture of the table where I’m writing this (though the photo was taken on a sunnier day).
As you know, Katie, I’ve struggled with Marxism for a while now. How to work with it, appreciate it, and also critique it. Because in my view, it’s one skillful means amongst many.
You second point has reminded me of one of the issues I have had with Marxist theory for years. Namely, the ways in the unfolding of events are essentially predetermined. That we are supposed to go from X to Y – and that going to Y is the “right” next step. In this case, the “dictator of the proletariat.”
I was introduced to Hegel in high school by a misplaced history teacher whose classes were more rigorous than almost anything I experienced in undergrad. I bring up Hegel because it was his dialectics that so influenced Marx and other contemporaries. Hegel’s sense that the dynamic coming together of contradictory elements is where progress occurs. This would probably explain something like the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” I tend to like this idea of dynamic coming together, but feel that Marx and his followers went a step further and drew a specific path of unfolding. A path which the more fundamentalist Marxists have said is THE way forward, as opposed to something of a guide to understand how to read society. It’s always felt like a secular version of prophecy, as if they rejected everything about organized Judeo-Christian religion, but maintained the central element of it.
Beyond this, though, Hegel’s view that a synthesis must occur between the contradictory (or opposite) elements in order for wholeness to be present seems to be in operation here. Diversity and multiplicity weren’t viewed favorably by Hegel, or Kant for that matter. It’s all about things coming together in a reasonable, logical manner to produce something new. That strict division between rational and irrational, and the sense that progress being intimately tied to reason and logic, are key factors in my view of understanding Marx. Given capitalism in it’s various manifestations, it’s logical that X, Y, and Z will occur and move us forward in the direction of socialistic society. But how can anyone know that’s the case? I say that knowing that Marxism has been pretty keen on describing the unfolding of capitalism.
As a Buddhist with socialist leanings, I’ve never been able to reconcile any of this with teachings on “don’t know mind,” or our conceptions of time. I really don’t think we know what will come, or what “should” come in order for less suffering and more liberation to be present. Furthermore, if we take up upaya as a teaching, it’s further the case that the same or even similar outcomes may not reduce suffering and increase liberation. The forms of socialistic societies imagined through Marxism – although diverse at this point- would still probably fail many. One reason being that the very nature of what it means to work – and be a worker – hasn’t been sufficiently flipped on it’s head. Nor has the divisions between rational/irrational or secular/religious. Offshoots of liberation theology address some of these issues, but even there, an uneasy relationship between Marxism and Christianity is usually present.
I also think there is an inherent “datedness” in the original writings of Marx, Engels, and the other contemporaries that has to be faced. And certainly is being faced by some modern Marxist/socialist writers, but maybe not going deep enough from what I’ve seen. Namely, that these were white, European males operating in the framework of colonialist industrial nations during the development of unionism. All sorts of issues to be unpacked there. Many have been unpacked to some degree, but at some point, you have to wonder if a revolution in theory is being called for from the world’s current conditions
Hi Nathan, thanks, this is helpful for me in putting words to some of the questions and stickiness I sometimes feel around Marx and Hegel. I sometimes feel like my weirdness is more around the way I see their theories being embodied in the world, rather than the ideas themselves (but I’ll come back to that in a second).
I sometimes wonder why I react to Marx’s theories of historical materialism with more reservation than I react to Darwin’s theory of evolution. I don’t think to myself about evolution: “Pssh, it’s so deterministic! Where’s the room for the irrational?!” But like Marx’s ideas, evolution is also just a well-established theory. It’s also open to being proven wrong. So far, I don’t know that others have offered a better, scientific analysis of political economy — how power operates through material conditions of class struggle, over time. Again, like evolution, it’s a theory.
Of course, people misuse the theories all the time: like misconstruing evolution’s premise of natural selection into social Darwinism, or “survival of the fittest.” Or misconstruing Marx’s ideas into economism, Stalinism, etc.
Your point about the deterministic quality that Marx and Engels (and famous Marxists like Lenin, Mao, etc.) sometimes gave off is something I’ve been talking about with other people recently, too. One phrase I sometimes hear is that it’s the “historical mission” of the proletariat (and peasants, more or less, depending who you talk to) to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and capitalism with it. Personally, I’ve always heard this in my head as more like “your mission — should you choose to accept it”! Certainly not as a given that the proletariat and socialism will win out. Working-class struggle could take a bad turn toward fascism (has in the past), or some other oppressive economic system, based on the material conditions of the time.
I think Marx’s main point here (and again, I could totally be wrong about all this) is that as the bourgeoisie (or commanders of capitalism) “produce their own gravediggers” in the proletariat, they basically put the working class in a *position* to be *able* to take back the power to govern society. Whether or not they will is still an open question.
Yeah, I definitely don’t think it’s useful (or particularly “Marxist”) to passively assume that capitalism will lead to socialism. Even within the Marxist understanding of this type of historical progression, there has been a lot of debate and people’s theories have been proven wrong. The Russian revolution shocked a lot of self-proclaimed Marxists who believed that nations like Germany would be the first to have socialist revolutions, since they were in an industrialized capitalist position, with a strong labor movement. But — surprise — the half-feudal country starts poppin off!
To me, it doesn’t seem like Marx gave super-specific predictions about how capitalism *would* lead to socialism, but that he studied history and described in detail the reasons he thought that socialism was a logical next *possibility* (maybe outgrowth, or somewhere in between). Partly because of industrialization supposedly solving scarcity (though even then Marx was wary of over-depleting or polluting natural resources, albeit probly not as wary as the next 150 years have warranted); partly because of the anarchic nature of the capitalist market, which leads to cycles of overproduction and global crisis (which is a prediction that has held up over time); partly because (a) the way work is organized under capitalism, through huge factories, the “socialization of labor,” and (b) land grabs that turn self-sustaining communities into atomized laborers selling their labor-power to the highest bidder, would tend to create the consolidation of class struggle into a workers-versus-owners dichotomy, in a way that’s more simplified than things were under feudal hierarchies. (Though this simplification tends to peripherize peasants, “lumpen,” certain indigenous groups, and other non- proletariat in ways that I don’t yet know how to wrap my head around.)
Like all scientists, Marx had to create models that oversimplified. What’s important wasn’t that they captured all of life’s intricacies and diversity, but that they were able to predict and explain events in reliable ways, so that people trying to act on those events could have some sort of idea what we’re doing, what to expect, what to look for. And I hella appreciate all these people who try to study, understand, and explain historical forces in ways that allow us, as organizers, to have some sort of rough route or provisional map. Not that the map is irrefutable; not that the destination will be perfect. But that it will hopefully be better than the clusterfuck of capitalism, and feudalism before it. The movements around “decolonizing” and “indigenizing” also remind us (in ways that sometimes seem to rub up against Marxism, though I’m not well-versed enough to be able to say why) that this isn’t a purely “forward” motion into the future, not just inventing or synthesizing, but can also be a process of undoing, of preserving, of remembering, of reclaiming and restoring.
All that being said, as an embodied being who tries to *use* Marxism (and other theories), I HELLA FEEL YOU on the ways that scientific rationalism as a way of moving through the world just won’t cut it, if that’s our only mode ever. There are other modes! They are also incredibly important! The irrational can be our friend! Spirituality can’t be completely captured in science and logic! (Even though it can also contain elements of them.)
I could go on and on about where I think rationality and irrationality fit into our revolutionary praxis, and why I think people tend to use and misuse each of them in various ways these days (in other words, using emotional arguments where rational ones would be more effective, and using rational arguments where emotional expressions are more useful), but I feel like I’m already rambling a lot! hehe. Thank you for giving voice to some of these concerns and reservations — I feel like they’re really common, I share some of them myself, and I appreciate being able to clarify some of my thoughts through conversation with a smart and caring someone like you. :)
Hope your day (night!) is going well!
Just thinking about this more, I feel like it’s maybe a little too glib. I do think we need to be careful about falsely universalizing our theories, and it’s definitely possible that Marx falsely universalized some of his. That’s something I’d be really interested to learn more about. Both in terms of historical materialism and the unfolding of history, and also in terms of theories about what socialist revolutionaries should do, in efforts to be most effective and holistically helpful. A tendency to falsely universalize is one of those habits that postmodernism seems to be reacting to. It’s a reaction that creates its own serious problems… but also kind of speaks to this conundrum of the preciousness of the individual, the small group, the outlier, the periphery, that perhaps gets excluded or glossed over even by sophisticated or complex models of political economy. Like Kim’s post today on Turning Wheel — the idea that some islands are too small to matter. Kind of like you’re saying: even socialism might not serve everyone.
That mindset of modeling and structure perhaps comes from a certain type of strategic, scientific, militarized approach, which is sometimes useful, but also clearly easy to use as justification for repression and oppression. On a more spiritual tip, too, it ultimately can’t account for the importance of survival, of dignity, of recognition among the groups written out of the heroic historical narrative, and the strategies that go along with those aims. Something I’ve been struggling with a lot this year.
By the way, it’s kind of blowing my mind that you read — and clearly learned — Hegel in high school!
Interesting your points about Darwin in the beginning. I wonder if the lack of reaction to evolution is tied to how mainstream Darwin’s general theories are these days. Even though some scientists continue to muck around with questions about evolution, most of us – including the majority of scientists I would guess – simply accept his theories as the case. Although I find the Christian right’s take on all of this highly reactionary and manipulative, I sometimes think they might be on to something in terms of keeping the questioning itself present.
“I think Marx’s main point here (and again, I could totally be wrong about all this) is that as the bourgeoisie (or commanders of capitalism) “produce their own gravediggers” in the proletariat, they basically put the working class in a *position* to be *able* to take back the power to govern society.” I agree. And think this is one of the strengths of his work. Showing us that this whole thing is a house of cards that can be taken down. Perhaps it’s been more the folks that came afterward that turned the “can be” into a “will be” in a prophetic manner.
“I do think we need to be careful about falsely universalizing our theories, and it’s definitely possible that Marx falsely universalized some of his. That’s something I’d be really interested to learn more about. Both in terms of historical materialism and the unfolding of history, and also in terms of theories about what socialist revolutionaries should do, in efforts to be most effective and holistically helpful.” This is a major pivot point in my opinion.It reminds me of my early days as a vegetarian. Being pretty missionary and somewhat dogmatic about it all as some veggies tend to do. The facts around a diversity of body types and healthy well being didn’t occur to me then. Nor the issues of geographic location, the often fierce cultural connections to diet, or access issues (like food deserts) that impact what people eat, how they eat, and how they conceive of food and diet. More recently, I have been experimenting with fish oil supplements to counteract some joint issues that seem common amongst vegetarians. Point being that the unversalizing I did with vegetarianism as an undergrad hasn’t even held for myself over the long haul.
” The movements around “decolonizing” and “indigenizing” also remind us (in ways that sometimes seem to rub up against Marxism, though I’m not well-versed enough to be able to say why) that this isn’t a purely “forward” motion into the future, not just inventing or synthesizing, but can also be a process of undoing, of preserving, of remembering, of reclaiming and restoring.” I tend to think that the notion of everything moving forward, of constant “progress” – is, itself, a main driver of colonialism. It’s the thing behind erasing the past (and any people linked to that past). It’s the thing behind some of the nonsense in the convert Buddhist world around “stripping cultural baggage” and finding “the essence of Buddhism.” As I sit with it, I kind of wonder if part of the problem for Marxists is a deep disconnection from the indigenous. From the experiences, wisdom, and ways of pre-feudal folks (past and present). Even someone like Paolo Freire, whose work I still admire and which had a heavy influence on my ESL teaching days, had a notion of liberation built on the European, Enlightenment era rational model. Reasoning, the written word, and critical thinking skills are the universal forms of his educational framework. On the surface, Freire worked in indigenous communities. He had a lot of surface level connections, But that gut level recognition of the value of traditions, the irrational, the indirect – not really there.
The thing I often struggle with is how to work with the activist folks who are fiercely down on anything connection to religion or spiritual practice. The self-proclaimed Marxists seem to be – at least locally – amongst the more challenging. I want to figure out ways to build bridges that don’t assume the primacy of either spiritual/religious or secular. In mixed groups, it seems like one side always wins, and collations go to shit in the process. I saw it in Occupy, and before in the anti-war movement. I’m thinking it’s going to be a huge challenge in the Tar Sands work as well, given the major presence of spiritually-focused Native folks and the rest of us spiritual/religious types :) What has your experience been around this? Have you seen any successful examples of dealing with this divide in a way that somehow honors both ends?
Have a great day! It’s really cool to be able to process this kind of stuff with you!
Lol, I hella hear you there. My understanding is that there’s a long strain of anti-religion in Marxism (though whether Marx himself was “anti” is debatable: that opium quote is usually taken out of context) that probably has a lot to do with how powerful the Church (various euro religious institutions, including Catholic and others) still was during his lifetime. Plenty of healthy skepticism, among Marxists, in terms of power concentrated in religious institutions; unfortunately, the baby, the bathwater, you know the drill. Among Black Marxists who reject Christianity, it seems like there’s more of a spectrum in terms of heading toward hardcore atheism, or embracing other religions like Islam, or studying indigenous African or Diaspora spiritual traditions. Anyway, for myself, in marxist and anarchist circles, i usually keep my mouth shut about spirituality. i’ve been in some pretty uncomfortable God-bashing situations.
What I find, though, is that it’s usually easier to introduce spiritual ideas (and sometimes even ritual) without actually naming it as such. People may be able to get down with words like “compassion,” or practices like non-reactivity, for example in a role play where people get to act out a scene with someone they want to be in conversation with, politically, but who is really pushing their buttons.
The tradition of Buddhism I study, Theravada, makes it a lot easier for me, though, since there’s such a stark divide between laypeople and monastics. People I know who practice Zen, for instance, or even who have a chanting practice (I don’t) might feel even more of a need to conceal their spiritual practice in political spaces. And a lot of times, trying to ‘secularize’ or de-ritualize those practices just leaves us with limp mushy tepid mess, or with a kind of over-rationalized neuro-Buddhism for “enhanced performance” among activists.
So, I don’t know, it’s a tough one. For me, I guess it comes down to finding those people on either ‘end’ (and in between) who are patient enough, and share enough of the same values, to try to explore some of the spiritual and political terrain together. It can feel really lonely though.
Yeah, i also wonder how this will play out in the Keystone XL and Idle No More struggles, etc! Do hardcore secularists where you are display active hostility toward the spiritual practices of Native folks? Over here, it seems like there is a little more leeway around that… probably partly for reasons of romanticizing, though (“Oh, well they don’t believe in a patriarchal God like Christians do…they are noble and wise, etc etc.”), and maybe also for fear of a certain kind of criticism. I’ve seen particularly strong relationships being built between anarchist and Native (Ohlone) community over here, and I’ve been hearing about some similar positive developments in the Pacific Northwest, where recently they’ve been trying to block deliveries of fracking materials at the ports.
Are there any particular types of fights that seem to come up a lot, in this divide in your circles? Is it about nonviolence / pacifism versus “diversity of tactics?” Or other political splits?
Appreciate getting to process this with you, too! :) thanks, nathan.
” Anyway, for myself, in marxist and anarchist circles, i usually keep my mouth shut about spirituality. i’ve been in some pretty uncomfortable God-bashing situations.”
Me too. And while a fair amount of the time, talking explicitly about spirituality probably isn’t needed, it’s a shame we both stuff it mostly – and that many others do the same.
I haven’t seen any outright disrespect or conflicts around Native spiritual expressions at protests recently. However, I do think there’s a lot of self selecting in and out of the Tar Sands/environmental movement work going on around here. I don’t see many of the folks that were more vocal against religious/spiritual expressions in Occupy for example. I can say that during the height of Occupy Minneapolis, there was a fair amount of tension between indigenous folks and others in Occupy. Native activists mostly steered clear of Occupy events, and/or worked with a much smaller subset of us on projects. In many ways, Idle No More revitalized the Occupy group here. I had mostly moved on myself, but now we’re clearly building a coalition and momentum around these issues. Including some of the Marxists and anarchists amongst us.
“Is it about nonviolence / pacifism versus “diversity of tactics?” Or other political splits?” The diversity of tactics discussions seem to reappear from time to time. I haven’t heard too much along those lines in recent months, but I’m sure it will appear again. Understandings around the nature of non-violence can be challenging. During the protest at Senator Klobuchar’s office last week, I was part of a small group challenging the building management’s attempts to remove us and block the protest. At one point, I raised my voice and called the guy a “fascist.” Not my most brilliant moment. I was basically tired of hearing the same tired old nonsense from people like him and got reactionary. Anyway, someone in the larger group a few minutes later told me that she’d never yell and that yelling is violence.I don’t agree with that, just as I don’t agree with the idea that property damage is “always” violent. Sometimes, a sharp cry in the middle of a situation is skillful means. And in certain cases, doing something like disabling a bulldozer is an appropriate response. I’m probably a “mlddle ground” person in terms of the non-violence spectrum. But it can be challenging when you have a larger, mixed group and a fair number of folks are thinking like that woman was. Which was the case with that protest. The moment someone with any level of “authority” appeared, they went along with their directives. Many of them are involved in McKibbon’s group 350.org, which has done some good work, but seems way too invested in the idea that we can “work with” (as opposed to pressure the crap out of) the Obama Administration and Democratic congress on these issues, and changes will be simply be made. Too much kool aid drinking in my opinion, but I’d like to think that somehow, some of these folks will move beyond that.
Thanks for writing. I have a question regarding religion, specifically buddhism. How does one (anyone posting here with familiarity) separate religious doctrine and spiritual practices derived from such doctrine from the politicized impacts of these doctrine? I’m thinking specifically of the role of the Lamas in Tibet in exploiting peasants and poor rural workers as part of their theocratic regime. Thanks for your continued writing on this blog.
Hi psychdial, thank YOU for writing. (smile)
I think that’s a really good question, and though I don’t live in a Buddhist-majority country where Buddhists institutions wield a lot of political power, I think like many forms of spirituality, it’s not necessarily easy or possible to draw literal political prescriptions from the teachings. Political conditions change and stuff, yeah? At the same time, I also think that our ethical and spiritual development can inform the ways we understand things like justice, fairness, and the common good, as we observe them in our societies. So *personally,* I would say that a theocracy exploiting peasants and poor rural workers is probably corrupt and illegitimate, like most religious institutions that act in collusion with a ruling class, putting their own institutional survival above the well being of ordinary people. But I would argue that on political terms, rather than on the basis of What Is True Buddhism (even though my dhamma practice informs and influences my political thinking).
Does that make any sense? I feel like it’s hard for me to articulate myself well… but basically, I tend to view claims to political authority based on spirituality with a healthy dose of suspicion… but that’s my politics talking, more than my spiritual or religious practice.
Recently for my paid job at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, we had an interesting conversation about occupied Tibet, with a prominent Tibetan activist, that raised the question of democracy. I find the position of His Holiness The Dalai Lama on this really fascinating. It seems like he’s trying to (or has?) given up his formal position of political leadership because he wants to see more of a separation between religious and secular governing among the Tibetan people. He appears to have been expressing interest in this direction for a long time, like inthis piece he wrote back in 1993:
I’m not super well informed on all this, so there may be other dynamics at play that I’m missing, but based on what I understand, I would agree with the position of His Holiness, that a society ought to be governed by democratic structures that represent the will of the people (which is not really possible under capitalism, in my opinion), and that religious authority should be something separate from that.
How about you? How do you see the relationship between spiritual doctrine and the political implications of the doctrine?
Thanks again for the great question!
Thanks for the response. I question the integrity of the statement by the Dalia Lama given that he has colluded with really terrible social and institutional forces such as the CIA. Again – it sounds nice what he’s saying, and I agree with you that democratic principles are in many ways at odds with the societal relationships that constitute the capitalist system, but how do we reconcile how nice these words sound with the reality that this guy has worked with the same people who overthrew Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, and Allenda in Chile? He seems more on the side of the Shah, Rios-Montt (another theocratic leader) and Pinochet than on the side of the social-democracy, let alone the side of the self-organized masses of workers and peasants.
I’m trying to understand this reality through the lens you put forth in your first paragraph when you wrote, “I would say that a theocracy exploiting peasants and poor rural workers is probably corrupt and illegitimate, like most religious institutions that act in collusion with a ruling class, putting their own institutional survival above the well being of ordinary people. But I would argue that on political terms, rather than on the basis of What Is True Buddhism (even though my dhamma practice informs and influences my political thinking).”
By this understanding of the relation between spiritual doctrine and political practice, is it accurate to say that there *is no* relationship between Buddhism and the Dalai Lama’s collaboration with the CIA. We can have a political critique, but not a critique grounded in an understanding of the interdependency of politics, ruling classes, and spiritual doctrine? This is interesting, but the part of my being that seeks out unity and interdependency seems to find fault with it since it separates the two dynamics (politics and spiritual doctrine) rather than unite them. I’m open that this is the case, but want to be transparent with my methodology here.
If there is no True Buddhism (or maybe there is?) wouldn’t the logical conclusion be that any claim to Buddhist fidelity be true? Isn’t the Dalai Lama’s CIA collaboration a political expression of Buddhism just as much as an American buddhists’ non-violent commitment, or commitment to the liberation of working people through a framework of loving-kindness?
If it’s true that these are all legitimate expressions of buddhism, does that mean that . . . everything is relative?
Very interested in learning from this as I continue growing my own understanding of spirituality.