Throw open windows: Beginning a fresh communism by Mike Ely

[From Kasama Project.  The original article comes from Ely’s presentation at Platypus convention in Chicago, on a panel about “Badiou and Post-Maoism: Marxism and Communism Today” and can be found here. – Ed.]

Chris Cutrone ended his talk just now with a fitting introduction to mine: When he complained about those who would “reduce communism to the perennial complaint of the subaltern.”

Well, by contrast, I want to take up for, and speak for, and represent the cry of the oppressed.

And I want to start as well by referencing the comments from several Platypus presenters in the previous panel who, it seemed to me, presented a rather stark and one-sided defense of the bourgeois revolution and its supposed accomplishments.

And really I can start anywhere, because we are literally surrounded by the suffering of the people, and the need to transform it.

But let me start here: This morning as I was preparing my talk, I ran across an article that said there are as many Black men in prison now as there were slaves in 1850. And there, if you want, is the state of  your bourgeois revolution, of capitalism, 150 years after the Civil War.

Or we could look at the movements of hundreds of millions of desperate people on the planet Earth, leaving the countryside for massive shantytowns, crossing borders and oceans, to be exploited, abused and persecuted. There is your bourgeois freedom of movement and personal initiative. Because the liberations of the bourgeois revolution are ground up into the makings of new horrors under this system.

Or we could look at the sale of girls and women in the sex trade internationally, at least a million a year by most accounts. Semifeudal villages are drained of girls (and the rustbelts of Eastern Europe in their own way), as young women are channeled  into major cities Mumbai, Bangkok, Manila, Cost Rica’s San Jose, and many more (soon Havana again?)… to literally become  one more product sold in the worldwide capitalist circuits of commodity trade.

Here is your capitalism revolutionizing and rationalizing feudalism out of existence. Here is capitalism creating its revolutionary and  unprecedented world market (“battering down the Chinese walls”). Here is capitalism tearing up the awful and ancient  relations of village agriculture, then building new horrors out of the metabolized and atomized fragments.

The causes of that suffering are not divine, or natural, or insurmountable. Suffering has existed throughout human history – hunger, desperation, enslavement, mutual killings… But now, surrounded by the great productive power and knowledge created by human genius none of these criminal conditions need exist any longer. And that makes this suffering intolerable in a truly different way.

This is what floods into our minds as we open our eyes in the morning. It is what makes us communists. This is why we choose to serve the people. This is our starting point.

A particular view of truths

Mao Zedong said

“Marxism consists of a thousand truths, but they boil down to one: it is right to rebel against reactionaries.”

That embodies a particular view of truths, and a particular view of Marxism, and a particular view the communist project.

It posits a statement of what is right  – it is right to make revolution, It is right to find a radically different road for humanity. It is right for the people themselves to find the courage, the unity and the hope to rise up in their own behalf.

As for us communists…

Luther nailing his thesis on the church door

That stubborn monk Martin Luther said at the start of his revolt:

“Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.”

In English: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And so often our choice as communists feels to us as nt choice at all. We often feel we can do no other. But it does come from a choice of course. A decision. A sharp and ongoing line struggle in our hearts and in our ranks.

We choose to serve the people. Our cause is hardly just about the escalation of political liberties or economic development… however much those have been popular parts of the communist project. We communists are political representatives of the fact that  people’s suffering is intolerable. We choose to embody wild hopes and visions of emancipation — for common abundance, radical equality and realization of countless human potentials.And I want to make clear my point of view, because others have made so clear an opposing point of view: Capitalist modernity was, yes, a major break with previous class society. And capitalist democracy, yes, raised for the first time the question of popular sovereignty. But we communists are nonetheless necessary their gravediggers. These structures emerging from the bourgeois revolutions — industrial capitalism, the current global market, the structures of bourgeois democracy — are the forms of our oppression. And we intend their negation — precisely in that Maoist sense of negation that involves the struggle, transformation and interpenetration of opposites.

And while we are taking stock about this moment, and after discussing the suffering and cry of the oppress,  let’s not be naïve about what stands in the way of liberation (something that has also been little discussed in the Platypus presentations today):

Navy Seals death squads dropping from helicopters

Navy Seals death squads dropping from helicopters

The Marines, the CIA, the armies of urban killer police, legions of heartless authorities in schools, family patriarchs with their balled fists, pimps and human traffickers, border patrols, prison guards, hirelings and hangmen of countless kinds across a whole planet. The wealth of modern capitalism has accreted and accumulated professional pigs and killers and corrupted agents at a unprecedented rate.

It is hard enough to imagine a new world.  It is even harder to actually carry one out on the canvas of reality. And then, beyond that, there is the major problem that we have to defeat all that, all those guns and bribes and cruise missiles. Which will obviously take a conscious force of millions.

And if our movement doesn’t bring to those millions a sense of the need for force on a massive scale, then we are full of shit. Because it will take millions and it will take bitter sacrifice — to go where we are trying to go.

Taking this as beginning

I say all this – who we serve, what we are, what we face — to talk more about what this moment means for communists. As you all know, the communist project is almost invisible. And what is visible is often not communist.

We have contended on a world scale for a century – from World War 1 to the restoration of capitalism in the former socialist countries.

Communist fighters in the remote areas of South Asia

But today, when a living and revolutionary communism appears, it is either in very remote and marginalized corners of the planet – the Andes, the Himalayas, remote rural areas of Kurdistan where five armed sisters just died in an avalanche. Or it is tumbles out of the radical dreams of revolutionary intellectuals.

Is that extreme weakness the end of communism, or is it a  beginning?

I propose we take it as a beginning. And that means we have a great occasion for a new accounting. And at the end, we should take up our work through a new presentation.

Chris has based a lot of his criticism of Badiou on a criticism of Badiou’s periodization of the communist movement, and in particular Badiou’s apparent dismissal of the Second International period. I think all this is a side issue, but I do want to say that there are ways in which we are on the ground floor, and thinking through (again) the forms of organization and approach that are appropriate for times when socialist revolution still lies over the horizon for most of us.

You don’t often get a second chance at first impressions. But we have that chance. We can retool our communist project, reinvent our modes of presentation, radically re-metabolize our experiences, and forge something new in a new century.

Proposing a particular direction

And I propose that we do this with a particular mix:

I think we should be extremely radical (represent communism in its most sweeping sense), and I think we should be extremely contemporary and non-dogmatic:

First: We need to radiate a profound sense of the real: a profound and penetrating critique of capitalism in its current forms, and a materialist sense of what could replace it. Not a nostalgic clinging to this or that model. Not a pretense that things haven’t changed.

And in that I want to refer to a previous panelists who spoke about the “classic bourgeois revolutions” of Europe and so on. By contrast, I think we should recognize that there are not “classic” revolutions, and there are no “classic” texts. It only clouds our work if we approach things that way. Was the French revolution the “classic” bourgeois revolution, and the October revolution the “classic” socialist one, simply because they came first? And what would we harvest from that except rigid thinking exactly where we need to be creative?

Further, We should radiate a culture of profound engagement, listening, and even humility – a democratic sensibility — without which no one will give communism a second hearing.

And, third, we should embody a militant, even shocking negation of everything that torments humanity – uncompromising, unafraid, righteous enough to topple and pursue the oppressors.

Getting to a new conception and new presentation

Lenin frozen as statue, as communism is codified into state religion.

To get there: I think we should energetically treat many so-called settled questions as fresh problems for solution. The existence of socialist states created Marxist doctrines that became highly elaborated for specific purposes. I suggest we strip them back down – with great attention to our goals and our times.

This is often viewed with suspicion and hostility by those few who want to cling to every detail of inherited Marxism — with a “from my cold dead fingers” tone. It is as if they assume that to restudy a verdict betrays an intention to abandon it. Opening a fresh, deep, and contemporary debate over “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is not automatically some “agnostic” scheme to bury the concept — on the contrary, you can’t get it INTO discussion without opening it for debate, and more, shouldn’t we look at such ideas anew after a hundred years of experience with particular socialist societies and states? How could we not.

We cannot and will not engage a new generation of radical, if they don’t come in at the ground floor of such a creative process, or if existing communist circles make uncritical acceptance of orthodoxies  the price of admission.

The Kasama project has only one publicly stated view:

“We are communists, and are for the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

Activist credos have long said:

“The movement is everything, the final goal is nothing.”

But we are trying to reverse that, by saying:

“The final goal is everything, the movements for getting  there remain to be charted.”

In other words, we all have together before us a great creative work.

The strategies in a country like this are unknown. Uncharted. We have lots of experience to sum up. But the creative work remains in front of us. And here is where Badiou starts to come in, because I believe that it is in many ways inherent in revolutions that the major creative work can’t be pre-done, and just imported (or applied) to “local” conditions.

In fact the Bolsheviks were re-forged by their civil war. A radically new Maoist communism was forged in Yenan. Or dare I say:  the Black Panthers ripped away at three decades of communist assumptions inherited from the Comintern. That’s how it is going to look, revolutions are very different, like snowflakes.

And while there is truth (and reasonable hope) in our sweeping view of a world transformative process — it is also true that each revolution will be startlingly different, with different moods, tones, goals, origins, forms, and symbolism.

Bananas and imperialism: what will the circuits of food look like in a liberated hemisphere?

Let’s put it another way: In many places, over the last century, the key attraction of communism was its association with political liberty and rapid economic development. But where we stand (meaning the U.S.) the key task is no longer creating a great human engine of economic development and modernization. Ours is a very different crossroads. Our goals are much more about  radical community, a society of solidarity in the place of dog-eat-dog cannibalism and capitalist atomization. We are  seeking a sustainable society out of a past of great waste and meaningless stuff. And we are seeking to end imperialism — by striking within the belly of the beast — for a global order that can end the domination of a few countries and the wars that they unleash….

And that is not easy. [Picks up a half-eaten banana lying on the table.] Because all of that is woven into the very details and expectations of life.

Meanwhile there are deeply new phenomena. Who can miss that inter-imperialist conflicts don’t operate as they once did, with spheres of influence and rival blocs? Who can still believe that the world is divided into “two kinds of countries” — when those 1950s categories can’t discuss a South Korea, or an Argentina, or a Bangalore, or the regional  roles of Turkey, Israel, India, Brazil or China.

An example: I have been attempting a deep study of the American civil war. And I have come to understand how much Northern thinking was changed during the war — including in the way they started the war thinking they were defending a “union of the states” and ended the war talking about a single “nation so conceived.” In other words, that war transformed the whole political world view into one centered on the nation-state (as a whole). And (to make an analogy) I think we are living through a time where thinking and politics has been rooted in bourgeois nation-states (even among communists), even among those who talked of “inter-nationalism,” while in many ways (and for the first time) it is becoming possible for millions of people to be thinking of their world as a whole, and to be thinking of the fate and direction of humanity as a whole. The thinking of “solidarity between nations” can undergo a leap to a much more truly global thinking.

Every school child in the U.S. is starting to think about the planet Earth as a common interconnected thing, and of humanity as emerging from common origins in Africa and sharing a common fate. And such thinking is obviously not inherently communist, but it is a huge and positive change emerging on the basis of massive changes in production and communications (on what is called “globalization” and the shrinking of the planet, and on the increased knowledge of the ecocide that has been started by industrial capitalism).

I’m not saying this to argue for dismissing national liberation struggles (or the importance of them), or to act like imperialism has somehow dissolved into something else. But to say that the world and the consciousness of people has been changing in some remarkable ways — and we need to  identify this, and integrate it into our strategic thinking, even as such phenomena are in the early and embryonic stages.

And we are  posing problems and questions that are not yet integrated into communist strategies, visions and solutions.

Is it just a crisis of will?

Some have argued that the crisis of communists requires embracing an orthodoxy and taking it out.  That is the view of Peru’s Abimael Guzman – who argues that revolution is already (somehow!) the main trend in the world today, and we simply have to have the will to make his version of Maoism the commander of that world revolution.

And in their own way, Trotskyists (especially of the non-Pabloite varieties) have always spoken of a crisis of the subjective factor – for which they saw their own orthodoxy as the solution.

Forty years ago, in the high tide of Vietnam War and Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party said “revolution is the main trend in the world today.” Should such an assessment be used as a permanent verdict?

There is a basic error here: Our world society is not somehow inherently “ripe” – just waiting for a particular socialist turn. World capitalism is not “stuck” (in some generalized crisis of paralysis and decay) — on the contrary it is quite dynamic. It isn’t waiting for us to assert our will (like Alexander at the Gordian knot) because it is quite energetically producing ITS changes and its outcomes.

And there is a second error here: in the assumptions that we can find all the basic answers we need by simply applying locally in this or that particular, existing and universalized form of Marxism.

I raise that to counterpose a different approach:

First the fusion of socialism with mass discontent is a highly conjunctural matter – not something that we can just do when we decide to do it.

Second, I think that the forms of communist organization and thought are themselves deeply affected by the unique conditions of future conjunctural opportunities. Again, revolutions will prove to have been like snowflakes – each one unique, not an archetype.

The common fixation with models is a failure of understanding and of imagination.

Enter Badiou….

Since we are talking about Badiou in this panel today let me say:

Our reconception of communist theory needs to draw from the communists of the past, from our elaborate experience with socialism in the last century, and also from those who have been working, in parallel, in some different row of grapes in  these same vineyards.

Badiou (and with him Zizek) have done important work bringing communist to a new generation of students – who have otherwise been taught it is simply a dead letter. But I think there is more value than that narrow and instrumentalist one:

For example, I am attracted to Badiou’s theory of event – as a supplement to a Leninist appreciation of conjuncture and a Maoist mass line — our understanding that the people (and those “complaints of the subaltern”!) are central to the advance of history.

Our Leninism has led us to study the materiality of crisis – its roots in capitalist rivalry, economics, the manyness of capital, war, depression, and more. But what Badiou brings is a missing discussion of how contagious new truths erupt from a seeming void, in unexpected ways, and like sprays of antimatter corrode away the exhausted and compromised.

It is a meditation on the way shocking new truths forge cadre and sweep the field. And these are not truths in that mechanical sense (of a new incremental improvement in our ability to “reflect” matter in our brains). They are truths in the sense that they explode to reveal the old as dated and repulsive.

Sudden rearrangements of matter

And without naively adopting Badiou’s elaborate construct wholesale, there is much here to learn from – as we think through how to get out of this whole, and how to be part of the next waves of novelty that our intensely dynamic world will throw up.

We Maoists talk about hastening and awaiting changes in the objective situation. Hasten and await is a discussion of preparing for revolutionary opportunities. Well, I think Badiou is raising important things about what hastening might mean, and what exactly we are awaiting.

We need to reject the old sectarian strategies of forming tiny mini-parties, whose programs we fantisize will be picked up (in a telescoped way) by a grateful population in great crises. That is a grandiose and misleading fantasy which will just guarantee irrelevance in the actual conjunctures.

What we have inherited

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Over a century of communism and revolution have left us a great body of work, theory and experience to build upon. And in particular I think that the best of Maoism forms a key platform for our work –– specifically in its mass line and its radical reconception of the socialist transition period.

And in that sense, there is nothing POST-maoist about me (despite what this panel is called).

Marx and Engels created an open system of thought — through research, investigation, assimilation of new ideas, constant summation of new experience and rigorous often-self-critical work.

To reconceive we have to have a deep sense (and even appreciation) of the earlier communist conceptions (which many newer revolutionaries have not had much access to, and which we are trying to provide on Kasama).

But what we extract from this past is not a single set of universal truths – in some fundamentalist sense.

Previous communists were, at their best, creative and iconoclastic – or else they were over and over relegated to the margins by reality. And so, from the beginning we (and I’m speaking here of our Kasama project) have had to wage some of our first engagements against the idea (that is both prevalent and marginalized) that there is an existing universal theory (as a kind of closed and complete system or orthodoxy) that merely needs to be “applied” specific moments – i.e.  tweaked local conditions.

No. There is no back to Marx…. or back to Lenin or back to Mao. Every great revolution has had to break with inherited orthodoxy (even if they sometimes hid that after the fact).

Or put another way: I’m much less interested in a discussion that asks “what is the real Marxism” than I am in a much more contemporary discussion of what do we believe, and what are we going to do?

That is an approach that will both get to the heart of what communism now means, and will be able to engage many more people who are not currently in the discussion.

These are two separate concerns that we should feel deeply:

First, we need to break with doctrine to get to a breath-takingly radical and creative politics.

And second, we should do it in ways that at every stage draw in the new – new people, new discoveries, new realities,  a new generation of radical youth the best of whom will not tolerate being spoonfed old truths.

People are either in at the ground floor of creating a revolutionary movement, or it will not be built — and part of it is because those under thirty see the world around them with eyes that can more sharply see what is new, distinct and rising.

Marx and Engels were amazingly open to the thinking of their times. They fused their communism from the thinking of many different sources – philosophy, socialism, economics. They studied Darwin and Morgan, and so on. Their theory was an open system – at their best. And that is part of what we should learn from them.

And (to return to Badiou for a moment) he always feels like  a parallel communist project. I have personally been coloring inside the lines of Marxism-Leninism for forty years. And he hasn’t. Of course Badiou is not actually separate from inherited forms of Marxism-Leninism– that’s an appearance, and believing it would be an illusion. He is (of course) schooled in a deep knowledge of certain currents of Marxism, and forged in idiosyncratic French Maoism.

But he is operating unconstrained by the continuity with Hegel and Bebel, and I find the novelty exhilarating and thought-provoking – even when I don’t agree. Because he is working on the problems we all need to be working on.

How do we  sum up the experience of the socialist party-state – and how could we do things differently? How do we conduct a radical politics at distance from the corrupt constituency bartering of reform politics?  How do we have fidelity without having dogma?  What does it mean for us to reconceive our understanding of massline – popular agency – and its role in preventing the restoration of capitalism, or a socialism that points its guns at ordinary people.

In my study of Nepal, I have been gripped by Badiou’s discussion of a topology of points where a network of decisions emerges from a complex series of decisions. A map of crossroads on that high plane of two line struggle.

Again, I’m a student not a follower these days. But I think these are questions worth engaging.

How does socialism in one country in a world infinitely more entwined than in 1930?

If we don’t work from models of October or Chingkangshan – how to we develop plans?

If our socialism is about stewardship of the earth, not accelerating the pace of dominion – what does that mean for our vision of society, production and abundance?.

What does that mean for our organization and preparation now? And what do we now consider the prerequisites of seizing power?

As you all know, I have my own current personal opinions on all these matters – organization, philosophy, strategy – I wasn’t born yesterday.  And there is nothing agnostic going on here.

But what I have done here is try to sketch our common project.

We need a shocking, counterintuitive proclamation of the communist project – classless society, overthrow of all existing conditions, the whole over the self, a literally planetary world view….

And in the creation, it will involve a new political culture of mutual respect and collaboration, of modesty and experimentation.

We all walk in the door of this process with views, and we will be mutually transformed.

People are suffering. The only bright point about that is it is possible that the alienation, despair, energetic anger, and determination can arise a radical de-legitimization of what is – and then new ways of using human genius and productive power to emancipate.

That’s the revolutionary road.

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